Worcester England 1640
Middy Johns leaned against her opened cottage door, and sighed. She would rather sit on the bench in the sun, but must tend to her herb garden. With firm resolve, she closed the door and stepped off her front stoop.
Her little home nestled against the woods outside town, and a clearing had been carved for her garden with a pretty bench at the end of it. She walked round to the back of the cottage with the full intent of working her herb patch. Very bright the day was, and warm, too.
As soon as she reached the back of the house, she felt immediate peace, and cast away her resolve. The day was truly lovely, and with a smile, she sank on the bench. Bees buzzed and bobbed amongst her flowers, and she raised her face to the sun. She listened to the gentle sounds around her, and welcomed the break from her constant running and tending to those in her care.
Beyond her cottage in the woods, she heard the noise of Worcester. If she concentrated on the birds singing above her, and the wind sowing through the treetops, she could block out the sounds of her charges within the city walls.
Not that she minded in the least taking care of her people, nay she did not. She took the responsibility of being Worcester’s healer and midwife very seriously, indeed. Everyday brought new wonders. The business kept her going exceedingly through all times of the day and night, and she sighed, not objecting to peace when it was upon her.
Middy knew this moment of peace wouldn’t last much longer, so she was not surprised when upon those very thoughts, she heard the stamp of feet running down the path to her door.
A man hollered, “Middy, come quick. Me wife’s in trial, and must have you.”
With a groan, Middy pulled herself from the bench. Long in the tooth, her joints ached most days. She had no apprentice to take her place, and with the town and its environs as large as they were, she must get to it sooner than later.
The man banged on the panel. “Middy Johns, I beg thee come.”
She wiped her hands with her apron. A good, strong lass would be best, but a strapping lad would do, too, if he were of mind to take orders from a woman…
Middy rounded the cottage to the front, and saw Edward Torbet in a great froth of heat. Her step faltered, for he was one who teetered at the brink of madness. She knew the babe inside his wife was their first, and having a hard time of it, too. If anything happened to Elizabeth Torbet during the full of it, Middy was afeard he’d blame her and do dire harm.
She strengthened her back, and her resolve. No one would treat her ill. She was the healer of Worcester, wasn’t she? She pushed him aside to open the door. “Out of me way, laddie. Out of me way. I must to me birthing kit.”
Edward stood like a stone, his mouth open. As if suddenly aware, he clanked his teeth and blurted, “Where have thee been? I’ve been calling thee, and calling thee.”
Inside, she picked up her kit always at the ready, then came out to him. “Thou was yelling, more like. I must tend to me herbs, now mustn’t I?”
He blathered, “I’m most troubled, Mistress. Me wife’s infinite big with child so it must be a great lad. But Lord, how she struggles to sit, sleep, or walk. ‘Tis most disturbing. She can’t hardly draw breath, making me afeard she’ll die during the full of it.”
Middy patted his arm, but he cried out most high, “You must come this very minute, or I’ll be sorely vexed.”
She closed the panel and walked down the path. “Best come, then, if you’re to see the birth of your lad.”
Once in the Torbet house, Middy soon learned Elizabeth was indeed in great trial. The house was dark and airless. It smelled of burnt porridge, blood and sweat. Elizabeth’s groans were wretched deep, and Middy remembered other birthings that went poorly. As Edward said, Elizabeth was prodigious big, bigger than she’d ever before seen in a bearing woman.
She did not want Edward to see her sudden fears, and quickly said, “It’ll be awhile since it’s her first. Make yourself useful and go fetch the astrologer. We must have the alignment of the stars and the moon for your lad’s lifetime.”
When he stood there stiff and wide-eyed, she said, “Off with you, now, and let me tend to your wife.”
~ * ~
Edward knocked and hollered through the door. “Middy Johns, I’ve the astrologer here. What do you want with him?”
She wiped her hands on her apron, then opened the door. Middy said to the astrologer, “Mister Giles, look to the sky and give us your best. We’ve a girl, long and healthy.”
Edward grinned. “Lissy’s aright then?”
Middy nodded. “Aye, fine and dandy.” She shut the door, knowing all was very wrong.
Elizabeth groaned and whimpered, and crouched over as if in great pain, the labor again hard and fierce. Her hold went slack, and Middy caught the babe before it dropped into the birthing bucket. She reflected it base strange, this continued labor.
