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The Midwife's Tale
By Sam Thomas
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Samuel Thomas
All rights reserved.
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."
Excerpted from The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas. Copyright © 2012 Samuel Thomas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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