The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 451: Daring Damsels of Darwin

Clarice and Emily return

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 service now.

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!"

"Were too!"

"Was not!"

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 was young."

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 Flying Cloud!"

Next week: What Are You Doing Here?...

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