The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret by Nev March: Featured Excerpt

In The Spanish Diplomat's Secret, award-winning author Nev March explores the vivid nineteenth-century world of the transatlantic voyage, one passenger’s secret at a time. Start reading an excerpt here!

Chapter 1

Oddballs and Toffs

Summer 1894 Day One: Evening

I doubled over the ship’s railing and clung for dear life, my head even with my spattered trousers, tossing up the last of a fine meal. The wind whipped around, snatching at my clothes. Around me was wet darkness, the splash and hiss of foam. Waves smashed the hull and sent up a spray that hit my face. More seasoned travelers were enjoying their meals amidships, but I’d known I’d never reach the leeward side and taken my chances at the nearest rail. 

The caviar I’d consumed only an hour ago tasted sour coming back up. The HMS Etruria rolled until I was suspended high above, like a fly clinging to the top of a Ferris wheel. At the crest it began to dip, nearly upending me. Our hull dropped back into the ocean with a boom. I heaved, but my insides had nothing left to give. Waves roiled, too damn close, as the steamer sliced through vast swells. 

Fighting the pull of gravity, I latched on and gasped for breath. Head throbbing, I turned, but the deck chairs seemed far away. Bollocks. My clothes sopping with seawater and puke, I took a step, lurched and clung to the rail, limbs shaking. 

“Puis-je vous aider?” asked a deep voice at my shoulder. May I help you? 

A white-haired man caught my arm, his head even with my shoulder. I jerked—buffeted on all sides, I’d not noticed his approach. I felt oddly distant, as though gazing at myself from afar and tut-tutting my poor showing. 

“I’m all right,” I choked. He’d spoken French, yet I could not reply in the same tongue. My French was poor on a good day; at present it was nonexistent. 

“Vous êtes un soldat,” said the man, getting his arm around me. Soldat—soldier. The wind snatched away the rest of his words, but his intent was clear: to ferry me to a deck chair. I took a breath, found myself empty for now, and eased away from the railing on legs of India rubber. 

I cursed, as my feet slid—the damned deck seemed soapy, and I’d swapped army boots for leather this evening. Only the older man’s steadying grip kept me from slamming onto the boards. He took my weight with a grunt and staggered. Gasping an apology, I made for the safety of the chair. 

Once I dropped into it, I panted in relief and gazed around the empty deck. Small electric lanterns glowed every few yards. A jaunty waltz drifted from the music room at the bow. Diana would be twirling around the ballroom . . . I gave thanks that she had not seen me quivering at the railing. Who was she dancing with? The injustice of it pricked me—why was I plagued with this blasted seasickness while other blokes could waltz away the hours?

It scarcely mattered though. Since I didn’t know how, I should not mind her dancing with other fellows. And yet . . . 

On Diana’s birthday two years ago in Bombay, I’d watched her float across the floor, her smile spilling joy into the company, her delighted chuckle rising like bubbles in champagne. I watched from afar because I was on duty, hired by her brother. Afterward though, she’d insisted on a dance with me. A mixed-race man wasn’t usually invited to society dos, so I’d never learned to dance. In a dither over how to proceed, I’d led her out. Then, inventing a silliness to spare her worn feet, I carried her around the ballroom floor, swishing her about like a ballerina. Even now, recalling the thrill of it, my chest compressed with amazement. 

The acrid smell of a cigar drew my attention back to my companion. 

“Thank you,” I said to the gentleman smoking quietly beside me, noting his finely cut coat and the red ribbon on his lapel. 

“English,” said the man, his tone desultory. 

Flicking his cigar ash toward the railing, he said in an unfamiliar singsong accent, “Stay away from there. It is easy to go over, in thees weather.” 

We sat in the dim light for a while. Warmed by gratitude, I reached out a hand and said, “James O’Trey. You’re right. I was a soldier.” 

He took my hand with a mild grip, his own bony and papery dry. After a moment, he said, “Me also. Strange to meet here, is it not?” 

