Hinton House, Somersetshire, 12th August 1848
Kate peered down the corridors from where she circled impatiently within the front hall of Hinton House. Where is everyone? She knew the ladies would still be in bed, but the gentlemen should have risen to go shooting. If I had gone to breakfast, instead of eating in my room… maybe they’re in the dining room, or morning room. Perhaps there’s a breakfast room? She cradled her shotgun and marched towards the dining room. On her way she discerned male voices and hard-soled footwear resonating from a back hall. That sounded like Father and Lord Poulett. Kate followed the noises and found the men at a side entrance to the house: John Poulett, the 5th Earl Poulett (their host); Vere Poulett, the Viscount Hinton (his eldest serviving son); Mr. Henry Labouchere (the Member of Parliament for Taunton); and her father. They were attired in caps, hunting coats, and plaid trousers, talking good naturedly about something Kate didn’t understand.
“… that damn Chartist petition in April.”
“Hard luck for men devoted to the Whig cause, eh?”
“Ho, ho. They are a queer lot.”
“The Chartists, or the Whigs?!”
“Ha, ha!” “Indeed!” “Ha, ha!”
“Oh… Katelyn… you’re up.”
“Yes. Good morning, Father. Lord Poulett, Lord Hinton, Mr. Labouchere.” Kate performed a half curtsey, mindful of keeping her gun pointed at the ceiling.
“Lady Kate.” “Good morning.” “Lady Kate.”
The men bowed from the neck with some arched eyebrows.
“I say, what fun!” Vere Poulett declared with a grin. “A lovely dove out to shoot ugly grouse?”
“Grouse aren’t ugly,” Kate replied softly, feeling awkward, incongruously clothed in a year old (but still dazzling) pink walking suit with lace trim, partially covered by a small white cape lest it rain. Something’s amiss… I need a shooting suit…
Vere, a gregarious man of about twenty-five years of age, had proved very attentive since the Beauforts’ arrival yesterday. Previously, Vere never paid Kate any attention, but upon meeting this year seemed determined to ingratiate himself. Kate felt he was trying entirely too hard.
“Your gun isn’t loaded, is it?” Earl Poulett asked sternly.
“No, of course not, my lord,” Kate replied.
“Let me give it to a gamekeeper.” He held out a hand and Kate surrendered her gun and shooting bag, which took the form of a small leather satchel.
Earl Poulett stepped outside and the men followed. Low rolling grey clouds filled the air. Earl Beaufort waited for Kate at the threshold.
“I didn’t know you brought your fowling piece,” he whispered.
“You’ve been talking about shooting with Lord Poulett for weeks,” Kate replied in kind.
“Hmm… the ladies will be joining us for luncheon,”
“Yes. I needn’t stay behind and keep Mother company, she will spend the morning with Lady Poulett.”
“Ah. But you must understand… there won’t be any privacy…”
“Oh!” They’ll make water all around me? “Surely we’ll be spread out for shooting? The gentlemen will make use of thickets? And I will wait until mealtime. We’ve shot together often. Are you ashamed of me?”
“Not at all. It’s… the other men may–
“Come along,” Vere said, then strode back to the doorway. “Will you allow me to teach Lady Kate how to shoot?” he asked Earl Beaufort.
“Certainly…” Earl Beaufort stepped aside displaying a small smirk visible only to Kate. “She has previously shot on occasion.”
“Excellent!” Vere beamed. “I will merely provide some hints. We shall be a very merry shooting party.”
“Are you ready?” Earl Poulett called from the drive.
They followed a pair of gamekeepers who carried two guns apiece, into the forest south of the house, and were trailed by a trio of stable boys likewise armed, bringing the total to ten guns. Distant booms of shots from the west and north announced that other parties were already on the prowl. The older men resumed their discussion about Chartists, Whigs, and Peelites, then added Tories, Protectionists, and Radicals, leaving Kate mystified and content to make small talk with Vere.
“… and I’m in the Somersetshire Militia,” he chattered on proudly. “My father is colonel. Soon I’ll replace him.”
“Your elder brother was in the Grenadier Guards?”
“Yes… you remember John? It will be five years since he passed on the eighteenth. Oh! You accompanied your father at his funeral, didn’t you.”
“I did. Where is Amias?” Kate asked about Vere’s younger brother, fourteen years of age.
“He’s a cadet at the Royal Military College, wants to follow in John’s footsteps. You must have heard my mother talking about him yesterday.”
“No. I’m afraid–
“Take a gun, everyone,” Earl Poulett ordered. “We’re nearing the first ground. Vere, keep a close eye on Lady Kate.”
“I will, Sir.” He turned to Kate. “The servants will be pushing game through that woodland on our right. Be sure to shoot out to the left, away from the trees, as the grouse fly across the opening. Try not to shoot pheasant, they aren’t in season yet.”
“Very well.” Kate did not require instructions, but accepted them graciously. She took her gun from one of the stable boys and walked to the left, away from the forest. After two dozen strides she halted and found Vere on her heels. “Shall I move farther?”
“This should be fine.” Vere looked back at the other men, spread out to shoot. “They will have to react quickly as the grouse take wing. We’ll have more time to pick targets – the birds that get by. I suggest you make ready.”
Kate gave a quick nod, then stiffened as Vere edged close behind her.
“Step forward with your left foot,” Vere said softly in her ear. “Bend your left knee and brace with your right leg.”
Kate, who could shoot ambidextrously but preferred left-handed, followed the instructions for a right-handed stance, distracted by the proximity of Vere’s body. She felt a pressure from his hip through her petticoats and a weight upon her corset. Is he resting his hand on my waist?!
“Keep your finger off the trigger,” Vere continued. “Place the stock firmly against your right shoulder. Remember to squeeze the trigger, don’t pull.”
This is ridiculous! He knows I’ve shot before! Kate glanced towards the gentlemen. Earl Beaufort happened to look her way. He briefly raised one eyebrow but otherwise showed no emotion, then stared ahead. Father! Tell Vere to stand back! How am I supposed to shoot like this?
Grouse burst from the brush and flapped loudly through the clearing. The older men fired, a couple with two-barrelled pieces, and passed off their guns for fresh ones.
“Shoot!” Vere whispered in Kate’s ear with an urgent accent.
Kate, although uncomfortable, in a heartbeat decided on a long shot, fired, and felled a grouse twice as far off as the birds the men had dropped.
“Lucky…” Vere said, “you missed but happened to hit a grouse farther down.”
What?! I did not miss! Grrrr… “Please step back,” Kate said as civilly as she could manage through clenched teeth. “How am I to obtain a second gun with you in the way?”
“Oh. Yes. Quite.” Vere smiled. “You feel ready to attempt several shots?”
“I do.” Kate did not smile.
“With more shots there is a better chance of hitting what you aim at.”
Kate glared at Vere with her arrogant countenance of angry disdain.
“Yes, greater odds…” Vere faltered, his grin vanishing. “How is your shoulder?”
“It’s fine.” Of course it’s fine! “Please be prepared to shoot at the next ground, Lord Hinton. I do not require further assistance.”
“Very good. Confidence is important. I will be right beside you lest anything go wrong.”
Gamekeepers reloaded spent guns and stable boys collected the downed grouse, then the party resumed their march south. The trail narrowed to single file for a stretch, reducing conversation. Vere continued talking to Kate, covering some random observations about flora and fauna, seemingly unaware of her displeasure. When they reached another clearing the party spread out again, Vere taking the farthest position from the edge of trees and shrubs where the grouse were expected to emerge. Kate took her gun from a stable boy, and noted that the other piece he carried was double-barrelled.
All right, three shots, three grouse. Kate prepared in a right-handed stance again. “Please be ready to pass me that other gun,” she warned the boy.
“Remember to grip the gun firmly,” Vere cautioned. “We shan’t have you arriving for luncheon with a bruised shoulder or cheek.”
