The Posture of a Lady [Uskweirs #7]

…in which Amelia goes to church. Since I am emulating the English pastoral romance, it was only inevitable that I’d need to include a complete sermon, right? But don’t fret, folks, it’s a heretical sermon.

And the chapter opens with some more of fan-favorite Cordelia, huzzah!

Enjoy. 🙂

The Posture of a Lady

July 1812

“You’re the one saying that I walk like a man,” Amelia pouted, careful about her enunciation and also squinting into the sunlight and balancing a stack of books on her head.

Cordelia watched her from underneath her parasol.  “No, you walk like… a milkmaid.  Like you are accustomed to carrying heavy buckets while stepping over hillocks of cow shit.” Even the way she said “cow shit” sounded elegant.  “Entirely too… rough and tumble.  Because your role is that of a lady.  You must float.”

“No matter what I do, I’m sure my feet will continue to touch the ground,” the girl groused, and then scowled as she heard her voice drop at the end of of ‘ground.’  Her concentration was split between entirely too many things all at once, and she kept losing control of the details.  She tried again, with an upward lilt that made her griping sound like a question: “My feet will continue to touch the ground?”  She didn’t really like that, either.

“Good correction,” Cordelia murmured.

Amelia felt a sudden burst of pride, quickly followed by embarrassment at her surging response to this barest portion of praise.  This was the way of things, recently: after a lifetime of a muted heart, now every stray circumstance of life caused it to leap or flutter.  She touched the corner of her eye to check if she was crying, because recently tears could dribble down her cheeks without her even noticing.

It was frustrating and also exhilarating.

Cordelia took a few steps down the coach path.  Amelia watched intently, pretty sure the lady’s feet did not, in fact, touch the ground.  Her rump also described a perfect figure eight with each pair of steps, setting off corresponding swishes in her skirts.  Amelia chided herself to focus.  The actress turned and clapped her hands.  “Again.  Loosen your hips, all your motion should center there.”

Amelia carefully swung the right side of her hip forward along with its attached leg, counter-balancing with her opposite shoulder leaning much further back than it was accustomed.  The books atop her curls wobbled uncertainly.

“Slow is fine,” her tutor advised, not at all for the first time.  “You needn’t rush.  In fact, you shouldn’t.  You are a lady, you do not rush, you have never in your life had to rush, you do not even know what rushing is.”

For a flat coach path leading away from the manor and down to the road, the ground was surprisingly uneven.  Amelia discovered that where her foot was falling, the ground dipped; she leaned her weight forward too soon and came down too hard.  Amelia saw in her mind’s eye the stack of books sliding off her head and into the dirt.  But the next moment her hips slipped forward, her shoulders slid just so, and somehow she maintained her balance.

A half-inch dip in the road, but she had bested it.  “Fuck you, dip in the road,” she crowed.  But then it all went awry: her voice came out sweet and light, in contrast to her cursing.  What might have once been a chuckle at that instead came out of her carefully-positioned vocal tract as a giggle.  Surprised, Amelia giggled again, hands darting up to cover her lips, and then she laughed.  Her head tipped back and the forgotten books atop it fell, slapping the ground in a clatter.

Cordelia did not chide her, merely watching with bemusement as her pupil knelt to collect the volumes.

“I didn’t… mean to giggle,” Amelia tried to explain without giggling more.  “And then I just… lost it.”

Her tutor nodded.  “Once everything is aligned, things start working together.  Chuckles become giggles.  You’ll even sneeze in a feminine fashion.  It’s… a good feeling.”  She handed Amelia one volume that had tumbled to her own feet..  “Which is why we’re working on your posture.  Once you have the posture of a lady, you’ll have the voice of lady.  Everything is connected.”

