Book 3 of the Lady of Ashes Series
Queen Victoria, still mourning her long-dead husband Prince Albert, has found solace in John Brown, an enigmatic palace servant who dabbles in the occult and keeps the grieving queen entertained with his tarot card readings. Undertaker Violet Harper is invited to attend one of Mr. Brown’s infamous readings, during which he implies that Buckingham Palace will soon be shrouded in death’s dark veil. Well acquainted with death, Violet shrugs him off as a charlatan–until his sinister divinations begin to prove true.
Violet wonders if something foul is in the cards when the aristocratic young friends of the queen’s daughter begin to die under mysterious circumstances. Her suspicions only grow when one of London’s “moralists,” a group bent on repealing the law that forces prostitutes into hospitals, suffers a similar fate. The deaths merely buttress the queen’s enthusiasm for Mr. Brown’s ominous talents, and, concerned by the fortuneteller’s influence, Violet races against time to unearth the truth before the killer strikes again. But as she closes in on a murderer with an unearthly motive, Violet realizes she may be digging her own grave.
By turns heart wrenching and hopeful, A Virtuous Death is a gripping tale of fortitude besieged by vengeance inside the extraordinary world of Queen Victoria’s court.
If you mention Queen Victoria and her Scottish ghillie, or outdoor servant, John Brown, many things may come to mind, including what some deemed an inappropriate relationship between the two. In fact, the queen was called “Mrs. Brown” by some who wholly disapproved of the fondness the queen had for him.
There is evidence that Brown held so much sway over Victoria was because he served as her medium, carrying messages to and from her dead husband, Albert. The Victorian era was one of, ironically, both religious revival and occultism. I thought it might be interesting to explore the nature of these tarot card readings, seances, and other types of spiritualism to which Victorian society was enthralled.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe for a moment that Victoria was romantically involved with Brown.
Leeswood Green Colliery, Flintshire, Wales, June 2, 1869.
“What’s wrong with that little urchin over there?” Samuel Harper asked from his elevated viewpoint atop his mount. He pointed to a spot near one of the coal mine’s many tunnel entries.
Eustace ap Llewelyn, Samuel’s guide he’d hired in Cardiff, Wales, looked in the direction where Samuel was interested.
“Ooh mean that girl there with the bald patch on ’er head?” he said in his thick Welsh.
“That’s a girl? Impossible. She’s just a mite, couldn’t be more than eight years old.” Bald patch? The child looked as though her hair had been snatched out in great clumps before a hawk had begun clawing at the top of her head, so scabbed and misshapen was it.
“Nooo, I’d say she’s ’round twelve. Children aren’t as big and lusty ’ere as I hear they are in America.”
The girl reached out her hand to a boy–presumably a boy–and led him away from the entrance towards an area where other children sat in a circle, slurping a stew from tin plates. The boy wore a chain around his waist, the tail of which dangled behind him along the ground. He resembled the girl–less the bald patch–so Samuel assumed they were siblings.
All of the children were scrawny and vacant-eyed, eating in silence as though talking might require too much energy.
“You don’t mean to tell me it’s legal for young girls to work in coal mines?”
“Nooo, it’s been against the law’er since forty-two.” Eustace shrugged. “But they need work. They’er families need money, else they’ll all starve to death, so mooost folks turn a blind eye to the law’er.”
Samuel shifted the reins of his horse from one hand to the other as he considered this. Working in a coal mine was probably better than being in a workhouse, as his Susanna had been many years ago.
“Why is her head so mangled?”
Another shrug. “She’s probably a hurrier. The boy sitting next to ’er with the chain–he’s ’er partner. On ’ands and knees he’s attached to the front of a cartload of coal and he crawls up the tunnel, pulling it behind ’im. She gets behind the cart and pushes, mooostly with ’er ’ead. Once they get the cart to the surface and see it emptied, it’s back down to the bottom of the mine for another load.”
“Why don’t they use ponies or donkeys for the work?” Samuel said.
“Children are cheaper. And smaller. Those tunnels are less than three feet high. Can’t get an animal in there.”
“Why don’t they make the tunnels larger?”
“Och, man, are youer not listening? It costs money and time to make a tunnel big enough for a beast of burden to get through. Child-sized tunnels are moooch easier to dig.”
Sam nodded from his vantage point as he watched the children finish off their scant meals, give the tin plates to a man wearing an apron, and return to their duties. The bald girl took the chain-wearing boy’s hand again in a protective way, leading him back to the tunnel hole. She attached the trailing end of his chain to an iron clasp on an ore cart and patted him on the shoulder.
With the cart behind the boy, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled back into the tin entrance, the cart squealing in protest. When the cart was almost entirely inside the tunnel, the girl also dropped to her knees, grabbing the top edge of the conveyance with her hands and pressing her head against the metal.
In seconds, the bizarre little chain of children and cart disappeared into the bowels of the mine.
How far would they travel on their scabbed knees for their next load? A mile? Perhaps more?
Sam urged his horse away from the colliery. “I’ve seen enough here. If we don’t get to Mold soon, we’ll miss our train to Pembrey.”
“But I thought youer wanted to see ’ow they planned to open up the new shaft.”
“I’ve seen enough to know it won’t be as effective as dynamite. Let’s go.” He turned without checking to see if Eustace was following him.
Excerpt copyright 2014 Christine Trent.