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
One: Hogben and Shaw
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar… 1
Two: Mack Talks War
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.”… 4
Three: The Professor’s Fate
Hogben had sat up in bed, to hear the rain still pelting…7
Four: The Modern Girl’s View of Marriage
Hogben tried singing counterpoint to the melody…10
Five: Helping Hands
She detected Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery...12
Six: Mossbunker’s Castle
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep…14
Seven: Two Reunions
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside…17
Eight: Second Thoughts
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…20
Nine: To State the Matter Frankly
Aimee Bard, having that in common with the settled object…22
Ten: Carey Explains Himself
Less sticky about being accommodating than she’d feared…25
Eleven: Every Sort of Help
There were two types of men women fell for...27
Twelve: A Daughter’s Sense of Duty
Her father hadn’t seen the host of faults…30
Thirteen: All Safe Bets Off
“Doesn’t seem so long ago”…32
Fourteen: Want Nothing Will Write
Aimee had taken one seat, facing the caboose...34
Fifteen: Tactical Exercises
Mrs. Frieslander had volunteered to work the tuning forks…37
Sixteen: Backborough Lane
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary…39
Seventeen: Having a Treat
A sofa—with a blanket draped along the seat…42
Eighteen: The St. Bernard Hotel
The St. Bernard Hotel had a back way in…44
Nineteen: Autocratic Mysteries
A torch flared…47
Twenty: Pour Some Gravy On
Piggott came to sit, next to Hogben…50
Twenty-One: What’s the Game
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”…52
Twenty-Two: A Titled Visitor
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity…55
Twenty-Three: View Halloo
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…58
Twenty-Four: A Novelty Act
“I can’t tell you why, but for some reason a fried egg…61
Twenty-Five: You Never See It Coming
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly…64
Twenty-Six: Chickens in a Mood to Roost
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw…67
Twenty-Seven: Private Enterprise
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes when he undertakes a thing…70
Twenty-Eight: Fleeing and Eluding
A monumental figure unveiled by dispelling shadow…73
Twenty-Nine: Night Maneuvers
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming…75
Thirty: Trenches Manned
Mossbunker had secured his contract with the American Expeditionary Force…79
Thirty-One: A Few Laws Broken
Mossbunker’s wall rose a few feet higher than Ralph’s eight-foot ladder…83
Thirty-Two: Boxed Goods
Vic, like a nine-pin, fell too, the second time of an evening…85
McKeefe’s was a rough house…87
Thirty-Four: Up in the Rafters
A curious feature of Mossbunker’s factory…90
Back from his tacit errand…93
Thirty-Six: Tunneling Through
Aimee and Vic found themselves dispatched by a new ally of Zetland…95
Thirty-Seven: More Peaceful Pursuits
This Mr. Curach, whom Ruby well accepted, being Aimee’s friend…98
Thirty-Eight: A Prisoner Goes Missing
“Now, it’s true, the Seltons have their origins in Nottinghamshire…102
Thirty-Nine: Reckoning Up
Somehow, the hour had come to this….109
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 had otherwise sized up every inch of Mrs. Bard’s place. He also wanted to learn if Shaw was suggestible.
“Quite a few’s gone rotten,” was his first remark. There was about room for Hogben 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, if fleeing asphyxiation looked advisable.
“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 weltering…Hogben knew of no descriptive term adequate to the smell of rotting potato. He jogged the sack up and down. “If she was tossing em in a stewpot, or a frying pan, or what all.”
Shaw seemed to stand inert. “But…well…I suppose we’ll lay them out on the grass, and if very many are bad…” He fell away from this speculation. “Widow! Is that the story you got from her yourself?”
Here 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 here was mystery. Their hostess had given Shaw a different story. Or Shaw had surmised differently.
Hogben snatched another sack; held it as near arm’s length as the wooden steps allowed. The two ladies, Ruby and Minnie, came out, Ruby winding and tucking up 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—seemed 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?”
“What are you saying? Magley’s not a euphonious sort of name? It’s my own, mister.”
“You’re a comedienne?”
“I perform with my birds. But I couldn’t do a thing about it…I had to set them free.” Her voice broke at this.
“Each one had its own cage. Picture that on a little rowboat.” Minnie said this sotto voce.
“Well, stuff em all in together. Why not?”
Ruby produced a sob.
Monty Albert Hogben looked forward. He had been giving Shaw a taste of this glowing prospect, his regular pitch. “March, already, Shaw. Less than two years, now. And a new century! 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, first year, what it really is.”
“I don’t get you.”
“I only read that…I don’t swear to it.”
“Some erudition you came across in the papers.”
“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 had begun toying with the idea of a woman… Folks trusted Lydia Pinkham, didn’t they?
“Shaw, 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 article somewheres, and you don’t say you even swear it’s right! I was telling you…”
Hogben’s spiel was engraved so in memory, that he could rattle off the 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 this question 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, not unheard of neither, on a railcar…
While, aloud, he was saying something about flying machines. She probably didn’t have them insured. Now there was a case of not thinking of the future. He pictured Ruby Magley in his 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 had no 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. It had government, it had trade. These were proofs of the townsfolk being forward-looking. Hammersmith had no depot proper…but again, Hogben put a lot of faith in the automobile. Any burg might grow reckonable, these coming days.
The town had a paper, the Daily Clew, and here, emerging from the tobacconist’s, was Victor B. Mack, its proprietor. Mack had been up to Mrs. Bard’s, and held such a long and feeling interview with Minnie Leybourne that he’d done no more, for his deadline’s sake, than shake hands with Hogben and Shaw.
“Sirs!” he now 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.
Mack said: “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.” Offering this, Mack chuckled uncomfortably.
Partisan interest, Hogben decided. “Vic…”
He wanted to ease into it. He sipped. He got some assistance from Shaw, who was writhing on his stool, and had said, “Uh”, a second ago. “Shaw,” Hogben included him. “Now, I don’t suppose Congress wants any way to…rush headlong.”
Unoffended by “Vic”, Mack 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…”
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 Spain? 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 give the proposition a little thought. Sleep on it…can’t hurt.”
It took only one of em.
When he’d had the Professor, when they’d worked as a team, Hogben had known how to fan up that fear of lost opportunity. 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 your business competitors—most 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 onto, and a dream of wealth and ease…
And never make the move that snared him. I may very well invest, 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 would have it one way, when he could have it both ways. They say ones that hide can find.” Mack winked. “Make yourself useful passing the word to Sigsbee…you could trump up just as much of a case for the other side needing put down, as it were. A dummy mine wouldn’t kill anybody, and you being a good egg’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. “You’d like to see Cuba a sort of protectorate?”
“No, Mr. Hogben, I can’t say I like anything about this.”
Hogben was bluffing. The word “protectorate” had come to him like a gift. He had 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 Clew. 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 this 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
Hogben had sat up in bed, to hear the rain still pelting, rat-a-tat-tatting off some plane of the inner house where a leak had sprung. He had known he wouldn’t sleep. The roar of the deluge appeared soporific enough for the Professor, curled on the bed’s other side, his back to Hogben. Hogben knew of no observation 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, he’d 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, Hogben hadn’t understood why…still allowing it just possible they kept a night clerk on the desk, and that he might beg a glass of milk.
He could see no lights. Outside the window at the turn of the stairs, the night sky 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 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 have a notion 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 idea 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 might 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 weathervane, 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 had 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 had taken getting right down in the water. And for this forced acquaintance, Hogben had felt obliged to give up his coat, snugging it round her shoulders. He shivered too, crawling back to the Professor’s side, being shot 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 wasn’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 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 spat the tip 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 some few inches after Ruby and Minnie went off. Hogben and the Professor stood either side of the chimney grasping each other’s forearms. The boaters returned.
“Hop on down, mister.”
“Professor, you go first,” Hogben 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…in short, Aimee Bard. Mack at her side.
“You’re Mr. Hogben. I’ve already heard.”
Her eyes, he thought, were pretty good, too. She had half-risen and hovered a hand over his shirtsleeve, not meaning she’d already heard his name was Hogben.
A fortuitous droplet made him wipe his cheek. He saw her eyes well up.
“What,” she asked, “was your friend’s name?”
The Professor, he’d known only by his stage name, William Le Fontainebleau. Hogben had to guess, recollecting the most identifiable of varying accents, that his partner 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 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 the next; 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.”
She looked at the ledger. “I’m sure they’ll find him…I mean…his survivors.”
“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 had always begun a show that way, with a prayer and a song. Brought the audience together, gave them a sense of common purpose, one that with luck would carry forward. Was there any reason the Professor couldn’t be, this one time, present in spirit?
“As my late partner…always used liking 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. He noted tiny flowers, a mound of them in a sunny patch warmed by the bridge abutment. Too puny to make a nosegay. 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 of disheveled hair, and a mud-smeared chin and nose, emerged from the underside, near where Hogben had proposed to do his meditating. 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, clearing the arch, and stood in full, 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!”
Hogben had been prepared to hightail it. He had to debate with himself, whether in such circumstances a lady’s preference still must be obeyed—and the chance to decide got away from him. Minnie came 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 was 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 the trains that come up this way only stop in the valley, where they have the factory.”
Hogben met Minnie halfway. She had climbed the incline opposite with some labor, saying these things. She began to trot across, and Hogben, hoping the young people were going into 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.
Minnie added: “He’s not. Why do people get married?”
Nico fell in behind. “Mister. I don’t remember you.” His manner seemed a touch nose-in-the-airish, but Hogben got him. He repeated his name.
“Yes. Mr. Hogben. The question of marriage. As you see, society… I think I won’t use the word society. There are implications. No. Shall we say the human collective? The human collective enjoys this institution, which is made for…made in regard to… To property. Nothing that is a need, native to the being, you see. No. The historical basis for the married state is only in regard to the distribution and disposal of property. The legal authority, the importance assigned to it, these are derived wholly from property. Of course, no one can own anything.” He put a cigarette between his lips, and mumbled: “We are only retaining what we claim to own.”
Lighting the cigarette and spewing smoke, Nico preempted Hogben, who had separated a fair number of people from their property, on the verge of offering a sage: “Indeed.”
“Now from here, there,” Nico said. “You see the obscenity of personal wealth.”
He raised a finger towards a castle-like structure, turreting above its 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…though being careful not to seem to. He assumed that this was so, that the owner of such a house must also own the most prominent business hereabouts.
He concluded he was not going to shed this pair. Make the most of it, he told himself. 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?”
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…who were 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 had wired money to his employer, while down in the town; the company, Bladon said, were allowing 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 over two… Fifty-five cent per. Dozen, I mean.”
“Oh, well, an atlas, that’s awfully nice.” She would make the purchase, 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 Shaw’s pens.
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 outside.
“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 read his telegrams backwards and forwards…and still couldn’t see how the Commission’s assuming a mine proved anything about where it came from.
“That could take months, couldn’t it? Maybe they never will. Find out.”
“Ain’t gonna wait, though.”
And yet, if they called for volunteers…that was another way. 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, ambitions. 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 piecework for had let her buy from them.
(“If he gets on that train,” Jane had whispered to her at Christmas, “he’s taking Cynthia with him.”)
They were both worn out from work, and Carey’s aunt did not hold his inconstancy against him. No, it was a miserable life being poor, living in rooms. She would herself have hated working 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 ten thousand dollars in the bank to provide her an income—the interest on which amounted to not much—Aimee wasn’t inviting them to come stay. So many rooms…but no.
Getting in a boarder had made trouble enough with Abel. She’d had to tell him Mrs. Frieslander was a relative. She drew in three dollars a week this way, 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—
No doubt, though, that convergence of impulse and despair would hit just when he’d got her in the family way again. Amiee might have breathing room. She might, possibly, have 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 could hope. She reached across and took the bowl away, using 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 take on another chore for you, if you like, ma’am.”
“I’m not sure you can.”
“Course 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 again, his nature was diffident; he would try her patience, waiting in every case 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 said the same words to Vic, he would take them as a proposal. Vic, like Ralph had been, was a widower, but with a daughter already keeping his house.
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep.
In their mutual professional capacities, Mossbunker had spoken to him once…stipulating he did not allow the press inside his walls. They’d walked the yellowing greensward, as Vic felt inclined to name 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, shading eyes and flinging a commanding finger, looking like a statue of Lewis or Clark, had said: “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, Vic gathered. He stood tightlipped.
“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…precisely…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 worthwhile to Vic to answer Mossbunker with an editorial. But before he’d got far doing the math in his head, he remembered he had no opinion on labor reform.
Mossbunker’s name had been on the factory deed for twenty years; the great man not seen locally til ’89. As a by-product of the terrible flood at Johnstown, he had 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 caught Mossbunker’s fancy. The castle had started going up, eight years ago now.
Thus, the multi-millionaire had a Hammersmith address. His presence had never been witnessed on Main Street. Vic expected he read only the Philly papers, but was working on this inroad. As soon as Abel Bard let him know about the American Patriots, Vic had said to him, “Now, I don’t want to give a bad impression. A lot of people might think the proprietor of a daily paper is not gonna keep things under his vest. If it makes Mossbunker uncomfortable, having me there…”
“Are you saying you want to 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, Vic was willing to believe—had an oblong table, where this knighthood of Anglo-Saxon purity sat decidedly in order of precedence. The initiate was at the foot. At Vic’s back a vast oaken door swooshed on iron hinges whenever the servants brought another dish to the board. To Vic’s relief, he had a knife and fork; in fact, a decent slice of Sunday ham. You couldn’t tell how far a man who could spend what he liked might invest in the Age of Chivalry.
At length, one final servant made the rounds with an open coffer of cigars, and was dismissed by Mossbunker.
The opera house manager, Hugh Braithwaite, and Stew Murray, the barber, came to their feet with a reluctant unfolding. They clamped onto duty, long medieval horns, that Vic from his vantage had supposed castle-sized candlesticks, and blew.
Warrronk. Warrronk. Abel stood, and called the meeting to order, naming the officers, the attendees, Vic…
Mossbunker, Battle Chief, and presiding, kept his seat, but rumbled: “Elton, will you lead us?”
The town undertaker sat at Mossbunker’s left. He clasped hands and bowed his head. It was the second prayer of the evening; Mossbunker himself had led the grace.
“Dear Heavenly Father. Thou are mighty in wisdom…”
“Art,” Vic found himself murmuring.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
“Goes with thou.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone interrupt a prayer for editing. Abel.”
Like an escaped prisoner dodging the searchlight beam, Vic hunched and let his sponsor catch it.
“Don’t speak,” Abel hissed, “when nobody asked you to. I told you the rules…I did tell him, Cranston.”
Mossbunker was still, seeming to draw silence to his person. Elton rushed on.
“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. Thine sight…? No… Amen!”
“Amen,” Vic said, with the others.
“Yes. Thank you, Elton. You have 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.”
By his face of wary calculation, Vic deemed Abel had not been on his toes.
“I can tell you…um… Round about there’s a lot of war talk…”
“Which we will take up in good time.” Mossbunker linked his fingers. “Presently, we have that dago. And those couple of micks.”
Abel 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 couldn’t tell you about Shaw. Not every Shaw, you know…”
“Bard! One finds out such things by asking. I don’t know what’s keeping you.”
“I haven’t been up to look in on my stepmother. I had bout a hundred acres under water, this past week.”
“You are 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 strange lady. It’s a little…”
“A little more of a…” Vic put in, out of turn. “A biographical concern. Something a newspaper man might ask, not offending the lady.”
“She may take off with the dago. I had a report the two of them were seen down at the roadhouse, where the hands go. McKeefe’s. They’ll pass out their anarchist propaganda and disappear. Vic… You have not been formally fraternalized, but I will call you so. I want your report tomorrow. No later.”
This was leaderly and galvanizing, all the more because initiative seemed to have got him past the voting-in process. There was a snag, however, to the pace at which Vic’s 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. When I say tomorrow, I mean tomorrow. Don’t come at lunchtime.”
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside towards the same creek that had attracted Hogben. 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 was not 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, the daughter of a farmhand. 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; she’d had no longing to it. The birds were her born calling…the smallest mite of four she’d been, the day she’d rescued the first of her broken-winged darlings, tending the poor crippled ones ever after, and the babies flung from their nests. Ruby saw herself puny and plain, but had to put up a fuss when Mr. Starkweather insisted the birdies go in the baggage car.
No…and a thousand times, no.
Mr. Bruce, who had sold her contract to Mr. Starkweather, was a kind man. He had always bought her the extra seat. Minnie, then, had come into it…
And Ruby never at all had spoken to Miss Leybourne. Minnie was near being star of Starkweather’s Varieties, second only to Contini, the Human Pendulum, whose sword cut a girl’s head off.
