The Gilded Hour Page 10

“I’ll write to Sister Ignatia and reschedule for Wednesday afternoon. Unless I’m forgetting something else?”

When Sophie didn’t answer, Anna turned on her side to look at her directly. She said, “What happened today, really?”

“Mrs. Campbell asked about Clara.”

Anna felt herself tense. “And?”

“I can dissemble when necessary,” Sophie said. “I said that yes, I had read about Dr. Garrison’s arrest. And then I made it clear that I do not have contraceptives—”

“—or know—”

“—or know how to find them or information about them, and that I observe all laws to the letter.”

Which was no protection at all, both Anna and Sophie knew. Just the previous week Clara Garrison had been arrested for the third time simply because she had answered the door to a man distraught about his wife’s health and offered him a booklet of information. But the next knock—not five minutes later—brought postal inspectors and uniformed police officers.

After Clara had been arrested and taken away to the Tombs, the inspectors had searched her home and practice in the most destructive manner possible. They found an envelope sitting in plain sight on her desk with a half dozen of the same informational pamphlets she had given to Comstock’s undercover inspector, as well as two new female syringes.

Clara Garrison had been the lecturer in obstetrics at the Woman’s Medical School when Anna and Sophie were students. She was an excellent practitioner and teacher, and utterly uncompromising when it came to patient care. Sophie had a theory that Clara Garrison had once been a nun; she had the energy, high standards, and quiet efficiency Sophie associated with the sisters who had taught her as a child in New Orleans. It was from Clara that they had learned what it meant to care for the most vulnerable.

It was Clara’s good fortune that for both her previous arrests the grand jury had simply refused to issue an indictment. This time she had not been so lucky, and tomorrow she would appear in court to answer the charges Anthony Comstock had gone to so much trouble to secure.

“I want to send a pamphlet to Mrs. Campbell anonymously,” Sophie said. “She is truly desperate.”

“Yes,” Anna said, resigned to the necessity that they do at least this much. “And then what will we do when she comes looking for pessaries or a syringe or a dutch cap?”

It was the most difficult problem they faced. A problem without a solution, and repercussions that were all too real: at one extreme another child might be born into a family of six or eight or more, living in a single room without a window or a privy. On the other extreme were the midwives and doctors who might be sent to prison or harassed until nothing remained of their careers. One day Sophie or Anna could very well misstep and end up in front of Judge Benedict, Anthony Comstock’s partner in his endless crusade against empty wombs. The two of them would smirk and frown and see to it that the defendant suffered the maximum possible embarrassment and personal and professional damage.

For a half hour she and Sophie spoke very little, drifting in and out of a light sleep. The house was peaceful, and Anna might have fallen into a deeper sleep and stayed there until morning, if not for the wail rising up the stairwell. It catapulted them out of bed and into the hall, where they leaned over the banister.

•   •   •

COUSIN MARGARET STOOD in the foyer with a delivery boy who was holding a flat, square box in both hands.

Brown packing paper had been torn away, revealing the gilded frame of an oil portrait familiar to everyone in the household.

“Oh dear,” Sophie said. “Isn’t that Mrs. Parker’s delivery boy? What is he doing with one of Auntie’s paintings?”

“Returning it,” Anna said. “Mrs. Parker was using it as a model for—”

“Your ball gown.” Sophie bit her lip, but the smile was there and would not be held back.

Cousin Margaret looked up and caught sight of them. “Not Countess Turchaninov!” Horrified, as Anna had known she would be.

“I’m afraid so,” Anna said.

“But you’ll be half-naked!”

The delivery boy shuffled his feet.

Margaret said, “But your aunt Quinlan said she sent Countess Turchaninov out to be cleaned.”

Anna didn’t doubt that at all; Aunt Quinlan wasn’t above misdirecting attention if it helped her with a plan.

“I believe the canvas was cleaned,” Anna told her. “Before it went to the seamstress. Mrs. Parker had it for two weeks, at least.”

Margaret threw up her hands in disgust and disappeared down the hall to the kitchen.

“I wanted to go as the warrior queen Boadicea,” Anna said on a sigh, “but Aunt Quinlan talked me out of it and into Countess Turchaninov. What there is of her.”

The boy cleared his throat. “You’ll pardon me, but I’m after getting this receipt signed. It don’t matter which one of youse signs it. It don’t matter that your countess here is wearing a night rail; if I’m not away with a signed receipt the mistress will box my ears, so she will.”

Mrs. Lee came marching down the hall, took the receipt from the boy, fished a pencil out of her apron pocket, and signed with a flourish. The boy grabbed the receipt and the coin that Mrs. Lee offered with one hand, tipped his cap with the other, and dashed down the hall to the service entrance in the rear.

Mrs. Lee looked up at Anna and shook her head in disapproval.

“I won’t be alone,” Anna reminded her. “There’s no need to worry about me.”

Mrs. Lee scowled. “If you’re Countess Turchaninov, who is Cap going to be?”

Anna lifted a shoulder. “I have no idea.”

“You can be sure of one thing,” said Sophie, her mouth twitching toward a smile. “It’s not Cap people will be looking at.”

•   •   •

AT TEN SOPHIE went with Anna to watch as Aunt Quinlan examined her.

She was sitting in the upholstered chair that allowed her to look out onto the street, with a gaslight flickering on the wall behind her and a book in her lap, unopened. This was the way Sophie always thought of her aunt, sitting in the high-backed chair, turning toward the door to see who had come to call.

She said, “Take off the wrap, Anna. Let me see you.”

“She promised Margaret she would wear the shawl all evening,” Sophie volunteered even as Anna undid the clasp. The shawl fell away and she caught it over one arm, the beading clicking softly.

“And wouldn’t that be a waste,” Aunt Quinlan said. She made a turning gesture with her hand, and Anna complied, catching sight of the painting of the countess, returned to her usual spot on the wall. Countess Turchaninov had blond hair wrapped in ribbons, a pert mouth like a strawberry, and a tiny dimpled chin. Anna looked nothing like her, but the gown suited her anyway.

“Mrs. Parker had to work on it full time for a week, but it was worth it,” Aunt Quinlan said. “Let me feel the fabric.”

And then, without looking up, “Have you seen yourself?”

“That’s what you’re for,” Anna said, teasing gently.

“Sophie, dear. Please turn the long looking glass this way.”

Sophie did just that and watched Anna as she examined her own reflection.

“Now tell me what you see, and do not be coy.”

“I see a beautiful gown of shantung silk the color of ripe wheat in the sun,” Anna said. “With a high waist, and beading and embroidery and clever caplet sleeves made from filigree lace interwoven with gold thread and twisted fine gold cord. The same lace forms the flowers across the bodice, which is a good thing as otherwise my breasts would be completely exposed. If I come across Anthony Comstock I’ll end up in the Tombs charged with degenerate behavior and you’ll have to bail me out.”

“Stop changing the subject,” Auntie said. “And look at yourself.”

Anna sighed and patted her breasts. “Like two loaves of bread set out to rise.”

“You are hopeless.” Aunt Quinlan laughed.

“But honest.”

Sophie said, “The embroidery is very beautiful but Margaret is right, she is half naked.”

“Nonsense,” said Aunt Quinlan. “That’s not what people will see at all. They’ll see how lithe she is, how well she holds herself. They’ll see the line of her throat and the shape of her head. They’ll see her eyes.”

“That is also true,” Sophie said. “Few people can look beyond your golden eyes, Anna.”

The Russo children had been in her thoughts for much of the day and now she remembered Lia’s hands on her face. Occhi d’oro. The last sight she had of them was on the ferry, Rosa standing very erect with the baby on her shoulder and her free arm around Lia, as focused and determined as any soldier on guard. By now they would be separated, the girls from the boys. She had spent such a short amount of time with them, but she knew that Rosa would not admit defeat. Not easily. Not until it was forced on her.

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