Monday, July 13, 2009

the fifteenth letter, part 13

for previous episode, click here

to begin at the beginning click here

when the robot had straightened the picture on the wall to his satisfaction, he turned to olivia.
"is the young lady ready to be interviewed?"
"i don't know. are you ready to be interviewed?" she called to tania, who was staring at the picture.
'i want to look at this picture first."
"i'll wait outside," said the robot.
"wait right here," olivia told him. "make yourself comfortable."
"thanks." the robot lowered his bulk into a big armchair by the door.
the picture portrayed a stormy ocean scene. a raft with sixty-eight survivors was taking on water and many of the survivors were arguing furiously and gesticulating. other were staring listlessly at the rising foam.
night was falling. the north star was dimly visible through the rain and fog.
the most violent argument was taking place not at the center of the raft but at the southwest corner and in the vicinity of a sharks fin emerging from the water.

richard coeur de lion, in bedraggled evening dress, was brandishing a heavy silver chalice at hassan-i-sabbah, the old man of the mountain. pope alexander viii was attempting to restrain him and all three looked ready to go into the water at any moment.
"he's an old man," cried the pope. "you can't strike an old man!"
"he is a warlock!" cried richard. "and he has cheated me!"
the trouble had begun shortly after the cairo-gibraltar packet had stopped at malta to take on passengers. the old man of the mountain's partner at whist, the princesse de parme, had debarked, along with mr jasper jefferson, an american cattle baron that the old man and the princesse had fleeced mercilessly at the card table. the old man was looking a new partner and a new mark.

prominent among the new passengers were mr john barrymore, the american actor, and the jesuit cardinal antonio borgia-sforza, but the raucous entourage of the former and the sly yet haughty demeanor of the latter made them problematic for either role.
a more promising candidate for the role of victim was richard coeur de lion. the adventurous anglo-norman monarch was returning to his kingdom after being ransomed from the dungeon of the bulgarian emperor peter xiii. pope alexander viii and the elderly prince radziwill-lascalles had agreed to escort him. a pope! what more likely partner?
hassan-i-sabbah made his first approach to his majesty as he standing at the rail being pitilessly pestered by a pair of journalists, miss nellie bly, an american, and mr mo, a japanese.
"what was it like in the dungeon, king?" miss bly asked.
"what was the food like?", added mr mo.
the old man sidled up to pope alexander. the two men of the world exchanged raised eyebrows and barely perceptible smiles at the uncouth interrogations.
"these new imperial powers," murmured the pope.
"but these british," replied the old man softly, "they still have more money than they know what to do with."

"interesting picture, huh?" olivia was bouncing up and down softly on the big bed.
"yes," tania answered, "i think i see something in the background."
the robot slouched down in his chair with his eyes closed and his big legs stuck out in front of him.

dinner had been served, and the whist tables were filling up. king richard and pope alexander were partnered against hasaan-i-sabbah and his leftover mark, miss whitworthington, a middle aged woman of uncertain origins but apparently limitless funds.

to the old man's annoyance, the table to the right of theirs was being seated with three famous detectives on their way back from a famous detective's conference in alexandria - miss nancy nehru, a schoolteacher from phnom penh, miss hyacinth hardy, a retired librarian from medford oregon, and le duc de scaramouche- st giles, the self-styled world's greatest dilettante. the fourth chair was being taken by a basque anarchist, one of a party of five on the boat. the anarchist bumped miss whitworthington's arm with his elbow as he sat down.

"a thousand pardons, madame. we europeans are so clumsy."
miss whitworthington raised her hand to indicate it was nothing, and as she did so the anarchist skipped a little note into her hand! it was neatly done, but did not escape the old man's gaze.
a fine set of affairs! the old man coughed discreetly into his right fist, a signal to pope alexander that all their skullduggery was to be suspended. the pope answered with a quick tug at his left ear to show that the message had been received.
pope alexander dealt the first hand.
the old man made the first attempt at conversation. "do you know, your majesty, that my friend the princesse de parme, when she disembarked, felt called upon to leave me a little token of regard in the form of a dwarf and a shepherdess and shepherd boy. politeness forbade refusal, but do you know, such things are considered somewhat ostentatious in my poor country. perhaps - "
"can't you see i am concentrating on my cards?" richard replied menacingly. he looked uncomfortable in a set of evening clothes not quite in the latest style.
"yes," miss whitworthington added in her silky voice, "it is best that we concentrate on our cards. what stakes shall we play for? the princess de parme, when she was on board, liked the challenge of -"
suddenly a great commotion broke out. shouts of "sinking!" and "to the lifeboats!" echoed through the card room and the saloon and the largely emptied dining room.
"what a bother," miss worthington murmured, as she put her cards face down on the table. "and i had such good cards for once. i suppose we shall have to make our way to the lifeboats. is it still ladies first, gentlemen? i have such trouble keeping up with all modern notions."

"the chalice!" cried king richard to pope alexander. "the chalice that the unknown angel gave water to st stephen with! we must retrieve it from my stateroom!"
miss whitworthington rose. "that sounds splendid, most heroic. we will see you gentlemen in the boats. will you escort me, mr hassan?"
a steward rushed in. "ladies and gentlemen, one moment, i have an announcement. there are no lifeboats."
"no lifeboats!"
"no. as we were promised fine weather, they were left in alexandria for repairs. but -" he shouted over the rising cries. "but selim, the bo'sun, had put together a most serviceable raft, and we invite you all to board it!"

"a raft!' exclaimed miss hyacinth hardy. "what an insult!"
"i assure you, madam, selim is a most experienced raft builder."
"and i am sure," drawled the duc de scaramouche-st giles," that he had only the finest materials to hand."
"is it ladies first?" miss whitworthington asked.
"madam, there is room on the raft for all. there is no question of preference,"

"you!" miss nancy nehru pointed an accusing finger at miss whitworthington. "you engineered this! you are the cause of it all!"

the fifteenth letter, part 14

No comments: