February was a good month for writing. I managed to reach the end of part 1–a third of the way through–my latest project. At 40 pages, “The Darkwood Mysteries (17): The Slaves of the Underworld”, is shaping up nicely as a novella, perhaps even a novel length by the time I have completed parts 2 and 3. My plan, which I talked about in my last post, has held up. Chapters are pretty short, which is what I wanted, and the story I have had in my head for a few years now is getting onto the page without too much effort. I’ve managed to get a few full days of writing in, starting at about 6:30 or 7 am and then working through until 5 or 6 pm (with lunch and plenty of tea in between of course!). This was always how I used to write, and I’m glad to be getting back into the swing of it. It feels much more satisfying than a morning or afternoon, and an hour or so in an evening here and there a couple of times a week.
I’m going to share chapter two with you now. And disclaimer time again–I don’t consider I have a first draft until I have finished the whole story, as I often revisit sections and chapters as I am writing to make tweaks or changes, or move things around, so these shares are very much the rough that comes from the writing desk before they’ve been studied and edited. Please forgive typos and any wonky writing that comes through. After the ‘hook’ of finding Jack Hobbs committing himself to the workhouse, chapter two reveals why he is in this situation, and sets up the inciting incident–entering the workhouse–which will propel the story forward, with Hobbs in a very different place to the usual Darkwood Mystery.
Chapter Two: Jim Leaves Jack Behind
I sat in a sparse office on an uncomfortable straight-backed wooden chair. A meagre fire flickered in the hearth, but felt to me like a roaring inferno and I welcomed the heat. The air smelt of dust. The portly matron, Mrs. Sloakes, stood behind me. The rakish Mr. Wendly, the warden, sat behind the desk between us. His pen scratching the page before him. Occasionally affording me a glance over his spectacles as he filled in the little boxes on his paper and jotted the less prosaic account of my journey to his door. He stopped. Placed his pen in its stand and laced his long fingers together upon the desk. Now his grey eyes were upon me again. Studying. Mentally stripping me away as one could an onion, with only his imaginings of what he might find the further he investigated.
“You have no family with whom you could seek support?”
“None, sir. Mother died when I was a babe. Father was a seaman away for long stretches, which become longer and longer until he didn’t come back to me, and I know not where he is if he is anywhere at all.”
“And you plead innocent of the thefts from your employers?”
“I do, sir,” I insisted quickly.
He nodded on this in silent contemplation as though he were pecking away at me with his sharp nose, chipping away at any resolve set around a lie. “You claimed to have a good relationship with your employer, yet her family made the accusation and cast you out?”
I bowed my head to my lap in my misery. “They did sir. They were never as welcoming as my mistress. My employer is away, and so wasn’t there to defend me.”
“And when is she due to return?”
“A month. Perhaps longer. She is nursing a relative.”
He asked if I planned to return to my employers in that time and to plead my case to a more receptive audience. “I want to, sir. But they made it clear they will not allow me to return. My mistress is their niece, and while she might choose who she pays to serve her, she is their ward and lives in their house, so while I’m sure she will believe me, the fight she would have to reinstate me could be upsetting for all. It might even put my Alice’s place there in jeopardy also. I would never be truly welcomed there again.”
“How do you account for the monies and jewellery being found under your mattress in your room?”
I looked up at this, knew I needed to look him in the eye in answering. “I can’t, sir. I can only think someone placed them there.”
“Seems odd to steal and then hide the gains where they could be found so easily. Where would the benefit in stealing them be?”
I shrugged. “When suspicion of theft was raised, whoever stole those things and realised they weren’t going to get them out of the house without being found out chose to hide them in our room.”
“To place blame upon you?” Wendly raised a trim eyebrow which I knew no confirmation from me would convince him of the convenience. “Your wife? Could it have been her?”
“Not my wife—my sweetheart.”
“But you share a room?” He shook his head at his thought spoken out loud.
“Not officially,” I admitted. “My room was downstairs, hers up. I came to see it as our room, I suppose.”
“I see,” Wendly stated, and I suspected a judgement beneath it. There was a cross on the wall behind him. “Your ‘sweetheart’ then?” He suggested, with a little impatience. He listened to my defence of Alice’s character and my insistence that she would never do such a thing. His eyes blank and his angled jaw set firm through his encounters. This was a man who stood as a guardian over all those who had fallen, many of which had failed their own character in their desperation to remain afloat. This was a man made cynical by the stories he had interpreted and been hardened against the narrators. “Suspicion fell upon both of you, but you chose to take the punishment to see her remain?” His mouth turned down as he cast his eyes over my entry in his ledger. “Noble, I suppose.”
