More Peaceful Pursuits: Hammersmith (thirty-seven)
This Mr. Curach, whom Ruby well accepted, being Aimee’s friend, as a perfectly suitable escort, was also…so she found him…a fine and forward-coming fellow. He might be not so much older than herself. Not so very much. He was jaunty of step, and no taller…they matched well, side-by-side. He had a bit of a cast in one eye. This, she was sure of it, lucky in a husband.
Well, there, people said so.
Carey had dragged behind them, and talking, they’d forgotten him for the third time.
“Now, lad, should I give you my arm?”
“No, Mr. Curach. Take Ruby on, and I’ll make my way. We’re on the road, aren’t we…and there isn’t another?”
This came modestly repressive. But Curach did not offer his thoughts. He said:
“At about your age, lad, I was myself just setting up in life. Mr. Piggott would have me to go out strengthening the voters, there being always the small want to be supplied, the simple folk so like to be swindled into debt… Or a new mouth to feed expected. Or a myriad of troubles to prey on a man’s mind and make him tardy to the polls.”
Having this left him to comment on, Carey tried: “That’s not legal…not on the up and up, is it?”
“Why, what do you think I’m saying to you?”
A pause. “I don’t know.” And to this avowal, something wondering in Carey’s voice gave piquancy.
“Why, suppose I’d had a lovely little wife at home, instead of being the bachelor I always have been?”
“And children running about?” Ruby seconded. She felt it right she do so, though she knew no more than Carey what Curach’s point would be, when he’d made it.
“Say there had been children running about, that would never worry you much…? They are all grown now, and keeping their own houses.”
The implication was rather fraught for Ruby, and she moved away from the men; in the fading light of Curach’s lantern finding the first post of the bridge. She cupped its finial between her hands and on these, rested her chin.
The light at her back welled fresh, just as over the rise another walker came silhouetted, brisk-paced, creaking a rhythm…of baggage, she thought. A hinged case.
“Is that Miss Magley?”
“Is that Mr. Hogben? I can’t tell you what’s become of Minnie and Aimee… Oh! Mr. Curach!” The idea flashed that Hogben would escort her home; Curach free that way, to give his arm to Carey…
The guilt, that she could say to herself home, when it was not hers, and Aimee was far too generous, flashed a close second. Curach reached her side.
“What if you were to call me Declan?” The question was soft, for Ruby’s ears.
“Mr. Hogben,” she said. “Could you lend a hand to Carey? His feet are troubling him again…after he’d insist on walking down with us to McKeefe’s. Minnie said…”
“Here. Best if you take this lantern.”
Hogben, face by the exchange lit sufficient to show its dismay, took the lantern, resting his case on the ground.
“You were never leaving? If any train would run at this hour…still, they have everything closed, you know.” Curach gestured to the glow on the horizon, of Mossbunker’s factory lights.
“And what,” Hogben asked, “has been going on, exactly?”
He might have been asked to read this off a card. Ruby began to suspect Mr. Hogben had been trying to leave them…that a thing as large as insurrection, as calling in the militia to put it down, as whatever new trouble made that billow of smoke, that whuffing sound just now trailing after, could make merely nuisance for Hogben, and he would as soon pass it by.
“Shaw,” Curach said, “will be your man to tell all. Now, sir, what with the chill of the night, I’ll beg your farewell, and see to the lady.”
“Well, it’s dark.”
Ruby commented thus, when Hogben with the light recessed.
“But, as Carey has it, there is only the one road.”
“Declan.” She said it to say his name, because it struck her polite…not forgetting he’d given her permission.
“You’re wondering where next. I will ask Mrs. Krabill to make available one of the better rooms. I know she has the wherewithal. My own house is yours, of course, but we’ll have a proper courtship first. Will you stay on the stage?”
“I think I won’t.”
“And now…it’s the Roman church?”
If he put it that way. “Orange, are you?”
A pause of eloquence.
“Religion is for the shaping of the young. The very young. If there were to be any more of them. Then, my girl, as you think best, and nothing to do with me.”
Yesterday, if Hogben had got right, through the buffeting chaos, the drift of the hours…yesterday, he had forayed here and there, towards Mrs. Frieslander at the last, when Aimee, for talking things over with the Kendrick brothers, Curach, Minnie, and Zetland, proved unapproachable.
He understood le Fontainebleau had got himself detained in Shaw’s custody…
He did not understand what Shaw had been about, pretending to be a salesman (but here was a narrow escape…he’d almost pitched it to a private snoop, that delicate task of playing shill).
He’d been at the threshold, folding back the lapel of his coat to get at the letter of gratitude and goodbye. Tricky one to write…Hogben might have proposed marriage to Mrs. Bard. Far too many chops and changes to be certain what careless remark had led to their engagement. Wiser to allude nothing, than apologize.
That time (it came to him) in the ’70s, forced to spend six years up the California coast working legit, ladies’ stockings, thinnest territory going…thirty, forty miles between bawdy houses…for putting it down on paper: “Mrs. Niesling, I cannot marry you.”
On the other hand, he was not going to give her money for the room and board. That would have made something of a clincher, as though they’d had just a gentlemen’s agreement. And there again, the pesky telephone. In older days, Hogben had found it prudent, spotting the Western Union boy on his bicycle, to assume a pithy account of his late activities.
Nowadays, the powers that be could outflank you and nab you at the crossroads.
And so he’d added a pretty pair of lines to the postscript, praying she would forgive his distraction, had he departed her home owing any courtesy…
(His distraction not quite the heart-tugger it might have been, had his dead partner not turned up alive.)
The letter was still in his pocket.
At the threshold, he’d cleared his throat to raise the heads of Mrs. Frieslander and Jane Littler. Then, at his back: “Oh, there you are, Monty! You popped in the kitchen a minute ago, and before I had the chance to…”
This girl, who kept calling him uncle, was back in his safekeeping, along with the boarder, who to Hogben’s eyes looked managerial enough.
“Monty, you’re a man of the world. You’ve been out west. Say something to Carey, won’t you? Tell him it’s not all so glamorous, traveling. The scenery changes, but the loneliness stays the same.”
She quoted. Some gimcrack Sunday serial. Aimee Bard was a reader, evident from the stacked newspapers and dog-eared periodicals crowding this back porch she’d led him to. And leafing through one such, Curach…who stuck on, though Aimee ventured:
“Are you here, Mr. Curach? I’m having a private talk with Monty.”
“Pay me no mind.” He’d echoed, as though struck profoundly: “The scenery changes, but the loneliness stays the same.”
So it couldn’t have hurt to give the line a third go with Carey and call it quits. Hogben was a man of the world, yes, and his advice to the pair of them would have been, cut your losses.
An hour before sunset, the house had depopulated.
Jane, batting away her husband’s hand: “Oh, Carey, you want me to make it so you don’t have to do what you promised Minnie you would? Don’t even dream! Why should I mind if you go sing with Ruby…why not go?”
Just there, he could have stepped in, got the thing done.
His own rustling raised an answering rustle not far past the level stretch, itself not far ahead of the bridge.
“Who is that? Mr. Hogben?”
“Come to get you, son.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I wish they’d leave me alone.”
And though it was tempting, the invitation would have to be forgone. This nephew was not in command of his fate, no more than Hogben. It seemed possible, darkness and strange scents of ditch weed—a little cucumbery—wrapping close, along with nocturnal clouds of midges, to suppose Hammersmith a sort of enchanted place.
Not in a good way.
Everyone he’d met here, maybe…
Aimee, Vic, Mrs. Frieslander, Hugh Braithwaite..Derfinger…even Mossbunker…had once stopped in Hammersmith on their way elsewhere, to find themselves, like Hogben, mired in.
Maybe he ought to say, flee, young fellow!
But Hogben got a grip on this fancy. He put a hand out, pulled Carey Littler upright, and together they headed for the glow at the top of the hill.
“Littler, the scenery, to a traveling man, changes, but you know what doesn’t change…?”
More Peaceful Pursuits
(2019, Stephanie Foster)