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Gulliver At Home

No, Eliza, I did not wish your grandfather dead, though he swears that is what I said upon his return from his land of horses. What I said was that, given the neglect with which he has served us, and despite my Christian duties, even the best of wives might have wished him dead. The truth is, in the end, I love him.

“Seven months,” he says, “were a sufficient time to correct every vice and folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their natures had been capable of the least disposition to virtue or wisdom."

There he sits every afternoon with the horses. He holds converse with them. Many a time have I stood outside that stable door and listened to him unburden his soul to a dumb beast. He tells them things he has never told me, except perhaps years ago during those hours in my father's garden. Yet when I close my eyes, his voice is just the same.

* * *

His lips were full, his voice low and assured. With it he conjured up a world larger, more alive than the stifling life of a hosier's youngest daughter.

“I had no knowledge of the deepest soul of man until I saw the evening light upon the Pyramids,” he was saying. “The geometry of Euclid, the desire to transcend time. Riddles that have no answer. The Sphinx."

We sat in the garden of my father's house in Newgate Street. My father was away, on a trip to the continent purchasing fine holland, and mother had retired to the sitting room to leave us some little privacy.

For three and a half years Lemuel had served as a surgeon on the merchantman Swallow. He painted for me an image of the Levant: the camels, the deserts, the dead salt sea, and the dry stones that Jesus Himself trod.

“Did you not long for England's green hills?” I asked him.

He smiled. Your grandfather was the comeliest man I had ever seen. The set of his jaw, his eyes. Long, thick hair, the chestnut brown of a young stallion. He seemed larger than any of my other suitors. “From my earliest days I have had a passion to see strange lands and people,” he told me. “To know their customs and language. This world is indeed a fit habitation for gods. But it seems I am never as desirous for home as when I am far away from it, and from the gentle conversation of such as yourself."

My father was the most prudent of men. In place of a mind, he carried a purse. Lemuel was of an other sort. As I sat there trying to grasp these wonders he took my hand and told me I had the grace of the Greek maidens, who wore no shoes and whose curls fell down round their shoulders in the bright sun. My eyes were the color, he said, of the Aegean sea. I blushed. I was frightened that my mother might hear, but I cannot tell you how my heart raced. His light brown eyes grew distant as he climbed the structures of his fancy, and it did not occur to me that I might have difficulty getting him to return from those imaginings to see me sitting beside him.

You are coming to be a woman, Eliza. But you cannot know what it was like to feel the force of his desire. He had a passion to embrace all the world and make it his. Part of that world he hoped to embrace, I saw as I sat beside him in that garden, was me.

“Mistress Mary Burton,” he said, “help me to become a perfect man. Let me be your husband."

* * *

Little Lemuel, the child of our middle age, is just nine. Of late he has ceased calling on his friends in town. I found him yesterday in the garden, playing with his lead soldiers. He had lined them up, in their bright red coats, outside a fort of sticks and pebbles. He stood inside the fort's walls, giving orders to his toys. “Get away, you miserable Yahoos! You can't come in this house! Don't vex me! Your smell is unredurable!"

* * *

The third of five sons, Lemuel hailed from Nottinghamshire, where his father held a small estate. He had attended Emanuel College in Cambridge and was apprenticed to Mr. James Bates, the eminent London surgeon. Anticipating the advantage that would be mine in such a match, my father agreed on a dowry of 400 pounds.

Having got an education, it was up to Lemuel now to get a living as best he could. There was to be no help for us from his family; though they were prosperous they were not rich, and what estate they had went to Lemuel's eldest brother John.

My wedding dress? Foolish girl, what matters a wedding dress in this world?

My wedding dress was of Orient silk, silk brought to England on some ship on which Lemuel perhaps served. My mother had labored over it for three months. It was not so fine as that of my older sister Nancy, but it was fine enough for me to turn Lemuel's head as I walked up the aisle of St. Stephen's church.

We took a small house in the Old Jury. We were quite happy. Mr. Bates recommended Lemuel to his patients, and for a space we did well. In those first years I bore three children. The middle one, Robert, we buried before his third month. But God smiling, my Betty, your mother, and your uncle John did survive and grow.

But after Mr. Bates died, Lemuel's practice began to fail. He refused to imitate the bad practice of other doctors, pampering hypochondriacs, promising secret cures for fatal disease. We moved to Wapping, where Lemuel hoped to improve our fortune by doctoring to sailors, but there was scant money in that, and his practice declined further. We discussed the matter for some time, and he chose to go to sea.

He departed from Bristol on May 4, 1699, on the Antelope, as ship's surgeon, bound for the south seas, under Master William Prichard.

The Antelope should have returned by the following spring. Instead it never came back. Much later, after repeated inquiries, I received report that the ship had never made its call at Sumatra. She was last seen when she landed to take on water at the Cape of Good Hope, and it was assumed that she had been lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Dearest granddaughter, I hope you never have cause to feel the distress I felt then. But I did not have time to grieve, because we were in danger of being left paupers.

What money Lemuel had left us, in expectation of his rapid return, had gone. Our landlord, a goodly Christian man, Mr. Henry Potts of Wapping, was under great hardship himself, as his trade had slackened during the late wars with France and he was dependent on the rent from his holdings. Betty was nine and Johnny seven, neither able to help out. My father sent us what money he could, but owing to reverses of his own he could do little. As the date of Lemuel's expected return receded Mr. Potts's wife and son were after Mr. Potts to put us out.

I took in sewing—thank God and my parents I was a master seamstress. We raised a few hens for meat and eggs. We ate many a meal of cabbage and potatoes. The neighbors helped. Mr. Potts forbore. But in the bitter February of 1702 he died, and his son, upon assuming his inheritance, threatened to put us into the street.

One April morning, at our darkest moment, some three years after he sailed on the Antelope, Lemuel returned.

* * *

The coach jounced and rattled over the Kent high road. “You won't believe me when I tell you, these miniscule people, not six inches high, had a war over which end of the egg to break."

Lemuel had been telling these tales for two weeks without stop. He'd hired the coach using money we did not have. I was vexed with the effort to force him to confront our penury.

“We haven't seen an egg here in two years!” I said. “Last fall came a pip that killed half the chickens. They staggered about with their little heads pointed down, like drunkards searching for coins on the street. They looked so sad. When it came time to market we left without a farthing."

Lemuel carefully balanced the box he carried on his knees. He peeked inside, to assure himself for the hundreth time that the tiny cattle and sheep it held were all right. We were on our way to the country estate of the Earl of Kent, who had summoned Lemuel when the rumors of the miniature creatures he'd brought back from Lilliput spread throughout the county. “Their empress almost had me beheaded. She didn't approve my method of dousing a fire that would have otherwise consumed her."

“In the midst of that, Betty almost died of the croup. I was up with her every night for a fortnight, cold compresses and bleeding."

“God knows I'd have given a hundred guineas for a cold compress when I burned with fever, a castaway on the shores of Lilliput."

“Once the novelty fades, cattle so tiny will be of no use. There's not a scrap of meat on them."

“True enough. I would eat thirty oxen at a meal.” He sat silent, deep in thought. The coach lurched on. “I wonder if His Grace would lend me the money to take them on tour?"

“Lemuel, we owe Stephen Potts eleven pounds sixpence. To say nothing of the grocer. And if he is to have any chance at a profession, Johnny must be sent to school. We cannot even pay for his clothes."

“Lilliputian boys are dressed by men until four years of age, and then are obliged to dress themselves. They always go in the presence of a Professor, whereby they avoid those early impressions of vice and folly to which our children are subject. Would that you had done this for our John."

“Lemuel, we have no money! It was all I could do to keep him alive!"

