’Swounds! I swear this train is riding on the ties instead of the rails!” Colonel Warburton exclaimed as a particularly violent sway of the jostling carriage caused him to spill his tea.
“Language, David,” his plain-faced, honey-haired fiancée chided the Colonel. She was seated beside him at the table in the train’s dining car. She kept her eyes averted as she added, “Dr Watson will think us barbarians.”
“Not to fear, Miss Carson,” I said as I attempted to steady my own cup, “I am inclined to agree with the Colonel; I do not recall the Swansea Line being so rugged on my journey outward from London.”
Our car was rattling along in the midst of a howling storm that was raking the windows with hail. It was just past dinner hour and the car of the overnight train was now only half full. I was sitting at a table opposite the Colonel, Miss Carson, and her younger brother, Gerald.
Seated beside me was my good friend, Sherlock Holmes, whom I had persuaded to accompany me to Wales while I tended to an old Afghan campaign comrade. Holmes had been uncharacteristically enthusiastic for the trip till I discovered he had plans to gather local flora for a monograph. Fortunately, he was between cases and feeling particularly confined in our Baker Street residence.
Holmes was sipping contentedly on some soda water from the gasogene at the bar while distractedly studying our dinner companions. I must admit that crowded conditions when we entered for dinner had forced us all to sit together, rather than choice.
“I think it is another example of the government wasting money on ill-planned adventures abroad and leaving the home fires to smolder,” the Colonel said.
“But what would you have to complain about if they stopped the wars, David?” The younger Carson, barely out of second form, had been fidgeting most of the meal and looking daggers at the bearded Colonel.
“Gerald!” The young lady exclaimed to her brother. “Apologize!”
“I will not,” the boy said. “He is free enough to offer his opinions of all things since he swooped in to tell you how everything should be.”
The Colonel’s eyes narrowed and his face became florid. For a moment I thought he might spring up at the insolent boy but, to my surprise, Holmes spoke up and forestalled him.
“You say you recently returned from some time in South Africa, Colonel?” Holmes asked.
The ramrod-straight Warburton was taken aback by the seemingly random question and turned his attention from Gerald Carson.
“Yes,” the bearded man said. “I was there in Johannesburg for some time on my plaas—you would say farm.”
“How is it you and Miss Carson became acquainted?” Holmes asked. “I understood she has been in Bombay until recently.”
“Until my father passed two months ago, Mister Holmes,” she said quietly.
“I returned to Cardiff on some family business and happened to meet Miss Carson when she came to get her brother from boarding school.” The bearded man smiled for the first time since dinner. “Her tales of exotic India, a place I have yet to visit, intrigued me—”
“As did his stories of the Transvaal,” she added with a shy blush.
It was clear to see that the girl was besotted with the decade-older man, as clear from his expression that the younger Carson resented the Colonel.
“So we delayed returning to the plantation,” she continued, “for all of us to be able to travel back together. It will be an adventure.”
“Yes, a true adventure,” the Colonel added.
“To Bombay?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “David and I shall be married in London and then take ship at South Hampton for a honeymoon cruise back to India.”
“You wouldn’t be even talking to this stuffed shirt if Papa were still alive.” Gerald said through clenched teeth. “You think he would have looked at you if not for the dowry?”
Miss Carson gasped and the Colonel rose, seemingly ready to draw back his hand to strike the boy but before he could launch an assault the train carriage lurched violently. This over-balanced the man and he sat down again with a thud.
“You have to forgive Gerald, gentlemen,” Miss Carson said. “Our father’s death affected him deeply—”
“And I am afraid the boy is young and does not understand that the plantations need to be run by a man,” the Colonel added.