The next afternoon, Mrs. Hart steered Justine into the upper dining area for tea, seething with the need for refreshments after their long walk in the fresh air. After the incident outside the captain’s cabin, Justine’s dreams had been tormented with the evil eyes staring at her through windows without curtains. Every time she woke, she immediately slipped back into the dream. It left her feeling drowsy and worn out. Each step, she fought the urge to look over her shoulder, sensing someone watching her. Justine contemplated informing the captain but finally decided against it. God willing, she’d never see the deckhand again and that’d be the end of it.
Thankfully, the intermittent sun peaking between the clouds felt like a good omen. Her emotion still felt raw but at least it took away the self-pity of being an orphan. There was no hiding in her room, wallowing in defeatism with Mrs. Hart around. And so, Justine faced the world once more, determined to put last night out of her mind, when they sat at one of the tables stationed on the port side where large leafed plants blocked the morning glare. Beautiful bone china had been laid out on lace tablecloths and Mrs. Hart and Justine fanned their dresses out and laid delicate napkins onto their laps. Maxine popped her little head out of her mistress’ bag and yelped until she was on Mrs. Hart’s lap. The well-groomed animal shook and trembled and Justine wasn’t sure if it was out of joy or fear from being blown away. A servant came by and the older woman ordered two cups of their strongest black English tea and a small plate of pastries for them both.
“Cream and sugar also young man.” Her hawk eyes fixed on the poor lad who gulped under her scrutiny. “Oh, and bring some for my little poochy.” The waiter bowed and left.
Justine watched the dog slobber all over Mrs. Hart’s face, eager to devour her powdery complexion.
Mrs. Hart patted Maxine as the dog vibrated in her lap. “Really, one must specify what sort of tea or you could get one of those horrid China teas; as if an Englishwoman couldn’t tell the difference. I am so pleased we shall be in England soon. I thought sailing down the French coast a bit before going home would be a pleasant journey but the weather has been so foul despite the intermittent bursts of sun.” Mrs. Hart fumed on the topic and when her eye caught Mrs. Tinnen, she excused herself and left Justine alone, thankfully without the mutt.
There were only a few occupants in the room, all spread out and speaking in low voices. A group of young ladies twittered away like birds, chirping without a care in the world. They laughed and drank their tea as the gossip flew like autumn leaves in the fall. Faint snippets reached her ears. Dresses, fortunes, romances, all discussed with the eager interest of youth. A few had been at dinner the night before, but none desired to recognize her. To be honest, Justine was quite pleased not to be included by any of the ladies since she doubted they would have anything of interest to discuss. The girl in the middle in particular reminded her of Harriet Goodman who was the ringleader at her school. All the other popular girls rallied around her like flies on raw meat, nipping and biting those who tempted to breech the inner circle of their friendship. That in itself soured Justine’s opinion on the group who were avidly discussing the benefits of French lace gloves.
Mrs. Hart sat beside her friend near the double doors while her son John kept smiling at Justine every time his mother’s back was turned. Justine did not feel capable of coming up with idle pleasantries and so she pretended she did not see his attempts. Instead, she studied the small pearl buttons on her cuff and twirled them around in her fingers. A chill blew in every time the door opened and refused to budge. For the first time, Justine was thankful for her mourning clothes. She was covered from chin to wrist and the color soaked up whatever light fell upon the fabric. It was a small consolation, but one she appreciated, nonetheless.
The waiter returned with the tray of food and tea. Justine tried to catch Mrs. Hart’s attention without encouraging Mr. Tinnen, but the woman was too engrossed in her conversation to pay her any mind. The noble part of the young lady wanted to wait for her companion, but her stomach refused to listen. Her hands shook and her stomach felt queasy. Justine had not eaten much at breakfast and hunger finally forced her to swiftly cram a dry scone into her mouth without anyone noticing, although she tried to make it look as graceful as possible. Once that was swallowed, she poured the tea and stared out the window. Cerulean grey stretched out for miles without end. It made her feel rather lost. She was a small fish swimming in a very big ocean without any idea where she should be going or what she ought to be doing. The hot liquid soothed her troubled thoughts and her stomach. Her mind slowed down as the warm permeated through her skin. She leaned back in her chair and then sat up after remembering where she was.
