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The Heretic's Wife
By Brenda Rickman Vantrease
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Brenda Rick-man Vantrease
All rights reserved.
Let it not make thee despair, neither yet discourage thee, O reader, that it is forbidden thee in pain of life and goods ... to read the Word of thy soul's health; ... for if God be on our side, what matter maketh it who be against us, be they bishops, cardinals, popes ...
— FROM WILLIAM TYNDALE'S THE OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN, 1528
A scream reverberated against the walls of Gough's Book and Print Shop and echoed down Paternoster Row. An ugly, devil-eyed rat scrambled inside the baited jar, clawing to get out. When no manly presence asserted itself, Kate Gough closed her eyes, sucked in a deep breath, grabbed the fire poker and brought it down with such force she almost lost her balance. The jar shattered. A streak of gray scuttled behind a large codex on the bottom shelf of the book cupboard.
Damnation! All she'd got for her trouble and fright was a glob of grease and ashes and a pile of broken glass on her floor. Where was a man when you needed one — though Kate could boast no man in her life save her brother John, who had gone off to the Frankfurt Book Fair on some grand adventure. All two of her suitors, the miscreant son of a spice merchant and a journeyman thief, had slunk away when they learned she had no dowry and that the business belonged to her brother.
"Nasty, evil creatures," Kate murmured — under her breath since there was no one to hear.
Even had she not encountered the marauder eyeball to eyeball, there was evidence aplenty of another invasion: ragged corners of leather bindings, chewed pages, loathsome black pellets on the deal boards of the bookshelf. The poker thudded to the floor, masking the creak of the door, but as she bent to pick up the largest shards of greasy glass, a sweep of cold rushed in.
"Just look around," she called over her shoulder. "I'll be with you shortly."
She picked up the broom beside the hearth and swept the mess into a pile. "I've broken a bottle and wouldn't want someone to step on the bits," she called.
"Please, it's urgent." It was a woman's voice.
Kate felt her hackles rise. How could the purchase of a book be urgent? "Shut the door, please, you're letting in the cold. I'll just be a minute more," she repeated, trying to keep the edge out of her voice.
"Please. I can't wait. Just watch my baby. I'll be back. Soon. I promise." The woman's voice was low and breathless, as though she were being chased.
Baby? She said she was leaving a baby!
Kate whirled around in time to see another streak of gray — this one larger and in skirts — darting out her door. "Wait! I —" But the woman was as fast as the rat had been. "Wait — come back!" she shouted to the skirt and shawl disappearing around the corner that led into St. Paul's courtyard.
"By all the painted saints and the virgin too," she muttered to herself, forgetting all about the rat and the shattered glass, forgetting about the broom in her hand as she looked incredulously at the bundle on the floor. It moved slightly inside the swaddling. How dare the woman! How presumptuous and careless and stupid to leave her child with a stranger! Kate didn't know anything about caring for babies. The only person she'd ever taken care of was her dying mother and she'd not been very good at that.
What if the woman was lying? What if she didn't come back for hours? Her next thought made her breath catch in her throat. What if she didn't come back at all! She was probably one of the destitute women who loitered around the steps of St. Paul's, their eyes as hungry as the pigeons who pecked for food scraps left by the vendors on the dirty paving stones. The bundle writhed a bit and made a sucking noise. Why hadn't the silly woman taken it to the almshouse or to the nuns at Black Friars? Why did she have to leave it here, for God's sake? Oh Holy Virgin, it is starting to cry.
"Shh, shh, don't cry. Please, please don't cry," she begged. "It's not good to cry, crying never helps," as if the infant could be reasoned with.
Kate stood the broom beside the door and, kneeling on the floor, peered at the child. "You must not cry. It is not allowed," she said, pulling back a faded, but clean, blanket to reveal a doll-like face and a rosebud mouth working itself into a scrunch of rage. One tiny, perfect hand broke free and pumped the air. The creature let out a thin, high screech, and then another, until its tiny body writhed in rhythm to its squalling.
She picked up the child gingerly and, cradling it in the crook of her arm, bounced it gently. To Kate's surprise, the squalling dropped a pitch and paused intermittently. "There, there," Kate crooned as she bounced and rocked the baby.
That was not so hard.
The crying stopped and the baby opened its eyes. They were the color of the Madonna's robe in the old illuminated Bible she had inherited from her grandmother, a pure and perfect virgin blue. Kate paused in her bouncing. The blue eyes shut and the tiny mouth scrunched again. Kate resumed her bouncing and her crooning and the world righted itself. The infant — which Kate with her limited experience judged to be about two months — fastened a gaze on Kate's face and smiled. Both the gaze and the smile seemed wise with some primal knowledge, as if to say, I know who you are and I pronounce you worthy. A gurgle followed the smile. Then another.