He looked at me, and his brow furrowed. He tapped his fingers on the top of the cattle box. “I don't suppose I can blame her. It was a capital crime for any person whatsoever to make water within the precincts of the palace."

* * *

Last night your grandfather quarrelled with your uncle John, who had just returned from the Temple. Johnny went out to the stables to speak with Lemuel concerning a suit for libel threatened by a nobleman who thinks himself the object of criticism in Lemuel's book. I followed.

Before Johnny could finish explaining the situation, Lemuel flew into a rage. “What use have I for attorneys? I had rather see them dropped to the deepest gulf of the sea."

In the violence of his gesture Lemuel nearly knocked over the lamp that stood on the wooden table. His long gray hair flew wildly as he stalked past the stall of the dappled mare he calls “Mistress Mary,” to my everlasting dismay. I rushed forward to steady the lamp. Lemuel looked upon me with a gaze as blank as a brick.

“Father,” Johnny said. “you may not care what this man does, but he is a cabinet minister, and a lawsuit could ruin us. It would be politic if you would publicly apologize for any slight your satire may have given."

Lemuel turned that pitiless gaze on our son. “I see you are no better than the other animals of this midden, and all my efforts to make something better of you are in vain. If you were capable of logic, I would ask you to explain to me how my report of events that occurred so many years ago, during another reign, and above five thousand leagues distant from this pathetic isle, might be applied to any of the Yahoos who today govern this herd. Yet in service of this idiocy you ask me to say the thing that is not. I had rather all your law books, and you immodest pleaders with them, were heaped into a bonfire in Smithfield for the entertainment of children."

I watched Johnny's face grow livid, but he mastered his rage and left the stable. Lemuel and I stood in silence. He would not look at me, and I thought for a moment he felt some regret at his intemperance. But he turned from me to calm the frightened horses. I put the lamp down on the table and ran back to the house.

* * *

Johnny was ten when Lemuel returned from Lilliput. He was overjoyed to see his father again, and worshipped him as a hero. When other of the townschildren mocked Lemuel, calling him a madman, Johnny fought them.

The Lilliputian cattle and sheep, despite my misgivings, brought us some advantage. Following the example of the Earl of Kent, Sir Humphrey Glover, Lord Sidwich, and other prominent men commanded Lemuel to show these creatures. Johnny prated on about the tiny animals all day, and it was all I could do to keep him from sleeping with them beneath his bedclothes, which would have gone the worse for them, as he was a restless child and in tossing at night would surely have crushed the life out of them. He built a little stable in the corner of his room. At first we fed them with biscuit, ground as fine as we could, and spring water. Johnny took great pains to keep the rats away.

It was his idea to build a pasture on the bowling green, where the grass was fine enough that they might eat and prosper. Lemuel basked in Johnny's enthusiasm. He charmed the boy with the tale of how he had captured the entire fleet of Blefescu using thread and fish-hooks, and towed it back to Lilliput. Johnny said that he would be a sea captain when he grew up.

As if in a dream, our fortunes turned. Lemuel's Uncle John passed away, leaving him five hunded sterling and an estate in land near Epping that earned an income of about thirty pounds a year. Lemuel sold the Lilliputian cattle for 600 pounds. He bought our big house in Redriff. After years of hardship, after I had lost hope, he had returned to save us.

We had been better served by bankruptcy if that would have kept him beside me in our bed.

* * *

You will find, Eliza, that a husband needs his wife in that way, and it can be a pleasant pastime. But it is different for them. Love is like a fire they cannot control, overwhelming, easily quenched, then as often as not forgotten, even regretted. Whenever Lemuel returned from these voyages he wanted me, and I do not hesitate to say, I him. Our bed was another country to which he would return, and explore for its mysteries. He embraced me with a fury that sought to extinguish all our time apart, and the leagues between us, in the heat of that moment. Spent, he would rest his head on my bosom, and I would stroke his hair. He was like a boy again, quiet and kind. He would whisper to me, in a voice of desperation, how I should never let him leave again.

