It is almost midnight; cold, damp, still raining, yet throughout London there oozes a slumberous peace. There is a new fashion initiated by royalty, a fir tree freshly hewn from some forest or another and erected in one’s drawing room. Live trees lit with tiny candles and sugar ornaments place in them and tiny glass baubles hung upon them. A new idea initiated by His Majesty Prince Albert and soon to lead to an outburst of conflagrations across half of London.
T’is the night before Christmas when parents labour tirelessly, putting glasses of Sherry and dishes of Plum Pudding out for St Nicholas, and making sure that the children are a-bed and the servants hard at work.
T’is the night before Christmas and one must make sure that the goose, the turkey, and the pheasant, have all been plucked and basted ready for roasting. That the vegetables have been peeled and the mulled wine readied.
Half past midnight and Fanny Ethelbert-Smythe is still hard at work preparing pie dough and steamed apricots. It is almost one, when she, at last, ascends to her chamber where surely she will fall asleep? But she does not. The master of the house is away and she suspects that he is still at the workhouse. There is some sinister business a-foot there that wearies him, leaving him more bereft, more haggard looking by the day.
When home he barely sleeps, pacing to and fro in his study and barely acknowledging his own children. Then there is the child he carried home with him one night, demanding she place it in the children’s old nursery (one floor down from the attic).
Alas, the child did not come alone! A shabby, foul smelling creature came with it! A denizen of some tawdry netherworld she suspects, yet curiously she senses a contradiction between the appearance of this man and his manner, and then there is his voice which perversely seems very familiar to her.
Who is this child? She knows it cannot be her husband’s so to which rapscallion does it belong? T’is almost Christmas and she has given shelter to a child of disreputable parentage, the spawn of dubious moral congress, kept near the attic where the servants sleep! Unconscionable! Worse still, her husband will brook no talk of bequeathing the child to the Coram Orphanage nor of returning it to the workhouse! It is almost two in the morning before Fanny Ethelbert-Smythe’s mind is at peace and herself asleep.
Time flows as swiftly as a river, as swiftly as the flood-waters beneath the Thames Bridge or within the fetid walls of Ah-Tacks. With an Opium pipe in one hand and with the other wrapped around a blowen, who is to say how quickly time may pass? The shabbily clad gentleman ensconced in his grimy berth is certain that he has been in this Opium Den many days now and that he may not venture back to Bow Street again without a nugget of gold. Nuggets of valuable information is what he’s out collecting, far more precious and harder to draw out of a river than ‘panned’ gold dust. A string of peculiar criminal occurrences followed by a series of unpleasant events have led to his presence in Ah-Tack’s Opium Den. T’is a Frenchman they are after but it’s an Englishman they find and in a most remarkable state of liberty!
“Ello what ave we ere?” asks Inspector Depta on spying Lucius Favreau, avid reader of Dante creeping into Ah Taks. Master Favreau had once been butler to a disreputable rapscallion, who, having fallen into penury with the wrong sort of gentlemen, was shot whilst out hunting.
“Funny thing is Lord Brockley-Burnett was a crack marksman! My Uncle served under his command during the Mafeking Battles of Zulu Land! Lord Rucklesmoot’s brother e woz.”
“Perhaps Mr Favreau has received a Queen’s pardon, that might explain why he has been let out of Newgate sir” suggests the innocent Constable Qwinty.
Rolling his eyes Inspector Depta snorted,
“Wot im? Nevah! Lord Brockley weren’t wise like the rest of iz sort! Wouldn’t touch nunnery girls with a barge pole but he wouldn’t keep off the ladies neither, there wasn’t a scullery, chamber or parlour maid that was safe round him! He kept on aving kids out of wedlock and they (and their mothers) kept on disappearing. In the end we collared iz butler for the most prodwigious infanticide of all them kids. The only evidence we had were a dozen birthing robes, we discovered not a single corpse! Lucius the Butler would not talk, faithful to iz lordship to the end! T’was a terrible scandal! The queen wouldn’t pardon him even if her life depended on it! It’s Planchette the Butler we’re after and I suspect we may nab him yet if we keep our eyes on Favreau, get close to him Constable Qwinty! Stay on im till you gets yer nugget of gold! An when you do be quick about getting it to me! There’s promotion in it for you!”