“I’ll come along with Ruby on the next train. Or the one after. Really!”
Which was to say, you ought to be ashamed. And so he ought to have. Starkweather would have killed her lovies with his miserly purse, the tightwad, the shrunken-hearted skinflint! Though the question was somewhat moot, now she’d had to set the poor dears loose 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 parts from the wet mismatching; 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 lay 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 without energy enough 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 had herself called him Johnny) was quite used to human society. He hopped to a lower branch.
“Oh, my Poppy. Oh, my darling.” She whispered 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,” she 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 for trustworthy), she had 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 small knife in your pocket, at all, I might cut the hem from my petticoat…”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
Carey reached the tip of a finger to Papageno’s feathered crest. The bird squawked. But that, bless him, 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, and when he exerted himself, huffed in a bass tone. Shaw, alone, seemed to be tramping across the bridge.
She had never yodeled the phrase, “yoo hoo”, but certain grumblings and gaspings she recalled from grown people known in childhood, suggested to Ruby it would be ill-mannered 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 Carey’s had.
He righted himself, from the stone arch on which he’d leaned to look, and jogged down to them.
“Have your birds found their way home to you? That,” he said, peering at the top of Ruby’s head, “is quite amazing. I think you ought to speak to Mack.”
“Mr. Shaw, will you meet 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, a rule 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 east-west route from Philadelphia to San Francisco, the north-south from Bismarck to El Paso, he had known better. He and the Professor talked about two things: what sort of crowd they might expect, and what sort of crowd they had drawn.
Hogben, firing up his audience, cited the wonders of the telephone…
He loathed the telephone. He blamed the object for imperiling his living. His first instinct, greeted at the Hammersmith opera house with free cable service (he had sent one: “Never under water. Have no worries”, to an old creditor…why not?), and 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, to learn he’d accepted Mrs. Bard’s)…had been to strike while the iron was hot. Hearts don’t stay soft forever.
Boosterly, the house manager had said, “None of this Mr. Braithwaite. Call me Hugh.”
“Looks like all you got going is a picture show. Ladies’ Watercolor Society…” Hogben started off, reading the pasted-up notice.
“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 had tried getting a whiff of the place, then, going into town at Mack’s invitation, chatting guardedly about the shares. Expecting, though, to drum up an audience, generate a little publicity. Once upon a time, you were safe enough. You knew business hours being over for the day, nobody was rushing off to send a telegram, just to learn if your company was listed. In those days, there was no ringing up for Information.
He had the morning Clew on Mrs. Bard’s dining room table. He had the house nearly to himself. Mrs. Frieslander sat 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…whatever they have in that place…knows best.”
She spoke, having heard him rustle the page of ads, and Hogben shot a glance over the news. Cuban gent, maybe, didn’t trust Spain’s diplomatic note—a headline of small meaning to Hogben. But headlines were it; he was not reading articles. And that was all the war today.
“No, ma’am,” he called agreeably. “Count on the local man.”
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 wholly 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 had been able to get: that Hammersmithans kept an eye out. 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 had said, Mrs. Bard. “It was like that for me when I was widowed. Maybe not just like that. But, you know, wanting for things to be the same. Doing what you would have done anyway. Mr. Hogben…”
They had 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…a gaze of what he would have called 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 nodded and sighed. She said: “Mr. Hogben, it’s no disgrace if you’d like to cancel your show. You didn’t give any money to Hugh?”
“Always 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 meant? He thought she had held his eyes with an extra oomph in her own (as eyes went, these fairly oomphy to begin with), 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 rent, or helping out with chores, like Shaw.
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 had 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 take it (to her own implied criticism of Hogben, Aimee shot back at herself…well, you don’t want a man who bosses—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’re ready 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 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, they are the few. Their concentration of wealth is the more. They increase their wealth by forming a cooperative, a merchants’ guild, or what have you. They invest together…in this opera house, or this hotel. You 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 had shown this same singlemindedness, that defied all topics. They were informed, after an interval of broader discourse, that on principle Nico did not patronize hotels, but would return that evening to the underside of the bridge where Hogben had discovered him. This declarative silence, coming when the others could 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 had stepped on Shaw’s toes in an almost instinctive veering from Hogben’s. Hogben sat serving himself another slice of meat loaf.
“Well, that settles that.” She said this to Minnie.
She said now, to Nico, fingers crossed, “What, dear, do you like to eat?”
They had reached Mossbunker’s building site. Three houses were going up at once, on a little spur of a street already 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 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. But 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, she must either pooh-pooh the notion that her guests (producing guests of their own) were becoming a nuisance, or give license to a sort of permanence by assigning chores. Which seemed to be Mr. Shaw’s idea.
“Of course you can,” she temporized. “I’ll just tackle that 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 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 backyard awning (the house roomy, but for being a funeral parlor, unlucky) after chafing a day or two, waiting the same sign that had drawn away the Warples. Aimee’s salesmen, and her two performers, were beginning to attract remark.
“Oh, hello, 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, avoiding, but barely, bumping a display of remnant gimping, and continued telling Aimee what a wonderful mind Nico had.
“I suppose,” Aimee 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 sat up for 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 ideas 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 pearl 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 had 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?
It happened at a job site. Meeting his aunt and Miss Leybourne coming up the road, propping himself between Ruby and Shaw on a tender toe, Carey gasped out a bit of his story. Hired to help shingle a roof, down to Springfield…
Jane, Carey said, had got sick. She was doing pintucking and plackets, concentrated work. You could get five dollars a week. But not to worry, ma’am, she was better now. And the baby, he wanted Aimee, and his audience, to know, wasn’t even in the city with them…she was at Jane’s sister’s.
“Why wouldn’t we get that rocker off the front porch? Like a sedan chair…I bet with four of us, we can carry it.”
This was Minnie’s thought. They were spared trying by a buggy from Mossbunker’s estate crossing the bridge, drawing up short where the crowd of them blocked passage. Carey, hoisted onto Mossbunker’s seat, and with only the driver to overhear, told his aunt more.
“I don’t know…I set down my hammer. Then it slid off the edge. I had to go back down the ladder. The first time I did it, I didn’t think anyone saw. The second time, I was bent over the grass…and a bunch of nails started raining 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 a boss.”
“And also I took my lunch in a sack, cause I didn’t know they had a lunch wagon would come round, so I got ragged a bunch about that.”
Aimee could see Carey, crosslegged on the lawn, 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. 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 about… About things. So anyways, I got myself out of town, I guess, and I was on the highway. There wasn’t anyone out that way. It was just farms. When it got about sunset, a man came along…he was an animal doctor, called out for a cow, he told me. Took me a couple miles up the road, and 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, and opened his mouth. The driver said, “Biyah Kendrick. That was me and Chilly, ma’am, saw that man drowned.”
“Chilly 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 asked me to 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? Her house belonged to Abel. Aimee was well aware her guests were alarming Ralph’s son.
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, as she’d envisioned herself capable of, rising to a crisis, but abstracted, remembering Jane. She tried to gauge this niece. Carey’s disappearance frightening to the girl, no doubt…but hadn’t Jane, whenever they’d met, seemed a practical, virtually an unsentimental, creature? Aimee put one foot in front of another foot, and began wording a telegram…
By the by, she said to herself, if Mossbunker is gone…he doesn’t keep a family at the castle, does he? I ought to ask Biyah to stay for lunch.
(Of course, until she fixed it, there was no lunch.)
Biyah had been awfully helpful. He was still helping, and the cluster of men and women surrounding Carey, exclaiming, inquiring, encouraging, had got ahead of Aimee; had surged past Mr. Hogben. Mrs. Frieslander followed them indoors.
Carey (Aimee had resolved on this, at least) must write down what he wanted his wife to know. She would make him do it. 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 a 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 assessed.
She shook her head. Her interior point was only this: Bladon Shaw, a fellow competent and industrious (though not so much 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.
In the meantime, Shaw.
She hadn’t succeeded in having much to say to him. He had nothing unprompted to say to her. He was in her garden, followed on her heels, after she had surrendered her kitchen to Minnie.
Minnie was making good on her promise of fixing lunch. “No, goodness, Aimee, you go put your feet up!”
And on this day, were her company 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—the one about the man whose passage Papa Frieslander had paid, on condition of his marrying an elder sister, and who had come to America married already 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…
Because she couldn’t go up and sit thinking, in a chair at Carey’s bedside, while he slept. Ruby, having at the creek taken up nursing him, was still at it. Her nephew being well-suited temperamentally to omitting Jane from his calculations, and 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 had 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…”
The girl seemed to boggle at her own beginning, after sweeping a glance up the hall. Ruby was thinking of the empty rooms. She remembered to whisper again, while from downstairs came an upwelling of clatter, metal implements striking table and tiles.
“I’m sacked, truth to tell. 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 on again. She told him that wax head doesn’t fool anyone, he’s got no drawing card without her, and he said to Minnie, I’ll ruin you. And do you know what she says…”
Aimee, though ignorant of the Human Pendulum, 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 isn’t 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 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?”
“Land, it’s been that way… 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 had 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 what 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?
The old joke about marriage being the cure for love…
But as for love, Nico and Minnie’s sort was apparently the cure for marriage.
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. Aimee had come late into the lives of Abel and his brother, and 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 for a posthumous surprise, but Aimee had told them; Abel eye-to-eye…young Ralph, who lived in Bangor, Maine, by letter…that their house would always be theirs.
She was not backing out; Abel was. 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.”
And why his stepmother’s occupying of Derfinger’s normally empty third floor, would not be good business for everyone…
In fact, Aimee knew of no caveat to raise in contradiction to Abel’s notion. Her sentiments accorded with his, in theory. Living in town would be a relief, better for her shopping and her clubs, and for Mrs. Frieslander. Aimee didn’t want a farm for the sake of farming.
But neither did Abel. He wanted to raze the house, divide the land into quarters, and 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 by his offhand errand, the one he had 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 said this to herself. June then stymied her father, telling him: “Fine, I’ll ask. What time does the castle receive callers?”
“Nn…oo…” She watched him 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. She was, at present, 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.
And, of course, these window boxes were a sort of civic duty. Derfinger had his. Mrs. Toucey had hers. Elton Bott had, for his bereaved customers, an elaboration of plantings. A contemplation garden, so called by Selma Bott.
“Yes, no time like the present,” June had said to her. To contemplate death, she had thought hard at her. Selma returned a squint of wary doubt, then decided to pity Mack’s daughter, shaking her head.
June’s morning had been spent down below, where the old press was, and the new, rented Linotype. After slugging out for the Sunday edition such congressional speeches and posturings as her father had picked up from yesterday’s telegrams, she had climbed the basement stairs to mind the store.
“Chilly, if you want to take off now…”
Chilly said again what he enjoyed saying, that nobody had a Clew until he got there to give it to them. Her father was across the street, sitting with Abel Bard in Derfinger’s window. Biyah’s news, that Mossbunker was gone to the city, had made nonsense of his command.
“He didn’t leave you any message to pass along? By word of mouth? Or,” her father added, as Biyah stopped himself saying no, and in the way of a man taking thought, fingered his chin, “he didn’t suggest you oughta carry one back to him?”
“No,” Biyah said.
June saw her father and Abel, behind the glass, crane their necks. Mrs. Bard was walking with Hogben, who right away had taken a shine to her; Shaw trailing…carrying, for some reason, a birdcage, and a sack. Hogben lifted his hat. June gave him the second irritable glare of their acquaintance.
And this man was probably her best chance.
The bloom, she told herself, was off the rose. She meant Hogben’s. The occasions June had heard this insult, where the subject had been Mack’s unmarried daughter, didn’t make the idea unfunny to her. Hogben might have a paunch, his complexion might be florid, he might be nearer fifty than forty…but she could still call him handsome. If he were leaving tomorrow on the first train, June would be pleased to leave with him. And what a jaw-flapping 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 everyone set to keep a lookout, make clandestine report, whenever Hogben tried selling them anything. But then again, Victor B. Mack wanted Mrs. Bard to marry him.
June caught a corner-of-the-eye impression of heads bobbing 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 someone was. She found herself arrested, seeing his face so near her own. Minnie’s friend put his hands on her shoulders and moved her aside. June stalled, scrutinizing dirt well-cleared of weeds.
It was idiocy, of course. She blushed because she knew her father had seen it, that intimate clumsiness. He was probably chuckling to Abel right now. She was fairly certain Nico had come for a print job. Which he wasn’t going to get…at the empty counter, he could just cool his heels. Unless he decided June Mack worth speaking to after all.
“Oh, Lord, Daddy, please don’t.”
She muttered this…but her father, popping out of Derfinger’s, didn’t cross the street. He didn’t wave or call out, 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…while on the other hand, he’d elaborated far too much. The eye Aimee shot him over her shoulder was eloquent, for all its mute appeal.
“Victor 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 birdcage. 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 had gone round like a whip, and now his daughter cocked herself 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. People in Hammersmith dropped by with news…and their own was the kind they liked best. Mack wasn’t certain he’d ever done a muckraking piece…
Or rather—local forms of patronage viewed natural as breathing—was 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.
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 you weren’t there, there’d be no man in the house at all…who can get up and around, that is.
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; 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 had got an extra syllable into the word oblige. And Monty… First-name basis, how it was?
“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, who shoved off, turning a self-absorbed face in the direction Mack was heading, no hat to tip to the proprietor of the Clew; 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 bisecting some line, jotting another.
She gave her father a steady eye. “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…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 her seat, facing the caboose end. Hogben, lost for choice between next to, or across from (or flight down the passage, and a leap to the platform), took a prod from the passenger behind’s umbrella. He scuttled and came to rest at her side, murmuring, “Pardon me, Mack.”
Blaring its whistle, the train shuddered into movement.
“Well, here we are.”
Aimee offered this, and her companion responded: “On our way.”
He stuck his nose in the Philadelphia paper he’d bought from a porter.
As so often front pages did these days, most of Hogben’s carried the text of a statement, by someone or other, to Congress, as to what again the Spanish government had failed to do to the American 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.
Of course she had paid for her ticket. She would pay for her lunch, if he 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, Aimee had popped the lid of her footstool, to shake out ten of twenty silver dollars tucked there in a sock—the most of her rainy-day fund she could sacrifice for Jane’s sake.
Well and want nothing. Will write.
She had got Carey’s message off by telegram, without seeing room for improvement. Why encourage him to say, “I love you, dear”? He had not loved her at the start.
Yesterday, before Minnie’s cake was finished baking, Aimee had watched Hogben scoot from the table, pull his hat from the top of the cupboard…
While from the back of his head came a muffled, “Ma’am…”
“Oh, not yet, you don’t mean to leave us, Mr. Hogben, before dessert! And why leave at all…” Ruby leaned far back in her chair, to eye through the archway the parlor accommodations.
A side-glimpse of the head, bending for a packed satchel, went on: “I won’t try to say all that I might, Mrs. Bard…”
He’s worked out a speech, Aimee thought. Minnie interrupted.
“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, put in, “Sure can!” Adding, “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 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 was entrenched, never mind in whose house.
Hogben inched backwards through the kitchen door, mumbling, “…a debt I can scarcely repay…”
She could give him that. He probably hadn’t much money.
But Abel was dealing out of town because he was dealing through Mossbunker. He could well keep an agent on the premises. He could build a two-family attached, and have three-and-a-half perfectly nice properties to overcharge newcomers for. This service-for-pay fiddle should make a failsafe for the masculine sense of honor. Abel could tell himself he gained as he lost, refuse the five hundred down his father’s widow meant to offer him with a very straight face.
She hoped Hogben man of the world enough to help her birth this scheme… That he knew businessman’s angles she couldn’t think of on her own.
“Minnie, he’s getting away. I’ll have to…”
“Oh, tally ho, Aimee. Leave the fort to me.”
Catching him, taking his sleeve cozily, she had said: “Mr. Hogben, you asked my advice. I would like to ask yours.”
Shaw appeared breathing behind 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 birdcages when the two of you were down in the morning shopping, ma’am. Ruby gave me two dollars. But I don’t know a cage won’t cost more…”
The remaining walk had become a caucus on the likely sum total of Ruby’s goods, whether Shaw’s face had got well enough known around Hammersmith that Mr. Brainerd could 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.”
Today’s train jaunt, cursed or not with Vic’s spying presence, was her only chance to prime her victim. She would invest Hogben in her affairs, make him pleased to have been clever and heroic, steer him to the right choices and praise his having thought of them—
By her niece’s lucky abandonment, she would draw him into the family.
She told herself this…and apologized inwardly to any celestial balancer planning comeuppance. God bless Jane.
