Crowcombe, late October 1848
“May I carry the hamper?” Hugh asked with a proffered hand and a slight bow.
“If you wish.” Kate passed the basket from a kitchen maid to Hugh. “Thank you, Pixie.”
“My lady.” The small girl hurried from the front hall, her long frizzled orange hair bouncing wildly.
“Pretty,” Hugh said quietly, “but such a vacuous countenance.”
Kate hadn’t heard the words used together before but recognised the Latin for empty or void. “Yes, innocent – possesses little understanding of man’s less noble traits. She does learn tasks well. A wise woman, Mistress Maddie, is teaching her a great deal. It was through her we received details of the Weetchs’ misfortune.”
“Hmm… well, you’ll do what you can for them. And you do so willingly, not due to obligation?”
“Yes, willingly. Nothing else would be noble. My father has sent me on charity visits for as long as I can remember.”
The couple donned their gloves, a footman opened the door, and they stepped outside. Water from a fleeting shower glistened in the mid-morning sunshine; nature gilded with diamonds and silver. The door eased slowly closed.
“Beautiful,” Hugh breathed with a long sigh.
Not banal prattle about the weather? Kate examined the front garden, then realised Hugh was staring at her. Oh! She felt her face grow warm, and not from the sunshine. I should say something. “You are very handsome in that suit, Lord Grosvenor. You will create quite a stir in the village.”
“Pshaw! Compared to you?”
Kate made a quick inspection of her shimmering light-blue taffeta walking outfit, the wide lapels, and extravagant sash, all trimmed with white and pink ribbon, and red embroidery. Fancier than she would normally wear in the country, it had been purchased for promenades on cool days in city parks, but Jane insisted the dress be worn during Hugh’s visit, and Kate grew tired of arguing about her wardrobe. She liked the way it accentuated her physique, especially with a quilted under-vest improving her bosom, and three petticoats flaring the flounced skirt. She imagined it being particularly alluring on a bright day with a light covering of snow, if such an occasion ever did present itself.
Hugh offered his free elbow. “Let’s be off. I remember the way.”
On Hugh’s previous visit they had walked to the north edge of the village and called at Crowcombe Court, Hugh paying his respects to the Carew family. Today they were going to the south of the village, to visit the small cottages where the poorest of labourers resided. As they strolled through the woods and along hedgerows, Hugh spoke of his parliamentary duties and endeavours within the riding of Chester. Kate feigned interest, not understanding the details of taxes, land appropriation, and industry. She became genuinely engaged when he mentioned travelling, and voiced her enthusiasm for a voyage. Having broached this subject before, it became somewhat of a reiteration of aspirations, with the added facet of sailing together as newly-weds, an exciting and somewhat perplexing prospect for Kate. She always expected to go on some sort of grand tour with her brother upon coming out, now it would be after marriage with her husband? Not until she reached the age of seventeen and a half, or eighteen? Perhaps it could be two voyages, separated by a couple years?
“Much of Europe isn’t currently safe for travel,” Hugh said as they traded ideas. “There is war within Austria and Italy. There have been revolutions in France and several German States. It’s not stable. I wouldn’t allow you to take imprudent risks.”
Allow?! Imprudent?! “Of course not,” Kate agreed woodenly, but thought otherwise. What risk? I would avoid any fighting. It wouldn’t have anything to do with me.
“Our engagement begins the day you’re presented at court,” Hugh continued. “We shall attend all the London social functions together. Then we’ll have family obligations through the summer and early autumn. And you will attend speeches and events with me in my riding.”
“Ah. Right. Quite.” Bah, sounds a dreadful bore. God’s wounds – social functions! I must complete my dance instruction!
They reached a stile straddling a high stone wall. Hugh stood beside the ladder to monitor Kate as she scaled six steep rungs to the wide top planks, then insisted on getting up with her, shifting awkwardly around, then he climbed down the other side. He gave Kate a hand to assist as she descended. Kate endured this tedious process twice on the way to Crowcombe. On Hugh’s last visit he was less fastidious with his attentions, and Kate thought this change must be her agreeing to their impending engagement. Easier for Kate to cope unaided, on countless occasions she had run up one side of stiles and leapt from the top, pretending to fly. They ambled along another stretch of hedgerow before taking a path into the west end of the village, finding it quiet. Passing through some sheep pastures, following a stream, Kate guiding, they were able to make a fairly direct line to a collection of bedraggled little cottages near the turnpike road. The home containing illness was evident by a swag of fennel, corn mint, and other plants, nailed to the door.
