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!”
“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!”