"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."
Excerpted from The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas. Copyright © 2013 by Sam Thomas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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