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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
with E. O. Costello
On Your Marks...
BAN THE GASBAGS!
It wasn't the bombastic headline that prompted Katie MacArran to grab the paper from the rack; (almost forgetting to pay the vendor in her haste.) it was the screaming photo beneath it.
She had just stepped off her train in Victoria Station, after almost a fortnight's journey back from Port Moresby, and was hurrying to catch a taxi when the headline, and the picture below it, caught her eye.
That journey had been an odyssey to make Homer wince; a flight to Darwin, then another to Perth, a steamer to Calcutta, a nerve wracking journey across India on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Bombay, a flight to Karachi, another to Istanbul, to Paris on the Orient Express, and from there to Le Havre, and across the channel to Brighton, then on to Victoria, where her progress was arrested by the front page of The Daily Mail.
Normally, Katie would never have been caught dead reading this newspaper, a sheet whose publisher she quietly loathed, ( and which she privately referred to as the Daily HATE-Mail) but there was no getting away from that picture.
It showed the skeletal remains of what had once been a mighty airship, her vastness starkly illustrated by the tiny figures standing nearby. In the photo, what was left of the dirigible was laying halfway into the tree-line, on a wooded ridge in northern France, the earth beneath her scorched to charcoal from the fire than had incinerated her.
If you ask the average furson today to name the worst airship disaster of all time, they will invariably tell you the Hindenburg.
And they will be mistaken.
When the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6,1937, 36 furs lost their lives in the calamity -- but most of the souls on board, 62 in all, survived. When the United States Navy Airship, the U.S.S. Akron crashed into the North Atlantic on April 3, 1933, 73 of her crew-members were lost to the freezing waters and only 3 survived
And when the R-101, the R-100's sistership crashed and burned in northern France on Oct. 5, 1930, only 6 members of her passengers and crew lived to tell the tale. The rest of her complement, all 48, perished in the blaze.
Amongst those who lost their lives on that terrible morning was one the engineers who had helped build the R-101, a fallow deer name John Redruth, together with Jill Redruth, his young bride of less than a week. The two of them had been taking their honeymoon cruise on the airship.
Katie stopped here and shook her head, eyes moistening as she remember her time together with John. If only he had listened to her, but now it was too late; her terrible prediction about the R-101 had tragically come to pass.
But then as the pinto mare read deeper into the article, a new kind of horror overtook her.
In his typically highbrow style, the Daily Mail's publisher, Lord Casterley was calling for the immediate demolition of the R-101's sister ship, the R-100. "Before more innocent lives are lost to this SECOND flying folly,” he had written, “let her be smashed with axes and flattened by steamrollers."
Katie couldn't believe what she was reading. The R-100 was not the R-101...no one knew that better than she did. Why was Lord Casterley doing this?
Sending her luggage ahead to Kensington, she hurried to the offices of her own paper, The Daily Observer, hoping to seek out some answers from George Stafford, her editor.
"WHY would someone like Lord Casterley want the R-100 demolished?" she demanded, as she paced back and forth in front of the tiger's broad, oak desk, "He's as anti-socialist as they come. Surely he has to realize that if the R-100 succeeds where the R-101 failed, it'll be hailed as triumph of private enterprise over socialism."
"Sit down, my child." said the tiger, wearily beckoning her to the heavy, leather chair in front of him.
Too tired to take umbrage at Stafford's uncharacteristically patronizing attitude, Katie seated herself and waited.
"Yes, Your Grace," the tiger told her, removing his spectacles and wiping them with a handkerchief, "By rights, Henry Abingdon...excuse me, His Lordship should be leading the charge to save R-100, just as you said. Except that's not going to sell him any papers. The British public are absolutely incensed over the R-101 disaster...as well they should be."
"Well don't look at me." said Katie, laying a hoof on one knee, "I'M the one who always said the R-101 was a flying Titanic, remember?"
Stafford donned his spectacles again, then leaned back in his chair.
"Oh, you don't know the half of it, Your Grace. That ship was destroyed as much by politics as she was by her poor design."
