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26 August 2008
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Two
by John Urie

Keith Lawton, organizer of the Schneider Trophy races held on Spontoon Island,
tells a reporter the story of Denis Conlon's entry in the 1935 race.

The Lady of Nîmes

by Drake Hackett

Special to the London Daily Observer
(Part Two)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

Keith’s tail went curling halfway up between his legs, as he recounted what happened next.

“According to what Sergeant Brush later told me, I did the most perfect imitation of a beached fish he’d ever seen.  Just what I needed to cap my day -- some crazy Irish duffer, showing up out of nowhere and thinking he could up and enter his plane in the Schneider Cup, just like that.  Had to nearly bite a hole my lip to keep from getting blue in the mouth, I can tell you.  To be eligible for the Schneider, you were supposed to submit a detailed entry form, at least three months in advance, and have...AND you had to have an official sponsor, from either a government, an academic institution, or a commercial enterprise.”

Something splashed out in the water again.

“What’s that...dolphin?” I asked.  Keith lifted one ear, then shook his head.

“Sea turtle, most likely, but as I was saying, even if Mr. Conlon had done all that, we already had a full field for the Schneider, ten entries in all.” He stopped for a second, rubbing at an eye.  “Just barely made it, mind you.  Back then, the interest wasn’t anything like it is today.” 

That was putting mildly to say the least.  Keith had practically needed to beg on bended knee to get his full race-field.  Hard as it is to believe now, the Germans had wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the Schneider Cup back then.  In Washington, it was even worse, “Got so many doors slammed in my face, y’ might have taken me for a pug.” 

Not that his efforts were entirely unsuccessful.  After sitting out the ‘34 Schneider, the British had finally decided to return, bringing with them their new DeHavilland DH 90 Sea-Comet...a high speed seaplane variant of the plane that won the MacRobertson trophy.  The Italians were coming back too...and their entrant was the astonishing Macchi-Castoldi MC 87, an upgraded version of the aircraft with which they had shattered the seaplane speed record only the year before.

Those two, plus the French entry, were the only planes with official government sponsorship, but there were plenty of others good ones: Sophia Bianco was there, with her spanking, new racer La Belladonna.  Boeing had an entry too, co-sponsored by Juan Trippe and Pan American airways. Lockheed and Hawker were also participating, and William Hearst had managed to talk Matty Laird into designing his first Schneider-Cup race-plane.  Jimmy Haizlip would be the pilot.  With a field like that, it was small wonder that Conlon’s announcement had gotten Keith’s jaw working.  Putting a home built racer up against that sort of competition was like entering a circus pony in the Grand National.

And beside that, there was no room left at the inn.

“But all that could wait.” Keith was saying, “Right now, I had a more immediate problem...and so, as diplomatically as I could,  I told Mr. Conlon that I was very sorry, but he was going to have to move that crate immediately, as it was completely blocking the pier...and in any event, the Schneider Cup rules specifically stated that all race planes were to be berthed on Eastern Island.” 

To Keith’s considerable surprise, Conlon nodded in agreement.

“Sir, I didn’t WANT to drop the Lady of Nîmes here, but I’ve got no choice in the matter.” He growled, aiming a thumb at the bridge of the Corfu, “That sod of a captain gave me five minutes to get me plane off his ship or else he’d dump her in the bay.” He gestured at the crate again, “So it’s this or lose all me work at one swoop.  What would YOU do Mr. Lawton, if you were me?”

What Keith did was summon the captain...who replied with a curt message that he was busy at the moment. 

That was the captain’s first mistake; his second mistake was in turning out to be ram, and therefore of a species from which no self respecting sheepdog takes barracking.  Keith found him in the ship’s barbershop, in the midst of a having a cornicure.

That was when the captain made his third and biggest mistake of all -- ALSO turning out to be one of those holdovers from the Victorian era who regard all English furs as thoroughbreds and all residents of the Dominions as inferior mongrels...especially the Irish and the Australians.

“P&O agreed only to transport Mr. Conlon’s belongings to the Spontoons, in lieu of salary,.”he told Keith stiffly, as the barber began filing the end of one of his curling horns, “NOT to store them...and furthermore, Mr. Conlon was quite, yes, QUITE less than forthcoming as to the size of that crate; lead P&O to believe it was great deal smaller than it actually is.” With that, he smirked and waved a hoof, as if dismissing one of the stewards, “Anyway, it’s your problem now, isn’t it Mr. Lawton?”

It’s a measure of how much Keith has changed from his Outback days that the Corfu’s Captain didn’t immediately find himself on the floor, with a rapidly swelling eye.

“No, Captain...err, Captain Roberts is it?”

The ram looked at him as if he’d just spilled something.

“Rogers, Mr. Lawton...Captain ROGERS!”

“Very well,” Keith answered, in a VERY even voice, “Captain Rogers then.  .Regretfully sir, it IS your problem...because that crate is almost completely blocking the pier, and making things extremely difficult for your passen...”

Captain Rogers immediately swivelled round in his chair, eyes blazing

“Then you’d best get it out of there...that is if you don’t want a very large rocket from P&O Lines to arrive your desk quite shortly.  And the NEXT time you raise your neck hairs at me...”

That was it...  In a heartbeat Keith’s face was inches from the Captain’s

“Well, if y’ don’t fancy that, then...how d’you like it when I show my fangs?”

Captain Rogers almost melted into his set...but in the space of another heartbeat, he’d already recovered.

“Why, you...you impertinent halfbred...I shall report this to your superiors!”

Keith planted his paws on the chair arms, and leaned in even closer.  (The cornicurist, a vole-femme, was meanwhile ducking out a side door...but with a thoroughly delighted look on her face, Keith could not fail to notice.)

“Mate...during Speed Week, I’ve got NO superiors and very few equals.” He gave Captain Rogers a second to digest this and then continued, “And here is what is going to happen.  I WILL bring a crew here to move that crate...but then it’s going back on board the Corfu.

THAT got Captain Rogers literally flying out of his chair.  Keith almost went over backwards trying to get out of the way. 

“You do and that crate will be in the drink before you can say Jack Robin!”

It was the closest Keith came that morning to biting him.

“In which case YOU’LL be under arrest before you know what’s hit you!” he shot back...and Captain Rogers’ face was instantly became as red as a uakari-monkey’s.

“How dare you...” he sputtered, pulling himself up to his full height,“How DARE you speak to me with such impudence?   I AM THE CAPTAIN OF THIS SHIP...!!”

“A ship that’s currently anchored in the waters of the Sovereign Nation of the Spontoons,” Keith reminded him, cooly, “And trust me, Captain, these furs DON’T take kindly to having trash dumped in their lagoon.”  He smiled, showing his fangs again, “or to Brits who think they can treat everyone else like a mass of unwashed heathens.”

I was about to ask Keith if that last bit wasn’t overdoing it, when the back door opened and we turned to see Lucy coming out onto the verandah.

Keith got up and went to his wife and giving her a kiss and placing a paw on her midsection.   (She’s expecting their third puppy in October.)

“Pups all in bed Luv?” he asked.

“Both sound asleep.” she answered,.  She turned and set a glass of Nootnops Red on the table beside the nearest lounge-chair.  Keith helped her into it, and she took a small sip of her drink. “Soooo, what are we talking about, then?”

“Denis Conlon.” I answered, “Keith was just telling me the story.”

Lucy’s ears went up and she chuckled approvingly. “Ah yes...good ‘un that.  How far have you got?”

“To where Keith threatened the Corfu’s captain with jail if he dumped the Lady of Nîmes in the lagoon.”

Lucy narrowed her eyes and nodded sideways at her husband.  “Aye, well that were a huge bluff y’know, brother.  If Keith had actually gone through and done it, P&O’s directors would’ve demanded his head on pike.  And you can guess who the Althing would have sided with; they only bring more passengers to these islands than any two of their competitors put together.”  She favored  Keith  with a small growl, “‘Bout ready to wring his neck when I heard.”

“Well yes,” Keith countered, wagging a playful finger in her direction,“but then, after you actually MET Captain Rogers, you wanted to know why I’d even bothered with a threat.” He focused his attention on me again, “Just the same, she’s right...I was bluffing.”

