The Gilded Hour Page 52

“You will concede to my decisions in medical matters.”

“Yes, I said I would.”

She allowed herself a smile. “You have the same scowl now you do when you’re losing at cards.”

Cap’s glare was both affronted and amused. He said, “Another condition occurs to me. We must see each other every day until we leave for Europe.”

It would be difficult to manage, but Sophie nodded.

“Now will you open the box?”

She knew what he was offering her. There was a portrait of his mother in the parlor in her wedding gown. She wore pearls and emeralds at her ears and around her neck, and a wedding ring that had at its center a diamond that had come down through the Belmont line. That very ring was in the small box he wanted her to open and then to put on her hand. When the photographer came to take their portrait, Cap would want it in plain sight, because the ring made all things clear in ways words could not.

Sophie said, “I am so angry at you.”

He inclined his head, but there was no confession forthcoming.

“When did you first write to Dr. Zängerle?”

He waved a hand, as if the question could be shooed away like a fly. “A year ago.”

“What a lot of time to waste when every minute is so precious.” She made her voice firm.

His gaze was sharper now. “Last year at this time would you have agreed to go to Switzerland as my wife?” And then: “You know you wouldn’t have. So will you wear the damn ring, or not?”

Sophie opened the box and looked at this ring she had never thought to wear.

“I know,” Cap said. “It’s truly hideous.”

The ring his mother and grandmother had worn had a yellow diamond as its centerpiece. The stone was set against foil on a wrought silver band, with sapphires to either side that only made the stone look more yellow.

Sophie bit her lip and then laughed out loud.

“I could have the stone reset,” he said.

“Do you think it would make a difference, really?”

He lifted a shoulder in agreement.

Any number of women would put this ring on without hesitation and declare it the prettiest thing ever made by man, but tomorrow their fathers would look up from the morning paper and say, Cap Verhoeven is going to marry that mulatto woman.

She slipped the ring onto her finger, her hands chapped and a little swollen, as they always were. Like gilding a wooden nickel, as Mrs. Lee would put it.

Cap’s ring pinched, just slightly.

•   •   •

WHEN ANNA CAME into the dining room on Saturday evening Aunt Quinlan had already taken her place at the head of the table, with Margaret and Sophie to either side. The little girls, Margaret told her in a subdued tone, had had their supper and baths, and were already settled for the night. From the looks of things, there was an argument going on.

Anna said, “You know how I dislike coming in on the middle, so start again please. At the beginning. What are we arguing about?”

“We aren’t arguing,” Aunt Quinlan said in a tone that said just the opposite.

“This isn’t about a corset for Rosa, is it?”

Somehow it was the right thing to say, because Aunt Quinlan and Sophie both gave a startled laugh. Margaret continued to frown into her soup bowl.

“No,” Sophie said. “It’s not about that at all.” She drew in a deep breath. “I saw Cap today. We’re going to Switzerland.”

Anna got up, went to Sophie, and hugged her hard enough to make her protest. She picked up her cousin’s hand and looked at the ring.

“You must really love the man if you’re willing to wear this ring. It’s awful.”

“I know,” Sophie said, grinning.

“Agreement on all points?”

“With some very small concessions, on both sides. Anna, you’ll break my ribs.”

“Does his family know?”

“The announcement will be in tomorrow’s paper, but Cap’s aunts and cousins will already have received word by messenger before that point.”

“This is no surprise to you,” Margaret said to Anna, her brow pulled down in displeasure.

“Of course not.” Anna hugged Sophie again and returned to her place, where she fell into her chair with an unladylike plop. She couldn’t stop smiling. She smiled through the kisses and hugs and tears; she smiled especially when Mr. Lee came into the dining room—something he almost never did, despite many invitations—and took Sophie’s hand between his own two hands and wished her every good thing.

“We must have wine to toast the happy couple,” said her aunt. “All of us.”

“This is hardly something to celebrate without reservation,” Margaret said irritably.

“Margaret,” Aunt Quinlan said. “Two young people who love each other are getting married. That is something to celebrate.”

Margaret waited until Mr. Lee had left the room, shifting uneasily. Anna thought of suggesting to her that her corset was too tightly cinched, a childish impulse that made her want to laugh anyway.

Before Margaret could get started with her questions, Anna asked what seemed to her the crucial question. “Margaret, why should you object?”

Aunt Quinlan answered for her stepdaughter. “Margaret is upset because Sophie is the only Catholic among us, and she thinks the Catholic Church won’t let the little girls stay if she leaves.”

“Margaret is upset,” Margaret said, “because it is unfair. We should never have allowed the girls to stay if we weren’t all prepared to stay with them. Just last week the Catholic Church took a baby away from a Protestant couple. It was in the paper, if you don’t believe me.”

“There’s more to that story,” Aunt Quinlan said. “The mother left a note with the boy asking that he be raised Catholic.”

“According to the nuns,” Margaret muttered.

“Are you suggesting that Sophie send Cap off to Switzerland alone?” Anna was careful not to inject anything dismissive in her tone, but Margaret was determined to be insulted.

“Cap is a grown man, able to fend for himself,” she said.

There was a small but fraught silence while Anna tried to reconcile what she was hearing with the Margaret she had always known. Not the most effective or consistent of mothers to her two boys but deeply devoted. Stubborn, yes. A martyr to social convention, but not willfully cruel. Anna looked closely at Aunt Quinlan’s stepdaughter and wondered if she was unwell.

“Mr. and Mrs. Lee are members of this household,” Aunt Quinlan was saying. “They are Catholic, and in case you’ve misremembered, they’ve taken the girls to church with them every Sunday.”

“Yes. And they are also—” Margaret lowered her voice and then was unable to go on.

“Colored,” Sophie finished for her.

“Well, yes,” Margaret said.

“And so am I.”

“But you’re different,” Margaret said, growing more flustered.

Aunt Quinlan closed her eyes for the span of three heartbeats. It was a rare thing to see her lose her temper, but Margaret had managed to bring her to that point.

“Margaret,” she said with misleading calm. “I believe you had a letter from your sons today.”

Margaret started. “I did. But—”

“I take it they’ve decided to stay in Europe for another year. You miss them very much, I understand. Maybe it’s time you joined them.”

The color drained from Margaret’s face. “But the girls—”

“You needn’t worry about the girls.”


“I raised five daughters,” Aunt Quinlan said, more sharply. “And a granddaughter, and two nieces. I think I can be trusted with two more.” She turned to Sophie. “Have you and Cap decided on a date?”

Hesitantly Sophie said, “Cap has legal matters to settle first. We would hope to sail at the end of May, and marry that same morning. Cap’s uncle Conrad has offered to give me away.”

Conrad Belmont approved then, which was a relief. Some part of the family would be opposed and vocal, but the support of the eldest living Belmont would go a long way.

“Just a small ceremony,” Sophie said. “For my side, just family and Mary and Abraham Jacobi. If they will come.”

“Of course they will,” Anna said. “They have always been your champions.”

“Anna. For someone so relentlessly logical and clear-thinking you can be oblivious,” Margaret said, pushing back her chair to stand up. “It doesn’t matter if every physician in the city attends or if the president himself gives Sophie away, it is still the color of her skin that will be the sticking point.”

“For whom, exactly?” Aunt Quinlan asked, her voice very low and calm. “Who exactly are you worried about? Do you think you’ll be cut in public because a niece of mine has married a Belmont?”

Margaret did an admirable job of gathering her emotions and calming her voice. She folded her napkin and stood.

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