Hammersmith: The Professor’s Fate (chapter three)
Hogben had sat up in bed, to hear the rain still pelting, rat-a-tat-tatting off some plane of the inner house where a leak had sprung. He had known he wouldn’t sleep. The roar of the deluge appeared soporific enough for the Professor, curled on the bed’s other side, his back to Hogben. Hogben knew of no observation to make that excused waking his friend…but he would have liked to. It never seemed quite fair suffering insomnia alone.
With what had proved good sense, he’d pulled on his trousers and laced up his shoes. Everything felt wet to the touch, the air precipitating of its own saturation, the smell of the Susquehanna House that of its namesake. At the moment, Hogben hadn’t understood why…still allowing it just possible they kept a night clerk on the desk, and that he might beg a glass of milk.
He could see no lights. Outside the window at the turn of the stairs, the night sky looked green to Hogben’s eyes. He heard a lapping sound. The smell was like an exhalation, now strong and foul, now receding to a plainer rankness. Yes… He wished he’d brought a candle to get a better look, but it seemed very probable the lower rooms were under water.
Minnie Leybourne came down, and her white nightdress reflected a ghostly portion of the window’s light. Her thoughts were Hogben’s.
“I have a notion the town’s under water. I wonder why everyone’s so quiet?”
“You think we oughta wake up Warple?”
She laughed. “If he’s not awake, I guess he’s drowned. Don’t he and the missus live at the back? Didn’t he say?”
“You’re Miss Leybourne, are you? I’m Hogben.” He offered these words because it was too dark for them to see each other’s faces, and because neither was properly dressed—the etiquette of the circumstance a little…different, as Mack had come to put it. And because the quiet she’d mentioned was indeed, when you came down to it, bothersome.
“Shoot!” she said. “I know you. You have any idea of the time?”
“Hope it’s about sunrise, but I kind of doubt it.”
Hogben hummed as he rambled. He was happy in the open air. The walk to Aimee Bard’s from Hammersmith was two or three miles, but he remembered there was a little bridge, arched over a creek along the way. He thought he might climb down, sit in the shade, and watch the water flow. His hum became song:
“Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings.”
The morning sun, on that sorry day, had cast its rays over a scattering of damp and marooned guests, clinging to the slates, to the weathervane, or straddling the peak of a gable. Ruby Magley had got herself soaked to the bone, and sat, unconsoled by Minnie’s sighs and pats, shivering and making noises. Hrnrrh. Hrnrrh. Weeping, Hogben had supposed.
As the strongest man among them, it was Hogben had to wade down the attic stairs and pull Ruby up by the arms. To break the suctioning action of her skirts took getting right down in the water. And for this forced acquaintance, Hogben felt obliged to give up his coat, snugging it round her shoulders. He shivered too, crawling back to the Professor’s side, being shot a sour look for it. Course, he hadn’t known then what made Ruby lag. He might just remind her, one turn deserves another.
Warple wasn’t drowned. The Warples had been discovered on the roof already.
“Did it not occur to you, sir…”
The Professor rubbed his elbow, and took a swig of his rheumatoid medicine.
“…to warn us off? You, being native here, ought to have read the signs well enough. I know nothing of these women, mind you, but Hogben and I might easily have gone ahead to Hammersmith. That’s up the hill, isn’t it?”
Warple snorted. “Warn you off? You call this a flood? Is that what you’re on about?”
He had dry matches, and a cigar in his inner coat pocket. He spat the tip into swirling waters, and pointed. “See that chimney-pot yonder? See them two bricks up top the chimney? That was some high water. This is what we call around here Springtime.”
A voice from an approaching rowboat hailed them.
“You got ladies, Warple?”
The water had risen some few inches after Ruby and Minnie went off. Hogben and the Professor stood either side of the chimney grasping each other’s forearms. The boaters returned.
“Hop on down, mister.”
“Professor, you go first,” Hogben said.
The rowers worked against the current; his partner dithered.
“Come on, sir. You’ll do fine.”
The Professor launched himself. He seemed to pivot on a foot that stubbed a loose slate. He dropped then, like a sack of flour, into the flood. The men in the rowboat stared. Hogben stared.
The current carried the boat adrift.
“I’m afraid,” one called out, while both threw themselves against the oars, “if I take this out the lock…poke around, you know… Chilly can’t hold ’er alone.”
The victims, brought by wagon into the heart of Hammersmith—its opera house—sloshed onto cloth mats laid over the lobby’s tiling, and lined up at the first of three tables. Here sat a good head of hair and a ledger book…in short, Aimee Bard. Mack at her side.
“You’re Mr. Hogben. I’ve already heard.”
Her eyes, he thought, were pretty good, too. She had half-risen and hovered a hand over his shirtsleeve, not meaning she’d already heard his name was Hogben.
A fortuitous droplet made him wipe his cheek. He saw her eyes well up.
“What,” she asked, “was your friend’s name?”
The Professor, he’d known only by his stage name, William Le Fontainebleau. Hogben had to guess, recollecting the most identifiable of varying accents, that his partner hailed from the upper middle-west.
“Oh, don’t let me rush you.” This time, she did touch his arm. “How awful it is!”
“Ma’am.” He allowed himself to choke here. “It’s a little tough to spell. Let me write it down for you.” He figured there was no help for the next; the Professor’s people—in Ypsilanti, it might be, or Appleton—probably had no expectation of hearing from him, alive or dead…
He jotted Minneapolis, as likely a place as any. “I couldn’t tell you the street address.”
She looked at the ledger. “I’m sure they’ll find him…I mean…his survivors.”
“They’ll find em!” Mack had seconded this, a little abrupt.
(Hogben’s lyrics are from “Asleep in the Deep”, 1897, Arthur J. Lamb)
The Professor’s Fate
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)