The Gilded Hour Page 42

“That was rude of me. I apologize for taking my irritation out on you.”

“Hold on with the apology,” Jack said, as somberly as he could manage. “Maybe I’m a Malthusian and don’t even know it.”

The corner of her mouth jerked. “Malthusians believe that overpopulation will cause economic disaster and the end of civilized society. They put the blame for overpopulation—for everything, really—on the immigrant poor. It’s xenophobia disguised as economic theory.”

“So you’re on the side of the Catholic Church, then. The more children, the better.”

Her mouth fell open and then shut with a small click. “I’m on the side of women,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Those individuals who actually bear and raise children. The human beings whom Malthusians and priests see as no more than mindless breeding stock.”

Jack said, “Now it’s my turn to apologize. I shouldn’t have made light.”

For a span of three heartbeats she studied his face as though she could read his thoughts. Quite suddenly she nodded, and took his arm.

“Children’s Aid,” she said. “Let’s go.”

•   •   •

“I HATE THESE trains,” Jack said with a vehemence that took Anna by surprise. Standing in an overcrowded car, she looked up at him and then dropped her gaze immediately.

“They turn the streets into dark tunnels, shower everything with dirt and cinders, and screech like banshees.”

The wagon swayed so that Anna’s nose almost touched the handkerchief pocket of Jack’s suit coat. He smelled faintly of mothballs, of starch and tobacco. And of himself. People had very distinctive smells; it was one of the first things she had noticed as a medical student. Certain illnesses had distinct smells, too, and Anna attempted to list them for herself in an effort to stem the impulse to raise her head. Because if she did, it would look like she was wanting to be kissed. She had worked hard to put the memory of kissing Jack Mezzanotte out of her head, and she had even managed to do that for as much as an hour at a time.

He shifted a little and, leaning down, spoke directly into her ear. “Maybe I have to rethink this elevated train business. There might be some advantages to it, after all.”

Anna bit her lip in an effort not to laugh, and instead let out a small hiccup of sound.

“What was that?”

His breath warmed the shell of her ear and stirred the few loose hairs that curled against her temple.

“I didn’t say anything.” She was talking to his handkerchief, which was a brilliant white and beautifully embroidered, something she knew because she had its twin at home, the one he had given to her along with half his dinner in the taxi. The next morning she found it in her pocket, and now it sat on her dresser, laundered and ironed and folded to show the initials on one corner. GLM. She had been wondering for days what the L stood for. Lorenzo. Lucian. Leonardo. Lancelot. Lucifer. Lunatic.

“Am I embarrassing you?”

She studied the way his feet were braced against the sway of the train’s motion. Her own two feet, much smaller, between them. Feet entwined. She felt him smiling against her hair.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said.

Jack could resist the swaying of the train because he was holding on to one of the overhead straps that were out of Anna’s reach. She had nothing to hold on to—nothing she could, in good conscience, hold on to. She must brush up against him at every curve.

“What is it you want, Mezzanotte?” she said, putting some backbone into her voice. “Did you want to kiss me on a crowded train?”

“Is that an offer?” Now his lips actually touched her ear, and gooseflesh raced down her neck and her spine to spark in places best not considered just at this moment.

The train stopped and the passengers inched toward the doors, flowing out over the platform and spreading to the stairwell where they came together again, a river pulsing through a canyon. With the car half-empty there was enough room to step away, but somehow Anna found it almost impossible to move.

It made her angry, how easily he took her calm from her. She said, “You clearly have the wrong idea about me. I’m not a girl looking for an adventure. I’m not even a woman looking for an admirer.”

“Too late,” Jack said. “On both counts.”

She drew in a sharp breath, took three steps back, and forced herself to count to twenty. Then she looked up at him just as the train began to slow again and she saw where they were.

“This is where we get off.”

He caught her wrist as she passed him and drew her back. Jack’s hand was large and warm and rough, the hand of someone accustomed to hard work. She set her jaw and refused to raise her head, but she heard him laugh anyway. A short, low laugh, a satisfied sound.

