The Gilded Hour Page 116

She wondered when things would start to go wrong.

•   •   •

DINNER AT AUNT Quinlan’s table had never been quiet; she liked discussion and debate, gossip and news of the world, and most of all, she liked stories. Sometimes she told her own. If the table discussion was particularly loud Auntie Quinlan could bring about a magical silence by raising a single finger, which signaled her willingness to talk about her childhood or her years living abroad or her own children.

But this evening they were all lost in their own thoughts. Anna studied the faces around the table one by one, and her attention came to rest on Elise. The girl had been pushing herself at an inhuman pace since she arrived; Anna reasoned that she had finally exhausted her energy, something that would be fixed by an early night. Just then Elise looked up, saw Anna studying her, and dropped her gaze again, as if she had been caught doing something forbidden.

“All right, Elise,” Jack said suddenly. He had been studying her too, it seemed. “What’s wrong?”

“I am perfectly well.” She produced a stiff smile.

“She’s not,” Lia said. “She’s not well, but she wouldn’t tell me.”

“Folks have a right to their privacy,” Aunt Quinlan said. “And we don’t plague people we like and care about at the dinner table.”

“I’m not placking her,” Lia said, sniffing. “I’m worried.”

Elise closed her eyes briefly and then, opening them, looked at Anna directly. She said, “I spoke to Dr. Montgomery at Woman’s Medical School today.”

Anna drew in a deep breath. “Well, that explains a lot. She told you that you’d never make a doctor and to put away foolish dreams.”

Elise’s mouth fell open. “How did you know?”

“Because,” Aunt Quinlan answered for Anna. “Dr. Montgomery says the same thing to every young woman who comes asking about enrolling.”

“She told me I was far too enamored of what little intellect I had.” Anna could smile at the memory, these many years later. “And she was just getting started.”

Elise looked both affronted and relieved. “But why would she say something like that to you?”

“Because I was too enamored of my intelligence,” Anna said. “Small or large.”

Jack said, “Surely not.”

She elbowed him, and the girls giggled.

“If it’s any comfort to you, Elise, the more insulting she is, the more she hopes you’ll succeed and do well. But she’s superstitious.”

Chiara made very large eyes. In a whisper she said, “Maloch, Zio Jack.”

“We don’t allow the evil eye at this dinner table,” Aunt Quinlan said to her. “But if it makes you feel better”—and she tossed a bit of salt over her shoulder—“Dr. Montgomery is protective,” she went on, speaking to Elise. “If she can scare you away, she thinks you didn’t belong in the first place.”

“Oh,” said Rosa. “Like Billy Goat Gruff.”

“Just like that,” said Aunt Quinlan. “She’s daring you to cross the bridge, Elise. Are you going to back away?”

Some color came back into her cheeks. “No,” she said. “Not when I’ve come this far.”

•   •   •

OSCAR MARONEY SHOWED up just as the girls were clearing the last of the dessert dishes and was more than happy to be talked into a serving of pie. For some reason Jack was always surprised at how easily Oscar won over women of all ages. Every face around the table lit up at the sight of him.

His partner understood women; he knew when to tease and when to pay a compliment and when neither would be a good idea, and then he listened, and focused all his attention. Jack watched him weave his usual magic, wondering in another part of his mind what trouble had brought him to their door. Because it was Oscar’s habit to spend Monday nights playing cards, and only something very important would make him miss his chance to fleece his brothers-in-law.

Jack waited until he had finished pie and coffee, and suggested that if he wanted a cigar, they should step out into the garden.

“Why don’t you show me this wonder of a house you bought for your new bride,” Oscar countered. “Let’s bring her along too. I’d like to get her opinion on something.”

So whatever had brought Oscar to the door was something that couldn’t be discussed in front of women and children. He wondered if Anna understood she had been paid a compliment when Oscar excluded her from that group.

•   •   •

AS FAR AS Anna was concerned, the furniture Jack’s parents had sent from Greenwood rendered the house habitable, and she would have moved in immediately if the idea hadn’t scandalized every other female within ten miles.

“Not until there are curtains on the windows,” Mrs. Lee said, Bambina and Celestina nodding in agreement behind her.

“There are curtains in the bedroom,” Anna said. “It’s not like I’m planning on romping through the rest of the house in a state of undress.”

Bambina’s mouth quirked. “Maybe you aren’t.”

That made Anna draw up in surprise and then retreat until she could ask Jack some pointed questions.

Now she sat at the kitchen table with Jack and Oscar and tried not to fidget. To her own surprise it was difficult not to get up and start sorting through boxes of dishes that had yet to be unpacked. She would have to write to Sophie about the unanticipated streak of domesticity she had uncovered in herself. Cap would weep with laughter at the idea of Anna Savard’s sudden urge to explore the complexities of bed linens and tea services.

Jack was saying, “Anna, Oscar is asking a question.”

“Sorry.” She made more of an effort to focus on Oscar, who had unfolded a piece of paper and smoothed it out on the table. “What’s that?”

“You remember the unidentified woman from late last week,” Jack said. “It turns out she’s from Buffalo and was just in town for a few days.”

Looking across the table, Anna realized she was familiar with the kind of document Oscar had brought.

“Is that the postmortem?”

Oscar slid it across the table toward her. “If you wouldn’t mind having a look, your thoughts on it would be much appreciated.”

“What happened?” Anna asked.

“Read it first,” Jack said. “Then you tell us.”

•   •   •

JACK WATCHED HER eyes moving back and forth, her expression calm, her hands spread flat on the table to either side of the report.

She looked up. “What is it you want to know?”

“Whatever strikes you as important.”

She didn’t like vague requests, but he saw she was trying. With a shift of the shoulders she turned her attention back to the report and scanned it again. “The postmortem was done by Nicholas Lambert. He was on the Campbell jury, did you realize? High coloring, dark hair and beard? He’s a forensics specialist, and very good at what he does. This report is far better than the one written for Janine Campbell.”

Her gaze shifted from Jack to Oscar and back again. “Is there some connection between the two women?”

“That’s what we are wondering about,” Oscar said. “Could you go through the report with us, and start from the beginning?”

“It’s very straightforward,” Anna said. “Healthy woman of about twenty-five, no external signs of violence. Evidence of at least one and probably more than one birth.”

“Where does it say that?” Jack leaned toward her and she pointed to the relevant bit of writing.

“‘Striae gravidarum’ is Latin for stretch marks.”

Oscar’s expression made it clear he wasn’t familiar with the phrase, and Jack assumed that his own face did the same.

“In pregnancy the skin of the abdomen is stretched beyond the point of normal elasticity,” she offered. “So there are stress lines that appear purple at first, and eventually fade to white. This lady’s abdomen showed stretch marks of two distinct shades, some almost white, others still pink.” She waited, and got nods from both of them before she went on.

“In addition to stretch marks, there is scarring to the perineum. Wait,” she said, in response to Jack’s raised brow. “I’ll explain. If the birth is difficult—say, the child is large and the mother is weak after a long labor—an attending doctor will often make an incision from the vagina toward the anus to increase the circumference of the birth canal. The idea is to avoid tearing, which can be difficult to stitch. Closing an incision is easier than stitching a tear; at least that’s how the reasoning goes.”

Anna could almost hear Oscar blushing, and Jack, she thought, wasn’t much better, despite the frank discussions they had been having recently. She studied the report for a long minute. When she thought they had had enough time to compose themselves, she went on.

“The surgical procedure is called an episiotomy. It’s done too often, in my opinion, usually by doctors who are in a hurry. In Mrs. Liljeström’s case the person who delivered her made an unusually large incision that didn’t heal well. She had granulomas along the suture line, nodules of scar tissue that indicate that her sutures weren’t removed very carefully. Even tiny bits of suture can cause irritation and infection, and the body reacts by isolating the fragment and walling it off, so to speak.”

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