Hammersmith: A Novelty Act (chapter twenty-four)
A Novelty Act
“I can’t tell you why, but a fried egg will always get a laugh. I had one cemented to the plate, with two strips of bacon…rubber, of course…the plate was a round of enameled iron, like your kitchen sink. Coffee pot and cup, iron likewise, painted. Audience couldn’t tell.”
Professor le Fontainebleau chuckled.
“Couldn’t care, more like. Now, there is one of our secrets I don’t mind spilling for you…it bears interestingly on, shall we say, other affairs. Once I’d got settled on my chair, and taken up my knife and fork, Ced would go stage right, Cyril left. Ced doing his acrobatics…handstand, somersault, sort of thing. Light sparklers, and manage tossing them across, could Ced, with his toes, mid-flip. I remain dashed. Cyril, on the other hand, equally a talent…which I don’t count myself, particularly…
“Everything my brother pulled from his coat was a gag by itself. Rubber chicken, pair of baby shoes tangled on a lady’s intimate. Take, on those…”
The professor, assuming Cyril, squatted on the narrow floor of the coach, to show them a double-taking face, a dropped jaw and furtive stuffing away, shoes and garment clattering through the torn lining of a beggar’s empty pocket…
“A watermelon, sometimes a cocoanut, falls out. Maybe a tomahawk. Brassiere by itself’ll catch too much wind… Two things together tell a story, isn’t that so, ma’am?”
Aimee gave him the look that precedes a frosty, “I wouldn’t know.”
But the professor spoke on: “Grab every sparkler in turn, get those going, too. There was a hidden air hose I used to take a breath. The antics got people’s eyes off the tank. But also, and it’s a thing worth noting, you won’t credit it…all this business timed out to three minutes, little over. You’ll appreciate, after so much gawp and cackle, the audience came to feel I’d been in the water a very long time. My brothers bowed and stepped off…I put away my breakfast, different plate I’d hold up, empty. Then take up a hand mirror and straight razor. Miming, you know.”
He mimed now, collecting the eyes of his coachmates, shifting his chin sideways, bulging an eye and winking the other, dabbing an invisible hankie at a spot on his cheek.
“The most difficult part was the end, when I’d come out. I learned to take a great breath through my nose without showing it…but soaking wet as I was, oftentimes I’d get a little tickle of water in my throat. Aplomb, in an underwater act, means all. Like fire-eating, that way, not—good thing—otherwise.”
Vic, in a tired way, raised a smile. The professor was one of those whose confessional impulse opens floodgates. They were on the highway, making for Hammersmith; in flight, but unpursued. The countryside was hilly, the road winding, and the pace of Mrs. Mossbunker’s personal coach could achieve nothing of the lickety-split.
Aimee was trying not to nap. What the professor…
“Call me Charley. Used to be Chillingsworth, fair posh, all us with the cees…but Ced and Cyril are still on the circuit. It was for me to adopt a new persona.”
(He pronounced this word with a great fondness for its implications.)
Yes, what the professor had to say, eventually, in regard to Mr. Shaw, was important.
Curach had delivered his charges to Green Glade Lodge, stopped long enough for a cup of tea, arranged for him in the hall. Aimee, with Jane, was ushered away—to, she might have guessed, a guest parlor…if the host were a baroque Sheriff of Nottingham. A towering ceiling done over in traceries from center medallion to corner encrustations, rose above stags rampant, columns sprouting from among their antlers, forming a needless gallery. The recesses running the walls, much darkened, were papered gilt and green, and in design heavily forested.
Aimee sipped alone with Jane, on a sofa that told, in brocade, of an Arthurian feast.
Jane had been wilting in stages until, standing, Aimee said without proof, “Stretch out, dear. No one will mind.”
It was at that moment Mrs. Mossbunker entered.
“Now, my dears, I make this excuse. I have had a note, brought by a man on horseback…a Paul Revere, you know.”
Jane was asleep. Mrs. Mossbunker, motioning a housemaid to follow, crossed to peer. She did this from a height of, heels to hair, six feet.
“Urgent, you mean,” Aimee guessed. A call to arms would have been pushing it. Or so she supposed.
“Margaret. The Sofia suite, with the little daybed on the balcony.”
“Does the child want a doctor? I think”—Mrs. Mossbunker preempted response—“air is always best. Air and a salt bath for the feet. Both together. That is the treatment, no?”
“Lunch was a little rich.” Aimee got this out late. Her hostess’s conversation seemed to advance in leaps.
“No… That is…yes,” she tried again. “Quiet and a little rest.”
“As I say. Mrs. Bard, I have a matter of discretion. Yes, my husband will sometimes come into my room, when he is restless over those things that prey on his mind.” Mrs. Mossbunker tapped herself on the forehead.
Hooves thundered up the drive…a deliverance, so far as Aimee was concerned. She had not badly wanted to know what followed on these occasions between mogul and wife.
But her hostess finished: “And so this way I have learned his little secret. Ludi!”
She vanished into the hall. Aimee heard an exchange of German. Someone, during this, hummed a tune. Someone else…Vic…coughed; said, “Er” twice. Making a beeline, Aimee glanced at the other man’s vaguely familiar face, glanced at the tall and dapper Ludi, then pinched Vic’s sleeve and hastened him to the parlor. Her niece was gone, assisted upstairs by Margaret.
“Vic! That man, Curach. Why did you bring him into it? Here I was, planning a quiet lunch with my niece…”
“I can marry Hogben if I like.”
“If he likes.”
She crossed her arms, not having it. “A quiet lunch, Victor B. Mack…and then… And then, I don’t even know what! What am I doing in Mossbunker’s house? Is that man who came with you the professor? And just who…” She broke off, remembering Shaw. He had not achieved so much as returning from the dead, but his character had altered notably in the space of one regrettable day.
“Mrs. Bard, this is Ludwig, my brother, the Count von Zetland,” Mrs. Mossbunker entered, arm-in-arm with Ludi, trailed by le Fontainebleau.
“We leave at once for Hammersmith,” Zetland said, “if Mrs. Bard is ready. Cranston will think of my coming here…”
“Ah!” his sister interrupted. “But I have thought sooner! You will go out the conservatory, and take my carriage.”
A Titled Visitor
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)