The Maidservant and the Murderer

BOOK: The Maidservant and the Murderer
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Title Page

Author's Note





Excerpt from
The Harlot's Tale

Also by Sam Thomas

About the Author


Author's Note

In the process of writing
The Midwife's Tale
, the first Bridget Hodgson mystery, I created Bridget's nemesis, a malevolent woman named Rebecca Hooke. As I wrote, I found myself fascinated by how much Bridget and Rebecca had in common: both were strong women trying to make their way in a world dominated by men; both had married foolish men; and both had – at some point–practiced midwifery. Despite these similarities, these women found themselves living very different lives. Bridget used her power and knowledge to help the women around her, while Rebecca used hers to destroy her enemies and advance her own interests.

The question that his raised in my mind was simple: How did Rebecca end up such a hateful woman? “The Maidservant and the Murderer” is my attempt to answer that question.


Give me mine angle; we'll to the river: there,

My music playing far off, I will betray

Tawny-finn'd fishes; my bended hook shall pierce

Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up,

I'll think them every one an Antony,

And say 'Ah, ha! you're caught.'

—William Shakespeare,
Antony and Cleopatra
, II, iv.


If the Hookes expected me on that day, they made no sign of it, and Mrs. Hooke did not even pretend she was glad I'd come.

“You must be Rebecca,” she declared when she opened the door. “Why are you just standing there?” She dropped a newly used chamber pot at my feet, and its contents slopped out and soiled the edges of my skirt.

“Clean that up,” she barked.

And so, on a fall day in the year of our Lord 1620, I began my time in service.

*   *   *

I hadn't expected such rude treatment, of course. I hadn't known what to expect. I was seventeen and had left my mother's arms a week before as I traveled to York. The harvest had not been as bountiful as we had hoped, and my parents worried that when winter came, some in the family would go hungry. As the oldest child, it made sense to send me out, and a cousin in the city said she could find me a place as a maidservant. What more could we have asked of God?

To this day, I remember when I first laid eyes on York. I had been riding in the back of a farmer's cart for near two days, stuffed in among sacks of grain and vegetables. We were still some miles away when we crested a hill and the city came into view. Even from such a distance I could not but be amazed. The Minster towered over all else, higher than anything I could have imagined, and smoke hovered over the city, spurged there by thousands of hearths. And once we passed through the city gates, the smell, God in His heaven, the smell. Of course a city arse stinks no worse than its country cousin–but in York there were so many gathered so close that the stench was inescapable.

The farmer laughed when he saw my face.

“They say you get used to it after a while. I never have, but I never stay any longer than I must.”

When I arrived in the city I sought out my cousin, who had made good on her promise to find me a place. The Hookes had recently dismissed one servant and were looking for a replacement. After a night's sleep, I repacked my bag and walked out Micklegate Bar toward the Hookes' farm. Before leaving, I helped myself to a few shillings I'd found in an unlocked chest. I knew that my cousin would be blamed, and said a prayer that her master would not beat her too badly.

There were just three members of the Hooke family still living in the house when I arrived. Mr. John Hooke was my master, and his wife, Grace, was my mistress. Together they'd had a half-dozen children, though by the time I came to them all but one had died or left for London. Their son Richard had stayed, in part because of his youth–he was not yet twenty–but mostly, I thought, because of his foolishness. It was a hard world for the weak and the stupid, and Richard was both. His parents could afford to keep him so they did. I tried not to begrudge him that luxury, even as I emptied his piss-pot every morning.

For the most part, Richard avoided me as much as he could. At first I thought it was out of fear of his mother, for when she became angry at me–as she often did–her rage knew neither direction nor discretion. Anyone in eyeshot, whether husband, son, or neighbor, risked joining me among the wounded unless they fled the battlefield. But as I grew less anxious, or perhaps became inured to his mother's rages, I realized that I was wrong. Richard didn't avoid me; he just followed me from a distance. Indeed, once I became aware of his presence, it could not be missed. When I milked the cow, he wandered in to the barn in search of his hat. When I was in the buttery, he would come to the kitchen for some cheese. And when I had to go into the city, he would volunteer to accompany me. Richard never spoke to me during these long walks together, but in time I realized that he had fallen quite in love with me.

And to speak God's truth, it made me happy, for whatever his flaws, he was a kind lad. Some nights as I drifted off to sleep I wondered if we might someday marry.

Richard's parents were of another sort entirely, so different from Richard that I could not see how he was their son. At first Mrs. Hooke was the hardest of the two, for she would beat me sore for the slightest offense. Whether it was how I churned the butter, washed her skirts, or milked their cow, Mrs. Hooke found some fault and commenced to clouting me with whatever she had at hand. For a time I kept a list of all the weapons she used: soup ladle, broom, milking stool, churn-staff, rolling pin, barrel stave, and one time the dull edge of a knife. After half a year, I gave up my list. It would have been easier to name the weapons she
used. All this time, I could not help thinking that she hated me, and I spent many cold and sleepless nights searching my conscience for some secret sin I had committed against her. But one afternoon, when the Hookes thought I was busied elsewhere, I learned the true reason.

