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Queen of swords, p.4
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       Queen of Swords, p.4

           Sara Donati
 

  “Bardi has left us?”

  Luke told her the story, one with no real surprises: Bardi had taken off in the night. Jennet felt a vague relief.

  “As long as we can leave here tomorrow,” she said.

  There was a small and uneasy silence, undercut by the sound of a man’s voice raised in tuneless song to the rhythm of a scythe. The smell of fresh-cut grass came to them and Jennet was struck with an unexpected surge of homesickness for Scotland, green and damp, where her mother must be waiting for news. Jennet had yet to find the words to write the letter her mother must read.

  “Do you feel strong enough to walk?” Luke’s voice brought her out of her thoughts.

  “Now?”

  “It’s cool out, and it’s still light. You needn’t worry about running into Poiterin. He sent a note saying he’s away on business for a few days.”

  “Did he.” Jennet summoned a smile. She wasn’t ready yet to discuss Honoré Poiterin with Luke, and neither did he seem eager.

  “Hannah thought it would be good for you to get out,” Luke went on. “If you feel strong enough. And if you finish the tisane.”

  It was good to hear some of Luke’s old teasing tone. She finished the dark, cold tea in two swallows and let him help her dress.

  Where the dirt lane turned to run parallel to the harbor, an old woman sat in the window of a shack overgrown with a riot of flowers that glowed like a scattering of burning stars in the gloaming. She was an Indian of a tribe Jennet could not name, her hair hanging limp over rounded shoulders. The woman watched two naked children with skin like tarnished copper who looked up from their game and only blinked at Jennet’s greeting. She felt their eyes following her. She would have liked to talk to them, but most likely they would have no language in common beyond her small bit of Spanish.

  “I have seen some poor villages in the last year,” Jennet said. “But I expected more of Pensacola.”

  Many of the cottages that lined the lane were abandoned or collapsing in on themselves. More pigs and goats roamed the lanes than people. Their owners had made themselves scarce, most probably because soldiers or sailors loitered on corners or lounged, half asleep, under trees. A few men greeted Luke, but most pulled caps down over their eyes and pretended not to take note.

  “The Spanish can’t manage this place,” said Luke. His voice trailed away while his mind turned to trade, and to the concerns he had left in other men’s hands in Canada. He was thinking about returning to Montreal, whereas Jennet could hardly imagine that such a world still existed. She tried to conjure up the house on the rue Bonsecours, to see herself at the dining table or her son playing in the garden, but the only picture she could manage was the rough shed she had lived in with Hannah in the garrison followers’ camp on Île aux Noix.

  Jennet tightened her grip on Luke’s arm and slowed her pace. She kept her gaze on the bay, scattered with ships that rocked in a good wind. The sky had already faded into a colorless night. Beside her Luke went very still. Jennet had let go of his arm to wrap her shawl more closely around herself, but she imagined she could still hear the tension humming through him.

  “What?” She followed his gaze out into the bay. “What?” Though some part of her understood already.

  “She’s gone? The Patience?” Jennet found she could not catch her breath.

  “Bardi,” said Luke. There was no particular emotion in his voice, not anger or surprise. “And here is the harbormaster, come to report the obvious.”

  They waited while the man rode up. Luke took Jennet’s hand, and that simple act flooded her with courage as no words could have. The Spaniard slid to the ground, his expression so studiously serious that his jowls, blue-bristled, drew up in pleats all the way to his cheekbones.

  “M. Scott.” He bowed. “Madame. I come to report—”

  “The sailing of the Patience,” Luke finished for him. “We can see that ourselves, Señor Uribe.”

  The harbormaster blinked at them and then turned to look out into the bay. The rising moon cast a path across the water like a curl of silver ribbon.

  “The Patience has sailed?”

  Luke didn’t try to hide his irritation. “Unless she sprouted wings and flew off like a bloody gull. You hadn’t noticed?”

  “I have been otherwise occupied.” He bowed again, not so much out of politeness, it struck Jennet, as a way to hide an inappropriate half smile. He was a man who enjoyed delivering bad news, but knew enough to be ashamed of this in himself.

  He said, “There is no kind way to relate this; forgive me. One of your men has been found behind the tavern with his throat cut.”

  Luke drew in a sharp breath. “Bardi,” he said again. “This is his work.”

  A fluttering of muscle in Uribe’s cheek. “No. Not this time.”

  “And how do you know that?”

  “Because it is Bardi whose throat was cut. Whoever did this went a step further and took Bardi’s head with him,” said Uribe. “The rest of the corpse was dumped at the doorstep of a—” He paused in consideration, and then bowed from the shoulders. “Shall we say, a lady of flexible standards who knew him well enough to identify the remains. What is the expression in English? The chicken has come home to roost, is that correct? Bardi was a scoundrel, and not to be mourned. As to who took your ship—” He looked over his shoulder at the bay again as if he expected to see some answer written in the sky. “I don’t know who’s responsible.”

  I know. Jennet could not make herself say the words out loud, but there was no reason to; from Luke’s face she saw that he was guessing already what she could have told him. Suddenly she felt light-headed and unsure on her feet. She pinched the flesh between thumb and forefinger until her vision cleared.

  “But perhaps this will explain.” The harbormaster was busy patting his chest in the way of a man with too many pockets and a poor memory. Finally he pulled out a square of folded paper with a large red seal and presented it to Jennet with a flourish and a bow.

  “For you, madame?”

  The letter was addressed to Lady Jennet in a strong, flowing hand. A hand she had never seen before, but recognized nonetheless: The great loops and grandiose swirls spoke the name of the writer as clearly as a signature. While she stared at the letter in her hands she only half heard the harbormaster’s questions, all directed to Luke, about Bardi.

  Finally he bowed again, this time so low that they had a view of the circle of nut brown skin at the crown of his head.

  “I see no need to disturb you further about this crime,” he said to his shoes. “But I would like to question your men, when they return with the Patience. If they return.”

  There was just enough light, and so Jennet cracked open the seal on the letter as soon as the harbormaster’s horse had taken him out of hearing. A single page, covered with that bold hand.

  Luke said, “Read it to yourself first,” and he walked off three paces and stood looking out toward sea. It was that simple gesture of understanding, of faith and love, that gave Jennet the courage she must have to face whatever waited for her on the paper.

  The sheet shook in her hands so that the words seemed to jump on the page. It was in French, a language she spoke fluently, but it might as well have been written in Arabic for all the sense it made to her.

  She forced herself to take three deep breaths, and when her head had cleared, she read.

  My dearest wife,

  What a lamentable turn of events! You are new arrived and I must away without even a kiss. It is too cruel, after so long a separation. If only you had not found it necessary to bring a second husband with you. Whatever were you thinking, my dear? Had you been more patient, I would have come for you eventually. And now you must somehow rid yourself of—by what name does he go? Mr. Bonner? Mr. Scott? I suppose that depends on whether he is passing himself off as Canadian or American, does it not?—before you join me in New Orleans. I wonder how you will do it.

  As a dutiful husband responsible for
your spiritual and moral health, I must admit that I am disappointed in you. My beloved grand-mère will think it far too generous of me to take you back, but a man in love is not always wise, and in the end I will persuade her, though I suspect she will make you dance to her tune before she allows you near the boy. Agnès Poiterin has many things in common with the Church and the law: all three are severe in their treatment of faithless wives, and is it not proper, so? I do hope that further separation from our son will not prove necessary.

  I wonder if he will remember you? I fear not, but should you prove sufficiently penitent, you will have many years to atone.

  Your disconsolate but devoted husband,

  Honoré Poiterin

  Postscript: To hasten my journey I have taken the liberty of borrowing the ship Patience, which, after all, belongs to my esteemed brother-in-law, the Earl of Carryck. As I prefer my own men to the rabble hired by the false husband, they have been dismissed. Your own possessions you will find in the abandoned cottage opposite the boat works at the eastern end of the wharves. I see that you have used your time well in at least one way. Such finery! We will make the perfect couple.

  Jennet went to Luke and held out the letter, but he didn’t take it. Instead he put his hands on her face and lifted it to the light of the moon. Jennet could not bear the sadness in his expression, and so she covered his hands with her own and went up on tiptoe to press her mouth to his. He tasted of the meal they had shared, of salt and bread, of himself. For a moment she feared he would not respond, and then a shudder went through him. With a groan he pulled her close to bury his face in the crook of her neck.

  “I swear to you. I swear to you that he means nothing to me, and never could. I will kill him myself before I let him come between us and our son. Now read this, so you know the kind of man we are dealing with.”

  Luke took a deep breath, and finally he nodded, once.

  They walked quickly to the next cottage, where a lantern hung at the door. A woman came to greet him, no longer young, scantily dressed. Her smile was broad and hopeful and insincere, and Jennet did not need to hear her voice to know what she was proposing. Luke sent her away with a few words and a coin pressed into her hand.

  When he had finished reading he folded the letter. “The crew,” he said, his voice hoarse.

  The ship, the weapons, the stores—all those things he could replace, and would, no doubt, before another day had passed. But the crew was another matter entirely. Capable men who had earned his respect and friendship, some of them with families.

  Jennet said, “Shall I come with you?”

  That was the last thing Luke wanted, and he told her so. From her expression it was plain to see that she was relieved. He wondered how much she knew about Poiterin’s methods, how much more she was holding back, and why. While he walked her back to Preston’s he managed to keep his questions to himself, and once they arrived there was no time. He stopped only long enough to borrow a horse and gather the things he might need.

  Chapter 10

  Nathaniel Bonner

  Paradise

  on the west branch of the Sacandaga

  New-York State

  Father,

  We are in Pensacola, where we believed we would find a family by the name of Poiterin. These are the people who have been caring for Jennet’s and my son.

  The Poiterins left this place a week ago when the British navy took possession of the port and made it clear that they will use this place as a point of departure for marching on Mobile and other points inland. They have gone to New Orleans, and thus so must we, though it will take us deeper into the war.

  In our short time here we have learned some things about the Poiterins, who are Creole bankers and merchants. Disturbing and unsettling things that caused Jennet such extreme distress that I worry not just for her health, but for her peace of mind. She blames herself for putting the boy in the power of such people, though she seems to understand at the same time that she had no other choice, and that any reasonable person would have done the same.

  Were my sister Hannah not here, I would be lost.

  Because we are unsure of the Poiterins’ interests and motivations, we must approach them with some caution. Our plan is to go to the city and have Jennet make first contact. Not until then will we have any sense of what must be done to get the boy back. With the added complication of the war in the Gulf, I must tell you that I have no clear idea of when we will be able to start for home, though I fear it will not be soon, and may be as long as a half year, if a legal battle becomes unavoidable.

  I send two copies of this letter by different post routes in the hope that at least one of them will reach you. Should the postal service continue in spite of the war in this part of the country and you would like to chance a letter, please direct it to the care of Mrs. Eugenie Preston, Maison Verde, Bayou St. John, Louisiana. This is the widowed sister-in-law of a Scots merchant resident in Pensacola who has been helpful to us in return for business accommodations.

  I send you fond good wishes from Jennet and Hannah both, as well as my own. I remain your devoted son,

  Luke Scott Bonner

  Pensacola, Spanish Florida

  11 September 1814

  Chapter 13

  Dearest Luke, my love,

  He is here, he is well. He is beautiful.

  We arrived three days ago, but it was only this morning that Madame P fulfilled her promise and allowed me to spend time with him. I can hardly write for agitation and joy and dread. Today he was mine for a while at least, but tomorrow is unknown.

  I held him for an hour, in the shade of the veranda that overlooks the Bayou St. John. He is your son, from the shape of his toes to the way his hair grows in a whirl at the crown of his head. He looks at me so calmly, this son, this child you and I made. He looks at me as though he is trying to remember where he saw me last. He has not yet smiled at me, but then the young slave woman who cares for him, Jacinthe is her name, tells me that he has always been solemn and thoughtful for such a young infant. You see, in this he is your son as well. He will not take after his rash mother, whose reckless behavior has exacted so great a price.

  I walked with him and talked as I would, in Scots, which I may not do when I might be overheard, for fear word will get back to Madame Poiterin.

  The old lady is much as we were led to believe she would be. The small indignities she thinks up for me are bearable; anything, anything is bearable if it brings the day closer when I can leave here and put the boy in your arms.

  She requires that I attend Mass and visit the confessional daily, at her own chapel. We owe Titine a great debt for accurately predicting this, because otherwise there would be no way for her to meet Hannah and you would never be reading this letter.

  The priest who hears my confession daily is neither a good man nor a bad one, but he is certainly curious.

  In the dim light of the confessional he wants most to hear those details that should interest him least. He asks questions about the island and the men there, what they might have done to me and to each other in my sight, if I dwell on such memories, if they cause me to sin. He asks me about you, whether I allowed you the privileges of the matrimonial bed, and if so, which ones, and how many times, all so (he tells me in a voice a little breathless and hoarse) he can decide a suitable penance. I can hardly imagine this going on every day until we are away, but I will do whatever is necessary.

  Today already I was taken by the almost irresistible urge to describe for him exactly what it is that men and women do together. I don’t know if he would be satisfied then, or if it would simply incite further questions. I do wonder, too, if he reports my confessions to Madame P in detail. It is a most disagreeable idea, and yet I would not be surprised, such is the hold she—and her money—have over him.

  Madame P claims that when I have convinced her and the Church that I am truly repentant she will allow me to join her household as her acknowledged granddaughter-in-law and H’s wi
fe. If it were not for the war that creeps closer every day, I should say that the best course for us would be to take the boy and run now, immediately. Holding Nathaniel this morning this idea seemed not only appealing, but obvious and necessary, far more reasonable than giving him back into another woman’s arms without knowing if she will bring him again. Every day there is more talk of Jackson and his troops, where they are and what they are doing and when they will be here to fend off the British, who must surely strike at New Orleans very soon. The rumors tumble over each other: He is here already, in disguise; he has turned back for the north; he has fallen in battle. All I want is to be safe away, with you and Hannah and our son.

  But you need not fear, I will not divert from the plans we made so carefully, though my heart will break anew every time I must give him up again.

  You must know also that I have nothing to report about Honoré Poiterin, as his grandmother forbids him all contact with me until I am deemed free of sin and properly chastised. He did not seem at all put out by this restriction, and indeed it was a huge relief to me. I need not tell you, though, to watch for him. He is close by, so Titine and her aunt Amazilie tell me.

  I see very little of Mr. Preston’s sister, who is bedridden and so afraid of Madame P that she shakes at the mention of her name. I depend on Titine and Amazilie and on Amazilie’s grown son Tibère, who have taken on our cause as their own. Because they are kind, good people, but also because they hope that the resolution of our troubles may also mean that Titine’s mother might return to her home in New Orleans, which H.P. has taken from her at his grandmother’s urging. Titine will carry this letter with her every day until Hannah comes to the chapel. I hope that I have learned the code correctly and that you will be able to read this with less difficulty than I have had writing it.

 
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