Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 9

Now that there was no obvious way for me to go back to the other world even if I had wanted to, I had no objection when my uncle said that I ought to start learning about the running of the estate. So for the next few days I spent the mornings with Mr Hall, learning about our own farming activities, and about our income from the rental of land (mostly not too far from the estate) and housing (in Oxford and London). In addition to the properties we rented out to tenants I discovered that we still had a town house in Westminster. My father had used it a lot while he was on the army general staff, but since his death the family had only made occasional visits to it. I couldn't remember going there myself and I thought it might be interesting to see something of this world's version of London, and so I suggested to my uncle that I'd like to visit it, perhaps the following weekend, and he said he could see no reason why not.

In the afternoons I was able to spend time with my friends, although the bad weather that had hampered us at Stonehenge was still with us, and that made it impossible to do anything outdoors. But it stopped raining on the Wednesday afternoon, and although the wind kept blowing through Wednesday night, by Thursday morning the sun had reappeared, and so after lunch I called for Billy and told him to go and change into his old clothes.

"We're going riding," I said, "so you can do the stable-boy thing for us and sort us out some horses. Wolfie's got his own, I suppose, but…"

"No," he interrupted. "Wolfie doesn't ride – leastways, he's never been on a horse since I've worked at the stables. I thought as how his leg… well, you understand…"

"It really shouldn't stop him riding," I said. "Okay, probably it would be tricky jumping, because I suppose it affects his balance, but a gentle ride on flat ground shouldn't overstretch him. Let's go and find him."

Wolfie and Alex were sitting on the terrace playing chess. I almost backed away again without interrupting them because I was really happy to see them getting on well together, but then Alex looked up and saw me.

"What's happening?" he asked me.

"Well, I was thinking of going for a ride, but Billy tells me that Wolfie doesn't ride any more. Why's that, Wolfie?"

"Well, at first I couldn't, because of the leg. And then I just didn't want to, because it just wouldn't be the same without you."

"Is there any reason why you can't come with us this afternoon?"

"Well… I haven't been on a horse for four years, for a start, and I have never ridden one at all with only one leg. Suppose I have a few gentle rides on my own first – or maybe Billy could come with me, just in case I fall off? Then, once I'm used to it again, maybe we could all go out together."

"Erm… I'd just like to remind you all that I don't know one end of a horse from the other," Alex put in. "I don't mind learning, but I'm not just going to get on a horse and gallop all over the country today."

"You could come out with me," said Wolfie. "We can learn together, because I'm sure I will need to pick up some new techniques. Maybe we could go out in the mornings, while Leo is with Mr Hall? If we do that a few times, I should think that by next week we'll be able to ride out with him, as long as we don't go too far or too fast."

"I think that's a great idea," I said, because this would certainly give Alex and Wolfie a chance to get to know each other. "Billy ought to go with you, though, just in case anything happens… You, can ride, can't you, Billy?"

"Of course I can! I wouldn't be much of a stable lad otherwise. And I'll definitely go with them, at least until they feel confident enough to ride on their own."

"That's settled, then. But I still fancy a ride this afternoon, so you two can stay here and carry on with the chess, and Billy and I will give the horses a bit of a run and get some air. I'm not used to poring over figures all morning – at least, not in the school holidays."

So Billy went and put his stable clothes on and then we went together to the stables, where he found me a horse that he thought would suit me, found one of his former colleagues to saddle it for me, and went and saddled up a horse for himself.

We rode out of the stables, around the rear of the house and off to the east, passing the æthership hangers and then breaking first into a canter and then a full gallop. It was the first time I'd been on a horse for four years, but it felt like only yesterday, and I revelled in the sense of freedom. We rode side by side until we reached the fence that marked the boundary between our estate and that of Lord Brookhampton, and there we wheeled to the left and rode down to the river.

"You've missed that, haven't you?" asked Billy. "Your face is almost shining."

"God, yes," I said. "I'd forgotten how good that feels. I'm looking forward to teaching Alex how to ride… well, actually, I'm counting on you to do most of the teaching. But it'll be really good when the four of us can do this together."

We trotted along the river bank until we reached the edge of the wood, and there we dismounted, hitched the horses to a tree and lay back on the bank to watch the clouds.

"I hope you're not missing the horses too much now that you're working indoors," I said, after a bit. "I suppose it's a bit of a sacrifice. I can only say that when I asked you to come and work with me I couldn't remember what it felt like to ride."

"I don't mind. I'd never have got to fly in an æthership if you hadn't asked me, and that was the best thing as has ever happened to me. Look…. Alex said as how I should make sure you know how much I enjoyed that, because otherwise you might not ask me to come next time. And I'll really like to – so as long as that's not presuming on you…"

"Of course it isn't. If you're sure that's what you want, then I promise that every time I fly you'll be with me."

He rolled onto his side facing me and propped himself up on his elbow, looking at me.

"You really mean it?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "I do."

