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Authors: Conrad Allen

Murder on the Salsette

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Murder on the Salsette

Conrad Allen

MURDER ON THE SALSETTE
.

Copyright © 2005 by Conrad Allen. All rights reserved.

Originally published by St. Martin's Press

First eBook edition

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print ISBN 978-0312-30793-6

First Edition: January 2005

This one is for Judith.
Bon voyage!

ONE

M
AY
1909

B
ombay was truly a meeting place of nations. As he stood in the harbor and gazed around, George Porter Dillman saw faces of many differing hues and heard voices in a confusing variety of languages. He had never been in such a cosmopolitan environment before. Bombay was not only the gateway to India, it was a large, populous, vibrant, utterly fascinating city in its own right. Unlike many ports, which were simply modes of access to a country or an island, it was a place where the traveler was encouraged to stay, to explore, and to marvel. During his short time there, Dillman had certainly marveled at its sights and relished its unique atmosphere.

Situated on a peninsula some eleven miles long, the city occupied a site that formed a natural breakwater, enclosing the bay. Docks and wharves abounded, all of them swarming with people. Apart from its cordial hospitality, Dillman's abiding memories of Bombay would be its baking heat, its pungent odors, and its deafening noise.
Picking his way through the crowd, it seemed to him that the harbor was the hottest, smelliest, and most earsplitting part of the city. It was also one of the busiest. Not only were the wharves teeming with bodies, the water itself was packed with craft of all sizes and shapes. Steamships and tugboats were very much in a minority, surrounded by a veritable forest of masts as ketches, barges, schooners, trawlers, cutters, yawls, sloops, dhows, and other sailing vessels jostled for position.

Having worked in the family business of designing and building oceangoing yachts, Dillman was delighted to see so much canvas still in use. He paused to enjoy the scene before moving on. In his white linen suit and his straw hat, he was a striking figure, tall, lithe, and elegant, obviously at ease in foreign surroundings and unperturbed by the hectic bustle all around him. The man who fell in beside him was far less relaxed. Mopping his brow with a spotted handkerchief, he was short, florid, and running to fat. Though he was close to Dillman's age—in his early thirties—he looked much older and walked with a stoop.

“I do hope it's cooler onboard the ship,” he observed.

“I'm sure that it will be,” replied Dillman.

“Ah, you're an American,” said the other, hearing the Bostonian accent. “I thought you were one of us.”

“In some senses, I am. My family comes from English stock.”

“You'll never persuade me that that's the same thing as being born and brought up in the Home Counties. America is a different planet. So is India, for that matter. Can't wait to get back to civilization.”

“India's civilization is much older than yours,” noted Dillman.

“Perhaps that's what's wrong with it.” He offered a sweaty palm. “Nevin is the name. Dudley Nevin.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Dillman, shaking his hand. “My name is George Dillman.”

“What brings you to Bombay, Mr. Dillman?”

“Curiosity. I stopped off on the way back from Australia.”

“You're leaving just in time,” said Nevin. “When the monsoon season gets under way, India is well nigh unbearable. Not that it's tolerable at the best of times, mark you. I loathe the country.”

“Then why come to India in the first place?”

“I
work
here.”

“In Bombay?”

“No, in Delhi. I had to travel all the way here in one of those giant frying pans they call trains. It was murder, Mr. Dillman,” he complained. “There were times when I felt like one of those men in the fiery furnace. What were their names?”

“Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.”

“Those are the chaps.”

“Yet they survived the ordeal,” Dillman reminded him. “Even when the furnace was heated to seven times its normal temperature, they came out unscathed. Just like you, Mr. Nevin.”

“I don't feel unscathed.”

“What do you do in Delhi?”

“Pray for my contract of employment to come to an end.”

“Are you in business?”

“The Civil Service.”

“Why take the job if you dislike the country?”

“Because I didn't know that I
would
dislike it so much until I got here,” said Nevin. “I was beguiled by Kipling. He made India sound so interesting. I thought that coming here would be a big adventure.”

“I'm sorry it's disappointed you. My time here has been delightful.”

