Tag Archives: Miss Maria Fluart

Safe from Unsuitable Men or Miss Fluart’s Romance

The weeping girl was handed into the carriage, her father looked at the black veiled woman.
“I am counting on you to keep her safe from unsuitable men.”
Miss Fluart nodded, “My house in Devon is very secluded, she will be safe from men there.”
As they drove off Charlotte smiled at her friend,
“I think that went very well, but you said nothing about unsuitable woman?”
“I don’t know what you mean, my dear.” Replied Miss Fluart squeezing Charlotte’s hand.
Charlotte settled back,
“But Maria, what am I to do in wildest Devon?”
“Have adventures, my dear, adventures.”

 

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, November 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a romance. Focus on the relationship between two people. Build tension and end on a happy(ish) note. Go where the prompt leads!

In considering this prompt I naturally thought of the remarkable Miss Fluart, the eighteenth century character who has inspired several tales of mine.

 

 

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – The facts behind the tale.

I said, when I was beginning to tell the tale, that some of the more remarkable features of the story were based on fact, and suggested that people might like to guess what they were.

They were not the basic features of the story. The idea of two women living together, one of whom was quite prepared to carry a gun, come from the book – Hermsprong, published in 1796, where the wonderful Miss Fluart first came into being.

I have discussed highwaywomen in a previous blog, and as loyal men took to the road during the aftermath of the civil war, the idea of a tough woman doing so was plausible at least. Smugglers certainly used ghost stories to keep people away from some parts of the coast.

One real oddity I mentioned at the beginning of part 2, was the curious fact that county maps in England and Wales never interlinked. Even if the same mapmaker, made maps of adjacent counties and at the same scale, the county boundaries never matched!

 Hardy, Heywood, 1842-1933; The Two Roses

However the really weird facts concern the ghost!

I have based Lady Susanna Sterling on two notable West Country ladies, Lady Howard (unidentified) rides in a coach pulled by horses that are sometimes headless. She collects the souls of the dead and, on at least one occasion, deliberately hunted down an evil-doer.

 

‘About a century ago, a certain George Mace, of Watton, was the ring leader of a gang of’ local poachers. One night he and his followers met near the Hall and arranged to split up into small bands for the night’s work. They were to meet again before the moon went down in a shed behind the Hall. At the appointed time all came to the shed, with one exception-Mace. The poachers waited for a considerable time but their leader did not appear. At last, when they were becoming both angry and alarmed, they heard the sound of approaching wheels and saw a coach drive up to the door of the Hall. It was more brilliantly lit up than any natural coach of those days. They saw its steps let down, its door opened and shut again with a bang, though they could not see by whom. No sooner had the door closed than the lamps went out and the coach itself vanished utterly and without a sound. The frightened men knew they had seen the Spectral Coach but they could not tell for whom it had come. They were not left long in ignorance. Next morning George Mace’s dead body was found lying’ outside the Hall on the very spot where the coach had waited. Dr. Jessop’s informant said there was nothing to show what had killed him. There were no marks of violence on his body nor any signs of sudden illness. His time had come, and he had been fetched away by a Power which even the boldest poacher cannot hope to defy.’

However my main source for the ghost was to be found in Mrs Susanna Gould, known as Madam Gould.

‘She was a woman of very strong character who ruled her dependants firmly and was reputed to be absolutely fearless; during her last illness she refused to go to bed, and died in her chair on April l0th, 1795’

Nearly seventy years after her death the estate was inherited by her great-nephew, the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould. He was fascinated to discover that, not only did he have a family ghost, but it was one that took an active part in caring for her descendants and the estate.

‘When one of Baring-Gould’s children was ill, the nurse was roused from sleep one night by a knock on the door and a woman’s voice saying: “It is time for her to have her medicine.” Opening the door she saw no one, on another occasion she entered the room where the children were asleep, to see a tall woman in old fashioned clothes bending over their bed.’

And on another occasion.

‘One old woman told Baring-Gould that as a girl she had stolen some apples from the orchard. Her pockets were full and she had one in her hand when she saw Madam Gould, all in white, standing by the gate and pointing to the apple. The terrified girl flung it away and ran to a gap at the other end of the orchard. But the ghost was there before her, pointing to her pocket, and there she stayed until all the stolen fruit was thrown down on the grass.’

But there were problems with having a ghost in the family, which gave me the idea for the opening of the story.

‘In 1864, a man returning from Tavistock by night saw the white-clad ghost at the mouth of a mine-shaft, and broke his leg whilst scrambling hastily over the opposite hedge. Baring-Gould relates that this nearly cost him and his wife a meal. The man’s sister was cook to the Rector of Bratton, and when she heard that the Baring-Goulds were coming over, she refused to cook for any member of that family because Old Madam had caused her brother’s accident.’

 

All the quotes come from Haunted England by Christina Hole, published in 1940.

 

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 4

The Reckoning – Explanations and Conclusions?

Miss Fluart woke late, the sun was well up as she sipped her tea and read the various letters that had been delivered. There were letters from Sir Charles Campinet and another magistrate saying they would wait on her later in the day, there was a more official, but very gracious letter from the local Riding Officer delighted to have a large consignment of smuggled goods to collect, and an obsequious letter from a local lawyer, agreeing to everything the ‘honoured lady’ was suggesting.