Then the door opened once more and Justine curled into the steaming cup. She cradled it in her palms and soaked up the heat as Amun Farouk sauntered into the room. He drew everyone’s notice yet he focused on his destination. He wore a chocolate striiped waistcoat, white shirt, tan cravat and trousers that matched the vest. He laid his coat on the chair beside him. After a waiter filled his cup, he settled down into a newspaper and disappeared behind the printed pages.
“I see the handsome stranger has joined us,” Mrs. Hart whispered to Justine as she slid into her chair. She eyed Amun who sat four tables away from them.
“Oh? I didn’t notice.”
“Was someone watching the door fervently?”
Justine opened her mouth to tell Mrs. Hart she was doing no such thing when the older woman laughed.
“Don’t be so stunned. If I were your age, I would be flanking the man out as well.” She twittered at her own bit of humor and then continued on. “I would not strive for his attention too eagerly, my dear.”
“First you tell me to flank him then to be wary. Which advice am I to follow, pray tell?” Justine laughed.
“You know so little about him. And good-looking or not, he is a foreigner. Harold would not be pleased to see you walk away from this trip with an attachment to an Egyptian, regardless of his position. Although, there does seem to be an aura of mystery about him. Did you notice,” she said behind her lace fan, “how the man roused quite a reaction out of the young Mr. Tinnen?”
She had noticed, but was not going to tell Mrs. Hart so. Instead, she attempted to change the subject. “I hope Mrs. Tinnen is doing well. She looked flustered the night before.” That image brought on a rather satisfied grin.
“Oh yes, she’s a hearty old bird. Although, it appears her son has spoken to her about you. Girl, are you listening to me?”
“Oh, I am sorry. What did you say?”
“You have a lover.”
“What, since breakfast started?” Justine commented as she put butter on another scone. “How fascinating.”
“Yes. John Tinnen told his mother he found you quite fine. You can imagine what she said.”
“It did not go well, I take it?” That pleased her to no end. In fact, Mrs. Hart could not have made her day any better. That horrible Mrs. Tinnen went out of her way to make Justine feel the size of a thimble and it works for a few annoying moments.
“Oh my dear, that is saying it nicely. Well, I assured her there is nothing between you two.” Here she hesitated.
It was obvious she wanted conformation. “No, no…nothing at all.”
Mrs. Hart exhaled and drank her tea. “Changes are you will be able to do far better. These waiters cannot do anything right. Excuse me young man, but this is cold.” When the waiter refreshed her cup, Mrs. Hart continued as she picked a pastry off the three-tiered tray. “I am so glad to hear you say that, my love, and I told her the exact same thing. Now, if Harold decides to give you some money, say several thousand as a dowry, well, then that’s different, now isn’t it? Oh, the blueberry scones are delicious, you should try them. Maxine likes them, don’t you my little princess?”
It was more than Justine could handle. She was unsuitable because her parents were dead and now everyone waited to see if her new guardians would charitably lavish her with money. Knowing this was one thing, being told it so openly was another. The idle tittle tattle of the offensive woman had brought on a vile headache. It pulsated like a thousand wild horses pounding across her brain. Every time Mrs. Hart laughed, it became more unbearable. If her godfather gave her money, then she would be a more worthy candidate…she didn’t even find John Tinnen nice-looking and yet they judged and sentenced her before the dessert had been brought out. It was amazing anyone could be so heartless, to speak blunt truths without considering how it might affect her. The feeling of being alone in a room full of smiling people churned her stomach.
“Forgive me, but I need some air.” Justine stood and grabbed the back of the chair for support. Color drained and her vision became spotted and grey.
“Yes, child, go outside. Is it your lady flow?”
Justine needed to think her own thoughts and just be alone. Barely able to nod, she staggered from the room and avoided the scrutiny from the fashionable young ladies all seated together by the exit. Their eyes widened and they whispered like baby birds. Before the door closed, Justine swore she heard one of the girl utter “orphan” under her breath. Outside, she flew to the rail. The chill felt delicious, solid and lifeless. The need for isolation was never greater than at that very moment. Soon she would be free of Mrs. Hart’s horrible company, but Justine began to wonder if the same pity and revulsion would follow her wherever she went. If so, she would rather be dead than endure insensitive people who only wanted to hear the sound their own voices.
Justine shivered and her temper cooled. Her shawl was probably sitting on the chair. It had been a gift from her mother before she left for school. A small token, hand knitted with love and patience. She rubbed her arms and started to walk up the promenade towards the bow of the ship where the sun shone unadulterated. Not for all the miserable black tea in China would she return to her companion.
The ship’s top deck was almost empty as a cool wind whipped her hair about in a whirl of excitement. Young men dressed in white uniforms bustled by, barely glancing in her direction. Compared to the last boat she was on, the SS Imperial was far grander and the beds a lot more comfortable. It had been built for leisure travel as it broke through the English Channel with ease. A salty mist dusted her face. Justine wished her parents were alive to stand by her and see just how blue the water was this far south of England. Above her, rays of light beamed down on the water’s surface where clouds opened themselves up to the sun.
Someone cleared their throat behind her, spoiling her solitude. I was Mr. Farouk. “Forgive me for intruding upon your reverie, but you left this inside.” A smile spread across Amun’s tan face as he handed her a thick lavender shawl. “I saw you run outside without it and the weather threatens us with grim predictions.”
She drew the shawl around her. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Farouk. I would not have gone back inside for the world.”
“I did not mean to eavesdrop…” he went on uncertainly.
“It is hard not to listen when Mrs. Hart speaks so…passionately.”
Amun chuckled, a sound so deep and earthy Justine blushed. “She is a unique woman, but perhaps all English girls share that trait?”
Did he just compliment her? Although if he was comparing her to Mrs. Hart, perhaps not. In the end, she looked amused and pretended to be pleased.
“Are you are bound for London?”
“Yes, to live with my godfather,” Justine responded.
“Ah, yes. I should have remembered. You said that during dinner last night. Forgive me for prying, but you seem so distraught. Surely you are not dreading returning home. London is normally considered a marvelous place, is it not? The libraries are incomparable in culture and content. Not to mention there are balls and concerts every week for the young and accomplished.”
Justine frowned. “I have never been to London. I’d probably get lost in the crowd of fancy dresses and feathery hats. Before I left, mother mentioned a small season in Bath but I don’t think they will happen anymore.”
“And this distresses you?”
“Not really,” Justine said light heartedly. Amun grinned and they both stood there without talking. It felt good to be in the man’s company. He didn’t spew any meaningless words and she appreciated that.
“You know, I feel rather out of place in a crowd of strangers.”
“Do you really? Surely not you. I mean, you’re educated and refined and…” She paused, not wanting to utter another word. What had possessed her to say that?
“You think I am refined? What a compliment, thank you. But that only means I hide my true nature very well, no? Often, I find I have little to say and so I entertain myself by observing my surroundings. I try to think up all words in your language to describe what I see. You would be surprised,” he chuckled, “how many things start with the letter ‘g’.”
“Are you telling me that you play ‘I spy’ when you’re bored?” She laughed.
“Is that the name of my little game? And here I thought I was being terribly original.” He smoothed his facial hair and winked. Both laughed and stared at each other until Justine looked away.
“Would you allow me to call upon you in London?”
She should say no. Justine had no business letting a man she hardly knew call at her godfather’s house and yet she was flattered. Was this what men did when they were interested? “You wish to call on me?”
“Unless there is a mouse in your purse I am speaking to instead of you. I would truly enjoy seeing you again. It is not often I meet with such an inquisitive mind.”
“I would like that very much. That is if my godfather approved.”
“Of course. By the way, here is that book I spoke to you about.”
Justine took the book and turned it over in her hands. The binding was faded and cracking in places from age. Even the pages were yellowed and stained.
“I’m afraid it has seen better days.”
“No, it is lovely. Thank you.”
