The Gilded Hour Page 135

Elise gathered a pile of books and sat down on the floor to begin sorting out everything there was to know about the operation to come.

•   •   •

AT NINE SHE got up to light the lamps and give her eyes a rest. The windows were open to the night breezes and city noises. Slowly she was learning to ignore the most common ones: iron wheels on steel tracks, hoofs on pavement, the huff of steam engines, the shouts of the boys playing stickball or craps in a nearby alley. She had wondered at first how children got any sleep at all, but Rosa and Lia rarely sat still, and by bedtime they never lasted long. When they begged for bedtime stories it was quite safe to agree to a chapter or three. To Elise’s certain knowledge they had yet to get past the first chapter of Little Women.

She was almost alone in the house: the little girls asleep, the older ladies sitting in the garden pergola watching fireflies and slapping at mosquitoes. Chiara had gone to spend the night with Celestina to work on some embroidery project that was giving her fits, and Laura Lee went home every day once supper was on the table.

In the daytime the house was usually overrun with busy people. The exception was Mrs. Quinlan, who spent a good part of the morning in her little study. Mrs. Lee gladly played the dragon before the moat; Chiara swore that even the quietest footsteps passing Mrs. Quinlan’s door would cause Mrs. Lee to appear with a wooden spoon that she tapped into an open palm. But then Chiara was very fond of a good story and believed that facts were there to be bent to the needs of the storyteller.

Elise decided she was thirsty enough to go in search of the cold mint tea Mrs. Lee made by the bucketful. Maybe she would sit in the garden for a little while, if the mosquitoes weren’t too bloodthirsty. She opened her door and stepped into the hallway, where she found Rosa poised for flight, her face pale with shock.

She wore a clean pinafore over a muslin dress and her sturdiest shoes. There was a shawl folded over her arm, half hiding a small basket.

In such a situation Elise would have expected flustered excuses and a quick retreat back into her room, but Rosa stood there without flinching.

She said, “If you stop me now, I’ll go another time. You can’t watch me forever.”

Confused, alarmed, Elise came closer and crouched down until their faces were on the same level. “But where is it you’re going?”

Relief flowed through the little girl, as visible as a storm tide dying out on a beach.

“To Staten Island,” she said with a note of impatience. “To get my little brother. Would you come with me?”

“Sit here with me a minute.” Elise tugged her to the staircase where they sat side by side, speaking in low whispers.

“Why do you think your brother—”

“Vittorio,” Rosa supplied. “The baby.”

“Why do you think he’s on Staten Island?”

From the basket Rosa took a single sheet of paper and held it out. Anna’s handwriting, with much crossing out and many insertions. The letter had not come easily to her.

Rather than take it in hand, Elise said, “Tell me what it says.”

Rosa bit her lip so hard that Elise expected to see blood.

“I have to go now before they come in from the garden. Won’t you come with me?”

“Wait,” Elise said.

“No,” Rosa said, getting up. “I’m not going to wait anymore.”


“You can’t stop me. It’s your fault that he got lost in the first place. You lost him, and now they know where he is but they aren’t doing anything about it. Well, I’ll do something.”

She began to run down the stairs.

“Rosa,” Elise said, trying to keep her voice calm. “There’s no ferry at this time of night. You can’t get to Staten Island until morning.” Which might not be strictly true, but she had nothing else to offer.

The girl paused to look over her shoulder. Elise had never seen such an expression on a child’s face, misery and anger and flint-hard determination.

“I’ll hide until morning,” she said. “I’ve done it before.”

Elise saw Jack coming out of the hall from the kitchen. Rosa followed her shifting gaze and then she was dashing for the door.

Before she could even turn the lock, he was there.

Rosa screamed. A scream that would tear a hard man’s heart in two, and Jack was not hard of heart. He picked up a kicking Rosa and held her while she screamed and thrashed. He simply kept her against his chest, in the circle of his arms.

Jack was talking to her, a low river of sound. When she tried to bite him, he adjusted his grip and kept talking. When Mrs. Quinlan and Mrs. Cooper came rushing into the hall, he kept talking. Rosa was still howling, her mouth a dark hole. She ripped the buttons from Jack’s shirt collar and threw them, her other fist hitting him on the jaw, the cheek, the ear. He never flinched, and he never stopped murmuring to her.

Now she was shouting at him, directing all her anger and frustration into his face in a rushing, tumbling stream of Italian. By his expression it was clear Jack understood her. A kind of calm came over him and seemed to pass into Rosa, who slumped against his shoulder.

A door opened behind Elise. Lia came into the light, sleep-tousled, her thumb firmly in her mouth and tears pouring down her face in a sheet.

“Oh baby,” Elise said. “Come here.” She pulled the little girl close and folded her into her lap, smoothing her hair.

“Shall we go into my room and get into the big bed?”

Lia wound her free hand in Elise’s shirtwaist so tightly that she felt the pull of it at her throat.

“Shall we?”

Her head jerked from side to side: no.

“It will be all right,” Elise whispered to her. “I know this is scary, but it will be all right. We’ll all sit down together and find a way to make Rosa feel better. We can do that, Lia.”

She realized then that Mrs. Cooper had come up the stairs and stood motionless, her hands flat on her waist, arms akimbo. Lia’s eyes, brimming with tears, blinked once, and then she held her arms out.

Elise had had more than one uncharitable thought about Margaret Cooper, and she was embarrassed to remember how quickly she had judged. Her whole person, body and mind, belonged to Lia, who had wrapped her arms and legs around Mrs. Cooper’s neck and slender waist. She murmured to the little girl, soft sounds that might have been words but were meant for no one in the world but Lia. When the door to the girls’ room closed behind them, Elise had to put her forehead down on her knees and let herself be swept away, just in that moment, home to her own mother.

Rosa was still talking in ragged bursts. Jack held her safely in his arms, listening. In small, easy steps he moved into the parlor.

Mrs. Quinlan gestured for Elise. She had an errand and didn’t want to wake Mr. Lee. Would Elise be so good?

“Of course. Just tell me what I can do.”

She pressed money into Elise’s hand and closed her fingers over the bills. “Walk over to the New York Hotel front entrance, tell Mr. Manchester I’ve sent you. He’ll get you a cab. Let him get the cab for you, do you hear me? Then go straight to the New Amsterdam and tell Anna what has happened here. Ask her to come home as soon as she’s able.”

All the questions tumbling through her head, but only one presented itself. “What now?”

Mrs. Quinlan was very old, but there was nothing frail about her. She was filled with calm determination that settled Elise’s own jangling nerves. Some women had that strength hidden inside them, a light that flared to life when everyone else was overwhelmed.

She patted Elise’s cheek and smiled at her, a weary but fond smile. “Tomorrow Anna and Jack will take the girls to Staten Island to see their brother Vittorio,” she said. “Nothing else will do.”


THE RAINY DAY that Anna had wished for came, and would not be wished away again. All the way to the ferry terminal she worried that their departure would be suspended due to rough waters. At the last moment the winds died back and they were allowed to board.

In the hurry not to miss the ferry she had forgotten things: she hadn’t checked to see if the girls had handkerchiefs, or how much money she had in her pocketbook, or if her hat was pinned firmly in place. A gust of wind made her think of the pins, because it almost took the hat from her head. At the same time it took the only umbrella she had found in the rush and turned it inside out with a great pop.

But they got onto the ferry, and it left as scheduled to plow its way through the chop.

Anna held Lia’s head while she was sick, both of them soaked by rain that was falling so hard that each drop bounced like a grasshopper off rail and deck. Lia’s complexion went a sickly yellow green.

The only reasonable, sensible thing to do was to turn around and go home, but one look in Rosa’s direction made it clear that she would fight such a suggestion with all the strength she could muster.

Anna carried Lia back into the cabin and settled with her on a wooden bench across from Jack, who had already accumulated a small pond around himself. On another day she would have had to laugh—he would have laughed at himself. But for Rosa, who sat a little apart, her body angled away from them. She answered Jack in monosyllables when he asked a question, but she would not even look in Anna’s direction. She was in shock; Anna understood that and lectured herself: any attempt to explain or justify would only make things worse. She tried to work out what she might say:

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