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Chapter Seven

Of the putrefying corpse



The morning had passed by the time I returned home. Mother Shadbolt had worn the boards by her pacing up and down, up and down. She could not keep the establishment closed. It would arouse suspicion. She had therefore, made the decision to have cook make the usual lunchtime repast. No sooner had the decision been made than no less than five gentlemen presented themselves at the Russell Street entrance. Of course, they did not come simply for the food, but for the company and promise of more, besides.

“Where have you been?” Mother Shadbolt said to me. She was much agitated and drew me into the back parlour.

“Doing what you asked me to do. Finding out about that poor de…” Mother Shadbolt stifled my words with her hand over my mouth.

“Hush. Do not speak of him.” Mother Shadbolt glanced about for fear we had been overheard.  “Sprue has brought a barrel up from Bradley’s, but I cannot have it moved until after all have settled for the evening.”

I shook her off and winced at the thought that I must endure the corpse’s presence in my room. Not least because the longer it remained, the more chance there was that one of our ‘guests’ might come upon it and raise the alarm.

“But that will be hours,” I said. “What do you expect me to do in the meantime? I cannot work. Surely it would be safe to roll the barrel into Bradley’s distillery and keep it with the others?”

“I did not say Sprue had borrowed a barrel with Bradley’s agreement.”

“Then it will not be missed if it is to mysteriously reappear, will it?” I snapped. I was at breaking point and wracked with trepidation.

“And what then? We break into the gin shop and steal the barrel away in the dead of night? It will be more suspicious than if we simply place it upon a cart at close of business and drive away with it in plain sight.”

I sighed. “Then why can we not do that now?”

“Because Bradley is not drunk enough. He retires to The Finish at dusk and leaves the gin shop to his assistant. That’s when we make our move,” said Mother Shadbolt. 

“You have it all planned.”

“I do,” she said. “And I would have you deliver yourself into the hands of Thomas Partington in Islington. He will keep you until such time as it is safe for you to return. You take nothing of mine with you. Not clothes, nor anything I have given you in the course of your time with me.”

She would leave me with nothing, for I did not own even my shift. Why was I being punished for something I did not do? 

I cried, “I will not go. You cannot make me. Once the body is cleared from here, I will go about my business as usual. By tomorrow all will be forgotten.” At least, I hoped so.

I made to leave the room, but Mother Shadbolt caught me about the arm and held me tight.

“I cannot have you here,” she said. “Don’t you see? I will be forced to close, or move, or…”

“I will be missed and more questions asked by my sudden disappearance, than if I remain. There are good gentlemen would ask after me.” It was true; I had my regulars and though none would come to my aid, they would miss my ministrations. 

“Bah, I cannot trust that we will be safe if you stay. Mr. Mendoza would have you gone from this place and I am in agreement.”

I sneered at Mother Shadbolt. “Mr. Mendoza does not own me. He cannot tell me what to do and what not to do.”

“Yes, but Kitty, he owns me,” cried Mother Shadbolt. “He keeps me and this house and you are a part of the bargain I made.”

“He is naught but a panderer and you a bawd. It is the money I and the girls earn that keeps you and him both.” Oh, but I was angry now. Of all that had happened this day, to be turned from my home when I needed the comfort and support of my friends - really, it was too much.

Mother Shadbolt considered my words. She could not afford to lose me so easily. Besides, she had agreed to the education of our three new sisters, presently working as maids, and they would need training. There were dance and music lessons to arrange. They must be schooled in manners and given advice on elocution. They could not simply be put to work. They must first be finessed. Without my help in this matter Mother Shadbolt would have to rely on Priss and Constance, both of whom had been with our Mother for as long as I, but neither of whom had earned the reputation I had for gracious manners and the finer things in life. Though, yes, you may argue otherwise dear reader, knowing what you know now about me.

“If you remain,” Mother Shadbolt said. “You will do nothing to bring further disrepute to my house. Do you understand?”

“Of course.”

She grimaced.

“And you will not hold séance, nor attempt to contact the dead man by any means?” 

“Why should I? I have embraced the Lord. I would not wish to end my days in hell,” I replied, not without some sarcasm. 

Mother Shadbolt held a firm belief that as long as we gave ourselves up to God, we would find redemption on judgement day. This, of course, did not apply to those with murderous intent, but only to those who had earned a living as had the Mary Magdalene and had thus, embraced the Word of the Lord.

“Mind yourself, girl,” said Mother Shadbolt. She released her grip on me. “Leave me now. I will deal with Mr. Mendoza.”

Triumphant at winning this battle, I ascended the stairs, glad to be away from my “protectoress’’. At my door I paused. I knew not whether Jack Sprue had folded the corpse into the barrel yet, or if it still lay atop my mattress. In any event, I would have to burn my bedding; so much seeping of bodily fluids would not be conducive to a good night’s sleep, nor to much else for that matter. I shuddered at the thought and steeled myself against the horror of it all.

The barrel stood by the wall. As the body had gone from the bed, I assumed it was now crammed into said receptacle. I felt greatly relieved. Now I could inspect the mattress. I did not care for the stains on it. It took all my strength to pull it from the bed and fold it against the wall. Beneath the top mattress was a second, thinner layer. It would suffice for now. In due course, I would procure another to lay on top.

As to the rest of the room, it was in complete disarray. Westman’s clothes, it is true, had been gathered and, I assumed, were stuffed into the self-same barrel as he, but my stays, petticoats, bodice, and necessary accoutrements were still strewn about and bloody. I set to making all neat and tidy, the better to welcome visitors once more. I opened the window slightly to ease the noxious smell of death that lingered in the air. Then I made the bed up with fresh linen before I called the maid and asked that she tell Sprue to attend me at once.  While I waited a thought came to me that I had not inspected Westman’s clothing for clues as to the nature of his murder. I knew his throat to have been cut, but perhaps there was something else that had, until this very moment, been missed. I hovered fractiously, over the barrel. I had kept myself busy and tried not to fret over much since entering the bedroom (I find keeping busy a good antidote to anxiety), but now an old fear came over me. What if he rose from the dead and spoke to me? What if he accused me of killing him? What if… What if he was not  dead at all, but merely unconscious and curled up inside, like a babe in the womb? 

“Oh come on, you stupid woman,” I said to myself. “You are not afraid of the dead, surely? It’s the living you should be afraid of.”

I attempted to open the lid of the barrel, but Sprue had fixed it with much force and it was impossible to budge it. I closed my eyes and imagined the contents: the corpse, limbs broken to fit him inside, perhaps even now beginning to putrefy (though it had only been a few hours since he passed and there would be little putrefaction for some time yet); the sheets all bloody and wrapped about him; his clothes forced down the sides, stopping the body from slithering this way and that as the barrel rolls. I placed the palm of my hand against the wooden side. Not alive. Dead. Very dead.

“Who were you?” I asked, of no one in particular, though I knew full well what I did. I allowed myself to slip into that place which is not sleep, yet is also not a waking state.  It is a place obscured by the mist of unconscious reasoning – a place I had been forbidden to visit by Mother Shadbolt. Well, she need not know everything.

In my trance-like state a man came towards me, but it was not Westman. This man was taller and wore clothes of a finer weave then those of Westman. His face was not clear, but he had about him a terrible strangeness. He faded from sight until I was left feeling chilled and out of sorts. (Yes, even more so than I had before.) This, and the contents of the letter I had read at Westman’s lodgings, told me that the shadow who attended our dead visitor had been seeking revenge for a wrong concerning matters of the heart. I was not so stupid though, as to believe that the shadow had slit Westman’s throat. Horrified at what I had discerned I took myself out of my bedroom and vowed not to return until the barrel had been removed. 

I found Mother Shadbolt in her usual place, counting the previous night’s takings. She shut her lock box quickly, as I entered. 

“Make yourself scarce girl. Trade is upon us.”

“But where am I to go?”

“You were the one that pleaded to stay. Return after hours and I will look kindly on you. Make sure you lock your door. I do not want anyone wandering in. Look sharp.”

“Very well,” I said. “May I at least be allowed to eat?”

“Go to the kitchen and do not leave through the street entrance. Take yourself out through Bradley’s. Oh, and that friend of yours, Polly? The one from the theatre? She was looking for you. Said to pay her a visit when you had the time.”

I headed towards the kitchen. I had not seen Polly in a while. Perhaps she might offer a distraction from my ill fortune. 

As I entered the kitchen, the cook, Deaf Tom, fixed me with a hard look. The lamb for our supper stood on the table, alongside a mutton pie and sundry sweets. I asked, with much signing and indication, if perhaps he had left the door unlocked overnight.  Deaf Tom’s words came flat to my ears. 

“Don’t never leave the door unlocked. Mother would have me out of here if I did.”  

Poor Tom, all these woman around him day and night and he overlooked all because he was deaf, fat, and too kind an old soul to bother us with his needs. I smiled gently at him. I should have taken him to my bosom and offered him comfort, but I knew he would have none of it. I sat at the scrubbed table and ate the remainder of yesterday’s cold meats. It sat uncomfortably in my stomach, but I finished it all and pushed the empty plate away. Deaf Tom put a hand up to stay me. 

“I saved you a tart,” he said, in his monotone voice. 

Oh, but I could not eat a tart. Not now. I felt sick enough already. I thanked Deaf Tom profusely, and took myself from his kitchen. 

My time, this evening at least, was my own. I ought to make good use of it. Could I take myself into the nest of vipers? Could I flush out my fears by facing my demons? Perhaps I could. If so then there was one man I must deal with straight away. Feeling emboldened, I determined, not only to find out more about William Westman, but to resolve my most recent issue with Jim Craddock – a dangerous prospect indeed.

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