Quantock Hills, early December 1847
Applying some more tiny dabs of green, Kate sat back and tried to determine what else she could do to make her watercolour come to life. She liked sketching, but the joy of painting eluded her, unless it entailed adding small highlights to a drawing. This activity had been unexpected, due to Mrs. Crozier suffering a headache, so science and language lessons were put off for a day. Miss Nestor slumped by the fire, dozing, with her mouth hanging open. Outside the afternoon was cold, crisp, clear and windy.
Kate set down the paintbrush, tiptoed to her dressing room, and didn’t bother ringing for her maid. She changed into a velvet and cashmere under-vest, a quilted petticoat, a fine flannel shirt, and an off-white velvet dress. She put on boots, a tan wool overcoat, and a matching brimless knit cap with a crimson ball of tufted silk on top, then a bright red scarf and mittens. Having gone for a ride earlier and finding it chilly, Kate decided a brisk walk into the village, through the forest, would be nice; warmed by the perambulation and sheltered by the trees. When she reached the front hall, Cinders and Ebony lay before the fire. The latter dog rose, stretched and yawned, wagging her tail at Kate’s approach.
“I’m going for a stroll,” she told the servant standing nearby. “I shan’t be long. Come on, Bonny.”
The footman opened the door for Kate with a bow.
Marching around the manor, Kate hurried into the woods, then ran for a while. I’ll go to the church and back. She wore a dress which only reached her upper calves allowing unencumbered exercise. Since the fox hunt she had tried to dress in older clothes to appear a bit younger. Unfortunately, because of her growth spurts, the dresses were altogether too short. Several outfits were currently at the tailor’s, the donning of those elaborate ensembles requiring a maid. It would be an entirely new winter wardrobe by the time they travelled north for Christmas.
When she reached the trail to the village, Kate decided to turn north with the intention of searching for deer on the hills. She followed a wall for sometime and felt the wind, cold on her face, clouds rolling in from the north-east. Running through a broad field, Ebony loping at her side, Kate realized she was in the area the hunt had started. Stopping and doing a turn, she could see the top of Crowcombe Court through the bare trees then, looking the other direction, the copse where they chased the first fox. The gypsies were in the woods not far from here… I could visit them! Perhaps the old couple would come to my house and talk to the ghost!
Kate walked a bit, mulling over her decision, then ran with determination towards the copse. Alternating between marching and running, gasping plumes of steamy breath, it proved farther than she remembered. Covering the distance on horseback had been quick, hardly noticeable. Having to orient herself a couple times while scrambling over walls, she happily arrived at the forest where the gypsies were discovered. Walking hesitantly, catching her breath, Kate started threading between the trees, the leaves crunching underfoot.
“Here, Bonny. Stay with me.”
Her dog dutifully walked close by. Kate slowed, listening. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea… At that moment she heard faint music, a merry tune, played on string instruments. Stepping deeper into the woods she smelled smoke. Craning her neck, trying to locate the gypsy encampment, she came upon a pair of young women sitting on a log, a girl about five years old stripped to the waist sitting in front of them, a small fire beside.
“Pardon me.” Kate drew up short.
Ebony, tail wagging, went to the girl.
“It eez fine,” one of the women said, sliding a fine-tooth comb through the girl’s hair. “We ewer jus nit picking. You cawn go to thee cawmp.”
Kate examined the women for a moment, taking in their colourful clothes, and dark skin. “Are you from Egypt?”
“No, I cum frum Greece, and France.”
“Have you travelled far and wide?”
“Ouer grund parents ‘ave. You go see them?”
“Yes, thank you.” Kate followed the music into a glade.
Small dogs barked and ran at Ebony; she wagged her tail. The music stopped. There were six wagons crafted like little houses, set in a half circle, with canvas tarpaulins stretched between them. Horses grazed nearby. At first glance Kate guessed each wagon might belong to a different family; there were lots of children. Several little boys and girls ran to her, mostly barefoot, whistling for their dogs. One boy, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, with fair skin and blonde curly hair, a little shorter than Kate, followed the children with a broad smile.
“Allo there,” he said. “You mus’ be from the village. How can we entertain you?”
His accent sounded slightly French, but there was something else mixing in Kate couldn’t recognise. Suddenly she realized there may be a need for money, of which she didn’t have any on her person.
“I’m here calling, to talk,” she said weakly. “I’ve no expectations of entertainment.”
“But that is what we do! Ah, no matter. Come by the fire. I’m Jacob.”
“How do you do. I’m… Kate.”
“What a handsome dog!”
She followed Jacob, fearful of drawing near the lousy children. Glancing at them, she wondered if some were mulatto, and if there were Africans in the camp. Jacob guided her to low log benches forming a horseshoe around a fire. Two middle-aged men smiled and nodded at her, then began playing their instruments; a guitar and fiddle. They were dressed in plain clothes, old brown trousers and jackets, saffron shirts, and their skin tanned a deep brown. Despite the cold their collars were open and they played with bare hands. They finished a foot stomping tune and bowed. The children clapped and Kate joined in. One of the men doffed his hat and held it in Kate’s direction. She glanced at Jacob who stood near by. He said something in a guttural language she didn’t understand. The man grimaced and shrugged, replaced his hat, and started to play again. Kate rose slowly, and edged to where Jacob stood by a wagon.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “If I–
“All’s right,” he cut her off, smiling. “You can pay us back by singing a song, yes?”
“Oh, yes.” Kate felt better. “I can sing and play guitar.”
“Excellent!” His outburst caused the musicians to stop.
Jacob stepped forward, again talking in his language, and took the guitar. He gave it to Kate and backed away. She slipped off her mittens and plucked a few strings, adjusted her stance, played some chords, then started into Home, Sweet Home. The children jeered and Jacob waved for silence.
“Something happy,” he insisted.
“Very well.” Kate nodded, peering around at the children, a trifle unsettled.
She decided on a sea shanty that allowed everyone to participate, and sang The Maid of Amsterdam, strumming zealously. The fiddler joined in and the children belted out the chorus, clapped, and jigged happily. When she finished there was much cheering and applause. Kate felt her face grow hot at their enthusiasm, and smiled. When she turned to pass off the guitar, a tall thin man of about twenty stood close behind her. He appeared exactly as Kate thought a gypsy should, with long black curly hair, dark skin and darker eyes, a hooked nose and tremendous moustache, dressed in tight black trousers, black velvet cropped jacket, and red head kerchief, a multicoloured woven sash girded his waist. This man stood ramrod straight, and bowed to her, then took the guitar. He started playing a fast choppy tune, occasionally stomping his heel. From a wagon emerged a young woman dressed in pink flounced skirts, baggy shirt and tight waistcoat, spangles glittering all over. She moved like a cat, with bright eyes, honey-brown complexion, and very long curly blonde hair. Spinning and swinging her hips, she danced around the tall dark man, clapping her hands and stamping her bare feet, bangles bouncing on her ankles.
With this performance more adults joined the circle, coming from wagons or the forest. Kate tried to guess who was related to whom, but couldn’t determine where relationships might lie. It appeared to be four extended families, but it didn’t actually add up, as there were the two older men, three couples between twenty and thirty years of age, half a dozen teenage girls, Jacob, and a score of children. Of course the very old couple had yet to appear, and there could be other gypsies still off doing chores.
The music and dancing proved hypnotising, and after a few minutes Kate found herself entranced, swaying to the music. Other adults produced instruments so a concertina, second guitar, a tambourine, and a drum added to the magic of the performance. The tall dark man eventually passed off the guitar, and started to dance with his partner. It became a rhythmic gyrating, with some rough movements and, with a blink, Kate recalled what she’d witnessed between the young lovers at the pond. Having watched gypsies entertain at fairs previously, the dancing now took on new meaning. She watched this couple writhing, and could see the lust they exuded. With the realization, and peering around at the children, Kate felt deeply embarrassed. She thought about leaving. Where’s Ebony? I think it’s getting late…
Abruptly the music stopped to much applause and hoots. The couple stood embraced, the man bending over the girl, she arched back with a bent bare leg exposed. Kate clapped, her mittens thumping, but looked down knowing her face must be red. The gypsies all stepped off in different directions, and it appeared they might be preparing to make their supper. Kate spun slowly looking for her dog and Jacob. I must get home. She noticed the sky had started to lose its colour, the air growing colder, damp, a high layer of clouds forming. The tall dark gypsy strode up to her.