In no time at all Constable Qwinty finds himself a berth at Ah Taks sips infrequently on his Opium, lets his mind drift and waits, and waits, and waits, till at length the Newgate Prison inmate most importunately freed, begins to talk. ” I won’t do it I tell you! I won’t!I can’t, me conscience won’t let me!” a most prodwigious consumer of Opium is this Favreau and a most prodwigious talker when full of it!
“I won’t do it I tell ye! I can’t! Me consciense won’t let me!”
Hunched up in his berth and clasped in the heartless embrace of his addiction an shuddering! Shuddering as though the devil hisself had him in his grip! Inching closer, Constable Qwinty hears more,
“God will damn my soul for this! Oh, oh, I can’t! I won’t!” and then those final damning words, “She’s my wife damn you! Tis but a year since we wed! I will not I tell you! What? You question my loyalty to the creed of Gove? I who have done more for the glory of his essence than all of you? Ask Master Skinner and he’ll tell you! Few have embraced the brotherhood as I have!” and here the Opium drenched wretch raises his eyes imploringly towards heaven, clasps his muscular fists together, and proceeds to pray “May the good lord forgive me!”.
But Constable Qwinty ain’t in a forgiving mood, the arm of the law is the arm of the law, and inching still closer he takes a gander at Favreau’s exposed ankle, an ankle with a dagger gartered to it. A dagger of a type that tells Qwinty three things, it is made of forty eight carat gold (like the last three they found), it is ornately inscribed with the insignia of Gove and it could not belong to the man who has it (himself being working class).
Slipping quietly off his berth and sneaking out of Ah Tak’s Constable Qwinty heads back to Bow Street, where his nuggets of information are sure to be well received by Inspector Depta. t’is four in the morning as he shambles slowly along, passing through every cold and lonely alleyway he knows, places awash with the dross of London society, places where things were well begun only to end badly. Places leading ever upwards to the Bow Street Police Force and (incontrovertibly for some) to the assizes of the Old Bailey. By the time he has reached Drury Lane he is an altogether different creature and his progress from hereon in is much swifter. At Bow Street he is himself once more, an impartial and proper arbiter of English Law and one of the multitudinous limbs of that scarce slumbering beast, the Bow Street Police Force…………..
If there is an image of calm repose it does not favour Inspector Depta in the slightest. Rather he resembles the imitation of that mysterious and mythical creature the Sphinx. So rapt and so enthralled is he by the tale that Madame Le Breton has told him.
“Marcus Planchette is the child of Gabrielle Du Planchette, the wife of Le Comte Du Planchette. A devout Christian woman who had the great misfortune to ave the devil incarnate for a uzband! Cor ad loquitur, heart must speak to heart! He was an andsome fiend, er usband, and I am told that she was as beautiful, delicate and fragrant a flower as any maiden born to France. Monsieur Le Comte fell in love as passionately as any man, indeed more so since e was between mistresses!”
Madame Le Breton laughed mirthlessly,
“At fifteen they married er off. Mon Dieu! To ave married so young and then to find oneself locked in the embrace of a diabolical fiend, a heartless villain! To be bound in marriage to such a one as Le Comte Du Planchette! Quel desastre! Er family had not just sold er to ziz diabolus lock, stock, and barrel, they ad pitched her into the very jaws of hell and thrown away ze key!”
“He was a faithless husband?” Madame Le Breton rolled her eyes and hissed,
“Faithless? The scoundrel cheated…at everyzing he could! Cards, horses, he borrowed money from homicidal ruffians and worse still he procreated!”
“All over Bordeaux! Iz children were said to litter the entire countryside of France! From Scullery Maids to duchesses no one was safe from his advances! T’is said he debauched so many that the convents of Bordeaux had two year long waiting lists for those women longing to escape their disgrace! His behavior was a terrible scandal to bear, but there was worse to come!”
“Worse?” How much worse could things have gotten he wondered, Madam Le Breton wrinkled her face with disgust and disdain,
“The rapscallion demanded that she take the head footman for er lover!”
The Inspector emitted a low whistle, he’d heard of many practices in his time and seen them too, but he had yet to encounter any predicatorial practices that could rival those of the ruling classes once they took lunatick,
“The poor woman”
Hearing this Madame Le Breton permitted herself a tiny sour smile.