As she was reading the last Charlotte came in, she was still very sore, but had insisted on getting up as she wanted to see the fun. She settled gratefully on the sofa and read through the letters. The last surprised her until she was shown the parchment covered book. Miss Fluart then took it away, and retuned empty handed.

“I have put it somewhere safe, I will say more when the men have gone.”

The Riding Officer was the first to arrive, he brought a wagon and Miss Fluart told Watson to oversee the unloading of the coach. After he left she brought his receipt to the two ladies.

“He says there will be a big reward for all the smuggled goods, at least forty guineas.”

“And it will be yours Watson.” Said Maria to her shocked maid. “Miss Sumelin and I will be rewarded in other ways, so we have decided that this money would be yours.” Watson left, babbling her thanks, delighted and even more devoted to her amazing mistress.

“What am I getting Maria?” Asked Charlotte from the sofa.

“Wait and see my dear,” Miss Fluart replied, “The gentlemen are here and they will want an explanation.”

Sir Charles and Mr Saxby, the other local magistrate entered the room. Miss Fluart rose to greet them and Charlotte apologised for not rising.

“My dear young lady,” Said Sir Charles, “After such a shock and injury should you not be in bed when you may be cared for and leave this unpleasant business to us?”

“Sir Charles, I have suffered more from falling off my horse. Despite what your philosophy might teach, we young ladies do not wish to be wrapped in cotton wool all the time. Also I was as much involved in this matter as Miss Fluart and should be here.”

Sir Charles shook his head, but sat down as Miss Fluart took several papers from the table.

“I first heard of this supposed ghost when the vicar’s cook refused to cook me dinner, because it had frightened her husband. Like most people I thought that he had been drunk, but soon discovered that many more were seeing the ghost coach. This began to cause me a great deal of embarrassment as people seemed to think I was responsible, so I began to investigate. Amongst the various stories I soon realised that there were some that seemed to refer to a real coach. This coach was only seen on little used roads that ran from the coast inland, and I asked myself why this should be, then realised that the obvious answer was free traders.”

the-smugglers

“Why did you not come to us?” asked Mr Saxby, “With that information we would have sent out the dragoons.”

“With respect what use would they have been?” Replied Miss Fluart. “The dragoons idea of secrecy is to shout once rather than twice. Everyone, including the smugglers, would hear them coming three or four miles away. That is all those who would not have drunk so much out of fear of the ghost that they couldn’t sit in the saddle. There were only three people I had any confidence in to help me hunt down whoever was taking my great-aunt’s name in vain, my maid, my friend and myself. So we set a trap and caught a ghost.” She paused, “But sadly the men escaped, I would love to have them in prison as one of them shot at Miss Sumelin.”

“Was the coach the only vehicle you saw that night?” Asked Sir Charles.

“Why?” replied a puzzled Miss Fluart.

“Because four men have been found dead this morning, all of them have been crushed by a broad wheeled cart, so it couldn’t have been your coach. One is a known smuggler, two are petty criminals who have both been before the bench on more than one occasion, whilst the fourth is unknown to us, but had a French made coat and a plan of Plymouth in his pocket.”

“A Spy?”

“Most likely and we suspect these men were the ones who escaped from you last night.”

“We certainly never saw a waggon or cart, I was more concerned about getting Charlotte home. Did John Taylor see anything?”

“That fool, no he saw nothing at all.”

“Well, the deaths of those men is a mystery that will probably never be solved.”

“Very likely, now tomorrow I will send a man to collect the coach and horses.”

“You will not Sir Charles, the coach is mine.”

“Come madam, how can you suggest such a thing. It was clearly made to scare people and was used in a criminal conspiracy.”

Miss Fluart smiled sweetly. “I have here a letter from a legal gentleman, well known to you both, who tells me that the coach was built for a number of local worthies, who intended to present it to me as a mark of their esteem. It was being ‘tested’ in secret and was apparently misappropriated by the smugglers.”

“Tested indeed,” snapped Mr Saxby, “You know who was behind the whole operation. You must tell us at once, or you will be liable.”

“Liable for accepting a valuable gift. I think not.” She replied. “Anyway I am sure there will be no more smuggling runs like that again, indeed I rather suspect that smuggling will also be much reduced locally.”

“Do you really mean to keep it then.” He was getting angry now,

“Yes, and Mr Corrow it acting for me in this respect.”

“Corrow, he is a rogue. He was a rogue when he worked for Lord Grondale and he is a rogue now.”

“Oh no, Mr Corrow is a kind and generous gentleman. As soon as he heard what had happened he not only informed me that the carriage was intended for me, but personally offered to recompense Miss Sumelin for the damage to her riding habit.”

“So Corrow is the gentleman. I think we should take a close look at him.”

“But please wait until the mantua-makers account is settled.”

Sir Charles laughed, “ Come Saxby, you must see that Miss Fluart has this well in hand. Even if we were able to convict, I am sure that whoever is concerned is powerful enough to escape with a fine smaller than that which they are paying to these gallant ladies.”

His companion nodded, Miss Fluart rose and handed Sir Charles a thick package.

“And here is something that might make interesting reading if anything untoward were to happen.”

He rose too and bowed.

“Such as a mantua-makers account not being settled.”

“Exactly,” she replied, curtsying. “Now gentlemen I must ask you to leave, Miss Sumelin is still unwell and needs to return to bed.”

