Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Mrs Danby on the Utopia!





My Dear Sister Nellie,

You had every faith in me. You knew I would do it, didn’t you? Secretly I thought I would back out of this trip at the last moment. Too daunting for one such as I! However, I did not let my nerves get the better of me. And suddenly there I was, all alone, aboard the SS Utopia, in the dock at Southampton. Ready to sail the oceans at last and see the world. I don’t know how I had the courage to set off like that, but somehow I did.

If I’d known what was coming, would I still have done it? I had no idea how brave I was going to have to be.

When the steward manhandled my bags all the way to my First Class cabin, he was full of reassurances. Blandishments, I would call them. How the sea would be calm and as smooth as a newly-made bed; how no storms were expected during our seven-night journey. But then, I expect they are used to soothing the nerves of first-time passengers like myself. Only a year after the ghastly tragedy of the Titanic – God rest their souls – I suppose most travellers experience qualms as they set sail upon vessels such as the SS Utopia, no matter how luxurious.

Why did I ever think an Atlantic passage would be something I’d enjoy?

I was rather fretful, Nellie. I sat up in my nicely appointed room and I couldn’t sleep at all during my first night at sea. I listened to the ship’s groaning, and panicked at every slight movement. I couldn’t help wondering whether this trip of mine was such a good idea after all.

Only a month before, I had finally decided to throw caution to the wind. As you yourself pointed out, I’d hardly been anywhere in the world. Now that I found myself without employment or ties, it seemed the opportune moment for a lady of even my advanced years to sally forth into the wider world. Your enthusiastic goading worked, my  dear sister. And so I went off in search of the New World, all alone.

But at the outset I couldn’t help wondering: what if I had bitten off more than I could chew?


*

You will be glad to know that I ventured forth on the third day of sailing. What a thrill it was to be out on the deck once the wind had died down. How I marvelled at that blue expanse of sky and sea, with absolutely nothing to mar the view. I took a brisk walk all around the SS Utopia and suddenly started feeling very much more comfortable than I had at first.

I saw my friendly steward and he showed me where breakfast was being served. I nibbled on a crumpet and sipped some rather superior tea and felt quite content, sitting alone. Lovely silver, I must say. And the tablecloths were beautifully pressed.

Such luxury! Who would have thought I would be enjoying such riches? Only the generosity of my erstwhile employer could have brought me here. That dear man. Though, as you have rightly pointed out, sister, I deserved every penny of my severance pay. My years as his housekeeper were not uneventful, and sometimes they were downright terrifying. One never knew who would be turning up to consult with him in his sitting room. Traipsing muck up and down my stair carpet. Murderers and poisoners and suchlike. I was in far more danger than I think I ever knew about. But bless him, anyhow, and I hope he’s doing well tending his hornets and bees in Sussex. I had an extra spoonful of delicious honey on my last crumpet in honour of my ex-employer and his current charges.

Then I saw that I had attracted the attention of a gentleman at the next table. He, too, was eating alone, a clean-shaven, hawk-faced chap wearing evening dress for breakfast. He was peering at me over his pince-nez, so I shot him one of my basilisk stares – you know the ones, dear Nellie – and he disappeared once more behind his Times. Honestly!  A Peeping Tom. And in First Class, too.

I wondered who he was. Quite a dapper gent.

*

That night I attended a concert wearing my dressiest gown and, as you promised, I soon fell into  company. I was set upon by some women from the north country. Bradford, they informed me. The wives of some manufacturers of woollen garments. There was talk of mills and some such. I told them that I have a sister in North Yorkshire, on the very coast, and they made interested noises, all the way through the programme of light classics.

The small orchestra was tuneful and energetic, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the band that bravely played on as the Titanic went down to her ignominious end. A gloom crept over me. And it wasn’t helped by those fussy Yorkshire women and their urgent quizzing, which began during a medley of waltzes. As you know, Strauss always makes me queasy, and that feeling wasn’t helped by the realization that these blowsy types had learned from shipboard gossip of my name and previous occupation.

They were avid for details of what it must have been like, keeping house for “the Great Man himself”, as they styled him. Well, I could have told them a tale or two about the messy and dirty circumstances in which that Great Man liked to languish, given half a chance. I could have told them about gunshots and smashed windows in the early watches of the night. But I thought – why bother? I don’t need the friendship of this gaggle of nosey parkers. I am on this trip to find a new life. Not to dwell upon the vicissitudes of the old.

I slipped out during a break for refreshments and returned to my cabin. I got somewhat lost as I traipsed down those endless corridors, and that was when I came upon that man again. The one who had been staring as I broke my fast. Perhaps, I thought, he too knew of my connection to the Great Detective. It was galling, really, to have been nothing but an invisible helpmeet all my life and yet then, when I could have done with some peace, to be drawing unwanted attention like this.

I clapped eyes on him as he came creeping out of a door clearly marked ‘crew only’. The pointy-nosed cove was still in the same jacket as he had worn that very morning, and he had a suspicious look about him. Evidently he had been poking about down in the bowels of the Utopia, up to no good. In one hand he was clutching a fearsomely pointed stick. This he quickly hid behind his back as I coughed loudly and swept past him in my formal gown: my magenta with the whalebone support and the seed pearl embroidery. You admired it, Nellie, remember?

He bade me good evening and I gave him another of my stares.

He was, I thought then, not a very nice gentleman. I have a keen sense of villainy, of course, due to my many years in Balcomb Street. As you know, I can tell at a glance what’s lurking in the murkiness of a man’s soul. You, my dear sister, could do with some of that perspicacity yourself.

Do look after yourself, in that seaside resort of yours. I am so far away and feel uncomfortable because I can’t advise you if you start making a fool of yourself again. You were never very shrewd when it came to the male sex and their heinous desires.

I decided to take to my bed as the tossing sea turned rough and everything started to roll to the rhythm of awful Strauss.

*

There we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There was nothing to see, in whichever direction one looked. Never had I had so little to do, or had so few concerns. It was a strangely liberating feeling, marred only by the suspicion that the Titanic must have been hereabouts when disaster struck. Also, by the dread I felt for reaching our destination. Oh yes, indeed, I had dreamed about this holiday and experiencing the New World for a long time. But, really, what did I think would happen there? I was all alone, Nellie. With no one at all to share those new sights and experiences with. I found myself thinking about the years ahead – and wondering what I might fill them with. I am no longer needed, Nellie. I am redundant in every sense.





Well, obviously I came to my senses and saw that it was no good carrying on like that. Neither of us was brought up to wallow in feelings of desperation. And so it was that, determined to clear my head of all this foolish anguish, I took my daily constitutional, five times round the deck of our ship. I nodded and smiled to those passengers whose faces had become familiar in those past few days; I paused to examine the ship’s daily manifest; and I watched some elderly gentlemen playing a doddering game of quoits. And then, as I reached the very prow of our vessel, I was interrupted in my reverie by that same pale-faced chap with the pointed nose. That day he was in a green velvet smoking jacket, and I had the instant impression that he had planned this interception.

He opened his mouth to explain himself, but I wasn’t having any of it. I waved him off and tried to bustle past. I felt a bit foolish running away, but a woman alone can’t take too many chances. There he was, rabbiting on about why he’d been carrying that sharpened stick and sneaking about, and I tried to tell him I just didn’t care. But then he said it. He said it in such a sharp, commanding voice: ‘Mrs Martha Danby. Please let me explain.’

I turned round to look at him, amazed that he knew who I was. He was glaring at me with these steely grey eyes. Then I thought, well, anyone can look at the ship’s passenger list, can’t they?

He stepped forward and I was holding my breath. The sun was bright on his slicked-back white hair. I did think him a tad attractive, Nellie, for an older gent. But I didn’t want to let that show. He was burbling on about carrying pointed sticks and knives… Heavens! He opened up his jacket to show me that, stitched into the silk lining, he had a deadly array of hunting knives and more of those pointed sticks.

I boggled at him, Nellie. This was a very oddly-equipped gentleman. He was telling me that I had nothing to fear. His job was to protect ladies like myself. This was why he was armed so fearsomely. It was his role in this world to combat evil and the forces of darkness, wherever he was. Even aboard a luxury sailing vessel like this one.

Forces of darkness, I thought. Here we go again. Well, Nellie, I swiftly made my excuses and hastened to leave. I don’t know why he’d decided I needed to see his arsenal out there on the prow, but I wasn’t going to hang around.

‘Wait!’ he cried out. And then he asked me, urgently, whether I wasn’t in fact the very same Mrs Martha Danby who had worked for so many years as housekeeper to the esteemed Mr Nightshade Jones of 221b Balcomb Street.

Graciously, I gave the nod. ‘And Mr Wilson, too,’ I added. Folk tend to leave out the good doctor, but I was at his beck and call, as well. And this polite gentleman with the stakes and knives nodded thoughtfully. He’d come over all funny at the mere thought of Mr Jones. I wondered if he was an acquaintance or something… or worse… an enemy! A deadly enemy who had waited in the shadows until he could get this helpless female housekeeper alone…

He told me had conceived the greatest respect for my employers and myself. And then he introduced himself, rather charmingly, I thought. His name is Doctor Abraham Van Halfing. A Doctor, I thought, Nellie! A doctor of medicine and he’s got a PhD in ancient folklore and a Chair in Metaphysics to boot. Not that I know what a Chair in Metaphysics is, but it sounds rather grand.

I allowed him to take me in to lunch and we had a fine time of it, Nellie. He ate very little himself, but ordered all sorts of delicacies that he thought I ought to try. What a cultivated chap! Calling out for things in French without a qualm. Things that I didn’t even recognize. It was like Manna from Heaven, Nellie. It was like ambrosia or something. And all the while this dapper gentleman told me all about his scientific investigations. Not that I followed a word. Terribly well-groomed, he was.

He walked me back to my cabin and the sea was a little wilder, so I had a rolling gait as we made our way through the narrow corridors. Nothing to do with the crisp German wines he’d insisted I sample. However, I did feel slightly tipsy and perhaps over-stimulated by the company and the attention I’d received. I was much in need of my afternoon nap as we rounded the last corner before my door. I was fiddling in my clutch bag for my key just as that friendly steward I mentioned to you came walking past us.

The ship lurched, and I clutched the brass rail and dropped my key. At that very moment I saw that Doctor Van Halfing – my gallant companion – had produced, from inside his velvet jacket one of his sharpened sticks. I gave a shriek. I thought he was about to impale me, Nellie.

But he swung himself round and plunged that weapon straight into my steward. The stake went into the clean white breast of his jacket. Right into his heart. The sailor looked amazed and he gave a horrible, gurgling scream. And then POOF. He exploded into a shower of grey particles, which dropped to the carpet outside my cabin door.

Abraham Van Halfing was still holding his stake. He looked grimly satisfied. ‘These evil creatures are everywhere, Mrs Danby. And that is why I am always quiveringly alert.

‘What evil creatures?’ I asked him.

‘Why, vampires, Mrs Danby,’ said he.



2 comments:

  1. Marvellous! Is this simply a New Year's treat or is this an exciting Prelude?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Rich C - it's the first chapter of the novel i've just published today - 'Mrs Danby and Company.'

    ReplyDelete