Heart of Cruelty – Maybelle Wallis

The pile of waste bones from the slaughterhouse had been dumped in the yard and lain uncovered and stinking for days. As we sunk our hands into it, brown rats swarmed out and I gasped, fearing they would bite me, but they fled to their burrows in the workhouse walls. We dropped the bones in the ramming-bin and between us both worked the heavy iron rammer up and down, grinding the bones into meal. We went on for hour after hour. The kinds of labour that bore little profit for much effort, not enough to support life, were given to those who existed by the feeblest of margins in the workhouse, under the control of the Guardians of the Poor. The bone-crushing work, normally given to the men, was meant to punish Clara and me, for we had both offended by complaining of Reverend Glyde, the workhouse chaplain. Siviter, the workhouse master, watched us as we slowed, jeering at what he called our idleness and swishing his cane. Rows of small windows peered down from the high black walls: on one side the loathsome dormitories and the workshops, on the other the infirmary and morgue. Before us was the chapel with its cross; behind us rose the boundary wall. The fragmenting bones squirted putrid marrow up at us. Sweat soaked the armpits of my dress; my shoulders were burning, my hands blistering. The bone-meal had to be shovelled into sacks and a new load of bones fetched. It had been just after six o’clock in the morning when we had started; now the chapel bell was striking ten. ‘Are yer hungry in yer bellies now, yer idle bitches?’ Siviter demanded. ‘There’ll be nought for yer today, no bread nor water, only work.

Let yer lying tongues go dry, teach yer a lesson.’ It was the day after Ash Wednesday, when we had already endured a fast, but we made no reply, and kept on banging the iron rammer down, its thuds reverberating in the stone enclosure. ‘Idlers like you get a night in the lock-up,’ gloated Siviter. I had been in there once before, for some infringement of rules I had not understood, hungry, thirsty and alone in the fetid gloom behind the iron door. And not only that: we had already been condemned to the ordeal of the Sunday Penances, administered by Reverend Glyde. It was unjust. ‘I won’t.’ I let go the rammer and stood doubled over, my hands dropping to my thighs. ‘It’s not right.’ ‘Get back on the job, yer!’ Siviter lashed out with his cane.

‘I’ll kill yer, lazy drab!’ The blow jarred my spine and cold needles of pain shot down into my legs. I heard a man shout. As I tried to straighten up, another whack of Siviter’s cane caught my head and knocked off my cap. ‘Jane!’ Clara cried out, but she did not come to me. The pain was immense. I put my hand to my head; it came away wet, and red. I knew Siviter had not finished. I was overwhelmed by fear, and by the grotesqueness of the scene: the hideous walls of the workhouse yard, the fetid reek of the bones, the blood filling my palm. His next blow sent me crumpling forward so that I lay curling my arms over my throbbing head, my face to the slimy cobbles, one eye open to the red rivulet of blood that trickled between them. As I heard Siviter’s cane whistle again through the air, there came another shout from across the yard.

Siviter stopped. ‘Coroner Doughty, sir, good morning, sir!’ he called out, and to Clara and me he muttered that we should get back to work. I could not move. ‘Mr Siviter!’ A cold, clear voice came closer to where I lay. ‘Mr Siviter!’ ‘Good morning to yer, sir, Dr Doughty, sir, a fine morning too.’ Then I saw darkness and heard nothing. After a time I smelt a gentleman’s cologne, and found I was lying on my side. My head throbbed as something pressed it down against the cobblestones. My first sight of Doughty was of his wrist emerging from a white shirt-cuff, of his black coat sleeve, and the corner of his handkerchief. He was kneeling beside me on the filthy cobbles of the workhouse courtyard, applying pressure to my wound.

As he lifted the handkerchief, I raised my eyes to his: wide-open, dark, intent on mine. His face was close and as I looked up I could see the dark hairs inside his nostrils and the tiny black dots left by his cleanshaven beard. A frown creased his forehead. ‘She’s conscious again, but still losing blood.’ He pressed the handkerchief to the side of my head again. ‘Speak to me. What’s your name, m’dear?’ ‘Jane.’ ‘Jane what?’ ‘Verity.’ I closed my eyes again. ‘Well, Jane Verity, you must go to the infirmary.

Are you able to get up?’ Doughty grasped my upper arm, trying to raise me with one hand while still holding the handkerchief to my head with the other. I opened my eyes but, as I lifted my head and shoulders, the darkness came back. I leaned into the handkerchief, drooping my head against his hand with a sigh. The scent of his cologne revived me a little. ‘Malingering, sir.’ Siviter was still close by. ‘Get help!’ snapped Doughty. Siviter sent Clara to find his wife, the matron. If I made no effort it would count against me later, so I heaved myself up and around, resting on hands and knees like an animal. My breath came fast and shallow, hindered by the pain in my back.

The coroner cursed, for his handkerchief was dislodged by my movement and my blood dripped on the ground beneath. I was dizzy and wanted to sag down again to the stones. ‘You’ve already given me sufficient work for one day, Mr Siviter. I have one inquest to hear in this place and have no need of more.’ Doughty pressed the handkerchief back into place with a hand either side of my head. Clara had not returned but Siviter called out to a couple of male inmates who came across the yard and, laying hold of me, hoisted me upright. I winced at their grasp and felt I might faint again. Doughty gave up his handkerchief, placing the hand of one of the men to where he had been applying pressure, and standing away. He turned to Siviter. ‘Put her in the infirmary with a proper binding on the head wound, and a milk diet until she’s healed.

’ I closed my eyes. ‘Filthy drab, full of disease,’ muttered Siviter. But, as the men lugged me away, Doughty said: ‘My inquests have only four possible verdicts: natural death, accidental death, temporary insanity – that means suicide – and the fourth verdict is wilful murder. What verdict, in this young woman’s case, shall I recommend to my jury?’ I was brought to the workhouse infirmary and dumped on a bed, where I lay for some time, half in a swoon. To my relief Mrs Siviter did not come to tend me. It fell to Clara instead, who brought a bucket of water and an old nightgown to tear up for bandages. There were no dressings or medicines in the infirmary, only two rows of iron beds on which the sick lay coughing and crying out. I was lucky to have a bed to myself. ‘That gentleman liked the look of you, I’d say.’ Clara smiled at me.

She had beautiful diction, having learned a cut-glass accent at an early age from her clients. ‘He might have been tending your wound but his eyes were all over you like a rash.’ ‘You’re mad, Clara.’ My breath came easier now. ‘In that state, and me, to quote Mr Siviter, a filthy drab?’ Workhouse girls were considered ignorant and loose. ‘But wouldn’t you fancy a man with kind hands, darling?’ Clara arched a fine, dark eyebrow. ‘There’s no such creature.’ ‘Did you not notice his gentleness, and how he pressed his handkerchief to you?’Clara lowered her voice a couple of octaves and drooped her eyelids with feigned passion. ‘What’s your name, m’dear?’ I levered myself up to sit on the edge of the bed. The workhouse stench was powerful here: the odour of the paupers, whose clothes were never washed but merely heated in the stoving room to supposedly kill lice.

Added to that were the vapours of bad food and worse digestions, of greasy heads, of sores and sweat, all mingled in an atmosphere tainted by the effluvia of the cesspit and the mortuary. ‘What was he doing here, Clara? He said he had an inquest. Who’s died?’ Clara did not reply. Her smile faded and she busied herself tearing the nightgown into strips. It was not the routine for the coroner to be summoned. The last time had been several weeks ago when an old man had fallen into the hot water in the laundry copper and half his skin had scalded off. Usually if a pauper died there would be a swift burial, and no concern over the reason why, as long as there was one less burden on the so-called Guardians of the Poor. Reverend Glyde might recite an extra prayer at Evensong, although I knew that he never concerned himself over the babies who, as had befallen my poor Nathan, died unbaptised and were put into the cesspit. ‘Who’s died, Clara?’ Perhaps someone on the outside had reported a concern of ill-treatment. Clara, no longer able to maintain her teasing demeanour, detached Doughty’s handkerchief from my wound and said she didn’t know.

She was a poor liar, yet it was often hard to make her speak the truth. ‘Look at this,’ she said, showing me the blood-soaked cloth. ‘Fine linen, such dainty hemstitching – you might wash it with some salt and get a ha’penny for it at a clothier’s. A penny if you unpicked his initials.’ ‘You do know something,’ I said. ‘Tell me.’ ‘Or you might use it as a clout for your monthlies,’ said Clara, casting it aside, then taking a remnant of the nightgown and dipping it in the bucket. ‘He’d be glad of that, I should think.’ I winced as she dabbed at my wound, but I would not give up. ‘They must be holding an inquest.

