top of page

Book 3: Letters from the Gardener

Book 3: Letters from the Gardener

Letters from a Belfast Gardener is uneasily situated between the dramatic events in Scotland in The Gardener’s Wife and the Deans’ trip to the New World, described in A Garden in the Wilderness. The Deans spend six years in Belfast (1789-1795) in which old jealousies fester and new ones take root.

Each chapter is framed by letters, opening with a letter from John to his former fellow servants in Ellon, Matthew and Lavinia Henry, in which he discusses the simmering political situation in Ulster, and ending with a letter from either the Henrys or Penelope Dering, the mistress of Ellon Castle, who continues to foment trouble between the couple.

New problems ensue when Susan meets the radically republican brother and sister, Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken and their lives become entwined.   Mary Ann lends Susan the book A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft, much to John’s annoyance.

John becomes jealous when he discovers a letter from Penelope in Susan’s book which seems to suggest something improper has passed between his wife and McCracken. He begins to doubt that he is the father of his newborn children, twins Charles and Esther.

Matters come to a head when he confronts Susan and then Henry Joy McCracken, but all is resolved before the family leaves for the New World.


Belfast, May, 1789

My dearest Matthew and Lavinia,

We approached the shores of the City of our Destination with trepidation. Our new land seemed to me an inferno as smoke billowed from fires on the beaches. Poor Mrs. Dean was nauseated from the reek that emanated from them. She almost tossed her collywobbles, as they say.

A deckhand informed us that this smoke was the result of seaweed being burned to produce the barilla used to bleach the white linen for which Belfast is so famous. I was apprehensive that our new home would be such a hellish place, but, on leaving the ship and penetrating further into the City beyond the shore, I was delighted at its aspect. Belfast has a nice, neat English appearance and most of its houses are made of brick.

My new employer Mr. Henry Joy met us at the dock and conveyed us to our new house on the western extremity of the town, far from the smoky beach and busy city, on the banks of the Farset River. The cottage is small for such a large family as ours, and it is situated among dozens of others that all look the same. I know that the children will miss the abundant woodlands of bonny Ellon, and our good friends in Scotland, you both chief among them.

As you know, Mr. Joy is a wealthy and influential man whose family owns the paper mill, but I have since learned that they own the newspaper as well, such felicitously complementary enterprises. I will be keeping the garden at his country residence as his town house is on the High Street, and the garden that once appertained to it is now replaced with new businesses and buildings. I do not often see Mr. Joy as his time is much taken up by his financial affairs in the city, although the rest of his family, his wife and young children, are more often in residence.

Mrs. Dean has recovered from the effects of our brief sea voyage, which did not much agree with her. Like an exotic, she does not well tolerate being transplanted. Her bruised and torn roots take a long while to acclimatize to unfamiliar soil. She requires the gardener’s especial attention and care. Mrs. Dean sends her warmest regards to you and all the occupants of Ellon Castle, which, adjoined with my own, I hope that you will be so kind as to share with others of our acquaintance there.

Yours most sincerely,

John Dean

“I am not a shrub, John,” Susan said as she squinted at her husband over the letter he had given her. “What I require are servants.”  It had given her a headache to read his handwritten flourishes.

He scowled. “Dinna fash. Mr. Joy has placed an advertisement for a housekeeper in the News-Letter. What I wanted to know is if you would like to add a post scriptum to the letter?”

“Are you serious?” She placed the letter firmly on the table between them. “I have no time to write. I am worked off my feet. I am glad we shall have a housekeeper soon, but I cannot manage with just one servant.”

“You managed with one at Ellon Castle,” he said, picking up the letter. “I shall post it then.”

“Yes, but there we had our meals provided and our laundry and housekeeping done. All that I required was a nurse for the babies.”

“That settles it then. The bairns are grown so you have no more need of a nurse.”

“How can you say that? Susie is only two years old.” Her voice was getting shriller with frustration.

“I havena the means to pay for more than one servant,” he said firmly, standing up to leave the room.

Susan knew there would be no more argument.

“’Tis time to put this bairn to bed,” John said as he almost collided with the aforementioned toddler who was coming through the doorway.

Susan got up and went to her youngest child. It was true she looked as exhausted as her mother felt. “Come, Susie. Let’s find your bed.”

As she was singing a lullaby to settle Susie, the two youngest boys came into the room. “We want you to tell us a story before bed, Mama,” six-year-old Will said.

“Yes, Mama. Tell us a story,” his younger brother Davy agreed.

“Hush. I’m trying to calm Susie.”

The little one sat up in bed, her eyes wide with anticipation, and said, “Story.”

“All right,” Susan acquiesced.

The boys sat on the edge of their sister’s bed and looked at her.

They were attentive no matter how many times she repeated the same story, and she was just as eager to repeat the tale. “When I was a little girl, I lived in a fine big mansion in England. Three– no maybe four — houses the size of this cottage would have fit in it. I was the only child; I had no brothers and sisters. But the house was filled with servants, upstairs and downstairs, and every which way. We had a garden… Oh, let me tell you about that garden. The whole town of Belfast could have fit into that garden. There were serpentine paths and shrubberies, a wilderness and arbors. There was even a temple and statues. While I was a little girl growing up, the garden was growing too. Every year something new was added, and whenever I played in the garden, I would make new discoveries.”

“Tell us about the best discovery you ever made in the garden, Mama,” Will asked.

“That was much later, when I was nearly grown up. I want to tell you about when I was a little girl.”

“No, tell us about the best discovery, Mama,” Davy pleaded.

They tolerated only a little variation in the way she told the tale. “Indeed,” she said. “One day, I found the gardener standing in the early morning dew, scything the long grass. He was the most handsome man that I had ever seen.” Susan halted her story for a moment while she savoured the memory of that sight.

“Who was he, Mama?” Davy asked.

“He was Papa.” Will stole his mother’s surprise ending, and both the boys giggled. Susie clapped her hands.

“Was Papa a handsome man then?” Will asked.

“What do you mean? Your papa is still a handsome man. Do you not agree with me, Susie?” The little girl nodded her head in agreement.

Susan remembered their first meeting in the garden and their long conversations along its serpentine path. Their lives had followed an equally sinuous route since then. The 13 years of their marriage had not seemed to alter her husband, but they had greatly altered her. She gave her three youngest children a weak smile before continuing the arduous task of settling them for the night.


Susan glanced at the neat brick row houses of Belfast as she walked by. Each was an unadorned box so like their own that she feared that she would not be able to distinguish it on her return. Fortunately she had her four boys with her and they assured her they could identify it. She could not tell whether the sun was shining or the sky was grey as she walked into town because of the smoky haze. She thought of the clean crisp air far away in Scotland and the grey heron that used to stand on the shore of the Ythan River waiting for a fish to flash by.


The sound of one of her sons cursing drew her attention back to the present moment. She looked down to see that Will had indeed stepped in something unpleasant in the roadway. The other boys had erupted in giggles.

“Mind your tongue, Will!” Susan struggled to suppress a smile.

His nine-year-old brother Johnny smacked him in retribution.

“No, Johnny. Your father is the one who metes such punishment. Will, wipe your shoe as best you can on the cobblestone and we shall clean it better when we get home. Now, all of you, mind where you tread.” She wondered where the boy had learned such language.

Susan smelled the stench, not only emanating from Will’s shoe, but also hanging in the greasy, smoky air. She stepped carefully over the refuse scattered about the unclean streets as she threaded her way through the ever-increasing human traffic near the centre of town.

Having left young Susie sleeping at home in the care of her sister Eleanor, Susan had set out with her four restless boys to provide them amusement and exercise and to buy some washing soap because John had ordered clean working clothes for the morrow. The reason that they must be clean at the start of each day eluded her. It was certain that they would be soiled again within the first half hour of digging and mucking in the garden.

Though this was their first venture into town, they had no difficulty finding the market, which consisted of a great many well-stocked stalls aligning the High Street. Susan examined the smiling faces of the women vendors chattering to each other behind the tables spread with their wares. Finally, she addressed the stout woman at the closest table. “Have you any washing soap?”

“What’d you say, missus?’ The woman squinted at her.

“I asked if you might have some washing soap.”

The women’s next-door neighbour elbowed her. “Ain’t she a fine English lady, then?” The two crones started to laugh.

Susan could feel her face redden at their rudeness. She stood there looking at them, waiting for them to recover from their hilarity.

James her eldest came to her rescue. He jutted his chin and declared, “Our mother is a fine English lady. So, answer her question, do you have any washing soap or not?”

The stout woman took a deep breath and regained control of herself. “Oh, I have not had such a good chuckle in a long time.” Then she produced a bar of yellow soap and handed it to James.

“Dinna mind our mother. She is fra’ England,” Johnny said to the two women.

“Aye, that she is. And how does she come for to have such bonny Scotch lads?” the neighbour lady asked him.

Perhaps she married a Scotchman, Susan thought but could not bring herself to speak another word to these women lest they should laugh at her accent again. So, she put down a ha’penny and walked away. The boys followed her.

By counting the number from the end of the street, they found the generic brick house that was their home now.

“Eleanor, we have returned. Is everything aright?”

“Aye, Mama. Susie is still sleeping. Have you got the washing soap?”

“Yes,” she replied, a little annoyed.

Susan put a large pot of water on the fire. Then she struggled with the vat, trying to pull it into the centre of the kitchen. Then she sat back.

“What shall we do while we wait for the water to boil?”

“We could prepare dinner while we wait.”

“Prepare dinner! Already? It seems as though we just ate breakfast.”

“What did you buy at the market?”

Susan blushed. She should have thought of that. “Nothing,” she admitted.

“Well, then, we shall make parritch again. You can go back to the market again this afternoon.”

Susan thought of the embarrassment she had suffered there. Perhaps she would send James. She did not want to go herself, but parritch again for supper would be too much and then there would be none left for breakfast the next day.

When the water was finally boiling, Susan poured the water into the vat and put some more on the fire. Then she took the bar of soap so newly purchased, and with a knife peeled the yellow curls, dropping them into the vat.

“You must make sure that the soap is well dissolved or it will leave a residue on the clothes,” Eleanor informed her mother. “I used to watch the washer-woman at Ellon Castle.”

“No one likes a no-it-all,” Susan said, but all the same, she was grateful that Eleanor had been so astute. Susan had never bothered to observe anyone washing clothes before. When the vat was full of hot water from the kettle, she put John’s clothes into the soapy water to soak.

After a dinner of parritch, Susan scrubbed the clothes on a washboard one item at a time, and lifted them into a second vat where she rinsed them. When it came time to wring out the excess water from the clothes, Susan wished she had not sent the boys to the market to buy potatoes. She could have used their strength as she twisted the garments as hard as she could whilst poor little Eleanor held the other end. Then Susan hung them on a line in the garden, still heavy and dripping with moisture.

At the end of it, Susan was exhausted, her arms ached, and she could not do another chore. She left Eleanor to peel the potatoes and watch Susie.

When John arrived home from his garden, he found her lying on their bed. When he entered the room, she sighed.

“What ails you, Susan?”

“Eleanor and I have washed your clothes today.”

“Aye?” he asked, as if it were nothing at all.

“I have never washed clothes before. It is a great deal more work than it looks to be, John. Have you ever washed clothes?”

“I do women’s work?” John laughed.

“Then you have no idea either how difficult it is, so you ought not to make light of it. We must hire a washerwoman, John. I am not equal to the effort of it.”

The smile vanished from John’s face. “Do you imagine me to be a wealthy man like your father? I have income to provide you with one servant, and one servant only, so consider well which it is to be—a cook, a nurse, a washerwoman or a housekeeper. I am only surprised you do not ask for a lady’s maid as well. You and Eleanor together managed to wash my clothes today, so you know it can be done.”

Susan groaned.

“Is that the worst of your day then, and the reason you keep yourself to your room– a little hard work?”

“No, it is not. I went with the boys to the market to buy the washing soap.”


“The women there mocked my English accent.”

“They didna.”

“They did indeed. You may ask the boys.”

“Well, and if I had a penny for all the Englishmen who mocked my Scottish burr, I might be able to buy you more servants. You might learn as I did, to emulate the accent of the people around you so they take no notice of you,” he said, putting on his best English accent.

She had not heard him speak like that in many years, and she smiled in spite of herself.

“Dinna fach about supper, my dear. I am sure that Eleanor can prepare it as well as you,” he said, resuming his Scottish accent and spoiling her mood.

Though Susan cringed at the remark, she knew it was only too true.

“Oh, by God,” she said, getting up. “I can look after my own children.”

“It is not necessary to take the Lord’s name in vain…”

“And,” she added, ignoring her husband and striding to the door, where she turned. “I have long lived without a lady’s maid. You know that I have and you insult me by even mentioning it. I may even learn to cook one day, but I assure you I shall hire a washerwoman no matter what you say,” she said as she went out.


The young woman at the door looked as hale and hearty as any Susan had ever seen. She introduced herself, but Susan found the name so foreign to her ears that she asked her to repeat it.

“Meghan Byrne,” she said.

Susan smiled. “Come in and have a seat, missus.”

“I have come about the advertisement for a housekeeper that I saw in the Belfast News-Letter,” she said once comfortably seated. She looked about her. Every one of Susan’s six was peering in from the kitchen doorway. “Are those all yours, madam?”

“Yes,” Susan responded. “Aye.” She was thinking of John’s remark of the night before but she did not know which of the two words was the correct response in Belfast.

The young woman waited politely for Susan to speak again, but when no question was forthcoming, she asked, “What will I be expected for to do, madam?”

“Well,” Susan looked at her hands. “Keep house, of course.” In for a penny in for a pound, she thought, and continued. “And cook and do the laundry.”

The woman looked aghast. “I am not a washerwoman, madam. If I was to do the washing for a family this size, I should have no time to clean house.”

“But you can cook?” Susan asked hopefully.

“Yes, but if I have to cook, I am afraid my house-cleaning chores will suffer.”

“Never mind that. We can make do with a dirty house, but we must eat.”

“If you say so, madam, but I cannot do breakfast. I cannot arrive so early in the morning. ‘Tis a good long walk from my home to here.”

Susan had imagined that their servant would live with them, but of course, where was there room to lodge a servant in this little box? “Of course not. I am sure I can manage to prepare the parritch,” she said. “I did it this morning.” The burnt smell still lingered in the air. John had hurried out the door claiming to be late, and the children had done their best to eat it, but most of it had been thrown out.

“When can you start?” Susan asked, her growling stomach urging her to hire the woman.

“What will you pay me?”

Susan named the amount that John had said she might spend.

“I think if I am expected for to do the cooking as well, I should receive more than that.”

“’Tis all I have, missus. Take it or leave it.”

“I shall take it. Do you want I start now?”

“Yes. Can you begin by making dinner? The children are hungry.”

As if on cue, they burst through the door to confirm their mother’s assessment.

“Quiet, children. One at a time,” Susan admonished them. She wanted to introduce the new servant to them but could not. 

“Can you repeat your name to them, missus?”

“I am Meghan Byrne.”

As earnestly as she listened, Susan could only barely make out the first syllable. “May I call you Meg?” she asked.

“If you must, and what shall I call you?”

“Mrs. Dean,” Susan responded. “Let me show you the kitchen.”