* * *

Two months after his return, despite the comforts of my arms, he was gone again. His wild heart, he said, would not let him rest.

This time he left us well set. Fifteen hundred pounds, the house in Redriff, the land in Epping. He took a long lease on the Black Bull public house in Fetter Lane, which brought a regular income.

We traveled with him to Liverpool, where in June of 1702 he took ship aboard the Adventure, Captain John Nicholas commanding, bound for Surat.

It was a dreary day at the downs, the kind of blustery weather Liverpool has occasion for even in summer, low leaden clouds driven before a strong wind, the harbor rolling in swells and the ends of furled sails flapping above us. With tears in my eyes, I embraced him; he would not let me go. When I did pull away I saw that he wept as well. “Fare thee well, good heart,” he whispered to me. “Forgive me my wandering soul."

Seeing the kindness and love in his gaze, the difficulty with which he tore himself from my bosom, I would have forgiven him anything. It occurred to me just how powerful a passion burned within him, driving him outside the circle of our hearth. Little Johnny shook his hand, very manly. Betty leapt into his arms, and he pressed her to his cheek, then set her down. Then he took up his canvas bag, turned and went aboard.

* * *

It is no easy matter being the wife of a man famous for his wild tales. The other day in town with Sarah to do the marketing, in the butcher's shop, I overheard Mrs. Boyle the butcher's wife arguing with a customer that the chicken was fresh. By its smell anyone past the age of two would know it was a week dead. But Mrs. Boyle insisted.

The shop was busy, and our neighbor Mr. Trent began to mock her, in a low voice, to some bystanders. He said, “Of course it is fresh. Mrs. Boyle insists it's fresh. It's as true as if Mr. Gulliver had said it."

All the people in the shop laughed. My face burned, and I left.

* * *

One June morning in 1706, three long years after Lemuel was due to return, I was attending to the boiling of some sheets in the kitchen when a cry came from Sarah, our housemaid. “God save me! Help!"

I rushed to the front door, there to see an uncouth spectacle. Sarah was staring at a man who had entered on all fours, peering up, his head canted to the side, so that his long hair brushed the ground (he wore no periwig) as he spied up at us. It was a moment before I recognized him as my Lemuel. My heart leapt within my breast as I went from widow to wife in a single instant.

When he came to the house, for which he had been forced to enquire, Sarah had opened the door. Lemuel bent down to go in, for fear of striking his head. He had been living among giants and fancied himself sixty feet tall. Sarah had never met Mr. Gulliver, and thought him a madman. When I tried to embrace him, he stooped to my knees until I was forced to get down on my own to kiss him.

When Betty, your mother, who was then sixteen, ran in, holding some needlework, Lemuel tried to pick her up by her waist, in one hand, as if she had been a doll. He complained that the children and I had starved ourselves, so that we were wasted away to nothing. It was some weeks before he regained his sense of proper proportion.

I told him it was the last time he should ever go to sea.

It wasn't ten days before a Cornish captain, William Robinson, under whom Lemuel had served on a trip to the Levant some years before we were married, called upon us. That visit was purely a social one, or so he avowed, but within a month he was importuning Lemuel to join him as ship's surgeon on another trip to the East Indies.

That night, as we prepared for bed, I accosted him. “Lemuel, are you considering taking up Robinson on this offer?"

“What matter if I did? I am the master of this house. You are well taken care of."

“Taken care of by servants, not my husband."

“He is offering twice the usual salary, a share of the profits, two mates and a surgeon under me. I shall be gone no more than a year, and you will see us comfortably off, so that I might never have to go to sea again."

“You don't have to go to sea now. We have a comfortable life."

He removed his leather jerkin and began to unbutton his shirt. “And our children? Betty is nearly of marriageable age. What dowry can we offer her? Johnny must go to Cambridge, and have money to establish himself in some honorable profession. I want to do more for him than my father did for me."

“The children mourn your absences.” I touched his arm. The muscles were taut as cords. “When you disappeared on the Antelope, we suffered more from the thought that you were dead than from the penury we lived in. Give them a father in their home and let the distant world go."

“You are thinking like a woman. The distant world comes into the home. It is a place of greed, vice and folly. I seek for some understanding I can give to cope with it."

“Lemuel, what is this desire for strange lands but a type of greed, this abandonment of your family but the height of folly? And your refusal to admit your true motives is the utmost dishonesty, to the woman who loves you, and whom you vowed to love."

Lemuel took up his coat, pulled on his shoes.

“Where are you going?"

“Out. I need to take some air. Perhaps I can determine my true motives for you."

He left.

A week later, on the 5th of August, 1706, he left England on the Hope-Well, bound for the Indies. I did not see him again for four years.

* * *

The only time I can coax him into the house is when he deigns to bathe. He is most fastidious, and insists that no one must remain on the same floor, let alone the same room, when he does.

I crept to the door last week and peeked in. He had finished, and dried himself, and now stood naked in front of the mirror, trembling. At first I thought he was cold, but the fire roared in the grate. Then he raised his hands from his sides, covered his eyes, and sobbed, and I understood that he was recoiling in horror from his own image.

* * *

When he left on the third voyage I was five-and-thirty years old. In the previous seven years he had spent a total of four months with me. I had no need to work, I was not an old woman, and my children had no father. When Lemuel did not return in the promised year, when that year stretched to two and the Hope-Well returned to Portsmouth without Lemuel aboard, I fell into despair. Captain Robinson came to the house in Redriff and told the tale. Stuck in the port of Tonquin awaiting the goods they were to ship back to England, Robinson hit on the plan of purchasing a sloop, giving command of it to Lemuel, and bidding him trade among the islands, returning in several months at which time, the Hope-Well being loaded, they might return. Lemuel set off on the sloop and was not heard from again. Robinson supposed that they might have been taken by the barbarous pirates of those Islands, in which case Lemuel had undoubtedly been slain, as Christian mercy is a virtue unknown in those heathen lands.

I cannot say that I was surprised. I was angry, and I wept.

Being the wealthiest widow in the town, and by no means an old woman, I did not lack for suitors. Sir Robert Davies himself called on me more than once. It was all I could do to keep from having my head turned. “Marry me,” he said. “I will be a father to your daughter, an example to your son."

“Johnny is about to go off to school, and Betty soon to be married,” I told him. “One wedding is enough to worry about right now.” Thus I put him off.

In truth I did lose myself in your mother's wedding; Betty was giddy with excitement, and your father, her betrothed, was about continually, helping put the house in order, traveling with Johnny to school. So it was I kept myself chaste.

The townspeople thought I was a fool. My mother commended me for my faithfulness, but I could tell she regretted the loss of a connection with nobility. Betty and Johnny stood by me. I don't need another father, Johnny said, I have one.

My reasons? Wherever he went Sir Robert carried a silver-headed cane, with which he would gently tap his footman's shoulder as he instructed him. I was mistress of my own home. I had given my heart once, and still treasured a hope of Lemuel's return. There are a hundred reasons, child, and there are things I cannot explain. Lemuel did return, and despite his ravings about a flying island and the curse of immortality, I felt that all my trouble had been justified. He seemed weary, but still my husband, the love of my youth come again. The joy of our meeting was great. Within three months he had got me with child.

Within five he had left again.

* * *

And so he came back, five years later, from the longest of his absences. He was aged five-and-fifty, I five-and-forty. He saw his son Lemuel for the first time. His daughter, married and a mother herself; his son, grown and an attorney. His wife, longing to hold him again.

No, I have not, Eliza. He shudders at my touch. He washes his hands. He accuses me of trying to seduce him.

