Inspiration suggested to me that Mr. Baker was the acting coroner of that neighbourhood.
'A common place for suicide,' said I, looking down at the locks.
'Sue?' returned the ghost, with a stare. 'Yes! And Poll. Likewise Emily. And Nancy. And Jane;' he sucked the iron between each name; 'and all the bileing. Ketches off their bonnets or shorls, takes a run, and headers down here, they doos. Always a headerin' down here, they is. Like one o'clock.'
'And at about that hour of the morning, I suppose?'
'Ah!' said the apparition. 'THEY an't partickler. Two 'ull do for THEM. Three. All times o' night. On'y mind you!' Here the apparition rested his profile on the bar, and gurgled in a sarcastic manner. 'There must be somebody comin'. They don't go a headerin' down here, wen there an't no Bobby nor gen'ral Cove, fur to hear the splash.'
According to my interpretation of these words, I was myself a General Cove, or member of the miscellaneous public. In which modest character I remarked:
'They are often taken out, are they, and restored?'
'I dunno about restored,' said the apparition, who, for some occult reason, very much objected to that word; 'they're carried into the werkiss and put into a 'ot bath, and brought round. But I dunno about restored,' said the apparition; 'blow THAT!'--and vanished.
As it had shown a desire to become offensive, I was not sorry to find myself alone, especially as the 'werkiss' it had indicated with a twist of its matted head, was close at hand. So I left Mr. Baker's terrible trap (baited with a scum that was like the soapy rinsing of sooty chimneys), and made bold to ring at the workhouse gate, where I was wholly unexpected and quite unknown.
A very bright and nimble little matron, with a bunch of keys in her hand, responded to my request to see the House. I began to doubt whether the police magistrate was quite right in his facts, when I noticed her quick, active little figure and her intelligent eyes.
The Traveller (the matron intimated) should see the worst first. He was welcome to see everything. Such as it was, there it all was.
This was the only preparation for our entering 'the Foul wards.' They were in an old building squeezed away in a corner of a paved yard, quite detached from the more modern and spacious main body of the workhouse. They were in a building most monstrously behind the time--a mere series of garrets or lofts, with every inconvenient and objectionable circumstance in their construction, and only accessible by steep and narrow staircases, infamously ill-adapted for the passage up-stairs of the sick or down-stairs of the dead.
A-bed in these miserable rooms, here on bedsteads, there (for a change, as I understood it) on the floor, were women in every stage of distress and disease. None but those who have attentively observed such scenes, can conceive the extraordinary variety of expression still latent under the general monotony and uniformity of colour, attitude, and condition. The form a little coiled up and turned away, as though it had turned its back on this world for ever; the uninterested face at once lead-coloured and yellow, looking passively upward from the pillow; the haggard mouth a little dropped, the hand outside the coverlet, so dull and indifferent, so light, and yet so heavy; these were on every pallet; but when I stopped beside a bed, and said ever so slight a word to the figure lying there, the ghost of the old character came into the face, and made the Foul ward as various as the fair world. No one appeared to care to live, but no one complained; all who could speak, said that as much was done for them as could be done there, that the attendance was kind and patient, that their suffering was very heavy, but they had nothing to ask for. The wretched rooms were as clean and sweet as it is possible for such rooms to be; they would become a pest-house in a single week, if they were ill-kept.
I accompanied the brisk matron up another barbarous staircase, into a better kind of loft devoted to the idiotic and imbecile.