Quantock Hall, late March 1847
On light feet Kat slipped from the back parlour, leaving Miss Nestor drowsing, and made her way into the medieval wing of the manor. The earl’s library stood quiet, only the tick-tock of the mantle clock and an occasional crackle from the fire. Many of the vast hearths were still constantly lit against the damp and cool weather, and would burn until the soft days of summer. Keeping the extensive book collection dry was particularly important, or the volumes might mildew, an odour Kat hated. She sat in a window seat, peering through the small diamond-shaped panes, longing to be strolling in the sunlight. It was quite a mild morning for late March, and she knew these days were limited, cold rains falling often. She made an effort to read the Adventures of Belzoni in Egypt and Nubia but spent more time studying the illustrations.
“How I wish to sail all over the world and have great adventures,” she whispered to a squirrel clinging to a branch outside the window.
It seemed to hear her, nattered back, then disappeared up the tree in a flash of orange. Kat felt jealous of the little animal. She had to stay within, dressed in a fancy white silk shirt trimmed with fringe and ribbons, fine beige taffeta skirt, petticoats and shoes, waiting to greet Miss Primrose and her father when they arrived. Perhaps they wouldn’t reach Quantock Hall until tomorrow, then Kat would have to go through this entire ordeal again. Whatever, it seemed unlikely they would appear until close to noon, so why not go out for a while? Clara insisted I wait inside. I wonder where she is? She didn’t know it would become such a nice day. I should have been allowed to go for a ride after breakfast, instead of more horrid arithmetic, and French and German essays. Without a sound, the door swung open, causing Kat to jump to her feet.
She suspected it might be the ghost. Stepping lightly to the hall, she peeked out – left, then right. No one, not even a cat. Standing in the doorway, feeling a momentum build, she ran for her chambers. It felt odd to scurry through the hallways and not have any dogs join in; they had all been put out, either in the farmyard or kennels, the previous day. Even Ebony, who usually slept curled up at the foot of her bed, had been banished. I’ll get her loose for a run. I think she’s just at the stables.
Kicking off the dainty shoes, she quickly slid on some long wool stockings over her silk hose, then tall black riding boots, crafted at her request with silver galloon trim at the scalloped tops. They were not a comfortable pair, having very stiff uppers and rigid soles, but needed breaking-in. (Her favourite old boots were probably still muddy from yesterday and hadn’t been returned to her dressing room yet.) Taking up a short wool cape, hat and gloves, Kat strode to a narrow backstairs and descended to the kitchen hall, sliding to a stop on the flagstones. She took a moment to search for any sign of Mrs. Crozier and, not seeing her, popped out into the yard, running towards the stables. The taffeta skirt hung to her calves, and the flounced petticoats didn’t interfere with her legs to any great degree.
Grooms were busy mucking-out as she approached.
“Bonneee,” she called. “Booonneee!”
Immediately the dog bolted from a doorway, jumping up on Kat when they met.
“Good girl! Let’s go for a walk.”
Kat acknowledged a few tipped caps, wishing the grooms a good morning, then sprinted around the cider house, through an orchard, and up into the hills. Ebony loped at her side or raced off after pheasants. Kat climbed upon an ancient stone wall and scrambled along between the beeches growing out of the top and sides.
It was remarkably warm, no wind, the sunshine bringing out the smell of the rotted leaves and burning off the mist in the woods. Removing her cape and hat, Kat hung them on a branch with the intention of retrieving the extra clothing later. Spying a straight stick roughly the length of a sabre, she marched along swinging at various targets of flora, guiding Ebony through the countryside. They were soon following a muddy trail heading south-east, and eventually jumping from rock-to-rock by a stream, although the dog spent most of her time in the water. Kat turned north into a wooded valley, approaching a little pond where she often played.
I wonder if the newts and frogs are all out of the mud yet? What was that?
Kat heard some splashes. Slowing her pace, peering ahead, she could discern movement on the surface of the water, then it was broken by a head and long arms. Someone waded to the far shore and rose out of the shallows. Kat edged over into some brush, feeling like an intruder but extremely curious. Who is it? The swimmer’s hair dripped down a lean back. It must be a labourer, or maybe a gypsy? Kat crouched a bit, sensing a tinge of fear, then the man turned. It was the lanky under-gardener, the boy with the nice smile and blue eyes. He stood in the sunlight, smoothing his hair away from his face, flexing his muscles, clearly shivering. The water must have been icy cold.
