William McKinley, elected U. S. president in 1896, would — not quite a year after his re-election of 1900 — be assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The late decades of the nineteenth century were not all ice cream parlors and barbershop quartets, though the merry image comes to us from Hollywood musicals of the 1940s–1960s.
In 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago gave America a taste of the anarchist “acts” — the terrorist provocations that had swept Europe, and claimed, among others, the empress of Austria and Umberto I of Italy. Of importance to the course of the Spanish-American war (McKinley’s war), Spain’s prime minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo had been assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1897, leaving America to treat with his successor, Práxedes Sagasta, a man held in contempt by supporters of the Cuban insurgents.
Four police officers and four civilians were killed in Chicago, four accused perpetrators hanged. The evidence that convicted them proved controversial, and their cause gained even the sympathy of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, who pardoned the survivors.
In 1897, nineteen immigrant coal miners, most from Eastern Europe and Germany, were shot in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, at a peaceful demonstration for higher wages. The sheriff’s men who’d opened fire were acquitted.
From 1894 to 1906, Europe was consumed by the Dreyfus affair, in which Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted of passing secrets to the German embassy. Author Émile Zola wrote his famous open letter, “J’accuse”; following his conviction for criminal libel in 1898, Zola fled into exile in England.
The warship Maine exploded February 15th in Havana harbor, precipitating the Spanish-American war, which in turn left America newly in custody of the Philippines, thus embroiled in suppressing an insurrection. In 1901, American troops under General Jacob “Howling Wilderness” Smith’s orders, killed an undetermined number of non-combatant Filipinos. Smith became famous for his eponymous command:
The Major said General Smith instructed him to kill and burn, said the more he killed and burned the better pleased the General would be, that it was no time to take prisoners and that he was to make Samar a howling wilderness.
The Independent, Honolulu, HI, 5/1/1902
- The Ojibwe defeated U.S. troops in the Minnesota Battle of Sugar Point, as the Indian Wars wound to their conclusion.
- Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie.
- Neon was discovered…harbinger of the twentieth century’s pulsing, big city life.
René Magritte, Lotte Lenya, Alexander Calder, Bertolt Brecht, Enzo Ferrari, M.C. Escher, were among those influencers born in 1898; Otto von Bismarck, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, William Ewart Gladstone, Stephané Malarmé, and Aubrey Beardsley among those who died.
Hammersmith, set in a mill town in the Susquehanna region of Pennsylvania, begins in March of 1898. Widow Aimee Bard has a business problem to solve. Her stepson Abel is eager to move her into other quarters, just when her nephew needs a stable roost, or Carey may abandon Jane and their daughter, Cynthia. Abel’s partner, industrialist Cranston Mossbunker, heads a cell of nativists, the American Patriots (curiously, I did not find a newspaper citation from 1898 that mentioned a group actually using this name). Local newspaper proprietor Victor B. Mack has got his friend to nominate him for membership, and finds himself taking on the unexpected role of investigative reporter. Meanwhile, refugees from a March flood upend Aimee’s plans, though suggesting to her an option a woman might employ. And chanteuse Minnie Leybourne brings to Hammersmith modern ideas…along with a Communist lover.
Table of Contents
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar… 1
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.”… 4
Hogben had sat up in bed, to hear the rain still pelting…7
Hogben tried singing counterpoint to the melody…10
She detected Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery...12
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep…14
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside…17
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…20
Aimee Bard, having that in common with the settled object…22
Less sticky about being accommodating than she’d feared…25
There were two types of men women fell for...27
Her father hadn’t seen the host of faults…30
“Doesn’t seem so long ago”…32
Aimee had taken one seat, facing the caboose...34
Mrs. Frieslander had volunteered to work the tuning forks…37
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary…39
A sofa—with a blanket draped along the seat…42
The St. Bernard Hotel had a back way in…44
A torch flared…47
Piggott came to sit, next to Hogben…50
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”…52
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity…55
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…58
“I can’t tell you why, but for some reason a fried egg…61
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly…64
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw…67
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes when he undertakes a thing…70
A monumental figure unveiled by dispelling shadow…73
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming…75
Mossbunker had secured his contract with the American Expeditionary Force…79
Mossbunker’s wall rose a few feet higher than Ralph’s eight-foot ladder…83
Vic, like a nine-pin, fell too, the second time of an evening…85
McKeefe’s was a rough house…87
A curious feature of Mossbunker’s factory…90
Back from his tacit errand…93
Aimee and Vic found themselves dispatched by a new ally of Zetland…95
This Mr. Curach, whom Ruby well accepted, being Aimee’s friend…98
“Now, it’s true, the Seltons have their origins in Nottinghamshire…102
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 for some reason a fried egg will always get a laugh. And so I had one cemented to the first plate, with two strips of bacon…rubber, of course…the plate was a round of enameled iron, like your kitchen sink. The coffee pot and cup were painted on the inside…audience couldn’t tell.”
Professor le Fontainebleau chuckled.
“Couldn’t care, more like. Now, there is one of our secrets I don’t mind spilling for you…it bears interestingly on, shall we say, other affairs. Once I’d got settled on my chair, and taken up my knife and fork, Ced would place himself on the left, Cyril on the right. Ced doing his acrobatics…hand-stand, somersault…sort of thing. Light roman candles and manage tossing them across, could Ced, with his toes, mid-flip. I remain dashed. Cyril, on the other hand, equally a talent…which I don’t count myself, particularly…
“Cyril, yes, everything he pulled from his coat was a gag in its own right. Rubber chicken, pair of baby shoes, watermelon…sometimes a cocoanut. Tomahawk. Tried a lady’s corset once, caught too much wind. But take up each candle in its turn, and get those spinning, too. There was a hidden air hose I used to take a breath. The juggling, you see, got people’s eyes off the tank. But also, and it’s a thing worth noting, you won’t credit it—but all this business, timed out, took about three minutes. Now. You’ll appreciate, with so much to gawp at and cackle over, the audience came to feel I’d been in the water a very long time. My brothers bowed and stepped off…I put away my breakfast—different plate I’d hold up, empty—then took up a hand mirror and straight razor. Miming, you know.”
He mimed now, collecting the eyes of his coach-mates, shifting his chin sideways, bulging one eye and squinting the other, dabbing an invisible hankie at a spot on his cheek.
“I will tell you, the most difficult part of the act was at the end, when I came out. I’d learned to take a great breath through my nose without showing it…but soaking wet as I was, oftentimes I’d get a little tickle of water in my throat. Near thing. With an underwater act, aplomb means all. A bit like fire-eating, that way…and fortunately, not otherwise.”
Vic, in a tired way, raised a smile. The professor was one of those whose confessional impulse opened floodgates. They were on the open road, making for Hammersmith. The countryside being hilly, and the road winding, the pace of Mrs. Mossbunker’s personal coach was steady, more than speedy.
Aimee was trying not to nap. What the professor—“Charley. Used to be Chillingsworth, fair posh, all us with the cees, righto…but Ced and Cyril are still at it, somewheres…I had to take on a new persona” (pronouncing this word with a great fondness for its tony implications)—
Righto. What the professor had to say, eventually, in regard to Mr. Shaw, was important. She’d taken a kind of responsibility for Shaw. In ignorance, she’d left him in charge of her house.
Curach had stopped at Green Glade Lodge long enough for a cup of tea, not yet to be taken in the presence of Mossbunker’s wife. Aimee sat afterwards alone with Jane, on a brocaded sofa under a towering ceiling, done over in traceries from center medallion to corner encrustations: scrollwork twined in leaves, shouldered by cherubs, balanced on columns. More such, at intervals, descending to the floor.
Jane had been wilting in stages until Aimee, standing, said without proof, “Stretch out, dear. No one will mind.”
Mrs. Mossbunker entered, with drama, at that moment.
“Now, my dears, I make this excuse. I have had a note, brought by a man on horseback…Paul Revere, you know.”
Jane was asleep. Mrs. Mossbunker, motioning a housemaid to follow, crossed to peer. She did this from a height of something, heels to hair, near six feet.
“Urgent, you mean,” Aimee guessed. A call to arms would have been pushing it. Or so she had supposed.
“Margaret. The Sofia suite, with the little daybed on the balcony.”
“Does the child want a doctor? I think”—Mrs. Mossbunker preempted response—“air is always best. Air and a salt bath for the feet. Both together. That is the treatment, no?”
“Lunch was a little rich.” Aimee got this out late, the dry comment she’d been on the verge of. Her hostess’s conversation seemed to advance in leaps.
“No… That is…yes,” she tried again. “I hope not. Quiet and a little rest.”
“As I would say. Mrs. Bard, I have a matter of discretion. Yes, my husband will sometimes come into my room, when he is restless over those things that prey on his mind.”
Mrs. Mossbunker tapped herself on the forehead.
Hooves seemed to thunder up the drive…a deliverance, as far as Aimee was concerned. She had not badly wanted to know what followed on these occasions between mogul and wife.
“And so this way I learned his little secret. Ludi!”
Her hostess vanished into the hall. Aimee heard an exchange of German. Someone, during this, hummed a tune. Someone else…Vic…coughed, and said, “Er” twice. At this, she made a beeline, glanced at the other man’s vaguely familiar face, glanced at the tall and dapper Ludi, then snagged Vic’s sleeve and hastened him into the parlor. Her niece was gone, assisted upstairs by Margaret. But the empty sofa was a prompt to Aimee’s talking point.
“What’s wrong with you!”
“Well,” said Vic. “This and that. Why don’t you start me off with a little hint?”
“That man, Curach. Why did you bring him into it? Here I was, planning a quiet lunch with my niece…”
“I can marry Hogben if I like.”
“If he likes.”
She crossed her arms, not having it. “A quiet lunch, Victor B. Mack…and then…I don’t even know what! What am I doing in Mossbunker’s house? Is that man who came with you the professor? That reminds me…” She broke off, remembering Mr. Shaw. He had not achieved so much as returning from the dead, but had altered character notably in the space of this regrettable day.
“Mrs. Bard, this is Ludwig, my brother, the Count von Zetland.” Mrs. Mossbunker entered, arm-in-arm with Ludi, trailed by le Fontainebleau.
“We leave at once for Hammersmith,” Zetland said, “if Mrs. Bard is ready. Cranston will think of my coming here.”
“Ah!” his sister interrupted. “But I have thought sooner! You will go out the conservatory, and take my carriage.”
You Never See It Coming
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly and talk in private with le Fontainebleau. Even this, thinking of it, irritated Shaw…not merely because he was soft on Aimee Bard, and might have permitted—for the duration of a train ride—this daydream, safe enough. The lapse would correct itself.
They’d had the glimmerings of an understanding, the professor and Shaw, his dealings here on familiar ground going smoother than the course of one-sided love. On no account would he address the man as Charley, accepting this maneuver. It was tempting, yes, to knock off a couple syllables, just to name the informer/suspect inside his own head. But in Shaw’s opinion (he knew plenty who refused to take these things seriously), once you went allowing casual practices to infect your method, you’d shorthand yourself into a fatal mistake, bound to. Get friendly with malefactors? Even a piker, a green recruit, must reckon better.
Most of his notes had to be kept there, in his head, until he was back home in Baltimore…and then only the chief’s stenographer would take them down.
He’d surprised his quarry, and his quarry had eluded him. They’d met but briefly, the first time, the professor coy.
The train had come late to the station, and the rain, puddling everywhere, seemed to Shaw to puddle in mockery. He felt himself like a tight-wire act, a man balancing an overflowing bucket, taking cautious toeholds.
The two words drew only a grin. Shaw had to drop a couple more.
“Times are difficult. One tries this and that, earning one’s nick. I am no longer on the stage, Mr. Shaw. Le Fontainebleau is a trusted broker of securities.”
It was stalemate, and Shaw was not on a mission to stop the deal, but to subvert it. They were speaking on the stairs, the professor, foolishly, seated on the sill of the window that illuminated the landing; Shaw, more discreet, tucked out of view in the corner. And from this vantage midway between floors of the Susquehanna House, he’d noted the water on the street make less effort than ever to drain away.
The professor chose his move.
“Hogben is your best authority on Hogben. Since you ask. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, as the saying goes.”
“Go your separate ways, now and then, do you?”
The girl Ruby had come up from the lobby, interrupting, and saying to Shaw, “It never rains but it pours!” She’d blushed, and put a hand on her topknot. “I didn’t even think! I only meant, now when we’re late already, and losing wages for it, to be sure, it’s another day’s delay, yet. And nothing to do in this place but turn in…”
His dismissal gave her the excuse to close her mouth, and she’d scurried off.
The professor said, surprising Shaw with sudden frankness, “You haven’t clapped the manacles on, so I’m thinking you’d like to do business. Make a purchase…?”
Shaw gave him nothing.
“…from me alone.”
“Will that be in Hammersmith?” Shaw said. “We’re close by.”
And at that, the professor also had left him.
Afterwards, Shaw had half entertained belief, when with his own eyes he’d seen the man sink into the floodwaters like a brick—but he’d taken hold of himself.
To die at the fortuitous moment must be a rare chance; to vanish merely, a thing more akin to rogue’s luck. He was reporting to Mossbunker as well as the chief. Mossbunker had any number of blind spots, fully to be exploited…but befitting his being the wolf to whom Shaw, in failure, would be thrown, the mogul could take a man’s throat between his jaws and worry him to death.
These were dark musings, and Shaw’s bland features contracted, showing (to Minnie, passing the still figure, whose hands gripped paintbrush and eight-ounce Gloss for Trim, Mt. Vernon Eggshell) the semblance of hidden depths. It was depths of this nature that had drawn Minnie to Nico. She hadn’t lent him a proper ear. His political character took more work, keeping shored up, than to half-heed the prattle of other beaus she’d had…Minnie had spent the day brooding, herself, over this question. There were pros and cons to it, letting June Mack walk off with Nico.
“You can’t have two things at once,” as her mother said. “If a woman fights over a man, he wins.” Of course Mama, saying so, had Minnie Leybourne the Star in mind, and she hadn’t quite climbed that ladder.
At the foot of the porch steps she turned and looked up into Shaw’s face, then danced fingers between this and her own.
He recovered. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you play any musical instruments?”
Visibly, to her interested eye, he seemed to catch himself in a lie and think better of it. His lips formed “no”, and then he said, “Mouth organ. Just a little.”
“Do you tell jokes? Doesn’t matter,” she went on. “Aimee doesn’t throw out old newspapers. I saw stacks bundled up on the back porch. We’ll find some no one’s heard for a while. Jokes.”
“I can’t be in your show, ma’am.”
“You’re expecting a package, aren’t you? I can’t think how a box of pens being sent out from Baltimore wouldn’t have got here after near a month! Didn’t you even go off someplace for a day, looking? Let’s stop at the post office and ask again.”
She crooked an elbow, and Shaw, in duty—and murmuring something about a depot in Delaware—took her arm on the way down. “We’re going to the 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 managed to secure an evening on McKeefe’s stage), but she counted herself satisfied with Ruby’s progress of hours. Carey’s voice had proved a nice surprise, whereas Ruby’s harmonies had not settled wholly on key…but the kids, as Minnie called them, were charmingly…naïve together, she thought. Sweet. The audience would forgive.
“A little comic relief, though, between numbers,” she said aloud. “You know what I mean by that?”
He made a conditional noise, semi-affirmational.
“I’ve got Elmer Bott…”
“Elton, isn’t it?”
“Bott,” she said firmly, “says he’ll give a speech, at the end of the show. And then, what do you think? It’s a surprise so it doesn’t matter, so far as getting it printed…Battle Hymn of the Republic, or Star-Spangled Banner? Because”—Shaw had opened his mouth, and nothing had come out—“in this neck of the woods, they’re partial to the Battle Hymn, and anyone can sing along, so it’s guaranteed to get a crowd stirred up…but, I can knock a hole in the roof with my ‘land of the free’. Not to brag.”
Chickens in a Mood to Roost
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw, as they strolled onto Hammersmith’s Main Street. Had either newcomer known it, that a family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth—in that its brass lamps shined, their glass intact; the side panels were of a glowing mahogany which, burnished under a coachman’s care, laughed at dust; the spokes of the rubber-tired wheels thrust true (and were not a bit rusted, nor especially dirt-caked for their travels)—was an unusual sight, pulled to a standstill before the Main Street Hotel, one or the other might have remarked on it.
Shaw’s state of mind percolated in a way the cautious Medlow’s Detection Agency operative of an hour past would not have recognized. He fell off from laughing at something she’d said to him, to search for the debonair, rueful comeback…and found he’d lost the thread.
Now Minnie did remark the coach.
“There, look! That would be the life. And a private car, like Lillian Russell’s, done up as a boudoir, with a kitchen of its own. Take your sweet time getting ready, send your man to do the dirty work at the station, lounge in a private waiting room if the train’s late…”
“One day,” Shaw said.
“Oh, Bladon. What are we talking about? I’ve been touring since I was fourteen. There’s enough talent out there…real talent…to fill the bill at Carnegie the next twenty years. What a girl needs in her corner is a pistol, a guy who’s heck or high water going to push her to the top. I’ve never had that.”
She looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers…remembering that this was what they’d been talking about. Shaw felt an urge to say, “I do.” He said instead, “I wish I…” and was cut short.
Vic Mack had heaved open the hotel door. He was followed onto the walk by Aimee.
It was a rough accusation to fling on the street, but Vic, without turning, flung back: “You come and dictate to me, ma’am, if you’re wanting to speed things along…and I’ll be obliged to you. Otherwise, I’ll sort this out my own way…and in my own time!”
He crossed and heaved a second door, the one to his offices.
“Aimee! You’re back!”
Mrs. Bard turned her head at Minnie’s call, and when she noticed Shaw, her eyes seemed to light. The light was more that of Nemesis closing, than the enchantment he’d have taken as life’s culmination only that morning, when she’d left him.
“Oh…”—he threw this out in a hurry—“your nephew’s up and about, ma’am. And Ruby…”
Derfinger appeared, peevish scanning Vic’s treatment of his door glass, putting the hand he’d run along the edge of this into an apron pocket, and rising from a half-bend. He shouted, interrupting Shaw…but speaking to the driver: “You move that rig now! The Count von Zetland says he is finished for the day.”
The coach departed. Minnie tugged Shaw by the arm; they, and Aimee (better informed…neither having missed the start Zetland’s name had wrought upon Shaw), came closer, Aimee still drilling him with an eye.
“Since you’re a friend of Cranston’s, Mr. Shaw, I suppose you know Ludi, too. Would you like to come up with me? I don’t think he’ll be surprised.”
“Oh, gracious!” Minnie said. “Well, the programmes will have to wait. Let’s go!”
The street drama had one final scene to play.
The door to the premises of the Daily Clew swung open, the hand at work unseen, but presumed to be Mack’s, as the figure that slued out and landed on its knees in the gutter was Nico’s.
Minnie, crossed by her lover’s unresting glance, her arm caught linked through Shaw’s, calculated herself two-thirds of the way finished with Nico. Then a window came up in the Clew building, and June (who’d got something, Minnie thought, since last seen…not nicer clothes, not powdered cheeks or tidied-up hair…she dared think it was the eyes—that might be described as battle-fired) leaned from the second story, ushering Nico to his feet, and saying; “Psssst.”
Derfinger’s upper chambers were a thing Aimee had never seen. She hadn’t, for her years in Hammersmith, had much to do with the hotel. Even the coffee room below that Vic patronized was for her taste a bit masculine, Aimee always countering his, “Buy you a cup of coffee?” with “Come up to the house and I’ll make lunch.”
She took surveying the amenities now…small balcony spanning two rear-facing windows (view of Mossbunker’s factory), washstand, fireplace…as a matter of practicality. Taking Abel up on his offer might be the meek answer left her, after her failure at scheming marriage with Hogben. She had yet to recover her niece. Monty seemed a lost cause.
Zetland, at the writing desk, had warned them over his shoulder that he had a number of telegrams to compose. He turned away, humming a tune, plying his pen. Under these informal auspices, le Fontainebleau greeted Shaw as a chum: “Ee, lad, time enough yet to bring the thing off!” He’d lifted his brows like a man accustomed to drawing them on with grease paint. “The freight arrives tomorrow noon.”
Shaw, at this bald allusion, and under the eye of Minnie, had grown very red. The professor took his darting glance as invitation. “You see, one booking’s much like another. Do your turn, and move on. You’ll understand that, Miss Leybourne.”
“So you never were drowned, Mr. Beauregard. What a good thing!”
And thinking she sounded like Ruby…and feeling shame for admonishing herself with the comparison, Minnie took a grip on the bull’s horns. “What freight? Bladon, are you a train robber?”
“I’m a detective, ma’am.”
“Cranston,” Zetland said, “believes when he undertakes a thing, that he will improve it over all undertakings of the past. If I make myself clear.”
A general nod passed over his audience; he’d given them little enough to quibble at, so far.
“He has made himself commander-in-chief of a small army of mercenaries, has he not?”
“Well,” said Aimee. She knew what Vic had told her about the American Patriots’ militia. Shaw and Minnie were outsiders, so it seemed she would act as representative, regarding Hammersmithan affairs. “I don’t think he pays them.”
“He will pay them in the traditional way—that is, by spoils, if he succeeds in his plan. But what is it he hopes to succeed at?”
Had Vic got a moment alone with her, he might also have briefed Aimee on Zetland’s manner of imparting…but crumbs and questions notwithstanding, she found herself anticipating the gist.
However, Shaw, at this prompt, put in:
“An expeditionary force of his own, a private army, sent to Cuba…to impose order, as he sees it. Mossbunker says all this infighting in the Congress shows America weak-willed. He expects the army will be hamstrung, fighting Spain on a serious of half-measures, tight-fisted funding…”
“Oh, I see,” Aimee said. “And so Mossbunker thinks he will actually win the war himself?”
“Ah. And there are complications.” Here, Zetland felt the need of a small prop. Using Derfinger’s sugar tongs, from the coffee tray he took up a cube, and waggled it with gravity. “Mrs. Bard, your son.”
“I haven’t got one.”
“Ah. This Abel.”
“He owns the house you live in. Now, you plant on it, this farmland, we will say, apple trees. You build a house for a man to manage the orchard. Hogben, it may be.”
“Hasn’t,” she asked, “Hogben been made an agent of Mossbunker? My fault, I agree.”
“All the better for the example I am about to make. Mossbunker acquires this land from Abel… And your trees are his trees. Your apples are his apples. Hogben may stay. The house you have built for Hogben is Mossbunker’s house to collect rent. But, now, we make the condition that Mossbunker will let you stay as well. You will only give him most of your profits from the apples, and only, if you want to bring apples to the marketplace, pay a fee to Mossbunker for this also.”
“The sugar interests,” Shaw said, low-voiced, “don’t want Cuba independent.”
Zetland smiled a smile at this, that grew into a sunny beam. “And…so fortuitously, the American Congress…most wish never to see Cuba made a colony, a territory, of the United States. Whereas, the insurgents of Cuba wish, at the heart of the matter, only to be free of Spain. They would like to get on their feet a helping hand. We have helped before. Yes, the Kaiser is a man who acts when he decides.”
“Now, Zetland,” said Shaw. “If you say a thing like that, I have to report it.”
“I say it among friends.”
