Diana the Huntress:The Six Sisters 05

By: Marion Chesney & M.C. Beaton

For Harry Scott Gibbons

and

Charles David Bravos Gibbons

with love.







HONEST JOHN BULL




Here’s a health to ‘Old honest John Bull’,

When he’s gone we shan’t find such another;

With hearts and with glasses brim full,

We’ll drink to ‘Britannia, his mother,’

For she gave him a good education,

Bade him keep to his God and his King,

Be loyal and true to the nation,

And then to get merry and sing.



For John is a good-natured fellow,

Industrious, honest and brave;

Not afraid of his betters when mellow,

For betters he knows he must have.

There must be fine lords and fine ladies,

There must be some little, some great;

Their wealth the support of our trade is,

Our trade the support of the State.



The plough and the loom would stand still,

If we were made gentlefolks all;

If clodhoppers who then would fill

The parliament, pulpit or hall?

‘Rights of Man’ makes a very fine sound,

‘Equal riches’ a plausible tale;

Whose labourers would then till the ground?

All would drink, but who’d brew the ale?





Half naked and starv’d in the streets,

We would wander about, sans culottes;

Would Liberty find us in meats,

Or Equality lengthen our coats?

That knaves are for levelling, don’t wonder,

We may easily guess at their views;

Pray, who’d gain the most by the plunder?

Why, they that have nothing to lose.

The Norfolk Minstrel





ONE





Had she not had four extremely beautiful elder sisters, Diana Armitage might have been accounted very well in her way. She had heavy black hair and enormous dark eyes and a pale golden skin. But she affected mannish airs and lacked the charm and delicacy of her sisters and so was considered something of a cuckoo in the Armitage nest.

Her father, the vicar of St Charles and St Jude in the village of Hopeworth, the Reverend Charles Armitage, had devoted his life to the hunt rather than to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. Such was his obsession with the sport that he allowed Diana to hunt – provided she dressed as a man – a disgraceful state of affairs which suited the gypsy-like Diana very well. It was a well-kept secret. Diana, in a buckram-wadded coat to hide her generous bosom and with her tresses pushed up under a hard hat, acquired all the grace and ease of movement she lacked in the drawing room. Mrs Armitage, her mother, was prey to imaginary ills and mostly kept to her bedchamber, and was therefore not aware of the scandalous behaviour of her daughter.

Diana’s four elder sisters had all married well. Minerva had married Lord Sylvester Comfrey; Annabelle, the Marquess of Brabington; Deirdre, Lord Harry Desire, and Daphne, Mr Simon Garfield.

Frederica, the youngest of the Armitage girls, had become a quiet, wispy, bookish thing. No one paid much attention to her. But Diana was so robust, so wild, and so terribly bad-mannered and gauche that it was hard to feel comfortable about her future. The vicar was torn between admiration for his daughter’s prowess on the hunting field and fear for her future, although he tried to console himself with the thought that four well-married daughters was enough.

The twins, Peregrine and James, would soon be going up to Oxford. Boys were never any trouble and, if they got into a scrape, that was only to be expected.

Diana visited her married sisters as little as possible. She complained that they were always trying to marry her off to some ‘Bond Street Fribble’, and did not know how often and how furiously her sisters, especially Minerva, wrote to the vicar to beg Papa to let Diana come to town for an extended period so that she could at least get the smell of the stables out of her clothes.

Perhaps the vicar might have paid heed had he not become consumed with ambition to hunt down an old grey dog fox which had been making his life a misery for the past few years. Try as he would, the vicar could never catch the beast and often thought the old fox was the devil himself come to mock him.

Diana had been invaluable during cubhunting where the young hounds were taught to hunt the fox with the older dog-hounds and bitches.

That cold November day, he was to ride over to the other side of Hopeminster to pay a call on Mr and Mrs Chumley, friends of his son-in-law, Mr Garfield. The vicar planned to go hunting on the morrow, and to ease his conscience he was first taking Diana on a social call. To see Diana struck dumb by polite company always eased the vicar’s conscience. The girl was only at home on the hunting field. So why not let her hunt! It was not as if any of the local county knew that the handsome young man who hunted alongside the vicar was his daughter. Even old Squire Radford did not know, and the squire was the vicar’s oldest and closest friend.