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Midsummer Steeplechase

Somersetshire, 21 June 1847

“This is quite exciting!” Kate declared.

“Like Ascot Heath?” her father asked.

“Yes… more so.”

“Truly? Why?”

Kate thought a moment before responding. The spectacle and grandeur of the Ascot races was something she would never forget. To view the queen with her prince consort and their entourage would leave a lasting impression on anyone. Kate was no stranger to the pageantry of the nobility, however, up until this season she had attended only a few gala affairs each year, and as a child. But Ascot, well… the throngs of people, the chaos of the carnival, and the magnificent horses… all blurred together like a wildly swirling kaleidoscope. Still, Kate didn’t belong, yet. She looked forward to attending again, especially once she had been presented to Queen Victoria and could partake in the various adult events, joining the royal party in their enclosure at the grand stand. The only low had been when Kate spotted a pickpocket at work and chased after him with a policeman, spattering her petticoats and hem with mud, and afterwards discovered her own silk handkerchief was missing.

“At Ascot I felt removed,” Kate finally said. “Out of place. And there were so many people to meet… and talk, and be polite, with the races starting and ending too far away. Here we’re… right in it – there’s no formality. Less people, and I know many of them, they know me, and it’s all friendly. But I adored attending Ascot, Father. Thank you very much for taking me with you.”

Queen Victoria in a landau pulled by a team of six arrive at Ascot Heath, 3 Jun 1847, from the Illustrated London News.

Queen Victoria in a landau pulled by a team of six arrive at Ascot Heath, 3 Jun 1847, from the Illustrated London News.

“Hmm, I see.” Earl Beaufort wheeled his mount around. “Anyway, we have a perfect day for Midsummer celebrations.”

The vistas from Thorncombe Barrow spread from the north to west, the sky azure, the hills verdant, and the choppy Bristol Channel sparkling like crystals. They started walking their horses down into the valley, having taken a somewhat indirect route on the high country to enjoy the glorious morning.

“Yes, thank you for bringing me home in time. I know there are still lots of balls and other events you could have attended with Miss Primrose.”

“I’m glad to be back here.” Earl Beaufort drank in the clear air. “Most years London gets too hot and smelly by mid June.”

“And today we’ll see about my hunter?” Kate asked gently.

“Are you certain you wouldn’t like to wait until the Bridgewater Fair in September?”

“September?” I’ve already been waiting half a year. “If we don’t find a nice horse today, I’d like to keep looking. If it takes until the fair…” That would be a huge disappointment. “I guess it cannot be helped.”

After descending the steep slope, they kicked their mounts up to a canter and quickly reached the edge of Bicknoller, reining in to a leisurely walk. People approached from all directions; on foot, horseback, families in carts, children and dogs running across the fields. Most of the attendants were villagers and farmers, wearing their best clothes, the girls adorned with gaily coloured ribbons. For a moment, Kate thought her new dove-grey silk riding habit might be rather plain compared to the bright colours but, upon glancing down, she saw how the sunlight shimmered across the fabric and reflected off the neat row of silver buttons. As Earl Beaufort led them on the lane to the church, Kate quickly adjusted her peaked cap, ensuring the dangling tassel from the stiff round flat crown fell back with her long looped braids. She smoothed her large lace collar then, satisfied with her appearance, she took time to smile and nod to anyone who made eye contact.

Earl Beaufort and Kate stood their horses outside the churchyard, and Mr. Phelps (the elderly vicar) greeted them from the gate. Kate listened to the surrounding conversations and watched the race participants as they gathered by the ancient elm and yew trees beside the church. The men liberally toasted each other with silver and pewter cups. A few competitors took preparatory dashes along the far side of the cemetery to test their stirrups, while others made adjustments.

“The race is from this church to Crowcombe Church and back?” Kate asked her father.

“Yes, that’s right. But they go around the medieval cross near the inn and then back here. The first to pass the tower wins.”

“Oh, of course. I’ve seen them make the turn at the cross before.”

“Then they all gather at the old cross in the churchyard here for the presentation to the winner.”

“Crowcombe is about a league?”

“A little less. The race is somewhere between five and six miles, depending on how daring they are on the route.”

“They stay together, don’t they?”

“Generally, but the jockeys can take whatever path they choose. A great deal of the race is on the road with the obstacles at this end. There are always a few fellows who try to cut down the distance by taking dangerous jumps, and end up not finishing. In my experience, it is best to stay with the pack, then hope to win the sprint at the end. Races often come down to the last two or three furlongs.”

