Hammersmith, set in a mill town in the Susquehanna region of Pennsylvania, begins in March of 1898. Widow Aimee Bard has a business problem to solve. Her stepson Abel is eager to move her into other quarters, just when her nephew needs a stable roost, or Carey may abandon Jane and their daughter Cynthia. Abel’s partner, industrialist Cranston Mossbunker, heads a cell of nativists, the American Patriots (curiously, I did not find a newspaper citation from 1898 that mentioned a group actually using this name). Local newspaper proprietor Victor B. Mack has got his friend to nominate him for membership, and finds himself taking on the unexpected role of investigative reporter. Meanwhile, refugees from a March flood upend Aimee’s plans, though suggesting to her an option a woman might employ. And chanteuse Minnie Leybourne brings to Hammersmith modern ideas . . . along with a Communist lover.
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 among 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 regarded—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 towards a career, as Aimee liked going).
She did not meet them at whatever rooming house they were living in. There had been three in 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 battle-hungry eye 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 look.
“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, Hogben 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, after 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 the kitchen’s 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 some 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 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 lifebuoy 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 helping 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.
Then Aimee’s niece seemed to brace herself. She turned to face Monty and tilted him a weak smile. “I think I’ve been rude, and I don’t mean to.”
Like a duck shedding water, with a shake he discarded astonishment, but Jane was quicker.
“Mr. Hogben, I’m so pleased to know you. I’m so happy…to hear your news from Aunt Bard. I hope you will never trouble yourself on my account…”
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 anew.
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?”
Agreed to or no, this query 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. 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, she guessed, had been for tiding-over purposes.
A throat, pointed in import, cleared itself.
Vic rose to his feet, apologizing. “Cranston…Aimee…Mrs. Bard, I mean. Mrs. Bard, Cranston Mossbunker.”
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) draining 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, and let a knee slide uncrossed. A moment later, on the heels of a tinny something—buzz or bell—from under the table, came another arcing of the lamps.
The velvet-coated majordomo laid before Mossbunker an envelope, and left without a word. Curach chuckled like a theatergoer when the featured turn takes the stage.
“Hogben, the matter at hand concerns an affair of yours. I gather this. 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.
“The great failing of mankind. When I acquire a business, I do so only on the stipulation that its directors will adopt my own methods. I don’t go at a job lickety-split to beat the competition. I take my time. Now, all these builders of skyscrapers, and layers of steel rails, would like to get the project done in a hurry. They’d like to see a boatload of immigrants brought in, draw off the able-bodied 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…but 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 of knees and elbows, 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 stays, 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 all 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 the likes of us. And why should any of them nobs,” 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 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 lay 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. Why would I be an old stick-in-the-mud…why stop my stepson from selling his father’s house, and getting his profit, 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 mercantiler’s flagship, 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.
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…began its intercourse with the visitor in a sunlit parlor, flanked by closed doors. Hogben, for having breakfasted at Aimee’s, ridden on a train, walked a half-dozen city blocks to Krabill’s, gone by cab to lunch at the St. Bernard, come by cab again to this address, would for all the world’s curiosity have preferred his afternoon nap. Not to be a shirker in the face of citizenly duty, but it was almost unfair.
He’d mourned (at least regretted) the professor; had visited Philadelphia on a gentleman’s errand only, and Mossbunker would now have him confront his late partner, a much diminished figure of a man…sunk, as it seemed, into some skullduggerous scheming, a crime of which Hogben knew nothing…and yet the industrialist, again without perfect justice, insisted he could help resolve.
He admitted to one or two butterflies. He wasn’t sure why they were waiting. Mossbunker had taken a wooden bench under a window that overlooked the street. He began to manifest a sort of steam-engine effect, shoulders rising, chest expanding, eyes bulging. He mumbled words, that might have been: “I knew it!”
He said aloud: “Zetland!”
Piggott, who with Hogben occupied the adjacent bench, stood and went to peer for himself. “Mack seems all right,” he told Mossbunker. “I don’t think we ought to wait for Swan.”
“Swan will fail us, that I foresee. We’ll go up.”
The ward boss rose, to swing back one of the doors and stand demure. Mossbunker rose, and halted. Hogben saw himself expected to give the lead. It was not unlike the professor’s way with his old colleague, a habit Hogben had never got around to mentioning his dislike of, this schoolmasterish stinginess with information. But, no doubt he could find room eighteen…even if Piggott could find it faster.
