The Gilded Hour Page 12

Over the years there had been rare fruits, books about Mesopotamia or windmills or German philosophy, pens of ivory inlaid with pearl, confectionery, beautifully etched and painted ostrich eggs, tiny carvings from Japan, watercolors or sculptures by young artists whose work had caught his eye, a canary in a wrought-iron cage, cuttings from a wild rose, yards of lace from Brussels, bolts of figured damask from India, sheet music, concert and lecture tickets. When they protested he listened politely, nodded, and then carried on as always.

That morning Sophie’s name alone had been written across the wrapping paper. It was a slim parcel that contained a short biography of Dr. René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec; a stack of lecture notes tied with string, dated the twenty-fourth day of March 1882 and titled Die Ötiologie der Tuberculose; and a letter.

The biography needed no explanation. Dr. Laennec had been a talented, widely respected researcher who died at forty-five of tuberculosis, contracted from his own patients. On the other hand, at first she didn’t know what to make of the notes. A pile of papers, closely written in a neat, sharp hand. Only after a quarter hour of reading did she realize that Cap had paid someone—most likely a medical student—to travel to Germany specifically to attend Dr. Robert Koch’s lecture on the tuberculosis bacillus. The notes—painstaking, exacting—must have been sent by special courier.

Cap left nothing to chance. It wasn’t in his nature.

She put the notes aside, and when she had gathered her courage she opened the letter. For all its brevity it cut as surely as a scalpel.

Sophie, my love,

Forgive me. After four years of earnest effort to convince you to accept my proposal of marriage, I withdraw my offer with the greatest sorrow and regret. As the enclosed will make clear, the research of the physicians you study and respect is now unequivocal. I may live a year or five, but I cannot live even a day with you without putting your life in danger. This I cannot, will not do.

Forgive me.

She had written, to no avail. He allowed only Anna near enough in order to examine him once a month, as long as she wore a mask that had been treated with carbolic acid and observed the strictest hygienic measures. The housekeeper and maids who had served first his grandmother and then his mother would not be sent away, but he spoke to them only through a closed door of the chamber he rarely left. His secretary could sit in the same room but only at the opposite side, and turned away. A few of his closest friends were so persistent that he finally allowed them to visit if they too kept to the far side of the room where Cap himself never went, and on these visits it was Cap who wore the mask.

Cap wanted her to think of him as already dead because he thought of himself that way. In fact, Sophie woke up every day and went to sleep every night thinking about him. She missed him, she was furious with him, she mourned the time she might have had with him.

The Vanderbilt Easter Monday ball was the first time he had appeared in public since his diagnosis. Sophie wondered if his friends would realize he was saying good-bye.

•   •   •

ON ANY OTHER March night at eleven o’clock the north end of Fifth Avenue might be mistaken for a row of mausoleums scaled for giants. The great bulk of the new cathedral on one side of the street with schools and rectories and orphan asylums gathered around it, like chicks to a sleeping hen. On the other side, one mansion after the other, ornate, looming, as sterile as they were imposing. A wide street without a single tree or even the suggestion of a garden, just high walls and hundreds and hundreds of windows sealed shut, the eyes of the dead.

But tonight the newest mansion—maybe the fourth or fifth the Vanderbilts had put up over the last ten years, Jack couldn’t remember exactly—was awake. It seemed to glow, marble and granite reflecting the light that poured from every window. The first personal residence completely lit with electricity, at a cost that beggared the imagination. With its turrets and balconies and galleries it shone like an unwieldy and ill-begotten star set down among its dull red- and brown-brick neighbors.

A double canopy had been constructed over the Fifth Avenue entrance to protect the partygoers from both weather and the crowd of curious passersby. Footmen in pale blue livery and powdered wigs stood ready to help the guests from their carriages onto the deep red rug that ran from the huge double doors down the steps and all the way to the curb.

Tomorrow the personality of the house would retreat like a turtle into its shell; the stained glass would go dark, blinds and draperies closing off all light and fresh air.

His sisters sometimes tried to calculate how many thousands of yards of velvet and brocade and satin had gone into the draperies of even one of the Vanderbilt mansions, but the numbers quickly grew so large and absurd that they simply gave up and turned back to their own needlework. Their endless, precious, beautiful needlework.

Every evening they waited for him, sitting knee to knee facing each other over an embroidery frame. They would jump up to take his coat and offer him food and more food and again food until he accepted the plate they had ready for him. They wanted him to have the best chair by the fire, the day’s newspapers, to hear their family gossip, worries about the weather, observations on the comings and goings of the neighbors, dire predictions about the prospects of the butcher’s new clerk, admonitions about the dampness of his coat or shoes. His sisters ran his household and aspired to run him with the same painstaking and exhausting perfectionism.

From the corner of his eye Jack saw a familiar figure, a woman of at least sixty, carefully groomed and dressed to convey nothing more threatening than genteel poverty. Few would guess that a multitude of hidden pockets had been sewn into her wide skirts, ready to be filled with the fruits of the night’s labor. Jack had arrested her three or four times at least over the last year. Meggie, she called herself, but her true name was unknown, maybe even to her. He was about to step off the curbside to intercept her when a hand landed heavily on the woman’s artfully slumped shoulder. Michael Hone out of the twenty-third precinct, just two years on the force but he had the eye. She gave a heavy sigh and let herself be marched off.

“Meggie must be feeling her age,” Oscar said, coming up beside Jack. “Twenty years ago she was slippery as waterweed. She’d be halfway to Brooklyn before you realized she was gone. O-ho, look now. Tell me, would that particular fat-assed Roman emperor there be an elected official who shall remain shameless?”

For a time they amused each other trying to put names to costumes: Cardinal Richelieu and the Count of Monte Cristo, a Capuchin friar, Chinese merchants with eyes outlined in kohl, wizards, cowboys, Queen Elizabeth, the goddess Diana with bow and arrow, a trio of young women with staffs and lifelike lambs fixed somehow to their wide skirts.

“Money is wasted on some people,” sniffed a young woman whose clothes were threadbare but carefully mended. “I’d come up with a better costume than Bo Peep, you can be sure of that.”

A young man dressed as a knight of Malta followed the trio out of the carriage. Covered head to foot in hauberk and chain mail and armor, he clanked his way up the walk, listing to one side and then the other like a ship in a storm.

“Look now,” a man’s voice called out loud enough to carry over the noise. “Won’t somebody get that poor mope an anchor?”

The appreciative roar of the crowd did not slow the crusader in pursuit of his Bo Peeps, but every policeman within earshot tensed. The draft riots were twenty years ago, but it would be another twenty before they rested easy in the presence of any crowd; moods could shift from high spirits to violence without warning. Now shopkeepers and factory workers, clerks and charwomen, men with tool belts and lunch buckets, they all cooed at the sight of a cape embroidered with pearls and rubies, but people just like this had burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum and hung innocent men from light posts to vent their rage.

There was only one reliable barometer of a group ready to go sour. Jack turned his attention to a half-dozen children slinking through the crowd as easily and unobserved as cats. Six in this group, the youngest maybe seven, and if he had to guess he would identify them as part of the pack that slept in an alley alongside a German baker’s place of business on Franklin Street. The brick wall there was warmed by the ovens, which made the alley a coveted spot in the winter. It was one they had to fight to keep and could lose at any time. If there was real trouble in the air, the street urchins would disappear so quickly that they might have been an illusion.

“They’re settling down,” Maroney said. The crowd’s attention had turned to a modern-day Shakespeare whose hat kept sliding down over his eyes, so that he tripped repeatedly over his shoes. The urchins laughed, widemouthed, gap-toothed, children still and in want of amusement.

Earlier today Jack had watched more fortunate orphans being taken into the austere custody of Sister Ignatia. In shock, overwhelmed, many of them had hung back, torn between the promise of food and the numbing familiarity of the filthy tenements where their parents had died. The doctor had done a lot to calm them, her manner so matter-of-fact, without any trace of condescension or pity. Chances were a few of them would still try to slip away from the orphanage, but none of the children he had seen today would survive long on the city streets.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies