Then pricketh him nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folke to go on pilgrimages.
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Phryne Fisher was trying to read Chaucer. She liked Middle English for a certain mood. It had a cryptic crossword difficulty which usually absorbed the attention. Today, however, late in the year 1928, the list of distractions and inconveniences was simply too exasperating.
1. Her adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, were playing a loud game of snakes and ladders.
2. Her admirable cook, Mrs. Butler, was expressing to the butcher’s boy her opinion of last night’s lamb, which had been tough even when later minced.
3. Her attentive houseman, Butler, had just reminded her that he and Mrs. Butler were embarking on the morrow on their yearly visit to Rosebud to stay with their married daughter for a fortnight.
4. Her sister Eliza, exiled from her own house by the discovery of an unexpected cesspit, had arrived to stay, bringing with her her partner in Good Works Lady Alice, seven trunks, a hatbox and a madly barking Pekingese mop dog called Ching.
5. The dog Molly and the cat Ember, had still not recovered from their resentment of this interloper in their own particular ways—Molly by giving the Pekingese a really good barking and Ember by fleeing up the curtains.
And even though the sun had not run his half-course in the Ram, the month was not April of the sweet showers and the local St Kilda birds always slept with opened eye anyway, Phryne Fisher thereupon decided to accept the free passage on the SS Hinemoa which the nice man from P&O had offered her the day before.
This being decided, she shut the book, made a telephone call to alert P&O to their good fortune and went upstairs to tell Dot, her maid and companion, to start packing.
‘But you can’t just go away and leave them all!’ objected Dot, a plain young woman of stern moral principles.
‘Why not? Eliza and Lady Alice will look after the girls and the house. My darling Lin is away in Castlemaine and won’t be back for two weeks—a funeral, apparently, of a very old Chinese lady. The substitute staff will be here today to be briefed by Mr. Butler. And if I have to listen to any more noise, I am going to commit a mortal sin of some kind. Probably murder.’
Dot looked at Phryne. She wasn’t smiling. Promptly, Dot stepped onto a chair, brought down the big suitcase, and listened to her instructions.
‘Sports clothes, evening clothes, ordinary underwear, Dot—I do not expect dalliance. We’ll only be away fourteen days. And the paste jewellery, if you please. Nothing real.’
‘Why not?’ asked Dot, grasping at events as they raced past her.
‘Because I don’t want to lose it,’ said Phryne. ‘The man from P&O wants me to find out who is pinching the passengers’ gems.’
Dot started packing. Phryne sat down on her bed and explained.
‘There have been four thefts in four voyages,’ she said. ‘Each time it was the most valuable piece on the ship. It vanished so completely that even the last search, where they practically disassembled the vessel, didn’t find it.’
‘I see,’ said Dot, who didn’t, but was folding chemises.
‘Who cannot possibly be searched down to the bone when leaving a luxury cruise liner?’ asked Phryne.
‘Oh,’ said Dot. ‘The passengers. I see. So you are looking for a Raffles, a gentleman thief?’
‘Apparently,’ said Phryne. ‘As soon as you are ready, call down and get Mr. B to phone the luggage office. Now, I was going alone, but would you like to come with me, Dot?’
Dot blushed in confusion. ‘But I thought I was coming with you,’ she said. ‘Who’s going to look after your clothes?’
‘They have stewardesses,’ said Phryne.
‘Stewardesses,’ said Dot scornfully.
‘I didn’t mean to just uproot you without a word, old thing,’ said Phryne.
‘My intended, Hugh, he’s away too,’ said Dot. ‘I’ve always wanted to sail on one of those big ships.’
‘So you shall,’ said Phryne. ‘I’ll go and tell the family and you stuff a few things in a bag.’
Dot reached for more tissue paper and waited until the door was closed before she gave a brief, ladylike snort. Stuff a few things into a bag, indeed. Miss Phryne would have dances, dinners, deck games, swimming and probably climbing around ships in the dark. That needed a considerable wardrobe, and Dot wasn’t going to forget anything.