Kat stared, unable to look away from his body, examining every detail. Why is he so… attractive? Is he handsome? I don’t know what–
With a giggle, a girl sat up out of the brush.
It was Charlotte Nettles, the village farrier’s oldest daughter, and she wore only stockings and boots! She jumped up, her bosom bouncing, and skipped into his arms. They kissed passionately. Kat gawked as the boy’s body responded to Charlotte’s touch. She uncomfortably remembered the stick in her hand and tossed it aside. I shouldn’t be watching this. I must slip away…
Yet still she stood, staring, taking in every caress. They appeared so lovely together, happy and gentle. Abruptly, the tenderness of the embrace vanished, the couple started to wrestle. Kat stepped back aghast. It seemed to be some kind of struggle with the grabbing of body parts. They still seemed happy, but somewhat in turmoil and off balance… when a black form darted into the clearing and stuck its nose into their crotches.
“Eeeee!” Charlotte’s squeal pierced the air.
Oh no! Startled by the dog’s abrupt appearance and the scream, Kat spun, fell flat, sprang up, and sprinted from the pond as fast as her legs could carry her. Oh my! Oh my! What have I done? She ran on, but started to slow, then looked back for her dog. Bonny! Why did you do that? Oh my…
She sat on a mossy log, gasping, and tried to calm herself. In her mind’s eye she could only see the boy, naked and dripping wet, glistening with long smooth limbs and muscles flexing as he… Kat felt embarrassed, upset, curious and shocked all at the same time. There was an odd trembling inside. Ebony bounded up to her.
“Good girl, come on!” Relief washed over her upon seeing the dog. Getting to her feet, they headed back towards the Beaufort property. Charlotte and that boy probably didn’t see me, just Bonny. “Why did you do that, girl? If I’m hiding, you have to hide too.” I hope they don’t know whose dog it was. I’m sure– Kat stopped, she could hear the distant church bell, ringing out noon! Oh no, I’ve got to get home! There was no time to traverse the woods. She scampered down the valley, climbed a wall, and ran straight out into a cow pasture, trusting Ebony to follow her. The rigid soles of her boots caused some slipping but she happily made it to the stile without a fall. She entered the front lawn, dashed around a hedge, and drew up short. A grand carriage, harnessed to four matching bays, stood in front of the manor. Liveried attendants were unloading chests. Kat drew near, trying to regain her breath and composure, searching for her father. Perhaps they’re inside? I can run around back and it will seem–
Kat turned to see her father approaching along the front of the manor, a splendidly attired short plump woman beside him, a beautiful maid in tow. He was probably showing her the outside of the new wing. I must make the best of this. “Father, I’m delighted to see you. I have so looked forward to receiving our guest.” (It was a phrase Mrs. Crozier had taught her.)
“Yes…” Earl Beaufort strode up to her. “Katelyn, of course you recall The Honourable Jane Primrose?”
“Miss Primrose,” Kat said, performing the long low curtsy she had practised. “Welcome to Quantock Hall.” She almost faltered, first from the stiffness of her boots, then upon noticing the state of her clothes. Oh no, I’m covered in mud!
“Lady Katelyn.” Miss Primrose rushed a curtsy, appearing a little flustered, clearly acknowledging Kat’s superior rank, but then straightened and gave her a hug. “I trust we will be great friends.”
Kat considered her for a moment. It was the woman she remembered from a few gatherings in London; expressive brown eyes, large toothy smile, perhaps twenty-five years old. Before she could respond, Ebony moved between them, panting, wagging vigorously.
“Is this your pet?” Miss Primrose grinned, edging back a bit.
“Yes. This is Ebony. I usually call her Bonny.”
“What a good-looking dog. Oh! You have the same glossy ebony hair, my lady. Delightful!”
“Thank you, Miss Primrose. You can call me Kat. Please come in.” Kat glanced at her father, searching for any sign of disapproval, but he showed none. She noted his new fawn trousers and deep blue topcoat as he took Miss Primrose by the elbow and led her into the front hall. Father seems happy. Perhaps this all went fine? Suddenly Kat felt keenly aware of a presence, like a foreboding blackbird staring intently from the portico of the old front entrance. Mrs. Crozier stood perfectly still, an expression of deep worry on her sharp face. Kat shuddered, her insides turning to water. I must get changed. She marched in the other direction, around the side of the new wing to the door of the drawing room and, leaving Ebony on the step, darted inside and straight to her rooms.
