Queen of Swords, p.10Sara Donati
Claiborne was a ridiculous figure and the perfect foil for Lafitte, who was admired for his business sense, his bravery, and his adventures. Most important, Lafitte provided the residents of New Orleans with hard-to-get goods and services—many of which had been in plain view in Livingston’s own home.
To Luke it was clear that Claiborne was determined to win Livingston over to his view of how Lafitte was best to be handled, as if another American would have no choice but to see things his way. Luke listened as closely as he could, given the roughness of the road and the wind, and stored away what information might prove to be useful at some point.
Luke noted the exact moment when Livingston’s patience gave way. He sent Claiborne a look that Luke recognized, a look he himself used when negotiations had broken down past the point of usefulness, and ended the conversation with a single sentence.
“Major General Jackson will decide what to do about Lafitte, not you.” And he used his spurs to put distance between himself and the governor.
They were riding through a wide savannah, brilliant green even now in the first week of December. A great heron, stark white against the flashing blue of a pond, lifted awkwardly into the air as they passed. Luke saw ten different kinds of birds in just as many minutes. This was strange and beautiful country—nothing like Canada, and yet it caused a surge of homesickness to rise in his throat.
“There,” said Livingston. They had come to the edge of an expanse of fallow fields where a small city of tents had sprung up. Luke calculated some thousand men, militia and volunteers out of uniform, milling around. They looked as if they had been living rough for a long time.
“Not the most inspiring sight, are they?” one of the other men said.
Luke spoke to him directly for the first time. “They lack spit and polish,” he said. “But their reputation as fighting men makes up for that.”
Beyond the fields were a line of pecan trees, a scattering of houses, and the Bayou St. John. Livingston pointed to a large, rather run-down house that stood on a rise at the junction of the canal and the bayou. “That’s Kilty-Smith’s place.”
As they picked their way through the camp, Luke studied the landscape until he was able to identify the Maison Verde. He wondered if his sister might still be there, and what had brought her here in the first place.
Even so early in the day the crowds had already begun to gather. They threaded their way through groups of onlookers as cheerful and unruly as children waiting for a play party to begin. Jackson was here. They were safe, they told each other, from the British. Now they were safe. Washington had burned, but New Orleans would stand.
Luke handed his horse over to a young boy and followed Livingston into the merchant’s house, which was as overrun as the campground. Soldiers, officers, militiamen, merchants and bankers and plantation owners, all hoping to be admitted into the dining room and the company of Jackson and his officers. The mass of men opened to let the governor and mayor through, and Livingston walked with them as unself-consciously as a prince behind a king. Luke followed, but he felt himself being observed and wondered, too late, if Poiterin himself might be here. Before he could look around to answer that question, he was inside the dining room and the doors had closed behind him.
Andrew Jackson sat at Kilty-Smith’s breakfast table over a bowl of boiled hominy. Long weeks of living out-of-doors had deeply tanned his skin, but still his color was vaguely off, a hint of yellow beneath the leathery brown. The tufts of hair that stood up on his head made his already narrow face with its sunken cheeks seem almost absurdly long.
To Luke he looked like a man who had risen from a sickbed far too soon, and would pay for his folly. Then, oddly, that first impression of severe poor health fell away as soon as Jackson raised his head. The deep wrinkles around the eyes might have had something to do with pain, but the eyes themselves could have belonged to a bird of prey. They were sharp and unblinking and unflinching, and Luke had no doubt that in that one sweep of the room Jackson had taken in everything and everyone around him, long before his host had finished with the introductions.
Any secretary worth his salt had to be good with faces and names and so Luke paid attention, marking into his memory the barrel shape of Major Hughes, who commanded Fort St. John; Jackson’s secretary Captain Reid, whose face was mostly hidden behind a profusion of sleek beard that reached to his cheekbones; Major Butler, Jackson’s adjutant, famous for his ability to assimilate, organize, and retain thousands of details crucial to his superior; Commander Patterson, severe and as inflexible as an iron rod in full naval uniform. A dozen other officers, and then the leading men of the city: Bernard Marigny, the richest and most powerful Creole in New Orleans, and a man dedicated above all things to spending the fortune his father had left him; Ignace de Lino de Chalmette, an elderly Marigny uncle; Magloire Guichard, a dignified old man and speaker of the legislature. When Livingston was introduced, Jackson’s expression opened and became less guarded. For a long minute there was what amounted to a private conversation in the crowded room, Livingston and Jackson renewing their acquaintance. Claiborne looked at first surprised, then disgruntled, and then almost sick to his stomach.
Then Livingston introduced Luke as his new secretary. Jackson’s gaze met Luke’s. He returned the gaze without flinching, aware that he was being judged not just by Jackson, but by every other man in the room. Aware, for the first time, of a group of militiamen in the far corner, hidden by the men of the legislature. Men in uniforms as gaudy as peacock feathers, and in their middle, Honoré Poiterin.
“Gentlemen,” Jackson was saying in a gravelly voice. “The British are at the gate, and they must be stopped. To do that, I will need your assistance. Your full and unquestioning assistance. Whatever quarrels you’ve got among you, let them go. Until New Orleans is secure, you must forget these distinctions you make between Americans and Creoles. We are all Americans, or we will all be British.”
