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It is August, 1645, one year since York fell into Puritan hands. As the city suffers through a brutal summer heat, Bridget Hodgson and Martha Hawkins are drawn into a murder investigation more frightening than their last. In order to appease God’s wrath—and end the heat-wave—the city’s overlords have launched a brutal campaign to whip the city’s sinners into godliness. But for someone in York, this is not enough. First a prostitute and her client are found stabbed to death, then a pair of adulterers are ...
It is August, 1645, one year since York fell into Puritan hands. As the city suffers through a brutal summer heat, Bridget Hodgson and Martha Hawkins are drawn into a murder investigation more frightening than their last. In order to appease God’s wrath—and end the heat-wave—the city’s overlords have launched a brutal campaign to whip the city’s sinners into godliness. But for someone in York, this is not enough. First a prostitute and her client are found stabbed to death, then a pair of adulterers are beaten and strangled. York’s sinners have been targeted for execution.
Bridget and Martha—assisted once again by Will, Bridget’s good-hearted nephew—race to find the killer even as he adds more bodies to his tally. The list of suspects is long: Hezekiah Ward, a fire and brimstone preacher new to York; Ward’s son, Praise-God, whose intensity mirrors his father’s; John Stubb, one of Ward’s fanatic followers, whose taste for blood may not have been sated by his time in Parliament’s armies. Or could the killer be closer to home? Will’s brother Joseph is no stranger to death, and he shares the Wards’ dreams of driving sin from the city.
To find the killer, Bridget, Martha, and Will must uncover the city’s most secret sins, and hope against hope that the killer does not turn his attention in their direction, in The Harlot's Tale by Sam Thomas.
“Jane! Listen to me, Jane! Can you hear me?”
With visible effort, Jane Moore lifted her head from the pillow. Sweat streamed from her brow and tears trickled down her cheeks. Time was short and she had little left to give. She tried to focus on my face, tried to listen to me, but after a moment her eyes rolled up and her head dropped to the pillow.
“Christ almighty,” I said. “Fetch some pepper; we’ve got to bring her back to us.” One of the women dashed away and returned with a small dish. I took a pinch of pepper and forced it up Jane’s nose. Her eyes flew open and she cried out in surprise.
“Jane, look at me,” I said. Her gaze was sharper than it had been since I’d arrived nearly twelve hours before. I thanked the Lord for giving her this moment of strength, but I also knew that He would not give her another chance. I cupped her face in my hands and looked into her eyes. “Jane, the baby is growing weak. If he is going to live, if you are going to live, he must be born soon.”
Fear flashed in her eyes, but then it was gone. She breathed deeply and nodded.
“Good,” I said, and returned to my work.
The child who had seemed so weak when Jane was in travail came squalling into the world just before the Minster bells called the faithful to the afternoon service. Jane collapsed into her gossips’ arms, sobbing with exhaustion and relief. I left the infant to Martha Hawkins, my deputy midwife, and slipped out of the room to tell Jane’s husband what had happened.
John Moore leaped from his chair as soon as I entered the parlor. His haggard face told me that the concern he felt for his wife ran deep into his bones. She was a lucky woman to have found such a husband. “Lady Hodgson,” he said, and stopped, his mouth open but empty of words. I knew from experience that he feared the worst and dared not hope for the best. Through my own exhaustion I mustered a smile, and his face relaxed. “Oh, thank God!” he cried. “My Jane is well?” I nodded. “And the baby?” he asked. “I heard a cry, but then nothing.”
“They are tired, but both are fine,” I said. “You should wait a moment before going in. My deputy is wrapping the child and then he must suck. Once he has had his fill, you can hold him.”
A sound somewhere between laughter and tears bubbled up from John’s throat, and I could see two days of fear drain from his body.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said. “Jane asked me to send for you earlier, but Mrs. Pike refused to have you in. She said she did not need your help to deliver the child. I should have insisted.”
“Mary Pike is a capable midwife,” I said carefully. This was not always the case, but I could not wantonly slander one of my sisters, however prideful. “It is hard for any of us to admit when a task overwhelms us. She had been with your wife for nearly two days and fatigue fogged her mind. I have had the same experience.”
“What if I had waited to call you?” he asked. The lines of his face betrayed the guilt he felt at having placed his wife and child in peril. “What would have happened to my Jane?”
I knew the answer that was true, and I knew the answer that he needed to hear. I chose the latter. “Had I not come, the Lord’s will still would have been done, and Mrs. Pike would have delivered your wife and child safely.” He may have looked more relieved at this news than when I had told him that Jane and the child had survived, but I could not fault him for that. I knew many parents who blamed themselves when their children died, and it was a terrible burden. Some nights I was haunted by the memory of my own lost little ones, and by the nagging question of whether I somehow might have saved them.
Stepping out of the Moores’ home felt more like entering a well than a courtyard. Buildings surrounded Martha and me on four sides, and the sky was reduced to a bright blue square some fifty feet above. The saving grace was that the courtyard seemed cool compared to the rest of York. Martha and I ducked through the low passage that led to one of the narrow streets that wound their way through the city with neither rhyme nor reason. Among the most difficult tasks for a city midwife was finding her clients in the warren of streets, as the close-built houses hid the city’s landmarks. This, combined with the mad twists and turns of York’s alleys, meant that even longtime residents could find themselves in unintended and—as Martha and I had discovered to our peril—dangerous neighborhoods.
Martha and I found our way from a side street on to High Petergate, and there we were met by the full fury of the August sun. For the last month, York had suffered from a heat more merciless than anyone could remember. The oldest among us said that a blast such as this had come in the time of Queen Elizabeth, but even they agreed that it had not lasted so long. Cowherds lamented that the grass outside the city walls had turned brown and that their animals would soon starve, while brewers worried that without rain their wells would run dry. I knew not what the Lord meant by sending this terrible summer season, but I felt quite sure that every sermon preached in the city that day would ask the question, and that every minister would have an answer.
Petergate was wider than most of the city’s avenues, and it usually would be thronged with merchants and travelers flowing through the gate at Bootham Bar and into the heart of the city. On market days, walkers would have to compete with merchants, market women, horses, carts, pigs, and kine. But because it was the Sabbath and the afternoon service had not yet ended, Martha and I had the street to ourselves, save a few slow-moving pigs and the occasional lad rushing to the afternoon service in the fond hope of avoiding a whipping by his master.
Before the city had fallen into Parliament’s hands, not all of its residents were so careful to attend services at both ends of the day, but our new Puritan masters made a point of punishing those who violated the Lord’s Day. Even as godly preachers roared against plays, dancing, and other sinful recreations, the constables and beadles stormed into alehouses to harry their inhabitants to church. At long last the Puritan dream of uniting the Word of God and the Sword of Justice had come true.
Martha and I fell into our habit of discussing the birth and the lessons it could teach her. She had come into my service just over a year before and—in addition to saving my life on more than one occasion—had proven instrumental in solving a series of murders. Thanks to her quick mind and strength of character, I took her on as my deputy as well as my maidservant and began to train her in the mysteries of childbirth. For nearly a year, we had been lucky; none of the labors she’d attended as my deputy had been difficult or dangerous. But I could tell that Jane Moore’s brush with death had shaken Martha, for rather than talking exuberantly of how Jane’s labor had compared to others, and pushing me to reveal more secrets of the trade, she kept her eyes fastened on the street before her.
“What would we have done if the child hadn’t come when he did?” Though the street was quiet, I could barely hear her words.
“The child did come,” I said. “That is what matters.”
“No, it isn’t,” she insisted. “I need to know what to do if everything I try fails. What then? What haven’t you told me?”
I had no ready answer, and no desire to tell her the horrible truth. If the child had not come on his own accord, we would have had to put aside his life and dedicate ourselves to saving his mother whatever the cost.
“It is not something we should discuss so soon after the birth,” I said at last. “You must be able to think clearly, without worrying over ‘what if ’ or ‘what might have been.’ Mother and child were saved, and for today that is enough.”
“All right,” she said. “How will you handle Midwife Pike? She was none too happy when you arrived, and she left in a fury like I’ve not seen in some time.”
“In all but the most ordinary cases she is unfit to deliver a mare,” I replied. I remained aghast at the care Jane had received at her hands. “But you must never say so aloud.”
