Onboard the SS Imperial
Justine’s face tingled as she leaned over the railing of the ship. All around her, the sea stretched out in either direction, glistening as the slow fading light of late afternoon dripped into the waves. Crisp, November air filled her lungs. Every now and then, fish broke the stillness of the channel as seagulls hovered with keen eyes and voracious appetites.
She wished she could be a bird and fly around without limit or expectations. She wanted to put her arms out with her skirts rippling around her ankles. Instead, Justine stood rigid, conscious of those mulling about on the top deck. Above her, the gulls cried out to one another while others drifted by, content to let the current take them wherever fate decreed. They had the ability to go wherever they wished. She on the other hand felt shackled like an animal sold at market; once the property of one and now the property of another. With a sigh, Justine took out the creased letter she kept in her pocket. Folded inside was a small photograph of her parents. Justine smiled at their bright faces and then turned her attention to the letter whose contents she had read so many times she could almost repeat each line verbatim.
“…Your parents are dead. It was all quite sudden…the hotel they were staying at caught on fire…no one survived…”
In the photo, a beautiful woman with her hair pulled back, feathered around her face, stood beside a handsome man in a white, unbuttoned shirt, suspenders and black trousers. Between them was an awkward young girl with bottleneck curls sticking out beneath an old boater hat. Justine smiled remembering the day down to its tiniest detail. They had been in the Lake District, enjoying a long, warm summer. Mother had just put a tray of lemonade on the table and both Justine and her father eagerly reached for the glasses. After the first sip, both spluttered as the sour liquid made their throats burn. Through tears and laughter, her father suggested that perhaps punch or something less dangerous would be better. Her mother sent him off for refreshments and sat in the wrought iron chair beside Justine. With delicate hands, her mother picked up a bit of ribbon and pinned it to the hat Justine had been working on. Then, after lunch, Father had gotten into his head to get a picture taken, something Justine could take with her when she started school.
A tear fell from her cheek and onto the smooth surface of the picture. It was almost impossible to comprehend they were gone. Justine wanted so much to believe there’d been a mistake. But it had gone on too long to fool herself into thinking it was a charade any longer.
Trying to regain her composure, she tried to envision Harold Mendenhall, the faceless man from her childhood memory and the one who broke the horrible news to her. His letter introducing himself as her godfather and detailing the accident that took her parents’ lives arrived at her French finishing school and preparations for her journey home quickly commenced. It was horrible, almost unthinkable, that she’d no longer call the house in Shropshire home with the white fence and cracked terracotta pots alongside the path or smell her mother’s perfume, feel her father’s whiskers against her cheek when he kissed her. The memory drove away the gloom, although it was fleeting. Life was going to be very different and Justine had no idea whether it was a bad thing. Despite her loss, things could have been far worse. She wasn’t being sent back to England to slave in a workhouse or fall on the mercy of some distant relation, far from it. In fact, she would be going to Egypt, land of the pharaohs, after Christmas with her godparents. The lure of such an exotic place, of seeing things many girls would never see in their entire lives thrilled her. Even as she mourned the loss of her family, she knew God could not have been more kind. It was a small blessing amidst the turmoil.
“Darling, where are you?” A shrill voice came from inside the cabin door behind her.
Justine cringed and replaced the letter in her pocket. Every fiber wanted to be far away from the suffocating attentions of Mrs. Hart. Even in her dreams, Justine could hear the woman’s high-pitched voice. The fussy old woman had stayed by her side since they boarded the ship. Mrs. Hart, with her furry companion, was an old friend of Harold Mendenhall and had been arranged by her godfather that they were to travel together from France to Portsmouth, England. She was only too pleased to have the company of an accomplished young woman in her midst, or so the old bat informed her.
“I am outside,” Justine said, taking one last look at the ocean, sparkling like precious diamonds. The crossing had been filled with rough weather and Justine enjoyed what little calm the vast ocean relented. With a sigh as heavy as an anchor, she dragged herself back inside the stateroom. When she closed the door, the smell of musty linens hit Justine. She sneezed. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness.
Mrs. Hart’s stateroom was more lovely than anything Justine had seen before. The furnishings had detailed scroll work with ornate Italian pillars. Nestled in the corner, surrounded by wood paneling and floral wallpaper, a four post bed easily drew the eye of those who entered. Red velvet curtains hung on either side, ready to keep the world at bay. Beside the flour length mirror was a chaise lounge in the same cloth as the curtains, a small writing table and an adjoining chair that could have easily been sat in by Marie Antoinette. Across from the bed was a petite dressing table, laden with perfume bottoms and other feminine toiletries.
Standing in front of the long mirror, Mrs. Hart surveyed her reflection. “Bless you, child. Here, take this,” said she, stretching out her long hand.
“Thank you,” Justine wiped her eyes and nose with the offered hand-embroidered handkerchief. She bent to look in the vanity to remove her stiff black hat. Justine noticed how puffy her face looked. Anyone would be able to guess she had been crying. She took a few breaths to calm her nerves and then started pinning the wild strands of chestnut hair back in place, a color so far removed from sun-kissed it wasn’t even worth imagining a lovelier shade. With that done, her appearance improved slightly although she could do little to fix her too big nose or freckled complexion. No amount of pinning could help that. Justine gave up and sat down in a small chair and gave Mrs. Hart her attention.
The older woman wore a white lace camisole, a thick corset and a knee length petticoat. A metal bustle cage encircled her waist with a soft cream skirt layered on top. “You shouldn’t spend too much time in the sun. A young lady is not coarse and brown.”
Justine smiled. “I don’t think I am in danger of that, Mrs. Hart.”
“Perhaps not yet but a lady must always be cautious. Now, be honest. Which do you think suits me best?” Mrs. Hart had a dress draped over each arm. “The dark blue chiffon or the brown silk?” Behind her on the bed, Maxine lay curled up on the silk wrap, nose tucked under her tiny, fluffy tail.
Both dresses were far more elegant than Justine had ever seen in her life, with soft puffed sleeves lined with delicate lace trim. They also exposed a modest amount of shoulders and neck. “I think you would look lovely in the blue chiffon.” The dress matched the hair accessory with the same color ribbon and flowers on the unkempt bed.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hart murmured, holding the dress against her chest. She admired her image in the full-length mirror. “I think you are right. It is wonderful to drape oneself in silk on a sea voyage. Normally one wears serge or flannel. Why I have enough wool to feel as if I’m wallowing in Scotland,” said she and tossed the brown frock upon the bed where her dog woke in order to sniff the addition. She turned to her young companion. “Oh it is wonderful having a little friend on board. Sometimes traveling abroad is so lonely.”
“I would love traveling the world as you do. To see places one would only discover in a book is thrilling and…” Justine couldn’t articulate the emotion but the sensation filled her. “Mr. Mendenhall said he plans to go to Egypt after Christmas.” She felt giddy, like looking at the forbidden bright packages under a Christmas tree. “That’s only a month away and I have never been.”
“Yes, quite exciting for one so young,” Mrs. Hart said with a grin. “I am almost envious. Almost.”
“Almost envious?” Justine asked, not quite sure what the woman meant.
“Why yes. I prefer to stay in the more civilized regions of the world. Now Italy – there is a place you should visit one day. The culture, the art, the countryside, all brought together in Perfetta armonia.”
Justine tried to imagine all those things but ended up rather blank for she’d seen nothing of Italy to inspire such grand ideas. The best she could conjure was a stone museum filled with half-naked statues. Instead, she changed the subject. “Did you know my parents, Mrs. Hart?” Justine sat on the bed and the little dog growled.
“I knew them a little, although not well. I’m not well acquainted with anyone outside my social circle. I believe Harold showed me pictures at some point. To have them die so suddenly is such a tragedy.”
Justine looked down at the lilac covers. The news of her family was still fresh, but she had to talk about it. All the mourned silence made her feel as if they were gone for good even from her memory. The reality of it still hadn’t set in. There was still the hope they’d be waiting for her in Portsmouth just like before. Foolish, she knew, but it sustained her.
“I always assumed I would be married with children before I lost them.”
“Losing one’s parents is natural but to have them both taken so quickly is hard on the young.” She sighed and then perked up. “How you remind me of me at your age. My husband said we would travel when our oldest took over the business.” Mrs. Hart said as she sat on the chaise, her ample bottom creasing the brown silk. “And after my Roger died, I decided to go on my own. Life is just too short.” She brushed her fingers against Justine’s cheek. The intimate gesture reminded Justine of her mother. Her vision blurred and her jaw trembled. Justine refused to cry again. She had done enough in the carriage from the boarding school and certainly enough on the ship.
“My poor child. Here I am talking about Roger when you’ve just lost your parents. It will get better. Time heals everything, truly it does.” She took both of Justine’s hands. “I lost my parents young as well.”
“Yes. My father died from scarlet fever when I was a girl. My mother did not live long after that. Died of a broken heart they said but it isn’t so easy to break one’s heart. Sometimes I’ve wished it were. But one has to go on living—‘all the appointed days,’ as is said in the Bible.”
“I know it is natural. I know they would have to…someday, but not so soon. Sometimes it feels like people express sympathy because they simply have nothing else to say; like death is somehow a sickness they could catch or pass on through touch. I’d prefer they say nothing at all then meaningless condolences.” Justine studied her stubby nails hidden beneath Mrs. Harts’ long, cultured ones.
“The general populous does not have the reputation for intelligence. Now, I am starving for some good clean sunshine.” Her companion stood and resumed her vigil in front of the mirror. “Now, come my dear, help me get this thing on. Nothing like a walk around the top deck to rouse the spirits before dinner.”
Justine tried to smile and did as she was told. It felt good to talk about her family instead of things brewing inside, ready to burn if anyone got too close. Already Justine was cynical when someone expressed their sentiments. Deep down she knew they were only being nice, but after a while, the words felt hollow. Having something else to focus on vented her frustrations. Mrs. Hart wiggled into the dress and stood stationary while Justine secured the small silk buttons that ran from mid-back to waist.
After that, Justine arranged her hair in the way she had done for her mother so often and clasped the string of pearls around her neck. So much finery, more than she had seen in her life was flaunted in front of her. It made her very aware of her own poverty. Back home she would have torn an outdated dress apart and remade it if the need arose. Often, she received secondhand gowns from church or her mother’s friends.
Justine inspected her black dress with a seamstress’ critical eye. It was serviceable, no doubt about that, but plain and ordinary. With what little pocket money she had, the dress and veil was all she could afford. While the lace around the sleeves wasn’t handmade, it looked delicate. In hindsight, the veil was a waste since she’d only worn it when she left the school and then abandoned the wretched thing. What she wouldn’t give to have the careless abandonment Mrs. Hart enjoyed, to toss aside a beautiful dress without worry of cost.
“Thank you, my dear. Well, it isn’t as formal as one would like but one must be practical when traveling. For this journey, I only brought seven hats with me. Now, I do call that economizing. Well, shall we present ourselves to the captain? I am famished.” Mrs. Hart wrapped her mink jacket around her shoulders and nestled her little dog inside the crook of her arm.
Justine opened the door for the woman to rustle through.
Dinner in the captain’s cabin was one of the privileges bestowed to the upper class passengers. There was a formal dining room, but Captain Nobles said he preferred the intimacy of good breeding whenever possible. Being Mrs. Hart’s companion for the voyage, Justine was allowed to join the group. At first, she took comfort in the fact no one would care to ask probing questions, yet Mrs. Hart brought her into the conversation when she insisted upon parading everything Justine learned at school. She suspected it was done purposefully, yet to what end she had no idea. With her French tolerable and manners genteel, she was deemed an accomplished young lady. Instead, Justine kept her mouth shut and her eyes open.
“It is a shame I don’t have a piano forte for you to play,” Captain Nobles said from the head of the table. Wine dribbled down his cleft chin. He caught the offending drops with a napkin before they marred his uniform. “I always love having accomplished ladies on board. Music wafts in the air like the hymns of angels.”
“Then perhaps it is best for I should not ruin your perception of that ideal.” Justine grinned.
The captain chuckled and the others politely followed suit. One man in particular sitting beside Mrs. Tinnen, an acquaintance Mrs. Hart made while on the ship, caught Justine’s eye and smiled. He was close to her in age with sandy hair and thick side burns. Black rimmed glasses sat on the edge of his nose. Attention from men was not something normal, since her school did not allow male visitors. To avoid his gaze, Justine looked down at her plate but the top of her head burned. He was watching her. Soon, the conversation flowed on without her but not before the young gentleman spoke up.
“And where is your destination, Mrs. Hart?” He directed his question at Mrs. Hart but his eyes kept drifting back towards Justine.
She preened. “I actually have no certain fate. I am an adventuress, Mr. Tinnen.” She placed a hand upon her pushed up chest and smiled like a girl in her budding youth.
“I am looking forward to England. Nothing is quite so civilized,” Mrs. Tinnen commented. “We are sailing back from seeing my daughter and her husband in Sicily.”
“Oh, I agree heartily,” Mrs. Hart said. “Italy has its own sense of beauty; almost untamed and wild. I once stayed near Marsala. My niece and her husband have a villa. I must admit, the countryside is bewitching. Italians are so gentle and simple; very different from England.”
“Mother,” Mr. Tinnen interjected. “How can you call England civilized? As we speak, its citizens are being terrorized by a killer.”
“It’s been in all the papers,” added one of the other guests sitting on the other side of Mrs. Hart.
“And they haven’t caught him yet?” another said.
“How grisly, John,” his mother scolded. “You ruin a perfectly lovely conversation with your macabre interests.”
“I read about him in the Italian paper,” Mrs. Hart continued. “I think we should give him a knighthood, cleaning out the dregs and all.” She bent low and inhaled the aroma of the soup the servant placed in front of her.
“Until his tastes become more polished,” the Captain said grimly.
Even in France, the news of Jack the Ripper spread like a fire through all the newspapers. For the last few months, the streets emptied after nightfall. No one was safe. The periodical the girls managed to smuggle into the school detailed the horrific and they ate it up like eager baby birds. It was finally banned when the school mistress found it.
Captain Nobles cleared his throat. “And where is your destination, Miss Holloway?”
“Returning home to England. I am…” Justine was cut off by the entrance of a gentleman. His presence, for it could be called formidable, halted the banter. When the Captain rose to greet his visitor, Mrs. Hart leaned over and spoke in a low, eager voice.
“Have you seen that man before?”
“Never.” Justine watched as the two men embraced cordially.
Everyone in the room eyed the newcomer. Without haste, he made his way around the long table. He was tall with brown eyes framed by thick dark lashes. His black hair curled neatly around his ears and a small bit grew around his chin and upper lip. He had a pleasant face, but weathered and rough. At some point, his nose was probably broken, but it did not detract from his good looks one bit. From the moment he entered, a light vanilla scent tickled the inside of her nose. Somewhere beneath the sweetness, a spicy musk lingered.
“Allow me to introduce Mr. Amun Farouk. He is joining us from the Egyptian Embassy. Mr. Farouk has accompanied me on several occasions. We’ve had some great sport in the far corners of the world. I knew you could not entrench in your cabin all evening.”
Anum Farouk chuckled. “Usually it takes most of the night for me to divulge such information and,” he said with a devious twinkle and an accent Justine never heard before, “quite a bit of wine.” He took the chair the Captain indicated. Servants placed the soup in front of him and filled his glass. Everyone at the table kept their gaze upon the Egyptian and yet the man ate as if nothing in the world bothered him. When Mrs. Hart bombarded him with questions about Egypt and all of its exotic beauty, he smiled and answered in a jovial manner.
“How I would adore sailing to Egypt, going up the Nile like the kings of old.” Mrs. Hart stretched her hand out into the empty space.
“Sounds too hot for my tastes,” Mr. Tinnen interjected.
“It can be uncomfortably warm for the English. We Egyptians are born beneath Ra, the sun lay blessings upon our skin from infancy.”
“What is Ra, Mr. Farouk?” Justine piped in, rather intrigued.
“He is the sun god, revered highly by my people. The Egyptians worship many gods and have been doing so for thousands of years.”
“How heathen of them,” Mrs. Tinnen commented, rather unimpressed.
Justine was fascinated by the glimpse into such a strange culture. “What other sorts of deities do they worship?”
Amun’s interest in the conversation became acute. “I am afraid this topic could take most of the evening and our guests would not appreciate such archaic conversations. However, if the young lady wishes, I have some books on the topic.”
“Oh,” Justine gasped. “I would like that. Thank you.”
Amun nodded and Mrs. Hart cleared her throated. Under her breath, she scolded Justine. “A young woman not introduced into society does not speak freely in the presence of men.”
“I am sorry,” Justine responded. It took all of her will to sound contrite. “But he did speak to me.”
“Only after you threw yourself into the conversation. Really dear, you must remember these things. Didn’t that school teach you anything useful?” The older woman fanned herself in profuse bursts, beating the air into submission.
“Yes, Mrs. Hart.” Justine put her head down and finished her food.
After the excitement of the new addition waned and the second course brought out, Mr. Tinnen once again drew her attention from across the table. “So, Miss Holloway, did you not say you were on your way home?”
Justine shot a glance at her guardian who did not appear to mind her speaking to Mr. Tinnen. “Yes… I am going home to England to live with my godfather.”
“And is he a gentleman?”
“He is a university professor and heading out on an expedition soon,” Justine said rather proudly.
“He teaches at Oxford, perhaps you know him.” Mrs. Hart said in a ready voice.
“Perhaps. What’s his name?” Mr. Tinnen said, brushing some hint of dirt off his cuff.
This information caught Amun’s attention instantly. His spoon paused half way to his mouth. He interrupted their conversation. “Forgive me for intruding, Miss…?”
“Holloway,” Justine provided.
“Thank you, Miss Holloway. Your godfather is Harold Mendenhall of Oxford University? Is he not the renowned archaeologist going on an expedition to Egypt?” His gaze was so intense Justine had a hard time looking away. She felt drawn, lured in like a cat to a bowl of fresh cream. The world around them melted into his deep hazelnut eyes that seemed to concentrate on only her. Had he reached across the table to hold her in place? She blushed, unable to break her concentration. Propriety demanded she look down but she was simply unable to. It felt as there was a string tied around her head, forcing her to look at him and he held it with both hands clutched. What he said was utterly important and Justine’s every thought pulsated around a desire to please him, to tell him whatever it was he wanted to hear.
“Yes, that is he.”
“How fortuitous. I have sailed from my country in order to meet him. It never fails to amaze me just how small this vast land can be.” He sighed and blinked, lifting the glass of wine to his lips. Air rushed into Justine’s lungs and her mind cleared but only for a brief moment. Amun leaned forward, pinning her against the back of her chair with his gaze. “Do you know if…is your godfather still going on his expedition?”
“His letter indicated he was still intending to go.” She tried to remember the exact words, still wanting to comply and yet something felt wrong. Justine wanted to move, to stop herself from saying another word. Why was she tripping over herself just to speak to the strange man? Justine wondered when the others around the table would speak up and interrupt them but it felt as though they were the only people in the room. There had been others, hadn’t there? The intensity made her stomach feel ill.
“Ah, I see. Did he also tell you where in Egypt he plans to explore?”
“I’m not quite sure, actually.” There, she had done it. She had just refused to answer. It was a small victory.
“Interesting.” His voice was dry. “Well, hopefully I can get a hold of him before he leaves. One does not allow such important men to slip away so easily, yes?” His easy-going mood returned but it wasn’t until another male voice barraged him on a fresh topic of conversation that his stare released her.
Everything came back into focus. Heat from the fire across the room warmed her chilled skin. Justine inhaled, feeling nauseous. Her head ached. Feeling uncomfortable with the length of their conversation, Justine skimmed the table. Each person conversed with their neighbor jovially. Even Mrs. Hart, who would have been the first to scold her for impropriety, smiled gaily at something Mrs. Tinnen just said. Realizing her fork was still in her grasp, she pushed around the food on her plate. What had just happened?
“Do eat, Justine,” Mrs. Hart whispered to her. “You need some meat on your bones. You’re too thin.”
