Secrets of the Hall, Ch 1 & 2

SECRETS OF THE HALL
CHAPTERS ONE AND TWO
An Addie Simmond Mystery Novel

by Laural Harris

CHAPTER ONE

1570 Burnley, England

Mary froze mid-step, not breathing, listening closely. Yes, there it was. The sound of horses, more than two or three. Perhaps many. Very faint, thank heavens. She ran through the corridors of Towneley Hall, dark skirts flying, frustratingly slowing her down. Her green eyes were narrowed with worry, her light brown hair escaping from her day cap. Her husband John had ridden out to check the sheep in a distant pasture. Lambs were due and a count was needed. He was miles away. He would not be home for hours. And Queen Elizabeth’s men were coming through the village of Burnley, headed toward the Hall. Her thoughts tumbled through her head as she rushed to the chapel. If the priest was found he would surely be executed and John would face severe penalties for harboring a Catholic priest. Only a few people knew Father Henry was there. Who could have reported them? He must hide – quickly. She hiked her skirt a bit higher and ran faster, her soft shoes making little sound on the stone floors. She was dizzy and breathing hard when she reached the chapel.

Father Henry, come with me. The Queen’s men are only minutes away. You must hide.”

They rushed up the chapel’s hidden stairs, unevenly worn by centuries of footsteps, past the east rooms and through the corridor to the bedrooms.

Father, help me move this chest. The priest hole is under here.”

They struggled to move the heavy piece of furniture a few feet, revealing the trap door leading to a small room between the floors. The priest hide was unusually large, tall and long enough for the priest to move about a bit and sound proofed with dab – a mixture of clay and rushes – so that an inadvertent cough or gasp would not be heard. Father Henry gazed into the dark space and looked at Mary with concern.

You cannot replace this chest alone – it is too heavy,” Father Henry whispered, his face white, voice trembling.

I am stronger than you think. I have practiced. I can do it. Only John and I know of this hiding place, and I will not risk your safety by letting others help me. But hurry. Do not make a sound, even if you think it is I or John here. Open the latch only if you hear my voice and I use your given name, Henry Crane. They are full of tricks to find priests in hiding. You will be protected here, through God’s intervention.”

Father Henry lowered himself into the cramped space and latched the trap door. He closed his eyes in prayer, holding his crucifix tightly. Mary moved the chest back into place, pulling it with the carpet that had been placed under it in order to avoid leaving tell-tale scratches on the floor. She ran back down the stairs and settled herself in the day room by the Long Gallery, picking up a piece of needlework. She tried to slow her breathing and relax. Her face was flushed from exertion and fear. She was trembling slightly, the needle unsteady in her hand.

It was only a few years ago that Mary had married her cousin John and, though a woman, was permitted to inherit the estates. The Towneley family traced its English heritage to the Normans in the tenth century. These lands in northern England had been granted to the family in 1260. The estates now ranged between York on the east and Lancaster on the west. As part of the Duchy of Lancaster, much of the extensive Towneley estate was particularly sheltered from the political strife common in England. Although the land was not directly owned by the monarch, it was under the protection of the crown, and a portion of the revenues went directly into the royal coffers.

The Towneley family had avoided taking sides during the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, many years before. It was clear to them that England was likely to be in conflict for many years. They remained on peaceful, if somewhat tenuous, terms with both factions. Towneley Hall had never been fortified, unlike so many others. The battles raged around them, but never on their property. The family had been well accepted by the successive monarchs. It behooved the crown to support those who were good businessmen, bringing in wealth to support the monarch. The Towneleys had continually added to their holdings and were the most prosperous family in the area.

