The Gilded Hour Page 159

“Do your sisters know that?” Ned asked him.

Jack grinned. “I guess we’ll find out.”

•   •   •

TRAFFIC WAS LIGHT so early on a Sunday morning, which was a very good thing considering how far they had to go. The New York School for the Deaf and Dumb was well out of the city at 165th Street, an hour and a half away in good traffic. Alone she would have had to take at least two trains, with long waits in between connections.

She leaned back and felt herself relaxing. For the next little time they had nothing to worry about, and only themselves to amuse. She said, “You are a useful creature.”

Jack gave her a long, thoughtful glance. “Am I supposed to return the compliment, or will that irritate you?”

“You know how useful I am,” she said. “I can’t really cook, at least not the way I’d need to cook to keep you fed. I don’t clean, I barely sew, I’ve never done a full load of laundry.”

“I can’t do any of those things either.”

“But you can hitch a wagon, and clean a gun, and repair a broken window. You mended the strap on my shoe, built a coatrack for the front hall. I believe you could have done most of the work on the house yourself, with sufficient time. You negotiated the purchase too. No, unless you need surgery or dosing I’m very much useless. There’s a term in German that suits me exactly. I’m a Fachidiot. I know a huge amount about one thing, and I’m idiotically uninformed about everything else. It’s a good thing we have household help or you’d be going to work hungry, in wrinkled clothes.”

“We’ve had this discussion before,” Jack said. “And we can keep having it, until you believe that I like what I’ve got and I’m not going anywhere. Your brother was a boy in a bad situation and he let you down. That’s not me, and you know it.”

“Not everything is about my brother,” she said, a little huffily.

He glanced at her, his expression cool. “Not everything,” he said finally. “But this is. Stop trying to talk me into giving up on you. It won’t work.”

Anna wanted to protest, but she remembered quite suddenly a conversation with her aunt, and not so very long ago. She had predicted exactly this, that Anna would try to isolate herself from Jack. The thought struck her with almost palpable force, and it took a few minutes for her to regain her composure. For the first time she had the idea that with Jack’s help she might someday come to understand the boy her brother had been and to forgive the decisions he had made.

“You’re right,” she said finally. “I’ve been testing you without even realizing it. I apologize.”

He glanced at her, his expression guarded at first. Then he smiled and took her hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed her knuckles.

“You know,” he said. “We don’t have to go to the school today. It’s waited this long. How about a picnic in Central Park instead? We could let Bonny stretch her legs and then go sit by one of the lakes.”

It did sound like a very good idea, and she said so. “But I think we have to do it today, Jack. It would be a week or more before we get another chance.”

•   •   •

HE ASKED HER about the school for the deaf, and Anna told him the little she knew. “They have an excellent reputation. I’ve never had a patient from there, but Sophie has and she liked the place. The children are well looked after and there were no signs of abuse.”

“You think a lot about the welfare of children.”

Anna’s head came around quite quickly. “Does that surprise you, given the work I do?”

“Not in the least. I’m going to ask you something, and I don’t want you to get mad.”

“Not a very hopeful start,” she said, but she produced a single dimple, which he took as encouragement.

“I’m wondering if there are many women who would rather not have children, if they had a choice.”

“Are you asking about me?”

He shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about Janine Campbell and the others.”

Her gaze shifted and lost its focus. She was letting her mind lead her, following whatever images and words and ideas it presented. Many of them beyond his understanding.

She said, “Really you want to know if women are mentally destined to become mothers. I think the answer is no. It’s primarily a matter of what a girl is raised to believe is right and normal. I’m sure there are many women who would prefer not to have children, but few of them are honest with themselves about that. They know of two ways to be female: to marry and raise families, or to never marry and forgo children. The third and fourth possibilities are not something any woman would plan for. Infertility is a terrible burden for some, but worse still—”

“Children born out of wedlock.”

“Yes. I’ve seen young girls so devastated by news of a pregnancy that they would rather die. Some of them do choose to die; you know better than I do about the bodies that wash up on the riverbanks. But if a woman chooses not to marry and chooses to never have children, she is branding herself in a different way. Even if she has an income and can do what interests her, she is still seen as suspect. Unnatural. In the end few people are strong enough to reject what society expects of them.”

“You might have done that,” Jack said.

“I would have done that,” she said. “If not for Hoboken. But I am very odd, Jack. You know that. I’m an unusual person in an unusual family.”

“Part of why we suit. We have that in common.”

Her expression was solemn. “That’s not entirely true. A man has the freedom to choose not to marry. No one would have thought you unnatural.”

He couldn’t contradict that statement. His mother would have been sad, but none of his brothers or friends would have made an issue of it. At the same time there would be suspicions, in some quarters.

Anna said, “In general men are free to find comfort and companionship where they please. So long as they don’t flout expectations openly.”

She often surprised him, and he was beginning to understand that she always would. The way her mind worked was still a mystery and would probably remain a mystery, at least in part, but there was another trap that he fell into: he forgot how much experience she had in the world of things most women never were exposed to. In a city like New York, a physician could not be innocent or naïve.

They had never talked about sex except as something they shared, in the privacy of their home and bed, but that didn’t mean that she was unaware. He wondered if she was thinking of Oscar, who had never married and would never marry.

“The ‘confirmed bachelor.’” He used the euphemism and saw that he had understood her correctly. But she wasn’t thinking of Oscar, or at least, not in this instance.

She said, “Uncle Quinlan would never have married, if he had had the choice as a young man. His affections were elsewhere, with one of Aunt Quinlan’s cousins, actually. But it was impossible, and he married the girl his family chose for him. He met Aunt Quinlan at the funeral of that cousin he had loved as a young man. Later when he was widowed he proposed a marriage of convenience, I suppose is the term, and she moved down here.”

“You mean they never shared a bed.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. They were the closest of friends, and they supported each other through very difficult times.” She paused, her gaze still speculative. “Is that the subject you wanted to raise, when you asked about women who don’t want to have children?”

Jack said, “Now I’m not sure exactly what I was asking.”

She shifted in her seat to look at him directly. “I have never been drawn to other women.”


She gave him a cool look. “You never wondered?”

“I can say with all honesty that it never occurred to me. I saw you as desirable and my sense was, you felt the same way about me.”

Finally, she produced a smile. “Oh, I did. After you put those rosebuds in my hair I couldn’t get you out of my mind. So you are asking me about children.” She studied her clasped hands for a moment. “I never thought very much about having children because I didn’t expect to have that opportunity. Now I think I do want to have a child or two of my own. With you. I think I’ll be ready next year, if you’re ready. And if you are still willing to have a wife who is a mother and a practicing physician and surgeon, all at once. It can be done. Mary Putnam is going to be my role model. A physician of the highest rank, and a wife and mother. And of course, exhausted, all the time.”

She made him laugh. “You being exhausted is not in my plan.”

“And you intend to have your way.”

“You have grasped the essence of my character. Do you know why I raised the subject just now?”

“I expect it has to do with my first visit to Greenwood,” she said. “And the questions that will be coming my way.”

•   •   •

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