Hammersmith: Mack Talks War (chapter two)
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.”
Hogben hadn’t needed to say this a second time, but making excuse, lest the gossips take hold of his reputation before he’d made use of it himself, he did…whisky for medicinal purposes being a solace not locally prohibited.
Mack said: “This is coming out first thing tomorrow. Extra early edition.”
“Well then, put one aside for me, won’t you? I never know what time Mrs. Bard’s chores’ll all be done.”
Two cents, though, for a paper he didn’t want, was a lot just now, when the firm had suffered the death of one partner. Hogben considered reasons for Mack’s disclosure.
“In a day or two, all of you be leaving. Don’t know what she’ll do for helpers then.” Offering this, Mack chuckled uncomfortably.
Partisan interest, Hogben decided. “Vic…”
He wanted to ease into it. He sipped. He got some assistance from Shaw, who was writhing on his stool, and had said, “Uh”, a second ago. “Shaw,” Hogben included him. “Now, I don’t suppose Congress wants any way to…rush headlong.”
Unoffended by “Vic”, Mack had definitely lit up at “headlong”.
“Nobody wants war,” Hogben finished. “And, think about it…Spain is a European country.”
“I’ll tell you what. If it came down to sending an expeditionary force all the way over there…”
“What time,” Shaw broke in, “does the drug store close up? Is that about four o’clock?”
“You gotta put things to the test. See, Hogben…” Mack hunkered and glanced round the room…but he had already lifted this particular curtain. “Here we have a template, if you like, of how the Spaniards are gonna conduct themselves. Hot blooded folks…”
“I’m sorry,” Shaw said. Mack, making his point about the Spaniards, continued ignoring him, and Shaw dropped onto his feet. “I think I’d better just do that shopping for Mrs. Bard…and then I’ll head on back, if you don’t mind, Mr. Hogben.”
He left. The two men shrugged at each other. Mack went on. “Flare up, is what I mean, with that Latin passion…pretty soon die away. That’s a lazy part of the world, the Mediterranean. Hot summers. Everybody goes off napping in the afternoons…”
Hogben’s mind framed the argument he meant to lay before Mack, whenever Mack shut up. Now, how’s it gonna be if some other country over there comes in on the side of Spain? He thought of a country. France. He had no idea about the French. Unpleasant phrases—“prolonged conflict”, “escalated hostilities”—came to him. He knew of a thing that killed a roomful of prospects, all at one blow.
“Me, think I’ll give the proposition a little thought. Sleep on it…can’t hurt.”
It took only one of em.
When he’d had the Professor, when they’d worked as a team, Hogben had known how to fan up that fear of lost opportunity. Two to contend with: one, an austere-looking gent whose speech was riddled with ten-dollar words; the other congenial Hogben, who (“For your sake, sir, so you understand best”), always deferred the thorny question to his colleague, it was hazardous going, being a wiseacre. You’d be saying your piece in front of your business competitors—most of them happy to laugh at you.
But “wait and see” remained a tough card to beat. A pigeon could drift on a cloud, poised in imagination between spending money he’d rather hang onto, and a dream of wealth and ease…
And never make the move that snared him. I may very well invest, he’d tell himself. I just haven’t made up my mind. And what event, than war on the horizon, was more likely to trigger this fatal wavering? Hogben could foresee the thing spread like a contagion.
“No, sir. Times are uncertain. Reckon I’ll wait and see.”
“Now if anyone had thought where all this was bound to lead…cause, no one who’s thinking would have it one way, when he could have it both ways. They say ones that hide can find.” Mack winked. “Make yourself useful passing the word to Sigsbee…you could trump up just as much of a case for the other side needing put down, as it were. A dummy mine wouldn’t kill anybody, and you being a good egg’d take a hold on Mr. McKinley’s sense of obligation. The question is, Hogben, which is the other side?”
Hogben took out his watch. “You’d like to see Cuba a sort of protectorate?”
“No, Mr. Hogben, I can’t say I like anything about this.”
Hogben was bluffing. The word “protectorate” had come to him like a gift. He had got himself so worried, he hadn’t managed his usual trick of listening with half an ear. He told Mack now, in a hearty voice, adding a slap on the arm, that he didn’t like it either. They could agree on that.
Mack walked with him up Main Street as far as the offices of the Clew. He paused before the door. “So. That show of yours still scheduled to go on, sir? I apologize, for mentioning the…the loss, but…”
Over this bump, Mack rallied himself. “But all this is a little different for the locals. You may as well know it…”
“I do know it. Vic, if you run into anyone curious, do my friend the favor…” Hogben lifted his chin, and squinted at the belly of a white cloud.
“…of telling em to come on down Thursday night. The Professor always liked best drawing a good crowd.”
Mack Talks War
(2017, Stephanie Foster)