WARNING - this story may contain adult content including coarse language and/or sexual content which may be offensive to some
BABCOCK’S BIG TRIP
a short story by Mark Kolke
June 6, 2011
part one of a two part story – to read part two, BABCOCK’S DISQUIET, click here
This was a working trip for Babcock.He sailed across the Pacific to Hong Kong from Vancouver on the Empress of Japan on her maiden crossing on what would become a regular route.A sleek 10,000 horse-power coal-fired steamship, she did the crossing in record-breaking time: 10 days, 3 hours and 39 minutes. She’d been launched at Barrow, England by Lady Stanley, daughter-in-law of Lord Stanley, then Canada’s Governor-General.She’d been brought to Vancouver via the Suez Canal, to Hong Kong and then across to Vancouver.
It was early in July, in 1897.Babcock had just turned thirty-seven, he was single, far from home and so very full of thirsting, questing, for adventure.
Babcock’s early ambitions to become a Barrister were dashed by his father’s unwillingness to pay law school tuition, but his early days at school turned his heart in new directions in any case.Reading law was far less exciting than writing novels. Or so he thought.
Robert Babcock’s schooling before joining the army was cut short by his father’s untimely death at the hand of a highway robber.
The robber fled with his pocketbook and horse but the thief was never found, never brought to justice.The police investigated.All they determined was the identity of the thief from eyewitness accounts, a fellow who made a reputation of stealing from the rich and eluding capture.His name was Logan.Ramsay Logan, was never arrested for anything according to the coppers – but he was well known to have committed hundreds of crimes at home and abroad.
His novel, now in progress, involved a wandering bastard son of a British Lord and his upstairs maid who is given an inheritance stipend to fund travels to America and Hong Kong.How inventive.It was not just about his own life story - he’d worked in a seaside location, a mix of mystery, intrigue and revenge.A diamond ring would play an important part in the story.
This one, he thought, so much better than his first – he had the story built in pieces, and had been editing himself along the way leaving scribbled messes at times, but he had written most of the chapters, over again, in longhand on the grainy paper he bought at the stationery shop in the Queen’s Hotel lobby, on Front Street, across from Union Station in Toronto.
All first novels are autobiographical.Publishers know that, which possibly accounts for their difficulty – as they are trying to decipher the difference between real writing skill and self-story telling.
He wanted adventure, without high risk.
He’d had his share of risk to life and limb - fighting Zulus in Africa, having been within an inch of his life several times, the last time being at thebattle of Rourke’s Drift where 150 hungry soldiers were literally shitting their breeches, holding out and holding on until the Zulu’s retreat.
When his tour of duty ended, he took his leave of Her Majesty’s army and sought easier battles in the pubs of London where drinking ale was a necessity of life because the water was unsafe to drink. It was, as well, an occupational hazard of the unpublished author.
London was filthy; ridden with disease and poverty in those days late in the Victorian era.The new world, or any other world for that matter, was very attractive to Babcock. His mother died while he was on the Zulu campaign.His father’s death. the year before, left a small inheritance that afforded young Babcock basic living expenses but not much more.
His reasons for leaving London, leaving England altogether had as much to do with opportunity and adventure seeking as they did leaving a world of shame where he felt he would always be known as the son of upstairs maid Babcock rather than son of Mr. James Barrett, investor and businessman.
It wasn’t that Barrett was extremely successful – he was average for his type and station in life -but carrying that family name would have brought Robert a greater level of respectability in London society.The inheritance would have to do.It was less than he felt entitled to, but more than most in similar plight would ever enjoy.
He remembered it so well, that incredible July, when these pieces began to come together to change his novel-in-progress, change his direction in life and expose him to personal intrigue which he would struggle to replicate in his writing.
He had been lounging in Toronto after having spent the spring in New York, presenting credentials and writing queries to publishers in faint hope that some firm would consider publishing his second novel.
He supposed he ought to call it his first novel, since no publisher was willing to support his first one. Maybe, one day if he became famous like Dickens or Eliot he could dust off his first manuscript Failings of an Angry Man to give it another go.
His book, this next book – and hopefully one that would be published somewhere, by someone back home in London, or perhaps in New York.
He was so hopeful then, not knowing events that would unfold on his next journey.
He had hired on with the Canadian Pacific Railway, owner of the ship, to write dispatches for publication in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal of the maiden voyage – one part news, one part travel allure to persuade the nouveau riche to part with the fare for grand adventure on the high seas.
Babcock’s manuscript, at that point untitled, began:
I cannot draw any conclusion from it.
Her privacy, his secrets- no matter how hard I try or clever I get, not even if I bribe their servants will I find out.But I can’t just go my merry way without knowing, without trying to understand, if for no other reason than prurient curiosity.
I have so many other good reasons.
Research for my book. Of course.
Juicy bits to tell when I get back to London.
I can be the life of the party, if I ever get invited to one.
I can write a gossip piece and shop it to the papers.
Who am I kidding?
They’ll say, ‘hack’, and shoo me out the door.
I can’t live off my inheritance forever – I have to get a real position, something of substance or my father’s name will fall from grace and I’ll be lucky to get some sweat-shop position sewing waistcoats for the Queen’s horsemen.
The heat of Hong Kong was positively insufferable and the humidity worse.
I have only a few days left here in Hong Kong, and then I must get back.My passage is booked and it will be weeks until the next ship sails for home.
Privacy and secrets – she must have them. She looks so mysterious.Her dark dresses, covered in coats or sweaters each time I see her, the hats – all black, her hair in fact a mystery being piled up there under the milliner’s handiwork.
Her clothes, each time I’ve seen her on the streets and in the shops are not black for mourning but dark, most often absent colour.She walks about with head held firm, high, confident but speaks little and when I’ve seen her speak to a taxi driver or store clerk she seems to have a sad face or maybe it is just her eyes that are so sad.Clearly, she is sad.
Her skin was alabaster white, not like milk or white paper – but pale, absent pigment, not ruddy, not tanned, more like newsprint but without the ink.
Her heavenly mounds, that heaving bounty of breasts were buttoned up tight with undergarments built – as if by engineers and shipbuilders – they seemed so strong and uplifting – but to my chagrin, covered by garments buttoned fully to the neck. But I could dream of feeding there, or at least wallowing between that lovely pair.
Her fingers were delicate but her nails brittle, chipped, so it appeared, in ways that comes from substantial use and not worrying about appearances quite so much as those whose vanity extends itself that way.But they were not the fingers or nails of a labourer, not the hands of a gardener or field worker.
That feature of her stood so out of place here, on the streets of Kowloon. Her height, the cut of her clothing and her whiteness made her stand out from the crowd. Not because the locals were unaccustomed to seeing tall white women, but ones they were accustomed to were wives of executives, bureaucrats and that sort – usually, or rather almost always, chauffeured around from appointment to appointment.
She stood out from the crowd in ways that caught the attention of men and the ire of women – her ankles were rarely exposed but many an eye drifted that way just in case, as mine did.
Such things interested me then.Recalling those moments stirs me even now as my wasted old frame could not perform as requested no matter how hard I tried.
Babcock was weary – writing throughout the passage was not a problem; his daily sessions of writing in his stateroom or at his favourite table in the bar, were salted with inspiration gained each night as he dined at the Captain’s Table – each night a fresh crop of guests from the priciest suites were invited to join Captain Henry Pybus and First Officer Samuel Robinson. Fresh characters were not his problem.Filtering out the ones who would play no part in his novel was the greater challenge.Babcock became friends with Robinson. Robinson was ten years his junior but they got on well just the same. Dinner table conversation with guests was made entertaining by their banter and flirtation with the ladies at the table. Most of the ladies were old enough to be their mothers, but occasionally there would be someone closer to being their peers and generating their interest.
