The Gilded Hour Page 26

Sophie wasn’t often asked to consult here, for reasons that were never discussed but clear nonetheless. While most sick women who couldn’t afford a doctor studiously overlooked the color of Sophie’s skin, the patients who came to the German Dispensary were more likely to voice an objection. Dr. Thalberg and the other doctors on staff only called on her when the patient was too sick to care.

She left through a waiting room crowded with the kind of people she would see in any other clinic: a harried mother trying to console a miserable toddler; another who looked like she had had no sleep for days; a workman cradling an injured arm; a fragile old man sound asleep, snoring softly; a stable hand in mucky wooden clogs with such a high fever that Sophie could feel it radiating off him as she passed.

And standing to one side by himself, a hand stemmed against the wall so that he could hold a foot up off the floor, was a man of some seventy years. Beside him was a leather portmanteau that had been nearly ripped in two, but he himself seemed to be unharmed beyond the need to keep the weight off his foot. He was a businessman by his dress, and one who employed a very good tailor. Everything about him was understated and of first quality, but he had the broad features and rich color of African ancestors.

A black man of property, injured. In this clinic, in the middle of Little Germany. Either he was a stranger to the city and did not realize his situation, or his visit was unplanned. She wondered if he had any idea that he would be left standing here while all the rest of the patients were seen, and would still be standing when the waiting room was empty.

Nothing of worry or anxiety showed in his expression or the way he held himself. Whether he was preoccupied by his injury or simply unaware of the dozen people who radiated distrust and dislike in his direction, that was impossible to say. All this and more went through Sophie’s mind in the two seconds it took her to wind her scarf around her neck. Without conscious thought she stepped toward him, holding out an elbow for him to take.

“Can I help you to the carriage?”

He hesitated for less than a heartbeat, nodded, and took the arm she offered.

•   •   •

HIS NAME, SHE learned as soon as they were out the door, was Sam Reason. Sophie introduced him to Mr. Lee, who helped him into the carriage in a way that did not put stress on the injured leg. Before he was properly settled, he apologized for the trouble he was causing. “Thank you kindly for stepping in. I really didn’t know what to do.”

The distraction that had begun to build once they were safely away gave way instantly. He sounded like home, like New Orleans. Sophie was so taken aback that she listened without comment while he told her of a cab that had been overturned by an omnibus just a block away.

“The poor cabdriver was thrown and killed outright,” he told her. “And his horses had to be shot on the spot. I came away with this ankle and I’ve lost nothing more than my sample book.” He seemed to remember something and touched his brow. “And a hat.”

“But why here? Why this dispensary?” Sophie asked him.

“A delivery boy who was going by with a cart brought me here. It was out of his way as it was and the police ambulance was busy with the more seriously injured.” What he didn’t say, and didn’t need to say, was that they would hardly have bothered with him anyway.

The delivery boy who had brought him to the dispensary had done the best he could, and hurried off to complete his work. The Colored Hospital was sixty blocks away, and would have required two hours at least, time the young man could not spare.

Mr. Reason held out his hand, which Sophie took automatically. Large and callused, a firm, dry grip, and she returned it in kind. Both Sophie’s father and Aunt Quinlan put great value on a handshake and had introduced her to the subtleties at a young age.

“I’m a printer,” Mr. Reason was telling her. “From Brooklyn. If you could see your way to taking me to the Fulton Street ferry, I’d be more than happy to pay you for your time and effort.”

“There’s no need,” Sophie told him. “And we must see to that ankle before you try to walk on it. It may be broken.”

At his surprised expression she explained by introducing herself.

“I am Sophie Savard,” she said. “A physician.”

He looked more relieved than he did surprised, and with that won Sophie’s respect and gratitude both.

•   •   •

WHEN MR. LEE left to take Mr. Reason to the ferry, Sophie turned to the men who were waiting for her help. Four of them today, none with serious injuries. As she worked she went over the morning’s events in her mind, thinking of questions she should have asked Mr. Reason about his home in New Orleans, and how he had come north, and if he ever went back to visit. A disproportionate sense of loss sat like a weight in her throat, something too big to swallow.

She treated a scalp laceration, a cracked rib, a thumb crushed by a poorly aimed blow of the hammer. More men came, some with nothing more than a deep splinter, but one with a cough and rales in both lungs. She wrote him a script and suggested that he go to the Colored Hospital to be examined, knowing that he would not, could not spare the time.

At two she was back in the carriage eating the sandwich Mrs. Lee had packed for her. The traffic was even worse, stopping and starting, and it would be a half hour at least before they reached the Colored Children’s Dispensary. She moved her bag aside so she could recline and sleep for whatever time the trip allowed her, and that was when she noticed the business card.

It was printed on heavy paper, smooth to the touch, the lettering raised:

Reason and Sons Printing
Atlantic Avenue and Hunterfly Road
Brooklyn, New York
Samuel Reason, Master Printer

On the back, in a fine, clear, and very small hand, Mr. Reason had written a message.

Dear Dr. Savard: My family and I would be proud to have you join us for services at Bethel Tabernacle and then for dinner, this or any Sunday. At your service, with gratitude—S.R.

Six months later Sophie heard Dr. Garrison mention that she was looking for a new printer, and so she recommended Mr. Reason, but she had never taken him up on his invitation, and she never mentioned the meeting to Anna. She had not gone to Brooklyn for church services because she could not, in good conscience, but neither could she explain to Mr. Reason that she was a nonbeliever. He would be surprised, she was sure, and almost certainly disapproving.

Why she had never mentioned the meeting to Anna was more difficult to explain even to herself. The simple truth was that she felt protective toward him, at least in part because she had recommended him to Dr. Garrison and had put him in danger’s way. One thing was clear, however; it was ten o’clock on Sunday morning, and she had the day free.

Sophie got Mr. Reason’s business card from her desk, checked the contents of her Gladstone bag—she could not make herself go anywhere without it—called into the kitchen that she was going out without providing details, and walked to the Second Avenue elevated train. By el and ferry and taxi it would take her at least an hour to get to Brooklyn; she could only hope that it would be time enough to think of a way to explain herself to Mr. Reason.

•   •   •

CAP HAD BEEN born and lived still in a beautiful Murray Hill house built of marble and sandstone, exactly one and a half miles from Waverly Place. Anna had walked the distance so many times in her life that she could make the trip without thought or conscious effort. Certainly there was little to distract her on the first part of Fifth Avenue, each house almost as familiar to her as her own.

Fashionable neighborhoods shifted north as the city grew, with the result that the lower portion of Fifth Avenue was now populated primarily by the elder generations of the most prominent families: Delanos, de Rahms, Lenoxes, Morgans, and Astors. As a very little girl she had come to call in these houses with her aunt and uncle Quinlan. She remembered marble floors, statues far taller than herself, butlers with long-suffering expressions and silver trays, the smells of camphor and rubbing alcohol and dried lavender. Now a few very old but still very rich people lived in twenty or thirty shuttered rooms with their staffs as company.

But this bright Sunday morning was also the first of April and the weather had drawn the people outside, bringing the neighborhood back to life. A breeze tugged at her hat and buffeted the hem of her coat and infused her with energy, and Anna let herself be propelled, first to buy an iced bun from a vendor and then to stop and do business with a flower seller who wore a kerchief folded like a veil over her head and shoulders. Anna pointed to what she wanted and the woman wrapped the violet stems in moss and newspaper and tied it all together with a bit of string.

She stopped again to watch children chasing each other through a courtyard, howling with laughter. As she had once played, with such abandon. In that moment it occurred to her that she was procrastinating, and why.

All week she had been avoiding the discussion of the clinic in Switzerland for the simplest of reasons. It might be pure selfishness on her part but she did not want to give Cap up, to send him away and never see him again.

It came to her then as if she heard the words spoken out loud: Sophie wanted him to go, because she wanted to go with him. To Switzerland.

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