“This is where we interrupt the journey,” he corrected her. “But not for long.”

•   •   •

THIS TIME THE passengers were in no hurry, lingering on the platform in a way that made no sense to Anna until the train pulled away and the new suspension bridge came into view. It was monstrous in size, a long neck arching out over the river like a predatory bird watching for prey. Along the metal flanks tenements cowered, saloons and dance halls and alleys all lost in shadow that would never go away.

And still it was beautiful. Anna couldn’t remember the last time she had looked at the bridge closely, and she saw now what had once seemed unlikely: it was very near done. In just over a month it would open to traffic.

The bridge itself crawled with laborers, with drays and wagons and carts laden with building materials. As they watched, a wagon pulled out of the barn-like terminal that stood between the bridge itself and Park Place.

“They just started test runs,” Jack told her.

There would be a huge celebration with bands and fireworks and speeches, a summer party of sorts. She planned to walk from one side of the bridge to the other along the promenade, but she would likely wait until the early crowds had had their fill. She turned to Jack, who was studying the men at work.

“Have you been on the bridge yet?”

He glanced down at her and grinned. “As often as I can find an excuse.”

“What is it like?”

“Windy.”

She raised a brow at him, impatient.

“I think you must be a hard taskmaster with your students,” he said. And when her scowl deepened he said, “It’s like being a bird, looking out over the world.”

“I was just thinking that,” Anna told him. “It’s like a bird of prey.”

“If you want to see it for yourself, I’ll take you up.”

“To the top of the tower?” Her voice broke, but she was too startled at the idea to pretend nonchalance.

“The tower is solid stone. It’s not like a church steeple, you can’t climb up from the inside.”

“That can’t be true,” Anna said. “The towers didn’t grow like beanstalks, after all. There must be ladders fixed to the stone. Look, there’s a flag flying at the top. Unless they’ve got fairies working for them, a human being climbed up there to mount it. I could do that.”

She had surprised him out of his composure.

“You’re telling me that you want to climb the outside of the tower.”

“I said so. Don’t you? Or have you already?”

Jack glanced around himself. Most everyone had drifted away, but he lowered his voice. “A stunt like that could get me suspended, if not fired.”

Anna had to bite her lip hard to maintain a serious expression. “I see. You have been up to the top of one of the towers, but you won’t take me up. Because I’m female?”

“Because you could break your neck.”

She fluttered her fingers. “I was climbing trees at four.”

“Falling out of a tree is a different proposition than falling off a suspension bridge.”

“So you won’t take me up the tower.”

“No. But I will take you to the highest point on the promontory. Just as soon as weather and my schedule—both our schedules—permit.”

Anna considered, and decided to save the battle for another day.

•   •   •

THE INTERSECTION OF Duane and Chambers Streets was jammed with omnibuses, wagons, coaches, cabs, and every kind of dray, all competing for space with vendors hawking cookware, tools, knife sharpening, shoeshines, buttons and sewing needles, oysters on the half shell, pickles, nuts, sausage, cheese and curds, meat pies, and hard candy. Newsboys shouted for customers, bellowing the more exciting or salacious headlines from the three o’clock editions.

Anna saw a younger man lounging against the wall of a coffeehouse, his eyes roaming the crowd and then stopping on Jack. He disappeared almost instantly, which was proof of what she had known in theory. Jack was known to more people in the city—good and bad—than she could ever count.

The lodging house constructed and run by the Children’s Aid Society was an imposing four-story brick building that took up most of a city block. A clothier occupied the front of the ground floor, but the rest of it provided shelter and food for homeless boys. During the day they hawked papers and matches, shined shoes, played battered violins on busy corners, lifted and hauled in factories and on the docks and wharves. There were scullery and stable and errand boys, rat catchers and wharf rats who stole what they could not earn or beg.

Prev Next
Free Novels Read Online | Read Wuxia Novel | Read Xianxia Novel