Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway
February, March, 1863
The beautiful weather, crisp and clear, lasted all February. Bernice would have classified it as an omen of good things had she believed in such. As it was she thanked her Lord for one more beautiful day and focused on her errands. The departure to England was less than a week away. To accompany the wedding party as attending physician was more than she could have ever hoped for. But, really, it was not uncharacteristic.
King Frederick was probably the most unassuming monarch in all Europe. He loved the common people, even worshipped with them in the small red brick church at the village of Gjentofue. Even in Copenhagen he was known to stroll along the Langelinie unattended among his subjects. He made all feel welcome.
Bernice was happy. More than once she found herself commanding her heart to settle down, fearing she was getting carried away with the excitement, the pomp, the allure of royalty. But it wasn’t so. There was no reason to be ashamed of the thrill that had colored that whole month. Royalty could be distracting but there was nothing unchristian in it… nor the opposite. She knew there was nothing more divine in the appointment of kings than in the election of presidents. All regents no matter how they came to power still had to answer to the Regent of all. No, it was not the royalty that excited her, it was the joy that she saw in Alix’s face; it was the happiness of sharing happiness with family.
Her trek through the village, the sounds, the smells, again brought memories of old days when Alix was just a girl. All was beautiful. She even smiled at the pair of young men that sat in the morning sun outside the café. Her eyes and theirs had met briefly as she passed by the first time, and the taller one with the moustache tipped his hat as she walked by again. There was a hint of familiarity in that face that tugged at her memories, a vague feeling that connected it to Amsterdam, but it was not enough to distract her away from her errands and all the plans that had to be accomplished in that last week.
Two days before departure she had gone by the harbor and surveyed from a distance Her Majesty’s Yacht Victoria and Albert II at port. For a moment the Amsterdam memory surfaced again. For a moment she thought she had seen the young men from the café again. A second look convinced her it had just been the shifting of an ordinary sea side crowd. One odd scene did catch her attention but it was more amusing than alarming.
At the end of an unused pier stood a man dressed in a light colored suit, with arms raised at a flock of sea gulls circling all about him. Several had landed and waddled toward him. As she watched, the man threw something into the air, evidently bits of fish, and the gulls swirled up in noisy concert vying for their morsels.
Oslo, Norway. The HMS Warrior’s crew had polished clean the gun deck and every other coal-dust blackened surface in record time as they awaited the signal from the HMY Victoria and Albert to lift anchor and so become the Yacht’s escort back to England.
On the shore an old sailor, bronzed skin, face wrinkled by the years approached a couple on the boardwalk. As if distracted by the turn of the wind, he stopped, faced the sea to his right and lit a pipe. Lady Masveh chuckled, and spoke as if to her companion, “you age well, Campeador”. The man beside her, of average height, slender, with an elegant moustache and trimmed dark beard, reached within the burgundy lining of his cloak for a papirossi and lit it before replying, “Do we have any news?”
Santiago, in the guise of the old sailor, sat on the bollard beside him, resting his foot on one of the thick mooring ropes that held the great British War ship in place. After a long puff on his pipe he answered. “We will have some soon, Elias. Gravesend and London are clean. They have run out of strategically viable locations. But striking in Danish soil would weaken the desired British connection. I am afraid there is only one possibility left and it will make our job all the more difficult. Ah, here comes our answer.”
The sailor looked up at the southeast horizon. A cloud of black-backed gulls made its way west along the coastline.
“John Solomon has a rare gift indeed,” Santiago answered the distinguished man’s question, “a gift that goes well beyond horses.”
“Mr. Rarey can speak to birds too?” Elias reserved his judgment for a few minutes until it became clear that the birds were not flying in the loose pattern of a flock; they were following a trail.
Lady Masveh spoke up. “I admit this could be quite diverting but, pray tell, how do you expect birds to distinguish one man among the crowds gathered on this shore?”
Santiago smiled again as the flock made a final correction in their path and veered straight towards them. He reached for the bucket full of small fish at his feet. “John said he’d tell them to look for you.”
The woman’s eyes and lips narrowed in mock indignation at the Spaniard’s glance. “Clever.”
The gulls settled into a circling pattern above the trio. Santiago started tossing fish into the air and soon the gulls had all come down. They milled around the men, carefully avoiding getting too close to Lady Masveh. “Usually it’s in three separate scrolls.” He reached for one bird and untied the message from its leg as he motioned toward another one. In less than a minute he had collected the message and the flock of gulls had disbanded.
“More than clever; John Solomon Rarey is priceless.” Sitting again on the bollard he read the card sized strips of vellum. “He has found no evidence of strangers scouting the rooftops or tall buildings anywhere in Copenhagen where there could be a convenient location for a long distance rifleman to perform the deed. In fact the birds were adamant about there being no significant change in the movements of the population of the city. As we surmised, it is highly unlikely that anything will be done on Danish soil.
“So he decided to ask the dogs by the harbor. Given that the smell of humans is directly connected to their diet, he concluded that the arrival of strangers would not go unnoticed. He reasons that if our plan was to infiltrate the Warrior, perhaps their plan was to infiltrate the Victoria and Albert.” He looked up. “Logical, wouldn’t you agree?” Santiago turned to the third leaf.
“Given the fact that a Danish naval contingent would be expected to inspect and join the British Yacht for the Royal family’s trip, it is not difficult to imagine that unaccounted additions to the crew could be made that either side would consider to be the other’s men.” He folded the note and set fire to its corner with his pipe. “The dogs agree.”
“How many?” Lady Masveh asked the question.
“You’d like his sense of humor,” Santiago quipped as he crumbled the ashes: “A pack’s worth; at least that’s what the lead dogs said. John interprets that to be eight to twelve men.”
“Then it is certain. The attempt will be made at sea.” The elegant man gave voice to the conclusion as he exhaled a long smoky breath.
“There will be too much activity on board the first two days. I would anticipate their move will be made the third day.” Santiago stood and paced away from the bollard, shaking out his pipe and refilling it again. Elias discreetly retrieved the folded note the Spaniard had left tucked between the body of the bollard and the rope’s anchor ring, and secured it away within his cloak. “You have now the schedule of activities as it is known to the Captain of the Warrior. The formality of the state dinner and the social gathering afterwards will guarantee the rest of the crew and lower ranked officers will be engaged elsewhere on the ship. They’ll need to give the cook and his galley ample maneuvering room to serve both royal parties with equal efficiency, leaving those parties relatively unprotected. They will have no other opportunity as convenient as that.”
“The Warrior will take the lead once the Victoria and Albert is off the coast of Norway. It will be straightforward for Worthington and I to swim along the wake at twilight and slip into the yacht. We will make a hiding place among the baggage below deck and scout the ship. I will need my men soon after nightfall.”
“The third day.” Elias puffed a twirling stream of smoke into the sea air.
“I will get them there.” Lady Masveh replied instantly. “Latitude 56 degrees 17 minutes 31 seconds, Longitude 5 degrees 40 minutes 8 seconds.”
Santiago reached inside his pants’ pocket for a smooth flat stone he had gathered from the rocky shore earlier. “Where is it?”
“Twenty degrees off the Warrior’s aft, about fifty yards beyond the ship with the tan sails,” she replied.
Santiago fixed his eyes on the water, per her instructions. All he could see was the rippling, shimmering surface of the sea. He glanced to either side of himself, and, satisfied that there were no eyes observing them, he let the stone fly, a suddenly exhaled breath the only hint of exertion. In two skips the stone traversed 200 meters. On the third skip it ricocheted to the right.
“I am impressed, Lady Masveh.” Even with that evidence that the patch of surface at that point was not water but a disguised vessel, Santiago still could not discern the ending of the water and the beginning of the ship. Perhaps ship was the wrong name for it. Most of it obviously resided under the surface.
The woman accepted the compliment with a nod and then she spoke. “Should we not inform Doctor Bernice? After all you did say these are relatives of hers.”
“Distant relatives, as I understand.” Santiago shook his head. “No. Right now Holland is the safest place for her to be, especially should we fail.”
The elegant man tossed the remains of his cigarette into the gently heaving surface of the water. “You’ve never contemplated failure before, my friend.”
“Sometimes, Elias, I feel very old.” The men shared a look and a memory.
“We will not fail you.” The man called Elias glanced at his beautiful companion and with that they left the port and the Spaniard.
Her eyes sought to distinguish the boundary between the receding coast of Norway and the deep blue northern horizon for as long as she could. She then turned her face toward the setting Sun. Bernice had not anticipated returning to England so soon. It was both the land of Livingstone and the theater where the Spaniard played out the life of Lord Hallowstone. She wondered at the steadiness with which her mind had handled that thought. Had she regained her objectivity?
Her understanding of the man was utterly fragmented. And regardless of how she turned those fragments there was no way to piece them together without been pierced by their jagged edges. She was not afraid of personal danger; she was not afraid of injury to her heart, but would she be risking her soul? And even if she weren’t, wasn’t there only One to whom she owed her whole heart, soul, and strength?
The passing of a pair of stewards behind her broke her train of thought. Ever since they had left Copenhagen, a faint uneasiness had become a permanent undercurrent to all her musings. It was like the feeling that guided her when faced with a difficult diagnosis of a patient’s illness. Even before the collection of facts and the answers to questions could be sifted down to a logical conclusion, her intuition often leaped ahead and hit upon the key. The best she could ever explain it was that she was guided by the ‘wrongness’, the conflict between the assumptions made and the symptoms evident, the contradictions in the data.
There was a wrongness here. She brought up to her mind all those occasions that had elicited that feeling since she stepped on board… it was always stewards or sailors. And the ones that bothered her were always in pairs, but why? In spite of the visual clarity of her memories of those occasions, the answer was not to be seen. No, it was to be heard.
They did not engage in conversation with either the Danish servants or the British attendants. Given that observation, Bernice returned to the visual cues in those memories. The stewards always seemed to slow their steps, to linger, whenever they were near the princess or her retinue.
A chill spread over Bernice’s face and neck. She found herself staring involuntarily at the stewards that had just passed her. They returned her glance. She turned immediately aside and rested her hands on the railing, pretending to admire the sparkling sea and the appearing of the first stars.
The uneasiness became a pounding fear, the undercurrent that accompanied it a turbulent flood. As discreetly as she could, she walked the full length of the Yacht in hurried steps, weaving in and out of decks, observing the movements of the crew, sailors, servants, attendants. Most of them should have been busy preparing for the party that was about to start.
She completed her circuit at the cabin adjoining the princess’ cabin, where she found her aged handmaid. She had been with the family forever as governess, confidante, whatever was required. Bernice and Alix had spent many afternoons with her.
Though reluctant at first, Bernice’s earnestness finally convinced her. Together they found one of Alix’s dresses that would fit her, a hat that would hide her red hair. And then, a full half hour before the Royal family was supposed to join the party, they crossed to the other side of the ship and made sure they were seen in conversation, made sure that the older woman made a fuss about Alix strolling the promenade alone, made sure that one of those pairs of stewards saw her set off toward the prow of the ship.
At the upper deck’s forward observation post there was an alarm. If Bernice was right, if anyone tried to seize her, kidnap her, thinking she was Alix, she could race to it, sound the alarm and the handmaid would know what to do then. If her apprehension had all been the result of an overactive imagination, fueled by the excitement of the weeks past, she would return quietly to her cabin, change, and join the party.
Halfway to her destination she realized the stars were disappearing, the night air had gotten colder and a fog was settling on the sea all around. She quickened her steps to reach the stairs that led to the uppermost deck. She almost got there. Two shadows emerged from underneath the steps. A rough gloved hand covered her mouth while a man’s arm fastened around her waist.
“Where are you going, princess?”
“Don’t you know,” a second voice, colder than the night, whispered in her ear, “they must see you die?”
They dragged her under the steps; her fingers grasping in vain at the banister. And then the sound of a blow set her free, dropping her to the floor. Two more blows and a kick knocked one of the shadows onto the lamp-lit twilight of the promenade. Entangled in his own dark cloak, that man rolled head over heels onto the deck. The same light gave Bernice a glimpse of her rescuer, the young man in the moustache, from the café.
He spun into the darkness under the steps again, and there was a sound of another two blows that sent the second cloaked assailant stumbling over the first. But this one regained his footing immediately and reached inside the folds of his clothes. The gun he drew was barely raised when a short baton in the young man’s hand cracked across his wrist sending the weapon to the floor, where it bounced and returned towards him; it was tethered to the man’s waist by a cord, and he reached for it with his other hand. The muzzle of a revolver thrust at his right temple froze him in mid stride. It was the other young man from the café.
Surprise and fear glistened wide from the cloaked man’s eyes and then a sideways strike from the revolver shut them in one blow. The moustached man spoke with a French accent as he pulled Bernice up to her feet. “We’ve been charged with protecting you, Dr. Vedeen.”
“San Germán.” The other man’s accent was Portuguese. He started searching the unconscious assailants.
The Frenchman peered forward along the fog-enshrouded deck. “We’ve stepped into the hornet’s nest. I hear more coming.”
“How many?” the Portuguese asked.
It was Bernice who answered. “Half a dozen, eight, I think, maybe more… disguised as crew members.”
The Portuguese young man drew a knife and slit the cords that tethered the guns to the fallen men. A hissing sound stirred the fog. “Compressed air weapons of some kind. We must inform San Germán.”
They ran together aft, looking for the midship gangway.
“I am not the target, it’s the Royal family.”
Her rescuers exchanged a glance. “The ballroom, if we barricade the access from the dining room, it’s defensible.” The Frenchman had memorized the layout of the ship. He had gained access to it in Copenhagen by replacing one of the cook’s assistants who had mysteriously taken ill at the last minute.
They dropped to the lower deck. “We’ll circle around.”
“If you sound an alarm,” Bernice assured them, “they’ll know there’s danger.”