Victoriana 20

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Chapter 20

That evening, in Major Jolliver Trelawney’s command tent overlooking McHerring’s castle,the five were sitting around a table with the Major, his second-in-command Captain Eustace Woolley-Dogg, and Emmeline, who had also played a part in the action and could not be excluded from the debriefing. They had ridden there on an ammunition cart trailing along behind the failed expedition.
Victoriana was amused to see how Irving and Fingers, both old soldiers, had instinctively snapped into military mode and were calling the major ‘Sah’ in very sentence. St George was clearly out of his element in military surroundings.
Irving, aided by the others, had given a lucid account of events. There was no reason for them to conceal their actions – well, maybe the reason for removing the diamond lenses had to be glossed over as ‘disablin’ da apparatus, Sah, in da interests o’ public protection’, but that was a minor detail. St George sadly confirmed that this was what had caused the Telectroscope to fail.
The main problem confronting the Major was that McHerring was nowhere to be found. He had eluded them after the taking of the castle, and now he had disappeared again. ‘He must be down one of his confounded holes,’ said the Major, but the deuce knows where. Hah!’
Rusty said, ‘When McHerring’s men kidnapped us at the inn, they took us along a tunnel leading from the inn cellar. It led to the castle, but probably it went somewhere else as well. All McHerring’s tunnels are like spider’s webs, they go all over the place. And the inn and the castle are on high ground, so the tunnels won’t be flooded.’
The Major was not a man of quick intellect, but after a while he took the point. ‘Do you mean that we could find his, ahem, lair by starting at the inn?’
‘Exactly that, Sir,’ said Rusty.
‘Right. We’ll go in at 0600 hours and flush the b– … the rascal out. Write an order,’ he said to Private Means, who was acting as secretary. ‘All men report to the Stag’s Head at 0550 hours, and I don’t mean for the usual reason they go there, ha. Rifles, bayonets, five grenades to a man. We won’t get field guns down a tunnel, eh?’
‘We’d better show you how to get there,’ said Rusty.
‘Show us the entrance and we’ll be on our way,’ said the Major. ‘Taking children on a military operation? Out of the question.’
Irving raised his hand.
‘Or civilians,’ said the Major. ‘This is soldiers’ work.’
Irving knew better than to protest. But later, in the tent that had been allotted them, he said to the others, ‘We can’t let dat doofus do it on his own. He’s made enuffava mess a’ready.’
‘We’ll find a way,’ said Victoriana. ‘We’ve done all right so far.’
After a brief attempt to sleep on the army’s diabolical folding camp beds, they transferred their sleeping bags on to the groundsheet and fell into an exhausted slumber.
* * *
They were roused brusquely at 4.30 a.m. by the bugle call for Reveille and climbed out feeling and looking much the worse for wear. Irving had not managed to get his braces back into working order after Fingers had made them into a catapult, and his trousers were more or less held up by a length of cord from the submarine. Victoriana’s boots had lost half their buttons, and the hem of her dress had come down completely and started to fray. Rusty and Fingers had never been tidy; now they looked villainous. St George was pale and drooping.
The army provided a substantial breakfast of bacon, bread and plum jam, washed down by strong sweet tea. St George nibbled at a crust. ‘I don’t know what you plan to do,’ he said, ‘but I think I’ve had enough rough stuff for now. Do you mind if I stay behind?’
‘Dat’s okay,’ said Irving generously, ‘Dis is no place for da artistic temp’racher.’
After a good deal of shouting the troops set off to the inn. Irving and Fingers were instinctively marching in step with the men; Victoriana and Rusty rode on a cart alarmingly filled with grenades.
As they neared the inn, Irving sought out the Major. ‘We best go ahead an’ explain,’ he said. ‘Dey know us.’
The column halted, and the four went ahead. They found the landlord at the door.
‘We really didn’t mean to leave without paying,’ said Victoriana apologetically.
‘We was sorta tied up,’ said Irving.
‘Dinna fash yersel’,’ said the landlord. ‘Ye left a wee something behind, an’ we hae kept it safe for ye.’ He reached behind the bar and produced Irving’s bundle of banknotes and the diamond lens, carefully enclosed in an old envelope.
Irving did not often look surprised, but now he was astonished. He paid their outstanding bill and added a substantial finder’s fee, which the landlord tried not to accept but was overruled.
‘Dere’s one t’ing,’ Irving said. ‘Dere’s some soldiers jus’ down the road who’d like to use ya tunnel, if ya don’ mind. An’ we’ll be followin’ ’em a while lader.’
Soon the Major and his band were tramping down the cellar steps and through the entrance to the tunnel. They did not see the watcher on the first-floor landing, who waited till the last man was in before creeping down the stairs and out of the back door. As he headed for the castle, the early morning sunlight revealed that he had only one arm.
Victoriana and the others waited in the bar until the sound of army boots had died away. Then they entered the tunnel. Fingers had liberated an acetylene lamp from the camp, and they made their way easily along the tunnel smoothly cut by the McCavity Miner.
After they had walked for half an hour, noises began to echo down the tunnel: shots, louder explosions and shouting. They halted in a place where the tunnel widened into a small chamber, looking for somewhere they could hide if necessary; but it was empty apart from scattered rubbish.
‘We don’ wanna get too close to dat,’ Irving said. He leaned against the wall, letting his lantern dangle from his hand. As it touched the wall it made a metallic clink.
Looking more closely, they could see a small iron door set flush with the wall. A discreet notice was painted on it: An Brugh. On the opposite wall there was a matching notice with two names: An Caisteal, with an arrow pointing in the direction they were going, and An Taigh-leanna, with an arrow pointing back along the tunnel.
‘Why dey gotta have all deir notices in dis lousy Garlic?’ Irving said.
Caisteal must mean castle,’ said Rusty, ‘and An Taigh-leanna’ – even he struggled to pronounce this word – ‘has to be the inn. Not sure about Brugh, but I think it means cave.’
‘We best go dere,’ said Irving, to geddadda da way ’f dey come back. Fingers, do ya stuff.’
Finger had the simple lock open in seconds. The door opened on a smaller tunnel.
After a few hundred yards they could see light ahead of them. Irving extinguished the smelly lamp, and they moved forward cautiously until they entered what was clearly a guard chamber. It was empty, but cup of tea on the table was still warm.
Beyond, the tunnel opened into a huge natural cave, also deserted. Light from gasoliers on the walls barely reached its roof. Along one side was a workshop, with racks of tools on the walls, a lathe, a drill press and a milling machine. Bright brass swarf gleamed on the floor.
Rusty examined the bench. His interest was taken by a small device resembling a pocket telescope, with a book-sized box attached to the tube. From this trailed an electric flex, its twin wires twisted together and covered in gutta-percha and braided silk. Next to it was a stack of blueprints which he scanned eagerly. They showed parts of the device.

