Cape Cod, Massachusetts
"It's going to be a bad one." Dr. Greaves said it so quietly that Nell, sitting across from him in the Hewitts' glossy black brougham, almost didn't hear him.
Nell squeaked an end of her paisley shawl across the foggy side window. Trees writhed against a purpling sky as they rumbled past; raindrops spattered the glass. "The storm, do you mean? Or..." She eyed the flat mahogany surgical kit on the seat next to him, the cracked leather doctor's satchel by his feet.
"The delivery," he said. "And the storm. Both." Lightning fluttered across his face, making him look, for one jolting moment, strangely old. She'd never thought of him that way, despite being half his age. Cyril Greaves remained lean in his middle years, and was taking his time in turning gray. And then there were those benevolent eyes, that ready smile.
He wasn't smiling this evening.
"There must be something terribly amiss for them to have sent that fellow to East Falmouth for me." Dr. Greaves cocked his head toward the brougham's front window, through which the Hewitts' coachman, who'd introduced himself as Brady, was just visible as a smear of black hunched over the reins. "Families like the Hewitts don't bother with physicians for mere chambermaids. Not for routine births, anyway. It's only when disaster strikes that they fetch one, and by then it's usually too late."
All too true. How Nell dreaded the difficult calls-especially when something went wrong with a birth.
Crossing his arms, Dr. Greaves stared out at the passing countryside as it grew yet murkier and more turbulent. A white-hot rivulet crackled down from the heavens; thunder rattled the carriage. Nell turned to gaze out the other side window, thinking she might draw this landscape tomorrow if she wasn't too tired after her chores. No, she'd paint it, on a sheet of Dr. Greaves's best writing paper, in ink-great, bruising stains of it, black for the trees and a near-black wash for the sky.
Brady halted his team at a massive iron gate, which was hauled open for them by two men in Macintoshes. Snapping the reins, he drove the brougham past a shingle-sided gatehouse and up a long, undulating roadway. Nell had all but decided this couldn't possibly be the Hewitts' estate; there was just too much of it. But then a pulse of lightning illuminated a building in the distance-a huge, sprawling edifice adorned with turrets and a hodgepodge of steep gambrel roofs.
Her breath came out in an astonished little gust.
Dr. Greaves smiled at last; she often made him smile, but rarely when she meant to. "They call this place Falconwood. The Hewitts spend about six weeks here every summer, usually mid-July to the end of August. I wonder why they're still here."
"Six weeks? This...castle is for one family to live in for six weeks?"
"The Hewitts call it a cottage," he said, "but it's got over twenty rooms. Those in back look out on Waquoit Bay. The boathouse is larger than most people's homes."
Nell stared at the mansion as they neared it, at the scores of warmly lit windows, picturing the two-room hovel she'd shared with her entire family for the first eleven years of her life.
Her expression must have reflected her thoughts. "Nell," Dr. Greaves said softly. "You, of all people, should know that life isn't fair. And yet, somehow, you always manage to muscle through. Most people follow the path wherever it leads them. Others hack their own way through the brush and always seem to end up on higher ground. You're of the second sort."
The clattering of horses' hooves drew her attention back to the house, which they were circling on a paved path. Like the gatehouse, it was sided in shingles that had weathered to a silvery gray.
"The Hewitts have been summering on the Cape for about twenty years," said Dr. Greaves as he gathered up his satchel and surgical kit. "Not the most fashionable vacation spot, but I understand they like the solitude. Their main house is in Boston, on a Brahmin enclave they call Colonnade Row-that's a section of Tremont Street built up with mansions that make Falconwood look like a gardener's shed."
"The first families of Boston-the venerable old bluebloods." Dr. Greaves answered even the most uninformed query without smirking or seeming surprised at one's ignorance. Nell had learned a lifetime's worth in her four years with him. "They tend to worship at the altar of high culture, and August Hewitt is no exception, though he's unusually sanctimonious for that breed. The wife's English, I think-Violet. No, Viola. There are some sons. The local girls would swoon for days whenever one of them showed up in town. They haven't been round the past few summers-except for the youngest. I see him at church every Sunday, along with his father. Perhaps the rest are off fighting Johnny Reb."
The carriage shuddered to a stop on a flagstone court behind the house, near an attached leaded-glass greenhouse with a domed roof. Passing the reins to a waiting groom, Brady unfurled the biggest black umbrella Nell had ever seen, opened the brougham's door and handed her down. "I'd best be takin' you folks in through the greenhouse," he said in a wheezy Irish brogue, raising his voice to be heard over the drumming rain. "The drive's flooded out up ahead. Watch that puddle, miss."
Taking a lantern from the brougham, the coachman gestured them toward an imposing arched entryway. Nell followed him through the unlit greenhouse, which she'd expected to be filled with plants, but which instead housed...
Paintings? She gawked as she wove through a forest of canvases propped on easels, each executed in loose, vibrant brush strokes. Some were seascapes featuring picturesque Waquoit Bay, and there were one or two still lifes, but most were of people-not posing formally, but lounging in opulent surroundings, exquisitely attired; jewels glinted, silks shimmered. They materialized out of the darkness, these sublime apparitions, only to dissolve back into it as the coachman's lantern swung past. The lamplight shifted and swayed just enough to make it seem as if they were inclining their heads ever so slightly toward Nell, eyes alight, mildly curious, before looking away.
The women dazzled, but it was the young men whom Nell found most arresting. There were perhaps three who had been painted repeatedly, golden creatures with luminous skin and expressions of languid ease. A particularly large canvas, which stood half-finished near the back wall, depicted two of them. One, an adolescent with hair the color of champagne and quiet, watchful eyes, sat tucked into one end of a maroon settee, while his brother-for surely these were two of the Hewitt sons-sprawled in elegant repose across the other. This older one's hair was a slightly darker blond, his smile more careless. Collar loose, tie undone, he had both arms draped across the back of the settee, a brandy snifter cupped lightly in one hand.
On a folding table nearby sat a palette crusted with dried oil paints, a jar of brushes, a wadded-up rag; some preliminary sketches were tacked to the easel's crossbar. Nell detected only the faintest whiff of linseed oil and turpentine; she would have expected the smell to be stronger.
"That's the one I see at church." Dr. Greaves pointed to the younger brother.
"Aye, that's young Master Martin. He's right pious." Gesturing them through a multipaned door into the house, Brady winked at Nell and whispered, "For an Episcopalian."
Nell winked back. She didn't think she looked particularly Irish, but those from the old country always knew.
"I'm to hand you over to Mrs. Mott, the housekeeper," the coachman said as he led them into a dim, cavernous kitchen, where he pulled a bell cord. Cocking his head toward a lamplit hallway, he said, "They've got Annie down there in the cook's room. That's Annie McIntyre, the girl what's havin' the baby. She sleeps up on the top floor, ordinarily, with the rest of the maids. But when her time come, Mrs. Hewitt, she said to put her down here where it's more cozy and private-like."
There materialized before them an old woman who looked to have been rendered in hard pencil on smooth vellum, so devoid of color was she: pale bespectacled face, scraped-back gray hair, unadorned black dress with a heavily laden key ring dangling from her belt, hands like carved bone clasped at her waist.
"Evenin', Mrs. Mott," Brady said. "I'm to go fetch Father Donnelly now. When you're ready for me to take you back, Doc, just-"
"We'll find you, Brady. Thank you."
"This way." Mrs. Mott turned and led them down a hallway, at the end of which slumped a young woman in a black dress with white collar, cuffs and apron. Red hair frizzed out from beneath her cap-not just a rusty brown, like Nell's, but a smoldering, red-hot red. She eyed them while gnawing on a thumbnail.
Pausing at a closed door halfway down the hall, Mrs. Mott turned to the maid. "Mary Agnes, shouldn't you be turning down beds?"
"Mrs. Bouchard wants me here in case I'm needed."
"You don't answer to Mrs. Bouchard, though, do you? You answer to me. For pity's sake, girl, stop chewing on that-"
"Oh, God." From behind the door came a woman's ragged moan. "Oh, God. Oh, Jesus." She was young, her voice high and thready. Another woman started to say something, but her words were drowned out by a wail that trailed off into whimpers. Mrs. Mott shrank back from the door. Mary Agnes looked at the ceiling as she started back in on the thumbnail.
Dr. Greaves knocked. "It's, Cyril Greaves, the doctor. May I-"
The door swung open. "Thank the Lord." Stepping aside for them was a solidly built Negro lady with a great copper bowl of a face and hair like hoar frost on gray moss. "My name is Mrs. Bouchard," she said in a sonorous voice seasoned with a peculiar accent, not quite southern and not quite French. "I'm Mrs. Hewitt's nurse. She asked me to help."
"Yes, thank you." If Dr. Greaves shared Nell's curiosity as to why Mrs. Hewitt should employ a nurse, he gave no hint of it. Nell followed him into the room, noticing as she turned to close the door that Mrs. Mott was already halfway down the hall, her tread as silent as if she were barefooted, although Nell couldn't imagine that was the case.
Leaning over the narrow bed, Dr. Greaves felt the forehead of the young woman lying in it, a heavily pregnant, china-doll blonde with big, panicky eyes. "How are you holding up, Annie?"
"N-not so good," she panted. "Something's wrong."
Mrs. Bouchard said, "The baby's lying transverse, Doctor. Hasn't budged through fourteen hours of labor." It wasn't a servant's uniform the nurse wore, but rather a severely unadorned black dress that looked to have been dyed from some other color. Her only jewelry was a small enameled watch pinned to her bosom. Was the household in mourning for some reason? Nell, in her faded blue basque and plaid skirt-hand-me-downs from Dr. Greaves's niece-felt suddenly rather shabby and conspicuous.
Dr. Greaves whipped off his frock coat and handed it to Nell, who laid it, along with her shawl and bonnet, on a chair in the corner of the small, tidy room. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he nodded toward a wash basin in the corner. "Is that water clean?" he asked Mrs. Bouchard.
"I boiled it."
"Annie," he said as he soaped and rinsed his hands, "I'm going to have to examine you, but it shouldn't hurt. This nice young lady-" he nodded to Nell as she turned back the bedcovers from the bottom up "-is Nell Sweeney, my assistant. She's about your age, I should think."
"Let me guess." Nell smiled at Annie as she sat on the bed next to her. "You're...twenty?"
"Exactly my age, then."
Annie grimaced, her head thrown back. "No..." she groaned.
"Ride it out," Nell softly urged, holding her hand and smoothing damp tendrils of hair off her face. "This will all be over soon, and then you'll have a lovely baby to-"
"Oh, God...oh, God." The girl cried out hoarsely during the contraction, trembled as it subsided; she was clearly exhausted.
Noticing Annie's wedding ring, Nell said, "Tell me about your husband." She'd learned not to ask Where is your husband? in case he was lying in a grave near some far-off battlefield.
"He...he..." Annie hitched in a breath and glanced down at Dr. Greaves, who must have begun his examination.
"Annie, look at me," Nell said gently. "What's his name?"
"M-Michael. Only..." Annie swallowed. "Only everybody calls him M-Mac, on account of his last name-McIntyre."
"He's one of our drivers," offered Mrs. Bouchard as she straightened a stack of clean sheets on the dresser. "Or was, till he signed up with the Boston Volunteers."
"The Eleventh R-regiment," Annie managed.
Mrs. Bouchard said, "He lost a leg at Spotsylvania in May. Been in the hospital since then, but he wrote to say he's coming home next month."
