The Gilded Hour Page 58

•   •   •

THE FOUNDLING HOSPITAL run by the Sisters of Charity was well beyond the city proper, and so Jack rented a surrey. He stopped first at the hospital to pick up Sister Mary Augustin, who was coming along to provide an introduction, and then on Waverly Place for Anna, only to be told she wasn’t in. Instead, Mrs. Lee handed him a note:


Please call for me at Cap’s, the house at the northwest corner of 36th Street and Park Place. I will be ready to leave when you arrive.


He asked Mrs. Lee straight out. “Is Cap poorly?”

She frowned so completely that it seemed as though the corners of her mouth might meet on her chin. “Why would you say something like that? It’s just an engagement party for Sophie and Cap.”

Now she was craning her head around him and smiling, waving at Sister Mary Augustin, who waved back cheerfully.

She put the frown back on for him. “Go on now, she’ll be waiting for you. Young people, stumbling over their own feet.” She was laughing to herself as she closed the door.

•   •   •

CAP LIVED ON Park Place, a wide avenue divided down the middle by islands of greenery and trees. Old money, for the most part, and families far longer established than the magnates who built their mansions on upper Fifth Avenue. The house itself was very large, a formidable limestone and marble square with tall windows on all three floors. Elegant, almost regal in its lines.

As Jack brought the surrey to a stop the door opened and Anna came out, flew down the short flight of stairs, and almost leapt up without waiting for assistance, settling beside Sister Mary Augustin when the spot next to Jack was just as empty.

He was too busy threading his way back into traffic to ask her for explanations, and he was irritated, too, because she would know that and was making him wait anyway.

It took five full blocks for the traffic to thin out and the team to settle down, and then he turned to look at her. She was looking at him too and smiling. It was the kind of smile he didn’t see very often from her, wide and open and unreserved.


She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders all at once. “Cap and Sophie announced their engagement, and at least some of his family sent notes to wish them well.”

“And why wouldn’t they?” Sister Mary Augustin wanted to know.

Anna’s expression shifted into something more familiar: thoughtful concern, calculation. Jack turned his attention back to the team, but he was listening.

“It’s a complicated story,” Anna said to Mary Augustin. “And really it’s too fine a day to bother with unhappy details.”

•   •   •

IT STRUCK JACK that two women could hardly look less alike. Sister Mary Augustin in her white bonnet and habit, so pale that he could see a network of veins in her temples, and Anna dressed as she always was for work, very proper and severe.

She wore a dark skirt and jacket and under that, a white shirtwaist with a short standing collar that accentuated the line of her jaw. There was a cameo pinned at the throat, but otherwise she wore no jewelry at all. And still, if he closed his eyes he could still see Anna turning to catch a silk scarf in the light of a dozen lanterns; long-necked and bare-armed, smiling at the footman. A pearl comb in her coiled dark hair.

Until he met Anna Jack had never given much thought to fashion, beyond the awareness that it was a ruling force in the lives of many women and enslaved some of them as surely as chains. Anna cared about her appearance, but that was evident only if a man looked closely and saw the details. He only knew what to look for because of his sisters, who talked of little else—not in the way of young girls wishing for finery, but as women who had made a profession out of producing beautiful things.

Anna’s kidskin gloves were embroidered at the cuff, the buttons on her jacket were finely carved mother-of-pearl and jet, and every pleat or fold was pressed to a sharp edge. Today she had forsaken her usual bonnet for a simple felt hat with a rim that rolled up over one ear. Its only decoration was a small bunch of silk flowers—a few fat white rosebuds, a twig of deep red berries, and a spray of ivy.

Jack tried to imagine a third woman there as well, some well-bred lady in Sunday finery, blue or pink or yellow, with flounces and lace and ruffles and a bustle like a giant melon. To put a hand on that woman’s waist would be to grasp something inanimate and inflexible and cold. Nothing like Anna at all. He had given up trying to put the idea of touching Anna out of his mind—mostly, he could admit to himself, because he didn’t want to and saw no reason for it, not after their discussion the evening before. There was a hollow feeling in his gut when he thought of her, unfamiliar nerves sparking to life the closer she was.

