Episode 167: A Bit of Market Research
The wardroom was an airy compartment -- little more than a platform bolted
atop the keel, with hull envelope forming the walls to either side.
Furniture was limited to a card table and some lightweight wicker chairs.
Acetate windows, rolled up to provide ventilation, gave a dramatic view of
the Pacific. Digby leaned out to gaze aft at the Number One engine car,
where the ship’s engineer was overhauling a cylinder head.
"More delays," he sighed. "I can’t say that this digression has brought us
any closer to finding the viscount."
Michael gave a philosophical shrug. "It seemed like a good idea at the
time. A man of his stature would surely be traveling in style. And how
many yachts could there possibly be in this part of the Pacific?"
"More than we imagined," his twin said glumly. "I wonder how Vincenzo is
As if on cue, a jovial figure ducked through the aft hatch, smiled, and
raised a bottle. Digby relaxed when he saw it was a bottle of Chianti.
"A toast!" said the captain, "to celebrate our progress!"
"But we haven't found a single thing!" said Digby.
The captain smiled, produced an opener, and popped the cork. "All the more
reason to drink!" he replied. "And we must... how you say...
enfatizzare the positive. By excluding one possibility, we free
ourselves to concentrate on the other."
"You mean to resume our search for the Professor?"
"Naturalmente. We know he was in correspondence with the visconte.
And now, thanks to your efforts in Port Moresby, we can guess where the
signore might be. If we find the one, it is only a matter of time until we
find the other!"
The captain had just started pouring a round when the engineer appeared.
Like most members of the ship’s notably motley crew, he spoke a language
that resembled English.
"We finish restoring the valves," he reported. "The job goes very fast.
That new decarbonizing formula, it works the wonders!"
Experience had taught Captain Everett that French handling crews might not
be at their best in the morning, so he timed the Flying Cloud’s
arrival at Noumea to give them a few extra hours. The capital of New
Caledonia looked much as it had the year before: a small French village,
reproduced on a Pacific island by someone who’d heard a description of
French villages and thought he knew what they looked like. The monumental
Cathédrale Saint-Joseph de Nouméa did seem vaguely plausible, but
the rest of the settlement was somewhat less convincing.
The only other airship in port was an antiquated-looking Parseval with a
pallet of logwood on a sling. Based on a pre-War German design, the
Parsevals had an inflatable envelope reinforced by a rigid keel. In theory,
this ‘semi-rigid’ configuration was supposed to combine the low cost and
weight of a blimp with the speed and operational capabilities of a
conventional airship. In practice, results varied. While some of the minor
Powers favored such designs for reasons of economy and made remarkable
claims about their performance, few of those claims stood up to scrutiny.
Everett studied the other vessel, then turned to MacKiernan. "I’ll leave
you in charge of resupply while Jenkins and I visit the shipper. They
appear to conduct regular flight operations here, so I believe we can trust
the purity of their hydrogen, but perform the usual tests to make sure."
"Who shall I assign to escort our passengers when they ask to go ashore?"
asked the exec.
Everett thought this over. The request was inevitable and the assignment
unenviable. "We'll let Mister Murdock have the duty this time," he replied.
"I believe Mister Iverson deserves a break."
Mooring took somewhat more time than it might have at Cairns, but at last
the ship was on the mast and Everett and Jenkins were able to make their way
to town. Their route passed the harbor, which was cluttered with shipping
that ranged from fishing boats and island schooners in varying states of
disrepair to freighters, a revenue cutter, and several modern yachts. One
of the latter attracted Jenkin’s attention.
"A Mighty Fortress?" he observed. "That’s a rather prepossessing
name for a pleasure craft."
"I imagine it belongs to some evangelical organization," said Everett. "Do
we have an address for this warehouse?"
"It’s supposed to be somewhere along Rue d’Austerlitz, just off the
Voie de Degagement. That should be it just ahead."
Like most commercial buildings in Francophile parts of the Pacific, the
shipper’s office had a comfortable and well-ventilated practicality that was
all-t0o-often missing from architecture in the British colonies. Spacious
windows let in the breeze, while broad awnings kept out the sun. The shipper
-- a middle-aged Frenchman with the air of an old tropic hand -- sized up
their Royal Navy uniforms, smiled, and opened a cupboard to produce a
passable grade of tea.
"How can I help you gentlemen?" he asked while the pot was boiling.
"I understand you deal in wine," said Everett.
"Oui," said the shipper. "I have some of the new reds from Australia, a
variety of good table wines from Italy and France, and a limited quantity of
finer vintages for the more discriminating palette."
"Do you carry Chateau Rennell?"
The Frenchman’s expression underwent a remarkable change. "Oh, that one.
We do deal with it on occasion, but not as a beverage. We distribute it as
an industrial solvent. It can also serve as a preservative -- the high resin
content inhibits microbial action."
"Might we examine your books?" asked Everett.
The shipper drew himself up with some dignity. "Monsieur!" he announced
sternly. "That would be an invasion of our confidentiality!"
"Might we offer you a consulting fee?"
"An bon?" The Frenchman pulled out a ledger, flipped this open,
and pointed to a page. "Voila! You will notice here where we sold a
shipment to Futuna."
"Where?" asked Jenkins.
"Under this entry marked ‘paint thinner’."
Even with Pierre to help with the language, Lieutenant Murdock found
escorting the ship's passengers more troublesome than he’d anticipated.
Miss Isobel was easily distracted, and required constant attention lest she
wander off. Her chaperone, Miss Stewart, could not be distracted at all,
and seemed to disapprove of everything they encountered. At last, after
several near-disasters at a curio shop, a pig dealership, and demonstration
of native dances, the lieutenant led his party to a café that catered to
missionaries. It was the only place that seemed safe.
By the time the two women were seated, they'd begun a detailed discussion
of gossip back in England. Murdock soon gave up trying to follow this.
How could anyone possibly be interested in such things, he wondered? Why
couldn't they talk about something exciting, like atmospheric temperature
gradients? He was casting about, seeking something to relieve the boredom,
when he overheard a scrap of conversation from a nearby table.
"Pirates? With an airship?" asked a man dressed in clerical robes.
"We were hoping to find cannibals," said his companion, who also
appeared to be a missionary, "but this was almost as good!"
"Excuse me," said Murdock, "but I couldn’t help but overhear you mention
something about pirates."
"Oh yes!" said the second missionary. "It was a magnificent opportunity to
win converts. Souls gone astray, tempted by the lure of worldly..."
"With an airship?"
"Yes. A sorry misuse of one of humanity's noblest accomplishments! The
gift of flight should never be..."
"What precisely happened?"
"We were four days out of Sydney when a small airship flew overhead. They
called down on a megaphone, ordering us to stop, and three men descended on
a hoist. Two seemed to be Anglicans -- I can recognize them a mile away --
and the third was almost certainly a Catholic. They must have sensed our
peaceful intent, for as soon as they got a good look at us, they apologized
for the intrusion and left."
"Did they take anything?" asked the lieutenant.
"It seemed uncharitable to let them to leave empty-handed, so we forced them
to accept a drum of fuel and some pieces of native artwork. We also offered
them some promotional literature, but they said they didn't have room."
Next week: Variations on a Theme...
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