Excerpt from The Gardener’s Wife

Chapter 1

London, Spring, 1780

            Susan gasped with the sudden sharp pain. She held her breath to hide it from her children, but Ellie stared at her, eyes wide with fear, and James scrambled up on the bed beside her.

“The children should not be in the room with you, madam.” The midwife’s voice was sharp and certain.

Susan glared at her. They were too young to be left alone. Where was her husband John? He should have arrived by now. Mary had been sent to fetch him hours before. The midwife already knew this, so Susan said nothing, trying instead to concentrate on managing the slippery ache inside of her.

“Have you no other servants?”

Susan shook her head, incapable of speech while in the pain’s tight grip.

Ellie began to cry.

The midwife lifted James from the bed, placed him on her hip, and then scooped up Ellie with one hand. “I shall find a servant at your neighbour’s to mind them.” She walked out of the room with a child on each of her ample hips. They stared over the midwife’s shoulders at their mother but did not even have time to open their mouths to cry before they were gone.

Susan was momentarily relieved to be alone with her pain. Then that feeling too abandoned her and panic arrived to take its place. Where was John? His work was but a half-hour’s distance by foot and yet Mary had been gone for hours already. For a brief, unwelcome moment, she imagined that her husband was dead, and that she and the children were left a charge on the parish. That is what happened to a mother without means. Her children went to the workhouse, and there they would likely die of too much work and too little food. In the midst of this horrid vision, another pain gripped her, this time building to an intensity that she almost welcomed to divert her mind from her fears.

As she wrestled with this agony, lying almost senseless, and sweating from the effects of labour in the afternoon heat, she heard the midwife’s cool voice again. “It will not be long now, madam.”

“The children?” she whispered.

“The surly maid upstairs is minding them, but you will have to pay her when this is done. Have you enough money, madam?”

As quickly as it had clutched her, the pain let go and Susan was annoyed. She did not want to be reminded of the demands of trade at a time like this. Besides, John always paid their debts. “Yes, yes, of course.”

But if John did not return, there would be no money and no means to pay even the midwife. What would she do?

She would go to her parents and beg them to take her back in. Perhaps they would relent and forgive her, or at least provide for her children. They had a great deal of money, so much that she had never even understood its necessity when she was growing up. In her ignorance, she had willfully married her father’s gardener against her parents’ wishes, and they had disowned her. Now money was the only thing that she could think about some days.

Another pain seized her.

“They are very close together now. Let me look.” The midwife lifted Susan’s chemise and peered between her legs. “I can see the crown.”

As if this were the permission she had been waiting for, Susan surrendered to the ineluctable force of nature and began to push and bear down. Yet it was still another quarter of an hour before, at last, the baby’s head emerged fully, and then the rest of its tiny body slid out like a slippery fish.

The midwife placed the newborn on her chest where it squirmed, thrashing its tiny arms and legs about and squishing its tiny face. An animal sound like a bleating lamb emerged weakly from between its quivering lips.

“’Tis a boy.”

“That it is,” Susan said as she examined all of his parts and counted his fingers and toes.

The midwife finished cleaning up the afterbirth and collected it in a chamber pot to be buried in the garden later.

The baby was beginning to discover his voice and his bleating was growing in volume. “Let me wash and swaddle him now.” The midwife took him from her.

Susan lay back on the bed exhausted. The thought of the chores still to be done rose in front of her seemingly insurmountable. When the midwife left, she would need to feed the baby and retrieve her children from the neighbour’s servant. Where was John? She wanted him to help her. And Mary. Would she ever see them again? Or was she alone? She did not want to think these thoughts. She would have the midwife bring the children to distract her before she left.

“Can you fetch the children for me now?”

“Not yet, madam. First you must be washed and dressed too.”

Susan thought of her own mother, always perfectly groomed and presentable, never in disarray, and a desire to hold her baby overcame her.

“Let me hold him,” she demanded.

The midwife ignored her and continued her swaddling.

The memory of her mother’s coldness to her when she was a child always filled her with such anxiety that she wanted to smother her own children with love.

Finally the midwife finished wrapping the baby and handed him to Susan. Only his squished little face was visible now, but at least he looked contented.

“Would you go and fetch James and Ellie now?” Susan asked.

“You are not dressed yet.”

“I will dress while you are gone,” she said without the least intention. Instead, while the midwife went to the neighbour’s to retrieve the other children, she lay in the bed, memorizing the baby’s face and cooing at him. He stared back in silent fascination.

Some time later, James and Eleanor toddled in, their faces solemn, and James again climbed on the bed with her. “Mama,” he said and grabbed at her breast.

The midwife clucked her disapproval. “I told you that you ought to be dressed first.”

