Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles] (9 page)

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“How bad is it?”

J. B. shrugged. “Not too bad. All Underhill seemed to care about was Miss Dawson.”

Mamie’s cheeks flamed at the words, even as she realized they were true. Martin had risked himself for… well… not
for her. Ivy and the warden were in danger, too.

The warden didn’t comment. He raked his fingers through his hair and shook his head, wincing with the effort even as he looked up at Mamie. “You’re all right?”

She nodded.

One of the guards stepped forward. “Not meaning any disrespect, sir, but you’ve had a blow to the head. It might be a good idea to let the doctor—“

“I will,” the warden said. “Just as soon as I know what all’s gone on here.” He reached up to feel the bump on his head again. “I’d be obliged, Miss Dawson, if you’d sit for a moment and tell me what I missed.” He glanced around them. “Obviously it was something… of note.”

Mamie described the scene she and Ivy and Martin had come upon. “He launched himself across the room before Pearl had a second to react. It was….” She paused. “Very quick thinking, sir. And very brave, to my mind.”

The warden nodded. Grasping the back of the chair for support, he stood up, wavered momentarily, then seemed to recover. “I’ll have more questions, Miss Dawson, if you’ll make your way to my office in about half an hour.” He glanced at the captain. “For now, though, let’s check in on Underhill.” At the doorway, he paused and waved for Mamie to precede him. He gave orders for the women’s ward to be attended in Mamie’s absence and then followed her to the stairs. They descended to the second floor together.

As Mamie turned right to go through turnkey and toward the warden’s office on the free side, the warden turned left toward the door that opened onto the yard and the collection of buildings inside the walls, among them a square building that served as an infirmary and hospital for the men. She hesitated. Thought of Martin being treated by the prison doctor. The man was, to her mind, a quack. And Dr. Zimmer was just across the way at the warden’s house. Without giving it another thought, Mamie hurried past the door leading into Warden McKenna’s office and out into the sunshine.

At the top of the stairs, Mrs. McKenna handed Jane the baby. “I’ll be right with you,” she said and went into the room with the pomegranate quilt. Jane made a point of minding her own business, facing the windows instead of peering after the woman. Swaying back and forth, she hummed softly to the infant nestled in her arms. It seemed less than a minute before Mrs. McKenna reappeared in the doorway. Back at Jane’s side, she removed a potted fern from atop the trunk positioned below the windows and set it on the floor. Kneeling before the trunk, she unlocked it and lifted the lid.

The faintest scent of lavender accompanied rustling sounds as Mrs. McKenna picked her way through the assortment of things inside. Packages tied with ribbon, damask and lace, small boxes, and a beautiful china doll all accumulated beside the potted fern until, finally, baby things. Two knit caps, a pair of impossibly tiny stockings, and a stack of diapers. Three flannel blankets, five dainty gowns, one of them with pink flowers embroidered along the hem. Mrs. McKenna paused for a moment when a pink-and-white nine-patch crib quilt came into view. She hesitated, then pulled it out of the trunk and spread it across her lap, running her palm over the surface. Was Mrs. McKenna really going to part with all those lovely things for Vestal? Surely not.

She looked up at Jane. “Have there been… arrangements to clothe the child?”

“I don’t know.” Jane glanced down at the baby. “She arrived sooner than expected.”

“I thought Ian said you all sew as part of your work.”

“We mend.” Jane nodded down at the pile of baby things in Mrs. McKenna’s lap. “But we’ve no supplies to make anything like that.” She paused. “Miss Dawson had an idea a couple of years ago to get us to making things for the babies and children at the Home for the Friendless. Some of us were excited at the prospect. Thought they might even bring in a machine or two. But it didn’t happen. I don’t know why.”

Mrs. McKenna frowned. “You sew entirely by hand?”

Jane shrugged. “We have nothing but time. Besides, why spend money on something that makes things easier for… people like us?”

Mrs. McKenna set the baby things—crib quilt included—aside and began to return the other items to the trunk. She closed the lid and put the fern back in place. “Ian—Mr. McKenna—says the shops have requirements. I think he told me every man in the cooper shop is expected to make something like seven barrels a day. The men who don’t are disciplined. How would the women feel about that? I mean, if they had the ability to do more, more would be required, wouldn’t it?”

Jane gazed at the pomegranate quilt in the bedroom, then back down at the baby quilt. For some reason, she decided to speak her mind about this one thing. “I can’t speak for anyone but myself, ma’am.” She nodded toward the bed in the other room. “Mine didn’t have a swag border on it, but I was proud of it, just the same.” She looked down at the baby and murmured, “I miss making beautiful things.”

Someone rapped on the front door. Mrs. McKenna led the way downstairs, the baby things folded over her arms.


t the foot of the stairs, Ellen handed the baby things off to Georgia and opened the door to an obviously frazzled and out-of-breath Miss Dawson jabbering news of an “incident” and asking to speak to Dr. Zimmer. Ellen’s mind connected three words.
Stabbed. Warden. Doctor.
Speechless, she turned toward the dining room and Dr. Zimmer, even as she felt her knees buckle.

Miss Dawson grasped her arm and guided her to back up and sit on the stairs. “Just take some deep breaths, dear. The warden’s all right. You did hear me say that, didn’t you?”

Ellen swept a curl back off her forehead with a trembling hand. “Y–you said he’d been stabbed.”

“Just nicked beneath the chin,” Miss Dawson said as she turned toward Dr. Zimmer. “It’s Mr. Underhill I’m worried about.” Quickly, she described what had happened with Pearl Brand.

Again, Ellen’s mind shut out everything but news of Ian. Someone had attacked Ian. Knocked him out. And then held a knife—or something—to his throat. A
had nearly done what neither Rebels nor bank robbers in Brownville could. A
Ellen glanced at Jane Prescott and Vestal Jackson, and for a moment all the kindness that had been growing inside her toward the women living over on the third floor faded.

“Please, Dr. Zimmer,” Miss Dawson was saying. “You know—” She broke off. “He saved the warden’s life. Probably mine and Ivy’s, too.” She paused. “He deserves good care.”

The doctor stood up and, taking a pillow, tucked it beneath Vestal’s knees and covered her back up. “I’ve done what I can here right now.” He spoke to Georgia as he handed her the brown vial he’d just taken from his medical bag. “Laudanum if she needs it, but I’d prefer not if it can be avoided.” Rinsing his hands in the bowl on his instrument table, he grabbed a towel and bolted out the door.

Ellen stepped out onto the front porch and told the guard about what was happening. “Miss Dawson will stay here until we receive further instructions from the warden. I’d appreciate it if you’d join us inside, now.” The guard nodded. With him stationed inside the front door, Ellen summoned the other one from out back.
One at the back door, one at the front.
The idea that they would be able to hear anything that went on in the house made Ellen feel safer—in spite of their less-than-gentlemanly behavior earlier. She asked Georgia to make coffee for the men, then realized that no one had eaten all day and decided they’d “have a little lunch” as well.

Georgia got to work, slicing cold roast beef and bread and making sandwiches, humming while she prepared the food. Ellen returned to the sickroom, where Miss Dawson had taken a seat beside the barely conscious Vestal Jackson. Jane Prescott had spread one of the flannel blankets across her lap and was dressing the baby, crooning softly as she worked. Ellen’s fears subsided as she looked around the room. There was no Pearl Brand waiting to hurt anyone here.

Poor Jane Prescott had looked longingly at the quilts upstairs and wished for a chance to make beautiful things again. Ellen realized she’d never so much as considered that there might be women across the road who even knew how to do fancy work.
But then you haven’t really considered them at all, have you? For the first time, she felt guilty about that.

Poor Vestal—giving birth only to have to let the baby go.
Do others over there have children? What’s happened to them while their mothers are here?
Ellen couldn’t remember seeing any children come to visit on Sundays after chapel services. How did a mother stand being separated from her child? On the other hand, how would a mother stand having her child see her in this place?

Poor baby—born early and soon to be separated from her own mother. As Ellen looked at the infant, her head now covered with a cap she’d knitted for Daisy, she swallowed and looked away.
Poor Daisy,
not all that much bigger than Vestal’s baby… left behind in Missouri in an obscenely small grave marked by a simple stone.

Ellen blinked away her tears. Cleared her throat. Glancing into the kitchen where the guards sat eating, she offered to sit with Vestal while Miss Dawson had something to eat.

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. McKenna, but I believe I’ll stay right here.”

Jane Prescott declined to eat as well, preferring to tend the baby and stay by Vestal’s side.

Ellen stayed, too. She went to the front windows and looked out for a moment before turning around and asking, “What’s to happen now?”

“Why, he’s to get better, that’s what,” Miss Dawson said quickly. “There just isn’t anything else to even consider.” Her voice wavered, and she broke off. Then she said with more hope than confidence in her voice, “Dr. Zimmer will know what to do.”

“I sincerely hope the best for your friend,” Ellen said, “but I was actually referring to”—she nodded at the infant, then gestured toward a sleeping Vestal Jackson—“the things at hand.”

Miss Dawson sighed. “Of course.” She shook her head. “More sorrow and pain, I’m afraid. My sister, Manerva, has been making inquiries as to a wet nurse. Of course we didn’t expect to need anyone so soon.” She paused. “Which reminds me…” She glanced toward the kitchen where the guards sat and, lowering her voice, asked, “Would your housekeeper help me with the binding?” When Ellen frowned, Miss Dawson explained. “It will go much better for Vestal if we bind her now to discourage…” She cleared her throat. “To discourage nature taking its course.”

It took Ellen a moment to realize that Miss Dawson was talking about Vestal’s body preparing to feed her baby. She frowned. “But couldn’t—do they have to be separated right away? It seems wrong to put the baby at jeopardy if you’re still trying to locate a wet nurse. The baby hasn’t done anything wrong. Why should she be punished?”

Miss Dawson smiled. “I agree, Mrs. McKenna. Would you care to take the matter up with your husband?”

Ellen glanced through the windows toward the penitentiary again. All the “right” answers came to mind. It wasn’t her decision to make. It wasn’t her place to interfere. It wasn’t any of her business, really. But then the baby began to cry. Vestal stirred. Jane Prescott leaned close and murmured something, and even in her exhausted state, Vestal did what any mother would do. She reached up to fumble with the ribbons holding her nightgown closed, and held out her arms for her baby. In that moment, although she didn’t realize it, Ellen McKenna’s life changed.

She knew what people said about women in prison. Knowing had kept Ellen away from the female department for weeks. Those women were evil. Deranged. Less than women, really. But here was Vestal Jackson, suckling her baby, a faint smile on her pale face, even as tears coursed down her cheeks. And Jane Prescott, biting her lower lip as her cheeks flushed, and she swiped her own tears away.

I miss making beautiful things, Jane had said upstairs. Ellen wondered what else Jane missed. Perhaps she, Ellen McKenna, was meant to find out. “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
” Was it Jesus or Paul who’d said that? Either way, it was something God smiled on. She stepped away from the window and answered Miss Dawson’s question.

“As a matter of fact, yes. I will take it up with the warden.”

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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