Chapter 8

     I did not seem to find an opportunity to talk to aunt Em (perhaps I was not particularly trying), but my time continued to be happily filled until one morning when aunt and uncle received a letter from Charles.  Louisa had lost the baby. The doctor had said that if she ever conceived again she would have to take to her bed, from the moment she became aware of the pregnancy – and stay there until the baby was born.

The news of the loss of the baby depressed the household. To be a grand-mama was Aunt’s dearest wish and uncle was also concerned about the ultimate inheritor of Fynes Court.  A curtain of gloom remained for a while until Jenny, my upstairs maid, finally helped to dispel it.  Aunt Em, in her mood of depression, tended to follow me around, so she was in my room one morning whilst Jenny was pinning my hair up, and aunt was saying to me:

“This must be the end of our hopes.  I don’t think Louisa will ever manage to have a child.”

“Forgive me for interrupting Ma’am,” Jenny piped up, “but I don’t think you should take on so. It’ll never be like that, you’ll see.  In our family we has more children than us wants, as a rule.  But my sister; ‘er had this trouble – oh and ‘er did want to have a baby so!  That’s ‘ow it is,  ain’t it Ma’am,  when you can’t have ’em you wants ’em.  ‘er had to take to ‘er bed and that t’wern’t easy seeing as ‘ow ‘er couldna work then and so ‘er wouldna ‘ave enough  money.  But our Mum settled it.  Mum said to our sis that she were to move in with our Mum, stay abed and our Mum would look after ‘er.  Our sis‘s ‘usband, he were to fend for hisself and bring some money to our Mum to help out – which ‘e did.  Our sis ‘ad a butiful little boy – jes three months ago.  So Ma’am, if our family can do it I’m sure it can be done in yourn,you’ll see, you see if you don’t. Beggin’ yer parding ma’am.”

Jenny’s apology was accompanied by a little bob and bowed head.

Such wise advice made aunt Em smile and later when relating the tale to uncle, she actually laughed – so the gloom began to lighten a little.

Even so uncle encouraged me to stay on in town to amuse and accompany aunt Em to The Play.   By now I thought infrequently of Cowper Rochford because I had convinced myself that his remarkable letter must be one of his practical jokes and it was not to be taken seriously.

During early April a letter to me arrived from Charles:

My dear Mitty,

      Thank you for your understanding letter – we are trying to put this sadness behind us and to hope for better events in the future.    Louisa and I were very pleased to read that you continue to enjoy the London life.  You write that you have now removed yourself from the recital treadmill … that is good!    

 I also received a short letter from Cowper, written in September. 

He wrote that his departure had been delayed by unforeseen circumstances, which he had found depressing.  But more about that when I see you.  Cowper’s plan was to embark in February so he should be on the high seas now.  Have you been following the Sailing Reports in The Times?  Any notion of expected arrivals?  Cowper concluded by asking me if I would let you know about this and I quote:  ‘Please tell Mitty, despite all that has taken place here, I meant all that I wrote in my letter to her.’  We cannot know what he means, so we must wait until we see him.  Louisa joins me in saying how much we miss you, and that we look forward, with pleasure, to your return. With kindest regards from us both, Your affectionate cousin, Charles Rawlings.

A letter from Charles to his father and mother came by the same post, which was typically thoughtful of him.  Sailing Reports?  Had I been looking.  No, not really.  I had arranged for copies of The Times to be retained, (on some pretext) and had been glancing through occasionally in a perfunctory fashion.  I now collected them and thoroughly checked;  After some searching I found the following: The Lady Flora to leave Madras on February 9th, arriving Cowes on June 11th.

All the apprehensions which I had put firmly to the back of my mind, now came flooding back.  He was coming home, sailing now, arriving June. Should I reveal all to Aunt Em?

Whilst I was thinking of how to proceed she came into the room carrying a copy of The Times:

“Listen to this Mitty, On April 5th the Thames Tunnel will open.  For the payment of one shilling it can be viewed by the public.  Lighted with gas, it is safe and warm, and descent into the tunnel can be achieved by a safe and easy staircase.  Approach is either opposite Old Gravel Lane, Wapping or near the Church at Rotherhithe.  Should we not go Mitty?  Let us be one of the first to walk under the River Thames!”

Was this my aunt talking?  Aunt Em,  an adventurous soul prepared to risk life and limb for the sake of ‘being first’? I was surprised.   There had been so much apprehension about the building of the tunnel and people had said: “they will have to drag me down there, it wont be safe.” Others had declared:  “It will cave in and all will be drowned, crushed or suffocated.”

