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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 283 – Daughters of Derbyshire by Daniel Stride

Sunday, March 31, 2024 - 17:08

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 283 – Daughters of Derbyshire by Daniel Stride - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/31 - listen here)

The first story for our 2024 fiction series, “Daughters of Derbyshire,” is set in 17th century England in one of the repeated outbreaks of plague that devastated that century. It’s hard not to think of the terrible toll of the Covid pandemic when reading it. For all that, this is a quiet, contemplative story.

The author, Daniel Stride, lives pretty much on the opposite side of the globe from his story’s setting, in Dunedin, New Zealand. He has a lifelong love of literature in general, and speculative fiction in particular, although this story is purely historical. He writes both short stories and poetry and his work has been featured in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Te Korero Ahi Ka. His first novel, a steampunk-flavoured dark fantasy, Wise Phuul was published in November 2016 by the small UK press, Inspired Quill. A sequel novel, Old Phuul, is due out in 2024. Daniel is an aficionado of chocolate and cats, and can be found blogging about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, among other things, at his blog A Phuulish Fellow, which is linked in the show notes. (

 Daniel Stride

I will be your narrator for this story.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

Daughters of Derbyshire

By Daniel Stride


The cart crept along the dirt road. Wheels splashed through the puddles left from yesterday’s rain. Kate sat beside the driver, clutching a cloth bag to her chest. She paid little heed to the creak and rattle of the wooden planks, nor to the clop of the hooves. The journey was not uncomfortable, and there was little rush. Billy Phillips’ donkey was a slow and steady beast, and would not hurry, though the armies of Satan himself marched behind.

Kate pondered the impending walk back to Tideswell.

Five well-known miles, past the glistening green of field and pasture, and through copses of shadowy oaks. Travellers often passed through her village, on their way to Sheffield, but she herself rarely journeyed further than this old and familiar road. Tideswell to Eyam, Dan unto Beersheba.

“More grim news from London,” said Billy. Gnarled hands gripping the reins, he stared ahead, lost in thought. The old folk of Tideswell said Billy had not been right since the wars, when he had lost his three sons in service to Parliament. “Fresh tidings reached the tavern last night. A rider on horseback.”

Kate frowned. “Have people sought to flee the city?”

“Always. Fear runs through the streets, for the great pits are full and grow ever-fuller. But by the Grace of God, the surrounding countryside turns back escapees, and even within London the dead are not left outside during the day.”

Plague and disease had stalked this land for years beyond count. Men, women, and children suffered and died. It was the way of the world, the reflection of a sinful race. Even so, this outbreak of pestilence in the capital sent terror through the hearts of all Englishmen. Even here, in quiet Derbyshire.

No. Especially here in quiet Derbyshire.

Death had reached out its cold and clammy hand to Eyam, and even now was tightening its grip. The Rector, William Mompesson, had decreed a cordon around the village. No-one entered Eyam, and no-one left, in the hope the plague might be contained here, and not spread across the countryside. At the boundary stones, the people of neighbouring villages left food-gifts and supplies, and in exchange Eyam’s locals left coins soaked in purifying vinegar. 

Billy Phillips, he of the white beard and distant stare, was making such a food delivery this very morning.

I’m making a delivery too.

Kate had finished her morning chores, mopped the floor, and chopped the firewood. She fetched the eggs from the hen house too, finding a bounty left among the straw. God smiled even in the midst of calamity. But she prayed the pestilence had not carried off Mary since their last meeting.

There is always God’s will. We must accept what He decrees.

Kate pulled the book from her bag. Not the family Bible. That remained on its shelf at home, and taking it upon a journey would have earned her the scolding of a lifetime. This was a bound collection of printed Psalms, for study in her own time.

Her parents had taught her to read, so she might comprehend the true and unalterable Word of God, without resort to papist blasphemies, or to the infamous errors of The Book of Common Prayer.

Kate opened the book at random, and mouthed the words to herself.

 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

The boundary stone loomed beside the road, flat and grey in the noonday sun. It had been placed months ago, together with others like it. Past here, only the damned might pass.

Billy tugged at the reins. Donkey and cart halted.

“Be a good young woman, and fetch the coins,” he said. “I’ll unload the parcels.”

Kate hopped down onto the road. She left her bag on the seat.

The day was clear and quiet. No birds sang, and no wind rustled the trees. She and Billy may have been the last mortals left alive. Step by step, Kate approached the stone. She felt a vast unseen wall looming over her.

She might neither see it, nor touch it, nor smell it. But she could feel it. The wall ran across the road, in its grim and all-encompassing glory. Thus were the folk of Eyam cut off from the world of the living. Thus was Kate cut off from Mary.

Save for the Rector’s letter.

The rock had small holes in it. Kate picked out the coins. Soaked in vinegar, the coins had now dried, but the sparkle remained.

Pennies, ha’pennies, and farthings, all the poor villagers of Derbyshire could afford.

Kate laid them on her palm. The faces frowned.

Carolus Rex.

No quarrel with the King. These parts yet mourned Oliver Cromwell, a just and true man, but Charles had returned to rule his realm, and the days of the Commonwealth were over. Alas the King had acquired malicious advisers, who steered the realm away from God and towards sin. The pagan festival of Christmas was celebrated again in the land, the debauched theatres had reopened, and Kate’s own father now murmured that the pestilence showed God’s displeasure.

The righteous always suffer in this world. The whore of Babylon raises her foul head, so we must commit ourselves yet more strongly to the path of Christ.

Kate heard the scuff of Billy’s boots. She turned. The old man approached, food-parcels piled high.

“What have they left?” he asked.

“Little enough. Soon they shall rely only upon on our charity.”

The pair arranged the parcels around the stone, and Billy slipped the coins into a leather purse. The money would be divided upon the Rector’s table back in Tideswell. Kate knew there would be no complaints. This charity was freely given and pleasing to God.

Billy cupped his hands, and shouted across the green fields.

“We have brought fresh supplies, and now we leave.”

No answer. If any of Eyam heard, they hid amidst the shadows. Billy wiped sweat from his wrinkled brow.

“You desire a ride back?”

“No,” said Kate. “I shall walk. I am meeting Mary Famwell, so we might talk across the stones.”

“As you wish. But come not close to her, nor cross the boundary. Even for a moment.”

“I understand.”

“God is watching.”

 “God is watching,” Kate agreed.

Kate stuffed the cloth bag under her arm, hiked her petticoat, and trod across the fields. A creek lay near, brown and slow-flowing, home to frogs and dragonflies. Mary showed her this place, before the pestilence, when Kate’s father came to Eyam on business. Kate still treasured that day, as she treasured their first meeting at the Tideswell market, behind the clothier’s stall.

   This creek was also mentioned in the letter, cryptically, so none save God might spy upon them. She had persuaded Rector Merton to write the communication, and send it with the last load of deliveries. Thus might Mary hear of her coming.

I brought her bread. If she lives, she will eat well.

The trickle of water came to Kate’s ears. Her heart beat faster.

There it lay, past the chestnut trees, ale-brown and inviting. The creek gleamed in the noonday sun. Stones both smooth and rounded thrust up from the bed. The grass along the banks grew green and lush, dotted with clover.

Kate had last been here at the height of summer, and she and Mary had dipped feet into cool waters until their toes wrinkled. Today, the air hung humid, but not so hot. A pleasant day for luncheon.

But the creek also ran with foreboding. This was a boundary between Eyam and the world. That far shore stood distant as the Virginia colony, and the water might be the full width of the Atlantic Ocean.

The boulder sat where she remembered. Shaped like a moss-covered tombstone, to make a grim comparison. But when death ravaged the world, grimness became a decadent luxury. Kate thought it best to endure, to treasure the joys God deemed appropriate, until righteousness inevitably prevailed, and the wicked were cast down. The world lay within His hands, and even King Charles must tremble before His word.

Kate found a comfortable spot beside the boulder. Mary had not yet come.

But she shall.

A cloud covered the sun, and for a moment Kate shivered.

She opened the cloth bag, and pulled out her Psalms. She flicked to one hundred and thirty-seven, and read the words aloud.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

Then she saw the figure, across the water. Cloaked and masked, it had left the shadow of the trees, and came across the fields towards her.

Kate twitched in excitement.

The figure waved, and Kate leapt to her feet.


God in His infinite mercy had seen fit to spare her.

Mary was of age with Kate, and in soul stood closer than any sister. In the time before the pestilence, they met at market, and ate apples while their fathers discussed wool prices and lead mines. Both had newly come to the flower of womanhood, and both shared a devotion to God and His word. Mary set Kate’s heart afire, and to hold her hand was the best thing in the world.

The other girls of Tideswell might titter over young men, and soon enough wed them, but Kate felt no such desires. Young men, in her experience, were universally fools or brutes, afflicted with much vice and little virtue.

Would that no husband separate her from Mary.

But I cannot see her face. Neither the sparkle of her grey eyes, nor the rosiness of her cheeks.

Kate could not look upon Mary’s face while the plague raged. Only the beaked mask, which warded the wearer from dreadful airs.

Might she ask Mary to remove the mask, just this once?

No. She could not endanger Mary. The plague and its airs lurked in strange places. Even on the quiet banks of this ale-brown creek.

And God is watching.

Kate contented herself with a smile.

“You live,” she called. “How goes it in Eyam?”

Mary reached the far bank, and settled upon the clover. She wore not merely cloak and mask, but also gloves that stretched to her elbows.

“Poorly,” she said. “Much death and disaster. Some are struck down as if with lightning from on high; others cling to life in agony for many long days, or lie in their beds delirious with fever until the end takes them. There is little rhyme or reason behind the suffering, and few who sicken live to tell the tale. By happy will of God, my own parents and brothers have yet been spared.”

“Your Rector survives?”

“Aye. Mompesson lives. And Stanley, our true Rector. Mompesson received your letter, and slid it beneath my father’s door with a note of his own. My father’s hands shook as he read it aloud, but it warmed our hearts to hear from you.”

“The folk of Tideswell will never abandon Eyam.”

“And we shall never abandon each other.”

“I have brought you a gift myself.”

Taking care not to hit Mary, Kate threw the cloth bag across the creek. The bundle landed amidst the softness of the long grass. A monarch butterfly fluttered away.

“A loaf of bread, and a lump of hard cheese,” she said. “So that you and your kin shall eat well, even in these dark days.”

Mary fetched the bag, and looked inside.

“Your charity lies beyond reproach.”

“I also have my book of Psalms. I thought to read the verses aloud, so we might bask in the glory of His word.”

Behind the beak, Mary laughed. A sweet laugh, one belonging to happier times.

“You know me well. I too have brought His word. But not merely Psalms.”

She produced a fat blue book from within the folds of her cloak.

Kate blinked. “The Bible? You brought your family Bible?”

“I have.”

“Your father will scold you! It is far too precious to take out here.”

A full Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, printed and bound. Worth many hours of toil and labour.

“He granted me permission. He considers it far too precious to leave upon the shelf.”

“You shall return it when done?”

“That was the agreement. He taught me to read. He sees fit that I should read this.”

“What if it rains?”

“I have my cloak.”


“On the very borders of the plague village? Where Death itself walks? Kate, the people of Eyam scare the worst bandits, and those seek money and not Bibles.”

Kate relaxed.

“I am sorry,” she said. “This is more than I ever expected.”

“I understand. But would you like to hear me read?”

“With all my heart,” said Kate.

Kate walked home that afternoon, the five miles passing as a dream. But the haunting remembrance of Ecclesiastes hovered beside her like a ghost:

For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Kate stopped, and looked back towards the trapped and hapless village. A place snared in an evil time, caught as with London in this net of terrible plague.

Would that Mary live to see better days.

Death found Billy Phillips the night of New Years Eve. A peaceful death, and not from pestilence, a better end than most in these times. He had known one Queen, three Kings, and the rise and fall of the Commonwealth, and yet he left no line or legacy, save his friends, of whom he had many. His wife died before the wars, his last son perished upon the battlefield at Newbury, and he had neither brothers nor sisters, nor even cousins. But he did not leave this world alone. Tideswell villagers mourned Billy as one.

But there was property. No sooner had he been buried – with difficulty, and labour, given the frosts – than Billy’s cottage and chattels were sold off by Rector Merton.

The donkey and cart fell into the hands of George Taylor, a man Kate’s father disliked for having once been found drunk in a ditch. On the Sabbath, no less.

The February snows had lessened, but even wrapped in her thickest wools, Kate shivered atop the cart. The weak and pallid sun gleamed through the clouds, and the trees stood leafless and barren, like so many skeletons.

George Taylor’s eldest son, John, held the reins. Large, muscled, and indisputably handsome, he had earned himself much admiration and notoriety among the maidens of Tideswell. Widow Butcher, old enough to know better, claimed his brown eyes might melt the iciest of hearts.

He did not melt Kate’s heart. Kate did not care much for John Taylor. But he had volunteered to drive the five miles to Eyam to deliver food parcels, and this was Kate’s first chance in months to see Mary again. She had little choice but to accompany him.

“Good news from London,” said John.

Kate said nothing. John went on. Scarfless, he did not seem to feel the cold.

“They say the plague has eased. King Charles shall shortly return to the city.”

“Hooray for the King.”

John laughed. “By my faith, Kate. You are a sour one. Let’s bottle you for vinegar.”

“My only hope is for the pestilence to depart Eyam.”

“Where London leads, Eyam shall follow.”

“As God wills, so it shall be.”

“And what does God will for Kate Pym?”

 She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You are no longer a mere girl, Kate. Your bosom is that of a woman, and your hips are ripe for childbearing. Why do you not seek a husband?”

“It is not my time.”

“Then when?”

“When God decides.”

John Taylor looked at her oddly. They continued in silence for the rest of the journey.

No coins in the boundary stone. The folk of Eyam had naught left to give.

Kate unloaded the parcels, grateful for the warmth of woollen gloves. Then she offered John a frosty farewell, and trudged out across the snow.

“You’re mad, woman!” John called to her.

She did not turn to argue.

Trees haunted Kate all the way to the creek. All shorn of leaves by the dreary season. Branches twisted and gnarled, and powdered with white.

Mary was waiting, a lonely figure in the desolation of winter. Once more, she stood enshrouded by a cloak, this time of thick grey wool. She wore leather gloves to the elbow, and that terrible beaked mask. But it was Mary. Kate knew her companion.

“You live!”

Such weight lifted from my shoulders.

“Aye,” Mary replied. “I am so fortunate. Thanks be to God.”

There was no sitting to enjoy each other’s company, not with the heaviness of the snowdrifts. Kate stood separated not by the trickle of flowing water, but by the harsh and immovable beauty of ice. The creek lay frozen between them, still and silent as the grave.

“I bring no loaf or cheese today,” said Kate. “Tideswell has gifted Eyam another cartload of charity parcels – all we can spare during the February snows.”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Eyam shall not forget. But in truth, we grow desperate. Since we last met, the pestilence has carried off both my mother and Thomas. Richard came down with those dark swellings, and wrestled with death for twelve terrible days, but at last survived. Others are not so lucky. The Thorpes have been wiped from the earth, and mothers bury their children in the cold soil, one by one.”

Would I could take you in my arms, and comfort you. But I cannot. God is watching.

“Your father?”

“He sits gloomily beside the hearth, and mutters of the end of days.”

“Perhaps his trials are ending,” said Kate. “The pestilence in London has eased. It will ease too in Eyam.”

“It shall ease when all lie dead. Pity the last soul, for he must bury the others.”

“Mary, place your trust in God.”

A bitter laugh from behind the beaked mask.

“I cling to Him as a drowning man clings to a raft. But Eyam rots before my eyes. The roofs and roads go unrepaired, the cows go unmilked. Stones chip and stores spoil. The Church gathers dust, for our services must be open-air, even in the whiteness of winter. Men flee one another, knowing at any time they or their children might be struck down. Each one of us waits for Death, Kate. It walks among us, sits at our tables, and sleeps in our beds. We cannot escape it. But I now wonder if madness shall come first.”

Kate shook her head.

“This world is the vale of tears, the place of sorrow. There is naught I can do, and naught you can do, save hold fast to our faith. Let us read His word, and take what comfort we can in the face of death.”

A pause. At last Mary nodded.

“You’re right, Kate. Sorry to have been so sour.”

“No apologies needed. I am not like you, trapped amid the walking dead in a Babylonian Captivity. My mother awaits me in our cottage back in Tideswell, and not beneath the earth. Did you bring your Bible again? If not, I still have my Psalms.”

“I brought it. But rather than Ecclesiastes, I planned something more hopeful…”

The gloom might eat away at her soul, but even amid snow and plague, Kate found warmth in the Gospels, and in the company of Mary. Would that she had the power of Biblical Joshua, to stop the passage of the sun across the sky.

Later, Kate followed her own footprints back over the snow. Beside a tree-trunk, she turned one last time. Mary still stood far-off, beak and cloak outlined against the white fields.

Kate waved.

The figure waved back.

The snows melted, and grass reappeared. Winter turned to spring, and spring to the heat of summer. John Taylor wedded a heavily pregnant Ruth Hadfield in July, and Kate could only shake her head.

News from Eyam suggested the pestilence still ravaged the village. Deliveries of food and supplies continued, but Kate had no chance to see Mary. Not when so much work was needed at home, and her own mother was ailing.

It was early September before Kate could again make the five-mile journey.

“Fire has devastated London,” said Sam. He sat in the driver’s seat, clenching the reins until his knuckles whitened. “St Paul’s Cathedral burned down. Everyone’s homeless.”

It was the third time he’d said this since leaving Tideswell. Kate herself had learned of the Great Fire yesterday. But she let him natter. The afternoon was too hot to yell.

Red-haired and squint-eyed, Sam Hipkins was not the comeliest lad to grace God’s green earth. Nor had God favoured him with brains, though if some mule had kicked him in the head, Kate had never heard. Worse, his family’s views of The Book of Common Prayer left much to be desired. Kate would not accuse Sam of papism – he wasn’t bright enough for that sin – though she did wonder.

The Taylors were dealing with childbirth, so it fell on Sam to deliver the parcels to Eyam. Kate would ensure the food got through. The cart itself… if George Taylor trusted this poor fool to return it in one piece, that was his business. She just pitied the donkey.

But sitting atop the cart meant she tasted a refreshing breeze. To live through this summer had been to endure the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar without divine protection. One sweltering day followed another, trees and grass turned tinder-dry, no-one able to sleep at night… small wonder London had ignited.

Truly, God tested His people.

The grass grew green and lush, and the creek ran as ever. Kate was relieved. She had feared the creek had dried up in the summer heat.

But though she longed to stretch herself out beside the waters, best to hide from the sun. An overhanging willow grew not far off, arching across the creek. Shade, within sight of the meeting-boulder. She trudged over, and nestled down amid the twisted roots.

Slipping off shoes and stockings, Kate dipped her feet into the creek. She found a nice deep hollow. The cool water ran over her ankles, and up to her shins.

So good. So fresh.

Mary had not yet come.

She’ll swelter in that blasted beak.

There was naught to do but wait, and trust that God had again delivered Mary from the plague. The disease had gripped Eyam for twelve terrible months… the end must surely be in sight. They had not been cursed unto the seventh generation.

Kate opened her copy of Psalms, and commenced reading from the beginning.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Dragonflies darted about. One even landed on the page, wings obscuring God’s word.

A flick of the fingers, and Kate chased it away.

Hours passed, and the heat grew less. But the shadows around the creek lengthened, and with them the dread grew in Kate’s heart.

She had talked with Rector Merton, of course. He had written her message as before, including the cryptic reference only Mary would understand. The message had been sent with an earlier delivery, and Kate had come on the appointed day.

So where was Mary?

The plague, you foolish woman. The plague.

Kate continued to read aloud from Psalms.

Her hands shook as she turned the pages. Nor was her mind on these words, for she pondered the verse from Ecclesiastes. The one Mary had read those months ago, as they sat upon the banks of this very creek.

“We have been snared in an evil time,” she whispered.

Tears in her eyes, she offered a desperate prayer to Him.

God is watching.

With the coming of November, the pestilence vanished from Eyam, and the villagers were finally freed from their torment. For fourteen months, the stalwart courage of this brave few had stopped the plague spreading beyond the boundary stones.

Kate knew this well.

Tideswell, as much as Sheffield, owed these people their lives. Eyam had endured in darkness, so that others might walk free beneath the sun. Herself among them.

But standing amid the Eyam cemetery, seeing the graves, row on row, as the dry husks of fallen leaves lay scattered about them…

A dagger in the heart.

Kate turned, and looked Mary in the eye.

“I cannot believe you survived. When you did not meet me beside the creek in September, I feared the worst. That you had followed your mother and brother…”

It was as before. Ere the coming of the pestilence, when all seemed right in the world. Mary was herself again, without that beaked mask. Grey eyes, and cheeks both pink and merry. The autumnal breeze ruffled her dark hair.

But a sorrow still hung over her, one harder to shed.

“I cannot believe I survived either,” said Mary. “I lay abed for weeks, fevered and sweating. Worse even than poor Richard, apparently, and Death shadowed my bedside. Only my father saved me. While Richard tended to the goats and hens, he tended to me. Dour and stubborn old man, he brought me water and broth, until I was well again.”

“He watched over you too.”

“Aye. He did.”

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

“Indeed.” Mary slipped her hand into Kate’s. “Indeed.”

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Daughers of Derbyshire” by Daniel Stride, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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