Amelia gathered and carefully stacked the books, corners neatly squared.  They’d been a gift in the post from Theresa Chesterley: the five volumes of the new novel Traits of Nature, by one of the woman’s friends or co-conspirators.  A bluestocking, a former bluestocking; it was unclear.  But Chesterley had taken to heart Amelia’s claim to ignorance on women’s issues and apparently sought to amend the situation.  Starting with a novel.

Cordelia clapped.  “Again, Miss Wright.”

“I’m a little surprised you’re not making me recite as I do this,” said the girl as she placed the stack of volumes on her head again.  But the words came out wrong, or rather right.  They were light and bright and playful, and what might have been a good-natured ribbing instead sounded like a coquettish tease.

“Ah, you’ve discerned my plans for the next—” the woman’s answer faltered.  “You’re scowling.  What is it?”

“That came out wrong.”

“I wasn’t offended.”

“Well, I’m glad, but it still wasn’t how I intended.”  She straightened the books and prepared to take steps again.  “Actually, the same thing happened in Bath.  I think I… flirted… with Doctor Barry.”

“The scotsman that Ashbourne and Mulvey were arguing over yesterday?”

Amelia frowned, stopped her tentative steps.  “Scotsman, yes, but I don’t know anything about arguing.”

Cordelia shrugged, a liquid gesture.  “Ashbourne worries that Mulvey’s fucking him, but I think Mulvey just wants to get him into the Uskweirs crowd.  He’s the protégé of one of Mulvey’s old flames, which also sets Ashbourne’s teeth on edge.”  The woman waved a hand, as if she could dismiss a conversation topic with a gesture, like set decorations yanked away on ropes and pulleys.  “Tell me about the flirting.”

Amelia did, haltingly and carefully, while also taking steps forward.  She tried to keep her spine ramrod straight without looking like she was keeping it ramrod straight, except she was also supposed to stick her rear out.  Her account of the afternoon on the hill was garbled, at best.

But Cordelia nodded.  “I can guess at what happened.  Before you came here, you were accustomed to making little jokes out of silly implication.  In Bath, you pushed the same words through your new voice, appearance, and bearing.  But under that presentation, what you implied was no longer silly, but coy.”

Amelia frowned softly at the horizon and attempted to turn around without dropping her books again.  “I suppose.  One might assume that the same words would mean the same thing, but of course they wouldn’t.  Because I had the posture of a lady.”  She was moderately sure she’d put the right lilt into that to make it sound humorous.

“Now you’ve got it,” her tutor laughed (which sounded like musical chimes), following along beside her on the grass.  She watched three more steps.  “You do have to be careful about that, though.  It sounds like the doctor was amused; other men will think you are making promises.”

“So no jokes?”

She could see Cordelia’s eloquent shrug in the shadow she cast on the ground.  “Different jokes, different deliveries.  You’ll get there.  Why have you stopped?”

Because Amelia had indeed stopped in her tracks, staring down the path to where it met the road.  Coming up its length, on foot, were Lord Ashbourne and his daughter, both dressed for pleasant company.  “Elizabeth?!” Amelia exclaimed.  The girl was close enough to hear, as she lifted her head, smiled, and waved.

When the four were closer together, Amelia couldn’t stop herself from saying, “It’s not yet eleven, I’m surprised you’re even out of bed.  And coming home, so you must have left even earlier.  Whatever could have tempted you to such an adventure?”

“It’s Sunday, you heathen,” was the girl’s laughing reply.  She stepped up and embraced Amelia and Cordelia in turn.  “We are returning from church.”

Amelia looked from one to the other incredulously.  “You attend church services?”

“Of course,” the viscount answered blithely.  “The first Saturday you were here I asked if you wanted to join us.”

“I thought you were joking,” Amelia sputtered.  “I didn’t think you… forgive me, but I didn’t think the likes of us were… welcome in a place of Christian worship.”

But Ashbourne only smiled.  “Well, the advowson for the parish church is part of the Uskweirs estate, so I name the vicar.  That goes quite a long way to making it amenable to our attendance.  You should come next week.”

“I’d… love to?” Amelia replied helplessly, bid the two of them goodbye, and got back to her posture and gait lessons.  As Cordelia had threatened, reciting monologues was shortly added to her stack of simultaneous tasks.

The next Sunday, Amelia rose and dressed for an early breakfast and set off with the Randalls for services.  The walk was pleasant, the weather warm, and her mood anxious.  It had been years since she had last set foot in a church, driven from the practice by too many rounds of sharp words.  Those who set themselves in judgment had never knowingly targeted her.  Instead they had confided their righteous opinions on who deserved smiting under a pervasive assumption that she could only concur.  But the vitriol so blithely dispensed and her own secrets so defensively kept always combined to make her skin crawl.  So she had fled.

And now, feeling compelled to attend by her host’s invitation, she returned.  The parish church was a modest affair: a stone chapel that could seat the two hundred souls of the village, set in the midst of a weathered graveyard where the aforementioned village souls had been finding their repose for centuries.

The building did have some brilliant stained glass pieces.  Ashbourne pointed these out, explaining that his predecessor had commissioned them.  Amelia admitted that she couldn’t place the characters or bible scene.  “Ruth and Naomi,” he supplied, still looking up at the tableau.  “Sometimes I think I come here just to admire the glass.”

But then it was time for services to start.  The sanctuary had filled with villagers in their Sunday best, and Ashbourne led the two ladies to the front pew, smiling and greeting the other parishioners by name.  Once at the fore, the viscount occupied his pride of place with genial satisfaction.

The verger, a grey old man built like a brick wall, gave the gathered congregation a nod of welcome.  He then introduced the pastor, who ascended the pulpit with a welcoming air.  Amelia was struck by a sudden sense of familiarity, but dismissed it: he was just another smiling pastor in a preaching gown.  “May the grace of our Lord greet you this fine morning,” he smiled out across them all.  “Please kneel for confession.”

The congregation rose from their seats and then knelt down.  Amelia moved along with them out of ancient habit, only struggling a moment with her skirts.  There was, at least, a plush cushion for their knees in the viscount’s pew.  Elizabeth handed her a book of prayer opened to confession, and a moment later the congregation began to recite in halting unison.

Amelia could not quite put voice to the words that she read, a long litany of self-denigration and supplication before the wisdom of the Lord God.

Then they sat and the vicar read through three psalms, one of them quite lengthy and repetitive about the transcendent glory of divine judgment.  When he read, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” Amelia could not banish the sick feeling of being singled out, that the entire psalm was somehow directed at her and the past two months of her life.

She began to formulate a plan for how to excuse herself.  Perhaps she could faint.  She’d never done it before, but it didn’t look too difficult.  Just fan yourself, breathe quickly, and fall over.  And then Ashbourne would help her stagger out the door into the bright summer sunshine, away from all of this.

“Well that one went on and on forever, didn’t it?” she heard the pastor say, and the congregation laughed.  Amelia’s plans for escape ground to a confused halt.  It was when he smiled that he looked most familiar.  “God’s statutes,” he went on ruefully.  “How perfect and unchanging they are, or so we like to believe.  It makes us feel safe to think that what is right and good is unchanging.  But our first reading of the Old Testament may challenge that facile understanding.”

And then a deacon stepped up to the lectern and announced the reading in Genesis.  His voice was reedy and his reading uncertain, and his nervousness in the role shone through.  But as he read about Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, a sense of pride seemed to well up in the man, and he was smiling by the end of the reading.

“Poor Jacob,” the vicar called out from the pulpit, and all eyes looked up to him.  “He worked seven years for the hand of the pretty girl, and all he got was her old, half-blind sister.  So then he worked another seven years to win the hand of Rachel.  Now, some may say that this is a story of persistence, and of putting in the work to realize God’s plan for ourselves and for the world.  And I don’t think they would be wrong in saying that.  Righteous perseverance is one of the greatest forces of change in our fallen world.

