by Chia Evers
My dear Mr Bradley…
Arthur Bradley twirled the waxed tips of his moustache into golden points as he studied the letter lying open atop the ancient map that had drawn him to Cairo. Lacy still wouldn’t call him by his given name, but ‘my dear’ was progress.
“My dear,” he murmured. Yes, that would do.
Taking up pen and paper, he wrote: My dear Miss Sedgewick, and paused to imagine how her green eyes would soften when she read the words.
A knock at the door interrupted his reverie.
“Yes?” he snapped.
The door opened to reveal a dark, timid face. It looked rather like the innkeeper’s, only smaller. “I beg your pardon, sir,” the child said. “You have a visitor.”
“Is it the airship captain?” he asked and stood without waiting for a reply. “Show the gentleman up.”
“It isn’t a gentleman, sir.”
“No?” Captain Jorgensson must have sent one of his rougher crewmen.
“It’s a lady, sir.”
“No lady,” came a familiar voice. “A woman, and one I’ll wager you weren’t expecting.”
“Mother.” Arthur distinctly remembered leaving her in London, and yet here she was: all iron-bound corset and Suffragette sympathies, and beaming at him.
She reached out to catch the child’s collar before he sidled away. “Fuad,” she said. “Wasn’t that your name?” She had always taken an interest in insignificant people, Arthur thought. The boy nodded, wide-eyed. “Fuad, I want you to run and tell my friends where to find me. They’re waiting on the Zephyr. Do you know where she’s docked?”
The boy nodded again and ducked away from her with an ease Arthur envied. He’d never slipped her grasp so easily.
“I’ve been waiting for the Zephyr,” he said.
“I know. Captain Jorgensson told me when I boarded her in Alexandria. I said you wouldn’t mind the delay.”
“But Mother,” he said, hating the adolescent whine in his voice, “how did you get here?”
“I told you, darling, on the Zephyr. Before that a terrible little boat across the Mediterranean, and before that the Express from Paris to Istanbul.”
“But what were you doing in Paris?” he asked.
“Shopping, darling. It is almost Christmas, after all.” She reached out to pat his cheek “Are you quite well? You look flushed.”
“I’m fine.” He wasn’t. “Won’t you come in?”
“I will, thank you.” She swept past him and glanced around the room. “They have excellent housekeepers here. Your room is never so tidy at home.”
She spotted the decanter on the sideboard and poured them each two fingers of Scotch. Inwardly Arthur quailed, but he took the drink without complaint. He couldn’t imagine what Miss Sedgewick would make of his mother’s masculine tippling.
“You brought friends,” he said. “Are you staying with them?”
“Oh, no. We’re coming with you.”
“Of course. I couldn’t bear to be away from you at Christmas, and dear Lacy agreed.”
“Dear Lacy?” He must have misheard her.
Miss Sedgewick’s soprano trill echoed down the hall.
“Mr Bradley!” she called. “I am so glad to see you. We’re going to have a wonderful adventure.”
The Zephyr took to the sky at dawn. Arthur sat brooding in the stern while Lacy and his mother exclaimed over the green ribbon of the Nile slipping away beneath them. They were dressed almost identically in miles of white mosquito netting and brass-rimmed flight goggles.
“The ship has windows, Mother,” he had snarled when she first appeared at the air dock with the ridiculous things perched on her head.
“Of course it does, darling,” she had said, smoothing his hair. “But they’re so au courant. Quite the thing in Paris, you know.”
“Quite the thing in Paris,” he muttered now. Damn Paris. He couldn’t quite bring himself to damn his mother.
“Begging your pardon, sir.” It was Jenkins, his mother’s butler.
The man had puffed up behind Miss Sedgewick the night before, beet-red in the heat, clutching a clanking valise in his pudgy hands; Fuad trailing behind, dragging his mother’s trunk. Miss Sedgewick had left all of her luggage, excepting the small carpetbag that held this morning’s dress and goggles, aboard the airship. Arthur thought that showed her good sense.
“If you don’t mind, sir—what are we looking for out here?”
“The gold of an ancient civilization, Jenkins. I found a map in a shop in London, and I thought if I could find it, then when I asked Miss Sedgewick to marry me…”
Jenkins lowered his voice. “I wanted you to know, sir, I did try to talk them out of it. I also tried to send a letter, but Mrs Bradley caught me.”
“Thank you, Jenkins. I’m sure you did try.” Poor Jenkins had spent more than forty years in Martha Bradley’s service, and never had he dissuaded her from whatever course had taken her fancy.
“We didn’t want to spoil the surprise,” Miss Sedgewick said behind him. She laid her hand on Arthur’s wrist. “Won’t you join us for breakfast?” she asked. “Your dear Maman brought the croissants from Paris. They’re only a little stale.”
“Isn’t that our silver tea service?” Arthur asked his mother as he sat beside Miss Sedgewick.
“Of course it is.” She dropped a cube of sugar into her cup. “You didn’t think I’d bring porcelain out to the jungle? It would get broken.”
A week out of Cairo, the Zephyr set down in the high mountains north-west of Lake Victoria. Arthur sprawled on a wicker chaise in the lounge while the crew secured the airship. He had been both wracked with chills and drenched with sweat since the first day on board. Damn Parisian fashion, but he had begun to envy his mother and Miss Sedgewick the yards of veiling fabric that kept the mosquitoes and biting flies from their skin.
“Are you ready to disembark, sir?”
“Yes, Captain Jorgensson. Thank you.”
He allowed the captain to steady him when the world started to spin. Miss Sedgewick appeared at his side.
“Do lean on me, Mr. Bradley,” she said. “I’m quite strong.”
“I know you are,” he said, but he dragged himself to his feet regardless. He wasn’t yet so demoralized that he would accept her aid.
They made a strange procession, Arthur thought, wending their way up the mountainside: him staggering, Jenkins panting, and the two women gliding ahead in the monsoonal rain. His mother had insisted the native bearers stay behind.
“It’s Christmas, darling,” she had said as he watched, dumbfounded, while she and Lacy distributed handfuls of brightly wrapped trinkets to the natives and the crew.
“Are those Christmas crackers, Mother?”
“Of course they are, darling. It would hardly be Christmas without them.”
He had pulled his own cracker with ill-concealed bad humor. It yielded a paper crown, which Miss Sedgewick draped ceremoniously across his brow. It clung there now, its color running. He longed to tear it off, but Lacy smiled whenever she looked at him, so he let it be.
“There!” his mother called.
Arthur squinted through the rain. At the top of the trail, almost concealed in the trees, a cave mouth gaped.
He hurried forward, but his mother and Miss Sedgewick had already cranked up their lanterns and stepped inside. The interior glittered under the harsh illumination.
“There’s your gold, sir,” Jenkins said.
There it was indeed. The walls themselves were covered in the stuff. In the centre of the room, an emerald-eyed idol glared from a gilded plinth.
“Oh!” Miss Sedgewick exclaimed. “It’s lovely.”
“I meant to bring it home to you,” he said.
Even in the glare of the lanterns, he could see the color rise in her cheeks. Did he dare think her eyes shone? He took a step toward her, but his mother’s voice cut through his romantic intention.
“I hardly think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“What now, Mother?”
“It’s Christmas, Arthur. And whatever sort of heathen god that is, it is a god nonetheless. I will not have you disturbing a god on Christmas Day. We can take its picture, though.” She turned to Jenkins. “Go and fetch your valise,” she said. “Just wait until you see the new camera I bought, Arthur. You’ll be amazed how small and light it is.”
Arthur looked to Miss Sedgewick, but she had already turned back to the golden idol. “I think it belongs here,” she said.
“Fine.” He wanted to fling himself out of the cave and back into the rain, but instead, he helped Jenkins set up the camera, as small and light as his mother had promised. The sodium flash of the bulb preserved the moment for posterity.
As they left the cave, he said, “I still think we should take it.”
Without a word, his mother stooped to pick up a rock and hurled it at the golden statue. Tumbling from its plinth, the idol triggered a hidden mechanism that brought the ceiling down with a roar.
“Best not to touch, darling.”
Miss Sedgewick reached out to brush stone dust off his lapel. “I do love you, Arthur,” she said, “but you really must learn to listen to your mother.”
Also available in Deck the Halls: Festive Tales of Fear and Cheer.