He hesitated – I'm sure there was some part of his brain that was screaming at him that what he was about to do was completely unthinkable, but somehow he overcame it, pulled me up to face him and hugged me hard. And of course I hugged him back. After a few seconds I started to find the position uncomfortable, so I flopped down onto my back once more, pulling him down on top of me. We lay like that for a couple of minutes, and then I realised that he was crying.

"Hey, Billy," I said, "what's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all. I'm just happy."

"Well, that's all right, then." And I hugged him a bit harder.

Eventually he pulled himself together and stood up.

"Come on," he said. "Let's have another ride – and there's something I want to show you."

So we got back onto the horses and Billy led me up the side of the wood and then back the way we had come, past the æthership hangars and on into the Long Meadow. But instead of either going down the path to the boathouse or up the meadow to the house, he took me straight across it to the far corner, where there was another path leading into the wood that was almost impossible to see until you got really close to it. Here we dismounted, tying the horses to a tree a bit further along the edge of the wood.

Billy took me along the path, which led deep onto the wood and sloped downhill, and I was fairly sure that if we followed it far enough we'd reach the river again. But before we got to the river the path opened out into a clearing, and here there was significant evidence of human activity: a couple of platforms had been built in the trees, and there were aerial runways dropping down from them, and other ropes which could be used for climbing or swinging. In one corner there was a proper hut, quite well constructed out of old planks and other bits of timber.

"This is our place," Billy told me. "The stable-lads, I mean. It's where we come to play when we're not working. The river is about another thirty yards away, so we swim sometimes, too, depending on the weather. I'm breaking our strictest rule by telling you about it, because nobody who isn't a stable-lad is supposed to know about it, but I thought it would be fair to tell you about it – it's your land, after all. And I thought as maybe you and your friends could come here if you can't think of nothing else to do."

"Nice," I commented, and I climbed the ladder to the nearest platform. It was well-constructed, too, fixed to the tree with several solid-looking supports.

"Who built this?" I asked Billy, who had followed me up.

"We had some help with the platforms," he admitted. "Two or three fathers helped us to build them. We wanted to be sure they were safe. But we made everything else ourselves."

I had a look at the pulley on the aerial runway that started on this platform. The Health and Safety people back in Alex's world would have thrown a fit if they had seen this: there were no safety features at all, no harness, no helmets and no brakes.

"Go on, then," invited Billy.

"After you," I replied, and so he took hold of the handle and launched himself into space. It seemed to go pretty quickly, and I wasn't convinced it would be safe to use, but Billy reached the ground unscathed and called to me to follow him. There was a rope attached to the pulley, so I pulled it back up to the platform, grabbed the handle, took a deep breath and jumped. And it felt great, and I even managed to land without falling over.

"Of course, that's only the small one," observed Billy, as we walked back to the clearing. "Wait till you try the big one."

The other platform was quite a bit higher up, and the runway from it was correspondingly higher and longer. A path had been cleared for this one – branches cut from trees, and so on – allowing it to reach the ground right next to the river.

"Sometimes we swim back from here," Billy said. "About a hundred yards downstream there's the place where the path from the clearing reaches the river, and it's easy to get out there. Maybe we can do that next time we come, seeing as how we haven't got any towels today."

"But then you'd have to walk all the way back here to get your clothes," I said.

"No, we undress in the clearing and leave our clothes in the hut in case it rains. Then we come down the rope to here and jump straight into the river."

"You mean you come down the line naked?"

"Of course. It feels strange, but sort of nice, too. I expect as how you'd be too afeared to do that, though…"

"Oh, do you? There's nothing you can do that I can't do too, you know."

"We'll see," he said, and led me back to the clearing. I thought maybe he was going to challenge me to use the line naked, but he didn't. Instead he took me from the clearing down the short bit of path that led to the river. A couple of ropes had been set up here for swinging out above the water, and the bank was clear of vegetation, making it easy to get in and out of the river.

Once I'd seen that we went back to the clearing and tried the rope swings and the aerial runways a few more times, and then we just lay on our backs in the middle of the clearing and watched the clouds some more, and that was so peaceful that I fell asleep. I was woken up by a voice I didn't know.

"What's this?" it said. "An outsider? Oh, boy, are you in trouble."

I sat up. The speaker was a tough-looking kid who looked older than me, with untidy mid-brown hair and a scowl on his face, and he was holding a riding-crop. Behind him were four or five younger boys, I guessed that they had to be stable-lads, but when I turned to ask Billy for confirmation of this I found that he was nowhere in sight.

"Look," I said, standing up. "I'm sorry about…"

"Shut up!" ordered the brown-haired boy. "You're not allowed to say anything until I tell you to, understand? You're trespassing, and boys who trespass here get stripped, whipped and thrown in the river, and if you can't swim that's just too bad. Now normally if someone is out of line we'd have a trial, but since you're obviously guilty – you're here, after all – we won't need to bother ourselves with that. Tommy, Bert, get his clothes off, then we'll draw lots to see who gets to whip him."

