Episode 166: Adventures In Viticulture
The passengers had gone ashore to see the sights of Kirakira, which 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
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
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
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
"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 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’s a... remarkable vintage," spluttered Iverson after he recovered his
"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
Next week: A Bit of Market Research...
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