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harem midwife


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d oubl eday ca nada

chapt er 1

Circassian Mountains Ottoman Empire


ne spring mor ning as the sun dappled the rocks with golden light, drying the dew from the night before, making the world look as scrubbed and as fleecy as a cloud, Leah made a blunder that was to lead to her death. It was a small thinga matter of no consequence. She failed to hear the terrified bleat of her favourite black lamb and the answering cry of its mother. A lamb in distress is always a sign of danger, but Leah was squatting on the hillside, singing an old lullaby in JudeoTat, the language of the mountain Jews. As she sang, she stroked the milky blue quartz that dangled from a lanyard around her neck. The pendant,

her nazar boncug u, offered protection for both Jews and Muslims against the Evil Eye. Because she believed she was alone on the mountain, she sang with gusto. There were wolves in the hills. Higher up, beyond the point where even scrubby pines grew, were the goat-hair tents of the Yrks, so dark in the distance they looked like raptors, the tent poles like talons ready to swoop down on prey. The Yrks were nomads; their ancestors had invaded the plains of Anatolia centuries earlier, thundering down the steppes of Mongolia on their heavy-rumped stallions, leaving in their wake destruction and death. Leah had never ventured high into the mountains to the tents of the Yrks, nor did she want to. Her world was her mother, father, brothers, grandmother, and, of course, Eliezer, the handsome boy to whom she was betrothed. Ka s, her village, huddled at the base of the Circassian Mountains, was no more than a handful of crude houses clinging to the side of the scorched hill, a half-days hard ride from the Yrk tents. Herding was her older brothers job, but he was ill with fever, so the chore of driving the sheep to the summer pastures now fell to Leah. It was not a task for a girl. Look what had happened to her older sister, a girl so beautiful that their father used to joke that a path of wild roses sprang up behind her as she walked. Rivka must have shouted for help. But there had been only rocks and windbent trees to hear her. But Leah, with her nazar, a gift from her grandmother, felt she had nothing to fear. Kagali, the familys herding dog, had wandered off to rest in the shade of the pines, and was tonguing his yellow

fur as the flies buzzed around him. Two vultures, limp as shrouds, glided on a current of air. Leahs flock had long ago cropped the meadows bare of the wild sage and garlic. Now just patches of grass remained. Leah bent down, picked up a pebble, blew off the dirt, and tucked it inside her cheek. The stone would keep her from feeling parched. Her goats bladder hung empty at her side, long since drained of water. There was no well nearby, only in Ka s. A brook lined with flat rocks ran through Ka s. It was where the women washed clothes. Tonight when she returned, Leah would be greeted by the smell of her mothers stew and the sound of her father teaching her brothers to read. Leah paused her singing to take a breath and at last she heard the black lambs pleas. She hiked up her kaftan, tying it around her waist to free her legs. She took up her brothers crook, which lay beside her. As she stood and listened, the lambs bleating grew weaker. Leah raced up the ancient path, which had been beaten like a welt in the ground by centuries of footsteps. There had been no rain for three winters. The earth had split into fissures, each one an open mouth, greedy for water. The lambs bleating seemed to be coming from a crevice at the top of the hillside. When her chest began to heave from the upward climb, she spit out the pebble, afraid she would choke. She thrust two fingers into her mouth and gave a long, piercing whistle. She waited for Kagali to dash into sight. He was as big as a ram and so savage he was kept chained at home when

small children were nearby. His collar, embedded with sharp iron spikes, was crusted with the blood of wolves foolhardy enough to attack the flock. Leah reached the crevice and crouched at the edge, peering down and listening, the ewe beside her. She knew the lambs shrill, tremulous cry, so like that of a newborn infant. She had pulled this winter lamb by his tiny hooves out of his mothers belly many days ago when the moon was still full. It was her favouritea black lamb with one blue eye and one black. Squinting into the crevice, she saw that he was struggling to free a hind leg that was jammed between two rocks. The ewe stood helpless beside Leah, her front hooves working the stony ground, sending a shower of pebbles down onto her lambs withers. Suddenly, the dry perimeter gave way, causing the ewe to lose her balance. She twisted as she fell into the gully, and landed with a thud on top of a boulder. Even from above, Leah could see thistles had torn a ragged slash on the poor ewes udder, scoring her from belly to teat. When Leah returned home that evening with the flock, her mother would pack the wound with flowers from yellow coltsfoot and dress it with mosses. She would heal it by reciting a passage from the Torah, blowing forty-one times over the gash. Each year after spring thaw, Leahs father daubed the rams chest with a mixture of fat and soot from the cooking pots. In this way, he could tell which of the ewes the ram had serviced. The rams sooty mark was still on this ewes back, a black smudge where he had mounted her.

Leah fell to all fours and peered down at the ewe and her lamb, heedless of the rocks cutting into her knees and palms. If she lost both ewe and lamb, her father would scold her. And rightly so. She should not have been singing songs. She should have been paying attention to the flock. She inched her way down into the gully using her hands to brace herself along the sides, unleashing an avalanche of rocks. The heat in the crevice intensified the smell of the lamb, still milky from its mothers teat. The dust and the buzz of insects in the narrow space made Leah dizzy. Her face was sweaty and coated with a dusting of grit. Eventually, she reached the bottom. Stuck between the two boulders, the lamb was unable to move. It was only then that Leah noticed his foreleg, the bone protruding, white as an ivory backgammon tile. As she was reaching for the lamb, she heard the sound of cascading pebbles and looked up. She expected to see Kagalis yellow eyes peering over the edge of the crevice. But she saw only the vultures circling high in the air. Leah shoved and pushed at the boulders until the lambs leg was free. The ewe was crying frantically. She straddled the lamb and grasped her delicate foreleg. Quickly, she manoeuvred the bone back into place. She tore off the hem of her kaftan and used this strap of material to bind the lambs leg. Then, with the bleating lamb tucked under one arm, she began her awkward ascent. As she reached the top, the lamb struggled and twisted out of her arms as she toppled him over the edge. Leah hauled herself out

of the crevice after it. She paused to catch her breath. Now she would have to return for the ewe. She glanced around. Where was the rest of the flock? And then, a few paces away she noticed a heap of yellow furKagali, splayed under a clump of wild grass. His tongue hung from his mouth; his eyes were open and fixed. His flews had fallen away from his teeth, which made him look as though he were snarling. The dog seemed to be staring at something just beyond her shoulder. Kagali? Leah drew closer to him. Why didnt he spring up to greet her? She put her hand on his snout. As she leaned forward, she noticed that the dogs throat had been slit cleanly and with such force it had nearly severed his head. For a moment she froze, refusing to believe what she saw. Kagalis fur was matted with blood from the red, gaping wound in his neck. Had it not been for Leahs hesitation, this moment of stunned paralysis as she worked out the obviousthat no wolf could have inflicted such a wound she might have escaped. When she looked up, she saw a man in dun-coloured hidesa man with legs as thick as the ridgepole of her fathers house. A man so big he blotted out the sun. By his high cheekbones and his flat black eyes, which stared at her expressionless as stones, she knew he was a Yrk. The bones of a large animal strung around his neck rattled in time to his panting. Leah would not think of her sister. Her mouth opened to scream. Be quiet, or Ill slit your throat too. He towered over her, his knife hanging at his side still

wet from Kagalis blood. A man without a proper headdress, just a filthy cloth tied around his head. Broken sandals on feet so black Leah could barely see where his sandals ended and his feet began. A man covered in scars. A man who reeked of goat cheese and yogourt. Whose beard glistened with grease. Who looked as though he had been smothered in mud and dirt, stung by insects, ripped by thorns, scarred by the hooves of trampling horses, and had survived it all. Who are you? he demanded in a voice that seemed to come from the low clouds above her head. He spoke a coarse dialect she could barely comprehend. Do not kill me, Leah said. Who are you! he roared. Leah, daughter of Avram, the shepherd. Louder! She repeated her words. Where do you live? Ka s. Too far away for her father or brothers to hear her screams. I am only a child. It was a lie. She was fourteen, but skinny for her age. He seized her by the chin, looking into her eyes. Your father cares nothing for you or he would not send you into the mountains alone. Leah avoided his gaze, looking instead at his camelhide tunic, which moved of its own accord. It took her a moment to realize that waves of lice made it seem alive. A few paces away, the mans horse nickered. Nothing was realnot the man nor the horse. All was a dream, like seeing the world through the wings of a moth.

