The Gilded Hour Page 5

•   •   •

AFTER FOUR YEARS of study at the New York Woman’s Medical School and another four years in the clinics, hospitals, asylums, and orphanages of Manhattan, Sophie Élodie Savard had earned the title of doctor. And still, when the door of the clapboard house on Charles Street opened to her knock, Sophie introduced herself to the man standing there without any title at all.

Archer Campbell had an unruly head of red hair and skin that was almost translucent, as tender as a child’s. He was a slight man, the kind who would never grow fat no matter how well he ate. His hands, large and as hard as a drover’s, were ink-stained.

A man might be distracted or distraught or coolheaded when his wife was in labor, but Mr. Campbell seemed mostly irritated. He scowled to learn that the doctor whose fees he had been paying was not coming. Instead there was a woman, and worse still: a free woman of color, as Sophie had been taught to think of herself as a girl in New Orleans. One with a calm, professional demeanor who was well spoken and willing to look a man straight in the eye.

Mr. Campbell was the kind who would have just closed the door in Sophie’s face had the note she held out not tripped his curiosity. This one was scrawled under the letterhead of the New York Women’s Hospital and was short to the point of rudeness:

My dear Mr. Campbell:

Miss Savard is come in my place because I have been unavoidably detained. She is an excellent practitioner with much experience, and she asks only half my fee.

Dr. Frank F. Heath

As was usually the case, the combination of the low moan issuing from the back of the house, the note, and the lowered fee bought her entrance.

Sophie glanced back at the driver who had brought her. She had paid him to wait an hour in case she needed to send for assistance, but she wouldn’t be surprised to find him gone as soon as she turned her back. She would have to send Mr. Campbell himself, if it came to that. It almost made her smile to imagine the affronted face he would make if she had to give him orders.

The house was small but beautifully kept, nothing out of order, every surface polished, fresh curtains at the windows. While Sophie went about the business at hand, her patient’s husband blustered at her and muttered to himself, his eyes turning again and again to the clock on the mantel as he paced up and down, chewing on a cigar stump. He wouldn’t allow her to close the door to the room where his wife labored, and so he was there every time she looked up. Sophie wondered whether it was his wife’s labor or the fact that he had no place to sleep that accounted for his growing irritation.

“The first three gave her no trouble.” He stopped in the doorway to interrogate her some hours later. “Why is this one taking so long?”

“This child is very large,” she told him. “But your wife is strong and the baby’s heartbeat is steady. It will just take longer than you might have hoped.”

It was a relief when he left for work.

Mrs. Campbell said, “I never wanted Dr. Heath. He’s so rough.” She had an accent Sophie thought of as New England, her vowels abrupt and all r-sounds clipped away. “I wanted a midwife, but Mr. Campbell”—she glanced into the empty hall and still whispered, as if her husband could hear her from anywhere in the city—“Mr. Campbell thought the wife of someone of his high position must have a doctor.”

Because there was nothing she could say to such a statement, Sophie asked instead about swaddling clothes and clouts and a basin.

“You sound strange,” Mrs. Campbell said to Sophie. “Not American.”

“French is my first language.”

“Mine too.”

Sophie turned in surprise.

“I was born and raised in Benedicta, in Maine,” Mrs. Campbell said. “Lots of Francophones in Benedicta, but I moved to Bangor when I was fifteen, and I gave it up for English.”

Sophie said, “I came here as a child from New Orleans.” She hoped that the contraction that began to peak would distract her patient from this line of questioning, but Mrs. Campbell picked up where she had left off.

“I’ve never seen anyone with your coloring. Your eyes are such an odd shade of green, and your skin—”

“I am a free woman of color,” Sophie interrupted. And at the blank expression Mrs. Campbell gave her: “My grandparents were French and Seminole and African, but I have never been a slave.”

A frown jerked at the corner of Mrs. Campbell’s mouth. “Not white,” she said. “But your hair—they’ve got a name for somebody like you, I just can’t—”

Sophie interrupted. “I was very young. I remember almost nothing of New Orleans.”

Which was a lie. She had been ten full years old when she left the city of her birth, and she remembered far too clearly what New Orleans had been, the smell of seawater and bougainvillea, how cool the tile was under her feet when she played in the courtyard, the children’s rhymes that still came to her now and then when she was very tired. She remembered the sound of her father’s voice and the way he cleared his throat before he said something he thought would make her laugh. She remembered her mother’s tone when she was happy and when she was worried and when she decided she had enough of work and wanted to go exploring and Sophie to come with her. She remembered the baker’s wife who came from the islands and told stories of the Iwa of Saint-Domingue, and Jacinthe who had only three teeth but ruled the kitchen and could make the servants tremble with a look. She remembered the quality of light that fell across her bed when she woke in the morning.

She remembered the war and the way the ground shook and the air itself seemed to scream. And when the worst had passed and everything and everyone was gone, she remembered the day Mrs. Jamison came to fetch her away from home. They boarded the steamboat Queen Esther on the big wide muddy green Mississippi and she watched the city disappear behind her.

Sophie would not share her story with Mrs. Campbell because people—most especially white people—born and raised in the north could not, would not understand what New Orleans had been. Sophie hardly understood it herself.

But her unwillingness to answer questions roused her patient’s suspicions. Between contractions she wanted to know how long Sophie had been a midwife, how many births she had attended. A deep line had appeared between her brows. “You do have training, I hope. Dr. Heath wouldn’t send someone without training.”

“Yes,” Sophie said, unable to keep the sharp edge out of her voice. “I am a fully trained physician.”

There was a startled pause. “Oh come now,” Janine Campbell said with a half laugh. “You don’t believe that yourself.”

Sophie could have recited the names of the seven black women who graduated from medical schools in Philadelphia and Montreal and New York before her, but it would do no good; she could no more relieve Mrs. Campbell of her willful ignorance than her labor pains. Instead she said, “I’m going to make you some tea that will help move this child along.”

•   •   •

MIDMORNING SOPHIE PUT a large, very loud boy with tufts of gingery curls in his mother’s arms. Mrs. Campbell, panting still, lay back against the pillows and closed her eyes.

“He’s a fine healthy baby,” Sophie said. “Alert and vigorous.”

“He is disgustingly fat,” said his mother. “I wanted a girl.”

The baby rooted and found the nipple; she arched her back as though to dislodge a pest and let out a small shuddering sound.

As Sophie worked to deliver the afterbirth Mrs. Campbell lay staring at the ceiling and ignoring the infant at her breast. From the window Sophie had opened came the sound of the street on a busy Monday morning. Horse carts, omnibuses, hand trucks; knife sharpeners and fishmongers calling out for customers, the wind rocking the spindly apple trees that took up most of the tiny yard behind the house. Nearby a dog barked a warning.

Sophie hummed to herself while she bathed the baby, cleaned his umbilicus, dressed and swaddled him. He was solid and hot and full of life, and he had been born to a mother who could see him only as a burden.

There were tears running down Mrs. Campbell’s face to wet the pillow when Sophie put her child back into her arms.

Women cried after giving birth for all kinds of reasons. Joy, relief, excitement, terror. Mrs. Campbell’s tears were none of those. She was exhausted and frustrated and on the edge of the dark place where new mothers sometimes went for days or weeks. Some never returned.

“I don’t like to cry,” she announced to the ceiling. “You’ll think me weak.”

“I think no such thing,” Sophie said. “I imagine you must be very worn out. Do you have no sisters or relatives to help you? Four little children and a household is more than anyone should have to manage without help.”

“Archer says his mother raised six boys and never had a girl to help. He told me so when he first came courting, back home, that was. I wish I had thought it all through right then and there. I’d still be working at the Bangor post office. In my good shirtwaist with a sprig of forsythia pinned to my collar.”

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