She had a draggle of dirt-coloured hair, a verminous
dress held together by pieces of twine and knobby bare feet hard as goat
hoofs. A goaty smell permeated the air around her and she clutched the
curate's coins under a ragged shawl. Gin for a month if she didn't get
knocked for it.
With her toe, she kicked at the lump at her feet. A
lump of naked flesh still glistening with blood and mucus. The lump
flipped over, exhibiting four limbs, frail as frog's legs,
wavering close to a blue-tinged stomach sticking
with horse dung. The stomach was attached to matchstick ribs, tiny
shoulders and the disproportionately large head of the newborn.
The head flopped, pinched and death-like. Yet inside
even so unpromising a dwelling, a human spirit rallied. Out belted a
squall so mightily indignant the curate jumped like a horse from a
"A...baby," he sputtered as if he had
never seen one before. "Who would leave a baby here!"
He was growing paler. The colour drained from his
lips and his neck and even from his fingers protruding from under his
cuffs. He felt a whirling inside and knew the Devil had played
him a horrid joke. Oh, how very far he felt from
Aylesham, Surrey, where the height of depravity was knocking down gate
posts on a drunken holiday night!
"Them as can't feed it. Pah!"
The crone aimed her toe at the wretched scrap again.
It skidded sideways into a mass of fish guts. The curate slumped to the
wall, noisily, violently ill.
For some moments, it looked as though he were going
to continue his slide down the bricks, bested by his first encounter with
London's brute reality. The old woman rocked on her heels as her charge
clawed about, seeking some handhold in this twisted nether universe into
which he had been flung. With a mighty effort, he forced himself erect,
mild eyes blinking rapidly, hoping to banish the scene.
"It has to be...rescued! I...there must be
He looked from the woman to the infant and back
again, whiskers aquiver. His guide stepped on into the alley, anxious to
show her charge the black putrescence and dead rats of the Thames before
the light faded. After that, there were the gin cellars and the gals
packed on street corners hoping to make a few pennies for a roll. Smashing
bit of luck, a gent like this since none came down this far for fear of
getting their gizzards cut out and roasted on a spit!
As the curate grasped at his guide’s shawl, the
rotten fabric gave way and the woman’s stick flew halfway to clouting
him senseless. Her free hand clapped to her shoulder as if her flesh had
been torn. Every rag was precious. A body could get knifed down here for a
rag. Cough yourself dead, you would, without some scrap to keep off the
Embarrassed, the curate fumbled out another coin. As
a pie-faced boy, he had learned apology early and edged to his current
station in life through an earnest and diffident desire to please. It had
but dimly dawned that such an attitude would do him little good among the
horrors of East End London.
Like a famished trout, the woman snapped up the
money. The curate's pockets and their contests were of consuming interest
to her, but she was too feeble to do other than take what he gave her and
steer him clear of those who would empty his pockets by force.
At their feet, the baby tried again to cry but
succeeded only in a faint mewling sound. Its body had turned bluer with
the cold and its tongue protruded from dehydration. The curate's feet
rooted themselves to the spot.
"We must help this child at once!"
Scraps of his mission as God's servant, hitherto
unreal, fluttered through his dismay. A fearful thrill clutched him. Why
here, literally, was a lost lamb abandoned to the blast. A
lamb that he must save.
His companion shuffled toward the next corner.
Flaking bricks and blind, boarded windows provided protective colouring,
making her eerily like some physical manifestation of the alley. The
curate grew more agitated.
"You must take this babe to a...a foundling
home. I can't...I won't budge until it's done!"
He had now recovered enough to exert his rank,
meagre as it was, over this degraded creature.. Any ordinary infant, so
abandoned, would surely have been long dead. Yet this child hitched its
froggy limbs and worked at sucking nourishment out of the very air. It's
frown was uncomfortably direct. It's fierce grasping at life demanded a
response, even of the most hardened.
"Come by t'river, sir. There be mud larks
there, up to their hanks in t'mud, lookin' fer bits o'coal."
She promised to show where Bunty Dave got crushed
between the barges, the bloodstains still on the decks, but the curate
only looked greener. Her lips curled in upon toothless gums. Oh, oh, it
was over! The miraculous luck of the curate's purse stolen by a worm
Rage boiled up. She scooped up the child.
"Take it then!" And she jammed it into
crook of the churchman’s arm.
Curate Banning staggered, not from the weight, which
was nothing, but from the shock of supporting another human life. His
bachelor frame went rigid. His hands, which had never touched
a baby before, fumbled and fluttered. Then the reek of the gutter
assaulted him, not a foot from his nose. The small body began to slide
into the gap between the curate's buttoned chest and his elbow. His scalp
tightened when he realized a length of umbilical cord, chill and limp, had
slapped across his wrist.
"Oh, no no! I didn't mean... I thought you
Rising gorge choked him. He wanted to fling the
thing and run. He shut his eyes and jerked his hand to the bare bottom to
keep the child from plunging to the ground. The sliminess
under his fingers almost undid him completely.
"Yourn tis," his guide rasped, shaking her
All the bitterness of a life spent grubbing for
crusts blazed into the woman's one good eye. She had got shut of half a
dozen brats like this. Wished them dead and dead they were as this one
ought to be.
The curate started to tremble in earnest.
"Please, I beg you, take the child...."
The rescue of souls had heretofore been a spiritual
matter. He was gagging, certain he could not hold his burden one moment
longer. The bulge of his eyes threw a fright into the woman whose wits
functioned only in regard to her own survival.
"Oh, no. Not with them officers!"
She was having no dealings with officers. Not her.
They'd steal her coin and her shawl. Put her in the workhouse where there
was no drink and she'd die of the shakes.
"Then pray return some money..."
Even her bad eye widened, revealing chalky blankness
where the iris should have been. Her breath rattled. In a ragged blur, she
bolted from sight.
"Wait," bleated the curate. "Oh,
Alone in the wilderness of stained brick,
overhanging roofs, and glistening, revolting footways, the young man
panicked. He tried to follow his guide but she had vanished like a rat
down its sewer. He only slammed up against a broken wall patched with
plaster, his feet deep in sodden ash.
He was forced to grab the infant's leg to keep it
from falling. The leg was as horrid as the its bottom, yet also firm and
slightly warm under his grip. Renewed astonishment struck him. This
flicker of life really would exist or perish at his whim!
The curate tried to clutch more tightly, causing the
infant to tip in another direction. He dropped to his knees to stop its
descent and, finally losing his grip, saw it slither all the way to the
For one interminable moment Satan smoked at his
elbow, sulphurous and wily.
"No one will ever know," whispered the
Tempter. "Bad chance brought you here. Go away and never think of
Yet the gaunt little abdomen quivered, trying for
breath, trying to cry. It presented Banning with the first raw fact of
life he had ever encountered, throwing into livid reality the religious
pap of a lifetime. The umbilical cord, he saw, had been raggedly slashed.
Below it flowered tiny female genitals...
When the curate realized what he was looking at, a
wave of scalding heat engulfed him. He had been brought up to believe
ladies scarcely had legs, never mind...private parts. Recklessly pulling
off his coat, he rolled the child into its folds and sped off in search of
The area, like nearly all the East End, had been
thrown up hastily and meanly to house the burgeoning poor of the
Industrial Revolution. The population of London had reached a million by
eighteen hundred. Then, even as the city fathers were crying out was there
no end to starving Irish, displaced weavers, ambitious pedlars and runaway
farm wenches, the number doubled and tripled and quadrupled, inundating a
city whose rudimentary government could not cope with the dizzying,
unimaginable change to a modern world. In the conflicting and jealous
multitude of autonomous districts and civil parishes, no one had
responsibility for the regulation of housing, drains, disease control,
labour practices or even provision of drinkable water.
Consequently, its houses of bad brick and ersatz
plaster needed only the London dampness, grime and clogged gutters to
crumble at once into the worst of slums. The curate stood surrounded by
blackened courts, sinister dead-ends and tortuous lanes, some hardly more
than a yard wide. Twilight grayness seeped over the eaves and threatening,
malodorous darkness welled from corners. The barred, decaying windows were
shuttered and the myriad passageways seemed deserted, yet there was to it
all a sense of universal breathing, of eyes peering out of slits in doors
and of underlying, pulsing danger.
Banning ran, bumping heedlessly off sudden walls,
backing out of exitless courts until, after many turnings, he stumbled
onto a wider thoroughfare where a few low shops broke the
monotony and wan children huddled in doorways. The
first group of adults the curate saw lounged about an open door from which
spilled yellow light and drunken song. Gratefully, he panted up.
"Please," he begged between breaths,
"could any of you gentlemen kindly direct me to a...a charity
Gentleman was about the last description that could
have applied to the gathered rag tag. Some were mere boys, with bare shins
exposed and streaked faces. Some were men hulking under badly fitted
shirts, some had the sunken, blue-veined faces that indicated the
depredations of drink. All of them were gaunt, all of them were filthy,
including the scattering of matt-haired women who fixed the curate with
sharp, widened eyes.
Silence fell. The group had been struck dumb by
civility of speech coupled with the appearance of a respectable waistcoat
and white shirt amidst the surrounding dirt. The spectacle of the noxious
infant wrapped in an unpatched coat capped their astonishment.
When the curate looked up, he found himself
encircled by wolfish faces. Light splashed across one side of them,
showing up scars and ruined eyes and sagging flesh. The other side lay in
shadow, increasing the air of desperation that hung so palpably about the
street. A soft squinching was heard as feet shifted in the gutters.
Full as he was of his mission, the curate at last
sensed menace, though he perceived it dimly in terms of certain big boys
who had tormented his childhood rather than in the more definite
possibility of being knocked senseless and stripped in the alleyway for
the shillings in his pocket and the wealth his clothes represented pawned
and transformed into gin.
