The Gilded Hour Page 60

At the opening of the door they were met with the familiar smells of carbolic acid, rubbing alcohol, vinegar, and potash soap. It made Jack wince, but to Anna it was familiar and comforting both.

The hall was wide and high-ceilinged, and the large windows were fitted with screens. All in all, a pleasant, bright, airy setting superior to most hospitals, including the New Amsterdam.

Sister Mary Augustin said, “There’s a separate department for the contagious and two small surgical suites. I need to find the charge nurse.”

Then she went off once again, and they were left waiting outside a ward. Jack turned to Anna.

“What illnesses would they treat here?”

She listed the most common for him: ear, eye, and sinus infections; birth defects from cleft palates to spina bifida; breathing difficulties; influenza and the contagious diseases from measles to typhoid that killed so many children.

He was looking through glass panes set in the double doors to a small ward where Anna counted seven cots arranged in a semicircle around a nursing station.

She said, “The standards here are very high. It’s a relief.”

“Not always the case?”

She could feel her cheek muscles give an involuntary twitch. “I’ve gotten myself into more than one difficult situation because I pointed out what should have been obvious. A Dr.—well, call him Jones at—a hospital that will remain nameless—shouted names at me when I said that his shirt cuffs would contaminate any bedside he visited.”

“He called you names?”

“He was outraged and especially inventive. He called me a trouble-monger and a devil-dealer.”

Anna wore such insults as a badge of honor. As if she were made stronger by such run-ins and must give herself credit.

“What are these children here for?” he asked her.

“They do some surgery, children born with umbilical hernias and the like. Most are here because they were born too small and frail and have breathing difficulties or seizures, heart irregularities. And infections, of course. Most of them will die of infections because they have no natural immunity.”

She said Most of them will die with perfect calm. Jack supposed that someone who worked with children like this had to build a wall in order to survive at all.

“But every once in a while,” she went on, “one of them will surprise you and fight like the devil.”

“Do you see that more often in boys or girls?”

She looked away as if she had to sort through data before she could answer. “Both, I think. All races, too. There’s no predicting where the spark will show itself. It’s what keeps me going, knowing that sometimes the least likely will pull through.”

“I wonder,” he said, feeling his way carefully, “why you chose to work with sick children when you could have been treating old ladies with gout.”

She laughed outright. “Really?” she said. “You really wonder about that? Because I thought you knew me better. I would die of boredom or frustration or both.”

He said, “I do know you that well. I just wanted to hear you put it into words.”

Sister Mary Augustin came back with a man in a surgeon’s tunic, but even without it Jack would have recognized him by his hands, which were much like Anna’s: scrubbed so often and so hard that they struck other people as overused.

Mary Augustin introduced them to Dr. Reynolds, who had just come out of an emergency surgery.

Jack supposed it was inevitable that they get into a discussion of a six-month-old infant with something called an intussusception. It had to do with the abdomen and intestines. He picked out words like ileo-ileac and tumor and linea semilunaris and then, oddly enough, telescope. Anna had forgotten all about him, but Jack understood what it was to get caught up in the details of an interesting case. More than that, he considered jealousy one of the great flaws of his countrymen. And it didn’t hurt at all that Dr. Reynolds was short and bald with a paunch like a small melon.

They were on to a discussion of another case, all three of them walking into the ward toward one of the nursing sisters who was leaning over a cot. The infant in question might be ill but it was not weak, Jack thought, given the power of its lungs.

He wandered off to explore and found a ward where a small group of children were very mobile. All of them had some kind of dressing—he saw some plaster casts and slings—but otherwise they could be his own nieces and nephews. One of the nursing sisters came to the door, asked some questions, and then invited him to come in.

“The run-arounds always like company, but be aware, they will climb you like a mountain and wiggle their way into every pocket.” Run-arounds was a good name for these small bumbling dynamos. She was right; every child in the room was headed in his direction, all of them as eager and indiscriminately affectionate as puppies.