“It is my pleasure. I hope you always keep that thirst for seeing past the mundane.” The sound of a high pitch bark ripped through the chilly air. Justine immediately wrapped her shawl around her.
“Here you are, darling.”
From the dining room emerged Mrs. Hart, cradling the dog in her arms. The late autumn sun brightened her pale features as fine wrinkles streaked across her face.
“Yes.” Justine steadied herself and faced her companion, feeling her face burn like a sinner in church. She slowly inched a more suitable distance away. “Forgive me, Mrs. Hart. I needed some fresh air.”
“Oh indeed. I understand, my dear,” Mrs. Hart said as the breeze ruffled the white feathers on her dark blue hat. “That room was getting a bit stuffy.” She addressed their male companion. “Thank you for finding my little charge, Mr. Farouk.”
“It was a pleasure, madam.”
They were interrupted by a servant. “Dinner will be served at eight this evening.” He bowed and retreated as Mrs. Hart held her puppy to her lips. Its eager little tongue lapped at her lips.
“Well, come on my dear. It is time to dress for dinner. When you have some free time, I would love to hear more of Egypt.” Mrs. Hart grinned, perhaps feigning interest although Justine had no idea why.
“I would be most pleased, Mrs. Hart. Perhaps tonight at dinner?”
The pampered dog growled.
Mrs. Hart exclaimed, “Oh, yes. That would be lovely.”
When he left, Mrs. Hart turned her attention upon Justine’s flushed complexion. The pause made Justine think her companion was about to speak, to ask probing questions and yet she did not. Instead, she strolled down the deck with a rather knowing smile and into the sitting room of the cabin. Finally, she laughed as she plopped down on the chaise lounge, lovingly stroked her dog’s fur. “Well, my dear, you sure don’t waste your time. Only next time, be more lady-like and make sure I am chaperoning you. The sooner we get to Portsmouth, the better.”
“He spoke to me first, Mrs. Hart. I could hardly ignore him. Also, he gave me a book.”
“Hmmm.” And with that, she chuckled. “He’s a bit too foreign for my tastes, but cuts a dashing figure.”
Justine had to agree. She sat down near the foot of the bed and removed her gloves. “He is rather interesting, I mean for an older man.”
“Darling,” Mrs. Hart chided. “Older men have their advantages you know. If only you weren’t in mourning, you could dance with him in London. When it comes to foreigners, they truly are only good to look at. Marry English.”
Justine focused upon the floor where a bit of the carpet was faded and thin. “I have no intention of marrying anytime soon.”
“Oh tosh. Every girl considers marriage the moment they spy a handsome man. They weighed him and his assets before the first introductions are done. Just make sure you don’t get too attached. He’s not one of us, dear.”
After being Mrs. Hart’s companion for the evening, Justine lay in bed exhausted and worn out. With a yawn, she turned over onto her side and flipped to the next page of Northanger Abbey. As she read, Justine began to like Catherine Morland, who was described as being neither pretty nor blessed with any heroine-like abilities. The character was plain and preferred being outdoors. Surrounded by girls at her school, Justine knew what it was like to feel inferior not only in looks but attributes. She wasn’t beautiful nor able to draw, sing or paint. How often had she sat alone in her room and cried out for God to make her into someone else; someone who did everything right?
Northanger Abbey had been her mother’s Christmas gift to her the previous year. At the time, Justine chided her, saying the book was far too romantic for her tastes. However, she promised to read it at school and then promptly forgot all about it. It was only when Justine packed to return home did she find it collecting dust in her suitcase.
Justine finally put the book down. Her eyes drooped, head full of dead corpses and murderous plots. She made to extinguish the light but stopped when she heard the sound of something outside her door. A part of her wanted to snuggle down into the warm covers, but who would be running on the deck so late at night? Was something wrong? Was someone about to wake her? Justine pulled back the blankets, reached for her cotton night jacket and tip toed across the floor. She eased opened the cabin door. Bone tingling cold enveloped her.
No one was there. She recalled the sound – like someone running past her door. Beside the smooth movement of the ship, nothing stirred. Beyond the rail, off in the distance behind the ship, a massive flock of birds flew at leisure. She stood stationary, almost waiting for someone to emerge from around the corner. No one came.