Ultimately, it could all be laid at the feet of the British Secretary of State for Air, Lord Christopher Thomson, a grey fox of no small ambitions. It was he who had been the driving force behind the plans to make the R-101 `the best airship in the world'....which meant that he also owned most of the responsibility for the fact that the airship had been underpowered, over-designed, and so overweight, she'd had to be cut in half to insert a new gas bay before she was deemed even halfway airworthy. That much, Katie knew already.
What was news to her was that the R-101 had set off on her demonstration flight BEFORE she had passed her trials -- and into weather so blustery, even Hugo Eckner wouldn't have chanced it.
As if that weren't enough, when the R-100's sister ship had cast off from her moorings, she'd been so overloaded with luggage, provisions and fuel oil that instead of rising, she'd actually dropped slightly by the bow.
"Every passenger was supposedly allowed to bring only 50 pounds of baggage on board," George Stafford was telling her, "but almost none of them heeded that rule. Some of Lord Thomson's items were so heavy, it took TWO draft horses to carry them aboard. In the meantime, some blithering idiot in the Air Ministry had seen fit to lay new carpeting down the length of the corridor and across the floor of the passenger lounge. I don’t think I’ll have to tell you what THAT meant."
"Christmas." said Katie, nickering in disgust. An eighth of an inch of dust on top of an airship was said to comprise more than a ton of weight. Who knew how extra tonnage much that damfool carpet had added?
"They had to vent four tons of ballast just to get her airborne." George Stafford was saying, "She almost hit two houses before they made the English Channel...but the captain never gave the order to turn back."
"Because of Lord Thomson?" asked Katie.
"Because of Lord Thomson." The tiger nodded. "Before he died, there was a rumour going round that he was determined to get himself appointed the next Viceroy to India...and that he hoped to increase his chances by arriving in Karachi aboard the splendid new airship whose construction he had overseen. That rumour has since been confirmed. We've got hold of a letter he wrote to the director of Civil Aviation, Sir Sefton Bracker, three weeks before the R-101 lifted off." He opened a desk drawer and removed a tri-folded sheet of paper. Holding it up and adjusting his spectacles, he began to read aloud.
"My dear Sir Sefton...etc, etc."
"In response to your insistence that the R-101 requires further trials before setting off for Karachi, I must state categorically, as I have before, that the program for the India flight must be adhered to, as I have made my plans accordingly."
He regarded Katie over the rim of his spectacles before continuing:
"I must further add that I have staked my hopes to serve His Majesty's Government ( in a post for which I believe I am eminently qualified ) upon the timely arrival of the R-101 in India. Thus, there can be no question as to her timely departure from Cardington."
Lord Christopher Thomson
Secretary of State For Air, O.B.E., etc., etc."
He folded the letter back up again and returned it to the drawer.
Katie MacArran just shook her head, both eyes burning and her ears laid back. NOW she was beginning to understand why the British Public was in such a fury.
"The victims are all buried in a common grave up at Cardington." George Stafford was telling her, "That's because almost all of them were burned beyond recognition when the R-101 caught fire. They say more furs turned out to see their funeral procession than they had for the funeral of Queen Victoria. That's rubbish of course, but it’s what almost everyone believes."
"All right, I understand," said Katie waving her hooves in frustration, "But what's this got to do with the demand for the R-100 to be scrapped?"
"Everything," said Stafford. The phone on his desk rang just then, but he only picked it up and said, "Later, if you don't mind Agnes. I'm in conference with the owner." Then he hung up and went on with his explanation..
"As I've said, the British Public is infuriated over this...and when furs are infuriated, they want someone to take it out on. The problem is...all the guilty parties perished with the R-101; Lord
Christopher Thomson, Sir Sefton Bracker, and every member of her design team...all dead." He leaned back slightly in his chair, folded his arms and raised an eyebrow, "So who, or should I say WHAT does that leave as a convenient target for the public's wrath?"
"The R-100." Said Katie in a hard exhalation of breath. She wanted to kick herself out of the office for having been so feckless. Why the hell hadn't she foreseen this...she, Dame Katie MacArran, who THOUGHT she understood public perception?
