Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

“We’ll have plenty of time together over the next six months, why bother with it now?” asked Kate through the ribbon in her teeth as she finished plaiting her hair into its bedtime braid. They slept in their clothes—those were the rules, always keep your life vest at hand, never undress—but they allowed themselves the luxury of taking down their hair.

“I know, but . . .”

But they were all nervous. There had been an almost holiday air for the first week, with concerts every night, but once they entered the Bay of Biscay, the reality of the war slammed down upon them. No lights after dark. No music. No conversations. No cigarettes. All punishable on pain of arrest and a stint in a French prison. Maud and Liza appointed themselves guardians of the blackout and chased after men with radial watch dials, ordering them to cover their lights. Miss Cooper, Emmie had noticed, kept more and more to herself, writing letters to a friend at home, then crumpling them up again. One of the other women, Miss Patton, who had been a year ahead of Emmie at school, had a little silver flask she took out when she thought no one was looking and sometimes smelled of sherry when they all huddled together on the deck at night.

Mrs. Rutherford was nowhere to be found, closeted in her room with her plans and the doctors. There was no denying that an undertaking of such magnitude required a great deal of planning—Emmie had seen enough of her mother’s grand endeavors to know the intricacies involved—but shouldn’t she be paying a bit more attention to the women in her care?

Emmie managed to corner Mrs. Rutherford at breakfast, drinking her coffee with one hand while taking notes with the other.

“Yes, Miss . . . Van Alden?” Their leader was, Emily noticed, writing in Greek letters. She rather hoped it was some sort of code and not because she was working on something to do with the ancients instead.

“I wonder,” began Emmie, “if you might have noticed that everyone seems a bit . . . nervous.”

“We are entering a war zone,” said Mrs. Rutherford practically, with that disarming smile that made everything seem just as it ought. “We’d be fools not to be nervous.”

“Well, yes, but . . . that is, I think we’d all feel better if . . . it would be such a useful thing to know what we’re to do once we get there.”

“But didn’t I tell you already?” said Mrs. Rutherford, already half-distracted by whatever it was she was writing. Emmie shook her head as hard as she could. “I thought I had. Oh well, if you really think it would be an aid to morale . . .”

“Oh, I do,” said Emmie fervently. “I really do.”

Mrs. Rutherford called them together in the saloon the next day.

“Our voyage has almost ended,” she announced. “And I must say, I’m very proud of how you all have conducted yourself. Just this morning, Dr. Van Dyke took me aside to tell me how fine he thinks you all are.”

“Dr. Van Dyke?” Emmie murmured to Kate.

“The old goat with the beard and the monocle,” Kate whispered back, and Emmie had to suppress a nervous giggle.

“You are just the right sort, he said, not neurasthenic enthusiasts, but with a natural dignity, and modesty without prudery.”

“Neurasthenic?” wondered Liza.

“Barmy,” Maud hissed back, not quite sotto voce.

Emmie did her best to look dignified and modest, but wondered just how Dr. Van Dyke would know. Or Mrs. Rutherford, for that matter. Hadn’t they seen Miss Patton’s sherry flask or Miss Cooper’s hunched shoulders? Or maybe they were right and Emmie was wrong and this was all completely natural and normal when one was entering a war zone, and not the least—what had he called it?—neurasthenic.

“It has been brought to my attention that you might wish to have more information about our intentions.” Mrs. Rutherford tapped the map spread out on a tea table, weighted down with books on four sides. “We shall make our home here, in the village of Grécourt. When the Germans retreated, they laid waste to the surrounding area—and then they sent the villagers home to live in it. Not all the villagers. The fit ones they took with them to Germany. The very young, the very old, the infant, and the infirm. Those are our charges.”

“Pardon me.” Maud was peering at the map over Mrs. Rutherford’s shoulder. “Did you say we’d be here?”

She jabbed at the area with a finger.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Rutherford. “That is why it is marked with an X.”