Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Inspiring, Maud had called their director. Well, she was right in that. Kate felt like the snake once the charmer had got through with it; it made her wary.

Emmie didn’t seem to have any such reserve. “Isn’t she wonderful?” she whispered.

On the other side of the room, Julia’s beautiful face was still and watchful.

“Now. Back to the practicalities,” said Mrs. Rutherford. “We are almost all present. Our agriculturalist, Miss Lewes, has responsibilities at the Department of Agriculture which will keep her through the fall; she will be joining us as soon as she can get away.”

“Agriculturalist?” echoed Liza.

“To help us with the chickens,” said Mrs. Rutherford briskly. “We have an addition to our group since we last met. Miss Moran, if you would make yourself known?”

Reluctantly, Kate stepped forward.

“Miss Moran is a member of the class of 1911. She is to be one of our chauffeurs. She is also an accomplished teacher of French.” Mrs. Rutherford looked blandly around the group. “I know there are those among you who could use some reacquaintance with the language. Miss Moran, if you would be so kind as to offer a daily French lesson during our time in transit, your efforts would be much appreciated.”

“Of course,” murmured Kate, since that was what one said, even though she would rather stab herself in the eye with a pocketknife than teach French to anyone ever again.

Emmie beamed as though she’d just done something rather clever.

“You know our doctors, of course. Dr. Ava Stringfellow”—a middle-aged woman with a strong-featured face and a pair of expressive eyebrows stood up and gave a half bow—“and Dr. Julia Pruyn. Please do try not to fall ill. Their services are not meant for us but for the people we go to serve.”

A couple of the women chuckled; Kate didn’t think Mrs. Rutherford had been joking.

“I have a little gift for you.” Reaching into one of her multitudinous pockets, Mrs. Rutherford drew out something that jangled and clanked. It resolved itself into a series of chains, each with a metal tag at the end of it.

“Miss Baldwin . . . Miss Cooper . . . Miss Dawlish . . . Miss Englund . . . Miss Ledbetter . . . Miss Mills . . . Miss Moran . . .”

The tag was warm from Mrs. Rutherford’s pocket. Kate ran the ball of her thumb against the lightly incised words, the cuts still rough in the metal.

K. Moran. SCRU. On the other side: Rue Scribe, Paris.

“Miss Patton . . . Miss Pruyn—pardon me, Dr. Pruyn—Miss Randolph . . . Miss Shaw . . . Miss Van Alden. Ah, and here is mine.” Mrs. Rutherford fitted her own tag over her head, tucking it neatly beneath her collar. “You must wear your badge at all times. They are not the most beautiful of ornaments, but they are necessary.”

“But why?” asked Miss Cooper, the girl who had clapped, looking up from her tag.

From the other side of the room, Julia spoke for the first time.

“They’re to identify our bodies,” said Julia in her hard, beautiful voice. “When the ship goes down.”

Chapter Two

Dear Mother,

Don’t you like the life preservers all over the stationery? It’s quite different from the last time we crossed to France together—all the talk is of submarines and lifeboats. But there’s really nothing to worry about, they say, so long as we follow the regulations and don’t do anything foolish.

They’ve given us tags to hang around our necks with our names on them. Mine says “E. Van Alden, SCRU.” It’s merely a precaution, of course. It makes us feel quite military.

—Miss Emmaline Van Alden, ’11, to her mother, Mrs. Livingston Van Alden

August 1917

Paquetboat SS Rochambeau

Somewhere in the Atlantic

Miss Cooper dropped her tag.

Everyone stared at Julia, who just shrugged. “Don’t kill the messenger. It is what it is.”

Emmie jumped up, her own tag clutched in her hand. “Well, I think it’s rather fun to have a keepsake of our time together. A memento!”

Some of the women smiled back. Some didn’t.

“No one is drowning,” said Kate flatly, not out of conviction, but because if Julia said the sky was blue, Kate would claim it was purple. Emmie had forgotten what it was like, mediating between the two of them. Or maybe she simply hadn’t wanted to remember. “There are lifeboats in plenty and these lovely, bulky life jackets with which they’ve provided us.”