Dreadnought Page 7

If she made any declarations, she’d cause a scene.

If she merely went away, it would probably be days before any of the bedridden men noticed. They had their own problems and pains to distract them, and the absence of one nurse out of thirty meant little to most of them. Eventually someone would look up, scratch his head, and wonder, “What ever happened to Nurse Mercy?” and then Captain Sally would say, “She left. Last week.” At which point, the invalid would shrug.

Mercy figured it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission. They’d forgive her for leaving. But they might not give her permission to go.

Sally was different, though, and she understood. She lowered her voice, even though they were in the woman’s office and there was no one lurking nearby. “I’m glad you’ve got your widow’s papers, and the scraps of Union pension. That’ll take you most of the way, I expect. Their money’s worth more than ours.”

Mercy said, “Ma’am, if anyone sends for me here, you’ll give them the address in Waterford?”

“Of course I will. Did I forget anything? You’ve cleaned out your bunk upstairs . . . and you’ve tucked away the nursing papers, I hope? My recommendation letter will mark you as one of ours, and that’ll be good for the first legs of your trip, but there’s no telling what you’ll find out West.”

She promised, “I’m going south, then up the river and west. I have a plan.”

“You’d better. It’s a long trip, darling. I’ll worry for you, and pray.”

Mercy hugged her. Then she made one last walk through the first-​floor ward, past the entry to the ballroom, out through the corridor that would take her through the kitchen, and into the backyard grounds . . . so that no one but the staff would see how she carried a suitcase and a large shoulder bag stitched with a distinctive red cross. The suitcase she was taking had come with her from Virginia; the other one had been the property of the hospital, so she was leaving it behind. But the shoulder bag was a gift from Captain Sally. In it, Mercy carried the basics of her profession, as well as her papers, her money, a few small books, letters, pencils, and other useful objects that made her feel prepared.

At the curb to the side of the Robertson house, she stood squeezing her luggage and wondering where to begin, and how. The entirety of her planning process amounted to little more than what she’d told Captain Sally.

But first things first: She went to the Western Union office.

The clerk at the counter took the envelope with her father’s message and read it, and while he perused the marks, Mercy said, “I need to send a message back. To . . . to Sheriff Wilkes, I guess. Wherever this telegram came from. I need to tell him that I’m coming.”

The small man in the striped vest peered at the paper through a pince-​nez and told her, “I can certainly do that. And I’m sorry to hear about your father,” he added politely.

He quoted her a price, which she paid from the cash that Sally had offered, an immediate severance payment, plus a bonus. And with the help of the clerk, she composed a response to send back across three thousand miles.


She couldn’t think of anything else to add, so she watched while the clerk transcribed her message and placed it into a box on his desk. He explained that the telegraph operator was out of the office, but that when she returned, the message would be sent out across the lines.

Mercy thanked him and left, emerging on the street again with her bags in hand and an intense nervousness in her heart—a steady fear that this was the wrong thing to do, and her father would probably be dead by the time she arrived, anyway.

“But it’ll be an adventure,” she said to herself, not so much believing it as clinging to it.

Slinging her pack over one shoulder, she stepped down off the Western Union’s wooden porch and into the street, where she dodged one speeding cab and leaned backwards to avoid a lurching wagon. In the distance she could hear shouting, and warnings of incoming something-​or-​others headed for the hospital; she heard “Robertson” above the din, and her chest ached.

She should drop this ridiculous mission.

She should go back, where she was needed.

Even if she made it all the way West, and even if she made it to her father’s bedside, would they know each other? Her memories of him had distilled over sixteen years, down to blurs of color and a rumbling voice. When she thought of him, if she tried to push aside her anger at his leaving, she could recall glimpses of a wide-​shouldered, brown-​haired man with arms as thick as logs. But she remembered little of his face—only a scratchiness, from when she’d rubbed her cheek against his.

Maybe, then. Maybe she’d know him.

But would he know her? It’d been a lifetime between knee-​high childhood and Robertson nurse. She’d grown several feet, to a height that was just shy of “quite tall” for a woman, and the corn-​tassel blond hair of her youth had grown to a darker shade that was closer to unpolished gold than to baby yellow. The willowy limbs of her formative years had given way to a frame that was sturdy enough for farm work, or hospital work. She was not dainty, if in fact she ever had been.

She hesitated at the edge of the street, recoiling from the traffic and wondering if she shouldn’t go back to the office to send another telegram to let her mother know what she was doing. But then she came back to her senses and resolved to write a letter and post it from the road.

Always easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

On the street corner, a little boy in ill-​fitting pants cried out the daily news. He hefted a stack of papers up like a Roman shield and declared the latest known troop movements, wins, losses, and points of interest. “Yankees rebuffed at Nashville!” he declared. “Maximilian the Third calls for Texian investigation into missing peace force!”

She took a deep breath, picked the appropriate direction, and got walking. The boy’s bellowing voice followed her. “Mystery surrounds northwestern dirigible disappearance in Texas! Terrible storm strikes Savannah! Rebs take heavy losses in Bowling Green!”

She shuddered and kept moving, four blocks past the narrow three-​storied hotels and boardinghouses and the wider, lower shapes of banks and dry goods stores. On the steps of a big white church stood a man with a big black Bible, urging people to come inside and repent, or join him for fellowship, or some other thing in which Mercy was not interested. She stuck to the edge of the crowd and ignored him, and did her best not to look at the giant steeple the color of bone.

She passed another set of churches, lined up shoulder to shoulder with one another despite their dogmatic differences, then came to a stockyard, then a large foundry populated by soot-​covered men in clothes filthy with sweat and tiny burns. One of them called out to her, opening his mouth to say something dirty or childish.

But when Mercy turned his way, the man closed his mouth. “Pardon me, Nurse. Ma’am,” he said upon seeing her cloak and the cross on her satchel.

“Consider yourself pardoned, you lout,” she grumbled, and kept walking.

“I’m sorry,” he said after her.

She didn’t answer him. She adjusted her bag so the cross was more visible against her shoulder blade. It was not a foreign emblem, or a Yankee emblem, or even a Confederate one. But everyone knew what it meant, pretty much, even if once in a while it got her mistaken for one of those Salvation Army folks.

In the distance, over the tops of the mills, factories, and shipping warehouses down in the transportation district, she could spy the rounded, bobbing domes that indicated the tops of docked dirigibles.

Before long a sign came into view, announcing, RICHMOND REGIONAL AIRSHIP YARD. Beneath it, two smaller signs pointed two different directions. PASSENGER TRANSPORT was urged to veer left, while MERCHANTS AND CARGO were directed to the right.

She dutifully followed the signs, head up and shoulders square, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she needed. Another sign pointed to ROWS A & B while one next to it held another area, indicating ROWS C & D. But finally she spotted something more immediately useful—a banner that read, PASSENGER TICKETS AND ITINERARY. This banner was strung over a wood-​front shack that was shaped like a lean-​to, with no glass in the windows and no barrier in the front except a cage like those used by bank tellers.

The nearest available attendant was a crisp brunette in a brown felt hat with an explosion of colored feathers on the side. Mercy approached her and said, “Hello, I need to buy passage west.”

“How far?”

“How far west can you take me?”

The woman glanced down at a sheet of paper Mercy couldn’t see. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On a number of things. Right now, the war is the number one deciding factor in precisely how far you can travel. We’ve had to trim some of the northernmost lines, and redirect traffic south.”

Mercy nodded. “That’s fine.”

The clerk said, “Good. Because as of this morning, Charleston, West Virginia, is about as far west as we’re going along our present estimated longitude. We’re trying to reroute anything headed for Frankfurt down through Winston-​Salem or Nashville. But Nashville’s a little uncertain right now, too.”

Recalling what she’d heard from the young crier, she said, “There’s fighting out that way?”

“That’s what they tell us.” The clerk pointed at a miniature telegraph set.

While Mercy stared at it, the fist-​size device hiccupped and spit out a long thread of paper covered in dots and dashes.

The clerk explained, “Latest news from the fronts. It comes in filtered through headquarters.”

“What does that say?” Mercy asked.

“It says Nashville’s still uncertain. Sometimes they update us like that, and it’s useless. Anyway, you want to head west, and you never said how far.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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