The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas is a historical mystery set in 17th century England (available January 8, 2013).
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King’s soldiers burned the city’s suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.
It was evening when the Overseer of the Poor arrived to summon me to the birth and my servant, Hannah, ushered him into the parlor.
“Lady Hodgson,” he said when I joined him, “I am sorry to bother you on such a terrible day, but one of the parish’s maidservants is in travail with a bastard. The churchwardens have sent me for a midwife.”
“What parish are you from?” I asked. I knew he was not from St. Helen’s, and most parishes handled their own bastard births.
“St. Savior’s, my lady.”
“Surely you have midwives in St. Savior’s.”
“They are unwilling to venture out, what with the fires, the smoke, and so many soldiers running about. They think it too dangerous.”
I shook my head in despair—some women did not know the meaning of an oath. “I will come. What is the mother’s name?”
“Mercy Harris, my lady. She lives on an alley off St. Andrewgate.”
“Has she named the father yet?”
“She refuses. That is why we need a midwife.”
“God save us from obstinate mothers.” I sighed. “Wait here while I get my bag. You’ll have to take me to her.”
“Yes, my lady.”
I sent Hannah upstairs for my tools and quickly changed into an apron fit for the work that lay ahead. The Overseer and I walked past the Minster’s towering spires, toward the warren of streets, alleys, and courtyards that make up St. Savior’s parish. In one hand the Overseer carried the small valise containing my tools and in the other a lantern to aid me in my work. The streets around us thronged with townspeople racing home, carrying whatever food they had found for sale in the shops or markets. A young woman with frightened eyes hurried past us, trying to manage the squalling infant in one arm and her day’s purchases in the other. She turned off St. Andrewgate and disappeared down an alley.
We reached Mercy’s door and I gazed up at the Minster, now silhouetted by the smoke pouring into the summer sky. May the Lord affect our hearts with the sad fruits of wasting wars.
“Go home,” I told the Overseer. “The fire will unsettle your wife and children. They’ll feel safer with you there.”
“Are you sure, my lady?” he asked. “It won’t be safe for you to return alone on a night such as this.”
“I won’t return before daylight,” I assured him. “It’s her first child, and she has refused to name the father. It will be a long night for both of us.” He nodded and hurried back toward the relative safety of St. Andrewgate. I steeled myself for the night to come and entered the house without knocking.
I glanced around the room in which I would do my night’s work. It would have been dim even at noon, and the setting sun provided only the slightest light through the horn windows. Mercy lay on the bed, staring at me with a surly expression. She was perhaps twenty-three years old and no great beauty. Obviously, I was not her first choice for a midwife. But to be fair, I hadn’t chosen her for my client. A girl of perhaps fifteen years, with hair as dark as Mercy’s, stood in the corner. She shrank from my gaze, apparently hoping to disappear entirely.
“By the look of you, you’re Mercy’s sister,” I said gently. “You’ll be my deputy tonight. What’s your name?” My voice startled her, and she looked at Mercy, who nodded grudgingly.
“Sairy, my lady.”
“Hello, Sairy,” I said. “Do exactly what I tell you, exactly when I tell you, and everything will be fine. Do you understand?”
“Yes, m-my lady,” she stammered.
“Good. Now, let’s see what we’ve got here,” I said, surveying the room. The watery light afforded by the small windows made it hard to tell where the shadows ended and the dirt began, so I counted the late hour as something of a blessing. Mercy lay on the straw mattress that she and Sairy undoubtedly shared. She wore only her shift, and without her skirts and apron, her pregnancy could hardly be missed. The canvas sheet and a single rough wool coverlet completed the picture of a family on the edge of poverty. Adjacent to the bed were the only other furnishings—two rough stools, an unsteady trestle table, and a clothes chest that had seen better days. Through a low door, I could see a small kitchen but held out little hope that it would provide much in the way of sustenance during the long night ahead. I turned back to Mercy.
