The Gilded Hour Page 2

In the midst of Lent Father Corcoran had given a thunderous sermon on the Rational Dress Society, which he took as proof of the continuing decline of the weaker sex. He predicted physical illness, infertility, and damnation. To her surprise and unease, Mary Augustin saw that such skirts were not immodest, no matter what Father Corcoran or His Holiness Pope Leo himself might say. They looked, she could admit to herself at least, both modest and comfortable. Something so shocking and interesting and once again, she would have to keep her questions to herself.

As they walked Dr. Savard greeted almost everyone by name: the street sweeper and the baker’s delivery boy, a young girl minding a sleeping baby swaddled in quilts and tucked into a crate, a pair of laundry women arguing in Gaelic. She called out to a very grubby newsboy to ask after his mother and got a smile in return, everything taciturn chased away in that moment Dr. Savard spoke to him.

In Washington Square the trees were reaching toward spring, fat buds putting out the first pale green to shimmer in the sun. The city was full of such contrasts: beautiful homes on wide streets lined with linden and elm and plane trees, and tenements so filthy and overcrowded that the stench filled the throat with bile. Little boys dressed in velvet toddled along under the watchful eye of nannies in spotless aprons, and a half-naked child crouched down to watch maggots roiling in the open belly of a dead cat.

Every day Mary Augustin asked herself what she had imagined when she was first sent to this great noisy city. In theory she had understood what it meant to take in the poorest and most desperate; she knew that many of the infants would be sick unto death and few would survive their first year. But she had never understood what it meant to be truly poor before she came to this place. Every day she was frightened, overwhelmed, and at the same time consumed by curiosity, needing to understand things that could not be explained.

She cast a glance at Dr. Savard and wondered if it would be a very terrible sin to talk to her, and what penance such an act of defiance would earn once she put it into words in the confessional.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I asked unseemly questions of a well-bred, overeducated lady in split skirts. And I listened to the answers.

At the corner of Fifth Avenue they came to an abrupt halt while oxen pulled two huge drays through the intersection. Florid red lettering on the first one declared that the profusion of potted trees—some twice Mary Augustin’s own height, at least—came from LeMoult’s Conservatory. The second dray had a lighter load: buckets and buckets of flowers, gorgeous deep colors and lighter spring shades. On the side of this wagon was a smaller sign:


Mary Augustin couldn’t help staring, but then she was not the only one.

“I wonder what that’s about,” she asked in a voice low enough to be ignored. Dr. Savard looked at her and lifted a shoulder. “The Vanderbilts,” she said. “And their costume ball.”

She had ventured a question and got an answer, but that only brought a hundred more questions to mind. If this went on much longer, Mary Augustin told herself, her brain would be riddled with question marks, hundreds of little hooks set so deep they’d never let go.

•   •   •

THERE WAS A small market at the Christopher Street landing, but most of the stalls had already closed for the day and the ferry was ready to board. A great throng of people were waiting to cross the Hudson to Hoboken: workmen of every description, farm women hung about with empty baskets and exhausted babies, towing young children on braided strings, still whey-faced as they shook the winter off. Draymen leaned on towers of crates or huddled in groups that belched tobacco smoke.

In the middle of all that, a nun who had been identified as Sister Ignatia stood waiting for them. She was the exact opposite of Sister Mary Augustin, from her habit—everything she wore from bonnet to shoes was a stark black—to the round cheeks and sturdy frame. Anna wondered what the difference in color was meant to convey—young or old? Good or bad? And had to bite her lip to keep from smiling.

The ferry let out a shrill blast of its whistle, which saved the trouble of another awkward introduction.

On deck, voices rose high and higher still to overcome the noise of the water and wind and the engines. German, Italian, Yiddish, Gaelic, French, Polish, Chinese, and still other languages Anna didn’t recognize, all in competition. Inside the cabin it would be far worse and so Anna began to look for a spot on the open deck upwind of the smoke and cinders, but Sister Ignatia had other ideas. She cast a stern eye in Anna’s direction and so she followed, suppressing a sigh. Somehow Sister Ignatia managed to make her feel like a first-year medical student, always waiting to be told what she had done wrong.

The cabin air was thick with coal smoke, rapidly aging fish, souring milk, pickled cabbage, wet swaddling clothes, and above all of these, sweat. The smell of hard work, not unpleasant in and of itself.

“Now,” said Sister Ignatia, leaning close to talk directly into Anna’s ear. “How much do you know of what is before you?”

That this nun found it within her authority to question a qualified physician did not come as a surprise. Anna might have said, I have seen and treated smallpox many times, or, I have vaccinated hundreds of men, women, and children and even a priest or two. Or, In the four years since I qualified, I have signed some five hundred death certificates, more than seventy percent of which were for children less than five years old.

The factory towns near Hoboken seemed to always be on the brink of a new epidemic: smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid, influenza, measles, mumps, whooping cough, sometimes overlapping. There were measures that would have put an end to many such episodes, but the mill owners saw no reason to invest in the lives of the workers; there were always immigrants eager for a place in the silk and thread factories. It was only the intercession of the Department of Health that had brought about any change at all.

Now the mill owners were supposed to supply hot water and soap—hygiene was the first line of defense in all matters of communal health—and see to it that newly arrived immigrants had clean drinking water and were vaccinated before taking up work. A few mill owners even complied, for a little while at least. But the epidemics still came, as regular as the seasons. With the result that Anna now sat on a ferry bracketed by nuns.

To Sister Ignatia she said, “Vaccinations are not difficult. As long as there are translators to help explain, I anticipate no trouble. I am assuming there will be enough vaccination quills wherever it is we’re going.”

“Vaccinations.” Sister Ignatia sent a sharp look to Sister Mary Augustin, and when she spoke again her German accent had thickened. “Who is telling you of vaccinations?”

Anna paused. “Wasn’t Dr. Sophie supposed to go with you to vaccinate the mill workers?”

Once the face framed by the bonnet had been very pretty and still was, in the way of many immigrants from northern Europe. Round-cheeked, flawless skin, eyes of a grayish blue. In this case there was also a chin set in the way of a woman who did not tolerate sloppy habits. Clearly irritated, she said, “We are the Sisters of Charity. It is our mission to see to the welfare of orphaned and abandoned children.”

Anna managed a small smile. “Well, then,” she said with deceptive calm. “What is it you need me to do?”

“We are fetching the children whose parents died in the last smallpox outbreak, but the law says no one is being allowed to cross into New York without—”

“A signed certificate of good health,” Anna finished for her. “Italian orphans?”

“Yes,” said Sister Ignatia. “But you needn’t worry; Sister Mary Augustin has been studying Italian and Father Moreno will be there to translate, as well. Unless you speak Italian?”

“No,” Anna said. “Too busy with physiology and anatomy and bacteriology. But I do speak German. I studied in Berlin and Vienna both.”

Had she imagined Sister Ignatia would like this reference to her mother tongue and homeland? The older woman pursed her lips in a decidedly unhappy way.

From Anna’s other side Sister Mary Augustin said, “What is bacteriology, Dr. Savard?”

“Study of the origin and treatment of a certain class of disease,” Anna said, relieved at the change in subject.

“Bacteriology,” said Sister Ignatia, “is nothing to do with us, Sister. We do God’s work among the poor children of this city and do not presume to aspire to anything else.”

Another time Anna might have taken up this challenge. She had sparred and debated all through her education and beyond, often with people as intimidating and inflexible in their certainty as Sister Ignatia. A woman practicing medicine had many opportunities to hone her debating skills. But they were within sight of Hoboken, and in a few minutes she would have to take on dozens of children who had lost everything, as she had herself at a tender age.

There had never been a moment’s uncertainty about her own future, but the best these new orphans could hope for was a place to sleep, food, basic schooling, and the chance to learn a trade or enter a convent or seminary.

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