The Replacement Rhino
Neither Frobisher nor I were keen to set out on what would prove to be the most quixotic expedition of our careers, but little Matilda had been heartbroken by the mysterious disappearance of her pet rhinoceros. Had it simply escaped during the night there would surely have been sightings about the streets of the city. Theft too seemed improbable as it was not the sort of thing that, like a gold watch, could easily be concealed about the person.
No; reasoning that a rhinoceros could be considered fungible I decided replacement was the best option and sent Scrotum round to Frobisher with the message ‘Leaving for the continent tomorrow’.
There occurred a minor setback before we had even left London: at Victoria the worthy employees of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, with many a sharp indrawing of breath and shake of the head, declared it quite out of the question to load the stout crate I had proleptically provided against our successful return. Irritatingly, Frobisher chose this moment to display his inappropriate sympathy for the lower orders, with a concomitant lapse into coarseness of expression: ‘Dammit, Caruthers, να τους συμπαθάς: the thing’s the size of a wooden shithouse that’s been blown on its side in a gale.’ (Following a disgraceful episode in the Northern Sporades he tends in moments of stress to pepper his speech with odd phrases in Demotic Greek.) Clearly I should have to deal with the matter alone, so I drew the head porter aside and pressed a crisp white fiver into his grubby paw, whereupon a flat-bed wagon was hitched with an unaccustomed alacrity to the rear of the train, and we were at last able to set off.
I had as usual engaged two adjoining first-class sleeping compartments but my preparations for bed were interrupted as, in spite of my strict instructions to use the communicating door only in emergency, Frobisher burst through with a silly grin on his face: ‘I say, Caruthers, come and look at this!’ Giggling like a schoolgirl he drew my attention to the ingenious lead-lined hinged chute, giving straight on to the tracks, through which one emptied one’s chamber-pot. He was especially taken with the engraved notice ‘Not intended for solid matter’. ‘Very droll, Frobisher,’ I muttered icily, and on returning to my compartment ensured a good night’s sleep by tying up the handle of the communicating door with my sock suspenders and taking a generous draught of laudanum.
Thus I slept through the transfer of the train to the ‘Lord Warden’ ferry at Dover Marine station. The procedure there is that the train is broken into three or four sections which are then shunted — as gently as possible in the case of the first-class carriages so as not to disturb the passengers — onto the tracks in the aptly-named bowels of the ship. It was therefore not until our arrival at the Gare du Nord that I became aware of the absence of the flat-bed wagon onto which our crate had been loaded. I sent at once for the station master, a self-important fellow who showed a high-handed indifference. Frobisher was as usual unhelpful, merely remarking with a silly titter that the chap had ideas ‘Au dessus de son gare’.
I decided to call on the British Consulate, but first in view of Frobisher’s levity I sent him away to amuse himself however he saw fit. We arranged to meet at some place called I think ‘Le Cheval Rouge’ in the dubious area of Montmartre, where he claimed to have friends.
The Consulate was equipped with telephone apparatus and I was eventually able to establish that the crate was now in the Goods Depôt not at Dover Marine but at Dover Priory, where it was being used by junior boys from the adjacent barbarous minor public school as a refuge from the unwelcome attentions of the prefects. It seemed my fiver had been sufficient only for inland transport, and an exorbitant sum was being asked for bringing the crate to the continent.
My cab driver winked and sniggered impertinently when I asked for ‘Le Cheval Rouge à Montmartre’, and there I found Frobisher deep in conversation and a vile-smelling greenish-yellow drink with a funny little fellow in bowler hat, pince-nez, frock coat and very short legs. I mentioned the sum required to Frobisher. (I tolerate his company on expeditions as it is his aunt Bertha who acts both as chaperone to my ward Matilda and funder of our travels.) The little Frog eavesdropped shamelessly and on hearing the figure exclaimed ‘Sacred Blue! You propose to pay zat simply to bring a wooden sheethouse from Douvres? Why, such Monet here in la Belle France would buy…’ ‘Two loos!’ Frobisher burst in and they collapsed in helpless laughter.
‘Look here, Caruthers,’ he said when he had sufficiently recovered, ‘Why don’t we just carry on anyway, and get the local wogs to knock us up a new crate when we get to — er —wherever it is we’re going?’ ‘Splendid idea, old chap!’ (I am punctilious in praise on the rare occasions Frobisher says anything intelligent), ‘Let’s do just that. After all, as things stand here, we have little to lose.’ During a further unaccountable outbreak of hilarity I went out and engaged a cab before going back in and extricating my companion from his pedally challenged little friend. ‘Gare de Lyon, Empshi, empshi!’ I told the cabman. ‘Wrong lingo, Caruthers old bean.’
The journey to Marseilles was mercifully free of incident, unless the asphyxiating wafts of garlic each time the train stopped to admit further packs of Frog peasants count as such. Frobisher, following his overindulgence in the oily greenish-yellow drink served at the ‘Cheval Rouge’, slept stertorously, and I was able to take stock and consider for the first time where indeed it was that we were going. Foreign explorers tend to make preparations and decide on such matters before setting out, but I am British — as, indeed, appearance and behaviour notwithstanding, is Frobisher — and so considered that unsporting. I fell asleep soothed by thoughts of the superiority of the English character, which treats such trivial details as precise knowledge of what one is doing with effortless patrician disdain.
We woke at dawn as the train made its slow and insalubrious way through the northern outskirts of the city. Marseilles is a noisy, dirty, smelly, indeed irredeemably foreign place, so it came as no surprise to find that Frobisher seemed quite at home as he led the way to what is always the noisiest, dirtiest, smelliest and most foreign part of any harbour town, the dockyards. As we wandered the narrow streets, looking in a desultory fashion for the offices of the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company or a firm of similar respectability, Frobisher suddenly clutched my arm: ‘I say, Caruthers, over there! Can it be? No, surely…’ I followed his gaze across the road but noticed nothing more remarkable than a shambling figure, rather short, with a round, amiable face, balding head, jug ears and the distinctive rolling gait of a seaman.
‘But it is!’ cried Frobisher; ‘Ρέ φιλαράκο, που ήσουνα τόσο καιρό; Έλα ’δώ!’ The little man trotted over to us and was introduced to me as one Niko, a Greek merchant seaman. In my experience all Greek sailors are called Niko. At Niko’s insistence, seconded enthusiastically by Frobisher, we repaired to a dark underground bar called, apparently, ‘L’Aveugle Caniche’, where Niko ordered a bottle of really quite drinkable if immature claret. The conversation, in which I took little part, seemed to be about the poet Baudelaire and the French Impressionists, subjects about which as an Englishman I knew almost nothing, but Niko seemed to know far more than could be considered appropriate for a mere Greek sailor.
After the second or third bottle — I really can’t remember — their talk, as far as I could understand it, turned to the relative merits of houses of assignation in Beirut and Alexandria. ‘I bid you good afternoon, gentlemen,’ I said, rising to leave, ‘I have —‘ (here looking pointedly at Frobisher) ‘— important matters to which to attend. Frobisher, I shall expect you later at the Hôtel des Anglais.’
I spent a fruitless late afternoon and early evening trying to locate a company — any company — that could be prevailed upon to take us across the Mediterranean to a port — any port — on the North African coast. I was met with shrugs and indifference everywhere I tried, no matter how loudly and clearly I spoke. They even affected not to understand my French. This was admittedly meagre, because of the belief held by our headmaster and all right-thinking people that the advance of civilization would imminently cause all peoples to stop speaking in their foreign tongues and learn proper English. Nevertheless I was confident that I spoke what little French I knew with an impeccable accent, as our French master was rumoured once to have spent an entire week on the wrong side of the channel, the continent having been cut off from England by fog. The story went that he had returned to civilization so transmogrified by his ordeal that he was barely recognized at his club, and it was then that he had retired into the decent obscurity of school-mastering. But that is by the by; I was getting nowhere and possibly even creating enemies along the waterfront by displays of exasperation I had difficulty containing. I returned to the Hôtel des Anglais and lingered despondently over a foul dinner rendered acceptable only by a quite decent ’98 Chateau Neuf du Ponce. I was unsure whether to be alarmed or relieved by Frobisher’s failure to appear by the time I retired to bed.
— ¦¦ —