The long journey to Yokohama was to take me through the Strait of Gibraltar, halting at Marseilles, Alexandria, Aden, Bombay, Singapore, and Shanghai. I had hoped that the sea breeze and the solitude would allow me to consider various possibilities and scenarios, undisturbed, pertaining to the pleasant but baffling re-emergence of Sherlock Holmes.
I shared my cabin with a tall, quiet, and distinguished Japanese gentleman, Kazushi Hashimoto, who indicated that he was returning to Japan after a sojourn of some six months in Scotland looking after certain business matters. He kept himself absorbed in a Japanese board game of some kind, which suited me perfectly. He had with him an interesting musical instrument he called a koto, which he strummed gently in the evenings after asking my permission and apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. The sounds were not unpleasant, though unusual, and I was able to block them out of my consciousness after a short while. Indeed, they almost helped my meditative reflections in the evening. I found myself quite comfortable in his presence and in a couple of days moved into a routine of sorts.
The captain of the North Star was Samuel Groves, a curious individual of middle height, aged about fifty, who conveyed a mix of competence with a mild dissolution in manner that I found unsettling.
He spoke in restless disconnected phrases. ‘Good weather!
Good people! Never liked Gibraltar! Can’t stand the place!’ On the first night, he joined us in the first-class dining room.
I looked around the table. On my right was Mrs. Edith Andrews, a lady aged about thirty with an aristocratic demeanour, who said she was joining her husband at the governor’s residence in Aden after a brief holiday at her country home near Bury St. Edmunds. To her right was Colonel James Burrowe, who said he was with the Royal Horse artillery regiment. I was sure we would have acquaintances in common. He said he was travelling to Penang. However, since Mrs. Andrews separated us, I could not speak much with him without seeming impolite. I decided to have a word with him as soon as possible.
To my left was a Sikh gentleman, Mr. Shamsher Singh, who introduced himself as an aide to the maharajah of the Princely State of Patiala in the Panjab. He was a striking turbaned man with piercing eyes and indisputable charisma. He spoke English extremely well, though with a pronounced Indian accent.
He expressed interest in Shakespeare and impressed me with his knowledge of the activities of the British Museum. I found him slightly disconcerting, though I could not say why; perhaps it was his overwhelmingly strong personality.
To his left sat Mr. Hashimoto and beyond was Miss Clara Bryant, a small fading lady in her late forties with intelligent blue eyes and a quiet, though sprightly, manner. She said she was travelling to Shanghai, where she was the tutor to the Japanese consul-general’s children. I made a mental note to speak to her later; after all, here was my first tangible English link to Japan. Seated next to her was Mr. Simon Fletcher, who introduced himself as a banker travelling to Singapore. He was very correct in his manner and quite polished, though bland. He must have been about fifty-five and was on the heavier side.
The captain breezed in and wished us all a good evening. ‘We have the most excellent wines,’ he said heartily. ‘Good winds this evening! Thirty voyages captaining this ship! Aden, an excellent place to rest for a day and see the sights! Decent library on the ship, plenty of books on crime!’
‘You will be leaving us at Aden, Madam,’ he said, turning to Mrs. Andrews.
She coloured unexpectedly. ‘I don’t much care for the place, honestly.’
‘Ah? Why so?’ asked the captain, interested.
‘It’s very hot and I don’t care for the natives,’ Mrs. Andrews said with a shudder.
Miss Bryant suddenly interjected from across the table, ‘You can make yourself like any place, you know. I love Shanghai now, though I once thought I never would—the beastly weather, the Chinese. But now I rather like them. I’m glad to be going back. There’s something eternal about the culture.’
I liked her attitude and saw Mr. Hashimoto look at her side- ways with approval. Mrs. Andrews turned to me, a silent plea in her eyes. I took the hint and changed the topic.
‘I have never been to the Far East. I wonder if any of you could give me some suggestions on what I might expect,’ I said, looking around the table.
‘Be careful,’ chortled the captain.
Shamsher Singh agreed. ‘Yes,’ he nodded. ‘Be careful. Do not believe anyone, including me.’
‘Avoid exploring the ports of call, if you can. They attract the scum of the earth,’ said Simon Fletcher with a vehemence that seemed out of character. ‘Just get to where you want to go and damn the local culture!’
I saw Mr. Hashimoto look at Simon Fletcher thoughtfully. ‘I do intend to visit Alexandria, if we can be allowed,’ said Mr. Singh in a deep and deliberate voice. ‘I find the Egyptian
culture interesting, though somewhat barbaric.’
‘Oh yes, you’ll have a couple of days to look around, if you like. Good people. Fruits. Water—be careful! Very careful! Mosquitoes! Plenty of little crooks!’ said the captain.
‘Perhaps you will join me,’ said Mr. Singh, turning toward me. It was a command and I found myself agreeing without hesitation.
From across the table, Miss Bryant spoke up. ‘I shall join you too, if I may?’
‘So shall I,’ said Mr. Hashimoto. Something in his voice made me look at him quickly, but his face was inscrutable.
‘Not I,’ chuckled Colonel Burrowe. ‘I’ll spend some quiet time in the ship’s library and have a few drinks. Alexandria is fine and I’ve been around a few times, but nothing like Bombay, my friends, nothing like Bombay!’
One evening, just prior to reaching Marseilles, we were back in our cabin after supper and I had settled down to a cigar and a book when Mr. Hashimoto suddenly looked up from his game. ‘Dr. Watson, it is not in my nature to be inquisitive, but may
I ask you the purpose of your proposed visit to my country?’ he asked in unaccented, precise English.
I hesitated for the briefest fraction of a second.
‘I have a weak constitution and have been advised a bracing sea voyage,’ I said.
‘I see,’ he responded thoughtfully. ‘It is rare, of course, to travel to Japan for constitutional improvement,’ he said with a friendly smile.
I smiled, but did not respond, seeking the safety of my book. ‘I do sense the presence of evil on this ship,’ he said quite suddenly.
I put down my book. ‘Really, my dear sir…’
‘I am sorry to alarm you. Nevertheless, I must share with you the fact that I am uneasy.’
‘On what do you base your remark?’
In answer, he pulled out from under his pillow, very carefully, a piece of paper.
‘I found this placed under our door when I came in after breakfast.’
The paper had this written on it:
‘But what does it mean?’ I asked, surprised.
Mr. Hashimoto looked at me quietly for a few seconds. ‘Dr. Watson, all that I can share with you is that there is grave
danger about us. Let us exercise caution and not take needless risks or strike up unnecessary friendships. For some reason that I do not know, we have been warned by someone.’
A chill crept down my spine. Accompanying it was a feeling of déjà vu. I almost felt as though I was speaking to my old friend Holmes! But that was impossible. Holmes was dead. No, he was in Japan. And Mr. Hashimoto was an old and distinguished- looking Japanese gentleman. I looked across the room and saw him observing me impassively. He had taken out his koto and had started strumming it very softly.
The unfamiliar sounds of Japan filled the room.