The Gilded Hour Page 3

A bell was ringing on deck, and all around them people gathered their packages and boxes and baskets and began to move.

Anna picked up her Gladstone bag and moved with them.

•   •   •

OUR LADY OF Mercy Church lacked the fine statues and gilded angels and stained-glass windows of the bigger Catholic churches in Manhattan, but it was full of light and very clean. Even the cavernous basement smelled of lye soap and vinegar with no trace of rot or mold.

To this unusual state of affairs came the presence of some thirty children, all of whom stood quietly, as if it were a matter of life and death not to draw attention to oneself. Anna took stock and estimated that the oldest children were no more than eleven, while the youngest were not even out of clouts. And all of them were underfed and hollow-cheeked, confused, frightened.

At the front of the room were three tables: Anna’s station, where she would conduct her examinations and write the health certificates; a table piled with used clothing watched over by a tall, gruff-voiced nun who wore a tight wimple underneath a gray veil and who was never introduced, and Sister Ignatia, who ruled over soup and bread.

The first boy to stand before Anna to be examined clasped a bundle in his arms as though he expected her to grab it away. A piece of paper had been pinned to his shirt, which Sister Mary Augustin took and smoothed out to read on the open page of the heavy register book on a stand.

“Santino Bacigalup,” she reported. “Twelve years old. Both parents and two sisters died in the epidemic last week.” She squinted as she made notations.

Anna took in the hard set of the boy’s mouth and his unblinking gaze. She had the idea that if she were to reach out to touch him, he would lash out like a feral cat.

Sister Mary Augustin said a few words to him in Italian, and he answered in a storm of syllables that left her blinking.

“What was that about?” Anna asked.

Sister Mary Augustin held out an open hand and shrugged. “I wish I could tell you.”

“He wants to go home to Sicily,” said a voice behind them. Anna was examining the boy’s abdomen and didn’t look up. This must be Father Moreno, who had promised his help as a translator.

The priest was saying, “He has grandparents and a married sister in Palermo. He wants to go back there. It’s what his father said he should do before he died.”

The priest asked a question and the boy’s face lit up with happiness and relief. When Anna put her stethoscope to his chest and listened, he paused, only to let go with another stream of Italian as she nodded her permission. While the conversation went on between the boy and the priest, she palpated his abdomen and lymph nodes.

He was undernourished but very strong, as tough as a bundle of twisted wire. Through the priest Anna confirmed what she could see for herself: Santino had not been vaccinated, but somehow he had evaded the smallpox that robbed him of his parents and sisters. While the priest continued his conversation with the boy, Anna walked across the room to a surprised Sister Ignatia.

Anna said, “That child hasn’t had his smallpox vaccination.”

Sister Ignatia frowned. “And this is important just at this point in time?”

“Is it important?” Anna took a moment to summon a reasonable tone. “If his parents had been vaccinated, they would be alive and he wouldn’t be here frightened half out of his mind.”

Impatient, Sister Ignatia shrugged. “We cannot change the past, Dr. Savard.”

“But we can do something about his future. If you had just told me this morning, I could—” Anna stopped herself. “Never mind,” she said, and before Sister Ignatia could speak: “Tomorrow I will be at your door as soon as I have finished with my own patients, and I will vaccinate that boy and every child—every one—who requires it. Should it take all day and all night.”

•   •   •

SANTINO BACIGALUP WAS still in deep conversation with the priest when Anna returned.

Except the man who straightened to address her wasn’t a priest. Instead of a Roman collar he wore the clothes of a man used to heavy labor. A tall, well-built man with a heavy beard shadow and unruly dark hair that fell over his brow.

He said, “This boy wants to work. He’ll work to earn his passage home to Italy.” His expression was neutral, or, she corrected herself, simply unreadable.

“You are—” Anna began.