“I’ll not enter,” Hugh said, giving Kate the basket. “I’m a stranger, and might upset the household.”
“Wise decision,” Kate replied. Good, he’s not one of these self-important swells who think every commoner is thrilled to be in his company. Or is he afraid? “I shan’t be long.”
“You’ll find me by that tree.” He indicated an enormous gnarled oak.
Kate approached the cottage door and tapped tentatively with the crude wrought iron knocker. The door creaked open a crack. A scruffy girl of about six years of age squinted out, then up at Kate.
“Good morning, Miss Dorcas.” Kate smiled. “How is your mother?”
“She ain’t better, I say.”
“May I pay her a visit?”
“Come in.” Dorcas pulled the door wide, hinges squealing.
“We observed your continued absence from church,” Kate said, stepping inside, “and have asked about your mother for over a week.” The door closed, casting Kate into a state of blindness, scant light coming from the edges of one small shuttered window. She took a few paces and bumped her head on a timber, discerning only flat shades of black and brown. Kate set the basket aside and removed her bonnet, feeling blinkered by the brim, although the stiff construction of the headdress did serve as protection from injury. I need to see! Drat, there goes a comb. A few of the seven heavy braids, that had been looped and secured at the back of Kate’s head, loosened and sagged onto a shoulder, then she felt one tumble down over her breast.
“Who be there?” a weak voice called from the other room of the cottage, punctuated by wet throaty coughs.
“It’s Lady Kate from Quantock Hall come a calling,” Dorcas replied. She scampered through a dark doorway, then light from within spilled out as the covers of another window were thrown open. More plants were bundled on the sill and swags nailed to the shutters.
Kate rapidly removed the tortoiseshell combs from her hair and stuck them among the silk flowers and feathers on her bonnet, threw back her braids, then picked up the basket and stepped slowly into a tiny bedroom, ducking under the soot-blackened rough-hewn cross-members of the ceiling. A bed, covered by a gaily coloured patchwork quilt, filled most of the floor space. Propped up on pillows, Kate found a gaunt woman with sunken cheeks and dark hollow eyes. An odour of salty sweat and urine assailed her nose. “Mrs. Weetch,” Kate said with a tiny unnecessary curtsey, “how are you?”
“Fair to middlin’, m’lady,” the woman replied bravely. “The wee creature died three days since.”
“I’m deeply sorry for your loss.”
“No pity. I’ll get stronger now. Maddie’s been here again.”
Kate knew Maddie well, the woman who served as the village healer and midwife. She guessed the swags were probably Maddie’s work, and they were accompanied by various herbal teas and potions. Kate placed the basket on the foot of the bed and opened the lid. “Cook sent me with her best,” she began, making it sound as though she acted merely as a delivery girl, as she had since childhood. “You’ll find pies, bread, and fruit.” She unfolded the cloth wrapper and held up some of the items, then stowed them again. “It should be enough for two days. I’ll return Sunday after church.”
“That willn’t do.” Mrs. Weetch shook her head slowly and coughed. “Husband willn’t take giftin’.”
“It is not alms,” Kate said firmly. Yes, it is… paint it differently. “There is no sin in accepting charity.” The woman coughed and shook her head again. “You may make repayment when you’re hale and hearty, yes? I’ll keep an account. If absolutely necessary, send Mr. Weetch to chop firewood in the evenings.” The poor man – he’ll work himself to death. “This has gone on long enough. Let us help you.”
“We’ll see what himself says tonight. Dorcas, take the vittles.”
The girl edged around the bed and took the basket into the main room. Kate made some small talk and enquired after the teens of the family, all of whom had moved away and were in declining states of health. This wasn’t anything Kate wanted to hear about, but she felt it necessary to show interest, no matter how sad. Thankfully, the two youngest children showed no signs of affliction.
“How is Zeke?” Kate asked about the Weetchs’ healthy eleven-year-old son.
“Fine. Out at working with m’ man. Tall an’ strong he grows.”
