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.