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
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 beh...