Dragonfly in Amber (Page 24)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(24)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

"What are you doing?" I said, startled.

"What have you done, Sassenach?" he demanded. He was staring under my arm.

"Shaved," I said proudly. "Or rather, waxed. Louise had her servante aux petits soins—you know, her personal groomer?—there this morning, and she did me, too."

"Waxed?" Jamie looked rather wildly at the candlestick by the ewer, then back at me. "You put wax in your oxters?"

"Not that kind of wax," I assured him. "Scented beeswax. The grooming lady heated it, then spread the warm wax on. Once it’s cooled, you just jerk it off," I winced momentarily in recollection, "and Bob’s your uncle."

"My uncle Bob wouldna countenance any such goings-on," said Jamie severely. "What in hell would ye do that for?" He peered closely at the site, still holding my wrist up. "Didn’t it hur…hurt…choof!" He dropped my hand and backed up rapidly.

"Didn’t it hurt?" he asked, handkerchief to nose once more.

"Well, a bit," I admitted. "Worth it, though, don’t you think?" I asked, raising both arms like a ballerina and turning slightly to and fro. "First time I’ve felt entirely clean in months."

"Worth it?" he said, sounding a little dazed. "What’s it to do wi’ clean, that you’ve pulled all of the hairs out from under your arms?"

A little belatedly, I realized that none of the Scottish women I had encountered employed any form of depilation. Furthermore, Jamie had almost certainly never been in sufficiently close contact with an upper-class Parisienne to know that many of them did. "Well," I said, suddenly realizing the difficulty an anthropologist faces in trying to interpret the more singular customs of a primitive tribe. "It smells much less," I offered.

"And what’s wrong wi’ the way ye smell?" he said heatedly. "At least ye smelt like a woman, not a damn flower garden. What d’ye think I am, a man or a bumblebee? Would ye wash yourself, Sassenach, so I can get within less than ten feet of ye?"

I picked up a cloth and began sponging my torso. Madame Laserre, Louise’s groomer, had applied scented oil all over my body; I rather hoped it would come off easily. It was disconcerting to have him hovering just outside sniffing range, glaring at me like a wolf circling its prey.

I turned my back to dip the cloth into the bowl, and said offhandedly over my shoulder, "Er, I did my legs, too."

I stole a quick glance over my shoulder. The original shock was fading into a look of total bewilderment.

"Your legs dinna smell like anything," he said. "Unless you’ve been walkin’ knee-deep in the cow-byre."

I turned around and pulled my skirt up to my knees, pointing one toe forward to display the delicate curves of calf and shin.

"But they look so much nicer," I pointed out. "All nice and smooth; not like Harry the hairy ape."

He glanced down at his own fuzzy knees, offended.

"An ape, am I?"

"Not you, me!" I said, getting exasperated.

"My legs are any amount hairier than yours ever were!"

"Well, they’re supposed to be; you’re a man!"

He drew in breath as though about to reply, then let it out again, shaking his head and muttering something to himself in Gaelic. He flung himself back into the chair and sat back, watching me through narrowed eyes, every now and then muttering to himself again. I decided not to ask for a translation.

After most of my bath had been accomplished in what might best be described as a charged atmosphere, I decided to attempt conciliation.

"It might have been worse, you know," I said, sponging the inside of one thigh. "Louise had all her body hair removed."

That startled him back into English, at least temporarily.

"What, she’s taken the hairs off her honeypot?" he said, horrified into uncharacteristic vulgarity.

"Mm-hm," I replied, pleased that this vision had at least distracted him from my own distressingly hairless condition. "Every hair. Madame Laserre plucked out the stray ones."

"Mary, Michael, and Bride!" He closed his eyes tightly, either in avoidance, or the better to contemplate the prospect I had described.

Evidently the latter, for he opened his eyes again and glared at me, demanding, "She’s goin’ about now bare as a wee lassie?"

"She says," I replied delicately, "that men find it erotic."

His eyebrows nearly met his hairline, a neat trick for someone with such a classically high brow.

"I do wish you would stop that muttering," I remarked, hanging the cloth over a chairback to dry. "I can’t understand a word you say."

"On the whole, Sassenach," he replied, "that’s as well."



All right," Jamie said resignedly over breakfast. He pointed a spoon at me in warning. "Go ahead, then. But you’ll take Murtagh as escort, besides the footman; it’s a poor neighborhood near the cathedral."

"Escort?" I sat up straight, pushing back the bowl of parritch which I had been eyeing with something less than enthusiasm. "Jamie! Do you mean you don’t mind if I visit. L’Hôpital des Anges?"

"I don’t know if I mean that, exactly," he said, spooning in his own parritch in a businesslike way. "But I expect I’ll mind a lot more if ye don’t. And if ye work at the Hôpital, at least it will keep ye from spending all your time with Louise de Rohan. I suppose there are worse things than associating wi’ beggars and criminals," he said darkly. "At least I don’t expect you’ll come home from a hospital wi’ your privates plucked bare."

"I’ll try not," I assured him.

I had seen a number of good hospital matrons in my time, and a few of the really excellent ones, who had exalted a job into a vocation. With Mother Hildegarde, the process had been reversed, with impressive results.

Hildegarde de Gascogne was the most suitable person I could imagine to be in charge of a place like L’Hôpital des Anges. Nearly six feet tall, her gaunt, rawboned frame swathed in yards of black wool, she loomed over her nursing sisters like a broomstick scarecrow guarding a field of pumpkins. Porters, patients, sisters, orderlies, novices, visitors, apothecaries, all were swept up by the force of her presence, to be tidied away into neat heaps, wherever Mother Hildegarde might decree.

With that height, plus a face of an ugliness so transcendant as to be grotesquely beautiful, it was obvious why she had embraced a religious life—Christ was the only man from whom she might expect embrace in return.

Her voice was deep and resonant; with its nasal Gascony accent, it bonged through the corridors of the hospital like the echo of the church bells next door. I could hear her sometime before I saw her, the powerful voice increasing in volume as she came down the hall toward the office where six ladies of the Court and I huddled behind Herr Gerstmann, like island dwellers awaiting the arrival of a hurricane behind a flimsy barricade.

She filled the narrow doorway with a swoosh of batwings, and descended upon Herr Gerstmann with a cry of rapture, kissing him soundly on both cheeks.

"Mon cher ami! How unexpected a pleasure—and so much the more sweet for its unexpectedness. What brings you to me?"

Straightening, she turned a wide smile on the rest of us. The smile remained wide as Herr Gerstmann explained our mission, though a less experienced fortune-teller than I could have seen the tightening cheek muscles that turned it from a social grace to a rictus of necessity.

"We are most appreciative of your thoughts and your generosity, mesdames." The deep, bell-like voice went on with a gracious speech of gratitude. Meanwhile, I could see the small, intelligent eyes, set deep beneath bony brow ridges, darting back and forth, deciding how best to dispose of this nuisance in short order, while still extracting such money as these pious ladies might be induced to part with for the good of their souls.

Having come to a decision, she clapped her hands sharply. A short nun, on the general order of Cock-Robin, popped up in the doorway like a jack-in-the-box.

"Sister Angelique, be so kind as to take these ladies to the dispensary," she ordered. "Give them some suitable garments and then show them the wards. They may assist with the distribution of food to the patients—if they are so inclined." A slight twitch of the wide, thin mouth made it evident that Mother Hildegarde did not expect the ladies’ pious inclination to survive the tour of the wards.

Mother Hildegarde was a shrewd judge of human nature. Three of the ladies made it through the first ward, with its cases of scrofula, scabies, eczema, defluxions, and stinking pyemia, before deciding that their charitable inclinations could be entirely satisfied by a donation to L’Hôpital, and fleeing back to the dispensary to shed the rough hopsacking gowns with which we had been furnished.

In the center of the next ward, a tall, gangly man in a dark frock coat was carrying out what appeared to be the skillful amputation of a leg; particularly skillful in that the patient was not sedated in any visible way, and was being restrained at the moment by the efforts of two husky orderlies and a solidly built nun who was sitting upon the patient’s chest, her flowing draperies fortunately obscuring the man’s face.

One of the ladies behind me made a small gagging sound; when I looked round, all I saw was the rather wide rear aspect of two of the would-be Samaritans, jammed hip to hip in the narrow doorway leading toward the dispensary and freedom. With a last desperate tug and the rending of silk, they burst through and fled precipitately down the dark hallway, nearly knocking over an orderly coming on the trot with a tray piled high with linens and surgical instruments.

I glanced to the side, and was amused to find Mary Hawkins still there. Somewhat whiter than the surgical linens—which were quite a disgraceful shade of gray, truth be told—and a bit green about the gills, but still there.

"Vite! Dépêchez-vous!" the surgeon uttered a peremptory shout, aimed presumably at the shaken orderly, who hastily reassembled his tray and came on the gallop to the spot where the tall, dark man was poised, bone saw in hand, ready to sever an exposed thigh bone. The orderly bent to tie a second tourniquet above the site of operation, the saw descended with an indescribable grating sound, and I took pity on Mary Hawkins, turning her in the other direction. Her arm trembled under my hand, and the peony lips were blanched and pinched as a frostbitten flower.

"Would you like to leave?" I asked politely. "I’m sure Mother Hildegarde could summon a carriage for you." I glanced over one shoulder to the vacant darkness of the hallway. "I’m afraid the Comtesse and Madame Lambert have left already."

Mary gulped audibly, but tightened an already firm jaw in determination.

"N-no," she said. "If you stay, I’ll stay."

I definitely intended staying; curiosity and the urge to worm my way into the operations of L’Hôpital des Anges were much too strong to weigh against any pity I might feel for Mary’s sensibilities.

Sister Angelique had gone some distance before noticing that we had stopped. Returning, she stood patiently waiting, a small smile on her plump face, as though expecting that we, too, would turn and run. I bent over a pallet at the edge of the floor. A very thin woman lay listlessly under a single blanket, her eyes drifting dully over us without interest. It wasn’t the woman who had attracted my attention, so much as the oddly shaped glass vessel standing on the floor alongside her pallet.

The vessel was brimming with a yellow fluid—urine, undoubtedly. I was mildly surprised; without chemical tests, or even litmus paper, what conceivable use could a urine sample be? Thinking over the various things one tested urine for, though, I had an idea.

I picked up the vessel carefully, ignoring Sister Angelique’s exclamation of alarmed protest. I sniffed carefully. Sure enough; half-obscured by sour ammoniac fumes, the fluid smelled sickly sweet—rather like soured honey. I hesitated, but there was only one way to make sure. With a moue of distaste, I gingerly dipped the tip of one finger into the liquid and touched it delicately to my tongue.

Mary, watching bug-eyed at my side, choked slightly, but Sister Angelique was watching with sudden interest. I placed a hand on the woman’s forehead; it was cool—no fever to account for the wasting.

"Are you thirsty, Madame?" I asked the patient. I knew the answer before she spoke, seeing the empty carafe near her head.

"Always, Madame," she replied. "And always hungry, as well. Yet no flesh gathers on my bones, no matter how much I eat." She raised a stick-thin arm, displaying a bony wrist, then let it fall as though the effort had exhausted her.

I patted the skinny hand gently, and murmured something in farewell, my exhilaration at having made a correct diagnosis substantially quenched by the knowledge that there was no possible cure for diabetes mellitus in this day; the woman before me was doomed.

In subdued spirits, I rose to follow Sister Angelique, who slowed her bustling steps to walk next to me.

"Could you tell from what she suffers, Madame?" the nun asked curiously. "Only from the urine?"

"Not only from that," I answered. "But yes, I know. She has—" Drat. What would they have called it now? "She has…um, sugar sickness. She gets no nourishment from the food she eats, and has a tremendous thirst. Consequently, she produces large quantities of urine."

Sister Angelique was nodding, a look of intense curiosity stamped on her pudgy features.

"And can you tell whether she will recover, Madame?"

"No, she won’t," I said bluntly. "She’s far gone already; she may not last out the month."

"Ah." The fair brows lifted, and the look of curiosity was replaced by one of respect. "That’s what Monsieur Parnelle said."

"And who’s he, when he’s at home?" I asked flippantly.

The plump nun frowned in bewilderment. "Well, at his own establishment, I believe he is a maker of trusses, and a jeweler. When he comes here, though, he acts usually as a urinoscopist."

I felt my own brows rising. "A urinoscopist?" I said unbelievingly. "There actually are such things?"

"Oui, Madame. And he said just what you said, about the poor thin lady. I have never seen a woman who knew about the science of urinoscopy," Sister Angelique said, staring at me in frank fascination.

"Well, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Sister," I said graciously. She nodded seriously, making me feel rather ashamed of my facetiousness.

"That is true, Madame. Will you have a look at the gentleman in the end bed? He has a complaint of the liver, we believe."

We continued, from one bed to another, making the complete circuit of the enormous hall. We saw examples of diseases I had seen only in textbooks, and every kind of traumatic injury, from head wounds inflicted in drunken brawls to a carter whose chest had been crushed by a rolling wine barrel.

I paused by some beds, asking questions of those patients who seemed able to answer. I could hear Mary breathing through her mouth behind my shoulder, but didn’t check to see whether she was in fact holding her nose.

At the conclusion of the tour, Sister Angelique turned to me with an ironic smile.

"Well, Madame? Do you still desire to serve the Lord by helping his unfortunates?"

I was already rolling up the sleeves of my gown.

"Bring me a basin of hot water, Sister," I said, "and some soap."

"How was it, Sassenach?" Jamie asked.

"Horrible!" I answered, beaming broadly.

He raised one eyebrow, smiling down at me as I lay sprawled on the chaise.

"Oh, enjoyed yourself, did ye?"

"Oh, Jamie, it was so nice to be useful again! I mopped floors and I fed people gruel, and when Sister Angelique wasn’t looking, I managed to change a couple of filthy dressings and lance an abscess."

"Oh, good," he said. "Did ye remember to eat, in the midst of all this frivolity?"

"Er, no, as a matter of fact, I didn’t," I said guiltily. "On the other hand, I forgot to be sick, too." As though reminded of delinquency, the walls of my stomach took a sudden lurch inward. I pressed a fist under my breastbone. "Perhaps I should have a bite."

"Perhaps ye should," he agreed, a little grimly, reaching for the bell.

He watched as I obediently downed meat pie and cheese, describing L’Hôpital des Anges and its inmates in enthusiastic detail between bites as I ate.

"It’s very crowded in some of the wards—two or three to a bed, which is awful, but—don’t you want some of this?" I broke off to ask. "It’s very good."

He eyed the piece of pastry I was holding out to him.

"If ye think ye can keep from telling me about gangrenous toenails long enough for a bite to make it from my gullet to my stomach, then yes."

Belatedly, I noticed the slight pallor on his cheeks, and the faint pinching of his nostrils. I poured a cup of wine and handed it to him before picking up my own plate again.

"And how was your day, my dear?" I asked demurely.

L’Hôpital des Anges became a refuge for me. The blunt and unsophisticated directness of nuns and patients was a wonderful refreshment from the continual chattering intrigues of the Court ladies and gentlemen. I was also positive that without the relief of allowing my facial muscles to relax into their normal expressions at the Hôpital, my face would quickly have frozen into an expression of permanent simpering vapidity.

Seeing that I appeared to know what I was doing, and required nothing of them beyond a few bandages and linens, the nuns quickly accepted my presence. And after an initial shock at my accent and title, so did the patients. Social prejudice is a strong force, but no match for simple competence when skill is in urgent demand and short supply.

Mother Hildegarde, busy as she was, took somewhat more time to make her own assessment of me. She never spoke to me at first, beyond a simple "Bonjour, Madame," in passing, but I often felt the weight of those small, shrewd eyes boring into my back as I stooped over the bed of an elderly man with shingles, or smeared aloe ointment on the blisters of a child burned in one of the frequent house fires that beset the poorer quarters of the city.

She never gave the appearance of hurrying, but covered an immense amount of ground during the day, pacing the flat gray stones of the Hôpital wards with a stride that covered a yard at a time, her small white dog Bouton hurrying at her heels to keep up.

A far cry from the fluffy lapdogs so popular with the ladies of the Court, he looked vaguely like a cross between a poodle and a dachshund, with a rough, kinky coat whose fringes fluttered along the edges of a wide belly and stumpy, bowed legs. His feet, splay-toed and black-nailed, clicked frantically over the stones of the floor as he trotted after Mother Hildegarde, pointed muzzle almost touching the sweeping black folds of her habit.