Compared to the grandeur of her upper decks, the bowels of HMS Alexander Bay was smelly, dank, hot and very noisy
(1). Aside from a cargo hold and ammunition store, the vast majority of the lower part of the ship was divided up into separate compartments, each of which contained a dizzying array of pipes, stoves, gears and engines which all contributed in some way to keeping the ship afloat and mobile. The presence of so much machinery working so hard in such a confined area made the lower decks ridiculously hot, and was it not for the presence of a system of thermal exhaust ports the whole structure stood a very good chance of overheating and breaking down. As would be expected, this made the lower decks a very uncomfortable place to be.
This was especially true of the small, cramped holding cell that lurked guiltily at the prow of the ship. At the moment the Duchess of Argyll was the room's sole occupant, and she stood at the bars yelling loudly in an attempt to be heard above the roar and whine of the Alexander Bay's engines. Her face was shiny with sweat and her hair, once tamed by a fearsome array of pins, now tumbled loosely down her back. She mopped her bow with the sleeve of her dress, took a deep breath, and shouted again.
As if in reply, a nearby pipe hissed maliciously. She glanced over her shoulder at the mass of clothing that lay miserably in the corner of her cell. Due to the temperature she had been forced to dump a substantial volume of her clothing to avoid succumbing to a minor variant of heatstroke, and because of this, like a snake shedding its skin, she had discarded her underskirts, stockings, corset and a whole swathe of other minor garments that no man could hope to indentify let alone guess the function of (2). If she really put her mind to it there was enough wire, steel, pins and bones amongst her abandoned clothing to fashion a set of suitably deadly weapons to aid in her escape (3). However she had no idea of where she was, and she wasn't going to start cutting a swathe through the crew without first having an escape plan. While she'd certainly have the element of surprise on her hand, if she didn't know where she was going first she’d end up being gunned down by some over exuberant marines once word of her escape and homicidal rampage got out. For all she knew the Alexander Bay might now be at sea, and she certainly didn't relish the prospect of swimming to shore. With a huff of frustration (4) she rattled the bars and yelled again.
Again, nothing other than the insulting spluttering of machinery. She was about to kick something angrily when she heard footsteps coming down the corridor towards the cell. She retreated to the chair in the corner and pretended to study a piece of fabric (4) while whomever was outside drew closer. A few seconds later he was standing in the doorway, fumbling with some keys. He was below average height, wearing a khaki uniform complete with pith helmet, but by far his most memorable feature was the massive, bushy beard that was stuck to his face like a malignant mass of moss. The Duchess stood up from where she was sitting, sashayed over to the bars and raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't you a little short for a red coat?"
He looked up, eyes wide and waved his hand.
"Whaph? Oh! The uniphom!"
He coughed, waved his hand again and pulled the beard down, before reaching into his mouth and plucking out a few stray strands of beard.
"Yuk! Sorry about that. Where was I?"
With a clang, the keys dropped from his shaking hands onto the floor. He blushed, bent down, and banged his helmet off the bars of the cell before grabbing the keys and straightening up; an awkward smile balanced on his face.
"Er...sorry about that. I'm a bit nervous."
His voice had a distinct, Afrikaaner twang to it. She smiled coolly and looked him up and down.
"So. As I was saying. Aren't you a little short for one of Van Moordenaar's men?"
He looked confused, tilted his head to one side and then brightened.
"Oh! You mean the uniform? No, no! I'm not one of them. My name's Dirk Kruger - I'm here to rescue you."
She reached behind her back and, with a deft movement of her hand, collapsed the butterfly knife and slid it securely up her sleeve before daintily offering her hand to Dirk. He warily took it; his own hand so clammy her disgust registered plainly on her face.
"Sorry", he said. "I'm really nervous that's all - it's the first time I've ever done anything like this."
Quick as a flash, she withdrew her hand and placed the other one on her hip.
"The first time?"
"Er...yeah. I've never rescued someone before."
She arched an eyebrow and folded her arms.
"It hardly shows."
The Duchess rolled her eyes angrily.
He sighed and sagged pathetically.
"Do you have any criticism for me - what could I have done better? It's only that I think I might be doing a lot of this rescuing, and I really want to get it right. Your feedback is important to me, and I will use it to help provide a better service in future escape attempts."
The Duchess folded her arms sternly.
"Seriously? Are we seriously having this conversation? Because if we are my biggest and bestest tip for you would be 'don't stand around in the fucking corridor chatting when you're meant to be rescuing someone!'"
She roared the last part and Dirk flinched before tentatively raising a finger.
"A very good point! Shall we go?"
With both hands he readjusted his beard into a more natural position.
"On wiph the rescphew!"
They went to leave, but no sooner had they moved when the sound of several rounds being chambered came from nearby.
The soldier shouting this particular order didn’t sound like he would ask a second time.
1. That’s not to say upstairs was quiet. In fact, while the lower decks were very, very noisy, the upper decks were very, very, very noisy. While the volume in the lower decks was caused by pipes hissing, pistons pumping, turbines whirring, furnaces roaring and hydraulics er...hydraulicking, the noise pollution on the wood-panelled upper decks was largely due to high concentrations of the British upper classes being in close proximity to each other. In such a situation, these individuals, all of whom were very used to barking orders very, very loudly, were competing to be heard in what was a, relatively-speaking, confined environment. The end result was headaches all-round, bad tempers and a lot of confused valets.
2. Regardless of the heat, because she was a lady and (more importantly) because she was in close proximity to a LOT of sailors, she had decided to retain her dress rather than sit here in her underwear.
3. Your average Victorian corset alone contained enough steel and bone to fashion a tool that would have brought a smile to Jack the Ripper's face. After all, this was a garment designed to give your average woman an eighteen inch waist!
4. All women can make this noise. It's the sound they produce when you tell them that you understand that they've spent several hours cooking dinner but that you're afraid you're going to have to work late. This isn't to be confused with the noise they make when you tell them that you understand that they've spent several hours cooking dinner but you're going to the pub. That's a totally different beast...
5. …which hid a custom made butterfly knife fashioned out of whale bone, hair pins and steel bodice fasteners.