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Chapter Twenty

I visit Jack Sprue



Once inside, I stood with my back against the door. The house was dark and almost silent. It was that time when morning is about to break and all are spent from the previous night’s escapades. I listened to the ticking o’ the clock and the scratch of the mice behind the wainscot. I meant to tell Mother Shadbolt of the terrible discovery, but found myself frozen with fear. I calmed myself as best I could. No progress would be made in the matter if I was all fear and trepidation. 

Whatever happened, Mother Shadbolt must know of tonight’s discovery, but if I told her, she would surely send me away. On the other hand, that might save my life. I doubted Thomas Partington’s Islington bagnio (which is no bathhouse but a brothel such as ours) would be far distant enough, now the body had come to light… and, thinking on it, would Craddock really act against me? If no one identified the corpse (and I felt sure that if I could not identify him when he was fully fleshed, no one would identify him now that his body was naught but a pile of gristle and bones), surely it would be deemed a suspicious death by an unknown perpetrator? That being the case, no harm would come to us as long as Craddock did not reveal that I had told him of the circumstances of the murder. 

Unfortunately, Lord Appleby also knew of the matter. Although I felt sure I could trust my newly acquired friend, I was not so stupid as to think that he would remain silent when questioned by Sir John Fielding, particularly, if our names were linked and a report of the scandal found its way to the newspapers. A thing like this cannot be so easily hidden. Many had witnessed the hideous contents of the barrel. Questions would be asked. People would come forward; many go missing each month. Surely, someone would propose an identity. So, I was back where I started. I did not think it likely anyone could identify the man from the bones alone, but someone might identify him simply because they knew of someone who had visited our establishment and who was now missing. 

I tore at my hair in anguish. How could I have been so stupid? I could not alert Mother Shadbolt to the arrival of the Runners. I must wait until that fateful knock on the door summoned me to face my wrongdoings. If I wanted to remain in this house, then I must bear my troubles with composure. I had always thought of myself as a strong-willed woman, but lately I had been overly sensitive and anxious. That must change. Society may consider women to be the weaker sex, but I knew myself to be stronger than many men and capable of great feats of intellect, though I had not had the opportunity to prove myself. Lord Appleby had been eager to shelter me from harm – but then, that had been when he knew little of my true situation. 

I climbed the stairs to my room and shut the door. It took me no time at all to strip off my masquerade costume and change into more work-a-day clothes. I tied a warm, old cloak around my shoulders. I found a pair of gloves, donned sturdy footwear, and slipped back down the stairs to the parlour. It was four in the morning and the world was coming awake. I could hear the carts of the Covent Garden trades-people as they arrived for the day’s business. Though I was more tired than ever I could remember, at least my shakes had abated. I always felt better doing something. It was not in my nature to lie in wait. Waiting for the worst to happen felt too much like surrender.

Outside, the sky was still dark and the air filled with frost. I waited on the step, watching my own misty exhalations. No, I would not wait for Craddock to catch up with me. I would take myself straight to him and tell him of the discovery of the corpse. I would ask him to be gentle with John Bradley. First though, I must speak with Sprue. 

I walked the length of the Little Piazza, hugging the wall so as not to draw attention from the early morning stallholders. I kept glancing behind, full expecting someone to place a pistol to my head. Perhaps Westman, with his shining black eyes and mysterious demeanour. 

Next door to Bradley’s gin shop was Lovejoy’s bagnio, then the portrait painter, and then the Old Turkish bath known as The Hummums. Last in the row was the Bedford Arms. It was all shut up. I checked behind one last time and pushed the gate open to the passage that led across the backs of the houses in Tavistock Street. Half way down the passage, between two privies, I entered a door, behind which lay a short flight of steps down to the cellar of the house above. This was where Jack Sprue laid his head. A second door barred my way. I knocked and waited. The air was rank with the smell of the privies. I heard a grunt. I knocked again, this time more forcefully. Although I did not think I had been followed, I could not be sure. I wanted inside as quickly as possible. 

“Sprue, are you in there?” I said. 

