Huldah, bless her soul, was the first to let Mrs. Lewis know about the new arrivals. She didn’t mean it that way, but she gave them up nonetheless. Sergeant Lewis sent his wife to the other wing to collect more bandages, and when she reached the laundry, Huldah was pulling linens out of the boiling water.
“Why, Huldah, I declare, you have boiled it hot enough in here to clean the clothes just by leavin them in the air,” said Mrs. Lewis.
“The hotter they is, the cleaner they gets,” said Huldah as she used a long stick to lift piles out and place them in the straining bucket. Huldah wore a black dress and a large white apron. A sheen of sweat shone on her dark forehead, and her straight black hair was matted to her head. She was heavy, middle-aged. One of the doctors owned her, had brought her with him to work in the hospital laundry and kitchen.
Mrs. Lewis milled around the shelves looking for the stacks of bandages, but they were gone. In their places were spare uniforms and bed linens. That Huldah! Always into something.
“Huldah, are my eggs a bit scrambled, or have the bandages gone missing?”
“Bandages, ma’am?” said Huldah.
Huldah! She worked hard, but she really could be daft!
“Yes, Huldah! The cotton rolls. Sergeant Lewis is the steward, and he requires more cotton rolls. Many of the men require new wrappings.”
Huldah smiled. “Oh, them bandages! Don’t youse go gettin cross wit ole Huldah. I ain’t never touch no cotton rolls, no, ma’am.”
“Then where could they have gone?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“It was them new ladies that done it,” said Huldah, “but don’t you tell em ole Huldah done tole you.”
“New ladies?” said Mrs. Lewis, and she turned and put her hands on her hips.
“Mmm hmm, that’s right. New ladies. From Alabama, they is. Or at least the one lady. Miss Cummin her name. Alabama. Come up from Okolona.”
“Huldah, you are makin no sense,” said Mrs. Lewis. “First, she is from Alabama, then she is from Okolona.”
“Mmm hmm, that’s right,” said Huldah. “She from Alabama, but she come up from Okolona. Hospital there. She tole me, she says to ole Huldah, ‘Why, I be helpin all our boys out there and up yonder way in Corinth, and now, now, well, now I is come to Chattanooga.’ That’s what she say to me.”
“Miss Cumming from Alabama, huh,” said Mrs. Lewis. “Is she a nurse?”
“You gots to aks her that yo’self,” said Huldah. “But she come in here with another lady, yes, she come in here, and she take most of them bandages and she take them off to that other ward down yonder.”
Mrs. Lewis tapped her leather shoe on the wood floor. “So she and some other woman showed up and took all the cotton rolls.”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s what they did.”
Mrs. Lewis pursed her lips and said, “Well, I will report this to Sergeant Lewis at once and see what he has to say.”
Huldah was pressing the linens and draining the water from them. “Now don’t you be gettin ole Huldah in no trouble. But if you aks me, ladies like that Miss Cummin, why, she ain’t married and don’t seem to have no beau.”
“What’s that?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“I can’t see no other reason, ma’am.”
“Reason for what?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“Well, ladies like that . . . like, Miss Cummin I mean . . . she gettin older than a maiden and she ain’t got no man, and now she just goin from place to place wherever they is young southern boys. That’s right. Wherever they is. And you know how them boys is. Why, you treat them good and they sho do get attached.”
That Huldah! A lot smarter than she let on!
“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. Lewis. “You’ve been most helpful, Huldah. And don’t worry. All your secrets here are safe with me. You keep a good eye out for Miss Cumming and her friend.”
And with that, Mrs. Lewis stormed off to consult with Sergeant Lewis.
Miss Cumming and Mrs. Williamson had just settled for a brief supper when Mrs. Lewis happened upon them. They were at a small table in a separate room from the men, and Mrs. Lewis entered with an armful of linens. Miss Cumming stood and asked, “Do you need help with that?”
Mrs. Lewis grunted. “Hardly. I have hauled it from the other wing here. I am going to put it on these shelves here, and this is where you shall first draw your linens from. Am I clear?”
Miss Cumming stepped back and watched the small, blonde woman step briskly to the shelves she was referencing and set down the linens with a soft thud.
