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Chapter Twenty-Five

Mother Shadbolt’s revenge



I had no sooner returned to the parlour than a great thumping occurred on our door. Mother Shadbolt looked up from her Bible and cursed Sprue’s absence.

“Has he not returned?” I said. Craddock had promised. Curse him.

A cully curled his fingers around my wrist and pulled me down into his lap. My sisters ignored the continued thumps on our front door.

“No, and he won’t be returning,” said Mother Shadbolt. She marked the page she had been reading and closed the Bible. “Who is free?”

No one replied. All were taken. In fact, there were more men around our table than were girls to service them and much talk and merriment. It was a wonder we heard the door at all, save the knocker was so very insistent.

“He won’t be returning?” I said. I pulled away from my cully. I followed Mother Shadbolt out into the hall.

“Sprue’s dead,” she said. “Got word not half an hour ago. You were otherwise occupied. So now we have to find ourselves another bully and a trustworthy man who doesn’t pay the girls any mind is hard to find.” 

Jack Sprue was dead? I knew he was taken poorly, but dead? 

The thumps on the door continued.

“Don’t answer it,” I said. I was afraid that it was the Runners, or worse - William Westman.

“I’m coming. I’m coming,” shouted Mother Shadbolt. I grabbed her arm.

“Please. Don’t answer it.”

“If I don’t, they will break the door down, though why they haven’t just come through the gin shop, I don’t know.”

She shook herself free and hurried to unbolt the door. I hung at the top of the stairs, curious to see who had made such noise, but fearful at one and the same time. A woman’s voice sounded out. 

“You took your time. Where is she?” It was Polly. She gazed angrily up the stairs.

“Who dear?” said Mother Shadbolt. 

Polly shoved her aside, hoisted her petticoats and ran up the stairs. Her face was red, her hands clenched. On seeing me in the hall, she barrelled into me as if she was a woman twice her size and weight. She pinned me to the wall.

“You ruined my chance of happiness. You bitch. I’ll make you pay for what you’ve done.” 

She grabbed a handful of my hair with one hand and clawed at my face with the other. 

“What do you mean? I did nothing of the sort,” I said. 

I dodged her punches and tried to run away from her, but she caught me by the petticoat. It ripped and she flailed for a moment before she steadied herself. I fell heavily against the parlour door, which burst open. I sprawled. Polly came at me again. I was vaguely aware that the company had not moved from their amorous activities. In fact, I heard voices egging both Polly and I on. I pushed my attacker away and stood my ground. Polly’s nose was bloodied, her breathing laboured, and mine the same.

“Polly, I haven’t done anything to warrant this attack,” I said. 

I watched for her next move. She circled the table. A cully reached out to her, but she slapped him away. I danced the in the opposite direction. Cheers went up. Mother Shadbolt stood in the door and uttered a loud prayer. 

“You deny you went with Lord Appleby to the masquerade?” Polly said. 

She feinted left and moved right. My cully from earlier shouted “Lord Appleby, no less.” Laughter went up. 

“No, but you had done with him. He told me so,” I replied. 

I made to run from the room. Polly caught me by the hair and dragged me backward. I screamed for her to let go. She obliged by kicking my backside and pushing me most forcefully forward into Mother Shadbolt’s arms. Mother whirled me round and out into the hall. I barely had to time to right myself before I saw our illustrious Abbess stand her ground against my attacker.

“You will cease this fight immediately, and take yourself from my house.”

Polly, I am sure, had exhausted herself. She panted. She wiped her face on the end of her petticoat. Her bodice was torn, her hair wild, and her face red as a berry.

“She stole him,” she said, and pointed a shaking finger at me.

“Not so. Not so,” I muttered. “He said you wanted nothing of him.”

“Liar,” shouted Polly.

“No. It’s the truth,” I replied. “He would not make you his mistress. He would not find you a grand house and set you up, so you threw him over.”

“I did nothing of the sort. It was he that turned against me.” Polly spat on the floor. 

“Here, we’ll have none of that,” said Mother Shadbolt. “Take yourself out of here now. Come on.” 

She grabbed Polly’s sleeve in a matronly way. Polly did not object, but allowed herself to be dragged towards the stairs. I stood back, fearing a further attack. None came. 

“He said he loved me,” Polly said, most pathetically.

“He lied,” I mused.

“He did not,” she said.

“He lied,” I repeated.

Polly gave me a quizzical look.

“He would not do that,” she said. 

“Get out both of you,” said Mother Shadbolt.

“But why me?” I replied. “I’ve done nothing.”

“I told you I should have got rid of you weeks ago when Mr. Mendoza said. You’re nothing but trouble.” She hit me with her Bible and shooed me down the hall after Polly.

“But, you can’t do this,” I said. Mother Shadbolt rained blow after blow on me with that Book of hers.

“I can and I will,” she said.

We were out in the street before we knew it. The door shut and bolted fast against our re-entry. Polly and I fell crying into each other’s arms as if we were long lost lovers.

“You can come with me for tonight, but then you must go because there isn’t enough room and you may not bring gentlemen back,” said Polly. 

“That’s very kind, but I will not trouble you.” I regretted my words as soon as I had said them. It was cold and dark and I was so very tired.

“Where will you go?” Polly said. She wiped a tear from my cheek.

“Oh, I will find somewhere I can lay my head, I have no doubt… and Mother Shadbolt will allow me to return on the morrow, I am sure.” But I was not sure. I had tested Mother’s patience. Probably, the fight with Polly had been the last straw.

“Lord Appleby?” Polly folded her arms and looked at me thoughtfully. “Will you go to him? He is a liar and worse besides.” 

I wondered what she meant by her last quip.

“Cavendish Square is too far,” I said.

“I cannot remain,” said Polly. “I have to play tonight and they will be looking for me. Please come home with me. You can rest while I am at the theatre and tomorrow morning, as you say, perhaps Mother will allow you to return.”

It was a kind gesture. Especially as she believed I had so badly wronged her, though Lord Appleby had misled us both.

“No, but thank you. All will be well.” 

I kissed her on the cheek and walked up Russell Street. I did not look back. I did not want to see Polly watch me, nor did I wish to see her go. It was better this way.

I had meant to take myself to Craddock’s room, but when I turned into Bow Street, I thought better of it. He would be out most of the night ‘twas true, but he would return the worse for drink and find me in his bed. He would not be best pleased. He would think it a trick on my part. I might while away an afternoon there, but I did not think I could bear to spend a night in his company.

I wondered about Sprue. Mother Shadbolt said he was dead. How? I wanted to know what had happened to him. Had it been at the hands of the constables, or the Runners? Or was it that his ill health had taken him from us? Whatever the answer, at least I did not have to worry about what he might say of our corpse. Unless, that was, Sprue had been tortured for information, in which case it was a good thing Mother Shadbolt had turned me out of house and home. I had many unanswered questions and I needed time to myself to think on things.

I doubled back. I trusted I would not run into Polly coming the other way. It was as cold a night as any and I could not stop my shivers. At the end of Charles Street, I slipped into the privy passage and hurried down the steps to Sprue’s lair. The door was wide open and it was as dark inside as any place. The fire was dead in the grate and it was freezing cold. I knew Sprue had a candle. I had seen it lit. I found the table and felt over its surface: a greasy dish, a rag of some kind and yes, there was the candle stuck fast by its wax. Oh, but how to light it when I did not have a tinder box, or fire of any kind. I reminded myself of the layout. He had a box bed built into the back wall. I shuddered at the thought of laying my head there, but I must keep warm somehow. 

I felt the air before me. I did not wish to trip. My knees found the edge of the bed before my hands. I crawled in and pulled the thread worn covers up to my chin. I thought myself very sad indeed that it had come to this. I lay shivering for a long time until eventually, I fell into a deep slumber.

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