In honour of M.R James, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, nine years before the start of the First World War and, Provost of Eton, three years after the Great War’s end.
The Right Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe is a-bed, nightcap firmly fixed a-top his flaxen pate. His has been a long and eventful day, what with the escape of Raven Industrial School’s former Headmaster from Bethel Asylum, and as if that were not bad enough he had taken the niece of Lord Montaperti with him. The reading of her father’s will was to take place three days from hence and if the girl were not retrieved by then…but she would be found he was certain.
Snugly a-bed beneath his goose feather quilt (and the astrakhan fur trimmed singlet thrown on for extra warmth), Hardy reflects smugly on the near empty state of the Spitalfield’s Workhouse. Other workhouses are brimming over with whey faced miscreants wholly disinclined to work for a living. Why at St Martins in the Fields nigh on half a million had been fed and clothed at extensive cost to the government purse. Not so Spitalfields, where no discordant note of inebriation, nor of slovenliness or slothfulness can be permitted. And where more modest amounts of food and clothing are permitted as will fuel and warm the body for purposeful work.
Propped up in bed, the Testimonies of Gove perched snugly on his lap, Ethelbert-Smythe soon falls asleep. Only to be rudely awakened by the sound of something he knows not what, something moving about in the hall beyond the sanctuary of his bedchamber. “Have I not thrice instructed Parkin to lock the servants in their rooms when they are done for the night?”. As tired as he is his sense of outrage requires that he don his dressing gown and venture out of the bedchamber. Silence. His abrupt appearance in the dimly lit hallway occasions no abrupt movements in the opposite direction by furtive, frightened servants. There is no one there, it is merely a figment of his imagination. And so he clambers back into bed and having at once snuffed out his candle falls fast asleep.
The sensation of a cold and clammy hand tenderly stroking his brow awoke him once more for accompanying it, was the pungent sweet aroma of Opium smoke. His eyes flew open at once and the sight which greeted them propelled him out of his bed and onto the floor. “What’s wrong with him Skinner? What’s wrong with him?” the face is greying and hollow around the eye sockets, the ragged clothes half burn’t and the hands? Oh horror of horrors! The hands once fleshed out and delicate, have become mere withered singed claws the end result of being set a-flame in a chimney fire.” What ails thee Mr Ethelbert-Smythe? Art thou burning in the fires of hell as I am? Art thou burning in the everlasting fires?”. Hemphill Skinner chuckles as he reclines upon that selfsame spot where Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe had until that very minute lain.”Nay Lad, he is not set a-flame where we are, he is very much alive enjoying hearth and home and family!”.
Crawling across the Astrakhan fur singlette (pipe in hand) Hemphill Skinner chuckles and grins and that sight terrifies Ethelbert-Smythe more than any other. “You can’t be here! You can’t be! You can’t be! You’re dead! Dead! I was at your funeral!”. Now Skinner crawls across the floor toward the rapidly retreating Smythe who has scuttled up across his dressing table and now sits crouched upon the windowsill. “Oh?” smirks Skinner pausing to inhale a puff of opium smoke through the gash in his neck,”Was you at hers?”.
And now fear, cold and clammy as the night shirt that clings to his back, snakes it’s way around his heart. Panic,bewilderment and mounting terrror sweep over him and then he sees it, hovering in a corner of the room and creeping slowly, ever closer, ever closer to where he crouches. A stark white linen bedsheet twisted around some sub-human form he cannot clearly see. And, oh horror of horrors! It is stained with clots of some putrid substance, he knows not what. ” I waited for hours to see yeah” it whispered, “waited, and waited. The little ones was so cold for waiting, but we’re not cold no more! We’re not cold no more!” scuttling slowly towards him on its haunches it growls and then springs towards him suddenly, knocking him off the windowsill and back onto the floor. “Help!Help help!Help!” scrambling to his feet he lurches towards the door opens it and is about to hurl himself through it but alas! Too late! Hands grabbing hold of the tail-end of his nightshirt tug him violently back into the room, and he is once more left rolling to and fro upon the velvety carpetted floor.
“We can bide here no more!” whispers Hemphill Skinner his Opium pipe firmly tucked away. “We can bide here no more, but we’ll not go empty handed!” gripping Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe firmly by the throat, whilst Dommy Woodbine grabs tight hold of one leg, he tugs him back onto the bed and towards the back wall. Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe espies first a crack and then a fissure in the plaster. Opening, slowly widening, until his face is lit up with the belching flames and suphurous smoke of some hellish netherworld. “Oh God! NO! Not me! Not me! Sweet Gove! Save me!” nought but silence greets his pleas for his (as many a pauper would agree) has never been a merciful God. “Help me!” but t’is too late and as Hemphill Skinner tugs him feet first through the fissure his last words are,”Think of my children!”.
Fanny Ethelbert-Smythe is up with the larks, first having breakfast (Kippers and scrambled eggs).Then she quietly descends to the drawing room where the servants await her for morning prayers. The household has not always been run this way, but of late the master of the house has not been himself. And so it has fallen to her until he recovers himself sufficiently, to see to it that things go on as they should, indeed as they always have. Sweeping her skirts behind her with one elegant hand, her ladyship descends to her knees and with a stern eye exhorts all the servants to join her. “Dear Lord, we beseech thee, aid us in serving our fellow man and soften our hearts towards those who abide enduringly in dire misfortune, amen”. A resounding amen is uttered by all present and so the servant’s work day has begun.