Hammersmith: Mossbunker’s Castle (chapter six)
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep.
In their mutual professional capacities, Mossbunker had spoken to him once…stipulating he did not allow the press inside his walls. They’d walked the yellowing greensward, as Vic felt inclined to name it, passed by the holly hedges (these, for the gardener’s severe clipper-work, stobbier than prickly…but still forbidding), and skirted an honest-to-goodness canal. Or whatever a feudal lord might call this. Moat, he guessed…
Mossbunker, shading eyes and flinging a commanding finger, looking like a statue of Lewis or Clark, had said: “That hill. I’m dynamiting it. The only way, Mack. What with the telephone service, we’ll be rolling out reams of cabling.”
“You figure the fill’d level out a place for company houses.”
Mossbunker had not figured this, Vic gathered. He stood tightlipped.
“It is my opinion,” he said at last, “that the open hand breeds mere contempt. A man who has got something of his own through laboring for it, appreciates…precisely…the value of it. I don’t play this game of being a father to the men. If you ask me to pay for a thing, show me first how it pays me.”
You couldn’t make idle conversation with some people.
For a second, it had seemed worthwhile to Vic to answer Mossbunker with an editorial. But before he’d got far doing the math in his head, he remembered he had no opinion on labor reform.
Mossbunker’s name had been on the factory deed for twenty years; the great man not seen locally til ’89. As a by-product of the terrible flood at Johnstown, he had turned up, surveying, along with a coterie upholstered in English tweeds, this high hill he’d owned the whole time. It might not have suited for a new hunting and fishing lodge…nevertheless, the site caught Mossbunker’s fancy. The castle had started going up, eight years ago now.
Thus, the multi-millionaire had a Hammersmith address. His presence had never been witnessed on Main Street. Vic expected he read only the Philly papers, but was working on this inroad. As soon as Abel Bard let him know about the American Patriots, Vic had said to him, “Now, I don’t want to give a bad impression. A lot of people might think the proprietor of a daily paper is not gonna keep things under his vest. If it makes Mossbunker uncomfortable, having me there…”
“Are you saying you want to join up? Just for yourself?”
“I’m a patriot, Abel.”
The banqueting hall, hung with tapestries that seemed to emit an odor of medieval sweat—authentic, Vic was willing to believe—had an oblong table, where this knighthood of Anglo-Saxon purity sat decidedly in order of precedence. The initiate was at the foot. At Vic’s back a vast oaken door swooshed on iron hinges whenever the servants brought another dish to the board. To Vic’s relief, he had a knife and fork; in fact, a decent slice of Sunday ham. You couldn’t tell how far a man who could spend what he liked might invest in the Age of Chivalry.
At length, one final servant made the rounds with an open coffer of cigars, and was dismissed by Mossbunker.
The opera house manager, Hugh Braithwaite, and Stew Murray, the barber, came to their feet in a reluctant unfolding. They clamped onto duty, long medieval horns, that Vic from his vantage had supposed castle-sized candlesticks, and blew.
Warrronk. Warrronk. Abel stood, and called the meeting to order, naming the officers, the attendees, Vic…
Mossbunker, Battle Chief, and presiding, kept his seat, but rumbled: “Elton, will you lead us?”
The town undertaker sat at Mossbunker’s left. He clasped hands and bowed his head. It was the second prayer of the evening; Mossbunker himself had led the grace.
“Dear Heavenly Father. Thou are mighty in wisdom…”
“Art,” Vic found himself murmuring.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
“Goes with thou.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone interrupt a prayer for editing. Abel.”
Like an escaped prisoner dodging the searchlight beam, Vic hunched and let his sponsor catch it.
“Don’t speak,” Abel hissed, “when nobody asked you to. I told you the rules…I did tell him, Cranston.”
Mossbunker was still, seeming to draw silence to his person. Elton rushed on.
“Lord, we Hammersmithans face a dire threat, the peril of which we have not before this day known. Please bless and guide our path, and light the way of this…same path…that we do rightly in thy sight. Thine sight…? No… Amen!”
“Amen,” Vic said, with the others.
“Yes. Thank you, Elton. You have put the matter in a nutshell. Abel, I think you are well placed to offer illumination…indeed, if you’ve been on your toes, you will have carried to us specific intelligence from Mrs. Bard’s house.”
By his face of wary calculation, Vic deemed Abel had not been on his toes.
“I can tell you…um… Round about there’s a lot of war talk…”
“Which we will take up in good time.” Mossbunker linked his fingers. “Presently, we have that dago. And those couple of micks.”
Abel scratched his nose. He checked the shine on his shoe. He said, “Well, I guess it’s true, so far as that Miss Magley goes. I couldn’t tell you about Shaw. Not every Shaw, you know…”
“Bard! One finds out such things by asking. I don’t know what’s keeping you.”
“I haven’t been up to look in on my stepmother. I had bout a hundred acres under water, this past week.”
“You are going to find out Miss Leybourne’s real name. How are you going to find out?”
“By asking, Cranston. Only… I don’t see that’s an easy thing for a married man to be asking a strange lady. It’s a little…”
“A little more of a…” Vic put in, out of turn. “A biographical concern. Something a newspaper man might ask, not offending the lady.”
“She may take off with the dago. I had a report the two of them were seen down at the roadhouse, where the hands go. McKeefe’s. They’ll pass out their anarchist propaganda leaflets and disappear. Vic… You have not been formally fraternalized, but I will call you so. I want your report tomorrow. No later.”
This was leaderly and galvanizing, all the more because initiative seemed to have got him past the voting-in process. There was a snag, however, to the pace at which Vic’s patriotic career was moving.
“When you say report…when you say tomorrow…”
“We write nothing down. When I say report, I mean I expect you at my door. When I say tomorrow, I mean tomorrow. Don’t come at lunchtime.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)