The Gilded Hour Page 32

“So the girls are with you and your aunt,” he summarized.

“And my cousins,” Anna finished.

“Tell me again what Sister Mary Augustin said to you about the boys.”

Anna gathered her thoughts. “She said that the paperwork had gone missing. A Sister Perpetua was still searching for it that afternoon without success. She said that paperwork sometimes does go missing with so many children passing through.”

“That’s true,” Brother Anselm said. “It’s hard to imagine the number of children on the street, and yet only a portion of them ever are taken into an orphanage. I worked with them for sixty years and nothing we did ever seemed to make a dent. Paperwork and children both disappear without a trace.”

“That sounds very ominous,” Anna said.

“Sometimes it is ominous,” Brother Anselm said. “There are people who look for every opportunity to take advantage of children. Slave labor, or worse. Surely you know of these cases, as a physician.”

“My cousin Sophie sees more cases of that kind than I do.”

He raised both eyebrows at once. “And who do you treat?”

“I’m a surgeon,” Anna said. “My patients are usually women of childbearing age or older. Do you think that the Russo boys were—” She sought a word that she could say out loud. “Taken? Abducted?”

He shook his head. “There’s no reason to assume the worst. If I had to guess—” But he paused.

“I won’t hold you to it, whatever it is,” Anna said. “Please just tell me what you’re thinking.”

“First I want you to tell me what you fear most. That they are dead? That you may never know what became of them?”

Anna met the detective sergeant’s eyes. She wondered if he would think less of her. “Neither of those things,” she said. “What I fear most is having to tell Rosa that I’ve failed.”

The sounds of an argument in the street spiraled to a fever pitch and fell away while she waited for some comment.

“You worry that she will blame you. But you aren’t at fault. She knows that in her heart, even if she forgets it in her sorrow. And that will temper, over time.”

“Are you saying that I should simply tell her that there’s no possibility of finding them?” Anna didn’t know how she felt about such an idea, whether she should be relieved or resigned or outraged.

“Oh, no,” said Father Anselm. “It’s not time to give up yet. But that time may come. You have to be prepared for that. And so must Rosa.”

When she was calmer Anna said, “Where do we start?” She cleared her throat to hide her embarrassment. “Where do I start?”

“With Jack,” said the older man. “Jack can ask questions where you can’t. As you can, where he cannot.” To Jack he said, “What does Mrs. Webb say?”

“We’re going to see her when we leave you.”

Anna had to physically stop herself from turning to look at him. He hadn’t told her—hadn’t asked her—about another call, and while she knew she should be irritated at his high-handed assumptions, she could only feel thankful that he had taken the lead.

Brother Anselm was saying, “The younger boy was about three months, you said. I would think that as long as he is healthy he will already have been adopted. What was his condition when you examined him?”

She lifted a shoulder. “An infant of normal size. A little underweight, certainly, but not extremely so. Very alert, with blue eyes like his sisters and brother. A handsome little boy, with a head full of dark hair.”

“A healthy, good-looking, alert three-month-old boy with blue eyes—I doubt he spent more than a few nights under a convent roof. So many children on the street, invisible to everyone, but there is always a demand for healthy infants as long as the adoptive parents can convince themselves that the mother was of good character.”

“But how—” she began.

“They can’t know,” Brother Anselm said. “But if the child is healthy and pretty enough, they convince themselves that it is so.”

He got up from the table and went to a cabinet, where he rumbled in a small box. Then he returned to the table and put paper and pencil in front of Anna, and lowered himself back into his chair.

“May I assume the older boy is healthy, and looks much like his brother?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “He’s average size but very strong, with a mop of dark curly hair and blue eyes. Very shy, but so would any child be in such a situation.”

“Seven years old,” Brother Anselm said. “Strong. He might have wandered away and got lost. Jack, you’re looking into the possibility he was picked up by one of the padroni?”

Anna felt herself startle. She had been very young when the padroni scandal had erupted, but she did remember the details quite well. An Italian would go to the small mountain villages in Italy and recruit young boys who showed even the slightest musical talent. He promised their families that they would be back in a couple of years with a substantial nest egg. The travel, clothes, food, lodging, training would be provided. All the boy had to give in return was good behavior and a willingness to make music.

And then the boy would be gone into the maw of the Crosby Street tenements, sleeping on filthy floors, insufficiently clothed and fed, and sent out to play the violin on street corners. Any boy who did not come back with the amount demanded would be beaten. More than one had died that way.

“I thought a law was passed—” Anna began, and stopped herself. Passing a law and enforcing it were entirely different matters, as anyone who lived in Manhattan knew.

“It’s not as bad as it was ten years ago,” Jack said. “But there are still a few of the padroni going about their business. I’ll make some inquiries.”

Father Anselm seemed satisfied with that. “He could also have been taken in by any one of two dozen charitable organizations.”

“And if he wasn’t taken in?” Anna asked.

“We would hope that he ended up as a guttersnipe with one of the Italian street arab gangs. There are enough of them who steer clear of the homes and orphanages, after all. They’d train him in the fine art of picking pockets and minor larceny until he gets big enough to be considered an arab himself.” He had been watching Anna closely, and so she said what she couldn’t hold back.

“If you think that being raised to be a street arab is nothing to hope for, there are worse possibilities to consider.”

“But not to start with,” Father Anselm said. “So I’ll give you the names of people to contact and places to visit, if you’ll write. My hands won’t hold a pen anymore.”

•   •   •

THE CHURCH BELLS were ringing five o’clock when they left Brother Anselm, the light slanted now in that way particular to spring evenings. They stood for a moment on the doorstep, not talking.

“One more stop,” Jack said. “Would you rather I take you home? I can call on the matron at headquarters alone; I’ve been doing it every day since I heard they were missing.”

She looked up at him with a confused expression.

“There’s a woman who works at headquarters on Mulberry, the matron of the foundlings. Patrol officers bring abandoned or lost infants to her first, and she makes sure they’re fed and clean. And even if she hasn’t seen either of the boys, she might have heard some gossip that will be useful.”

He saw her straighten her shoulders and draw in a deep breath. “Well, then,” she said. “I suppose we better go talk to her.”

•   •   •

ONCE HE HAD flagged down a cab Jack leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes, trying to gather his thoughts. He could almost feel her gaze on his face, but when he opened his eyes she was looking out the window to a corner where boys played stickball.

He said, “I think that was a useful interview.”

“It was,” she agreed. “Not exactly positive, but not absolutely discouraging, either. Just a great deal of work to be done.”

“You don’t have to do it alone.”

She might take it as an offer or a challenge, or she might sidestep the issue. In polite society she would thank him and insist that he had already done enough, and the conversation would circle back on itself until he gave up or she gave in. But he had the idea that Anna Savard did not put a great deal of value in such rituals, and this time he was right.

“Thank you. I would appreciate your help.”

He had accomplished the two things he set out for himself: Anna had the information she needed to proceed, and he had reason and permission to spend as much time as he could spare with her while she did it.

They set off east along Nineteenth Street. Warehouses, mills, and factories gave way to smaller and then larger businesses and shops until they turned onto Broadway. The cabby circled around Union Square and Jack turned automatically to catch a glimpse of the family shop on the corner of Thirteenth Street before he steered the cab onto the Bowery, a move that always made Jack think of crossing a border from one kind of city to another.

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