“How long have you stayed?”

“Only a week.”

“Try sticking it out for a year,” moaned Nevin. “Then you'd
get some idea of how bad it can be. This climate is torture for Europeans.”

Dillman gave a wry smile. “I'm an American, remember.”

“I was forgetting.”

Nevin was a tense, unhappy, irritable man but Dillman sensed that he would improve on acquaintance. He looked forward to meeting the Englishman when the latter was not under such obvious pressure. They had now joined the queue that snaked toward the gangway and Dillman took the opportunity to appraise the vessel on which they were about to sail. Named after one of the islands off Bombay harbor, the
Salsette
had the reputation of being the most beautiful ship owned by the P & O—the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. George Dillman could see why.

With her two yellow funnels and two masts in perfect proportion, the
Salsette
was an arresting sight. She had a long, sleek, white-painted hull that reminded Dillman of a yacht, and the large golden cockerel at her masthead signified that she was the fastest ship in the fleet. Designed for the express mail and passenger shuttle between Bombay and Aden, she was trim and refined, accommodating a hundred first-class passengers and a hundred and twenty second-class, but having limited cargo space. Dillman had once worked for Cunard, sailing a number of times on each of its acknowledged “pretty sisters,” the
Caronia
and the
Carmania
, yet he was forced to admit that the
Salsette
was an even more attractive example of marine architecture. It was not just her smaller size—her tonnage was less than a third that of the Cunard liners—it was to do with her intrinsic design. Moored in her berth, she had undeniable charm.

Dillman was still admiring her when Nevin spoke to him again.

“Why are you going to Aden?” he asked.

“To pick up a ship to London,” replied Dillman.

“Lucky old you!”

“Aren't you going home to England, Mr. Nevin?”

“If only I were!” sighed the other. “No, I don't have enough time. I'm visiting a cousin who has a diplomatic posting in Aden. Anything to get away from India for a while.”

“If you hate it so much, why do you stay?”

“Three main reasons. One, I'm contracted to work in Delhi. Two, I left England under something of a cloud so I might not be entirely welcome there. Three—most important of all—my father.”

“How does he come into it?”

“Old soldier. Served most of his time in India and loved it. He more or less bullied me into coming here. Said it would make a man of me.”

“Yet you didn't join the army.”

“Heavens, no! Far too dangerous.”

“Things are fairly stable here now, aren't they?”

“Don't you believe it, Mr. Dillman,” warned Nevin. “This country is brimming with resentment against us. Ungrateful lot, if you ask me. Can't they see what we've done for them?” he asked with a touch of indignation. “Granted, we may not be on the verge of another mutiny but there are hotheads everywhere, stirring up trouble. It was only a couple of years ago that someone organized mass picketing of the liquor shops here in Bombay.”

“Why? To reduce government excise revenue?”

“Yes. And it gave them the chance to flex their muscles. It's the same in Punjab, Madras, and elsewhere. Too many extremists, wanting to give us a bloody nose.”

“Nobody likes being ruled by a distant foreign power.”

Nevin laughed. “I might have known an American would take their side,” he said good-humoredly. “Because you threw off your
colonial shackles, you encourage others to do the same. I think I've found you out, sir. You're a rabble-rouser.”

“I confess it,” said Dillman, amused by the notion.

“But you take my point, don't you? If there
is
trouble, I don't want to be drafted in as part of the army to quell it with force. I don't have my father's blood lust.” He became reflective. “Mark you, I wouldn't have minded the other side to military life.”

“The other side?”

“The luxury, Mr. Dillman. All that leisure time to play polo or drink as much as you wanted at the club. And you have to do so little for yourself. When my father was only a lieutenant,” he recalled, “he had twelve servants at his beck and call. Imagine that.”

“I'm not sure that I'd care to,” said Dillman. “It breeds laziness.”

“It epitomizes the superiority of the British nation.”

“That's not how I see it, Mr. Nevin.”

“Ah, yes,” said Nevin with a chuckle. “You Americans believe all that nonsense about equality. You don't acknowledge that one people can be superior to another. If you lived in India as long as I have, you'd soon change your tune.”

