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Life, Death, & Acorns

Somersetshire, October 1847

Kate applied a few more stitches of orange thread.

“That looks quite authentic,” Miss Nestor said with a small smile, looking up from her needlepoint.

Kate felt happy to hear some praise and grinned at her governess.

“Yes, you’re doing fine work.” Mrs. Crozier towered over her. “It makes up for the horrendous edging you did on your chemise.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Crozier,” Kate said softly. I believe that was a compliment.

All three ladies were working at needlepoint, a skill Kate had never honed. She found the task tedious, especially when attempting a repeating pattern. The Greek squares she had stitched on a chemise proved a disaster, no two looking alike. A six week old injury to her right hand from a shooting accident didn’t help matters, serum still occasionally weeping from the base of her thumb. This squirrel was much better, many shades of brown and orange, red highlights, with a cream breast and ears; a little fanciful in colouring, but well shaped and full of life.

“What intention have you?” Mrs. Crozier asked. “It shall no longer serve as a handkerchief.”

“No.” Kate considered it for a moment.

“You shouldn’t have started without asking permission. Thoughtless.”

“Now…” Miss Nestor said, raising an eyebrow, “it is old. It could be cut, and sewn into a quilt, or pillow cover with a wilderness theme?”

“Yes, that’s it.” Kate nodded, liking the idea. “I’ll do several animals and put them all together.” I could do a rabbit next, or something exotic… like a chipmunk! “Perhaps I’ll craft a quilt of American animals.”

“Excellent,” Mrs. Crozier said, then glowered at Miss Nestor. “It would be better if the young lady has thoughts of this kind on her own, ideally before initiating such an endeavour.”

Miss Nestor quickly looked down to her needlepoint. Kate felt sorry for the tiny woman. Generally her governess and society tutor got on quite well. Both could quote the Bible for any circumstance, spoke many languages, skilfully played several instruments, and knew more about English history and the monarchy than Kate ever hoped to learn. However, Mrs. Crozier possessed a much deeper knowledge on many other subjects, and deftly taught Kate advanced mathematics, science, geography, the European royal families and customs, not to mention all the high manners required for her rank. Instruction in Russian continued and, much easier, Spanish, complementing Kate’s fluency in French and German, and competency in Latin.

“North American animals?” Mrs. Crozier asked Kate.

“Perhaps only mammals.”

“Whether mammal, bird, or reptile, we will study each creature you select in turn. And pursue the same acquisition of knowledge with each continent.”

“I could do Africa!” Lions, elephants, and monkeys!

“Not until you complete North America. One project must be satisfactorily concluded before engaging another. Enough fancy stitching for this morning. It is a decent day, cold and clear. We shall go for a walk and examine nature as she begins to prepare for winter.”

“Oh, yes, please.” Kate gladly put her needlepoint aside.

“No. You should say: A walk would be lovely, I shall prepare and proceed to the front hall.”

“A walk would be lovely.” Kate stood. “I’ll prepare and proceed to the front hall. Please excuse me.” She strode from the parlour, keeping her pace even and head up, all the way to her rooms.

walking ensembles 1848 and 49

Walking ensembles, 1848 – 49. Walking and travelling outfits generally covered a lady completely, with more petticoats worn for walking, travelling suits including matching layers for cold or hot carriages. Walking dress shouldn’t be confused with promenade gowns, which were more like evening wear, worn for strolls in private gardens and parks.

Kate rang for her maid, then undressed, and selected a walking suit and coat in shades of beige with pink trim, laced leather boots, and quilted bonnet and gloves. She stepped down to the front door. Having been taught not to linger, she needlessly sorted the riding whips and canes in an alcove, then meandered around the hall as though inspecting the paintings for the first time, and scrutinized the portrait of her mother for quite awhile. Ebony, her young female retriever, followed Kate closely while Cinders, her old male hound, remained stretched out by the fire. Mrs. Crozier appeared and a footman let them out. They were soon marching along the lane to the village, Ebony alternating between lagging behind and running ahead.

“You deported yourself well during Miss Primrose’s last visit,” Mrs. Crozier stated flatly.

“Thank you.”

“I suspect your injured hand curtailed your usual fits of unruliness.”

“I do not have fits! And my… I obey every rule!”

“Temper…” Mrs. Crozier jeered with heavy emphasis. After a pause she said, “Lord Beaufort, who I must add is not an impartial judge, is happy with your progress.”

“Truly?! Did he say so?” Kate burst with pride.

“Yes. How else would I know? You accuse me of perfidy with such a question. Try again.”

Kate thought a moment. “Outstanding. I’m overjoyed my father is pleased. When did he broach this matter?”

“I met with him yesterday. Have you come to know Miss Primrose?”

“Not very well. Between my lessons, and her touring the area with Father, there’s never time. It was the same in London. I have had some chats with her…” Kate recalled their discussions.

“Yes?”

“She makes a point of talking to me alone. I like her… I think. She can be a bit… overwhelming. She has plans I don’t agree… I’m not… I feel she is entirely honest with me – that’s good.”

“Miss Primrose has proper training, and knows what is required of a lady. However, do not make the mistake of believing anyone is ever entirely honest.”

Kate made no comment while digesting this warning.

“I have heard her speak more than once of ancestral connections,” Mrs. Crozier continued. “When it comes to the intricacies of the peerage, the families and relationships, she will serve expertly as a guide and advisor. I believe she designs an illustrious future for you.”

Kate still didn’t respond, knowing to keep conversations in confidence. They marched on through the crisp breeze; some warmth provided by the sunshine. There didn’t seem to be a lesson involved, just a walk with a talk, and Kate felt glad for it. Abruptly the tutor halted by a large oak.

“Attend me here, Lady Katelyn Elizabeth Beaufort, and heed my words.”

Kate drew close slowly, wondering what this was about, fearful of the woman’s walking stick.

“Observe this tree,” Mrs. Crozier said. “It is magnificent, with a solid strong trunk and deep roots.”

“Yes?” What of it?

“So it is with a man. The roots are his ancestors, and the trunk his body. From him grow powerful limbs, and from them acorns.”

“Ah, his children? And grandchildren?”

“Precisely. And what does a man need to have these children?”

“A wife.” Now I know where this is going.

“Indeed. No matter how great the man, without a wife, it is like the tree is cut-off at the trunk. It produces nothing, and the roots rot in the ground.”

“You think I’ll be the wife of a great man?”

“I believe it likely.”

“And I’ll give him many acorns.”

“I will accept that as a weak attempt at humour. Many children, yes. It will be your duty.”

Kate picked some blackberries off the nearby hedgerow and thought about her anatomy lessons for a moment, and the childbirth she had witnessed recently. “I not certain I will ever want to marry, or have children.”

“Nonsense.” Mrs. Crozier started walking again. “Would you deny your father grandchildren? The Bible is clear, we must wed and multiply. It is our role, our function. What would your mother tell you? Lady Beaufort died giving you life, yet you would not risk the same for a beautiful child? On how many occasions was she blessed with children?”

“Six.”

“A woman who knew her duty.” Mrs. Crozier gave an approving nod. “If she was here now, instead of with God, she would tell you to wed, and have children.”

“How many children do you have?”

“Don’t be impertinent. What have I taught you about blunt personal questions?”

“Sorry, I mean to ask…” Kate struggled. “Did you often enjoy the joy of childbirth?”

“Awkward. Very poorly worded.” Mrs. Crozier continued marching, looking straight ahead. “Take your time and try again, with poise.”

Kate did as instructed, adjusting her stride and posture as well. “Were you and your great husband, God rest his soul, often blessed with the joy of children?”

