The Gilded Hour Page 33

Then the finer shops began to give way to cobblers and hardware merchants to secondhand clothiers, restaurants to beer gardens, banks to pawnshops, theaters to saloons. Soon they were surrounded on all sides by music halls, flophouses, stale beer joints, and bordellos. The businesses were closed up tight on a Sunday, but the dives and disorderly houses never closed despite the law. None of it seemed to take Anna Savard by surprise.

•   •   •

POLICE HEADQUARTERS WAS as busy as Anna would have guessed it to be, had she ever given it any thought. As they passed through the reception area to a steep flight of stairs, she took note of an older couple leaning against each other, half-asleep; a mother with a young boy on her lap; and a group of heavily made-up women who seemed distinctly unconcerned about their fate. One of them looked at her with dull eyes empty of all emotion, then let her gaze drop.

She followed the detective sergeant down one hall and another, and finally up a short flight of stairs. He opened the door and the purpose of the room announced itself by means of a wailing infant and the ammonia smell of wet winding clothes.

It was a long, narrow room lined with cots. There was a desk at one end and a treatment table at the other where a short, sturdy woman wrapped in an apron that covered her from neck to toe was leaning over an infant. The child was flailing unhappily about being lowered into the bathwater.

“Wheest,” she murmured to the baby. “Wheest. There’s a good girl. We’ll get you cleaned up proper first, and then you can fill your belly.”

A rocking chair creaked and Anna saw that there was another woman sitting in a shadowy corner. She seemed to be sleeping while an infant fretted at her breast. So small and so ferocious in its hunger, struggling for more and more as though he knew with certainty that he would never be fed again.

The three infants in the cots were asleep, swaddled securely, eyelids as pale as moonstone etched with a tracery of blue veins. Newborns should be rounded and padded and pink, but all of these babies were angular, like bundles of sticks wrapped in paper.

“Mrs. Webb?”

The woman bathing the baby looked over her shoulder.

“Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte. Good evening. What have you brought me today?”

“No babies today,” he said, and she turned back to her work. The infant had stopped wailing and was staring up at her with utter fascination.

“You see,” she said. “Not so bad, is it? Lovely warm water.”

To Jack she said, “Then what can I do to help? Still looking for the little Italian boy?”

“I’m afraid so. Can we have a look at your register?”

She gestured with her chin to a large book that lay open on the desk.

He crossed the room directly, but Anna hesitated and then went to watch Mrs. Webb, who had clearly bathed more than a few babies in her time. She rinsed the newborn quickly and carefully and, as Anna watched, wound her into a towel and rubbed her dry. The child was severely underweight, so that her head seemed far too large for her spindly neck and body; more troublesome still was the umbilical cord, which was ragged and tied with a dirty string.

“A young mother did that,” said Mrs. Webb. She had followed the line of Anna’s gaze. “In a hurry to be done with the business and away. She left this little one wrapped in rags in a doorway, not more than a few hours old when a patrolman found her and brought her in to me early today. Poor thing.”

Generally people believed that an abandoned child was illegitimate and that the mother had put it away from her to hide an inexcusable moral lapse. Anna herself had never challenged this traditional wisdom until she went to medical school and was obliged to look more closely. Abandoned children were a miserable lot, born in poverty and most of them sickly, but their mothers were often married, and desperate in their own way.

Mrs. Webb was saying, “Tomorrow all of this lot will go down to the Public Charities Office and a doctor will examine her. Maybe he can do something about the cord.”

Anna said, “Does she have a name?”

Mrs. Webb began to swaddle the child with quick, efficient motions. “Sometimes the mother leaves a note with a name, but not for this little one. Tomorrow she’ll get a name and a number too, and depending on the luck of the draw they’ll baptize her Catholic or Protestant. And off she’ll go to the Infant Hospital or the Foundling or wherever else they find a cot for her.”

