Wells, Somersetshire, October 1848
“You’re doing it again!”
“What face?” Kate swivelled and examined her distorted reflection in the glass of a window.
“You’re not doing it now,” Jane snapped. “You’ve stopped.”
“You pout, or purse your lips, and raise your eyebrows, and cock your head, looking very doubtful! It’s not an acceptable expression, especially when your mother is stating an opinion!”
“I was thinking, not doubting,” Kate said sincerely, hoping to calm her step-mother.
A beautiful autumn morning, they stood bathed in sunshine by the front door of the Swan Hotel in the town of Wells where they had stayed for a couple nights while visiting significant sites, Kate studying history and architecture.
“What were you thinking?” Jane demanded. “And answer without a dozen expressions passing across your face.”
“Yes…” Kate took a breath. Don’t sigh. Composure, composure, composure. “I was listening to your opinion, and thinking… that you, perhaps, hadn’t given Father an opportunity to fully explain this idea. We – that is to say – Father and I, used to go on an expedition every autumn for a week or so. We haven’t since I was eleven. Last year my hand was injured. When I was twelve something took Father away so I bivouacked daily in Dowsborough Camp for a fortnight, but slept at home.”
“It’s an ancient hill fort near our house. Not far off the road to Nether Stowey.”
“Is it part of the Beaufort estate?”
“No, but it looks over our lands that lie east of Holford.”
“This may be the last year it is possible for any kind of an expedition.”
“That is a certainty,” Jane said firmly. “Next year you will be busy with society. None of this alters my opinion. Why do we have to sleep in the hills? In tents?”
“It’s necessary for the expedition – the adventure. You’ll find it quite merry.”
“Ha! Cold at night. Damp. Sleeping under musty canvas…”
“And, it is part of my natural science studies,” Kate added, trumpeting an education facet to full advantage. “There are rare lepidoptera dwelling in the Mendip Hills. I hope to improve and add to my collection. I’m looking for a Brown Argus, a Lulworth Skipper, a Holly Blue, and a Little Blue.”
“There are blue butterflies everywhere.”
“Those are Common Blues.”
“Ah… yes, of course.”
“There’s Father,” Kate said, glad to change the subject.
Earl Beaufort and his valet, Rudman, strode up the street from the crowds of the market.
“I’ve hired an outfitter who can properly accommodate us,” Earl Beaufort announced. “He’ll have his men set our camp in a grassland valley near the top of the gorge tomorrow morning.”
“Above the Cheddar cliffs?” Kate brimmed with enthusiasm. “Excellent!” She grinned, then snapped to expressionless and stood ramrod straight upon making eye contact with her step-mother.
“That leaves us with today to pursue something civilized,” Jane said with a frown.
“Let’s visit the cavern at Wookey,” Kate suggested. Not civilized – interesting and exciting. “We haven’t been there since I was six or seven years old.” She let wistful longing accent her words. “It’s an amazing place. Magical. Please, Father?”
“Do you promise not to run off, exploring on your own again?” Earl Beaufort asked with a chuckle.
“Oh! Yes! Of course!” Kate felt her face grow warm, remembering childhood bad behaviour. I would never do anything so inconsiderate now. Mrs. Crozier taught me… she would have beat my stuffing out for such a misdeed.
“What do you say?” Earl Beaufort tilted his head to Jane. “Do you fancy a stroll in a witch’s cave?”
Kate realized that her father was allowing Jane to make the decision. Couldn’t we leave her here? Should I suggest it? No… I must convince Jane to go. “It’s where the River Axe begins,” Kate said to her step-mother. “It comes out of a cliff. And a guide tells stories. You enjoyed visiting the disused mines and caverns at Matlock Bath.”
“Is it like that?” Jane asked. “With an orchestra, chandeliers, and beverages?”
“Not quite,” Kate said. “It’s full of natural wonders, formed over many centuries.”
“Very well,” Jane said. “Rudman, tell the maids we are going to this cave.”
“M’ lady.” Rudman doffed his hat and entered the hotel.
Kate struggled to contain her emotions. Hurrah! When her parents turned away she performed a little hop of joy.
Kate sat restlessly in their carriage and peered out a window at the cottage Rudman had entered. The front door stood open. Her father waited at the gate. Beyond some trees she could see the paper-mill and town of Wookey, through which they had passed a few minutes ago.
“Let’s get out,” Kate said to her maid, Isabel.
“No,” Jane said. “We’ll wait patiently for Lord Beaufort to make arrangements. You must learn…”
Kate braced herself for an onslaught of unsought advice, but thankfully was spared by Jane’s maid, Miss Lydia Pierce.
“Lord Beaufort waved to us,” Miss Pierce said just above a whisper without shifting a muscle.
Kate, Isabel, and Jane, all swivelled to look. Reynold, a tall brawny footman, opened the door of the carriage. The ladies stepped down onto a dirt lane.
“Rudman has arranged our admission,” Earl Beaufort said. “Here he comes.”
The valet limped from the cottage, furnished with a lantern in each hand. A slender young woman followed, burdened with several lanterns, one already lit. Someone closed the door from within.
“This lass acts as our conductress,” Rudman said as everyone drew together. He glanced back at the cottage, then pointedly took all but the lit lantern from the woman and passed them to Reynold. “M’ lawd, this is Effie.”
Earl Beaufort politely bowed to the woman, then introduced her as ‘Miss Effie’ to everyone, making it clear who should be addressed by an honorific. Perhaps twenty years of age, Effie had small features with large clear hazel eyes and from beneath her plain cloth cap a long thick braid of shiny brown hair. She gracefully curtsied to everyone in a simple fashion.
Kate remembered a small hunchbacked elderly man acting as guide from her previous visit. He was funny… I wonder if this is his granddaughter? She doesn’t look like him, she’s as tall as me.
“This way, please…” Effie said, eyes darting from face to face, “my lord, ladies, missies, gentlemen.”
Effie led the party off the lane onto a path, followed by the Earl and Countess Beaufort, Kate close behind, then Isabel and Miss Pierce, then Rudman, and Reynold at the rear carrying the lanterns. Walking up a valley, the path ran beside a crystal clear brook, and soon cool air wafted over them. The sides of the valley became steep and rose higher until they entered a sort of natural amphitheatre; a horseshoe of steep cliffs, much of the rock covered by hanging ivy. Within the valley grew grasses, brush, and flowers, forming a wild green garden. Ravens perched upon a crag, and a kestrel hovered overhead. They crossed a stream and climbed a narrow path, arriving at an iron-bound door set under a low arch-shaped rock.
“This is different than last time,” Kate observed. “Isn’t it, Father?”
“A bit,” he agreed. “The trail has been improved. The door is new.”
“Yes, sir,” Effie said, producing a large key tied to her apron string. “The master replaced the old door three years since. I’ll light the lanterns now.”
“You’ll stand sentinel here,” Earl Beaufort said to Reynold.
“My lord.” Reynold came to attention.
“You needn’t lock the door from within,” Earl Beaufort said to Effie. “My footman will ensure no one enters.”
Effie nodded, lighting the lanterns with a taper.
Isabel shifted and Kate saw her wide eyes and drawn mouth. Oh! Yes. Isabel is afraid of caves. “Isabel, you may wait with Reynold,”
“Thank you, my lady.” Isabel smiled.
Jane snapped her head around and gave Kate a glare. “Pierce will have to attend to both of us,” she said. “Pierce, take two lamps.”
“Yes, my lady.” The maid glided to the side of Effie and collected a pair of the lit lanterns.
Kate, disregarding her step-mother’s intention, that Miss Pierce was meant to somehow light the way for both ladies, took up another lantern. Once Earl Beaufort and Rudman were supplied with lights the party entered a low passage, which forced everyone except Jane and Rudman to stoop, although the latter had to remove his top hat. They stepped carefully along the uneven wet floor, each slipping at times, plashing through puddles, going up and down, but overall descending, lanterns clanking against the walls. They entered into a rounded chamber, the sides coated with smooth translucent runnels, and the ceiling dimpled with small stalactites, reflecting the lantern lights like diamonds.
A gasp of awe escaped several lips.
“It is beautiful,” said Jane, “but we could use umbrellas about now.”
“Indeed!” Earl Beaufort laughed. “Everything is wet with drippings.”
“May I begin?” Effie asked, taking an elevated position.
“Once upon a time, a witch lived in this cave,” Effie began in hushed tones. “The witch had great power, knew all things, and could turn what she touched into stone. An evil spirit did her bidding. Perhaps it was the devil, but of this no one is certain. When the witch heard that our Saviour was born, who would put a halt to all witchcraft, she grew very sorrowful, and determined to destroy herself, but first to turn all she owned into stone. The first thing was her pipe, and here it is!” Effie held her lantern over an oddly shaped formation of slick rock.
“If that’s her pipe, she must have been a giant,” Jane said.
Kate sidled closer. It looks like an upside down wheelbarrow.
“Then she threw away her stopper,” Effie continued. “And th–”
“Stopper?” Jane interrupted. “What sort of stopper?”
“For the mouth of the cave,” Earl Beaufort said. “It would have served as her door. Perhaps a boulder?”
“Yes.” Effie nodded. “And the evil spirit carried it away, and dropped it by the town of Glastonbury. Then a hill grew out of it, and became the Tor!”
Everyone laughed. Kate recalled the tale from her previous tour.
“This way, please.” Effie swivelled and disappeared into a passage. “And please do not stray into any of the little side passages.”
They shuffled into a long chamber with an uneven floor and held their lanterns up to view the unusual formations and stalactite grottos.
Kate studied Effie for a moment, appreciating her poise. The young woman didn’t have the polish of polite society, but did possess a sort of rural elegance and charm. I could be her, and conduct tours every day. It would be a good life…
“This is the Witch’s Kitchen,” Effie said. She pointed overhead to layered strips of sparkling rock. “That is a flitch of bacon.”
“Wonderful,” Jane whispered.
“And there is a rabbit, saved for her dinner,” Effie continued.
“A rabbit?” Kate asked.
“It’s been skinned,” Effie explained. “And this is her turn-spit dog.” Effie moved along the chamber. “Here you see the old witch’s cupboard, where she kept bread and cheese. And this is a pillar of salt.” Effie placed her hand on a smooth white column of shiny stone.
Kate, enjoying the game of imagining shapes, scrutinized each formation in turn, smiling at everyone as they did the same with varying interest. She removed a glove and felt the pillar. “It’s not wet. It looks wet, but it’s not.”
“Sometimes it is,” Effie said.
Kate held up her hand. “I feel a draught.”
“Wind blows down from crevices in the Mendips,” Effie explained as she turned and entered another corridor. “There is almost always fresh air here. Look at this.” She held her lantern up to where moss and small ferns grew from the side of a chimney-like shaft.
“Spiders!” Kate declared with a laugh, seeing webs.
“Indeed. Animals of all kinds move through the caves. In the Great Hall there is a hole that a terrier entered, and found its way out six miles up in the hills.”
“Yes. And now we’re in the Witch’s Parlour.” Effie strolled to the centre of a roughly rectangular chamber. “This is the head of a lion that served the old witch.”
“There’s the noble beast,” Earl Beaufort exclaimed, striding forward. “This is clear, even to me!”
Everyone gathered by the large round formation. Kate perceived faint letters and numbers carved into the rock.
“And there,” Effie pointed, “is a great chair. The old witch would sit there but, it is said, she could never sleep.”
“Why?” Jane asked.
“A curse by our Heavenly Father,” Effie whispered. “Because the witch knew all things, she always had to think, so couldn’t sleep. This way, please.”
They entered the largest of the chambers with a steeply sloped floor.
“We are now in the Great Hall,” Effie said, spinning slowly with her lantern held high.
Again, gasps of awe escaped several lips.
Amazing. Kate scanned the sparkling rock. The stories were more fantastical before. The cavern is somehow better. Intriguing… marvellous… but it’s a great deal smaller than I remember.
“Here is the witch herself, turned to stone.” Effie indicated a stalagmite, forming an enormous head with ugly face and twisted shoulders melting into the floor. “Please hold up your light and see the lofty ceiling, and other curiosities, all in pet-tree-fi-kay-shon.”
“Petrification,” Earl Beaufort murmured.
“I thought a parson turned the witch to stone,” Kate said. “In medieval times.”
“That is one version of the tale.” Effie nodded. “The Abbot of Glastonbury sent a friar named Bernard to deal with the witch, and he turned her to stone with holy water.”
“Perhaps it was a different witch,” Earl Beaufort said, winking at Kate from across the chamber. “There have been enough centuries go by for several sorceresses to take up residence.”
“That must be it.” Kate grinned at her father.
“Here is the hole the terrier went in.” Effie pointed.
Kate minced to the opening and crouched to stare into the blackness. She felt a breeze upon her face.
“And here… at the bottom…” Effie edged down the slope, “is a brook of fine water, which turns the paper-mill in the valley. They say it flows all the way from Cheddar, and it becomes the River Axe. In this water, the master caught a trout, that weighed seven pounds!”
“Now we’ve got to the end of the old Witch’s Cave.” Effie stepped carefully up the slope. “If you please, we’ll go back again.”
“Let’s.” Jane peered at her sleeves. “We’ll be wet through by the time we’re done.”
“For you, Miss Effie,” Earl Beaufort said, handing her a gold coin.
“Goodness! No, sir, the master was paid,” Effie protested. “This is too much!”
“Nonsense. You’ve earned it. Thank you, and please show us out.”
Kate stood on the edge of the brook and leaned out with her lantern, trying to see farther up the cavern. She flinched upon hearing a metallic crash and glass shattering, and almost stumbled into the water.
“My word!” Jane gasped.
Kate turned to see Miss Pierce sitting awkwardly, one lantern held up while the other smashed.
“Are ya all right?” Rudman knelt in front of the maid.
“I’ll help her up.” Earl Beaufort skidded down the slope and stood on the side lower to Miss Pierce, placing him dangerously close to the brook. “Someone take the lamps.”
“Let me help,” Kate said.
Without a word, Effie accepted lanterns from Miss Pierce and Rudman, while Kate took the one held by her father.
Supported by the men, Miss Pierce tried to stand. She didn’t make a sound, stood upright, took a small step, and collapsed against Rudman’s shoulder. Kate, standing in front of Miss Pierce, saw her shudder and espied tears dripping from the maid’s eyelashes.
“She’s seriously injured,” Kate said. “I’ll fetch Reynold!”
Without awaiting consultation, Kate ran up the slope and dashed from the chamber, lanterns swinging wildly from each hand. She sprinted through the Witch’s Parlour and slipped twice while passing through the Witch’s Kitchen. Abruptly, she skidded to a halt at a wall of slick rock. Pirouetting, a bit panicked, she ran back and found another corridor and cheered upon navigating around the upside down wheelbarrow rock. She slowed to a jog while going by some crevices and leaping over puddles, and crouched as the ceiling grew lower, then saw a vertical line of light. The door to the cavern lay ahead, open only a crack. Kate reached the door and pushed it wide, momentarily struck blind by the sunlight. She focused and spotted Reynold and Isabel sitting on a bench in the valley.
“Reynold!” Kate yelled.
The footman and maid sprang to their feet and hurried towards Kate.
“Reynold, we need your help!”
“Miss Pierce is hurt. You’ll have to carry her out.”
Reynold stood still a moment, expressionless, then came to life. He drew a brace of pistols from within his livery and handed them to Isabel, then stripped off his jacket and draped it over the maid’s shoulders. Kate took a breath, momentarily struck by Reynold’s steely eyes, strong jaw, and powerful build; broad shoulders, thin waist, and thick thighs, clothed in silk shirt, livery breeches, and stockings. They were sitting very close together… were they… touching? Were they–
“My lady?” Reynold prompted, holding out a hand to take a lantern.
“Yes?” Kate blinked. “Yes! This way!”
Kate led Reynold through the cavern at a jog. When they reached the Great Hall, everyone stood in a circle except Miss Pierce, who sat on a stool-like formation of rock. She clutched a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
“Ah, Reynold,” Earl Beaufort said. “You’re just the man we need.”
“My lord.” Reynold went down on one knee beside Miss Pierce. He scooped her up like a child.
Miss Pierce crossed her arms and turned her face towards Reynold’s shoulder. Kate saw tears upon the maid’s eyelashes and, with a billow of petticoats, momentarily spotted high-heeled boots. That was the cause of her stumble! French boots are for town, not country. Kate noticed Jane scowling. I ought not say anything…
Effie started out of the chamber, followed by Reynold.
“You needn’t have run off alone,” Earl Beaufort whispered to Kate as they walked together. “It’s merely a sprained ankle. Miss Pierce wasn’t bleeding to death.”
“Oh… quite. Sorry, Father.”
“No need to apologize. Decisive action is generally better than hesitation. You immediately thought of a solution for the problem and acted – that’s important.”
“So I wasn’t being impetuous?”
“Not at all.”
Kate smiled to herself.
When the party emerged from the cavern, Reynold took a moment to rest, setting Miss Pierce on the nearby bench and sitting beside her. Kate stood in the sunlight with her parents at the door. Wisps of steam rose from their wet clothing. Miss Pierce kept her head down, beautiful auburn ringlets hiding her face. Kate watched Isabel, looking for some sign of jealously in regards to Reynold. She discerned nothing as Isabel sat on the other side of Miss Pierce and they whispered to each other.
“This is ill luck,” Jane said. “Now I’m going on an expedition with a hobbled maid.”
“Not to worry.” Earl Beaufort placed an arm across Jane’s back and hugged. “Miss Pierce will be fine. Despite her injury, I’m glad we came here today. It’s a magical place.”
“There are more caverns to visit in Cheddar Gorge,” Kate sang softly, fully aware it was likely an unwelcome suggestion.
“One is quite enough,” Jane snapped, but then smiled sidelong at Kate. “And if ever we enter this cave again, may we turn to stone and be shown amongst the witch’s collection!”