VICTORIANA AND THE TELECTROSCOPE
Chapter 1 (RH)
'Victoriana!' said her father. 'Put that cardboard tube down now, and come and have your tea.'
Victoriana looked at him crossly. Major Adalbert Parkin-Parkinson was already plump at thirty-five, and his heavy walrus moustache and sidewhiskers made him look older. He had taken off his uniform jacket, sword and boots, and was lolling comfortably at the table in collarless shirt and braces, his feet in carpet slippers. Victoriana was confined in a heavy flannel dress and starched blouse, itchy woollen stockings, and button boots that took Nanny Prewitt ten minutes to do up with a buttonhook every morning.
'I was looking for Emmy through my telescope,' she said. 'Oh Papa, I do miss her so.'
Emmeline was the seven-year-old daughter of Adalbert's brother officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, Jolliver Trelawney. Victoriana and she had been inseparable while they were in London, but now her father had been posted to New York as a liaison officer. Victoriana had seen a book in her parents' library called Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and she had looked at it when they were out. She was not very good at French, but had gathered that liaison was something men did to women. Her father had never explained what he did: it was secret, he said.
'Wouldn't it be fun,' said Victoriana, now seated at the table and demolishing a devilled mutton sandwich, 'if there was a telescope you could look down and see all the way to London? And talk to people there – it would be wonderful!'
Her father choked on his sandwich. Her mother patted him on the back and made him drink some tea. When he had recovered, he turned back to Victoriana. He did not like to see his only daughter unhappy. 'Well, Vicky, he said, 'we let you send a telegram to Emmy at Christmas, though it was terribly expensive, and you got a reply in less than four hours.'
'It was very good of you, Papa,' she said dutifully. But she sensed that he was holding something back.
That evening her parents went to the Metropolitan Opera. After she had done her homework, she went to the library and sat down at her father's desk to write a letter to Emmy. She found a sheet of stiff cream writing paper with an engraved address, and an envelope with the Corps coat of arms on the flap, and an inkpot and an ivory penholder. She had been allowed to write with a real pen since her seventh birthday in June, and didn't make too many blots now.
But the nib in the penholder was bent, and she couldn't see the box of Waverley nibs her father always used. So she started looking through the desk drawers.
In one of them there was an official-looking sheet folded in half. She opened it; it was headed 'From Maj. J.F. Trelawney to Maj. A.S. Parkin-Parkinson.'
'Oh, it's from Emmy's father,' she said to herself. 'I wonder what it's about.' It also said 'SECRET' at the top, but it couldn't really be a secret because they were friends. So she read on.
'Re: Telectroscope Project.
'Your communiqué of 24th January received. Gratified to hear that the South Street terminal will soon be operational – please pass on my compliments to the U.S. Army Signal Corps on their excellent work. Our excavations at Tooley Street are now completed and installation of the optics is under way. We expect to be able to make a test transmission on 6th March. Please ask Colonel Hunsaker to have his men stand by at 6 p.m. East Coast time. Keeping our fingers crossed that everything will be "O.K.", as they say on your side of the pond.
'Yours ever, Jolly.'
Victoriana was beside herself with curiosity. South Street, she knew, was the road that ran along the shore of the East River past the foot of Brooklyn Bridge. And Tooley Street was in London, on the south bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge. It seemed they were sending something between them. Was it with the 'Telectroscope' – and if so, what was it? It sounded like a kind of telescope. She remembered the game she had been playing before tea with the cardboard tube. What if there really was such a device?
Refolding the letter and putting it back in the drawer, she went on searching and found a nib, which she fitted into the penholder. Dipping the pen in the ink, she began to write.
'I hope this finds you well, I miss you terably and wish I was back in London with you. New York is very cold and I dont know anyone here, Nanny Prewitt says she has never seen such dredfull maners in all her born days. I was going to tell you about the boring things we have been doing but I have found something EXITING!!! You must keep this a SECRET cross your hart and swear to die. Your Papa wrote a letter to mine its about a thing called the Telectroscope and I think its a kind of telescope you can see from London to New York and back and talk to each other and I dont know how it works but its a soldiers thing and your end of it is in Tooley Street near Tower Bridge. Papa wont say anything about it of corse and niether will yours but can you try to find out wat it is and maybe well find a way to see each other after all. And dont breth a word to a sole about this.
'Your devoted freind Vicky XXX.'
She blotted and folded the sheet, put it in the envelope, gave it a really good lick so that no one could unstick it, wrote the address, found a stamp with the right postage for England, and went out to the mailbox beside the garden gate.
Chapter 2 (HB)
As Victoriana passed back through the garden gate, a terrified scream rent the air.
She rushed up the steps and entered the house to hear another squeal of horror which seemed to emanate from the nursery, towards which room her father and mother were hurrying, followed by one or two of the braver domestics armed with brooms and dusters and whatever else they had to hand. Her father was carrying a ancient umbrella with a carved eagle's head, with which he thrust open the door whence the screams were crescendoing. What a sight met their eyes – Nanny Prewitt was wobbling dangerously as she stood on a chair clutching her skirts around her.
'Mouse! Mouse!' she shrieked, 'an army of them!'
Major Adalbert advanced into the room, poking his umbrella furiously at the small brown furry animal under the chair, which turned a pair of bright eyes towards him, twitched its whiskers twice, then speedily disappeared with a scamper of tiny paws under the heavy oak sideboard.
'There, Nanny,' said the Major triumphantly, 'I have dispersed the attacking horde for you.'
'No, no, there were hundreds of them, Major,' squeaked Nanny Prewitt, still quaking.
'Really, Nanny, there was only one tiny mouse on its own,' Victoriana's Mama said firmly. 'I really think you should ...'
'Eeeeek!' squawked the parlourmaid pushing roughly past, and trying to join Nanny Prewitt on her chair. 'MICE! 'Undreds an' 'undreds of 'em!'
Sure enough, there was a writhing and roiling of brown bodies appearing from below the other pieces of furniture scattered around the room.
'We are invaded!' cried the Major, 'send for the exterminators!'
There was a general swift evacuation of the room, led by Nanny Prewitt launching herself past the others through the doorway into the hall. Major Adalbert pulled the door firmly closed and mopped his brow.
'Papa,' said Victoriana, who had managed to capture one of the tiny creatures as she exited, and was now examining it closely, 'Papa, this mouse …'
'Dong-a-dong!' went the front door bell, making everyone jump and Victoriana to forget what she was saying.
Major Adalbert advanced swiftly across the hall and threw the door open to disclose two rather sinister figures standing on the step, one tall and thin and the other short and fat. The tall man wore an overcoat with a scarf wrapped around his neck, all but hiding a rather sly set of features; his bowler hat was slightly dented. The other man was similarly dressed, with an even more battered bowler and an expression of low cunning.
'Good morneeng, my frents,' the tall man spoke in a heavily accented voice. 'I am Molotok of Molotok und Serp, and it is exterminatink ve do' – he turned and waved a knobbly hand at a cart pulled up outside the garden gate, embellished with the sign reading 'Molotok & Serp, Universal Exterminaters' – Victoriana thought it was badly spelt but wasn't sure; she also thought the paint wasn't quite dry – 'und ve haf bin led to understant zat zere has bin an outbreak of mices in zis area.'
'There jolly well has!' snorted Major Adalbert. 'This is most opportune – come in at once, we wish to engage your services.'
Victoriana crouched behind a large bush at the back of the flowerbed and peered through the window. Having tried to tell her Papa that the mouse she had caught was a field mouse, and not a house mouse, and having been ignored in the general rumpus while the exterminators moved their equipment into the house, she had decided that she would keep an eye on the exterminators herself.
'If nothing else,' she thought to herself, 'I shall at least learn to be an exterminater.'
She glanced over her shoulder at Nanny Prewitt, who was dozing in the sun in a garden chair, happily unaware of her charge's current concealment in the flowerbed. Papa and Mama had disappeared into town, and the remaining staff had been given the afternoon off.
Having carried out various activities in the nursery, most of which seemed to Victoriana to involve collecting handfuls of tame mice and placing them in a capacious carpetbag, the two exterminators moved stealthily into the library.
Victoriana scrabbled around through the bushes until she reached the library window and was rewarded with the sight of the man called Serp concealing what appeared a small brass hearing trumpet behind a vase in the middle of the bookcase. The desk looked as though it had been ransacked, with a couple of drawers left open and some papers scattered on the floor. The two men hastily left the room, and Victoriana heard the front door closing behind them with a bang.
'I bet Dora the maid gets blamed for that!' she said to herself. 'But I know who really did it, so I'm going to follow them to see where they go!'
Pausing only to collect her hoop and stick from behind the front door – nobody would look twice at a child bowling a hoop along the street, she reasoned – she set off to follow the pair as they pushed their cumbersome cart away.
Chapter 3 (CLD)
Nanny Prewitt woke with a start, and looked around for Victoriana. Not only was her charge nowhere in sight, but there was an ominous silence. 'Really!' she muttered to herself, 'I rest my eyes for half a moment and that girl disappears. If she's quiet, she's probably making trouble.'
Long experience led Nanny to the library: Victoriana was fascinated by her father's desk, despite – or maybe because of – being forbidden to use it. However, she was usually a tidy child, careful to leave no traces of her curiosity, so Nanny gasped to see the mess. 'Really!' she exclaimed again. 'That child gets worse every day. These New Yorkers are clearly setting her a bad example. But where is she?'
A quick look in the nursery showed that it was both child-free and mouse-free, although Nanny shuddered at the memory of that rodent invasion. To reassure herself, she looked under the furniture and behind the curtains. Not a mousy trace remained – how strangely effective the exterminators had been! – but movement outside caught Nanny's experienced eye. Victoriana was playing with a hoop and stick, a toy she usually scorned, and tracing a rather curious path along the edge of the garden. It seemed to involve a lot of ducking behind bushes.
At the sound of the front door opening, Victoriana started and let her hoop fall to the ground. Trying not to look too guilty, she turned and waved at Nanny Prewitt. As she did so, the sound of wheels caught her attention and she saw the cart begin to move down the street, both 'exterminaters' striding in their haste to get away. She gave another, more vigorous wave and ran off in pursuit. Nanny's parting words, 'young ladies don't run in the street', went unheeded as she swerved among the passers-by.
Victoriana nearly tripped over her own hoop as she followed the men round the corner. No sooner had they stepped into the side-street than they had stopped. Slinking back out of view, she strained to hear their muttered conversation.
'Zere's a back alley just along here. Ve can settle down zere and listen in.'
'Brilliant – if we didn't have this handcart full of performing field mice to look after.'
'Vell, you take it home while I vait 'ere. Bring back some coffee and sandwiches ven you are returning.'
'I'm not your servant! You take it! You make the sandwiches!'
'I vould, but ze mice only obey you. Ve may need their tricks again!'
'You always do this to me. Always. It's not fair. We're supposed to be equal partners in this scheme. You may have the money, but how would you manage without a New Yorker to sort you out?'
'Go, go now, before zey come home and spot us. Just go!'
Victoriana's head whirled. So there was a plot! But how were the men going to listen to them from the back garden? After all, the house had thick walls and all the windows were closed. That was very puzzling. And there was a more urgent puzzle to solve: should she follow Serp and his cartful of mice, or keep an eye on Molotok to see what he was doing in the alley?
If she followed the New Yorker, she might get vital information about his trick mice. However, he could be going anywhere, and Nanny was sure to notice soon that she hadn't come in. After all, it was nearly time for dinner. In fact, now she considered it, she was quite hungry and really didn't want to miss her meal.
At the thought of the American food she was so fond of, Victoriana decided that she would stay near the alley. After all, surely she should find out what was happening to her own house? Wasn't the important mystery here the question of how the men were going to listen to her parents? Maybe – what if – it would be a coincidence, surely, but … could this be connected to the mysterious Telectroscope?
Chapter 4 (RH)
Victoriana watched with interest as the men took a brass tripod out of their carpet bag, followed by what seemed to be a small umbrella made of silvery material. This they erected and attached to the tripod, its convex side facing sideways towards the house. The point of the umbrella ended in a narrow flexible tube, the far end of which Molotok applied to his ear. However it worked, she thought, it was certainly a listening device.
Then, to her intense annoyance, a police steamer hissed slowly past the mouth of the alleyway. It was only a routine patrol, she was sure, but the men panicked. Seizing their equipment, they scuttled into a side alley. Victoriana crept up quietly behind the cart, from where she could steal a glance around the corner. Molotok was unlocking a small van, one of the electric vehicles used for door-to-door deliveries. It was facing away from her.
As soon as Serp had climbed into the other side of the cab, Victoriana, pausing only to undo the clasp on the carpet bag – 'Good luck, little creatures', she whispered – ran down the alley and jumped on to the step at the back of the van. She hung grimly on to the door handle as the vehicle whined and jolted over the uneven paving. She had often seen street urchins cadging rides on vans and steam wagons, and no one took much notice of them. But she feared she looked nothing like one in her neat blue pinafore, with her long golden hair escaping its ribbon and flying in the wind.
From her precarious vantage point she could see that the van was going south from her home in West 20th Street. They turned on to a busy diagonal road that she knew was the Bowery and gathered speed; she could hardly cling on. Then the van halted at an intersection. Praying that there was no way the men could see into the body from their cab, she wrenched open the door and climbed in. The van was half full of wooden crates.
As far as she could see through the small oval rear windows, they were continuing in the same direction. After some minutes the van slowed down, turned sharply and squeaked to a halt. She heard the men getting out, and footsteps approaching the back of the van. In desperate haste she crawled behind a crate as both doors were flung open.
But then she heard Molotok's voice: 'Not now, Klaus. Ve'll brink zem out ven it's dark.' The doors slammed shut and the steps receded, and she could hear a jingling of keys as a house door was opened, followed by another slam.
Victoriana emerged from her hiding place, found the inside door handle and climbed quietly out of the van. It was in another narrow alley and she had no idea where she was, but she heard the cry of gulls and smelt wet mud, and she thought they must be near the East River.
The van was parked next to the door of a run-down two-storey building, and beside the door was a lighted window, too far above the ground to see over the sill. She climbed up on the running board of the van and very carefully raised her head until she could see inside.
In the grubby room, Molotok and Serp were seated at a table examining a large sheet of paper. A spindly gas jet on the wall gave enough light for her to see that it looked like the ground plan of something long – a road, a tunnel? – with a square at one end – a yard, a room? – full of odd shapes that she could make nothing of. At one side of the straight part, much more crudely drawn, another road or shaft protruded into it. Molotok's finger was on this. 'Anozzer fifteen, twenny feet,' he said. 'Klaus, ve need more diggers. Zose Gott-dammt hobos you hire, zey useless, all zey do is drink. Und I don't vant zem arount ven ve get in.'
'What you want I should hire, miners?' said Serp, turning out his hands in a resigned gesture and raising his eyes – which met those of Victoriana outside. With a cry of 'Spies!' he hurled himself towards the door as she leaped down and fled up the alley. Behind her she heard a slam and two sets of running feet.
She had almost reached the street when a strong hand seized her arm and she was lifted helplessly off the ground. As she struggled, she found herself staring into the twisted features of Molotok. His breath stank of stale schnapps and rank tobacco. 'Vot haf ve here?' he said. 'Vy, I belief it's ze leetel dotter of ze Maior.'
'If you touch me you'll pay for it,' cried Victoriana with an assurance she did not feel. 'The police will find you and they'll –' Molotok clapped a grimy hand over her mouth and laughed coarsely, and Serp, who had panted up on his short legs, guffawed.
'Shall I deal with 'er?' asked Serp with palpable relish.
'No, Moe, she chust might be useful later. I'm sure ze good Maior vould do anysink to get her back.' Molotok bundled the struggling girl under his arm and bore her back to the door. 'Ve'll put her in ze tzellar for now.'
Victoriana struggled unavailingly as she was dragged into the building. Serp hauled up a trapdoor in the hallway, and she was bumped down a flight of stone stairs and flung on to a slimy floor. As she tried to regain her footing, the last thing she saw was Molotok's feet at the top of the staircase and the trapdoor slamming shut, leaving her in darkness. Ridiculously, her first thought was 'I wonder what they're having for dinner at home.'
Then strong hands gripped her arms from behind! A voice next to her ear whispered, 'Hey, li'l lady, waddya doin' bustin' in here?'
Chapter 5 (RH)
Victoriana did not scream: she was beyond screaming. In a faint voice she said, 'Those men put me here.'
The hands released their grip. 'Waddya done to bug 'em? An' what's wid dat accent? Ya sound real funny.'
'I'm English,' said Victoriana, strengthened by indignation. 'And they were spying on my Papa. He's a soldier and he does important work. With your government.'
'My gumment! Hoo hoo. But if yer agin 'em, guess we is too. Siddown an' let's talk aboudit.' A hand on her arm, gentler this time, guided her to what felt like a packing case, on to which she subsided gratefully.
A lucifer flared and illuminated the face of a thickset middle-aged man wearing a shapeless felt hat. He lit a candle lantern and set it on another case. ''S okay, Fingers,' he said. 'Only a goil. Ya can come back out.'
A small man emerged from the shadows, his thin face ornamented with an enormous drooping dark moustache. 'Sheesh, lady,' he said, 'ya reely pudda scare inna us.'
Despite her fear, the thought of her scaring these desperate-looking characters made her giggle. 'I'm Victoriana. Who are you?' she said.
'Nah, ladies first,' said the thickset man. So Victoriana told them about how Molotok and Serp had tricked their way into the house and put a small, mysterious object in her father's study, and then seemed to be listening to it in some way from the alley beside the garden, and how she had followed them here. She did not tell them about her father's work – in fact she couldn't, as she had little idea of what he did.
'Ya sure took a chance, goil,' said the man. He introduced himself as Oiving; Victoriana had been in New York long enough to mentally adjust this to Irving. He told her that the pair had been watching Molotok for some time, after they had noticed constant deliveries of crates of all sizes to the house.
'Excuse me for asking,' said Victoriana politely, 'but would you by any chance be, um, burglars?'
Irving laughed. 'Well, Vic … lessay we was plannin' to relieve 'em of a soiplus o' goods.'
Victoriana had been properly brought up, and knew that burglars were Bad People. But in the circumstances she could hardly disapprove. 'I don't mind' – and she deployed an idiom she had recently learnt from her father's newspaper – 'if you take them for everything they've got.' Or should that be 'gotten'? she thought.
'Dat's my goil,' said Irving. 'But look, ya don' belong in dis hole, an' I don' like to think o' what dem gonifs was plannin' to do wid ya. Time we was geddin' ya out.'
'De way we got in, 's easy.'
The men stood up and led her to the doorway from which Fingers had appeared, and into another cellar room. Along one wall wooden cases were stacked from floor to ceiling. Irving held his lantern up to some of the labels: Nussbaum Electrostatic Instruments; Invicta Optics, Inc.; Handfast & Snell, Brassfounders. 'Looks val'able, don' it?' On the other side of the room was a doorway roughly hewn into the brickwork, supported by heavy timbers. A heavy underground stink wafted from the dark opening. A wheelbarrow and several shovels were propped against the wall. 'Dey're diggin' a tunnel,' said Irving. 'Lord only knows where to. None of our business, anyways.'
At the end of the room a short flight of steps led up to a sloping trapdoor. Fingers went ahead, produced a small instrument from his pocket, applied it to the lock which yielded with a click, and pushed up the door. 'Coal chute,' he said laconically. 'Kid stuff.'
They came out in an alley, apparently at the back of the house. It was getting dark. 'We best get ya home afore ya missed,' Irving said.
No chance of that, Victoria thought apprehensively, but the relief of being out made it a small worry. Irving extended his arm with a lordly gesture. Victoriana took it, and the three sauntered down the alley and into the street.
Irving led the way to East Broadway station, from which she could get home quickly on the At – the subterranean atmospheric railroad that served Manhattan. It was loud with the clanking and hissing of the stationary steam engine that created the vacuum to propel the trains. He paid her fare, waving away her thanks – ''S only a dime' – and escorted her to the platform. The stationmaster seemed to know him; so did one of the station cats, who rubbed herself against his leg.
The At was home to most of New York's stray cats. In the early days of the railroad the leather flaps which sealed the tops of the atmospheric tubes that ran between the rails had been gnawed by rats, causing leaks that brought the system to a standstill. The problem was solved simply by putting out food for the city's stray cats, which rapidly eliminated the rats.
When the train hissed in, Irving courteously handed her into the Ladies Only car. 'Thank you so much,' she began. 'I don't know what I'd have done without you …' 'Look after yerself, kid,' was his brief reply as the doors closed.
* * *
Climbing the stairs of her home station, she glanced at the clock and saw that it was only just after seven. So much had happened in a few hours! But she knew that she would be coming home to a monumental fuss.
As soon as she opened the garden gate her Mama, staring distractedly out of the window, uttered a shriek. A moment later she was flying out of the door and clasped Victoriana frantically to her well upholstered bosom, while Nanny Prewitt hovered in the background, squeaking faintly.
Victoriana's mother, born Irmgard Ffoliot-Verge, was a scion of a good military family and not given to displays of emotion. Nevertheless she was sobbing with relief as she blurted, 'Oh my darling, where in heaven's name have you been? We've been looking for you everywhere. We called the police. Papa sent out all his men!' The Major's force consisted of his batman Noakes, who had lost an arm in Afghanistan, and a corporal and two privates who served as signallers.
'I'm so sorry, Mama,' said Victoriana. 'I went too far down the street and I got lost. But a kind gentleman saw me home on the train.' It was true as far as it went.
Major Adalbert burst through the door, red in the face and puffing. With a practised eye, Victoriana saw that he as working his way up to an explosion. She knew how to head him off. 'Papa, Papa!' she cried. 'I've got something terribly important to tell you. Those men who came for the mice – they were spies, they put a – a machine in the bookcase, behind the vase, and I think it was to listen to you. Please, please, come and look!'
'What, what?' bellowed the Major. But his fury was diverted into a new channel, and he hastened into the library.
A scene of chaos met their eyes. The vase, a valuable Dresden piece of great ugliness, lay in fragments on the floor, surrounded by scattered books from the shelf on which it had stood. A French window had been broken and was standing open to the night. But of the brass trumpet there was no sign.
'I knew it!' he bellowed. 'Those miserable malefactors and their miasmic mice! Common thieves! Prewitt! Call the police again!'
Victoriana said quietly to her mother, 'But have they stolen anything?' The Major's silver-gilt inkstand stood on the table, untouched. The Reynolds portrait of his distinguished ancestor Sir Cordless Kettle was still hanging in its place. Nanny Prewitt hovered indecisively.
When some degree of calm had been restored, and the maid had swept up the fragments of the vase, replaced the books, and stuck a piece of card over the broken window with passe-partout tape, Victoriana again tried to explain about the brass trumpet: 'I think they must have broken in to take it back.' But she could hardly say how she knew that Molotok and Serp had seen that their scheme was rumbled, and her parents both thought that she had been imagining things.
But they were so relieved by her return, and so distracted by the break-in, that she escaped the punishment she had expected and was even allowed a late supper of bread and dripping in the kitchen and the comfort of talking to the cook, Mrs Oates, perhaps the only rational person in the household. However, even Mrs Oates did not believe the story of the listening device.
As Victoriana lay in bed that night, she realised that she would have to pursue this matter on her own.
Chapter 6 (HB)
When Victoriana descended the stairs next morning for breakfast, she was anticipating – indeed she had prepared herself for – the renewed reproaches from her parents concerning her deviant behaviour the afternoon before: but she was not at all ready for what happened next.
'Victoriana,' said her Papa in his stern voice, 'your Mama and I have been discussing matters and we have come to the conclusion that you are becoming a little wild and rebellious of late. I suppose it is the air in this country that causes this sort of behaviour, indeed I believe it is endemic here for every man to bow to no –'
'And woman!' interposed Mama.
'– authority but what he chooses to acknowledge himself, ' Papa continued as if there had been no interruption, 'in other words to display an independence that has in the past led to the fracturing of relations between this young land and the Mother Country. But a man –'
'And woman!' Mama put in somewhat peevishly.
'–must learn to toe the line and obey certain rules, otherwise there will be anarchy.'
Victoriana knew all about monarchy – it was one of Nanny Prewitt's favourite subjects, discoursed on at length – but she wasn't sure about anarchy. Perhaps it meant several kings or queens reigning at the same time? She made a mental note to look it up, then realised she had missed what her Papa had been saying.
'… and the long and the short of it is, your Mama and I have decided that you shall go and stay with your cousin Rory for a period as you will benefit from the strict regime that his parents have instilled in the household.'
Mama swelled visibly with pride; the Dawe Hinges were cousins of the Ffoliot-Verges and claimed to amongst the earliest settlers to arrive in the New World. The matter of their departing from England a day or so before the bailiffs came battering at their door had had a veil of myths and rumours woven over it so the truth had disappeared in the mists of time.
'You got on so well with Rory when they visited us in London, didn't you, dear!' beamed Mama.
Victoriana hid a shudder: Rory – or Rusty as he was known because of his red hair – had not been interested in playing with her, or indeed in doing anything other than visit museums or bury his head in some abstruse book.
'But Mama …' she started.
'Enough, Victoriana. It is decided,' said her Papa.
As Victoriana slunk dejectedly back to the nursery to pack under the supervision of Nanny Prewitt, who would be taking what she regarded as a much deserved holiday, she realised that her plan to track the mysterious Molotok and his villainous partner had received a severe blow.
* * *
Victoriana almost expected a fanfare of trumpets to erupt on her arrival at the Dawe Hinges' splendid residence, which sat smugly on the top of a small rise, regarding the houses below it with a superior smile like a fat comfortable cat. The Dawe Hinges waited in the withdrawing room to greet her in their usual reserved manner, as if getting excited over visitors was something other people did.
Victoriana was shown briefly to her room by Rusty who disappeared immediately into what he grandly termed his 'laboratory': though the same age as Victoriana, he had the air of a rather elderly professor, and she was struck by the thought that this could be the most boring holiday of her life so far, even more boring that the lessons Nanny Prewitt gave about the Royal Family and the Dominions. She took her time over unpacking as she could, little knowing that she was in for a couple of surprises before long.
Eventually she finished and found her way to Rusty's laboratory to see what he was up to.
Her first surprise was that it was a real laboratory, equipped not only with an enormous amount of chemical apparatus but also odd pieces of machinery whose purpose she could not guess. Rusty in his domain had lost his dullness and his eyes had lit with a gleam that no amount of childhood games had been able to spark.
'Hi, Victoriana, please excuse the smell!' he chuckled, mixing the bright yellow contents of a test tube with the red liquid that was bubbling away in a retort, and producing a cloud of purple smoke which smelt foul and caused Victoriana to choke. 'I'll open a window.'
When she had stopped coughing and found a seat on a bench that was only partly covered with books, she sat and watched Rusty happily mixing this and that together and making copious notes in a large notebook, and the time ticked by quite rapidly until she remembered her quest, and let out a loud sigh, which distracted Rusty.
'Why, whatever's the matter, Victoriana? Do you want to have a go at this?' He waved a test tube at her, accidentally spraying the worktop near her with a viscous liquid which started hissing as soon as it touched the wood, burning a deep hole in the surface.
'Ooops,' he said belatedly.
'No, it's not that, Rusty,' she said. 'I just need to find somebody and I'm not sure how to do it.'
'Who do you want to find?'
'I want to find two men who were pretending to be "exterminaters",' said Victoriana with another sigh, 'but where do I start if I'm stuck out here in the country? Not that it isn't very nice being here with you,' she added hastily.
'Have you tried Orange Pages?' asked Rusty. 'It's the most versatile address journal in the state,' he added knowingly.
Victoriana's jaw dropped.
'Do people let someone list their addresses for all to see?' she asked in astonishment.
'Of course!' said Rusty. 'How else would one locate tradesmen and merchants for provisions and services? Here, let me show you.'
He removed a large orange volume with well thumbed pages from the crowded bookcase and placed it on the workbench.
'Now, what is the name of the person you are seeking?'
'I don't really think they would list their names here,' Victoriana said doubtfully, lifting the book onto her lap and flicking through the pages to the Ms.
She nearly dropped the book in surprise when in the middle of the MOs she found the following in bold print: 'MOLOTOK AND SERP: AGENTS FOR ACTION. YOU WANT IT DONE, WE DO IT.'
'Well, well,' exclaimed Rusty, 'they appear to be living just around the corner from the Hall of Science, one of the most prestigious museums in New York.'
'Is it …' faltered Victoriana, '… is it … er … easy to get to?'
Rusty glanced over his shoulder, then lowered his voice to a whisper.
'As a matter of fact, I was planning a visit tomorrow – there are some exhibits on show I just MUST see, and my parents have confined me to the house this week. Well, there was an incident just before you came involving the cook and an exploding pie,' he muttered, seeing the astonishment on her face.
'And this is how we'll get there,' he said, swiftly removing a small key from his pocket and unlocking a concealed door low down in the workbench. As the door opened, a flood of little metal coins poured out.
'Tokens!' said Rusty in triumph, completing Victoriana's evening of surprises. 'I've manufactured enough so I can travel for free all over the state on the At railroad for weeks!'
* * *
Stepping from the station, the pair were confronted with the stately façade of the Science Museum.
'Now, are sure you're going to be all right?' asked Rusty. 'That contraption I left running in the laboratory will make my parents think we're occupied for hours, and these snacks I pinched from the kitchen should last us till teatime. So I'll see you back here at five o'clock?' He was edging away as he spoke, obviously eager to enter the museum.
Victoriana smiled and waved goodbye.
'Well, I never did! What a day of surprises,' she thought. 'Now I can get on with some proper sleuthing.'
