The Gilded Hour Page 25

“Think about it for one more day,” Anna said. “And think about this too: if Comstock does have someone watching you, that person could follow you to the printer they otherwise would have a difficult time locating and might never suspect.”

Sophie gave her a pointed look. “Why do you want to talk me out of doing what I know is right?”

Anna sat back, picked up her cup, and thought for a moment.

“I don’t. Really, I don’t. But the thought of that man—my hackles rise.”

“You can be sure I’ll take every precaution to avoid him.”

Anna would have to be satisfied with that much.


EARLY SUNDAY MORNING Anna came in from checking post-op patients and stretched out on her favorite divan in the parlor, putting her head back to study the mural on the ceiling. It was the work of a visiting artist who had painted because he had no other way, he explained at length, of repaying Aunt Quinlan’s extraordinary hospitality.

Aunt Quinlan was known as a gracious hostess, a supporter of young artists, and an easy touch. Any close friend could write a letter of introduction that would open her door, and she had many close friends. Over the years dozens of young artists had come to call, in need of encouragement and regular feeding and a bed. These young people would stay a few days or a few weeks, and almost all of them left behind a painting or drawing or sculpture of some kind.

Mr. MacLeish had decided that nothing less than a mural would do, and banished them all from the parlor for a full month while he worked.

“And ate,” Mrs. Lee pointed out at every opportunity. Mrs. Lee did not like being shut out of the parlor, and she liked even less that Hamish MacLeish wouldn’t allow her to supervise his progress. By the time the unveiling came around she was determined not to like whatever he had created, but she gave in with good grace as soon as she saw it.

MacLeish won Mrs. Lee over by putting Aunt Quinlan—a much younger Aunt Quinlan, extracted from an early self-portrait—in the center of his mural as Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.

“Just so,” said Mrs. Lee. “Queens and goddesses forget nothing, except when it suits them.”

“He was a student of Rossetti’s,” Aunt Quinlan reminded them. They were sitting in the parlor studying the mural after MacLeish had gone on to try his luck in the west. “Obsessed with hair, masses of it. All of Rossetti’s crowd were.”

He had painted the muses, too, in a circle around their mother, all draped in flowing jewel-colored robes and each of them with more hair than any human woman could possibly want.

“The hair is well done, but he didn’t get your faces quite right.” This from Cousin Margaret to Anna and Sophie, delivered with a small sniff.

“We didn’t know he was using us as models,” Sophie said, because it was clear now that Margaret felt ignored.

Anna said to her, “I suppose we should be offended that he didn’t ask for permission.”

“Or for forgiveness,” said Aunt Quinlan, dryly.

Over the course of the year Anna had come to like the mural, though she had yet to admit as much to anyone. She liked it, she told herself, because MacLeish had cast her in the role of Euterpe, the muse of music. Anna had a tin ear, and a great appreciation for both irony and nonsense.

She might have slipped back into sleep if not for a little hand that latched on to her wrist. Lia Russo staked her claim and then clambered like a monkey to tuck herself into the crook of Anna’s arm. She came straight from bed, a small bundle of flannel smelling of sleep and lavender talc and little girl.

Lia put her head against Anna’s shoulder and joined her in her study of the mural.

Not yet two full days in residence, and the Russo girls had taken over. Or better said, Lia had taken over; Rosa alternated between hanging back and trying to rein in her sister. When Anna left for the hospital the morning of their first full day on Waverly Place, the moving of furniture had already begun, and when she came home the discussion of redecorating, of what could be fetched from the attic, of shopping and dressmakers and shoes, was still in full voice. Anna had the sense that this unexpected upheaval in the household was going to suit all of them. Once the legalities were worked out.

She had the first draft of a letter to the sisters in charge of the asylum sitting on her desk. The writing of letters was something she did a lot of, and easily, but not this time. This time she had to explain the unexplainable: why these two girls in particular, when she saw so many of them, day in and day out.

To Lia she said, “Have you had your breakfast?”

In response the five-year-old pointed at the ceiling. “Heaven,” she said. “Cielo.”

“Very good,” Anna said, resisting the urge to correct the child’s misinterpretation. The scene above their heads had nothing to do with a Christian heaven, but she was not about to discuss schools of art, Greek mythology, or perspective, whether geometrical or philosophical, with this little girl. If Lia wanted to think of heaven as a place where young women took their ease in a meadow beside a brook, Anna would not try to dissuade her. She wondered if Lia imagined her mother in a heaven like the one overhead. Anna had only the vaguest memories of her own mother and couldn’t imagine her anywhere at all.

“Cos’è?” Lia pointed again, and Anna realized she had learned her first sentence in Italian. Lia was asking the question young children never tired of: What’s that?

“I’m not sure,” Anna said. “Do you mean the apple tree?” She pretended to bite into an apple, and got a nod.

“Apple tree.” Lia pronounced it perfectly.

“In Italiano?” Anna ventured. “Cos’è?”


Anna repeated the word and Lia nodded her approval.

“There you are.” Margaret swooped into the parlor, all bright energy. The little girls had given her purpose, something no one had realized she was missing, which struck Anna as a little sad.

“Lia,” Margaret said. “Come now and have your breakfast. Eggs and bacon and toast and jam.” She repeated this in something that sounded vaguely like Italian and held out a hand.

Lia climbed down willingly enough and let herself be steered away, looking over her shoulder at Anna as she disappeared. Sophie took her place, coming in with a breakfast tray.

“Is this a bribe?” Anna turned onto her side to examine the offerings.

“Do you need to be bribed?”

Anna went back to studying the ceiling. “That depends.”

Sophie was still firm in her intention to warn the printer, and Anna realized now that there was nothing that she could do to dissuade her. She wasn’t even sure that Sophie was incorrect.

Sophie said, “When are you going to see Cap?”

“As soon as I can rouse myself.” Anna gave an exaggerated yawn.

“And when is Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte coming to call?”

Anna felt the irritation blossom on her face. “It’s not a call.” And then: “It’s not that kind of call. I’ll see him on Sunday afternoon.”

“I’m wondering,” Sophie began, and Anna swallowed a groan.

“I’m wondering,” she began again. “If you have been so irritable since Friday evening because the detectives stayed too long, or because they left too early.”

Anna got up, smoothed her skirts, and with every ounce of self-possession she could summon, she said, “I’m off to see Cap.”

•   •   •

THE DISCUSSION ABOUT Sophie’s trip to Brooklyn had unsettled her more than she wanted to admit. To Anna it was all theory: somewhere out in the city there was a printer who might or might not be Comstock’s newest prey. Anna knew his name but nothing more, while Sophie had met the man and liked him.

It had happened entirely by accident on an icy winter morning soon after Anna had left to study in Europe. Because the roads were so treacherous and she had many stops to make, Sophie had agreed to let Mr. Lee drive her for the day.

They went first to the German Dispensary where she had been asked to consult on a difficult case. The only physician in attendance was Dr. Thalberg, difficult himself and uncompromising; he stayed nearby while she examined the forty-year-old woman deep into her twelfth and troubled pregnancy. The discussion that followed had required another hour, and by the time it was clear that there was nothing she could do for the patient, Sophie was late for her next appointment. She was pulling on her wraps as she came into the waiting room, where she stopped short.

The dispensary had been established to serve the needs of Kleindeutschland, some four hundred city blocks where English was rarely heard on the street and shop signs and newspapers were in German. It was a city within the city, with Avenue B serving as the commercial lifeline, while beer halls and restaurants and oyster bars lined Avenue A. What outsiders rarely realized was that Little Germany had its own strict internal boundaries. Sophie was aware of it herself only because of Dr. Thalberg, who often wished out loud for a second dispensary where the southern Germans could be sent, far away from his Prussian sensibilities.

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