Victoriana 12

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Chapter 12
Rusty did not hesitate. With the briefest of glances at the map, he shouted ‘That one!’ and pointed at the easternmost of the three holes. Irving picked up Victoriana and Fingers seized Rusty, and they bolted for the geyser with Molotok’s gang in pursuit.
As they approached the hole, to their relief they saw a doorway in the wall with an iron door standing open, through which they flung themselves. Fingers slammed the door shut, dropped the bar to lock it, and looked around for a way of securing it more firmly.
There were rails running through the doorway, and inside was a small truck filled with broken stone. With a convulsive effort the four of them managed to get it moving down the slight slope towards the door. It crunched into the iron panels, which were already beginning to resound with the battering of Molotok’s men. Fingers spun the handwheel that applied the brakes, and Irving put stones under the wheels for good measure. ‘Dat’ll hold ’em f’r a bit,’ he said.
A little daylight filtered in through slots above the door frame. It was possible to see that the rails extended into a dark tunnel, and a short way off stood what could only be a small train, with a locomotive and tender and one carriage. Rusty examined it. The tender contained not coal, but a gravel-like substance consisting of greyish crystals.
‘It’s a Monturiol engine!’ he said to Victoriana. He picked up a shovelful from the tender and threw it into a hopper in the locomotive cab. There was a fizzing noise. He added more.
‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a kind of steam engine,’ explained Rusty as he shovelled. ‘It was invented by a Catalan, Narcı́s Monturiol, in 1866 for his submarine Ictineo II. You can’t have a coal fire under water – or in a tunnel. So it creates heat with a reaction between powdered zinc and potassium chlorate, using manganese dioxide as a catalyst. It powers the Catalunya submarines, and makes their oxygen too.’
Victoriana had heard of these craft: complete underwater worlds populated by communities of rich eccentrics who cruised the ocean depths untroubled by surface storms and surface politics, coming up occasionally to enjoy a visit to a coastal resort and then disappearing as mysteriously as they had come. Outsiders were never allowed on board.
Sounds of wrenched metal came from the door as the gang began to force it open. Rusty looked at the pressure gauge. ‘Steam up in a minute. All aboard!’
Fingers ambled up bearing a mahogany box with a telegraph key on top of it, and a loose coil of wire over one arm. ‘T’ought I’d sabotayge deir communications,’ he explained.
Irving’s haul was a crate of cans and bottles, on which all looked with approval. Without another word they climbed into the cab. Rusty, who seemed to know his way around every machine invented, slid the regulator into the forward position and the train chuffed into motion, trailing steam and a strange acrid smell, but mercifully without smoke. There was no glow from the chemical fire. As the daylight rapidly disappeared they found an acetylene lamp on the roof. Irving turned on its water tap, waited a few seconds for gas to form, and lit it with a lucifer. There was a harsh yellow glow and a reek of carbide.
Soon they were travelling at a good clip on well laid rails. Rusty borrowed Irving’s watch (itself no doubt borrowed from some stranger) and estimated from the clicks of the rail joints 60 feet apart that they were making almost 70 miles an hour. A little later Fingers called a crafty halt to cut the telegraph wires one more time ‘in case dem gonifs reconnect ’em’, after which they sped on.
‘How far is it to Scotland?’ asked Victoriana.
‘Eight or nine hundred miles,’ said Rusty. ‘At this rate we might do it in half a day.’
It was very hot in the cab, partly from the chemical fire and partly from the heat of deep underground. Irving volunteered to stoke the boiler for a couple of hours. The others clambered over the crystals in the tender into the carriage.
Fingers struck a lucifer. On the ceiling there was another acetylene lamp, which when lit revealed  an austere space with a bare wooden floor and a couple of benches. At the rear there was a shelf with a large spirit burner on which stood a cooking pot. ‘Anyt’ing in dat?’ he asked hopefully.
Victoriana lifted the lid. It was half full of water, in which floated a greyish spherical object trailing a limp tube that hung over the edge. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘Haggis.’
When she had explained to Fingers how this delicacy was made, he simply picked up the pot and emptied it out of the window. ‘We ain’t dat hungry,’ was all he said.
*          *          *
The little train rattled on for hours. They all took turns at stoking, not an arduous task as it did not require very much of the chemical powder to keep the pressure gauge in the green zone. As Irving was relieving Rusty on the footplate, he asked, ‘How’ll we know when we get to da udder end?’
‘No idea,’ said Rusty. ‘Maybe there’ll be a red light or something.’
Minutes later, as Victoriana and Rusty were in the carriage sharing a can of peaches, she said, ‘Did you just hear a bell?’
Rusty ran to the door at the front end, shouting over the tender, ‘Irving, slow down!’
‘How do I do dat?’
Seconds later they shot into dazzling daylight. There was a loud crash as the train demolished the flimsy wooden buffers at the end of the track, followed by violent jolting as it careered across the open ground. Finally it lurched to a stop, somehow still upright. As they picked themselves up they saw that they had finished in a grassy meadow, with frightened sheep galloping away from them.
Irving, nettled at his failure with the controls, asserted himself. ‘Quick, all o’ youse, behind dat wall.’
As they crouched in the shelter of the dry stone wall, Rusty said, ‘Maybe they don’t know there was anyone on that train. Maybe they think it was a runaway.’
It seemed unlikely. But men were emerging to survey the wreck and they were looking at the train, not the surroundings. A doleful cry of ‘Whaursmahaggis?’ pierced the silence.
There was a road behind the wall, and a signpost: OBAN 1, TAYNUILT 11. ‘So that’s where we are,’ said Rusty. ‘On the west coast, of course. But in Argyll, nowhere near the Border. I wonder why.’
‘Oban’s da local boig, is it? Down dere?’ said Irving, pointing at a cluster of houses with the sea beyond them. ‘Reckon we should stay away a while ’til t’ings seddle down. Whad’s dis Tay-noo-ilt place?’
‘There’s only one way to find out,’ said Victoriana. So they set off up the gently sloping road.
This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.