You heard the coroner. He said that Siviter had already given him enough work.’ I stared at her haunted pallor, the dark shadows beneath her eyes. ‘Yes, you know something horrible. I can see it in your face …’ Clara wound a mass of calico over my hair. Her hands were unsteady. Then she lowered her voice. ‘Pious Betty told me that a girl was found hanging in the laundry this morning. But I don’t know …’ ‘Pious Betty! Well, she has not the wit to lie.’ I hated her, even though she was simple, because Nathan, only nine days old, had died in her care.

She had by heart the Psalms, and the Proverbs, and the Beatitudes, and recited them often and endlessly in her toneless voice yet knew not enough to keep a baby alive. ‘In any case, I imagine that a suicide would have brought the coroner.’ Then it occurred to me. My heart lurched. Theresa Curran had been the origin of our trouble. As she often did, she had followed Reverend Glyde out of our dormitory during the night, as I shrank, terrified, under my blanket. On this occasion she had not returned by the morning, when Mrs Siviter had come to wake us as usual. We complained to her, but she brought us to her husband’s office straight away. She boxed our ears for what she termed our ‘filthy talk’, and the two of them judged us with faces of iron. She said that the Reverend would be informed and would see us for the Sunday Penances.

We had gone there with hopes of justice and now we were utterly dismayed. Leaving that fear to worm its way through our souls, Mr Siviter added that in the meantime, hard work and empty bellies would start us on the path of correction. We had been sent straight out to crush the bones. ‘Theresa – have you seen her yet?’ Clara stopped what she was doing, and her eyes met mine. ‘I know. I imagine they found her while we were in the yard.’ ‘It couldn’t be …’ I could hardly bring myself to say it. ‘Oh … not her. Surely to God, she was but a child. Twelve? Thirteen?’ I did not ask Clara anything else.

Although my mind recoiled from the thought, I could have predicted it. Theresa had been wasting away, ignoring her meagre rations until they were snatched away by others, unhealed wounds multiplying on her skin. Quietly, she had almost ceased to exist; her death had been written in her eyes. She was sent to Reverend Glyde every Sunday for Penances that she did not deserve. On the nights when she followed him out of the dormitory she had returned after an hour or two, creeping silently back to her place. Once I thought I heard her weeping, but when I whispered her name there was silence. During the day, if I approached her, she turned her face away in shame. ‘What good will the coroner do?’ Clara tucked in the end of the bandage; the thing was starting to slide down over my eyes already. ‘What’s he to do if Theresa … if she made away with herself? Why get a doctor to look at her when she’s already dead?’ I lay back down on the dirty blankets. I would reapply the bandage later, myself.

‘He might not be a medical doctor, Clara. He might be a Doctor of Law.’ ‘And what do you know of Doctors of Law, Jane?’ Clara said with a smile. ‘More than you realise, Clara,’ I retorted. I had never told anyone in the workhouse of my background, feeling ashamed that I had once possessed far more advantages than they and in my folly, in the blindness of passion, had cast them aside. ‘In any case, what if he sees the state she was in? The marks on her body? He saw Siviter beating me: perhaps he will realise what this place truly is. Our suffering should be revealed: the cruelty, the Sunday Penances. It might get into the newspaper. People should know. The whole place should be torn down.

’ ‘Gentlemen look after one another.’ Clara fixed me with her pretty eyes. ‘The coroner is Glyde’s brother-in-law. And the Reverend Vernon Glyde is not just our chaplain but the Chairman of the Board of Guardians of the Poor, the Rector of St Michael’s and a Magistrate of the Bench.’ ‘And you, what do you know of Magistrates of the Bench, Clara?’ ‘More than you realise, Jane.’ Her lips curved into a smirk. Clara knew far too many gentlemen. She would have had no need of the workhouse but for a dose of a certain illness that had prevented her from plying her trade. ‘They’re all keeping things quiet for each other,’ she continued. ‘Look at Mr Madden.