Yes, he was...but fortunately, Captain Rogers never realized it.  Reluctantly, very reluctantly, he agreed to take the crate back on board his ship, “but only for another 24 hours.  After that, it’s impounded.” 

Keith allowed him this little bit of face-saving, and then went back down the gangplank to inform Conlon and his crew of the decision.

“When I did, they were practically all over me with gratitude, shaking my paw, thumping me on the back.  I swear, Conlon looked as if he wanted to kiss me.”  His ears drooped a little, “I didn’t have the heart to say that I hadn’t done it for him.   When I went to see Captain Rogers, I’d been taking scrap for the better part of the day, and was well at the end of me tether.  To have a SHEEP start putting on airs at me, well that was what finally broke it.”

To this, I just nodded knowingly.  I’ve many times found myself in similar circumstances with bovines. 

“But hang on a sec,” I said, “Did I hear you right just a moment ago?  Captain Rogers told you that Mr. Conlon and his mates had WORKED on board the ship, taking transport for their plane instead of a salary?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Keith answered, lifting a curious ear. “Why?”

I lifted my paws, turning them palms upward.

“Well...what did they DO then?”

Keith and Lucy both looked at each other, and then Keith looked back at me.

“Not to be coy about it you understand, mate...but that’s something best saved for later in the story.”

“If we tell you now, it’ll be like giving away a punch-line.”  Lucy added...and I knew better than to press for more.  If there’s one thing my sister and her husband have in common...

“All right.” I said, “So what happened next, then?”

Keith just shrugged.

“Not much; I just told Mr. Conlon that he would have to find a hangar for his plane on Eastern Island, as it was the only legal moorage for the Schneider Cup racers.  He agreed, and that was it.”

He was about to say more, but was interrupted by a yip from Lucy.

“Come on, Keith...tell him all of it.  If you don’t, I will.”

At once, Keith’s eyes rolled upwards in the torchlight, as if beseeching the almighty for mercy.  Then he looked at me again.

“All right...all right.  I also said that after he’d found a proper moorage for his plane, he could come by and see me about entering her in the Schneider Cup.”

I felt my mouth drop open so wide, a firefly might have passed clear down my throat.

“Huh?  Mate, why would you...?”

“Because Keith was trying to pull a fast one.” Lucy jumped in, grinning and regarding her husband with a sly, jaundiced eye.  “What he knew, and Mr. Conlon didn’t, was that there wasn’t so much as a square inch of slip-space to be had on Eastern by then; what the racers hadn’t snapped up, the tourists had.  And since only AFTER Denis had found a slip for the Lady of Nîmes, could he see Keith about entering her in the Schneider Cup....well, I think you get the idea, brother.”

I snickered, raising my glass in my old mate’s direction.

“Ah, very good...let the problem solve itself.  Well done, mate.”

Keith did not smile when I said this.  Instead, he growled and showed his fangs, as he must have shown them to Captain Rogers.

Lucy, for her part, WAS smiling....but sardonically.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t y’ Drake?”  She turned and cuffed her husband lightly on the shoulder, “Only things didn’t work out quite the way you planned them, did they Mr. Oh-So-Clever- Canine?”

Keith just growled again and poured himself another beer.

When he arrived at his office the following morning, every chair in the hallway was occupied, the  one nearest by a craggy, black fox, with an ash-coloured muzzle.  Before Keith could make it even halfway to his office door, Conlon was already out of his seat and falling into step beside him.

“Top o’ the morning, Mr. Lawton.  Might I see yer ‘bout puttin’ in me entry now?”

Keith waved a paw at him as if he were an urchin, asking for tuppence.

“Not until you secure a berth on Eastern Island for your race-plane Mr. Conlon.  I thought I made that quite clear...and now, if you’ll excuse me....”

“But Mr. Lawton...”

“...I’m very busy this morning.” 

Ignoring him, Keith stepped quickly into his office and shut the door.

A imploring voice quickly followed him through the partition.

“ But sir, I’ve GOT a berth for the Lady of Nîmes!”

                Speed Week!
                   Lady of Nîmes