The Gilded Hour Page 113

JACK HAD BEEN friendly and talkative on the way home, but he was unusually quiet during dinner. He smiled at the right moments and responded when somebody talked to him, and still some part of his mind was elsewhere. He might be thinking about the bridge disaster, or some other case, or his mother, or wondering how to say he disliked red cabbage. Anna resolved not to ask, out of common courtesy. She had always disliked being prodded to reveal what she was thinking about. He would tell her if and when he was ready. But what if he was waiting for her to ask?

Enough, she told herself, and fixed her attention on Elise, who had an unassuming way of answering personal questions, engaging and modest at the same time. When she talked about her family it seemed as if she were shaking the dust off parts of herself she had hidden away for safekeeping, small treasures to be studied and polished before she shared them, even in such a gathering of people who had welcomed her so warmly.

Elise looked very much like someone who needed a good night’s sleep, but there was an energy in her that wasn’t so easily subdued by weariness. Not a beautiful girl, but so alive and curious and filled with goodwill that few people would notice.

While the little girls helped Mrs. Lee with clearing the table and wiping dishes, Aunt Quinlan called for Mr. Lee and asked him to bring down certain boxes from the attic. Jack went along to help, which left the four women alone in the parlor where the windows were open to the evening breeze. Margaret picked up her sewing right away, but Aunt Quinlan sat studying Elise openly, as she might have studied an interesting painting.

“You have had a very long day,” Aunt Quinlan said. “But I hope another hour won’t be too much to ask. I think some of the clothes I have put away will suit you. They will need a good brushing and some adjustments, but with any luck they’ll hold you over until we can manage something new.”

With a nervous smile Elise said, “You are very kind, but I don’t want to be a burden.”

Anna said, “Elise, Auntie doesn’t like to be challenged in these matters. She gets a great deal of satisfaction out of imposing her goodwill, and we humor her.”

“Why you—” Aunt Quinlan began, and then gave in to laughter. They all did, even Elise.

•   •   •

AT NINE ELISE could not keep her eyes open any longer. Mrs. Quinlan sent her off to bed with a pile of borrowed nightclothes that smelled of cedar shavings and lavender.

“I put out some things so you won’t have to go searching, soap and such,” Mrs. Lee said. “Now if you said thank you this evening five times you’ve said it fifty. Go to bed, girl.”

“Then I’ll say good night instead.” But she stood there in the doorway, feeling as if something important were hanging in the air waiting to be made real.

Mrs. Lee had turned back to the sorting of the clothes from the attic, putting aside the ones she would wash and press for Elise to use. The urge to protest was strong, but Elise had the idea that Mrs. Lee would not be amused.

“Really,” said Mrs. Quinlan, kindly. “If you’re going to start at the hospital tomorrow, you will need your sleep.”

•   •   •

THE DOOR TO the room Elise was meant to use stood half open. She hesitated, wondering why this particular moment was so difficult, and why it felt more final than getting on the train headed for the city. The room as her own for as long as she cared to stay, Mrs. Quinlan had told her. And how was a person to deal with such generosity?

To start with, she could appreciate the beautiful things around her.

There was a desk where she would do her work and study, below a window that looked out over the garden. Beside it was a small bookcase where she would line up her books—chemistry and anatomy, pharmacology and therapeutics. If that weren’t enough, there was a deep upholstered armchair to read in.

The bed was covered with a red and white quilt. Four plump pillows butted up against a high headboard that looked very old, the dark wood carved into a mural of branches in leaf and birds. She took note of the wardrobe and washstand with a jug of water and a painted porcelain basin. Mrs. Lee had put out a cake soap still wrapped in paper, a toothbrush, and a can of toothpowder with an elaborate label: Dr. Martin’s Camphorated Dentifrice for Clean, Healthy Teeth.

The whole house was full of pictures, and this room had its share. Elise especially liked the portraits of young children, most of them very simple, just touched with color. There were three in this room: two young girls with white-blond curls, a bald baby with fat red cheeks in a wheelbarrow, and four little boys standing in a row trying to look very fierce. The only portrait of an adult hung opposite the bed. An elderly black woman with deep-set, honey-brown eyes below a head cloth of sprigged muslin. She seemed to be watching over the bed itself, her expression patient. It was a very old face, quite possibly older than Sister Theresa, who was more than ninety.

It just occurred to Elise now that she would never see Sister Theresa again, and with that the tears she had expected when she walked away from the convent finally came.

With some resolve she opened her valises and unpacked the few personal items she had brought with her: underclothes, books and notebooks, a battered pen box, her missal and rosary, a comb. For a moment she considered the small bundle of letters from home, the first thing she had packed.

There weren’t many letters—just one for every year since she left to start her novitiate—but they were all many pages long and close-written. Every Easter her mother and aunts wrote the annual letter together, reading passages out loud at the dinner table for comments and soliciting contributions. The letters were almost like a magical mirror that let Elise watch them as they sat around the kitchen table arguing about when exactly the old mule had died, and the lightning strike that had taken down two trees at once on the far edge of the property, or Aldonce the butcher’s annual visit, when he came to call with such high hopes, and went home empty-handed because Aunt Bijou had turned him down, as she always did. As soon as he was out of sight Bijou would start contemplating next year’s excuse, because she liked Aldonce well enough and had no wish to injure him.

Elise had a letter of her own to write, but it must wait until she had slept. The things she needed to say would need careful wording.

She undressed and hung the awful dress on a hook in the wardrobe. The shoes she set neatly beneath. She washed and finally pulled the soft muslin nightdress over her head and let it drop, so that the hem whispered against her bare feet.

Now there was only the bed to conquer. It was the word that came to mind, as if she stood before a mountain.

This particular bed with its odd carvings was wide enough for three adults or six children, or even more, if they were turned sideways. She could imagine all of her brothers as she had last seen them, packed like a row of sardines in a can. And they would have thought themselves in heaven on such a thick mattress under layers of sheets and quilts.

She climbed in. The sheets were homespun, which surprised and pleased her both. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but the weave of the linen against her cheek was familiar and comforting. They had been washed so often that they felt as soft as silk; they smelled of fresh air and just a touch of carbolic because this was a household that observed Lister’s antibacterial practices. But the pillow slips smelled of lilac.

In all her life she had never slept with even a single pillow, and now here she was confronted with four. It was like sharing a bed with a herd of overfed and indolent cats. Elise fell asleep with one of them clasped to her chest, like a doll.

•   •   •

ANNA FINISHED THE letter to Cap and Sophie and climbed into bed, where Jack was reading the Police Gazette with a severe expression that was almost a scowl. Without looking up he transferred the folded newspaper to his right hand and lifted the other arm. Anna scooted closer to put her head on his shoulder and the arm dropped into place, as solid as a club.

She said, “Still thinking about the bridge?”

He hesitated for just a moment, then put the paper on the bedside table and turned toward her. The heavy shadow of his beard made him look like a ruffian of the first order. Somehow this big, very masculine being had found a way into her life and bed in just two months’ time. She didn’t know which one of them was more surprised. Or pleased.

“What are you grinning about?”

Anna rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. “Nothing in particular. What are you scowling about?”

“Was I scowling? I was reading the Police Gazette. I suppose Margaret gets more satisfaction out of it than I do.”


He drew in a very deep breath and let it go, slowly. “Sometimes it’s hard to leave work behind on Mulberry.”

“I like hearing about your work.”

The corner of his mouth jerked. “Even you might not have the stomach for some of it.”

This reminded her of Hawkins, who had not been able to stomach what had happened to Janine Campbell. From there her thoughts went to the missing boys. The inquest into their mother’s death had ended just a few days ago, and the boys had already slipped her mind. It made her angry and sad and unhappy. She was going to say as much to Jack when he spoke up.

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