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Chapter Thirteen

Of the barrel and its contents



I had spent but one day away from my home in the stews of Covent Garden, but already I felt adrift on a sea of confusion and doubt. I had suffered extremes of both trauma and emotion such than any ordinary woman might crumble and yet here I was, able to make polite conversation, to dally with aristocracy and to speak to the literary elite with all the ease of someone whose days are given over to graceful purpose. Perhaps Mr. Boswell was right - I ought to try the stage; I was ever an actress at heart and could convey sentiment and distraction in equal measure.

I hastened to return to Mother Shadbolt’s nunnery. My morning’s fear had turned to confusion and consternation. Whereas I had previously desired that the barrel and its contents be taken from my room, so that I might return to my former occupation and earn my way out of debt, I now wished fervently that said barrel remain in place. I needed to inspect the contents more closely. Particularly, to go through the pockets of the gentleman therein concealed so I might discover his true identity. I knew only one thing – the dead man was not William Westman, as he had originally claimed. An imposter lay dead in that barrel. An imposter.

Night cast evil shadows over the Covent Garden cobbles. I could see the lights of The Finish and the dark silhouette of our Church. A horse and cart drew up outside our Russell Street entrance. I glanced over my shoulder and thought I saw someone hidden beneath the portico on the opposite side of Russell Street, but when I dipped my head to focus more clearly, whomsoever it was had gone. Surely, a gentleman carouser and no more? I offered up a silent prayer for safety and slipped in through the door, to hurry up the stairs.

The parlour was empty - the candles in their wall sconces were burned almost all the way down and the fire low in the grate. The dining room was also empty, save that the table was strewn with the remains of supper. The crystal glasses lay upturned and our fine bone china plates and dishes were in disarray. Someone had spilled red wine on the table linen and there was a smell of piss from the chamber pot hidden in the cupboard. 

I ran up the second flight of stairs. Daisy’s door was closed and there were sounds coming from within. Priss too had a visitor, as did Constance and Lizzie. Little May ran across the landing in front of me, closely followed by a young buck with his breeches around his knees. I hung back until they passed. 

On entering my room I found Sprue with the barrel tipped on its edge and he in the throes of a fit from the effort of moving it. Mother Shadbolt held a candlestick and barked at Sprue to keep it rolling.

“Kitty, there you are. Sprue will take it down the back stairs. Be a good girl. Make sure all are busy,” she said. “I don’t want any witnesses to this.”

“No,” I exclaimed. “I need to look inside.”

Sprue cursed and the barrel slammed back down on the floor. 

“No, carry on. Don’t stop,” said Mother Shadbolt to Sprue.

Sprue pulled a face and manhandled the barrel back onto its edge with much grunting and groaning.

“Wait. You don’t understand.” I said. 

I pushed Sprue away and the barrel slammed back down once more. Sprue threw up his hands in despair. I tore at the lid, but it was jammed on tight. 

“Help me get it off,” I shouted at Sprue.

“No, Kitty no,” said Mother Shadbolt. Sprue simply shrugged and made no attempt to either move the barrel or help me with the lid. 

“The cart is waiting. We have to be rid of it now,” said Mother Shadbolt. “What can you want with opening it up?”

I broke a fingernail on the wood. 

“Damnation.” I kicked the barrel in anger. “He is not William Westman.” 

Mother Shadbolt scowled. “What do you mean, ‘not William Westman’?”

“What I say. I saw Mr. Westman this evening at the theatre. Mr. Boswell confirmed it was he. This man… this body… is not… he is not the person he said he was when he entered the premises last night.” 

For certain, it seemed a much longer time had passed than twenty-four hours.

“Are you sure?” said Mother Shadbolt.

“Yes. Yes I am. We must go through the clothes. We must find out who he is.”

“Don’t see what good that will do you,” said Sprue. “He’s dead and there’s no changin’ that.”

I gave him an exasperated look. Sprue had a habit of stating the blindingly obvious. 

“He’s right dear,” said Mrs. Shadbolt. “We can’t change things now. If he’s not Westman, then what does it matter who he is?”

“It matters because he was being pursued by an enemy. Don’t you see? The murderer could return. He could kill us all in our beds.”

“I don’t see why. We provide a service. No good would come from killing one of us,” said Mother Shadbolt, but she was unnerved by the prospect to which I had given voice and fingered the crucifix at her neck.

“I could ‘ave the lid off, if you really want,” said Sprue. “But I can’t hold the cart forever.”

I nodded, eagerly. Sprue set to prising the lid off the barrel. Mother Shadbolt threw up her hands in despair.

“The Lord God will rain down His terror upon us,” she said. 

I did not confirm nor deny her statement, but merely watched as Sprue sprang the lid and fell back against the wall. The smell was of naught much but musty rotting wood and certain ripeness like an old cheese that has been folded too long in muslin. I paid it no mind and set to pulling out the garments that had been laid on top of the corpse: his breeches, shirt, waistcoat, and jacket. Beneath this layer, bent and broken such that it might fit inside the barrel was the body of the man whose name was now unknown to us. His face was upturned so that his vacant eyes stared straight into mine, his throat a bloody gape. I reeled at the sight and sat down on the bed, the clothes of the dead man in my hands. What was I doing? Surely, this was madness?

“What is it?” said Mother Shadbolt. She pinched her nose and dared a look inside the barrel. She shrugged and indicated that Sprue should rest the lid atop the barrel to shut out the spectacle.

Gathering my senses, I quickly went through every pocket and every crevice of the man’s clothes. I inspected the lining of his coat and tore open that of his waistcoat. I found nothing but a single guinea, which Mother Shadbolt pocketed, swiftly. He was a man unknown and, to all appearances, would remain that way. 

“But he must have a name,” I said, frantic now to find something with which to identify him. I shoved the lid aside, swallowed my squeamishness and felt inside the barrel. The limbs were softening from their former rigour and the flesh was as raw meat on the slab. “Here, his shoes,” I muttered from inside the barrel. I pulled them forth. Blood now stained my borrowed garments.

Mother Shadbolt gave me a look of exasperation. “This has gone far enough.” 

She nodded to Sprue and he started to stuff the clothes back in the barrel. I felt inside each shoe but again found nothing.

“Are you quite done?” said Mother Shadbolt. She grabbed the shoes from me and threw them on top of the clothes. “Get it out, now.”

Sprue grunted and hammered the lid back on with the heel of his boot. 

“Good riddance to him,” said Mother Shadbolt. 

Sprue balanced the barrel on its edge and rolled it carefully to the door. 

“Clean this place up,” she said. “You work twice as hard tomorrow to make up for today.”

“Yes Mother,” I muttered. 

If only she knew how hard I had worked today. Not that it would have made any difference. I sighed deeply. I heard the barrel on the landing and then the thump, thump, thump as Sprue allowed it to roll down the stairs. I half expected to hear it split open at the bottom, but all that came was the sound of Sprue’s cursing and groaning and Mother Shadbolt’s muttered invective. The barrel thumped for a second time down the lower flight of stairs. I peered through my shutters to see our bully manhandle the barrel onto the waiting cart below. The mystery man had departed our lives and would bother us no more. Why then did I now fear the dark shadow I had seen at this man’s shoulder? Why did I still want to know who he was and why he had died as he had? What evil force attended his departure and waited now for me, for surely it knew of my inquiries and would not rest until I too was put away from life? 

Though my fear had abated somewhat, it now came back to me with renewed vigour. I was a marked woman. I must take care. I had told Jim Craddock that a man had been murdered. If the killer did not come for me, then surely if Mother Shadbolt found out about my indiscretion, she would? 

I did not sleep much that night, or the next, but gradually, life returned to normal.

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