She crossed the road and marched along the side of the museum, crossing again and turning to the left before pausing and slowing her pace till she reached the corner.
'Now, this is where I must show some caution,' she said to herself. 'Their house should be just around the corner, and I don't want to get caught again!'
She poked her head around the wall and peered down the lane – and blinked, and peered again. There in the middle of the road was an enormous hole, sticking out of which could just be seen the tail fins of a police steamer.
Chapter 7 (RH)
The accident had only just happened. The steamer was nose down in the hole and one rear wheel was still turning lazily. There was a descending whine as its turbine ran down. A cloud of dust hung over the scene.
Victoriana knew exactly what to do. There was a public alarm box on the corner and she ran to it, pausing only to pick up an empty bottle from the gutter. The box had three glass panels marked 'Police', 'Ambulance' and 'Fire'. After a moment's thought she used the neck of the bottle to break the 'Police' glass. It was their steamer, let them deal with it. A magnesium flash dazzled her as the machine took her picture, a necessary precaution against false alarms, and a bell started ringing.
Dropping the bottle, she approached the hole. There was a sound of scraping and falling pebbles as a policeman's head appeared over the edge. He had lost his brass helmet and had a cut on his forehead.
'You hit the screamer, little lady?' he asked as he climbed out on to the road.
Victoriana nodded. 'Police,' she said. 'Was that all right?'
'Fine, fine, nobody's hurt.'
His partner appeared over the edge, covered in dust and coughing. 'Best get back,' he said. 'Might be more coming down.'
As he spoke, there was a crack and a rumble, and the road fell in across its full width. They retreated hastily, but not before Victoriana had seen that there was a large cavity under the road shored up with heavy timbers. Inside, she glimpsed part of a huge horizontal cylinder at least eight feet tall, apparently made of bronze and divided into segments, with bolts and knobs and strange protrusions.
Another police steamer clanged into view and the two officers ran to flag it down before it got too close to the edge. After a short conversation they began unreeling incident tape between lamp posts to cordon off the area.
Victoriana thought she had done her part, and crept away unnoticed. She was sure that the cave-in had happened directly outside Molotok and Serp's office. They seemed to be crazy about tunnelling, she thought as she made her way back to the Hall of Science.
The clock showed that she was an hour early for the rendezvous with Rusty, but she passed the time happily enough wandering along the shore of the lake. She sat on a bench and ate a couple of sandwiches, throwing the crumbs to the ducks.
Rusty was punctual to the minute. 'I've seen some great things,' he said. 'They had a super demonstration of the new turbine they use in the latest police steamers.'
'I know,' said Victoriana. 'I've just seen one from the underneath.'
'What –– ?'
She told him about the afternoon's events. He listened eagerly. When she got to the part about the bronze cylinder, he whistled with astonishment. 'The Blenkinsop Intensifier!'
'What's that?' she asked.
'It was stolen from the museum last year,' said Rusty. 'No one knew how they got it out. It's thirty feet long and weighs six tons.'
He told her how Cyrus Blenkinsop, captain of an ironclad of the U.S. Navy, had tried to make an instrument that would amplify very faint light to allow naval lookouts to see clearly in the dark. He had meant to make something that could be attached to a telescope. However, the prototype was enormous and far too delicate to use on the deck of a moving ship. It was also wildly expensive, as it required six lenses ground from gem quality diamonds of which the largest was 40 carats in weight. The device had never been used in earnest, and had been moved to the museum, where its imposing size and complexity made it a popular exhibit.
Then the whole thing had disappeared over the course of the Labor Day weekend. None of the museum's doors or windows had shown any sign of forced entry.
'Do you think that Molotok and Serp wanted it for the diamonds?' asked Victoriana.
'No, it would have been easier to dismantle it on the spot, wouldn't it? They must have tunnelled in and got it out through the floor somehow. I must have walked over the hole just now. Glad it didn't fall in too.'
'What did they want it for, then?'
'They must have wanted to use it, I dunno, for spying or something.'
Victoriana was silent. A pattern was beginning to form in her head: tunnels, telescopes, the Telectrosope – whatever that was. And of course it was secret, and she couldn't betray her Papa ...
… Or could she? Rusty was family, it would be all right to let him in. And besides, he might be very useful.
'There's something I haven't told you,' she said. 'But it's a deadly secret, and you mustn't tell anyone. Not ever. Swear? Cross your heart and hope to die.' She remembered that she had used the same words in her letter to Emmeline. Not much of a secret keeper, was she? Never mind, this was important.
'Yes, I swear,' said Rusty, and drew his thumb across his chest in the approved gesture.
Going home on the At, they sat at the back of the last car. It was almost empty and no one was near enough to overhear them over the noise of the train. It was a long and circuitous journey and they had to change lines three times.
Victoriana recounted the last few days' events and told him what little she knew about the Telectroscope. It was a military thing, she explained, and it had one terminal in New York on the shore of the East River, and another in London on the bank of the Thames. She thought there must be some way of sending something between them, but not words like the telegraph – that wouldn't be secret. It sounded like a telescope, as if you could see a picture in it.
'Wow!' said Rusty. 'But you couldn't see across the Atlantic with a telescope – not even with the Blenkinsop Intensifier. The curve of the earth would block your view after a few miles.'
'I know. And there's all this tunnelling. Molotok &co. seem to want to get to it underground. And who ever heard of an underground telescope?'
They both thought for a while as the train hissed and rattled towards Far Rockaway.
'We have to see what they're doing,' said Rusty as the train pulled out of Euclid Avenue. 'I'm sure they'll be making an Intensifier of their own. They can't move the prototype – especially now.'
'And it's no good looking at the place in Queens. When they discover the Intensifier, it'll be crawling with police for weeks.'
'We need to get into the cellar in the Lower East Side,' Rusty said. 'But just how do we do that?'
'I think I know,' said Victoriana. 'If we tell Irving and Fingers about the diamonds, they'll be dead keen to look. And we can probably find them. The stationmaster at East Broadway seemed to know Irving.'
'They won't want to take us along.'
'Oh yes they will. You know how the diamonds fit into the machine. Only you can find them.'
* * *
When they got home, Mrs Dawe Hinge asked Victoriana if she had had a nice time with her cousin.
'We looked at turbines,' said Victoriana with calculated weariness, but it was true enough. 'It's a big place, isn't it?'
Mrs Dawe Hinge gave her son a sharp look. 'You haven't been boring her to death with all your machines, have you, Rusty?'
'Oh no, we had a really interesting time,' Victoriana interposed hastily.
At supper she said almost nothing while Rusty treated his father to a long discourse on superheaters and condensers. But her mind was racing. How could they get to the Lower East Side? Could they find Irving, and would he take the bait? But above all, what was the mysterious Telectroscope, and how could they find out?
Chapter 8 (HB)
When Victoriana descended for breakfast the following morning, she was intercepted by Rusty before she could enter the dining room.
'I have sent a letter to the stationmaster at East Broadway station with an enclosure which I have asked him to pass to Messrs Irving and – er – Fingers,' he hissed in a conspiratorial whisper. 'The enclosure contains a graphic description of the diamonds in the Intensifier, and a suggestion that these gems may be obtainable if they were to meet with a lady named V outside A Certain Cellar on Lower East Side at 8 p.m. tonight. They're bound to want to find out more,' he said confidently, chinking the At tokens in his pocket, 'and then we can get into the cellar and find out what's going on.'
A little thrill ran down Victoriana's spine as she sat down at the table: she shivered with excitement, and a little brass plate fell from her handkerchief pocket to the floor with a clatter.
'Eh? Eh? Wassat?' muttered Dawe Hinge senior, startled into dropping the newspaper he was reading into his cornflakes. 'Oh, botheration!'
He scooped the metal plate up from the floor and perused it carefully.
'McCavity and Brown, Master Engineers,' he read. 'Well, well, well, well,well. And where did you get this, young lady?'
'I found it in the road just outside the Museum yesterday,' said Victoriana, who had forgotten all about it. 'Are they famous?'
'Well, well, well, well, well,' said Dawe Hinge again, his eyes moistening at some distant memory. 'D'you know, I went to college with young Phil McCavity back in – er – a long, long time ago, before I met your Mama, Rory. Back then he was studying dentistry, of course, before he became interested in engineering and met that rich fellow Brown who provided the money for him to build his tunnelling machines.'
Victoriana and Rusty exchanged open-mouthed looks.
'Of course, there were three of them originally,'mused Dawe Hinge, 'that ghastly fellow Hamish McHerring who did all the selling for the project, Brown was the money man – a genius with the cash, he was …'
'I thought McCavity and Brown went bust?' Rusty interrupted.
'Well, they did declare bankruptcy at one time, I believe, but that was mainly because of the funds Hamish McHerring had spent on campaigning for Scottish independence. Imagine, the United Kingdom without Scotland – unthinkable!' Dawe Hinge pounded the table with his cereal spoon, causing Mrs Dawe Hinge to blanch as a shower of soggy cornflakes landed in the raspberry jam.
'But McCavity was the inventor, of course – "Why make money filling cavities when you can make more money digging them," he used to say,' Dawe Hinge continued. 'At least, that's what I think he said. He had a very strong Glaswegian accent, you know. By George, I think I still have the McCavity Miner!'
He jumped to his feet and rushed over to the glass display cabinet, removing what looked like a large set of false teeth fitted into a brass box and placing it on the table.
Victoriana and Rusty gazed at the object in wonder.
'What does this do, Papa?' asked Rusty, reaching out and pressing down a tiny lever.
'Wait!' cried Dawe Hinge, 'you need to attach a chain first,' and dashed to the cabinet again to retrieve a length of stout brass chain.
But he was too late.
With a loud snort and a couple of coughs, the set of teeth started gnashing together, rolling slowly but inexorably on tiny wheels towards the edge of the table. Dawe Hinge reached forward with the chain, but only succeeded in tipping the engine onto its face, where the teeth started to take huge bites out of the surface of the table. As soon as it sensed solid opposition to its munching, the engine noise rose to a high pitched whine as the motor revved up, and before their startled gaze the McCavity Miner chomped its way rapidly through the heavy mahogany to land face down on the carpet, barely pausing in its chewing motion. Within seconds the infernal device had dug a passage through the carpet and into the floor below before crashing noisily down into the cellar beneath the house.
An awed silence was broken by Mrs Dawe Hinge.
'I thought you said you had removed the fuel, my love,' she said icily.
* * *
'No peekin' now, li'l lady an' gen'l'm'n,' growled Fingers, 'dis is sumthun' ya don' rightly wanna know 'bout.'
Victoriana and Rusty obediently faced away from the door through which she had so recently escaped.
'Nice woik, Fingers,' grunted Irving as the door swung open, revealing little but shadows as the streetlight in the alley threw an ugly yellowish gleam through the doorway.
'Quick, in youse goes,' urged Irving, pushing the youngsters forward as Fingers pulled the door closed behind them.
Irving flicked on his torch and ran it round the walls: they were in the room once filled with wooden cases, of which only a few were now left. The wheelbarrow and shovels were still leaning against the wall beside the dank doorway.
'Which way now?' asked Irving hoarsely.
Just as Victoriana opened her mouth to speak there came a series of thuds from above, followed by voices and footsteps getting rapidly closer.
She pointed to the hole in the wall from whence the stench of digging issued. 'Through there!' she said decisively.
Chapter 9 (RH)
'Move it, goil,' said Irving. 'We gotta get t'ru da narrow bit before dey come.' He seized Victoriana's hand and dragged her over the uneven floor of the tunnel, while Fingers and Rusty stumbled after them in the faint glow from the lantern.
After a few yards she sensed rather than saw that there was more space around them. 'Quick, back dere,' Irving whispered, leading her round some large object and hastily shutting the window of the lantern. They all shrank into the darkness as the voices drew nearer and lamplight spread over the floor. It seemed that they were in some kind of cave.
Moments later, a party of men emerged carrying a long packing case past their hiding place. Without pausing, they hauled it onward for what seemed like a considerable distance, and the sound of their feet and the glow of their lamp gradually faded. Irving uncovered the lantern and led them out into the open.
By the faint light,Victoriana could just see part of a brick wall and a concrete pillar. 'Where on earth are we?' she asked. 'Molotok can't have made this.'
'Nah,' said Irving. 'Dis is parta da old At line from East Broadway to Brooklyn Bridge. Leastways, it ain't so old and it weren't never used.' He explained that a subway line had been planned to run along the southeast shore of Manhattan, and partly built, but funds had dried up and it was never opened. There were a couple of miles of tunnel and a few halls at intersecting stations, now walled off and deserted.
'No wonder they wanted that house on the Lower East Side,' said Victoriana. 'What a perfect place for them to hide all their stuff – whatever it is.' She was beginning to fill in a few pieces of the puzzle. She knew that the terminal of the Telectroscope was somewhere near Brooklyn Bridge, because that was where her Papa's office was. And the plan that she had seen Molotok and Serp perusing only a couple of days before might have shown the tunnel, with the men's roughly dug shaft connecting with it.
'We best stay low 'til dey come back,' said Irving. 'Dem di'monds, waddever, 'll be wid da udder stuff at da far end. Only 'bout a half mile along da tunnel.' He turned to Rusty. 'Reckon ya know where dey'll be, kid?'
'If they're in the Intensifier, I'll know just where,' said Rusty.
There was nothing to do but wait. After perhaps an hour the men returned empty-handed and disappeared through the passageway. There was no further sound from them. A few minutes later, Irving led them out and they set off to the far end of the tunnel. No rails had been laid and the floor was bare, rough concrete, with only an occasional brick or lump of rusty iron showing up in the lantern light.
As they neared their destination the floor became littered with opened wooden crates, tools and the debris of men at work. Soon they came in sight of their goal. The machine was set on a roughly poured concrete base, straddling the tunnel at an oblique angle to point along another roughly dug shaft. It was smaller than the Blenkinsop Intensifier that Victoriana had seen in the collapsed cavern, and had none of its stylish bronze panels and brass fittings – just a plain black iron tube studded with pipes and curious protrusions. 'I thought it would be a lot bigger,' she said in disappointment.
'Don't you worry,' said Rusty. 'The end with the lenses is just the same. Those shiny bits were just for show, for the museum, I think.' He examined the device. 'We need to take off that panel – there.'
Fingers seized an adjustable wrench from the floor. It was the work of a moment to undo the bolts, and he stood aside as Rusty reached into the cavity with a small, agile arm. He emerged holding a circular brass plate, at the centre of which something glittered.
Irving's eyes grew wide. 'Is dat it?' he asked eagerly.
'It's the smallest lens,' said Rusty, handing it to him. 'The others are farther along and I can't reach.'
'Lemme try, kiddo,' said Fingers, removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeve.
'It'll come loose if you turn it to the left,' Rusty told him.
After a few seconds of wriggling and muttered curses, Fingers brought out the plate with the second lens. 'But I can't geddat da toid one nohow, least not dis way,' he said. 'Reckon we needa undo dat joint.' He pointed at a seam in the main pipe, secured with a couple of dozen large bolts.
At that moment they heard voices and footsteps in the echoing distance. Irving shuttered the lantern while Fingers hastily replaced the panel and loosely reinserted the bolts. They retreated behind a pile of crates.
This time the men were with Serp, cursing them as they struggled with another long wooden case. He was joined by Molotok telling him to 'be qviet, um Gottes Willen, und chust help zem.'
From her hiding place, Victoriana could look through a small gap between the crates. She watched as the men opened the newly arrived case and unpacked and assembled a bizarre object which combined massiveness with extreme delicacy. A heavy iron frame carried a set of threaded rods turned by handwheels, clearly intended to position something very exactly. The object of their control was a frail glass rod, at the tip of which was what appeared to be a tiny angled mirror, which glittered in the lamplight. But when Molotok carried the lamp behind the apparatus, its light glinted through the mirror, showing that its silver coating was so thin as to be translucent.
'What can that thing be?' she whispered to Rusty, who was crouching beside her.
He thought for a moment before replying. 'I think it's a half-silvered mirror. If a beam of light falls on it, some of the light passes through and some is reflected. You could use it to –'
At that moment Irving, trying to see through the gap, leaned too hard on a crate, and the pile toppled with a crash.
Chapter 10 (HB)
As the splintering crash of the last falling crate died away, Victoriana opened her eyes. Though her father had taken her once as a special treat to a military tattoo, she had never seen so many large and nasty looking weapons in her life – and they were all pointing at her and her companions.
'Zo,' drawled Molotok,'vot haf ve here? It iz our little schpy, iz it not?'
'On da count o' t'ree, we'll exterminate 'em!' snarled Serp, waving his blunderbuss in an alarming fashion. 'One, two…'
'Vait, vait!' commanded Molotok, stretching out his arms. 'Ve haf no need off all zose nasty bangs, and all zat blood. Ve can let nature do ze trick for us. Put zem into ze Optic Chamber.'
Urged forward by the prodding of numerous weapons, Irving and Fingers helped the two youngsters over the rubble in the tunnel and past the Blenkinsop Intensifier towards a huge funnel which had been coupled to the end of the machine.
'Just like Papa's phonograph,' thought Victoriana, 'only much, much bigger.'
Molotok stopped beside a door and produced a large key from his pocket.
'Zese Pritish Army fellows,' he said with a sneer, 'zey alvays produce zings in tuplicate und it makes it zo easy to hobtain ze keys.'
'Now get in!' he ordered, gesturing towards the open door.
With the help of a block of stone standing by the door, the four prisoners entered the dark cell.
'Und now,' sniggered Molotok from the doorway, 'you just wait for the sunrise!'
Stepping back, he slammed the door to and locked it.
'Oy,' said Irving,' dat was unexpected. Fingers, can youse spring da lock?'
Fingers made his way through the gloom to the door, produced a twisted piece of metal from his pocket, and started fiddling with the lock.
Victoriana became aware that the gloom inside the little room was lifting. She turned at Rusty's exclamation.
'Look, Victoriana,' he gasped.
She found she was staring at a huge glass eyepiece set into the mouth of the funnel, and through it poured pure moonlight. Distorted and blurred though the orb was, below it stark and upright in relief stood the towers and skyscrapers of Brooklyn.
'Gosh,' she whispered, 'it's beautiful, like a fairy playground.'
'It's also deadly,' whispered Rusty grimly. 'We are inside the Telectroscope, and that is a lens. When the sun rises over Brooklyn tomorrow, the lens will focus its rays in here and we will all be fried to a crisp.'
'Wadya say if I bash dese dials an pipes, kid?' Asked Irving from the opposite end of the cell, waving his hand at the wall whose centre held a large and glittering stone.
Rusty shook his head.
'Den has any of youse godda Fairy Godmother, 'cos we's gonna need one. C'mon, Fingers, do ya stuff.'
'Ya know Fort Knox, Oiving?' Fingers said over his shoulder in a gloomy voice, 'dis one's his brudder.'
* * *
Resigned to their fate, hoping only that Molotok might change his mind and set them free, the four settled down to sleep as best they could before sunrise.
They were awakened by a tremendous screeching and scraping noise and by the jolting and rolling of the chamber.
'We're movin,' said Fingers unnecessarily.
And they were: they watched as the Brooklyn skyline rocked from side to side and grew gradually smaller, leaving just a gaping view of the clouds and moon.
'Waddya know,' breathed Irving.
'But surely, it's all fixed in concrete,' wondered Victoriana.
'I conjecture,' started Rusty, '… I conjecture that we have been hauled bodily onto some sort of trailer…'
There came a rush of steam and a crashing and clanking as of huge chains being thrown over the Telectroscope, then more creaking and groaning and panting of steam and their movement became more controlled and purposeful and picked up speed.
'Well,' continued Rusty, as his steadied himself against the rocking of the chamber, 'I would say we are no longer being dragged, but we are on wheels.'
At that moment, a powerful lamp on the control wall sprang into life, flooding the chamber with light, and a wild unkempt figure leapt through the doorway.
'Masweet,masweet,maverraawnbabby,maTelec…' the figure warbled , breaking off and glaring when he caught sight of the surprised occupants. His kilt swirled vigorously as he pulled a huge claymore from its scabbard at his belt.
'Whityadoingere? Whoreyerascals?' he shrieked, waving the sword around his head.
'Just a moment,' said Rusty, pulling a small metal box from one of his pockets.
Opening a small compartment, he extracted a stick of charcoal which he slid into a hole in the box, then cranked a tiny handle, causing the box to emit a cloud of sparks and smoke. He pointed the box at the irate stranger.
'Please repeat your message,' he requested politely.
The newcomer's face turned a brighter shade of red.
'Ahsayaginwhoreyerascalsanwhitryadoinere?' he spluttered.
Rusty turned a tiny wheel, and the box proceeded to speak in a high-pitched tinny voice with a plummy accent:
'I wish to repeat my previous question, namely, that I should be most grateful if you would provide me with a means of identification to enable me to establish your bona fides; you might also care to give me a brief but reasonable explanation for your presence here at this time. I have to warn you that failure to satisfy my enquiries at this stage may lead to precipitate actions on my behalf whose outcome could prejudice your long-term health expectancy.'
'I'm sorry,' said Rusty into the stunned silence, 'the vocabulary and predication really need some adjustments, but I haven't had time to do that yet as I wanted it to translate some Chinese for me. Papa created it when he worked with Mr McCavity at university because he wanted to follow the conversation when McCavity got together with Brown and McHerring.'
'I recognised the accent as soon as I heard this gentleman speak,' he added, glancing at the red-faced fellow, who hadn't ceased glaring at them.
'Is dis McCavity, McHerring or dat guy Brown?' asked Irving, signalling to Fingers to circle around behind the intruder.
'I believe this is Mr McHerring,' said Rusty.
'AchIhaenathetimetawaste,' snorted McHerring, 'yecanarlrotineretillwereachhame!' Having spoken, he flung himself from the room, slamming and locking the door.
'Time is passing so quickly,' announced the machine to his disappearing back, 'that I really cannot linger here when there is so much still to be accomplished. I am therefore forced leave you at this conjuncture to pursue your own devices in this chamber until we reach my beloved homeland.'
'Heavens!' exclaimed Victoriana.
Rusty pounced on a piece of paper which, dislodged by the swirling of the kilt, had fluttered to the floor: he studied it carefully, his face rapidly losing its colour as he did so.
'We are in the hands of a madman,' he announced to the others when he had finished. 'According to these notes, McHerring and his associates have stolen the Telectroscope and are taking it to Scotland. McCavity has bored down to the tectonic plates beneath the earth, and they intend to modify the Telectroscope to separate the plates Great Britain sits upon, in order to achieve true independence for Scotland.'
Chapter 11 (RH)
They sat in silence on the floor of the chamber as Fingers toiled unavailngly with the lock. The sky was slowly beginning to lighten. Victoriana could not help asking apprehensively, 'What happens to us when the sun comes up?'
'Nothing,' said Rusty. 'The ship's heading east, the Telectroscope's facing astern. It's the evening we have to worry about. But it may not be too bad. You see the view through the front? It's right way up and not too magnified. There must be two lenses, convex and concave, to do that. We may get warm but we won't fry.'
'T'anks, kid,' said Fingers. 'Doin' da best I can but, boy, dis is a tough one.'
Looking through the huge lens, Victoriana became aware of a faint dot in the distance – impossible to estimate how far away it was. As she watched, it seemed to be catching up with them.
Half an hour later full daylight revealed a steam yacht, now only a few hundred yards astern and clearly in pursuit. It was an incongruously trim vessel, painted white with gleaming brasswork. Soon she could see the name on the bow, but not read it: ВУЛГАРЕН НАРОД. Rusty, sitting beside her, laboriously worked it out: 'V-U-L-G-A-R ...'
'Hey, I know what dat is,' said Irving unexpectedly. 'Dat's da Vulgarian Ambassador's private yaat. Name means Vulgar People. We had a big laff aboudit when it showed up last year.'
A figure appeared on the foredeck and began to take down a jaunty pink and white striped awning. As the sun caught his face, Victoriana saw that it was Molotok. 'So he's working for the Vulgarians.' Not that it made much difference now.
The removal of the awning revealed a bright brass swivel gun pointed at the ship. Two white-clad sailors toiled up to it carrying a heavy wooden box with rope handles, from which Molotok removed a brass shell, inserted it into the gun and locked the breech shut.
'Well, they won't be firing at the Telectroscope,' said Rusty.
Molotok elevated the gun with a handwheel and pulled a lanyard. There was a puff of smoke and simultaneously a bang and a clanging crash from overhead as the shell struck the ship's upperworks. It was followed by an incoherent roar of Caledonian fury which even Rusty's translator box could not clarify.
Moltok reloaded and fired again, and again the shell struck home above them. The impact was followed by a screech of tearing metal, and something heavy fell on the Telectroscope, staving in the casing above them. The door on which Fingers had been working for so long now gaped open on the top at the hinge side.
There was a series of louder booms from above them, and the bridge windows of the Vulgar People shattered on one side. McHerring's men were shooting back, and with superior firepower.
'Hurry,' shouted Irving. 'Let's lift dat door offa da udder hinge an' geddaddahere!' The two men heaved and the door fell on to the deck just as a second salvo crashed out out, holing the bows of the Vulgar People dangerously near the waterline.
As they climbed out, above them there was nothing but smoke and confused yelling from above. No one seemed to looking down at the deck.
'Inna dat lifeboat,' ordered Irving. They pulled feverishly at the canvas cover, opening a gap large enough for them to scramble through. As they climbed in they could see the Vulgar People turning away and retreating out of range.
Crouching in the semi-darkness, Victoriana said, 'But won't they find us here when they see we're gone?'
'Nah,' said Fingers, ''cos o' wad I gonna do now.' He took a knife out of his tool belt, clenched it melodramatically between his teeth, pushed up the canvas cover again and disappeared.
A minute later there was a thump and a loud splash, then Fingers reappeared. 'What did you do?' asked Victoriana apprehensively.
'Dropped anudder lifeboat. Dey'll t'ink we're away in it.'
Rusty said, 'And they'll think we drowned. We must be fifty miles offshore and the sea's rough.'
'Ya gahdit, kiddo.'
The tumult outside subsided gradually, and for a while there was nothing but the sound of the ship's engines and the water washing along the side. They found a small barrel of water and a box of hard, dry biscuits under a thwart. Victoriana drank sparingly, aware that at some time she would have to relieve herself and not wanting to do it in front of three males.
The silence was broken by a scream of rage, and McHerring yelling 'AchwhitnumptydingitmaTelectroscope? Anthespyinlassieantitherminkybastutsawa'ana! Gaefindemyeminginbampots!'
Rusty's translator said, 'Pray, what person of low intellect has damaged my … regret term not in vocabulary. And the young lady who practises espionage and the other undesirable folk appear to have departed, indeed. Please be so good as to mount a search, you odorous folk afflicted by mental disorders.'
There were further cries of rage as the men discovered the missing lifeboat. But that brought the search to a halt, and quiet fell again. Soon the light filtering through the canvas began to fade.
'I think I need to go out quite soon,' said Victoriana delicately.
'An' me,' said Irving, echoed by the other two. He prised up the cover. There was no one in sight, and they all crept out. What a good idea scuppers are, thought Victoriana, discreetly masked by an engine-room ventilator.
Later, the resourceful Fingers sneaked off and returned with some cans of food and other necessities that would make their enforced stay more pleasant. He even found blankets and, with remarkable delicacy, four toothbrushes.
'My parents will be frantic,' said Rusty.
'Mine too,' said Victoriana. But what can we do? We'll just have to sneak away when we get to Scotland, and maybe somehow we can get a telegram to Emmy's parents in London. I know the address.'
'We must keep away from the police if we can,' said Rusty. 'They'd only hold us, they wouldn't believe a word we said, and we've got work to do.' Irving and Fingers grunted approvingly at this sentiment.
'Don' ya worry, kiddos,' said Irving. 'Me 'n' Fingers'll look after ya.' And we ain't 'zacly poor, neider, t'anks to youse.' He reached into his pocket and held up the two brass discs with their diamond lenses. 'Reckon I can fence dese anywhere, Scotland or Lapland.'
Soon they slept as the ship drove on eastwards.
Chapter 12 (HB)
The temperature had been dropping rapidly for some time and the stowaways were shivering in their hideout.
'Wadya reckon, Oiving? Guess we're headin' north much as east?' suggested Fingers. 'I t'ink I'll try an' get some coats fer us.'
He slipped silently out of the lifeboat, returning after a short interval with an armful of peajackets. Victoriana barely stifled a giggle as Rusty pulled on the huge warm coat and nearly disappeared from view.
'This is great,' he exclaimed in a muffled voice. 'Hey, this is McHerring's coat, I've found some papers in the pocket …'
He fell silent as he studied a parchment covered in drawings which reminded Victoriana of a spider's web, with a spidery scrawl all over it.
'Wass new?' Irving muttered to Fingers.
'All dat yellin' we hoid? Turns out that food I took caused a lotta fightin',' chuckled Fingers, 'McHerring's set a guard onna pantry after da cook laid out t'ree guys wid a fryin' pan.'
He sobered a little. 'Could make it tricky fer me to get more grub, tho'.'
Just as they were settling themselves more comfortably there came a loud splash followed by an explosion, and the cover of their hiding place was drenched with water.
'Waddin tarnation?' exclaimed Irving, lifting the cover slightly and peering about.
There was another tremendous splash followed by an equally loud boom, and Irving received a soaking of seawater before he could get the cover back in place.
He twitched it back again and peered upwards into the sky.
'Dere's an airship up dere,' he said. 'It's a British B100 Scout by da look of it: dey're lightly armed an' fast.'
'Oiving was a spodder,' said Fingers in explanation. 'He can tell fifty o' dem t'ings apoit. We done our bit, y'know, da draft, like what you guys call Nat'ral Service.'
'National Service,' corrected Rusty automatically, 'and what did you do?'
