The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 200: The Fourth Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Santa dogfight

They found Abercrombie and Bludge sitting in a bar near the water, nursing tankards of ale. Both men looked somewhat battered, with bruises that might have seemed life-threatening on lesser individuals. The butler's attire looked comparatively undamaged, but the rigger's uniform was clearly due for replacement.

"Abercrombie!" exclaimed Captain Everett. "So this is where you ended up!"

"Aye, Captain," beamed the Scotsman. "It seemed the right place tae wait for your return. They have a guid IPA."

"And you must be Bludge," said Everett.

"Sir," the butler replied politely. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance." As always, his cultured voice was entirely at odds with his troll-like appearance.

"I assume you're aware of the current state of affairs?" Everett asked.

The butler nodded. "Past experience suggests that the baron and Lord Milbridge will have resolved their differences in a comparatively peaceful fashion... which might not have been entirely to the baron's satisfaction."

"So they have," said Everett. "It's been quite the complicated affair."

Bludge gestured as if this was a matter of small import. "One must be ready for such things," he observed. "I have encountered comparable levels of confusion in the past."

"Really?" asked Miss Stewart. She seemed astonished by the possibility.

The butler leaned back in his chair to reminisce. It creaked under the strain, but didn't collapse. After a moment of reflection, the butler began his tale.

I was in the service of the old baron then, working in the stables. I was but a stripling at the time, and hadn't come into my full growth, but I was still able to lend a hand moving anvils, horses, coaches, and the like.

The old baron was a strong character -- not a man to be trifled with -- and he doted on his only son. He wanted to do something special for the young baron's tenth Christmas. That year was the semisesquicentennial of the Christmas story by that American newspaperman, Mister Clement Clark Moore, so nothing would do but that we recreate this for the child.

Obtaining a sleigh and reindeer posed no great difficulty. There were plenty of the former lying about the carriage house and the latter could be rented from a zoo. Arranging for the team to fly was somewhat more challenging. The original plan involved something in the nature of an aerial tramway -- what the Swiss call a telepherique. We would run a cable from the chapel to one of the chimneys of Warfield Manor, sling the deer and sled beneath it on a breeches buoy arrangement, and pull the contraption across with a rope.

We ran into problems right from the start. Reindeer are obstreperous animals. They wanted no part in the enterprise, and they made this apparent in no uncertain terms. After several unfortunate incidents, we had to return them to the zoo and contrive replicas out of lathing and plaster. These might not have stood up to close examination, but at night, from a distance, it seemed unlikely anyone would notice.

More problems arose with the tramway itself. No matter how we arranged the pulleys, the haulage rope tended to get tangled with the track cable. It wouldn't do to have Saint Nicholas get stuck in mid-flight, so finally we abandoned the haulage system entirely, raised the starting end of the tramway, and fitted brakes to the wheel set. The arrangement was rather precarious, but it seemed adequate for a one way trip.

There remained the question of finding someone with sufficient... heft... to play Saint Nicholas. I suppose the necessary volume could have been achieved with bolsters, but the old baron had already accepted one departure from strict accuracy in the matter of the reindeer, and he wasn't about to make any more concessions. As the largest member of the domestic staff, I was the obvious candidate. Fortunately we had plenty of red cloth for a costume. That was the old baroness's favorite color -- the new one's too, for that matter.

The early practice runs were not encouraging. Sometimes the track cable would sag, and the sleigh would coast to a stop halfway across. Other times, the brakes would fail at a critical moment, resulting in a smash. But we had plenty of sleighs, and I was comparatively durable, even as a youth, so we persevered until we achieved a reasonable success rate."

At last the fateful night arrived. I felt some qualms as I climbed into the sleigh, but the old baron had little sympathy for fear, doubt, or instincts of self-preservation among his servants, so I had little choice in the matter. Someone handed me the sack. Someone else patted me on the back. Then I was sailing off into the night.

The weather was beastly, with a layer of ice over everything, including the cable. This had unfortunate consequences for the efficiency of the brakes. I pulled on the lever, but this had no effect. I pulled harder, but the sleigh continued to accelerate. At last, with a crash approaching, I braced my feet against the footboard, gripped the control with both hands, and hauled back with all my might. Metal creaked, the brakes started to bite, and the sleigh was just beginning to slow when it slammed into the roof.

It must have made quite a clatter. I lay there dazed, visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, then looked around to see if anyone had risen to learn what was the matter. Fortunately the adults were busy with Yuletide festivities while the children all seemed to be sleeping snug in their beds.

Satisfied that I hadn't been discovered, I slung the sack over my shoulder, wrapped the abseil rope around my waist, and began to descend the chimney shaft. This was the most problematical part of the whole business, for the chimneys of those old manor houses were anything but simple. Warfield Manor was typical of the lot, with a maze of main shafts, side shafts, branches, and flues complicated enough to rival the London Underground. To make matters worse, the manor had any number of guests who could be counted on to roast chestnuts, nail stockings to the mantelpieces, mull pitchers of cider, and indulge in other activities that would put paid to any system of lights and sound signals.

The baron had anticipated this difficulty and hired a chimney sweep to mark the route, but the markings proved less informative than I'd been given to expect. They were faint, hard to make out, and fraught with ambiguity. In places they seemed to be missing. In others, there seemed to be more than one set.

