Hilton Head Island
"Here," I said, just loudly enough to be heard over the cries of seagulls and their bass counterpoint, a continuous throbbing hum that comes from all the unseen life hidden in these marshes. I raised my hand until I felt the boat slow, then pointed a finger to indicate that I wished us to move deeper into the cover of the sea grass, which even now at high tide loomed above my head.
I gave my directions serenely, without turning to look my man Jack in the eye; he was at the moment out of favor with me. I had no need to look--I could feel his sullen acquiescence behind me just as easily as I felt the small boat creep into the grasses at the merest pointing of my finger.
I know Jackson obeys me only because he fears me. I've given this man a home and work to do for which I've paid him wages, even back before Emancipation, when he was nothing but contraband. He didn't understand the value of money, so I taught him how to spend it wisely. Yet if he were not afraid of me he'd run away in a minute.
I can't allow the man to run. I need him because he's strong, healthier than most, and he knows these Low Country marshes so well that he can navigate the creeks even on a dark night--a skill they say must be learned from an early age or it cannot be acquired. Then too, I need to keep him close because he's seen too much. If I let him leave he'll carry tales--and his tales would be of only one side, the more gruesome side, of my work. Of course that gruesome aspect is why he fears me, and so I must let it be; but sometimes it pains me to be so misunderstood, even by a poor black man.
Jackson can't be expected to comprehend the grand purpose, the noble aim of my life's work. How could he, with his lack of education, understand when my own professional colleagues did not? No one else has my clarity of vision, not to mention the sheer level of my skill. They could not keep up with me, therefore they excluded me.
I am accustomed to feeling alone.
Yet after all I've done for Jackson, one would think the man could give me devotion, if not love. Not so. Instead, he has so little sense that he mourns after his former owners, who abandoned him. I deserve better.
I have always deserved better than I get; such is all too frequently the curse of having a brilliant mind.
Jackson called me a monster not two hours earlier this day. He was talking to a woman outside the Freemen's Clinic in Beaufort, and I overheard him say that word, "monster," an appellation I truly abhor. Of course I had to put a stop to that kind of talk right away, and I did. As a result, his fear of me has been reinforced, and that is a good thing.
Even as I raised the spyglass to my eye and trained it on the military settlement at the northwest end of Hilton Head, I wondered fleetingly if my man Jack had loved that woman. She was pretty, if one measured her looks only in comparison with her own kind. A pity I could not have saved her head, as it was the most attractive part of her, but I had no use for it.
The parts I can use are in my black bag, here in the bottom of the boat not far from Jackson's bare feet. He knows all too well what is in the bag. I do not think he will call me a monster ever again. I have taught him a lesson.
"Jackson," I said politely, as I generally do him the honor of calling him by the longer version of his name, "can you move us any closer without our being seen? I'd like to know what's going on over there."
Some kind of ruckus had arisen over at the military base. I couldn't quite make out what. Though I doubted if it could have any relation to the matter that had brought me here spying this day, any disruption of normal routine on the post was interesting and bore watching.
"Yassuh," Jackson said and pushed off, using his long oar like a pole.
The boats these Gullahs fashion are sharp-prowed and flat-bottomed. They part the tall sea grasses with a swish that can be eerie or silky, depending on one's mood. My mood was silky this afternoon, despite that brief disruption to take care of Jackson's woman friend. Dismemberment, the way I do it, is hard, exacting work--but in its wake it leaves a sense of the greatest satisfaction.
I returned my attention to the activity captured in the glass.
For some months now Hilton Head Island has been headquarters for the Union Army's Department of the South. All the Sea Islands to the south of Charleston were abandoned by the plantation owners about a year ago, when Union ships found their way into Port Royal Sound--the white gentry just took off. They left almost all their possessions behind them: mansions, furniture, field slaves and all. On the mainland near the coast it was the same--every house in the rich old town of Beaufort had been left empty of people but fully furnished. And everything--everything--including the abandoned field slaves, became contraband. Beaufort and all the Sea Islands, as far south as Savannah, all were seized and occupied by the Union without so much as a single shot having been fired.
As for me, I came here to the Low Country by luck, at one of those times in life that reinforce the truth in aphorisms such as: It is always darkest before the dawn. I've always been a lucky man, though I do not mean with gambling and cards; rather I am supremely confident that luck will in time make things break my way. I do not believe in a loving God who watches over us, because I am a scientist; Lady Luck is the goddess who takes special care of me.
Therefore I was not at all surprised to soon find, through my spyglass, the small figure of the very woman whom I sought over there on Hilton Head. In town I had heard that she'd arrived, and I'd said to myself: Ah, she has come to me.
She stood on the long veranda that runs across the whole second story of the former plantation now known as Headquarters House, looking down on that ruckus of unknown origin. I could not see her features, but by her dark hair, slight stature and neat appearance in a wide-skirted black dress I knew her. Her identity was further confirmed by the simple fact of her standing there, as if she had every right to be the only woman in a company of soldiers--she alone among the hardest of men.
I sharpened my focus, yet still could not make out her face.
Never mind--from secret observation at Fredericksburg four months past I remembered her well: Her face was piquantly pretty, with an indentation at the point of her chin; her eyes were large, dark and lustrous; her cheekbones wide and prominent. Before Fredericksburg, at Antietam (the first time she got in my way), I'd lingered long enough to learn her name: Clara.
I had always known I would see Clara again someday. Now luck had brought her to me, without the slightest effort on my part. Idly I wondered how much time I'd have with her, how long I'd dare to keep her before she had to die.
"Whatever is going on over there, it seems to involve a number of your people, Jackson," I said.
They couldn't have found that woman's body already, I thought. They aren't likely to find it until it starts to stink.
Colonel John Elwell bit his lip. His mind was not on pain, and he was able to stay his hand only with difficulty.
He wanted to stroke her dark brown hair now, this very minute, while her attention was focused on his leg wound; wanted to touch her before she could see it coming or sense his intent, and with a frown or the merest narrowing of her eyes, shame him into stone.
For a moment John fantasized: If I were to touch her just once, even the merest, lightest touch, then like magic the attraction between us would take hold--must take hold, for it's truly irresistible--and so we should be forgiven, also like magic, whatever might come next!
But then Clara did something that caused such a sharp twinge in his thigh that he gasped, and groaned as the twinge dissolved into an only slightly lesser wave of pain that traveled all the way down his leg into his very toes. And up the other way as well.
She tilted her head and looked over her shoulder with a little worried frown, at the same time applying a gentle pressure on his wound that brought relief.
"I'm sorry, Colonel," she said, "but I have to change the dressing, and it was stuck. I should have warned you this might hurt."
"You just changed dressings yesterday," John grumbled.
"I know," she agreed, gathering up some strips of cloth that he had to admit did look rather nasty, "but I've observed that wounds heal faster the cleaner they're kept."
Clara whisked the old bandage out of sight and produced a clean length of cloth that she began to fold expertly, without looking. She smiled, her brown eyes lit with a mischievous glint. "It's like kitchens."
"Kitchens?" John felt his own lips twitch in amused response, though he had not the slightest idea what she was talking about. Who could resist this woman, who was not much taller than a child, had the hands of an angel--and, to boot, a wicked wit?
"The best-tasting food comes from a clean kitchen," she said, "and the neatest, fastest healing comes from a clean wound."
John thought about this as he watched her bind the white bandage around the deep hole where the broken bone had opened up the skin of his inner thigh--how surely her hands moved over those angry, red, raggedly sewn together edges. She had not done the sewing, of course, because she hadn't yet arrived when the wound was inflicted; he was certain she'd have made a much neater stitch. It was true that soldiers and their male nurses tended to ignore dirt. There was something manly, in fact, about the ability to ignore the muck and the mud along with all the other hardships.
Clara's insistence on cleanliness seemed a purely feminine thing--and she'd saved his leg, against a lot of odds. If there'd been a surgeon available when his horse fell on him, most likely he wouldn't have that leg anymore. Amputation, then cauterization, was the preferred method of treatment when a broken bone pierced the skin. But to the Colonel's everlasting shame, his was not a battle wound--for there was no battle in the area yet, and so no medical personnel on Hilton Head Island. He'd only been out pleasure riding and his horse had stumbled; he'd lost his seat and landed wrong, and so had the horse. A sickening snap of bone was the last thing he'd remembered before blacking out.
John suspected he might have lost not only his leg, but his life as well, if Clara Barton had not arrived a week ago and seen how things were with him. She'd immediately taken over his nursing. He'd been too weak and wracked with fever to protest that no lady should have to tend a man whose wound was in such an intimate place.
She touched him all the time. Her touch itself was healing. He fancied--or was it mere fancy?--her touch was not always impersonal.
Yet John, being a gentleman, had never allowed himself to touch her at all.
It's not fair, he thought grumpily.
"There!" Clara said with a note of satisfaction. She pulled the afghan back over his lap and straightened up. For a few moments she bustled about, washing her hands, tidying things, putting a small bag of refuse outside the door.
Then from one of the pockets inside her voluminous skirt, which seemed to contain any number of wondrous things, she produced a small bottle of some sweet-smelling cream. This she proceeded to rub thoroughly into her hands, taking time to go between each finger.
Aha, John thought, enchanted, that is how she manages to work so hard yet keep those little hands so white.
At last Clara looked around and asked, "Now, where is that book of poems we've been reading?"
It was the moment he'd been waiting for all day.
Did you hear that?" Perhaps half an hour after she'd begun to read to the Colonel from his favorite volume of Keats, Clara paused in midpoem. She lowered the book to her lap and cocked her head, listening hard.
John Elwell frowned. "It sounds like some sort of disturbance outside."
"I'll go see what's happening, shall I?" she offered, unable to keep eagerness from her voice, yet so immediately ashamed of it that she forced herself to remain in her chair. It was not Colonel Elwell's fault that the war seemed to have come to a halt on the Sea Islands, making Clara feel as if the army must have sent her--and more important, all the supplies she'd gathered for the fighting men--to the wrong place.
"If you like," John said, "but it's not necessary to trouble yourself."
"Oh, it wouldn't be any trouble," Clara said, biting her lip and keeping her seat. Her whole body suddenly seemed to itch and she wanted to fly out the door to see what was happening.
"Go and find out, then come back and report to me," John said at last, in a tone somewhere between command and his usual soft-spokenness.
Even as Clara rose--slowly, so as not to hurt his feelings--and handed him the book, the noise grew louder: Many voices cried out, haphazardly different in tone and pitch, sounding all together, as if they must be working up to something, perhaps some sort of riot.
But not a battle.
"It's some domestic thing, I'm sure," she said, as much to herself as to him. Nevertheless he'd given a command of sorts and, grateful, she was on the way to the door. She flung it open, stepped out and left the door standing wide, momentarily not thinking about drafts and their possible effect on the Colonel's fragile state of health.
As headquarters, the former plantation house had been divided so that the working offices of the Quartermaster Corps were below on the first floor, and the officers' living quarters were on the second floor, which was accessible only from the veranda that ran across the whole facade. As commandant, Colonel Elwell occupied the two best center rooms, so Clara emerged midway on the veranda.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cut to the Heart by Ava Dianne Day. Copyright © 2002 by Ava Dianne Day. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.