The family was devoutly Catholic. King Henry VIII had outlawed Catholic worship when he required English citizens to convert to the Church of England. The Towneleys of Towneley Hall had refused to convert and were on the list of recusants. During King Henry’s reign recusants were not heavily persecuted, though they were subject to higher taxes and fines, and were removed from positions of power. Queen Mary restored the Catholic religion during her brief reign. It was only now, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, that abbeys, monasteries and churches had been demolished and priests martyred. Now the nobility and gentry were subject to confiscation of properties and fines, even death, if it was found that they were allowing Catholic services on their property or attending services elsewhere. Many of John and Mary’s friends and family had lost property and income and were almost destitute. Much to their dismay, many of the Towneley family had converted, perhaps more in order to maintain the good will of the throne than from any devotion to the new religion.

Mary took a deep breath and tried to seem relaxed as the Queen’s contingent rode up the hard-packed gravel lane to the Hall. They arrived at the portico, raising clouds of dust which blew into the courtyard formed by the four wings of Towneley Hall. They dismounted before entering the courtyard. Mary could hear the huffing of the tired horses and the tinkling of their bridles as the grooms led them to the stables. The Captain used the hilt of his sword to knock on the massive front door, ignoring the coat of arms knocker. Samuel, the head butler, opened the door to the officers and was roughly shoved aside.

I am Captain Farrow. I have come from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. We are commissioned to search this house and property for a Catholic priest who we have been informed is here in violation of Her Majesty’s proclamation. Tell Master John Towneley to present himself to us.”

Samuel bowed to the Captain. “Most certainly, Sir, this house welcomes those who come in the name of our most beloved Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. Please bid your men rest their horses in the stables and I will have refreshments brought to them. Master John is not at the Hall, but I will inform Mistress Towneley that you are here about the Queen’s business.”

Have your grooms tend to the horses. My men will wait here in the courtyard, as I have need of them directly.”

Samuel walked slowly to the day room, with the dignity of one accustomed to receiving and announcing important guests. He held in check his anger at the rude treatment and haughty attitude of the Captain. Master John would surely deal with that later. Samuel was well aware of the meaning of the soldiers’ visit. The landed gentry at Towneley Hall had supported and generally protected the village for centuries. They had always had the respect of all who visited here. But this was a dangerous and uncertain time, and fortunes could disappear in an instant, along with the prosperity of the entire area. He bowed to Lady Mary, with a smile to the children near her. Mary looked over at her two brown-haired little boys playing by the window and suggested that the nanny might take them to the nursery or out on the great lawn.

M’lady, there is a military contingent from the Queen requesting your presence.”

Please bring their officers to me, Samuel, and make their men comfortable in the courtyard.” In a whisper she added, “And send quickly a message to John that he should delay homecoming until tomorrow.”

Samuel bowed, relieved. It was obvious from her calm demeanor that Lady Mary had the situation well in hand. He returned, accompanied by the sound of heavy and impatient boot steps. “M’Lady, Captain Farrow.”

Captain Farrow almost brushed Samuel aside as he entered the door. He was clearly a seasoned soldier. His left cheek bore a small scar, with a larger one showing on his right arm as he removed his gloves. His stern demeanor seemed to be an integral part of him. Mary imagined that the deep frown marks between his dark brown eyes would not be erased even should he smile.

Thank you, Samuel. Have Jane bring refreshment for us. Gentlemen, please sit and rest from your ride. I apologize, Captain, that my husband is away, conducting a count of the sheep in the holds near the Severn. We do not expect his return for several days.”

Captain Farrow and his Lieutenant made a short bow and with some additional encouragement from Mary, seated themselves across from her. Although they had felt it unnecessary to be polite to the butler, they were well aware of the powerful position John Towneley held in this territory, and of his ties to even more powerful relatives in London. Captain Farrow walked a fine line between military curtness and respect for Lady Mary. A step too far in either direction could result in unwanted consequences. Following a time of polite questions from Mary regarding the weather and travel conditions on their ride from Manchester and enjoyment of the welcome ale and cakes, Captain Farrow, now only slightly more at ease, informed Mary of the reason for their journey.

I apologize m’lady, for disturbing your home. We have been sent by Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth to search this house and grounds for evidence of a Catholic priest who we have been informed is even now here. Her Majesty is reluctant to believe that her true subjects would be so traitorous, but even so must verify that all is as it should be at Towneley Hall. By order of The Queen, we require that you provide us access to all areas of the house, out buildings and grounds.” His voice was deep and had a harshness and rasp that hinted of a cruel nature.

But of course, Captain Farrow,” Mary replied. “Our home is, as always, at the service of our Royal Monarch, as it is truly hers to do with as she would. My household is at your bidding. You will most certainly have full access to any part of our home and lands. I will provide a servant who will go with you to unlock any door, and show you anything you desire. You will find that Towneley Hall has nothing to hide from our Royal Highness.”

We will start immediately. Send word to my men to join me in the Long Hall.”

Captain Farrow and the Lieutenant bowed curtly to Mary, and left through the adjoining door to the Long Hall. She could hear them assigning the soldiers various rooms to search, with orders to move furniture, seek out hidden stairwells and doors, even empty wardrobes of their contents.

The house was large, two stories with four wings and a below ground kitchen and storage rooms. The search was conducted thoroughly, with little consideration of those living and working there. The soldiers barked orders to the household staff, and Captain Farrow himself inspected several areas. Tables were moved, closets opened, clothes rifled through. The soldiers did not find it necessary to put any area back to the condition in which they found it. The stables were particularly scrutinized, much to the distress of the high-spirited horses. The search took more than five hours, but resulted in nothing that raised any suspicions.

It was dusk as the soldiers began to complete their tasks and return to the Long Hall. Captain Farrow declined Mary’s offer to make the contingent comfortable for the night rather than camping in the hills. This Pendle Hill area could be chilly and damp on even the most mild evenings, and it seemed that the cold rain the region had a reputation for would soon be starting. Mary instructed Jane to bring bread, cheese, dried fruit and ale, and prepare meals to go with them on their journey.

As they departed Captain Farrow bowed perfunctorily and thanked Mary for her hospitality, but issued a stern warning. “Mistress Towneley, it is true that we found nothing to report to Her Majesty regarding the presence of a Catholic Priest. However, it is well known that you continue to hold the most despised Catholic faith. If you continue to defy Her Royal Highness it is assured that we will be returning.”

As they mounted their horses and proceeded down the wide and well-worn lane from the Hall, Mary saw a stable hand furtively slip out and unobtrusively merge into the ranks of the soldiers.

So,” she mused, “there is the informant. It is well that he is gone.”

Mary always placed fresh water and bread in the priest hole, as well as a covered chamber pot, whenever a monk or priest was in attendance at the Hall. As a precaution against the surprise return of the soldiers Father Henry would be spending the night in his hiding place. She returned to the day room and resumed her sewing. Her fingers trembled again, but her color had gone from the earlier red of exertion and anger to the paleness of fear.

Samuel, ask the groom in charge of the stables if any grooms who were earlier here are now gone home.”

1570

London, England

Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, had been summoned to the Queen’s presence. As he entered the receiving chamber he had little doubt why he had been called to attend her. Members of her court were scattered around the room, quietly conversing. A musician played the lute near the throne. He bowed deeply and waited for Queen Elizabeth to acknowledge him.

Dean Nowell,” she said, without a hint of a smile. “I am seriously concerned in regard to the continued defiance of your brother, John Towneley. It may be that the Towneley estates should return to the Crown.”

Your Majesty, the Towneley estates are in fact your own,” Alexander stated his case after his bow was acknowledged and he was permitted to speak. “How can it benefit Your Majesty to confiscate properties so well managed, bringing so much revenue to Your Majesty herself? My half-brother John may still be recusant, but he has always supported your throne, never has he spoken out against your rule or administration of the kingdom. I beg you to be merciful to him.”

Alexander had converted to Church of England many years before, but had fled to Germany during Queen Mary’s reign when the Catholic Queen failed to support the Church of England. He returned to serve Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. He was a respected adviser, though he had offended Queen Elizabeth by preaching a sermon criticizing her unmarried state and with several other actions, though all well-intended. She now rarely received him warmly.

