“Do help yourself to some more Stilton, my dear Viktor. I think you shall find it creates the most delightful effects.”
My colleague, the esteemed Professor Beckford Ganymede Hornblower, passed the cheese over to me, his eyes twinkling with merriment.
I helped myself.
“Some Oloroso Sherry as well?,” he asked.
How could I refuse?
As the smoky nectar warmed my vitals, I reflected upon how much I have come to enjoy these postprandial meetings in the Professor’s book-lined study, a room suffused with the scent of old paper, Moroccan leather, and Latakia pipe tobacco, a room shrouded in perpetual midnight.
My brain began to fog, and I had the strange sensation that I was stumbling around deep in the waters of the Professor’s aquarium, which bubbled sedately over in the corner.
“Curse it all, Professor!,” I said, as I set my empty glass upon a side table, sprang up from my over-stuffed leather chair, and crossed the room to the heavily-curtained window. “Curse it all, I cannot abide this inactivity! If I go many more days without an adventure, I shall go mad with boredom!”
“Then, my dear Viktor, you must mount an expedition!”
Thereupon I enumerated, in tiresome detail, all of the reasons, economic and otherwise, why the fair Einida and I were currently confined to our home paddock. To punctuate my frustration, I went to the large and rather rare world globe that is serves as such a unifying decorative note to the Professor’s study, and gave it a spin. When I saw the Professor’s eyes bulge out and his mouth droop, I realized I was abusing his great hospitality, so I placed both palms on the globe so as to impede any further movement.
The Professor’s shoulders slumped again, his eyes brightened, and he sank back into his chair. “You must go to sea, young man!”
And now the Professor was on his feet, scurrying about like a preoccupied mouse, stretching and squashing his diminutive frame as he reached for first this book and then that. Confused, I returned to my chair and watched this amazing performance play out.
Pulling a rare folio from a shelf, he turned towards me, absent-mindedly blew dust off the volume, and said, “Was it not just the other day that you were telling me of your interest in ships?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“But nothing, my good fellow! If you’re interested in ships and the sea, there’s no finer place for you to start than the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry.”
And with that he dumped the stack of books upon my (unprepared) lap, and my eyes followed his stubby index finger as it pointed to a photo of the vessel in question.
In what seemed like no time at all I stood, like Admiral Nelson, at the bow of this ferry, wind whipping my garments behind me as I gazed resolutely at the brown boiling sea before me.
The gun metal clouds and strong, incessant winds were no match for the engine of this sturdy vessel as it churned its way across the mouth of Galveston Bay.
The mixture of smoke and spilled fuel and brine worked its olfactory magic upon my fancy, and transformed the dear Einida into the shade of Lady Hamilton.
Amazing to me that I had not heard of this magic carpet ere now!
The Bolivar Ferry was truly a delight. Of the five ferries that serve this port, we found ourselves aboard the “Robert H. Dedman.” And yes, while we did in fact remark upon the inauspicious sound of the name, due to our consecration to the steady and stolid tenets of science, we did not allow ourselves to fall victim to the humbug of superstition.
In any event, our dark thoughts were soon lifted by the sheer size of the Dedman Ferry. It measures 185 feet in length, and can carry five-hundred passengers and seventy vehicles. Our Einida gasped in glee to learn that the vessel can even carry several semi-trailer trucks (“big rigs,” to the hoi polloi) at one crossing. Indeed, I think it was Einida’s lifelong, abiding, and lady-like interest in interstate commerce that steeled my resolve to plight my troth to her all those years ago.
As I swept the ship under my gaze, I noticed the pilot house on one end, and then, at the opposite end, another. A ferry with two pilot houses? What crystalline logic! What brilliance of design! The pilot is spared the challenge of constantly steering half the day in reverse by the simple expedient of transferring operations to the other pilot house.
A seaman of leathern aspect approached me. Clearly, our enthusiasm for the ferry had attracted his attention. He parted his wind-chapped lips and laconically commented, “Look ye to the aft of this here ferry and of the larger ships, and ye may see the dolphins dancing in their wake.”
I headed post-haste to the stern, but saw nothing. Meanwhile, the intrepid Einida busied herself snapping photos of what seemed to her the ideal lair for an evil genius. “Why,” she explained, “it even has its own submarine!”
She was right. Envy coursed through my loins, until closer inspection revealed to me a sign for a pleasure ground named “Sea Wolf Park.”
It is an old and sometimes bitter truth, confirmed and consecrated by time, that parks as a rule do not make good lairs.
But yes, the submarine is in fact the genuine article, a World War II vessel, the “USS Cavalla,” by name. And alongside it is a very rare Destroyer Escort, the “USS Stewart.”
My dreams of settling down and opening a quiet, small-town super-villainry practice being temporarily crushed yet again, I spied a large ship off in the distance. I went to the upper deck for a better look.
The upper deck includes a rather spartan, utilitarian lounge, lined with windows, and furnished with hard benches, where, during the eighteen-minute crossing, more delicate passengers can seek respite from the elements. I positioned myself on the outdoor deck beyond the lounge and began to take photos.
One of my great passions is taking photos of ships. Galveston Bay is chock-full of them–real, full-size, ocean-worthy ships, the sort that put the amateur boatman’s dinghies and sailboats to shame. And the nearby Port of Houston is one of the largest and busiest in the world.
I sighed, as I dreamed of building a laboratory on Galveston Bay where I could indulge in my ship photography passion to the fullest, during breaks between experiments of evil intent….
The ship that fueled this fantasy was incredibly vast. It appeared to be a container ship. I looked down to the lower deck and spied my Einida. The wind whipped the hair from before her face and, unbidden, she looked up over her left shoulder, found me immediately, smiled and waved and mouthed her astonishment at the ship’s enormous size.
It took many long seconds–eternities even–for my brain to process that latest intrusion.
It was a horn. A loud horn. And it came from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
By some strange instinct I looked up at the large ship ahead of us and noticed that it was now veering to its port side off its course and bearing down at fearsome speed upon to the Dedman.
There was a frenzy of activity as hands on both the container ship and the ferry ran back and forth, frantically doing whatever they could to prevent the collision. As soon as the full extent of what was about to happen took a coherent form in my brain I leapt for the ladder and flung myself downwards to the lower deck, to my Einida!
I looked around in panic. I saw no one else. I saw Einida, staring straight ahead at the grey wall rushing ever closer.
I ran, I stretched, I extended my arms, my hands, my fingertips, convinced that I could save my beloved if only I could enfold her in the protection of my arms.
I put out my right hand still further. Einida was cold to the touch. She turned. There was no expression on her face. She looked not at, but beyond me.
All went black, followed by a metallic crash, a reverberating ring, a flash of light, and a convulsive rush of air.
There was a noise, unfamiliar, familiar, a sound, a nasal drawl.
I opened my eyes upon the face of Professor Hornblower, ringed in lamp-light, puzzled, concerned, amused.
I snorted, drew in shallow drafts of air through my nose and mouth, blinked wildly, looked around, tried to clear the fog from my head.
“I say, old man, you knocked over the drinks tray.”
Ears still ringing, I rubbed my eyes, wiped the sweat from my forehead,
“Well, well, Viktor, seems you had quite the siesta. But you will recall I did warn you about the powerful effects of Stilton.”