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Queen of swords, p.19
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       Queen of Swords, p.19

           Sara Donati
 
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  Jackson stood in the middle of the main office with two men. One was a gentleman planter Luke recognized as de la Ronde. The second man was twenty years or so younger. They were both officers in the uniformed militia, and both men were disheveled. In part most probably because they had rushed here—de la Ronde still held his riding crop in one hand—but also because no man living could face Andrew Jackson in a temper and remain unaffected.

  The younger man looked as if he might faint. His complexion was the color of cheese, his mouth opening and closing in spasms as the elder one talked, a jumble of French and heavily accented English.

  Jackson caught sight of Luke and he made a sharp cutting gesture with his hand in de la Ronde’s direction.

  “I’ll have my own translator.” And to Luke: “This is Major Gabriel Villeré and his father-in-law de la Ronde. I want you to ask Villeré to tell the story of what happened since yesterday at his father’s plantation, and I want to hear your translation sentence by sentence.”

  Luke began by introducing himself, trying for a tone that might provide Villeré with the courage to forge ahead. Then the young officer began to speak, at first slowly and in short sentences.

  There was nothing complicated about the story, and Luke translated it almost automatically. He was able to keep first his surprise and then his alarm out of his voice as he recounted Villeré’s actions: the company dispatched to Fisherman’s Village, the orders they had been given, the fact that Villeré had retired early to his bed and not risen until well past first light.

  The sudden attack and capture by British soldiers.

  “Stop there,” Jackson said. “I want you to translate my questions word for word.”

  Luke nodded his understanding.

  “Major Villeré, by what path did the British troops gain access to your property?”

  Villeré answered, and Luke translated: “By means of the canal that runs from the ciprière across the fields and stops short of the levee.”

  Jackson’s face was very still. “The canal that you were ordered to obstruct two weeks ago?”

  Villeré listened to the question. “Oui. Yes.”

  Jackson paused. “You escaped from the British by jumping through a window and running to de la Ronde’s plantation?”

  “Oui.”

  “And then you rode here directly.”

  Another pause, while de la Ronde and Villeré exchanged glances.

  “I will have an answer,” Jackson said, his voice deceptively calm.

  Luke listened to Villeré’s halting narrative and then translated.

  “First we rowed across the river, and then we found horses and rode north, and crossed the river again.”

  Jackson’s expression was thunderous. “You crossed the river? For what purpose?”

  Villeré began to stammer. De la Ronde’s expression was as stiff and fragile as glass.

  “Let me suggest to you,” Jackson said, “exactly what happened. You ran to your father-in-law and told him what had happened in the hope that he would ride here directly and alert us. Then you intended to run away rather than face court-martial for dereliction of duty, and you ran to find a boat. Your father-in-law refused to let you go alone, and spent the crossing convincing you that to add desertion to your crimes would mean certain death. He succeeded, and so you then rode north and crossed the river again and came here. This whole additional episode costing us at least another hour. M. de la Ronde, have I come close?”

  When Luke had relayed the entire speech, de la Ronde bowed from the shoulders and clicked his heels. In halting English he said, “In the essentials, yes, Major General.”

  “You are a wise man, but your daughter married an idiot,” said Jackson. Mostly to himself he said, “The British infiltrated and made camp without firing a single shot. That’s the short and long of it, would you say, Villeré?”

  The sound of Villeré’s breathing was very loud as Luke translated.

  “Oui. Yes.”

  The movement, when it came, was sudden. Jackson raised both fists and crashed them onto the table before him so violently that the glass in the windowpanes shivered.

  “By God,” he shouted, the blood rushing into his face. “They will not sleep on American soil. I swear it.”

  There was a moment of absolute silence, in which none of them even breathed. Then Jackson’s gaze fell on Gabriel Villeré, and he walked around the table to stand in front of him.

  “Your sword.”

  Villeré looked at Luke. He meant to be stoic, but the blood had drained from his face leaving only high color on his cheekbones, as if he were in the grip of a fever. He drew his sword and held it out to the major general, who took it.

  “Mr. Bonner,” said Jackson. “Call on the guard and see to it that this man is escorted to the garrison gaol. Send word to his father as well. The court-martial will have to wait until we’ve driven the British back to the sea. Major Butler, send word to Fort St. Charles. Three volleys, if you please. We march south today.”

  Chapter 46

  New Orleans was a Catholic town full of churches and chapels, and in each church there was a bell tower. Bells told the hour, summoned the faithful to Mass, reminded them when it was time to say their prayers, announced births and deaths, called citizens to fight fires and floods. Now the bells were tolling wildly while the echo of the triple cannon blast from Fort St. Charles still hung in the air.

  Jackson was calling all men to arms. The American troops were on their way to meet the British.

  Since the moment Hannah had agreed to join the company of Choctaw, a knot had been tightening in the pit of her belly. She felt her whole self being stretched thin, as fragile as a bubble. She tried to recall why she had agreed, what had compelled her to go against her instincts.

  Then the signal guns sounded, and just that suddenly all tension left her in a rush, as hot as blood.

  With complete calm she finished what she was doing. She folded a blanket and spread it over the hospital cot, shook out the pillow, looked around the clinic—now empty but for an old man too sick to get out of his bed—and left to get ready. Ben Savard would be coming for her.

  She passed through the main clinic, where Julia and Rachel were working with Clémentine and a half dozen other women to get ready for the influx of wounded. Through the windows that looked out on the rue Royale, Hannah caught sight of crowds in the street, driven by panic and excitement both.

  It was a kind of madness that came over people; Hannah could see it in their faces, like a fever. Once she had been infected with it, too, but she had passed beyond such things. She would go to tend to the wounded and comfort the dying; she would bring all her skill and knowledge to that work. But she felt no thrill at the sound of drums and bugles, nor any anger or fear or joy. Those were things she could not afford to take with her onto a battlefield.

  Jennet was in the little clinic when the triple cannon volley sounded. She startled so thoroughly that the basin of dirty water she was carrying slopped over and soaked her apron, which was none too clean to start with.

  The little girl lying on the cot beside her didn’t startle, or even blink. Since her grandfather had died she hadn’t spoken a word, and it was an hour’s work to coax a few spoonfuls of broth into her.

  Dr. Savard had asked her to take on the responsibility for the little clinic, and she had been glad to be given work. Once the fighting began and the first wounded were carried back to the city, some of them—the ones with wounds that would not kill them outright—would end up here.

  With her, Jennet had two of Mrs. Livingston’s servants, older negro women she hardly knew, whose names were Susan and Martha. Though they looked nothing like the women who had run the kitchen at Carryckcastle for all of Jennet’s girlhood, she sensed that these two were cut from the same mold: opinionated, steadfast, unflinching in an emergency, and able to exert their will almost effortlessly when it came to dealing with children or the infirm. Together the three of them would l
ook after the lesser wounds, provide food and drink and a place to dry clothes and boots. Then the men they had cared for would go back to battle to be shot at again.

  Jennet was stringing a rope across the room so they would have someplace out of the rain to hang wet clothes when she saw Martha, the younger and taller of the two servants, put down the brush she was using to scrub the table and look to the window, where Ben Savard could be seen speaking to a neighbor.

  “Jean-Benoît,” Martha said, and her dark face split into an affectionate smile.

  “My,” said Susan. “Look at the man.” And she clucked her tongue in admiration.

  “Come to fetch the Redbone doctor,” said Martha.

  Jennet took a deep breath, but before she could think of what to say, or if she should say anything, Ben Savard had come into the room. She got down from her stool to greet him, and realized that the door from the courtyard had opened, too. Henry Savard came in, with Hannah just behind him.