“Indeed.” Kate nodded. “My father mentioned how he’s grown the last time we saw your family together at church. Zeke will soon be standing at the back of the congregation with the single men!”
Mrs. Weetch guffawed and coughed at this obvious exaggeration, then mumbled, “God bless ye, m’lady, an’ your good fadder, an’ his new wife – ah, countess.”
“Thank you, and all God’s blessings on you and your family.” The words sounded disingenuous in her ears, causing a wave of unease. “I’ll leave you to your recovery.” Kate backed through the doorway. “Take care, Mrs. Weetch. You are in our prayers.”
“Very kind, m’lady. Thank you.” She coughed again, covering her mouth with a blood-stained handkerchief, which she had managed thus far to keep hidden.
Kate crouched and made her way to the front door. Dorcas padded after her, bare feet on the packed clay floor. The girl let Kate out with a gap-tooth grin. She put on her bonnet and found the brim somewhat askew from the earlier collision with the ceiling timber. Hugh waved from the tree and they met half way, then sauntered past more drooping cottages.
“You untied your hair.” Hugh said.
“I took off my bonnet and a comb got caught. Is it all right?”
“It’s lovely. It’s always lovely.”
“Thank you.” Is it truly? She briefly twisted her front braids together, wishing they weren’t quite so black.
“How did you find the convalescent?”
“She hopes to get better, but I have my fears. The entire family has consumption, except the youngest boy and girl. And a boy who went to sea when he turned twelve – he must be eighteen now. Mrs. Weetch didn’t mention him when I asked about her family. I’ve lost count of how many children have perished.”
“Tragic. Amazing how some are spared.”
“Yes, ’tis.” Kate felt sad for the family, and thought of her brother, who died at the age of five.
“You’ve never suffered from an infirmity, have you?”
“Nothing of note. No sickness.” She recalled plummeting down the backstairs carrying laundry, and being thrown off horses. “Struck senseless a few times, with memory loss and nausea. And you?”
“Mere trifles. Winter ague, that sort of thing. We’ll be a strong couple – bodes well for children.” He grinned.
Kate did her best to return a smile. That worries me. He wants a dozen of children. This could be a mistake. No, I’ll be ready in two and a half years… maybe… She remembered something related to the sea, and a way to change the topic, so inquired after Hugh’s fifteen year old brother. “Has Bert joined his ship?”
“A few months now.” Hugh nodded.
“I think he’ll do well in the Royal Navy,” Kate said, recalling Bert’s rough and ready attitude during the days they played together as children.
“I do too.” Hugh stopped and made a slow revolution. “Were these cottages erected during the Roman occupation?” he asked with a smirk.
Kate laughed at his jest.
“They should be pulled down,” he continued, “and new ones built. Who owns them?”
“Sir Walter Carew, I believe.”
“Hmm… for how far?”
“All along here.” Kate pointed. “Shall we take the turnpike to the road, and go into the village that way?” She altered her direction towards a gap in a hedgerow.
“Let’s. I’d like to survey the land and make a proposal to Sir Walter about possible improvements.”
“Excellent!” Kate loved the idea. Father would support such a project. Every family with a nice new clean little home, with more windows – with glass. And higher ceilings! “Could I help? Perhaps plan the cottages?! Where to build them?! Imagine them in a circle, with a central green, proper well, and a duck pond!”
“Sir Walter and his land steward would make those decisions. It’s his land, his rent, his taxes. These matters aren’t for women.”
“Ah…” Well, pooh! Why not?!
“But if your father was an investor, and I, perhaps you could have some say in the project as his daughter and my wife.”
Kate didn’t know what to think. Is he saying that now to make me feel better? Is it true? Or is this polite dissemblance? Why couldn’t I help Sir Walter, simply by offering? I’ll draw a plan, with some sketches of cottages, and fl–
“This must be the road into the village.”
Kate nodded and temporarily forsook her cottage planning. “The Carews own all this too.” She pointed to the shabby little dwellings, some badly in need of new thatch. “Sir Walter must not be aware of the decay.”
“He may be asking very little rent, with the understanding that the tenants accomplish their own repairs. If he makes improvements, the rent goes up accordingly, and some of these families might not be able to afford any increase.”
“Oh. Interesting.” Kate hadn’t made such considerations.