“T’was one humiliation too many, a disgrace no good Catholic girl could have borne, t’was beyond the pale! To yield oneself to a member of the lower classes?! Desperate for a way out La Comtesse Du Planchette took the only path she could. She threw herself at the mercy of L’ordre Goveen. They consented to aid her and she and her four children fled the family home and took sanctuary with them.”
Now Inspector Depta smiled sourly,”Those scoundrels don’t give something for nuffing, wot she give em?”
“Her eldest child, a boy, François Planchette!”
“Bloody hell! The Butler Planchette is a Goveen Monk?! How’d you come by this information?!”
She gave no reply, instead, she replenished his glass with brandy and then continued to tell her tale,
“François Planchette trained at Le Monastere Malhorreurs in Bordeaux, later, when the revolutionary purges took place, and L’ordre Goveen fell out of favour with the republic, he fled with them to England and here they have been ever since.”
“François Planchette has served for twenty years at the Christchurch Cathedral in Spitalsfield”
“Impossible!” exclaimed the Inspector, “There’s only one cathedral in Spitalsfield and that’s Anglican!”
Madam Le Breton smiled sourly “Is it?” her dark eyes and grim face told him otherwise,
“Impossible!” he declared once more, but then he considered the tall looming building, it’s shadowy recesses in which, on more than once occasion, strange events had transpired. The sinister looking gargoyles that clung to the Tuscan Columns outside the church, and the strange hieroglyphic designs inscribed upon the altar and the bowl of the baptismal font. Could it be true? That the church was a Goveen stronghold? On more than one occasion he had glanced upon the baptismal font with it’s strange and yet familiar inscriptions, with a sense of grim foreboding.
“Master Porter could tell you a thing or two about that church, things that you could scarcely countenance” Inspector Depta raised a stern eyebrow at this, crime afoot in a place he had mistaken for a divine sanctuary and he had not known it? What a shrewd yet handsome woman Elodie Le Breton was! T’is a brazen pity she ain’t married, he thinks but darest not utter. A lady wot runs a discrete little place were the Birch canes were always kept fresh and clean and well hidden. T’is a pity she was a blowen and that one of er blowens had been implicated in a most sinister affair involving the aristocracy to boot!
“Mademoiselle Amelie is lucky to be alive! Pregnant and by Ethelbert-Smythe? Wot possessed the girl?”
Madame Le Breton blushes with indignation for if she has told the girls once, she had told them twice, nevah ezah be with child by a member of the British aristocracy, the Germans most certainly and you might chance it with ze French, but ze British? Sacre Bleur!
“Monsieur Ethelbert said he loved er, that he could not live without er, and the silly girl believed him and now Planchette az found er he will not stop until the girl is dead, and the child handed to the brotherhood!”
Madame Le Breton is so distraught that her prodigious bosom heaves with suppressed ire “Aristocratic pregnancies? Mon Dieu! I would sooner feed my girls to a pack of rabid dogs! You remember Molly Norris?”
“Do I eck!” the good inspector’s eyes twinkle with the recollection, he remembered her alright, Lord Rucklesmoot couldn’t get enough of her!
“Ze instant I knew she was wiz child I did not wait for Le Planchette to turn up! I ad er spirited away to France. She is married now, to a farmer in Brittany!”
“Birch rods and all?” the inspector looks aghast, t’weren’t many who’d bear the scandal.
“As far as he is concerned the child is his own. It broke my heart to lose Molly, she had such a masterful way with her!”
“What of Amelie?”
“Quel desastre! Now le monstre Planchette has broken cover who will take her? She is marked for death and the brotherhood will be watching the place day and night! Most murderers are consigned either to the penal colonies or to Newgate, but zis one? Zis spawn of Gehenna? He is protected by the crown!”
Inspector Depta finishes the last of his brandy quietly placing the delicately engraved brandy glass on the table. His is a strong and muscular hand as capable of delicately palming a piece of evidence as it is of gripping a predicatorial neck as brutally as the behaviour of it’s owner warrants. Why the hands of this valiant member of the Bow Street Force have gripped many a thief and predicator as intractably as the laws of the British Empire would allow! Is he now to blanch at the prospect of collaring the devil Planchette? Nevah! Heaven forbid that such a monstrous imbalance of justice should occur and himself be the author of it!
“Fear not madam! By this night’s end Francois Planchette shall be in my hands or I’ll know the reason why!”