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Over supper, Charlotte said,

“You said nothing about Lady Susanna?”

“No, it would have confused them, ghosts don’t fit into the philosophy of Sir Charles.”

“But it was her, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes, I think she was as irritated by people pretending to be her as I was. She was appearing around the house as her first priority was always to protect her family. Then when you were shot at she got as angry as I was and you can guess the rest.”

Charlotte was silent, thinking of what those wicked men must have endured, being hunted by a spectral coach, she was sure Lady Susanna would have wanted them to be terrified.

 

Later, when she was in bed, Miss Fluart came to say goodnight, Charlotte looked up at her friend and said.

“You said that Lady Susanna got angry when I got shot because her first concern was to protect her family.”

“Yes my dear.”

“But I am not family.”

Maria Fluart bent and kissed her friend on her forehead.

“But you are my dear, you are.”

But Charlotte was already asleep.

 

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 3

The Hunt is On.

The path led from the village, across the field, over the common and onto the moorland. It had once been a favoured route for young couples, there were plenty of places where two people could ‘get comfortable’ as the saying went, but over the past two months it had lost its popularity, few people wanted to risk meeting the ghost coach. Despite this the sight a young woman on the arm of a young man still wasn’t that unusual, but if their appearance wasn’t strange, their conversation was.

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“Aren’t you even going to give me a kiss?” The young man asked, almost plaintively.

“Of course not.” The young woman replied, “we are only here to keep a lookout. You know what my lady wants, and you are being paid.”

“But it’s been three days now, I don’t think anything is going to happen.”

“That certainly won’t.” Nancy Watson caught the young man’s hand as he tried to get too close and twisted it. He cried out, then to his amazement, she wrapped her arms round him hard and screamed.

“What the…” he gasped, then was pulled back by Nancy as the coach galloped past, he turned to look and screamed as well. The galloping horses had no heads.

Nancy pushed the man away.

“All right Bob, you can go home now.”

“But, but that was the ghost coach.”

“Of course it was, what do you think we have been looking for these past few days.”

There was the sound of a shot, far away.

“Oh, they have caught them.”

“Who have the ghosts caught?” said Bob in terror.

“No Miss Fluart and Miss Sumelin have caught the ghosts.”

Bob looked in terror at the sturdy maidservant, who was looking up the path. She was holding a pistol in her hand.

“I will just wait here in case any try to escape this way, you can go home now.”

He ran.

 

Miss Fluart waited in the shadow cast by a tall tree beside the old road. She had been alerted by Nancy’s scream, her hiding place had been chosen deliberately, at the top a short, steep slope. As she expected the coach horses had slowed on the slope and were only walking slowly at they came over the brow. She rode out into the moonlight and took her position in the middle of the road. The coach approached her slowly, when it showed no sign of stopping she fired a single shot into the air. Her horse skipped a little and the coach stopped. She dropped the old gun she had fired, and drew a deadly looking duelling pistol from her pocket. She pointed the long barrelled weapon at the headless coachman and said calmly.

“Now we will try an experiment. I will count to five, then I will shoot you. If you are a ghost it will do you no harm and I will come and greet my great aunt. If you are a man and don’t want to be turned into a ghost you will remove that silly mask, now – ONE.”

As the coachman scrabbled to remove the mask a voice from inside the coach shouted.

“Drive on, ignore her, drive on or I will shoot you.”

“But its Miss Fluart,” called the coachman.

“I don’t care who it is, drive on.” An arm holding a pistol was stuck out of the coach window.

“Don’t be cruel to the coachman.” Said Miss Fluart, “he isn’t sure if you would shoot him, but he knows that I would. Well done John Taylor.” She added looking up at the coachman who had now removed the mask, and was looking down in terror, his eyes flickering from Miss Fluart to his employer and back again.

“I wonder if Sir Charles knows what his coachman gets up to at night?” She turned to the coach and ordered the occupants to get out, slowly two men stepped out, the second one had just put his foot on the ground when there was a shout behind her.

“Stop that and drop your gun.”

Miss Fluart didn’t move, but said calmly.

“Thank you Charlotte, how many are there.”

“Two,” her friend replied, “they were on the back of the coach and dropped down when it stopped, then crawled round to try and take you from behind.”

The two men stepped forward to join the others, Charlotte stepped out of the shadows, she was holding another pistol, her green riding habit had rendered her almost invisible.

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“Now I guess you are free traders, I don’t mind you avoiding the revenue, I don’t approve of giving money to the government if I can help it, they only waste it. But I am not having you taking my family name and frightening my neighbours with it. So I am going to let you run away and never do it again. John drive the carriage to my house then run home. You rest can take off your shoes and stockings and go. If you don’t I will take you to the magistrates.”

The two men whom Charlotte had stopped pulled off their shoes, dropped them and ran. One of the men from the coach tried to say something, but his companion stopped him, bent as if to unbuckle his shoe, then turned, a small pistol in his hand, and fired.

Maria’s horse shied, she fired but her shot went wide, the men now ran. Maria went to draw her second pistol but a moan made her stop. Looking down she saw Charlotte lying on the road.

She slid from her horse and bent to help her friend, John Taylor had also slid from the box, taken the coach horses heads and grabbed the reins of Miss Fluart’s horse.

“How is she?”

“I’m all right.” Charlotte tried to rise and winced. “I think I have twisted my leg in the fall. The ball has torn my skirt though.”

She up looked at her friend and gasped, she had never seen Maria like this before. Her face was suffused with anger.

“John take Charlotte home, if any further hurt comes to her I will kill you.”

“Yes miss.” He said, terrified.

“What are you going to do?” Gasped Charlotte.

“They tried to kill you.” Snapped Maria, “I am going to kill them.”

Charlotte tried to grab her arm but Miss Fluart was already scrambling back onto her horse. She was just settling in the saddle when there was a noise, and another rider galloped up. Charlotte looked around to see the rider, the stopped in surprise, John Taylor stood, half bending as if to help her, but frozen to the spot, his eyes glazed and sightless. She then looked up at the strange woman, who was wearing a broad brimmed hat, and looked somehow familiar. The woman rode up to Maria, and placed her hand on hers. Charlotte suddenly saw the gloves, and realised who she was.

“Hold niece, you stay here.”

“But they hurt Charlotte.”

“Stay with your friend, she needs you. This hunt is mine.”

Stunned Miss Fluart stopped as the strange woman rode off, as she passed through the shadow cast by the large tree she seemed to fade and, on the other side of the tree, Charlotte could have sworn she saw an old-fashioned coach head off in the direction of the escaping men.

Who was that?” asked Charlotte quietly.

“I think we both know.” Replied Maria, “So now to get you and this carriage home.”

She went to help Charlotte to get into the coach, as Charlotte stepped up she gasped.

“No thank you, I will ride on the box. It smells like a tavern.”

Maria looked inside, there were brandy barrels filling up most of the floor, packets smelling of tobacco up one side, and smaller packets tucked into every available crevice. The only space left was just big enough for the two man who had shot at Charlotte. As she looked around she saw a thin, parchment bound book tucked into the pocket on the door. She slid this into her own pocket, then went to help John lift Charlotte onto the box.

Back home they found that Nancy had only just returned, having seen no sign of the men, Charlotte was lifted down and Nancy helped her into bed. The horses were stabled and the coach locked up. John Taylor was ordered to walk home carrying a letter for his master. Maria then went to study the book. It was late by the time she had finished, she then wrote several letters and left orders that they were to be delivered as soon as it was light. She was smiling as she went to bed, one ghost at least had been laid.

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To be continued

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 2

Investigating the Impossible

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Two weeks later, Charlotte Sumelin walked straight into the dining room and found Miss Fluart bent over the table, which was covered with piles of papers and large scale maps of Devon and Cornwall.

“Why cannot cartographers agree where the county boundary is?” She muttered, “At no point do these maps agree, and they are supposed to be drawn at the same scale.”

“I have no idea.”

Miss Fluart spun round, her mouth dropped open. For the first time in her life Charlotte saw her friend truly surprised and shocked. She stepped forward and hugged her.

“I told you I would be back in two weeks.”

“And I was going to wait another week before I came to rescue you?”

“ You have taught me too much, I’m not like Caroline Campinet, needing to be rescued by a gun wielding young lady.”

“You can wield your own gun?”

“You know I can, but happily I didn’t need to, I was a dutiful daughter until early this morning when a chaise arrived at the front door. It had been quite difficult to persuade the inn to send it, I was quite cross that my father had expressly forbidden them to supply me with a vehicle.”

“So?”

“It is amazing what the promise of an extra half-guinea can do. So here I am, so you don’t need to worry any more. Now what are all the papers covering the table, are they plans for rescuing me?”

“No, those plans are lodged in my head.” Replied Miss Fluart, surprising herself by blushing slightly. Recovering quickly she continued, “These are all the sightings of the ghost coach. I wrote to all the local newspapers asking for them to send me details of any sightings that were reported to them. Also Watson has been invaluable, gossiping with everybody at the local markets. Knowing that she works for me people have loved trying to terrify her with all the stories that are going around.”

“There seem to have been a lot of sightings, your ancestor can certainly travel.”

“Yes, but far fewer when I disregard all those I think are rubbish. Men who have drunk too much, silly servant girls needing an excuse for not getting back when they should, and so on. Then the ones I suspect having something real behind them I have had to divide into two groups. The first group, and the most widespread, describe a carriage driving across the moors, with a headless coachman and pulled by headless horses.”

“And those are the ones you suspect are real!” said Charlotte in amusement, “Headless horses driven by a headless coachman.”

“Yes, now listen to this one. The Exeter Mail sent it to me. Someone seems to have taken down the report verbatim. The coach was seen by Timothy Manners.”

“But he’s an idiot.”

“True, in all but one respect – horses. I wouldn’t trust him on anything, apart from horses and anything to do with them. Now listen, it’s just like him, always sounds a little drunk.” She took the paper and read.

‘It was Tuesday, was coming back from the races, had done quite well so was rather late, good moon though. Coach on old hill road, funny that, never take a coach up there myself. Good coach though, looked like one of Hills, had his strapping, had crest I knew. Miss Fluart, good filly though beyond my touch, like her friend, good fillies both. Horses odd, matched greys, no heads, odd, would have asked coachman, no head either. Very odd.’

“What do you think?” Asked Miss Fluart, but Charlotte was giggling.

“Are we a matched pair of fillies?”

“From him that’s a compliment, as I said he only knows about horses. From any other man that would have been insulting, but from him no. But his account is interesting. If we forget about the headlessness what he saw was a coach made by Hills of Exeter drawn by four matching greys.”

2-stagecoach

“But what about the headlessness?”

“Pale horses, coachman with a pale greatcoat, then the heads of men and horses covered with black cloth or something similar. Even in moonlight they would appear headless.”

“So they are real, but why go to all that trouble?”

“ I have an idea, but there are the other sightings as well, and for these we have a witness who cannot be doubted.” She pulled on the bell-pull, and Watson entered. “Sit down and tell Miss Sumelin what you saw that night.”

“Yes Miss,” the maid began, clearly very excited to be the centre of attention. “I had been at Sir Charles Campinet’s where his head housemaid is getting married and he had allowed there to be a feast in the servants hall. I had gone…”

“Let me guess, to see if you could hear any more stories of the ghost coach.”

“Yes Miss, but there were none worth listening to, only Bill Mathers, and he was drunk when he told the story and probably drunk when he claims it pushed him into a ditch. Well, it was just dark when I started walking back, I had crossed the great field, and was on the lane leading up to the house when I saw it, the coach.” She paused dramatically. “It was driving down the cross road towards the ford, there was no driver and it was pulled by four black horses.”

“Did they have heads?”

“Yes miss, and tails as well. But the coach was a funny thing, a big box on four wheels, just like the one in the back of the picture of my lady, not like a modern coach at all.”

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She continued in the same vein for a few minutes before Miss Fluart thanked her and sent her away.

“What do you think?” She asked. Charlotte, who had been looking at the portrait of Lady Susanna, and discovering that there was a tiny, picture of an old-fashioned coach in the background, replied.

“I suspect she saw something and it got confused with this image she had seen in the portrait.”

“Perhaps, but I went down to the ford the next morning. No wheeled vehicles had passed that way in the previous two days.” She paused, then continued, “But the first coach is a different kettle of fish. I think I know what it is up to, and hopefully where to find it. Would you like to go ghost hunting?”

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations

Readers of my blog will remember the intrepid Miss Fluart, who was created back in the 1790’s and about whom I have woven additional tales. This is another contribution, part of which is based on fact, I will tell you what if you manage to read to the end of the tale.

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A Ghost spoils Dinner

“I’m not making dinner for that woman!” The cook turned and marched out of the kitchen, slamming the door as she left.

The vicars wife turned to the frightened maids.

“Just serve what cold meat there is, that will have to do.” She waited to help the terrified girls as upstairs her husband was trying to explain what was happening to his guests.

“I am afraid that our cook is refusing to cook dinner for you.” He said to Miss Fluart.

“And she called you names.” Added the vicar’s daughter.

“Oh dear, what have I done now?” asked Miss Fluart.

“It isn’t you.” Continued the vicar, clearly rather embarrassed, “It is your great aunt Susanna.”

“My great aunt,” gasped his guest, “but she has been dead for nearly a hundred years. I was looking at her monument in the church last Sunday, a wonderfully inaccurate piece of stonework.”

“She is a ghost, and frightened Cook’s husband so he fell in a ditch and injured his leg. That’s why Cook is angry with you.” Anna, the vicars daughter, added excitedly.

“That will do miss.” Said her mother rising, and leading her unwilling child from the room.

“I am afraid it is true, that is what Cook has said.” Continued the vicar.

Miss Fluart nodded, “The phantom coach, I suppose? I didn’t think it had been seen for years?”

“And I don’t think it has been seen now.” He replied, “I suspect that he had taken too much drink, fell in the ditch and didn’t want to admit to his wife what really happened.”

They left soon afterwards, as soon as the carriage turned out of the vicarage drive, Charlotte Sumelin, who had been, rather unsuccessfully, trying to hide her curiosity, burst out;

“What was that about! Your great aunt is a ghost!”

“Yes.” Miss Fluart sighed, “though I suspect that the vicar is right, the man had simply drunk too much. I wish he really had seen her, I would love to meet her.”

Charlotte looked at her friend in wide eyed amazement.

“You would like to meet your great aunt – who is a ghost.”

“Oh yes, when we get home I will tell you all about her.”

As soon as they entered their house, Maria led Charlotte to an upstairs room. On the wall was a painting of a woman dressed in a riding habit, seated on a bench. She had a broad brimmed hat and was holding elaborately embroidered gloves, a riding crop – and an old fashioned pistol!

“Meet Lady Susanna Sterling, my great, or should it be great-great, aunt.”

They watched as a servant took the picture down and carried it into the parlour, finally Miss Fluart began.

“It was about a hundred and fifty years ago, during the great civil war. As parliament was taking control of this part of the country, there were various risings against the new government. These were all put down, but one of the last involved Lady Susanna’s nephew. He was imprisoned in Taunton Castle and sentenced to death. His mother begged Lady Susanna to try and intervene, so she went to Taunton, there she was approached by the governor of the Castle who offered to release her nephew for money!”

“Did she pay?”

“Of course.” Maria replied, “such arrangements were common then. No one knew which side would eventually win, and people in authority wanted to have friends on both sides, and if you could make money out of it so much the better. So Lady Susanna handed over five hundred pounds, the nephew was released, and immediately left for France. Then a few days later all the prisoners were pardoned and released, the governor had cheated her.”

“I imagine she was angry.”

“She was livid, but there was nothing she could do, at least not legally.” Miss Fluart paused dramatically, “So she turned highwaywoman.”

“What!” Charlotte was both shocked and amused.

“Turned highwaywoman, she first stopped the governor, and got back the money she had given him. Then she robbed other men who were friends of the governor. Soon the tale of the mysterious highwaywoman spread, but they never caught her, she had various secret ways into this house. Then after the king returned she allowed the story to get out. There were ballads and tales written about her, she never admitted anything but it was all true. Then when she died, the ‘Virtuous Ornament of Womankind’ as it says on her monument, was given the dead coach to ride.”

“Do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, I am sure she was a highwaywoman.”

“And a ghost?”

“I suspect not?” Miss Fluart sighed. “but I wish she was. I doubt we will be hearing any more of Lady Susanna and her coach.”

Within two weeks Miss Fluart knew she was wrong, the coach and Lady Susanna were being seen across half of Devon and Cornwall. Some of the reports were clearly fictitious but others seemed to come from respectable people, in one case a physician and a clergyman. Also, to her irritation, the old ballads were being resurrected and reprinted, her maid returned with several from the market in Tiverton. And people began to look askance at her.

“People either think I am wicked because Lady Susanna’s ghost is walking or pity me for having such a terrible relative.”

“And you aren’t wicked, at least not for that reason.” Giggled Miss Sumelin, “and you certainly don’t think that she was at all terrible.”

“Quite right, my dear.” She replied, “I think the best thing is to keep quiet and hope it blows over soon.”

It didn’t, and the next day proved it. Charlotte received a letter.

“It’s from Harriet, she says mama isn’t feeling very well, and wants to see me. I will have to go.”

“Do you believe her?”

“Of course not.” Replied Charlotte, “I don’t think mama has felt well in all her life, it’s the way she has of making sure her family does what she wants. I think that it is my father, he has heard the stories of the ghost and no longer thinks that you are a suitable person to be my companion.”

“Did he ever think that I was a suitable person?”

“No, but this affair gives him an excuse to take me away from you. I must go though, I will do my best to be back in two weeks.”

2-edmund-blair-leighton-straying-thoughts

Maria Fluart watched the chaise depart sadly, she wondered when and if she would ever see her friend again. If she had been a melancholy female she would have burst into tears, and ran to her room and refused to leave it. But melancholy didn’t make up any part of her nature, she allowed herself one tear, wiped her eye, and went to her desk. She knew what she had to do, to both sort out the problem and hopefully win back her friend and companion from her irritating father. She sat down and wrote several letters, then called her maid.

“Watson, I want you to post these letters, then I have another task for you.”

Nancy Watson, who had worshipped Miss Fluart ever since the memorable day when she drew a pistol on Lord Grondale, bobbed a curtsey and listened wide eyed and open mouthed to her mistresses instructions.

To be continued

 

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The Exeter Monster, or Miss Fluart returns

“That’s monstrous!” Charlotte Sumelin gasped.

Maria Fluart looked up from her needlework and asked mildly. “What is it my dear? Has your sister finally decided which of the dreadful men who are courting her she will marry?”

“No, it’s not that, though it is a letter from Harriet, she writes to ask your help.”

“Why, am I so monstrous?”

Miss Sumelin giggled, “Of course not, but she thinks you are the best person to help sort out the terrible problem they are having in Exeter.”

“What is she doing in Exeter and who are ‘they’.”

Charlotte looked at the letter again, then began.

“My sister has been staying with her aunt, Mrs Williams, who is married to one of the Canons.”

“Sounds boringly respectable, has she been sent there to get away from one of her lovers?”

“Stop that, or I won’t continue.” Replied Miss Sumelin, “Actually Mrs Williams isn’t boring at all. Her husband may spend most of his time in the cathedral, but she is very interested in literature. As a result she has gathered together a group of local gentlemen and ladies and established a theatre.”

“That sounds fun, is it just for them to play in, or a proper one?”

“Oh, it is a proper one, actors and actresses come from London to play there.”

“So have the actors and actresses been causing trouble? I know a Canon’s wife might find some very dubious.”

“Oh no, they are very respectable, at present Miss Foote is appearing. Apparently Harriet says she is delightful.”

“Really?” Maria Fluart looked curiously, she knew of Miss Foote’s history, and had heard how carefully she had managed to adjust her reputation to hide the more dubious aspects of her past.

“So what is the problem?”

“There is a group of young men, who are attacking women.”

“Why aren’t the magistrates involved?”

“Because the attacks aren’t like that. They began by squeezing young ladies in the crush at the entrance to the theatre. You know what that can be like?”

“Of course, that could pass as an accident. But you said they are getting worse.”

Charlotte looked down at the letter and read carefully;

“Yesterday a friend of our aunt tells me that a cousin of hers was at a performance, when she felt a hand inside her skirt. She cried out but no one heard her, she was so shocked she didn’t notice who it was, as the hand was withdrawn.”

“A pickpocket?” wondered Miss Fluart

“No, because apparently he was squeezing her, down there.” Charlotte gulped, “and others have been attacked in a similar way.”

Maria Fluart sat in silence, “Yes,” she spoke slowly, “I have heard of such things before, it will get worse. But if it is known who these men are, why has nothing been done?”

“Most girls are too ashamed to say anything, also the leader of the men is a notable shot. If a man accused him, he would call him out and almost certainly be killed.”

“And I have been asked to help because I am a notable shot whom no man would call out.”

Now Charlotte laughed, “Naturally. Will you help?”

“Of course my dear.” She stood up. “Now, would you like to go to the theatre?”

B1975.4.703

Exeter, in the time of Miss Fluart

A week later a carriage carrying the two young ladies, their servants and luggage, stopped outside a comfortable house on the edge of the cathedral close at Exeter. Over tea they learnt that the attacks had continued, fewer women were going to the theatre but as yet no word of the attacks had leaked out.

Mrs Williams was delighted to meet her niece and her friend, even more when her friend proved to be very interested in the new theatre. The next day they went to the building and were given a full tour and, of course, were invited to attend the performance that night. Harriet was surprised that both women appeared in slightly old fashioned dresses.

“Why, Charlotte, Miss Fluart used to be so fashionable. That gown must be four or five years old at least, as is yours. I thought you said you had learnt a great deal from her.”

“Miss Fluart has her reasons Harriet.” She paused, “As have I, and hopefully tonight you will see what I have learnt.”

The three women were carried in sedan chairs to the theatre, Mrs Williams led Harriet straight in, Miss Fluart and Charlotte deliberately held back to make sure that they were seen. Charlotte bent and whispered to her friend,

“The young man with fair hair, he is the one Harriet mentioned, he has seen us.”

“Good, then let us be seated.”

The women took their places, they sat together, with empty seats on either side. As the performance was about to start the fair man came and sat on Miss Fluart’s left hand, glancing she saw that his lieutenant had taken his place by Charlotte. It was almost at the end of the first act that she felt the hand, it was sliding over her thigh, she waited until it was in the right position, then she pressed down with her hand.

There was a sharp crack and a gasp from the man, Maria pressed down hard on her lap. She whispered to the man, who had bent forward, his face white.

“The ingenious man who built the device under my skirt said it could break a man’s fingers. Now, do you think the bones have snapped or are just crushed.”

“Release me you bitch.” The man replied, Maria slid her own hand under her skirt and twisted something, the man pulled his hand out, by the dim light she could see the fingers were twisted.

“Now leave, if I see you again it will not be so easy for you.”

The man stood, his face pale, he looked across Miss Fluart and her companion to his friend, now he looked shocked. His friend was also grasping his hand, a trickle of blood ran from between his fingers. Charlotte turned to smile at him, and raised a bodkin, she then turned to the man, took his sleeve and wiped the bodkin clean.

“Goodbye Sir, I hope we never meet again.” She nodded politely to him as he slipped from his place.

As the act ended, the women rose and were met in the lobby by Harriet.

“I was so worried, where have you been? Are you all right?”

“Of course we are.” Replied Miss Fluart, “Though I fear a couple of your patrons may be leaving early with sore hands.

Harriet gasped, her sister smiled and took her arm.

“Now we want to see the rest of the play, but you will have to tell us what happened at the end of Act One, we were a little distracted at the time.”

Theatrical Pleasures - Crowding to the Pit

The crush at the entrance to the Theatre

The following morning Miss Fluart described what had happened to Dr Williams, the Canon. He was shocked.

“You should not have put yourself in such danger, you should have told me.”

“Perhaps, but this way the men are punished and cannot make any response.”

“Might they not try and hurt you my dear,” replied Mrs Williams.

“I don’t think so, but I would like you to send this note to them. It points out that if they try anything against us or any other young lady then the story will come out. And I don’t think they could face the idea of being bested by two young ladies.”

“Oh yes.” Said Harriet, “I know Charlotte had a bodkin but what did you use?”
Miss Fluart lifted a wood and metal object from her basket.

“It was designed to trap rats by a clever blacksmith.” She tapped the trap with the poker, there was a loud snap and a metal bar cracked over and down.

“That was why we wore older gowns, there was more room under the skirts for the trap.”

The Canon looked at it.

“A terrible device, a true man trap.”

“Oh no, a rat trap and it caught a rat.”

The Canon gasped, the friends grinned at each other.

 

After discovering the intrepid Miss Fluart as I described in an earlier post, I felt she deserved another outing. So here is my continuation.

Some of the people, the kindly Mrs Williams, Canon’s wife and enthusiast for the theatre was a real person, as was Miss Foote the actress who was a pioneer in the art of manipulating her public reputation.

Similar assaults to the one described did take place. Ladies skirts had slits in the side through which they could reach their pockets, and men sometimes took advantage of this. On at least one occasion a lady behaved like Charlotte and took a bodkin to her attacker.

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An Unconventional Heroine – The Magnificent Miss Fluart

A few days ago I was in a second hand bookshop, and chanced upon the Folio Society edition of Hermsprong, vaguely remembering the title I opened it, saw it had been originally published in 1796, and glanced through it, reading the odd pages. Then I saw one of the illustrations which surprised me, I therefore bought the book and so discovered the magnificent Miss Fluart.

Hermsprong is a philosophical novel, which means that the hero, the eponymous Hermsprong, is constantly philosophising. The characters can be divided into four groups, the good who are generally irritating, the bad who are universally wicked, the unfortunate who exist for the bad to oppress and the good to aid, and Miss Fluart.

