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 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 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.
Continued from Hammersmith (beginning at page 16)
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary, a blood-brick house with a high flight of steps and barred lower windows; these a handy place for youngsters in the throng waiting to be admitted, to clamber up and peer in at the treatment rooms. The angle of the house crowded the mouth of the lane, and the hucksters, competing for custom with their improvised 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; otherwise the lane was so impassible to omnibus or wagon, that Aimee saw the cobbles fairly clean. And the only pedestrians who seemed to be making advances were there, at the center.
She was having difficulty with Hogben, who couldn’t make up his mind whether to plow ahead of his companion, or guard the rear.
“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’d mumbled this, a rote gallantry.
“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 could well be—though Aimee hadn’t been told it—a daughter among siblings, how would that not serve for the best?
She knew from the priest who would not baptize Cynthia…and couldn’t say, because her own niece and nephew (imagining the argument lay in her disapproval) insisted it was not so…that Carey and Jane were not mister and missus. Too poor to pay for a license when they’d been in love, and no longer in love.
She followed Monty’s ushering hand, through a passage about the width of a footpath, that looked as though it might become a street. They got to the end of the lane, to a fence behind which new construction was rising, and there seemed to be no Krabill’s, no number 203. They retraced their steps.
Carey had said, “She keeps a sign in the window. To let. There’s never any time Mrs. Krabill can’t make a bed for a paying tenant. So it’s always to let.”
“You think they tore it down? I read in the paper how the city’s growing overnight.”
“I think we’re lost.” Aimee was keeping hope firm. “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!”
The voice had come from a window overhead. Possibly.
The passage, almost a tunnel, under further awnings and laundry, opened wide at its egress. Perched catty-corner where the lane curved, bringing them back to the fencing, the jack-hammering, the crane swinging its wrecking ball, the echoing thud and wobbly sound of a brick wall giving…but not quite, not yet…was a pleasant white-washed house. Here was Carey’s sign: Krabills To Let, cardboard in the parlor window.
Continued from Backborough Lane
Upstairs above a corner porch was another, and Aimee thought at first Mrs. Krabill’s indifferent taste had spoiled her nice house-front. Someone had nailed a crazy quilt over one set of windows, another had yellowed newsprint pasted behind a torn screen. A side window, part visible through a hand’s-breadth of uncovered glass, had a piece of gingham cloth, one not stitched into an actual curtain, hanging from a row of tacks.
Hogben had already mounted the steps, and jerked the bell.
“I’m getting rid of those people up there,” the apparent Mrs. Krabill said, nudging aside the servant who’d cracked the door. “I told that girl…ma’am.”
Aimee found herself tilting on the threshold. The maid backed 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 were in a process of oozing, the four of them, further into the vestibule at the foot of the stairs.
“Get out, Rita,” the proprietress said. “See if those bedsheets have got dry.”
This extracted the maid from the equation. Mrs. Krabill seemed to feel they knew each other now. “Come on in the kitchen. Mister, what’s your name? 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…put them together, rather, having spent the year making them. Carey and Jane’s would be 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 (this as close to prodding her nephew as Aimee liked going).
She did not meet them at whatever rooming house they were living in. There had been three in the past year. She found them on Market street, her beanpole nephew spotted in last year’s plaid cap, his small, pinched wife, wearing her rabbit collar, the two reconciled over a day of fun…a day, at least, of letting Aunt Bard buy them a restaurant lunch, take the baby and carry her. 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 of Wanamaker’s; that Aimee’s money was better spent stopping their latest eviction. But they strolled ahead, his arm around Jane’s waist, her hand pointing, 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 sets of shutters had been hammered up either side to fill some sort of gap. Wind gusted, spring-scented air burst in. On this day, a breeze was welcome, a relief from onions and cabbage. But Jane’s little porch must be drafty as the outer view implied.
She was not too ill to work.
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 began to wobble in its frame…but it held, and Jane’s face peered round, eyes seeing Aimee and passing her by, looking up and away, 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.
A sofa—with a blanket draped along the seat, trailing the scant carpet; a pillow on the seat, and one on the floor—was taking the wall under the windows, leaving clearance for only this rug and a little chest. Jane’s sewing table filled the angled space that made the corner porch bow from its moorings. The door came open about a foot and a half.
While Aimee wedged through, Jane was telling on, and the face called for was a sympathetic, not a grimacing, one.
“…if I tried, it would be just having to make 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 think. Is there a way of knowing what makes people stick to their obligations? Or what makes a thing an obligation at all?”
Uninvited, but unable to avoid it, Aimee fell sitting onto the sofa, her knees giving way in abrupt collision, as her bag popped free. She looked up into Jane’s eyes, and saw there the rheumy aspect of one who’d cried, for pain of heart and body, many days running.
Mostly, in answer to this quandary of her niece, other people’s judgment, Aimee thought. 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 blaming stare at the open kitchen door, this 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 eye.
“If Jane Littler could sweep a floor, I’d know how long it takes to get a floor swept. What 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’d gone to him anyway, that he had anything at all to be collecting for.
Continued from Having a Treat
“Then who do you know wants a room? I’m a week behind…but Mr. Hogben says Mrs. Bard’s come 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…” Here Curach stopped himself, ducked his head and glanced 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 felt, 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, he thought, was all the name he would get, and this by proxy, as he’d been proxied into Mrs. Bard’s family group, none of whom, it seemed, were quite related.
“You are,” Hogben recalled Mack’s talk overheard, “a sort of ward heeler. For a man named Piggott.”
With a sly wink of acquiescence, Curach buried his face in the cup of hot tea Mrs. Krabill, bending over the range, had just handed across.
Now, again in this drafty house, sounds of two speakers approaching—in this case, with a clatter down the stairs—made listeners straighten in anticipation.
The girl entered, her bonnet tied on, a fur collar round her neck, and Aimee, nudging her from behind with a tap on the shoulder. Hogben stood, for having a moment ago sat, and Aimee said, “Mr. Hogben, this is my niece, Jane Littler.”
Curach stood, having none of formalities, and nodded sideways at Mrs. Krabill. “Ah, there’s the girl on her feet. A plate of oysters and a chicken to herself, I’d say. 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 St. Bernard’s, 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 had a back way in, that allowed a cab to draw to the curb; the front, which they’d trotted smartly past, a narrow vermillion door next to a bay window stacked under a second-floor counterpart. And through this paned glass poised above a railing, Aimee thought she’d glimpsed Vic, wreathed in smoke. Also, a striped cravat and the glint of a watch fob that made her think of Mossbunker, though the owner of these articles sat shadowed in a leather chair. Another man, with a hand on Vic’s shoulder, cocked his head in a noticing way, and threw a glance at them passing, his lips continuing to move in speech. Curach, opposite her, leaned on his stick, and returned through the hackney’s window an amiable smile, and two-fingered tap of the hat brim.
They came up 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 after theirs.
A silent officer in velvet tailcoat collected hats and sticks; his nodding head then drew them crabwise to a demi-chamber, brightened, for curving round a staircase landing under a skylight some floors up, with a watery escutcheon of sunshine. The tables were round, skirted in lace, corners offset by those of linen over-cloths. Fairy lamps of hobnail glass sat unlit on each; behind each, against rose and white paper, hung oval-framed paintings of young couples, walking hand in hand.
Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer.
Jane stared. Perhaps she took it cruelly, or perhaps, as did Aimee, she suspected Curach—if not some other of Lord Piggott’s operatives—of having been tasked with decorating a ladies’ parlor, in this most apparent lair of men’s backroom brokering, and of having snagged a job lot from a bankrupt charm school.
Curach was seeing to Jane, holding her chair-back, stopping himself whistling indoors, yet in spirit continuing jaunty. Aimee thanked Hogben and took her own chair. At once, the friend of Vic came weaving past the foot of the staircase, hailing Curach.
Continued from The St. Bernard Hotel
Curach said, with an insider’s nod, “Mrs. Bard, aye. I present you, ma’am, Philander Piggott. Mr. Hogben, sir.” Piggott had Aimee’s extended hand between his; he dropped this gently, then offered one of his own to Hogben.
Hogben cleared his throat, and after a second answered, “Kind of you, sir.”
They all, by compulsion, looked at Jane
“The lass.” Curach gave this news to Piggott chin down, eyebrows lifted.
Piggott said, “Ah, it won’t do.”
He caught Hogben’s eye, and gave a sort of wink. Of commiseration, if a wink could convey so much. “Of course you’ll all come to my table.”
They did not, at once.
Piggott took off with Curach at his elbow, having told Aimee, “Keep your seat, Mrs. Bard. And you, Miss…I mean to say, it’s Mrs…Littler, is it? Yes, there’s one or two things to see to. I’ll send Curach right back to fetch you.”
Ten minutes passed…and the tailcoated door warden put his head in.
He stood aside, and ushered before him a waiter pushing a wheeled cart. The cart bore a tall silver pot for coffee, a short one for tea, and a platter; atop this a ring of fissured meringue, lightly tanned, spilling cherries, canned (the season being premature).
“Yes, please.” 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 dug at the confection with a pastry knife, producing a slab that he lowered onto a plate; he then lowered the plate in the direction of Aimee’s patch of tablecloth.
Jane shook her head, mute and apprehensive as she had been since lighting from Curach’s cab. Monty began, at once the waiter wheeled off, spooning up syrup and crust as though catching a life buoy between the teeth.
“Jane, drink your tea. And have a bite to eat.” Aimee drained her own cup, severed the pie onto her saucer, and pushed this across to her niece. She saw Jane, cowed to obedience, fork a cherry, and didn’t wholly regret the sharp tone—though she’d used it with Vic in mind.
Monty laid down his fork. Jane swallowed two more bites and a gulp of tea. Aimee was the last of the three to lift her head, but they managed it with close timing. They shifted eyes, and searched for banter.
“I think I’ve been rude, and I don’t mean to.”
Aimee saw her niece seem to brace herself. She turned to face Monty and tilted him a weak smile.
“Mr. Hogbben…I’m so pleased to know you. I’m so happy,” she went on, “to hear your news from Aunt Bard. I hope you will never trouble yourself on my account…” She pulled herself the more upright, and Aimee, too late, recognized noble impulse.
“I won’t truly be family to you, of course…only Cynthia’s mother…but I mean to teach her to think rightly. About obligations.”
That “to you”—never mind obligations—had come across loaded, and Hogben’s eyes popped somewhat.
But at that moment, Curach returned. He had a sheaf of newspapers tucked in an armpit.
“You’ve met Mr. Mossbunker. Or have you not?”
This proposition, agreed to or no, didn’t guarantee meeting Mossbunker was on the program.
“Certainly, pleased,” Hogben hedged. “Honored.”
This time, they climbed the stairs.
Mossbunker’s reception room being more private (perhaps women did not appear in the St. Bernard’s 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, before the flames settled. They were gas jets, ensconced in folded acanthus leaves, sprouting from bronze cones; these held in fists that jutted at intervals from the wall.
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.
A peppery smell of beef gravy filled the room. The early dessert 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.”
She half rose herself, and Mossbunker, materializing near the fireplace, bowed, crossed, took her hand, bowed over this, again. Two more waiters carried 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 Mossbunker’s.
That was to say, Mossbunker didn’t roar, and only in having thick, lofting hair, resembled a lion (his face otherwise that of an ox who suspects the worst), but 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.”
His gravity was condemning (sufficient to hold Jane somewhat at fault, for this being a young woman).
“The times”—Mossbunker’s 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…it is their great satisfaction, to uphold 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) drained from his face; then, aiming this visage of granite at Aimee, Mossbunker said, “Littler. A good English name. I believe so. Is it yours, Mrs. Bard?”
Continued from Autocratic Mysteries
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, making to answer, but Mossbunker lifted his own, letting 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. You will have to explain. Mrs. Bard.”
These autocratic mysteries made Aimee fear, for a moment, that Mossbunker was about to pronounce the two of them man and wife.
“You are only a poor widow. I don’t hold Vic accountable, not wholly…he tells me he has kept an eye on you. That he has made an offer of marriage, and 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 hadn’t proposed. He’d merely remarked, on one or two occasions, that their hitching up would be a good idea. She had merely riposted, that you can tell a good idea by its producing good results. She’d have gone on, about June, and Jane, and Carey…and even Abel…but they never got that far in this argument.
“Avarice,” Mossbunker said. He fell silent. Hogben backed his chair another inch from the table.
“When I acquire a business, I do so only on the stipulation that its directors 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’d like to see a boatload of immigrants brought in, draw off the able-bodied ones with short-term promises of higher wages. Perhaps 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 good, steady job, one he can count on in years to come…he wants to put a little by, 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.
“Yes! You’ve hit, Vic, on the very phrase I have in mind. A misguided notion, to which some of our self-styled philanthropists insist on subscribing. 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, came to them, reminding Aimee it was Piggott had first invited them upstairs.
“If Hogben’s polished off his peas and carrots.”
Piggott came to sit, next to Hogben, settling into this chair with a luxuriant spread, and motioning to the waiter attending them.
“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 of her corset, nodded to a few more potatoes, a last roll. It was something to do. Piggott ruminated over his plate. Curach, filling their two glasses from a carafe, began a private chat with Vic.
“And so…the note she left said, I’ll be getting that you had in mind.” Curach cocked his head. He prompted further. “But she said also…”
“Also,” Vic began…but here shot Aimee a glance. His face looked to her somewhere between hangdog and caught-red-handed.
“Also.” He straightened in his chair, and under her eye, gave this patent role a better essay. “She wrote down, I will let the customer know we don’t give extras.”
“And she may well do.” Curach sighed. “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.” 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 Mossbunker should—showing a sudden keenness—wake to their table-talk, and take charge.
“Indeed, these foreigners like to make a channel, for all their relatives to float in upon. Yes, 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 this 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.”
With every evidence of a desire to bolt—another inch of clearance added between himself and the table, two quick glances in succession darted at the door, a third seeming to take the waiter’s measure—Hogben accepted the photos from Mossbunker.
He 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 demand 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. A second or two passed, while the strain in his eyes grew. Then:
“Holy Moly! That says April eleventh!”
Vic stood, reached across the table, snatched the picture, and said, by way of excuse, “Gimme that!”
“You’re not accusing Monty of…of being party to…”
Wrongdoing, Aimee supposed. Of course, he was. Why, though, did Mossbunker care to machinate over a petty swindle, one aborted in any case?
And Monty, for having fallen into a stupor, astonishment frozen in his eyes, convinced her. She’d 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 he might elucidate as he chose.”
“Must have been down under water, holding his breath,” he elucidated, dazed.
“Hold it!” Vic said.
“You’re thinking, Mr. Mossbunker, there was money involved. Let me tell you, we never earned so much we couldn’t spend it, getting to the next stop. I mean to say.”
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.”
She glanced at Vic, noted in the photo he slammed beside her plate, the damning schedule, noted the man whose hand was on the sleeve of another she’d never seen—and who looked to have been drawing him into place, so that the hidden camera might add that 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 of their fuss subsiding, and Mossbunker having had two things demanded of him, the table became aware…
Of his regarding them with Jove’s thunderbolt in his eyes.
“The question. Hogben, are you with us, or are you against us?”
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”
She lowered her voice; she didn’t bother whispering. Curach, again sitting across from them, 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. She widened her eyes, and with a palm flat against the interior flocking, pulled herself upright.
“Is that what you mean?”
Aimee, having meant nothing very portentous, stole a glance at Curach. Curach proved himself equal to gleaning conversation from the chaff of obscurity.
“Madame Mossbunker,” he remarked, “is likely enough to bung you in a parlor, just to wait dinner. Don’t think 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 haven’t myself been asked 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 quiet street, we might get out and walk…?”
He set up at once, banging 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; and strolled, keeping themselves in her sight, the promenade that enclosed the whole—tulip beds, piazza, founder straddling a boulder, over which water streamed.
“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 to have me smoke?”
“No, please,” she said. “Do you mean, because we’re at war?”
“Well, I mean, if you like, that Mossbunker, in the ordinary way, hasn’t got much to do with us. And why should any of them,” Curach cocked his head in the direction of the Schuylkill, busying himself for a moment with a match, “give a thought to the low end of town, or cut bargains with Mr. Piggott, in the ordinary way of things, except, you’ll appreciate… Mossbunker wants his man in the governor’s seat, and he wants his man in the senate, and filling his pockets with useful cronies, so, he wants all the custom can be sent 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 you 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…that’s well and good…” She stopped. “I don’t know why I say it. It’s Hammersmith Mossbunker is building up, you mean. Maybe I ought to take that room of Mrs. Krabill’s, and stop pretending to be good enough to live there!” None of this was what she’d thought she was getting at. She tried again.
“Piggott has served Mossbunker up the professor. Keeping in good?”
“It’s the genius of the man. He looks far into the future.”
Curach meant, she thought, Piggott. “Is Mr. Shaw a detective, then?”
“I’ve nothing to do with Shaw, so I couldn’t say.” He pulled his pipe from his lips, 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.”
Continued from What’s the Game
Mossbunker, forcing Hogben’s choice as he had—and having won 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’d hoisted an eyebrow at Piggott.
“Mrs. Bard, Mrs. Mossbunker will consider herself honored to entertain you as a guest, for the afternoon. And your niece. I suppose you have never visited the town of Wayne?”
The question was rhetorical; Mossbunker’s retreating back asked no answer. But in this was the crux.
“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, that professor, and would like his old partner present for the interview. To give color, 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 he’d be man of the house while I was gone.”
“Madam, you had cards you’d be laying on the table.”
“Hmm. Curach, you know 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 her living pintucking plackets, if I’ve got that right, and…”
She came to a standstill, gesturing, glanced across at Jane. Luckily Jane studied the fountain’s flow of water, and hadn’t noticed this pantomime’s clumsy import.
“…but it’s hard painting you a picture of Carey. If it were only saloons…well, it’s not saloons…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, and all such things. Why would I be an old stick-in-the-mud…why stop my stepson from selling his father’s house, and getting his money, if he can…? Except, why ever do less than I can, to help the only one I really have left for family? A little house, a little garden in the back, an aunt and uncle on hand to give advice, watch the baby…something that belongs to me outright, that can be theirs for a legacy.”
“Aye, I understand you.”
He sounded doubtful. Maybe Curach thought this only sentiment. She saw he fingered his watch-chain. Likely there were limits to how long one could be delayed in traffic. And Mossbunker had, as events implied, an army of spies.
“Monty struck me as essential to the plan. I thought we’d come to a bargain, because he needed to…and Abel wouldn’t dare shortchange me, not if I told 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.”
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity to pull—in this case, Monty Hogben would have to do—a confidant aside and ask: What’s it all about?
Mossbunker’s height put the two of them knee to knee, and Vic bounced 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 end of the cab. No one spoke.
Traffic was thick here, where a quad of tall buildings frostily graced an intersection with shade and tunneled wind, and where two of the electric trolley cars were engaged on their opposite tracks in passing. A lightweight and glossy green delivery wagon, drawn by a smart white horse, advertising the name of a downtown mercantile company, began edging ahead, coming round at an angle, 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, as a newspaper man might well do…
Mossbunker’s fool’s errand had turned into a project, in some way he was not journalist enough to detect. Vic guessed himself beginning to compose 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.”
Piggott’s thrusting up of his lower lip, as the two men sidled onto the street, suggested to Vic a lack of persuasive slyness in this gambit.
Hogben said: “I can’t tell you much.”
“Known the professor for many years?”
“’Bout six or seven. But, let me tell you this…our way was always to head off separate, him to get us a venue, me to suss out the kind of crowd we were up against. You know, every town’s different…and you never can be sure when someone in the same line hasn’t just passed through that way. Folks get riled up, takes ’em a while to simmer down.”
Time was short. There had grown a visible gap, now, between the parting rears of the two cars. “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 arm waving to them…sardonically, if that were possible. “But,” Vic said, “did Bellfountain not sit down of an evening to write to 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 news.
Continued from A Titled Visitor
They soon trotted out of the tall commercial stretch, then turned between a corner oak and a white wrought-iron fence, into a square of houses, with only an alley for egress.
“Vic,” Mossbunker said, lighting and planting his stick, pivoting back on this and staring at an upper story window. They’d piled out in front of a house identified, under the hitching ring, by a plaque: “Swan”.
“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 adopting this officer’s tone, recalled to Vic his sworn oath of loyalty, in which he’d vowed to take the head patriot as his captain. It was disappointing, how failure to complete his virgin assignment had not prevented his being tasked with another.
Where the alley crossed at the end of the square, he saw a woman emerge, bent to her own task, which to Vic’s eyes seemed one of ferrying a letter, or a telegram…something, at any rate, written on paper and wanting urgent dispatch.
He thought—urgency be damned—he would waylay her. It was in keeping with Mossbunker’s instruction, but more, a chance to put a question of his own. He bore on the woman, blocking her progress with crabwise feints, feeling up and down his pockets…thus able at the crucial moment to wield a business card.
“Ma’am…yes, that’s right, exactly so, Victor B. Mack of the Hammersmith Daily Signal. May I trouble you for a moment of your time?”
“Well, I guess you can,” she said.
“You live hereabouts…Chantry Place, I mean?”
“No, 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 turned down a corner of her mouth, 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 bit, before the stranger who’d spoken.
“You don’t want this card. I will take it from you. Go now.”
She obeyed—and this put an end to the interview.
The gentleman 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, illustrated with just such gents, puffing out their chests, trouser legs tapered, swagger…also something effete…in their attitudes.
“Well, sir. Keep that if you like.”
“Yes, Mr. Mack.” The man chuckled, unchided, not offering his own name or his card. “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 seemed not only cheeky, but contrary to what, clear to Vic now, had been Mossbunker’s very objective.
(more to come)