“What?” Martha cried. “She didn’t even know the child had come shoulders first, and she screamed at Jane while gossips dragged her from the room! Surely we must do something.”
“We will let the gossips tell tales of her inadequacy. That will be enough. However, you and I must soothe her anger as best we can. Today I will send her a note of thanks.” Martha started to object, but I continued. “And when you are in the shops, you will tell the wives that Mrs. Pike prepared the way for the child’s birth, and allowed me to step in when she grew tired.”
“Why in God’s name would I do that? Why would you? You yourself said she is unfit to be a midwife.”
“And the gossips saw that,” I replied patiently. “Soon enough all York will know of her carriage, and mothers will stop calling her to their bedsides. She will have a license to practice midwifery, but no mothers to practice upon, all without our uttering a word. There is no sense in angering a neighbor needlessly.” Martha nodded grudgingly, and I knew she would do what I’d asked. In the year we’d been together we had learned to trust each other, both in the delivery room and out.
Even before we reached Stonegate, the street that would take us home, I could tell something ahead was amiss. The crowds had flowed out of St. Michael’s church, but rather than continuing on their way, they had stopped and surrounded a man preaching in the street. While some listened intently, to my ears he sounded like a lunatic.
“In the midst of our nation’s divisions, distractions, and desolations, the Lord our God has seen fit to smite us with war, with fire, with pestilence, and now with a terrible and torturing heat. The crying sin of our nation, the door through which Satan has entered our realm, is the profaning of the Sabbath with piping, with dancing, with dicing, and with other such devilish pastimes!”
The man wore all black with a white collar draped across his shoulders; the collar was plain, of course—such a one as he would view lace as mere frivolity. He held a large Bible with gilded edges over his head, and periodically jabbed it with his finger to emphasize a particular point. He faced away from us as we approached, but his voice was loud enough that we could hear him perfectly.
“Some of you will object to my words,” he thundered. “You will say, ‘We have spent part of the day in the House of the Lord; surely we should make merry in the afternoon. Why should we not dance? It is only good neighborliness.’ But to you I say, why do you go straight out of God’s church and into the devil’s? Did the Lord say unto Moses, ‘Part of the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord’? Did he say, ‘Do what you will in the afternoon’? Or, ‘Thou shalt spend the Sabbath in the alehouse’?”
Martha tittered at the image of Moses on an alehouse bench, and the preacher whirled around to find the miscreant. Despite his age—I would have guessed him to be near fifty—he moved with the agility of a younger man, and seemed ready to pounce on whomever had had the temerity to laugh at his sermon. He stared into the crowd with such intensity, it took me a moment to notice the milky white pearl within one of his eyes; the man was half-blind.
“Oh, you may laugh now,” he roared into the crowd. “But your screams will echo through the ages when the Lord comes to punish you for your sins. You must repent, and you must keep the Sabbath holy, for the Lord demands it!”
I took Martha’s arm and gently steered her through the crowd toward home. Though I did not think the preacher had noticed me or Martha out of all those in the crowd, I could not help feeling that he watched us as we slipped away.
“Your brother-in-law will be pleased with the preaching that the rebellion has brought to York,” Martha said disparagingly.
I would never have given voice to such thoughts, but I could not disagree with her sentiment. While the war between King and Parliament raged on to the south, York had been at peace ever since the rebel armies took the city and expelled the Royalist garrison, along with their allies in government. The change proved a blessing for the city’s Puritans, including my brother-in-law, Edward. Rather than hiding their Puritanism—under a bushel, they would say—the godly were now free to do as they pleased.
Edward and the other Aldermen replaced the King’s priests with ministers who loved the sermon above all else and disdained the beauty of holiness. In their fervor, they stripped the cathedral of its silver candlesticks and destroyed the memorial to Thomas à Becket. Nor was the Minster alone in its suffering: the godly had pulled the stained glass windows out of Coneystreet’s church, and ordered crucifixes—“idols,” they called them—be taken down throughout the city. I had been able to protect my parish of St. Helen’s from such thefts, but most had not been so lucky.
