T’was a mild autumnal day when Inspector Depta first happened upon the scandal brewing at Spitalfield’s Workhouse. Now the rain falls heavily upon the filthy cobbled streets, washing the mud and grime into the broken gutters. A brisk wind whistles through the trees sloughing the leaves off the gnarled branches. T’is a day conversant with all the murderous, predicatorial intent, a woman such as Birthe-Rugge could muster. What of her moral duty eh? What of that? He couldn’t prove it, but it had been whispered abroad frequently that an apprenticing with the woman, was akin to a month spent with the worst St Bacchanalia’s Asylum had to offer.
Her reputation for midwifery was impeccable, but when it came to apprenticing, why he had seen some of the worst bludgers in Spitalfields spit in the road, at the mention of her name. A woman that has successfully done away with so many, must be as cunning as she is devious. But Inspector Depta, undaunted by the challenge, instructs the Bow Street Officers to enter the workhouse from the rear. Master Deacon has agreed to accompany them and lead them to where he believes the girl lies. The Inspector has entered through the wrought-iron gates at the front, and had a quiet word with Billy Porter, who with a curt nod and a contemptuous sneer leads him to the offices of the Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe.
Inspector Depta of Bow Street yer Lordship! By your leave! Dapper and congenial keeper of the gates to the corridors of power. Treasurer of unpleasant truths and certain non-negotiable facts. Bearer of the scales of justice, shifting them this way and that, as an arbiter of laws, just and unjust. A reciter of statutes (when it suits him), and font of all matters pertaining to the unwritten principles of policing. Primum principium, never ever arrest a politician, unless you know why you come and who it’ll inconvenience. Inspector Depta has nabbed many a starving gonoph, and hauled off any number of worn out blowens in his time. And the rules is always the same, t’is the politicians what az made the laws of the land, and t’is the job of all and sundry (saving the politicians), to be importuned by em.
The Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe sits calmly behind his mahogany desk, with his hands clasped loosely in front of him. His stony gaze sweeps haughtily over the Inspector, who notes with much satisfaction how very exhausted he looks. Behold those tiny bead-like eyes set in their hollowed out sockets! The heavy shadows beneath each eye! Oh that haggard face is haughty enough, but from time to time a lost look passes over it like a scudding cloud. He had heard from the butler that his Lordship was avin difficulty sleeping, that he seemed unduly troubled by the death of an orphan he’d leased out to Master Turple-Sleath (now deceased). A Whig politician labouring under a guilty conscience, fancy that! Removing his crisp kid gloves with some care the Inspector benignly proffers his card,
“Inspector Depta of Bow Street at yer service my Lord’
“Oh?” replies the Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe fingering the calling card gloomily,
“I am here with regards to the disappearance of an apprentice bound over to Mistress Birthe-Rugge your Lordship, one Bethilda Coram”
“Bethilda Coram?” the workhouse guardian affects an air of indifference, but the Inspector is quicker off the mark than he, and leaning forward so that his shoulders bunch impressively in his tailored coat he continues,
“Such matters as these (and there are so many such matters!) are normally left in your capable hands I know, but this matter is a little different”
“Different?” now the workhouse politician wavers between haughty indifference and alarm. He may not know Inspector Depta personally, but he knows of him, the man only materialises when there is scandal present.
“The girl is an orphan ward of the Foundling hospital Mi’Lord and has lately been apprenticed to a midwife here, a Mistress Birthe-Rugge”
“Indeed? Mistress Birthe-Rugge is principal midwife here, ministering to the peculiar wants and need of some sixty five pauper-women and doing so with admirable skill I might add. What is it you require of her?”
“The whereabouts of Bethilda Coram your Lordship, for it seems that t’is here she was seen last”
“Here?” asks the startled, workhouse politician, clutching nervously at his cravat, Inspector Depta smiles benignly once more and gets to his feet,
“Mayhap, the girl has ditched her apprenticeship and fallen into bad company, but since she is a ward of the Foundling Hospital, I must needs make my enquiries my Lord.”
His Lordship is dismayed, he feels distinctly importuned, nevertheless this is Inspector Depta of the Bow Street Police. “I will have somebody escort you to the infirmary” says he rising to his feet and pulling on a dusty bell rope. The Inspector notes that his eyes are red and bleary and also notes the smell of gin and Laudanum about his person, a man on a downward slope and no mistake!
Master Fluttock enters and they are soon on their way, past sparsely furnished pauper wards filled only with the smell of mildew and damp. Past one poorly lit fireplace after another, where the dense smoke smothers the warmth of the two or three pieces of coal meted out for each fire. Past the nursery (the only warm place in the building), where the elderly nurses totter to and fro, babes in their arms. Silence is what Inspector Depta notes here, the slumbering silence that only Laudanum can induce. Casting his mind back to the Foundling Hospital, he can think of no instance when the children there seemed drugged.
“You’re looking for Bethilda you say?” Looking quickly around him Master Fluttock mutters these ominous words but the Inspector ain’t impressed,
“You ever been to the Foundling Hospital?” he asks, for the hospital lies not far from the dung heaps of Spitalfields. Master Fluttock shakes his head, spent most of his life growing up in the rookery.
“T’is an orphanage and a school for babies what’s been thrown on dung heaps”
“There’s women as would throw their nippers on dung heaps?!”
Inspector Depta looks at him sharply,”There’s women as would murder their apprentices without so much as a by yer leave, and with the whole world looking on, you have such a one living here if I’m not mistaken!”
With shoulders bowed the raddled old man recounts his tale of midnight screamings and scratchings, of beatings and sobbings so audible they plum gave him nightmares. And still the Inspector ain’t impressed,instead halfway to the infirmary he stops, lights a cigar and lounging against a poor ward door he smokes and he waits, until,
“Oi! Oi! Here they comes!” t’is two of the Bow Street Constabulary, handsome and smart of dress, and all of them grey of face,
“Well my lads how goes it?” the Inspector thinks he knows and calculates how much cleaning up this little scandal will cost his ‘Lordship’.
“We think she’s dead Inspector!”