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By Kerrigan Byrne
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Kerrigan Byrne
All rights reserved.
London, September, 1878
Twenty Years Later
Take off your clothes. It wasn't the first time Lady Philomena St. Vincent, Viscountess Benchley, had heard the command. She was the wife of a violent libertine, after all. But as she stared in wide-eyed incomprehension at the jowly Dr. Percival Rosenblatt, she was at a momentary loss for words. Surely he couldn't mean that she was to disrobe in front of him. Only female nurses oversaw the ice bath therapy here at Belle Glen Asylum. To have a male doctor in attendance was all but unheard of.
"But, Doctor, I — I've been well behaved." She took an involuntary step back, trepidation flaring in her stomach when she saw the tub, jagged chunks of ice bobbing on the surface as horrifically as shards of broken glass. "Surely I've done nothing to warrant this — this treatment."
Treatment. A peculiar word. One with many meanings in a place like this.
"You've been at yourself again." Nurse Greta Schopf, her self-proclaimed nemesis here at Belle Glen, stepped forward and grasped her wrist, strong fingers sinking into her flesh, yanking the loose sleeves to her elbow. The large German woman, clad in a uniform, a high-necked, somber gown with a white apron and hat, held up the fresh scratches on Mena's forearm for the doctor's inspection. "She's also been at herself in ... other ways, Doctor. We've had to strap her to the bed at night to stop her from her amoral compulsions."
Mena gaped at the nurse in sheer disbelief.
"That simply isn't true," she gasped, then turned to entreat the doctor. "Please, she's mistaken, Dr. Rosenblatt; it was another patient, Charlotte Pendergast, who scored my arm with her nails. And I swear I've never —" She didn't want to say it, didn't want the heat to flare in his wrinkled, murky eyes at the thought of her touching herself. Though, at this point, she'd do most anything to avoid the ice bath. "I've never once done myself harm ... and I've likewise refrained from ... any ... amoral compulsions."
She'd informed the doctor of this before, of course, in their initial sessions together. She'd confessed that her bruises and scrapes were not, in fact, self-inflicted, but inflicted upon her by her sadistic husband, Lord Gordon St. Vincent, the Viscount Benchley. In her first days as an involuntary patient here, she'd done all she could to emphatically deny any madness or lunacy or sexual misconduct, because it was the absolute truth.
In fact, she'd frantically confessed everything about herself upon her arrival here at Belle Glen Asylum, as she'd been frightened and utterly alone.
At first, Dr. Rosenblatt had reminded Mena of her father, doling out the milk of human kindness from behind his stately office desk. Possessed of a pleasant round face complete with chops and an extra chin, jolly red cheeks, and a portly belly, Dr. Rosenblatt seemed to be a mild-mannered, middle-aged professional gentleman.
She should have known never to trust her instincts when it came to others, especially men. Somehow she was always wrong.
Dr. Rosenblatt snapped open her file, reading it as though he weren't the sole author of the lies contained within its depths. "You're getting agitated, Lady Benchley," he said in that soft voice, the one people usually saved for crying children and the insane.
"No!" she cried, louder than she'd meant to, as Nurse Schopf tugged her toward the bath. "No." She schooled her voice into something more pleasant, more ladylike, even though she dug her feet against the tile floor. "Doctor, I'm not at all agitated, but I would very much prefer not to take the ice bath. Please. I — isn't there something else? The electrodes, perhaps — or just put the mittens on me and send me to bed." She didn't want to consider the alternatives she'd just suggested. She dreaded the electrodes, abhorred the chafing little prisons locked about her wrists, rendering her hands useless for anything at all.
But she feared nothing so much as the ice baths.
"Please," she entreated again, frightened tears welling behind her eyes.
"You beg so prettily, Lady Benchley." His gaze never touched hers, but drifted lower, to her mouth and then to her breasts that tested the seams of her tight and uncomfortable black frock. "But, you see, I am your doctor and my first obligation is the treatment of your illness. Now, if you please, remove your clothing without further incident, or they will be removed for you."
Nurse Schopf's grip tightened on Mena's wrist with bruising strength unusual for a woman. She pulled Mena toward the tub, securing her other hand around Mena's upper arm. "Are you going to fight me today, Countess Fire Quim, or will you behave for once?"
Countess Fire Quim, it was a name one of the patients had given her that first awful day in Belle Glen. They'd been stripped bare in a room full of fifteen or so women, poked, prodded, deloused, and then doused with buckets of cold water. Someone had remarked on the uncommon shade of her red hair, and then on the darker shade of auburn between her legs. Mena had been called many cruel things in her life, most often by her family, the St. Vincents, and generally pertaining to her uncommon height or her wide hips and shoulders, but "Countess Fire Quim" was somehow the most humiliating. Especially when used by the nurses or the staff at Belle Glen.