Donning fresh hose, petticoats, house gown and shoes, Kat ensured her braids were neat and evenly looped, and the ribbon properly tied. She heard the piano and hurried to the front parlour. Miss Primrose, still in her travelling suit, was playing a lively tune while Earl Beaufort watched with a smile. Kat eased up beside him. He hugged her with one arm and kissed her forehead. When Miss Primrose finished Kat took a turn, rolling through Liszt’s Mazeppa. They were then summoned to luncheon.
Kat remembered her dining manners in every detail; being seated by rank, but then offering every dish to the guest first, directing the footman to Miss Primrose on each course, sitting very straight and never touching the table, using the proper cutlery, taking tiny bites and sips, always pausing between each lest someone talk to her, and likewise not speaking to anyone unless their mouths were empty.
As they finished the room darkened, grey clouds threatening. This has gone well. She inspected the tablecloth and felt proud there were no crumbs or spills evident. Her mind went back to the boy by the pond. Charlotte seemed to be enjoying his company a great deal, but they shouldn’t be doing that until wed. Clara has mentioned my requirement to satisfy a husband, but what I saw looked pleasing for both partners. Very much so! I’ll have to somehow ask her about this, or write Phoebe. Oh, no…
“Goodness gracious.” I must admit my error, and put it right. Kat rose, pausing to let the footman pull out her chair. “May I please be excused?”
“What is it, Katelyn?” Earl Beaufort stood as well.
“I’ve left my mantelet and bonnet in the forest.”
“Send a boy to fetch them.”
“Yes, Father,” Kat responded dutifully, remembering to agree with an instruction given by anyone who out ranked her. Then she gently suggested otherwise, forming her sentence carefully. “However, I fear I should go, as I may not be able to describe the location.”
“Let me accompany you,” Miss Primrose said rising from her seat with a smile. “A stroll between meals would be most advantageous for my appetite. We should hurry, I suspect it will soon rain.”
“Then we shall all go,” Earl Beaufort declared.
“Yes, that would be lovely, my lord,” Miss Primrose agreed, “but perhaps you should take this moment to see how the new carriage is situated? Twice you mentioned it on our way here. You needn’t concern yourself about us, my maid will attend to our needs.”
“Ah… thank you for reminding me.” He nodded. “One or two of the old gigs will have to be put out until the new carriage goes to London. If you’ll excuse me ladies.” He made a quick bow, then strode from the room while they were both still curtsying.
Kat noted how expertly Miss Primrose deployed the same trick she had just used. She must be an accomplished lady. She obviously wants time to talk without Father listening. I can learn from her. This will help me with Clara’s training too.
“Shall we meet in the front hall?” Miss Primrose suggested.
“Yes, please.” Kat knew she would have to put on a walking suit and new ankle boots. “Excuse me.”
As quick as she could, but moving with grace and a measured step, Kat proceeded to her dressing room to change yet again, then met Miss Primrose and her maid. A footman held the door while they promenaded outside. Dark clouds rolled overhead. The ladies strolled around the manor, staying to the gravel and pavement, passing the small bowling-green. They paused by the large imposing statue of the Beaufort family yale, taking in the tremendous view of the valley and hills stretching towards Exmoor. Kat guided them onto the widest flattest trail leading to the forest, Miss Primrose’s dress dragging a bit. Kat noted that while the outfit shimmered of crimson silk, the bottom portion of the skirt was trimmed with rust-brown coloured cloth, hiding whatever dirt might be there, ideal for the red earth of the vale and hills. As they walked, the maid staying about twenty paces behind them, Miss Primrose talked almost incessantly, only pausing when Kat replied or asked a question. After some pleasantries about the estate, the conversation turned to business.
“When I’m countess here, you will have to do as I direct. But I promise not to be demanding. I would like us to be friends.”
“It’s decided then? You’re not even engaged yet.”
“By spring it will be official. We will wed within a year. You will act as one of my attendants. Lots of eyes will be on you. About a year later will be your coming out. I’ll wager, after the wedding, there will be suitors watching for Lady Kat Beaufort.”
“But that… that’s only two years from now. I’ll be fifteen.”
