Cloud Of Witnesses: Elizabeth Pike

My grandmother spoke of Cousin Lizzie often and received letters from her hometown of Macclesfield, a Cheshire town in England, all the long distance to New Jersey. That was when the Atlantic Pond was the length of a galaxy. I was barely voting age when I met Cousin Lizzie in 1967. She was older and grander than Grandma had described and so simply nice that I have decided simple niceness may be a radiant grace.

Elizabeth Pike harbored tales of my maternal family, way back to the olden times before Robin Hood haunted Sherwood Forest. Cousin Lizzie had various recollections of Capesthorne, the great hall rebuilt in a frenzy of Jacobean sturdiness. By a remarkable coincidence, the late 20th-century chatelaine of Capesthorne, Lady Bromley-Davenport, had grown up in my old Pennsylvania parish. Her husband was a favorite of the British tabloids for his convinced belief in ghosts. Cousin Lizzie knew many stories of ancestors whose lives had been intertwined with that massive pile, some of whom had reason to be agitated beyond the grave. Lady Bromley-Davenport once showed my visiting parents a museum of American furniture she had installed to let the British know that Americans could do Chippendale better.

Two of my grandmother’s brothers, cousins of Cousin Lizzie, were killed in the Ypres Salient during World War I. Grandma kept a stiff upper lip about it, but she also kept their Bibles and “Dulce et decorum est” memorial cards. The redcoated 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment, to which my grandfather belonged in the final years of Queen Victoria, had fought with Wolfe in Quebec and with Napier in India. It is possible that one of my ancestors ordered to Massachusetts by George III shot at the man who fired the shot heard ’round the world at Lexington.

Cousin Lizzie’s baronial tales of these things were told by the fire in her little cottage. She was born when Gladstone had just succeeded Disraeli, and I had a sense of rare privilege in speaking to a true Victorian for whom things Edwardian were louche and innovative. Blithe as she was about the bad behavior of the landed gentry—not to mention William IV, who supposedly dishonored a forebear—she was reticent about one enormous detail: Antecedents had succumbed to the preaching of John Wesley in Macclesfield, and she had married in “chapel” rather than in the Established Church.

Her gentle confession of this opened an entire age of church squabbles, as she added that my grandparents’ marriage had been inked in the proper parish register. In that parish church of St. Michael, founded by Queen Eleanor in 1278, is the tomb of a knight of Agincourt and a tablet with the names of my great-uncles and a painfully long number of their combatants, going back centuries but virtually exploding in the horrific time of the Great War.

Cousin Lizzie was childless, and her shining kindness grew ancient as she outlived most of her family. On her upright piano was a photograph of two little boys, one black and one white, at a keyboard. I am not certain that she ever met anyone black. With the unaffected gravitas of Solon, she told me—in that time of racial conflagration in America—that harmony requires both black and white keys. This was the insight of a dear lady whose own grandfather had raised the flag against the Baluchis at Scinde. Only once did she commit a self-reference. When the Second World War contradicted the promise that the Great War was the War to End All Wars, she took in a Jewish boy refugee from eastern Europe. He was the son she never had, and when peace came, he went. Years later, a Rolls Royce arrived outside Cousin Lizzie’s cottage. Her little Jewish boy had “done well for himself” in London and came to thank her with the gift of a fur coat. She never wore the mantle of gratitude, simply because she had no occasion to wear it, but how proud she was that her child had been so good.

My grandmother told me that there were 108 steps from the railway station to the church. When I arrived, I counted the steps, and when I reached the 108th, the bells of St. Michael’s pealed. As it was not on the hour, the change ringers may have been rehearsing. Or perhaps my great-uncles enshrined in the church, and all their family back to Norman times, had been stirred by the approach of kin. Cousin Lizzie and her tribe with an ear for Wesley had been stretching to hear peals from Galilee, and one hopes that on the other side of the bells she finds a quality of glory that is positively nice.

Author

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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