"I've done nothing wrong." Mena sent one more panicked, entreating stare to Dr. Rosenblatt, who quietly shuffled the papers in her file without even glancing down at them. "Don't put me in there!"
"You're being hysterical," he said softly. "Which only proves to me the extent of your madness."
The nurses, one on either side of her now, dragged her by the arms. Once she was close enough, Mena kicked out at the tub with both feet, hoping to upset it. The sturdy tub didn't move, but as Mena was not a small woman, her struggles were enough to free her from the grasp of the nurses.
"Wot's this 'ere?" The cheerful voice of Mr. Leopold Burns could have brightened any room that he entered. But to the patients of Belle Glen Asylum, his arrival always brought darkness. The ogre-sized orderly was closer to his twenties than his forties, but an unfortunate potato-shaped nose and thinning blond hair belied his youth. "You're no' makin' any trouble, are you, Lady Benchley?" A fist of dread squeezed Mena's lungs as Nurse Schopf's grip was traded for Mr. Burns's. "Now let's take those clothes off."
Mena fought them this time. She'd tried being prim and obedient. All her life, she'd been timid, pliant, and gentle, and it only served to produce the same result. At least this once, she was not a willing participant in her own humiliating tragedy.
She struggled and jerked as the nurse's deft fingers undid the buttons of her coarse frock, yanking it down her waist and over her hips and legs. She cried and pleaded, kicked and stomped when they ripped her chemise away — no one in an asylum bothered with a corset — exposing her breasts to Mr. Burns's and Dr. Rosenblatt's greedy eyes.
Those eyes drank their fill, and Mena dimly wondered how the nurses, as women, could be a part of this obvious deviancy.
The tears streaming down her cheeks were not only caused by humiliation and fear, but by the acrid, unbearable stench of Mr. Burns's breath. He pulled her back against his body, and secured her in a bearlike grip under the guise of immobilizing her so the nurses could relieve her of her drawers. His hands groped and grasped painfully at her breasts, and he lowered his offensive mouth to press against her ear. "The more ya struggle, Countess Fire Quim, the harder it is to keep me 'ands proper."
"Your hands have never been proper," she accused. The frigid air against her flesh told her she was fully naked now. She became less worried about that than the press of Mr. Burns's growing arousal against her back.
He squeezed her with his meaty arms, cutting off her breath. Sharp pain stabbed at her breasts, and a more worrisome twinge lanced her as she felt something like a rib shift in her side, stealing her ability to draw the breath to cry out.
"Wot senseless things these loonies say," Mr. Burns tsked as he lifted her momentarily paralyzed form over the rim of the tub while each of her legs were secured by a nurse.
Mena watched in horror as the ice water came at her slowly. At this juncture, she could do nothing but brace for the impact.
The shards of ice hit her with the puncturing and sudden affliction of a cat's sharp claw, evoking the reflex to snatch back the offended limb. Except her entire body suffered the sensation and when she breached from the original submersion, she was shocked to see that none of her skin had been perforated.
Out of desperation, she flailed for the edge of the tub, her lungs emitting little spasms of shock that escaped her with desperate mewls. Dragging her naked body up, she managed to gain her feet and nearly hop back out of the tub before three sets of strong hands forced her back down.
Her head went under along with the rest of her.
She thrashed and flailed at her captors, but their hands were everywhere, subduing her limbs. After a time, the initial panic subsided and she stilled. Was this to be how it ended, then? Imprisoned along with the empire's forgotten naturals and unfortunates, a Cockney pervert sneaking a squeeze of her breasts, and a sadistic nurse holding her down while a coldhearted doctor looked on?
She wondered if Lady Farah Blackwell, Countess Northwalk, had ever received her letter. Had the countess done anything on her behalf, or merely ignored her pleas for help. Judging by the burning in her lungs, Mena doubted she'd ever find out.
Perhaps it was for the best. She'd leave this world surrounded by cold and merciless shards of suffocating ice. The literal manifestation of what her life had been these past five years.
Could hell really be worse than this? Was there a chance she'd already served some penance for her sins here on this cruel plane? Perhaps the Lord was not such a vengeful God, merely an indifferent one. Be that the case, maybe she could persuade him to let her have a tiny, insignificant corner of heaven. Even the part no one else wanted. An isolated place at the end of a long lane where she could exist in quietude and seclusion. Away from the malevolence of expectation and the judgment of her many failures. Somewhere the clouds hovered low like a canopy and the sun filtered through them on a late summer's day like the pillars thrown down on the southern moors, as majestic and warm as divine forgiveness.
Closing her eyes, Mena found the bravery to draw in a breath of icy water just as the hands holding her under tightened to pull her up. She surfaced and heaved what little of the liquid had made it into her lungs in a series of soul-racking coughs.
