The Gilded Hour Page 70

Undine had not yet called, but Conrad had predicted that the day had come; he had suggested that Sophie find something else to do. Undine would not hesitate to say what she believed must be said, and she would not spare anyone’s feelings. When her fiancé fell at Spotsylvania some twenty years before, Undine Belmont had put on mourning and had yet to give it up. She held on to her memories, her pennies, and every slight, real or imagined, with grim intensity. The twins called her Aunt Costive behind her back.

As Sophie reached the front door, Undine’s carriage pulled up. So, Conrad had been right. She slipped in with a nod to Mrs. Harrison and made straight for the parlor, where Cap had settled for the afternoon.

“She’s on the doorstep,” Sophie said.

“Oh good,” said Bram. “I was afraid we were going to miss the fun.”

Cap said, “A half hour and you need never again deal with Undine Belmont.”

When Undine came into the parlor, Bram and Baltus leapt to their feet and offered their aunt every comfort with exaggerated proper manners and good cheer, which only made her shiver with annoyance. Then she turned her gaze first to Cap, and then to Sophie, who she regarded as she would a serpent curled on a silk pillow, a calculated insult, dangerous and odd at the same time. It was true that she would have objected to Sophie if her skin were white, Sophie being overeducated, overopinionated, and unworthy on general principles.

The twins finally retreated to the card table in the corner and Conrad shifted so that he was facing the sofa where his sister had taken a seat. She maintained a chilly composure in Conrad’s presence, even when he set out to provoke her. And he was so very good at it, in part, Sophie was sure, because he had been blinded in the war and did not hesitate to use that fact to his advantage. And these two had grown up together and knew each other’s secrets.

“Sophie,” Conrad said, holding out his hand until she came to sit beside him. “Cap’s aunt Undine has come to welcome you into the family.”

To Sophie it was obvious that Undine feared and resented her eldest brother, just as she disliked the twins and disapproved of Cap and was horrified by Sophie. She wondered if anyone met with the older woman’s approval, and thought not. It was sad, but it wasn’t enough to make her put down her guard.

To her brother Undine said, “Conrad. This is a serious matter.”

“It is indeed,” said Cap from across the room. His voice was reedy with effort, but he produced his grimmest smile. “We’re about to travel halfway around the world.”

“Undine has never been to Europe,” Conrad supplied smoothly, cutting his sister off before she could reply to Cap’s willful misunderstanding.

Sophie, tired of being ignored, stepped in. “Neither have I. But I’m looking forward to it.” Truly, she was mostly looking forward to the end of the turmoil that would dog them to the altar.

Undine said, “Conrad, I hold you responsible for this entire debacle.”

Surprised, Sophie raised a brow at Cap. He gave a curt shake of the head that told her it would be best to stay out of the discussion.

“If you had done your duty and married and produced a son, we would not be sitting here facing social ruin. As the head of the family you should know this without being told.”

Conrad pursed his mouth thoughtfully. “Cap is my dearest sister’s only child, the first of his generation, and as much as a son to me. In my opinion—and that is all he need take into account—he has chosen well.”

“It is not just your concern.” Her voice began to wobble with anger and her tongue darted to touch her thin upper lip. “It is family business. It is this family’s shame.”

“Undine,” Conrad said with a chilly edge that Sophie thought was more at home in a courtroom. “If you cannot be civil and ladylike, you must leave.”

“I am the only lady in this room, and I’m not finished,” she said stiffly. “I have more to say.”

“Pardon me,” Sophie said. “While I see what’s holding up our tea.”

As she closed the parlor door behind herself, Sophie heard Undine Belmont say, “What kind of lawyers are the two of you; have you never heard of miscegenation laws? I quote: ‘If any white person intermarry with a colored person he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary—’”

“Congratulations,” Cap interrupted. “You can read, but you should always start with the title. That is the law in Virginia, I believe. We find ourselves in New York State. Is your mind wandering of late, Aunt Undine?”

