The Gilded Hour Page 14

“It is far too warm with the electric lights and so many people. You must drink something.”

“Only if you’ll let me drop the glass once I’m done,” Cap said, one brow raised in challenge.

“I doubt she’d miss one glass,” Anna muttered. “No matter what kind of crystal it is.”

“But an under maid may take the blame,” Cap said. “You wouldn’t like that.”

There was no evidence that the tuberculosis bacillus could be passed by touching inanimate objects, but Cap had rules for himself that were inviolate. And in truth, Anna could not fault him for his concern.

She was pulled from her thoughts by two pirates who flung themselves onto the settee in mock exhaustion. Bram and Baltus Decker were Cap’s cousins; they had read law with him at Yale and remained stubbornly devoted to him despite his insistence on physical distance. Now they fell over the food and drink with enthusiasm, interrupting themselves to comment on the champagne, the caviar, the pâté de foie gras and smoked trout mounded on toast points, on the orchestra, the quadrilles, and to relate everything they had seen and heard and thought since they had last seen Cap.

Bram flipped up his pirate’s patch and blinked owlishly. “Where is Belmont? Never mind, silly question. He’ll be here somewhere, chasing a skirt around the dance floor. Look there at that costume, who is she supposed to be? Curled-up toes, must be something oriental.”

“Reasonable guess, given the fez and the golden veil,” said his brother. Then they both turned to Cap, waiting to be told. Because Cap had a prodigious memory, and would share what he knew if prompted.

“I believe that is supposed to be Lalla Rookh of Persia,” he said.

“Damn funny rooks they’ve got in Persia,” said Baltus. “Ours are plain black.”

“Not the bird. Rookh is a title.”

“Book or play?”

“Neither. Poem and then opera.”

“Damn me,” said Baltus. “Who has the brains to write poems with one hand and opera with the other?”

“Nobody,” said Anna, who couldn’t resist the silly back-and-forth. “First it was a poem by Thomas Moore.”

“Damn Irishmen.” Baltus tipped up his champagne flute to empty it. “Bram, have we seen an opera about a girl named Rook in Persia?”

“As a matter of fact,” said his brother without opening his eyes, “we did. The Veiled Prophet.”

Baltus looked up at the ceiling, as if something there might jog his memory.

“Poisoning and a stabbing both,” added Cap, and Baltus’s face broke into a smile.

“Oh, yes. I remember.” Then he looked out over the dancers and his smile disappeared. “Just when I had a way to start a conversation,” he said sadly. “The rook has waltzed off with the pope of Avignon.”

He fell back against the cushions and snagged another glass of champagne from a waiter who stopped to offer his tray.

“Cap, I swear you’re looking very fit tonight.”

“Liar,” Cap said with an easy smile.

“I would call you more of a blind oaf,” Bram said to his brother. “It’s Anna who is looking spectacular.”

On that they agreed, toasted each other and her, and took great pains not to stare at her breasts.

“And where is the other Dr. Savard this evening?” Bram asked.

He was looking at Cap, but Anna said, “Sophie is working.” And just that simply, she was tired of half truths. “Sophie is working,” she repeated, “and she is uncomfortable in this company.”

“Uncomfortable?” Bram rumbled. “With us? Not with us.”

Anna sent a pointed look at two men who were walking by. One wore what she supposed cardinals wore, while the other was dressed as an ancient Greek.

“Old Twomey?” Bram leaned forward to whisper. “What does Sophie have to fear from that pile of rags? Who is he supposed to be, anyway? Aristotle?”

“Plato,” Anna said.

“Really? How can you tell?”

“Because Professor Twomey reveres Plato,” Anna said.

Cap caught her eye and shook his head. If the Decker twins were sober, she might undertake explaining the retired professor’s public lectures on Plato, Francis Gaulton, and the theory of hereditary genius. As it was, Cap took over.

“Bram,” he said. “Wake up. Do you see anybody here who isn’t lily white?”

Anna looked at the dancers and tried to imagine Sophie in this company. She was elegant and beautiful and exotic, as graceful in the way she spoke as she was walking across a room. Had she come with Cap tonight, no one would have cut her openly—at least not with Cap nearby—but she would have been treated with an aloof condescension, if not disdain. Anna would wager the entire contents of her bank account that Sophie could outreason and outargue anyone here—not excluding a hard-drinking former president, senators, princes and dukes, Supreme Court justices, industry giants, and a half dozen of the wealthiest men in the western world, not to mention bigoted professors of philosophy.

And if they had been willing to overlook her ancestry, they could not or would not pretend to ignore her unapologetic self-sufficiency, her unwillingness to be impressed by their self-importance. To be accepted in this company Sophie must first admit that she was not worthy of it. If she had been capable of such a thing, Cap would not have allowed it. Nor would Anna.

“Goddamn Philius Twomey to hell,” Baltus muttered. Then without explanation he sprang up and dashed out into the dance floor, his sword thumping against his leg in a way that was likely to raise bruises. He disappeared into a small crowd of young women gathered in a corner.

“He’s caught sight of Helena Witherspoon,” Bram said. “Visiting from Princeton. Cap, you’ve got to meet her; I’ve laid odds that Baltus will marry her before the year is out. There she is.”

Cap said, “A redhead. At least he is consistent.”

“And here come Madison and Capshaw.” Baltus smiled broadly. “Now we’re in for a good time.”

Anna watched Cap as he relaxed back into his chair and propped his elbows on the embroidered velvet arms. With his hands tented over the lower third of his face, the contrast between white kid gloves and the hectic color in the hollows of his cheeks and temples could not be avoided.

She dropped her gaze to the plate on her lap. She could not rest her eyes on Cap for any amount of time precisely because there was so little time left; day by day there was a little less of him, his body and mind pulling away and away on a tide that could not be turned.

•   •   •

MISS WITHERSPOON WAS very young. Anna wondered if she had a mother, because it seemed unlikely that any lady of wealth and standing would allow a daughter to come out in public as . . . a fairy queen? An empress? Someone with more jewels than good sense. The gown was a waterfall of gold tissue and wine-colored velvet with a row of clasps from neck to hem, circlets of diamonds with an emerald at the center of every one. Golden bracelets wound from wrist to elbow, pinned to the heavy brocade with more emerald clasps. Her hair had been plaited with ropes of black pearls, and a matching crown sat above her brow. Her waist was unnaturally narrow, the result of tight corseting from early girlhood, night and day. Anna winced to think about the damage done.

Miss Witherspoon was her father’s princess, if no one else’s, and she understood the ways of the rich. She made deep curtsies to each of them as she was introduced, her jewels flashing in the light. She listened to the introductions, looking first at Anna and then at Cap, back and forth, trying to make sense of what was outside her experience of the world.

Anna knew what was going through the younger woman’s mind, the questions that burned to be asked but could not be voiced in society. Anna had been introduced to her as a Miss Savard. It was true that Miss Savard’s manners were exactly what was expected in such company, and her gown was quite pretty, but she wore very little jewelry. More confusing still, she clearly had no husband. She was too young to be a war widow, and so, Miss Witherspoon would surmise, she must be a spinster. Far too old to get a husband, and yet she was here with Cap Verhoeven, who was regarded as exceedingly eligible husband material. The obvious fact that Cap was in poor health didn’t seem to concern Princess Witherspoon, but then women were always drawn to Cap, despite—and sometimes because of—his health.

Bram was leaning over her like any hopeful lover. Did she care for champagne? Madeira? Punch? And how lovely her hair smelled, how beautiful her complexion.

“Mr. Decker,” she said, finally tearing her gaze away from Cap to look at Bram.

“Yes, Miss Witherspoon?”

“Can you explain to me why your friend Mr. Verhoeven is called Cap? I understood his name to be Peter.”

She topped this off with a lowering of the eyes and lashes batted prettily in Cap’s direction.

“Oh, that’s a good story,” Bram said.

“Oh, it’s really not,” Cap countered.

He might have spared himself the objection, because his friends all stood up. Arranging themselves in a semicircle, they stuck out their chests and spread their legs like sailors on the high seas. Andrew Capshaw gave a tone and they broke into song.

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