A note from the author: Please forgive the re-post of this work. The original was deleted quite by accident a while back and I've only just got around to re-posting it. This story is set in the world of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, but that, dear readers, is where the similarities end. It begins in the year 1776, three years before the notorious Hessian Horseman is set, in Burton's world, to lose his head. He, the Hessian, has always intrigued me as a character, and I wrote this piece, as well as to exercise my fiction writing muscles, in an effort to better know him and the world he inhabits. As the story-tags suggest, there will be a chance of something akin to romance in this tale, but later. Much later. This world is rich, and I feel the Horseman could well be a deeply complex creature. I refuse to do it, or him, the disservice of making this story anything other than representative of these facts.
A final little point, later in the story there will be many and varied characters for whom German is their mother tongue. It is not mine however, so while I shall do my damnedest to make sure my writing is accurate, if you spot a mistake don't hesitate to correct me.
All good wishes,
The year was 1776. The month, June.
Through a thick and encompassing mist, four Frigates flying English flags broke away from the great armada making for New York harbour under Admiral Richard Howe and pitched south and west towards the New Jersey coast. Within each of their holds, two hundred of the King's finest soldiers waited impatiently for landfall; their weapons stowed in favour of cards, small coins and a nightly ale ration for the duration of their trip. Lord knows, it had been a long one.
Aboard the Valliant, the third ship in the flotilla, a small group of nurses travelled along with the soldiers. There were twelve of them in all, and they had been tasked with setting up and assisting in the running of triage stations at a number of the larger allied camps within besieged America. Their destinations were many and varied, for there were numerous encampments in need of their services, and each woman, for all her bravery in volunteering for this task, hoped not to be positioned too close to the frontline.
Sleeping two to a cabin and thoroughly segregated from the gentlemen-soldiers in their portion of the hold, the travelling ladies spent the later hours of the day speaking to each other in hushed voices, wondering about the new and foreign land they were venturing to and what they would find once they got there.
The pair who had grown closest over the voyage were Sally and Rose. Sally, a doctor's daughter, had been obliged by her father when she was young and impressionable, and was allowed, under his tutelage, to study his books on anatomy and medicine. Though she was denied, because of her sex, the chance to study formally and practice for a living wage, the experience she gained in her father's surgery served as her practical schooling, and she was happy to volunteer herself as an unpaid nurse to serve King and country when the need arose.
Rose, by contrast, learned her trade from an aunt who practiced midwifery. True, she had told the enlistment officer on the dock, there is no call for midwives on the frontline, but God above if she hadn't witnessed and stitched some of the most awful tears in human flesh imaginable. That alone, she concluded, qualified her for the perils of field medicine in times of war, and the officer who stamped her papers as she bustled past him to board the fat and lofty galleon moored and waiting on the Thames didn't utter a word in opposition. In fact he had looked vaguely ill.
Between these two friends now, a single candle is held. It illuminates their faces, hands, and the pearl buttons on the front of their respective dresses, but little else of the room is spared the otherwise encompassing dim. They pay it no heed. Conjecture is in the midst of being spoken.
"I'm honestly serious, Rose" Sally pressed, smiling at how suddenly aghast her companion looked. "The quartermaster told me so himself just today. Germans! HUNDREDS of them!"
"I don't understand" Rose replied, leaning to ferret through the small file of documents that she and her fellow nurses had been presented with as they boarded. She pulled a slightly crinkled map of America's east coast from within the soft leather covering slip, her entire expression pinching with the depth of her frown as she regarded it. "I thought we were winning the war." As she spoke she traced what the map's key identified as the allied line with the tip of her finger, noting it's seemingly favourable position. "Why would Germany need to send aid if we're winning?"
"I've no idea" Sally said, her chin resting in the palm of her right hand as she squinted through the candlelight. "It could be that we've been misled about England's chances of victory. Or perhaps the fact that our King is a certain German Landgrave's kith and kin makes not sending aid...undiplomatic." She snuffled softly, the candle's flame wavering at her exhalation. "Who knows."
A contemplative silence fell for a moment as the ladies regarded the map between them. As luck would have it, they were to be stationed at the same outpost. According to the officer who had given them their papers, it was large and fortified, and sat between a farmhold and the ocean in the vast openness of New Jersey. With a permanent garrison of roughly one hundred and eighty men, their little triage looked to be a busy one.
A thought occurred to Rose then, and she spoke up through a coyly growing smile, sitting the map back in its pouch. "Do you think we'll have to treat them as well?" she asked, an almost coquettish gleam in her eye. "The Germans I mean."