My brother tends the flock, but he is with fever. The man grunted. His fingers clamped harder on her. A reckless anger took hold of her. Knowing the words were foolish before they were out of her mouth, she said, You killed Kagali. You should not have done that. Brave, for a girl. The man grabbed her by the waist and turned her upside down, shaking her as though emptying a sack. The heel of yesterdays bread fell out of her kaftan and bounced on the rocks. Kagalis corpse was so close to her face she could smell his blood. He tossed her to the ground. She lay there, the air knocked out of her. Several paces away, she heard the bleat of the black lamb. She watched the man pick up the bread from the ground and cram it into his mouth, gnawing and sucking it. Leah fumbled her nazar from under her kaftan, rubbing it back and forth between her fingers, trying to calm herself with the smoothness of the stone and the tracery of veins in its depths. When the man hunkered down hunting for bread crumbs, she tucked the nazar under her kaftan and scrambled to her feet, thankful she had worn her old sandals and not the new ones her father had made for her that flopped because the straps were too long. If only the earth would open up and conceal her. If only she could crawl back into the crevice and disappear. She steadied herself against a large rock and took a gulp of air. She used to be the best runner in her village, faster even than the boys. Leah bolted.

Behind her, she heard the Yrk run to his horse and heave himself into the saddle. She raced downhill toward Ka s. Her father, uncles and brothers would sever this savages head from his shoulders just as he had severed Kagalis. A hundred paces into her sprint, a stone gave way under her foot and she lurched and fell and skidded, grit filling her nostrils and mouth. The Yrk was off his horse and on her in a flash, seizing her by the waist. He drew his fist back and struck her above her ear. Her head jerked sideways from the force of the blow. The sun exploded in her head. Grabbing her hair, he forced her head back, exposing her throat. She thrashed and bit his hand, grinding it between her teeth, but it was no use. As he heaved her over his shoulder, the matted fur of his hides cut off her air. He clambered over the dry rocks toward his horse, carrying her with little effort as she tried to kick the part of him where his legs joined. He growled something in his guttural tongue that she could not make out. Just as a wolf drags fresh kill to the lair for its pups, he would carry her in fetid hides to other tribesmen. They would use her, and when they had taken turns they would kill her with no more thought than she would give to wringing a chickens neck. Crying, she bounced upsidedown against his back, her head thumping against his goatskin bag. In front of her appeared the legs of his stallion, strips of dried meat hanging from the saddle. As the Yrk heaved her from his shoulder and over the pommel onto his horse, her lanyard broke and her nazar fell and caught in one of the strips. Leah reached down and grabbed the

stone before it shattered under the horses hooves. The man threw his leg over the saddle, picked up his reins, and spun the horse around in the direction of Ka s. With each stride, the pommel dug deep into Leahs tender belly. Blood rushed to her head, banging in rhythm to the horses gallop. She grew dizzy. And then the light dimmed and faded. When she regained consciousness, she was flat on the ground, stones poking her back, her kaftan rucked up around her waist. Above her spread the sky and clouds. The sun was setting. She did not know how long she had been lying on the ground. Her ear throbbed. She put a hand to her head and felt a knob the size of a winter apple. The Yrk stood, his feet planted on either side of her, a grin exposing toothless gums. She kicked and twisted. In his rage, he seized a rock next to her. He raised it over his head, about to smash it into her face. Leah began to pray. God, if it pleases you, let this savage kill me quickly. Better to die than to be dishonoured. Leah thought of her family. If she was murdered, who would tend the sheep when her brother was ill? Who would spoon mutton soup into her grandmothers mouth? Who would help her mother bake bread? Who would play backgammon with her father? And what would become of her betrothed? Who would bear his sons? Did not the Torah say that destiny favours those who are resourceful and brave? She pivoted to one side, squirming out from between the Yrks feet. She scrambled on all fours and then regained her balance and ran, stumbling, as fast as she could. The sun was over her right shoulder, so Ka s must be straight

downhill. She raced to an outcrop of rock where she should be able to see her village in the valley. She stared down, thinking she was in the wrong spot. These blackened houses below, with smoke rising from crossbeams, could not be Ka s. But there were the familiar houses arranged in a semicircle around a well, her familys house nearest to the stand of pines with the donkey tethered in front. The door hung by one hinge; the roof was on fire. Among the ruins, Yrks rummaged, heaping booty into a moundcarpets, rounds of hard cheese, kilims, quilts, sheepskins, and cooking pots. Women and children ran in all directions. In the midst of the chaos was her grandmother standing stock still next to their house, as though in a daze. Leah ran faster than she had ever run before, falling and getting up, again and again, all too aware of the Yrk who had mounted his horse and was pounding behind her. As she approached her village, she saw her grandmother carry ing Leahs baby brother in her arms. She had nearly reached them when there was a sharp crack, like the snap of a bullwhip. Her grandmother was too hard of hearing to look up. A burning timber from a neighbours house crashed upon her and the baby, crushing them so swiftly they had no time to cry out. Leah wanted to drag the timber off them, kiss her grandmothers lined face, take her baby brother in her arms and bury him in the hills in a grave with a pyramid of stones on top, but there was no time. She had to find her father. Where was he? He had always protected them. Why had he allowed this to happen? Leah heard shouting and

yelling. She turned in the direction it was coming from. In the field beyond the houses, a mob of horses and Yrk horsemen charged after something, bending double in their saddles to seize an object on the mud-packed ground. A rider snatched up the object and hoisted it level to his horses withers. As he was about to heave it over his saddle, the rider next to him wrestled it from him and sped away. The nomads were amusing themselves with buzkashi, a game played with the headless carcass of a goat. They had revelled in this sport for as long as anyone could remember. But something was not right. Leah tried to identify the oddly familiar object the men were fighting over. She strained to see. Dear God. She refused to believe what her eyes told her. It was the body of a man, the legs cut off. Wound around his neck was a scarf of blue wool that Leah had knitted. It was her fathers body, bruised and lifeless, covered in mud and horse excrement. One horseman gained possession of his limbless body, dragging it to a pile of stones on the side of the field, and with a triumphant cheer that seemed to tear a hole in the sky, he claimed victory. The game was won. Leah had no time to fall to the ground and be sick. No time to bury her head in her hands and weep for the father who had fed her plov and borekas de handrajo from his plate, and had given her his blanket on winter nights when the wind whistled through the chinks of their dwelling. Hear me, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Shema Yisraeil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

A shadow fell over her. The Yrk had caught up. He seized her, pinning her arms to her sides. If she did not manage to wriggle free, he would hurl her to the ground. When he was through, his seed still trickling down her thighs, another man would take his place and another and another. Have mercy on your daughter, Leah. Steady me in your arms to keep me upright. Send the wind to my back so that I may run swiftly. Pour your strength into me, so that I do not falter. If you shield me from these savages, my voice will grow hoarse so loudly will I praise your Name.


The Harem Midwife

B Y Roberta Rich The Imperial Harem, Constantinople, 1579 Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, have set up a new life for themselves in Constantinople. Isaac runs a newly established business in the growing silk trade, while Hannah, the best midwife in all of Constantinople, plies her trade within the opulent palace of Sultan Murat III, tending to the thousand women of his lively and infamous harem. But one night, when Hannah is unexpectedly summoned to the palace, she's confronted with Leah, a poor Jewish peasant girl who has been abducted and sold into the sultan's harem. The sultan favours her as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but the girl just wants to return to her home and the only life she has ever known. What will Hannah do? Will she risk her life and livelihood to protect this young girl, or will she retain her high esteem in the eye of the sultan? An adventurous, opulent and deliciously exciting read, peopled with fascinating, unforgettable characters (a court eunuch; the calculating sultan's mother-in-law; the beguiling harem ladies; and a very mysterious young beauty from Venice who shows up on Hannah's doorstep, causing much havoc), this novel is sure to please fans of The Midwife of Venice and extend Roberta's reputation as one of Canada's most loved historical fiction authors. Trade Paperback
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Excerpted from Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich. Copyright 2013 by Roberta Rich. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Random House Canada

chapter i

The butler . . . Mrs. Hill and the two housemaids . . .

here could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purication of the households linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah. The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains ared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this just the very start of it. All else was stillness. Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were uffed like thistledown; in the woods, fallen leaves rustled with the passage of a hedgehog; the stream caught starlight and glistened over rocks. Below, in the barn, cows huffed clouds of sweet breath, and in the sty, the sow twitched, her piglets bundled at her belly. Mrs. Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, slept the black blank sleep of deep fatigue; two oors below, in the principal bedchamber, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane. The young ladies, all ve of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream. And over it all, icy starlight shone; it shone on the slate rooves and agged yard and the necessary house and the shrubbery and the little wilderness off to the side of the lawn, and on the coveys where the pheasants huddled, and on Sarah, one of the two Longbourn housemaids, who cranked the pump, and lled a bucket, and rolled it aside, her palms already sore, and then set another bucket down to ll it too. Over the eastern hills the sky was fading to a transparent indigo.


Sarah, glancing up, hands stuffed into her armpits, her breath clouding the air, dreamed of the wild places beyond the horizon where it was already fully light, and of how, when her day was over, the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all, and where there was consequently very little in the way of laundry, and how one day she would go there, and never have to wash other peoples underthings again. Because, she thought, as she xed the pails to the yoke, ducked into it, and staggered upright, really no one should have to deal with another persons dirty linen. The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber oor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were. Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they werent as rareed as angels, and so they just couldnt look her in the eye. The pails slopped as Sarah stumbled back across the yard; she was just approaching the scullery door when her foot skidded out from underneath her, and her balance was gone. The moment extended itself, so that she had time enough to see the pails y up and away, off the yoke, emptying themselves, and see all her work undo itself, and to realize that when she landed, it would hurt. Then the pails hit the ground and bounced, making a racket that startled the rooks cawing from the beeches; Sarah landed hard on the stone ags. Her nose conrmed what she had already guessed: she had slipped in hogshit. The sow had got out yesterday, and all her piglets skittering after her, and nobody had cleared up after them yet; nobody had had the time. Each days work trickled over into the next, and nothing was ever nished, so you could never say, Look, thats it, the days labour is over and done. Work just lingered and festered and lay in wait, to make you slip up in the morning.

After breakfast, by the kitchen re, feet tucked up under her, Lydia sipped her sugared milk, and complained to Mrs. Hill. You dont know how lucky you are, Hill. Hidden away all nice and cosy down here. If you say so, Miss Lyddie. Oh, I do say so! You can do what you like, cant you, with no one hovering over you and scrutinizing you? Lord! If I have to listen to Jane thou-shalt-notting me one more timeand I was only having a bit of fun Next door, down the step into the scullery, Sarah leaned over the washboard, rubbing at a stained hem. The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when shed retrieved it from the girls bedroom oor and had had a nights soaking in lye already; the soap was not shifting the mark, but it was biting into her hands, already cracked and chapped and chilblained, making them sting. If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, shed most likely be a sight more careful with them. The copper steamed, a load of linen boiling away in there; in front of her the fogged window was laddered with drips. Sarah stepped neatly from the duckboard by the sinks to the duckboard by the copper, over the murky slither of the stone oor. She slopped the petticoat into the grey bubbling water, lifted the laundry stick, and prodded the fabric down, poking the air out of it, then stirring. She had been toldand so she must believethat it was necessary to wash a petticoat quite white, even if it was to be got lthy again at the next wearing. Polly was elbow-deep in the cold slate sink, sloshing Mr. Bennets neck-cloths around in the rinsing water, then lifting them out one by one to dunk them in the bowl of cold rice-water, to starch them. How much more we got to go, dyou think, Sarah? Sarah glanced around, assessing. The tubs of soaking linen; the heaps of sodden stuff at various stages of its cleansing. Some places, they got in help for washday. Not here, though; oh no. At Longbourn House they washed their own dirty linen. There is sheets, and pillowslips, and there is our shifts, too Polly wiped her hands on her apron and went to count the loads off on her ngers, but then saw how startlingly pink they were; she frowned, turning them, examining her hands as if they were interesting


but unconnected to her. They must be quite numb, for the time being at least. And there are the napkins to do, too, Sarah added. It had been that unfortunate time of the month, when all the women in the house had been more than usually short-tempered, clumsy and prone to tears, and then had bled. The napkins now soaked in a separate tub that smelt uneasily of the butchers shop; theyd be boiled last, in the dregs of the copper, before it was emptied. I reckon we have ve more loads to do. Sarah huffed a sigh, and plucked at the seam under her arm; she had already sweated through her dress, which she hated. It was a poplin described by Mrs. Hill as Eau de Nil, though Sarah always thought of it as Eau de Bile ; the unpleasant colour itself did not matter, since there was no one to see her in it, but the cut really did. It had been made for Mary, and was meant for pastry-soft arms, for needlework, for the pianoforte. It did not allow for the ex and shift of proper muscle, and Sarah only wore it now because her other dress, a mousy linsey-woolsey, had been sponged and dabbed and was patchy wet, and hanging on the line to air the piggy stink out of it. Dump them shifts in next, she said. You stir for a bit, and Ill scrub. Save your poor little hands, Sarah thought, though her own were already raw. She stepped back from the copper to the duckboards by the sinks, stood aside to let Polly pass. Then she scooped a neck-cloth out from the starch with the laundry tongs, and watched its jellied drip back into the bowl. Polly, thumping the stick around in the copper, plucked at her lower lip with blunt ngernails. She was still sore-eyed and smarting from the telling-off she had had from Mrs. Hill, about the state of the yard. In the morning she had the res to do, and then the water to take up, and then the Sunday dinner was under way; and then they had ate, and then it had got dark, and who can go shovelling up hog-doings by starlight? And hadnt she had the pans to scour then anyway? Her ngertips were worn quite away with all the sand. And, come to think of it, wasnt the fault in the person who had let the stys gate-latch get slack, so that a good snouty nudge was all it took to open it? Shouldnt they be blaming not poor put-upon Polly for Sarahs fall and wasted

workshe glanced around and dropped her voice so that the old man would not actually hear herbut Mr. Hill himself, who was in charge of the hogs upkeep? Shouldnt he be obliged to clean up after them? What use was the old tatterdemalion anyway? Where was he when he was needed? They could really do with another pair of hands, werent they always saying so? Sarah nodded along, and made sympathetic noises, though she had stopped listening quite some time ago.

By the time the hall clock had hitched itself round to the strike of four, Mr. and Mrs. Hill were serving a washday cold collationthe remnants of the Sunday roastto the family in the dining room, and the two housemaids were in the paddock, hanging out the washing, the damp cloth steaming in the cool afternoon. One of Sarahs chilblains had cracked with the work, and was weeping; she raised it to her mouth and sucked the blood away, so that it would not stain the linen. For a moment she stood absorbed in the various sensations of hot tongue on cold skin, stinging chilblain, salt blood, warm lips; so she was not really looking, and she could have been mistaken, but she thought she saw movement on the lane that ran across the hillside opposite; the lane that linked the old high drovers road to London with the village of Longbourn and, beyond that, the new Meryton turnpike. Look, Pollydyou see? Polly took a peg out from between her teeth, pinned up the shirt she was holding to the line, then turned and looked. The lane ran between two ancient hedges; the ocks and herds came that way on their long journey from the north. Youd hear the beasts before you saw them, a low burr of sound from cows still in the distance, the geese a bad-tempered honking, the yearlings calling for mothers left behind. And when they passed the house, it was like snow, transforming; and there were men from the deep country with their strange voices, who were gone before you knew they were really there. I dont see no one, Sarah. No, but, look The only movement now was of the birds, hopping along through the hedgerow, picking at berries. Polly turned away, scuffed her toe in


the dry ground, turng up a stone; Sarah stood and stared a moment longer. The hedge was thick with old tea-coloured beech leaves, the holly looked almost black in the low sun, and the bones of the hazel were bare in stretches where it had been most recently laid. Nothing. But there was someone. Well, there isnt now. Polly picked up the stone and lobbed it, as if to prove a point. It fell far short of the lane, but seemed somehow to decide the matter. Oh well. One peg in her hand, a second between her teeth, Sarah pinned out another shift, still gazing off in that direction; maybe it had been a trick of the light, of the rising steam in low autumn sun, maybe Polly was right, after allthen she stopped, shielded her eyesand there it was again, further down the lane now, passing behind a stretch of bare laid hedge. There he was. Because it was a man, she was sure of it: a glimpse of grey and black, a long loping gait; a man used to distances. She fumbled the peg out of her mouth, gestured, hand apping. There, Polly, do you see now? Scotchman, its got to be. Polly tutted, rolled her eyes, but turned again to stare. And he was gone, behind a stretch of knotted blackthorn. But there was something else now; Sarah could almost hear it: a icker of sound, as though hethe scotchman that he must be, with his tallystick scotched with his accounts, and a knapsack full of silliness and gewgawswas whistling to himself. It was faint, and it was strange; it seemed to come from half a world away. Dyou hear that, Pol? Sarah held up a reddened hand for quiet. Polly swung round and glared at her. Dont call me Pol, you know I dont like it. Shhh! Polly stamped. Its only cos of Miss Mary that I have to be called Polly even at all. Please, Polly! Its only cos shes the Miss and I imnt, that she got to be called Mary, and I had to be changed to Polly, even though my christened name is Mary too. Sarah clicked her tongue and waved for her to shush, still peering

out towards the lane. Pollys outbursts were all too familiar, but this was new: a man who walked the roads with a pack on his back and a tune on his lips. When the ladies were done with his wares, hed come down to the kitchen to sell off his cheaper bits and pieces. Oh, if only she had something nicer to wear! There was no point wishing for her linseywoolsey, since it was just as ugly as her Eau de Bile. But: chapbooks and ballads, or ribbons and buttons, and tin-plated bracelets that would stain your arm green in a fortnightoh, what happiness a scotchman represented, in this out-of-the-way, quiet, entirely changeless place! The lane disappeared behind the house, and there could be no further sight or sound of anyone passing by, so she nished pegging out the shift, snapped out the next and pegged it too, clumsy with haste. Come on, Polly, pull your weight there, would you? But Polly ounced away across the paddock, to lean on the wall and talk to the horses that grazed at liberty in the next eld. Sarah saw her rummaging in her apron pocket and handing over windfalls; she stroked their noses for a while, while Sarah continued with their work. Then Polly hitched herself up onto the wall and sat there, kicking her heels, head bowed, squinting in the low sun. Half the time, Sarah thought, it is like she has fairies whispering in her ear. And out of tenderness for Pollyfor a washday is a fatiguing thing indeed, while you are still growing, and while you are not yet yourself quite reconciled to your laboursSarah nished off the work alone, and let Polly wander off unreprimanded, to go about whatever business she might have, of dropping twigs into the stream, or collecting beechnuts. When Sarah carried the last empty linen basket up from the paddock, it was getting dark, and the yard had still not been cleaned. She slopped it down with grey laundry-water from the tubs, and let the lye-soap do its work on the agstones.

Mrs. Hill was burdened with a washday temper; she had been alone at the mercy of the bells all day: the Bennets made few concessions to her lack of assistance while the housemaids were occupied with the linen. When Sarah came through from clearing the scullery, hands smarting, back aching, arms stiff with overwork, Mrs. Hill was laying the


table for the servants dinner. She slapped a plate of cold souse down and glared at Sarah, as if to say, Abandon me, and this is what you can expect. You only have yourself to blame. The pickled brawn was greyish pink, jellied, a convenience when cooking was not to be contemplated; Sarah regarded it with loathing. Mr. Hill sidled in. Beyond him, in the yard, Sarah caught a glimpse of one of the labourers from the next farm along, who tucked in his neckerchief and raised a hand in farewell. Mr. Hill just nodded to him, and shut the door. He wiped his hands on his trousers, tongue exploring a troubling tooth. He sat down. The souse wobbled on the table as Mrs. Hill cut the bread. Sarah slipped into the pantry, where she gathered up the mustard pot and the stone jar of pickled walnuts, and the black butter and the horseradish, and brought this armful of condiments back to the kitchen table with her, setting them down beside the salt and butter. The feeling was returning to her hands now and her chilblains were a torment; she rubbed at them, the ank of one hand chang against the other. Mrs. Hill frowned at her and shook her head. Sarah sat on her hands, which was some relief: Mrs. Hill was right, scratching would only make them worse, but it was an agony not to scratch. Polly ambled in from the yard with a cloud of fresh air, rosy cheeks and an innocent look, as though she had been working as hard as anybody could be reasonably expected to work: she sat at the table and picked up her knife and spoon, and then put them down again when Mr. Hill dipped his grizzled face towards his linked sts. Sarah and Mrs. Hill joined their hands together too, and muttered along with him as he said Grace. When he was done there was a clattering and scrabbling of cutlery. The souse shivered under Mrs. Hills knife. Is he upstairs then, missus? Sarah asked. Mrs. Hill did not even look up. Hm? The scotchman. Is he still upstairs with the ladies? I thought hed be done up there by now. Mrs. Hill frowned impatiently, slapped a lump of the jelly onto her husbands plate, another onto Sarahs. What? She thinks she saw a scotchman, Polly said. I did see a scotchman. You didnt. You just wish you did. Mr. Hill looked up from his plate; pale eyes icked from one girl


to the other. Silenced, Sarah poked at the pickled brawn; Polly, feeling this to be a victory, shovelled hers up into a grin. Mr. Hill returned his baleful gaze to his plate. Theres no one called at the house at all, Mrs. Hill said. Not since Mrs. Long this morning. I thought I saw a man. I thought I saw him coming down the lane. Must have been one of the farmhands. Mr. Hill scraped the jelly up to his mouth, his jaw swinging back and forth like a cows, to make best use of his few teeth. Sarah tried not to notice him; it was a trick to be performed at every meal time: the not-noticing of Mr. Hill. No, she wanted to say; it was not one of the farmhands, it could not have been. She had seen him. And she had heard him, whistling that faint, uncatchable tune. The idea that it could have been one of those rawboned lumpen boys, or one of the shambling old men youd come upon sitting on stiles, gumming their pipesshe was just not having it. But she knew better than to protest, in the face of Mr. Hills silence, Mrs. Hills brittle temper, and Pollys general contrariness. Mrs. Hill, though, seeing her disappointment, softened; she reached over and tucked a loose strand of Sarahs hair back inside her cap. Eat your dinner up, love. Sarahs smile was small and quickly gone. She cut off a piece of souse, smeared it with mustard, and then horseradish, then blobbed it with black butter, spiked a slice of pickled walnut, and placed the lot cautiously between her lips. She chewed. The stuff was hammy, jellied, with melting bits of brain and stringy shreds of cheeks and scraps of unexpected crunch. She swallowed, and took a swift gulp of her small beer. The one good thing about today was that it would soon be over. After dinner, she and Polly and Mrs. Hill sat, silent with fatigue, and passed the pot of goose-grease between them. Sarah dug out a whitish lump and softened it between her ngertips. She eased the grease into her raw hands, then exed and curled her ngers. Though still sore, the skin was made supple again, and did not split. Mr. Hill, out of kindness to the women, washed up the dinner things ineffectually in the scullery; they could hear the slapping water, the scraping and clattering. Mrs. Hill winced for the china. Later, Mr. B. would ring the library bell for a slice of cake to go with his Madeira wine, making Mr. Hill start bad-temperedly awake and


shamble off to give it to him. An hour or so after that, Mrs. Hill would fetch away his crumby plate and smeared glass, and Sarah would gather the ladies supper things from the parlour and carry them down on a chinking tray, and that would be that. On washday, the supper dishes could wait for tomorrows water. On a washday, too, Sarah did not have the attention necessary to read whatever book she had borrowed last from Mr. B. Instead she had a lend of his old Courier, and read out loud, for Mrs. Hills benet, the news from three days ago, soft with folding and refolding, the ink smudging on her goose-greased hands. She read softlyso as not to disturb the sleeping child or the drowsy old manthe account of new hopes for a swift victory in Spain, and how Buonaparte had now been put on the back foot, and would soon be on the hop, the notion of which made her think of the war as a dance, and generals joining hands and spinning. And then there was a noise. Sarah let the paper hang from her hand. Did you hear that? Eh? asked Mrs. Hill, blinking up from the edge of sleep. What? I dont know, a noise outside. Something. A soft whinny then, and the bump and thud of horses unsettled in their stalls. I think theres someone out there. Sarah set the paper aside, went to lift the childs sleeping head off her knee. Its nothing, Mrs. Hill said. Polly sat up, still three-quarters asleep. Mr. Hill muttered, blinked, then reared up suddenly, wiping his chin. What is it? I heard something. They all listened for a moment. It might be gypsies Sarah said. What would gypsies want here? Mr. Hill asked. Well, the horses. Gypsies know horses; gypsies would have more sense. They listened again. Polly leaned her head against Sarahs shoulder, eyes closing. Its nothing. Its probably a rat, said Mrs. Hill. Pussll see to it. Sarah nodded, but still listened. Pollys breathing softened again, her body going slack. All right, then, Sarah said. Bed.


As Sarah stripped the lacing from her stays, moonlight seeped underneath the curtains, and soaked right through their weave. In her shift, she drew back the drapes and looked out across the yard, at the moon hanging huge and yellow above the stables. All was clear, almost, as day; the buildings stood silent, the windows dark; there was no movement. No gypsies certainly, not even the slip-scurry of a rat. Might it be the scotchman? Might he be bedding down for the night here, and away at dawn before anybody knew? His pack empty, hed be off to restock at one of the market or manufacturing towns. Now that would be a thing indeed, to live like that. To be there and gone and never staying anywhere a moment longer than you wanted; to wander through the narrow lanes and the wide city streets, perhaps even as far as the sea. By tomorrow, who knew: he could be at Stevenage, or maybe even London. Her candle guttered in the draught. Sarah blew out the ame, dropped the curtain, and crept into bed beside Pollys sleeping warmth. She lay looking across at the veiled window: she would not get a wink, not tonight; she was quite sure of it, not with the bright moonlight and the knowledge that the pedlar might yet be out there. But Sarah, being young, and having been on her feet and hard at work since four thirty, and it now striking eleven, was soon breathing softly, lost in sleep.

chapter ii

Whatever bears afnity to cunning is despicable.

hey were lucky to get him. That was what Mr. B. said, as he folded his newspaper and set it aside. What with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men. A dearth of men? Lydia repeated the phrase, anxiously searching her sisters faces: was this indeed the case? Was England running out of men? Her father raised his eyes to heaven; Sarah, meanwhile, made big astonished eyes at Mrs. Hill: a new servant joining the household! A manservant! Why hadnt she mentioned it before? Mrs. Hill, clutching the coffee pot to her bosom, made big eyes back, and shook her head: shhh! I dont know, and dont you dare say a word! So Sarah just gave half a nod, clamped her lips shut, and returned her attention to the table, proffering the platter of cold ham: all would come clear in good time, but it did not do to ask. It did not do to speak at all, unless directly addressed. It was best to be deaf as a stone to these conversations, and seem as incapable of forming an opinion on them. Miss Mary lifted the serving fork and skewered a slice of ham. Papa doesnt mean your beaux, Lydiado you, Papa? Mr. B., leaning out of the way so that Mrs. Hill could pour his coffee, said that indeed he did not mean her beaux: Lydias beaux always seemed to be in more than plentiful supply. But of working men there was a genuine shortage, which is why he had settled with this lad so promptlythis with an apologetic glance to Mrs. Hill, as she moved around him and went to ll his wifes cupthough the quarter day of Michaelmas was not quite yet upon them, it being the more usual occasion for the hiring and dismissal of servants.


You dont object to this hasty act, I take it, Mrs. Hill? Indeed I am very pleased to hear of it, sir, if he be a decent sort of fellow. He is, Mrs. Hill; I can assure you of that. Who is he, Papa? Is he from one of the cottages? Do we know the family? Mr. B. raised his cup before replying. He is a ne upstanding young man, of good family. I had an excellent character of him. I, for one, am very glad that we will have a nice young man to drive us about, said Lydia, for when Mr. Hill is perched up there on the carriage box it always looks as though we have trained a monkey, shaved him here and there and put him in a hat. Mrs. Hill stepped away from the table, and set the coffee pot down on the buffet. Lydia! Jane and Elizabeth spoke at once. What? He does, you know he does. Just like a spider-monkey, like the one Mrs. Longs sister brought with her from London. Mrs. Hill looked down at a willow-pattern dish, empty, though crusted round with egg. The three tiny people still crossed their tiny bridge, and the tiny boat crawled like an earwig across the china sea, and all was calm there, and unchanging, and perfect. She breathed. Miss Lydia meant no harm, she never did. And however heedlessly she expressed herself, she was right: this change was certainly to be welcomed. Mr. Hill had become, quite suddenly, old. Last winter had been a worrying time: the long drives, the late nights while the ladies danced or played at cards; he had got deeply cold, and had shivered for hours by the re on his return, his breath rattling in his chest. The coming winters balls and parties might have done for him entirely. A nice young man to drive the carriage, and to take up the slack about the house; it could only be to the good. Mrs. Bennet had heard tell, she was now telling her husband and daughters delightedly, of how in the best households they had nothing but menservants waiting on the family and guests, on account of everyone knowing that they cost more in the way of wages, and that there was a high tax to pay on them, because all the t strong fellows were wanted for the elds and for the war. When it was known that the Bennets now had a smart young man about the place, waiting at table,


