Fandom: Dr. Who/Torchwood
Characters: Madame Vastra, Jenny
Prompt: (159) I have never found a human friend to whom I would dare tell all I know; the human heart is too small to bear it. -- Gertrud of Helfta (c.1256-1302), German nun, author and translator.
Author's Notes: Thanks to the lovely and helpful metonomia for the beta.
Summary: If birds evolved from dinosaurs, and humans from apes, homo-reptilia did not strain credulity over much. The job posting did mention reptiles and foreign travel.
It was both who had shoved the clipping into her gloved hand as she dejectedly boarded the train and the clipping itself that excited Jenny’s interest.
WANTED: Lady’s Maid. Companion, plain cook skilled with cutlery and meats. Must not object to the country, foreign travel, reptiles. Apply to Madame Vastra, 10 Russell Road, Kensington, W, at 4, today and tomorrow.
Jenny and her parents had been acquainted with the person who had given her the job posting, Captain Harkness, for several years. He had brought some very peculiar specimens to Jenny’s parents for documentation and preservation – her mother was a talented and precise illustrator for the scientific societies of London and her father was a skilled taxidermist. Her parents, and so Jenny herself, understood more of comparative vertebrate anatomy than some of the distinguished fellowes of the same scientific societies for whom the family worked. The three of them knew that the Captain’s specimens were highly unusual products of evolutionary processes and unknown to science. Captain Harkness, however, would never explain where he had obtained the curious creatures, or why he had not presented his findings to the Royal Society.
Her parents had been understanding, but at age seventeen, she did need to support herself, or find a husband, and the latter had no appeal whatsoever. Without a spot of artistic talent, and a very eclectic education long on bones, lizards, bird wings, and skinning and stuffing dead animals, but lacking in writing and arithmetic, Jenny had resigned herself to domestic service. Captain Harkness had recommended, with reservations Jenny now perceived, that she apply for the position of a lady’s assistant to the Torchwood Institute.
Torchwood had appeared very promising, at first. Jenny was quite keen to learn from where Torchwood had found those peculiar beasts of strange sinew and proportion Captain Harkness had presented – they were not obviously fish, fowl, mammal, or reptile. If dinosaurs might have evolved into birds, surely these were things as remarkable that might be explained in some similar manner. Had not the platypus first been rejected by the British scientific societies as a fraud?
For their part, Torchwood had been quite interested in Jenny’s scientific hobbies and marksmanship. They were vague as to why familiarity with pistols was a desirable quality in a lady’s assistant. The pay was very good.
Her second interview with the Torchwood Institute, however, had gone very ill and Jenny had left, depressed, but still relieved that she need not refuse an offer that had not come. Captain Harkness had chased her down to the station and handed her the day’s newspaper.
“I have told Madame Vastra you might call upon her,” Captain Harkness had whispered, pushing the clipping into her hands. Jenny sensed that the Captain’s superiors at the Institute were unaware of this solicitation and that he wished it to remain so. “I believe you two will suit very well.” In a voice lower still, he murmured, “Not a word to Torchwood, either.” The Captain had then given her jaunty wink, a peculiar salute, and trotted out of the station.
So the recommendation of Captain Harkness and the clipping itself, with its promise of reptiles, had brought Jenny at precisely four o’clock, to Madame Vastra’s fashionable home. There was a footman, James, who opened the door. He appeared quite respectable. Work being work, Jenny had expected more applicants. Perhaps the job requirement of reptiles had been the deterrent. She was disappointed though that upon entry to the well-appointed home, no reptiles were in evidence, living or dead.
James showed her into a large, elegant study. Madame Vastra was already in the room, seated behind a desk in a corner so dark Jenny could not pierce the gloom. Madame Vastra was, peculiarly, heavily covered – a hooded cloak, long sleeves, gloves.
Jenny took the seat opposite Madame Vastra with the office desk between them.
“I have a rare skin condition,” Madame said. She was very well spoken and her voice firm and confident. A woman of substance and opinion, Jenny decided. “Most find it repulsive and so I cover myself. It is not contagious.”
“Handsome is as handsome does, as mum says,” Jenny replied. She was intrigued, not frightened.
“I understand you have been acquainted for some time with Captain Harkness?”
“Yes, Ma’am. He has brought specimens to my parents for recording and preservation.”
“And you sought a position with the Torchwood Institute?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jenny replied, still not fully recovered from her disappointment. “Learning more of the specimens Captain Harkness has supplied was why I had sought the position.”
“But Torchwood did not bring you on,” Madame Vastra replied, so flatly, Jenny had difficulty gauging the appropriate response.
