Sedgewick Estate, Tewkesbury, May Day 1820
“What a wonderful idea it was of yours and His Lordship’s to give the staff a holiday on the first day of May,” said Mrs Priscilla Gerrard, the former Lady Jackson. They all still thought of her as ‘Lady’ Priscilla, however.
Lady Samantha Sedgewick, the Countess of Malumthorpe (pronounced Mame-throp), gazed about them happily. “We gave them the day off last year when we were married,” the countess replied. “Aside from wanting to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, we also thought it would be a nice thank-you to them for all of their work over the year. And it is so much nicer in spring for them to have a holiday and spend it out of doors, rather than in the midst of winter, when the weather is too gloomy to do anything.”
“And what a fine day it is too!” added her sister-in-law, Lady Courtney Lawrence.
The three ladies were seated on a chequered blanket on the grass in the shade of the Grand Old Man, the oldest tree in the orchard. Lady Courtney was busy making daisy chains while Lady Priscilla and Lady Samantha were selecting recipes for their new cookery book.
The two older ladies had set up in business together when Lady Samantha discovered that Lady Priscilla’s father had refused to give her a dowry when she married Mr Gerrard. Indeed, the countess had been quite shocked to learn that her friend was indeed quite poor, so the fact that her husband did not come with a title simply aided her father’s mean decision. Lady Priscilla had hidden it so well, too. But she did not let it daunt her, and the ladies’ culinary, baking, and preserves business was doing a roaring trade with the additional bonuses of catering for private events. And now the cookery book, the second that Unwins had commissioned from Lady Samantha.
“Will it be an annual event, Samantha?” asked Lady Priscilla.
“For as long as my husband is the earl, then yes it will,” she replied.
Lady Courtney looked up from her flowers. “And yet they do not seem to want to go far from the house even when they do have a day off,” she said, pointing to one of the kitchen maids walking between the trees with one of the footmen. They were both wearing their Sunday best. “Do you think that love might be in the air over there?” she said, nodding towards the couple.
“On the one hand, I hope so,” said Lady Samantha. “I am a strong believer that a happy staff is a productive staff.”
“And on the other hand?” prompted Lady Priscilla.
“On the other hand, she is a good worker, and I would not want to lose her.”
“You will not lose her if she is happy working here,” said Lady Courtney.
“I will if they marry and she becomes pregnant,” Lady Samantha pointed out.
“Then you must give them one of the tied cottages if they do wed,” said Lady Courtney. “That will keep her close.”
They were interrupted when two men dressed in workers’ clothes came stampeding towards them.
“Thomas!” exclaimed Lady Samantha, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “I thought you were inspecting that farmland you have just purchased.”
Lord Thomas stooped down to kiss his wife on the cheek. “Ned has had some good news,” he said, indicating his friend.
It always amused Lady Samantha that the two men insisted on dressing just like the other ground workers on the estate. If she were going to be honest with herself, she secretly thought that the rugged clothes suited her husband and made him look even more handsome.
Mr Edmond Gerrard knelt next to Lady Priscilla and kissed her on the cheek too. “We have had good news indeed!” he announced to his wife.
“All of this kissing is making me envious!” complained Lady Courtney. “For my husband is nowhere near, and I must wait until I see him when I return home.”
Lady Samantha laughed indulgently at the younger woman. “And your seeing him will be all the better for missing him,” she said.
Lady Priscilla peered across at them and laughed. “Why, it has only been yet a few hours since she saw him last, this very morning!”
“Such is my sister’s love for her beau,” said Lord Thomas. “Anyway, Ned. Do tell the ladies your news before I burst with it myself.”
Edmond collapsed in a heap on the blanket next to his wife. “I have just accepted the keys for the Bloomer estate!”
Lady Priscilla’s face cracked into a huge smile. “So we can move in?” she said. “Where are the keys?” she asked. “Show me the paperwork!”
Edmond and Lord Thomas both laughed at her enthusiasm.
“We dropped everything off at the house before coming to tell you, my dear,” said Edmond.
Lady Priscilla leaned back so that she could scrutinise his appearance. “They gave you the keys and the deeds with you dressed like that?” she asked, shocked.
“Of course they did,” replied her husband. “I am still the same man, and my signature was the same.”
“And as his witness, I too vouched for him,” added Lord Thomas.
All three ladies looked at Lord Thomas and burst out laughing. “And yet,” said Lady Samantha, in between catching her breath, “you too look no better than a beggar.”
Lord Thomas pulled a hurt face. “I look like any other decent and honest man who works for a living,” he said. “The salt of the earth, that is what we are.”
They all laughed again.
“What are you doing, my love?” said the earl to Lady Samantha eventually.
“Priscilla and I are selecting our favourite recipes for the new book,” she said.
“Well,” he said, standing back and holding out his hand to help her to her feet. “I think you should stop doing that right now so that we can all go and look at Ned and Priscilla’s new home.”
“What a splendid idea,” said Edmond, jumping to his feet. While he helped his wife up, Lord Thomas helped his sister up, and Lady Samantha placed a large stone on the recipes so that they would not blow away should a breeze arise in their absence.
“How exciting!” exclaimed Lady Courtney. Despite being a married woman too, she still had such a child-like countenance.
The ladies brushed down their skirts and straightened their bonnets, then the five of them made their way up the orchard towards the house so that they may prepare for a quick run-out to the neighbouring Bloomer estate.
Lady Samantha looked down at the silver letter tray with wide eyes. “Are you certain it is for me?” she said to the butler, who was standing over her, slightly stooping, patiently waiting for her to pick the letter up so that he could straighten his body again.
“It has your name on the outside, My Lady,” he said.
Finally, she picked up the expensive paper and turned it over in her hands. Mr Robinson, bless him, did not make a sound as he stood upright once more and held the letter tray next to his hip.
“Who is it from, my love?” said Lord Thomas from across the table.
They always had as many meals together as they could and the countess had not yet adopted the habit of taking her breakfast in her room. In fact, the couple, still in their first flush of romance even now, chose to eat the first meal of the day in the morning room. The morning room was smaller than the dining room, more intimate, and the round table was much, much smaller than the main dining table too. Even though they sat opposite each other, they did not need to shout nor ask for assistance to pass the salt.
“It is from the palace,” she said.
“Not the Prince Regent?” he replied.
She looked up at him sharply. “He is the king now,” she reminded him.
“Of course he is,” agreed the earl. “He waited a long time for it too. I do not mean to diminish him now.”
“But yes,” she said. “It is indeed from the king himself.”
“And what does the King of England want with my beautiful wife?” he asked.
“I cannot open it,” she said.
“Why ever not? It will not bite you.”
“I do not wish to break such a magnificent seal,” she protested, showing him the waxed imprint on the back of the letter. “Indeed, I should like to keep it intact for ever. It is not every day that one receives correspondence from the monarch.”
“Robinson,” he said to the butler, “will you bring my wife the letter opening knife from my desk?”
“Yes, My Lord,” replied Mr Robinson.
“You must take care not to cut away any of the actual letter,” Lord Thomas said to Lady Samantha when the butler returned.
“It does not feel like a letter,” she said, slitting the paper carefully where she thought it would do the least damage.
There was a letter inside the folded paper, but there was also a rather elaborate piece of highly decorated white card too.
“It is an invitation!” she exclaimed. Then she quickly read through the note that had been added. “The prince— the king is hosting a fancy dress ball, and he would like me to dress up as a man and wear a baker’s costume,” she paraphrased for him.
Lord Thomas laughed. “The man certainly has a sense of humour, and he clearly remembers you from when you and young Twitty turned up both dressed as baker boys.”
Darling Tim Twitty, thought Lady Samantha for a moment. It was good to be reminded of the fun they had both had together when they were young and free, and before they were both married. She too smiled at the memory of the disastrous competition they had attended in London.
“Did I tell you that Tim and Annie are expecting a child?” she asked her husband.
“Do not change the subject!” he demanded. “Tell me more from the king!”
She smiled apologetically and continued to scan the letter. “Oh no!” she said suddenly. “His Royal Highness … I mean, His Majesty the King wishes me to serve a special cake!”
“And what is wrong with that, pray tell?” asked her husband.
“I do not make cake!” she said. “I make pies and puddings and bread and things.”
“But what about that concoction that you make that has apples in the bottom and a sponge cake on the top? Is that not a cake?”
“Well, yes. But it is the only one that I do make.”
“And what about your scones? Are they not cake too?”
“Noooo!” she said, her eyes wide again. “Scones are a type of bread. What on earth will I do?”
He reached across the table and patted the back of her hand. “You will think of something. You always do.”
“You could take your apple cake,” said Lady Priscilla later when the three lady friends met up again for tea in the town.
“Or you could make a delicious scone,” suggested Lady Courtney.
“Or I could quite simply decline,” said Lady Samantha.
“That is the last thing that you must do,” said Lady Priscilla. “But do not worry. We will come up with something.”
The other two ladies chattered on about unimportant matters over the din of the bustling tea room. It had been raining for a few days, and the weather meant that more town-goers wanted to eat and drink inside instead of on the hoof, so to speak, as they walked along. That, in turn, meant that the tea and coffee houses were very busy indeed.
Seeing that her friend was still fretting, Lady Priscilla picked up Lady Samantha’s hand and squeezed it. “I am not accustomed to seeing you so flustered, my dear,” she said truthfully, for the countess was one of the least flappable ladies anyone in the county knew. “Do not worry,” she said. “I will help you.”
“Will you really?” asked a grateful Lady Samantha.
“And I will sample whatever you create,” said Lady Courtney.
As Lady Samantha’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude, she said, “I have two of the best friends in the whole world. I know not why I am feeling so emotional.”
Lady Priscilla exchanged a glance with Lady Courtney. “I expect it is the shock,” she said at length.
The three ladies and their husbands travelled to Brighton in three separate carriages, taking three leisurely days to get there. Lord Philbert Lawrence, Lady Courtney’s husband, had a house there, and he had sent word on ahead to have all of the guest suites prepared for their arrival, as well as the master suite for him and his wife.
The six of them were as giddy as children who were visiting the seaside for the first time. Lady Courtney, in particular, was looking forward to hitching up her skirts a little and paddling in the cool water.
But they were not heading to Brighton for a holiday, or not as such at any rate. They were going to attend the king’s fancy dress ball, but the day before, Lady Priscilla and Lady Courtney would have the run of the king’s kitchen. Having sent a list of the ingredients to the king’s chef, they had practised and practised the special cake they would make for His Majesty.
As requested by the king, Lady Samantha did indeed dress up as a baker, and so did Lady Priscilla. They wheeled in their enormous pudding on a specially adapted table to the king’s delight, and when he sampled it, they thought he might plant his entire face in it; he enjoyed it so much.
With the fun and games over, the two ladies changed into their masquerade costumes more suited to the evening ball, where they met up with their husbands and Lord and Lady Lawrence.
“I trust you enjoyed that,” said Lord Thomas to his wife.
“Oh, it was such fun,” she said.
“And did you see the look on His Majesty’s face?” said Lady Courtney. “I thought he was going to eat the entire pudding there and then!”
“His Majesty does seem to like his food,” snorted Lord Phil.
“Thank goodness we made more than just the one,” said Lady Priscilla.
“Good lord,” said Edmond. “You mean to tell me that there is another giant pudding in the kitchen?”
“I believe it has been placed in the centre of the buffet for later,” said Lady Samantha.
“Did you enjoy meeting His Majesty, Priscilla?” said Lady Courtney, hungry for a snippet of gossip.
“Oh yes,” said Lady Priscilla. “But, of course, I have already met him several times already,” she reminded them.
“It is only the second time for me,” added Lady Samantha.
Lady Courtney sighed. “I wish that I could meet him properly,” she said.
Lord Phil looked at her quickly. “Your wish is my command,” he said grandly, holding out his arm so that she could take hold of it. He escorted her to the man in livery who would announce their names and proudly presented his wife to the king. By the time they returned to the rest of their party, Lady Courtney was almost completely overcome by excitement and needed to sit down.
When the young lady had been given sufficient time to recover herself, the six friends made their way to the ballroom from where strains of a string quartet reached their ears. The ballroom was most impressive, with a black and white chequered floor overlooked by a gilded minstrels’ gallery. There the musicians played, and they too were dressed in masquerade outfits with elaborate masks to hide their identities.
“May I have this dance, My Lady?” said Lord Thomas to Lady Samantha.
“Of course, My Lord,” she replied gracefully, taking his hand and stepping out onto the dance floor. The others all followed suit, and the quartet launched into a romantic but risqué Viennese waltz, a relatively new and incredibly intimate dance that had crossed the English Channel from the Continent.
“Are you having a marvellous time, my love?” he asked her, whisking her around in circles.
“I am having a most wonderful time, thank you,” she replied, as they swept around the dance floor, spinning and spinning until she almost became too dizzy. She loved the way the silk of her dressed swished around the silk of her stockings.”
“You are so beautiful,” he breathed, gazing at her face, taking in every feature as though he had never seen her before. “You look as though you are … blooming.”
Lady Samantha had the good grace to look slightly bashful.
The earl continued. “I do believe there is nothing in this world that could top this delightful evening.”
“Nothing, My Lord?” she enquired.
“Nothing!” he said firmly.
They made a few more turns.
“I am happily in love with the cleverest woman in the world,” he said.
Lady Samantha smiled. “What if I said that I could make you feel even happier?” she asked.
“That would be impossible,” he replied, “but I would give you the opportunity to at least try.”
She laughed lightly then before saying, “We are expecting a child, My Lord.”
Lord Thomas suddenly stopped dancing, there in the middle of the dance floor, in among all of the other dancers. “I beg your pardon?” he said, frowning.
“We cannot stay here,” she said, dragging him off the dance floor.
“What did you say?” he said when they reached relative safety.
“I said that I am pregnant.”
The frown changed to wide eyes, and then a big grin spread across his face. He whisked her up into his arms and carried her into the adjoining sitting room.
“Are you happy, My Lord?” she said.
“I am thrilled!” he replied. “You are so clever, and you are everything I ever wished for.”
Then he kissed her on the lips.
At the door, Lady Priscilla and Lady Courtney smiled at each other, then Lady Priscilla closed the door gently so that the earl and the countess might enjoy a little privacy.