Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 22

I put the key in my pocket, sat on the bed while I put my shoes on, got up, made the bed – I know it wasn't up to the standard of the chambermaid who usually did it, but at least to a casual glance it didn't look as if the bed had been slept in – and then went and looked carefully out of the window. There were soldiers out there, spaced at intervals all around the house – at least, as far as I could see – and they were all carrying rifles. Nobody who wriggled out of an unguarded window was going to get very far.

I dropped the curtain back into place and went and opened the wardrobe.

"Leo, you can't just hide in there," protested Alex. "That's the first place they'll look!"

"They can look as much as they like. Come on."

I took the skewer from its place on the coat-rail and used it to open the panel, and once it was open I grabbed a bag from the wardrobe floor, hesitated, went quickly to the smaller wardrobe where I kept my flying uniform, took the pistol from the holster on my uniform belt and tucked it into the bag along with the candles and other bits and pieces I'd packed soon after we'd discovered the secret room, just in case…

"Come on!" I said again. "We've got to go!"

"Go where?" asked Alex, who was still standing in the middle of the room.

"To Narnia!" I said, just to see the look on his face. Sure enough, for a moment he looked as if he thought I'd gone loopy. But then someone rattled the door handle, and that got him moving: he might have thought there was no point in hiding in the wardrobe, but he also seemed to think that it would be better than just waiting to get shot where he was.

Once he reached the wardrobe I pulled the outer door closed and then towed Alex through the panel into the secret passage beyond.

"Whoa!" he said. "Where does this go, then?"

"Somewhere where we can sit quietly and work out what to do next," I said, and once I'd closed the panel again I pulled him along the passage to the entrance to the panic room. I opened it, climbed down the ladder into the room and called to him to follow me, shining the flashlight on the rungs to make it easier for him.

Once he was down I pulled the lever, used the hook to lock it in place, fished a candle and a box of lucifers out of the bag, lit the candle, stood it on the ledge over the fireplace, turned off the flashlight so as not to waste the batteries, and sat down. Alex came and took the other chair.

"So how come I didn't know about this place?" he asked.

"Well, we were going to tell you," I said, "but somehow we never got around to it."

"That 'we' would be you and Wolfie, I suppose?"

"Yes. We used to play in here when we were kids… well, not in here, exactly, because we only found this room last year, but in the other passages… look, Alex, I wanted to tell you about it ages ago…"

"But somehow you never got around to it," he said. "Yes, you said."

"You have to remember how things were when we first got here," I reminded him. "Wolfie was really scared that I was never going to remember how we'd been before, and he was scared of you, too, because he could see that we were really good mates. He thought I'd be spending all my time with you and that he'd never be able to get his friend back. To him, the tunnels were something that he and I had shared since we were really small, and he wanted to hang on to them as something that was just about him and me.

"Of course once I got my memory back there was never any real danger of him losing me – you'd have to have known us from about the age of six to understand how close we were. But even then he still felt insecure, and I suppose I can understand why: I'd come back home with a really good-looking, totally fit and buff boy, and he thought that if I ever had to choose between you and him he'd have no chance. So he asked me to keep the passages secret so that there would be something that was just about him and me, in the same way that the last four years were all about you and me…. Oh, look, I'm messing this up. I can't really explain it right. But… can you see what I'm trying to say?"

"You think Wolfie was jealous? Of me?? Really???"

"Not jealous, really, more that he felt sort of threatened by you. He was afraid that you'd take me away from him."

"Yes, but… bloody hell, Leo, I can't compete with him! He's royalty, for God's sake, and I'm a builder's kid from the back streets of London. And, in any case, as soon as I saw you together I knew you belonged with him. I'd never do anything to break you up."

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry, okay?"

"Well, things worked out in the end," he said. "Yes, I'd have liked it if we could have… well, you know – become proper boyfriends as well as best mates. But, hell, the most important thing is that we're still mates, and I'll certainly settle for that. And then there's Billy: as consolation prizes go, he's about as perfect as I could ever ask for. It's not just that he's really fit – although obviously he is – but he's really nice with it. So… what are we going to do, Leo? It's all very well us being safe in here, but Billy's out there with the Russians, and I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfie is, too – probably he stumbled into them yesterday evening and they grabbed him. So what's the plan?"

"I don't know," I said. "The problem is that we don't know what they want. If that bastard Pavel Romanov sent this lot, they're probably after Tim. I can't believe he'd set up a really risky mission like this just to get back at me, or even to try to grab Wolfie. It's got to be Tim they want. If we're lucky he won't come back here for two or three days at least, and they'll never be able to hold the entire household hostage for anything like that length of time. So the question is, what will they do then? Will they cut and run, or will they turn nasty and start hurting people to try to find out where Tim is?

"My first idea was to use the escape tunnel and then to run into Abingdon and send someone to Oxford to raise the militia. But I don't think I can do that, not with my entire household held hostage. Once the shooting started – and it would only take one idiot on either side to get nervous and pull the trigger – far too many people would get killed. So right now I don't know what to do."

"Where does the escape tunnel go?"

"Down to the river. It comes out near the boathouse. But I can't just run away and leave everyone else as prisoners."

"Fair enough, but I don't think we can just sit here and wait for them to get bored and go home, either. Even if they don't turn nasty and start torturing people, sooner or later word is going leak out, and then the militia will turn up anyway, which will probably mean lots of people getting killed. Do you think there's any way we could negotiate with them?"

"I suppose it depends if there's someone reasonable in charge," I said. "But if they've come to get Tim, I'm not sure how I can persuade them to leave unless I give him to them, and I'm certainly not going to do that. Yes, I could surround the house with soldiers and then try to persuade them to give up, but if I was the Russian commander I don't think I'd give up while I was holding a house full of hostages. Except… maybe that's it, Alex! Suppose we just sit it out until tonight, and then tomorrow morning when everyone's asleep – at about four o'clock, say – we take their leader prisoner and agree to let him go in exchange for his agreeing to take his men and go back where they came from? Would that work, do you think?"

"Well, it might. But how do you think the two of us are going to take a Russian officer prisoner when he's surrounded by Russian soldiers?"

"Well, he's going to want to sleep, and if we're lucky he'll pick the ducal bedchamber. After all, whoever's in charge is likely to want the best room in the house, isn't he? And if he does that, we've got him, because there's a secret passage into the duke's bedroom, the same as into mine. We sneak into his room, hold him up with my gun, you grab his gun – he's sure to have one – and then we march him back through the passages and on to Abingdon. Once we've got him safely under lock and key it shouldn't be too hard to persuade his number two to agree to clear off back home in exchange for his release."

"And how are you going to make sure the British army allows a platoon of Russians to march unmolested through the country, onto a boat and off to Norway, or wherever they started from?"

"I don't think they could have come by boat," I said. "I reckon they've got an æthership not too far away, hidden in a valley, or even painted in British colours and sitting openly in a field somewhere."

"I suppose that makes sense. But you're not intending for us to simply sit here and look at the walls for the next twenty hours or so, I hope! What have you got in the bag apart from candles and matches?"

In our enthusiasm after we'd first found the secret room and the escape tunnel, Wolfie and I had each packed an 'emergency bag', so that if we needed to escape in a hurry we'd have the essentials ready to go. Of course we didn't think it would ever actually happen, but it had been fun trying to make sure we didn't forget anything.

"I've got some spare batteries for the torch, and some chocolate and biscuits, and a pack of cards and my old pocket chess set. There's a bottle of lemonade, too, so we won't starve or die of thirst. And I put in a couple of blankets in case we wanted to lie down, although I think the floor's too hard for us to be able to do that comfortably. Really we ought to have found a mattress to put in here. Anyway, that's about it."

"Well, I suppose the cards and chess set will come in useful. But if we get a chance later I think we should kit this room out properly – mattresses, my little gas ring and some tinned food, maybe a few books. If you're going to have a secret room you really ought to make the most of it."

He looked around. "Um… one question," he added. "What do you do when you need a pee?"

"Oh! We never thought of that – we were never in here for long enough to think about it. You'd better add a bucket to your list of equipment for the future."

"Fine, but that's not going to be a lot of good now, is it? So is there anywhere else I could use?"

