The Gilded Hour Page 162

“You fell in love with me.”

She forbade herself to flush. “Yes,” she said. “Before you fell in love with me.”

Jack smiled, a lopsided affair.

“Really,” she said. “This is a conversation we must have, for everybody’s sake, before we sign legal documents.”

“All right,” Jack said. “Write this down. ‘We are ready and willing to legally assume all responsibility for the care of Tonino Russo, as we have done for his sisters Rosa and Lia.’”

Anna smiled at him. “You sound like a lawyer when you want to.”

Jack’s whole lower face contorted. “You do know that coppers don’t take that as a compliment, right?”

She put down her pen and set the page aside for the ink to dry.

“Jack, what if he refuses? What if he won’t come with us?”

“I suppose we’d have to leave him here until we can come back with the girls. That might be the best way to handle it, even if they do give us permission to take him.”

“It might be,” Anna agreed, “but it goes against the grain.”

•   •   •

MR. TIMBIE WAS still busy with the new student and her family when they finished the paperwork, and so they went out to find the stable boy who had taken charge of the carriage. They retrieved Mrs. Lee’s basket and ate in the shade of a stand of dogwood trees, talking of nothing in particular. Because, Anna reckoned to herself, the most difficult decision had already been made. They would take the boy away with them, all the way to Greenwood where he would be reunited with his sisters and, at the same time, plunged into the Mezzanotte family summer party.

When she mentioned to Jack that the circumstances would almost certainly overwhelm the boy, it turned out he had been thinking the same thing.

“I have an idea,” he told her. “I think we can arrange a quieter reunion.”

They set out at two, Tonino sitting between them as quietly and unresisting as a doll. All the Timbie family had hugged him and wished him a good journey, signing and speaking and signing again, determined to get their message across despite the boy’s numb regard. In the end they passed up a small satchel and watched as Jack turned the Rockaway around and they started out. Tonino left the school without a single backward glance.

Anna determined that it was best to talk to the boy as she would to his sisters, and so she started slowly, telling him about Rosa and Lia and how surprised and happy they would be to see him. She did this in a combination of English and Italian, with Jack stepping in to help her with vocabulary, and adding words of his own.

Within a quarter hour the boy fell asleep, leaning into Anna. She took this as a good sign.

“On some level he recognizes that he can trust us,” she said to Jack. And: “You don’t look convinced.”

He shot her a sidelong glance and shrugged.

“Sleep is the only way he has of escaping,” he said finally.

Anna understood his cynicism. It was a defense mechanism, one she had to adopt in her own work. For a police detective a cynical turn of mind would be even more necessary. In fact, Tonino had suffered in ways they might never really understand, and his recovery would not be simple or quick: that was the most important truth.

But the boy had a chance. A good chance, not just because of his sisters, but because Aunt Quinlan and Mrs. Lee would concern themselves. It was hard to imagine two women less alike, or more attuned to each other and to the people around them, each in her own way. They had both comforted children through terrible loss; Anna owed them her life and sanity. She would let them lead the way with Tonino.

Then something else came to mind. “Jack. We will never make the three o’clock ferry.”

Even in the best traffic, the trip from the school for the deaf to the Christopher Street ferry terminal required far more than an hour, and they still had to stop on Waverly Place to unhitch Bonny and then find a cab.

“Oh ye of little faith. There is more than one ferry, you know.”

He had a backup plan, of course.

“My faith in you is boundless,” she said. “It was the traffic in the city I was worried about.”

They turned onto 135th and there was the Hudson like a broad, muscular arm thrusting from north to south. The sight of the river made her follow its path in her mind, moving backward in time to her grandmother and great-grandmother. They had both traveled the river as young women, deep into the endless forests where they made lives for themselves. Not easy lives, but full. Her own journey was very different, but she had the sense now that it would be far more complex and challenging than she had imagined even a few months ago.

Jack left the carriage to arrange for passage on a steam barge, but Anna stayed where she was with the sleeping child leaning against her. She could see Jack standing in the doorway of the shack that served as an office, talking to an elderly clerk in a dusty bowler hat and a mustache twisted at the ends into funny little horns. By the way they were talking it was clear that this was another one of Jack’s many acquaintances. The fact that her husband knew so many people didn’t really surprise her anymore, but the connections were sometimes mysterious unless he thought to explain to her.

He came back to the carriage and gestured for Tonino. Anna passed him down carefully, a warm bundle of boy. He was wearing short pants and his legs were sturdy and tanned by the sun; her fingers slid over the welts on the back of his thighs and he twitched and let out a small hitching breath. Then he was safe in Jack’s arms, and he turned his whole body toward the solid wall of chest. Anna wondered if he was dreaming of his father or if someone else had hurt this child so badly that even in the full light of day he escaped into sleep rather than face those memories.

Anna got down without help. The ferryman came to lead Bonny onto the barge, and they walked behind.

•   •   •

WHEN THEY REACHED Fort Lee at half past three Tonino was awake, alert but quiet. His eyes moved restlessly from Jack to Anna to the people who walked along the river promenade. Ladies in elaborate Sunday best, their skirts pinned up and pulled back and wrapped, pleated in some places and twisted in others; Jack was always put in mind of his sisters playing dress-up as little girls, when they put on every piece of clothing they could find. He supposed there was more to it; in fact, he knew there was more to it, from listening to them talk as they paged through Madame Demorest’s Fashion Monthly, but it was not something he missed. Anna’s far simpler approach appealed to his own tastes.

His sisters were on his mind, or he would not have noticed the fashions on parade. His sisters, his mother and aunts and sisters-in-law, all the women who would be at Greenwood to welcome Anna into the family.

Anna said, “Why don’t you put Tonino down?”

But the boy was comfortable. He should be at ease and unafraid, and that meant he couldn’t be dumped into the middle of the chaos at Greenwood.

“Here’s the carriage,” he said, as if that were an answer.

When Anna was seated Jack helped Tonino up to his place between the two of them.

He said, “Here’s the plan. When we get to Greenwood, I’m going to leave you at the mercantile while I go to the farm to get the girls. I think it would be best if they see each other in a quiet setting.” Then he repeated a shorter version of the plan to Tonino in Italian. The boy didn’t seem to be listening, unless you paid close attention. Anna saw it too.

“Have you noticed that he sits a little straighter when Italian is being spoken? As though he’s hearing a familiar sound from far away. Jack, please make sure he understands that you’re coming back for us. He should never have to wonder where we are.”

•   •   •

JACK SPENT THE forty-minute trip to Greenwood pointing things out, first in English, then in Italian. An inn where George Washington had supposedly spent the night; a turn in the road where Jack had upset a wagonload of earth at the age of sixteen, and the teasing he took for that still; a grove of apple trees that had once been part of a larger farm, all of them bent and warped by age so they resembled a herd of gnomes; a farm where his mother bought her poultry. As the village got closer he told stories about particular families, like the Carlisles in an old stone farmhouse, though they did no farming at all; the schoolteacher’s house in the shape of a saltbox; and the school itself, where he had learned to read and write and play mumblety-peg along with his brothers. He pointed out the doctor’s place, the churches, a barber, a blacksmith, a lending library no bigger than an outhouse. A small, neat town on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in late June.

They stopped in front of a building that seemed to be an inn, a restaurant, and a dry goods store all under one roof.

“The mercantile,” Jack said. “Let me introduce you to Rob, and then I’ll be off.”

Anna passed Tonino down, and then took the hand that Jack extended, letting out a soft exclamation when he slipped his arm around her waist and swung her to the ground.

She said, “How much farther to the farm?”

“Depending on how long it takes me to get the girls, I should be back here within the hour. Just enough time for you to settle your nerves.”

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