Despite all this we went, the very next day.  It was warm and dry –  and exciting.  The fact that thousands of gallons of river water was running right above our heads, was never quite out of mind, although there was no actual sign of it. No water dripping down the walls, as had been predicted.  There was a sense of exhilaration in reaching the other side and walking into the fresh air; safe and sound.  Uncle was quite impressed with his wife’s determination to try it out.  Perhaps he didn’t really know her either.  In any case it helped to resolve my indecision – I would tell aunt Em about Rochford, but not uncle.  If and when Cowper approached uncle John, as he had threatened to do, aunt would already be in possession of the facts, and strangely, this pleased me.  Aunt could score up another ‘first’.   But when should I introduce such an extraordinary subject? Would aunt have met Cowper atsome point in the past?   He was a relative of my father’s, but then I remembered;  he and her son were, and still are friends – so perhaps they had.

l chose the time carefully – one of the evenings quietly spent in the drawing room with uncle involved elsewhere. I explained that I wished to read an unusual letter to her. Thus I read the transcript of Cowper’s letter.   When I had read it through once she asked me to read it again, stopping me, to ask questions on various points, nodding vaguely when I asked her if she knew Cowper.  Finally she sat back, ringing the bell: “I think we need a drink of something.  Tea, coffee, cordial… a little wine. Which do you prefer Mitty?”  We chose wine – it seemed to fit the occasion.

“How extraordinary Mitty, my dear.  It’s more like a scene from a play than real life.  Imagine you keeping this to yourself, all this time.   It brings to mind the fact that my own marriage arrangements could not have been more different – my mother and father organized it all for me,  in collusion with John’s parents.   Do you intend to marry him?   Of course you will be told that it is necessary for this young man to have a good position, financial stability and so on.”

“It is also necessary for me to like, or even to love him, isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is… it certainly helps.”

Sipping our wine, which had been dutifully produced, I asked:  “So do you remember Cowper?”

“Of course I do.  He was the sort of boy you do remember.  He spent two or three holidays at Fynes.  He comes from a military family, doesn’t he?  His parents were so often abroad, and that was why he spent his holidays with Charles.   He was rather unpredictable and not a little feckless; or perhaps mischievous. I remember he would sometimes leap in through the downstairs window draped in a sheet, with something like a turban on his head, brandishing the old sabre which hangs in the dining hall – screaming enough to scare the birds from every tree.  He would be chasing Charles who seemed to love every minute of it.” She chuckled as she took a sip of wine. “Yes, of course I remember Cowper and yes, despite his boisterousness, I liked him.” She looked directly at me and added, with a wistful air: ” What will you do – I suppose you will have to return to Essex?”

We spent the rest of the evening discussing this.  Aunt Em didn’t even ask if I had told uncle, I suppose she presumed that I had.  It was decided that I should return.  If Cowper was spending five months on the high seas in  order, as he declared, to come and see me (or carry me off), the least I could do was to be there when he arrived, if only to refuse his offer of marriage.

The task of packing was definitely not an easy one. Aunt Em tried to persuade me to send the bulk of my new things by the carters.  These horse drawn carts went at walking pace all the way and I thought I would never see my beautiful new gowns again. So I resolved to try and get them in the size of box allowed by  the coach people. In the end Jenny and  I succeeded, but I had to suffer the wry comments of the handlers, as they threw the exceptionally heavy box up on top.

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Saying goodbye to aunt Em was very emotional.  She and I had shared many experiences and generally, not having many close friends, she was rather lonely.  Even uncle John seemed sad to see me leave.  But I would miss aunt Em, especially our evening chats accompanied by wine, or hot chocolate.  Her pale and delicate skin and frail physique; her way of moving quietly about exuding a faint, lavender fragrance, had become very dear to me, and would always remain so.

Uncle and aunt came down to the hallway in their night wraps, as it was before dawn when I left.  It seemed as if the weather would be lovely, so I chose to travel on top of the coach. I was the only female ‘on top’, so the coachman offered me a seat on the box beside him.  It was so much better than travelling inside.  That was if the weather was fine, and once you had clambered up.

As the dawn came up the views were glorious, and soon afterwards, the people of the villages beginning their daily tasks, waved and smiled as we passed. Little children and dogs chased after us and all was easily visible from the top.  I felt I was privileged to observe the coachman controlling his team of horses.  He knew each by name and they responded to his commands individually.  The two front horses were called the leaders, for obvious reasons, but the two at the back were called the wheelers.  The wheelers had a very important job because the brakes were not strong enough to stop the momentum of this heavy conveyance, so when driving down the hills the horses assisted, by putting all the weight of their rumps against the front of the coach, to restrain it.  The rein for each horse was held around each finger of the Coachman’s right hand, hence the term ‘Four in hand’. Each horse was so responsive to a command, that it was possible to control it by the simple movement of a finger.

At each stop we were given a glass of ‘toddy’, served in odd trays with holes for the glasses, called ‘quaffing’ glasses.  These had sealed stems but no base on which to put them.   Thus you could not put them down until they were empty, so you had to quaff the drink in the five minutes it took to change the four horses. After a couple of these ‘mixture of spirits’ I’d had enough, and more wasn’t necessary, as might have been on a bitterly cold night.  In the winter this had become such a necessity that  many coachmen and guards had  become addicted.  Occasionally a traveller had a tale to tell of a crazy ride with a drunken coachman. Sometimes passengers, on noticing that they hadn’t heard the posthorn blown for a while, discovered later that the guard had ‘dropped off’, quite literally, and was left somewhere back along the road.

This early summer’s morn we were travelling on hard dry roads, and although we bumped and bounced it did not compare with the terrible conditions of the winter!  No wonder some pessimistic travellers made out their Wills before setting off!

It wasn’t until we were nearing the end of the journey, when I was travelling back inside, as all the seats on top had been taken at Chelmsford, that I realised my fascination with the journey had driven from my mind the mixture of curiosity and dread with which I viewed meeting Cowper – but it flooded in now, almost overwhelming me.

I was pleased to be greeted by a cheery, smiling Jim at Halstead, and surprisingly ,when we arrived at Maplethorpe, Harriet was on the porch to greet me.  We had so much more to talk about now.  She found life in London and news of her son and daughter–in–law of intense interest.  She was also able to give me the good news that Louisa was pregnant again.   She actually said, without unkind inference: “Charles’s wife is now confined to a day couch.”

I lost no time in going to Castle Dursingham to visit Louisa and Charles.  It was wonderful to see them both again.  We talked for hours.  My very active life in London had filled several months.  However, the thought of the long awaited offspring was obviously uppermost in their minds.

“I am determined to carry this baby Mitty – even if it means lying around uselessly until it arrives.”

I told her how Jenny, the upstairs maid, had cheered the Pall Mall household with her story of her sister’s confinement.

“It makes me realise how fortunate I am, but the advantages are not all on my side; Jenny’s sister belongs to a large family, you say?  In a large family like that, people are always coming and going.  You will help won’t you Mitty, by coming to see me as often as possible?”

“If she’s around to do so.” said Charles with a wry smile. “Don’t forget Cowper’s threat.  Any day now!!”

A few days later a letter arrived for me, from Uncle.

Pall Mall.

Dear Mathilda,

 

     I thank you for your letter to your aunt and myself and I am glad to read that you are safely arrived in Essex.

 Captain. Rochford has arrived from Madras and has visited me. He explained that he wished to follow through the objective, about which he had written to you Mathilda.  I am bound to say that I feel somewhat affronted at your inability to confide in me, your uncle, as you did with your aunt.  Captain Rochford asked me if I remembered his visits to stay at Fynes Court with Charles?  I do vaguely recollect.

I sincerely hope you will proceed with caution.  I wish I was nearer to aid you in this, as I feel that Charles’s advice may well be biased.  The fact that Captain Rochford should wish to marry you, and with so much haste, is to my mind, quite extraordinary, and I have to admit to being uneasy about his intentions.

I can only  trust that you will consult me or seek wise council elsewhere, before making your decision.

       Your affectionate uncle… John Rawlings.

 

I accepted that I had lacked courage in failing to confide in my uncle, but could I have been sure that Cowper would carry out his threat, and ‘beard the lion in his den’, as it were.? Uncle John’s letter made me feel contrite, and when I wrote to apologise, I tried to reassure him that my own reaction was similar to his.  There was still no sign of Captain Rochford however.  Then a note from Charles was delivered.

                                     Castle Dursingham… Sunday.

My dear Mitty,

      Cowper has arrived and is staying here with us.  He had been involved in some drama before leaving India.  May we have permission to call, and tell you about it?  Jim could ride over with the answer, but if you can get a letter to the inn by this evening – it will be with us by the mail in the  morning?  I’m sorry this is short … Louisa is well and sends her love…Charles

Unpredictable!  Wasn’t that Cowper Rochford’s reputation? Yet, I was pleased that Charles should write and ask my permission to call? Surely at Cowper’s request?  Especially since he had threatened to storm my defences and carry me off to be regularly kidnapped.  I wondered about the dramatic circumstances in India to which Charles referred?   Was this also part of a plan to confound me?  Charles, at least was coming with him. I simply could not have faced him alone.

After months of anticipation, it must be admitted, I was anxious to meet this most unpredictable of men, if only to get it over with. I still had not mentioned anything to Harriet; no time must now be lost in telling her about the letter.  I sent a note to Charles, and Jim took it that same evening to the innkeeper, who was a sort of postmaster. I’d written that I was prepared to receive Cowper, but since I had not yet told my aunt anything, would he please wait at least a day – or so?

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