THE ADVENTURE OF THE ENDANGERED PRINCESS
I closed the lid of my trunk, and Mycroft helped to strap it up.
"Will you travel with me into Town?" I asked.
"Of course, my dear. That is why I came here. When I said I would see you off, I meant from Waterloo. Now, your rent is settled up, your trunks are packed, and the Bradshaw on the hall table tells me that your train leaves in exactly forty-nine minutes. So I think we had better call the driver of the dog cart to help with the trunks, and set off to the station. It is a good twenty minutes away and we must first hand the key of this cottage to the house agent in Aylesbury. On the ship you will have a well-appointed private berth. You are sure that you will cope by yourself?"
"By yourself". How those words intensified the sadness that would not leave me! I was determined not to let him see it so I nodded briskly and was perhaps a little too brusque.
"I've no choice, have I, Mycroft? You won't come with me."
"A sea voyage," he continued blithely, "is an ideal means of relaxation. The rituals help, such as the correct dress for the time of day, the etiquette of the captain's table, the daily promenade and so forth. I could almost take such a holiday myself. The changed but still orderly regime would stimulate my mind."
"I'm not going for that reason, Mycroft." I looked him squarely in the eye. "The doctor ordered a sea voyage. You know that."
He nodded ponderously. It gave him an excuse not to meet my gaze.
"Don't think I'm ungrateful for your offer," I continued. "You've been more than generous in buying my ticket, and a voyage to Madeira will help to restore my health. I just wish you were coming with me."
I had hoped to be under better self-control as I dropped my heavy hint, but I buried my face in his chest as the weeping took control of me.
"I'm sorry, I can't help this," I sobbed. "I still haven't recovered from my miscarriage. I thought about coming back to the Diogenes and being Mr Dalziel again, but - "
"No, no, Anna," he said, gently stroking my hair. "You could not carry off the part at present. All the same, you are greatly missed by Dinwoodie and the other staff."
"Where is Mr Dalziel at the moment?" I sniffed. "What are you telling them?"
"He is in Canada, visiting relatives and trying his hand at farming."
"Will he come back?"
"I sincerely hope so. I miss you more than anyone."
Mycroft was not a demonstrative man, but I knew him well enough to take his words at face value.I hugged him more tightly and my tears began to dry. Could we possibly resume the earlier passion of our liaison? If I could be constantly with him, the flame would flare up between us once more.
"I wish you would come with me," I said.
"Unfortunately, Major Winstanley has asked me to investigate some American businessmen whose plans bode no good for many people."
"No, in the Pacific. Now, let us lose no more time. To the house agents."
We gave the agent at Aylesbury the key and drove on through patchy fog to the station. The muddy road with its slate-grey puddles was very quiet and bordered by leafless brown trees - a dismal scene in keeping with my mood. I was disinclined to talk, and Mycroft was engrossed in his newspaper. We reached the station with time to spare. Mycroft saw me into the compartment and got my luggage safely aboard before he joined me, lowering himself into his seat and re-opening The Times.
Down the platform a whistle blew. The train jerked slightly, then with a loud "Pfah!" of steam, some more emphatic jerks and a loud metallic rattle we began to move. Clouds of brownish smoke drifted past the window, a porter went whistling along the empty platform, and the top-hatted station master gazed impassively after us, his watch in his hand.
"That is interesting," said Mycroft suddenly as he read, but he offered no explanation of what he had found. We were alone in the compartment, and he put down his paper, rose and paced to the window, then to the corridor window, and back again to sit restlessly. Several times he did that until I rather snappishly told him to sit down.
"You have something on your mind," I said. "Why don't you talk to me as you used to? Tell me what it is."
"My dear, the time I talk the most to you is when we are following a case, and for some time we have had no cases to follow. High Wycombe already! We're making good time."
His evasive reply was suspicious. What was on his mind? He had been quite himself until he saw the paper.