'Camouflage,' he replied. 'Kinda came nat'ral after I … er ... left da Pay Coips.'
At that moment there was a volley of shots from the deck aimed (along with a volley of Caledonian curses) at the attackers above, who appeared to be arguing loudly with each other. Victoriana could make out three irascible voices, with a fourth responding in a timorous fashion.
'Drop another bomb, dammit, Brown!'
'We ain't got another bomb, Admiral Hawke, sir!'
'That last one was a bit duff, Hawke. Get 'em from your brother-in-law, do ye?'
'Egad, what are ye implying, Bligh? Ye'll face a firing squad when we reach Plymouth.'
''Those lubbers are shootin' at us, Brown. Do something quick, ye lazy swab.'
'Aye, aye Admiral Byng, sir. Shall I raise the deflector shielding?'
'Carry on, seaman!'
After a pause, a series of overlapping metal wings were cranked slowly into position, and started ringing as musket balls from below ricocheted off them.
'We're drifting to larboard, Brown. Keep her on course or it's a flogging ye'll be getting.'
'Sorry, sir, Admiral Bligh, but there is only me workin' here.'
'What? What? Is this a mutiny?'
'Here, I've found a lever you haven't used, Brown – this must be the spare bomb release.'
'No, Admiral Hawke, sir, that's the …'
There was a loud clanking of chain running out, followed by a tremendous clang from the bows of the ship which juddered in reaction and set the lifeboat swinging on its davits.
'Goodness me,' exclaimed Victoriana, 'our navy doesn't sound very competent.'
'It's the cutbacks,' explained Rusty, 'Papa says that there has been a huge reduction in military spending. Small is beautiful is the motto, streamlining leads to efficiency and so on.'
'Three admirals to an able seaman? It doesn't sound very efficient to me,' said Victoriana doubtfully.
At that moment, the airship shot overhead erratically, hauling on the anchor chain and causing the ship to lurch forward in its wake, pursuing a course dictated by the anchor embedded in the ironwork of the bridge. Rather than rolling on the waves, it was now smashing through them with some force as it was towed along at considerable speed.
For some reason, McHerring was doing nothing to dislodge the anchor and seemed content to allow the airship to continue unimpeded.
'We'll be bruised from head to foot if this carries on much longer,' observed Rusty, after some time had passed.
'We can't launch da lifeboat goin' at this speed, kiddo, so ya'll have ta grit ya teeth fer now!' growled Irving, who had squashed them all together at one end to help absorb the bumps.
Suddenly there was a series of loud bangs and crashes, and the ship slumped in the water, released from its hectic progress.
They all scrambled to peer out at the sky. A huge airship had appeared and was blasting away at the little British scout, and bits and pieces were splashing down into the sea around them. There was a confusion of shouting and the scout rapidly moved away in a cloud of steam and fire, accelerating into a bank of cloud which had been building up.
'Dat's a Vulgarian baddleship,' grunted Irving. 'Dat guy Molotok musta called in da heavies.'
The ship started moving again under its own power, approaching the cloud into which the British scout had vanished, which turned out to be a vast bank of thickly enclosing fog, completely hiding the combatants from each other. Peace of a kind was restored, and only the chuntering of the ship's engine could be heard as it ploughed its way through the barely visible waves.
* * *
Having snatched a couple of hours' sleep, Victoriana was wakened by a cry of 'Land ho!' from the lookout.
Peering out she found a cloudless day with bright sunshine and no mist to conceal the rapidly approaching coastline.
'That's Reykjavik, if I'm not mistaken,' said Rusty excitedly, kneeling beside her.
'An' where's dat?' asked Irving.
'Iceland, of course.' said Rusty. 'It's marked on the map that I found in this jacket.'
'No wonder it's so damn chilly,' grumbled Fingers. 'Made of ice, an' all.'
'Well, it's not completely ice like an iceberg,' said Rusty. 'There's plenty of vegetation and there are also active volcanoes that …'
'Ya kiddin' me, kid,' interrupted Fingers. 'Dey'd call it Volcanoland if dere was volcanoes dere, wouldn' dey?'
Rusty launched into a vivid description of the contradictory landscapes that make up the island, the black beaches and rolling meadows, the lakes and the glaciers, the hot springs and the black lava flows – all of which he had devoured from a guidebook his Papa had given him. He was describing a volcano when Irving interrupted him.
'Look, we're comin' inna a harbor. Keep shtumm so they don' hear us,' he whispered urgently.
The crew, however, were fully occupied in manoeuvring the ship alongside a jetty close to a huge warehouse which bore the name McCavity and Brown. There was frantic activity on the shore as a crane was driven up to lift the Telectroscope and the attached Intensifier off the ship and on to a large steam truck which puffed noisily on to the quay. As soon as it was secured, McHerring and his crew climbed aboard and set off along the quay and into the town. Within minutes the whole area was deserted.
'Quick,' urged Victoriana, 'we must follow them.'
The two men helped the youngsters out of the lifeboat and off the ship, then looked around for a means of transport. Close nearby stood a cart whose horse was idly champing at some grass growing around the post to which it was tethered. It took a matter of seconds for Fingers to untie the animal, clamber aboard and trot over to the little group.
'Guess dis is a nat'ral 'moigency,' he grinned. 'All aboid!'
They set off in hot pursuit of the truck which lurched its way through the town and out into the country; nobody stopped to stare, as its ungainly load had been concealed under a giant tarpaulin.
Rusty became more and more excited as they crossed a green valley with a wide river flowing through it.
'This is Ϸingvellir!' he told them, pronouncing it with pedantic correctness as Thinkvetlir. 'This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet!'
'You know,' he said impatiently, seeing their blank looks, 'McHerring's plan is to separate Scotland permanently from England by separating the plates the continents stand on. He must be planning to drill down to study the meeting point – he might even have done so already. I bet he's working on creating a fault line along the Border.'
Irving and Fingers exchanged glances.
'Bin a long joiney,' muttered Irving, and Fingers nodded.
On and on they clopped, seeing nobody for miles, keeping far enough behind the truck in the hope they wouldn't be noticed.
'There's a whale!' exclaimed Victoriana excitedly.
'Where? We're miles inland,' said Rusty.
'There! Over there! Look!' Victoriana shrieked, pointing beyond the truck.
Into the air rose a giant column of water, sparkling in the sunshine, and then as abruptly as it started, it ceased.
'That's not a whale, it's a geyser,' said Rusty. 'It's caused by volcanic activity and superheated water.'
They all watched in fascination as the water spout appeared again. The geyser itself was hidden from them by a ridge of lava which the truck, puffing and snorting and releasing clouds of steam, crested laboriously and then disappeared out of sight.
Urging the horse into greater effort, Fingers guided their cart up to the ridge and they gazed over: three large craters met their eyes, all of which appeared to have a surface of bubbling water, but of the truck there was no sign.
'It's gone,' cried Victoriana in disappointment. 'We've lost it.'
'But I know where it's going,' said Rusty in triumph. 'One of those holes is a tunnel. Look,' he spread out the map he had found on his knee, 'this looks like a spider's web, but it must be a map of tunnels, and they all lead back to McHerring's castle in Scotland. One of those three holes' – he waved at the geysers – 'is the entrance to the tunnel from Iceland.'
'But which one?' asked Victoriana.
'Waal, let's hope ya good at guessin'', said Irving grimly, pointing over her shoulder.
There walking up the track towards them, in the shadow of the massive Vulgarian airship, was an ugly-looking gang of cut-throats, armed to the teeth, and led by a furiously scowling Molotok.
Chapter 13 (RH)
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.
'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.
Chapter 14 (HB)
After they had walked a couple of miles they sat down on a bank at the edge of the road for a rest. Victoriana laboriously unbuttoned her boots and rubbed her feet vigorously.
'They do feel a little sore,' she admitted to Irving.
At that moment, a horse pulling a cart loaded with bundles of straw came clopping smartly up the road behind them. Irving sprang to his feet and stepped out in front of it.
'Hey, buddy, can ya give us a ride?' he asked, startling the figure who had been lolling on his seat, seemingly relying on the horse to find its own way.
'Mebbeasyerenoasassenach: whauryeboundthin?' asked the driver.
Rusty got out his translator box and turned the little wheel.
'Mebbeasyerenoasassenach: whauryeboundthin?' said the box.
Irving grabbed it from him and gave it a sharp smack on the side of the cart, then turned the little wheel again.
'Aye, stranger, as ye're no' an Englishman: pray, whither are ye bound?' it said, in a fluting Scottish accent.
'I've been modifying the speech module a little,' admitted Rusty, 'though it still needs a bit of work.'
Having been assured that the carter was passing through Taynuilt on the way to his croft, they gratefully accepted a lift and climbed up on top of the straw, and the cart resumed its journey.
As they round wound around a hill and a view of the coast opened up, Victoriana gave a little gasp of excitement.
'Look!' she cried, 'a castle!'
The driver turned his head, scowled and spat angrily at the ground.
'Aye,' fluted the box, ''tis the lair o' that rascally McHerring, divil take his black soul. Dunstaffnage Castle was niver the same since he bought it. Folks around here believe the castle tried tae rid itself of him, there was terrible shakin's an rumblin's for mony a month after, aye.'
'There seems to be a lot of activity round it at the moment,' observed Rusty. 'Those look like soldiers to me.'
'Mebbe they's come to drag him awa',' said the box hopefully.
Indeed, there was a lot of activity around the castle, with lorries and personnel wagons and even a small armoured vehicle clustered near the entrance, with groups of soldiers swarming about like ants.
'Dey're not wearing skoits like dem ones in da movies,' said Fingers.
'Kilts,' corrected Rusty automatically. 'I think they're English, and I bet your Papa had them mobilised to try to retrieve the Telectroscope, Victoriana. They must have tracked McHerring down. Should we go down there?'
'Um,' Victoriana hesitated. 'It'd probably be better if I spoke to Mama first. After all, we did disappear rather suddenly.'
They all agreed it would be a wiser course to postpone any reunion until the ground had been a little prepared; they therefore elected to stick to the plan to spend the night in Taynuilt and devise a way to contact Victoriana's and Rusty's parents in the morning.
'But why do you not like Mr McHerring?' Victoriana asked the carter.
'Ach, 'tis a sorry tale,' said that worthy, 'and it goes back tae when A was a wee lad livin' doon there on the foreshore in the shadow of yon castle. Ma aul' Da was a coral diver, and he used tae row out tae the reef and dive doon to collect the coral wi' his billies for tae sell tae the shops awa' in Glasgie: the rich folk loved the coral for the decorations, ye ken, and 'twould fetch a pretty price. Nay, but 'twas dangerous work, and lives were lost in the gatherin'.' A large tear rolled down his cheek as he spoke.
'But then, this Spanish gentleman, who was holidayin' in the area, was watchin' one day when the boat came ashore, loaded wi' coral and the daid body of a diver. He was so moved by wit he saw…' another tear rolled slowly down his cheek, '… that he awa' and made a wooden boat that could sail beneath the waves, and gather the coral. Aye,' he glared at them defiantly, ''tis true, 'tis true!'
'He means a submarine,' whispered Rusty. 'It … it couldn't have been Monturiol, could it?'
The carter thrust a bony arm at him which bore a swirly tattoo of a dolphin amid the waves: as he flexed his muscles, the fish appeared to swim through the sea.
'The whole crew had these, ev'ry mon,' he said. 'A was on'y a wee lad, but A was ta'en along to tend the engine whaur there was no space for a mon.'
''Twas a beautiful craft,' he said dreamily, 'carved of wood and polished tae a shine. The first boat he made was small, and he used a lot o' auld whisky barrels, but it still sailed like a dream. We covered twenty-five miles when we tested 'un, though most of that was in circles, as the fumes from the auld wood were quite strang,' he smiled in reminiscence.
Abruptly a scowl darkened his face.
'Then along came that divil McHerring, and offered tae pay for the buildin' of a proper boat, one big enough tae take on th'Atlantic and dive doon tae the coral reefs.' He fell silent, brooding on the past.
'And?' prompted Rusty. 'What happened then?'
'Aye, well, he paid the money and built the boat, and that was the last we saw of 'un. We heard he made a mint of money selling 'un tae the gov'ment, alang wi' the classy wee engine the Spanish gentleman designed. Awa' the Señor went, back tae Spain brokenhearted, and niver more did we hear o' him.' He wiped his sleeve across his eyes.
'Well,' said Victoriana heatedly, 'what a rotter McHerring is. No wonder he thought nothing of stealing the Telectroscope.'
They all agreed that McHerring must be an absolute blackguard and should be brought to justice, if indeed he succeeded in evading the army besieging his castle.
* * *
They were enveloped by the gathering dusk as the cart rolled into the village and halted outside an ancient inn.
'Ye'll find board an' lodgin' yonder, nae doot,' said the carter, waving away their expressions of gratitude, 'if ye're no friends o' the McHerring. Th'old wooden boat o' yon Spanish gentleman kept a lot of men occupied and would ha' brocht wealth tae these parts: folks have long memories aroon' here.' He glanced meaningfully at the inn, whose sign creaked sadly in the breeze.
'But it's the Stag's Head,' said Rusty in a puzzled manner.
'Och, aye, reetly sae. A one-armed feller name o' Perrott boucht the place a while back and renamed it. He didna seem tae care for the sea or anythin' aboot it.'
The carter gathered the reins up and was about to urge the horse on again when he was struck by a thought. He leaned over and spoke in Victoriana's ear. 'Indeed, A thoucht a saw a sleek wooden undersea vessel off the point by the castle a nicht or two since,' he confided, 'but 'twas after closin' time by then, ye ken.'
And with that he flicked the reins and the horse and cart ambled off into the night.
'I think there is just enough fuel in the translator box to allow us to negotiate with the landlord,' said Rusty, giving it a little shake.
They trooped up to the inn and were approaching the door when it was flung open and a group of soldiers staggered out into the night on a billow of yells and laughter, leaving behind a scene of carousing and jollity as if an entire army were occupying the premises.
'Now then, lads,' said the box, as the landlord, a big beefy cheerful fellow in an apron, followed them out and turned them carefully in the right direction, 'follow that lane an' it'll tak' ye back to the camp with yer fellows.'
''Scuse me, bud,' said Irving, 'do ya have any beds fer the night?'
The landlord turned and a suspicious frown clouded his face.
'Ye're no journalists, are ye?' he asked.
'Why would we be joynalists?' asked Fingers in surprise, 'we's jus' visitin', erm, f'r a kinda vacation.'
The landlord's face lit up: he rubbed his hands together gleefully.
'Tourists!' he exclaimed, 'an' frae America! 'Tis ma lucky nicht. I bid ye welcome.'
'Why would we be journalists?' asked Victoriana.
'Did ye no see the excitement aroon' the castle? 'Twas hard tae miss wi' a' they soldiers and things.'
'What happened?' asked Rusty eagerly.
'The lads inside,' he jerked his head over his shoulder, 'are celebrating capturing a dangerous gang, it seems. They ha' captured McHerring and his mob an' locked him in the castle dungeons…'
'And … and … Mulletchops,' interrupted an inebriated soldier, appearing at his elbow. 'Don't forget Mulletchops and his crew, we got 'em as well, an', an' they're locked up in another dungeon an'all. Funny thing is, the Captain don't seem to be too happy, keeps muttering about something called a telectromon … tetrectolol … trolectolly…'
'Telectroscope!' exclaimed Victoriana.
'Thashit!' agreed the soldier triumphantly, 'seems the Captain got a bo … got a bothering from the Major 'cos he couldn't find it anywhere. Seems to o' dishappeared completely.'
Chapter 15 (RH)
Later that night, after a hearty supper of locally caught mackerel, the four were upstairs in Irving and Fingers's room, trying to make sense of the day's events.
Rusty spread out the documents he had taken from McHerring's pea jacket. One of them was much thicker than the others, and opened out into a large map which showed Scotland, the north of Ireland, and Iceland. It was marked with numerous lines and two large and enigmatic circles.
'We've seen some of these lines on the smaller map I used in Iceland,' said Rusty. 'They're the tunnels McHerring dug – we came here along one of them, of course.'
'But look at the circles,' said Victoriana. 'The big one on the right goes all the way round Scotland and into the Atlantic. No one would want to dig a tunnel there.'
'I've been thinking about that,' Rusty said. 'You know McHerring wants to separate Scotland from England. Well, you can't just float a whole country away on the ocean. The crust goes under the sea too. It'd be like trying to push a jigsaw piece sideways through the puzzle; it simply wouldn't go. What he's trying to do, I think, is to cut a big circle in the earth's crust and revolve it. Look, you see those dotted lines at the top left of the circle?'
They looked more carefully. Unmistakably, the dotted lines showed a faint outline of Scotland at the opposite side of the circle – upside down.
Victorian was shocked. 'He can't turn Scotland wrong way round! Not even the Nationalists would stand for that.'
'But that's only the first move,' said Rusty, pointing to the outline of the inverted country. It was enclosed by a second circle, also dotted and reaching farther west into the Atlantic, and on the far side of this circle another dotted outline showed Scotland again, restored to its proper orientation. It was now between Ireland and Iceland. 'They're going to turn it twice.'
'Ya can't jus' turn a whole country like it was a table,' protested Irving. 'Ya'd need steam engines da size of a ciddy.'
'I know,' said Rusty. 'But look at these lines up here.' Several straight lines had been drawn from Iceland to the first circle, and dotted lines led from Iceland to the second circle. 'My guess is that he plans to pipe molten lava from the Icelandic volcanoes under the circle, and float it on the lava so it can move, and maybe use the current of lava to spin it round like a millwheel.'
'Da man's crazy,' said Irving. 'Dere'd be lava comin' up all over da joint, volcanoes everywhere. He can't do dat.'
'Yes, he's mad,' said Rusty. 'And there would. But he can. He's already dug train tunnels across the Atlantic. With the McCavity Miner he can cut his way through anything – that is, if he made one large enough.'
'What I don't see,' said Victoriana, 'is why he's here, if he wants to cut along the Border. We're miles north of there.'
'There's something he has to do first,' said Rusty. The south part of Scotland is on the same tectonic plate as England. All he needs to do to move it is to cut it free. But the north of Scotland is on a smaller plate of its own. If he tries to turn the whole country, the north part will break loose. Look,' he pointed at the map, 'the plate boundary goes up this line along Loch Linhe and Loch Ness – what they call the Great Glen. And we're at the western end of it.'
On the map the Great Glen was marked by a zigzag line. 'He has to join the two plates together before he can move them,' Rusty explained. 'I don't know how he's going to do that.'
'Stitch 'em togedder wit' big steel cables,' suggested Irving. 'Looks like he can pull any meshuggene stunt he wants.'
It was too true, and they let the discussion lapse. Rusty carefully refolded the map and hid the documents under the mattress.
Outside in the corridor, a figure crouched with his ear to the keyhole. The faint light filtering up the stairs from the bar showed the outline of a man with one arm. He shrank back into the shadows as Victorian and Rusty emerged to go to their room, and crept silently down to the cellar, from which he did not emerge.
* * *
In the small hours of the morning, faint noises could be heard from the cellar. There was a muffled thump followed by a fierce whisper of 'Wullyeluikwhauryergaeinyewauchlinbawheid?' A ragged, muddy procession of twenty-five men tiptoed up the stairs and vanished through the back door of the pub into the darkness.
* * *
Over a massive breakfast of kippers and porridge, Irving explained that he had to go to Oban on some business.
'Please will you get a couple of sticks of charcoal for the translator?' said Rusty. We've only got an hour's worth of fuel left.'
Irving pocketed the device and rode down with the carter, who was going into town to fetch supplies for the inn. He returned in the afternoon looking pleased with himself. 'I t'ought dese Scots was s'poseda be tough when it come to bargainin',' he said. 'But I coulda twisted 'em around my finger.' He brandished a thick wad of wad of broad white five-pound notes which he carefully slid behind the heavy wardrobe. 'An' dat was jus' fer de small di'mond.' He pushed the brass plate with the other diamond in beside the money.
'Tell ya waddelse I seen,' he continued. 'Dat Vulgarian airship's still around, hangin' a coupla miles out to sea. Don' t'ink we hoid da last o' dose guys.'
'We ought –' began Victoriana.
The door burst open with a crash, and a crowd of armed men led by McHerring rushed into the room. 'Yethochtyecuidlockmeinma'aindungeondidye?' he bellowed. 'Yedoititsassenachsumphs!' The four, helpless at gunpoint, could do nothing to resist as they were bound and gagged, and bundled down the stairs into a waiting cart.
It had indeed been short-sighted of Major Jolliver Fitzcourcy Trelawney to confine the world's leading tunneller underground in his own premises, reflected Victoriana sadly as the cart jolted away.
Chapter 16 (HB)
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
'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.
Chapter 17 (RH)
The submarine chugged along doggedly, but McHerring's faster vessel was drawing away. The pursuers had changed to the coal furnace to save chemical fuel and were now leaving a trail of smoke. However, there were other steamers in the bay and they were not conspicuous. McHerring, though seemingly unaware of their presence, appeared anxious to avoid surveillance. His craft dived as it passed within sight of the Bonawe ferry, remaining submerged until the imagined danger was past. When it reappeared, only half a mile separated the two vessels.
Irving was standing in the stubby conning tower, his head out in the breeze, steering the little submarine as if he had been a seaman all his life. Rusty and Fingers had dismantled the damaged Pilcrow on the chart table; Rusty was gently smoothing out its dented brass head with a small hammer from the submarine's tool chest while Fingers straightened the delicate leaves of its wings.
Victoriana emerged from the heat of the engine room, where she had been stoking the boiler, and closed the hatch. Her face was streaked with coal dust; her flannel dress was flecked with mud and soot and the hem was coming down on one side; her boots were scuffed beyond polishing. She no longer cared.
'Why do they want the Telectroscope?' she asked. 'They have that Miner thing. Can't they do anything they like with that?'
'No,' said Rusty. 'The McCavity Miner digs tunnels. But now they want something to cut the earth's crust like a big knife. They don't need the scope part of the Telectroscope. What they want is the Blenkinsop Intensifier. If you shone an arc light into it, the beam that would come out at the other end would cut through miles of rock. You'd need a lot of electric power to run it, but a big turbine generator set mounted on a train would do.'
'Where's he get all da dough for dis stuff?' said Fingers. 'Aside from whad he boosts, dat is.'
Irving bent down from his post. 'I t'ink it's da Frien's o' Free Caledonia,' he said. 'Ya know, dey go aroun' da bars collectin', for polidical pris'ners dey say, an' dey get con'ribooshuns from da Scotch big cheeses, bosses o' steel mills an' such. Dey mus' be rollin' in cash.'
'An' why're dey goin' up dis lake?' he added. 'It ain't on da fault line ya showed us.'
'It's only ten miles away,' Rusty said, 'no distance for the McCavity Miner. And it's much quieter around here. They must have their works on the shore somewhere. The loch's long, but no more than a mile wide anywhere, so we should be able to see something, even if they dive again.'
As McHerring passed a hilltop castle on the south shore he submerged yet again and they had to reduce speed to avoid getting too close to him. They switched to chemical fuel as a precaution – which was just as well, for half an hour later a storm of froth barely two hundred yards away showed that McHerring was about to surface. Ricky and Fingers managed to work the valves to flood the tanks for a crash dive just in time to avoid notice. They remained stationary for a quarter of an hour, watching the other submarine through the periscope until it was at a safe distance, still heading straight up the middle of the long narrow loch.
Dusk was falling as McHerring started edging to the south side of the loch. There was a small road on the other shore, and at first they thought he was keeping away from it, but soon it became clear that he was heading into a small bay. Not wishing to get too close, they halted. Irving scanned the shore with a pair of binoculars they had found in the chart locker.
'Dere's some kinda buildin' dere,' he said. 'Looks like dat warehouse we was in oilier.'
'It must be their base.' Rusty said. 'Do you think the Pilcrow will reach the soldiers from here?'
'Sure, it'll go twenny miles 'f we launch it right.'
Rusty examined the chart and wrote on a little slip of paper: To Maj Trelawney. McH's base inlet S side L Etive opp Gualachulain. We're near in small sub. Pls send forces. V&R, he signed it politely, and then to be fair added I&F.
Fingers quickly nailed two pieces of wood together in a V shape. 'Oiving, I need ya suspenders. Now,' he said. Irving unbuttoned his braces, hastily tying a length of line round his waist as his baggy trousers threatened to fall. Fingers bound one of the elastic straps to the wood to form a rough catapult. 'Dis'd bedder woik,' he said.
He set the brass bird going and passed it up to Irving, who stood in the hatchway carefully consulting the compass. The improvised catapult twanged, and to their relief the Pilcrow flapped metallically away in a steady climb.
'Nothing we can do till they come,' said Victoriana. 'I don't know about you, but I could do with something to eat.'
As they shared a can of corned beef in the forward cabin they did not hear the approaching clatter of propellers, and there was only a faint thump as Vulgarian aeronauts descended on ropes and hooked steel cables on to the submarine's bow and stern mooring eyes.
The little vessel jerked violently as it was hauled out of the water. Irving rushed to the hatch but was powerless to intervene as they rose to meet the vast airship. Fingers, resourceful as ever, hurried to take the two revolvers from the arms chest and bury them in the coal.
As the submarine drew level with the deck of the cargo hold Victoriana, looking out of a side porthole, could see the tall bony figure of Molotok and the squat form of Serp. Both were wearing naval uniform. They were surrounded by a squad of aeronauts holding carbines.
'Might as well go for it,' she thought, and climbed the ladder to stand in the hatchway and give Molotok a cheerful wave. His face fell.
'Donner und Blitzen!' he shouted. 'Ze leetle English shpyink girl! Um Gottes Willen, vot you doink here?'
'If you're looking for McHerring,' she said, 'he's in the other submarine. We stole this one to follow him.' She threw out the rope ladder and climbed down to the deck, uncomfortably aware of twenty carbines trained on her. The others followed.
Molotok rallied. 'Velcome to His Vulgar Machesty's battleship Stentorian Belch. Resistance,' he added grandly ...
'Is futile,' chorused Victoriana and Ricky, who had watched this scene in scores of films.
Pressing home their momentary advantage, Victoriana said, 'Mr Molotok, we need to talk. I think we can make a deal.'
Molotok leered satirically.'Und vot haf you to offer us, tiny girl?'
'We know what McHerring is planning. Do you?'
She watched his face as mockery turned to doubt, and then to calculation.
'Very vell,' he said at length. 'Ve shall talk. But I varn you, do not try to trick me, or you shall be zorry.'
Chapter 18 (HB)
As the submarine was slowly winched down into the loch again, swinging a little uncertainly with its extra cargo of Vulgarian soldiers, Victoriana leaned over and whispered in Rusty's ear, 'Do you think Molotok believed us?'
'No,' Rusty whispered back, 'I left the Translator running, and he has detailed these two' – he rolled his eyes at the two nearest Vulgarian soldiers who were examining the wooden interior with a marked lack of confidence – 'to, er, deal with us if there is any sign of treachery. But he doesn't know how much we really know, so he's waiting to see if we can really lead him to the spot where McHerring is going to start his operations.'
'Do you think there will be a big fight?' asked Victoriana.
Rusty looked around the submarine, now packed with Vulgarian soldiers armed to the teeth, and locked glances with their scowling leader, Serp.
'Looks like it,' he said out of the corner of his mouth, 'and Molotok is taking no chances. When the soldiers that have been landed by the airship enter the boathouse, this lot will cover any retreat into the loch.'
'Enough speak, you cheeldren, or I cut out your tongues,' snarled Serp, glaring furiously and waving a nasty looking knife at them. His Vulgarian accent had thickened noticeably since he left New York.
Fingers gently bumped the boat against the huge wooden doors of the boathouse, one of which swung open slightly with a creak. Nothing happened as he steered gently inside, and indeed the boathouse appeared empty of human life; a large number of packing cases stood around, some in piles and others lying open with straw scattered about.
Irving whistled. 'Dis ain't no boathouse,' he said, 'lookit dose walls – dey could stand a siege.' He glanced up at the steel portcullis as they motored slowly underneath. 'Dis is a fortress.'
Fingers nodded, admiring the cunning way in which the old wooden shell camouflaged the fort inside.
Led by Serp, the Vulgarian soldiers climbed noisily up out of the submarine onto the dock. He signalled them to fan out and comb the area, and as they set off a door at the far side opened and a stream of their compatriots led by Molotok filed in; they also spread out and started making their way between the crates towards the dock. Victoriana noticed that their two guards had hung back and not followed their comrades.
Just as the two groups met between the crates, there was a volley of shots as a hidden enemy opened fire on them. Fire was returned immediately, and grenades thrown in various directions, but with little effect as the enemy remained hidden. Men leapt for cover in the confusion.
At the first sound of gunfire, Irving and Fingers had each produced a large spanner liberated from the submarine and whacked the two Vulgarian guards over the head. With a nod to each other, they bundled the unconscious soldiers into the nearest crate and out of sight. The firing slowly petered out, followed by a short silence as everyone wondered what would happen next. Then there was a burst of running feet.
'After zem! Don' let zem escape!' roared Molotok, urging his men after some fleeing shadows disappearing through an archway.
'Well,' exclaimed Victoriana when they found themselves alone, 'that was sudden!'
'We have to follow them, you know,' said Rusty.
'Adda safe distance,' said Irving, and Fingers nodded in agreement.
When the sound of running feet and shouting had died out, they crept across to the archway and discovered a wide tunnel sloping gently away. They made their way cautiously downwards for what seemed to Victoriana like an age until the tunnel opened out into a huge cavern lit by flickering, smoking torches, in the centre of which stood a number of workbenches littered with all sorts of strange tools and devices. Four tunnels led out of the cavern in different directions.
'Waal, I guess we take one each,' said Irving. 'Just a vitz,' he assured them when he saw the alarm on his companions' faces, 'we stick togedder down here.'
'Eeny, meeny, miny …'started Rusty.
'We'll foller da biggest one, dat one dere dey named after some dame, An Segan sumthin,' decided Irving, and they set off across the cavern towards a broad opening with the letters 'An Sgaineadh' carved into the rock above the entrance.
'Help!' called a voice, making them all jump.
Looking round, they saw where a small chamber had been blasted out of the rock, its entrance fenced with stout metal bars to create a prison cell. A bedraggled figure stood there in the gloom clutching the bars.
'Help!' it repeated in a forlorn voice.
They rushed over to the cell and Fingers started to work his magic on the lock.
'He looks like an artist with his hair sticking out like that,' observed Victoriana in a low voice, 'and he's wearing a smock.'
'More like a mad scientist,' said Rusty, 'he has a manic stare.'
'So'd you, kid, 'f ya'd been locked up down here,' said Irving.
'Thank you, thank you,' cried the man gratefully, 'I've been here for ages.'
'My pleasure,' said Fingers, introducing the others. 'An' who are ya, an waddya done to be locked up?'
'I'm Paul St George,' the man started to say when Fingers cut him off.
'Ain't never met a real live saint before,' he said, saluting smartly.
'No, no, that's my name,' explained St George, 'and I invented the Telectroscope – that's why they're keeping me prisoner. They are forcing me to make modifications to it.'
At that moment the sound of voices and heavy footfalls reached their ears.
'Quick – dis way, into An Segan,' urged Irving, running into the wide tunnel with the others hard at his heels.
Rusty glanced up the strange letters carved into the rock above the entrance.
'An Sgaineadh,' he mispronounced between pants, 'what a funny name. I wonder what it means?'
'I say,' wheezed St George, clearly suffering from his period of incarceration, 'I don't think we should be going this way.'
'Jus' run,' said Fingers, taking a quick glance over his shoulder as they rounded a slight bend in the tunnel.
On and on they ran, and down and down sloped the tunnel, until there were no more torches on the walls to light their way, and there the tunnel ended in a huge wall of rock.
'Oh dear,' said Victoriana, as they stood panting and trying to catch their breath, 'what do we do now?'
Before anyone could think up an answer, a rapid puffing and roaring struck their ears, and chugging inexorably into view came a huge steam carriage with what looked like the Intensifier bolted to it, with the lens of the Telectroscope mounted in front. The madly gesticulating figure of McHerring could be made out through the cloud of steam and smoke the engine was belching.
They all froze in horror, mesmerised by their approaching doom.
'Just a minute, everyone,' said St George, 'I've got an idea.'
Chapter 19 (RH)
As the monstrous vehicle clanked towards them, they all looked at St George hopefully.
'McHerring can't kill me – he needs me,' he said. 'We'll all stand in front of the Telectroscope, and he won't be able to fire it at us.'
'But then he'll just send his thugs to capture us,' said Rusty. 'Anyway, I may have a better idea. Is the Intensifier the one they brought from New York?'
'Have they tried to use it yet?'
'I don't think so. Why?'
'Because we took out the two smallest lenses. What'll happen if he sets it going?'
'Aha! It won't focus the beam. The heat will stay inside until something melts, I think.'
Victoriana was on to the idea. 'Will there be a bang – a big one?' she asked.
'Probably,' said St George.
Rusty was whispering urgently with Irving and Fingers. Irving picked up a discarded three-foot length of drainpipe from the tunnel floor, and Fingers took a box of matches from his pocket – big English matches, not the American book kind.
'Youse stay here,' he said. 'An' when da bang comes, run up da tunnel 's fast's ya can. We'll be wid ya in a minute.'
Before they could protest, Irving and Fingers had stepped out in front of the advancing juggernaut as it slowed to a halt before the rock wall.
There was a rising whine as the generator started up, which soon settled to a steady howl. As McHerring raised his arm to give the signal to fire, Irving raised the pipe on to his shoulder and pointed it at the Telectroscope. Behind him, Fingers pushed the match-filled tray from the box into it, lit another match on the outside of the box, and tossed it on to the tray.
Just as McHerring dropped his arm and shouted 'Firre!' there was a brilliant yellow flare as the matches inside the tube all lit at once, echoed by a blue flash as the Intensifier fired up. The end of its casing glowed white-hot for a moment, then there was a sharp crack and black smoke billowed from the device. A moment later the generator, short-circuited by molten metal, blew up in a shower of sparks.
Fingers and Irving walked steadily past the incandescent ruin, pointing the drainpipe menacingly at McHerring. Then they all raced up the tunnel, safe from pursuit for the moment as McHerring's men milled desperately around trying to put out the fire.
Half a mile up the slope, with Irving carrying Victoriana and Fingers carrying Rusty, and St George puffing behind them, they had to pause for breath in the shelter of a heap of packing cases.
'Is dere any way outta here but dis tunnel?' asked Irving. ''Cos dey'll be after us 'fore we can geddada da udder end.'
'There's a small cross shaft in another quarter mile,' said St George. 'It goes to the next tunnel.'
'Another tunnel?' said Ricky. 'How many are there?'
'Thirty-five,' said St George, 'every three miles up the fault line, beyond Inverness.'
They hurried on to the entrance. Irving and Fingers heaped packing cases haphazardly in front of it while the other three continued up the main tunnel a short way to leave footprints in the dusty floor, returning backwards. It was not perfect, but it would have to do.
The cross shaft was pitch dark, but it had been perfectly cut into a smooth eight-foot diameter tube by the Miner and they felt their way along the bottom easily enough. A few minutes later they heard the puffing and clanking of the giant machine as it returned up the main tunnel. It seemed sensible to continue in the direction they were going.
St George, who had recovered as they went along at an easy pace, explained, 'As you know, he has to lock the Great Glen Fault together. He's done it with the tunnels. Each one goes down to the fault line and fifty yards beyond into the rock on the other side. He's filling them with steel reinforcing bars and then pouring concrete in to make giant plugs a hundred yards long to pin the rocks together. He's made thirty of these so far, starting at the Inverness end. We were in the thirty-first tunnel – he still has to finish this one and the remaining four.'
'But the fault's moving,' said Rusty. 'Won't it just snap the pins?'
'It's only moving very slowly,' said St George. 'The pins should last until he's cut the whole circle free and turned it round. Of course, if he doesn't, there'll be an earthquake when the pins break.'
'Da guy's meshuggah,' said Irving.
They could only agree.
After they had trailed through the dark for what seemed like an age, they were aware of a faint light ahead. They came to the source, a vertical shaft leading up from the roof of their tunnel; the top seemed miles away. Below it, a metal container like a large bucket hung from a rope. It was shackled to a ring bolted to the wall
Fingers, who seemed to have an endless supply of matches, lit one and examined the container. A notice was stencilled on the side: MAX 6 MEN OR 1200 LB.
''S for escape in an emoigency,' he said.
'Dis is an emoigency,' said Irving.
They climbed in. Fingers released the shackle, using a screwdriver from his belt to save his fingers from being caught. The bucket whipped up at a startling speed, leaving them sprawled in the bottom.
'We're way less'n twelve hunnerd pound,' said Fingers, pulling a lever that gave a crude braking action by splaying two arms against the shaft wall, with a screech and a shower of sparks. 'An' keep yer arms inside, folks. Dere'll be a coun'erweight comin' down past us any time soon.' He released the brake.
A large block of stone whizzed past them. Fingers applied the brake again. The light increased, and there was a thud from the bottom of the shaft as the stone landed. The bucket oscillated up and down sickeningly, but when it stopped they were level with a ledge roughly hacked out of the rock. They climbed out to find an iron ladder. At the top, a rough doorway led into the open air, and they were under the blessed grey sky of Scotland, in a heather-clad mountain valley.
Looking back, they could see that the exit was disguised as a heap of stones which would not have attracted attention.
'Where are we?' said Victoriana.
'We'd better go up that ridge,' said Rusty.
When they reached the top and looked to the south, a violent scene was revealed. The Vulgarian airship hung over a chaos of gunpowder smoke, in which the khaki uniforms of British soldiers could be dimly discerned.
Rusty said, 'It looks as if the army are attacking McHerring, and Molotok is attacking them both. What a mess.'
'I hate this,' said Victoriana. 'People are getting killed, and it's something we started.'
'Don'tcha worry yaself, goil,' said Irving. 'Dat McHerring started all dis, and he's godda be soited out, no madder waddit takes.'
Chapter 20 (HB)
They watched the Vulgarian airship turning slowly around above the figures milling about in the smoke below where the ground was churned by explosions.
'They're moving in for the kill,' breathed Rusty in horror.
'No, I don't think so,' said Victoriana, pointing up at the sky behind them, where three huge airships emblazoned with Union Jacks had suddenly appeared.
'Dey're off,' shouted Irving triumphantly, and indeed the Vulgarian airship had continued turning in a huge cloud of steam and smoke and sparks and was now disappearing rapidly in the direction of the open sea.
They watched gleefully as the aerial fleet chugged imperiously closer: closer and closer they came, until Victoriana could make out a figure in a gold bedecked uniform hanging out of a porthole clutching a megaphone.
'I say, you down there,' called the figure, 'is this Wales?'
'No,' Rusty shouted back, 'this is Scotland – you're not far from Oban.'
'Blast!' exclaimed the figure, disappearing form view and slamming the porthole.
There followed a series of frantic flashes from the signal lamps on the three vessels, and one after the other they turned ponderously and headed slowly off in a southerly direction.
'Dese Brits,' said Fingers with a snigger, 'how'd da Pilgrim Fadders ever find America?'
'Dey was prob'ly lookin' fer China,' cackled Irving, which repartee reduced them both to guffaws.
'When you've quite finished,' said Rusty, scowling as fiercely as he could, 'the Glasgow Empire is due south from here.'
'Sure it ain't doo east, kid?' asked Fingers, producing a further round of loud guffaws from the pair.
'Now, really,' started Victoriana, drawing herself up in her best Nanny Prewitt manner, 'isn't it time …?'
Before she could ask what it might be time for, the rumble of many boots pounding the ground mingled with shouts and cries reached their ears; along the road in front of them appeared a large and rowdy crowd, whose leaders bore a large banner while others were waving placards that read 'Keep Scotland British' and 'Down with McHerring' as they marched.
'Those are English voices,' exclaimed Rusty in surprise.
Sure enough, with every few steps a big burly man at the front would shout out, 'WHAT DO WE WANT?' to which the rabble responded, 'KEEP SCOTLAND BRITISH!' followed by the question 'HOW CAN WE DO IT?' and the answering 'KIPPER MACHERRING!'
The writing on the large banner could now be deciphered as 'The London Society for the Preservation of the United Kingdom', with 'East Finchley Chapter' in smaller more elaborate script.
Spotting the group on the ridge above them, the burly man shouted up, 'Oi! Is this the way to Dunstuffnaggy Castle?'
'Yes,' Rusty shouted back, 'but McHerring's not…'
His voice was lost in a burst of roaring as the crowd surged onwards towards Taynuilt.
'Oh, well,' shrugged Rusty.
'Guess da English reely care 'bout deir Yoonited Kingdom,' observed Fingers.
Barely had the tail end of the mob disappeared around the bend below the watchers when another crowd of people came tramping along on the far side of the ridge, following the track which ran in a parallel course to the road in front and below them. This crowd carried placards that read 'SET SCOTLAND FREE' and 'McHERRING FOR KING', while the banner read 'The London Society for the Promotion of a Sovereign Scotland, West Finchley Chapter', and the chanting was loud and vigorous in its support of McHerring.
'Oh dear,' said Victoriana, 'I think they're heading towards the castle as well. There's going to be an awful clash when they meet.'
'Look,' said Rusty excitedly, 'the soldiers are on the move. Doesn't look as though they've got McHerring, though.'
The soldiers had all gathered together into a troop, formed fours and marched smartly off in the direction of the castle: they were clearly not escorting any prisoners.
'Waal,' drawled Irving, 'guess dey've been called in ta keep da peace. Wonder where dat McHerrin's got to?'
'I imagine he has vanished into the network of caves; they'll have a tough job finding him,' opined St George.
'But we have to do something to stop him carrying out his plan,' said Victoriana anxiously.
They contemplated each other gloomily, wondering how on earth they could stop the megalomaniac who had evaded the soldiers with such apparent ease.
have a plan,' said St George suddenly. 'It's a bit risky, but
it might work.'
'Spill da beans, ole chum,' said Fingers.
'Well, you see that cairn just beyond where we came up' – the others nodded as he pointed down the slope – 'that one is hiding the entrance to another shaft which leads down towards the loch. Well, two tunnels actually; the second joins the tunnel network, but the first was abandoned when McHerring made a slight mistake with the navigation.' St George grinned briefly. 'He very nearly bored his way into the loch. He left the Miner there as backing it out would have pulled the rockface away and started a deluge. All we have to do is restart the machine …'
'… and the loch will empty into the tunnels…' continued Rusty,
'… completely thwarting his evil plans!' finished Victoriana, clapping her hands in delight.
They made their way rapidly down the hill and entered the cairn.
'Stay here on guard!' said St George, 'I can handle this.'
He was gone for nearly twenty minutes before remerging from the tunnel covered in earth and coal dust, beaming widely. Far away they could hear the chuntering of a steam engine.
'Now, back up da hill, an' quickly,' said Irving, and they rushed back up to the top of the ridge where they stood eagerly looking for signs that their plan had succeeded.
'Nothing's happened,' said Victoriana in disappointment after what seemed an age.
'Look!' shouted Rusty, pointing out across the loch where the water seemed to be frothing and bubbling, and a jet of steam shot up.
'Dere's water in da cairn,' said Fingers, jumping up in excitement. At the mouth of the cairn there was a sparkling of water as it flowed up out of the ground.
A vast rumble could be heard, and the waters of the loch started swirling around creating the unmistakable form of a whirlpool. Round and round the water went, deeper and deeper grew the whirlpool.
'By Jove,' said St George, 'I think we've done it.'
'Youse dunnit, ya mean,' corrected Fingers, eyeing the growing vortex apprehensively.
'Oh dear,' said Victoriana sadly, 'what about all the poor water creatures?'
'What about the Telectroscope?' asked Rusty. 'If we've drowned the tunnels, have we lost that as well?'
Chapter 21 (RH)
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.
'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.
Chapter 22 (HB)
The old clock downstairs in the bar creaked slightly as its mechanism wound back the hammers to strike the hour.
'Five o'clock!' groaned Victoriana to herself, 'and I've hardly slept at all. I'm just going to have to find out what has happened.'
She crept out of bed, dressed hurriedly and was just trying to open the door as quietly as possible when Rusty's voice challenged her.
'And where are you going without me?' he asked.
Quietly the pair made their way on tiptoe across the landing and had reached the stairs when Irving and Fingers appeared from their room, both fully dressed.