"Then you'll be seeing him soon!" Nell said.
Annie's head whipped back and forth on the pillow. "I'll be dead. Something's wrong."
Dr. Greaves said, "Annie, I'm not going to lie to you. Something is wrong. But it's nothing I can't fix. Nell." He gestured for her to stand. "I want to show you this so you'll know it next time we run across it. See how wide her abdomen is from side to side?"
She let him position her hands on either side of Annie's distended belly, over her linen chemise.
"Feel that?" Dr. Greaves asked. "The head's on one side, buttocks on the other-the worst position a baby can be in for delivery. Cord's prolapsed, too." Folding the bedcovers back down, he asked Mrs. Bouchard, "How long since her water broke?"
"Around dawn, just as she was going into labor."
"I'll need to operate as soon as we can gets things set-"
"Operate!" Mrs. Bouchard exclaimed.
"Oh, Jesus," Annie moaned. "You're going to cut it out of me? I am going to die!"
"Annie." Dr. Greaves turned her face toward him. "If you try to deliver this baby normally, your womb will very likely rupture, and you will assuredly die. Or the baby will. I'll use chloroform. You'll sleep through the whole thing."
"But, Doctor..." Mrs. Bouchard cast him a look that said she knew exactly what happened to women who underwent Caesareans.
"I've had excellent success with this procedure," Dr. Greaves assured her. "The secret lies in suturing the uterine wall. And no, it doesn't cause infection to leave the stitches in, so long as you keep things clean. Do you have any experience with surgery, Mrs. Bouchard?"
Her chin shot up. "My father was a surgeon in New Orleans. I assisted him for twenty years, through hundreds of operations. I won't faint dead away, if that's what you're worried about."
"Good-you and Nell can both help me, then."
"'Excellent success,'" Annie said. "W-what does that mean? Some of them still die, right? The mothers? When you do this operation?"
Dr. Greaves's hesitation was telling. "It's your only hope, child. And you're young and strong. There's no reason to think you won't make it, and...well, the baby almost always does."
"Do it," she rasped. "But first I need to speak to..." She mewed in pain as another contraction mounted. "Send for..."
Mrs. Bouchard patted her hand. "Father Donnelly's on his-"
"Mrs. Hewitt. I need to speak to M-Mrs. Hew-" Annie broke off with an agonizing howl.
Nell held her hands and comforted her until the pain had eased. Mrs. Bouchard said, "I'm sorry, Annie, but I'm not about to disturb Mrs. Hewitt at this hour. If you've got something to say to her, tell it to me and I'll give her the-"
"No!" Annie was trembling again, badly. "I have to speak to her myself, alone. Just her and me."
"Out of the question," Mrs. Bouchard said resolutely. "With everything that's befallen that poor woman of late, she doesn't need you troubling her with-"
"Then there will be no operation."
The nurse sighed with exasperation. "Annie, for-"
"Just do as she asks," Dr. Greaves quietly implored her.
Mrs. Bouchard marched out with a hiss of crinoline, hands in the air as if there were a rifle to her back.
"We can operate in the kitchen," the doctor told Nell, "on that big tiled table. See if there's someone who can't improvise some sort of stretcher. I'll need the gas jets turned up, and some lanterns hung from the rafters. Here." He dug the square-sided bottle of carbolic out of his leather bag. "You know what to do. Get that creature out in the hall to help."
* * *
"What is this stuff?" Mary Agnes winced at the tarlike stink of the rag Nell had given her to wipe off the table.
"Carbolic acid," Nell said as she scrubbed down a big enameled butcher tray that would hold the surgical instruments. "It'll get that table as clean as it can get."
"What's the use, if he's fixing to cut her open on it? It'll be a right bloody mess by the time he's done."
"He says it helps."
"Are you a nurse, like Mrs. Bouchard?"
"Not like Mrs. Bouchard. He's trained me in that sort of thing, but mostly I just...help with things. I go on calls with him, keep his books, do a little cleaning and cooking..."
"Don't he have a wife for that?"
"She's been ill for some time." That was what Dr. Greaves called it, anyway-an illness. But Nell knew that the Boston "hospital" in which his beloved Charlotte had spent the past eight years was, in fact, some sort of fancy lunatic asylum.
"What does he pay you?" Mary Agnes asked. "Or is it just room and board?"
"Room and board," Nell said. "But he teaches me things, too. Not just about medicine, but about history and music and how to speak and conduct myself with people. He's taught me how to read real books and write a proper letter and work with numbers. He-"
Mary Agnes cleared her throat as she speeded up the pace of her scrubbing. Catching Nell's eyes, she glanced meaningfully toward the door.
Nell looked that way to find a woman entering the kitchen in a Merlin chair, something Nell had seen only in pictures until now. Mrs. Hewitt was wheeling the upholstered wooden chair herself despite the presence behind her of Mrs. Bouchard, who could presumably have pushed it for her. Two ivory-handled folding canes and a needlework bag were hooked to the back of the chair.
Viola Hewitt was tall-even in the chair, you could tell that-and angular and aristocratic, with black, silver-threaded hair in a braid draped over one shoulder. In lieu of a dressing gown, she wore over her nightdress a purple and gold silk robe of Oriental design, much like those worn by the women in Dr. Greaves's book of Japanese prints; kimonos, he'd called them. She was a handsome woman, striking even, despite being an apparent cripple, and of a certain age. But there was an aura of melancholy in her eyes, in the set of her mouth, in her very posture, that robbed her of any claim to true physical beauty.
Mrs. Hewitt glanced once in Nell's direction as she rolled through the kitchen toward the hallway, wheels rattling over the slate floor; Mrs. Bouchard brought up the rear.
"That's not what I would have expected her to look like," Nell said when she was out of earshot. "Aren't her sons fair?"
"The three younger ones are." Annie smiled dreamily. "You never saw such lovely men, like angels in a painting. They got their coloring from Mr. Hewitt. He's the kind of blond that looks almost white. He really is going white now, but you can hardly tell the difference from before."
Nell shook out a tea towel to lay on the instrument tray, thinking back to one of the paintings in the greenhouse, the only one whose subject was standing. He was an older gentleman in white tie, holding an opera hat and gloves in one hand, walking stick in the other. He had hair like tarnished silver, radiant blue eyes and a grimly regal bearing: August Hewitt.
Dr. Greaves and Mrs. Bouchard entered the kitchen, having been asked to give Annie and her employer some privacy. Mrs. Bouchard sent Mary Agnes off for three clean bib aprons and as many freshly washed towels and dish cloths as she could carry. Taking the surgical kit from Dr. Greaves, Nell gathered up the ivory-handled instruments to be doused with carbolic: scalpels, bistouries, tissue retractors, artery forceps...
A muffled wailing, just barely audible over the pattering of rain on the windowpanes and the slight hiss of the turned-up gas lamps, made them turn toward the hallway. At first Nell thought Annie was having another contraction, but it soon became clear that she was crying.
"That girl has no business bringing any more woe on that woman's head," lamented Mrs. Bouchard as she unfolded a sheet onto the table. "She's aged a decade this past month, as it is."
"Why?" Nell asked. Too late, when Dr. Greaves's cut his eyes toward her, did she realize her tactlessness. She asked too many questions; he always said so. One could often learn more, he claimed, by keeping quiet and fading into the background.
Thankfully, Mrs. Bouchard didn't seem to mind. "The Hewitts lost their two oldest boys, both of them, just a day apart. They were captured back in February, at Olustee-that's in Florida-and thrown in that godforsaken hell-hole down in Georgia."
"You mean Andersonville?" Dr. Greaves asked. Even Nell, who had little time for newspapers, had heard about the notorious Confederate prison camp, a fenced-in sea of tents housing three times as many Union soldiers as it could reasonably accommodate. Rumor had it thousands had already starved to death or succumbed to one of the many forms of pestilence that thrived in such conditions.
Mrs. Bouchard nodded, dabbing her eyes with the edge of her apron. "They died last month, of dysentery-Robbie and Will. Dysentery. Lord, what a wretched way to go. It isn't right. It just isn't right."
"Both sons were in the same regiment?" Nell asked as she lined up the disinfected instruments one by one on the tea towel. Dr. Greaves was asking questions; why shouldn't she?
"They enlisted together in the Fortieth Massachusetts Mounted Infantry, on account of being such good horsemen." Mrs. Bouchard smoothed down the sheet with a bit too much vehemence. "Robbie, he was a regular volunteer. The older one, Will-he signed on as a surgeon."
Dr. Greaves, washing his hands at the sink, glanced over his shoulder. "He was a surgeon?"
"Just finished up medical school over in Scotland. University of Edinburgh."
Dr. Greaves let out a low, impressed whistle.
Mary Agnes returned with a towering stack of linens, including the three aprons, which Mrs. Bouchard distributed to herself, Dr. Greaves and Nell. "Poor Mrs. Hewitt hasn't done much of anything since she got the news, which isn't like her. I've told her she must rise above it, get on with things. After all, she still has Martin and Harry-those are the two younger ones. She was painting them when the cable came about Robbie and Will."
"Martin's the youngest, yes?" asked Dr. Greaves as Nell helped him on with his apron. "The one I see at church?" The one with the champagne hair and insightful eyes.
Mrs. Bouchard nodded. "He was all fired up to enlist next month, when he turns eighteen, but now his father's forbidden it. Says it'd kill his mother to lose another son. Mr. Hewitt, he pulled some strings and got Martin into Harvard so he can stay at home with his mama. He's already gone back to Boston, so as not to miss too much of the first term."
"And Harry?" Nell prompted.
Mrs. Bouchard turned away to fuss with the sheets on the table. "Mister Harry's needed at his father's textile mill in Charlestown."
It would appear that Harry Hewitt had chosen, like so many other young sons of wealthy families, to sit out the war and let his neighbors and servants-and brothers-fight it for him. Nell thought back to his image in the big unfinished painting-the beguiling grin, the lax fingers cradling the snifter.
From the direction of the greenhouse came men's voices. Opening the glass door, Nell greeted portly old Father Donnelly, her parish priest, and relieved him of his sodden overcoat.
"You'll have to wait your turn, Father," said Mrs. Bouchard. "Mrs. Hewitt and Annie are-"
"Mrs. Hewitt and Annie are done talking," Dr. Greaves declared. "If I wait much longer to operate, it will be too late. Father, do you think you can...do whatever you have to do while we're moving Annie to the kitchen?"
"Good. Mrs. Bouchard, if you would give me a hand with Annie... Nell, make sure we're all set up in here."
It took mere minutes to get Annie settled on the table and prepared for surgery, with Father Donnelly muttering over her all the while. The poor girl, her face red from weeping, shivered with fear despite their reassurances.
Banishing everyone but Mrs. Bouchard, Nell and himself from the kitchen, Dr. Greaves said a brief prayer-a Protestant prayer, but Nell and Mrs. Bouchard crossed themselves just the same. He attached the drip spout to the tiny brown bottle of chloroform while Nell fitted the inhaling mask with fresh gauze.
"Close your eyes, Annie," Nell murmured as she placed the mask over the girl's nose and mouth. "When you wake up, you'll have a baby."
* * *
"I say-she's a beautiful little thing, is she not?"
Nell, cradling the swaddled infant in her arms, smiled across the kitchen table at Viola Hewitt. "All babies are beautiful," Nell said.