James was staring at the bundle on his mother’s lap.

Susan showed him the baby. “This is your little brother.”

“Baby?”

“Yes, he must have a name, mustn’t he?” John was not here to help her decide. They had thought of a dozen or more names, spoken them aloud, tried them out, settled on a few. There was only one name in her mind right now, and it was not one that they had considered. “John,” she said. “Just like Papa. His name is John.”

“John,” his older brother repeated.

Eleanor, still hanging on to Susan’s chemise, tried to mouth the name too. “Don, Don,” she repeated, encouraged by her mother.

“I shall go now,” the midwife announced. “You know where to reach me for the bill.”

“Good-bye,” Susan said, glad to see the last of her. Then she laid the baby beside her and turned to Ellie. “Do you want to come on board?” Ellie nodded, so she pulled her up on the bed. “Let us pretend that we are on a ship,” she said to them, “and we are sailing to somewhere safe.”

***

At VauxhallGardens, a light breeze blew between the orderly lines of plane trees, stirring the gardener’s hair and touching his cheek like a soft kiss. John Dean uncurled his back slowly and stood up. He felt a sharp spasm in his lower back. He had been bent too long, pulling weeds in the shrubbery. As he stretched out to lessen the pain, his eyes skimmed over the fashionable people in their boxes in the amphitheatre eating their sweetmeats. By their number, he calculated that it was getting late in the day, almost time to go home to his family, he noted happily.

One of the ladies among the bon ton, wearing a gown so absurdly wide that it would not be contained on one chair, was attempting to sit between two gentlemen. She began to giggle and the ship on the top of her high hair rocked as if a storm had risen suddenly. A shipwreck seemed imminent, but the lady grabbed the ocean on her head and sat down, merrily displacing the gentlemen on either side of her.

John scowled and thought of Susan. He imagined that she too might have dressed so ridiculously had he not married her and rescued her from the gentry. He would not have given a second glance to such a silly creature. As he dismissed the vision from his mind and turned to resume his weeding, he caught sight of their servant Mary coming up the Grand Walk, searching for him in the shrubbery. Immediately, he knew that it must be time for Susan to give birth again. He hallooed her and she ran to meet him, her face so strained and anxious that he was suddenly concerned. Perhaps this third birth was not proving as easy as the first two had been.

“Is there aught the matter, Mary? Is Mrs. Dean not well?”

“No, no. She is fine although she is in childbirth.”

“Then what is amiss?”

“Oh, sir…” She was unable to finish her statement, overcome by tears.

John was at a loss what to do. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her, looking away. He could not bear to see young ladies cry. Fortunately, Susan seldom did so. “Try to compose yourself, Mary, and resume your speech.”

“Thank you, sir.” She wiped her eyes and blew her nose before beginning again. “You cannot imagine what an ordeal I have come through. There was a great mob close by the Palace of Westminster and even more crowds coming across the WestminsterBridge towards the Palace. It was nearly impossible to move against the tide of people. I was terrified at every moment of being knocked over and trampled to death.”

“A mob! What was their business?”

“I do not know, sir, but they wore blue cockades and carried a banner that read ‘No Popery.’”

John had almost forgotten that there was to be a rally today. If it were not for the necessity of making a living and caring for his family, he would have been a part of that “mob” as Mary called it. On Sunday, the preacher had condemned the Catholic Relief Act and urged his parishioners to aid Lord George Gordon, president of the Scottish Protestant Association, in delivering a petition to Parliament. John wanted as much as anyone to see the repeal of an Act that was intended to relax the restrictions against Catholics in the kingdom. As far as he was concerned, it was naught but an excuse to gather more soldiers from among the Catholics in Ireland and the highlanders of Scotland in order to fight the war in America. It pleased him to hear that Gordon’s call to action had found enough support to be considered a “mob,” although he suspected that Mary’s distress had caused her to exaggerate.

“I am sure that I do not want popery any more than the next person,” she continued. “But to have my life come so close to being ended because of the pope! I had no notion that he was even in London!”

John smiled inwardly at his servant’s ignorance. “He is not, Mary. ‘Tis naught but a rally to make sure that the pope’s influence never again predominates in the British Isles.”

She looked somewhat relieved at his comments, and he suggested they attempt a return trip. “It will not be such a difficult journey in going back. We will at least be traveling in the same direction as the petitioners,” he assured her.

So, when Mary was sufficiently recovered, they set out and joined the throng of people still crossing the WestminsterBridge. John soon learned that Mary had not exaggerated in the least in her description of the mob. While perhaps 20,000 people had been hoped for at the rally, he reckoned that there were tens of thousands more than that number, a seething tide of mankind stretching out for miles, farther than the eye could see, sweltering in the heat of the late afternoon. John immediately sensed the danger: there was an undercurrent of restlessness and enough ruffians in the crowd to provoke violence. Indeed, he could see that some violence had already been done. Several carriages were lying like vacant boxes on the ground, their wheels removed and their windows smashed. He tried to escort Mary around the shards of glass scattered on the road, wondering as he did so what had become of the carriage occupants. For once, he was glad to be on foot.