He turned left at the head of the staircase. He heard a grunt behind him. He turned right. He came back and tried the door directly across. This proved a storage cupboard, dizzyingly scented with furniture paste, two tins of it and a pile of rags on the shelf nearest Hogben’s head, an open shaft for a dumbwaiter at the back.
The handle of a mop clattered from a corner to ding a can of window wax opposite. Hogben leant to straighten this—he hadn’t felt a thing under his shoe—and noticed a pair of familiar eyes, importuning from slightly above the floor.
He contrived to knock the mop back the way it had come, then stooped as though to pick up another thing. There was another thing. Le Fontainebleau nudged a white envelope between the dumbwaiter’s top and the cupboard’s floor. Many times the two men had wordlessly coordinated a variety of dodges, and Hogben thought he understood the professor’s dropping-in-a-slot gesture, hampered as this was by restricted space. He pocketed the letter in a hurry.
“There is one way only from the cellars to the street. I took the precaution of having our cabman block the door, in case Swan got himself busy. Doing two things at once.”
Piggott’s remark came on Hogben’s upturned heels, but he’d judged from the piney scent of a suitcoat’s approach that Piggott, though catching the professor dead-to-rights (and Hogben could not feel much dismayed at this), had not witnessed the envelope pass.
Continued from View Halloo
“Zet,” the count said, “land.”
“Ah, heard you wrong.”
Zetland waved a hand in dismissal; then, flinging a glance up and down the square, and saying all at once, “We act now!”, used this to seize Vic by the elbow. Vic found himself tripping (fairly literally) along the walk, past a second house attached to Swan’s, a third attached to that.
With the carved stag’s head at the top of his stick, Zetland unlatched the white fence’s gate. It soon fell in their wake, standing open, as they slipped at speed via a ribbon of front lawn, and ducked, holding their hats, under a spreading dogwood, the count explaining through the course of these clandestine doings, and after mumbling a preliminary, “Yes, yes…”
“The point I impress upon you, is that you will address me as Count von Zetland, and you will make certain the fellow hears. What he may tell himself he hears, you see readily, is no affair of mine.”
Zetland, for releasing Vic to bat at branches, got well ahead now. He jogged up the steps to a front porch, leapt a low railing onto its neighbor; at length, as the distance between them grew, he astonished the huffing Vic by using his stick to cosh a smoking bystander, on whom the count had given every appearance of tiptoeing up behind.
“Take the other arm,” Zetland said, when Vic had made up the distance. “We will put him under the hedge.”
Vic told himself this interview had got out of hand, no question, and at this juncture it didn’t much matter if he were working for Mossbunker or the man in the moon.
“Now if you have a watch, you will take thirty seconds. But do as I have told you, when you see me come to the cab.” Zetland smoothed his coat, positioned his hat, and stepped off briskly.
It was Mossbunker’s own cab. Trailing Zetland into the alley, Vic recognized the number—but now it had been pulled right over a stairwell, one that must lead to a cellar door, this feat achieved by a board laid across.
“Count von Zetland!” Vic bellowed.
The driver, slumped in sleep, started.
Zetland seized the horse by the collar. To the driver, he said: “Take the brake off.”
The driver’s gaze rested, for a moment, on the count’s fine costume. He threw a glance over his shoulder. He tried: “I’m on orders.”
“And was it my brother-in-law who gave you these orders, or only his friend?”
The driver goggled. Of its own accord, and while his eyes stared ahead, his hand eased back the lever. This—Vic goggled a bit, interiorly, himself—was a tidy conundrum the count posed. Piggott would be known to any local man; Piggott’s directives, likely, were not to be flouted. No one would be pleased either to annoy Mossbunker.
The rear wheel bumped off the end of the board; immediately, the board itself rose an inch or two. A voice came from the stairwell.
A figure, one that despaired of escaping by strength, now tried agility. He was known to Vic from his photograph, seen an hour ago at the lunch table.
“Le Fontainebleau.” Vic edged in and lent a hand. The professor ratcheted up and flopped onto his stomach—but with a true balletic grace, he then sprang to his feet, and hurtled like a breaching whale past the cab’s open door…this held by Zetland.
A shout and a bang, and a stranger, doing a rapid charge-and-skid, flung from the cellar, coming athwart the trap set for le Fontainebleau. Piggott, hauling up a second-story window, roared a command at the driver. Mossbunker himself appeared breathless at the head of the alley, towering akimbo there with admirable courage, before flattening himself against a wall, as the cab thundered by. Zetland had got up beside the driver and taken the reins.
And Vic witnessed these things from a seat beside the professor.
“I can’t tell you why, but for some reason a fried egg will always get a laugh. And so I had one cemented to the first plate, with two strips of bacon…rubber, of course…the plate was a round of enameled iron, like your kitchen sink. The coffee pot and cup were painted on the inside…audience couldn’t tell.”
Professor le Fontainebleau chuckled.
“Couldn’t care, more like. Now, there is one of our secrets I don’t mind spilling for you…it bears interestingly on, shall we say, other affairs. Once I’d got settled on my seat, and taken up my knife and fork, Ced would place himself on the left, Cyril on the right. Ced doing his acrobatics…hand-stand, somersault…sort of thing. Light roman candles and manage tossing them across, could Ced, with his toes, mid-flip. I remain dashed. Cyril, on the other hand, equally a talent…which I don’t count myself, particularly…
“Cyril, yes, everything he pulled from his coat was a gag in its own right. Rubber chicken, pair of baby shoes, watermelon…sometimes a cocoanut. Tomahawk. Tried a lady’s corset once, caught too much wind. But take up each candle in its turn, and get those spinning, too. There was a hidden air hose I used to take a breath. The juggling, you see, got people’s eyes off the tank. But also, and it’s a thing worth noting—all this business, timed out, took about three minutes. Now. You will appreciate, with so much to gawp at and cackle over, the audience came to feel I’d been in the water a very long time. My brothers bowed and stepped off…I put away my breakfast—different plate I’d hold up, empty—then took up a hand mirror and straight razor. Miming, you know.”
He mimed now, collecting the eyes of his coach-mates, shifting his chin sideways, bulging one eye and squinting the other, dabbing an invisible hankie at a spot on his cheek.
“I will tell you, the most difficult part of the act was at the end, when I came out. I’d learned to take a great breath through my nose without showing it…but soaking wet as I was, oftentimes I’d get a little tickle of water in my throat. Near thing. With an underwater act, aplomb means all. A bit like fire-eating, that way…and fortunately, not otherwise.”
Vic, in a tired way, raised a smile. The professor was one of those whose confessional impulse opened floodgates. They were on the open road, making for Hammersmith. The countryside being hilly, and the road winding, the pace of Mrs. Mossbunker’s personal coach was steady, more than speedy.
Aimee was trying not to nap. What the professor—“Charley. Used to be Chillingsworth, fair posh, all us with the cees, righto…but Ced and Cyril are still at it, somewheres…I had to take on a new persona” (pronouncing this word with a great fondness for its tony implications)—
Righto. What the professor had to say, eventually, in regard to Mr. Shaw, was important. She’d taken a kind of responsibility for Shaw. In ignorance, she’d left him in charge of her house.
Curach had stopped at Green Glade Lodge long enough for a cup of tea, not yet to be taken in the presence of Mossbunker’s wife. Aimee sat afterwards alone with Jane, on a brocaded sofa under a towering ceiling, done over in traceries from center medallion to corner encrustations: scrollwork, twined in leaves, shouldered by cherubs, balanced on columns. More such, at intervals, descending to the floor.
Jane had been wilting in stages until Aimee, standing, said without proof, “Stretch out, dear. No one will mind.”
Mrs. Mossbunker entered, with drama, at that moment.
“Now, my dears, I make this excuse. I have had a note, brought by a man on horseback…Paul Revere, you know.”
Jane was asleep. Mrs. Mossbunker, motioning a housemaid to follow, crossed to peer. She did this from a height of something, heels to hair, near six feet.
“Urgent, you mean,” Aimee guessed. A call to arms would have been pushing it. Or she had supposed so.
“Margaret. The Sofia suite, with the little daybed on the balcony.”
Continued from A Novelty Act
“Does the child want a doctor? I think”—Mrs. Mossbunker preempted response—“air is always best. Air and a salt bath for the feet. Both together. That is the treatment, no?”
“Lunch was a little rich.” Aimee got this out late, the dry comment she’d been on the verge of. Her hostess’s conversation seemed to advance in leaps.
“No… That is…yes,” she tried again. “I hope not. Quiet and a little rest.”
“As I would have said. Mrs. Bard, I have a matter of discretion. Yes, my husband will sometimes come into my room, when he is restless over those things that prey on his mind.”
Mrs. Mossbunker tapped herself on the forehead.
Hooves seemed to thunder up the drive…a deliverance, as far as Aimee was concerned. She had not badly wanted to know what followed on these occasions between mogul and wife.
“And so this way I learned his little secret. Ludi!”
Her hostess vanished into the hall. Aimee heard an exchange of German. Someone, during this, hummed a tune. Someone else…Vic…coughed, and said, “Er” twice. At this, she made a beeline, glanced at the other man’s vaguely familiar face, glanced at the tall and dapper Ludi, then snagged Vic’s sleeve and hastened him into the parlor. Her niece was gone, assisted upstairs by Margaret. But the empty sofa was a prompt to Aimee’s talking point.
“What’s wrong with you!”
“Well,” said Vic. “This and that. Why don’t you start me off with a little hint?”
“That man, Curach. Why’d you bring him into it? Here I was, planning a quiet lunch with my niece…”
“I can marry Hogben if I like.”
“If he likes.”
She crossed her arms, not having it. “A quiet lunch, Victor B. Mack…and then…I don’t even know what! What am I doing in Mossbunker’s house? Is that man who came with you the professor? That reminds me…” She broke off, remembering Mr. Shaw. He had not achieved so much as returning from the dead, but had altered character notably, in the space of this regrettable day.
“Mrs. Bard, this is Ludwig, my brother, the Count von Zetland.” Mrs. Mossbunker entered, arm-in-arm with Ludi, trailed by le Fontainebleau.
“We leave at once for Hammersmith,” Zetland said, “if Mrs. Bard is ready. Cranston will think of my coming here.”
“Ah!” his sister interrupted. “But I have thought sooner! You will go out the conservatory, and take my carriage.”
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly and talk in private with le Fontainebleau. Even this, thinking of it, irritated Shaw…not merely because he was soft on Aimee Bard, and might have permitted—for the duration of a train ride—this daydream, safe enough. The lapse would correct itself.
They’d had the glimmerings of an understanding, the professor and Shaw, his dealings here on familiar ground going smoother than the course of one-sided love. But on no account would he address the man as Charley, accepting this maneuver. It was tempting, yes, to knock off a couple syllables, just to name the informer/suspect inside his own head. But in Shaw’s opinion (he knew plenty who refused to take these things seriously), once you went allowing casual practices to infect your method, you’d shorthand yourself into a fatal mistake, bound to. Getting friendly with malefactors? Even a piker, a green recruit, must reckon better.
Most of his notes had to be kept there, in his head, until he was back home in Baltimore…and then only the chief’s stenographer would take them down.
He’d surprised his quarry, and his quarry had eluded him. They’d met but briefly, the first time; the professor coy.
The train had come late to the station, and the rain, puddling everywhere, seemed to Shaw a kind of mockery. He felt like a tight-wire act himself, a man balancing an overflowing bucket, taking cautious toeholds.
The two words drew only a grin. Shaw had to drop a couple more.
“Times are difficult. One tries this and that, earning one’s nick. I am no longer on the stage, Mr. Shaw. Le Fontainebleau is a trusted broker of securities.”
It was stalemate, and Shaw was not on a mission to stop the deal, but to subvert it. They were speaking on the stairs, the professor, foolishly, seated on the sill of the window that illuminated the landing; Shaw, more discreet, tucked out of view in the corner. And from this vantage midway between floors of the Susquehanna House, he’d noted the water on the street make less effort than ever to drain away.
The professor chose his move.
“Hogben is your best authority on Hogben. Since you ask. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, as the saying goes.”
“Go your separate ways, now and then, do you?”
The girl Ruby had come up from the lobby, interrupting, and saying to Shaw, “It never rains but it pours!” She’d blushed, and put a hand on her topknot. “I didn’t even think! I only meant, now when we’re late already, and losing wages for it, to be sure, it’s another day’s delay, yet. And nothing to do in this place but turn in…”
His dismissal gave her the excuse to close her mouth, and she’d scurried off.
The professor said, surprising Shaw with sudden frankness, “You haven’t clapped the manacles on, so I’m thinking you’d like to do business. Make a purchase…?”
Shaw gave him nothing.
“…from me alone.”
“Will that be in Hammersmith?” Shaw said. “We’re close by.”
And at that, the professor also had left him.
Afterwards, Shaw had half entertained belief, when with his own eyes, he’d seen the man sink into the floodwaters like a brick—but he’d taken hold of himself.
To die at the fortuitous moment must be a rare chance; to vanish merely, a thing more akin to rogue’s luck. He was reporting to Mossbunker as well as the chief. Mossbunker had any number of blind spots, fully to be exploited…but befitting his being the wolf to whom Shaw, in failure, would be thrown, the mogul could take a man’s throat between his jaws and worry him to death.
Continued from You Never See It Coming
These were dark musings, and Shaw’s bland features contracted, showing (to Minnie, passing the still figure, whose hands gripped brush and eight-ounce Gloss for Trim, Mt. Vernon Eggshell) the semblance of hidden depths. It was depths of this nature that had drawn Minnie to Nico. She hadn’t lent him a proper ear. His political character took more work, keeping shored up, than to half-heed the prattle of other beaus she’d had…Minnie had spent the day brooding, herself, over this question. There were pros and cons to it, letting June Mack walk off with Nico.
“You can’t have two things at once,” as her mother said. “If a woman fights over a man, he wins.” Of course Mama, saying so, had Minnie Leybourne the Star in mind, and she hadn’t quite climbed that ladder.
At the foot of the porch steps, she turned, and looked up into Shaw’s face, then danced fingers between this and her own.
He recovered. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you play any musical instruments?”
Visibly, to her interested eye, he seemed to catch himself in a lie and think better of it. His lips formed “no”, and then he said, “Mouth organ. Just a little.”
“Do you tell jokes? Doesn’t matter,” she went on. “Aimee doesn’t throw out old newspapers. I saw stacks bundled up on the back porch. We’ll find some no one’s heard for a while. Jokes.”
“I can’t be in your show, ma’am.”
“You’re expecting a package, aren’t you? I can’t think how a box of pens being sent out from Baltimore wouldn’t have got here after near a month! Didn’t you even go off someplace for a day, looking? Let’s stop at the post office and ask again.”
She crooked an elbow, and Shaw, in duty—and murmuring something about a depot in Delaware—took her arm on the way down. “We’re going to the Signal office to order the programmes. I’m doing four songs, Ruby and Carey are doing three.”
They had days of rehearsal ahead of them (two, to be exact, as Nico had managed to secure an evening on McKeefe’s stage), but she counted herself satisfied with Ruby’s progress of hours. Carey’s voice had proved a nice surprise, whereas Ruby’s harmonies had not settled wholly on key…but the kids, as Minnie called them, were charmingly…naïve together, she thought. Sweet. The audience would forgive.
“A little comic relief, though, between numbers,” she said aloud. “You know what I mean by that?”
He made a conditional noise, something like “erm”.
“I’ve got Elmer Bott…”
“Elton, isn’t it?”
“Bott,” she said firmly, “says he’ll give a speech, at the end of the show. And then what do you think? It’s a surprise so it doesn’t matter, so far as getting it printed…Battle Hymn of the Republic, or Star Spangled Banner? Because”—Shaw had opened his mouth, and nothing had come out—“in this neck of the woods, they’re partial to the Battle Hymn, and anyone can sing along, so it’s guaranteed to get a crowd stirred up…but, I can knock a hole in the roof with my ‘land of the free’. Not to brag.”
An unusual sight greeted Minnie and Shaw, as they strolled onto Hammersmith’s Main Street. If either had known a family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth—in that its brass lamps shined, their glass intact; the side panels were of a glowing mahogany that, burnished under a coachman’s care, laughed at dust; the spokes of the rubber tires thrust true (and were not a bit rusted, nor especially dirt-caked for their travels)—was an unusual sight, pulled to a standstill before the Main Street Hotel, one or the other might have remarked on it.
Shaw’s state of mind percolated in a way the cautious Medlow’s Detection Agency operative of an hour past would not have recognized. He fell off from laughing at something she’d said to him, to search for the debonair, rueful comeback…and found he’d lost the thread.
