William McKinley, elected U. S. president in 1896, would — not quite a year after his re-election of 1900 — be assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The late decades of the nineteenth century were not all ice cream parlors and barbershop quartets, though the merry image comes to us from Hollywood musicals of the 1940s–1960s.
In 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago gave America a taste of the anarchist “acts” — the terrorist provocations that had swept Europe, and claimed, among others, the empress of Austria and Umberto I of Italy. Of importance to the course of the Spanish-American war (McKinley’s war), Spain’s prime minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo had been assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1897, leaving America to treat with his successor, Práxedes Sagasta, a man held in contempt by supporters of the Cuban insurgents.
Four police officers and four civilians were killed in Chicago, four accused perpetrators hanged. The evidence that convicted them proved controversial, and their cause gained even the sympathy of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, who pardoned the survivors.
In 1897, nineteen immigrant coal miners, most from Eastern Europe and Germany, were shot in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, at a peaceful demonstration for higher wages. The sheriff’s men who’d opened fire were acquitted.
From 1894 to 1906, Europe was consumed by the Dreyfus affair, in which Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted of passing secrets to the German embassy. Author Émile Zola wrote his famous open letter, “J’accuse”; following his conviction for criminal libel in 1898, Zola fled into exile in England.
The warship Maine exploded February 15th in Havana harbor, precipitating the Spanish-American war, which in turn left America newly in custody of the Philippines, thus embroiled in suppressing an insurrection. In 1901, American troops under General Jacob “Howling Wilderness” Smith’s orders, killed an undetermined number of non-combatant Filipinos. Smith became famous for his eponymous command:
The Major said General Smith instructed him to kill and burn, said the more he killed and burned the better pleased the General would be, that it was no time to take prisoners and that he was to make Samar a howling wilderness.
The Independent, Honolulu, HI, 5/1/1902
- The Ojibwe defeated U.S. troops in the Minnesota Battle of Sugar Point, as the Indian Wars wound to their conclusion.
- Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie.
- Neon was discovered…harbinger of the twentieth century’s pulsing, big city life.
René Magritte, Lotte Lenya, Alexander Calder, Bertolt Brecht, Enzo Ferrari, M.C. Escher, were among those influencers born in 1898; Otto von Bismarck, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, William Ewart Gladstone, Stephané Malarmé, and Aubrey Beardsley among those who died.
Hammersmith, set in a mill town in the Susquehanna region of Pennsylvania, begins in March of 1898. Widow Aimee Bard has a business problem to solve. Her stepson Abel is eager to move her into other quarters, just when her nephew needs a stable roost, or Carey may abandon Jane and their daughter, Cynthia. Abel’s partner, industrialist Cranston Mossbunker, heads a cell of nativists, the American Patriots (curiously, I did not find a newspaper citation from 1898 that mentioned a group actually using this name). Local newspaper proprietor Victor B. Mack has got his friend to nominate him for membership, and finds himself taking on the unexpected role of investigative reporter. Meanwhile, refugees from a March flood upend Aimee’s plans, though suggesting to her an option a woman might employ. And chanteuse Minnie Leybourne brings to Hammersmith modern ideas…along with a Communist lover.
Table of Contents
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar… 1
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.”… 4
He’d sat up in bed, and heard the rain still pelting…7
Hogben tried singing counterpoint to the melody…10
She detected Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery...12
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep, as he guessed…14
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside…17
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…20
Aimee Bard, having that in common with the settled object…22
Less sticky about being accommodating than she’d feared…25
There were two types of men women fell for...27
Her father hadn’t seen the host of faults…30
“Doesn’t seem so long ago”…32
Aimee had taken one seat, facing the caboose...34
Mrs. Frieslander had volunteered to work the tuning forks…37
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary…39
A sofa—with a blanket draped along the seat…42
The St. Bernard Hotel had a back way in…44
A torch flared…47
Piggott came to sit, next to Hogben…50
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”…52
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity…55
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…58
“I can’t tell you why, but for some reason a fried egg…61
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly…64
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw…67
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes when he undertakes a thing…70
A monumental figure unveiled by dispelling shadow…73
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming…75
Mossbunker had secured his contract with the American Expeditionary Force…79
Mossbunker’s wall rose a few feet higher than Ralph’s eight-foot ladder…83
Vic, like a nine-pin, fell too, the second time of an evening…85
McKeefe’s was a rough house…87
A curious feature of Mossbunker’s factory…90
Back from his tacit errand …93
Hogben and Shaw
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar, one after the other; Shaw, a respectable parasite, from wanting to be useful. Hogben, because he hadn’t seen it yet. He’d otherwise sized up every inch of Mrs. Bard’s place. He would like also to learn if Shaw was suggestible.
“Quite a few’s gone rotten,” was his first remark. There was about room enough for him to stand, facing the shelves, and for Shaw, as indicated by the restless nudging of a toe against the heel of Hogben’s shoe, to block the only space available for turning around.
“I don’t think the Widow Bard ever mentioned,” he said, swinging a burlap sack behind him, one with a notable black patch of wet on the bottom, and a smell…Hogben knew of no descriptive term adequate to the smell of rotting potato. He jogged the sack up and down. Shaw seemed to stand inert. “If she was tossing em in a stewpot, or a frying pan, or what all.”
“But…well…I suppose we’ll lay them out on the grass, and if very many are bad…” Shaw fell away from this speculation. “Widow!” he said. “Is that the story you got from her yourself?”
It was the moment to be wise. “You get on up those stairs, Shaw.”
Hogben heard, and felt, a drop of liquid from the sack hit his polished brogue. “Take that with you. Now, listen. We’ll walk out into the town after lunch and have a private talk along the way.”
And this was mystery. She’d given Shaw a different story. Or Shaw had surmised differently.
Hogben snatched another sack, and held it as near arm’s length as the wooden steps allowed. The two ladies, Ruby and Minnie, came out, Ruby winding and tucking her hair. He thought it could not be much after ten—it had been ten sharp when he’d checked his watch before giving Mrs. Bard his answer.
“Yes, ma’am, don’t mind. Get to it from the outside or the inside?”
He always checked his watch when asked to do a chore. It was a treat how that little trick could make them go ask someone else.
But ten in the morning—Hogben finished his thought—was late for a woman to be finishing up dressing.
“Ruby Magley,” he said. “Now why wouldn’t you call yourself Leybourne, and be Minnie’s sister?”
“Oh, what are you saying? Magley’s not a euphonious sort of name? It’s my own, mister.”
“You’re a comedienne?”
“Birds. I couldn’t do a thing about it. I had to set them free.” Her voice broke at this.
“Each one of them had its own cage. Picture that on a little rowboat.” Minnie said this sotto voce.
“Well, stuff em all in together. Why not?”
Monty Albert Hogben looked forward. He’d been giving Shaw a taste of this glowing prospect, his old pitch. “March, already, Shaw. Less than two years now. A new century! And what a breathtaking vista of magnificent modernity, upon the precipice of which we stand…”
Shaw, he thought, had cleared his throat and mumbled something.
“Nineteen-oh-one, that’s what it is, really.”
“I don’t get you.”
“I only read that…I don’t swear to it.”
“In the paper.”
“Maybe I’m wrong.”
It was a matter of schooling, though Shaw had a number of qualities that made him a doubtful assumer of the Professor’s role. Hogben also had begun toying with the idea of a woman. Folks trusted Lydia Pinkham, didn’t they?
“You don’t want to interrupt me when I’m talking, supposing a horsecar ain’t about to run me down, and my coattail ain’t on fire, and the only thing you got to say is you read some ink blot of column-filler in the newspaper, and you can’t say you even got that right! I was telling you, Shaw…”
Hogben’s spiel was engraved so in memory, that he could rattle off a list of inventions: the automobile, the telephone, the Kinetoscope, and as he did so, cogitate. Shame, his partner drowning. The rest of them had managed not to. He was reminded of Ruby’s birds. He gave to the matter a serious inner eyeball. What did the woman ever think of doing in case of fire? Happens in hotels all the time, Hogben said to himself, while aloud he was saying something about flying machines. She probably didn’t either have them insured. Now there was a case of not thinking of the future. He pictured Ruby Magley in the audience. Would he want her in the audience? Always took a good hold on em, hearing spontaneous testimony, but on the other hand…
He looked at the brick pavement under his feet, and fell silent. There were no rails laid along here. An outpost the size of Hammersmith, he guessed, didn’t have call for a horsecar. Now if the street had been dirt, if there’d been no hotel, no bank, no emporia, only a couple houses and a church, he might have despaired of the place. But Hammersmith was at least an incorporated borough—they had government; they had trade. Those were proofs some of the townsfolk were forward-looking. Hammersmith had no depot proper…but again, Hogben put a lot of faith in the automobile. Any burg might grow, these days.
The town had a paper, the Daily Signal, and here, emerging from the tobacconist’s, was Victor B. Mack, its proprietor. Mack had been up to Mrs. Bard’s, and had held such a long and feeling interview with Minnie Leybourne, he’d done no more, for his deadline’s sake, than shake hands with Hogben and Shaw.
“Sirs!” he called out.
“Mr. Mack,” Hogben said. “Your Main Street Hotel over there…they happen to have an oyster bar, anything of the kind?”
“Roast beef sandwiches and tonic water. My treat, though.”
Lunch, what with the potatoes, had ended up late, and a little scant. Mack let Hogben lead; Hogben crossed the street, and in turn, let Mack precede him through the door.
“I wonder, Mr. Hogben,” Mack said, after the three of them had mounted their stools, “if you remember the Maine?”
Mack Talks War
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.”
Hogben hadn’t needed to say this a second time, but making excuse, lest the gossips take hold of his reputation before he’d made use of it himself, he did…whisky for medicinal purposes being a solace not locally prohibited.
“This is coming out first thing tomorrow. Extra early edition.”
“Well, then, put one aside for me, won’t you? I never know what time Mrs. Bard’s chores’ll all be done.” Two cents, though, for a paper he didn’t want, was a lot just now, when the firm had suffered the death of one partner. Hogben considered reasons for Mack’s disclosure.
“In a day or two, all of you be leaving. Don’t know what she’ll do for helpers then.” Saying this, Mack chuckled uncomfortably.
Partisanship, Hogben decided. “Vic.” He wanted to ease into it. He sipped. He got some assistance from Shaw, who’d been writhing on his stool, and had said, “Uh,” a second ago. “Shaw,” Hogben said, including him. “I don’t suppose Congress wants any way to…rush headlong.”
Mack, not offended by the “Vic”, had definitely lit up at “headlong”.
“Nobody wants war,” Hogben finished. “And, think about it…Spain is a European country.”
“I’ll tell you what. If it came down to sending an expeditionary force all the way over there…”
“What time,” Shaw broke in, “does the drug store close up? Is that about four o’clock?”
“You gotta put things to the test. See, Hogben…” Mack hunkered and glanced round the room—but he had already lifted this particular curtain. “Here we have a template, if you like, of how the Spaniards are gonna conduct themselves. Hot blooded folks…”
“I’m sorry,” Shaw said. Mack, making his point about the Spaniards, continued ignoring him, and Shaw dropped onto his feet. “I think I’d better just do that shopping for Mrs. Bard…and then I’ll head on back, if you don’t mind, Mr. Hogben.”
He left. The two men shrugged at each other. Mack went on. “Flare up, is what I mean, with that Latin passion…pretty soon die away. That’s a lazy part of the world, the Mediterranean. Hot summers. Everybody goes off napping in the afternoons…”
For a moment, Hogben’s mind framed the argument he meant to lay before Mack, whenever Mack shut up. Now, how’s it gonna be if some other country over there comes in on the side of the Spaniards? He thought of a country. France. He had no idea about the French. Unpleasant phrases—“prolonged conflict”; “escalated hostilities”—came to him. He knew of a thing that killed a roomful of prospects, all at one blow.
“Me, think I’ll just wait and see. Give the proposition a little thought. Sleep on it…can’t hurt.”
It only took one of em.
When he’d had the Professor, when they’d worked as a team, Hogben had known just how to fan up that fear of lost opportunity. When you had two to contend with: one, an austere-looking gent whose speech was riddled with ten-dollar words; the other congenial Hogben, who—“For your sake, sir, so you understand best”—always deferred the thorny question to his colleague, it was hazardous going, being a wiseacre. You’d be saying your piece in front of most of your business competitors; most of ’em would be happy to laugh at you.
But “wait and see” remained a tough card to beat. A pigeon could drift on a cloud, poised in imagination between spending money he’d rather hang on to, and a dream of wealth and ease—and never make the move that snared him. I may very well invest, is what he’d tell himself. I just haven’t made up my mind.
And what event, than war on the horizon, was more likely to trigger this fatal wavering? Hogben could foresee the thing spread like a contagion.
“No, sir. Times are uncertain. Reckon I’ll wait and see.”
“Now if anyone had thought where all this was bound to lead…’cause, no one who’s thinking is gonna have it one way, when he could have it both ways… You only discover a mine…they say ones that hide can find.” Mack winked. “Figure you’ll make yourself useful by giving the word to Captain Sigsbee…you could trump up just as much of a case for the other side needing…put down, as it were. You wouldn’t kill anybody, and you’d take a hold on Mr. McKinley’s sense of obligation. The question is, Hogben, which is the other side?”
Hogben took out his watch, and had a look. “You’d like to see Cuba a sort of protectorate?”
“No, Mr. Hogben, I can’t say I like anything about this.”
Hogben had been bluffing. The word “protectorate” had come to him like a gift. He’d got himself so worried, he hadn’t managed his usual trick of listening with half an ear. He told Mack now, in a hearty voice, adding a slap on the arm, that he didn’t like it either. They could agree on that.
Mack walked with him up Main Street as far as the offices of the Signal. He paused before the door. “So. That show of yours still scheduled to go on, sir? I apologize, for mentioning the…the loss, but…” Over the bump, Mack rallied himself. “But all this is a little different for the locals. You may as well know it…”
“I do know it. Vic, if you run into anyone curious, do my friend the favor…” Hogben lifted his chin, and squinted at the belly of a white cloud.
“…of telling em to come on down Thursday night. The Professor always liked best drawing a good crowd.”
The Professor’s Fate
He’d sat up in bed, and heard the rain still pelting, rat-a-tat-tatting off some plane of the inner house, where a leak had sprung. He’d known he wouldn’t sleep. The roar of the deluge appeared soporific enough for the Professor, curled on the bed’s other side with his back to Hogben. There was no observation Hogben knew of to make, that excused waking his friend…but he would have liked to. It never seemed quite fair, suffering insomnia alone.
With what had proved good sense, Hogben pulled on his trousers and laced up his shoes. Everything felt wet to the touch, the air precipitating of its own saturation, the smell of the Susquehanna House that of its namesake. At the moment, he hadn’t understood why. He’d thought it just possible they kept a night clerk on the desk, and that he might beg a glass of milk.
He saw no lights, and the night sky outside the window at the turn of the stairs, looked green to Hogben’s eyes. He heard a lapping sound. The smell was like an exhalation, now strong and foul, now receding to a plainer rankness. Yes…he wished he’d brought a candle to get a better look—but it seemed to him very probable the lower rooms were under water.
Minnie Leybourne came down, and her white nightdress reflected a ghostly portion of the window’s light. Her thoughts were Hogben’s.
“I think the town’s under water. I wonder why everyone’s so quiet?”
“You think we oughta wake up Warple?”
She laughed. “If he’s not awake, I guess he’s drowned. Don’t he and the missus live at the back? Didn’t he say?”
“You’re Miss Leybourne, are you? I’m Hogben.” He offered these words because it was too dark for them to see each other’s faces, and because neither was properly dressed—the etiquette of the circumstance a little…different, as Mack had come to put it. And because the quiet she’d mentioned was indeed, when you came down to it, bothersome.
“Shoot!” she said. “I know you. You have any notion of the time?”
“Hope it’s about sunrise, but I kind of doubt it.”
Hogben hummed as he rambled. He was happy in the open air. The walk to Aimee Bard’s from Hammersmith was two or three miles, but he remembered there was a little bridge, arched over a creek along the way. He thought he’d climb down, sit in the shade, and watch the water flow. His hum became song.
Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings.
The morning sun, on that sorry day, had cast its rays over a scattering of damp and marooned guests, clinging to the slates, to the weather vane, or straddling the peak of a gable. Ruby Magley had got herself soaked to the bone, and sat, unconsoled by Minnie’s sighs and pats, shivering and making noises. Hrnrrh. Hrnrrh. Weeping, Hogben now supposed.
As the strongest man among them, it was Hogben had to wade down the attic stairs and pull Ruby up by the arms. To break the suctioning action of her skirts, he’d had to get right down in the water. And by this forced acquaintance, Hogben had felt obliged next to give up his coat, snug it round her shoulders. He shivered too, crawling back to the Professor’s side, and got a sour look for it. Course, he hadn’t known then what made Ruby lag. He might just remind her, one turn deserves another.
Warple hadn’t drowned. The Warples had been discovered on the roof already.
“Did it not occur to you, sir…” The Professor rubbed his elbow, and took a swig of his rheumatoid medicine.
“…to warn any of us off? You, being native here, ought to have read the signs well enough. I know nothing of these women, mind you, but Hogben and I might easily have gone ahead to Hammersmith. That’s up the hill, isn’t it?”
Warple snorted. “Warn you off? You call this a flood? Is that what you’re on about?” He had dry matches, and a cigar in his inner coat pocket. He bit the cigar’s tip. He spat this into swirling waters, and pointed. “See that chimney-pot yonder? See them two bricks up top the chimney? That was some high water. This, is what we call around here, Springtime.”
A voice from an approaching rowboat hailed them.
“You got ladies, Warple?”
The water had risen, after Ruby and Minnie went off. Hogben and the Professor were standing either side the chimney, grasping one another’s forearms. The boaters returned.
“Hop on down, mister.”
“Professor, you go first,” Hogben had said.
The rowers worked against the current; his partner dithered.
“Come on, sir. You’ll do fine.”
The Professor launched himself. He seemed to pivot on a foot that stubbed a loose slate; he dropped then, like a sack of flour, into the flood. The men in the rowboat stared. Hogben stared.
The current carried the boat adrift.
“I’m afraid,” one called out, while both threw themselves against the oars, “if I take this out the lock…poke around, you know…Chilly can’t hold er alone.”
The victims, brought by wagon into the heart of Hammersmith—its opera house—sloshed onto cloth mats laid over the lobby’s tiling, and lined up at the first of three tables. Here sat a good head of hair and a ledger book…Aimee Bard, in short. Mack, at her side.
“You’re Mr. Hogben. I already heard.” Her eyes, he thought, were pretty good, too. She’d half-risen, and hovered a hand over his shirt sleeve, not meaning she’d already heard his name was Hogben.
A fortuitous water droplet made him wipe his cheek. He saw her eyes well up.
“What,” she asked, “was your friend’s name?”
He’d known the Professor by only his stage name, William Le Fontainebleau. He had to guess, recollecting the most identifiable of varying accents, that his partner had hailed from the upper middle-west.
“Oh, don’t let me rush you.” This time, she did touch his arm. “How awful it is!”
“Ma’am.” He’d allowed himself to choke here. “It’s a little tough to spell. Let me write it down for you.” He figured there was no help for it; the Professor’s people—in Ypsilanti, it might be, or Appleton—probably had no expectation of hearing from him, alive or dead.
He jotted Minneapolis, as likely a place as any. “I couldn’t tell you the street address.”
“Oh…” She looked at the ledger. “I think they’ll find him…I mean…his suvivors.”
“They’ll find em.” Mack had seconded this, a little abrupt.
(Hogben’s lyrics are from “Asleep in the Deep”, 1897, Arthur J. Lamb)
The Modern Girl’s View of Marriage
Hogben tried singing counterpoint to the melody…got absorbed in the challenge, started over, switched to “Nearer My God to Thee”. He fell silent, the hymn reminding him to plan. They always began a show that way, a prayer and a song. Brought the audience together, gave them a common purpose, one that with luck would hold. Was there any reason the Professor couldn’t then, this one time, be there in spirit?
“As my late partner…always liked to say.”
Hogben spoke aloud, acted the little catch, the timbre of his voice made fond and regretful. His shoes scudded over greening weedy stuff and moss. He noted tiny flowers, a mound of them in a sunny patch warmed also by the bridge’s abutment. Too puny to make a nosegay of. But it was a thought. If he wasn’t wrong about Mrs. Bard, he’d get more mileage from a bunch of chickweed, than Shaw from running her errands.
Hogben started. A head…disheveled hair, a mud-smeared chin and nose, emerged from the cover of the bridge, near where Hogben had proposed to sit and think. The rest began to come out, and what showed earliest was clad in an undershirt.
“Sir, I…may I ask you, will you… Go!” The young man gestured. He rose, clear of the arch, and stood, clutching the band of his trousers. “And, for a minute, wait on the road? Please.”
“Mr. Hogben!” The voice was Minnie Leybourne’s. “Is that you? Don’t go!”
He’d been prepared to high-tail it. Hogben had to debate with himself a moment, whether in such circumstances a lady’s preference still must be obeyed—and the chance to decide got away from him. Minnie came out from under the bridge, fixing on her hat. Her skirts bore the sort of debris that might gather if lying on a patch of ground (cloth or occupant, Hogben was not judging), her state of dress otherwise more presentable than her comrade’s.
Minnie was a lyric soprano. Nico vibrated like a wine glass, as (what Hogben supposed must be) his inamorata sang out his name. He had fastened his braces on, and was donning his jacket.
“Mr. Hogben, I want to introduce you to Nicholas Raymond.”
“Mr. Raymond.” Hogben offered his hand.
“Yes,” Nico said. “How do you do?”
“I didn’t know if Nico would ever figure it out, where this place is. I mean…but I sent him a telegram. Right off, when we first got here. You remember Mr. Mack was taking them down. You know, he said the trains that come up this way only stop along the river, down where they have the factory.”
Hogben met Minnie half way. She’d climbed the incline opposite with some labor, saying these things. She began to trot across, and Hogben, hoping the young people were going in to town, not coming back from it, wanted to congratulate her and leave her.
Minnie took his arm.
“I’m headed back to Mrs. Bard’s,” he told her.
“That’s fine,” Minnie said. She added, “He’s not. Why do people get married?”
Hogben took a step forward, and Nico fell in behind.
“Mister. I don’t remember you.” His manner seemed a touch standoffish, nose-in-the-airish—but Hogben got him. He repeated his name.
“Yes. Hogben. The question of marriage. You see that society…I think I won’t use the word society. This has implications. No. Shall we say the human collective? The human collective enjoys this institution, which is made for…in regard to…property. Nothing that is a need, native to the being. You see. No. The historical basis of the married state is only for the distribution and disposal of property. Its legal authority, the importance assigned to it, these are derived merely from property. Of course, no one can own anything.” He put a cigarette between his lips, and mumbled, “In point of fact. You are only retaining it.”
Lighting the cigarette and spewing smoke, Nico then pre-empted Hogben, who had separated a fair number of people from their property, on the verge of his echoing, “I see.”
“Now from here, there,” he said, “you see the obscenity of personal wealth.” Nico raised a finger, and gestured towards the castle-like structure, turreting above its own barricading wall, on a hilltop more or less a mile from Mrs. Bard’s farmhouse.
“Local nabob.” Hogben nodded. He hadn’t picked up the factory owner’s name, which he wanted—without seeming to. And he was only assuming this was so, that the owner of such a house must also own the most prominent business hereabouts.
It seemed likely he was not going to de-couple from this pair. Make the most of it, he told himself. Hogben was not by habit a deep thinker. Why not just float a balloon?
“Now Mr. Raymond, you take an interest in the little man, so to speak. I guess you’ve heard the scuttlebutt, about war coming on, maybe?”
She detected Mr. Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery colored his inarticulate grunts. The other man she knew at once for a stranger. Now and again she could hear Minnie Leybourne. Mostly the stranger, passionate. War an invention of the military interests, an affliction on the helpless poor…these starved, driven from their homes, murdered. That the capitalist might enrich himself further. A good deal more of this. She peeled store-bought potatoes, Bladon at her side, razoring off the thinnest corkscrews of skin, digging the point of his knife into the eyes. Bladon, Mr. Shaw’s first name. She hadn’t reciprocated by telling him to call her Aimee. He stammered over Mrs. Bard.
He’d wired money to his employer, while down in the town; the company, he said, had allowed him to purchase a fresh crate of fountain pens—”Good ones, ma’am. They don’t leak a bit. I’ll let you have one of the atlases. I’m supposed to give them out free, whenever I get an order…but I don’t have to, every time. Fifty cent a dozen.”
“Oh, well, an atlas, that’s awfully nice.” She’d buy the pens too. What business did he have, giving her things? Pricey, she thought. But Abel’s son was in the navy. He might soon be writing letters home—and so she’d dispose of the purchase.
The thought of war, of Ralph’s grandson fighting in one, made her feel…frustrated. That was what she felt. Vic had come up around lunchtime, slipping through the kitchen door, after Aimee had shooed Minnie and Ruby out.
“I got these telegrams from Washington. Take a look.”
While Vic tapped his heel and peered through the window-shade at the circlings and flappings of her houseguests, she’d read his telegrams backwards and forwards…and couldn’t see how the Commission’s assuming a mine proved anything about where it had come from.
“That could take months, couldn’t it? Maybe they never will. Find out, I mean.”
“Ain’t gonna wait, though.”
And yet, if they called for volunteers…that was another way out. How she could practice on Carey without hating herself for it, supposing he charged off to battle half-cocked (the only way he was likely to)…
But psychology or no, Aimee thought her nephew would get on better given an ambition to pursue; hang on, doing his duty by wife and child, until she’d figured out her arrangements. He had none of his own…ambition…only this notion that waxed and waned, of “going out west”.
Aimee had given her niece five dollars, to make the first installment on the Singer machine, that the company Jane did piece-work for had let her buy from them.
(“If he gets on that train,” Jane had whispered to her, Christmastime, “he’s taking Cynthia with him.”)
They were both worn out from work, and his aunt did not hold Carey’s inconstancy against him. No, it was a miserable life being poor, living in rooms. She would herself have hated working at any of the jobs she might be given, had she been such a church mouse. Though she lived in a house that was hers for life, and though Ralph had put one thousand dollars in the bank to provide her an income—which amounted to not much—Aimee wasn’t inviting them to come stay. So many rooms…but no.
Getting Mrs. Frieslander in as a boarder had made trouble enough with Abel. She’d had to tell him Mrs. Frieslander was a relative. In this way, she got three dollars a week to send to Philadelphia, and felt better for it. But it was a crisis, always a crisis, with her nephew. If luck were not what it was, she might fear his leaving Jane at any time; but, no doubt that convergence of impulse and despair would hit just when he’d got her in the family way once more. There might be time. There might, possibly, be Mr. Hogben.
“Mr. Hogben,” Shaw said to her, “called you a widow.” He flushed. He sought correction. “I mean, I ought to say, you were telling me about Ralph. Your husband, you said. So I guess I got the idea.” Abruptly, he ended here, and bent to gouge at his potato.
“Oh, well,” she said. “I was awfully fond of Ralph.” She’d been married to him, at any rate. But Shaw, putting two and two together, seemed to have understood her. A little better than she’d hoped. She reached across and took the bowl away, and used the moment to steal a studied look at his face.
“You’re so good, Mr. Shaw. I wonder…” She filled a second bowl with tap water. This, because the water ran thin from the well, was all she could do at the moment.
“Oh, I’ll do another chore for you, if you like, ma’am.”
“I don’t think you can.”
“Sure I can.”
“Well…Bladon…if you’d get that paint that’s peeling scraped down off the front porch posts, and then sweep it all clean.”
“Yes, ma’am. I saw how that was. Needs a coat of fresh.”
She watched him snatch up the broom and trot off. He was thirty-five or six, she thought. An awkward age for poor Mr. Shaw, late for marrying. But too many years younger than herself. And then again, his nature was diffident; he would try her patience, waiting every time for her to take the lead.
“Do you ever think about settling down?” She liked the sound of this…it would do. It would do, because Hogben was also a kind of salesman, a traveling man alone in the world…if by choice, she didn’t blame him a bit; but even charlatans settled, eventually, didn’t they? If she’d said the same words to Vic, he’d take them as a proposal. And Vic, like Ralph had been, was a widower, his daughter already keeping his house for him.
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep.
Mossbunker had spoken to him, in their mutual professional capacities, once…and had not allowed the press inside his walls. They’d walked the yellowing sward, as Mack felt inclined to call it, passed by the holly hedges (these, for the gardener’s severe clipper-work, stobbier than prickly…but still forbidding), and skirted an honest to goodness canal. Or whatever a feudal lord might call this. Moat, he guessed. Mossbunker had said, shading eyes and flinging a commanding finger, looking like a statue of Clark or Frémont, “That hill. I’m dynamiting it. The only way, Mack. What with the telephone service, we’ll be rolling out reams of cabling.”
“You figure the fill’d level out a place for company houses.”
Mossbunker had not figured this, Mack gathered. He’d been silent.
“It is my opinion,” he said at last, “that the open hand breeds mere contempt. A man who has got something of his own through laboring for it, appreciates…exactly…the value of it. I don’t play this game of being a father to the men. If you ask me to pay for a thing, show me first how it pays me.”
You couldn’t make idle conversation with some people.
For a second, it had seemed almost worthwhile to Mack to answer Mossbunker with an editorial. But he’d remembered, before he got far doing the math in his head, that he had no opinion.
Mossbunker’s name had been on the factory deed for twenty years, and the great man had never been seen locally, ’til ’89. As a by-product of the terrible flood at Johnstown, he’d turned up, surveying, along with a coterie upholstered in English tweeds, this high hill he’d owned the whole time. It might not have suited for a new hunting and fishing lodge…nevertheless the site had caught Mossbunker’s fancy. The castle started going up, eight years ago now.
Mossbunker, the multi-millionaire, thus had a Hammersmith address. His presence had never been witnessed on Main Street. Mack expected he read only the Philly papers…but he’d been working on this inroad. As soon as Abel Bard let him know about the American Patriots, Mack had said to him, “Now, I don’t want to give a bad impression. A lot of people might think the proprietor of the daily paper is not gonna keep things under his vest. If it makes Mossbunker uncomfortable, having me there…”
“You saying you wanna join up? Just for yourself?”
“I’m a patriot, Abel.”
The banqueting hall, hung with tapestries that seemed to emit an odor of medieval sweat (authentic, Mack was willing to believe) had an oblong table, where this knighthood of Anglo-Saxon purity sat decidedly in order of precedence. He was at the foot. At least he supposed so. At his back, a vast oaken door swung on its hinges whenever the servants brought another dish to the board. It was a relief to have been given silverware—in fact, a decent slice of Sunday ham. You couldn’t tell how far a man who could afford to spend what he liked, might invest in the Age of Chivalry.
At length, one final servant made the round of guests, with an open coffer of cigars, and was then dismissed by Mossbunker.
“Elton, will you lead us?” he asked. Elton Bott, undertaker, seated at Mossbunker’s left, clasped hands and bowed his head. It was the second prayer of the evening. Mossbunker himself had led grace.
“Dear Heavenly Father. Thou“—Bott addressed the Lord pointedly—”are mighty in wisdom.”
“Art,” Mack found himself murmuring.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
“Goes with thou.”
“That may be so, Vic. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone interrupt a prayer for editing.”
A contrite hunkering, than further speech, struck Mack preferable at this juncture.
“Lord, we Hammersmithans face a dire threat, the peril of which we have not before this day known. Please bless and guide our path, and light the way of this…same path…that we do rightly in thy sight. Amen.”
“Amen,” Mack said, with the others.
“Yes.” Mossbunker spoke. “Thank you, Elton. You put the matter in a nutshell. Abel, I think you are well placed to offer illumination…indeed, if you’ve been on your toes, you will have carried to us specific intelligence from Mrs. Bard’s house.”
Abel Bard was at Mack’s right hand, well down the table from Mossbunker and his most trusted vassals. Mack, to judge from his face of wary calculation, deemed Abel had not been on his toes.
“War…” Abel began.
“In good time, no doubt.” Mossbunker linked his fingers. “In the meantime, there’s that dago. And a couple of micks.”
Silence fell, and Abel seemed still to hold the floor. He scratched his nose. He checked the shine on his shoe. He said, “Well, I guess it’s true, so far as that Miss Magley goes. I can’t tell you about Shaw. Not every Shaw, you know…”
“Bard! You find out those things by asking. I don’t know what’s keeping you.”
“Uh. I haven’t been up to look in on…um…my stepmother. I had ’bout a hundred acres under water, this past week.”
“You’re going to find out Miss Leybourne’s real name. How are you going to find out?”
“By asking, Cranston. Only…I don’t see that’s an easy thing for a married man to be asking a stranger. It’s a little…”
“A little more of a…” Mack put in. Cranston, he was saying to himself…I guess that is Mossbunker’s given name.
“…biographical concern, I would say. Something a newspaper man might ask, not offending the lady.”
“Hmm. Only she may take off with the dago. I had a report the two of them were seen down at that roadhouse, where the hands go…McKeefe’s. They’ll pass out their anarchist propaganda and disappear. Vic, I want your report tomorrow. No later.”
This was leaderly and galvanizing, the more so because Mack’s initiative seemed to have got him past the voting-in process. There was a snag, however, to the pace at which his patriotic career was moving.
“When you say report…when you say tomorrow…”
“We write nothing down. When I say report, I mean I expect you at my door. Don’t come at lunchtime.”
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside towards the same creek that had attracted Hogben. This early morning, she too hoped to sit in quiet thought; listening, in her case, to birdsong. She felt not quite so bereaved today…just lonely. All the same, it wasn’t Minnie’s company she wanted. This being cared for like a sister was a burden, unexpected, and to Ruby, an embarrassment.
Because of course, she wasn’t much, to be made much of in this way, daughter of a farm hand. She had no schooling, and knew Minnie—whose voice was so lovely—to have studied under a New York coloratura, Madame della Franchia.
“Oh, Ruby. Della Franchia’s not her name.”
Anyone, Minnie had been telling her, could sing chorus; she herself would carry the melody. “Obviously. Maybe we’ll do a comic turn, if we have to…but, Ruby, you whistle so well—I won’t believe you haven’t got pitch.”
Ruby, in her shyness, had never meant to go on the stage; it hadn’t been her longing. It had become her calling…the smallest mite of four the day she’d rescued the first of her broken-winged darlings, these poor crippled ever afterwards, and the babies flung from their nests. Ruby saw herself plain and small still, but had to put up a fuss when Mr. Starkweather insisted the birdies could go in the baggage car. No…
Mr. Bruce, who’d sold her contract to Mr. Starkweather, had been a kind man. He’d always bought her the extra seat. Minnie, then, had come into it…and Ruby had never spoken to Miss Leybourne at all. Minnie was near being the star of Starkweather’s Varieties.
“I’ll come along with Ruby on the next train. Or the one after. Really!”
By really, she’d meant to say, you ought to be ashamed. And so he ought to have. He’d have killed them with his miserly purse, the tightwad. Though the question was somewhat moot, now she’d had to set the poor dears to fend for themselves.
Minnie was a great heroine to Ruby, but the very idea of their doing an act together…
Her shoes began to pinch, the leather shrinking up from the wet; her skirts also had grown heavy at the hem. She supposed the only dry spot would be down there, under the little bridge.
And like Hogben, Ruby surprised a strange young man.
He was lying as though asleep, his trousers rolled, knees bent, bare feet under water.
“Ah!” Ruby said. “Is it cold?”
She thought she hadn’t meant to say this aloud. It was only that the flood waters had been so cold, like ice. The poor Professor, him with the French name, so grand, Mr. Hogben’s friend, did he have a chance? The young man stirred, not startled, or having not enough energy to start. His face was shadowed with the growth of a beard, his hair much awry, his waistcoat and trousers decked in beggar lice. His boots sat on the bank, and were caked in mud. He opened his mouth to speak, and Ruby opened hers.
“Oh, hush!” she told him. She lifted a forestalling hand, and cupped an ear. He made a noise in any case, struggling to sit up, but Papageno (she had not named him, Mr. Bruce had…or rather, she’d herself called him Johnny) was quite used to human society. He hopped to a lower branch.
“Oh, my Poppy. Oh, my darling.” She breathed these words, then whistled. His tiny velvet bonnet, that he would put on Papagena’s head, his balsa-wood violin, had gone, of course, as had…tears welled in Ruby’s eyes…Papagena. But the blue jay, hearing his cue, picked a mouthful of catkins, and flew to Ruby’s finger.
And then the miracle grew larger. Another flutter of wings, and Tamino, her rosy finch, descended to his accustomed place, nestling into Ruby’s coiled hair. She heard a gasp.
“How do you do it? Who are you?”
“I’m nothing myself,” Ruby finished. “I mean I can only wait for Minnie now, and I suppose she hasn’t decided. Her beau”—she said this word in a self-conscious whisper—“Nico, has come along to Hammersmith, and maybe she’ll only go off with him. She talks a scandal, Mr. Littler, says they’ll never be married…that it isn’t…” Ruby widened her eyes. A thought had come to her mind. What about babies, now? Would they not marry, even then? And how she could let herself speak so freely, when only a moment ago (taking him as trustworthy), she’d introduced herself to Mrs. Bard’s son!
“Oh, it’s a shame, the way we all impose ourselves on her. I was helping Mrs. Frieslander with her mending…just to be doing some good. It must be her living she gets that way, taking it in from the neighbors, the old dear. Your mother is very good, now, not to mind us. I know why Mr. Shaw stays on, of course…but as to Mr. Hogben…” She thought of what she’d learned at the breakfast table. “Ah! He was too grieved to carry on with his talk, the poor man. Now I don’t know what he’ll do…”
She saw Mr. Littler’s mouth moving as though he meant to remark.
“Do you care for birds, then…?” she heard herself carry on.
“Ruby!” he said. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your other name.”
“Magley,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Magley, Mrs. Bard is my aunt. That was all.”
“Ah, well, you told me she was. I’d got it mixed up. Do you think you could walk?”
His feet were horribly blistered. Under the water, bits of skin peeled loose, and floated around raw, pink wounds, that would have bled in the open air. Ruby prided herself that the sight turned her stomach not in the least.
“I grew up on a farm, did I tell you? If you had a pocket knife now, I might cut the hem from my petticoat…”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
Carey had reached the tip of a finger to Papageno’s feathered crest. The bird squawked. But that, bless his heart, was only the voice God had given him to speak with.
“I haven’t hurt him?”
“Here,” she said. “Hold him.”
While Carey sat, entranced, stroking Papageno with a delicate concentration, Ruby perked her ears. She had heard the sound of Mr. Shaw’s breathing. Yes, it must be that. Mr. Hogben would sing or whistle, in any case, and when he exerted himself, huffed in a bass tone. Shaw, alone, seemed to be tramping across the bridge.
She had never before yodeled the phrase, “yoo hoo”, and certain grumblings and gaspings she could recall from grown people known in childhood, suggested to Ruby it would be ill-mannered equally to shout the name of a man she knew scarcely at all.
“Yoo hoo!” she called to Shaw. “Oh, sir!”
This excitement caused Tamino to levitate above her head. Papageno then, in the way of creatures, struggled free, to land beside his brother and lunge a beak at him. Mr. Shaw’s jaw dropped, as had Carey’s.
He righted himself, from the stone arch on which he’d leant to look, and jogged down to them.
“Have they found their way home to you, your birds? That,” he said, peering at the top of Ruby’s coif, “is quite amazing. I think you ought to speak to Mack.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you know Mr. Littler? Oh, Mr. Shaw!” In her agitation, Ruby clasped the hand Shaw had begun extending. “I think we can manage, what with the two of us!”
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…and Hogben had been a traveling man for twenty-odd years. He’d had scrapes. He had not often had a partner to rely on. But even these past couple, when with the Professor he’d gone the route from Philadelphia to San Francisco—north to Bismarck, south to El Paso—he’d known better. He and the Professor had talked about two things: what sort of crowd they expected to draw, and what sort of crowd they had drawn.
Hogben, to his audience, talked up the wonders of the telephone. He loathed the telephone. He blamed the object for imperiling his act. The first instinct he’d had, greeted at the Hammersmith opera house with free cable service (he’d sent one—“Never under water. Have no worries”—to an old creditor…why not?), with blankets, hot coffee, chicken and dumplings, a folding chair to sit on, Mack’s daughter the second person to offer him a temporary home (angry, for some reason, when he told her he’d accepted Mrs. Bard’s)…had been to strike while this iron was hot. Hearts don’t stay soft forever.
He’d met the manager, Mr. Braithwaite. Boosterly, Braithwaite had said, “Call me Hugh.”
“Looks like all you got going is a picture show. Ladies’ Water Color Society,” Hogben, reading the pasted-up notice, had started off.
“Well, it’s Holy Week coming up.”
“Ah.” Here was a snag about which Hogben could gauge nothing. He persevered. “I wonder, Hugh, if I could ask…a kind of personal favor.”
He’d tried getting a whiff of the place, then, going into town at Mack’s invitation, chatting guardedly about the shares. Willing, though, to drum up an audience, generate a little publicity. Once upon a time, you’d have been safe enough. You figured business hours being over for the day, nobody was rushing off to send a telegram, just to learn if your company was listed. There’d been, in those days, no ringing up for Information.
He had the morning Signal on Mrs. Bard’s dining room table, in front of him. He had the house to himself, excepting Mrs. Frieslander. She was in the front parlor with her mending basket, and Hogben had been dodging her company.
“Now, that’s not good news, those Spanish ships. That governor…what they have in that place…knows best.”
She spoke, having heard him rustle the paper, and Hogben glanced over the front page. Governor. Cuban gent, didn’t trust Spain’s diplomatic note. That was all the news today.
“No, ma’am. Don’t think so.”
No, you couldn’t sit and have a quiet thought. It seemed you couldn’t take a stroll up the road, either. Thursday had loomed, and Hogben hadn’t felt completely in command of the exigencies, and he’d broken his rule.
“Mrs. Bard, I can’t quite make up my mind what to do.”
This was all the sense of the place he’d been able to get: that Hammersmithans kept an eye out. They seemed to. If you paused in front of the library to scratch your chin, someone would sidle up…but neighborly…and mention that dandy bald eagle Mossbunker had donated to the curiosities.
“See it in the cabinet, there.”
“Stuffed, you mean.”
“I know how it is for you,” she’d said, Mrs. Bard. “It was like that for me when I was widowed. Maybe not just like that,” she’d added. “But, you know, wanting for things to be the same. Doing what you would have done anyway. Mr. Hogben…”
They’d been on the porch, amid Shaw’s project, with all the boards skinned down, two or three washed over with a first coat. Shaw had bought a small can of white, another of pale grey. Hogben watched Aimee’s gaze dart to these razor-edged swatches…saw a face of what he would have thought exasperation.
“I’d go with grey,” he told her. “Carry more dirt.”
She had something in mind. She changed it—though at his comment she’d nodded and sighed—and said, “Mr. Hogben, it’s no disgrace if you like to cancel your show. You didn’t give any money to Hugh?”
“Portion of the proceeds.”
“You didn’t sell any tickets?”
“Always collect at the gate.”
“Then my advice is, give it up. Wait, I mean, until you feel ready.”
But was that what she’d meant? He thought she’d held his eyes with an extra oomph in her own (as eyes went, these fairly oomphy from the start), when she’d said the words, “give it up”. While, on the other hand, waiting—for a man with no fixed abode—was the same as staying. He could hardly do that unless he began paying his rent, or helping out with chores, like Shaw.
So it was that, as Hogben had always known it to be, when you asked for advice, you got nothing but the rug yanked out from under you. Doubt cast on things you’d never question, another’s plans substituted for your own.
To State the Matter Frankly
Aimee Bard, having that in common with the settled object of her campaign, began the morning wondering if she could get a moment to herself. She’d gathered Mrs. Frieslander’s bundles, an errand she never did for mere kindness—“Please don’t thank me! You know I’m always in town for one thing or another”—so much as to make the next thing possible. She would collect a few dollars, and because her tenant expected her to extract the rent, she could pay on last month’s tab, allowing for this week’s extra groceries.
Minnie, who seemed a born shoulderer of responsibility, and willing (to her own implied criticism of Hogben, Aimee shot back at herself…well, you don’t want a man who takes things over—that is exactly the point, dear), had cut her short when she’d begun:
“Minnie, I’ve got some marketing to do…”
“Oh, good! Come get me when you decide to walk down.”
They had all three walked down, Minnie beside Aimee, Nico trailing.
“I’ll just go round the shops with you, if you don’t mind. I want to know what sort of place it is.”
“Of course”—Nico’s voice rose to them—“you know what sort of place it is. You have here a great capitalist who employs at his factory the proletariat, the many. And here, you will see, along this Main street, all these shops you would like to go round, as you say…these men who sell to the workers and take their wages, are the few. Their concentration of wealth is then the more. They can increase their wealth by forming a cooperative. They invest together…in this opera house, this hotel. See what a lie it all is, that they hate the workers for hoping to cooperate, but cooperate themselves to make their own wealth grow large!”
“Nico!” Aimee, brightly, hoped to change the subject. When Minnie had brought him to the supper table, he’d shown this same single-mindedness, that defied all topics. They’d been informed, after an interval of broader discourse, that on principle Nico did not patronize hotels, but would return that evening, rather, to the underside of the bridge, where Hogben had discovered him. This declarative silence, coming when the others could by that time be caught with surreptitious forks in their mouths, had allowed a clap of thunder to intrude.
“Foolish!” Mrs. Frieslander said.
“Nonsense!” Aimee said herself. What choice did she have? “Mr. Shaw won’t mind…”
“No, ma’am. I’ll even take the armchair. I’ve been having a touch of sciatica since the floodwaters.”
He was quick. He might even mean this, without rancor. She’d made to step on Shaw’s toes in an almost instinctive veering from Hogben’s. Hogben sat serving himself another slice of meat loaf.
“Well, then, that settles that.” She’d said this to Minnie.
She said now, to Nico, fingers crossed, “What, dear, do you like to eat?”
They had come to Mossbunker’s building site. Three houses were going up at once, on a little spur of a street that had already been named Meadow Lane. A fourth leveled lot was being picked over by a flock of grackles. Hammers pounded. Mossbunker had blighted the trailing end of Main Street with an overnight warehouse, where his carpenters gathered, and got their supplies. Nico, without a word, turned on his heel and began to stride up Meadow Lane, calling out an address that might have been, “Comrade!”
Minnie took up the burden. “Nothing fancy. We’ve had plenty of beans and chops, me and Nico. I wish you’d show me how to make that meat loaf! You know, my mother was a very plain cook. Always chicken and spuds. I can stir up a cake batter. I can fix the whole dinner if you like. That would sort of make up…” She stopped herself. Aimee wished she hadn’t. Here, then, she must either pooh-pooh the suggestion that her guests (producing guests of their own) were becoming a nuisance, or give license to a sort of permanence by assigning chores. That seemed to be Mr. Shaw’s idea.
“Of course you can,” she temporized. “I’ve got a pile of laundry…”
“I don’t know where Ruby’s gone off to. I just have a feeling she knows how to ice a cake.”
The Warples, staying at Vic’s, under the care of June, had left Hammersmith as soon as word came that the waters were down to only a foot in the low places.
“Mud’s just dirt,” had been Mrs. Warple’s parting word. “I lay my carpets in the sun ’til they get dried up. Beats right out.”
The laborers whose small houses clustered along the waterfront had left Elton Bott’s big house, after chafing there a day or two for the same sign that had drawn away the Warples. Aimee’s salesmen, and her two performers, were beginning to attract remark.
“There you are, Mrs. Bard…and that’s Miss Leybourne, is it?”
Minnie stepped up, and when the notion store’s proprietress did not accept the extended hand, snapped open her fan, saying, “Mrs. Toucey, how do you do?”
Aimee saw that Mrs. Toucey was offended. Yes, in fact—she thought this for the first time—the hierarchy of gossip tended to work like that. A townsperson could know a stranger, but not the other way around.
Minnie came sideways over Mrs. Toucey’s threshold, avoided, but barely, bumping a display of toilet soaps that scented the entryway, and continued telling Aimee what a wonderful mind Nico had.
“I suppose,” she got a word in, “I’d have to read a book to understand all that.”
She was asking Minnie, roundabout, whether Nico’s politics were her own; whether she could have read Marx, or whether Nico’s long hair and collarless shirt, the intensity that colored his humorless passion, were more the thing. She’d have noticed such qualities in a man, herself—if, at Minnie’s age, she had not been so drearily under her mother’s thumb.
“He will get up in the middle of the night, and light the lamp. He just thinks of things and has to write them down.”
“For some reason,” Aimee said, at the same time moving herself between Mrs. Toucey’s counter and Minnie’s prattle, “I’m not seeing any quarter-inch buttons.”
“And then I have to get up!”
Well, rumor flies. Meeting Mrs. Toucey’s gaze, Aimee saw affront, of a triumphant sort…though the picture in the woman’s mind was her own.
Carey Explains Himself
Less sticky about being accommodating than she’d feared, Hogben did her the favor of saying, “I might head down with Shaw, when he goes after that salve, and see about a room at Derfinger’s.”
Of course, by that, she’d probably lost him. Why had she ever said it to herself, tempting fate…that Carey would be fine if she could just get a peaceful spell to arrange things?
He’d been at a job site. Meeting his aunt and Miss Leybourne coming up the road, and while propping himself between Ruby and Shaw on a tender toe, he’d gasped out a bit of his story. He’d been hired to help shingle a roof, over down to Springfield. Jane, Carey said, had got sick. Somehow, he said. She was doing pintucking and plackets. It was concentrated work. You could get five dollars a week. But not to worry, ma’am, she was better by now. And the baby, he wanted Aimee, and his audience, to know, wasn’t even there…she was with Jane’s sister.
“Why wouldn’t we get that rocker off the front porch? I bet four of us can carry it.”
That had been Minnie’s thought. They were spared trying by a buggy from Mossbunker’s estate, crossing the bridge, coming up short where the crowd of them blocked passage. Easier off his rescuers’ shoulders, hoisted onto Mossbunker’s seat, and with only the driver to overhear, Carey told his aunt more.
“I don’t know. I put my hammer down and it slid off the edge. I had to go back down the ladder. The first time I did it, I didn’t even think anyone saw. The second time, I was bent over…and a bunch of nails started raining down off the roof. I figured that was me, too. Even though I remembered putting everything in my apron pockets…but maybe they fell out. I figured.”
“Joshin,” the driver commented.
“So the boss came by, and he said, you pick up every one of those, and don’t you let me find one you didn’t pick up.”
The driver laughed. “Sounds like the boss.”
“And then I took my lunch in a sack, cause I didn’t know there was a lunch wagon would come round the site, so I got ragged a bunch about that.”
Aimee saw Carey, cross-legged on the grass, pulling from his sack something sad and inadequate—breakfast’s cold flapjacks, it might be—that poor sickly Jane would have got herself out of bed to pack, to beg, of their landlady’s kitchen.
“And did you miss your train, going back?”
“No, I just left. In the middle like that. I wasn’t going to, exactly. I stood up, and I walked down to the sidewalk, and I started off. Everything got quiet, and the weather was kind of hot. It was a long time later…or maybe not a long time. I wasn’t noticing for sure. I was thinking. Anyways, I got out of town, I guess, and I was on the highway. There wasn’t anyone going out that way. It was just farms. Then when it got about sunset, a man came along…he was an animal doctor, called out for a cow, he said. He took me a couple miles up the road, and he asked me where I was headed to…and I thought I’d have to say a name, or I’d look…I don’t know.”
“Hammersmith, you told him,” the driver said. “Got fixed on the idea. What’d you do then, sleep in the ditch and go on walking next day?” Carey nodded, opened his mouth. The driver said, “Biyah Kendrick. That was me and Chilly, ma’am, saw that man drowned.”
“I know Chilly. He sells papers for Mr. Mack.”
The driver nodded, brought his horse to a halt, and looked at them over his shoulder. “Mossbunker gone up to Philadelphia. He told me, keep an eye on Abel’s place. Now, this one’s your nephew, ma’am, did I hear that right?”
Biyah Kendrick was doing her a favor, letting her know this. Abel and Mossbunker were partners these days, so how could she tell whose eye was being kept on her? The house was Abel’s. Aimee was well aware she was alarming Ralph’s son.
So, two things of equal importance, one at least of urgency.
And all three needed doing at once. Aimee felt poised at the moment of inertia—dropping to earth, Biyah’s hand releasing hers—not rising, as she’d envisioned herself capable, to crisis, but abstracted, remembering Jane. She tried to gauge this niece…Carey’s disappearance frightening to the girl, no doubt. But had she not, whenever they’d met, seemed a practical, virtually an unsentimental, creature? Aimee put a foot in front of another foot, and began wording a telegram.
And by the by, if Mossbunker was gone, anyway…he didn’t keep a family at the castle, did he?…she ought to ask Biyah to stay for lunch.
(Of course, there was no lunch.)
He’d been awfully helpful. He was still helping, and the cluster of men and women surrounding Carey, exclaiming, inquiring, encouraging, had got ahead, surging past Mr. Hogben. Mrs. Frieslander followed them indoors.
It was Carey she ought to make write down what he wanted his wife to know. But first…first aid, obviously…
She came upon Hogben, his feet on two different steps of the front porch, his lips bemused, her nephew’s boots, dangling by the laces, in his hand.
Every Sort of Help
There were two types of men women fell for.
Her weeding partner was of the third. Ralph had been. Inclined on their honeymoon to sit by the window, read the newspaper, and tell his new wife, “Go off, look at the stores, if that’s what women like to do. I’ll be fine.” Aimee recalled having a different way of explaining things to herself, eight years ago. Of course, like Nico’s poorest of the poor, out there might be another layer, buried, a male type never encountered, and so never considered.
She shook her head. The point she was making was only this: Bladon Shaw, a fellow competent and busy (though not so much so as to have gone far in the world), was also quiet-natured and secretive. In his own words, he didn’t need anything. He was not a poor lamb, like Carey…not a bold talker, like Vic, or like—
She ought to call him Monty. She was getting an idea about Mr. Hogben…a last sortie, before she called the battle lost.
She hadn’t yet succeeded in having much to say to him. He seemed to have nothing unprompted to say to her. He had come out to the garden on her heels, after she’d surrendered her kitchen to Minnie.
Minnie, making good on her promise of fixing lunch. “No, goodness, Aimee, put your feet up!”
And on this day, had her company been wanted anywhere, she might have. She could hear Mrs. Frieslander telling her story to Monty and Biyah, the three of them in the parlor, waiting the gong—that one about the man whose passage to America her father had paid, on condition of his marrying her eldest sister, and who had come married already, instead, to a girl he’d met in steerage.
Bidding for solitude, Aimee had begun this chore, that Shaw would like to take away from her…because she hadn’t been able to go up and sit thinking, in a chair at Carey’s bedside, while he slept. Ruby, for having at the creek taken up nursing him, was still at it.
And her nephew being well suited temperamentally to omitting Jane from his calculations, bedazzled as he was with Ruby’s birds (Aimee was a bit, herself), she had put her head round Hogben’s door, meaning to say something pointed about a telegram.
Ruby touched a finger to her lips, then in a loud whisper, said, “I’ll stay, if you don’t mind…unless you tell me I’ll be more help in the kitchen.”
Aimee beckoned her to the threshold, trying anyway.
Well, it’s your business, what you do…”
Ruby had seemed to boggle at her own beginning, after sweeping a glance up the hall. She was thinking of all the empty rooms, so found when she’d arrived. She remembered to whisper again, while from downstairs came an upwelling of clatter, something metal striking the kitchen tiles.
“I’ve been let go. But Minnie is still an act. She ought to stop making delays and never mind about me. I’ll only get a room somewhere and see what work is being advertised. She wants to make him take me back. She told him he’s got no drawing card without her, and he said to Minnie, I’ll ruin you. And do you know, she says…”
Aimee did know what Minnie said.
Minnie had been saying it, as they’d walked the thoroughfare of Hammersmith. “Starkweather! He thinks…really?…if we went out to Oregon or way south to Florida, his big name could scare anyone off booking me. That’s a laugh!”
If he cared about enforcing his contract—and it wasn’t that much money, to be hiring a lawyer over—he’d still have to get an injunction to keep her from performing, and the terms of that, to be dickered anew at every theater.
“It’s probably for the best. I can just have Nico manage me…there’s not that much to it. You need to look like you’re represented, right? LIke no one can talk to you until they talk to your man first. But it’s really me who decides.”
To Aimee, it was a little breathtaking, this savviness. If you had a gift, and were confident with it—and were Minnie’s age—maybe the world could look that conquerable.
“Bladon,” she said now. “What if I start at this end, and you start at the other?”
His face flickered something, then he pointed to the bottom of the garden. “That shed. Did the storm knock it down?”
“Abel doesn’t mean to have it fixed.”
She said this to him with a clear, focused eye, knowing she was making a mystery for poor Mr. Shaw. But he nodded, gripped his trowel, and trotted off to kneel at the far end of the rose border. Aimee turned, so she could throw up her hands without his seeing.
She’d been telling herself there were three things, and hadn’t yet got a moment to enumerate them. Maybe there weren’t. But the first, she knew, was that thing her boarder had been thinking of; what Minnie, the devil on her other shoulder, had been thinking of. Infidelity to a contract…or to an understanding, at least. Why should Carey not find himself in love with Ruby?
There was the old joke about marriage being the cure for love…but then, there were other people. And then, there was Abel. He was champing at the bit over his contract with Mossbunker.
She had meant, still meant, to honor her own agreement. She’d come late into the lives of Abel and his brother, and had wanted their faith uncomplicated by suspicion, so that, as a family, Ralph’s sons and his new wife could all get along. Ralph was close about money, and would have kept his bequests from Abel and young Ralph for a posthumous surprise, but Aimee had told them; Abel eye-to-eye…writing to Junior (who lived in Bangor, Maine, and rarely came down)…that their house would always be theirs.
It was Abel trying to back out. Not that he wasn’t well-intended.
“Derfinger could knock down a couple of walls…he’s willing to do it. You just go up with him and tell him how many rooms you need. You and your aunt.”
Why Ralph’s son’s stepmother’s occupying of Derfinger’s normally empty third floor, would not be good business for everyone…
Well, in truth, she knew of no caveat to raise in contradiction to Abel’s notion. She was in accord with him, in theory. Living in town would be pleasant, better for her shopping and her clubs, and for Mrs. Frieslander. Aimee didn’t want a farm for the sake of farming.
And neither did Abel. He wanted to raze the house, divide the land into quarters, build four new houses with money lent him by Mossbunker.
So this, if she could have given it, was the answer to Ruby’s misgivings about her. She had never been free to ask Carey and Jane to make their home in hers. She would be less so for surrendering her last thread of autonomy.
Now, was there a third thing? Yes…Philadelphia. She was going to ask Monty to take her there.
A Daughter’s Sense of Duty
Her father hadn’t seen the host of faults, communicated in his offhand errand, the one he’d promised Mossbunker he would do himself.
“Stage name, that’s the phrase you want. Ask her if it’s one.”
Minnie Leybourne, Mossbunker the patriot would like to know whether you’re Jewish or Catholic…Lebanese or Sicilian, possibly. She’d said this to herself. But June had then stymied her father, telling him, “Fine, I’ll go up to the castle tomorrow.”
“Nn…oo…” he’d answered, deciding on his feet. “Mossbunker won’t know what to make of it. Better stay here and hold down the fort.”
She was always holding down the fort. At the moment, she was seeding the window boxes, with the marigolds she attached no blame to, but did not like as a type of woman’s fancy. June was not partial to flowers. She was not good with them. Her father was inclined to tell this thing to other people. His daughter’s green thumb. Her busyness, with her tomatoes and her sweet peas. Couldn’t grow anything, himself. Well, the sweet peas were for the hummingbirds. The hummingbirds were free and lighthearted, pleasant, she thought, to look at.
And, of course, these window boxes were a sort of civic duty. Derfinger had them. Mrs. Toucey had them. Bott had, for his bereaved customers, an elaboration of front garden. A contemplation garden, so called by Selma Bott.
“Yes, no time like the present,” June had told her. Selma had returned a squint of wary doubt, then decided to pity Mack’s daughter, shaking her head.
June had spent the morning down below, where the old press was, and the new, rented Linotype. And after slugging out, for the Sunday edition, such speeches and posturings of the Congress as her father had picked up from yesterday’s telegrams, she’d climbed the basement stairs to mind the store.
“Chilly, if you want to take off now…”
Chilly told her again what he enjoyed saying, that nobody got the Signal until he came to give it to them. Her father was there, across the street, sitting in Derfinger’s window with Abel Bard. Biyah’s news that morning, that Mossbunker was gone, had made nonsense of his command.
“He didn’t,” her father had asked, “leave you any message to pass along? By word of mouth? Or,” he’d added, as Biyah, on the verge of saying no, stopped himself for the sake of politeness, and in the way of a man taking a moment’s thought, fingered his chin, “didn’t suggest you oughta carry one back to him?”
“No,” Biyah said.
June watched her father and Abel, behind the glass, crane their necks. Mr. Hogben, who’d right away taken a shine to Mrs. Bard, was walking with her, Shaw trailing…carrying a sack, and, for some reason, a bird-cage. Hogben lifted his hat. June gave him the second irritable glare of their acquaintance.
And he was probably her best chance.
The bloom, she told herself, was off the rose. She meant Hogben’s. That one or two times, June had heard this insult, and the subject had been Mack’s unmarried daughter, didn’t make the idea unfunny to her. Hogben, nearer fifty than forty, might have a paunch, his complexion might be florid…he was still tolerably handsome. If he were leaving tomorrow on the first train, she would be pleased to leave with him. And what a treat for Hammersmithans! But, she thought Hogben was a nice man, and wouldn’t entertain this.
He swindled people, and he was a nice man…why not?
Her father had set everyone to keep a look-out, make clandestine report, whenever Hogben tried selling them anything. But then again, Vic B. Mack wanted Mrs. Bard to marry him.
June had a corner-of-the-eye impression of bobbing heads in Derfinger’s window. She spun from the box with a handful of crabgrass shoots, and smacked against someone’s shirt front. She knew who this was. She found herself arrested, seeing his face so near her own. Minnie’s friend, Mr. Raymond, put his hands on her shoulders and moved her aside. She let him go through the door. And to the empty counter, he could go cool his heels. Meanwhile, June could do nothing else to hide her red cheeks, than self-consciously scrutinize the dirt she’d just cleared of weeds.
She ought not to blush, of course. That was only because she knew her father had seen it, this intimate clumsiness. He was probably chuckling to Abel right now. She was fairly certain Nico had come for a print job. He wasn’t going to get it, not unless he could decide June Mack worth speaking to, after all.
“Oh, Lord, Daddy, please don’t.” She muttered these words…but then, her father didn’t cross the street. He didn’t wave or call, only hustled up on Shaw’s heels.
“My sister,” Nico said, putting his head around the door frame.
All Safe Bets Off
“Doesn’t seem so long ago.”
Mack, unable to do anything about Aimee’s arm hooked through Hogben’s, though it pleased him to see Hogben once or twice give a mild tug, ill-at-ease…had got next to Shaw behind them (he ignored Shaw), and was throwing out chatty comments, in a louder than natural voice.
“Curach, the man I’m telling you about, was orderly for Captain Rubillard…loved him like a son. Rubillard got himself killed with a sabre in a street brawl…town of Goldsboro, when we were down there with the 14th corps, keeping order near the armistice. Does more for the G.A.R. now than he did back then, since he got to be Lord Piggott’s lieutenant. I mean Curach. That’s how Piggott’s called, Lord. Ward boss…south side. Putting together a color guard…Curach, I mean. Carry a wreath to the grave. For the patriots’ parade…course that’s only electioneering. Early yet for Decoration Day. But Piggott’s men’d like it, seeing war declared. I guess there’s a few things the ring can do to keep in, getting folks stirred up, taking subscriptions. So I figure…”
He figured, for one thing, that he hadn’t elaborated quite enough…whereas, on the other hand, he had elaborated far too much. The eye Aimee shot him over her shoulder was eloquent, for all its mute appeal.
“Vic B. Mack, will you go chase yourself up a hill?” it seemed to say.
“Mr. Shaw.” Mack slid two fingers through the wire ribs of the bird-cage. Shaw had been allowing an irritating ting, ting, ting, to bounce with this, off his thigh. “You expect to be on your way tomorrow, along with Hogben.”
Over his own shoulder, Shaw darted a hunted glance. Mack looked too. He saw his daughter frown at him. He saw that commie, Raymond, swing out of his offices and speak…then Mack saw only, from the back, June’s posture. She’d gone round like a whip. His daughter cocked herself a little askew, a kind of “you might get a favor if you ask nice” demeanor, that made something—the voice of his late wife, perhaps—whisper to Mack, “Put a stop to it.”
Instead, he had to listen to Shaw, since he’d got Shaw started. He told himself he really might take this up with Curach. Mack wasn’t certain he’d ever done a muckraking piece…or rather—local forms of patronage viewed natural as breathing—fairly certain he hadn’t. He didn’t know if Mossbunker’s ilk had to do with the Philly ring. He didn’t know if he’d look like a mosquito to them, that needed swatting. People in Hammersmith dropped by with news…and their own was the kind they liked best.
Shaw had started a desultory back-and-forth with Aimee, who was saying, no, don’t be silly. I’ll be gone for a night, probably. If Shaw wasn’t there, there’d be no man in the house at all…one, that was to say, who could get up and around.
And not that it mattered.
“But wait! I’m forgetting Nico.”
“Well, like I said. I could just come down to the hotel. I don’t know what it costs…”
“No, Mr. Shaw. I want you to stay.”
Shaw smiled. The smile struck Mack fatuous. He gave Shaw a good once-over; or good as a sidelong glance allowed. He said what he’d been working up to saying:
“We’ll make a party of it, why not?”
“Truth to tell,” Hogben began, “I’ve got no business of my own…”
“Vic. Monty and I don’t want to oblige you, when you’re going up to see Mossbunker. I’m sure we won’t be in anything like the same neighborhood.”
She’d got an extra syllable into the word oblige. And he’d noticed the first-name-basis.
“Well…then. If I spot you on the train, ma’am, I’ll say howdy. Anyhow.”
He took his leave.
He couldn’t do anything about Raymond shoving off, turning a self-absorbed face in the direction Mack was heading, no hat to tip to the proprietor of the Signal; no belief, Mack supposed, in social distinctions. On top of his irritation with Hogben and Shaw, this last put him in a mood, bad enough to snap.
He snapped. “What are you doing?”
June seemed to be copy-editing, leaning over the countertop, blue pencil crossing through something, jotting down something else.
She gave her father a steady eye, then said, “Mr. Raymond brought a job.”
“Charge him the regular price?”
“Then don’t give extra service! We print just what he wrote down.”
Her expression grew narrow, and that didn’t bother Mack. He felt bad for being unfair…and not ready, yet, to be apologetic about it. But this narrowness of June’s had an underlay of satisfaction and resolution.
He told himself he imagined it, but he wasn’t sure.
Want Nothing Will Write
Aimee had taken one seat, facing the caboose, and Hogben had taken a prod from the passenger behind’s umbrella. He scuttled between seats and came to rest across from her, murmuring, “Pardon me, Mack.”
“Well, here we are.”
Aimee offered this, and her companion responded, “On our way.” He stuck his nose in a Philadelphia paper he’d bought from the porter.
She had paid for her ticket, of course. She would pay for her lunch, if he’d let her, but the weighing of what she might honorably pass off on Monty (she was only being frank with herself to say so) was one of the excursion’s brass tacks. Before breakfast, she’d popped the lid of her footstool, and shaken out ten of twenty silver dollars tucked there in a sock—the most of her rainy day fund Aimee could sacrifice for Jane’s sake.
Well and want nothing. Will write.
She’d got his message off by telegram, without seeing room for improvement. Why encourage Carey to say, “I love you, dear”? He had not loved her at the start.
Before Minnie’s cake finished baking—yesterday—Hogben had scooted from the table, pulled down his hat from the top of the cupboard, and said, “Ma’am.”
“Oh, not yet, you don’t mean to leave us, Mr. Hogben, before dessert! And why leave at all…” Ruby, saying this, leaned far back in her chair, to eye through the archway the parlor accommodations.
“I won’t try to say all that I might, Mrs. Bard…”
He’s worked out a speech, Aimee thought. Minnie interrupted him.
“Mr. Hogben, I wanted you to crank the ice cream! I guess Mr. Shaw can do it, though.”
Shaw, with his wonderful resistance to insult, had put in, “Sure can!”; then added, “I’ll have to run Ruby’s errand before the shops close.”
It was more harm than Minnie could suppose, Aimee knew, to be commandeering her ice like that. Minnie had an encroaching personality, a generous view of others’ resources…and, it seemed, no travel plans of her own. As with the Maine mystery, which had grown (by that morning’s news) into a definite fault of Spain, Mr. Starkweather’s firing of Ruby had become an act of war. Minnie had trenched—never mind in whose house.
Aimee caught Hogben inching backwards through the kitchen door, mumbling, “…a debt I can scarcely repay…”
She’d given him that. He probably hadn’t much money. But Abel right now was dealing out-of-town because he was dealing through Mossbunker. He could as well have an agent on the premises…and still three perfectly nice properties to overcharge newcomers for. This service-for-payment fiddle would make a fail-safe for Abel’s sense of fair exchange. He could fall back on telling himself he gained as he lost…and not take the five hundred down his father’s widow meant to offer him with a very straight face. She was hoping Hogben man of the world enough to help her birth this scheme; that he knew businessmen’s angles she wouldn’t think of on her own.
“Mr. Hogben, you asked me for my advice. I would like to ask you for yours.”
He gave her an arm. The courtesy and her words of thanks forestalled in him an impulse to waggery. Hogben’s face, however, retained a certain set to the mouth. Even Ralph (who once had squinted at her, over his newspaper: “Now, you explain this to me, Aimee. Man tells a woman he loves dancing. She says it’s never too late to learn. Suppose to be a joke…”), hadn’t tired of his standard riposte to a woman’s open-ended remark, topic notwithstanding (i.e., fully heard): “What can I do you for, young lady?”
But Hogben recovered, and said only, “Please do, ma’am.”
Shaw caught them, just as they’d stepped off the grass and onto the road. “I have to see if they don’t have canary seed over at the emporium. Minnie says they had bird-cages when the two of you were down shopping, ma’am. I mean saw they had ’em…Ruby gave me two dollars. But I don’t know a cage won’t cost more…”
The remaining walk, then, had been a caucus on the likely sum total of Ruby’s goods, whether Shaw’s face had got well enough known around Hammersmith he could have Mr. Brainerd put the extra on Aimee’s tab; whether she might not need to come along with him, to initial the credit in Mr. Brainerd’s ledger, whether Hogben didn’t (rooting through each of his pockets), have a fifty cent piece and a quarter he could spare, for Miss Magley’s sake.
“I can hardly get over it, Shaw. Those birds.”
“It’s a knack, what she’s got.”
Aimee knew Hogben gentleman enough he’d put his paper down and talk to her, if he felt she insisted on it.
Her plan of campaign must begin with this establishing of friendly ground…he needed drawing into the family. It was fortuitous, her niece’s rescue. She told herself this, then apologized inwardly to any celestial balancer-of-the-scales now planning her comeuppance. God bless Jane.
Aimee had begun to think every chance of investing Hogben in her affairs, making him pleased to have been clever and heroic, steering him to the right choices and praising him for having thought of them, would be circumvented by Shaw…by the man’s efficient ways of fixing and doing.
She had at least the benefit of experience…that was something…although Aimee hadn’t meant to propose to Ralph.
She’d watched him shoot a look over his shoulder, the parlor maid having just summoned her mother to the foyer.
“Well, laws,” Mrs. Littler receded. “Wanting postage. Don’t think I ever…”
“Sent that package myself. No time to lose.” He’d commenced winching himself off the sofa, creaking to his knees; fingers burrowing, at the same time, in a pocket.
Aimee agreed. Time was short.
“Ralph, do you want to marry me?” she’d whispered.
As front pages so often did these days, most of Hogben’s carried the text of a statement, by someone, to Congress, as to what again the Spanish government had failed to do to the United States government’s satisfaction. The accumulating stack of diplomatic notes—each to be interpreted as a new offense—would topple under its own weight; from this the undeclared state of hostilities, would rise transformed, as unavoidable war. Which no one wanted.
Mrs. Frieslander volunteered to work the tuning forks. The weight of these had nearly burst the seams of Minnie’s reticule, as she recalled, back then…
She hardly knew what to think of herself.
She said this aloud. Mrs. Frieslander held the fork in abeyance. Ruby heaved a sigh. The picture had not come to Minnie’s mind for days now. She’d forgotten the flood, was what it came down to. She’d not been charitable. And she meant, of course, always to be charitable.
She was looking at C, therefore at Mrs. Frieslander, as she spoke. But she spoke in idleness. “Mr. Hogben, when he goes up to Minneapolis to pay his respects to…what was it…the Beauregards…can carry along whatever money we raise.”
“Ah! My purse is in my basket. I forget you saying, Minnie. But take a dollar…if that’s enough. I may not have a dollar.”
“No, ma’am. I didn’t say. I just dreamed it up this minute! No, lovey, we won’t take your money. But don’t you think that’s what we ought to do, Ruby? When we have our little rehearsal? Charge something extra at the gate, I mean.”
All she’d wanted, escaping the floodwaters, was the address of Nico’s friend, and her Swiss-crafted forks, the tools of her trade.
“Mr. Hogben is a very nice man.” Ruby said this as though fitting to it, inside herself, a corollary.
At once, a racket of hammering broke the pupil’s concentration.
“Try, dear,” Minnie said. “Never mind him.”
Carey had come down from Hogben’s room, hobbling on the stairs—but under his own steam. Shaw, eager to help with the singing, yet unable to do so, had got back to his porch. And Carey, unable to feel at ease making himself useless, was outdoors with Shaw, holding the can of nails, handing them across.
Minnie arched an index finger. Mrs. Frieslander struck middle C.
“Aaaah.” Minnie sang the note herself. “You can’t go wrooong…Ruby dear…just hold the note you heeeear…”
“AAAaaaaaaAAh…” Ruby sang. She buried her face in her hands.
Minnie allowed this to pass. At this juncture, generalship was needed. Her trouper had a case of lost nerve.
“Ruby, go take a swallow of lemonade. Let me think.”
“Oh, it’ll be no use.”
Not insulted, Minnie murmured, “Ye of little faith”, and stepped through the open door. “Carey, do you like music?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He thought about this, then interrupted Minnie’s thoughts, already striding ahead. “I like a musicale. I mean a sing-along. My mother said that…musicale.” He blushed. He went on. “I like a marching band. I don’t like any dress-up shows.”
“Opera,” Shaw nodded. He dropped his hammer and sat back on his heels. “Didn’t Mack say he was going up to see a parade?”
Shaw was on the stairs, nailing on new treads. Minnie found herself corralled. “Carey”—she distracted herself with this—“can you think of a song you know the words to?”
But from the corner of the porch railing, she could see the little bridge. June Mack had come with a piece of paper, wanting to say something to Nico. The two of them had strolled down that way.
Free love. It seemed to Minnie she would have an opportunity to take pride in her embrace of Nico’s principles.
“You don’t own that place. It belongs to your son-in-law.”
He grunted. Aimee thought this a participative sort of noise, at any rate—the vestige of an apologetic mood expressed. They were on the subject. It was time to push the advantage home.
“No, Monty, I haven’t got any children.”
“Got that nephew, though…” He cocked an eye at her. “Likely to stick around.”
“Well, no…Carey is a good worker.” She believed it of Carey. She admitted the premise had not, in any scientific way, been put to the test.
Hogben laughed. “Read my thoughts. But I wouldn’t have gone and said that.”
“Monty.” He had already given her his arm. She put her other hand on his bicep. “I want you to tell me anything. And tell me frankly. Ralph never would have a talk with me. I mean…” This urge was genuine, she surprised herself to find; confiding in Monty not mere campaigning. There, she’d used his first name without telling herself to.
“…he had his stock phrases. He had his way of treating most of what I said to him as…”
“I’m listening, ma’am.”
“A little joke. A woman’s fuss to smile at.”
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary, a blood-brick house with a high flight of steps and barred lower windows; these a handy place for youngsters among the throng waiting to be admitted, to clamber up and peer in at the treatment rooms. The angle of the house crowded the mouth of the lane, and the hucksters, competing for custom with their improvised crate and board displays—of patent medicines, artificial limbs, hernia-corsets, etc.—narrowed the entry further into overhanging umbrage. There was water close by, a smell of sewage; otherwise the lane was so impassible to omnibus or wagon, that Aimee saw the cobbles fairly clean. And the only pedestrians who seemed to be making advances were there, at the center.
She was having difficulty with Hogben, who couldn’t make up his mind whether to plow ahead of his companion, or guard the rear.
“You’ve got that…that gift you brought along for your niece, safe tucked away, ma’am?”
“Monty, I’m going to pay up Carey’s rent. I’ll have to take Jane shopping…I hope you’ll come along?” She was interrupting herself, but what to do with Monty, since she couldn’t afford to lose him, pressed, as a question.
“By your side, and at your service.”
Fair enough. She thought he’d mumbled this, a rote gallantry.
“I’m only telling you I know better. That’s what you mean to ask me, isn’t it? I’ll make arrangements, somehow, to have meals delivered. I won’t leave her with more than a dollar or two, cash, and send Carey along with the rest, when he can be there to look after them.”
Of course, there might be no “them”. If Cynthia grew up in her aunt’s house, where she could well be regarded—though Aimee hadn’t been told it—a daughter among siblings, how would that not serve for the best?
She knew from the priest who would not baptize Cynthia…and couldn’t say, because her nephew (imagining the argument lay in Aimee’s disapproval) insisted it was not so…that Carey and Jane were not, in the eyes of authority, mister and missus. Too poor to pay for a license when they’d thought themselves in love, and no longer innocent.
She followed Monty’s ushering hand, through a passage about the width of a footpath that looked as though it might become a street. They’d got to the end of the lane, to a fence behind which new construction was rising, and there seemed to be no Krabill’s, no number 203. They retraced their steps.
Carey had said, “She keeps a sign in the window. To Let. There’s never any time Mrs. Krabill can’t make a bed for a paying tenant. So it’s always to let.”
“You think they tore it down? I read in the paper how the city’s growing overnight.”
“I think we’re lost.” Aimee was keeping hope firm. “Someone along here knows the way.”
“Krabill’s! Looking for Krabill’s!” They both called it out.
“What! You want the lodging house? You come down too far!”
The voice had come from a window overhead. Possibly.
The passage, almost a tunnel, under further awnings and laundry, opened wide at its egress. Perched catty-corner where the lane curved, bringing them back to the fencing, the jack-hammering, the crane swinging its wrecking ball, the echoing thud and wobbly sound of a brick wall giving…but not quite, not yet…was a pleasant white-washed house. Here was Carey’s sign: Krabills To Let, cardboard in the parlor window.
Upstairs above a corner porch was another, and Aimee thought at first Mrs. Krabill’s indifferent taste had spoiled her nice house-front. Someone had nailed a crazy quilt over one set of windows, another had yellowed newsprint pasted behind a torn screen. A side window, part visible through a hand’s-breadth of uncovered glass, had a piece of gingham cloth, one not stitched into an actual curtain, hanging from a row of tacks.
Hogben had already mounted the steps, and jerked the bell.
“I’m getting rid of those people up there,” the apparent Mrs. Krabill said, nudging aside the servant who’d cracked the door. “I told that girl…ma’am.”
Aimee found herself tilting on the threshold. The maid backed as far as the telephone table. Hogben inched into a niche by the umbrella stand. “Not that you need to care about it…but if the little girl can go to her sister, she can too. He’ll find her if he ever comes back looking. Love,” Mrs. Krabill said, not believing it, “makes a way.”
They were in a process of oozing, the four of them, further into the vestibule at the foot of the stairs.
“Get out, Rita,” the proprietress said. “See if those bedsheets have got dry.”
This extracted the maid from the equation. Mrs. Krabill seemed to feel they knew each other now. “Come on in the kitchen. Mister, what’s your name? I’ll get it down on paper.”
“Uh,” Monty said.
“I think,” Aimee said, “that girl is my niece.”
Christmases, she and Mrs. Frieslander made baskets…put them together, rather, having spent the year making them. Carey and Jane’s would be filled with socks and mittens, handkerchiefs, nuts and oranges, a tin of cocoa, a box of cough drops, a picture book, a toy, a novel, Demorest’s holiday number; a number also in the Businessman’s Everyday Handbook series (this as close to prodding her nephew towards a career, as Aimee liked going).
She did not meet them at whatever rooming house they were living in. There had been three in the past year. She found them on Market Street, her beanpole nephew spotted in last year’s plaid cap, his small, pinched wife, wearing her rabbit collar, the two reconciled over a day of fun…a day, at least, of letting Aunt Bard buy them a restaurant lunch, take the baby and carry her. Jane would have dressed Cynthia too earnestly, the child angry at the hat tied under her chin, refusing to walk in the shoes she never (otherwise) had to wear.
Jane and Carey knew this a looking tour of Wanamaker’s; that Aimee’s money was better spent stopping their latest eviction. But they strolled ahead, his arm around Jane’s waist, her hand pointing, heads bent together.
Littler was written on a card, the card slid into a brass holder screwed to a door, one at the hallway’s end unlike the others—in that two sets of shutters had been hammered up either side to fill some sort of gap. Wind gusted, spring-scented air burst through. On this day, a breeze was welcome, a relief from onions and cabbage. But Jane’s little porch must be drafty as the outer view implied.
She was not too ill to work.
Hovering without the resolution to knock, Aimee could hear the Singer go whucka-whucka-whucka. Pause. Murmur of irritation. Whucka-whucka-whucka.
“Jane! It’s Aunt Bard.”
This brought instant silence.
The door handle began to work. The door began to wobble in its frame…but it held, and Jane’s face peered round, eyes seeing Aimee and passing her by, looking up and away, to the head of the stairs.
“No,” she said. “He didn’t come. You come in, though, ma’am. I want you to know… ”
It was not a simple matter, getting in.
Having a Treat
A sofa—with a blanket draped along the seat, trailing the scant carpet; a pillow on the seat, and one on the floor—was taking the wall under the windows, leaving clearance for only this rug and a little chest. Jane’s sewing table filled the angled space that made the corner porch bow from its moorings. The door came open about a foot and a half.
While Aimee wedged through, Jane was telling on, and the face called for was a sympathetic, not a grimacing, one.
“…if I tried, it would be just having to make myself more sorry and pathetic to him. I thought about it a lot, ma’am. Well, if I can’t get up and work, what else can I do? Just think. Is there a way of knowing what makes people stick to their obligations? Or what makes anything an obligation at all?”
Uninvited, but unable to avoid it, Aimee fell sitting onto the sofa, her knees giving way in abrupt collision, as her bag popped free. She looked up into Jane’s eyes, and saw there the rheumy aspect of one who’d cried, for pain of heart and body, many days running.
Mostly, in answer to this quandary of her niece, other people’s judgment, Aimee thought. The life Carey led didn’t allot much sway to the censorious eye of an elder. There were no elders here, only Mrs. Krabill.
“You know, Jane dear, I am going to confide in you. I think that will be for the best.”
“Now if she wasn’t puny like that, I’d take her on. Might. I don’t keep enough eye on Rita, having all this other to do. I tell you, Mr. Hogben—”
His hostess cut herself short, to shoot a battle-hungry eye at the open kitchen door, this standing in for the passage that led to the lower porch, where someone had rattled the shutter for a second time. Mrs. Krabill stood, pulling her skirts along past the table’s unoccupied chair, and passed Hogben with a significant look.
“If Jane Littler could sweep a floor, I’d know how long it takes to get a floor swept. What wrong with you, Curach?” She shouted this, having confided the other. “You get on in…don’t make me come wait on you!”
The rattle, Hogben shrugged to himself, was a sort of signal between these two, where visitors would ring the bell. Curach was getting in, dropping a walking stick, perhaps, into the umbrella stand, doffing a hat, if the muffled plunk on the coat-tree so indicated, and denying to Mrs. Krabill, who’d gone to him anyway, that he had anything at all to be collecting for.
“Then who do you know wants a room? I’m a week behind…but Mr. Hogben says Mrs. Bard’s come to pay up.”
The salesman in Hogben liked this gift of the lodging-house keeper—that she’d got right past introductions and into the thick of the story. He hadn’t yet laid eyes on Curach, but the moment fast approached.
“Likely it’s Mr. Hogben I’ve come to see. Now these Littlers haven’t been under your roof a month, or I’d have known the trouble already, if it’s only one of our own, with the rent-money wanting. I’d have done right by the girl, if I’d known of her at all, her being the daughter, almost, of Vic Mack’s…” Here Curach stopped himself, ducked his head and glanced up, with a twinkle, it seemed to Hogben, of humorous contrition. He felt himself a bit slow catching on…to a thing he hadn’t yet caught on to. Curach was of an age indeterminate, small and spry, bountiful in black hair. Hogben felt, though, that Curach was no younger than himself. He rose from his chair and put out a hand.
“Monty Hogben,” Curach told him, shaking this with vigor. “Yes.”
Curach, Hogben thought, was all the name he would get, and this by proxy, as he’d been proxied into Mrs. Bard’s family group, none of whom, it seemed, were quite related.
“You are,” Hogben recalled Mack’s talk overheard, “a sort of ward heeler. For a man named Piggott.”
With a sly wink of acquiescence, Curach buried his face in the cup of hot tea Mrs. Krabill, having bent over the range, had just handed across.