“Look at me, Mercy. Look at me.” She did. “You know I cannot help you unless you father the child aright. Tell me who the child’s father is. If you tell the truth, I will help you through the pain and danger. Tell me the truth and I can testify before the Justice of the Peace. He will make the father pay for the child’s upkeep.” She looked away without responding. “Did he offer you money to keep silent?” I continued. “A shilling or two? Perhaps even a pound? Is he already married, and trying not to upset his wife?” I looked at Sairy, hoping for a clue, but she quickly looked away. Mercy suddenly tensed and cried out through clenched teeth. Her travail had begun in earnest. I sat on the stool farthest from the bed and leaned back against the wall. My valise remained conspicuously closed. “If you don’t tell me who the father is, Mercy, I can’t help you, and no one else will. You’ll do this alone.” She remained resolutely silent.
“Sairy, is there a fire in the kitchen?” I asked.
“We’ve no wood.” The girl looked as if she would cry.
We would need food after the birth, but it was more important we have fire to heat water, so I gave Sairy a few pennies to purchase wood from a neighbor. She returned and built a small fire in the kitchen hearth. She then produced a smoky tallow candle, which, combined with my lantern, lit the room tolerably well. With any luck the child would wait until morning to be born so I could have a bit more light, but women like Mercy weren’t lucky very often.
The Minster bells marked the hours of the horrid contest that followed. When the labor pains struck, Sairy’s eyes begged me to tell her what to do. I hardened my heart and avoided her gaze as resolutely as Mercy avoided mine. I longed to assist the poor girl and could not help wondering how she had come to this point. Where were her parents? Was Sairy the only family that she had? At eleven o’clock, Mercy’s waters broke. With shaking hands, Sairy tried to soak up the mess using just a soiled rag from the kitchen. Poor girl. Around two o’clock, Mercy’s final travail started.
“Mercy, I’ll ask one more time. Who is the father?” She clenched her teeth and stared at me, her eyes blazing. She had bitten through her bottom lip, and in the flickering candlelight the blood ran black down her chin. Her chest heaved as she breathed, but still she said nothing. I turned to Sairy. “You can try to find another midwife if you like, but few will venture out on a night like this, especially for a woman such as your sister. And even if you find someone, she will ask the same questions.” Her eyes widened with fear, and I continued. “The neighbors might help, but they’ve no love for a fatherless bastard. The two of you will be on your own tonight.” I picked up my valise and lantern and opened the door. “Be careful when you cut the navel string,” I added. “If you do it badly, the baby will die, and so might your sister.” I walked out, closing the door behind me.
Once outside, I stepped into a neighbor’s doorway to hide, only to find it occupied by one of the pigs that roamed York’s streets. I gave the animal a swift kick in the side, and it raced off with an indignant squeal. I slipped into the shadows to wait. As I expected, Mercy’s door burst open, and Sairy raced pell-mell past me, holding up her skirts as high as she could. I called out, startling her, and she nearly skidded into the urine-filled gutter. She hurried over and grasped my arm to pull me back to her house. Once again I fought the urge to put my arms around the girl and help her in any way I could. It was not in my nature to withhold aid, but in this situation I had no choice. I pulled my arm free and she fell to her knees, sobbing.
“Why won’t you help her?” she cried out. “She’ll die without you! The baby will die, too. You said so.”
At the sound of her pitiful cries, my heart melted and I reached down to help her to her feet. I felt for the poor girl—it was Mercy who had sinned, after all. “If she doesn’t name the father, the city will have to support the child for years to come,” I explained as gently as I could. “The law forbids me to help her so long as she refuses. It is also for the good of the child. If I tell the Justices who the father is, they will order him to support the baby. You all will benefit from that.”
“What should I do?”
“Tell her to name the father,” I said, cupping her face in my hands. “If she promises to do so, I will come back and all will be well, both tonight and in the future.”
Sairy nodded and disappeared into the house. Moments later, she emerged. “Mercy said she will tell you who the father is. Now will you help?” I nodded and followed her back into the room.
I crossed the room and squatted between Mercy’s legs. I paused before touching her. “Mercy, you must name the father of your child, or I will leave again. Your life is in peril—do not make the last words you speak a lie, for you will answer for it on Judgment Day.”
“Peter Clark,” she said between breaths. “The father is Peter Clark.”
“I know no Peter Clark,” I replied. “And it is a common name. Which Peter Clark is the father of your child?”