He asked me if the police had been involved, and I denied as such, explaining that the family did not wish to involve the constabulary as they were already convinced of my guilt.
“This is not a safe harbour for criminals. The police check workhouses for suspects. If anything, this is a dead end in any escape attempt.”
I nodded my understanding, and he held my gaze. He sat there as though considering my case. I suddenly worried that I was going to be turned away. The panic welled within me, and then I went cold at the realisation at wanting—no, needing—to be admitted to this long-dreaded place.
“And you’re nineteen?” The arched eye-brow returned.
I straightened my narrow shoulders as though it would convince him of the fact and answered truthfully. “Perhaps. I mean, I don’t have a birth certificate. I never knew of a birth-day as such. It wasn’t until my employer thought it was something I should have and celebrate.”
Wendly nodded. “Not uncommon. You look younger.”
“I hear that,” and often used as a slight against me, and my height and frame was something I had dwelt upon myself in the comfort of not having to worry about food and board through my employ. “Perhaps I am, sir. But I’m an adult, I’m sure.”
“Yes, I suppose you do pass as an adult.” He sat in quiet again, and I came to realise how quiet this building was. The high thick wall this reception room was built up against shielded us from the constant thrash of horse and carriage beyond, and the break between this keep of an outbuilding and the main building of the workhouse kept the sounds of the heavy work within from us.
“Tell me why you are here.”
It sounded like an accusation, as suspicion of an ulterior motive. I felt a panic wriggle within me, but I sat there pale with exposure to hunger and cold, my hair unkempt, my tailored suit crumpled and darkened from sleeping on the damp ground, my trousers soiled and shoes spattered from walking the streets, my hands brown from clutching dung for warmth and emanating my own stink from doing so, and I had to bite my tongue from asking him what I thought I wanted. “No disrespect, sir. But, I do not want to be here. I’ve long dreaded needing such a need of places like this.”
“As it should be,” he said sternly.
“But, I have fallen, sir. I have fallen flat on my face. I never expected such. I was not prepared for such. What little I had to my name went on my first night’s board and food to eat. I have nowhere to go, and no means. I need sanctuary.”
Wendly nodded curtly, as though falling on my sword had been what he wanted to see and hear.
I dared myself to push further. “I have heard that there’s a chance for a ‘second life’ and with this one failed me, I will do anything for another chance to raise myself up.”
“I see. We do offer second chances. We’re one of the only establishments of this like that does. We don’t offer it to all. Just the fit and willing.”
“I’m slight, but with a meal inside me and a bed beneath me instead of cobbles I be fit for most things, and the harder the work the bigger I’m sure to get, I’ve been told. I’ve come from life as a servant, so I’m used to long days of toil, and turn myself to whatever’s asked of me in service without question or dally, so I’m willing to boot.”
He softened a little under my sudden break out of enthusiasm with a half-laugh and half exhalation. It was brief and he closed his ledger gently and slid his hand over the cover. “Well, Jim Hodgeson,” he started. “You need us, and you are just what we need. Welcome to Hope House.”
It was confirmed. I was admitted to the workhouse. Pinned in place within my poverty by the spike like some entomologist’s specimen. I was advised that while many of the doors were locked in the house, this was to maintain segregation rather than to incarcerate, and I could be discharged whenever I wished in the day-time as long as a minimum of three-hour’s notice was given. He had no need to state as such to me, but I knew that if I had been unfortunate enough to subject my family to an admission to the workhouse, they would be ejected when I chose to leave. Entering and leaving with such commitments to others was a responsibility I was glad not to have. While I could leave and return, this would be treated as a separate admission with a repeat of the interview for consideration—and the possibility of rejection. Wendly stated that he did not approve of “in and outers”, and I recalled that some of the street women would discharge themselves from the workhouse, earn themselves coin down an alley, drink it in an ale house, and then when they had their fill return to the workhouse. He did not allude as such, but I imagined his objections came from such an awareness himself. He cautioned that anyone who arrived at the door drunk and ‘acting out’ would not be re-admitted.
Mrs. Sloakes led me out of the warden’s office and crossed the cobbled passageway which the main gates opened onto, and into the other side of the gatehouse. I was greeted by the slosh of water being tipped into a metal tub set before a fire—thankfully more well fed than that of the warden’s office for the bath I was going to have to take before entry. A round faced man with bushy white mutton-chop whiskers, and a shining pate on top, stood up from a desk and introduced himself as Dr. Madley, and he excused the young woman who had been filling the bath for me whilst I had been interviewed.
We were left alone together. The room was the mirror of the warden’s, but in here the desk was in a corner to allow for the tub, and one wall was lined with a bench. Scales, a free standing measuring stick, and a large anatomical drawing of the human body plastered between them. The doctor asked me to strip down to my small clothes, and considerately suggested I stood by the fire to do so. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke them they were soft and warm, and I took him as a kind man from that. I folded my cloths as I removed them, and Dr. Madley chuckled at this. I guessed he was not used to such care from those used to the hardship of the streets. Once I was down to my small clothes he pressed his wire framed spectacle up to his bushy brow and squinted through them in inspecting my body. His pudgy fingers rummaged through my hair in search of lice, and did the same in the hair under my arms and the sparse patch upon my chest. I hoped I would not suffer the indignity of him doing so elsewhere. I was prepared to jest with him for a proposal before such an inspection, but he just asked me to strip completely and step into the bath. Dr. Madley turned his back to me while he did so and unfolded my clothes and held them to the gaslight in further search of lice.
Miss Darkwood had a low opinion of workhouse staff and the doctors especially. Workhouses were run to be as efficient as possible—accommodating the most poor for the least cost. As such, those who worked for the workhouse did so for lower wages than they might be able to achieve elsewhere, and so tended to attract those who were desperate themselves for employment. This made the workhouse an employment opportunity for those with tarnished reputations who might not be able to find work elsewhere. The doctors often had to fund their infirmary from their own wages, which led to the cautious diagnosing of illness, wary of the cost treatments would cause the diagnosing practitioner. Medication was often alcohol or coloured water instead, leaving the sick at the mercy of their illnesses. What, I wondered had this doctor done to end up there? But then, Miss Darkwood was of society and chose to give her time to her pauper’s clinic in the East End at her own cost. Perhaps this doctor was such a philanthropist.
The hot water was scalding and took my breath away. I thought to yank my foot out, but knew that the burn was due to my being so cold from the street than the water actually being close to boiling. I stood both feet in the water and sucked in air against the discomfort and crouched above the surface, using the steam to warm my body and ease my adjustment before submerging myself further. I took advantage of the steep sides of the tub to cover my modesty. Curious how my body had become a private thing since being domesticated within the Darkwood household. Sharing a bed with Peter and whoever else the bed needed to cater for in one room with an entire family living in it, I had never a thought or a care for who might have seen me. I would need to abandon such prudishness in the workhouse.
“You don’t have any lice. No symptoms of the itch? No worms? Any ailments?”
I answered in the negative to all of the doctor’s checklist of questions.
“Scrub yourself vigorously and soap every inch of yourself. Your clothes that you came in will be laundered and stored for when you leave.”
I followed his instructions as he had stated and worked up a lather.
“If I get chosen for the second life, will I get new clothes?”
The doctor didn’t answer directly. “So I’m told.”
His hesitation teased my curiosity. “You don’t know?” I dared push.
The hesitation again. “No, I don’t. I interest myself in the health of those admitted here, not what happens beyond the infirmary.” A firmness had entered into his voice. “Why do you I ask?”
I shrugged. “I’ve lost everything. Wouldn’t you ask?”
“Yes,” he smiled, but there was sadness in his eyes. “Yes, I suppose I would, Jim.”
After drying myself from the bath I was given the uniform of the workhouse. In this instance it was black shoes, grey trousers and shirt, charcoal waistcoat and black sack jacket and bowler hat. The shoes were thick unforgiving leather, yet worn from all those who had walked in them before me. The clothes were a crude cut, but thick and warm, if not stiff from starch and chaffing. I was given fingerless gloves and a scarf.
“The hat is for outside use only. Not to be worn inside,” he said, as though educating someone who had never seen one before. His lines sounded rehearsed, so I did not take it as a personal assessment of my intelligence. “The gloves and the scarf are permissible within the house. Some of the rooms are large, and the heat from the fires does not reach as far as one would hope. Some attendants think that hard work should be the source of warmth, but I think differently, and you will tell them that doctor told you to keep warm for your health.”
