The Gilded Hour Page 123

“Sophie and Cap were here right before they sailed,” Amelie was saying over her shoulder. “I hope you won’t be mad that they told me your news. And don’t start apologizing, I know how busy you are.”

“I should apologize,” Anna said.

“But don’t. Come in the kitchen, I’ve got cake.”

Anna followed the winding path to the back of the house, lined with bushes in flower and alive with bees and hummingbirds. As a little girl she had always thought of this house as she did of the cottages in fairy tales, full of secret cabinets and hidden stairs and most of all, stories. It was an odd structure, out of kilter at every corner, an old lady plagued by arthritis but cheerful, nonetheless. Front and kitchen doors and every window stood open to the breeze because as old-fashioned as the house and Amelie herself might seem, she was keen on new inventions and had screens installed everywhere, bought from a man in Chicago and shipped at great expense. And worth every penny, she said when people asked; she would have paid more for fresh air without the flies and mosquitoes that plagued man and beast on a farm.

While Amelie went about her business, Anna took the chance to study her cousin: the river of hair, iron and silver and black, in a long braid down her back, her clothes flowing and old-fashioned, worn soft and faded. In comparison her complexion was far younger than her years, supple and smooth, still unlined. She was the daughter and granddaughter of slaves and slave holders, of Mohawk and Seminole, and all those bloodlines had come together to a color that had entranced Anna as a very young child. It still reminded her of burning sugar, caramel on the verge of something even deeper. She remembered, vaguely, tasting the skin of Amelie’s arm, and coming away with simple salt on the tongue where she had expected sugar.

Amelie disappeared into the pantry, raising her voice to be heard above the noise she was making, shifting through baskets and bins.

“Tell me about your Jack.”

“First tell me your news.”

Amelie always had news of her sister, who lived in Boston and had raised a family of ten children who had, in turn, produced eighteen children of their own, and of her brother Henry who was still working as an engineer on the railroads though he was almost seventy.

“Can’t slow him down. Takes after Da that way.”

Her head appeared around the corner of the pantry. “Stop stalling now and tell me.”

So Anna put together the story of Jack Mezzanotte while Amelie gathered what she needed, mashed boiled ginger root, sorted through dried peppermint leaves, and put both to steep.

“Mezzanotte, you say. Do his people keep bees, in Jersey somewhere?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “I should have realized you’d recognize the name.”

“I do indeed. All right, I approve.”

That made Anna laugh. “Because his parents keep bees?”

“Because you do nothing by halves,” Amelie said. “And because it’s clear to me that he did indeed sneak up on you, which means you let your guard down, and that tells me everything. Hand me that tin, would you?”

She put things on the table: a teapot with a mismatched lid, thick cups on chipped saucers, a jug of milk and a bowl of brown sugar lumps. Then she levered the lid off the cake tin so that the smells of browned butter and cardamom could slip out, like a genie released from a bottle.

Amelie said, “Do you have a case for me?”

“No,” Anna said. “Not today. But I have cases I wanted to tell you about, to get your opinion on.” She went to the sink to wash her hands, then dried them on the towel Amelie handed her.

Amelie leaned back in her chair. “Start at the beginning,” she said. “And don’t leave anything out.”

•   •   •

WHEN ANNA HAD finished recounting all she knew about Janine Campbell, Abigail Liljeström, and Eula Schmitt, Amelie went about cutting cake. Anna let the silence stretch out, patient with Amelie because patience and patience alone would bring rewards.

“I read about the Campbell inquest in the paper,” Amelie said finally. “Tell me, why didn’t Sophie send the woman to me?”

“You know why,” Anna said. “We said we wouldn’t send anybody until Comstock stops this campaign of his. Mrs. Campbell’s husband actually works for Comstock. It was too dangerous, and in the end your safety was more important to us.”

“You thought Comstock would follow her here,” her cousin said.

“You know he does that kind of thing.”

She rocked her head from side to side, considering. “So you think that the Campbell woman went to somebody who advertised himself as a reputable doctor, but wasn’t. You know that happens every day.”

“It’s more than that,” Anna said. “Whoever did Janine Campbell’s procedure was angry. It was more like a stabbing than anything else. I didn’t see the postmortem, but I did read the Liljeström autopsy report, and the similarities are hard to deny. Then this third case, and more of the same.”

“What does your Jack think?”

Anna took a few moments to gather her thoughts. “He thinks there’s a man, maybe a doctor, maybe not, who has a compulsion to do this to women. Somebody very intelligent, who plans ahead.”

“Does Jack know about me?”

Anna had been waiting for this question, and she shook her head. “Not yet.”

“He’ll disapprove.”

“I think he’ll withhold judgment until he meets you, and then he’ll be satisfied.”

That got her a smile. “Now, that you’ll have to explain.”

“He’s unusual, Amelie. Because of his family background, he doesn’t jump to condemnation and he tries to see below the surface. It’s the reason we were drawn to each other, I think.”

“A perfect man.”

“Hardly,” Anna said, laughing. “And I still haven’t met all his family, so there may be trouble waiting there. In fact, I know there is.” This was not the time to talk about Bambina, though she would have liked to.

“If you want my opinion, Jack may well be right in his suspicions about the way these three women died,” Amelie said.

Anna had been expecting something less definitive. “Can you explain to me how you come to that conclusion?”

“It just feels off to me, based on forty years of looking after women.”

“Do you have any suggestions on where to start? Any names?”

Her cousin studied her teacup for a good while. “There was one doctor, thirty years ago or more. He wasn’t young then, so he’ll be long gone. But he was brutal with his patients, more bent on purifying their souls than saving their lives. I could imagine him letting a woman die. I think he probably did, and more than once. But that’s a far cry from these cases of yours. Something like this takes a special kind of monster.”

Anne retrieved the page of the newspaper she had brought with her from the city and, laying it in front of Amelie, pointed to the advertisement that had raised her suspicions.

To the refined, dignified but distraught lady departing Smithson’s near the Jefferson Market yesterday morning: I believe I can provide the assistance you require. Write for particulars to Dr. dePaul, Station A, Union Square.

When Amelie finished reading and looked up, Anna asked her question.

“Isn’t Smithson the druggist who takes messages for Sarah?”

“It is. Or it was. Sarah moved to Jersey to live with her son’s family.”

“She’s unwell?”

“She’s seventy-eight this past November.”

Anna gave her an apologetic half smile. “I didn’t realize. Did someone take over her practice?”

“I thought Nan did,” Amelie said. “You remember Nan Gray.”

“Vaguely. Is she one of yours?”

Over the years Amelie had trained or mentored a hundred midwives, and she tried to keep track of all of them.

“Not mine. She came up from Washington, maybe twenty years ago. But maybe she’s not the one who stepped in for Sarah. You’re thinking that this Dr. dePaul, whoever he is, watches for women coming out of Smithson’s? That seems a very chancy way to set a trap. If that’s what’s going on.”

Anna said, “But it’s written in such vague terms, anyone might think themselves the target of his attention. If he only gets one response a month, that’s probably more than he can deal with. I hope.”

Amelie hummed to herself as she poured more tea. “Practicing medicine requires a cynical turn of mind, but this—” She shook her head. “Let me understand you correctly. You think there’s a man who trolls for women in distress, offers them his services, and operates in a way that assures that they don’t survive, and even that they die in terrible pain. That his purpose is what—to punish them? To make examples of them?”

“I don’t know,” Anna said. “But I have this sense that it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility.”

Amelie went quiet, her head turned away as if she were looking out into the garden, but in fact Anna knew she wasn’t seeing anything at all. Her cousin had a way of climbing right inside a problem and sitting there until she found a way out. She had been trained by her own mother, Anna’s aunt Hannah, a doctor of almost mythic fame on the New York frontier, and it seemed to Anna that Amelie understood the minds of doctors as well as she did the women they cared for.

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