Now Minnie did remark the coach.
“There, look! That would be the life. And a private car, like Lillian Russell’s, done up as a boudoir, with a kitchen of its own. Take your sweet time getting ready, send your man to do the dirty work at the station, lounge in a private waiting room if the train’s late…”
“One day,” Shaw said.
“Oh, Bladon. What are we talking about? I’ve been touring since I was fourteen. There’s enough talent out there…real talent…to fill the bill at Carnegie the next twenty years. What a girl needs in her corner is a pistol, a guy who’s heck or high water going to push her to the top. I’ve never had that.”
She looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers…remembering that this was what they’d been talking about. Shaw felt an urge to say, “I do.”
He said instead, “I wish I…” and was cut short.
Vic Mack had heaved open the hotel door. He was followed onto the walk by Aimee.
This was a rough accusation to fling on the street, but Vic, without turning, flung back: “You come and dictate to me, ma’am, if you’re wanting to speed things along…and I’ll be obliged to you. Otherwise, I’ll sort this out my own way…and in my own time!”
He crossed and heaved a second door, the one to his offices.
“Aimee! You’re back!”
Mrs. Bard turned her head at Minnie’s call, and when she noticed Shaw, her eyes seemed to light. The light was more that of Nemesis closing, than the enchantment he’d have taken as life’s culmination only that morning, when she’d left him.
“Oh…”—he threw this out in a hurry—“your nephew’s up and about, ma’am. And Ruby…”
Continued from Chickens in a Mood to Roost
Derfinger appeared, peevish scanning Vic’s treatment of his door glass, putting the hand he’d run along the edge of this into an apron pocket, and rising from a half-bend. He shouted, interrupting Shaw…but speaking to the driver: “You move that rig now! The Count von Zetland says he is finished for the day.”
The coach departed. Minnie tugged Shaw by the arm; they, and Aimee (better informed…neither having missed the start Zetland’s name had wrought upon Shaw), came closer, Aimee still drilling him with an eye.
“Since you’re a friend of Cranston’s, Mr. Shaw, I suppose you know Ludi, too. Would you like to come up with me? I don’t think he’ll be surprised.”
“Oh, gracious!” Minnie said. “Well, the programmes will have to wait. Let’s go.”
The street drama had one final scene to play.
The door to the premises of the Daily Signal swung open, the hand at work unseen, but presumed to be Mack’s, as the figure that slued out and landed on its knees in the gutter was Nico’s.
Minnie, crossed by her lover’s unresting glance, her arm caught linked through Shaw’s, calculated herself two-thirds of the way finished with Nico. Then a window came up in the Signal building, and June (who’d got something, Minnie thought, since last seen…not nicer clothes, not powdered cheeks or tidied-up hair…she dared think it was the eyes, that might be described as battle-fired) leaned from the second story, fixing on Nico, and saying; “Psssst.”
Derfinger’s chambers were a thing Aimee had never seen. She hadn’t, for her years in Hammersmith, had much to do with the hotel. Even the coffee room below that Vic patronized was a bit masculine, Aimee always countering his, “Buy you a cup of coffee?” with “Come up to the house and I’ll make lunch.”
She took surveying the amenities now…small balcony spanning two rear-facing windows (view of Mossbunker’s factory), washstand, fireplace…as a matter of practicality. Taking Abel up on his offer might be the meek answer left her, after her failure at scheming. She had yet to recover her niece. Hogben seemed a lost cause.
Zetland, at the writing desk, had warned them over his shoulder that he had a number of telegrams to compose. He turned away, humming a tune, and plying his pen. Under these informal auspices, le Fontainebleau greeted Shaw as a chum: “Ee, lad, time enough yet to bring the thing off!” He’d lifted his brows like a man accustomed to drawing them on with greasepaint. “The freight arrives tomorrow noon.”
Shaw, at this bald allusion, and under the eye of Minnie, had grown very red. The professor took his darting glance as invitation. “You see, one booking’s much like another. Do your turn, and move on. You’ll understand that, Miss Leybourne.”
“So you never were drowned, Mr. Beauregard. What a good thing!”
And thinking she sounded like Ruby…and feeling shame for admonishing herself with the comparison, Minnie took a grip on the bull’s horns. “What freight? Bladon, are you a train robber?”
“I’m a detective, ma’am.”
(more to come)