'T'ought so,' said Fingers with a grin. 'C'mon all o' youse, leds see whad's cookin'.'
They paused outside St George's room to see if he was awake, but were startled by an enormous snore which made the door rattle; the children glanced at each other and could barely stifle their giggles.
Once more they entered the tunnel beneath the inn, having availed themselves of some lamps they found on a shelf in the cellar. They made their way cautiously along until they reached the iron doors.
'An Caisteal it is,' said Irving, following Fingers who had opened the door as though he had a key. They tramped on and on until Victoriana thought they must be under the sea, and strained her ears to hear the waves above them. She was quite surprised when they turned a corner, and there in front of them was a set of steps leading up into what could only be the castle, to judge by the massive stonework. At the top of the stairs there was an ancient wooden door.
'Dis'll on'y take a second,' murmured Fingers, 'dese ol' doors are a pushover.'
They crept up through the cellars and entered the main hall to find the morning light filtering through the high windows. Everything seemed quite still as though the castle was waiting for them.
'Ain't nobody here,' stated Irving, and everyone breathed out together. 'Guess we go to da nex' level,' and started up the main staircase with the others following warily in his wake.
They reached another large empty hall and followed another broad staircase leading upwards before emerging into a long corridor whose walls were adorned with pictures of gallant knights and elegant ladies. Great wooden doors barred the entrance to rooms at intervals along the corridor.
'Gotta search dem all, I guess,' said Irving. The others shrugged, and followed him into the nearest room, which was set up as a laboratory. In the middle stood what appeared to be a scaled-down version of the Telectroscope, with a huge lens at each end.
'McCavity must have made a half size model before he managed the miniaturisation,' opined Rusty. Irving combed his hair with his fingers as he looked at himself in the lens.
'C'mon, boodiful,' urged Fingers, opening a connecting door to the next room and passing through.
Victoriana lingered behind to admire the gleaming instrument. There was a scuffling sound and a small brown mouse with a white blaze on its forehead appeared.
'Oh, what a sweet little mouse,' she said to herself, 'and he wants to look through the Telectroscope; I wonder what he will see?'
There was a hiss and a thump, and a fat ginger cat landed on the floor behind the mouse: Victoriana jumped in surprise, catching her arm against a large device loaded with wires and tubes which trailed towards the Telectroscope. There was a loud bang and a bright flash, and when Victoriana's sight returned to normal, she discovered the cat hanging by its claws from the top of a bookcase.
She wandered along the Telectroscope anxiously running her fingers against its shiny case, worried that she had caused the detonation and damaged the fine looking instrument. To her great relief, she reached the far end without discovering a single scratch.
'For I should hate to think,' she explained to the small brown mouse with a white blaze on its forehead which was sitting in front of the lens washing its whiskers in a bemused fashion, 'that I had damaged this splendid instrument. By the way,' she continued confidentially, as the mouse carefully inspected her, 'I have just seen your twin, at the other end of this Tele thing.'
She turned and pointed, but there was no sign of another mouse at the far end, and when she turned back the mouse she had been talking to was scurrying off as fast as it could go.
Victoriana sighed, and made to follow the others through the door when the sound of voices reached her ears; she paused in the doorway to listen, and peeped round to see who was talking.
Irving, Fingers and Rusty were all clustered round a great mullioned bay window, looking out onto the grounds before the castle, and Rusty was chattering excitedly.
'I think Major Trelawney has rounded them all up, though I can't make out McHerring down there.'
'Yeah, da Major seems to a' won da baddle okay an' dose guys in skoits have all surrendered to him.'
'Kilts,' corrected Rusty automatically, 'but I still haven't spotted McHerring.'
'Yecouldnaspotacaberinawuidyeweewretch,' screeched McHerring, throwing wide a door and striding into the room. The draught made the arras on the wall flap and Victoriana slipped unnoticed into the room and hid behind it.She could just make out the figures through the balding weave.
'I confess I entertain the doubt that you would be able to recognise a tree for what it is, even if you were in the middle of Birnam Forest, you young ne'er-do-well,' said a stilted voice.
Victoriana started slightly, then noticed the Translator box lying on the floor a couple of feet from her where Rusty must have dropped it as he entered the room.
'McHerring!' The three at the window turned as one.
'AyetisI,' quoth he, yanking at a large lever on the wall, causing a huge screen to fall from the ceiling which very effectively imprisoned them in the bay window. Victoriana could see them gesticulating and shouting behind the thick glass windows set into the screen, waggling the door handle ineffectively up and down, but couldn't hear a thing.
'You will find,' announced the translator box, 'that this blast screen is completely sound- as well as blast-proof. You cannot escape. I hold in my hand the key to your freedom.'
McHerring waggled a key in front of the window, grinning fiercely as Fingers fruitlessly yanked at the door handle again. Still grinning, he marched across and set the key down on a small table just in front of the arras where Victoriana was concealed: she held her breath desperately, and hoped she wouldn't sneeze.
McHerring twirled a swizzle stick in the glass he was carrying, took a sip and set the glass down on the table beside the key; then he turned towards the door where he had entered.
'Perrooott!' He roared, and the one-armed man shambled into the room. Together they opened a large set of double doors and disappeared briefly; with much grunting and groaning they reappeared, wheeling into the room a small tandem-seater steam-powered airship.
'Raisethehatchyebooby,' commanded McHerring.
Perrott took hold of a hefty rope running up the wall into the ceiling and started hauling on it. As he pulled down a length, he trapped the rope on the floor with his foot while he grabbed another handhold. With a loud creaking, a large hatch in the wall opposite the window started to lift towards the ceiling, giving a view of the sea on the other side of the castle. Slowly the hatch creaked upwards towards the rafters, but then Perrott gave a squawk as the rope slipped through his hand; in a trice his foot was caught in a loop as the rope on the floor snaked upwards, and he was whisked up towards the ceiling. The hatch started to fall and jammed in its runners, leaving a gap just large enough for the miniature airship to squeeze through.
Victoriana took advantage of the confusion to slip out from behind the arras, but before she could grab the key, McHerring had recovered from his surprise and was turning away from the dangling figure and inspecting his machine. Within minutes he had set the engine going and filled the room with a cloud of smoke and steam. He dusted off his hands, walked over to the table and drank off the glass of water, smacking his lips in satisfaction. With a triumphant wave at his prisoners, he climbed into the airship and puttered gently out of the hatchway, ignoring the despairing pleas of his swinging minion.
Victoriana slipped out from behind the arras, picked up the key and released her friends.
'Too late,' shouted Rusty in frustration, 'he's getting away!'
They watched as McHerring opened the throttle and roared out over the sea. He circled the stately HMS Devastation as it patrolled close to the shore, making mocking gestures out of the porthole, then turned the craft towards the open sea and freedom.
At which point his little craft started behaving very strangely; it veered from side to side, performed an abrupt loop, and then plunged straight down into the sea with a tremendous splash.
'What on earth …' started Rusty, then noticed Victoriana was smiling. 'Wait a minute – what did you do?'
'Well,' explained Victoriana, 'I recognised the swizzle stick he had in his drink because Mama had one just like it when she was following a health regime that was advertised in The Perspicacious Lady's Journal. Apparently water has a natural magnetic charge, and the swizzle stick can boost this to promote the 'elegant glow of a healthy body',' she recited. 'Papa advised her to stop using it after she accidentally turned the device up too high, and the cutlery started flying off the table and sticking to her. So I just wound it up as far as it would go…'
'…and the magnetism affected McHerring's controls and caused him to crash!' finished Rusty, 'Brilliant!'
'Dat's me goil!' exclaimed Irving, beaming at her.
They watched as HMS Devastation lowered a small boat into the water; its crew grabbed the oars and started splashing their way through the waves towards the lone struggling figure.
A series of shouted orders from below drew them to the mullioned window, where Major Trelawney was organising his troops and their prisoners.
'Ahoy, Major,' Rusty called down, making the Major look up in surprise.
'Well done, Major!' added Victoriana, waving at him.
'I say, you fellows,' he called back, 'what are you doing up there? Haven't seen McHerring by any chance, have you?'
'Yeah, da Navy's goddim,' bellowed Irving.
'What about that fellow Perrott? Any sign of him?'
'He's goin' nowhere,' responded Fingers with a grin, 'he's jest hangin' around up here!'
Chapter 23 (RH)
'I suppose it's back to normal life for us now,' Victoriana said. 'It's been exciting, though.'
'A bit too exciting sometimes,' said Rusty.
They were sitting with Emmeline on empty ammunition boxes in the tent that had been allotted to them in the encampment. Victoriana was wearing a new pinafore, in a hatefully old-fashioned style, that had hastily been bought for her in Oban. But she had won a small victory, she thought, as she looked down at her feet, comfortably shod in a pair of elastic-sided boots that she could put on in seconds without recourse to a buttonhook.
Rusty was ill at ease in a stiff new sailor suit. He looked out of the tent flap at the castle, now surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. 'I've been thinking about that machine we saw in there,' he said. 'It was a kind of Telectroscope, no doubt about it. But it had a lens at both ends. So if you looked in one end you could see something at the other end. But that's only ten feet away, so you could see it anyway. What's the point of that?'
'It could have been just for testing,' said Emmeline.
'Well,' Victoriana said, 'I did see something a bit strange.' She told them about the mouse that had vanished at one end of the machine and seemingly reappeared at the other end.
Rusty excitedly quizzed her, but there was not much she could add.
'This could be really important,' he said. 'Suppose you had a big one of these, as big as the machine in New York. You could send things across the Atlantic in no time at all.'
'You could go yourself, if you dared,' said Victoriana.
'No more need for ships, or trains, or balloons. Ever.'
'Wait a moment, though. What happens to all the shipping lines, the railways, the airship companies? They'd be furious.'
Emmeline said, 'And suppose the Vulgarians wanted to invade Britain. They could just bring in a Telectroscope in secret, and march an army through it.'
'We could do it back to them,' said Victoriana. 'But that isn't the point.'
'This thing is dangerous,' said Rusty. 'It's all right for now, because no one knows about it, except us.'
The three soldiers' children thought for a while.
'I love my Papa,' said Victoriana. 'Still, I don't really think I want him, and certainly not the Army, to know about this.'
'Me neither,' said Emmeline.
Even Rusty had to agree. 'We ought to disable it, destroy it if we can.'
They stood up as one and headed for the tent that housed Irving and Fingers.
Irving was resplendent in a knickerbocker suit of ginger tweed which gave off a strange agricultural smell. Fingers had chosen a belted Norfolk jacket with four large pockets, now bulging with the tools of his trade.
Irving saw the point at once, though Fingers looked regretful. 'I could gedinna anyplace wid dat,' he said, 'an' geddanyt'ing outta dere too.'
'Ya'd have to bring da scope in foist, lamebrain,' said Irving. 'Da kids is right. We godda smash dis t'ing.'
'An' take da lenses out foist,' added the practical Fingers.
* * *
That night a small party crept out to a patch of gorse not far from the guard post in the barrier around the castle. Fingers found a good-sized boulder, tied a cord securely around it, and slung it over a branch of a stunted birch tree, securing the other end of the cord to a larger stone on the ground. Turning his back to the soldiers to shield the flare of the match, he lit a candle stump and propped it up so that the flame was under the cord. They quickly retreated to the other end of the gorse patch.
Two minutes later there was a satisfactory crash as the boulder fell. As the soldiers rushed to the spot, the four sneaked through the abandoned gate.
The interior of the castle was deserted, the machine unguarded. Working by the light of his covered lantern, Fingers unscrewed all the lenses, a little disappointed at their small size in the reduced machine.
As they wondered what to do next, there was a low rumble and the ground trembled under them.
Rusty said, 'You remember we were thinking about what would happen when the pins in the fault gave way? And now it's all full of water ...'
There was another, louder rumble.
'Oitquake,' shouted Irving. 'Geddaddahere!'
Rusty seized a sheaf of papers as they bolted for the main gate.
It was not a moment too soon. As they crossed the drawbridge, with a roar of falling masonry the castle tower collapsed into the moat behind them. A crack raced along the ground, opening into a huge pit which engulfed the building.
Deserting their posts, the soldiers fled up the hill. There was no need for concealment as the four joined them at a safe distance from the chasm.
* * *
Two weeks later, the S.S. Star of India docked at New York. Irving and Fingers had been amused at travelling in a ship named after a famous diamond when they had some smaller examples sewn into the hems of their jackets.
The Parkin-Parkinsons and the Dawe Hinges were waiting on the quayside for the gangway to be lowered. So, unfortunately, were the press, as reports of an airship battle and a Scottish riot ending in an earthquake had been telegraphed across the Atlantic several days previously, and the children had to run the gauntlet of magnesium flashes and inane shouted questions before they were chivvied into a waiting steamer by Nanny Prewitt. Covered by the disturbance, Irving and Fingers sneaked ashore unnoticed and melted into the crowd.
* * *
Despite furious speculation about the events, the press never discovered the existence of the Telectroscope. The terminal lost from the New York end was replaced with the tiny telescope-sized device from McHerring's castle, which St George had reluctantly yielded up in gratitude for his rescue – though not before studying it closely with a view to copying it.
But there could be no further secrecy within the families, and Victoriana and Rusty were both present when the device was inaugurated with such ceremony as could be provided by Major Adalbert's little force parading in an underground chamber. The telescope eyepiece had been replaced for the occasion with a projector lens, and the life-size image included the figure of Emmeline waving between Major Jolliver Trelawney and her mother, while a crackly sound of cheering came across the ocean link.
* * *
Victoriana went to stay with Rusty again during the school summer holidays.
'I've got something to show you,' he said, guiding her to his laboratory. On the bench there was a small tubular device which looked familiar, though it seemed to have been made from old biscuit tins rather than the gleaming brass of its prototype. There was a similar one on a table in the corner of the room. Each was fronted by a four-inch glass lens with a little wire cage in front of it. The cage on the bench contained a mouse, which was eating biscuit crumbs.
'Look at the one over there,' said Rusty.
There was a flash accompanied by a sharp crack, and the mouse appeared in the other cage, crumbs and all. It had obviously done this before, for it gave only a brief glance around before returning to its meal.
'I know we agreed it was dangerous ...' Rusty said.
'But how could anyone resist?' said Victoria. 'What about the diamond lenses, though?'
'Oh, diamonds are for losers. I can do it with glass.'
When Victoriana went home she took with her not one, but three long, mysteriously wrapped paper packages. Later, she delivered two of them to the stationmaster at East Broadway, marked with a forwarding address.
This story is a collaboration. Chapters 1, 4, 5, 7, 9 , 11, 13, 15 , 17, 19, 21 and 23 are by Ralph Hancock. Chapters 2, 6, 8, 10, 12 , 14, 16, 18, 20 and 22 are by Hugh B. Chapter 3 is by Caroline, who writes the splendid Caroline's Miscellany blog that sparked the idea of this story. If you have any remarks, please use the comments form (see link below) or send an email to email@example.com.