Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 67

   

“My name is Claire,” I said, smiling and hitching the quilt a bit higher in self-consciousness. I wasn’t sure how to correct their impression that I was Madame Jeanne’s newest recruit; for the moment, that seemed less important than getting some breakfast.

Apparently divining my need, the friendly Dorcas reached to the sideboard behind her, passed me a wooden plate, and shoved a large dish of sausages in my direction.

The food was well-cooked and would have been good in any case; starved as I was, it was ambrosial. A hell of a lot better than the hospital cafeteria’s breakfasts, I observed to myself, taking another ladle of fried potatoes.

“Had a rough one for your first, aye?” Millie, next to me, nodded at my bosom. Glancing down, I was mortified to see a large red patch peeking above the edge of my quilt. I couldn’t see my neck, but the direction of Millie’s interested gaze made it clear that the small tingling sensations there were evidence of further bite-marks.

“Your nose is a wee bit puffed, too,” Peggy said, frowning at me critically. She reached across the table to touch it, disregarding the fact that the gesture caused her flimsy wrap to fall open to the waist. “Slap ye, did he? If they get too rough, ye should call out, ye know; Madame doesna allow the customers to mistreat us—give a good screech and Bruno will be in there in a moment.”

“Bruno?” I said, a little faintly.

“The porter,” Dorcas explained, busily spooning eggs into her mouth. “Big as a bear—that’s why we call him Bruno. What’s his name really?” she asked the table at large, “Horace?”

“Theobald,” corrected Millie. She turned to call to a servingmaid at the end of the room, “Janie, will ye fetch in more ale? The new lassie’s had none yet!”

“Aye, Peggy’s right,” she said, turning back to me. She wasn’t at all pretty, but had a nicely shaped mouth and a pleasant expression. “If ye get a man likes to play a bit rough, that’s one thing—and don’t sic Bruno on a good customer, or there’ll be hell to pay, and you’ll do the paying. But if ye think ye might really be damaged, then just give a good skelloch. Bruno’s never far away during the night. Oh, here’s the ale,” she added, taking a big pewter mug from the servingmaid and plonking it in front of me.

“She’s no damaged,” Dorcas said, having completed her survey of the visible aspects of my person. “A bit sore between the legs, though, aye?” she said shrewdly, grinning at me.

“Ooh, look, she’s blushing,” said Mollie, giggling with delight. “Ooh, you are a fresh one, aren’t ye?”

I took a deep gulp of the ale. It was dark, rich, and extremely welcome, as much for the width of the cup rim that hid my face as for its taste.

“Never mind.” Mollie patted my arm kindly. “After breakfast, I’ll show ye where the tubs are. Ye can soak your parts in warm water, and they’ll be good as new by tonight.”

“Be sure to show her where the jars are, too,” put in Dorcas. “Sweet herbs,” she explained to me. “Put them in the water before ye sit in it. Madame likes us to smell sweet.”

“Eef ze men want to lie wiz a feesh, zey would go to ze docks; eet ees more cheap,” Peggy intoned, in what was patently meant to be an imitation of Madame Jeanne. The table erupted in giggles, which were rapidly quelled by the sudden appearance of Madame herself, who entered through a door at the end of the room.

Madame Jeanne was frowning in a worried fashion, and seemed too preoccupied to notice the smothered hilarity.

“Tsk!” murmured Mollie, seeing the proprietor. “An early customer. I hate it when they come in the middle o’ breakfast,” she grumbled. “Stop ye digesting your food proper, it does.”

“Ye needn’t worry, Mollie; it’s Claire’ll have to take him,” Peggy said, tossing her dark plait out of the way. “Newest lass takes the ones no one wants,” she informed me.

“Stick your finger up his bum,” Dorcas advised me. “That brings ’em off faster than anything. I’ll save ye a bannock for after, if ye like.”

“Er…thanks,” I said. Just then, Madame Jeanne’s eye lit upon me, and her mouth dropped open in a horrified “O.”

“What are you doing here?” she hissed, rushing up to grab me by the arm.

“Eating,” I said, in no mood to be snatched at. I detached my arm from her grasp and picked up my ale cup.

“Merde!” she said. “Did no one bring you food this morning?”

“No,” I said. “Nor yet clothes.” I gestured at the quilt, which was in imminent danger of falling off.

“Nez de Cleopatre!” she said violently. She stood up and glanced around the room, eyes flashing daggers. “I will have the worthless scum of a maid flayed for this! A thousand apologies, Madame!”

“That’s quite all right,” I said graciously, aware of the looks of astonishment on the faces of my breakfast companions. “I’ve had a wonderful meal. Nice to have met you all, ladies,” I said, rising and doing my best to bow graciously while clutching my quilt. “Now, Madame…about my gown?”

Amid Madame Jeanne’s agitated protestations of apology, and reiterated hopes that I would not find it necessary to tell Monsieur Fraser that I had been exposed to an undesirable intimacy with the working members of the establishment, I made my clumsy way up two more flights of stairs, and into a small room draped with hanging garments in various stages of completion, with bolts of cloth stacked here and there in the corners of the chamber.

