Authors: Sarah Naughton
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Also by Sarah Naughton
The Hanged Man Rises
(Shortlisted for the Costa Book Award)
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © 2014 Sarah Naughton
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
The right of Sarah Naughton to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
222 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8HB
Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney
Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
PB ISBN: 978-0-85707-866-7
EBook ISBN: 978-0-85707-867-4
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
Paddington Hospital’s ‘Most Beautiful Baby’ 2006.
‘Most of the witches that have ever beene discovered have beene so by malice.’
Archdeacon of Colchester, 1644
She awoke to the sound of birdsong. The room smelled strongly of rosemary and rolling onto her side she saw that someone had tied fat bunches of the herb to the bars of the
cradle. Gingerly she pushed herself up, using the headboard for support, but the pain was not as bad as she’d expected. Though she was only sixteen her hips and pelvis were large and the baby
had been small. A tiny purple thing with a slick of black hair that had sent a wave of disappointment through her for the briefest sliver of time. Then he screwed up his face and cried and she took
him in her arms, all naked and wrinkled and slimy. For that moment, as he nuzzled his damp little head into her neck and his tiny hands batted her mouth, she thought she could never ever let him
But they made her.
They took him and cleaned him and bound him in swaddling cloths and put him to the breast of the fat wet nurse who had fed a hundred babies before him and loved him no more than a frog loves the
eggs it squirts onto a lily pad.
A girl of your birth does not suckle a child
, her mother told her;
it is beneath you.
Frances swung her legs over the edge of the bed and cautiously stood up. This time pain clutched at her belly and she bit her lip to stop herself crying out. She didn’t want them up here,
not yet. She could not bear to watch Henry lean over the cot and pronounce her child an ugly wizened thing with a nose like its mother. She could not stand to see him poke his finger into that
tissue-thin scalp and ask where it got such ill-favoured colouring.
His colouring was her own. Her hair was coarse and frizzy, the dull brown of leaf mould without the slightest glimmer of chestnut or gold. Even butter would not make it shine. The baby had the
same fuzz of dark hair down the length of his spine that had so shamed her on their wedding night that she would not turn her back on Henry. But he had seen her embarrassment and kissed her back
and called her his little woodland creature. He could be kind sometimes. And he was handsome. Too handsome. The glare of his beauty blinded people to his character, or perhaps made his faults
lovable. And she had loved him so much. A crippling, dumbing love that had made her uglier and clumsier than she already was. It had stripped her of all wit and intelligence and made her mumble in
monosyllables and trip over her feet.
Frances shuffled over to the cot, trying not to move her legs too much and risk disturbing the catgut stitches the midwife had sewn. She didn’t recognise her body any more. She had always
been plump but before her pregnancy it had been the puppy fat of a girl, and now it felt like the heavy deposits of middle age. Her belly was still so big she couldn’t see the floor and
stumbled, knocking a candlestick off the table. It landed with a loud thud and she peeped into the cot to check that the noise hadn’t woken the baby. He was awake already, but had not turned
towards the sound. He was gazing out of the window towards the edge of the forest where the treetops danced in the wind. Only as her shadow fell across him did he move his little dark head. His
brown eyes lit up when he saw her and he made a gurgling noise in his throat.
‘Hello, little one,’ she murmured. ‘Hello, Barnaby.’
He was to be named after her father: a brief gesture of humility on Henry’s part, or perhaps a gesture of gratitude. Her father would, after all, bestow his entire fortune on his only
daughter and, even ill-favoured as she was, Frances could have made a better match. At the beginning Henry had enjoyed teasing her, saying the opposite was true: that he could have had any girl he
wished and she was lucky he had chosen her. But on the first night of their marriage, when he was too nervous to consummate it, he had told her that he loved her for herself, not just her wealth
and status, and she believed him. He found his stride soon enough and within a month she was pregnant. From then on anticipation of the arrival of his ‘heir’ occupied all Henry’s
attention. He prodded her to make sure she was fattening up enough to nourish his ‘son’ and listened to her belly as if the child might actually reply to his inane prattlings. His
father, John, was a shrewd businessman but Frances started to fear she had married a handsome fool.
