The Gilded Hour Page 18

Judge Stewart’s brows lowered. “Is there a law that forbids importing medical texts from England?”

“There is most definitely a law that forbids sending obscene materials through the mails. And if this book was printed in England, it had to get here somehow.”

“A reasonable assumption. Mr. Wall, will your client stipulate to the claim that a book printed in London was not printed here?”

A low laugh ran through the room, but Clara’s attorney kept a professional demeanor. “We so stipulate.”

Judge Stewart turned his attention to Clara, who stood with her hands folded in front of herself, her expression watchful but calm.

“Dr. Garrison. Did you send to England for this book?”

“No, sir. I did not.”

“Did you cause it to be mailed to you?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know how it is that it got to this continent from that one?”

“Yes. I purchased it from a bookseller in London and then I carried it, in my valise.”

Comstock said, “What proof does she have of that assertion?”

“What proof do you have of yours?” Stewart said. “If you read the law with as much avarice as you read those books you find so offensive, you’d know that the burden of proof is on you, sir. You alone. Now sit down before I have you thrown out on your ear.”

Stewart waited until Comstock had followed this order, and then he looked out over the courtroom.

“There are two issues here,” he said. “The first has to do with the nature of the material itself. What I have here before me is a collection of medical illustrations such as might be used in teaching anatomy to students of medicine. Mr. Comstock has decided that such illustrations are not educational, but obscene. I find this a ludicrous claim. If there is any crime here, it is solely in the mind of the beholder.”

Comstock jumped as if poked. “That’s not for you to say.”

“You’ll hold your tongue,” Stewart said. “Or I swear I’ll fine you and have Roundsman Harrison throw you into a cell. Huffing and puffing will do you no good with me, Comstock. Now tell me, have you ever been a student of medicine?”

Comstock admitted that he had never studied, taught, or practiced medicine. He also agreed, reluctantly, that a doctor should be able to locate and recognize the different parts of the brain, the eye, the larynx, the arteries and tendons and muscles, and all the internal organs.

“These aren’t the first books or images of the human body you’ve impounded because you find them indecent, are they?”

“I have seized thousands,” Comstock said, pulling the small amount of dignity he could muster around himself. “Many thousands. Once a month they are incinerated.”

“And in the meantime, they are stored in your office for safekeeping?”

“Yes. There are several hundred at any one time. The forces of evil in this city know no bounds.”

“And they are locked away, never to be seen by human eyes.”

Comstock frowned elaborately. “They are seen only in as far as I must show them to the court to support charges.”

“No other occasion to display them.”

Comstock hesitated for the briefest moment. “Am I on trial here, sir? The Postmaster General of the United States—”

“—isn’t in my courtroom. There’s a question before you, Mr. Comstock.”

“On occasion I am asked to speak to police officers about the work of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The younger officers often cannot even imagine the filth waiting for them on the streets and back alleys. I sometimes use seized materials as a tool in the education of professionals.”

“You are an educator as well. As is Dr. Garrison.”

Comstock’s face went very still.

“Mr. Comstock. If I understand you correctly, you use the materials in your possession to illustrate and instruct professionals. That is your word, professionals. You find those materials to be necessary to carry on your work. Dr. Garrison makes the same claim and in her case, I would even agree. Do you have anything to add, Dr. Garrison?”

Clara said, “I do. I would like the record to show that my concern is first and always the health of my patients. My responsibilities to the women who study medicine I take just as seriously.”

Stewart looked long and hard at Comstock, who had flushed to the roots of his hair. His whole body was shaking with rage. Comstock amused Stewart and many of the other men in the courtroom, but Anna was less dismissive. In him Anna saw a man who was controlled by the most basic and childish of impulses, a man who had convinced himself that dealing out pain and humiliation was a sacred mission granted to him by a loving and discriminating God. Because he had earned that right. Most of all, Comstock was a man who had just been humiliated and who would not forget or forgive. He would vent his anger on Clara if he could, and if not, on someone like her.

The judge’s gavel gave one sharp rap.

“All charges are dismissed. Dr. Garrison, you are free to go. Court is adjourned.”

Anna turned to Sophie. “Tell me about this Mr. Campbell.”

Sophie stood up but lowered her voice. “It was his wife who asked me about contraception. She was very low.”

The details came to Anna right away, and with them her voice caught, her voice gone dry. “Did you realize—”

“No,” Sophie said, her voice low. “I had no idea he works for Comstock. Of course I had no idea.”

“Have you already sent the pamphlet?”


“Do you think his wife could be working with Comstock too?”

Comstock did make a habit of setting up elaborate traps for physicians he suspected of providing patients with information about birth control, but Sophie could not imagine that a woman in labor would have been part of such a scheme. She remembered too well how overwhelmed Mrs. Campbell had been. Desperation like that could not be feigned so easily. She shook her head.

The crowd inched forward, and they went with it at a pace that threatened to bring them face-to-face with Comstock and his associates. The crowd shifted and Anna found herself suddenly close enough to Mr. Campbell to see flecks of tobacco caught up in his red whiskers. At that moment his gaze turned to her and he stilled, as if the sight of a woman in the crowd was more than he could explain to himself. Then he saw Sophie—Anna watched his gaze shift and then focus.

Without looking away he spoke a word into Comstock’s ear and the two of them pivoted like puppets. Anna looked away, but not before her eyes met Comstock’s, as calculating and distant and dark as a bird of prey.

•   •   •

WHEN SHE GOT back to the hospital Anna found that her patient was just coming out of the state of unconsciousness that had made her surgery possible. Two of Anna’s best medical students were with her, but the girl was confused and in pain, and she batted fitfully at the glass being held to her mouth. The other women on the ward were watching with interest, and Anna jerked the privacy curtain shut behind herself.

She said, “No luck finding someone who speaks Hungarian?”

“Here and gone,” Naomi Greenleaf said. “She talked to the patient and I took notes. She has an odd name, Aleike—”

“—Gyula,” Ada Wentworth finished, pronouncing the unusual name carefully. “Sixteen years old. Her husband is a laborer on the new bridge.”

There was a pause while they all looked out the window, a habit that had dug itself in over the last years as the Brooklyn Bridge neared completion. It was so improbable—its size, the idea that anything man-made could span the expanse of the East River—that the sight of it against the sky might be taken for an illusion. And still the newspapers claimed that this spring it would open for traffic.

Ada went on, “He brought her here and went to work for fear of losing his spot. She asked through the translator if she can still have children. We were careful to make sure she understood about the surgery. She wanted us to know she doesn’t have any money and she asked for a priest again. The translator said there’s a priest who speaks Hungarian up near the Foundling; she’ll send word. And we got a good amount of broth into her, but as you can see, she won’t take the laudanum.”

The girl settled a little when Anna came to sit beside her and put a hand on her brow, damp with fever sweat. She was so young, and still in her expression Anna saw that she had already resigned herself to one kind of death or another. Despite the exacting measures they took to achieve and maintain hygienic conditions, in a case like this infection was very likely and might well claim her life. If it didn’t, if they could save her, she would fall pregnant too soon with the same outcome, or worse. She had only one purpose in life, to bear and raise children. If she was brave and determined enough to seek out a way to avoid pregnancy despite such expectations, the law would punish her.

But Anna would not resign herself to failure. Maybe the girl felt some of that, because now when Anna held the glass to her mouth, she drank the water laced with laudanum, her expression contorting at the taste.

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