The latest find in the “Stories From A Stewardess” series by Frances Myles, this story follows the continuing adventures of Miss Symons aboard the SS Sultana.
We’ve split this one into two parts. Keep an eye out for the conclusion in next week’s Fiction newsletter!
They were about as merry a set as ever the Sultana bore homewards.
From the very first there had been a feeling of genial good fellowship on board, and the fleeting days only served to intensify the pleasant relations amongst the passengers.
A great deal of credit for this state of affairs was due to Mrs Julia Bell. She was the life of the ship, the organiser of the numerous concerts, charades, and such like amusements, by which the tedium of the voyage was pleasantly relieved.
She was a tall, handsome brunette, with a very frank, agreeable manner, and a smile that won all hearts. Even with a plain face she would have been voted charming, so fascinating could she be.
As it was, face, figure, and manner combined, firmly established her position as belle of the ship.
She was also an accomplished pianist and a most beautiful singer, and was ever willing to sing or play for the amusement of the others.
It goes without saying that she could not be what she was without raising a feeling of envy amongst the passengers belonging to her own sex.
I think Mrs Ben Howard simply hated her. Indeed, she made small attempt to hide the feelings she entertained towards Mrs Bell.
Mrs Howard’s day was past, the wear and tear of fashionable Anglo-Indian life had robbed the little woman of her doll-like, waxen prettiness.
Vain and frivolous, she tried to shut her eyes to the sad truth, and was prepared to heartily hate any woman who dared to take the place she had been wont to fill.
Amongst the gentlemen was a Mr Robert Grimmond. He was a handsome man, with a fine carriage and a distinguished air about him.
He carried his age well, and considering the climate in which so many of his years had been spent, he was remarkably well preserved.
As the head of one of the largest commercial concerns in Calcutta, he was immensely wealthy. Naturally, he was eagerly courted by most of the ladies.
But Mr Robert Grimmond was quite able to be pleasant to them all while keeping free of the shadow of any entanglement.
It was rumoured on board that he had been an unsuccessful suitor of Mrs Ben Howard’s in days gone by. Had he ever entertained tender feelings towards her he had been completely cured, for all the lady’s attempts to beguile him into a flirtation proved entirely futile.
Great was Mrs Howard’s rage when it became apparent that the most eligible man on board had fallen a victim to Miss Bell’s charms.
The cool manner in which that young lady treated him only served to increase Mr Grimmond’s ardour, while it deepened the feelings that filled Mrs Howard’s bosom.
“If that little Mrs Howard doesn’t play Miss Bell a nasty trick yet, I’m a Dutchman,” Jackson said to me one day while we were busy in his pantry.
“What makes you think that?” I asked, as I carefully dried some crystal.
“Why, any one with one eye could see that Mrs Howard is dead jealous of the young one,” he replied.
“I saw a look the old viper sent after her one day, and it was something diabolical.”
“I think you’re wrong for once, Jackson, The two ladies have grown quite friendly within the past two days.”
“Oh! They have, have they? Then you’ll see yet I am right after all.”
“You do have a poor opinion of womankind, Jackson,” I said. “Do you think we are all treacherous and spiteful?”
“Oh! Perfect cats, the whole boilin’ lot o’ ye,” he said, tartly.
And then he looked quite vexed, because I only laughed softly at his answer.
It certainly was a queer change that had thus suddenly come o’er the relationship between Mr Grimmond’s two lady friends.
At first I set it down to Mrs Howard’s determination to be present, under pretext of being Miss Bell’s friend, whenever that young lady enjoyed the pleasure of Mr Grimmond’s company.
By this little arrangement she was sure to know what passed between the two.
A little to my surprise, Miss Bell did not actively object to having Mrs Howard’s company thus thrust upon her. Either the young lady was too confident of her own powers, and therefore not afraid of Mrs Howard’s, or she was at heart indifferent to Mr Grimmond.
It was amusing to see that gentleman’s disgust at having so often to endure Mrs Howard’s company, and to notice how cleverly, although usually unsuccessfully, he tried to outwit her, and secure Miss Bell alone.
Well, I really forget at which of the Mediterranean ports it was we were delayed that voyage. Some slight defect had been found about the machinery, and we had been obliged to stop for temporary repairs.
Of course, the passengers availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the town, and parties for sight-seeing were immediately made up.
It must have been on the night of their return from the town that I overheard Mrs Howard and Miss Bell talking together in the latter lady’s cabin.
“And do you really like it?” I heard Miss Bell ask.
“I think it is simply exquisite,” Mrs Howard’s thin, high voice replied.
“If only I had been as rich as you are, my dear, I should have made competition for you.”
Here both ladies laughed, and Miss Bell went on carelessly.
“I think it is awfully cheap. Really, I do. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Mrs Howard. “But what about the duty? That will add considerably to its cost.”
“Good gracious,” cried Miss Bell. “I never thought about paying duty. Dear me! That makes a difference.”
Now to a lady in Miss Bell’s position, to one with her handsome allowance, the duty in question was a mere bagatelle.
But somehow in most of women’s breasts there is implanted an inborn liking for cheating the Customs.
Most of them would stupidly dare impossibilities and run incalculable risks for the pleasure of defrauding the revenue of a few paltry shillings.
“Must you pay duty on it?”
Mrs Howard’s voice was full of unspoken suggestions. That Miss Bell grasped her meaning was evident by her answer.
“I suppose so. I don’t know. We shall see?”
Here the ladies dropped their voices into a low, confidential whisper, and I lost the rest of their conversation.
Had I though that Miss Bell seriously entertained the idea of attempting to smuggle the lace she had bought, I should have warned her of the folly of it.
To be continued . . .
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