The Gilded Hour Page 9

The garden might have lost its magic for her then, but for Cap. He wouldn’t allow her to withdraw. Her friend, her schoolmate, another war orphan living with an aunt. Together they spent every minute in the garden planning adventures and launching schemes, reading stories out loud, playing croquet and checkers and Old Maid and eating, always eating whatever the garden had to offer: strawberries, persimmons, quince, apricots the color of the setting sun, blackberries that cascaded over the fence in late summer heat and stained fingers and lips and pinafores. When it rained they were in the pergola, which was outside and inside at the same time, a shadowy bower that smelled of lilac or heliotrope or roses, according to the season.

And then Sophie had come from New Orleans, and together the three of them had made an island where Isaac held no sway. And so it had been long after they left childhood behind, until just two years ago.

Mr. Lee broke into her daydreams by clearing his throat.

“Do you mark me, Miss Anna?” He smiled at her, a lopsided curl to his mouth. “Don’t put away your winter things yet,” he said. “Spring’s in no rush this year, and neither should you be.”

And now she had to go into the house and have tea and then dinner, and instead of going to bed she would have to dress in the costume Aunt Quinlan had arranged for her, and go out into the night with Cap, to the Vanderbilts’ fancy dress ball. Because Cap was her friend, and he needed her.


AUNT QUINLAN’S PARLOR was comfortable and completely out of fashion; no slick horsehair sofas or rock-hard bolsters encrusted with beadwork, no bulky, heavily carved furniture to collect dust and crowd them all together. Instead the walls were crowded with paintings and drawings and the chairs and sofas were agreeably deep and soft, covered in velvet the dusky blue of delphinium in July.

Sitting together with her aunt and Sophie and her cousin Margaret, Anna was glad of the respite. For a few minutes there was no talk beyond the passing around of seedcake and scones, teacups and milk jugs.

Her stomach growled loudly enough to be heard even by Margaret, who was bound by convention and simply refused to hear such things.

She said, “You haven’t eaten at all today, have you.” Margaret was, strictly regarded, not a cousin at all. She was Aunt Quinlan’s stepdaughter, raised in this very house by Uncle Quinlan and her mother, his first wife. Two years ago her sons had come into the money left by their father, and set off for Europe almost immediately. Because Margaret missed them so, Anna and Sophie must bear the brunt of her frustrated maternal instincts.

“She’ll eat now,” Aunt Quinlan said. “Mrs. Lee, could you please bring Anna a plate of something filling?” Then she held out an arm to gesture Anna closer.

At eighty-nine the symmetry of Aunt Quinlan’s bone structure was more pronounced than ever. It didn’t matter that the skin over those perfect cheekbones worked like the finest silk gauze, carefully folded into tiny pleats and left to dry that way; she was beautiful, and could be nothing less. Her hair was a deep and burnished silver, a color that set off the bright blue of her eyes. Her very observant eyes. Right now they were full of simple pleasure to have both Anna and Sophie home for tea at once.

When Anna leaned over to kiss her cheek, Aunt Quinlan patted her gingerly. Her arthritis was very bad today; Anna knew that without asking because Auntie’s teacup sat untouched on the low table before her.

To Sophie Anna said, “Difficult delivery last night?”

“Just drawn out.” Her tone said it was a topic that should wait until they were alone. If Margaret were not here they could talk about things medical, because Aunt Quinlan was always interested and nothing surprised her. But Margaret was alarmingly weak of stomach and squeamish, as if she had never borne children herself.

“What about you?” Sophie asked. “Any interesting surgeries?”

“None at all,” Anna said. “I spent most of the day with the sisters from St. Patrick’s picking up orphans in Hoboken.”

Sophie’s mouth fell open only to shut again with an audible snap. “Sister Ignatia? Why on earth—”

“Because I promised you that if one of the sisters came to call I would go attend.”

“Oh, no.” Sophie was trying not to smile, and failing. “I was expecting Sister Thomasina from St. Vincent de Paul.” She pressed her lips hard together but a laugh still escaped her with a puff of air.

