The Gilded Hour Page 64

Jack wondered if there had ever been such an odd conversation between two people in this particular situation. Most men would be shocked, and many of them would run in the other direction. Anna knew that, which meant she trusted him. He lay back and put his hands behind his head, stretched out to his full length despite the undeniable proof that the conversation had only reawakened his interest.

“I’m yours to command,” he said. “Until it’s my turn.”

•   •   •

THEY WALKED BACK to Waverly Place but talked hardly at all. Anna’s thoughts were humming through her, taking her further and further away. She was feeling guilty, but if she said so to Jack he would think it was about what had happened between them, and that wasn’t the case at all.


“Oh, no, not a single regret.” She took his arm.

“But you are arguing with yourself, I can almost hear it.”

“I am, I suppose.”

“Are you going to tell me about it?”

She thought she must. It was another test, and a necessary one.

“There are some things I should know better than to joke about,” Anna told him. “I’m unsure whether to tell you why, if it might be more than you want to hear. In technical, medical terms,” she added.

“I like hearing about your surgeries, and I’ve got a strong stomach.”

“Well, then. Listen. A few months ago I had a patient, a fifteen-year-old with abdominal pain. Her mother brought her in.”

She paused, but he didn’t give the least sign of hesitation or boredom. And so she told him about Kathleen O’Brien, who had brought her fifteen-year-old daughter to Anna’s office to be examined. Mrs. O’Brien was embarrassed but determined, and after some close questioning, Anna realized what she was asking. Her daughter was very ill and needed surgery, but they didn’t have the money to go to one of the bigger hospitals. She was worried not just for her daughter’s health and well-being, but for her immortal soul. The girl had fallen into the sin of self-gratification.

She felt Jack start in surprise, and so she slowed down a little as she sought the right words to talk about a sincere, religious woman who believed that her daughter’s trouble could be cut away. You can make the trouble go away, Mrs. O’Brien had said to her. Just take it all away, and she won’t be plagued by temptation.

While Anna told him about that meeting with Mrs. O’Brien and her daughter, she watched Jack’s expression go flat and thoughtful.

“She wanted you to operate and—”

“Yes. She wanted me to operate and remove everything external that made her daughter female. Not the internal organs; she wanted her to be able to have children. But everything else genital.”

Jack looked dumbfounded. “Where would she get an idea like that, that such a thing was even possible?”

Anna was glad, even relieved, to see him struggling to grasp what she was telling him. She felt the old anger flaring up and had to force herself to provide the facts without emotion. There were physicians, she told him, who subscribed to a theory that women who are overly sexual in nature—who show interest in sex, or who turn to what they call self-gratification—are prone to develop sexual mania. “The worst part is, they convince a woman that she is at fault, that there’s something wrong about her essential self that needs to be—that must be cut away.”

Jack said, “There’s a lot of talk about masturbation ruining a boy’s health in religious circles, I’ve heard it spoken of myself. But as far as I know, nobody cuts boys to cure them of the inclination. And there are surgeons who do this to women? Reputable surgeons.”

“If you want the details I’ll give you the journals to read the articles.”

“I think I’ve heard enough of the details. But do they achieve the end they’re hoping for?”

“What do you think they hope for?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Biddable wives.”

“That’s the least of it. They want obedient, cheerful women who know their place and never ask questions and never, ever complain and above all are ladylike, which means, it seems, that they have no interest or pleasure in sex. They keep performing these surgeries, so maybe they think they are achieving something. The alternative is even worse, that they know that the operations are the equivalent of vivisection—” She stopped herself and swallowed. “—and carry on regardless. I ask myself how much these men who call themselves healers must truly dislike and even hate women.”

“Mostly I would guess that women frighten them.”

“That a mother would want such a thing for her daughter, that is what shocked me into paying more attention to the medical journals on this subject.”

“It can’t be very widespread,” Jack said.

“It’s not common,” Anna said. “But it’s done with some regularity.”

“If you can think of it dispassionately, and forget you’re dealing with human beings, it might seem reasonable. A doctor who is developing a new treatment or surgical instrument has to run tests as he fine-tunes his invention. The charity wards in big private hospitals are often where you’ll find women who are part of some experimental protocol. Once the surgeon has perfected the procedure, then he presents it to other specialists at meetings or writes it up for a journal, and he starts offering the same services to the wives of rich men, and charge the world for it.

“Sophie says it is my cynical side, but I truly believe that gynecology has become popular as a specialty because rich men have wives, and doctors have anesthesia.”

After a long moment Jack said, “Cynical or not, it makes some sense. Men of science want fine shirts custom-made from England and expensive carriages and ponies for their children. I can see how it would come about,” he said. “I wish I couldn’t.”

Anna felt some of the tension running away from her. “To be clear,” she said. “It’s only a small number of surgeons who do this kind of thing.”

“Not small enough,” Jack said. “And I do understand what you mean about not making light of the subject. But you know that you can tell me anything. I like that you like—what happens between us. I wouldn’t want it any other way. So do we understand each other?”

“Yes,” she said, able to smile now. “On that point, yes. But I still don’t understand where you came from. If there are more men like you out in the world, they are hiding themselves very well.”

“My background is unconventional,” he said. “And I haven’t even told you all of it. That’s what we have in common. It’s worth—”

“Everything,” Anna murmured.

“Yes,” he said. “Everything.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.


BY WEDNESDAY ANNA had all but convinced herself that it would be premature to make any announcements to her family. She couldn’t say the words I am going to marry Jack because she had no foundation on which to base such a claim. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember Jack actually asking her to marry him. His sisters acted as if he had, but they could have misunderstood him.

By Friday, when she still hadn’t had any word from him, she was sure that she had created the whole idea of marriage out of her imagination and nothing more. Except the sex. That she knew she hadn’t imagined. That she remembered in such detail that it was all she could do not to blush when it came to mind, something that seemed to happen a lot, despite her best intentions. The conversation that followed was almost as clear in her mind.

She hadn’t realized how much she needed to talk to a man about Mrs. O’Brien and her daughter. How desperate she had been for reassurance that there were men in the world who would object and object strongly, if they knew.

When Jack had been gone for almost a week Anna came home from the hospital to find his sisters in the parlor. Apparently they had sent a note in the morning, to which Aunt Quinlan responded with an invitation for the evening. And why, Anna wanted to know, hadn’t her aunt sent word to her at the hospital?

To this question—whispered as she kissed Aunt Quinlan hello—she got the answer she expected: “You would have found a reason to stay away.” Anna didn’t believe it was true, but it might have been even a month ago. She greeted Bambina and Celestina with hugs and kisses and apologies for her weeklong silence thinking, If Jack can disappear from the face of the earth, well, then so can I.

If only Sophie were there, she wouldn’t have been quite so nervous. But Sophie was out on a call. Anna steeled her resolve; she could do this without Sophie at her back, and if not, she had no business even thinking about marriage. And so Anna let herself be steered to a chair, accepted a cup of milky sweet tea, and listened as everyone talked at once in an attempt to relay what had been happening in her absence.

Rosa sat between Bambina and Celestina with a small tooled leather case in her lap, laid open to reveal a sewing kit complete with scissors, an ivory thimble, a paper of pins and another of needles, a measuring tape, and a whole rainbow of cotton threads and fine woolen yarns.

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