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Prelude to a Hunt

Quantock Hall, November 1847

Kate stood patiently behind her chair, speculating on how cold their luncheon would be. Everything was laid out, and the butler clearly perturbed with the delay; Earl Beaufort had yet to appear. A roaring fire in the hearth kept out the chill, but Kate and Mrs. Crozier still wore shawls as they waited. Presently, the clomp of boots approached, and the earl strode into the room.

“My apologies.” He smacked and rubbed his hands. “I had an early caller.”

“Good afternoon, Father,” Kate said, curtseying.

“Good afternoon, Lord Beaufort,” Mrs. Crozier followed in turn.

“Yes, good afternoon. Let’s eat.”

Upon seating and receiving their soup the earl slipped a letter from his pocket and started reading while he ate. Kate noticed Mrs. Crozier raise an eyebrow at this serious breech of protocol, but the woman remained silent.

“Well, it’s all settled then,” Earl Beaufort abruptly said, tossing the letter down.

Kate desperately wanted to know what he was referring to, and who the caller had been, but she knew it would be rude to ask a direct question of her father, unless in her interests. Before Mrs. Crozier came to instruct, Kate would have scooped up the letter to read for herself, and pestered her father with questions, but those days were gone.

“Has something been settled in my regard?” she queried softly, hoping to sound polite.

“Indeed it has,” the earl declared, smiling and taking a sip of wine. “There is to be a hunt, at the end of the week. Riding out of Crowcombe Court at ten o’clock. And… you shall join me!”

“Hurrah!” Kate could barely contain herself but, seeing the hard look from Mrs. Crozier, managed to sit still and add quietly, “That is to say, hurrah, I’m happy to attend with you, Father.”

“Ha ha! I’m sure you are. Is your hunter ready for the task?”

“Yes. Misty can take any wall, hedge, or ditch.”

“And you have an outfit?”

“She does, my lord,” Mrs. Crozier took over the conversation. “And I have taken delivery of new boots for Lady Kate yesterday, black with silver tassels. However, if I may be so bold, I must advise against this hunt.”

Earl Beaufort blinked and straightened in his chair. “Why?”

“Her horse stands… disturbingly high.” Mrs. Crozier, for a rare moment, seemed a little unsure of what to say. She hesitated, then continued. “More than sixteen hands. A fall from such a height could seriously injure my lady.”

“Katelyn is tall enough for such a mount, and excels in horsemanship. Do you doubt my daughter’s skill?”

“No, my lord. I have marked her at practice.”

When Kate heard that she felt her insides melt. Normally, her daily rides followed lanes and trails far from the manor, places Mrs. Crozier could not observe. However, for over a month, since the wound to her hand had healed, she’d been working her hunter in a pasture nearby. Kate thought only one groom new about it.

“Lady Kate makes magnificent jumps, but rides the animal like a man, wearing breeches and hunt boots. She leaves here in a riding habit, side-saddle, but removes her jacket and skirt in a shed. That old cloudy-eyed groom, Billie, meets her with a man’s saddle near a pasture to the south-west.”

Kate put her head down. I’ll be beaten for this… and won’t be allowed to ride in the hunt. She watched huge tears drop and splash in her lap.

“Breeches, Katelyn? I thought you hadn’t worn anything like that, or ridden astride, for well over a year. Are you wearing Jack’s old clothes again?”

“No, Father,” she said just above a whisper. “One of my new habits included breeches. And I have snug wash-leather drawers for–

“My lady!” Mrs. Crozier exclaimed. “You needn’t include every detail! Unmentionables is not a subject–

“Easy, Mrs. Crozier.” Earl Beaufort raised a calming hand, then scratched his chin and gazed at the chandelier for a moment, then refocused on Kate. “You wear… these garments, under your skirt? So you can ride a hunting saddle?”

“Yes.”

“Why? I thought you were happy with side-saddle.”

“I am. They’re very comfortable,” Kate spoke quietly, ashamed to be seen weeping. “But, the weight of the horse seems remote – under you. There’s something about riding crossways that makes me feel one with the horse, our weight moving naturally together. It’s just for galloping, and jumping. I… perhaps, for steeplechases, I could…” Kate’s throat constricted. She pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and buried her face.

“How long has this been going on?” Earl Beaufort asked of the tutor.