Two offices in the same person. Relieving Officer of the Parish Union, supposedly paying to feed us paupers, and at the same time as the Registrar of Deaths he sends us off to be buried. Dr Wright, the workhouse doctor? I’ve barely seen him, and you know how often I’ve had to help in this so-called infirmary. He only comes when someone dies, writes a certificate without even looking at them, and Mrs Siviter takes it to Mr Madden to get it registered. That’s all. If you died tomorrow, there’d be no mention of your head wound.’ We learned nothing of the coroner’s inquest, and I supposed that Theresa was sent to the burial grounds in one of the coffins from the basement, for even her small body would have been too large for the cesspit. After that I lay for some days in the infirmary, fearing that my back was broken and that my throbbing wound would turn septic. I asked where was my milk diet; there was never any milk, they said, only gruel. I feared that Dr Doughty would soon return for my inquest.

What would his verdict be? As I felt close to death, I pondered my past like an old woman, wondering if I could have had a better life. I thought of my mother and saw her again in our parlour at home, in her dove-grey silk, correcting me with precision as I practised at the piano. And my father: how high-minded he was, and how he had campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. What would he think now of his disinherited daughter, gone from being a theatre-company piano-player to forced labour in the Birmingham Parish Union Workhouse? They would never learn of Nathan’s brief life, too shameful to be told. More often I dreamed of Edmond in all his flamboyant glory, of his fair hair and his powerful voice, of his passionate avowals. I prayed to him as though to a golden god, that he would return to me. I conjured up his profile and the shape of his lips and tightened my arms around myself as though he held me again to his chest. I pictured his lithe limbs moving with my music across the stage. He had not intended to leave me to this, I reminded myself. I would live for him, for his peerless love beside which all else became insignificant.

I did not die, nor was I sent to the Sunday Penances. I recovered, with the resilience of youth. My wound started to heal and after a few days Mrs Siviter came to the infirmary in the early morning and informed me that the coroner and Mrs Doughty had requested me as a domestic servant, at ninepence a week, although she had no idea why they would have chosen me, and thought that ninepence was far too much. This meant the end of my time in the workhouse. I thanked her, hoping that I had the strength for it, and that the coroner had acted out of charity. It had been the sight of my blood that had drawn his notice, and at that time his motive thus appeared to be honourable. Yet it was also possible that my degraded state had excited his interest. ‘Get dressed, then.’ I got up hastily, expecting her to berate me for being slow. She merely dropped a pile of clothing on the floor.

‘I’ll send Clara Scattergood to help you. I suppose we’ll get you back when you prove to be unsuitable.’ With that, she left. The pile contained a mobcap, a black stuff dress, black woollen stockings, and an old pair of boots. There was a small bundle with a few things I had brought into the workhouse with me: a brass ring, which I did not put on, a tea-token from the shop on Navigation Street, a nightgown, an ivory comb. Of my reticule, of the clothes I had on when I came in – a well-made walking-dress and shawl – and of the layette I had bought for Nathan, there was no sign. Clara came to unwind the bandage. I covered the scab on my head with the mobcap, hoping my raggedly shorn hair might soon grow back. ‘You’re being sent out, then,’ said Clara, ‘at Dr Doughty’s request. I told you he’d taken an interest in you.

’ ‘I’m sure they must be a respectable family.’ I remembered Doughty’s white shirt-cuff, his professional manner, and his fine handkerchief. Clara snorted. ‘Oh, they’ll think themselves respectable – far enough above you that they can treat you as they want. You’re to do as you’re told. You’ll be drudging, day and night. If you don’t work enough, they’ll whip you, and when the gentleman wants you he’ll have you, and when his lady wife finds you at it, you’re out on the street. After that, there’s only one way to survive. If you haven’t done it before, then stay away from the cribs is my advice. Go to Mrs Graham’s on Suffolk Street.

Else it’s back to the workhouse.’ ‘Well, I shan’t be coming back to the workhouse. And I shan’t be drudging forever, for that matter.’ Clara smiled at me. ‘What, are you to be a girl of the game then? And I thought you so straitlaced.’ ‘Don’t be foolish, Clara. I shall find Edmond. He promised to come back.’ ‘You must look forward, Jane, into the future.’ She put out her hands and held mine in them.

‘Don’t be looking back all the time, to what no longer exists.’ The Beadle came for me then, and there was no time to argue with her. I gave her a hasty embrace. Her words remained with me, even though I was certain that she was wrong.

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