Somersetshire, July 1847
Kate waited for him to look up from his breakfast.
“What is it?” he prompted, spreading jam on his toast.
“I thought… perhaps, Pixie could join in the games after church today?”
Earl Beaufort raised an appraising brow and cast his eyes from Kate, to Mrs. Crozier, to Miss Nestor, then back to his daughter. Kate noticed a scowl upon her tutor’s face, while her governess smiled and nodded in approval.
“The hall boys and under-maids take turns playing on Sundays, don’t they?” Earl Beaufort directed his question to Smythe, the butler, who stood by a sideboard.
“Yes, they do, my lord.”
“And Pixie hasn’t had a turn yet,” Kate said quickly. “Other than church, all she does is work. No one has introduced her to the village children. I’d like to show her–”
“Lady Kate should not be taking a special interest in any particular member of the lower staff,” Mrs. Crozier cut in. “It could create ill will amongst the servants.”
“I did the same for Mary when she first arrived,” Kate rejoined in defence. “We played hide-and-seek, and rounders.”
“You played?! When was this?” Mrs. Crozier demanded.
“It was… I think…”
“Two years ago,” Miss Nestor said helpfully. “And it was a nice way to make a child feel welcome.”
“Whichever hall boy is partaking in the games should be tasked with escorting Beatrice,” Mrs. Crozier said dismissively. “Smythe is perfectly capable of managing the servants.”
“Yes, of course he is.” Kate twisted in her chair and smiled at the elderly man. “But this is something I would like to do. I think I can make a better job of it than a hall boy. Father?”
Earl Beaufort, who had chewed and listened as the conversation unfolded, selected another piece of toast. “I see no harm in it…” he said.
“Thank you, Father!”
“However,” he continued, “you will be doing this as the young lady of the manor. You’re no longer a girl. Mrs. Crozier will select your dress and instruct you on deportment. Do I make myself clear?” He looked at his daughter and the tutor in turn.
“Yes, Father,” Kate said, somewhat deflated by the caveats and his stern tone.
“Yes, my lord.” Mrs. Crozier rose. “Lady Kate, time to prepare for church.”
When the church service ended, Kate followed her father from their pew at the front of the nave. The congregation waited patiently, some still praying, while the Beauforts strode quietly for the main door. Normally the Carews would have walked with them, unless they opted for their private entrance, but none of that family were in attendance. Kate noted the area near the back of the church where their servants were seated, Pixie wedged between kitchen and house maids. Outside, Kate took her father’s elbow for the stroll to the lane, their landau parked on a patch of turf for the horses to graze. A groom tarried with the animals, but they would have to wait for the driver to exit the church. A contrived pause, it permitted those villagers so inclined to exchange pleasantries with the Beauforts, while not interfering with the rector and his discussions by the church door. Usually members of the Carew family would stand similarly at the front gate of Crowcombe Court for the same purpose.
As Smythe teetered down the stone steps at the churchyard gate, followed by the other Quantock Hall staff, Kate waved to him. He approached and removed his hat.
“Have you told Pixie of my plans?” Kate asked without preamble, not wanting to have the servants stand on the road waiting for the butler.
“I informed Cook, my lady,” Smythe replied with a nod. “She knows what’s what.”
“Very good. Thank you.”
“My lady, my lord.” He bowed to them and returned to the duty of shepherding the servants back to the manor.
The driver took his place, a footman helped Kate into the carriage and, after he finished speaking with a couple of the wealthy landowners, Earl Beaufort climbed in and sat opposite his daughter. They rode along the road, the horses at a walk while passing the pedestrians, then at a trot to Quantock Hall. Mrs. Crozier stood rigid in the front hall as Kate entered.
“Ma jeune maîtresse,” the tutor said.
“Madame Crozier,” Kate replied, untying the ribbon of her bonnet. “Comment allez-vous?”
“Avez-vous changé d’avis en ce qui concerne cet après-midi?” Mrs. Crozier asked without answering Kate’s polite query about her health.
“Non…” Why does she want me to change my mind about escorting Pixie, and why are we having this conversation in French? “Pourquoi?”
“Seriez-vous pas plutôt aller faire un tour sur votre cheval?”
Of course Kate loved her new horse, the grey mare proving ideal thus far, but one day without a ride was a small sacrifice to make to show Pixie the village. Now Kate realized why Mrs. Crozier asked her questions in French – so the nearby hall boy and footman couldn’t understand. The woman didn’t want them to know of her attempt to talk Kate out of her commitment. Surprised and disappointed by her tutor’s behaviour, Kate shook her head and strode for the dining room. Enough of this, time for lunch.
“I admit, Beatrice is an excellent worker.” Mrs. Crozier dropped her pretence and spoke openly, gliding after Kate. “Despite my reservations, the girl has fit in and carries out every chore well. But she’s still an imbecile.”
“Don’t say that,” Kate snarled, stabbing a piece of ham and slapping it onto her plate. This meat is like your cold heart!
“I am merely stating a fact.”
“You needn’t be so brutal about it!” You hateful harpy!
“I am being thoughtful!”
“Ha! In what way?”
“It’s the child I’m concerned for! Throwing her into games with the village children may be more cruel than kind!”
Kate stopped short. They were having an argument, but there was no hint that Mrs. Crozier might slap her, or otherwise impose a punishment. No, there was a lesson being taught, and Kate started to consider everything that could go wrong. Indeed, she herself had been bullied many times as a child; tripped into mud puddles, not permitted a turn to strike the ball, being kicked or pushed. Once, when some boys took her stuffed velvet rabbit, Kate ran home weeping angrily, donned a helmet and took up a mace with the intention of beating the thieves senseless. Fortunately, Cinders’ excited barking alerted Mr. Ferris, the gardener, who corralled Kate in the front lane. The rabbit found its way home later in the hands of Rudman, Earl Beaufort’s valet.
“Ahh… I see,” Kate said softly, selecting a piece of cheese. “Yes, Pixie is small, and… a simple girl… and sweet. I… I’ll amend my plans a bit.”
“You don’t recognise this as folly?” Mrs. Crozier asked. “There’s nothing wrong with you changing your mind.”
“No, I’m still going to take her, but I’ll be cautious. Depending on what we find, I’ll encourage her to be a participant or spectator.”
“Perhaps I should accompany you.”
“You’re letting me make the decision?”
“Thank you.” Kate considered the situation for a moment. “Isabel will attend to my needs.”
“Very well. After you dine, come to your dressing room.”
Kate, Pixie, and Isabel, left Quantock Hall and made their way along the trail to Crowcombe. Kate thought Pixie should be shown the best route through the woods and fields, and would enjoy the wilderness and pastoral views. Mrs. Crozier had insisted that Kate wear a dazzling pink walking suit, requiring a corset and four petticoats. Kate bristled against the restrictive and ostentatious nature of the outfit, knowing full well the purpose of the selection (ensuring no participation in the games) but didn’t quibble with her tutor.
As they entered the first copse of ancient trees, Pixie hesitated.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Kate asked, closing her parasol and appreciating the cool shade.
Patches of dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves onto the lush grass, daisies and buttercups sprinkled throughout.
“Do you know little red riding hood and the wolf?” Pixie stared around wide-eyed. “I’m not to go in the woods, my lady.”
“I know the tale. These aren’t truly wild woods – there’s no wolves.”
“The wolf is a man,” Pixie said plainly. “A girl who walks alone in the woods is always in danger.”
Kate realized the parable must have been taught to Pixie for protection, a warning against men of questionable morals and conduct. She also remembered how Pixie had refused to enter any carriage with a man.
“Aah…” Kate glanced at Isabel.
“We’re fine here,” the maid said. “Lady Kate has played in these hills all her life.”
“Indeed.” Kate nodded. “This isn’t like London, or any large town. We’re safe, and together. You’re not alone.”
Pixie said nothing, but started purposely along the trail. Kate and Isabel exchanged shrugs and followed.
“A weasel!” Pixie exclaimed as they emerged from the copse by a stone wall.
“An ermine,” Kate corrected, spying the animal as it darted for cover. “Some people call them stoats. Their fur turns all white in the winter, except the tip of their tails, which remains black. Their winter fur is used to trim ceremonial robes.”
“You know so much,” Pixie said in a sigh.
“I’ll answer any questions you may have, anything at all.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
They continued on the trail, Kate pointing out side paths to farms or high country. After following hedgerows and traversing more woods, they emerged onto a lane and followed it south, passing the Carew’s magnificent stables, some parkland of Crowcombe Court, then entered the village at the medieval cross. Damage from the Midsummer Day steeplechase still lay evident upon the turf. Pixie studied the red sandstone monument, standing back and looking up, then circled the stairs.
“One, two three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” she said under her breath while counting the sides. “Why is this here, my lady?”
“It marks the old marketplace,” Kate answered, “from four or five hundred of years ago. The church is about the same age.”
“I like the church.”
“We’re going by there. I can tell you about it.”
“Yes, please, my lady.”
They walked a stretch of road, passing high walls, trees, and blackberry brambles, and reached the steps to the churchyard. Like all the old stone buildings in the area, the church appeared red, due to the type of sandstone utilized in the construction.
“Holy Ghost Church,” Kate said with a sweep of her parasol. “There was once a spire on the tower, but it was hit by lightning and came crashing down.”
“Did you see this?” Pixie asked.
“No, no. It happened over one hundred years ago.”
“Was this also a marketplace?” Pixie hopped to the cross directly opposite the main door of the church, climbed the steps, and counted the sides of the shaft to eight.
“No, this would be a preaching cross. A place for a churchman or other official to address a gathering, outside, for a funeral or wedding or other event. It’s old, too. Shall we go inside?”
They walked through the covered porch, Kate leaving her parasol on a stone bench, and she told Pixie about the font, some of the memorials in the nave, the carvings on the pew ends, and the Carew’s private chapel. Pixie remained silent throughout, large round eyes staring at everything.
“This is the Beaufort pew,” Kate continued. “The crossed shield with a martlet in all four fields was the crest of one of my ancestors – a Lancastrian knight-commander who fought in the Plantagenet civil war.”
“A small quick aggressive bird, like a swallow or swift,” Kate explained.
“That’s the quarters of a shield. The top half are the chief fields, the bottom half are base fields. The left side is sinister, the right side dexter, and–”
Kate stopped upon noticing a grimace from Isabel.
“Perhaps we should move on, my lady,” the maid suggested.
“Yes…” Kate nodded. “To the games.” She collected her parasol and led the way. “That’s the old church house,” she said, pointing across the road as they descended from the churchyard. “Upstairs is the school hall. The two cottages beside it are for the deserving poor. There’s a workhouse in Williton, but the parish tries to keep elderly indigent members of the village here.”
“Old poor people,” Isabel reworded softly.
Pixie didn’t comment.
They walked south past the cottages to a pasture where about two dozen girls, aged roughly five to fifteen, played rounders. Isabel waited in the shade while Kate and Pixie edged closer to the action.
“I know this game,” Pixie said.
“Very good.” Kate watched a little girl trying to hit the ball, worried that Pixie might be similarly incompetent. “You’ve played before?”
“Would you like to participate?”
“Girls!” Kate called, her soft voice ineffective. “Girls!”
Pixie thrust her fingers in her mouth and produced a loud shrill whistle. Kate jumped in surprise and the girls halted play to stare at the newcomers.
“You must teach me how to do that,” Kate whispered, then waved and strode forward, indicating to Pixie that she should follow. “Hello!” she yelled. “This is Miss Beatrice Evans, a new maid at Quantock Hall. Everyone calls her Pixie. She’s here to join in.”
“Are you going to play?” one of the girls asked. “We need you on our side!”
“Oh… hello, Fanny.” Kate knew the speaker, a girl of her age from a farm down the valley. “Thank you, but I cannot participate today.” She gestured briefly towards her suit, and was abruptly struck by how superior and mature she felt compared to her childhood country acquaintances.
“You haven’t played since last summer,” Fanny griped.
“Let Pixie join in for me.”
Pixie took a position in the field and managed to chase down a couple strikes. Kate could only watch and hope that the little maid played decently and fit in with the girls. True relief came when Pixie struck the ball well and ran the bases without a blunder. Kate noticed Pixie talking with a couple of her younger teammates, and thought everything might be fine. She strolled back to where Isabel waited in the shade.
“She’s doing well,” Kate said.
Isabel nodded and smirked, and tipped her head in the direction of the neighbouring field. The village boys were playing cricket against the sons of the wealthy farmers. Kate recognised the Doble, Griffith, and Studley boys, all of whom were glancing in their direction between bowls.
“What are they looking at?” Kate wondered aloud.
“You!” Isabel laughed.
“They are?” Kate strode deep into the shade and self-consciously examined her outfit. “It’s this skirt – and all these petticoats. I must look a freak!”
“I don’t think that’s it, my lady.” Isabel laughed again.
“Mrs. Crozier intentionally set me apart with this London fashion!” Kate raged, getting hot. “She wants me to be ridiculed!”
“Now, really, that’s the last thing Mrs. Crozier would do. She cares more about appearances and reputation than anything in creation.”
“Right.” Kate thought a moment, cooling off. “Then what?”
Isabel cocked her head and grinned. “It’s a pretty colour, and the silk shimmers so, and your hair is particularly shiny with the sweet almond oil I combed in.”
“Oh… that’s fine, then.” She felt better, but something about Isabel’s sly smile left her insecure.
Kate strolled along a hedgerow to get a view of the football game ensuing nearby. The majority of players were boys, with a few athletic girls on each team. Kate desperately wanted to play, but could only channel her energy by clutching her parasol and tensing muscles. She walked back and forth with the ball movement and every few minutes peered at the girls playing rounders to determine Pixie’s progress. An hour passed without mishap. Children departed at various stages and, while the cricket wore on with many spectators, the rounders and football matches drew to a close.
They watched the cricket for a few minutes, Pixie more interested in picking flowers with a girl named Cecily Lock, the innkeeper’s youngest daughter. The four of them walked into the village together, and parted ways at the medieval cross. A group of adults raucously enjoyed nine-pins in the lane beside the inn. Following the trail back to Quantock Hall provided ample time for Kate to quiz Pixie.
“You played well?” Kate asked.
Pixie remained silent.
“I thought you played well. Did you enjoy the game?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“That’s good. You’ll want to play again?”
Pixie remained silent.
“Would you like to play again?”
“Yes, my lady. When it’s my turn.”
When they reached Quantock Hall, Pixie stopped. “I’m to go the back way,” she said. “Cook told me.”
“When you’re with me you may enter the front,” Kate said. “We came out through the front hall together, remember?”
“Yes, my lady, if you please, but Cook didn’t say about going out, just in.”
Kate and Isabel had to laugh a bit at this confusion of instructions.
“Most servants go in and out through the door by the kitchen,” Isabel explained. “That’s the way you should use.”
“But today you can enter with me,” Kate said firmly. “You go ahead, Isabel. Come on, Pixie, I’ll show you the front garden.”
Kate led Pixie through the trees down to the lane, so they could approach the manor on the front walkway. While ambling on the lane to the gate, Pixie stared searchingly out into the woods growing to the south.
“Who lives there?” she asked, pointing out a small low stone house just visible through the foliage.
“That’s Maddie’s cottage. She’s a wise woman. Delivers all the babies. Keeps bees. Knows all the plants.”
“How does she know the plants? Does she talk to them? Is she a witch?”
Kate thought it was the most enthusiasm Pixie had displayed on any subject. “She’s nice. I used to call on her all the time.” I haven’t seen Maddie for ages. “Would you like to meet her?”
They approached the house and stepped through an opening in the encircling stone wall. The cottage door hung open.
“What’s thik? I do ‘ear a cat in me yarrd,” a high feminine voice sang out, a West Country burr accenting the words.
A woman appeared in the threshold, barefoot, with shocking red hair, large grey eyes, and full lips. In only a plain shirt, skirt, and apron, the details of her bosom and lean physique were clearly evident. Kate grinned and hurried to the woman’s outstretched arms.
“Look ‘ow thee be grown!” Maddie exclaimed. “Taller than me, Kat!” She stepped back then circled Kate, peering up and down. “A proper lady, ‘ow grand! An’ whoo this be?”
Kate made introductions. Maddie knelt down in front of Pixie and studied her face.
“Arrr… been a touched by the spirits, this one ‘as,” she whispered.
“Would you please teach me to know the plants?” Pixie asked.
“I vould. From woaks to sorrel. Come an’ zee me, any when ye like.”
“Thank you,” Pixie said, awe sounding within her vacuous tones.
Kate told Maddie a little bit about the changes in her life, the society tutor, her months in London, her new horse, and her father’s pending nuptials to Miss Primrose. With the final piece of news, the woman nodded knowingly.
“I vondered ‘ow ‘is lordship be biding ‘is ‘eadaches.”
“Headaches?” Kate asked, and immediately remembered her father used to suffer from the ailment frequently, and leave the house for an evening walk once or twice every week to relieve the pain. Many times she offered to accompany him on his constitutionals, but he always turned her down, leaving Rudman in charge of fencing or shooting lessons. “My father came to you for his headaches? What did you give him?”
“Vhat ‘e needed. A man ‘e be, like any hoother.”
Kate felt her face grow hot, and she stared at Maddie. The woman had always lived in the cottage, as far back as Kate could remember. She might be in her mid thirties, and very attractive in a wild unkempt way. Throughout her childhood, Kate never considered Maddie in such a light, until today. No words passed between them for a moment, their eyes locked.
“A voman thee be now,” Maddie finally said. “A knowing voman. Thee be ‘aving different needs. Come to me if ewer thee need vomen ‘elp.”
“Yes, I will. We should let you get back to your labours.”
“Arrr.” She nodded. “I do be ‘ard workin’ todee.”
Kate felt in a bit of a daze as she led Pixie towards Quantock Hall. Father and Maddie as lovers? Not quite. A mistress? Kate didn’t know how to define the relationship, but definitely knew the subject could never be broached with her father. Perhaps, in time, she might ask Maddie more about it. A lot to think about, this matter would be but one complicated facet of growing up. They entered the front garden and proceeded along the walkway.
“These are nice.”
Kate shook from her thoughts and spun around, seeing Pixie stopped at a flower bed.
“I wanted to be a flower girl,” Pixie said. “Flowers fetch more than watercresses.”
“Do you miss costermongering?”
“Oh?” Kate sensed a flutter of dread in her heart. “Would you rather be back in town?”
“London?” Pixie sniffed some purple foxglove.
“No, my lady, I like it here.”