To the Orient
Later in the morning, clutching their hand luggage, Georgietta and Lafayette boarded the train from Victoria Station to Crystal Palace. With the expansion of airship travel, P&O had built its London docking station in part of the gardens there.
They sat in their compartment in silence as the train rumbled through the suburbs. With nothing to do, Lafayette turned his thoughts to India, but his mind kept wandering back to the woman sitting opposite him. She wore much more modest clothes than those of the previous evening, in keeping with her new role as a young fiancé on her way to her future husband in the company of her brother. Looking at her, Lafayette felt a pang of jealousy for the fictional groom. Then unprompted, his thoughts switched to his months as a prisoner of war and the way he was mistreated. Recalling the painful memories, he wondered whether returning to Afghanistan and his past was really such a good idea. Between Florence and imprisonment, he felt he was being haunted by too many bad memories.
Presently his reverie was interrupted as the engine gave a long whistle and the train slowed as it entered Crystal Palace station and then came to a juddering halt. Outside, Lafayette could hear doors banging and a man calling out something unintelligible.
Grabbing both his and Georgietta’s hand luggage, Lafayette opened the door and stepped onto the platform. As he did so, he could not help but immediately spot the docking bay, as it dominated the landscape with its two huge gantries looking much like giant bookends. These clasped a large airship, painted brightly in P&O’s blue and yellow livery. Its huge cylindrical form had fins which at a distance, Lafayette reflected, made it look much like a giant fish. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the obvious nacelle that hung below its belly.
Then a porter arrived with their luggage and leading the way the two of them went down the platform towards the exit. When they emerged, Lafayette noted several landaus lined up. A group of people were climbing on board. One man stood out as he wore an old fashioned bicorn with a large plume.
Lafayette nudged Georgietta and pointed. “That’s our man.”
“He’s got quite a staff with him,” she added. “That’ll make things easier.”
“Oh, we can chat them up. You’d be surprised what a man will tell you when he is looking for favour.”
“I haven’t found that.”
“You haven’t tried,” she chided him, laughing.
A fiacre drew up and they climbed in. It was a short ride to the dock and as they got near, they could hear a band playing. Looking out Lafayette could see the musicians, who wore a dark blue-grey military uniform, ranked near the gangplank. They were being enthusiastically conducted by their commander, who at the same time was looking over his shoulder as Lord Curzon’s party ascended into the lift that would take them up to the ship.
Georgietta and Lafayette got out and, as they had to wait, Lafayette gazed at the goings on. Not far away, he could see a large steam engine with its big wheels slowly turning and a spindly plume of black smoke coming from its chimney. Several men tended the beast. The workers were tiny against the huge machine. Elsewhere porters scurried about with bags and cases; some carried baskets on their shoulders. Lafayette, who had only ever been used to military airship bases, with their much smaller docks for the transports and warships, marvelled at the scale of it all.
Every so often there would be a loud noise that drowned the music. Sometimes it was a whistle, at other times a thud or screech as pieces of machinery rotated or parts went up or down. Lafayette knew there was purpose behind the racket.
Eventually a steward caught their attention and ushered them up the gangplank into the lift. He waved at the operator who pulled a lever. They rose up into the air and as they went up Lafayette was able to get a better view of the immediate area and the wider landscape.
Through the usual London smog and the myriad of smoke plumes that made up London’s cityscape, he eventually spotted the Thames and the Houses of Parliament and then he knew he was looking north. The lift juddered to a halt and the steward lead them out into the nacelle of the ship. A smartly dressed bellboy and maid were there to meet them.
“The Lambs,” he said, “Welcome aboard the P&O airship Taluna, Miss Lamb. Verity will escort you to your room.” He gestured towards the maid. “Mr Lamb, if you would please care to follow me.”
Lafayette trailed the bellboy down a flight of stairs and along a narrow corridor until he opened a door and ushered Lafayette into a tiny cabin.
Seeing Lafayette’s reaction, the bellboy quickly said, “There’s not much space on an airship but it has all the conveniences, I can assure you.”
“It’s fine,” Lafayette assured him, thinking back to the hammocks and the crowded common sleeping areas on the military transports he had been on. A cabin to himself and a bed, however narrow, was a luxury. He gave the man a sixpence.
The bellboy quickly added before he left, “Most of your luggage is in storage in the hold, but we can get it out if necessary.”
“I have what I need,” Lafayette replied. He had been instructed to pack a small case for the journey which was already waiting in the room and now he understood why.
He placed his personal case containing the sniper’s rifle on the bed and closed the door. Taking his bowler off, he then gazed out of the porthole, but his view was obscured by a large girder.
Turning away, he quickly stowed the suitcases, checking as he did so that the one containing his gun was locked. He did not want anyone opening it and discovering its contents. It would be hard to explain why he carried such an unusual item. He smiled inwardly and wondered if the idea of equipping him with such unorthodox kit was to bolster him psychologically. He would not put it past Alexander to manipulate his agents in this way.
He then headed for the salon, the signs for which he had spotted as he came in. This was at the aft of the ship and had a large viewing platform.
“Great, isn’t it,” a voice said.
Turning, Lafayette saw a young man sitting in one of the armchairs.
“Indeed,” Lafayette agreed, “but I reckon it will be breezy out there.”
“Just wait till we’re in Asia and its 110 Fahrenheit, then we’ll be fighting to get out there to cool off.”
Lafayette was curious. “Where’re you going to?”
“India,” the man told him.
“Have you been there before?”
“No, never. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be on this trip. I was told to come at the last minute. I’m Higgsworth, by the way.”
“Lamb,” Lafayette informed him, remembering to use his assumed identity. “Are you with the big party we saw ahead of us before we boarded?”
“I am. I work in the Colonial Office and we’re off on an official tour of India. I’m really looking forward to it. Do you know India?”
“I have been there before,” Lafayette answered without giving any details.
“We’ve a long trip ahead of us, so you’ve plenty of time to tell me all about it.”
At that point their conversation was interrupted by two other men and then three women who entered the lounge.
One of the women asked, “Where’s the coffee?”
“None yet,” Higgsworth informed her, “The steward said it won’t be served until after we leave.”
At this point Lafayette drifted away, opened the door and stepped onto the platform. He went over to the railings to get a view of the proceedings.
From the activity below, it was clear they were getting ready to depart. No more passengers seemed to be arriving and various packages were being taken down in the lift. A steam whistle sounded and several people who had been standing around on the ground sprang into action. A belch of black smoke from its chimney indicated the engine was being fired up.
Then a large groaning sound started, and the walls of the dock began to pull apart. A voice using a megaphone was shouting from somewhere to the fore of the airship. Lafayette then heard the characteristic put-put of propellers and, rising as it did so, the airship began to move forward gathering speed as it went.
Soon they were high up in the air and Lafayette, none too sure of how the ship had maneuvered once free of the dock, judged they were heading south. He leaned against the rail for some considerable time looking at the land below him turn from suburb to country. He could see farmers behind their horses ploughing or otherwise working the fields.
When he began to feel cold, he headed back inside. The lounge was now busy with people most of whom seemed to be engaged in conversation. He looked for Georgietta, but she was not among the crowd.