“I very much doubt that.”

They were on edge of the gangway now. Dillman put down his suitcase so that he could take his ticket from his pocket. Nevin did likewise. Dabbing at his brow with the handkerchief, he gave his companion a shrewd glance.

“Traveling alone, I suppose?” he said.

“Yes,” answered Dillman. “Quite alone.”

“In that case, I hope that we'll see more of each other.”

“So do I.”

“I'll promise to be in a more amenable mood next time.”

“Being on Indian soil obviously upsets you.”

“That's why I'm so anxious to get away from it, Mr. Dillman.”

“You said earlier that you left England under a cloud.”

“That's right. Blotted my copybook.”

“In what way?”

“That would be telling,” said Nevin with a sly grin. “I think I'd need to know you a lot better before I'd even consider letting you in on the secret.”

Genevieve Masefield had befriended them in the customs shed. It wasn't merely the sound of English voices that drew her to them, it was the fact that one of the ladies was in a Bath chair. Genevieve was struck by the bravery needed to travel halfway across the world in open defiance of a physical handicap. She was even more impressed when she heard what their itinerary had been. Constance Simcoe rattled off the names.

“Jaipur, Delhi, Simla, Amritsar, Lahore,” she said. “It was so much cooler up in the hills. We kept on the move yet we feel we've only scratched the surface of India.”

“You're so courageous,” said Genevieve.

“Not really, Miss Masefield. We're very nosey, that's all.”

“You make me feel so provincial.”

“Didn't you say you'd just come back from Australia?”

“Well, yes,” agreed Genevieve.

“Then you're a seasoned traveler.”

“I only saw Perth, really. I didn't have the time or the inclination to explore a country in the way that you've done.”

“We did have some assistance,” explained Tabitha Simcoe, pushing her mother along in the Bath chair while porters carried the luggage in their wake. “Uncle Harold lives in Bombay. He was our guide for the first part of the tour.”

“About time my brother did something useful,” opined Constance.

“Mother!”

“Harold was never the most helpful person. I love him dearly, of course, but he can be very selfish and inconsiderate.”

“He was a saint,” argued Tabitha. “After all that he did for us, it's unkind of you to say anything different. Really, Mother! What will Miss Masefield think of us?”

“I think that you're an example to us all,” said Genevieve.

Constance smiled serenely. “The best way to see India is from a Bath chair,” she remarked. “You can drink it slowly in as you roll along.”

“Only if someone is kind enough to push you, Mrs. Simcoe.”

“That's where Tabby comes in.”

“I try,” her daughter said loyally.

The family likeness was not strong. Constance Simcoe was a thin, angular, wasted woman in her late fifties with a haggard face that was cunningly hidden by wisps of hair that had been trained around its periphery. Her voice suggested breeding, her clothing hinted at wealth. Her manner had a kind of imperious jocularity to it. Tabitha, by contrast, was a tall, full-bodied, handsome woman in her twenties with the resigned look of someone who had given up all hope of marriage in order to look after her mother. Like Genevieve, both of them wore wide-brimmed straw hats to ward off the hot sun, though thick clouds were now gathering to block out its rays. When they came out of the customs shed, Constance Simcoe held a small bottle to her nose and inhaled.

“I need something to take away the stink,” she said, slipping the bottle back into her purse. “It's the one thing about Indian cities that I find a little repulsive. They do reek somewhat. We sprinkled gallons of lavender water on our clothing, didn't we, Tabby?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“But even that didn't always do the trick.”

“No, Mother.”

“Attention to hygiene is not what it should be.”

“This is India,” said Tabitha. “It's not like Cheltenham.”

“You don't need to tell me that,” grumbled her mother, rolling her eyes in disapproval. “In Cheltenham—thank God—you wouldn't find men relieving themselves against the nearest wall. It's a most disagreeable habit.”

“Is that where you live?” said Genevieve. “In Cheltenham?”

“Yes, Miss Masefield. It's the center of our universe. And you?”

“London.”

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