“The Gardener” tells the story of Helen Turrell, who, at the end of the nineteenth century becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child. Helen lives in India, which is under British colonial rule. She travels to the South of France, where she gives birth to a son, Michael, in secret and then takes him to live in England. In order to maintain her place in British society, Helen invents a story surrounding Michael’s birth to hide the fact that she has scandalously had a child out of wedlock. Helen’s story is that Michael is really the son of her brother George, who has recently died. It is implied that “everyone in the village” understands that this is not a true story but, because Helen has “nobly” taken on the responsibility of raising Michael, and because she has created a story which fits in with British society’s moral conventions, she is accepted among the community.
Michael, like Helen, is accepted into British society and grows up believing that Helen is his aunt, not his mother. When he is a young child, he asks Helen why he cannot call her “mummy,” and Helen tells him that she is his aunt but that he may call her “mummy” at bedtime. Michael is pleased with this arrangement but becomes upset when he finds out that Helen has told her friends about their discussion. He threatens to hurt Helen by dying young, foreshadowing his early death in World War I.
Just as Michael is about to start at Oxford University, World War I breaks out in Europe. After enlisting, Michael is sent to Norfolk and then to Normandy with his unit. Michael writes to Helen that “nothing much” is happening where he is, and that his unit has mainly been used for digging trenches and doing maintenance work on the line. In 1915, one year into the war, Michael is killed by a shell. Helen is first informed that Michael is missing; she privately believes that “missing always mean dead,” but she is encouraged by the community to keep up hope and to send letters to organizations that search for missing men and prisoners of war.
When the war ends, Helen finally receives confirmation that Michael is dead and journeys to Normandy to visit Michael’s grave. On the train to her hotel, Helen meets Mrs. Scarsworth. The woman tells Helen that this is her ninth visit to the cemetery; she takes photographs of the graves as commissions for grieving relatives who cannot make the trip themselves. Helen is horrified by Mrs. Scarsworth’s open and seemingly callous attitude towards death and is pleased to escape from her in the hotel. Mrs. Scarsworth however, bursts into Helen’s room and confesses that her story about the commissions is not true. She has, in fact, been in love with a man who has been killed in the war but, because she is married to someone else, she cannot openly grieve for him. Mrs. Scarsworth rushes off and Helen does not see her again.
The next morning, Helen goes to visit Michael’s grave and is given a row number to help her find his headstone. However, when she enters the graveyard, she finds that it is vast and confusing, and she becomes lost. She happens upon a man who is “evidently a gardener” and asks him for help to find her nephew. The gardener, looking at Helen with “infinite compassion,” tells her that he will “show her where her son lies,” instantly intuiting the true relationship between them. The story closes with Helen looking back at the “gardener,” who is “bending over his young plants,” as she leaves the graveyard.