Dreadnought Page 22

Mercy shuffled along in the crowd until she’d reached the lovely terminal building and filtered inside it. The interior was as lovely as the exterior promised, with marbled floors that shone so brightly, the lanterns’ reflections made Mercy squint. Every surface was shined, from the polished wood of the handrails and guardrails to the brass of the fixtures and the glass of the ticket windows.

But although the building was a marvel, Mercy was famished, so she hastily ushered herself out and away from it, pausing only to ask directions to the restaurant called the Cormorant and hailing a buggy cab to take her there. She fondled the card between her fingers and hoped it’d be enough, as promised, and furthermore that she wouldn’t find herself embarrassingly underdressed. This latter thought burrowed beneath her outer layer of security and festered there, remembering Mrs. Hyde’s fine clothes and her mannered children and comparing them to her own stained dress and gunsmoke-​smelling cloak.

The Cormorant looked to be a firmly middle-​class establishment, and a popular one. Mercy saw mostly white people coming and going, but there were a handful of colored people (relegated to a separate dining section, she noted when she arrived inside), and even a pair of Indian men wearing matching clothes that may or may not have been some kind of uniform.

A man at a pedestal asked if he could help her, and she handed him the card that by now she’d worn so thoroughly that the corners had curled. “I . . . I talked to Mrs. Hyde, on the train here from Fort Chattanooga. She said if I gave this to you, that—”

“Oh, yes!” he said sharply. “Yes, indeed. Are you alone tonight, Miss—” He spied the ring on her finger. “Missus?”

“Lynch. Yes, I’m alone tonight. Is that all right?” She looked around and saw no one else dining alone, and her sense of conspicuousness grew. She was on the verge of changing her mind altogether and begging the host’s pardon before she left when a familiar voice cried out from a table by the far left wall.

“Nurse? Nurse Mercy, wasn’t that it? Well look at you,” declared Mrs. Henderson, from the dirigible and its terrible aftermath. “Dear child, you made your way to Memphis after all.” The older woman stood and crossed the room, dodging a serving girl or two and taking Mercy’s hand. “I’m so glad you arrived here safely! Won’t you join us?”

She gestured toward the table, and to her husband, who was freshly washed and smiling happily at her over his shoulder.

Mercy said, “That’d be very kind, thank you.”

The nurse continued to feel out of place, but when seated with the Hendersons, she grew more at ease. Mercy suspected quite quickly that Mrs. Henderson was overjoyed by the prospect of conversation with someone other than her addled husband, and it was hard to blame her. The two of them did most of the talking until supper arrived.

Mercy had chosen the sweet potatoes and pork chops, with apple pie for dessert, and she could scarcely pause between bites to keep up her end of the chatter. When she was finally so full that she thought she’d burst, she leaned back and said aloud, “Well, that was just wonderful! That lady sure knows how to make a pie, I’ll tell you what.”

Mrs. Henderson’s brows knit ever so slightly. “Lady? But I thought you said you met her in the colored car?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Ah.” Mrs. Henderson sipped at the tea that had come at the end of the meal, delivering only a tiny glance of reproach at the nurse, who suddenly felt a little stubborn about the whole thing, and outclassed again from another direction entirely.

“Well,” she said at the risk of being rude. “She was nice to me, and she can cook like the devil.”

The older woman opted to change the subject. “At any rate.” She concluded the phrase as if it were a full sentence, and began again. “How long do you plan to remain here in Memphis?”

“Not too long. I need to find a boat that’ll take me upriver.”

“Upriver?” Mr. Henderson piped up with a voice that declared him to be deeply appalled by the prospect. “Little missy, what would . . .” But then some other thing snared his attention, upending his displeasure and scattering his attention like a child’s blocks.

His wife picked up the thread and said, “I’m sure he only means, it’s wartime and you’re going north? A woman of your skills and abilities? You should stay here, with our lads, and perform your patriotic duties. If not at the Robertson Hospital—that’s where you’d been before, correct?—then perhaps one of the Fort’s establishments, or even here, in Memphis. A good nurse is always in need.”

“My father’s gone west, and contracted some illness. I’m not sure what ails him, but I mean to go see to him, all the same.” Not so far from the truth, after all. And a daughter’s duty might compete with a nurse’s.

“West, you say? Off to the Republic, then, are you?”

“No ma’am. Wester than that. I’m going all the way to the coast, to the Washington territory.”

“Gracious me, that’s an alarming proposition. Going all that way, all by yourself?” she asked, setting her cup down on the saucer with a sturdy clink.

Mercy said, “My husband died. There’s nobody left to go with me.”

“I suppose no one can fault you for the trouble, but my, how it worries me! In my day and age, young ladies wouldn’t dream of such travels alone, not even working women like yourself—no offense, of course. Now, more than ever, I fear it’s all the worse for the war.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” Mercy said, even though she wasn’t, though she wasn’t offended either. “But you know what they say about desperate times and desperate measures. I’ll be all right. I just need to find a place to sleep and get on a steamer first thing in the morning, to haul me up to St. Louis.”

Mr. Henderson revived again, long enough to nod and say, “St. Louis. A fine city.”

“Is it?” Mercy asked politely, happy to redirect the topic. “I’ve never been before.”

“Transcontinental,” he said. “Lines there’ll take you right to the water, clear out to the Pacific.”

She nodded. “They’ll take me to Tacoma. That’s where I’m headed in the long run, so St. Louis is where I’m going for now.”

Mrs. Henderson pursed her lips and said, “I might be able to help with the ship you seek, if not necessarily a place to stay for the night.”

Mercy understood. The Hendersons were undoubtedly staying somewhere where she couldn’t possibly afford to join them. “I’ll gratefully take any suggestions you can give me, ma’am.”

Satisfied by this much, at least, Mrs. Henderson said, “Very well. If you make your way down to the pier, I believe the steamer Providence is still docked there, at least through tomorrow morning. I can’t recall precisely when Benham said they’d be setting forth.”

“I’m sorry . . . Benham?”

“My brother-​in-​law. My sister married him. She’s gone now, God rest her soul, but he’s a good fellow in his way, and the Providence is his ship. He has a special dispensation to travel back and forth through the borders and boundaries; he’s a Texan by birth, you see, and technically his ship is politically undeclared.”

“Technically.” Mercy knew what that meant. Everybody knew Texas worked with the Confederacy, fueling it and feeding it. Keeping it alive.

“Technically,” Mrs. Henderson repeated without a wink or a smile, but with a rush of breath that indicated some tiny mote of clandestine excitement. “If you’re bound for St. Louis, he can get you there faster than any certified ship you might otherwise board. Oh, the checkpoints are dreadful. They drag the journey out by two or three days sometimes.”

“Really? I’ve never been up or down the river, so I don’t know how it works.”

“Oh, it doesn’t work at all. That’s the problem! It’s an endless, halting parade of inspections, bribes, and nonsense—but if you’re aboard a Texas vessel, you’ll find less inconvenience along the way.”

“It’s because of their guns!” declared Mr. Henderson, once more escaping his reverie, bobbing out of it as if to gasp for air.

“Concise, my love.” Mrs. Henderson gave him a smile. “And correct. Texans are heavily armed and often impatient. They don’t need to be transporting arms and gunpowder to create a great nuisance for anyone who stops them, so they tend to be stopped . . . less often.”

“That’s good to know,” Mercy said, suddenly eager to wrap up the meal and escape the company—which wasn’t fair, she thought, but the Hendersons made her feel a little on display, and still quite awkwardly conspicuous. She also still needed to find lodging for the night. She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “I thank you for all the kind suggestions, and the company for the meal. But I hope you’ll excuse me now. It’s getting late, and I’ve had a rough couple of days.”

“Don’t we know it!” Mrs. Henderson exclaimed. She exclaimed almost every short thing she said, and now that it’d been noticed, Mercy couldn’t unnotice it.

The nurse took her napkin off her lap, wadded it up beside the plate, thanked the couple once more, and gathered her satchel to leave.

Outside, it was dark yet again.

Down the street, Mercy spied a Salvation Army sign swinging beneath a fizzing gas lamp. This seemed like a safe enough place to ask for directions, so she knocked upon the door and was greeted by a small, squat woman in a gray suit that matched her hair. Her face was round and friendly. She asked if she could be of service.

“I’m Mrs. Leotine Gaines,” she declared. She looked Mercy up and down, and before the nurse could reply, she asked, “Are you a sister from one of our English offices?”

“Oh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not,” Mercy said. Any doubts Mrs. Gaines might’ve had would surely be buffeted away by the Virginia accent. “I’m from Richmond, and only passing through. But I was looking for a place to spend the night, and I wondered if you might direct me to something safe and quiet. I have to catch a steamer in the morning.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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