Well, perhaps not the sneakiest of sneak previews as this is the section I toured with through 2014 – if you heard me read at a convention, this was likely the piece. However, it’s a nice, concise bit and it gives the flavour of the book very well.
Emily Marshwic, our hero, has gone from being a gentlewoman in the Lizzie Bennet mode to becoming a soldier, as her besieged home nation enacts a draft of its women to boost the failing war effort.
They were split into classes of forty or so and put to work learning their geography and history, their ranks and uniforms, taking care of kit, basic medicine and the elegant business of taking a life with a gun.
Emily and her squad filed into the gunnery sergeant’s room with some trepidation. The rest had been window-dressing, they all felt. This was to be the true apprenticeship, the mark of a soldier.
“Ladies, gather round.” The gunnery sergeant was an unexpectedly small man, sitting low behind his desk at one end of his cramped office. To one side, the long windows had been thrown open to show the brown lawns of Gravenfield, with wooden targets standing mute and blasted.
“How many of you have ever fired a gun?” His face was creased with old pain, and it creased further when only Emily raised her hand. He took a moment to gather his strength. He was really too young for this, and they all wondered why he was not at the war front himself.
“I am Sergeant Demaine,” he told them. “I will teach you how to kill your enemies, and how not to kill your friends.” He came out from behind his desk and a shudder rippled through the recruits, because his chair came with him, Demaine guiding it around the corners with awkward, angular movements. He had no legs, only stumps. He looked up at them brightly. “You think this is bad? You should see my horse.”
They fell back as he approached, and he wheeled his way spasmodically across the room and on to the uneven lawn outside, where he struggled to force it along.
“Do you want help, Sergeant?” Emily asked, and he looked up at her warningly.
“No help,” he said. “Now take up a gun, all of you. Get a feel for the weight. Get used to it.”
It was the death of innocence, that day. Two score women heard the thunder of a discharging musket by their ears, felt the murderous kick at their shoulders and smelt the stink of smoke in their nostrils. When they had been shown how to load, tamp and prime them, after they had put the guns to their shoulders and discharged that first volley, they were changed beyond all recognition. Some had dropped the guns in the instant of firing. Others clutched at their hands, or held their ears in pain. Only Emily remained with the musket butt tight against her shoulder, looking down the lean line of the barrel. The smell of that smoke – the smell of the shuttered room – passed over and through her, and she knew that she would lose the association now. It would not be the death of her father she smelt. It would just be the smoke of a gun, because she would be a soldier.
“Yes, your shoulders hurt!” Demaine confirmed. “Yes, and they will hurt, and they will hurt every day from now until the war ends, whether on that day it ends for all of us or just for you. Get used to it, ladies. Yes, the guns are loud, the smoke hurts your eyes, and the sound hurts your ears. It is not the smoke or the noise that kills the enemy, ladies. It is the musket ball that you aim with care. You do not close your eyes. You do not flinch. You do not jerk away as you fire. These things a soldier does not do. You look your enemy in the eye as you fire, and, when the noise and the smoke come, you embrace them as your friends and allies, because they mean you have done your job.”
Emily lowered her musket slowly, feeling the weight of it already familiar. Some of the others were complaining, saying their arms hurt too much to fire the gun again. One said, “I thought you soldier types got swords. Why can’t we get a sword? I reckon I could use one of them.”
Demaine wheeled himself closer to her. “I haven’t got a sword myself, soldier.”
“But I could have one,” the woman pointed out.
Demaine smiled at her. “There is a sabre behind my desk. Go and get it, would you?”
As the woman ran off inside, he reached out to Emily and took her musket, then reloaded it without looking, fingers practised and nimble. When the woman came out with his sabre, unsheathed, he was aiming at her.
“What… what’re you doing, sergeant?” she gabbled at him.
“You have a sword, like you wanted. So now what?”
“Well, I didn’t mean…”
He did not lower the gun. “If you have a sword, then you must be strong, swift, nimble all at once, and you must have your enemy within arm’s reach. I am no good any more with a sword, but I can kill a man a hundred yards away just with my eye and my finger. A gun makes killers of us all, ladies. It will make the slightest of you as deadly as the biggest, strongest man, and you will never have to pit yourselves against him, to strike and avoid his blows and land your own. All you have to do is pull the trigger and he will be dead. And when your own death comes, ladies, it will not be from a man standing before you, pitting himself against you. It will come suddenly, and you will never see who has done it.” He lowered the gun at last and gazed down at it almost fondly. “With one of these, ladies, and a good eye, I am as deadly as any man that runs on two legs – and so can you be. Practice is all.”
By the end of their first day of gunnery practice, Demaine had deputised Emily as an instructor. She had not realised it before, but she was the only gentlewoman in the whole of Gravenfield. The rest were tradeswomen, farm girls and domestics, and precious few of them had ever so much as touched a gun before. Demaine took her and a few who had been gamekeepers’ wives, and made them his people. Soon they were holding classes of their own, teaching the swift reload, the steady aim, the measured breathing that would make killers of them all, even the weakest and the slightest. Demaine did not believe, as the major did, that women had no place in war. For him the musket had broadened the field of combat to the whole of the human race.