Victoriana 15

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Chapter 15
The departure of the cart had not however, passed unnoticed; little Emmeline Trelawney had hardly been able to sleep, partly because of the excitement of being allowed to accompany her Papa and Mama to a Highland camp while her Papa was on active duty, but mainly because of the thought that soon she would be able to ride the delightful Shetland pony that her parents had bought for her to make up for the prolonged absence of her best friend Victoriana.
She had slipped out of the tents very early and climbed the low hill with her Papa’s telescope under her arm so that she could plan a route for her projected ride.
‘Only around the town, Emmeline,’ her Mama had said, ‘Not down to the bay.’ So, of course, that was where she first pointed her telescope, then followed the winding road back up to the village and along the main street, and saw…Victoriana being bundled into a cart with two men and a boy, by a gang of scruffy ruffians.
‘Goodness me!’ she cried, ‘but surely, that’s Victoriana all trussed up like a turkey! I have to rescue her!’
Without further ado, she ran down the far side of the hill to the paddock where Bucephalus was standing dozing and leaped nimbly onto his back, shattering dreams of apples and sugarlumps. She grabbed a handful of mane and, bracing herself for the takeoff, she crashed her heels against his ribs. Bucephalus gave a startled snort but remained stationary. Emmeline tried again with the same result.
‘Oh, Bucky, please,’ she pleaded.
Bucephalus snorted, shook himself vigorously (almost unseating his rider) and then started at a slow amble towards the gate.
‘Oh, well,’ said Emmeline to herself, ‘I suppose it’s faster than walking.’
*          *          *
Emmeline was not the only person to notice the departure of the gang from the inn: up on the hill by the remains of an old chapel stood a lone figure with a flag in his hand.
Victoriana, who was facing the back of the cart, noticed his movements as a shaft of sunshine shone down on the spot. Spitting the ill-tied gag out of her mouth, she nudged Rusty who had also managed to get rid of his gag.
‘What’s that person up to?’ she whispered in his ear, nodding over her shoulder at the capering outline.
‘I think he’s sending a semaphore signal,’ said Rusty after a moment of confusion, ‘but he only seems to be using one arm.’
‘I wunner ’f dat’s da guy I meddin da village: he tryda sell me a diploma from Oban Univers’ty, an’ he on’y had one arm,’ remarked Irving in a hoarse whisper, having managed to remove his own gag.
Rusty had closed his eyes and had been wriggling furiously with his bonds while Irving had been speaking, and now triumphantly waved a free hand. Glancing round to make sure his captors had not noticed, he proceeded to free his other hand and his legs, then produced a pencil from his pocket and sketched a matrix on the cart floor. Glancing up at the gesticulating figure, he jotted characters in the matrix until the flag-waving paused.
‘Hmmm,’ he said, staring at the matrix, ‘RI..LWWOSNLV…LK.L.KOSN.Y.OWKVH..! Doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.’
‘Is it a code?’ asked Victoriana.
‘I’m not sure,’ replied Rusty, scanning the matrix. ‘Let me try this. Oh no, WO.QYYYVSQX…QP.Q.PYVS…YYPX… doesn’t make a lot more sense. Let’s see…’
He sucked on the end of his pencil and frowned in concentration.
‘Got it!’ he exclaimed, then looked round to see if he had been heard, but their captors seemed to be too busy muttering amongst themselves to pay any attention.
‘It says, MCHERRING ESCAPED HEADING TO AIRDS BAY. But who was he signalling to?’
The answer to this question appeared overhead in the form of an enormous black shadow just as they were approaching the beach at Airds Bay: a loud cannon shot announced the arrival of the Vulgarian airship, and a huge fountain of earth erupted alongside them. McHerring let out a raucous screech, and bellowed a series of orders to his men as they took to their heels and ran down the road towards a jetty stretching out into the water, abandoning the cart and their prisoners. At the end of the jetty a large warehouse stood brooding silently on massive pillars reaching out into the sea, and into this the fleeing men disappeared.
Rusty immediately set about releasing Victoriana from her ropes, and was just starting to work on Irving’s knots when a gentle clopping heralded the arrival of Emmeline and Bucephalus.
‘Oh,’ she in a disappointed voice, sliding down off the pony, ‘you’re free: I did so want to rescue you, Victoriana.’
Victoriana quickly overcame her astonishment, and Emmeline her brief disappointment, and the two friends embraced each other happily.
‘I say, you don’t happen to have a knife about you, do you?’ asked Rusty, who had admitted defeat with Irving’s knots.
‘Ooh, yes!’ Replied Emmeline happily, fishing a large folding knife from her pocket. ‘This one is special, look, it’s got a thing to get stones out of a horse’s hoof!’
The sharp blade made short work of the ropes, and the friends were soon making introductions and telling their various stories. The boom of another cannon shot caused a huge hole to appear in the jetty, and brought their conversation to a halt. A group of men on the airship were gathered at the rail and were obviously planning a rapid descent by rope ladders to besiege the warehouse, when the large water doors in the side opened, and out steamed a long sleek wooden boat – but one unlike anything Victoriana had seen before.
‘It’s an Ictineo mark III submarine,’ cried Rusty, ‘what a smasher!’
A hastily lobbed bomb from above exploded off the port bow, causing a tall fountain of water to appear.
‘Dey coulda hit her easy,’ declared Fingers.
‘Yup,’ agreed Irving, ‘guess dey tink da Telectroscope is on board.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Victoriana, ‘McHerring is getting away, and we can’t stop him.’
‘Yes, we can,’ said Emmeline. ‘My Papa is at Oban, and he said that HMS Devastation is there on a fleet exercise. He can send it over here to inter … inter … cut off the submarine.’
‘That’s fine if we could only speak to him,’ observed Rusty, ‘but we’re out here in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Waal,’ drawled Irving, ‘dere might jus’ be a way. You see dat IB pole back dere, Fingers? Reckon you can crack it?’
Fingers nodded eagerly, and trotted back up the slope to a little hillock from the top of which protruded a tall, peculiarly shaped metal pole: the others followed him at a slower pace, and by the time they reached him he had opened a panel at the base.
‘Dis here’s a I.B. pole,’ Irving explained, ‘if ya look at it, ya see an exclamation mark combined wid a question mark.’
‘That’s called an interrobang,’ gasped Rusty, ‘I’ve heard of them.’
 ‘Yeah,’ Irving ageed, ‘I.B., but we calls it a catcher’s mitt in da service. Wind da handle, Fingers.’
Fingers obliged, and the question mark gradually unfolded with the occasional screech of metal, expanding from a narrow strip until it looked like a football cut in half.
‘Da army uses dese for direct communications,’ continued Irving, ‘da boid is fired from da base to da messagee by line o’ sight, so if dere’s anyting in da way, it hasta go around, and da angle of dis baby is adjusted to deflect da flight.’
‘What happens when it arrives?’ Asked Rusty.
‘Den,’ said Irving in a portentous manner, ‘you open da bowl like Fingers just done, and deploy da net to make it like a catcher’s mitt. Make wid da net, Fingers.’
Fingers jabbed at a large green button, but nothing happened. At that moment, they all noticed something approaching at speed making a loud tocking noise. It appeared to be a small metal bird, flapping its wings rapidly and leaving a trail of steam in its wake.
Fingers frantically stabbed the green button again and again without any net appearing.
The bird ricocheted off the metal bowl and fell to the ground at their feet in a shower of sparks.
‘Sheesh!’ said Fingers.
‘Dat’s a Pilcrow,’ said Irving. ‘Da U.S.A. sold dis system to you Brits, an’ it works good mosta da time.’
Fingers looked down at the battered Pilcrow, which was still steaming gently.
‘Dat’s a dead boid, Oiving,’ he said sadly. ‘Hope dey gotta spare here.’
He fiddled around at the base of the pole again, and another door sprang open. Reaching in, he pulled out a replica of the now defunct Pilcrow.
‘Here, goilie,’ he said to Emmeline, ‘write da message to your Pa an’ we’ll send it off in dis.’
Rusty, who had been fiddling with the broken bird, held up a scorched piece of paper.
‘It’s a complaint about missing laundry,’ he said.
‘Never mind da lost socks,’ said Irving, ‘let’s get dis cookin’.’
He placed Emmeline’s message into a compartment in the Pilcrow, which he then laid in a catapault arrangement attached to the I.B. before thrusting home a self-igniting charcoal stick: after a minute, the bird’s eyes glowed a bright red and the wings started flapping vigorously up and down. A slight adjustment of the trajectory, a check on the direction, and at the pull of a lever the bird took off with a tock-tock-tock and disappeared in the direction of Oban trailing a cloud of steam.
Having sent off their vital message, the group hastened back down to the beach to see what was happening.
The Vulgarian airship was still hovering menacingly over the submarine which was no longer puffing a trail of smoke into the air.
‘They’ve extinguished the surface engine,’ gasped Rusty, ‘they’re running on the chemical engine, which means they’re going to dive when they get to deep enough water.’
‘That’s funny,’ observed Emmeline, ‘they’re not heading out to sea – they’re heading towards the entrance to Loch Etive.’
‘It may be too shallow a draft for the Devastation,’ said Rusty. ‘They can block the entrance but not follow them in.’
‘We can’t let them get away,’ said Victoriana. ‘Let’s see what else is in that big boathouse.’
They trooped down to the end of the jetty, making their way carefully around the gaping bomb crater left by the Vulgarians, and entered the warehouse. There moored against the jetty was a smaller version of the submarine they had seen escaping.
‘I can’t leave Bucky,’ said Emmeline, ‘I’ll stay here and tell Papa what has happened when he arrives.’
The others all climbed aboard the sleek wooden vessel, and Rusty set about priming the chemical engine. Victorian stared in amazement at a large clock which was fastened too low on the wall above a shelf containing charts and other nautical oddments. Made of some rubberized material, the clock face appeared to flow down onto the shelf, across it and was hanging a good three inches over the edge. She checked the hands.
‘Well,’ she said to herself, ‘it seems to be keeping the correct time. How peculiar, though.’
‘Ready to go,’ Rusty shouted up through the hatch. Irving and Fingers soon appeared and climbed down into the submarine, having cast off from the jetty.
Closing the hatch, they manoeuvred carefully through the open doors out into the bay, setting a course for the loch entrance in hot pursuit of the arch-villain McHerring.
Tachybaptus, Going Postal
This chapter by HB. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.