Hammersmith: Autocratic Mysteries (chapter nineteen)
A torch flared.
That one might, in an upstairs reception room, in a city hotel, tended to beggar belief, and Aimee at first started, thinking something had gone wrong with the gas. But a second torch, and then a third, made the room dance with light. They were jets, held in fists that jutted at intervals from the wall, the globes ensconced in folded acanthus leaves sprouting from bronze cones.
And each, having just been keyed down to a reasonable simmer, arced again, as a door swung open, and yet another of the St. Bernard’s dinner carts was wheeled in by yet another waiter. An aromatic smell of beef gravy filled the room. The early dessert, she guessed, had been for tiding-over purposes.
A throat, pointed in import, cleared itself.
Vic rose to his feet, apologizing. “Cranston…Aimee… Mrs. Bard, I mean. Mrs. Bard, Cranston Mossbunker.”
Aimee half rose, and Mossbunker, materializing near the fireplace, bowed, crossed, took her hand; over this, he bowed again. Two more waiters filled plates and poured ice water. Mossbunker lowered himself into the head chair, a sort of coffer with pineapple finials, and the carved face of a roaring lion above his own.
Which was not to say that Mossbunker roared. And only in having thick, lofting hair, did he resemble a lion (his face otherwise that of an ox who suspects the worst). However, he did begin to speak. It was some time before Aimee understood about what.
“Mr. Hogben,” he said. “Mrs. Bard. Vic. Curach.”
Aimee heard Jane’s skirts rustle as she shifted in her seat…yes, it was coming.
“The young woman.” The gravity of Mossbunker’s tone holding Jane somewhat at fault for these descriptors.
“The times”—his voice rose—“demand of us that which any loyal-spirited citizen, but most particularly, those sons and daughters of Columbia, so molded by the hand of nature, that it is their bent of will, from the earliest twanging of patriotic heartstrings… Ahem. It is their great satisfaction, to champion those humble and faithful principles…tenets… No, I will say commandments, which the Puritan fathers carried to these shores, before—”
He stopped himself, animation (of its kind) draining from his face. Aiming this visage of granite at Aimee, he said: “Littler. A good English name. I believe so. Is it yours, Mrs. Bard?”
She was rude enough to stall him with a sip of water. As intervention it served, quelling two or three comebacks that would not have done, but had tried edging their way through her teeth.
“Carey,” she told Mossbunker, resting her glass on the cloth, “is my brother’s son. Yes.”
Their host caught Hogben, under cover of flickering torchlight, tipping peas from his saucer—where from the corner of her eye Aimee had watched him herd them—into his mouth.
Hogben swallowed and flapped a hand, but Mossbunker lifted his own, and let a knee slide uncrossed. A moment later, on the heels of a tinny something—buzz or bell—from under the table, came another arcing of the lamps.
The velvet-coated majordomo laid before Mossbunker an envelope, and left without a word. Curach chuckled like a theatergoer when the featured turn takes the stage.
“Hogben, the matter at hand concerns an affair of yours. I gather this, merely. You will have to explain. Mrs. Bard.”
These autocratic mysteries made Aimee fear, for a moment, that Mossbunker was about to pronounce them man and wife.
“You are only a poor widow. I do not hold Vic accountable, not wholly…he tells me he has kept an eye on you. And that he has made an offer of marriage, which you have refused.”
This resting of his point was not (at Mossbunker’s table, likely it never was) an opportune time for two guests to exchange glances. But Aimee shot Vic a stern one. He had not proposed. He had remarked on one or two occasions, that their hitching up might be an idea. She had riposted, that you can tell an idea from a notion by the good of its probable results. She might have gone on, about June, and Jane, and Carey…and even Abel…but they had never got that far in this argument.
“Avarice,” Mossbunker said. He fell silent. Hogben backed his chair another inch from the table.
“It is the great failing of mankind. When I acquire a business, I do so only on the stipulation that its directors will adopt my own methods. I don’t go at a job lickety-split to beat the competition. I take my time. Now, all these builders of skyscrapers, and layers of steel rails, would like to get the project done in a hurry. They would like to see a boatload of immigrants brought in, then draw off the able-bodied with short-term promises of higher wages…if not with that unfortunate practice of paying bonuses. All of which means drink, of course.”
Mossbunker looked at Curach. Curach’s smile was reminiscent.
“There is an irony here, friends,” their host went on. “Yes, I’ve always found it true, the worker’s—the true American worker’s—reward is not in his pay. He wants a steady job, one he can count on in years to come. But he wants to put a little by, to stake his claim to a patch of ground he can proudly say is his by rights…”
“He doesn’t need the boss to be a father to him…”
Aimee, familiar with the way Vic’s sense of humor inflected his voice, kept her eye on Mossbunker. He seemed to brighten.
“Indeed! You’ve hit, Vic, on the very phrase I have in mind. A misguided taradiddle, to which some of our self-styled philanthropists insist on subscribing. We cannot alter the order in which God has ranged mankind. That, Mrs. Bard, is the circumstance in a nutshell.”
“Oh,” she said. She hadn’t been listening as one particularly addressed. “Well… I’m grateful to you, Mr. Mossbunker. I wouldn’t have guessed it.”
His lips thinned, and his cravat bounced, once. He had laughed.
“Now, Piggott, do you think it’s time?”
A voice from a high-backed armchair, positioned to face the fireplace, reminded Aimee it was Piggott who had first invited them upstairs.
“If Hogben’s polished off his peas and carrots.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)