Saturday 13 April 2019

An Emerald Excursion

by M Sullivan


Captain David Eccles, late of the Royal Dragoon Guards and the North Irish Horse regiment died on Tuesday morning. It is believed he had been in good health lately so his death came as a great shock to his family, close friends and former colleagues.

The much-decorated and admired military man was last seen on Saturday 30th June on the evening train to Belfast, returning from a day excursion on the north Antrim coast. It is understood he had spent the day exploring the newly opened Gobbins Path. He was a frequent railway traveller on the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway and other well-known routes throughout Ireland exploring the many new excursions now available to day trippers. He had become well acquainted with many of the staff working at the various stations in the northern counties – conductors, guards and drivers alike. As a former engineer by profession, he was fascinated by the power of the steam engine to transform everyone’s lives in opening up affordable transport across the island. He also liked to witness at first hand the great feats of engineering displayed in the magnificent railway bridges and awe-inspiring viaducts. He was an avid follower of the work of Berkley Deane Wise and his dramatic masterpiece at the Gobbins Path was therefore of great interest to Captain Eccles. He was delighted to be among the first visitors to experience it.

Captain Eccles was often seen travelling on the railways alone and seemed to be happy in his own company. Often he made new friends along the way as he struck up conversation with fellow passengers. Apparently he was more recently seen travelling with one lady in particular. The identity of his lady companion is not clear, but many have seen her about Belfast in the last few months and in the company of Captain Eccles in various provincial towns. Wherever she has been spotted her exquisite wardrobe has been noted. A number of gowns and coats of velvet and rich silks decorated with fringes have been remarked upon. The ornaments on her hats have been commented on, ranging from exotic feathers and bunches of roses to a bird of paradise, certainly not often seen in Anderson and McAuley’s mantle department.

The guard at Whitehead station remembered Captain Eccles and his lady companion boarding the train and making their way to the dining car last Saturday. He described her appearance as ‘striking’ and noted that she was wearing an emerald velvet coat with a matching emerald velvet hat with long peacock feathers. He could not recall seeing them arriving in Whitehead together earlier that day. He admitted it could have been possible as the station was particularly busy that morning when the crowds flocked to the station to take the jaunting cars and charabancs to the Gobbins Path.
Some fellow travellers noted that they had spotted the couple as they made their way along the Gobbins Path that day. Indeed, it was difficult not to take notice. Again the ‘memorable’ appearance of the lady wearing the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with long peacock feathers was noted. Some day trippers remarked that they made an elegant couple, while others noted that they did not consider the lady’s attire the most suitable for the terrain to be covered on such a trip in summer. One traveller remarked that the lady in the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with long peacock feathers seemed flushed, perhaps from the day out in the sun and the bracing sea air. It had been the hottest day so far this year.

By all appearances the couple seemed to have been enjoying each other’s company that day at the coast. As they had returned to the station in the charabanc the lady in the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with long peacock feathers had been overheard telling Captain Eccles of many local legends. The charabanc driver had heard her retell the story of the giant Gobbin Saor. She also told Captain Eccles that it was widely believed the crimson stains which cover many parts of the cliffs record the struggles of the early kings of Dalriada or that they could be the martyr blood of the victims of Druid sacrifices from early Celtic days. Captain Eccles had laughed at this and told her a more likely cause was iron deposits in the red clay.

When they boarded the train Captain Eccles chose a secluded corner table in the dining car. The waiter noticed that the lady in the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with long peacock feathers seemed animated as the couple relived their day out together. He overheard them recount how they had climbed ‘The Man ‘O War’ and crossed The Tubular Bridge. Captain Eccles had been thrilled to walk through ‘Wise’s Eye’ and see Otter Cave. His lady companion in the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with the long peacock feathers had been enthralled by Sandy Cave and the Suspension Bridge. She had been delighted to have the handsome Captain Eccles as her companion to assist her in navigating the steep steps and death-defying bridges.
As the train pulled out of Whitehead station the waiter served high tea, the one the BNCR line is famed for. The couple were deep in conversation as they ate their roast chicken in the sultry evening air. They seemed oblivious to the other diners and stunning rugged scenery the train left behind in its wake.

The waiter in the dining car is reported to have noted that when he went to clear the couple’s empty dinner plates, he heard their raised voices. Not wishing to intrude, he left them to their discussion, hoping it would dissipate, planning to return later to take their plates away.

One passenger at a nearby table noted he had been embarrassed by the altercation building between the couple. He said his roast beef dinner had been interrupted by their raised voices as an argument began to develop. He recalled the conversation and debate seemed to have been sparked by an article in the newspaper Captain Eccles had bought at the station relating to popular beverages. This was most unusual behaviour in the dining car on this train. Most passengers were drowsy with happiness from their day’s excursion to the seaside. It was not the seemly behaviour expected from a gentleman and his lady companion travelling in first class on the BNCR line.

The lady in the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with the long peacock feathers was overheard to say, “There is nothing more nourishing and warming in cold weather than a cup of really good cocoa, David, but the difficulty has been to obtain it pure. Why I read only this week that we may escape many a fatal shaft by drinking cocoa. It helps us keep well-fortified with pure blood and a properly nourished frame.”

“It certainly helps keep you looking well, my dear.”

“Epp’s cocoa is comforting and has saved me many a doctor’s bill but it does not taste half as good as the cocoa served here. You should try some David.”

Captain Eccles replied, “My dear, I read yesterday that the annual report of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue shows that consumption of alcoholic spirits is declining in the United Kingdom and especially in Ireland. The Commissioners think that the decline in spirits is due partly to the extended development of the coffee palace and tea house movement. I do believe tea should be served at tea time though – cocoa is for bedtime. Let’s have some tea now.”

“I would like some cocoa. I am feeling rather chilled now.”

“It is quite warm in here. Are you feeling ill? You look slightly flushed.”

“I am quite well, thank you. I am a little tired from our day’s exertions. A cup of cocoa would be the perfect pick-me up.”

“I do believe the proper etiquette is to have tea at tea time. We will have tea.”

“If you will not permit me to have cocoa we can at least enjoy these cakes together.”

“You know I find the cakes too sweet, my dear. I have to watch my diet these days. I shall stick with the tea and a scone. You have the butterfly cake or the slice of Victoria sponge if you would like that too. You know I want you to have what you like, my dear,” he said, pointing to the silver cake stand on their table.

“Thank you. The Victoria sponge here is quite delicious. I will have a piece of that please. However, you know what I would like most of all David.”

“Cocoa? I know you would like cocoa. You have made that quite plain, but a lady does not drink cocoa at teatime.”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous! Not cocoa!”

“What is it then?”

“We have spoken of it often enough.”

“My dear, what you want is simply not possible. Oh that it were, my dear.”

“If you really meant that you would make it happen. It is within your power.”

“Oh that I could, I would, my dear.”

“I can take this no more, David. I have waited too long. I can wait no more.”

The train sounded its shrill whistle as it sped through the small villages along the way at Ballycarry, Downshire and Clipperstown. At Carrickfergus groups of tired, contented passengers alit and made their way onward to their homes. The rhythmic clickety clack, clickety clack on the tracks as the engine sped on to Belfast lulled relaxed passengers to sleep in the warm carriages. The steam engine chugged steadily into the Midland Station lightening its load at every stop. By the time the train had emerged from the tunnel after Botanic station, the few remaining travellers were beginning to rise from their tables to disembark at Great Victoria Street station. As the carriages emptied, the waiter began to clear the tables and tidy the dining car.

Captain Eccles was found slumped in his chair at the table, a copy of that evening’s Belfast Telegraph draped over his lap like a large crisp damask dinner napkin. At first the waiter thought he was sleeping. Then he noticed red stains on the starched linen tablecloth. They were neither from the beetroot salad he had served earlier nor from the strawberry jam accompanying the scones.

A doctor was called and after examination Captain David Eccles was taken to the Belfast Royal Hospital by horse drawn ambulance where he remained while his condition steadily worsened until he left this world three days later. For a few days the dining carriage remained at Great Victoria Street station while the Royal Irish Constabulary were examining the scene. County Inspector McBrattan advised that a post mortem was carried out. It found that Captain David Eccles had been poisoned by a substance in his tea, prior to suffering mortal wounds. No other travellers in the dining car that day have been known to display similar poisoning symptoms.

The lady wearing the emerald velvet coat with the matching emerald velvet hat with the long peacock feathers who had spent the day with Captain David Eccles is under investigation. County Inspector McBrattan has asked anyone who knows the identity or whereabouts of this mysterious lady to contact the RIC at Queen Street barracks. A silver steak knife missing from the dining car is also being sought.

Captain David Eccles is survived by his wife Caroline and their children George, Mary, Robert, Christina, John, Edward, Anne and Thomas. It is understood his estate is extensive.

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