"You've seen something interesting in The Times," I said.
"Don't be silly, Anna. There's never anything interesting in The Times, except for the classified advertisements on the front page."
"You weren't looking at them. You were reading an inside page. You said something was interesting and then said nothing else. I know your ways, Mycroft, so stop being shifty. There's something up, isn't there?"
"Merely someone's travel arrangements."
When Mycroft was cryptic, I knew better than to pursue the topic, so I said no more until we reached Paddington where it began to rain. We engaged a four-wheeler to take my luggage across town to the hotel.Next day I was to catch the boat train to Southampton for the passenger ship City of Chester. The river was almost obscured by a fine drizzling November rain that made pedestrians hurry by with hunched shoulders under their glistening umbrellas. When we reached the hotel the lights were already on and throwing a welcome yellow glow into the street.
To my disappointment, Mycroft elected to dine at the Diogenes so I resigned myself to dining alone. The dining room was brilliantly lighted by electricity, crowded with guests and filled with the murmur of polite conversation. How many planned to catch the morning's boat train I did not know, but I was not destined to be alone. The waiter showed a fellow guest to my table, an American Negro who introduced himself as Mr Ezra Lanty. He was middle-sized and middle-aged with a thick crop of greying hair, and his gold-rimmed spectacles had a pair of alert eyes behind them. He was travelling to Madeira on business.
"But not commerce, Miss Weybridge. I'm an academic. I hold a post at Yale University where late mediaeval studies is my specialty. I'm going to Madeira to re-search into Christopher Columbus. Did you know he lived there for some time and married the Governor's daughter?"
Mr Lanty kept me agreeably entertained throughout the meal, effortlessly getting information from me.I told him about my time in America, my time on stage, and how Annie Oakley taught me to shoot. He looked quizzically at me.
"Little Annie Oakley, huh? Then I guess you'll be a crack shot, Miss Weybridge."
He said no more about shooting, but during the rest of the meal I noticed his glance stray repeatedly to one side, where sat a grey-haired middle-aged man. When he left, Mr Lanty swivelled his head to catch a last glimpse of him disappearing through the door.
He said nothing to me, but when we finished, he excused himself and went into the smoking room.When I passed the glass-paned door I saw the grey-haired man sitting in there with a cigar. Mr Lanty was not far from him, apparently reading the paper, but glancing up at him as if scrutinising him. Something was going on, but I did not know what. I went to bed wondering if some mystery was about to unfold itself on the voyage. I was right, but had no idea how dreadful the revelation would be.
The bed was comfortable and I slept well, but regretted that I could not spend the night with Mycroft in the Diogenes. Next morning he called for me with a four-wheeler to Waterloo where he would see me off.
The station was busy and the train was quite full, but a judicious tip ensured that a porter found me an otherwise empty first class compartment. Mycroft stood on the platform at my open window and chatted while I idly watched the travellers and wondered who would be my fellow passengers to Madeira. Mr Lanty, of course, boarded the train. Suddenly Mycroft stopped talking and craned forward, quivering like a gun dog at a pheasant shoot. The intensity of his gaze led my own to a tall, dark-skinned young woman in a tartan Inverness cape heading for a first-class carriage. She seemed to be quite alone.
Mycroft's eyes gleamed and the tip of his tongue ran slowly round his lips. My stomach knotted and the most dreadful sense of apprehension swept through me. He had given me cause for concern during my pregnancy and eventual miscarriage. At the end of the adventure of the Reuters' Agent, you may remember, I fainted in the police station. Mycroft thought it was due to the ordeals of imprisonment and explosion, but it was because I was carrying his child. He arranged for me to go away for the birth, after which we would think things over.I resumed my normal identity as a woman, let my hair grow again, and passed myself off as a young widow.
In the following January our child was prematurely stillborn, but I always thought of him as little William Mycroft Holmes. For months afterwards I was ill, sunk into the depths of desolation and depression.People call depression the black dog, and like a dog it stayed with me for most of 1892, stifling me with its weight, especially in the lonely nights. Mycroft, however, never mentioned the baby. He never stinted his regular allowance to me, but he rarely called at the country cottage where I was staying. More than once I suspected him of entertaining some other woman, but could prove nothing.
Now, watching him gaze at the tartan-clad beauty sweeping imperiously along the platform, a horrible question began to form in my mind, but Mycroft seemed more disturbed than I was.
"What on earth is she doing?" he said under his breath, then turned to me. "The train is about to go, Anna. I must get away to Whitehall. Goodbye, my dear. Enjoy your holiday."
With a perfunctory kiss he rapidly left, hurrying through the crowd to the exit. He was obviously interested in the young woman. She was surely too young to be one of his old flames. What was he up to? Why had he suddenly hurried away? He had never mentioned going to Whitehall until that moment. Shaking my head, I sat down, made myself comfortable, and was deep in a novel when the guard's whistle shrilled down the platform, friends and relatives crowded to the carriages and called their goodbyes, the train pulled away and we were off.
We reached Southampton about midday and I made my way to the quay behind a porter wheeling trunks on a trolley. Seagulls squawked overhead, a faint tang of salt and ozone came on the rainy wind, and the daylight had that diffused quality of the English seaside that comes from the moisture in the air.
Ahead of me was the tall dark young woman in the cape. She had an enormous quantity of baggage which a number of sturdy porters wheeled or carried after her. She had no umbrella and wore only a smart little pillbox hat with a flimsy gauze veil.Heedless of wind and rain, she strode along with head up, the rain glistening on her black glossy hair, her bearing that of a warrior queen at the head of her troops. A society beauty and a person of consequence. That much was obvious from the numerous trunks and boxes, from the deferential manner of the porters hoping for a handsome tip, and from her demeanour, which betokened someone who would brook no opposition.Indian? South American? Who was she?
"Miss Weybridge!" Mr Lanty hurried up under a huge glistening black umbrella. "I thought it was you. What happened to your friend?"
"He isn't coming. He had business to attend to," I replied, wrestling with my small umbrella which chose that moment to blow itself inside out. Mr Lanty helped me and offered me shelter under his own.
"We haven't far to go, thank goodness," he said. "Braving angry winter's storms, as the poet Burns put it. Well, there she is," as the dock came into view."The City of Chester.Six thousand tons and six thousand horsepower. One of the smaller vessels of the Atlantic and Africa line, but extremely comfortable and well-appointed, they tell me. I'll surely enjoy this voyage."
I took in the trim lines of the ship lying by the quayside. Like many others in the dock, its two chimneys were producing thin wisps of smoke which the fitful wind was tearing into tatters.
"It's a very nice boat, isn't it?" I said.
"She," said Mr Lanty. "All ships are feminine. And don't you just think she looks very feminine, with her two tall funnels and the rake of those masts. Most distinctive."
"It--she--does look a smart vessel," I replied, "but I don't see what's distinctive about it. It looks the same as the other two nearby, mainly black and white. Even the flags are the same."
"The ships sure do look alike at first glance," said Mr Lanty as we bent forward into a gust of wind. "All three fly the red ensign of the British Mercantile Marine and the purple and gold house flag of the Atlantic and Africa line. But if you look closely, Miss Weybridge, you'll see that the City of Chester is the smallest of the three, and more a large yacht than a liner. She calls at Madeira on her way to Cape Town. Where will you be staying, by the way?"
"In Madeira?At Allen's Hotel for a fortnight."
"Returning on the City of Carlisle, I guess." He smiled. "I hear Madeira at this time of year is like summer in England. So it'll be cold and wet, I reckon. What d'you say? Well, let's get aboard and find our cabins."
We mounted the ship's gangway where a sailor directed us to the promenade deck. A steward met us and led the way up a flight of iron steps.Huge white lifeboats hung from a colonnade of white-painted iron pillars. A deck with a row of cabin doors came into view, and so did the girl in the Inverness cape, walking ahead of us.
Could she be a high-caste Indian? Perhaps she was travelling in Europe to complete her education. She was in the company of a little old lady in a cloak who stopped at a cabin, bowed to the girl and let herself in while the girl went on. The steward stopped at the next door.
"Here's your cabin, ma'am," he said.
Mr Lanty turned to me.
"Excuse me, Miss Weybridge. I'll take my leave and hope to see you at dinner."
He bowed and left me, hurrying after the dark girl. Although his manners were impeccable, his departure took me by surprise.Like Mycroft, he was intensely interested in her.
"We got the very latest comforts," said the steward as he opened the door, "shared bathroom with running water between every pair of cabins. Just like home. Be careful of the storm step here."
I lifted my skirts over a ridiculously high threshold and went in. The cabin was small but well-appointed, with a comfortable bed called a bunk, a small table, lockers and a comfy-looking chair or two. A large window gave plenty of light.
"You can take your meals here or dine in the saloon, ma'am," said the steward while I poked about in the lockers and drawers, noting how cleverly the space was used for storage. "This here's the bathroom door. You can bolt it inside or out. Fasten the bolt on this side when you're in your cabin." He tried the handle. "Bolted on the inside. The old lady in the next-door cabin's using it."
After my luggage was brought in and unpacked, I sauntered along the promenade deck, leaning against the rail as a pretty blue flag with a white square ran up the mast. An officer saw me looking at it and smiled at me.
"The Blue Peter, ma'am," he said. "It means we're preparing to sail."
I fell into conversation with him. He was the chief officer, Mr Delaney, second only to the captain. He was about thirty with thick fair hair, a bronzed face and a pleasant expression in his blue eyes. His dark blue uniform was immaculate.
"We can't be setting off just yet," I said, "otherwise you would surely be getting ready to steer or something."
He laughed. "Well, Miss - ? Mrs - ? Miss Weybridge. I don't normally steer, nor does the captain. But you're right. We're not ready to go yet."
We chatted for a while. Among other things, he told me that the entire row of cabins where mine was had been taken up by single ladies, mostly elderly.
"There are one or two young ones, like yourself," he said, "but you're next door to a respectable spinster, I believe, a Miss Britton."
He broke off to appraise two pretty young ladies who passed with fluttering eyelashes and blushing smiles. His own eyes swept them from head to toe as he smiled back. H'm, I thought, quite a ladies' man, for they blushed deeper, simpered, and made off giggling. They couldn't be blamed, for I knew he had undressed them in his mind. I resolved to keep a little distance between myself and Mr Delaney.
"I think they'll be sitting at my table for dinner," he said, gazing after them."Where are you sitting, Miss Weybridge?"
"I really don't know. I shall have to find out."
"There may be room at my table. We'll see."
We shall indeed, I thought.
He began to say more but interrupted himself. "Hallo!What's going on down there?"
There was some commotion on the quayside. A cab driver was loudly remonstrating with a porter as they struggled with an enormous trunk. Over their voices came a third.
"Be careful with that!" it boomed, and my heart jumped, for I saw Mycroft striding towards the ship. He spotted me as he boarded the gangway and waved his grey bowler hat. His other hand twirled a whangee cane. A long blue mackintosh with dangling belt flapped open to reveal a brown suit with a perfectly dreadful large orange-yellow check that made him look like a bookmaker. He had bright yellow boots. His waistcoat was mauve and an orange handkerchief flowered exotically in his top pocket. It was Mycroft such as I had never seen him before, and whom I would scarcely have recognised as a founder member of the staid and stuffy Diogenes Club. He strode up to me and I took in his purple tie decorated with silver horseshoes.
"Anna! I hope you are as happy to see me as I am to see you. We shall have the pleasure of a holiday together in Madeira."