The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom Episode 4: Lady Louisa Has a Plan


Our image of Lady Louisa*

Lady Louisa, Dowager Baroness Bloxley, sat bathed in the warm glow of satisfaction as she awaited the impending presence of the Duke in her drawing room. Lady Louisa relished his visits. She and the Duke enjoyed a long acquaintance of almost thirty years and Lady Louisa looked upon the Duke as though he were an only slightly younger brother, viewing his accomplishments with fierce sisterly pride. No one could deny that the man was a brilliant general and his politics pleased her greatly. That he could have made a wiser decision when it came to choosing his bride was neither here nor there, as Kitty, the Duchess of Wellington herself, had been neither here nor there, but forever in the background when present at all. The personification of a wall flower . . . . At least Kitty had made no demands upon the Duke, unlike that ungrateful group of fractious infants known collectively as The Royal Family. Thank goodness Prinny, the fat, mean- spirited, old spendthrift, was gone. He’d never had an ounce of sense in his bewigged head. He’d demanded the Duke’s help in every manner of affair, with the result being that the Duke had constantly been kept on the trot travelling between London and Windsor and Brighton and back again. One hundred years of Germanic lunacy had all but crippled the English monarchy and now the rabble meant to take over the House of Commons. It was disgraceful. 
Startled out of her reverie, Lady Louisa looked up to see the Duke standing in the doorway. “Arthur!” 

The Duke bent over Lady Louisa and touched his lips to her powdered cheek. Taking a seat on the sofa across from her, he looked at Lady Louisa with great affection. Today her greying, fair hair was covered in a sort of black lace mantilla, no doubt yet another throwback to the days of her youth. To the Duke’s own youth, if truth be told. He hadn’t seen a headdress the likes of this since leaving the Peninsula. Had they ever been popular in England? Louisa’s eccentric manner of dress kept people guessing – some were convinced that she wore outmoded outfits because she was too stingy to buy a new wardrobe. Though why she should be thought mean in her dress when she could not be faulted for being mean in other areas of her life was difficult to work out. Others believed that she was slightly mad. The Duke knew that Louisa clung to the raiment of bygone days out of nothing more than pure vanity. What other lady, upon entering late middle age, could boast of being able still to fit into the same dresses she had worn as a young lady? Not many. 

As she watched him help himself to a tumbler of water from the decanter that was always placed on the side table prior to any of his visits, Louisa said, “I’m glad you’ve come at last. I’ve something I want to discuss with you.”
“Come at last? I was here just last week, my dear. Surely you cannot want to see me more often than that.”
“Be that as it may, Arthur, pay attention now, as I’ve a scheme to discuss with you. And take that look off your face, do. You resemble a pained child.”
“It can’t be helped. I feel like a pained child whenever you mention one of your schemes.”
“You will approve of this one, Arthur.”
“Forgive me if I have reservations.”

“Arthur, I cannot imagine what it is you believe I’m about to propose, but I assure you that it will delight you. It concerns Captain Bradley-Smythe and Prudence.”
“Bradley-Smythe and . . . Prudence?”
“Yes. But I do not want to bring it up in front of Anne, not just yet. “ 

The Duke wrinkled his brow. “But she –”
“It’s a perfect plan, Arthur.” 

“You may depend upon the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. A perfect plan does not exist. Not on the battlefield and even less so in life.”
In the stillroom at the back of the Dower House, Miss Anne Humphrey felt her heart flutter when Betsy came to the door to summon her. Anne was almost finished steeping the rose petals. No matter, she thought, it won’t hurt them to sit another half hour while we talk with the Duke. No matter what she was about when the Duke called, her deep respect and affection for the man required that she drop whatever it was and see him at the earliest possible moment.
As she dried her hands, Anne looked at the clutter on the shelf, trying to find something she might give to him. Before his wife died last year, she always sent a small bottle of the rosewater or a jar of lemon crème to that fine lady, the Duchess Kitty. But it was more difficult to find something for a great man like the Duke, though she knew he had achy joints, as did everyone else of his age. He was just too busy to let such trifles bother him. A little jar of beeswax balm would have to do, and she placed it deep in the pocket of her dark gown. After hanging up her apron and smoothing back her hair, she drew a deep breath.
These meetings between herself and the Duke were always welcome, however painful, recalling as they did the melancholy events of so many years before. The loss of her dear Edward, the awful news carried to her while she tended the wounded at Lady Bloxley’s house in Brussels, the Duke’s infinite kindness to her afterwards. Instead of dressing for her wedding ceremony the next day as intended, Anne had spent the morning searching that dreadful battleground. She pressed her lips firmly together and tried to erase the scene from her mind.

The conversation in the drawing room ceased as Anne entered carrying a single teacup upon a matching saucer. Anne excused her interruption, placed the teacup on the table beside Lady Louisa and took her place on a chair near the sofa where the Duke now sat beside Lady Louisa. He rose when she greeted him and gave her a little bow.
“You are looking well, Miss Humphrey.”

“As are you, my Lord Duke,” Anne replied. The Duke pointedly looked at the newly arrived teacup and winked at Anne. She blushed to the roots of her hair.
“My granddaughters are to be painted this summer, on the eve of Daphne’s presentation to the Queen. Do you know the painter Tournell?” Lady Louisa asked the Duke, changing the subject from that which she meant to broach prior to Anne’s arrival.
The Duke looked back at Lady Louisa. “I believe I have heard the name, but I do not recall in what regard.”
“In my view, it was demmed rude of Sir Thomas Lawrence to die so young; he should have had twenty more years of work if he had taken care of his health.”

Anne smiled to herself at Lady Louisa’s remark, but had no desire to provoke her employer by pointing out the poor man’s lack of choice in his mode or time of death.

“Demmed artists.” The Duke’s brow furrowed slightly. The Duke, who was continually being badgered to sit for his portrait, had little patience left for painters.  
The Dowager paid no attention to his frown. “I don’t know why Lionel had to choose some Frenchman to paint the portrait. Certainly we have some English fellows ready to pick up Lawrence’s brushes.” Louisa picked up the teacup and took a swallow of the brandy it held.
The Duke nodded. “I can attest to the truth of that. But Lord Bloxley must have had his reasons.”
Lady Louisa could hardly sit still. If only she could think of an errand on which to send Anne, she might resume convincing the Duke to join in her plans for Prudence. They needed to have it decided, in detail, before they presented it to Anne. After all, it was completely in Anne’s interest, as well.
But when Hartley the butler came into the room, it was not to call Anne away. Instead, he announced another arrival. “Mr. Montague Twydall, my lady.”

*Photograph taken in Yale University’s Center for British Art; Mrs. (Mary) Lushington, painted by John Hamilton Morimer, 1774

The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom, Episode 2: The Duke Approaches


The Duke of Wellington, riding upright upon his horse, felt himself relax as he approached Bloxley Bottom. He came here often and, when he did, he was able for a time to put officialdom behind himself, as the villagers, whilst well aware of who he was and what his achievements were, tended to treat him rather more like a man than like a figurehead. Here in Bloxley, the Duke was able to interact with people on a more personal level, perhaps because he was such a familiar figure to them. Or perhaps because the people of Bloxley were less given to humbug than those who lived elsewhere.

Turning into the high street, the Duke looked forward to the routine that would momentarily begin at his approach, for he was a man who championed routine; a man who felt that routine gave structure to life, whether that life be spent in the military, the government, or in Bloxley Bottom.
“Good day to you, yer Grace!” Walter Turner came out of his bakehouse, dusting his hands off upon his massive white apron.
The Duke of Wellington gave Walter his usual greeting – a two fingered salute to the brim of his hat. “Walter, how is the family?”

Walter smiled up at the Duke, exposing wide, yellowed teeth that reminded the Duke of an ivory set of dominoes his ADC’s had played upon at Talavera.
“Oh, you know how they go, Duke,” chuckled Walter, “hard to live with, but impossible to live without. Can’t complain. Hey, I’ve got some loaves just come out the oven. I’ll put three by for you to take back to the Castle on your way home. And Mrs. Preston wanted you to know that she’s got ducks what are ready. If you are.”
Loaves, live stock and more were always offered up for the Duke. They were part and parcel of the routine.
“Duke! Dooooook!” Old Rodney Casper had weaved his way up the street towards the Duke and Walter. His first question would be yet another part of the routine.
“Parley vooo?” Whenever Rodney was in his cups, which was more often than not, he insisted upon speaking French to the Duke. The problem was, Rodney did not know how to speak the language. Why he supposed that the Duke regularly conversed in French remained a mystery to all.
“I’m right as rain, Rodney. And you?”
“Come and see and come and say.” Rodney, in his musty, fusty mismatched suit of clothes and battered cloth cap, craned his neck, squinted his eyes and peered up at the Duke of Wellington for few moments before turning his attention towards Walter and giving his face the same intense scrutiny. Then, like some great bird, Rodney pulled his head back in and announced  “Gotta be off.” With that, he tottered in place for a few moments, seemed to pick up some steam and then began the long stagger home.

The Duke of Wellington sighed and gathered his reins. “Please tell Mrs. Preston that I shall have a talk with Mrs. Allen regarding the ducks,” he told Walter. “We shall no doubt find use for them. We’re to have a full complement of guests beginning on Thursday.”

The Duke rode on until he reached the bend in the road which would ultimately bring him to the dower house, home of Louisa, Dowager Baroness Boxley. He prepared himself for his next routine encounter, this with a resident a bit more recently come to the village.

“Wait for it . . . . wait for it . . . .” the Duke muttered to himself as, beneath him, his mount, called Bedford after the county it had been born in, prepared himself, as well. The horse’s nostrils flared and its eyes, the whites wide, fastened upon to the thicket at the side of the road as a dog came bounding out of it towards the pair.

And what a dog it was. The deuced strangest looking dog that ever was, thought the Duke as he tightened up on the reins in an effort to calm the horse. The animal, which had appeared in Bloxley Bottom seemingly out of the clear blue sky about a year ago and taken up residence in the thicket, was unlike any other dog the Duke had ever laid eyes upon. Or rather he was too much like too many canines the Duke had seen. As the Duke had been
known to say, this dog looked for all the world as though God, in a humorous frame of mind, had one day looked about his workshop, found spare parts left over from previous dogs he’d devised, cobbled the lot together and set it down in Bloxley to see what the villagers would make of it. In fact, one of the more witty townsfolk had named the dog Spot and Spot he’d remained, even though his coat was a uniform, unbroken shade of white.
The rear of the dog was narrow, like that of a terrier. Its mid-section gradually widened until it reached a great ruff of hair resembling the mane of a lion, which framed a massive head reminiscent of a bull dog, complete with a menacing under bite. Odder still, none of its various parts resembled any dog that had ever been known to inhabit the village.
As ever, the dog reached a seemingly self-imposed boundary, sat down upon its haunches, lowered its massive head and commenced a great growling that began in the region of its tail. Up through its body the growl traveled, past its shoulders and into the sinewy neck, through its throat and out its fearsome mouth.
The Duke laughed aloud. “Arp yourself, you great daft thing.” What a demmed disappointing bark it was. The build up to it was stupendous. The end result, only ever a single, feeble “arp,” another comedic stroke orchestrated by God in his heaven.
Reaching into his coat pocket, the Duke withdrew a handkerchief, from which he extracted two sausages he’d taken from the breakfast table that morning for just this purpose. He threw one, then the other, to the dog, who gobbled them down.
“Not a word to Mrs. Allen,” he warned the dog, “There’d be hell to pay if she knew where her good sausages had gone.” Mrs. Allen, the Duke’s housekeeper at Walmer Castle, was not overly fond of dogs.

After a moment the Duke trotted off. When he reached the bend in the road, the Duke did not avert his eyes, but at the same time raised his hat in silent salute to Aurelia, whom he was certain had watched his approach from behind her lace curtains.

The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom, Episode 1: Widow at the Window

 June, 1832

Aurelia Gammersgill sat near the window in her parlor and pushed aside the lace curtain. Hilltop House was situated at the top of the village of Bloxley Bottom and afforded her an unobstructed view of all that transpired upon the road that sloped gently upwards towards her doorstep before it took a sharp turn westward. Aurelia required that her chair be placed in the path of the window’s natural light in order to attend to her needlework. The fact that this placement of her chair also afforded Aurelia an unimpeded view upon the village’s inhabitants and their daily business was secondary. Or so she told herself. Whilst Aurelia sat here, however, she rarely missed seeing who was to-ing and fro-ing, who went into the bakery or who led horses to the blacksmith at the bottom of the road or who entered the Crowing Cock Inn.
Aurelia rarely observed much excitement. Most mornings found a small bustle of activity in and out of the bakery. Mr. Turner’s cinnamon-laced buns fed many a village household, not to mention anyone who happened to drop in at the Inn’s coffee room. And when the nearby shop received a new shipment of goods, word spread throughout the village in a trice. Many were the times Aurelia and Millicent had snatched up their bonnets in order to be amongst the early visitors to the yard goods counter or to inspect a newly arrived collection of colorful ribbon spools.

The road that wound its way through the village and past Aurelia’s home was tree-shaded and bordered by flower-laden gardens and white-washed cottages along its upper reaches. The goose girl and her brother drove their flock to the green every morning, complicating the flow of carts and wagons in front of the blacksmith shop. The twice daily arrival of the coach from Canterbury on its way to Walmer and Deal brought the mail. If there were letters for Aurelia or Millicent, someone from the Crowing Cock Inn could be counted upon to deliver them within an hour of their arrival, though Millicent often sent their kitchen-girl to fetch the post if she were expecting a package. Millicent spent a great deal of her time and a fair share of her meager resources ordering goods from near and far, although the farther the better, and she relished receiving parcels in the mail. Whether they contained soap, confections or fabric notions, the contents of the parcels were more often than not a surprise to Millicent, who would have forgotten placing her orders by the time they had arrived.

This bright morning, Aurelia noted a lone horseman coming towards the bend in the road and she watched as he touched his hat to the various people who stood in the shop doorways. Long before she was able to make out his face, Aurelia knew it was the Duke, no doubt on his way to visit the dowager baroness, whose house stood less than a quarter mile west. Ah, the most excellent Duke of Wellington. How fortunate they were in their little village of Boxley Bottom to have him visit so often. Aurelia herself had taken tea in his presence several times when he’d arrived at Lady Louisa’s unexpectedly. Such a fine, erect figure of a man, and so courteous to everyone. It made her heart flutter to think she knew this national hero, the very man who had led the army at Waterloo. Let’s see, she thought. That would have been sixteen, no seventeen, years ago next month.
Down the hill, the Duke stopped to speak to someone and Aurelia’s thoughts drifted back to the year 1815. Her husband had still been alive and representing clients in Crawley, just south of London. But he already suffered ill health. Two years later, she’d been left alone, long before she had ever expected to be widowed, especially without much in the way of means. Why he had not made provisions for her … she’d never understood. It had been necessary for Aurelia to sell their home and to withdraw to rented rooms in Tunbridge Wells where she lived for several years, enduring a long string of inelegant dishes – her landlady, Mrs. Scarcely, had lived up to her name, serving greasy mutton and limp cabbage for Sunday dinner.
How fortunate that she and Millicent had been able to combine their resources and find this comfortable home together, with a lovely church and unexpectedly agreeable company nearby. Millicent had her precious silver and Aurelia her fine china, which gave their little gatherings a particularly elegant touch. They were both happy with their quiet lives, gardening and working on silk-embroidered hangings for the church or for others in the village. Yes, Millicent was a worthy woman, and she always meant well, even if she more often than not spoke more than she ought. There were some who might consider Millicent a good natured gossip, though Aurelia would never say as much.
The Duke’s horse was moving along again, the Duke on his way to the Dower House to see the Dowager Baroness Bloxley. Lady Louisa lived along the road to Bloxley Park and the Hall itself. She had an imperious manner sometimes, Aurelia mused, but she was an earl’s daughter and probably had moved in more exalted circles when she was young, certainly more exalted than Bloxley Bottom’s collection of residents. But her loss was Aurelia’s and Millicent’s gain. They visited Lady Louisa at least once a week, when she had her Afternoons. Which reminded Aurelia that she and Millicent would be visiting the vicar and his wife today. She hoped there would be no disagreements over the upcoming rose festival among the ladies of the parish. Oftentimes, it seemed to Aurelia as though Mrs. Miriam Newton, the vicar’s wife, was wont to find amusement in the little contretemps that errupted among the ladies. My, Aurelia chastened herself, but that was an uncharitable thought. Quite
unworthy indeed.
A much safer topic of conversation might be receipts for seed cake. She tucked this thought away in the hopes of being able to call it forward should a diversion be needed. The endless variations  of seed cake receipts were always good for a comfortable chat, and rarely led to controversy. Aurelia reminded herself to pick some newly blooming early lavender, the French variety for which Millicent had sent away. One hesitated to admit the French could outgrow the English when it came to such a basic plant as lavender, but perhaps their milder climate in southern France caused improvements. A superior variety would have nothing to do with the contentious nature of the French people whatsoever.
The Duke was almost at the top of the hill. After he visited Lady Louisa, Aurelia was certain he would continue on to Bloxley Park in order to discuss important matters with the baron. Not that Aurelia was able to imagine what these might be, as men did have their little ways of arranging things to their own satisfaction. Whatever his goal today, the Duke was a welcome visitor to Bloxley Bottom.