Hammersmith: Two Reunions (chapter seven)
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside towards the same creek that had attracted Hogben. She too hoped to sit in quiet thought; listening, in her case, to birdsong. She felt not quite so bereaved today…just lonely. All the same, it was not Minnie’s company she wanted. This being cared for like a sister was a burden, unexpected, and to Ruby, an embarrassment.
Because of course, she wasn’t much, to be made much of in this way, the daughter of a farmhand. She had no schooling, and knew Minnie—whose voice was so lovely—to have studied under a New York coloratura, Madame della Franchia.
“Oh, Ruby. Della Franchia’s not her name.”
Anyone, Minnie had been telling her, could sing chorus; she herself would carry the melody. “Obviously. Maybe we’ll do a comic turn, if we have to…but, Ruby, you whistle so well… I won’t believe you haven’t got pitch.”
Ruby, in her shyness, had never meant to go on the stage; she’d had no longing to it. The birds were her born calling…the smallest mite of four she’d been, the day she had rescued the first of her broken-winged darlings, tending the poor crippled ones ever after, and the babies flung from their nests. Ruby saw herself puny and plain, but had to put up a fuss when Mr. Starkweather insisted the birdies go in the baggage car.
No…and a thousand times, no.
Mr. Bruce, who had sold her contract to Mr. Starkweather, was a kind man. He had always bought her the extra seat. Minnie, then, had come into it…
And Ruby never at all had spoken to Miss Leybourne. Minnie was near being star of Starkweather’s Varieties, second only to Contini, the Human Pendulum, whose sword cut a girl’s head off.
“I’ll come along with Ruby on the next train. Or the one after. Really!”
Which was to say, you ought to be ashamed. And so he ought to have. Starkweather would have killed her lovies with his miserly purse, the tightwad, the shrunken-hearted skinflint! Though the question was somewhat moot, now she’d had to set the poor dears loose to fend for themselves.
Minnie was a great heroine to Ruby, but the very idea of their doing an act together…
Her shoes began to pinch, the leather parts from the wet mismatching; her skirts also had grown heavy at the hem. She supposed the only dry spot would be down there, under the little bridge.
And like Hogben, Ruby surprised a strange young man.
He lay as though asleep, his trousers rolled, knees bent, bare feet under water.
“Ah!” Ruby said. “Is it cold?”
She thought she hadn’t meant to say this aloud. It was only that the flood waters had been so cold, like ice. The poor Professor, him with the French name, so grand, Mr. Hogben’s friend, did he have a chance? The young man stirred, not startled, or without energy enough to start. His face was shadowed with the growth of a beard, his hair much awry, his waistcoat and trousers decked in beggar lice. His boots sat on the bank, and were caked in mud. He opened his mouth to speak, and Ruby opened hers.
“Oh, hush!” she told him. She lifted a forestalling hand, and cupped an ear. He made a noise in any case, struggling to sit up, but Papageno (she had not named him, Mr. Bruce had…or rather, she had herself called him Johnny) was quite used to human society. He hopped to a lower branch.
“Oh, my Poppy. Oh, my darling.” She whispered these words, then whistled. His tiny velvet bonnet, that he would put on Papagena’s head, his balsa-wood violin, had gone, of course, as had…tears welled in Ruby’s eyes…Papagena. But the blue jay, hearing his cue, picked a mouthful of catkins, and flew to Ruby’s finger.
And then the miracle grew larger. Another flutter of wings, and Tamino, her rosy finch, descended to his accustomed place, nestling into Ruby’s coiled hair. She heard a gasp.
“How do you do it? Who are you?”
“I’m nothing myself,” she finished. “I mean I can only wait for Minnie now, and I suppose she hasn’t decided. Her beau”—she said this word in a self-conscious whisper—“Nico, has come along to Hammersmith, and maybe she’ll only go off with him. She talks a scandal, Mr. Littler, says they’ll never be married…that it isn’t…” Ruby widened her eyes. A thought had come to her mind. What about babies, now? Would they not marry, even then? And how she could let herself speak so freely, when only a moment ago (taking him for trustworthy), she had introduced herself to Mrs. Bard’s son!
“Oh, it’s a shame, the way we all impose ourselves on her. I was helping Mrs. Frieslander with her mending…just to be doing some good. It must be her living she gets that way, taking it in from the neighbors, the old dear. Your mother is very good, now, not to mind us. I know why Mr. Shaw stays on, of course…but as to Mr. Hogben…” She thought of what she’d learned at the breakfast table. “Ah! He was too grieved to carry on with his talk, the poor man. Now I don’t know what he’ll do…”
She saw Mr. Littler’s mouth moving as though he meant to remark.
“Do you care for birds, then…?” she heard herself carry on.
“Ruby!” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your other name.”
“Magley,” she said.
“Yes. Miss Magley. Mrs. Bard is my aunt. That was all.”
“Ah, well, you told me she was. I’d got it mixed up. Do you think you could walk?” His feet were horribly blistered. Under the water, bits of skin peeled loose, and floated around raw, pink wounds, that would have bled in the open air. Ruby prided herself that the sight turned her stomach not in the least.
“I grew up on a farm, did I tell you? If you had a small knife in your pocket, at all, I might cut the hem from my petticoat…”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
Carey reached the tip of a finger to Papageno’s feathered crest. The bird squawked. But that, bless him, was only the voice God had given him to speak with.
“I haven’t hurt him?”
“Here,” she said. “Hold him.”
While Carey sat, entranced, stroking Papageno with a delicate concentration, Ruby perked her ears. She had heard the sound of Mr. Shaw’s breathing. Yes, it must be that. Mr. Hogben would sing or whistle, and when he exerted himself, huffed in a bass tone. Shaw, alone, seemed to be tramping across the bridge.
She had never yodeled the phrase, “yoo hoo”, but certain grumblings and gaspings she recalled from grown people known in childhood, suggested to Ruby it would be ill-mannered to shout the name of a man she knew scarcely at all.
“Yoo hoo!” she called to Shaw. “Oh, sir!”
This excitement caused Tamino to levitate above her head. Papageno then, in the way of creatures, struggled free, to land beside his brother and lunge a beak at him. Mr. Shaw’s jaw dropped, as Carey’s had.
He righted himself, from the stone arch on which he’d leaned to look, and jogged down to them.
“Have your birds found their way home to you? That,” he said, peering at the top of Ruby’s head, “is quite amazing. I think you ought to speak to Mack.”
“Mr. Shaw, will you meet Mr. Littler? Oh, Mr. Shaw!” In her agitation, Ruby clasped the hand Shaw had begun extending. “I think we can manage, what with the two of us.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)