The Gilded Hour Page 112

“She’s confused enough as it is,” Anna said. “Have mercy.”

“No, it’s all right. I have to learn. So I congratulate you, Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte, and wish Dr. Savard every happiness.”

Elise Mercier was practical, intelligent, and eager to learn, and Anna sensed in her a steadfast dedication. Women who pursued medicine as a profession had to be stubborn, but most of all they had to have the courage of their convictions. It seemed to her that Elise did. She hoped she was right.

She was saying, “And I would be thankful if you would help me with a few dresses and a pair of shoes—” She looked at her feet with a slightly bemused expression. “And I will, of course, repay everything. Including room and board, for as long as I stay with you. If you are really sure.”

Anna said, “I am really sure, and I know Aunt Quinlan and Mrs. Lee will both be very happy to have you. Mr. and Mrs. Lee are Catholic, so you won’t be entirely out of familiar territory.”

Some of the color left the girl’s face. “They won’t approve.”

“They will approve,” Anna said. “I can promise you that much. What I can’t promise you is that Aunt Quinlan will take any money from you, no matter how long you stay. If anything is likely to put her in a sour mood, it would be you insisting on paying her for room and board. She won’t have it.”

Elise glanced at Jack as if looking for confirmation. Jack nodded, to the girl’s obvious discomfort.

Whatever awkwardness Elise might have worried about, her concerns were put to rest by Aunt Quinlan’s inability to be surprised or put out by the arrival of an unannounced houseguest. Of course Elise was welcome to stay, and how nice it would be to have her. Mrs. Lee went off straightaway to make sure Sophie’s old room was ready, Mr. Lee took her valises up, and the little Russo girls did cartwheels of joy to see her again. The news that she wasn’t going away again anytime soon had them hatching plans. They waited impatiently through an impromptu family meeting over tea where the adults discussed practicalities, and then they pounced. Elise must have the grand tour, without delay.

“Do not run that young lady off her feet,” Mrs. Lee called after them. “She’s had a long day.”

But Anna was less worried. It seemed to her that Rosa and Lia would provide the perfect introduction to a usual household.

•   •   •

ELISE HAD NO objections to being dragged off by the Russo sisters. They dashed up to an attic filled with boxes and crates and trunks, each one full of treasure, Lia assured her, and worked their way down, floor by floor. She was firm in her unwillingness to be shown personal rooms other than the one they shared. They wanted her to admire the pretty quilt on the bed, the view out the window, the cushions on the window seat, the wardrobe filled with neat piles of little girls’ clothes. She complimented Lia’s dolls and Rosa’s first attempts at needlework. Then they were off again to see the bathrooms and the wondrous plumbing—they still could not fathom the miracle of water, hot or cold, at the turn of a tap, and the toilet was to them a magical convenience. Elise admitted that she was almost as unfamiliar as they were with this invention, which won her a fierce smile from Rosa. She had passed some test without realizing how closely she was being examined.

Back downstairs she saw the little parlor, the dining room, the main parlor, the kitchen and pantry. They would have shown her the cellar, too, but Mrs. Lee put a stop to that plan. In the garden she admired the neat rows of beanpoles, the cabbage and carrot and turnip plantings, the apple and pear trees, the flower garden already full of color and bees hard at work. They were especially proud of the enclosed porch they called a pergola, with its reclining couch and chairs and table.

She was not spared the stable or the little cottage where Mr. and Mrs. Lee lived, or even the henhouse, where she was introduced to eight setting hens and a rooster who demanded respect and distance both, she was told. Elise might have explained that she had grown up on a farm and knew all about roosters, but it gave them such joy to instruct her, she kept her silence except to make encouraging sounds.

There was a short debate on whether they should take her to a place they called Weeds. Before Elise could ask for clarification she was hurried through a rounded wooden door set in the garden wall into another garden, this one bare except for ancient grapevines over a collapsing trellis, a small greenhouse engulfed in ivy, and a few apple and holly trees. The soil had been recently turned, and the smells of compost and manure were strong in the air. The girls pulled her into another house that was being made over for Dr. Savard and the detective sergeant, this one stripped down to its bones as the garden had been. They showed her every room, with colorful commentary about how many children would fit into the bedrooms; the new bathtub, as big as a pond; the lace at the windows; and neat stacks of sheets and towels in the linen closet.

By the time they got back to Roses—now Elise had caught on to the Weeds and Roses names—dinner was on the table, and her stomach gave a terrific growl that made the girls first startle and then laugh with delight. Even at the table they were full of life and talk and stories, very different little girls from the ones she had first met in Hoboken and cared for at the orphanage. They weren’t scolded for their talkativeness, Elise thought, because their silence was inevitable, secured by the combination of healthy appetites and good food on the table.

There was a soup thick with dumplings and a roast of pork, pickled red cabbage and potatoes mashed with butter and milk which they were instructed to enjoy because, Mrs. Lee told them, there would be no more until the new crop of spuds came in late in the summer. The garden was the topic of conversation for a good time and Elise took her part in the discussion, but she also had the distinct idea that they were all holding back, waiting for her to catch her breath and volunteer the stories they hesitated to ask for.

The middle-aged woman Anna had introduced as her cousin Margaret stole looks at Elise every time she took a bite of food. And that was signal enough. She put down her napkin and said, “You are all very kind, but I know you are wondering about me.”

“Well,” Lia piped right up. “I was wondering about your dress and your shoes and if you lost your bonnet, the white one that made your eyes look so blue.”

Mrs. Quinlan said, “All interesting questions. But I think we should take turns, and Elise will answer only some of them. We don’t want to use up all her stories right away.”

“That’s all right, Mrs. Quinlan,” Elise said.

“Oh, no,” said Lia, as if Elise had committed some terrible breach of etiquette. “You have to call her Aunt Quinlan. Everybody does. But you don’t get punished if you forget,” Lia reassured her.

The girls thought of her not as a grown-up, not even as a woman, but as a creature out of her element, someone who was as new to this world as they were. And in that they weren’t entirely wrong.

Anna said, “That rule doesn’t apply to everyone. I’ll bet Elise has aunts of her own.”

“I do,” Elise said. “I have two aunts who are always coming up with schemes. The stories I could tell—” She paused for effect. “And I will tell them, if you’re interested.”

Margaret said, “Where did you grow up, Elise?”

From the corner of her eye Elise saw a quick flash of irritation cross Anna’s face, but she smiled at Margaret.

“In Vermont, on the Quebec border. My father has a farm outside Canaan, sheep and goats and dairy cattle and some crops. They make cheese, mostly, to sell.”

It had been so long since she had been asked—even allowed—to speak about herself that it came to her slowly, the things that could and should be said.

“I have been through the area,” said Mrs. Quinlan. “By sleigh, in the deep of winter.”

Anna smiled at her great-aunt. “During the war?”

“Oh, the war—” Lia began, but Jack reached over and cupped the crown of her head in his head.

“Not the war you’ve heard about,” he told her. “A war that happened a very long time ago. I am right, Aunt Quinlan?”

“It was 1812, and I was very young,” Aunt Quinlan agreed. “And very much in love with my first husband, though I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, not even myself. Elise, go on please and tell us about your family.”

She told them about her younger brothers, her parents, her two maiden aunts who spoke only French but on occasion tried English, to everybody’s amusement: Aunt Bijou’s Oh my cows! when she was startled, Aunt Nini’s But why the cockroach? when someone was making a sad face.

To her own surprise Elise found that she was still a good storyteller. Even the cautious and reserved Margaret was smiling.

She felt as if she had passed a test, one she had set herself. Leaving the convent, she had assured Mother Superior and everyone else that she would fit into the world again, but on some level she had doubted herself. Now she knew that it would take time, but that she could be Elise Mercier, and that the strangeness would go away, with time.

•   •   •

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