His gaze settled momentarily on certain men in the crowd and then moved on. “If I’ve made myself understood, we’ll start,” Jackson said.
For the next hour Luke was aware of two things: Poiterin, who stared at him with open and unwavering hostility, and Jackson, who dispensed judgment and directions with the bare minimum of social nicety and a great deal of sharp commentary. Each man was evaluated for what he had to contribute, and made short work of. Some were passed along to be dealt with by Butler or Patterson; others were told that they would be called on as they were needed. More than once Jackson waved a hand to cut off a speech filled with empty platitudes to ask questions that must be seen as rude.
Little by little the men began to trickle away, orders and instructions in hand. Through all of this, Livingston only observed, calmly, a man sure of his value and his place in the company. Through all of this, Poiterin stayed exactly where he was until two thirds of the room had gone.
“May I introduce Commander Henri de Ste-Gême,” Kilty-Smith was saying. “And some of his Hulans, or Dragons à Pied, as they are called. Pierre—”
“Commander,” Jackson interrupted. “We count on your local boys to show us the lay of the land.”
“Of course,” said Ste-Gême, a man as short and rotund as a cork. His English was so heavily influenced by French that it sounded almost as though he must be joking. “We will lead the charge. As you know, Major General, we are originally sons of France, and we will be pleased to send the English dogs back to their island, as my forefathers did at Agincourt.”
Jackson’s gaze was hard but his mouth twitched at the corner, out of amusement or pique, Luke couldn’t say. “I look forward to seeing you in action,” he said, and his gaze flickered toward Major Butler with a message that Luke understood from across the room. Ste-Gême allowed himself to be led away, the handful of men he had brought with him following like ducklings. Poiterin continued to stare at Luke until he was summoned specifically, and then he turned away with obvious reluctance.
“So it begins,”
Jackson had winnowed the crowd of men down to the ones he considered most worthy and potentially useful to him, and Livingston was among that number, a man of like mind and ability. Before they left his company, Livingston had pledged all his time and energy to Major General Jackson and had joined his staff as a voluntary aide. When Jackson and his officers made ready to ride into the city, Luke found himself among the small party of men invited to join them.
On the way out to the horses, another surprise: Ben Savard stood in the early morning light next to Hughes, who had command of Fort St. John. As he passed the men, Luke said, “Hannah?”
“On her way home.”
“What about you?”
Ben shrugged. “Depends on what they have in mind for me. I see you’ve worked things out.”
At that moment Jackson turned his head in their direction. Luke, who had stood his ground with far more imposing men, felt the jolt of that cold blue gaze in his spine.
“Major Hughes,” said Jackson. “You are satisfied with your Indian scout?”
“Jean-Benoît Savard,” said Hughes. “There is none better in Louisiana. I’m about to lose him to Captain de Juzan’s regiment of Choctaw.”
Ben’s expression was impassive, as if they spoke a language he didn’t care to understand.
“Keep him here,” Jackson said. “I have a need for such men, and he will be more useful out of uniform, for the moment at least. Savard.”
Ben looked at Jackson directly and gave a slight, stiff bow from the shoulders. “At your command, Major General.”
Jackson’s mouth was like a bloodless cut in a face carved from stone. He turned away and disappeared into the crowd of his officers.
Jennet woke with a gasp and lay frozen with fear until she made out the embroidered bed hangings and remembered where she was, and why.
The Livingstons’. They were safe.
The pillows and covers showed that while Luke was not here, he had slept beside her. Jennet remembered, now, where he had gone this morning, and why. She wondered if he had tried to wake her. With a sigh of relief, she sank back into the small mountain of pillows, all encased in finest linen and smelling of lavender water.
The house was very quiet, though by the quality of the light, it must be at least nine. Even without the light she would have known the hour; her breasts were full and tender. If they did not bring the baby to her soon, she would have to go look for him. And, she noted with some surprise, she was hungry herself. She sniffed and took in the faint smell of coffee.
Just that simply she was more fully awake and it seemed, looking around the room, that at some point in the last months all the color had drained out of the world in such a slow way that she hadn’t even noticed. Now it was as if a hundred candles had been lit at once so that grays gave way to strong color: the sky blue of the coverlet, the crimson and grass-green embroidery on the pillow slip, the crisp gold of sunlight on the polished cypress wood floor, the same warm color as Hannah’s skin.
Jennet sat up in the bed, thinking of her sister-in-law. She would ask the butler to send a message. Mrs. Livingston had told her that she was to act here as if she were at home, and that she would do. She would send a half dozen boys out on errands, but the first one would carry a note to Hannah. Just as soon as she found her clothes and took care of the baby.
A soft knock at the door. Jennet jumped back into the bed and pulled the covers up around herself—she was wearing only the simplest muslin shift—and a servant came in carrying a tray covered with a linen cloth the same brilliant white as the tignon wrapped around her head. Behind her was Rachel, carrying a fussy, scowling Nathaniel. His expression shifted just as soon as he saw her, first going blank and then breaking into a smile. He lurched, trying to fling himself out of Rachel’s arms.
