On the first day of Christmas
my true love gave to me . . .
a murder in the nursery . . .
London, 1653 . . .
I laid a woman on a cold and frosty Christmas Eve afternoon and by four o'clock having safely delivered her of a healthy girlchild, took cloak and midwife kit and set my feet for home. Home to my grandfather's cookshop in Wattling Street.
I traveled the winter-dark alleys, not the torchlit streets where soldiers roamed. My husband, Guy Palmer, was a soldier.
I had fled his quarters five days earlier. Loudly, and in every gambling house in town, he boasted he would drag me back by my hair. But just let him try! I would never go back to him, never.
Marry in haste, repent at leisure. To my disgust, it seemed I had repeated my mother's mistake, eloping with a handsome charmer only to wake in the bed of a rotten, cheating, two-faced, lying scoundrel.
Keeping watch over my shoulder, I hurried into a frigid gale, my cloak flapping in the wind. Clouds roiled dark and ominous overhead. Frost coated every rooftop in the city, the rime blackened with chimney soot and glimmering like some rich lady's black diamonds.
Soldiers swarmed everywhere, their black uniforms stark as crows' garb, their spurs jangling. Our long and bloody civil war between King Charles and Oliver Cromwell had ended with the king's beheading. Cromwell now ruled and his army of Roundheads controlled the city. We Londoners had nicknamed them "Roundheads" after their absurd hairstyle, cropping their hair short as a newborn babe's.
How intimidating they were, leaping down from their mounts, pounding on every door, threatening people with arrest if they dared to celebrate Christmas. Lord Cromwell's Puritan parliament had banned Christmas, declaring it a pagan holiday.
My breath steaming like pipesmoke in the icy air, I stopped at City Hall to report the birth as every midwife is required to do by law. Waiting in line at the clerk's table, my heart pounded wildly, for I knew I would have to lie and invent a husband for the young prostitute I had delivered. Unwed girls who gave birth faced flogging at the public whipping post.
My turn. I stepped forward, gripping my midwife kit.
"Witch's hair," the clerk said with a grin as he always did when I came in, teasing me for having red hair.
I ignored it. Still, such talk made me uneasy. It wasn't safe for midwife to be called "witch".
"I want to report a girlchild born today in Cornhill to -- to Nell Brown and her husband, Dick."
He opened the heavy birth ledger and dipped pen into ink pot
"Brown? His employment?" The quill pen scratched.
"Dick and Nell just moved to the city. Dick is a sailor," I said, thinking quickly.
"He must come in and sign the tax records."
The clerk paused and scowled up at me.
"As I said, Dick is a sailor. He sailed to the West Indies last week. The far West Indies. Likely he will be gone a year or two . . . "
Likelier, he would be gone forever!
Having invented him, I would have to dispose of Dick Brown someday. No matter. God and I had agreed. No child delivered by me, Hannah Merry O'Cork, would bear the awful stigma of bastard. Nor would any poor girl be flogged.
Besides, the shoe fit uncomfortably close. My own legitimacy was questionable at best. My father, Merriment O'Cork, had been an Irish rogue who'd wed and bedded my mother, then scarpered with her purse, leaving her pregnant with me. His only legacy to me had been my red hair and my name, Merry.
The clerk waved me off, and with a sigh of relief I left.
By the time I reached Wattling Street the sky had grown devilish black and sleet pelted my head. The alley is always dark, even in midsummer, because the upper stories of shops and houses overhang the street, almost meeting in the middle. In the darkness I did not spot my husband, Guy, until he jumped out and grabbed me. I yelped and dropped my kit.
"Oh it is you, you rat!"
"Merry, my love." He slung me against the rough plank and plaster siding of Mr. LaPierre's astrology shop and pinned me there with his hot body. He wore his Roundhead uniform, black plumed hat and black cloak. Proud of his long thick blond hair, he had never cropped his hair short.
"Blast you, Guy. Let me go or I will scream for help."
He "Merry, Merry, such a big fat lie. You won't scream. You are much too proud to scream."
I shoved him. Fruitlessly. How well he knew me. I had shamed myself enough by making this impulsive marriage. I would sooner bite off my tongue than cry out for help.