Now, again in this drafty house, sounds of two speakers approaching—in this case, with a clatter down the stairs—made the kitchen’s listeners straighten in anticipation.
The girl entered, her bonnet tied on, a fur collar round her neck, and Aimee, nudging her from behind with a tap on the shoulder. Hogben stood, for having a moment ago sat, and Aimee said, “Mr. Hogben, this is my niece, Jane Littler.”
Curach stood, having none of formalities, and nodded sideways at Mrs. Krabill. “Ah, there’s the girl on her feet. A plate of oysters and a chicken to herself, I’d say. Put the roses back in her cheeks. We won’t walk, either, but summon up a hackney, and do it grand. You’ve never been to St. Bernard’s, Mrs. Bard?”
“Curach,” Hogben whispered.
“Vic’s crony,” Aimee said, and fixed Curach with a look. “We’re having a treat, are we?”
The St. Bernard Hotel
The St. Bernard Hotel had a back way in, that allowed a cab to draw to the curb; the front, which they’d trotted smartly past, being a narrow vermillion door next to a bay window stacked under a second-floor counterpart. And through this paned glass poised above a railing, Aimee thought she’d glimpsed Vic, wreathed in smoke. Also, a striped cravat and the glint of a watch fob that made her think of Mossbunker, though the owner of these articles sat shadowed in a leather chair. Another man, with a hand on Vic’s shoulder, cocked his head in a noticing way, and threw a glance at them passing, his lips continuing to move in speech. Curach, opposite her, leaned on his stick, and returned through the hackney’s window an amiable smile, and two-fingered tap of the hat brim.
They came up carpeted steps, Jane shy and wanting to fall back, Hogben hovering, to escort them both, Curach whistling a tune, and greeting two or three whose cabs waited theirs.
A silent officer in velvet tailcoat collected hats and sticks; his nodding head then drew them crabwise to a demi-chamber, brightened, for curving round a staircase landing under a skylight some floors up, with a watery escutcheon of sunshine. The tables were round, skirted in lace, corners offset by those of linen over-cloths. Fairy lamps of hobnail glass sat unlit on each; behind each, against rose and white paper, hung oval-framed paintings of young couples, walking hand in hand.
Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer.
Jane stared. Perhaps she took it cruelly, or perhaps, as did Aimee, she suspected Curach…if not some other of Lord Piggott’s operatives…of having, in this most apparent lair of men’s backroom brokering, been tasked with decorating a ladies’ parlor, and of snagging a job lot from some bankrupt charm school.
Curach was seeing to Jane, holding her chair-back, stopping himself whistling indoors, yet in spirit continuing jaunty. Aimee thanked Hogben and took her own chair. At once, the friend of Vic came weaving past the foot of the staircase, hailing Curach.
Curach said, with an insider’s nod, “Mrs. Bard, aye. I present you, ma’am, Philander Piggott. Mr. Hogben, sir.” Piggott had Aimee’s extended hand between his; he dropped this gently, then offered one of his own to Hogben.
Hogben cleared his throat, and after a second answered, “Kind of you, sir.”
They all, by compulsion, looked at Jane.
“The lass.” Curach gave this news to Piggott chin down, eyebrows lifted.
Piggott said, “Ah, it won’t do.”
He caught Hogben’s eye, and gave a sort of wink. Of commiserating congratulation, if a wink could convey so much. “Of course you’ll all come to my table.”
They did not, at once.
Piggott took off with Curach at his elbow, having told Aimee, “Keep your seat, Mrs. Bard. And you, Miss…I mean to say, it’s Mrs…Littler, is it? Yes, there’s one or two things to see to. I’ll send Curach right back to fetch you.”
Ten minutes passed…and the tailcoated door warden put his head in.
He stood aside, and ushered before him a waiter pushing a wheeled cart. The cart bore a tall silver pot for coffee, a short one for tea, and a platter; atop this, a ring of fissured meringue, lightly tanned, spilling cherries, canned (the season being premature).
Aimee hadn’t quite caught the waiter’s eye, and he hadn’t precisely offered to serve, and she wanted only coffee—but there was Jane to think about. The waiter dug at the confection with a pastry knife; produced a slab he lowered onto a plate…
He then lowered the plate in the vicinity of Aimee’s patch of tablecloth. Jane shook her head, mute and apprehensive as she had been since lighting from Curach’s cab. Monty began, at once the waiter wheeled off, spooning up syrup and crust as though catching a life buoy between his teeth.
“Jane, drink your tea. And have a bite to eat.”
Having said this, Aimee drained her own cup, severed the pie onto her saucer, and pushed the helping across. She saw her niece, cowed to obedience, fork a cherry. And though she’d used it with Vic in mind, didn’t wholly regret the sharp tone.
Jane swallowed two more bites and a gulp of tea. Monty brooded on his empty plate. Aimee was the last of the three to lift her head, but they managed it with close timing. They shifted eyes, and searched for banter.
Then Aimee’s niece seemed to brace herself. She turned to face Monty and tilted him a weak smile. “I think I’ve been rude, and I don’t mean to.”
Like a duck shedding water, with a shake he discarded astonishment, but Jane was quicker.
“Mr. Hogben, I’m so pleased to know you. I’m so happy…to hear your news from Aunt Bard. I hope you will never trouble yourself on my account…”
She pulled herself the more upright, and Aimee, too late, recognized noble impulse. “I won’t truly be family to you, of course…only Cynthia’s mother…but I mean to teach her to think rightly. About obligations.”
That “to you”—never mind obligations—had come across loaded, and Hogben’s eyes popped anew.
But at that moment, Curach returned. He had a sheaf of newspapers tucked in an armpit. “You’ve met Mr. Mossbunker. Or have you not?”
Agreed to or no, this query didn’t guarantee meeting Mossbunker was on the program.
“Certainly, pleased,” Hogben hedged. “Honored.”
They climbed the stairs.
Mossbunker’s reception room more private (perhaps women did not appear in the St. Bernard’s bay window), and dark as a closet, Aimee found herself seated before her eyes could adjust, and when they had, Vic was there, standing in a half-crouch over his chair cushion, at her right. She had a choice word for Vic, but presence of mind warned her Mossbunker was likely with them, if not easy to spot.
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 gas jets, ensconced in folded acanthus leaves sprouting from bronze cones; these held in fists that jutted at intervals from the wall.
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.
A peppery 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.”
She half rose herself, and Mossbunker, materializing near the fireplace, bowed, crossed, took her hand, bowed over this again. Two more waiters carried 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.
That was to say, Mossbunker didn’t roar, and only in having thick, lofting hair, resembled a lion (his face otherwise that of an ox who suspects the worst), but 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.”
His gravity was condemning (sufficient to hold Jane somewhat at fault, for this being young, and female).
“The times”—Mossbunker’s 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…it is their great satisfaction, to uphold 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; then, aiming this visage of granite at Aimee, Mossbunker 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 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, making to answer, 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. You will have to explain. Mrs. Bard.”
These autocratic mysteries made Aimee fear, for a moment, that Mossbunker was about to pronounce the two of them man and wife.
“You are only a poor widow. I don’t hold Vic accountable, not wholly…he tells me he has kept an eye on you. That he has made an offer of marriage, and 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 hadn’t proposed. He’d merely remarked, on one or two occasions, that their hitching up would be a good idea. She had merely riposted, that you can tell a good idea by its producing good results. She’d have gone on, about June, and Jane, and Carey…and even Abel…but they never got that far in this argument.
“Avarice,” Mossbunker said. He fell silent. Hogben backed his chair another inch from the table.
“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’d like to see a boatload of immigrants brought in, draw off the able-bodied with short-term promises of higher wages. Perhaps 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 good, steady job, one he can count on in years to come…but he wants to put a little by, 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.
“Yes! You’ve hit, Vic, on the very phrase I have in mind. A misguided notion, to which some of our self-styled philanthropists insist on subscribing. 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, came to them, reminding Aimee it was Piggott had first invited them upstairs.
“If Hogben’s polished off his peas and carrots.”
Pour Some Gravy On
Piggott came to sit, next to Hogben, settling into this chair with a luxuriant spread of knees and elbows, and motioning to the waiter attending them.
“Give me a slab of that roast…pour some gravy on. Think I’ll have a bite after all.” He winked at Mossbunker.
The next half-hour went as forecast by these signs. Even Aimee, who was feeling the strain of her stays, nodded to a few more potatoes, a last roll. It was something to do. Piggott ruminated over his plate. Curach, filling their two glasses from a carafe, began a private chat with Vic.
“And so…the note she left said, I’ll be getting that you had in mind.” Curach cocked his head. He prompted further. “But she said also…”
“Also,” Vic began… Here, he shot Aimee a glance. His face looked to her somewhere between hangdog and caught-red-handed.
“Also.” He straightened in his chair, and under her eye gave this patent role a better essay. “She wrote down, I will let the customer know we don’t give extras.”
“And she may well do.” Curach sighed. “Ah, but room enough, Mrs. Bard, to hear Vic describe it, for a young married couple to share the premises. June, now, may feel a filial obligation…”
“What! Is June thinking of marrying?”
“I doubt she can be.” Curach answered this too.
“If it helps you at all, Minnie’s mother was on the stage.”
“Born Leybourne,” Hogben put in.
Since they were throwing hints at one another, it was fitting Mossbunker should—showing a sudden keenness—wake to their table-talk, and take charge.
“Indeed, these foreigners like to make a channel, for all their relatives to float in upon. Yes, I am never surprised to hear of a houseful of jabbering…Leybournes, we will say.” Mossbunker expressed a second laugh. He took up the envelope, and what he drew from this was a clutch of images printed on card stock. “Hogben, have a good look at these. Comment, if you choose. Then I will put a question to you.”
With every evidence of a desire to bolt—another inch of clearance added between himself and the table, two quick glances in succession darted at the door, a third seeming to take the waiter’s measure—Hogben accepted the photos from Mossbunker.
He murmured, perusing, “That’s the professor.”
“You don’t deny it.”
“Looks like the professor. Looks a lot like him.”
“My agents,” Mossbunker said, “are professional men. Will you look more closely…not at the man you have identified, but…I believe there is a chalked up schedule on the wall behind. What would be, were I to demand you name the fellow, your answer, sir?”
“Le Fontainebleau…” Hogben stopped, having pronounced this, and said, “Well.”
“Your partner was born near a city of that name, yes. Mr. Hogben, the schedule.”
Hogben looked. A second or two passed, while the strain in his eyes grew. Then:
“Holy Moly! That says April eleventh!”
Vic stood, reached across the table, snatched the picture, and said, by way of excuse, “Gimme that!”
“You’re not accusing Monty of…of being party to…”
Wrongdoing, Aimee supposed. Of course, Monty was. Why, though, did Mossbunker care to machinate over a petty swindle, one aborted in any case?
And her intended, for having fallen into a stupor, astonishment frozen in his eyes, convinced her. She’d have bet her remaining silver dollar he was not in cahoots with whatever his late…erstwhile…partner had done.
“Madam, perhaps you were not listening, when I said to Mr. Hogben he might elucidate as he chose.”
“Must have been down under water, holding his breath,” he elucidated, dazed.
“Hold it!” Vic said.
Hogben rallied. “You’re thinking, Mr. Mossbunker, there was money involved. Let me tell you, we never earned so much we couldn’t spend it getting to the next stop. I mean to say.”
He said nothing more. Via an elbow applied to the ribs, Aimee’s persistent counsel had been, shut up, you’re walking into a trap.
“Cranston.” She dared it. “You say you have a question?”
“Aimee, that’s Shaw. Don’t tell me it isn’t.”
She glanced at Vic, noted in the photo he slammed beside her plate, the damning schedule, noted that the man whose hand was on the sleeve of another she’d never seen—and who looked to have been drawing him into place, so that the hidden camera might add that detail to the composition—did have Shaw’s face.
“Dang! I wouldn’t have pegged him. What is he, Mossbunker? A sort of detective?”
Silence fell heavy at this juncture of their fuss subsiding, and Mossbunker having had two things demanded of him, the table became aware…
Of his regarding them all with Jove’s thunderbolt in his eyes.
“The question. Hogben, are you with us, or are you against us?”
What’s the Game
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”
She lowered her voice; she didn’t bother whispering. Curach, again sitting across from them, in a cab once more, could not only hear…his posture—leaning, hands on knees, showed him an active listener.
Jane was looking sleepy, but she absorbed the question. She widened her eyes, and with a palm flat against the interior flocking, pulled herself upright.
“Is that what you mean?”
Aimee, having meant nothing very portentous, stole a glance at Curach. Curach proved himself equal to gleaning conversation from the chaff of obscurity.
“Madame Mossbunker,” he remarked, “is likely enough to bung you in a parlor, just to wait dinner. Don’t know she’ll insist on chewing the fat, being that she,” he broke for a laugh, “is a foreign lady, is what it comes down to. I haven’t myself been asked up to the manor house, so I can’t say…”
“Wait,” Aimee interrupted. “Mr. Curach.”
“Ah! Curach to my friends.”
“Is there a park, or quiet street, we might get out and walk…?”
He set up at once, banging the cab’s roof.
They left Jane, to rest and breathe the freshened air, at the edge of a fountain, centered in an octagon of paving blocks; and strolled, keeping themselves in her sight, the promenade that enclosed the whole—tulip beds, plaza, founder straddling a boulder over which water streamed.
“Curach, what’s the game?” Aimee said.
He beamed. “Why, ma’am, it’s the big one. Now, if I were to prepare myself a pipe, would it bother you having me smoke?”
“No, please,” she said. “Do you mean, because we’re at war?”
“Well, I mean, if you like, that Mossbunker, in the ordinary way, hasn’t got much to do with the likes of us. And why should any of them nobs,” Curach, busying himself for a moment with a match, cocked his head in the direction of the Schuylkill. “Give a thought to the low end of town, or cut bargains with Mr. Piggott, in the ordinary way of things, except, you’ll appreciate… Mossbunker wants his man in the governor’s seat, and he wants his man in the senate, and filling his pockets with useful cronies, so. He wants all the custom can be sent his way…and can do very well, rich as he is, building a town of his own, and populating it, too. Then it’ll be only a matter of how you draw the districts. And that done, of course, he don’t need a Piggott. He’ll have taken his business out of the city.”
“Well…that’s well and good…” She stopped. “I don’t know why I say it. It’s Hammersmith Mossbunker is building up, you mean. Maybe I ought to take that room of Mrs. Krabill’s, and stop pretending to be good enough to live there!” None of this was what she’d thought she was getting at. She tried again.
“So…Piggott has served Mossbunker up the professor. Keeping in good?”
“It’s the genius of the man. He looks far into the future.”
Curach meant, she thought, Piggott. “Is Mr. Shaw a detective, then?”
“I’ve nothing to do with Shaw, so I couldn’t say.” He pulled his pipe from his lips, and whistled a bar or two.
“Well, I’d better lay my cards on the table. We can’t keep a tycoon’s wife waiting.”
Mossbunker, forcing Hogben’s choice as he had (and winning a halting pledge of, “Reckon I’m with you”), had risen from his chair, barking orders: a cab for himself, a cab for Curach and the ladies. Piggott and Hogben…and Vic, included after a probationary pause…to go forthwith to an address. Grimly, he’d hoisted an eyebrow at Piggott. “Mrs. Bard, Mrs. Mossbunker will consider herself honored to entertain you as a guest, for the afternoon. And your niece. I suppose you have never visited the town of Wayne?”
The question was rhetorical; Mossbunker’s retreating back asked no answer. But in this lay the crux.
“An address,” Aimee said, mimicking the eyebrow.
“Chantry Place. House called Swan’s. Room eighteen.”
“Curach. A little broader view, please.”
“They’ve run the cur to earth, that professor, and would like his old partner present for the interview. To give color, it may be. Now, if you ask, will your Mr. Shaw be there…”
“He had better not. I don’t care about Shaw’s hobbies,” she answered Curach’s quizzical glance. “He can detect as much as he likes. But he promised he’d be man of the house while I was gone.”
“Madam, you had cards you’d be laying on the table…”
“Hmm. Curach, you know Mrs. Krabill’s upstairs porch, that she rents for a room…you know what it’s like?”
“A tad. Imagine…” She caught herself. “Forgive me, though, I hardly know you. But imagine your quarters so close, yourself boxed in with a baby who shrieks and a wife who gets her living pintucking plackets, if I’ve got that right, and…”
She came to a standstill, gesturing, glanced across at Jane. Luckily Jane studied the fountain’s flow of water, and hadn’t noticed this pantomime’s clumsy import.
“…but it’s hard painting you a picture of Carey. If it were only saloons…well, it’s not saloons…I mean, if the trouble could only be commonplace.”
“Well, now, you’ve put your finger on it.”
“For what it’s worth, and nothing unforgiven, I’ve lived in my time on the street, being it was no colder, and that much less aromatic, than the homeplace.”
“Then you see my point. I want to help Abel…I’ve always said it myself…money is made to be spent, life is for the living. Why would I be an old stick-in-the-mud…why stop my stepson from selling his father’s house, and getting his profit, if he can…? Except, why ever do less than I can, to help the only one I really have left for family? A little house, a little garden in the back, an aunt and uncle on hand to give advice, watch the baby…something that belongs to me outright, that can be theirs for a legacy.”
“Aye, I understand you.”
He sounded doubtful. Maybe Curach thought this only sentiment. She saw he fingered his watch-chain. Likely there were limits to how long one could be delayed in traffic. And Mossbunker had, as events implied, an army of spies.
“Monty struck me as essential to the plan. I thought we’d come to a bargain, because he needed to…and Abel wouldn’t dare shortchange me, not if I told him Mr. Hogben was to be my husband. So you see it concerns me a little, your knowing if my intended is about to be charged with a crime.”
A Titled Visitor
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity to pull (in this case, Monty Hogben would have to do) a confidant aside and ask—what’s it all about?
Mossbunker’s height put the two of them knee to knee, and Vic bounced along eyeing the mogul’s chin (not to seem standoffish; not, on the other hand, inviting of conversation). Piggott and Hogben had it roomier on their half of the cab. No one spoke.
Traffic was thick here, where a quad of tall buildings frostily graced an intersection with shade and tunneled wind, and where two of the electric trolley cars were engaged on their opposite tracks in passing. A lightweight and glossy green delivery wagon, drawn by a smart white horse, advertising the name of a downtown mercantiler’s flagship, began edging ahead, coming round at an angle, drawing shouts from the southbound car’s conductor. A man pushing a bicycle wove himself through the tangle’s heart. Vic took this moment when momentum had stalled, to organize his facts, mentally, as a newspaper man might well do…
Mossbunker’s fool’s errand had turned into a project, in some way he was not journalist enough to detect. Vic guessed himself beginning to compose an exposé—and resented it. The only hot story that mattered to him was what his daughter, under the spell of an insinuating Sicilian, might be getting up to in his absence. But, suppose now, that nephew of Aimee’s could write a punctuated sentence…suppose Littler could take a little dictation? The potential in this notion made Vic sit up.
Mossbunker sat up. “Piggott. Step out and see what’s making all this delay.”
“No, sir,” Vic said. “I’ll step out. Hogben, you come along.”
Piggott’s thrusting up of his lower lip, as the two men sidled onto the street, suggested to Vic a lack of persuasive slyness in this gambit.
Hogben said at once: “I can’t tell you much.”
“Known the professor many years?”
“Bout six or seven. But, let me tell you this…our way was always to head off separate, him get us a venue, me suss out the kind of crowd we were up against. You know, every town’s different…and you never can be sure when someone in the same line hasn’t just passed through that way. Folks get riled up, takes em a while to simmer down.”
Time was short. There had grown a visible gap, now, between the parting rears of the two cars. “You mean,” Vic said, “he had plenty chance to strike off on his own, if he had other business he liked to take care of.”
“That’s about it.”
They turned, saw Piggott’s arm waving to them…sardonically, if that were possible. “But,” Vic said, “did Bellfountain not sit down of an evening to write the homefolks? What’d the two of you do at holiday times? What about the ladies? Some gal he went to court?”
These demands were too many to be answered in a jaunt of thirty feet. Hogben got as far as, “Not Bellfountain, le Fontainebleau.”
“Not even that,” Vic sighed, mounting to his place and giving Mossbunker the good news.
They soon trotted out of the tall commercial stretch, then turned between a corner oak and a white wrought-iron fence, into a square of houses, with only an alley for egress.
“Vic.” Mossbunker lit from the cab and planted his stick, pivoting back on this and staring at an upper story window. They’d piled out in front of a house identified, under the hitching ring, by a plaque: “Swan”.
“I’d rather you didn’t come up. To be frank, you aren’t needed. I’d rather you would walk about Chantry Place, and if any visitor should approach this house during our interview with Professor le Fontainebleau, hail him in a friendly manner, and take up a bit of his time with conversation.”
Mossbunker’s adopting this officer’s tone, recalled to Vic his sworn oath of loyalty, in which he’d vowed to take the head patriot as his captain. It was disappointing, how failure to complete his virgin assignment had not prevented his being tasked with another.
Where the alley crossed at the end of the square, he saw a woman emerge, bent to her own task, which to Vic’s eyes seemed one of ferrying a letter, or a telegram…something, at any rate, on paper and wanting urgent dispatch.
Urgency, he thought, be damned. He would waylay her. It was in keeping with Mossbunker’s instruction, but more, a chance to put a question of his own. He bore on the woman, blocking her progress with crabwise feints, feeling up and down his pockets…thus able at the crucial moment to wield a business card.
“Ma’am…yes, that’s right, exactly so, Victor B. Mack of the Hammersmith Daily Signal. May I trouble you for a moment of your time?”
