Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Kate stopped where she was, her hand on Emmie’s arm. “You didn’t tell me your cousin would be here.”

“Didn’t I?” said Emmie vaguely. “She’s a doctor now, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know.” The one in the pretty hat, Maud had said. It wasn’t pretty, that wasn’t the word for it. It was elegant. Julia couldn’t be anything but elegant if she tried. It was in her bones, her bearing. The fair hair that looked so drab on Emmie was golden on Julia; Julia had the same long bones but not the buck teeth. Put her in a toga and she’d fit right in on any cameo or group of classical statuary, perfectly carved of marble and just about as warm.

Kate had never been quite sure whether Julia deliberately set out to make her feel like a worm, or whether that was merely a by-product.

Julia, sitting next to Nick on the stairs in Newport, her golden head next to his. How do you like the latest charity case?

Kate tried to smile at her but succeeded only in producing a grimace.

On the plus side, Julia looked just about as delighted to see her as she was to see Julia. Those bluer-than-blue eyes narrowed. She looked like a cat who had discovered she’d been given tainted cream.

Kate could feel the boat moving beneath her and stilled a tiny flare of panic. Six months. She’d signed up for six months of this.

Mrs. Rutherford stepped into the center of the room, blotting out Julia’s perfect countenance. Instinctively, the women all fanned out around her, creating a circle, private conversations ceasing.

“Welcome, girls, welcome! Welcome to our floating home for the next fortnight as we set out on our grand endeavor.”

One of the girls started to clap, and then flushed when she realized no one else was doing the same.

Mrs. Rutherford smiled kindly at her. “Well may you applaud! You have all, by virtue of your very presence, signaled your courage and your kindness, your willingness to sacrifice your own convenience to the good of others.” Her voice dropped and she looked around the room, her eyes meeting those of each woman in turn. “There have been many who have asked me how I can leave my own children to the care of others while we travel abroad on our great work. But all is well with my children. There are other children with whom all is not well and they too are precious in the sight of God.”

It felt like sacrilege to breathe. Outside the room, the noises of the ship went on, but inside the saloon all was hushed expectancy.

“There are women and children in France who have been forgotten, women and children who need us. You ask me what we can do, and I tell you: everything. If they need food, we will help them plant it. If they need shelter, we will find the means to put it over their heads. We will build schools for their children and find beds for the weary. But most of all, the most valuable gift we bring is letting them know they have not been forgotten. As the men wage war, as the guns fire, we remember. We remember them. We remember they are not just statistics, so many left homeless, so many lost. They are people, like us, like our families. And we remember them.”

Kate could feel the words like an electric current running through her; she could feel herself standing straighter.

Mrs. Rutherford seemed to speak directly to each one of them. “You have it in you to make children smile again. You have it in you to mete out goodness to those who for the past three years have known only cruelty. Look inside yourself and know that you have it in you to make all the difference to those who have been abandoned by the world, who have lost their families, their homes, their hope. You are their hope.”

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved.

Mrs. Rutherford smiled at them, a crooked, sisterly smile. “I won’t mislead you. Our path is not without pitfalls. We are on probation, all of us. They doubt us—just as they once doubted that women were worthy of an education.”

An excited murmur ran around the room.

“The Red Cross didn’t believe we would be worth the bother. The American Fund for French Wounded has sponsored us—but only for a time. We must earn our welcome. It falls to us, to each and every one of us, to prove them wrong and show them that there is nothing that an American college girl cannot do.”

“Hear, hear!” cried the girl who had clapped, and this time no one reproved her.

Kate found herself alarmingly inclined to cheer. She knew it was all rhetoric—it was all rhetoric, wasn’t it? There hadn’t been a word of specifics in it—but she still felt like standing up and charging the barricades.