A Charlie Bellman story
Trains and Boats and 'planes, Oh my!
It was still the Canadian Pacific, this side of the border, but as Bellman watched he knew that he was leaving the Empire. Of course, the trains were just bigger here, but it wasn't that. The trains in India had been bigger too. A few tens of yards away, a detachment of Princess Patricia's were going through the formality of a sunset ceremony. And, a hundred yards further, beyond the border markers, a similar detachment of soldiers was doing the same.
Except it wasn't. Oh, they were giving their all, and ex-Sergeant Charlie Bellman wasn't going to quibble over their turnout and drill. But he knew the look of soldiers boasting and bragging. He knew the swagger that slightly exaggerated the movements of the drillbook and brought booted feet stamping down in terrible synchronisation.
Each side, Light Infantry and—strange label—Army Union, knew that they were the best. Neither were bragging. Bellman didn't like how the drillbook had changed after the war, but these were drilling in the old style. Crisp, precise, showing off they were soldiers, and that was precisely how it should be. Sergeant or Subaltern, if your men didn't believe themselves the best, you were failing. You would take them to war, and lose the battle. The Canadians had said that Vimy Ridge was what had made them a country. What Charlie had discovered was that there had been a battalion of the Princess Patricia's which had been mostly made up of volunteers from Rain Island. Like any battalion on the Western Front, it had taken volunteers, chewed them up, and spat out the remnants.
The similarities were no surprise. What was really odd was that the Officer of the Guard on the Rain Island side of the border was, he was sure, a woman. Big, bulky, and ursine. Probably as hard as old boot-leather, but definitely a woman.
Well, Rain Island was weird. That was the one thing you could be sure the reports agreed on. Marx and Engels had expected revolution in England, or Germany, rather than Russia, and maybe Rain Island was closer to what might have happened if they'd been right.
It wasn't all that comfortable a thought, but Rain Island, when you stripped out all the paranoia in the reports, didn't sound a bad place. They hadn't been in the war, officially. They hadn't been belligerents, but Rain Island ships, sea and air, had escorted convoys. Bellman could keep a straight face when he said it had been a war for democracy—he was a diplomat now—but he thought Rain Island had been on the right side.
The flags descended as the sun touched the horizon. The mountains seemed to move closer as the light changed. The new locomotive slowly pulled the train across the border. Bellman could see differences, but there was nothing he could see which made one machine obviously Canadian, and the other not. Yes, the paintwork distinguished them, and the company name painted on the tender, but there wasn't the difference in the engineering that you might see as you crossed a border in Europe. Border checks, of course, with a Diplomatic Passport that set all the hassles aside. A new steward, who apologised for the delays—all of them on the Canadian side of the border—and promised that the Transportation Syndicate would sort things out.
It didn't feel all that different. Railwaymen are railwaymen, wherever in the world you might find them. Keep time, and no accidents. Mostly. Oh, there were different methods of working a line, and Bellman knew that North America was different to his homeland. Not the rigid, signalled, structure of England, or the rest of Europe, but hundreds and hundreds of miles of precise speed and time. His watch was excellent, Swiss made, and almost good enough to navigate with, but it didn't have the certificates and regular tests which made a Railway Watch.
He could hear the engine working hard, exhaust steam barking into the night, drawing up the fire. One thing most of the reports agreed on: Rain Islanders worked hard, and were proud of their work. And this was the Rain Island Line, and no way were those Canucks going to make their train late.
“Sorry, Sir. The Joe Hill always leaves on time, and that wreck at Edmonton was just too much.” Bellman's cocoa was thick, and, like the news, bittersweet. He'd missed the boat, no fault of his own, and he'd be stuck here for two weeks now. “Do you have any problems with aeroplanes?”
Bellman looked up and wiped brown froth from his muzzle. “As passenger, I hope. No, no problems, but not in an open cockpit.”
“Oh they're not planning that. But there are three of you folk down for the Joe Hill, and we can get you onto the mail plane. Not all that comfortable, but you'll be in the Spontoons tomorrow morning, four days ahead of the ship.”
“Sounds good,”said Bellman. “But I suppose I shall have to travel light.”
“There is that,” agreed the Steward.
“I'm game,” said Bellman. The Spontoonies were air-minded to the point of insanity. He might as well try to learn what they were lusting for. He thought. His formal clothing was in the steamer trunk. That wouldn't catch up for perhaps a month. It was sounding a very good deal. “I think the Embassy would want to take charge of the baggage I can't take.”
“Of course, sir. Could I ask a favour?”
“Ask away,” said Bellman, almost cheerfully. He was going to get a close up view of how the Rain Islanders did things. They'd be making a report on him, of course, but hardly as a spy. He was a diplomat, and of course he'd keep his eyes open, but not a spy.
“The other two passengers, the ladies. Perhaps you could reassure them?”
Bellman raised an eyebrow. “I would be happy to assure them of my services as an escort, of course.”
The steward nodded. “That was what I had in mind, yes.”
Bellman stood. “Lead on,” he said.
The ladies were in the observation car, which at this time of night was rather pointless. Except, of course, for the the presence of the bar, a good reason to cross the continent by the Canadian route. Both were vixens, and rather fine ones. Perhaps a little old, to some eyes, but well dressed and very assured. These were ladies of some significance, and neither of them looked the sort to be crammed into the spare space on a mail plane.
“Ladies, may I introduce Mr. Bellman, en route to the British Embassy in the Spontoons. “Mr Bellman...” he stopped, looking from one vixen to the other with an expression of horrified confusion. They looked very alike, maybe sisters.
“Lady Helen Todd,” said one, holding out her hand almost like a man. “And this is my stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Stepney.”
“Delighted, Ma'am.” They clasped hands for a moment. The similarity felt slightly awkward to Bellman. He knew something of the Dukes of Stepney, but they were not the sort of circles he had ever moved in. And the resemblance was an oddity.
“I am very like my mother, Mr. Bellman, and I can hardly blame my father for consistency.” Lady Helen seemed a little amused. It was unlikely that there was anything untoward, then. Though it felt odd to Bellman.
“Er, no, of course not.”
“Stop teasing, Helen. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bellman. Are you any relation to Detective Superintendent Bellman? Of the West Riding Constabulary.”
“My brother, Ma'am.” Of course, the Duke of Stepney had an estate out that way. And had entertained the King a few times. George—George Bellman, that is—had told him a few stories. “And watch for the daughter. She's a bit wild, flies a Puss Moth, I think, and her politics are odd. But she thinks things through.”
So this was the daughter. And not married yet, Well, a lot of suitable young men were buried in France. The same for her stepmother, of course. But hadn't she been an actress?
“You see, he has heard of us.” Lady Helen had a delightfully impish smile. “And I met your son. I'm afraid I flirted a little too much.”
“He was half your age, Helen.”
“I know. I embarrassed him. But he was very sweet about it.” Bellman coughed. “Oh, sorry, Mr. Bellman. Your son is growing into a fine young man.”
“Excuse me,” said the steward. He went on to explain the situation. “Mr Bellman has expressed a willingness to take this option, and I thought you might be reassured by his presence.”
They giggled, dammit!
“Well, we would be rather short of clothes.”
“I am a partner in Chan and Cohen. Clothes will not be a problem. You recall what I wore last Christmas.”
“That was...” The Dowager Duchess paused. “...almost scandalous. Well, your brother was scandalised.” She smiled. “He is in London.”
“Yes. And he is a prig.”
“And I was married to your father. I am not married to him.”
Bellman was hard pressed not to start giggling himself.
“Helen, I do not think I shall have any problem with packing for this flight. Mr. Bellman, close your mouth.” She had an impish smile too. Bellman knew that his brother had liked the late Duke. Ancient wealth, and a razor-sharp mind maintaining it, and the man had, by all accounts, been a mensch.
It would be, he admitted to himself, so much easier if his wife were dead.
Mother or daughter, and which was which? Would it be easier?
“You may call me Carol, Mr. Bellman.
“Charlie, ma'am. Sorry, Carol.”
“It was that, or Oh-bugger-I've dropped-the-sod Bellman.”
They both smiled. “I think we shall get on very well.” Carol Todd turned to the steward. “Go ahead. Arrange things. We'll take our chances. And Charlie here, he's almost an old friend of the family. Helen, we'd better make sure we pack well. And, yes, Rebecca Chan will leap at the chance to dress us. And I'm sure my legs are better than yours.” She sounded, to Charlie's ear, to be a little excited. And this should be a nice, safe, respectable, adventure.
“Mother!” Helen was trying not to laugh. “You're frightening Mr. Bellman!”
I am married, Bellman told himself. But such temptation! “I shall have to check my own things,” said Bellman, trying to keep his voice steady. “I am sure you both have fine legs.”
“They have beaches,” said Helen.
“They sent us a calendar,” said the Dowager Duchess. “I would call it inspiring.”
“Mmph,” answered Bellman.