My long-held fear of the workhouse had been in part through the stories of abuse from the attendants. This man was an ally, I noted to myself rather quickly. Yet, this was a man I was now leaving behind as Mrs. Sloakes returned and ushered me from the gatehouse keep. The doctor had stated that his focus was blinkered to the infirmary—a place I would only enter after any abuse I might suffer. I wondered if such abuse was why he chose to not look beyond that which stood before him. Ignorance was the great excuse for those who could be guilty by association. Admission to the infirmary would be mean that any suffering would have been had by me, so the doctor was no escape route for me.
For someone so rounded, Mrs. Sloakes walked fast, and I skipped to keep up with her. The courtyard was surrounded by a high wall—as tall as the perimeter wall—and barely a window of the three storey building of the workhouse could be seen from this reception compound. Partition and segregation. I expected the windows of the lower two floors would be a regular height, as they would only afford views of the brick walls which divided the segregated yards, and from what I could see of the upper floor, the windows were higher to admit light but prevent the occupants a view to the outside world the inmates had chosen to leave behind. The only sensory richness beyond the grey walls would be glimpses of clouds in the blue sky and perhaps the sun—when the London grey sheet allowed.
The biting cold and smothering damp was left behind as I set foot upon the bare boards of the main building and Mrs. Sloakes began recited the rules: “The clothes you wear belong to the workhouse, you will treat them with respect as the belongings of others. They will be laundered and repaired for you. The house operates under a strict adherence to time-keeping. You will rise by the bell, eat by the bell, work by the bell, and retire by the bell,” I wanted to joke at how I hoped not to confuse one bell for another, or to ask if there was a bell for the water closet, but I could tell by the sternness of her voice that no softness of consideration would be earned by such an effort and it would most likely only mark me as trouble in her eyes. “You will work hard and you will work fast. One standard will not impede the other. There will be no spitting. There will be no cussing. Cussing is any word you would not use before the Queen or God. There will be no fighting. We pray before every meal and every rest period, and will thank the board of guardians and God for the shelter of this house.” I wondered if the board of guardians—philanthropists—specified that they come before God in our thanks as recompense. “You will eat and drink all foods provided for you at meal times and leave no waste. There is a service instead of a rest period every Sunday and you will sing. You will pray and sing with your voice and you heart, for I will know if you do not. You will see female attendants on occasion, but will only see female inmates on Sunday in the mixed services. You will remain beyond arm’s length to any female, other than at Sunday service where space for the three hundred inmates does not allow. You may speak to any male, child or adult, but as you confess you are not related to or have any connection with any females residing her, you will not speak to any female, child or adult, other than to wish them well for the time of the day you might see them. You will not touch either sex other than through a handshake to a male. You will not touch yourself other than to wash and dress.” The Jack Hobbs I had been on the street would have asked who was going to hold my Thomas at the pot, but I hadn’t been that Jack Hobbs, and my domesticity with the Darkwood’s had wizened me to know better than to draw on my past in such a situation. “You will wash and dress in full every day. Any breach of these rules will be sanctioned with a reduction in your food. Repeat infractions will lead to an increase in your work time, hard-labour, isolation, and will culminate in expulsion for those who can not abide by the rules of this house, is that clear Mr. Hodgeson?”
I nodded that it was. This would be my life now. For how long I could not guess, but I knew I hoped it would not be long.
The building was a long line of brick. Men’s quarters to the left, women’s to the right. Each would have their dormitories, day rooms, workrooms and the dining hall. Extending from the middle of the building was the central chapel and beyond that the children’s quarters and the infirmary. I, of course, was led to the left and into a wide corridor which travelled the length of the wing, lit with gas sconces and light from the rooms beyond through windows at the tops of the walls. I was informed I had arrived in time for lunch, and I was greeted by a long line of men running the length of the main corridor, dressed just as I was. Only the heights and faces changed as they shuffled by in an orderly file to the dining hall. Mrs. Sloakes directed me into the queue between others, and joined the slow trudge. My identity as Jack Hobbs had been taken from me with my separation from my clothes. Now all semblance of the life I had with Miss Darkwood and my Alice was about to be beaten away within routine, hard labour and the suppression of any respite in joy, other than the permitted singing and worship. In my rough attire, and about to walk the treadmill of the workhouse, I left Jack Hobbs behind and became Jim Hodgeson.