The Gilded Hour Page 86

“Didn’t say that, did I. The place is overrun with monkish types, you know, brown robes and bald spots”—he took off his hat to point to his own pate, shiny with perspiration—“they give themselves, on purpose. Like a hive of worker bees,” said the conductor. “Work till they drop.”

•   •   •

WALKING TO THE inn for lunch, Anna wondered why she wasn’t more upset. All this way for no good reason. Of course they would still go to Mount Loretto and ask questions, but the chance of real progress seemed unlikely. They might just as well turn around and go back to the city, but neither of them raised the subject, and Anna was glad. The very idea made her head ache.

The restaurant was more of a café, just a few tables and a lunch counter where older men hunched over coffee cups and slabs of pie. They got the last free table, one that overlooked the ferry terminal. Through windows polished to a high shine Anna watched seagulls wheeling overhead calling to each other in voices that had always struck her as forlorn, even in such bright weather.

“We can go to Mount Loretto this afternoon,” Jack said. “And find a beach to walk on, after. Take a nap somewhere in the shade. Maybe I should write a thank-you note to McKinnawae for not being here.”

Anna thought of saying what came to mind: maybe it was time to give up. The Russo boys were gone, they could only hope to good families. But instead the waitress came, and they ordered oyster stew—the freshest on the island, they were told—thick with potatoes and carrots all jumbled together in a silky broth, served over great rounds of delicate buttery pastry.

“I can’t eat all this,” Anna said, and then proved herself wrong. She stopped just short of the last spoonful, which Jack was glad to finish off. And he was still hungry; that was obvious by the way he was sizing up the row of pies kept under glass domes. He ordered lemon meringue and offered her a taste on his fork, smooth and tart and sweet all at once.

What an oddly intimate thing, to eat from the same fork. Anna let the pie rest on her tongue, enjoying the flavors and textures, and enjoying too the way Jack’s eyes were fixed on her mouth and then her throat as she swallowed. There was no sheen of perspiration on his skin but still she thought there was a scent, maybe one that she alone could perceive. She was aware of the beat of her own pulse at her wrists and at the base of her throat and low in the very core of her being.

They were almost finished when a cranky toddler sitting with his parents at the next table let out an impatient bellow and launched himself out of his chair, so abruptly that neither mother nor father had any chance of catching him. He hit the floor chin first, and bounced to his feet like the three-year-old rubber ball he was.

For one second there was silence all around and then he realized that a sheet of blood was pouring off his chin. To Anna’s ear it was clear that he wasn’t howling in pain, but outrage, to have been so thwarted. His parents, on the other hand, looked as though they might swoon.

Anna got up.

“May I have a look? I’m a doctor.” And at their confused expressions: “A physician.”

At first she thought they would send her away, outraged at such an obvious lie. Then common sense won out, and the young man with a face almost as smooth as his son’s picked the boy up and thrust him into her arms. Anna sat down with the boy on her lap, angled so that he would bleed on his already ruined clothes rather than her own.

“His name is Ernst,” the mother offered, her hands fisted together as if she had to fight the urge to snatch him up and away.

Jack had already brought her bag over and opened it for her, crouching beside it and waiting to hear what she might need.

“My goodness,” she said to the little boy called Ernst, and pointed to an invisible spot on the floorboards. “Look at the hole you made in the floor. You must have a very hard head.”

Startled, he stopped his wailing and considered the floor. While Anna blotted away the blood with a square of gauze, she talked to him in a calm voice, offering observations that made him forget how insulted he was supposed to be.

“There,” she said, gesturing to his parents to come closer. “He’s sprung a leak, but just a small one. No need for stitches. It just needs disinfecting and a plaster to keep it clean.”

Anna looked up and caught sight of Jack watching her, his expression open and frank and unmistakable: he really did love her. She had wanted to believe it, she had set herself the task of believing it, but now she saw it as clearly as she saw the face of the little boy in her arms, round cheeks and sea-green eyes still full of tears.

