Hammersmith: Private Enterprise (chapter twenty-seven)
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes that when he undertakes a thing, he will improve it over all undertakings of the past.”
A general nod passed over his audience.
“He has made himself, Mrs. Bard, commander-in-chief of a small army of mercenaries, has he not?”
“Well,” said Aimee, disappointed. She had been prepared to doze a little. Shaw and Minnie were outsiders, so as special envoy of Hammersmithan affairs, it seemed she was drafted. “I don’t think he pays them.”
“He will pay them in the traditional way—that is, by spoils, if he succeeds in his plan. But what is it he hopes to succeed at?”
Shaw took this. “An expeditionary force of his own, a private army, sent to Cuba…to impose order, as he sees it. Mossbunker says all this infighting shows America an immature power, weak-willed. He thinks the military will be hamstrung, going after Spain on a series of half-measures…”
“He says and he thinks, does he?”
“I’m just putting out what I know, ma’am, trying to be a help.”
“And so Mossbunker’s idea is, he’ll win the war himself?”
“Ah. And there are complications.” Here, Zetland felt the need of a prop. Using Derfinger’s sugar tongs, he took up a cube, and waggled it with gravity. “Your son…”
“I haven’t got one. Can you mean Carey?”
“He owns the house you live in. You plant it, this farmland, we will say, in apple trees. You build a house for a man to manage the orchard. Hogben, it may be.”
“Hasn’t,” she asked, “Hogben been made another agent of Mossbunker? My fault, I agree.”
“All the better for the example I make. Mossbunker acquires this land from Abel… And your trees are his trees. Your apples are his apples. Hogben may stay. The house you have built for Hogben is Mossbunker’s house to collect rent. But, now, we add the condition that Mossbunker will let you stay as well. You will only give him most of your profits from the apples, and only, if you want to bring apples to the marketplace, pay a fee to Mossbunker for this also.”
“The sugar interests,” Shaw said, low-voiced, “don’t want Cuba independent.”
Zetland smiled a smile at this, that grew into a sunny beam. “And, so fortuitously, the American Congress…most wish never to see Cuba made a colony, a territory, of the United States. Whereas, the insurgents of Cuba wish, at the heart of the matter, only to be free of Spain. They would like to get on their feet, a helping hand. We have helped before. Yes, the Kaiser is a man who acts when he decides.”
“Now, Zetland,” said Shaw. “If you say a thing like that, I have to report it.”
“I say it among friends.”
Hogben, after giving the small window that sat recessed a few inches below ground…but well above his head…the once-over for breakability, decided the hour for action was not yet. Mossbunker might be a madman. Or his perch above society might deliver him that much license—to the extent of his taking his own prisoners. The little cellar room had a necessary (an old-fashioned privy-chair, the use of which would be unpleasant, but…), and Hogben had been given his supper. He anticipated that he waited judgment, and that this would come from Mossbunker. His person, in the rush to tail Zetland, had not been searched…
He had done a clever thing.
He hoped clever. Trick worked in that old story of Poe’s.
They had brought Hogben to a mudroom, a porch at the back of the manse, and he’d noted among the clobber a basket of sealed envelopes. Madam Mossbunker was off carrying on, the conversation’s cadences audible from a service hall and a parlor away. Piggott was pacing, asking (himself, aloud and rhetorically) if it would be all right for him to be getting home.
Hogben had slipped Le Fontainebleau’s missive—pernicious, if not purloined—from his inside pocket, and tucked it in the basket with the others. Then with gratification he had watched an aproned woman chivvy a girl in passing: “Lord, where is anyone to do a job when it needs doing? Essie, get that post down to the box!”
Evening had drawn on. To Hogben’s disgust, Piggott was dragged away by Mossbunker, muttering of supper being late. Hogben and his growling gut at last were led to the cellars by an apologetic fraulein named Margaret, who ushered him unsuspecting into his prison, and locked him there.
A male voice, a reasonable fifteen minutes later, yelled from the other side: “Stand back!”
Hogben asked of his provisioner only this: “Am I not allowed my liberty?”
The man stiffened, by way of answer, bent with sealed lips to leave a rib-sticking repast of beef pie, rolls, potatoes, teacakes, and a stein of cider, and turned the key as he backed himself out. Hogben listened for footfalls with only half an ear.
Not a deal of orienteering was needed to locate his relative position.
Once the room had grown so dark as to reduce all practical action to this, he readied himself for bed. Supine, he reviewed his plight. He could take himself to a moment…yesterday, could it have been…? when, about to jog down to the sanctuary of the Main Street Hotel, figure out trains in the morning…
He’d found Mrs. Bard wanting to come along.
And it all, like a fat peony bursting from a marble-sized bud, had burgeoned into intricacies.
Shaw had tagged after them, and Vic Mack…who somehow was in with Mossbunker…
But Shaw was the ringer.
Who else? That man Curach. Piggott, Zetland… The girl, Aimee’s niece, now, where’d she end up? He had a notion he might be set to marry Mrs. Bard. His gear was still at her house. He fell into inventorying each item he recalled having got away with from the flood…
The Professor seemed to bob before his eyes: “Don’t forget your old second banana! I might teach you a thing or two about slipping the collar…”
Women’s voices, whispering.
“Mr. Hogben!” Tap, tap, on his shoulder. “Uncle Monty!”
He opened his eyes. Jane was shading the flame of a candle, a bow of light flickering over her chin. He clutched his blanket tight under his own.
“It’s Margaret,” the other said. “I have unlocked you.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)