I'd just finished hanging the laundry when I slipped into the kitchen and heard Mr. and Mrs. Hooke talking in the dining hall. I'd developed a talent for moving about without making much noise–so much the better for avoiding Mrs. Hooke's wrath–so they did not hear me enter.

“I see the way you look at that new whore, and I'll not have you lechering about yet again.”

“Grace, I never would,” Mr. Hooke objected, and for a moment I wondered who this new whore was.

“Oh, Rebecca, that dress favors you. Oh, Rebecca, bring me some bread. Oh, Rebecca, bend over and pick up that pin for me.”
She aped his manner of speaking perfectly, and if she'd not just labeled me a whore I might have laughed.

“Bend over and pick up that pin?”
Mrs. Hooke was in a boiling rage by now. “What, so you can better rut with her? Why so subtle? Why not,
Oh, Rebecca, lie back and draw up your skirts, I can't seem to find my pintle

Mr. Hooke said something about his lost pintle being
fault, but by then my blood so roared in my ears that I could hardly understand a word they said. I was brought back to my senses when Mrs. Hooke hurled a pewter plate through the window and into the yard.

I dashed out of the kitchen and ran until the hedges stopped me. I gazed out over the moors toward the home that I had left. I knew I could not go back, not ever, and at that moment I lamented it more than on any day before.

Once my tears had dried I went back to the house and washed out the chamber pots.

*   *   *

Perhaps I'd not recognized Mr. Hooke's lustfulness because of my youth, but once I heard Mrs. Hooke's words, I could not avoid it. While Richard hovered about, hardly daring to speak to me, his father sought every opportunity to call me into the parlor or–worse–into his chamber. When he passed through the kitchen, he would trip and his hands would find their way to my hips (
“I am sorry, Rebecca! I just caught my toe on something.”
), and he would run his finger along my hand when I brought him his ale.

And so I was not surprised when Mr. Hooke, upon finding me alone as I dressed his bed, pushed me onto my back and began to pull at my skirts. He whispered fair words in my ear as his fingers worked to unlace his breeches, but his rank breath was a better sign of his spirit. When his pintle finally sprang free, I seized it with both hands and wrenched with all my strength. I imagine the Scots and perhaps even the French heard his cries, and it was nearly an hour before he came out of his room and gave me the beating that he felt I deserved.

I wish I could tell you that this early defeat put a stop to Mr. Hooke's assaults. But like the Devil himself, Mr. Hooke would not leave me be. He continued with his caresses, though rougher now and coupled with pinches. With each one, he told me,
You belong to me, body and soul.
Except, of course, he had no interest in my soul. And so it was that some weeks later, Mr. Hooke caught me unawares. I fought him with all my strength, but in the end he used me most horribly.

From that day forward, Mr. Hooke and I engaged in a terrible game of catch-me-not, as he sought to find me alone, and I worked to ensure that it never happened. But whenever Mrs. Hooke went to York, and during one terrible week when she took Richard to visit her cousins in Halifax, where could I hide? I knew that Mr. Hooke's assaults could get me with child, and I did my best to stave it off, but eventually my monthly courses stopped. I prayed for hours on end that the Lord would not ask me to bear this burden, that my courses would return of their own accord, but He denied me. When I missed them a second and then a third time, I stopped praying, and tried to find my own answer. I couldn't seek out a midwife, for fear she would balk at giving me the medicines I needed, but an herborist sold me some dittany, which she said would restore me.

I drank it down, but to no effect.

To hide the child growing within me, I started adding layers to my skirts and keeping a towel on my apron. I was thin enough that such a ruse would not work forever, but it would help for a time. Mr. Hooke must have noticed, but he carried on with his assaults just the same.

But the child was not the only thing growing within me. With every passing day, and with every foul usage that Mr. Hooke visited upon me, I felt hate growing alongside my child. There were nights that I dreamed that my child–a son, I decided–was hate incarnate and would be born into the world howling and gnashing like a beast. Other times I worried that my wrath would so mark the child that he would be born with a wolf's teeth and a wolf's appetite for blood. After a time, I noticed another change, this one in my own nature. I had always been a willful and contrary child, but now I felt my mischievousness turning to malice. I had not known this Rebecca when I was young, but welcomed her arrival, for she was well-suited for Mr. Hooke's service. Every time he visited my bedroom and every time he summoned me to his, my wrath grew stronger and purer, as a steel blade drawn from a blacksmith's forge. And each night as I lay in my bed I honed my rage a little more. Soon my weapon was ready. Now all I lacked was a time and place to use it.

The answer came to me when we visited York in the midst of the Assizes. For days a parade of country folk had been walking past the Hookes' house making their way to the city. Some had business before the court, some went to sell their wares, others went to see the hangings that would surely come. Near the end of the session we joined the crowd, and I could not help staring in amazement as we passed through the city gate, for it seemed as if the number of residents had doubled since the last time I'd been there. People thronged the streets, weaving between stalls that the city's merchants had put in front of their shops. Striped awnings rippled and snapped in the wind, filling the air with sound and color, and it seemed as if every shopkeeper in the city stood on the street crying up his wares.

BOOK: The Maidservant and the Murderer
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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