Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(2)

By: Deborah Hale

But it wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it? She’d come all this way and bartered her freedom in hope of finding the last bit of family she had left in the world. She needed to start somewhere.

“Pardon me.” She turned toward a young man wearing white leggings and a turban who smiled at her. “I’m looking for news of a crewman from the barque Dauntless. His ship came to Singapore three years ago. Do you remember it?”

The man’s smile broadened further and he answered in a language she didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.” Bethan shook her head and gave an exaggerated shrug. “I didn’t even understand English very well until the past year. And I don’t suppose you know any Welsh.”

Another voice spoke up, heavily accented but in English. “Say again who you look for, lady?”

Bethan turned eagerly towards the speaker, a man with dark, almond-shaped eyes, who wore a large, round straw hat. “I’d be grateful for any help you could give me. His name is Hugh Conway. He’d be taller than you.” She raised her hand to indicate her brother’s height, then pulled back her bonnet and pointed to her head. “His hair is almost the colour of mine.”

She could do better than try to describe him with gestures and words the man might not understand. Reaching back to her nape, Bethan unfastened the silver locket that was her most precious possession. Then she opened it to show the miniature portrait inside. “He looks like this. At least he did the last time I saw him.”

The tiny painting wasn’t of Hugh himself, but it was the nearest likeness she had.

A flicker of interest kindled in the man’s eyes as he stared at the locket. Did he recognise the handsome young face? If Europeans were as scarce in Singapore as they appeared to be, those few must stand out, easily noticed. Perhaps easily remembered.

“Have you seen him?” she asked. “Please, I’m very anxious to get word of him.”

The man nodded slowly. “Maybe I saw this one. Not sure.”

Bethan’s heart leapt. Even in her most hopeful dreams, she’d never imagined getting a lead on her missing brother so soon. “He was in Singapore three years ago. I got a letter posted from here. Do you know what happened to him or his ship?”

The man’s high forehead furrowed as if trying hard to remember where and when he’d seen that face. “I look closer?”

“Yes, of course.” Bethan pushed the locket into his hands. “I wish I had a bigger picture to show you.”

A small crowd had gathered around them as they talked. Suddenly someone tapped Bethan on the shoulder from behind. Did another person recognise Hugh from a distant glimpse of the miniature? Or did they recall his name?

She spun around only to find a bank of expressionless faces staring back at her.

“Did one of you have something to tell me?” she asked. “Have you seen Hugh Conway? Do you remember his ship?”

None of them replied except with sheepish grins.

“Think it’s great fun hoaxing a stranger, do you?” Bethan snapped. “I see some things are the same wherever you go.”

With an indignant huff, she turned back to her informant. By now he’d had plenty of time to study the likeness. But when she looked around, all she glimpsed of the fellow was the back of his faded blue tunic disappearing into the crowd.

“Come back!” she cried, tearing after him. “Thief! He has my locket. Someone please stop him!”

But no one on the quay seemed willing to help her. Quite the opposite, in fact. Men who moved aside to let the thief escape quickly stepped back into Bethan’s path, hindering her pursuit.

“Wilson! Ralph!” she called, though she knew her travelling companions must be far out of earshot by now. She didn’t dare stop to look around for them or she might lose sight of the man who’d stolen her locket.

“Please,” she cried, “you can have the necklace! Just leave me the picture!”

Catching sight of the bridge out of the corner of her eye, she hoped the thief might run that way and perhaps overtake her friends. Instead he darted down a crowded street in the other direction with Bethan in breathless pursuit. After five months aboard ship, she was not used to running, especially in such oppressive heat. Sheer desperation pushed her forwards.

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