“You enjoyed the dance?” He spoke crisply with hardly any accent.
“Yes, thank you,” Kate replied, avoiding eye contact.
“I am Monsieur Sasha.” He bowed.
“I’m… Miss Kate Beaufort,” she said softly, and half curtsied.
“I can teach you to dance like that.” He grinned.
“Oh… no, thank you.” Kate felt uneasy, her insides tightening. “I came to talk with the elderly couple – about spirits.”
“Ah! My grandparents, I understand.” Sasha moved closer. “You wish to know your future?”
“No, we have a ghost in our house. I thought perhaps your grandparents could speak with him.”
“Let me take you to their wagon.”
“Thank you. I must hurry, it’s getting late.” I’ll have to run all the way home.
“This way.” He strode off.
Kate followed, trying not to look at his tight trousers, and peering around searching for Ebony. Sasha led her to a wagon she hadn’t counted before, rolled back and hidden by ivy growing over a thicket. Stepping up the stairs, he held the door for her with a dramatic sweep of his arm. Kate climbed the ladder and eased inside. A lone lamp with a yellow globe burned at the other end of the wagon, providing little light. She stepped cautiously towards it.
“Hello?” Kate called. I don’t like this.
The door closed and her hat was pulled off. She spun, instantly trembling, her heart pounding.
“Before you talk to my grandparents we must settle on a fee,” Sasha whispered in the dark.
“I don’t have any money with me,” Kate said, surprised by the shrill tone of her voice. I’m going to scream. “Give me my cap, please.”
“In a moment. You would be prepared to pay? To have my grandparents talk to your ghost?”
“Yes, but I… I don’t…” I don’t know what to pay. How much? I must go! “I must go.”
“First, a hug.” Sasha chuckled in the dark.
“Why? No. Let me by!”
Kate stepped forward only to bump into the man. He grabbed her, pinning her arms. She felt his moustache and lips press against her cheek, smelt garlic and stale wine. She quickly turned her head and struggled while he nuzzled her ear. His hands ran over her body. Help! Let me go! An odd feeling of shame filled her, like this could be her fault, and to cry out would do no good, just bring more disgrace. I must deal with this. Focusing, she noticed Sasha was groping for pockets.
“I don’t have any money,” she insisted, revulsion and fear causing her stomach to tighten. “Stop it!” To her surprise and relief he did.
“You see,” he breathed, “just an innocent hug and kiss. In friendship.”
“It was not! You were searching for a purse. Now may I have my cap, please?” Kate felt a tear run down her cheek. Anger started to rise in her breast, replacing the other emotions, a growing painful ache that made her muscles tense.
Sasha gave no answer and stood silently. Muffled sounds came from outside. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and Kate could clearly see the man blocking her way to the door. On her right lay a shelf with assorted items, one of which was a rolling-pin. Grr! That’s it. Last chance or I’m going to knock you senseless.
“Give me my cap and let me by,” she growled through clenched teeth, building her courage.
A series of whoops sounded outside. Sasha tossed Kate her hat and hurried from the wagon. What happened? With the door open, much chatter could be heard; boisterous laughter from men and high-pitched gleeful peals from girls. Kate slipped on her cap and stepped out into the grey light of dusk. She immediately recognized several young men from the village, not certain of their names, but the faces were familiar. They were carrying baskets and lanterns.
“Come and join us by the fire, my fine gentlemen,” Sasha said with broad sweeps of his arms. He added something in his tongue and the teenage girls stepped up to the men, taking the baskets.
Kate watched from a distance, somewhat hidden, as the men took seats by the fire with girls and young women beside them, children hovering behind. From the baskets came food and bottles. The two older men played a quiet tune. It had the makings of a quaint rough dinner party. I don’t belong here. Where is Bonny? I shouldn’t have come so far. Desperately wanting to be on her way home, and knowing darkness would descend quickly, Kate decided that trying to circle around in the woods would take too long; she must walk near the party. Marching purposefully forward, she went between the wagons and straight past the group at the fire. The music and chatter stopped. Glancing sideways, Kate saw the villagers were on their feet, removing their caps. She hesitated, then stopped, turning to face them.