Someone knocked loud on the door. “Middy Johns,” the astrologer called. “I must speak with thee.”
Middy’s heart beat hard as she put the babe to the bed, then opened the door. “Aye, Giles. What’s amiss?”
“I can’t read the sky, Middy. ‘Tis the first in me lifetime. I cannot read the sky.”
“What do you see, then?”
He shook loose leafs of paper at her face. “I cannot put anything to this, for ‘tis all a’ tangle, Middy. The stars overlap each other. They’re the same and then they ain’t. ‘Tis a riddle, I tell you, a riddle.” He sighed and lowered his head. “There ain’t nothing good coming of this birth.”
“Oiy, what are you saying?” Edward hollered. “What dost thou mean by these words, Astrologer? Is Lissy aright? Middy, you said she was aright. You mustn’t go against your word, now, Middy. You must not.”
Elizabeth screamed with the pain, and Middy shut the door. She’d tend to the astrologer and Edward, later, and going to her charge, saw Elizabeth bear down hard.
She whimpered. “What’s happening? Why is me trial still going?” and Elizabeth moaned most piteously over the birthing tub.
Middy became alarmed. A child had already been born with no room in the womb for another, but her belly rippled as if giving birth, the pains still severe. Troubled to the very heart, Middy reached between Elizabeth’s legs to feel the crowning of another babe.
It was most horrid, for no one man could father more than one child at a time. Aggrieved, Middy shook her head. With two babes a’ born, Elizabeth proclaimed before the whole world she was an adulteress.
Edward would be shattered, and Middy quaked to think what he’d do once he learned of this. The whole region knew him for a very difficult man. He loved mightily and hated greatly. When vexed, he turned violent.
Middy regarded Elizabeth as she went through the final bits of trial. “Why did ye do this, lass? How could you have been with another when Edward loves thee so?”
But Elizabeth did not hear as she screamed and pushed, and a second babe slid into Middy’s arms. This one was a lad, tall and strong of limb, and after rubbing him clean, Middy wrapped him in linens. She placed him beside the other.
There were no more babes within Elizabeth Torbet.
Later, rubbing the belly with an unguent, Middy asked, “What have you done, Mistress?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve two babes. It means there are two fathers.”
Elizabeth looked astonished. “Nay, I’ve not been with anyone but me Edward. He knows this, too.” She regarded Middy, her eyes bright with sudden fear. “He does know this, don’t he?”
Middy shook her head. “I wouldn’t know, would I?”
“I’ve been with no other, I promise you, Middy. Tell me you believe me.” She became frantic. “Where’s Edward? He must know I’m an honorable woman, and faithful to him in all ways.”
He hadn’t pounded on the door for a good bit, and Middy said, “I reckon he’s off to the tavern celebrating the birth of your lass. He doesn’t know of the lad, yet.” Not able to say more, she left the words hang.
“But I’ve not been with anyone but Edward, Middy. I tell you true and right. I swear this afore God.”
“Then how did two babes get within ye? I’ve only heard this one other time in all me years, and the woman was not honorable, but free with her wiles. I do not know any other way of it.”
At that moment, Edward barged into the house, reeling from celebration. “Let me see me new bairn. I’m naming her Elizabeth, after her ma.”
Both babes burst into volleys of newborn cries, very loud, and with great astonishment, Edward turned to see what he had sired. “Very robust, she is…,” but he abruptly stopped, his face going stone cold. “What’s this? How is it there are two of them?”
He turned his gaze to Elizabeth who quaked beside Middy, her pretty face awash with tears. “I was not with anyone but you, Husband. I am an honorable woman. This I vow afore God.”
Edward stood like one dead, his eyes unblinking. With balled fists, he fell to his knees, and howled like a wounded animal. Middy’s heart pounded most ungainly in her breast whilst Elizabeth burst into loud sobs, the bairns bawling extraordinary.
Edward cried, “Lissy, how could you do this to me when I loved thee so dearly. How?”
He rushed to his feet. “I cannot abide this betrayal. I must go now, afore I kill you where you bleat over the blood and gore of another’s bastard.”
He turned on his heel and ran sobbing from the house.
~ * ~
Middy Johns walked as fast as she could through the narrow lanes. She deeply desired to see the Puritan Lecturer who had been preaching most kindly to the townsfolk. He’d been in the area for several weeks, now, and his time amongst the Worcester folk was nearing an end. Whilst the Lecturer spread the Word in a plain Protestant manner, he garnered a pretty penny from the city leaders. His dark suits were always of the finest thread, but it had not hindered Middy from attending his services. His face was kind, and his voice most firm.
Cruelly troubled what Edward Torbet might do to his wife, Middy felt compelled to help her poor, sad charge. At a near run, she made her way down paths and under stone walkways to the inn where she knew the Lecturer resided while in town.
Sweeping into the common room, she saw him at a table near an opened window, writing of his sermons in a large book. It was warm in the chamber, and the night breezes from the window felt good as she approached him. Very serious he was, writing in that book. He did not look up until she stopped at the table.
He smiled, and Middy smiled back, for he was a pleasant man. His sermons were of making the way honorably through this hard world, and of the Covenant of the Lord. The afternoons whilst he spoke did not have any popish services, singing or chanting. ‘Twas very nice.
He said, “Allo, Mistress.”
She smiled. “Aye, Doctor Blyth, how dost thou fare this eve?”
“Very well, Mistress, very well. How may I serve thee?”
“I’ve a terrible need, Doctor. A young woman is in dire straits and must be gotten away from Worcester this very night or suffer sure death at the hand of her husband. Will you help us?”
His brows furrowed. “What’s she done, then? Has she gone against God’s Word?”
“Nay, she has not, though ‘tis very strange. She hath given birth to two babes at the same time. I know her to be an honorable woman, but a man can sire only one child at a time. Her husband believes her to have betrayed him with another. I do not believe this, even though I cannot explain it.”
Blyth shook his head. “I’ve heard of two babes born at the same time, but had taken no countenance of it. You’re sure she’s an honorable woman? I’ll not permit a fornicator amongst the truly blessed as I travel across country.”
Middy Johns put her hands on the table. She must convince him or the consequences would be dire. “I promise thee, Mistress Torbet is humble and of good spirit. She vows afore God she’s taken no other, and I believe her.”
He closed the book, and stood. “It’s time I pack up and go forth. I shall put all onto my cart and to the edge of town. Bring her as soon as you can to the north gate. We’ll travel through the night, for I see in your face the truth of it.”
Overwhelmed with joy, Middy took his hand and shook it vigorous. “I thank thee, Doctor. You shall not regret this for one minute.”
“Nay I shall not, for I see you are a most kind lady and would not support anyone less.”
“We shall come around directly. She’s still very weak, but must take this on or forfeit her life to the Lord earlier than expected. You will take care of her and the bairns?”
He nodded. “Aye, indeed I shall, Mistress.”
“And you will not tell anyone where you hie to?”
“Nay, I shall not.”
Middy Johns turned on her heel and sped back to the house. It pleased her the north gate was so very near to the Torbet’s, and she’d not have to locate a cart to wheel them there. Fewer folk would take note, allowing the mother and bairns to make their way out of the town without calamitous injury.
Later, and cruelly vexed how difficult it had been, it was near dark when she got them to the north gate. Elizabeth Torbet could barely walk, and the babes bawled high as if they knew their very lives were in peril. Heads turned, people wondering what was afoot, but Middy prevailed.
When she reached the gate, Middy knew great joy to see the Lecturer a’ waiting for them, and very kindly he was, too. He helped Elizabeth onto the back of the cart while Middy held the howling babes. Once settled, she gave the twins to Elizabeth, and tucked a blanket securely around them.
The babes finally quieted.
Every moment counted, and Middy prodded the Lecturer to quicken his step. “The gates will soon close, sirrah. You must hurry. We’ve made too much noise.”
“Aye,” he said, and climbed into the cart.
Middy watched the Puritan click the horse to a walk, and prayed with each breath Edward Torbet did not get wind of this. Her heart pounded as the gates started to close for the night, the Lecturer’s cart being the last one out afore they slammed tight.
She stood under the overhang of a house, listening and waiting. As night settled over Worcester in a dark shroud of quiet, Middy Johns prayed to the Lord God she’d never in this world ever see Elizabeth Torbet and her babes again.