It was well past midnight; the gas lights were low again, casting the immense kitchen into amber-tinted semidarkness as the storm continued to rage outside. Dr. Greaves and Mrs. Bouchard were down the hall with Annie, watching for post-operative complications. Mrs. Hewitt, ignoring her nurse's exhortations to turn in, had lingered in the kitchen to oversee Nell's bathing and diapering of the newborn.
"They're not all as beautiful as that one." Mrs. Hewitt returned Nell's smile, her melancholic fog having dissipated over the past couple of hours. She had a distinctive voice, deep-throated and a little gritty, its rough edges burnished a bit by the remnants of a genteel English accent. "She's so plump and pretty, with that big, lovely round head. My boys all had a rather squished, stomped-upon look, as I recall."
"The round head is because of the Caesarean. She didn't have to pass through the..." Nell looked away, chastising herself for having made such a reference in polite conversation, especially with the likes of Viola Hewitt; what would Dr. Greaves say?
Mrs. Hewitt chuckled. "I'm afraid I'm not particularly easy to shock, Miss Sweeney. Mr. Hewitt is of the opinion that I ought to be a bit more prone to swooning, but I could never quite get the knack."
The baby yawned, quivering, then settled down again, weighty and warm in Nell's arms; how it gladdened her heart whenever she had the chance to hold a baby. She tried to fluff the thatch of black hair, but it was still matted, despite her bath. "Is her father dark?" she asked, thinking of Annie's golden locks.
Mrs. Hewitt frowned slightly. "No, Mac is...sandy-haired, I suppose you'd say. But newborns are funny that way. My Martin was born with a full head of thick, black hair, but now he's the fairest of all of my..." She trailed off, no doubt reflecting that "all of" her sons now numbered just two.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Nell said.
"Yes. Well. We're usually back in Boston by now, but I've been putting it off because-" Her voice snagged. "I've been saying it's because of Annie, because she couldn't travel in her condition-she's part of our Boston staff, you know. But we could have gone on ahead and sent for her after the baby came. It wasn't that. It was going back to that house on Colonnade Row, where those boys were little..."
The baby squirmed in Nell's arms, mewing and smacking her lips, her head jerking this way and that.
Mrs. Hewitt watched with interest as Nell dipped her little finger in the teacup of boiled sugar water with which she was keeping the hungry infant appeased. "She's ravenous, that one. I do hope Annie's up to feeding her soon."
"Me, too," Nell said as she slipped her fingertip in the baby's mouth. There was fresh milk in the ice closet, and an old baby bottle to put it in, but giving it to her at this point could spoil her for the breast.
"I would ask to hold her again, but she'd only fuss, as she did before. She's happiest with you. I've rarely seen anyone handle a baby with such...tender assurance."
Gratified by the praise, Nell murmured her thanks as Dr. Greaves returned to the kitchen. "Our new mother is awake and doing splendidly," he reported with a smile. "Why don't you bring the baby to her and see if she'll nurse? And then perhaps we should locate that Brady fellow and ask him to drive us back to East Falmouth. Mrs. Bouchard will sit up with Annie tonight, and I'll return in the morning to-"
"You mean to travel in this rain, and at this hour?" Mrs. Hewitt asked. "I've got half a dozen guest rooms, all standing empty-I can certainly spare two for the night. I'll have you brought night clothes and whatever else you need, and then Brady will take you back to town after breakfast."
Dr. Greaves accepted her offer of hospitality, to Nell's relief; why endure a late-night carriage ride in such weather?
In the cook's room, she found Mrs. Bouchard propping pillows behind Annie's back. "Look who's here," said the nurse as Nell sat on the edge of the bed with the baby. "It's your-"
"Take it away," Annie moaned, whipping her head to the side.
Nell looked inquiringly toward Mrs. Bouchard, who appeared dismayed but unsurprised at this reaction. "Now, Annie, don't be that way. You're her mother, after all, and she needs-"
"I don't want to see her. Take her away. Please."
Mrs. Bouchard nodded resignedly to a stunned Nell, who left with the child, closing the door behind her. Walking down the hallway toward the kitchen, she heard Mrs. Hewitt say, "Four years? And you've been pleased with her?"
"More than pleased," Dr. Greaves responded. "Nell's a hard worker, and clever. Nothing slips past her."
Nell stilled near the entrance to the kitchen.
"She's got a great deal of common sense, too," he continued, "and a strong stomach. I never have to worry about her keeling over at the sight of a gruesome injury."
"From a good family, is she?" inquired Mrs. Hewitt.
Nell held her breath for the long seconds it took Dr. Greaves to answer. "They were from the old country, ma'am. Both gone now, first him and then the mother, when Nell was just a child." Nell's father was gone, all right, but it wasn't his Maker he'd met; it was that greasy-haired barmaid from Dougal's Tavern.
"And there's no other family?"
Nell steeled herself, wondering if he'd mention Duncan.
"She had a number of younger siblings-that's how she learned to care for children. Disease took most of them-cholera, diphtheria-but one brother lived to adulthood. She assumes he's still alive, but it's been years since she's seen him. James-she calls him Jamie."
Nell released a pent-up breath.
There came an interval of silence punctuated by the muted bong of a clock somewhere off in another part of the house, striking one.
"She seems..." Mrs. Hewitt paused. "I found myself telling her things..."
"Yes," said Dr. Greaves; Nell could hear the smile in his voice. "She has that effect."
"I don't suppose she has any Greek or Latin."
A pause. "No, ma'am. She's quite proficient in French, though."
"Any Italian or German?"
"None to speak of. But she's got a better command of the three R's than I do, and she reads whatever I put in her hands. Lovely penmanship, and a fine hand with the drawing pencil."
"She's of good character and chaste habits, I take it?"
"She's never given me any reason to censure her, ma'am." Which didn't precisely answer the question.
"That little scar near her left eyebrow-may I ask how..."
"An old injury. I stitched it myself." As he had the several others that weren't so readily visible. Before she could ask him to elaborate on his vague answer, he said, "May I inquire as to the nature of your interest in her?"
"I just... I need to consult with my husband first, and I'm not sure if he's still up reading. If I don't get the chance to speak to you again tonight, perhaps...after breakfast?"
"As you like, ma'am."
Nell heard the wheels of the Merlin chair rolling away over the slate floor. She listened as the sound grew softer and disappeared, then reentered the kitchen to find Dr. Greaves staring at the door through which Mrs. Hewitt had just departed. He turned to look at Nell as she came up behind him, his expression contemplative, and perhaps a little sad.
"What was that about, do you suppose?" Nell asked.
He just sighed and turned away. "Eavesdropping, Nell? I'm surprised at you." Before she could protest that he might have done the same had he found himself the subject of a similar conversation, he said, "Let's finish cleaning up in here. It's been a long night."
* * *
Nell hastened to the guest room door as a second knock came, her fingers fumbling with the mother-of-pearl buttons on the dressing gown she'd found laid out for her when she was shown to this room about an hour ago.
Must be Mary Agnes, with another down pillow to heap upon the bed, another little perfumed soap or lush towel, she thought as she reached for the knob. But in fact, it was Viola Hewitt, not in her chair but standing with the aid of the two ivory-handled canes. "It's dreadfully late, I know, but I saw the light under your door, so I thought perhaps... May I...?"
"Yes, of course." Stepping aside, Nell held the door open for her visitor, whose gait, although halting, had an odd, birdlike grace about it; perhaps it was her height. A metallic scraping could just be heard beneath the silken swish of her kimono and nightdress.
"Leg braces," she explained. "They get me up and down stairs, but it's an ordeal. I say, how very pretty your hair looks down. You've no need of the curling tongs." She nodded toward the dressing gown. "Not too long? It's mine, you see."
"Oh, no, it's lovely." It was, in fact, the loveliest thing Nell had ever worn, a satin-trimmed cashmere peignoir the color of butter, worn over a matching silk nightgown. Now that she'd finally felt the liquid slide of silk over her bare skin, Nell understood why women prized it so. The ensemble was a far cry from the patched cotton nightdress and threadbare wrap hanging in her little dormer room back at Dr. Greaves's.
"You're comfortable here, I hope?" Mrs. Hewitt embarked on a torturously slow tour of the room, smoothing the counterpane on the tall half tester bed, adjusting the angle of the cheval mirror. She opened and closed the dressing table's single drawer, rearranged the roses in a fat Chinese urn. Their fragrance mingled with a whisper of lemon oil. The room smelled sweet and exotic and a little old; it smelled like wealth.
Nell couldn't help wondering why she was being treated to such luxury. Most people in Mrs. Hewitt's position would have berthed her upstairs with the servants.
"I went to Dr. Greaves's room, thinking I'd speak to him first, but he's not there. Perhaps he's downstairs unwinding after the evening's ordeal. I did tell him where he might find the sherry." Mrs. Hewitt glanced at the door to the dressing room, which stood slightly open.
"How is the baby faring?" Nell asked. Mrs. Hewitt had had a cradle fetched from the attic and put next to her own bed.
"Fast asleep, with a nice, full belly. I'm so glad she took to the bottle. Good heavens." She crossed to the little writing desk in the corner. "Did you do these?" Lowering herself into the chair, she lifted the two drawings Nell had inked on paper she'd found in the middle drawer-thick, creamy vellum embossed with a single word: FALCONWOOD. They were sketchy portraits, one of the baby and the other of Viola Hewitt herself.
"They're just rough," Nell said, heat sweeping up her throat as Mrs. Hewitt studied them. "When I have time, I'll add some more detail and-"
"Don't. They're perfect fleeting impressions, just as they're meant to be. I must say, though, it's remarkable how well you captured me-both of us-just from memory."
"I don't have a great deal of time to draw from life. I've learned to fix things in my memory and draw them later. It's almost like...making a photograph in my mind."
"It's a gift, being able to do that." Still contemplating the sketches, Mrs. Hewitt said, "Annie doesn't want the baby. At all. She means to give her up."
"Do you know why?"
Nell paused to choose her words carefully.
Mrs. Hewitt said, "I can't be shocked, remember?"
"Is it because her husband isn't the father?"
Mrs. Hewitt laid the sketches down carefully. "It was a year and a half ago that Mac enlisted in the Boston Volunteers, and he hasn't been able to get home since then. I've forbidden the servants to speak of it. These matters are..." Nell thought she would say "unseemly." Instead, she said, "...complicated. But we live in a world that likes to pretend such things are simple."
Too true, Nell thought; still, the older woman's acceptance of the situation struck her as bizarre.
"I'm adopting the baby." Viola Hewitt's smile evolved into a full, girlish grin when Nell's mouth literally dropped open. "Mrs. Bouchard doesn't approve. Neither does my husband, but he's humoring me because of..." Her expression sobered. "Because he knows it will make me happy to have a baby round the house. And a baby girl! I always wanted a daughter, but I ended up with four sons instead. Not that I didn't love them more than life itself, God knows. But there's something about a little girl..."
"Yes, there is." Still, rationalizations aside, for a society matron to adopt a maid's bastard... It was outrageous.
"Annie doesn't want her, and she doesn't want her husband or family to find out about her. If I don't take Grace, she'll be..." Noticing Nell's puzzlement, she smiled. "I'm calling her Grace. It was my mother's name. If I don't take her, she'll be doomed to some squalid orphan asylum, or worse yet, the county poor house. That's where they put the absolute dregs, the type of paupers who would simply die on their own-drunks, lunatics, people with the most dreadful contagions, all thrown in with the motherless little children. I've done charity work in those places. My dear girl, if you'd ever seen the inside of one..."
If only she hadn't.
"Annie will leave my employ and relinquish all legal claim to the child. Our attorney will draw up the necessary papers. In return, I'll ask Mr. Hewitt to recommend her to the Astors in New York-making no mention of the baby, of course. It will be an excellent position for her, and I'll see to it that they hire Mac, as well. They can always use another driver."
"Won't her husband question the scar on her abdomen?" Nell asked.
"She can tell him it was an appendectomy."
"You've thought it all through."
"More completely than you know. We'll be returning to Boston next week, with the baby, and...Nell, I'd like you to consider coming with us."
Nell stared at her. "As a...nursemaid, you mean?"
"We actually have one of those-well, she's been retired for some time, but she still lives with us in Boston. Miss Edna Parrish. She was my nanny back in England, and I brought her here for the boys. The thing of it is, she's quite elderly, and somewhat infirm. She'll be insulted if I don't ask her to take care of Grace, but she can't possibly manage on her own. I'd do it myself, but I've got these useless legs to deal with. Infantile paralysis, you know. Caught it in Europe right before the war."
"I'm so sorry," Nell said, but in truth, she was somewhat intrigued by the exotic ailment; she wished it wouldn't be considered rude to ask about it.
"I was thinking perhaps you could assist Nurse Parrish in her duties while Grace is little. Then, when she gets older and needs to be educated and learn comportment and so forth, you'd be more of a governess."
"A governess? Me?" A nursemaid might hail from the working classes, but Nell had read enough governess novels to know that their heroines were nearly always, despite their reduced circumstances, as wellborn as the families that employed them-and always well educated. "I'm not equipped for a position like that."
"I think you are," Mrs. Hewitt said. "You're intelligent, capable...and you seem to adore children."
"But governesses are teachers, and I've had so little formal schooling. And I'm...I'm not from your world, Mrs. Hewitt. I don't know anything about your way of life."
"You're clever. You'll learn. Besides, for the first eight years or so, you'll be what's known as a nursery governess, and to be perfectly frank, one doesn't generally expect as much of them as one does of a preparatory governess. You'll have plenty of time to fill any gaps in your own tutelage before taking on the more rigorous aspects of Grace's education. Even then, one does expect to hire outside masters in various subjects... languages, piano, dancing... A good governess is as much a moral guide as an instructress, and I can't help but think you would excel in that role."
If only she knew. "Mrs. Hewitt, I..." How to put it? "You may be harboring illusions about me that-"
"Gentlewomen have no monopoly on virtue, Nell-a minority view in my particular circle, but I'm accustomed to being regarded as an eccentric. I suppose I am-but I'm also, if I do say so myself, an astute judge of people. I know in my heart you'd be wonderful for Grace."
"I...I appreciate your confidence, Mrs. Hewitt, I truly do. But-"
"Have you ever been to Boston, Nell?"
"Well, there's no place like it in the world. Our house is right on Boston Common, which is some forty-five acres of parkland. You'd have your own room on the third floor next to the nursery. I shan't lie to you-it's a rather plain room, but large and bright, and it has windows facing the Common, and a little nook off to the side that can serve as a sitting room. The nursery can be converted into a schoolroom when the time comes. You'll get ten dollars a week, and of course room and-"
"Ten..." Ten dollars a week? "For myself?"
"To spend any way you'd like. You'll need a proper wardrobe. My dressmaker will run some things up for you-at my expense, of course. Three or four day dresses to start with, I should think. At least one tea dress, and a nice walking dress, for when you take Grace out and about. Perhaps a simple black taffeta for dinner. Something to wear to church on Sundays." Looking down, she brushed an invisible speck off her kimono. "Mr. Hewitt did ask me to discuss the issue of religion. We're Anglican, you know-Episcopalian you call it here. Mr. Hewitt switched over from Congregationalism when we married. And I would assume you're..."
"Quite Catholic, I'm afraid."
"Yes, well, I had a Catholic governess myself-Mademoiselle D'Alencour, my finishing governess. I reminded Mr. Hewitt of that just now when he...well, he had some concerns. Grace will, of course, be brought up in our faith. You're welcome to attend Mass with the house staff, but once Grace is old enough for church, she'll be attending King's Chapel. And as for...doctrinal matters..."
"You don't want me putting papist notions in her head."
"In all other matters, I bow to your discretion. You'll be free to deal with her as you see fit, for the most part, without a lot of second-guessing from me. All I really expect is that you rear her with the same care and love as if she were your very own. Naturally, I would prefer that you remain unwed while Grace is young, in order to devote your full attention to her. And, of course, your conduct and reputation must be above reproach-you're responsible for the upbringing of a young girl, after all. But I can't think you'd let me down in that regard. Does this sound like something you'd be interested in?"
Having a baby to hold and feed and kiss anytime she wanted? A child to raise as her own-almost-after thinking it would never happen? "Yes," she said earnestly, remembering how the infant Grace had felt in her arms, so warm, so right. "Yes, I... Oh, yes, I would love it!"
Mrs. Hewitt seized Nell's hand and squeezed it. "I'll speak to Dr. Greaves in the morning about releasing you into my employ."
Nell nodded, although she knew in her heart that Dr. Greaves wouldn't stand in the way of an opportunity like this. He wouldn't like it, but he would do what was best for her.
It took some effort, and Nell's help, for Mrs. Hewitt to rise unsteadily from the chair. As she was leaving, she turned and said quietly, "You mustn't judge Annie too harshly. She does love him, you know-her husband, Mac. She wept for weeks after he left. But people get lonely. They...seek comfort where they can find it."
That statement was met with an indulgent smile. "You may think you do, my dear, but you're really such an innocent. Perhaps someday, when Grace is old enough, you'll marry and gain some understanding of these things."
Marry to gain an understanding of loneliness? But then Nell thought of her mother, gaunt and shivering in her little hut with her many mouths to feed after her husband ran off. Had she never married, she never would have ended up so forsaken.
Closing the door, Nell rested her forehead against it. You're really such an innocent. Unfortunately, one doesn't remain innocent for long with the kind of life in which she'd been thrust. One does what one has to, just to survive. But Viola Hewitt didn't know that. To her, Nell was a simple Irish Catholic girl of working class stock and unblemished virtue. There would be much to keep hidden if she took this position, the worst of it having to do with Duncan.
Nell didn't relish the notion of harboring secrets from a woman she'd already come to like immensely. But she could if she had to. And if she took this position-and dear God, how she wanted it-she would have to.
Turning, Nell looked toward the dressing room. "Did you hear?" she asked softly.
The partially ajar door creaked open as Dr. Greaves emerged from where he'd secreted himself, hair slightly mussed, braces dangling. His shirt, which Nell had been unbuttoning when the first knock came, hung open.
For a moment he just looked at her, and then he raised his glass of sherry in a kind of toast, his smile so sad it seemed to reach around her throat and squeeze.
"To higher ground," he said.
February 1868: Boston
It was a shocking turn of events, both wondrous and devastating; a miracle or a tragedy, depending on how you looked at it.
The news came while Nell was relaxing in the Hewitts' music room, listening to Martin sing his new hymn for his parents. Accompanying him on the gleaming Steinway in the corner was Viola Hewitt in her downstairs Merlin chair, one of four she kept on different floors of the Italianate mansion that overlooked Boston Common from the corner of Tremont and West Streets. August Hewitt lounged in his leather wing chair by the popping fire, arms folded, spectacles low on his nose, his Putnam's Monthly lying open on crossed legs. Nothing pleased him more on a Sunday afternoon than to bask in the bosom of his family circle in this richly formal room, his favorite. The Oriental-influenced Red Room, a silken refuge visible through an arched doorway flanked by six-foot stone obelisks, was his wife's preferred sanctuary.
Ancestral portraits lined the music room's rosewood paneled walls, six generations of Hewitt "codfish aristocracy," most of them in the shipping trade; copper and cloth had gone to China, ice to the West Indies and rum to slave-rich Africa on ships that came back laden with silks, teas, porcelains, sugar, cocoa, tobacco, and the molasses with which to make more rum. But the real merchant prince among the bunch had been Mr. Hewitt's father, scowling down from above the black marble fireplace, who'd diversified into the textile trade by founding Hewitt Mills and Dye Works, thus greatly augmenting the family fortune.
And then, of course, there was August Hewitt himself, represented by his wife's monumental full length portrait-flanked by modestly draped, life-size statues of Artemis and Athena-who had negotiated a lucrative contract to produce U.S. Army uniforms back when almost no one seriously envisioned a war between the states. His foresight had heaped the family coffers to overflowing.
Little Grace, in her favorite apple green frock and pinafore, lay curled up on Nell's lap, two middle fingers still somehow firmly lodged in a mouth gone lax with sleep. The grosgrain bow adorning the child's dark hair tickled Nell's chin, but not unpleasantly. Gracie's somnolent breathing, the lulling weight of her, her soapy-sweet little-girl scent, all filled Nell with a sense of utter well-being.
Across the room, Miss Edna Parrish sat propped up with pillows in her favorite parlor rocker-head back, eyes closed, mouth gaping, archaic mobcap slightly askew-looking for all the world like a strangely withered baby bird. Gracie had climbed out of her nursemaid's lap at the first wheezy snore and clambered up onto Nell's, dozing off almost instantly.
Through the velvet-swagged windows flanking the fireplace, Nell watched snow float down out of a pewter sky, her book-Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty by Mr. DeForest-neglected in her hand. She loved watching snow lay its glittering blanket over the city-so opaque, so pristine, as if absolving the streets beneath of their years of grime.
Boston had been a shock to her upon her arrival here three years ago-so huge, so raucous, a buzzing hive in which she'd felt not just lost but utterly invisible. How she'd longed for the rustic familiarity of Cape Cod-at first. Over time, the city gradually lost its daunting newness and began to feel like home-her home. Just as she became a part of Boston, so she became a part of the Hewitt family. Gracie was the child of her heart, if not her womb, and time had only served to cement her sense of kinship with Viola Hewitt.
That kinship notwithstanding, it was rare that Nell joined the family for these Sunday afternoon gatherings, Viola having exempted her from her duties for the better part of every weekend. On Saturdays, she often prowled the Public Library, the Lecture Hall, or-her favorite-the Natural History Museum. There were several other Colonnade Row governesses with whom she'd struck up an acquaintance as their charges played together in the Common, and from time to time they would meet for Saturday luncheon or a lingering afternoon tea-but as Nell had little in common with them, no true friendships ever sprang from these outings.
Every Sunday morning, Nell went to early Mass, a too-brief low Mass for which she had to awaken and dress in the predawn gloom, so that she would be free to watch Gracie while Nurse Parrish and the Hewitts attended services at King's Chapel. After that, she was once more at liberty to go her own way. If the afternoon was mild, she might take a long walk-even in wintertime if the sun was bright-or perhaps settle down with a book on a bench in the Public Garden. When the weather was less agreeable, as today, she often read or drew in her room. She would be there now had Viola not specifically requested her presence today.
Gracie is better behaved with you than with Nurse Parrish, Viola had told her, and you know how Mr. Hewitt gets when she starts fussing. He'll send her to the nursery if she makes so much as a peep, and I so long for her company this afternoon. You'll be home anyway, because of the weather. Please say you'll sit with us.
Unable to refuse much of anything to Viola, who'd come to hold as dear a place in her heart as her own long-departed mother, Nell had agreed. Mr. Hewitt had cast a swift, jaundiced glance at Gracie when she abandoned Nurse Parrish's lap for Nell's, but otherwise ignored her-as he did her governess.
Nell tried to recall the last time she and Mr. Hewitt had occupied the same room, and couldn't. That their paths rarely crossed was due to his distaste for children in general and-from all appearances, although it made little sense-to Gracie in particular. At his insistence, the child took all her meals, with the exception of Christmas and Easter dinners, in the nursery with Nell. On weekdays he put in long hours at his shipping office near the wharves, dined at home with his wife and Martin-Harry almost always ate elsewhere-then spent the remainder of the evening at his club. He came and went on the weekends, as did Nell; on those rare occasions when they passed each other in the hall, they merely nodded and continued on their way.
"It's different," Mr. Hewitt concluded when the hymn ended. "Not bad, actually, but that bit about God bestowing his grace on all the sons of man, welcoming them into his arms and what not... You might think about rephrasing that."
Martin, standing by the piano, regarded his father with a solemn intensity that might be interpreted by someone who didn't know him well as simple filial deference. At a quick glance, the flaxen-haired, smooth-skinned Martin looked younger than his twenty-one years; it was those eyes, and the depth of discernment in them, that lent him the aspect of an older, wiser man.
His mother closed the piano softly, not looking at either her husband or her youngest son.
From the front of the house came two thwacks of the door knocker. Nell heard Hodges's purposefully hushed footsteps traverse the considerable length of the marble-floored center hall; a faint squeak of hinges; low male voices.
In the absence of a response from his son, Hewitt said, "It's just that one could interpret 'all the sons of man' as encompassing, say, the Jew, or the Chinaman. Edging awfully close to Unitarianism there."
Long seconds passed, with Martin studying his father in that quietly grave way of his. "Thank you, sir. I'll give it some thought." His gaze flicked almost imperceptibly toward Nell.
A soft knock drew their attention to the open doorway, in which Hodges stood holding a calling card on a silver salver. "For you, sir."
Motioning the elderly butler into the room, Mr. Hewitt snatched up the card. "It's Leo Thorpe. Dear, weren't you just saying we hadn't seen the Thorpes in far too long? Show him in, Hodges."
Just as August Hewitt looked to have been chiseled from translucent white alabaster, his friend Leo Thorpe could have been molded out of a great lump of pinkish clay. Florid and thickset, with snowy, well-oiled hair, his usual greeting was a jovial "How the devil are you?" Not today.
"Ah." Mr. Thorpe hesitated on the threshold, looking unaccountably ill at ease as he took them all in. "I didn't realize you were with..."
"I was just leaving." Martin offered his hand to the older man as he exited the room. "Good to see you, sir."
Mr. Thorpe dismissed the sleeping nursemaid with a fleeting glance before turning his attention to Nell. Rather than rising from her chair, and thereby waking Gracie, she simply cast her gaze toward her open book, as if too absorbed in it to take much note of anything else. He hesitated, then looked away: the governess tucked back in the corner with her sleeping charge.
Nell didn't mind, having become adept not so much at mingling with Brahmin society as dissolving into it. Dr. Greaves was right: It could work to one's advantage for people to forget you were there. The formal calls and luncheons to which she often accompanied Viola Hewitt, with or without Gracie-Mrs. Bouchard having little tolerance for them and Viola needing help getting about-afforded, despite their tedium, the most remarkable revelations. Nell had innumerable sketches upstairs of fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen whispering together over their fans, their champagne flutes, their tea cups. They hardly ever whispered as softly as they should.
"Leo," Viola began, "we were just saying it's been far too long since we've had you and Eugenia over."
"Hm? Oh, yes. Quite."
"Why don't you join us for dinner Saturday? Ask Eugenia to call on me some morning this week, and we'll work out the details."
"Yes. Yes," he said distractedly. "I, er... That sounds splendid."
"Everything all right, Thorpe?" inquired Mr. Hewitt. "It isn't your gout acting up again, I hope. Here-have a seat."
Viola offered her guest tea, "or perhaps something stronger," but he shook his head. "This isn't really a social call, although I dearly wish it were. It's about...well, your son." Thorpe fiddled with the brim of his top hat, upended on his knee with his gloves inside. "But you see, Hewitt, I was actually hoping we could speak in private."
Viola's smile was of the long-suffering but taking-it-well variety. "You can talk in front of me, Leo. What mischief has Harry gotten himself into this time?" As August Hewitt's longtime confidant and personal attorney, Leo Thorpe had been most accommodating, over the years, in sweeping the worst of Harry's libertine excesses under the carpet. Mr. Thorpe was also, as of the last city election, a member of Boston's Board of Alderman, and thus responsible, along with the mayor and members of the Common Council, for all facets of the municipal government.
"Not another row over a woman, I hope," said Mr. Hewitt. "It was awfully late when he came in last night-or rather, this morning. Heard him crash into something down here, so I got up to check on him. Found him reeling drunk, of course, and he'd lost his new cashmere coat and scarf somewhere-or had them stolen off him, or gambled them away. Slept through church, as usual. Had a bath drawn around noon, and his breakfast tray brought up to him while he soaked in it-must have spent over an hour in there."
"It's not about Harry." Rubbing the back of his neck, Mr. Thorpe informed his hostess that he would perhaps, after all, appreciate a nice, stiff whiskey.
She rang for it. "You can't mean that our Martin has done something...?"
"Absurd." Her husband banished the notion with a wave of his hand.
"I couldn't imagine it," the alderman agreed.
"We only have the two sons, Thorpe," Hewitt said. His wife fingered the primitive turquoise necklace half-buried in the froth of blond lace at her throat, her mouth set in a bleak line.
Thorpe looked toward the doorway as if hoping the drinks tray had materialized there.
"If it wasn't Martin or Harry..." Hewitt persisted.
"A man was arrested last night on Purchase Street in the Fort Hill district, outside a place known as Flynn's. It's a...well, it's a sort of boardinghouse for sailors, among..." his gaze slid toward Viola "...other things. Gave his name as William Touchette. That's how they-"
"Touchette?" Viola sat up straight. Her French pronunciation was a good deal better than Mr. Thorpe's. She looked away when her husband cast her a quizzical glance.
"That's right," Thorpe said. "So that's the name they booked him under at the station house, but then this morning, when the shift changed, he was recognized by one of the day boys-Johnston, a veteran." He took a deep breath, eyeing the couple warily. "Please understand-it came as a shock to me, too. He's William-your son William."
The Hewitts gaped at him.
"Seems Johnston hauled him in back in July of fifty-three," Thorpe explained, "along with almost a hundred others, when they raided those North End bawd-" he glanced at Viola "...houses of ill fame. That's how he knew him."
Finding his voice, Hewitt said, "That...that was fifteen years ago. How could he possibly re-"
"He remembers the raid because it was the biggest one they ever staged, next to St. Ann Street in fifty-one. And he remembers your son because, well...he was a Hewitt."
Viola stared at nothing, as if in a trance. "Will was home for the summer, and we hadn't left for the Cape yet. It was the day after his eighteenth birthday. He'd gone out for the evening with Robbie. Your Jack was probably with them, too," she told Leo. "But Robbie came home without him around midnight..."
"Impossible," declared Mr. Hewitt. "Must just be some passing resemblance. William is dead."
Dennis, one of the Hewitts' two handsome young blue-liveried footmen, came with the drinks, which he offered, unsurprisingly, to everyone but Nell. Had Viola noticed, she would have said something, as she invariably did when Nell was slighted by one of the staff. Governesses, because they were often treated more like family members than employees, tended to draw the wrath of a household's domestic staff; but at least most of them had been born into privilege and were therefore nominally deserving of a show of respect. Not so with Nell, who was widely scorned by servants with similar working class backgrounds who regarded themselves as her equals-or, in some cases, her betters-and resented having to serve her. Particularly disdainful were Mrs. Mott, Dennis, Mr. Hewitt's valet and most of the maids-especially the sullen Mary Agnes.
Thorpe took his whiskey neat and swallowed it in two gulps. "Captain Baxter-he's in charge of Division Two, which covers Fort Hill-he sent for me this morning, because of, well, who you are, and knowing I'm your attorney-and your friend. I went down to the station house and saw him. August, it's William-your William."
"He's alive," Viola said tremulously. "I don't believe it."
"I can't believe it," insisted her husband. "If he's alive, why is he only surfacing now? Why did he never let us know? And why on earth would he be listed on the Andersonville death roll? It says right there he died of dysentery on August ninth, eighteen sixty-four. Why would it say that if it weren't true?"
"I asked him that," said Thorpe. "I asked him a great many things, but he wasn't what you'd call forthcoming. If you don't mind my bringing this up, has anyone gone to the prisoners' graveyard at Andersonville and seen his-"
"Robbie has his own grave," Hewitt replied. "As for William..." He glanced at his wife. "It seems there were a great many prisoner fatalities on that particular day. He was interred in a mass grave."
"Cursèd business," Thorpe muttered.
"I would assume, Thorpe, that you asked this fellow point blank if he was William Hewitt."
"Certainly-just to make it official. He wouldn't answer, but I knew it was him. He's a surgeon, yes?" Thorpe reached into his coat for something swathed in a handkerchief. Unwrapping it, he revealed a strip of tortoiseshell with a crack in it.
Viola sucked in a breath as he unfolded from the object a slender, curved blade stained with something dark. Nell craned her neck slightly for a better view.
Turning it this way and that, Thorpe said, "I gather it's some sort of folding surgical knife."
"A bistoury," Nell said.
Thorpe turned and blinked at her.
She scolded herself for calling attention to her presence, but the damage was done. "Bistouries are surgical knives that are quite narrow," she explained, "and sometimes curved, like that one. And very sharp at the tip." Gracie stirred, but settled back down when Nell rubbed her back.
"It's obviously a well-used blade," Thorpe said, "but he's kept it honed. The blade is stamped 'Tiemann.'"
"That's the manufacturer," said Viola. "That bistoury is part of a pocket surgery kit I gave Will for Christmas when he came home that last...well, it was his last Christmas with us, in sixty-three. He and Robbie were both granted two-week furloughs. Robbie was with us the whole time, but Will only stayed two days. The last time I spoke to him was Christmas night, as he was heading up for bed. The next morning, he was gone. I never saw him again."
"A pocket surgery kit?" Thorpe said.
"Yes, it was this little leather roll with the instruments tucked inside. He had his full-size kit, of course, but I thought a portable set might come in handy. Where did you get that?"
"From the policeman who arrested your son. William..." Wrapping the bistoury back up, he said, "I'm sorry, Viola. William used it to cut a man's throat."
Color leeched from her face. Her husband sat back, slid off his spectacles, rubbed the bridge of his nose.
The alderman poured himself another whiskey. "Your son-or rather, William Touchette-has been formally charged with murder. He killed a merchant seaman in an alley next to the boardinghouse late last night. Fellow by the name of Ernest Tulley."
"No," Viola said dazedly. "No. I don't believe it. Why on earth would he do such a thing?"
"He wouldn't say, even after the boys...well, they, uh, interrogated him at some length last night, but he wasn't talking. As near as they can figure, it was a frenzy of intoxication. The other sailors say he'd come there to smoke opium. There's a room set aside for-"
"Opium?" She shook her head. "My Will...he would never..." Her normally throaty voice grew shrill. "He's a surgeon, for God's sake! August, tell him." She pounded the arms of her wheelchair. "Tell him! Will could never-"
"Viola..." Her husband rose and went to her.
"Tell him," she implored, clutching his coat sleeve. "Please, August."
Nell stared, dumbfounded. Never in the three years she'd known Viola Hewitt had she seen her lose her composure, even for a moment.
"Viola, I'll take care of-"
"There's been some horrible mistake," she told Thorpe in the strained voice of someone struggling to get herself in hand. "I know my Will. He...he was always...spirited, but he could never take a life. He's a healer. Leo, please..."
Her husband took her by the shoulders, gentling his voice. "Do you trust me, Viola?"
"You know he didn't do this, don't you?"
"You must get hold of yourself, my dear. Giving vent to one's emotions merely makes them more obdurate-you know that. Now, I'm going to take Leo upstairs, to the library, to sort this thing-"
"No. No! Stay here. I'll stay calm. I'll-"
"You've too delicate a disposition for such matters, my dear. I'll take care of everything, but I must caution you not to make mention of this to anyone-and that includes Martin and Harry."
"I can't tell them their own brother is alive? And arrested for murder? For heaven's sake, August, they'll find out sooner or later."
"Just trust me, Viola. Thorpe." Hewitt motioned his friend to follow as he left the room.
"August!" she cried as the two men headed for the curved stairway that led from the back end of the center hall to the upper floors. "What do you mean, you're going to 'take care of everything'? What does that mean, August?"
"Mrs. Hewitt..." Nell began.
"I've got to get upstairs," she said in a quavering voice as she grabbed the folding canes off the back of her chair. "Where's Mrs. Bouchard?"
"It's Sunday. She's got the day-"
"You help me, then." Yanking the canes open, she planted them on the Oriental rug. "Hurry!"
"Ma'am..." Nell looked from the sleeping child in her arms toward the ceiling, where footsteps squeaked; the library was directly overhead, right off the second floor landing.
"You're right. By the time I got up there... You go!"
"Me? They'll never let me-"
"Tiptoe upstairs and listen outside the door."
"Just don't let anyone see you. Be on the lookout for Mrs. Mott. She can be quiet as death, that one."
"Mrs. Hewitt, your husband will dismiss me for sure if he catches me." He'd sacked employees for far less.
"He won't if I make enough of a fuss. You know he can't bear to distress me. Nell, please." Tears trembled in Viola's eyes. "I'm pleading with you. I've got to find out what he's planning to do. I'm so afraid... Please." Plucking a lace-edged handkerchief from her sleeve, she blotted her eyes and held out her arms. "I'll take Gracie. Hurry!"
Gracie mewed like a vexed kitten when Nell rose and carried her across the room. "No..." the child griped sleepily, no doubt assuming she was being taken upstairs to finish her nap in the nursery. "Want Miseeney." She jammed those two fingers in her mouth, eyes half-closed, pinkened right cheek imprinted from the double row of tiny covered buttons on Nell's bodice.
"Miseeney has to go now," Nell said softly as she tucked the child in her adoptive mother's lap. "Nana will hold you." Having Gracie call her "Nana" had been Viola's idea; it would inspire too many raised eyebrows in public, she reasoned, for such a young child to call a woman of her advanced years "Mama."
Nell stole upstairs as quietly as she could, thankful for the carpeted stairs and the plush Aubusson on the landing. Muffled voices grew louder as she neared the closed library door, where she paused, sketched a swift sign of the cross. Please, St. Dismas, please, please, please don't let him open that door and find me lurking here. Funny how she still directed her prayers to the patron saint of thieves, after all these years.
"He could hang for this, you know." Leo Thorpe.
"Has he been arraigned yet?" asked Hewitt.
"Yes, and he was utterly uncooperative. Waived his right to counsel, made no attempt to defend himself. Refused to plead, so the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He did ask for bail, though, and I understand he seemed quite put out when it was denied, as is customary in cases that warrant the death penalty. He'll be detained until trial."
Hewitt grunted. "Arrogant bastard didn't think he needed a lawyer. Serves him right."
"Of course...given your position and influence, if you were of a mind to get the bail decision overturned..."
"I'm not about to grease some judge's palm just so that damnable blackguard can be free to cut some other poor bastard's throat."
This was the first time Nell had ever heard coarse language spoken in this house. She would not have expected it from the rigidly proper August Hewitt, even with no ladies present.
"Are you...quite sure, old chap? He is, after all, your son. I mean, I appreciate that you're less than sympathetic right now, but given time to reflect-"
"Not one red cent. Damn him," Hewitt said shakily. "Damn him for doing this to his mother. To go three years-over three years-without letting us know he was alive, and then this...this... By Jove, he committed murder! If he was innocent, he would have pled not guilty right from the start. And opium? He was always a bad egg. Sad to say, but even as a little child, I knew he would come to no good."
"Heartbreaking, when they're born that way."
"Of course, Viola is soft-hearted when it comes to William. Understandable. He's her firstborn, and women are sentimental creatures."
"What address did he give?" Hewitt asked.
"Some hotel. He doesn't have a permanent address."
"Well, not here in Boston, but surely-"
"Anywhere. He appears to be something of a nomad."
"A Hewitt wandering around homeless. Never thought I'd see the day."
"Say, Hewitt," Mr. Thorpe began, "is it true you've got a bottle of hundred-year-old cognac locked up in that cabinet?"
"It is, but you're daft if you think you're getting any. It's the last of a case my grandfather bought from Hennessy's first shipment to New York in seventeen ninety-four, and I'm saving it for the birth of my first grandchild. There's a nice tawny port in that decanter-help yourself."
"I do believe I will."
In the ensuing silence, Nell perused the paintings hung close together on the darkly paneled walls-Mrs. Hewitt's portraits of her family, bordered in ornate gilt frames. Here on the landing there was one of her husband with his three younger sons and several of those sons posing separately and in pairs. Achingly handsome men, in particular the late Robbie, with his thick, gilded hair and dramatic black eyebrows. Around the corner, in the corridor leading to the family bedrooms, were many more of her paintings, most of the Hewitt scions ranging in age from infancy through their twenties. Notably absent from the collection was any depiction of their eldest son. All Nell really knew about William Hewitt was that he'd been schooled, from early childhood, in Great Britain.
Hewitt's voice penetrated the thick oak door again. "There was always a William Problem, from the moment he was born. I must say, Viola handled his youthful misdeeds with remarkable aplomb, but this... He's gone too far. I won't have her exposed to him. Her health's been fragile, you know, ever since she fell ill in Europe. I don't think she could endure the strain, if I were to let William back in her life-not with what he's become."
"Damn fine cigar," Thorpe muttered.
"Rest assured, Thorpe, it is my intent that William be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible-but under this assumed name, mind you. What is it, again? Something French."
"Touchette," Thorpe replied, still mispronouncing it. "But won't he be recognized for who he really is?"
"Unlikely. William grew up in England, remember, except for summers, and he always went with us to the Cape. He actually spent very little time in Boston, and Viola could almost never get him to go calling with her, or to dinners and dances, so he met hardly anyone. Robbie was the only one he spent any time with-and your Jack, of course. Robbie wouldn't go anywhere without him-remember?"
"Yes, quite. Oh-! Did I tell you Orville Pratt and I are bringing Jack aboard as a junior partner in the firm? We're going to make it official when we announce Jack's engagement to Cecilia Pratt-probably during the Pratt's annual ball."
"Excellent! Jack's a fine young man-as was Robbie, despite William's efforts to corrupt them both. But as to his being recognized, rest assured there's not a soul in Boston-aside from Jack, I suppose-who would know him if he saw him on the street. Except, of course, for those fellows at the station house. They're the ones who trouble me. How many are there?"
"Well, Johnston, of course-the one who remembered arresting him. He told one or two others, including Captain Baxter, and Baxter summoned me. I gave orders for no one else to be told until I could speak to you, and I had him put in his own cell, away from the other prisoners."
"Those who know must be silenced. From what I hear, there isn't a single member of the Boston Police Department who wouldn't sell his mother into white slavery for the price of a pint of ale."
Even through the door, Nell heard Thorpe's deep sigh.
"Offer them whatever it will take for them to forget who William Touchette really is," said Hewitt. "And of course I expect a certain zeal in bringing him to justice. Perhaps a bonus for those involved once he's found guilty and sentenced. Have this Captain Baxter handle it. But talk to him soon, before he and the others start opening their mouths."
"It will be done within the hour."
"I don't want my name mentioned, Thorpe, or yours. It goes no further than Baxter."
"What about the girl? That pretty little governess?"
"Nell? She's devoted to my wife. She'll keep her mouth shut if I explain to her that it's in Viola's best interest-which, of course, it is, although Viola won't see it that way. As for William, I want him out of that station house and away from prying eyes as soon as it can be arranged."
"He's to be transferred to the county jail on Charles Street tomorrow to await trial."
"Good. Bury him as deep in that bloody mausoleum as you can get him." Now it was Hewitt's turn to sigh. "Damn him."
Nell whirled around, her heart kicking. "Master Martin." He'd come around the corner, evidently on his way downstairs. "I was just looking at your mother's paintings," she said as she walked past him, into the corridor proper, so as not to be heard by the men in the library.
"Extraordinary, aren't they?" He looked about fifteen when he smiled like that. "I keep telling her she should hang them downstairs, where visitors can see them, but she thinks that would be vulgar."
Taking in the myriad paintings lining the long, high-ceilinged passageway, she said, "I was wondering why there are none of your brother William."
"I assumed you knew." Martin shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. "He was the black sheep of the family."
"I suppose I suspected that. No one ever talks about him."
"Father doesn't like to hear his name-even now that he's gone. I find it hard to understand. I mean, he can't have been any worse than Harry, and Harry's always in one fix or another-either it's his drinking, or his gambling, or his..." Martin looked away, clearly discomfited.
"His mill girls?" This from Harry himself as he emerged from his room down the hall, teeth flashing, tawny hair well brushed and gleaming. The only evidence of last night's excesses would be his complexion, which had that bleached-out Sunday palor, and a certain puffiness around the eyes. "Say it, Martin. Our lovely Miseeney is much like mother, you know-unshockable." Surveying Nell's dress from neckline to hem, he said, "And doesn't she look fetching this morning. Is that a new shade of gray?"
"Morning?" Martin scoffed. "It's two-thirty in the afternoon, Harry. And I hardly think Miss Sweeney appreciates your mockery."
"Miss Sweeney recognizes a good-natured jest when she hears it. Are you saying you're the only one who's allowed to flirt with her? Hardly seems fair."
"I wasn't... We weren't..." Even in the dimly lit corridor, Nell could see Martin's ears flare crimson.
"If he takes any liberties," Harry told Nell as he sauntered past, "you must call me at once." With a wink, and leaning conspiratorially close, he added, "I'd give anything to witness that."
* * *
This was the first time Nell had ever seen Viola Hewitt cry. It wasn't gentle weeping, either, but great, hoarse sobs that shook her to the bones as she sat hunched over the writing desk in her pink and gold sitting room. "It's all my fault," she kept wailing into her handkerchief. "All my fault..."
"Of course it's not your fault," Nell soothed as she kept half an eye on Gracie in her Nana's adjacent boudoir, dragging hatboxes out of the closet while Viola's lady's maid, Paola Gabrielli, sat in the corner sewing a veil onto a purple velvet bonnet. "How could it be your fault?"
Viola shook her head, tears dripping onto the letter in front of her, a letter that began, Dear Will... "Oh, God. I'm a horrible mother."
"You're a wonderful mother."
"No, you don't know. You don't know. And now...and now my baby, my Will... They're going to h-hang him. And it's all my fault."
Her fault? Did she knife that man outside Flynn's boardinghouse? Did she tell Alderman Thorpe to bury her son "as deep as you can get him" in the Charles Street Jail? There were people responsible for begetting this situation and making it worse, but it seemed to Nell that Viola Hewitt was as blameless a victim of it as Ernest Tulley.
Heedless of the tear stains dotting the letter, Viola folded it and tucked it into an envelope, on which she wrote, in her signature violet ink, Dr. William Hewitt before drawing up short. She jammed the pen back in the crystal inkwell, tore the envelope away and replaced it with a fresh one, which she addressed to Mr. William Touchette. She heated a stick of violet sealing wax in the flame of her desktop candle, melted it into a tiny silver spoon, dripped the molten wax onto the envelope's flap and imprinted it with her monogrammed insignia.
"You must take this to Will," she told Nell.
"What?" Nell exclaimed as her employer shoved the letter in her hand.
"You're the only one who can do this, Nell. God knows August won't. He won't even acknowledge Will as a member of this family. He doesn't care if he hangs-you told me so yourself. And he'll be livid if I bring Martin or Harry in on this."
"Mrs. Hewitt, I-"
"Do it this afternoon. Once they transfer him to the county jail, you'll have a hard time gaining access to him. Right now, he's at the Division Two station house, which is on Williams Court. I used to bring blankets and Bibles to the prisoners there. Each holding cell has a sort of anteroom for visitors. You'll be able to talk to him without anyone overhearing you."
"What if Mr. Hewitt sees me leave? Or Hitchens?" The devoted valet reported everything to his employer. August Hewitt would cast her out in a heartbeat if he found out she'd gone behind his back. Nell's most harrowing nightmare-the one from which she literally awoke in a sweat from time to time-was the one where she found herself back in her old life, with no home, no family...and worst of all, no Gracie. "Won't it look suspicious, me going out after deciding to stay home because it was snowing so hard?"
"If anyone asks, you can tell them you're planning to paint Boston Common in the snow, and you need to see how it looks."
It was a good lie; Nell was grudgingly impressed. But what if it didn't work? Going behind August Hewitt's back this way was far worse than eavesdropping at his library door. She'd never heard him sound so furious-or determined. If he found out what she'd done, he would fire her, and Viola would be helpless to prevent it. No one defied August Hewitt and got away with it, ever.
And, too, the notion of walking into a police station filled Nell with a cold dread all its own. "I don't think I could handle this, Mrs. Hewitt."
Misjudging the reason for her trepidation, Viola said, "Nell, believe me, you have nothing to fear from my Will. He's incapable of doing what they say he did. And he would die before he'd let an opium pipe touch his lips. He thinks it's a blight on humanity-he once told me so himself. He said they should outlaw it here, as they have in China. He's a good man, a surgeon. He would never...cause you harm, if that's what you're thinking, or-"
"It's not that. I just...I..."
"I need to find out what really happened, from Will himself. Obviously I can't go myself, much as I wish I could. I've dreamed of seeing him again-literally. I wake up sobbing from those dreams. But I have to think of Will. If I were to visit him, everyone would notice me. They know who I am there. Someone would figure out who Will really is, and he's obviously gone to great pains to prevent that. And, if Mr. Hewitt were to find out I'd defied him..." Her brow furrowed. "He mustn't find out you've been there, either. Use a false name. Say you're doing charitable work. Talk to Will alone if you can. Tell him I'm going to try to overturn the bail decision tomorrow so he can get out of there."
"Can you do that? Without Mr. Hewitt finding out?"
"The husband of an acquaintance of mine is a judge in the criminal court. Horace Bacon is his name. I happen to know she likes to live beyond her means, and I've heard rumors Horace has accrued a fair amount of debt. I can't see him turning down my request if it's accompanied by a nice, fat envelope. And if it's fat enough, I imagine you can convince him to expedite the process and keep my name off any paperwork having to do with-"
"I can convince him?"
"You're the only one I can ask to do any of this, Nell." Frowning, she said, "I'll need to hire a lawyer, too."
"Won't the court appoint a public defender?"
"No, we need our own man, someone very good and very discreet, who'll agree to keep Mr. Hewitt out of it. That will be trickier than the business about the bail. My husband knows just about every lawyer in Boston."
A flurry of nonsense babbling drew Nell's attention to the bedroom, where Gracie was gamboling in circles, arms outstretched, an ostrich-plumed bonnet jammed low over her face. Paola-Nell's only real friend on the Hewitts' staff-caught Nell's eye and smiled. A darkly beautiful woman about Viola's age, although she looked much younger, Paola was known as "Miss Gabrielli" despite being married-assuming her husband was still alive, for she hadn't been back to Italy in the thirty or so years she'd served as Viola's lady's maid. By the same token, tradition regarding housekeepers dictated that Evelyn Mott, a spinster, be addressed as "Mrs. Mott." None of it made much sense to Nell, but she'd long ago stopped trying to understand Brahmin customs.
"I can't leave," Nell said. "Who'll keep an eye on Gracie?" She was a child who got into everything and needed frequent running after, which was why Viola was unequal to the task.
"Nurse Parrish will awaken from her nap soon enough. In the meantime, Paola can set aside her work long enough keep a proper watch over her. Please, please, Nell-I beseech you. I must find out what really happened last night. I won't rest until I do." Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. "You're the only one I trust, and I know you can do this. You're so strong, so clever and capable. And people respond to you. Men respond to you. You'll have no trouble getting in to see Will."
Nell pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead, feeling trapped and woozy and increasingly resigned. If not for Viola Hewitt, she would still be in East Falmouth, wearing frayed cast-offs as she tended round-the-clock to Cyril Greaves's every need. Not that she'd begrudged him any of it, God knew. She'd been fond of Dr. Greaves, very much so. He'd quite literally saved her life-only to remake her into the kind of woman who could function in a world of glittering privilege. He'd let her go regretfully, but with a measure of grace that had touched Nell deeply, because she'd known he was doing it for her. For all that, she would be eternally grateful; but she was grateful to Viola Hewitt as well, exceedingly so, for having invited her into this world-and for giving her Gracie, the only child she would ever have.
In a quiet voice still rusty with tears, Viola said, "You're lucky in a way, you know that?"
"Know it? I think about it every morning when I awaken and every night as I'm falling asleep."
"I don't mean that. I mean... You're so much freer than I am, really-freer than any woman of rank. We're all kept shrouded in cocoons of propriety lest we somehow bring scandal upon our families-and there are more ways of doing that than you can imagine. The governess, however, occupies a singular niche in our world, neither servant nor pampered gentlewoman, but something quite apart. Do you have any idea how blessed you are to be able to come and go as you please? The demands of my class have crippled me more surely than the affliction that put me in this chair. You, on the other hand, have no cocoon to bind you."
Reaching out, Viola stroked Nell's cheek. "You're a butterfly. How I do envy you."
"A lady to see you, Touchette," announced the pockmarked guard through the iron-barred door of the holding cell.
"I don't know any ladies." The voice from within-drowsy-deep, British-accented and vaguely bored-did not belong here. It was a voice meant for the opera box, the ballroom, the polo field...not this fetid little police station cage.
Nell's view of William Hewitt was limited by her position against the wall of the cramped visitor's alcove and the fact that it was only the cell's door that was comprised of open grillwork; the walls were solid brick. From her angle, all she could make out through the barred door were two long legs in fawn trousers, right ankle propped on left knee. A hand appeared and struck a match against the sole of a well-made black shoe. The hand was long-fingered, capable-a deft hand with a scalpel, she would guess.
Or a bistoury.
"Her name is Miss Chapel," said the guard as he hung Nell's snow-dampened coat and scarf on a hook. "She's from the Society for the Relief of Convicts and Indigents."
The aroma of tobacco wafted from the cell. "I don't suppose it would do any good to point out that I am neither a convict nor an indigent."
"You'll be a convict soon as they can manage to drag your sorry..." the guard glanced at Nell "...drag you in front of a jury. And then you'll be just another murdering wretch swinging from a rope over at the county jail."
Nell clutched to her chest the scratchy woolen blanket and Bible she'd brought. She hated this. She hated being in this monstrous brick box of a building, surrounded by blue-uniformed cops who all seemed to stare at her as if they knew who she really was and why this was the last place she should be. She hated the way Gracie had cried and reached for her, squirming in Paola's arms, as she'd put on her coat to come here. And she really hated having to confront this man who may or may not have cut another man's throat last night in a delirium born of opium-or lunacy.
"You can give him them things, ma'am, but I'll have to check 'em first." The guard held his hand out. "The blanket, then the Bible." He unfolded and shook out the former, fanned the pages of the latter, and handed them back.
"You can sit here if you've a mind to pray or what have you." The guard scraped a bench away from the wall and set it up facing the iron-barred door from about five feet away. "You'd best keep your distance. If he tries anything, like grabbing you through the bars or throwing matches at you, you give me a holler-loud, 'cause I'll be all the way down the hall."
Matches? Nell thought about the flammable crinoline shaping her skirt, and the newspaper stories of women burned alive when their dresses brushed candles or gas jets. She stood motionless after the guard left, listening to the receding jangle of his keys as he returned to his station at the far end of the hall.
"I'll take the blanket." The long legs shifted; bedropes squeaked. "You can keep the Bible."
With a steadying breath, Nell stepped away from the wall and approached the door to the cell, staying a few feet back, as the guard had advised.
Its occupant was standing now, his weight resting on one hip, drawing on a cigarette as he watched her come into view. He was tall, somewhat over six feet, with hair falling like haphazard strokes of black ink into indolent eyes. His left eyelid was swollen and discolored, with a crusted-over cut at the outer edge. Two more contusions stained his beard-darkened jaw on that side, and his lower lip was split. They interrogated him at some length last night.
Even unshaved and unshorn, his face badly beaten, there could be no mistaking that this man was Viola Hewitt's son. It wasn't just his coloring-the black hair and fair skin-but his height, his bearing, the patrician planes and hollows of his face.
His gaze swept over her from top to bottom as he exhaled a plume of smoke, but it felt different than when Harry did it. With Harry there was always a speculative glimmer behind the roguish audacity in his eyes, a spark of real heat that he could never fully disguise. The eyes of the man assessing her at the moment betrayed no such illicit interest. He took her measure as indifferently as if she were a mannequin in a shop window.
Nell felt like a mannequin sometimes, or a doll, given Viola Hewitt's enthusiasm for dressing her. I'm too old and too crippled to wear the newest styles, she would tell Nell, so you must wear them for me. The dresses she ordered were always of the latest Paris fashion, but discreet in cut and color, as befitted a governess-no stripes or plaids, no swags, ruffles, bows, or rosettes, no feathered hats. Today's costume was typical: a gunmetal day dress with the sleek new "princess" skirt and a small, front-tilted black hat. The only jewelry she wore on a regular basis was the pretty little gold pendant watch Viola had given her their first Christmas together. Just this morning, Viola has praised her "restrained elegance." Nell didn't think she would ever understand how rich people could interpret such dreariness as elegant.
As for William Hewitt, he might have passed for something akin to elegant this time yesterday, but now... He was in his shirtsleeves; moreover, his shirt was flecked near the top with reddish-dark stains-whether his own blood or Ernest Tulley's, she had no way of knowing. His collar and tie were both missing, giving him a decidedly disreputable air. Adding to the effect was the cigarette, which Nell had never seen a man of his station smoke, although she'd heard they were catching on in certain fast circles.
He came toward her, hand outstretched.
She stumbled back, dropping the Bible and knocking over the bench.
He looked at her through the bars, not smiling exactly, although there was a hint of something in his eyes that might have been amusement. Idiot! Nell berated herself. She knew not to show fear around dangerous men. A man with the predatory instinct was like a wolf; if he sensed your weakness, you were done for. It was a hard lesson, but one she'd learned well. She was out of practice, that was it; too much soft living among civilized people.
He gestured toward the blanket wadded up in her arms. "I was just reaching for the-"
"Of course. I... Here." Swallowing her trepidation, she stepped just close enough to push the blanket through the bars. The unbuttoned cuffs of his sleeves, which should have been white, were stiff and brown, as if encrusted with mud; but of course it wasn't mud.
He took the blanket, shook it out and draped it over his shoulders, chafing his arms through it-curious, since it was quite warm in here, thanks to a wood stove out in the hall. "Good day, Miss Chapel." He turned his back to her in brusque dismissal.
Retrieving the Bible, she stammered, "I...I actually need to-"
"Trust me when I assure you that any time spent praying over me would be quite wasted." He crossed with a slight limp to the cot he'd been sitting on before, one of two against opposite walls of the windowless cell. Both mattresses were sunken and lumpy, their ticking soiled with a constellation of stains that didn't bear thinking about. There was no pillow, no furniture-just an empty stone-China chamber pot in one corner and a tin bowl of gruel studded with cigarette butts in the other.
He flung his cigarette into the gruel and sat again, stiffly. Tucking the blanket around him, he leaned back against the wall, yawned and closed his eyes.
"I didn't come here to pray over you, Dr. Hewitt," Nell said.
If he had any reaction to her use of his real name, he kept it to himself.
"Your mother sent me," she said.
He opened his eyes, but didn't look at her.
"She's brokenhearted over what's-"
"Go away, Miss Chapel." He shut his eyes again.
"It's Miss Sweeney, actually."
"Go away, Miss..." He looked at her, interest lighting his eyes for the first time since she'd arrived. It was the Irish surname, she knew. He glanced again at her fine dress, her kid gloves and chic hat-and for the first time, he really looked at her face. "Who are you?"
"My name is Nell Sweeney. I work for your mother. I gave a false name because...well, she sent me here secretly. Your father doesn't...he doesn't want anyone to know who you really are."
It took a moment, but comprehension dawned. "He just wants William Touchette to be quietly tried and hanged, thus solving forever the William Problem." When Nell didn't deny it, he chuckled weakly, but something dark shadowed his eyes, just for a moment. "So you work for my mother, eh? As what, some sort of companion? Or are you a new nurse? Did she finally oust Mrs. Bouchard for having a backbone?"
"No, I was trained as a nurse, but it's not what I do-Mrs. Bouchard is still there. And although I do believe your mother has come to regard me as a sort of companion, officially I'm a governess. Your parents hired me to help Nurse Parrish care for a child they adopted."
"Adopted?" He sat up, staring at her. A bitter gust of laughter degenerated into a coughing fit. "Haven't they ruined enough sons?" he managed as he fumbled inside his coat.
"It's a little girl, actually. Gracie-she's three."
"I pity her." Dr. Hewitt produced a small, decorative tin labeled Bull Durham, which contained pre-rolled cigarettes, and put one between his lips. "I mean, I'm sure you're a capable governess," he said as he lit it. In the corona of light from the match, his face had a damp, candle-wax pallor. "You strike me as a sensible woman, in spite of the knocking over of the bench. But it is my opinion that people should recognize when they're hopeless at something, and give it up-and if there were ever two people utterly hopeless at parenting, it's Viola and August Hewitt."
He bundled himself in the blanket again and leaned back against the wall, coughing tiredly as he puffed on the cigarette, his face sheened with perspiration.
"Are you sick?" Nell asked.
"Not strictly speaking."
"It's been my observation that surgeons are ill-equipped to diagnose themselves."
"If I were still a surgeon, I suppose that might be a consideration."
"You're not a surgeon anymore?"
"Christ, look at me!"
Rattled by his vehemence-and by the blasphemy, which her ears were unused to of late-Nell turned and busied herself righting the bench. She sat, smoothing her skirts just to have something to do with her hands.
"As I said, Miss Sweeney, when one is hopeless at something, the wisest course is to just give it up. Better for all concerned."
She decided to redirect the conversation to her reasons for coming here. "Your mother really is very distraught over your arrest, Dr. Hewitt. She sent me here to...well, among other things, to find out what actually happened last night."
He regarded her balefully. "If I didn't tell the men who did this to me-" he pointed to his face "-why on earth would I tell you?"
"For your mother's sake?"
A harsh burst of laughter precipitated another coughing fit. "You will have to do much, much better than that, Miss Sweeney."
Why, oh why couldn't Viola have found someone else to do this? Changing tack, Nell said, "She intends to hire an attorney to represent you."
"A singularly idiotic notion."
"I beg your pardon?"
He covered another yawn with the hand holding the cigarette, which was quivering, she noticed. "Why waste the fellow's time?"
"A rather nihilistic outlook, considering your life is at stake."
"Nihilistic?" Dr. Hewitt regarded her with amused incredulity. "Where the devil does a girl like you learn about nihilism?"
Nell sat a little straighter, spine and corset stays aligned in stiff indignation. "It isn't only surgeons who learn to read, Dr. Hewitt. The writings of the German philosopher Heinrich Jacobi-"
"Yes, I'm familiar with his work-it was assigned to me when I was reading philosophy at Oxford. What I'm wondering is why you read it."
"The physician I was apprenticed to-the one who trained me in nursing-he took it upon himself to tutor me in various disciplines."
"Did he, now." Before Nell could ponder what he meant by that, he said, "What's this fellow's name? I know most of the physicians in the city, at least by reputation."
"He lives on Cape Cod, near your parents' summer cottage in Waquoit. His name is Cyril Greaves."
"Is that where you're from, then? Waquoit?"
"Near there-East Falmouth. Dr. Hewitt, I didn't come here to talk about myself."
"Yet I find you suddenly fascinating, given your unexpected dimensions, and I've been so frightfully bored. Was he an older man, this Dr. Greaves, or..."
"Forty-four when I left his employ."
"Not that old, then. How long were you apprenticed to him?"
"Four years, starting when I was eighteen."
"And before that?"
Nell lifted the Bible from the bench next to her and placed it on her lap like a talisman, all too aware of how defensive she looked. "I'm afraid I don't really see the point of-"
"Indulge me. I've been quite starved for conversation in this place." He took a thoughtful pull on his cigarette. "You had a family, presumably. Parents? Brothers and sisters? What did your father do?"
What didn't he do? "He worked on the docks, mostly-cutting fish, unloading ships, that sort of thing."
"A day laborer, was he?" The lowest of the low, taking whatever job was available for whatever pittance was offered.
"That's right," Nell answered with a carefully neutral expression.
"A hard life, I daresay."
"You've no idea." Nell had the disquieting sense, as he questioned her, that he was slipping an exploratory scalpel into her mind, her memories, her very self-a dangerous proposition, given what he might unearth if he ventured deeply enough. Too much was at stake-far too much-for her to permit that.
She said, "Let me save us some time here, if I may. I had a family. They're gone now. The details are really none of your concern. I'm sorry if you're bored because you've ended up here after taking your wonderful life with all of its blessings and tossing it in the trash bin. That was your choice to make, though, and I hardly think it should now be my responsibility to provide jailhouse entertainment for you at the expense of my privacy."
Sticking the cigarette in his mouth, Dr. Hewitt clapped listlessly. "What a very impassioned speech, Miss Sweeney. Have you ever considered the stage as a vocation?"
She looked away, disgusted.
"No? I suppose I'm not surprised. Actresses have to be willing to bare their souls-and somewhat more than that, from time to time." His gaze skimmed down to the knifelike toes of her black morocco boots, just visible beneath the hem of her skirt, and back up. "If there was ever a woman buttoned up more snugly than you, I've yet to meet her."
"Must you keep turning the conversation back to me?" she asked.
"And yet I sense, if you loosened just one or two of those buttons, the most extraordinary revelations would burst forth. That's the last thing you want, though, isn't it? To be exposed. It terrifies you."
"As I said," Nell continued tightly, "your mother plans on hiring a lawyer to-"
"Go away." Sitting up, he hurled the cigarette into the bowl of gruel, where it sizzled, and tugged his blanket more tightly around himself. "Just go away, if that's all you can prattle on about. And tell Lady Viola to abandon this foolish notion of getting a lawyer. Some people are meant to hang."
"Guilty people are meant to hang."
"Precisely." Sweat trickled into his eyes; he wiped it away with the blanket. "Not that I'm too keen on that particular method of execution. I saw six men hanged at the same time once. It took a full ten minutes for them to stop writhing. One of them broke his neck, but he still struggled. Hellish way to go. I wouldn't mind a firing squad-or perhaps a syringe full of morphine. Quick, fairly painless..."
"Are you saying you killed that man?"
"Boorishly put, Miss Sweeney. You're cleverer than that."
"Your mother believes in your innocence, Dr. Hewitt."
"Why, for God's sake?"
"Because you're her son," Nell said quietly. "Because she loves you. Why else would she have sent me here?"
He laughed wheezily, and without humor. "Because she's addicted to philanthropic projects-it helps to ease her remorse over her lack of a soul. Trust me when I tell you that woman is incapable of maternal love. You think you know my parents, Miss Sweeney, but you really have no idea."
Rising from the bench, Nell retrieved Viola's letter from the petit-point chatelaine bag hanging from her waistband-a practical alternative to a mesh reticule-and reached through the bars to hand it to Dr. Hewitt. "She asked me to give this to you."
"Still using the violet ink, I see." Turning the envelope over, he rubbed his thumb across the dab of sealing wax. "She always did like to do things handsomely." He crushed the letter in his fist and tossed it into the chamber pot.
Gasping in outrage, Nell clutched the iron bars that separated them. "Your mother wept as she wrote that," she said with jittery fury, feeling close to tears herself on Viola's behalf. "She sobbed. And you just..." She shook her head, appalled at the sight of the crumpled-up letter in the stoneware pot. "Then again, I don't know what else I would expect from a man who would walk away from his own family-his own mother-at Christmas, without even saying goodbye. Not to mention letting them think you've been dead all this time. It's you who've lost your soul, Dr. Hewitt, and I pity you for it, but I despise you, too, for bringing this grief upon a woman who's shown you nothing but a mother's true, heartfelt love. Perhaps you really do deserve to hang."
Uncoiling from the cot, he closed the distance between them with one long stride, the blanket slipping to the floor. Tempted to back away, Nell held her ground, hands fisted around the bars, not flinching from his gaze. For a moment he just stared down at her with his bloodied shirt and battered face, eyes seething, a hard thrust to his jaw. Reaching inside his coat, he produced a match, which he scraped across one of the iron bars; it flamed with a crackling hiss.
"You were told to keep your distance," he said softly.