PROOF OF VIRTUE
Thus did the fatal disease rise
like a demon bent on destruction;
it took its course,
not heeding mountain, sea nor clime;
death was its object, man its victim,
and the uttermost ends of the world
its destination; wherever its cold hand
was extended - the people died ....
Death struggled with time itself,
and gnawed the moments
that separated him from his victim.
~John Hogg “London As It Is”
Two spots of colour stained the small boy’s cheeks and droplets of sweat ran from his flushed face to disappear into the blonde hair at his temple. A wracking cough exploded from his pale lips and his sister clutched him tighter to her chest, willing her own life and vitality into his frail body. The frigid wind teased at the frayed blanket and tried to steal it from the child. Despite the heat that radiated from him, she felt him shudder with cold. In vain, she tried to tuck the threadbare blanket more securely about his slight form.
A small hand tugged at her skirts, and Mary whimpered, looking up at her, “Em, can we go in?” Her cheeks were also flushed, and Emma fervently prayed Mary wasn’t falling ill as well.
Before her, looming out of the fog towered a monstrosity of a structure. The dismal, grey stone that made up the ancient, decaying edifice, was covered in a thick layer of coal dust and grime. Emma’s eyes followed the grimy, pitted facade to its pinnacle, which rose seamlessly to meet the gloomy sky beyond. It had the look of a medieval prison; a grim reminder of what was now their last hope.
The heavy, iron-bound door hung on great hinges the size of a man’s fist and was set deeply into the stone, at first glance appearing to be part of the wall. She balanced James carefully in her arms then grasped the cold brass knocker. She raised it, letting it fall with a dull thud against the heavy door. The reverberation echoed deep into the inner recesses of the workhouse but she could hear no other sounds from within, and the door remained closed. Determinedly, she held her position at the door, though her arms began to wilt under the weight of the boy’s thin frame. She hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday morning, instead, sharing her bit of stale bread and cheese between the twins.
The workhouse certainly wasn’t anybody’s first choice of refuge, but there were no further options. James needed medication, and God knows, they all needed food and a warm place to sleep. Emma shifted from foot to foot as they waited, trying to restore circulation to her numbed toes.
Finally, after an interminable wait, the door creaked open to reveal a shockingly tall, cadaverous man, his thin, greasy hair combed sloppily over his balding pate, and what appeared to be remnants of his lunch crusting his shirt. He passed a cursory glance over them with a cynical eye, and it seemed that he would slam the door in their faces.
“Please,” she quickly begged. “We’re desperate. James is sick,” she said, glancing down at her brother, who softly whimpered in his sleep. “Please don’t turn us away. We’ve no place else to go. I’m strong. I can work.”
He opened the door a little wider and gazed at the young woman standing before him, her beauty and dignified carriage evident despite the dirt and rags she wore. He stared at her face with cold, shifty eyes for a long moment, and then slowly his inspection drifted down her body, taking in the once good quality, but now tattered dress and boots. As he raised his eyes, Emma felt her skin prickle, and she shivered. She fought the urge to grab the children and run. Instead, she lowered her eyes to the muddy ground and waited.
Eventually he opened his mouth and grinned at them, revealing large, stained teeth. “Of course, ye can come in, pet. That’s what we’re here for to help such unfortunate wretches such as yourselves, and I’m sure the master will want to see you.”
He turned and walked off without a backward glance to see if they’d followed. Emma let out the breath she’d been holding and stepped through the doorway before she changed her mind.
The rabbit warren of dim, dingy hallways the man led them through seemed endless. As they walked he paused occasionally to ogle Emma and share a small tidbit of information that he clearly thought she should be grateful for.
“I’m the porter here. I deal with the comings and goings of this house. Not that many people that come in ever go back out,” he cackled, coughing up a wad of phlegm and spitting it on the floor next to her boots.
A short while later he paused again. “The name’s Murphy. Ye can always find me if you’re in need of anything,” he said with a wink and a lecherous sneer.