“He’s apprentice to William Dolben. He is a butcher in the Shambles. He is the father, I swear. We were betrothed when he got me with child, and to be married in the spring. His master would not give him leave to marry until the end of the summer.”
I would have to ask her again, of course, but Peter Clark was a good place to start and I could begin my work. “Thank you, Mercy,” I said. “You did the right thing, both for you and for the child.”
I opened my valise and laid out the oils and medicines I would need. I said a prayer as I slipped a small knife for the navel string into my apron. The small satchel of cutting tools remained at the bottom of the bag, and I hoped they would remain there. I opened a vial of oil and, muttering another prayer under my breath, anointed my hands and the neck of Mercy’s womb. I slipped my hand inside to see how the child lay and to judge how best I could smooth his journey into the world. I could feel the child’s head and knew that he would be born soon. I looked up at Mercy. The skin was drawn tight across her cheeks and her eyes shone with pain, giving her the look of a demon. She should have eaten to sustain her strength, and I wished I’d brought some food for her.
I turned to Sairy. “The baby will be born shortly. Do you have linens prepared?” She looked at me blankly. “For swaddling the child?” I added.
“In the chest,” said Mercy. “I purchased them last week.” I nodded at Sairy, and she sprang into action, pulling a small packet out of the chest and laying it on the table.
“Now take some water and put it on the fire,” I said. Sairy hesitated again. A sweet girl and good sister, but not what I would want in an assistant. “We’ll need to wash the baby. Not too hot, just warm enough to clean him.” Sairy disappeared into the kitchen, and I turned back to Mercy.
“Here, let me help you up—you’ll do better squatting on your haunches than lying down. The child will struggle to be born, and it’s better to give him a downhill road.” She hesitated, unsure if walking around while in travail was a good idea. “It will also mean you don’t have to burn your mattress afterwards.” She grasped my hands and with some effort hauled herself off the bed and to her feet.
We walked in small circles around the room, Mercy’s arm over my shoulders, mine around her waist. From time to time she rested her head on my shoulder, and I saw her wipe tears on my collar. It seemed to me that these were tears not of pain but of regret. She had sinned, of course, and deserved some measure of her fate, but I wondered what possible future Peter Clark had stolen from her when he got her with child. Would she ever live as a respectable housewife? Would she raise her children in a home with more than one bed, two stools, and a table? Or was this a final step into dire poverty? Would she end her life as one of the city’s whores, her child an urchin destined for a similar life?
“You’ll be fine,” I said, squeezing her shoulders. I also added a silent prayer that I spoke the truth. “Your travail is going well, and the baby’s head is at the neck of your matrix. Who knows? It may not even hurt.” At this, even though fear and exhaustion threatened to overtake her, she smiled a little. “It will probably hurt,” I conceded, and we continued to walk.
As the height of Mercy’s labor approached, I called to Sairy. “You’ll have to support her while I deliver the child. Sit on the edge of the bed and put your arms under hers, holding her up.” I renewed my questioning.
“Mercy, tell the truth, who is the father of your child?”
“He is Peter Clark.”
“If the father is any man other than Peter Clark, may this child and I never part!”
But a short time later they did part, and by the grace of God I ushered a lusty baby girl into the world. If healthy lungs guaranteed a long life, this child would outlive her own grandchildren. I cut and bound the navel string.
“Bring the water and a clean cloth,” I told Sairy. She went to the kitchen and returned with a pot, which she set on the table. With no great optimism she began to root in the chest for a cloth. “Never mind,” I said. I unclipped my collar and tested the water’s temperature. Miraculously, it was just right. I dipped my collar-turned-washcloth into the water and began to clean the squalling infant. Once that task was accomplished, I took the linen bands from the package Mercy had bought and swaddled the girl. Mercy now sat on one of the stools, leaning against the bed, looking dazed. I placed the infant in her arms and held my lantern so mother and child could gaze upon each other.
“If the afterbirth does not come on its own, in a moment I’ll have to fetch it out myself,” I told her. She nodded. But luck was on her side, and a few minutes later the afterbirth was delivered of its own accord. After dressing Mercy’s privities, I helped her into bed. Exhausted, she lay back and closed her eyes.
“No sleep yet,” I told her. “You should nurse the child and then you can both sleep.” Her nipples were well suited for nursing, and the child sucked greedily. I turned to Sairy and saw that she had dozed off in the corner. Only the Lord knew how long she had been awake. I glanced at the window and noticed that morning had come. I heard the Minster bell toll once—half-five, I guessed. I went into the kitchen to see what food they had but found only a stale bread crust and pot of weak ale. I returned to the parlor and saw that all three of the house’s inhabitants slept.
I shook Sairy awake. She looked up at me, still half-asleep.
“Do you and Mercy have any money?” I asked.
A look of horror spread across her face. “We can’t . . . we don’t . . . the Overseer of the Poor said . . . ,” she stammered.
“Not for me, Sairy, for food. Your sister will awake with the appetite of two men.”
“We have nothing at all. She spent the last of our money on the linen for the baby.”
I fetched some more coins from my valise. “Here. If you find meat you can afford, boil it rather than roast it. She should also have broth and eggs, but no mutton. It will give her a fever. I imagine Peter Clark can get you some beef or a chicken. It would be the least he could do.” White wine would have helped her regain her strength, but it was clearly more than they could afford, so I suggested barley water. “And almond milk if you can find it.” She thanked me profusely, helped me gather my belongings, and accompanied me to St. Andrewgate.
“Everything should be fine for now,” I said. “The nearest midwife is Elizabeth Halliday, over in St. Cuthbert’s parish, around the corner from the church.” Sairy nodded. “She is a good midwife and nurse, and can help. Tell her I sent you, and that I will repay the courtesy. If you need me, go to St. Helen Stonegate. Ask any of the shopkeepers there, and they will tell you where I live. I am Lady Bridget Hodgson.”
She nodded again. “Yes, my lady.”
“Good. You did well last night. Your sister is lucky to have you. Now, go find some food for the both of you.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
I watched the girl disappear around the corner, and then I started for my home.
As I walked home in the early morning light, I looked toward Bootham Bar and said a prayer of thanks that the previous night’s fires had burned themselves out. A smoky haze drifted into the sky as the ashes smoldered, but the worst had passed. I hoped that the King’s men had succeeded in denying the rebels cover should they attempt to storm the walls. Only the Lord knew what slaughter would follow if the rebels took the city by force. When I turned onto Stonegate, a group of soldiers came into view, marching toward the barbican for their turn walking the city’s walls. The sergeant saluted me, and I wished him Godspeed.
As the soldiers passed out of sight, I reflected on York’s journey from a free and prosperous city to these desperate straits. Curiously, England’s road to civil war began in Ireland, when the Papists took up arms against their Protestant masters and slaughtered them by the thousands, giving quarter to neither women nor children. Fantastic rumors soon spread that the Irish had acted with the King’s approval and that he intended to bring them to England to continue their bloody work. Parliament raised an army to defend England against the Irish, and King Charles raised an army to defend himself against Parliament; within weeks war had begun.
The Parliament-men said that the King meant to put down the Protestant religion and return England to the shackles of Popery. Some even warned that the King hoped to bring in an Irish army to slaughter English Protestants in their beds. Others charged that the King meant to do away with all Parliaments and rule as a tyrant. They said he would put himself up as a new Pharaoh, lay waste to ancient English liberties, and claim for himself the right to take any man’s property.
For his part, the King branded the Parliament-men traitors, bent on destroying every kind of order. If the rebels succeeded in bringing down the monarchy, he declared, they would pull down the Church soon after, and then the authority of fathers and masters. They would not stop until they had destroyed all order, even that which God Himself created. Their goal, he said, was anarchy. For my part, I chose order over chaos and favored the King, but most of all I lamented the passing of a time when King, Church, and people lived and breathed as one body.
The war came to York in December 1642, when the Marquess of Newcastle—then but an Earl—entered the city and established a Royalist garrison. A few months later, the Queen brought weapons and money to help defend the city, but (praise be to God) no enemy showed himself. For over a year, we had the luxury of watching our nation’s civil war from a distance, as other towns were taken and retaken and other men’s sons bore the brunt of the fighting. All of this ended in the spring, when the Scots joined with the rebels and marched to the city’s walls and began to tighten the rope around York’s neck. Food had not yet begun to run short, but the siege could last for months, and what would we do then? In the meantime, the Parliament-men shot their artillery into the city, unconcerned with what they hit. God ordained that most fell into the river Foss, but the devil had his say as well. Houses were destroyed, innocents killed, and the church tower of St. Denys was shot through with a cannonball, making a mockery of Parliament’s pretensions to defend true religion.
As I approached the narrow street that would take me home, a few of the trained bands approached. They were local boys and doffed their caps when they recognized me.
“Returning from a birth, Lady Hodgson?” their sergeant enquired.
“Indeed.” I fumbled for his first name—I knew I had delivered two of his children, and while I never forgot a mother, the fathers were a different matter. “How are Barbara and your girls, Sergeant Smith?” Better to stick with the rank.
“The girls are well, praise God. Bridget is nearly two now and running all about the house.” He knew I would remember Bridget’s birth. His wife’s travail lasted for days. Another midwife said the child was dead and had wanted to call in the surgeon with his cutting tools. The husband came to my door in a panic and begged my help. In the end it turned out that there were twins. I could not save the boy child, but the girl lived, and her father consented to name her in my honor. I resolved to have Hannah bake a pie and send it over to them when I got home.
After taking my leave of the sergeant, I completed the last few steps of my journey. Like those around it, my home stood three stories tall, with each one extending a bit farther over the street than the one below it. On narrower streets it was nearly possible to climb out the window of one building and in the window of the neighbor across the street. As my home came into view, I realized how tired I was. I only hoped that the women I had promised to assist in their travail would wait until the evening, or better yet until the next morning, to go into labor. And if the Overseer of the Poor called again? Well, York had half a dozen midwives, and one of them would have to suffice.
When I entered, Hannah rushed into the parlor and began fussing over me. She was perhaps twenty-five years my senior and had been my maidservant for as long as I could remember. She had helped to raise me, then left her family in Hereford to accompany me to York. She had seen me married twice, widowed twice, and I think she still held out fond hope she would see a third wedding and perhaps another child or two. She insisted that she felt as young as ever, but I wondered how much longer she would be able to do the housework by herself. She took my cloak and ushered me into the dining room, clucking all the while.
“So,” she asked, “who was the father of the baby?” Among the benefits of living with a midwife was being the first to hear local gossip.
“Nobody of note,” I said. “He’s just a butcher’s apprentice.”
She could not hide her disappointment. A debauched Alderman would have made for much better gossip in the city’s markets and shops. She went to the kitchen, returning a moment later with a steaming bowl of pottage. She placed it on the table before me and disappeared upstairs to continue her work. I was famished and began to eat, but the clink of my spoon against the bowl echoed through the empty room. I wished that Hannah had stayed with me, or at least busied herself in the kitchen, so I would not be so alone. Such melancholy feelings robbed me of my appetite. I pushed my bowl aside and started upstairs to my chamber.
On my way through the parlor I gazed at the portrait of my second husband, Phineas, the man who had brought me to York. Despite having looked upon the picture every day since his death, I was struck once again by the artist’s inability to portray him as any less pathetic than he had been in life. In truth, it was a peculiar kind of masterpiece. As in life, my husband’s eyes were somehow both sunken and bulging, and his uniquely weak chin became his most remarkable feature. His ears were perfect for a man twice his size, and his nose seemed to be recoiling from the prospect of smelling his own fetid breath. More than once I had considered remarriage if only to rid my home of so perfect a picture of so ridiculous a man.
From Phineas’s portrait, my eyes slid to the much smaller drawing of my first husband, Luke. While Phineas lived, I had kept the picture in a drawer, of course, but after his death I placed it on the small table in the parlor. Phineas compared unfavorably to most men, but he suffered in particular when I contrasted him with Luke. I had met Luke only after our marriage had been arranged: Our families’ lands in Hereford lay near each other, and our parents made the match without consulting either of us. While such marriages sometimes ended in disaster, Luke and I had similar temperaments and we soon fell deeply in love. But just two years after we married, my joy turned to mourning when Luke died of an ague during a trip to London. The abject sorrow I felt after his death left me little time to think about anything else, but my parents immediately began their search for a new husband. A few weeks into my widowhood, my father came to me and announced he had arranged my marriage to Phineas Hodgson, the second son of the Lord Mayor of York. I could hardly blame him for his decision. A twenty-four-year-old widow with no children brought no benefit to the family. A few months later, still numb from the loss of my beloved husband, I climbed into a carriage and, with Hannah at my side, set out for a new life in York.
Seen from Hereford, my father’s second match appeared as good as the first: The Hodgsons were among the most powerful families in the city, and both Phineas’s father and his brother cut impressive figures. I discovered too late that Phineas came from some lesser branch of the family. His unappealing visage was matched by a singular weakness of mind and character. He had squandered his patrimony long before I arrived in York, and after we married he spent most of his waking hours trying to coax me out of my estates in Hereford. When that failed, he would settle for a visit to our bed but made it clear he would have preferred my land to my body. To this day, I wonder if my father knew what kind of man he had chosen for me. When Phineas succumbed to a fever in 1642, I counted myself among the luckiest of women in England. I had my youth, my fortune, my freedom, and my beautiful daughter, Birdy. But now Birdy’s picture sat on the table next to Luke’s.
The sound of Hannah clattering down the stairs, her arms full of laundry, startled me out of my reverie. “I’ll to bed, Hannah. Come help me undress.” In my room, Hannah unlaced my stays and took my soiled clothes. I put on a clean shift and knelt by the side of the bed to pray. Afterward I sank into bed and let my mind wander. I wondered what fate awaited Mercy and her bastard child. I feared she would turn to the parish for relief soon enough. With luck, she might find employment in one of the city’s workhouses, which would keep her and her child from starving, but not much more than that. I wished I could do more to help her, but she had made her choices, and they could not be undone. Perhaps the baby’s father would marry her, I thought. With hard work he could gain his freedom and give Mercy a better life than she could rightly hope for. I preferred to think of that fate.
I heard the thump of cannon in the distance and wondered what future awaited our nation. English and Scottish armies ransacked the countryside, and an Irish horde threatened from abroad. Eventually sleep came, but I found no rest. In my troubled dreams, I was standing on the Ouse Bridge next to Mercy Harris, who was holding her newborn daughter. Mercy looked out over the water, tears coursing down her cheeks. I watched helplessly as she stepped to the edge of the bridge, kissed her baby tenderly, and let her fall into the river. As the water swallowed the child, I saw that she was no longer Mercy’s daughter, but my own lost son, Michael. I clapped my hands over my face, and my nails raked my eyes in anguish. Mercy fell to her knees next to me, and we both cried uncontrollably.
I awoke with a start and tried to control my sobs before Hannah heard them and came to see what the matter was. As I quieted my breathing, I prayed that Mercy would never know the sorrow of losing a child. Her daughter had been born healthy, but I knew all too well that was no guarantee. Michael was a picture of health when he was born, but he sickened and died just a few days after his christening. Birdy had lived long enough to see her brother and her father buried, but the Lord had claimed her as well. On a Sunday morning she sang the Psalms at the top of her lungs. That afternoon she had a cough. That night she died in my arms, feverish and shaking, leaving me alone.
Once I’d stopped my tears and dried my cheeks, I summoned Hannah and had her bring me a glass of milk to cool my blood. I then sent her away with a warning not to disturb me until supper. I dared not close my eyes for fear that the dreams would return, so I resolved to put my household accounts in order. We still had some of the provisions I set aside when a siege seemed likely, but the prices commanded by necessities such as butter and eggs disturbed me all the same. I still had plenty of money locked in my trunk, as well as hundreds of pounds out on loan to wealthy friends and to the goldsmiths, but if the siege dragged on and food could not be had at any price, access to ready cash could be the least of my problems. As I finished my accounts, I prayed that it would not come to that.
After the previous night’s events and that morning’s dreams, I decided to dedicate what was left of the afternoon to reflection. I began reading some of Mr. Herbert’s sacred poems. Naturally enough, within minutes Hannah appeared in the doorway.
“Sweet peace, where dost thou dwell?” I asked aloud. She looked puzzled but said nothing. “What is it, Hannah?”
“My lady, a maid is here with a letter for you. I don’t know who she is, and she is not from the city.”
