Within the gateway arch, and built as part of it, was a small stone lodge with a single room below and another above. It was halfway to ruin, the thatch sagging, the ceiling pocked by rot, the interior damp and draughty. With the whole company in attendance I was led inside and shown a trestle table in the lower room. Walking ahead of me, Kite reached the table and grasped the square of sack¬ing that covered it. With one movement he pulled it away to expose a tiny dirt-caked heap of human remains.
It was clear that this was, indeed, a newborn. Its body was wrapped in what appeared to be a piece of sodden filthy linen, but its head was exposed. I stooped to look more closely. Smears of stinking mud lay across the face, whose features were yet hardly formed. The eyelids were shut, but the round mouth was a little open and the nose was flat. I was suddenly almost overwhelmed by a rush of pity at the sight of those closed eyes and parted lips. I stood upright once more.
‘What happened? Does anyone know how this poor thing came here?’
I looked around at the faces surrounding me. They were uni¬formly anxious, but otherwise blank. I addressed the one who had earlier seemed to put himself forward as their leader.
‘Mr Kite, can you explain the circumstances?’
‘By some wickedness, we suppose, the babby got into one of the handler pits,’ he said. ‘Our Ellen found it this afternoon.’
His daughter was standing next to him. He hooked an arm around her shoulders and pulled her tightly to him.
I said, ‘Ellen, I need to know exactly where this was. Will you show me? No! No! The rest of you stand off!’
Her father released her and she preceded me out of the lodge.
The skin-yard was about half an acre in extent. The central part comprised the area of the tanning pits, each about ten feet square and lined up in three rows. Above them were erected frames from which hides were lowered for soaking in the tanning fluid. As we reached them. I turned to survey the whole perimeter of the yard. Against the surrounding wall a run of sloping roofs had been pitched to make a kind of gallery. This sheltered tuns and troughs and stone-topped work tables, as well as further racks for drying or storing hides. There were also fires burning here and there, heating great iron pots which steamed sulphurously into the afternoon air. This air was everywhere rank with the smell of decayed vegetation, rotten flesh and manure, a smell which evidently came from the tanning liquor inside the pits.
Ellen led me directly to the nearest pit ‘It were this pit I found it in.’
‘Your father said it is a handler pit. What is that?’
‘That’s a pit where we start off the hides, where the ooze is weakest.’
‘What’s in the pit. Hides go from pit to pit, with the ooze getting stronger every time, see?’
I saw that each of the pits was slate-lined, and that the frames surmounting them were equipped with crude winching machinery, operated by turning a wheel. By this means the hides were dipped and brought out of the ooze, which was a dark brown, like coffee.
‘How long do the hides stay in this pit?’
‘Twenty weeks. But meantime we must handle them every day, which is what I came to the pit to do after my dinner.’
‘Handle them? What’s that?’
‘We wind out the hides and stir up the ooze.’
She pointed to a long-handled paddle lying beside the winching wheel.
‘Why do you do that?’
‘If you don’t the goodness settles at the bottom and the leather doesn’t cure properly all the way up.’
‘So when you stirred the pit you found the remains?’
‘Aye, it came up on the paddle, like. I just took it out and laid it on the side. I was right shocked. I shouted for me dad. He came and carried it into the gatehouse, and sent me up to get you.’
‘I see. That means you are the first finder, Ellen, and shall go down in the record as such. You shall have to swear a deposition and in due course give evidence at the inquest into what you found and how you found it. Will you be able to remember everything that happened?’