Quantock Hills, Somersetshire, early November 1848
“I’m tired of discussing Hugh’s visit.”
“We needn’t speak of him, unless you want to, my lady.”
“I should be studying formulae.” Kate led Isabel deeper into the front garden. “I have an examination on Euclid and Mr. Bradley’s practical geometry this afternoon. Miss Nestor expects–” She stopped as a head of curly rust-coloured hair rapidly bounced by, beyond a stretch of bushes. “Pixie!”
The hair stopped and rotated in a slow circle.
“Pixie,” Kate said again, walking towards the girl. She rounded an empty flower bed and pushed though a gap in the shrubs.
“My lady.” The small scullery maid performed an awkward curtsey, encumbered by a large basket. Steam rose from the cloth covered contents.
“What have you got there?” Isabel asked, following Kate through the gap.
“Sweet biscuits!” Pixie lifted a corner of the cloth and grinned wide-eyed at the fresh baked goods. “Cook let me make them after I finished with the breakfast chores.”
“You’re taking them to Mistress Maddie?” Kate asked.
“Rather a lot of biscuits for the two of you.”
“It’s to share with the people living in the woods near Triscombe Stone. We’re visiting them in their camp.”
“No.” Pixie blinked, frowned a bit. “After I get to Mistress Maddie’s house.”
“Ah, quite.” Kate smiled. “Shall we accompany you?”
“As you please, my lady.”
Following the girl, Isabel edged close to Kate. “Is it… the Gypsies she’s talking about?” she whispered.
“Hmmm…” Isabel faltered in her steps. “Triscombe Stone is at least an hour walk.”
“Indeed,” Kate agreed. “We shan’t go thither and return within time of my examination. I’ll have to beg forgiveness.”
They left the garden, crossed a lane, then walked into the woods, a low stone cottage visible through the thinning autumn foliage. As they neared the dwelling, Maddie emerged from a shadowed doorway.
“God bless all here,” Maddie greeted them, her shocking red hair glowing in the sunlight. A frayed wool shawl wrapped her shoulders against the cool air. “Thik be a surprise, seein’ thee,” she declared in her West Country burr and smiled at Kate. “An’ thee.” Maddie nodded to Isabel. “My nose tells me good!” She crouched in front of Pixie.
Pixie lifted a corner of the cloth and grinned. Maddie grabbed a biscuit and took a violent bite. Kate felt shocked, and could see a blink of surprise on Pixie’s face. Maddie handed a biscuit to Pixie, then Kate, and Isabel.
“We all have one now,” Maddie said with wink. “Best varm, they be.” She devoured the remainder of her biscuit. “Comin’ callin’, are ye?”
“If we may accompany you,” Kate said. “I would like to visit the camp and see what charity might be welcome – for the children.”
“Arrr…” Maddie nodded approvingly. “Let us be off, then.” She strode purposely onto a path leading south-east, with a soft thud of her wooden shoes.
Roughly an hour later they made their way into the forest spreading to the east of Triscombe Stone. The time had passed with Maddie lecturing about autumn seeds and herbs, quizzing Pixie at each turn. Maddie marched briskly, her voice ringing, while Pixie half-trotted to keep up. Kate was impressed by how much the girl had learned. Isabel muttered few words, until they neared the camp.
“This isn’t a good idea.” Isabel hooked Kate’s elbow. “We shouldn’t be here, my lady.”
“We’ll not tarry,” Kate whispered in reply. “I’ll quickly ask if the children require any clothing. In truth, it is an elderly couple to whom I wish to speak. Once I have spoken with them, we shall return to Quantock Hall. We needn’t wait–”
“Halloo! God bless thee!”
Kate was cut off by Maddie’s greeting. Ahead of them, a girl of about Kate’s age emerged from the forest with a faint jingle. She wore a broad straw bonnet, a colourful but faded shawl and apron, over a clean and threadbare dress, carrying a deck of cards and a battered tambourine.
“Thank you, and to you.” The girl smiled, then made eye contact with Kate. Her smile vanished, her brow furled, and she immediately backed off the path into pine brush, then dipped and lowered her head in a quick curtsey.
Oh no, she’s afraid of me! Kate stepped up, towering behind Pixie. “Good day, young lady.” Kate returned the courtesy with a cursory motion, but still far more than any member of the peerage would normally deign to perform for a lowly traveller. “Are we near your camp?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl replied, head down.
“Pish, she’s no a ma’am!” Maddie gave the girl a playful shove on the shoulder. “She’s a missie. Goin’ fortune tellin’ are thee?”
The girl recovered her balance and shyly grinned at Maddie with a nod.
“May thee find much custom then,” Maddie said, starting to march again. “And may plenty o’ coin cross thy palm.”
While the girl waited, Pixie jogged after Maddie, followed by Kate, then a trailing Isabel. One turn along the path and they entered a clearing. Barking dogs with waging tails, and halloing children ran to them, a mix of concerned and grinning faces.
“Heigho! Away with ye!” Maddie commanded, silencing the cacophony and freezing the tattered throng in place. “Get ye animals in hand! Good day to ye all. God bless all here!”
The children gathered the dogs by holding their scruffs, with some playful wrestling, staring at Maddie, who posed with fists on hips, feet planted, head high, smirking at them.
“Where be ye women folk?” Maddie demanded.
“This way, madam,” a neat and tidy girl of perhaps nine or ten years of age said from the back of the group, detaching herself and edging toward a circle of wagons. “If you please, I’ll show you.”
“A moment.” Maddie strode into the crowd. “Queue up! Smallest a front, biggest a back! We’ve somethin’ for ye. One each, mind. No shoving, now!”
Pixie stepped forward. “Hello,” she said plainly, holding the basket high, uncovering the contents.
A discordant chorus of oohs filled the clearing. Maddie stood watchful sentinel over Pixie as the children took a biscuit each in turn. The former swatted one boy’s ear for trying to take more than his share, while the latter said hello to each child. Kate drifted farther into the clearing, studying the wagons and grazing horses, looking for the elderly couple. She grew emboldened, relieved to not see any men; Isabel kept close.
“Allo,” a soft high voice called.
Kate turned and spotted a jumble of blankets, ensconced on a narrow porch at the back of a wagon.
“Allo.” The jumble rose, took up a knobby stick, and shifted form into a tiny elderly woman. She tottered down steep stairs.
“Mrs Agafya?” Kate called, and strode toward the woman. “Grand-mere Agafya, a very good day to you. I hope you are well.”
Grandma Agafya didn’t respond, simply grinned, nodding, black eyes sparkling. She carefully stepped off the ladder to the turf, leaning bent over her stick, barely reaching Kate’s elbow.
“I’ve come to ask if the children require anything,” Kate said. “Our church and my family provide charity for those in need.”
“Boots?” Grandma Agafya asked, and she pointed at some of the young barefoot children passing by with Maddie and Pixie, talking and eating. The crowd moved out of sight and into a circle of wagons. Adult feminine voices could be heard, Maddie calling greetings.
“Very good.” Kate gave a firm nod. About eight pairs, small sizes. Boots, if possible, or at least sturdy shoes. “And I’ll gather warm stockings for them all. Perhaps, once I have everything ready, you and Grandpa Agafya would be so kind as to collect the items at my house? I would send a carriage for you.”
“Oh? Not church house?”
“No. Quantock Hall. Do you recall? When we met previously, I asked if you might visit my house and talk with the ghost – le fantôme?”
“Ah, oui! Yes, yes.” A large toothless grin creased her mahogany visage into countless wrinkles.
“Talking with a phantom doesn’t have to happen at midnight, does it?”
“Non, non. The dead with us always.” Grandma Agafya cocked her head and pouted a bit, then added, “Sunset good. They move… um, alacakaranlık gölgeleri, the ombres crépusculaires.”
“Crepuscular shade… they move in twilight shadows,” Kate translated aloud upon recognising French terms. How interesting. I’ve noticed that! She glanced over her shoulder at Isabel, raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“We should go, my lady,” Isabel said, her expression neutral.
An elfin girl in a red frock ran to Grandma Agafya and took her free hand. The girl glared at Kate, as though angry for some reason. Kate smiled at her, but received only a pugnacious thrust of a little chin in return.
“Don’t mind her,” Grandma Agafya said. “This is one of my wee great-granddaughters, Malou. My helpmate, and watch dog.”
“She is welcome to accompany you to my house.” Kate crouched to get a better look at the girl. “Hello, Miss Malou. I’m Lady Kate. Would you like to visit my house, and watch your great-grandparents talk with a ghost? Perhaps several ghosts?” Simply saying the words caused a tremble of anticipation to race through her marrow.
Malou pursed her lips and eyed Kate through squinted eyes. Grandma Agafya chuckled and Kate joined in, rising back to her full height.
“Well, she appears suspicious of my purpose!” Kate laughed some more. “You will come? And your husband? I would order a carriage to bring you from Triscombe, and deliver you safely back again. A footman could act as guide from your camp and back from the carriage.”
“We come.” Grandma Agafya nodded. “We come in our wagon. You tell us what day.”
“All right, then.” Perhaps that is best. They could sleep in it if necessary. “ ‘Twill be after I have gathered everything for the children, and on an afternoon with clear skies.”
“My lady,” Isabel said, with firm and impatient inflection.
“Yes, yes! A moment… I beg you.” Kate felt a bit piqued and embarrassed, but knew it unwise to push her maid too far. I need Isabel to support me when I negotiate with father and, more importantly, step-mother. Not that her opinion matters that much to them… but her stating confidence in my comportment is always favourable to any hints of doubt. Kate asked Grandma Agafya, “Do you know the way to Quantock Hall?”
“We know it.” The woman nodded.
“Then it’s all settled!” Kate grinned. “I look forward to your visit – soon, I hope.”
Grandma Agafya smiled, eyes twinkling, still nodding. “You have drink, now? Soup?”
“Oh! No, thank you. I’m late for a previous commitment. I appreciate your hospitality. Please join the other women. Miss Maddie is with them. We must be going. Good day.” Kate spun and hooked Isabel’s elbow, walking quickly to the trail. “Excellent,” she whispered excitedly. “That went better than I’d hoped. We didn’t even see any of the men.”
“How are you planning to convince Lord Beaufort that Gypsies will be calling at Quantock Hall?” Isabel hissed, detaching herself from Kate to follow her on the trail. “Calling on a ghost?”
“Please don’t be angry with me. The principal purpose of their visit will be to collect boots and stockings for the children. Then, if my father agrees, the Agafyas will simply spend a moment in the medieval hallway.” I know what to do! “I’ll put the footwear in baskets by the old entranceway. The Agafyas can slip in and talk with the ghost while a footman loads the baskets onto the porch of their wagon.”
“Blasphemous,” Isabel muttered.
“The charity isn’t. And the ghost has been haunting the old wing for as long as anyone can remember. This might be the only opportunity to find out who he is – or she! Or maybe several ghosts! How can you not be excited?!”
They stepped from the trail to the clearing around Triscombe Stone. Kate stopped and turned to face Isabel. The maid held her head down and (despite the brim of her bonnet) Kate perceived a furrowed brow, and frown. Kate smiled brightly and hugged Isabel’s shoulders with one arm, then hooked her elbow again and they started marching for home.
“Oh… Isabel, please don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
“I hope so, my lady. I truly do…”