“I believe the feeling of an ill fit was mutual,” Jenny settled upon.
“What was the reason for you reluctance?”
One did not recommend onself to another by criticising others. Yet, Jenny had sensed that Captain Harkness felt as she did, though he had hidden it well, and he had referred her to Madame Vastra. Logically, then, what Captain Harkness felt was likely also felt here. “To be truthful, I disliked Miss Guppy and Miss Holroyd.”
“So you are an astute judge of character?” Madame Vastra asked.
Jenny smiled a little at what Madame Vastra implied, and was especially pleased that she had guessed correctly. “My mother claims it is so, Madame. Regardless, the chief attraction of the position had been to see, more closely, the mysteries Captain Harkness has brought to my mother and father. I felt contempt, not interest, in such wonders from Miss Guppy and Miss Holroyd.”
“A very astute judge of character, then,” Madame said dryly. “Captain Harkness recommended you highly, Jenny. On that confidence alone, I would be prepared to bring you on. What questions do you have?”
“The posting did say that reptiles were involved, as well as foreign travel. I should dearly like both.”
“The travel is unpredictable,” Madame Vastra said. “Should it arise it will likely be on short notice and distant.”
“China?” Jenny asked hopefully. “Or Africa?”
Such destinations would be splendid.
“At least as distant to be sure,” Madame Vastra replied. “As for reptiles, most humans, especially human women, are afraid of them.” Madame Vastra’s voice dipped lower, to almost a hiss and her choice of words seemed peculiar.
Jenny shook her head. “That may be, Madame, but it is certainly not true of me.” She looked about hopefully. “I had thought you might keep some specimens? Snakes? Or lizards? I usually only see them dead for stuffing, or their bones in museums.”
“Perhaps later,” Madame replied.
Jenny put aside her regret, comforted that it might only be temporary. This position could suit. “Madame, I am of an honest and forthright character and so must inform you that most ladies wish for a maid skilled at stitching and hair dressing. I have no particular skill in either. You asked for a plain cook, and that I can do.”
Jenny had the sense of a smile beneath the hood. “I have no need of a hair dresser. Stitching will be required, but more in the nature of mending rips and tears. That I presume is within your abilities?”
“Oh yes, Ma’am. I’ve helped my father with his taxidermy, so I am skilled enough with skinning, tanning, and stitching. I’ve a very strong hand with animal skin.”
As soon as she said it, Jenny regretted the macabre words. Stitching a hide was very different than hemming a muslin frock. Madame however only nodded from beneath her hood. “So I inferred. And with such work, am I correct that you are not of a delicate disposition?”
“Not at all, Ma’am. I mean, you do have to skin things before you stuff and mount them. Blood and such don’t bother me at all.”
Again, Jenny regretted her blunt words. A lady’s maid did not gut African lion or lizard carcasses. Madame, however, seemed to nod with what Jenny hoped was approval.
“As for plain cooking, the posting is as stated. I eat a very specific but simple diet.” Madame paused and Jenny again felt a passing humour. “It will require preparation so minimal, James has, thus far, been able to accommodate my needs.”
The front bell rang and Jenny heard muffled voices. Madame Vastra stood. She was tall and seemed of an imposing, straight figure for all that she was swathed in a cloak and hood. “My work calls. If you wish it, the position is yours.” Madame pushed a paper across the desk and Jenny saw that she wore gloves. “The contract is here and I am prepared to offer one pound per week.”
Jenny started. It was a princely sum – even gentlemen’s butlers were not so well paid. Surely, there must be something wrong with the position.
There was a knock on the door. “Madame,” James called. “It is the Chief Inspector.”
“Yes, James, thank you, I know.”
A thrill moved through her. Was this an arrest? A crime? That did not seem correct. Everyone was very calm and business-like. And how could Madame have heard who was in the entry? The sounds had been quite muffled and Jenny was herself closest to the door.
“Must I leave?” Jenny asked quickly, raging with curiosity. “Is this a matter of delicacy?”
“Only to timid sensibilities,” Madame Vastra said. “Which you have owned to not having. It is police business but of a confidential nature. If you are interested in the position, I recommend you stay, and learn more of what your duties would be. Such calls and the work that flows from them are quite common.”
Madame did not uncloak for Chief Inspector Swanson, either. James escorted the man into the study and silently took a seat in the far corner. Jenny joined James, fascinated.
“There’s been another murder, Madame Vastra,” the Inspector began with not even a by your leave. The two must be well-acquainted, which gave Jenny a greater sense of confidence. If Captain Harkness and a Chief Inspector were on cordial terms with Madame Vastra, then surely this was an excellent character reference for her prospective employer.
“So the crimes do coincide with the docking of the cattle boats?”
James took out a small notebook and began taking hurried notes of the conversation.
The rest of the conversation was grisly. A man had been savagely murdered near the docks and the injuries to the victim, the implement likely used, and the timing had led them to conclude the perpetrator was a cattle drover. Provisions were made for Madame to visit the scene of the crime after nightfall, which seemed very peculiar to Jenny.
James escorted the Chief Inspector to the door and as Jenny was not asked to leave, she remained and returned to the seat recently vacated. She wished to accept the position and wanted to discuss final details.
Madame Vastra had spread a map of London upon her desk.
“You’ll need the carriage, tonight, Ma’am?” James asked from the doorway.
“Yes, James, but hold on dinner,” Madame Vastra replied, not looking up from the map.
“If you are lucky, you’ll dine out,” James said with a grunting laugh.
James again shut the door.
“So I may presume you are inclined to accept, the discussion of gutted corpses notwithstanding?” With some violence, Madame Vastra stuck a long pin into a part of the map. Jenny thought she heard some mutter about barbarians.
“Oh yes, Ma’am. It sounds to be a most interesting and exciting post. I did have a few more questions, about days off and my rooms.”
“I regret that time off will be difficult to judge, as I, and so you, will be at the mercy of London’s criminals and the needs of the police. You will be compensated and I will attempt to accommodate your requests.”
Jenny supposed that was fair; really, if the choice was every third Saturday off or helping Madame find a murdering cattle drover, this was not a difficult decision.
“As for rooms, this is a large house and I live alone. You may have your choice of rooms.”
This was very generous – no beneath the stairs cupboards here! “Thank you, Ma’am. I will just review the contract and sign, then? I can begin immediately.”
Madame Vastra finally looked up from her map. Jenny could not see her face and she had a momentary doubt. Should she insist upon seeing her employer’s face, first?
“There is one matter, Jenny, of which you should be aware before you begin in my employ.”
“I understood from Captain Harkness and your own background that you are very interested in sciences?”
“Evolutionary and biological science particularly, Ma’am, though it’s a hobby, really. I’m no scholar.”
“And what do you think of Mr. Darwin’s theories, Jenny?”
Jenny’s enthusiasm and interested peaked even higher. She was mad on the subjects. “Brilliant, Ma’am. My copy of Origin of the Species is quite battered. I am ever so sorry I could not have heard the Great Oxford Evolution debate between Mr. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce!”
Mum always said her passion for this subject would frighten any suitor off. It seemed acceptable to Madame Vastra, but then the posting had mentioned reptiles.
“Are you familiar with Mr. Huxley’s theory that birds evolved from lizards, that is from dinosaurs?”
This was extraordinary. “Oh yes, Ma’am! I admit I did not understand his 1870 paper very well, and I even went to the Oxford Museum hoping to see in Megalosaurus bucklandii the bird that Mr. Huxley did.” Jenny sighed, still feeling the failure deeply. “I fear it is a lack of imagination on my part, or poor scientific education, or both.”
“So you think birds from dinosaurs and humans from apes?” Madame Vastra asked.
“Oh, I do, Ma’am! I quite agree with Mr. Huxley that I would rather be descended from an ape than from one so narrow as the likes of Bishop Soapy Sam Wilberforce.” Jenny knew these were unpopular views in some circles and it was exciting to speak to a prospective employer who was so very well-informed.
The pause that followed was so long, Jenny wondered if she had offended. “Ma’am?” she finally asked.
“What would you think of humans from reptiles?”
Jenny thought about it carefully. Finally, she had to concede. “I don’t rightly know, Ma’am. Is there a paper on that?
“Not a paper, no.” Madame Vastra pulled back her hood. Jenny stared.
Madame Vastra was green! Covered in scales and ridges! She was as like a lizard as Jenny herself was to an ape! She had never seen the like, and would not have believed it, except she had seen Captain Harkness’ peculiar specimens.
Madam ran a gloved hand over her skull ridge. “As I said before, I do not require a hair dresser.”
Jenny was exploding with questions and now truly wanted the position very, very much. “What are you, Madame? How did you come to be here? Why are you here? How?” The words all came out in an excited rush.
“What is simple enough. I am a Silurian, homo-reptilia, and the product of the same evolutionary processes as yourself but in a different direction.” She began removing her gloves and her hands were scaled as well and clawed. “As for how, that is a long, long story. I am exiled here and do penance for wrongs committed on your people.”
“That is why you help the police catch criminals?”
“So there would not be anything wrong I would be asked to do?” Jenny asked carefully. “Anything unlawful?”
“Quite the contrary,” Madame said, suddenly sounding very angry and bitter. “I must help your pathetic human race. To do otherwise is to violate my parole and risk permanent exile. I have sworn on the lives of my sisters to reclaim my honour, and theirs, demeaning and degrading though this work for you mammals is.”
Jenny did not like this at all. It reminded her very much of how Miss Guppy and Miss Holroyd had talked. She sat a little straighter and jutted her chin out. “Madame, we may not be as fine as your kind, and some humans are terrible. But there’s plenty of us that are good, too. And if you can’t respect me, then you can keep your one pound a week and find another lady’s maid to help with your police investigations who doesn’t mind scales and can stitch up skin and can shoot a pistol.”
She stood up to leave, feeling the fool. She was a simple girl, but even simple girls had their pride. She had felt contempt from Miss Guppy and Miss Holroyd and she felt it from Madame Vastra, and she did not want to work for someone like that.
“I shall see myself out, Madame,” and she turned to leave the room.
She slowly turned back around.
Madame was clutching the arms of her chair with her long, front claws. Jenny had seen claws like that on the big iguanas that had come from the Galapagos Islands and were in the Oxford Museum. “I am of a choleric disposition at times. I am lonely without my sisters and do not know how long I shall be in exile. You may be very proud of your advances, but your world is primitive in comparison to my culture.”
“That was not an apology, Madame,” Jenny said stiffly.
For the first time, Jenny saw Madame Vastra’s tongue – it was forked and it flicked out like a snake or a lizard’s would. It was very strange. Jenny didn’t flinch over that. Humans had hair and the platypus had those poison spurs and some dinosaurs had been very large. That was what evolution did, as best she understood it.
Madame bowed her head. “I apologize, Jenny. Though, you should realize that I will be difficult and while I try to respect your race, I do not always guard my tongue, as you humans would say.”
Jenny couldn’t help it. She laughed at the turn of phrase and after a moment, Madame Vastra did as well.
Jenny could not say that life settled to a rhythm. The criminal element kept Madam very busy and so she and James were as well. She earned a wage so luxurious, she could afford finer things for herself and her parents for the first time in her life. She was too happily occupied to spend the money.
She chafed sometimes that she was not permitted to walk the dirty streets and low places as Madame did. Jenny was fine with a pistol but that was not enough for the close in brawling Madame Vastra was so adept at.
It would not have happened in the warmth of summer. In the winter, however, Madame’s reptile blood ran cooler and more sluggishly. She slept longer, ate less, and moved more slowly. In this way, a gang she had been pursing got the jump on her and nearly removed Madame Vastra’s arm from the rest of her body before James had been able to lash the horse through the midst of the fight and rescue their employer.
The wound was very slow to heal. Madame said that because the blood of homo-reptilia was cold, wounds that would kill a human would not so affect her. Still, it was ugly and oozed and smelt ill. Madame railed and ranted at the situation of medicine; she spoke of sepsis, antibiotics, and antiseptics and other strange words Jenny did not know.
Jenny tended her to the extent Madame permitted it. She bargained with the butcher for the choicest beef haunches and pig loins, and carved them to delicate bloody bits so to tempt Madame’s listless appetite. She piled the logs on to the fire so high and hot the ice melted off the glazed windows. She tucked hot water bottles and bed warmers around Madame’s shivering body. Most importantly, she took Madame’s orders carefully and slogged through the dirty City snow to find iodine and ethanol and strong spirits and several times a day she would soak linens in these things Madame called antiseptics and place them over the knife wound.
The wound affected Madame’s temper in ways not due to the mere hurt. That was to be endured, Madame said brusquely, and Jenny believed her. Nor was she ashamed of scars, for these a Silurian warrior bore with pride. Madame Vastra did not fear death. She did fear that knowledge of her buried sisters would die with her and that her oath to the mysterious Doctor would be unfulfilled. She feared dishonor.
“Why do you put up with me?” Madame muttered one evening, flicking her tongue irritably as Jenny carefully replaced the bandage.
Jenny sat back in her chair at the bedside and carefully recorked the bottles of spirits and medicines. “Because I admire you,” she finally said.
“A weak, soft, pale primate whom evolution favors admires a reptile?”
“Your skin is hard, and your blood cold, but still your heart is very large, Madame,” Jenny said firmly.
Madame’s tongue flicked again and Jenny wondered if, besides scenting and detecting heat, it also detected falsehood. She hoped it were so, for Madame would know she spoke truly.
“I hate humans. I hate this Earth.”
“Yet, for love of your sisters and for your honour and that of your race, you remain, Madame, and you protect those weaker than you. Yes, I find that all very admirable.”
“Such sentiment makes you weak,” Madame said, plucking at her covers and pulling them tightly about her. She often said such things and they sounded less personal each time she said them. Jenny had learned more of the human she was in the last year and a grumbling, ill-tempered lizard would not change it.
The medicines ordered, Jenny rose and gently blew out the candles. “I disagree, Madame. I feel these things yet am not weak.” She tucked the bedclothes about Madame. “Sleep now. Heal. If you do, I have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” It was the first hopeful words Jenny had heard from Madame Vastra in weeks.
“Yes,” Jenny told her. “But you must be strong enough to travel.”
It took some weeks and the ruffians of London streets became so confident, the police were calling upon Madame, hanging on the bell all day, and sending worried telegrams. Jenny, borrowing from Madame’s own manner, imperiously ordered them away. Another fortnight, she told Inspector Swanson.
The surprise was truly an ordeal to execute. It was strange to have learned such confidence in dealing with the details of her world and its people from a Silurian. Yet, there it was. To travel to the destination Jenny had selected required a private train car and swathing Madame in a heavy hood and cloak. Madame grunted and swore and stomped. Jenny ignored it all and well applied coin to those on the route helped enormously to assure discretion.
They arrived at the resort renowned for its hot springs and baths.
“Madame is most conscious of her skin condition,” Jenny said, placing bank notes in the palms of the accommodating hotel manager. “Her comfort and privacy are essential.” It was not an unusual request at an establishment of this calibre.
The hotel management erected screens around one of the baths, and Jenny escorted Madame to the private area and drew the concealing blinds around them. Hot waters rose bubbling from the earth to heat the rocks around them. The air was damp and warm. Madame sighed deeply and from the folds of her hooded cloak, her tongue darted out eagerly to explore and sense the space.
“I know reptiles enjoy basking in the heat of the sun,” Jenny said, easing the heavy cloak off Madame’s shoulders. “We have no heat and little sun here in winter, now, and I know it is a hardship. I thought the hot mineral springs might ease you and speed your healing.”
“For me, you do this?” Madame asked with a wondering sigh.
“Of course.” Jenny carefully folded the robe and set it on the bench of the bathing area. She could feel the heat from the stones in her shoes. Her hair was already sticking to her face and she could feel the sweat beading on her back.
Madame had no modesty. She pulled off her loose gown and dropped it carelessly on to the warm, flagged floor. She kicked it aside and stretched, raising her arms above her head. The green scales of her back rippled like water.
Quickly, Jenny averted her gaze.
“I am so repellant to mammal eyes.” Madame said. She lowered herself to the warm stones with a satisfied grunt of pleasure.
Jenny stared at her own pale, uniform, white hand on the screen. “Only to those of narrow minds and small hearts, Madame.” She slipped through a gap in the screen and closed it securely.
There was a chair and Jenny took it. It would be warm, but she could manage that for the sake of a speedier recovery (and improvement in Madame’s temperament). “I shall wait here, Madame, and guard your repose.”
“Jenny,” Madame’s voice carried through the screen. “You are as generous as any of my sisters. And as dear to me. Thank you.”
The words warmed her more even than the steam of the famous baths. “You are most welcome, Madame.”
“When I am healed, we shall work to hone your skills,” Madame said with a decisive air that sounded much more like herself. “Had you been with me, I would not have been caught so unawares. There is a hunt to finish.”
“There is, Madame.” A fierce pride burst in her chest, seeming too small to be contained. And may God have mercy on those men’s pathetic souls, for they would receive no such mercy from Madame Vastra, and Jenny would cut to mince whatever was left.
You can read of the Great Oxford Evolution Debate at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on June 30, 1860 here and here. Mr. Thomas Huxley’s theories on how birds evolved from dinosaurs were first presented in 1868 and 1870 and fell out of favor. They were resurrected by John Ostrom in the 1970s after the discovery and description of the Deinonychus antirhoppus – which would be popularized, more or less, as the Velociraptors of Jurassic Park. You can read about the origin of birds here though new analyses even in 2011 shows that Archaeopteryx may have just been a feathered dinosaur and not, in fact, a bird. You can read about some of that here and here.
Madame Vastra and Jenny are, by the time of the events of Dr. Who, Series 6, Episode 7, A Good Man Goes To War, presumed to be more than mere employer/employee and as such not gen. The hope here was to provide a solid foundation of friendship and mutual understanding for the partnership we see later.