The Gilded Hour Page 21

Anna sat back, and Mary Augustin went on. They had instituted a search once this was discovered, but without success. The boys had last been seen four days ago, on Monday. Rosa was beside herself with worry.

Anna offered to talk to the girl, and color rose in Mary Augustin’s face.

“They’re gone,” she said. “They were transferred to the old St. Patrick’s on Wednesday. The priest there is Italian.” She offered this as if it were explanation enough, and in fact it did lend credence to what Sister Ignatia had told her. Mostly Italians and Irish lived in the tenements crowded together along the East River.

“All right,” Anna said. “I’ll go there straightaway and talk to them.” She was very tired, but she would not sleep if she let this stand while Rosa waited for word.

“That’s the trouble,” Sister Mary Augustin said, her voice taking on a bit of a wobble. “You won’t find them.”

“I think I can find a Catholic orphan asylum on Mott Street.”

“No doubt,” Sister Mary Augustin said. “But they aren’t there anymore. Sometime after eleven at night and six in the morning they went out into the weather and disappeared. The whole area was combed multiple times, but there’s no trace of them.”

Struck silent by surprise, Anna asked herself why Rosa would do such a desperate thing.

“Were the girls punished or treated badly?”

Mary Augustin looked as though she had been anticipating this question. “I don’t know. My guess is that Rosa wouldn’t stop asking about her brothers and one of the sisters lost her temper and was harsh.”

“Harsh,” Anna echoed. “And you have no idea where they might be. So now all four children are missing.”

“Yes,” Mary Augustin said. “I’m afraid so.”

Anna, at a loss for words, stared for a full minute. “Then we’ll have to find them. Immediately.”

•   •   •

SUPPER BREAK AND Jack sat at his desk in the detectives’ squad room watching Oscar pace back and forth, grumpier with every step. He was hungry and required feeding, and soon Jack would have to get up and go out into the weather or simply resign himself to Oscar’s mood.

“You’d think you’d never got wet before in your life,” Oscar muttered. And: “Now we’re in for it.”

A runner had appeared at the door waving an assignment sheet: on Washington Square a patrolman had come across Italian trespassers on university grounds who wouldn’t be shifted. He had called his roundsman, who was requesting a translator.

“I’ll miss supper,” Oscar groused.

With a pointed look at Maroney’s middle, Jack grabbed his overcoat and hat and headed for the door.

•   •   •

THE WET SNOW gave way quite suddenly to a warmer and gentler wind, and with that the feel of spring had come back into the air. In Washington Square Park Jack felt the subtle stir of things growing, as tangible as sunlight on the skin.

New York University sat across from the northeast corner of the park. More like a church with its tall arches and spires, to Jack’s mind, except for the noise that a crowd of undergraduates were making trying to get a game of baseball going in the park. They’d be covered in muck and mud in no time, but Jack understood the urge to be moving. Oscar did too, from the looks he threw in the direction of the players. He would join in with very little encouragement.

They entered the university through the main doors and heard the argument from across the foyer. The porter’s desk was empty, but the door behind it was open and provided a view of Harry Pettigrew facing off with a small woman who stood close, her face turned up at a sharp angle to scold the roundsman, the traditional posture of mothers with sons twice their size and a bone to pick.

“It’s Harry who’s needing rescuing, so it seems,” Oscar said. “That’s the porter’s wife got him backed into a corner.”

It wasn’t until he stepped into the office that Jack caught sight of the two little girls who sat side by side on the counter. So not intruders, after all, not even street children. These two were too fragile to survive on the street, and so, Jack reasoned to himself, they had run away, or been put out. One of them was crying softly while the other sat stony faced, her arm around the smaller girl.

“Mrs. Conway,” Pettigrew was saying. “No one means these girls any harm—”

“So say you!”

“Hold on, Mrs. Conway,” Oscar said. “Don’t be in such a rush to draw and quarter the poor roundsman.”

While Oscar negotiated a peace between the parties, Jack got a better look at the two children. They were both dripping wet and filthy, hair straggling over threadbare clothes. They shivered with the cold despite the towels that had been wrapped around them and the coal heaped up in the stove.

The older of the two raised her head to look at him directly, and in that moment Jack recognized her. Rosa, if he remembered correctly. The last he had seen her was getting off the Hoboken ferry, her brothers and sister gathered in close. She had been determined to keep the little family together, and she had clearly failed, as he had known she must. Now the last name came to him as well. Rosa Russo.

She recognized him too, because her expression shifted to puzzlement and then, quite quickly, relief. Jack remembered that she had been proud of her English, and he started with that.

“Miss Russo,” he said. “We meet again.”

The argument stopped abruptly as Roundsman Pettigrew, the porter’s wife, the porter, and the patrolman turned to look at Jack.

Pettigrew regained his composure first. “She doesn’t speak English.”

“Of course she does. Don’t you, Rosa,” Jack said, keeping his gaze on her.

The girl drew herself up with great dignity, a small queen finally recognized by one of her subjects. “Yes,” she said. “I am an American.”

“Hoboken,” Jack said to Oscar, enough to clue him in to the circumstances without divulging information to the porter or his wife.

Jack said, “Why didn’t you tell these good people that you speak English?”

“It would not have mattered,” she said, looking at the adults. “They won’t listen to me no matter what language I speak. And I knew if I told them what they want to know”—she frowned at Pettigrew—“they would send us back to—”

She took note of the way Pettigrew leaned toward her, and paused. In Italian she said, “Il orfanotrofio. It took us so long to get this far and Lia is very tired.”

“You ran away.” Oscar spoke his Neopolitan Italian, very similar to the language the girls spoke.

Rosa glanced at him nervously, taken aback by the combination of an Irish face and the language of her home. Finally, she nodded.

With patient questioning Oscar was able to pinpoint where the girls had started, and when. They had left the orphan asylum at Prince and Mott before light and started north, asking directions from an Italian street musician with a monkey who wore a hat.

“But how did you ask for directions? Where is it you’re trying to go?”

“Here,” Rosa said, spreading out her arms. “Sister Mary Augustin described this place exactly.”

Sister Mary Augustin from St. Patrick’s; the face came back to him quickly. But he was missing something, so he thought for a moment and phrased his question carefully.

“Sister Mary Augustin told you how to get to here, to this place?”

“No,” Rosa said, irritation starting to rise again. “On the journey from the ferry—” She stopped herself. “On the way to that place, the omnibus went past this church that isn’t a church after all. Sister Mary Augustin pointed to it and told us that Dr. Savard lived just nearby. She told us about the house that has a garden bigger than its own self behind a brick wall, and fruit trees, and a pergola, and hens and a rooster.”

“Un gallo!” her sister echoed, as if a rooster could only exist in Italian.

“I was sure I could find it because Dr. Savard has to help us. They took our brothers away, and I have to find them. I was so sure I could find a house with angels over the door,” she finished.

To Lia Oscar said, “Angeli sopra la porta?”

“Si. Putti e gigli.” It struck Jack that the little girl was trying very hard to be exact.

He turned to Pettigrew. “Is there a house nearby with lilies and angels carved above the door—”

“More likely cherubs or cupids—” Oscar suggested.

“Coo-pids,” Lia mimicked.

“—carved into the stone lintel. Does that sound familiar?”

“It’s Mrs. Quinlan they want,” the patrol officer said. “If they had said about the angels and lilies before, we would have solved this right away. The Quinlan place is half a block away.”

At that Rosa’s composure finally cracked and tears began to leak down her face. There was something very formal about her even in her despair, but the little one was less bound by pride. Lia might not have understood the exchange, but her sister’s tears were more than she could bear.

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