He ground his groin into me. "Be sweet. Give me a kiss."
He nuzzled me with his silken blond mustache. He stank of hard spirits. He'd been into his cups. I wrenched my face away. A mistake. His grip on my shoulders grew steely. I would find bruises there in the morning.
"Have you been out earning a midwife fee, darling?"
"No!" It was the truth. The young prostitute I'd delivered had been penniless. I hadn't had the heart to charge her anything. In fact I had left money for her food.
"Shall we see if you are lying, Merry-Merry-Quite-Contrary?"
I fought, but he was stronger. Pressing me into the wall, he fumbled inside my cloak, found my waist purse and yanked it free with a laugh. A gambler, he was always out of money.
He kissed the tip of my nose. "Thank you, my sweet. A good wife always brings her earnings home to her husband."
"I hate you. And I hate you doubly for stealing from my grandfather's moneybox. He is old, he cannot afford it!"
That angered him. "I did I did not steal, damn you! I merely borrowed. I intend to repay it."=
"When?" I challenged.
"Merry, Merry. Let's not fight, sweetheart. Come home where you belong." He nuzzled me. "Now give me a kiss."
"I would sooner vomit!"
He slapped me so hard my head banged against the wall.
The noise of our fighting had aroused the LaPierre family. The astrology shop door creaked open. Candlelight spilled into the darkness. Elderly Mr. LaPierre poked out his head. He wore a housecap embroidered with astrology symbols.
"Who is there?" he demanded in his shaky voice. "I must warn you, I have a sword . . . . "
Any other time I might have smiled at that. He was a wisp of a man who hadn't the strength to lift a sword let alone wield one. Ever his grandfather's protector, his brawny grandson, Lamont, flanked him.
"It is just me, Merry, Mr. LaPierre. I bumped into the wall and dropped my midwife kit."
Guy had run off, of course. In the few months of our marriage he had borrowed money from everyone in Wattling Street, including Mr. LaPierre. It burdened my soul. How would I ever repay these good people?
"Merry! Great heaven, this is December the twenty-fourth. Two and four are your unlucky numbers. Did I not cast your horoscope the very day you were born? Haven't I often advised you to stay home, stay abed on any date containing a two or a four?"
That would be half the month. But I could not argue with the kind old soul.
"The babe insisted on today, Mr. LaPierre."
He shook his head, distressed. "Very inconsiderate. What is to be done about it, I do not know." Shivering in the wind, he clutched the lapels of his dressing gown. "And an east wind, a wind blowing from Belgium! Very unlucky, Merry, very unlucky indeed."
I retrieved my kit, hoping none of my medicine vials had broken.
"Stay home, stay abed. That is what I do on my inauspicious days, do I not, Lamont?" He glanced up at his grandson for corroboration.
"Yes, Grandfather," Lamont verified sincerely.
Their kindness eased the sting of my encounter with Guy, although I still felt shaken. What could I do? Divorce him? Impossible! Divorce was a luxury of the rich and highborn, not a commoner like me. I had to face it. I was mired in a quicksand of my own making.
My grandfather's little cookshop rang with the usual noise and laughter, customers discussing the recent capture of the notorious female highwayman, Big Maureen, and laying bets as to when she would hang. As usual, my grandfather, Isaac Crenshaw, was the center of attention, his bald head shining in the firelight, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief as he told ribald jokes to the men and flirted with the women. Our apprentice, Ben, added to the chaos, banging away as he scoured pots and pans. And my best friend Rosamund's children chased around, playing with our turnspit dog, Happyshanks.
My grandfather's special ladyfriends, Tabitha Fowler and Bonita Patch, hovered near him, each keeping a jealous eye on each other. They were sisters, but could not be more different. Tabitha was tall, thin and dour. Bonita was short, fat and full of laughter. Both had set their caps for my grandfather, but he was too wily an old scamp to be roped into matrimony.
My grandfather's cousin, Pearlie, perched on a stool in the midst of the din, singing to her doll. Pearlie's mind had gone unhinged after she'd lost thirteen children in childbirth. Something had snapped. Now she was a child herself, drifting about the neighborhood, clutching a doll. She spent most of her time in our shop.
