The Gilded Hour Page 136

A priest found Vittorio at the Foundling and gave him to a Catholic family to raise as their own. Now he’s Timothy Mullen, and the law will do nothing to restore him to his sisters. Or she could leave the Church out of it: He is a healthy, happy child, one who is very much loved, and who loves. Timothy Mullen clings to his adoptive mother because he remembers no other.

Rosa was not interested in logic or reason or the law. All attempts to engage her met with a blank look; she was as brittle and unreachable as a stroke victim.

The rain fell all the way across Raritan Bay and was still falling when they left the ferry and walked the short distance to the railway station, where stranded travelers were packed, all wet and cold and not inclined to see the situation as anything but inexcusable. But a tree had fallen across the tracks and it would be at least an hour, probably two, until anybody went anywhere.

Lia was a sodden bundle of miserable little girl in her arms. She needed to be stripped out of the wet clothes and rubbed down, but for the moment any small distraction might help. Anna wiggled her way through muttering discontents to get to a window made opaque by condensation. With her gloved hand she wiped it clean, and began to point things out: a yellow dinghy tugging at its ropes like a restless dog, a runaway hat tumbling over and over in the gusting wind, a flash of lightning in the distance, a lady who stood in the doorway of the bakery, peeking out from under her umbrella, watching for someone who was clearly late.

“Who do you think she’s waiting for?” Anna asked. It was a game Lia loved, the making up of stories, but there was nothing there today, not the least spark. Jack and Rosa had come to stand behind them—or Jack had come, leading Rosa by the hand. He was talking to Rosa, but Lia was listening.

On so little sleep Anna’s mind would have nothing to do with Italian, and so she waited while Jack talked and the girls asked questions. When Rosa’s shoulders slumped Anna knew that he had made the situation clear to her; the only way to Tottenville was by train, trains ran on tracks, tracks were sometimes made impassable by the weather, and the weather was out of everyone’s control. They were all of them wet and hungry, Jack was telling them, but there was a hotel just down the street.

One small good thing struck Anna once they were out in the weather: Stapleton was a wealthy town, so that the roads were paved and the sidewalks raised. They would not have to slog through the mud.

The Stapleton Arms lobby smelled of wet wool and coal oil and sweat. Within a minute Anna decided that she would rather be wet outside than steaming hot in a crowded lobby.

Jack paid a premium for two rooms while Anna talked to the matron about towels, cocoa and buttered toast, tea and sandwiches. The matron went bustling off, and Anna hoped the rest of the staff was as sharp and quick.

Finally in the room, she decided she could forgive the hotel owner for overheating the lobby. It was a very pleasant room with an attached bath—Anna wondered briefly how much Jack had had to pay—a small table, a comfortable chair, and a good-sized bed with clean linen and a pretty quilt. As the first order of business she cracked both windows for fresh air.

She had barely taken off her hat when they were invaded by the matron, leading her maids like soldiers into battle. There were stacks of towels and loaded trays, dry socks and facecloths. Jack took a few towels for himself and disappeared into the next room while Anna began stripping wet clothes off Lia. The matron did the same for Rosa, who allowed this service without comment.

The food was set out on the table, and then the maids ducked their heads and withdrew. Lia, wrapped in towels, managed a smile for the matron, who brought her a cup of cocoa. Rosa accepted a cup too, and soon began to blink sleepily. They had another hour to wait, and a nap seemed the best use of that time.

The matron—Mrs. Singer, as it turned out—had brought a dressing gown for Anna to use. Old and frayed at the hem, but sweet smelling. Anna went behind the privacy screen to strip and handed her clothes over to Mrs. Singer.

“I’ll hang all your things in the kitchen, where it’s warmest.”

“I don’t know what you can do make them dry in an hour,” Anna said. “But thank you for trying.”

Mrs. Singer raised one thin eyebrow. “If the next train leaves before three, I’ll eat my own hat and yours for good measure. It always takes longer than they claim.”

The matron went out as Jack came in.

Rosa said, “Where did you get that?”

“It’s pink,” Lia said, and giggled.

“These girls are mocking me, Anna. Mocking me.”

“You’re wearing a pink dressing gown,” Lia pointed out. “You look silly.” It was true, the old dressing gown the landlord had found for him was big enough, but it had faded over the years from what had probably been a somber maroon to a delicate pink.

“And you have cocoa all around your mouth, like a mustache and beard. Let’s get you cleaned up and down for a nap.”

Anna’s stomach gave a terrific growl and so she sat down to eat while Jack folded back the covers. Both the girls were asleep before he had finished tucking them in. Anna, her hair still dripping, sat in the chair beside the bed and went about the business of putting herself in order, when she would have liked nothing more than to climb into bed with them.

Jack came up behind her with a fresh towel. “Here,” he said. “Let me.”

While he pressed water from her hair she closed her eyes and let herself be drawn down and down into the comfort of it. Then he ruined her lovely half sleep. “Listen now, while I talk. No arguments, just listen.”

Anna drew in a deep breath and let it go in one long sigh. She got up from the chair and went to the window, but he followed her.

Jack said, “Nobody in this world could have done more for these girls than you have. Rosa doesn’t see that now, but she will. You have to remember that and leave guilt and remorse behind, because while it seems as though she’s ignoring you, she’s watching every move you make.”

Anna nodded and yawned, and, leaning forward to put her head on Jack’s unyielding shoulder, she fell asleep.

•   •   •

THE SUN BROKE through the last of the clouds just as they reached the railroad office, and that, Jack decided, could be taken as a good omen. From there things moved quickly; tickets were bought, and all four of them settled on the crowded train while a faint rainbow appeared over Raritan Bay.

Anna sat across the aisle with Lia, who was taking in the scenery with something like astonishment. After Washington Square’s walkways and benches and neatly manicured bushes and trees, Staten Island would be overwhelming.

Once or twice he had heard Aunt Quinlan telling stories of her childhood in the endless forests and mountains of northernmost New York state, and so it came as no surprise when Lia asked about bears and panthers, wolves and moose.

“Not here,” Anna told her. “The endless forests are far away. It’s a long journey.”

“Beaver?” Lia asked hopefully. “There must be beaver.”

Anna raised a shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe the conductor could tell you. See, he’s coming now to take our tickets.”

You had to admire Anna’s way of dealing with the girls. Rather than try to convince them they should not be sad or angry or disappointed in something, she gave them something else to concentrate on. He had seen this strategy work dozens of times already, as it worked now. Lia tugged on the conductor’s sleeve to ask a question, and for the rest of the journey she looked forward to his trips through the car, when he would stop and tell her about Staten Island when he was a boy, about plentiful beaver and deer, porcupines and foxes.

Rosa was listening, but she took no part in the conversation. Jack tried to imagine what she would be feeling, the relief of knowing her brother was alive and well, the fear that she would be turned away and not allowed to see him. She was angry at everyone and everything, but she focused most of that anger on Anna and Elise.

“It’s understandable,” Anna had said to him last night. “She trusts me not to reject her for being angry. If I could be dispassionate about any of it, I might say that she is thinking of me like a mother. Someone who will take the worst she has to offer, and never turn away.”

Drifting between consciousness and sleep, he had thought about this Anna, who had once lost a brother. She understood Rosa’s sorrow and anger better than he ever could.

•   •   •

IN TOTTENVILLE THEY wasted no time wandering through the village or finding a meal but went straight to Mr. Malone. The old man’s face broke into a wide smile at the sight of them, but this time he didn’t try to communicate. Instead he picked up a short rod and struck a bell that hung over his head. Before Jack could make sense of it, Mr. Malone’s son stuck his head out of a workroom of some kind, his hands full of tack.

“On my way!”

Anna looked at Jack with something like bemused resignation, and she was right; because they had been here before, the Malones felt obliged to inquire about their journey, their health, their newly married state, their feelings on the weather as it had been in the city and what might be to come here, and then in great detail about the girls, who Jack introduced at their wards.

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