They walked and talked, and noted the fine upkeep of the houses within the village. As Hugh examined the architecture of the church, Kate looked across the road at a building that served as a school, meeting hall, and poor house. A party of women and children were pressing apple pulp and bottling the juice. Singing drifted out of the upper open windows. A scrawled notice pinned to one of the low arched doors announced fresh cider at a Friends Society meeting on the yard by the inn.
“Would you like some cider?” Kate asked Hugh, feeling thirsty.
“Has it fermented?”
“No, it’s fresh.” She indicated the work party with an open hand.
“Very good, then. Thank you.”
They strolled along the road to a spot where tables and chairs were set out on a yard, in the sunshine and under ancient elm and chestnut trees, across from the broken red sandstone medieval cross, denoting the original marketplace of the village. At a table covered by an assortment of large clay mugs, a girl served them with a little curtsey. Elderly villagers sat and sipped in the sunshine, chatting quietly. Later, when the church bells rang noon, no doubt everyone working in the area would gather with their bundles of food and share the cider and camaraderie. Rather than intrude upon the villagers’ space, Kate minced over to a small empty table and only one chair, followed by Hugh. Their clothing burst with colour and glistened compared to the faded shades of brown and grey worn by the villagers. Kate’s bonnet still askew, she took it off and placed it on the chair.
“Hmm… refreshing,” Hugh said.
“It always is.” Kate nodded. “I noticed you didn’t take any wine with dinner last night.”
“I noticed you did.”
“Well… yes, I usually do. You did on your last visit. I remember y–”
“True, but not for several months. At first I agreed with the Temperance Society in regard to spirits, except as medicine, but now I’m an advocate for total abstinence – teetotal! You didn’t hear the conversation I had with your father yesterday evening. You were getting ready for dinner. In Chester – actually, never mind Chester. On our family estate in Mayfair, there are roughly fifty public houses. Fifty!” Villagers looked their way and Hugh lowered his voice. “Rather than taking earnings home to family, or saving, men waste their money on a sort of daily ritual where they meet with no real purpose other than to consume alcohol – spirits and ale. It isn’t proper, and it leads to drunken misbehaviour and brawling. This needs to be stopped. As a member of parliament, it’s my duty to improve the lives of British citizens.”
“I fully concur.” I admire his strong conviction.
“My father taught me to lead by example, so I no longer imbibe, with the hope my abstinence becomes the choice of the common man.”
“What about the families who own taverns?” Kate asked. “And brewers, and wine mer–”
“Quit yer laughin’! Do you think me a fool?”
Kate didn’t finish her queries, interrupted by loud words, a smack, and a yelp. Hugh, apparently having heard the sounds as well, raised an eyebrow and turned towards the blacksmith shop. Kate saw a rugged man with a dark glowering face, standing over a prostrate form in tattered clothes. It was a boy, about Kate’s age, who she had known since childhood as Hobbie; a poor scrawny imbecile who giggled incessantly. Kate knew the man as well; Mr. Thorne, a hardy labourer for hire from Stogumber, who owned a team of fine draught horses. Whenever there was a heavy work project in the area, Mr. Thorne would be present, toiling stolidly to get the job done and demanding decent wages. Known for being brusque and all business, he wouldn’t suffer foolishness gladly under any circumstance.
Kate banged her mug on the table, spilling cider. “Mr. Thorne! What are you doing?” She dashed along the road. Horses whinnied and stamped their hoofs as she passed.
“Lady Kate!” Hugh called.
Kate didn’t turn back, keeping her eyes fixed on Mr. Thorne, who stood over Hobbie with threatening fists. “Don’t touch him!” Kate yelled. “Step away!” She saw Mr. Thorne glance up at her, then down at Hobbie again. “Step away!” Mr. Thorne moved a few paces back as Kate arrived at the assault and crouched beside the boy.
Mr. Nettles, the farrier, came out of the smithy carrying various tools. “What’s all this?” he asked.
Hobbie sat up, weeping, rubbing his eyes with filthy hands, a large welt on his left cheekbone.
“There now, Hobbie, you’re all right.” Kate placed an arm around his shoulders. “Why did you strike him so?” she demanded, glaring at Mr. Thorne.
“He were laughing at me,” Mr. Thorne said, words accented with anger.
“Let me help the lad,” Hugh said.
Kate realised Hugh was standing behind her, holding her bonnet. Together they got Hobbie on his feet. He stood only as high as Kate’s shoulder.
“Thank’ee,” Hobbie squeaked. He grinned at Mr. Thorne. “Ar, hee hee, hee hee, hee–”
“He don’t learn!” Mr. Thorne barked with gnashing teeth and fists raised.
“Stop!” Kate ordered. She sprang sideways and grabbed a long heavy pair of hoof-cutters from Mr. Nettles. She took the tool in both hands and held it high like a bat. “Hit him again at your peril!”
Mr. Thorne froze. Mr. Nettles eyes bulged. Hobbie hiccuped.
Kate took an abrupt step forward, flounces swaying, braids swinging. “Hobbie is harmless – he laughs at everything.” She emphasized her words with short sharp vertical jabs of the cutters. “You are too proud, Mr. Thorne. Perhaps it will be your epitaph? Died the Twenty-seventh of October, Eighteen-forty-eight, for foolish pride! An ignoble inscription for your gravestone!”
“I… er… what?” Mr. Thorne held a fighting stance, but swivelled his torso toward Kate, and opened his hands.
“And you’ll never work for my father again,” Kate added, rather weakly after such a theatrical declaration.
“Aha!” Hugh strode stiffly to the centre of the confrontation. “Do you hear, man? No one is going to die today, but you could be thrashed by a pair of cutters and – more importantly – you face the prospect of diminished wages. I daresay Lord Beaufort has influence hereabouts? Is the loss of his and all his acquaintances custom something you’re willing risk?”
“Nah, o’ course not.” Mr. Thorne retreated, wrathful lines on his face melting to a scowl, and stood beside the farrier, who still stared agape at Kate.
Kate, relaxing her grip and lowering the tool, saw about a score of villagers gawking at the high drama playing out in front of the smithy. “Ahem, ah, thank you, Mr. Nettles.” Kate held the cutters like a valuable sceptre and carefully presented them to the farrier. “Come with me, Hobbie.” She took his hand and led him along the road, Hugh by her side. Kate kept her head high but lids down, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone. While doing her utmost to appear poised, jangled nerves and pounding heart reverberated through her body. “You’ll be all right, now?” she asked Hobbie, stopping at the medieval cross.
“Yep, hee hee. I fine.”
“Here, Master Hobbie,” Hugh said, handing the boy a new penny, the copper shiny. “Take that home to your mother. Tell her Mr. Thorne is sorry for your misunderstanding.”
“Thank’ee! Hee hee, hee hee.” He knuckled his brow and skipped away giggling.
Kate took her bonnet with thanks and pulled it on, pushing some unruly hair away from her face, trembling fingers preventing a properly fastened ribbon, and they marched north on a lane running beside Crowcombe Court, Kate setting the pace. Embarrassing… embarrassing… embarrassing… a regular bungling muddle… I’ve got collywobbles… calm down… Upon leaving the lane on the trail back towards Quantock Hall, as her latest taste of battle rage subsided, Kate slowed, remembering to be more genteel. Hugh offered an elbow and she took it. Her heart and stomach settled. What does Hugh think of my conduct? He hasn’t said a word. I must say something. “Nothing, that is, there isn’t… the village is usually quiet.” She peeked sidelong at Hugh and noted a quirked eyebrow and bit of a frown. “Mr. Thorne doesn’t know everybody in Crowcombe. If he knew Hobbie, it wouldn’t have happened.” Again, Hugh remained silent. “Still, I don’t know why Mr. Thorne behaved so badly. He must have a fearsome temper.”
“Oh! Hugh, it’s true! I do have a temper. You need to know. I’m not as–”
“It’s all right, Kate.” Hugh smiled and nodded. “Your father warned me, of your… somewhat untamed disposition.”
“It’s almost tamed.” That sounded stupid. “I have made great strides in my comportment.”
“I’m sure. I’m sure. By the time we wed, you will be a paragon of domestic tranquillity. Your loss of composure today was only the result of Mr. Thorne’s unreasonable actions.”
“Yes. That’s it.” Paragon of domestic tranquillity?! That’s unlikely!
“Would you have actually hurt him?”
