In the Nineteenth Century, when the British Empire was approaching its very zenith, the Victorians began to believe, that with their power and their fabulous wealth, they could do almost anything. Victorian gentlemen in particular realised that they could indeed do anything...and get away with it.
A young, orphaned girl falls prey to a group of powerful, predatory men. Decades later, advancing dementia pushes her inexorably back into the hell she spent a lifetime trying to forget. (Historical Crime Fiction.)
Excerpt from The Eighth Circle of Hell:
“In my experience, little girls who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.”
Elizabeth sees his mouth moving, sees it framing the words – those words. She hears them inside her head, filling it, creeping through her body; through her arms, her legs, turning them to ice.
His hands lift and reach out towards her, overpowering, unstoppable. She wants to beg him for mercy, to beg him not to do it, but the undeserved words gag in her throat. She tries to turn, tries to push him away, but her leaden limbs refuse to heed the shrieking, shrieking screams of her brain. Then two more people are there, with their smiling, laughing faces – a man and a woman. They catch her arms and hold her fast as he smiles the very smile of the Fiend, and reaches down for her.
“Elizabeth Wilson has lived in workhouses since she was a girl of fifteen, Mr and Mrs Fox.”
The master of the Knaresborough Union Workhouse smiled benignly as he pushed open the door to his private office.
“Which amounts to forty-five years in total, barring a few months she had as a pauper apprentice. She had, let me see, thirteen years at the Starbeck Workhouse before it closed and then the rest here, at the Knaresborough Union. But in all that time, I believe you are the first visitors she’s ever had. Well perhaps not; I’m told there was one other but that was many years ago and it all came to naught.
Please, take a seat. I’ve asked that one of the better pauper girls brings us some tea and then I’ll have Elizabeth fetched from the infirmary.”
The warm, lilting Geordie accent tempered his otherwise austere appearance.
The master’s office was very much like the man himself; large and ascetic but softened here and there by a few more comfortable furnishings. One of these was a pair of plump, buttoned leather settees and Atticus and Lucie Fox sank obediently onto the nearest of them while the master settled into its mirror twin, separated from them by a low and highly polished coffee table.
He regarded them inquisitively for a moment, like an angel at the Gates of Paradise, and smiled once again.
“Are you relatives of Elizabeth, do you mind me asking?”
Atticus shook his head.
“I don’t mind at all, Mr Liddle and no, we aren’t relatives; Mrs Fox and I are privately-commissioned investigators. We’ve been asked to trace the whereabouts of Miss Wilson on behalf of our principal who is a close relative of hers.”
“I see. May I perhaps know the identity of your principal?”
“Certainly, he’s Dr Michael Roberts of Harrogate. Miss Wilson was taken in as a child by her uncle, Alfred Roberts, who is Dr Roberts’ grandfather.”
“Alfred Roberts the great philanthropist?”
Atticus nodded. “The very same.”
“Another of his great acts of kindness, no doubt,” said Liddle.
He sighed reflectively.
“There’s many a poor orphan or pauper child that Alfred Roberts sent on to a better life abroad or found a situation for in the houses of the gentry. I believe I read somewhere that he even had his own house built larger to take many of them in himself, until he could move them on.”
“That is true; it was a large annexe he added to the rear of his house. He took Miss Wilson in shortly after he had it built. That was many years ago when the second of her own parents, her mother, passed away. Alfred Roberts was her mother’s elder brother and her only living relative. Dr Roberts told us that she ran away around two years after his grandfather first took her in and, as we now know, eventually came to be here, in the union workhouse.”
Liddle nodded genially.
“I’ve heard a great deal of Dr Roberts. He’s recently become a firm acquaintance of Mr Manders, our medical officer here, and as I understand it, he’s a psychiatric doctor of no little renown.”
The leather of the settee creaked under him as he leaned forward, conspiratorially.
“We have, as you might imagine, quite a number of lunatics and imbeciles here. Dr Roberts freely gives us any help and advice he can. He’s a philanthropist in the family tradition; there is no doubt of it.
What you tell me is fascinating though. I knew that Elizabeth had come to be in the workhouse under rather…mysterious circumstances, shall we say, but until now I knew very few of the details. She’s obviously well educated, and gentle-born, but Lizzie – Elizabeth, that is – never speaks of her life before she went to Starbeck. In fact by all accounts, she rarely spoke at all for quite a number of years. Sister Lovell, the workhouse nurse, has known her the longest; in fact, it was she who finally got her to speak again.”
He was interrupted by a timid knock on the door. It opened and a tall, gangly girl appeared, blushing heavily and carrying a handsome, silver tea tray as if it might suddenly turn on her at any moment and bite.
“Curtsey, Sally,” the master reminded her sharply.
“I’m sorry, Mr Liddle.”
The girl paused to curtsy clumsily and then slowly, with infinite care, set the tray down on the coffee table.