As we climbed into the little pony trap uncle Henry announced:

“I’m taking you to have a look at the Church.”

Laughing, I replied:  “But I see it every Sunday, when I go with Harriet.”

“You go with whom?  Is that what you call my mother.”

“Never to her face of course, but great–aunt Harriet is rather a mouthful!”

“Oh that’s good, I like that,” he said laughing and slapping his leg. “If it isn’t a mouthful it must be a thoughtful!” And he laughed again. I’d already realised that his jovial persona made him easily amused.

“So you go to the Parish Church, I thought you would be a Roman Catholic, being a mixture of French and Irish.”

“Well I am really, but my father didn’t go to Church. Anyway, I don’t take the bread and wine.”

“That’s alright then, as long as some local  Father Johnny doesn’t come and tell you you’re committing a mortal sin.”

“Could that happen here? – it does in Ireland you know.”

“What, since emancipation you mean. You had a difficult time over there, Henri must have moved right into it.”

“He did.  Sometimes he’d talk about it. He used to think that  Dublin town must have been a very beautiful place before the Act.”

“When was that, now?”

“1801, everyone remembers the Act of Union and that date in Ireland because Parliament was abolished,  and all the ‘big wigs’ went back to England, or wherever they happened to come from.  Before that it had been called the second city in the Commonwealth, you see.”

“So I believe, but when I came to collect you I got the impression that it was rather a mess.”

“A lot of local people and  farmers moved into the empty houses but they were big and they couldn’t afford the upkeep”.

” So the lovely buildings deteriorated, typical!”

“Oh no, that isn’t fair.  The British had been very hard on the Irish”.

“Well the Catholic Irish perhaps.”

“I suppose so, but did you know they were not allowed to take a profession or buy property, and education was definitely not encouraged?  They hadn’t a hope of maintaining such large homes without money.  Only now are some beginning to earn a decent income, but it will be many a year before Dublin gets on its feet again and the help was not coming from this side of the water when I left”.

“So,  many were finding it wise to follow Rome, eh?”

“That’s a bit cynical  but probably true.”

“Can’t do ’em much good in the long run – it’ll be a while before we stop thinking of them as traitors over here – allegiance to Rome and not the King; tricky business m’dear”.

I had never looked at it like that and it was obvious there was more to this uncle than a jolly face.  Although uncle Henry had brought me over from Ireland I began to see that I knew very little about him.   We had talked mostly about my life in Ireland and my future. He must have thought me very self-centred..

“If you don’t mind me asking, what do you actually do?  No–one has told me.”

“Do?  Nothing, if I can help it.”

“Well then, what did you do?”

“Oh – I was in the Royal Navy – sailed all over the world and even served under King William once, in the Admiral’s flagship,  his ship in other words,  but I’m retired now. You say you go every Sunday to Church.  What do you know about it?”

“The service is not bad, sometimes the sermon’s rather boring….?..”

“About the Church itself?”

“Not very much.”

I was puzzled about this viait to the Church, but the sun was shining, the day was warming, and it was very pleasant trotting along the Essex lanes.  Looking at uncle Henry I could hardly believe that he and uncle John were brothers, they seemed so very different, but we were nearing the church and he was telling me: “They say there was a building here in Saxon times, but this present building of stone is Norman, built in about 1100.  Its lovely,” he said drawing reign, “look at it.  Look at the squat tower.  It’s one of the oldest churches around here.”  He tied up, and after putting a feeding bag under the nose of the faithful pony,  we walked up the path.

“Well come on, what have you noticed?”

“Most of it is flint.  But that red brick section, looks as if its been built on.  I have wondered about that before”

“In 1612” said uncle, obviously pleased to explain “there was a terrible storm and the tower was struck by lightning – all this collapsed, and the west wall was destroyed.  They obviously decided to rebuild with red–brick, so popular round here – same as Fynes, you see. But it was a very strange choice, stands out like a sore thumb!  Well anyway, I think so.”