Nor had the godly’s efforts to transform the city stopped with churches, for they also sought to reform the churchgoers and to drive both sin and sinners from the city. In this matter, I found myself of two minds. I could not deny that a magistrate who suppressed vice did God’s work; who but the devil would defend adultery and Sabbath-breaking? And if a sermon could save one of York’s maidens from falling into bastardy, it was well preached.
But from the beginning it seemed to me that some among the godly would take their reformation further and faster than seemed prudent. I had no quarrel with those who would punish fornicators or brawlers, but their interference in harmless pastimes such as playing at bowls, which I quite enjoyed, seemed to do more harm than good. God would not damn me for my bowling or my silk skirts—as some of the wilder clergy claimed—any more than He would damn the goldsmiths for loaning money to the city.
When Martha and I entered my home, Hannah met us at the door. Hannah had been with me for more than twenty years, since I was a girl in Hereford. She had seen me married and widowed twice, and attended me upon the birth and burial of both my children. I could not wish for a more constant and faithful servant. But Hannah was growing old, so Martha’s arrival had come as a relief, as she shared Hannah’s household duties and assisted me in my midwifery. By now, she and Martha had become close. As I listened to the two of them chatting in the kitchen while they prepared supper, my mind drifted to the day Martha had appeared at my door just over a year before.
She had slipped into York even as Parliament’s armies laid siege to the city, and claimed that she had been a servant for my cousin in Hereford. When she produced a letter testifying to her honesty and diligence, I took her in. I should have been more suspicious of her, of course. How many young women could evade two different armies and sneak into a walled city?
Not long after she arrived, the truth about Martha’s past began to come out. While Martha had come from Hereford, she’d never served my cousin. Rather, she had fled a lecherous and abusive master only to fall in with her brother, a notorious housebreaker and highwayman. She came to York in order to escape the criminal life into which he’d lured her, but she brought with her the skills of a burglar and cutpurse.
These were not abilities she needed often, but they proved useful the previous year when my friend Esther Cooper was wrongly accused of petty treason for the crime of murdering her husband. The Lord Mayor demanded her conviction to show the fate that awaited all those who “rebelled against their natural lords” (as he put it), and the city council, including my brother-in-law, Edward, obliged, sentencing my friend to burn. I was horrified at such an injustice, so Martha and I took upon us the task of finding the real murderer. Our search led us from the city’s most dangerous and disreputable brothel to the parlor of its most powerful man, and might have killed the both of us, had it not been for Martha’s “special skills.” In the end, Ellen went free and Martha became my deputy.
I don’t know if Martha ever regretted her decision to pursue a more respectable life, but she had proven herself a capable apprentice, and I knew that in time she would be a fine midwife. What struck me most when I considered the past year was that despite the difference in our ranks, which could hardly have been greater, we’d become fast friends. I would have thought such a transformation impossible, but the dangers we’d faced together as we hunted for a vicious murderer and the hours we’d spent together talking about childbirth had acted as a philosopher’s stone, turning a maidservant and her mistress into comrades.
My reverie was broken by someone rapping urgently at my door.
“Hannah!” a voice called out. “Martha, Aunt Bridget, open the door!”
I recognized the voice of my nephew Will, and rushed to see what was the matter. I opened the door and he tumbled in, slamming the door behind him. Without a word, and barely slowed by the cane he used to walk, Will rushed past me into the parlor and peered between the curtains onto the street.
“Will!” I cried. “What in heaven are you doing?” He didn’t answer but continued staring intently out the window. “Will!”
“It’s all right, Aunt Bridget,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder and I saw that he had been fighting again. His left eye would soon be swollen shut, and a trickle of blood oozed from a cut on his forehead.
“For God’s sake, Will, what is going on? Who is after you?”
Will laughed derisively and I could smell the liquor on his breath. “Who isn’t? The sons of bitches who hit me from behind, the churchwardens seeking Sabbath-breakers, the beadle trying to find whoever brawled in the alehouse … it could be any of them. It looks like they lost the trail, so there’s nothing for you to worry about.” He turned away from the window and walked past me. “Do you have any wine? I’m not drunk enough yet.”
Copyright © 2013 by Samuel Thomas
Posted March 30, 2014
No text was provided for this review.