The Gilded Hour Page 118

“Of course not.”

“Then what are you afraid of? That he’ll read your mind?”

“Priests have been known to do just that.”

“Nonsense,” Anna said. “You ascribe far too much power to the man.”

“Or maybe you ascribe too little.”

That made Anna smile. “He can’t drag you back to the convent by the hair.”

Elise shook her head. “He has a reputation,” she said finally. “For speaking his mind.”

“And so do I,” Anna said. “Now, shall we go?”

•   •   •

FATHER MCKINNAWAE HAD raised funds to build the asylum for homeless boys that spanned a full block on Lafayette. It spoke to his determination and drive, things that Anna did not underestimate. He was a man who cared about the fate of the children he took in, and on that basis she hoped he would be willing to discuss the Russo case.

The building was larger than the New Amsterdam, utilitarian in design and materials, and while Anna imagined that every bed was already filled, there was a deserted air about it. She wondered if most of the boys were out on the streets selling papers and blacking shoes, or if they had someplace else to be.

Elise said very little. She walked with her chin to her chest and her arms folded against her abdomen.

“If he realizes that you were once a nun, it will be because of your posture and the way you stare at the ground,” Anna said. “Look at people directly when they talk to you. I know it’s not easy after so many years of hiding away, but it’s a crucial skill to learn.”

“I’ve been trying,” Elise said dryly. “It’s a hard habit to break.”

Anna felt a flush of embarrassment. “I apologize,” she said. “For patronizing you.”

Elise stopped, surprised. “You have nothing to apologize for. I owe you everything.”

“No, you don’t,” she said firmly. “I am simply lending a hand to a promising student. All the work is yours. And while I’m lecturing you on your habits, I should at least be doing as much for myself.”

One side of the wide mouth curled up in what Anna took for reluctant agreement.

“Let’s face down the lion together,” she said, and opened the door for Elise to pass through first.

•   •   •

“I AM DR. Anna Savard, and this is Nurse Elise Mercier. We have an appointment with Father McKinnawae.”

The young man who sat at the reception desk sorting through papers glanced up at them. Anna felt herself judged, but whatever conclusions were reached, he hid them away well.

“Father McKinnawae’s office is down the hall.” He spoke English with an accent that could have been German or Danish, a young man of maybe twenty years. Not a priest or a monk, by his clothes. He gestured with his head to point them in the right direction. “It’s clearly marked.”

Before they had turned away he spoke to Elise. “Do I recognize your face?”

“I don’t know,” Elise said. “Do you?”

“I’m good with faces.”

“But I’m not. I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”

But he continued to study her, his curiosity overriding common good manners.

He said, “I’m Elmo Tschirner. From Holland.”

A little color came into Elise’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize your face or your name.”

“Are you Irish? You have the coloring, that red hair.”

“I’m not,” Elise said. “Pardon me, we need to be going.”

“Was it something I said?” he called after them, and Anna saw a spark of surprise and pleasure in the younger woman’s face.

•   •   •

THE HALLS ECHOED with the sounds of boys’ voices reciting lessons. Multiplication tables, primarily. From farther away there was the faint echo of hammers and saws. There was still the bite of fresh lumber in the air, and just below that, lye soap.

“It feels very familiar,” Elise said. “Like every other orphan asylum and mission I’ve seen. It’s good that they get lessons, don’t you think?”

Anna did agree. Homeless children needed food and shelter and someone who cared about their welfare and their futures. Father McKinnawae certainly took those needs to heart, and, she told herself, that was reason enough to respect the man, sight unseen. Even given Elise’s clear concerns.

The first door they came across had Father John McKinnawae stenciled in plain black on wood painted a dull green. It stood half open, but Anna knocked anyway, pushing the door open as she did.

The man standing at the window turned to them, iron-gray eyebrows jumping high on a shiny pink forehead. “Is it that time already?” He looked at a clock hanging over the door. “So it is. Come in. Come in. Did you find your way without difficulty?”

“Mr. Tschirner was helpful,” Anna said.

“Yes, a fine lad, excellent manners. I was lucky to find him. Now, which one of you is Dr. Savard?”

It took a moment for them to satisfy the need for polite introductions, and then Anna and Elise sat down across a desk as broad as a boat. It was covered with papers and binders and books, but everything seemed to be carefully ordered.

“Now, how can I help you?”

Anna took in a deep breath and told the story of the Russo children, starting with the church basement in Hoboken. She had decided to say nothing of Staten Island in the hope that he would volunteer the information. As she talked she watched his face, broad and unremarkable and unreadable.

“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble for these children,” he said when she had finished.

“We’ve done what we can. We’d like to do more.”

“Why? Why these four children? Why not some other children?”

Anna hesitated. “I don’t have a good answer for that, except that Rosa made an impression on me.”

“You pitied her.”

Anna wondered if this was a provocation. “I felt compassion for all the children, but her situation I found particularly difficult. May I ask why this is relevant?”

He made a tent of his hands, the fingers touching his chin. “The children in my care are vulnerable.” His gaze pivoted to Elise.

“Miss Mercier,” he said. “What’s your interest in the fate of these children?”

At first Anna thought that Elise would simply not answer, but then she cleared her throat. “I was there when the two boys went missing. I’d like to help in any way I can.”

“You feel responsible?”

She nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“Father McKinnawae,” Anna said. “We would like to talk to you about the youngest of the children, Vittorio Russo. We believe that he was taken to the Foundling on the twenty-sixth of March, and that you found him there and took him away with you the next day.”

He blinked at her with what she thought was meant to be seen as mild surprise. “Why ever would you think that?”

“We went to the Foundling and looked at the records. Sister Mary Irene remembered the boy because of his unusual coloring. She was very helpful.”

“More helpful than I can be. I’m afraid I have no information for you.” His expression was stony, even hostile.

“You may not remember that you answered a letter of mine some weeks ago and suggested I come see you at Mount Loretto on Staten Island. My husband and I did in fact go to Staten Island on the twenty-sixth of May, but you had been called away because of some emergency.”

He had a polite but empty way of looking at her, as if he were humoring her need to tell a story.

“Brother Jerome gave us a tour, and then we went for a walk on the beach. That’s when we happened to see Vittorio with his adoptive family. He was introduced as Timothy Mullen. We didn’t intrude or ask questions, but I am certain that the boy called Timothy is in fact Vittorio.”

The empty expression gave way to irritation. “Did this child you think is Vittorio Russo seem to be suffering in some way? Underfed? Abused? Uncared for?”

“No,” Anna said. “He looked very content, and he is clearly much loved. Did you place him with the family, Father McKinnawae?”

“I know nothing about a child called Vittorio Russo,” said the priest. “Let me clarify something for you, Dr. Savard. Adoptions are private and anonymous. They are not discussed. With anyone, for any reason. Once a child has been adopted into a family, there is no turning back. It would be terrible for the child and the adoptive parents both. I’m sure you would agree that a child in the situation you’ve described has been through enough, and shouldn’t be wretched from a stable and loving family.”

“So you are saying that Timothy Mullen is not in fact Vittorio Russo.”

A line appeared between his brows, as if she were a dull student giving him a headache. “As I have said, I cannot help you.”

“Let me understand,” Anna said. “If a child were separated from his parents in an emergency—a fire, for example—and they came to you in the hope you might know something of their missing son, a child you had taken in, you would lie to them.”

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