A Pond Near Quantock Hall, late August 1848
“Please wait here with Bonny?”
“Are you sure, my lady?”
“Yes.” Kate peered through the tree branches and down a hill to a pond not far off. “You can see me from here. Rest on that log if you like, and keep a hold of Bonny. She swims around me, and gets in the way. After I’ve practised for a while, I’ll wave, then you can let her join me.”
“It would be easier to hold her with a rope,” Isabel muttered.
“I loathe seeing her with a collar,” Kate replied with feeling. “I only used a leash when I had to in London.” She turned her attention to Ebony. “Sit. Good girl!”
Ebony thumped the ground with her tail.
“Now, you stay, Bonny,” Kate continued. “You’ll get your swim after.” She stroked the retriever’s sleek black coat. “Put your apron around her,” Kate advised Isabel, “and hold her that way.”
“All right.” Isabel removed her apron and pulled Ebony with it, shifting her to a position where the maid could sit on a log. “I can see the pond. I’ll watch for you to wave.”
“Thank you. Stay, Bonny. Be good.”
Kate continued along the trail, gently descending the hill by a circuitous route, then winding back to the pond. She wore her dark green bathing suit (a sort of short-sleeved shirt-petticoat and baggy trousers), sandals, and a broad-brimmed straw sun hat. There wasn’t a breath of wind, the air hot and still, smelling sweet of wild flowers, insects buzzing. Kate stepped through the long soft grass in the clearing beside the pond, when abruptly she drew up short as a rustle came to her ears. Jeremy Connor, a farm labourer, appeared from another trail.
Goodness… he looks… Kate felt a shudder inside. Despite the high temperature of the day, an intense wave of heat washed through her entire body. He looks…
Jeremy plodded in his large heavy work boots towards Kate. He removed his cap and his short brown hair gleamed in the sunlight. His sweat-soaked shirt clung to the powerful muscles of his torso.
“M’ lady,” he said, drawing to a stop directly in front of Kate.
Kate, having been immersed in elite society for several months during the London social season and visiting noble families, waited a moment for him to bow. She found herself frozen, staring up into his clear light brown eyes. So handsome… I must reply!
“Master Connor,” Kate said. I needn’t be so formal. “Jeremy. How are you?”
“I’m well,” he said. His eyes slowly went up and down.
“This is a bathing costume,” Kate explained quickly, “for swimming. I purchased it in Bath. Many women wear them.”
“Ah.” He nodded slightly, then removed his neckerchief and wiped sweat from his face.
Oh! Last summer he told me he swims in this pond sometimes. And he’s a good swimmer! “You’re here for a swim?” He might be able to teach me!
“Ya,” he replied, crouching to unlace his boots.
“I’ve been coming here to practise for several days.” Kate slipped off her hat and held it with her blanket. “You don’t have a drying cloth?”
“Na.” He kicked off his boots.
“Perhaps we could–
Jeremy stripped off his shirt. My goodness! Kate fixated on a mass of sinewy muscles.
Jeremy unhitched his belt and dropped his trousers. He doesn’t wear drawers?! She tried to take it all in: the flesh; the muscles; and… everything.
Jeremy stood, naked, for an instant, then turned to the pond, and strode nimbly out onto a large flat rock with flexing thighs and buttocks. God’s wounds! Kate held her breath, frozen, only her head swivelling slowly to watch every detail of the young man.
Jeremy briefly stretched his arms and shoulders, then dove into the water with a small splash, wavelets disturbing the smooth surface. He… I… we… Kate felt a tightening in her bosom and loins. A tremble ran up and down her spine. Her mind flooded with images of Jeremy’s body, then a memory flickered and formed, of a teenage couple Kate had spied, entwined in passionate love at this very pond. I cannot be here! She turned and walked carefully through the grass, head high, staring straight forward but, upon reaching the cover of the trees, ran as fast as her sandals could carry her along the trail and back up the hill. Gasping, clutching hat and blanket, Kate stumbled to a halt upon reaching Isabel. Ebony wagged her tail, Isabel shook with laughter.
“What?!” Kate demanded.
Isabel couldn’t reply. She hid her face in a handkerchief, stifling chortles. Kate cautiously peered down at the pond. Jeremy climbed out of the water. From this distance he looked odd, his body white, but his face, neck, forearms and hands tanned a reddish brown. He brusquely pulled on his clothes. Kate rounded on her maid.