“Well, take the letter, give her a penny, and send her on her way,” I said. “I told you not to disturb me.”
“I tried, madam. She insists on staying while you read it.” She clearly did not relish giving me the news. I considered chasing the girl away, but her persistence piqued my curiosity.
“Very well,” I said. “Bring me the letter, but keep her in the kitchen. Who knows who she is?”
Hannah returned with the letter and slipped back downstairs. The wax seal on the envelope coupled with the elaborate script on the outside indicated that it had been written by a professional scribe. I opened it and found that the letter inside was written in the same hand as the envelope. It was from my cousin, who had passed away a few months earlier. She was one of the godly sort, and it came through even in such a brief letter.
Written at my home in Hereford, the IX of March, 1644
My Dearest Cousin,
As I write this, my body is failing. By now I’m sure that you have heard the news of my death. Weep not, for I am at the Right Hand of God. As I settle my earthly accounts and prepare to approach the Heavenly Throne, I am working to ensure that my faithful servants are well-settled. Martha Hawkins, the maid who brought you this letter, has been in my house hold for two years and has proved one of the most diligent servants I have. She is modest, honest, and hardworking. She can even read and write. The times we live in are dangerous to maidens without employment. With armies roaming the land, who knows what could become of her? If you cannot bring her into your home, I beg of you to find her a place with a godly family in the city. I will next see you at the Right Hand of God, but until then I am
our ever-loving sister in Christ, Elizabeth
The letter was clear enough but left many questions unanswered. I considered for a moment whether God might have brought this girl to my house to help Hannah with her labors, even as old age weakened her body.
“Hannah! Take the girl to the parlor and come back. I will see her, but need to dress first.”
A few minutes later, Hannah returned. She helped me into one of my richest set of clothes, one that I knew would impress a country girl from Hereford: a fine linen skirt, silk bodice, and linen jacket embroidered with blood-red silk. Finally, I added a coif of French lace and went downstairs.
Before entering, I paused before my gilt mirror. At thirty years, I was probably not much older than the girl waiting in the parlor. My darling Luke had called me beautiful, and I supposed he told the truth—after Phineas died I was beset by suitors who lusted after more than my wealth. I looked closely at my face, trying to remember how it had appeared before I lost my little ones. I wondered if strangers could discern in my face the scars that sorrow had left on my soul. Had the crease on my forehead been so deep when Birdy was born? Were the lines around my eyes always so pronounced? I did not know.
I turned my back on such dark and fruitless thoughts, drew myself up, and went to meet the girl. When I entered, I found a young woman of perhaps twenty years waiting for me. She was standing at the window, looking onto the street. She turned and curtsied deeply. I dismissed Hannah more sharply than necessary, for I wanted the girl to understand that I was her judge and no one else. She wore a simple skirt and bodice over a high-necked shift. The shift and her coif were pure white and likely new—she had come prepared. The girl tried to keep her eyes lowered, but I caught a flash of blue as she glanced up at me. In that moment, I felt my stomach lurch, for her eyes seemed to be the same shade of blue as Birdy’s. I composed myself before addressing her.
“My cousin speaks very highly of you, Martha. How long were you in her service?”
“Two years, my lady. I came to her from another house hold in the parish when I was twenty-one.” She paused and I nodded for her to continue. “She hired me when she started to suffer from a palsy. That is why she had a scribe write the letter.” Her Midlands accent with its touch of Welsh confirmed much of her story—I had no doubt she came from Hereford’s lower orders.
“Who was your master before my cousin? I’m from Hereford, you know.”
“Samuel Quarels. I served him before he died, and then I served his widow. When she remarried, her new husband took her to Lincolnshire. Your cousin was kind enough to take me in. I can only pray that you will see fit to do the same.”
Martha’s story made sense. I had known Samuel and had heard of his death and his widow’s remarriage. I looked the girl over, and I noticed that her hands shook. For a moment I thought she might have a palsy of some sort, but I realized that my efforts to impress my authority had worked too well—the poor girl was frightened. I decided I couldn’t simply cast her onto the street— I would take her on as a servant, at least for the time being.
