The Midwife's Daughter
by the author.
All colour had drained from her face. Now it was over, her strength suddenly failed. Her knees gave way and she slid down the wall of the shed to the ground. Neither the icy cold biting into the naked skin of her thighs nor the pain piercing her body reached her consciousness. She sat there paralysed, without feeling anything...
A distant noise made her start. He was coming back! Her heart began to beat wildly. With trembling hands she gathered up her chemise over her breast to cover her nakedness and hastily straightened her bodice. She wanted to jump up and run away, but her legs would not move. Like a cornered animal she pressed herself against the wall of the shed, her gaze fixed to the door, spellbound. Yet nothing happened. He did not come back. He had got what he wanted. But tomorrow or the day after he would again lie in wait for her... and he would do it again and again!
After a while she began to feel the cold from the ground creeping through her skin. She tried pulling up her woollen stockings, which had slipped down, back over her knees and tying the garters, yet her numb fingers felt as if they were no longer part of her body and refused to obey her.
"Anne! Anne!" It was her mother's voice. "Anne, where are you?"
The door of the shed opened with a creaking noise. "Anne, why don't you answer?" her mother asked, stepping towards her with a concerned air. Her daughter's face said more than words. "What happened? Did he touch you again? Did he...?"
At that moment the girl's terror broke free in a violent sob and a flood of tears. Her mother gathered her up into her arms, clasped her to her breast and tried to calm her. Again and again her hand stroked her daughter's hair.
"I will talk to him!" she promised. "I'll make sure he leaves you alone. He won't dare touch you again!"
The veil of death, which for a long time had lain over the city of London, finally began to lift. During the whole summer the plague had raged unabated, had carried off thousands upon thousands of victims without mercy, until at the onset of winter it loosened its stranglehold. Within a few weeks the ghost town awoke to new life. Many burghers who had fled to the country in panic when the plague had broken out, returned, eager to take up their business again and to check on the property they had left behind. The shops of artisans and merchants reopened their doors, the deserted streets, on which grass had been growing between the cobbles, came to life again. People no longer avoided each other in fear of contagion, but greeted their neighbours when they met them, stopped and merrily talked to each other.
The heavy snowfall that set in in February finally covered the graves of the dead in the churchyards and thus hid them from the sight of the living, who wanted to forget the terrible visitation and put their lives in order. People again dared to look forward to the future and hope for the grace of God.
Two figures in woollen cloaks rushed through the white veils of falling snowflakes. A small boy carrying a link lit the way for them, for it was already late evening. Happy were those who in this inclement weather were sitting in front of a warming fire within their own four walls and did not need to set foot outside. Yet, as a midwife, Margaret Laxton could not afford such luxury. When she was called she had to go, no matter what time of day, whether it was raining or snowing. Children did not care about the hour, they themselves decided on the moment they wanted to come into the world. Margaret Laxton slackened her pace and with a worried glance looked back at her daughter, who repeatedly fell behind. Anne was also her apprentice learning from her mother how to be a midwife.
"Come, child," Margaret Laxton called to her. "We mustn't lose sight of the boy. That rascal seems determined to rush us through half of Smithfield."
From under the hood of the woollen cloak Anne's red eyes looked at her with an expression of distress.
"Everything is going to be all right," her mother said to comfort her. "Trust me. One of my recipes will set things right again. A little patience and soon it will be over. And father won't notice anything."
She took her daughter's hand and started to move again. At Pie Corner the link boy waited and impatiently hurried them on.
"How far have we still to go, boy?" Margaret Laxton asked.
"Only right into Cock Lane, then we're there," he declared and again ran ahead of them. The snowflakes were falling so densely that they immediately swallowed his small figure. Only the light of his link, which was still dancing in the air like a firefly, was still visible. The midwife tried to join up with him and vigorously drew her daughter with her. Yet the boy moved over the icy ground more light of foot than the two women, whose skirts whirled up the snow. Due to the heavy bag with the utensils of her trade, which Margaret Laxton carried over her shoulder, it was even more arduous for her to keep up with the boy, who fast as a hare turned into Cock Lane. The firefly disappeared from the women's sight. Again the midwife hurried her daughter.
When they reached the corner, Margaret Laxton slackened her pace, puzzled, and tried to penetrate the flurry of snow with her eyes. Where had the urchin got to?
"Hey, lad, where are you?" she called out, and when there was no answer, she started to run with Anne at her hand in order to catch up with her guide.
In her haste she overlooked a midden which one of the chicken-keeping residents had piled up in the small lane. She stumbled and nearly fell, but was just able to catch herself. Panting, she stopped and again looked around her, confused. Her gaze fell on the end of a stick protruding from the midden. She pulled it out and cautiously touched the other end with her hand. It was warm and sticky and smelled strongly of burnt pitch.
"What does this mean?" she muttered uncomprehendingly. Why had the boy extinguished his link? And where had he vanished to?
"Mum, what's the matter?" Anne asked, alarmed.
"I don't know, my dear. I don't know..."
Somewhere a horse snorted. Margaret Laxton turned her head and strained her ears to find out where the sound came from.
"I think there is someone behind us", she said quietly and pulled her daughter with her. "Let's go. I feel uneasy."
Anne followed her silently, while the midwife repeatedly turned around and looked back. And then she suddenly saw something: a dark figure stepped from the darkness of the row of houses into the lane, a man in a cloak with a hat pulled down low over his face. The sight of him was so uncanny that Margaret Laxton stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him, spellbound.
"The devil..." she whispered.
The figure moved, his arm disappeared under the cloak and a moment later became visible again, stretched out towards them... a spark flashed, there was a loud bang... Margaret Laxton collapsed, too surprised to make a sound. She was dead before her body touched the ground...
As she fell, her hand slipped from her daughter's. Anne unbelievingly stared down at her mother, who did not move any more. Terrified she spun around; her gaze turned to the dreadful figure, registered the same movement of the arm disappearing under the cloak and groping for something... for a second weapon, as she instinctively realised...
Anne whirled around and began to run, she ran as fast as her legs would
carry her, blind and aimlessly. Again and again she slipped on the frozen
ground, desperately snatching herself up and running on. She could not
stop screaming, only when exhaustion and fear took her breath away, did
her voice falter.