Case in point . . . the dinner table dialogue each night was of little value or inspiration to Babcock until one night, Mrs. Jamieson, a widow from Vancouver along with her niece Miss Mary Bloedel joined the Captain’s table.It was difficult to see with any certainty at all a difference between the reaction of Babcock or Robinson – both were immediately taken with Mary’s beauty, not discouraged by the stunning ring she wore – it appeared to be white gold or platinum with a large single diamond stone in the center - and they engaged her immediately in conversation, so obviously driven by their attraction to her that the Captain intervened with a question.
“In the interest of getting Robinson and Babcock here talking to other guests at this table, tell me please Ms. Bloedel, what about Hong Kong interests you?”, Captain Pybus inquired.
“Please Captain, call me Mary”, she responded, and then went on for about twenty minutes explaining how her father’s lumber company had shipped building materials – mostly Douglas fir, to Hong Kong for construction of the Hong Kong Club building which had just opened.There was a party scheduled for the next day; well, night actually, of the day we would dock in Hong Kong.
Babcock and Robinson were spell-bound. Mary spoke strongly, confidently and with authority of a much older, or more mature, woman. She was clearly well educated, her manners and speech were impeccable suggesting she was very refined. Her invitation came as a huge surprise when she said, “Mr. Babcock, Mr. Robinson, would you gentlemen be interested in accompanying me to the Hong Kong Club for their grand opening ball?”
Before either of them could pull their jawbones back into position in order to speak, Captain Pybus interjected to advise that, since he was already invited to attend – he was to be escorting Mrs. Jamieson, that First Officer Robinson would have to remain on duty aboard the Empress of Japan.
Robinson was stoic, emitting a clipped response , “Aye-aye sir.”
Babcock wasted no time responding by saying, “Miss Mary, it would be my pleasure to attend the party as your escort.Please, upon arrival, where you are you staying?And what time should I come by your hotel to collect you?
“Why Robert, that is very thoughtful of you.About six-thirty would be just fine. We have rooms booked at the Hong Kong Club actually.I will meet you in the lobby. The cocktail reception is scheduled for six-thirty with dinner at seven, but my experience has been that these things often get started late in Hong Kong.”
Babcock’s response – “Miss Mary, does that imply you have spent much time here?”
From there the conversation continued, the two of them oblivious to all others at the table, eating their way through every course with little regard to the waiter’s presentation or the flavours they were consuming.
Robert, it seemed, was smitten by every element of Mary.He had difficulty understanding why, but did not resist her charms and kept his eyes on her every move, his ears tuned to every comment.
Mary, it appeared to anyone in that area of the dining room, was entirely engrossed in Babcock’s conversation. She had learned of his entire family history, military service and bohemian life in New York. She was fascinated by his description of his writing and asked repeatedly if she would be able to read his unpublished first manuscript. He explained that he did not have the manuscript with him – that it was at his hotel in Toronto.
For now she seemed content with his consent for her to review his draft work on his second novel.When that would happen had yet to be arranged.
As they all bid each other good-evening after dinner, Mary took short steps toward Babcock, extended her hand to shake his, saying, “Robert, it will be such great fun tomorrow evening – I am looking forward to seeing what you think of the Hong Kong Club. You will have to write about it in your dispatches for Canadian Pacific.”
And they parted.
The passage had been spectacular in terms of the ship’s performance but the weather was dreadful. The sun had barely shown its face and rain was relentless.
It was later that evening – dinner courses well layered in Robert’s belly, he was writing at his usual table, in the back corner of the bar. He put down his pen and relaxed his shoulders. He allowed his eyes to close.It was too soon to stop, another hour of writing at least was necessary – but for just a few minutes, he would allow himself to drift off for a little nap in hope he could recapture that feeling, or at least the memory of a boner, once again.
Hmmmm he drifted, to sleep, perchance to . . . his dream began
It was a quiet comment. Well, not quiet, but soft. Unassuming. It didn’t ring out loud across the room to the busy crowd at the dinner party – it pierced my ear quite clearly.