The bolts were thrown, the door creaked and shook as Sprue opened it. He was bleary-eyed, his shirt greasy and untucked, his thin hair wild atop his balding pate.  He coughed and spat phlegm out over my shoulder. It hit the wall behind me. 

“Oh, you. What d’you want?” he said.

He made no attempt to stop me from entering his filthy hole. A fire burned low in the grate and a single candle stood on the table in the middle of the room. At one end was an old box bed, built into the wall. I saw dirty sheets and a thread-worn blanket.

“Close the door.” I said. Sprue slammed it shut. 

“You chose a fine time to pay a visit,” he said. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You come to offer me your services? Only I have trouble these days.” 

He reached inside his breeches and pulled forth his flaccid instrument. It was no more than a soft button of flesh. I sighed.  

“I have not come for that.” (Nor ever will from you, I thought.) “I do not know where you disposed of the barrel, but I do know it washed up last night on the shore at Northumberland House. By daylight, all London will know of it. The Runners will come first to speak with John Bradley. I assume he knows nothing of this matter?”

Sprue frowned. I continued.

“Like as not, they will knock on our door next. Of course, we do not know anything of the dead man, and neither do you. Do I make myself clear?”

Sprue picked his blackened teeth with an equally black fingernail. 

“What’s it worth?” he said.

I took out my purse. Inside I had three guineas. It was all I had. If, for any reason, I needed to bribe someone else I would have to borrow money. I placed the purse on the table and pushed it towards Sprue. He took it, opened the drawstring top and looked up at me. A smile spread across his face.

“Never seen him before.”

“Good.” 

I walked to the door. I had completed the transaction. I must be away from here. I did not wish to spend a moment longer in the pox-infested hole Sprue called home. He jangled the coins. I reached for the door. He slammed the coins down on the table. The sound made me jump. I opened the door. Sprue banged it shut with a gnarled fist.

“Can you guarantee that your ‘usband will not torture me into a confession?” 

He pressed his face to mine. I smelled his foul breath but did not shrink away.

“I have no husband,” I said. He could not know the truth. No one did.

“You tellin’ me you ain’t married to Jim Craddock?” He grunted out a laugh. My heart skipped a beat. “It ain’t a secret darlin’,” he said. “Everyone knows. Everyone plays along.”

How? I had said nothing and I knew Craddock would not speak of it. I held onto my composure.

“I will make sure you are not unduly bothered by our problem,” I said, and reached out for the door handle. Sprue grabbed my wrist. 

“You wish me to keep my mouth shut, you will have to give me a lot more than three guineas,” he said. 

He kissed the palm of my hand. I curled my fingers into a fist and gritted my teeth. I had suffered enough indignity.

“You will get nothing from me. Remember, you are as complicit in this as I. More so, I think.” 

I tried to wrestle my arm away, but Sprue thumped the door with his other hand and pushed me tight against the rotting wood.

“They tell me you keeps yourself clean. Cleaner than most anyway. I like that. I like that a lot.” 

He tried to kiss me. I resisted. He tried again. I felt his rough lips on my cheek.

“No,” I said. “No. Leave me be.” I struggled to free myself. A whore is as worthy of respect as any woman, though there are those who say otherwise. 

Sprue held me for a moment longer and then released me and fell backwards into his chair, his hand to his chest. 

“I’m sorry love,” he said. “Don’t know what come over me.” His voice was now just a low growl.

“Clearly,” I said. I straightened my dress. It was nothing but a play of normality.

“You won’t say nothin’, will you?” he said. His face was red and sweat had broken out on his brow, though it was as cold as a graveyard. “Only, Mother Shadbolt is good to me. I don’t get much work these days.”

“What is there to tell?” I replied. “Are you ill?” 

“’Tis nothing. My chest hurts somethin’ rotten in this weather.” 

He coughed so hard I heard the phlegm rattle. I nodded at the coins on the table. 

“Don’t drink it all away. Use some of it to go to the apothecary,” I said. “Take care.”

He grunted. I let myself out of his hole. I had to trust that he would keep quiet. My long night was coming to an end. A new day would bring new threats. I still had much business to conclude and no time to allow fear to get the better of me.

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