Kate didn’t nod or reply, ignoring the unwanted advice, intent on examining the woods and field, and listening for the beating of wings. She discerned movement in the shrubs, then birds came out, flying right to left. The older gentlemen opened fire. Kate picked a high fast grouse and dropped it, then passed off her gun for the double-barrelled piece, switching to a left-handed stance. She cocked both hammers and immediately fired at a grouse far down field, then saw a wounded bird fluttering by and blew it into oblivion. The smoke cleared.
“Well done, Katelyn,” Earl Beaufort said quietly.
Kate glanced at Vere. He stood frozen, his gun unfired, staring out at the field and settling feathers.
“Thank you, Father,” Kate said. “I don’t know who winged that grouse, but I simply had to end its suffering.”
“It was mine,” Mr. Labouchere said sheepishly. “Bad shot on my part. Thank you, Lady Kate.”
“You needn’t mention it,” Kate replied, rather haughtily, and handed the double-barrelled shotgun to a gamekeeper for reloading. She then noticed a frown and lowered brow on the face of Earl Poulett. Drat. I’ve upset our host by embarrassing Mr. Labouchere. All right, I’ve made a show of myself. I’ll shoot only one grouse at each ground from now on. She peeked at Vere. He made busy with the gamekeepers, avoiding Kate’s eyes. Vere is embarrassed too. I suppose he was trying to be helpful. I get angry too quickly. Let’s see what he says now… and how well he can shoot.
The party moved on to the next shooting ground. It drizzled for a while. The gentlemen once again debated parliament and took turns criticising or praising the efforts of the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell. Kate, who knew Lord Russell and thought of him as a kind man and wanted to speak in his defence but didn’t know how, said nothing and waited for someone to engage her in conversation. At each designated field the party spread out, waited a few minutes, then shot as grouse and pheasants flew from the forest, the gamekeepers and servants driving the fowl doing well to time the shoots. Kate shot only once or held her fire at each ground, and noted Vere exhibiting skilful marksmanship.
After roughly an hour and a half (including a brief respite for beverages) they started across open country, turning north as the sun started to break through the clouds. Another gamekeeper awaited their arrival with some setters, one of which was all black and reminded Kate wistfully of her old pet Cinders, who had died six months previously. The setters stood around the gamekeeper, their tails wagging, heads erect and mobile, eyes bright and alert. He commanded the dogs with whistles and calls, spreading them out in a line, the hunters and attendants moving well apart.
Kate tried to take the left of the line, but Earl Beaufort hurried into the position. She considered her father, now a little worried. His eyes are failing him. He was once a great marksman. Can he see the grouse from the pheasants? Quail will stay low, so he won’t shoot at them.
“Father,” Kate whispered, “are you able to see the game?”
“I am…” he replied softly, “however, if you should notice… if I aim at anything that isn’t a grouse, please click your tongue.”
“Click? Like a drover? Or muleteer?”
Hmm… that won’t be very ladylike. “You cough in reply. It will hide the clicks and seem as though you have something caught in your throat. All right?”
“Yes. Fine. Thank you.”
Kate sidestepped back towards Vere at the centre of the line. Earl Poulett stood to the right of his son, and Mr. Labouchere took the far right position. The setters scurried forward, heads down, and the party followed. Some quail appeared at the onset, darting through the shrubs or flying in short hops just above the ground, vanishing upon landing. When grouse and pheasants started erupting from the field, the gentlemen called their shots and fired. This form of shooting was far more challenging than the woodland grounds. Earl Poulett and Vere proved themselves able hunters, although the former did mistakenly shoot one pheasant, and loudly blamed his failing eyesight. Mr. Labouchere shot a few times but wasn’t successful, further revealing his inexperience. Kate dropped a single grouse, but spent most of her time watching her father, clicking her tongue twice when she thought he might be aiming at pheasants. By the time the party reached the edge of a forest, Earl Beaufort could be proud of dropping four grouse, with one miss, and one misfire.
“Lord Poulett shot a pheasant,” Kate whispered to her father when they stopped. “You could have shot one and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“It matters to me,” he said firmly.
“I saw how you struggled, Lady Kate,” Vere said as he approached them. “You haven’t hunted over open ground before? Perhaps you could use some instruction?”
“Oh… no…” Kate performed a small dismissive shrug. “I was watching my father and you. You shot very well, Lord Hinton.”
“Not at all.” Vere grinned. “But are you certain? I’d be happy to–
“The ladies will be waiting,” Earl Poulett interrupted, holding a gold timepiece. “We should carry on.”
The gamekeepers fired off any guns that were still loaded while Earl Poulett led his guests onto a forest trail. Within minutes they arrived at a fine broad clearing with a white canvas marquee set up for dining, providing shelter from rain or sun as needed. From a distance Kate spotted her step-mother and Countess Poulett, then recognised Henry Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort, his wife, and several of their daughters, along with a collection of maids, valets, and other servants. The duke stood at attention, clothed in a neat beige suit, gold buttons sparkling on his red waistcoat, and his face wore a scowl ineffectually hidden by a thick moustache and whiskers. A matronly woman in mourning attire sat in the middle of the crowd and lectured everyone about eating too much. Kate realized it was the duke’s mother, a formidable character much feared by young ladies throughout the peerage; Kate included.
“… require nowt but tea,” the Dowager Duchess went on. “These intermediate meals between breakfast and dinner are unnecessary. The natural process of digestion takes time. It is disturbed by constant addition, and the very fibre of the stomach is injured, along with a derangement of the bowels. Dyspepsy and corpulence are the results.”
The duke looked up and strolled from the marquee towards the hunting party, his scowl replaced by a smile. “I’m sorry to have missed the hunt!” he called.
Everyone greeted the duke in order of rank, Kate and her father both addressed as cousin in return, then they sauntered to the marquee. The gentlemen said hello to the new guests. Kate hurried to a canvas privy with her maid, removed her cape, used a chamberpot and wash basin, then returned to the luncheon.
“You join the ladies, now,” Earl Beaufort told Kate.
Kate longingly glimpsed the plates of meat, cheese, and biscuits arrayed on tables at the far end of the marquee, but did as instructed. Apprehensively, she edged up behind her seated step-mother at the circle of ladies. The Dowager Duchess had launched into a new topic.
“… and act with a sense of obligation and duty. Put aside sentiment and impulse!”
“Wise words,” the Duchess of Beaufort said, smiling at her daughters. “Certainly worth careful consideration.”
Kate vastly preferred the current duchess, a kind woman of almost fifty years of age, over the dowager. The daughters present, the four youngest, nodded with varying degrees of conviction. The girls, brown-haired and short of stature, wore lovely silk visiting dresses, and the two eldest stood to greet Kate.
“Hello, Lady Kate!”
Lady Geraldine, aged sixteen and the plainest of the girls, gave Kate a gentle hug, followed by Lady Hettie, aged seventeen. Both appeared much younger than their years in stark contract to Kate.
“I was presented at court this spring,” Lady Hettie said. “We heard you’re coming out next spring.”
“Yes…” Kate glanced at her step-mother. What has she been saying?
“I might be with you,” Lady Geraldine said. “Are you excited?”
“Let me get a look at her,” the Dowager Duchess snapped, banging her cane on a chair leg for emphasis.
Kate glided in front of the Dowager Duchess and executed her best curtsey.
“Ah… yes… I remember…” the dowager squinted at Kate, “you’re the horsey girl.”
Kate didn’t mind the adjective but she noticed her step-mother react with a knitted brow and pursed lips.
“You refer to her long straight nose,” Jane said. “Quite Grecian. She’s a classic beauty.”
“No,” the dowager rejoined, banging her cane again, “I refer to her equestrian pursuits. We’ve heard tell of participation in steeplechases.”
“Oh! That…” Jane tittered, “only a few.”
“How old are you?” the dowager demanded of Kate.
“Fifteen in January, your grace,” Kate replied. She hasn’t softened at all…
“I’m fourteen this month,” Lady Katherine managed squeak in.
“Fifteen and coming out next spring,” the dowager restated, controlling the conversation. “Excellent. You seem a lady. That is as it should be. Young people today search for any excuse not to grow up.” She glowered at each of the girls. “Truly, it’s the parents who are failing.” She raised her voice, perhaps trying to capture her son’s attention. Her daughter-in-law lowered her head. “Thank goodness we finally have Emily safely married, and not in a disgraceful fashion like Rose.”
“Yes, Rose eloped,” the duke said, glaring over from the circle of gentlemen, “but we’ve completely reconciled. Lovell’s a decent fellow.” He turned back to the gentlemen. “Son of a Hampshire squire. Honourable. Lost an arm serving with the First Life Guards.”
“Skulked off to Gretna Green,” the dowager snarled. “A one-armed lieutenant. Shameful. But, of course, Rose was of age – seventeen in fact. Any girl of sixteen who decides to wed may do so, and suffer whatever consequences. She should have been promised, entered an agreement within the nobility, at sixteen. Parents fail their daughters all the time.”
“Rose is very happy,” the duchess said, weakly defending herself, her husband, and her daughter.
“It was all very romantic,” Lady Geraldine added.
“Romantic!” the dowager snorted. “Is that what you want? Not to be matched with someone of your station? Run off with some cripple soldier?”
“I don’t know,” Lady Geraldine murmured.
Kate inwardly cringed, knowing never to say such a phrase.
“That’s the problem,” the dowager said, “you don’t know, and you won’t listen to those of us who do. Mark me, you will never marry well with such an attitude. Never. Sit still!” she barked at Lady Deedee, a girl of twelve who looked like a startled rabbit. “Stop flitting about, all of you. You all suffer from restlessness of the body and stagnation of the soul. Sit still!”
Kate used this sweeping attack to retreat from the awkward position in front of the dowager to a chair between Geraldine and Katherine.
“Study how she sits!” The dowager pointed her cane at Kate. “Tall and straight. Sit like her!”
The girls adjusted their posture, but none could reasonably copy Kate’s long statuesque torso. She wanted to slouch a bit, but was afraid to move under the penetrating stare of the Dowager Duchess.
“You come out next spring,” the dowager stated yet again. “Your father is arranging matches for you. You’ll soon be wed.”
“Children will follow,” the dowager cut Kate off and rambled on. “I had seventeen children. Six of them – daughters all – are known only to God. Eleven flourished. First came Henry.” She nodded towards her son, who was now smoking a cigar with the gentlemen. “Then Granville, who died last February. Five and fifty years of age, and only two children! Isabella died long ago, at two and twenty, also two children, but I can forgive her, passing so young. She didn’t recover from the birth of her second…” the dowager again pointed her cane at Kate, “just like you killed your mother. The rest of my children are ageing hale and hearty.”
Kate felt like she’d been thrown from a horse. Her lungs jumped and deflated, her heart thumped painfully, her ears roared. Killed my mother?! Killed my mother?! Killed my mother?!
“Babes don’t kill their mothers,” Countess Poulett said, speaking up for the first time since Kate arrived. “Babes are innocent.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the dowager conceded wearily. “I didn’t voice malice, simply a fact. No blame is meant. I knew your mother,” she said to Kate. “Handsome woman, especially for Irish. I remember the night she sang for King George, when he was Prince Regent. Do you sing?”
Kate took a calming breath, couldn’t find her voice, so nodded.
“You resemble your mother. Shame she isn’t alive to council you in courtship.”
“I’m Lady Kate’s mother now,” Jane said pointedly. “I will guide her.”
“Do tell us,” the dowager said, leaning towards Jane conspiratorially, “has someone made an offer?”
Kate peered at Jane, rather shocked that her step-mother had said so little thus far, and terrified of what she might reveal.
“Many gentlemen are interested,” Jane said.
“Of course, of course,” the dowager said impatiently. “One only need look at her to guess that!”
Kate, trying to find her voice, now felt badly for the other girls.
“Is he over there?” the dowager asked bluntly, directing her gaze at Vere Poulett. “Is that why she went shooting with the men?”
“Goodness, no,” Jane gasped. “She will have a brilliant match, far above Lord Hinton.”
The Dowager Duchess sat back and stared at Jane from the corners of her eyes, scepticism settling upon her face. Jane smiled smugly. Kate’s stomach tightened and her face grew hot.
“Lady Kate has received an excellent offer,” Jane said.
“Mother!” Kate objected, finally finding her voice.
“Few suitors could stand against the noble gentleman who has asked for an engagement the day she is presented next spring,” Jane prattled on.
Delighted squeals of excitement burst from the three elder girls.
“Who is it?!” “How exciting!” “Tell us who!”
Deedee sprang to her feet with an expression of bewilderment. “What?! What?!” she asked wide-eyed.
Kate felt overwhelmed. I haven’t agreed to anything! I never should have told Jane! “No promises have been made!” Kate insisted, also standing. “It’s time we had something to eat. Mother, accompany me.” She curtsied to the dowager. “Madam, please excuse us.” Kate draped an arm across Deedee’s shoulders and guided her to the refreshment table at the far end of the marquee.
“The men are waiting for us,” Countess Poulett said. “We should have something so as not to insult cook. Come!”
The ladies all rose and congregated around the food tables in a swirl of brightly coloured flounced skirts, except the Dowager Duchess, who remained seated. The gentlemen snuffed out their cigars and joined the repast. A babble of conversation filled the marquee, allowing Kate to pull Jane aside.
“You promised not to say anything,” Kate hissed.
“I didn’t say who,” Jane answered airily. “Hugh Grosvenor’s name wasn’t mentioned.”
“Hinting leads to gossip,” Kate countered. “You want me to be the subject of gossip?”
“You already are! Imagine, her grace knowing of your participation in steeplechases. It must be common knowledge. Does everyone know you wear breeches and ride astride?!”
“Oh… I don’t–
Kate stopped short, noticing the Duke of Beaufort sidling up beside them. Jane turned.
“Your grace,” Jane said with a half curtsey.
“Your grace,” Kate echoed.
“Your father says you fox hunt,” the duke said to Kate.
“I have,” Kate replied. “I try.”
“Try? He said you have a steady fine seat, and an abundance of nerve.”
“He flatters me,” Kate said, feeling another blush creep across her face.
“Well, I’m inviting you to join us at Badminton House for Christmas this year.” The duke smiled at them. “What say you, Lady Jane? We ride out daily, less the high holy days, depending on the weather, from the winter solstice through to Epiphany.”
“We’re going to Ulverston for Christmas,” Kate said.
“Not now,” Jane overruled. “We would be delighted to visit your grace at Badminton this year. Thank you very much.”
“Not at all. Not at all,” the duke said grandly. “As cousins, our families should do more together. I will confirm the details with your dear husband. Ladies.” He neck bowed over his plate of food and strolled away before they could curtsey.
“I wanted to go to Ulverston,” Kate whispered to Jane. “What about your parents?”
“I’ll sort that out,” Jane said casually. “We’ll visit them another time. Christmas at Badminton! We simply cannot say no. Imagine who the other guests might be?”
Yes… imagine… “I hope it isn’t more possible suitors.”
“There certainly will be. Matches for Hettie, and prospective suitors for Geraldine. Perhaps for Katherine, too. You outshine those girls effortlessly.”
“That’s not good,” Kate wailed, then regretted such a display of emotion and glanced around at everyone within earshot.
“Maybe the Somersets want you there to serve as an example for their daughters.” Jane whispered.
“They’ll resent me. This will not be a joyful holiday.”
“It can be. It’s up to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have choices to make. Some would say easy choices… that would… smooth a path for you.” Jane shrugged. “Your choice. Holy Eucharist in the village tomorrow morning.” She minced away, joining Countess Poulett and the Duchess of Beaufort in their discussion.
Grr! Kate savagely bit a piece of cheese and chewed angrily. She expects me to make a commitment. I didn’t even want to come out next year! I should say yes to Hugh and be done with it. Everyone would leave me alone if I accepted his contract. Ha! I could write a letter to Charlie Canning, or Lord Ward, and let them make an offer. What would Jane say to that?! Me, making a promise to a baron! But I do care for Hugh, and his siblings. I should reply to his last letter.
I wonder when I’ll see Hugh again…