“Quite clear,” said Mrs. Williamson after taking a sip of her soup.
“I see you have found the food,” said Mrs. Lewis.
“We prepared a spot for ourselves after feeding the men,” said Miss. Cumming.
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Lewis.
“Thank you for bringing us linens,” said Miss Cumming.
Mrs. Lewis whirled and faced them. “Sergeant Lewis is the steward. I am Mrs. Lewis. I am told you are up from Mississippi.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mrs. Williamson, and she tore a piece of bread to dip into her soup. “Worked at Corinth and Okolona.”
Mrs. Lewis put her fists on her hips. “I am sure you are here for the noblest of reasons and that we will be blessed by your service.”
“We are all here for cause and country,” said Miss Cumming.
“Indeed we are,” said Mrs. Lewis. “I spend most of my time in the other ward. If you have need of supplies, you may make me or Sergeant Lewis aware, and we will see that they are met to the degree possible.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lewis,” said Mrs. Williamson. “We will keep you apprised of our needs.”
“And I believe you have met Huldah who cooks and cleans for the doctors.”
“We have,” said Miss Cumming.
“If she has spare time, she may be of service to you, but I would see to it that she meets the needs of the doctors primarily, as their work is of the highest import.”
“Of course,” said Miss Cumming.
“I will leave you to it, then,” said Mrs. Lewis, and she dropped her hands to her side and stepped briskly from the room, her leather soles clicking on the wood floors.
Miss Cumming looked at Mrs. Williamson. “I do believe that is the strangest introduction to the steward and his wife I have yet had in the war.”
Mrs. Williamson puckered her face so as to imitate Mrs. Lewis. “Indeed, Miss Cumming.”
Miss Cumming laughed. “That is spot on,” she said. “Except the name part. She never called me by name. Do you think she knows it?”
Mrs. Williamson shrugged. “She knew where we were last from. I have to assume she knows our names.”
Miss Cumming now puckered her lips and said, “Indeed, Mrs. Williamson,” and Mrs. Williamson pushed back from the table and laughed.
As she did, Huldah stepped into the small room. “Them doctors always just eatin and eatin and takin they coffee and tea. Don’t never see how they get no work down or save no food for the men.” She looked up. “Oh, ma’ams, pardon you me. Don’t you mind ole Huldah talkin to herself.”
Miss Cumming looked slyly at Mrs. Williamson. “We do not mind you, Huldah. If I did not know better, I might suppose you were speaking of Dr. Hunter who is, indeed, quite capable at his labors but entirely ignorant of many issues that concern the work of the ladies.”
Huldah stepped over to the pot. “Dr. Hunter be who he be, and Huldah do be talkin too much, so I must gets some more broth up afore they’s more trouble.”
Miss Cumming smiled and watched the heavy woman start spooning broth into a bowl. “We met Mrs. Lewis just moments ago,” said Miss Cumming.
“Oh the steward wife,” said Huldah.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Williamson. “Sergeant Lewis’s wife.”
Huldah shook her head. “Ole Sergeant Lewis think hisself some kinda doctor.”
Miss Cumming saw Mrs. Williamson lower her head and chuckle, while trying to cover her mouth.
“We haven’t met Sergeant Lewis yet,” said Miss Cumming.
Huldah finished one bowl and started on another. “Ain’t nothin so much like god on earth as a doctor, and Mrs. Lewis, she his holy avenging angel.” Huldah glanced sideways at Miss Cumming. “Don’t mind ole Huldah. The Lewises sho is angel-like folk, I’m sure. That’s what ole Huldah saying. Angel-like folks here in this here hospital workin with all the dear boys fightin for the cause.”
At that moment, another black servant poked her head around the corner. “The doctors is waitin.”
“Miss Jane, ole Huldah movin just as fast as necessary.”
Jane disappeared, and Huldah set two more bowls on a tray. “Young Miss Jane, she one of them without no good kinda family,” Huldah muttered.
“No family?” said Mrs. Williamson.
