She did not see the dark young man with the lovely eyes again, not to know it was him, at least, until after the new year. The weekly trips into the slums were more urgent then, as want of food and blankets and fuel was compounded by the bonechilling dampness the sea brought to the city. This winter had been especially brutal, and Olivie had sucked up her pride in order to distribute blankets to those most in need. It pained her that at times, it was all she could do. The cholera had calmed, but now typhus was common. Olivie bathed carefully both before and after the Monday visits, convinced that an excess of cleanliness had to be the way to avoid the contamination brought by the dirty surfaces and fetid air of the slum districts.
Accidents in port were more common as well, the cold weather numbing hands and feet and slowing reflexes. The constant damp and fog meant a slippery layer of water lay over everything, the streets never dried, and broken limbs healed slower as the prices of decent food rose.
Olivie carried large bundles every week: blankets and bandages and candles, for no one could work in the darkness of these hovels when the day was so grey that no light followed the wind through the cracks. There was little left at the end of the day.
Darkness fell early, but she and her father had been called to one place after another, and neither of them wanted to say no to the people who looked to them for the life of the principle breadwinner or beloved wife. As they picked their way back, Denis kept his arm around her shoulders, steadying her as she lifted her skirts out of the way. The path was dark, and they were jostled by men returning home or venturing out again into the night, toward the light of the wineshop up ahead. As they crossed the yellow patch of lamplight thrown by its windows, a movement in the shadows made Olivie start.
“Mademoiselle,” a voice croaked, and she jumped back even further into her father’s embrace. “Mademoiselle. The doctor.”
“Come into the light,” Denis ordered. For a moment, there was no movement. Then a hand appeared, filthy, followed by a muddied arm, then a shadowed face. He pulled himself along the ground with difficulty, breathing heavily, and collapsed again at their feet. Denis bent down to check his pulse. He had been heavily beaten, judging from the darkly swollen state of his face. “He needs the hospital,” Denis told Olivie.
The victim tried to protest, though his energy had been sapped by the struggle. “No hospital. They won’t -” He lost the words.
Olivie bent down to study him more closely. “Monsieur, you need medical attention. The night is cold and damp. We cannot help you here in the street.” With difficulty, he opened his eyes to her. “The hospital is the best place.”
“They won’t take me,” he finally managed to reply.
He rolled over onto his back, exposing the hidden side of his face. He had not merely been beaten: a fresh burn on his cheek shone in the dim light, a crude six-pointed star. But that side had been less generally battered, and Olivie was certain that his profile was familiar.
“We’ll help you to the hospital, monsieur.”
“He is right, Olivie. They won’t take him. He’s a Jew.”
“I can tell that much!” she snapped. “We’ll have to take him home, then.”
“Come with me to bring the carriage closer.”
“We can’t leave him alone here!”
“And I cannot allow you to wander this neighbourhood alone.“
“I’ll stay with him. Then I won’t be wandering.”
“You know what I mean.”
“He can’t be left. If we stand here much longer, we’ll start to attract a crowd, and then what will happen to him?”
“Olivie, come with me,“ Denis ordered.
“No! I’ll go for the carriage, but I won’t see him left behind! Look at us, we are speaking about him as if he cannot even hear us!”
“No!” Oblivious to how she was ruining her gown, she knelt in the mud beside the Jew. “He will not be left!”
“I want you to stay out of the light. Both of you.” Olivie scooted backwards until the shadows hid her completely. “I will be right back with the carriage.” Denis hurried off, not without some trepidation, but there was no budging Olivie. He was no longer physically strong enough to carry her, whether or not she deserved it.
“Monsieur? Monsieur, you mustn’t sleep, no matter how much you may want to.” She brushed his hair off his face. “Talk to me. I know it hurts, but try. What’s your name?”
“I am Olivie.”
“This is hardly the time for flattery, monsieur.”
“When - when is the time?”
“Never. There is never a time for flattery. Why did they do this to you?” Josué didn’t answer. “Monsieur?”
He placed his hand on hers. “No more talk. Please.”
“Of course.” They sat in silence until her father came. The coach could go only as far as the wineshop. Olivie waited in the carriage, out of the wind, while her father and their driver moved the wounded man. She and Denis helped him sit up all the way to their house, and on their arrival, all the male staff were brought out in order to carry him into the operating theatre.
They stripped off his filthy garments. Olivie was surprised to recognise the faded yellow waistcoat he wore. She took it upon herself to carefully wash away the mud, exposing the scratches on his hands and bruises on his arms where he had tried to defend himself. Denis dosed him with laudanum, then he and Olivie finished washing him and forcing him into one of Denis’ old nightshirts. Bruises were rising on his stomach, but there was no rigidness to cause concern. He was far from dead, just heavily battered and utterly exhausted. Denis greased the burn on the young man’s cheek, but there was really nothing else to be done except to let him rest.
Olivie returned to check on him after dinner. The laudanum had begun to wear off, but the swelling of his bruises had increased, making conversation even more difficult. She wracked her brain for comforting words, but nothing came to mind. “You should feel stronger in the morning.” She took his hand. It was not as rough as she had expected. He was even more incongruous than she had thought. There was nothing good in him, she told herself. Soft hands, bourgeois clothes, a Jew: in that quarter, he could not be any good. But he had looked at her as not even the proper, eligible gentlemen did, with such tenderness it was difficult to believe bad things of him. Their eyes met again, and she wished desperately that she knew what to say. “You can stay here until you are able to go home.” He started to speak, but she pulled her hand away and retreated in nervousness.
Chapter 3 ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 5 ~ Home