“Goodness, no!” Kate lied prettily, wide-eyed with some well-timed blinks. I’d have beat him senseless!
“I’ve never known a noble young lady inclined toward violence.”
“It hasn’t happened before,” Kate lied again. Damn my temper! It will see me undone one day.
“Very good,” Hugh murmured. “I’m glad I was there to talk sense to the man.”
They reached a stile and went through the process of climbing over the wall. On the other side, as Hugh helped Kate hop down from the last step, the couple stood close, face-to-face.
“I must say,” Hugh said softly, hesitating with his words, “you should have seen your expression! When you were angry – the fire! My word… what, determination!” He glanced down and momentarily touched the ring he had given her, then met her gaze again. “Terrible and frightful, but splendid, with flashing eyes, like Athena, or the ravishingly beautiful Medusa. With your hair all plaited – they could have become serpents!” He laughed.
Kate laughed too, feeling relieved. “I would rather be likened to Nemesis. I brought justice and, if necessary, retribution for Mr. Thorne’s pride – his hubris.”
“Indeed! Ha haa! Indeed! You’ve studied Greek myth? Excellent.”
Hugh’s touch of the ring reminded Kate of a conversation with her step-mother from the previous evening, as they appraised the ring before retiring to bed. Doubts lingered in the back of Kate’s mind about the entire arrangement.
“Hugh, about this ring.” Kate plucked at it from the chain around her neck.
“It’s a family heirloom?”
“My step-mother says you cannot give away such treasures.”
“True, but you will be my wife – it remains within the entail.”
So if we don’t wed, I must return it. I would anyway – no matter. “And, is it a man’s ring?”
“Hum… possibly? I cannot say for certain. It is the most precious piece of jewellery I have in my possession.”
“Because your parents gave it to you?”
“Didn’t your mother want to give you something, to give to me? Something from her…” This is it. Now I’ll learn how his parents feel.
Hugh didn’t answer. He rubbed an ear, and seemed to scan the forest.
“Your parents don’t know about our agreement.” Kate said, her stomach burning. Jane is right, he hasn’t obtained permission from his father.
“They know my wishes,” Hugh corrected with conviction, meeting Kate’s eyes, his face red. “We didn’t have an agreement, not until yesterday – now we do. It’s… the problem… the Duchess of Sutherland and my mother want me to marry my cousin, Constance.”
“I knew it. Lady Constance has made that plain, and would be a good match for you, wouldn’t she?” Kate felt her throat constricting and vision blurring. “Of her you needn’t be ashamed.”
“What?! Why would I be ashamed of you? To what are you referring?”
“My family isn’t good enough. I’m not… in no way ideal.” Kate felt hot tears escape her lashes and run down her cheeks. “I’ve been too much a tomboy for too long – a country hoyden. Everyone knows. And I haven’t–”
“You are to me!” Hugh grabbed her upper arms. “You’re ideal to me!”
Kate saw tears in his eyes. They embraced, and kissed, cautiously, then passionately; salty lips, then tongues coming together fervently. Kate felt light-headed, and couldn’t breathe, letting herself wilt in his arms. Hugh held her firmly, one arm girding her waist while the other cradled her shoulders. How long it went on she could never recall, but it remained a cherished memory forever.
“Kate,” Hugh gasped, easing back a bit. “Kate.”
She slowly opened her eyes and focused on Hugh’s flushed face. I’m tingling all over! What is this?
“Kate, I want you, more than I can say. Now, please, we must stop. I cannot stand this… this lust. We should…”
Kate straightened and bounced out of Hugh’s arms, muscles taut, the word hitting hard and causing her stomach to burn anew and tighten painfully. Lust? That ought not happen! It mustn’t! Not until we wed! Only the most innocent of love-making – little kisses and hugs. She edged away, then turned, slipped a handkerchief from a hidden skirt pocket and dabbed her nose and eyes. Shivers ran from her scalp to her thighs. She felt hot and cold and trembled. Take a deep breath. Calm down. Hugh retrieved Kate’s bonnet from the ground; she didn’t remember it falling off.
“It’s a good thing I’m accompanying you this morning,” he muttered with a lop-sided smile, “if only to look after your hat!”
They laughed. Kate found herself liking Hugh more and more.