The Gilded Hour Page 13

The Children’s Aid Society estimated that there were as many as thirty thousand orphaned or abandoned children in Manhattan, while the orphan asylums could take no more than twelve thousand at a time. The rest lived on the streets underdressed, mostly shoeless, infection- and lice- and worm-ridden. They ate only what they could steal or scrounge or beg and had nothing so grand as a tenement to call home. Most of them refused to ask for shelter at any of the charities that were there to put them up, for the simple fear they would never be allowed to leave again, or would find themselves on a train headed west and a future even more uncertain than the bleak one before them. And so they slept huddled together in doorways or perched on fire escapes, and many of them died over the long winter, defeated by hunger and loneliness and the weather.

One by one the carriages pulled up and came to a stop, and footmen and coachmen lined up to open doors and assist ladies who could not see their feet over skirts and petticoats. Then they followed the walkway lined with potted trees and statues through the marquee and into the house, where they would eat too much and drink even more.

The early high spirits had cooled a little. The crowd began to mill around, bored and eager for distraction.

Farther down the block the doors of a carriage opened suddenly. Two young men jumped down and then turned to help the ladies, all of them too eager to wait in a stuffy carriage. In response other carriage doors began to open, at first only one or two and then in a rush. Ladies in silver and buttercup yellow and blazing reds and deep purples let themselves be directed by their husbands and fathers and brothers, lifting skirts high to avoid puddles and manure and trash, giggling nervously and turning their faces away from the crowd, as if that would be enough to spare them the very attention elaborate costumes were designed to engage.

The uniforms and roundsmen would be here the rest of the night, but as soon as the last party guests had disappeared into the house, the detectives could be away home. As if he had heard Jack’s thought, the captain came around the corner and pointed at them.

“I need you two inside.” Baker jerked his thumb over his shoulder as if there might be doubt about where. “Talk to Beaney, he’ll point you in the right direction. Thinks he saw some rogues’ gallery faces in the crowd.”

“Dressed as priests, no doubt,” Oscar muttered. “Pranksters every one.”

Baker gave a surprised and reluctant bark of laughter and then intensified his scowl to offset that small lapse.

“You’ll stay at your posts,” he said, “until I send word.” And he stomped off, cursing under his breath.

They crossed the street, passing a carriage that had seen better days. Inside two very old ladies in powdered wigs sat waiting, their painted faces so somber that they might have been on their way to a funeral.

A couple had just stepped out of a far more elegant and fashionable carriage. The gentleman was older, his form narrow and posture brittle, and he leaned on a cane. His costume was simplicity itself: over one shoulder he had tossed a black cape with red silk lining. The red set off the tight black breeches and short jacket over a white shirt.

“I think he’s supposed to be one of those Spanish grandees,” Oscar said. And as the man turned his face to the light he let out a soft grunt. “That’s Cap Verhoeven,” he said. “Poor sod.”

Verhoeven’s eyes were a vivid bright blue, his complexion flushed. People sometimes called such extreme high color the red flag of the white death. Consumption was said to be gentle, even a romantic death, but Jack could see nothing benign in the way it dragged the strongest and most promising out of the world.

“A damn good lawyer, and strange enough for one of his ilk, fair-minded. His mother was a Belmont.”

Oscar had an encyclopedic knowledge of the old Knickerbocker families his mother had worked for all of her life.

Verhoeven had stepped back to reveal the lady beside him, one hand on his raised arm while with the other she tried to keep a shawl in place. She let out a little cry of surprise and irritation as it slipped out of her grasp and fluttered away.

Above layers of silk gauze that moved with the breeze, her shoulders and long neck were now bared to the night air. In the light of the carriage lanterns her complexion took on the shifting iridescence of abalone: golds and pinks, ivories and smoky blues. The heavy dark hair twisted into a coronet and wrapped around her head set off the curve of her cheek.

All of these thoughts went through Jack’s head in the few seconds it took the footman to catch up her shawl and drop it over her shoulders. As she half turned toward the footman to smile her thanks, he saw her face for the first time.

Oscar caught his jolt of surprise. “What? You know him?”

“No,” Jack said. “Don’t know Verhoeven. It’s the woman I recognize.”

“Huh.” Oscar could fit more doubt into a single syllable than any man alive. “Where did you make the acquaintance of somebody like that?”

“On the Hoboken ferry,” Jack said. “Surrounded by nuns and orphans.”

Oscar’s brow shot up high. “The lady doctor you told me about? What was her name—”

“Savard. Dr. Savard.”

There was a small silence between them.

Maroney said, “Let’s go see what the kitchen maids can spare us in the way of fancy food.”

But he had something else on his mind, Jack could see it. A lady doctor dressed in silks was an oddity, and Oscar Maroney’s curiosity, once engaged, had to be satisfied. For once Jack was feeling just as curious as his partner.

•   •   •

ANNA ENTERED ALVA Vanderbilt’s white marble reception hall at 660 Fifth Avenue on Cap’s arm, arriving late, as planned. They had missed the promenade through the house, the receiving line for which hundreds of people had to be announced, and to Anna’s quiet disappointment, the dancing of the six formal quadrilles.

Mrs. Lee had been reading about the dancing in the newspapers and was especially excited about the Hobby Horse Quadrille. She told Anna exactly what to look for: a two-part pony costume of papier-mâché and velvet that fit around the middle of the dancer. Anna could admit to herself that her own curiosity had been aroused. Now she was as disappointed as Mrs. Lee was going to be.

Coming out of the cool night into the great hall they were enveloped by overheated air thick with the scent of roses and freesia and aged oak from a fireplace large enough, it seemed to Anna, to consume a small cottage. Overhead crystal chandeliers hung from the carved arches supporting the vaulted ceiling, supplemented by dozens of electric light sconces. Indoor electric lighting was an innovation, another example of the Vanderbilts’ need to be first in everything. Light reflected off the polished marble floor and the multitude of jewels this class of people wore like war medals, embedded in buttons and hair combs, sewn onto skirts and bodices and capes, displayed on throats and wrists, fingers and ears.

So much light and warmth and noise, but marble floors and walls paneled with ornately carved stone robbed the room of any hint of welcome or comfort. At the top of a staircase wide enough for ten men to stand shoulder to shoulder there would be a gallery full of treasures gathered from all over the world: paintings by the masters, sculptures and tapestries from China and Egypt and Greece, jewels and inlaid cabinets and musical instruments. Later, if Cap felt strong enough, they could make their way up the long sweeping staircase slowly, at a suitable pace.

They followed a footman who took them on a winding route through the great hall, across salons and a gold and white music room. Every object was made of the rarest woods or finest stone or marble, gilded, carved, inset with ivory or pearl or the wings of butterflies, draped in velvet, damask, embroidered silk. It was meant to be overwhelming, and it was.

With the footman’s assistance they found the comfortable corner one of Cap’s Belmont cousins had arranged for them. Tall vases overflowing with full-blown deep red roses and honeysuckle bracketed silk upholstered chairs, a settee with a wealth of beaded and embroidered pillows, and a low table that was crowded with fine crystal wineglasses and goblets, gold-rimmed platters of crudités and canapés and caviar en croute. On a side table were more platters heaped with petit fours and tartlets topped with strawberries, far ahead of season, sugared plums and nuts, and punitions, each adorned with a V made out of gold tissue, in case the guest forgot that this was the home of a Vanderbilt.

Flowers tumbled over each other in every corner: roses, tulips, lily of the valley, freesia, whole branches of dogwood and magnolia forced into early bloom. Every greenhouse and hothouse in a hundred miles had to have been stripped bare.

In their little alcove Anna and Cap were close enough to the dancing to watch without being overrun, and Anna found herself laughing out loud at the sight. Robin Hood waltzed with a bumblebee, wings fluttering with every sweep; a Roman emperor had as partner a dairy maid; Frederick the Great danced with a phoenix, and a Russian peasant with Marie Antoinette, who, Anna noted with some satisfaction, wore a gown even more revealing than her own.

They sat watching, Anna with a flute of champagne in her hand and Cap without. He wouldn’t eat or drink and he never took off his gloves outside his own home. Now he touched his handkerchief to his damp face and throat.

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