“Well, I guess you can.” The mouth that had looked poised to scream clamped shut in a disbelieving grimace.
“You live hereabouts…Chantry Place, I mean?”
“No, sir. I live over the way. At Mrs. Alison’s.”
“But you pass by here, you cross the square here, fairly often, going about your mistress’s affairs?”
The mouth turned down at the corner; she stared at him, and said, “What’s that? What you mean affairs?”
“Errands. Sorties, of a business nature. Otherwise, perhaps, a clandestine liaison. Who knows? Who knows?”
“Count,” said the woman, simpering, before the stranger who’d spoken.
“You don’t want this card. I will take it from you. Go now.”
She obeyed—and this put an end to the interview.
The gentleman wore a round hat and short coat, single-breasted, cut away above the knees…definitely the style. Vic carried advertising for the local haberdasher’s, illustrated with just such gents, puffing out their chests, their trouser legs tapered, swagger…also something effete…in their attitudes.
“Well, sir. Keep that if you like.”
“Yes, Mr. Mack.” The man chuckled, unchided, not offering his own name or card. “My sister has informed me straightaway of some activities, and I have come to see our friend. I arrive a moment late. Now it will do for us to think of a plan…what is best to be done.”
This fellow was capable, no doubt, of the royal we. If not, he was enlisting Vic as a confederate. This seemed not only cheeky, but contrary to what, clear to Vic now, had been Mossbunker’s very objective.
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 a half-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’d mourned (at least regretted) the professor, had visited Philadelphia on a gentleman’s errand only, and Mossbunker would now have him confront his late partner, a much diminished figure of a man…sunk, as it seemed, into some skullduggerous scheming, a crime of which Hogben knew nothing…and yet the industrialist, again without perfect justice, insisted he could help resolve.
He admitted to one or two butterflies. He wasn’t sure why they were waiting. Mossbunker had taken a wooden bench under a window that overlooked the street. He 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, stood and went 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 rose, to swing back one of the doors and stand demure. Mossbunker rose, and halted. Hogben saw himself expected to give the lead. It was not unlike the professor’s way with his old colleague, a habit Hogben had never got around to mentioning his dislike of, this 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. He came back and tried the door directly across. This proved a storage cupboard, dizzyingly scented with furniture paste, two tins of it 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 opposite. Hogben leant to straighten this—he hadn’t felt a thing under his shoe—and noticed a pair of familiar eyes, importuning from slightly above the floor.
He contrived to knock the mop back the way it had come, then stooped as though to pick up another thing. There was another thing. Le Fontainebleau nudged a white envelope between the dumbwaiter’s top and the cupboard’s floor. Many times 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 restricted space. He pocketed the letter in a hurry.
“There is one way only from the cellars to the street. I took the precaution of having our cabman block the door, in case Swan got himself busy. Doing two things at once.”
Piggott’s remark came on Hogben’s upturned heels, but he’d judged from the cedary scent of a suitcoat’s approach that Piggott, though catching the professor dead-to-rights (and Hogben could not feel much dismayed at this), had not witnessed the envelope pass.
“Zet,” the count said, “land.”
“Ah, heard you wrong.”
Zetland waved a hand in dismissal; then, flinging a glance up and down the square, and saying all at once, “We act now!”, used this hand to seize Vic by the elbow. Vic found himself tripping (fairly literally) along the walk, past a second house attached to Swan’s, a third attached to that.
With the carved stag’s head at the top of his stick, Zetland unlatched the white fence’s gate. It soon fell in their wake, standing open, as they slipped at speed via a ribbon of front lawn, and ducked, holding their hats, under a spreading dogwood, the count explaining through the course of these clandestine doings, 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.”
Zetland, for releasing Vic to bat at branches, got well ahead now. He jogged up the steps to a front porch, leapt a low railing onto its neighbor; at length, as the distance between them grew, he astonished the huffing Vic by using his stick to cosh a smoking bystander, on whom the count had given every appearance of tiptoeing up behind.
“Take the other arm,” Zetland said, when Vic had made up the distance. “We will put him under the hedge.”
Vic told himself this 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—but now it had been pulled right over a stairwell, one that must lead to a cellar door, this feat achieved by a board laid across.
“Count von Zetland!” Vic bellowed.
The driver, slumped in sleep, started.
Zetland seized the horse by the collar. To the driver, he said: “Take the brake off.”
The driver’s gaze rested, for a moment, on 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?”
The driver goggled. Of its own accord, and while his eyes stared ahead, his hand eased back the lever. This—Vic goggled a bit, interiorly, himself—was a tidy conundrum the count posed. Piggott would be known to any local man; Piggott’s directives, likely, were not to be flouted. No one would be pleased either to annoy Mossbunker.
The rear wheel bumped off the end of the board; immediately, the board itself rose an inch or two. A voice came from the stairwell.
A figure, one that despaired of escaping by strength, now tried agility. He was known to Vic from his photograph, seen an hour ago at the lunch table.
“Le Fontainebleau.” Vic edged in and lent a hand. The professor ratcheted up and flopped onto his stomach—but with a true balletic grace, he then sprang to his feet, and hurtled like a breaching whale past the cab’s open door…this held by Zetland.
A shout and a bang, and a stranger, doing a rapid charge-and-skid, flung from the cellar, coming athwart the trap set for le Fontainebleau. Piggott, hauling up a second-story window, roared a command at the driver. Mossbunker himself appeared breathless at the head of the alley, towering akimbo there with admirable courage, before flattening himself against a wall, as the cab thundered by. Zetland had got up beside the driver and taken the reins.
And Vic witnessed these things from a seat beside the professor.
A Novelty Act
“I can’t tell you why, but for some reason a fried egg will always get a laugh. And so I had one cemented to the first plate, with two strips of bacon…rubber, of course…the plate was a round of enameled iron, like your kitchen sink. The coffee pot and cup were painted on the inside…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 place himself on the left, Cyril on the right. Ced doing his acrobatics…hand-stand, somersault…sort of thing. Light roman candles 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…
“Cyril, yes, everything he pulled from his coat was a gag in its own right. Rubber chicken, pair of baby shoes, watermelon…sometimes a cocoanut. Tomahawk. Tried a lady’s corset once, caught too much wind. But take up each candle in its turn, and get those spinning, too. There was a hidden air hose I used to take a breath. The juggling, you see, got people’s eyes off the tank. But also, and it’s a thing worth noting, you won’t credit it—but all this business, timed out, took about three minutes. Now. You’ll appreciate, with so much to gawp at and cackle over, 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 took up a hand mirror and straight razor. Miming, you know.”
He mimed now, collecting the eyes of his coach-mates, shifting his chin sideways, bulging one eye and squinting the other, dabbing an invisible hankie at a spot on his cheek.
“I will tell you, the most difficult part of the act was at the end, when I came out. I’d 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. Near thing. With an underwater act, aplomb means all. A bit like fire-eating, that way…and fortunately, not otherwise.”
Vic, in a tired way, raised a smile. The professor was one of those whose confessional impulse opened floodgates. They were on the open road, making for Hammersmith. The countryside being hilly, and the road winding, the pace of Mrs. Mossbunker’s personal coach was steady, more than speedy.
Aimee was trying not to nap. What the professor—“Charley. Used to be Chillingsworth, fair posh, all us with the cees, righto…but Ced and Cyril are still at it, somewheres…I had to take on a new persona” (pronouncing this word with a great fondness for its tony implications)—
Righto. What the professor had to say, eventually, in regard to Mr. Shaw, was important. She’d taken a kind of responsibility for Shaw. In ignorance, she’d left him in charge of her house.
Curach had stopped at Green Glade Lodge long enough for a cup of tea, not yet to be taken in the presence of Mossbunker’s wife. Aimee sat afterwards alone with Jane, on a brocaded sofa under a towering ceiling, done over in traceries from center medallion to corner encrustations: scrollwork twined in leaves, shouldered by cherubs, balanced on columns. More such, at intervals, descending to the floor.
Jane had been wilting in stages until Aimee, standing, said without proof, “Stretch out, dear. No one will mind.”
Mrs. Mossbunker entered, with drama, at that moment.
“Now, my dears, I make this excuse. I have had a note, brought by a man on horseback…Paul Revere, you know.”
Jane was asleep. Mrs. Mossbunker, motioning a housemaid to follow, crossed to peer. She did this from a height of something, heels to hair, near six feet.
“Urgent, you mean,” Aimee guessed. A call to arms would have been pushing it. Or so she had 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, the dry comment she’d been on the verge of. Her hostess’s conversation seemed to advance in leaps.
“No… That is…yes,” she tried again. “I hope not. Quiet and a little rest.”
“As I would 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 seemed to thunder up the drive…a deliverance, as far as Aimee was concerned. She had not badly wanted to know what followed on these occasions between mogul and wife.
“And so this way I learned his little secret. Ludi!”
Her hostess vanished into the hall. Aimee heard an exchange of German. Someone, during this, hummed a tune. Someone else…Vic…coughed, and said, “Er” twice. At this, she made a beeline, glanced at the other man’s vaguely familiar face, glanced at the tall and dapper Ludi, then snagged Vic’s sleeve and hastened him into the parlor. Her niece was gone, assisted upstairs by Margaret. But the empty sofa was a prompt to Aimee’s talking point.
“What’s wrong with you!”
“Well,” said Vic. “This and that. Why don’t you start me off with a little hint?”
“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…I don’t even know what! What am I doing in Mossbunker’s house? Is that man who came with you the professor? That reminds me…” She broke off, remembering Mr. Shaw. He had not achieved so much as returning from the dead, but had altered character notably in the space of this 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.”
You Never See It Coming
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly and talk in private with le Fontainebleau. Even this, thinking of it, irritated Shaw…not merely because he was soft on Aimee Bard, and might have permitted—for the duration of a train ride—this daydream, safe enough. The lapse would correct itself.
They’d had the glimmerings of an understanding, the professor and Shaw, his dealings here on familiar ground going smoother than the course of one-sided love. On no account would he address the man as Charley, accepting this maneuver. It was tempting, yes, to knock off a couple syllables, just to name the informer/suspect inside his own head. But in Shaw’s opinion (he knew plenty who refused to take these things seriously), once you went allowing casual practices to infect your method, you’d shorthand yourself into a fatal mistake, bound to. Get friendly with malefactors? Even a piker, a green recruit, must reckon better.
Most of his notes had to be kept there, in his head, until he was back home in Baltimore…and then only the chief’s stenographer would take them down.
He’d surprised his quarry, and his quarry had eluded him. They’d met but briefly, the first time, the professor coy.
The train had come late to the station, and the rain, puddling everywhere, seemed to Shaw to puddle in mockery. He felt himself like a tight-wire act, a man balancing an overflowing bucket, taking cautious toeholds.
The two words drew only a grin. Shaw had to drop a couple more.
“Times are difficult. One tries this and that, earning one’s nick. I am no longer on the stage, Mr. Shaw. Le Fontainebleau is a trusted broker of securities.”
It was stalemate, and Shaw was not on a mission to stop the deal, but to subvert it. They were speaking on the stairs, the professor, foolishly, seated on the sill of the window that illuminated the landing; Shaw, more discreet, tucked out of view in the corner. And from this vantage midway between floors of the Susquehanna House, he’d noted the water on the street make less effort than ever to drain away.
The professor chose his move.
“Hogben is your best authority on Hogben. Since you ask. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, as the saying goes.”
“Go your separate ways, now and then, do you?”
The girl Ruby had come up from the lobby, interrupting, and saying to Shaw, “It never rains but it pours!” She’d blushed, and put a hand on her topknot. “I didn’t even think! I only meant, now when we’re late already, and losing wages for it, to be sure, it’s another day’s delay, yet. And nothing to do in this place but turn in…”
His dismissal gave her the excuse to close her mouth, and she’d scurried off.
The professor said, surprising Shaw with sudden frankness, “You haven’t clapped the manacles on, so I’m thinking you’d like to do business. Make a purchase…?”
Shaw gave him nothing.
“…from me alone.”
“Will that be in Hammersmith?” Shaw said. “We’re close by.”
And at that, the professor also had left him.
Afterwards, Shaw had half entertained belief, when with his own eyes he’d seen the man sink into the floodwaters like a brick—but he’d taken hold of himself.
To die at the fortuitous moment must be a rare chance; to vanish merely, a thing more akin to rogue’s luck. He was reporting to Mossbunker as well as the chief. Mossbunker had any number of blind spots, fully to be exploited…but befitting his being the wolf to whom Shaw, in failure, would be thrown, the mogul could take a man’s throat between his jaws and worry him to death.
These were dark musings, and Shaw’s bland features contracted, showing (to Minnie, passing the still figure, whose hands gripped paintbrush and eight-ounce Gloss for Trim, Mt. Vernon Eggshell) the semblance of hidden depths. It was depths of this nature that had drawn Minnie to Nico. She hadn’t lent him a proper ear. His political character took more work, keeping shored up, than to half-heed the prattle of other beaus she’d had…Minnie had spent the day brooding, herself, over this question. There were pros and cons to it, letting June Mack walk off with Nico.
“You can’t have two things at once,” as her mother said. “If a woman fights over a man, he wins.” Of course Mama, saying so, had Minnie Leybourne the Star in mind, and she hadn’t quite climbed that ladder.
At the foot of the porch steps she turned and looked up into Shaw’s face, then danced fingers between this and her own.
He recovered. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you play any musical instruments?”
Visibly, to her interested eye, he seemed to catch himself in a lie and think better of it. His lips formed “no”, and then he said, “Mouth organ. Just a little.”
“Do you tell jokes? Doesn’t matter,” she went on. “Aimee doesn’t throw out old newspapers. I saw stacks bundled up on the back porch. We’ll find some no one’s heard for a while. Jokes.”
“I can’t be in your show, ma’am.”
“You’re expecting a package, aren’t you? I can’t think how a box of pens being sent out from Baltimore wouldn’t have got here after near a month! Didn’t you even go off someplace for a day, looking? Let’s stop at the post office and ask again.”
She crooked an elbow, and Shaw, in duty—and murmuring something about a depot in Delaware—took her arm on the way down. “We’re going to the Signal office to order the programmes. I’m doing four songs, Ruby and Carey are doing three.”
They had days of rehearsal ahead of them (two, to be exact, as Nico had managed to secure an evening on McKeefe’s stage), but she counted herself satisfied with Ruby’s progress of hours. Carey’s voice had proved a nice surprise, whereas Ruby’s harmonies had not settled wholly on key…but the kids, as Minnie called them, were charmingly…naïve together, she thought. Sweet. The audience would forgive.
“A little comic relief, though, between numbers,” she said aloud. “You know what I mean by that?”
He made a conditional noise, semi-affirmational.
“I’ve got Elmer Bott…”
“Elton, isn’t it?”
“Bott,” she said firmly, “says he’ll give a speech, at the end of the show. And then, what do you think? It’s a surprise so it doesn’t matter, so far as getting it printed…Battle Hymn of the Republic, or Star-Spangled Banner? Because”—Shaw had opened his mouth, and nothing had come out—“in this neck of the woods, they’re partial to the Battle Hymn, and anyone can sing along, so it’s guaranteed to get a crowd stirred up…but, I can knock a hole in the roof with my ‘land of the free’. Not to brag.”
Chickens in a Mood to Roost
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw, as they strolled onto Hammersmith’s Main Street. Had either newcomer known it, that a family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth—in that its brass lamps shined, their glass intact; the side panels were of a glowing mahogany which, burnished under a coachman’s care, laughed at dust; the spokes of the rubber-tired wheels thrust true (and were not a bit rusted, nor especially dirt-caked for their travels)—was an unusual sight, pulled to a standstill before the Main Street Hotel, one or the other might have remarked on it.
Shaw’s state of mind percolated in a way the cautious Medlow’s Detection Agency operative of an hour past would not have recognized. He fell off from laughing at something she’d said to him, to search for the debonair, rueful comeback…and found he’d lost the thread.
Now Minnie did remark the coach.
“There, look! That would be the life. And a private car, like Lillian Russell’s, done up as a boudoir, with a kitchen of its own. Take your sweet time getting ready, send your man to do the dirty work at the station, lounge in a private waiting room if the train’s late…”
“One day,” Shaw said.
“Oh, Bladon. What are we talking about? I’ve been touring since I was fourteen. There’s enough talent out there…real talent…to fill the bill at Carnegie the next twenty years. What a girl needs in her corner is a pistol, a guy who’s heck or high water going to push her to the top. I’ve never had that.”
She looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers…remembering that this was what they’d been talking about. Shaw felt an urge to say, “I do.” He said instead, “I wish I…” and was cut short.
Vic Mack had heaved open the hotel door. He was followed onto the walk by Aimee.
It was a rough accusation to fling on the street, but Vic, without turning, flung back: “You come and dictate to me, ma’am, if you’re wanting to speed things along…and I’ll be obliged to you. Otherwise, I’ll sort this out my own way…and in my own time!”
He crossed and heaved a second door, the one to his offices.
“Aimee! You’re back!”
Mrs. Bard turned her head at Minnie’s call, and when she noticed Shaw, her eyes seemed to light. The light was more that of Nemesis closing, than the enchantment he’d have taken as life’s culmination only that morning, when she’d left him.
“Oh…”—he threw this out in a hurry—“your nephew’s up and about, ma’am. And Ruby…”
Derfinger appeared, peevish scanning Vic’s treatment of his door glass, putting the hand he’d run along the edge of this into an apron pocket, and rising from a half-bend. He shouted, interrupting Shaw…but speaking to the driver: “You move that rig now! The Count von Zetland says he is finished for the day.”
The coach departed. Minnie tugged Shaw by the arm; they, and Aimee (better informed…neither having missed the start Zetland’s name had wrought upon Shaw), came closer, Aimee still drilling him with an eye.
“Since you’re a friend of Cranston’s, Mr. Shaw, I suppose you know Ludi, too. Would you like to come up with me? I don’t think he’ll be surprised.”
“Oh, gracious!” Minnie said. “Well, the programmes will have to wait. Let’s go!”
The street drama had one final scene to play.
The door to the premises of the Daily Signal swung open, the hand at work unseen, but presumed to be Mack’s, as the figure that slued out and landed on its knees in the gutter was Nico’s.
Minnie, crossed by her lover’s unresting glance, her arm caught linked through Shaw’s, calculated herself two-thirds of the way finished with Nico. Then a window came up in the Signal building, and June (who’d got something, Minnie thought, since last seen…not nicer clothes, not powdered cheeks or tidied-up hair…she dared think it was the eyes—that might be described as battle-fired) leaned from the second story, ushering Nico to his feet, and saying; “Psssst.”
Derfinger’s upper chambers were a thing Aimee had never seen. She hadn’t, for her years in Hammersmith, had much to do with the hotel. Even the coffee room below that Vic patronized was for her taste a bit masculine, Aimee always countering his, “Buy you a cup of coffee?” with “Come up to the house and I’ll make lunch.”
She took surveying the amenities now…small balcony spanning two rear-facing windows (view of Mossbunker’s factory), washstand, fireplace…as a matter of practicality. Taking Abel up on his offer might be the meek answer left her, after her failure at scheming marriage with Hogben. She had yet to recover her niece. Monty seemed a lost cause.
Zetland, at the writing desk, had warned them over his shoulder that he had a number of telegrams to compose. He turned away, humming a tune, plying his pen. Under these informal auspices, le Fontainebleau greeted Shaw as a chum: “Ee, lad, time enough yet to bring the thing off!” He’d lifted his brows like a man accustomed to drawing them on with grease paint. “The freight arrives tomorrow noon.”
Shaw, at this bald allusion, and under the eye of Minnie, had grown very red. The professor took his darting glance as invitation. “You see, one booking’s much like another. Do your turn, and move on. You’ll understand that, Miss Leybourne.”
“So you never were drowned, Mr. Beauregard. What a good thing!”
And thinking she sounded like Ruby…and feeling shame for admonishing herself with the comparison, Minnie took a grip on the bull’s horns. “What freight? Bladon, are you a train robber?”
“I’m a detective, ma’am.”
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes when he undertakes a thing, that he will improve it over all undertakings of the past. If I make myself clear.”
A general nod passed over his audience; he’d given them little enough to quibble at, so far.
“He has made himself commander-in-chief of a small army of mercenaries, has he not?”
“Well,” said Aimee. She knew what Vic had told her about the American Patriots’ militia. Shaw and Minnie were outsiders, so it seemed she would act as representative, regarding Hammersmithan affairs. “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?”
Had Vic got a moment alone with her, he might also have briefed Aimee on Zetland’s manner of imparting…but crumbs and questions notwithstanding, she found herself anticipating the gist.
However, Shaw, at this prompt, put in:
“An expeditionary force of his own, a private army, sent to Cuba…to impose order, as he sees it. Mossbunker says all this infighting in the Congress shows America weak-willed. He expects the army will be hamstrung, fighting Spain on a serious of half-measures, tight-fisted funding…”
“Oh, I see,” Aimee said. “And so Mossbunker thinks he will actually win the war himself?”
“Ah. And there are complications.” Here, Zetland felt the need of a small prop. Using Derfinger’s sugar tongs, from the coffee tray he took up a cube, and waggled it with gravity. “Mrs. Bard, your son.”
“I haven’t got one.”
“Ah. This Abel.”
“He owns the house you live in. Now, you plant on it, this farmland, we will say, apple trees. You build a house for a man to manage the orchard. Hogben, it may be.”
“Hasn’t,” she asked, “Hogben been made an agent of Mossbunker? My fault, I agree.”
