Chapter Five

The loss of her children due to the Curse of the Sea, which the Witch could not lift; her husband’s stubbornness and her resignation to the status of a married-widow; her intimate friendship with her neighbour.

Wapping, Thursday the 13th of  April, 1702

 

I was heavy with our fifth child, and oh, so happy to have my Lemuel by my side! After he came back from the West Indies we spent three blissful years in each other’s arms, with our two surviving children. We were delighted with the impending arrival of a fifth baby. True, Lemuel was struggling to find work as a surgeon, and was stubbornly refusing to join my father’s hosiery business, but we compensated for his daily frustrations by nightly celebrations.

      I did not see it coming when, without a warning he announced that he got a post as a sea surgeon on board the Antelope, which was due to set sail in a fortnight! I nearly fainted. Our baby was due any day then, and I was aching and terrified of the looming birthing. I beseeched Lemuel to stay with me, to stay with us, and he, crying with me, said: “Swifty, remember what you told me nine years ago, after Master Bates died? You said I was too good a surgeon. You commended me for not imitating the bad practice of too many among my brethren.” (Indeed, he could not cheat, my poor Lemuel) “You said: ‘Too bad Master Bates died. He could have recommended you to some ship, like he recommended you to the Swallow before we got married. You encouraged me to go to the West Indies and to the East Indies. ‘You like the sea, you like to travel.’ That is what you said.”

      “Yes, I said all that, and more” I cried, “I even hoped you would get some addition to your fortune. But you know, back then I did not know about the Curse which is set upon our little family!”

* * *

Even the overwhelming evidence of the Curse did not convince him, though it was plain to see: With each voyage he took, another little soul was added to my list of sorrows: James died before he learned to say Papa, while his father was sailing to the East Indies and Emma died before she learned to say Mama, while Lemuel was in the West Indies.

“Look at Betty, our sweet baby.” I said “We are blessed to have her still, grace the fate that your voyage to the West Indies did not prove to be very fortunate. You grew weary of the sea, and intended to stay at home with your wife and family. I was content to remove from the Old-Jewry, where my sister lived but a few minutes’ walk away, to Fetter-lane and then even to Wapping, an hour’s walk away from my sister, as long as I could have you with me, and as long as I could ascertain the health of our children. Lo and behold: Little Betty is now three years old! She says Papa to you, she dotes on you. Have you the heart to desert her now? And me, and Johnny? And the little soul which now grows in my belly? Do you not want to see your new child?”

      I am confident that this is what saved our Betty from certain death. Lemuel stayed with us for three blessed years, after our Betty was born. But, he did not even wait to christen the little soul I named George. Our fifth baby was born two months after his father set sail on board the Antelope, and, as I despairingly expected, little George did not survive the winter of 1700. The whole while I was carrying this infant inside of me, I was terrified and desperate. Lemuel did not stop lamenting the looming End of the World, which was due on January 1st, 1700. I reminded him of all the previous Ends of the World[35], but this did not ease his panic.  In fact, he was angry with me for not realizing the extent of the danger we were facing! I thought he might be possessed, or under a curse. I do not know it still. But I am sure there is a Curse set on my dead babies…

      It is a horrid Curse: Our first boy, Johnny, who is now thirteen, was born one year after our wedding, when Lemuel was a successful surgeon in London, alongside Master Bates.  Our second child, James (named after our benefactor, Master James Bates,) died in 1692, a few months after Lemuel closed his practice and went to sea aboard the Stork. Three years later my Lemuel came back from that voyage, promised to stay, and a few weeks later he was on board the Fortuna. Emma was born prematurely five months later, and died at birth.

      Betty, our fourth, is the sure proof that Evil Powers are mercilessly toying with us: she was born soon after we moved from Fetter-Lane to Wapping, three years before Lemuel took to sea, this time never to come back.

 

      Back in Fetter-Lane I had a neighbour, Mrs. Mary-Jane, who was an excellent witch and a handsome lass. Though she passed her youth, her past beauty was plain to see. Mrs. Mary-Jane knew exactly what I should do to keep my man at home. I did it, and it worked. Of course it worked. Mrs. Mary-Jane was a Head Girl in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not many people know that such a school exists, or that those witches and wizards call us 'Mucus,' but I know, for Mrs. Mary-Jane told me quite a lot about it. I think she fancied me. I was truly bewitched by her. But then again, she might have put a spell on me.

      She gave me clear instructions when to come to her and what to bring along with me. She gave me her vile pipe to smoke and next thing I knew - I woke up on her bed. It seemed as if night has already fallen, because it was so dark. But then I realized that my skirt was covering my face. Pulling it down I felt Mrs. Mary-Jane’s arm heavy on my naked belly. Why would my skirt be up on my face, exposing me thus? How much time has gone by, and what has transpired? Mrs. Mary-Jane seemed to be fast asleep, but her fingers were moving, as if of their own accord, circling my bellybutton. She was breathing heavily, and her hair, always neatly kept, was now totally dishevelled, as if it had life of its own. I was still drowsy, and though I trusted her to perform miracles with her witchcraft, her Medusa-like hair terrified me. I tried to roll gently away but Mrs. Mary-Jane, with her magical powers, was instantly awake.

