“staring languidly into the fire again, percival? a hale young fellow like yourself? you should be ashamed.”
percival awoke from his reverie. “uncle jonathon! i did not hear you come in.”
“you, percival, who used to be so alert! do you remember that time in africa when that she-lion - “
“oh, uncle jonathon, talk not to me of those days gone by. i have shot my last lion. and my last antelope and my last elephant too.”
uncle jonathon settled himself into the club chair nearest percival’s. “that is all very well,” he laughed. “but i did not come here to talk of lions or elephants, but of much bigger game.”
“and what might that be?” percival asked politely.
“the hun!” uncle jonathon exclaimed emphatically.
“indeed. it seems the hun has taken iit upon himself to encroach - ever so slyly - into his majesty’s sphere of influence on the west coast.”
and what has that to do with me, percival wondered, but as the question “hung in the air” he did not bother uttering it.
“i’ve spoken to desmond in the foreign office and assured him you were just the man. we’ve booked passage for you from folkestone to the coast on friday.”
waiting at waterloo station for the train to folkestone, percival was approached by a beautiful young woman.
“oh, sir!” cried the beautiful young woman. “can you help me?”
“perhaps,” percival replied, with his innate caution.
“i am being pursued,” she replied, looking percival straight in the eyes with her own big brown eyes.
“by whom, miss?”
“by my uncle. my uncle charles - one of the wickedest men in the empire!”
“a common enough plight,” percival murmured. “but how exactly may i be of assistance?”
it should be noted that percival had the presence of mind during this exchange to keep his eye on the bags at his feet, having the thought - unworthy as it may have been - that the fair supplicant might be party to some sort of “con game”, and that an accomplice might be lurking nearby to divest him of his kit or even of the wallet in his pocket.
but instead she suddenly looked up and cried cried “oh!” as if she had seen someone in the crowd.
briefly clutching percival’s arm, she entreated him, “wait here!” and disappeared.
percival had no intention of missing his train, but decided to stay in his spot until it arrived.
after five minutes he was approached by a tall red-faced fellow wearing a trilby hat at an awkward angle. he had the air of a retired sergeant-major, or a head groundskeeper of an estate in the north counties.
“seen a young woman pass by, have you, sir?" he enquired , in a tone percival did not much care for.
“i’ve seen a number of people pass by, of all ages, if it’s any of your damned business,” percival replied.
“no need to take that tone, sir. but i would stay away from that young person if i were you. just a word to the wise, sir.” and the red-faed man touched his awkwardly tilted trilby hat and was gone.
the train to folkestone arrived and percival got on it, without incident.
percival was leaning over the rail of the steamer, pondering the dull reflection of the stars in the oily water, when he was approached by another beautiful young woman.
or was it the same one? if it was, she had somewhat changed her appearance, but was probably a german spy in any case. percival was on his guard.
“lovely evening, isn’t it?” she addressed percival in an altogether more sprightly tone than she, or her twin, had adopted the day before.
“if one enjoys staring at the wake of a tramp steamer, as dark and implacable as fate itself,” percival replied.
“ha, ha! you’re a strange man! why so morbid, old bean?” the enchantress produced a silver cigarette case and opened it with a saucy flourish.
“because life is a bore,” replied percival.
the conversation continued in this manner for some minutes, before percival excused himself and retired to his cabin.
in the morning the sea and sky were dull and gray but calm.
percival, repenting somewhat of his churlish behavior, resolved to act in a more civilized manner if the young woman - german spy or not - were to reappear.
when there was no sign of her after a couple of hours, he made a discreet enquiry of the purser, who happened to be passing by.
“lord love you, sir!” exclaimed that worthy, “but that sounds like the young woman who pitched herself over the side, just after midnight.”
“you do not say so?,” responded percival. “was she rescued?”
“no, sir. though of course the crew made its usual gallant effort.” the purser coughed and shook his head. “i say usual because we get one or two every trip now, it seems. i don’t know what it is about this younger generation these days. nothing personal, sir,” he quickly added,.
“no, of course not,” percival, lost in thought, assured him.
when percival arrived at his destination he found a telegram waiting for him.
false alarm, the telegram read. nothing to pursue.
percival considered this. should i await some sort of orders,he wondered. or is that all there is?
the combined telegraph and post office and general store he was standing in seemed the only building in the port.
“what is the name of this place?” percival asked the sleepy looking fellow puffing a pipe and observing him from the depths of a battered leather easy chair.
“port agatha,” the man replied. “funny you should ask because we just named it the other day. before that it didn’t have a name.”
“port agatha,” percival repeated. “it doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”
“no, but the globe is already covered with port victorias and port elizabeths and port charlottes so we thought we might try something different.”
percival walked back to the door and looked out into the bright sunshine.
he saw what looked like a big towel strung on a rope between two tired looking trees.
“what is that?” he asked the pipe smoking man.
“why that’s a hammock, sir, a hammock. wonderful invention. you sleep in it, you see, and the bugs don’t get on you. leastways the ones that crawl on the ground.”
percival nodded. he continued to stare out at the sunshine, and the dirty sand outside the store, and the choppy gray sea beyond the sand.
percival tried the hammock and found it quite to his liking. he liked it better than the armchairs he had been used to dozing in. and as the air was always warm there was no need to continually get up to stoke a fire, or to find a servant to do so.
percival found himself quickly adapting to the unhurried, regular rhythms of port agatha.