Indefinitely Postponed (A Ripping Yarn!) Part I
Portuguese East Africa, December 1904
“Indefinitely postponed!” Even stood on the deck of a ship as they were Wilfred could hardly not be aware of the rising timbre of his voice. Incredulity turning to frustration. “Again? We've been tied up at this God forsaken hole of Lourenzo Marques for five weeks already!”
“Aye,” Captain McKenzie re-affirmed in his heavy Greenock accent. “But that's what the cable says, laddie!” He squinted once more at the little slip of paper. “'Sailing indefinitely postponed. Stop. To await further instructions. Stop. Williams, Durban Office. Stop.' I picked it up from de Silva's boy at the telegraph office just an hour ago.”
Wilfred turned away from the captain, and from his vantage point on the S.S. Ravock Castle's still rain dampened quarter deck took in the tediously familiar scene. The rust eaten corrugated iron roofs of the warfe side shacks, the idle cranes, the stacked up sugar barrels. Directly across the two hundred yards of muddy inlet water separating them the tiny Portuguese gunboat Zambese rocked gently at her regular mooring in front of the Government Warfe. Wilfred raised the binoculars hung around his neck. Three or four of her crew seemed to be taking advantage of the brief respite in the rains to affect some desultory repairs to her tall, slender, single smoke stack. Maybe patching up damage sustained during her latest clash with local pirates.
An outsized red and green Portuguese flag flapped listlessly high above the Government Warfe buildings. The cloud wracked skies beyond it remained uniformly grey.
“It's a queer business, laddie.”
Wilfred turned back to the captain. “It makes no sense at all!” Despite a forty year age gap he and the wiry Scots captain had developed a genuine friendship during the voyage out from England. Although whether being idly stuck for weeks on end in some wet, humid, mosquito ridden harbour at the southern end of the Indian Ocean was quite what Pater had had in mind seven months ago he somehow doubted.
'Treat it as an instructive adventure!' had been his father's almost too enthusiastic advise. 'After all, you are twenty-one now. No better way of learning the groundings of the modern day shipping agent's role in the mercantile world than by working your passage on board a cargo ship! First hand experience! Then, once you return home to take up your trainee role in the family business you'll know more of foreign climes than the rest of us put together ...'
“I dinna know about it makes no sense at all.” The captain's words cut sharply across Wilfred's thoughts. “It kind of depends on how you view it, I'm thinking.”
Wilfred was taken a little aback. “I'm not sure I follow you.”
“Well, what's our cargo, laddie?”
“Coal.” Indeed it was. And its black dust seemed to hang in the damp air everywhere on board ship. It lingered in the cabins, in the companion ways, in the hammocks, in the food, in the hair, on the skin.
“Aye, three and one half thousand tons of it. And it's no' any old coal, neither. This vessel is loaded wi' best Welsh steaming coal. You've seen the bills of lading.”
Wilfred thought hard, aware of the sudden twinkle in the older man's eye. “But you can't think we are being delayed here because of the approach of that Russian naval squadron, surely?”
“It's no' a squadron, laddie. It's the full Baltic Battle Fleet. Upwards of forty ships what with the transports and all. On their way to fight the Japs outside of Port Arthur. And commanded by some mad dog Russian admiral who fired on and sank British fishing trawlers in the North Sea on his way through.” McKenzie turned his head for a moment and spat over the ship's rail. “As if there were ever a torpedo boat built, Japanese or otherwise, that even faintly resembles an east coast trawler. Or else I'm Pope Pius the tenth!”
“You are suggesting that the owners might think they can get a better price for the cargo locally because of the imminent arrival of this Russian fleet?”
The older man grinned. “I'm no' suggesting anything, laddie! I just run this ship and takes my orders from the shipping agents. The likes of which you are soon enough to become. But yon mad dog Admiral Rozhestvensy is going to need to replenish his bunkers, isn't he? To the tune of thirty thousand tons, I'm thinking. Not to mention overhaul his boilers and machinery after such a voyage as they've made already, and revictual his ships. And he's going to need a sheltered anchorage to do that, you ken?
Wilfred acknowledged the captain's reasoning. “But would the Portuguese government allow it?”
“How would they prevent it? With that wee gunboat over there? And this is a British flagged and registered vessel remember.” Captain McKenzie smiled indulgently again. “Your mother ever sing to you when you was a wee bairn? That wee nursery rhyme 'Old King Cole' perhaps?”
Surprised by the unexpectedness of the question, Wilfred felt slightly embarrassed all the same. “My nurse taught me it, yes.”
“Well then, change the spelling and try this version for size:
'Old King Coal was a greedy old soul,
And a greedy old soul was he,
He didn'a give a cuss,
And he sold to the Russ,
And the Baltic Fleet crossed the Sea!'
And I heard from the telegraph clerk this very morning that some foreign speaking agents may be arriving here already. He works for a branch of the de Silva family after all. So he's well placed to know what's afoot.”
From inland came the sudden echoey boom of a cannon. “Mid-day already. Change of watch! Got to keep the crew occupied, though much more of this waiting around and I'll have to have 'em scraping bloody barnacles off her keel plates! You off into town this afternoon to see that mestico girl of yours?”
Even coming from McKenzie, Wilfred disliked the term mestico - it meant 'mixed blood' - even though in Carmen's case it was perfectly accurate. The half Portuguese, half Bantu offspring of one of the ubiquitous de Silvas' numerous native mistresses. And, although Wilfred could see no good need to acquaint Captain McKenzie of the fact at this particular time, Senhorita Carmen de Silva (as she confidently titled herself) wasn't exactly his girl.
Out to sea Wilfred caught sight of a triangular sailed Arab dhow making its hazardous way across the long lines of white breakers beyond the lighthouse at the harbour entrance. He bade his leave of McKenzie. A first few spots of warm rain began to patter onto the Ravock Castle's deck planking as he made his way below.
The town of Lourenzo Marques was essentially brown. Or at least, that was how its dusty avenues flanked by yellow barked flame trees, the rusty roofs of its shacks, and the tiled roofs of its galleried and arcaded Portuguese banking houses and trade exchanges appeared to Wilfred. And likewise too its public buildings, churches, and the hospital. Walking beside him, her arm linked firmly through his, Carmen chattered away in her surprisingly good English, occasionally lapsing into Portuguese or her indecipherable Bantu - Swahili pigeon when stuck for a phrase. Jellaba garbed men loitered in the doorways of some of the grander colonial buildings while throngs of brightly clad Bantu women hawked spices, dried fish, sugar or bananas from trays or little handcarts parked up under whatever cover could be found.
Over her shoulder Carmen carried the pink parasol Wilfred had bought for her in the market the day after they had first met just over one month ago. She did not seem to understand that it was not intended to double up as an umbrella. But for now at least the intermittent rain was holding off.
“And when I am a married lady I shall ride down the Avenida Central in my carriage and two, and I shall raise my hand to the gentlemen and call out: 'Bom dia, senores!' And they will all bow. And when I pass the ladies I shall say: 'Bom dia, senhoras!' And they will all smile. And each day when the mid-day gun goes off I shall step out of my house and I shall give money to the poor!”
“Your carriage and pair,” Wilfred corrected.
Carmen looked up sharply, her rain dampened black hair glistening, her darkly emerald eyes flashing. “Yes! It is what I say! Dois cavalos! Two horses!”
Wilfred smiled down at her. He just could not help himself. “I don't know how you put up with me!” Today she had selected another of her European dresses. The one with the slightly puffed out sleeves. And, he realised, a subtle application of his favourite scent.
She regarded him quizzically for a moment. “Because you are ... hmm ... a good man! Yes! Um bom homen!”
She sprung up onto her toes for a second and kissed him full on the lips. Wilfred adored her for such moments of spontaneity. Young women back home seemed repressed by comparison. It was not that she formally charged him, either. Money had never been mentioned. He bought her lots of presents, and after each of their assignations gave her the money to buy something more for herself. Her preferred currency was old Spanish or Mexican silver dollars. Sometimes Wilfred wondered if the bespectacled Indian cashier at the Banking House suspected their purpose. He supposed that he probably did. The female Afro-Portuguese maitre d'hotel of the Santa Amelia Hotel they used was apparently some relative of Carmen's, so the room always came at a fifteen percent discount.
They had entered the main market, and paused at one of the stalls where Carmen was bargaining with the Swahili vendor for a bottle of cheap Algarve wine for them to consume later. From within the milling market crowds some sort of commotion was occurring, shouting and cursing, drawing nearer. Wilfred instinctively pulled Carmen closer to him. Two, three angry looking men shoved their way through the crowd regardless of anyone stood in their path. Europeans, but pale skinned, certainly not Portuguese. The group paused near to where Wilfred and Carmen were standing. The tallest, very tall, perhaps the leader, shouted once again in a completely alien language. The mostly African crowd began to warily circle in. A piece of fruit flew through the air and struck the shouter on the shoulder. He at once pulled a revolver from out of the smooth brown jacket he wore and let off a round into the air. The crowd immediately fell back. Gun in hand still, the man slowly turned his head until his steely gaze alighted on Wilfred, the only obvious European present. Once more unknown foreign words, not shouted this time, but still angry, urgent. Wilfred shook his head and shrugged to indicate that he could not understand. They were looking for somewhere? For some person? The tall man cursed – that much was obvious in any language – then spat violently into the ground before turning on his heel and marching off again with the others immediately following.
A wave of murmur and babble rose up from the crowd. By Wilfred's side Carmen tugged hard on his arm. “Will?! Quem eram aqueles homens?”
Wilfred bit his lip. Carmen's question didn't require any translating. “I think they were Russian sailors.” He recalled what else Captain McKenzie had suggested a few hours earlier. “I think that the one with the gun might have been a Russian naval officer.”
Carmen arched her dark eyebrows. “Oh. And are all ... hmm ... marineiros Russo so big?”
Wilfred gently disengaged her arm from his. “I must get back to my ship.” He reached inside his coat and handed her the five Spanish Eight Reale pieces he had for her. “I'll find you in town in a couple of days.”
Wilfred slipped quickly through the now somewhat hostile crowd, Carmen's plaintive Portuguese entreaties almost at once lost to his hearing.
The overcast skies had broken up a little by nightfall, and a pale moon occasionally peeked though a provident gap. Along the puddled Avenida Central the naphthalene flares atop their tall, fluted iron columns threw out flickering globes of yellowish light. The town seemed unusually deserted, very few of the night time vendors about even, and although he couldn't say why precisely Wilfred had taken the precaution packing a stout wooden truncheon - a bo'sun's pin - beneath his coat.
Wilfred left the main thoroughfare and made his way towards the Santa Amelia. McKenzie had not appeared unduly concerned when he had reported to him what had occurred at the market place, but had advised him to remain on board ship for the next few days all the same. The Baltic Fleet according to McKenzie's latest telegraphic information, presumably from Durban, had been sighted sailing in three columns fifteen miles east of Port Shepstone at around noon the previous day.
Whatever, Wilfred wanted to see Carmen again. If only to re-assure her. It was not as if they were walking out together or anything ... Wilfred left that thought unfinished. But with hindsight he felt more than a little bad about abandoning her at the market earlier in the way that he had. He would not wish her to think him a coward, nor to feel that their association was of no importance to him.
The cobbled roadway at the front of the Santa Amelia lay deserted, and the miscellaneous shacks to either side of the arcaded three story building appeared darkened. But dim light seeped through the curtained and shuttered windows of the hotel's ground floor windows. Wilfred passed through the familiar portico and entered the colonnaded reception lobby.
“No! O Senhor, nao pode entrar! O Sr. de Silva dizem.” It was the matitre d'hotel whom Carmen referred to in English as her 'Aunt Josephine'. Wilfred sought to calm her.
“I am not here to make trouble. I just want to speak with Carmen for a minute. A minute? Um minuto? Senhorita Carmen? Is she here?”
“No! Voce deve sair imediamente!” she shouted at him. She began physically pushing Wilfred back towards the entrance. “Agora!”
Wilfred sought to hold his ground. “Please ... por favor ... we've not quarreled or anything.”
From the Grand Salon to the right of the lobby the sound of loud, drunken singing and shouting arose. The language Wilfred now recognised as Russian. There was another voice too. Of a much higher register. And frightened. Wilfred identified who it belonged to immediately. Pushing aside the matron he entered the double doors.
Inside was pandemonium. In the far corner one of the lamps had got knocked over, and one of the African maids was vainly trying to smother the burning oil with a table covering. Another was screaming. At the table nearest to the door four soberly dressed Portuguese merchant types were sat nervously. Perhaps some deal had been struck, and now the hospitality was in full swing? One of the local dignitaries whom Wilfred thought might be Carmen's supposed grandfather, Ferdinand de Silva, swung around in his chair.
He wore a dark jacket and green cravat, and had a neatly trimmed small beard. “Voce sair daqui agora!” His angrily bared teeth seemed strangely at odds with his otherwise dour colouring.
Wilfred ignored the command. All around was shouting and movement. Two or three scantily clad young Bantu women made a concerted bolt for the door. Wilfred hardly needed to speculate on their intended role in the proceedings.
A large, grey haired Russian – and there seemed to be more than just three of them – lumbered to his feet and with a loud roar flung a half empty bottle at Wilfred's head. It shattered against the door frame. Wilfred kicked the man between his legs, then brought the bo'sun's pin down onto his scalp with all the force he could muster. But to his dismay the Russian didn't collapse into a heap. He merely staggered backwards clutching both hands to his head while howling like a wounded animal.
People seemed to be on their feet everywhere. Over by the far wall Wilfred recognised the very tall Russian from the market place. The naval officer he thought. He was holding Carmen in front of himself, her feet clear of the ground, his long fingered hand below her chin forcing her head back. Had she been part of grandfather de Silva's 'hospitality' too?
“No!” Wilfred made for the pair just as Carmen succeeded in kicking her assailant. Wilfred saw Carmen in her red dress flung backwards toward him. Something struck his chest with unbelievable force. His breath was gone and the side of his face seemed to be bumping and bouncing against the polished wood floor. A piercing scream came to his hearing. Carmen? And then nothing at all.
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