The Midwife and the Assassin: New Excerpt

The Midwife and the Assassin by Sam Thomas is the 4th installment of the Midwife's Tale series that sees Bridget Hodgson, her deputy Martha Hawkins, and her nephew Will return to London to uncover a plot that involves murder, civil wars, and the destruction of England entirely (Available March 15, 2016).

It's 1649. Three years have passed since midwife Bridget Hodgson and her deputy Martha Hawkins fled York for the safety of the English countryside. But when a mysterious letter from London brings them to the capital, they are forced into service under Jonathan Marlowe, Oliver Cromwell's chief spymaster. Reunited with Bridget's nephew Will, the three seek out Parliament's enemies even as the nation awaits the trial of the King on charges of treason.

Marlowe's first mission for Bridget is to spy upon Katherine Chidley, a notorious political radical and-Marlowe fears-a potential rebel against Parliament. The more time Bridget spends with Katherine, however, the closer the two become, and when Katherine's husband Daniel is murdered, Bridget and Martha join in the search for the killer. As the two uncover Daniel's secrets, the list of suspects grows ever longer, until it includes royalists, radicals, and a figure from Bridget's past, who is equal parts mysterious and deadly. When the killer strikes again, Bridget and Martha realize that he is bent on far more than mere murder, but intends to revive the civil wars or destroy England entirely.

Chapter 1

The late summer sun rose with warmth of a loving mother’s gaze, and I prayed yet again for the Lord to send a storm.

It was not that my estates needed the rain, for the harvest was nearly complete. What I wished for was something, anything to end the tediousness of life in Pontrilas. Nearly three years had passed since I’d been exiled from my beloved city of York and I now lived an all-too-quiet life on my lands in Hereford. When I first arrived, my neighbors had been eager to visit me, hoping to hear of my adventures in the north. What did I know of the witches who had been hanged? Was it true that I had sent some to the gallows myself? I had no desire to talk of such matters, but more than once I’d considered telling them the truth if only to be rid of them. If they knew the things I’d done, these kind and inoffensive women would have fled my home, never to return.

But I never said such things, of course. Instead I resigned myself to the mincing conversations of country gentlewomen. After a few months, the neighbors stopped coming so often, and I could not rouse myself to visit them. Eventually I settled into a life of reading and writing. I began to compose a book on the art of midwifery, so that other women in that office could learn from me rather than from hard experience. From time to time, my tenants would summon me to their travails, and I welcomed the distraction, but with so few women about, the calls were few and far between.

As much as my new life pained me, it was pure torture for Martha Hawkins, my maidservant and deputy. She was a bold and courageous young woman, far better suited to the life of a city midwife than a country maid. I could only imagine the horror with which she regarded the years of washing and cleaning that lay before her so long as we remained in Pontrilas. Of course, the fact that she faced a future without her beloved—and one-time betrothed—Will Hodgson only compounded her misery. My nephew stayed in York when we fled, and went into service for the Lord Mayor. He sometimes wrote to us, but with England at war with itself, letters took weeks or months to arrive, and only the Lord knew how many miscarried entirely. In his last letter, sent some months earlier, Will told us that he would be going to London. We had heard nothing since.

Even Elizabeth, my adopted daughter, had tired of Pontrilas. When we arrived, she had viewed the countryside with a sense of wonder, and I could not blame her. After years of poverty, the opulence of my estates must have seemed like heaven itself. But as the weeks and months blurred together, Elizabeth too came to miss the excitement of city life. Indeed, the only member of my household who enjoyed the change from York to Pontrilas was Hannah, my maidservant. She tolerated York for the years we lived there, but she was glad to return to Pontrilas in her old age; it was, after all, where she’d been born.

And so as fall came, Martha, Elizabeth, and I brooded around the house, wishing for something, anything to shake us out of our country languor.

*   *   *

To my surprise and relief, our country exile ended on an October afternoon when a letter arrived from London. A boy carried it all the way from the village—no small feat—and I had one of my maidservants reward him appropriately, with bread, cheese, and a tuppence. As I watched him eat, I was reminded of Tree, the son of sorts whom I’d left behind in York. I had just received a letter from his father, so I knew that he was doing well. Of all the things I missed about York, it was the separation from my people—Will, Tree, my gossips, and my clients—that pained me the most.

After the boy left, I opened the letter, assuming it was from Mr. Browne, the intelligencer I’d hired to send me news from the city. Mr. Browne had informed us of the King’s capture and imprisonment by Parliament in 1647, and he had seen with his own eyes the riots of 1648, when the King’s supporters rose up against Parliament but were quickly defeated. I knew before any of my neighbors that the King had conspired with the Scots to invade England, and of the brutal treatment that our northern neighbors received at Oliver Cromwell’s hands. More recently there had been rumblings that the King should be brought to trial for the crime of making war against his own people. I could not imagine such a thing, but the world had been upside down for so long, nothing seemed impossible.

This letter, however, was not from my intelligencer. Rather, it had been sent by a jailor in the Tower of London.

To the Lady Bridget Hodgson:

I write on behalf of your nephew, Will Hodgson, now prisoner in the Tower of London. He seeks your assistance as soon as it is convenient.

Your servant,

Richard Thompson

“Martha,” I cried out.

She must have heard the confusion in my voice, for her hands were still covered with flour when she found me in the parlor.

“What has happened?” she asked.

“Will has been sent to the Tower of London and needs our help.” I handed Martha the letter, and she read it.

“What does this mean?” Martha looked at me in confusion. “Will has been jailed and needs our help, but only if it is convenient?”

“I don’t know.” If Will were an ordinary prisoner he would not have been sent to the Tower, but there was no indication of what crime—whether real or imagined—had brought him there. The letter made no sense.

Martha reread the letter and furrowed her brow. “Why didn’t he write to us himself?” she asked.

“Perhaps he has been denied pen and paper,” I said.

“Or he is too ill to write,” Martha replied. “Gaol-fever is a terrible thing, and the Tower is a stinking, fetid place, far worse than the Castle in York.”

“But surely if he were ill, his jailor would tell us to hurry,” I said. “And there is no urgency about it. It is a strange thing.”

“The letter is addressed to you, but we will both go, won’t we?” Martha asked.

“Of course we will,” I replied. “You know London far better than I do. I’d be lost by myself.”

“London?” Elizabeth had slipped into the room without my notice and now joined Martha and me in looking at Will’s letter. I heard the excitement in her voice, and I knew that the coming minutes would not be easy ones.

“Martha and I must go to London to see what this letter means,” I said. “You will stay here with Hannah.”

Anger flared in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Stay here?” she demanded. “And do what? I’ve ridden over Pontrilas’s every inch a thousand times. It is dull and drearisome—you must take me with you.” Elizabeth paced as she spoke, and the autumn light caught the red of her hair, giving her the glow of the sun itself.

“It is too far and too uncertain,” I said. “We will not be gone for long.”

Elizabeth pounced. “If you will not be gone for long, there is no reason not to take me.” She looked at Martha, hoping she would prove a ready ally.

But even Martha, who usually encouraged Elizabeth’s natural boldness, saw the folly in her suggestion. “London is a dangerous place,” she said. “Not a city for two women and a girl.”

“I am not a girl, I am twelve.” Elizabeth drew herself up and looked straight into my eyes. She was long and lean, and soon she would be the most beautiful woman in Hereford. “And Matthew will be with us, for he will have to drive the carriage.”

“Matthew will not be with us,” I said. “He will be with me and Martha. You will be here with Hannah.”

Elizabeth continued to plead her case until well after supper, offering an endless stream of arguments and promises, each one more desperate than the last. She finally retired to her chamber, but she went so easily that I knew that the battle was not over.

Once I was alone, I thought more about our upcoming journey. I knew that leaving Elizabeth behind was the right choice, but I would miss her terribly. She had come to my home in York following the murder of her mother, and soon became not just my ward but my adopted daughter. When my enemies in the city threatened Elizabeth, they learned through bitter experience that there was nothing I would not do to protect her. And as much as I regretted the decision to leave Elizabeth behind, taking her to London would be foolhardy in the extreme.

