When we first meet Jane, she is just twelve and living in her father’s house in St Andrewgate. Her mother is dead, and although Jane is nominally in charge of the household, she relies on their servant, Ellen, who teaches her the skills she will need to run her own household one day.
Jane is planning to make a dish to please her bad-tempered father: stewed fillets of beef. This is the recipe I imagined her following, from Sallets, Humbles & Shrewsbury Cakes: A Collection of Elizabethan Recipes Adapted for the Modern Kitchen by Ruth Anne Beebe (Boston, 1976):
Read the excerpt …
Jane liked Ellen. She was not so old, nineteen or twenty, but Jane’s mother had trained her from a girl, and she knew the kind of things Jane wanted to know: how to make a remedy for a rheum or how to make a tart of an ear of veal. Ellen could be brusque, and her temper had been shorter than usual lately, but she was a good cook, and it showed in her round figure.
Where was Ellen, anyway? It was not like her to be away from the kitchen for so long. Jane frowned a little as she bent over a straggle of thyme. She had been looking tired and puffy-eyed earlier, and Jane had seen her rest her hand on her ample stomach and wince. Jane glanced down at the privy at the end of the garden. Perhaps Ellen was in there? She would leave her be and start stewing the fillet herself. She could read the recipe and it could not be so hard. Already she had set out her ingredients: raw beef from her father’s shop, oozing blood, some claret, some mace, a precious lemon. The lemon was somewhat wizened, but it would serve.
A restless gust of wind blew the branches of the apple trees about, splattering dampness and drizzle in Jane’s face. She wiped it off with her knuckle. Just a few leaves more and she could go back to the warmth of the kitchen … Shivering, she crouched to pick over more twigs in search of some green, and that was when she heard it.
A groan, as if ripped out of a belly, a whimpering gasp. Jane jerked upright and span round. Had it come from the jakes? What if Ellen was ill in there? She took a step towards the wooden privy, only to stop when another cry came from the stable.
Her father was out on his horse, and his servant, John, had gone with him. Tom, the apprentice, was minding the shop in the Shambles. The stable should be empty.
Jane hesitated, her hands full of thyme leaves. A stable would be a fine hideout for the vagabonds and rogues her father said were thronging the city. She tiptoed down to the privy. ‘Ellen,’ she whispered, but there was no reply, and when she tentatively pushed at the door, it swung open to release the familiar stench.
Should she go back to the house and find her? Or she could pretend that she hadn’t heard anything. Half of Jane wanted to do just that, to run back to the kitchen and warm her hands by the fire, to slice the beef half as broad as her hand, as the recipe said, and set sweet butter sizzling in the frying pan. But there had been real distress in that muffled scream. Someone was hurt, and Jane couldn’t walk away.
The stable door stood ajar. Hesitantly, Jane pulled it wider so that she could step into the opening. ‘Who’s there?’ she called, trying to sound like the mistress of the house and not a scared twelve-year-old maid.
The only answer was another wrenching cry.
‘Who is it? Who’s there?’ One cautious step after another, Jane advanced into the stable. It smelt of straw and horse and wet leather, and of the apples wrinkling in the loft above. The meagre November light through the open door barely penetrated the shadows, and Jane paused, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dimness. A pitchfork had been left leaning against the wall, doubtless where John had left it, and Jane picked it up. She was but a poor squab of a girl, as Henry Birkby was always pointing out in disgust, and the pitchfork was taller than she was, so Jane was not at all sure how she would be able to use it to defend herself, but it would make her look as if she was not to be trifled with, surely?
‘Who’s there?’ she said again, comforted by the weight of the pitchfork in her hand.
A stifled gasp came from the stall. She could see more clearly now, and she picked her way around a splatter of dung towards it Taking a firmer grip of the handle, she stepped around the end of the stall to confront the intruder inside. Only then did she see who was crouched in the straw, clutching onto the manger, her face contorted with pain.
‘Ellen!’ Jane dropped the pitchfork. It clattered to the stable floor unnoticed as she fell to her knees beside the servant. ‘Ellen, what has happened?’
The tendons in Ellen’s neck stood out and her eyes were rolling wildly. ‘You shouldn’t be here, Jane,’ she managed between gasps. ‘Get back to the house!’
‘I can’t leave you! You’re sick!’
Ellen gritted her teeth against a grunt of pain. ‘I’m not sick, you simpleton! Arghh …!’ Hoisting up her skirts, she slumped back into the corner of the stall while Jane watched in horror. ‘Go on, get out of here,’ she snarled at Jane when she had the breath.
Jane scrambled uncertainly to her feet. ‘I’ll get help.’
‘No,’ gasped Ellen. ‘No, there’s nowt anyone can do now. It’s too late for the midwife.’
‘Midwife?’ Jane gaped at her and Ellen barked a laugh between the mighty twists of pain.
‘God’s bones, what did you think was happening? Did you think I’d just grown fat these last few months?’
She had thought that. Jane flushed. ‘I am sorry,’ she said in a small voice. ‘I did not know.’
Unable to bear the innocence in the huge eyes, Ellen looked away. ‘Well, now you do.’
‘What … what of the baby’s father? Does he know?’
Ellen stared at the knots in the wooden stall, exhausted by the pain that had her in a savage grip. ‘Oh, aye, he’ll know.’
‘My father will speak to him. Put him in mind of his obligations.’
Ellen’s laugh was bitter. ‘You reckon?’ She broke off with a scream as another contraction, more powerful than the others, shook her. ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ she panted when she could. ‘You’re just a lass, Jane. Go on, begone with you.’
‘No.’ The soft mouth set in a stubborn line. ‘If I cannot get help, then I cannot go. Tell me what to do.’
‘Sweet Jesus, do you think I know?’ Ellen buckled under another onslaught of pain, and Jane crept up to take her hand.
‘Does it hurt very much?’
Tears oozed down Ellen’s face. The cap had slid off her head and her wiry hair was damp and dark with sweat. ‘What do you think?’ she managed with a twisted smile before her eyes rolled back once more and she bellowed as if her body was being ripped apart.
Jane looked around frantically. There had to be something she could do. Spying the cloth John used to rub down the horses, she snatched it up and dipped it into the water trough, so that she could wipe Ellen’s face. ‘It will be all right,’ she said in her firmest voice, and a faint smile twisted across Ellen’s face.
‘What would you know?’ she managed, but she groped for Jane’s hand once more. ‘I’m frightened,’ she confessed in a hoarse whisper. ‘I’m right glad you’re here, lass.’
Excerpt from The Edge of Dark © Pamela Hartshorne 2014.