The Earl’s Wet Nurse
In the Vicinity of Southport, England—1928
In the village of Merseyside, situated high on a cliff on the Lancashire coast, it was a busy November evening for twin sisters, Marguerite and Madeline Merridale—both midwives by trade and both too far on in years to endure this much excitement in one day.
Marguerite sat with the full-bodied wife of the Earl of Borough Sefton who was about to give birth to a much-wanted heir. Inside the stately hillside manor—in the special birthing room that boasted an immense fireplace, flanked by its own inglenook on either side—her ladyship was laboring in the ornate canopied bed which every Sefton countess fortunate enough to conceive had used for generations. It was piled high with all manner of Belgian and Irish linens. Fancy pillows with eyelets, faggoting, scalloped edges and French lace caressed her cheek as her head thrashed from side to side, the long ribbons and ruched lace absorbing her perspiration.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill, at the end of a rutted road, close enough to Southport to hear the gulls screeching across the frigid waters of the quay, tiny Catherine Cottingham was struggling to deliver her first child. The croft was so drafty that try as she might, Madeline could not keep the fire burning in the crumbling hole in the corner that served as a fireplace in the one-room hovel.
“She’s done out of her mind with the pain, and into her twentieth hour, too,” Madeline muttered to herself as she swiped at the soot which streaked her arms from continually stoking the fire. “And here I am freezing me fingers to the bone and chaffin’ them with flint, while my darlin’ sister is doing the high and mighty with her ladyship in a room so warm that she’s probably drippin’ sweat onta the fine lace linens. Not fair I tell ye,” she said to no one in particular, as her patient was barely conscious.
She bent to check Catherine’s progress and saw the circle surrounding the baby’s dark cap of hair begin to widen. “Well, it’s about bluddy time!” She bristled, stretched her back and forced herself upright at the exact moment Catherine screamed from the pain, shouted for a man named Thomas, and passed out.
“Better for you that way, dearie, you’ll nigh remember the brunt of it. And here we’re in for it. Your bairn is goin’ ta greet the moon of this night after all.”
There was a rustling outside the door. It was pushed open to the sound of wind whistling through the chink.
“Patsy! Get that door pulled to, now!”
“I am. I am,” a small voice said. A young girl pressed her bony shoulder against the door, battling the gusts trying to blow it back open. When she finally got it closed, Patsy, whose small frame was lost in the ancient shawl borrowed from her Aunt Marguerite, leaned back against the door to catch her breath. Then she rushed over to where her other aunt stood in a matching shawl. Madeline’s hands were gripping her ample hips, waiting for her news from the hill.
“Aunt Marguerite says she needs you now! Lady Annaliese is clutching her heart and gaspin’. She cannot get her to push. The baby’s head is stuck and the cord is wrapped around its neck—she can feel it. Says there’s no warmth in the baby’s head. It’s cold like a stone. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s crying somethin’ fierce.”
“If she’s done lost that baby, the earl will kill her for sure. But I kinna go now. Look, look at this!” Between the woman’s legs, propped open on the worn cot was the scrunched up face of a caterwauling baby. The body was inching out and making its way into the world between the cold thighs of a young woman who had no idea of the momentous event happening, and how her not being awake to witness it would change many lives.
In seconds, the baby’s shoulders slid through, followed by the chest and torso. As its slick bottom cleared the passage, Madeline bent and scooped the ball of mottled red and white flesh into her arms. “Oh, he’s a randy one. Look how fine . . . and big, so big for such a tiny little lass like her. But he ain’t gonna live, no he won’t, not here. This chill will take him by morning if he’s not kept warm. Patsy, you stay here. Take care of the birthin’ stuff that comes out o’ her. There’s a bucket over there in the corner. “If she comes to, tell her I got her baby, goin’ ta take it up to the manor house ta keep it warm and see if I can help Marguerite with her ladyship.”
“Yes’m,” Patsy said as she gingerly covered the new mother’s legs with the tattered coat heaped at the foot of the bed. She knew from experience that this could take a long while, especially if the woman wasn’t of a mind to help.
Madeline tore a ruffle from the bottom of her petticoat and used it to wrap the baby. Then unbuttoned her bodice and tucked the swaddled bundle against her ample bosom. She grabbed the lone flat pillow from under the woman’s head to shield the baby from the elements and opened the door. She fought her way through the biting wind toward the lights shining high in the distance. She’d made this trek a hundred times, and could make it now despite her unsure footing and the buffeting winds. Two babies’ lives depended on her, though it was likely that one of them was already gone.
It took longer than it should have, and she was ever so glad to see the elegant, sprawling house looming ahead of her. Flames beckoned from the wrought iron lanterns by the front door, but she hurried past them. It served her purpose better to go around to the side and pound on the door of the birthing room directly.
She tucked her head against the wind and stomped on the cobblestones that made a circuitous path near the house, knocking snow from her clogs and muttering about the imprudent choices these women had made nine months ago. The pain, the sufferin’, the mortal jeopardy they were putting themselves in. She didn’t think it was worth it most days. But then she’d never had the opportunity to know, had she?
She looked up as she turned the corner and saw light from the windows shining on the bushes leading to the herb garden. Madeline knew the house well. Every Christmas, the town was invited to a lavish feast at the manor house. The townswomen were encouraged to wander the rooms on the main level to see the works of art, the colorful tapestries, and the lovely floral arrangements fresh from the greenhouses. Instead, the women marveled at the vastness of the kitchens, the formal dining rooms, and the lavish suite that occupied an entire wing—the immense birthing room. A carryover from when the house was first built; it was the original master bedchamber with its adjoining salon. Additions had been built around it, leaving the imposing stone structure as the focal point of the well-tended gardens.
At her knock, a heavily perspiring, softly whimpering Marguerite opened the door. “He’s gone, she’s gone,” she wailed. “There ain’t nothing of any good come here tonight.”
Madeline bustled by her, “What are you saying?”
One look at the palatial bed mounted high on a platform, told her all she needed to know. Her ladyship was whiter than her Brussels-made sheets. Her lifeless eyes stared unseeingly toward the frescoed ceiling, high above the canopy. Her long black hair trailed over the side of the bed, a fair portion having escaped from her thick shiny braid. Painted angels played high above her head, but she could not see them. Across her chest lay the lifeless form of a tiny, blue-gray baby boy.
Madeline hurried to the platform and looked down at the bed, at the bloodied sheets between the woman’s legs. She reached out a shaking hand and closed her ladyship’s eyelids with her frigid, arthritic fingers. The baby was too small for full term. She must have been carrying him long after he had stopped growing. The cord, wrapped tightly around his tiny throat was still attached to his dead mother. Disappearing into her body, it was a terrifying sight. Madeline shuddered. Marguerite sobbed. “I din’ do nothin’ wrong. Honest Maddy, I dinna!”
Madeline patted her sister’s shoulder, shook her head and sighed. “I know ya didn’t. That babe hasn’t quickened for many weeks. I wonder did she not suspect? Did she say naught to you?”
“No! Nothing. She said she was heart sore, that her shoulders and arms were numb, then she grabbed her chest, and made this awful choking sound and her eyes rolled back. That’s when I sent Patsy for you.”
“Patsy told me. I couldna come right away. No matter though, for the long walk against the gales, it would have made no difference. She was probably gone afore Patsy ere left the mansion gates.”
“Aye. Her pulse went thready, then she was gone. It was only a matter of seconds, I tell ya.”
“Does the earl know yet?”
“Oh no! I couldna tell him! He will have my hide. His wife. His heir. Both lost. He will believe it is my fault, that I killed them! You have to help me Maddy. Help me get away. Hide me!”
“That may not be necessary.” Madeline dropped the pillow she still clutched to her with fingers formed into claws by the cold. Working them until they uncurled, she gingerly placed her hand inside her bodice and pulled out the warm bundle hidden there. Silently she unwrapped the package.
Marguerite stared down with eyes gone wide, her gray brows grazing the errant curls that had slipped from her crooked mobcap. “It’s a baby—a big baby—and a boy at that,” she said in hushed awe.
“Yes, the one just delivered of the tenant renting the old Cyrus place. She fainted from the pain and hadn’t come to when I left. Patsy is sitting with her waiting for the membranes.”
“What are you thinking?” Marguerite asked, recognizing the frown lines knitting between her sister’s brows, knowing she was deep in thought.
“I’m thinkin’ that this babe won’t live the night with its natural born mother. Catherine I ken was her name. And ev’n if it did, she has nothing for it, no clothes, nary a blanket, save for a tattered scrap of wool on her bed. She has no coin—told me straightaway she couldna pay me for my services until she found work, but begged me to see to her and promised to pay when she could. I know Old Man Cyrus told her to move on yesterday, as she’s late with her rent, and I hear he has another tenant riding in today. There warn’t a scrap of food in the place. It’s no wonder she was no’ strong enough for such a long labor. I doubt she’s had a meal in days. This babe will be better off with the earl. She kinna take care of it.”
“You gonna tell the earl this baby is his baby?” Marguerite was aghast.
“Yes,” Madeline pronounced, suddenly decided. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m goin’ to do. It’ll be best for all around. And you, you’ll be spared his scorn, ‘cause truth be told, he’d ’a probly chose the bairn over her ladyship given the choice. He has to have an heir. We’ll have to tell him it was God’s will that the babe live and not ‘er.”
“Will you tell him, Maddy? I beseech you . . . after you show him his son, he might not take it so badly. I just canna,” she broke down in sobs, her hands covering her face, her shoulders shaking as she slumped into a chair.
It wasn’t the first time Madeline had to bail Marguerite out of a hashed up mess, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. She stroked her sister’s soft silver curls, tucked them back under her cap and patted her shoulder. “I can do that. You clean her ladyship up a bit. The earl’s going to want to see her, say his farewells.”
Madeline scooped the baby up from the end of the bed where she had placed him and took him over to the hearth to clean him up as well. He was a beautiful baby, Madeline noted, strong of limb, with a fine bright gaze that warmed her heart. Yes, he would live, she’d see to it.