The Gilded Hour Page 15

O Captain, My Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack,

the prize we sought is won.

For all their silliness they sang a very decent four-part harmony, getting all the way through the first stanza to then collapse, thumping each other’s backs, greatly pleased with themselves.

“Got that out of your systems?” Cap said.

“It’s a poem, isn’t it?” Miss Witherspoon addressed Cap directly. “Did you write it?”

There was a small silence in their circle, and then Cap answered her with his usual good grace. “You are too young, I think, to remember the assassination. The poem these idiots were trying—and failing—to set to music—was written in honor of President Lincoln a few months after his death. The poet is a Mr. Whitman.”

“Cap recited that poem at a public lecture at the Cooper Union,” Anna supplied. “It was on his eleventh birthday, just by coincidence. He recited it and brought the whole hall to their feet. How many times were you asked to repeat that performance?”

Cap cupped his cheek with a gloved hand. “I lost count at thirty or so.”

“Which is how he came to be called first Captain, and then Cap,” Anna finished. Her voice came a little hoarse, something that wasn’t obvious with all the noise of the musicians and dancers. Others didn’t notice, but Cap did; she saw it on his face. For that moment she had him back, the boy who had once been her brother.

Then Cap’s cousin Anton Belmont came sailing across the dance floor with his younger sister on one arm and one of the Schermerhorn debutantes on the other. A scramble for more chairs and champagne took a quarter hour, all the while the conversation went forward at a steady gallop, the men doing their utmost to make the girls laugh. Other friends joined them, and Anna decided she could absent herself without worry for a short while.

She rose, interrupting a perennial argument about a poker game played years earlier, and excused herself. The simple truth was that if she did not have a quarter hour of solitude in the fresh air she would seal her reputation as an overeducated spinster unsuitable for company by falling asleep in the middle of the biggest social event of the decade.

It took a few minutes to find the right kind of hallway—one used by staff alone to reach the back of the house—and from there she found a door that led into an unoccupied courtyard enclosed by a limestone wall, lit dimly by a set of workroom or pantry windows. Here music and voices were reduced to an undercurrent of sound much like a mosquito shut in a nearby room, persistent but still possible to ignore. Oh, she was cranky. And for no good reason.

The space was half filled with bricks, lumber, nail kegs, a ladder, a pyramid of roofing tiles. Odder still, there were at least a dozen tall gardening buckets filled with roses of every color and shape. She took a deep cleansing breath that came to her filled with shifting fragrances: apricot, heliotrope, honey, oak moss and vanilla, musk and myrrh.

She was far happier here in the dim quiet, but Cap had always loved fancy parties like this one, the more ridiculous the better. He would be laughing about them for weeks afterward. In good health Cap would be on the dance floor or chasing from room to room to examine a painting here or a tapestry there, telling stories and jokes and the riddles he was famous for. Emptying one glass of champagne after another as he went. Sweet-talking old women and their eligible granddaughters with equal ease.

It was Sophie who should have been here tonight with him. It was Sophie he loved, and who loved him, who knew him best. When Anna thought about the impasse between them she sometimes daydreamed about tying each of them to a chair and leaving them face-to-face until they remembered how to talk to each other.

They wanted to marry, but in the end Sophie couldn’t bear the thought of what such a marriage would do to Cap, and so she refused him again and again. Anna had the idea that if he were to ask now, Sophie would say yes; she missed him terribly, as he missed her. But he would not ask.

The scent of the roses was very strong despite the cool air, and Anna thought how sad that they should be out here, unappreciated. She could take Cap a rose, a single perfect rose, and let him read into that whatever message he might.

Behind her she heard the rough strike and flare of a match. A familiar noise, nothing extraordinary about it in the course of a normal day. She turned her head and saw that a man was leaning against the far corner of the courtyard wall. He lifted the cigar to his mouth and drew on it and Anna saw the round red cinder flare in the dark. He was dark complexioned, big, dressed not in a costume but in a conservative suit, and he was watching her. Deliberately, calmly, watching her and taking in her awareness of him and the alarm that rose on her skin like a rash.

“You needn’t fear me, madam. I’m Detective Sergeant Oscar Maroney of the New York Police Department.” His tone was pleasant, his voice slightly rough with tobacco. “Contemplating a bit of larceny? A rose or two, perhaps.”

Anna wasn’t easily flustered, but she was cautious by nature and unwilling to play games with a stranger, police officer or not. She turned and walked back to the door, which was opening even as she reached for the knob.

The man who stood in the doorway was just as tall as his counterpart, and together with the solid width of shoulder and chest he seemed as all-encompassing and absolute as a wall. And oddly, in one hand he held a peach, round and full and blush-colored even in the dim light. On the edge of spring, so odd that he might have held the moon itself in one cupped broad hand. Anna tore her eyes away, took one step back, and limited herself to three words, spoken calmly but with an iron core that could not be overheard: “Please step aside.”

“Dr. Savard,” said a familiar voice. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

Anna stopped just where she was, unsure but curious, too. Almost afraid to raise her eyes to the man’s face.

Detective Maroney said, “You didn’t make much of an impression, Jack. She doesn’t recognize you.”

Jack. That small hint was enough to make her look again, to take in the flash of a smile. Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte. Giancarlo. Jack.

“Is that so?” In one smooth movement Mezzanotte sent the peach sailing across the small courtyard, where his friend caught it in an upraised hand. Then he looked at her directly, a question in his gaze.

“I recognize you now,” Anna said. “You are dressed very differently than you were earlier today, Detective Sergeant.” He was dressed impeccably, in fact. A well-cut short-tailed jacket in the current style, a matching vest. The color could not be made out in the half-light, but she thought it might be black. Nothing flamboyant, but something more elegant than she might have expected of a police detective, even one who worked in plain clothes.

Anna said, “You’re on duty?”

That overwhelming smile, again. She wondered if she still could smile herself, her face felt so oddly frozen.

He was saying, “When we met at the church I was coming from the greenhouses at home,” he said. “I was there over the weekend, and I spent the early morning trimming rose canes.”

He looked over her head to the roses, and she followed his gaze. He had said his parents were floriculturists, she remembered now.

“Those? Those are your roses?” She didn’t try to hide the doubt in her voice.

“Most of those are from Klunder’s nursery, but the very pale ones to the far right are ours. Cut yesterday, on Easter Sunday after sunset, brought in this morning before dawn.”

Because she was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, Anna said the first thing that came to mind. “How very wasteful. Mrs. Vanderbilt wanted every flower to be had, whether she could use them or not.”

Detective Maroney said, “Aha. That’s what my sister was on about.”

Anna turned to look at him.

“She wanted flowers for the Easter dinner table, but there wasn’t a daffodil or a violet to be had, so she tells me, as if I plucked them all out of the ground and hid them to vex her. The best she could find was a single rose for a dollar and a half.”

“A dollar and a half,” Anna echoed, truly taken aback. “Our nursing students pay two dollars for a week’s room and board.” She realized that her tone was accusatory, but she found it impossible to sound otherwise. To Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte she said, “Is that right, a dollar and a half for a single rose?”

“No,” he said. “Or I should say, no honest florist would charge that much, but some will make the best of supply and demand. I can tell you that last week my uncle had to pay fifty dollars for a hundred General Jacqueminot roses.”

“Mrs. Vanderbilt pays such prices,” Anna said. “Her greed means Detective Sergeant Maroney’s sister had no flowers for her Easter table. She would have valued what Mrs. Vanderbilt squanders.” She sounded pompous to her own ears but seemed unable to govern what came out of her mouth.

Instead of responding, Jack Mezzanotte walked across the courtyard and crouched down for a moment. When he stood again he had a spray of three small rosebuds in one hand and a pocketknife in the other. He trimmed thorns from the stems as he came closer.

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