“Is this not truly moving my dear? Perceive how they help each other climb over the overturned wagon, that they may equally partake of the spilt Tom Gin!”
T’is a bright, sunlit day in London and some of that light and euphoric bliss has lit upon the residents of St Gile’s Rookery. For a much inebriated Master Scroggins has upturned his wagon in the rookery’s cobbled streets, smashing several barrels of gin and creating much unintended cheer as a consequence. A river of Old Tom Gin gushing over the dusty streets and burbling merrily over the cobbles in tiny glassy rivulets, a translucent, steaming, vaporous flow of juniper flavoured spirits , a most convivial city river.
“What a debauch!” declares The Headmaster, “ Why they sup as if their very existence depended on it!”
Abilene Montaperti is not so quick to condemn, she has visited the Salvation Army outpost here and has seen first hand the abject miseries of the rookery.
“As well they might my love, observe those gaunt and sallow faces! The docks have placed all their workers on short hours and there’s little enough work to be had at the mole trouser stretching factory on Saffron Hill! Let them sup to their hearts content!”
“T’is both a shame and a disgrace nonetheless! Are there no workhouses? Drinking in the streets is a most regrettable past-time, are there no prisons for them?” enquires The Headmaster, who, but for the efficacious intervention of Master LeFevre would have wound up burnt to a cinder during the Tooley Street Fire.
“There is a workhouse, and there are also prisons, though I’ve frequented neither meself” replied Master LeFevre nonchalantly, “I’m told the Spitalsfield Workhouse services all who live here, though the place is barely filled. They ain’t letting no one in.”
“A workhouse failing in its duty towards the poor? What nonsense!”
Abilene Montaperti pales at the mention of the workhouse, whose infamy has spread through the rookery like cholera.
“They gets given their clothes the following morning!” Master LeFevre continued, “So as they can look for work!” he added.
“But there is no work!” Abilene wailed,
Boodoo shrugged, so long as he could remember the ways of the rich had ever been thus, imperiously demanding the impossible, whilst the poor, deeply mired in the gutter, strove to meet the exacting commands of their masters.
“If there’s no work they spends the following night in the stables, not the workhouse”
“Outrageous! Who, pray tell, is the workhouse guardian?”
“The most honourable Ethelbert-Smythe” Master LeFevre sneered, “They do say he is most loved by the workhouse patrons, he has saved them so much money”
“Ethelbert-Smythe say you?”
“You have heard of him sir?”
“I have buried nigh on a dozen persons whose relatives blamed him for their deaths! There is talk of dark goings-on, of things most sinister in that place!”
“In that place?”
“The Cholera ward of Spitalsfields they say takes many in, though few come out”
“Few say you?”
“Indeed, and the tales they bring with them…most terrible so they say”
“That would follow” replied Master LeFevre looking curiously at the Headmaster and then at the Spitalsfield’s Workhouse whose rooftop loomed over every other tottering edifice in St Giles,
The Headmaster, who had of late taken up grave digging as a means of earning his keep, looked on at the Bacchanalian liquid feast. A healthy flush and expressions of radiant joy could be seen upon the faces of all. Mothers stooped down to douse their linen handkerchiefs in the clear liquid and squeeze the potent droplets into the toothless maws of the elderly. Children little older than ten soaked their scarves in vaporous pools of Tom Gin, sucking on them as they staggered off in search of work.
The dusty, dirty streets reeked of it , the cobbled streets glistened with it, parents wafted the vapour into the nostrils of their infants. Reader, you may fancy yourselves shocked at such depredatory behaviour, but the introduction of vaporous Tom Gin to such fresh palates, could only have a dulling effect on distress caused by sucking on teats long since dried up by hunger. The earlier the introduction of gin, the nursing mothers reasoned, the happier their working lives would be.
“Shocking my dear!” declared The Headmaster,
“Disgraceful, yet wholly understandable!” replied Abilene
“Never did agree with lazy thieving!” was Master LeFevre’s reply, “Wallowing one’s sorrows in Tom Gin’s a poor way of thieving to my mind! Anansi! Anansi my son! Where is you! We’ve a load on!” and off he wandered in search of the child he had of late adopted.
Observe, dear reader, the starvation and want seeping from the very pores of the gin sodden poor! Observe the eagerness with which they douse pieces of cloth and bedsheets and all they can grab hold of in the grimy crevices of the cobbled streets of St Giles.
Want fills the shadowy hollows of their eyes and pinches their cheeks, want tickles their scrawny ribs, want massages their growling stomachs and grips their pulsing hearts, till all mercy and generosity and compassion appears utterly squeezed out. T’is a terrible snarling, pointy toothed want that would bite viciously any rich man that dares to wander carelessly across its path, as such men often do. Small wonder, for the rats scurrying about their streets, the cockroaches nestled in their slums, indeed the tics buried in their mattresses, eat more palatially than their owners, the residents of Saffron Hill in the Rookery of St Giles!
Boodoo LeFevre comprehends it, understands it and has armed himself thoroughly against the likelihood of its biting him. A Winchester lies looped to his belt and hidden under his waist coat, and a knife is snugly sheathed in his left boot. He carries a Brunswick down by the side of his beer wagon, and has had Anansi learn how to wield a bull whip in such a way as t’would render a St Giles thief or any robber at the Sapphire of Jhansi Pub insensible.
“Where is you my boy? Anansi!”
“Here papa! I is here! Over by the Saffron Stall!”
The child looks wonderingly at the presence of such wondrously scented flowers, perched in abundant profusion, upon a rickety stall outside his home, the Sapphire of Jhansi Pub. The deep purple flowers remind him of the African Violets his mother had kept and tended at home, before the dispersal of retribution. Her flowers had oozed an almost suffocating scent, these smelt more like lush hay.
“Six pence a bunch”
“Why six pence and not a shilling?”
“The rich use Saffron to flavour what they eat. Down ere they use it to keep down the stench of the sewers, and the rotting plaster as it peels away from the walls. I do better trade down ere than I do in Covent Garden!”
“Anansi hook it! Them beer barrels can’t wait all day and I ain’t liftin em by meself! “
“I’se comin papa!”
T’is a wonder to all as inhabit London, that Boodoo LeFevre, at one time the very devil incarnate when it pertained to setting unwanted and unwarranted fires, should now be pater-familia and of such a child!
Hazel of eye, walnut skinned, and ferociously protective of his doe eyed father, the child’s psychic ‘talent’ is a source of wonder to all as have observed his victims keel over insensibly in his singing, dancing, presence! Why there’s many a St Gile’s thief as would give their right arm to have such a talent!
Boodoo LeFevre? The father of a child of such a child as this? He whose intense love of fire in all its forms, had made him the terror of half of London (the other half kept themselves most diligently insured against unsolicited fires as a consequence).
But our attention dwells not upon them as yet, but upon the shaven, well turned out gentleman who has lately taken up residence at Mrs Byers guest-house……