En Route to Africa

The "Marigold" was a modern steamship capable of travelling night and day at over ten miles an hour of speed. At that rate, they would arrive in Gibralter in about five days. Soon after they were installed in their suite, the ship raised anchor. The company busied itself with settling into their quarters; three bedrooms opening onto a sitting room where Godfrey would sleep. A steward bustled by around eleven, telling them where the first class lounge was, and sending the Captain's respects and asking if they would care to dine at his table this evening.

"That would be splendid! We'll look forward to it. Can you get us some tea, please?" said Johnathan

"Tea is available in the lounge, sir, if you would like it immediately, otherwise, I'm afraid it will be a few minutes until one of the boys can bring it round," replied the steward.

"Oh, let's go see the first class lounge! When I travelled with the good doctor, I never got to see the first class lounge. It will certainly be nearly as much an adventure as walking across the African desert."

"Very good, ma'am," said the steward. "The lounge is forward, one deck up. Stairs are also forward." He withdrew graciously.

"Shall we go have some tea and see who else is travelling with us?" asked Elizabeth.

"Splendid idea, Elizabeth. If I may have the honour of escorting two such lovely ladies?" Johnathan asked with a smile.

The threesome walked forward and found the stairs easily, ascended, and stepped into the first class lounge. The room was not overly large, but it was well-appointed, with several tables and comfortable chairs. Of more immediate interest was the light buffet and tea urn laid on a sideboard with a steward attending it.

There were few of their fellow passengers present, only two in fact: an elderly woman of aristocratic bearing and a younger woman who bore a strong resemblance to her older companion. They were seated at a table with a cup of tea each, and the girl had a small biscuit as well.

"Lovely," said Elizabeth. "A nice cup of tea is exactly what I need."

She passed the girl sitting with her -- grandmother? -- and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "How are the biscuits? It's hard to tell if one should trust publicly-displayed biscuits."

"A little dry," said the girl, then darted a glance at the older woman, who glared at her.

"Have we been introduced?" said the dowager.

"Not yet," said Rose sweeping in, "I am Lady Davington, this is my cousin Jonathan Sanders-Davington and our friend Elizabeth Rutherford."

The old woman visibly thawed, "I am Dame Edna Willoughby and this is my grand-daughter Grace Willoughby. Will you join us?"

"We'd be most delighted to," Johnathan replied and pulled out chairs for Elizabeth and Rose

"Thank you, Jonathan," said Elizabeth. She turned deferentially to Lady Willoughby, with a covert wink to Grace on the way. "It is so kind of you to invite us to join you. We're just settled on the ship and haven't had a chance to see what it has to offer yet. Have you met any of the other passengers?"

"Not as of yet, and we probably shant. Except, of course, for those who will be dining with the Captain. We are leaving the ship at Gibralter."

Leaving the ladies to there conversation with a deferential, "If you'll excuse me," Johnathan went out on deck to smoke and observe the goings on. The view from the deck was calming as the ship moved down the Thames toward the open sea. On the lower decks, the passengers crowded the rails to watch the sights on the river.

The ladies made small talk with their new acquaintances for a while then returned to their rooms. Several more hours were filled with settling into their quarters and the time passed quickly.

The Captain's table sat twelve. There was, of course, Captain Jacob Wills, the Willoughby's and the Davington party. The rest of the table was made up of The Reverend Mister Johnson and his wife, Louisa, who were on their way to preach to the benighted heathens; Colonel Gascoin, Retired, who was looking forward to the hunting; Miss Eliza Roberts, daughter of Brigadier Jason Roberts, Commander of the Gibralter Garrison; and two of Captain Wills' senior officers to make the number of gentlemen and ladies balance.

As expected, the meal was excellent and conversation naturally turned to people's travel plans. The Willoughbys and Miss Roberts were stopping at Gibralter, of course, while the Colonel and the missionaries were continuing on to Lagos. The Colonel was full of the usual stories of animals shot and dismal service from the natives. This was the first trip to Africa for the missionaries and they would be meeting with their predecessors in Lagos.

"What an excellent meal," said Elizabeth once they'd returned to their quarters for the evening.

"Wasn't it though?" replied Johnathan, "I hope they're all that good"

The next few days passed easily. The steamship made steady progress and the company dined every other night with the Captain, with the same guests. They kept mostly to themselves, mingling a bit with other travellers in the first class lounge. Around noon, the fifth day, the ship docked at Gibralter.

The company left the ship at Gibralter to stretch their legs and see the sights while the ship prepared for the next leg.

The 16" guns of the battery were very impressive, as indeed was the rock itself. A stop at a cafe for a light refreshment at tea-time completed the trip and the company returned to the ship with light hearts.

Their tranquility was shattered when, upon entering their rooms, they discovered that they had been thorougly ransacked in their abscence.

"Good god! not again!" exclaimed Johnathan "Have all our rooms been ransacked? is anything missing?"

"Who in the world could have done this?" asked Elizabeth, gathering scattered items from the berth. "It seems a little far-fetched that one of our dinner companions from last night is part and parcel of our troubles in London, but it seems even less likely that this was mere coincidence."

"It does some a bit much to lay to coincidence," said Rose. "Perhaps, though, some confederates were waiting for us here at Gibralter?"

"It's a little troubling to think of a far-flung plot to remove us from your map," said Elizabeth. "We'll have to be on our guard at all times."

Upon further investigation, it seemed that all the rooms had been ransacked although nothing appeared to have been taken. "I suspect that villian was looking for the map," said Rose, "but I took the precaution of bringing it with us on our sightseeing expedition."

"I fear you may be correct, Rose," said Johnathan. "Jolly good idea to bring the map with you - wih I'd thought of that."

"Excellent instinct, Rose," said Elizabeth, "I suppose we should alert the captain."

"A fine idea, Elizabeth," said Rose. "Godfrey, would you please notify the Captain?"

"Yes, my Lady," said Godfrey and departed.

"Good Lord!" said the Captain as Godfrey ushered him into the room. "I can't imagine how this could have happened. No one was hurt, I trust?"

"We were all ashore at the time, thank you, and it appears nothing was actually stolen. Have you any thoughts on who might have had access to our cabins?"

"No. Only the first class passengers usually have access to this deck, anyone else would be conspicuous. Someone from belowdecks could have crept in, though. I'll have my men check with all the stewards to see if any suspicious types were about. Was anything taken? The shipping line will want to reimburse you for any losses as a small gesture of apology."

The captain departed to instruct his men, leaving the companions alone to discuss things.

"Did either of you see anyone coming aboard when we left the ship?" Johnathan asked the ladies. "I didn't ... I would suggest that one of the four of us should be in these rooms at all times from now on and that Rose keep up her excellent habit of keeping the map upon her person at all times. Perhaps we could also have a copy of it each?"

"That would be prudent, I wonder why we didn't think of it before," said Rose. "I have some practice at map-making, does anyone else?"

"I have some small amount of skill and will definitely have a go," volunteered Johnathan

"Godfrey, could you fetch us some tea?" asked Rose.

Rose, Jonathan and Elizabeth settled down to make their maps, checking each others efforts and making corrections and modifications where needed. The invaluable Godfrey kept the tea warm and brought sandwiches as the evening wore on. By bedtime, the company was satisfied with their efforts. They had three suitable copies of the map made. They had also worked completely through the crossing to Tangiers, and subsequent departure.

"Superb!" exclaimed Johnathan. "This raises a question now: should we make an 'erroneous' copy and 'allow' it to be stolen?"

Rose clapped her hands, "An excellent idea! One that could save us a great deal of trouble later. What errors shall we introduce?"

"Not too many," answered Johnathan "I'd not want to send anyone to their deaths ..."

"What a wonderful scheme!" said Elizabeth. "Do you suppose we could put in errors that would allow us to track our thief? Such as sending him to a site right off the boat where we could watch for him? The intrigue would be such fun, but it would also be helpful to know our enemy."

"That is another good idea, Beth," said Johnathan. "Now, who's the best map-maker to come up with it, and who can best fake Auntie Tilda's hand? I would guess you for the latter Rose?"

"I do have some mapping skill -- it seemed a good thing to develop when we were traipsing through darkest Africa in search of heathens to heal. I don't know if it outshines either of yours, but I'll certainly give it a go," said Elizabeth.

"Why don't we all try, and we can decide which one we like best?" asked Rose. "I'm not sure how we could design a map that would allow us to immediately identify our pursuers, though."

"I don't either, but if we could send them to a particular place, maybe we could intercept them. Or at least get a look at them."

"Where shall we send them? It would have to be someplace large, given the scale of the map. And someplace they would stand out," said Rose.

"Not necessarily. Whoever is badgering us hasn't seen the map. We could write instructions, say, to find the building on the west of the pier and 'find the Symbol of the Great God Vilboo on the roof, from where you can see the enormous tree that marks the starting point...' and then see who's tramping around on the roof. It may not work at all, but I think we should try something. It's disconcerting to have nameless, faceless rabble sifting through one's unmentionables at every turn. I'd feel better if we did *something*."

"Well, it's certainly worth a try."

The steamer moved south, toward Lagos and the companions turned their fake map production into a game, trying different designs and styles. Eventually, they settled on one that instructed the user to dig down six feet two paces due east from the eastern-most landside post on the westernmost pier in the harbour at Lagos. Hopefully, that would leave anyone using it open to observation.

They were invited regularly to dine with the Captain. Mister Johnson and his wife were still among their companions, as was Colonel Gascoin. The Willoughbys and Miss Roberts had left the ship at Gibralter. They had been replaced with Don Roderigo Estanza and his secretary, Senor Wancesas. The handsome Rogerigo was also heading to Nigeria for the hunting, and, as he spoke excellent English, the dinner conversation turned often to "Animals I Have Known and Shot", led by the Colonel and the Don, with Johnathan making his own contribution. His story of the roogie and wild Rummet Breehr stood up well next to Gascoin's injured tiger in India, and Estanza's boar hunt with spears.

It was at Casablanca that the bait was taken. While the company was ashore, sightseeing, their rooms were once again ransacked and the false map taken. This discover was met with outrage concealing secret glee. Complaints were made to the Captain, who promised even more security.

The companions wondered if, with the map in their unknown pursuer's hands, they would be free from further interference.

It seemed they would be. Things were quiet until they arrived in Lagos. Although some preparations and contacts had been made, they still needed to finalize their purchases and load the boat for the trip up the Niger.

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Jeff Berry, nexus@panix.com
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