That afternoon, true to her oath of the night before, Susan asked her new housekeeper if she knew of a washerwoman. Meg named her aunt, who accompanied her the next morning. She turned out to be a big, beefy woman by the name of Mrs. Connor with arms as broad as Susan’s neck and a ready smile on her red face. She named her price. Susan could barely understand her, but she repeated everything with a good humour until she was understood. She said she would come by twice a week to do the washing. When their bargain was struck, Susan was so happy that she wanted to hug the dear woman, but she hugged Susie instead.


Susan sat at the table in the sitting room fanning herself in defense against the heat that still lingered in their box on this sweltering August evening. John sat down beside her and opened the post that had arrived for him that morning. Susan watched him. The letter had aroused her curiosity. It was from Ellon Castle but was addressed only to John and not to her, which she found rather strange. In spite of her inquisitiveness, she had not opened it. There appeared to be a second letter inside the first. John put the first aside after only a brief glimpse and began to read the interior epistle. His face grow solemn and she worried it might be from Penelope.

“Who is that letter from?”

“You will never imagine.”

“Tell me.”

He did not respond but held his hand out to silence her until he had read to the bottom of the page. Then he looked at her with such a look of pity that she could scarcely abide it.

“Tell me,” she said, with restrained anger.

“Do you remember Herbert Fitzwilliam?”

Her anger vanished. “I am not likely to forget him, am I?” He was a cousin of her mother’s to whom she had been betrothed long ago when she ran away to marry John. Even when her parents disowned her, the strange Mr. Fitzwilliam proved to be their friend by aiding them in their elopement. She never understood why he had agreed to marry her in the first place nor why, in spite of that, he had helped her to escape with another man.

“He writes with news of your father.”

Susan felt the blood seep from her face and she grasped the edge of the table.

“Calm yourself, Mrs. Dean,” her husband said.

The formality of his address warned her that what she feared was a certainty.

“He writes to inform us that your father is dead.” John spoke so softly that she could scarcely hear him. She felt her heart cease to beat for a moment and then resume.

“Let me read the letter.”

John handed it to her.

London, February, 1789

Dear Mr. Dean,

I address this letter to you and not your wife as I wish you to convey its contents to her as you see fittest. They are, I am sorry to relate, not news of a happy nature. Mrs. Dean’s father, James Kirke, after a long illness, passed into the infinite this Tuesday last. I received this information myself only yesterday and, knowing that Mrs. Dean is not in communication with her family, took it upon myself to write this epistle, sending it to the last address I have for you. I hope that it finds you in excellent health.

I regret that I have been such an indifferent correspondent over the years. I have been very busy with the Affairs of State serving in the House of Commons. Not so busy that I have entirely neglected my duties in the domestic sphere, however. After years of successfully avoiding matrimony, you will be surprised to learn that I have recently found wedded bliss with a wealthy and respectable widow here in London. Her name will mean nothing to you, so I will not mention it. We have as yet not been blessed with progeny, though at our advancing years, it is little to be looked for. At any rate, Mrs. Fitzwilliam has two sons from her previous marriage and this is enough of a challenge for me.

I am sorry that I have no word of sympathy for Mrs. Dean from her mother, but please extend my deepest sympathies to your lovely wife as a poor substitute.

I remain, your affectionate and devoted friend,

Herbert Fitzwilliam, MP

Susan put down the letter and felt the tears come. Her father had been dead for several months already without her knowledge. Why did she weep for him now?

After her marriage to John, he had cut her off without a penny, leaving her family to live on John’s income alone. Then he had done all he could to thwart John’s efforts to make a decent salary. Her father’s blacklisting of her husband was the reason that they wandered all over Britain looking for a home and why they were in this wretched town now. He was the reason that they were impoverished and why she had to bargain with her husband to have more than one maid. Why did she weep for him?

Susie tugged at Susan’s long skirt, whimpering to be picked up. Before she could attend to her, her four wild boys came running through the parlour, and little Susie let go her mother’s skirt and toddled out to join her brothers where she was promptly knocked down. From her seat on the floor, she howled her outraged indignation. Her ten-year-old sister Eleanor put down the book she had been reading and went to pick her up.

John threw up his hands and cried out, “Can we not have peace in our ain hame? Your mother has just received some sad news and needs some quiet now. Be off to your rooms.”

The two oldest boys and Eleanor left immediately with Susie, but Will and Davy stared  at their mother.

“I sent you to bed. Why are you standing there?” John asked.

The youngest one, Davy, said, “We want Mama to put us to bed.”

“Off with you now,” their father threatened.

“’Tis all right. I shall take them up.”

She went up the stairs with the pair of them, feeling weary with the weight of her news. While she tucked them in, she wept quietly. Will seemed embarrassed by her tears, but Davy asked, “Why are you weeping, Mama?”

“My papa has died.”

Davy’s eyes opened wide with fear.

“Papa didna die. He is just downstairs,” Will said.

“Not your papa, dear. My papa,” Susan said.

“Do you have a papa?” Davy asked.

William explained to him that everyone has a papa.

“Do you have a mama, too?” Davy looked incredulous. Susan could see that he had never considered this a possibility. Little wonder. The children had grown up without knowing their grandparents. The family had stopped at Dundee on the way from Ellon to Belfast and visited John’s mother, and the children had loved her immediately. She reminded them of Lavinia, who was like a grandmother to them.

How could Susan tell them of her own mother? She would not.

“No,” she replied, contradicting Will, who had just said that everyone has a mama.

“You do not?” he asked her.


“Are you crying for her?” Will said.

I am not. Nor ever shall. She had wept for the lack of a mother’s love when she was the age that Will is now. Her mother’s heart was pinched as tight as a penny in the hand of a miser. It was not surprising that she had shown no pity for the willful young woman that Susan had become, the one who had run away with the gardener; she had never shown any pity for the little girl who had tried so hard to please her.

When she was a child, Susan used to follow her mother about, just as her own little namesake did now. She remembered her mother’s shrill voice as she had called for the nurse. “Come and take this child away, will you? I cannot abide her whimpering.”

Susan kissed the boys and then went to give a good-night kiss to Susie. She remembered when she had been called Susie too, a little girl waiting at the edge of the garden for her father. They were going to walk and he was going to show her the garden’s latest fantasy. The sky was unusually cloudless and it was a perfect day for such an outing.

As she waited, the sun beat down on her, causing her to squint, and she realized that she ought to have put on a bonnet. Her mother would be cross with her if she saw her. But surely not. Surely her father would come out soon.

Where was he? He ought to have been there by now? Soon her pale skin would redden and her mother would know that she had not worn her bonnet. Perhaps she ought to go back inside and send the maid to fetch it.

This ten-year-old Susie pressed the great iron latch on the front door and stepped back into the cooler, darker foyer. She heard a great commotion. It was her mother and father shouting at each other. She cringed.

She wished that she had run into the woods where the trees would have protected her from the sunlight and where she would not have been seen. Her parents were close by, in the very next room, and she could hear them moving about. Her mother was hurling objects as well as words at her father. At any moment, her mother might come through that door, and then she would have words to fling at her too.

Susie wondered if she would be able to run across the foyer to the stairs before her mother appeared. Perhaps it would be better to turn around and go back outside. But the sound of the door opening had alerted her mother already. Susie saw her mother’s anger-distorted face at the parlour door.

“Here is your little wench!” Her mother screeched like a banshee. “And what have you been doing?” She turned the full brunt of her anger on the child, whose heart plummeted. “Look at your face– burned and blistered by the sun. How dare you run wild like a gypsy! What will the neighbours say? Where is your nursemaid? She will rue the day she let you run wild. Get to your chamber, child. Someone will be there soon to administer a suitable punishment, I promise you, and not that miserable milquetoast of a father either!”

It was the butler who administered the whipping in the end– the only person in the world she grew to hate more than her mother.

Her father did not always protect her, but he did what he could. He was her only comfort and the one who taught her what it was to love, so that she could love her own children. In fact, they had comforted each other, and when Susan left, her father must have died slowly, as a once-vigorous plant is killed by a weed that wraps itself around and slowly sucks the life from it.

That was the father whom she wept for, the one who had come to her, when he could, and taken her hand and walked with her in the garden, giving her childhood its only joys.

While Susan was upstairs, John perused the letter from Matthew and Lavinia that had come with Fitzwilliam’s unhappy tidings.

Ellon, July, 1789

Dear John and Susan,

The enclosed letter came for you this morning and, as it seems to bear important news, I am forwarding it forthwith. I hope the news contained therein is good. I cannot post it without including a short missive in response to your letter, for which I give you thanks.

God be praised that ye made it to Belfast safe and sound! I am writing because Matthew cannot. Although he learned his letters in school, he has so infrequently used them that he has no patience to form them now. More is the pity as he is by far the better story-teller of the pair of us. So, you must content yourselves with my banter. However, Matthew sends his best regards and, I am sure, will instruct me to include some interesting tidbits that I may have left out.

How we miss your wee’uns! The castle is so quiet without you all. It is some consolation to us that we still have the company of Alexander and wee Penny, though you can scarce imagine how they miss your children also. We shall never know the pleasure of grandchildren since our sons are so far away in Nova Scotia. I hope that your letters will not be as infrequent as those that come to us from that far-flung colony. My heart so rejoices when the post arrives.

Ellon is little changed since you left it, although everything is more somber without your bonny presence. I pray this brief letter finds you all in good health.

Your very good friend,

Lavinia Henry

Postscriptum: Matthew is sorry to inform you that the rhododendron has died without your excellent care, but that all other plants are thriving in the shrubbery. A new gardener is expected any day now.

There was one more letter in the bundle that had arrived from Scotland. It was addressed to Susan. John knew that it came from Penelope. He did not want to give it to his wife to read in her present condition, so he thought he might put it aside for her to read later. Then he thought perhaps he ought to read it himself first to make sure there was nothing in it to upset Susan. He told himself that he wanted to protect her, but he knew that it was more than that. He felt an intense curiosity to know what the whore had said about him.

He had never confessed to his wife that he had cheated on her with Penelope, but she had known. It was the unspoken chasm that had come between them and the reason that they had so suddenly uprooted themselves from Scotland. John felt his guilt keenly. He also felt that to break the seal of Penelope’s letter and read it would be like committing the same indiscretion all over again. He knew that if he read it, he would need to destroy it immediately so that Susan would not know that he had read it. That was not so terrible. What could the whore say that was of any consequence to either of them anymore? It was an effrontery to them that she had even written.

He tore open the seal in one swift angry motion, and read.

Ellon, August, 1789

My dear Susan,

Lavinia kindly related to me your warmest regards and gave me your address in Belfast so that I might write and thank you for your good wishes. I remember our times together with great fondness. Ellon Castle is even colder and lonelier without you and your family here to provide cheer.

Alexander has had such a terrible time without your eldest sons James and John to protect him at the school. After one particularly nasty beating, we decided to withdraw him. He is now being tutored at home by a young gentleman that the Earl has engaged. The tutor is almost as handsome as your good husband, though I know I ought not to make so bold as to say that.

Penny is as distressed as her mother with the loss of her playmate Susie. We are all in suspense awaiting a letter from you to ease our heartsickness. Please write with news of all your children. I hope that Mr. Dean is well also and that he has come, as I have, to a greater understanding of the worth of his good wife.

You remain in my heart, as I hope that I remain in yours,

Your friend,

Penelope Dering

With disappointment and guilt, John tossed the missive into the fireplace.

bottom of page