The words which had caught my ear were the negotiation of some kind of commercial transaction, one which it rapidly became clear was intended to avoid the attentions of the customs officials. I suppose I should not have been entirely surprised to hear about smuggling; after all, evading the revenue inspectors with cargoes of brandy and 'baccy was a sport which had been engaged in by many people for hundreds of years.
No, it was the nature of the contraband itself which had left me startled beyond movement. The whispered speech came quickly and softly but I distinctly caught the words bunduki (meaning 'gun') and kuharibu meli katika hewa (destroy the airship) and kulipuka haraka sana (explode very fast). The conversation I had enjoyed with Mister Montague not two hours before rang in my head, so casual then and so urgent now.
It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the trinket I was studying in apparent fascination, for all that I wanted to run and scream a warning. I knew instinctively that such a course of action would be ineffective and perhaps even dangerous; the man with the hooked nose and shifty eyes looked like one who would slit a throat at the slightest provocation.
After a few more moments, the whispering stopped and there was a sense of movement in the shadows which suggested to me that the two men had parted. As casually as I could, I returned the clockwork engine to the stall and nod politely to the stallholder, who had approached with alacrity on spying an obvious foreigner apparently expressing an interest in his wares.
With a further attempt at nonchalance and not a little trepidation, I turned in the direction of the shadowed arches. There was nobody there, of course. Neither man was anywhere to be seen. So, ignoring the polite but insistent imprecations from the stallholder to inspect further items from his stock, I strolled back towards my entourage as if I did not have a care in the world, twirling my parasol to keep off the worst of the sun.
I was at a loss what to do. For a moment, I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing, that it was some kind of fevered dream brought on by over-excitement and the equatorial heat. This notion I discarded quickly; my mind was crystal-clear throughout the whole encounter, and I have never been a great one for giddy foolishness, even as a young girl.
So who could I talk to? My father, yes, of course, he was the most obvious person, but he must be miles away and it would be many hours of travel before I could communicate with him in private. Surely he would know what to do: he would have contacts, acquaintances in high places, and would be able to persuade the authorities to investigate, to act upon the information I have intercepted.
My imagination was working at full steam now. What if there were some immediate threat, some attack imminent? Could this intelligence wait until I could get to my father? I had not overheard any words indicating a time or place, but the fact that the conversation was both here and now suggested that something could happen in the next few minutes, and it was Her Majesty's Airship Acheron moored right alongside this very quay.
I felt I should to talk to the captain, or one of his crew, to warn them of the danger. A few moments fretful thought indicated the difficulties I would face. Even supposing I could get close to him, why would he believe a report from an impressionable young woman claiming to have overheard twenty seconds of conversation, and what new arrival understood the native language that well anyway? Surely, I could hear him say in his most reasonable voice, I must have misunderstood. Such a difficult language, for a newcomer. Easily confused, he would suggest sympathetically. He would take no action on the basis of such a flimsy excuse.
Still, I had to try. I directed my entourage to stay where they were and set off with a determined tread towards the gangplank I had used so recently, dodging the porters with their trolleys and the hawkers crying their wares. I intended to remonstrate with the crew members on duty there, to allow me to re-board or at least speak with a senior officer. I was perhaps half-way to the embarkation point when I heard a familiar voice from behind me.
"Why, Miss Robinson, what an unexpected pleasure," Montague said, emerging from a knot of people, "I had imagined that you would already be on your way to your destination by now."
I spun around to face my saviour. My relief was almost palpable; I am sure it was quite plainly visible on my face.
"I was delayed," I said urgently, "No matter. But there's something of the utmost importance I must tell you, at once."
"My dear, you seem quite flushed. Whatever is the matter?"
In a few sentences, I described what I had heard earlier. Montague's expression changed from amiable concern to a deep frown on severe apprehension.
"How remarkably perspicacious of you," he said when I had finished, "I had no idea you were such a scholar. But surely the risk is greater than just the Acheron?"
"You should talk to the port authorities," he went on, "Fortunately, I know the quay master, slightly; he is the one in charge of this whole area. Let me guide you to his office."
He held out an arm politely. I took it and allowed myself to be guided back past the entrance to the plaza where I had been waiting and to the door of a private office adorned with the words "Quay Master" in green and gilt. Montague knocked on the glass then, without waiting for any reply, turned the handle and directed me inside. There were two men standing in the cool dimness, both of whom turned as we entered.
To my shock and horror, I realised that these were precisely the two men who I had overheard talking just a few minutes before.