“But what most interpretations of this story will just blithely gloss over is that Jacob comes out of this with two wives.  God’s plan gives Jacob two wives.  Has God’s plan given any of you two wives recently?”  And the pastor laughed, a generous guffaw that brought in the whole congregation and turned any uncertainties that they may have harbored into delight.  Amelia was certain she’d seen this man before.  “What Jacob had is now called bigamy.  It’ll get you into trouble with the authorities.  It used to get you into trouble with the church authorities, in fact.”

The pastor leaned forward, two hands held out over the congregation in entreaty to consider his question, which was thus: “Now.  How do we reconcile this story with the psalm that glorified our Lord’s unchanging statutes?  It seems like either Jacob was wrong then or we are wrong now.  And both of these courses, well… let us be tactful and say that they flirt with heresy.  Is there a third way?”

He paused, and Amelia could feel the assembled faithful lean forward, eager to hear the resolution to this knotty problem.

“For that we have our next reading, from Romans.”  He gestured grandly to the lectern and the man behind it.  “Deacon, if you will.”

The deacon, eager this time, read at some length on prayer, grace, predestination, condemnation, and love.  The final verses rose to a crescendo, which the man did his best to give weight and fervor.

“Thank you, deacon, thank you,” intoned the pastor from the height of the pulpit again.  “Now there’s a lot in that reading, and if parts of it mystify you, well then, I’m in good company, because I’m not sure I understand most of it.  But I take solace that it begins by recognizing that we do not know what to pray for, but the Spirit of God intercedes for us, for the ‘groanings which cannot be uttered.’  How comforting to know that when we pray, we do not need the right words.  He knows what we pray for; He knows what troubles us; He knows what help we need.

“And then there’s some verses about predestination, and friends, let us recognize that scholars more learned than you or I have debated how any of that operates for centuries.  I’m not going to tell you how it works, and I don’t want you to worry about it, because it’s just not important.  What is important comes next: the love.  The love of God, the sacrifice of Christ.  ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’”

The pastor spread his hands above his head and beamed down at the congregation, exultant, and Amelia was so close to placing where she had seen him before that she could taste it.

“It speaks about those who might condemn, who may lay charges, who might separate us from the love of Christ,” the pastor said, and then paused, pensively, until the entire room paid him rapt attention.  “I want to suggest to you that perhaps, on occasion, those who condemned, who laid charges, who tried to separate the Faithful from the love of God… they were men of the cloth.  Men like me, like my superiors: respectable church men, condemning what they saw as improper behavior.”

From high above them all, the pastor leaned over the pulpit railing, so far that Amelia worried for a moment that he might tip over and fall out.  But he was smiling.  “But it is God who justifieth.  Not men like me, not our bishop, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury.  We read our texts, we make our arguments, we pen panegyrics denouncing each other’s positions.  And that is what we call theology.”

He smiled down on his flock, opening both his hands as if to show them all that they were empty.  “But theology is not the unchanging statutes of God.  They’re just not the same thing… no matter what my colleagues might want you to think.  Theology can only ever be an approximation of God’s plan.  We see through a glass darkly.”

The pastor straightened.  “I’d like to take a page from the Cathars, who worshiped Christ a few hundred years ago.  And yes, they were heretics.  If you’ve heard me sermonize enough, you’ll know by now how I love our heretics.”  The audience rumbled in response, chuckling with familiar indulgence for their pastor.  “They always have one little piece that they got right.

“And the Cathars, they were obsessed with perfection.  They called the holiest among themselves Perfects.  But to the Cathars, perfection was not a state of being.  It wasn’t the end; it wasn’t the goal.  Perfection was a process.  Becoming a Perfect was to dedicate yourself to perfection: not to declare that you were perfect, but that you were striving to become more perfect every day.

