Hammersmith: A growing story
1898. William McKinley, elected U. S. president two years earlier, would, shortly 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 1940’s through the 1960’s.
In 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago gave America a taste of the anarchist “acts” — the terrorist uprising that had swept Europe, and claimed, among others, the empress of Austria. Four police officers and four civilians were killed, 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.
Europe was consumed by the Dreyfus affair, in which Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted of passing secrets. Author Émile Zola wrote his open letter, “J’accuse”, and went to prison for doing so.
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 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 in 1898…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 is eager to move her into other quarters, just when her nephew needs a stable roost, or he may abandon his wife and child. 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 Abel Bard 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 of her era might employ. And chanteuse Minnie Leybourne brings to Hammersmith modern ideas . . . and a Communist lover.
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar, one after the other; Shaw, a respectable parasite, from wanting to be useful. Hogben, because he hadn’t seen it yet. He’d otherwise sized up every inch of Mrs. Bard’s place. He would like also to learn if Shaw was suggestible.
“Quite a few of ’em’s gone rotten,” was his first remark. There was about room enough for him to stand, facing the shelves, and for Shaw, as indicated by the restless nudging of a toe against the heel of his shoe, to block the only space available for turning around.
“I don’t think the Widow Bard ever mentioned,” he said, swinging a burlap sack behind him, one with a notable black patch of wet on the bottom, and a smell…Hogben knew of no descriptive term adequate for the smell of rotting potato. He jogged the sack up and down. Shaw seemed to stand inert. “If she was tossing ’em in a stewpot, or a frying pan, or what all.”
“But…well…I suppose we’ll lay them out on the grass, and if very many are bad…” Shaw fell away from this speculation. “Widow!” he said. “Is that the story you got from her yourself?”
It was the moment to be wise. “You get on up those stairs, Shaw.” Hogben heard, and felt, a drop of liquid from the sack hit his polished brogue. “Take that with you. Now, listen. We’ll walk out into the town after lunch and have a private talk along the way.”
And this was mystery. She’d given Shaw a different story. Or Shaw had surmised differently.
Hogben snatched another sack, and held it as near arm’s length as the wooden steps allowed. The two ladies, Ruby and Minnie, came out, Ruby winding and tucking her hair. He thought it could not be much after ten—it had been ten sharp when he’d checked his watch before giving Mrs.Bard his answer.
“Yes, ma’am, don’t mind. Get to it from the outside or the inside?”
He always checked his watch when asked to do a chore. It was a treat how that little trick could make ’em go ask someone else.
But ten in the morning—Hogben finished his thought—was late for a woman to be finishing up dressing.
“Ruby Magley,” he said. “Now why wouldn’t you call yourself Leybourne, and be Minnie’s sister?”
“Oh, what are you saying? Magley’s not a euphonious sort of name? It’s my own, mister.”
“You’re a comedienne?”
“Birds. I couldn’t do a thing about it. I had to set them free.” Her voice broke at this.
“Each one of ’em had its own cage. Picture that on a little rowboat.” Minnie said this sotto voce.
“Well, stuff ’em all in together. Why not?”
Monty Albert Hogben looked forward. He’d given Shaw a taste of this glowing prospect, his old pitch. “March, already, Shaw. Less than two years now. A new century! And what a breathtaking vista of magnificent modernity, upon the precipice of which we stand…”
Shaw, he thought, had cleared his throat and mumbled something.
“Nineteen-oh-one, that’s what it is, really.”
“I don’t get you.”
“I only read that…I don’t swear to it.”
“In the paper.”
“Maybe I’m wrong.”
It was a matter of schooling, though Shaw had a number of qualities that made him a doubtful assumer of the Professor’s role. Hogben also had begun toying with the idea of a woman. Folks trusted Lydia Pinkham, didn’t they?
“You don’t want to interrupt me when I’m talking, supposing a horsecar ain’t about to run me down, and my coattail ain’t on fire, and the only thing you got to say is you read some tid-bit of column-filler in the newspaper, and you can’t say you even got it right! I was telling you, Shaw…”
Hogben’s spiel was engraved so in memory, that he could rattle off a list of inventions: the automobile, the telephone, the Kinetoscope, and as he did so, cogitate. Shame, his partner drowning. The rest of them had managed not to. He was reminded of Ruby’s birds. He gave to the matter a serious inner eyeball. What did the woman ever think of doing in case of fire? Happens in hotels all the time, Hogben said to himself, while aloud he was saying something about flying machines. She probably didn’t either have them insured. Now there was a case of not thinking of the future. He pictured Ruby Magley in the audience. Would he want her in the audience? Always took a good hold on ’em, hearing spontaneous testimony, but on the other hand…
He looked at the brick pavement under his feet, and fell silent. There were no rails laid along here. An outpost the size of Hammersmith, he guessed, didn’t have call for a horsecar. Now if the street had been dirt, if there’d been no hotel, no bank, no emporia, only a couple houses and a church, he might have despaired of the place. But Hammersmith was at least an incorporated borough—they had government; they had trade. Those were proofs some of the townsfolk were forward-looking. Hammersmith had no depot…but again, Hogben put a lot of faith in the automobile. Any burg might grow, these days.
The town had a paper, the Daily Signal, and here, emerging from the tobacconist’s, was Victor B. Mack, its proprietor. Mack had been up to Mrs. Bard’s, and had held such a long and feeling interview with Minnie Leybourne, he’d done no more, for his deadline’s sake, than shake hands with Hogben and Shaw.
“Sirs!” he called out.
“Mr. Mack,” Hogben said. “Your Main Street Hotel over there…they happen to have an oyster bar, anything of the kind?”
“Roast beef sandwiches and tonic water. My treat, though.”
Lunch, what with the potatoes, had ended up late, and a little scant. Mack let Hogben lead; Hogben crossed the street, and in turn, let Mack precede him through the door.
“I wonder, Mr. Hogben,” Mack said, after the three of them had mounted their stools, “if you remember the Maine?”
“Thank you, Mr. Derfinger. I’ve had a chill, ever since I took that soaking in the flood.” Hogben hadn’t needed to say this a second time, but making excuse, lest the gossips take hold of his reputation before he’d made use of it himself, he did…whisky for medicinal purposes being a solace not locally prohibited.
“This is coming out first thing tomorrow. Extra early edition.”
“Well, then, put one aside for me, won’t you? I never know what time Mrs. Bard’s chores’ll all be done.” Two cents, though, for a paper he didn’t want, was a lot just now, when the firm had suffered the death of one partner. Hogben considered reasons for Mack’s disclosure.
“In a day or two, all of you be leaving. Don’t know what she’ll do for helpers then.”
Partisanship, he decided. “Vic.” Hogben wanted to ease into this. He sipped. He got some assistance from Shaw, who’d been writhing on his stool, and had said, “Uh,” a second ago. “Shaw,” Hogben said, including him. “I don’t suppose Congress wants any way to…rush headlong.” Mack, not offended by the “Vic”, had definitely lit up at “headlong”.
“Nobody wants war,” Hogben finished. “And, think about it. Spain is a European country.”
“I’ll tell you what. If it came down to sending an expeditionary force all the way over there…”
“What time,” Shaw broke in, “does the drug store close up? Is that about four o’clock?”
“You gotta put things to the test. See, Hogben…” Mack hunkered and glanced round the room—but he had already lifted this particular curtain. “Here we have a template, if you like, of how the Spaniards are gonna conduct themselves. Hot blooded folks…”
“I’m sorry,” Shaw said. Mack, making his point about the Spaniards, continued ignoring him, and Shaw dropped onto his feet. “I think I’d better just do that shopping for Mrs. Bard…and then I’ll head on back, if you don’t mind, Mr. Hogben.”
Continued from “Mack Talks War . . .”
He left. The two men shrugged at each other. Mack went on. “Flare up, is what I mean, with that Latin passion…pretty soon die away. That’s a lazy part of the world, the Mediterranean. Hot summers. Everybody goes off napping in the afternoons…”
For a moment, Hogben’s mind framed the argument he meant to lay before Mack, whenever Mack shut up. Now, how’s it gonna be if some other country over there comes in on the side of the Spaniards? He thought of a country. France. He had no idea about the French. Unpleasant phrases—“prolonged conflict”; “escalated hostilities”—came to him. He knew of a thing that killed a roomful of prospects, all with one blow.
“Me, think I’ll just wait and see. Give the proposition a little thought. Sleep on it…can’t hurt.”
It only took one of ’em.
When he’d had the Professor, when they’d worked as a team, Hogben had known just how to fan up that fear of lost opportunity. When you had two to contend with: one, an austere-looking gent whose speech was riddled with ten-dollar words; the other congenial Hogben, who—“For your sake, sir, so you understand best”—always deferred the thorny question to his colleague, it was hazardous going, being a wiseacre. You’d be saying your piece in front of most of your business competitors; most of ’em would be happy to laugh at you.
But “wait and see” remained a tough card to beat. A pigeon could drift on a cloud, poised in imagination between spending money he’d rather hang on to, and a dream of wealth and ease—and never take the action that snared him. I may very well invest, is what he’d tell himself. I just haven’t made up my mind.
And what event, than war on the horizon, was more likely to trigger this fatal wavering? Hogben could foresee the thing spread like a contagion.
“No, sir. Times are uncertain. Reckon I’ll wait and see.”
“Now if anyone had thought where all this was bound to lead…’cause, no one who’s thinking is gonna have it one way, when he could have it both ways. Say you discover a mine…ones that hide can find.” Mack winked.”Figure you’ll make yourself useful by giving the word to Captain Sigsbee…you could trump up just as much of a case for the other side needing…put down, as it were. You wouldn’t kill anybody, and you’d take a hold on Mr. McKinley’s sense of obligation. The question is, Hogben, which is the other side?”
Hogben took out his watch, and had a look. “You’d like to see Cuba a protectorate?”
“No, Mr. Hogben, I can’t say I like anything about this.”
Hogben had been bluffing. The word “protectorate” had come to him like a gift. He’d got himself so worried, he hadn’t managed his usual trick of listening with half an ear. He told Mack now, in a hearty voice, adding a slap on the arm, that he didn’t like it either. They could agree on that.
Mack walked with him up Main Street as far as the offices of the Signal. He paused before the door. “So. That show of yours still scheduled to go on, sir? I apologize, for mentioning the…the loss, but…” Over the bump, Mack rallied himself. “But all this is a little different for the locals. You may as well know it…”
“I do know it. Vic, if you run into anyone curious, do my friend the favor…” Hogben lifted his chin, and squinted at the belly of a white cloud.
“…of telling ’em to come on down Thursday night. The Professor always liked best drawing a good crowd.”
He’d sat up in bed, and heard the rain still pelting, rat-a-tat-tatting off some plane of the inner house, where a leak had sprung. He’d known he wouldn’t sleep. The roar of the deluge appeared soporific enough for the Professor, curled on the bed’s other side with his back to Hogben. There was no observation Hogben knew of to make, that excused waking his friend…but, he would have liked to. It never seemed quite fair, suffering alone.
With what had proved good sense, Hogben pulled on his trousers and laced up his shoes. Everything felt wet to the touch, the air precipitating of its own saturation, the smell of the Susquehanna House that of its namesake. At the moment, he hadn’t understood why. He’d thought it just possible they kept a night clerk on the desk, and that he might beg a glass of milk.
He saw no lights, and the night sky outside the window at the turn of the stairs, looked green to Hogben’s eyes. He heard a lapping sound. The smell was like an exhalation, now strong and foul, now receding. Yes…he wished he’d brought a candle to get a better look—but it seemed to him very probable the lower rooms were under water.
Minnie Leybourne came down, and her white nightdress reflected a ghostly portion of the window’s light.
“I think the town’s under water. I wonder why everyone’s so quiet?”
“You think we oughta wake up Warple?”
She laughed. “If he’s not awake, I guess he’s drowned. Don’t he and the missus live at the back? Didn’t he say?”
“You’re Miss Leybourne, are you? I’m Hogben.” He offered these words because it was too dark for them to see each other’s faces, and because neither was properly dressed—the etiquette of the circumstance a little…different, as Mack had come to put it. And because the quiet she’d mentioned was indeed, when you came down to it, bothersome.
“Shoot!” she said. “I know you. You got any notion of the time?”
“Hope it’s about sunrise, but I kind of doubt it.”
Hogben hummed as he rambled. He was happy in the open air. The walk to Aimee Bard’s from Hammersmith was two or three miles, but he remembered there was a little bridge, arched over a creek along the way. He thought he’d climb down, sit in the shade, and watch the water flow. His hum became song.
“Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings.”
The morning sun, on that sorry day, had cast its rays over a scattering of damp and marooned guests, clinging to the slates, to the weather vane, or straddling the peak of a gable. Ruby Magley had got herself soaked to the bone, and sat, unconsoled by Minnie’s sighs and pats, shivering and making noises. Hrnrrh. Hrnrrh. Weeping, Hogben now supposed.
Continued from “The Professor’s Fate . . .”
As the strongest man among them, it was Hogben had to wade down the attic stairs and pull Ruby up by the arms. To break the suctioning action of her skirts, he’d had to get right down in the water. And by this forced acquaintance, Hogben had felt obliged next to give up his coat, snug it round her shoulders. He shivered too, crawling back to the Professor’s side, and got a sour look for it. ‘Course, he hadn’t known then what made Ruby lag. He might just remind her, one turn deserves another.
Warple hadn’t drowned. The Warples had been discovered on the roof already.