While Earl Beaufort explained, Kate caught a few snippets of conversation from the enthusiastic assembly, and after waiting for her father to finish, passed on a particularly pertinent piece of information.

“A purse of ten sovereigns has been put up by the Sweeting family.”

“Oh…” Earl Beaufort stood in his saddle and swivelled his head around. “We should say hello to the Sweetings.”

“If we can find them in this crowd.”

“The oldest boy will probably be participating in the race.”

“Arthur?” Kate asked, trying to remember the family.

“Is it? I think I’ll address him as Master Sweeting if I can pick him out.”

Kate eased her horse slowly along the lane outside the churchyard, drawing closer to the steeplechase participants. She observed three who were dashing swells from Watchet, not gentry, but of wealthy families – the Luttrals, Fulfords, and Wansbroughs. They noticed her and stared curiously. Two of the young gentlemen raised their cups in salutation and took sips, then talked out of the sides of their mouths and grinned. Kate realized they didn’t recognize her, and circled back to her father’s side. The young men straightened up. Master Wansbrough, tall and lean in black tailcoat with red collar, tight buckskin breeches, and shiny black jackboots, swept off his top hat and bowed to Kate. She took in his long wavy dark hair and piercing eyes. The trio then retreated into the shade and out of view.

Now how old would he be? Hugh? Yes, of course it’s Hugh. Perhaps he’ll be at the dance later? Whew… it’s hot. I wonder which horse is his?

The crowd moved back and forwards like waves in the sea as more participants approached the church. Some horses stood quietly, a few reared and kicked impatiently, excitement in the air flowing from the spectators to the riders to the animals.

“Shall we go out into the first field and follow awhile?” Earl Beaufort asked.

“Can we?!” Kate exclaimed. “Yes, please!”

They walked their horses through the mass of villagers, then cantered down a lane and onto a field, reining in near some other mounted spectators. A clamorous roar of the crowd met their ears, but then yells to stop. Kate, having twisted in the saddle and craned her neck, settled back into the pummels and turned an arched eyebrow towards her father.

“False start,” Earl Beaufort murmured by way of explanation. “Perhaps some of the lads weren’t saddled yet, or holding drinks, or something.”

Another roar went up, a sustained cheer, and moments later the lead racers emerged from the village, farther down Church Lane, across from the inn. They reined back and cantered over the field, the sixteen participants shifting into groups of two to four, heading for the first obstacle.

“Why aren’t they galloping?” Kate asked.

“They’re pacing their mounts,” Earl Beaufort replied. “I was telling you earlier, it’s the last half mile or so in which the race is won. After much of the field have dropped out.”

“Ah…” Kate had witnessed the start and end of steeplechases many times, never realizing what strategies might be employed by the jockeys.

A steeplechase in progress, with one competitor taking a tumble, outriders watching from a distance. Climax of Disaster by H.T. Alken, 1829.

A steeplechase in progress, with a competitor taking a tumble, outriders watching from a distance. Climax of Disaster, H.T. Alken, 1829.

Earl Beaufort edged his mount forward, spurring towards the hedge. Kate followed, and spotted other outriders already leaping through the blackberry brambles to pursue the racers on the next field. Kate directed her horse through a gap and over some stones and a ditch, and saw the lead competitors move up to a gallop, contradicting what her father had described.

Kate couldn’t help herself. To view the glorious beasts in flight filled her heart and mind. She gave her mount full rein and caught the rear group of steeple-chasers easily, then pulled back to a canter and looked ahead. A low wall then a hedge and stream were immediate obstacles. Kate gathered the gelding beneath her, reining in, but applying encouragement with her cane and spur, leaned forward on the jump, then back upon the landing, repeating the process for the hedge and stream.

Then, as Kate knew, a lane lay next, with thick blackberry brambles lining both sides. If she had scouted before the race, the best place to cross would have been located, but now she could only glance to the left and right, follow someone, and hope for the best. A tall grey mare cantered ahead. Kate manoeuvred in behind and followed, this time whipping her horse for a long jump, letting the gelding have its head and pursue the mare. She threw back an arm upon leaving the turf, gasped and held her breath, watched the lane flash beneath her, then crashed through the brush on the other side. The thump of landing, horse grunts, Kate’s exhale with a jolt, and heartbeat pounded in her ears.

Kate scanned the field for her father. Where had he gone? She quickly looked back and saw two young men who had tumbled off their mounts. She then examined the backs of the riders stretching out before her and thought perhaps Earl Beaufort might be well ahead with the front group. Again, she followed the grey mare over the next hedge, noting that a small but strong farmhand was the jockey, and he let the horse have long reins, with light hands and no whipping.

