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They named the child William, in memory of Mary’s Pa, and Fitzhardinge, the ancestral name of the Berkeleys after the Bristol merchant who had been the financier of Henry II and had gained title to lands in return. In William, the butcher’s marrow was united with that of counsellors and kings, and, gazing into his sleepy countenance, Mary’s mind could not compass it.
From the early days, Mary perceived two sides to his personality. Strange humours came over him, clouding his brow. He was by turns happy and petulant, not in the general way of young children with their whims and wants, but as if the spontaneous charm and the spleen which made Mary his slave sprang from having entered the world to settle some score. His mother loved him with a passion she could not describe, the firstborn who had given her a true reason for the course she had essayed with Berkeley. Even Berkeley discovered a new fund of affection.
Berobed in guipure lace, William was baptised on a crisp day in January at St George’s, Hanover Square. Despite the occasion, his father would not hear of going to the church and refused any part in the rite. He sent his long-standing friend from Cranford, John Chapeau, a Reverend no less, to conduct the proceedings and the brave sea-dog, Captain Prescott, to be godfather and stand at Mary’s elbow. The baby behaved in an exemplary manner and her heart was bursting with pride. She wished the Earl could have been there. Executing a gallant bow, the Captain presented Mrs Cole with a golden guinea as was the custom, she being the child’s nurse, and made to lead the party out from the font to the vestibule where a weak sun shafted through the pillared portico. At the doorway, he hesitated.
“Do you go ahead and settle yourselves into the carriage. I will follow directly, but must first furnish details for the registry.”
“Captain, do let me come with you. I should like of all things to see the entry,” Mary pressed.
“Tis but a formality, ma’am. You are best occupied with the little one. Pray excuse me,” he said and marched off to the vestry, calling over his shoulder in the cheerfullest tone: “Five minutes and I will come and drink a toast with you.”
But Mary wanted to see the magic words scribed in the annals of time. When, Nathan, the coachman, had seen Mrs Cole into the barouche and the precious burden was vouchsafed to her care, Mary hastened back up the steps into the church.
The organ-master had just begun a practice session and sprightly Handelian music echoed around the stonework. (The church was proud to have been the composer’s spiritual home.) The vestry door stood ajar. Mr Chapeau was seated at a table with his back to the entrance, driving his quill over the Register of Baptisms. Isaac Prescott stood at the adjacent window, legs apart as if he were on the hurricane deck, pondering the wintry wild cherry boughs overhanging the tombstones.
Neither heard Mary’s approach. The swelling chords built up to a reverberant crescendo and drowned out other sound. Her gaze fell on the page, the ink still glistening wet:
January 23rd, 1787
William Fitzhardinge, son of the Earl of Berkeley
by Mary Cole
Hastily, she turned away into the musty shadows, sick with shock, and clapped her hands over her ears to shut out the tumult of the playing. It seemed that all the organ-stops were out at once. Anguished, she thought of the child outside the door, and of James, the love lost forever on account of that charade in St Mary’s Minster at Berkeley. What a fool she had been! How ripe to believe in the course of action which was right and proper after Berkeley had seduced her. Soon everyone would be sure of her shame, but worse, far worse than that, was the stigma of bastardy for William whose rights could never be asserted and who might be condemned to beggary and vice if she did not please his father well. Gone was the hope of holding up her head. Gone was the vision of innocence, a humble hearth, a patch of land, a husbandman with a labourer’s pride, toiling in his vineyard and coming home at sundown to sit at the head of his table.
The clergyman touched her shoulder and she nearly jumped out of her wits. Until that moment, it had not occurred to him that she might have been in ignorance. The music subsided, mimicking itself in softer harmonies. “My dear...”
“You have christened a natural child, Mr Chapeau.”
“Every child is a child of God, born in sin and redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Kingdom is as much for outsiders as for those in the fold.”
“Nevertheless, the practice is frowned upon…”
“Special dispensation was obtained from the Bishop by his lordship.”
Of course, they would always be at the mercy, William and she, of his noble father, who had duped her not once, but twice, and whose word, despite his proclaimed atheism and readiness to flout the Almighty, ruled even the spiritual powers of the realm.
At noon, they arrived back at Park Street where Lord Berkeley was waiting with a sparkling libation to wet the baby’s head.
“Well,” he said blithely, “have you made the lad a Christian?”
“I have so, my lord, just as you contrived it, to bring down a second curse upon us.”
Their gaze levelled and Mary saw the flinty resistance in him when every vestige of humour was gone. At the same time, she felt and kick and thrust of the infant submerged in his shawl and cradled in her arms, as benign and sinewy as a lamb entangled in briars. For his sake, she must seek justice.
“When Hagar bore Ishmael, she fled into the desert,” Mary observed, “but I shall not do so.”
“Ah,” Berkeley replied, catching her drift, and there was respect in his eyes, “but Abraham had a wife already, that I do know. You need have no fear upon that score. I shall never marry. My resolution is firm.”
Medieval Madonna statue at Berkeley Castle (photo: Wendy Harris)