The Gilded Hour Page 41

They found the door they were looking for, and Jack opened it for Anna.

•   •   •

ANNA STARTED BY relating the short history of the Russo children in as far as she knew it. Jack had added some details, watching the superintendent and not liking what he saw. Mr. Johnson swiveled his chair away to look over the street as Anna finished, running a hand over his scalp. He had long, thin fingers that tapered like candlesticks.

“Let me understand this correctly,” he said when he turned back to them. “These boys you’re looking for are not any blood relation?”

“They are not,” Anna said. “But my family has taken in the girls, and we would do the same for the boys if we can find them.”

“And why, may I ask, would an unmarried lady with such an advanced education want to take on the trouble of four Italian orphans?”

Jack didn’t like the man’s tone or the implications. Anna seemed not to notice or care, because she answered him.

“I myself was orphaned very young,” she said. “My cousin—who is also a physician—was orphaned at ten. We were fortunate to be taken in by a loving aunt who is agreed on this course of action. I am very aware of the responsibilities, and our finances are in good order.”

It didn’t answer the question he had asked, but it told him what she wanted him to know.

“The whole idea is very irregular,” said Mr. Johnson.

“We’re not asking for your permission,” Jack said flatly. “Consider this a police matter, if that suits you better. Two little boys have gone missing from St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum. We want to know if one or both of them might have come through here, and where they would be if they had. Now, can you help us?”

Mr. Johnson was taking great pains not to look intimidated, but Jack saw the flutter of an errant muscle at the corner of his eye. A man who was easily insulted and slow to forget. His inclination was to deny them help, but he also had a solid understanding of what trouble the law could be if he made an enemy of a detective.

“We wouldn’t have taken the baby,” he said. “But it’s possible that the older boy went out with one of the groups that left last week. Before we go any further, Dr. Savard, you do realize that there are thousands of destitute and homeless children in this city.”

“Tens of thousands,” Anna said, her tone much cooler.

“And I hope you’ve already submitted queries to the Catholic Church?”

When she assured him that they had, he got up to leave. “I may be a half hour or more,” he said, and closed the door behind himself.

•   •   •

THE OFFICE WAS small and overheated, and Anna felt perspiration gathering beneath the weight of her hair and along her spine. She stood abruptly, but Jack was already at the door and holding it open for her.

She said, “That group of boys we saw when we first came in. Do you think they were being sent out for placement?”

Jack said, “That would be my guess. They looked a lot like these boys.” He inclined his head to a row of a dozen framed photos that lined the walls. Groups of boys bracketed by adults, staring solemnly at the camera. Neatly dressed according to the season, faces and shoes both polished to a shine. Children as old as fifteen, by her estimation, but there was little of childhood even in the youngest faces.

The most recent one was dated just the previous week and was neatly labeled.

Placement agents Charles Tenant and Michael Bunker departing March 1883 for Kansas with their charges: Gustaf Lundström, Alfred Jacobs, Federico DeLuca, Harrison Anders, Colum Domhnaill, Lucas Holtzmann, Samuel Harris, Michael and Dylan Joyce, James Gallagher, Zachary Blackburn, Galdino Iadanza, Nicholas Hall, Erik Gottlieb, Marco Itri, John Federova, Alfred LeRoy, George Doyle, and Henry Twomey.

Anna wondered what had become of these boys, if they were well looked after and content in their new homes. Common sense said that they would be better off out of a city where children routinely froze to death for lack of a roof, but sending children off to be taken in by total strangers gave her a deep sense of misgiving.

Behind them Mr. Johnson said, “Our most recent group. You see Michael and Dylan Joyce—” He indicated two boys alike enough to be twins. They were no more than eight, fair hair sticking out from under their caps.

“These two are from a family of seven children living in one room in Rotten Row in such filth, you can’t imagine. The mother didn’t want to let them go, but in the end she made the right decision. Not a sound tooth in her head, a drunkard for a husband, and her still putting out brats like rabbits.” He huffed. “There ought to be a law.”

Anna’s voice sounded rough to her own ears. “What kind of law do you mean? Against toothlessness?”

She felt Jack’s surprise in the way he tensed. Surprise, but not disagreement or disapproval. At least not yet, but Anna was not done and would not be condescended to.

Mr. Johnson cleared his throat. “Overpopulation is not a joking matter, Dr. Savard. The underclasses are not capable of restraint and not willing to work hard enough to support so many children, so that we—you and I—must bear the financial burden. And what is the solution to that?”

“Why, birth control,” Anna said, holding on to her temper with all her strength.

“Artificial contraceptives are illegal, as I hope you are aware.”

Anna drew in a deep breath. “I am aware. So let me ask you, Mr. Johnson. Contraception is illegal and so is abortion. History makes it clear that human beings are not capable of abstinence. The poor—wait, what did you call them? The underclasses. How do you suggest their numbers be kept to levels you find acceptable?”

Mr. Johnson’s gaze shifted away and then back, the muscles in his jaw pulsing and jumping. “Is that a serious question?”

“Oh, yes,” Anna said. “I would like to know what measures you advocate.”

He stood a little straighter. “The first problem is the influx of the worst of Europe. The moral and intellectual dregs must be turned away. If such a policy had been put in place at the right time, Michael and Dylan Joyce would have been born in Ireland, and feeding them would not fall to us.”

“At the right time,” Anna echoed. “So, after your forefathers arrived.”

The muscles in his jaw were clenching again. “You misunderstand me.”

“No, I don’t think so. I think I understand you very well.”

Very dryly Jack said, “Do you have any information for us?”

Mr. Johnson turned his attention to Jack with obvious relief. “Not yet. I came back because I forgot one important point. Does this boy”—he checked his notes—“Tonino Russo. Does he speak English?”

Anna couldn’t remember Tonino talking at all, but she was angry now and willing to cause the man as much discomfort as possible.

“He is bilingual.”

“So he speaks English?”

“He speaks Italian,” Jack said. “And French. And some German too, so I think you’d have to say he’s at the very least trilingual.”

Anna took one step back and poked him with her elbow even as she smiled at Mr. Johnson. Her dimples stayed hidden. “A very bright boy.”

“Dr. Savard,” Mr. Johnson said. “We do not send children west for placement if they don’t speak English. Now, does the boy speak English, or not?”

•   •   •

THEY HAD BEEN walking a full block before Anna broke her silence. “You said that they place orphans with families. But that’s not where they stop, is it? They take children from their parents.”

Jack knew her well enough already to understand that any effort to calm or placate her would be received very badly, and so he gave her the truth, as he understood it.

“The majority of the cases are orphans, but they aren’t above separating children from their parents. From immigrant families, especially Irish and Germans. And Italians.”

She stopped and turned to look him directly in the face, as if she expected to see some hidden truth written on his brow.

“It seems I do disapprove of the Society for the Protection of Endangered Children. And most especially I do not approve of Mr. Johnson’s Malthusian philosophy. But thank you for arranging this interview. It was instructive, if not productive. I think I’ll look for a cab.”

Jack said, “There’s one more visit we could make today, if you have time. The lodging house on Duane Street run by the Children’s Aid Society.”

“As we’re already under way,” she said, and then pointed east. “We should be walking that way. To the elevated train.”

“No cab?” Jack said, amused and irritated both.

“No need,” Anna said. “The elevated will take us all the way downtown.”

She started off again, then stopped when she realized she had left him behind.

“Are you coming?”

“I don’t know,” Jack said.

She had a very expressive face, so mobile that Jack could see her irritation giving way, slowly, to confusion and then a kind of abashed awareness. He kept his own expression neutral and waited. After a moment she let out a long breath and started back until she stood directly before him, her face tilted up.

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