Inside uncle pointed out the fine carved monuments in the South Transept, “The Church was specially lengthened for this monument which is carved from marble and alabaster and must have been a striking colour before it faded.  See, this reclining figure with a boar’s head at his feet and his wife and children all kneeling on the shelf above him.  This family once lived at Fynes, ’bout 1600 or so.  I love that monument.  I used to spend a lot of time looking at that, during the Sunday sermon, when I was a boy.”

He led me to  a plain slab with no inscription at all: “See that, that’s to mark the grave of a King of the Gypsies”

“How do you know that?” I said laughing, thinking he was kidding me.

“How do I know? – I once met two of his daughters in here, coming to visit the grave.”

“Fancy, they agreed to bury a gypsy here”.

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.

“Surprises you does it?”

As we reached the next part of uncle Henry’s church tour he said,

“You’ll have to get on your knees,  to look  at this ..”

He pointed to two stones, “What can you see?”

“W.R. 1798.”

“That’s it exactly” he enthused, slapping my shoulder with delight. “Well don’t you see, that’s your grandfather…William Rochford, died 1798, and he is buried here, in this Church.”

“I hardly knew him” I said getting to my feet, “did you?”

“Oh yes I did – very well, very well indeed!”

As we trotted back along the lanes I said: “I know so little about my grandfather, as I said in the Church, but Harriet started to tell me about my grandparents this morning and that pleased me, but confused me too, because she said that after their marriage, grandfather never returned to France, and that would mean both of them. Yet I believe their three children were born there; my father certainly was.”

“She said that did she?  Strange, her memory is usually so accurate”.

“Aunt also inferred that grandmother married beneath her.”

“Oh yes the family did think that but they lived quite comfortably in France, you know.  I mean, William Rochford was not in the same league financially as my father but that did not mean he was hard up.  After the children were born, your grandmother got homesick and they returned and lived round here.  William never returned to France after that.

I was very fond of your grandfather you know, and he did like me.  Made no secret of the fact that he preferred me, his nephew,  to his own son.   Sorry to say it because that means your father of course.  Didn’t understand or agree with the artistic life you see. Liked the Navy.  Was very good to me and I didn’t think much about it, but when your father died I thought I owed something to the Rochford family and that is why I offered to go to Ireland and bring you here.”

Thinking about it now made me realise that his jolly personality had played an important part in persuading me to leave Dridala and return with him to England.   He was chuckling to himself, and when I looked at him he explained:

” W.R. was always talking about an uncle of his, some belted Earl, always talking about him.  It was as if that was his whole reason for living.  Can you imagine?   As I said, he wasn’t poor, I think he was fairly well off, but he didn’t achieve much really – in his own lifetime – so he hung on to that fact about being the nephew of an Earl.  Perhaps he wanted the Rochfords to be one up on the Rawlings; we  can’t boast anything like that.”

I wasn’t terribly impressed about this so–called belted Earl, who was he anyway?  but I was surprised at uncle’s affection for my grandfather.  Whilst I was wondering about this, uncle was also quietly thoughtful: “One day.” he said suddenly and with resolution, “One day I will get a proper monument put on the wall, in remembrance of the old boy.  I mean, you wouldn’t have known those initials belonged to  your grandfather,  would you?   So,  who else would?  Yes, I owe it to him”

“When you do that,” I said, warming even more to this uncle of mine “will you also add that it was put up by his nephew?”

“Yes, well perhaps, if you think I should,  but I will put that bit about his being the nephew of an Earl.” He laughed aloud at the thought of it.

“By the way, where do you live?”

“Why, bless my soul Mathilda, don’t you know?”

“No–one has ever told me, and uncle please call me Mitty. Everyone did at home”

“Good, much better name, less stuffy! I live in one of the houses belonging to the Fynes estate, in Seble Dursingham.  A nice little village, it’s about two miles from here. Heavens above why don’t you come over and visit me?”

“Thank you, I would like that, I get quite lonely at Fynes.”

“‘Course you do,  should have asked you before,  stupid of me.”

“You live alone?”

“Yes, but it’s quite jolly, I don’t mind.”