“Did it not occur to you, sir…” The Professor rubbed his elbow, and took a swig of his rheumatoid medicine.
“…to warn any of us off? You, being native here, ought to have read the signs well enough. I know nothing of these women, mind you, but Hogben and I might easily have gone ahead to Hammersmith. That’s up the hill, isn’t it?”
Warple snorted. “Warn you off? You call this a flood? Is that what you’re on about?” He had dry matches, and a cigar in his inner coat pocket. He bit the cigar’s tip. He spat into swirling waters, and pointed. “See that chimney-pot yonder? See them two bricks up top the chimney? That was some high water. This, is what we call around here, Springtime.”
A voice from an approaching rowboat hailed them.
“You got ladies, Warple?”
The water had risen, after Ruby and Minnie went off. Hogben and the Professor were standing either side the chimney, grasping one another’s forearms. The boaters returned.
“Hop on down, mister.”
“Professor, you go first,” Hogben had said.
The rowers worked against the current; his partner dithered.
“Come on, sir. You’ll do fine.”
The Professor launched himself. He seemed to pivot on a foot that stubbed a loose slate; he dropped then, like a sack of flour, into the flood. The men in the rowboat stared. Hogben stared.
The current carried the boat adrift.
“I’m afraid,” one called out, while both threw themselves against the oars, “if I take this out the lock…poke around, you know…Chilly can’t hold ‘er alone.”
The victims, brought by wagon into the heart of Hammersmith—its opera house—sloshed onto cloth mats laid over the lobby’s tiling, and lined up at the first of three tables. Here sat a good head of hair and a ledger book—Aimee Bard, in short…Mack, at her side.
“You’re Mr. Hogben. I already heard.” Her eyes, he thought, were pretty good, too. She’d half-risen, and hovered a hand over his shirt sleeve, not meaning she’d already heard his name was Hogben.
A fortuitous water droplet made him wipe his cheek. He saw her eyes well up.
“What,” she asked, “was your friend’s name?”
He’d known the Professor by only his stage name, William Le Fontainebleau. He had to guess, recollecting the accent, his partner had hailed from the upper middle-west.
“Oh, don’t let me rush you.” This time, she did touch his arm. “How awful it is!”
“Ma’am.” He’d allowed himself to choke here. “It’s a little tough to spell. Let me write it down for you.” He figured there was no help for it; the Professor’s people—in Ypsilanti, it might be, or Appleton—probably had no expectation of hearing from him, alive or dead.
He jotted Minneapolis, as likely a place as any. “I couldn’t tell you the street address.”
“Oh…” She looked at the ledger. “I think they’ll find him…I mean…his suvivors.”
“They’ll find ’em.” Mack had seconded this, a little abrupt.
Hogben’s lyrics are from “Asleep in the Deep”, 1897, Arthur J. Lamb
Hogben tried singing counterpoint to the melody…got absorbed in the challenge, started over, switched to “Nearer My God to Thee”. He fell silent, the hymn reminding him to plan. They always began a show that way, a prayer and a song. Brought the audience together, gave them a common purpose, one that with luck would hold. Was there any reason the Professor couldn’t, then, this one time…be there in spirit?
“As my late partner…always liked to say.” Hogben spoke aloud, acted the little catch, the timbre of his voice made fond and regretful. His shoes scudded over greening weedy stuff and moss. He noted tiny flowers, a mound of them in a sunny patch warmed also by the bridge’s abutment. Too puny to make a nosegay of. But it was a thought. If he wasn’t wrong about Mrs. Bard, he’d get more mileage from a bunch of chickweed, than Shaw from running her errands.
Hogben started. A head, disheveled hair, a mud-smeared chin and nose, emerged from the cover of the bridge, near where Hogben had proposed to sit and think. The rest began to come out, and what showed earliest was clad in an undershirt.
“Sir, I…may I ask you, will you…go.” The young man gestured. He rose, clear of the arch, and stood, clutching the band of his trousers. “And, for a minute, wait on the road? Please.”
“Mr. Hogben!” The voice was Minnie Leybourne’s. “Is that you? Don’t go!”
He’d been prepared to high-tail it. Hogben had to debate with himself a moment, whether in such circumstances a lady’s preference must be obeyed—and the chance to decide got away from him. Minnie came out from under the bridge, fixing on her hat. Her skirts bore the sort of debris that might gather there, 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.
“Nico!” 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.
Continued from “The Modern Girl . . .”
“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 down along the river, down where they got the factory.”
Hogben met Minnie half way. She’d climbed the incline opposite with some labor, saying these things. She’d begun to trot across, and Hogben, hoping the young people were going in to town, not coming back from it, wanted to congratulate her and leave her.
Minnie took his arm.
“I’m headed back to Mrs. Bard’s,” he told her.
“That’s fine,” Minnie said. She added, “He’s not. Why do people get married?”
Hogben took a step forward, and Nico fell in behind.
“Mister. I don’t remember you.” His manner seemed a touch standoffish, nose-in-the-airish—but Hogben got him. He repeated his name.
“Yes. Hogben. The question of marriage. You see that society…I think I won’t use the word society. This has implications. No. Shall we say the human collective? The human collective enjoys this institution, which is made for…in regard to…property. Nothing that is a need, native to the being. You see. No. The historical basis of the married state is only for the distribution and disposal of property. Its legal authority, the importance assigned to it, these are derived merely from property. Of course, no one can own anything.” He put a cigarette between his lips, and mumbled, “In point of fact. You are only retaining it.”
Lighting the cigarette and spewing smoke, Nico then pre-empted Hogben, who had separated a fair number of people from their property, on the verge of his echoing, “I see.”
“Now from here, there,” he said, “you see the obscenity of personal wealth.” Nico raised a finger, and gestured towards the castle-like structure, turreting above its own barricading wall, on a hilltop more or less a mile from Mrs. Bard’s farmhouse.
“Local nabob.” Hogben nodded. He hadn’t picked up the factory owner’s name, which he wanted—without seeming to. And he was only assuming this was so, that the owner of such a house must also own the most prominent business hereabouts.
It seemed likely he was not going to de-couple from this pair. Make the most of it, he told himself. Hogben was not by habit a deep thinker. Why not just float a balloon?
“Now Mr. Raymond, you take an interest in the little man, so to speak. I guess you’ve heard the scuttlebutt, about war coming on, maybe?”
She detected Mr. Hogben’s voice, and thought a sort of misery colored his inarticulate grunts. The other man she knew at once for a stranger. Now and again she could hear Minnie Leybourne. Mostly the stranger, passionate. War an invention of the military interests, an affliction on the helpless poor…starved, driven from their homes, murdered. That the capitalist might enrich himself further. A good deal more of this. She peeled store-bought potatoes, Bladon at her side, razoring off the thinnest corkscrews of skin, digging the point of his knife into the eyes. Bladon, Mr. Shaw’s first name. She hadn’t reciprocated by telling him to call her Aimee. He stammered over Mrs. Bard.
He’d wired money to his employer, while down in the town; the company, he’d said, had allowed him to purchase a fresh crate of fountain pens—“Good ones, ma’am. They don’t leak a bit. I’ll let you have one of the atlases. I’m supposed to give them out free…but I don’t have to, every time. Fifty cent a dozen.”
“Oh, well, an atlas, that’s awfully nice.” She’d buy the pens too, have to. What business did he have, giving her things? Pricey, she thought. But Abel’s son was in the navy. He might soon be writing letters home—and so she’d dispose of the purchase.
The thought of war, of Ralph’s grandson fighting in one, made her feel…frustrated. That was what she felt. Vic had come up around lunchtime, slipping through the kitchen door, after she’d shooed Minnie and Ruby out.
“I got these telegrams from Washington. Take a look.”
While Vic tapped his heel and peered through the window-shade at the circlings and flappings of her houseguests, she’d read his telegrams backwards and forwards—and couldn’t see how the Commission’s assuming a mine proved anything about where it had come from.
Continued from “Mossbunker’s Castle”
“That could take months, couldn’t it? Maybe they never will. Find out, I mean.”
“Ain’t gonna wait, though.”
And yet, if they called for volunteers…that was another way out. How she could practice on Carey without hating herself for it, supposing he charged off to battle half-cocked (the only way he was likely to)…
But psychology or no, she thought her nephew would get on better, given an ambition to pursue; hang on, doing his duty by wife and child, until she’d figured out her arrangements. He had none of his own…ambition…only this notion that waxed and waned, of “going out west”.
Aimee had given her niece five dollars to make the first installment on the Singer machine the company she did piece-work for had let her buy from them.
“If he gets on that train, he’s taking Cynthia with him.”
They were both worn out from work—and his aunt did not hold Carey’s inconstancy against him. No, it was a miserable life being poor, living in rooms. She would herself have hated working at any of the jobs she might be given, had she been such a church mouse. Though she lived in a house that was hers for life, and though Ralph had put one thousand dollars in the bank to provide her an income—which amounted to not much—Aimee wasn’t inviting them to come stay. So many rooms…but no.
Getting Mrs. Frieslander in as a boarder had made trouble enough with Abel. She’d had to tell him Mrs. Frieslander was a relative. In this way, she got three dollars a week to send to Philadelphia, and felt better for it. But it was a crisis, always a crisis, with her nephew. If luck were not what it was, she might fear his leaving Jane at any time; but, no doubt that convergence of impulse and despair would hit just when he’d got her in the family way, once more. There might be time. There might, possibly, be Mr. Hogben.
“Mr. Hogben,” Shaw said to her, “called you a widow.” He flushed. He sought correction. “I mean, I ought to say, you were telling me about Ralph. Your husband, you said. So I guess I got the idea.” Abruptly, he ended here, and bent to gouge at his potato.
“Oh, well,” she said. “I was awfully fond of Ralph.” She’d been married to him, at any rate. But Shaw, putting two and two together, seemed to have understood her. A little better than she’d hoped. She reached across and took the bowl away, and used the moment to steal a studied look at his face.
“You’re so good, Mr. Shaw. I wonder…” She filled a second bowl with tap water. This, because the water ran thin from the well, was all she could do at the moment.
“Oh, I’ll do another chore for you, if you like, ma’am.”
“I don’t think you can.”
“Sure I can.”
“Well…Bladon…if you’d get that paint that’s peeling scraped down off the front porch posts, and then sweep it all clean.”
“Yes, ma’am. I saw how that was. Needs a coat of paint.”
She watched him snatch up the broom and trot off. He was thirty-five or six, she thought. An awkward age for poor Mr. Shaw, late for marrying. But too many years younger than herself. And then again, his nature was diffident; he would try her patience, waiting every time for her to take the lead.
“Do you ever think about settling down?” She liked the sound of this….it would do. It would do, because Hogben was also a kind of salesman, a traveling man alone in the world…if by choice, she didn’t blame him a bit—but even charlatans settled, eventually, didn’t they? If she’d said the same words to Vic, he’d take them as a proposal. And Vic, like Ralph had been, was a widower, his daughter already keeping his house for him.
Vic B. Mack was in Mossbunker’s castle keep, as he guessed. Mossbunker had spoken to him once, and had not allowed him inside the walls. They’d walked the yellowing sward, as Mack felt inclined to call it, passed by the holly hedges, these suffering somewhat for the gardener’s severe clipper work, but still prickly…skirting an honest to goodness ditch. Or whatever a feudal lord might have called it. Moat, maybe. Mossbunker had said, shading eyes and flinging a commanding finger, looking like a statue of Clark or Frémont, “That hill. I’m dynamiting it. The only way, Mack. What with the telephone, we’ll be rolling out reams of cabling.”
“You figure the fill’d level out a place for company houses.”
Mossbunker had not figured this, Mack gathered. He’d been silent.
“It is my opinion,” he said at last, “that an open hand breeds mere contempt. A man who has got something of his own through working for it appreciates exactly the value of it. I don’t play this game of being a father to the men. If you ask me to pay for a thing, show me first how it pays me.”
You couldn’t make idle conversation with some people. For a second, it seemed almost worthwhile to Mack to answer Mossbunker with an editorial. He remembered, before he’d got far doing math in his head, that he had no opinion of his own, on this.
Mossbunker’s name had been on the factory deed for twenty years, and he’d never been seen locally, ’til ’89. As a byproduct of the terrible flood at Johnstown, he’d turned up, surveying, with a coterie of gents in English tweeds, this high hill he’d owned all along. 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 previous.
Mossbunker, the multi-millionaire, now had a Hammersmith address. His presence had never been witnessed on Main Street. Mack expected he would read only the Philly papers. But he’d been working on this inroad. As soon as Abel Bard let him know about the American Patriots, Mack had said, “Now, I don’t want to give a bad impression. A lot of people might think the proprietor of the Signal is not gonna keep things to himself. If it makes Mossbunker uncomfortable, having me there…”
“You saying you wanna join up? Just for yourself?”
“I’m a patriot, Abel.”
The banqueting hall, hung with tapestries that seemed to emit an odor of medieval sweat (authentic, Mack was willing to believe) had an oblong table, where this knighthood of American purity sat decidedly in order of precedence. He was at the foot. At least he supposed so. At his back, a vast oaken door swung on its hinges whenever the servants brought another dish to the board. It was a relief to have been given silverware—in fact, a decent slice of Sunday ham. You couldn’t tell how far a man who could afford to spend what he liked might invest in the Age of Chivalry.
At length, one final servant made the round of guests, with an open coffer of cigars, and was then dismissed by Mossbunker.
“Elton, will you lead us?” he asked. Elton Bott, undertaker, seated at Mossbunker’s left, clasped hands and bowed his head. It was the second prayer of the evening. Mossbunker himself had led grace.
“Dear Heavenly Father. Thou“—Bott addressed the Lord pointedly—“are mighty in wisdom.”
“Art,” Mack found himself murmuring.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
“Goes with thou.”
“That may be so, Vic. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone interrupt a prayer for editing.”
Mack thought a contrite hunkering, than further speech, preferable at this juncture.
“Lord, we Hammersmithans face a dire threat, the peril of which we have not before this day known. Please bless and guide our path, and light the way of this…same path…that we do rightly in thy sight. Amen.”
“Amen,” Mack said, with the others.
“Yes.” Mossbunker spoke. “Thank you, Elton. You put the matter in a nutshell. Abel, I think you are well placed to offer illumination…indeed, if you’ve been on your toes, you will have carried to us specific intelligence from Mrs. Bard’s house.”
Abel Bard was at Mack’s right hand, well down the table from Mossbunker and his most trusted vassals. It struck Mack, to judge from his face of wary calculation, that Abel had not been on his toes.
“War…” he began.
“In good time, no doubt.” Mossbunker linked his fingers. “In the meantime, there’s that dago. And a couple of micks.”
Silence fell, and Abel seemed still to hold the floor. He scratched his nose. He checked the shine on his shoe. He said, “Well, I guess it’s true, so far as that Miss Magley goes. I can’t tell you about Shaw. Not every Shaw, you know…”
“Bard! You find out those things by asking. I don’t know what’s keeping you.”
“Uh. I haven’t been up to look in on…um…my stepmother. I had ’bout a hundred acres under water, this past week.”
“You’re going to find out Miss Leybourne’s real name. How are you going to find out?”
“By asking, Cranston. Only…I don’t see that’s an easy thing for a married man to be asking a stranger. It’s a little…”
“A little more of a…” Mack put in. Cranston, he was saying to himself…I guess that is Mossbunker’s given name.
“…professional concern, I would say. Something a newspaper man might ask, not offending the lady.”
“Hmm. Only she may take off with the dago. I had a report the two of them were seen down at that roadhouse, where the hands go…McKeefe’s. They’ll pass out their anarchist propaganda and disappear. Vic, I want your report tomorrow. No later.”
Continued from “Marching Orders”
This was leaderly and galvanizing, the more so because Mack’s initiative seemed to have got him past the voting-in process. There was a snag, however, in the pace at which his patriotic career was moving.
“When you say report…when you say tomorrow…”
“We write nothing down. When I say report, I mean I expect you at my door. Don’t come at lunchtime.”
Ruby Magley went walking down the dewy hillside towards the same creek that had attracted Hogben. This early morning, she too hoped to sit in quiet thought, listening, in her case, to birdsong. She felt not quite so bereaved today…just lonely. All the same, it 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, 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 been her calling. The smallest mite she was the day she’d rescued the first of her broken-winged darlings—these ever afterwards, and the babies flung from their nests. She saw herself plain and small still, but had 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 he ought to have. He’d have killed them, the cheapskate. Though the question was somewhat moot, now she’d 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. 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, 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?”
Continued from “Two Reunions
“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…”
She saw Mr. Littler’s mouth was 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’d forgotten your other name.”
“Magley,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Magley, Mrs. Bard is my aunt. That was all.”
“Ah, well, you told me she was. I’d got it mixed up. Do you think you could walk?”
His feet were horribly blistered. Under the water, bits of skin peeled loose, and floated around raw, pink wounds, that would have bled in the open air. Ruby prided herself that the sight turned her stomach not in the least.
“I grew up on a farm, did I tell you? If you had a pocket knife now, I might cut the hem from my petticoat…”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
Carey had reached the tip of a finger to Papageno’s feathered crest. The bird squawked. But that, bless his heart, was only the voice God had given him to speak with.
“I haven’t hurt him?”
“Here,” she said. “Hold him.”
While Carey sat, entranced, stroking Papageno with a delicate concentration, Ruby perked her ears. She had heard the sound of Mr. Shaw’s breathing. Yes, it must be that. Mr. Hogben would sing or whistle, in any case, and when he exerted himself, huffed in a bass tone. Shaw, alone, seemed to be tramping across the bridge.
She had never before uttered the phrase, “yoo hoo”, but certain grumblings and gaspings she could recall from grown people known in childhood, suggested to Ruby it would be ill-mannered to yell out the name of a man she knew scarcely at all.
“Yoo hoo!” she called to Shaw. “Oh, sir!”
This excitement caused Tamino to levitate above her head. Papageno then, in the way of creatures, struggled free, to land beside his brother and lunge a beak at him. Mr. Shaw’s jaw dropped, as had Carey’s.
He righted himself, from the stone arch on which he’d leant to look, and jogged down to them.
“Have they found their way home to you, your birds? That,” he said, peering at the top of Ruby’s coif, “is quite amazing. I think you ought to speak to Mack.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you know Mr. Littler? Oh, Mr. Shaw!” In her agitation, Ruby clasped the hand Shaw had begun extending. “I think we can manage, what with the two of us!”
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…and Hogben had been a traveling man for twenty-odd years. He’d had scrapes. He’d not often had a partner to rely on. But even these past few, when with the Professor he’d gone the route from Philadelphia to San Francisco—north to Bismarck, south to El Paso—he’d known better. He and the Professor had talked about two things: what sort of crowd they expected to draw, and what sort of crowd they’d drawn.
Hogben, to his audience, talked up the wonders of the telephone. He loathed the telephone. He blamed the object for ruining his act. The first instinct he’d had, greeted at the Hammersmith opera house with free cable service (he’d sent one to an old creditor…why not?), with blankets, hot coffee, chicken and dumplings, a folding chair to sit on, Mack’s daughter the second person to offer him a temporary home (angry, for some reason, when he told her he’d accepted Mrs. Bard’s)…had been to strike while this iron was hot. Hearts don’t stay soft forever.
He’d met the manager, Mr. Braithwaite. Hugh.
“Looks like all you got going is a couple of picture shows,” Hogben had started off.
“Well, it’s Holy week coming up.”
“Ah.” Here was a snag about which Hogben could gauge nothing. He persevered. “I wonder, Hugh, if I could ask…a kind of personal favor.”
He’d tried getting a whiff of the place, then—going into town at Mack’s invitation, chatting guardedly about the shares. Willing, though, to drum up an audience, with a little publicity. Once upon a time, you’d have been safe enough. You figured business hours being over for the day, nobody was rushing off to send a telegram, just to learn if your company was listed. There’d been no ringing up for information.
He had the morning Signal on Mrs. Bard’s dining room table, in front of him. He had the house to himself, excepting Mrs. Frieslander. She was in the front parlor with her mending basket, and Hogben had been dodging her company.
“Now, that’s not good news, that about the Spanish ships. That governor, what he is, knows best.”
She spoke, having heard him rustle the paper, and Hogben glanced over the front page. Governor. Cuban gent, maybe, didn’t trust Spain’s diplomatic note. That was all the news today.
“No, ma’am. Don’t think so.”
No, you couldn’t sit and have a quiet thought. It seemed you couldn’t take a stroll up the road, either. Thursday had loomed, and Hogben hadn’t felt completely in command of the exigencies, and he’d broken his rule.
“Mrs. Bard, I can’t quite make up my mind what to do.”
This was all the sense of the place he’d been able to get. That Hammersmithans kept an eye out. They seemed to. If you paused in front of the library to scratch your chin, someone would sidle up…but neighborly…and mention that dandy bald eagle Mossbunker had donated to the curiosities. “See it in the cabinet, there.”
“Stuffed, you mean.”
“I know how it is for you,” she’d said, Mrs. Bard. “It was like that for me when I was widowed. Maybe not just like that,” she’d added. “But, you know, wanting for things to be the same. Doing what you would have done anyway. Mr. Hogben…”
They’d been on the porch, amid Shaw’s project, with all the boards skinned down, two or three washed over with a first coat. Shaw had bought a small can of white, another of pale grey. Hogben watched Aimee’s gaze dart to these swatches…saw a face of what he would have thought exasperation.
“I’d go with grey,” he told her. “Carry more dirt.”
She’d had something in mind. She changed it—though at his comment she’d nodded—and said, “Mr. Hogben, it’s no disgrace if you like to cancel your show. You didn’t give any money to Hugh?”
“Portion of the proceeds.”
“You didn’t sell any tickets?”
“Always collect at the gate.”
“Then my advice is, give it up. Wait, I mean, until you feel ready.”
But was that what she meant? He thought she’d held his eyes with an extra oomph in her own (as eyes went, these fairly oomphy from the start), when she’d said the words, “give it up”. While, on the other hand, waiting—for a man with no fixed abode—was the same as staying. He could hardly do that, unless he began paying his rent, or helping out with chores, like Shaw.
So it was that, as Hogben had always known it to be, when you asked for advice, you got nothing but the rug yanked out from under you. Doubt cast on things you’d never question, another’s plans substituted for your own.