Queen of Swords, p.24Sara Donati
“Good,” said Pakenham. “Take what men you need, and go seize it.”
Kit hesitated for only a second, but Keane took the opportunity. “He’s afraid of being taken prisoner. Of being shot as a spy.”
Pakenham seemed not to hear Keane at all. “You performed a miracle or two for us in Spain, Kit. Are you willing to try again?”
It was in the very bones of a man like Pakenham, the ability to instill courage and purpose.
“Yes, sir,” said Kit.
“We need that powder.”
“Then I will bring it, sir. Or I will die in the attempt.”
To her father, Hannah said, “I’m tired of ladies coming by trying to catch a glimpse of you. Silly hens, all of them.”
He was cleaning his rifle in the courtyard, and she was pretending to help him. It was that or go back into the clinic, and the sight of her father was too new and precious to pass up.
Her father laughed to hear her complain. “Now you’ve gone and hurt my vanity.”
“But it makes no sense.”
“Folks need distraction with the English hunkered down so close by, and they’ll take it where they can get it. Later on they won’t even remember our names, and all the war stories will be about their own sons and husbands. It’s the way of things.”
“You sound like Elizabeth,” Hannah told him.
He cocked his head. “Does that surprise you? Cain’t live with a woman all these years without some of her ways rubbing off. Someday you’ll find that out for yourself.”
It was as close as he came to raising the topic of Ben Savard. Of course it hadn’t escaped him that Hannah shared Ben’s apartment, but he wouldn’t push for her confidence and she wasn’t ready to talk about Ben yet. She didn’t think she’d ever be ready. The day she would have to leave Ben was coming, but to hear her father tell her that was more than she could bear.
That night he came in past midnight, but she woke immediately. Hannah looked forward to these long conversations in the dark. During the day she imagined telling him about the things people said to her, and what he would say in response. Often he responded with questions instead of answers, another way that he reminded her of Runs-from-Bears.
“Today,” Hannah told Ben, “a Mrs. Turner asked me if it was true that my father was President Washington’s godson.”
“Well, that’s just funny,” Ben said. “You have to see it that way.”
They were in bed, his arm draped across her belly. “Why do you let it get under your skin? Do you even know?”
She did know, at least in part, but that was another subject she didn’t want to raise. Instead she caught sight of the rifle leaning against the wall where Ben had left it. Her brother Daniel’s rifle. Nathaniel Bonner had given it to Ben for his use.
“My father thinks a lot of you,” she said.
“Hannah, the bed’s hardly big enough for the two of us. Let’s leave your father out of it.”
She raised up on one elbow and grinned at him. “You do like my father.”
“I do,” Ben said, running a hand up her belly. “But I don’t particularly want the man looking over my shoulder just now.”
“Because you’re going to—”
“Yes,” Ben said, flipping her over. “Because I am going to.”
The next morning, well before sunrise, Ben paused at the door on the way out. The air was chill enough to make his breath hang in clouds.
He said, “There may be some real fighting today. The English have been gearing up for something big.”
Hannah sat up in bed and wrapped her arms around herself. “Do you think you’ll need me?” She hadn’t been called back to the little field hospital yet, and she had begun to wonder why.
He glanced over his shoulder as if there might be an answer in the shadows. Finally he said, “I’m hoping not, but I’ll come by if things go bad.” And still he didn’t go.
Hannah waited for him to come out and say what it was that was sticking in his throat. The light from the candle danced on his face, caught the color of his eyes and the curve of a cheekbone.
“I want you to tell me about your brother Daniel,” he said finally. “If I’m going to be using his rifle, I want to know why, how he came to give it up.”
It was something she never spoke about, but she found she was pleased to be asked.
“Tonight,” she said. “I’ll tell you his story tonight.”
Ben’s mouth curled up at one corner. “I’ll look forward to it.”
Though there had been few serious wounds thus far in the on-again, off-again war being fought on the plantations to the south, there were enough visitors to the main clinic to keep everyone busy throughout the day.
At one point Hannah found herself examining a young lady of some nineteen years, a friend of Rachel’s, who had fallen from her pony on the Levee Road, wrenching her knee and tearing her silk stockings.
“I was visiting my fiancé at the army camp,” Mlle. Girot explained to Hannah. “But the fighting started again and we had to leave, all of us.”
“You make a habit of calling in at the army camp?” Hannah was amused by the idea of ladies making social calls to a battlefield. “You bring a picnic supper, and table linen?”
The young woman had the good sense not to be offended by this light teasing. “It seemed safe enough,” she said. “And the gentlemen were so glad to see us. The food in the camp is disgusting.”
“And your family doctor—”
Mlle. Girot ducked her head. “Dr. Kerr is engaged by Major General Jackson, and has no time to see his usual patients. And Rachel has spoken so highly of you.” She managed a shaky smile.
“I take it your parents don’t know you’re here.”
“I was hoping—”
“To hide the injury, I see.”
“They would forbid me to go again. Is my leg very bad?”
She winced as Hannah removed gravel from the long graze on her shin.
