The Gilded Hour Page 27

•   •   •

FROM THE OTHER end of the room Cap said, “Aunt Q was here this week. I suppose you know. We discussed Dr. Zängerle’s letter.”

He was sitting in his desk chair, his posture rigid and his complexion the color of skimmed milk. All the windows were open, bringing the early spring breeze into the room to play with the papers on the desk. If she asked him if he was cold, he would offer to close the windows, for her. It had never been easy to get an answer from him about himself, and now it seemed impossible.

Anna let the question hang in the air for a while. “I did hear, yes.”

“You think this is a creditable idea?”

“The doctor in question is creditable. His reputation is very good. If you’re asking about the protocol, I haven’t heard enough about it to say.”

“But Sophie thinks it’s promising.”

Anna inclined her head. “Yes.”

“And you’ll go along with her.” It wasn’t a question, and Anna didn’t answer.

After a moment she cleared her throat and said what she could not keep to herself. “Cap. If you talked to her about this, if you were to ask her—”

His gaze was direct. “You think I should go.”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Really?” he huffed softly. “I thought that was exactly the point.”

“She would go with you, if you asked her.”

“As what?” He turned away to cough into his handkerchief, his shoulders jerking with the effort. When he could breathe again he repeated himself. “As what?”

“I don’t understand.”

“As what? My physician? Nurse? Caretaker? Jailer?”

“As your friend,” Anna said. “As someone who loves you. And as a physician, of course.”

“To study from afar,” he said, a tinge of bitterness in his voice. “To sit across the room from me and observe.”

“Cap,” Anna said. “Four years ago we sat right in this room—at that table.” She pointed with her chin. “And you told me that you would leave Manhattan and live in Paris or anywhere else if Sophie would be there with you. You were willing to give up everything you hold dear to win her and keep her.”

“Yes. But she declined. She wouldn’t give up everything she holds dear.”

Anna drew in a sharp breath. “Do you really believe that?”

“Yes,” he said fiercely. And then, deflated: “No. She thought I would regret the things I gave up for her, eventually. I couldn’t make her understand.”

“She understands now. Now she is willing to give up everything.”

She wondered if he had heard her, and then she realized he was struggling to breathe. When she was about to reach for her bag he quieted. He was trembling, she could see, but not solely out of physical duress. Her own throat tightened in understanding and frustration, that she could do so little for him.

“You need to rest,” she said, getting to her feet.

He looked out the window still, as if she had not spoken at all.


Without turning he said, “Tell her I will think about it, will you? Tell Aunt Quinlan how much her visit meant to me, and that I’ll think about Switzerland. Will you do that for me?”

Anna nodded, encouraged and disturbed at the same time.

•   •   •

SOPHIE HAD BEEN to Brooklyn on occasion, to attend a lecture or observe a procedure at one of the hospitals, with Anna or colleagues. Today she was traveling alone in a crowd on the open deck of the ferry. All around her people stood, heads canted and gaze fixed upward, to get a closer look at the new bridge as they passed underneath. The newspapers said it was close to completion and would open in May. Sophie could see with her own eyes that this was the case, but it still seemed unreal.

There was something in the papers every day about the East River Bridge: construction, engineering, the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, the men who designed it and built it. Day by day all of New York had watched and wondered at it. Many doubted that it would ever be finished; others were convinced that once it did open it would collapse as soon as it was put to a real test.

“This must be what a bug feels like.” A woman talking to a companion raised her voice to be heard over the combined noises of wind and water and steam engines.

Sophie’s attention was focused on the network of cables that were part of the magic that held the bridge suspended over the river. Workmen were climbing all over it, like spiders on a web. The simplest misstep could cost—had claimed—more than one life. Sudden death was not unusual in the city, but few people looked the possibility directly in the face minute by minute. It took a certain kind of courage. Or desperation.

She shivered, and was embarrassed to realize that she was underdressed for the ferry crossing. Anna would laugh at her failure to realize that there would be a cold wind on the East River. But then she still had the gloves Anna had given her in the courtroom not so very long ago.

Sophie crouched to undo the straps of her bag and then dig down under carefully ordered tins and jars of medicines and ointments and instruments, fitted boxes of scalpels and forceps, glass bottles tightly corked and strapped down.

A shadow fell over the open bag and she looked up to see a little boy watching her.

“It looks heavy,” he said.

“It is heavy,” Sophie agreed. “But I’m used to it.”

His eyes fixed on her stethoscope.

“What’s that?”

Sophie found the gloves and pulled them out while she considered how to answer. “It’s an instrument that lets me listen to a person’s heart beating.”

He put a hand over his chest as if she had suggested he submit his own heart for this purpose. While Sophie secured the straps on her bag his expression shifted from curiosity to doubt and, finally, distrust. As the ferry bumped against the dock he skittered away to yank on a woman’s sleeve and point in Sophie’s direction.

Very deliberately Sophie pulled on her gloves and joined the line to disembark, irritated to be reminded that she could not be herself in public. She must be the person white people saw when they looked at her: a woman of mixed race, respectably dressed, polite, retiring. They would assume her to be a governess, a housekeeper, a teacher at one of the colored schools, the wife of a minister or business owner. Someone who might be able to read, but a word like stethoscope—much less the use of the thing—that was reaching beyond herself.

She felt the boy’s eyes on her back. Prideful as ever, she lifted her head and held it high.

•   •   •

THE WHARF WAS crowded with people waiting to make the trip back to Manhattan, with flower sellers and postcard vendors, with omnibuses, carriages, and cabs to take the new arrivals where they wanted to go. Sophie walked along the line of drivers waiting for fares until she found one who would not turn her away. He sat hunched forward, the reins folded over enormous hands, and looked at her from under the brim of a spotless black top hat. When he nodded she climbed into the cab without his assistance.

“Where we going, miss?” Abrupt, but not disrespectful.

“To a printer’s shop. Mr. Reason, by name. Do you know him?”

That got her a laugh. “I know everybody in Weeksville and they know me.”

“Weeksville,” Sophie echoed, looking at Mr. Reason’s business card.

“It’s what we call the neighborhood.” His brow folded in on itself as he studied her. “How you come to know Sam Reason?”

“We met in Manhattan about a year and a half ago.”

When she was seated, her bag on the floor at her feet, he chirruped to his horse and the cab took off with a jerk. The driver was still studying her over his shoulder, leaving the horse to find the way.

“You the one who fixed him up that time the cab he was in got run over?”

Sophie’s mouth fell open and then shut with a click.

“Yes. But how do you know—”

He waved a hand as if to shoo away a fly. “Everybody know that story. And you are carrying a doctor’s bag. I heard your name once but I can’t recall.”

Sophie introduced herself and in return was given his name: John Horatio Alger, Johnny to his friends.

“Now one thing,” he said to her, still ignoring the horse and the road entirely. “Sunday morning Sam won’t be in the shop. I’ll find him for you, though. Sure enough.”

Sophie sat back and watched Brooklyn pass her by. Spring was here, too, in every breath she took and the warmth of the sun on her face, in the new grass and the budding trees and the birds wheeling overhead.

A half hour later they turned onto an unpaved street and into a neighborhood like many Sophie visited in the course of her day. A large dog slept stretched out in the middle of the road; the horse went around him without breaking stride.

“You, Helmut!” the driver called to him. “I’ma run you over one day, you don’t watch out.” One long speckled ear cocked itself in feigned interest and then fell again.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies