An African Adventure - Plains, Trains and... Part 3

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This is the first time that the Knolly Estate has allowed the great man's memoirs to be published. What follows is the thirty-seventh section of 'The African Adventure'.

I observed that no-one else seemed to have joined the train at the stop, so I relaxed and settled myself back in my seat for the final part of our journey to the Cape.

The woman across the way smiled sweetly at me, obviously thankful that my snoring companion was now elsewhere. I had seen Bertie board along with the aforementioned lady passengers to whom he had taken an obvious shine, but since then, I had seen no sign of him.

I smiled to myself. At least one of us was happy, and there was still plenty of time to let him know that whilst I hadn't noticed anyone of Portuguese descent on board the train with us, there was evidence of Prussian-made footwear that shod a couple of our travelling companions.

The train rumbled along; the wheels tapping out their hypnotic rhythm on the tracks and the carriage gently swaying conspired to provide a most soporific state. I believe that I must have dozed off for an hour or so. Bertie still had not appeared and so I asked my neighbour if she had seen him return at all during my slumber. Unfortunately, she answered 'no' and seemed rather grateful about it.

Time for another stroll I thought to myself, when - who should appear at the end of the carriage - but the fella himself, all smiles and joviality.

'Enjoying the rest of the trip?' I asked pleasantly as he sat down opposite me.

Bertie grinned. 'As it happens, yes I have, thank you for asking. I have passed the time in very pleasant company with witty conversation. But I thought I ought to come back in case you were getting worried about me.'

'Worried? No, no! Not at all. You're a man of the world and more than capable of taking care of yourself. Although... '

I leaned forward, straightened his tie, dusted his lapels and noticed that his right cheek sported a small smudge of some description which I removed with a dampened corner of a kerchief. The young lad across the way observed all this, giggled, and received a box on the ears for his nosiness.

'Children today, what? Who'd be a parent?' Bertie blinked at me as he winced in sympathy at the boy's yelp of pain.

'Hmm, indeed. Come now! Tell me all about your new found travelling companions.'

'Eh? You really want to know what we talked about?'

'Bertie, I feel I must feign interest as you no doubt will tell me all in due course... whether I want to hear it or not'

'Knolly, you can be a real bore sometimes... ' Bertie smiled at his little play on words '... but I'll forgive you.'

I raised my eyes heavenwards and tapped my pocketwatch in mild irritation. 'Well... ?'

'Right then. Well, came as quite a surprise, really. Both Eugenie and Lilian - see, first name terms already - are English and strangely both recently lost their husbands in a mining accident.'

'What - simultaneously?' I asked.

'Yes. Moreover, it happened at the same time.'

'How remarkable!'

'I thought so, but I didn't want to push them on the subject. Anyway, it transpires that they have had enough of Africa and are heading back to Blighty after sorting out their affairs at the Cape.'

'Tell me Bertie, as you helped them aboard, did their luggage seem unusually heavy?'

'Hmmm. Now you come to mention it, they did seem a bit heavy. But that's reasonable if one is packing up and moving on, isn't it?'

I let that pass and continued with my questions.

'What about the two boys with them?'

'A son each. They seem very grown up - quite the little gentlemen and not at all shocked by the sad demise of their fathers. They were very well behaved and were entertained by a chap in their carriage with performing monkeys. Oh! He put on a wonderful show! You should have seen what he could make them do. Put some circuses to shame, I'll be bound.'

I closed my eyes in deep thought. Something was not right with the information that Bertie provided. In hindsight, I did not give it the attention and the scrutiny that it deserved. Perhaps I was distracted by the fact that we were soon to arrive in Cape Town and there were certain logistical issues to solve.

'I'm glad you found some distraction on the trip. But now to what we do on our imminent arrival at Cape Town?'

'Ah yes, I'm glad you mentioned it. Both of the girls have invited us to an evening meal at their lodgings. But better than that - they are sure that there will be a spare room that we could use during our stay! Of course, I said we would be delighted.'

'Really? Well, that's very forthright of you.'

'Damn it Knolly, I'm only trying to help you know!'

Our lady travelling companion clearly felt uneasy in the presence of two men who were about to launch into an argument. She shoo'ed the boy out of the carriage and disappeared to I-know-not-where.

I was a touch miffed that Bertie had committed us having known them for no more than an hour or so. However, I realised that the poor chap had only been trying to do the right thing.

'Yes of course, Bertie. I don't know what has come over me lately. The fact that you have found lodgings for the night means that we can look for the telegraph office as soon as we arrive. I trust you have an address that we can send our belongings on to?'

Bertie waved a piece of notepaper in front of my nose. Upon this paper was an address, carefully written in a feminine hand.

'Right, then. Now that you have resolved that issue, we are left with two urgent priorities. We need to find out the location from which Trooper Rose's message originated. We also need to get a message out to Biggfat.'

The latter action necessitated encoding our message using an elaborate encryption mechanism that had been invented and mandated by Her Britannic Majesty's Secret Service (Colonial Section). It involved replacing letters within the message according to displacement patterns found within published books.

'What book will we use this month?' I asked.

Bertie pulled down his pack from overhead and rummaged around for a few minutes, He pulled out a small, well-thumbed notebook, which he proceeded to consult. He announced:

'Pride and Prejudice.'

'Wonderful! Just once I would appreciate the cipher to be something that we could lay our hands on with ease - like a Bible or a Wisden. But no. We have to find a copy of a book by Jane Austen. This is the doing of that old biddy in the Coding Section, I'll wager. She always has her nose in some penny romance when I go down there.'

'You could always suggest alternative methods, Knolly. I'm sure that Coding would welcome your field experience', said Bertie.

'Oh no! They'll have me sitting behind a desk in London for months. That is not for me.'

'I - er - I quite enjoyed the book you know.'


'Pride and Prejudice. Thought it was a bit of a page-turner myself.'

'You've actually read it?'

Bertie went a shade of scarlet as another of his secrets had been found out.

'Oh yes, I... um came across a copy at a house I was... Oh look! We are slowing down. Looks like end of the line.'

The train huffed and puffed its way alongside the platform. Bertie and I sat tight whilst all around us, our travelling companions got themselves ready to go their own ways.

Once everyone else got off, Bertie and I pulled all our gear together and stepped off the train. So this was Cape Town! I picked up the standard issue of 'Whybrow's Colonial Gazeteer' that the office had provided us months ago in an attempt to discover why the town was so-named.

I read out aloud to Bertie. 'Cape Town, South Africa. A town that overlooks that Cape. Hence the name.'

'Is that it?' he asked.

'Hmmm. I'm sure that this Whybrow fellow just sits at a desk and documents these things with little or no research.'

I flicked through for more examples.

'Here, look. "Durban, South Africa. From the French d'urban meaning a sort of a town".'

'Piffle,' said Bertie.

'And here's another. "Bombay, India. A settlement that developed at the point where the River Bom enters the Arabian Sea".'

'Tosh,' said Bertie.

Realising that we could have spent the rest of our lives dismantling this worthless tome, we set about our disembarkation. But first, we quickly noted reminders in our pocket books to visit Mr Whybrow on our return and give him the benefit of our knowledge.

I sent Bertie off in search of a porter whilst I sat and watched the world go by. I watched for the two women and their boys but couldn't see them. I did, however, see the fellow with the performing monkeys; he was asking a station master about the last train to Clarksville - wherever that may be.

Bertie came back accompanied by a couple of native porters.

'I've got what passes for a cab in these parts waiting for us out the front. The driver has agreed to drop us off at the telegraph office and then take our bags on to the address I showed you.'

'Good show! By the way, I've not espied your new friends, so they must have got off with quite a gallop.'

Bertie seemed unconcerned by this, instead reminding me that would be dining with them later. We made our way along the platform to the front of the train and out past the gates. Bertie was leading the way with the porters when he suddenly pulled up short.

'Knolly! Did you see who was up front with the fireman?'

'No, I can't say I noticed.'


'Good lord! That old fruitcake? A train driver?'

'Do you think we should tell anyone?'

'Whom do you have in mind?'

'The guard. The stationmaster. Anyone really... '

'... And what do you think they would do?'

'Well... for starters, haul him off I'd say... and then hand him over to the local constabulary.'

'Bertie, that would then leave this train with no driver and that just wouldn't be fair on the passengers now would it?'

'Well... no... but, he's a villainous old cretin posing as a driver. Moreover - and I do not use this term lightly - he is a bounder.'

'This is true but, as such, he is now someone else's bounder, not ours. Laissez faire and all that.'

Bertie blushed. 'Oh goodness! That's tipping the velvet talk that is. How do you know that Croton is into that caper?'

'Into what caper?'

'Lezzy fare, you said.'

'No silly. Laissez faire is French for leave well alone.'

'Yes of course. I knew that' muttered Bertie as he tried to calm himself down and no doubt purge un-nerving and yet strangely erotic images of young ladies doing certain things with other young ladies. (Pardon me, dear sensitive reader, for exposing you to even the merest hint of a glimpse into that strange but nonetheless real world. I guarantee that there will be no more such talk in the documentation of this adventure.)

'Ah here's our transport,' said Bertie.

The driver looked down at the pair of us. He was a giant of a man and was brutish and rough in appearance. He looked like he'd been dragged through the veldt backwards. (Later on during conversation, Bertie told me that he had engaged in chit-chat with the fellow during negotiations for his services. The driver apologised for his demeanour, explaining that he had indeed been dragged through the veldt backwards when things went horribly wrong on an illegal giraffe-rustling escapade. So it goes to show that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover).

The driver cleared his throat. It sounded like boulders being rubbed together.

'Are you sure that you two gents want me to take your belongings to the address I was given earlier?' he rumbled.

'Yes of course. Why? Is there a problem?'

His face contorted this way and twisted that way in a most alarming manner. His eyes narrowed, his nose screwed up and his brow furrowed and his cheeks raised. We realised that he was grinning. It would have been so much better had he had any teeth.

'Hoh, no sirs! A very nice place, very accommodating area... if you know what I mean?' He winked and tapped his bulbous nose with his index finger. Bertie looked at me, giving me the opportunity to change our schedule. I just shrugged.

'Your decision Bertie, not mine. We have no time to arrange anything else, so we will go with it. But anyway, telegraph office first, food and bed later.'

There was a deep, gravely chuckle from the driver. As he coaxed his horse into a trot, I was certain that I could hear him mumbling something about "bed but not much sleep".'

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