“Are you ashamed of the touch that got you your sons and daughter?” I once asked him. “That got us poor Robert? That gave us young Lemuel, to be our comfort in our old age?

His face registered at first revulsion, and then, as he sat heavily in his chair, fatigue. “I can't regret our children if they be good, but I most certainly regret them if they be bad. There are Yahoos enough in the world."

* * *

We had long given him up for dead. I had made my peace, and held in my memory the man who had kissed me in my father's garden.

At first I thought that he had caught some foreign disease. As thin as a fence post, he stood in the doorway, his face a mask of dismay. It was the fifth of December, 1715. Three o'clock in the afternoon. I ran to him, kissed him. He fell into a swoon that lasted most of an hour. With difficulty we carried him to his bed. When he awoke, I put my hand to his face: he pulled away as if his skin had been flayed.

And so we live by these rules: “Save for the sabbath, you may not eat in the same room with me. You may not presume to touch my bread. You may not drink out of the same cup, or use my spoon or plate. You may not take me by the hand. That I might bear the reek of this house, fresh horse droppings shall be brought into my chambers each morning, and kept there in a special container I have had fashioned for that purpose."

My father's house, in Newgate Street, was not far from the prison. Outside, on the days of executions, straw was scattered on the street to muffle the wheels of passing wagons, in deference to the men being hanged inside. Here we scatter straw over the cobbled courtyard outside the stables because the noise of the wheels troubles him.

As a young man his heart was full of hope, but his heart has been beaten closed, not only by the sea and the storms and the mutinies and the pirates—but by some hard moral engine inside of him. He would rather be dead, I think, than to abide his flesh. Perhaps he soon will be. And I will have to go on living without him, as I have learned to do over these many years.

Might it have been different? I could say yes, but some thing I saw in his eyes that first afternoon in Newgate Street rises to stop me. He was a man who looked outward while the inward part of himself withered. He was drawn to the blank spaces outside the known world; we are too small to make a mark on his map. To Lemuel ordinary people are interesting only as we represent large things. He asked me to make him a perfect man. In seeking perfection he has gulled himself, and the postscript is that he spends four hours every day attempting to communicate with a horse, while his children, his grandchildren, his wife wait in his well-appointed home, the home they have prepared for him and labored to keep together in his absence, maintaining a place for him at every holiday table, praying for him at every service, treasuring him up in their hearts and memories, his portrait on the wall, his merest jottings pressed close in the book of memory, his boots in the wardrobe, maps in the cabinet, glass on the sideboard.

At Christmas, when we can coax him to eat with us, I sit at the other end of twelve feet of polished mahogany table and look across at a stranger who is yet the man I love.

* * *

During our conversation in the garden thirty years ago, Lemuel told me a story. The Greeks, he told me, believed that once there existed a creature that was complete and whole unto itself, perfect and without flaw. But in the beginning of time the gods split this being into two halves, and that is how man and woman came into the world. Each of us knows that we are not complete, and so we seek desperately after each other, yearning to possess our missing halves, pressing our bodies together in hope of becoming that one happy creature again. But of course we cannot do it, and so in frustration we turn away from each other, tearing ourselves apart all of our lives.

* * *

His book has been a great success. It is all they speak of in London. It has made us more money than his sixteen years of voyages.

He accuses us of enticing him into writing the wretched thing, and deems it a failure because it didn't immediately reform all of humanity. He told his story to the world in the hope that he would magically turn it into something perfect. I tell you mine, Eliza ... I tell you mine because ... bless me, I believe I've burned my hand on this kettle. Fetch me the lard.

That's better.

Soon you'll come of age to choose a husband, if your parents give you leave to choose. I don't doubt you tremble at the prospect. But remember: it is the only choice a woman is given to make in her life, save for the choice of clothes for her funeral.

And now, help me carry this soup up to him; help me to cover him, and make sure he is warm for the night.

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