Hogben, after giving the small window that sat recessed a few inches below ground—but well above his head—the once-over for breakability, decided the time was not yet. Mossbunker might be a madman. Or his perch above society might render him that high-handed, that he’d go to the extent of taking his own prisoners. The little cellar room had the necessary (an old-fashioned privy-chair, the use of which would be unpleasant…), and Hogben had been given his supper. He anticipated, then, that he waited judgment, and that this would come from Mossbunker. His person had not been searched in the rush to tail Zetland…
And Hogben had done a clever thing.
He hoped clever. Trick worked in that old story. He’d been brought into a workroom of sorts, at the back of the manse, and noted there among the helps’ gear a basket of letters for the post. Madam Mossbunker had been carrying on, the conversation’s cadences audible from a service hall and a parlor away; Piggott had been pacing, asking (himself, perhaps, aloud and rhetorically) if it would be all right for him to be getting back. Hogben had slipped le Fontainebleau’s missive—pernicious, if not purloined—from his inside pocket, and tucked it in the basket with the others.
But evening drew on. To Hogben’s disgust, Piggott was dragged away by Mossbunker, muttering, “Supper upstairs…” Hogben was then led below stairs by an apologetic girl named Margaret, ushered unsuspecting into his cell, and locked there.
A male voice yelled from the other side of this, a reasonable fifteen minutes later, “Stand back!”
Hogben, otherwise equable, had asked only this of his provisioner: “Am I not allowed my liberty?”
The man goggled, by way of answer; left the tray, and locked the door again, turning the key as he backed himself out. The dampening effect of concrete obscured his retreat, though Hogben listened to these footfalls with only half an ear. Not a deal of orienteering was needed to locate his relative position.
He readied himself for bed—essentially, the act of removing shoes—once the room grew so dark as to have reduced all practical action to only this. Rather than doze, Hogben reviewed his plight. He could take himself back to a moment…could it have been yesterday?…when he’d been about to jog down to the sanctuary of the Main Street Hotel, figure out trains in the morning. Then Mrs. Bard had wanted to come along with him…and it had all, like a fat peony bloom bursting from a marble-sized bud, burgeoned into intricacies.
Shaw had tagged after them…and Vic Mack, Hogben thought…somehow in with Mossbunker… But Shaw was the ringer. Who else? That man Curach….Piggott, Zetland…girl…Aimee’s niece…now where’d she end up? He had a notion he might be set to marry Mrs. Bard. His gear was still at her house. He fell into a dream, inventorying each item he recalled having got away with from the flood…
Le Fontainebleau seemed to bob before his eyes: “Here, lad, you don’t want to forget your old pal! Teach you a thing or two about slipping the collar…”
Women’s voices, then.
“Mr. Hogben!” Tap, tap, on his shoulder. “Uncle Monty!”
He opened his eyes. One was shading the flame of a candle, a bow of light flickering over her chin. He clutched his blanket under his own.
“It’s Margaret,” the other said. “I have unlocked you.”
Fleeing and Eluding
A monumental figure unveiled by dispelling shadow stood, robe and nightcap clad, on the closed porch Hogben remembered. She stood depressing the door-latch…with seemingly itchy fingers and poised-for-action footwork. He had entered Green Glade Lodge in innocence; he was exiting it in aid of a coup d’état.
Mossbunker’s wife spotted Jane’s candle and snuffed it. She did this with a tut-tut, and with naked fingertips, a stage-worthy trick Hogben had seen among le Fontainebleau’s ilk, and wouldn’t himself have dared. A strong moon fell through the panels of glass marking the porch’s outer walls; the greyness in which Hogben and the three women exchanged looks of surmise thus not greatly, for their hostess’s act of bold efficiency, disilluminated.
“Before you go,” Mrs. Mossbunker said to Hogben, “pledge me that you will see your niece home in safety. And answer me this…”
She lifted a hand. That she’d given him two points to address had not escaped Hogben; he’d adjusted his face both to pledge (gallantry demanded it…though he might just have touched on the fact he didn’t know Aimee Bard’s niece from Adam), and to query destination, as to the going. He subsided, at an “ahem” from his inquisitor.
“Your professor,” she said. “Do you call him a man of loyalty? Agreeing to a task, he will carry it out, to the utmost…? Or does he…”
She faltered for the expression. Hogben hazarded: “Sell to the highest bidder? Abandon the whole thing if the going gets sticky?”
“Ah. I understand you. Mr. Curach.”
Curach, there apparently, proved this by nudging his head through the crack of the door. “No worries, ma’am. Le Fontainebleau has only a small role to play…and once done, it will be my pleasure sending him packing.”
He woke from a short-lived trance. Not having time to put on his shoes, Hogben had padded across the Mossbunker back lawn, gathering dew. He’d found himself in damp socks ushered aboard Mossbunker’s own buggy, by Mossbunker’s driver, Biyah Kendrick. Curach was with them, sharing the driver’s seat. Hogben was wedged in the middle, Jane, restless but mute, on his right; Hogben’s rescuer from the flood, Chilly, to his left.
“How you been keeping yourself?” he asked Hogben
“Top notch, sir…and you?” Hogben answered, from reflex.
Biyah remarked: “Chilly’d rather you don’t ask him to do that job.”
“But, you see, it takes a local man. Hogben may serve for a number of things, but he won’t know any of the Patriot folk, if he lays eyes on them.”
The buggy swayed in a conversational lull, filled otherwise by only the odd creak of springs and a steady beat of hooves.
“The other day, now,” Chilly spoke up. “I went out to the shed I keep locked in my back yard…and I see the padlock’s on the door…I see it all right…but that new push mower I bought ain’t in there, when I go to look. You know what I think they done? Think they lifted that shed right up off the ground.”
“Curious,” said Hogben. He felt somehow that the story was not for his ears; and Chilly carried on, ignoring him.
“That was a joke on me, I guess. Anyways, I wouldn’t go to the sheriff to say I got robbed. You know what I mean. I have to think how many talks with him I can afford. Cause what’s justice for you, Curach…or Mr. Hogben…might just be trouble-making for me. Did that once…and I got asked who I thought could’ve done it…and I saw there wasn’t any truthful way I could say.”
“You don’t think Vic’s gone over to Mossbunker’s side?” Biyah asked.
“Vic.” Curach dropped, after this opening, into thoughtful silence. “No, I haven’t had the chance to work it out in my own mind…just what he’s done, I mean. You see, lads, we have as well this Shaw to contend with. Zetland is a forceful personality…but I don’t know as I trust that alone in a man. At any rate…thinking to do a newspaperman’s duty, keeping up on local doings, Vic has got in with Mossbunker…in spirit, he is not a Patriot… Well now, you recall the time Captain Rubillard sent him to carry a message, and he walked into the enemy camp…”
The allusion brought chuckles from the Kendrick brothers.
“Couldn’t see any trading value in a volunteer private…had caught ’em a box turtle and didn’t like sharin it, so they pushed him hogtied down the riverbank…”
“But he stuck on a snag…Parkins out on picket duty heard him holler…”
“Ate that piece of paper like he was taught, so Ol Mack had somethin to tide him through…”
“So anyways,” Chilly said, wiping a tear, “you don’t trust Vic doin it?”
“Let us say, Mossbunker took a similar notion, only yesterday…no,” Curach shook his head. “But…Hogben…?”
But Hogben, having got some of the gist by these exchanges, thought he understood them. “You want a lookout. Wouldn’t Mrs. Bard do?”
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming. Soft expressions into tussocky grass, of right foot, followed by left foot, heel rolled to toe—an art attributed by their chief to the Iroquois, and a single-file exercise on which the Patriots had drilled—did not stop various articles attached to his person…watch fob, brace-buckles, pocketed keys and coins…from tinkling accompaniment.
He gave it up when a neighbor spotted him from across the street.
“Where you off to this hour, Bott? Stiff gettin cold on ya?”
“I am taking the air, sir,” Bott answered, funereally enough. With a shrug, he moved onto the sidewalk.
Mossbunker said it often: “Expect no thanks.”
From the slumbering hoi-polloi.
Though when you came down to it, Mossbunker was himself no dispenser of gratitude. Bott could…he did, in metaphor…pat his own head, his act of initiative being not for the ears of his wife. He had got in with those two; he had made a place for himself at their little soiree. And wouldn’t they be surprised to find the back door held open…by the hand of justice.
He meant to take the footpath along Harmony Run, this descending at a sharp angle northwest and downhill from the gate at the farthest end of Main Street; property beyond being private and Mossbunker’s. No one local gave a hoot about the barrier, which only crossed the road and had no fence attached. Young couples, ones (if discounting politics) not unlike that Raymond fellow and Minnie Leybourne, liked to go spooning along Harmony Run.
Bott hoped, as the night was moonless, he would find himself alone. The light from the town, and the greater light from the factory, rendered the earth under his feet at least discernible, from the slope at his right, and the water to his left.
A thunderstorm had passed through Hammersmith in the afternoon. Places runoff cascaded across the path, at times undercutting jutting rocks that composed parts of it, caused Bott to lose his footing…the first time, with only a panicked swaying on a half-twisted ankle. The second time, with a sound whump, as he landed on his gut.
And though this was ensconced in a woolen vest of his wife’s making, the mud was cold, and he felt it. A sock, half out of a shoe, drank up water from a trickle coursing beneath. But distinctly, he picked up indicators he was not, after all, alone.
The huff of breath had a character, vaguely known to Bott. The figure approaching—too fast, the frozen undertaker estimated, and helplessly—sank a squelching heel into the slippery spot. A heavy weight cushioned its fall on Bott’s prone form.
“Mercy sakes, Mack!”
“Bott, is that you?”
Their disentanglement asked for concentration. The shared position was head down, ankles up, tree roots thrusting in from the right, pebbly stuff washing cross-path leftwards, the curve of a sassafras, guyed into this shape by a vine, both narrowing the trail and supporting its understructure.
“Hang on,” Vic muttered, grappling a toe on a wedge of rock…that gave with a sandy shush and tumbled over the bank, echolocating Vic’s perch as a precarious one. “Hang on, Elton. I don’t wanna grab that vine, case it’s the hairy kind.”
Under his belly, Bott’s shoulders seemed to shrug. The undertaker then heaved with his knees, and Vic, upended, fell in a somersault, rolling to a level place along the creek—a muddy shoal in miniature.
Bott, cautious, righted himself. Vic could be heard a few yards below, his grunts timed to a hog-wallowish sucking noise…that of shoes gaining and losing their freedom. There was time. He cogitated.
Mossbunker had said, had he not: mv/db? The first stood for Mechanicsville, a place where there were locks on the river that flowed through Hammersmith’s valley. This was code for locking lips; Db. stood for the Patriot’s doubtful new recruit, Drummerboy.
Victor B. Mack, in full.
As Mossbunker’s lieutenant, Bott was in charge of codes…so it would be embarrassing if he’d got the chief’s meaning wrong. (Could the telegraph office be asking another twenty cents for majuscules?) He racked his brain for any other take on db. Equally, it seemed incredible to Bott Vic could be making his way, by the exact path specified, and…near enough…the exact time Mossbunker had scheduled his emergency meeting, if he hadn’t been called to attend.
The signal they used, mobilizing whenever the order fell, was to stoop in sight of a fellow Patriot—each man responsible for the next down the list—as though to pick up a coin slipped out of a pocket. When any Patriot had got the tip, he scratched his left eyebrow.
Now it happened that well before the titan of industry’s arrival in Hammersmith, Bott had been taking (in Vic Mack’s paper) his daily advertisement. Death a tricky theme to broach; planning ahead, the undertaker’s persistent gist, Bott spoke to his public in Bible verses…ones appropriate to a man in his line’s philosophy.