Once the spasms had passed, she focused on filling her lungs with air. The moment was gone, that glimpse of peace she'd found beneath the ice. She knew she was too much of a coward to take her own life.
So she sat and shivered, surrendering to her misery, drawing her knees up to her chest in the bath before the cold stole mobility from her limbs.
"See that she's cleaned and then we'll begin," Rosenblatt directed.
The nurses scrubbed her skin with harsh soap and efficient brutality, remarking as they did so that this would account for her weekly bath.
Five minutes had passed once they'd finished, and Mena's skin felt as though a thousand needles pricked it with simultaneous persecution. But she set her jaw, deciding to do what she must to escape the cold now seeping into her bones.
"I'm going to interview you now, Lady Benchley." Dr. Rosenblatt stepped to the foot of the tub. "I want you to tell me how the following information affects you. If I feel you've answered honestly, we'll get you out of the tub. Do you understand?"
"Good." He shuffled some of his paperwork, and finding the one he searched for, he placed it on the top of her open file and read. "First we'll dispense with the generals. Do you hear voices in your rooms at night, Lady Benchley?
Ones that keep you awake or torment you?"
Mena remained staring straight ahead and answered honestly. "Only the screams of the patients. And the nurses who mock them."
Greta Schopf pinched her shoulder painfully, but Mena didn't so much as wince.
"Quite so." The doctor never looked up from his notes. "Do you ever see things, strange things, apparitions, ghosts, or hallucinations?"
Mena answered this very carefully, as she knew that hallucinations were the mark of true madness. "Never." She shook her head.
"A few questions for statistical purposes, due to your diagnosis," Rosenblatt continued.
The cold had begun to muddle Mena's thoughts. The blood in her veins slowed to a drip and she'd begun to shiver so violently, she had to force her words through teeth clacking together. But she knew which questions were forthcoming. The diagnosis her husband and his mother had paid their family doctor to make was psychosexual hysteria and amoral insanity, and the good Dr. Rosenblatt simply delighted in inquiring about it.
"Tell me, again, how often you and Lord Benchley engaged in marital relations."
Mena refused to answer the question in front of an audience. "I've t-told you already."
"Yes, you've told me he used to come to you five times a week at first, and then hardly ever toward the end. That once he realized you could not bear him children, he sought the company of other women." Dr. Rosenblatt leaned forward, capturing her gaze that was beginning to blur due to the cold. "Except when you would ask him to force you. He told me you disgusted him, especially when you would request that he fulfill your violent sexual fantasies, isn't that right, Lady Benchley?"
Mena learned that even in the ice bath she could burn with shame. "He ... lied. I. Never. W-wanted ..." The cold leached into her chest, robbing her of her voice.
"I've warned you, only the truth will liberate you from your current state," Rosenblatt reminded her.
The truth. The truth was that her husband was as much a sadist as Dr. Rosenblatt. Gordon St. Vincent enthusiastically tried to figure out what made people cringe. What they truly feared. What they hated about themselves. And he exploited this information to his advantage.
It had started gradually, her hell within the St. Vincent household. And before long, when Gordon had thought her broken, when his jibes and torments no longer seemed to affect her, her husband became violent. Acts that would land a man in prison should he enact them out on the streets were all perfectly legal if he perpetrated them on his wife.
In the span of time and space, a quarter hour is nothing. A grain of sand on an endless beach. But in that tub, it became an eternity, stretching away from the warm rays of the sun. Until there was nothing but cold. Nothing but this white, white room and suffering.
After that, Mena lost the ability to see the arms on the clock. Her joints seized and her muscles contracted with such violent pain, she let out an involuntary wail.
Lord, but she truly did sound mad.
Her hands contorted into strange and painful angles against her chest, and odd convulsions seemed to rack her spine, even as she felt her heart slow to a plodding amble, nearly losing its rhythm.
She was tired. So tired.
It was then they dragged her from the bath, lifting her by the elbows drawn stiff enough to hold her weight. She'd become like the ice, truly frozen. She couldn't even summon the strength to care anymore as Dr. Rosenblatt and Mr. Burns watched while she was toweled dry and a rough cotton shift yanked over her head.
An alarming numbness had begun to spread from Mena's muscles and limbs inward to her organs. She'd never spent more than ten minutes in the ice baths before. She hardly noticed as a comb was jerked through her long hair. She tried to stumble away, but her knees refused to hold her as the cold had leached all strength from her muscles. Mr. Burns caught her in time to prevent injury, but she'd rather have fallen to the floor.
"She's too heavy for us to carry. You'll have to get her back to her rooms, Mr. Burns," Nurse Schopf ordered.
"'Appy to, madam," Mr. Burns said cheerfully.
Excerpted from The Highlander by Kerrigan Byrne. Copyright © 2016 Kerrigan Byrne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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