 

      While chanting incantations, she arranged her hair and then gave me a jar bearing the face of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino[36] and told me to urinate into it. Mrs. Mary-Jane went on chanting while she added Lemuel’s nail clippings, hair and some pins, and we both buried it upside-down in her garden[37]. Two weeks later I dug for it, as she instructed me, and when it was not there – just as she predicted – I knew that the magic would work. And indeed: Betty’s birth went smoothly, Lemuel was working as a surgeon at our home in Wapping and for those blissful three years I was as happy as could be.

      I love Betty dearly, for I am afraid she is my last offspring. The witch instructed me that we would have to repeat the magic as soon as I will be heavy with child again, but Lemuel left hastily, before I could collect the necessary ingredients.

* * *

      It is now two years since our fifth baby, tiny, helpless George died, and the last we heard of Lemuel was eighteen months ago, when Captain Prichard came back home. The sole survivor of the Antelope, Captain Prichard told me about the storm that drove the ship off course; about the illness of the men, which my husband could not cure; and about the wind that drove the ill-manned ship on the rock, which split the ship. Captain Prichard told me that, as he was busy with seven of the crew to let down a boat, he did see my Lemuel, along with five of the crew, let down the other boat. That was the last he knew…

      I cried and cried, and in the days that followed, I took up every excuse to go visit my friend Vanessa, Captain Prichard’s wife. Whenever I could, I asked him to tell me again and again about my Love’s last moments. And each time he told it to me, I hoped his tale would end differently.

      I could not indulge in those stories for too long. Captain Prichard went back to sea; my heartbroken, frightened children needed me more than my grief needed me. Daily chores took over, and Vanessa, sweet Vanessa, my best friend Vanessa, as soon as her husband took back to sea, came to comfort me, as only a loving woman knows.

 

* * *

      We first met on the pier, three years ago, when the Antelope took both our husbands away, on that fateful voyage. My Lemuel was one of that 32-men crew. Vanessa’s husband, Captain Prichard was the only one to come back.

 

      It was a Monday, that fateful May 4th, 1699. The Antelope was to sail a day earlier, for the saying goes “Sunday sail, never fail.” But for delays in stocking the ship, it only set sail the next day. Silly me: I was so glad to have Lemuel with me for one more night. Had they sailed on Sunday, surely everything would have been different.[38]

      But three years ago, on the pier, my three-year-old Betty was crying bitterly in my arms, and my ten-year-old, brave Johnny promised to take care of us: “Until Papa will be back” he said, the poor orphan!    

  

      As we walked down the pier, alongside other desolate women, the married-widows-of-the-sea, each with her own crying brood, I noticed HER. At first I thought she was a sailor’s daughter, since she had no child on her arms. She seemed very young, and indeed, very pretty. She saw my Betty crying and came to her:

 

      “Come, come,” she said, “your father will be back home in a couple of years, I promise you!”

 

      My shy, little Betty hid her face in my neck and stopped crying. I smiled to this strange, lovely woman and heard Johnny’s voice:

 

      “What is your name?”

 

      “Oh, stop it, Johnny” I said, embarrassed.

 

      “Why, let him. I am Vanessa. Vanessa Prichard. And you are Johnny, I presume. So nice to make your acquaintance!”

 

      And that is how we became best of friends.

 

      Vanessa’s marriage was not a happy one. She loathed her husband, the Captain, who was so much her senior in years. She was glad he was at sea, and unlike me, did not watch for news of her husband’s fate. When the months went by and there was no word from the Antelope, Vanessa actually grew cheerful, while I did not know where to take my worries. One night, after we made love, Vanessa sighed: “Oh, I wish the Antelope would sink, along with our husbands. Then we could stay like this, my love, forever, you and I!”

* * *

      Well, the Antelope did sink along with my Lemuel and all her men -- sparing only Vanessa’s husband. Such are the bitter, cruel jokes that life plays on us.

      I do hope to find a good man, and not a seaman, so that my children will have a father that will care for and protect them. Though I am quite old, already thirty years of age, I am still good looking (So Vanessa often tells me). Five births have not left much of a mark on my body. My skin is smooth, my breasts are silky and I so much yearn for the touch of a strong man, bringing to our bed the scents of his hard day’s work…

      Until this man will materialise from the mists of my imagination, until I find the right father for my children, I resign to the fate of the widow, protecting my honour and that of my children as best I can. I only pray  [39]

A detail from a copy of a painting by the Dutch painter Gerard Dou (1613-1675)
Title: Natuur, Onderwijzing en Oefening (Nature, teaching and Exercise)
Copy by: Willem Joseph Laquy (1738-1798)
The Gullivers, L. to R.: Mary, James, Betty and Lemuel.
Artist: Petrus Troueil
A reunion of the four heads of Hogwarts School.
Artist: Unknown

The cover of Archaeology magazine of July-August 2009, in which was written about the discovery of Mary Burton-Gulliver's witch-bottle.

A crude replication of Vanessa, cheering her husband's departure to see, minutes before she met Mary and her children.
Artist: Unknown.
 
 

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