Two of the boys advanced on me.

"Wait!" I said. "You don't understand – I'm…"

"I said shut up!" shouted the leader. "One more word and we won't just whip you – we'll drag you through every bramble bush we can find before we chuck you in the river. Tommy, if he opens his mouth again, thump him."

The two boys grabbed me, pushed me over and started to undo my shirt. When I tried to protest one of them punched me in the stomach, and after that I was too winded to say anything. My shirt came off, and my boots, and then my trousers, and no matter how much I wriggled, there was nothing I could do: my socks and pants were removed and thrown off to one side. Then I was pulled to my feet once more.

"You've got a really small dick, you know?" commented the leader, grinning. "All right, tie him to the ladder."

The two boys pulled me to the tree that contained the lower platform and started to tie my hands to two of the rungs above my head, and then, just when I'd given up hope, there was an intervention.

"Reed, what the hell are you doing?" cried Billy, entering the clearing from behind the hut.

"Hello, Rodgers. Thought you were supposed to be working inside these days… anyway, we've caught an outsider – some stupid kid from the village, I suppose – and we're about to teach him not to trespass. I'll add your name to the list – I was about to draw lots to see who gets to beat him."

"You'd better not," said Billy. "Don't you realise who he is?"

"No. Should I?"

"Yes, you should. You've only gone and stripped the duke, you idiot!"

"The duke?" said the leader, turning pale.

"Yes, you cretin! Have you any idea how much trouble you're in?"

"Oh, my god… let him go!" cried the leader, frantically. "Oh, god, I'm sorry, Your Grace… but why didn't you say something?"

"I tried," I pointed out. "Three times. The first twice you shouted me down, and the third time Tommy knocked the wind out of me."

"Oh, bloody hell…"

I walked over to my clothes and got dressed once more, and while I was doing it the stable-lads were apparently contemplating all sorts of dire possibilities: the leader was trying hard to keep from trembling, and Tommy, who of course had actually hit me, had started to cry. I let them stew until I was dressed.

"All right," I said. "Now we'd better sort this out. You said something about holding a trial if someone steps out of line, so I suppose that's what we'd better do. How do you normally do it?"

"Well, usually we tell the accused what he's done wrong, and then he gets a chance to explain himself, and then we decide whether or not to punish him."

"That sounds fair," I said. "Does everyone get an equal vote?"

"Yes, but if there's a tie I get to decide."

"That sounds fair. Obviously you can't decide if you're the one on trial, though, and it wouldn't be fair for me to do it, since I'm the victim here, so who is the next senior of you?"

"I think that's me," said the other boy who had helped to strip me.

"And your name is..?"

"Bert Whitacre, Your Grace."

"Okay, Bert, you're in charge. I'll just let you do whatever you normally do."

"But… well… alright, then. Graham, I suppose you'd better get undressed."

The leader looked shocked. "But that's only… I mean… do I have to?"

"Do boys on trial normally have to strip?" I asked him.

"Well, yes – it's so we don't waste time if they're guilty: we can just tie them to the ladder and whip them straight away. But… look, can I talk to you for a moment, Your Grace?"

I let him lead me out of earshot of the others.

"So what's the problem?" I asked.

"Look, Your Grace, I have to tell the other lads what to do all the time. But if I have to strip in front of them I'll lose their respect."

"Why? Is there something wrong with you?"

"No, but… well, you know."

"Not really. I've just been stripped in front of you. Have you stopped respecting me?"

"Well, no…"

"There you are, then. Look… Graham, was it? Look, Graham, actually they'll respect you more of you're prepared to show that the rules apply to you, the same as to anyone else. If you try to wheedle your way out of it you'll just look like you're scared. Don't worry, I'll back you up if there's any problem."

He didn't look happy, but he nodded and began to get undressed. Once he was naked he came back and stood in front of the ladder facing his colleagues. There were one or two stifled giggles, but I'd got that too and I thought he could live with it, especially as there was nothing wrong with him: he had a fairly normal set of equipment for a boy of fifteen. Okay, his penis wasn't very long, but it was thick enough, his balls were a decent size, and he had plenty of hair, so he didn't really need to feel ashamed. About the only thing about him that was unusual was that he was circumcised, which I didn't think was common around here.

"What should we charge him with, Your Grace?" asked Bert.

"Oh, that he ordered his ruling duke to be assaulted, stripped and whipped, and that he acted illegally in denying an accused person the right to a trial," I suggested.

"That sounds fair. So how do you plead, Graham?"

"Guilty, I suppose."

"Anything to say in your defence?"

"Well, I didn't know he was the duke, obviously."

"You didn't give him a chance to tell you, so I don't think that's a valid excuse," said Bert.

"I think I'd accept it as valid," I said. "I'm quite sure he wouldn't have acted like that if he'd known who I was, so I'm happy to drop that charge. That just leaves the charge of denying me a trial."

"Who thinks he's guilty of that?" asked Bert, and everyone raised their hand.

"How do you think we should punish him, Your Grace?" asked Bert.

"Well, if I was feeling vindictive I'd say he should be whipped and thrown in the river," I said. "But I'm not, and as he isn't going to be the only person on trial I'd suggest we hold the sentencing for a bit. Probably we can all come to some sort of agreement on that later on. So, who's next? Tommy, I think you're charged with thumping your ruling duke in the stomach. How do you plead?"

"Shouldn't I get undressed first?"

"Go on, then," I said, thinking that this was proving to be a thoroughly interesting afternoon.

Tommy had some quite nice muscles but hadn't got too far into puberty yet: his penis was a bit bigger than mine, but his balls were still quite small and he didn't have any hair. Still, he made no attempt to cover it up.

"All right… I suppose I'm guilty," he said. "In my defence, I didn't know who he was either."

"And you were just obeying orders," I added helpfully. "Not that that's really a very good excuse."

"I suppose not… but I was just obeying orders, anyway."

"Who thinks Tommy is guilty?" asked Bert, and once again everyone did.

"Okay, next," I said. "Billy, I think that's you."

"Huh? What did I do?"

"You told me about this place, even though you'd promised not to."

"Well, yes, but… I mean, this is…"

"Clothes, Billy?" I interrupted.

He glared at me, but then stripped off.

"Now – you were saying?" I prompted.

"Well, this is all your land, so you ought to know about it."

"True, but you didn't actually have to tell me about it, did you? I mean, I'm glad you did, but technically you broke your word to the other lads, didn't you?"

"Well… yes, I suppose so."

Bert and the others once again quickly reached a verdict of 'guilty'.

"Okay, then," I said. "Next I think it has to be me." And I stood up and got undressed again, ignoring the various questions that were aimed at me until I was naked.

"I trespassed into a place that I knew was supposed to be only for stable-lads," I said. "I could say that, like Billy says, this is my land and I have a right to come here, but that's not necessarily true. I can't just barge into any of the cottages on the estate, and I can't just march unannounced into a servant's room in the house, either. Legally I suppose I might have the right, but morally I have to respect other people's rights, the same as I expect them to respect mine. The fact that I'm the duke makes no difference: the rules have to apply to me, just like they do to you, otherwise we get chaos. Once I start saying, 'I'm the duke, so the rules don't apply to me,' what's to stop Graham saying 'I'm senior lad, so the rules don't apply to me either'? The rules apply to everyone, including me.

"So probably all of us are guilty of something, and I suppose we all deserve to be punished. But can I suggest we just forget about it instead? Put it this way: I'll forgive Graham and Tommy for what they did to me if you can forgive Billy for spilling the beans about this place, and me for coming here even though I knew it was your place. What do you think?"

Bert consulted briefly with the other three boys and then said, "That's very generous, Your Grace. If you're sure? Then I'd say that all charges are dismissed."

"Good. Graham, did you guys bring some towels with you?"

"We always bring towels with us, Your Grace."

"Then I'd like to borrow one, if I might, because… well, since half of us are already dressed for it, I'd suggest we go swimming."

"All right. Um… did Billy tell you how we get to the river?"

"Oh, yes, and I want to try it."

"Then let's go," said Graham, dumping his clothes in the hut and then climbing up to the upper platform.

The next hour or so was a lot of fun: coming down the zip-line naked was an exhilarating sensation, and the water was pleasantly cool, rather than cold. Probably Wolfie would have told me that splashing about in the river naked with a bunch of stable lads was beneath my dignity, but I didn't care, because I was enjoying myself.

Eventually we got out and went back to the clearing. Graham handed me a towel, which I shared with Billy, and then we got dressed again.

"Graham, I'd like to make this place legally yours," I said. "I'll still be the landowner, obviously, but you'll be the legal tenants of this part of the wood, and that means that nobody can come here without your permission – including me. Yes, I can come to inspect my land, but only by appointment, and if I want to come here at any other time I have to ask you first, the same as I would have to with any of the other places I lease out. How do you feel about that?"

"That would be great – we could put up a proper 'Keep out' sign and it would actually be legal – we could even put up a sign that says 'Trespassers will be stripped, whipped and thrown in the river' and then nobody could say as how they hadn't been warned… thanks, Your Grace!"

"Of course, if it's a proper tenancy there would have to be rent," I said, enjoying the way his face suddenly fell. "We can discuss that later, once the papers have been drawn up."

"Oh. How much were you thinking?"

"I haven't decided yet. Probably something like a halfpenny a year."

His face lit up again. "I wouldn't mind paying that!" he said, enthusiastically.

"I didn't think you would. See, as far as I'm concerned you've put a massive effort into building all this, and you deserve to be able to enjoy it. The only condition would be that if you decide to build anything else you tell me about it first, all right? I'm supposed to know what's going on around here, after all."