“I like that idea,” the vicar smiled, rubbing his hands together.  “Perfection is a process.  I think it applies to us. I think it applies to our church.  I think it applies to my colleagues, all those learned men exchanging theological panegyrics.  I think it applies to you, to each and every one of you, who struggles to better understand, every day, the unchanging statutes of God, and how they apply to your life.

“And will we falter, will we misstep? Of course we will. Perhaps Jacob misstepped in taking a second wife. Perhaps the church misstepped in calling bigamy a crime.  We don’t know and we don’t have to know. All we have to do is try, and keep our eye on the important part: the love. Remember that God loves us, and we can mirror His divine love in our love for each other. If we keep our eye on the love, we will do great things!

“I believe that we are all Perfects.”  The pastor pointed down from the pulpit into the pews.  “You are a Perfect.  You are a Perfect.  You and you and you are all Perfects.”

And then he looked down at Amelia, a new face in the front row right next to his pulpit.  He smiled down at her directly and extended his hand, as if beckoning her up into the pulpit with him.  “And you, my dear: you are a Perfect, as well.”

Amelia didn’t hear the rest of the sermon and numbly play-acted her way through the rest of the service.  The pastor blessed them and told them to go out and enjoy the sunshine, and then they were filing out of the church.  Ashbourne could have claimed the first exit, but instead he waited for the rest of the church to spill outside.  The three of them took up the rear of the procession.

Elizabeth wordlessly handed Amelia her handkerchief; she realized suddenly that she had been crying.  She had no idea how long she’d been crying.  “Shit,” she muttered, trying to mop up her tears without completely destroying her cosmetics.

“Such language in a place of worship,” Elizabeth teased, but also squeezed her arm.

The pastor stood at the chancel door, shaking hands and saying goodbyes.  When it was their turn, he smiled to her.  “And you must be Miss Wright.  Your hosts have been telling me about you.”

“Have they,” Amelia answered with a sidelong glance, but dropped a curtsey, too, more for practice than manners.  “A pleasure to meet you…”

“Reverend John Kirkswain,” Ashbourne supplied.  “And yes, this is our guest, Miss Amelia Wright.”

In response to her curtsey, the reverend snapped his heels together and performed a curt bow.  Amelia gasped in recognition.  “I saw you at Uskweirs.  Dancing.”  And now that she had said it aloud, she was certain of it: this was the man who had been dancing out of place, as if he were a woman.  That was the exact same bow that he had performed at the end of the dance.

Kirkswain lifted an eyebrow.  “I’m afraid that I can’t say that I saw you,” he said carefully, and then sent a slight smirk towards Ashbourne.  Apparently the reverend found it amusing to follow the viscount’s Faerieland rules to the letter.

At that moment the verger stepped outside, closing and locking the church doors behind him.  “Ah, and you were dancing with him!” Amelia all but cried.  The broad, grey man, dressed as smartly then as he was humbly today, came alive in her memory.

“Well of course,” Kirkswain laughed, and reached over to curl his arm around the verger’s middle and pull him close.  “It’s terribly gauche, but I never miss a chance to dance with my husband.”  And he planted a kiss on the other man’s temple.

The verger’s grey face simultaneously grimaced with worry and smoothed with affection.  “People might see,” he hissed.

“Nobody in this town doesn’t know, dear,” the reverend laughed.  “Now meet Miss Amelia Wright.  My verger, my sexton, the love of my life, my husband, Mister Whitby.”

Amelia inclined her head, but the only thing that came to her lips was the question, “How is that you haven’t got yourself defrocked, Reverend Kirkswain?”

The pastor raised himself to his full height and placed a hand over his breastbone.  “Talent.”

“God watches over fools,” Whitby groused.

“Powerful friends,” Ashbourne answered with a chuckle.  “Speaking of which.  Gŵil Awst?”

The Reverend took his husband’s hand and executed a twirl as if he’d been led into it.  “It’s an opportunity to dance, where else would we be?”

Amelia waited until they were walking home before asking, “What’s Gŵil Awst?”

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