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    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

“Castile Soap”

[Excerpt from BOOK TEN (Untitled) – Copyright © 2023 Diana Gabaldon]

[No spoilers]

castille-soapWilliam washed his face—it was thick with stubble, but no point in trying to shave without mirror or soap—and made his way downstairs.

The smell of food reached him at the top of the stairs and drew him down like a mosquito scenting blood, single-minded in his voracity. And a good thing, too, he realized as he entered the kitchen. He was so hungry that he’d suffered no hesitations regarding his welcome.

In fact, while everyone at table turned to look at him, all the faces bore smiles, whether shy or broad, and he bowed to them, smiling back.

“Good morning,” he said, and the smallest girl—Amanda, that was her name—giggled and pointed her spoon at him.

“Your beard looks like Grand-da’s!”

A ripple of stifled amusement ran round the table, but before he could think of something to say, Mother Claire rose and took him by the sleeve, showing him to a place on the bench beside Frances, who looked up at him demurely.

“I hope you thl-slept well?” she said. Her cheeks were pink, but she met his eyes straight on, and he felt a slight jolt; her eyes were very much like Jane’s.

“Immensely well, I thank you,” he assured her. A trencher appeared before him, piled with toast and bacon, and Amanda’s brother—James? No, Jeremiah, Jem, that was it, a tall, red-haired boy, skinny as an oak sapling—shoved a pot of strawberry jam across the table.

“What do we call him?” the boy asked, turning to his grandfather. “Uncle Billy?”

William choked slightly on the mouthful of beer he’d just taken. Frances, Claire, and the three little girls all giggled, and he thought Fraser might have done as well, were he capable of making such a sound. As it was, Fraser kept a relatively straight face, and replied, “Not unless he asks ye to. ‘Til then, ye can call him Mr. Ransom, aye?”

William cleared his throat.

“You may call me William for the present, if you like,” he said to Jem. “I haven’t had a great deal of practice in being an uncle, as yet.”

“Don’t pester your uncle,” Mother Claire said, setting down a dish of succulent, glistening sausages, smelling of sage and onion, in front of William. “Let him eat.”

image1He ate like a ravening wolf, listening to the conversation with one ear, but making no effort to join it. His cup was filled—and refilled—with the very good beer, and he finished the meal replete—well, stuffed like a goose—and wondering whether he might go find a tree to sleep under for a bit.

“I’ll be goin’ to and fro on the Ridge today, fettling my tenants,” Fraser told him, brushing crumbs off his lap. He handed a fragment of toast to the big bluetick hound who had been waiting patiently by his feet, and rose. “D’ye want to come with me?”

“I—yes. I suppose so,” William replied, taken aback at the invitation. He remembered Mac the groom saying “fettled,” with regard to grooming and feeding horses, but he supposed that Fraser merely meant that he proposed to tell his tenants that he would be gone for some time, and arrange for payment of rents to some factor.

Fraser nodded.

“Aye, good. I’ll say you’re my son, though most of them will ken it already, after yesterday.” He cocked a brow in question. Was that agreeable to William?

That made his full stomach drop another inch or two, but he nodded back.

“Of course. May I take time to shave?”

“Aye. Use the soap and basin in my room. It’s the one in front, on the left as ye go up.”

The room was large and pleasant, the window opened for air, but screened with muslin to keep insects out, and the diffused light gave the room a pleasant, quiet feel, like being inside a cloud, despite the muffled racket from the kitchen below. William found himself breathing shallowly, aware of the unfamiliar, intimate scent of the room. The bed had not yet been made, and while the thrown-back sheets were clean, they held the faint, disturbing musk of recent bodies.

If the intimacy of the Frasers’ bedroom was disturbing, the intimacy of using Mr. Fraser’s shaving soap was more so. It was soft, white Castile soap, and smelled of olive-oil, but also of coriander and what he thought was marjoram, and… could that possibly be geranium-leaf? He hadn’t seen or smelt a geranium plant since he left England, and it gave him a brief sense of dislocation, a vivid sense of his Aunt Minnie’s conservatory, redolent with foreign flowers and writhing exotic greenery.

The thought made him feel more settled in himself. No matter what the future held, he still had both a past and a present, and those must be sufficient to keep him in countenance for what might come.

Refreshed and clean-shaven, he came downstairs, ready to see exactly what “fettling” might involve.

[end section]

Click to visit my Book Ten webpage for information on this book, and to read more excerpts from it.

Acknowledgement: The image of Castile white shaving soap (as used in the 18th century) is from:


A very interesting and entertaining site about life in the 18th century!

Second image: The apothecary-style brass shaving mug is part of the assortment of oddments in my office (as is the lovely writing/inkstand in the background, made by Hester Bateman, a very talented 18th-century silversmith).

This excerpt was also posted on my official Facebook page on Saturday, September 30, 2023.