Atlantic Ocean 1837
Melanie Parker Charbonneau looked out over the deck of the clipper as it raced toward London. Melanie couldn’t help thinking about her trip from London to the United States seven years before. She’d barely survived the journey to New York, and what happened thereafter had changed the course of her life forever. She met the love of her life, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, won his heart and gave him hers, escaped bandits and spies and lawmen and the law, to emerge a loving family with a bright and wonderful five-year-old son, named Deacon, after her late father.
The mist of the cold eastern Atlantic was bracing, ocean spray clinging to her face as she gave Deacon and JB their first look at the city where she’d spent so many formative years. It had been her father’s work with the great Dr. James Blundell which had sent her on her journey back to the United States, to spread the innovative blood transfusion techniques they’d perfected.
Melanie hadn’t seen her old friend Dr. Blundell, not since the wedding. And she was anxious to see that he was still well. She was also quite eager for him to see that she’d made good on her pledge to serve her father’s life’s work, to make good on his and Dr. Blundell’s efforts to spread their new technology. She’d given birth to a wonderful little boy, and found happiness and fulfillment beyond her wildest dreams. She wanted Dr. Blundell to see that she’d finally come of age, reconciled the British and American forces on her young life. She was happy, she was free, and she was everything she ever dared to hope to be.
“Is that London, Mommy?”
“Yes, Deacon, that’s London.”
“And that’s where Great Uncle James is?”
With just a touch of hidden worry, Melanie said, “For a fact, Deacon, for a solid fact.”
They sailed in and were greeted by Dr. James Blundell on the dock, just a bit older and grayer, but his smile not diminished in the slightest. Melanie relished the feel of his hug, the familiar smell of pipe tobacco. It brought back so many memories, some of them more bitter than sweet. But Melanie had long come to terms with her father’s death, so many years before. He’d given his life to that which he believed in, to save others’ lives, and he’d succeeded, thanks to Melanie and JB and the doctors back at Midwest General and at other hospitals across the United States.
“And this must be young master Deacon,” Dr. Blundell said, shaking the boy’s hand.
“Hi, Great Uncle James!”
“Great Uncle—? My word!” They all shared a chuckle, the doctor shaking JB’s hand. “Good sir, how do you fare?”
“Quite well, Dr. Blundell. It’s more than a pleasure to see you again, and looking so well.”
“A bit older and the worse for wear, I’m afraid. Unlike you two. It’s as if age overlooked your house in the altogether. Only young Deacon here attests to the fact that any time has passed for you at all!”
Another fond chuckle was followed by Dr. Blundell instructing his hired hands to take their trunks from the clipper to the house. The doctor led Melanie and her family down the dock toward the pier, happily making small talk.
“And how are you busying yourself, JB, while my young mentee spreads the good word of our work together here in the jolly old?”
“We’ve got a fine farm in Illinois,” Melanie said. “JB raises the finest vegetables and chickens in Illinois, when he’s not ferrying people up Lake Michigan to Ontario.”
“Slaves, actually, making their way to freedom from the South. I don’t want to endanger my family, of course, but I was glad to help one or two in need, and word somehow spread. But anything I can do for one of those poor souls, I will do.”
“Commendable,” Dr. Blundell said, “but of course, I would have expected no less.” He turned to little Deacon. “I imagine you’re quite tired after your trip?”
Deacon shrugged, rubbing his belly. “Sure am hungry, though.”
Doctor Blundell chuckled and took Deacon’s hand. “Let’s hurry back to my house. Supper’s waiting!”
The next morning, Britain was shocked by the news of the death by heart attack of King William IV from heart failure at Windsor Castle. Queen Adelaide had been at his bedside. Because none of his ten surviving children were legitimate, his eighteen-year-old niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, would ascend the throne as Queen Victoria and be so crowned in a private ceremony that very day.
Melanie, JB with Deacon on his shoulders, and their merry host Dr. Blundell stood with the crowd in front of Buckingham Palace as the new coach rode the young queen to what would be her regular London home, the first queen to make it thus. She was lovely, regal as she stepped out of the carriage and turned to wave to her subjects. They cheered her, and Melanie felt a flush of emotion she wasn’t expecting, her years as a subject of the crown coming back to her with soul-stirring pride.
