EARLY ON A March morning on the cusp of spring, Anna Savard came in from the garden to find a young woman with a message that would test her patience, disrupt her day, and send her off on an unexpected journey: a harbinger of change wearing the nursing habit of the Sisters of Charity, standing in the middle of the kitchen.
Anna passed four eggs, still warm from the nest, into Mrs. Lee’s cupped hands, and then she turned to greet her visitor. The young woman stood with her arms folded at her waist and hands tucked into wide sleeves, all in white, from a severe, unadorned bonnet tied tightly beneath her chin to the wide habit that fell like a tent to the floor. No more than twenty-three by Anna’s estimation, hardly five feet tall and most of that composed of sharp corners: a chin that came to a point and a nose and cheekbones to match, elbows poking out at noncongruent angles. Anna was put in mind of a nervous and underfed chicken wrapped up in a napkin.
“Sister . . .”
“Mary Augustin,” she supplied. She had a clear voice, all polite good manners, and still there was nothing timid in her manner.
Anna said, “Good morning. How can I help you?”
“I was sent to fetch the other Dr. Savard, but it seems she’s not in. Her note said to wait for you.”
People who came so early to the house were almost always looking for Anna’s cousin Sophie, who worked among the poor women and children of the city. For a scant moment Anna thought of lying, but she had never learned the art, and there was the promise she made to Sophie.
“The other Dr. Savard is attending a birth,” Anna said. “She told me you might come and I agreed to take her place.”
The pale forehead creased and then, reluctantly, smoothed. Clearly she had strong opinions, but had been schooled to keep them to herself. She said, “Shall we go?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “But I have to write a note first to say I won’t be in this morning.”
“While you do that,” said Mrs. Lee, “I’m going to feed Sister Mary Augustin. If I don’t, I’ll have to explain myself to Father Graves in confession.” She took in the nun’s hesitance but pointed at a chair. “I know that you wouldn’t want to lead me astray. So sit.”
Fifteen minutes later, finally ready to go, Mrs. Lee took the note to be delivered to the hospital and delivered a statement in return.
“Your cousin Margaret wanted to talk to you about your costume for that ball.” She said that ball as she would have said the fires of hell.
“Margaret should talk to Aunt Quinlan if she’s worried. She’s the one who made all the arrangements for my costume.”
Mrs. Lee’s small round face could produce a tremendous depth and variety of wrinkles when she was irritated, as she was now. “And what is a proper young lady, almost thirty might I add—”
“I’m not yet twenty-eight, and well you know it.”
“—an educated woman of good family, an unmarried lady, a physician and surgeon, what business do you have at a ball on Easter Monday—Easter Monday!—given by that greedy, vainglorious Vanderbilt woman? Why—”
“Mrs. Lee.” Anna interrupted in her sternest tone, tempering it with a smile. “I made Cap a promise. Would you want me to disappoint Cap?”
All the irritation crackling in the air was gone, just that simply. Mrs. Lee loved Cap; everybody did. Muttering, she marched back to the stove.
“You and your auntie with your heads together,” Anna heard her say. “Only the good Lord knows what will come of that. And on Easter Monday.”
• • •
ANNA SET OFF at a brisk pace along Washington Square Park and then, realizing that Sister Mary Augustin was almost running to keep up, stopped.
“Please don’t slow down or we’ll miss the ferry,” she said. “I can run all day.”
“We’ll be there with five minutes to spare, even at this pace.”
A flicker of doubt chased across the angular features. In the sunlight her complexion was like buttermilk, with a scattering of freckles and eyebrows the deep red-brown of chestnuts. Anna tried to remember if she had ever seen nuns wearing bonnets before, and then let the question go.
Sister Mary Augustin was saying, “And may I ask how you know that?”
“I grew up here, and I walk almost everywhere. And I have a clock in my head.”
“A clock,” Sister Mary Augustin echoed.
“A talent for time,” Anna said. “The ability to keep time without a timepiece. It’s a skill a surgeon must develop, you see.”
“Surgeon?” The little nun looked both confused and horrified, as if Anna had claimed to be a bishop. “But I thought—isn’t your cousin—”
“The other Dr. Savard specializes in obstetrics and pediatrics. I’m primarily a surgeon.”
“But who would—” She stopped herself and two spots of red rose in her cheeks. She was pretty, Anna noted, when she forgot to be solemn. She wondered how much information she could supply without causing Sister Mary Augustin to fall down in a faint.
She said, “Women generally prefer a woman, physician or midwife or surgeon, when they are very ill or in labor. If they have a choice.”
“Oh,” Sister Mary Augustin said. “You operate on women only. That makes more sense.”
Anna said, “I am qualified to operate on anyone, but I am on the staff at the New Amsterdam Charity Hospital. Just as the other Dr. Savard, the one you hoped to find, is on staff at the Infant and Children’s Hospital and the Colored Hospital. And yes technically, I am not allowed to operate on men. Or so says the law.”
After a moment Sister Mary Augustin said, “I suppose my training is quite narrow. I’ve never even seen a surgery.”
“Well, then,” Anna said. “You must come by and observe. And we are always in need of trained nurses, if you should ever rethink your”—she paused—“calling.”
For a moment Mary Augustin was struck speechless by such a shocking suggestion. Sister Ignatia would be outraged, as Mary Augustin herself should be outraged, but instead she was struggling with a sudden blossoming of curiosity. She had been in this terrifying, exciting city for less than a year; during all that time questions had piled on top of questions, none of which she could ask.
But here was someone who would not scowl at her if she put one of those questions into words. Someone who would likely even answer. She could ask this Dr. Savard what kind of medicine obstetrics might be, and how it was that a woman could become not just a physician but a surgeon. Hot on the heels of this came the realization that Sister Ignatia was right, it was a mistake to let curiosity run riot. It would drag a person to places best left unexplored.
And she still could not stop watching this very odd and unsettling woman doctor—surgeon, she corrected herself—from the corner of her eye.
It seemed to Mary Augustin at first that Dr. Savard was wearing makeup, and then realized that it was simply vivid coloring that rose and retreated in her cheeks as they walked into the wind. Her mouth was a deep shade of pink, but the full lips were also a little chapped. She wore her dark hair smoothed back and twisted into a coil underneath her very practical hat, without the stylish bangs that most young ladies wore these days. As Mary Augustin—Elise Mercier, as she still thought of herself and always would—would wear, were such a vanity allowed. She resisted the urge to touch the faint pox scars on her forehead.
With her strong features and high coloring, few would call Dr. Savard pretty, but it was an interesting face with intelligent eyes. And she was clearly well-to-do; the neighborhood, the four-story house of a light-colored stone, the heavy oaken front door with carved lilies and cherubs, lace at the windows, all spoke to that. But both of the Savard cousins had given up a life of leisure for medicine.
Sister Ignatia would tell her to turn her attention elsewhere. The rosary, for example, which swung at her waist with each step she took. If she could get up the nerve, the first question she would ask the lady doctor would have to do with her clothes.
Dr. Savard wore garments of the very finest materials, beautifully tailored but without ornament and as austere as any nun’s habit. Her hat was dark blue lined in gray; a matching, widely cut coat fell in folds straight from a high yoke below her shoulder blades to the top of sturdy boots. Her leather gloves were of a deep glossy black with small brass buttons at the wrist. She carried a bulky leather bag as all doctors did, and she let it swing a little at her side as she walked.
There was an occasional glimpse of skirts swirling back and forth with every step she took, very oddly. That Dr. Savard was not wearing a bustle was not such a surprise—few women who worked with the sick bothered with fashions. But the way the skirt moved puzzled her. Mary Augustin’s own skirts swung wide with every step, so that the toes of her boots peeked out, first one and then the other. Dr. Savard was walking just as fast, but her skirts seemed to restrain themselves to a much smaller arc. With a start she realized that the lady doctor was wearing a split skirt, like a man’s trousers or sleeves for the legs. Widely cut so that she could walk without constriction, but trousers, without a doubt.
In the midst of Lent Father Corcoran had given a thunderous sermon on the Rational Dress Society, which he took as proof of the continuing decline of the weaker sex. He predicted physical illness, infertility, and damnation. To her surprise and unease, Mary Augustin saw that such skirts were not immodest, no matter what Father Corcoran or His Holiness Pope Leo himself might say. They looked, she could admit to herself at least, both modest and comfortable. Something so shocking and interesting and once again, she would have to keep her questions to herself.
As they walked Dr. Savard greeted almost everyone by name: the street sweeper and the baker’s delivery boy, a young girl minding a sleeping baby swaddled in quilts and tucked into a crate, a pair of laundry women arguing in Gaelic. She called out to a very grubby newsboy to ask after his mother and got a smile in return, everything taciturn chased away in that moment Dr. Savard spoke to him.
In Washington Square the trees were reaching toward spring, fat buds putting out the first pale green to shimmer in the sun. The city was full of such contrasts: beautiful homes on wide streets lined with linden and elm and plane trees, and tenements so filthy and overcrowded that the stench filled the throat with bile. Little boys dressed in velvet toddled along under the watchful eye of nannies in spotless aprons, and a half-naked child crouched down to watch maggots roiling in the open belly of a dead cat.
Every day Mary Augustin asked herself what she had imagined when she was first sent to this great noisy city. In theory she had understood what it meant to take in the poorest and most desperate; she knew that many of the infants would be sick unto death and few would survive their first year. But she had never understood what it meant to be truly poor before she came to this place. Every day she was frightened, overwhelmed, and at the same time consumed by curiosity, needing to understand things that could not be explained.
She cast a glance at Dr. Savard and wondered if it would be a very terrible sin to talk to her, and what penance such an act of defiance would earn once she put it into words in the confessional.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I asked unseemly questions of a well-bred, overeducated lady in split skirts. And I listened to the answers.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue they came to an abrupt halt while oxen pulled two huge drays through the intersection. Florid red lettering on the first one declared that the profusion of potted trees—some twice Mary Augustin’s own height, at least—came from LeMoult’s Conservatory. The second dray had a lighter load: buckets and buckets of flowers, gorgeous deep colors and lighter spring shades. On the side of this wagon was a smaller sign:
Mary Augustin couldn’t help staring, but then she was not the only one.
“I wonder what that’s about,” she asked in a voice low enough to be ignored. Dr. Savard looked at her and lifted a shoulder. “The Vanderbilts,” she said. “And their costume ball.”
She had ventured a question and got an answer, but that only brought a hundred more questions to mind. If this went on much longer, Mary Augustin told herself, her brain would be riddled with question marks, hundreds of little hooks set so deep they’d never let go.