The Anchor and the Capstan
"—what little ladies like yourself have a hard time understanding is where the savings come in. That's where you need a man like me to explain it to you. It's like this," Herman Kroner leaned back in his chair, hooking his thumbs into his suspenders, which stretched impressively over the generous round of his bloated stomach. His mouth kept flapping, champion talker that it was, but it was without much further input from his mind, which absented itself in the pleasant consideration of the object of his speech.
Across from him, the sweet little heart-shaped face of Miss Bascombe—he hadn't gotten her first name yet, but it was only a matter of time—regarded him with avid interest. There was something about that face, Herman thought, something to make a man—even a veteran of so many delightful women as himself—weak. It wasn't any particular combination of pretty features, as they were all regular and where they ought to be. She had the same long nose, wide mouth, narrow eyes, and clear skin of hundreds of girls. Nor was it her high forehead or the sweep of blonde hair, yellow as the butter in your breakfast-table dish, that waved down over her temples before knotting becomingly at the base of her slender neck.
No. Rather, it was all these ordinary things you'd find on other ordinary girls, brought together and animated by the extraordinarily bright spirit that shone forth from her pale gray eyes. There was something behind those eyes, he reckoned, something to make any man act a little foolish. Perhaps that was why he was offering her a discount of twenty percent on the really fine spools of silk embroidery thread in the case knocking against his elbow, instead of his usual ten percent foot-in-the-door.
"Twenty percent?" Miss Bascombe said, "By my reckoning, that would put the price of your wares at..." her gray eyes rolled upward as her fingers twitched, counting off against each other, "eight 'till a spool."
"You have it right, Miss," he touched his hat, repressing his smile. It wouldn't do to smile at her; those eyes were too serious. "Now surely you can see that as a bargain."
"Hmm. I might, were it not for the fact that two minutes ago you mentioned that your spools only held two mets each. Two mets is two hundred baat, and two hundred baat will scarcely hold one handkerchief together."
"Well," he cleared his throat, resisting the urge to reach for his handkerchief, "what you don't understand is—"
"I understand perfectly. I understand that two mets will cover at least a standard sized spool of thread, which means perhaps that your average customer does not notice she has been overcharged and undersold until she realizes she has not enough thread for a patch job, by which point you will have hopped an engine to the next city and she has no means of redress against you."
Herman Kroner was completely taken in. Even his magnificent voice, source of his livelihood, pride of his life, was stunned into embarrassed silence. In the blessed absence of his voice, Miss Bascombe's lips thinned to a weary smile.
"Oh, yes, sir," she rose, gripping her carpetbag in a fist bristling with sharp knuckles, "I understand. Have a pleasant journey."
With perfect economy of movement, she stood, stepped around Herman's jutting knees, opened the door that had sealed them unluckily in together, and escaped out into the corridor, sliding the compartment door shut behind her. Not a single feeling did she vent by slamming the door or heaving a sigh. Not she. Hermione Bascombe—and he could angle for that name all he wished, she would never take his bait!—was the picture of a well-bred girl. Calm. Contained. Self-sufficient.
At least she did not have to worry about risking another compartment and whatever traps lay within. Anchor's End was the train's next stop; it was high time for her to alight in any case.
The train's brakes squealed against the ice of the tracks; the entire train shuddered on the rails like a frightened animal. Hermione swayed on her feet but kept forging forward. A porcelain cup shattered somewhere to her right with a sharp clatter, and a voice—high, fretful, but not a child's—wailed in despair. Her lips thinned again, and she moved on.
Ahead, a young conductor—bright as a copper kettle in a brand-new uniform—opened one of the compartment doors to check along the line, and Hermione winced as a gust of frigid air blew right through her heavy brown corduroy traveling suit, ruffling its long skirt and the ends of her fur-lined overcoat. She ground her teeth tight so they would not chatter, but she could not help the warmth she felt leeching from her skin into the bitter night air. The cold was vicious, as though it intended to suck the life right out of her and leave naught but a shriveled, frozen husk.
She shook her head to empty it of such thoughts. Preposterous. It was a cold night; it had every right to be, as far south as they were. If she wanted balmy nights she ought to have done as her parents told her and stayed at home in Veruca Bay, where the air was always so warm and humid you could wring out the dense clouds above you for dishwater. Nothing like that here, where the sky was so vast and bright it seemed a velvet-lined jewel-case where a swirling constellation of diamonds had been strewn over it with reckless abandon.
A wild sky, it was. It made her a bit wild to see it.
The train lurched again. Caught unprepared, Hermione fumbled, one hand gripping her bag all the tighter, the other reaching for the brass railing bolted into the wall. Her tough kid glove held purchase for a moment, then slipped; she fell hard against the wall, bag bumping roughly against her knee. By the time the conductor could reach her however, Hermione had already wrenched herself upright, smoothed the hairs fallen loose back beneath her hat, and straightened the glove that had betrayed her. She responded to his concern with a clipped smile and stepped beyond him, glancing through the open door as the train rounded its final bend towards Anchor's End.
It was a squat, miserable thing, the city. Its many low, dark houses belched wood- and coal- and kerosene-smoke into the pristine air above it, thickening the sky into a greasy sludge through which stars could never shine their celestial light. The only buildings of any significance were the zeppelin-dock—deserted by this time of night—the high minarets of the mosque and the steeple of the cathedral, and the magnificent five-story facade of the old university.
None of these buildings were any more than airy silhouettes against the smoky night sky. The true bulk of the city were those ubiquitous, hastily-assembled, narrow two-story shoe-boxes faced with a thin layer of locally-mined gray stone. Row upon row they clustered, like old women bunched together in a pew of a Sunday morning, faces lined with streaks of frozen, sooty ice. Only the bracing air gave any freshness to the prospect, and Hermione drank it in while still untainted and pure. By the time the train heaved up to the station, it was as soggy and gray as everything else about her.
"Help you with your bags, Miss?" the conductor chirped, too young and bright to be at all depressed by the scene before them. After all, Hermione considered, he would be moving on in ten minutes. She would be lucky indeed if five months saw to her own release. She acceded gracefully, but did not take his hand as they descended onto the bustling platform, where a thick layer of salt on the stone prevented the ice from gaining too strong a foothold. Nevertheless, Hermione could feel its cold stealing through the thick soles of her boots and freezing the fur inside.
Keeping her teeth tight was beginning to make her jaw ache.
"It's warm inside," he gestured towards the passengers' waiting-room, where a potbellied stove gave heat into the cluster of patrons standing around it, "I'll see to your bags and bring them there."
"No, thank you," she said, "I would prefer to get them straightaway. A friend is waiting for me."
"This way then," good man, he seemed to know she would not take his arm if he offered, so instead he cleared a path with his chipper voice and broad shoulders for her to follow. Holding herself close, Hermione was pleased she only felt her soles slide once against the crackling ice, and it was not so much as to make her do more than stumble. So much for the fierce teeth of Anchor's End, about which she had been told so many grim tales!
It was harder to walk when burdened with one handle of her trunk—she refused to allow the conductor to carry it alone—and harder still to maneuver it down the slick stairs, but at length they stood on either side of it, shuddering on the muddy street below the station. However, aside from the normal crush of hackney cabs found around any hub, as well as the shouting, insolent men who made their living selling bits and bobs to impulsive travelers, there was no one else to be seen.
The conductor, now shivering broadly, gestured. "Any of these your friend, Miss?"
"No," Hermione's lips were now pure white, through from tension or cold or both it was impossible to tell. She waved off a man selling coarse woolen gloves with a swift cut of her hand. "I do not suppose the trolleys are still running at this hour?"
Her companion shook his head.
Hermione's whole body shook like a sheet suspended tenuously from a clothesline, helpless in a violent breeze. Once more she looked up and down the street, lips so thin and white they looked like twin scars. After a moment, she sighed. Her teeth clattered as she said, "I will not wait for them in such weather. Please call me a cab."
One leaped forward the instant the conductor raised his hand to summon it. Its engine panted over a bellyful of glowing coals, rendering it so searing hot the driver had to lift Hermione bodily into the cabin, lest she be burnt by touching her hand to any of its brass fittings. Once her trunk was lashed behind, she gave her direction—slurring over the words as her tongue slowly unfroze in her mouth—and slumped back, eyes falling helplessly closed.
Even so, she was not unawares. Rolling with the cab's chugging progress down the narrow streets of Anchor's End, she marked their twists and turns, tracking their route in her mind. It had a few more bends in it than she remembered—and who knew, at a distance of fifteen years, how accurate her memories remained—but she recognized the broad strokes. Take Edward Avenue north from the station, then left on Grand, two blocks until right on Eliazar for a good stretch—then a muddle of nameless alleys she could walk with her feet but not with her eyes—until at length taking the final left onto the road bordering the frozen canal.
She opened her eyes. There it was, her old friend, her companion in all her childhood walks of the city, Shipman's Canal. She had never seen it like this before, mired in the iron grip of winter's freeze, log-jammed with shards of ice so large as to be icebergs, the stone levees groaning as the ice pushed and pushed at them. A flash of white fur darted between these massive formations, then several more, bewildering in their rampant scurry. Foxes, she realized. They must be foxes, out hunting the rats that nibbled on the refuse trapped in the chasms of ice, thrown there by lazy washer-women and exhausted housewives. Their fur would fetch a pretty penny, bright as it was in winter's depths.
Hermione smoothed her own fur collar around her neck, leaning up against the window. What a different face the canal wore now, garlanded with bands of dirty snow, bereft of the hustle and bustle of summer's constant regatta of merchant sailors, fisherman's punts, and tourists rowboats. At least there was no smell. One whiff of Shipman's Canal was enough to follow you for the rest of your life. But there was also no joy, no laughter.
She remembered running along the canal one morning, the sun pouring down upon her, hot as liquid gold running down her neck, sweating so that her new dress hung limp as a dishrag off her body. Running the way children do, heedless of harm or fatigue, the world itself turning under her feet. Into that little world pierced the cry of a vendor, her little punt bobbing at the level of the waves, every one threatening to drag her down. Under her broad-brimmed hat she held an apple, rich and red as blood, crying her price to Hermione, standing mesmerized on the canal's high bank. Hermione had wanted that apple as she had never wanted anything before, but she had nothing to give for it.
With a wink and a smile, the apple tumbled through the air before dropping solidly into her hand; the vendor had given it to her, no questions asked. Before Hermione could even thank her, she had driven her pole deep into the muck of the canal and sailed onward, her high, quavering voice rising into the symphony that was the canal's market-day song.
Looking at it now, Hermione could not reconcile her memory of fetid, vibrant summer to her current view of anemic, wasted winter in the slightest. Two such different places could not possibly coexist.
The cab lurched underneath her, engine groaning as it heaved them over a patch of broken cobblestones, knocking Hermione's head against the window. She sat upright, shaking her head. Ridiculous. It was a different season, that was all. She would be a fool indeed to let a little weather interfere with her perception of the place. Anchor's End must have changed—she had certainly changed in the years that separated them—and that was not something to be feared, any more than the wrinkles on her brow. They were both, simply, facts of life.
She opened her carpetbag and withdrew her wallet, running a forefinger over the slim wad of bills that remained within. Her diversion to the Academy in Haverford had cost her something—a little too much something, considering her reception from the Dean—but she reckoned she still had enough for two months' board, which, though less than the ten weeks she had originally planned, would yet be enough for her purposes.
The cab belched again, but with less emphasis. There was a familiar shudder beneath her of mechanical brakes struggling for purchase on ice, and then the vehicle sighed to a final stop.
Hermione did not squeal when the door opened, allowing a blast of air to freeze the snow melt on her clothes, but it was a close thing. There was no concealing her shivers as she fumbled with change for the driver and a tip to have him bring her trunk up the stairs of the boarding house, nor the impatient way her feet danced on the mat after ringing the bell.
At least the doorman was prompt to his duty, tugging both Hermione and her baggage over the threshold and slamming the door shut behind them. He circled her with a hand-broom, brushing snow and ice off her clothes and then into his ready dustpan.
"Have you a reservation, Miss?"
Hermione glanced around her. To her left was an abandoned parlor, heated cherry-red by a wasteful fire. To her right was the dining room, peopled only by a few isolated figures bent over their soup. Above her stretched a grand staircase—one whose banisters she loved as the best slide in Anchor's End—whose threadbare red carpet had seen far more illustrious days.
"Duncan, don't be silly," a voice echoed down those stairs, pale and spectral, "Look at her. You don't see the family resemblance?"
Viola Bascombe, grand-dame of the Capstan Hotel and Boarding-Home, swirled around the banister, her dressing gown of lavender silk and gray tulle spread out behind her like a peacock's tail. Spreading her arms, she walked down the center of the staircase towards Hermione, who silently thanked her frozen cheeks for not allowing her bewildered frown to show.
"My darling," Viola purred, setting on Hermione's shoulder with hands that gripped like claws, muscling her in for a kiss. "Welcome."