They were traveling north on Lexington, leaving paving stones behind for a well-traveled dirt road at Fiftieth Street. A block to the west mansions were springing up along Fifth, their broad cold faces turned to the vast expanse of Central Park.

“So many different greens,” he heard Sister Mary Augustin say. “A world of greens.”

Anna said, “The park in spring always makes me think about my aunt Quinlan. She’s an artist, or she was until arthritis put an end to it. When she was still working she spent every morning in her studio; at noon she’d come downstairs and scrub her hands at the kitchen sink, and she’d talk to me about the colors she was washing away. The names for all the kinds of green and yellow made sense to me. Jade. Celadon. Verdigris, Malachite. Moss and myrtle and chartreuse, aureolin and jasmine.”

Jack glanced at her over his shoulder and she ducked her head, as if he had overheard an embarrassing revelation.

They passed an abandoned shanty, fields dotted with sheep and new lambs and dairy cows. At an intersection signs were nailed to a post: milk and eggs for sale, yearling colts, pigs, a plow. Small clusters of houses sprang up, some of them close to collapse, but others with whitewashed fences and bright clean window glass. The city was pushing north, as unstoppable as the tide.

Sister Mary Augustin was very far away in her thoughts, all her attention on the countryside. A man mending a fence, a young woman at work in a garden with a shallow basket balanced between hip and an extended arm, a grove of apple trees where children sat in the branches and pelted each other with hard green fruit no bigger than walnuts.

Anna asked Mary Augustin a question Jack would not have thought to ask of a nun. “I think you must have grown up on a farm.”

“What makes you say that?”

Anna shrugged. “Just the way you’re watching things. Do you miss it?”

“I didn’t think I would, when I first left home, but I suppose I do. The smell of newly turned earth in the spring air makes me homesick. The new lambs and foals were always my favorite thing.”

After a few moments of silence she went on. “I have six brothers. They were always falling out of trees and cutting themselves and dropping spades on their feet or beating each other bloody. I had a talent for patching them up. Mama wanted me to be a nun, and I wanted to be a nurse.”

“I’m surprised she could let you go at all with so many children to look after.”

Mary Augustin smiled. “She’s got two sisters, and neither of them ever married. The three of them keep the house while my father runs the farm with the boys.”

“And they sent you off to the convent.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a punishment. Mama said she wanted a quieter life for me. The Sisters of Charity are a nursing order, so we were both satisfied. But.” She paused and looked at Anna. “It didn’t even occur to me that they might send me into the city. I’m learning a great deal and it’s sometimes very exciting, but I thought I’d be at the Foundling out here in the countryside.”

“Maybe you can be transferred to the Foundling one day soon.”

Mary Augustin gave a brief shake of the head. “I’ve been assigned other duties. It’s unlikely now.”

“Other duties—” Anna prompted.

“Sister Perpetua is retiring, and they are training me to take her place.”

Jack heard the deep unhappiness in this simple statement. Anna seemed to hear it too because her tone changed.

She said, “I haven’t said anything to you about the work you did in my class.”

He sensed rather than saw the girl leaning forward, an eagerness there that had been missing.

“Your assignment was first-rate,” Anna said. “You are very observant, very methodological. No hasty conclusions, but thoughtful questions and suggestions. You have a natural talent.”

Jack raised one brow in a way that asked the question, What exactly are you up to? She ignored him, as he thought she would, her attention fixed on a problem that needed solving.

•   •   •

ANNA CONSIDERED MARY Augustin, who had turned away to watch the scenery or, she thought more likely, to hide her expression. A hundred questions were going through her mind but she would limit herself to one.

“Are you being punished for something? Is that why you’re not nursing anymore?”

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