Episode 134: An Audience With the Queen
"You think it was your Lieutenant Blacker?' asked Collins.
"An English officer with a pronounced dueling scar on one temple, wandering
about the South Pacific?" said Everett. "I can't think of more than half a
dozen. During the past two centuries."
"I wonder about the timing," said Collins. "He was here in Fiji a week ago,
but the cruiser didn't arrive until the day before yesterday."
"It is a mystery," agreed Everett.
"And he spoke with Iverson's informant."
"Who told him that the Russians offloaded their cargo in Port Moresby,
presumably to send it to Tonga on a different ship. I imagine that's where
those fellows are bound now."
"Do you think your people will spot them in time?"
"This has become a matter of some concern. I'd send a message to warn them,
but there's no cable to Tonga, and if their wireless is maintained according
to the same standards as their air station, I'd hesitate to rely on it for
anything of importance."
"We could send one of the Wolleslies," suggested Collins.
Everett shook his head. "That cruiser would make short work of it in an
engagement. Even the Bouadicia would be at serious risk."
"Then they're on their own until your vessel is repaired." Collins opened a
folder, studied its contents, and frowned. "Lindsey estimates it will take
two days to fabricate new girders for your lower fin, another two days to
install them, then three days to fit new fabric, adjust the rigging, and
qualify the ship for flight."
The two men exchanged worried glances. A lot could happen in that time.
Collins picked up a duty roster, compared it with the report, and made some
"We might be able to improve on this schedule," he said. "I'll have my
people work around the clock. In the meantime, we can contact Commodore
Sears to see if he can spare one of his destroyers to carry a message. It's
a three day passage to Tonga, but that's better than nothing."
Everett nodded. "MacKiernan is a resourceful officer. I trust he'll be
able to stay out of trouble for three days."
The Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa was more substantial than MacKiernan had
expected. Spacious, elegant, and tasteful, it compared favorably with many
English manors. The floors were native wood, varnished to a rich luster.
The furnishings would not have seemed out of place in a London townhouse.
The walls were trimmed with fine wainscoting and lined with portraits of the
Abercrombie seemed ill-at-ease as they waited outside the audience hall.
MacKiernan could understand his companion's apprehension. Royalty could be
intimidating -- even royalty of a country as small as this one. Miss
Perkins, on the other hand, seemed entirely unperturbed. Does anything
affect that woman? wondered the Irishman. She must have a heart of
"Are there any special ceremonies we should observe?" he asked Ashton.
The Consul thought this over. "If you were an ordinary Tongan, you'd be
expected to approach Her Majesty on your knees. You would not be allowed to
eat or drink in the Royal Presence, and it could be a capital offense to
allow your shadow to touch hers. As British subjects, I believe the
ordinary courtesies will suffice."
MacKiernan glanced at Miss Perkins, wondering if ordinary courtesies would
suffice with her. His speculations were interrupted by the arrival of the
"Her Highness will see you now."
Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tupou III, had not been born to rule. A member of
the junior branch of the royal family, her position should have been purely
ceremonial. But the Influenza had struck these islands hard, carrying off
her predecessors as it had carried off so many others throughout the world,
and left her the crown. Traditionalists had resisted the idea of a
Tu'i Kanokupolu -- and a woman at that -- ascending the throne.
But some leaders seem to grow in the face of adversity, and Queen Salote was
such a one.
Her Majesty was a tall woman in her late twenties. While not as voluminous
as some of her subjects, she had considerable physical presence, like a
sturdy oak or an outcropping of stone. She greeted the airmen with a gravity
beyond her years.
"Welcome to Tonga," she told them. "We have always felt considerable regard
for members of the British Royal Navy. We have heard of your misfortune at
the Air Station. We regret any inconvenience this might have caused and
hope the rest of your visit will be more pleasant."
Her voice was surprisingly firm, and the royal `We' sounded sincere and
"Thank you, Your Majesty," replied MacKiernan, as smoothly as he could.
"The inconvenience is minor, and has given us the opportunity to see more of
your wonderful land. But I wonder if we could ask a favor. We understand
that a group of White Russian exiles has established themselves somewhere
in your realm."
"We know of the party to whom you refer," said the Queen. "An archaeologist
petitioned on their behalf... what was his name?"
"Professor Otkupshchikov," volunteered the minister, "that fellow with the
blimp. Her Majesty has always supported the practice of archeology."
"We have a message for these Russians," said MacKiernan. "Could you tell us
where we might find them?"
An awkward silence fell over the audience chamber. Queen Salote studied her
visitors as if they'd committed some unpardonable breach of manners. Behind
her, the minister flinched. MacKiernan froze, wondering what he'd
"You must understand," the Queen said in an icy voice. "Tongans place a
great store on hospitality. This is part of fakatonga: the Tongan
Way. These Russians were nobles, driven from their home by revolution and
war. They came seeking a measure of peace. Who are you to intrude upon
MacKiernan's spirits sank. It seemed this audience was at an end. He
was preparing to make his excuses when Miss Perkins interrupted.
"Permission to speak, Your Majesty."
Queen Salote turned to glare at the secretary. Watching the contest of
wills, MacKiernan understood how neutral countries must have regarded the
Great War. At last the Queen nodded.
"We understand your concern for your guests," said Miss Perkins politely.
"But others are looking for them -- people who may not have their best
interests at heart. It may be important that we find them first."
The Queen thought this over. "We will grant your request," she said at
last. "We trust you'll give us no reason to regret this. The people you
seek are on the island of Eua. We will have Our secretary draw you up a
letter of introduction."
The three travelers took passage to Eua on a ferry run by one of the
missions -- an ancient steam launch, left over from the previous century,
so decrepit that MacKiernan wouldn't take Abercrombie's bet they'd drown.
The engine was notably inefficient, producing great billows of smoke
that eddied and swirled around the passenger deck. The smoke seemed to
steer clear of Miss Perkins where she stood by the rail.
Understandable, thought the Irishman, as he joined her to
review their discoveries.
"That Queen is a formidable woman," said Miss Perkins.
"She's not the only one," replied MacKiernan, quite sincerely.
She surprised him with a smile. "Why thank you, Mister MacKiernan. And
you seem almost civilized, for an airshipman."
The Irishman laughed. "You're very kind, Miss Perkins. As Jenkins would
observe, we have standards to maintain."
"Who do you think they are; these Russians?"
"It's difficult to say. So many
refugees fled the country after the Revolution. Their acquaintance with
Professor Oktup... Otkupsh... whatever the fellow's name is suggests
they're minor nobility from Irkutsk or Kamchatka, but there's no telling
what we'll find."
"I trust this won't turn into another adventure," the secretary said
primly. "I have no desire to be kidnapped and threatened again. Or
threatened and kidnapped, as the case may be."
"I wouldn't worry," said MacKiernan.
"These islands seem peaceful enough. Besides, it's a beautiful day to be
out on the water, and I could never complain about the company."
The words were out of his mouth before he realized what he'd said.
Good heavens! he wondered in alarm, Did I really mean
Miss Perkins began a reply
-- some retort, perhaps, laced with hints of sarcasm --
then hesitated and fell silent, as if she too had just realized something
Next week: An Unexpected Move...
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