“And turning sixteen the following January. More than old enough. Perhaps you’ll be taller than many of the suitors, but it doesn’t signify. A smallish husband promises smallish babes, and safer births. I have great hopes for you. Not just within the peerage – no no. I believe you might catch a prince. What do you say to that?”
“A prince? Which prince?” Kat pictured a tall, handsome, young gentleman in regal finery, offering her a stable full of the most beautiful horses imaginable and the opportunity to travel all over the world upon a luxurious yacht.
“Oh… perhaps a German, or an Austrian? Your father says you are gifted with languages. There’s Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Or Prince Frederick William of Hesse Cassel. You could be a queen some day.”
“And live so far away?”
“Well, then, how about someone like the Duke of Devonshire? He’s very wealthy. The Cavendish family holds tens of thousands of acres, and he was a great political reformer. My father knows him. So does your father.”
“Yes, I’ve met him. They worked together in Whitehall. Isn’t he quite deaf? And well over fifty?”
“Age has nothing to do with it. Your father is fifty-one.”
“Oh, yes…” But I don’t want to marry an old gentleman. I’m surprised you do.
“Devonshire is one of the most eligible bachelors in all England,” Miss Primrose went on. “He’s a Knight of the Garter, Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire and High Steward of Derby, and was a friend of George the Fourth. He is a leading member of society. I believe you could catch him, if he’s still available in two years, or any gentleman for that matter.”
“My dear girl,” the woman stopped, turned, and took Kat’s hands, then peered up into her face. “Once you’ve been trained, no man will resist your allure. You’re an extremely pretty girl – such large bright eyes! A long intelligent face, clear fair skin… well, I’d say you’re a classic beauty.”
Kat felt herself blushing, and smiled self-consciously. She’s just being kind, trying to make friends.
“And a radiant smile,” Miss Primrose added. “Your teeth are like pearls!” She twittered at her last statement and continued along the trail. “You require polishing, and confidence. I can tell you doubt my words, but you’ll learn. Regardless, I’m convinced, the social season of Forty-nine will be your year. I’ll make certain we’re invited to all the grandest balls. Once they get an eyeful you, your fame will spread. You’ll be welcome at court.”
Kat shrivelled at the thought. Fame? People looking at me? The members of the nobility?
They reached the tree where the cape and hat swung gently in the breeze. All signs of the warm morning had been blown away by the damp wind and ever thickening clouds.
“My maid will carry those.” Miss Primrose took the clothing. “Pierce! Take these.”
The ladies started back to the manor, Kat in deep thought. “Couldn’t I wait, until I come of age?” Or just stay in the country?
“Twenty-one? Don’t be silly. Some women are married and widowed twice or thrice by then. No, you shouldn’t wait. You could fall into the clutches of some charming scoundrel.”
“I would never let that happen!”
“So you say, Kat, and I’m sure you believe it, but men can seduce us just as easily as we seduce them,” Miss Primrose orated, obviously confident in her perspicacity on the subject. “You must be on your guard. Perhaps men don’t yet turn your head, but they will, probably soon. Because of your title, and… lithe proportions, sweet disposition… men will go out of their way to please you, and make love to you in any way they can. An offered elbow, may lead to a secluded stroll, which in turn results in a kiss. This sort of love making is harmless… but would you have the strength to go no further? Once you are wrapped in strong arms and pressed against a muscled chest? A handsome cad would ruin you at the first opportunity. No, you must be careful, and marry young, to a man of wealth and title. Besides, a long face makes you look intelligent and older now, but it could grow severe in time. Let the noble suitors woo away while you’re blossoming. Then select the nonpareil who sets your heart aflutter, for the enchanted love felt by a fifteen or sixteen year old girl exceeds all else, and may last a lifetime.”
Kat was dumbstruck by this unsettling yet eloquent lecture and walked in silence for a bit. She reflected upon everything Miss Primrose had said, realizing much of it must be true, but doubting some parts, and knew her temper would quickly dispel any impression of a ‘sweet disposition’. And if a ‘handsome cad’ ever did ‘ruin her’ (although she wasn’t entirely certain what that meant) she would thrust a sabre through his evil heart! Then she envisioned the boy by the pond, wondered about ‘enchanted love’ and felt an unusual stirring inside. She examined Miss Primrose for a moment.
“How old are you?” Kat wondered aloud.
“I reached twenty-three last month. I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain. I was previously wed, at eighteen.”
