Monday, May 13, 2024

The Sultan Rules Mombasa

Annamaria on Monday

This is a complete departure, for me, perhaps for MIE: a short story posted in its entirely.  I do this as act of desperation on Sunday when I am far behind with deliverables in all three of my jobs.  I have been slaving for days, polishing up Vera and Tolliver #4.  I have work to accomplish on two other fronts. And I don't have the hutzpah to repost yet again.

The story below first appeared in the  Sunshine Noir anthology.  Just now is an appropriate time for this tale, because it takes place between V&T#2 (which was released, in a beautiful new edition on May 1 and #3, which will appear on June 1.  Here is what Vera is doing between those two stories.

  The Sultan Rules Mombasa


Mombasa, British East Africa: 1912


Vera Tolliver put that dreadful early June down to her own failures.  But truth be told, the sun was also to blame.  She needed to have moved faster.  But the trade winds, which ordinarily cooled the equatorial island city, had failed and made way for a stewing heat that drugged the mind and annulled all but the most desperate intentions.

Vera’s body had added its own impetus.  The baby growing in her required warmth, she’d imagined.  It seemed to like this cooking they were both receiving.  In these past few days, it had begun to flutter about—a lovely, exciting sensation that she wanted to describe to her husband.  But Justin was off to the north, investigating slave smuggling.  And she had nothing to do but play the piano, write to her father, and visit with the only friends she had here at the coast—Bishop Peel’s daughters: Virginia and Molly.

Until she met the Peel girls, Vera had failed to find a place for herself among the British in Mombasa.  She may have been the wife of a handsome nobleman, but Justin was a second son without funds.  He had decided to serve his king as a policeman—a way for him to stay in East Africa, which he had grown to love.  And be near her, whom he had also grown to love.  They had a lovely life here together.  But according British mores and customs, his work placed him, and her, into not much better than the servant class.  Besides which, she was a Scottish missionary’s daughter, born in Africa and had “grown up wild,” according to the toney settler snobs.

Despite Virginia and Molly Peel’s father being a lofty Anglican bishop, the two had befriended Vera, perhaps because life here on the coast offered few European girls to choose from.  White settlers made for the high country around Nairobi, where this miserable equatorial heat dissipated in the rarefied air.  The Peel girls needed someone like Vera.

At first, she had been drawn to the older sister Molly, who was also twenty-one and of Vera’s same stature—petite and slender, as Vera used to be.  She was getting quite round now.  She smiled to herself, deeply satisfied with her motherly condition.

As their friendship grew, though, Vera found true warmth and camaraderie with the tall, lanky, younger Virginia.  They shared a lively sense of the absurd and a thirst for adventure that seemed completely absent from the far more conventional Molly.

It was Molly, gasping, panting and dripping, who rapped urgently at the door of Vera and Justin’s government-issue bungalow late that morning.  Without a hello, she poured out her outrage.  “She has gone.  And you must help me find her before she ruins her future.  She is out of control.”

Vera pulled Molly in out of the sun that beat on the front door as noon approached.  “You are overwrought.  Sit and tell me what has happened.”  It was just like Molly to judge too harshly everything Virginia did.  And to appoint herself as main enforcer of the impossibly prudish standards of British society.

Molly pushed off Vera’s hands and remained standing.  “Have you not heard me?  She has gone off on her own!”

Vera forced herself not to snap back.  Molly was an alarmist.  Poor Virginia, to have her sister always against her.  Virginia is too like me at sixteen, Vera thought, the sort of girl a mother always admonished her daughter not to be.  But Virginia was not foolish.

“I am sure …  I don’t think …” Vera began.  But no platitude would shoo away the affront in Molly’s eyes.  “When did you last see her?”

“When we went to sleep last night.  She was gone before I awoke this morning.”  Molly’s tone was that of a prosecutor describing a major crime.

Vera had to find a way to calm her.  “But is that so awful?  Really?”

“I was not concerned at first.  I thought she had gone down to breakfast early, though she almost never awakes before me.”  Molly’s put her fists on her hips.

 “But Virginia was not in the dining parlor?” Vera asked, as patiently as she could manage.

