The Gilded Hour Page 156

So she answered questions about the Church hierarchy, about the pope and the archbishops and bishops and priests. Rosa wanted to know about nuns, and who was the boss of nuns, and if nuns and priests had to go to confession, and what if a priest or nun did something really bad?

Nothing Elise said seemed to satisfy her. The little girl wanted justice, and Elise could give her no such promise.

After lunch when the girls went upstairs for their naps, she raised the subject with Mrs. Quinlan.

“She trusts you,” Anna’s aunt said. “Do you find her questions distressing?”

Elise thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t say her questions distress me. It’s just that I left that life behind. Or I’m trying to. Not because I hold a grudge, as everyone seems to think. I have no grounds to be critical of the Church.”

Margaret pressed her lips together hard. Trying not to say what she thought of the Catholic Church, but sending the message anyway.

“I have no personal grounds,” Elise amended. “That doesn’t mean I don’t see that harm has been done—is still being done—to others. To Rosa. She wants me to be as angry as she is.”

“Maybe you should be,” Margaret said. “Maybe you will be, as time passes and you think things through.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Elise said, hearing the strain in her own voice. “Maybe I will feel that way some day. But right now I don’t have the time or the inclination to put the Church on trial. I need every bit of energy I can muster for the challenges ahead of me.”

After lunch Elise put Margaret and Rosa and the Church out of her head and settled down with her books and notes. There was an elderly woman at the New Amsterdam whose heart was failing, and she needed to understand more about what was happening to her.

Anna’s copy of Descriptive and Surgical Anatomy was well used, the binding loose and the covers a little warped. A whole army of paper strips populated the pages, each with notes written in a small version of Anna’s hand. She took the heavy book on her lap and it fell open of its own accord to page 570 (“The Lymphatic System of the Thorax”) to reveal a spray of rosebuds that had been pressed there for safekeeping.

In the first moment she had the odd but undeniable sense that she had opened someone else’s love letter. Then she reminded herself that Anna had given her leave to make full use of her medical library and so allowed herself to study the rosebuds, small and just partially open. Their scent lingered, faintly musky sweet.

The pages of the book itself were protected by tissue paper on one side, and on the other a large card of thick, cream-colored paper. Without disturbing anything she could make out some of the printing: an invitation to a masked ball.

A hundred questions presented themselves, when and where and mostly, why. Anna Savard didn’t seem to have any interest in high society, but she had attended this masked ball. Anna and Jack at a fancy ball was such an odd idea that she had to smile.

It felt like a love letter, Elise realized now, because it was a kind of wordless declaration. Anna Savard, who presented herself to the world as an educated woman with no need for or interest in frivolities, was also a young woman who pressed flowers for sentimental reasons. She could be both people, at once, and that very thought made Elise understand something she had been blind to.

As a little girl she had never seen people courting or falling in love, and in the convent she had been taught to think of such things as shallow and unnecessary in a purposeful life. But there was something here in these few pressed flowers that spoke very powerfully to the contrary, and in a way that surprised her.

She laughed at herself, falling in love with the idea of love, and still, she spent a long time studying the rosebuds before she remembered what she was about and turned to an illustration of the chambers of the human heart.

•   •   •

PATCHIN PLACE WAS a narrow lane that opened off Tenth Street, lined with cottages leaning together like crooked teeth. As soon as Anna turned into the lane, a plump little woman popped out of a doorway and gestured them closer.

“There you are,” she said. “Amelie’s cousin Anna, the doctor, is that right? I had a letter from her saying you were to drop by. And with two detective sergeants, as big as houses, both of you. Hope I’ve got enough food—”

“Mrs. Sparrow,” Anna said. “I’m very glad to meet you, but you really don’t need to feed us.”

Behind her Oscar cleared his throat.

“Nonsense,” said Kate Sparrow, ushering them in. “My Mary has got charge of the stall for a couple hours, so I had time to cook. I like to feed people. I was just tickled pink to get a letter from Amelie; the least I can do is feed you after all the good service she did me over the years.”

When she had arranged them around her table to her satisfaction Mrs. Sparrow set a huge pot on a trivet between them, added a basket of bread and a jug—ale, by the smell—and passed around thick crockery bowls and spoons.

“Now eat,” she said. “And I’ll talk. Just set me off in the right direction. Amelie said you wanted to know about old Dr. Cameron, is that right?”

Oscar seemed to be struck dumb by the scent from the stew pot, so Jack spoke up.

“That’s right. We’re just trying to track down background information, anything you can tell us.”

Anna said, “Amelie thought he had died some time ago.”

“And well he should be dead,” said Kate Sparrow. “Eighty-three, by my reckoning, and so frail a breeze could put him off his feet. Now, I’ll get to that, but first I want to hear about Amelie. She didn’t say much in her letter but that you would be coming to call.”

While Jack and Oscar concentrated on Kate Sparrow’s lamb stew, Anna talked about her cousin. The storyteller’s price must be paid.

“Amelie told me once she learned midwifery from her own mother, way up north in the mountains, when she was a girl.”

Anna said, “Her mother was my great-aunt Hannah. They both attended my mother when I was born. Mrs. Sparrow—”

“Kate. You must call me Kate.”

“Kate. Amelie said you could tell the detective sergeants about a Dr. Cameron.”

Kate’s expression sobered. “I can tell you about Cameron. If you really want to know.”

“We need to know,” Jack said.

She spread her hands flat on the table and studied them for a moment. “The word that comes to mind is severe. Old Testament severe. Quoted the Bible to women in travail, wanted to hear them pray out loud. Now, to be fair he knew was he was doing. Rarely lost a mother. But the man never smiles, not even after he’s put a healthy baby in its ma’s arms.”

“Did he ever strike out? Was he violent?” Oscar asked.

“You mean with fists? I don’t think so. The man has a temper, but it was all talk, fire and brimstone. A girl expecting a baby without a husband, you could hear him shouting down on the street if the windows were open.”

“He’s still in practice? Delivering babies?” Anna heard her tone and wished she were better at hiding what she was thinking, but Kate Sparrow didn’t seem to notice one way or the other.

“Don’t see how he could,” she said. “Weak as a kitten. But he does go in and out of that old office of his, pretty much every day.”

When Oscar asked for more specific information about Cameron’s office, Kate Sparrow led them out onto the street, and from the corner she pointed out a building at the intersection of Tenth and Greenwich. “Second floor,” she said. “Side entrance.”

They went back to their lunch and Jack started where Oscar had left off.

“Do you see women coming and going as well, women who might be patients?”

She shrugged. “It’s a busy corner, and he’s not the only one with an office on the second floor. I do see his granddaughter, because she takes him lunch every day. I notice her crossing Sixth Avenue because she’s always lost in her thoughts, and many times she’s come close to getting herself run over. It’s almost funny, the way she looks up and scowls at the driver, like he was in her way. But now that I think on it—”

Anna gave her an encouraging smile.

“Nora hasn’t passed by for two days at least. Maybe he’s laid up.”

Oscar said, “So Cameron has a granddaughter—”

“Nora Smithson,” Kate said. “A beauty, tall and slim with hair like corn silk. She married the oldest Smithson boy, just last year. She used to work with her grandfather but now she clerks in the apothecary, does Mrs. Smithson, as she’s called nowadays and don’t nobody dare forget and call her Nora. The whole family’s like that.”

She wrinkled her nose as if she were smelling something unpleasant, and that made sense to Anna. She remembered Nora Smithson’s condescending and judgmental manner all too clearly.

Anna glanced at Jack. “Could I have a couple of minutes alone with Mrs. Sparrow, do you think?”

When the men had shut the door behind themselves, Kate Sparrow grinned widely. “I was hoping you’d send them away. Can’t really talk about some things, not with men thinking so loud in the background.”

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