A Little Taster From My Work In Progress. I hope you enjoy it.
THE MARGARET CHRONICLES
Book One: The Solitary Sparrow
With shaking fingers, Meg of St. Michael’s Mead arranged the contents of the birthing bag, a routine that usually calmed her. She picked up the virgin’s nut, a smooth stone marked with a cross, and squeezed it hoping to steady her hands. Next she laid out the charms, and finally the jars of oils and salves to entice the baby to come forth.
She and Alice, the old healer, had midwifed village women from one end of the countryside to another, including the village of St. Michael’s Mead. But the poor laboring woman suffering before them now was no ordinary villager. She was Lady Elisabeth Despenser, highborn wife to Sir Henry Despenser, in childbed again for the fourth time in as many years and with not a living child to show for her labors. Each babe had withered in her womb. This one was alive—so far.
Meg placed the virgin’s nut in Lady Elisabeth’s palm. “Hold this, milady, and don’t let go,” she said. “Squeeze when the pain is too much.” Elisabeth dropped the stone and gripped Meg’s hand instead. Meg gaped at the sight of Elisabeth’s fingers, so swollen they looked like ten pale sausages bedecked with jewels.
As another pain increased, Elisabeth dug her heels into the feather mattress, arched her back and stiffened as her huge belly rose into the air. Sweat rivulets rolled beneath her breasts, pendulous with the weight of milk. Finally the pain subsided and Elisabeth collapsed.
Meg slipped her hand out of Elisabeth’s grasp and stretched her numb fingers. No bones broken, thank the Virgin. May God forgive me, Meg thought, but never, never will I have children. A man gets all the pleasure while the woman gets the pain—or the death—that comes with the childbed. She knew she should confess her thoughts to Father Fitzhugh after evening chapel, but he was likely to lecture her about how she should go forth and multiply, which she had no intention of doing.
Mother Alice insisted children were worth the struggle but Meg wasn’t so sure, especially after seeing Elisabeth suffer so.
Meg jumped as Mother Alice shouted. “Stop your daydreamin’ and pay attention to milady. Whatever was I thinking to pluck a foolish girl from the pigsty and think I could make something of her?”
“I’m sorry, Mother Alice.”
Alice grumbled as she wiped a necklace of sweat from Elisabeth’s neck. She moved from one side of the bed to the other, fussing with the bedcovers, her ample body shaking with each effort, her jowls fluttering.
Meg could have defended herself against Alice’s fit of temper, but she had learned to stay silent. Indeed, she had learned a great deal since the old healer adopted her as an apprentice on Martinmas Day four years ago. She was a mere ten winters old then. How gawky and ignorant she must have seemed when she begged Alice to save her special pig, Robin. The reeve had ordered Meg to bring the pigs to slaughter and . . .
“Meg, stop dawdling,” Alice bellowed, “or we’ll have Sir Henry breaking down the door!”
Tears slipped from the corner of Lady Elisabeth’s eyes and disappeared into the tendrils of her disheveled hair as the next pain began. Alice smoothed a ringlet from Elisabeth’s forehead and bent low, her cheek against Elisabeth’s in a wet mingling of tears and sweat. “Our Father,” she began. She whispered an entire Pater Noster and then began again. Five times she said the prayer until Elisabeth fell asleep.
The next pain roused her. She feebly gestured to a blonde lady-in-waiting. “Would you sing Maisie’s Request? It would please me greatly.”
The woman sang in pure, sweet tones while servants moved like apparitions to light tapers and bank the fire against the evening chill.
“Ye’ll gie her a lady at her back, And a lady her beforn,
And a midwife at her two asides,‘Til yon young son be born.”
Just before sunset Elisabeth’s eyes rolled back and her mouth sagged. Meg looked to Alice fearing milady had died, but the old healer said, “Exhausted, poor little one. The next pain will rouse her, but I fear she’s getting weaker.” She handed Meg a stoppered flask. “Rub her legs in oil of violets then pat vinegar onto her chest and belly. The bitter smell of vinegar will drive the baby to the sweetness of the violets.” She touched Elisabeth’s swollen fingers. “While you do that, I will speak to Sir Henry again about calling the surgeon to bleed her. Perhaps that will relieve her congestion.”
Meg poured oil on the palms of her hands, then rubbed Lady Elisabeth’s inner thighs in a circular motion leaving oily tracks that shone pink in the last bit of light streaming through the windows. Under Meg’s hands Lady Elizabeth’s skin felt taut, like a goatskin bag near to bursting. Even her dainty ankles and delicate toes were swollen, the result of stagnant blood pooling in her feet.
In the beginning of her confinement, Lady Elisabeth was ill every morning. That was to be expected, Mother Alice said, because of the baby’s motion in the womb. Then at the end of the fourth month when Elisabeth’s other infants had been lost in great gushes of blood, it appeared that this one was strong enough to live.
When they made it to the eighth month without any problems, Alice and Meg rejoiced. ` “We’ll see your son born yet, milady,” Alice said.
“A son?” Elisabeth clapped her hands. “You think it a boy for certain? Sir Henry will be so pleased.”
Meg wasn’t so sure that Sir Henry had a joyful bone in his body. A baron who cared for nothing but fighting and drinking, Sir Henry was notorious for his bad temper. But Elisabeth was right. Sir Henry wanted one thing in this world—a son. And he had made it clear to Meg and Alice that they had better deliver.
Over the next few weeks, Meg and Alice tended to Elisabeth, watching her for signs of difficulty. She seemed happy and healthy until the swelling started. First her feet, then her legs, now her hands and face. And then this morning just before dawn three men wearing the Despenser crest banged at the door, scaring Meg and Alice into each other’s arms, until they got their wits about them. Lady Elisabeth was in labor and they were to come at once.
They rode through the cool morning air, bouncing awkwardly with the palfrey’s quick stride, hardly mindful of the heavy dew dropping from the grass and splattering like tears at their feet. Barley seeds bent under the strain of their weight waved in golden unison as the breeze whispered around them.
When they reached the manor, Meg as usual raced ahead of Alice and then waited for the old healer to huff and puff her way up the circular steps. As she and Alice approached milady’s bed, they exchanged glances. Something was very wrong. Usually a woman in the first throes of labor sat with her friends, jesting mostly about husbands, their skill in lovemaking or lack of it, and shortcomings in the size or shape of their poles. It was all ribald fun until the pains grew worse, which occurred much later in the process. But Elisabeth was not laughing. She was already in hard labor. She had remained in hard labor all day and into the evening. All day Meg and Alice expected a boy to be born. All day they checked the neck of the womb hoping to see a head of hair crowning. All day they praised and cajoled Elisabeth with cheerful words, ribald songs, and funny stories, but hours passed and still the womb had not opened wide enough for the baby to pass. By midnight they were no closer to birth than they were at dawn.
Alice ordered the cook to prepare a cauldron of boiled mallow, chickpeas, flaxseed and barley. The steaming mixture was poured into a bathtub near the fireplace. Meg and Alice helped Elisabeth settle herself in the water. When the next labor pain began, Alice placed grated pepper on her palm and held it under Elisabeth’s nostrils.
“Aachoo!” Elisabeth threw her head back and then forward as she sneezed violently. This remedy was repeated three more times. Water from the tub sloshed on the floor as Elisabeth shook her head with each sneeze. Still, the baby refused to leave the comfort of Elisabeth’s womb.
“Bring St. Peter’s tooth to me,” Alice said to Meg. “It’ll work for certain. It must work.”
Meg reached in the birthing bag and pulled out the tooth of St. Peter, a valuable relic that Alice bought after a great deal of haggling at the Michaelmas Fair.
While Alice held the charm above Elisabeth’s head, she and Meg chanted three times.
“Bizomie uteri, labium azerai,
Benedictus vagini, Peter, Hugh, and Bart amen.”
Nothing happened. It appeared to Meg that not even the power of St. Peter could entice Sir Henry’s son into the world.
They pulled Elisabeth from the tub and slipped a clean linen shift over her head. Alice said to Elisabeth, “Milady, you have a stubborn child. But that’s a good sign. Surely a strong heir for the Despensers. Or perhaps a brave warrior.”
Elisabeth managed a lopsided grin, but her tears did not stop.
“We will have him born this night, never fear. But first let’s take a walk to shake him about. We’ll show him what he is missing.”
They struggled with Elizabeth’s awkward body, but by crossing their arms round her waist, they were able to carry her weight. Alternately teasing and scolding, Alice and Meg forced her to put one foot in front of the other. They walked from the lying-in chamber to the solar where servants slept two and three to a pallet. They walked through the adjoining chapel, across the minstrel gallery that overlooked the great hall below, down the winding stairs where they moved sideways to accommodate Elisabeth’s girth, through the east hall, into the buttery and pantry and the kitchen where the sleeping cook snored loudly from his pallet near the fire.
Lady Elisabeth’s attendants followed Meg and Alice like a bizarre processional, down another set of stairs to the cellarium where serving boys slept between the baskets of grain. Here they turned around and retraced their steps.
In the great hall, banners emblazoned with the coat of arms of the Despensers hung above their heads. The thick rafters, richly carved and painted in yellow and red shields, so colorful in the daylight, were hidden in shadow. Sir Henry’s men were sleeping noisily, sprawled amidst dice and chess pieces strewn about on the trestle tables. Dogs rummaged among the dirty rushes on the floor, searching for bones dropped during the evening meal.
Meg turned toward the main entrance, thinking the night air would refresh them after a day spent in a stuffy room. She asked Alice, “Should we go outside?”
Alice shook her head. “The cold air would surely cause the womb to close even further.”
They stopped for a moment to rest, and to scold Elisabeth as she tried to sit down. They climbed to the solar, halting only once for Alice to relieve herself in the night bucket. From there they began the circuit again. Thus, they traveled the length and breadth of Little Charlecot Manor, walking the halls and stairways until dawn broke and it became clear, as the mist lifted and vanished from the meadows and woods beyond the crenellated walls of Sir Henry’s fortress, they were no nearer to birth than the morning before.
When they entered Lady Elisabeth’s bedchamber at last, Meg cast a glance at the tapestries and multi-colored tiles. The bloom of color never failed to cheer her. Although she had been in milady’s chamber numerous times, she was always astonished at the beauty of the room, awash in blue and yellow floor tiles, intricate white marble and limestone decorations around the mantel, glazed windows glowing red with the Despenser crest, and tapestries woven with red, blue and yellow mille-fleurs—“thousands of flowers,”—Elisabeth had told them on their first visit. “Made in France. Flowers that never fade, never die. I will always have a garden here. A beautiful garden no one can destroy.”
Meg felt a deep sadness for the young woman who loved her mille-fleurs. It seemed that during the night, the flowers had faded along with Elisabeth’s spirit.
After she and Alice tucked Elisabeth into bed, Alice murmured to Meg, “We need to keep our strength up. We’ll have something to eat. And then we’ll begin again.”
Meg, who wolfed down all the food the kitchen sent them, felt stronger physically but her heart was empty. She watched as if in a trance as Alice rubbed weasel oil on her hand and thrust it into Elisabeth’s womb. Alice twisted her fingers, pushing against the babe, forcing it out of the way while she opened the mouth of the womb, stretching and working the tissues. Just yesterday Elisabeth had screamed as Alice twisted her hand up and down to get a feel for the baby’s position. Today she was silent.
Alice wiped her hand on her apron and took a seat near the fire. Her shoulders sagged and she lowered her head. She sighed and said, “The babe is stuck fast inside the womb. He is too big and is buttocks first.”
Meg took a seat on the bench and laid her head on Alice’s plump shoulder. Alice’s curly gray hair escaped in wet ringlets from beneath the stained wimple. Her face in repose seemed ageless, her skin, supple and white as blanc-mange. Dough-soft beneath the rough homespun of her tunic, she was nevertheless strong of heart and mind.
Meg whispered, “Did you find Sir Henry? What did he say? Is the surgeon coming?”
Alice sighed and waved her hand, as if brushing away a fly—a fly named Sir Henry Despenser. “He refuses to pay for a surgeon to bleed her. Perhaps he’ll change his mind.”
Meg felt her eyelids grow heavy. It seemed they had been in this dreadful castle for a hundred years or more. She sighed. She wanted to be anywhere on earth but at this poor woman-child’s bedside. She wanted to be back in the pigsty at St. Michael’s where the days were all the same, where the feeding and care of her pigs was a constant, where the worst possible thing that could happen was a beating from her mother or the taunting remarks of village children. That seemed like such fluffery now—nothing could compare with looking in a woman’s face and seeing Death hover there.
“What should we do, Mother Alice? Could we not cut the child out of the womb?”
“Yes, but that cut—through the stomach and into the womb—is deadly to the mother. I have never heard of a woman surviving it. Moreover, the Church forbids it unless the mother is dead and the babe is still alive. I have no desire to tangle with Church law. If Elisabeth were dead, we could cut through her to take out the babe. But she is alive. And her babe may be alive also. I just can’t be sure.”
“Then what are we to do?”
“There are two more treatments we could try.”
“Fumigation and douching.” She looked at Meg and her eyes, red-rimmed and bloodshot, glazed over. “God have mercy on us if Elisabeth dies but if we deliver a dead babe . . .”
Meg patted Alice’s hand. “This will work, Mother Alice. It must.”
Alice sighed. “Then let us begin.”
After Alice sprinkled powdered mugwort and rue into a bucket of steaming water, they lifted Elisabeth once more and held her upright, spreading her legs on either side of the bucket so the herbal fumes would draw out the obstinate child.
“Meg, look in my bag and take out the piece of gray wool. Take it to the fire and hold it there until the end is burnt,” Alice said.
When the wool was black and smoking, Meg brought the strip of cloth to Alice who ordered her to hold it under Elisabeth’s nose.
“The babe will run from the foul smell of the wool to the good smell of the herbs,” Alice explained. “Let’s keep a close watch. We don’t want him to drop in the bucket and drown.”
Meg held the stinking wool under Elisabeth’s nose for what seemed like hours. Finally the water in the bucket cooled and the steam subsided. Though Elisabeth’s inner thighs were red from the heat, she made no sound. They put her to bed and spread her legs. Alice pointed to the douche bag. Weeks before, in preparation for Elisabeth’s labor, they had filled the bag with pitch, honey, weasel oil, nutmeg and cloves, a combination of ingredients to entice the baby to slide through the birth canal.
Alice squeezed the contents of the bag into Elisabeth’s womb and waited. Meg prayed to the Virgin Mary. The ladies-in-waiting cried.
Around them, another day had dawned and the house went about its usual duty. Meat was turned on the spit. Bread baked in the ovens. Laundry was washed and hung to dry. Knights practiced with lances and swords. Cows were milked. Butter churned. And upstairs in the room where a thousand flowers bloomed in French tapestries, women waited. And waited.