Episode 451: Daring Damsels of Darwin
The Darwin office of the North Australia Railroad was tucked away in a
corner of the town's modest commercial district, across the lane from a
hardware store. Like most colonial buildings in this part of Australia's
`Top End', it had a sturdy tiled roof and louvered windows to ensure
adequate ventilation during the Wet -- the torrential monsoons that ran
from November through March. These features were being pressed into
Clarice pushed aside the notepad on which she'd been sketching designs for
a marine reduction gear, and sighed. "I'm bored," she complained to Emily.
Her companion looked up from the typewriter she'd been reassembling.
"So am I," she conceded.
The two young women's attitude was understandable given the location of
their office. Darwin was the very end of the line -- the last stop before
the Timor Sea -- and even during the dry season, service was infrequent.
Now, with several portions of the line underwater, there was little for
its staff to do.
"I rather miss our time aboard the Flying Cloud," Emily added
wistfully. "That was fun!"
"You and Jenkins seemed to have a good time on Bikini Atoll," Clarice
quipped. "What were you doing on that honeymoon resort?"
"Go on!" said Emily. "We were spying on those German nationalists. And
you're hardly in position to talk. You had your eye on the Captain ever
since we went aboard."
Clarice frowned indignantly. "Give it away! The man's insufferable!"
"You suffered a visit to that honeymoon resort at Rabaul with the man.
And I saw how you looked at him when he rescued us at the secret air
station in the Northwest Territory."
"I was not looking at him!"
The intellectual content of the debate was saved from further decline by a
knock on the door. They turned to see their Aunt Prodigia enter.
Floorboards creaked beneath her boots. As well they might. No
architect could possibly have anticipated the challenge.
"G'day!" she announced in much the same tone of voice she might have used
to hail a passing steamship. "You sheilas look bored. Would you like to
join me for some yakker?"
Clarice and Emily exchanged a set of glances. Their aunts' suggestions
could be unpredictable. They might not want to seem too eager.
"Perhaps," Clarice replied cautiously. "What did you have in mind?"
"I'm taking the Herring out on a job tomorrow and I could use
someone handy with the machinery."
Clarice and Emily exchanged a second set of glances. Perhaps they might
want to seem eager after all. "Do tell!" said Emily.
"I'll be taking a gander at that grounded freighter Captain Everett came
across last July. If we could float her off, she'd be worth big bickies."
"What about the original owner?" Clarice asked, remembering that owner's
handiness with a battle axe.
"The ship was captured by pirates, who took the crew prisoner," said the
matron. "Under Admiralty law, capture of the crew by a hostile force
terminates their employment contract, leaving the vessel legally
abandoned, which makes it legitimate salvage."
It didn't take Clarice and Emily long to think this over. "When do we
leave?" they asked.
"Tomorrow on the morning tide."
The Stalking Herring was an oceangoing salvage tug, almost as sturdy
and powerful as her owner. Built by John Lewis and Sons of Glasgow shortly
after the War -- the Franco-Prussian one, not the recent conflagration -- she
was 148 feet long, 360 tons burden, with a triple-compound engine that had
produced 900 horsepower when new, and even more after Aunt Prodigia had made
some improvements. Originally the Lively of Bristol, she'd led a solid but
undistinguished career in the Atlantic and North Sea. The circumstances
that had brought her to Australia and led to her change of name were lost in
the mists of history.
Vessels of this class weren't noted for their speed, but the passage from
Darwin was uneventful. The elements knew better than to annoy Aunt Prodigia,
and the few scattered rain squalls moved hastily out of their way. Four days
later, on the morning of the 21st, they raised the west coast of Cape York
Peninsula -- to the extent that it was possible to raise land that had an
average elevation of twelve feet.
Prodigia examined the shoreline through binoculars. "That will be
Pormpuraaw, on the mouth of the Edward River," she announced, pointing to
a spot where the mangroves hid a few small thatch-roofed huts. "It's named
after an anesthesiologist from Melbourne."
"Pormpuraaw?" Emily asked innocently.
Aunt Prodigia's guffaw would have made a draft horse envious. "No, he was
named Edward," she replied. "Your Aunt Monumenta met his brother when she
Emily gave a prudent nod, uncertain that any sentence that combined the
concepts of `aunt' and `young' could be grammatically correct. "Where did
the freighter go aground?" asked Clarice.
"Somewhere to the north," said Aunt Prodigia. "I got the story from your
Aunt Leviatha. Judging from the story she got from Captain Everett, he must
have spotted the vessel between here and Cape Veermeer. We'll steam along
the coast until we find her."
The search did not prove particularly challenging, and a few hours later,
they were lying offshore, inspecting their quarry from a distance. She was
a small vessel, less than 2000 tons burden, with cargo holds amidships and
her machinery aft. She'd gone aground on soft sand, and aside from the
predictable rust and bird droppings, still seemed reasonably sound from
where they lay.
The name Viking Girl, Nuku'alofa, Tonga was written in fading
letters on the stern.
"Bonzer, the boat's still here!" said Aunt Priodigia. "I'd worried someone
might have nicked her ahead of us. We'll take our cutter in for a squiz
and see what kind of shape she's in."
Launching the tug's cutter, scrambling aboard, and rowing over to the
freighter was the work of a few moments. A short time later, Aunt Prodigia
was pitching a grappling hook up to catch on the vessel's bulwarks. When
this was secure, she hitched up her skirt and made her way up the rope,
confident that none of her oarsmen would take advantage of the perspective.
Clarice and Emily followed, confident that no one risk their aunt's ire.
Like the hull, the deck was streaked with a year's worth of bird droppings,
but otherwise seemed intact. In front of the deckhouse, rusted halves of a
rifle flanked a deep gash in the planks. The hatch covers were missing,
discarded by the pirates, and what remained of the cargo, an unprepossessing
load of some greenish-black ore, was awash in a year's worth of rainwater,
but this seemed lower than the level of the surrounding ocean, suggesting
that the hull was intact.
Aunt Prodigia nodded in satisfaction. "That doesn't look too crook. We'll
sound the holds and the engine room. If they come good, we'll bring a line
over from the Herring, float our gear across on a raft, pump this tub out,
and wait for the tide to float her off."
This seemed like a good plan to Clarice. She opened her mouth to reply,
then felt Emily tugging her sleeve. "Don't look now, but we have
visitors," said the brunette.
Clarice looked where her companion was pointing, smiled, and clapped her
hands in delight. "Dinki di!" she exclaimed. "It's the
Next week: What Are You Doing Here?...
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