Provoking Thieves

 

 

A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it. Jean de La Fontaine

Destiny is something we refer to casually, a big portmanteau sort of word, but what does it mean? The same thing as fate, I guess. Both words are imprecise, both loaded with nuance that delivers a resonant charge.

I've mentioned before how Mary Cole and her older sisters, Susan and Ann, were women of destiny. They trumped all the odds against moving in powerful circles and becoming the wives of rich and distinguished men. They were daughters of a butcher who died bankrupt in Georgian England, when women were regarded as the property of husbands, fathers, keepers, the madhouse, the workhouse, the factory owner. What were the chances of the two elder rising in society and staking a claim in the New America? They had had some little education, it's true, and had been taught never to regard themselves as inferior, but that was a shallow platform for parading their assets. They caught the knack of aping their betters so naturally it became part of them and Susan, especially, was blessed not only with looks, but native wit. She understood the mechanisms of social advancement. An accomplished actress more off-stage than on it, she knew how to tap into the psychology of her audience. A sequence of lovers she may have had before opting for 'respectability', but all of them were intelligent men of rank and bank, influencers of the nation's legislature. She must have been quite amused that her audacity paid such high dividends.She had made the classes who would have shunned her pay for their vainglory!

 

 

Her first legal marriage was to James Heyward, brother of that Thomas Heyward, Founding Father of America, who signed the Declaration of Independence and studied law at the Middle Temple in London where Susan fostered a posse of connections. James was much younger than Thomas and the child of their father's third marriage.

James died within a year, leaving Susan a couple of hundred slaves and a fortune in rice plantations. The widow promptly took up with Charles Baring of the East India Company and the famous banking family to whom she was married for several decades until her death when she was buried under the pews of the church they had founded at St John-in-the-Wilderness, Flat Rock. Her sister, Ann, had married a Gloucester butcher early on, but abandoned her first family, longing for a share in her sister's adventures. Her second husband was Brigade-Major Richard Claiborne of the Virginia Line who became a noted New Orleans Judge.

All this is not to inspect the morality of these goings-on, but to illustrate the power of positive thinking which we can't deny does play a significant part in human destiny.The question always is: How much do we tweak destiny and how much does it tweak us?

Sometimes, we wrestle it into shape.

 

 

Mary was the Cinderella of the family. She would rather sweep hearths for a man she loved and be faithful to her core personality, than become entangled in vanities that would estrange her from herself and imprison her in false conceits.

Ann and Susan's style of living would not sit with her conscience. She did possess self-confidence in her abilities, but the counterweight was a deep-rooted humility and a desire to play by rules. This proved her undoing. It was a source of acute distress that she was so attractive to men. 'Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold ' as Shakespeare says in As You Like it.

There is a perception that beauty is an endowment from the gods belonging to the world, an impersonal thing, and should be vested in life and the future of the species as the discoverer and claimant thinks fit. Stalkers want what you are for some agenda of their own, not by any means immediately obvious. Mary was terrified. She literally went out of her way, to the far side of the country, to avoid her destiny, but it took her unawares. Little did she expect to be deceived and sold by her own sister who believed that her vanquishment was good for the Cole family. It seemed Mary was ensnared in her own high principles.

That theme was to follow throughout an eventful existence in which she used her considerable gifts in the service of humanity. She hauled the Berkeley estates from near-ruin into prosperity within a short few years and gave the nation a number of benefactors and statesmen. She was greatly loved and greatly reviled. Viewed from the world's perspective, her prizing of virtue was a tragic flaw and a challenge to the realist. Her insistence on her own honesty, which many didn't understand or care two hoots about, led her into temptation and a plot to present the fake marriage she had believed in at the time as legal.The writings of Mrs Wollstonecraft and Mrs Robinson (a mistress of the young Prince of Wales who, later, laid his own siege to Mary) were graven on her heart. She believed her good name eternally lost if she could not prove her connection with Lord Berkeley sound. Equally strong was her anxiety that their eldest son should be able to justify entitlement to his father's honours.

 

 

According to Heraclitus, character is destiny. It leaches the essence and uncoils the spring of who we are. The interplay of nature and nurture with outward circumstances forges new links to impact the world. Our passage creates new landmarks that index time and space.

Mary was to achieve respect and interior peace in later years, despite a raft of family crises. She was a renowned and generous hostess who entertained many foreign diplomats at the behest of the British Government. But the shadow of the hangman's noose for her part in the conspiracy was never entirely banished. To the day of her death, she lived with sound-proofing seashells between the floor of her apartments and the ceiling of the rooms below, giving time for unexpected callers to be vetted. From Cranford, her Dower House, a secret tunnel was made out into the drive where a carriage awaited night and day should she need to flee. Meanwhile a watchman paced at all hours below her windows.

Mary's destiny was forever shot through with that dart in her Achilles' Heel.

 

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The Berkeley Series