1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 44

Chapter 23

Oranjestad, St. Eustatia

Leonora was grumpy. Yes, she had reason for disappointment, but it went beyond that. First, the seamstress who was to make necessary changes to the one gown she had brought from Denmark was overdue and her services were absolutely required. Leonora was still only fourteen and just six months’ worth of bodily change — much of which was quite welcome! — absolutely required alterations or profound embarrassment might ensue.

Secondly, after spending half an hour fretting over the tardiness of the seamstress and ineffectually primping, Sophie returned — who announced her arrival with a set of sharp knocks to the door of their shared toilet. Leonora had been deeply involved in her third attempt to adjust her hair and the surprise turned her untrained touch into a brief eruption of startled fingers that ruined her already dubious handiwork.

And of course, once Sophie had settled in to her own pre-dance preparations, Leonora had to stay calm and casual in her choice of topics while her curiosity — her desire to know how the Earl of Tyrconnell had departed, and how Sophie felt, and what she meant to do — was threatening to burst out of her mouth, as if it were a rabid mink spinning and clawing inside of her. 

She settled down for another attempt at her hair, this time with the benefit of Sophie’s calm advice. Indeed, Leonora was so set upon her efforts that the end of her tongue protruded from her lips, as if it were an external rite meant to placate the demi-deities of Focus and Determination. But no sooner had she made some appreciable progress, than the door banged open and Anne Cathrine came racing in, the overdue seamstress following just behind. Even more startled by this second interruption, the consequent ruin to Leonora’s hairstyling efforts were still worse and, to add insult to injury, she had nipped the tip of her tongue.

Anne Cathrine excitedly discoursed about Government House and Tromp and a New Start in the New World and having to make an immense number of decisions about the party that sounded unbearably dull to Leonora. In other words, it was more evidence that the universe did in fact revolve around Anne Cathrine, who punctuated her departure with a hug that ruined yet another of Leonora’s attempts to tame her hair. Despite entreaties that Anne Cathrine very likely did not hear, she did not return to help fix the damage she had wrought.

Leonora was missing­ — for the fifth time in as many minutes — her older sister’s skill in the arts of efficacious primping and improvised makeup when there was yet another knock on the door. My word, are we to prepare for a party or answer summonses?

Sophie Rantzau glanced at Leonora. “A reply to a knock is at the discretion of the King’s daughter,” she murmured.

Well, bother; I suppose that’s true. “Yes?” Leonora called toward the door.

“It is I, Edel Mund. May I enter briefly?”

The two young women exchanged glances. Leonora knew what she wanted to do: ignore the Medusa-in-mourning who had inexplicably come to their doorstep at this most unprovidential moment. But instead she said, “Yes, of course, Lady Mund.”

The door opened, and Edel Mund, more spare and pale than ever, entered and nodded severely at Leonora and Sophie, her eyes questing into the further corners of the room.

“My sister is not here,” Leonora explained. “She is preparing for attending this evening’s entertainment, I’m afraid.”

Edel Mund nodded again. “I see. Then I will ask you to be so kind to convey to her the message I share with you here. I extend my apologies, ladies, but I must refrain from attending that affair, despite your sister’s kind solicitation for my presence. It would still be — unseemly for me to do so.”

“– even if I were disposed to go,” Leonora finished silently for the middle-aged woman. “I hear this news with regret, but fully understand.” What I do not understand is how long you intend to mourn your husband.

“Also, I would be most grateful if, when next you see Dr. Brandão, you would tell him that I wish to volunteer my services to him, as well. I expect I would be a passably capable nurse.”

Leonora nodded, quite sure that what Edel lacked in bedside manner and compassion she would make up for in efficiency and reliability. “I am sure Dr. Brandão will be delighted to welcome you into our little hospital.”

Edel made no response, other than to bow slightly, her black shoulder-wrap hanging slightly. “Ladies, I am sorry to have intruded at so inopportune a moment.” Without any sign of haste, she was nonetheless out the door with remarkable speed.

Leonora blinked, shrugged, returned to the task of securing an yet another errant wisp of hair in its proper place. “Lady Mund is a most peculiar person,” she observed. “And I can only imagine that her continued mourning intensifies her peculiarities.”

Sophie Rantzau, whose long, gleaming hair remained infuriatingly perfect without any apparent effort on her part, looked at the closed door with solemn gray eyes. “I suspect we are seeing more than the oddities of her character or the distraction of extended mourning.”

“What do you mean, Sophie?”

“I mean that, in the terms of life as she has chosen to live it, volunteering to help with the sick and wounded is a form of penance.”

“Penance? But for what? Edel Mund is hardly a model of Christian charity or joy, but neither does she seem a great sinner. What could she have done to make her feel compelled to do penance?”

Sophie Rantzau’s tone suggested she was sharing a secret rather than a comment. “For many of us, penance is owed not for what one has done, but for what one did not do.”

Leonora looked over cautiously at Sophie. The tall young woman was still staring at the back of the door. “You said that with great conviction. Personal conviction.” Leonora was tempted to say more, but knew that she could not, not unless she wished to chase her silent friend’s own emerging truth — or confession? —  back into whatever deep hiding place it had inhabited before Edel Mund’s odd visit had summoned it forth.

“My name,” Sophie said softly. “Has it never struck you as strange?”

Leonora, who had been holding her breath in anticipation of a great revelation, was taken off guard by this strange redirection. If it was, in fact, a redirection. Perhaps it was merely an oblique means of approaching the painful core of whatever truth Sophie kept buried. Because certainly, no one would be as laconic as she unless they were, in fact suppressing something. “I have never thought there is anything strange about your name. Also, I am unsure which name you mean: your Christian name or surname?”