“What is it you find so amusing?” she hissed.
“I’m sorry, my lady, ha ha,” Isabel managed to squeak out. “Ha ha, I… you should have seen yourself! Ha ha, ha ha… whew… why did you leave?”
“Why did I leave?!” Kate stammered. “Did you see?! He was naked!”
This reduced Isabel to a quivering lump of snorts and guffaws. “That’s… how… men… bathe,” she panted.
Kate turned away, and looked at the pond. “He’s gone now,” she observed quietly. “That was quick.”
“He probably has to get back to work,” Isabel said. “He is a good swimmer.”
“Yes. He shot around the pond like a fish. Pulled with his hands. Kicked with his feet. Kept his face in the water.
“He swam with his face in the water?”
“Yes, the whole time.”
“He has to breathe,” Kate said doubtfully.
“It didn’t look like it. And I was watching him… very closely.”
“You couldn’t have from here – it’s too far.”
“I certainly saw his body…”
Kate envisioned a naked Jeremy standing in the sunlight and felt a fresh tremble run up and down her spine.
“… all his muscles working,” Isabel continued. “You should have stayed. You could have swam with him arou–
“Stop teasing me!” Kate glared at her maid.
“I’m not teasing.”
“Fine. I’m going for my swim now. Let’s not speak of this again.”
But of course, they did speak of it. By the walk home Kate wanted to consider her options, and used Isabel as a sounding board. If her recollection was correct, Jeremy had said he swam when the church bells rang noon on hot days. Kate could avoid the pond at this time or, if she wanted to have a swimming lesson, she could bring something for Jeremy to wear.
“Like what?” Isabel asked as they neared Quantock Hall.
“An old pair of drawers or breeches?”
“I’ll have to look in your brother’s room.”
“Yes. Oh! Jeremy is much bigger than Jack. Everything Jack left in his room is too small for him, so would certainly be too small for Jeremy.”
“I’ll have to go through the laundry and see what I can find.”
“Something tied at the waist,” Kate suggested.
“A short petticoat?”
Kate opened her mouth to protest such a thought, then saw Isabel’s smirk, and they both laughed. Kate imagined Jeremy posed like the statue of Achilles at the Wellington Monument in Hyde Park, except wearing a little petticoat, giggled, snorted, and laughed again.
Kate stood patiently (and apprehensively) in the clearing beside the pond, holding a basket, her blanket spread out on the grass near the large flat rock. She heard the distant bells of Saint George Church in Bicknoller ring noon, then the distinct toll from the Church of The Holy Ghost in Crowcombe join in. It was two days since her experience with Jeremy, after a spell of fleeting showers, and Kate didn’t know whether her possible swimming tutor might make an appearance or not. What chores would he be doing in the area? There are probably fields to cut… is it dry enough today?
A rustle of leaves, a jackdaw caw, and Jeremy emerged from the forest. Kate smiled, and held her breath. He plodded in mud covered boots, removed his cap, short brown hair gleamed, sweat-soaked shirt clung to powerful muscles… Kate exhaled.
“Good day, Jeremy.”
He drew to a stop directly in front of Kate. She noticed mud upon his clothes and hands, streaks of dirt running with the sweat from his brow and neck.
“You’re filthy,” Kate said and immediately regretted it. “What have you been doing?”
“Ar, digging ditches,” he replied plainly. “Help drain the pastures.”
Jeremy shrugged. He removed his neckerchief and threw it down with his cap, then crouched to unlace his boots.
“Before you disrobe, that is, take your trousers off,” Kate said hurriedly, “I’d like to ask… are you listening?”
“Would you please wear these?” Kate produced from her basket a very old pair of her father’s white linen drawers. “Then show me how you swim?”
Jeremy, already stripping off his shirt, stopped. “Swim wearing…?”
“Yes.” Kate lowered her head, hiding under the brim of her sun hat, took a few cautious steps forward, and presented the garment. “They’re very light, and shan’t impede your movement, I think. I’m able to swim in my costume.”