It was too late now: she had chosen Henry and now she must put up with her choice. Perhaps as the first mad surge of love for her child passed she would find some room in her heart for Henry
She could hear him laughing downstairs. He did that a lot. Laugh. Henry had a beautiful smile but an ugly laugh, like the yap of a dog. He had been laughing earlier as he told his friend Buck
that he wouldn’t have believed the baby was his, except that his wife was so ugly no-one else would bed her. Buck had laughed too, another ugly laugh. His own betrothed was pretty as a kitten
and poor as a cellar rat.
Frances reached in to pick up her son but the door opened and she snatched her arms back guiltily.
It was Agnes: Henry’s nursemaid when he was a boy, and now Barnaby’s.
She was grey and brittle as a dead twig, with probing fingers that had no softness to them. Somehow she always made Frances feel like a naughty child. When Frances had suggested they had no need
of Agnes, and that she could look after the child herself, Henry had snapped, ‘And how would a great lummox of sixteen years know how to care for my son?’
She had cried then and he had apologised, but Agnes stayed.
The woman walked swiftly to the bed and looked inside.
‘Where’s the knife?’ she said.
‘I took it out,’ Frances said. ‘I was worried he might hurt himself.’
‘Foolish girl,’ Agnes snapped. ‘Babies cannot even turn over until they’re four months old, he’ll hardly be able to stab himself. Where is it?’
Frances shuffled to the wardrobe and brought out the knife. A nasty, blunt thing, flaking particles of rust.
‘When did you remove it?’ Agnes said, grasping it and tucking it under Barnaby so that the sharp flakes scratched his face. Immediately he began to cry.
‘So the child lay all night unprotected?’
‘The iron nails are still there, see?’ Frances pointed to the line of studs at the end of the cot. ‘The Bible is beneath the mattress . . . and I used Henry’s shirt to
Agnes stared at her coldly then picked up the child as if he were a hunk of brisket. She narrowed her eyes and made an unpleasant chirruping sound with her tongue.
Barnaby turned his head in the opposite direction: he was looking for his mother. Frances stepped forwards to take him but Agnes hissed at her. She made the noise again, louder this time.
Barnaby squirmed and cried harder.
Steeling herself against the pain in her groin and her fear of Agnes, Frances went over and plucked her baby out of the old woman’s arms. At once he stopped crying and nuzzled into her
neck, coiling his fingers into her hair and pulling until it hurt, which made her laugh. The laugh died when she saw Agnes’s expression.
‘What?’ Frances said, lifting her chin defiantly. Barnaby was hers after all.
‘When was the child baptised?’
‘Three days ago.’
‘Four days after its birth?’
‘You waited too long.’ Agnes turned and walked back to the door.
‘Where are you going?’ Frances said.
‘I must speak to Henry,’ she replied and left the room.
Frances walked over to the window and gazed out at the forest. The sky was now overcast and the trees were black; they shivered in the wind and whispered to one another. She crossed herself and
closed the casement. Perhaps Agnes was right. They were so close to the forest here. It was only sensible to take precautions. Tonight she would replace the knife. And the iron tongs. And she would
sprinkle holy water on the window and doorframes.
She took the baby over to the bed and lay down beside him. As he gazed into her eyes she could see her face reflected in his dark, dark irises.
‘The north wind doth blow,’
she sang softly
, ‘and we shall have snow, and what will poor robin do then, poor thing?’
Barnaby batted his hand at her face and she caught it and pressed it to her lips.
‘He’ll sit in a barn, and keep his head warm, and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.’
Barnaby’s eyelashes were sinking and he made little snuffling sighs. His hand slipped out of hers to rest palm-up on the sheet, a perfect pink clam-shell. Frances watched him until she was
sure he was asleep then, so as not to crush him with the weight of her arm, she slipped her hand under his, dipped her head until her coarse curls brushed his soft feathers of hair, and fell asleep
to the sound of his breathing.
When she awoke it was dark. The fire had been allowed to die and the room was cold.
The cradle was a dark silhouette against the night sky. There was total silence. Fear jumped into Frances’s mouth like a toad. She slid out of bed, not daring to breathe, and tiptoed over
to the cot, her mind whirring as it struck up deals with Providence: if I don’t creak a floorboard he will still be alive, if I get there in less than five steps he will still be alive; if
the moon doesn’t go behind a cloud he will still be alive.