Watch, therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
Bott Bros. Funeral Parlor
The practice had meshed in tidily with Mossbunker’s militia’s demands; that occasional need to assemble off-calendar, in secret. Once the fact of the meeting had been established, the rendezvous point—whether Tucker’s Cave, the Deacon’s Oak, or Mossbunker’s tunnel (a track of rails burrowed under his factory floor)—would be telegraphed via Bott’s chosen passage—
Proverbs, in this morning’s case, 8:34:
Blessed is the man that heareth me; watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
The mustering place was the main tunnel. The hour, eight-thirty p.m…with a few minutes’ grace for stragglers. Bott, an officer, had timed himself to arrive half an hour early. There was that weakness in the system (he allowed it), that someone in the know could recognize the exchange of signs…consider himself invited regardless…
They’d never had a Patriot gone bad before.
But even Selma, when he’d said to his wife, “Get on the horn, mother, and call this one in”, had put an odd inflection to her words…something dry, like the Mack girl’s humor:
“Vic’s there by himself now, did you hear?”
Bott projected in a whisper: “Seems like we’re headed the same direction, Vic.”
Vic, during that contest over possession of his shoes—the mud grudging him at last a narrow victory—and during Bott’s lengthy silence, had thought furiously on his own behalf.
Dang it all to heck! (he thought). A Patriots’ meeting…got to be the tunnel…this night? Just when I’m trying to get down to McKeefe’s?
The disturbing thing was, he couldn’t say whether he’d been summoned or not. He’d been busy-minded over June’s elopement. By rights, he was on the outs with Mossbunker. But maybe a Patriot didn’t merely part company with the gang…maybe you had to be formally dismissed, get your stripes torn off…
Figure of speech.
Vic was fairly sure, recollecting now, that he’d passed Abel Bard in front of Derfinger’s. Abel hadn’t stooped. But had he not given a start, like the sight of Vic reminded him…of something?
And the only kind of train that came to the factory depot, a special, had arrived around noontime. Vic sorely needed a woman’s advice. Of all women’s, he preferred it be Aimee’s. It had pained him…but he’d locked his offices, taken himself behind his business counter. Hearing a shout and rattle at the windowpane (that tear in the blind gapping wider than he’d supposed), he had glanced up to meet her eye; at once hunkered down, ears burning, and refused to heed her. She was going to tell him what was on that train…inside dope she’d got from Zetland. As a newspaperman, he’d have to go with the story, get down to Mossbunker’s factory and poke around.
Vic was determined on ignorance.
But he knew the train would move again in the morning. His daughter and Raymond had no place to go ’til then. They would sleep, like the communist heathen, in the big loft over McKeefe’s barroom floor. It was known in Hammersmith men and women alike flopped in McKeefe’s loft.
He answered Bott: “I’ll stand out of your way, Elton, and let you go on ahead.”
Mossbunker’s lieutenant inched to Vic’s elbow. Astonishingly, he clamped on.
“I’ve weighed the evidence,” he said. “I can’t think of any right way around it…sorry, Vic. I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest.”
Mossbunker had secured his contract with the American Expeditionary Force; in theory, his works might be targeted by spies. Their owner had not altered arrangements.
Aimee, with Curach, lay flat against the slope of a ditch, at the rear of Mossbunker’s factory, outside the wall and the two tracks with a switch between, by the platform to which rail cars could be drawn, unloaded, and reversed. Here cranes hoisted steel and copper ingots onto rollered conveyors that carried them from dock to furnace shed. Sometimes, the heavy objects unloaded here were those giant wooden spools Mossbunker’s cable was wound on.
Letting into the wall was a gated sentry box. Intermittently this brooded unoccupied…as the guard had his rounds to make. He circled, when the hour called for it, at the pace of a man on a pleasant warm evening, strolling in the dark. The dark was never a profound one, for there were strong electric lights at the factory yard’s four corners. The danger of a whack in the face from a moth-seduced bat stuck the guard fairly high…and he kept himself back in the shadows.
Aimee’s immediate future was in custody of her companion. She had on Chilly’s spare trousers and Ralph’s old suitcoat, a costume apt for ladder scaling and quick getaways, but exacerbating to the embarrassment of being caught at these activities.
A snatch of “After the ball is over…” faded with the guard’s second departure. He’d come back, forty minutes after sunset, when the spies in question (or saboteurs…Curach had not confided so much to his lookout), first perched themselves under the rim of their hillock. Curach, motioning the Kendrick brothers about their business, had taken out his watch, nestled it on a bed of clover, and found the ambient light would suit. Nine minutes and thirty-four seconds passed. The guard’s voice came to them greeting someone, at first in surprise.
Then at once, it was Mossbunker’s voice floating to them indecipherable, its tone staccato. Someone else spoke, a diffident mumble, so far as his auditors were concerned…but Aimee knew this to be Abel.
“What can they be doing?” she asked Curach.
“Secret war work.” He put a finger to his lips, then carried on. “As I understand it from Piggott. It’s the Professor, now, being go-between for the supplier. Shaw has a notion it’s guns.”
Shaw had been reticent as to his notions, in Zetland’s hotel room, mooning fairly openly over Minnie, probably thus taciturn to spare her womanhood. And Aimee had been expecting that afternoon…yesterday…to dust her hands of this gang of miscreants, get back to her own house, speak sternly to Carey, apologize to Mrs. Frieslander…
Decide what was to be done about Ruby.
“Oh, look!” Minnie had peered out the window that gave onto Mossbunker’s factory road. “McKeefe’s is down that way, isn’t it?”
Aimee went to her side. Both watched two figures pass below, heads inclined like love-birds, fingers clutching entwined about the handle of a carpet-bag…and well within earshot, though Minnie held her tongue.
June Mack and Nico Raymond paced themselves with a sensible appreciation of their fugitive status. They soon vanished behind the rise of the hill.
Minnie turned to Aimee and nodded. “Eloping. Isn’t that sweet?”
To this emergency, Victor B. Mack had refused to be alerted.
She’d spotted him through his window, dodge down behind the counter, and only for June’s sake—knowing, glass or no, the craven ink-slinger could hear perfectly well—had not served him right by shouting the news on the street.
She’d walked, and weighed.
In the hurly-burly of the chase, during the soporific picaresque of le Fontainebleau’s memoirs, Aimee had forgotten to insist on Jane. Jane was no doubt kindly looked after. Indeed, though her niece struck Aimee underendowed as to gumption, meekness might win the day…meekness often did. Jane might efface herself into valuable patronage.
No doubt, what best would suit a mild girl who could write a fair hand, was the companion’s life. Dandy if Cranston Mossbunker had an old aunt.
But there was Carey, and there was Cynthia…
…and the sun was setting. Aimee had had a very long day.
A flash, then, of something close to bitter wrath came over her, when pushing to the road’s crest feet blistered to rival Carey’s, she heard from the bottom of the path she had yet to climb…merriment. What were they doing singing? And who was it tickled the ivories of her long-untuned parlor piano?
Mrs. Toucey, that was who.
Selma Bott was there; also one of Mrs. Frieslander’s regulars, a laundress who served the factory hands, and offered steady trade in button-work.
Carey’s singing voice (yet another thing he did well and couldn’t dig himself in to pursue) was familiar to Aimee. Ruby, new at it, assaulted the tune with an alternate interpretation, passing in spots for harmony…in spots a fair match, even, to her partner’s lyrics. She shrank with a hangdog face at these errors, her finch Tamino—now here, now there—bobbing time from her nest of hair.
As an act, it was comedic near-perfection, wanting only patter…and only, had Ruby Magley the Bird Girl the true greasepaint in the veins, the born Vaudevillian’s instinct for milking everything…that of a Minnie Leybourne or a Charley Chillingsworth: a.k.a., Professor le Fontainebleau.
Her audience of five compressed their lips, and nodded encouragement.
“Oh, I can’t!” Ruby sank into an armchair.
A tuning fork had shelved itself among Ralph’s first wife’s knick-knacks. This, Aimee snatched up to sound a chime; her nephew’s eye the one she aimed at catching—and sternly. Her own telegraphed: “Your first words had better be, how is Jane?”
He said no other first words for a space devoted by the guests to exclaiming…and to Aimee’s agreeing, that likely she was a sight, Selma; that home was the place to keep oneself, yes ma’am (Mrs. Frieslander); and that (Mrs. Toucey) Minnie did seem, though brazen was putting it strong, to have taken up with Shaw. Carey had got round her by this time, to peer over the porch railing into the dark.
Having dined with Zetland at Derfinger’s, Aimee was able to refuse refreshment—
But on second thoughts, she took a lemon square, Selma’s, praised it, then put a finger to her lips and half-shut the front door; these mere diplomatic aids to exiting. She joined her nephew.
“What’d she say?” he asked.
“She said she wanted you to know she didn’t blame you. She blames herself, I gather.”
“She hadn’t gone to her sister?” He said this, voice bashful with a touch of hope, after a silence.
“She asked me,” Aimee said, “what makes someone stick to his obligations? If anyone knew.” Another moment passed, and she tapped a foot. She wanted Carey’s answer.
She thought by this his answer had been a shrug. “Carey…”
“Jane is good enough,” he said. “It’s just sometimes I get the idea I’d like to go someplace.”
A buggy, lamps lit, was making up the road.
“There’s Elton,” Aimee heard Selma say from inside. Her guests came in a burst onto the porch, asking themselves if they had everything, smoothing skirts, touching hats. From an abstraction of considered and discarded advice, Aimee woke to offer the parting words of a hostess.
“So good to have seen you all! Bye now!”
And Elton Bott had risen to the occasion by not coming up… If he’d had the impulse, Selma would anyway have quashed it. Urging Carey only to hang on for a while; telling him as an afterthought, at the foot of the stairs, “I’m not mad at you”…as a second afterthought, and pointedly, halfway up, “Jane and Cynthia will always be family, too”, Aimee had got to bed by nine…and fallen asleep wondering if this were true.
It was Jane who seemed to manifest bodily from a dream.
“Aunt Bard! Aunt Bard!” She didn’t omit to ask, as tradition demands, “Are you awake?”
Aimee did her own part. “What time is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know! Near morning. Mr. Hogben is here. And that Curach.”
“Why,” Aimee asked, “couldn’t I find that out in an hour or two?”
A Few Laws Broken
Mossbunker’s wall rose a few feet higher than Ralph’s eight-foot ladder.
Perched on this, Curach whispered, “Hand me up that feather bolster.”
Chilly’s answer to a mechanical problem…ingenious, Aimee thought…was to roll the bolster tight and run a fat stick through its center. He hoisted this to Curach; Curach jettisoned the stick, then tugged and tucked to his satisfaction. The bolster served for the damping of Mossbunker’s embedded glass…an ugly sort of warning, but like a snaggletoothed cur of a watchdog, present only to force a position. Choose to obey the law or not.
They had, opting for the latter. Rungs creaked, and the first insurgent sprang, dropping beyond Aimee’s sight, but within earshot…the sound of Curach’s landing feet a practiced squnch, squnch.
“You next, ma’am, if you can.”
“Oh, now, Chilly, of course I can,” she answered. The boys first had worried about her managing the signal. The signal was the string of firecrackers in her right coat pocket; to be deployed if she spotted Mossbunker’s militia on the move.
She’d sighed. “Sakes, I’ve lit plenty.”
Darting under cover of darkness to the lee of an outbuilding, manipulating without light to see by, a match she would have to extract and strike, to meet in seamless synchronization with the target fuse, was not one of her honed skills.
She mounted four rungs at speed, Chilly taking a firm hold on the uprights and urging her over the top. There was, as yet, no over the top. She’d come waist-height to the summit, even standing tip-toed on the last possible support.
“Catch you when you come across,” Curach hissed.
“That glass won’t let the bolster shift. You take hold,” Chilly hissed.
“Curach”—she had an inspiration—“that stick of Chilly’s…”
Momentarily, the stick came nosing near the bolster’s edge. And purchased thus, Aimee achieved a belly flop.
Something else occurred.
This something was a blur, after which she found herself lying, modestly dazed, on a patch of earth. Zetland’s voice had seemed to speak a word, her feet had been given a firm heave, an intervening body that was Curach’s had, with fortitude, stood its ground, though failing to use its arms to any purpose…and she had, in two rapid thuds, landed.
Zetland leapt down, to grunt in an assessing way over the quality of his handiwork, and Chilly straddled the wall long enough to haul the ladder up behind him, dropping this into Curach’s hands. Aimee, meanwhile, answered Curach’s, “You’re yourself, ma’am?” with “Absolutely!”, but struck, in the act of springing to a demonstrative posture of all-parts-in-working-order, a frozen crouch.
Crunching steps. Growing louder. Zetland ordered his troops with silent semaphore, and Aimee grasped she was to make for a shed, whose slanting roof showed a line of skylights. This was the tool shop, had she known. It sat unflush to the factory wall, an aisle of around three feet’s width interposed between—and looking handy as anything. On the toes of her gardening boots she scurried across a patch of light, and hit a deep contrasting shadow.
She hit more than that…a saving grace, though painful.
Access to the passage was blocked by a metal rail. Catching this in the stomach, Aimee had avoided pitching into a yawning void. The accident was preoccupying, but she thought she’d heard something like an “oof”, timed nicely to cover hers, and a modest chuckle of Zetland’s. A voice, two voices, welled up under her feet. A door creaked and swung; the light of a lantern flooded the pit—this not quite so deep as she’d supposed.
The lantern was snuffed.
The voice was Elton Bott’s…but she knew that, having just glimpsed him. He and his companion stalled. To consult, perhaps.
“Come on, Elton. This is all a little foolish, isn’t it? Why does Mossbunker need to know my business? What’s it got to do with Mossbunker?”
“Vic, you quit complaining! Don’t forget it’s an officer’s right to restrain a prisoner. You just let the Chief decide what’s his to know…”
Elton whispered a fierce lecture on the ways of the great, which are not the ways of the humble, and Aimee had a moment, peering down on the unsuspecting pair, to address a plaint of her own, inwardly, to Vic.
How do you do it? You insist you’re not getting involved, no matter what… How is it you’re here in the thick of things, making trouble for everyone? What’s wrong with you, Victor Mack?
These sentiments were well in tune with the burden of Elton’s lament, which ended with, “Go on, now, go on.”
Curach tapped her on the shoulder, and in stealth handed her the bolster. He might have meant her to put this aside, safe. The men were stumping up the incline, Vic leading. The rail, Aimee found, was freestanding, with just room at the end to edge past. She hurled the bolster, and followed it, tackling Elton Bott and bringing him down flat.
Vic, like a nine-pin, fell too, the second time of an evening in collision with Elton. He liked to count himself almost as spring-loaded as in the days of Rubillard’s Volunteers, albeit thirty years gone now. He thought he wasn’t missing the trend, either. From thin grass strewn with palm-scoring nuts and bolts, he heaved to his feet, and at once flung to the aid of his rescuer…a young fellow whose weight seemed slight for pinning Mossbunker’s deputy.
This one’s mouth, dimly seen under a cap pulled low, seemed to express something…something Vic would have read, had the stranger been Aimee Bard, as an exasperated determination to make do with him. The stranger put finger to lips and gestured. Vic handed across his tie. In a trice, Bott was effectively gagged.
That was to say, that while at first noising with deep inarticulate feeling, Bott shut himself up straightaway when Vic whispered, “Don’t shoot!”
The inspiration was for his own protection.
The canny figure caught up the laces of Bott’s shoes, and tied them together. He gestured again. Vic searched himself mentally…yes, he might trust his gut to hold up his trousers. The braces served to secure Bott’s wrists. None of these arrangements would serve for long.
The figure beckoned, moving in stealth past Vic, to the top of the ramp.
Here, a form more familiar loomed out of darkness. It kissed its fingers and flung them to the air, then bowed low before Vic’s new comrade.
“My esteem is boundless. Now!” Zetland said, in a thrumming near-whisper. “We will make fast the two prisoners together, and have them back in the tunnel. I have not omitted to bring rope.”
The second prisoner proved the guard, woozy and pliable at present, his head having been struck by something more resounding than a brown bat. Enlisted thus in Zetland’s latest round of malefactoring, Vic accepted the neckerchief, its intended use telegraphed with a nod…and replying to the undertaker’s eye of mournful reproach with a feckless shrug, Vic blindfolded him. He hoped to God Bott had not managed being introduced to Zetland, and would believe a passing madman imposed duress, merely, on a true but helpless Patriot.
“Count!” The voice, descending softly over the rail, was Biyah Kendrick’s. “I don’t know where Curach’s gone off to. We got two of the boxes pulled aside, but we need another hand to bring em back to the gate.”
“You have lost the Irish fellow.”
“He was there with us, then he wasn’t.”
“I think we will call ourselves compromised, to be cautious. How heavy?”
“Dang heavy. Surprised me. I mean, I know what’s in em…”
“Mrs. Bard, take up your post and be prepared to give the signal. Mack…”
Enlightened, Vic swallowed a gasp, then seized his slipping trouser-band. She, kitted out for criminal enterprise, dared shoot him one more of her impatient sizings-up, and vanished along the dark passage.
Zetland canted his head, snapped his fingers. It was more cheek than Vic liked standing in his present mood, but for Aimee’s sake, however unfathomable her being in league with Zetland, he pulled the tunnel door shut.
Yes, your Honor, it was my hand that imprisoned Bott and Lemuel (Ben, Mossbunker’s night watchman, and a fellow Patriot).
Zetland tugged Vic’s lapel. “Now, with all speed!”
Chilly and Biyah snagged each end of a crate, scuttled backwards, then sideways, finally—its contents appearing tricky to shift—the Kendricks receded at a steady pace.
The crate and its mate, discovered after a hasty crouched run followed by a trotting creep hunched deeper, past the gaping rear doors of a barn-sized shed, belonged to an inventory of six, four still on their flat car. The car sat on the elevator platform that could be lowered into Mossbunker’s underground complex.
“Two will suffice. But we will see what time permits.”
Unlike Biyah, Vic didn’t know what was inside, but at once perceived the difficulty. His end carried like a fat sack of grain. Zetland’s seemed lighter. Both seemed not to keep still, almost as though the crate had a life of its own.
“What’s in here?” he asked.
“A Maxim gun, part disassembled.”
Shots rang out.
Zetland, not taking alarm, not even at what sounded much like a grunt and curse from Vic’s end…which he’d dropped…came over with the same face of gallant admiration he’d shown not long past, to Aimee, for assaulting Elton.
He abandoned the crate, and drew a pistol.
McKeefe’s was a rough house.
Minnie had played to bad crowds, almost always, before Cal Bruce first signed her on, as opening act. The worst spot on the slate. Because she was pretty…
Well, a girl like Ruby, brought up religious, not even in a town…out in the fields someplace, if Minnie got her…might be coy, if coy was the word. Superstitious, maybe…afraid of God. Minnie figured, if you had a face, you had to know it.
Besides, her mother, Margaret Leybourne, or Major Leybourne, as the wags had it, always said: “You can get places if you got a face and no voice. You can get places if you got a voice and no face. If you got no face and no voice, you better learn to juggle.”
Or take dictation, Minnie supposed. There was a world outside of showbiz, but why be a pessimist? She was pretty, and savvy, and she knew how a sentimental number could quiet down a bunch of hecklers.
(Starting out, she couldn’t afford hecklers of her own.
“I wanna see some hoofin!”
“Where’s the comedian?”
“SHUT UP! Let the kid sing!” Her mother.)
Le Fontainebleau sat next to her on the piano bench. The perch was conspicuous, being the stage was only a platform, uncurtained, and the patron on the bar’s last stool could have reached out to shake le Fontainebleau’s hand. As impresaria, Minnie was admitting no premature starts. Carey and Ruby she’d stationed behind the piano, where they could take their deep breaths, in the nearest thing to a dressing room this saloon was going to provide.
“Is there a business office?” she’d asked the bartender.
He’d flushed, puzzling her, and mumbled, “Well, now, down the hill, along the creek. Where most folks go.”
Le Fontainebleau winked at her, and drew from inside his coat a pie tin. He’d promised to tell a few jokes. He stood, moved front and center, and started banging the tin against his forehead. The noise came somewhat muffled; the crowd, mostly workers from the factory, who, McKeefe had informed her, hated variety, glared at the intrusion…but after a minute or so, became interested.
Schwachsinn! The chant seemed to ripple among them.
Minnie admonished herself for an unprofessional lapse into goggling, and began banging out “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”.
Le Fontainebleau spent a minute making fine adjustments to the pie tin, now worn upside-down as a hat, thus to be swept off in a hammy bow. He got his laugh, brief and half-attentive.
“Young fella,” he boomed. “Goes to his beloved’s Papa, asking for her hand in marriage. Papa says, now, I don’t know, son…have you seen her mother? I have, sez the youngster, but I’m willin to take the risk!”
The bartender snorted. Someone whispered a translation. Le Fontainebleau quipped on.
“Ran into a gag-peddler the other day. Tells me, I got a terrific bit for your act. I guarantee, I never told you this one before! You say it’s terrific? That’s right. Then I guarantee you ain’t told it.”
Commotions seemed intent on making their way in, one at the back door, imprudently locked—but this, supposing the place did not catch fire, would at least stop her boy-and-girl act making a bolt for it. Le Fontainebleau pattered on, Minnie played on…though by now just improvising.
The back door rattled. It shivered on its hinges.
Then a thudding lower down as though a boot were being applied, while up at the front, rude conversations grew in volume, and in theoretical contentiousness.
“Minnie!” Ruby’s head popped up, chin level with the parlor piano’s dusty top. “It’s a riot breaking out! What will we do?”
“Nonsense. Get your number ready. I’ll shut them up.”
Something pretty…something heart-stringy…Minnie was saying to herself, while shoving le Fontainebleau aside. The professor lighted off the platform, full willing, and dissolved into the throng. This had grown appreciably. At McKeefe’s front door, someone was struggling to bore through with a pole, a red cloth tacked on.
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde and the band played on…
The decade’s popular number was the only song her rattled brain could conjure, and one she’d already given Carey and Ruby, an unforgiveable act of poachery. At about the point Casey’s brain was exploding, Nico stepped through a double column of not-badly-organized factory hands, red arm-banded, snapping to attention.
He came with defiance to her feet, staring into her face…
He was tousled and haggard in that consumed-by-mission way of his, and just when Minnie felt herself fall for him again, Nico ushered her off stage with an imperious little wave. A woman, sporting a cockade of the requisite red, otherwise drably clad…yet with flame in eye and cheek…hiked herself onto the platform. Minnie ceased her futile singing. She caught sight of Carey, sheltering Ruby before him, making for the door.
The screws of its latch had well parted from their moorings by now, and some industrious soul pried away with a fat stick at the inch or so opening. But two of Nico’s henchmen, setting the struggle at a stalemate, leant with their backs against it.
Nico climbed beside June, and they linked arms. June shot a glance at the piano.
“You’re joining us, Minnie. That’s good. I don’t suppose you know the Internationale?”
Salute-worthy, this gambit… Nico no doubt would go far in the movement, under such generalship.
And smiling, only smiling, Minnie took herself off.
