In The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret, award-winning writer Nev March explores the vivid nineteenth-century world of the transatlantic voyage, one passenger’s secret at a time. Begin studying an excerpt right here!
Oddballs and Toffs
Summer season 1894 Day One: Night
I doubled over the ship’s railing and clung for expensive life, my head even with my spattered trousers, tossing up the final of a tremendous meal. The wind whipped round, snatching at my garments. Round me was moist darkness, the splash and hiss of froth. Waves smashed the hull and despatched up a twig that hit my face. Extra seasoned vacationers have been having fun with their meals amidships, however I’d identified I’d by no means attain the leeward aspect and brought my probabilities on the nearest rail.
The caviar I’d consumed solely an hour in the past tasted bitter coming again up. The HMS Etruria rolled till I used to be suspended excessive above, like a fly clinging to the highest of a Ferris wheel. On the crest it started to dip, almost upending me. Our hull dropped again into the ocean with a growth. I heaved, however my insides had nothing left to offer. Waves roiled, too rattling shut, because the steamer sliced by huge swells.
Combating the pull of gravity, I latched on and gasped for breath. Head throbbing, I turned, however the deck chairs appeared distant. Bollocks. My garments sopping with seawater and puke, I took a step, lurched and clung to the rail, limbs shaking.
“Puis-je vous aider?” requested a deep voice at my shoulder. Could I assist you to?
A white-haired man caught my arm, his head even with my shoulder. I jerked—buffeted on all sides, I’d not observed his method. I felt oddly distant, as if gazing at myself from afar and tut-tutting my poor exhibiting.
“I’m all proper,” I choked. He’d spoken French, but I couldn’t reply in the identical tongue. My French was poor on a superb day; at current it was nonexistent.
“Vous êtes un soldat,” stated the person, getting his arm round me. Soldat—soldier. The wind snatched away the remainder of his phrases, however his intent was clear: to ferry me to a deck chair. I took a breath, discovered myself empty for now, and eased away from the railing on legs of India rubber.
I cursed, as my ft slid—the damned deck appeared soapy, and I’d swapped military boots for leather-based this night. Solely the older man’s steadying grip stored me from slamming onto the boards. He took my weight with a grunt and staggered. Gasping an apology, I made for the protection of the chair.
As soon as I dropped into it, I panted in reduction and gazed across the empty deck. Small electrical lanterns glowed each few yards. A jaunty waltz drifted from the music room on the bow. Diana could be twirling across the ballroom . . . I gave thanks that she had not seen me quivering on the railing. Who was she dancing with? The injustice of it pricked me—why was I plagued with this blasted seasickness whereas different blokes may waltz away the hours?
It scarcely mattered although. Since I didn’t understand how, I shouldn’t thoughts her dancing with different fellows. And but . . .
On Diana’s birthday two years in the past in Bombay, I’d watched her float throughout the ground, her smile spilling pleasure into the corporate, her delighted chuckle rising like bubbles in champagne. I watched from afar as a result of I used to be on obligation, employed by her brother. Afterward although, she’d insisted on a dance with me. A mixed-race man wasn’t normally invited to society dos, so I’d by no means realized to bounce. In a dither over how one can proceed, I’d led her out. Then, inventing a silliness to spare her worn ft, I carried her across the ballroom ground, swishing her about like a ballerina. Even now, recalling the fun of it, my chest compressed with amazement.
The acrid scent of a cigar drew my consideration again to my companion.
“Thanks,” I stated to the gentleman smoking quietly beside me, noting his finely minimize coat and the pink ribbon on his lapel.
“English,” stated the person, his tone desultory.
Flicking his cigar ash towards the railing, he stated in an unfamiliar singsong accent, “Steer clear of there. It’s straightforward to go over, in thees climate.”
We sat within the dim gentle for some time. Warmed by gratitude, I reached out a hand and stated, “James O’Trey. You’re proper. I used to be a soldier.”
He took my hand with a light grip, his personal bony and papery dry. After a second, he stated, “Me additionally. Unusual to satisfy right here, is it not?”
What was curious was that he hadn’t provided his title. Sufficiently old to be my grandfather, he pulled on the cigar, then held it absently over the arm of the chair as he gazed outward with out expression.