I sat with pen and paper before me, considering all that the journey would require. Hannah would be more than happy to care for Elizabeth during our absence, but even if we were gone for just a few weeks I would have to hire another servant or two so that she would not be overburdened. The harder question was our lodging once we arrived in London. We could stay at an inn, as my father had done when he served in Parliament, but I wished we had a friend in the city.

And then I remembered Esther Cooper, one of my gossips in York. We had been friends for many years, and I’d even asked her to serve as my deputy. But shortly after Martha came to my household, Esther was arrested for the murder of her husband. Martha and I ultimately proved her innocence and saved her from burning, but her reputation within the city had been so stained that she’d fled to London to start anew. I had not seen her since she left York, but we had exchanged a handful of letters over the years. She had married a prosperous goldsmith named Charles Wallington and seemed very happy. I had no doubt she would welcome Martha and me into her home for as long as we needed. There was no time to write to her and await a response, so I composed a brief letter and sent it by one of my servants to Hereford. With any luck, it would arrive in London a day or two before we did, giving Esther at least a little time to ready her home for our arrival.

It took us two full days to prepare for our departure for London. I arranged for another midwife to work with any mothers who might go into labor, and packed the clothes I would need during our time away. These tasks were made more difficult by Elizabeth’s steadfast refusal to admit that she would be staying behind. “Hannah could come with us. What does it matter whether she minds me here or in London?” Elizabeth’s words were reasonable, but I could hear the frustration behind them. I tried to take her in my arms, but she ducked away.

“Elizabeth—” I started to say.

“No.” Her blue eyes threw off sparks with every word. “You cannot leave me here. You and Martha will go off and have an adventure. I will be here with nothing to do, and only Hannah and my pony for companions. It is not fair.”

“Fair has nothing to do with it,” I said. “It is about what is best for you. You are my daughter, and I must keep you safe.”

Elizabeth’s face fell and her anger turned to sorrow. “But what if something happens to you? If London is as dangerous as you say, it could. I cannot…” Her words failed her, but I knew what she was trying to say: I cannot be orphaned again. I joined her in weeping and tried once again to take her in my arms. This time she did not resist.

“I love you,” I said. “And I love that you want to come with us, and that you are not some sheep doing whatever you are told. But there is too much we do not know to bring you along. You will be safe here, and we will return as soon as possible. I promise.” We held each other until we both had stopped crying, and then it was time to finish the preparations for our departure. A servant took the last of my chests to the carriage, and my eyes fell upon my birthing stool and the valise of oils, herbs, and tools that I took to every travail.

“I suppose it never hurts to be prepared,” I murmured, and took them down as well.

After ensuring that our baggage was secure, Martha and I sat down to dinner with Elizabeth. It was a melancholy affair, and I was relieved that Elizabeth did not renew her entreaties to accompany us. I did not know if I could have held out another hour. After we had eaten, Martha and I climbed into the carriage, bid Elizabeth one final farewell, and began the journey north to Hereford, where we would find the highway to London.

We made the best time we could over the rough road. The Lord smiled on us with fair weather, so we did not have to fight the mud that sometimes took hold of English travelers and held them in place for days at a time. As we bounced our way east, Martha and I whiled away the hours trying to decipher Will’s letter.

After a series of increasingly fanciful suggestions from both of us—perhaps the King was behind our call to London!—we agreed that we were doing no more than spinning cobwebs out of our imaginations. We pushed aside such questions as unknowable, and talked of more practical matters. Looking back, it is strange to think how close to the truth our most fantastical ideas had been.

As we neared London I asked Martha to tell me what she knew of the city—what more practical question could there be? She shook her head in wonder at the thought.

“It is like no place you’ve ever seen.” Martha’s voice was filled with awe, excitement, and fear. “The crowds, the noise, the filth: They put York to shame in every imaginable way. It is as if some mad architect took twenty Yorks, jumbled them up, and cast them out along the river Thames. And once the city was built, the architect filled it with every kind of person you can imagine, from every corner of the world. London is a great and terrible city, but one that offers astonishing rewards to those who learn her ways.”

“And how can we do that?” I asked. I had no intention of staying in the city even one day longer than I had to, but I was entranced by Martha’s description and the wonder in her voice.