Not as well as she believed, apparently.
"Tell me something else." she said, "Is Lord Casterley the one who started the campaign to scrap the R-100, or is he merely fanning the flames?"
"Bit of both, actually." said the tiger, "The first call for the R- 100 to be demolished came from a few of the Labour backbenchers in Parliament. No surprises there, and no one paid much attention at first, but then one of the Tories added her voice to the chorus; Nancy Astor. That's a name you know, I shouldn't wonder."
Ohhh, yes...The Astors had been the owners of The Observer before it had been acquired by Katie's sire. Nancy, an ardent prohibitionist, had bitterly opposed the sale of the newspaper to Ian MacArran, a known bootlegger, but had been overruled by her husband. Later, when the paper had passed into the hooves of his daughter, who'd then had nothing to do with the MacArran distilleries, Lady Astor's attitude had softened somewhat. When the pinto had inherited those distilleries upon her brother's death, it had solidified once more, and the two of them regarded each other askance ever since.
"Lord Casterley printed her call for the R-100 to be demolished on the front-page of the Evening News," George Stafford was saying, "and when the edition sold out within the hour...well, that's where it all started."
"But it's ridiculous, George." Katie protested, "Yes, the R-100 had some problems when she was first launched, what airship doesn't? But she passed her demonstration flight to Canada with bells on! The only thing she even has in common with the R-101 is that their names are so similar."
"I know that Your Grace, I know that." said Stafford, laying his paws on the desktop with palms upturned, "But that's the other thing about furs who're angry: They don't WANT to listen to reason; they just want to take someone apart."
"Or take the R-100 apart." said Katie, bitterly, "Christmas, George. It's not just about my stake in her. The R-100's a great airship. Hell's Bell's, she's superior in design to the Graf Zeppelin...and
the Graf made it through the Owen Stanley mountains."
"The WHAT?" asked the big cat, thoroughly perplexed. "I don't recall the Graf passing through any mountain range named..."
Katie grinned sheepishly, "Oops, sorry...It's been a long trip. I meant the Stanovoi mountains in Siberia. The Owen Stanley range is in New Guin...Oh, my GOD!"
"Wha-What, Your Grace?" queried George Stafford, staring at her, openmouthed. Katie could see one paw about to reach hurriedly for the phone. She didn't care, she didn't care one whit. She just sat there, hooves clenched, mouth tight, trembling all over as if a low current were passing through the chair upon which she was seated. Yes...YES! It could work. If an airship could make it through the Stanovoi range...Oh, why hadn't she thought of this earlier?
"That's IT, George!" she cried, leaping to her feet and pounding a fist into a palm, ( and almost startling her editor into tumbling over backwards in his chair, ) "THAT'S how we'll get the dredges and extractors into Iso."
"Dredges? E-Extractors?" said Stafford, looking more bewildered than ever, "Iso? I-I'm sorry, Your Grace. What are you talking about?"
"No time to explain, George." she said, giving him a peck on the forehead, and grabbing her coat. "I'm off."
"Off?" said the tiger, blinking rapidly, "Off to where, Your Grace?"
Halfway out the door, Katie turned, flashed a grin and shot a finger at the astonished editor.
"I'm going to BUY the R-100."
And it was probably just as well that she was gone before he had time to react.
Katie did not have to be especially prescient to discern that Eamon Mack, her chief financial advisor in Britain, was going to be somewhat less than enthusiastic about her proposal to acquire the R-100.
To put it mildly. The Irish Setter practically begged her to reconsider with tears in his eyes.
"Sorry, Eamon." she told him, "My mind is made up. And anyway, I already bought up all the gold claims in the Iso valley."
The response to this was the first time in her life that Katie ever heard an anthro dog howl. Eamon was only slightly mollified by the news of the amount of gold to be had in her new claim.
"I'm sorry I didn't consult you first, Eamon." she told the Setter, put a hoof atop his paw, "Truly, I am. But there was no time. If I hadn't moved when I did, those claims would now belong to Bulolo Gold Dredging.”
"All right then, I suppose." said the canine, reaching for his cigarette case, "But you know, Yer Grace, George Stafford's right about the British Public wantin' the R-100's head on a bloody pike...an' God help anyone that gets in the way. If you do this, yer'll be the most hated femme in Britain."
"Unless I succeed, Eamon." she reminded him, "Unless I succeed."
The plan that the Irish Setter ( reluctantly ) put together for her to acquire the dirigible consisted of three phases:
"First," he said, "we've got to create a new entity. For the sake of explanation, we'll call it the International Dirigible Company."
"That's actually a pretty decent name." Katie told him, but if Eamon appreciated the compliment, he gave no outward sign.
"Now," he said, "The Strathdern interests, meaning you Your Grace, form The International Dirigible Company, Ltd. This is a brand-new corporation, without any pre-exisiting debt or equity. TIDC is capitalized by an equity investment from Strathdern interests. Some equity is preferred stock, which carries preferential rights for liquidation, but also controls a majority of seats on the board of directors. The rest of the equity is common stock, which controls a
minority of the board seats. The par value of the preferred and common is £100 per share.
"Uh, excuse me," Katie interrupted, raising her hoof and feeling very much like a schoolgirl. "But what's 'par value'?"
"'Par value' means the minimum consideration yer must give for each share upon initial issuance." the canine explained, patiently, "Right...the Strathdern interests buy all of the preferred
stock, and thus control TIDC. No other preferred stock is for sale, and the certificate of incorporation of TIDC would require the approval of preferred shareholders to create further series of preferred stock, whether ranking superior, pari passu, or inferior. Simply put, this means you've got a complete controlling interest in the company for as long as you wish."
"Sounds good," said Katie, who had understood perhaps a third of what Eamon had told her. "And what happens next?"
"Next," said the Irish Setter, "we move on to the Acquisition phase. Current R-100 investors can exchange their investments for common stock. This would likely be done at a slight premium, to
encourage an exchange For example, holders of £100 of R-100 stock could exchange it for common stock of TIDC having an equivalent par value of £120. In the alternative, they can sell for £105 per share cash (a much smaller premium). It is highly likely that £105 is above the market value, but the Strathdern interests may not wish to burn any bridges, and may want to keep the investors happy. The cash for the cash portion would come from the Strathdern investment in TIDC."
"Jeez, can we afford to do that?" asked Katie.
"That's the one bit of good news," Eamon told her, taking a wry puff on his cigarette, "With the R-100 almost certain to be demolished, the stock in the company has dropped to pence on the Pound...and if the Air Ministry goes through with breaking her up for scrap, as is almost certain at this point..."
"Excuse me?" Katie interrupted, snuffling in irritation, "But what did I JUST say about not changing my mind?"
"Sorry," said her advisor, in a voice that was anything but, "As I was saying, if the Air Ministry demolishes the R-100 for scrap, she's liable to fetch two thousand quid for salvage at most. What this means is her investors'll jump at the chance to make the exchange. It's that or a pawful of air. Now, once TIDC acquires control of the R-100 syndicate, it can pay off creditors, and can
either keep the old company as an operating subsidiary, likely for politics, or merge it into TIDC, if that's needed to squeeze holdouts. Once a majority is acquired, any holdout shareholders can
be squeezed out in a merger with TIDC."
"Think there'll be any holdouts?" asked Katie. Eamon Mack shook his head while stubbing out his cigarette.
"Not likely, Yer Grace. Any holdouts would likely have to prove that their shares are worth more than £105 or £120, a dubious proposition, since this would rely on an analysis of the R-100
syndicate's financial position. Therefore, holdout shareholders would, in all probability, not happen. This means that TIDC could keep the Union Jack flying by having the operations via the old syndicate."
"You think that's necessary?" Katie asked, still pretending she understood what he was telling her. Eamon Mack's response to this was to try not to make a face, then reach for his cigarette case
"You're goin' t' have enough trouble in the press over this without having yer loyalty to the UK questioned. An' believe me, if you try t' take the TIDC offshore, that's precisely what will happen. Lord Casterley's dedicated too much editorial space to his 'Ban the Gasbags' campaign to quit it now...t' say nothin' of the fact that the one tryin' t' save the R-100 is the owner of the Daily Observer. It's thanks t' the loss of circulation t' your paper, that Casterley’s decided to sell off `is interest in The Daily Mirror...so he can concentrate on keepin' the Mail and the Evening News competitive with the Observer."
Katie tapped at her nose and looked pensively up towards the high, arched ceiling.
"Think that has anything to do with his campaign to demolish the R-100?" she asked, wondering why George Stafford hadn't mentioned this when she'd seen him.
Eamon Mack lifted his ears for a second, then puffed on his cigarette, blowing the smoke through his nose as he answered.
"Mmmm...no. Icing on the cake at most, I shouldn't wonder. Lord Casterley might be a vindictive bastard...but a petty bastard he's not."
"Right." said Katie, who could also be vindictive when the mood struck her...and it was striking her right now. If Lord Casterley did try to vilify her for trying to save her dirigible, and there was no doubt that he would...well, she would bring that up when they were finished discussing the fate of the R-100.
"And what's the next phase?" she asked.
"The Strathdern interests buy outright all of the assets," said Eamon, "using the funds raised in the initial capitalization of TIDC. The old interest holders sell out for cash, and the syndicate distributes the cash to the interest holders and disbands. TIDC acquires all of the assets it wants, and assumes all of the liabilities it wants. Strathdern should assume as much as it could, for good will and/or expertise purposes."
"I suppose the next question is, can I afford this?" Katie asked. Eamon Mack leaned back a bit in his chair, looking for all intents and purposes like a fakir summoning a prophecy, though where she got that image from, it was impossible to say.
"To gain additional working capital, TIDC can do the following," said the Setter...which meant, freely translated `No, but why bother saying so when yer've already told me you'll not change yer mind?'
As he spoke, he began to tick off the options on his fingers.
"One...Place bonds secured by either the assets of TIDC, and/or gold."
"No good," said Katie, "There's gold in the Iso mine all right, but so far Iso Mining hasn't extracted a single troy ounce...and we won't be able to `till AFTER we have the R-100."
"Right." said the canine, and ticked off another finger. "Perhaps if yer need more capital later then. Second option's merchant banking loans from Morgan, perhaps with some common stock and a board seat for a Morgan representative as part of the price."
"Gadzooks, NO!" said Katie, horrified. "The weekend before Black Tuesday, Morgan Financial was swearing the stock market COULDN'T crash, remember? The last thing I want is one of those fools having a say-so in how TIDC is run."
Eamon took a long drag on his cigarette, then nodded grudgingly. Even he couldn't argue with that one. Morgan Financial had been so stunningly wrong about the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange, who the Devil could be blamed for not trusting their judgement now?
"Well," he said, "Fraid that leaves yer with only two choices, Yer Grace: Regular bank loans, or a rights offering, in which common shareholders would be invited to subscribe for new common stock, at a ratio of x new shares for each y shares they own, at a price of z per share."
Pretending that she understood half of what Eamon was telling her, Katie answered, "All right, let's try for a regular bank loan first."
"As you say, Yer Grace.' she Setter told her, "But I should warn yer...the chance of securing a loan against an airship that's halfway to the knacker's yard is going to be slim in the extreme."
"Let's at least try it, first." Katie insisted.
She knew that she would not be able to keep the scheme a secret for long. Sooner or later, Lord Casterley would find out about her plans to save the R-100...and when that happened, he was going to tear into her like a starving crocodile on a plucked chicken..
Well, Katie MacArran was no meek little bird who'd go quietly to the slaughter...and that was the reason for the next order she gave to her chief financial advisor in Britain. To his immense credit, Eamon Mack did not try to dissuade her.
He just bit his own paw, hard enough to draw blood.
Katie went from Eamon Mack's office back to the house in Kensington, where the first order she gave was to have the larder fully stocked, all her clothes cleaned, and any and all other provisions the house might need laid in. When the story of what she was planning to do broke, it would be wise to avoid showing her face in public for a while. Towards that end, she had her motorbike put up in storage and arranged for the purchase of a nondescript Austin saloon, of the type favored by London cabbies. She also began making arrangements to sell her WACO biplane and to purchase a new aircraft, a brand new Lockheed Air Express. Even before she had determined to acquire the R-100, Katie had realized that she was simply not going to make this work if every trip to and from New Guinea was going to turn into a Jules Verne epic. There was only one way around that...to make the journey via her own aircraft. For that, she would need a plane with speed, range, and some cargo capacity as well.
The Air Express fitted all those categories nicely. Essentially a souped up version of the Lockheed Vega, it had been designed by specifically for Western Air Express`s airmail route between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Angeles. More recently, an Air Express had set a new, non-stop, Transcontinental speed record in the States. Its most notable departure from it's predecessor was parasol wings and an open cockpit mounted back behind them on the fuselage; not the most comfortable arrangement, to be sure...but Katie MacArran was more interested in getting there quickly than in getting there in style.
With all this accomplished, she set out for Cardington and the place of the R-100's temporary (she hoped) repose.
When she arrived, Barnes Wallis was not there, but Nevil Norway was...and so was what remained of the R-100 staff, all of whom were in a gloomy mood.
And with good reason; the day before, they had all been given their one month's notice.
"We're supposed to be out by December first," the Aussie rabbit told her, "Soon as we've deflated the R-100 and hung her in the shed."
Katie promptly took the lapin aside and explained what she had in mind. Norway listened to her scheme with a curious admixture of respect for her boldness, and horror at her temerity.
"Your Grace, before you plunge into this, you've got to understand just how fursona-non-grata anyone associated with the R-100 is at the moment, even without what you’re proposing. D'you know they didn't invite a single member our team to the funeral for the R-101 victims? Yeah, it's true. Not even Dr. Wallis was welcome. You go through wi' this plan of yours and you'll soon find out how your brother felt when you and he got into that row over your dad's legacy."
"Nevil," she told him, evenly. "I'm aware of all this, and I'm fully prepared to accept the consequences of my plan, whatever they are." She squinted her brown eye here, regarding him entirely with her blue one, "Because they won't be long term repercussions, Nevil...because I'm right. You know that as well as I do. No, you know it better than I do. If...no, WHEN this project succeeds, the British public is going to be back in my corner all the way. If there's one thing I've learned from owning a newspaper, it's just how fickle public opinion is."
"That it is." The rabbit chuckled, and then began to roll up his sleeves, "All right then, what do you need from me?"
"One thing, Nevil." she told him, removing a sheet of paper from her jacket and unfolding it on his desk, "From an engineering standpoint, please tell me if this is possible."
Norway looked over the hastily drawn schematic, then looked up at her, blinking rapidly, "Bloody Hell, that's brilliant." He began to pull on one ear, speaking as though to himself, "Have to move the gas-cells of course...the dining salon is right over the gondola...but other than that...yes...yes, it could be done."
"How quickly?" asked Katie. Norway scratched behind an ear for a second, frowning.
"Hard to say for certain." he answered, looking down at the paper, then up again. "Eight months, I should think, barring the unforeseen." Katie shook her head.
"No good Nevil. Try six WEEKS." The bunny’s head jerked upwards as if he'd just discovered he'd been eating a moldy carrot.
"Is it too late to change my mind?" he asked, raising a wry eyebrow.
"You already know the answer to that question." Katie told him.
"I will have to clear this first with Dr. Wallis." Norway told her, sounding one, final, cautionary note. Katie wasn't worried. If she had Nevil Shute Norway, she'd have Barnes Wallis as well, soon enough.
It was the day after her return to London that Katie heard the first, faint ripples of thunder on the horizon. She was in the midst of breakfast, when the phone ring in the hall. A moment later, Ewan Barclay came in to inform her that there was a reporter on the line from The Evening News.
"And so it begins," Katie thought to herself. The fur waiting on the other end identified himself as one Peter Straight, and asked if she had any comments regarding the rumour that she was planning to buy the R-100. Katie politely informed him that sorry, she had no comments, then rang off. Not an hour later, the phone jingled again...and this time the fur on the other end was none other than Lord Casterley himself.
"I just want to inform you, Miss MacArran," he told her, by way of greeting, "That if you really are planning to acquire that floating time-bomb, the R-100, I cannot be responsible for the damage done to your reputation...and I daresay, it will be both great and irreparable."
Katie would have dearly loved to respond to this with a suggestion that would have been physically impossible for the cat to comply with. Now, however was not the time to antagonize him...not yet. So, instead she said, "Your Lordship, please let's address each other by our correct titles. It's `Your Grace', not ‘Miss MacArran.’"
"All right, Your Grace, then." he said, in a voice that was even more brusque, "And now, is it true what I've heard...that you intend to acquire the R-100? That you intend to put more British lives needlessly at risk than have already been lost in the R-101 calamity?"
"How about keeping your own words in your OWN mouth?" was what Katie wanted to say in response. She didn't, she just said, "Your Lordship...with all due respect, whatever my intentions are...regarding anything, I'm really not at liberty to discuss them at the present time. And now, if you'll please excuse me, I really must ring off. I have a great deal of business regarding the MacArran distilleries to attend to. Good-bye, your Lordship. It was nice hearing from you."
With that, Katie hung up the phone, and added, to no one in particular "About as nice as when I found that leech attached to my you-know-what back in Iso."
The next morning, the storm finally broke. The front page of The Daily Mail showed side-by-side pictures of Katie and the R-100 beneath a three word headline in blazing typeface: A RECKLESS VENTURE! The Evening News’ headline, which featured the same two pictures on it's cover, was even more succinct: IRRESPONSIBLE!
Both papers featured the same editorial, printed directly underneath the photographs, a scathing attack on Katie written by Lord Casterley himself:
"Just yesterday, we were shocked to learn that in blatant disregard for both the will and the safety of the British Public, Her Grace, the Duchess of Strathdern, is attempting to gain acquisition of the R-100."
"This paper can only respond with the outrage and dismay that such a scheme so rightly deserves."
The editorial then descended into a graphic description of the R-101's fiery demise, predicting the same fate for the R-100 if she were not demolished right NOW.
"Are we to see another such grisly spectacle?" his Lordship concluded, rhetorically, "And for what? To satisfy the selfish ambitions of one mare?"
As anyone could have predicted, Katie instantly became an even bigger lightning rod for the public's ire than Colin had ever been. Furs spat in the gutter at the mention of her name, poison-pen letters began arriving by the basketful, and there was even talk amongst her distillery workers of another strike.
The difference was that Katie was both prepared for, and prepared to accept this. She almost never went out in public, and when she did, she always went by way of the faux-taxi she had purchased, boarding it in a quiet mews a block away from the house, which she accessed by way of a hidden alleyway.
Unfortunately for the pinto mare, if she had girded her loins for the public's wrath such was not the case with Whitehall. Lord Thomson's successor as Secretary of State for Air, the colorless bureaucrat Lord Amulree, listened patiently as she and Barnes Wallis explained why the R-100 was not a deathtrap like the R-100; she had passed her trials with flying colors, she had successfully completed not one, but TWO Atlantic crossings. Etc. etc. When they were finished the civet-cat promised to think it over, then politely ushered his callers to the door.
"We're never gonna hear from him again, are we?" Katie asked rhetorically as they departed down the hallway.
"At least he agreed to see us." said the elk, heaving a deep sigh. "Quite honestly, I never expected get to so much as a hoof in the door."
"Listen, Dr. Wallis." she told him, putting a hoof of her own on his shoulder. "I just want you to know how much I appreciate your helping me like this." He batted it aside and looked her, smiling in that enigmatic way of his.
"Oh, don't thank me, Your Grace. That's MY design they're about to demolish, you know."
They had no better luck with the Director of Civil Aviation or any other minister Surprisingly, the most sympathetic audience they had was with P.M. Ramsay Macdonald, an arch socialist who by rights should have been eager to see the `capitalist ship' the R-100 go straight to the boneyard.