His principal thought was to remove himself and Mary to safety at once, but it was difficult to make their way through the shuffling bodies of shouting men. The crowd was thickest as they neared the Palace of Westminster where Parliament was sitting.

One of the scoundrels called out to him, “Where’s your cockade?”

John wanted to upbraid the man for his rude manner, but in his situation, protecting Mary and trying to get home to his pregnant wife, he did not dare.

“I am for your cause, sir,” he said to placate the man, “but unfortunately a pressing personal matter makes it impossible for me to join you.”

The man looked taken aback at John’s Scottish accent, but let him pass with only a sneer.

These were not Christian men at all, John thought. Their behaviour was decidedly heathen. He was embarrassed and ashamed by the words, ill dress, and unruliness of the crowd, and he was heartily relieved that his own concerns had prevented him from joining their number. He took Mary’s hand in order to keep her secure and tried to hurry on, wishing that he had a blue cockade himself to make his way more safely through the mob.

By the time they reached home, his third child was already born.  John smiled fondly at his wife and child, and Susan burst into tears. He removed the baby delicately from his wife’s arms and held him close.

“What kept you so long?” Susan asked. “I was so afraid that I would never see you again that I named him ‘John’.”

“What? You hae named him without my consent?” In spite of his words, he was pleased.

The baby gave him a good strong kick in the ribs with the heel of his foot, knocking loose his swaddling clothes as he did so, and John smiled at his namesake. My name, he thought, but his mother’s spirit, and the bairn, as if to prove it, began to cry lustily.

“You have not answered my question,” she said.

Before John could reply, Mary began describing in great detail the tumult they had witnessed. John could see that Susan was only half attending, being worn out by her own ordeal, so he interrupted the maid and handed her the baby, asking her to take him from the room to give his wife a respite.

When they were alone, Susan asked him. “Was it really as bad as she described, John?”

“Aye, ‘twas as bad and worse. I should not think it safe to go out of the house until the mob is dispersed.”

“Truly? Are there that many people in the streets?”

John shook his head soberly. “I pray God that the civil war in the colonies has not found its way to our doorstep.” She looked at him with such frightened eyes that he was almost sorry he had mentioned it. Long ago, before he had met her, before he had even come to England, he had considered emigrating to America where his older brothers had gone. He was grateful that the path of his life had led him away from that land, where war was being waged, and he often prayed for the lives of his two brothers. Still, he had not entirely abandoned his dream. He had read the Declaration of Independence and it had moved him, rekindling his passionate yearning for a society where a man would be judged by his work alone and not by his social class or religion. When the war was over, if his own situation did not improve, he would consider emigration once again. But he said nothing of this to Susan lest he alarm her.

The rioting, which had begun on Friday, June 2, abated somewhat on Saturday, but on Sunday, which was the King’s birthday, it began again in earnest, confirming John’s opinion that this was no Christian crowd. He did not venture out to work on Monday, fearful of the mob that was roaming the streets, looting and rioting. Mary helped him fashion a banner from a bedroom sheet with the words No Popery painted in blue. This they placed in the window of their home in order to discourage vandals. On Tuesday night, the family watched from that same window the fires that were burning on Holgate and Ludgate Hills to the north of Westminster.

In spite of the violence raging out of doors, a cozy kind of peace reigned in the Dean household. John enjoyed the time he spent with Susan, alleviating her of some of the burden of caring for the three children. Finally, on Wednesday, martial law was declared and on Thursday, the King sent out the militia to crush the rebellion. On Friday, a week after the rally, John walked back to work at VauxhallGardens. When he passed by the Palace of Westminster, he was relieved by the sight of a regiment of Horse Guards patrolling its perimeter. The cobblestones rang with the clip-clop of the hooves and, in the cool morning air, the horses seemed to breathe fire. The sight of the mounted soldiers was fierce enough to quell the heart of any would-be rioter.

When John arrived at the Gardens, his employer threatened to dismiss him for his long absence. Apparently the riots had not made a wit of difference to the bon ton. They had continued to patronize the Gardens while London was besieged. In the end, he persuaded his employer only to dock his wages for the time lost, even though it was an expense the young family could ill afford.

John soon forgot that he had ever been attracted to the cause that had precipitated the riot and was relieved when he learned that Lord George Gordon had been arrested for his part in disrupting the peace of London life.

 

 

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