Huldah lifted the tray. “The finest doctor in Tennessee brought ole Huldah here. Done kep her since she was a baby. Miss Jane? She ain’t known good white folk like that. ‘Born free,’ she say.” Huldah snorted. “She come from a shack and don’t have no good kinda upbringin. Same as them other free negroes round here. Ain’t up to no good. Ain’t no use for the cause or the boys. Just grubbin about fo money, they is.”
“Oh how awful!” Miss Cumming exclaimed.
“Ain’t no free negro that ack like you and Mrs. Williamson, no, ma’am,” said Huldah. “Y’all here at yo own expense for them boys. Ain’t got no family to show them no class.”
“The work of the abolitionists,” Mrs. Williamson sneered. “Stirring things up.”
“Uh huh, they sho is,” said Huldah. “I gots to get me on my way afore them doctors hollas again.” She stepped to the door but then looked back. “Y’all watch out for Mrs. Lewis. Her husband, he ain’t no doctor and ain’t got no class like my massa. And she don’t come from good folk neither.”
Working with so many tragic cases was bad enough. It was the petty indignities that followed that first meeting in the nurses’ kitchen that rankled Miss Cumming. A man would die, and Mrs. Williamson would send his linens to the laundry only to find later that Mrs. Lewis had commandeered them for her ward.
“Mrs. Lewis say they gots way more men and needs in they ward,” Huldah would tell them. “Mrs. Lewis say you can put in a request to Sergeant Lewis.”
Mrs. Williamson would snort. “I suppose we could fall on our knees and petition the Almighty with more effect.”
Huldah would shrug. “God sho is good. That’s one thing ole Huldah know fo sho.”
Another time, after rewrapping a man’s head wounds, a man still breathing but mostly catatonic from shock and illness, Miss Cumming returned hours later to check his progress or decline only to find his wrapping partially undone with about half of it cut away. Blood had seeped through the thin lower layers and dribbled down into the man’s closed eyes.
That evening, Miss Cumming stood at the stove and ladled broth into a bowl and described the horror to Mrs. Williamson.
“It is not that I have not seen worse,” she said to Mrs. Williamson. “I have treated many more grievous wounds.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Williamson.
“But who takes a bandage off a man in need? The barbarity!”
Miss Cumming paused and stared at the broth. “There’s something off about this broth,” she said. She grabbed a small spoon, scooped some, and tasted it.
“Why, Mrs. Williamson, this broth is positively spoiled with salt! If we feed this to the men, they will die of dehydration!”
“We made that ourselves!” Mrs. Williamson exclaimed. “I am certain the measurements were correct.”
“Nevertheless, it is spoiled and the men must go without their dinner,” said Miss Cumming.
At that moment, Huldah shuffled into the room, muttering, “Cotton, cotton, cotton! Ten plantations couldn’t supply cotton fo that other ward!”
“What’s that?” Mrs. Williamson said.
“Mrs. Lewis’ ward, they’s wounds just bleed more’n anyone else’s. Always sendin ole Huldah for more cotton. Why, she’d take the wrappin off the dead.”
“Huldah!” Miss Cumming exclaimed. “What are you saying?”
Huldah walked to a shelf and started gathering cotton rolls. “Don’t you ladies mind ole Huldah. Gots me ole bones that creaks from walkin to and fro the wards all day.” With an armful of cotton, she turned and walked out.
Mrs. Lewis stirred her coffee mindlessly and stared at the fall early morning light glinting through the window. Miss Jane stepped in quietly and moved to the stove where took the pot and began pouring saucers.
“I cannot imagine what has possessed the doctors,” said Mrs. Lewis.
“Ma’am?” said Miss Jane.
“Petty indignities!” Mrs. Lewis hissed. “That’s what Dr. Stout accused Sergeant Lewis of.” She took a sip of coffee. “Which of course is just an accusation of me.”
Miss Jane finished pouring coffee. “I must be about my work, ma’am.” And she exited with her tray.
Of course! thought Mrs. Lewis. These free negroes were only in it for the money! Be off now to meet the needs of every god-on-earth doctor and he might just give you an extra penny for your troubles!
Just then, Huldah trundled in with a bag of corn meal.