She nodded but turned her face from the disgusting brute.
At long last, he stopped in front of an unmarked door and knocked. Emma heard an irritated voice from inside, “Come in.”
“Sorry to interrupt ye, Master Seeley,” grovelled the porter, “but we’ve a young woman here requesting admittance for herself and her siblings. Thought you’d like to see her,” he stressed with yet another smirk in Emma’s direction.
“Very well, send them in,” grumbled the disembodied voice from inside the room.
Murphy stepped back and put his hand on the small of her back giving her a little shove into the room while allowing his hand to slide downwards. She startled at the unwelcome contact and stepped quickly into the room to escape the porter’s roving hands. The windows set in the far wall were quite large, and Emma blinked in the sudden brightness after the darkness of the corridors. Sitting at a large, scarred desk in the middle of the room was a rather obese man with a hard, contemptuous expression on his face. “Step forward, girl,” he said brusquely as the door closed behind her. “Put the boy down,” he impatiently gestured with a wave of his hand at a bench against the far wall.
She did as she was told, laying James gently down, then she lifted Mary and set her on the bench next to him. Gratefully, she stood straight, shaking out her cramped arms and arching to stretch her back. As she turned back to face the desk, she found the master studying her from beneath thick, black eyebrows. His eyes roamed leisurely over her body, and by the time they reached her face, Emma was shaking. He must have liked what he saw, for he smiled at her, or rather more accurately, leered at her. Pointing at a rickety chair in front of the desk, he bade her to sit down. “Names?” he demanded, grabbing a paper from the large stack sitting on the left of the desk.
“Mary, James, and Emma Belden,” she managed to say.
“Reason for admittance?” he asked.
Emma blinked and tried to speak past the lump that had unexpectedly risen in her throat. “Our parents died of the cholera a few months past,” she finally answered softly.
Without reaction, the master scribbled on the paper before him and then proceeded with the rules. Emma sat in a fog as he listed them, her ears perking up only as he said, “You will each receive three meals a day, assuming the boy survives.” He tipped his chin to where James lay still asleep on the bench and Mary sat, silently staring at him with round eyes. “For which, I hope you are extremely grateful. Morning is bread with a cup of tea, no milk or sugar, mind, but I assure you, still a luxury, especially for you poverty cases. We try to run a charitable home here…provided everyone does what’s required of them,” he emphasized pointedly, accompanied by a sneer. “Midday is broth perhaps with some meat or veg in it, if you’re lucky, and bread. The evening is bread and cheese. You will see what a generous master I am compared to others of my authority, not that I blame the overseers of the other poorhouses, mind you. It is a burden to deal with the riffraff and dredges of society daily,” he said self-righteously. “Still, hungry people don’t work very hard,” he pointed out with a raw bark of sarcastic laughter.
Emma glanced at James who appeared more flushed than ever. Hoping the master wouldn’t take offence, she pointed to her brother. “Please sir, I must get him into a bed. He needs food and medicine.”
The master glared at her, but pulled a cord next to his desk. “I’ll have Murphy take you to the women’s ward. The hospital ward is full,” he said, eyeing James dubiously. “Be aware that all new residents are required to surrender anything of value. This will be returned to you when or if you leave. You are required to bathe and you will be given uniforms. Speaking of bath day, it is once a week on Saturday evening. This is not optional, and we enforce it. An inspector is always to be present during bathing times as we cannot trust the rank and file to follow the regulations. This is usually the poorhouse matron, who is in charge of the women and must be obeyed at all times without exception.”
Emma nodded her understanding. They were so filthy and hungry that a weekly bath and three meals a day sounded wonderful at this point.
A knock came at the door, and the porter popped his head into the room again. “Ah yes, Mr. Murphy, please escort Miss Belden to the women’s ward and inform the matron that they will require uniforms after they’ve been cleaned up.” With that dismissal, the master turned back to the papers on his desk.
Her head spinning, Emma once again picked up James, tipped her head to Mary, and followed the porter out into the maze of hallways.