“My brothers and sisters! For a moment, we gather. Then, we march. We have achieved a great victory over the capitalist scourge! This Mossbunker, this oppressor, this tyrant come from the Citadel of Pluto, the great City of Wealth, the islanded kingdom newly raised on ground consecrated by the blood of innocents, where he and his kind plot their enslavement of the refugee, the impoverished, the ignorant… Where they huddle, over the map, in their secret meeting places, dividing the spoils… Mossbunker, my brothers and sisters, is this night our prisoner!”
Silent surmise. Murmurs, uncoordinated huzzahs.
Nico seized the flag from his lieutenant, and banged its staff on the stage.
“They will find that the spoils are collected beforehand and restored to the people!”
Minnie sidled, enjoying her erstwhile lover’s eloquence; she slid foot before foot, reached to catch at Ruby’s sleeve, finally felt justified using the stomp and back-elbow maneuver her mother had taught her for getting the jump on mashers, and found herself in the arms of le Fontainebleau.
He probably was a masher, when the mood took him, but he acted in altruism.
An Indian club sailed over the crowd, aimed to just skim poor Carey’s ear—a precision that argued honed skill in the hand of its thrower. A second followed. Nico’s guards fell, one and two…their bodies still obstructing the door’s sweep.
“Now haul em back,” le Fontainebleau said. “Is that you, Curach? You got Shaw with you?”
Up in the Rafters
A curious feature of Mossbunker’s factory (or, for all Aimee knew, an ordinary feature of any factory), was this concealed catwalk below the skylights. Zetland’s Renegades crouched here in darkness…
But she could picture workers below looking up to a dazzling white daylight, unable to know if Mossbunker or any of his foremen looked down.
The coinage for their little band was Vic’s. He’d whispered it to her, bitter-humored…and not an especially, as to bygones being bygones, thawed-out whisper. Aside from their own inroads into the Patriot’s strength, Nico’s Workers’ Brigade had picked off Abel, Derfinger, Hugh Braithwaite, Ed Brainerd, and the chief, Mossbunker himself.
A narrow escape, and Biyah’s knowledge of the cable works’ layout, had won them this perch. Lanterns throbbed in the corners of a staging area. Or of, at any rate, a cleared floor space…and Mossbunker, being tallest; being inclined to carry himself as a mighty rock—a fair Gibraltar of disapprobation—was easy to spot, mouthing like a buffalo at his bandanna-gag. He was back-to-back with Abel, their hands bound together.
“I like that. They have spared themselves rope,” Zetland observed. His trailing silence seemed eloquent of regret.
The passage, exposed as such by Vic…during his difficulty with Elton…serving as gateway to Mossbunker’s secret avenue under the wall, its factory-end terminus offered the outer rim of a corner light’s halo. Aimee had found it a relief, the view of her own hands this afforded.
Then, a figure too young to be a Patriot, fist closed on a stone or brick, sneaked round the main structure, pivoted and took a backwards step, cupping a palm to beckon, in the way of one followed by another. He glanced across.
Armed likewise, a second scudded up from cover.
Both veed their fingers, and hooked their thumbs.
She and her new acquaintances, it occurred to Aimee, were dressed, all of them, in vagabondish castoffs. She decided against mimicking back this sign…her disguise was a thin one; Zetland and Vic might be nearby or well out of earshot. Instead, she smacked her forehead, stamped a foot, then flung an arm out straight, like an exasperated sergeant.
This, at least, confused them.
And serendipity, advantaged by an abundance of midnight raiders crawling Mossbunker’s grounds, gifted her with a scuffle. Not far off-stage, a voice rose muttering through gritted teeth, a body whumped to the ground; after some thrashing, its owner heaved a breath. A number of thuds as of shoes striking surfaces variably metal, earth, and masonry-block, followed. Her prowlers hunched apologetically and jogged to the fray. Aimee at once let drop the signal firecrackers, crouched and lit a match to them, keeping low, scuttling tunnel-wards.
The dominant bellow, flaring from the now-melée, was Mossbunker’s.
How handy it would be, running into one of her accomplices, one who knew the mind of Zetland…most profitably Zetland himself…
So Aimee was thinking, when she ran into Vic.
And with perfect reasonableness, asked, “What has he got you doing?”
Vic, still at the formative stage of his response, had tried, “Oh…!” and “Do you…?”; at which point she would have needed to leave him, if Chilly hadn’t come ushering to reconvene the gang at the foot of a fire ladder.
“Got me doing!”
The moment was tricky, Zetland just then hauling her by the forearms onto the factory roof. Here, they were not alone. But their captain brandished a loaded pistol, and Nico’s two soldiers were faltering. For commandeering Mossbunker’s Maxims, they hadn’t managed mounting them, in any useful way.
“Now, how is it, I’d like to know, Ralph Bard’s widow goes to turn up, running all over heck knows… Dressed for some costume ball…”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Why would I ever wear Ralph’s old coat to a costume ball? When do we even have costume balls in Hammersmith?”
“You know,” he’d whispered darkly, “what I mean.”
Sotto voce negotiations seemed to be going on, some feet from where the least fit of his troopers panted, recovering after their climb; the multilingual Zetland…how not?…directing these.
“What can I say? It’s not just being run all over creation, although…it seems to me I’ve lived a peaceful life on my little hilltop, without ever meeting a man named Curach. And it seems to me, Vic, that Curach—I think you said he was a friend of yours?—led to Mossbunker, and Mossbunker led to Mrs. Mossbunker, and Mrs. Mossbunker led to Zetland…and….”
“And you brought Hogben into it.”
“Please. How is there an it?”
“Knocking over Elton, playing lookout for Zetland’s renegades…”
Zetland’s gun had changed hands into Biyah’s; the two factory workers, loosely converted by Nico, falling as readily under the sway of a simpler philosophy. And Chilly had, by the door of what looked like a rooftop closet, signaled their next move. From this entry they dropped onto the catwalk, across a frightening open stairway that hugged the factory wall, to find yet another pawn taken.
“Why would you do it?”
The answer came mumbled over a gag: “Dunno.”
Chilly, interrogating, spoke aside to Zetland. “Mossbunker’s fish-tank man.”
To this their captain nodded, the sad, deploring nod of a brother-in-law whose sister’s husband’s mental aberration has been exposed. He hooked a finger under the bandana: “Who else?”
The aquarist cast a glance aside. “Vic. They get Hugh?”
“They get Reverend Sandy?”
Zetland said nothing, and did not look at Chilly, who departed.
“How are all the fish, Fred?”
“Dandy…except for the dead ones,” he answered Vic.
Song rose, unmelodic…cohering a bit, where the majority grew sure on their feet as to lyrics. Things were getting lighter. A voice shouted for another round. Marchers were filing in, carrying lanterns, several. Carrying weapons…of the handy kind Aimee had noted earlier, rocks and clubs. They circled, and crowded the captives.
Back from his tacit errand (ixnay on the taking of Reverend Sandy), Chilly had been for a while in whispering confab with Zetland.
“Got to be very, very cautious. Coat buttons. Lace-up boots…got them metal grommets. Wedding ring…” Aimee and Chilly, who’d inched to her with exemplary caution, shifted their eyes towards Vic. “If we had time to drill on any of this, I’d of made you put your coats on backwards, and mud up them others. Buckles. Eyeglasses. Bridge-work.”
When it had been too dark below to notice the gaps between the boards, Aimee— bent at the knees, hand on the rail—had so far as reason permitted felt comfortable navigating the catwalk. The gang’s movements called now for…no movement, essentially. They were on their bellies.
They were, in point of fact (though seven-tenths figuratively), poised on a brink, the balance of which continued pro-Zetland. Vic sprawled riveted…his face bringing to life something of Creon’s wrath, had Creon been a small-town editor confronting an Antigone gone Socialist. But Vic had also got himself positioned farthest from the door. And if any of Zetland’s troopers was likeliest to clink, or jangle, or flash the message “Look up yonder!” from a watch fob like a signal-beacon, it was Victor B. Mack.
The hour offered no occasion to discuss comparative tenterhooks, but the others must be frightened just as she was…for Abel, of course. But for all of the hostages, Mossbunker too. (And for Ben and Elton, guiltily.)
Doors closed, sliding ones, slamming ones. The five Patriots, tied back-to-back-to-back, etc., in a small circle, sat staring up glassy-eyed, at a large circle of rebels on their feet, a dozen deep.
A woman’s voice ordered silence.
Her arm was linked with Nico Raymond’s; she led, and he followed. It was June Mack who pulled loose Mossbunker’s gag.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
He did not ahem, treating foe and friend alike, rather, to a sequence of boarish rumblings. He hawked, and spat.
“You have the right,” June said, “to expiate your sins.”
“Oh, ho!” said Mossbunker. A moment ticked by. “Well. If you mean to leave us helpless, our hands tied…if your gang of incendiarist assassins…stowaways, no doubt, from the slums of Europe, hiders in cargo holds, bribers of ships’ crews to connive, using their ill-gotten gains from pickpocketing, and…”
He writhed here, wanting, as it seemed, to fling a contemptuous gesture; flinging Abel—pinioned to his back—instead, from side to side.
“Yes, I think we know the sorts of crimes your ilk will stoop to. If you mean to do murder, in so cowardly and dishonorable a fashion, then, by God! You will see how five true patriots can die!”
Four patriots’ eyes bulged in desperation.
A stranger to the Hammersmithans parted the throng. He wore denim trousers, a bare head, soon seen to top Nico’s by a foot or more, and a skirted suitcoat of, appearance indicated, twenty years’ use.
“Ah, ha!” he answered Mossbunker. “We are all going to die, and I call you a fool! Use your ears!”
Like the patriots, the watchers on the catwalk took this news without joy. Certainly, as eighty or ninety sets of ears strained, amid the rustling, coughing, and murmuring that a crowd, doing its best, must produce, a honking rose with insistence…
From the area of the tracks, Aimee began to think. The honking was a voice, amplified by a bullhorn.
“Send out … hostages! You got … … to fear! Put … … … weapons and … … … rest of you … … hands up!”
The message was repeated, with adjustments, the bullhorn advancing to the factory gate. Then a fracas, shouts inside and outside the wall, a rain of thwop, thwop, thowps. An answering round of gunshots. Seconds passed, hinges creaked, and from a dark corner hurtled a soldier of the People’s Front.
At mid-burst, the leader halted him with a gesture, and a side nod at June.
The soldier said, in English: “We beat them back…all they did was fire their guns in the air.”
June said, “Well, it’s only the sheriff and his deputies, so far. Mossbunker has already delivered us all the local volunteers…” She shook her head, expressive of a lifetime of Elton Botts and Abel Bards. “Too bad. It won’t stay that way. They’ll send down the state militia. What are we going to ask them for?”
Someone spoke from the shadows. “They have two cars of coal near the furnaces, and a heap of lose filings. Have you ever seen steel filings burn?” A certain wistful connoisseurship colored this last.
June, to the young soldier, gave a directive. She, Nico, and the stranger, then withdrew. A song began, an affecting tenor taking the lead.
In a cavern
In a canyon
Excavated for a mine…
A hand tugged Aimee’s sleeve.
Chilly, Fred the fish man, divested of bonds, but feudal in honoring a captive’s obligation, Aimee, and Vic, scuttled in train, the first two making the roof with some show of practice; the latter two, hauled up by the arms.
A honking came again, as to prove Vic’s daughter knew her siege warfare.
“This is Commander Wonkton,” the voice seemed to say. “You are surrounded. We have a message for Cranston Mossbunker.”
Aimee and Vic found themselves dispatched by a new ally of Zetland…not the professor, though rather like him in feature…via Indian club, as to mutely point the way, and underground passage—being the way itself.
They edged round the dim figures of Elton Bott and Ben Lemuel.
“Is that Vic?”
“Keep it down!”
A damped wheeze, then…from Ben, and a second testament to hasty gag-work: “What’s going on out there, Vic? Whose side are you on?”