“What an interesting turn of events,” Aunt Quinlan said. She looked more closely at Anna. “You and the infamous Sister Ignatia together all day long, I wonder that you’re still standing.”

“Maybe Sister Ignatia isn’t,” Margaret suggested. “Anna might have been the end of her.” Margaret’s tone was a little sharp, as it always was when the subject of the Roman Catholic Church was raised. She folded her hands at her waist—corseted down to a waspish twenty inches though Margaret was more than forty—and waited. She was looking for an argument. Anna sometimes enjoyed arguing with her aunt’s stepdaughter, but she had things to do.

“I suppose it is funny,” she said. “We certainly . . . clashed. Now should I worry about Sister Thomasina? Did she come to call this morning?”

“No,” said Aunt Quinlan. “Apparently our daily allotment of nuns was met with the Sisters of Charity.”

Margaret cleared her throat. She said, “I had a letter from Isaac and Levi today. Would you like to hear it?”

It wasn’t like Margaret to give up an argument so easily, and now Anna understood why. She loved nothing more than letters from her two sons. They all enjoyed the letters, which were long and entertaining. This time Levi had done the writing, and they heard about climbing in the Dolomites, a difficult journey to Innsbruck, a long essay about laundry, and how each nation distinguished itself on the way underclothes were folded and how the bedding smelled.

It was good to see Margaret so pleased about her letter. And maybe, Anna reasoned to herself, maybe while she was distracted it would be possible to slip away before she remembered the ball and more to the point, the costume Anna was going to wear to the ball.

She was almost out the door when Margaret called after her. “When is Cap coming to fetch you, Anna?”

“I’m going to stop for him, as he’s on the way,” Anna said, inching away. “At half past ten. Things don’t get started until eleven.”

•   •   •

ONCE UPSTAIRS SOPHIE said, “The longer you make Margaret wait and wonder about your costume, the more outraged she’s going to be.”

“But she does so enjoy ruffling her feathers,” Anna said. “Who am I to disappoint her?”

She followed Sophie into her room and stretched out on the bed with its simple coverlet of pale yellow embroidered with ivy in soft gray-greens. When they were schoolgirls they did this every afternoon, meeting in one bedroom or the other to talk before they launched themselves into chores and homework and play.

Sophie took off her shoes with an uncharacteristic impatience and fell onto the bed, facedown.

Her voice came muffled. “How bad was Sister Ignatia really?”

Anna crossed her arms over her waist and considered her answer. “It’s a sorry business, what goes on with orphans. It reminds me how fortunate I was. We both were.”

“We were,” Sophie agreed. “We are.”

“I knew in the abstract, of course. But those children were terrified. And Sister Ignatia—” She sat up suddenly. “I’m going to vaccinate children tomorrow, at the orphanage. I have no idea how many.” When she had told Sophie about her confrontation with the nun, there was a small silence.

“Anna,” Sophie said. “You know there are at least ten Roman Catholic orphanages in the city, small and large. St. Patrick’s is the biggest, and it has beds for two thousand children or more.”

That brought Anna up short.

“I’ll have to come with you,” Sophie said finally. “If there are less than a hundred, we can manage.”

“And if there are more,” Anna said, “I will pay a call to the Board of Health.”

Sophie gave a soft laugh. “Sister Ignatia will regret underestimating you.”

“I doubt Sister Ignatia has many regrets.”

There was a long silence and then Sophie said, “Have you ever seen your face when you’re angry at the way a patient has been treated?”

Anna collapsed back against the pillows, and a low laugh escaped her.

“You are not saying that I frighten Sister Ignatia, of all people.”

“Of course you do.” Sophie yawned. “It’s why you’re so effective.”

“So then we’ll go tomorrow afternoon,” Anna said. “I need to be in surgery in the morning.”

“Clara’s hearing is tomorrow afternoon at the Tombs. Did you forget?”

For a long moment Anna was quiet, trying to think of a way to do two things at once in different parts of the city. She had to be at Dr. Garrison’s hearing, to show her support and respect for a colleague and former professor. There was no help for it.

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