"Most likely. I- What's this?" Sally leant a little closer to Rose in the dim, an edge of faux-scandal finding her tone at the whimsical expression on her friend's face. "Rose Clarke, was it your plan all along to capture yourself a strapping sol-"
"What? No!" Rose yelped, blushing to the roots of her hair and laughing out the words. "Don't even imply it!"
"That 'no' was no denial!" her counterpart merrily pointed out, setting the candle down on the small table between their respective cots before she dropped it in her mirth. She watched as the mortally embarrassed woman fell onto her side on her cot, her head thrown back as she giggled with rapturous cheek.
"That was unfair Sally!" she accused light-heartedly. "I can't even speak the language well enough to say 'hello' without offending someone, let alone manage to...to..." A brief hush came over Rose then, caught by the sudden look of shock on her friend's face. "What ever is the matter?"
"Neither can I" Sally replied, pressing a balled fist to her midriff. The stay she wore exacerbated her propensity to hyperventilate when stressed, and the realisation she had just come to certainly wrought that very thing within her.
"Neither can you what, dear?"
"Speak the language. If we do have to treat the German forces, how in the World will we communicate with them? I don't speak a word of..." She took a couple of shallow breaths, trying to settle herself before finishing her thought with a groaned, "...Oh dear God...We're half an ocean away from home and I suddenly want to be anywhere but here!"
"I...surely they wouldn't...Oh darn it!" Rose's litany came as she struggled to push herself upright without terminally creasing the material of her dress. Though she was, for her age and station, a generally practical thing, she had, today of all days, decided to wear her favourite silks. It was a fool's earned really, within the walls of this great hulk where no one but she could appreciate their muted fineness, but without making mistakes one cannot learn. Her plight brought a tiny flicker of jollity forth from within Sally's sea of mortification, and the less practically-challenged woman leant her upended friend her arm to hold as she righted herself.
A flurry of movement later and they were once again facing each other across the milky light of their shared candle.
"As I was saying" Rose huffed as she smoothed her dress back into good order. "Do you really think Mr Barmouth would have us treating men who aren't strictly part of the English army?"
The man she referred to, Henry Barmouth, was one of the chief investors in medical supplies in England. It was from his pocket that the funding for the triages that she, Sally and their ten counterparts were to work in came. He was shrewd and opportunistic, and this war was making him a fortune.
"It'd make him a lot more money if he did" Sally replied, trying to reason her way out of the unhappy conclusion they seemed to have reached on conjecture alone. "Surely we would have been told."
"Why yes, of course!" Rose agreed, hoping that enthusiasm would somehow quiet the doubt which now plagued both she and her friend. "The officer who passed out our notes would have warned us."
Somewhere in that sentence a cue was given that set both women instantly on edge. It was something non-verbal; the tone of Rose's voice as she spoke, less the words she actually said, and the frown that Sally responded to it with. Over exuberance met with apprehension. A tense beat of silence passed before either woman dared speak.
"Have you read everything in there?" Sally finally asked, pointing to the open document folder on their shared night table.
"No, I thought you-"
Rose's face fell. "Oh!...Oh ZOUNDS!" she groaned, dropping her face into her hands as Sally leapt for the folder.
"We must be two thirds through our voyage by now!" the near frantic woman said as she separated the leather cover from its contents and spilled them across the length of her cot.
"HOW could I have not had the forethought to READ this!"
"We've had other things on our minds" Rose spoke in limp defence of their mutual distraction from the literature as she shimmied over to the edge of Sally's cot and settled. What with all the soldiers and gossip, card games and the glorious GLORIOUS walks around the massive rectangular deck, time had simply passed on by without them noticing. She reached for a document while her counterpart rummaged at random, urgency lending her hands great speed.
The next few minutes passed in relative silence, but for sporadic mutterings or the occasional hitched breath from Sally and the raspy shuffle of thin and wispy papers being sorted through and scanned for details pertaining to the need for volunteer nurses to be versed in a tongue outside of their native English. Three small piles of paper were made upon the cot, documents being placed in each depending on their subject matter.
The first pile was for any documents that detailed their living arrangements and duties while they worked in the triage. This one was by far the largest of the three, and included a small booklet which explained what essentials each nurse would be provided with and what would be expected of them once they reached their destination. Reading through the first few pages lost the women a full quarter hour, and both were pleased to learn that, among other things, there would be facilities to boil water. Neither could imagine a worse fate than working unending shifts without the ability, when finally they had a moment to spare, to have a hot bath.
With their main concerns about their lodgings allayed and their minds settled on the fact that the rest of the little manual contained their duties, exhaustively detailed, it was set back in the pile to be finished later. For now, the sorting went on.
The second pile was for official-looking papers which, upon inspection, were found to require the signatures of both Mr Barmouth and a Doctor Robin Hall, of whom neither woman had heard, when they arrived at their destination. According to one particularly officious scrap of paper in this pile, Doctor Hall was the head physician at the camp they were to work at, and would be the man to whom they were accountable during their time there.
The last pile was for anything that didn't fit in the first two. In here went a couple of small receipts that Rose had tucked into the folder after buying a treat or two for herself from the quartermaster; one laundry note for a hat that was now, thanks to a marksman of a seagull, entirely ruined; a single papery sweet wrapper, which was all that remained of one of the treats Rose had bought, and, finally, a neatly folded piece of paper which both women overlooked when first they designated it a pile. It was small, yellow, and blank on the outside. When the cot was clear of clutter however, and they re-checked each pile for safety's sake, the paper stood out like the awful chalky blotches patterning Rose's once pristine hat.
"What are the odds" Sally asked, picking up the object of their consternation. "That this will be a mandatory order to all crewmen and women to learn Ger-" She was hushed by Rose's hands covering her lips, and managed a soft chortle through them while their owner glared at her.
"The more often you say things like that, the more likely they'll be to come true!" she scolded playfully, though her expression lost none of its harried character. "May I read it please?"
Sally passed the slip over with a slight nod before retrieving her own file from where she had tucked it beneath her single, threadbare pillow on the evening she arrived onboard. She had done this, not because she had wanted to ignore the folder's contents, but for practical reasons. A single pillow was simply horrific on the neck, and she was unwilling to use any of the few spare clothes she had with her as extra padding.
"...'Dear Volunteer'..." Rose began, trailing off to read in silence while Sally flicked through her file. She too found a small, yellowish, neatly folded piece of paper which, as Rose's had, turned out to be a hand written letter. She opened it out and read from where Rose left off.
"...'Welcome to the war effort. You will be stationed between a farmhold and a markedly wet place'...Who wrote this?" she snuffled, checking the signature quickly. "Doctor Hall."
"Oh I like him already!" Rose opined cheerfully.
"...'Though I can give no names'..." Sally continued, "...'and say no more on your eventual location for reasons of security. You will be one of the two nurses assigned to the triage here'...Well, I already know the second."
"That you rightly do."
"...'And will be tasked with seeing to the good health of over two hundred men, English...and German alike'..."
At this revelation the friends shared a pained glance, their perception of their situation shifting to accommodate the new information. It seemed that their conclusions about Mr Barmouth's desire to expand his fortunes had been accurate. That, or this Dr Hall fellow was a terribly altruistic sort.
As the next line was approached, Sally's voice became a little choppy as her breaths once again began to shorten. By its end she wasn't breathing at all. "...'Be advised. The good men of Hesse-Kassel are...r...rare speakers of English, so an aptitude in conversational German would be very much appreciated, and...would put...everyone at their ease'..." A brief pause was had, the beleaguered woman's jaw working silently for a moment before words burst forth.
"God in Heaven, I am the Devil for bad luck!" she exclaimed, thrusting the letter away as if it had burned her. After a panic-thinned breath she dropped her face into both hands, leaning forward enough that she could rest her elbows on her knees as her anxiousness peaked.
Rose, for her part, was honestly more flustered by her friend's use of the word 'Devil' than by the thought of not sharing a common language with her prospective patients. One can work around the lack of a language and learn as one goes along. Making oneself right with God however is a lifetime pursuit, and talk of Satan is not the way to endear oneself to the Almighty. Though she was quite rambunctious by nature, Rose had intimations of being God-fearing about her, and she liked to think that He had approved of her helping to bring new lives into His world while she had worked with her aunt back in London's east end. Quite how her new occupation would square with Him she wasn't sure, but saving lives was certainly preferable to ending them.
Tempered by her faith as she was however, she was by no means above using coarseness to break a dour mood. Thus, as she reached and gave poor aggrieved Sally a comforting pat on the back, she deadpanned, "You know, for all this Dr Hall writes in the manner of a polite and cultured gentleman, I have the sudden urge to drown him."
The outrageousness of her words snapped Sally's head up, and she sputtered out an almost mirthful titter while staring at her counterpart, her expression a mixture of shock and panic. After swallowing back a swell of trepidation and bile, she asked "Is there anything in there about how we might acquire this 'aptitude in conversational German'?"
"Let me look."
As Rose went back to fishing through her letter, Sally forced herself to breathe deeply in an effort to quell the gasping attack she could feel coming on. This was a more arduous task than it might seem to be, for she was now feeling more like a fish out of water than she yet had in her life. For every one of her twenty-eight years she'd had herself convinced that the piecemeal Latin she used for reading parts of her father's medical texts would be the only foreign language she would need to get by in the life of a medic.
More the fool she, it seemed.
What made the unexpected need to widen her repertoire so worrying was not shame on her part for needing assistance in coming to grips with a new language. Learning had been part of her life for many years, and she was at her happiest when she was presented with something new to tackle. No, the troubling thing was that, even with days upon days crammed with practice, she would not be fluent enough by the time they reached their destination to be properly and comfortably able to interact with and care for her patients. Not only did she feel like she was suddenly useless to this cause she had volunteered to be a part of, but she also felt silenced, incapable of communicating her thoughts coherently to those who may come to rely on her. And to compound this, there was no way she could escape. The time were returning to England was an option had passed long ago. The walls felt suddenly close and her breaths, doubly laboured.
Horror-stricken, she imagined the scenario - being approached by a foreign solider who asks for aid while she stares dumbly mute back at him, pained embarrassment overcoming them both; hers for herself, and his, for her also. Sally shuddered at the thought, and was just about to curl herself into as tight a ball as possible when a sudden and gleeful "Ah ha!" from Rose brought her mind back from its wonderings.
"You found something?" she wheezed hopefully, leaning to try and see whatever the passage that had piqued her friend's interest was about. Rose held the letter between them, reading out what she'd found.
"...'Being that proficiency in foreign tongues is something of a cultured privilege in modern England, I have included in the back of the housing booklet a small guide to the most commonly used and necessary words and phrases likely to be encountered while working alongside the German forces'...Well isn't he a helpful fellow..."
"Very" Sally grumbled, opening the housing and duties booklet they had looked at moments before to find the neatly printed notes promised by the letter on the back seven and three-quarter pages. On the bottom of the last page was a cheerfully inscribed note,
'Ich hoffe, das hilft! That is the German for, 'I hope this helps!'
Both women did their level best to sound out the foreign phrase, but without half a clue as to what syllables the letters conspired to create, they were left more off put than when they began. Even easygoing Rose appeared more ill at ease than she had a moment previous.
A tense few seconds of eye contact was held before Sally snapped the book closed, hiding the doctor's presently unwelcome positivity. "So" she brooked, giving her equally downhearted friend a forced smile. "Drowning?"
Rose had the grace to look shocked at herself for snorting in amusement. "Doctor Hall? Yes. Myself?...Hmm, not quite yet. Give that here." She reached over and slipped the book from between Sally's fingers, flipping it open to the first page of notes.
"It starts with the alphabet at least..." she said, moving further into the candlelight to better examine the letters. Off to her left, Sally huffed softly.
"I'll study it in a moment" she said as she stood, her steps echoing more noisily than her still uneven breathing in the sparse room as she walked to the corner in which they had piled their travelling cases. From within the smallest of hers, an old leather doctor's bag, she withdrew her journal and, having closed the bag with a soft click, returned to Rose's side to share the candlelight. She opened the journal at today's page and then counted forward to the projected end of their voyage.
Rose looked up from her reading. "Sorry?"
"We look to reach the coast in eighteen days or so. God willing."
"Hm...Do you think we could..." The pages of notations were indicated with a glance. "Get through this in that time?"
Sally gave a thready and doubtful chuff. "So short a time to learn a language?"
"No" Rose corrected sagely, "We need only become proficient enough to be able to learn more once we arrive."
Though Sally at first looked dubious, she couldn't forget the helpless feeling of non-comprehension that she feared would overtake her at some crucial moment in the near future - confronted by a soldier who needed her help but whose words she could not understand. In the face of THAT horror, even a little German was better than absolutely none.
"What shall we learn to say first?" she asked, looking at the page Rose had open. The alphabet ran across the top and looked, at least at first glance, to be more or less comprehensible.
"How about" Rose chuckled teasingly. "I cannot speak much German. Have mercy!"
The dour mood that had encroached upon the two friends, along with the lingering remnants Sally's breathing issue, were evaporated entirely by the explosion of laughter that followed this suggestion, and they spent the small hours scanning Dr Hall's guidance notes, trying to piece together that exact phrase as the coast, and their new lives, grew ever closer.