Once more accused
It began as the sun rose over our seraglio. On the previous evening, besides a stream of incorrigible lechers, I serviced a Member of Parliament with a penchant for being laid across my knee and beaten until his fundament was quite raw. Thus, I was exhausted, yet I breakfasted in my usual manner, at my table in the window of the parlour, with Lucius, my Blackamore servant, at my elbow. My fellow whores were still asleep and I had just taken delivery of a letter, when a glint of sunlight caught my eye and caused me to look out across Covent Garden. Four military men in close formation, the buttons on their livery reflecting the sun’s rays, marched towards the Great Piazza. They presented a very fine sight, but I dismissed them from my mind until I heard the tread of boots on our stairs. They made such a noise it could be none other than this militia. They burst into my parlour with all the might of an army charging their enemy.
The man who spoke was their Officer. Though my parlour was a large room and could accommodate a great many people, these soldiers now occupied the better part of it. I sipped my coffee like a lady and feigned disinterest, while all the time wondering what on earth they wanted with me.
“Orders are to bring you with us.”
“Blackwall Yard, Ma’am.”
“You must convey my condolences to your commanding officer,” I said. “If he wishes for my company, he may come here in the afternoon. I do not make house calls.”
This was not entirely true. For the right price I would travel almost anywhere. The right price however, had not been discussed as yet.
“He was most insistent, Ma’am. We cannot leave without you.”
Oh, but this was so annoying. My morning disrupted. They were not even the King’s soldiers, but those of the… damn it, the East India Company. I was intrigued. These men were destined to lead Sepoy troops in the Far East, and yet they had been dispatched to capture a Covent Garden whore? Whatever next?
“Understand this,” I said. “It will not be a cheap excursion. Lucius?” I beckoned my servant forward.
“Begging your pardon Ma’am. We are to bring you and you alone,” said the officer.
How very irregular. I had grown used to Lucius’s ministrations when abroad in the city. That said, I wished to know more of the man who sent troops to procure my service. He must be very wealthy. The Lord only knew that we needed the money.
“Very well. Lucius, tell Mother Shadbolt I will be gone for the best part of the morning. Watch her closely. I do not want to hear of her dipping her fingers in the purse.”
Poor Mother Shadbolt. In her time, she had taken care of a great many doxies, but with the loss of her establishment on the corner of Russell Square, she had become more than a little disconsolate. We gave her a home with us only because, if we did not, then she would be a wretched, vagrant creature let loose on the streets. Besides, she still had her mind on the money and her blessed Bible. When tested, she would threaten all with that tome. No man would risk her wrath.
I thus accompanied the soldiers to a coach, which had pulled up on the cobbles beyond the portico. I must say, I was quite glad of the excursion. I had spent too long cooped up in my gilded cage - a pretty bird for a pretty master.
We turned into The Strand, and thence onward to the Tower and beyond. We passed along the Ratcliffe Highway, and took in Limehouse and Poplar both. Vessels of all sizes: fishing ships, slave ships, cargo ships, packets and sundry smaller vessels, their masts thrusting upwards into the brightening sky, were much in evidence along the Thames’ bank. Hereabouts, men of all castes and creeds pursued commerce. Cargoes were off-laden; carts rolled the muddy streets; men hauled and heaved, and the sounds and smells were overpowering even for one such as I, used to the noise and aromas of Covent Garden. Fine houses soon gave way to old timber-built properties and low dives, punctuated by inns and taverns. I spied the usual ragged trade: dirty morts with no more than the clothes on their back and a dark hole in which to do the deed. I shuddered. Thank goodness for my saviour, the dark-eyed devil, William Westman. But for him, I too, would be on the street like these sad does.
Eventually, we came to a flat place of marshy fields. The sky was bird-shell blue and the wind gusted warm. Our road cut south for a short distance, through this watery land, past rope and sail-makers, mast-makers and smiths, until we reached the Blackwall Yard (no yard at all but both dry and wet docks, and many sheds where I suppose, honest men labour in the fine craft of ship-building). We drew up alongside one of the sheds, and the officer showed me from the carriage. My feet sank immediately into the soft earth. Why had I allowed myself to be brought here? What foolishness was I engaged upon now?
The officer bid me follow him down a narrow alleyway. This I did, mindful of the mud, which squelched underfoot and threatened to fix me in my tracks. The alley opened onto a yard. On the far side was a low built shed, open on one side and with a sawpit cut into the ground. A rough-hewn man stood at one end of the pit. He looked up as I approached. The briefest of smiles crossed Jim Craddock’s face before he indicated to me to come closer. I picked up my skirts and teetered on the boards lain either side of the sawpit. I looked down. It was empty save for a puddle of water.
“Why am I looking at a hole in the ground?”
I was not best enamoured with my husband, the infamous Bow Street Runner, Jim Craddock. As one of the Sir John Fielding’s foremost detectives, he was party to all kinds of intelligence, and could travel the length and breadth of the country, if needs be, to apprehend suspects. It is not for this reason though, that we had not spoken for nigh on six months. No, it was because of the death of my dear friend Daisy. He thought I blamed him. He was wrong. Even before this though, we did not live together. It was a marriage of convenience, no more.
“I thought you’d want to see where we found him,” he said.
“Come with me. I’ll show you.”
Craddock led the way back across the yard, pushed a door open, and stood aside to admit me. Inside, the atmosphere was redolent with the aroma of wood - sweet, like old wine. Three finely dressed gentlemen, albeit with muddy feet stood around a workbench, while a fourth hung back in the shadows, his features indistinct. Craddock pushed me forward. The men parted to admit my company. A newly dead corpse lay before us. One side of his face was but a bloody mess of flesh and bone. The other was still intact, but was as white as the shroud they would surely soon wrap him in. For a moment I did not know whether I should recoil from the horror or not.
“He’s dead?” I said.
“State the bloody obvious woman. Yes, he’s dead. He was in the pit.”
Craddock placed a hand on the back of my head and forced me to look.
“What were you doing last night?” he said.
“What do I always do?” I hissed. I pushed him away. “You bring me here to show me a corpse? Why? You could have told me when next you snatched your conjugal rights.”
He had not done that in a long time.
“Mistress Ives,” said one of the attending gentlemen. “Are we to understand you can identify this person?”