She knew Hogben, if she insisted, gentleman enough to put his paper down and listen. Listen with half an ear, if he was anything like Ralph. She would pitch her talk airy and meandering with that ideal in view. She wanted Hogben feeling they’d spoken of Jane, so that at critical moments she could remind him they had.
“Oh, Monty, I was counting on you. After you’d said yes.”
Mrs. Frieslander had volunteered to work the tuning forks.
Oh my, the tuning forks! The weight of them 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, and Ruby heaved a sigh. The picture had not come to Minnie’s mind for days now. She had forgotten the flood, was what it came down to, forgotten poor dead what’s-his-name…
She had not been charitable. And Minnie meant, always, to be charitable.
She was looking at Do, in the key of C Major, 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 the hoodads…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 had 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 was down from Hogben’s room, hobbling on the stairs…but under his own steam. Eager to help with the singing, yet unable to do so, Shaw had gone back to his porch. Carey with a slipping-in hunch to the shoulders, had plumped onto the settee, grimaced like a comic delivering clunkers while interjecting ill-timed remarks, answered Minnie’s shush with a snuffling and a rustle of his dressing-gown, caught at last her telegraphing eye, and now sat outdoors with Shaw, holding the can of nails and handing them across.
Minnie arched an index finger, and lifted it. Mrs. Frieslander struck middle C.
“Aaaah.” Minnie sang the note herself. “You can’t go wrooong…Ruby dear…just hooold the note you heeeear…”
“AaaaaaaAAAAh…” Ruby sang. She buried her face in her hands.
Minnie allowed this to pass. Generalship, at such a juncture, 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.”
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 singalong. My mother would say 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?”
He knelt on the stairs, nailing on a new tread. Minnie, who’d half decided on a brisk pace back-and-forth, 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 been at the kitchen door with a piece of paper, and something to say to Nico. The two of them had strolled off, and now leaned from the stone arch side by side, making rebellious gestures, their faces, like the flickerings of fireflies, lighting at intervals with grim smirks.
Free love. It seemed to Minnie she would have an opportunity to take pride in her embrace of Nico’s principles.
“Then you don’t own that place. It belongs to your son-in-law.”
Hogben grunted. Aimee found this a participative sort of noise, even the vestige of an apology. At any rate, they were on the subject. It was time to push advantage home.
“No, Monty, I haven’t got any children.”
“Got that nephew, though…” He cocked an eye at her. “Likely to stick around.”
“Oh, you’re not seeing Carey at his best. He’s a good worker.” She believed it of him. She admitted the premise had not been put to the test.
Hogben laughed. “Guess you read my mind. But I wouldn’t have gone and said.”
“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 serious talk with me. I mean…”
The urge to air old laundry was genuine, she surprised herself to find.
“…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 looked a handy vehicle for youngsters to clamber up and peer inside the treatment rooms. The angle of the house crowded the mouth of the lane, and the hucksters, competing for custom with crate and board displays—of patent medicines, artificial limbs, hernia-corsets—narrowed the entry further into overhanging umbrage. There was water close by, a smell of sewage; the lane otherwise was so impassible to omnibus or wagon, that Aimee saw the cobbles fairly clean.
And the only pedestrians making advances were there, at the center.
Hogben, undecided whether to plow ahead, or guard the rear, finished a series of “Uhs…”, with: “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 had mumbled this, a rote gallantry no customer was expected to take up.
“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 might well be regarded a daughter among siblings, how would that not serve for the best? Yet the child was the only tie capable of binding.
Aimee knew from the priest who would not baptize Cynthia, though she couldn’t let on, as her nephew 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 had thought themselves in love, too mired today in the consequences.
She followed Monty’s ushering hand through a passage about the width of a footpath. They had reached the end of the lane, a fence behind which new construction was rising…and there seemed no Krabill’s, no number 203. They retraced their steps.
“She keeps a sign in the window,” Carey had said. “To Let. There’s never any time Mrs. Krabill can’t find a bed, long as you pay cash. So it’s always to let.”
Hogben said: “You think they tore it down? I read in the paper how the city’s growing overnight.”
“I think we’re lost. 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!” A voice, from a window overhead.
This passage, almost a tunnel under further awnings and laundry, opened wide at its egress. Perched cattycorner where the lane curved, bringing them back to the fencing, the jackhammering, the crane swinging its wrecking ball, the echoing thud and strain of a brick wall giving…but not quite, not yet…was a pleasant, whitewashed house.
And Carey’s sign: Krabills To Let, on cardboard in the parlor window.
Above a corner porch was another; Aimee’s first thought being that Mrs. Krabill’s indifferent management had spoiled her nice housefront. Yellowed newsprint was taped to a window behind a torn screen. Someone had nailed a crazy quilt over another, and a third, part visible through a hand’s-breadth of uncovered glass, bore a piece of gingham cloth—not stitched into an actual curtain, but hanging from a row of tacks.
Hogben already had mounted the steps and jerked the bell.
“I’m getting rid of those people up there,” the apparent Mrs. Krabill told them, nudging aside the servant who’d cracked the door. “I told that girl… Ma’am.”
Ma’aming her back, Aimee tilted at the threshold, while the maid retreated 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 oozed, the four of them, further into a vestibule at the foot of the stairs.
“Get out, Rita,” the proprietress said, moving Rita by the apron strings to a door under these. “See if those bedsheets have got dry. Now come on in the kitchen, you two. What’s your name, Mister? 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…assembled them, rather, having spent the year making them. Carey and Jane’s was 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 (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 as many years. She found them on Market Street, her beanpole nephew spotted in last year’s plaid cap, his small, pinched wife wearing her rabbit collar, both reconciled over a day of fun…a day, at least, of letting Aunt Bard buy them a restaurant lunch, stroll the baby through Sugarplum Village, the Snow Queen’s Palace, or whatever Wanamaker’s was up to that season. 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, that Aimee’s money was better spent stopping their latest eviction. But they ambled ahead, his arm around Jane’s waist, her hand pointing, their 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 shutters were hammered either side to fill some sort of gap. Wind gusted, lightening the smell of the tenantry with spring-scented air. A breeze on such a day was welcome, a relief from sweat and cabbage. But Jane’s little porch in winter must be drafty as a barn.
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 wobbled in its frame, but held, and Jane’s face peered out, eyes seeing Aimee and passing her by, traveling 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 at the armrest and one on the floor, was taking up the wall under the windows, leaving clearance for only this rug and a little chest. Jane’s sewing table, under a rope nailed to the ceiling, with shirtwaists hanging, filled the angled space where the corner porch thrust on its moorings. Moveable shelves, which were fruit crates, roosted in odd nooks, sporting the accumulation of Christmas books and toys, guilt-inducing. Aimee knew she had cupboards to spare…but where would they go?
The door came open about a foot and a half. While she wedged through, Jane was telling on, and the face called for was one sympathetic, not grimacing.
“…if I tried, it would be just making 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 lay and think. Is there any way of knowing what makes people stick to their obligations? Or why anything’s an obligation at all?”
Uninvited, but unable to avoid it, Aimee sat on the sofa, her knees giving way in abrupt collision, as her bag popped free. She looked up into Jane’s eyes, seeing there the rheumy aspect of a girl who has cried, for pain of heart and body, many days running.
In answer to this quandary of her niece, mostly other people’s judgment. 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, 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’s 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 had 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 here 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…”
Curach, present, and making round the table, stopped himself, ducked his head, to glance 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 sensed, 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 was all the name he would get, and by proxy, as Hogben had been proxied into Mrs. Bard’s family, none of whom, it seemed, were quite related.
He recalled Mack’s talk. “You’re a sort of ward heeler. For a man named Piggott.”
With a sly wink of acquiescence, Curach buried his face in the cup of tea Mrs. Krabill had just handed across.
Feet clattered down the stairs; the murmur of two speakers neared.
The girl, her bonnet tied on, a fur collar at her neck, and Aimee nudging her with a tap on the shoulder, entered. Hogben stood, and Aimee said, “Mr. Hogben, this is my niece, Jane Littler.”
Curach nodded from his chair at Mrs. Krabill. “Ah, there’s the girl on her feet. A plate of oysters and a chicken to herself, I’d say, to 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 the St. Bernard, 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 had trotted past, sported a narrow vermillion door next to a bay window stacked under a second-floor counterpart. Through this paned glass poised above a railing, Aimee thought she glimpsed Vic, wreathed in smoke. Also, a striped cravat and glint of watch fob that, although their owner sat shadowed in a leather chair, made her think of Mossbunker. Another man, with a hand on Vic’s shoulder, cocked his head in a noticing way, his lips continuing to move in speech. Curach leaned on his stick, and returned by the hackney’s window a two-fingered tap to the hat brim.
The party climbed 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.
Hats and sticks, by an officer in a velvet tailcoat, were collected in silence; his nodding head then drew them crabwise through a passage, brightened under a staircase skylight, with a watery escutcheon of sunshine. They entered a demi-chamber of tables skirted in lace, linen overcloths falling stiff in corner pleats, hobnail fairy-lamps sitting unlit. Rose and white paper striped the walls, oval-framed paintings rested ill-at-ease on single nails—
These were of fatuous young couples, walking hand in hand: Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn.
Jane stared. Perhaps she took it cruelly. Aimee suspected Curach, if not some other of Lord Piggott’s operatives, of being tasked, in this most apparent lair of men’s backroom brokering, with decorating a ladies’ parlor…and of snagging a job lot from some bankrupt charm school.
Curach, stopping himself whistling indoors, was seeing to Jane, his hands sheltering her chairback. Aimee thanked Hogben and took her own chair. The stranger of the window appeared at the threshold, hailing Curach.
“Mrs. Bard, ay.” Curach gave an insider’s nod. “I present you, ma’am, Philander Piggott. Mr. Hogben, sir.”
Piggott, who had taken Aimee’s extended hand between his two, dropped this gently, and offered the right to Hogben. “Tragic affair.”
Hogben cleared his throat. After a second, he answered: “Kind of you, sir.”
They all, by compulsion, looked at Jane.
Piggott said, “Ah, it won’t do.”
He gave to Hogben a wink. Of commiserating congratulation, if a wink could convey so much. “Of course you will all come to my table.”
They did not, at once.
Piggott took off with Curach at his elbow, telling Aimee: “Keep your seat, Mrs. Bard. And you, Miss…I mean to say, Mrs… Littler, is it? Yes, there’s one or two things to be seen to. I’ll send Curach right back to fetch you.”
Ten minutes passed, and the door warden put his head in.
He stood aside, ushering before him a waiter and a wheeled cart. The cart held a tall silver pot for coffee, a short china one for tea, and a platter bearing a ring of fissured meringue, lightly tanned, spilling cherries.
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 excavated with a pastry knife, and lowered a slab to Aimee’s patch of tablecloth. Jane shook her head, mute and apprehensive, as she had been since lighting from Curach’s cab. Monty, once the waiter had wheeled off, spooned up syrup and crust as though catching a lifebuoy between his teeth.
“Jane, drink your tea. And have a bite to eat.”
Applying that elder’s obligating eye, Aimee watched her niece through three bites and a gulp of tea. She ate her own dessert…or appetizer…while Monty finished Jane’s, and brooded on his empty plate. They sat straining ears after Curach, and searched for banter.
Then Jane seemed to brace herself. She turned to Monty and tilted him a weak smile. “I think I’ve been rude, and I don’t mean to.”
Like a duck shedding water, he shook off astonishment, but she 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.”
Jane pulled herself upright, and Aimee, too late, recognized noble impulse in the works. “I won’t truly be family to you, of course…only Cynthia’s mother. But I intend teaching her to think rightly. About duty and responsibility.”
At this moment Curach returned. He had a sheaf of newspapers tucked in an armpit. “You’ve met Mr. Mossbunker, now. Or have you not?”
Agreed to or no, this query didn’t guarantee Mossbunker on the program.
“Certainly, pleased,” Hogben hedged. “Honored.”
They climbed the stairs.
Mossbunker’s reception room being private (perhaps women did not appear in the St. Bernard 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 jets, held in fists that jutted at intervals from the wall, the globes ensconced in folded acanthus leaves sprouting from bronze cones.
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. An aromatic 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.”
Aimee half rose, and Mossbunker, materializing near the fireplace, bowed, crossed, took her hand; over this, he bowed again. Two more waiters filled 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.
Which was not to say that Mossbunker roared. And only in having thick, lofting hair, did he resemble a lion (his face otherwise that of an ox who suspects the worst). However, 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.” The gravity of Mossbunker’s tone holding Jane somewhat at fault for these descriptors.
“The times”—his 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… Ahem. It is their great satisfaction, to champion 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. Aiming this visage of granite at Aimee, he 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 had 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, 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, merely. You will have to explain. Mrs. Bard.”
These autocratic mysteries made Aimee fear, for a moment, that Mossbunker was about to pronounce them man and wife.
“You are only a poor widow. I do not hold Vic accountable, not wholly…he tells me he has kept an eye on you. And that he has made an offer of marriage, which 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 had not proposed. He had remarked on one or two occasions, that their hitching up might be an idea. She had riposted, that you can tell an idea from a notion by the good of its probable results. She might have gone on, about June, and Jane, and Carey…and even Abel…but they had never got that far in this argument.
“Avarice,” Mossbunker said. He fell silent. Hogben backed his chair another inch from the table.
“It is 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 would like to see a boatload of immigrants brought in, then draw off the able-bodied with short-term promises of higher wages…if not with that unfortunate practice of paying 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 steady job, one he can count on in years to come. But he wants to put a little by, to 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.
“Indeed! You’ve hit, Vic, on the very phrase I have in mind. A misguided taradiddle, to which some of our self-styled philanthropists insist on subscribing. We cannot alter the order in which God has ranged mankind. 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, reminded Aimee it was Piggott who 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.
“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 on her stays, nodded to a few more potatoes, a last roll. It was something to do. Piggott proved one to grunt and hum over his plate, in his individual person offering the cover of a noisy feast.
Curach began a private chat with Vic. “And so. The note she left said, I’ll be getting that you had in mind.” He filled their two glasses from a carafe. “But she said also…”
Vic looked to Aimee somewhere between hangdog and caught-red-handed. He straightened, and gave this patent role a better essay: “Also, she wrote down, I will let the customer know we don’t give extras.”
“And she may well do.” Curach sighed. Then, undermining his friend’s caution, he said aloud: “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. Allowing for the affectionate object.” 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 that Mossbunker should wake to their table-talk, and take charge.
“Indeed, these foreigners like to make a channel, for all their relatives to float in upon. 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 it 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.”
Showing every evidence of a desire to bolt—another inch of clearance added between himself and the table, two darted glances in succession at the door, a third taking the waiter’s measure—Hogben accepted the photos.
And 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 insist 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. On his face the despair of a failing pupil grew fixed. Then: “Holy Moly! That says April eleventh!”
Vic jumped to his feet and snatched the picture, saying by way of excuse: “Gimme that!”
“You’re not accusing Monty of…of being party to…”
What? Wrongdoing, Aimee supposed. Of course he was. Why, though, did Mossbunker care to machinate over a petty swindle, aborted in any case?
Her intended sat benumbed, astonishment frozen in his eyes. She would 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 that he might elucidate as he chose.”
“Must have been down under water, holding his breath,” he elucidated, still dazed.
“Hold it!” Vic said.
Hogben rallied. “You’re thinking, Mr. Mossbunker, there were sums involved. Let me tell you, we never earned so much we couldn’t spend it getting to the next stop.”
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.”
In the photo Vic slammed beside her plate, she saw the damning schedule, and once tugging the scene free of fingers, noted that the man whose hand gripped the sleeve of another she had never seen—who looked to be drawing him into place, so that the hidden camera might add this 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. Mossbunker, two things demanded of him, regarded them all with Jove’s thunderbolt in his eyes. He ignored Vic.
“The question, Mr. Hogben, is—are you with us, or are you against us?”
What’s the Game
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”
Aimee lowered her voice; she didn’t bother whispering. Curach, across from them again, sitting 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. After a moment she widened her eyes, and with a palm flat against the interior flocking, pushed herself upright.
“Is that what you mean?”
Having meant nothing portentous, Aimee stole a glance at Curach.
“Now, ma’am,” he butted in, confiding his way past the presence of Jane. “There’s little for the girl to fear. Madam Mossbunker is likely enough to bung you in a parlor, waiting dinner. I 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’ve not been asked myself 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 a quiet street, where we might get out and walk…?”
