Chapter Fifty-Eight: Part 2

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Sally was not having a riot in the halls just outside the room where her mother rested. "Gentlemen," she said, pitching her voice to carry. "You will not inconvenience Her Grace, the duchess, to stop the ignorant buzzing of drunkards who are foolish enough to take malicious rumours as fact."

The whistler and his friend glowered, but she swept past them and her bodyguards needed to follow. Once she was safely within the apartments, though, she was not surprised that the three rival bodyguards stopped to talk with the two soldiers on duty.

The Haverfords passed a leisurely morning. The trip to Suez would take thirty hours, including a night in Cairo, and began with a steamer trip along the Mahmoudiyah Canal and up the Nile River. As they ate lunch before departing for the steamer, Papa asked her if she had heard about a fight in the inn's garden the previous evening. "The two young men who had the worst of it insist they were assaulted by two men from our party, Sally. But Lieutenant Bracken insists that all the soldiers and bodyguards were within their quarters and in sight of one another all night."

"Lieutenant Bracken is a gentleman of honour, Papa," Sally replied.

Papa examined her face. "They are all men of honour, I rather think, and have been meticulous in carrying out their duties. They'll have little to do in the thirty hours on the steamer to Cairo. I might stand those who are not actively guarding you to a drink, Sally."

How on earth did Papa know the reason for the fight, if Lieutenant Bracken had not told him? He would never let on, and there was no point in asking. Sally returned him a conspiratorial smile. "I think that's a good idea, Papa."

***

As they sailed up the canal to the Nile river, Mr Penchley delivered the mail he had collected from the postal depot that morning. Sally had letters from Almyra, Henry, and her grandmother, but a quick scan showed that none brought her the news she was waiting for.

They had been sent, of course, within a day or two of the Haverfords' departure, or they could not have caught up with the ambassadorial party, even with the brief stopovers in Gibraltar and Malta.

She settled on a deck chair in the shade to read them thoroughly. Almyra's was full of preparations for her ball, and good wishes for Sally's safe return. Henry, likewise, avoided the one topic Sally wanted to hear about, writing of Elf's—no, Sutton's—estate and their plans to redecorate the manor house in the modern style. Only Grandmama talked about Toad.

You will want to know straight away whether there has been word of Harburn, Sally. There has been none, good or bad. Be assured, I will write as soon as I hear.

She went on to say that the duchesses were putting the Soddenfelds to work in Society clearing Sally's name, and that public opinion, ever fickle, was beginning to paint her as an innocent maiden in the best tradition of Gothic literature.

Her letters folded and put away in her reticule, Sally sat back and watched the desert float past beyond the banks of the canal, occasionally turning her head to observe the other people on the steamer. The passengers on this deck were all with the ambassador's party: part of her father's retinue or his military escort. The two officers who had been deputed to her own guard were a few yards along the deck, with the Wellbridge and Haverford men. For the first time since the trip began, they were not in three stiff and suspicious pairs, but in animated conversation over a fighting hold that Moxley and Thompson were demonstrating.

"May I join you, Lady Sarah?" It was Mr Penchley, bowing politely.

She waved to one of the spare deck chairs, and he took the one next to her.

"We will reach the junction with the Nile, soon, I am told," he said.

"I hope to see crocodiles." How she would be relishing this trip if she were making it with Toad. As it was, she was determined to suck as much enjoyment from the experience as she could.

"They hide, I am told, and are hard to see." Mr Penchley broke this news to her as if trying to cushion her disappointment. She could not resist teasing him a little.

"Then my day shall be quite ruined, Mr Penchley."

His slight frown eased after a moment and he smiled. "I think not, my lady. You are made of stouter stuff."

Sally returned a grin. She would need to remember that Mr Penchley was not the buffoon his obeisance to Papa made him appear. Something on the canal bank caught her eye.

"Oh, look." A boy in a short tunic with a cloth twisted around his head, looking for all the world as if he had stepped out of an oriental painting, was leading a flock of goats. Then a group of stately women, anonymous in their robes, coming down to the water with tall jugs balanced on their heads.

More and more trees filled the banks, and the square buildings they had been seeing all morning grew more numerous and taller as they approached El Mahmoudiyah, where a lock would let them into the river. She and Mr Penchley vied with one another to find something else exotic to point out: men on camels, a domed roof covered with what must surely be gold, a ruin half-covered with sand and so disguised one could not tell if it had crumbled a thousand years ago or one.

Out on the river at last, the game grew even more interesting. No crocodiles, yet, but little boats with one or more triangular sails and even smaller row boats, some so tiny that the boatman had just room to stand up and to sweep his way up river with a long oar plied first to one side and then the other. The banks were lush with what Mr Penchley said were date palms and other plants neither Sally nor Mr Penchley recognised, and here and there a clever set of levers and buckets to lift water from the Nile to the fields, rich with some growing crop.

Familiar creatures such as sheep and horses were transformed in this hot distant land—leaner and smaller. Animals and birds she had only seen in books and paintings, or as stuffed specimens under glass, paraded before her delighted eyes.

After a while, Mama joined them, and then Papa. Mr Penchley took himself off, and Sally found herself disappointed. To her own surprise, she had enjoyed the man's company.

She felt less in charity with him the next day, when they stopped at one of the waystations in the desert on the crossing to Suez. She had been laughing at the expression on the face of a supercilious camel. "She reminds of Lady Skenrith," she told Mr Penchley, who was hovering nearby. The haughty dowager spent her life disapproving of the remainder of Society, none of whom lived up to her standards. Mr Penchley laughed, but his expression sobered when she added, "Perhaps Lord Harburn and I should acquire her for his stables at Toadstone Hall, so that we can introduce them."

"My lady..." His voice trailed off.

Sally narrowed her eyes at him. "You have a comment you would like to make?"

To give the man credit, he ignored her frosty tones. "I feel you should know... I heard in Alexandria that Lord Harburn has ordered a shipload of furniture and had it delivered to Livorno. Of course, it may be for... Well, one should not speculate about his intentions until a betrothal is announced. I should not have spoken."

It must be for her. Furniture for her. Wouldn't it? But why would he send it to Italy, and not to Toadstone Hall?

Sally could nothing more than incline her head, words scattering from her brain before she could form them on her tongue. Thank goodness, the courier leading the desert crossing called the party to their carriages and mounts, and she need say no more. Not then, and not later when they boarded the next Seventh Seas ship at Suez, and she could escape below to help Haddow attend to her mother.

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