The drone of the engines was now barely audible, the sounds being instantly swept away by the wind of our passage. The day was bright and clear now that the overnight storm had dissipated, and the forward observation platform had at last been opened to passengers. Although in truth I suspected that rather few would elect to brave the cooling breeze and would prefer to remain in their cabins, or to enjoy the comforts of the smoking room or the restaurant or the games room.
According to the repeater dials in the main salon, the Acheron was making a steady forty-seven knots at a height of a little over two thousand feet, all of which suggested, I had been told, that I might be afforded an excellent view of the landscape below. So I had ventured out to the observation point, perhaps expecting to be the only person present. To my slight surprise and my more than slight pleasure, I found my new acquaintance Mr Augustus Montague was already in residence.
Montague turned as he saw me enter and doffed his hat politely. He was a tall and well-built man, an observation I found peculiarly attractive since I am distinctly more than averagely tall for a woman. He was in the prime of his life, probably no more than thirty-five years of age, and well-dressed as befitted his station in top hat and coat and gloves, and sporting a cane he rarely used but was never seen without. He gave every impression of being what he professed to be: a gentleman returning to his estates in the uplands after a visit to the mother country.
"Miss Robinson," he exclaimed, loudly enough to be heard over the buffeting, "A pleasure to discover that you too find the view of our land intriguing enough to venture outside."
I smiled demurely in response and allowed him to guide me to a leather-padded seat.
The viewing platform was located close to but below the prow of our craft and shielded from the worst of the air currents by screens of glass set into brass frames. I knew that the bridge was located even further forward and, from this vantage point, it was possible to glimpse the lower edges of the reinforced and storm-proofed observation ports.
It seemed to me to be rather daring to strike up an acquaintanceship with an unaccompanied bachelor, but it appeared that Mister Montague was known to several of the dowagers on board, even if there was a certain sense of disappointment that he had not been persuaded to align himself with any of their granddaughters and nieces. Nevertheless these ladies had effectively provided me with the services of a chaperone at the Captain's reception and at the many balls and entertainments that the purser and his staff had laid on. It occurred to me that this chance meeting was, in truth, the first time that Montague and I had been alone together.
Not wishing to appear too forward, I turned my attention to the sights below us. I understood the Acheron had been following a route over the Arabian Sea from Karachi, where I had transferred from the Iphigenia for my trip from London via Nicosia. It was not the most direct route, perhaps, but was the one which best met the exigencies of time and budget. Now we were approaching the coast of East Africa which had been a hazy line of green and grey against the azure of the ocean earlier, but which was now rapidly resolving into a long sandy beach fringed with palm trees with the waves breaking in white horses over coral reefs.
"Tell me, Mister Montague, what is that I see ahead of us?" I asked politely.
I pointed with my parasol, still folded since the bulk of the airship above provided me with more than enough shade from the equatorial sun.
My companion was an old Africa hand, he had assured me previously, and he seemed more than willing to spend a little of his time answering my questions.
"My dear Miss Robinson," Montague replied, following the direction of my attention, "It seems we are about to overfly Mombasa Creek."
A little to the left of our course I could see a mass of virulent green, seemingly rooted in the water and clinging to the edges of the ocean like the lace edging of a shawl.
"But what are all the trees?" I demanded, "They appear to be growing directly in the sea."
Montague smiled kindly at my naivety.
"It is a mangrove swamp," he said calmly, "The mangrove trees root themselves in sea water, most unusually for plants. They grow particularly strongly here as they are fertilised by the sediment which is washed down from the highlands. See here."
He pointed at the wide blue waterway glinting in the fierce sunshine which cut inland almost directly under our path, which seemed to be mostly surrounded by the verdant expanses of the mangroves. I followed the direction indicated by his finger. In the glare I could begin to make out the outlines of sea-ships: the tall masts with furled sails of the clippers, and the shorter smoke stacks of the tramp steamers and cargo ships.
"I see it is a harbour, then?"
"Quite so," Montague affirmed, speaking in patient tones reminiscent of the schoolroom, "We are approaching Mombasa Island which is an important shipping port with many deep-water anchorages in the creek."
There are still many sea-ships, of course; shipping remained of considerable importance for the transportation of goods, tramping the ocean with bulk cargoes vital for commerce and industry. There are still a few persons, too, who prefer to travel by ocean-going liner or whose means could only stretch to cramped accommodations in steerage. For those who had a choice in the matter, however, there was rarely any debate: who would want to sail around the world at twenty or twenty-five knots, when one could cruise at twice or even thrice that pace in the air?
As we drew closer, it was possible from our vantage-point to make out the scurrying ants which were the porters and longshoremen at work, loading and unloading the prosperity of the Empire. There were warehouses and many other buildings whose function I would not immediately determine, separated by rude huts and animal pens and patches of the ever-present mangroves.
"But the port of Mombasa is not our destination, then?" I asked, "Despite the commerce being carried out?"
"Indeed not," Montague agreed, "For all its bustle and importance, it remains a mosquito-ridden swamp, its humours not agreeable to health and vitality, its inhabitants prone to malarial fevers. No, our lords and masters had the foresight to build the local capital somewhere much more agreeable."
"And where is that?"
"Look ahead, Miss Robinson, look ahead."
I followed the instruction. The haze which obscured our vision began to lift and I could make out the edge of the uplands which eventually became, I understood, the high plateau of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. Standing proud, a tall outcrop was outlined against the grey line of the hills.
"There is our destination!"