Sophie knew very well what was coming; Cap would twist his aunt into knots challenging her understanding of history, geography, law, ethics, and medicine until she got up and stormed out of the house. None of it was new and so she took her time visiting with Cook, went outside to talk to the gardener about the health of his rosebushes, and then went to the room that had been set aside for her use.

She washed her face and considered herself in the mirror. Her family history was there to read, in her bones and skin and hair, in the blue-green eyes that identified her as redbone in the south, a term some thought as offensive as anything Undine Belmont could come up with. But Cap didn’t care about any of that, and Cap was the only thing that mattered.

Sophie took her time, and still managed to cross paths with Undine as she came into the hall, righting the veil over her face. She stopped and turned.

“Miss Savard,” she said.

Sophie inclined her head, acknowledging both the greeting and the denial of her medical degree. “Miss Belmont.”

“Very cleverly done,” Undine said.

Sophie smiled at her, her best manners on display. “Yes,” she said solemnly. “Cap has done very well for himself.”

Then she ducked around Undine and into the parlor, where Conrad was laughing silently, his whole long thin shape contorted with pleasure. Cap’s smile was quieter, but he looked at her with all the love and affection he had to offer. And that would be more than enough to put all the Undines of the world out of her mind.

•   •   •

ANNA HAD SET out on this expedition determined to hold on to her sense of humor and patience both, and found it easier than she had imagined. It was the little girls who made the difference, in part because they were amazed by everything and in part because shopkeepers seemed to be drawn to them, and in equal part because their presence kept Margaret from starting conversations sure to cause a disagreement.

They picked out lace and bonnets and summer-weight stockings, stopped by the seamstress to have pinafores and skirts pinned up for alteration, retrieved purchases Aunt Quinlan had ordered from a jeweler. At four they had come as far as the Lilliput Children’s Emporium, where the girls were allowed to look at toys and dolls as long as they did not touch. They finished up in the shoe department, where both of them were fitted with buff-colored leather half boots suitable for both summer outings and a small wedding.

Lia was beside herself with joy; Rosa, still somber, expressed her thanks and appreciation and fell back into silence. Anna fought still with the impulse to tell her about the upcoming trip to Staten Island and the hope that they would find her little brother, wanting so much to see some hope in that small serious face. But Jack and Sophie and Aunt Quinlan were united in the belief that it would be worse to raise her hopes only to dash them yet again, and so she had to content herself with small gestures instead of fragile promises.

As a last stop they went to the confectioner’s just two doors down, a place that smelled of caramelized sugar and yeast and cinnamon, French pastries filled with cream and drizzled with chocolate, layer cakes and tortes and little petit fours crowned with fruit as bright as jewels. They were shown to a table while Lia expressed her wishes in very concrete terms, waving the menu as if it were personal standard.

“Chocolate ice cream,” she said. “With wafers and cherries and whipped cream.”

“After something more substantial,” Anna said. “Sandwiches and a pot of peppermint tea, I think.”

A hint of rebellion showed itself on Lia’s face, but her sister’s sharp look was enough to nip insurrection in the bud.

“You’ll like these sandwiches,” Margaret promised the girls.

And they did. A plate of small triangles, white and brown bread trimmed of all crust and filled with delicate slices of cucumber, potted cheese, and slivers of pink ham. The little girls hesitated at first and then ate up the whole platter under Margaret’s watchful eye and constant small corrections.

Anna was just starting to long for home when she saw Rosa’s face transform itself, her worries falling away to reveal a little girl whose fondest wish had just been granted. Even as Anna turned to follow Rosa’s gaze, she knew that Jack was coming toward them, bold and dark and strong in this pastel-colored place designed for ladies and children. She twisted around and met his gaze, and knew that she could not hide from him or anyone at all what she was feeling.

His fingers brushed her shoulder as he passed by her chair and to the other side of the table to stand behind Rosa, who was chattering at him in Italian. He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned down to talk to her, just a few words in Italian, but the tears that had been welling in her eyes subsided as she nodded and smiled and swallowed. Then Lia had hooked her hands around his forearm and demanded her share of his attention.

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