“Please… please don’t mind me,” she murmured, seeing a blur of faces. “I’m just leaving.”
“Yes, my lady,” and “M’ lady,” came as a quiet chorus from the young men.
From the corner of her eye, Kate saw Sasha stride towards her. He wore a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
“My lady,” he parroted with much emphasis. “It is getting dark. I shall walk you through the forest, my dear lady.”
“No!” Kate did not want to be alone with him again. If I walk away will he follow me? She glanced around. A large young man stood at the back of the crowd. “Jeremy Connor,” she said, putting a name to a face and relieved to see him. “Yes, Master Connor. Please walk me home?”
“He doesn’t want to leave this bonne soirée,” Sasha said, still smirking. “Let me take you.”
Jeremy pushed his way forward. Not as tall as the gypsy, the ploughboy probably outweighed him by three stones.
“Master Connor will escort me,” Kate insisted. “Where’s my dog?”
“Your dog, my lady?” Sasha shrugged
“Yes, she’s a black retriever. Where’s Jacob?”
Sasha again shrugged.
“We’d best go,” Jeremy muttered.
“Bonny,” Kate called, noticing her vision blurring. “Bonny!”
“We’ll find ‘er,” one of the children declared, and they scattered.
Everyone turned from Kate, ostensibly in search, but then most settled back into their seats. The music and chatter resumed. The blonde dancer had appeared and was drawing everyone’s attention while she slithered around the circle to Sasha and hooked his elbow. They both grinned wolfishly at Kate.
“She might be on her way home?” Jeremy suggested. “It’ll be dark soon…”
“Yes,” Kate said softly, blinking back tears.
She spun and started quickly across the glade, hoping no one noticed her distress, having been taught by Mrs. Crozier to never show emotion or reveal a weakness. Jeremy stayed a few steps behind, the handle of his lantern squeaking. Kate could hear his long slow strides as opposed to her short fast gait. She reached the trees and started to run, finding it still light enough, and didn’t stop until coming out at the field. Jeremy seemed to keep up without much effort.
“I’m sorry,” Kate said. “I’m sorry to take you away from the party.”
“It’s fine, m’ lady,” Jeremy replied, his tone emotionless, like a soldier might respond.
“Perhaps I’ll be safe from here. You could go back?”
“Na, I’ll see ya home.”
“I’m going to run…”
“Very well, but if it gets too dim we’ll have ta walk.”
They ran west, following the edge of forest. The night became uncommonly dark, the high clouds blocking out whatever moon or starlight there may have been. A few times Kate found herself stumbling when miss stepping into uneven ground. Whether Jeremy suffered the same problem she couldn’t perceive. When they reached a tumbled down wall, it was difficult climbing over the stones.
“I’m lighting ma lantern,” Jeremy said between deep breaths. “We walk from here.”
It must be close to dinner time. I’ll be missed now. “Couldn’t we run a bit more?”
“If ya go over – get hurt – then what?”
“Yes, all right, but let’s walk quickly.”
The lantern created a puddle of light around them, making it safe to proceed, their shadows stretching out and away on the grass and stones. Kate suffered a tumult of emotions; anger from her treatment by Sasha, worry about her dog, fear of being late for dinner, and gratitude to Jeremy. She took his elbow and matched his pace as best she could. They walked silently, the lantern squeaking. In about fifteen minutes they reached the parkland north of Crowcombe Court. Kate thought about going to the Carew’s, and Jeremy seemed to be headed there, but she decided against it.
“This way,” she said, pulling on his arm.
“But the road’s down the combe.”
“The trail is more direct.”
They continued, tiny flakes of snow starting, reflecting in the light. Kate felt curious, wanting to ask many questions, but nervous to do so. Nearing the manor, she realized there was little time to get any answers, and if she intended on learning anything it must be done soon. She moved closer and grasped the ploughboy’s arm.
“I hope my dog is at home,” she started.
“Have you visited that camp before?”
“Have you met the elderly couple? I’ve heard they can talk to spirits.”
“Oh…” Kate thought of how the young village men and gypsy girls were pairing up, sharing food and drink. “Do you know the gypsies very well?”
“Do you go to see the dancing?”
“The girl with long blond hair is very good.”
Jeremy walked on in silence.
“Do you think her beautiful?” Kate asked. “Do you like the way she dances?”
Kate wondered if he was responding positively to both questions, or just the latter, and regretted asking them together. She found his monosyllable answers unsatisfying. She thought about Mrs. Crozier’s anatomy lessons, and her insistence that a wife must please her husband, and how young couples might behave, even before marriage. There were many little children at the camp…
“Jeremy, do the gypsy girls please the men. I mean…” she felt awkward, and started to regret asking. It echoed of the time she had talked to him before. “Do you go there to be pleased?”
“The girls are pleasing,” he said quietly. “Perhaps they’re fallen women. For my part, there is no sin. I’ll not be a fadder ’till I’m married.”
Kate felt puzzled by his answer, but happy to have a string of sentences from him. His final statement seemed clear enough.
“Jeremy, when you–
A man called out from up the trail, his lantern showing through the trees. The snow, getting heavier, reflected the light and swirled around in every direction creating an eerie sight.
“It’s the young Lady Beaufort,” Jeremy responded loudly.
The man half ran towards them, trying to hold his lantern steady. Kate recognised him, a rather gruff groom and sometimes carriage guard, short and stocky with a crooked nose.
“Me lady!” He held up his light. “Are you unhurt? The whole household is out looking for you.”
Oh no! “I’m fine.”
“Who are you?” the groom demanded of Jeremy, taking a threatening posture with his cane.
The ploughboy took a step back and pulled his arm from Kate.
“This is Jeremy, Mister Connor’s youngest son,” Kate said, knowing that name carried some weight with the servants.
“Ah, yes… well, I’ll see you home from here, me lady,” the groom said firmly. “On your way, boy.”
Jeremy spun around and strode off. Kate wanted to thank him, but he disappeared into the forest without a word.
“This way, me lady,” the groom said while hurrying along, holding his lantern high.
Kate followed, worrying about the trouble she had caused. The whole household is out? In this cold and damp? When they reached sight of the manor, light shone from the windows and torches were burning all around the grounds. The groom started blowing a whistle. Immediately other whistles carried on the air, some distant, some not so far, causing Kate to think of banshees wailing in the night. Miss Nestor waited at the front door, holding a handkerchief to her mouth.
“Thank God you’re home,” she declared, giving Kate a hug, then leading her inside. “Where have you been?”
Before Kate could answer the sound of horses could be heard. Her father burst though the door, followed by Rudman.
“Katelyn!” he strode into the hall. “What happened?”
“I…” Kate felt cold water splashing around her insides, but also tremendous heat. “I went to visit the gypsies, Father. I thought they could talk to our ghost.”
“You…” Earl Beaufort shook his head, staring at her a moment.
“I found her coming along the trail in the east woods, me lord,” the groom spoke up. “Strolling on the arm of Mister Connor’s youngest, the big lad, like they was courting.”
“We were not!” Kate insisted. “Father, Jeremy Connor saw me safely home from the camp. That’s all!”
“Miss Nestor,” Earl Beaufort said quietly, “take Katelyn to my study and stay with her please.”
“Yes, my lord.” Miss Nestor curtsied, then took Kate by the elbow and waist and led her as directed.
As they walked away the earl could be heard giving orders to ensure everyone was brought in from the search. He mentioned returning to Crowcombe to spread the word. Kate felt herself burning with embarrassment. The whole village alerted? Was everyone out in the snow? When they entered the library Miss Nestor helped Kate take off her wet outer garments, then sat looking very concerned.
“Your father rode out in the night, grooms too, risking a fall. The worry you’ve caused…”
“I’m sorry,” Kate said weakly.
“Tell your father.” Miss Nestor looked down shaking her head. “I thought you grew out of your wild ways.”
“I didn’t mean to be wild…”
The sound of boots on flagstones came towards them. Earl Beaufort strode into the room. “You may go, Miss Nestor. Have your supper.”
“Yes, my lord.” She collected Kate’s outerwear, curtsied, and slipped silently from the room, closing the door.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Kate said quickly. “I walked too far, and lost track of daylight. I didn’t–
“Katelyn. You went to meet the gypsies?”
“And did you?”
“What did you see there?”
“Dancing. Then some young men from the village came for dinner.”
“Did you stay for dinner?”
“No. I noticed how late it had become and hurried home.”
“And Mister Connor’s son accompanied you?”
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. I’ve spoken to him once before. But when… when I saw darkness approaching I asked him to escort me with his lantern.”
“Yes.” Kate wanted to talk about Sasha, and how he treated her, but felt deeply afraid to do so. She was terribly worried about her dog. Her stomach twisted and groaned. “I’m sorry…”
“This was very foolhardy of you, Katelyn, but it all seems innocent enough. Perhaps I was too quick to mount a search.” He sat at his desk and poured a drink. He sighed, “I worry about you more now than I ever did.”
“You’re growing into a young lady. There are new threats to your safety.”
“I’m becoming aware of them,” Kate said, feeling a little sad, and angry at Sasha. “It won’t happen again, Father. I’m sorry.”
“Very good. Go get something to eat.”
Kate approached her father and kissed his cheek, then hurried to her rooms. She was hungry, but wanted to hide from the servants. Perhaps tomorrow it won’t seem so bad? I hope Bonny is here somewhere. In the upstairs hall Mrs. Crozier stood in the dark. Kate stopped and fearfully studied the woman’s tall thin silhouette.
“I’ve spoken with my father and apologised,” Kate said, sidling towards her dressing room door.
“And I’ve heard what’s being said about you,” Mrs. Crozier snapped.
“That you were off with the gypsies! A lady, with that scum! Being exposed to sin! Then you were embracing a man in the woods, like lovers!”
“It’s not true! We were simply walking.”
“What’s true doesn’t matter when it comes to reputation! By tomorrow they’ll be saying you were seen in the woods with your skirts pulled up!”
“Pardon me? Oh… no.” Kate started to weep. “It was nothing like that!” The day had gone so terribly wrong. She wanted to talk to someone about her experiences and fears, but there was no one.
“In your room, my lady,” Mrs. Crozier stepped forward and grabbed Kate’s wrist.
Kate saw the cane in the woman’s other hand and tried to pull away. “Please, please don’t beat me again.” She felt hot tears running down her face.
“Do not beg! Begging is undignified, and will avail you nothing.”
Mrs. Crozier dragged Kate into the orange glow of her dressing room. Kate pulled free and spun towards the fire. The tutor closed the door and approached menacingly.
“I understand what I did wrong,” Kate said. “I’m sorry.”
“Then you know why you must be thrashed.”
“Enough. Almost a year I’ve been here, and you still haven’t learned to take your punishment.”
“I could stop you,” Kate warned, edging towards to poker. “You may be taller than me, but I’m stronger. I–
“That’s your solution, is it? Fight back like a spoiled child?” The woman took a few laboured breaths, the air rattling in her lungs. “You won’t have that option with your future husband. What if he beats you regularly?”
“Don’t say that! Please don’t say such things! I’m sorry. Truly.” She held her arms straight down, with hands on her thighs, hoping to protect them. “And I didn’t know what would–
Kate yelped and covered her face as a surprising first blow struck the top of her shoulder.
“Please, Mrs. Crozier, I–
The words choked off with the constricting of her throat. She felt her body tense and trembling, tears falling fast, as the woman whipped her. When the eleventh or twelfth blow stung her hips Kate dropped to her knees and elbows, miserable, retching in her agony, but this time, to her horror, the stick bit into her back and legs, several more savage strokes. “Stop… please,” she gasped, “I’m going to be ill.” Her entire body convulsed. Kate felt as though her stomach might come up her throat. Once more she retched, then realized the whipping had ceased. She peeked, found herself alone, and collapsed prostrate on the floor.
The next morning, much to Kate’s joy and relief, Ebony was found sleeping in the stable. A few days later, doing her best to be invisible, hiding her aches and pains, Kate was informed by Miss Nestor that Jeremy Connor had savagely trounced two men in the village. While the details never surfaced, Mrs. Crozier seemed satisfied with the outcome, and stated any rumours had been put to rest. The tutor arranged, through Earl Beaufort, for Jeremy to be quietly gifted a shilling for escorting Kate safely home from the gypsy camp. Kate was glad Jeremy had been recompensed, but wished to thank him herself, and determined she would do so when the opportunity arose.