What was curious was that he hadn’t offered his name. Old enough to be my grandfather, he pulled on the cigar, then held it absently over the arm of the chair as he gazed outward without expression. 

“Do they return . . . here?” He tapped his forehead with two fingers, the cigar glowing between them. He had a white goatee, but his dark eyes were intent. 

Perhaps the dusk fostered confidences, for I would not have answered so in daylight. “The lads I lost? I see them often,” I said and drew in the salt air. 

The faint waltz gave way to a brisk polka that separated the pair of us from the distant frolic with a chasm as wide as the ocean. Unmoving, my companion squinted into the night. His rigid posture tugged at me, demanding solidarity, even compassion. 

I continued, “And the . . . others. I see them too.” 

He turned his face an inch and stiffened, his shoulders tight. Ahead, the polka continued in painful counterpoint while surf splashed over the rail, misting our faces. 

Ramrod straight, the old soldier stood and said in a low voice, “I did my duty. It was my duty.” He gave a sharp nod and walked deftly up the stairway to the promenade deck. 

I settled back, puzzling over my unknown companion’s parting words. Ignoring the waves smashing at our hull, I contemplated his tone. It held a strange note—stiff pride, and something else I could not name. He’d behaved as though responding to an argument, yet I had given none. What had I missed? 

Sometime later Diana approached, peering this way and that as she stepped through patches of light. She spotted me and hurried over in a rustle of silk skirts. 

“All right, Jim? You weren’t at the table. Thought you might take the air.” She glanced at my trousers and made a moue with her mouth as she sat in my companion’s chair. “Oh dear. You’ve had a rough time of it.” 

We’d been married two years ago, aboard the steamer from Bombay, then emigrated to the United States to make a home in Boston. It still astonished me when I looked at her, so poised and elegant, her arms encased in satin gloves. Her copious curls were piled in a do that looked far too heavy for that delicate neck. Being married was vastly different from anything I’d expected. I glanced at Diana’s absorbed face. What was she thinking? I’d believed I knew her every mood, but the open, carefree girl had turned into a brisk young woman whose feelings I could not always read. Recently I’d detected moments of melancholy that unnerved me. 

I said, “I had company. Old military chap.” 

“American? Or English.” 

“Foreign cove. European, I think.” 

“Oh.” She worried her bottom lip. “Goodness. Not the Spanish grandee!” 


“You remember, that peculiar . . . occurrence. On the gangway.” I dislike crowds and had kept on alert for pickpockets as we prepared to board. I frowned, trying to recall it. “The woman in the wheelchair who blocked the gangplank—was the Spanish gent upset?” 

“Oh, he’d already gone forward. You were speaking with the porter at the time. The Spanish group went up, all dressed in black, the women veiled like Queen Victoria. Then the steward let the invalid on, but her attendant wouldn’t move.” 

I said, “I remember that. People tried to push past.” 

“Yes. The wheelchair must have been stuck. The attendant did nothing. A crewman came to help, but she didn’t move. Like she’d gone to sleep on her feet. Bit of an oddball, hmm?” 

Oddballs and toffs, I thought, shrugging. The usual companions on a steamship.

Diana’s forehead creased in thought. “Jim, I remember it because of that attendant’s odd expression. She kept staring up at the deck, like someone in a trance.” 

“A reluctant traveler? No one came to see them off either.” 

Most of the transatlantic passengers had been making their animated goodbyes. Friends encircled the well-heeled toffs, offering last-minute gifts and messages. There’s something neat and slender about the cut of a well-tailored coat, I’d thought. Though altered to my height, my sack suit hung thickly on me. Diana had bought me other new clothes, insisting I’d need to dress for dinner on the liner. It had been a festive morning, feathers ruffled in the breeze, ladies leaned forward to embrace, gents shaking hands, clutching their hats. Fathers and sons, mothers, sisters and cousins. We had none of these—I’d never known a family and all of Diana’s relatives lived in India. Our friends the Abernathys had decided to summer in Scotland and our neighbors the Lins could not leave their bakery to wave goodbye. 

Diana said, “That Spanish attendant. Perhaps she dislikes the sea.” 

I couldn’t fault the woman for that. All I wished for that day was a quiet voyage, smooth seas and long sunny days on deck. But there was that other thing, the reason we were going, which I’d taken pains to keep from Diana. 

My chair shifted as the deck switched its tilt. My stomach lurched. Eight days, I thought. Could I stand it for eight days?


Chapter 2

Strange Bedfellows

Day Two

The next morning, sliding our trunks back under the beds to make more room, I hoisted a decanter from the set sparkling on a dumbwaiter. Oh, my. Venetian glass? Lifting out the stopper I sniffed the bottle—whiskey, and quite old, with a deep aroma. It likely cost a month’s wages. 

Our stateroom was a double bed affair done up in cobalt blue and creamy white. In front of a screened dressing area, damask settees curved around a bolted-down table, fitted with a carved railing to protect the crystal. A porthole above a roll-top writing desk overlooked the ocean. But for this, we might have been in the Waldorf, a new New York hotel where Diana’s society friends the Abernathys had hosted us last year. 

Diana floated in from the washroom, saying, “Thank goodness we have flushing water closets. I’d worried that this was an older ship, but she’s just like the Umbria.” 

She wore a new dress this morning, the front patterned in pale green and white, the back made of pink velvet. When I raised eyebrows in admiration, she dimpled. I brushed out my sack suit with a rueful grin, hoping it would not contrast too much with my wife’s ensemble. I’d cleaned my dress shoes, but they were still wet, so I tugged on my old army boots. 

It was a fine sunny day as we toured the ship, the rumble of engines vibrating under my feet. Massive twin chimneys towered above us. I noted three masts, fore, main and aft fully rigged. Would we see the sails splayed against the mighty Atlantic breezes this voyage? Fitted with five decks, the promenade and upper decks open to the sky, Her Majesty’s Ship Etruria was a floating fortress. Brass gleaming, her paint fresh, all five hundred feet of her hummed with anticipation. On the promenade deck, the wind puffed at our faces and snatched at Diana’s skirts. 

Pointing, she said, “Smoking room—gents only, ’course.” She nodded at a thick oak door. “That’s probably the ladies’ winter garden.” 

She’d know her way around in no time. Seeing her smile, my spirits lifted. Perhaps it wasn’t too late. It would be all right. 

A pair of heavyset older men passed us, their wives in great, plumed hats speaking closely as they followed. Fur stoles in this weather? Diana caught my glance and crinkled her eyes in amusement. Heartened that this, at least, had not been lost, our silent language, the way she could guess what I was thinking, I heaved a grateful breath. It was dashed odd, this distance that sometimes came between us. 

Something had felt bewildering when I got back from my last assignment. I’d returned to Diana’s usual welcome, her relief to see me intact. She’d smiled and said all the right things, but the shadows around her eyes told me she’d not had an easy time of it. Only when I shed my tramping guise and thoroughly cleaned up did she bend. She’d discarded my filthy clothing with the stern look of a quartermaster examining a broken rifle. But that was all right. So why did I hear her stifled crying that night? She’d insisted it was nothing, but I knew there was more. Why had she been so unhappy? 

A beanpole of a bloke walked past, his checkered coat bulging. I frowned. What gave his pocket that shape? A book, or . . . a weapon? 

“Don’t, Jim,” Diana said, her voice tight. “Can’t we have a pleasant journey without mysteries or anarchists? Just conversation, friendly companions and a bit of dancing?” 

“That would be nice,” I said, watching the thin fellow. He joined two youths in straw boaters, pulled out a hip flask and leaned on the rail to take a swig. 

Diana cast a dark look at me. “Must you weigh them up as though you were going against them in the boxing ring?” 

She was right. I arranged my features to modest neutrality. “’Course, my dear. Mustn’t frighten the natives.” 

She shook her head at me. “Ships don’t suit you, do they? You were so sick on the Umbria.” 

I’d been laid low for most of our journey to Boston. Recalling it, I shrugged. “Not had much luck with them. I was about fifteen when we were shipped off to Karachi on an army transport. Spent most of that trip with the horses in the hold . . . poor blighters were miserable in the dark. God, the stench! When at last we made land and got out on the pier, I couldn’t see—blinded by the sunlight.” I’d spent most of my army career on the North-west Frontier and in Rangoon. 

“But you must have sailed back to Bombay? Oh.” Her voice dropped. “That head wound . . .” 

The shot had struck above my ear. I didn’t recall that voyage, but someone had been near me . . . who was it? A turbaned man, perhaps, who tended me as if I were a child. I snatched at the memory, trying to hold it, but it dissolved. 

Diana bit her lip, sending me a thoughtful glance. 

Presently our ship turned, bringing the sun into our eyes. As of one mind, we proceeded into a fine lounge with gilded chairs and velvet draperies. 

A raised voice drew our attention to the trio who’d blocked our gangway while boarding. The invalid’s ire was directed at both attendants. The younger nurse had come in at a run, her scarf askew, blushing and out of breath. 

“I have searched, Mrs. Barlow,” she panted. “It’s not in the valise. But I’m certain I packed it. We’ll surely find it in your trunks.” 

“Then what are you doing here, you ninny? Unpack them!” 

“But you said to come back,” whispered the harried girl. 

“I’ll do it, Madam,” said the thinner attendant, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. 

Her employer snapped, “Nonsense! Dora had it in her hands as we boarded! Wait, Dora! Where are you going? What’s the matter with you?” 

Dora hurried back, her childlike eyes wide with hurt. 

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Diana said under her breath, and went up to the group. Flashing a smile that could charm the keys off a warden, she said, “I am Mrs. O’Trey. Has something been misplaced? Perhaps I can help?” 

“Ah, child, knitting is my only comfort,” the mollified woman in the bonnet said, and introduced herself. She glowered at Dora’s bent head, grumbling. “Tsch! Can’t get good help for love or money these days!” She grabbed at the back of her wheelchair. “Where’s my blanket? Did you forget my blanket? Alice, you dolt! What are you standing about for? Fetch it!” 

As Alice set off, a woman seated across from me whispered to her husband, “Mrs. Barlow’s in fine fettle today.” 

Her husband looked about a hundred pounds heavier than his wife. His eyes met mine. Since we were only feet away, I offered, “Evening. Have you sailed on this ship before?” 

Rather than return my greeting, the pair exchanged a startled glance, then moved to a couch farther away where they plunked down with doubtful looks in my direction. 

Well now, I thought, amused. Was it my mixed race, or the fact that I’d been a boxer? Without Diana’s mitigating presence, I could not expect entry among what she called the ship’s “best people.” 

I recalled the easy camaraderie of Smith and my old cavalry company, blokes who’d ride with you all day and tell stories all night. But that company of dragoons had been disbanded sometime after our debacle in Karachi. Would I meet Smith or the remaining blokes again? Invaliding out of the army, I’d been hired by Diana’s brother Adi—the tragic death of his wife and sister gave me my present career. Diana had said goodbye to her close-knit family and sacrificed her inheritance to marry a rough soldier. Despite everything, she’d accepted me, so we left Bombay’s social taboos for a life together in the States.

Meanwhile, she had calmed Mrs. Barlow’s attendants and was now deep in conversation with the older one. 

I picked up a newspaper and glanced at the headline: ASSASSIN EXECUTED. The past June, an anarchist, Sante Geronimo Caserio, had assassinated French president M. F. Sadi Carnot. France had just guillotined the fanatic. What drove such a man? President Carnot was the third world leader murdered by European anarchists. I read with concern, because last year we’d had a run-in with just such a group at Chicago’s World’s Fair. 