“Have you  always lived alone?”

“Why – no, not really.” But his expression told me not to enquire further.

We turned into the drive which meandered  to Fynes Court, through parkland which boasted many majestic trees including ancient oaks and cedars and the court was visible from different and equally lovely angles at every turn.  The fine 18th century squared building, half of which was  covered in golden brown virginia creeper, was built, as uncle had said,  from the local red brick and this was aglow in the late afternoon wintry sunlight. The sash windows, which normally looked merely  elegant, now sparkled radiantly  – as the reflecting sun seemed to facet them like diamonds.

I said to uncle, but really almost to myself:

“It seems an odd thing to say, but I don’t think I’ve looked at it properly before, not realising how lovely it is.”

“Oh it is a grand place Mitty. It was built as a perfectly proportioned square building, before all the extra rooms were added by my father.  But the kitchens weren’t large enough, then they wanted a laundry, a bakery, a dairy, extra pantries and all that. Then of course they needed extra staff, so they had to have more bedrooms. One thing leads to another, doesn’t it?  The billiard room and the smoking room are in that new section.  It’s a bit different from Dridala ain’t it?” Uncle looked at me with an uncharacteristically serious expression:  “Do you like being here?”

“It is a beautiful place.” Was all I could answer.

It seemed odd that uncle Henry and my father had known  so little about each other. Although quite different personalities with different interests, I felt sure that they would have enjoyed each other’s company.

It had been a most enjoyable afternoon.  With his light–hearted paternalistic spirit, uncle Henry had made me feel almost like a  girl again, and on this particular sunny afternoon I had enjoyed that.

*******************

That evening, after supper,  Harriet and my uncle listened to several sonatas by ‘Mr. Beethoven’.  They appreciated the music and  watching them chatting together, I saw that aunt was comfortable and at ease with this son,  although it was the other whose praises she always sang.  With uncle Henry or cousin Charles,  aunt seemed to be a completely different person  – I felt I must persevere in trying to understand her.  Yet she seemed to carry a feeling of guilt, something tangible; but I felt it prevented her from relaxing with me.

“Mathilda has been kind to play so many beautiful pieces to us, but now it is late, I think you should stay here tonight Henry.  It has also turned very cold.”

Thanking her, Henry got to his feet saying:

“You know I always like some fresh air before turning in, so I think I will take a stroll.”  He looked enquiringly at me, but I shook my head, feeling I should remain.

“Thank you for coming Henry.  I have had a very pleasant birthday.”

On our own, aunt quizzed me again, only this time, more gently.

“When your father died you agreed to come and live here.  Why exactly?”

“Everyone told me it was the correct thing to do, since my brother was a bachelor – and where else could I go?”

“Now he is married – are you sorry you came?”

I found it difficult to answer this and aunt continued: “Don’t feel embarrassed, I seek a truthful answer – it might help us both.”

“After father died I knew Dridala would never be the same again – Stephan is no artist nor is he very sociable.  He’s a good man, but I would have found it difficult to stay and see the home I loved become ordinary and maybe boring.”

“Perhaps Fynes Court has proved to be just as boring.” Positioning her cane before moving, in the particular way she had, she added: “I hope you will find happiness here, but – the only people of your own age are Charles and Louisa at Castle Dursingham,  which is a two-mile drive away.  We must arrange for you to visit there,  when Louisa is feeling strong again.  Perhaps they can introduce you to people who are your contemporaries.   As you have said yourself, I do not have many visitors nor do I make a habit of going out, and those I do see are grandparents like myself.  We can only hope something will work out for you. Goodnight Mathilda.”

It was a depressing note to end on and she had a way of making me feel guilty, as if it was all my fault.  Yet what was there for me here?  The only solution Harriet could think of was for me to meet some eligible young man, that was her drift.  But what other solution was there?  If this had been my home I would not have given the matter a second thought. I did not – had never, made the idea of marriage a priority.  I had also always been so involved in my own activities, but obviously it would solve Harriet’s problems – she had not requested my invasion of her home, even if she had agreed to it.

The effect aunt had on me was strange; she had tried to be kind this evening and her remarks were only being practical, as she saw it, yet there was this barrier between us. Ridiculous really that two people could not find a way of living happily together.

All the pleasurable memories of the day with uncle and the shared happiness of enjoying lovely music were dispelled by the feeling of depression which got worse and by the time I reached the bedroom I felt lonely and desolate. How I wished I had joined uncle in his stroll. The furnishings in the elegant bedroom seemed to treat me as an interloper and it seemed so cold, despite the merrily burning fire which usually managed to cheer me up.  Surely there was something more for me to do with my life?    Mary had left the warming pan near the hearth but although I filled it with hot coals and smoothed it over the sheets they felt colder than I could ever remember.  Thankfully and suprisingly,  tiredness overcame me, and I slept.

***********

With increasingly less enthusiasm, I looked through the mail each morning and a few days later there was one for me…from aunt Em. She was a poor correspondent,  but maybe she had chosen to write to me because she had been told of my father’s actor friends in Ireland.  Perhaps this made her feel that , with me,  she could indulge herself:

                                                            Pall Mall,

                                                          Nov.14.1833.

My dear Mathilda,

       I trust you are well, and all at Fynes?  I have forgot if I told you I was at the Olympic Theatre on April 1st when Madame Vestris made her last appearance.  She made a speech afterwards – the audience loved it!

The Theatre Royal, Haymarket  re–opens next Easter Monday and I’m so looking forward to that, especially because my favourite comedy ‘John Bull’ is to be performed.

Last week I saw the Burletta, ‘Don Quixote’ also ‘Philip of Anjou’ at the Adelphi.  This last was by the English Opera Company.  Just prior to that I was at Covent Garden to see ‘Nell Gwynne’. The notorious consort of Charles II.  I was quite looking forward to this, but I was disappointed. I agreed with the critic of the Times.  He wrote: “It seemed beyond the power of the author to describe the lively wit and generous heart of Nell Gwynne, ot was it a theme to which he did not wish to address himself?” I think that rather well put, don’t you agree?

Please pass my love to Mother Rawlings, Henry,  Charles and Louisa, and say I will be writing soon.

You must visit with me in London, my dear, you could accompany me to the play.               

Your affec. aunt………Emily.

I had to smile at aunt Em’s letters consisting as they did merely of theatre visits, but they did bring with them some excitement and her letters gave me an excuse for seeking mail addressed to me.   They also provided a subject for conversation with Harriet.   November moved into December with no mail from India. I still had very mixed feelings about my reaction to such a letter but I was curious.  Perhaps my solitary existence fostered my curiosity, or perhaps it was a normal reaction.

********

The morning of the 18th December was one of those crisp and bright wintry mornings which are so delighful in England.  The bright sunshine, which must have  travelled around the curtains of my half–tester bed and fallen upon my cheek, probably woke me.   Peeping over my covers – I’m a heavy sleeper, I noted that Mary must have already encouraged the dying embers of the fire back to life – the fire was merry – and the water in the pretty jug on the wash table was steaming.  About to snuggle down again, always feeling at my most relaxed in bed in the mornings, I heard the sound of the horse’s hoofs clattering on the drive.  I would not bother to move, there would be nothing for me.

Harriet saw early rising as a virtue in itself  – and unless there was a good reason, I did not, but I remembered she had arranged some riding instruction. I’ve grown up with horses and I am a keen and swift rider, so I hardly need instruction.  However, although normally disinterested in new innovations she had nevertheless taken to this new idea of riding: side–saddle.  I thought it would be ridiculously uncomfortable and  could not believe that any sensible woman would take it up.  Yet, I was persuaded, I must take instruction, so reluctantly I climbed out of my very comfortable bed. With a swift soft knock, Mary came in, she looked a little surprised at seeing me up, then nodding said: “oh the riding lessons, “adding hastily “A letter come for you this mornin’ Miss.  You have two shillings to pay and the carrier is waitin’ Miss.”