The curate licked a dry mouth, gamely refusing to
glance in search of escape.
Oh, dear me! he thought, putting his predicament
into the strongest terms he was able. A quarrel he couldn't see was going
on in the gin cellar and he had interrupted the amusement of the watchers.
Something crashed, followed by a high female squalling. Banning jumped,
unaware till now that women could make such a sound.
"Please, a foundling home. The poor child must
have help straightaway."
Though he had heard much of foundling homes, he had
never actually seen one. In his village, the ancient, close-knit webs of
society still hung together. All the children, no matter how questionable
their origins, had hearths to take them in.
Perhaps it was the shining trust on his face.
Perhaps it was the novel sight of a man holding a newborn child as though
it were exceedingly precious and also hot as a clinker. Perhaps it was his
own air of poverty, clean and careful, but poverty nevertheless. Whatever
caused his luck, the curate failed to spark the savage pack instincts just
under the surface. The largest man began to grin.
"A foundlin' 'ome! Ha ha, lads. If I knowed a
foundlin' 'ome, I'd get into it meself!"
He looked round at his companions who guffawed. A
small boy danced up and down, nursing a phantom baby. The faces came
closer, exhaling waves of oniony breath.
The curate sounded feeble, even to himself, which
took some doing. A shriek from the gin cellar brought the big man round.
Let 'im 'ave it, Moll," he bellowed
encouragingly. "Bash 'is brains. We'll stand you a pint!"
The rest began hopping up and down. They feinted
with their fists as though cheering a dog-fight though their eyes were
still on the curate. The boy began waving a white linen handkerchief and
it took several confused seconds before Banning realized the item had been
picked from his own pocket while he stood. His mouth flew open, but a few
grains of sense squelched his protest. He backed away, as from a pack of
mastiffs, then took to his heels in dread lest the men hound after him.
They preferred the gin cellar, perhaps because the
gin cellar was their only spot of gaiety in that sea of desolation, crime
and disease. The curate found himself in a crooked lane with the twilight
rapidly failing. His heart clamoured against his ribs. Belatedly,
hair-raising tales of footpads and murderers galloped into his head.
Sacred Jehosepat! They could find him dead against a
rain barrel with his liver sliced out!
Just as he was trying to decide between the terrors
of the empty lane and those of the populated thoroughfare, a shape glided
to his elbow. Before he could jump away, a female voice spoke a
proposition in the curate's ear so irregular it took some moments before
he could make sense of it. Fiery embarrassment consumed the roots of his
hair. He tried to flee, but another woman was at him, clamped to his
"Ere," scolded the first, "'e's mine.
I sees 'im first. Such a nice gintleman. 'E'll give me money for me lodgin'."
"NO!" gasped the clergyman, shuddering to
his heels that anyone could ever ever think it possible. "Oh no no
Mrs. Warren would swoon onto her tea tray. And the
vicar...oh, if the vicar found out he had fallen into the grip of
fleshpots and wantons...
"See, 'e don't want you. It's me. I'm ever so
much more fun. Come over 'ere with me, luv. Put yer 'and..."
The creature was actually bridling and prancing
before him, thin as a broom in the dimness, rudely contradicting the
curate's conviction that fleshpots were voluptuous as parlour cushions and
glittering all over with vain ornament. He broke free. Unbelievingly, he
saw the two women begin to shove each other for the right to drag him into
"Wait," he cried. "Take me to a
foundling home and I'll give a shilling to each of you!"
The fight stopped as though a pistol had been fired.
"A bob! croaked the small one, suspicious and
"Yes, yes, for each," he promised dizzily.
"Just take me to shelter for this child."
The women, despite their recent conflict, seemed to
exchange a silent communication. The knowledge that the curate had at
least two shillings on him put him again in danger of physical attack.
Only fears that the uproar would bring the men to snatch the booty kept
the women from executing the scheme. Together, they turned and tramped off
down the alley, the curate trotting urgently behind.
Whether the streets improved or not, the curate
couldn't tell, so preoccupied was he with keeping up to his guides. He
splashed through fetid puddles and twice stubbed his toe on prostrate
hulks that uttered human cries. Finally, they stopped before a low brick
building with barred windows and a stout, forbidding doorway.
"What is it?" the curate asked.
Silently, the women pointed to a small, neatly
painted sign which read, Infants' Asylum. Banning was making for
the knocker when the females blocked his way. In the light he saw with
surprise that they could not yet be fourteen. They
closely resembled the undernourished alley cats foraging feverishly while
trying to avoid being eaten themselves by the hungry human population.
"First let me make sure...."
They moved as if to tear the money out of him.
Awkwardly, the curate fished out the exorbitant amount and had it snatched
before he could open his fingers. Two pairs of eyes ran over him avidly
but again had to abandon outright robbery. Before he could blink, they
melted into the darkness and were gone.
* * *
© Copyright Gail Hamilton 2009
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