Rid of kit, cloak and cowl, I went and knelt beside her.
"Helen?" she said cheerfully. Helen was my mother's name. She had died when I was ten.
"It's Merry, Cousin Pearlie," I said gently, waving a greeting to my grandfather who arched one bushy brow at me in a look that asked, "Has-that-son-of-a-bitch-Guy-dared-bother-you?"
I shook my head no. I wanted no trouble for my grandfather.
"Was you out birthing a babe, Helen?" Pearlie said eagerly. My mother had been a midwife. My grandmother, also.
"Yes. And you remember I am Merry?" I tucked her sparse gray hair back under her housecap and re-tied the strings under her chin. With her green gown, green cap and beak-like nose, she looked like a little old parrot that was molting.
"Will the babe live?" she begged.
"Yes, the babe will live," I soothed. "The mother too. Don't fret, Pearlie."
"Don't fret," she echoed. Comforted, she resumed her singsong tune, rocking her doll.
Martin McKenzie left the men and ambled over to chat with me. Martin and Rosamund lived in the street behind us. Rosamund was a wetnurse. Martin confided that the mother of the child Rosie had been nursing had come and reclaimed him. Rosie was heart-broken. I promised I would keep my eye out for another infant.
Our chat finished, Martin whistled to his children. "Time to go home! Go home!"
Pearlie dutifully rose and headed for the door. She would have gone out into the gale if we had not caught her. Like an overly tame child, she tended to obey every order she heard. Young ruffians often took advantage of her, amusing themselves by ordering her to squat in the street and pee, which she would do. My grandfather had thrashed a number of them.
Martin left. The front door flew open and two Roundheads tramped in. The shop fell silent. For a moment, I panicked, thinking they'd come to drag me back to Guy.
The sergeant peeled off one gauntlet glove and tapped it in his palm. "Is this a Christmas celebration?" If so, we would all go to jail.
No one spoke.
"Who is in charge here!"
Wiping his hands on his leather apron, my grandfather stepped forward.
The sergeant gestured at the plucked geese that lay upon the worktable, ready to be trussed for the Christmas Day spit.
"Are them Christmas geese?" he demanded. "Give me the name of every person who bespoke a goose. They shall be arrested!"
My grandfather scratched his bald head as if he'd never heard of a Christmas goose. He picked up one bird by the neck and eyed it.
"Sir Goose," he quipped. "Are you a Christmas goose? Or are you just a plain, ordinary, everyday goose? Come now, Sir Goose. Out with it. Confess!"
My grandfather's cronies burst into laughter. Even Bonita and Tabitha tittered nervously into their sleeves, but I held my breath. My grandfather was playing with fire, taunting them. Ben stopped scouring a pan and watched with big scared eyes.
The sergeant glared, then seized my grandfather by the collar and yanked him forward.
"Leave him alone!" I burst out.
"Old man, you are not too old to be carted!"
"Do it," my grandfather said cheerfully, offering his wrists for binding. "You will look the grand hero, dragging a sixty-year-old man behind a cart to Newgate Jail."
The sergeant knew my grandfather was right; he would look a fool. His face grew so red I feared he would burst a blood vessel. Uttering a string of curses, he wheeled around and stomped out of the shop, his comrade with him.
Everyone laughed in relief and pounded my grandfather on the back. But I worried. Had this been a random stop by the Roundheads? Or had Guy been behind it? Guy knew I would do anything to protect my grandfather. I would even go back to him.
The thought depressed me. Matching my mood, the storm worsened throughout Christmas Eve with thunder, rain and lightning. The customers gone, my grandfather, Ben and I were eating our supper by the smoky light of a rush lamp when someone pounded on the cookshop door.
Ben said fearfully, "Master, is them Roundheads back to arrest you?"
My grandfather chuckled. "In this storm? Unlikely. They are in their cups in some tavern, getting drunk. Go unbolt the door, son."
When Ben did so, a fierce gust of wind flung the door into the wall. I gasped at what I saw. Even my grandfather seemed momentarily shaken.
It was as if the violence of the storm had conjured up Lucifer himself. Illuminated by lightning and announced by a house-shaking thunderclap, there stood in our doorway a stranger so dark and daunting he might have sprung straight from the bowels of hell. His long black hair whipped wildly in the wind and his black cloak flapped like bat wings. To my great relief he proved mortal.
