Queen of Swords, p.7Sara Donati
“You know you were not,” Hannah said. But she thought of the last woman she had examined, no more than forty years old though she looked sixty. The troubles she brought to Hannah were the kind that nothing in the clinic apothecary could cure. Ungrateful children, stolen opportunities, broken promises that left a burning in the gut.
“What do you have for that?” The woman had been jittery and eager, her black eyes too bright as she caressed the grinding bowl in her lap. The smell of corn and sour sweat and bitter words hovered around her like a shroud. “You got something to bring justice down on a bad heart?”
“No,” Hannah had told her through Ben, glad for once that she did not speak the same language. “That’s not the kind of medicine I know about.” And she saw that she had said the right thing. She had passed some test set for her by Ben Savard, and earned his trust.
“While you’ve been out exploring,” Jennet said, “I’ve been whispering in corners with Rachel. Don’t grimace, cousin, it will give you wrinkles before your time.”
Hannah held up the shoe she had just pulled off her foot. “I’d give a great deal for a pair of moccasins, or even the doeskin to make my own. So tell me about Rachel, before you burst.”
“She’s in love. She’s really certain this time.”
Hannah pushed out a great breath. “Mr. Bellamy?”
“Oh no, Mr. Bellamy was days ago. You must pay better mind, Hannah. Rachel has given her heart to a M. Reynaud. Who is, she assures me, the perfect gentleman. Half French, half English, tall and fair, and he dances like an angel.”
“Does an angel dance?” Hannah asked, yawning.
“When he is not busy making his fortune, yes. He dances and pays court to a highly strung sixteen-year-old who takes great satisfaction in the drama.”
Something in Jennet’s tone caught Hannah’s attention. She turned to look at her cousin.
“Pay me no mind,” Jennet said, blushing a little. “Nathaniel was unsettled all afternoon and none of us could comfort him.”
Hannah was across the room and leaning over the baby’s cot while Jennet went on, her voice wobbling. “The general opinion is that he’s got a tooth coming. Please don’t wake him, Hannah. Dr. Savard came up earlier and pronounced him perfectly healthy.”
“Hmmm,” Hannah said, and Jennet gave a weak laugh, putting up both hands in a gesture that said she was done protesting. Instead she came to stand beside Hannah while she examined the sleeping boy, her touch quick and so gentle that he hardly stirred.
“Clémentine thinks something I ate spoiled my milk, and says that I’m to have nothing but boiled hominy for a day. I’ve come to the conclusion that cooks are the same wherever you go. Do you remember how we sat in the kitchen at Carryckcastle and listened to Cook lecture on the evils of eating the strange things my faither was growing in his greenhouse?”
“Food as both the cause and the cure for every human ailment,” Hannah agreed. And then: “You are trembling, Jennet, but he’s in perfect health, now that he’s done such a fine job of worrying his mother and setting the household on its ear.”
Jennet collapsed into the chair next to the cot. She said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him, too.”
Hannah put a hand on her cousin’s shoulder and pressed, and then she went back to stretch out on her bed. For a long time they were silent, and Hannah was about to drift off to sleep without eating dinner or washing or even changing out of her clothes, when Jennet spoke.
She said, “Is it settled then, about your clinic?”
Hannah turned on her side. “New Orleans is an odd place, Jennet.”
Her cousin leaned forward to cross her arms on her knees to listen, and so Hannah told her what she had learned and seen, and she heard her voice trembling.
When she had finished Jennet said, “But you needn’t, if you don’t want to.”
“I’m not sure I do,” Hannah said. “But I think I must try.”
Pressed into service on the Puma among men who routinely killed for tarnished baubles and imagined slights, Luke had gone for days at a time without speaking. As it was, they already knew more about him than was to his taste; they had gone through his things and pocketed everything of worth. It was pure luck that he had kept the most important papers tucked under his shirt.
Now he found that the habit of silence was harder to shake off than he had imagined. Alone with Jennet, all the things he thought to say, had meant to say, were gone. She didn’t seem to care, or maybe, Luke realized, she was feeling the same way. They spoke very little that first night. He told her the minimum she needed to know: about being boarded, his escape when the Puma docked at São Paulo, the voyage back as a crew member on another ship.
“What about money?” she had asked him. “Didn’t the pirates take everything?”
“They did,” Luke said. “But I retrieved what I could before I left them.”
She didn’t require details, and he was glad.
In the morning the Savards were presented with the fact of Luke Bonner’s unannounced arrival. They never flinched at the idea of another guest in an already overcrowded apartment, or at least they showed nothing but kindness and hospitality. Paul Savard examined the wound to Luke’s head, made a deep sound that seemed to be approving of his condition, and handed him something to drink that Luke swallowed down without a question. Laudanum, he realized too late, and the next time he woke it was mid-afternoon and his headache was much improved.
Hannah had gone to her clinic for the day, Jennet told him, because it would arouse suspicion if she did not. And the young woman Luke had interviewed at the slave market had arrived and was established in one of the two cots, under Hannah’s care.
