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, 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 sat 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 can not 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 though 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 candle-light 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.