“Oh, Mrs. Lewis, ma’am, I can tell. You ain’t slep a wink now, have you?”
Huldah! A good Christian woman and servant of the cause!
“I have not,” said Mrs. Lewis. “Sergeant Lewis and I have been defamed.”
“What’s that, ma’am?” Huldah said as she hefted the bag to the floor.
“Dr. Stout has accused us of ‘perpetuating petty slights and indignities throughout the hospital’ and ordered Sergeant Lewis to ensure it ceases.”
Huldah put her hands on her hips. “No!”
Mrs. Lewis nodded. “It’s true. The doctor’s exact words.”
Huldah shook her head. “I say, Mrs. Lewis, I say that you have cause to rejoice. A good Christian woman like you! Mmm hmm. Rejoice!”
“Rejoice?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“Mmm hmm, that’s right. Jesus say that when the world hate you, it hated me first and you should be happy. That’s what they say in church.”
Mrs. Lewis sipped her coffee. “I guess they do say that.”
“And Jesus, He say, the truth will set you free. So don’t you be gettin down about what no ole spinster done tole those doctors about you and Sergeant Lewis. Don’t change nothin no how in what Jesus think of you.”
Spinster! Of course! That plain-faced Scottish woman from Alabama preying on their gallant heroes in their weakened state!
Mrs. Lewis looked at Huldah. “Thank you, Huldah. You have helped me greatly.”
Over-salted broth! Again! Miss Cumming and Mrs. Williamson were so incensed and distraught that they vowed to go hungry that night since the wounded would have to also. Then they went looking for justice. They found Huldah in the smaller cooking quarters preparing the doctors’ dinners.
“Huldah, we have had a crime committed against our men again!” Miss Cumming exclaimed breathlessly. “Someone has snuck extra salt into the men’s broth again.”
“Why, someone would just kill our boys like that!” Huldah exclaimed.
“We must know who is doing it,” said Mrs. Williamson. “Have you seen anything unusual?”
Huldah turned from her stove, and her face tightened anxiously.
“Well, I seen something, but ole Huldah don’t like to think no evil of no one.”
Miss Cumming stepped toward her. “What did you see? You need not think any evil of anyone. We will conclude whether evil has been done, then consult with the doctors.”
Huldah shook her head and looked down. “Lord, let it not be. Ole Huldah just can’t imagine no evil of Mrs. Lewis.”
“Mrs. Lewis!” Mrs. Williamson exclaimed. “That small-souled woman has already been warned! Why, she would kill our dear boys just to have the run of the place!”
“What did you see, Huldah?” Miss Cumming said quietly.
Huldah kept her eyes low. “I come into the kitchen to drop off some fresh vegetables and she done turn suddenly from the stove. The salt was there on the counter and she done tole me where to put the vegetables, then got herself outta there real quick-like.”
“A thousand blessings on your head,” said Mrs. Williamson.
“Ole Huldah don’t want no one believin she think or speak evil of them.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Miss Cumming. “You have done a brave thing. We will protect you. No harm will come to you.”
Mrs. Lewis went for a walk. She walked right out of the hospital and onto a dusty road, and she followed it toward the river. Perhaps the calm flow of the water would settle her, ease the bubbling anger that threatened to burst inside her.
“You are not to come to my ward,” Dr. Hunter had told her in the presence of her husband, “and if you do, you will be turned out entirely.”
Turned out? In the middle of a war where there were too many wounded, too many dead, too few doctors, too few nurses?
Dr. Hunter did not need to explain. She knew that vile spinster must have spun up some lie, and that old fool Dr. Hunter had gone for it like a catfish after a fat worm. He had been serving with that snake in several places now. Deceived! Like Adam in the garden! Oh, the weakness of arrogant, frail-minded men!
Mrs. Lewis reached the river and sat by herself for at least half an hour. Yes, let them wonder where she was. Turn her out? Go for half an hour without her and see what that is like! Let those fool doctors chase down every bandage, listen to every final confession, write every letter home, bind every wound, dry every tear! Do it for half an hour even! Yes, try to tend the men while these female predators whirl around them to get their clutches into them!