“Hereford is a long journey, and York is under siege,” I said in a gentler voice. “How did you get to the city and then evade the armies surrounding it?”
“When your cousin died, my lady, she was kind enough to leave me a bequest of forty shillings. With that I made my way up here. It was a dangerous journey—I had to be careful of my traveling companions and avoid soldiers.” There was no denying that point. Whether they were Royalist or Cavalier, too many of the men fighting our war were rogues at best and murderers at worst. She went on: “I did not know of the siege until I was nearly here. By then I hadn’t enough money to return. As I approached the city, I learned that the north was lightly patrolled. I slipped in on Monday, and found you yesterday.”
“Have you any money left?”
“No, my lady. I spent most of it on the journey, and the rest to buy these clothes. I wanted to present myself properly. The journey from Hereford reduced my skirts to rags. I still have them, though,” she added, indicating a small bag in the corner. “I’m not a spendthrift.” Good, I thought. After sauciness and thievery, there were few things I could abide less than a profligate servant.
“I will employ you for a fortnight. If you do well, I will keep you on at fifty shillings per year. You will sleep in the attic with Hannah.”
A look of relief spread across her face. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Hannah will show you to your room and get you a chest for your clothes. You will start after supper. She will set you to work.”
In the days that followed, Martha lived up to my cousin’s praise. She was as hardworking as any servant I’d had, following my instructions and Hannah’s without a moment’s hesitation. Hannah acquainted her with the house hold routine and introduced her to the city, showing her which grocers held back their finest goods for wealthy clients and which bakers sold the largest loaves. After a few days in service, I accompanied her to the market to see how she matched up against York’s grocers, who drove a notoriously hard bargain. After the apprentice measured out the grain that Martha had ordered, she spoke up.
“Why are you stopping?” she asked. The edge in her voice caught the youth unawares. He looked at her in complete confusion. “Are you trying to cozen me?” she demanded. It was less a question than a challenge.
“No, madam,” he said reflexively. Her status was no higher than his, but she demanded his respect and received it. “That is the amount you asked for.” To my eye it seemed a fair measure. I considered reining her in, but I was curious what her game might be.
“It certainly is not, you Scotch rogue!” Martha cried out. “Has your master ordered you to cheat your customers in this way? I find that hard to believe. Or are you cheating your master, too? That’s it! You intend to keep my money for yourself! Is he here? He’ll pull your ears off, I imagine.” She peered over his shoulder in search of his master and then turned to scan the street. “If he’s not here, I shall have to summon the constable.” By the look on the boy’s face, she had him completely fuddled.
“Wait,” he said. Looking around nervously, he added another scoop of grain to her bag. “There’s no need for that. For any of it. I just started with my master and I don’t need trouble.” He handed over the grain and looked imploringly into her eyes. Her performance was remarkable.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling warmly and then lowering her eyes briefly before looking up again. “I’m sorry if I seemed harsh. These are difficult times, and I would hate to disappoint my mistress.”
“It’s quite all right,” he said. I saw the blood rushing to his face, and his ears turned bright crimson. “Come back any time.” I think that by the time we left the shop, the poor boy would remember the look she gave him rather than the grain she took.
“The original measure seemed right to me,” I commented as we made our way back to my house.
She stopped and looked at me, her face the very soul of innocence. “Oh, no, my lady,” she said. “He was trying to give me a short measure. I’m quite sure of it.” She sounded genuine, but I thought I caught a mischievous glint in her eyes. I wondered if she had fooled the boy for her own amusement or because she knew I was watching.
“Well, whatever the case, you shall take over some of the shopping duties from Hannah.” I couldn’t openly countenance such behavior but had to admit I enjoyed the performance, and if food became scarce, her “negotiating” skills could come in useful.
As we stepped through the front door, Hannah met us carrying my valise and the case containing the parts of my birthing stool. “Martha, you’ll have to prepare supper for yourself,” Hannah said. “Lady Hodgson and I will be with Patience Askew.” She turned to me. “One of her gossips was just here. She said the child is coming soon. You must hurry.”
Copyright ©2013 Sam Thomas
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Sam Thomas is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. He has published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa, and is currently writing a historical monograph on midwifery in seventeenth-century England. Thomas lives in Alabama with his wife and two children.