Two Reunions: Hammersmith (seven)
He was lying as though asleep, his trousers rolled, knees bent, his bare feet under water.
“Ah!” Ruby said. “Is it cold?”
She thought she hadn’t meant to say this aloud. It was only that the flood waters had been so cold, like ice. The poor Professor, him with the French name, so grand, Mr. Hogben’s friend, did he have a chance? The young man stirred, not startled, or having not enough energy to start. His face was shadowed with the growth of a beard, his hair much awry, his waistcoat and trousers decked in beggar lice. His boots sat on the bank, and were caked in mud. He opened his mouth to speak, and Ruby opened hers.
“Oh, hush!” she told him. She lifted a forestalling hand, and cupped an ear. He made a noise in any case, struggling to sit up, but Papageno (she had not named him, Mr. Bruce had…or rather, she’d herself called him Johnny) was quite used to human society. He hopped to a lower branch.
“Oh, my Poppy. Oh, my darling.” She breathed these words, then whistled. His tiny velvet bonnet, that he would put on Papagena’s head, his balsa-wood violin, had gone, of course, as had…tears welled in Ruby’s eyes…Papagena. But the blue jay, hearing his cue, picked a mouthful of catkins, and flew to Ruby’s finger.
And then the miracle grew larger. Another flutter of wings, and Tamino, her rosy finch, descended to his accustomed place, nestling into Ruby’s coiled hair. She heard a gasp.
“How do you do it? Who are you?”
“I’m nothing myself,” Ruby finished. “I mean I can only wait for Minnie now, and I suppose she hasn’t decided. Her beau”—she said this word in a self-conscious whisper—“Nico, has come along to Hammersmith, and maybe she’ll only go off with him. She talks a scandal, Mr. Littler, says they’ll never be married…that it isn’t…” Ruby widened her eyes. A thought had come to her mind. What about babies, now? Would they not marry, even then? How she could let herself speak so freely, when only a moment ago (taking him as trustworthy), she’d introduced herself to Mrs. Bard’s son!
“Oh, it’s a shame, the way we all impose ourselves on her. I was helping Mrs. Frieslander with her mending…just to be doing some good. It must be her living she gets that way, taking it in from the neighbors, the old dear. Your mother is very good, now, not to mind us. I know why Mr. Shaw stays on, of course…but as to Mr. Hogben…” She thought of what she’d learned at the breakfast table. “Ah! He was too grieved to carry on with his talk, the poor man. Now I don’t know what he’ll do…”
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)