He hoisted his stick and banged 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. They strolled, keeping themselves in her sight, among grotesques and gothic arches, imported ruins that framed the promenade bordering the whole—potted hollies, courtyard, armored sentinel of bronze uplifting an astrolabe, while straddling a boulder over which water streamed. They were at company headquarters.
“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?”
“I mean, if you like, that Mossbunker, in the ordinary way, hasn’t 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, except, you’ll appreciate… Mossbunker wants his man in the governor’s seat, and he wants his man in the senate, and he wants his pockets filled with useful cronies, so. He wants all the custom that can come his way…and he 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 they 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! I suppose that’s just dandy…” She stopped. “I don’t know why I say it. It’s Hammersmith Mossbunker is building up, you mean. Maybe I ought to board and do piecework myself, and stop pretending to be good enough to live there!”
None of this was what she had thought she was getting at. She tried again. “Do you mean it’s Piggott who’s served Mossbunker up the professor? Keeping in good?”
“It’s the genius of the man. He looks far into the future.”
“Is Mr. Shaw a detective, then?”
“I’ve nothing to do with the affair, so I couldn’t say.” He pulled his pipe from his lips, tamped, 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 had hoisted an eyebrow at Piggott.
Then: “Mrs. Bard, Mrs. Mossbunker will consider herself honored to entertain you as a guest, for the afternoon. You and your niece. You have never visited the town of Wayne?”
The question was rhetorical; Mossbunker’s retreating back asked no answer.
“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, and would like his old partner present for the interview. To sort the lies, 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 me he’d be man of the house while I was gone.”
“Madam, you had cards you’d be laying on the table…”
“Hmm. You’ve seen 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 your living for you pintucking plackets, if I’ve got that right, and…”
She came to a standstill, gesturing across at Jane. Jane’s lids were lowered, to a somnolent study of the fountain’s flow, and she noticed (luckily) nothing of Aimee’s clumsy import.
“It’s hard painting you a picture of Carey. If it were only saloons… It’s not saloons! But 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 from it, if he can? Except, why ever do less than I can, to help the only ones I really have left for family? A little house, a little garden at the back, an aunt and uncle on hand to give advice, watch the baby… God knows, any others that come along. Something that belongs to me outright, that can be theirs for a legacy.”
“Ay, I understand you.”
He sounded doubtful. Maybe Curach thought this womanly sentiment. She saw he fingered his watch-chain. A vassal of Mossbunker’s had climbed down from the portico, to make more pointed his efforts at eavesdropping.
“Monty struck me as essential to the plan. I thought we could come to a bargain, I thought he was up against it with his partner dead… And Abel could stop being so darned dutiful to Ralph, if I could tell 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 a confidant aside (in this case, Monty Hogben would have to do), and ask—what’s it all about?
Mossbunker’s height put the two of them knee to knee, Vic bouncing 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 graced an intersection with frosty shade and tunneled wind, and two of the electric trolley cars were engaged in passing. A glossy delivery wagon, pulled by a smart white horse, and touting a mercantiler’s downtown flagship, began to edge ahead, angling round, 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. That fool’s errand after Minnie’s lineage had turned itself, in some way he was not journalist enough to detect, into a project. Vic guessed he was composing 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.”
They shuffled into a density of new riders accessing the cars through entries the public regards as free. Hogben said at once: “I can’t tell you much.”
“Known the professor many years?”
“Bout six or seven. Our way was to head off separate, him get us a venue, me eye over the crowd we were up against. Every town’s different…and you never know when someone in the same line didn’t just pass that way. Folks get riled up, takes em a while to simmer down.”
Time was short. A gap had grown between the parting rears.
“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 crooked fingers summoning them…sardonically, if that were possible.
“But,” Vic said, “did Bellfountain never 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 word.
They were soon trotted out of the tall commercial stretch, and turned where a corner oak and a white wrought-iron fence indicated a square of houses, where whistling and whip-cracking unearthed a gateman, and where the hackney trundled to a stop.
Mossbunker alit, planting his stick, a fulcrum on which he arched to stare at an upper story window. This colonial-attached, under the hitching ring, identified itself with a plaque sized about a quarter-page advert: “Swan”.
“Vic. 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 sudden captaincy, his command reducing guest to underling, recalled to Vic that he’d taken an oath. He had sworn to obey the Head Patriot, play myrmidon to Mossbunker’s Achilles. He found it disappointing, how failure to complete his virgin assignment hadn’t prevented his being tasked with another.
A woman, from an alley crossing the end of the square, emerged…urgently after her own task, the ferrying of a letter or telegram…
An item of paper, at any rate, rolled in a fist. Now and then uncurled for use as a fan.
Urgency, Vic thought, be damned. “Secondofyourtimema’am…”
He blocked her progress with crabwise feints, feeling up and down his pockets. It was in keeping with Mossbunker’s instruction, but also a chance to put a question of his own. “That’s right. Just what the card says, Victor B. Mack of the Hammersmith Daily Clew. May I have a word with you?”
The mouth that had looked poised to scream clamped shut in a disbelieving grimace.
“Now, ma’am…you live hereabouts? Chantry Place, I mean?”
“Nuh uh, mister. 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?”
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 a curtsy to the stranger who’d spoken.
“You will not want this card. I therefore take it from you. Go now.”
The stranger 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, and all was illustrated with just such gents, puffing out their chests, trousers tapering over shapely legs, swagger…and something effete, in the poses given them.
“Keep that if you like,” he said.
“Aha!” The man chuckled, unchided, not offering his own name or card. “Hammersmith, I read.” He read with a mighty show of possessing secret news. “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 was not only cheeky, but contrary to what—seen with belated clarity—must be 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 a fried egg will always get a laugh. I had one cemented to the plate, with two strips of bacon…rubber, of course…the plate was a round of enameled iron, like your kitchen sink. Coffee pot and cup, iron likewise, painted. Audience couldn’t tell.”
Professor le Fontainebleau chuckled.
“Couldn’t care, more like. Now, there is one of our secrets I don’t mind spilling for you…it bears interestingly on, shall we say, other affairs. Once I’d got settled on my chair, and taken up my knife and fork, Ced would go stage right, Cyril left. Ced doing his acrobatics…handstand, somersault, sort of thing. Light sparklers, and manage tossing them across, could Ced, with his toes, mid-flip. I remain dashed. Cyril, on the other hand, equally a talent…which I don’t count myself, particularly…
“Everything my brother pulled from his coat was a gag by itself. Rubber chicken, pair of baby shoes tangled on a lady’s intimate. Take, on those…”
The professor, assuming Cyril, squatted on the narrow floor of the coach, to show them a double-taking face, a dropped jaw and furtive stuffing away, shoes and garment clattering through the torn lining of a beggar’s empty pocket…
“A watermelon, sometimes a cocoanut, falls out. Maybe a tomahawk. Brassiere by itself’ll catch too much wind… Two things together tell a story, isn’t that so, ma’am?”
Aimee gave him the look that precedes a frosty, “I wouldn’t know.”
But the professor spoke on: “Grab every sparkler in turn, get those going, too. There was a hidden air hose I used to take a breath. The antics got people’s eyes off the tank. But also, and it’s a thing worth noting, you won’t credit it…all this business timed out to three minutes, little over. You’ll appreciate, after so much gawp and cackle, the audience came to feel I’d been in the water a very long time. My brothers bowed and stepped off…I put away my breakfast, different plate I’d hold up, empty. Then take up a hand mirror and straight razor. Miming, you know.”
He mimed now, collecting the eyes of his coachmates, shifting his chin sideways, bulging an eye and winking the other, dabbing an invisible hankie at a spot on his cheek.
“The most difficult part was the end, when I’d come out. I learned to take a great breath through my nose without showing it…but soaking wet as I was, oftentimes I’d get a little tickle of water in my throat. Aplomb, in an underwater act, means all. Like fire-eating, that way, not—good thing—otherwise.”
Vic, in a tired way, raised a smile. The professor was one of those whose confessional impulse opens floodgates. They were on the highway, making for Hammersmith; in flight, but unpursued. The countryside was hilly, the road winding, and the pace of Mrs. Mossbunker’s personal coach could achieve nothing of the lickety-split.
Aimee was trying not to nap. What the professor…
“Call me Charley. Used to be Chillingsworth, fair posh, all us with the cees…but Ced and Cyril are still on the circuit. It was for me to adopt a new persona.”
(He pronounced this word with a great fondness for its implications.)
Yes, what the professor had to say, eventually, in regard to Mr. Shaw, was important.
Curach had delivered his charges to Green Glade Lodge, stopped long enough for a cup of tea, arranged for him in the hall. Aimee, with Jane, was ushered away—to, she might have guessed, a guest parlor…if the host were a baroque Sheriff of Nottingham. A towering ceiling done over in traceries from center medallion to corner encrustations, rose above stags rampant, columns sprouting from among their antlers, forming a needless gallery. The recesses running the walls, much darkened, were papered gilt and green, and in design heavily forested.
Aimee sipped alone with Jane, on a sofa that told, in brocade, of an Arthurian feast.
Jane had been wilting in stages until, standing, Aimee said without proof, “Stretch out, dear. No one will mind.”
It was at that moment Mrs. Mossbunker entered.
“Now, my dears, I make this excuse. I have had a note, brought by a man on horseback…a Paul Revere, you know.”
Jane was asleep. Mrs. Mossbunker, motioning a housemaid to follow, crossed to peer. She did this from a height of, heels to hair, six feet.
“Urgent, you mean,” Aimee guessed. A call to arms would have been pushing it. Or so she supposed.
“Margaret. The Sofia suite, with the little daybed on the balcony.”
“Does the child want a doctor? I think”—Mrs. Mossbunker preempted response—“air is always best. Air and a salt bath for the feet. Both together. That is the treatment, no?”
“Lunch was a little rich.” Aimee got this out late. Her hostess’s conversation seemed to advance in leaps.
“No… That is…yes,” she tried again. “Quiet and a little rest.”
“As I say. Mrs. Bard, I have a matter of discretion. Yes, my husband will sometimes come into my room, when he is restless over those things that prey on his mind.” Mrs. Mossbunker tapped herself on the forehead.
Hooves thundered up the drive…a deliverance, so far as Aimee was concerned. She had not badly wanted to know what followed on these occasions between mogul and wife.
But her hostess finished: “And so this way I have learned his little secret. Ludi!”
She vanished into the hall. Aimee heard an exchange of German. Someone, during this, hummed a tune. Someone else…Vic…coughed; said, “Er” twice. Making a beeline, Aimee glanced at the other man’s vaguely familiar face, glanced at the tall and dapper Ludi, then pinched Vic’s sleeve and hastened him to the parlor. Her niece was gone, assisted upstairs by Margaret.
“Vic! That man, Curach. Why did you bring him into it? Here I was, planning a quiet lunch with my niece…”
“I can marry Hogben if I like.”
“If he likes.”
She crossed her arms, not having it. “A quiet lunch, Victor B. Mack…and then… And then, I don’t even know what! What am I doing in Mossbunker’s house? Is that man who came with you the professor? And just who…” She broke off, remembering Shaw. He had not achieved so much as returning from the dead, but his character had altered notably in the space of one regrettable day.
“Mrs. Bard, this is Ludwig, my brother, the Count von Zetland,” Mrs. Mossbunker entered, arm-in-arm with Ludi, trailed by le Fontainebleau.
“We leave at once for Hammersmith,” Zetland said, “if Mrs. Bard is ready. Cranston will think of my coming here…”
“Ah!” his sister interrupted. “But I have thought sooner! You will go out the conservatory, and take my carriage.”
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 had had the glimmerings of an understanding, the professor and Shaw, his dealings 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 of 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 would 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 had surprised his quarry, and his quarry had managed eluding him. They had 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 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 lighted the landing. Shaw, more discreet, stood tucked out of view in the corner. And from this vantage midway between floors of the Susquehanna House, he had 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?”
The girl Ruby came up from the lobby, interrupting, and saying to Shaw, “It never rains but it pours!” She put a hand on her topknot. “I didn’t even think! I only meant, when we’re late already, and losing wages for it… It’s another day’s delay yet. And then with nothing to do in this place but turn in…”
His dismissal gave her the excuse to close her mouth, and she clambered off.
The professor said, startling 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 on this line, the professor also left.
Afterwards, Shaw had entertained belief, seeing with his own eyes the man sink into the floodwaters like a brick—but he had taken hold of himself.
To die at the fortuitous moment must be a rare chance; to vanish, 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 well 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 a paintbrush and an eight-ounce Gloss for Trim, Mt. Vernon Antique Bisque) the semblance of hidden depths. It was depths of this nature that had drawn Minnie to Nico. Reminded, she told herself she hadn’t lent him a proper ear. Nico’s political character took more work, shoring up, than to half-heed the prattle of other beaus she’d had…
She 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 women fight 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 blinked. “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’s got bundles of old newspapers. I saw them stacked on the back porch. We’ll just find a few 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? Imagine a box of pens sent out from Baltimore not getting here after a month! Didn’t you even go off someplace, looking? Let’s stop at the post office and ask again.”
She elbowed him, and Shaw, in duty, murmuring his cover story about a sick aunt in Delaware, took her arm on the way down.
“We’re going to the Clew 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 secured Minnie 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 were 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 semi-affirmational noise.
“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. Not that either newcomer could know it. A family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth, stood before the Main Street Hotel, its brass lamps gleaming, their glass intact, its side-panels burnished under a coachman’s care; its wheels rubber-tired, metal parts rust-free.
Shaw’s mind percolated in a way alien to the cautious Medlow’s Detection Agency operative of an hour past. He fell off from laughing at something she’d said, to search for a comeback using actual words…
Few, somehow, had got out in pace with Minnie’s remarks.
She remarked the coach.
“There, look! Now 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 singers enough to fill the bill at Carnegie for the next twenty years. What a girl needs in her corner is a pistol, a guy who’s heck or high water gonna 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.
This was a rough accusation to fling on the street, but Vic, without turning, flung back: “You come 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 my own way!”
He crossed and heaved a second door, that to his offices.
“Aimee! You’re back!”
Aimee 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 would, only that morning, have taken as his life’s culmination.
“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, running a hand along the edge. He shouted to the driver:
“You move that rig now! The Count von Zetland says he is finished for the day.”
The coach glided off, leaving to mark its presence only a manure pat of superior oats. Minnie, informed by the start Zetland’s name had wrought upon him, tugged Shaw by the arm.
Aimee said, to Shaw: “Since you’re a friend of Cranston’s, I suppose you know Ludi. Would you like to come up with me? I don’t think he’ll be surprised.”
To which Minnie answered: “Oh well, the programmes will have to wait. Let’s go!”
The street drama had one final scene to play.
The door of the Daily Clew swung back, the hand at work unseen, but the figure sluing out and landing in the gutter was Nico’s.
Crossed by her lover’s unresting glance, her arm caught linked through Shaw’s, Minnie calculated herself two-thirds of the way jilted. A window came up in the Clew building, and June leaned from the second story.
She had got something, Minnie thought, since last seen. Not nicer clothes, not powdered cheeks or tidied-up hair. She dared think it was the eyes…which might be described as battle-fired.
June gestured Nico to his feet, and mouthed, “Catch this!”
Derfinger’s upper chambers were a thing Aimee had never seen. She hadn’t, for her years in Hammersmith, much to do with the hotel. Even the coffee room Vic patronized was for her taste masculine, Aimee always countering his, “Buy you a cup?” with “Come up to the house and I’ll make lunch.”
She took her survey of the amenities—small balcony spanning two rear windows (view of Mossbunker’s factory), washstand, fireplace—as a matter of practicality. Abel’s offer might be the meek answer left her, after her failure with Monty.
And she had yet to recover her niece.
Zetland, at the writing desk, having shared over his shoulder that he had a number of telegrams to compose, sat humming a tune.
Le Fontainebleau whispered stagily: “Ee, lad, time yet to bring it off!”
And it was Shaw at whom, like a man accustomed to drawing them on with greasepaint, he lifted his eyebrows. “The freight arrives tomorrow noon.”
Shaw, at this bald allusion, and under the eye of Minnie, grew crimson.
“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 is that? Bladon, are you a train robber?”
“I’m a detective, ma’am.”
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes that when he undertakes a thing, he will improve it over all undertakings of the past.”
A general nod passed over his audience.
“He has made himself, Mrs. Bard, commander-in-chief of a small army of mercenaries, has he not?”
“Well,” said Aimee, disappointed. She had been prepared to doze a little. Shaw and Minnie were outsiders, so as special envoy of Hammersmithan affairs, it seemed she was drafted. “I don’t think he pays them.”
“He will pay them in the traditional way—that is, by spoils, if he succeeds in his plan. But what is it he hopes to succeed at?”
