The Gilded Hour: An Excerpt

Alva appears at the ball as electricity
Alva appears at the ball as electricity

Excerpt (draft) from The Gilded Hour.
Sara Donati

All Rights Reserved.
Do not reproduce in any way without written consent of the author.

The setting is Manhattan on Monday evening, March 26, 1883 as guests arrive at the new home of Alva and William Vanderbilt, a mansion called the Peitit Chateau on Fifth Avenue just kitty corner from St. Patrick’s cathedral. The Vanderbilts are giving a  costume ball  as a house-warming, so elaborate that the city’s richest citizens had to jockey for invitations.  A crowd of people of all classes and backgrounds have turned out to watch guests arrive. A large police force, uniformed and plain plain-clothed, is on hand for crowd control and to keep an eye on thieves and troublemakers.  Jack Mezzanotte and Oscar Maroney are  detective sergeants on duty.  Jack is single, the son of Italian immigrants. He lives with two unmarried sisters.  Earlier on the same day he met Anna Savard, a physician, in a very different setting.  



March 26, 1883
Manhattan

On any other March night at eleven o’clock the north end of Fifth Avenue might be mistaken for a row of mausoleums scaled for giants. The great bulk of the new cathedral on one side of the street with schools and rectories and orphan asylums gathered around it, like chicks to a sleeping hen. On the other side, one mansion after the other, ornate, looming, as sterile as they were imposing. A wide street without a single tree or even the suggestion of a garden, just high walls and hundreds and hundreds of windows sealed shut, the eyes of the dead.

But tonight the newest mansion—maybe the fourth or fifth the Vanderbilts had put up over the last ten years, Jack couldn’t remember exactly—was awake. It seemed to glow, marble and granite reflecting the light that poured from every window. The first personal residence completely lit with electricity, at a cost that beggared the imagination. With its turrets and balconies and galleries it shone like an unwieldy and ill-begotten star set down among its dull red- and brown-brick neighbors.

A double canopy had been constructed over the Fifth Avenue entrance to protect the partygoers from both weather and the crowd of curious passersby. Footmen in pale blue livery and powdered wigs stood ready to help the guests from their carriages onto the deep red rug that ran from the huge double doors down the steps and all the way to the curb.

Tomorrow the personality of the house would retreat like a turtle into its shell; the stained glass would go dark, blinds and draperies closing off all light and fresh air.

His sisters sometimes tried to calculate how many thousands of yards of velvet and brocade and satin had gone into the draperies of even one of the Vanderbilt mansions, but the numbers quickly grew so large and absurd that they simply gave up and turned back to their own needlework. Their endless, precious, beautiful needlework.

Every evening they waited for him, sitting knee to knee facing each other over an embroidery frame. They would jump up to take his coat and offer him food and more food and again food until he accepted the plate they had ready for him. They wanted him to have the best chair by the fire, the day’s newspapers, to hear their family gossip, worries about the weather, observations on the comings and goings of the neighbors, dire predictions about the prospects of the butcher’s new clerk, admonitions about the dampness of his coat or shoes. His sisters ran his household and aspired to run him with the same painstaking and exhausting perfectionism.

From the corner of his eye Jack saw a familiar figure, a woman of at least sixty, carefully groomed and dressed to convey nothing more threatening than genteel poverty. Few would guess that a multitude of hidden pockets had been sewn into her wide skirts, ready to be filled with the fruits of the night’s labor. Jack had arrested her three or four times at least over the last year. Meggie, she called herself, but her true name was unknown, maybe even to her. He was about to step off the curbside to intercept her when a hand landed heavily on the woman’s artfully slumped shoulder. Michael Hone out of the twenty-third precinct, just two years on the force but he had the eye. She gave a heavy sigh and let herself be marched off.

“Meggie must be feeling her age,” Oscar said, coming up beside Jack. “Twenty years ago she was slippery as waterweed. She’d be halfway to Brooklyn before you realized she was gone. O-ho, look now. Tell me, would that particular fat-assed Roman emperor there be an elected official who shall remain shameless?”

For a time they amused each other trying to put names to costumes: Cardinal Richelieu and the Count of Monte Cristo, a Capuchin friar, Chinese merchants with eyes outlined in kohl, wizards, cowboys, Queen Elizabeth, the goddess Diana with bow and arrow, a trio of young women with staffs and lifelike lambs fixed somehow to their wide skirts.

“Money is wasted on some people,” sniffed a young woman whose clothes were threadbare but carefully mended. “I’d come up with a better costume than Bo Peep, you can be sure of that.”

A young man dressed as a knight of Malta followed the trio out of the carriage. Covered head to foot in hauberk and chain mail and armor, he clanked his way up the walk, listing to one side and then the other like a ship in a storm.

“Look now,” a man’s voice called out loud enough to carry over the noise. “Won’t somebody get that poor mope an anchor?”

The appreciative roar of the crowd did not slow the crusader in pursuit of his Bo Peeps, but every policeman within earshot tensed. The draft riots were twenty years ago, but it would be another twenty before they rested easy in the presence of any crowd; moods could shift from high spirits to violence without warning. Now shopkeepers and factory workers, clerks and charwomen, men with tool belts and lunch buckets, they all cooed at the sight of a cape embroidered with pearls and rubies, but people just like this had burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum and hung innocent men from light posts to vent their rage.

There was only one reliable barometer of a group ready to go sour. Jack turned his attention to a half-dozen children slinking through the crowd as easily and unobserved as cats. Six in this group, the youngest maybe seven, and if he had to guess he would identify them as part of the pack that slept in an alley alongside a German baker’s place of business on Franklin Street. The brick wall there was warmed by the ovens, which made the alley a coveted spot in the winter. It was one they had to fight to keep and could lose at any time. If there was real trouble in the air, the street urchins would disappear so quickly that they might have been an illusion.

“They’re settling down,” Maroney said. The crowd’s attention had turned to a modern-day Shakespeare whose hat kept sliding down over his eyes, so that he tripped repeatedly over his shoes. The urchins laughed, widemouthed, gap-toothed, children still and in want of amusement.

Earlier today Jack had watched more fortunate orphans being taken into the austere custody of Sister Ignatia. In shock, overwhelmed, many of them had hung back, torn between the promise of food and the numbing familiarity of the filthy tenements where their parents had died. The doctor had done a lot to calm them, her manner so matter-of-fact, without any trace of condescension or pity. Chances were a few of them would still try to slip away from the orphanage, but none of the children he had seen today would survive long on the city streets.

The Children’s Aid Society estimated that there were as many as thirty thousand orphaned or abandoned children in Manhattan, while the orphan asylums could take no more than twelve thousand at a time. The rest lived on the streets underdressed, mostly shoeless, infection- and lice- and worm-ridden. They ate only what they could steal or scrounge or beg and had nothing so grand as a tenement to call home. Most of them refused to ask for shelter at any of the charities that were there to put them up, for the simple fear they would never be allowed to leave again, or would find themselves on a train headed west and a future even more uncertain than the bleak one before them. And so they slept huddled together in doorways or perched on fire escapes, and many of them died over the long winter, defeated by hunger and loneliness and the weather.

One by one the carriages pulled up and came to a stop, and footmen and coachmen lined up to open doors and assist ladies who could not see their feet over skirts and petticoats. Then they followed the walkway lined with potted trees and statues through the marquee and into the house, where they would eat too much and drink even more.

The early high spirits had cooled a little. The crowd began to mill around, bored and eager for distraction.

Farther down the block the doors of a carriage opened suddenly. Two young men jumped down and then turned to help the ladies, all of them too eager to wait in a stuffy carriage. In response other carriage doors began to open, at first only one or two and then in a rush. Ladies in silver and buttercup yellow and blazing reds and deep purples let themselves be directed by their husbands and fathers and brothers, lifting skirts high to avoid puddles and manure and trash, giggling nervously and turning their faces away from the crowd, as if that would be enough to spare them the very attention elaborate costumes were designed to engage.

As soon as the last party guests had disappeared into the house, the detectives could be away home. The uniforms and roundsmen would be here the rest of the night. As if he had heard Jack’s thought, the captain came around the corner and pointed at them.

“I need youse inside.” Baker jerked his thumb over his shoulder as if there might be doubt about where. “Beaney’s in the courtyard off the kitchen, he’ll point you in the right direction. There’s a rumor going around that some of Greenway’s boys have snuck in.”

“Dressed as priests, no doubt,” Oscar muttered. “Pranksters that they are.”

Baker gave a surprised and reluctant bark of laughter and then intensified his scowl to offset that small lapse.

“You’ll stay at your posts,” he said, “until I send word.” And he stomped off, cursing under his breath.

They crossed the street, passing a carriage that had seen better days. Inside two very old ladies in powdered wigs sat waiting, their painted faces so somber that they might have been on their way to a funeral.

A couple had just stepped out of a far more elegant and fashionable carriage. The gentleman was older, his form narrow and posture brittle, and he leaned on a cane. His costume was simplicity itself: over one shoulder he had tossed a black cape with red silk lining. The red set off the tight black breeches and short jacket over a white shirt, the height of simplicity.

“I think he’s supposed to be one of those Spanish grandees,” Oscar said. And as the man turned his face to the light he let out a soft grunt. “That’s Cap Verhoeven,” he said. “Poor sod.”

Verhoeven’s eyes were a vivid bright blue, his complexion flushed. People sometimes called such extreme high color the red flag of the white death. Consumption was said to be gentle, even a romantic death, but Jack could see nothing benign in the way it dragged the strongest and most promising out of the world.

“A damn good lawyer, and strange enough for one of his ilk, fair-minded. His mother was a Belmont.”

Oscar had an encyclopedic knowledge of the old Knickerbocker families his mother had worked for all of her life.

Verhoeven had stepped back to reveal the lady beside him, one hand on his raised arm while with the other she tried to keep a shawl in place. She let out a little cry of surprise and irritation as it slipped out of her grasp and fluttered away.

Above layers of silk gauze that moved with the breeze, her shoulders and long neck were now bared to the night air. In the light of the carriage lanterns her complexion took on the shifting iridescence of abalone: golds and pinks, ivories and smoky blues. The heavy dark hair twisted into a coronet and wrapped around her head set off the curve of her cheek.

All of these thoughts went through Jack’s head in the few seconds it took the footman to catch up her shawl and drop it over her shoulders. As she half turned toward the footman to smile her thanks, he saw her face for the first time.

Oscar caught his jolt of surprise. “What? You know him?”

“No,” Jack said. “Don’t know Verhoeven. It’s the woman I recognize.”

“Huh.” Oscar could fit more doubt into a single syllable than any man alive. “Where did you make the acquaintance of somebody like that?”

“On the Hoboken ferry,” Jack said. “Surrounded by nuns and orphans.”

Oscar’s brow shot up high. “The lady doctor you told me about? What was her name—”

“Savard. Dr. Savard.”

There was a small silence between them.

Maroney said, “Let’s go see what the kitchen maids can spare us in the way of fancy food.”

But he had something else on his mind, Jack could see it. A lady doctor dressed in silks was an oddity, and Oscar Maroney’s curiosity, once engaged, had to be satisfied. For once Jack was feeling just as curious as his partner.

###

Anna entered Alva Vanderbilt’s white marble reception hall at 660 Fifth Avenue on Cap’s arm, arriving late, as planned. They had missed the promenade through the house, the receiving line for which hundreds of people had to be announced, and to Anna’s quiet disappointment, the dancing of the six formal quadrilles.

Mrs. Lee had been reading about the dancing in the newspapers and was especially excited about the Hobby Horse Quadrille. She told Anna exactly what to look for: a two-part pony costume of papier-mâché and velvet that fit around the middle of the dancer. Anna could admit to herself that her own curiosity had been aroused. Now she was as disappointed as Mrs. Lee was going to be.

Coming out of the cool night into the great hall they were enveloped by overheated air thick with the scent of roses and freesia and aged oak from a fireplace large enough, it seemed to Anna, to consume a small cottage. Overhead crystal chandeliers hung from the carved arches supporting the vaulted ceiling, supplemented by dozens of electric light sconces. Indoor electric lighting was an innovation, another example of the Vanderbilts’ need to be first in everything. Light reflected off the polished marble floor and the multitude of jewels this class of people wore like war medals, embedded in buttons and hair combs, sewn onto skirts and bodices and capes, displayed on throats and wrists, fingers and ears.

So much light and warmth and noise, but marble floors and walls paneled with ornately carved stone robbed the room of any hint of welcome or comfort. At the top of a staircase wide enough for ten men to stand shoulder to shoulder there would be a gallery full of treasures gathered from all over the world: paintings by the masters, sculptures and tapestries from China and Egypt and Greece, jewels and inlaid cabinets and musical instruments. Later, if Cap felt strong enough, they could make their way up the long sweeping staircase slowly, at a suitable pace.

They followed a footman who took them on a winding route through the great hall, across salons and a gold and white music room. Every object was made of the rarest woods or finest stone or marble, gilded, carved, inset with ivory or pearl or the wings of butterflies, draped in velvet, damask, embroidered silk. It was meant to be overwhelming, and it was.

With the footman’s assistance they found the comfortable corner one of Cap’s Belmont cousins had arranged for them. Tall vases overflowing with full-blown deep red roses and honeysuckle bracketed silk upholstered chairs, a settee with a wealth of beaded and embroidered pillows, and a low table that was crowded with fine crystal wineglasses and goblets, gold-rimmed platters of crudités and canapés and caviar en croute. On a side table were more platters heaped with petit fours and tartlets topped with strawberries, far ahead of season, sugared plums and nuts, and punitions, each adorned with a V made out of gold tissue, in case the guest forgot that this was the home of a Vanderbilt.

Flowers tumbled over each other in every corner: roses, tulips, lily of the valley, freesia, whole branches of dogwood and magnolia forced into early bloom. Every greenhouse and hothouse in a hundred miles had to have been stripped bare.

In their little alcove Anna and Cap were close enough to the dancing to watch without being overrun, and Anna found herself laughing out loud at the sight. Robin Hood waltzed with a bumblebee, wings fluttering with every sweep; a Roman emperor had as partner a dairy maid; Frederick the Great danced with a phoenix, and a Russian peasant with Marie Antoinette, who, Anna noted with some satisfaction, wore a gown even more revealing than her own.

They sat watching, Anna with a flute of champagne in her hand and Cap without. He wouldn’t eat or drink and he never took off his gloves outside his own home. Now he touched his handkerchief to his damp face and throat.

“It is far too warm with the electric lights and so many people. You must drink something.”

“Only if you’ll let me drop the glass once I’m done,” Cap said, one brow raised in challenge.

“I doubt she’d miss one glass,” Anna muttered. “No matter what kind of crystal it is.”

“But an under maid may take the blame,” Cap said. “You wouldn’t like that.”

There was no evidence that the tuberculosis bacillus could be passed by touching inanimate objects, but Cap had rules for himself that were inviolate. And in truth, Anna could not fault him for his concern.

She was pulled from her thoughts by two pirates who flung themselves onto the settee in mock exhaustion. Bram and Baltus Decker were Cap’s cousins; they had read law with him at Yale and remained stubbornly devoted to him despite his insistence on physical distance. Now they fell over the food and drink with enthusiasm, interrupting themselves to comment on the champagne, the caviar, the pâté de foie gras and smoked trout mounded on toast points, on the orchestra, the quadrilles, and to relate everything they had seen and heard and thought since they had last seen Cap.

Bram flipped up his pirate’s patch and blinked owlishly. “Where is Belmont? Never mind, silly question. He’ll be here somewhere, chasing a skirt around the dance floor. Look there at that costume, who is she supposed to be? Curled-up toes, must be something oriental.”

“Reasonable guess, given the fez and the golden veil,” said his brother. Then they both turned to Cap, waiting to be told. Because Cap had a prodigious memory, and would share what he knew if prompted.

“I believe that is supposed to be Lalla Rookh of Persia,” he said.

“Damn funny rooks they’ve got in Persia,” said Baltus. “Ours are plain black.”

“Not the bird. Rook is a title.”

“Book or play?”

“Neither. Poem and then opera.”

“Damn me,” said Baltus. “Who has the brains to write poems with one hand and opera with the other?”

“Nobody,” said Anna, who couldn’t resist the silly back and forth. “First it was a poem by Thomas Moore.”

“Damn Irishmen.” Baltus tipped up his champagne flute to empty it. “Bram, have we seen an opera about a girl named Rook in Persia?”

“As a matter of fact,” said his brother without opening his eyes, “We did. The Veiled Prophet.”

Baltus looked up at the ceiling, as if something there might jog his memory.

“Poisoning and a stabbing both,” added Cap, and Baltus’s face broke into a smile.

“Oh, yes. I remember.” Then he looked out over the dancers and his smile disappeared. “Just when I had a way to start a conversation,” he said sadly. “The rook has waltzed off with the pope of Avignon.”

He fell back against the cushions and snagged another glass of champagne from a waiter who stopped to offer his tray.

“Cap, I swear you’re looking very fit tonight.”

“Liar,” Cap said with an easy smile.

“I would call you more of a blind oaf,” Bram said to his brother. “It’s Anna who is looking spectacular.”

On that they agreed, toasted each other and her, and took great pains not to stare at her breasts.

“And where is the other Dr. Savard this evening?” Bram asked.

He was looking at Cap, but Anna said, “Sophie is working.” And just that simply, she was tired of half truths. “Sophie is working,” she repeated, “and she is uncomfortable in this company.”

“Uncomfortable?” Bram rumbled. “With us? Not with us.”

Anna sent a pointed look at two men who were walking by. One wore what she supposed cardinals wore, while the other was dressed as an ancient Greek.

“Old Twomey?” Bram leaned forward to whisper. “What does Sophie have to fear from that pile of rags? Who is he supposed to be, anyway? Aristotle?”

“Plato,” Anna said.

“Really? How can you tell?”

“Because Professor Twomey reveres Plato,” Anna said.

Cap caught her eye and shook his head. If the Decker twins were sober, she might undertake explaining the retired professor’s public lectures on Plato, Francis Gaulton, and the theory of hereditary genius. As it was, Cap took over.

“Bram,” he said. “Wake up. Do you see anybody here who isn’t lily white?”

Anna looked at the dancers and tried to imagine Sophie in this company. She was elegant and beautiful and exotic, as graceful in the way she spoke as she was walking across a room. Had she come with Cap tonight, no one would have cut her openly—at least not with Cap nearby—but she would have been treated with an aloof condescension, if not disdain. Anna would wager the entire contents of her bank account that Sophie could outreason and outargue anyone here—not excluding a hard-drinking former president, senators, princes and dukes, Supreme Court justices, industry giants, and a half dozen of the wealthiest men in the western world, not to mention bigoted professors of philosophy.

And if they had been willing to overlook her ancestry, they could not or would not pretend to ignore her unapologetic self-sufficiency, her unwillingness to be impressed by their self-importance. To be accepted in this company Sophie must first admit that she was not worthy of it. If she had been capable of such a thing, Cap would not have allowed it. Nor would Anna.

“Goddamn Philius Twomey to hell,” Baltus muttered. Then without explanation he sprang up and dashed out into the dance floor, his sword thumping against his leg in a way that was likely to raise bruises. He disappeared into a small crowd of young women gathered in a corner.

“He’s caught sight of Helena Witherspoon,” Bram said. “Visiting from Princeton. Cap, you’ve got to meet her; I’ve laid odds that Baltus will marry her before the year is out. There she is.”

Cap said, “A redhead. At least he is consistent.”

“And here come Madison and Capshaw,” Baltus smiled broadly. “Now we’re in for a good time.”

Anna watched Cap as he relaxed back into his chair and propped his elbows on the embroidered velvet arms. With his hands tented over the lower third of his face, the contrast between white kid gloves and the hectic color in the hollows of his cheeks and temples could not be avoided.

She dropped her gaze to the plate on her lap. She could not rest her eyes on Cap for any amount of time precisely because there was so little time left; day by day there was a little less of him, his body and mind pulling away and away on a tide that could not be turned.

###

Miss Witherspoon was very young. Anna wondered if she had a mother, because it seemed unlikely that any lady of wealth and standing would allow a daughter to come out in public as . . . a fairy queen? An empress? Someone with more jewels than good sense. The gown was a waterfall of gold tissue and wine-colored velvet with a row of clasps from neck to hem, circlets of diamonds with an emerald at the center of every one. Golden bracelets wound from wrist to elbow, pinned to the heavy brocade with more emerald clasps. Her hair had been plaited with ropes of black pearls, and a matching crown sat above her brow. Her waist was unnaturally narrow, the result of tight corseting from early girlhood, night and day. Anna winced to think about the damage done.

Miss Witherspoon was her father’s princess, if no one else’s, and she understood the ways of the rich. She made deep curtsies to each of them as she was introduced, her jewels flashing in the light. She listened to the introductions, looking first at Anna and then at Cap, back and forth, trying to make sense of what was outside her experience of the world.

Anna knew what was going through the younger woman’s mind, the questions that burned to be asked but could not be voiced in society. Anna had been introduced to her as a Miss Savard. It was true that Miss Savard’s manners were exactly what was expected in such company, and her gown was quite pretty, but she wore very little jewelry. More confusing still, she clearly had no husband. She was too young to be a war widow, and so, Miss Witherspoon would surmise, she must be a spinster. Far too old to get a husband, and yet she was here with Cap Verhoeven, who was regarded as exceedingly eligible husband material. The obvious fact that Cap was in poor health didn’t seem to concern Princess Witherspoon, but then women were always drawn to Cap, despite—and sometimes because of—his health.

Bram was leaning over her like any hopeful lover. Did she care for champagne? Madeira? Punch? And how lovely her hair smelled, how beautiful her complexion.

“Mr. Decker,” she said, finally tearing her gaze away from Cap to look at Bram.

“Yes, Miss Witherspoon?”

“Can you can explain to me why your friend Mr. Verhoeven is called Cap? I understood his name to be Peter.”

She topped this off with a lowering of the eyes and lashes batted prettily in Cap’s direction.

“Oh, that’s a good story,” Bram said.

“Oh, it’s really not,” Cap countered.

He might have spared himself the objection, because his friends all stood up. Arranging themselves in a semicircle, they stuck out their chests and spread their legs like sailors on the high seas. Andrew Capshaw gave a tone and they broke into song.

O Captain, My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack,
the prize we sought is won.

For all their silliness they sang a very decent four-part harmony, getting all the way through the first stanza to then collapse, thumping each other’s backs, greatly pleased with themselves.

“Got that out of your systems?” Cap said.

“It’s a poem, isn’t it?” Miss Witherspoon addressed Cap directly. “Did you write it?”

There was a small silence in their circle, and then Cap answered her with his usual good grace. “You are too young, I think, to remember the assassination. The poem these idiots were trying—and failing—to set to music—was written in honor of President Lincoln a few months after his death. The poet is a Mr. Whitman.”

“Cap recited that poem at a public lecture at the Cooper Union,” Anna supplied. “It was on his eleventh birthday, just by coincidence. He recited it and brought the whole hall to their feet. How many times were you asked to repeat that performance?”

Cap cupped his cheek with a gloved hand. “I lost count at thirty or so.”

“Which is how he came to be called first Captain, and then Cap,” Anna finished. Her voice came a little hoarse, something that wasn’t obvious with all the noise of the musicians and dancers. Others didn’t notice, but Cap did; she saw it on his face. For that moment she had him back, the boy who had once been her brother.

Then Cap’s cousin Anton Belmont came sailing across the dance floor with his younger sister on one arm and one of the Schermerhorn debutantes on the other. A scramble for more chairs and champagne took a quarter hour, all the while the conversation went forward at a steady gallop, the men doing their utmost to make the girls laugh. Other friends joined them, and Anna decided she could absent herself without worry for a short while.

She rose, interrupting a perennial argument about a poker game played years earlier, and excused herself. The simple truth was that if she did not have a quarter hour of solitude in the fresh air she would seal her reputation as an overeducated spinster unsuitable for company by falling asleep in the middle of the biggest social event of the decade.

It took a few minutes to find the right kind of hallway—one used by staff alone to reach the back of the house—and from there she found a door that led into an unoccupied courtyard enclosed by a limestone wall, lit dimly by a set of workroom or pantry windows. Here music and voices were reduced to an undercurrent of sound much like a mosquito shut in a nearby room, persistent but still possible to ignore. Oh, she was cranky. And for no good reason.

The space was half filled with bricks, lumber, nail kegs, a ladder, a pyramid of roofing tiles. Odder still, there were at least a dozen tall gardening buckets filled with roses of every color and shape. She took a deep cleansing breath that came to her to filled with shifting fragrances: apricot, heliotrope, honey, oak moss and vanilla, musk and myrrh.

She was far happier here in the dim quiet, but Cap had always loved fancy parties like this one, the more ridiculous the better. He would be laughing about them for weeks afterward. In good health Cap would be on the dance floor or chasing from room to room to examine a painting here or a tapestry there, telling stories and jokes and the riddles he was famous for. Emptying one glass of champagne after another as he went. Sweet-talking old women and their eligible granddaughters with equal ease.

It was Sophie who should have been here tonight with him. It was Sophie he loved, and who loved him, who knew him best. When Anna thought about the impasse between them she sometimes daydreamed about tying each of them to a chair and leaving them face to face until they remembered how to talk to each other.

They wanted to marry, but in the end Sophie couldn’t bear the thought of what such a marriage would do to Cap, and so she refused him again and again. Anna had the idea that if he were to ask now, Sophie would say yes; she missed him terribly, as he missed her. But he would not ask.

The scent of the roses was very strong despite the cool air, and Anna thought how sad that they should be out here, unappreciated. She could take Cap a rose, a single perfect rose, and let him read into that whatever message he might.

Behind her she heard the rough strike and flare of a match. A familiar noise, nothing extraordinary about it in the course of a normal day. She turned her head and saw that a man was leaning against the far corner of the courtyard wall. He lifted the cigar to his mouth and drew on it and Anna saw the round red cinder flare in the dark. He was dark complexioned, big, dressed not in a costume but in a conservative suit, and he was watching her. Deliberately, calmly, watching her and taking in her awareness of him and the alarm that rose on her skin like a rash.

“You needn’t fear me, madam. I’m Detective Sergeant Oscar Maroney of the New York Police Department.” His tone was pleasant, his voice slightly rough with tobacco. “Contemplating a bit of larceny? A rose or two, perhaps.”

Anna wasn’t easily flustered, but she was cautious by nature and unwilling to play games with a stranger, police officer or not. She turned and walked back to the door, which was opening even as she reached for the knob.

The man who stood in the doorway was just as tall as his counterpart, and together with the solid width of shoulder and chest he seemed as all-encompassing and absolute as a wall. And oddly, in one hand he held a peach, round and full and blush-colored even in the dim light. On the edge of spring, so odd that he might have held the moon itself in one cupped broad hand. Anna tore her eyes away, took one step back, and limited herself to three words, spoken calmly but with an iron core that could not be overheard: “Please step aside.”

“Dr. Savard,” said a familiar voice. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

Anna stopped just where she was, unsure but curious, too. Almost afraid to raise her eyes to the man’s face.

Detective Maroney said, “You didn’t make much of an impression, Jack. She doesn’t recognize you.”

Jack. That small hint was enough to make her look again, to take in the flash of a smile. Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte. Giancarlo. Jack.

“Is that so?” In one smooth movement Mezzanotte sent the peach sailing across the small courtyard, where his friend caught it in an upraised hand. Then he looked at her directly, a question in his gaze.

“I recognize you now,” Anna said. “You are dressed very differently than you were earlier today, Detective Sergeant.” He was dressed impeccably, in fact. A well-cut short-tailed jacket in the current style, a matching vest. The color could not be made out in the half light, but she thought it might be black. Nothing flamboyant, but something more elegant than she might have expected of a police detective, even one who worked in plain clothes.

Anna said, “You’re on duty?”

That overwhelming smile, again. She wondered if she still could smile herself, her face felt so oddly frozen.

He was saying, “When we met at the church I was coming from the greenhouses at home,” he said. “I was there over the weekend, and I spent the early morning trimming rose canes.”

He looked over her head to the roses, and she followed his gaze. He had said his parents were floriculturists, she remembered now.

“Those? Those are your roses?” She didn’t try to hide the doubt in her voice.

“Most of those are from Klunder’s nursery, but the very pale ones to the far right are ours. Cut yesterday, on Easter Sunday after sunset, brought in this morning before dawn.”

Because she was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, Anna said the first thing that came to mind. “How very wasteful. Mrs. Vanderbilt wanted every flower to be had, whether she could use them or not.”

Detective Maroney said, “Aha. That’s what my sister was on about.”

Anna turned to look at him.

“She wanted flowers for the Easter dinner table, but there wasn’t a daffodil or a violet to be had, so she tells me, as if I plucked them all out of the ground and hid them to vex her. The best she could find was a single rose for a dollar and a half.”

“A dollar and a half,” Anna echoed, truly taken aback. “Our nursing students pay two dollars for a week’s room and board.” She realized that her tone was accusatory, but she found it impossible to sound otherwise. To Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte she said, “Is that right, a dollar and a half for a single rose?”

“No,” he said. “Or I should say, no honest florist would charge that much, but some will make the best of supply and demand. I can tell you that last week my uncle had to pay fifty dollars for a hundred General Jacqueminot roses.”

“Mrs. Vanderbilt pays such prices,” Anna said. “Her greed means Detective Sergeant Maroney’s sister had no flowers for her Easter table. She would have valued what Mrs. Vanderbilt squanders.” She sounded pompous to her own ears but seemed unable to govern what came out of her mouth.

Instead of responding, Jack Mezzanotte walked across the courtyard and crouched down for a moment. When he stood again he had a spray of three small rosebuds in one hand and a pocketknife in the other. He trimmed thorns from the stems as he came closer.

“Dr. Savard is right,” he said to his partner, though he kept his gaze fixed on Anna. “It is a shame for the roses to go to waste. Let me put at least a few to good use.”

He stopped in front of her, so close that she could feel the heat of him. One brow quirked up, as if to ask permission; Anna could have stopped him with a word or a raised hand. But she didn’t. She raised her face and looked at him to show that she was not intimidated or frightened or even embarrassed, and then she canted her head slightly. An invitation.

His attention was on her hair, one finger moving in a curve just over the silver hair clasp that Sophie had fixed there earlier this evening. Such a light touch, but she felt it moving down her spine in clear notes. Very gently he slid the stem into place, paused to consider, and moved it slightly. And then he stepped back and smiled at her.

“This rose is called La Dame Dorée. The breeder was trying to achieve the perfect white bourbon rose, but he didn’t succeed. When they open you’ll see that the inner petals are a very pale pink at the edge. The color isn’t perfect, but the scent is truly beautiful. And before you ask, we sell these wholesale, a hundred for ten dollars.”

He said, “I don’t know your first name.”

Her voice came hoarse. “Liliane. But I’m called Anna.”

There was nothing untoward in his expression or tone, and still she felt his regard. This morning she had been a different creature to him, only nominally female. That had changed, or more exactly, Countess Turchaninov had changed that. Anna found that this both irritated her and gave her a perverse pleasure.

She said, “Your hands will smell of La Dame Dorée all night.” Shocked at the impulse to put her face to his palm to test this assertion, she stepped away. “Pardon me, I have to go back to my friends.”

Then she slipped through the door into the hallway and out of sight. As soon as she had turned a corner she stopped and leaned against the wall to catch her breath.

Anna touched the rosebuds in her hair with a tentative finger, sure for one moment that she had imagined the whole odd encounter in the walled courtyard.

###

Mr. Lee was waiting with the carriage at one thirty, a time worked out carefully to make sure Cap did not overextend himself and that Anna would be able to see her patients the next day. Helping Cap into the carriage, Anna thought of the day ahead of her—surgeries and then Dr. Garrison’s trial—and all the excitement and high spirits left her immediately.

Cap had begun to cough into his handkerchief even before they were outside. Now he collapsed into the seat, turned his whole body into the corner, and hunched over, shaking violently with each paroxysm.  If he turned to her, Anna knew that she would see that his face and neck were drenched with sweat. His complexion would have darkened to purple with veins standing out on his forehead and temples and in his neck. And there would be blood.

He wanted no help and would be angry if she offered, and so Anna gave him the privacy he needed. She closed her eyes and reached for the calm she had trained so hard to achieve. Cap struggling to breathe; there would be no worse sound in the world.

Finally he sat up a little straighter, folded his handkerchief in the shadows and out of her line of sight, and immediately pulled another out of his pocket, a fresh white flag in the darkened carriage. He blotted perspiration from his face.

He said, “Thank you for coming with me.” His voice came very soft and hoarse.

A minute passed and then another.

“She misses you,” said Anna. “I don’t think you are ever very far from her thoughts.”

He said nothing, but he had heard her. His head dipped a little more in her direction, an invitation to tell him the things he wanted to hear. But because Anna could not give him what he wanted so desperately, she said nothing at all.

 

 

 

end excerpt

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