“All the better for the example I am about to 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 make 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 time was not yet. Mossbunker might be a madman. Or his perch above society might render him that high-handed, that he’d go to the extent of taking his own prisoners. The little cellar room had the necessary (an old-fashioned privy-chair, the use of which would be unpleasant…), and Hogben had been given his supper. He anticipated, then, that he waited judgment, and that this would come from Mossbunker. His person had not been searched in the rush to tail Zetland…
And Hogben had done a clever thing.
He hoped clever. Trick worked in that old story. He’d been brought into a workroom of sorts, at the back of the manse, and noted there among the helps’ gear a basket of letters for the post. Madam Mossbunker had been carrying on, the conversation’s cadences audible from a service hall and a parlor away; Piggott had been pacing, asking (himself, perhaps, aloud and rhetorically) if it would be all right for him to be getting back. Hogben had slipped le Fontainebleau’s missive—pernicious, if not purloined—from his inside pocket, and tucked it in the basket with the others.
But evening drew on. To Hogben’s disgust, Piggott was dragged away by Mossbunker, muttering, “Supper upstairs…” Hogben was then led below stairs by an apologetic girl named Margaret, ushered unsuspecting into his cell, and locked there.
A male voice yelled from the other side of this, a reasonable fifteen minutes later, “Stand back!”
Hogben, otherwise equable, had asked only this of his provisioner: “Am I not allowed my liberty?”
The man goggled, by way of answer; left the tray, and locked the door again, turning the key as he backed himself out. The dampening effect of concrete obscured his retreat, though Hogben listened to these footfalls with only half an ear. Not a deal of orienteering was needed to locate his relative position.
He readied himself for bed—essentially, the act of removing shoes—once the room grew so dark as to have reduced all practical action to only this. Rather than doze, Hogben reviewed his plight. He could take himself back to a moment…could it have been yesterday?…when he’d been about to jog down to the sanctuary of the Main Street Hotel, figure out trains in the morning. Then Mrs. Bard had wanted to come along with him…and it had all, like a fat peony bloom bursting from a marble-sized bud, burgeoned into intricacies.
Shaw had tagged after them…and Vic Mack, Hogben thought…somehow in with Mossbunker… But Shaw was the ringer. Who else? That man Curach….Piggott, Zetland…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 a dream, inventorying each item he recalled having got away with from the flood…
Le Fontainebleau seemed to bob before his eyes: “Here, lad, you don’t want to forget your old pal! Teach you a thing or two about slipping the collar…”
Women’s voices, then.
“Mr. Hogben!” Tap, tap, on his shoulder. “Uncle Monty!”
He opened his eyes. One was shading the flame of a candle, a bow of light flickering over her chin. He clutched his blanket under his own.
“It’s Margaret,” the other said. “I have unlocked you.”
Fleeing and Eluding
A monumental figure unveiled by dispelling shadow stood, robe and nightcap clad, on the closed porch Hogben remembered. She stood depressing the door-latch…with seemingly itchy fingers and poised-for-action footwork. He had entered Green Glade Lodge in innocence; he was exiting it in aid of a coup d’état.
Mossbunker’s wife spotted Jane’s candle and snuffed it. She did this with a tut-tut, and with naked fingertips, a stage-worthy trick Hogben had seen among le Fontainebleau’s ilk, and wouldn’t himself have dared. A strong moon fell through the panels of glass marking the porch’s outer walls; the greyness in which Hogben and the three women exchanged looks of surmise thus not greatly, for their hostess’s act of bold efficiency, disilluminated.
“Before you go,” Mrs. Mossbunker said to Hogben, “pledge me that you will see your niece home in safety. And answer me this…”
She lifted a hand. That she’d given him two points to address had not escaped Hogben; he’d adjusted his face both to pledge (gallantry demanded it…though he might just have touched on the fact he didn’t know Aimee Bard’s niece from Adam), and to query destination, as to the going. He subsided, at an “ahem” from his inquisitor.
“Your professor,” she said. “Do you call him a man of loyalty? Agreeing to a task, he will carry it out, to the utmost…? Or does he…”
She faltered for the expression. Hogben hazarded: “Sell to the highest bidder? Abandon the whole thing if the going gets sticky?”
“Ah. I understand you. Mr. Curach.”
Curach, there apparently, proved this by nudging his head through the crack of the door. “No worries, ma’am. Le Fontainebleau has only a small role to play…and once done, it will be my pleasure sending him packing.”
He woke from a short-lived trance. Not having time to put on his shoes, Hogben had padded across the Mossbunker back lawn, gathering dew. He’d found himself in damp socks ushered aboard Mossbunker’s own buggy, by Mossbunker’s driver, Biyah Kendrick. Curach was with them, sharing the driver’s seat. Hogben was wedged in the middle, Jane, restless but mute, on his right; Hogben’s rescuer from the flood, Chilly, to his left.
“How you been keeping yourself?” he asked Hogben
“Top notch, sir…and you?” Hogben answered, from reflex.
Biyah remarked: “Chilly’d rather you don’t ask him to do that job.”
“But, you see, it takes a local man. Hogben may serve for a number of things, but he won’t know any of the Patriot folk, if he lays eyes on them.”
The buggy swayed in a conversational lull, filled otherwise by only the odd creak of springs and a steady beat of hooves.
“The other day, now,” Chilly spoke up. “I went out to the shed I keep locked in my back yard…and I see the padlock’s on the door…I see it all right…but that new push mower I bought ain’t in there, when I go to look. You know what I think they done? Think they lifted that shed right up off the ground.”
“Curious,” said Hogben. He felt somehow that the story was not for his ears; and Chilly carried on, ignoring him.
“That was a joke on me, I guess. Anyways, I wouldn’t go to the sheriff to say I got robbed. You know what I mean. I have to think how many talks with him I can afford. Cause what’s justice for you, Curach…or Mr. Hogben…might just be trouble-making for me. Did that once…and I got asked who I thought could’ve done it…and I saw there wasn’t any truthful way I could say.”
“You don’t think Vic’s gone over to Mossbunker’s side?” Biyah asked.
“Vic.” Curach dropped, after this opening, into thoughtful silence. “No, I haven’t had the chance to work it out in my own mind…just what he’s done, I mean. You see, lads, we have as well this Shaw to contend with. Zetland is a forceful personality…but I don’t know as I trust that alone in a man. At any rate…thinking to do a newspaperman’s duty, keeping up on local doings, Vic has got in with Mossbunker…in spirit, he is not a Patriot… Well now, you recall the time Captain Rubillard sent him to carry a message, and he walked into the enemy camp…”
The allusion brought chuckles from the Kendrick brothers.
“Couldn’t see any trading value in a volunteer private…had caught ’em a box turtle and didn’t like sharin it, so they pushed him hogtied down the riverbank…”
“But he stuck on a snag…Parkins out on picket duty heard him holler…”
“Ate that piece of paper like he was taught, so Ol Mack had somethin to tide him through…”
“So anyways,” Chilly said, wiping a tear, “you don’t trust Vic doin it?”
“Let us say, Mossbunker took a similar notion, only yesterday…no,” Curach shook his head. “But…Hogben…?”
But Hogben, having got some of the gist by these exchanges, thought he understood them. “You want a lookout. Wouldn’t Mrs. Bard do?”
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming. Soft expressions into tussocky grass, of right foot, followed by left foot, heel rolled to toe—an art attributed by their chief to the Iroquois, and a single-file exercise on which the Patriots had drilled—did not stop various articles attached to his person…watch fob, brace-buckles, pocketed keys and coins…from tinkling accompaniment.
He gave it up when a neighbor spotted him from across the street.
“Where you off to this hour, Bott? Stiff gettin cold on ya?”
“I am taking the air, sir,” Bott answered, funereally enough. With a shrug, he moved onto the sidewalk.
Mossbunker said it often: “Expect no thanks.”
From the slumbering hoi-polloi.
Though when you came down to it, Mossbunker was himself no dispenser of gratitude. Bott could…he did, in metaphor…pat his own head, his act of initiative being not for the ears of his wife. He had got in with those two; he had made a place for himself at their little soiree. And wouldn’t they be surprised to find the back door held open…by the hand of justice.
He meant to take the footpath along Harmony Run, this descending at a sharp angle northwest and downhill from the gate at the farthest end of Main Street; property beyond being private and Mossbunker’s. No one local gave a hoot about the barrier, which only crossed the road and had no fence attached. Young couples, ones (if discounting politics) not unlike that Raymond fellow and Minnie Leybourne, liked to go spooning along Harmony Run.
Bott hoped, as the night was moonless, he would find himself alone. The light from the town, and the greater light from the factory, rendered the earth under his feet at least discernible, from the slope at his right, and the water to his left.
A thunderstorm had passed through Hammersmith in the afternoon. Places runoff cascaded across the path, at times undercutting jutting rocks that composed parts of it, caused Bott to lose his footing…the first time, with only a panicked swaying on a half-twisted ankle. The second time, with a sound whump, as he landed on his gut.
And though this was ensconced in a woolen vest of his wife’s making, the mud was cold, and he felt it. A sock, half out of a shoe, drank up water from a trickle coursing beneath. But distinctly, he picked up indicators he was not, after all, alone.
The huff of breath had a character, vaguely known to Bott. The figure approaching—too fast, the frozen undertaker estimated, and helplessly—sank a squelching heel into the slippery spot. A heavy weight cushioned its fall on Bott’s prone form.
“Mercy sakes, Mack!”
“Bott, is that you?”
Their disentanglement asked for concentration. The shared position was head down, ankles up, tree roots thrusting in from the right, pebbly stuff washing cross-path leftwards, the curve of a sassafras, guyed into this shape by a vine, both narrowing the trail and supporting its understructure.
“Hang on,” Vic muttered, grappling a toe on a wedge of rock…that gave with a sandy shush and tumbled over the bank, echolocating Vic’s perch as a precarious one. “Hang on, Elton. I don’t wanna grab that vine, case it’s the hairy kind.”
Under his belly, Bott’s shoulders seemed to shrug. The undertaker then heaved with his knees, and Vic, upended, fell in a somersault, rolling to a level place along the creek—a muddy shoal in miniature.
Bott, cautious, righted himself. Vic could be heard a few yards below, his grunts timed to a hog-wallowish sucking noise…that of shoes gaining and losing their freedom. There was time. He cogitated.
Mossbunker had said, had he not: mv/db? The first stood for Mechanicsville, a place where there were locks on the river that flowed through Hammersmith’s valley. This was code for locking lips; Db. stood for the Patriot’s doubtful new recruit, Drummerboy.
Victor B. Mack, in full.
As Mossbunker’s lieutenant, Bott was in charge of codes…so it would be embarrassing if he’d got the chief’s meaning wrong. (Could the telegraph office be asking another twenty cents for majuscules?) He racked his brain for any other take on db. Equally, it seemed incredible to Bott Vic could be making his way, by the exact path specified, and…near enough…the exact time Mossbunker had scheduled his emergency meeting, if he hadn’t been called to attend.
The signal they used, mobilizing whenever the order fell, was to stoop in sight of a fellow Patriot—each man responsible for the next down the list—as though to pick up a coin slipped out of a pocket. When any Patriot had got the tip, he scratched his left eyebrow.
Now it happened that well before the titan of industry’s arrival in Hammersmith, Bott had been taking (in Vic Mack’s paper) his daily advertisement. Death a tricky theme to broach; planning ahead, the undertaker’s persistent gist, Bott spoke to his public in Bible verses…ones appropriate to a man in his line’s philosophy.
Watch, therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
Bott Bros. Funeral Parlor
The practice had meshed in tidily with Mossbunker’s militia’s demands; that occasional need to assemble off-calendar, in secret. Once the fact of the meeting had been established, the rendezvous point—whether Tucker’s Cave, the Deacon’s Oak, or Mossbunker’s tunnel (a track of rails burrowed under his factory floor)—would be telegraphed via Bott’s chosen passage—
Proverbs, in this morning’s case, 8:34:
Blessed is the man that heareth me; watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
The mustering place was the main tunnel. The hour, eight-thirty p.m…with a few minutes’ grace for stragglers. Bott, an officer, had timed himself to arrive half an hour early. There was that weakness in the system (he allowed it), that someone in the know could recognize the exchange of signs…consider himself invited regardless…
They’d never had a Patriot gone bad before.
But even Selma, when he’d said to his wife, “Get on the horn, mother, and call this one in”, had put an odd inflection to her words…something dry, like the Mack girl’s humor:
“Vic’s there by himself now, did you hear?”
Bott projected in a whisper: “Seems like we’re headed the same direction, Vic.”
Vic, during that contest over possession of his shoes—the mud grudging him at last a narrow victory—and during Bott’s lengthy silence, had thought furiously on his own behalf.
Dang it all to heck! (he thought). A Patriots’ meeting…got to be the tunnel…this night? Just when I’m trying to get down to McKeefe’s?
The disturbing thing was, he couldn’t say whether he’d been summoned or not. He’d been busy-minded over June’s elopement. By rights, he was on the outs with Mossbunker. But maybe a Patriot didn’t merely part company with the gang…maybe you had to be formally dismissed, get your stripes torn off…
Figure of speech.
Vic was fairly sure, recollecting now, that he’d passed Abel Bard in front of Derfinger’s. Abel hadn’t stooped. But had he not given a start, like the sight of Vic reminded him…of something?
And the only kind of train that came to the factory depot, a special, had arrived around noontime. Vic sorely needed a woman’s advice. Of all women’s, he preferred it be Aimee’s. It had pained him…but he’d locked his offices, taken himself behind his business counter. Hearing a shout and rattle at the windowpane (that tear in the blind gapping wider than he’d supposed), he had glanced up to meet her eye; at once hunkered down, ears burning, and refused to heed her. She was going to tell him what was on that train…inside dope she’d got from Zetland. As a newspaperman, he’d have to go with the story, get down to Mossbunker’s factory and poke around.
Vic was determined on ignorance.
But he knew the train would move again in the morning. His daughter and Raymond had no place to go ’til then. They would sleep, like the communist heathen, in the big loft over McKeefe’s barroom floor. It was known in Hammersmith men and women alike flopped in McKeefe’s loft.
He answered Bott: “I’ll stand out of your way, Elton, and let you go on ahead.”
Mossbunker’s lieutenant inched to Vic’s elbow. Astonishingly, he clamped on.
“I’ve weighed the evidence,” he said. “I can’t think of any right way around it…sorry, Vic. I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest.”
Mossbunker had secured his contract with the American Expeditionary Force; in theory, his works might be targeted by spies. Their owner had not altered arrangements.
Aimee, with Curach, lay flat against the slope of a ditch, at the rear of Mossbunker’s factory, outside the wall and the two tracks with a switch between, by the platform to which rail cars could be drawn, unloaded, and reversed. Here cranes hoisted steel and copper ingots onto rollered conveyors that carried them from dock to furnace shed. Sometimes, the heavy objects unloaded here were those giant wooden spools Mossbunker’s cable was wound on.
Letting into the wall was a gated sentry box. Intermittently this brooded unoccupied…as the guard had his rounds to make. He circled, when the hour called for it, at the pace of a man on a pleasant warm evening, strolling in the dark. The dark was never a profound one, for there were strong electric lights at the factory yard’s four corners. The danger of a whack in the face from a moth-seduced bat stuck the guard fairly high…and he kept himself back in the shadows.
Aimee’s immediate future was in 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. He’d come back, forty minutes after sunset, when the spies in question (or saboteurs…Curach had not confided so much to his lookout), first perched themselves under the rim of their hillock. Curach, motioning the Kendrick brothers about their business, had taken out his watch, nestled it on 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 greeting someone, at first in surprise.
Then at once, it was Mossbunker’s voice floating to them indecipherable, its 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, then carried on. “As I understand it from Piggott. It’s the Professor, now, 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 fairly openly over Minnie, probably thus taciturn to spare her womanhood. And Aimee had been expecting that afternoon…yesterday…to dust her hands of this gang of miscreants, 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 that gave onto 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 love-birds, fingers clutching entwined about the handle of a carpet-bag…and well within earshot, though Minnie held her tongue.
June Mack and Nico Raymond paced themselves with a sensible appreciation of their fugitive status. They soon vanished behind the rise of the hill.
Minnie turned to Aimee and nodded. “Eloping. Isn’t that sweet?”
To this emergency, Victor B. Mack had refused to be alerted.
She’d spotted him through his window, dodge down behind the counter, and only for June’s sake—knowing, glass or no, the craven ink-slinger could hear perfectly well—had not served him right by shouting the news on the street.
She’d walked, and weighed.
In the hurly-burly of the chase, during the soporific picaresque of le Fontainebleau’s memoirs, Aimee had forgotten to insist on Jane. Jane was no doubt kindly looked after. Indeed, though her niece struck Aimee underendowed as to gumption, meekness might win the day…meekness often did. Jane might efface herself into valuable patronage.
No doubt, what best would suit a mild girl who could write a fair hand, was the companion’s life. Dandy if Cranston Mossbunker had an old aunt.
But there was Carey, and there was Cynthia…
…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 pushing to the road’s crest feet blistered to rival Carey’s, she heard from the bottom of the path she had yet to climb…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 there; also one of Mrs. Frieslander’s regulars, a laundress who served the factory hands, and offered steady trade in button-work.
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, passing in spots for harmony…in spots a fair match, even, to her partner’s lyrics. She shrank with a hangdog face at these errors, her finch Tamino—now here, now there—bobbing time from her nest of hair.
As an act, it was comedic near-perfection, wanting only patter…and only, had Ruby Magley the Bird Girl 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.
Her audience of five compressed their lips, and nodded encouragement.
“Oh, I can’t!” Ruby sank into an armchair.
A tuning fork had shelved itself among Ralph’s first wife’s knick-knacks. This, Aimee snatched up to sound a chime; her nephew’s eye the one she aimed at catching—and sternly. 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 likely 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 got round her by this time, to peer over the porch railing into the dark.
Having dined with Zetland at Derfinger’s, Aimee was able to refuse refreshment—
But on second thoughts, she took a lemon square, Selma’s, praised it, then put a finger to her lips and half-shut the front door; these mere diplomatic aids to exiting. She joined her nephew.
“What’d she say?” he asked.
“She said she wanted you to know she didn’t blame you. She blames herself, I gather.”
“She hadn’t gone 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? If anyone knew.” Another moment passed, and she tapped a foot. She wanted Carey’s answer.
She thought by this his answer had been a shrug. “Carey…”
“Jane is good enough,” he said. “It’s just sometimes I get the idea I’d like to go someplace.”
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 offer the parting words of a hostess.
“So good to have seen you all! Bye now!”
And Elton Bott had risen to the occasion by not coming up… If he’d had the impulse, Selma would anyway have quashed it. Urging Carey only to hang on for a while; telling him as an afterthought, at the foot of the stairs, “I’m not mad at you”…as a second afterthought, and pointedly, halfway up, “Jane and Cynthia will always be family, too”, Aimee had got to bed by nine…and 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?”
Aimee did her own part. “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
Mossbunker’s wall rose a few feet higher than Ralph’s eight-foot ladder.
Perched on this, Curach whispered, “Hand me up that feather bolster.”
Chilly’s answer to a mechanical problem…ingenious, Aimee thought…was to roll the bolster tight and run a fat stick through its center. He hoisted this to Curach; Curach jettisoned the stick, then tugged and tucked to his satisfaction. The bolster served for the damping of Mossbunker’s embedded glass…an ugly sort of warning, but like a snaggletoothed cur of a watchdog, present only to force a position. Choose to obey the law or not.
They had, opting for the latter. Rungs creaked, and the first insurgent sprang, dropping beyond Aimee’s sight, but within earshot…the sound of Curach’s landing feet a practiced squnch, squnch.
“You next, ma’am, if you can.”
“Oh, now, Chilly, of course I can,” she answered. The boys first had worried about her managing the signal. The signal was the string of firecrackers in her right coat pocket; to be deployed if she spotted Mossbunker’s militia on the move.
She’d sighed. “Sakes, I’ve lit plenty.”
Darting under cover of darkness to the lee of an outbuilding, manipulating without light to see by, a match she would have to extract and strike, to meet in seamless synchronization with the target fuse, was not one of her honed skills.
She mounted four rungs at speed, Chilly taking a firm hold on the uprights and urging her over the top. There was, as yet, no over the top. She’d come waist-height to the summit, even standing tip-toed on the last possible support.
“Catch you when you come across,” Curach hissed.
“That glass won’t let the bolster shift. You take hold,” Chilly hissed.
“Curach”—she had an inspiration—“that stick of Chilly’s…”
Momentarily, the stick came nosing near the bolster’s edge. And purchased thus, Aimee achieved a belly flop.
Something else occurred.
This something was a blur, after which she found herself lying, modestly dazed, on a patch of earth. Zetland’s voice had seemed to speak a word, her feet had been given a firm heave, an intervening body that was Curach’s had, with fortitude, stood its ground, though failing to use its arms to any purpose…and she had, in two rapid thuds, landed.
Zetland leapt down, to grunt in an assessing way over the quality of his handiwork, and Chilly straddled the wall long enough to haul the ladder up behind him, dropping this into Curach’s hands. Aimee, meanwhile, answered Curach’s, “You’re yourself, ma’am?” with “Absolutely!”, but struck, in the act of springing to a demonstrative posture of all-parts-in-working-order, a frozen crouch.
Crunching steps. Growing louder. Zetland ordered his troops with silent semaphore, and Aimee grasped she was to make for a shed, whose slanting roof showed a line of skylights. This was the tool shop, had she known. It sat unflush to the factory wall, an aisle of around three feet’s width interposed between—and looking handy as anything. On the toes of her gardening boots she scurried across a patch of light, and hit a deep contrasting shadow.
