The Gilded Hour Page 24

“But he is interested,” her aunt said. “He asked for you to come by on Sunday, to discuss it.”

•   •   •

JACK HAD BEEN watching the back-and-forth between the older women and the younger ones, seeing affection and respect in the way they talked to each other, but also challenges and long-held disagreements.

“So may I ask, what do you plan to do about the Russo girls?”

All eyes turned to him.

“Would you like us to take them back to the asylum?”

Beside him Maroney moved uneasily.

“You would do that?” Sophie seemed genuinely surprised.

“If you asked us to, we would have to take them.”

“Where?” Aunt Quinlan wanted to know. “To Mott Street?”

Margaret Cooper appeared in the doorway as if her name had been called. “You cannot be serious. We can’t send them back there,” she said. “Not in good conscience.”

“Margaret,” Anna began, but her cousin had already walked away, her back stiff and straight.

“She wants to take them in?” Oscar looked at each of the women in turn, one brow raised in polite surprise.

“She is very maternal and misses having children to look after, but of course, this is something we need to think about and discuss at length before we undertake something so—important,” Mrs. Quinlan said.

Then Margaret was back, a newspaper in her hands. “‘Chinese opium den raided,’” she read aloud. “‘Young girls living in the neighborhood have been decoyed for immoral purposes.’” Her eyes scanned the page. “‘A brawl outside Mayer’s tavern at Cherry and Water Streets ended in a fatal stabbing . . .’ And oh, yes, this: ‘The body of a young boy found in an outhouse on Prince Street, marks of violence.’ Shall I go on?”

Oscar was clearly surprised and delighted at this unexpected source of information. “You subscribe to the Police Gazette?”

“I do,” she said, as if she had been challenged.

The old aunt shook her head. “Margaret, we are all aware of the dangers in that neighborhood, but that’s not the issue just now. We have to send word to the sisters that they can stop searching. It doesn’t mean we’ll send the girls away.”

“We might not have a choice,” Sophie said. “The Church will have an opinion.”

Margaret Cooper’s expression turned sour, but Anna got up from the table before the conversation could continue.

“I’ll write that note now.”

•   •   •

ONCE THE DETECTIVE sergeants had gone off to the convent with the note and a message, Anna let herself be drawn into a fraught conversation about the little girls and what it would mean to keep them.

“These are not stray cats,” she said aloud to no one in particular, and with that sparked a sputtering maternal declaration from Margaret: she, Margaret Quinlan Cooper, knew far better than Anna what it meant to raise children, the responsibilities, the work and effort and potential for heartbreak. If Anna didn’t like the idea of being tied down, well, then Anna should continue just as she was and leave the poor little girls to others, who knew the business best. Margaret’s two boys were evidence enough that she was equal to the task. Margaret glanced at Aunt Quinlan as she came to the end of this speech but didn’t get the agreement she sought.

Instead, Aunt Quinlan said, “Margaret, do you sincerely want to dedicate the next twenty years to the raising of these two children?”

“And the two brothers, if we should find them,” Sophie said, quietly.

“Are we looking for them?” her aunt asked.

Anna forced herself to take three deep breaths. She knew what she needed to say but not exactly why she needed to say it. “I will look for them,” she began slowly. “I intend to find them, if that is possible. I feel as though I owe Rosa that much. And please don’t ask me to explain myself, because I’m not sure I can.”

“That’s quite clear, Anna,” her aunt said. “She reminds you of yourself.”

Flushed with irritation Anna said, “My situation was nothing like hers. I had family. There was never any uncertainty about who would look after me.”

She didn’t like the look on her aunt’s face, and so she went on. “Even if the girls go back to the orphan asylum, I will make an effort to locate the boys.”

“The chances of finding them are very small,” her aunt said, gently.

Sophie said, “But if we should somehow find them, we’d have four young children on our hands.” Her expression was calm but her tone was unmistakable: she would support Anna in her decision, but first she would be sure that the decision was not made rashly.

“Whatever we decide to do, we have to tell the girls in the morning,” Aunt Quinlan said. “The uncertainty is too much for them.”

It was another hour and a half before they had come to any kind of consensus, and still Anna lay awake once she finally found herself in bed. She got up and lit her desk lamp, got out paper and pen and inkpot. She had gone over the wording so many times in her head she wrote quickly and without pause.

Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte,

I write to thank you for your kind assistance to the Russo sisters, and for bringing them to us. After long discussion we have decided to ask the Sisters of Charity to give us custody of the girls while we apply for guardianship status. We will take full responsibility for them and agree to raise them as Catholics should that be required.

If you are willing, we would like permission to use your name as a reference in writing our petition to the Church authorities. Please let us know if this is acceptable to you.

We will also commit to taking in the two Russo boys, should we have success finding them. I recognize the difficulty of such an undertaking, but I feel an obligation to at least try.

Thank you once again for your understanding and kindness.

Sincerely yours,
Anna Savard

A half hour later, almost asleep, Anna sat up suddenly in bed. The first shimmer of dawn was in the sky, but she lit the lamp once again, because she had made an error that had to be corrected. She began the letter once again: Detective Sergeants Mezzanotte and Maroney.

The next morning Anna sat across from Sophie at the kitchen table studying a letter that had come with the first mail delivery. It was very brief and, unfortunately, not the first of its kind.

Dear Dr. Savard,

I know a number of ladies who have been treated by you, and who speak of your wide knowledge and consummate skill as a physician specializing in women’s health. Today I write in the hope that you might be able to provide me with that particular kind of sensitive information the mother of many children must sometimes have. I have recently seen one such pamphlet which I believe you supplied a friend, and I would gladly pay for my own copy. Indeed, I would like to buy any pamphlets you have on the restoration of menses and good health. Please write to me at Herald Square Post Box 886 with a list of available pamphlets and their cost. Thank you in advance for your kind assistance.

Yours most sincerely
Mrs. C. J. Latimer

On the table between them was also a larger sheet of paper with a single line of writing at the top:

Latimer == Campbell

It was the way she and Sophie and Cap had always tackled a difficult problem in geometry or chemistry. She and Sophie continued the practice at college and in medical school studying pharmacology and physiology. And now they sometimes discussed a difficult case.

The letter from the lady signing herself Mrs. Latimer was nothing out of the ordinary, but it had roused Sophie’s suspicions. Given the timing, she feared it was connected to the pamphlet she had sent Mrs. Campbell. If her husband had intercepted the envelope, this could be a trap, yet another effort to manipulate her into violating the Comstock Act.

At Sophie’s elbow was a pile of newspaper clippings that dated back five years, all of which had to do with Comstock’s arrests of physicians, midwives, printers, and druggists for distribution of contraceptives or information about contraceptives. There was a handwritten chart attached, on which Anna had calculated the number of arrests according to the type of evidence, and the outcome of the case. Comstock was not terribly successful in prosecuting these cases, but he was persistent and sometimes, with the right judge, he got what he wanted.

She recognized in herself a kind of compulsion to keep track of Comstock, and a general irritation that such a thing should be necessary. For all they knew other physicians all over the city were just as worried about the possibility of being entrapped, but they were all so afraid of Comstock that they didn’t raise the subject in company.

“We don’t have enough information,” Anna said when they had been going over the facts available to them for ten minutes. “I don’t see any real connection to Mrs. Campbell.”

“Maybe not, but I think we have to assume the worst,” Sophie said. “Mrs. Campbell would have received the pamphlet I sent on Wednesday, probably in the first mail delivery of the day. That was two days after I attended her delivery, and one day after her husband looked at me, directly at me, while he stood next to Comstock. At Clara Garrison’s trial. We have to warn the printer,” she said. “If the pamphlet was traced to me, it could be traced to him, and I will not take that chance.”

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