"The midwife," he shouted over the crash of thunder, ducking his tall frame under the lintel. "They say there is a midwife in this shop. For God's sake, fetch her!"
Gathering his wits, Ben slammed and barred the door against the wind. I was already up, pulling on boots, cloak and cowl, fetching my things.
"She is here," my grandfather soothed, rising from his bench. "Calm yourself sir, she is here."
He swung to my grandfather. Sleet flew from his hair. He was hatless. Either he'd lost his hat in the wind or he'd left in such haste he'd forgotten it. I guessed the latter.
"I am Captain Javier Savage of Cornhill. I need the midwife, I need her at once!"
I came quickly out of the shadows, toting my kit, pulling on gloves.
“Where am I needed?”
He whirled from my grandfather to me. His jaw dropped.
"I want the midwife,” he thundered. “The real midwife!"
"I am the real midwife."
"She is the real midwife," my grandfather confirmed. "She is licensed by the City of London."
The captain raked a frantic hand through his sleety hair and wheeled again to my grandfather.
"She is too young! "Is there any other? Older? Sturdier?"
I stifled the impulse to kick something. I had delivered 200 babies. And why did men always assume a midwife had to be elderly and the size of an ox in order to deliver a six pound infant?
My grandfather told him, "There is another midwife three doors up, but she has broken her arm and cannot serve."
"Damn!" the captain muttered, then rounded on me.
"You will have to do," he said.
"Thank you so much," I answered tartly. But my sarcasm was lost on him.
"Hurry," he ordered, bounding to the door and wrenching it open. All of the furies of hell came shrieking into the shop. The rush lamp sputtered out.
"He is a madman," my grandfather muttered. "Are you sure you want to go with him, Merry?"
“A woman needs me."
"Hurry!" Captain Savage roared. I hurried. I doubted anyone ever disobeyed that commanding voice.
Wattling Street had become a rushing creek. My toes curled as icy mud and frigid water flooded over my boot tops and down into my stockings.
He set a pace like a demented man. I had to trot to keep up with him. No small feat while lugging my midwife kit, but I could not go without it. Most birthings required nothing but the calm reassuring presence of the midwife, but some birthings did. Anyhow, I preferred to cut the cord with my own scissors rather than use a knife from some dirty kitchen.
Where are we going?" I shouted between thunder claps, rain bludgeoning my head.
"What?" he yelled. His mind was not with me. He seemed only partially aware that I was with him. Then, "Cornhill!"
The Royal Exchange with its huge spice vaults stood on Cornhill, along with a crowded jumble of shops, drinking houses and homes of seafaring men.
"Is my lying-in your wife?"
"What?" Then, blinking at me as if I were an idiot, he said, "Yes, of course!"
"How long has she been in labor?" The din of rainwater cascading from rooftops nearly deafened me. We could hardly hear each other.
"All day!" I threw back at him. "You waited all day to fetch a midwife?"
He gave me a furious look, noticing me fully at last and glaring, his eyes like black fire.
"I came to fetch one the instant the other midwife fled my house!"
"Fled, damn her!"
I stepped up my pace. Anxiety filled me. There were just two reasons a midwife might desert her post. Either something had gone terribly wrong in the labor or the laboring mother was an impossible woman. I prayed it was the latter. I could deal with being scratched or kicked. What I could not deal with were stillborn babies. Dead babies broke my heart.
"Carry this," I yelled, slamming my kit into him so I could trot faster.
He eyed my kit in surprise. As I'd guessed, he hadn't even been aware I was carrying a heavy satchel. "Yes, of course," he said, hefting it as if it were light as a feather.
Then all hell broke loose. It was run or drown. We ran.
"Is this your wife's first baby?" I shouted. A first baby is always an unknown, possibly fraught with complications.
A flash of lightning illuminated the passageway. In its afterglow, the captain's face shone hard as steel.
"The first," he said. "And, by God, the last!"
A startling response. It jolted me. Fathers-to-be often showed fear, worry and, yes, sometimes panic. But anger?
I glanced at his profile through the curtain of pouring rain. Perhaps my grandfather was right. I was in the company of a madman.
Uneasy with my escort and fast growing soaked to the skin, I was relieved when we broke out of the foot passage and into the relative safety of Cornhill. We dashed past the Royal Exchange. Not a soul was out, not even the men of the Rattle Watch, whose job it was to patrol the city at night, sounding their loud metal rattles if they spotted fire or housebreakers.
Captain Savage propelled me down a black alley, then into a lightning-lit, cobbled square lined with shops, warehouses, taverns. A few steps beyond the George and Vulture Drinking House we came to a breathless halt under a wooden sign that swung creaking in the wind.
Ships Goods & Sundries
The door of the shop swung inward, yanked open by an hysterical housemaid of about fifteen. I recognized her. She and an equally silly friend had come giggling to the cookshop to buy a love potion. Never one to miss a sale, my grandfather had sold them a harmless concoction. Lofting a lantern, she was untidy as a dust bin, housecap askew, apron soiled.
"Hurry, Cap'n, hurry!"
"Judas priest, Clover! What do you think we've been doing, taking a Sabbath stroll?"
Sweeping me inside, he slammed the door against the wind and we tore off our wet cloaks. The girl was no help. She went on yammering that we should hurry.
Tugging off my mud-clogged boots, I had only moments to glance about and get my bearings. Naval goods towered all around me: sailcloth, pungent barrels of salted herring, crates stacked to the rafters, iron ships' anchors. The shop smelled of distant sea journeys. I smelled Barbados nuts.
I hopped about trying to get my frozen feet into the slippers I'd brought in my pocket. My housecap was a sodden mess. It clung to my neck like wet seaweed. I peeled it off, regretting I had no spare. A midwife should look tidy.
"How is she?" the captain demanded of the girl, Clover.
"Oh Cap'n, terr'ble. She's cursing you for getting her with child. She's yellin' she would see you dead for it, Cap'n, dead!"
"Damn her!" he exploded as he shucked his wet shirt and grabbed a dry one from a wall peg.
His reaction angered me. Wringing the water from my hair, I snapped, "Labor is no frolic!"
"Neither is having a wife!" he shot back. But that can be remedied. And will be."
I opened my mouth to say more, but shut it. Wasn't I the great one to lecture anyone on marriage.
I could hear Mrs. Savage. Her shrieks and curses rang through the house. I thought I detected more rage than pain, but scolded myself for the thought. Pain is pain. What one woman can bear, another cannot.
I could hear the women attending her, their voices rising and falling like ocean waves. Laced with that was the calm rumble of men's parlor voices and the smell of pipe tobacco drifting down into the shop. Evidently, everyone but the kitchen cat had come to this birthing.
"Who is with her?" I asked Clover. I needed to assess whether they would be a help or a hindrance.
Proud to be consulted, she eagerly counted them off on her fingers.
"First, there's Cap'n Savage's sister, Mistress Fox. But she and Mrs. Savage, they hate each other like two cats goin’ at it. Then there's Mrs. Savage’s best friend, the dressmaker, Frances Culp. Mistress Culp makes them cunning lace bodices, you know? I'd give my right arm to own one and -- "
“Who else,” I said impatiently. I didn’t need all of this mindless babble.
"Then there's Mrs. Savage's stepmother, Mrs. Hortense Kent. And the stepsisters, Clementine Wheatley and Dolly Wheatley. Before the cap'n wed my mistress, he was betrothed to -- "
"Clover, shut the hell up!" Captain Savage thundered from across the room.
But the girl could not resist adding in a whisper, "Mrs. Savage's stepbrother, Farley Wheatley, he’s upstairs with the men. The cap'n will shit a brick when he sees him. You just watch!"
I was sorry I’d asked the dim-witted girl anything.
Captain Savage came bounding, grabbed my kit and my shoulder and whisked me to a rear staircase dimly lit by a morteguard lamp. We were partway up when the Clover cried out.
"Cap'n, wait -- "
He swung around. "Damn it, Clover -- "
The girl popped into the shadows and reappeared with a tankard, its contents sloshing onto her dirty apron.
"A posset for you, sir," she crowed. "To ward off the ague."
"Judas priest!" Ignoring her, he trotted up the twisting staircase with me at his heels.
"This house," I said, running after him, "is a lunatic bin."
"That and more," he agreed. "But that can be remedied. And will be!"
Suddenly he halted in midstep and swung about so abruptly that droplets of water flew from his long black hair into my face. His dark eyes filled with panic, making him look young and vulnerable.
"You are not going to jump ship on me?" he demanded. "Like the other goddamned midwife?"
I shook my head. "I never jump ship."
For a moment I thought he was going to say more, but Mrs. Savage let out a howl and we flew up the stairs, emerging in a smoky parlor crowded with dark furniture and milling men.
"Come. She is on the third floor," he said, but stopped so suddenly that I barreled into his back. Pointing at a startled, fair-haired young man who stood at the fireplace drinking wine, the captain roared, "Farley Wheatley, how dare you come here! Get out of this house, you son-of-a-bitch."
Going pale, the young fellow, Farley, put on a show of bravado, adjusting his lace cuffs. He was a fancy dresser. He wore a lovelock braided into his long hair with pink silk ribbon.
"Imogen is my stepsister," he said cheekily. "I have a right to be here."
The captain took a step toward him.
Prudently the young man grabbed cloak and hat from a wall peg and scrambled past me and down the stairs. The room exploded in loud talk.
I had no business gaping. Retrieving my kit, I ran up the stairs to the third floor and followed my ears down the hall to the birthing chamber. I knocked but no one heard. I opened the door.
Just as I'd feared, women flitted everywhere, bickering, arguing, chattering stridently. The loudest and oldest was a plump, shrill-voiced woman who had bleached blonde hair and wore a silk gown much too tight and too young for her. She had to be the stepmother. She was a veritable fountain of lace and ribbons, dancing attendance at the bedstead where my laboring mother lay crying and cursing.
"Imogen, my precious girl. Let me help you!"
"Get out," Mrs. Savage screamed at her. "I don't want you here, you fat ugly cow. Oh, it hurts, it hurts!"
The poor woman stumbled back in shock.
"Imogen! I am your mother."
"Stepmother, you cow. And you hate me as much as I hate you!”
“That’s not true!” The woman burst into tears. The bedchamber erupted in a tizzy as two younger women, miniatures of the stepmother, bounced back and forth, trying to comfort both Mrs. Savage and the weeping stepmother. They had to be the stepsisters. Like their mother, they were garbed more for a ball than a birthing, with lace and ribbons cascading from their sleeves.
A fourth woman, dressed in sparrow gray, sat at bedside, visibly angered and upset with all that was going on in the room. She wore the badge of her trade, a thick velvet dressmaker's collar studded with pinheads that glinted in the candlelight.
"Imogen, try to be calm," she implored. "Think of the baby."
"I hate the baby," Mrs. Savage shrieked. "And I hate Javier. I hate them both. I wish they were dead. Oh, it hurts!"
Only one woman had the sense to stand back from all of this nonsense. Young, she wore widow's black and a black heart-shaped widow's cap that dipped low on her forehead. She stood at the rain-slashed window, an expression of disgust on her face. She had to be the captain's sister. She had his dark hair and dark eyes, his proud look.
Mrs. Savage threw back her head and screamed.
"Where is the midwife? Where is the bitch?"
"Here," I said, entering and closing the door. For an instant chatter ceased. All eyes swung to me. I used the moment to swiftly assess the birth arrangements. Despite the rancor, great effort had been spent for the birth. The room was warm and cozy, well lit with candles. Rose water steamed on the hearth for the newborn's first bath. A mirrored sideboard held olive oil, cones of Barbados sugar, cakes and the traditional ewer of midwife's wine.
A birthing chair stood ready, its crescent-shaped seat softly padded with rabbit fur. Above it hung a rope for the mother to pull on as she delivered. A cradle waited. But what struck me speechless was the bedstead. Built of rich mahogany, it had a tall headboard carved with a scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden. A marriage bed bought by a proud bridegroom. Why had the marriage gone sour?
Recovering herself, the stepmother came charging.
"You are too young," she objected. "Never mind. I am Mrs. Hortense Kent. I will tell you exactly what to do."
Over my dead body, I thought. Ignoring her babble, I pushed past her and went directly to Mrs. Savage. Setting my kit down, I smiled and took hold of her wrist to assess her heartbeat.
"I am Merry O'Cork, Mrs. Savage. Do not fret. All will be well."
She stared up at me, startled. What a beauty! Big blue eyes. A mane of honey-colored hair. A complexion a rose would envy. The sort of woman men dote on. But the hard set of her mouth warned me she would be difficult. Nevertheless, I was totally unprepared when she wrenched her hand from mine, grabbed a pillow and smacked me in the face with it.
"Witch's hair," she howled. "You see? Javier hates me. He wants me to die. He has brought me a witch for a midwife!"
I stumbled backwards, cupping my eye. The pillow had grazed my eyeball. My eye watered, on fire.
The room erupted in tumult, everyone in a high state, chattering. One of the stepsisters rushed to me and put a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“Are you hurt?” she asked sympathetically. “Can I bring you a wet cloth for your eye?”
I shook my head no and counted to ten, waiting for the pain to subside.
“I’m Dolly Wheatley, Imogen’s stepsister. Please forgive her. She didn’t mean it. She has a bit of a temper. Beautiful people do, you know . . . “
“Beauty is as beauty does!” I snapped.
When I could focus and glanced at Dolly Wheatley, I regretted speaking of beauty. The poor thing was horribly disfigured. A purplish burn scar covered one whole side of her face and her neck, puckering her skin. Likely she’d fallen into a fireplace as a toddler. But she had kind eyes and I liked her at once.
The woman in widow's black marched to the bed, stiff petticoats snapping.
"Imogen, you stupid useless girl," she said with a foreign accent, like the captain's. And to me, with a demanding lift of her chin, "Will you stay? I am Lucia Fox, the captain's sister. Please, stay."
"If she will have me." I mopped at my eye with my sleeve. Childbirth can be terrifying for a first-time mother.
"She will have you," Lucia Fox said firmly, then turned to scold Mrs. Savage, who had burst into tears. She pointed out that her brother had done his best, that a storm was raging, that she was lucky to get any midwife on such a night.
"It is this midwife or no midwife!" Lucia Fox finished.
Imogen Savage burst into anguished howls. Then, in mid-howl, she pushed herself up. Her enormous blue eyes widened in shock. She looked down.
"I'm bleeding!" she shrieked.
Wanted or not, I pushed everyone out of the way and whipped back the skirts of her nightrail. Pink fluid trickled into the confinement pad. Her water sac had broken. The baby's head was crowning. I could see a tuft of wet black hair glistening between her legs. Birth was imminent.
"You are not bleeding, Mrs. Savage,” You are feeling the warmth of the birth waters. Your sac has ruptured. Your babe will come soon."
"Help me," she screeched, clawing at me.
I slipped my arm under her back to support her. "When the contraction comes, pant. Pant like a dog. It will ease the pain."
"No, I cannot!"
"Try, Mrs. Savage, please try. I will help you."
I moved her onto her side and pressed firmly on the small of her back as a contraction began. She panicked. Disregarding my instructions, she fought and screamed through several more labor pains.
"I'm thirsty," she gasped. Her skin suddenly pale, she collapsed into the nest of pillows in a way that alarmed me. I swung about and spotted Clover, standing at the foot of the bedstead, gawking.
"Clover, go to the kitchen and make an egg posset for your mistress. Stir plenty of sugar into it. And hurry," I ordered. Mrs. Savage's strength was waning in a way that scared me, and her heartbeat was much too rapid. A posset would give her the strength she needed to deliver.
"Go, you lazy slut," Lucia Fox snapped when the girl dawdled, loathe to miss seeing anything.
Clover lumbered out, but in a resentful manner. What a household. I wiped perspiration from my brow.
The stepmother bobbed in my face, spouting advice. Ignoring her, I glanced about for someone sensible to help me. The other stepsister, whom someone called Clementine, stood fiddling with things on the sideboard, adding sugar to the midwife’s wine and admiring herself in the mirror. I beckoned to Dolly and she came at once. Then I spoke to the quiet woman in sparrow brown who was lovingly patting the sweat from Imogen’s brow.
"What is your name?" I asked. Although she had gone white at the sight of the bloody birth waters, she seemed strong and steady of nerve, a helper who would not flinch. Imogen Savage seemed to rely on her, clutching her hand for solace.
"Frances Culp," the woman said softly. "Imogen is my best friend. Please, please help her. She cannot bear pain. She is such a delicate creature."
"Frances, Dolly? You two must help me move her to the birthing chair. Birth is imminent. The babe will come soon."
They gave me scared looks but nodded.
"No," Mrs. Savage yelped. "I don't want to give birth!"
"What is your wish for me to do?" Lucia Fox said.
"My kit."She nodded, understanding I meant my silk twine and my scissors for cutting the cord.
Murmuring words of encouragement, I slipped an arm under Imogen's shoulders to lift her, but she clutched my bodice, grabbing a fistful of fabric and twisting it in her panic.
"Don't let me die!”
"You will not die," I soothed. "You are much too pretty to die."
"Javier hates me. He hopes I die!"
"Nonsense. Your husband braved a fierce storm to find a midwife. He would not do that if he hated you.”
"I don't want to die," she cried out, becoming hysterical again. "Let the baby die. I don't care about the baby. But don't let me die!"
"No one is going to die." I had to pry her fingers loose from my bodice. Her womb hardened. A contraction was coming, a strong one.
"Frances, Dolly -- now," I directed, nodding at the birth chair.
"No!" Imogen screeched. "I don't want to give birth. I'm afraid."
She fought us all the way to the chair, flailing her arms, screaming. Frances and Dolly were reduced to tears. When we got her into the chair, I knelt at her feet and bunched her nightrail up over her knees. Taking the rope that hung from the beam, I pressed it into her hands.
The stepmother crowded me, her heavy perfume making my head ache as she advised, "Pull on the rope, Imogen, pull!"
I said, "Mrs. Savage, listen to me. When the next contraction comes, pull on the rope. Bear down with all of your might."
"Yes, you can," I encouraged.
The contraction began but she shrieked and abandoned the rope. No progress. The babe had not moved even a centimeter. Mrs. Savage fell back in the chair, faint, gasping for air.
“Where is Clover with that posset!” I snapped, and Lucia went to the door to summon her with angry shouts.
I said to Imogen, "Mrs. Savage, you have a beautiful son or daughter trying to be born. When the urge to bear down comes, do not fight it. Bear down, push."
"Push, Imogen, push" the stepmother shrilled over my shoulder. I stabbed her with a look.
"I'm so thirsty," Imogen whimpered.
"Soon," I comforted. "The posset will come soon." Two more contractions passed. Finally, Clover lumbered back into the room with a tankard.
"Quickly!" I ordered. "Someone stir extra sugar into the posset." I was truly alarmed. Imogen's strength was waning. Would we end up with a dead baby?
Chaos ensued as Lucia, Hortense Kent, Dolly and Clementine all fought for control of the tankard, each one grabbing it and stirring more sugar into the posset. Finally, Lucia came with the tankard. I handed it to Frances.
"Not too much," I cautioned. Drinking during labor can bring on vomiting, a misery I wanted to spare my laboring mother.
Frances held the tankard to her lips. Imogen sipped gratefully.
"Enough!" I warned, but when Frances tried to pull the tankard away, Imogen seized her wrist and sipped more.
What a childish woman. Now I would be vomited upon. I wanted nothing so much as to safely deliver Mrs. Savage and leave this lunatic household.
For the next ten minutes labor set in hard. Mrs. Savage shrieked and fought it, but Dame Nature prevailed and at last the babe's slick wet head slipped into my hands. I was jubilant. The women crowded close.
"Good work, Mrs. Savage! Only the shoulders to go and your work is done," I encouraged. "One more push. Just one more push . . . "
When she made no response, not even a whimper, I glanced up at her and I froze.
She was convulsing, head thrown back, eyes rolling. Brown foam bubbled from her mouth. Before I could think what to do, she convulsed once more, mightily, and fell back in the chair, her arms askew, her lifeless blue eyes open wide and staring straight into eternity.