In that moment Kate's heart grew about three sizes.
She was still holding the child, exchanging tentative endearments in some ancient language known only between women and babies, when the mother came back.
"So sorry. Thank you so much for watching my little Madeline." She paused to catch her breath. "She was slowing me down. A cutpurse snatched my day's wages, and I had to give chase." She grinned and held up the thin little bag. Coins clinked inside it. "My name is Winifred. I'm a seamstress at the shop one street over and my mistress was out. I couldn't leave the baby alone."
"Madeline? That's a beautiful name," Kate said. All her anger at the woman for abandoning the child on her floor had melted away. "She's a beautiful child."
"Her daddy is a Frenchy," she said, by way of explanation for the name, or perhaps the good looks, judging by how her face lit up when she spoke of him.
The baby was still gurgling and Kate was still bouncing the child in the crook of her arm. She was momentarily distracted by the apparent fearlessness of the young woman, who couldn't have been more than seventeen — Kate's own age when the apprenticed printer with whom she'd exchanged only a few fumbling kisses was found with his hand in the bookshop coin box and sent away in disgrace. This girl already had a husband and a child and was chasing down cutpurses as though it were all in a day's work.
The woman reached out her arms. "She likes you. She doesn't usually take to strangers."
"You are very brave — or very foolish," Kate said, unconsciously drawing the child closer to her.
"Oh, 'twas just a lad. I boxed his ears and sent him home to his mama a little wiser. He was probably hungry, but I can't afford to feed him. My man would be that unhappy if I came home empty-handed. He works as a waterman in Southwark. It takes every penny we can scrape together to feed the three of us. A lot of people on this side of the river won't use him 'cause he's a foreigner." Her arms still outstretched, the woman moved a step closer. "I'll take her now. I've imposed long enough."
Kate reluctantly surrendered the little girl. "No imposition," she murmured.
Winifred lifted the baby into her arms, buzzing her on the nose with her own. "You were Mama's good girl, but now we have to go. Your pa will want his supper," she said. She exited the shop in a rush and a swoop, almost as quickly as she had entered it, throwing a "much obliged, mistress" over her shoulder.
"Please, anytime," Kate called to her retreating back. "No trouble. Really."
She stood for a moment in the doorway, not feeling the rush of cold air, her arms remembering the weight of the child. The lamplighter was at work and the beadle had begun his watch. Soon it would be dark outside, the night stretching out before her. She would light her own lamp, read a bit from a recent translation of Dante that they had for sale, careful not to smudge the pages, of course. Then she would eat some stale bread and cheese, maybe a bit of dried fruit. She did not cook much since her brother had married, been glad to be relieved of the burden these two years. Then she would bank the fire in the shop and go up the winding stair to her small bed — just big enough for one.
First she had to sweep up the broken glass. She picked up the broom, but just leaned on it, wondering what had changed; whence came this sudden sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction? She thought of the poor women who slept in the shadow of St. Paul's in whatever doorway they could find shelter. You should thank God, Kate Gough, she scolded herself. You have a roof and hearth — and books. If you have an itch to hold a child, there's always little Pipkin — and you can give him back. When would you have time for books if you had a brood of squalling children and a husband? But she didn't feel thankful.
The girl — she said her name was Winifred. She would be home by now. She and her husband would eat their evening meal together and laugh about her catching the would-be thief. She might even tell her Frenchman about the bookseller who had watched her child.
Was she nice? he might ask. Nice enough. But there was something sad about her. It was almost as if she wanted to keep little Madeline for herself. I felt kind of sorry for her.
Little Madeline. Kate remembered the baby smell of her, the perfect little hand that clutched Kate's finger as though it were a lifeline.
Stop it, Kate!
She whisked the broom more roughly than she meant to. A piece of glass scuttled across the floor and startled her, causing her to wonder if the red-eyed vermin would peer at her tonight when she blew out her candle.
Blinking back tears of frustration, she couldn't help but wonder for the second time that day, Where was a man when you needed one?
* * *
The next morning Kate woke to the sound of pounding on the door. Maybe whoever it is will go away, she thought and rolled over to go back to sleep. The day was gray and overcast and spitting snow; she could tell from the small window on the wall set high in the eaves above her bed. Her bed was warm, and cold floors and a dead hearth waited for her downstairs in the empty bookshop. She pulled the covers up over her head.
The pounding persisted.
"Go away," she shouted, but she put her feet on the cold floor and pulled her skirt over her chemise. Another customer urgently in need of a book. But it might be the only customer she had all day. She twisted her braid into a bun and pinned it and started down the stairs. Then the thought occurred to her that it might be the woman with the baby again. She had invited her to bring her back anytime. "I'm coming," she shouted.
But when she lifted the latch, her brother John pushed into the room and shut the door quickly behind him. Kate threw her arms around him, forgetting all about the woman and the child, then stepped back to look at him. His nose was pinched with cold and snowflakes dusted his cap and mantle. He looked so wan and tired, he must have traveled all night. No wonder he pounded so impatiently on the door.
"Did you leave the books outside?" she asked, looking around for a satchel or a small crate. "They'll get wet. We should bring them in. Right away," she said, opening the door again.
He reached over her shoulder and gave the door a push. It slammed shut. "There are no books," he said, swatting his hat against his cloak to remove the snow, then hanging both on a peg by the door. "I didn't buy any."
"Didn't buy! Why on earth —" Then her thoughts caught up with her mouth. "You lost the money! Oh merciful saints, you were robbed! Are you all right?"
He sighed wearily. "I did not lose the money, dear sister. I bought books, but on the way home I learned this is not the time to be bringing more Lutheran sermons or English Bibles into England. Fortunately, I was able to recoup some of the money I'd spent. I sold what I'd bought at a discount to an Englishman who was going abroad to live."
"That sounds like a very good business decision," she mumbled. "Maybe we should get a bigger shop so we can sell more books below cost."
He did not answer her sarcasm with a witty barb of his own, as he usually did, but picked up the poker and stirred in the ashes, coaxing the coals to life, flinging on a piece of kindling from a basket beside the hearth. His movements, usually so deliberate, were hasty, almost frenzied. The flames leaped up, melting the snowflakes from his hat and cloak. A small puddle formed on Kate's beeswaxed floorboards as she fumed silently about the books. She had been looking forward to the new books, and their inventory was pitifully low — mostly what he'd been able to print in the back room, and that wasn't much since he couldn't get a license for any of the Lutheran materials that were their stock-in-trade. The fire was blazing now, banishing the morning chill.
"Have you seen Mary and the baby?" she asked, changing the subject in order not to ruin his homecoming with her scold's tongue.
"No. I came straight here," he said. He was rummaging in the book cupboards gathering up pamphlets. She recognized the Antwerp imprint on some of them. Those would be Tyndale's — all they had left.
"What are you looking for? John, really, I am glad to see you but you probably should have gone home to see your wife before coming here." Then she added under her breath, unable to resist, "Especially since you have returned empty-handed."
He strode across the room and examined the pamphlets before striding to the fire and feeding them, first one, then another, into the fire.
"John! What in heaven's name —"
The bright flames leaped higher, devouring the paper and ink that he'd smuggled in at great risk. He was already at another bookshelf, rifling its contents, discarding some, clutching others to consign to the hungry blaze. He picked up the last two of Tyndale's English New Testaments and leaned again toward the fire, shielding his face from the heat.
She grabbed for them too late. "John! Have you gone mad? That's the Holy Word you're burning! And the last of our inventory."
"I have to do this, Kate. They've arrested Thomas Garrett," he said.
Her hand froze in midair. Thomas Garrett was a bookseller to Oxford scholars and one of their chief suppliers. What smuggled shipments John did not meet, he bought from Garrett. The heat from the fire was sucking the air out of the room, but she found breath enough to ask, "What will they do to him? Does Cardinal Wolsey have him? Or the king's soldiers?"
"Same difference. Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith," John said with bitterness, "will do whatever the cardinal says. Fortunately, Garrett had his wits about him enough to escape. But others have been arrested. They tortured a parson from Honey Lane along with his servant."
He paused and looked hard at her, his gaze locking with her own; suddenly they were children again, and he, ever the cautious one, was warning her away from danger. "Kate, Garrett sent me a message. I may have been named."
His voice was calm, but she saw the fear in his eyes and suddenly his anxious, hurried movements made sense.
"But even if that's true and you have been named ... you aren't in any real danger, right? The Church has never gone after the booksellers in a serious way. It would interfere with commerce. Pope's pony or not, the king would never allow it."
But even as she stammered out the words, she was remembering the new laws against printing unlicensed works and disseminating Lutheran materials in particular. They had considered the edicts hardly more than a conciliatory nod to the clerics since they seemed to have more to do with commerce than heresy. "Aren't you being overly cautious? It's not like you are a Lutheran preacher or something. Our customers come to us, asking for the books. Surely, you would get off with no more than a fine or a threat to shut down the shop. If that happens, I agree, then we burn the books."
"What is Thomas Garrett, Kate, but a bookseller? That's why he was at Oxford. And he found a ready enough market. Several of the students are being interrogated," he said, stuffing another gospel onto the fire. She stepped back, away from the searing heat.
Excerpted from The Heretic's Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. Copyright © 2010 Brenda Rick-man Vantrease. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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