Ernst looked at her solemnly and said, “I made a hole in the floor?”

•   •   •

IT WAS THE waitress who warned them about Mr. Malone at the livery: he liked a nap in the early afternoon, and never in the same place.

“Calling his name will do you no good,” she said. “On a good day he’s mostly deaf, and he hasn’t had a good day in a year or more.”

“Now, Nell,” called someone from the other side of the room. “Don’t be telling tales. Your old dad always shows up by two bells.”

She laughed. “Me dad can’t hear the bells. But,” she admitted, Jack thought with some affection, “he shouldn’t be too long now.”

•   •   •

MR. MALONE DID appear in fairly short order, with wisps of hay in his sparse gray hair. Shouting, they managed well enough to rent a horse and trap, but by that time it was already half past two, and they still didn’t know exactly where they were going.

“We’ll have to go someplace else to ask directions,” Jack said.

But Anna had other ideas. She produced a pencil and a piece of paper and put them on the counter in front of the old man. On it she printed in clear letters: Please draw a map to Mount Loretto.

You would have thought she had handed him a hundred-dollar bill, he was so pleased to be able to help. In five minutes they had a decent map, with roads marked. Anna gave the man a fifty-cent piece, and he winked at her.

“I was starting to think this whole undertaking was doomed,” Anna said, once they set off.

Jack bumped her with his shoulder. “Got to have more faith than that, Savard.”

For a few minutes the chestnut—young and up to tricks in the fine weather—demanded his full attention, and by the time he could look at Anna, she was focused on the view. He wondered what he had missed, because it seemed, just then, that she was holding back something she could not quite bring herself to say. But he wouldn’t press, not on such a fine afternoon. They passed a small farmstead surrounded by dogwood and mountain laurel in trembling first blossom. Geese were busy looking for worms and slugs in a newly turned garden plot, stark white against the dark soil.

Jack pointed out a stand of shrubby persimmon trees covered in waxy white blossoms, Pinxterbloom azaleas, violas and violets.

“I couldn’t name more than three of the hundreds of plants I’m seeing,” Anna said. “But to you they all have personalities.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Jack said. “My mother talks about plants that way, as if they had minds of their own.”

“Do you think she’ll approve of me?” She asked the question lightly, but she was anxious. As Jack knew he would be anxious if her father were alive and unknown to him.

“Yes,” he said. “I really think she will.”

“Even if I’m the cause of your sisters going home?”

“She’ll love you all the more for that,” Jack said. “She’d like to have them home.”

Anna hummed. He looked at her and saw an expression that was doubtful and suspicious both.

“What if your sisters don’t want to go back to Greenwood?”

He said, “Unmarried young women do not live alone. It’s an unwritten but sacrosanct law in Italian families. If something should happen to one of them, it’s the men in the family who are seen as having failed.”

After a long and almost tense pause she said, “We would have room for them in the new house.”

He heard himself draw in a sharp breath. “You’re not serious.”

“No,” Anna admitted. “But the possibility should be discussed, at least.”

“They will make you crazy.”

“Maybe,” Anna conceded. “But I am at work all day, and I don’t have time to cook and clean. If they are willing to keep the house—”

“I don’t want to share you with my sisters,” Jack said. “And we can afford a housekeeper.”

They had had a frank discussion about money: earnings and savings and property. In return for surrendering his interest in the family farm Jack had a share in the commercial end of the business in the city, which bolstered the modest salary he drew as a detective sergeant. Anna’s father had liquidated his property in New Orleans long before the war; the estate had gone to her brother, and then it had come to her. If not for the 1873 panic and the depression that followed they would be moderately wealthy; as it was, they were far better off than most of their generation. They wouldn’t be building mansions on Fifth Avenue, but that would be true if they had as much money as the Astor and Vanderbilt families combined. They could afford a housekeeper, and they would need one, of that there was no question.

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