“Your stockings are beyond repair,” Hannah said dryly. “But the rest of you will recover. You will have to stay off your feet with your knee elevated for at least a week, until the swelling goes down. What you tell your family about how you came to hurt yourself is your own affair.”
Mlle. Girot was so relieved that she hardly twitched while Hannah cleaned and bound her injuries. Throughout the entire operation she told what she knew of the battle.
“The British underestimate our soldiers time and again,” said Mlle. Girot in a tone that Hannah suspected echoed her father’s. “They push forward into the face of the artillery and then seem surprised when they drop by the dozens. Soon they will give up and go away.”
“Or bring in bigger guns,” Hannah said.
Mlle. Girot’s head tilted to one side as she considered this idea. She seemed to be looking for a counterargument, and when she could produce none, she subsided into uneasy silence that lasted until Hannah was almost finished.
Finally she said, “You have attended soldiers in other battles?”
Hannah glanced at her. “Yes. Many times.”
“It is hard to imagine, the things you must see and do. Do you think it is harder for you than it is for a man?”
“There’s nothing easy about it,” Hannah said. “For anyone.”
It was almost eleven before the men came home. They were tired and subdued, but among them they had only minor wounds: a powder burn, a cut on the back of the hand, a broken toe.
And they were hungry, the best of signs, in Hannah’s experience.
The adults sat together around the Savards’ table and talked. It fell mostly to Luke to tell the day’s story, with comments now and then from Nathaniel. Ben was unusually quiet, and Hannah watched him with growing unease.
“They’re still hauling guns,” said Luke. “Sixty miles over water and through swamp. Pakenham won’t really make a move until he’s satisfied with his artillery.”
“That’s the English,” Nathaniel said. “They stop and ruminate on the smallest details when it’s time to jump—”
“—and rush ahead when they’d do better to stop and think,” finished Luke for him.
“Aye,” said Nathaniel. “It’s bred in the bone.”
“And you, married to an English lady,” Jennet said, trying to strike a lighter tone and not quite succeeding.
“There are exceptions to every rule,” observed Julia.
“The English have been fighting the same way since they first came to this continent,” Runs-from-Bears said. There was no disapproval in his tone, nothing of disgust; it was an observation that a man made of his enemy and then put to good use.
“It worked for them with Napoleon,” said Paul Savard.
“That’s the problem,” Nathaniel said. “They can’t adapt, and worse still, they’ve got too many war chiefs. The one that got here on Christmas Day, that Pakenham, he’s afraid to stand up to the others, what are they called? Keane, and Cochrane.”
Hannah saw Paul and Julia exchange glances. They were wondering how Nathaniel Bonner would have such detailed information. Hannah hoped they wouldn’t ask, because she didn’t particularly want to hear the details of the risks the men took day by day.
She was sitting next to Ben, and his hand settled on her knee. No doubt her expression was as easy to read as Julia’s.
Ben said, “Kit Wyndham is in the fighting.”
Jennet dropped her fork with a clatter. “You saw him?”
“We did,” said Luke.
“Could have shot him right between the eyes,” said Nathaniel. “But it would have made things mighty hot for us.”
“That would have been distinctly unsporting,” Jennet said. “Wyndham may be fighting for the other side, but he was a help to us. Why do you look at me like that, Luke; you have said so yourself.”
Luke shrugged. “A man takes a stand, and lives with the consequences.”
Jennet was looking at Hannah as if she wanted her support in this argument, but Hannah could not contradict her brother, for the simple reason that he was right.
“What I’d like to do,” Luke said, “is ask the man a few questions. Such as, how he came to write that confession. Any thoughts on that, Ben?”
Every face turned to Ben Savard, whose expression gave nothing away. It was a question that Hannah had been wanting to ask him, but thus far she hadn’t found the right combination of words and courage.
Ben speared a piece of fish out of the stew, and turned his steady gaze to Luke.
“What is it you think I did?”
Luke shrugged. “I expect you caught him unawares and held a gun to his head, and he wrote down what you told him to write.”
“Every word of it true,” Jennet interjected.
Luke went on without acknowledging the interruption. “What I don’t know, is whether it worked out the way you had in mind.”
Hannah watched her father following this conversation, his interest so keen that she could almost hear it humming.
Ben said, “Poiterin taking off before they could arrest him, is that what you mean?”
“I figured that’s what you were aiming for,” Luke said.
“Not exactly,” said Ben. His left hand tightened on Hannah’s knee and then relaxed. He said, “You’ll have to wait a little longer to see how things go with Poiterin.”
“How things go?” Jennet said, a little sharply. “You think he’ll be back?” Her color rose quickly, anger like a fever in the blood.
Ben turned all his attention to her. He said, “No. You’ll never have to deal with the man again. I can promise you that.”
Runs-from-Bears made a sound deep in his throat, one of approval.
In Ben’s apartment that evening Hannah stripped down to her chemise and took a brush to her hair, but she was so tired that she found it hard to lift her arm. Ben sat on a stool, pulling off his moccasins.
