The American Countess
To be released by Black Rose Writing November 22, 2023
Lady Kilnsey, the former India Elisabeth Petra de Vries Ledbetter of The Falls, Pisgah, North Carolina and Washington Square, New York City, stepped onto Deangate’s cobblestones and closed the shop door, setting its little bell tinkling. Placing a hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun’s slanting glare, she looked toward York Minster. Its soaring spires beckoned her to a place of peace, grace, and shelter from the heat of an uncommonly warm afternoon. She tugged on the high neck of her summer frock and brushed away perspiration from her upper lip. Glancing at her broach watch, she saw that there was just enough time to light a candle in the Minster before the evening train home.
The cathedral’s allure increased as she reviewed her purchases of moments ago. Having just committed enormous sums for bathroom, kitchen, and central heating fittings for the entire castle, a few moments’ quiet reflection felt in order. Lord Kilnsey, Charlie to friends and loved ones, had found it odd she didn’t leave the job of making choices to the contractor, but India had definite ideas about what she wanted. She smiled to herself. The fortune inherited from her grandfather, that wily old fox T.J. Ledbetter, was being put to good use on renovations long overdue.
She glanced at Althea, her lady’s maid and friend, the only other American residing in Kilnsey Castle. “Thank goodness having modern plumbing and heating will not take as long as getting the electricity in. I will never understand why it took two years to get lines run from Grassington Power Station and to wire the two floors we use. The housemaids are still wiping plaster dust from odd corners.” She waggled her brows. “Next, tally-ho my art studio.”
Althea chuckled. “Aren’t you forgetting the compromise with His Lordship?”
India sighed. “Hmm. You’re right. He’s impatient to convert the castle stable block into a garage. Of course, I see his point. Leaving the Rolls-Royce in the courtyard to endure all weather is wearing a little thin.” While the income from her fortune would have covered the costs of all the castle renovations being done at once, it would have stretched it rather thin for several years. Her father’s words of caution were never far from her mind where financial matters were concerned, and so, the castle modernization proceeded with far less speed than Charlie would have liked.
As they strolled toward the Minster, a roar rose from the end of the street. Mounted policemen accompanied by others on foot waded into a crowd, the outer rings of which were made up of men shouting with fists raised, some of them holding rocks or fruit. It was impossible to see what lay at the center of the commotion, but India had her suspicions.
She grabbed Althea’s arm. “Come on. I bet my bottom dollar they’re harassing the suffragists again.” Instead of turning away from the disturbance, she pulled Althea toward it.
The maid yanked her arm from India’s grasp. “Oh no you don’t. We can’t get involved in that. His Lordship and the Dowager would be furious.”
India’s mouth became a thin line. “I’m going to do what I can. Stay here, if you must.” India winced inwardly at her imperious tone. Mistress and servant was not the true nature of their relationship.
Althea grimaced, shook her head, but fell into step. India glanced at her maid from the corner of her eye. Althea was clearly irritated. Perhaps a reminder was in order.
“When he proposed, Charlie promised not to interfere with my interests.” India cast a mischievous grin at Althea. “Furthermore, my mother-in-law needs a little shaking up. She’s far too set in her ways.”
“So, just when are you planning on telling them about your donations and afternoons spent working in the York office?”
“When I am good and ready and not before. A few pounds here and there and an occasional afternoon hardly warrant mentioning. Besides, what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
As they approached the crowd, India hiked her skirt and stepped up onto the base of a street lamp for a better view. What she saw set her heart racing. Women, whose only crime was asking for what should have been theirs long ago, were being taunted, threatened, and assaulted by the public. Their placards had been torn from their hands and were being trampled beneath the boots of a crowd of cretins. This simply would not do.
Jumping down from the lamp post, India did not wait for Althea. She marched into the gang of men surrounding the women. Jostling increased and objects began to fly.
Glaring up at a mounted policemen, she shouted, “What is the meaning of this? Who are these women harming that they should be treated thus? I demand that you disperse this crowd immediately.”
The policeman’s face turned as red as the rotten tomatoes that had just splattered on some of the protesters. He tightened his mount’s reins and leaned down so that his nose was inches from India’s face. “Madam, unless you wish to be arrested along with these other women, you will leave the area at once. We’ve had enough of these hussies and harlots.”
“Of all the nerve. These women are nothing of the sort. They are only asking for what is rightfully ours.”
“Oh, so you are one of them, are you?” He sat upright and motioned to a colleague on the ground. “Hey Tommie, this here one wants to join her sisters. Take her along with the others.”
“How dare you threaten me? I have done nothing but ask an honest question and demand that you do your job. Your job is to protect citizens, all of us, but it is a responsibility you seem determined to shirk. You, sir, are as lazy as you are stupid and insolent.”
Hands grabbed India’s upper arms from behind and propelled her toward the open door of a police van lurking just around the corner and out of sight of the protest.
India’s fury surged as she struggled against the policeman’s grip to no avail. “Let go of me, you stupid oaf. I am Lady Kilnsey, wife of the fifteenth Earl of Kilnsey.”
Before she could say more, the officer lifted her bodily from the ground and shoved her into the already packed vehicle. He slammed the door and frowned at her though the bars. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn if you’re the bloody Queen of Sheba, you’re going to the nick along with the rest of these blighters. No descent woman would be seen with such rabble.”
India glared down at her captor. “My husband will hear of this. Y’all are gonna be in big trouble.” India covered her mouth with her hand. Had she really just said y’all and gonna, vestiges of a childhood spent in America’s Appalachian Mountains?
The officer merely laughed in response then tugged the brim of his helmet, turned, and strolled back toward the now dispersing crowd.
Within the van, women of all ages and class, some covered with the detritus of rotten fruit, others bleeding, huddled together on rough wooden benches. India squeezed into the spot the ladies made for her.
The women, all strangers, watched India with interest from their places along the van walls as though she might be some rare specimen pinned to a board in a science laboratory. India nodded in the direction of no one in particular, but the acknowledgement was not return.
Finally, the one directly across from her bestirred herself. “You are not English, are you?” Her enunciation and vowels indicated she was of the upper classes or perhaps a well-educated middle class matron.
India shook her head. “Not originally. Before my marriage, my home was in North Carolina. That’s in the southern United States. I lived in the mountains. They are very beautiful and sometimes I miss them very much.” Her words tumbled to a halt. Babbling, a habit she thought she had shed, had returned in full force. Her nerves must be wound tighter than she wanted to admit.
“I see.” The woman eyed India in speculation. “One of these American heiresses come to save our poor old British aristocracy from ruin, I suppose?” Irony colored the woman’s words.
India’s lips thinned. She had no patience for the direction this conversation was taking. She leaned back against the wall and ignored her inquisitor. Within moments, the sound of reins slapping horses’ backs followed by the rumble of the van’s wheels brought her upright again.
Gripping the door’s iron bars, she searched the road and sidewalks. Word must be gotten to Charlie. She found Aletha at the forefront of a small crowd following the van and called, “Go straight to the solicitor’s office. Tell him to come to the police station at once.”
The last thing she saw was Althea’s horror stricken face, her head bobbing up and down in frantic agreement.