The Gilded Hour Page 57

“My first question for you is, whether you would prefer us to find a different printer.”

He studied his hands for a moment longer. “There’s no reason you should know this, but I just recently took over the business when I moved back home from Savannah. I’m not even sure what my grandfather was printing for you.”

Sophie went to her desk, unlocked a drawer, and took out a slim stack of pamphlets. “Personal Hygiene,” “The Well-Considered Family,” “A Woman’s Health,” “The Human Reproductive Cycle.”

When he had looked over them briefly he said, “Dr. Garrison wrote these?”

“In part. A number of different physicians have had a hand in putting them together, including me. What you need to understand is that if you continue printing these pamphlets, you will place yourself in harm’s way.” She wondered if she would have to be more explicit.

He put the pamphlets on her desk. “According to the account books, Dr. Garrison is an excellent customer. My grandfather had no complaints about her or the work she brought to him. I think we can continue on in the same way. Do I have to introduce myself to her?”

“No,” Sophie said. “Given the close attention Comstock is paying to her, the committee has decided to have her step back for the present. I had planned on taking over for her, but I’ve had a change in circumstance quite suddenly and will be away for as much”—her voice roughened—“as a year.”

She could see that he was curious, but Sophie didn’t want to open the discussion of where she would be, or with whom. She took a deep breath and continued. “Early next week we’ll have decided who will take over the business end of things, and I will send you word if you decide you want to continue. But I think it’s important you understand the seriousness of the situation before you decide.”

He inclined his head in what might have been reluctant agreement.

“Comstock has made an art out of entrapment by mail,” Sophie began. “He writes a letter to a doctor and pretends to be a young woman who has gotten in trouble without the benefit of marriage, pleading for help.”

Sam Reason was frowning. “He signs someone else’s name?”

“He makes up a story about someone who doesn’t exist, and signs that person’s name.”

“Always a young woman?”

Sophie paused. “For the most part. There’s the possibility that he sometimes writes as a man needing help for his wife. He does send both men and women to try to entrap physicians in their offices. Whoever he sends always has a convincing story about a desperate need for contraceptives or abortion. We’ve been approached more than once.”


“Pardon me, I haven’t explained clearly. I live with an aunt and a cousin. My cousin Anna is also a physician. Comstock seems to be interested in both of us.”

“There are two of you?” He seemed amused by this idea. “Two black women practicing medicine in the city?”

“She is my half cousin,” Sophie explained. “And she is white. There are other women of color practicing medicine, here and elsewhere. A few of us, and more every year.”

He started to say something and then stopped to listen, though he was clearly disturbed by what she was telling him. She went on to relate a cautionary tale that happened to be true. It was Dr. Newlight’s history that kept physicians awake at night. He had received one of Comstock’s entrapment letters and responded by sending a prescription for bismuth and gentian powder, a mild treatment for digestive ailments.

“For that he was convicted under the Comstock Act. He spent almost two years in the penitentiary.”

Almost reluctantly he asked, “What this doctor sent wasn’t illegal?”

“Nothing illegal about it. But the judge ruled that by responding to the decoy letter he had committed a crime. He wouldn’t allow Dr. Newlight’s attorney to call any witnesses, he simply instructed the jury to find the doctor guilty, and that’s what they did.”

She watched him think this through. “You know,” he said, and there was a good dose of cynicism in his voice, “stories like that are not all that unusual, at least when the man standing trial is black. I assume this Dr. Newlight is a white man, and that’s why it strikes you as unjust.”

She drew up, surprised. “Are you suggesting that the jail sentence was appropriate because Dr. Newlight is white?”

“I’m just reminding you that black men are sent to jail or worse, every day, for far less reason.” He met her gaze unapologetically.

Sophie’s training had deprived her of the ability to be embarrassed, but she understood when her intelligence and morals had been insulted. She felt her temper slip out of her grasp.

“You don’t need to educate me about what it means to be black,” she told Sam Reason. “I spent my first ten years in New Orleans. As soon as I learned how to write my name I also learned that I could never sign anything without identifying myself as a free woman of color. It’s not required in New York, but I still pause sometimes and feel a moment of panic because I forgot to write FWC after my signature.

“My father and my grandmother—neither of them white—were doctors who looked after the poor. As I do. I see dozens of patients every week, and almost all of them are some shade of brown or black or yellow, and poor. So yes, I am aware. In some ways more aware than you will ever be. I doubt you have ever had to treat a woman who has had a baby beaten out of her by a drunk husband. That happens far too often, to women of every color and age.”

She saw little reaction in his expression beyond a steady and unwavering regard. He asked, “Why do you defend this Dr. Newlight?”

“I was not defending him. The story was meant to make clear to you how dangerous this business really is. What is bothering you? That I am sympathetic to a colleague who happens to be white, or that I have white relations?”

He said, “You want me to understand that this Comstock will do just about anything to send somebody to jail, and the truth don’t much matter, one way or the other, as long as he gets his few minutes of glory.”

“Yes,” Sophie said. “Exactly. He has no respect for freedom of speech or freedom of the press or even basic civil liberties.”

“And you’re thinking maybe I won’t want your business anymore because of that.”

“I wanted you to have a full understanding of the dangers before you made any kind of commitment,” she said.

“You want to absolve yourself of responsibility before the fact.”

Sophie stood suddenly, pushing her chair back so abruptly that it tipped over and fell. Sam stood too, more slowly.

“I believe you’ve answered my question,” she said, her voice shaking with anger. “I will find another printer. Thank you for your time, and please give your grandmother and family my condolences and best wishes.”

She walked to the door and opened it, standing back to let him pass. But he stayed where he was, turning his hat in his hands.

“I apologize,” he said, his accent softening and taking on more of a southern rhythm. “I was rude and unfair. Can we start again?”

Sophie closed the door and returned to the chair he had straightened for her, but she had to fold her hands together in her lap to keep them from trembling.

“I accept your apology.” Sophie forced herself to meet his gaze. “But I don’t think I can work with someone who holds me in such low regard.”

“I don’t hold you in low regard. Just the opposite.”

“Then I’m at a loss to understand your animosity. Have I offended you somehow?” And suddenly, she understood. “You saw the announcement about my engagement in the paper today.”

She saw the answer in the way his jaw tightened, very slightly. He nodded. “I did see that. Please accept my best wishes.”

Sophie couldn’t help herself; she let out a soft laugh. “Very convincing, Sam.”

He turned his head away for a moment. “To start over at the beginning, I understand the dangers and I’d like to continue the business relationship.”

Sophie studied the material of her dress, following the dark blue scrollwork pattern she had worn because she would leave here to go to a party in celebration of her engagement. She thought of the Reason family and the hour she had spent sitting with them at their table, the kindness and open affection they showed each other. Somehow she believed—she wanted to believe—that Delilah Reason and her daughters would not be so condemning as the man who sat opposite her.

She wanted to end the meeting and get away, but she reminded herself that her feelings were secondary to the business that needed to be conducted.

“If you have the time I’d like to send you back home with a new order.”

“Yes,” he said. “I have the time.”

For a half hour they talked about paper and binding and printing costs, and during that whole time Sophie had the strong impression that Sam Reason was forbidding himself to look at her, for fear that doing so would turn him to a pillar of salt.

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