She hit more than that…a saving grace, though painful.
Access to the passage was blocked by a metal rail. Catching this in the stomach, Aimee had avoided pitching into a yawning void. The accident was preoccupying, but she thought she’d heard something like an “oof”, timed nicely to cover hers, and a modest chuckle of Zetland’s. A voice, two voices, welled up under her feet. A door creaked and swung; the light of a lantern flooded the pit—this not quite so deep as she’d supposed.
The lantern was snuffed.
The voice was Elton Bott’s…but she knew that, having just glimpsed him. He and his companion stalled. To consult, perhaps.
“Come on, Elton. This is all a little foolish, isn’t it? Why does Mossbunker need to know my business? What’s it got to do with Mossbunker?”
“Vic, you quit complaining! Don’t forget it’s an officer’s right to restrain a prisoner. You just let the Chief decide what’s his to know…”
Elton whispered a fierce lecture on the ways of the great, which are not the ways of the humble, and Aimee had a moment, peering down on the unsuspecting pair, to address a plaint of her own, inwardly, to Vic.
How do you do it? You insist you’re not getting involved, no matter what… How is it you’re here in the thick of things, making trouble for everyone? What’s wrong with you, Victor Mack?
These sentiments were well in tune with the burden of Elton’s lament, which ended with, “Go on, now, go on.”
Curach tapped her on the shoulder, and in stealth handed her the bolster. He might have meant her to put this aside, safe. The men were stumping up the incline, Vic leading. The rail, Aimee found, was freestanding, with just room at the end to edge past. She hurled the bolster, and followed it, tackling Elton Bott and bringing him down flat.
Vic, like a nine-pin, fell too, the second time of an evening in collision with Elton. He liked to count himself almost as spring-loaded as in the days of Rubillard’s Volunteers, albeit thirty years gone now. He thought he wasn’t missing the trend, either. From thin grass strewn with palm-scoring nuts and bolts, he heaved to his feet, and at once flung to the aid of his rescuer…a young fellow whose weight seemed slight for pinning Mossbunker’s deputy.
This one’s mouth, dimly seen under a cap pulled low, seemed to express something…something Vic would have read, had the stranger been Aimee Bard, as an exasperated determination to make do with him. The stranger put finger to lips and gestured. Vic handed across his tie. In a trice, Bott was effectively gagged.
That was to say, that while at first noising with deep inarticulate feeling, Bott shut himself up straightaway when Vic whispered, “Don’t shoot!”
The inspiration was for his own protection.
The canny figure caught up the laces of Bott’s shoes, and tied them together. He gestured again. Vic searched himself mentally…yes, he might trust his gut to hold up his trousers. The braces served to secure Bott’s wrists. None of these arrangements would serve for long.
The figure beckoned, moving in stealth past Vic, to the top of the ramp.
Here, a form more familiar loomed out of darkness. It kissed its fingers and flung them to the air, then bowed low before Vic’s new comrade.
“My esteem is boundless. Now!” Zetland said, in a thrumming near-whisper. “We will make fast the two prisoners together, and have them back in the tunnel. I have not omitted to bring rope.”
The second prisoner proved the guard, woozy and pliable at present, his head having had been struck by something more resounding than a brown bat. Enlisted thus in Zetland’s latest round of malefactoring, Vic accepted the neckerchief, its intended use telegraphed with a nod…and replying to the undertaker’s eye of mournful reproach with a feckless shrug, Vic blindfolded him. He hoped to God Bott had not managed being introduced to Zetland, and would believe a passing madman imposed duress, merely, on a true but helpless Patriot.
“Count!” The voice, descending softly over the rail, was Biyah Kendrick’s. “I don’t know where Curach’s gone off to. We got two of the boxes pulled aside, but we need another hand to bring em back to the gate.”
“You have lost the Irish fellow.”
“He was there with us, then he wasn’t.”
“I think we will call ourselves compromised, to be cautious. How heavy?”
“Dang heavy. Surprised me. I mean, I know what’s in em…”
“Mrs. Bard, take up your post and be prepared to give the signal. Mack…”
Enlightened, Vic swallowed a gasp, then seized his slipping trouser-band. She, kitted out for criminal enterprise, dared shoot him one more of her impatient sizings-up, and vanished along the dark passage.
Zetland canted his head, snapped his fingers. It was more cheek than Vic liked standing in his present mood, but for Aimee’s sake, however unfathomable her being in league with Zetland, he pulled the tunnel door shut.
Yes, your Honor, it was my hand that imprisoned Bott and Lemuel (Ben, Mossbunker’s night watchman, and a fellow Patriot).
Zetland tugged Vic’s lapel. “Now, with all speed!”
Chilly and Biyah snagged each end of a crate, scuttled backwards, then sideways, finally—its contents appearing tricky to shift—the Kendricks receded at a steady pace.
The crate and its mate, discovered after a hasty crouched run followed by a trotting creep hunched deeper, past the gaping rear doors of a barn-sized shed, belonged to an inventory of six, four still on their flat car. The car sat on the elevator platform that could be lowered into Mossbunker’s underground complex.
“Two will suffice. But we will see what time permits.”
Unlike Biyah, Vic didn’t know what was inside, but at once perceived the difficulty. His end carried like a fat sack of grain. Zetland’s seemed lighter. Both seemed not to keep still, almost as though the crate had a life of its own.
“What’s in here?” he asked.
“A Maxim gun, part disassembled.”
Shots rang out.
Zetland, not taking alarm, not even at what sounded much like a grunt and curse from Vic’s end…which he’d dropped…came over with the same face of gallant admiration he’d shown not long past, to Aimee, for assaulting Elton.
He abandoned the crate, and drew a pistol.
McKeefe’s was a rough house.
Minnie had played to bad crowds, almost always, before Cal Bruce first signed her on, as opening act. The worst spot on the slate. Because she was pretty…
Well, a girl like Ruby, brought up religious, not even in a town…out in the fields someplace, if Minnie got her…might be coy, if coy was the word. Superstitious, maybe…afraid of God. Minnie figured, if you had a face, you had to know it.
Besides, her mother, Margaret Leybourne, or Major Leybourne, as the wags had it, always said: “You can get places if you got a face and no voice. You can get places if you got a voice and no face. If you got no face and no voice, you better learn to juggle.”
Or take dictation, Minnie supposed. There was a world outside of showbiz, but why be a pessimist? She was pretty, and savvy, and she knew how a sentimental number could quiet down a bunch of hecklers.
(Starting out, she couldn’t afford hecklers of her own.
“I wanna see some hoofin!”
“Where’s the comedian?”
“SHUT UP! Let the kid sing!” Her mother.)
Le Fontainebleau sat next to her on the piano bench. The perch was conspicuous, being the stage was only a platform, uncurtained, and the patron on the bar’s last stool could have reached out to shake le Fontainebleau’s hand. As impresaria, Minnie was admitting no premature starts. Carey and Ruby she’d stationed behind the piano, where they could take their deep breaths, in the nearest thing to a dressing room this saloon was going to provide.
“Is there a business office?” she’d asked the bartender.
He’d flushed, puzzling her, and mumbled, “Well, now, down the hill, along the creek. Where most folks go.”
Le Fontainebleau winked at her, and drew from inside his coat a pie tin. He’d promised to tell a few jokes. He stood, moved front and center, and started banging the tin against his forehead. The noise came somewhat muffled; the crowd, mostly workers from the factory, who, McKeefe had informed her, hated variety, glared at the intrusion…but after a minute or so, became interested.
Schwachsinn! The chant seemed to ripple among them.
Minnie admonished herself for an unprofessional lapse into goggling, and began banging out “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”.
Le Fontainebleau spent a minute making fine adjustments to the pie tin, now worn upside-down as a hat, thus to be swept off in a hammy bow. He got his laugh, brief and half-attentive.
“Young fella,” he boomed. “Goes to his beloved’s Papa, asking for her hand in marriage. Papa says, now, I don’t know, son…have you seen her mother? I have, sez the youngster, but I’m willin to take the risk!”
The bartender snorted. Someone whispered a translation. Le Fontainebleau quipped on.
“Ran into a gag-peddler the other day. Tells me, I got a terrific bit for your act. I guarantee, I never told you this one before! You say it’s terrific? That’s right. Then I guarantee you ain’t told it.”
Commotions seemed intent on making their way in, one at the back door, imprudently locked—but this, supposing the place did not catch fire, would at least stop her boy-and-girl act making a bolt for it. Le Fontainebleau pattered on, Minnie played on…though by now just improvising.
The back door rattled. It shivered on its hinges.
Then a thudding lower down as though a boot were being applied, while up at the front, rude conversations grew in volume, and in theoretical contentiousness.
“Minnie!” Ruby’s head popped up, chin level with the parlor piano’s dusty top. “It’s a riot breaking out! What will we do?”
“Nonsense. Get your number ready. I’ll shut them up.”
Something pretty…something heart-stringy…Minnie was saying to herself, while shoving le Fontainebleau aside. The professor lighted off the platform, full willing, and dissolved into the throng. This had grown appreciably. At McKeefe’s front door, someone was struggling to bore through with a pole, a red cloth tacked on.
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde and the band played on…
The decade’s popular number was the only song her rattled brain could conjure, and one she’d already given Carey and Ruby, an unforgiveable act of poachery. At about the point Casey’s brain was exploding, Nico stepped through a double column of not-badly-organized factory hands, red arm-banded, snapping to attention.
He came with defiance to her feet, staring into her face…
He was tousled and haggard in that consumed-by-mission way of his, and just when Minnie felt herself fall for him again, Nico ushered her off stage with an imperious little wave. A woman, sporting a cockade of the requisite red, otherwise drably clad…yet with flame in eye and cheek…hiked herself onto the platform. Minnie ceased her futile singing. She caught sight of Carey, sheltering Ruby before him, making for the door.
The screws of its latch had well parted from their moorings by now, and some industrious soul pried away with a fat stick at the inch or so opening. But two of Nico’s henchmen, setting the struggle at a stalemate, leant with their backs against it.
Nico climbed beside June, and they linked arms. June shot a glance at the piano.
“You’re joining us, Minnie. That’s good. I don’t suppose you know the Internationale?”
Salute-worthy, this gambit… Nico no doubt would go far in the movement, under such generalship.
And smiling, only smiling, Minnie took herself off.
“My brothers and sisters! For a moment, we gather. Then, we march. We have achieved a great victory over the capitalist scourge! This Mossbunker, this oppressor, this tyrant come from the Citadel of Pluto, the great City of Wealth, the islanded kingdom newly raised on ground consecrated by the blood of innocents, where he and his kind plot their enslavement of the refugee, the impoverished, the ignorant… Where they huddle, over the map, in their secret meeting places, dividing the spoils… Mossbunker, my brothers and sisters, is this night our prisoner!”
Silent surmise. Murmurs, uncoordinated huzzahs.
Nico seized the flag from his lieutenant, and banged its staff on the stage.
“They will find that the spoils are collected beforehand and restored to the people!”
Minnie sidled, enjoying her erstwhile lover’s eloquence; she slid foot before foot, reached to catch at Ruby’s sleeve, finally felt justified using the stomp and back-elbow maneuver her mother had taught her for getting the jump on mashers, and found herself in the arms of le Fontainebleau.
He probably was a masher, when the mood took him, but he acted in altruism.
An Indian club sailed over the crowd, aimed to just skim poor Carey’s ear—a precision that argued honed skill in the hand of its thrower. A second followed. Nico’s guards fell, one and two…their bodies still obstructing the door’s sweep.
“Now haul em back,” le Fontainebleau said. “Is that you, Curach? You got Shaw with you?”
Up in the Rafters
A curious feature of Mossbunker’s factory (or, for all Aimee knew, an ordinary feature of any factory), was this concealed catwalk below the skylights. Zetland’s Renegades crouched here in darkness…
But she could picture workers below looking up to a dazzling white daylight, unable to know if Mossbunker or any of his foremen looked down.
The coinage for their little band was Vic’s. He’d whispered it to her, bitter-humored…and not an especially, as to bygones being bygones, thawed-out whisper. Aside from their own inroads into the Patriot’s strength, Nico’s Workers’ Brigade had picked off Abel, Derfinger, Hugh Braithwaite, Ed Brainerd, and the chief, Mossbunker himself.
A narrow escape, and Biyah’s knowledge of the cable works’ layout, had won them this perch. Lanterns throbbed in the corners of a staging area. Or of, at any rate, a cleared floor space…and Mossbunker, being tallest; being inclined to carry himself as a mighty rock—a fair Gibraltar of disapprobation—was easy to spot, mouthing like a buffalo at his bandanna-gag. He was back-to-back with Abel, their hands bound together.
“I like that. They have spared themselves rope,” Zetland observed. His trailing silence seemed eloquent of regret.
The passage, exposed as such by Vic…during his difficulty with Elton…serving as gateway to Mossbunker’s secret avenue under the wall, its factory-end terminus offered the outer rim of a corner light’s halo. Aimee had found it a relief, the view of her own hands this afforded.
Then, a figure too young to be a Patriot, fist closed on a stone or brick, sneaked round the main structure, pivoted and took a backwards step, cupping a palm to beckon, in the way of one followed by another. He glanced across.
Armed likewise, a second scudded up from cover.
Both veed their fingers, and hooked their thumbs.
She and her new acquaintances, it occurred to Aimee, were dressed, all of them, in vagabondish castoffs. She decided against mimicking back this sign…her disguise was a thin one; Zetland and Vic might be nearby or well out of earshot. Instead, she smacked her forehead, stamped a foot, then flung an arm out straight, like an exasperated sergeant.
This, at least, confused them.
And serendipity, advantaged by an abundance of midnight raiders crawling Mossbunker’s grounds, gifted her with a scuffle. Not far off-stage, a voice rose muttering through gritted teeth, a body whumped to the ground; after some thrashing, its owner heaved a breath. A number of thuds as of shoes striking surfaces variably metal, earth, and masonry-block, followed. Her prowlers hunched apologetically and jogged to the fray. Aimee at once let drop the signal firecrackers, crouched and lit a match to them, keeping low, scuttling tunnel-wards.
The dominant bellow, flaring from the now-melée, was Mossbunker’s.
How handy it would be, running into one of her accomplices, one who knew the mind of Zetland…most profitably Zetland himself…
So Aimee was thinking, when she ran into Vic.
And with perfect reasonableness, asked, “What has he got you doing?”
Vic, still at the formative stage of his response, had tried, “Oh…!” and “Do you…?”; at which point she would have needed to leave him, if Chilly hadn’t come ushering to reconvene the gang at the foot of a fire ladder.
“Got me doing!”
The moment was tricky, Zetland just then hauling her by the forearms onto the factory roof. Here, they were not alone. But their captain brandished a loaded pistol, and Nico’s two soldiers were faltering. For commandeering Mossbunker’s Maxims, they hadn’t managed mounting them, in any useful way.
“Now, how is it, I’d like to know, Ralph Bard’s widow goes to turn up, running all over heck knows… Dressed for some costume ball…”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Why would I ever wear Ralph’s old coat to a costume ball? When do we even have costume balls in Hammersmith?”
“You know,” he’d whispered darkly, “what I mean.”
Sotto voce negotiations seemed to be going on, some feet from where the least fit of his troopers panted, recovering after their climb; the multilingual Zetland…how not?…directing these.
“What can I say? It’s not just being run all over creation, although…it seems to me I’ve lived a peaceful life on my little hilltop, without ever meeting a man named Curach. And it seems to me, Vic, that Curach—I think you said he was a friend of yours?—led to Mossbunker, and Mossbunker led to Mrs. Mossbunker, and Mrs. Mossbunker led to Zetland…and….”
“And you brought Hogben into it.”
“Please. How is there an it?”
“Knocking over Elton, playing lookout for Zetland’s renegades…”
Zetland’s gun had changed hands into Biyah’s; the two factory workers, loosely converted by Nico, falling as readily under the sway of a simpler philosophy. And Chilly had, by the door of what looked like a rooftop closet, signaled their next move. From this entry they dropped onto the catwalk, across a frightening open stairway that hugged the factory wall, to find yet another pawn taken.
“Why would you do it?”
The answer came mumbled over a gag: “Dunno.”
Chilly, interrogating, spoke aside to Zetland. “Mossbunker’s fish-tank man.”
To this their captain nodded, the sad, deploring nod of a brother-in-law whose sister’s husband’s mental aberration has been exposed. He hooked a finger under the bandana: “Who else?”
The aquarist cast a glance aside. “Vic. They get Hugh?”
“They get Reverend Sandy?”
Zetland said nothing, and did not look at Chilly, who departed.
“How are all the fish, Fred?”
“Dandy…except for the dead ones,” he answered Vic.
Song rose, unmelodic…cohering a bit, where the majority grew sure on their feet as to lyrics. Things were getting lighter. A voice shouted for another round. Marchers were filing in, carrying lanterns, several. Carrying weapons…of the handy kind Aimee had noted earlier, rocks and clubs. They circled, and crowded the captives.
Back from his tacit errand (ixnay on the taking of Reverend Sandy), Chilly had been for a while in whispering confab with Zetland.
“Got to be very, very cautious. Coat buttons. Lace-up boots…got them metal grommets. Wedding ring…” Aimee and Chilly, who’d inched to her with exemplary caution, shifted their eyes towards Vic. “If we had time to drill on any of this, I’d of made you put your coats on backwards, and mud up them others. Buckles. Eyeglasses. Bridge-work.”
When it had been too dark below to notice the gaps between the boards, Aimee— bent at the knees, hand on the rail—had so far as reason permitted felt comfortable navigating the catwalk. The gang’s movements called now for…no movement, essentially. They were on their bellies.
They were, in point of fact (though seven-tenths figuratively), poised on a brink, the balance of which continued pro-Zetland. Vic sprawled riveted…his face bringing to life something of Creon’s wrath, had Creon been a small-town editor confronting an Antigone gone Socialist. But Vic had also got himself positioned farthest from the door. And if any of Zetland’s troopers was likeliest to clink, or jangle, or flash the message “Look up yonder!” from a watch fob like a signal-beacon, it was Victor B. Mack.
The hour offered no occasion to discuss comparative tenterhooks, but the others must be frightened just as she was…for Abel, of course. But for all of the hostages, Mossbunker too. (And for Ben and Elton, guiltily.)
Doors closed, sliding ones, slamming ones. The five Patriots, tied back-to-back-to-back, etc., in a small circle, sat staring up glassy-eyed, at a large circle of rebels on their feet, a dozen deep.
A woman’s voice ordered silence.
Her arm was linked with Nico Raymond’s; she led, and he followed. It was June Mack who pulled loose Mossbunker’s gag.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
He did not ahem, treating foe and friend alike, rather, to a sequence of boarish rumblings. He hawked, and spat.
“You have the right,” June said, “to expiate your sins.”
“Oh, ho!” said Mossbunker. A moment ticked by. “Well. If you mean to leave us helpless, our hands tied…if your gang of incendiarist assassins…stowaways, no doubt, from the slums of Europe, hiders in cargo holds, bribers of ships’ crews to connive, using their ill-gotten gains from pickpocketing, and…”
He writhed here, wanting, as it seemed, to fling a contemptuous gesture; flinging Abel—pinioned to his back—instead, from side to side.
“Yes, I think we know the sorts of crimes your ilk will stoop to. If you mean to do murder, in so cowardly and dishonorable a fashion, then, by God! You will see how five true patriots can die!”
Four patriots’ eyes bulged in desperation.
A stranger to the Hammersmithans parted the throng. He wore denim trousers, a bare head, soon seen to top Nico’s by a foot or more, and a skirted suitcoat of, appearance indicated, twenty years’ use.
“Ah, ha!” he answered Mossbunker. “We are all going to die, and I call you a fool! Use your ears!”
Like the patriots, the watchers on the catwalk took this news without joy. Certainly, as eighty or ninety sets of ears strained, amid the rustling, coughing, and murmuring that a crowd, doing its best, must produce, a honking rose with insistence…
From the area of the tracks, Aimee began to think. The honking was a voice, amplified by a bullhorn.
“Send out … hostages! You got … … to fear! Put … … … weapons and … … … rest of you … … hands up!”
The message was repeated, with adjustments, the bullhorn advancing to the factory gate. Then a fracas, shouts inside and outside the wall, a rain of thwop, thwop, thowps. An answering round of gunshots. Seconds passed, hinges creaked, and from a dark corner hurtled a soldier of the People’s Front.
At mid-burst, the leader halted him with a gesture, and a side nod at June.
The soldier said, in English: “We beat them back…all they did was fire their guns in the air.”
June said, “Well, it’s only the sheriff and his deputies, so far. Mossbunker has already delivered us all the local volunteers…” She shook her head, expressive of a lifetime of Elton Botts and Abel Bards. “Too bad. It won’t stay that way. They’ll send down the state militia. What are we going to ask them for?”
Someone spoke from the shadows. “They have two cars of coal near the furnaces, and a heap of lose filings. Have you ever seen steel filings burn?” A certain wistful connoisseurship colored this last.
June, to the young soldier, gave a directive. She, Nico, and the stranger, then withdrew. A song began, an affecting tenor taking the lead.
In a cavern
In a canyon
Excavated for a mine…
A hand tugged Aimee’s sleeve.
Chilly, Fred the fish man, divested of bonds, but feudal in honoring a captive’s obligation, Aimee, and Vic, scuttled in train, the first two making the roof with some show of practice; the latter two, hauled up by the arms.
A honking came again, as to prove Vic’s daughter knew her siege warfare.
“This is Commander Wonkton,” the voice seemed to say. “You are surrounded. We have a message for Cranston Mossbunker.”
(more to come)