Two Reunions: Hammersmith (seven)
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside towards the same creek that had attracted Hogben. This early morning, she too hoped to sit in quiet thought; listening, in her case, to birdsong. She felt not quite so bereaved today…just lonely. All the same, it wasn’t Minnie’s company she wanted. This being cared for like a sister was a burden, unexpected, and to Ruby, an embarrassment.
Because of course, she wasn’t much, to be made much of in this way, daughter of a farm hand. She had no schooling, and knew Minnie—whose voice was so lovely—to have studied under a New York coloratura, Madame della Franchia.
“Oh, Ruby. Della Franchia’s not her name.”
Anyone, Minnie had been telling her, could sing chorus; she herself would carry the melody. “Obviously. Maybe we’ll do a comic turn, if we have to…but, Ruby, you whistle so well—I won’t believe you haven’t got pitch.”
Ruby, in her shyness, had never meant to go on the stage; it hadn’t been her longing. It had become her calling…the smallest mite of four the day she’d rescued the first of her broken-winged darlings, these poor crippled ever afterwards, and the babies flung from their nests. Ruby saw herself plain and small still, but had to put up a fuss when Mr. Starkweather insisted the birdies could go in the baggage car. No…
Mr. Bruce, who’d sold her contract to Mr. Starkweather, had been a kind man. He’d always bought her the extra seat. Minnie, then, had come into it…and Ruby had never spoken to Miss Leybourne at all. Minnie was near being the star of Starkweather’s Varieties.
“I’ll come along with Ruby on the next train. Or the one after. Really!”
By really, she’d meant to say, you ought to be ashamed. And so he ought to have. He’d have killed them with his miserly purse, the tightwad. Though the question was somewhat moot, now she’d had to set the poor dears to fend for themselves.
Minnie was a great heroine to Ruby, but the very idea of their doing an act together…
Her shoes began to pinch, the leather shrinking up from the wet; her skirts also had grown heavy at the hem. She supposed the only dry spot would be down there, under the little bridge.
And like Hogben, Ruby surprised a strange young man.
He was lying as though asleep, his trousers rolled, knees bent, bare feet under water.
“Ah!” Ruby said. “Is it cold?”
She thought she hadn’t meant to say this aloud. It was only that the flood waters had been so cold, like ice. The poor Professor, him with the French name, so grand, Mr. Hogben’s friend, did he have a chance? The young man stirred, not startled, or having not enough energy to start. His face was shadowed with the growth of a beard, his hair much awry, his waistcoat and trousers decked in beggar lice. His boots sat on the bank, and were caked in mud. He opened his mouth to speak, and Ruby opened hers.
“Oh, hush!” she told him. She lifted a forestalling hand, and cupped an ear. He made a noise in any case, struggling to sit up, but Papageno (she had not named him, Mr. Bruce had…or rather, she’d herself called him Johnny) was quite used to human society. He hopped to a lower branch.
“Oh, my Poppy. Oh, my darling.” She breathed these words, then whistled. His tiny velvet bonnet, that he would put on Papagena’s head, his balsa-wood violin, had gone, of course, as had…tears welled in Ruby’s eyes…Papagena. But the blue jay, hearing his cue, picked a mouthful of catkins, and flew to Ruby’s finger.
And then the miracle grew larger. Another flutter of wings, and Tamino, her rosy finch, descended to his accustomed place, nestling into Ruby’s coiled hair. She heard a gasp.
“How do you do it? Who are you?”
“I’m nothing myself,” Ruby finished. “I mean I can only wait for Minnie now, and I suppose she hasn’t decided. Her beau”—she said this word in a self-conscious whisper—“Nico, has come along to Hammersmith, and maybe she’ll only go off with him. She talks a scandal, Mr. Littler, says they’ll never be married…that it isn’t…” Ruby widened her eyes. A thought had come to her mind. What about babies, now? Would they not marry, even then? And how she could let herself speak so freely, when only a moment ago (taking him as trustworthy), she’d introduced herself to Mrs. Bard’s son!
“Oh, it’s a shame, the way we all impose ourselves on her. I was helping Mrs. Frieslander with her mending…just to be doing some good. It must be her living she gets that way, taking it in from the neighbors, the old dear. Your mother is very good, now, not to mind us. I know why Mr. Shaw stays on, of course…but as to Mr. Hogben…” She thought of what she’d learned at the breakfast table. “Ah! He was too grieved to carry on with his talk, the poor man. Now I don’t know what he’ll do…”
More of this piece on Hammersmith page
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)