“Giancarlo Mezzanotte,” he said, inclining his shoulders and head very briefly, as if her insistence on his name was untoward. But then he made a visible effort to soften his expression. “Please call me Jack. Most people do. Father Moreno was called away to give last rites, and he asked me to help here with the orphans.”

His English was fluent and without any Italian inflection that Anna could hear. More than that, there was something about the way he expressed himself that belied the clothes he wore and his callused hands.

Anna touched the boy’s head, and he looked up at her.

“Is there no possibility of finding work for him here in New Jersey?”

Mr. Mezzanotte leaned down to speak to the boy again. When he rose he said to her, “There may be something. I will talk to Father Moreno.”

There were bellyaches and sore ears, rashes and ringworm, head lice and broken teeth. A girl of eight had the vaguest of rales in one lung while her older brother had a shallow puncture wound on his calf that was infected. While Anna cleaned and bandaged it, the boy told the story of how he had fallen down a long flight of stairs, consulting with Mr. Mezzanotte to get just the right phrases. His expression was so studied and sincere and his manner so studiously dramatic that Anna might have laughed out loud. When she did not, he shrugged. A philosophical actor with an audience that would not be won over.

Few of the children were so eager to talk. These quiet ones she treated with as much gentle efficiency and respect as she could muster, answering questions with the thoroughness she herself had appreciated as a child. She looked up to catch Sister Ignatia watching her with an expression that was, for once, devoid of impatience. What she saw there was curiosity and surprise and a particular kind of empathy that made Anna vaguely uneasy for no good reason at all.

•   •   •

THE LAST CHILDREN came in a group of four. The oldest was a nine-year-old girl carrying an infant against her shoulder while she nudged two more forward. Rosa, Tonino, Lia, and Vittorio Russo all had masses of curly, dark brown hair and fair eyes that stood out against skin the color of lightly toasted bread. According to the note, their mother had died in the epidemic, and a distraught father had turned them over to the church and disappeared. No one had any idea where he might be.

Rosa Russo stood very straight with the younger children gathered close by, her free left hand on her brother’s shoulder.

“I am American,” she announced before any questions could be put to her. “I was born here. We all were born here. I have perfect English,” she said in a rhythm that contradicted her claim.

She was a slight child in a dress two sizes too big, but despite ragged hems and collars, all four of them had been scrubbed vigorously, necks and faces and hands as clean as Anna’s own. There was a dignity about her, in the line of her back and the tilt of her head. Frightened beyond all comprehension, but determined, first and foremost.

“Come,” Anna said, gesturing them forward. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Come.”

Her voice quaking for the first time, the girl said, “We must go to find our father.”

“I understand,” Anna said. “But if you want to look for your father in Manhattan, I have to give you a certificate.” She held up the printed form. “Otherwise they won’t allow you across the river.”

“There are other places to cross,” the girl said calmly.

“Yes, but how will you get there? Do you have money to pay for the ferry?”

After a long moment Rosa shepherded the two middle children before her.

The older boy was very somber but cooperative, while the little sister chirped and talked nonstop, mostly in Italian with a smattering of English. When Anna’s attention slipped, two small cool hands landed on her cheeks, and she looked up to find herself almost nose to nose with a very serious Lia Russo.

The little girl dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said, “Hai occhi d’oro.”

“She says you have golden eyes,” translated Sister Mary Augustin.

Anna smiled. “My eyes are brown and green, and sometimes they look golden depending on the light.”

This time Mr. Mezzanotte stepped in and translated for Anna.

Lia shook her head, firm in her opinion. “D’oro.”

“Well, then,” Anna said. “Let me use my gold eyes to make sure you’re healthy. Can you take a deep breath and hold it?”

When Mr. Mezzanotte leaned over to explain, Lia drew in a breath so fiercely and with such drama that her eyes crossed. She was healthy, and Anna was relieved. What she didn’t know and couldn’t tell was more complicated: did the child not know her mother was dead, or did she simply not understand what the word meant?

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