Hammersmith: Trenches Manned (chapter thirty)
Mossbunker having secured his contract to supply cabling to the American Expeditionary Force, in theory the works might be targeted by spies. To the outside eye, he had not altered arrangements.
Aimee, with Curach, lay flat against the slope of a ditch, at the factory’s rear. A vast pair of iron gates bisected two tracks with a switch between; they were opened daytimes to a platform where cars were drawn, offloaded, and reversed. Cranes hoisted steel and copper ingots onto rollered conveyors, carrying them from the dock to the furnace shed. Other heavy objects unloaded here were giant wooden spools.
Let into the wall was a gated sentry-box, not always occupied…as the guard had his rounds to make. He circumambulated at the pace of a man on a warm evening stroll—the dark never a profound one, as Mossbunker ran strong electric lights. The danger of a whack in the face from a moth-seduced bat was fair, and the guard chose a path centered between wall and factory.
Aimee’s immediate future was in the custody of her companion. She had on Chilly’s spare trousers and Ralph’s old suitcoat, a costume apt for ladder scaling and quick getaways, but exacerbating to the embarrassment of being caught at these activities.
A snatch of “After the ball is over…” faded with the guard’s second departure. The spies (or saboteurs…Curach had not confided so much to his lookout), had the timing of him now. Curach motioned the Kendrick brothers to their posts, took out his watch, nestled it in a bed of clover, and found the ambient light would suit. Nine minutes and thirty-four seconds passed. The guard’s voice came to them again, greeting someone, at first in surprise.
Sharp in return was Mossbunker’s, floating to them indecipherable, tone staccato. Someone else spoke, a diffident mumble, so far as his auditors were concerned…but Aimee knew this to be Abel.
“What can they be doing?” she asked Curach.
“Secret war work.” He put a finger to his lips, and carried on. “As I understand it from Piggott. It’s the Professor being go-between for the supplier. Shaw has a notion it’s guns.”
Shaw had been reticent as to his notions, in Zetland’s hotel room, mooning openly over Minnie, holding his counsel no doubt to spare her womanhood. Aimee had expected that afternoon…yesterday’s…to dust her hands of this gang, get back to her own house, speak sternly to Carey, apologize to Mrs. Frieslander…
Decide what was to be done about Ruby.
“Oh, look!” Minnie had peered out the window overlooking Mossbunker’s factory road. “McKeefe’s is down that way, isn’t it?”
Aimee went to her side. Both watched two figures pass below, heads inclined like lovebirds, fingers clutching entwined about the handle of a carpetbag…and easily within range of Minnie’s voice, though she held her tongue.
June Mack and Nico Raymond paced themselves with a sensible appreciation of their fugitive status. They soon vanished behind the hill.
Minnie turned to Aimee and nodded. “Eloping. Isn’t that sweet?”
To this emergency, Victor B. Mack refused to be alerted.
Aimee had spotted him dodge below the counter, and only for June’s sake—knowing, glass or no, that the craven ink-slinger could hear her perfectly well—did she not serve him right by shouting the news on the street.
She had walked the road home, and weighed.
In the hurly-burly of the chase, Aimee had forgotten to insist on Jane. But while her niece struck her underendowed as to gumption, meekness might win the day…meekness often did. Jane, looked after by Mossbunker’s wife, might efface herself into valuable patronage.
A mild girl who could write a fair hand…what apter career than the companion’s life? Dandy if Cranston Mossbunker had an old aunt…
But this mild girl had a husband and child.
…and the sun was setting. Aimee had had a very long day.
A flash, then, of something close to bitter wrath came over her, when forcing to the road’s crest feet blistered to rival Carey’s, she heard from the bottom of the path yet unclimbed…merriment. What were they doing, singing? And who was it tickled the ivories of her long-untuned parlor piano?
Mrs. Toucey, that was who.
Selma Bott was visiting; also one of Mrs. Frieslander’s regulars for button-sewing, a laundress who served the factory hands.
Carey’s singing voice (yet another thing he did well and couldn’t dig himself in to pursue) was familiar to Aimee. Ruby, new at it, assaulted the tune with an alternate interpretation, that passed in spots for harmony…
In spots, a match, even, to her partner’s lyrics. She shrank with a hangdog face at these errors, her birds bobbing time from her nest of hair.
As an act, it was comedic near-perfection, wanting only patter—and only had Ruby Magley the true greasepaint in the veins, the born Vaudevillian’s instinct for milking everything, that of a Minnie Leybourne or a Charley Chillingsworth…
A.k.a., Professor Le Fontainebleau.
Ruby’s audience compressed their lips, and nodded encouragement.
A tuning fork seemed to have shelved itself among Ralph’s first wife’s knickknacks. Aimee snatched this up to sound a chime, her nephew’s eye the one she aimed for catching.
Her own telegraphed: “Your first words had better be, how is Jane?”
He said no other first words for a space devoted by the guests to exclaiming, and to Aimee’s agreeing…that she was a sight, Selma. That home was the place to keep oneself, yes ma’am (Mrs. Frieslander); and that, Mrs. Toucey, Minnie did seem, though brazen was putting it strong, to have taken up with Shaw. Carey had escaped by this time, to stare from the porch into the dark.
Aimee took a lemon square, Selma’s, praised it, and slipped outside, half-shutting the door.
“What did she say?” Carey asked.
“She wanted you to know she doesn’t blame you. I gather she blames herself.”
“She didn’t go to her sister?” He said this, voice bashful with a touch of hope, after a silence.
“She asked me,” Aimee said, “what makes someone stick to his obligations? Whether anyone knew.” Another moment passed, and she tapped a foot.
She thought by this his answer had been a shrug. “Carey!”
“Jane is good enough,” he said.
“For sticking to?”
“It’s just sometimes I get the idea I’d like to go places.”
A buggy, lamps lit, was making up the road.
“There’s Elton,” Aimee heard Selma say from inside. Her guests came in a burst onto the porch, asking themselves if they had everything, smoothing skirts, touching hats. From an abstraction of considered and discarded advice, Aimee woke to her role as hostess.
“So good to have seen you all! Bye, bye now!”
Elton had done her the favor of not coming up.
Telling Carey from the top of the stairs: “Jane and Cynthia will always be family”, Aimee had got to bed by nine…and had fallen asleep wondering if this were true.
It was Jane who seemed to manifest bodily from a dream.
“Aunt Bard! Aunt Bard!” She didn’t omit to ask, as tradition demands, “Are you awake?”
Satin sleep-mask askew, Aimee rolled onto an elbow. “What time is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know! Near morning. Mr. Hogben is here. And that Curach.”
“Why,” Aimee asked, “couldn’t I find that out in an hour or two?”
A Few Laws Broken
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)