“How is she?”
“Dying,” said Jennet. “Hannah says the trouble is in her belly.”
“I’m sorry for the girl,” Luke said. “But I need to hear about you.”
Sitting beside him with the baby on her lap, she told him in more detail about the weeks since they had last seen each other in Pensacola. Luke stopped her now and then to ask a question.
“And Savard’s brother, the one who—” he gestured at his own bandaged head. “It was his idea, how to get you away from the Poiterins?”
Jennet said, “It was his doing, from beginning to end.” And then she gave him a small smile, one of the few she had been able to produce during the telling of the story. “So you see you will have to forgive him for last night.”
“Aye,” Luke said. “I suppose I will.”
When she was done he understood three things very clearly. The first was that the debt they owed the Savards, most especially Ben Savard, was so large that he would never be able to repay it. The second was that they could not impose on their hospitality much longer, and the last: that they had nowhere to go. He couldn’t even go out on the street, for fear that Poiterin might see him. What he needed, he realized, was a lawyer he could trust, one who would tell him whether the Poiterins’ claims had any chance of being honored in court. Something to ask Savard about, when they could talk.
The rest of the first afternoon passed in relative solitude. Luke still had his own story to tell, but Jennet didn’t seem in a hurry to hear it. It was a relief to simply sit together with the boy between them.
Their son. A vigorous, healthy child of almost eight months. A being with a surfeit of personality. If Jennet put him down on the floor he crawled away at high speed, his mouth set in a determined line. Caught up and tickled, he opened his mouth wide to show four white teeth. He had an infectious belly laugh, and when presented with anything he had never seen before—a quill, a shoe buckle, a stranger’s hand, a newspaper—he would turn it over once or twice in his hands, his gaze as serious as any banker’s, and then put it in his mouth to see if it might be edible.
In Luke’s arms the boy first examined every button, working his way up to the neck of his shirt, where he wound his fingers in a few chest hairs and yanked, crowin
Luke had never let himself think too much about the fact of his own fatherhood, out of dread, out of superstitious worry. That they would never find the boy; that they would, and he would have Dégre’s dark hair and eyes. These were things he would never say aloud. Jennet, who had borne so much by herself, should not have to carry the weight of doubts that had lasted only until she put the boy in his arms.
She had named him for Luke’s father. A gesture of hope, certainly, but not without a certain amount of irony. Luke had grown up without knowing his father, had not even seen him until he was on the brink of manhood himself. For the first time, Luke began to understand what it must have been like for Nathaniel Bonner to learn that he had a son who had been kept from him. A new kind of anger, one he hadn’t been able to imagine.
He helped Jennet bathe the baby, handing her the things she needed, letting himself be splashed, obediently lifting the rosy pink boy with his perfectly round belly and the evidence of his sex below it, and wrapping him in toweling. Deposited on the bed he attempted escape by rolling away, and then, resigned to being dressed, kicked his legs with vigor, flung out his arms, contorted his face and mouth elaborately, as if he were reciting an epic poem and required their full attention.
Almost shyly Jennet said, “Dr. Savard says he shows no ill effects from his—from the early separation. He seems healthy, does he no?”
Luke looked Jennet directly in the face and smiled. “He is perfect.”
For the moment that seemed to be enough for all of them.
When Hannah came in the evening, looking very tired, even ill, Jennet came suddenly fully awake. The disquiet and tension that had drained away from her over the course of the day were back.
“Hannah,” she said. “Are ye fevered?”
“Just very tired,” Hannah said. “Clémentine has had a cot put in Rachel’s room for me. Will you forgive me if I go straight to sleep?”
It was not really a question; she had already turned away before the last word left her mouth.
“We have things to talk about,” Jennet said, and Hannah paused.
“Tomorrow is soon enough,” Luke said, and he saw an expression flit across Jennet’s face. Disagreement, frustration, and something that looked like panic.
Later, when the boy was asleep and they lay down together, as nervously as twenty-year-olds newly married, Luke smoothed the curls away from Jennet’s face and kissed her. He kissed her gently, though he was thinking of the last time they had been together: the heat and strength of how she had come to him. Now she felt limp in his arms, empty of desire of any kind, drugged.
She trembled a little, pressed her face to his, sighed. She said, “I want to go home.”
“I’ll take you home,” he said.
“Tomorrow? Can we set off tomorrow?”
He put a thumb to the corner of her mouth, smoothed it over her cheek. “If it’s in my power,” he said. “We’ll set off tomorrow.”
She nodded, her eyes fluttering closed. “Don’t leave me again.”
“Never,” Luke agreed.
And then she was asleep. He pulled her closer so that her head was bedded on the hollow of his shoulder, and listened to the sound of her breathing.
To Hannah’s great relief, she found that Rachel had already retired and was deeply asleep. In the light of a small candle she undressed down to her chemise and slipped between the sheets of the cot Clémentine had made up for her. Clémentine, who had looked at Hannah with her piercing dark eyes when she had made the request.
