The Gilded Hour Page 45

“—to see if microbes grow. And if they did, you could experiment with different kinds of materials and sterilization and how you treat your hands, first. Until you got the right combination.”

“That would likely take years,” Anna said. “And someone willing to do the labor. The curing and sewing and sterilizing.”

“But it might just work,” Jack said. “It’s worth thinking about, at the very least.”

That evening when he walked her to her door, he paused in the shadow of the garden wall to kiss her.

“Savard,” he said, against her mouth. “I spend a lot of time thinking about you. Night and day, I think about you. And it’s not your hands that first come to mind.”

He kissed her again, thoroughly, roughly, and then waited until she had opened the door.

“I’m thinking about those gloves,” he called up to her. “Even if you aren’t.”


AT THE VERY beginning of her medical training Sophie had realized that the most difficult challenge she would face was not chemistry or pathology, but what Aunt Quinlan called her tenderhearted nature. Medicine demanded calm, rational, reasoned thinking and quick decisions. The ability—the willingness—to cause discomfort and even pain in pursuit of a cure. Sophie learned to think of her heart as something she had to put away, lock away while she worked.

Children died of diseases that were preventable. Women died in childbirth despite the very best medical care. They came to her with cancers of the breast and womb and mind, with hands crushed in factory accidents, with burns and broken bones, with their fears and their stories. She listened, and where she could, she helped. She sometimes—too often—failed.

As now she feared she was failing Rosa. Certainly she had had no real comfort to offer when they took the girls to Blackwell’s Island to see their father buried.

Lia took comfort in being held and rocked and read to. Rosa, calm, efficient, ferocious Rosa had retreated into her sorrow and anger and would accept nothing from anyone. The only time she seemed to relax at all was when she was in the garden with Mr. Lee, and it was only with Lia that she allowed herself to bend when her little sister remembered, suddenly, that they had found and lost their father on the same day.

Rosa wanted nothing for herself and was almost impossible to engage in any conversation, unless it had to do with her brothers.

For almost three weeks now Anna and Jack had been visiting child welfare institutions, whenever they both had a few hours to spare. Twice or three times a week he would come for supper and then afterward sit at the kitchen table with Rosa and go over where they had been and what they had discovered. It was an impressive list, and a disappointing one. They had interviewed staff and children at the Society for the Protection of Endangered Children, the Children’s Aid Society office and lodging house, the Howard Mission, the Shepherd’s Fold, the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and orphan asylums run by the Episcopal, Protestant, Baptist, and Methodist churches. Within the next few days they would start visiting Roman Catholic orphan asylums together.

They made other inquiries, too, that they did not tell Rosa about, and might not simply because they hoped it would never occur to her that her brothers could be someplace far worse than an orphan asylum.

Just now Jack and Anna were in the kitchen talking to Aunt Quinlan and Rosa. From the open door came the sound of voices rising and falling in a regular rhythm, and then Rosa’s voice rose and wobbled and broke. She so seldom cried that Sophie wondered what news Jack had brought.

•   •   •

SOPHIE GOT UP from her spot in the garden and held out her hand to Lia. “Shall we go for a walk?”

The little girl had begun to show some of the roundness that was appropriate to her age, her hair had taken on a glossiness, and her coloring was high. Where her sister was weighed down by worry, Lia was relentlessly calm, cheerful, and affectionate. Mrs. Lee reported that the only time she had seen the girl cry was when Margaret and Aunt Quinlan had been arguing about the relative importance and value of corsets, a difference of opinion that was aired daily. Lia’s unhappiness, Mrs. Lee believed, came from the inability to climb into both laps at once to offer comfort.

Now Lia skipped along at Sophie’s side, singing to herself, a melody Sophie didn’t recognize. She held one of the old dolls from the attic firmly by a leg, and seemed unaware of or unconcerned by the doll’s head dragging along behind her. When they sat down on a bench in the early evening light, Lia began to undress the doll, holding a conversation with her that sounded very much like Margaret talking to Lia herself. Suddenly she stopped and looked up at Sophie.

“What’s a corset?”

Sophie had been waiting for this question, but she had assumed it would come from Rosa, who was at the center of the disagreement between Margaret and Aunt Quinlan.

“A corset is a kind of chemise.”

Lia’s expression was puzzled. Sophie doubted that even Aunt Quinlan knew the Italian word for chemise, and so she touched the doll’s old-fashioned undergarment, knee length and low in the bosom, with sleeves that came to the elbow. “This is a chemise. You wear one, shorter than this.”

Lia still looked puzzled and then her face cleared as she made a decision. She grabbed her pinafore, skirts, and petticoats in both hands and hefted them to peer down at her own belly and the cotton chemise that covered it. Sophie gently disengaged her little hands and smoothed down the skirts.

“A corset is a kind of chemise,” Sophie repeated. “But not soft. It’s made out of very stiff material. Some ladies wear corsets because if they are tight enough, it pinches in to make their middles look very small. They do this to be fashionable.” She made a motion in the air, the outline of a woman with a tightly cinched waist.

Lia squeezed the rag doll’s lumpy middle, frowning in concentration. She said, “Aunt Margaret wants Rosa to wear a corset.”

It didn’t surprise Sophie to hear this from Lia. While Italian was her first language, the little girl had an acute ear and could parrot things exactly, even if she didn’t entirely understand them.

Sophie said, “Aunt Margaret thinks that all young girls should start wearing corsets as soon as possible, because she did as a girl.”

“But Aunt Quinlan doesn’t like corsets.”

“No, she doesn’t. She didn’t allow Anna or me to wear them, not ever, because she believes corsets—” She paused and rethought her approach. “Girls who wear tight corsets can’t run and play or climb trees or do anything much except sit. Aunt Quinlan says that being free to move is more important than this.” She made the same figure in the air.

She could have added her own medical opinion and Anna’s, but Lia had heard enough. The little girl propelled herself from the bench and onto the lawn, where she stopped to spin in place with her arms extended, the half-dressed doll still firmly in hand. Then she loped off, yelling behind herself, “I am the wind!”

“Yes you are,” Sophie said with a laugh. “And so you shall always be.”

•   •   •

BY THE TIME Sophie and Lia got back, Jack Mezzanotte had gone home and Anna off to bed in anticipation of an early and difficult surgery. But Margaret was waiting and she immediately grabbed up Lia.

“Past her bath time,” she said to Sophie. At the stairs she paused. “Mail came for you while you were out.”

Sophie waved good-bye to Lia, who still held the half-dressed doll in one grubby hand.

On the hall table were two letters and a small packet that took her breath away. She would have recognized it by shape in a dark room, so often had she held it in her hand. The last time more than a year ago. Cap had written the address himself. Very deliberately she put it aside and picked up the first letter, waiting for the frantic beat of her heart to settle.

The handwriting was unfamiliar, an awkward scrawl that was nothing like Cap’s measured, angular hand.

Dear Dr. Savard,

I write with the news that I have no news. I have spoke to the Arabs who run gangs from the Battery to the Park and nobody remembers a Guinea boy with dark hair and blue eyes, about seven years old or any other age. I also had a look around certain establishments you wouldn’t be familiar with, places Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte can tell you about if you ask. No trace of the boy at the Hurdy Gurdy, Billy McGlory’s and the like, nor did I hear of him in worse places still. I’ve got business up Haymarket way this coming week and will see what there is to see. With any luck, nothing at all. Better a train headed west than the Black and Tan or one of the Chinee opium joints, that’s my opinion. I’ll write again as soon as I have something to report, good or bad.

Your humble servant
G. Gianbattista Garibaldi Nediani—Ned

Despite the serious subject matter, Sophie had to smile. Anna’s description of Ned had been almost as colorful as the letter. She put it aside for Anna’s attention.

The second letter had been written by someone with a clean, nimble hand that was also unfamiliar to her.

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