“I want you to know,” Ben said, “that if Wyndham dies, it won’t be by my hand.”
Any response that Hannah gave to this declaration would have been the start of a long conversation, and she was far too weary for anything of the kind.
Ben said, “You want to know about Poiterin?”
She had been hoping that he wouldn’t offer to tell her. “I am doing my best not to think about Poiterin.”
Ben got up and came to stand behind her. He radiated heat like a hearth.
“You spend a lot of time trying not to think about things,” he said. His hands settled on her shoulders and then slid down her back to close around her waist. She shivered at the touch of his mouth on her neck.
“Is that wrong?” she asked, a little breathless.
“It makes it hard sometimes,” Ben said. “I don’t know how much to tell you.”
She turned to look at him.
“Tell me, then, if you must.”
His expression was so serious that she could hardly bear to look at him. The urge to run away from whatever it was he had to say was so strong that she shook with it.
Ben cleared his throat. “If you really want to know, here it is: Your uncle has replaced me in Henry’s affections.”
She struck him with the flat of her hand and tried to pull away, but his embrace was unyielding, and she didn’t really want him to let go anyway.
“Jealous?” Hannah said.
“It won’t last long,” Ben said. He pulled her across the room and tucked her under the blankets, but still Hannah shivered. Whether it was the cold or those words won’t last long, she wasn’t sure. What she did know was that Ben was taking every opportunity to remind her that this was all temporary. The battle for the city would end, and the Bonners would go back to the endless forests. She would go back to Paradise and Lake in the Clouds, and take up the practice of medicine, resume her life. Her good life, among her family and friends. There would be babies to deliver and sore ears to treat, swollen joints and fevers and the aches and pains of the elderly. Her brother, who had still not healed from his wounds and was in constant pain. The new baby, and Gabriel, and Lily in Montreal with her new husband. Curiosity, who had stories to tell her.
Within days or weeks they would be on their way, and she could feel nothing but fear.
It would be nonsensical to be angry at Ben for speaking the truth, and stupider still to let it ruin the time they had. And still it ate at her, his need to raise the subject. In fact it seemed that it was on everybody’s mind. The water man stopped her to ask when they were leaving for home, and Mrs. Livingston bemoaned the fact that the end of the war would mean the departure of the fascinating Nathaniel Bonner and his remarkable friends and family.
Rachel especially could hardly keep her excitement to herself, because her parents had arranged for her to travel with the Bonners, who would take her to her family in Manhattan.
In Henry, at least, Hannah had an ally.
He had come to her in the little clinic, his lower lip pooched out as though he were still a baby, and in need of comfort. Everyone was going to New-York, and he had to stay behind, and really, it was unfair.
“Your mother and father and your uncle Ben will still be here,” Hannah had pointed out to him. She felt the boy’s sharp gaze on her.
“You could stay, too,” Henry said. “You could marry my uncle.”
“I have family in the north,” Hannah said, striving to make her tone neutral. “They miss me as much as your mother and father would miss you if you went away.”
“But you sleep in the same bed as my uncle,” Henry had persisted. “And that means you’re married.” His thin face was pinched with worry.
“We are not married,” Hannah had said, and refused to be drawn further into the conversation.
Now she said, “Henry is just as jealous as you are of him. He doesn’t like the fact that we share a bed.”
“Your uncle disapproves?”
“Someday Henry will understand,” said Ben, his fingers working her buttons.
“He understands too much as it is,” Hannah muttered, and then she gave up, as Ben meant her to do.
“Of course it is very foolish of me,” Mrs. Livingston said to Jennet, her voice trembling. “But I find my nerves—the artillery—”
“It is very unsettling, even for the most sanguine of temperaments,” Jennet agreed.
Around them, the sound of glass breaking as dishes and mirrors and paintings fell with every percussion that shook the house. The worst so far, Jennet thought. Maybe not the worst to come.
Mrs. Livingston pressed a half-gloved hand to her mouth. From down the hall came the sound of her mother weeping piteously.
“She won’t calm unless I take her to the nuns,” Mrs. Livingston said. “We are all going. Won’t you come, too? You and your little ones? With the men away—”
Jennet knew what she was thinking, where her imagination went. If the British won this battle and took the city, she expected the same kind of rape and pillage she had seen as a young woman during a different revolution. It was unlikely, but Jennet could not promise Mrs. Livingston anything. Neither could she go cower in the Ursuline convent and pray the rosary while there was work to do at the clinic.
“At least let me take the babies.” Mrs. Livingston grasped Jennet’s hands so firmly that she winced. “The nurses will be with us, they will lack for nothing. You can come see them there, when your work is done. And if the worst should happen, I believe that even the English will respect the sanctity of the convent.”
Jennet, the daughter of a Scots earl well versed in the history of Englishmen and their way of making war, managed a brief smile.
“Thank you,” she said. “It will be a relief to know them well looked after.”
Later, making up cots in the main clinic with Hannah, Jennet found that she was angry at herself for letting the boys go.
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes