The Gilded Hour Page 111

“I decided to leave the order,” she ended. After a moment she added: “It was the right decision, I knew immediately. Like suddenly putting down a burden. The sisters gave me their blessing and these clothes—” She looked down at herself and grimaced.

Anna bit back a smile.

“I know, it’s awful. But there wasn’t much choice.”

“If you have no clothes, what’s in your bags?”

Elise blinked. “Some books and my notes.”

“From your studies?”

“I’ve kept a journal or a daybook, I suppose you’d call it, since I began training as a nurse. There wasn’t really anyone to talk to about the details of the cases I saw, so it seemed important to at least record my observations and the questions that couldn’t be answered. It’s very odd of me, I’m sure.”

“Just the opposite,” Anna said. “It bodes well for your education. So the sisters just—waved good-bye?”

“They gave me train fare and arranged a ride to the station. I’m embarrassed to say that they thought I was going to go home to my family and I didn’t correct them. I took the first train into the city. I had just arrived when it occurred to me that I should have written to ask first. You might have changed your mind.”


She raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Well, I would like to study medicine. After I’ve served as a nurse for as long as necessary, of course. But I do want to be a doctor, if I can fulfill the requirements and be accepted into Woman’s Medical School, on a scholarship—” Elise bit her lip. “Saying it out loud like that makes me sound either very conceited or unsophisticated or both. I don’t expect it to be easy. But if you meant what you said, and you’re willing to help me get started—or have I assumed too much?”

Anna said, “Not as far as I am concerned, but then I’m hardly an objective observer. Will you regret your decision, do you think?”

The question didn’t surprise her. “Sometimes I’ll regret the things I gave up,” Elise said. “But isn’t that always the way? Everyone makes choices and most people doubt themselves at one time or another. I may miss the solitude of the convent, but I know now that it wasn’t right for me.”

“Your family will object.”

“I think my mother will understand. What she wanted for me was a life free from the drudgery of a household and family.”

And this, Anna thought, was the time to say that her own thinking had changed on the subject, and that like Sister Mary Augustin—Elise Mercier, she corrected herself—like Elise, she had made some fundamental changes. But she couldn’t think how to start.

Instead she said, “If you apply yourself and work hard, I don’t doubt that you will be an excellent physician. Now we can go talk to the head of the nursing staff, and see how best to put you to work. Would that suit?”

So many things had been pressing on Anna, so many changes in such a short time, she hadn’t realized how unsettled she had been. But somehow the ability to help this sincere young woman, to put something important within her reach, that helped. A success to hold on to in a world where good young men went and stayed away.


IN THE YEARS since Anna came to the New Amsterdam she had heard the emergency alarm go off just three times: once for a fire in the next building; once when a staircase collapsed, casting dozens of orphans to a cobblestone courtyard; and the last time when an omnibus and a delivery wagon collided right in front of their door. She was introducing Elise to the nursing matron when the alarm sounded again, the rough clanging of the bell being yanked, and hard, from the porter’s desk in the entry hall.

There were rules for how staff conducted themselves when the alarm rang; first and foremost, the patients must not be unduly alarmed. Nurses and orderlies stayed in the wards until they got further instructions, and they kept the halls and stairways clear. Doctors and nurses not currently with patients walked as quickly as they could without breaking into a run.

Anna explained this to Elise as they made their way downstairs, voices raised around them as people wondered out loud what had happened.

They came into the lobby to find a total lack of chaos. There were a half-dozen children, and every one of them was surrounded by staff. Anna would have turned back and stayed out of the way—there was no obvious need for a surgeon, as of yet—but for the sight of Jack, his face bloody and his clothes torn. A nurse was taking a boy of about five years out of one crooked arm. The other hand he had fisted in the shirt of a wild-eyed boy about twelve.

She saw that he was not seriously hurt, but she went to him anyway. The matron grabbed Elise and took her off somewhere else, a baptism by fire.

He said, “There was a panic on the new bridge; somebody tripped on the stair and somebody else screamed and started a stampede. I saw it from the el platform. It was all over in a half hour, but what a mess. Marron, che macello. Maybe twenty dead, kids torn away from their parents. I stopped a wagon and piled these six in. Broken bones, but nothing life-threatening, I don’t think.”

While he talked she pulled his head down so she could look at his pupils and examine his scalp for lacerations.

“Not my blood,” he said. “There was plenty to go around, but none of it is mine.”

He drew in a deep breath and seemed to notice for the first time that he had a death grip on a boy who had all the markings of a street arab, from his bare feet and ragged clothes and hollow cheeks to an expression as black and hard as a frightened dog. But there was no sign of injury at all, save for a bruise on a cheekbone.

“And who is this?”

“Ah. This would be Jem O’Malley, also known as Trotter, grandson of Jem O’Malley, also known as Porker, of the Boodle gang. Porker masterminded the hijack of a two-hundred-pound pig from a butcher’s shop—” He shook the boy. “When was it, Trotter?”

The boy bared a mouthful of rotten teeth in something approximating a grin. “Eighteen hundred and sixty-two, the first of September. We celebrate it every year.”

Jack grimaced. “The industrious younger members of the Boodle gang decided to take advantage of hundreds of people crushed half to death by helping themselves to wallets and pocketbooks and watches and the like. Trotter here didn’t trot away fast enough, so he’s off to the Tombs.”

“Fine by me,” the boy said. “Could use a rest.”

Jack’s expression wasn’t hard to read, disgust and exasperation layered on top of each other. He glanced around the lobby. “I’ll let the patrolmen match up these little ones with their folks. Be back here in an hour to walk you home.”

And then he was gone before Anna could say even one more word.

•   •   •

SHE EXPECTED HIM to come back in a dark mood, but there was no sign of that at all; beyond the torn clothes it might have been any normal day. More than that, Jack recognized the former Sister Mary Augustin right away, which Anna found just a little irritating. His powers of observation were superior to her own in some very specific ways that had to do with his profession: he had an uncanny memory for faces, something she had never been very good at for reasons Aunt Quinlan would attribute to her introverted nature.

He gave them what news he had about the trouble at the new bridge. “Panic,” he said. “One person falls, another person screams, ‘The bridge is coming down!’ And they’re off like a herd of buffalo across the prairie.”

There were twelve confirmed dead, and twice as many injured, many of those in hospitals, from St. Vincent’s to Bellevue. To Elise he said, “An exciting day to move into the city, though I’m sure you could have done without it. I wonder what Mrs. Lee has got for dinner; I am starving.”

Anna told Jack about Elise’s plans, drawing her into the conversation wherever possible.

“Sophie’s room is available,” Anna said to her. “You are welcome to stay until you’ve gotten settled. You may want to live in the nurses’ boardinghouse for convenience alone. But I can predict with some confidence that my aunt will ask you to stay on.”

She paused. “Another thing is your clothes. You’ll need new—”

“Everything,” Elise supplied. “This dress is ugly, I know. But my funds are also extremely limited.”

Jack said, “We’ll cover your expenses until you get your first pay envelope. It would be our pleasure.”

Elise dropped her eyes and looked away, apparently embarrassed by Jack’s offer. Anna was trying to sort out the reason for it, but Jack got there first.

“Of course,” he said. “You don’t have any way of knowing. There’s nothing improper about the offer. I managed to persuade Anna to marry me, just this past Saturday. So you see, you’re not the only one with surprising news.”

“Oh,” Elise said, flustered. “May I—should I—wish you every happiness?”

“Thank you,” Anna said, almost as embarrassed as Elise was herself.

“It’s very good of you to wish Anna every happiness,” Jack said with a grin. “But you’re supposed to congratulate me. Apparently it’s rude to do it the other way around, or so my sisters claim.”

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