Kate slowly gazed up at Jeremy’s narrow waist and defined abdomen, his ribs, a broad expanse of skin pulled tight over his corded pectoral and deltoid muscles, and finally his face, startled to find a hint of puzzlement in his bright light brown eyes. She momentarily froze. He smelled of earth and sour salt, and eased his head forward while putting out one hand. Kate had to glance down as he took the drawers, then she spun away to study some trees. Whew! It is hot! I’m all a tingle… take a breath. He’s a commoner – an unwashed plough boy. God’s wounds, he is not a boy! Kate heard a splash and turned to the pond. She saw alternating arms working rhythmically, breaking the surface of the water. How is he doing that?
By standing on the flat rock, Kate could force her mind from Jeremy’s Olympian physique to his swimming style. It did appear as Isabel described. Jeremy’s face stayed in the water as his arms stroked, shoulders and back muscles flexing, linen-covered buttocks just below the surface, feet kicking with straight legs. Kate had been taught to swim like a frog, head up and looking forward, arms and legs all working together with each stroke. She spotted Jeremy taking quick breaths under his left armpit. There’s the secret. Could I manage that? I’ll have to tie all my hair back.
Abruptly, Jeremy turned and stopped beside the rock. He dunked, then rose rubbing his hair and neck. Kate watched the water cascade off his body. Jeremy waded to the shore. The drawers draped the contours of his buttocks and manhood. He grabbed his neckerchief, rinsed it, wrung it out, then started rubbing himself vigorously with the scrap of cloth.
Kate caught herself staring at Jeremy and, face growing hot, cast aside her hat and jumped into the pond. The water was cool and deep by the flat rock, allowing her to submerge without touching bottom. She surfaced and performed a few strong frog-like strokes out to the middle of the pond, then swivelled in place and glanced sidelong at Jeremy. He was taking off the drawers. Kate peeked, looked away, peeked, and looked away. Oh, I must try swimming. She kicked and quickly ran her hands over her bosom and midriff. I’m all firm and tingling! Is this normal? Kate thrust forward into the water, flailing with her arms and legs, eyes shut tight, holding her breath. She slapped something with one hand, stopped, raised her head from the water, gasping, let her feet touch bottom, stood, raked hair away from her face, and was surprised by her location. I swam in an arc. Kate backed away from the reeds.
“M’ lady? Leave this here?” Jeremy stood beside Kate’s blanket, holding up the drawers, his cap in the other hand. He had dressed and, despite the dirty clothes, appeared clean and fresh.
“On the blanket is fine,” Kate called. “When you swim, how do you know where you’re going?”
“You look? How?”
“With m’ eyes.”
“Oh…” Ask a foolish question… Kate put her face in the water and stared at a greenish-yellow slightly cloudy world. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d ever done such a thing, but previously it had always been brief and the result of mischief or accidents. She took a deep breath and attempted swimming again, scanning the murky bottom of the pond and the bubbles formed by her arms. Kate tried popping her head up to gasp air, but had to stop. She stood. “How do you…”
Jeremy was gone. Kate practised for a while, thinking about Jeremy, not just his physique, but how he swam. She figured out the limb portion of the style, but struggled with the breathing and keeping track of where she might be going, her hair constantly getting in the way. Kate climbed onto the flat rock and waved with both arms. A moment later Ebony bounded from the woods and jumped at Kate, who was ready, and they fell into the pond. A few minutes later, Isabel entered the clearing and sat on the blanket.
“So…” she asked with a sly smile and raised eyebrow, “how was your lesson?”
“What did you see?”
Isabel described what she perceived, Kate clarified and filled in some details while splashing about with her dog.
“I’m afraid my attempt at swimming is a travesty,” Kate concluded as she waded out of the pond and sat on the blanket. “I must ask Jeremy how he breathes.”
“Enough about swimming,” Isabel exclaimed. “How do you feel about Jeremy?”
“I… he does… all right, I have noticed a tightening… a tingling, in my… inside. Is that normal? Do you feel… something, in yo–
“Of course! You’re aroused. Your womanly inclination is telling you something!”
“What?! I’m fourteen!” Kate felt betrayed by her body.
“You’re an adult.”
“I’m not. It’s not fair.”
“Fair has nothing to do with it. Revel in the feeling, my lady. It’s precious! You and Jeremy could–
“Oh no!” Kate stood. “You’re suggesting a tryst? A dalliance? It cannot happen. You know that. We’ve discussed this before.”
“You could enjoy Jeremy’s company, and–
“No! These swim lessons are simply to improve my skill. I’ve been warned, about falling into the arms of a handsome man. It’s dangerous. And besides, Jeremy told me, he considers it a sin. He said he wouldn’t be a father until he is wed. And I must be a virgin bride.”