“Rachel’s chamber?” she had repeated twice, and Hannah, thinking of the early morning hours she had spent in a bed over Clémentine’s kitchen, nodded resolutely and willed herself not to blink.
There was no help for it. If she never went back to Ben’s bed again, the damage was done. She hadn’t seen him all day, something that at first had seemed a kindness on his part, and then, as the hours passed, began to feel like something else. Not so much a threat as a demonstration, and a challenge: I can stay away. Can you?
Hannah was so weary that the room seemed to tilt and spin even in the dark. Eyes open or closed, nothing changed except that she had lost her balance and had not the first idea how to get it back again.
Hannah stood for a moment on the gallery with her shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders and considered. She had spent last night in Rachel’s room, and though she had been bone tired she had slept very little. Out of anxiety and worry for Jennet, she told herself, but also because she wasn’t sure she was where she should be. She wanted to go back to Ben—about that she must be honest, with herself at least—but the idea also frightened her. He frightened her, in a way Kit Wyndham never had.
Because I could control Kit, she reminded herself, and winced.
Hannah went down the stairs, out into the open courtyard. There was a cold sleet coming down but she went slowly, wondering if Ben might be at his window, and watching her. When she finally allowed herself to look, she saw that the room was dark and the window had been shuttered closed.
Which was just as well, she told herself. What she needed now most of all was rest, and there were two cots in the little clinic. She imagined them, freshly made, on either side of the hearth. It was that picture she had in her mind when she opened the door and found Leo sweeping the floor.
Hannah turned as she took off her cloak and shook it. A shower of sleet hit the floor with a hissing sound.
“I’ll be done here soon,” Leo said. “Or I can leave this until tomorrow.”
He was calculating something for himself, she could see it in his face. Hannah said, “As you like, Leo. I have work to do.” Which was true enough.
She went to the table where her daybook—so new that she had filled only one page—had its home. She read over the last entry:
Ltilakna. 6-year-old Choctaw girl with a rash of small open, infected blisters at the right corner of the mouth. Cleaned area thoroughly and applied a distillation of dock root. Asked mother to bring the child back in two days’ time.
Thomas. 54-year-old Catawba seized with colic. Severely undernourished, probably eating refuse. Gave him a decoction of snakeroot & saffron and a bowl of bread soaked in beef broth.
She had notes for another six entries to be made, and so Hannah brought the candle on its saucer closer to the daybook and reached for the stoppered ink bottle. The long room was clean and dry and there was a good fire in the hearth. Hannah took a moment to close her eyes and be thankful for the fact that she was—that they all were—alive and safe, for the tasks she had to keep her mind occupied, for the good black ink and the smooth paper of the daybook. And then she asked herself how long it would be before she fell asleep over her work.
“Ben came in earlier,” Leo said, startling her out of her thoughts.
“Did he?” Hannah took up a penknife to trim her quill, observing Leo from the corner of her eye.
She was very aware of how gossip moved through the household, and had no doubt that everyone, including Leo, knew where she had spent Sunday night. The part of her that was Kahnyen’kehàka was not bothered by this; it was every woman’s right to choose, and that she had done. She would not pretend otherwise, though the other part of her—the O’seronni half, raised by a Scots grandmother and an English stepmother—stumbled a little at this lack of privacy.
Leo would know where she spent Sunday night. He would know, too, that Ben Savard had joined the militia.
“He left you a note, under that bottle on the corner of your table. I didn’t read it.”
“Can you read?” Hannah asked, surprised.
He smiled proudly. “The priests will
“As long as they convert.”
He gave a shrug worthy of an old man. “It’s a small enough price.”
Hannah took the note, feeling her pulse jump as she opened it. She spread it flat on the open daybook and saw that Ben Savard’s handwriting was even and schooled and still was distinctly his own. He had written only two words: the name she had been given by her husband’s people.
She touched the letters on the page and then she folded it and tucked it into her bodice.
Leo was saying, “A stranger came by as well. A white man. He said he’d call again.”
Leo’s lip curled. “Pas du tout.”
“I understand you don’t like Americans,” Hannah said. “But you should remember that Dr. Savard’s wife is one. I hope you don’t make a face like that at her.”
“Mrs. Savard is no American,” he said, indignant. “Mrs. Savard is a Quaker.”
That brought Hannah up short. “That is her religion, not her nationality. Some Quakers are Americans. Mrs. Savard is both.”
Leo seemed to take this as a personal affront. “I don’t believe you.”
“Well, then, what about her children? What of Rachel?”
“Oh, she’s an American,” Leo said.
“Very well,” Hannah said, irritated and amused at the same time. “But I suggest that you talk to Mrs. Savard and see what she says. So this stranger was not American. What did he look like?”
Leo shot her a sidelong glance that said very clearly what an odd question this was. “I couldn’t say. I know better than to look white men in the face when they speak to me.” He raised his head with a sudden movement. “Why do you speak French like a white?”
Hannah paused and considered the question. “I learned French from a teacher. A white woman. Do people have trouble understanding me?”
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes