The Gilded Hour Page 28

The houses were small for the most part, some needing paint or repair but most so neat and cared for that the windows sparkled in the sunlight. Gardens were being dug everywhere, dark earth turned up to warm in the sun. A very old woman sat in the shade of a porch, knitting while she rocked a cradle with her knee. She looked up as the cab passed and raised a hand. The driver nodded in return, touching the brim of his hat.

The neighborhood was oddly empty. Sophie had just begun to wonder if she had gone wrong after all when they turned onto Dean Street and stopped in front of a small whitewashed building with the high arched windows of a church.

Before she could ask, Mr. Weeks said, “This here Bethel Tabernacle AME. The Reasons should be out any minute now.”

The doors opened as if commanded, and two young men in dark suits stepped aside to let the churchgoers come pouring out.

“Just in time,” the driver said.

Sophie understood that Weeksville was a colored neighborhood, but still it was a surprise to see such a sea of faces and not find one white person among them. Odder still, it seemed that every pair of eyes was looking at her. It made her both less and more anxious, and heightened her irritation with herself. Of course people must look at her. She was a stranger, no matter the color of her skin.

People called out to Johnny Alger, but their eyes focused on her and stayed there. There were smiles and polite nods and curious looks and a few, it seemed, who wanted to stop but then moved on anyway, too uncertain to approach her.

Ten minutes must have passed and the crowd began to thin out, but Sophie saw no sign of Mr. Reason. Then Mr. Alger stood up so that the carriage rocked, and called to a boy who was coming down the church steps. “George! George Reason!”

He was about sixteen, just coming into his full height and still awkward, knobby joints as limber as a puppet’s. He stopped short of the cab, looked more closely at Sophie, and pulled his cap from his head to knead it.

The driver was saying, “Where’s your folks this morning?”

“Home,” George said. “Mary baby come along about sunrise. The women all too tired to listen to a sermon—”

“And the men too wound up,” the driver finished for him.

Clearing her throat, Sophie said, “It sounds as though this isn’t a good day for a visit—”

But George had already climbed up to sit next to the driver and they were off again, the conversation moving along without her.

•   •   •

THE HOUSE WAS white clapboard with ivy-green shutters and a screened front porch. On one side was a garden in neat rows marked and sectioned off by string, and on the other a fenced yard was overrun with children.

The driver spoke a few words to his horse as they came to a stop.

“Are those all your—” Sophie stopped, and the boy grinned broadly at her uncertainty.

“Cousins, mostly,” he said. “My two little sisters are there if you look, up high in the climbing tree. There’s only about a half of us here today.”

“Enough Reasons to populate all of Brooklyn, one end to the other. Yes sir, reasons enough.” Mr. Alger grinned at his own wit.

From the other side of the house came the sound of a bell, and a woman’s voice calling the family to table. George swung down from the driver’s box, turned to offer a hand to Sophie, and waited while she paid Mr. Alger.

Sophie stood for a moment brushing at her skirt, adjusting her hat, and trying to calm her nerves. She thought of Aunt Quinlan, as she often did when courage failed her in such situations. Aunt Quinlan could go into any assembly, small or large, without hesitation or embarrassment, and talk to anyone. It was a skill Sophie had yet to acquire.

When she looked up, a familiar figure had appeared on the porch. Mr. Reason came toward her with a hand outstretched, smiling at her so openly that her breath caught in her throat.

“Dr. Savard,” he said, when she met him halfway. “I was wondering if you’d ever come. Welcome. Come on now and meet the family. I hope you’re hungry, because we got a ham the size of a small bear.”

“I am hungry,” Sophie said, as her stomach rumbled in agreement.

“Then come on. The whole family is looking forward to meeting you.”

•   •   •

FROM THE MOMENT she stepped through Mr. Reason’s front door it was clear to Sophie that a quiet conversation would not be easy to achieve. Nobody could have a discussion in the middle of a gathering like this, people celebrating a new baby and—as she learned shortly—a wedding-to-be. Mr. Reason’s grandson Michael had brought his girl home with him to announce their engagement.

So Sophie let herself be propelled to the table that stretched from one room into another, given a place of honor next to Mrs. Reason, and plied with food and iced tea until she began to worry about belching in public. Through all that she was introduced, again and again, answering questions and asking her own, telling the story of Mr. Reason’s sprained ankle.

The Reasons had so many children and grandchildren and they were all so full of energy and curiosity that Sophie’s excellent memory was quickly overtaxed. She could only be glad that half the family was missing. More unusual than the size of the Reason family was the fact that so far she had counted two sets of twins and one set of triplets. When she remarked on this, everyone looked at Mr. Reason.

“I stuttered as a boy.” It clearly was a set piece, because the whole room erupted into a chiding laughter.

When the table had been cleared and the younger family members were bringing in pies and coffee, Mrs. Reason leaned closer to Sophie. “I’m so glad you finally found your way over here to see us,” she said. “But am I right in thinking you have some business to discuss with my husband?”

Sophie nodded.

“Are you in a hurry to get back to the city?”

“Not a hurry,” Sophie said. “But before dusk.”

“Well, then,” Mrs. Reason said. “We’ll have us some pie, and then I’d like you to come meet my newest grandbaby and her mama, my youngest daughter.”

The invitation was not for Sophie as a physician or a midwife, but because Mrs. Reason considered her a family friend. It was such an unusual turn of events that Sophie was confused for a single instant, and then she smiled. She said, “I like pie and I would love to meet your daughter.”

As if Mrs. Reason had snapped her fingers to make it so, the men disappeared and Sophie spent the rest of the afternoon with daughters, daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and small children of both sexes, all of them talking to each other and to Sophie. The littlest were too shy to approach her but sent coy looks and grins. When the little girls got carried away, a look from their grandmother was enough to calm them down, but Mrs. Reason’s daughters-in-law were not so easily subdued. They teased each other to the point of helpless laughter and stamping feet and mock outrage.

Althea was the second youngest of Mrs. Reason’s children. “I about gave up hope for a girl,” Mrs. Reason said. “Already had my first grandbabies when Althea and Mary came along, the last set of twins. After that I was done.”

“She saved the best for last.” Althea snagged one of her sons to wipe his face, holding on to the squirming five-year-old with one arm and wielding her handkerchief with the other.

A knock at the door brought the news that the new mother was awake. Every one of the women would have stampeded to get to her first, but Mrs. Reason had seen that coming and forestalled it by putting herself in the doorway. “All y’all have to wait your turn,” she said. “I’m taking Miss Sophie in now.”

“And me,” Althea said, giving her mother a look that dared her to disagree.

•   •   •

IN A SUNNY bedroom that looked out over the fallow garden, Althea leaned over her sister to examine the sleeping baby’s face.

“Ten grandsons,” Althea said to Mary, “and you had to break stride.”

“About time, too,” Mrs. Reason said, coming around the other side of the bed to get closer. “Girl babies do dawdle along in this family.” With sure hands she scooped the bundled newborn up to cradle her against a substantial bosom. “Come look at what Mary made,” she said to Sophie. “Look at this beautiful child.”

Sophie observed closely, both new mother and baby, and saw no signs of distress or trouble. Mrs. Reason’s youngest daughter was a healthy woman, exhausted but satisfied with herself and her place in this world.

“What are you going to name her?” Sophie asked.

“Mason and me, we’re still talking about that,” Mary said. She tore her gaze away from the child in her mother’s arms and smiled at Sophie. “You’re a doctor. You catch a lot of babies?”

“At least a couple times a week,” Sophie said. “But I also treat women and children more generally.”

“Didn’t even know there was colored woman doctors.”

“More of us every year,” Sophie said. “Maybe your daughter will be one too.”

Mary looked directly startled at the idea, and then amused. “Could be,” she said. “No children of your own yet?”

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