Shaw took this. “An expeditionary force of his own, a private army, sent to Cuba…to impose order, as he sees it. Mossbunker says all this infighting shows America an immature power, weak-willed. He thinks the military will be hamstrung, going after Spain on a series of half-measures…”
“He says and he thinks, does he?”
“I’m just putting out what I know, ma’am, trying to be a help.”
“And so Mossbunker’s idea is, he’ll win the war himself?”
“Ah. And there are complications.” Here, Zetland felt the need of a prop. Using Derfinger’s sugar tongs, he took up a cube, and waggled it with gravity. “Your son…”
“I haven’t got one. Can you mean Carey?”
“He owns the house you live in. You plant it, this farmland, we will say, in apple trees. You build a house for a man to manage the orchard. Hogben, it may be.”
“Hasn’t,” she asked, “Hogben been made another agent of Mossbunker? My fault, I agree.”
“All the better for the example I make. Mossbunker acquires this land from Abel… And your trees are his trees. Your apples are his apples. Hogben may stay. The house you have built for Hogben is Mossbunker’s house to collect rent. But, now, we add the condition that Mossbunker will let you stay as well. You will only give him most of your profits from the apples, and only, if you want to bring apples to the marketplace, pay a fee to Mossbunker for this also.”
“The sugar interests,” Shaw said, low-voiced, “don’t want Cuba independent.”
Zetland smiled a smile at this, that grew into a sunny beam. “And, so fortuitously, the American Congress…most wish never to see Cuba made a colony, a territory, of the United States. Whereas, the insurgents of Cuba wish, at the heart of the matter, only to be free of Spain. They would like to get on their feet, a helping hand. We have helped before. Yes, the Kaiser is a man who acts when he decides.”
“Now, Zetland,” said Shaw. “If you say a thing like that, I have to report it.”
“I say it among friends.”
Hogben, after giving the small window that sat recessed a few inches below ground…but well above his head…the once-over for breakability, decided the hour for action was not yet. Mossbunker might be a madman. Or his perch above society might deliver him that much license—to the extent of his taking his own prisoners. The little cellar room had a necessary (an old-fashioned privy-chair, the use of which would be unpleasant, but…), and Hogben had been given his supper. He anticipated that he waited judgment, and that this would come from Mossbunker. His person, in the rush to tail Zetland, had not been searched…
He had done a clever thing.
He hoped clever. Trick worked in that old story of Poe’s.
They had brought Hogben to a mudroom, a porch at the back of the manse, and he’d noted among the clobber a basket of sealed envelopes. Madam Mossbunker was off carrying on, the conversation’s cadences audible from a service hall and a parlor away. Piggott was pacing, asking (himself, aloud and rhetorically) if it would be all right for him to be getting home.
Hogben had slipped Le Fontainebleau’s missive—pernicious, if not purloined—from his inside pocket, and tucked it in the basket with the others. Then with gratification he had watched an aproned woman chivvy a girl in passing: “Lord, where is anyone to do a job when it needs doing? Essie, get that post down to the box!”
Evening had drawn on. To Hogben’s disgust, Piggott was dragged away by Mossbunker, muttering of supper being late. Hogben and his growling gut at last were led to the cellars by an apologetic fraulein named Margaret, who ushered him unsuspecting into his prison, and locked him there.
A male voice, a reasonable fifteen minutes later, yelled from the other side: “Stand back!”
Hogben asked of his provisioner only this: “Am I not allowed my liberty?”
The man stiffened, by way of answer, bent with sealed lips to leave a rib-sticking repast of beef pie, rolls, potatoes, teacakes, and a stein of cider, and turned the key as he backed himself out. Hogben listened for footfalls with only half an ear.
Not a deal of orienteering was needed to locate his relative position.
Once the room had grown so dark as to reduce all practical action to this, he readied himself for bed. Supine, he reviewed his plight. He could take himself to a moment…yesterday, could it have been…? when, about to jog down to the sanctuary of the Main Street Hotel, figure out trains in the morning…
He’d found Mrs. Bard wanting to come along.
And it all, like a fat peony bursting from a marble-sized bud, had burgeoned into intricacies.
Shaw had tagged after them, and Vic Mack…who somehow was in with Mossbunker…
But Shaw was the ringer.
Who else? That man Curach. Piggott, Zetland… The girl, Aimee’s niece, now, where’d she end up? He had a notion he might be set to marry Mrs. Bard. His gear was still at her house. He fell into inventorying each item he recalled having got away with from the flood…
The Professor seemed to bob before his eyes: “Don’t forget your old second banana! I might teach you a thing or two about slipping the collar…”
Women’s voices, whispering.
“Mr. Hogben!” Tap, tap, on his shoulder. “Uncle Monty!”
He opened his eyes. Jane was shading the flame of a candle, a bow of light flickering over her chin. He clutched his blanket tight under his own.
“It’s Margaret,” the other said. “I have unlocked you.”
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 naked fingertips, a stage-worthy trick Hogben had seen among the professor’s ilk, and would not 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 was 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 had given him two points to address had not escaped Hogben; he 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 to send him packing.”
Hogben woke from a short-lived trance. Not having time to put on his shoes, he had padded across the Mossbunker lawn gathering dew—to find himself in damp socks ushered aboard Mossbunker’s own buggy, by Mossbunker’s driver, Biyah Kendrick. Curach was with them, sharing Biyah’s seat. Hogben was wedged in the middle back; Jane, restless but mute, on his right, his rescuer from the flood, Chilly, at his left.
“How you been keeping yourself?” Chilly asked.
“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 the 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? 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. I have to think how many talks with him I can afford. Cause what’s justice for you, Curach, might just be troublemaking for me. Did that last time I got stole from, and got asked who I thought done it… 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 mind…just what he’s done, I mean. You see, lads, we have this Shaw to contend with as well. Zetland’s is a forceful personality…wind enough to turn a few wheels, I grant. But I like my certainties taken from measures in place… Thinking, now, to do a newspaperman’s duty, keeping up on local doings, Vic has put himself in with Mossbunker…in spirit, he is not a Patriot… You recall the time Captain Rubillard sent him to carry a message, and straightaway he walked inside the enemy camp…”
The allusion seemed to brighten the lives of the Kendrick brothers.
“They had caught em a box turtle, working on how to divide it three ways. One says, trade a prisoner for a little that Union bacon and biscuit… This’un? says the others. Have to pay them to take him back. They hogtie Vic, and push him down the riverbank…”
“But he gets himself stuck on a snag. Parkins on picket duty hears him holler…”
“Ol Vic ate that paper like orders said, once he figured out what color rags those boys had on, had a little something to tide him through…” Chilly wiped a tear. “Curach, you don’t trust Vic to do a lookout’s job?”
Curach shook his head. “But…Hogben…?”
But Hogben, from these exchanges taking warning, countered. “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 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.
The Chief had 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, this 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 that foreign rabble-rouser and his wanton accomplice be surprised to find the back door held open…
By the Hand of Justice.
He meant to take the footpath along Harmony Run, this stream descending 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, that only crossed the road and had no fence attached. Young couples, ones (discounting politics) not unlike the Italian and the Vaudeville jade, liked to go spooning in the little coves along Harmony Run.
Bott hoped, as the night was moonless, he would find himself alone. The light from town, and the greater light from the factory, rendered the earth under his feet at least discernible from the slope to his right, and the water to his left.
A thunderstorm had passed that afternoon through Hammersmith. Places runoff swilled across the path caused Bott to lose his footing…the first skid of a sole forcing only a panicked swaying, and the modest emission of a bleat. The second time, with a sounder whump, he landed on his gut.
And though this expanse was sheltered in a woolen vest of his wife’s making, the mud was cold, and Bott felt it. A sock, half out of a shoe, drank water from a trickle coursing beneath.
And distinctly, he picked up indicators he was not, after all, alone.
The huff of breath had a character known to Bott. The figure—approaching too fast, the frozen undertaker estimated—sank a 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 called for concentration. The shared position was head down, ankles up, tree roots thrusting in from the right, pebbly stuff washing leftwards, the curve of a sassafras, guyed into this shape by a vine, narrowing the way.
“Hang on,” Vic muttered, grappling a toe onto a wedge of rock…that gave with a sandy shush and tumbled over the bank, echolocating Vic’s perch a precarious one. “Hang on, Elton. I don’t wanna grab that vine, case it’s the hairy kind.”
Under Vic’s belly, Bott’s shoulders shrugged. The undertaker then heaved with his knees, and Vic, upended, fell in a somersault, rolling to a muddy shoal along the creek.
Bott achieved his feet. 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 wired, had he not: mv/db? The first stood for Mechanicsville, a place there were locks on the river that flowed through Hammersmith’s valley. This was the code for locking lips. Db. stood for the Patriot’s doubtful new recruit, Drummerboy.
A.k.a., Victor B. Mack.
As Mossbunker’s lieutenant, Bott was in charge of codes…so it would be embarrassing if he’d got the Chief’s meaning wrong. He racked his brain for any other take on db. Equally, it seemed to Bott incredible 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 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 taken (in 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…chosen apropos 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 meshed in tidily with Mossbunker’s demands, his occasional desire to assemble off-calendar, in secret. The fact of the meeting established, the rendezvous point—whether Tucker’s Cave, the Deacon’s Oak, or Mossbunker’s tunnel (a track of rails under the 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 tunnel. The hour, eight-thirty p.m… A few minutes’ grace allowed for stragglers. Bott, being an officer, had timed himself to arrive half an hour early. But someone in the know—a weakness in Mossbunker’s system—could recognize the exchange of signs…
Consider himself invited regardless…
They had never had a Patriot go bad before.
Disquietingly, even Selma, when Bot had said to his wife, “Get on the horn, Mother, and call this one in”, had put an odd inflection to her words…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’d 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 had been summoned or not, busy-minded over June’s elopement. By rights, he was on the outs with Mossbunker… But maybe a Patriot didn’t just part company with the gang, maybe you had to be formally court-martialed, get your stripes torn off…
Vic was fairly sure, recollecting now he’d passed Abel Bard in front of Derfinger’s, that Abel hadn’t stooped. But had he given a start, like the sight of Vic reminded him of something?
Only one kind of train came to the factory depot, a special. This had arrived around noontime. Vic sorely needed a woman’s advice. It had pained him…but he’d locked his offices, turned the Closed sign in the window. Hearing a shout and rattle at the pane he had glanced up to meet her eye, then, ears burning, hunkered to stare at his behind-the-counter paraphernalia, buying trouble on the installment plan. Aimee was going to tell him what was on that train…information she’d got from Zetland. As a newspaperman, he would 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 until then. They would sleep, like the communist heathen, in the big loft over the barroom floor. 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… I’m sorry, Vic. I have to place you under citizen’s arrest.”
Mossbunker having secured his contract to supply cabling to the American Expeditionary Force, in theory the works might be targeted by spies. To the outside eye, he had not altered arrangements.
Aimee, with Curach, lay flat against the slope of a ditch, at the factory’s rear. A vast pair of iron gates bisected two tracks with a switch between; they were opened daytimes to a platform where cars were drawn, offloaded, and reversed. Cranes hoisted steel and copper ingots onto rollered conveyors, carrying them from the dock to the furnace shed. Other heavy objects unloaded here were giant wooden spools.
Let into the wall was a gated sentry-box, not always occupied…as the guard had his rounds to make. He circumambulated at the pace of a man on a warm evening stroll—the dark never a profound one, as Mossbunker ran strong electric lights. The danger of a whack in the face from a moth-seduced bat was fair, and the guard chose a path centered between wall and factory.
Aimee’s immediate future was in the custody of her companion. She had on Chilly’s spare trousers and Ralph’s old suitcoat, a costume apt for ladder scaling and quick getaways, but exacerbating to the embarrassment of being caught at these activities.
A snatch of “After the ball is over…” faded with the guard’s second departure. The spies (or saboteurs…Curach had not confided so much to his lookout), had the timing of him now. Curach motioned the Kendrick brothers to their posts, took out his watch, nestled it in a bed of clover, and found the ambient light would suit. Nine minutes and thirty-four seconds passed. The guard’s voice came to them again, greeting someone, at first in surprise.
Sharp in return was Mossbunker’s, floating to them indecipherable, tone staccato. Someone else spoke, a diffident mumble, so far as his auditors were concerned…but Aimee knew this to be Abel.
“What can they be doing?” she asked Curach.
“Secret war work.” He put a finger to his lips, and carried on. “As I understand it from Piggott. It’s the Professor being go-between for the supplier. Shaw has a notion it’s guns.”
Shaw had been reticent as to his notions, in Zetland’s hotel room, mooning openly over Minnie, holding his counsel no doubt to spare her womanhood. Aimee had expected that afternoon…yesterday’s…to dust her hands of this gang, get back to her own house, speak sternly to Carey, apologize to Mrs. Frieslander…
Decide what was to be done about Ruby.
“Oh, look!” Minnie had peered out the window overlooking Mossbunker’s factory road. “McKeefe’s is down that way, isn’t it?”
Aimee went to her side. Both watched two figures pass below, heads inclined like lovebirds, fingers clutching entwined about the handle of a carpetbag…and easily within range of Minnie’s voice, though she held her tongue.
June Mack and Nico Raymond paced themselves with a sensible appreciation of their fugitive status. They soon vanished behind the hill.
Minnie turned to Aimee and nodded. “Eloping. Isn’t that sweet?”
To this emergency, Victor B. Mack refused to be alerted.
Aimee had spotted him dodge below the counter, and only for June’s sake—knowing, glass or no, that the craven ink-slinger could hear her perfectly well—did she not serve him right by shouting the news on the street.
She had walked the road home, and weighed.
In the hurly-burly of the chase, Aimee had forgotten to insist on Jane. But while her niece struck her underendowed as to gumption, meekness might win the day…meekness often did. Jane, looked after by Mossbunker’s wife, might efface herself into valuable patronage.
A mild girl who could write a fair hand…what apter career than the companion’s life? Dandy if Cranston Mossbunker had an old aunt…
But this mild girl had a husband and child.
…and the sun was setting. Aimee had had a very long day.
A flash, then, of something close to bitter wrath came over her, when forcing to the road’s crest feet blistered to rival Carey’s, she heard from the bottom of the path yet unclimbed…merriment. What were they doing, singing? And who was it tickled the ivories of her long-untuned parlor piano?
Mrs. Toucey, that was who.
Selma Bott was visiting; also one of Mrs. Frieslander’s regulars for button-sewing, a laundress who served the factory hands.
Carey’s singing voice (yet another thing he did well and couldn’t dig himself in to pursue) was familiar to Aimee. Ruby, new at it, assaulted the tune with an alternate interpretation, that passed in spots for harmony…
In spots, a match, even, to her partner’s lyrics. She shrank with a hangdog face at these errors, her birds bobbing time from her nest of hair.
As an act, it was comedic near-perfection, wanting only patter—and only had Ruby Magley the true greasepaint in the veins, the born Vaudevillian’s instinct for milking everything, that of a Minnie Leybourne or a Charley Chillingsworth…
A.k.a., Professor Le Fontainebleau.
Ruby’s audience compressed their lips, and nodded encouragement.
A tuning fork seemed to have shelved itself among Ralph’s first wife’s knickknacks. Aimee snatched this up to sound a chime, her nephew’s eye the one she aimed for catching.
Her own telegraphed: “Your first words had better be, how is Jane?”
He said no other first words for a space devoted by the guests to exclaiming, and to Aimee’s agreeing…that she was a sight, Selma. That home was the place to keep oneself, yes ma’am (Mrs. Frieslander); and that, Mrs. Toucey, Minnie did seem, though brazen was putting it strong, to have taken up with Shaw. Carey had escaped by this time, to stare from the porch into the dark.
Aimee took a lemon square, Selma’s, praised it, and slipped outside, half-shutting the door.
“What did she say?” Carey asked.
“She wanted you to know she doesn’t blame you. I gather she blames herself.”
“She didn’t go to her sister?” He said this, voice bashful with a touch of hope, after a silence.
“She asked me,” Aimee said, “what makes someone stick to his obligations? Whether anyone knew.” Another moment passed, and she tapped a foot.
She thought by this his answer had been a shrug. “Carey!”
“Jane is good enough,” he said.
“For sticking to?”
“It’s just sometimes I get the idea I’d like to go places.”
A buggy, lamps lit, was making up the road.
“There’s Elton,” Aimee heard Selma say from inside. Her guests came in a burst onto the porch, asking themselves if they had everything, smoothing skirts, touching hats. From an abstraction of considered and discarded advice, Aimee woke to her role as hostess.
“So good to have seen you all! Bye, bye now!”
Elton had done her the favor of not coming up.
Telling Carey from at the top of the stairs: “Jane and Cynthia will always be family”, Aimee had got to bed by nine…and had fallen asleep wondering if this were true.
It was Jane who seemed to manifest bodily from a dream.
“Aunt Bard! Aunt Bard!” She didn’t omit to ask, as tradition demands, “Are you awake?”
Satin sleep-mask askew, Aimee rolled onto an elbow. “What time is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know! Near morning. Mr. Hogben is here. And that Curach.”
“Why,” Aimee asked, “couldn’t I find that out in an hour or two?”
A Few Laws Broken
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, was to roll the bolster tight around a fat stick. He hoisted this to Curach; Curach flung the stick, then tugged and tucked to his satisfaction. The bolster’s job was to damp 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 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 at 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.
“Sakes, I’ve lit plenty,” she had said (somewhat truthfully).
She mounted four rungs at speed, Chilly bracing the uprights.
His whisper rose: “Now, over the top, ma’am.”
He tried again: “Easy does it, Mrs. Bard.”
There was, as yet, no over the top. She had come waist-height to the summit, even standing tiptoed on the last possible support. Strength of arm and breadth of beam felt to her in opposition.
“Catch you when you come across,” Curach hissed.
“That glass won’t let the bolster shift. You take hold,” Chilly urged.
“Curach”—she had an inspiration—“that stick of Chilly’s…”
The stick came nosing the bolster’s edge. Aimee, purchased on a quivering handhold, achieved a belly flop.
Something else occurred.
This something was a blur, after which she found herself lying, 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 (though failing to use its arms to any purpose), stood its ground…and Aimee had, in two thuds, landed.
Zetland leapt down, to grunt in an assessing way over his handiwork. Chilly straddled the wall long enough to haul the ladder up behind him, dropping this into Curach’s hands. Aimee, meanwhile, had answered Curach’s, “You’re yourself, ma’am?” with “Absolutely!”, but struck, in the act of springing to a demonstrative pose of all-parts-in-working-order, a frozen crouch.
Crunching steps were growing louder.
Zetland with silent semaphore ordered his troops. Aimee made for a shed, sited unflush to the factory wall, a width of around three feet interposing. On the toes of her gardening boots she scurried across a patch of light, and hit a deep contrasting shadow.
By a saving grace, she hit more than that…
A metal rail in the stomach had spared her a yawning void. The accident was preoccupying, but she thought something like an “oof”, timed nicely to cover hers, and a modest chuckle of Zetland’s, had caught her ear. Now a voice, two voices, spoke below her feet. A door creaked, the light of a lantern flooded the pit—
The light was snuffed.
One voice had been 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 my daughter got to do with Mossbunker?”
“Vic, quit complaining. Don’t forget it’s an officer’s right to restrain a prisoner. Tie you up if you make me. You let the Chief decide what’s his to know!”
Elton whispered on, 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? How is it you turn up here, in the thick of things? What’s wrong with you, Victor Mack?
These sentiments were well in tune with the burden of Elton’s lament, that ended: “Go on, Vic, go on.”
Curach tapped her on the shoulder, and handed her the bolster. He might have meant her to put this aside, safe. The men were stumping up the incline, the prisoner leading. The rail, Aimee found, had just room at the end to edge past. Like Aladdin’s carpet, the bolster took flight, its rider tackling Elton Bott and bringing him down flat.
Vic 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, intervening decades not…or not too much…withstanding.
From thin grass strewn with palm-scoring nuts and bolts, he heaved to his feet, and at once progressed inches in aid of his rescuer…a young fellow whose weight seemed slight for pinning Mossbunker’s deputy.
The 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 a finger to its lips and reached, undoing the shoddy knot at Vic’s throat.
He hoped he wasn’t missing the trend. He handed across his tie, and in a trice, Bott lay effectively gagged. That was to say, that while at first noising with deep inarticulate feeling, Bott shut up straightaway when Vic flinched, and whispered: “Don’t shoot!”
This inspired scene was played for his own protection.
The canny figure caught up the laces of Bott’s shoes, and tied them together. He reached again, cruelly snapping Vic’s braces against his gut, and gesturing gimme. Vic, after a mental tape-measuring, decided he might trust his anatomy to hold up his trousers. The braces soon secured Bott’s wrists. None of these arrangements could 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 was Mossbunker’s nightman (and Patriot poet laureate) Ben Lemuel, woozy and pliable at present, his head having been struck by something more resounding than a flying mammal. 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 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, and seized his slipping trouser-band. She, kitted out for criminal enterprise, dared shoot him a cheeky so there, conveyed by chin, and vanished along the dark passage.
Zetland snapped his fingers. It was more sauce than Vic liked standing in his present mood, but for Aimee’s sake, he pulled the tunnel door shut.
Yes, your Honor, it was my hand that imprisoned two upright fellow citizens of Hammersmith…
Zetland tugged Vic’s lapel. “Now, with all speed!”
Chilly and Biyah each snagged an end, scuttled backwards, sideways; finally—the contents appearing tricky to shift—they and their crate receded.
Its mate, discovered after a hasty crouched run past the doors of a barn-sized shed, belonged to an inventory of six, four still on their flat car. The car was on the elevator platform that could be lowered into Mossbunker’s underground complex.
“Two will suffice. But we shall see what time permits.”
Vic’s 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, disassembled.”
Shots rang out.
Zetland, not taking alarm, not even at what sounded like a grunt and a curse from the crate, which Vic had dropped, came over with the same face of gallant admiration he had shown not long past, to Aimee, for assaulting Elton.
He abandoned Vic, and drew a pistol.
McKeefe’s was a rough house.
Minnie had played to bad crowds…most of them bad, before Cal Bruce had signed her as opening act. Still worst spot on the slate, the touts hauling rubes off the street, half the audience rummaging in their bags, and you with only a song to offer, when they were starved for novelty…
“I wanna see some hoofin!”
“Where’s the comedian?”
“SHUT YOUR FACE THE HELL UP! (Minnie’s mother.)
But, 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 all those sins the Catholics had to commit…
Ba-bump. To memory. Minnie figured, anyhow, if you had a face, you should know.
As her mother, Margaret Leybourne, or Major Leybourne, the wags had it, 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 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.
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 reach out to shake her crowd-warmer’s hand. As impresaria, Minnie was admitting no premature starts. Carey and Ruby she had stationed behind the piano, where they could take their deep breaths, the nearest thing to a dressing room this saloon was going to provide.
“Is there a business office?” she’d asked the bartender.
He had flushed, puzzling her, and mumbled, “Well, now, down the hill, along the creek. Where most folks go.”
The professor winked at her, drawing a pie tin from inside his coat. He stood, moved front and center, and started banging the tin against his head. The crowd, mostly workers from the factory—who, McKeefe had informed her, hated variety—glared at the intrusion, but after a minute or so showed interest.
Schwachsinn! The chant seemed to ripple among them.
Minnie admonished herself for an unprofessional lapse, and began banging out, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”.
Le Fontainebleau spent a minute making fine adjustments to the tin, donning it upside-down as a hat, taking it off to use as a mirror. Replacing it, cocking it like a beret, sweeping it off in a hammy bow.
“Young fella,” he boomed. “Goes to his beloved’s Papa, asking her hand in marriage. Papa says, I can’t say right off, 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.
“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, perfessor. 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 stop Minnie’s boy-and-girl act making a bolt for it. Le Fontainebleau pattered on, Minnie played on…
The back door rattled. It shivered on its hinges.
A thudding arrived lower down, as though a boot were being applied, while rude conversations grew to shouts, flinging from McKeefe’s front porch.
“Minnie!” Ruby’s head popped up, chin level with the 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…
Saying this to herself, Minnie shoved her comedian aside. The Professor lighted off the platform, full willing, and dissolved into the throng, which had ballooned. Someone was struggling to bore through with a pole, a red kerchief tacked to its end.
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, one Minnie had given already to Carey and Ruby, an unforgiveable act of poaching. At about the point Casey’s brain exploded, Nico stepped through a double column of not-badly-drilled factory hands.
He came with defiance to Minnie’s feet, and stared up into her face…
He was tousled and haggard in that consumed way of his. Just when Minnie felt herself fall for him again, Nico ushered her off stage with an imperious little wave. A woman, with flame in eye and cheek, hiked her skirts and strode onto the platform.
Minnie caught sight of Carey, sheltering Ruby before him, making for the rear.
The screws of the bolt were well loosed from their moorings by now, and a metal bar pried industriously at the inch or so parting the door from its sash. But setting the struggle at a stalemate, two of Nico’s henchmen moved to lean their backs against this.
Nico stepped beside June, and they linked arms. June shot a glance at the piano.
“You’re joining us, Minnie. That’s brave of you. 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 this moment we gather, then we march. We have achieved a great victory over the capitalist scourge! This oppressor, this tyrant, come from the Stronghold of Pluto, from the great Citadel of Wealth, that gilded kingdom newly raised on ground consecrated by the blood of innocents, where he and his kind plot their enslavement of the refugee, where the impoverished worker is kept ignorant of his rights and the value of his labor…”
Abandoning this, Nico closed: “Such men as Mossbunker huddle over maps, in their secret meeting places, seeking to divide the spoils of conquest. My brothers and sisters, take heart! The tyrant is this night our prisoner!”
Silence. Whispers. Then huzzahs.
Nico seized the flag from his lieutenant, and banged its staff on the stage.
“They will find the spoils are collected beforehand and restored to the people!”
Minnie, while enjoying Nico’s eloquence, slid foot after foot, reaching to catch Ruby’s sleeve. She felt justified, at last, in using the back-elbow maneuver her mother had taught her for mashers, and found herself in the arms of Le Fontainebleau.
Who was probably a masher when the mood took him, but acted in altruism…
For, sailing over the crowd, aimed to skim poor Carey’s ear, came an Indian club. A second followed. Nico’s guards fell, one and two…their bodies obstructing the door’s sweep.
“Haul em back, boys,” 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 she knew, an ordinary feature of any factory), was this concealed catwalk below the skylights. Zetland’s team crouched here in darkness. Yet Aimee could picture the hands looking up to a dazzling white daylight, unable to know if Mossbunker or any of his foremen looked down.
Aside from their band’s inroads into the Patriots’ strength, Nico’s Workers’ Brigade had picked off Abel, Derfinger, Hugh Braithwaite, Ed Brainerd, and Mossbunker himself.
Lanterns throbbed in the corners of a staging area. Mossbunker, being tallest, and 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.
“Ah, they have spared themselves rope…”
Zetland’s trailing silence seemed eloquent of regret.
Stationing herself at a lamplit corner, Aimee had been finding it a relief, the view of her own hands this afforded…
A figure too young to be a Patriot, fist closed on a stone or brick, sneaked into view. It pivoted and took a step backwards, beckoning.
A second, armed with its own brick, scudded from the factory wall.
Both figures veed their fingers, and hooked their thumbs.
It occurred to Aimee she and her new acquaintances were dressed alike, in vagabondish castoffs. She chose not to mimic the sign…her disguise was a thin one; Zetland and Vic might be close by or well out of earshot. Instead, she smacked her forehead, stamped a foot, and flung an arm, like an exasperated sergeant.
This at least confused them.
Then serendipity, advantaged by a glut of midnight raiders crawling Mossbunker’s grounds, gifted her with a scuffle. A voice rose muttering through gritted teeth, a body whumped; 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 soldiers hunched apologetically and jogged to the fray. Aimee ripped loose the firecrackers, knelt and ignited them, keeping low, scuttling backwards.
The dominant bellow that flared from the 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, at the formative stage of his response, had managed, “What…!” and “What’s he…!”; at which point she would have needed to leave him, if Chilly hadn’t arrived to reconvene the gang at the foot of a fire ladder.
“Got me doing!”
They were not alone on the factory roof. However, Zetland brandished a loaded pistol, and Nico’s men, having commandeered Mossbunker’s Maxims, had only so far unboxed them.
“How is it Ralph Bard’s widow turns up, running all over heck knows, dressed for some costume ball…”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Why would I wear Ralph’s old coat to a costume ball? When do we even have costume balls in Hammersmith?”
“You know,” Vic whispered darkly, “what I mean.”
“Well, then, how is that? Let me think. 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, Victor Mack, 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?”
“I refer to the criminal conduct of a party, in the assault and unlawful restraint of one Elton Bott; and to the party in question’s playing lookout for a band of renegades…”
Zetland’s gun had changed hands into Biyah’s; the two factory workers, loosely converted by Nico, had fallen under the sway of a simpler philosophy. Chilly waved from a rooftop shed. By 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? Hush yourself when you answer.”
The answer came mumbled through a gag: “Dunno.”
Chilly spoke aside to Zetland. “Mossbunker’s moat man.”
Their captain nodded, the sorrowing 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 noticed Vic. “Got ya, huh? They get Hugh?”
“They get Reverend Sandy?”
Zetland said nothing, and did not glance at Chilly, who tiptoed off.
“You got nothing to say for yourself, Mack?”
“How are all the fish, Fred?”
“Dandy…except for the dead ones.”
Song rose, unmelodic…cohering a bit, where the majority grew sure on their feet as to lyrics. A voice shouted for another chorus. Marchers were filing in, carrying lanterns… Carrying weapons, of the handy kind Aimee had noted earlier, rocks and bricks. They circled, and crowded the captives.
“Got to be very, very cautious. Coat buttons. Wedding ring…”
Aimee’s was in a drawer, with Ralph’s cufflinks and lodge pin. Chilly shifted his eyes towards Vic. “If we’d had time to drill on any of this, I’d had you put your coats on inside-out, and mud up them others…buckles, eyeglasses.”
They were on their bellies. In the dark the catwalk had felt cozy; lit from below, its planks gapped with the menace of crevasses, the gang sprawling frozen as an ill-fated mountaineering party. Vic had got himself nearest 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 the same who singlehandedly (or left-footedly) could thwart their swift exit.
Vic’s unheeding face brought to life something of Creon’s wrath, had Creon been a small-town editor confronting an Antigone gone communist.
The hour offered no occasion to compare tenterhooks, but the others must be anxious as Aimee was…for Abel, of course. But for all the hostages, Mossbunker too. (And Ben and Elton, guiltily.)
Doors closed, sliding ones, slamming ones. The five Patriots, tied back-to-back-to-back, etc., in a small circle, stared up glassy-eyed at a circle of revolutionists, a dozen deep.
A woman’s voice ordered silence.
Her arm was linked with Nico Raymond’s; June led, and he followed. She pulled loose Mossbunker’s gag.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
He did not ahem, but treated foe and friend alike 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 at their presence, making use of ill-gotten gains from pickpocketing, and…”
He writhed here, wanting, it seemed, to fling a contemptuous gesture; flinging Abel—pinioned to his back—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 patriots can die!”
Four patriots’ eyes bulged in desperation.
A stranger to Hammersmith parted the throng. He wore denim trousers, a bare head, soon seen to top Nico’s by a foot, and a skirted suitcoat—bought from a cart, or of 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. As eighty or ninety sets of ears strained, amid the rustling, coughing, and murmuring a crowd, self-stifling as best it can, must produce, a honking noise rose with insistence…
From the tracks, Aimee began to think. The honking was a voice, amplified by a bullhorn.
“Send out … hostages! You’ve got … … to fear! Put … … … weapons and … … … rest of you … … hands up!”
The message was repeated, with adjustments. The bullhorn advanced to the factory gate. Then a fracas, shouts inside and outside the wall, and a rain of thwop, thwop, thwops. An answering round of gunshots. Seconds passed, hinges creaked, and from a dark corner hurtled a soldier of the People’s Front.
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 militia. What are we going to ask them for?”
Someone spoke from the shadows. “They got two cars of coal near the furnaces, and a heap of lose filings. You ever seen steel filings burn?” A certain wistful connoisseurship colored this last.
June, to the young soldier, gave a low-voiced directive. She, Nico, and the stranger, 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.
“Now!” whispered Zetland, prudent in seating himself on Vic’s back.
Chilly, Fred the fish man, divested of bonds, but feudal in honoring a captive’s obligation, Aimee, at last Vic, scuttled in train, the first two making the roof with some show of practice; the latter pair needing 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.”
They edged past the figures of Elton Bott and Ben Lemuel.
“Is that Vic?” came a voice.
“What’s going on out there, Vic? Whose side are you on?”
Vic considered the light. The open door, he deemed, shined sufficient. Denying himself ran the risk of looking odd.
“Brother Patriots. They’ve got the chief.”
“Know that. Anyone they don’t got? How come you don’t untie us?”
“Looks like you two worked your gags off by yourselves…”
Aimee made her voice as low and ominous as practicable. “We have an urgent message for the sheriff’s men.”
“Who’s that you got with you, Vic?”
She put back an arm, found cloth, gripped this ironly, and moved her associate from conversation’s way.
Pitch dark soon enveloped them. Aimee felt Vic crowd her to take the lead.
“Where,” she asked, “are we going to be when we come out?”
“Woods. Someplace along Harmony Run.”
“And you don’t expect they’ll have set a man to watch?”
“This tunnel…at least Elton says…is Mossbunker’s most secret secret. Only him and Bott know about it.”
She let her guide blaze on, detecting low-situated beams and waterlogged patches. Vic, pulled aside by Chilly, believed himself escorting the lady safely home. She pocketed her hand, making sure of Zetland’s token. He had drawn Aimee opposite.
“You will ask for Shaw. But, if Shaw has made a botch of it, and there is no Shaw, tell them you have information for Lieutenant Hickman. This.”
He flashed a sort of medallion.
“Guarantees you will be seen. They know from Shaw about the guns, our friends.”
“The man with the bullhorn…?”
Zetland, deaf to the implication, spoke on. “But bearing in mind that all has been circumvented, and Cranston, becoming unsettled over so many Hogbens and Macks party to his bargain, and bearing in mind he makes his bargain with Le Fontainebleau…eh!”
Zetland gave to his brother-in-law’s fate an unsorry purse of the lips. “Perhaps another time, he has learned better. But if he had wanted bullets, manuals of instruction, each such would be another cost.”
“You mean that Nico’s gang really just have rocks?”
“So far,” Zetland answered, soberly, “as concerns projectiles.”
And as urgent things, in their peskiness, will insist on doing, Aimee’s concerns had escalated. June was in danger. Nico, too. Aimee liked Nico, if none of the others did. The Patriots…
Well, but, you didn’t wish misfortune on a soul (cannon-shot for all one knew!), no more on Mossbunker’s foolish disciples, on Mossbunker himself, than… But no, not on the rebellious factory hands, or even the agitating stranger…
This Hickman needed finding, post haste.
The phrase came echoing back, with a shock.
“Do you have to be on my heels like that?”
“Do you have to stop right in front of me? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s the door.”
“Then get it open!”
Under starlight, confused by the lanterns of myriad moving figures, Vic and Aimee staggered a gauntlet of roots and saplings, grimly biting their tongues.
“Might just be deer,” they heard a voice remark.
“Don’t the deer know their way around better than that? I thought wild animals had instinct.”
“Miss, you oughta hush your voice. Carries.”
“But Mr. Sandy, they’ve got them bottled up, don’t they? Poor Nico! But it would only be Commander Washburn’s men—if it’s anybody at all, I mean. Yoo hoo!”
This conviviality brought a uniformed man jogging their way, lantern swinging.
“Sir, you need to clear out of the area. Miss Leybourne? Ma’am, you are too close in. Is that Mr. Curach?”
“Curach’s gone off with the kids. To your house, Aimee! What’s your name, dear?”
“Jacob.” The soldier straightened, raised the lantern, and stared. “Er… Private Spanner.”
There was not a moment to be lost. “Private!” Aimee said. “Do you know where Mr. Shaw is? Or Lieutenant Hickman?”
Minnie rose and issued a stage directive. “She means business. You better get cracking.”
It was a lot to project into an over-the-shoulder glance, but Aimee, dressed in Chilly’s pants and Ralph’s coat, let herself be led into the militiamen’s camp, confident Mr. Sandy had got her drift. Lodge meetings are one thing; a man of the cloth sharing a log at midnight with a traveling actress…
You keep your secret, and I’ll keep mine.
More Peaceful Pursuits
This Mr. Curach, whom Ruby well accepted, being Aimee’s friend, as a perfectly suitable escort, was also…so she found him…a fine and forward-coming fellow. He might be not so much older than herself. Not so very much. He was jaunty of step, and no taller; they matched well, side by side. He had a bit of a cast to one eye. This (she was sure she’d heard), was lucky in a husband.
Well, there…people said so.
Carey dragged behind them; and talking, they had forgotten him for the third time.
But a natural pause led Curach to call: “Now, lad, should I give you my arm?”
“No, sir. Take Ruby on, and I’ll make my way. We’re on the road back, aren’t we…and there isn’t another?”
This came modestly repressive. But Curach did not offer his thoughts.
Instead, he said: “At about your age, lad, I was just setting up in life. Mr. Piggott would have me go out to strengthen the voters, there being always the small want to be supplied, and the simple folks so like to be swindled into debt. Or expecting a new mouth to feed. Or a myriad of troubles to prey on a man’s mind and make him tardy to the polls.”
Carey, after a silence, tried: “That’s not legal. Not on the up and up, is it?”
“Why, what do you think I’m saying to you?”
“I don’t know.”
And to this avowal, something wondering in Carey’s voice gave piquancy.
“Why, suppose I’d had a lovely little wife at home, instead of being the bachelor I always have been?”
“And children running about?” Ruby seconded.
She felt it right she should, though she knew no more than Carey what Curach’s point would be, when he’d made it.
“Say there had been children running about, that would never worry you much…? They are all grown now, and keeping their own houses.”
The implication was rather fraught for Ruby, and she moved away from the men. In the fading light of Curach’s lantern, she found the post of the bridge, cupped its finial between her hands, and on these rested her chin.
Over the rise another walker came silhouetted, brisk paced, creaking a rhythm…of baggage, she thought. A hinged case.
“Is that Miss Magley?”
“Is that Mr. Hogben? I can’t tell you what’s become of Minnie and Aimee… Oh! Mr. Curach!” The idea flashed that Hogben would escort her home, Curach free that way to give his arm to Carey…
The guilt, that she could say to herself home, when it was not hers, and Aimee was far too generous, flashed a close second. Curach reached her side.
“What if you were to call me Declan?” The question was soft, for Ruby’s ears.
“Mr. Hogben,” she said. “Could you lend a hand to Carey? His feet are troubling him again…after he’d insisted on walking down with us to McKeefe’s. Minnie said…”
“Here. Best if you take this lantern.”
Hogben rested his case on the ground.
Curach gestured to the glow on the horizon, of Mossbunker’s factory lights. “You were never leaving, sir? If any train would run at this hour…still, they have everything closed, you know.”
“What’s been going on, exactly?” Hogben might have read these words off a card.
Ruby began to suspect he was trying to leave them…that a thing as large as an insurrection, as calling in the militia to put it down, as whatever new trouble made that billow of smoke, that whuffing sound just now trailing after, could make only nuisance for Hogben—as soon, he would pass it by.
“Shaw,” Curach said, “will be your man to tell all. Now, sir, what with the chill of the night, I’ll beg your farewell, and see to the lady.”
On they walked, and when Hogben with the lantern had recessed them under night’s blanket, Ruby commented, “It’s well dark, isn’t it?”
“But as the lad observes, there is only one road.”
“Declan.” She said it to say his name, because it struck her polite…not forgetting he’d given permission.
“You’re wondering where next. I will ask Mrs. Krabill to make available one of the better rooms. I know she has the wherewithal. My own house is yours, of course, but we’ll have a proper courtship first. Will you stay on the stage?”
“I think I won’t.”
“And… It’s the Roman church?”
If he put it that way. “Orange, are you?”
A pause of eloquence.
“Religion is for the shaping of the young. The very young. If there were to be any more of them. Then, my girl, as you think best, and nothing to do with me.”
Yesterday, if Hogben had got right—through the buffeting chaos—the drift of the hours…
Yesterday, he had wandered room to room, itching. Take yourself in hand, and tell her so long, he’d told himself. But Aimee, for talking things over with the Kendrick brothers, Curach, Minnie, and Zetland, had been a voice from another room, a swish of skirt, vanishing…
Hogben recalled, in the ’70s, being forced to six years up the California coast, working legit, ladies’ stockings, thinnest territory going…thirty, forty miles between bawdy houses…for putting it down on paper: “Mrs. Niesling, I cannot marry you.”
(“An irrefutable confession in the defendant’s own hand, that marriage was discussed, in terms such as to have led the poor plaintiff to suppose she had been made a promise, or why—in such cowardly fashion, gentlemen—should the defendant seek to shirk his responsibility? Can we put any other construction upon this denial?”)
Resigned to it, Hogben carried paper and pen (one of Shaw’s) to the kitchen table. He was not going to offer money for the room and board, with a mind to the legal one’s twists and turns. That would make something of a clincher.
It is with regret that I take my leave, from your home of generous hospitality, to myself and to so many others. Having had no moment to speak to you personally on any subject, I set these sentiments in prose, as befits a passing stranger shown such kindnesses as are regarded a man’s, or woman’s, common duty to a fellow…
He added a pretty pair of lines to the postscript, praying she would forgive his distraction, had he departed her home owing any courtesy…
He crossed these out.
He was at the threshold, folding back the lapel of his coat to get at the letter.
Mrs. Frieslander and Jane Littler were mending together, the girl rapt, the old woman in mid-tale, the tale one of marital malfeasance. Hogben drew breath for an “ahem”. Then, at his back: “Oh, there you are, Monty! You popped in the kitchen a minute ago, and before I had the chance to…”
Mrs. Bard hooked his arm, drawing him to the back porch.
“Monty, you’re a man of the world. You’ve been out west. Say something to Carey, won’t you? Tell him it’s not all so glamorous, traveling. The scenery changes, but the loneliness stays the same.”
She quoted some gimcrack Sunday serial. Aimee Bard was a reader, evident from the stacked newspapers and dog-eared periodicals crowding the walls.
And leafing through one such, was the spry friend of Mrs. Krabill.
“Are you here, Mr. Curach? I’m having a private talk with Monty.”
“Pay me no mind.”
Chivvied away, Curach echoed, as though struck profoundly: “The scenery changes, but the loneliness stays the same.”
So it couldn’t have hurt to give the line a third go with Carey and call it quits. Hogben was a man of the world, yes, and his advice to the young pair would be, cut your losses.
An hour before sunset, the house had depopulated.
Jane had said, batting away her husband’s hand: “Oh, Carey, you want me to make you not have to do what you promised Minnie you would? Don’t even dream! Why should I care if you go sing with Ruby…why not go?”
Just there, Hogben could have stepped in, got the thing done.
His rustling raised an answering rustle not far ahead.
“Who’s that? Mr. Hogben?”
“Come to get you, son.”
“Well, I’m sorry they asked. I wish they’d leave me alone.”
And though it was tempting, this invitation would have to be forgone.
The nephew was not in command of his fate, no more than Hogben. It seemed possible, darkness and strange scents of ditch weeds wrapping close, along with nocturnal clouds of midges, to suppose Hammersmith a sort of enchanted place.
Not in a good way.
Everyone Hogben had met here, maybe… Aimee, Vic, Mrs. Frieslander, Braithwaite, Derfinger…even Mossbunker…had once stopped in Hammersmith on their way elsewhere, to find themselves, like Hogben, mired beyond escape.
Maybe he ought to say, flee, young fellow!
But he got a grip on this fancy. He put a hand out, pulled Carey Littler upright, and together they headed for the glow at the top of the hill.
“Littler, the scenery, to a traveling man, changes, but you know what doesn’t change…?”
A Prisoner Goes Missing
“Now, it’s true, the Seltons have their origins in Nottinghamshire. So far as circus people have origins. It’s also true they were in France, waiting out their creditors, at the time Charley hatched. He was the eldest, second Mrs. Selton’s first. Then came Cedric, then Cyril. After that, twin girls, Victorina and Ruth. Singing act.”
“Wait a second. The brothers are all cees…how come the girls…”
It puzzled Shaw, the Selton nomenclature. Medlow, however, not.
“Don’t carry on like that, Shaw. I’m only explaining.”
This last with a side glance, rueful, at Commander Washburn. It would soon become Shaw’s responsibility to have fathomed the full dossier—provided to Medlow by the client. To his agents, Medlow did not disclose the names of clients.
“Thoroughgoing show people. Earn their keep from the cradle, the Chillingsworths. That’s the name they took when they turned American. Never been vaudevillians, exactly. Stunt artists, more like. Our Charley had to part company with Ringling…some trouble over borrowing a tiger. Water tank you heard tell of, more a carnival act, arcade feature…theater owners ain’t like to have to do with it. Next seen, Philly, stage comedian. Can play a little piano. When, Shaw, did Cedric and Cyril show up?”
“Some time after he dug in at Swan’s. Mr. Piggott was pretty certain he saw a letter change hands. Between him and Hogben, I mean. Not Swan, the Professor. Mossbunker’s plans got in the way of Piggott having a talk with Hogben. And then…”
It would take some disingenuousness. Shaw, derailed by the flood, dispatching to his boss from Derfinger’s, had been walking down every day, checking for telegrams. He had known of no Zetland in the picture.
And if you’ve done your best convincing a dodgy customer you’ve got a job for him, hinting your man has the money of a Mossbunker (which the U.S. government, if not the fortune of a J. P. Morgan, did), and then a woman (Aimee Bard) you’ve made the acquaintance of comes at you dropping strangers’ names, accuses you of being on Cranston terms with Mossbunker…
And next, you find your quarry upstairs cahooting with this Ludi…
And next (but for Minnie’s sake—no concern of Medlow’s), you end up joining the gang…
“Shaw, make sense,” Medlow suggested.
“McKeefe hasn’t got any doors that lock, is the trouble.”
“Where’s he keep the till?”
“I get what you’re saying,” Washburn intervened. “That hullaballoo Oldfield ginned up. McKeefe says he doesn’t have a stick of furniture left, and all the panes out the windows.”
This remark relaxed the pouches of Medlow’s eyes, those which signaled, when approaching the close and narrow stage, a writing-up. Oldfield was a rabble-rouser, a proven anarchist, a sort of boss to Nico Raymond.
As to the broken back door, Shaw had helped Curach kick it free.
The professor had ferried Minnie into his arms. “Here’s your gal…you take good care of her, mister. And I’ll just say adios.”
To himself, Shaw could admit a five-second reverie of chucking it all. Why not tell Medlow, “Blame me. I let him get away.”
In the way of a fisherman, who hangs his field glasses on an overhanging limb, stops to jot a few notes on his subject, looks up to discover his boat drifted, the glasses just out of reach, fumbles after them, knocks his memo-book into the water, upends his rod digging for his net…
Or, in terms of broader application, in the way of a man with a woman in his arms, jostled by a crowd…
“What now? Are we all going up to the factory?”
Curach had answered Minnie, “I’ll go up. The young fellow can see Miss Magley and yourself home.”
He nodded at Carey Littler, sunk to the ground and rubbing a foot. A backwash of noncombatants had burst; and this flotsam, of Shaw, Curach, their prisoner, Minnie and her singers, were left behind at the high tide mark.
Uphill, the insurgents surged, their riotous way with McKeefe’s property proving an hors d’oeuvre to the main course.
“And then I might just bring the professor along with me. I know Zetland…”
Capable, Shaw himself knew this much of Zetland, of spiriting away a confederate. Something in a nature born to simple attachments kept Shaw’s fingers tight on Le Fontainebleau’s coat sleeve.
“No. Best if you take charge of the women, Curach. Professor, you’re in custody. There’s no adios about it. Minnie, that is, Miss Leybourne…”
“Gracious, Bladon, Charley knows my name is Minnie! We’ve been on terms for hours.”
The sheriff and his men had gathered and gone. They were short-handed, with two deputies riding different routes (to be safe), carrying duplicates of a signed affirmation that the telegram summoning the militia was no joke.
“McKeefe! You got a barman?”
“Well… You got someone who sweeps your floor?” Shaw cast an eye over his shoulder, at shattered glass and legless tabletops.
“Counting me. What you need a man for?”
“What I need is a room. I heard you have an attic you let…”
A noise like fi escaped McKeefe’s lips; then, thinking better, he said, “Ten bucks.”
Shaw’s simple plan had been to get the professor alone, to hash through with him all they had officially discussed. He would at least fix these things in his own mind, if not the prisoner’s.
A month ago, or two days ago, or some measureless measure of time in between, Shaw had collected a telegram. It was Medlow’s, informing his operative of an ill-boding development. Medlow was on his way.
NT SAT REP N B$ SELL PENS! ARR HSMTH TM AFN
Not satisfied with Shaw’s reports. Withholding bonus, which Shaw, running his own agency, would not have paid either. If he had wanted money, after all, he could have arrested Raymond (that would be selling pens). Any county sheriff would offer a cell to a Medlow’s man.