Justine obliged the woman by putting a fork full in her mouth. She didn’t think her guardian wanted to know that she ate like a horse, wherever and whenever she could, but never kept on the weight. If only she could stop eating to keep from being any taller. Justine towered over most of the young men she ran into, which was embarrassing.
Young Mr. Tinnen kept catching her eye down the table, perhaps even searching for something else in order to continue on their conversation. Justine needed a distraction. “And are you looking forward to returning home from Italy, Mr. Tinnen?”
“Indeed not. I am to return to my classes at Oxford.” His smile broadened and his face lit up.
“He will be quite the important gentleman,” his mother proclaimed. “He reads such clever books and is quite well traveled.”
“Young men have no business keeping their noses in books,” Captain Nobles called from the head of the table. “I don’t allow them on my ship; distracts the lads from their duty.”
“I am not as certain as you, my friend,” Amun said in his deep voice. “One can learn many things from reading.”
“Perhaps in your case, Mr. Farouk; coming from a man of learning. Give something that useless to one of my boys and they wouldn’t know one side from another. Books can never replace physical knowledge. One cannot learn how to sail or fight by printed words upon a dusty page.”
“Maybe not, but reading gives us the opportunity to experience that which we are unable to normally. Have you read anything of Egypt, Miss Holloway?”
Justine blushed. Apparently, Mr. Tinnen noticed her attention waning from their conversation and shot the Egyptian a scowl. “I know so little of the world that anything new and interesting would be a pleasure. I plan on soaking up as much as I can.”
“A woman who admits she knows little and has the desire to learn, a blessing from the gods.” His smile made the duck in her stomach hop into her throat.
“Then perhaps I should be a sailor, mother.” Mr. Tinnen blurted out. “What do you think, Miss Holloway? Would I make a fine Captain?”
Mrs. Tinnen’s eyes flickered between her wellborn son and Miss Holloway. “Mrs. Hart, will you be attending Miss Landson’s coming out? John was invited especially.”
“I had planned to sail onwards, but that can always be postponed. A bit of English society would do me a world of good.” She put a delicate slice of meat into her mouth. “Of course, a little bit of English society could do the world some good.”
“I hear Miss Landson is very accomplished; plays the piano and the harp. Lady Killgrew, Lord Killgrew’s second wife, said her skill with the needle is unsurpassed. Do you play, Miss Holloway?”
She saw where this was going. “Yes, but very ill.”
“How sad for you. I have a great love for music. Do you draw or paint?”
Justine took a calming breath. Everyone watched their exchange and would notice if she launched a pea in the woman’s hair. “I paint a little.” At this confession, Mrs. Tinnen smiled like the cat who had just found the mice den. Triumph melted off her. She only smiled in response and finished her meal.
For the rest of dinner, Justine ate in peace. Mrs. Tinnen drew her son into her conversation and Mr. Farouk kept his focus on Captain Nobles. When dinner was over, the ladies rose and retired to one of the leisure rooms to gossip and be idle while the men smoked and drank brandy. Politics and business were topics best suited for men to discuss without women present. The same existed for matters of the home, which women ruled over solely. Justine did not intend to sit around while the others gossiped and ranted, especially at her lack of social refinement, not that they would be so unrefined to mention openly. Instead, she would be excluded and whispered about, if they had nothing more entertaining to speak of.
Her parents were not rich and she was returning from a middle class boarding school. It had been at the top of her parents’ budget, but they sacrificed. After all, she was an investment. Justine had always known she would return home and marry whoever her parents’ chose regardless if she liked him or not. It was what her mother and grandmother had done before her and, after all, they all had decent marriages. Justine cringed at that word – decent. Not happy, not passionate, not loving, but decent. Was it woman’s fate to breed, one birth after another? The Bible said similar, but even God chose unlikely heroines to become queens and leaders. There had to be more to life than the marriage bed. Justine rubbed her forehead and cleared her thoughts. She didn’t want to consider the idea of her godparents continuing on with her parents’ plan.
After complaining of a headache, she escaped into the night air. Nothing but the sound of water against the side of the ship and angry clouds surrounded her. She was finally alone. It felt glorious to think her own thoughts without the din of all those muffled voices filling the space around her. Their presence felt like a vice around her head, twisting out her brains. The ability to speak on idle topics was one of the subjects she had learned at school. A young woman not only had to feel comfortable in any conversation, but had to bring pleasure and honor to any man she conversed with. Her manners were honed to please and charm. Justine had struggled so hard to learn those traits although knew how to give the appearance of trying. Others girls could have charmed a snake out of a basket if they truly put their talents to good use. Instead, they went out of their way to tease her saying the best husband she could get would be a grave digger. Of course, they said this with such smiles and dimpled cheeks.
It was a sore spot for Justine but looking out on the black sea, their callous comments felt hundreds of miles away. She was the one on the ship sailing home; she was no longer middle class but possibly a wealthy woman. If Mr. Mendenhall could afford to go to Egypt, he had to be a man of some distinction. The girls back at her finishing school could drown in a lake for all she cared. She would have been miserable if not for Jane Morrison, her only friend.
Justine leaned over the rail and tried to imagine what Jane was doing at that exact moment but was interrupted by footsteps. Armed with a good excuse as to why she was standing alone on the deck instead of being in her cabin, Justine expected to be accosted by Mrs. Hart or someone similar. However, to her surprise she had a very different companion.
A lanky man wearing the livery of a deckhand strode to the side of the captain’s cabin and peered into one of the portholes. He licked his lips and drug inside his pockets. At first, Justine contemplated going to her cabin but his gaze did not alter as he stood, eyes fixated on the room she’d just left.
“Excuse me…can I help you?” Justine ventured. “Is there someone inside you wish to speak to? The captain perhaps?”
The man did not respond. He acted as if she was invisible. Whatever drew him to the cabin smothered any sense of life or breath. Without looking down to see what he brought out of his pocket, Justine noticed a metal necklace, a medallion of sorts, clutched in his grasp. He brought the trinket to his face near the porthole glass, hot breath fogging the glass. His long fingers rubbed the shiny metal, twisting it this way and that as if ready to smash it through the window.
“The Master said this’d find him…” His words came out in an elated whisper. The young man’s attention darted from the necklace to the window and back. He licked his lips again and finally blinked in rapid succession. Then, he smiled. The expression of delight brought a childlike innocence to his intense errand but it did not last. As before, he twitched, his hands trembling. “Why is it not working?” Justine stepped back, fearing he’d throw the necklace to the floor in a rage. Snarling, saliva seething from his mouth, he beat the medallion. Was the man mad?
“Excuse me?” Justine repeated. “Are you alright?”
Whatever haze clouding the deckhands mind cleared. He jumped and stared at her, no doubt startled at her appearance. There was nothing between her and his pale eyes, so empty and devoid of color. It was as if she looked through a window into an empty room where nothing lived, nothing breathed. Something vile animated his corpse, legs and arms moving like some marionette. Cold metal burned through her gloves as the railing was the only thing separating her from the frozen water below. Justine shivered wishing she’d had run away when she had the chance. His breath brushed against her exposed skin, a putrid smell that made Justine feel compromised, unclean.
“Stop…you’re frightening me,” Justine whined. Nothing wanted to move. Her legs turned to stone beneath her. All she could do was stand there, desperately wanting to get away, to put as much distance between herself and the vile creature as she could. He was close enough to reach out and wrap his hands around her throat.
Oh God, please, let this not be Jack the Ripper. Justine has read the headlines of the murder stalking London.
The deckhand never touched her yet she still felt his body. “Tell him to fear me for I know his secret.”
“Wh..what? What secret?”
Raised voices echoed in the cabin. Shoving whatever necklace he held back into his jacket, he ran down the length of the deck and disappeared.
Justine wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. Had the man been speaking about someone in the cabin? Mr. Tinnen or the captain? Of course the easiest answer could easily have been the man was mad, but that did little to ease the panic. Her hands trembled and not from the cold. Justine grabbed the ends of her shawl and wrapped them tight around her. Every time she blinked, she saw his eyes bearing into hers. She fled to her cabin and locked the door behind her.