“Better. Much improved in fact. He was not a great man. A good man, ethical and trustworthy. Great men have titles and land. Yes, I bore five children, three who survived infancy.”

“Daughters and sons?”

“Two handsome boys and a lovely little girl.”

“Where do they live?”

“They do not live. They are with my husband, just as your siblings, save Lord Shervage, are with your mother, and all with God.”

The woman sounded so emotionless Kate wasn’t certain what she’d heard at first. “All your children died?”

“Yes.”

“How old were they?”

“They were twelve, eleven, and seven when cholera took them to heaven. My husband as well, during the same epidemic.”

“Oh, how sad! Why would God do such a thing? I could have the same fate! Why marry? Why have children?”

“You do not question God, but accept what comes. Your children will be strong and healthy, like you.”

“It wasn’t that way for my mother.” Kate could vaguely remember a brother who died when she was almost three; a boy of five who took sick, lay bedridden with a nurse in attendance, and never played again. I can’t remember his name. “May we go by the cemetery?”

Mrs. Crozier glanced sideways at her. “Yes. Show me their graves, if you so desire.”

Upon reaching the village they entered the graveyard. The family plot lay outlined by curbstones, Kate’s mother and brothers, a large memorial and four small ones, erected in a row. They stopped in front of each, Kate tarrying longest at Alfred George, the brother she could remember. We called him Alfie. He liked toy soldiers. Suddenly Kate couldn’t read the engravings, her vision blurred, and tears dropped from her eyes. She blinked hard to spill them out, trying to hide her emotions, mindful of her training. I must control myself…

“Three were newborns,” Mrs. Crozier said softly. “Infants are not counted against a mother. Only one died from sickness, and your mother’s not to blame, she wasn’t there to care for him. I conclude the late countess bore healthy children. Your brother has always been strong?”

“Jack? Oh yes!” Kate happily turned her mind to him. “You’ve met him, and seen what he’s like. He even neglects himself. Doesn’t eat properly, or sleep, and just keeps on going. His wife is putting a stop to that.”

“Very good. Now, we should return to the manor.”

Kate noted Mrs. Crozier didn’t correct her use of her brother’s informal name. Perhaps she’s softening a bit? They marched from the graveyard, following the road out of the village.

Crowcombe blackberries

Wild blackberries grow throughout Somerset, this photo taken near Crowcombe.

“You may walk up into the woods,” Mrs. Crozier wheezed, slowing her pace and drawing to a stop.

Kate, who had been lagging a bit so she could rapidly pick and eat more blackberries, noticed her tutor looked flushed. The woman stood leaning on her stick, the usual perfect posture slipping a fraction.

“Take your dog,” Mrs. Crozier said after a few breaths. “Walk, but once you’re hidden by the trees, you may sprint the trails like a Red Indian, if it pleases you.”

Kate always ran through the valleys and over the hills, but it sounded odd to hear Mrs. Crozier bless such behaviour. “It’s acceptable for me to run through the forest?”

“Yes. Exercise at your age is important. It aids in building a strong body. Have a care, keep clean. Search for a dozen signs that autumn is upon us and nature is preparing for winter. You will be writing an essay on the subject, in French and again in Spanish, this afternoon.”

“After I go for a ride? My hand was fine yesterday. I’ll be careful.”

“Yes. Have your ride and luncheon, then back to your studies. Remember to change into proper outfits for each activity.”

“I shall,” Kate stated firmly. “Good morning, Mrs. Crozier.”

“Good morning, my lady,” the tutor replied while curtseying.

Kate strode briskly for the woods, taking the opportunity to suck blackberry seeds from the nooks of her teeth. Upon reaching the edge of the trees, she looked back. Mrs. Crozier walked slowly along the road, using her stick, the other hand resting on her breast. She must not be feeling well. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left her? It would be rude to go back now. I’ll have a footman watch for her when I get home. Kate entered the cloak of the forest, then broke into a run, Ebony chasing.

 

 

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