  Since they had been in the city Hannah had worn the simple gray gown and sturdy shoes Julia provided, but today she had put those clothes aside. Now she wore a hunting shirt of felted wool dyed a deep red. The shirt was so long that it reached to her knees, and so wide that it hung in folds that had been cinched tight to her waist by means of a long red scarf. Two more scarves of the same color were looped loosely around her neck.

  The fringed hem of the shirt touched the embroidered and beaded bands of high winter moccasins dyed a true deep red. Like the hunting shirt and the short cape that hung down Hannah’s back, the moccasins had been heavily embroidered. Across her chest she had strapped a leather bandolier with silver fittings; from it, a beaded sheath hung down over her left hip. The grip of a long knife faced forward so she could reach across and draw it easily.

  In her hands she carried a wide-brimmed felt hat with a low crown, and slung on her back was a canvas pack.

  Jennet knew exactly what was in that pack: an instrument case with scalpels and saws, the tools Hannah would need to amputate an arm or close a wound or draw out an arrowhead or shrapnel. There would be bandages and gauze, lint and plasters. A variety of needles in a flannel roll, heavy thread, laudanum, camphor, and alum to be used as a styptic. In a wooden case lined with felt were stoppered bottles of rectified spirits and brandy and Jesuits’ bark tea.

  If Hannah must go to war, she would be prepared.

  Jennet turned to Ben, who looked far too pleased with himself.

  She said, “The clothes?”

  “My mother’s.”

  Henry provided the crucial detail. “Grand-mère Amélie,” he said. “She was a Seminole princess.”

  “Of my eight great-grandparents, one was a Seminole princess,” said Ben.

  “Oh, Amélie was a princess all right,” said Martha, who had never stopped smiling. “And don’t you look like one, too, in her things.”

  Hannah managed only a short, tight smile. She said, “If we’re done discussing my wardrobe, I’m ready to go.”

  “I wish I were ready to watch you go,” Jennet said dryly.

  “It’s only six miles south of the city,” Hannah said. “I’ll be far from the fighting.”

  “You’ll be right in the middle of it all,” Jennet said, her voice catching. “As you always are.” She turned to Ben Savard.

  “If anything happens to her—”

  There was a glittering in Ben’s eyes that made the color spark like turquoise. No tears, but pride and hope and love, and Jennet understood that those things would have to be promise enough.

  It was half past three when they left the clinic. The first thing that struck Hannah was how empty the streets were. After so many weeks of crowds, it was unsettling.

  “Jackson is reviewing the troops,” Ben said, reading the question from her face. “That’s where we’re headed.”

  They trotted at an easy pace through the streets, catching sight now and then of a figure behind a window or on a balcony. There were no children to be seen anywhere, no young women walking, nobody in the cafés. But Hannah sensed them, the women with their children, the men too old to take part in this newest war. Waiting for the fighting to begin, so they could wait for it to end. Sitting in darkened parlors clutching carving knives, having handed even the most antique muskets over to the hundreds of men who had walked into the city to volunteer without weapons of any kind.

  The air was cold on Hannah’s skin, and it felt good. The smell of rain was in the air, along with a faint tinge of gunpowder that settled on the tongue, a taste as familiar as salt. She felt no tension, but neither could she stop the jumble of questions her mind produced. She hoped that there would be some kind of shelter—a barn, a shed—any place with a roof and walls to cut out the winds and the worst of the wet. She didn’t like the idea of treating battle wounds out in the open in such weather, though she had done it more than once before.

  “What are you thinking?”

  She glanced at Ben. “How strange that it all comes back to me so easily. How it never gets easy.”

  He made a sound deep in his throat that said he understood.

  Ben turned into a narrow street and Hannah followed him, drawing up short when he made a gesture that asked her to wait while he went into a small cottage with shuttered windows. A tabby cat sat on the porch blinking at Hannah until Ben came back. He had a man with him, by his dress and bearing a free man of color, someone of considerable standing in his community. He was wearing strong boots and a traveling cloak and he carried a battered portmanteau.

  “Hannah Bonner,” Ben said. “May I introduce Hyacinth Rousseau. You are both doctors and surgeons.”

  In her surprise Hannah stumbled a little. “Dr. Rousseau. My pleasure.”

  He was smiling at her, a man of at least sixty, with a bald head like a speckled brown egg. The doctor took the hand Hannah offered and his grasp was firm and dry and cool. His eyes were sharp, but not unkind in their appraisal. He spoke English to her, with the local French accent.

  “Dr. Bonner. I’ve heard good things about you. You’ve won the approbation of Maman Zuzu, which is something I have not managed in more than fifty years.”

  Hannah said, “It would have happened sooner if you were a woman, no doubt.”

  His whole face contorted around his smile. The doctor took the hat from under his arm and fit it carefully to his head. “Shall we go?”

  There were many questions Hannah would have liked to ask, and she might have even made the attempt, if not for the noise of the bugles and drums.

  They came to the levee and climbed it by means of the stairs hacked into the turf. The wide brown river, pockmarked with rain, was higher than the land around it, like a pulsing artery pushing up to run along ridges of muscle. The river was full of boats of every type and size. Hannah saw a large schooner, a good hundred feet in length and heavily armed. Its decks crawled with men out of uniform, the kind of rough sailors she had become familiar with in the year that they had been searching for Jennet. Among them were a few sailors in the dark blue jackets of the American navy.

  “The Carolina,” Ben said.

  They trotted along the levee until they came in sight of an open field to find what must be, it seemed to Hannah, every soldier, militiaman, marine, and sailor in the entire southern United States. Army regulars, backwoodsmen, pirates, farmers, shopkeepers, cabinetmakers, bankers, and lawyers. Two dozen Choctaw, a battalion of free men of color. A total of some two thousand men, many with no experience in battle at all. Some still without weapons.

  Downriver, the very best of the British empire—the military force that had defeated Napoleon—waited.

  Beside her Dr. Rousseau said, “May the good Lord keep them, every one.”

  On the far side of the field Hannah picked out General Jackson, surrounded by staff and officers, on the Levee Road that overlooked the field. The troops had begun to march, one company at a time, in formation. The officers were mounted, and the sun glinted on epaulettes and bridles and the
telescope that Major General Jackson was using to study the river.

  “Where are we going?” she asked Ben.

  “The DuPré plantation.”

  “We had best get moving,” said Dr. Rousseau. “It will be dark in another hour.”

  He was not young, but the doctor proved himself capable enough when speed was called for. It seemed he also had questions, and wouldn’t wait to ask them. Ben told what he knew, and none of it was good. The British had got a foothold on a plantation just south of the city, and that without a battle.

  “A poor start,” said Dr. Rousseau. “But not yet time to despair.”

  Conversation slowed and then stopped as the road became clogged with men, on foot and on horseback, wagons and caissons, handcarts and wheelbarrows. Hannah let herself be swept along, and kept her eyes on Ben.

  She thought of the men she didn’t know yet, the Choctaw warriors who would be in her care, and how little she would be able to do for a serious wound to the head or gut. She could bind gashes and extract bullets if they hadn’t penetrated the abdomen. She could amputate. She had good instruments, perfectly honed; she had medicines. There was even laudanum, though there might not be time to use it. She had the power of her mind and the sustaining memory of all her teachers over the years, who stood behind her. And she wasn’t alone. She was comforted by the presence of Dr. Rousseau.

  An hour out of the city, they left the main Levee Road and cut down through the fields, and Hannah realized that they had caught up with Juzan’s company of Choctaw warriors. When they came to a stand of trees, they were waiting. Among them was her brother.

  Luke grinned as he came to her. His face was smeared with mud and his hair was hidden under a turban, so that at first glance he might have been another Choctaw.

  He said, “Jennet insisted.”

  “Of course she did,” said Hannah. “I have this idea that together Jennet and Ben could set even the government to rights.”

  Luke looked first surprised, and then pleased. “You’re right, they are alike in some ways.” And then: “I’ll have his back, as much as I’m able.”

 
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