At last I came to an impasse. The route seemed to fork, with one set of markings leading down a shaft to the right while another led to the left. I was studying them in the light of my handlamp when a heavy pair of boots struck my shoulders.

"Excuse me," came a voice from above me. "May I ask who you are and what you're doing here in the chimneys?"

"My name is Bludge," I replied. "I'm delivering presents to the Warfield heir, disguised as Santa Claus. And you?"

"My name is Leeds," said the other man. "I'm pursuing a similar errand on behalf of the Fellmoor family. Do you have any idea where I might find their chambers?"

"No," I admitted. "There seem to be two sets of route markings. I imagine one set was intended for you while the other is for me. What should we do?"

The other man thought this over. "I doubt we'll be able to determine which route is which in the limited time we have available," he announced. "I would suggest you go right while I go left. If we arrive at the correct destinations, all well and good. If we don't, it is my experience that members of the aristocracy have more material goods than they can possibly keep track of. They'll never notice that we delivered the wrong presents."

I had my misgivings about this plan, but the man was right: we didn't have time to devise an alternative. All we could do was press on and hope for the best. And `press' proved to be the operative word. The flue grew narrower and narrower after we parted ways until I was hard put to descend without damaging the masonry. Granite is such an ephemeral material. At last I spotted light from a room below me. This was accompanied by a methodical scraping sound I was quite unable to identify. I hoped it wasn't someone trying to strike a match.

I dropped the last few feet to the fireplace and peered out. The chamber I saw was lavishly furnished, as befit a member of the upper classes, but something about the appointments bothered me. They seemed unsuitable for a young boy. My apprehension grew when I spotted the room's occupant: a small girl, aged perhaps four, sitting on a divan. She'd found a nail file somewhere, stropped it against the hearthstones -- this had been the sound I'd heard -- and now she was cutting up scraps of leather to make clothing for her doll.

The young lady seemed entirely nonplussed by my arrival. "Who are you?" she asked.

"My name is Bludge," I replied. "I'm a servant in this house."

"I'm Tenera Fellmoor," she announced. "You must be the man Father hired to play Santa Claus. Give me my presents!"

This demand presented me with something of poser. While it might be true that aristocrats couldn't keep track of their possessions, I imagined they'd notice the difference between presents intended for a ten year old boy and those for a four year old girl. Disaster threatened. Then I had an inspiration.

"I will," I replied, "after we arrive at the party."

"A party?" she said gleefully. "Take me there, now!"

There was no chance of ascending the chimney with the young lady, even if I'd had some way to carry her -- the sack seemed quite inappropriate for this purpose. Fortunately I knew my way around the manor from the times I'd been summoned to help move furniture. I eased open the door and beckoned her to follow.

For the next several minutes, I snuck through the hallways, followed by the Mistress Fellmoor. She seemed to enjoy the `sneaking' part, and I couldn't help but wonder what this might bode for her future. At last we reached the door to the young baron's chambers. Voices sounded from inside. One was demanding, "Give me my presents, now!"

I flung open the door. Inside, Lord Warfield's son had cornered Leeds next to an armoire and was menacing him with what I sincerely hoped was a toy dueling pistol. "Here they are, Young Master!" I cried, offering him my sack. "And here are yours, Mistress!" cried Leeds, offering his sack to Tenera.

The children flung open the sacks and set to work with a will, laughing with glee, unwrapping gifts, and scattering the floor with boxes. Leeds waited until the two were distracted, then took me by the elbow and steered me out the door.

"That was quick thinking, Master Bludge," he announced after we were safely outside. "I was in a bit of a spot there."

"As I would have been, if you hadn't managed to hold out, Master Leeds," I replied. "But you did, and I guess this will be a Merry Christmas for all."

"Quite," Leeds said gratefully. "I believe we should call it a good night."

There were several chuckles around the room as Bludge finished his tale.

"So that's how they met," said Michael. "I'd always wondered. I imagine it was love at first sight."

Bludge glanced at Everett. He knew the captain's story, even if the youth did not. Everett gave the butler a barely-perceptible nod.

"You may be right," Bludge replied. "By the time we closed the door, they were at each other like cats and dogs. I suppose they still are."

"What will you do now?" Everett asked the butler. "The conclusion of this affair would seem to leave you at loose ends."

"I'll bide here for a time, then return to the Master's service," said Bludge. "I imagine it should be safe in a month or two."

Everett glanced at the butler with concern. "You don't have to continue in their employ," he observed. "I'm sure other households would be more than happy to engage a gentleman of your skills."

Bludge smiled. The expression looked quite out of place, like a gesture of affection from some childhood ogre. "That may be true," he replied, "but the baron and his lady can be impulsive, as you may have noticed. They need someone to look after them."

Captain Everett nodded in understanding. "You're right," he agreed. "There are times, particularly during Christmas, when we all must appreciate the other people in our lives."

Two sacks of gifts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the crew of the Flying Cloud. May your holidays be full of joy and your new year be bright with hope and anticipation! The Royal Navy Airship Service will be on vacation for two weeks while we renew our supply of hydrogen. Season Five will begin on 7-Jan-2012. We look forward to seeing you...

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