“You’re a widow?”
“No, my marriage… in truth, it was shamefully annulled. As the youngest daughter of a viscount, my prospects weren’t very good. During my second season I was betrothed to the son of a baron. I was very much in love. We wed that autumn. Wealthy enough, landowners in Kent, but the son nowhere near the quality of his father. Then, after a year of trying… well, it was discovered I’m barren. Your father is being extremely kind, taking me on. I know your mother will always be your father’s dearest love, but I intend to make him very happy in his old age.”
Kat almost wept at the lady’s plight, and her honesty, and the desire to please her father. “Poor Miss Primrose! I’m sorry for you. How cruel of your husband.”
“Now, now. It’s in the past, and that husband, who shall remain nameless, deserves children as much as any man. I retreated from society for two years, once again living with my parents, but then resolved to find my own way. I can be an excellent wife for your father and, perhaps because of my suffering, deserve this chance to be his countess. There will be no children, so I will not interfere with your brother’s legacy.”
Oh… Phoebe is worried about male heirs. Does she know Miss Primrose can’t have children? She must – that explains the way she acted. Jack probably doesn’t care about any legacy. “I believe my brother wouldn’t be too concerned about his inheritance.”
“When it comes to estates, and the money that goes with them, men are wretched creatures. If women retained property rights we’d soon sort it all out. We are so much more reasonable. Anyway, this arrangement, your father marrying me, should be agreeable in all quarters.”
The manor loomed ahead.
“Now, we have spoken in the strictest confidence. You agree?” Miss Primrose looked about, raindrops starting to fall.
“Yes, I have been taught to keep conversations to myself, unless it means harm to someone.”
“Very good. Mrs. Crozier taught you such?”
Kat gave a slight nod, remembering how upset her society tutor had appeared earlier.
“She will continue your training until next spring, then I will tend to your refinement. Won’t that be great fun?”
“Yes, great fun,” Kat said as enthusiastically as she could muster, but wasn’t certain she sounded convincing, having disliked much of the studies thus far. It all seemed exceedingly strict.
“Let’s get in out of the rain. You can give me the grand tour of your home. Then we’ll dress for dinner.”
The rest of the afternoon passed well enough, with the tour, dressing, dining, and finally Kat made her way to bed. When she entered the upstairs front hall of the west wing, Mrs. Crozier stood like a dark statue in the dim light. Kat slowed, feeling apprehensive.
“You have blatantly disregarded much of what I have taught you.” The woman’s voice was steady, emotionless, hard.
“I didn’t realize I would get dirty. I–
“You ventured outside in house dress and riding boots. You left the manor by a back door. You talked to grooms. You traipsed through the the countryside getting filthy. All when you should have been in the front parlour waiting patiently, as a dutiful daughter and a lady.”
Kat felt her throat and heart tighten painfully. She must have been observed leaving, and going to the stables.
“A spoiled, stubborn, and wilful child. You embarrassed and disappointed your father.”
“I’m sorry, Clara, I–
“I am Mrs. Crozier. You shall no longer address me as a friend. Step into your dressing room.”
Being cut-off by the sharp words and cold tone had tears forming in Kat’s eyes. She felt ashamed by the state of her room, the muddy boots lying at the door, the clothes thrown in heaps on the floor. Bending to pick them up, she yelped and jumped, having received a sharp blow on her hip. She spun to find Mrs. Crozier, raised walking stick in hand, about to strike again. My God! She’s going to beat me! Kat covered her face with her hands and started shaking.
“Stand still and take your punishment,” the woman ordered.
How many times the stick whipped against her hips and thighs Kat couldn’t count. She ignored the pain until the blows doubled and tripled upon already injured spots. It was a blur of agony, emotionally and physically, with breast-shaking sobs, until she dropped into a ball choking for air. She peeked up, afraid to look, and saw Mrs. Crozier towering over her, the woman’s eyes wild and piercing, her face red.
“A lady would never toss her soiled clothing onto the floor,” Mrs. Crozier hissed, wheezing. “She ensures they go directly to the laundry to soak. You have been selfish and thoughtless. Think on how difficult it will be for the washers to scrub those clean. That basquine and skirt are ruined! And it was the first time you’ve worn them! You shall learn the responsibilities of your station. You hurt everyone under you by such foolish actions!”
The matron swept from the room, leaving Kat sore, writhing, and humiliated.