Phryne walked into the small parlour and clapped her hands. Silence eventually fell. Mr. Butler had hauled Molly into the kitchen and shut the door on her. Ember had descended from the curtains and stalked upstairs, disdain of everything canine in every line of his svelte black body. Ching had been muffled in Eliza’s bosom. The girls abandoned their game.
‘Gentleman. Ladies,’ Phryne announced. ‘I have decided to accept P&O’s invitation to do a little sleuthing on their new ship. Eliza will be in charge of the house, Ruth will be in charge of Molly and Jane will be in charge of Ember. Draw on my bank account for any expenses and if you absolutely must find me, you can telegraph the ship. That’s all,’ she said, and walked away, leaving their protests ringing in the air.
‘Peace, perfect peace,’ sang Phryne devoutly. ‘With loved ones far away.’
A crowded interval later, Phryne was standing at the SS Hinemoa’s rail. Station Pier stretched out before her. The sea was blue and as flat as a plate. The sun gave a preliminary scorch, reminding Phryne that she needed the hat that Dot was carrying.
She could see her family down below. Ruth, who had a good throwing arm, flung her a bright pink streamer and Phryne caught the end. Engines thrummed. Men shouted on the dock. The great hawsers were loosed and hauled dripping into the ship. From being as stolid and unresponsive as an apartment block, the ship came alive.
Tugs tooted. Shining, glittering, as splendid and ornate as an iced wedding cake, the SS Hinemoa slid gently out from her mooring, and in Phryne’s hand the bright pink streamer snapped. Her last link to land. Phryne and Dot waved. Hinemoa tried the water and liked it. The familiar faces slid astern; Ruth and Eliza and Jane and Lady Alice.
‘We’re away,’ said Phryne on a released breath of pure excitement, and turned to see Dot dabbing at her eyes. Phryne patted her arm.
‘Come along, Dot dear, we’ll go and have a look at the ship,’ she said briskly. Dot wiped her eyes and fell in behind.
They were accosted by a deferential older man in immaculate whites. Stripes on his sleeve informed Phryne that he was an officer. He had a short, ingeniously topiaried grey beard and stippled hair just the colour and texture of a badger fur shaving brush. He held out a hand for Phryne’s and shook it heartily.
‘I’m afraid that the captain is rather busy, Miss Fisher, or he would be delighted to show you our ship. He’s sent me instead. I hope I’ll do? Navigation Officer Theodore Green at your service.’
He had an endearing diffidence and hazel eyes like brook water, so Phryne smiled graciously and tucked her hand under his elbow.
‘I’m sure that you will do admirably,’ she assured him. ‘Take us to our suite first, if you please, and then we will be delighted to look at your beautiful boat.’
‘Ship, Miss Fisher,’ he said a little anxiously as he led her through a doorway into a vaulted space as big as a cathedral. ‘She’s a ship. You must never call her a boat, you know.’
‘Ship,’ said Phryne, accepting the correction. Navigation Officer Green sighed with relief. The young woman on his arm might have looked like a Vanity Fair fashion plate, with her Dutch doll black hair and her Cupid’s bow lips and her dark blue travelling suit by Chanel, but she had intelligent green eyes and might even prove interesting to converse with. Navigation Officer Theodore Green dreaded these guided tours. He loved the SS Hinemoa with all his heart and loathed the silly things that foolish persons said about her when he was trying to tell them something important.
‘Oh my,’ said Miss Fisher, exactly as the officer hoped she might, when they rounded a corner and the full glory of the Grand Salon burst upon them. He began his prepared speech.
‘Seven screens by—’
‘Tiffany,’ said Phryne. ‘Furnishings by Liberty and William Morris, light fixtures by La Farge of Paris, I believe. Dot?’
‘I never ever saw anything so pretty,’ said Dot. ‘It’s like a church.’
The Grand Salon was panelled with wood painted a soft ivory. The furniture was of light beechwood, curved in the Deco manner. The light fittings were of bronze, vines curling upward or downward to hold the coloured electric globes. And through seven full length stained glass windows the sun poured, patterning the floor with jewelled light. They were gorgeous, barbaric, and yet very simple. Phryne felt for a chair and sat down.
‘Oh my’, she said again. Dot crossed herself. Stained glass had an elevating effect on her.
‘Australian and New Zealand birds and trees,’ said Theodore Green, touched and gratified by Miss Fisher’s reaction. ‘Commissioned from Tiffany when the ship was designed. They cost—’
‘Do shut up a moment, my dear Navigation Officer,’ interrupted Phryne, so amiably that he could not take offence. ‘Let us look at the windows. Cockies on a ghost gum on one side, balanced by fern forest with kiwis and—what’s the black bird with the white ruff?’
‘A tui,’ said Theodore.
‘A flowering gum on one side and a New Zealand tree on the other.’
‘A pohutukawa,’ said Navigation Officer Green very quietly.
Phryne nodded and went on. ‘A flock of Darwin finches on one side and a flock of budgies on the other. Look at that marvellous chalk-blue! And the lyrebird in the middle on his mound. Gorgeous. And I get to look at them every day. Wonderful.’ Phryne regained her feet. ‘Onward, if you please.’
‘This is the Palm Court,’ said Theodore Green. ‘You will see that six decks of the ship curve around this central staircase, lit during the day by the glass dome above and during the night by the chandeliers. An orchestra plays every night in the Palm Court for your dancing pleasure.’
‘Will you save me a dance?’ asked Phryne wickedly. Theodore Green blushed, as she had thought he would.
‘Why yes, Miss Fisher, honoured,’ he said. ‘You’ll like the orchestra. We’ve been able to get Mavis and the Melody Makers again. They’ve been with us for four cruises now. Their Melbourne engagement fell through—the theatre burned down—so we snapped them up. They’re very versatile. String quartet, chamber orchestra, jazz band, dance band, and they have a jazz singer and a ballad singer—really, you will enjoy them, I think. This way, and we pass the breakfast room, and down these steps here we have the Imperial Suite.’
He opened the door. The rooms had the amplitude of a royal apartment in an expensive hotel. Theodore Green opened doors, exhibiting Dot’s room, Phryne’s grand bedroom, her bath and WC, her very own telephone for room service, her radio, and her own private balcony. Dot sank down on her bed, and Phryne cast her hat onto her dressing table.
‘All your baggage has been stowed by your stewardess,’ explained Theodore Green. ‘There’s really quite a lot of room in the wardrobes and so on. Now, shall I leave you to settle in? Just pick up the phone and you shall have whatever your heart desires,’ he said, willing to lay the full splendours of his ship before this intelligent and aesthetic visitor.
Phryne beamed at him. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘But I’m not at all fatigued and I would love to see more of the ship. If you can spare the time to conduct me?’
‘Oh yes, Miss Fisher, until we clear the heads we are under pilotage.’
‘Just a tick, then, and I’ll brush my hair. Dot, are you coming?’
‘No, Miss, I’d like to explore the apartment,’ said Dot. ‘And the clothes will need to be rehung.’
‘Good. Order some tea for yourself, then, and start on that nice thick book which tells us how to conduct ourselves at sea. Mr. Green, what is the greatest crime which ladies are likely to commit against your ship?’
‘Leaving the fresh water tap running, Miss Fisher,’ he answered honestly.
‘Very well. Dot, make a note for us not to do that. Back soon,’ she said, blowing her companion a kiss.
Left alone, Dot stroked her bedspread, which was of rose patterned satin, and then sat down on Phryne’s bed, which was very springy and covered with dark blue morocain. She had just poured herself a little water to wash her face, carefully turning off the tap, when there was a knock at the door and a tea tray came in, carried by a stocky, dark-skinned young woman in a white uniform and cap.
‘Hullo-ullo-ullo!’ said the tea-carrier. ‘You must be Miss Williams. I’m Caroline, your stewardess. Miss Fisher not here?’
‘No, she’s being shown round the ship by an officer, a Mr. Green, I think.’
‘Poor Teddy, how he does hate being a guide,’ said Caroline, setting the tray down on the polished table without spilling a drop. ‘Can I pour you a cup? Shame to waste good tea. Our tea’s very good, if I say it as shouldn’t.’
Dot, who had been inclined to bristle at the very idea of anyone else looking after her Miss Phryne, warmed to this downright young woman with the scoured hands and the dark curly hair escaping from her cap.
‘Only if you sit down and have a cup with me,’ she said. ‘Miss Phryne will be hours. And she was getting along fine with your Mr. Teddy. Are you from India?’ she asked delicately.
Caroline laughed. ‘No, I’m a Kiwi,’ she said. ‘From New Zealand. I’m a Maori. Still want to have that tea?’
‘Of course,’ said Dot, surprised. In a household which contained, at times, lost revolutionaries, grieving Latvian widows, cane cutters, clowns, Chinese lovers and that lady from the carnival and her snake, Dot had no race prejudices left. The small number she had started with had been so comprehensively disproved that she had made a philosophical decision to take everyone as they appeared until proven otherwise. This did simplify life in Phryne’s establishment. Caroline grinned a wide grin and sat down.
‘This is such a beautiful ship,’ observed Dot, after her first sip of very good tea.
‘She’s lovely, isn’t she? I’ve been on her since she was launched. My brothers are all sailors, but they don’t let women join the merchant marine, so this is the best I can do. And it’s good enough. Hard work, yes. Some of them dowagers are right bitches. But here I get good pay, good company, strict discipline amongst the crew, real good food, and a new sky every day—what else can a girl ask? Have one of the little cakes. Petty fours. We carry a specialist pastrycook, you know.’
‘Anything that she hasn’t got?’ asked Dot, a little ironically. She still had to listen hard, to sort out the strange hard ‘e’ and the guttural which turned every ‘i’ into a ‘u’.
‘No bad people,’ said Caroline. ‘More tea?’
• • • • •
Phryne was listening to Navigation Officer Green, because he had a very pleasant voice. She could tell, however, that she was not going to retain much of what he was telling her. Phryne had had many things explained to her which she had not retained, the chief of which was the offside rule, and she had never missed any of them yet.
‘She weighs eighteen thousand tons,’ he was saying, leading Phryne down a flight of stairs. ‘She’s five hundred and eighty feet long. Here’s the Turkish bath, which is available to ladies between ten am and noon, and again between three and five pm. Hello, Hans—our masseur. This is Miss Fisher.’
Hans, emerging on a puff of steam, noticed Phryne, smirked, and rippled a few muscles for the lady. She inspected him coolly. Phryne had met muscle-bound narcissists before. She was not impressed. Not even by the white singlet.
‘Very nice,’ she said. Theodore Green hurried her along. ‘Here is the ladies’ beauty salon. Any sort of beauty treatment, though if I could venture to say it, Miss Fisher, you don’t need any.’
That was a compliment. Phryne smiled. ‘Thank you.’
The salon exhaled the scent of freshly corrugated hair and attar of roses. It seemed well appointed. Several young women in pink smocks smiled at her as she passed.
‘Then there is the gymnasium,’ said Theodore Green. It was heralded by a strong smell of goanna oil liniment. ‘And the barber shop. Cleanest shave in town. The ship’s shop is here,’ he added, stepping back. This was where all the lady passengers of his experience had rudely shoved him aside to fall on the merchandise with cries of glee. And it was a rather good shop, he had to agree, stocking everything someone might have forgotten to bring or be expected to want on a sea voyage. Cosmetics, bathing caps, woollen socks, baby bottles, nappies, hairpins, aspirin, shawls from the Indies, dolls, books, tins of toffee, fudge and biscuits for night starvation and ducky little sailor’s caps with SS Hinemoa emblazoned on the front.
Miss Fisher was different. She gave the shop an approving glance but did not even remove her hand from his arm. ‘Excellent,’ she murmured. Theodore Green was disconcerted. This lady had adored the windows. She hadn’t needed a cup of tea. And she didn’t want to shop. He was quite out of his reckoning. He felt he might be falling in love.
