The Gilded Hour Page 46

Dear Dr. Sophie,

It is just a few weeks since we had the pleasure of welcoming you to our home on a beautiful spring afternoon, and now I find myself writing not—as I had hoped—to invite you for another visit, but to share the news of my husband’s sudden death. We laid Sam to rest on what would have been our fifty-second anniversary, just four days ago.

We are steadfast in our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and take comfort in His tender mercies. He has called Sam to His side and one day He will call me to join him. Until then I have family to look after and work to do.

Aside from this sad news, I am also writing to say that our eldest grandson, also called Samuel Reason, has taken over the printing shop. You didn’t meet Sam when you were here because he was on his way home from Savannah, where he was visiting his wife’s family. Now he asks for permission to call on you to discuss business matters. If you could send word to him at the shop on Hunterfly Road about when he might call, I would be thankful for your help during this difficult time.

I hope you know that you are welcome here at any time, for any reason, and that you will not wait long to visit.

With sincere good regards and many thanks for the care and kindness you showed my beloved husband, I remain your true friend.

Mrs. Delilah Reason

Sophie sat quietly for a long time, thinking about Sam Reason. Mrs. Reason had her children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers and friends to support her and give her purpose. More than that, she had fifty-two years of memories to sustain her, an abundance Sophie found hard to imagine as she weighed Cap’s unopened package in her hand.

Very carefully she clipped the string and folded away the thick brown paper wrapping. Inside she found the familiar, much-loved pen case that had passed back and forth between Cap and herself for ten years, always with a letter enclosed and sometimes with more. She had thought never to see it again and so for a moment she only studied it, tracing the carving of a single tree beside a lake of inlaid pearl.

Finally she opened it to take out a letter of many pages, rolled into a tube and tied with a bit of string. She was terrified and exultant all at once.

Sophie, my love,

Nothing has ever felt more right than the act of breaking the long and painful silence that I created between us. I could make no accusations if you were to tear up this letter without reading another word, but I hope you will not. I have things I must say to you.

I have hurt you and disappointed you and told myself that I acted for your own good. You know that my fears for your health are founded in fact but I must now confess that while I could not admit it to myself at the time, my decision to cut you off was about more than your health. I was angry because I wanted you for my wife and you rejected me. And so, to my shame, I rejected you and convinced myself it was the right thing to do.

Then Aunt Q came to call and when she went away she took my delusions and pretenses with her. I have been cruel and unfeeling, and I can only ask your forgiveness. I hope you will be more generous than I have been, though I don’t deserve it.

I have missed you. Every day, every hour, every minute I have missed you. You must know that I love you still and always, as I have loved you since that June we were sixteen, standing in the shade of the rose arbor, my senses filled up with the scent of the flowers and the low hum of the bees, and then with you and nothing else. Your taste, the texture of your skin at the corner of your mouth, the very sound of your breath catching in your throat. I loved you then as I will love you on the day I die. And I will die, Sophie, and my death will come too soon.

And so I come to the letter from Dr. Zängerle which your good aunt brought me. I have read it many times and in the end, I cannot believe that Dr. Zängerle’s methods will provide a cure, but I do think that his treatment might give me more time than I would otherwise have. You want me to go to Switzerland and put myself in Dr. Zängerle’s care at the Rosenau clinic. I will agree, with some conditions:

However much time I may have, you and I will spend it together. You must come with me to Switzerland and stay with me until the end, whether it comes in a week or six months or even, as unlikely as it seems, a year. I want you to be my wife and when my time is done, my widow. Before we depart for Europe, we must be married in a legal ceremony with your family and witnesses of my choosing in attendance. Our marriage must be announced in the papers both before and after the fact. Whatever the uproar and accusations and scandal, nothing will be done in secret.

We will not share a bed or any kind of physical intimacy beyond the care a physician provides for a patient. You and I will both take every measure to ensure that I do not infect you, or anyone else.

There must be no ambiguity about our status as man and wife and thus the platonic nature of our marriage must not be public knowledge. You will promise to present yourself to the world as my wife in all ways, even after I am gone. This has to do with the law, and only secondarily with my pride.

When you are my widow, you will accept all rights and properties that come to you in accordance with the terms of my last will and testament, in which you will be named as my sole heir with the exception of provisions for Mrs. Harrison and the staff in their old age. You can be sure of two things: the testament will be rock-solid and unbreakable, and one or more of my aunts or cousins will attempt to break it anyway, in order to deny you your inheritance. To protect your interests I will make arrangements for the very best legal counsel to represent you before the courts in this and any other matter. Uncle Conrad will be the executor of my will, and he will coordinate all aspects of my estate working with the other attorney I have engaged, but your word will be final.

What you do with the estate once it is released to you will be entirely and exclusively up to you. If you choose to build a hospital, to donate it all to a school, or simply to live in comfort for the rest of your life, no one will be able to interfere with you. I know you, Sophie, and you are thinking just now that you don’t care about money or property. But I do care. This is what I want, and in this point I will not be denied.

Before I fell ill you told me again and again that you loved me but could not marry me. You imagined that in time I would come to resent you. Somehow you convinced yourself I would miss taking tea with old aunts and regret the lost opportunity to guide debutantes around the dance floor, that gossip and fashion and interminable talk of bloodlines would become more important to me over time. You were wrong. You are wrong, but none of that matters once we are married and away from this city. Distance and death will put an end to whatever disapproval my Aunt Eugenie or Mrs. Astor and her ilk can bestow. And you will be mine, and I will be yours, and that is all that matters to me. In the days and hours of my life, you are all and everything.

It is a fine thing for me to ask for mercy where I showed none, but please do not make me wait long for your answer.

I am ever yours.


SOPHIE STARTED OUT of sleep at the first crow of Lia’s beloved rooster and realized that she was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. She had drifted off rereading Cap’s letter, which she still held pressed to herself. Cap, who loved her and wanted her for his widow.

She needed to talk to Anna before she sat down to write a single word. With a sudden burst of energy she went about getting ready for the day, washing without looking at her face in the mirror for fear of what she might see there. No more than fifteen minutes later she slipped into Anna’s room.

“An early morning visit.” Anna stretched luxuriously, arms extended over her head. “I thought it might be Lia; she has been coming in quite often recently to tell me her stories.” Then she looked at Sophie more closely and sat up, fully awake.

Sophie found that she couldn’t say anything at all, and so she held up the letter.

Anna smiled broadly, both dimples popping into view. “Finally.”

“Read it.”

She frowned. “Sophie, it’s too personal.”

“Please. I wouldn’t know where to start to put it in my own words. And I need your advice.”

That made Anna laugh out loud. “When is the last time you took my advice?” But she accepted the letter and began to read.

•   •   •

ANNA WAS A slow reader, and always had been. It was the judge in her, Aunt Quinlan always said. She had to weigh every word before she could go on to the next. When she put the letter down, finally, she looked up at Sophie with tears in her eyes.

“What are you going to do?”

Sophie came forward and sat beside her cousin, folded her hands in her lap, and felt the relief and joy blossom inside her. She would say the words now and make it true.

“I’m going to marry him. Of course.” And then, because she needed to be honest with herself, “I’m going to marry him and then be with him when he dies.”

Anna put her arms around Sophie’s shoulders and pulled her close.

“Are you happy?”

“It seems wrong, but I am.”

Anna stroked Sophie’s hair. “You’re marrying Cap because you love him and you want to be with him for what time he has left.”

There was something in Anna’s tone that struck Sophie as odd. She studied her cousin’s face, and was not comforted by what she saw there.

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