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Accidents of Providence


Thomas Bartwain criminal investigator commissioned by the Council of State, was standing outside the Sessions House in Old Bailey warming his bones under a weak London sun when he realized he was a quarter-hour late for his first deposition

He coughed and checked his notes.

“Christ,” he muttered, and wobbled back into the courthouse as fast as his thick, bowed legs would let him. He handed his papers to his secretary, a tall and jaundiced man named White who in recent months had begun refusing to doff his hat to persons of authority. When Bartwain questioned this practice, given the volatile and warring times in which they lived, his secretary growled, ornery as a drunk without a drop, that his hat-doffing was no one’s business.

White glanced down at Bartwain’s notes. “You want to see how many witnesses today?” His face wore a dour mien. “There is no way to interview all these people. You’re running late as it is.”

“Their summonses have been delivered,” the investigator said. “They will be arriving throughout the day. Knock on my door just before each hour so I don’t fall behind. You understand the severity of the accusations against this woman, this Leveler, this what’s-her-name.”

“Rachel Lockyer,” the secretary said.

“Yes, that’s it. I need all the information I can find.”

White nodded reluctantly. “Shall I bring in your first witness? She’s here.”

“Yes. Send her into my chambers. And bring me something to eat while you’re at it. I’m famished.” The investigator coughed again. He was sixty-one years old and his lungs were not good. Ever since the Council of State had assigned him to investigate the discovery of a dead infant behind the Smithfield slaughterhouse, his wheezing had been worse than usual. He stepped into his chambers, squeezed his fleshy stomach behind the desk, and adjusted his powdered wig. Then he picked up his quill, which he wielded like a scepter in between writing sentences.

Rachel Lockyer’s case had made its way to Bartwain’s doorstep ten days before and so far he detested everything about it. After receiving the coroner’s report, he had interviewed a handful of witnesses, most of whom volunteered neighborhood gossip as testimony. From them Bartwain learned that Rachel was a spinster who lived independent of her mother (her father was dead), that she was poor (a glover’s assistant), and that she had spent time in the company of the Levelers (those political troublemakers), as had her younger brother, Robert, who’d recently been executed by firing squad for mutinying against his captain in the Parliamentary New Model Army. Only one witness, a gray-haired haberdasher named Katherine Chidley, had provided any information pertinent to the case at hand. Chidley recounted a series of examinations she had conducted of Rachel’s physical person and insisted Rachel had tried to hide a pregnancy from those who knew her. “She is the mother of that infant Widow du Gard found,” Chidley declared. “I have no doubt of it.” And while Chidley confessed she did not know the identity of the father, another witness --- a homeless boy named Thom with a shock of orange hair whom White had had to drag in by summons and who remained reluctant to talk until Bartwain bribed him with candied flowers, which the child gulped down whole --- reported being asked to deliver a message from Rachel to one of the Leveler leaders, initials W.W., who at the time was incarcerated in the London Tower. The investigator knew those initials. They’d appeared on the cheap pamphlets and polemical treatises produced by the Levelers over the past few years of civil war. The Levelers were always being incarcerated for one thing or another, usually for seditious writing. Bartwain asked the boy what the message was and how this W.W. had answered it, but the boy claimed to have forgotten the message and added that he’d never reached the intended recipient—something about a lion distracting him. The investigator doubted this account but went ahead and added William Walwyn to his interview list. Of course, the question of paternity was less significant now than it would have been if the infant had survived. When a bastard child lived, the magistrates could invoke the Poor Law and order the father to pay a stipend to the local church for its upkeep. A noncompliant father could be sentenced to corporal punishment, most likely public whipping alongside the mother. If the child died, only the mother was held responsible. Still, Bartwain thought the lead worth investigating.

From the coroner he had learned that the newborn was female, dead less than three days at time of autopsy, and weighing six pounds and one-quarter ounce. Bartwain wondered about that one-quarter ounce. What part of an infant weighed this amount? A hand? A kneecap? He shuddered and spat into his empty water cup. He detested acts of violence against children. The coroner had said that the lungs were partly inflated, meaning the child had breathed outside the womb before it expired. The body was starting to decompose by the time of the autopsy. The earthworms had covered its little limbs, and moles had chewed through the cloth in which it was wrapped, while beetles had settled in the orifices. The coroner also reported a ring of bluish bruises around the infant’s neck, possibly made by string or twine. In his view, this suggested strangulation. But if someone was planning to lay a hand on a newborn, why clothe it first in a carefully sewn yellow dress?

Bartwain tried to imagine what had happened, tried to theorize what had befallen the infant in the minutes or hours before it passed. He considered most women to be deceptive and unreliable by nature, so for him, the challenge in such cases was to leave room for some sliver of innocence, for some possibility that a criminal act had not taken place. Still, if the woman was innocent, why would she hide the body?

The night before, the investigator’s wife had asked why this case vexed him so. She had seen him preparing his research notes and poring over the autopsy report. Start with the pregnancy and build the investigation from there, she had said. If only it were so simple, Bartwain had replied. In situations like these, identifying the mother could be a vexing challenge. Whether or not an unmarried woman had been pregnant remained difficult to prove after the fact. Some maids were sly and cunning and wore wide skirts to conceal their condition; Bartwain knew of a servant in Worcester who’d told her mistress her swelling belly was not pregnancy but colic. The mistress believed her tale until the servant showed up lean and weeping one Sunday with a dead babe in her arms, saying she’d found it in the alley. Other times women would plead they had not realized their condition until the pangs of labor started. Bartwain found this argument from ignorance persuasive only in exceptional instances, as in a case last year of a thirteen-year-old maid whose master had dallied with her as she moved past the point of her maturation; she had no way to recognize the signs that followed. The same plea would not suffice for a woman like Rachel Lockyer, a woman at the waning edge of the childbearing years.

At half past nine the Huguenot glover Mary du Gard entered the investigator’s chambers. She looked a weary thirty. She wore a gray dress and a kerchief knotted around her shoulders. Her dark eyebrows almost touched.

“Sit.” The investigator motioned from behind his desk. “Tell me your name for the record.”

She perched on the witness stool, visibly uncomfortable. “Mary du Gard, sir. I am a widow. I would rather not be on the record.”

“You would rather not be on the record? You were the one who brought this case to the coroner’s attention. Have you grown shy? Have you changed your opinion?”

She blinked. Bartwain’s cheeks rounded into what on another face might have passed for a smile.

“Now,” he said, leaning forward, leaning all the way across his desk, “if you are here to make my task harder, Widow du Gard, you may leave, and I shall send you back to whatever stinking village in France from which you came. But if you are here to obey the law, and to be a good Christian, then stay seated and tell me what you saw. I do not have all day.”

So Mary began, reluctantly, to talk. She had managed Du Gard Gloves since her husband had died in battle; a few months after that, she’d hired Rachel to help in the shop. Together the two women paid a fee to the leather sellers’ company to become licensed vendors, though the business remained in the name of Mary’s husband. They specialized in military gloves, but because of the war they spent most of their time dyeing gloves black for funerals. Mary’s fingers, Bartwain noticed, were stained from dipping the gloves in dye.

Throughout Mary’s deposition, which dragged on longer than most, the investigator kept growing distracted from the case; at one point he wandered off in the direction of theology. He found his witness’s manner dull and infuriating. She told him point by point about digging up a newborn in the woods behind the Smithfield slaughterhouse, but she took no initiative to explain what happened after. Bartwain wanted to know how Rachel had reacted when Mary returned to Warwick Lane and put the bundle into her arms. He wanted to know why Mary had banned Rachel from the glove shop that same day. Mary stared at him blankly and pretended not to understand. “My English is not good,” she said, in perfect English. So Bartwain, intuitively shifting tactics, devoted the next thirty minutes to engaging her in a discussion of ideas. He wanted to catch her off-guard so she would talk. Also, he harbored a hobbyist’s interest in the study of things religious. Although Mary was a Huguenot, or French Calvinist, her late husband had adopted the Particular Baptist faith when he moved to England, so Mary knew both factions. Bartwain asked her why the Particular Baptists believed Christ had died for some men only and not for the generality of them. She replied that Christ could not have died for all men because not all men were going to heaven. It made no sense for Him to die for someone if that person was going to spurn Him. Therefore, Christ must have died only for those He foreknew would respond positively. At this point Mary fell silent and eyed the floor.

“Can you confirm that what you unearthed was your assistant’s?” the investigator abruptly asked. “Are you quite certain the child belonged to her?” All he needed was one credible confirmation. The evidence required to indict a woman in such investigations was not stringent, not very stringent at all.

“Oh,” she said slowly, “I could never be completely certain. But I lived with her, so I saw things.”

“Things? What kind of things?”

“To recount them would be too tedious.”

“I’m a criminal investigator. I specialize in the tedious.”

“Well,” she said, warming slightly, “I thought I heard Rachel the night before, in her room. She was in the throes of what sounded to me like a painful indigestion or labor. She would not let me in.”

“Did you knock?”

Mary hesitated. “I called her name.”

“Did she hear you?”

“I am sure she did. I asked what she was doing. She had stuffed a cloth in the keyhole so I could not peek inside. She did not answer the door, so I went back to my room.”

“This was the night of November second?”

“No, sir. It was the night before. I told you. It was late; it was around one o’clock. And I did not see anything for certain. I only heard the sounds.”

“Did you see her the next morning?”

“Yes, sir, she came down to breakfast, but she was later than usual.”

“Did you see signs of a delivery?”

“Not then. But I went into her room later, while she was outside sweeping.”

“She swept the walk the morning after she gave birth?”

“She swept it the morning after I heard those sounds, yes, sir.”

Bartwain considered this. “What did you see while she was outside?”

“Her bedclothes all in a heap on the floor, and blood staining them, though it looked as if she had attempted to clean them.”

“Did you confront her?”

“I tried.”

“What did she say?”

“Only that she was in her monthly time, and that was where the stains came from. She said she was feeling faint.”

“And what was her appearance?”

“Unseemly and pale. And leaner than she had been the previous weeks.”

I guess she would be, Bartwain thought.

“She didn’t eat all day,” Mary went on with some feeling, “even though we were having her favorite, ham and apple bake.”

I’d like some of that now, he said to himself. Where was White with his breakfast? “Why did you decide to go to the slaughterhouse?”

“I was following her.”

“The same night you heard the sounds?”

“No, sir, the next night. I heard her moving around in her chambers again, and I was curious. So I followed her out the door. She crept out in the middle of the night.”

“What did you see?”

“She was carrying something small and close to her chest. She walked fast all the way to the Smithfield market. She buried the bundle by moonlight near the trees, and then I suppose she ran away.”

“So you stayed behind to uncover what she had buried?”

“No, sir. I went home. Rachel returned home too, later that night, very ill and in a fit, it seemed, so I helped her to bed. She would not speak a word. I returned to the market the next morning.”

“Why did you wait until the next day to go back?”

“Because those woods are not safe at night.”

“Ah. You think those woods are haunted.”

Mary reddened.

“I wonder what your late husband would think of your superstitions.”

“That isn’t fair,” she told him.

“Nothing is fair.” Bartwain’s lungs were threatening to spasm. He coughed into his handkerchief, discreetly checked the contents.

From research he had learned that Mary’s Huguenot parents had died by fire for their faith when their daughter was ten; a man named Johannes du Gard had taken Mary under his care in the days following. The same man married her three years later, for her protection, he said, and then went off to war against the Holy Roman Empire. He was gone off and on for twelve years, from what Bartwain could gather. When he returned, he found both his business and his place of worship destroyed, so he crossed the British Sea, wife in tow, to open a glove shop and die for Oliver Cromwell, who believed in the same God he did. Mary never had any children.

White knocked on the door. “Your next witness is here.”

“You may go,” Bartwain said to Mary. “But be prepared to testify if there is a trial. And I think there will be.” She excused herself and left, and he rose from his desk, wheezing, to find his pipe.

The investigator appreciated, at least in theory, why a woman might not want to come forward if she’d given birth to a living bastard. But why would a woman stay silent if she’d given birth to a child that died? Where dead illegitimates were concerned, the law turned on concealment. Bartwain lit his pipe, pondering. The reasonable thing for a woman to do in such situations was to come forward and confess she had delivered an illegitimate, explain it had died while she was in labor or shortly thereafter, and present it to the authorities for inspection. But time and again he’d seen women who acted contrary to common sense, women who insisted on disposing of the infants in their own secret way and who then tried to deny any wrongdoing when they were discovered. They failed to grasp that the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children declined to distinguish between murder and concealment. The law did not care about such details any more than it cared about the identity of the father. It kept things simple. Any unmarried woman who concealed her child’s death could be declared guilty of its murder --- why else would she need to hide it? If the death was hidden and the woman unmarried, she could be charged, tried, and executed. Accordingly, all Bartwain needed to indict Rachel Lockyer for the crime of infant murder was proof she’d tried to hide a bastard’s death and a reasonable assumption the child was hers. Whether or not she meant to harm it was not important; at least, not in the eyes of the law.

He could hear someone banging around in the hallway. “White!” he called out. “Where’s my breakfast?”

His secretary appeared with a platter of duck eggs. Bartwain reached for two and shook them to test for doneness; they were hard-boiled, which made him unhappy, as he preferred his yolks runny. But he was ravenous, so he ate them all anyway, not troubling to remove the shells, stuffing the eggs one after the other into his mouth. “Bring my next interview in,” he said between bites. “I will get to the bottom of this case today or I am not Thomas Bartwain.” White inclined his head, though his subservience was unconvincing; he went into the corridor to fetch the next witness.

Accidents of Providence
by by Stacia M. Brown

  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0547490801
  • ISBN-13: 9780547490809