•   •   •

SISTER IRENE WAS the kind of woman you would pass on the street and not notice at all, unless you met her gaze, which was keen and directly unsettling. Jack doubted that children ever found the courage to lie to her, not with that gaze focused on them. There was nothing cruel or insensitive in her, Jack thought, but she would not tolerate much nonsense, which was why she reminded him of his mother. And with a place like this to manage, that was understandable.

Nor was she willing to sit quietly to talk. As soon as they arrived at her office she was off again with the three of them in tow, asking and answering questions as she left the building to cut across a soggy lawn and continue on around the north side. There she stopped, where they could talk while she watched the construction workers fitting windows and laying roof tiles to what looked like a new chapel.

This time it was Sister Mary Augustin who told the story of the Russo children, so concisely that Jack suspected she had written it out beforehand and memorized it.

“You’re looking for two boys who went missing a little over a month ago, on the Hoboken ferry docks, do I have that right?” Sister Irene was looking at Anna.

“Yes,” Anna said. “I realize that the chance of finding them is slim, but I made a promise.”

“Promises made to children are rarely taken so seriously.”

“Nevertheless,” Anna said. “I will persist.”

“For how long?” asked the nun.

“Until every reasonable avenue and most less reasonable avenues are exhausted.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, without any defensive edge. Jack had the idea that she respected Sister Mary Irene and that her admiration was founded at least in part in their similarities. They recognized something in each other, much in the same way he had understood Oscar from the day they had been introduced.

“Come along, then,” she said. “And we’ll see.”

•   •   •

ANNA WAS SO accustomed to disappointment that at first she didn’t really take Sister Mary Irene’s meaning, and had to ask her to repeat herself.

“I believe the younger boy was here.” She stood over a ledger that lay open on a lectern. “He was brought in by a patrol officer on Easter Monday, no identifying papers of any kind. Abandoned, it seemed at the time. I expect somebody picked him up in the confusion on the dock.”

“Is the patrolman’s name in the record?” Jack asked.

“Officer Markham,” she told him, her gaze still running over the written page. “There’s no mention of his precinct here, and I haven’t come across his name before. But I assume you will be able to track him down.”

Sister Mary Augustin spoke up. “You say he was here?”

“Yes.” She spared a smile for the younger sister. “We had him for just two days before he was transferred to Father McKinnawae’s care. I remember the case now. A pretty child, very robust compared to the babies we see every day.”

Anna said, “Who is this Father McKinnawae?”

“His name is on the list Brother Anselm gave us,” Jack reminded her. “He built that newer home for newsboys on Lafayette, we went there in mid-April, I think.”

She did remember. The Mission of the Immaculate Virgin was a new building, larger even than the newsboys’ lodging on Duane. All ten stories were overrun with boys without families or homes. They hadn’t met Father McKinnawae but one of his assistants, who had been polite but less than welcoming. It was then that Jack had told her that they would have to postpone visiting Catholic institutions until they had credentials that would open the right doors, which it seemed they did, now. Just before he was to leave for Chicago.

“The Mission of the Immaculate Virgin,” Anna said. “Yes, they were helpful. But there was no sign or record of the Russos.”

Mary Irene said, “If Father McKinnawae took responsibility for the boy, it was because he had a family in mind to adopt. That’s something you’ll have to ask him directly. I have to warn you, though, that he’s unlikely to be helpful if that’s the case.”

“Would we find him at the mission on Lafayette today, do you think?” Anna asked.

“Unlikely,” said Sister Mary Irene. “He bought a farm on Staten Island and he’s building dormitories, getting it ready for the orphans. I suggest that you write to him first and explain your situation. Make sure he understands that the children were lost during the confusion on the ferry dock. And I have to remind you, it’s possible that this is not the boy you’re looking for. We took in fifteen abandoned infants that week alone, and we are only one institution.”

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