Elizabeth fixed Dean Nowell with a cold stare. Queen Elizabeth well knew that the Towneleys were important to the revenues of the kingdom. However, she believed religious conformity to be crucial to the peace of the kingdom. The Catholic Church in England had long accumulated both wealth and power, and could not be allowed to retain either in order to prevent opposition to her and outright rebellion. It seemed that she was always dealing with an uprising incited by a Catholic. An additional benefit to confiscating Catholic wealth and property was that control would revert to the crown and could be used to reward those in her favor with property and titles.

We understand the unusual position of Towneley. However, We cannot tolerate nor seem to ignore any who refuse to accept all aspects of Our rule. We will take the plight of your brother into consideration. We urge you to make haste to speak with him about his situation. It may be that he fails to understand the remedies at Our disposal. Perhaps you can reason with him.”

Yes, Majesty. I will ride to Burnley immediately for the love of my brother, but more for the love of my Queen.” Alexander bowed, kissed the Queen’s offered ring, and backed out of the room.

It was clear to him that John and Mary were in jeopardy. He could not say what the Queen would do. She had a reputation for thoughtful decision making, but had become a harsh ruler to Catholics as a result of plots to over-throw her rule. It was only his intervention that had prevented disaster for his brother, and he was no longer sure how much influence he wielded.

Queen Elizabeth trusted Alexander Nowell as an adviser, but she was also aware of his family relationship to Towneley. More than one of Nowell’s servants was in her employ. It was wise to be careful in whom she placed her trust.

CHAPTER TWO

Fort Worth, Texas, 2017

I pop another chocolate covered cherry into my mouth, savoring the flavor. Not those sugary Queen Anne cherries, either. These cherries swim in a bath of liqueur. The box is nearly empty, and I’m determined to eat every last one before I go inside. It’s hot. I’ve pinned my shoulder length red hair carelessly up on top of my head. Tendrils escape and cling to my neck. I lean back, close my eyes and bite into the last chocolate slowly, so that the juice lingers sensuously on my tongue as the chocolate melts. A deep sigh slips past the chocolate.

The comfy rocker on the covered porch squeaks a bit as I push with a bare toe, gazing absently at the lake. The lake is low and brown, evaporating in the Texas summer heat. The stillness is broken by a fish jumping. An egret stalks it, but misses, then quarrels with a heron over the best fishing spot. Having lost to the larger bird, the egret takes to the air with a squawk. Henry the heron is a permanent resident. He’s exceptionally large and distinctive, and always wins the challenge from the other herons and egrets. I look for his company every morning. If he has chosen a different place to spend his day, I’m disappointed.

I worry about the white goose who lives on the lake. Her mate flew off with an ugly Muscovy duck last year. How could he leave such a beautiful, elegant mate all alone to go with that totally unsuitable duck? A duck for heaven’s sake! The lonely goose swims up and down the shore, honking. Her calls are answered only by an occasional flock of Canadian geese who drop by for a few days. She hangs out with them until they fly off and she, too heavy for long flights, goes back to swimming up and down the shore. She’s found new meaning in her life by being nanny to the babies of the white domestic duck that lives here. Mama duck has a topknot of feathers, and I call her Fancy. The duck’s mate is a large cross-breed mallard, but he doesn’t stick around much. All twelve ducklings have lived to adulthood this summer because this goose has been a diligent protector. They come when she calls, and she and her friend the duck are obviously proud of their accomplishment. Two summers have come and gone now and Nanny’s mate has never come back, so she has rearranged her life around ducklings. Her calls every morning and evening make me unbelievably sad, but also hopeful, like she is.  I’m not sure if my feelings are about her or myself.

Cicadas buzz in the elm trees, the sound of summer. September is a dull-edged month in Texas. There is no clean, sharp edge marking the change from summer to fall. The edge is not actually uncomfortable, so it doesn’t provide much motivation to move toward the sad time of bare trees and no cicadas. We complain about the heat, say we’re looking forward to October, even though we know there will be no roses blooming in the yard, no green grass, no leaves and no cicada music. Then we will complain about the cold and look for the first greening in the trees, the first sign of sunflowers popping up, and the first chirp from a cricket. Like it’s all a big surprise, even though it happens this way every single year. It’s just what we do in Texas.

A year and a half gone now since the divorce. For awhile it felt like being on a sharp edge, like there could be a clean cut to a new life. Now it’s more like just a dull ache. Like I could sit on this edge and it would become more comfortable with use or maybe I could just develop callouses. I sit on the edge, wondering what comes after I hop off, because sooner or later I will, since I haven’t gotten anywhere near liking sitting here.

There are points in life that move you into a new phase whether you’re ready to go there or not. You graduate from high school and move to college or a job, and rearrange your life. You get married and start thinking about another person in addition to yourself, and rearrange your life. You have a child and are surprised at the dramatic ways in which you must rearrange your life, even though everyone told you so. I thought that at this point I was through rearranging my life. Then he chose the girlfriend over the wife and moved out, and I find that I’m not looking forward to rearranging my life – again.

I’ve taken a break from my sometimes too-busy career, but it may be time to kick it back up a notch. I realize that I’m in a type of holding pattern. There has been no clean cut between what was and what’s next, between then and now, between the known and the possible.

I’ve always been content with my age. No identity crisis at 30 or 40. Thought I was immune to that type of uncertainty. Well, guess what – I find that I’m not. Maybe it’s this dull-edged September. Life swirls around me as I sit on the edge – not really separate from it, just not fully part of it. Not exactly unhappy with where I am. Just not exactly happy either. Though the chocolate covered cherries do help. Chocolate has the rare ability to elevate any mood.

Wow. I’d barely noticed that it had gotten to be dusk. I was absorbed in what I was researching on the computer. There have been some unexpected benefits to living alone. One is that I can do pretty much what I want as long as I want. That, of course, means that it is very easy to lose track of time. I realize that I’ve been squinting, reluctant to get up to turn on the light so I can see the keyboard. Squinting is not a good thing – creates forehead lines and crow’s feet. Right now I can’t really see why I should care about that, but I do anyway. So I go to the gym, walk everyday, get facials, use sunscreen, even have to admit to a bit of botox. Well, maybe I’ve staved off decrepitude for a few more years, but if I’m honest I acknowledge that the woman I see in the mirror is not exactly the same one I saw 10 years ago.

I’m not depressed. Really. I have a career in public health that takes me interesting places. I love this house by the lake and my friendly neighbors. I have great friends. It’s just that the divorce has forced me to look a bit harder at my aging self and my comfortable life. I’ll get over it. I think I just need a shove off of this edge, so I can splash around in the invigorating pool of life.

The phone’s bagpipe call tone breaks up my pity party.

Hey, Addie! Come see this new art exhibit at the Kimball Museum with me. It is a collection from the British Museum!”

Jeanette is my best friend. Her slight impulsiveness is the perfect foil for my tendency to over plan. She is dark haired, dark eyed, tall and a bit curvy. I am not any of those things, but we make an interesting pair at the coffee shop. Guys definitely give us a second look. Not that it has resulted in even one free latte. I tend to not notice, but Jeanette gets a bit insulted. Especially if the guy in question is one she considers to be my “type”. Whatever that is. I haven’t figured that out yet, but she clearly has.

So, what kind of art are we talking about?” I’m pretty sure she has me set up for a day of staring at some totally incomprehensible modern abstract multimedia digital whatever it is. I will have to say things like “How interesting,” and “What an unusual combination of colors” while praying for even one piece that I would consider putting in my living room. Or hallway. I love art. Even some modern art. But I do truly like realism and complementary colors and comprehensible themes. Jeanette not so much. Fortunately the Kimball generally exhibits classical art, so I am probably not risking much if I say yes.

I know what you’re thinking – but this time I just know you will love it!” she says, with a bit too much enthusiasm.

I’m still thinking that the modern art world is amazing. How on earth can a blank canvas with two small blobs of green be worth over $500,000?

This is an exhibit of 15th to 18th Century paintings. Very old and very rare. Not my usual, but I know how interested you are in this type of art. I’ll even buy lunch at the museum restaurant.”

OK, now she has my attention. It’s a great restaurant. “Wine too?”

Of course!”

OK, I’m in, but this better not be a bait and switch.”

Honest, I promise it is really from the British Museum and is not in the least modern.”

I especially enjoy very old art. I love how it reflects the values of the era it was painted in, and the possibly opposing values of the artist himself. Rarely a herself. Pity. Things would have probably been portrayed rather differently. I took some art history courses in college, and even a few graduate courses. I certainly do not consider myself an art expert, but I have a special interest in art from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Jeanette is absolutely right that I would be interested in this exhibit.

Our tickets are for two weeks from today. Yea – time to study the catalog and look up other works by the artists we’ll see. My dearest friend will not study. She will say that knowing too much about a painting ruins the immediacy and the personal interpretation. The artist expects the viewer to invest some time in bringing it to life in her own context. Probably true of abstract art but I’m pretty sure that artists in the 1400s were attempting to convey messages about their faith, their government, historical events. Their use of allegory was exceptionally thoughtful and thought-provoking. A quizzical look, eyes cut to the side, a sardonic smile, a small item on a table or in a hand, all had significance. I much prefer to understand the art in its own context, not mine.

The next day, after working all afternoon on my new contract to analyze possible sources of a mumps outbreak in a Fort Worth suburb, I go to the Museum’s website and review the list of the paintings in the exhibit. I become ever more absorbed in the paintings. The sound of traffic on the street becomes the crunch of wagon wheels on dirt. The glare of the street light becomes the glow of a burning torch. The faint rock music from the neighbors next door becomes a lute and a war drum. Time recedes as I drift into the world of kings and queens, mythical beings, violent wars and death, balls with haughty women in beautiful dresses, idealized depictions of Christian stories, and even the realistic representation of abject poverty. I’m going to fully enjoy this exhibit. Oh, wow! A Jan van Eyck! My favorite. I’ve actually done a lot of research on this artist. At least there will be one that I can speak knowingly about. Even though Jeanette would prefer I not.

***

I spend days thinking about the wonderful paintings I’m going to see and doing necessary things to keep the lights on and really good cheese in the fridge, and doing some totally unnecessary things just because I want to, even though I do need to finish the write-up for the mumps outbreak. Fortunately the outbreak seems to have subsided. I had identified the original source – an adult who had not been vaccinated who just returned from a country where the disease is endemic. He gave it to some young relatives who also had not been vaccinated, who gave it to their classmates. Everyone exposed was quarantined and other parents rushed to be sure their kids were vaccinated. Crisis resolved.

I sit at my computer, gazing frequently at the light glinting off the lake and the ducks swimming by. Oh my…a buzzard just flew past the house, circling over the lake. I try to not think of that as a metaphor, but fail. It’s clear that I’m not dead. Unless something goes seriously wrong I have thirty or so years yet to live, right? Right! So I hit the send button and the email is on its way to England. Isn’t technology marvelous!

Our ancestors came over on the Mayflower,” says Mom. I’ve found that she’s correct about that, just wrong about which branch of the family. The marvels of computer genealogy research have stretched my imagination about who I am, and I want to know more. Not that it seems to matter a hill-of-beans to anyone except me. Hours of research devoted to filling out the family tree for Christmas gifts to my nieces and nephews have been met with a rather surprising lack of enthusiasm. So we now know four of our family lines dating back to the 1000s. Gee…thanks. “Thanks” seems to have a question mark after it. Like, could you have just given us a gift certificate for a music download? “Wow, this one is named The Butcher. Wonder what that was about?” is the only comment that leads me to believe that even one of them has browsed these family trees. Nothing about the Mayflower ancestors, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers. Not even the thirteen Scottish Highlands clan chieftains seem to create much interest. I even highlighted in yellow the most interesting ancestors!

I, however, am entranced. Hmm. This dull edge is feeling a bit more boring. Maybe a trip to England is just the thing. I certainly don’t lack a sense of adventure, and I have a valid passport. So, why not?

Hence the email:

Dear curator of Towneley Hall in Burnley, England. I have been doing some genealogy research on my family, and realize that I am a descendant of several interesting families in England. I would love to come to England to visit Towneley Hall and learn more about that branch of my family history. Would you be available to spend some time with me?”

When I began disguising the gray in my hair years ago I found undiscovered red highlights. So I surrendered to having red hair. Which definitely gets more attention than basic brown. Most people have now forgotten that my hair used to be light brown. Those who remember say that the red is just right for my complexion and hazel green eyes anyway. Other women tell me they love my hair color – and is it natural? Come on, if you are over 40 your natural color is white or gray. I say yes. Go Braveheart – I am a Scottish lass! I’ll probably find out that my English and Scottish ancestors were mortal enemies and spent generations trying to exterminate each other. Obviously unsuccessfully, since I exist. Britain has never been a peaceful place. Hopefully I will not have to take sides in the conflict at this late date.

I hear Jeanette coming from three blocks away. Her salary for her professorship in history at the University should not be sufficient to provide the rather extravagant vehicles that she trades out every couple of years. She says that if you lease the vehicle the payments are affordable. Right now it is a top of the line Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in black. It rumbles and growls. Hellcat is the perfect name for it. I’m stickin’ with my cute little red Mustang convertible. But I have to admit I do enjoy riding in that Hellcat. With the three block warning provided by its dual exhaust and eight cylinders, I have grabbed my sweater, shoved a rather stylish hat on my head just for fun, and am out the door when she pulls up. The neighbors look out their window to see what’s causing their house to vibrate.

She greets me with that light-up-the-room smile. “I’m so excited about this exhibit! I know you’ll recognize every painting in it! A nice lunch and a couple of glasses of wine should be just the thing to start with, too!”

I have barely enough time to fasten my seat belt, which I would do with Jeanette driving even if it weren’t the law, before the Hellcat launches out of the circular drive. Can a car pull 4Gs? I finally get my breath back by the first stop sign. At the museum Jeanette bounds out of the Hellcat and lightly tosses the keys to a stunned valet. She always uses valet, not because of convenience, but because, she says, it’s fun to see the valets’ expressions when they get behind the wheel of such an amazing car.

Now you may think that Texas is not known for great museums, but you would be thinkin’ wrong. Texas has world-class museums with world-class art. The Kimball in Fort Worth is outstanding without even considering the art in it. The original building was designed by Louis Kahn, and the stunning addition by Renzo Piano. Just driving up to it creates a sense of wonder. It hosts the most sought-after international traveling exhibits.

At the cafe we are seated in the courtyard with a perfect view of the larger-than-life size Maillol bronze “L’Air”. I make a mental note to not even think about comparing the perfect reclining nude before me to my own imperfect reality. Of course, since I made a note not to think about that I most certainly do. My self concept comes off somewhat worse for the comparison. I choose to shift the comparison to Ruben’s full-figured nudes. I do a lot better with that.

After a lovely shrimp salad lunch and those two glasses of wine that Jeanette recommended, we’re ready for the real reason we’re here – the exhibit from the British museum. Although my enthusiasm is less obvious than Jeanette’s, I’m delighted that we have left the entire afternoon for our tour. I did my homework for the exhibit but suggest that we join a docent-hosted tour, just in case I missed something. We spend hours admiring the marvelous art – Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Roger van der Weyden, Bouts, Campin, Massys, Stefan Lochner, even some Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. Such different choice of subjects, styles and use of color and media. On canvas, linen, wood, flax. It’s amazing that such delicate works could have survived centuries. I’m invigorated. Jeanette seems just a bit tired and overwhelmed. So back to the Hellcat, delivered with reverence and screeching tires by a young, slightly shaking valet.