Annoyance intensified in Molly’s gray eyes.  “Her place had not been occupied.  Papa was reading the newspaper.  I should have told him, but I did not.  She has doomed herself and the whole family to scandal.”

So like Molly to condemn at the first provocation.  True, a girl as young as Virginia was not supposed stray an inch from home without parental permission.  And no girl of sixteen ever went anywhere alone.  Though Molly had once or twice half-heartedly lamented these rules, she rejected Virginia’s every complaint about them.  She treated Virginia more like her child than her sister.

Vera had sided with Virginia when it came to the oppressive dictums for British maidens.  The Kikuyu girls she had grown up with were married and had children by the time they were sixteen.  British girls were watched over like four-year-olds.

Secrecy had become Virginia’s weapon.  Vera was privy to what her young friend kept hidden.  But she could not blurt it out now.  It was not her secret to tell.  Still, the possibility existed that Virginia was jeopardizing her future.

“Have you spoken to anyone else about this?  If your parents find out, they will send her home to some awful English finishing school.”


“And where are your parents?”

“Papa went to one of his endless clergymen’s meetings, and mama is off visiting a parishioner in hospital.”

“We must find Virginia before they realize she has gone,” Vera said, taking her sun hat from the hook next to the door.

Molly hurried ahead to the corner.  “If we do not find her this morning, will Justin find her and not tell mama and papa?”

Vera kept up with difficulty.  The heat and the baby were slowing her down.  “Justin is up in Malindi investigating a ring of slavers.”

“But Britain has stamped out slavery,” Molly said, without slowing her strides.

Vera felt as if she were in a foot race.  “A bit slower please.”  She stopped to breathe.  “You know as well as I that passing a law does not stop people doing the crime.  We have the Ten Commandments, but many people are still wicked.”  She did not add what Justin had reported in utter frustration: that though the British administered here, the Sultan still ruled, and his subjects saw no sin in keeping slaves.  Criminals among them shipped off boys and young girls—the most lucrative commodity—to the slave markets in Muscat.  But this was not the sort of intelligence British women were supposed to have.  The soaking sweat on Vera’s back turned cold.  She shivered off the thought.  There could be no connection between that and Virginia.

“Truly, Molly,” she said, “I don’t think we will need Justin’s help.  We will both feel like fools when we find that your mother insisted on Virginia’s going to visit the sick.”  It was what Vera’s mother would have done.

They neared the manse.  “We will go in the back entrance, if you do not mind,” Molly said, “to avoid my parents in the event they have returned.  Perhaps Bani Kapoor saw Virginia this morning.”

“Bani Kapoor?” Vera asked, catching her breath.  She felt a little faint.

“Our Goan cook.”

They found him in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and stirring a pot, which as far as Vera knew was against Mrs. Peel’s rule.  She had forbidden him to smoke while cooking for fear the ashes would fall into the soup.  He was squat and lethargic.  And, when it came to their inquiries, completely unhelpful.

“Not see her.”  He shook his head.

“Did you hear anyone go out?” Vera asked.

“I sing while cook,” he said, gleefully.  “Not hear noises when sing.  Know nothing.”

They stole through the house and, from a side window, Vera saw Mr. Dingle, Mombasa’s itinerant gardener, working near the fence that surrounded the cathedral across the road.  She went to him.

With its domes and crenellations, the massive white church looming above them, like the city itself, had more a Middle-Eastern than a British aspect.  Mr. Dingle, by contrast, was utterly English and totally unprepossessing.  He doffed his hat and held it to his heart.  “Good morning, Lady Vera, Miss Peel,” he said.  He always behaved like the gardener on a great estate in England.

“I wonder if you have seen my—” Molly began, but Vera clenched her arm to stop her and took over the conversation before their mission was given away.  They needed to keep whatever Virginia had got up to out of British East Africa’s overactive gossip mill.  That lot would think nothing of ruining a girl’s reputation.

“What time did you arrive here this morning, Mr. Dingle?” Vera asked instead.

“Very early, my Lady.  I brought flowers for tomorrow’s service.  At about six.  I meet the sacristan early on Saturdays, before the heat can wilt the blossoms.  I had some lovely white irises and some—”

Vera smiled and held up a hand to stop him from launching into an ecstatic lecture on garden blooms—Mr. Dingle’s great passion.