“No, I’m not married,”, she said.I don’t remember the question she was asked or the discussion that immediately preceded it. It was one of those moments where the moment – that moment – startles, intrigues, inspires and suddenly shifts trains of thought to different tracks.Blood flows in different directions, and to different places.
I was so surprised. I’d seen a ring on her finger – I was sure I had, the first time I met her.I’d seen it a number of times. I never looked closely enough to see its size or shape or qualities. I didn’t notice if it was white gold, silver or platinum – or care, I just knew it was on the ring finger of her left hand. I assumed – don’t we all – that a woman, or probably a man too, who sports a ring on that finger is married. Alternatively, it means ‘don’t talk to me’, a message one can’t discern from the ‘I’m married’ inference of wearing anything at all on that finger.
I woke from a nap.The kind where a few minutes, ten at most, was the plan.
An hour or two later, awaking to realize time has lapsed -things have not been done, a disoriented almost dizzy feeling comes over me then.I lapsed into slumber again.This time I woke in twenty minutes.I suppose I needed it. My body called out for the rest, or was it my mind calling out for the solitude of sleep?
I’ll never know I suppose.I had work to do, there was no time for sleep.I was further behind now but two - - nearly three- - hours.Deadline looming, time finite and here I am sleeping on the job.
I can’t be this way, can’t be lethargic. I need energy, to show drive – to get this thing over the finish line. I’d put it off so many times, for so long -
“Sir, it is time to go. Time to get up. It’s closing time.”, it was Ralph the waiter stirring Babcock from his slumber.
Ralph moved around to the other side of the table. He’d seen Babcock this way before – a little tipsy from the evening’s drink, disoriented from being awakened and with a tendency to rise up quickly, and then lose his balance.Ralph caught him just as he was faltering, “Easy now sir. Perhaps you should sit a bit, to clear your head before you head off to your stateroom.”
Babcock made his way, after taking Ralph’s advice, along the corridor, down the stairs to his deck and found his stateroom.He entered, did not bother to light a lamp. He simply collapsed on his bunk.
He woke to the noise of horns and sirens. The ship was not on fire; it had arrived, first thing this morning in Hong Kong’s harbour – the noise was urging everyone to disembark.As Babcock scrambled to pack his things, he noticed it there – one the floor, an envelope, pushed just under the door.He tore it open to find Mary’s note which read:
Please meet me on the main deck at midnight, I must see you tonight. I have something important to tell you before we dock in Hong Kong.
He’d missed it.Missed her.
He stepped outside his stateroom only to find himself in a crush of passengers and porters making their way to the decks for departure. Amid the throng of steamer trunks on push carts, and women frocked in their best outfits for the arrival, there was enough room for Babcock to work his way up to the deck above where Mrs. Jamieson’s suite was situated.As he knocked on the door, it opened at his touch - from not being completely latched.
As he ventured inside he witnessed a sight, of blood and mayhem he’d not seen since Africa.Mary sat on a sofa, sobbing, blood on her hands and skirt. On the floor, were two bodies.Mrs. Jamieson’s bloodied skull spilled its contents, shattered by something – probably the smashed pitcher covered with what appeared to be dried blood and Mrs. Jamieson’s gray hair.Askew, and just a couple of feet away from her body was the body of a man Babcock had not seen before.As he lay face down on the floor, blood was pooling beside his torso. It was then that Babcock noticed the gun at Mary’s feet, as if she’d dropped it there.
As Mary sobbed, Babcock sat next to her and reached out to put his arm around her in comfort.She turned very quickly, embraced him and held tight. She was trembling.
At this point, Babcock’s rumpled jacket, the one he’d slept in, was now streaked with blood transferred to the fabric from Mary’s hands as she clutched to him.Her left hand was bruised – mangled, her ring finger swollen, appearing broken – her ring had been forcibly removed.
Then the door pushed open again – and as he entered, Captain Pybus exclaimed – “Babcock, what the hell happened here?Miss Mary, are you all right?”
To be continued . . .
to link to part two, BABCOCK’S DISQUIET, click here