"All right. We don't have any more plans anyway, but if we do think of something else to put up we'll make sure we tell you first."

"Good." I pulled my watch out of my pocket and looked at it. "And now we'd better move or I won't have time to change for supper. Come on, Billy."

We walked back up the hill to where we had left the horses and rode them back to the stables, where a couple of on-duty stable-lads took them from us.

"So why did you do that?" Billy asked me.

"What?"

"Telling them you'd make them the legal tenants."

"I didn't just tell them that, I'm going to do it. It's fair, Billy: you all worked hard to build those platforms and put the lines up. Besides, I should imagine I'll be quite popular in the stables after that – I can't imagine that I'll ever have to wait for a horse in future. Anyway, they're a nice bunch of lads, and it didn't cost me anything, so why not?"

"Even after they nearly gave you a whipping?"

"Well, they didn't, quite, because you popped up in the nick of time. Where did you get to, anyway?"

"Oh – I had to go… you know."

"Bad timing, Billy. Next time you'll have to stay with me even if it means you wet yourself, just in case something like that happens again."

He looked at me for a moment, trying to decide if I was serious, but then he realised I wasn't.

"Better you should get whipped than I mess up my nice uniform," he said.

"Nice uniform? You're wearing your old stable-stuff, and it's already pretty mucky."

"So what? I still don't want to make work for the laundry-maids. That would be inconsiderate."

"You're learning, Billy! A week ago you'd have been far too scared to make a comment like that."

"You're getting me into bad habits, Your Grace."

That evening after supper but before bedtime I paid up on the bet I'd made four years previously with Wolfie: we both went down to the wine-cellar, and there I stripped naked. Wolfie packed my clothes into a bag and let me into the secret passage, closing the door behind me and telling me that he'd meet me in the attic, while I groped my way to the foot of the staircase and began to climb.

It's hard to describe just how scary it was. It was pitch black, for a start: the passages had been built to make sure that no light could escape from them, and consequently no light could get into them either. I was basically OK while I was shuffling my way up the staircase, but once I reached the first floor landing it got more difficult, because although we'd come down from the top to the bottom a few days previously, I hadn't been from the bottom to the top for over four years, and I was having trouble remembering the correct route. Nor had we got rid of all the spiders, either: some had been industriously rebuilding the webs we had cleared, and walking blindly into a spider's web when you're naked is an unpleasant experience.

On the second floor I took the wrong way and found myself in one of the long dead-end passages, and I had to be particularly careful when retracing my steps because the stair back down to the first floor started without warning, and if I moved too fast I could easily fall down it. In the end I dropped to my hands and knees and did it at a crawl, but I still couldn't find the staircase up to the third floor.

By now I was close to panic. Surely I couldn't have got that far lost? I mean, this was the second floor… was it? Could I possibly have inadvertently discovered a new passage, one we hadn't seen before? No, surely not: I hadn't opened any doors or panels – at least, I didn't think so – and in any case a new passage would surely be wall to wall cobwebs, and this one wasn't. But I could hear a scratching noise somewhere ahead of me, and I was desperately hoping it was a mouse and not something bigger, and that wasn't exactly helping me to think clearly.

I had no idea how long I had been in there. It seemed like hours, but I was sure it couldn't really have been that long, because I was confident that Wolfie would have come looking for me with a lamp if I'd been gone that long. Unless… suppose something had happened to Wolfie? What if he'd fallen down the stairs, or something? Suppose we were both stuck, him with injuries that prevented him from moving, and me because I was hopelessly lost inside the walls somewhere?

Actually it was worrying about Wolfie that got me moving again. I stood up carefully, put my back to the wall and began to shuffle along sideways, checking carefully before putting my weight onto my lead foot and sliding my outstretched arm along the wall in the hope of finding the staircase. And eventually I reached the foot of the stair leading up to the third floor.

I went up it cautiously and reached the passage that led, if I turned right, to our headquarters. This was the part of the passage system that I knew best, but by now I'd had more than enough of it and was desperate to get out, so I turned left and felt my way along until I reached the staircase that went up to the attic. And at last I came to the end of the system… and I couldn't find the catch to open the panel. I was sure I was in the right area, but the catch eluded me. I moved my hand a little further up and put it straight into a cobweb, and I could feel the spider run across my wrist. That was just about the final straw.

"Wolfie," I shouted, hoping that he was waiting beyond the panel and not lying in a heap at the foot of a staircase somewhere, "I can't get out. Please could you open the panel?"

There was a silence which seemed to stretch away for eons but which was probably no more than ten seconds.

"If I open the panel," came Wolfie's voice, "then you haven't completed the course and you'll have to do it again."

And that's when I snapped. I started screaming, swearing and hammering on the panel, threatening Wolfie with extreme violence if he didn't open the panel immediately, and a couple of seconds later the panel swung open and I was able to stumble through it into the attic.

"God," observed Wolfie, "you look awful. Are you all right?"

"No," I said. "Just get me down to our room."

The damned spider was still dangling from my elbow, so I brushed it off, though I could see that there were plenty of other bits of cobweb on me, not to mention dirt from the floors on my hands and knees. So when we finally got back to our room I took a towel and used it to clean myself up as best I could. Really I needed a bath, but that would have to wait until the next day, because all I wanted to do now was to get into bed and go to sleep.

Wolfie had been getting ready for bed while I was using the towel, and so as soon as I had finished I was able to turn the light out and get in next to him. He cuddled up to me, and that made me feel a bit better.

"Was it bad?" he asked.

"It was horrible," I replied. "We'd never have been able to do it when we were ten: you get sort of turned around, and you completely lose track of where you are. I wasn't even sure what floor I was on some of the time. Of course it's probably a good idea in theory to be able to find our way down to the cellar in the dark, just in case we ever have to for real, but until you try it you have no idea of just how black it is in there. And then you start imagining things: you start hearing noises that sound like rats, or bats, or maybe something worse... I think it's probably the hardest thing I've ever done."

He didn't say anything, but he did hug me again, and that helped to calm me down. And to my surprise I got through the night without having any nightmares about being stuck in small, black spaces.

"Feeling better?" he asked me when I woke up next morning.

"A bit," I replied.

"Good. Let's see if we can turn 'a bit' into 'a lot'." He took hold of me and set to work, and by the time he'd finished I felt a lot better. And then it was my turn to make sure he felt good, too, and apparently I managed that very well.

"Of course," he said, as we started to get dressed, "what I said last night is still true: you didn't complete the course on your own, so you'll still have to do it again."

"Okay," I said. "But not for a week or so – I'll need to psych myself up before I try that again. And I'll want to spend a while exploring the passages with lights first, too."

I felt rather less daunted by the prospect in daylight: last night I'd have said I was never going into the passages again, but after a night's sleep and with the sun streaming into the room I felt a lot better about it.

I spent most of that day learning about the tax system: I was surprised to discover how little tax we were paying, although perhaps we were able to claim the cost of building and running Excalibur as a tax exemption. But when I asked what level income tax was here I discovered that it was only two shillings in the pound, which worked out at ten per cent.

"That's really not very much, considering that we're fighting a war," I observed. "Why doesn't the government put the rate up?"

"The landowners wouldn't stand for it," Mr Hall told me. "In any event, the government say they can manage with what they've got, and that's the important thing."

I wondered about that. If they charged a sensible rate they'd be able to afford far more ships and ætherships and still run the railways and the hospitals and so on. Still, I suppose nobody likes tax increases.

On the Saturday morning the four of us went to London. We walked to Culham Station – well, three of us walked, while Wolfie used his chair – caught a train to Didcot, where we changed onto the Great Western line into London. We were accompanied by a surprising amount of luggage which was taken to the station by waggon and loaded up by station staff, and at Paddington a couple of porters carried it out to the taxi rank and loaded it into a horse-drawn cab. This took us to the family town house, which was just off Berkeley Square, and when we arrived a couple of servants emerged from the house to carry the luggage in for us. I was starting to think that I liked not having to carry my own luggage – perhaps I could put up with being a member of the aristocracy after all…

Obviously my uncle had sent word to open the house up, because I discovered that we had a staff of a cook, three maids, two footmen and a boots, which seemed like about five people too many. Still, I suppose we were helping to keep unemployment down. Allchorn had said that we ought to have a butler too, but I argued that I was only intending to stay in town for two or three days and that one of the footmen could probably deal with any callers during that period.

After lunch we decided to go for a walk: Alex and I wanted to see something of this version of London. Wolfie opted to leave his chair at the house, and so all four of us were on foot once more. We strolled down to Piccadilly and started to walk in the direction of Piccadilly Circus.

The differences between this place and our own London were obvious: most of the traffic was horse-drawn, although there were some steam-trucks and one or two private cars around, too, and there was a completely different smell to the place: instead of diesel fumes there were hints of smoke, steam and horse manure. On the whole I preferred it to exhaust fumes, and I said so to Alex.

"True," he agreed. "But I think we're lucky the wind is blowing, because it's taking the smoke away. If the wind drops I should think there'd be a blanket of smoke and steam over everything – and in the winter, when everyone lights their fires, it must be impossible. Four million people, all relying on coal fires? There'd be so much smoke hanging over the city that you probably couldn't see to the other side of the street."

I thought about that and realised that he was probably right. I remembered Uncle Jim telling me that when his father was a kid, just after the Second World War, London suffered from some appalling episodes of smog, including one where it had been so bad that four thousand people had died. Probably the same thing would happen in this world, unless some means could be found to generate a strong wind that would blow all through the winter, something that I didn't think was possible in Alex's world, let alone this one.. I decided that I'd stay out at Culham during the winter months if it was at all possible.

We reached Piccadilly Circus and found the statue of Eros was no longer there: instead there was just an empty island in the centre of the road. Obviously there were no neon signs, something the Circus in Alex's world is famous for, and there didn't appear to be a tube station here either. Since there was no electricity in this world I supposed that made sense, although I'd thought that when the London Underground network first started it had used steam trains…

Anyway, we crossed over Piccadilly Circus and headed for Leicester Square. I have to say that this part of London didn't look quite so welcoming: the square appeared to be residential, and low-level residential at that, consisting mainly of grimy-looking tenements, and as we emerged on the far side of the square, crossed Charing Cross Road and turned up St Martin's Lane, so we found ourselves in an area of dirty streets, nasty-looking alleys and a complete lack of traffic.

"I don't like the look of this," said Alex. "Let's go back."

I agreed with him: this didn't appear to be an area to which the word 'wholesome' was ever going to be applied. There were people around here too, and they didn't look wholesome, either: in fact most of them were very shabbily dressed, and there were also numbers of beggars sitting in doorways, some dressed in some sort of military uniform, and all holding out cups and asking for alms. We made it back as far as Charing Cross Road, and then suddenly Billy yelled, "No, you don't!" and grabbed a boy who was running past. The kid was barefoot and dressed in rags, and the tattered jacket he was wearing tore as Billy grabbed it, allowing the kid to wriggle free, but Alex jumped on him before he got more than a couple of metres, and after that he wasn't going anywhere.

"What's happening?" asked Wolfie, a question I could have echoed.

"Check your watch," Billy told him.

Wolfie did so. "It's gone!" he cried.

"Not far," said Billy, and going up to the ragged boy he thrust a hand into the pocket of his torn trousers and brought out Wolfie's watch.

"You little bastard!" cried Wolfie. "My father gave me that watch! We must find a constable!"

"I don't think we'll find one here," I said. "But if we go down to Charing Cross there'll probably be some around at the station."

The boy struggled, but I knew from personal experience that when Alex has hold of you it's generally impossible to get free, and when Alex started to frog-march him down the road he couldn't do anything about it.

"Why did you do that?" I asked him.

"Why shouldn't I?" the boy replied, defiantly. "If a bunch of rich nobs like you decide ter come slummin' it rahnd the Dials yer deserve ter get turned over."

"You could have just asked for alms," I suggested.

"Yeah, and you'd 'ave told me to fuck off. I know wot nobs is like."

"You don't know us," I said, though I was aware of the fact that we'd ignored everyone else in the area who was begging.

"Nobs is all the same. What you doin' here, anyway? You lost or somefink?"

"Yes, as it happens," I said. "We're from… out of town. It's the first time we've been here."

"Lucky you never came after dark, then. You'd have wound up in the river wiv your gizzards slashed."

"Friendly neighbourhood."

"Yeah, for them wot's like us. For your sort? I don't fink so."

I turned to Wolfie. "If we turn him in, what's he going to get?" I asked.

"What do you mean, if? Of course we're turning him in!"

"What's he going to get?" I persisted.

"'Ow much is that timepiece worf?" asked the boy.

"I don't know," said Wolfie. "It was a present. But I'd guess it cost three or four hundred thalers."

"Well, then… fer a piece like that? Abaht five years 'ard, in the Ville if I'm lucky, in Newgate if not," the boy said.

"Five years in prison? Was it worth it?"

"Piece like that would've kept me and me mates fed fer weeks. But five years? I dunno."

"Well, he's going to find out," said Wolfie, who was still fuming. "Come on, Alex, keep him moving."

"What do you think, Alex?" I asked.

"For trying to nick Wolfie's watch? Hell, yeah!"

"So you think people who nick stuff should go to prison, then?"

"Well, obviously!"

"And do you reckon it's worse to nick something because you're hungry and you can sell it to buy food, or because you fancy a new pair of trainers and don't want to pay for them?"

That stopped him dead, of course.

"What's your name?" I asked the boy.

"Sparrer," he answered.

"What sort of a name is that?"

He shrugged. "That's wot they call me."

"And where do you live?"

"Dahn Bazalgette's 'otel."

"Where's that?"

"Blimey, yer don't know nuffink, do yer?"

"I told you, we're from out of town."

"Yeah, yer said. D'yer wanna see?"

"Okay, then. Where is it?"

"Dahn by the River. The way we're goin' will get us there."

"And will your parents be there?"

He laughed, a laugh which degenerated into a bout of coughing. "Ain't got no parents," he said, when he got his breath back.

"Me neither," I told him and that did get his attention. "What happened to yours?"

"Me ole man wuz in the army. Got killed by the Ivans when I wuz four."

"Mine, too," I told him. "He died six years ago. What about your mother?"

"'Er lungs gave out. I wuz abaht six. 'Er friend tried lookin' after me fer a bit, but then she got ill and I cleared out, 'cos I didn't want no fucked up lungs meself. Since then I've been on me own."

"And how old are you now?"

"Dunno for sure. Firteen, maybe fourteen. I dunno when me birfday wuz."

"You don't look that old. I mean, I'm fourteen, but I'm small for my age, and you're smaller than me."

"Ah, but the likes of us don't get the fine kwizzine like wot you nobs do, do we?"

"I suppose not. Now which way?"

"Turn left past the church, then dahn the side of the station."

So we did that, and then we went left into an alley, and at the end of the alley was a manhole cover.

"Dahn there," said the boy. "There's a jemmy behind them bins wot you can use to open it."

Billy went and looked and came back with a short crowbar, which he used to pry up the manhole cover.

"You're not seriously thinking of going down there, are you?" asked Wolfie.

"Well, yes, I am," I said. "But I agree that it would be better if we don't all go. You and Billy stay here, and if we're not back in fifteen minutes Billy can run up to the station and find a constable."

"Don't go," he begged. "It's not safe."

"Sparrer here has lived there for seven or eight years," I pointed out. "How dangerous can it be?"

"Yes, but, like he says, you're not like him and you don't belong there."

"True, but I still think we need to go. We'll be okay, Wolfie – my favourite ox is indestructible."

Alex didn't look as if he felt indestructible, but he didn't say anything, and so I started down the ladder. The tunnel I found myself in at the bottom smelled a bit unpleasant, but it was dry and I thought I could handle the smell. Sparrer followed me down and I made no attempt to grab hold of him when he reached the foot of the ladder.

"Ain'tcha afraid I'm gonna leg it?" he asked.

"By now you should have worked out that we're not going to turn you in," I said, "so if you want to leg it, do. But I'd like to see where you live, if that's all right with you."

He started laughing again. "You're mad!" he said. "I nick a wotch worf four 'undred nicker and you don't care? Fuck me, you must be stinkin' rich!"

"It's got nothing to do with money," I said. "Besides, we got the watch back, so no harm done, and it would be a bit hard if you get sent down for an unsuccessful theft. So, where do you live?"

By now Alex had joined us, and when he reached out to grab Sparrer again I told him to let him be, and Alex didn't argue.

Sparrer led us along the tunnel. The light wasn't very good, but there was daylight filtering down from some rain gratings overhead, and that gave us enough light to see by. After a bit he took a smaller passage off to the right, and that one dropped down a gradient into a much larger tunnel. This one did have about a foot of water in and it smelled a lot worse, too.

"How do you get used to the stink?" I asked.

He shrugged. "You stop noticin' it after a bit," he said. "Mind yer 'ead on this bit."

He went up a couple of steps into a much smaller tunnel. This was was almost completely dark and we had to bend almost double to walk through it, but fortunately it wasn't too long. It led to another broader tunnel that went off at an angle, and a short distance up this there was a hatch in the wall.

"They put this in fer the workers while they wuz buildin' this bit," he told us. "They took aht all the innards when they went, but it's dry, so we use it."

He opened the hatch and climbed through, and we followed him. At the end of a short passage was an underground room, maybe fifteen feet square, that was lit by a single oil lamp, and on both sides of the room were heaps of old newpapers, rags, cardboard and other rubbish. It was only when I looked more closely that I realised there were people sleeping in amongst the rubbish – kids, to judge from the size of the heads I could see.

"Hey, Auntie!" yelled Sparrer. "We got visitors!"

That roused some of the sleepers, who crawled out of their nests and stared at us, and then through a door in the far wall came some more kids led by an older girl, who might have been fifteen. The rest ranged from about five or six up to my own age, all of them dressed – if that's the word – in rags, or in a couple of cases nothing at all, all filthy dirty and all stinking to high heaven.

"'Oo are you, then?" demanded the girl.

"'E's a nob," Sparrer told her. "I tried liftin' his mate's wotch an' 'e caught me. But 'e sez 'e ain't gonna turn me in."

"That true, Mister?" asked the girl.

"Yes, that's true," I confirmed. "How many of you are there?"

"'Ere, in our place, there's… wot is it, Sparrer, thirty-eight?"

"Firty-seven," said Sparrer. "Whiskers got lifted, 'member?'

"Oh, yeah. So there's thirty-seven 'ere. Course, most of 'em's out workin' right now – it's just the little 'uns and them as is too sick to work 'ere at the moment."

"Working?" I asked. "You do have jobs, then?"

Sparrer laughed. "When she sez workin', she means on the rob," he explained. "Like wot I wuz doin'."

"That's right," the girl agreed. "Course, if you mean how many is there in the sewers, well, fuck only knows. Thahsands, anyway. Mostly kids. Adults 'as places of their own."

"Thousands? You're joking, right?"

"Gawd strike me down if I utter a word of a lie," she said, "but there's probly five or six thahsand kids living in Bazalgette's right now."

Alex and I stared at each other. Up to now I suppose we'd both been thinking this world was a lot better than our own, but now, suddenly, here was evidence that we'd been horribly wrong…

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]