“Was anyone else about?”

“Do you mean here on the cathedral grounds?”

“Hereabouts,” Vera responded, with a sweeping gesture that included the manse but did not single it out.

Mr. Dingle paused and then shook his head.  “Not that I recollect.  A trolley or two went down the hill as I was coming up.  Were you looking for someone in particular?”

Molly glared at Vera.  “I do not see how we can ask about her without asking about her,” she muttered.  She turned to the gardener.  “My sister Virginia seems to have left early this morning.”  After a pause, she added. “Not that she has done anything wrong.  Umm … ah … I forgot to tell her something.”

“Perhaps she is in the church, helping to arrange the altar flowers,” Vera said, taking Molly by the arm and steering her in that direction.  The most vexing thing about Molly was that she always treated Vera as if she, too, were a younger sister.

Mr. Dingle looked puzzled, but took up his spade and turned back to the beds along the iron fence.

“She is not in the church,” Molly grunted through clenched teeth.  “I looked there before I came to you.  This is about my sister, you know.”

It took two hands and all Vera’s strength to pull open the massive door.  “I know that,” she said as calmly as she could.  “But we must talk, and coming in here was an excuse to end that conversation.”  And to get out of the vicious noon sun.

Light poured into the church interior through high windows, but inside the stone kept the temperature ten blessed degrees cooler.  Vera went into a pew at the rear of a side aisle to get off her feet and try to keep control of her temper. Losing it would only make matters worse.

“We’ve gone headlong into this, Molly.  We must go back to why you are so upset.  Is it only because you fear for Virginia’s reputation?  Or do you have some reason to suspect real danger?”  Vera hoped her own growing concern would not show.  Molly was het up enough.

Molly harrumphed.  “I fear she is making terrible trouble for all of us.  And so should you.  If you were truly her friend, you would not want her to disgrace herself. She is foolhardy.  She chafes constantly about how she must comport herself, wishing father was a shopkeeper instead of a bishop, because the daughter of a man in trade would not have to be so very conventional.”  She swiveled and gave Vera an accusatory stare.  “She is more like your sister than mine.”

Vera scowled.  Really, what nerve!  Vera had a mind to get up and leave Molly to solve the problem herself, if there truly was a problem.  But her friendship for Virginia stopped her.  What if something serious had happened?  Worry trickled into Vera’s heart.  True, Molly was over-controlling, which often made Virginia rebellious.  But suppose Virginia had taken a serious risk.

Guilt joined fear, chilling the skin on Vera’s back.  She had overfed Virginia’s fantasies.  Molly feared for the family’s reputation, but Vera was beginning to fear for Virginia’s safety.  Vera had an inkling—no, more than that, a suspicion—about where the danger lay.  And who might have taken advantage of Virginia’s impetuosity.  Vera knew where to find him.

“Listen,” she said.  “Let’s have luncheon in the Ladies’ Tea Room at the club.”

 Molly gaped.  “Food?  Now?  Really?”

Vera took Molly’s hand.  “It is not about food.  If you leave a message for your parents saying we went to the club, they will assume Virginia came too and not suspect anything.  We will find out if anyone there has seen her.  For all we know, we may find her there.”

Molly pursed her lips.  But she complied.

The bishop’s own trolley was gone—taken by him to his meeting, no doubt.  Propelled by native men, the contraptions ran on tracks that went up and down the hill to the waterfront, and helter-skelter along the narrow streets of the center.  From this hour until close to sunset, they were the only sane way to get about.  Theirs was steered at breakneck pace by a Swahili daredevil, who laughed at the way his two British passengers gripped their seats in fright.

 The food would have been better at one of the European hotels, and the atmosphere more welcoming to ladies alone than that staid male bastion, The Mombasa Club, but it was the likely place to locate the man Vera had in mind.

They accepted the simpering welcome of the British matrons in the tearoom and took a table.  Vera ordered a chicken curry and glass of lemonade and excused herself on the pretext of visiting the ladies room—well, not really a pretext.  These days, the baby left less space inside her and made such visits more and more frequent.

She took a detour to the front desk and asked if the man in question was in.   The elegant, turbaned concierge gave her a bland, straightforward reply.  “He has removed to quarters elsewhere.”

This was not good news.  Vera knew that Arvid von Finecke, the Swedish nobleman she sought, was hard up for cash—just one more impoverished European aristocrat, like the many pouring into East Africa, in search of a less costly version of the upper-class life they could no longer afford at home.

A guilty realization fell on Vera.  In her sweet, naïve way, Virginia had longed to find a handsome, gallant husband such as Justin.  At a club gala, Arvid, with his golden good looks, had danced several times with the lithe and graceful and increasingly dreamy-eyed Virginia.  The next day, Vera had recounted how her and Justin’s love had blossomed after just such a dance.  To Virginia, the description must have been an enticing fairytale.

What had then ensued seemed but a lark.  Only Vera knew that Arvid and Virginia had exchanged more than pleasantries.  Nothing sinful—just some billets-doux and private conversations snatched during walks with the three of them strolling through the town, and Vera pretending to examine the items on offer at stalls in the souk.  Now, Vera saw clearly that what had seemed innocent, if somewhat clandestine, might have led to the girl’s taking an ill-considered decision.

Vera rejoined Molly in the tearoom but kept her own counsel.  Molly would become hysterical, which would be completely unhelpful.  Vera had to do a little digging on her own before she brought up the possibility of an elopement.  Such an event sounded romantic, but Virginia was only sixteen, and the charming Arvid could turn out to be much more of a blackguard Wickham than an honorable Mr. Darcy.

Their plates arrived.  Molly pushed her food around without putting any of it in her mouth.  “What good is this doing?”

Vera couldn’t eat now either. “You are right,” Vera said.  She gulped some lemonade.  “Let me sign for the meal, and we will go.”  She signaled the waiter.  She needed to find an excuse for them to separate.  “Where might Virginia have gone, if she went off on her own?”

“She does not go off on her own,” was all Molly offered.  “If she is not at home for tea, I shall have to tell papa.”

“In the meanwhile, we need to look in as many places as possible.  You walk to Boustead and Clarke’s and see if she has been there shopping,” Vera said.

Molly looked indignant.  “You know how she dislikes going to the stores.  I will look there and nowhere else.  If I do not find her, I will go home.  I am going to slap her when I see her.”

“I will look for her in the souk,” Vera said.  “Let’s meet at the manse at teatime.  Perhaps she will have already returned home from whatever jaunt has caused all this upset.”

They parted at the club entrance.  Vera watched Molly go.

Dread inundated Vera’s hopes.  Arvid had moved out of his room.  It might only mean that he had not been paying his bill.  But she had to find him to assure herself that he and Virginia had not run off.  Vera started toward the bazaar, but as soon as Molly was out of sight, she returned to the club and lied to the Indian at the front desk.  “I am Mrs. Assistant District Superintendent Justin Tolliver, and I have received a packet from Arvid von Finecke’s relative in Nairobi.  I want to give it to him.  Can you tell me where his new quarters are?”

“I know who you are, my Lady,” the man replied with frosty courtesy.  “It is not our policy to give out forwarding addresses of our members.”  His face turned to stone.

In an act that felt like rebellion, Vera smiled indulgently up at the foot-taller Indian and said, as haughtily as she could manage, “Certainly you mustn’t ignore the rules for my convenience.”  She pivoted on her heel and marched out the door with as much regal bearing as the baby allowed.

She crossed over to the ancient Portuguese fort, which the British administration had turned into a prison.  At the police desk near the entrance, she hoped against hope to find one of the chattier sergeants.  Men of the force generally followed the gossip mill with great interest.  But they told her nothing useful.

Head down, Vera turned away from the fawning sergeant who claimed to know nothing and said less.  She cast about in her mind for another way to find Von Finecke.  The sight of Justin’s superior officer, District Superintendent Jodrell, jolted her out of her disappointment.

“Lady Vera,” he said, as always observing the proper honorific for an aristocrat’s wife yet managing to make it sound satiric.  “I would not have expected to find you here on the threshold of the jail.”

“I have just been lunching at the club,” she said airily.  “Perhaps you can tell me something I need to know.”  She fed him the fiction about a package for the missing Swede.

He backed away, signaling her to follow, and in the conspiratorial voice of one imparting a juicy tidbit, said, “Have you not heard?  The blighter has completely bankrupted himself with his gambling.  Evidently, as a desperate last resort, he appealed to his cousin upcountry, Baron von Blixen-Finecke to stake him passage home.  But from what I’ve heard, he will get no help from that quarter.  Blix is using his future wife’s dowry to outfit a farm for growing coffee.  His bride will arrive in a few months, and he hasn’t a penny to spare.”

Dismay weighed on Vera.  Had the bankrupt Arvid convinced Virginia to run away with him?  Oh, that would be awful.

Jodrell misread her.  “Oh, no, my dear.  You mustn’t be distressed over him.  Perhaps what you have in that package is something Blix sent him that he can hock.”

“But I don’t know how to find him,” Vera said.  “The club won’t reveal where he went.”  She was beginning to feel desperate and feared that it showed.

Fortunately, Jodrell continued to assume that her dismay was for the handsome Scandinavian.  “Please,” he said.  “He isn’t worth your worry.  You will find him in that rather dingy block of flats near the old port.  Someone there will be able to tell you which one.”

“I’ll go at once,” Vera said.

“Let me get you a rickshaw,” Jodrell said.  Then he turned back to her.  “But you haven’t got the package with you.”

“I can fetch it from home on my way,” she said.

As soon as she climbed into the rickshaw, Jodrell gave the boy a coin and the address of her bungalow and then disappeared into the fort.  The second he was gone, Vera corrected the destination, and they bumped along at speed to the waterfront.

Vera rehearsed what she would say to Arvid, changing her lines every minute.  What she wanted to do was hit him on his blond, handsome head with something extremely heavy.

The old Mombasa port had been abandoned for the larger, more modern one in Kilindini when the railroad was built.  Now, the ancient anchorage was the precinct only of Arab dhows and small lighters that plied the coast.  It was picturesque, if derelict, and carried an air of age-old mystery.

The building—stuccoed, with pretty, scalloped decorations along its three peaks—must have been lovely when it was first built.  Now, with peeling and mottled whitewash, and tall weeds where flowers once grew, it appeared to be what it was—the last refuge of the down and out.

She did her best to convince the rickshaw boy to wait for her, but he flatly refused and rattled away with his contraption.  She could imagine too clearly how Justin would scold her for coming here alone, even in broad daylight.  But Jodrell hadn’t objected.  In a sense he had sent her here.  Surely, if he knew it to be dangerous, he would not have suggested it.

She thought it best, however, not to enter the building without knowing exactly where inside she might find Arvid.  Or Virginia.  She prayed Virginia had not come to this baleful place.  And she allowed regret at having fed the girl’s desire for adventure and independence.  She failed to convince herself that not even the headstrong Virginia would throw herself into the arms of a relative stranger.

The only people around were Arabs and Swahilis—a large group was gathered on steep steps that led down to the water’s edge.  At the bottom, a gangway stretched out to a stone column in the water.  Some Arab men and women were moving along it and onto a makeshift gangplank to a dhow at anchor some fifty feet from shore.  None of them paid her the slightest mind.  She was trying to decide if it was sensible to ask them where Arvid von Finecke might be, when suddenly a tight knot of men halfway down on the steps parted and revealed him—his pale skin and his lithe form unmistakable.  She moved tentatively to the top of the stairs.

At first he did not notice her.  He was putting something into the breast pocket of his jacket.  When he looked up, he was understandably shocked to discover her looking down at him.

“Lady Tolliver,” he exclaimed.  He swept off his sun helmet and reached out to take her hand and kiss it.  His exaggerated courtly mannerisms annoyed her.

She kept her hands at her sides and ignored all courtesies.  “What do you know about where Virginia Peel has gone?”

He gave her the shocked look of a moving pictures’ actor.  “Nothing!”

She studied his reaction to her silence.

He stammered.  “Is there something … Has she …”  His ordinarily perfect, witty English had deserted him.

He showed her his palms and shrugged—a gesture of innocence that she dismissed.  “I am distressed,” he said, more convincingly than Vera cared to accept.  Those clear blue eyes held all the innocence of an infant.  He gestured toward the building.  “Let us get out of this awful sun.”

It was the first thing he said that she liked.  But, inside the tiny entryway, when he closed the door, she was suddenly blinded by the contrast between the darkness within and the blazing light outside.

“I am mortified, Lady Tolliver,” he said, “to tell you of my condition.”

Was it the acoustics of this small space or had his voice deepened?  Its timbre sent a spider of fear across the back of her neck.  She blinked, trying to compel her eyes to adjust.  He was between her and the door.  She forced out a strong voice.  “I am aware of how …”  She was about to say “foolish you have been”, but a self-protective instinct stopped her. He was not the type to accept censure.  Sympathetic understanding and flattery were her only weapons at this point.  “… of how difficult things have become for you.”

Those ingenuous eyes again shiny, despite the dim light.  She refused to trust them.

“My dear sir,” she said.  “I am concerned only about my young friend.  You cannot have missed how smitten she was with you, and understandably so.  I was worried that she had left home to come to you.”

“She is missing?”  

“Yes.”  Her heart pounded, but she had to know the truth.  “I insist you show me your room.”

“It is empty,” he said.  “If you want proof, follow me.”

 Her hands shook with fear, but she followed him up a flight of stairs.

His room was a depressing hovel, but thank heavens, it contained nothing but a few piles of his clothing on the bed.

Vera did not know whether to be relieved or more afraid.  “Have you, by any chance, told Virginia of your financial distress?”

“Yes.  I confess that I did.”  He looked down at the floor, embarrassed, or perhaps feigning it.  “I am aware of her affection for me and thought it only right to bid her good-bye.  You see, I have no choice but to leave and start over elsewhere.”

“How will you manage to travel without money?”

Those round, convincing eyes found hers.  “A relative has given me the means for one last chance.”

“Where will you go?”

His sculpted features turned crestfallen.  “I have just arranged passage to South Africa on an Arab boat.  The cheapest way.  From there I have enough to reach Australia.”

It was difficult not to pity him.  Australia?  Settlers up in the temperate highlands always spoke of it as a sort of purgatory.  “When will you leave?”

“Within the hour.  I would gladly accompany you home, but I must gather my belongings and be ready.  My boat is expected at any moment. And will depart immediately.”  He turned and opened the door.  “Please tell Miss Virginia that I wish her well.  I made my farewells in my note, but I want her to know that I did not mean lead her on with my attentions.  She is a lovely, spirited girl.”

“That she is,” Vera said, and left.

Outside, she saw the dhow that had been loading.  It was out, crossing the reef, tacking northward, its dark-red sail billowing, and beautiful against the brilliant blues of the water and the sky.

Drenched with perspiration, she dragged her increased weight for half an hour in search of a rickshaw.  It made slow progress back to the manse.  Her body wanted to lie down and nap.  She told herself that she would find Virginia at home, having tea.  Tea.  She needed some badly.

She found Mr. Dingle pruning roses near the bishop’s front door.  He doffed his hat.  “Lady Vera,” he said, his voice anxious, louder than she had ever heard it.  “Have you found her?”

A million spindling spiders crawled under Vera’s skin.  “No, I have not.”  Her heart sank.  The baby inside her fluttered as if it felt her terror.  She put her hands over her belly.  Oh, no.  My baby.  No!

Mr. Dingle burst into tears.  “I did not think of it until after Miss Peel returned home, and I began to go over it all again in my memory.  You asked if there was anyone else about early this morning.  It did not occur to me then.”

“What?” she demanded, grabbing his arm.  “What did you see?”

He shook his head in despair.  “I thought it was a Somali woman.  With him.  You know how tall they are.  She is tall and slim, like them.  I am very afraid, Lady Vera.  It was that Swedish man.  The handsome, blond one.   In a trolley with a woman all covered in black.  As some of them are.  I could not tell who it was.  In a trolley, the two of them, heading down to the port.”

It flashed in Vera’s anguish:  The picture Dingle described.  And the Arab women being moved along the gangway to the dhow.  The something Arvid von Finecke had placed in his breast pocket.  His sudden acquisition of the price of passage to Australia.  The billowing red sail of the boat heading north.

Toward the slave market in Muscat.


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