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 girlit 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 perildo 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 upyou'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?
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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