Hammersmith: Helping Hands (chapter five)
She detected Mr. Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery colored his inarticulate grunts. The other man she knew at once for a stranger. Now and again she could hear Minnie Leybourne. Mostly the stranger, passionate. War an invention of the military interests, an affliction on the helpless poor…who were starved, driven from their homes, murdered. That the capitalist might enrich himself further. A good deal more of this. She peeled store-bought potatoes, Bladon at her side, razoring off the thinnest corkscrews of skin, digging the point of his knife into the eyes. Bladon, Mr. Shaw’s first name. She hadn’t reciprocated by telling him to call her Aimee. He stammered over Mrs. Bard.
He had wired money to his employer, while down in the town; the company, Bladon said, were allowing him to purchase a fresh crate of fountain pens—“Good ones, ma’am. They don’t leak a bit. I’ll let you have one of the atlases. I’m supposed to give them out free, whenever I get an order over two… Fifty-five cent per. Dozen, I mean.”
“Oh, well, an atlas, that’s awfully nice.” She would make the purchase, too. What business did he have, giving her things? Pricey, she thought. But Abel’s son was in the navy. He might soon be writing letters home—and so she’d dispose of Shaw’s pens.
The thought of war, of Ralph’s grandson fighting in one, made her feel…frustrated. That was what she felt. Vic had come up around lunchtime, slipping through the kitchen door, after Aimee had shooed Minnie and Ruby outside.
“I got these telegrams from Washington. Take a look.”
While Vic tapped his heel and peered through the window-shade at the circlings and flappings of her houseguests, she read his telegrams backwards and forwards…and still couldn’t see how the Commission’s assuming a mine proved anything about where it came from.
“That could take months, couldn’t it? Maybe they never will. Find out.”
“Ain’t gonna wait, though.”
And yet, if they called for volunteers…that was another way. How she could practice on Carey without hating herself for it, supposing he charged off to battle half-cocked (the only way he was likely to)…
But psychology or no, Aimee thought her nephew would get on better given an ambition to pursue; hang on, doing his duty by wife and child, until she’d figured out her arrangements. He had none of his own, ambitions. Only this notion that waxed and waned, of “going out west”.
Aimee had given her niece five dollars, to make the first installment on the Singer machine, that the company Jane did piecework for had let her buy from them.
(“If he gets on that train,” Jane had whispered to her at Christmas, “he’s taking Cynthia with him.”)
They were both worn out from work, and Carey’s aunt did not hold his inconstancy against him. No, it was a miserable life being poor, living in rooms. She would herself have hated working any of the jobs she might be given, had she been such a church mouse. Though she lived in a house that was hers for life, and though Ralph had put ten thousand dollars in the bank to provide her an income—the interest on which amounted to not much—Aimee wasn’t inviting them to come stay. So many rooms…but no.
Getting in a boarder had made trouble enough with Abel. She’d had to tell him Mrs. Frieslander was a relative. She drew in three dollars a week this way, to send to Philadelphia, and felt better for it. But it was a crisis, always a crisis with her nephew. If luck were not what it was, she might fear his leaving Jane at any time—
No doubt, though, that convergence of impulse and despair would hit just when he’d got her in the family way again. Amiee might have breathing room. She might, possibly, have Mr. Hogben.
“Mr. Hogben,” Shaw said to her, “called you a widow.”
He flushed. He sought correction. “I mean, I ought to say, you were telling me about Ralph. Your husband, you said. So I guess I got the idea.” Abruptly, he ended here, and bent to gouge at his potato.
“Oh, well,” she said. “I was awfully fond of Ralph.” She’d been married to him, at any rate. But Shaw, putting two and two together, seemed to have understood her. A little better than she could hope. She reached across and took the bowl away, using the moment to steal a studied look at his face.
“You’re so good, Mr. Shaw. I wonder…” She filled a second bowl with tap water. This, because the water ran thin from the well, was all she could do at the moment.
“Oh, I’ll take on another chore for you, if you like, ma’am.”
“I’m not sure you can.”
“Course I can.”
“Well…Bladon…if you’d get that paint that’s peeling scraped down off the front porch posts, and then sweep it all clean.”
“Yes, ma’am, I saw how that was. Needs a coat of fresh.”
She watched him snatch up the broom and trot off. He was thirty-five or six, she thought. An awkward age for poor Mr. Shaw, late for marrying. But too many years younger than herself. And again, his nature was diffident; he would try her patience, waiting in every case for her to take the lead.
“Do you ever think about settling down?” She liked the sound of this…it would do. It would do, because Hogben was also a kind of salesman, a traveling man alone in the world.
If by choice, she didn’t blame him a bit…
But even charlatans settled eventually, didn’t they? If she said the same words to Vic, he would take them as a proposal. Vic, like Ralph had been, was a widower, but with a daughter already keeping his house.
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)