The Gilded Hour Page 11

“Where has your mind gone suddenly?” her aunt asked.

“Hoboken,” Anna said. “Italian orphans.”

There was a short silence, one her aunt would not fill with empty promises or fictions about the fate of orphans.

Finally her aunt turned to Sophie. “Please fetch the box from the dresser, would you?”

•   •   •

IT WASN’T OFTEN they saw Aunt Quinlan’s small but very fine collection of jewelry. Sophie opened the box and held it in front of her aunt, who pointed to a necklace and bracelets and matching hair ornament. Sophie touched the twist of small, perfect pearls intertwined with oval gold disks.

As she helped Anna with the clasps, Sophie saw more evidence of what she knew in theory: Aunt Quinlan had no peers when it came to putting a picture together.

Mrs. Lee called up the stairs. “Carriage’s here.”

“You must give Cap a kiss from me,” said Aunt Quinlan.

“And me,” Sophie said, more quietly.

Aunt went on, “Tell him to observe closely; I’ll want to hear about all the costumes and the new house, too. Ostentatious and uncompromising bad taste, of course, but they have a good collection of paintings.”

“I can tell you about paintings and costumes too,” Anna said, a little affronted that she wasn’t charged with such a responsibility.

“Oh, no,” her aunt said. “You’ll come home and tell me who has dropsy and who looks bilious and which of the ladies are increasing and about the evidence of Knickerbocker inbreeding. I know you, Anna Savard.”

Anna leaned over once again to kiss both soft cheeks. “Yes, you do. Nobody knows me better.”

•   •   •

WHEN ANNA WAS gone Sophie went to sit on the low stool where she could lean against Aunt Quinlan’s knee. Very gently the old woman rested a hand on Sophie’s head, and for a long while there was just the sound of horses in the street and the fire in the grate.

Her aunt said, “Cap does love you, and he will forgive you. You must give him time to grieve.”

“That’s the problem,” Sophie said. “His time is very short.”

She hesitated for a moment and then drew a closely written sheaf of papers from a pocket.

“I had a letter I wanted to talk to you about,” she said. “It’s about Cap.”

It was almost exactly a year since the bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis had been isolated and identified as the infectious agent responsible for consumption, and with that Cap had withdrawn completely from his friends and family. Since that day Sophie had been writing to pulmonary specialists as far away as Russia, inquiring about promising new treatments for tuberculosis. The letter she held in her hand was the first answer that offered even a vague hope.

Aunt Quinlan had seemed very sleepy but now she roused, sitting up straighter. “From one of the specialists?”

Sophie had a moment’s guilt for keeping her aunt up, but she also knew that she would have no rest until she spoke to someone about it.

“Yes. A few months ago I wrote to a Dr. Mann in Zurich. He forwarded my letter to a Dr. Zängerle in the upper Engadin Valley.”

Sophie paused in the hope that her aunt would have something to say, as she had traveled widely in Europe and lived there for ten years as a young woman.

“It’s a very beautiful area near the Italian border,” Aunt said. “Very remote and quiet. And your letter is from this Dr. Zängerle in the Engadin?”

“He has a very small treatment facility at his own home, just five patients. A trial, he calls it. He and his wife hope to open a sanatorium if their success holds. He read the case history I sent and he’s offering Cap a spot.”

“He doesn’t have a cure.” Aunt Quinlan was not prone to unrealistic expectations or denial of hard facts, but she was also careful to mask whatever she might be feeling for fear of casting either hope or doubt where neither was warranted.

“He makes no such claim. On the other hand, his patients are much improved after treatment.”

She described the protocol, reading short paragraphs from the letter when her memory failed her.

“It sounds as though it is mostly good common sense,” Aunt Quinlan said finally. “Proper nourishment and rest and fresh air at a very high altitude. Do you think it might do Cap some good?”

Sophie raised a shoulder and let it drop. “It’s possible. Even likely, if these figures are accurate. But the real question is, could he be persuaded to go so far?” Her calm was countered by a twitch at the corner of her mouth that she could not control, the perfect demonstration of why medical professionals weren’t supposed to treat family members. In fact, she knew that if Anna were here, she would insist that they hand the whole business over to another physician.

Purposefully, she had excluded Anna, and on Aunt Quinlan’s face she could see that this fact had not escaped her.

“You can’t take this proposal to him.”

Sophie swallowed a grimace. “You know I can’t. I can’t even write to him about it; he doesn’t read my letters.”


Sophie turned her face away. “She would disapprove. She wouldn’t want him to travel so far.”

Her aunt might have challenged this assumption, but she seemed satisfied to let it stand for the moment. Instead she said, “It is true that Cap couldn’t make this journey alone. Someone will have to go with him. I can see that you’ve already sorted this through in your mind. Who are you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Sophie said, frustration creeping into her voice. “I find I can’t think clearly about this.” An understatement of the first order.

“But you think he should go.”

Sophie took a deep breath. “I do. I can’t explain exactly why, but it feels to me like a chance worth taking.”

“You are so much like your grandmother,” Aunt Quinlan said after a while. “Medicine was more than science to her.”

“What do you mean by that?” Sophie asked, her temper welling up, something that happened so rarely that Aunt Quinlan was looking at her with both alarm and concern. But now she must go on. “Am I less of a physician than Anna, or is she less than I am?”

Aunt Quinlan did not hesitate. “It is not a criticism, but an observation. Anna is in the first line a scientist.” And then: “I see I have upset you.”

“Anna is an excellent physician,” Sophie said, her voice catching.

“She is an excellent surgeon.”

Sophie folded the letter and slid it back into her pocket, her hands shaking a little.

“You think I am being unkind, or disloyal, or both,” Aunt Quinlan said finally. “But that’s not the case. I am not finding fault in Anna; I am pointing out to you that in a case like this, you have an advantage that she does not. You understand it in the bone, you know it with a part of your mind that you deny because it frightens you.”

She raised a hand to stop Sophie’s protest. “When you say that Cap should go to Switzerland but you can’t put words to the why of it, I understand what you are trying to say. And I know that you require help. That I can provide.”

It was what Sophie wanted to hear, but it still brought her up short to hear it stated so plainly.

“He will resist.”

Aunt Quinlan gave her one of her sweetest, most disturbing smiles. “I have lived a long time,” she said. “And I have come up against walls far higher than the one Cap’s built. He’ll listen to me. He surely will.”

•   •   •

SOMETIMES SOPHIE DREAMED about knocking on Cap’s door. In these dreams that simple gesture caused the door to swing open, revealing rooms that had been emptied of every familiar and beloved thing, a shell as clean and cold and impersonal as an operating theater. In her dream she went from room to room desperate for some sign of him, any sign at all, and then woke, bereft.

She had loved him for as long as she could remember, but she had refused every marriage proposal for reasons she had explained, again and again, in great detail. Sometimes she felt she might give in and accept him, because she could not deny to herself that she wanted nothing more than to marry Cap. Then in the quiet minutes before sleep she would see how his whole life would change. He claimed to know what he would be giving up, but he didn’t. He simply could not. He was the son of Clarinda Belmont, a descendant of the Dutch who had founded New Amsterdam, a Knickerbocker, and all that word implied. She was a mulatto. A mongrel.

It was an ugly word. Cap could reject the mind-set that came along with it, but he couldn’t make others do the same. She would never be free of it, and their children would bear it too, an indelible mark on the skin. He could not see that truth.

Cap’s diagnosis had not changed her mind, but it had changed his. On a chilly wet day last April the truth had been waiting for her at the breakfast table.

A parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, in and of itself nothing unusual; it wasn’t the first such parcel from Cap or even the fiftieth. It seemed there was a packet at least once a week, sometimes addressed to just one of them, and sometimes to The Ladies at 18 Waverly Place.

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