The basic story is as follows, Hermsprong appears in the village owned and ruled by the wicked Lord Grondale, who has one daughter (beautiful and oppressed) who naturally falls in love with Hermsprong. Miss Maria Fluart, beautiful, independent and rich (£20,000) is the daughters close friend and, in order to keep a close watch on the girl to make sure she isn’t persuaded into an unsuitable marriage, allows Lord Grondale to court her. On a walk in the gardens of Lord Grondale’s house she discovers this might not be as safe as she thought.

Lord Grondale, soon after his accession to the estate, had built a sort of pleasure-house, an octagon, on an artificial mount. It had obtained the name of the Pavilion. In his earlier years, his lordship made of it a sort of temple of Fame, and adorned it with the portraits of his own best hunters and racers. This taste declining, these portraits had given place to paintings of another species,-capital, no doubt, his lordship having been considered as a connoisseur.

A few yards from the pavilion, turning a walk, Miss Fluart almost ran against Lord Grondale. The good peer said, with a tone of good nature, ‘Have I the pleasure to see Miss Fluart here, and alone?’

‘Caroline is indolent,’ Miss Fluart answered; ‘she chose the zephyrs of her own apartment, rather than the zephyrs of your lordship’s groves. Oh dear!’-she continued-‘now I think of it, I have long had a desire to take a peep into your lordship’s pavilion, where you have never yet invited me.’

‘I invite you now, then,’ said Lord Grondale, hobbling up the steps, and unlocking the door.

‘I hear,’ says she, ascending, ‘it is a little palace of paintings.’

The first object which struck her view, was herself, her beauteous self, many times multiplied. This was fascinating, no doubt; but she got rid of it as soon as she could, and threw her eye on a lovely piece representing Jachimo taking notes of the mole cinque-spotted on the beauteous bosom of Imogen. The next was Atalanta straining to recover the ground she had lost by the golden apples; her bosom bare, her zone unloosed, her garments streaming with the wind. From the four following pieces, the pavilion might not improperly have been denominated the temple of Venus. The first gave the goddess rising from the sea. The second, asleep ;-a copy of Titian. The third, accompanied with Juno and Minerva, appealing to Paris. The fourth, in Vulcan’s net with Mars.

However capital these might be, they were such as ladies are not accustomed to admire in the presence of gentlemen. There was, however, a superb sofa, on which a lady might sit down with all possible propriety. Miss Fluart did sit down; but the prospect from thence rather increased than diminished a little matter of confusion which she felt on the view of the company she seemed to have got into.

She was rising to leave the pavilion, when his lordship, in the most gallant manner possible, claimed a fine, due, he said, by the custom of the manor, from every lady who honoured that sofa by sitting upon it. I know not why, the lady seemed to feel an alarm; and was intent only upon running away, whilst his lordship was intent only upon seizing his forfeit. A fine muslin apron was ill treated upon this occasion; a handkerchief was ruffled, and some beautiful hair had strayed from its confinement, and wantoned upon its owner’s polished neck. She got away, however, from this palace of painting, and its dangerous sofa.

‘Upon my word, my dear Miss Fluart,’ said his lordship, getting down after her as fast as he was able, ‘you are quite a prude today: I thought you superior to the nonsense of your sex,-the making such a rout about a kiss.’

‘A kiss! Lord bless me,’ said Miss Fluart, ‘I thought, from the company your lordship had brought me into, and the mode of your attack, you had wanted to undress me.’

Hermsprong a

Even after escaping from his clutches in his pornographic pavilion, Miss Fluart continues to stay at Lord Grondale’s, in order to protect Caroline (the daughter), though perhaps she takes additional precautions.

Everything comes to a head when Lord Grondale finally decides to force his daughter to marry the disgusting (but rich) Sir Philip Chestrum. Miss Fluart deliberately quarrels with Lord Grondale and is ordered from the house. Weeping, she leaves the house, her face buried in a handkerchief. The wedding proceeds, as the bride removes her veil she is discovered to be Miss Fluart! Caroline had escaped pretending to be Miss Fluart.

Lord Grondale is understandably furious;

‘Out of this house you shall not stir, till I deliver you up to due course of law.’

‘And pray, my lord, by what authority do you pretend to confine me? Watson{Caroline’s servant}, you are my servant now: I order you to follow me. We are under the necessity of leaving this hospitable house by force.-Stand off, my lord.’

His lordship now began to bawl out for his servants. The butler ran, the cook, and two footmen.

‘Stop this woman,’ said his lordship; ‘stop her, I charge you!’

‘Let me see who dare,’ said Miss Fluart, producing a pistol, and almost overturning his lordship as she passed. ‘Seize them, I command you,’ said the enraged Lord Grondale.

No one obeyed; and the intrepid Miss Fluart walked on to the hall-door, which she opened herself unimpeded even by the porter.

Hermsprong b

It was the illustration of Miss Fluart fully armed that so surprised me.

But Maria Fluart was to remain unconventional to the end (of the novel). Lord Grondale dies when Hermsprong is proved to be the rightful heir of his estate. Hermsprong marries his daughter and everybody else is duly married off …. And Miss Fluart.

She settles down with a girlfriend!

So raise a glass to the wonderful Miss Maria Fluart, the most unconventional heroine of any Georgian novel.

 

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