The Gilded Hour Page 51

As soon as Sophie set foot on the walkway, before she could think about knocking, the front door opened and gave her the day’s first surprise. Cap’s uncle Conrad stood beaming at her, and just behind him were Bram and Baltus Decker, Cap’s cousins and best friends. The Decker twins, who had been as unruly as wild ponies as children and had not changed much with age.

“Here she is, Uncle.” Bram touched Conrad’s elbow as Sophie approached.

The older man’s mouth quirked in a familiar expression. “I’m blind, Bram,” he said with his usual great dignity. “Not deaf. I hear her.” He held out both hands, and Sophie took them.

“Sophie, my dear,” he said softly. “High time. High time indeed.”

“You look surprised to see us,” Baltus said, kissing Sophie’s cheek. “Did you imagine we’d miss the fun?”

“Cap wanted us here at seven in case you came to breakfast,” his brother added. “But you didn’t, and so we had to do right by Mrs. Mack’s pancakes without you.”

Conrad said, “You see these two are as measured and mature as ever, Sophie. You should go ahead, Cap is waiting for you.

“Give a shout when you’re ready,” Bram said. “And we’ll bring the photographer up. If he ever gets here.”

Sophie stopped short. “Photographer?”

“For the engagement announcement. Got to have a picture, says Cap. Quite insistent.”

Sophie looked from Bram and Baltus to Conrad.

“The family hasn’t been told yet,” Conrad said, as if she had put a question into words. “But that’s not something to worry you. Go on now, he’s waiting for you.”

Sophie got no farther than the first landing, where Mrs. Harrison was waiting, her eyes red-rimmed and damp. At the sight of Sophie two teardrops rolled down her cheeks. “Miss Sophie,” she said. “It’s so good to see you, so good I could just cry.”

“You are crying, Mrs. Harrison.” Sophie took her handkerchief from her cuff and blotted the old woman’s cheeks. “How is your lumbago?”

“Never mind about me,” said Mrs. Harrison, waving a hand as if to discourage a fly. She picked up a small silver tray from the table beside her and held it out to Sophie. There was a mask of fine mesh and a pair of gloves. Both smelled vaguely of carbolic acid. Sophie was not surprised that Cap would have made such arrangements, but Mrs. Harrison looked embarrassed.

“It’s perfectly all right,” Sophie said. “I don’t mind at all.”

It was a lie; she hated the fact that such things were necessary, but she would not make a fuss over something that could not be changed.

“Miss Sophie,” Mrs. Harrison’s voice trembled.

Sophie reminded herself that Mrs. Harrison had raised Cap; she had been in the household when he was born and when his parents died, and all throughout his aunt May’s tenure. When Cap left this house for Europe she would never see him again.


“He’s weak,” she said. “But he’s settled. I couldn’t say comfortable, but he’s so much more settled since—well, now that you’re here. He’s content.”

Content was a word Sophie disliked intensely. Content was constrained and devoid of hope for more or better. Content would not do for Cap. But she nodded and thanked the housekeeper for her help, and then she went up to him.

•   •   •

WITHOUT HESITATION SOPHIE opened the door, walked into Cap’s room, and then, quietly, closed the door behind herself.

It was a gesture more telling than any other, that they should close themselves off alone in a room. She took a moment to contemplate the significance of this simple thing, and then she turned to the windows.

He sat in a high-backed armchair, a folded blanket over his lap. He was smiling at her as she smiled at him behind her mask. The idea came to her just then that he would never see her face again, and that was simply unacceptable. Sophie let the mask drop to hang around her neck and walked toward him. She saw his expression shift from confusion to wariness to distress and stop just short of anger because by then she had knelt beside his chair and put her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward, and touched her cheek to his.

“Oh, no,” he said, his voice just a whisper. “No, Sophie. You shouldn’t have come if you can’t keep yourself safe from me.”

But he held on to her with all the meager strength of his arms, and Sophie was glad. She was glad to hold him like this, as little as it was.

She got up and went back to sit on the chair that had been made ready for her on the other side of the room; when she had mastered her voice she raised her face and looked at him.

“You have to promise not to do that again,” he said.

“I can’t make that promise.”

There was a small silence between them. Sophie waited, and then she said, “Did you think I would have no conditions of my own?”

He rested his cheek on the wing of the chair, his gaze unwavering. “Tell me,” he said finally. “What measures you are willing to take to protect your health.”

Sophie took a sheet of paper from her reticule and, walking across the room once again, put it on the table where he could reach it, turned, and went back to her chair.

Cap took the paper and read, his brow creased and disapproving. There was a familiar tick at the corner of his mouth; she was trying his patience, which was exactly her intention.

“I can’t agree to this first point. We cannot eat at the same table,” he said.

“We can,” Sophie corrected him. “But not from the same serving dishes or plates.”

“Then you will wear a mask or I will.”

“That will make eating quite a challenge.”

He glared at her and turned back to her list. As he read, the corner of his mouth jerked in something that went beyond irritation, all the way, Sophie was beginning to hope, to a resigned amusement.

“I will concede points one through eight,” he said. “But we cannot sleep in the same room. It’s just too dangerous.”

Sophie turned away for a moment, her eyes moving over the familiar four walls of this room he had had for all his life. Nothing changed here: books and paintings, the fossils and seashells and minerals brought back from his travels, carvings and small sculptures. She touched the chunk of raw amazonite brought back from a trip to the west, he said, because it was exactly the same blue-green color of her eyes.

She was making him wait for an answer, and found that it suited her to take her time. She stopped in front of a portrait of his mother at age nineteen, in 1854. Newly married against her father’s express wishes, already carrying Cap. In this photograph Clarinda Belmont always struck Sophie as somber or even mournful, as if she knew that the time left to her was short; she would lose her husband before their son was born, and then succumb to influenza in the first year of the war. It had occurred to Sophie that Cap was following her example in marrying against his family’s wishes. She wondered if the comparison would irritate or please him.

“I will take all precautions,” Sophie said finally, going back to her chair. “But I am talking only about sharing a room, not a bed. Think very carefully before you respond, because I am prepared, I will go away.” She folded her hands in her lap and watched him thinking.

I will go away, she repeated to herself. She couldn’t pretend to be a lawyer, but she was proud of this flexible turn of phrase.

He said, “There’s a box on the table beside you.”

“So I see.”

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

“You haven’t finished reading my list.”

There was something in the way he turned his head, something off.

“You’re taking laudanum.”

A spark of irritation moved across his face and then was banished. “I didn’t want to cough during this—interview.”

“Paregoric or tincture?”

He gave her a crooked grin. “I thought you might ask. It tastes of saffron and cloves. From Mr. Cunningham. A reputable apothecary, you told me once.”

This was the Cap she knew, good natured even when he had been found out in a scheme. He wouldn’t lie; he considered it beneath his dignity. As a boy of twelve he had once explained himself to Mrs. Lee. A good lawyer, he said, can achieve his end without resorting to a lie. Mrs. Lee had laughed, but Aunt Quinlan had frowned and later took Cap aside to discuss the ways that manipulation made a mockery of honesty.

“From now on I will oversee the compounding of whatever medication you need. Without interference. So where do we stand?”

“I will concede on the medication—”

“As if I’d allow anything else.”

He raised a brow. “And I will concede on sharing a bedroom. But the arrangement of the room and the beds is mine.”

“The rest of it?”

He glanced at her list. “I agree to the other points.”

“Without reservation?”

“Of course I have reservations,” he said. “But I am willing to compromise.”

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