Doctor Death

By: Lene Kaaberbol


I


February 23–March 20, 1894


It is snowing. The snow falls on the young girl’s face, on her cheeks, mouth, and nose, and on her eyes. She does not blink it away. She lies very still in her nest of snow, slightly curled up, with a fur coat covering her like a quilt.

Around her the city is living its nightlife, the hansom cabs clatter by in the cobblestone slush on the boulevard, just a few steps away. But here in the passageway where she lies, there is no life.

Her brother is the one who finds her. He has been to the theater with some friends, and then to a dance hall, and he is happy and lighthearted when he returns home, happy and a little bit tipsy. That is why he does not understand what he is seeing, not at first.

“Hello?” he says when he notices that someone or something is lying at the entrance to his family’s home. Then he recognizes the coat, which is unusual: astrakhan with a collar of ocelot. “Cici?” he asks, because that is the girl’s pet name. “Cici, why are you lying there?”

Only then does he discover why she does not blink and makes no move to get up.



“It is unusual,” said the Commissioner to my father. “It is difficult to believe that it is a natural death, considering the circumstances, but there are no external signs of violence.”

The young girl lay on a stretcher in the hospital’s chapel. They had removed the fur coat, which was now hanging across the lid of the waiting coffin. Papa had turned the gas lamps all the way up in order to see as clearly as possible. The hospital had recently had its first electric lights installed, but the chapel had not yet seen such progress. Light for the living was more important than light for the dead, it was thought, and that was probably true. But it made my father’s work even more difficult.

Beneath the cloak, Cecile Montaine was wearing only a light white chemise and white pantalets. Both were filthy and had been worn for a while. Her narrow feet were naked and bloodless, but there was no sign of frostbite. Someone had closed her half-open eyes, but you could still see why she was considered a beauty, with long black eyelashes, sweetly curved lips, a narrow nose, symmetrical features. Her hair was pitch-black like her eyelashes and wet with melted snow.

“Dear Lord,” said the third person present in the chapel. “Oh, dear Lord.” The hand holding the prayer book shook a bit, and it was clear that Father Abigore, the Montaine family priest, was in shock.

“Could the cold have killed her?” asked the Commissioner.

“It’s possible. But right outside her own door?”

“No, that is not logical. Unless she died somewhere else and was later placed where her brother found her?”

“I think she died where she was found,” said my father. “The clinical signs suggest as much.”

They both stole a glance at the priest and refrained from discussing lividity while he was listening.

“Sickness? Poison?” asked the Commissioner.

“It is difficult to say when the family will not agree to an autopsy.” My father bent over the girl and carefully examined the halfway open mouth and the nostrils. Then he straightened up. “Did she suffer from consumption?”

The Commissioner looked over at the priest, passing on the question. Father Abigore stood staring at the dead girl and did not realize at first that he was being addressed.

“Father?”

“What?” With a start, the priest focused on them. “Consumption? No, certainly not. When she left her school a few weeks ago, she was as sound and healthy as one could possibly expect of a young lady of seventeen.”

“And why did she leave school?” asked the Commissioner.

“I must confess that we thought it was because of an unfortunate attachment she had made to a young man who disappeared at the same time. But now . . . Perhaps we have done her an injustice.” His gaze was once again drawn to the young dead girl, as if he were unable to look anywhere else. “Consumptive? Why would you think that?”

“There is dried blood in the nasal and oral cavities,” said my father. Suddenly, he leaned forward with a wordless exclamation.

“What is it?” asked the priest nervously.

But my father had no time to answer. He grabbed a pipette from his bag and quickly bent over the young girl’s face again.

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