Diana returned, saying, “Poor Alice! She’s all sixes and sevens. And Dora was close to tears.” She explained that Mrs. Barlow was returning to Liverpool after a decade in California, where her late husband had owned a vineyard. “She’s not as old as I thought, Jim. She had a riding accident twenty years ago. Her nurse has misplaced her knitting basket, so her usual diversion in trying times is not to be had.” 

I smiled. “And your usual diversion in such times, my dear?” 

Diana dimpled. “Watching you alarm fellow travelers, ’course!” 

Grinning, I offered my arm with a flourish. I must be mistaken, I thought. Whatever troubled her, it was past. 


We dressed formally at luncheon. One was excused the first day, but now the ship’s protocol held sway. I had a nicely cut coat to go with my formal striped trousers, much like the dandies on board. Time to meet the troops. I stamped into my boots and laced them up as Diana picked up her embroidered stole. 

Seagulls squealed, hovering out of sight in the fog as we took a turn around the upper deck. Both this and the empty promenade above were open to the sea air. Diana hugged the shawl, running a hand over the trailing bougainvillea pattern. Was she thinking of the wide verandahs and canopied trees in tropical Bombay where she’d grown up? 

A raised voice came from above us. A woman’s voice, torn with agitation. “I tell you, it is him! Why don’t you—” 

The woman stood on the companionway beside the glass-fronted bridge. An officer stepped out from the lighted room and protested, his tone insistent. “It’s been twenty years…” The rest was lost in the breeze. The woman replied with a shriek of protest. 

Diana’s grip tightened on my arm. “That sounds serious, Jim. Should we help?” 

I considered interrupting the pair, but in a moment it was unnecessary. 

“You know! But you do nothing! Nincompoop!” With that, the woman stamped down the companionway. She passed us, her face hidden by her bonnet. My tenderhearted wife followed her progress with a worried glance. 

A ship is a city in miniature, I thought, with all the conflicts and quarrels of human association. On it, small dramas unfolded, attachments formed or broke, friendships built while others fell apart. The woman’s distress echoed in the rigged sails snapping at the wind. Clearly, some expectation had been sorely disappointed. 

Long after she had passed, the thickset officer stood looking down, but did not appear to see us below. When he squared his shoulders and disappeared into the bridge, Diana and I made our way to luncheon. 

“Wonder what that was about,” she said as we entered the dining saloon. “It’s strange, isn’t it? Like opening a book to the middle and not knowing what came before!” 

The saloon was intended to impress, with ceilings of painted angels and clouds, burgundy velvet on chairs and drapes, walls lined with ornate, framed landscapes and pillars gilded like in a maharaja’s durbar hall. 

At our table we greeted the company. Glad Diana had pressed my second-best suit, I shook hands with a pair of dandies who gave their names as Vernon and Algernon Farley. 

In a sober black jacket and crisp, high collar, Algernon bowed over Diana’s hand. Vernon, the younger brother, wore his hair curling down to his flounced shirt, his vest unbuttoned à la Oscar Wilde and gazed at Diana doe-eyed. 

Both young pups sat up like terriers eager for her attention. Their cabin was on the saloon deck too—going to London to visit an uncle who lived in Pall Mall. I was expected to recognize his long, hyphenated name. When I didn’t, their eagerness dampened. 

Algernon named others at our table: Mr. and Mrs. Evansworth, taking their brood back to England, and Miss Felicity Rood who completed the company. High-spirited and fair-haired, Miss Rood greeted us with the manner of a vestal virgin receiving homage, then gave Vernon her attention. 

As the salads were served, apparently approving of Diana, Mrs. Evansworth spoke about her children, punctuated by her husband’s occasional, “Quite so, my dear.” 

I doubted he had heard her at all. Instead, he continued a conversation with Algernon, the older, stolid brother—a short nod, and the name of a corporation, followed by “Good solid stock,” or a disapproving “Oh, I don’t know.” 

Feathered hat quivering as she moved her head, Mrs. Evansworth said, “. . . our older two are Rose and Leonard—we call him Leo. The twins are three, my dear, you never saw such . . .” 

Diana glanced at me and dropped her gaze. Although she nodded at Mrs. Evansworth’s patter, her face had altered in some undefinable way. She sat upright as always, cutting her ham neatly into pieces. In recent weeks, she seemed to retreat into herself more often, and for no discernible reason. Her distant look gave me an odd, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

Her frozen little face held a polite smile. I bent and murmured, “Diana?” 

In a brittle voice, she asked Vernon, “Would you pass the pepper, please?” 

Here it was again. Something was wrong between us, but I didn’t know what. 

“I say!” Vernon said to me, his flounced cuffs curling. “The chaps are going to lay bets. I think we’ll do thirteen knots today. Algy’s keen on sixteen, but I don’t think she’ll do it. Not all at once, you see? Not out the gate, but on a tailwind, don’t you think?” 

Algernon offered, “She had the blue riband some years ago. Over eighteen knots! Dashed fine weather too, I expect. But sixteen ought to do, today.” 

When I declined to bet on our ship’s speed, his enthusiasm wilted. 

I watched his puzzlement and guessed the question in his mind. Why had a dashing fine lady like Diana accepted such a big, plodding fellow as myself? What on earth did she see in me? Sometimes, when that quiet look closed her off, I wondered too. 

The younger brother gave Diana a shy grin. “Do you play croquet?” 

“Vernon!” cried Miss Rood, adding, in apology, “We’d just made up a foursome. Though if Mr. O’Trey would join us . . . ?” 

“Come now, Felicity, ’tisn’t like tennis,” Vernon protested, then asked Diana, “D’you prefer shuffleboard?” 

Despite his fawning manner and the consequent disgust of the debutante, the party got along tolerably well. Breakfast was cleared away, but Diana had not looked at me once.

Vernon glanced around the table. “How ’bout a riddle: Why’s the ocean so sad?” 

The company exchanged glances and shrugs. 

“I love riddles!” cried Miss Rood. 

Vernon grinned. “Because it’s blue! Here’s another. Why did the fish blush?” 

“Don’t be daft,” said his brother. 

Smiling and curious, Miss Rood said, “Go on, why?” 

“Because he saw the ocean’s bottom!” 

Miss Rood laughed, then covered her mouth. Glaring, Mrs. Evansworth gasped. “Mr. Farley! You are outrageous!” 

The Evansworths got up to leave, their eyes shooting Vernon bullets of disapproval. Others at our table followed suit with less censure. Algernon pressed his lips together, but Vernon tossed his head with a defiant pout. 

As we left, Diana murmured to me, “Saying that in mixed company! Too risqué by far. One can’t say ‘bottom’ or ‘legs’ in public, not even when referring to a piano.” 

I pulled in a breath. What the dickens had ailed her? Until I knew what caused it, I could not rest easy. Dammit, why wouldn’t she tell me? Couldn’t she trust me to protect her? 

Copyright © 2023 by Nev March. All rights reserved.

About The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret by Nev March:

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his wife Lady Diana Framji are embarking to England in the summer of 1894. Jim is hopeful the cruise will help Diana open up to him. Something is troubling her, and Jim is concerned.

On their first evening, Jim meets an intriguing Spaniard, a fellow soldier with whom he finds an instant kinship. But within twenty-four hours, Don Juan Nepomuceno is murdered, his body discovered shortly after he asks rather urgently to see Jim.

When the captain discovers that Jim is an investigator, he pleads with Jim to find the killer before they dock in Liverpool in six days, or there could be international consequences. Aboard the beleaguered luxury liner are a thousand suspects, but no witnesses to the locked-cabin crime. Jim would prefer to keep Diana safely out of his investigation, but he’s doubled over, seasick. Plus, Jim knows Diana can navigate the high society world of the ship’s first-class passengers in ways he cannot.

Together, using the tricks gleaned from their favorite fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Jim and Diana must learn why one man’s life came to a murderous end.

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