But while Nico might prove a bull’s-eye in the dark, his senior in equality, Oldfield, was not the Purchaser. Medlow knew this, as the Purchaser was Mossbunker.
And where you have a Purchaser, you have a Procurer.
An army, when it wanted weapons, contracted with a manufacturer of these, a thing the layman could not do. Some depot would receive the shipment, some sergeant check off its contents, eyeball a sample and inform a superior, who would sign off on the shipment’s movement from depot to destination.
Superiors, like Medlow, liked to see lackeys report a job finished, more than they liked watching a job finished. If Major Fritz looked for thirty guns, and Colonel Fratz initialed the paperwork on twenty-four, Colonel Fratz would hardly trouble himself whether Sergeant Frotz had cited delay, damage, or misdirection. Major Fritz would not pass along what he expected Frotz to sort, until Frotz had reported it sorted.
Zetland’s carriage was exceedingly upright. Military service, for a Prussian of that class, Shaw thought a requirement. And Mossbunker’s mind would work this way…with the mogul class, a trusted collaborator got carte blanche. Count von Zetland, a pouter pigeon couched in a parlor car, where the Professor, talking up his shares, had cadged a ride…
At least Shaw imagined their meeting this way.
If Zetland, like any scalawag ought, sought to hide his activities, Shaw could have bought his name, passed it to Medlow that evening, committed a mild (or retaliatory) double-cross in handing over an informant unworthy of protection, to the man who had hired him (Le Fontainebleau, in fine, to Mossbunker). Shaw still would look the reliable, if not spectacular, seller of pens that he was.
“Room’s all yours, Mr. Shaw.”
McKeefe’s lantern made boulders of discarded bedrolls, shot long shadows that groped the low-beamed, sweat-scented space. But the light danced away, as McKeefe remarked: “I’ll just take this, leave you and the Professor to your little talk…”
“McKeefe,” Shaw said. “Could I rent that light for an hour? Fifty cents?”
“Dollar. Run out of kerosene, come let me know.”
The attic had a body in it. A young postal clerk, a Wesley Crumpacker, a Patriot who had failed his rendezvous.
“See, mister, I’d just remembered…when I got up to the guardhouse…it was my week to lead the blessing. I said to Ben, I have to go back home and get what I got wrote down…”
At that moment a voice sang out. “Bladon! Looks like the boss is in town!”
Minnie! Why had Curach not taken her off?
Another voice: “Mr. Shaw up there? Man outside with a message!”
Shaw, overmuch in demand, had rattled out: “Crumpacker, guard the prisoner! I’ll be back in a second.”
Medlow was in town, but snubbing his employee for the attentions of Washburn.
Freed, Shaw sidled aside, and whispered: “Minnie! You can’t stay!”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Why didn’t you go with Curach?”
“Ha!” The under-the-lashes glance almost drove meaning into Shaw’s head. But he didn’t know Curach.
“I know,” Minnie said, “a certain look when I see it. You just leave Ruby to her own devices.”
Shaw had written on the back of his card, calling as a stranger, but on behalf of the well-known Medlow’s agency: Sir, your name has come up. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:25 p.m., Mossbunker’s people kept him waiting in the lobby, a dose of medicine that mellowed nothing in its prescriber (for when, after all, does torture improve the disposition of the torturer?)
But off his feet, Shaw was comfy enough. He was being paid regardless. He had a book in his pocket, a detective yarn he could happily tide along with.
“Mister, they wanna know what’s the idea.”
To this office boy sauntered from the elevator, Shaw said: “One for Mr. Mossbunker’s ears only. Or I can leave and tell Medlow he’s not interested.”
Five minutes later, from the opposite shore of a mammoth burl veneer, a desk so large it served for the secretary too—demure at the corner with his steno pad—a snort greeted Shaw’s news.
Shaw spoke his calculated piece. “It must be a great offense to you, sir, and I apologize for being the messenger. A man like that bandying his acquaintance with you among the criminal classes, making claim you could underwrite such an outlandish adventure… My informant seems to think the guns were meant for Cuba.”
“Hrrr,” came the answer. The sound, had Shaw known it, of gears grinding.
He had not spoken to Mossbunker again, but had by special messenger dispatched the photographs proving Le Fontainebleau not drowned.
Now, reclimbing McKeefe’s stairs after twenty minutes or so, it was the Professor’s smile he remembered.
“Piece of luck.”
Shaw picked the cobwebs from his daydreaming brain.
“You call that dash, Washburn,” Medlow remarked. “Stuff you still see in the old guard over there.”
“Gone over the wall by himself! I’d put him up for a citizen’s award, only… I guess he’s not a citizen.”
“Excuse me. Zetland.”
Medlow glanced behind. The pouches reuned irritably. “What you need, Shaw?”
“Zetland, you said, sir, has got inside Mossbunker’s factory. Alone. With no help.”
“Left word nobody was to fret over his safety. He’ll talk to Oldfield if he can. You got all that? Mossbunker wasn’t any too pleased with what you had to say to him, Shaw.”
The attic door cracked.
The deputized patriot stepped head, shoulders, and one leg out. Even this much Crumpacker added more than was comfortable to the landing’s capacity crowd of Medlow, Washburn, McKeefe, and Shaw.
“You didn’t,” Crumpacker said wistfully, “happen to come across the Professor?”
“Not a likely thing…” For a man to be in two places at once, Shaw would have finished. “Crumpacker, you didn’t let him go?”
“No! I mean, not let… I heard someone climbing the stairs, and then I heard McKeefe call out…”
“I sure never!”
“He said, Crumpacker, why don’t you go on home? He was coming closer.”
McKeefe, growing purpler, said, “I tell you, I never!”
“I said, no sir, I have to guard the prisoner. I swear, I looked over to the corner where he was sleeping, and he was there! And McKeefe said, what’s the matter with you? Go look out the window! Right down below, I could hear the Professor talking to someone…someone he called Shaw. I had to lean out to get a look.”
“And when you stopped turning your back on the prisoner,” Shaw said, “all you found in the corner was a pile of clothes. And when you looked out here to the landing, you saw no one at all.”
A silence fell.
Medlow said, “Son, you’re not to blame. You’re not the professional. Take McKeefe’s advice, and go home. Search the room, Shaw.”
“Search the grounds?” Shaw tried.
“The room. Then the grounds. Then write me a report and make it thorough. Washburn, I suppose you find it true in your line, you get a man now and then who never quite lives up to the chances you’ve given him. No use. Taking up a place that could be filled by a new young recruit, a go-getter…”
Somehow, the hour had come to this—
A rising sun, beaming insistent rays at eyes their bleariest of a lifetime. Alone at the kitchen table in Vic’s empty house, Aimee woke, not from sleep—a thing not to be managed on a wooden chair—but to the fact that she would be walking home in daylight.
Poor Vic, his world had been knocked sideways. Or no, (she quibbled with herself), sent spinning…?
However, the world always spins.
Never mind. His condition called for wifely sympathy. Then knuckle-rapping.
Zetland’s intelligence, Lieutenant Hickman had dutifully borne to Washburn. Washburn had ordered smoke bombs, holding his mounted patrols outside the factory gates, to spare the horses and block escapees. Inside the gates, his men crawled on their bellies under an oily cloud, with orders to grit their teeth against any shower of bricks.
Once through the bay doors, still unchallenged, they had risen. They were nervous, but combat-ready.
“Do not fight!” Oldfield had shouted. “The victory today is tyranny’s. Tomorrow it shall be ours!”
The first round of Washburn’s prisoners, the ringleaders, had been marched through the militia camp, past the tree stump where Aimee and Vic, Minnie and Mr. Sandy, sat at a game of baccarat. Minnie, having them on her person, had furnished the cards.
Nico spoke aside to Oldfield, pointing his chin at Vic.
True, this looked like cheekiness. Aimee was just pointing out that Nico had been denied the use of his hands, when Vic flew. She flung after, body-blocking him before he could humiliate his daughter.
“I am quite willing to speak to the press. You will permit me,” Oldfield addressed his guard, “to pause a moment. Indeed, I have prepared a statement. Young man,” he said to Aimee, “in my pocket, you will find information, the identical publication to that I had given that fellow whom the militant arm of the state designates Commander. And let me inform the readers of your Clew…yes, Mr. Mack, I am not ignorant of your identity. Write this. Are you taking notes?”
Aimee tapped her temple, choosing not to speak.
“That it came to me as no surprise, to witness this oppressor discard my words on a pile of burning refuse. I carry in the pockets of my garments an even gross of these documents, issued from my own press. Long experience has taught me that study on the part of our journalists is sorely needed, as to grasping the proletarian aims, and the nature of our movement, which none who grasp can find inimical to the welfare of human society.”
Committing none of this to memory, Aimee dared the pocket, extracted a folded list of ready-made Q’s and A’s, and a pamphlet, one Oldfield encouraged the reprinting of.
So he said, and proceeded to interview himself.
“You wish to know, do I consider this a setback? No, emphatically not. That we make inroads at all against the vast resources of a Mossbunker, can be regarded as nothing other than success. You ask me, then, how large is the movement? I count hearts, sir, not heads…”
June, walloping a pair of uniformed shoulders with the flat of her hand, bobbed in, taking Nico’s arm, deaf to her father’s background murmur of: “Why…? What…? How…?”
She spoke to a cowed private. “I am not going home with Victor Mack. I don’t belong to my father. What was your name…Spanner? You can just take your hands off me!”
“She doesn’t mean it.”
Aimee saw Vic blink in her direction.
“Well, all right, she means it.” She hooked his elbow.
“I need to see Washburn.”
“I doubt Washburn has much to do with the prisoners anymore. The government will hang onto to Oldfield and Nico…and of course they won’t let June bunk in with Nico. Vic, you’ll have to help her. I mean with money. And a lawyer, a Philadelphia lawyer.”
“What’re you talking about?” He scratched his head. “A rest home, maybe. I wonder if Sandy…or even Elton…?”
“Will ever forgive you? Now, Vic. You’d consider it, packing June off, telling everyone she’s not well? Do you think that’s fair? Do you mean you’re not proud of her at all, leading the men that way? Winning for herself a man like…”
Between the sexes, Aimee decided, some things don’t translate. “Likely they’ll deport Nico to Sicily. And so he and June might have to be married, even if they don’t believe in it. But they love each other… Or, they’re philosophically in harmony with each other…”
She was scanning Oldfield’s documents, as they walked to the offices of the Clew.
“I better get off to town hall and drag her back where she belongs.”
“No, Vic. Come through to the kitchen, and sit with me.”
Aimee put the kettle on to boil, rummaged the breadbox and found a few rolls, crunchy only at the edges. This, and butter, two plates and two knifes, and after a longer search, a jar of her own peach marmalade, she laid on the table in front of him.
“Why have I never wanted to marry you?”
“I don’t measure up. What I figured.”
“Oh, nonsense. Who do I like keeping company with better than you?”
“Mr. Hogben…” She flapped a hand. “Is a whatyacallit in the night.”
“Ship that passes. Think about your daughter.”
The dilemma had a straightforward logic to it, supposing a father a little overbearing, a little inclined to take things for granted, could be ushered—
To the hilltop perspective, to see his daughter through the eyes of an interested friend.
Aimee put out a left palm, and a right palm. “June is happy. June is unhappy. Let’s see. She’s happy looking after your house, you think? Shopping for your larder, sending your shirts out for laundering, cooking your dinners, hoeing your vegetable patch…?”
“That’s her own, that patch.”
“I’m not arguing.”
“No. You’re up to putting me in the wrong, ma’am.”
They locked eyes. And when she saw him smile, she conceded the point. “For your own sake. And…minding the office when you’re away, helping Chilly tie up his bundles, keeping your cash accounts on the books, working your linotype machine.”
“June understands the Clew’s got to go out. She’s a good, helpful daughter. She knows money doesn’t grow on trees. If you’re telling me she hasn’t been happy…”
“She would’ve complained. Like Mossbunker might have said about his factory hands. Vic, I’m proposing. A thesis…yours. June is happy with her life the way it is. But you’d bring a second wife into the house she’s always managed by herself. What happens?”
“You two sort it out.”
“Oh, do we? What have you got in mind?”
She saw him try a shrug, choose limiting this to one shoulder. She tapped a warning fingernail. “In some gal fashion you can’t be bothered to think about?”
“Now, see. Let me get a word in first, before you make me take it back.” He poured a second cup of coffee, and reached for the marmalade.
“Listen. Having me here makes things tricky for June. I’m the lady of the house now…do I take over the cooking? Do I sit in my chair and let her cook? Do I go through all the cupboards and arrange things the way I like? Do I tell June, run next door and borrow a potato? Reach down my company pitcher and give it a polish? If two people are doing a job, one is in charge, and one is taking orders. You were in the army.”
“I could get along with people.”
“Hmm. I’ll ask Chilly, when he stops by. So, that time you stumbled into the enemy camp, it never occurred to you to just…?”
Befriend them, she might have finished. But Vic, draining his cup, said, “When have you and June not gotten along? Don’t you always say hello? You mean you can’t think of how to split up the chores, without getting in some kind of tangle every day?”
“Why, yes. Hire someone. Couple with good references wanted for general work and housekeeping. Apply this office. Vic, I know you have a better mind than that. Let’s try my thesis. June is unhappy. She hates that vegetable patch. She’s sick of your shopping. She curses your linotype. I move in…and I bring Mrs. Frieslander, of course.”
“And Carey. And Jane and Cynthia.”
“I never said you couldn’t. Carey better find himself some work and stick to it.”
“And your daughter can’t find an empty chair, to be off her feet and think for two seconds. Maybe she can walk across and sit beside you in Derfinger’s window?”
“Why wouldn’t she like a little bustle? She’s always been alone.”
“You’re speculating about what June might like, when you know already what she does like?”
This Nico reference produced a gloomy sigh.
“Change of subject. You haven’t forgotten the Warples?”
He had, his face said, and that the reminder invoked further gloom. But Warples, of themselves, were less material than the idea of Warples. “From that little stretch along the river, what’s it called?”
“I don’t know. Hurleyville?”
“Picture the Daily Clew becoming the Valley Clew. McKeefe doesn’t take your paper either. Why not? Because he doesn’t come up to town, so he never drops by your office…”
“Because he’s got nothing to advertise…legit.”
“But he’s got news. The same kind of news a ‘correspondent on the scene’ will share with our readers in our exclusive piece on the untold story of the factory rebellion. Mysterious figure with close ties to Mossbunker directs clandestine rescue effort. Brave show of defiance by hostages. Workers led by Emma Goldman-like figure…”
She rooted in Ralph’s pockets for Oldfield’s propaganda. “Stop frowning, Vic. Famous names fascinate. It has nothing to do with June. We should, actually, print at least part of his pamphlet. We need the workers’ side of things, too. Why don’t the hands buy your paper, Vic?”
“Cause I don’t cater to all creation. And far as that nut fringe you’re aiming at…”
“There’s no catering about it. If the Warples can read about the Warples, and the McKeefes can read about the McKeefes, and the hands can read about the hands, none of that means the Clew is taking an editorial stance. The only thing you need, is to start writing your Sunday piece about the war, and what a makes a good patriot. Zipping lips, no doubt… But knowing a pig in a poke when someone tries to sell you one. Carey will start making his rounds with Chilly. He’ll interview the people in the little valley towns, and they’ll buy the paper because they’re in it. Because someone cares about them for once.”
Vic stirred. “Sky’s lightening up.”
“June is happy. June is unhappy.” She said these words again, with a prosecutorial penetration. “And a handsome man comes along. Not that he has to be handsome. But a man in any case, Vic, who wants to talk about an interesting thing. He’s not a wag, not a roué, not Selma Bott’s nephew Clarence, who thinks it’s a Christian woman’s duty to marry him if he asks her…”
She lifted an eyebrow. Vic didn’t know everything. “Interesting to June especially, because she feels it, that her life is hers and she has the right to decide, and no one has ever allowed it. I hope you realize we might as easily be talking about a traveling salesman. Hogben! And June’s stepmother is going to disagree with her father if he claims he’d rather have Hogben for a son-in-law than Nico. But see how either side of the coin leads to the same outcome. If she’s happy, upending her life makes her unhappy. When she’s unhappy she’s ripe for leaving. That part of June is gone anyway, that you could drag back home and say, ‘from now on, behave yourself’. If you love your daughter, you’ll see her on her own terms, and when you head out in a minute for the town hall, the first thing you’re going to say to her is…”
He had gone to the front hall mirror, to see about the state of his clothes.
He muttered, passing back through the kitchen, “Better go upstairs…”
“Vic! The first thing you’re going to say to her is…?”
“Ma’am, you said a Philadelphia lawyer?”
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