The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 166: Adventures In Viticulture

Chateau Rennell 1926

The passengers had gone ashore to see the sights of Kirakira. This meant Captain Everett and his officers could convene in the mess hall without fear of interruption. The view outside was idyllic -- a brilliant panorama of mountains, sea, and sky. The mood inside was... perplexed.

"First an anthropologist, then an architect," marveled Iverson, "Who would have imagined there could be so many fellows with similar-sounding professions gallivanting about the Pacific on blimps?"

"And that doesn't even begin to exhaust the alternatives," Jenkins observed helpfully. "Now that we're aware of the possibility, we might also expect to find arc-welders, archdukes, arbitrators, archbishops, art collectors, arctic explorers, artisans, arquebusiers..."

"I thought the latter had been rendered obsolete by the invention of muskets," said Iverson.

The signalman shook his head. "After our experiences to date, I wouldn't be surprised if we came across a few holdouts practicing their marksmanship aboard some French dirigible."

"A Montgolfier balloon might be more appropriate," Everett noted dryly. "But be this as it may, it appears our attempts to locate Professor Okupshchikov have reached an impasse. It may be time to try a different line of inquiry. We've learned that some group of uniquely impractical pirates is searching for our Lord Milbridge aboard an airship. These fellows had the good grace to leave us with a piece of evidence. Jenkins, were you able to learn anything from that wine bottle?"

Jenkins reached into his satchel to produce the container they'd recovered from Mister Trenton's yacht. Its shape was unremarkable, but the label -- a sketch of some fantastic sea creature printed with the words `Chateau Rennell' -- was quite unlike anything they'd ever seen before. "I would draw your attention to this name," said the signalman.

"This came from Rennell Island?" MacKiernan asked incredulously. "That's just an upraised atoll in the middle of the Coral Sea. There's nothing there but coralline rock!"

"It would seem that it also has a vineyard," said Everett. "I believe we should investigate."

From the air, Rennell Island looked like an elongated spoon. The bowl, at its southeastern end, was Lake Tegano -- a very un-island-like body of water more than eighteen miles long and six miles wide. Apparently this had once been a lagoon, which had been cut off from the ocean by whatever geological process had uplifted the atoll from the sea. This same process had also created a line of cliffs, forty to fifty feet high, that ringed the island's entire shore. This left the place with no real port: just a few small landings reached by stairs hewn into the rock.

The closest thing Rennell had to a capital was the village of Tigoa, at the eastern end of the lake. This had a small air station, but rather than risk his ship to such primitive facilities, Everett elected to set down in the lake itself and send a party ashore aboard the launch. If pressed, he might have admitted that the Transporter would have served just as well, but it seemed a shame not to miss this opportunity.

Once again, Iverson found himself in charge of the shore party. To his dismay, Isobel and Miss Stewart insisted on coming along. There seemed no plausible reason to object, for it was difficult to imagine how any would-be abductors could scale the cliffs to threaten the viscount's ward... although the lieutenant would have welcomed an attempt to make off with the governess.

"You can't expect Miss Isobel to sit in this second row of seats facing aft," Miss Stewart complained. "She'll be in plain view of men in the third row. This would not be appropriate."

"We could seat her in the third row," suggested Iverson.

"Then she'd be in view of men in the second row."

"Suppose she sits in front, next to the pilot?"

"Without a chaperone? That is hardly acceptable."

Officers of the Royal Navy Airship Service were expected to remain civil under any and all circumstances -- even ones such as this. "Would the rear cockpit afford an adequate measure of privacy?" Iverson asked politely.

The governess frowned. "Surely you don't expect a lady of breeding to ride back in steerage?"

Disembarking at Tigoa's quay was predictably awkward. Isobel, who seemed to view the world with childlike innocence, was quite happy to accept a hand up to the dock. Miss Stewart, who most certainly did not, was quick to put a stop to this. The governess was also quite firm in her insistence that the men climb to the dock first, lest they glimpse things they shouldn't. Somehow Iverson managed to get his passengers ashore and find the route to the vineyard without offending the governess's sense of propriety, but more aggravations loomed.

"Look!" said Isobel, smiling as she pointed. "There are crabs in those trees!"

"Those would be coconut crabs, birgus latro," observed Jenkins. "They are terrestrial arthropods, with a variety of specialized adaptations for life on land."

Miss Stewart scowled. "That is quite unacceptable. Crabs should remain in the ocean where they belong."

The estate house at Chateau Rennell recalled the tale of the Three Little Pigs -- specifically, the house made of straw. The winery itself wasn't significantly more substantial. But the vintner, a lanky Englishman who seemed every bit as cheerful as Miss Stewart wasn't, did his best to make his guests feel welcome. He found them seats in the shade, stepped into his dwelling, and returned bearing a hamper.

"Would you care for a baguette?" he asked. "I'm afraid I can't offer you any cheese, for this land isn't any good for raising livestock, but the bread comes fresh from our bakery."

"Thank you," said Iverson, before Miss Stewart could raise some objection. "What inspired you to start a vineyard here?"

"The soil," said the vintner. "Wine grapes thrive best in places that drain well, without too many unwanted nutrients to affect the flavor. This is porous coralline sand -- as well-drained as anyone could possibly ask for -- and except for a small amount of guano, it's almost entirely lacking in nitrogenous material. I will let you judge the result for yourself. Can I interest you in a red?

"Miss Isobel does not drink spirits," Miss Stewart replied sternly. "Neither do I."

"A pity," said the vintner. "This may well be the best wine you could ever find in this part of the Coral Sea." He produced a bottle and a set of glasses and poured for Iverson and his men.

The Royal Navy Airship Service owed much of its unique character to tea, but as gentlemen, its officers were expected to have some appreciation of the refinements of civilization. The lieutenant took a sip, considered the palate, and nodded. "Not bad."

The vintner furrowed his brow in puzzlement, then examined the bottle. "Ah, my mistake," he said apologetically. "I must have given you some of that Wyndham Estates shiraz I picked up in Sydney." He produced another bottle and poured a second glass. "Try this one."

"That is a... remarkable vintage," spluttered Iverson after he recovered his breath.

"That was our conclusion as well," the vintner said sadly. "But oddly enough, there does seem to be a market for this. A French airship calls here every week or so to take a few cases to New Caledonia. I have no idea why. I can't imagine that anyone drinks it. Perhaps they use it for some industrial process."

Next week: A Bit of Market Research...

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