She handed him over with a laugh. “He’s had porridge this morning, but clearly it’s not enough. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting, does he?”
“I suppose I should wean him,” Jennet said, knowing even as she said it that she had no intention of doing any such thing. It would be too cruel, after such a long separation. They would both feel the loss.
In a matter of minutes the servant had set a table with china, silver, a tea service, baskets of toast and rolls, and a plate filled with shirred eggs, ham, and a buttery mound of hominy. Then she disappeared without saying a word. Jennet’s mother, who had been the housekeeper at Carryckcastle for all of her adult life, would have approved. For her own part, Jennet was rather sorry, as servants were generally the best source of real information about the way a household worked, and there were things she would have liked to ask.
Jennet climbed out of bed and wrapped a shawl around herself and the baby, who was nursing so enthusiastically that she could barely contain a wince. Settled in a chair, she used her free hand to accept the teacup Rachel had filled for her.
“So,” Jennet said. “Is the great man arrived in the city?”
Rachel’s excitement was answer enough, but of course she must also describe what Jennet had missed.
“You should have seen it,” she said. “The whole city turned out to welcome the general. My uncle Livingston was riding next to him, and your husband just behind, and he looked so very handsome, you would have been proud. It was so thrilling. I’m surprised you could sleep through the noise.”
“It has been a long time since I had a proper night’s rest,” Jennet said. “It would have taken more than a parade to wake me.”
Rachel said, “It’s so exciting; the major general is only five minutes away. We will be seeing a lot of him, I think.”
There was no end to Rachel’s enthusiasm for Major General Jackson and his party, which continued while Jennet looked to the boy and ate her own breakfast with her one free hand.
“The troops will be pouring in,” Rachel said with a pretty blush. “Corbeau—have you met Corbeau? my uncle’s valet—Corbeau says we will be overrun by Americans, and my aunt said—”
“Better than the alternative, to be overrun by the English.”
“Yes,” Rachel said, sitting back. “Exactly.” She pushed out a sigh, and then seemed to really look at Jennet for the first time.
“You think me silly. Well, I suppose I am, a little, but it really was exciting.”
“Of course it was,” Jennet said. She gave the girl a sincere smile. “And I don’t think you silly. I think I was much like you at your age, actually.”
This pleased Rachel greatly. She said, “Your color is much improved. You like it here with my uncle and aunt?”
“We are safe,” Jennet said. “And your aunt keeps a verra comfortable home, forbye.”
“You are feeling better, if you’re speaking Scots so early in the day and without provocation,” Rachel said with a smile.
“It’s good of you to come by so early,” Jennet said.
“Aunt Livingston thought you might like to see a familiar face,” said Rachel. “And I wanted to tell you about the parade, and oh, I haven’t even thought to tell you about the speech the general gave on the Place d’Armes. Even Mme. Derilemont was impressed, and you know what she thinks of Americans.”
Jennet’s plate was empty before Rachel came to the end of her story of what had transpired on the Place d’Armes.
“And I have messages to deliver. My mother has sent your things, and wants to know what else you might need or want, and Hannah is back from the Bayou St. John and needs to speak to you.”
Jennet would have liked to have heard that particular bit of news first, but she couldn’t find it in herself to be irritated with the girl. “I was hoping she would come straight here.”
Rachel got up suddenly and went to look out on the garden.
The girl turned back, all her happiness gone, and in its place an expression of supreme discomfort.
Jennet swallowed and put down her fork. She took a moment to settle the baby on the floor with a piece of dried toast, and to right her clothes.
“Is it Hannah she objects to, or the hour?”
“I’m not sure,” Rachel said. She looked so unhappy that Jennet understood exactly what she hesitated to say. Mrs. Livingston’s kind welcome didn’t extend to half-breed, half-blood sisters. Rachel could come and go as she pleased, but Hannah could not.
Jennet looked down at her son, who was rubbing his face with the toast as if it were a washcloth. This was all for his sake, after all. It was worth any price to keep this child safe until they could take him home. Hannah of all people knew that.
And still, the relief that Jennet had felt on waking was gone, replaced by resentment and guilt. Hannah, who was worth ten of Mrs. Livingston, was not welcome here. There must be some compromise, and Jennet would find it.
“I will speak to your aunt.”
Rachel let out an audible sigh of relief. She said, “I came here straight from the Place d’Armes, but she’s still out. I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you as soon as she’s home again. Now, I’m supposed to ask which gown you want to wear to tea this afternoon, so it can be brushed and pressed.” And at Jennet’s look of confusion: “You remember, my aunt invited us to tea this afternoon? And she included Hannah in that invitation, at least.”
“I had forgot,” Jennet said. “I suppose half the ladies will be coming to examine Hannah to see if she wears scalps on a belt around her waist.”
Rachel frowned. “I think you do my aunt a disservice—”
“No doubt I do,” Jennet said. “She has been the very soul of generosity, and deserves to be treated in the same way. Forgive me.”
But Rachel, who was indeed very young and sometimes thoughtless, was also her mother’s daughter, and she had a conscience. Jennet wished she had kept her worries to herself.
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes