Kent, England, 1777
Susan paused on the landing and looked out at a sight that always arrested her soul. Her father’s pleasure garden lay before her with its green fields, hedgerows, flower gardens, pathways, shrubberies, and even a wilderness. Her heart was aching with an overwhelming desire to wander there and discover all its secrets when her father came up the stairs still in his nightgown.
“You are up early, my dear,” he said.
She caught a whiff of his liquoured breath. “’Tis the best time to take a walk,” she said.
He grunted and continued up the stairs.
“Father,” she said, stopping him on the first step.
He turned around. “What?”
“May I have a corner of the garden to plant my favourite flowers?”
He frowned. “Why do you want that?” He took a step back down to her level. She held her breath as he whispered in her ear: “Don’t get too attached to the garden, my dear.” Then he stepped away from her and swung his arm in a wide arc. “All of this,” he said dramatically, “will never be yours.”
Susan moved to avoid his arm.
“I’m sorry, my dear. Women cannot inherit property, and God has not seen fit to bless me with a son.”
“All I asked for was a corner of the garden, Papa.”
“Ask the new gardener, Mr. Dean. Perhaps he will plant a few flowers for you somewhere.”
“I wanted to plant them myself.”
Her father chuckled. “What, and get your pretty hands all dirty! Don’t be ridiculous!”
He continued chuckling to himself as he went up the stairs.
Susan’s silk gown rustled softly as she resumed her descent of the stairs, placing each foot gingerly on a riser as she was unused to wearing high-heeled shoes. It irked her that she could not run and play as she used to. The only compensation for being sixteen was that she no longer had a governess to confine her to the study and prevent her from escaping into the garden.
In the parlour, the butler was waiting at the sideboard to serve her breakfast. Susan accepted a slice of bread and butter and a cup of chocolate, but refused more substantial fare. She wanted to be in the garden before her mother arose, for then her time would no longer be her own. She quickly swallowed the last dregs of chocolate and called her maid Mary.
“May I have my mantelet and outdoor hat?” she asked.
“Yes, madam.” Mary ran off to fetch the required items.
“I hope you are not intending to go out in such weather,” the butler addressed her sternly.
“Why? What of the weather? If we waited for the sun in this country, we should never leave the house.”
The butler gave her a disapproving look, but only said, “Yes, madam.”
At the great hall door, Susan removed her tiny lace cap and handed it to Mary before putting on a broad-brimmed straw bonnet and the lace mantelet that covered the shoulders. “I shall take a turn in the garden, Mary. Call me when my mother is risen.”
“Yes, madam.” Her maid curtsied and nodded as Susan opened the door and stepped out into the fresh spring morning.
The rain had not yet arrived but the dew had wetted the grass of the estate lawn. She knew it was the time of day when the lawn was scythed, and she enjoyed watching the young garden worker do the mowing. It gave her a vicarious feeling of activity and industry that was lacking in her own too sedentary life. Susan turned into the serpentine walk of gravel that wound around the grass field of the estate and through scattered clumps of flowering shrubs. Here, she glimpsed silver droplets of moisture shining on the crimson petals of peonies. The sweet perfume of rose and syringa lingered in the damp air as she brushed by the branches. The hedgerow was alive with the sound of robins’ song. Susan felt sorry for the people of London who had to pay a shilling for the privilege of touring a garden the like of which she could enjoy every day.
A turn in the path revealed a rectangle of lawn bordered by flower beds. At the far end of the lawn Susan espied a strange man working with a scythe to mow the wet grass. She assumed it must be the new gardener her father had mentioned.
As she walked towards him to ask him about having her own border, she noticed the gardener’s tight hose revealing his muscular calves and his curly black hair peeking from under his tricorne cocked hat. He must have heard the rustle of her gown as she approached because he turned in her direction. Susan was unprepared for the force of his clear blue eyes that sparkled when his face broke into a broad, soul-melting smile. While she was attempting to compose herself to speak to him, she saw the flesh of his upper chest as his coat hung open and his waistcoat and shirt were unbuttoned at the top. He saw the direction of her eyes and reached to close his shirt with his free hand. Then he glanced at the same part of Susan’s anatomy. The fashion of women’s gowns was not so modest and her creamy white skin and deep dark cleavage were visible. The gardener blushed, turned away, and carefully placed his scythe against a tree. Then he turned toward her again and said, “Good morning, Miss Kirke.”
His rolling Scottish lilt surprised her and made her own name sound foreign to her. “Good morning, Mr….” She hesitated, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t know your name, sir.”
“It’s Dean. John Dean.”
“Good morning, Mr. Dean. I’m surprised to find you doing the mowing yourself. Doesn’t Andrew usually scythe here?”
“That he does, madam. Unfortunately, his mother is ill and he has gone to be at her bedside, so we are short one pair of hands for a time. I am obliged to take up the slack.”
Susan tried to remember what her father had said about Dean at the time he had been hired. He had bragged that his new gardener was only twenty years old. She knew there were twelve employees under his direction, and she was impressed with how much he had managed to accomplish at such a young age. In comparison, her greatest accomplishment was to take a walk in the garden every morning. She did not know why she felt this enormous restlessness, this longing to do more with her life than be an ornament in her parents’ lives. Sometimes she felt like a flower that no one else would ever see.
“I have a question to ask you. Do you think could take a moment from your labour and sit with me in the bower here?” Susan walked to the stone benches that formed a circle around a sundial close by. Before she could sit down, Dean spread his coat on the wet seat.
