I had, rather daringly, written to ask if I might join my Father who had, even more daringly, invested the bulk of the family money in property in East Africa - plantations and estates - and shares in larger enterprises such as mines and railways. For decades, he had spent most of his time in various parts of the new land, overseeing the correct management of his interests and rarely returning to England.
Sadly, Mother had died when I was just a child and I had been brought up by an aunt in the country. Even so, I had long enjoyed a frequent correspondence with my Father. I told him of my girlish little triumphs and tribulations at home and school, and he responded with evocative descriptions of the richness of the continent and details of a world of opportunities so far removed from the confines of the English countryside.
To the horror of my aunt, Father had written by return giving the permission I sought. I was, I confess, both elated and nervous - a journey into a new world for me, albeit one frequently travelled by others. After interminable weeks of organisation and entire days dedicated to packing, I set off in the company of just one maid and a single manservant. The journey itself was entirely uneventful and allowed for as much comfort as if I had merely been taking tea in a grand withdrawing room in Grosvenor Square.
Now I was in Africa; astonishment was expected. The majesty of the pinnacle we were approaching astounded me. I stood and moved to the forward rail, a position which afforded me the best view, even if the wind did tear at my bonnet and threaten the fastenings of my hair. I did not care; this was what I had travelled so far to see.
The Acheron's heading took us towards a handful of rocky spires, hundreds of feet high and rearing out of the plantations which swept up the gently sloping hillsides in a wave of greens and browns. All but one of the spires were topped with nothing more than a few scrubby trees, but our final objective was plain enough and quite different in appearance.
The tallest spire was cluttered with a profusion of towers and domes and spires, and set about with numerous gantries and anchorages on multiple levels, supported by protrusions which clung like limpets to the lower reaches of the sheer rock faces. The port was a hive of activity which made the stevedores at the seaport we had passed so recently seem entirely lethargic by comparison.
The space around the spire buzzed with craft of the air, of all shapes and sizes. Yet more were docked at the gantries or moored to the spires. There were liners and passenger vessels, and lighters and heavy lifters being readied for a trip up-country, and several of the frigates of Her Majesty’s Aerial Navy bristling with both gunports and a subdued aura of menace.
Montague seemed amused by my reaction.
"Welcome to Port Mazeras," he said calmly.
The sounds of the Acheron had changed, the drone of the engines being replaced by the clank of the compressors labouring to increase our altitude and the subtle changes in the sounds of the wind indicating that the captain was altering our heading to take into account the natural movements of the air. I had hardly noticed; I was entranced by the spectacle of the station ahead.
"It is truly astounding," I breathed, then added more loudly, "But why is it made so?"
"My dear Miss Robinson," Montague responded, "Always so many questions!"
"I do apologise," I said demurely, "Please forgive me."
"Oh, there's no need for such apologies," he said, smiling rather charmingly, I thought, "Indeed, it would be my duty and my pleasure to tell what little I know of this place."
He took a breath and clasped his hands behind his back, apparently marshalling his thoughts. It was almost as if he had been a schoolteacher at one time, although I had never heard him mention any such calling.
"This place can be a paradise," Montague began, "Long days of sunshine, coupled with the ready availability of water for irrigation, means we are surrounded by vast tracts of immensely fertile land inhabited by a people to work it for the good of all. Then, there are mines being opened everywhere, for minerals, gold, even diamonds."
He swept a hand around at the panorama below us, almost possessively.
"All this is contributing to the rapid expansion of Port Mazeras, which is rapidly becoming one of the most important centres in British East Africa," he went on, "Generally, such important places need purpose-built aerial anchorages, which are usually tall towers of wrought iron and steel, themselves built on highest available point to avoid aircraft approaching the lower ground level."
They were indeed graceful towers, soaring impressively skywards, as I had myself seen during our departure from London and our transfer at Nicosia. Securely moored, airships were able to take on fuel and water - as ballast, I understood, to be released if it is necessary to gain height quickly and when the compressors were unable to change our trim swiftly enough - and to onload and offload freight and, more often, passengers.
"Here, as you can see, the natural topography and geology have made the usual tower unnecessary. This pinnacle of rock was too good an opportunity to pass up, and the engineers were able to bore tunnels and build all that you see in short order."
I had been listening intently; Montague was a remarkably effective and masterful speaker. Even so, I felt I had to interrupt him to ask a question.
"Please tell me: why the reluctance for airships to approach the ground?"
Montague smiled indulgently.
"Well, perhaps part of the reason is to ensure the safety of the craft in the event of hostile action from the natives," he said, still smiling, "Although the presence of so many airborne gunships of Her Majesty's Aerial Navy, not to mention the benign governance by the Regents, means this is, in the main, only a theoretical possibility."
At his words, I once again glanced around at the plethora of aircraft to be seen. There were certainly several cutters and air frigates visible, all flying the flags and pennants which indicated their allegiance to Queen and Empire. Her Majesty may be frail in body but is very much strong at heart; her command over her Dominions and her masterful position as Head of State is surely a fine example to us all.
"But the real reason," Montague went on, in the manner of one reciting from a reference work or a textbook, "Is that air turbulence at lower levels makes it more difficult to keep the craft steady. Also, the heat and dust in the air lower down make it more challenging to keep a watch, to see approaching storms before they hit. Up here the air is smooth and clear, and you can see the horizon ten or twenty miles away."
"How serene, how safe, these ships of the sky seem to be," I gushed, suddenly and irrationally excited.
"for our present purposes, I could not agree more," Montague responded airily, then added more seriously, "But airships, even frigates like the Fearless over there, would be useless in a war in Europe - should such a thing, heaven forfend, come to pass."
I was confused, which must have shown on my face. Montague took pity on me again.
"For a modern army, craft like this are well within the range of gunfire," he added, his face suddenly growing grim, "Not rifles, of course, but ground-mounted artillery pieces with suitable elevation and targeting engines could take down a whole fleet of airships in a morning. But here in the colonies they are perfect for keeping the peace. Gunships equipped with machine guns and bombs can deal with almost any kind of unpleasantness, if necessary, and they have range and endurance comparable with a sea-going warship but without the need to be close to water. Truly, airships are the lifeblood of the Empire."
We had been drawing steadily closer to the rocky pinnacle as we had been speaking. With the most gentle of bumps followed by a staccato chorus of thumps which alarmed me momentarily, great clamps latched themselves onto the stanchions and mooring-points of the Acheron. The observation gallery was now only yards from the dock and suddenly overshadowed by the towering bulk of the central spire.
"I suggest you go within, Miss Robinson," Montague suggested, raising his hat politely, "I am sure you will wish to disembark within the hour and the docks will be very busy."
He escorted me within and back towards my cabin then, tipping his hat again, turned and strode purposefully towards the bridge.