But Melanie saw more than just the spectacle of a country welcoming her new leader, she saw the leader; a woman, whom men served, to whom men would bow down, for whom men would give their lives.
Someday, Melanie thought to herself, someday we’ll treat women that way in the United States. We’ll have women voting, perhaps even serving in government. It could someday be possible that a woman could be president! God save this queen long enough to see that happen!
After long hours in the London afternoon, Dr. Blundell took the exhausted Deacon back to his house to leave Melanie and JB to take in the pleasures of the city.
The Boar’s Head served up a delicious dinner of beef Wellington, sliced from the roast, a rind of herbs and browned pastry ringing the perfectly pink meat. A rich Madeira sauce almost covered the plate. Melanie even allowed herself a glass of red wine, a robust cabernet that was dry and tangy.
After dinner, Melanie and JB attended a concert in the King’s Theatre by the famed Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni. She was a danseuse at the Paris Opéra where her father created the ballet La Sylphide for her, in a series of rare British performances that were said to be her last with the ballet. Designed as a showcase for Taglioni’s talent, it required Taglioni to dance en pointe, which involved graceful arm movements and exertions. Every dancer Melanie had ever seen used that style, and it was well known that Taglioni was the innovator who made it so popular.
But Melanie saw more than the beauty of her performance, limbs long and fluid, body seeming to fly across the stage with no effort at all. Melanie saw a woman commanding the stage, enthralling the audience of men and women alike. Melanie felt as if she was with a kindred spirit, that in some small way it was her own spirit upon that stage, celebrating her freedom and her womanhood, the equal to any man, even superior to many of them. The woman on that stage was like a totem to all women everywhere, capable and wondrous and special, celebrated and not mistreated, safe from peril or ugliness, a creature of sophistication and style that knew no brutality or lust.
She’d known none of the danger or fright which had visited Melanie’s life, and Melanie cherished that about her, a lone figure of perfect beauty, untouched, unblemished by the world.
JB was enthralled, perfectly at home in the ornate concert hall. It was yet another facet of his amazing personality, a man as urbane as he was rugged, at home in the plains, the mountains, or the marble halls of high society.
They strolled along the Thames river, dark and leisurely, enjoying just walking in each other’s arm, a perfect coupling.
JB said, “It’s quite nice, London. I can see why it had such a powerful effect on you.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t been here before.”
He smiled. “With you, my love, every place is new, as if I’ve forgotten everything which came before it.”
Melanie couldn’t disguise her blush, but she did turn away, waving off his flattery.
“Oye,” an unfamiliar voice said behind them. Melanie and JB turned to see a young man with an unwashed face and rotting teeth, and a long, sharp knife in his hand. “Hand over your purse, mate, or I’ll gut your ol’ lady.”
JB just looked at the mugger, and Melanie stood there waiting of what she knew would be his formidable reaction. The silence only made Melanie look forward to it even more.
“Give me your money, or you’re both—”
JB flew into action, a blur of his hands jutting out in front of him. With a quick snap, the knife flew to the sidewalk. JB had the young man in his grip, his arm bent up and back awkwardly, JB commanding him with the slightest movement.
“Oye, y’breakin’ me bloody arm!”
“I should tear it off you and jam it down our throat,” JB said, the young man twitching under his power. With the slightest turn of his hand, the young mugger’s arm snapped, and Melanie almost felt as if her bone had broken. The young man cried out, squirming and writhing at JB’s feet, unable to free himself. “Something to remember me by,” JB said, letting go of the mugger and giving him a hard kick to roll him forward. “Next time I see you,” JB said, “you will not see me. Don’t let that happen.”
The mugger grabbed his injured arm and ran off, disappearing into the crowd. JB extended his crooked elbow, and Melanie slipped her own arm in. “I’m sorry that happened,” he said.
“I’m glad it didn’t happen any other way,” Melanie said as they walked on.
“Dreadful,” Dr. Blundell said as he stirred his tea the next morning. “Just bloody awful. That’s what the modern times bring, eh? I hear it’s every bit as bad across the pond.”