“Do they return . . . right here?” He tapped his brow with two fingers, the cigar glowing between them. He had a white goatee, however his darkish eyes have been intent.
Maybe the nightfall fostered confidences, for I might not have answered so in daylight. “The lads I misplaced? I see them typically,” I stated and drew within the salt air.
The faint waltz gave solution to a brisk polka that separated the pair of us from the distant frolic with a chasm as huge because the ocean. Unmoving, my companion squinted into the evening. His inflexible posture tugged at me, demanding solidarity, even compassion.
I continued, “And the . . . others. I see them too.”
He turned his face an inch and stiffened, his shoulders tight. Forward, the polka continued in painful counterpoint whereas surf splashed over the rail, misting our faces.
Ramrod straight, the previous soldier stood and stated in a low voice, “I did my obligation. It was my obligation.” He gave a pointy nod and walked deftly up the stairway to the promenade deck.
I settled again, puzzling over my unknown companion’s parting phrases. Ignoring the waves smashing at our hull, I contemplated his tone. It held an odd word—stiff pleasure, and one thing else I couldn’t title. He’d behaved as if responding to an argument, but I had given none. What had I missed?
Someday later Diana approached, peering this manner and that as she stepped by patches of sunshine. She noticed me and hurried over in a rustle of silk skirts.
“All proper, Jim? You weren’t on the desk. Thought you would possibly take the air.” She glanced at my trousers and made a moue along with her mouth as she sat in my companion’s chair. “Oh expensive. You’ve had a tough time of it.”
We’d been married two years in the past, aboard the steamer from Bombay, then emigrated to america to make a house in Boston. It nonetheless astonished me once I checked out her, so poised and chic, her arms encased in satin gloves. Her copious curls have been piled in a try this appeared far too heavy for that delicate neck. Being married was vastly completely different from something I’d anticipated. I glanced at Diana’s absorbed face. What was she pondering? I’d believed I knew her each temper, however the open, carefree woman had changed into a brisk younger girl whose emotions I couldn’t at all times learn. Just lately I’d detected moments of melancholy that unnerved me.
I stated, “I had firm. Outdated navy chap.”
“American? Or English.”
“International cove. European, I feel.”
“Oh.” She anxious her backside lip. “Goodness. Not the Spanish grandee!”
“You bear in mind, that peculiar . . . incidence. On the gangway.” I dislike crowds and had stored on alert for pickpockets as we ready to board. I frowned, making an attempt to recollect it. “The girl within the wheelchair who blocked the gangplank—was the Spanish gent upset?”
“Oh, he’d already gone ahead. You have been talking with the porter on the time. The Spanish group went up, all wearing black, the ladies veiled like Queen Victoria. Then the steward let the invalid on, however her attendant wouldn’t transfer.”
I stated, “I do not forget that. Folks tried to push previous.”
“Sure. The wheelchair will need to have been caught. The attendant did nothing. A crewman got here to assist, however she didn’t transfer. Like she’d gone to sleep on her ft. Little bit of an oddball, hmm?”
Oddballs and toffs, I assumed, shrugging. The standard companions on a steamship.
Diana’s brow creased in thought. “Jim, I bear in mind it due to that attendant’s odd expression. She stored staring up on the deck, like somebody in a trance.”
“A reluctant traveler? Nobody got here to see them off both.”
A lot of the transatlantic passengers had been making their animated goodbyes. Buddies encircled the well-heeled toffs, providing last-minute items and messages. There’s one thing neat and slender concerning the minimize of a well-tailored coat, I’d thought. Although altered to my top, my sack swimsuit hung thickly on me. Diana had purchased me different new garments, insisting I’d want to decorate for dinner on the liner. It had been a festive morning, feathers ruffled within the breeze, girls leaned ahead to embrace, gents shaking fingers, clutching their hats. Fathers and sons, moms, sisters and cousins. We had none of those—I’d by no means identified a household and all of Diana’s family members lived in India. Our pals the Abernathys had determined to summer time in Scotland and our neighbors the Lins couldn’t go away their bakery to wave goodbye.
Diana stated, “That Spanish attendant. Maybe she dislikes the ocean.”
I couldn’t fault the lady for that. All I wanted for that day was a quiet voyage, clean seas and lengthy sunny days on deck. However there was that different factor, the explanation we have been going, which I’d taken pains to maintain from Diana.
My chair shifted because the deck switched its tilt. My abdomen lurched. Eight days, I assumed. Might I stand it for eight days?
The following morning, sliding our trunks again underneath the beds to make extra room, I hoisted a decanter from the set glowing on a dumbwaiter. Oh, my. Venetian glass? Lifting out the stopper I sniffed the bottle—whiskey, and fairly previous, with a deep aroma. It probably price a month’s wages.
Our stateroom was a double mattress affair completed up in cobalt blue and creamy white. In entrance of a screened dressing space, damask settees curved round a bolted-down desk, fitted with a carved railing to guard the crystal. A porthole above a roll-top writing desk missed the ocean. However for this, we would have been within the Waldorf, a brand new New York resort the place Diana’s society pals the Abernathys had hosted us final 12 months.
Diana floated in from the washroom, saying, “Thank goodness we’ve flushing water closets. I’d anxious that this was an older ship, however she’s similar to the Umbria.”
She wore a brand new costume this morning, the entrance patterned in pale inexperienced and white, the again product of pink velvet. After I raised eyebrows in admiration, she dimpled. I brushed out my sack swimsuit with a rueful grin, hoping it could not distinction an excessive amount of with my spouse’s ensemble. I’d cleaned my costume footwear, however they have been nonetheless moist, so I tugged on my previous military boots.
It was a tremendous sunny day as we toured the ship, the rumble of engines vibrating underneath my ft. Large twin chimneys towered above us. I famous three masts, fore, principal and aft totally rigged. Would we see the sails splayed in opposition to the mighty Atlantic breezes this voyage? Fitted with 5 decks, the promenade and higher decks open to the sky, Her Majesty’s Ship Etruria was a floating fortress. Brass gleaming, her paint contemporary, all 5 hundred ft of her hummed with anticipation. On the promenade deck, the wind puffed at our faces and snatched at Diana’s skirts.
Pointing, she stated, “Smoking room—gents solely, ’course.” She nodded at a thick oak door. “That’s in all probability the women’ winter backyard.”
She’d know her method round very quickly. Seeing her smile, my spirits lifted. Maybe it wasn’t too late. It will be all proper.
A pair of heavyset older males handed us, their wives in nice, plumed hats talking intently as they adopted. Fur stoles on this climate? Diana caught my look and crinkled her eyes in amusement. Heartened that this, no less than, had not been misplaced, our silent language, the best way she may guess what I used to be pondering, I heaved a grateful breath. It was dashed odd, this distance that generally got here between us.
One thing had felt bewildering once I received again from my final project. I’d returned to Diana’s common welcome, her reduction to see me intact. She’d smiled and stated all the best issues, however the shadows round her eyes instructed me she’d not had a straightforward time of it. Solely once I shed my tramping guise and totally cleaned up did she bend. She’d discarded my filthy clothes with the strict look of a quartermaster inspecting a damaged rifle. However that was all proper. So why did I hear her stifled crying that evening? She’d insisted it was nothing, however I knew there was extra. Why had she been so sad?
A beanpole of a bloke walked previous, his checkered coat bulging. I frowned. What gave his pocket that form? A e book, or . . . a weapon?
“Don’t, Jim,” Diana stated, her voice tight. “Can’t we’ve a pleasing journey with out mysteries or anarchists? Simply dialog, pleasant companions and a little bit of dancing?”
“That might be good,” I stated, watching the skinny fellow. He joined two youths in straw boaters, pulled out a hip flask and leaned on the rail to take a swig.
Diana forged a darkish have a look at me. “Should you weigh them up as if you have been going in opposition to them within the boxing ring?”
She was proper. I organized my options to modest neutrality. “’Course, my expensive. Mustn’t frighten the natives.”
She shook her head at me. “Ships don’t swimsuit you, do they? You have been so sick on the Umbria.”
I’d been laid low for many of our journey to Boston. Recalling it, I shrugged. “Not had a lot luck with them. I used to be about fifteen after we have been shipped off to Karachi on a military transport. Spent most of that journey with the horses within the maintain . . . poor blighters have been depressing at the hours of darkness. God, the stench! When finally we made land and received out on the pier, I couldn’t see—blinded by the daylight.” I’d spent most of my military profession on the North-west Frontier and in Rangoon.
“However it’s essential to have sailed again to Bombay? Oh.” Her voice dropped. “That head wound . . .”
The shot had struck above my ear. I didn’t recall that voyage, however somebody had been close to me . . . who was it? A turbaned man, maybe, who tended me as if I have been a baby. I snatched on the reminiscence, making an attempt to carry it, however it dissolved.
Diana bit her lip, sending me a considerate look.
Presently our ship turned, bringing the solar into our eyes. As of 1 thoughts, we proceeded right into a tremendous lounge with gilded chairs and velvet draperies.
A raised voice drew our consideration to the trio who’d blocked our gangway whereas boarding. The invalid’s ire was directed at each attendants. The youthful nurse had are available at a run, her scarf askew, blushing and out of breath.
“I have searched, Mrs. Barlow,” she panted. “It’s not within the valise. However I’m sure I packed it. We’ll certainly discover it in your trunks.”
“Then what are you doing right here, you ninny? Unpack them!”
“However you stated to return again,” whispered the harried woman.
“I’ll do it, Madam,” stated the thinner attendant, her hair pulled again in a decent bun.
Her employer snapped, “Nonsense! Dora had it in her fingers as we boarded! Wait, Dora! The place are you going? What’s the matter with you?”
Dora hurried again, her childlike eyes huge with harm.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Diana stated underneath her breath, and went as much as the group. Flashing a smile that might attraction the keys off a warden, she stated, “I’m Mrs. O’Trey. Has one thing been misplaced? Maybe I can assist?”
“Ah, little one, knitting is my solely consolation,” the mollified girl within the bonnet stated, and launched herself. She glowered at Dora’s bent head, grumbling. “Tsch! Can’t get good assist for love or cash as of late!” She grabbed in the back of her wheelchair. “The place’s my blanket? Did you neglect my blanket? Alice, you dolt! What are you standing about for? Fetch it!”
As Alice set off, a lady seated throughout from me whispered to her husband, “Mrs. Barlow’s in tremendous fettle right this moment.”
Her husband appeared a few hundred kilos heavier than his spouse. His eyes met mine. Since we have been solely ft away, I provided, “Night. Have you ever sailed on this ship earlier than?”
Somewhat than return my greeting, the pair exchanged a startled look, then moved to a sofa farther away the place they plunked down with uncertain appears to be like in my course.
Nicely now, I assumed, amused. Was it my blended race, or the truth that I’d been a boxer? With out Diana’s mitigating presence, I couldn’t count on entry amongst what she known as the ship’s “finest individuals.”
I recalled the straightforward camaraderie of Smith and my previous cavalry firm, blokes who’d trip with you all day and inform tales all evening. However that firm of dragoons had been disbanded someday after our debacle in Karachi. Would I meet Smith or the remaining blokes once more? Invaliding out of the military, I’d been employed by Diana’s brother Adi—the tragic loss of life of his spouse and sister gave me my current profession. Diana had stated goodbye to her close-knit household and sacrificed her inheritance to marry a tough soldier. Regardless of every thing, she’d accepted me, so we left Bombay’s social taboos for a life collectively within the States.
In the meantime, she had calmed Mrs. Barlow’s attendants and was now deep in dialog with the older one.
I picked up a newspaper and glanced on the headline: ASSASSIN EXECUTED. The previous June, an anarchist, Sante Geronimo Caserio, had assassinated French president M. F. Sadi Carnot. France had simply guillotined the fanatic. What drove such a person? President Carnot was the third world chief murdered by European anarchists. I learn with concern, as a result of final 12 months we’d had a run-in with simply such a gaggle at Chicago’s World’s Truthful.
Diana returned, saying, “Poor Alice! She’s all sixes and sevens. And Dora was near tears.” She defined that Mrs. Barlow was returning to Liverpool after a decade in California, the place her late husband had owned a winery. “She’s not as previous as I assumed, Jim. She had a using accident twenty years in the past. Her nurse has misplaced her knitting basket, so her common diversion in making an attempt instances will not be available.”
I smiled. “And your common diversion in such instances, my expensive?”
Diana dimpled. “Watching you alarm fellow vacationers, ’course!”
Grinning, I provided my arm with a flourish. I should be mistaken, I assumed. No matter troubled her, it was previous.
We dressed formally at luncheon. One was excused the primary day, however now the ship’s protocol held sway. I had a properly minimize coat to go along with my formal striped trousers, very similar to the dandies on board. Time to satisfy the troops. I stamped into my boots and laced them up as Diana picked up her embroidered stole.
Seagulls squealed, hovering out of sight within the fog as we took a flip across the higher deck. Each this and the empty promenade above have been open to the ocean air. Diana hugged the scarf, operating a hand over the trailing bougainvillea sample. Was she pondering of the huge verandahs and canopied bushes in tropical Bombay the place she’d grown up?
A raised voice got here from above us. A lady’s voice, torn with agitation. “I let you know, it’s him! Why don’t you—”
The girl stood on the companionway beside the glass-fronted bridge. An officer stepped out from the lighted room and protested, his tone insistent. “It’s been twenty years…” The remainder was misplaced within the breeze. The girl replied with a shriek of protest.
Diana’s grip tightened on my arm. “That sounds critical, Jim. Ought to we assist?”
I thought of interrupting the pair, however in a second it was pointless.
“! However you do nothing! Nincompoop!” With that, the lady stamped down the companionway. She handed us, her face hidden by her bonnet. My tenderhearted spouse adopted her progress with a anxious look.
A ship is a metropolis in miniature, I assumed, with all of the conflicts and quarrels of human affiliation. On it, small dramas unfolded, attachments fashioned or broke, friendships constructed whereas others fell aside. The girl’s misery echoed within the rigged sails snapping on the wind. Clearly, some expectation had been sorely disenchanted.
Lengthy after she had handed, the thickset officer stood wanting down, however didn’t seem to see us under. When he squared his shoulders and disappeared into the bridge, Diana and I made our solution to luncheon.
“Marvel what that was about,” she stated as we entered the eating saloon. “It’s unusual, isn’t it? Like opening a e book to the center and never understanding what got here earlier than!”
The saloon was meant to impress, with ceilings of painted angels and clouds, burgundy velvet on chairs and drapes, partitions lined with ornate, framed landscapes and pillars gilded like in a maharaja’s durbar corridor.
At our desk we greeted the corporate. Glad Diana had pressed my second-best swimsuit, I shook fingers with a pair of dandies who gave their names as Vernon and Algernon Farley.
In a sober black jacket and crisp, excessive collar, Algernon bowed over Diana’s hand. Vernon, the youthful brother, wore his hair curling all the way down to his flounced shirt, his vest unbuttoned à la Oscar Wilde and gazed at Diana doe-eyed.
Each younger pups sat up like terriers looking forward to her consideration. Their cabin was on the saloon deck too—going to London to go to an uncle who lived in Pall Mall. I used to be anticipated to acknowledge his lengthy, hyphenated title. After I didn’t, their eagerness dampened.
Algernon named others at our desk: Mr. and Mrs. Evansworth, taking their brood again to England, and Miss Felicity Rood who accomplished the corporate. Excessive-spirited and fair-haired, Miss Rood greeted us with the way of a vestal virgin receiving homage, then gave Vernon her consideration.
Because the salads have been served, apparently approving of Diana, Mrs. Evansworth spoke about her youngsters, punctuated by her husband’s occasional, “Fairly so, my expensive.”
I doubted he had heard her in any respect. As an alternative, he continued a dialog with Algernon, the older, stolid brother—a brief nod, and the title of an organization, adopted by “Good stable inventory,” or a disapproving “Oh, I don’t know.”
Feathered hat quivering as she moved her head, Mrs. Evansworth stated, “. . . our older two are Rose and Leonard—we name him Leo. The twins are three, my expensive, you by no means noticed such . . .”
Diana glanced at me and dropped her gaze. Though she nodded at Mrs. Evansworth’s patter, her face had altered in some undefinable method. She sat upright as at all times, chopping her ham neatly into items. In current weeks, she appeared to retreat into herself extra typically, and for no discernible motive. Her distant look gave me an odd, unsettled feeling within the pit of my abdomen.
Her frozen little face held a well mannered smile. I bent and murmured, “Diana?”
In a brittle voice, she requested Vernon, “Would you cross the pepper, please?”
Right here it was once more. One thing was improper between us, however I didn’t know what.
“I say!” Vernon stated to me, his flounced cuffs curling. “The chaps are going to put bets. I feel we’ll do 13 knots right this moment. Algy’s eager on sixteen, however I don’t suppose she’ll do it. Not unexpectedly, you see? Not out the gate, however on a tailwind, don’t you suppose?”
Algernon provided, “She had the blue riband some years in the past. Over eighteen knots! Dashed tremendous climate too, I count on. However sixteen should do, right this moment.”
After I declined to wager on our ship’s velocity, his enthusiasm wilted.
I watched his puzzlement and guessed the query in his thoughts. Why had a dashing tremendous girl like Diana accepted such an enormous, plodding fellow as myself? What on earth did she see in me? Typically, when that quiet look closed her off, I puzzled too.
The youthful brother gave Diana a shy grin. “Do you play croquet?”
“Vernon!” cried Miss Rood, including, in apology, “We’d simply made up a foursome. Although if Mr. O’Trey would be a part of us . . . ?”
“Come now, Felicity, ’tisn’t like tennis,” Vernon protested, then requested Diana, “D’you like shuffleboard?”
Regardless of his fawning method and the resultant disgust of the debutante, the social gathering received alongside tolerably nicely. Breakfast was cleared away, however Diana had not checked out me as soon as.
Vernon glanced across the desk. “How ’bout a riddle: Why’s the ocean so unhappy?”
The corporate exchanged glances and shrugs.
“I really like riddles!” cried Miss Rood.
Vernon grinned. “As a result of it’s blue! Right here’s one other. Why did the fish blush?”
“Don’t be daft,” stated his brother.
Smiling and curious, Miss Rood stated, “Go on, why?”
“As a result of he noticed the ocean’s backside!”
Miss Rood laughed, then lined her mouth. Obtrusive, Mrs. Evansworth gasped. “Mr. Farley! You might be outrageous!”
The Evansworths received as much as go away, their eyes taking pictures Vernon bullets of disapproval. Others at our desk adopted swimsuit with much less censure. Algernon pressed his lips collectively, however Vernon tossed his head with a defiant pout.
As we left, Diana murmured to me, “Saying that in blended firm! Too risqué by far. One can’t say ‘backside’ or ‘legs’ in public, not even when referring to a piano.”
I pulled in a breath. What the dickens had ailed her? Till I knew what prompted it, I couldn’t relaxation straightforward. Dammit, why wouldn’t she inform me? Couldn’t she belief me to guard her?
Copyright © 2023 by Nev March. All rights reserved.
About The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret by Nev March:
Captain Jim Agnihotri and his spouse Girl Diana Framji are embarking to England in the summertime of 1894. Jim is hopeful the cruise will assist Diana divulge heart’s contents to him. One thing is troubling her, and Jim is worried.
On their first night, Jim meets an intriguing Spaniard, a fellow soldier with whom he finds an immediate kinship. However inside twenty-four hours, Don Juan Nepomuceno is murdered, his physique found shortly after he asks reasonably urgently to see Jim.
When the captain discovers that Jim is an investigator, he pleads with Jim to seek out the killer earlier than they dock in Liverpool in six days, or there might be worldwide penalties. Aboard the beleaguered luxurious liner are a thousand suspects, however no witnesses to the locked-cabin crime. Jim would like to maintain Diana safely out of his investigation, however he’s doubled over, seasick. Plus, Jim is aware of Diana can navigate the excessive society world of the ship’s first-class passengers in methods he can’t.
Collectively, utilizing the tips gleaned from their favourite fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Jim and Diana should study why one man’s life got here to a murderous finish.