“Thank you Mary.  What a lot of money, wait whilst I find it.”

Normally, the butler paid the letter carrier, and collected the money  later, but today he must have been absent.  It is odd having to pay for letters when you receive them,  before you even knew whether they were worth it, and two shillings!  What can it be that costs so much?   Mary returned with the item.  It had a mark on it saying ‘Madras Ship Letter.’ So it was from India. I could now guess the identity of the sender and could see from the date marks, that it had taken six months to travel from Madras to Halstead.  I was about to open it when Mary returned enquiring if I was ready to take breakfast.  This was a command from Harriet.  Nevertheless, I did break the seal and discovered that the letter  was cross–written,  in other words written diagonally and vertically as well as horizontally  and I could see immediately that it was quite unintelligible.  It was impossible even to find where it began, so I put it in my pocket and went down.

The array of food on the sideboard could have satisfied a multitude, but I was not hungry.  I placed the silver kettle above the burner and brewed some China tea – a great delicacy!  The beef and kidneys, porridge and ale remained untouched.  Harriet told me, but not unkindly, that she had chosen to wait for me before breakfasting.  Even so, I was  tempted to say that such politeness on her part was unnecessary, but a speedy escape was possible since the instructor awaited me.

Riding was second nature to me; I had been riding since I could walk and so I soon mastered the new technique, whilst thinking it ridiculous.  Harriet had arranged for the saddle to be sent down from London.  Obviously she was fascinated by the idea of her great–niece assuming a riding pose which had hardly been seen in Hyde Park, let alone in Great Maplethorpe.

Prepared to accept that this was a simple way to  please her, I trotted ahead of the instructor, deep in thought.  Being on horseback always seemed to take my mind back to Ireland.   I had a deep longing to return to Dridala,  yet I was asking for the moon because it had to be the Dridala of my father’s time.  It had to be the freedom I had known in the house – a special freedom, unrecognised until lost!  But now it was all so clear – I could see myself, sat on the floor in front of the inglenook fireplace, where the huge logs from the forest burned, surrounded by dogs and people. Talking.  Talking of anything and everything.  New writers;  poets;  painters;  their attributes and their failings.   I learnt more than many about politics, the procrastinations of the Reform bill, Dr. Whately’s Irish National School; much discussed since he had become a very outspoken Archbishop of Dublin.  How the policies of the Whigs and the Tories might affect Ireland.  Later this would be followed by a fiddle player or two from the village, because father loved the Irish music and they liked Dridala.

I reached the summit of the higher ground and looked out across the rolling arable land of North–East Essex.  The sun made a brief appearance, bringing brilliance to the panorama before me, which made my spirit fly back to a sultry Sunday at Dridala.  This had been followed by a balmy evening and, as so often happened when the weather was warm enough, a crowd of us had eaten supper at a long wooden table set out in the wild garden.  There was a patch which was a little less wild where the sheep had broken through the hedge and munched the grass, and this made a good level spot for the table..  A writer/director friend of father’s, involved at the theatre in Abbey Street, had joined us to share this precious time.  A Greek scholar, he read Plato’s play “The Supper Party” to us from the original; ably translating as he read. We sat listening with rapt attention, as the shadows lengthened.  Our present supper bore a strong resemblance to that of Aristotle’s time, we decided.   Were we not the same sort of people, with the same opinions, the same problems – just different clothing.  Would it always be so – the same parcels, but different packaging?  Was fundamental change in human behaviour an impossibility?   Thus we had talked and  the candles had spluttered and gutted long before we left to walk through the garden by the light of the stars and lay down our heads.  Would such stimulating times ever return  for me?

Never short of male companions amongst my father’s friends, I had made some good friends of my own, and found some to love.  Never, as I had told Harriet, had I found one to tempt me away.  I must have thought my father would live for ever – I certainly never thought of a time without him.

There was a slight cough behind me and the instructor spoke – I had completely forgotten he was there: “Shall we return now Miss Rochford?  You seemed to have mastered the new saddle.”

I apologised and we turned back. It was then I looked at him properly, and for the first time.  He was smiling at me, despite my bad behaviour and lack of thought for him, and he had a charming smile.  In fact he was very handsome.  Sitting his horse well, as one might expect, with a slim straight back and his top hat set at a jaunty angle, he cut a fine figure.  I hadn’t even noticed, I must be in a bad way.  I was certainly preoccupied with my own problems. Many a young lady I felt sure,  would wish to learn to ride this way just for the pleasure of being taught by this young man.   Presumably, the young instructor was tired of being ignored, since he now rode alongside and we walked the horses for a while:

“You are obviously competent, you only need to practice. Now you’ve tried, do you like riding side-saddle?”

“No not really, but it is a sort of challenge and it fills the time.  Do any of your pupils like it and how do you come to be teaching around here?  I don’t know of anyone else who rides like this?”

He laughed:”I came with the saddle, so to speak,  from London, at the request of your aunt.  I agree, it does seem a rather strange way to ride.”

“For years in Ireland I rode bareback and hated to use any saddle because only then do you feel at one with the horse.”

“Oh yes I agree… I used to be an under–groom in a large household and often rode that way, particularly with the young horses who were only partially broken in.”

“So you’ve taken a gamble to start up on your own, is that it?”

“That’s it, I hope to instruct young ladies because I’m sure this type of riding will become fashionable; also, the principal groom was not much older than myself, and was very competent…”

“No future then?  Well good luck.”

“Just before we return I suggest we take a few low jumps in that field over there – then I can tell your aunt that you’re all set.”

“Well, perhaps.”

As I went to clean up after my ride I realised that talking to that young man and Charles had been my only form of contact with any young men, since leaving Ireland.  Why had I come here?  Had the thought of a luxurious lifestyle tempted me?  I could have argued against the moral terpitude which persuaded me to leave. I certainly had not realised the days would be so long and tedious, nor that I would be so lonely.  Was it God or fate that wrought these changes – did we really make the decisions?  As I took off my riding coat to leave it in the tack room near the kitchen, as was the custom at Fynes, my hand came into contact with the letter – that letter! How could I have completely forgotten it?  The mind plays strange tricks – maybe I didn’t want to think about it, but it was no good, I had to face it.  Although I have good eyesight my earlier glance at the letter had made me realise that I needed a magnifying glass.  After lunch, as I made for my bedroom – and privacy –  I found one on the writing table in the library.

Mary’s sharp eyes had spotted me and following, she was soon rekindling the fire.  It was burning well as I settled to my task, at my little table.

It really was difficult to find the beginning.  There was no ‘Dear Mathilda’, nor a date, nor a place of origin.  Finally I decided it must start at the very top of the left–hand page.  I read the first three words….then after several gaps, a few more words, so taking a piece of paper I decided to write down the words I could decipher, leaving spaces, and these I would try to complete, later.

After about an hour, it looked like this:

“This letter was… and I think it a… not to write… at… because… gets… and… begins to… and half a dozen other things which in… never enters…”

 

“How I sigh for the time… for the rocky shores… England and… hold of you… let you go again, you… upon it.  So prepare… kidnapped.  How I do… idea of a drive… and Ireland in a neat little… with you… and… which I know you have in store for me.”

What dreadful writing, made even more difficult to understand by writing in lines across and at an angle.  If it was so important a letter why did this man not take more trouble in writing it?  I found myself wondering why Charles had so much admiration for this Cowper Rochford, and whether I should struggle to read his letter.  Charles!  He was the answer.  He had told me that he and Cowper corresponded, so he must know his writing and be able to read it.  Charles was often to be seen around Fynes, either going into the office or riding off somewhere, but he was very busy and although always friendly he only had time for a quick word or a wave.  I had awaited my invitation to their home with impatience,  but only the other day he had said that Louisa and he would be staying at Fynes for Christmas and would arrange for me to go over and stay sometime in January.  However this letter changed everything; after all Charles was partly responsible for its arrival. I  determined to ride over to Castle Dursingham the following day.

//

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