“Has ever the like been seen?”
“Not this side of Spitalsfield I’ll be bound!”
“T’was Ethelbert-Smythe enlisted her aid”
“Ethelbert-Smythe the workhouse guardian?”
“Aye, he! Folk dying left and right of starvation and him boasting of them six hundred empty beds up at the workhouse!”
“Empty beds? At Spitalfields? But the infirmary there is overflowing with Cholera patients!”
“On certain days of the week aye! But at night…”
“At certain times of the night?! Not him too!”
“Aye! The devil! The fiend!”
“Has no one thought to report him?”
“Aye! As many as have thought to report her! And az little has come of it! Remember Bethilda Coram?”
“Er az had er eyes blacked for nigh on three months?”
Master Fluttock nodded,”The very same! Black an blue she were after Birthe-Rugge ad done with er”
“What? She as run orff?”
Master Fluttock smiles sadly, “Took sanctuary with the Foundling Hospital & they sent er back!”
“Back to Madame Birthe-Rugge?!” exclaims Billy Croft, for he cannot well believe that a woman such as she would be allowed one apprentice, let alone the dozens who’ve disappeared whilst under her roof.
“After much moral ‘suasion from Master Birthe-Rugge she agreed to come back, moral ‘suasion is a potent unction I’m told” replies Master Fluttock,
“Where else ad she to go? T’is a deplorable predicwament! Deplorable! She still ere?”
Master Fluttock shrugs, a troubled look crosses his face, for in truth he had never seen a maid look so terrified as Bethilda was, when first she crossed over the threshold to Mother Birthe-Rugge’s lodgings, and since then?
“Seen neither hair nor hide of ‘er since she entered their establishment an that t’were three week ago” another troubled look flits across his drink-raddled features; for in truth he had heard the girl though he had not seen her. In the dead of night as he patrolled through the workhouse keeping a close eye on male and female wards (and an even closer eye on the goings-on at the infirmary). At such a time of night, when nought stirred save the wind whistling through the trees, then might such piteous wailings ,and frantic scratching sounds be heard, t’was terrible. And such laughter! Dark,fiendish, and hysterical! T’was the likes of which he hoped never to have heard outside of St Bacchanalia’s Asylum.
“I’ve heard er!” he whispered nervously,
“What ave you eard?”
“One night some fierce sobbing and a desperate scrabble at the front door, another night cries of ‘let me go let me go!’,and then the fierce cracking of a whip and even fiercer cries of ‘we’ll ave none of that ere! Back into the coal grate with yer!! Followed by more fierce sobbing, devilish laughter and then silence!”
Master Fluttock patted his coat pocket, “Asleep, at his desk” said Master Fluttock smiling contemptuously, “I left him nipping a gin and Laudanum toddy!”
“But it’s barely past morning! Troubles at home I don’t wonder”
“Wonder all you likes! E don’t do something there’s a scandal in the orffing! Oi oi!”
They barely have time to compose their features before Madame Birthe-Rugge is upon them, resplendent in dove grey silk ,with a vast white apron tied round her midriff, and sparkling white cuffs bunched up to her forearms. A gentle smile ,a slight nod and a curtsey and then,
“Masters Fluttock and Croft a good day to you”
The two gentlemen glance expressionlessly at each other then at her,”Good day Mistress Birthe-Rugge” they mutter darkly, t’is a commonplace greeting, wrung dry of warmth, and stuffed full of suspicion. Ignoring their dark looks the lady is soon on her way, head held high and feet striding purposefully towards the Spitalfield’s infirmary. She has a prodigious number of patients, for the poor you know breed like rabbits. They are lucky to have her, for Mistress Birthe-Rugge is an excellent midwife (having birthed sixteen children of her own), and her services (for now) are very much in demand. Indeed, t’is almost a pity that (the poor being as they are), the lady is not given more credit for the gentility of her manner, the cleanliness of her dress and the orderliness of her domestic establishment.
But now let us wander across the road from the Spitalsfield’s workhouse, to that pristine establishment known to all and sundry as the business premises of Deacon’s Bakery. Presided over by one Mr Deacon senior, a taciturn gentleman of high moral principle and rigid social arrangements. Master Methuselah Deacon esquire, baker extraordinaire (having served his apprenticeship out in the once esteemed household of Lord Tobias Grid-Iron). Ardent and most loving father to Lucius and Lucinda Deacon (twins), dutiful husband to the shrewd and staunchly intractable Mistress Deacon.
“Are you willing Master Deacon?”
“Most indubitably dear wife, and would be so, though, the very hounds of hell should nip at my heels! the skylight is open you say?”
“The Birthe-Rugges have flung the roof asunder, for the sake of a pig my dear! A mere pig!”
“And the girl? You are sure she was kept there last?” a thunderous look passes over Mistress Deacon’s face, she, who, having birthed two children (twins) and trained several seamstresses, now stands trembling with rage. For the stern, impeachable character of the neighbourhood has been steadily corroded by the presence of the Spitalfield’s Workhouse, and by hook or by crook Mistress Deacon would have that reputation restored.
Inspector Depta is at the ready, “We ave yet to spot the gel my luv, but Lucius is certain we shall see er! Inspector Depta are you partial sir?”
“Always Mistress Deacon, always, she’s kept in the attic you say?”
Mistress Deacon nods and from somewhere behind her a lone sob arises, followed by a wailing shriek,descending once more into a tremulous series of sobs.T’is Bethilda’s grandmother who, having expended both time and money to visit her grand-daughter, caught herself a glimpse of the child much bruised and beaten, before being driven out of the workhouse by the fiendish Birthe-Rugge.
“A devilish time the child as ad of it and we’ll ave no more of it! We will ave er outta there this very morning or so gawd elp me!” Mistress Deacon is overwrought.
“There, there, Ma Deacon!, Inspectah Deptah is ere now, and we looks to him to do is duty!” Baker Deacon winks at Inspector Depta who, having been offered a little sweetener on account, winks back. He has discarded his jacket and now leaning out of the attic window he peers down through the uncovered skylight into the yard below. He espies a hog rooting around in the muddy yard and something else, a begrimed arm flailing about in the mud and two legs bundled in muddied skirts,still, and unmoving. Inwardly Inspector Depta groans for this is a blooming scandal and no mistake! One of Madame BirtheRugge’s apprentices dead? Hardly news, word had it she’d been murdering them for years, but an apprentice killed under the supervision of Mr Ethelbert-Smythe izself? It didn’t bare thinking about.
“I can see er! She’s on er back in the yard, she ain’t moving! Master Deacon! Hand me your rolling pin!” clasping the rolling pin Inspector Depta narrows his eyes, and taking good aim drops the rolling pin through the open skylight, and into the Spitalsfield’s workhouse’s backyard. The rolling pin falls fast, dropping through the skylight ,and then bouncing off the prone legs, and rolling away into the muddy yard. A loud groan floats up through the rafters from the prone body below, greeting his ears, the inspector sighs with relief, beaten bloody no doubt, but the apprentice weren’t dead, not yet.
“Master Deacon! Send for the Bow Street Police! The girl’s alive!”