True that may have been, but the Sheltie was also the illegitimate whelp of a Scottish farm labourer, not unlike the furs who had helped to build the R-100. And he shrewdly recognized that if she succeeded where the ship built by the `professionals' had failed, it would be a feather in the cap of the British workers upon whose fealty he depended.
"Unfortunately, Your Grace," he told her, with eyes that might have been sympathetic had they not belonged to a politician, "The British Public are adamant in their opinion that the R-100 be demolished. Especially, if I may be so candid, since Lord Casterley's latest attack upon her."
That attack had been as simple as it was devastating: two photographs, placed side by side on the front page of the Evening News. The first showed the R-100 tethered to the mast during her
visit to Montreal. The second was now-infamous aerial view of the charred skeleton of what had once been the R-101. Underneath the pictures, in bold lettering, had been printed two words, `ONE SPARK!'
"However superior in design the R-100 may be to the R-101," the editorial beneath read, "There can be no denying that she remains aloft at the whim of a highly inflammable gas, the same gas which led to the death of over forty brave souls..."
There was simply no way to answer that. Lord Casterley knew it, the Prime Minister knew it, the Secretary of State for Air, The Director of Civil Aviation knew it....and Katie knew it.
And the British banks knew it too. Not one institution that Katie approached was willing to lend her so much as a brass farthing, not the Bank of England, not Barclay's Bank, not the Royal Bank of Scotland, not Lloyd's Bank, not Twining's Bank, not any of them. And in every single case, the answer was roughly the same: "The board feels that it is not in our best interest to underwrite an airship whose demise is all but imminent..."
To be fair, it was not as if Katie had NO advocates. Through all of this, Mary, the Duchess of Bedford continued to lobby tirelessly on her behalf. So did Reginald Mitchell, designer of the Supermarine S.6. Schneider Cup racer. And from Germany, there came a letter from Hugo Eckner, saying that the R-100 was a fine ship and that Katie was absolutely correct in wanting to save her.
"Please do not forget that the Graf Zeppelin, which also rises on hydrogen, has never had a mishap." the walrus wrote, in a letter published in the London Sunday Times. That letter drew a stinging rebuke from Lord Casterley.
"We thank the foreign gentlefur for his opinion, but hasten to remind him that this is wholly a BRITISH affair."
In other words, mind your own business, Fritz!
Though Katie remained outwardly stoic through all of this, in private she began to sink deeper and deeper into despair. More than one wakeful night was spent in the Kensington house, and at least once Katie only managed to fall asleep after crying herself that way. The fateful month of December, when the R-100 was to be hung in her shed was fast approaching, and once that happened, NOTHING could save her...and Katie would be wiped out. Her holdings in the Iso valley would be as worthless as if it were wholly barren.
But she was RIGHT! She knew she was right. That was what made it all the more frustrating. She could save Combs Mining Machinery and MacArran distilleries and end up with a surplus of the hardest capital in the world to boot. Now, none of that was going to happen...and why? So that Lord CastorOIL could sell a few more newspapers!
"I swear, if I ever somehow manage to pull this off, you'll pay for this in spades." she silently promised the grey cat after reading another of his diatribes against her in the Daily Mail. The was ire to spare for the Lady Astor too, who was publicly calling for the dirigible's immediate demolition, not in December, right NOW!
But she knew, deep down that they had already beaten her.
Then one morning, Ewan Barclay came bearing a calling card.
"It's from an American naval officer, Your Grace." Ewan Barclay said as her passed it over to her.
Katie looked at the card, blinked, and then her head reeled back slightly.
"Christmas!" she said, looking up again, "It's from Lieutenant Commander Charlie Rosendahl. He was one of my companions on the Graf when we flew around the world. Last I heard, he’d been made skipper of the new U.S. Navy Airship, the Akron." she pulled at her nose, looking thoughtful, "I wonder what he wants."
"Shall I tell him you'll see him, then?" asked Ewan.
"Yes, by all means." said Katie.
The wreck of the R-101:
Lockheed Air Express: