From my vantage-point at the forward observation port aboard the airship Southern Cross, the hunting party was plainly visible, even at this distance. Great columns of smoke and steam vaulted into the air, a brilliant white against the blue of the sky, mingling at the rear with the red dust thrown up by the wheels of the vehicles.
We were on a converging course, the column of cars and heavier transports making perhaps nine or ten miles per hour on the rough road. At our present speed, we would overtake them in a few minutes, I judged. Our own passage, forging smoothly through the air at nearly fifty knots in some considerable comfort, contrasted starkly with the experience of the hunters and their drivers below in their hot and dusty cars, surely feeling every bump in the track.
I turned to my host, Sir Edgar Winstanton, who stood politely to one side. Sir Edgar was a short stocky man immaculately dressed in the latest fashions from Bond Street, and sporting an equally fashionable well-trimmed beard and waxed moustaches. According to the reports I had read earlier, he was originally from one of the American colonies where he had made the first of his fortunes trading in furs and lumber. Later, he had moved to London, where a mixture of shrewd investments, glittering social events and considerable charitable donations had ensured his knighthood. More recently, he had turned his attention to East Africa, where he had rapidly become one of the largest exporters of ivory and animal hides.
I had first made his acquaintance at one of the numerous Mombasa charities that I make it my business to support. He had expressed a willingness to contribute a non-inconsiderable sum to the coffers and, in return, I had made sure he was invited to some of the soirees, garden parties, theatre openings and many of the other events that make up the social calendar for the upper classes. Now, I was a guest, along with a dozen or so others, aboard his private yacht for a trip up-country, to visit some of his holdings out on the savanna.
"Is that one of your hunting parties?" I asked Sir Edgar curiously.
"It is. It seems they are returning to the compound early," he replied, frowning slightly, "I trust they have been successful in their hunt today."
I returned to the viewing port, its glass and steel reinforcements successfully protecting me from the rush of air, and took in the wider vista. To our left, a few glints of reflected sunlight and a greater density of trees hinted at the course of the Mara river winding its way across the dusty red plain. All around was the expanse of the Masai Mara with its desiccated grass and occasional gaunt trees, all awaiting the short rainy season still a month or so in the future.
Emerging from the heat-haze in the distance directly ahead I could just make out a tall spire, its upper levels glittering in the equatorial sunlight. As we drew closer, I could see that a tower of riveted steel, a mooring-point for airships, had been thrown up in the centre of a compound set into a wide bend of the river. The tower was surrounded by numerous low buildings in the colonial style, many set with wide verandas, as well as a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs as favoured by the local Masai tribesmen.
I stepped back from the viewing port to allow one of the others in the salon to spy our destination. Mister Brendan o'Connell stepped forward to take my place. He was originally from Dublin, I understood, and was reputed to be a genius in the design of the clockwork calculating engines. His machines now perform all manner of important functions in our present society, from maintaining accurate actuarial ledgers to ensuring the stability of airships in flight. He had hinted that he was performing some special commission for Sir Edgar, but no details were yet forthcoming.
The other man in the room was an old Africa hand named Angus Macintosh, with whom I had barely passed a dozen words. He was severely taciturn by nature, it seemed, with a lined and weather-beaten face that suggested many years of living under canvas out on the veldt. He seemed uninterested in the view ahead; perhaps it was all too familiar a sight to him.
The rumble of the engines, although barely audible in the forward salon, changed abruptly as the crew prepared the vessel for arrival.
"Welcome to Loldia Camp," Sir Edgar intoned, turning to face me, "I trust your visit will be comfortable. Will you be joining us for dinner this evening?"
"I would be delighted to accept your invitation," I replied politely, "It will be a pleasure to become more acquainted with your guests."
Within twenty minutes, the Southern Cross was safely moored and the passengers were able to disembark. I directed my manservant to ensure that all the luggage was safely delivered to my accommodations within the compound, and asked my maid to lay out the finest of the evening dresses I had brought with me. Conversing politely with the other passengers, I then made my way to the exit and thence to ground level using the elevator that, these days, no longer required one to walk down seemingly endless flights of stairs.
The heat of the African afternoon sun was immense, as it always is in this season, and particularly so after the relative cool of the airship's interior. I rapidly deployed my parasol to protect my skin from the fierce rays. Guided by a servant, I was directed to one of the grander of the low buildings I had spied earlier. As I walked, I was startled by a furious altercation taking place in another part of the compound. It seemed that the hunting party had returned, and I could make out Sir Edgar in an angry exchange with a member of the group, a huge man in bush clothes and a boonie hat. From this distance, I could not make out any part of the conversation, but it was immediately obvious that both men were extremely irate about something.