“Well… that’s certainly a leap.” Isabel got to her feet and gathered the drawers and blanket. “I never said anything about that kind of intimacy. We know where your mind is wandering. When did Jeremy speak of being a father? And why?”
“Last year. It’s not important.” Drat it! I said too much. Kate felt her face burning. Didn’t she mean… wasn’t she hinting…? “I’ve had too much sun.” She put on her hat and started along the trail without looking back.
The next day was Sunday and rainy, and the wet weather persisted until Tuesday. On Wednesday Kate reached the pond early to practise before Jeremy’s arrival. She wore her hair in seven braids and all tied back to achieve minimal interference. When Kate saw Jeremy enter the clearing she called to him.
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m well, m’ lady.”
Yes, you do indeed look well. “Please wear the drawers again. They’re on the blanket.” I mustn’t watch. No peeking. I bet Isabel is paying close attention.
Kate practised swimming and didn’t look around until she heard a splash. She swam to a shallow spot and stood, then watched Jeremy as he powered through the water in a large circle. He stopped to rub his scalp and rinse out his hair. Kate once again felt a tightening and tingling, and did her best to ignore them, concentrating on the task in hand.
“Jeremy, please swim slowly so I can see how you’re taking breaths?”
Jeremy swam in front of Kate, and she realized he was exhaling underwater, inhaling quickly by turning his head on every second stroke with his left arm. Ah, of course. Why didn’t I think of that? Kate tried swimming and immediately got water up her nose. She surfaced with a cough and sputter.
“Are you all right, m’ lady?”
Kate, embarrassed by her failure, found Jeremy at her elbow. His usually emotionless face showing concern with raised eyebrows and staring eyes. Kate turned away.
“I’m fine,” she lied, and quickly ran a hand over her face, hoping nothing had escaped from her nasal cavity with the water. “I need more practise.”
“Ya. That’s true fer everything.”
Kate tried again, and managed several breaths. Better! She stood and picked a new path, dove forward, and made it across the entire pond. Good! She went back, more comfortable with the mechanics. Excellent! “I think I’ve got it!”
“Ya. Keep practising.” Jeremy waded out of the pond.
“I shall,” Kate called. “See you tomorrow, if the weather is good.”
“Na, m’ lady.”
“No? May I ask why?”
“Time for the second cut of the low fields. Warm days I’ll swim in the brook.”
“Oh.” I’m not swimming in the brook, other labourers would see me. “Perhaps you’ll come back to this pond in September?”
“If it’s hot.” Jeremy stripped off the wet drawers.
Kate made a discretionary swim to the far side of the pond to collect her thoughts. I won’t see him again. Maybe never? At church. That’s just a nod, or nothing. I’d like to thank him. I wonder when he’ll marry someone? Who will it be? Do the village girls feel about him the way I do? How do I feel about him? We’re not friends. We don’t really know anything about each other. He dresses quickly. I must say something to him before he’s gone. “Jeremy!” Kate swam to the shallows by the clearing and waded out of the pond.
Jeremy rose from lacing his boots and cinched his belt tight. Kate was amused by the contrast of the young man’s skin tones (a white body with tanned face, neck, forearms, and hands) but truly struck speechless for a moment upon standing close to his muscled torso and massive shoulders. She wanted to run her hands over his flesh, like she would with a horse, appreciating the immense strength lying beneath.
That broke the spell. Remember yourself. Act nobly. Noblesse oblige! “I want to thank you, for showing me how you swim.”
“It weren’t a bother. The drawers are on the blanket.” Jeremy pulled on his shirt.
“You may keep them, if you like, for swimming.”
“Na. They get in the way.” He put on his neckerchief.
“Hm… thank you for wearing them, and showing me your swimming style.”
“You’re welcome,” Jeremy replied with warmth, and smiled.
You may kiss me. And I shall kiss you. You’re very handsome. Do you think I’m beautiful?
“Keep practising, m’ lady,” he added, striding from the clearing.
Goodbye, Jeremy. Good luck. Don’t get hurt working in the fields.
Kate stood very still, until the tangible fragments of Jeremy had faded, leaving her with fanciful images. She then scrambled on to the flat rock, waving her arms, ready for Ebony to come for her swim.