Hammersmith: The St. Bernard Hotel (chapter eighteen)
The St. Bernard Hotel had a back way in, that allowed a cab to draw to the curb. The front, which they had trotted past, sported a narrow vermillion door next to a bay window stacked under a second-floor counterpart. Through this paned glass poised above a railing, Aimee thought she glimpsed Vic, wreathed in smoke. Also, a striped cravat and glint of watch fob that, although their owner sat shadowed in a leather chair, made her think of Mossbunker. Another man, with a hand on Vic’s shoulder, cocked his head in a noticing way, his lips continuing to move in speech. Curach leaned on his stick, and returned by the hackney’s window a two-fingered tap to the hat brim.
The party climbed carpeted steps, Jane shy and wanting to fall back, Hogben hovering, to escort them both, Curach whistling a tune, and greeting two or three whose cabs waited theirs.
Hats and sticks, by an officer in a velvet tailcoat, were collected in silence; his nodding head then drew them crabwise through a passage, brightened under a staircase skylight, with a watery escutcheon of sunshine. They entered a demi-chamber of tables skirted in lace, linen overcloths falling stiff in corner pleats, hobnail fairy-lamps sitting unlit. Rose and white paper striped the walls, oval-framed paintings rested ill-at-ease on single nails—
These were of fatuous young couples, walking hand in hand: Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn.
Jane stared. Perhaps she took it cruelly. Aimee suspected Curach, if not some other of Lord Piggott’s operatives, of being tasked, in this most apparent lair of men’s backroom brokering, with decorating a ladies’ parlor…and of snagging a job lot from some bankrupt charm school.
Curach, stopping himself whistling indoors, was seeing to Jane, his hands sheltering her chairback. Aimee thanked Hogben and took her own chair. The stranger of the window appeared at the threshold, hailing Curach.
“Mrs. Bard, ay.” Curach gave an insider’s nod. “I present you, ma’am, Philander Piggott. Mr. Hogben, sir.”
Piggott, who had taken Aimee’s extended hand between his two, dropped this gently, and offered the right to Hogben. “Tragic affair.”
Hogben cleared his throat. After a second, he answered: “Kind of you, sir.”
They all, by compulsion, looked at Jane.
Piggott said, “Ah, it won’t do.”
He gave to Hogben a wink. Of commiserating congratulation, if a wink could convey so much. “Of course you will all come to my table.”
They did not, at once.
Piggott took off with Curach at his elbow, telling Aimee: “Keep your seat, Mrs. Bard. And you, Miss…I mean to say, Mrs… Littler, is it? Yes, there’s one or two things to be seen to. I’ll send Curach right back to fetch you.”
Ten minutes passed, and the door warden put his head in.
He stood aside, ushering before him a waiter and a wheeled cart. The cart held a tall silver pot for coffee, a short china one for tea, and a platter bearing a ring of fissured meringue, lightly tanned, spilling cherries.
Aimee hadn’t quite caught the waiter’s eye, and he hadn’t precisely offered to serve, and she wanted only coffee—but there was Jane to think about. The waiter excavated with a pastry knife, and lowered a slab to Aimee’s patch of tablecloth. Jane shook her head, mute and apprehensive, as she had been since lighting from Curach’s cab. Monty, once the waiter had wheeled off, spooned up syrup and crust as though catching a lifebuoy between his teeth.
“Jane, drink your tea. And have a bite to eat.”
Applying that elder’s obligating eye, Aimee watched her niece through three bites and a gulp of tea. She ate her own dessert…or appetizer…while Monty finished Jane’s, and brooded on his empty plate. They sat straining ears after Curach, and searched for banter.
Then Jane seemed to brace herself. She turned to Monty and tilted him a weak smile. “I think I’ve been rude, and I don’t mean to.”
Like a duck shedding water, he shook off astonishment, but she was quicker.
“Mr. Hogben, I’m so pleased to know you. I’m so happy to hear your news from Aunt Bard. I hope you will never trouble yourself on my account.”
Jane pulled herself upright, and Aimee, too late, recognized noble impulse in the works. “I won’t truly be family to you, of course…only Cynthia’s mother. But I intend teaching her to think rightly. About duty and responsibility.”
At this moment Curach returned. He had a sheaf of newspapers tucked in an armpit. “You’ve met Mr. Mossbunker, now. Or have you not?”
Agreed to or no, this query didn’t guarantee Mossbunker on the program.
“Certainly, pleased,” Hogben hedged. “Honored.”
They climbed the stairs.
Mossbunker’s reception room being private (perhaps women did not appear in the St. Bernard bay window), and dark as a closet, Aimee found herself seated before her eyes could adjust, and when they had, Vic was there, standing in a half-crouch over his chair cushion, at her right. She had a choice word for Vic, but presence of mind warned her Mossbunker was likely with them, if not easy to spot.
The St. Bernard Hotel
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)