“At least a fortnight, my lord,” Mrs. Crozier replied. “I suspect longer. Probably since the wound to her thumb mended.”

“Why didn’t you put a stop to it?”

“It’s true your daughter is not entirely innocent, her subterfuge proves thus, but a lady retains a prerogative to undertake activities she enjoys. If it hurts no one, is unselfish, entails exercise, and includes communion with one of God’s most noble beasts, I would feel it a sin to interfere.”

Kate wanted to jump across the table and hug the formidable woman. She glanced up, wiping away her tears, but when she saw the grim expression of her father looked down again, peeking sideways.

“There are… physical concerns, aren’t there.” Earl Beaufort said quietly.

“Yes, but as you stated, my lord, she has great skill. My lady keeps well back in the saddle with steady hands and her heels down. If you’ll excuse the observation, her limbs are… all sinew and muscle. Indeed, her entire… conformation, quite Amazonian, in the best of ways.”

The earl slumped in his chair, eyes rolling around the room, frowning. “But you feel she shouldn’t take part in a hunt?”

“She will have to ride side-saddle in her new winter habit. I… I fear my lady might fall. Perhaps be dragged.”

Kate suddenly realized this was all about her safety. “Oh, Mrs. Crozier, I can manage jumps side-saddle very well! And I’ll be careful, and stay at the back with the other ladies. There will be other ladies, won’t there, Father?”

“Yes, at least one.” Earl Beaufort picked up the letter and waved it back and forth. “Sir John Trollope is visiting. He’s finally found a wife! He married Sir Robert Sheffield’s eldest daughter.” He scanned the scribbled sentences. “Julia. I’ve met her – nice girl. She came out… seven or eight years ago. The Sheffields all ride the hounds. You could keep in her company. And Sir Walter Carew is up from Rattery, with Lady Anne, of course. She will probably participate.”

“Which brings me to another issue, my lord.”

“Yes, Mrs. Crozier?”

“Lady Kate is far too young for this social engagement. She should be out first.”

“No.” Earl Beaufort shook his head. “This is not a formal subscription hunt, just a simple affair – quite friendly. There may be boys following on ponies. And I’ve already sent a note back indicating we would attend. Besides, Katelyn has been acting a lady and deserves some of the privileges that go with it. I’m asking her to grow up quicker than many girls have to, due to her… mature appearance. This new habit you spoke of is suitable?”

“Indeed, my lord, I saw to the tailoring. It has a very long skirt in the latest style.”

“Oh, very good. Have you instructed her on how to gather it for walking?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Well then, you fortify my point. She’s dressing like a lady.” He turned towards his daughter. “Imagine, Katelyn, how sophisticated you’ll look.” He swivelled back to the tutor. “Is there proper headdress?”

“A beaver bonnet or a dress hat, depending on the weather,” Mrs. Crozier replied, and abruptly stood. “May I please be excused, my lord?”

“Yes, of course,” Earl Beaufort said getting to his feet.

The woman curtsied then swept from the room.

As her father sat, Kate rose and ran to him, hugging his neck and shoulders. “Thank you, Father. I shan’t let you down. I shall act a lady, and be on my best behaviour.” She kissed his temple, and pressed her face against his grizzled cheek.

“There, there. All’s right, very nice.” He eased her grip from his neck. “I believe Mrs. Crozier has come to care about you. Much of her opposition to the hunt was concern for your safety.”

“Yes, I think so too.”

“Your mare is fine with either saddle? She has the manners for it?”

“Oh yes. Misty may have been trained by men, but has adjusted to a side-saddle quickly. I’ve even ridden her off-side. She’s a brilliant animal.”

“And her stride?”

“Quite long and low.”

“Good. Now… tell me… how high have you been jumping?”

The view from Kate's window would have been similar to this photo, taken from low on the Quantock Hills, looking west to Exmoor.

The view from Kate’s window would have been similar to this photo, taken from low on the Quantock Hills, looking west to Exmoor.

The day of the hunt dawned cool, calm, and clear. Kate opened a window and felt the air, inhaling deeply, taking in the valley and hills stretching towards Exmoor. Happy to know she wouldn’t need to don a rain cloak over her riding outfit, she immediately decided on the tall straight top hat, suspecting the sun would bring some warmth. Her nerves prevented a decent breakfast, so her maid brought milk, biscuits, and an apple, which Kate shared with her black retriever.

“Out of your bed clothes, my lady,” Isabel said. “Come by the fire and get on your undergarments, then we’ll go in your dressing room for your toilette.”

Soft chamois drawers, a pair of long silk hose, and a simple chemise started her layers, then black wool stockings and the new tall black boots. The boots were stiff and tight, taking some effort to pull on, not at all like her old loose top-boots with cobbled straps and buckles for adjustments. She selected her least restrictive corset, comfortably laced. Kate liberally applied perfume and decided to wear her hair with four braids, looped and tied back upon themselves, on each side of her ears, the remaining tresses cascading down her back with a ribbon tied between her shoulder blades. She sat, fidgeting, while her maid adjusted unruly locks several times.

“My hat will keep some of it under control, Isabel. Help me with my petticoats?”

“Not yet. Mrs. Crozier told me to do your cosmetics, before you get overly hot.”

This too was a first for Kate. A fancy chest had been ordered for her by Mrs. Crozier while they visited London. It came from a company in Italy, filled with little brushes, bottles and jars, and exuded a pleasant flowery smell. Isabel took tweezers and plucked Kate’s eyebrows, then delicately applied black frankincense resin paint along her eyelashes, and a mixture of olive oil, alkanet root, and wax on her lips.

“Is that all?” Kate asked, poking through the other containers in the chest.

“Mrs. Crozier said blacken eyelashes slightly and red salve on your lips.”

“No colour for my cheeks?”

“I did ask, but she said no. You’ll have to let the fresh air do it. This must be what’s in fashion. Oh, wait… a puff of pearl powder on your nose. Is this made of ground pearls?”

“I believe so… but with bismuth and French chalk too. Perhaps other ingredients.”

“It’s very fine. Shut your eyes. There, done. Now your petticoats.”

First a knee-length flannel petticoat was tied in place, followed by a starched ankle-length one of linen. Then came the layers that would actually be visible, starting with a satin shirt, made with a very high collar covered and trimmed in lace to protect Kate’s neck from the cold. The same lace decorated the yoke and cuffs. Kate wrapped on a black silk neck-kerchief and tied a bow at her throat. Isabel then helped her with a heavy dark green velvet skirt. Kate traipsed around the room, twisting to watch the material drag behind, then tried gathering it up and keeping it under control with one hand, and repeated the promenade, attempting to be graceful.

“This isn’t so troublesome,” Kate said. “I could take long strides.”

“That may be, but you better sail about the way Mrs. Crozier’s been teaching you.”

“I shall, Isabel. Thank you for reminding me.”

Next came a tight padded vest, cream-coloured satin, with small gold buttons. Kate looked down at herself. Oh my, this makes me look womanly. “Isabel, is this waistcoat necessary?”

“’Tis part of the outfit, my lady.” The maid considered it for a moment. “You might be cold without it, because the jacket is open and cutaway. And it nicely rounds out your bosom.”

“Ah… I understand.”

Kate donned the jacket, also made of heavy dark green velvet (with a removable doeskin liner) held closed by two gold buttons positioned at the small of her midriff, the other buttons purely decorative. It covered her hips and fit tight, but loose enough in the shoulders and open at the breast to allow some ease of movement. Kate examined herself in the mirror. She saw a lady peering back. Could I pass for eighteen? Nineteen? What would Mr. Hugh Wansbrough say if he saw me in this? Or Jeremy Connor? I wonder what Reynold will think?

Kate's habit would have been similar to the one depicted here, but darker green.

Kate’s habit would have been similar to the one depicted here, but darker green.

This wasn’t the outfit Kate wanted. She thought it would be wool, and the style she preferred had a jacket that did up to the throat, with a large lacy fold down collar on the shirt. However, now, staring at herself, she could see Mrs. Crozier had been correct. This habit appeared appropriate for royalty.

“You look quite a striking lady,” Isabel said, peering around Kate’s shoulder at the mirror.

Kate studied Isabel’s reflection, and saw a blonde young woman, with clear brown eyes, rosy cheeks, about five feet tall, and possessing a nicely curved physique. “You’re very pretty, Isabel.”

“Oh… thank you. I dare say, you are growing up!”

Feeling hot in all the layers, Kate hastened to the front hall, carrying gloves and top hat. She hoped Reynold might be tending the door, but Wade was the footman on duty. Mrs. Crozier stood by, waiting to inspect her pupil.

“Excellent, my lady.”

“Thank you. My eyebrows hurt a bit.”

“The cool air will soothe them. I suggest you keep them like this from now on. Your maid has done an excellent job of it.”

“All the time?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Crozier stepped closer and lowered her voice. “You have an obligation, because of your station. The common people will be happy to see you turned out at your best, like today. You’ll bring great joy to them by moving gracefully, acting congenial, smiling, and saying hello. Many of the aristocracy let themselves go, becoming corpulent and lazy, proving a poor example and forgetting what the Bible teaches us. Today, I see it in you, the potential to be a great woman.”

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Kate murmured softly. How could I ever be great? She felt weepy over this praise from such a hard woman. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Crozier seemed to sense the emotion and stepped back. “That’s enough talk. Do not touch around your eyes or lick your lips.”

“Oh, yes. I must remember that.”

“Put your hat on. Now your gloves. Lord Beaufort is already outside with the horses.”

“I must hurry.”

“No, you still have time. Your father is early.”

“I need a whip.”

“The grooms have several for you. Hold still while I adjust your veils. Before the hunt starts be sure to cover your face and tie the two long ends under your chin.”

“I thought the veils would fly out behind me.”

“As affecting as that sounds, it won’t do once you’re in the thick of it. If your hat were to fall off it would be a disaster.”

“Worse than me falling?”

“Yes. If you fall be certain to keep your hat on. And don’t drop your whip.”

“I thought you were worried about me getting hurt.”

“I was, when I tried to prevent you from partaking. Now, I must be more concerned with your behaviour, particularly if there is a fall. How you deport yourself will be talked about, and will travel through the peerage like lightning. Today you start building a reputation. If you should tumble, no matter how badly injured, stay quiet, maintain your dignity, and keep your hat on.”

“Is it really that serious?”

“Yes, and I have told you not to question me. Now be off. Remember what I’ve taught you.”

Mrs. Crozier curtsied and stepped away so the footman could open the door. Kate strode outside, perhaps walking a little faster than she should, and into the sunlight. The extremely plush heavy velvet, which almost appeared black indoors, now showed the deepest of greens and shimmered gold as she moved. Earl Beaufort, already mounted on his dark thoroughbred steed, trotted in a wide circle on the front yard where the gardeners toiled in the flowerbeds. Kate spotted the lanky blonde under-gardener, the boy with the nice smile and bright blue eyes, and took a few steps in his direction, then thought better of it, briefly envisaging him naked and in the arms of Charlotte Nettles. Lord Beaufort’s valet tipped his hat to Kate, then offered a selection of whips and canes.

“Which would you recommend, Rudman?”

“Something long and soft, m’ lady. Just for show. You likely won’t have to pull open any gates today. Gentlemen will get them for you. Or you’ll jump them all.” He smiled knowingly at her.

Kate couldn’t help but grin back, and took a whip with a yellow antler hook. They both looked at her fine hunter being held nearby. The dapple-grey mare flickered her ears and stood patiently.

“She’s got a small girth but great wind, and I think a big heart. Legs for jumping, no doubt. You picked well. She’ll make you proud today.”

“Thank you, Rudman.

“Very good, m’ lady.”

Once Kate was helped into her saddle, the bulk of the petticoats arranged, legs secure in the pommels, she draped her skirt below her boots and onto the horse’s haunch. Earl Beaufort rode up and reined in, facing his daughter. He bowed to her with a smile.

“I…” He shook his head. “I’m unable to fathom how much you’ve changed in a year. It’s astonishing.”

“Shall we go, Father?” Kate edged her mount into a walk.

“Cannot wait for the hunt, eh? There’s still lots of the old Katelyn under that veneer. What do you say, boys?”

Immediately the grooms, valet, and nearby gardeners broke into applause. Kate looked around at them, nodding and smiling, feeling her face glow hot. Miss Nestor waved from a window. With an overhead sweep of her whip, Kate tapped into a canter, and rode for Crowcombe.

 

 

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