“Hello?” she called out. The waters appeared to devour her words. “Is someone out there?”
A shiver started from behind her neck, bolted through her body, and settled comfortably into her toes. Her skin stung as the fabric of her dressing gown brushed against it. Dear God, had someone just called her name? She leaned over to see if someone was nearby, but there was no one.
The most logical thing to do was close the door and slip back into her warm bed – surely she had imagined someone’s voice. Justine was ready to run back to her covers when she heard it again but this time it wasn’t just a whisper but loud as if whoever spoke was not ten feet away. Her stomach felt uneasy, hairs stood on end. For a second, she expected to see the deckhand leering at her from some corner. That thought made goose bumps ripple down her skin.
Justine slammed her door and leaned against it. Her chest rose and fell as quickly as her mind tried to rationalize what happened. It was terribly late; surely her mind was just playing tricks on her. However, instead of going back to bed, she fetched her slippers and took a couple cautionary steps down the deck. The sound of muffled voices, almost indistinguishable, intensified closer to the aft of the ship. It sounded almost like a crowd of people but she couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Then, everything went quiet. Only a dim light shone beneath the last cabin door. Justine placed her hand against the surface, her teeth chattering and toes ready to shrivel off. She tried to slow her breathing down to listen, but the effort was useless. The powerful engines churned and hummed below her feet.
Who had called her name? Mrs. Hart? If not her, what would her guardian say to her batch of folly? In the end, she knew she wasn’t brave enough to find out who was behind the door. Plus, she probably just imagined being called.
This had definitely gone far enough. Her teeth clanged together like kitchen pots and the cotton overdress did little to shelter her from the night air. No, she needed to go back to her room. Justine turned and started to walk swiftly towards her cabin but was struck by a rather strange sight.
Off the bow was the same flock of birds she’d seen on first opening her door, flying in tight formation. Except this time, they were much closer. Justine knew little to nothing of birds or their patterns of flight, but common sense told her they were not creatures of the night. She tried to remember a time when she’d seen them out in the evening, perhaps when she was at school or even home helping her mother in the garden. Silver glinted off black wings as the flock darted around each other. Captain Nobles hadn’t called for land which made the appearance of night birds in the middle of the channel an oddity. Something didn’t feel right. When Justine finally shrugged it off, skin numb and teeth chattering, she continued on, or at least tried to. It appeared as if the birds were heading straight towards the ship. In fact, it looked as if they were heading straight towards her. Concern for her safety and the propriety of her actions diminished as she stared dumbfounded. They were not birds at all but bats, each baring sharp fangs.
Like a Medusan statue, she watched as the black mass engulfed her in a burial shroud. She screamed and ran towards her cabin door but the beasts nipped and shrieked in high pitched sounds. She beat the air but they dodged her blows. Little teeth bit deep into her skin. Justine couldn’t breathe. Her brain yelled at her to do something but fear immobilized her. It was like her body locked up. Pain blossomed as their teeth sunk in and burned. They were so close the force of their wings whipped the air around her. She was losing.
In panic, she covered her head and dropped into a tight ball against the ship. Around her they flew, beating her with their wings and dragging their sharp claws across her skin. Justine hid and sobbed into her sleeve, wanting to shut out the sound of their wings and high pitched cries. It was deafening. Then, as quickly as it began, the air around her settled. The noise of the waves against the ship once more echoed in her ears. Daring to lift her head, Justine saw a large hawk attack the bats, lashing out with its sharp talons and hooked beak. The bats dove and darted until they took flight. Justine didn’t stick around to wait and see if the hawk would then turn on her for prey. She ran towards the lit door.
Justine stumbled inside, barely able to suck in breath. Her foot caught the hem of her gown and she slammed onto the ground. The impact forced air out of her lungs but even as she tried to take in air, her body refused to stop. She frantically looked for the little beasts, moving on instinct. The room around her faded into muted grays as her brain demanded air. What was going on? Spots floated in her vision and Justine couldn’t feel her arms or legs. Before she collapsed, something blurry permeated through her vision.