“Olivie!” Denis Enjolras called up the stairs. “The carriage is waiting!”
She came running, her bonnet strings flapping, a soft bundle clutched to her chest. “This is all I have, and I fear it won’t be enough!”
He put an arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “I hope it proves to be too much.”
The Monday excursions had begun when Olivie was only six years old, when her mother was still alive. Olivie had become as excitable as Vespasie Enjolras had been at her age, and when her husband decided that there was nothing wrong with showing the girl that there were other modes of life, she decided that some good Christian charity would perhaps make amends for the faults of her youthful career. The little family went into the slums every Monday, Denis to provide free medical care and Vespasie and Olivie to bring blankets and foodstuffs and comfort to ailing widows with too many children. When Vespasie died in childbirth, Olivie became the lady of the house, and she knew it was her duty to continue as her mother had. She was only ten years old, after all.
But soon she began to look at the situation with her own eyes, not through her mother’s apologetic gaze. Olivie had nothing to repent and nothing to prove. She saw the resentment caused by her appearance in wide ruffled skirts, giving away blankets and clothing that all parties knew were considered rubbish by the giver and hated by the receiver precisely because they were needed. Jars of tomatoes and pickled onions were welcome additions to bread and cheese, but could a person relish charity? Olivie thought not. But she continued to go, if for no other reason than to continue her examinations.
They preferred the doctor to his pretty daughter, she thought. Denis was a kind man, indulgent, willing to listen, able to plead his case without seeming to beg. He spoke to everyone the same, both his wealthy patients and his charity cases. He was a doctor, first and foremost, and class distinctions had no place in his determination of who needed his care. He dressed simply, in a rather old-fashioned manner, as befitted a medical man. His daughter, in contrast, was always a fashion plate.
But with the last of the governesses went the last female pressure in the house, Mme Noiret the housekeeper notwithstanding. At fourteen, Olivie had apprenticed herself to her father, and at fifteen, the last governess, this one a Swiss German, had given up keeping her away from bloody things when she seemed so much more content to stitch up a wound rather than work on her embroidery. The governess had been responsible for Olivie’s wardrobe, and as she continued growing, she began to select more practical items. She was the lady of the house, after all, and her father let her do as she liked.
The blankets and tomatoes had been abandoned. Instead, she carried towels and bandages, for there was often little cloth to spare in these homes. She tore bandages and made lint herself, when she was supposed to work on embroidery or the piano or any of the other feminine pursuits she had given up the moment the governess drove away. Olivie had remade herself as her father’s assistant.
Denis did not complain. Olivie was free to do as she pleased, within reason, and if he did it, there was no sense in saying that she could not. If women were expected to deal with the pain and blood of childbirth, if they were to soothe a fever victim, then there was no reason they should be unable to stitch a cut or bring relief by bleeding. Olivie was not afraid of blood or dirt because she had seen them her entire life. The extra set of hands was welcome because it freed Denis to take more cases. He looked to accidents as well as illnesses now, since he had an assistant with strong hands and an iron memory. Olivie did not make mistakes.
Their own carriage took them to the edge of the slums, and the driver would return for them at six o’clock. Those who continued to work were not in need of a doctor, Denis felt, so he had no qualms about resting on Sunday and giving Monday to the poor. During the last cholera epidemic, he had had great success in preventing his wealthier patients from drinking anything but strongly brewed tea, as he had read was done in China, but he spent a great deal of time in the slums, with Olivie at his side, brewing tea and dosing patients. Today was simply a routine visit, no cause for worry, at least at the moment.
Their first stop was a woman with a growth in her neck. It sapped all her energy, but there was nothing to be done. Denis had comforting words for her, while Olivie hung back, measuring out laudanum. She did not know how to imitate her father, and imitate it would have to be, for she felt nothing about this woman for whom they could do nothing. She meant nothing to anyone, including herself, Olivie thought, and perhaps she had better get on with dying.
The second stop was to change the bandages on a wound a stevedore had received in port. They had given up on the competency of the wife, and if too much air reached the wound, gangrene might set in. Olivie worked quickly while her father tried to soothe the panicked wife. The wound had started bleeding again as Olivie removed the last of the lint, just a tiny leak in what was otherwise healing nicely, but it was enough to send the man’s wife into hysterics.
The rest of the day was no more exciting. A few illnesses, the local hypochondriac, the local opium addict, and a broken wrist, apparently the result of domestic battery (the wife could have beaten down a carthorse and it seemed likely she was the cause of her small husband’s injury). The bundle of bandages had proved too large after all, much to Denis’ relief, though Olivie thought the afternoon exceedingly boring. It was late summer, just time to find frogs that were not swarmed with their own eggs, and she liked to use them as practice on small movements. It was cruel, but no more so than being eaten by a heron, which was the frogs’ likely fate.
As they walked back to the main road, Olivie was busy thinking of the frogs she would catch and so she did not heed her father’s tug at her elbow. She crashed directly into an equally preoccupied young man and they both went tumbling to the ground. Olivie was too dazed with shock to immediately get to her feet, though her father had already offered her hand, and instead, she looked around, meeting the eyes of the young man who had already begun to pick up the scattered bandages.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle,” he nodded to her, unable to bow as he was already on hands and knees.
“I suspect I walked into you, rather than the other way about.” He had lovely dark eyes below his cap. “I should apologise to you.” She finally seemed to remember her father, but only enough to take his hand in an effort to stand without stepping on her skirt.
He wore a cap, but a redingote rather than a smock. His shirtfront was white, and he had a yellow waistcoat, the pattern much faded. “You are the doctor, aren’t you, monsieur?”
“Yes. Come along.” Denis tried to pull Olivie away, but she refused to move.
“Did you need us?”
He shook his head. “Just making conversation. I’m sorry. Good day to you both.” He gave a little bow before heading on his way.
Olivie was silent on the way home. What a curious boy he had been. No one dressed in that mishmash could have been up to any good. But he did have such lovely eyes. It was difficult to firmly believe anything ill of him.
The next week, she swore she saw him again, but fleetingly, and she soon convinced herself that she was acting foolishly, giving herself vapours. That is not to say she stopped thinking of him. Rather, she thought of him, then berated herself for doing so and thus succeeded in a reasonable facsimile of her normal behaviour.
The encounter rather worried Denis, but as it was not renewed, and as Olivie did seem quite herself, he soon forgot it completely.
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