opening the doors, it would be a thing of great note and marvel in the neighbourhood. I am sure our daughters should be vastly grateful to you, for letting us appear to such advantage, Mr. Bennet. You are so considerate. What, pray, is the young fellows name? His given name is James, Mr. Bennet said. The surname is a very common one. He is called Smith. James Smith. It was Mrs. Hill who had spoken, barely above her breath, but the words were said. Jane lifted her cup and sipped; Elizabeth raised her eyebrows but stared at her plate; Mrs. B. glanced round at her housekeeper. Sarah watched a ush rise up Mrs. Hills throat; it was all so new and strange that even Mrs. Hill had forgot herself for a moment. And then Mr. B. swallowed, and cleared his throat, breaking the silence. As I said, a common enough name. I was obliged to act with some celerity in order to secure him, which is why you were not sooner informed, Mrs. Hill; I would much rather have consulted you in advance. Cheeks pink, the housekeeper bowed her head in acknowledgement. Since the servants attics are occupied by your good self, your husband and the housemaids, I have told him he might sleep above the stables. Other than that, I will leave the practical and domestic details to you. Thank you, sir, she murmured. Well. Mr. B. shook out his paper, and retreated behind it. There we are, then. I am glad that it is all settled. Yes, said Mrs. B. Are you not always saying, Hill, how you need another pair of hands about the place? This will lighten your load, will it not? This will lighten all your loads. Their mistress took in Sarah with a wave of her plump hand, and then, with a ap towards the outer reaches of the house, indicated the rest of the domestic servants: Mr. Hill who was hunkered in the kitchen, riddling the re, and Polly who was, at that moment, thumping down the back stairs with a pile of wet Turkish towels and a scowl. You should be very grateful to Mr. Bennet for his thoughtfulness, I am sure. Thank you, sir, said Sarah.


The words, though softly spoken, made Mrs. Hill glance across at her; the two of them caught eyes a moment. Thank you, sir, said Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Bennet dabbed a further spoonful of jam on her remaining piece of buttered mufn, popped it in her mouth, and chewed it twice; she spoke around her mouthful: Thatll be all, Hill. Mr. B. looked up from his paper at his wife, and then at his housekeeper. Yes, thank you very much, Mrs. Hill, he said. That will be all for now.

B Y Jo Baker A brilliantly imagined, irresistible below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice: a story of the romance, intrigue and drama among the servants of the Bennet household, a triumphant tale of defying society's expectations, and an illuminating glimpse of working-class lives in Regency England. The servants at Longbourn estate--only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen's classic--take centre stage in Jo Baker's lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended. From the stern but soft-hearted housekeeper to the starryeyed kitchen maid, these new characters come vividly to life in this already beloved world. Jo Baker shows us what Jane Austen wouldn't in a captivating, wonderfully evocative, moving work of fiction. Hardcover
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Excerpted from Longbourn by Jo Baker. Copyright 2013 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Mu s e
a novel

Mary Novik

D o u b l e d ay Canada


first heardmy mothers heartbeat from inside her dark, surrounding womb. It mingled with my own hearts rhythm, then changed to a harsher, more strident beat. It was then that I had my first and most famous vision of a man kneeling in a purple cassock and biretta. I could see him as if I were looking out a window made of glass. He was framed by curtains that fell in crimson folds around my mother, who lay beneath him on the bed. His face was as clear to me as the blood vessels inside her womb, his skin foxed with a tracery of veins. I looked straight into his eyes and they were as hard and blue as lapis lazuli. I kicked with all my might to drive him off. When I was older and further from my mothers heartbeat, I told her this vision to bring her close to me. After my grandmother Conmre left to boast about me to the cloth-workers along the canal, my mother picked me up to kiss behind my ear. It was the eightieth day of your life, Solange, the day your soul entered your body. You moved inside me, telling me that I was carrying a daughter. This means we will soon have a finer place to live, a bed of

mary novik

riches in another chamber. Now that the Pope and his men have come to Avignon, Fortune will spin her wheel to raise us up. Before long, my mother had a visitor, a priest whose every act was full of kindness and ceremony. After his first visit, he came each week. I would run to him and call him Papa, and would receive three kisses on my cheeks. Then I would unburden his arms of gifts: honey, wax candles, an apple or a plum, the almonds I craved, sometimes a length of cloth or lace. He gave Maman a perfume bottle and a bracelet wrought of silver, with a shank of his hair embedded like a relic. When the Rhne flooded and the water spilled across the low road beside the canal, Papa arrived with wet shoes, carrying a wooden box under his arm. He let me open the clasp to take out the alphabet letters stacked inside, then spelt words on the hearth for me to read. Mater. Maman. Pater. Papa. Conmre did not leave her corner that day, but rocked back and forth, crooning oddly. What is wrong with her? Papa asked. Maman said, This happens when the canal floods. She thinks the water is rising up to choke her and complains of prickling in her arms and legs. I have prickles also, I said, but they were paying more attention to each other than to me. Perhaps Conmre has second sight like Solange, but lacks the clarity to speak of it, Papa said. Your gift is in your face and chestnut hair, but Solange will speak in many tongues. Look how she reaches for the wooden letters! When she is of age, I will give her a dowry so she can enter a great abbey or wed a man of noble birth to have fine sons. On All Saints Day, Papa did not come as promised. Instead, another priest arrived in a black cassock to announce that Papa had left this world to find a better one. My mother banged on the priests chest with her fists and refused to talk or eat all day. After a week our fuel was gone and Conmre walked beyond the cemetery to gather wood. She returned with a faggot of sticks and a sack of coarse flour.

mu se

No more white bread for you, she said crossly, tying a shawl around me for warmth. The fire is only for cooking now. Our clothes and bed-linen became damp over the winter. When our food ran out, Maman would descend into the tavern to beg food and ale from the drunkards, who followed her upstairs to climb behind the bed-curtains with her. In the spring, Conmre opened the shutters so we could hear the water rushing over the paddlewheels, and not the sound of my mothers frequent visitors. At night, I slept with Conmre on her paillasse of straw in the corner made fragrant by her herbs and salves, and in the day, I trailed after her along the Sorgue, cutting willow shoots to weave paniers to sell in the market. She told me that her father had been a cloth-dyer with a thriving business where the tavern stood now. The tavern was the Cheval Blanc. The street was the rue du Cheval Blanc. The city was Avignon, the home of the Pope. I was to remember these things if I was separated from her in the busy streets like a lamb torn from the side of a ewe. Conmre boasted that her name was Le Blanc and that she had once owned the whole building and a milk cow in the shed besides. Most of her stories were dark and wild, told in a tongue that I could scarcely understand. I believed little that she said, least of all that she had owned a cow, but I knew where I livedat the sign of the white horse along the Sorgue canal. Here, the water spun out of the paddlewheels into the vats where the dyers worked the dye into the cloth, staining their arms and legs dull purple. At Pentecost, the anniversary of my birth, Conmre kneaded lard and coarse flour into a flatbread, pressed rosemary and salt into the crust, and laid it on the fire-grate. As it baked, she rubbed my legs with fragrant oil, stopping at the birthmark on my thigh. It looked like the chalice I had admired in Notre-Dame-des-Doms, but I knew it wasnt, because it was too small. What is it? I asked, as I did each year.

m ary novik

A thimble. The mark of the cloth-makers, who are your kin and mine. She whetted her knife, tested the blade on her thumb, then scored a gentle line, the width of a thread, beside the thimble. I scrambled onto the bed next to Maman to show her the newest mark. She kissed the beads of blood away. Another thread to bind you to me. Now, count how old you are. I touched a finger to each mark in turn. Five, I said, and was rewarded with a chunk of bread. Boots arrived, a fist beat on the door, and I leapt off the bed as a man came in from the tavern. He spat a mouthful of ale at me and deposited his sloshing flagon on the floor. Then he tugged off his hose, climbed on top of Maman, and jerked the bed-curtains closed. Conmre sat on a stool, carding fleece, her eyes flicking between her spindle and the swinging draperies. At first, the sounds were the usual ones made by male visitors, then Maman begged him to stop, and I became afraid for her. Conmre clapped her wool-cards while I thrashed the draperies with the broom, striking him on the leg. Get off my mother, I ordered. The knave emerged with a red face. Having another of your famous visions? he yelled, wrenching the broom from me. Who do you see this time? Another bishop? The Pope himself? He chased after me, hitting the floor more often than he hit me as I scurried to escape his blows. Conmre kicked his shins, swearing at him in the old tongue until the broom cracked against her skull. As he raised it again, I clasped my hands as though I saw the Virgin before me and chanted the Alma Redemptoris Mater as fast as I could in Latin. I chanted it over and over until he dropped the broom, crossed himself, took a fortifying drink from his flagon, and said, Get rid of this filthy saint, or else youll lose your trade. Hardly any men come up here as it is. Maman dove at him with the pointed spindle and it was his turn to scuttle, half-running, half-tumbling down the flight of steps. I threw

mu se

his boots and hose after him, sat on the top step, and listened to him spill his tale to the men in the tavern. It pleased him to leave out the spindle and to make much of the little virgin with her gift of tongues to conceal his own cowardice in running from us. By Michaelmas, my reputation as a prodigy had spread throughout the cloth-makers quarter, though truly I was no child wonder but had only learnt some Latin from Papa. By Martinmas, the tavern louts stopped coming upstairs because Maman was with child by one of them. We had no tallow to make soap and candles, and little fuel. When the mistral hurled itself against the oiled cloth windows, we stuffed rags into the shutters and darkness descended in the daylight hours. The smell of meat rose through the floorboards from the taverns spit, making me nauseous with hunger. My bones did not grow and Maman, her face pocked and her breath sour, seldom got out of bed. I lay beside her, spinning Papas bracelet around her wrist bone. Look out the window, I begged, pulling on her arm.The moon is red and the water is racing through the paddles. This infant refuses to be born, Solange. Use your gift to look into my womb to see what evil is within me. I pressed my eyes against her bare skin, but could not see the child or feel it move. It is dark as night inside. In the morning, Mamans belly jumped beneath my hand. The bold kick told me it must be a boy. Soon he was battering her with his fists and knees, and Maman clutched her sides with each new spasm. Why would he not come peacefully into the world as I had done? Instead, he tore his way out of her womb in a fury of blood. Conmre caught him as he emerged. Once out, he fell quiet, his flesh curiously blue as Conmre pushed him from my sight. When her poultices could not stanch the river of blood between Mamans legs, she broke the broom across her knee. Maman told her, Go at once for Father Arnaud at old Saint Martial.

m ary novik

I stroked Mamans cheek until a blow sounded on the door, knocking it open. It was Papas friend in his priests cassock, with Conmre behind him. He did not sit, but stood swinging his arms at his sides impatiently. You agreed that this would be best, Madame, he said. It is better done quickly for her sake and for yours. I crawled onto Mamans bed to lay my head against her middle, which now felt cold and dead. She drew me towards her and wept, her fingers tangled in my hair. When her silver bracelet caught my eye, I gave it a spin. May I have this, Maman? No, little one, for I am dying. I will need it to bring Papa to my side. Why must you die to make him come? When you are older, you will understand. She felt for the empty perfume bottle on a ribbon around her neck, caught some of my tears in it, then her own, then pressed my fist around the bottle. When the last trumpet sounds, I will fly to you to collect my tears. Now leave with the good Father and do not look back. Mind the nuns and learn your letters as Papa wished. I will be well where I am going. She squeezed the breath out of me, then released me so abruptly that my feet shot down to the floor. When Conmre lurched towards her, wailing, Maman grasped her hand. The Virgin will take better care of Solange than either you or I can do. Let her go where she will be fed and clothed. Conmre uttered a charm in the old tongue as the priest swung me onto his hip. He carried me screaming down the stairs, through the tavern, and across the plank over the canal. When he paused on the other side, I squirmed out of his arms, but got no further than his broad palm allowed. Let me go to Maman! He pressed me against the earth so I could not kick him. Avignon is a city of men. It is no place for a young girl. Your grandmother is herself no better than a child. If you stay here with her, you will both starve.

mu se

With his free hand, he dug in his alms-bag for a dry cake. I bit off a piece, tasting white flour, honey, raisins, and almonds. I shoved the rest in my mouth with two hands before he could take it back. After I had choked it down, his iron grip closed around my wrist. There are more cakes like that in the abbey where I am taking you. He stood me on my own two feet and gave me his wineskin to suck on. The cake was making its way into my stomach, where it filled the hollow that had ached for days. As we walked alongside the canal, the great wheels of the cloth-workers turned in a frenzy, driven by a river enraged and swollen by the full red moon.


e followedthe angry riveron foot as it left the city, and met the freedom of the paths and fields upstream. Slowly, the ramparts fell behind in the distance. As Avignon disappeared into a cloud, the night bell of Notre-Dame-des-Doms rang out. The priest crossed himself. Your mothers soul has left her body now. I knew this meant that Maman was dead, but I hoped to see her before long. I clutched her perfume bottle in my hand so her soul would know where to find me. The priest entered a borie at a junction and reappeared with a sleepy donkey. He hoisted me on the front, then mounted, his legs almost dragging on the earth. As we left the river on a well-trodden path, the donkeys swaying lured me into a half-sleep. After a while, the priest climbed off to make the going easier. Then he made me slide off to walk as well, so he could lead the donkey along a narrower track. My toes were raw from pushing against my shoes by the time I saw the church tower ahead. Soon the abbey itself appeared, like a walled city with outbuildings scattered in the fields around it. My

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nose caught the scent of thymelike Conmres skin, but bitten and sharpened by the frostand I slipped my hand out of the priests to run towards the high gates. There were no sounds but a night bird calling and twigs snapping underfoot, until a nun came out of the gatehouse to greet us, her keys clanging at her waist. The priest said, This is the child I told the abbess I would bring. Leave her with me. You will be fed in the almshouse. The gatekeeper pointed him towards a shadowy building outside the wall. A water kettle was steaming on a fire near the gatehouse and the gatekeeper threw on vine cuttings to build up the heat. Then, with only the moon for light, she took out her knife and sheared my hair close to my skull. I squeezed my eyes shut, but she did not nick me once. She left to fetch something and I dug a hole in the soft earth to bury the perfume bottle so she couldnt take it from me. I had just covered the hole when she was back with two buckets of cold water, which she poured into a tub. Take off your clothes. Since I didnt move, she stripped the clothes over my head and lifted me into the cold water. I looked down at my naked body with its ice-blue veins, wondering if I would die like my blue brother. Even the kettle of scalding water she poured around my ankles barely took off the chill. I bottled up my tears and cursed her as fiercely as Conmre would have done. That is the last time you will speak in the old tongue, she said, running a brush over a soap cake to scour the words from my mouth. The soap stung so much I was afraid to say another word. She scrubbed my body, dried me, and clothed me in a homespun tunic, which had been warming near the fire. Then she threw my old garments on the flames, sparing my shoes to put back on my throbbing feet. Only now, with the stink of burning wool in my nostrils, did she unlock the abbey gates to push me through. As the sun rose, bathing the sky in gold, bells rang like hammerblows and nuns hurried into the cloister, forming a black line that


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snaked past me into the church. A large girl with flying hair skipped after them, leaving the door ajar for me. Some words were spoken by an important woman in the chancel, then the nuns voices lifted in song and I was fed with joyful sound. The girl was at my side as soon as the chanting ended.Your fingers are white. Do this to heat them. She crossed her arms over her chest and tucked her hands into her armpits. I will show you how to do everything. We must be seated before Cook finishes beating the gong one hundred times. My arms folded like bird wings, I followed her into a refectory with trestle-tables at which nuns sat in complete silence. The sweet aroma of the food drew me forwards in spite of my fear and I climbed on a bench beside the girl. With gestures, she demonstrated how to tip the pitcher and how to fill my trencher from the vessels of savoury food. I was an apt pupil, eager to learn. When my face was greasy, she wiped her lips with her hem and I did the same. I gestured towards the single abbey cake on our small table. She broke it in two and served herself the bigger portion, but I ate my part gladly, for there were raisins in it. Once the meal was over, she led me back into the empty church. She told me that her name was Elisabeth and that the nuns observed the rule of Saint Benedict. The abbey was Clairefontaine, after Agns de Clairefontaine, the abbess. The long words came out oddly from Elisabeths mouth. Perhaps she had never had her mouth washed out, for she spoke almost as roughly as Conmre. She showed me where the ashlar blocks had shifted in one of the chapels, making a crawl space for an animal to climb through on all fours. This is how I go out after curfew, she said, but you are not allowed to. From the church, she went ahead of me up the inner stairs to the lay dormitory. We entered a cold, dark cell, where Elisabeth pointed out a small bench hewn from sturdy oak, which would be mine, and a bed that was hers alone. At last, she noticed that I hadnt spoken.

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You can talk now. The nuns must be silent after compline, but here we can make as much noise as we wish. I took the coarse blanket she gave me and laid it on my bed, well satisfied with my small empire. The bed was low and hard, little more than a straw pallet in a wooden frame, but I would be safe here until Maman came for me. My stomach was full and I was warmer than I had been for months. Although Elisabeth pretended not to want me, I could see that she had prepared for my arrival. On my lopsided bench sat a new candle, shorter than hers but just as useful. Beside it she had stacked some garments she had outgrown. She showed me how to fasten my new cloak to ward off draughts, then tied the cap snugly beneath my chin for me. What did I care that the cloak dragged along the floorboards? It had a wide, deep pouch to carry abbey cakes in. When I thanked her, she reached for something on a ledge. The abbess told me your mother is dead, like mine, she said. I use this sponge to collect my tears when I am sad. Would you like one too? I could only nod because my tears were already unbottling themselves and spilling hotly down my cheeks. She held out a little sponge that was almost as nicely rounded as hers. This is how you do it. She dabbed my eyes and cheeks. We will be sisters, but you must do everything I say because I am three years older. One day I will be a Benedictine, but you will not, for you are too small to be given to God. The abbess took you as a kindness, since you have no dowry to give the abbey. It was true I had brought nothing of value, only the perfume bottle that I had buried in the soft earth by the gatehouse. All that long day, I spoke only to Elisabeth, but learnt fifteen useful hand signals, mostly for food. That night in our beds, I listened to Elisabeth sucking noisily on her tongue until she fell asleep. Then I crept down the inner stairs into the north chapel and wriggled through the gap in the tumbled ashlar into the darkness. I sought my hiding place near the gatekeepers fire and dug until my fingers hit glass, unearthing the perfume bottle.


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Safe in my splendid new pouch, it climbed up the stairs and into bed with me, where we waited for Maman together. In the morning, the abbess sent for me. I opened the door of her house to find her sitting on a cushioned chair, eyes closed and lips moving as she worked her fingers along her beads. She was the important woman who had led the singing in church. I looked for something to do until she finished her paternosters. On a stand beside her was a curious box covered in leather, which I managed to slide over the edge of the stand and catch just before it banged against the floor. The hasp was locked, probably by the key I saw hanging from the abbesss belt. The noise had jarred her from her prayers and I shrank into myself, hoping she would not rebuke me. What do you think it is? Her words were sharp and clear, like nothing I had heard alongside the canal. I made my mouth as round and red as hers and spoke as crisply as I could.A box of alphabet letters. You are not far wrong. She was smiling at me. It is a book of words made up of letters. When you are older, I will teach you how to read them. You must address me as Mother Agnes. You are not my mother. My child, your mother is dead. You will never see her again. My lip trembled.That is not true. I will see Maman when her soul comes back for this. I took the tiny bottle from my pouch to show her. She pulled out the stopper, sniffed, then held the vessel to the light. Are these your mothers tears? Yes, and mine too. I waited all night, but she did not come. Mother Agnes was silent for a time. She will not come for many years. First, you must grow old, much older than I am. Hide this in a secret place and think no more about it. She tucked the bottle back into my pouch. What did your mother call you? Solange, I said. Sol, like the sun. I saw that she approved, which gave me courage. I was born at Pentecost and thus my hair is red.

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And ange for angel. It is a good name, for you are said to speak with the tongue of an angel. She stood up to examine a map nailed to her wall. Her wooden stick pointed to the walled city of Avignon, then tapped along the winding blue river. Your reputation for clairvoyance has travelled upstream along the Sorgue as far as our abbey. The pointer caressed a little abbey painted brown and green.Here is Bingen in the norththe pointer tapped on another painted abbeywhere Saint Hildegarde resided. When she was three, Hildegarde was given to an abbey as an oblate, as you have been. She was so famous for her visions that she became the abbess and was consulted for her prophecy by popes and emperors. The pointer stopped. Do you know what prophecy is? It is second sight, I said, but she wanted more from me. I tried to think of something worthwhile. Before I was born, I had a dream about a bishop. Tell it to me now. I scratched my head with both hands, without finding anything to tell. Its gone now. How can I remember what I see inside my head? Her tone sharpened.When you have a vision, you must remember it. She was not acting like a mother now. I threw myself on the floor beside her, burying my face in my arms.This abbey has too many rules and I am too small to learn them! The pointer reached over to tap my skull gently. You will, my child, for it is your destiny. You have the gift of clairvoyance like Hildegarde. I dont want to have a destiny! Do not worry. Your head will grow bigger to understand these mysteries. She put down the pointer and chose another book, this one with a scarlet cover. Then she sat on her cushioned chair, spread the book across her knees, and beckoned me closer. I slid across the floor and raised my head to see empty lines as neat as shelves. After a while, I stood up beside her to feel the small, even ridges with my fingertips.


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How did you make the rows so straight? With a stylus. Each of these lines must be filled with words. This is where we will write down your visions. She lifted the page to my nose so I could sniff it. It smells like a barn. This is vellum, Solange. Never forget the scent, for only the rarest books are made from it.

B Y Mary Novick

Muse is the story of the charismatic woman who was the inspiration behind Petrarch's sublime love poetry. Solange Le Blanc begins life in the tempestuous streets of 14th century Avignon, a city of men dominated by the Pope and his palace. When her mother, a harlot, dies in childbirth, Solange is raised by Benedictines who believe she has the gift of clairvoyance. Trained as a scribe, but troubled by disturbing visions and tempted by a more carnal life, she escapes to Avignon, where she becomes entangled in a love triangle with the poet Petrarch, becoming not only his muse but also his lover. Later, when her gift for prophecy catches the Pope's ear, Solange becomes Pope Clement VI's mistress and confidante in the most celebrated court in Europe. When the plague kills a third of Avignon's population, Solange is accused of sorcery and is forced once again to reinvent herself and fight against a final, mortal conspiracy.

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Excerpted from Muse by Mary Novik. Copyright 2013 by Mary Novik. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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