“Why, thank you, sir. You are most considerate.”
He blushed and continued standing.
“No, please. I must insist you sit and hear my proposal.”
Appearing reluctant, Dean sat on the bench opposite her. They looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment. “What is your question, madam? Or is it a proposal?”
“I would like to have a corner of the garden to plant some of my own favourite flowers.”
The gardener listened earnestly. “And does your father approve of your project?”
“Yes. He told me to ask you.”
“I can see no objection to it. Let me consider the best place for your garden. Perhaps if you tell me which flowers you would like to plant, it will give me an idea of the best location for them.”
Susan was embarrassed. She had envisioned a clump of sweet-smelling pink, purple, and white blooms cascading over each other, but now her idea seemed childish. “I don’t know the names of flowers, I am afraid.”
“Dinna fash. Let us walk about. You can point out which flowers you like and I shall name them for you.”
“What does that mean, ‘dinna fash’?”
“Dinna worry,” he said.
“Oh.” She got up and he picked up his overcoat and offered it to her. She shook her head.
“Are you sure, madam? It is cool this morning, and I am afraid you might catch a chill.”
“Don’t be concerned for me. I have a strong constitution.”
As they strolled, Susan searched the beds for the colours she loved the most in the garden and found one of them in a group of flowers along the path rising towards the house.
“What are those little violet flowers?” she asked.
“Why do you laugh, sir?”
“Forgive me, madam, but those are violets of course. Surely you know that flower?”
Susan blushed. “I have, of course, often observed it. I am not ignorant of its existence, only its name.”
“I dinna wish to insult you, but not knowing the name of something is, by definition, ignorance.”
Susan stopped short. This was the second time today she had been belittled by a man, and she would not tolerate it from a servant. “Ignorance, then, is only a lack of education and not the fault of the person accused of it, especially where women are concerned. We are not to blame for our ignorance. Rather than laugh at me, you should teach me so that I might know the names of the flowers around me and not be unjustly accused of ignorance.”
He looked chastened. “I beg your pardon, madam. I shall hereafter endeavour to be your tutor in these matters.”
They continued walking and Dean taught her the names of the flowers she liked. “I shall order the seeds for you and find a good location, madam. Now forgive me, I maun get back to work.”
She could feel his impatience, but she wanted to hold his company for just a little while to get better acquainted with him. The morning seemed to stretch dull and empty before her without his company. “I shall walk with you back to the lawn where you were mowing if you don’t mind, sir.”
“If you wish,” he replied.
As they walked in awkward silence, she tried to think of a question to ask him. “What do you do when you are not working?”
His answer surprised her. “You read? I didn’t think servants knew how to read.” She could not recall ever seeing any of the house servants engaged in that pastime.
“Well, ‘tis the way in Scotland, you see, to educate every child of every class. Unless each child can read the Bible for himself, his salvation is not assured.”
He sounded like a dissenter, a kind of religious fanatic. She had often heard her father speak scornfully of the Scots as Presbyterians. “Is that a Presbyterian notion?” she asked.
“That it is.”
“And what do you read, besides the Bible, of course?”
“Well, I will admit to you—if you promise not to tell a soul—that my Bible is The Compleat Gardener.”
“Even in your leisure, sir?”
“It is my passion, aye. Do you read, Miss Kirke?”
“Why, of course! I am not such a dullard as you might think. I am presently reading The Fashionable Lover by Mr. Cumberland.”
“A novel! Does your father approve of such reading material? Surely your time would be better spent in reading sermons.”
“You surprise me, sir. I thought I was speaking with my gardener and not my governess.”
“Your governess sounds like a sensible woman to me. Perhaps you should heed her.”
“Fortunately, she is no longer in my father’s employ, and that should serve as a warning to you. I shall not abide dull boring sermons on any other day but Sunday when I must.”
“Perhaps you will permit me to lend you the collected sermons of John Knox. You will not find them dull, I assure you.”
“Oh my goodness, sir. If my parents found me reading the sermons of a Presbyterian preacher, I am quite sure they would turn me out! So you will perhaps give me a summation of his text, for I dare not bring such a book into my parents’ house.”
“I shall do my best, though I am afraid you might find some of his ideas revolutionary. By way of example, Mr. Knox [A1] believes that all men are equal in the sight of God and none is greater or lesser than another. Would you not agree with that?”
“Agree to the fact that his ideas are revolutionary?” She smiled at him, a brilliant teasing smile. “Yes, indeed, I would agree.”
Dean looked down as if he were uncomfortable with the turn in the conversation. “Well, Miss Kirke. It has been most pleasant chatting with you this morning, but here we are at my scythe. I really must be about my work now.” He tipped his hat to her and bowed discreetly. “Good day to you.” He picked up his scythe and continued the mowing that her presence had interrupted.
Susan felt chastised by his abrupt leave-taking. He was such a serious man compared to her father and her light-hearted banter did not seem to accord with his manner. [SC2] She stood for a while and watched him waving the heavy scythe back and forth across the grass, a dark patch of perspiration growing on the back of his waistcoat. No, he was not at all like her father. He was young and strong, and her father, a weak old man with a red nose from too much drink, was gouty, flabby, and most disagreeable to look at.
Mary was coming down the path at the other end of the rectangle. Her mother must be up now, and her day’s freedom was at an end. She went halfway to meet her maid and walk back to the house with her.