There are odd corners in the brains of many of us, corners which are suffused with queer fancies, and thus should be kept well out of sight. But should these slight, queer, fancies -which some might choose to call ‘an attack of consciense’-be deemed madness? Nay dear reader, for if some of us were used according to our desserts in that way, who then should ‘scape the modern substitutes for whipping?
Consider the most estimable Ethelbert-Smythe MP, who upon having seen Lady Clarence to her carriage and the Reverend Farthengrodden to his, now stumbles fearfully towards his study. The vast empty corridors of the workhouse echo beneath his feet, its interiors are as dark and dank and forbidding as any empty house would be, for the wards of this supposed sanctuary are half full. Many have whispered that it is his intention to do away with the workhouse and keep only the casual wards, this despite the poor who daily clamour at his doors for want of hearth and home.
His richly furnished study is the only part of the workhouse supplied with a vast well lit fireplace, and comfortably upholstered furniture, yet the guardian enters his domain with a most unexpected timidity, with a degree of apprehension and agitation one would not expect of he who had so dramatically shrunk the population of a workhouse, from nigh on seven hundred to a hundred and fifty.
Indeed, as guardian of the workhouse his first act was to ensure the creation of a well stocked study and office, a warm and comforting place, where prodigious amounts of Claret might be consumed, cigars smoked and business conducted. His second was to extend the horse barns considerably, transforming them into the casual wards of the workhouse. Consider dear reader, a practice which when first suggested, horrified Miss Peepy the elder,
“What?!” cried she indignantly, “Are we to debase the poor still further, since they have no employ, by likening them to horses and what pray tell, shall we be feeding them? Hay?”
“If they’re berthed for the night, and sent out to look for work during the day is there any need to feed them?” the right honourable Ethelbert-Smythe observed coolly. On hearing his reply Miss Peepy felt an impending sense of looming disaster, was it possible that the poor would allow themselves to be lodged as horses and starved without there being consequences? And of the direst sort? She suggested this to the indefatigable workhouse guardian whose reply was this,
“Consider the Scottish fir-”
“The Scottish fir?!” cried Miss Peepy disbelievingly, ” Now we are to liken human lives to lumps of wood? Take Care Ethelbert! That you summon not up the hordes of vengeance! Remember the Grid-Iron Riots!”
Remember them? Why it had taken him six hours to reach his his home! The selfishness of the poor! The sheer wanton, violent, selfishness, it was positively Malthusian! Indeed it has proven most Malthusian once the fatalities (his lordship included) were counted.
“Rioting within the rookery? My dear, the environment has been favourable for so long, that the populace of this slum, have begun to mistake Spitalfield’s Workhouse for a tavern, in which an abundance of provisions may be devoured, and nought paid for them. They are far too comfortable to consider rioting! T’is time we discomfited them!”
And so his suggestions were considered by all the workhouse trustees, voted upon and passed. This included the apprenticing of all children past the age of four to apprentice masters of the direst sort. Why, Master Turple-Sleath had apprenticed and near killed a dozen chimney sweeps, before he lit upon Dommy Woodbine, the child whose cindery death had provoked the Grid-Iron Riots! Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe braved out the death and since he had taken charge workhouse commerce had flourished, and the costs of keeping the workhouse poor had diminished to a most inconsequential amount. On the whole his reforms had been feted, though not by Miss Peepy. Miss Peepy being unmarried and therefore prone to frequent misdirected tendernesses of heart.
Yet in the early hours of each morning he felt himself plagued by nameless and terrible fears, and he suffered increasingly from nightmares, such terrible nightmares! T’was as if he were being mercilessly, sharply, prodded by the stern finger of god, and yet he knew himself to have committed no sin, no obvious act of wrong. Perhaps he had been a little tardy in his prayers, a little lethargic in his recitations of The Goveen Creed, perhaps that was it.
Fatigued and a little overwrought from long working hours (and ever shortening nights of sleep) he slumped into his favourite study chair, but oh horror of horrors! A clammy hand firmly grips his own, holding it fixed beneath its hairy grip. Shrieking fearfully his gaze alights on that place where the phantasm that touched him should be, but there is no one, nought but him, pale and trembling before a roaring fire.
Sitting down once more, he pours himself some brandy in an effort to calm his nerves and after several quick gulps it appears to do the trick, but then he espies something wrong with the fireplace. Indeed he fancies that something or someone is moving amongst the flames, and frighted well past all his previous allayed terror, he leaps out of the armchair, only to be held fast by a grimy hand that has slithered out of the flames and snaked itself around one of his ankles.
“Have you forgot me?” croaks the face that accompanys the hand, it glares up at him out of the flames with a degree of malice that does not bode him well at all, “T’is I! Master Hemp-Hill Skinner!” the soot covered visage staring up at him seemed goatish and crafty and its eyes! It’s eyes!
“Aaargh! Aaargh! Cthulu fd’aarghen!!!!” Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe screams as though a nameless terror has clutched him by the throat and is now in the process of tearing him limb from limb. He screams as if the very hounds of hell are gnawing and gnashing at his ankle, he screams until he is hoarse with screaming and then he faints. Outside, on the streets the sun is shining ,and those poor who have been allowed into the workhouse, go about their daily labours with pure hearts and a clear consciense.