It was not her fault. In days gone by no one would have thought to question her expertise; she was Mistress Winifred then - an honored and revered professional - not "Old Winnie, that witch-woman".
She was a midwife, the best in three counties, but due to her advanced age, her practice was now confined to the small villages and farms west of Meryton - and it was growing smaller by the day. Rumor and suspicion travel faster than common sense - and faith in the old ways were now ridiculed as superstition and pooh-poohed by the gentlemen of the medical profession, who had taken her wealthier clients. The measles epidemic that had plagued most neighborhoods last winter was leaving its mark on countless little souls, who by summer should have been growing fat on their mother's milk instead of littering the hillsides of Hertfordshire. And it was whispered that she was to blame. Now, on the rare occasions that she ventured into Meryton, she was being pointed out to the constable, a man who formerly paid her no mind - although she had brought him into the world not forty years before - and the look on his face was far from gratitude.
So it was when Old Winnie was called to the home of Mr. Samuel King, a gentleman of some consequence in the area. She had been surprised to be summoned that evening, for she knew that the gentleman’s young wife was being tended by the local physician. She heard the screams of pain even before she reached the door. The housekeeper, in a panic, explained that the master had gone to London on business and that the doctor could not be found; the mistress had gone into labor nearly a month earlier than expected. Despite sixteen hours of labor and the poor woman’s screams of pain, the baby was no nearer to being born than it had been that morning.
After examining young Mrs. King, a girl of barely seventeen, old Winnie shook her head; it was not going to be easy. The baby was breach and had to be turned. It was risky for both mother and child - and with the suspicions of the neighborhood - for the midwife as well. One more dead baby and Winnie felt her days could be numbered.
Preferring to work alone rather than being encumbered by incompetent fools, Winnie gave the housekeeper some herbs to make a draught to ease the mistress’s pain, then bid her dismiss the other servants.
The girl slept fitfully in the drug-induced sleep, but would not have been able to bear the pain otherwise. As Winnie feared, the baby, a boy, did not survive the birth - but she was the only one who knew. She wrapped the baby tenderly in a blanket and placed him near his mother, then told the too-trusting housekeeper not to disturb the patients until she returned from fetching more healing herbs. There would be hell to pay when the master arrived, but perhaps by then Old Winnie could make it to the next county.
As bad luck would have it, she barely made it to the next village. She was stopped as she passed through Longbourn village, called to tend Mrs. Bennet, a tiresome woman in her mid-twenties, heavy with her third pregnancy. Mrs. Bennet’s wails were as loud as Mrs. King’s had been, but to Winnie’s mind, totally unwarranted. The midwife saw immediately that this birth would be simple compared to the last. Despite her faith in the outcome, Winnie gave her special draught to Mrs. Bennet – just to ease her own ears – the woman’s screeching was nerve-rattling!
In record time, Winnie delivered a small but healthy baby girl to the now silent mother. She wrapped the baby warmly and bid the housekeeper, Hill, to present the child to its father below stairs - leaving the old woman alone. What Hill did not know was that Winnie’s business with Mrs. Bennet was not quite over; there was another child yet to be born - a twin that apparently no one was aware of. Another girl, smaller even than the first but just as healthy, was delivered of the unconscious woman.
The babe’s whimpers could barely be heard as the old woman secreted her out of the house and made quickly for the home of the Kings. The clueless housekeeper had followed her instructions and not disturbed Mrs. King and her lifeless child. Winnie substituted the live baby for the dead one just as the girl roused, moaning in pain but asking urgently for the baby she had struggled to bear. With a tear in her eye, the old woman placed the now sleeping newborn in her new mother’s arms as she told how the first child had been born dead, but his twin sister was alive and well. The living baby lessened the pain of loss; through tears of joy and grief, Mrs. King thanked Winnie for all she had done.
Mr. King and Mr. Bennet, both grateful to Mistress Winifred for the health of their wives and newborn children, did much to reestablish the old woman’s reputation in the community. For her part, Old Winnie thought it ironic that both twins were christened Mary, but thanked the good Lord and His dear mother, their namesake, that the girls had not been identical twins. That would not have been so easy to explain.