Anna hoped it wouldn’t be the Infant Hospital on Randall’s Island, infamous in medical circles. Overwhelmed by an endless stream of abandoned infants, never enough wet nurses, and very little skilled care meant that three-quarters of the infants admitted to the hospital would be dead within three months, and most of the rest within a year. But it was one thing to hear the figures spoken in a lecture hall or read a report, and another to know that the children in this room would likely be dead before the summer had finished.

Jack Mezzanotte looked up from the register he had opened on the desk and gestured her over. He had put a finger on a line to keep his space.

“Here’s the day the Russo children came over from Hoboken. Forty-two children were logged in over the next seven days. This is the only one that comes even partially close.”

Anna followed the closely written entry:

Male infant, ca. three months, no distinguishing marks, no outward injuries. Warmly dressed. Alert. Found sleeping on the grass under a tree in Stuyvesant Square at 5 o’clock by a clerk walking past on her way home from work. Officer A. Riordan.

“Hard to know,” Anna said. “Without more of a description.”

Mrs. Webb came over, the newly bathed baby on her arm and read over Anna’s shoulder. “Remind me, who is it you’re after finding?”

“A boy, about three months. Healthy. Very dark hair, blue eyes. Went missing on March twenty-sixth.”

The matron was shaking her head. “No child like that come through here. When I get one that big and healthy, usually a mother comes around looking for it sooner or later. Most all of mine arrive half-dead already.” Her tone was unremarkable; a sailor talking about the tides. “But they leave clean and warm with a full belly. Every one of them. After that it’s up to the good Lord.”

•   •   •

WITHOUT DISCUSSION THEY started for Washington Square, turning left onto Bleecker before either of them even thought of talking. Then Jack said something that took her by surprise.

“You know better than to be in this neighborhood at dusk.” Not a question, not a command. A simple statement.

“Of course.”

It was always odd to be reminded how close the very worst of the city was to the house where she had grown up, where she knew all the neighbors and never felt even the slightest discomfort, no matter the hour. The city was like a deck of cards well shuffled; any corner could reveal disaster or deliverance.

•   •   •

WALKING THROUGH LENGTHENING shadows in Washington Square Park was almost dreamlike. For those last ten minutes Jack thought of what he might say, and rejected everything that came to mind.

At the corner of Waverly Place and the park she stopped and turned to him.

“Sophie and I are writing to all the smaller homes and orphan asylums, but there are several I think I need to visit personally.”

“We can do that this week.”

Sometimes when she smiled in a certain way, a dimple fluttered to life in her left cheek. It was there now. “That’s kind of you.”

He was wondering if she was really oblivious to his interest in her when she said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but it would be better if you don’t come to the door with me. If Rosa sees you she’ll pin you down with a million questions.”

He might have said I can answer questions, or I’m not ready to leave you yet, but neither of those things would move him toward his goal. A goal he had somehow formulated without much conscious thought, but one that had already put down roots. He had to clear his throat to speak.

“I’ll send word tomorrow, or the day after, unless work gets in the way, and then it might not be until later in the week.”

“Generally I’m in surgery in the mornings,” she said. “We both have schedules to work around.”

He took her hand as if to shake it and ran his thumb over the cool silk of her glove to feel the warm skin beneath it, stroking the cleft where palm met wrist. She started but didn’t pull away. He wondered if it was possible for her to stop herself from blushing, or if it was a battle she always lost.

After a moment he passed her leather satchel back to her, and she turned and walked away. Jack watched her go, her pace picking up. Then she stopped and turned back, as if she had forgotten something important.

She called, “If your man yesterday had been French, what would you have said to him then?”

He laughed.

“You don’t know!”

“Maybe not,” he called back. “What part of France?”


BY THE TIME they had spent four nights in the house on Waverly Place, the little girls had settled into a routine. “Give children a clock to live by,” Mrs. Lee said. “So they know what’s coming, when it’s coming, how long it will last. They’ll take comfort in that knowing.”

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