Madame Le Breton knows he will do his best, “Poor Amelie! Who will marry her now with that scarred face? Those Goveen Devils! They show mercy to none that are not made in their image!”
Is the night bleak dear reader? Is it dank & dismal? Does it throb with evil expectancy? Do those gleaming cobblestones glazed with spilt gin and Jamaican rum resonate with the unresting, unhasting, menacing, presence of vicious iniquity? So devoid of rectitude and so hellishly vicious that that there’s scarce a gentleman (let alone a lady) devoid of profligacy and sin, that dar’st be seen abroad clad in it’s dour vestments.
Hark! The raucous, shivery tinkle, of the Christchurch bells! Mark how the bells of Christchurch in Spitalfields, scarce heard above the crazed hustle and bustle of Saffron Hill on a market day, now echo insanely through the cold streets and grimy alleyways of the Seven Dials! Tis enough to wake slumbering drunks and pummel them into fearful sobriety. Tis sufficient to prompt sneak thieves to cross themselves sombrely, uttering a quick prayer as they do so. For the sound of those bells on such a night as this can bode no good. Tis a harbinger of eldritch portent, of hidden savageries, of deeds beyond imagining!
St Giles’ clock strikes midnight, and in some alleyway whose walls run leprous with evil, insane titterings commence. But let us away from here and wander (swiftly) towards that bastion of moral probity, the Bow Street Police Station.
“Where is Sergeant Haughton?“
“He watches the home of the Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe, sir.”
“Sergeant O’ Reilly?”
“Walking the grounds of Richmond Park with Sergeant Cabot.”
“What of Constable Slaughter?”
“He keeps watch within the grounds of the workhouse, Sergeant Take-Fast walks with him. They’re keeping a particular close eye on those who go in & out of the casual ward sir, as you suggested.”
“Who watches the Christchurch Cathedral? Heaven forbid any holding exalted rank should elect to commit an offence there! Aristocratic murders midst a Goveen stronghold – masquerading as a bastion of Anglicanism?!- the Prime Minister will ave our heads on a platter, you may be sure of that! What of Ah-Taks?”
“No need to waste a man there,” declares Constable Qwinty cheerfully, “Favreau the butler has returned to his prison cell!”
“When was this?” asks the Inspector
“A carriage came for him nigh on two hours after I’d departed.”
“You have this on credible authority?” the Inspector, notes his reply closely.
“Rufus Fletchett noted his departure. Master Porter noted his arrival and re-incarceration at Newgate and both men will swear to that which they noted a’fore the courts!”
“All safely locked up and snug a-bed as if he’d never been a-murdering!” exclaims the Inspector, his face flush with indignation.
“But he has been out a-murdering!” declares the naive Constable
“No he ain’t!” retorts the inspector jabbing at the air twixt him and Qwinty with his cigar,”He ain’t bin owt murdering till our betters say so. If he’d bin owt murdering blowens off his own account we’d ave clapped him in irons soon enough, but to be owt and about knocking em off on behalf of the crown? This case is trickier than a virgin’s corset! One false move on our part and we’ve ad it!”
Inspector Depta, standing afore a blazing fire, chews on his cigar meditatively, his eyes alight with spurious speculation and dire conjectures. A little trouble midst the fleshpots of St Giles he could manage easily, but what he had here was a full blown scandal.
“This’ll need very delicate handling Qwinty, very delicate. Lord Ponsonby, where iz he?”
“Deep in conversation with Sergeant Breadalbane, sir.”
“Well, fetch him in, fetch him in!”
Sergeant Breadalbane of the Bow Street Police has known Master Ponsonby for much of his life, having spent his childhood growing up on the Ponsonby family’s estate. Master Ponsonby (the younger son of Lord Aspinall Ponsonby), well remembers the many kindnesses shown him as a child by Sergeant Breadalbane’s mother who served as his nanny for many years. Indeed Master Ponsonby’s weak blue eyes, still well with tears, as he recalls the many sleepless nights she spent tenderly nursing him through severe bouts of influenza.
“She cared for me as if I were her own, which I wished I was.” He said wistfully, Sergeant Bertram Bredalbane doesn’t doubt that. The Ponsonby’s were well known for their love of vigorous pugilism and deer hunting midst the bracing fresh air of Hampshire. Hence the fatal horse riding and hunting accidents three of their sons had succumbed to. Fearing for his life Master Ponsonby had fled the family estate at the earliest opportunity, taking refuge in the position of senior librarian at the British Museum.
“Pray tell how is your mama Sergeant Bertram Breadalbane? Tis nigh on two months since I visited her last”
“She fares well sir, she nurses my youngest, Abel, I will tell her you asked after her.” Master Ponsonby’s eyes well up once more and his pale cheeks flushed with remembered pleasure.
Alas, then that Constable Qwinty should request his presence midst the Inspector’s sombre sanctum sanctorum!
“If you’d come with me sir?” clutching a large, well worn book, a tattered scroll and a velvet purse, the senior librarian of the British Museum follows the Bow Street officer into the heart of the police station, till, at length, he enters the comfy, well-lit chamber that is Inspector Depta’s office.
Inspector Depta famed for his brutal discretion by some (and infamous to others) smiles warmly at the sight of Lord Wendlebury, whose expansive intellect (as indicated by his unusually high and broad forehead) has proven most efficacious in unravelling the intricacies of some of his more sinister cases.
“Well young man? What have you found? Tell me you have at least a partial answer as to what it is here that we have.”
“What we have here” replies Lord Ponsonby “Is a most parlous state of affairs, brought on by that brooding zealotry bordering on hysteria, that so characterises those who would seek after the forbidden ecstasies of Gove. If you wish to know what evil bred afore the dawn of man could drive a secret league to such heinous acts , then pray, look within that purse”
“What is it?” asks the inspector tipping the contents of the purse into his palm,
“T’is a sixteenth century sacrificial dagger marked with the insignia of St Swithuns-Bird the martyr, who, having been found lurking in Dorset was arrested, tried for treason at the Winchester Assizes, and then hung, drawn and quartered. Ah! I see that you are familiar with the design?”
“I am, we’ve come upon three such inscribed daggers in the past week, all of em buried up to the hilt in the bosoms of ladies ejected from service, ladies whose bodies were come upon at the crack of dawn and whose infants have gawn missing!”
“Upon St Swithun’s death and at the crack of dawn (mark that!) a young female devotee to the path of Gove made off with a quarter of the saint’s cadaver nestled beneath her cloak. That quarter was carried to the monastery at Rheim in Germany and there cremated, converted into four relics, (and it is rumoured) buried within the monastery grounds. There his remains remained, till that spiritual revival amongst the aristocracy which some call the Cambridge Movement.With the emergence of a more fundamentalist strain of this movement, and its increased popularity, it was decided that the four relics should be disinterred and freshly buried within the grounds of four churches, St Peters, St Tobias-in-the-North, St Pauls and Christchurch.You found the bodies of these three women where?”
“One at St Tobias-in-the-North, another in the churchyard of St Johns,a third hid behind the altar of St Pauls.”
“Then you will find the next bloodied corpse at Christchurch! Brother Planchette keeps the fourth relic hid there since t’is there that the newborns stolen from their unwed mothers are baptised, before being handed onto aristocratic families.”
“Handed on? You talk as though they were discarded clothing! Them as ad them, bore them for nine months in calumny, ere they woz murdered and their wee bairns took by a murdering minister!” Constable Qwinty is shocked and Lord Wendelbury knocks back some of the Inspector’s brandy with a trembling hand. What he has discovered frightens him badly. “T’would seem that we are privy to acts of minor genocide” he continues meeting the Inspector’s glare. “Babies born to the upper classes and deemed defective by the Duchess, replaced by offspring born of illicit unions twixt their fathers and members of the lower classes, positively Darwinian.“
“Darwin may go to the devil! What of the defective newborns?”
On this Lord Wendlebury is silent, for who would be so bold as to openly conjecture what had happened to those unprotected infants accursed with too high a social position? O horror of horrors! That the Prime Minister might be the son of the daughter of a sneak thief! O direst calumny! And what of Lord Rucklesmoot whose penchant for milking cows had been deemed most odd by those privy to the hauteur of the rest of the family?
“The Duchess I’m told owns a residence midst the highlands of Scotland, a residence whose grounds encompass the icy peaks of Mount Lochnergarruld!”
“She wouldn’t!” cries Constable Qwinty
“Oh but she has” is Lord Wendellbury’s quiet reply “The question is how may one prove it?”