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Sam Thomas

The Harlot's Tale

Sam Thomas The Harlot's Tale A Midwife Mystery
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Series:

The Midwife's Tale

Excerpt from book:

Chapter 1


 
“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’

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