 

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

 

‘Telectroscope Mark 2,’ he read aloud. ‘Designed by Philip McCavity. It’s tiny! Everything Blenkinsop was hoping to achieve. And St George – he must see this, he’ll be flabbergasted. Fingers, do you have anything to carry it in?’
Fingers dug in one of his many pockets and produced a small sack. As they packed in the scope and blueprints, the noise of battle began to echo in the cave. They retreated hastily back through the guardroom until they re-entered the main tunnel.
They hurried back to the inn, fortunately without meeting friend or enemy, and settled down in the bar to eat grilled mackerel and wait for the return of Major Trelawney’s force.
* * *
Dusk was beginning to fall, with sign of the soldiers, when they heard hooves and Emmeline’s pony shambled into view. St George was riding it, his feet nearly touching the ground, and Emmeline was leading it by the bridle.
‘Have you seen my Papa?’ Emmeline said. ‘We were expecting him back at the camp long before now.’
The worry that they had repressed until now began to weigh on them.
Victoriana shook her head.‘How many men are left at the camp?’
‘Only the cooks and the medics,’ said Emmeline. ‘I don’t know if they’d be much use if it came to a fight. But I think I’d better go and fetch them all the same.’ She mounted the pony, which was cropping grass at the roadside, and dug in her heels. Nothing happened.
Fingers bent to the creature’s ear and whispered a few words. The pony’s mane stood on end and it bolted in the direction of the camp, with Emmeline bouncing precariously in the saddle.
They returned to the inn to wait. Concerned as they were, St George’s delight at the miniature Telectroscope, mingled with envy, was a delight to behold. Rusty and he avidly studied the plans, exchanging remarks that no one else could understand.
But it was now ten o’clock, eighteen hours after the soldiers had entered the tunnel, and there was still no sign of their return. They retired to their rooms, but no one slept.

 

This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.