JB quietly repeated, “Across the pond?”
“There’s plenty of that in the U.S.,” Melanie said, “we can sorrowfully assure you. And not just of the type JB and I met on our trip west. There’s crime up and down the spectrum, as it is here.”
“Or anywhere men rule,” JB said. “I wonder if it will ever be otherwise.”
“Unlikely in our time,” Dr. Blundell said, dipping a biscuit into his tea. “But until then, we can do what we can do, needs must.”
Melanie took Dr. Blundell’s hand and pressed it to her cheek. “It was worth the unpleasantness just to hear you speak of it, Uncle James.” He smiled to hear her use the fond term she saved for special occasions and intimate moments.
Several loud wraps on the door alerted everybody in the room. Melanie walked with Dr. Blundell to the door, JB fast on her heels.
Doctor Blundell asked, “Who is it?”
“Help! I need help, please!” The doctor didn’t hesitate, and Melanie wasn’t surprised. Doctor Blundell pulled the door open to reveal a young man standing in the doorway, bent forward, one hand pressed to his bleeding belly. “Help … me …” He fell forward and into the room, Dr. Blundell catching him and carrying him in. He was young, not much more than sixteen by Melanie’s estimation. His cheeks were smooth, his eyes big and black to match his hair.
“Yer a sawbones, yeah? Yeah?”
“I’m a doctor, yes.”
“They cut me, Doc, they cut me bad!”
JB asked, “Who did this to you?”
“Peaky Blinders,” he said, wincing as Dr. Blundell pulled his young hands back to examine the wound. “Don’t let me kick off, Doc!”
Melanie had never heard of the Peaky Blinders, but it didn’t take much deduction to understand that it was a street gang, common on both sides of the Atlantic. Gangs of the sort had produced muggers the like of which had assaulted them that very day.
But Melanie’s mind didn’t linger on the social blights of the day. The young man was bleeding out, and she knew a transfusion was going to be required.
“There’s no time to get him to the surgery,” Dr. Blundell said, “we’ll have at him right here. I’ve got a full kit downstairs, and a set for transfusions, in a box marked with a small red X.”
“I’ll bring it up,” JB said, turning to lead their boy Deacon down the hall to one of the guest bedrooms. “I need you to stay low, li’l guy. Understand?” Deacon nodded, and JB led him into the bedroom and closed the door, then proceeded to the stairway to descend for Dr. Blundell’s equipment.
Melanie turned to Dr. Blundell. “Can we save him?”
“If we act fast. We’ll test the blood for compatibility, then we’ll transfuse after I close the wound.”
JB walked up with a big box in his strong arms, setting it down on a chair near the table where the boy lay dying.
It took only ten minutes to prepare the tools and lay them out. JB took his place at the boy’s head, pressing his hands down on the patient’s shoulders, pinning him down. Doctor Blundell began sanitizing the wound. The young man cried out in pain, body flinching and bucking.
Melanie prepared the transfusion, but the young man wouldn’t keep his arm still long enough for her to insert either the transfixing or the transfusion needles.
“He won’t be still!”
“Hold down his arm,” Dr. Blundell instructed.
But Melanie could not bodily pin the limb and do the delicate work of inserting the needles. “I can’t!”
JB released the man’s shoulders and grabbed his head. With a quick jerk, the man fell silent and still.
Melanie said, “JB? You didn’t—?”
“He’ll wake up soon,” JB said. “You’d better hurry.”
Melanie prepared the transfusion and began pumping in some of Dr. Blundell’s reserves, sealed in glass flasks. Doctor Blundell closed the wound, slowly stitching up the damaged gastric artery.
The moments crept by with a tense silence, JB keeping the back of his hand pressed against the unconscious Nigel’s neck to check his pulse.
But Dr. Blundell finished his gruesome task, sewing up the wound while Melanie finished the transfusion.
“All right,” Dr. Blundell said, “let’s see how he does.”
JB asked him, “Will he make it?”
“Should do, if there’s no infection.” JB nodded and glanced at Melanie, the two sharing a smile. JB said, “I’ll go check on Deacon.”
Melanie began cleaning up the transfusion supplies while Dr. Blundell bandaged the wound. The young man started to stir, a low groan leaking out of his lips, eyelids fluttering and opening.
“What … what happened?”
“You fell asleep,” Melanie said. “Sorry to bore you.”
Doctor Blundell asked him, “What’s your name, lad?”
“Nigel, sir, Nigel Keats.”
“Well, Nigel, you just lay back and take it easy, yeah? You’re in good nick, so steady on.”
Bap bap bap! The wraps fell heavy on the door. Bap bap bap! JB emerged from the hallway, looking around with immediate concern. Bap bap bap!
Doctor Blundell and Melanie were already at the front door. He called, “What do you want?”
“Oye, we know you got Nigel in’er, innit you? Send ’im out or we’ll rush ya!”
Doctor Blundell turned to Melanie and JB. “Peaky Blinders.”
JB asked, “How many?”
JB looked around and crossed the room to a window on the other side, peeking out from behind the drapes. “Six, maybe.”
Melanie asked him, “How do we handle this? We’ve got a child here, JB!”
“They won’t touch him, Melanie, I promise you that.”
Doctor Blundell said, “I’ve got a pistol—”
“No,” JB said, already thinking things out. “There’s a better way. Doctor, you stand with our patient here. Melanie, you go into the bedroom and sit with Deacon. Anybody comes in through the window, you know what to do.”
Melanie nodded, and Dr. Blundell said, “It’s in my study, in the desk drawer.” Melanie crossed the house toward the study, finding a pistol in the desk drawer where the doctor had said it would be. She returned to the living room. “What about you, JB?”
“I’ll go out and take care of them.”
“They’re only kids,” Dr. Blundell said. “You can’t just slaughter them.”
“And I’m not going to,” JB said. “But I won’t let them rush in here and have us at their pleasure.”
“I have a better idea,” Melanie said. “We’ll bring Deacon in here and face them together.” She turned to Dr. Blundell. “You take the gun.”
JB said, “Melanie —”
“If you go out there, they could overtake you, JB. Let’s draw them in one by one, remove the advantage of their greater numbers.”
Doctor Blundell said, “Let them in? Where your son is?”
“If JB goes out there and gets sandbagged, Deacon—none of us—will be any safer.”
So Dr. Blundell retrieved young Deacon and the two huddled next to the injured young man on the dining room table, JB and Melanie crossing to one of the windows as the banging on the door continued.
JB pushed the window open and shouted, “Don’t do it, Melanie! Stay inside!”
Melanie knew instantly what ruse JB was trying to put across. She nodded and cried out with deliberate drama, “I can’t help it; I gotta get outta here!”
As JB obviously predicted, one young punk climbed quickly in through the window. JB was waiting with his back against the wall, and as soon as the invader had both feet on the floor, JB hit him hard on the upper back, both fists clasped together for a single but brutal strike. The young man snapped with the assault, falling forward to land hard on the floor.
A second invader, who clearly hadn’t seen what had happened to his associate, followed him in through the window. He saw his fallen comrade on the living room floor, and by the time he looked around to assess the situation, it was too late. JB grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into the living room.
Melanie almost felt sorry for the kid, outmatched by JB in every particular. JB acted fast, incredible speed for a man of his size. He smashed his forehead into the invader’s face, the young punk snapping back, bloodied at the nose and stunned at the brain. He stayed on his feet, but only because JB was holding him up.
Another window shattered on the other side of the room, inspiring Deacon to shriek out in fear.
Melanie ran across the room, her instincts guiding her, hands reaching for a chair next to the dining room table. The punk crawled through the window just as Melanie arrived. She raised the chair up high over her head and then brought it crashing down onto the back of the punk’s head. He let out a shocked grunt and fell to his knees, the chair falling apart on contact. But he was still conscious, groaning and shaking his head. Melanie lifted the bashed chair, little more than a single leg and part of the seat, and wacked the punk on the back of the head again, this time putting him on the floor, facedown.
“Melanie,” Dr. Blundell shouted, “take it easy on the lad!”
“Needs must, Uncle James.” Another strike ensured that the young man would stay where he was.
Another window shattered, and a bottle of whiskey flew into the room, a burning rag jammed into it. The bottle shattered against the walnut floorboards, spilling a liquid flame across the floor.
Melanie grabbed the drapes from off the window near her and ran to the fire, smothering the flames with the drapes. The flames caught on the drapes, but Melanie flailed and patted it down until only a gray, choking smoke poured up out of the scorched material.
JB climbed out the window before Melanie could stop him, and she looked up from the doused flames to see him already disappearing into the street outside the house, evening bringing a dark cloak over the city.
Melanie froze, sharing a frightened glance with Dr. Blundell and young Deacon. Nigel looked up from the table, too weak to fully express his growing fear. But he muttered, “Don’t let ’em get me, don’t let ’em …”
A long silence stretched out and encircled the house, filling the living room. No telling how many punks are out there, Melanie realized. I wanted to lure them in instead of them luring him out. Now he’s gone out there into a dozen or more waiting punks with knives and zip guns.
There was a scuffle of some kind outside the house, but Melanie couldn’t quite make it out. She pushed herself up and pulled the front door open, realizing too late she was making herself and her son and her Dutch uncle vulnerable to attack. But she couldn’t leave JB out there alone against untold numbers in the darkening alleys of London.
And for a split second, Melanie thought she’d made a fatal error, a big man pushing his way toward her and into Dr. Brundell’s home.
But it was JB, and another young punk in front of him, JB’s arm locked around his neck. Melanie stood back as the two entered, and she locked the front door behind them.
JB released the punk, who stumbled into the center of the room and looked around, his young and fearful face revealing how clearly he knew that there was nowhere to run and no way to fight his way to an escape.
His arm was already tightly bandaged, and Melanie recognized him as the mugger who’d assaulted them.
By his widened eyes and gaping mouth, the punk recognized them as well. “You two! Bloody hell!”
JB said, “You? After the walloping I gave you today? You’ve got brass, I’ll give you that.”
“Like I had any choice,” the mugger said. “It was do it or be knocked off meself!”
Melanie asked, “How many more of you are there outside?”
But JB answered, “The rest have run off.” He turned his attention to the injured mugger. “It’s just you and your sleepy pals,” he said, gesturing to the other incapacitated invaders.
Melanie asked, “What’s this all about? Why did you and that gang stab this young man?”
“Because I was told to, wasn’t I? You don’t ask a lot of bleedin’ questions, do ya? No! The Blinders say cut a bloke, we gotta bloody cut a bloody bloke, ain’t we?”
“No, you don’t,” Melanie said flatly. “How long do you think it would be before they decided to put you in the ground?”
“Not long,” he said, “thanks to you lot.”
JB said, “Are you going to spend your whole life being a toady? Why don’t you strike out on your own?” The young man seemed to give it some thought as if it had never occurred to him before.
Melanie said, “You could spend your time helping people instead of stabbing each other, for heaven’s sake.”
“Help—? I won’t last a day!”
JB said to the young man, “Whatever you do, you can make your own choices, set your own course. Speak and walk and act like a man, not some sniveling servant.” Nigel groaned from the table. “Here’s a man you tried to kill, an adversary. But you can make him your ally instead. It’s always better to have an ally than an adversary.”
Doctor Blundell muttered, “Sun Tzu.”
“For a solid fact,” JB said, keeping his attention focused on the captured punk. “And these others, they all have to know the Paper Pansies or whatever they’re called, they don’t care about you, none of you. Where are they now? Ran off, hiding in the alleys, that’s where.”
Melanie said, “They used you to do their dirty work, and dirty work it certainly is.”
“Do more with your life,” JB said, “do better … be better.” The other punks were just pushing themselves to their feet, rubbing their heads, just able to stand up under their own power. JB went on, “Here’s your new crew, make good use of them. It’s time you became more than a man, but a leader of men! Take up the reins of power, young man, or be strangled by them in the hands of others.”
The injured punk shared hopeful glances with the others, still wincing and moving slowly, but coming to an understanding of what JB was saying. “Go and gather your resources, find others who feel left out, unprotected. Reconfigure, reorganize, re-establish. And when you come back, take the high road. You’ll find co-operation from those in need. Help them, and they’ll help you in return. That’s the better way. This … breaking into people’s houses with murder in mind, it can only lead to ruin, to the hangman’s noose.”
“Please, sir,” the injured punk said, “not that, not the bloody noose!”
“Then take your cohorts and go,” JB said. “We’ll be looking after this one until he’s fit to travel. He’s in the doctor’s care now. Once he’s back on the street, I suggest you approach him as a friend, create an ally, and take the high road. It’s time to grow up, boys, perhaps long past time.”
The young men stood in their silent shame, nodding to show their compliance. “And this doctor deserves your gratitude, your lifelong service.” The young men nodded. “The first thing you’ll do is replace that window.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, looking at his fellows.
JB surveyed them all in the suspended silence before barking, “Well, what are you waiting for?” He pulled the front door open, and the punks scurried past him and out the door. When the last of them had left, JB closed and locked the door.
Melanie and Deacon fell into JB’s arms, the three of them embracing. Danger had once again reared its head to them, but they’d faced it together, as a family, and they’d prevailed. Melanie had to wonder, Will it always be thus? Is this what our lives together will be, one misadventure after the next?
As long as we’re together, Melanie resolved, we can face any challenge. We can and will prevail against any adversary, and only grow closer in the doing. If trials there must be, at least I will have the best company possible to face them alongside.
They let the tension of the event recede, and Nigel was released the next day. Deacon had been frightened by it all, but he was quickly calmed, JB explaining to him the responsibilities of a man, about discipline. Melanie watched her man console and instruct her son, the boy returning the guidance with a determined nod, a hardened expression on his tender little face.
Melanie treasured those moments, watching JB raise their son in a way that only a good father could, sharing his hard-won wisdom, his valued and timeless traditions. Melanie fell in love with him just a little bit more with every time she watched them together, her love for her son and her husband expanding and deepening with every breath.
Just a little later that day, a letter was delivered to Dr. Blundell’s house, addressed to none other than Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. JB peeled open the letter and read it, Melanie clinging to him to read the letter over his shoulder.
Doctor Blundell asked, “What is it?”
“It’s from President Van Buren.”
The doctor repeated, “The president? Oh my!”
“It says he wants JB to … to meet with Queen Victoria!”
Deacon said, “Are we gonna meet the queen?”
“Going to,” Melanie corrected him.
JB explained, “He wants a diplomat here in London, welcome the new queen to her thrown, establish friendly relations.”
“Oh, JB,” Melanie said, “what an opportunity!”
“Would you prefer that I accept the post?”
Melanie couldn’t help smiling, and she didn’t want to hide it. No man she’d ever known would have counseled his wife on such a decision; as a friend, as a partner, as an equal. But JB was a cut above, which he proved every day and in every way.
And the idea of staying in London was appealing to Melanie in a variety of ways; the culture it provided for her and for young Deacon, the chance of traveling with kings and dignitaries, traveling Europe and enjoying the most stunning sights the human race had created; Paris, Rome, Athens.
“Well,” Melanie said, pretending to give it some thought, “only if it’s something you would find fulfilling.”
Doctor Blundell said, “You’ve done your work in Chicago, and even more. I am so proud of what you’ve done, Melanie, and of who you’ve become. There’s no reason you should be tethered to that one city.”
JB gave it some thought, scratching his chin. “I suppose the first thing to do would be send our good president a letter of acceptance, then go and find us a proper home here in London.”
“I can help there,” Dr. Blundell said, “it will be more than my pleasure.”
Melanie savored the rush of excitement. Her past had become her present, her present fast becoming her future. The adventure of their lives was taking a new and exciting turn, and Melanie knew she and her entire family would be the richer for it. There would yet be challenges and perils, but Melanie had learned that such things would visit her life, any life, no matter where or when.
But as long as she was facing those challenges with JB Charbonneau, Melanie knew she and her son would survive, even thrive, and enjoy each and every minute of what their lives would offer. God had put them just where He wanted them to be, as He had with every step of Melanie’s journey, of her life from beginning to end. Knowing that He would never abandon her, Melanie could step forward into her future with her family, secure and confident and ready for whatever life would bring; knowing that whatever it would be, it would be fantastic, glorious.