After more than half an hour, she headed back. She entered her ward, and everything seemed exactly as she left it–the wounded were still in their places, the doctors were still milling about, several of the nurses sat by men to treat or console them, and Miss Jane was moving quickly with supplies from place to place. She watched the whole scene, her eyes darting from one person to another, waiting to see when she would be noticed. Where was her husband? Perhaps in the other ward? As steward, he was still welcome there. And would that viper move in on him, too? She shuddered at the thought, but no, he would not fall prey to Miss Cumming’s machinations. He, too, had been outraged by her behavior.
She must have stood at the edge of the great hall for five minutes, and not a soul glanced her way. She sighed deeply, lifted her hands, then dropped them to her sides with a light smack. Very well, then. On to her duties. She walked briskly to the laundry, stepped in, and saw Huldah hanging men’s trousers on a clothesline.
“What are we up against today, Huldah?” Mrs. Lewis said sharply.
“Four more men last night gone,” Huldah said without looking back.
“Uh huh, ma’am. One fella’s twin was with him, and he just beside hisself. You’da thought a piece of him got cut off. But I guess that’s how it seems to him.”
“Has anyone tended to their final affairs?”
Huldah shrugged. “You be havin to aks the nurses that. Ole Huldah just mind her own business.” Huldah turned now to look at her. “Why, Mrs. Lewis, you looks like you seen a ghost or the inside of the grave.”
“Do I?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“Yes, ma’am. I knows that look anywheres.”
Mrs. Lewis blinked back tears. “They’ve made me a prisoner here, Huldah.”
Huldah put her hands on her hips. “Who done gone and made you a prisoner, Mrs. Lewis? Who gots call to do that?”
“Dr. Hunter,” Mrs. Lewis said. “He said that Sergeant Lewis and I had continued to spread lies and problems, and he said that if I ventured out of this ward into any other, he would see to it that I was turned out.”
“Turned out?” Huldah exclaimed. “You, Mrs. Lewis?”
“Why, I never knowed a more Christian woman who done give so much of herself. No, ma’am. Can’t be no one who gots any call to treat you like that.”
Yes, Huldah! How could a negro woman see it so clearly while these so-called doctors were so easily blinded?
“They’ve made me a prisoner of this ward!” Mrs. Lewis exclaimed.
“A prisoner!” Huldah exclaimed. “Why, there ain’t no justice in the world if you a prisoner!”
“I can’t leave this ward without being turned out and hurting my husband’s career.”
Huldah tapped her foot indignantly. “What can we do about this, Mrs. Lewis?”
Mrs. Lewis looked at her and pondered, but her mind was blank. She was trapped–the doctors and the men ruled. “I verily believe there is nothing at all I can do except live with this injustice.”
“Terrible,” said Huldah. “I can’t hardly imagine.” She looked at the floor for several long moments, then back at Mrs. Lewis. “We got one thing we can do for you, Mrs. Lewis.”
“What’s that?” Mrs. Lewis said, a flicker of hope lighting inside.
“We’s just gots to look to Jesus. Yes, Jesus.”
“Jesus?” said Mrs. Lewis.
“That’s right, ma’am. Jesus. He say in the Bible, Jesus, . . . He say, ‘he anointed me to preach to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’ It’s all in His hands. His timing.”
Mrs. Lewis suddenly felt very small–as though she might vanish and that no one would know that she was gone or had even existed. A lump formed in her throat.
“I suppose you are right,” said Mrs. Lewis.
Huldah grabbed an empty basket. “Beggin your pardon, ma’am. I gots to get on and find the rest of the dirty linens.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Lewis, as Huldah brushed past her out of the room and down the hall.
Mrs. Lewis turned. She watched the large black woman lumber away, her hips shifting back and forth, the basket under her right arm and balanced on the shelf of her hip, bouncing with each step. Just past the last reach of the hallway’s light was the dark expanse of the large room where the suffering and dying lay, each consumed with his own wounds, his own lonely pains and sicknesses, his thoughts of a home he may never see again, family members he may never talk with again. Into that darkness stepped Huldah the Negro woman, and Mrs. Lewis whispered, “Bless your soul, Huldah.”