The Gilded Hour Page 88

“When we were little, Aunt Quinlan would take us to visit a friend who lives on Long Island, and we ran half-naked on the beaches, all day long. It was heaven.”

Jack looked over his shoulder at the family with the picnic basket. “That I would like to see.”

“Unlikely,” Anna said. “Unless you can find a beach like Robinson Crusoe’s.”

“You were happy here, as a child.”

Anna considered. “After my parents died, Aunt Quinlan dedicated herself to me—and to Sophie, when she came. She would have nothing less than our happiness.” She stopped herself. “Tell me about when you were young; did you swim?”

Greenwood, he told her, was a good place to raise children. There had been a lot of hard work in the fields and greenhouses and among the beehives, but they were free to roam when their chores were done. There was a stream overhung by trees and a small lake, and they swam in high summer at every opportunity.

While he talked they watched the small family, and in particular the antics of a little girl who capered around them. The sound of her voice came to them in snatches on the wind, high and laughing.

All at once she let out a screech of delight and hightailed it for the water, a man—her father, Anna guessed—chasing after her roaring in mock pursuit. They were both wearing bathing costumes of bright red fabric, and they stood out against the sand like candle flames. He picked the little girl up and held her over his head, straight-armed, while he stalked into the water, where he threatened and she cajoled, and then, finally, where he dropped her. Sputtering, she jumped out of the shallow water and ran for her mother and a towel.

“That’s a good lesson for a girl her age,” Anna said. “Be prepared to reap what you sow. I always detested girls who screamed no when they really meant yes.”

But Jack seemed not to hear her. He was still studying the little family, something odd in his expression.

Anna said, “What is it? Do you know them?”

“No, I don’t think so.” He stood up, retrieved his coat, and hung it over his shoulder by one crooked finger. “We should probably get back to town. The last train is at four, or we will have to find a hotel room.”

This decision had been hanging over her head for days, even weeks, and now it could be avoided no longer. She could do the simplest and most conventional thing and go back to the city to sleep in her own room. Or they could stay here, together. In a single hotel room, with no one to interrupt or distract them.

Anna believed that she was free of most of the restrictions society put on young women. Here was the real test.

“Will we register as husband and wife?”

“If we want one room, yes. They are likely to refuse us, otherwise. What part of it makes you uncomfortable?”

“I should be able to rent a hotel room without lying,” Anna said. “It’s no one’s business but my own.”

“Ah, well,” Jack said. “There the good citizens of New York disagree with you. There are all kinds of laws on the books about what goes on behind closed doors.”

“And you enforce them?”

“Not if I can help it. Not unless someone is being harmed.”

“I would like to stay here,” Anna said. “So we can present ourselves as a married couple, if we must. If you’re sure.”

That got her a half smile. “I’m more than sure.”

“Then why the serious face?”

He hesitated, then shook his head. “I had an odd idea, but I don’t want to go into it right now.”

Anna was brushing the sand from her skirts but noticed that Jack had turned his attention away again.

“Let’s go this way,” he said, and held out his hand.

•   •   •

THE FATHER AND daughter had wrapped themselves in towels and settled down with the rest of the family when Anna and Jack approached. A family like a million others, father, mother, an elderly woman who would be a grandmother, the little girl, and a babe in arms, swaddled in layers of linen and cotton, with a white lace cap on its head.

“Good afternoon!” the father called over the noise of the waves and the gulls.

Anna turned to return the greeting and stopped. The little girl was crouching in front of her mother, kissing the baby’s cheek with all the affection a very young girl could bring to the task. Anna was reminded of Lia, though this girl was blond and fair skinned.

She must have felt Anna’s gaze, because she looked up and then launched herself toward them, bouncing with every step.

“I am Theresa Ann Mullen and I have a baby brother,” she said, pronouncing each word carefully. “His name is Timothy Seamus Mullen. Do you want to see him?”

Somehow Anna knew, even before the young mother turned the baby in her arms to show him off. She knew what she would see: a child of about five months, with very dark hair that curled, and eyes the color of the cloudless sky overhead.

For a moment she could make no sound at all, and finally her voice came rough.

“Hello,” she said. “What beautiful children you have, Mrs. Mullen. Truly beautiful.”

The young woman smiled shyly and murmured her thanks.

“Will you sit and take something to drink?” her husband asked. He had a deep, almost melodious voice, as purely Irish as Anna had ever heard.

“You’re very kind to ask.” Jack took her elbow. “But we do need to get back to town.”

•   •   •

THEY WALKED IN an arc back toward Mount Loretto. As they crested the low sand dunes, a cottage came into sight. It was surrounded by trees and a pasture where cows and a few horses grazed.

“Do you think?” Anna asked. “Is this where they live?”

“Very likely,” Jack said. “They couldn’t have walked very far with everything they had with them.”

They didn’t talk again until they had gotten back to the building site, reclaimed the horse and trap, and set out for the town.

“I wasn’t sure,” Jack said. “I just caught a glimpse of his head. You think it’s him?”


She had known him almost immediately. When she first saw Vittorio in Hoboken he had been in Rosa’s arms. A strong child, who held up his head and turned toward the sound of his sister’s voice, kicked vigorously and produced a wide, toothless smile—all signs of timely development.

“Two months is an eternity in the life of an infant,” she said. “Vittorio Russo is almost twice the age he was when I examined him in Hoboken. But yes, I think it is him. The coloring is distinctive, and it’s hard to overlook the fact that this family lives so near Mount Loretto.”

“The father had blue eyes,” Jack said.

“Did he?”

“And he was fair-haired. They all were.”

“It’s unlikely that they would produce a dark-haired child, then.”

Jack said, “Is there a way to find out for sure—beyond asking Father McKinnawae?”

They were silent for a few minutes as the horse picked up its pace. Horses wanted to get home as much as people did, Mr. Lee had told her once.

“We could talk to the parents,” Anna said, finally.

“No, we can’t,” Jack said, easily.

And he was right; approaching the family was to be avoided at all costs. They would take offense or feel threatened or both, and not without cause.

Anna said, “I wonder who delivers children here. If there’s a midwife or a doctor.”

“I think Nell is probably the better prospect,” Jack said.

“Nell?” And then Anna remembered, the waitress at the café. “You’re right, I think. She spends all day watching people come and go, but the café isn’t open in the evening.”

If they stayed overnight, they could talk to Nell over breakfast. Anna found she didn’t have the courage to make such a suggestion.

•   •   •

THEY RETURNED THE horse and trap to a cheerful Mr. James Malone, who had been joined by a Michael Malone, the very image of his father and far more talkative.

While the men discussed horses and the weather—Jack was working his way around to asking about a hotel, she was sure—Anna wandered away to read notices nailed to the wall of the livery. Livestock for sale, someone hoping to buy a secondhand plow, a lost dog, a boatswain open for business, a respectable lady who did laundry at a very reasonable rate. There were notices of church services in Perth Amboy: First Presbyterian, United Methodist, St. Peter’s Episcopal, Second Baptist, and St. Mary’s Catholic. She wondered if Mount Loretto’s church would serve the community too. There seemed to be a large Irish population. On the notices she saw a scattering of German names, but many more like Ryan, McCarthy, O’Neill, Daly, Duffy, and O’Shea.

Jack came up behind her. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Tottenville was more a village than a town, but a growing one and well kept, the sidewalks swept, gutters cleaned, and display windows free of grime. They passed a dry goods store, a grocer, a barbershop, all doing a lot of business late on a Saturday afternoon.

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