“They’ve got the chief.”
“Know that. Anyone they don’t got?”
The door clicked shut. This pitching them into utter dark expressed something of opinion on the part of the club-wielder.
“Brother Patriots,” Vic said. “I have…”
“Helluva lot to answer for?”
“A message for the sheriff’s men.” Aimee made her voice as low and ominous as practicable.
“Who’s that you got with you there?”
She put back an arm, found cloth, gripped this ironly, and moved her protector from conversation’s way.
Dogged, but with a tempering delicacy towards the sweating brickwork, they fingertipped down a mild drop in elevation. Aimee felt Vic crowd to take the lead.
“Where are we going to be when we come out?”
“Er. Woods. Along Harmony Run.”
“And you don’t expect they’ll have someone set to watch?”
“This one, this tunnel…at least Elton says…is Mossbunker’s most secret secret. Only him and his deputy know about it.”
She let him nudge onwards, pocketing her hand, making certain of Zetland’s token. Her words had been true. Vic, pulled aside by Chilly, knew himself tasked with escorting the lady safely home.
Zetland had drawn Aimee opposite.
“You will ask for Shaw. But if not, say you have information for Lieutenant Hickman. This.” He flashed her a sort of medallion.
“Guarantees you will be seen. Now, they know from Shaw about the guns. But bearing in mind all has been circumvented, Mossbunker looking over this bargain for himself…and bearing in mind he makes his bargain with le Fontainebleau… So, perhaps another time, learning better…” Zetland gave to his brother-in-law’s pigeonhood an unsorry purse of the lips. “But, if he had wanted bullets, manuals of instruction, each such would be another cost.”
“Then Nico’s gang really only have their rocks?”
Silent, her captain projected, on a visage picked out faintly by the factory lights, a wise look.
Remembering this, telling herself the assignment was urgent…
For the matter—as urgent things, in their peskiness, will insist upon doing—had escalated. June was in danger. Nico, too. Aimee liked Nico, if none of the others did. Abel…
Well, but, you didn’t wish misfortune on a soul (cannon-fire for all one knew!), no more so on the foolish Patriots, all those rebellious factory hands, or the agitating stranger. Or Mossbunker.
This Hickman needed finding, post haste.
The phrase came echoing back, with the force of a shock.
“Well, now, what all…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, boosted by the lanterns of myriad moving figures, none too close to the tunnel mouth, Vic and Aimee staggered a gauntlet, while grimly biting their tongues, of roots and saplings.
“Might just be deer,” they heard a voice mumble.
“Don’t the deer know their way around better than that? I always thought wild animals were supposed to have a sort of 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?”
“Oh, Curach’s gone off with the kids. To your house, Aimee! What’s your name, dear?”
“Jacob.” He straightened, raised the lantern and stared…at her so addressed. “Er…Private Spanner.”
Well…there was not a moment to be lost, the bulging eye of Sandy notwithstanding. “Private. Do you know where Mr. Shaw is? Or Lieutenant Hickman?”
“She means business,” Minnie said. “You better get cracking.”
And 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 the minister had got her drift. Lodge meetings are one thing; sitting on a log at midnight with a traveling songstress…
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 in one eye. This, she was sure of it, lucky in a husband.
Well, there, people said so.
Carey had dragged behind them, and talking, they’d forgotten him for the third time.
“Now, lad, should I give you my arm?”
“No, Mr. Curach. Take Ruby on, and I’ll make my way. We’re on the road, aren’t we…and there isn’t another?”
This came modestly repressive. But Curach did not offer his thoughts. He said:
“At about your age, lad, I was myself just setting up in life. Mr. Piggott would have me to go out strengthening the voters, there being always the small want to be supplied, the simple folk so like to be swindled into debt… Or a new mouth to feed expected. Or a myriad of troubles to prey on a man’s mind and make him tardy to the polls.”
Having this left him to comment on, Carey tried: “That’s not legal…not on the up and up, is it?”
“Why, what do you think I’m saying to you?”
A pause. “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 do so, 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 finding the first post of the bridge. She cupped its finial between her hands and on these, rested her chin.
The light at her back welled fresh, just as 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 insist on walking down with us to McKeefe’s. Minnie said…”
“Here. Best if you take this lantern.”
Hogben, face by the exchange lit sufficient to show its dismay, took the lantern, resting his case on the ground.
“You were never leaving? If any train would run at this hour…still, they have everything closed, you know.” Curach gestured to the glow on the horizon, of Mossbunker’s factory lights.
“And what,” Hogben asked, “has been going on, exactly?”
He might have been asked to read this off a card. Ruby began to suspect Mr. Hogben had been trying to leave them…that a thing as large as 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 merely nuisance for Hogben, and he would as soon 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.”
“Well, it’s dark.”
Ruby commented thus, when Hogben with the light recessed.
“But, as Carey has it, there is only the one road.”
“Declan.” She said it to say his name, because it struck her polite…not forgetting he’d given her 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 now…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 forayed here and there, towards Mrs. Frieslander at the last, when Aimee, for talking things over with the Kendrick brothers, Curach, Minnie, and Zetland, proved unapproachable.
He understood le Fontainebleau had got himself detained in Shaw’s custody…
He did not understand what Shaw had been about, pretending to be a salesman (but here was a narrow escape…he’d almost pitched it to a private snoop, that delicate task of playing shill).
He’d been at the threshold, folding back the lapel of his coat to get at the letter of gratitude and goodbye. Tricky one to write…Hogben might have proposed marriage to Mrs. Bard. Far too many chops and changes to be certain what careless remark had led to their engagement. Wiser to allude nothing, than apologize.
That time (it came to him) in the ’70s, forced to spend 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.”
On the other hand, he was not going to give her money for the room and board. That would have made something of a clincher, as though they’d had just a gentlemen’s agreement. And there again, the pesky telephone. In older days, Hogben had found it prudent, spotting the Western Union boy on his bicycle, to assume a pithy account of his late activities.
Nowadays, the powers that be could outflank you and nab you at the crossroads.
And so he’d added a pretty pair of lines to the postscript, praying she would forgive his distraction, had he departed her home owing any courtesy…
(His distraction not quite the heart-tugger it might have been, had his dead partner not turned up alive.)
The letter was still in his pocket.
At the threshold, he’d cleared his throat to raise the heads of Mrs. Frieslander and Jane Littler. Then, at his back: “Oh, there you are, Monty! You popped in the kitchen a minute ago, and before I had the chance to…”
This girl, who kept calling him uncle, was back in his safekeeping, along with the boarder, who to Hogben’s eyes looked managerial enough.
“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 this back porch she’d led him to. And leafing through one such, Curach…who stuck on, though Aimee ventured:
“Are you here, Mr. Curach? I’m having a private talk with Monty.”
“Pay me no mind.” He’d 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 pair of them would have been, cut your losses.
An hour before sunset, the house had depopulated.
Jane, batting away her husband’s hand: “Oh, Carey, you want me to make it so you don’t have to do what you promised Minnie you would? Don’t even dream! Why should I mind if you go sing with Ruby…why not go?”
Just there, he could have stepped in, got the thing done.
His own rustling raised an answering rustle not far past the level stretch, itself not far ahead of the bridge.
“Who is that? Mr. Hogben?”
“Come to get you, son.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I wish they’d leave me alone.”
And though it was tempting, the invitation would have to be forgone. This nephew was not in command of his fate, no more than Hogben. It seemed possible, darkness and strange scents of ditch weed—a little cucumbery—wrapping close, along with nocturnal clouds of midges, to suppose Hammersmith a sort of enchanted place.
Not in a good way.
Everyone he’d met here, maybe…
Aimee, Vic, Mrs. Frieslander, Hugh Braithwaite..Derfinger…even Mossbunker…had once stopped in Hammersmith on their way elsewhere, to find themselves, like Hogben, mired in.
Maybe he ought to say, flee, young fellow!
But Hogben 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. To whatever degree circus people have origins. It’s also true they were off in France, waiting out their creditors, at the time Charley hatched. He was the eldest, second Mrs. Selton’s first. Then came Cedric, and Cyril. After that, twin girls, Victorina and Ruth.”
“But…wait a second. The brothers…Charley…Cedric… And then the twins…?”
It puzzled Shaw, the Selton nomenclature. Medlow, however, not.
“Don’t carry on like that, Shaw. I’m only explaining. Much as I know.”
This last, an aside to Commander Washburn. Congenial, rueful. It would soon become Shaw’s responsibility to have known more of le Fontainebleau than he told of himself.
“Thoroughgoing show people. Earn their keep from the cradle, Chillingsworths. That’s the name they took on when they turned up in the U.S. of A. Bought them a cottage up Wisconsin way. Never been vaudevillians, exactly. Stunt artists, more like. Then Charley had to part company with Ringling…some trouble bout borrowing a tiger. Next seen, Philly, stage comedian. Plays a little piano. Now that big water tank business you heard tell of, more like a carnival act…theater owners ain’t like to have to do with it, most of em. When, Shaw, did Cedric and Cyril show up?”
“Er. Well. I’m suspecting…but only Hogben can say. Mr. Piggott was pretty certain he saw a letter change hands between them. Him…Hogben, I mean, and the Professor. Mossbunker’s plans got in the way of Piggott having a talk with Hogben. And then…”
It would take some disingenuousness. Shaw had been walking down to Derfinger’s every day, checking for telegrams. There’d been no Zetland in the picture. No Minnie Leybourne.
And if you’ve done your best convincing a dodgy customer you’ve got a client for him, hinting your man has the money of a Mossbunker (which, if not that of a J. P. Morgan, the U.S. government did), and then a woman 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 this 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. I suppose he did… But he doesn’t.”
“I get what you’re saying. That hullaballoo Oldfield ginned up. McKeefe says he’s not got a stick of furniture left, and all the panes out the windows.”
This remark of Washburn’s 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, first met with—state of humor buoyant—had ferried Minnie into his arms. “There’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 right there. Why not tell Medlow, I let him go. You can have my license back. It’s the stage life for me…
He could picture a look coming over Medlow’s face, the pouches, as to parting or closing, this once confounded.
Minnie had said, “What now? Are we all going up to the factory?”
Curach: “I’ll go up myself. The young fellow can see Miss Magley and Miss Leybourne home.”
He nodded at Carey Littler, sunk to the ground and rubbing a foot. A sort of backwash of non-combatants had burst outdoors; Shaw, and these flotsam with whom he had business, now left behind at the tide mark. The insurgents surged uphill, their riotous way with McKeefe’s property proving an hors d’oeuvre to the main course.
Curach said, “I could just bring the professor along with me. I know Zetland…”
Capable, Shaw himself knew this much of Zetland, of spiriting away a confederate. If not two. Or Curach might equally be Mossbunker’s man. He was Piggott’s, at any rate. Something in a nature born to simple attachments had kept Shaw’s fingers tight on le Fontainebleau’s coat sleeve.
“No, now… Best if you take charge of the women, Curach. Professor, you’re in custody. There’s no adios about it… Minnie…Miss Leybourne…”
“Gracious, Bladon, the Professor knows my name is Minnie! We’ve been on terms for hours.”
The sheriff and his men had gathered and gone, their mission a tracking-of-the-quarry compromise; they were short-handed with two deputies sent 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 up 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…you have that attic room upstairs.”
A noise like fa escaped McKeefe’s lips, then, thinking better, he said, “Ten bucks.”
Shaw’s simple plan had been to get le Fontainebleau alone, to hash through with him all they had officially discussed. Psychological, if you liked. He would at least fix these things in his own mind, if not the prisoner’s.
The telegram he’d got to picking up late, had been Medlow’s, letting his operative know a piece of ill-boding news. Medlow was on his way.
NT SAT REP. N B$. SELL PENS! ARR HSMTH TM AFN
Not satisfied with Shaw’s reports. Paying no bonus, which Shaw, running his own agency, would not have paid either, as a matter of policy. After all, if he’d wanted money badly, he could have arrested Raymond days ago (that would be selling pens), a citizen’s arrest…
Any country sheriff, though, was bound to cooperate with a Medlow’s man. Nico was almost, or could have been, a bull’s-eye in the dark. And yet, neither Nico nor Oldfield was the Purchaser. Medlow knew this, for the Purchaser was Mossbunker.
(Mossbunker first having purchased his senator, and imposed on him the Knightly Oath, then wove through a long dinner at the St. Bernard a net of circular reasoning, of pure blood, manifest destiny, and sugar. The senator dozed over his brandy. He woke to find himself confided to…too late to talk Mossbunker out of it. Instead, he’d talked to a friend in the War Department.
“McKinley can’t have this thing dragging on. Well…America neither.”
Hence, Medlow, discreet inquiry agent. Medlow found the juggling act tricky enough that he’d hashed it over with Shaw…a rare and unwelcome frankness.)
Yes, Mossbunker was the Purchaser…but the Purchaser was not the Procurer.
Someone had sold those two anarchists, instead, a promising tip. And not even that. Le Fontainebleau knew the guns weren’t in usable condition.
Le Font…oh, the hell! Charley…had done all Shaw would expect of him. He’d hired himself for a job, a job outside his purview, a pitch made no doubt with swagger and boast—and run a fiddle of his own on the side. The thing no right-minded person would expect of him, he had not done. Not, and Shaw would bet anything, maybe even a last word with Minnie.
When an army wanted weapons, and contracted with a manufacturer of these, a thing the layman could not do, someone at length would take the…guns, say…in; check them off, inspect them, inform an officer who would organize the fetching of them, that they had arrived, that they could be moved from a depot to a destination.
This fellow, maybe two or three such in mid-stream, could report one piece of information to one superior, and an alternative piece of information to another superior. Superiors, like Medlow, liked to see inferiors get things done. If Colonel Fritz looked for thirty guns delivered, and Major Fratz twenty-four, Colonel Fritz would not much trouble himself if the man-in-the-middle cited delay, damage, misdirection. Major Fratz would not trouble himself if he got just what he’d looked for anyway.
And even when things were looking grim, the Fritzes of the world delegated.
Shaw speculated. Zetland’s carriage was exceedingly upright; military service, for a Prussian of that class, he thought a requirement. And Mossbunker’s mind would work this way…moguls too liked their orders followed with dispatch. With a Mossbunker, a trusted collaborator got carte blanche. The Count von Zetland, a (seeming) pouter pigeon couched in a parlor car, where Charley, talking up his shares, had cadged a ride…
Shaw imagined their meeting that 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 wit, Charley Chillingsworth, née Selton, a.k.a. Professor le Fontainebleau. He still would look the reliable, if not spectacular, seller of pens that he was.
But Zetland covered his tracks by inveigling every new acquaintance into his criminal ring.
“Room’s all yours, Mr. Shaw.”
McKeefe’s lantern, set on the floor while he turned the knob, made boulders of discarded bedrolls, long shadows stretching over the low-beamed, sweat-scented space. The patterns went into a dance. “I’ll just take this here, leave you and the Professor to it, your little talk…”
“McKeefe,” Shaw said. “Can I rent that light? 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’d failed his rendezvous.
“Mr. McKeefe, see, I just remembered…”
He spoke to the man he knew, rising voice snagging McKeefe at the head of the stairs.
“…when I got up to the guardhouse, it was my week to lead the blessing. I told Ben, have to go back home and get what I wrote down…”
A voice sang out. “Bladon, dear! Looks like the boss is in town!”
Another: “Mr. Shaw up there? Man outside with a message!”
Minnie! Why had Curach not taken her off? Medlow! His plan for Charley, then, in the crapper.
(So to speak.) One of those moments that takes hold of you. Not just these competing calls to duty below…noise of activity everywhere now, a mounted militia making a rendezvous of its own, in McKeefe’s yard.
“Crumpacker, guard the prisoner! I’ll be back in a second.”
Medlow had snubbed him off the bat for the attentions of Washburn. He’d had a moment to say, “Minnie! You can’t stay!”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Why didn’t you go with Curach?”
“Ha!” The sideways, 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 leave Ruby to her own devices.”
Now, re-climbing McKeefe’s hill after twenty minutes or so, it was le Fontainebleau’s smile he remembered.
“Piece of luck.” Washburn, just in agreement, nodding his head.
These were the wages of daydreaming. Shaw had half-heard Medlow…the Count promising his brother-in-law he’d take charge of the whole thing…
“You call that dash. Kind you still see in the old guard, over there.”
“Well, we’ll take him at his word. Gone over the wall by himself! I’d put him up for a citizen’s award, only…guess he’s not a citizen.”
“Excuse me. Zetland.”
The pouches reuned irritably. “What you need, Shaw?”
“Zetland has got inside Mossbunker’s factory. Alone. No help.”
“Left behind 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.”
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. Through the morning, 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?)
Shaw, off his feet, was comfy enough. Being paid, regardless. A book in his pocket, a detective yarn he could happily tide himself along with.
“Now what’s the idea?”
To this office boy, sauntered from the elevator well after the lunch hour, Shaw said, “One for Mr. Mossbunker’s ears. Or I can leave now, if he’s not interested.”
The fly in the ointment, spottable in retrospect—
Had to be one Ludwig von Zetland, a name which could not come up, a personage of whose existence Shaw had not dreamt. Whereas, on le Fontainebleau, a thick dossier. A surreptitious photograph, taken at the first meeting, before the Hammersmith debacle.
A snort from the other side of a mammoth burl veneer.
Shaw spoke his calculated piece: “It must be a great offense to you, sir, and I apologize. A man like this fellow bandying his imaginary acquaintance with you among the criminal class, making claim you personally could be underwriting some outlandish enterprise.”
“Hrrr,” came the answer. The sound, had Shaw known it, of gears grinding.
(What’s the meaning of it, Ludi?
Ah, Cranston. Leave it to me to find out.)
Shaw had not spoken to Mossbunker again, but by special messenger had dispatched the second set of photographs, proving their suspect not drowned.
The attic door cracked.
The deputized patriot peered out, drew back easing round, arm crooked to the knob behind him. Even this much Crumpacker added more than was comfortable to the landing’s capacity crowd, of Medlow, Washburn, McKeefe, and Shaw.
“You didn’t…already come across the Professor…?”
“Not,” Shaw said, “a likely thing…” For a man to be in two places at once, he might have finished. “Crumpacker, you didn’t let him go?”
“No! Well… It was confusing. I heard someone climbing up the stairs, and then I heard Mr. McKeefe call out…”
“I sure never.”
“He said, Crumpacker, why don’t you go on home? He was coming closer.”
McKeefe, growing purpler, “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, you found in the corner was only 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, go on home.”
The landlord’s lips, with the impulse to disavow a remark of Cedric’s…or Cyril’s…parted, but Medlow was steering Crumpacker more or less into his arms, adding, “Thanks, I got nothing else.”
Into their pouches of portent, the eyes recessed.
“Washburn, I suppose you find it true in your line, you get a man now and then never quite lives up to the chances you’ve given him. No use to you. Taking up a place could be filled by a new young recruit. 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 she would be walking home in daylight.
It was Vic she ought to blame…
Poor man, though, his world had been knocked sideways. Or, some metaphor other than a globe, which would only roll…
A new country turning up on top…
Never mind. His condition needed wifely sympathy. Then blame.
Then, and in good time, a fresh partner in hopes and sorrows, to point out the flaws and the better way.
Washburn—Lieutenant Hickman, from Aimee, carrying to him Zetland’s intelligence—had ordered smoke bombs. He’d held his mounted patrols outside the factory gates, to spare the horses and block escapees fleeing to the hills. Inside the gates, only this cover had been needed to get his men past any hand-thrown missiles.
The equation of guns against rocks at that point restored reason.
She had tagged behind Vic, making way against the tide of ringleaders marched at the center of an infantry formation, from the cableworks to the heart of Hammersmith…there to learn how many men could be stuffed into a two-cell jail.
They saw Nico speak aside to Oldfield, pointing his chin at Vic.
True, there was cheekiness in this; Aimee noted it herself (while allowing Nico had been denied the use of his hands). An intervening buttonholing…or, in point of fact, chest-butting, of Vic by Oldfield, spared June’s love.
“The press. Indeed, I have a statement. Young man,” he said to Aimee, “in my pocket there, you will find information…Washburn has already got his. And let me inform the readers of your periodical, it came to me as hardly any surprise that the oppressor would attempt to discard this on a pile of burning refuse. However, I carry in the pockets of my garments an even gross of these documents, issued from my own press. Documents that I keep prepared in advance of any foray. Long experience teaches me this, that study on the part of our journalists is sorely needed, in grasping the complexities of the creed.”
She dared the pocket, extracted a folded list of ready-made Q’s and A’s, and a pamphlet, one Oldfield didn’t mind if the papers reprinted a copy of; and while in transit he went as far as interviewing himself.
“Now, you want 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 but victory. You ask me, then, how large is the movement? I count hearts, sir, not heads…”
June clung to Nico’s arm, deaf to her father’s background murmur of: “Why…? What…? How…?”
She spoke to a tentative private. “I don’t belong to Victor Mack. And I am not going home with him. What’s 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, drawing him off.
“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 him. 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? Is that fair? You’re not proud of her at all…leading the men that way? Winning for herself a man like…”
She trailed off; and Vic trailed off, mumbling, “…rather not talk to Selma…”
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, in the light of the Daily Clew’s front office, just keyed up by Vic.
“Meantime, I better get off to town hall and drag her back where she belongs.”
“No. Come through to the kitchen, and sit with me.”
She put the kettle on to boil, rummaged the breadbox and found a few not wholly stale rolls. This, and the butter, two plates and two knifes, and at last, after a longer search, a jar of her own apricot marmalade, she laid on the table in front of him.
“Vic, 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 whatayacallit in the night.”
“Ship that passes. Think about your daughter.”
The dilemma had a straightforward logic to it, supposing a father a little overbearing, and 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.
“June is happy. June in unhappy.”
Aimee put out a left palm, and a right palm. “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, cultivating 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, setting out Chilly’s 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. 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 out another cup of coffee, and reached for the marmalade.
Aimee had had experience, attending on Vic’s ruminations. “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. That time you stumbled into the enemy camp, though, did it never occur to you to just…?”
Befriend them, she might have finished. Vic, while draining his cup, was making “hold up” gestures.
“When have you and June ever not gotten along? Don’t you always say hello? Are you telling me you can’t think of any way to split up the chores, without getting into some kind of tussle 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. Again…let’s consider June unhappy. She hates that 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.”
“Well, obviously, what else? You haven’t forgotten the Warples?”
He had, his face said; also, that this reminder of them invoked an old annoyance…
But of themselves, Warples were less material than the idea of Warples. “From the 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. And 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 again in Ralph’s pockets for Oldfield’s propaganda. “Stop frowning, Vic. Famous names fascinate. It has nothing to do with June. Now, we should print at least a part of this. 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 as 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 to start writing your Sunday piece about is the war, and what a makes a good patriot. Zipping lips, no doubt… But knowing enough to know a pig in a poke when someone tries to sell you one. Meanwhile Carey will make his rounds with Chilly, since Chilly’s got the wagon. 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. But a man in any case, Vic, who wants to talk about one thing…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 herself, 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 likely 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 it’s easier for her to leave. 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’d gone to the front hall mirror, to see about the state of his clothes.
“Better go upstairs…” He muttered this in passing.
“Ma’am, you said a Philadelphia lawyer?”