Mister Montague's prediction was quite correct: the process of disembarking from the Acheron was nothing but hustle and bustle. People shouted, whistles blew, street vendors cried their wares, members of the airship's crew tried to direct both passengers and porters, and all the while we were doing our best to make an expedient departure.
At long last, we were on the quayside. My manservant had managed to engage the services of a porter and his cart, and they had finally got the streamer trunks and hatboxes loaded onto the trolley. Shortly afterwards, I was greeted effusively by the agent that my father had sent to meet us, only to learn that our ground transport - horse-drawn rather than steam-powered - would be delayed. There would be an unavoidable wait of two hours or more.
I eyed dubiously the steam-hydraulic elevator cars with their shuttered fronts which would eventually take us and our luggage down to ground level. I grimaced at the lengthy queues that had formed before them.
"Better to wait up here, Lady," the agent said in fractured but understandable English, "Air is cooler, no dust, no flies. Much better here."
I nodded my assent. With much chatter and waving of hands, we were ushered to a partially enclosed concourse where there was at least a little shade and much less chance of being bowled over by a runaway trolley. The plaza was bounded on three sides with shops and stalls and little cafes where one could take tea. My maid and manservant seated themselves together on a hard wooden bench under a wide awning, seemingly content to watch the world go by. The agent and the porter lounged against the handcart which contained our possessions, apparently unconcerned by the heat of the morning sun. Meanwhile I patrolled the bazaar slightly impatiently, although I had been told often enough that the pace in life in Africa was always so much slower than at home, and fitfully inspecting the trinkets and gewgaws on display.
My eye was caught by a display of little mechanical gadgets at the far end of the row of stalls. This stand was a little more elaborate than most, and was graced with a fascinating display of steam-powered desk calculators and clockwork pocket barometers and those machines of dubious provenance which claimed to be able to predict your horoscope.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of two men, standing close and acting strangely, even furtively. They were partially hidden in the deeper shadows formed by the support columns for the domed roof over this part of the concourse, which in turn was the base for some complex arrangement of tubes and nozzles which was even now being coupled up to some open port on the flank of the Acheron.
One was an Arab, with a hatchet face and a hawk nose, and a shifty look about his eyes. He wore long and moderately soiled robe and a stained turban. The other was a Bantu with an unlined and placid face, and notable only because of the brilliant whites of his eyes which stood out against the blackness of his skin. The black man was dressed in the uniform of a porter, and I thought it odd that he was idling here when all his fellows were busily engaged earning their wages.
The two men glanced in my direction, obviously taking in my feminine attire, my fashionable bonnet and my white face, then turned back to their own discussion. It was only after a few moments that I realised that, due to a quirk of the architecture, I could clearly hear every word they said; even though I was ten yards away, I could fully understand their conversation.
After a little prompting from my father a few years ago, I had studied the language known as Kiswahili; the word simply means "the language of the coastal dwellers". It had become an important second tongue throughout British East Africa and an understanding of the language was regarded as desirable for those seeking to advance themselves in this part of the Empire.
Through agents and intermediaries, my father had provided books and manuscripts for me to study, sometimes rather rare and often at considerable expense, as well as engaged the services of a tutor. He was called Michael N'Komo, a man with impeccable manners and perfect spoken English, yet who managed to garner the disapproval of my aunt, mainly, I believe, because of his suspiciously brown skin colour. Certainly, she insisted that a footman was always present throughout our lessons, even though there was never the slightest hint of impropriety in his words or deeds.
My understanding of the Kiswahili language was not something I had admitted to anybody, not even the charming Mister Augustus Montague. Indeed, it might not even be well-known to my maid and manservant since they had both been engaged rather recently with this trip to the Dark Continent in mind.
Casually, I picked up one of the clockwork gadgets and subjected it to a close examination. Meanwhile, I listened carefully with some pride at my own ability to understand and rather more guilt to be so shamefully eavesdropping on a private conversation. Then what I heard next made my blood run stone cold.