“Please sir can you tell me how to get to Corinth Street?”
“I can but it is a very long way away from here my child, tell me, where have you come from?”
“I cannot say sir, t’is a secret” she replied most earnestly, looking up at me.
I must confess that I was most surprised to find myself addressed so in the early hours of the morning, when so many are scarce awake. I myself having found the idea of sleep an anathema, betook myself to walk at leisure and at length through the numerous byways, and highways, that comprise the rookeries of St Giles. It is my profession, and though I was at present, not on duty, I betook myself to walk them still, knowing that I would do so undisturbed by the usual terrors that might befall a more innocent passer-by.
“Where are you headed my child?” for indeed an innocent child she was, though her dress was sparse for this season and somewhat meagre. “To the old curiosity shop sir, is it far from here?” I indicated that it was not, though in truth it was quite some distance from the street on which we were standing. For you see the child having inquired so softly and so sweetly of me reminded me of a sweeter, far purer time and place and I was desirous of extending that brief pleasure a little longer.
Looking earnestly at me once more, the little girl placed her tiny frozen hand in mine and we continued on our way.
“Pray child what made you inquire your way of me? What if I led you astray?”
“But you will not do that sir” she replied, “For you have a look of kindness and gentleness about you and besides” she added,”I know you to be Inspector Depta, my papa pointed you out to me before sir, as you passed our shop window. He said t’was you who rescued Lyca McKillen and returned her to her uncle sir”
The little girl trudged along beside me, her little figure trembling from time to time because of the cold and the wet (for it had been raining). As we passed through street after street drawing ever nearer to her home, she became by degrees more at ease with me, skipping along by my side and chattering away merrily all the while. Once we arrived at streets which were familiar to her, she let go of my hand skipping merrily ahead, until she reached the steps of a crooked wooden door, set into an impoverished looking shop front. Waiting for me to join her she knocked thrice upon that door, and then presently a faint light was seen to appear in the shop window, it was soon joined by the wizened face of an elderly gent leaning upon a gnarled walking stick. T’was a wonder how he came to the door so quickly, for as he opened the front door and hobbled away through the shop, I perceived that he had a wooden leg. A startled look of pleasure crossed the old man’s face at the sight of me which quite surprised me, since most impoverished inhabitants of Pater London greet my presence with either looks of grim foreboding or outright belligerence mostly.
“Well and good morning Inspector, pray, come in, come in!I was worried about the lateness of my little girl but I see she had you to keep her safe! I cannot thank you enough! Please sir, take a seat, will you partake of a little breakfast?”
The old man placed a chair by the fire and bade me sit in it, whilst the little girl having warmed her hands at the fire proceeded to skip to and fro preparing my breakfast. I enquired of the old man whether he mightn’t have taken more care with his grand-daughter’s safety, informing him that it was at such times as these that kidnappers of little girls were abroad.
“I would have made the journey to the loan shark myself” he replied, “Only you see that I am incommoded by my disability,my little Bertha is all the world to me, I would sooner cut off my other leg than to lose her”
“T’is a source of much displeasure to myself” I continued, “When I see children forced to embrace the miseries of adulthood at so young an age. To taint a child’s innocence and purity so young, t’is unconscionable!”. The old man looked a very picture of sadness as I said this, but he did not have time to respond to my assertions. For at that moment there was a brutal knock at the front door and a brusque voice cried out,
“Master Snickersby! Master Snickersby! Is you in? Open that front door or by Sweet Gove I will kick it down! Master Snickersby!” looking towards the front door the old man shuddered, he looked towards little Bertha, “Did you give him the money as I bid you?”
“Yes grandfather” the little girl tearfully replied, the timidity and the terror in the child’s face confirmed all she said. As she tremblingly placed my bread and butter on the table before me, I resolved to secret myself in a little nook of the shop and take a closer look at this loan shark. Seeing how the very sound of his voice brought terror upon the old man and his little charge, I resolved to catch him unaware as he entered the shop and then have at him!
Hobbling to the front door the old man soon opened it and another swiftly entered the shop and without bothering to look around took up my seat before the fire. “Well, well” he said looking slyly at the little girl,”If it ain’t little Bertha,you got home quick my girl! Look at you all warmed up! Ain’t you and your papa all nice and cosy in your little shop!”. A more ill-favoured cove I don’t believe my eyes ever alighted on, for his hard little face and currant bun eyes bespoke a gentleman whose graceless ways had put many an unfortunate soul behind bars.
“Bertha put your night dress on!” said the old man grimly and the little girl, trembling from head to foot, disappeared from the shop. “Do you remember me sir?” enquired the beady eyed miscreant, darting a quick glance towards the nook in which I was hiding the old man nodded,”Do you remember our arrangement sir?” again the old man nodded.
“Six shillings a month was the arrangement sir, six mere shillings and you sir have only paid four. Do you recall the penalties of our arrangement sir?”
“Six shillings, to be paid on the first day of each month or you will foreclose on my business”
The old man looked singularly distressed and as his pale blue eyes filled with unspilt tears I felt my fists tighten by my side, but worse was to follow. For the gnarly-faced malignant lashed out with his foot catching the old man’s wooden leg and knocking him to the ground,”If it weren’t for me you’d be taking up a berth at Spitalsfield Workhouse, as it is you’re barely earning minimum wage working ere! Make no mistake you old todger! Give me my money or leave the shop!”
There was an indomitable look of pleasure on his face as he watched the old man crawl away sobbing. I don’t believe my eyes have ever alighted on a more worthy case for a beating but reining myself in I stepped forth from the shadows and clearing my throat audibly I said, “Good morning Mr Whilp!”
“Is it?” replied the loan shark savagely, “I can’t say either way at present and I ain’t broke no law either! So I’ll bid you farewell and see you on your way officer!”. The greasy haired scoundrel made as if he didn’t know who I was, so I refreshed his memory a bit, jerking him up by the scruff of his collar I dragged him towards the front door. He had previously entered that front door of his own free will but now I shoved him through it so roughly that he stumbled and fell onto the cobblestoned pavement. “The name is Inspector Depta! Of the Bow Street Police!” said I, “An a more iniquitous scoundrel I don’t think I ave ever laid eyes on! Expose that poor sweet child to your brutish inclinations will you? Turn er out onto the street will you?”. I waved my bludger threateningly in his face and though he cast around for some human protection there was none, it was too early in the morning for that. Clambering away from me and to his feet he dusted off his grimy morning coat, replaced his crooked top hat and scampering off he said,”I’ll be back!” and I didn’t doubt that he’d try.
I re-entered the little shop in time to see the old man helped to his feet by the little girl,”Now then” says I, “Where’s my breakfast?”.