They galloped on the road leading to Crowcombe, the farmhand overtaking several racers, Kate close behind. In what seemed like a few blinks, only two groups of three riders lay ahead. The farmhand eased back to a canter, Kate did too, and she felt an awful sinking in her stomach – her father wasn’t at the front, he was nowhere to be seen. She started to rein back, to stop and turn around, when Hugh passed on her left.

“You’re doing brilliant!” he called, riding a powerful bay stallion with huge hindquarters.

The encouragement fed Kate’s spirit. I’m doing brilliant! This is fantastic! She rode after Hugh at a fast canter, the three beats of the hooves coming quick, flowing smoothly over the hard packed dirt. Pockets of people stood at the sides of the road cheering them on. They raced past some cottages, more people, dogs barking. In what felt like no time, but had been several minutes, they entered the edge of Crowcombe and raced between the buildings, everything closing in and passing at a somewhat disorienting blur. Cheering villagers lined the lane.

Medieval cross of red sandstone, Crowcombe. This is roughly the view Kate would have had after stopping by the cross and looking back at the inn.

Medieval cross of red sandstone, Crowcombe. This is roughly the view Kate would have had after stopping by the cross and looking back at the inn.

As Kate crested a bit of a hill and dashed towards the medieval cross, she spied the church tower above the trees, a crowd in front of the inn, and the leading competitors coming back towards her. She saw surprised expressions on the young men’s faces, but it didn’t signify. It was their mounts that stood out in her mind. The animals’ eyes were wild, swollen veins on their cheeks, nostrils flaring, as the racers whipped and spurred. This seemed all too dangerous. Kate reached the cross and did a sliding halt on the turf, adding to the earthen scars and spilt molehills, bringing the gelding around and letting it dance in place. One of the steeple-chasers skidded by and spilled into the brush, his horse neighing shrilly and bolting.

Should I stop here? I wonder where Father is?

Some men in front of the inn held up tankards towards Kate and cheered.

“Hurrah! Lady Beaufort! Hurrah!”

Children hopped up and down, whooping and clapping from the shade of chestnut trees.

Kate couldn’t resist their enthusiasm, her sturdy gelding still felt strong, so she kicked and tapped up to a canter, then galloped. Together, girl and horse, flew through the village as though on wings, riders passing the other way in a blink. Buildings were no more than flashes of reflected sunlight or shadow as they charged steadily uphill, over the crest, and down between the hedges. Kate cleared the village and, shockingly, found herself hard on the heels of Hugh and the farmhand. They were cantering, as were the riders ahead. She eased in behind them.

Ahh… they were showing off for the villagers. Now they’ll rest their horses until the end. There’s the five jumps to make.

Kate noticed lather appearing on the flanks of Hugh’s stallion. The farmhand’s mare pattered along easily, small head and long nimble legs pumping rhythmically. While cantering the distance between the villages, Kate started to hear a deep whirring sound with each inhale of her horse, and saw lather forming on its neck. She didn’t push the gelding on, letting it slow in pace, and soon two riders overtook them in their pursuit of the leaders.

As they neared the stretch of hedgerow for the first jump of the return half of the course, Kate discerned some riders staying on the the road while some disappeared over the brush. For a moment, she considered following the road to Church Lane, avoiding the obstacles, taking the longer and safer route for her tiring mount, but decided against it. She brought her horse into a collected gait, made the first hurtle at an oblique angle, and landed smoothly, spying only three riders crossing the field; Hugh on his bay, the farmhand on the grey, and a large man on a superb chestnut stallion. The men steered towards a low point on the hedging of the lane. Kate slowed and veered to an opening, taking a bit longer path, allowing her to enter the lane and bound over only one hedge, then proceed at an angle across the next field, over the stream and through some brush.

Field Becomes Select, by H.T. Alken (1785 - 1851), depicting a steeplechase.

Field Becomes Select, by H.T. Alken (1785 – 1851), depicting a steeplechase.

Outriders walked their horses parallel to the race, to view the remaining pair of hurtles. Kate knew she would never catch the leaders, and as she cleared the low wall another participant passed on her left. Kate swivelled her head around, scanning for her father. She took the last jump between blackberry brambles, over the ditch and stones, urged her horse to a final gallop, heading directly for Saint George’s tower. As Kate entered the village, cheering people and dogs dodged left and right to avoid the pounding hoofs. Red sandstone walls ran like a blur beside her as she passed the church and reined in where the other participants had halted. Another rider slid to a stop beside her, then a pack of wild-eyed mounts came thundering up the lane, causing everyone to scatter. Kate felt frightened and thrilled. Her gelding hopped and whinnied, then settled. Men started yelling animatedly to each other.

Kate urged her horse slowly back in front of the church, through the gate, looking for her father. She guided her mount into the shade of an ancient yew. Where is Father? Did he not see me finish? Troughs filled with water were set behind the church for the animals. She grabbed a lock of mane and placed her other hand on the lower pummel, preparing to spring from the saddle, when she detected Hugh standing nearby with his hat in hand. Although he had called to her during the race, he couldn’t address her now until she acknowledged him. For a moment, Kate waffled, felt hot and unsure, then settled in the saddle and turned her eyes directly at the young man.

“Well run, Mr. Wansbrough,” she said, deciding to address him with an adult title.

“Thank you, my lady. And, I say, you rode remarkably well.”

“Thank you.” She thought about the last time they’d spoken, perhaps two years ago. “You… you’ve been away?”

“I have indeed, my lady.”

“Lady Kate,” she said simply, to dispel a degree of awkwardness.

“Lady Kate,” Hugh said with a slight nod and smile. “May I help you dismount?”

He didn’t wait for a response, replacing his hat and stepping to Kate’s side, arms up-stretched. She unhooked her legs from the pommels and twisted towards him. Hugh took her weight at the armpits and lifted Kate gently to the ground. His hands slid down her torso and for the slightest of moments rested in the small of her waist, then he quickly took a step back and removed his hat again. Kate gathered her skirt in her left hand and stroked her mount upon its lathered neck.

“My man could take your horse,” he offered.

Kate saw a groom standing by with Hugh’s stallion. She gave her reins to Hugh, who in turn passed them to the groom. The man led both animals to a trough.

“And you must be thirsty,” Hugh said. “Cider?”

“Yes, please.”

Hugh strode towards a crowd behind the church. Kate waited in the shade, standing beside the old village stocks, casually stealing appraising gazes at the grey mare. She removed her cap and dabbed her forehead with a handkerchief. No one else approached her, and she perceived people with frowns, talking and pointing her out. Kate started to feel a sinking sensation in her stomach. Something wasn’t right. Was her father hurt? Someone would surely tell her if he had taken a fall.

“Here we are.” Hugh abruptly appeared beside her with a pewter tankard in each hand.

“Thank you.” Kate took one and sipped the sweet cloudy drink. “Mr. Wansbrough, I fear something is amiss. I must find my father.”

“You’re the Miss who is amiss,” Hugh said quietly, “joining in the race the way you did. It’s just not done, Lady Kate. Spectators, that is, outriders, must stay out.”

Kate’s sinking stomach plummeted. Oh no! What have I done? Father must be so ashamed. Of course my horse wasn’t a racer. Why did I join in? I’m so stupid! I’m a complete idiot. She peered at the race participants, gathered around the broken stone cross, and received scathing glares in return.

“I’m a complete idiot,” Kate whispered. She turned away, vision blurring.

St George's, Bicknoller, the decrepit stone cross at the back of the church has been repaired with a cross added to the top.

St George’s, Bicknoller, as it looked around 1900. The decrepit stone cross at the back of the church has been repaired  with a new cross added to the top.

“Not at all,” Hugh said. “You’re on your way to being the most accomplished horsewoman in the county.” He laughed. “You rode magnificently!” He laughed again. “However, you did embarrass over half the field. I hope you’ll have the good grace to warn us before the next steeplechase?”

“Yes… ah, thank you…” I should leave. “I must…” Perhaps I should apologise to everyone? That’s what Mrs. Crozier would insist on. “I must…”

Kate saw her father, tall on his mount, approaching slowly on the lane with two of the riders who had fallen during the race. She passed her tankard back to Hugh. He examined her with a cocked head and stitched eyebrows. Kate knew tears were now collecting on her eyelashes. She took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes, then walked carefully to the crowd around the cross. They parted for her. She climbed the steps and turned to face them and her father as he neared the churchyard gate.

“Gentlemen.” Kate choked on the word, her throat tight. “Gentlemen,” she said louder. “Please allow me to apologise…”

Everyone nearby fell silent. Kate felt weak and light-headed. She noticed fresh tears forming, her face burning hot. She didn’t dare glance down at the men, but stared over their heads at her father.

“I apologise, truly… unreservedly, with all my heart. My rash behaviour… entering your steeplechase. I know… I’m impetuous. I… please forgive me.”

Kate jumped from the steps and marched to the groom caring for her gelding. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, remorsefully lowering her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. She took the reins and guided her horse to a tree in the farthest corner of the churchyard. From deep in the shade, Kate watched as her father dismounted, shook some hands, chatted with several men, accepted a tankard and drank it down in one long quaff, then he strolled towards her. It seemed a long walk, wending through the gravestones, insects and seeds drifting lazily in the bright sunlight, a murmuring and heavy heartbeat filling Kate’s ears.

Earl Beaufort stopped a few steps from Kate. Despite her training, she hung her head, hiding under the brim of her cap, the salty taste of tears on her lips. Their horses nickered to each other.

“Katelyn?”

“I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t…” She peeked up at him. “I meant no harm. I thought… when…” Her emotions flooded to the surface. She tried to stand still, but her shoulders started to shake as her insides trembled.

Earl Beaufort took a quick long stride forward and wrapped her in his arms. Kate’s cap fell off as she wept into the lapel of his coat.

“I’m sorry,” Kate mewled, her throat constricting. “Everything I do seems to go wrong.”

“Now, that’s not true. And you’re making this far worse than it is.”

“Am I? You must be so ashamed of me.”

“No, Katelyn, I am very proud of you. Yes, your conduct was inappropriate… but you displayed a great deal of courage and maturity in the way you spoke to the men. I’ve always taught you to think twice before you do anything that may require an apology afterwards, but if you are in the wrong to be strong enough to admit it and make amends. You did that today.”

“I don’t clearly remember what I said.”

“It doesn’t matter. You settled most of the ruffled feathers. And I smoothed out the rest.”

“What did you say?”

“Not much. I reminded a few of them how old you are.”

“Oh.” Kate felt her insides tighten and wasn’t sure why. “How did that make it better?”

“A thirteen year old girl is easy to forgive. And the shock of your fifth place finish suddenly became more important, and a reason for good natured blather with the men who came in after you.”

“It’s all so embarrassing,” Kate whispered, but some sense of pride crept into her breast.

“Yes, I think we best slip away, rather than stay for the other events. In a few days everyone will have forgotten about this.”

“Really?”

Kate didn’t believe his words, but it felt good to hear them. The cacophony of hounds to the south announced the beginning of the coursing. She eased from his arms, picked up her cap, and looked at the dispersing crowd, glad to see them leaving. Kate picked out Hugh and thought he was gazing in her direction, but then he disappeared with his cronies as they sauntered from the churchyard. An elderly gentleman stood talking with the farmhand who had ridden the grey mare, the animal waiting by his side.

“Father, how old do you think that hunter might be?”

“The tall dapple grey? I’d say five or six.”

“She ran like the wind and took jumps like a champion.”

“She did stand out.”

“I believe she has a big heart.”

“Yes?”

“Yes… do you think she might be for sale?”

Gentlemen discuss a grey hunter, by H.T. Alken (1785 - 1851).

Gentlemen discuss a grey hunter, by H.T. Alken (1785 – 1851).

Kate waited in the shade while her father spoke with the owner of the grey mare. She took stock of herself and noticed where the brambles had snagged the silk of her skirt. When the man walked away, she approached quickly through the graveyard.

“He’s willing to sell,” Earl Beaufort said.

“Did you…?”

“No. He brought the horse here to show her off, and is waiting to weigh the offers. I’ll have to see him again in a few days.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t be too disappointed. We may come to an agreement, and there are lots of other horses to choose from.”

“Yes… but I do like her.”

“She is a fine animal,” Earl Beaufort said. “She has capital hocks and thighs. I’ll do my best to buy her for you. Shall we go?”

Kate guided her gelding to the cross so she could use the stairs as a mounting block. Earl Beaufort swung into his saddle. They rode slowly from the churchyard and out of the village, heading for the high country.

“Father…” Kate said hesitantly, thinking of Hugh Wansbrough. “I wonder… the dance, tonight. I ought not to go?”

“Probably best you don’t, even though you would be partaking with the children.”

“Last year I did some dances with the adults.”

“Indeed you did. Believe me, I am very aware of how you were received at every social function we attended last summer. I’m certain you wouldn’t lack requests from partners this year. But you’re not out. We could go into Crowcombe this evening and watch the villagers celebrate for awhile, if you like.”

“That’s always fun,” Kate said plainly, feeling a little disappointed.

“Stay out of sight, and there will be less talk about your wild antics.”

“Oh… yes. Do you think Mrs. Crozier needs to know about what I did today?”

“Hrrmmm… no, I suppose not.”

Kate brightened. “Could I participate in future steeplechases, Father?”

“We’ll see.”

“You know, on that grey mare, I think I could have won!”