Hammersmith: View Halloo (chapter twenty-three)
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…began its intercourse with the visitor in a sunlit parlor, flanked by closed doors. Hogben, for having breakfasted at Aimee’s, ridden on a train, walked half-a-dozen city blocks to Krabill’s, gone by cab to lunch at the St. Bernard, come by cab again to this address, would for all the world’s curiosity have preferred his afternoon nap.
Not to be a shirker in the face of citizenly duty, but it was almost unfair.
He had mourned the professor. Had…mortality was a weighty thing, but subject like all things, to the proprieties of time and place. He had visited Philadelphia on a gentleman’s errand only. Mossbunker would now have him confront his late partner, a much-diminished figure of a man, sunk, if not terminally in the Susquehanna, into some criminal enterprise, of which Hogben knew nothing.
Yet one the industrialist, again without perfect justice, insisted he could help resolve.
Hogben felt his stomach issue one or two butterflies. He wasn’t sure why they were waiting. Mossbunker, seated to overlook the street, began to manifest a sort of steam-engine effect, shoulders rising, chest expanding, eyes bulging.
He mumbled words, that might have been: “I knew it!”
He said aloud: “Zetland!”
Piggott, who with Hogben occupied the adjacent bench, rose to peer for himself.
“Mack seems all right,” he told Mossbunker. “I don’t think we ought to wait for Swan.”
“Swan will fail us, that I foresee. We’ll go up.”
The ward boss swung back one of the doors and stood demure. Mossbunker made no move. Hogben saw that they expected him to give the lead. It reminded him of a habit he had never got around to mentioning his dislike for, the professor’s schoolmasterish stinginess with information. But no doubt he could find room eighteen…even if Piggott could find it faster.
He turned left at the head of the staircase. He heard a grunt behind him. He turned right. The doors were unnumbered, knobs wobbly, but fixed by their locks. He tried one opposite the landing. This proved a storage cupboard, scented to dizzying effect by furniture paste—two tins without lids, and a pile of rags on the shelf nearest Hogben’s head, an open shaft for a dumbwaiter at the back.
The handle of a mop clattered from a corner to ding a can of window wax. Hogben stooped to straighten this…he hadn’t felt a thing under his shoe….and noticed a familiar pair of eyes, importuning from inches above the floor.
He contrived to knock the mop back the way it had come, then bent as though to pick up another thing. Le Fontainebleau nudged a white envelope between the dumbwaiter’s top and the cupboard’s floor. The two men had wordlessly coordinated a variety of dodges, and Hogben thought he understood the professor’s dropping-in-a-slot gesture, hampered as this was by lack of elbowroom.
“There is one way only from the cellars to the street. I took the precaution of having our cabman block it, in case Swan got himself busy. Doing two things at once.”
Piggott’s remark came on Hogben’s upturned heels, but from the cedary scent of a suitcoat’s approach, he had judged that Piggott, though catching the professor dead-to-rights (and Hogben could not feel much dismayed at this), had not witnessed the envelope change hands.
“Zet,” the count said, “land.”
“Ah, heard you wrong.”
Zetland waved a hand in dismissal. He seemed to crane his neck towards Swan’s, then struck a galvanized pose, flinging a glance up and down the square, and saying all at once, “We act now!”
Vic found himself tripping (fairly literally) along the walk, past a house attached to Swan’s, another attached to that. With the carved stag’s head at the top of his stick, Zetland unlatched the gate. The stir and grunt of its warden receded in their wake, as they slipped at speed via a ribbon of front lawn, and ducked, holding their hats, under a spreading dogwood. The count explained through the course of these clandestine maneuvers, and after mumbling a preliminary, “Yes, yes…
“The point I impress upon you, is that you will address me as Count von Zetland, and you will make certain the fellow hears. What he may tell himself he hears, you see readily, is no affair of mine.”
Releasing Vic, who had tangled in something thorny, Zetland got well ahead. He jogged up the steps to a front porch, leapt a low railing onto its neighbor… He then astonished his huffing recruit by beaning a bystander, a blameless smoker on whom the count had tiptoed up.
“A spy of this Piggott,” Zetland contradicted, when Vic had made up the distance. “Take the other arm. We will put him under the hedge.”
Vic told himself the interview had got out of hand, no question, and at this juncture it didn’t much matter if he were working for Mossbunker or the Man in the Moon.
“Now if you have a watch, you will take thirty seconds. But do as I have told you, when you see me come to the cab.” Zetland smoothed his coat, positioned his hat, and stepped off briskly.
It was Mossbunker’s own cab. Trailing Zetland into the alley, Vic recognized the number. A board had been laid over a stairwell, one that must lead to a cellar door, and on this the cab’s left-hand wheels rested.
“Count von Zetland!” Vic bellowed.
The driver, slumped in sleep, started.
Zetland gripped the horse by the collar. To the driver, he said: “Take the brake off.”
The driver blinked at the count’s fine costume. He threw a glance over his shoulder. He tried: “I’m on orders.”
“And was it my brother-in-law who gave you these orders, or only his friend?”
Of its own accord, and while his eyes stared ahead, the driver’s hand eased back the lever. This was a tidy conundrum the Count posed, as to which rock and which hard place was which. Piggott would be known to any local man; Piggott’s directives likely were not to be flouted. But annoying the medievally-fixated millionaire, Mossbunker, might invoke ordeals…
The board, freed, rose an inch or two.
And a figure which despaired of escaping by strength, tried agility. He was known to Vic from his photograph, seen an hour ago at the lunch table.
“Le Fontainebleau.” Vic squatted to lend a hand. It was only decent. The professor flopped up onto his stomach, panting, but like a fish back in water, he sprang friskily to life—to dive past the cab’s open door, waved in by Zetland.
A shout came, and a bang, and a stranger, executing a rapid charge-and-skid, flung from the cellar, finding at his neck the board set to trap Le Fontainebleau. Piggott was spotted, shoving open a second-story window, roaring a command at the driver. Mossbunker himself appeared breathless at the head of the alley, towering akimbo with admirable courage…
Flattening against a wall, as the cab thundered by. Zetland was next to the driver and had taken the reins.
And Vic witnessed these things from a seat beside the professor.
A Titled Visitor
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)