“First, you’ll have to forget yourself and who you were before you came,” Martha replied. “Londoners don’t care for the past, only the present and the future. And once you are in the city, you can become anyone you please. What is more, if you don’t like who you become, you can simply transform yourself into someone else.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. If I’d not been sitting in a carriage with her, I’d have thought she’d been drinking.

“When my brother and I were here, London offered endless opportunities for our trickery.”

I was surprised by this admission. Before she came into my service, Martha had escaped a brutal master, only to fall in with her brother Tom, a notorious highwayman and thief. I knew they had spent some time in London, but I’d never pressed Martha for details.

“If Tom thought there was a chance we would be taken, we would simply move a half a mile, or—if things were truly dangerous—we’d cross the river. Once in a new neighborhood, where nobody knew us, we’d just start fresh: new names, new trades, new crimes. It’s not one city, but hundreds, all set up together.”

Martha’s rapturous description was interrupted by a cry from our driver as the carriage drew to a halt.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” the driver called through the window. “The cart ahead of us just lost a wheel. I’ll help the driver pull his cart off the road and then we can be on our way. It won’t be long, I don’t think.”

Martha and I climbed out of the carriage to observe the scene and ease our aching joints. A large cart filled with sacks of grain sat before us, listing precipitously to the right. A group of men had gathered around the broken wheel, surveying the damage and discussing their options. I looked past the cart and caught my breath.

We had just crested a hill—Highgate Hill, I later learned—and all of London lay below us.

“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Martha asked.

I could only nod. My eyes followed the Thames as it snaked from the west until it reached the city itself. Even from this remove, St. Paul’s Cathedral towered over the rest of the city, made more magnificent by the thousands of buildings that surrounded it like supplicants at an emperor’s feet. To the south and east, I could pick out the spires of the city’s churches, though there were so many I could not count them all. In the far distance I saw London Bridge, with its many shops and houses, and I could see the theaters in the lawless precincts south of the river. A dull blue haze hung over the entire city, produced no doubt by the thousands—tens of thousands—of hearths burning wood and sea coal to ward off the autumn chill.

By now the men had unloaded the stricken cart and dragged it to the side of the road, clearing the way for the rest of us. We returned to the carriage and, with a shout to the horses and a crack of his whip, the driver took us down the hill and into the city.

I knew that Esther Cooper’s new husband, like many of the city’s goldsmiths, had taken a home on an avenue called the Strand, which lay between the city and the halls of Parliament. I said a prayer of thanks that they’d chosen to live there, for it meant we would not have to pass through London itself to reach their home. If everything I’d heard was true, my carriage would have a devil of a time on London’s streets, and I could not imagine how long such a journey would take.

After a time we turned south, onto a road our driver said was St. Martin’s Lane, before finding ourselves on the Strand. I gazed in wonder at the riverside palaces built by England’s oldest and wealthiest families. The largest houses in York would have fit inside these homes many times over. Here in miniature was the difference between York’s merchants and London’s nobility; it was the difference between power over a city and power over a nation. Even Martha marveled at the sight.

“I thought you already knew the city,” I teased.

“My brother and I spent our time in other neighborhoods.” Martha laughed. “Though if he’d found a way to rob one of these piles, he certainly would have. We’d have collapsed under the weight of all the gold they must contain.”

As our carriage rolled over the roughly paved streets, I noticed that many of the shops belonged to goldsmiths. It took me a moment to work out the connection, but I soon made sense of this strange mix of noblemen and craftsmen. What better place for a goldsmith to ply his trade than a few steps from England’s dukes, barons, and earls? Moreover, to the west lay the palaces of Whitehall and Westminster—the seats of King and Parliament. Within a mile of that spot one could find more power and wealth than in any other city in England. It would have been strange if the goldsmiths had settled anywhere except the Strand.

When I spied a sign announcing CHARLES WALLINGTON, GOLDSMITH, I called for the driver to stop. Martha and I dismounted from the carriage, hopping over the dung as best we could. We each breathed a sigh of relief that our long journey had come to an end. I told the driver to unload our luggage, and knocked loudly on Esther Wallington’s door.

 

Copyright © 2016 Sam Thomas.

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Sam Thomas teaches history at University School, an independent boys' school outside Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights with his wife and two sons. 

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