“A moment, please,” Madame Jeanne said, and with a deep bow, left me to the company of a dressmaker’s dummy, with a large number of pins protruding from its stuffed bosom.

Apparently this was where the costuming of the inmates took place. I walked around the room, quilt trailing, and observed several flimsy silk wrappers under construction, together with a couple of elaborate gowns with very low necks, and a number of rather imaginative variations on the basic shift and camisole. I removed one shift from its hook, and put it on.

It was made of fine cotton, with a low, gathered neck, and embroidery in the form of multiple hands that curled enticingly under the bosom and down the sides of the waist, spreading out into a rakish caress atop the hips. It hadn’t been hemmed, but was otherwise complete, and gave me a great deal more freedom of movement than had the quilt.

I could hear voices in the next room, where Madame was apparently haranguing Bruno—or so I deduced the identity of the male rumble.

“I do not care what the miserable girl’s sister has done,” she was saying, “do you not realize that the wife of Monsieur Jamie was left naked and starving—”

“Are you sure she’s his wife?” the deep male voice asked. “I had heard—”

“So had I. But if he says this woman is his wife, I am not disposed to argue, n’est-ce pas?” Madame sounded impatient. “Now, as to this wretched Madeleine—”

“It’s not her fault, Madame,” Bruno broke in. “Have you not heard the news this morning—about the Fiend?”

Madame gave a small gasp. “No! Not another?”

“Yes, Madame.” Bruno’s voice was grim. “No more than a few doors away—above the Green Owl tavern. The girl was Madeleine’s sister; the priest brought the news just before breakfast. So you can see—”

“Yes, I see.” Madame sounded a little breathless. “Yes, of course. Of course. Was it—the same?” Her voice quivered with distaste.

“Yes, Madame. A hatchet or a big knife of some sort.” He lowered his voice, as people do when recounting horrid things. “The priest told me that her head had been completely severed. Her body was near the door of her room, and her head”—his voice dropped even lower, almost to a whisper—“her head was sitting on the mantelpiece, looking into the room. The landlord swooned when he found her.”

A heavy thud from the next room suggested that Madame Jeanne had done likewise. Gooseflesh rippled up my arms, and my own knees felt a trifle watery. I was beginning to agree with Jamie’s fear that his installing me in a house of prostitution had been injudicious.

At any rate, I was now clad, if not entirely dressed, and I went into the room next door, to find Madame Jeanne in semi-recline on the sofa of a small parlor, with a burly, unhappy-looking man sitting on the hassock near her feet.

Madame started up at the sight of me. “Madame Fraser! Oh, I am so sorry! I did not mean to leave you waiting, but I have had…” she hesitated, looking for some delicate expression “…some distressing news.”

“I’d say so,” I said. “What’s this about a Fiend?”

“You heard?” She was already pale; now her complexion went a few shades whiter, and she wrung her hands. “What will he say? He will be furious!” she moaned.

“Who?” I asked. “Jamie, or the Fiend?”

“Your husband,” she said. She looked about the parlor, distracted. “When he hears that his wife has been so shamefully neglected, mistaken for a fille de joie and exposed to—to—”

“I really don’t think he’ll mind,” I said. “But I would like to hear about the Fiend.”

“You would?” Bruno’s heavy eyebrows rose. He was a big man, with sloping shoulders and long arms that made him look rather like a gorilla; a resemblance enhanced by a low brow and a receding chin. He looked eminently suited to the role of bouncer in a brothel.

“Well,” he hesitated, glancing at Madame Jeanne for guidance, but the proprietor caught sight of the small enameled clock on the mantelpiece and jumped to her feet with an exclamation of shock.

“Crottin!” she exclaimed. “I must go!” And with no more than a perfunctory wave in my direction, she sped from the room, leaving Bruno and me looking after her in surprise.

“Oh,” he said, recovering himself. “That’s right, it was coming at ten o’clock.” It was a quarter-past ten, by the enamel clock. Whatever “it” was, I hoped it would wait.

“Fiend,” I prompted.

Like most people, Bruno was only too willing to reveal all the gory details, once past a pro forma demur for the sake of social delicacy.

The Edinburgh Fiend was—as I had deduced from the conversation thus far—a murderer. Like an early-day Jack the Ripper, he specialized in women of easy virtue, whom he killed with blows from a heavy-bladed instrument. In some cases, the bodies had been dismembered or otherwise “interfered with,” as Bruno said, in lowered voice.

The killings—eight in all—had occurred at intervals over the last two years. With one exception, the women had been killed in their own rooms; most lived alone—two had been killed in brothels. Hence Madame’s agitation, I supposed.

“What was the exception?” I asked.

Bruno crossed himself. “A nun,” he whispered, the words evidently still a shock to him. “A French Sister of Mercy.”

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