‘And then along here we have the Smoke Room,’ he said, indicating a pair of closely shut wooden doors. ‘Gentlemen only, I’m afraid, Miss Fisher. But you are welcome to smoke in here,’ he added, leading her into a room lined with bookshelves. There were long tables and low, comfortable armchairs. There were small desks for those who felt that they should write at least a postcard for the people they had callously abandoned at home. ‘This is the library. You will also find magazines and games. Perhaps you might like a little refreshment now?’ he asked, suddenly longing for a cup of real coffee.
‘Yes,’ said Miss Fisher, sitting down and taking out a cigarette case. ‘This is a delightful room. So very airy and light. Might I ask for coffee, if it isn’t made from a bottle with a genie on the front?’
‘Leo is from Sicily. They make very good coffee there,’ said Theodore Green, convinced that he had found his soul mate. He located a match and lit Miss Fisher’s cigarette without dropping the box or setting fire to the lady’s hair, and sat down beside her, giving his order for coffee to a passing steward.
‘This ship is like a city,’ she observed, watching his face.
‘Just like a city,’ he agreed. ‘There are nearly seven hundred people to look after the eight hundred passengers. It’s like one of those English manors. We do our own laundry, cook all our own food, amuse ourselves—and sail the ship, of course.’
‘Indeed.’ Miss Fisher sat, peacefully smoking her gasper, and did not seem to mind him to tell her any more interesting facts about the ship. In the middle of a very busy day, her company was unexpectedly soothing.
Coffee came in, with Leo’s special little almond cakes which he always gave Theodore, who appreciated Italian cuisine. Somewhere a baby was crying. Miss Fisher raised an eyebrow.
‘We have a few children on this voyage,’ he explained as the steward poured the inky beverage. ‘But none in First. In any case, they will be in the nursery mostly, and that’s right down at the stern. No need to think that your sleep might be disturbed.’
‘Good,’ answered Phryne, sipping. ‘This is excellent coffee. How about pets? Are people allowed to bring small yappy dogs aboard?’
‘No pets,’ said Theodore Green. ‘Not even in First. We made an exception only once. That was a very famous actress and her Siamese cat Koko. A very elegant, well behaved cat, too. Purser was terrified for his silk coverlets, but Koko just liked lying on them. A bit vain, perhaps, but very civilised.’
‘Cats,’ said Phryne, ‘are different. Ships and cats have gone together since the ark.’
‘We have a few cats on the strength,’ admitted Theodore. ‘But they are part of the crew.’
‘Very proper,’ said Phryne, and held out her cup for more coffee. ‘Do you think we can be overheard, Mr. Green?’
‘No, Miss Fisher,’ he said, looking around. ‘There’s no one here and the windows are too far away.’
‘Good,’ said Phryne. ‘Pour us some more coffee, then, and tell me about the first class passengers. Perhaps that was a little abrupt. Read this letter from the company,’ she instructed, putting it into his hand.
He read. It was on letterhead and he knew the signature. He looked at Phryne with a wild surmise.
‘I’m your detective,’ she said, and smiled. ‘I’m here to find out who’s pinching the jewellery. And you are going to help me.’
Theodore Green surrendered without a fight. Resistance, apparently, was futile.
‘I was told that someone was coming,’ he said. ‘Here is your sapphire, Miss Fisher.’
Phryne accepted a wash-leather bag and undid the drawstring. Onto her palm rolled a blue stone as big as a doorknob, sparkling like ice.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘How very, very pretty. A very good fake.’
Theodore Green smiled.
‘And here is the story of the stone,’ he said, giving Phryne a small booklet. ‘Call me if there is anything I can do, Miss Fisher.’
‘I will,’ responded Phryne.
• • • • •
To Miss Maggie May
Mags old girl got a good berth on a big ship. None of them
coasters. Trans Atlantic. Good prog and not too bad gelt.
When I get back what say we get drunk for a week?
Your old pal Jack