"Not really," I said. "At least, not without going back out into the house, and that would be a bit risky – they're sure to be scouring the place looking for people hiding in box rooms and so on. If you can hold on for a couple of hours it might be a bit safer. If not, maybe I should show you the tunnel – you could pop out into the woods at the other end."

"I think that might be a good idea," he said.

"Okay. Well, there are two sets of stairs, one from the main system and one from this room. We might as well use this one."

I took the skewer out of my pocket, turned the flashlight back on and led Alex out of the rear door and down the stairs.

"Now we're on the same level as the wine-cellar," I told him, keeping my voice down in case there were any Russians in the cellar. "And the escape tunnel is here."

I used the skewer to open the tunnel entrance, allowed Alex to precede me into it, and then followed him and pushed the door closed once more. I pocketed the skewer and headed off down the tunnel.

"The cellar's that way," I said as we passed the spur tunnel. "There's another staircase that way too – I'll show you that part on the way back."

We went on down the main tunnel until we reached the little alcove that held the lever.

"What's that for?" asked Alex.

"We don't know. We can't be sure if it actually does something useful, like opening another way out, or if it's some sort of booby-trap that opens a big hole in the floor if an enemy tries pulling it."

"That doesn't seem very likely," commented Alex. "I'd have thought it a lot more likely that it does something useful, like dropping a door to close off the passage behind us, or something like that."

"You're probably right, but since we don't know for sure, and since we don't need another way out or a door to block the passage, we decided it would be safer to leave it alone. And I still think that's safest. So come on."

I led him on to the end of the tunnel and out through the ice-house, though I took that bit very carefully in case there were Russians patrolling this far from the house – we were still within the grounds, after all. But there was nobody in sight. Alex nipped off into the trees and had his pee, and then we made our way cautiously as far as the boathouse. There was still nobody around.

When I'd lived in Alex's world I'd always carried a little key-ring attached to my belt that held the keys to my house – just in case I got home from school before Auntie Megan finished work – and to the garden shed. And I still hadn't got out of the habit, even though I hardly ever needed keys where I lived now, because the doors to this house were always open. The only key I'd needed since I got back here was the key to the boathouse, and I'd added a copy to my key-ring, which meant that we were now able to go inside. I locked the door again behind us and we went up the ramp onto my boat and sat down in the cabin.

"I suppose we could stay here for now," I suggested. "It's a bit more comfortable: we can lie down on the benches if we get tired – and if we open the river door a bit we won't need artificial light, either."

"I suppose so," he agreed. "But it's not as safe: if they send someone to check all the estate outbuildings they might not be deterred by a locked door. And if they smash their way in they're sure to find us."

I thought about it. I didn't really think it was very likely that they'd have enough men to be able to check as far from the house as this. But on the other hand, if they did we'd certainly be captured, and then we'd have no chance of putting my plan into action.

"Okay, you're right," I said. "But at least we can take some of the bench cushions back with us. Then if we get tired we'll still be able to lie down."

So we removed some of the cushions from the benches and then made our way cautiously back to the ice-house and up the tunnel to the cellar. This time I showed Alex where the other staircase was, but at the last moment I realised we couldn't go that way because we wouldn't be able to get back into the secret room from that side: I'd locked the lever, and that would prevent me opening the panel into the secret room. So instead we went back the same way as we had come.

Once we were back in the secret room I lit the fire, because it wasn't particularly warm, and if we were going to be spending the next twenty hours or so here I thought we might as well be comfortable. Once the fire was going it soon became nice and warm in the room.

"Won't they see the smoke?" asked Alex. "There probably aren't too many other fires lit – it's warm enough out, after all."

"No, the chimney from here comes out in the same place as the chimney from the main hot water furnace in the cellar," I said. "We traced it one afternoon just to find out. Whoever built this system did an amazing job: even when you know the room exists it's just about impossible to find it from out in the rest of the house. It's virtually all storage rooms out there, and most of them don't have windows, so it's hard to tell if the rooms are smaller on the inside than they ought to be. So, what are we going to do for the next twenty hours?"

"Get undressed," Alex said.

"What?"

"Trust me."

I'd never stopped trusting Alex and so I got undressed, and while I was doing that he was arranging the cushions we had brought back from the boat in front of, but not too close to, the fire. And once he'd done that he got undressed himself.

"Now lie down," he said, so I did that too. He put a little more coal on the fire, blew the candle out and came and lay down next to me, wrapping a blanket around us both.

"Now go to sleep," he said. "You got woken up far too early this morning and you need to rest. There's nothing we can do at the moment anyway, so you should just relax. We'll be safe enough here, and there's nothing we can do to help anyone else at the moment anyway, so I want you to stop worrying."

"I don't think I can do that," I said.

"Yes, you can. I know you think you're responsible for looking after everyone in the house, and maybe you are, but the best thing you can do for them right now is to rest so that when we make our move tonight you'll be fresh. So rest, okay? You'll be all right: it might be your job to look after the others, but it's my job to look after you, and I'll make sure you're safe."

He was right, of course: there was nothing I could do right then. And so I just said, "Okay," and settled down to sleep, and he put his arm round me and held me. And maybe it was illogical, but somehow I did feel safe in his arms like that.

I woke up some time later. The fire had burned down, so I wriggled out of Alex's arms, went to the fireplace, found the lucifers and relit the candle, and then put some more coal on the fire. According to my watch it was half past ten, so at least I'd got a couple of hours' sleep.

I went and lay down next to Alex again, but trying to wrap the blanket around us I inadvertently woke him up.

"What's the time?" he asked sleepily.

"About half past ten."

"Morning or evening?"

"Morning," I said. "At least… I assume so. I don't think we could have slept for fourteen hours straight. Besides, the fire would have been out if we'd been asleep that long."

Alex squinted at his watch. "Yes, it's still morning," he confirmed. "That's one benefit of digital watches: you can set it to show the twenty-four hour clock. So, what's for breakfast?"

"Chocolate," I said. "Of course, I suppose we could risk going back down the tunnel and heading for Abingdon for breakfast, but it would be safer to stay here. I don't suppose one day of chocolate for breakfast will do us any real harm."

"Probably less than the fried stuff we normally eat," he said. "Not that I'm complaining, of course – I like bacon and sausages for breakfast. So where's the chocolate?"

We got up and I went to my bag. There was only one bar, and it wasn't very big, and the packet of plain biscuits I'd also packed wasn't very big either. I decided to save those for supper.

"I think you're right about getting some proper supplies put in here," I said, breaking the chocolate bar in half. "We'll have to put up a couple of shelves and stock it up with tinned and dried stuff. Come to that, it would be useful to get some plumbing put in – running water and a toilet would be handy. But I suppose that's not really practical if we're going to keep the place secret – at least, not unless one of us learns to be a plumber."

"I think that would have to be me," he said, taking his half of the chocolate and sitting cross-legged on the cushions without bothering to get dressed. "I'm the working-class one, after all."

"That doesn't mean I expect you to do working-class stuff," I said, grabbing the bottle of lemonade and coming to sit next to him. "As far as I'm concerned, you're like a member of my family."

"A sort of black sheep cousin, or something?" he asked, grinning at me. "The kind of relative who, when he knocks at your door, everyone pretends to be out?"

"Well, now that you mention it…" I replied, grinning back. "No, obviously not. After all, you're going to be an officer on Excelsior, and I'm sure that you can't let just any old oik command an æthership. So you must be a bona fide family member. If necessary – and I'm thinking about what will happen if we can't find a way back to your world – I'll adopt you into the family officially. That way if anything happens to me you won't get thrown out onto the street."

He looked at me. "You'd do that?" he asked.

"Of course I will. Looking after your friends is one of those things everyone is supposed to do, and since I'm in a position to do it properly, obviously I will. After all, you're still looking after me, aren't you? If I was stuck in here on my own I'd be tearing my hair out. Come to that, if you hadn't woken me up and warned me this morning I'd be a prisoner just like everyone else."

"We're still a team, then?"

"We've always been a team, and we always will be. That's why I'm not worried about going after their officer tonight: if you're with me I'll know that you've got my back, and having someone I can completely rely on with me is all I need. Lemonade?"

I passed him the bottle and he took a drink.

"You should have stored a few bottles of cider here," he said. "We'd be nice and relaxed after a couple of bottles each. Of course, you'd probably end up falling over and shooting yourself by accident."

"Are you suggesting I can't handle my alcohol?"

"You said it. Half a glass of wine, remember?"

"Aren't you ever going to let me forget about that?"

"What do you think?"

For a while we just sat quietly, looking at the flames of the fire. After a couple of minutes Alex put his arm around me, and I wriggled closer to him and rested my head on his shoulder. And once again I felt safe and calm, as if nothing could go wrong as long as Alex was with me.

After a bit I stood up. "Come on," I said. "Let's get dressed. I think we ought to do a little scouting around – after all, we're going to look stupid if the Russians have already packed up and gone."

So we put our clothes on and then I unhooked the lever and used it to open the second-floor exit. We went back along the corridor, up the stairs to the third floor and along to the corner room, where I opened the panel as quietly as I could and stepped out into the room. I needn't have worried: the room was empty and the door was closed.

"So that's why you and Wolfie chose this room!" commented Alex quietly as he followed me out of the passage. "Nice one, Leo – I'm pretty sure nobody else had the remotest idea."

I went over to the front window and peeped around the side. There were still a few soldiers outside the house, but they looked relaxed: their rifles were slung on their backs and some of them were smoking. They were wearing British uniforms, too, but I wasn't fooled for a moment: I guessed that they were there to deal with visitors as much as to prevent escapes. No doubt anyone approaching the house – the postman, for example – would be given some plausible story about military manoeuvres or something. From the side window I couldn't see any guards at all, so it looked as if the Russians were confident that nobody was going to be trying to escape.

Next I went to the door, listened for a moment, and when I didn't hear anything I opened it and put my head out into the corridor. It was quiet: there was no sign that anyone was around.

"Come on," I whispered, and we set off down the corridor towards the stairs that led down to the second floor.

I checked Sparrer's room, and Billy's, but both were empty. I looked around the corner into the East Wing corridor, but that too was as silent as the grave, and so I returned to the top of the stairs and began to tiptoe my way down them. Alex followed me down, looking thoroughly nervous.

I took the corner into the second floor corridor very carefully indeed, checking both ways and listening hard before I risked stepping out onto the carpet. I went past Wolfie's lift-shaft, which had been unused for nearly six months now, and on to the top of the main staircase. And now I could hear voices below us, and so I stopped dead. Then I dropped to the floor and wriggled out onto the landing at the top of the twin flights that led off in opposite directions down to the first floor. I kept going until I reached the carved wooden balustrade and very cautiously indeed I raised my head until I could see through one of the holes on the carving. From up there on the second floor landing you could see right down to the main hall on the ground floor, and now I could see people, soldiers in Russian uniforms. Most of them were looking fairly relaxed, like the ones outside the house, but over in the far corner there were a couple standing at attention with their rifles unslung. They were in front of the door to the ballroom, and I wondered if that's where my staff and friends were being held. It made sense: the room was big enough for the entire staff to be kept in one place.

Alex came and put his eye to the next hole in the balustrade, so I pointed out the guards and told him why I thought they were guarding that particular door.

We lay there watching for around ten minutes, but nothing very interesting happened, and nobody went into or came out of the ballroom. Then a couple of soldiers started to climb the great staircase. They might have only been going to the first floor, but it obviously wasn't worth taking the risk, so we wriggled back off the landing and made our way quickly up to the third floor and back into the corner room.

"Well, they don't look as if they're going anywhere in a hurry," Alex commented. "As long as Tim doesn't take it into his head to come visiting today I'd guess they'll stay right where they are."

"Let's hope he's busy," I said. "Since he moved his workshop to the base at Abingdon he generally only comes back on Saturday mornings, but if we're really unlucky he'll turn up this evening. And if that happens we're going to be in trouble. Perhaps we should have gone into Abingdon this morning to make sure he stayed away. Damn, I really should have thought of that!"

"It's not too late," he pointed out. "I could go now. It's only a couple of miles – I'm sure I can run that in fifteen minutes or so."

"It's not that simple. Parts of the Chase are too overgrown to get through, and if you came up into the Long Meadow the Russians might see you – in fact they almost certainly would."

"I could always swim. The current would carry me down into Abingdon even if I couldn't swim that far."

"Alex, it's March," I said. "I know the weather's been pretty good for the past couple of weeks, but that water will be freezing. But… that's a good point about the current. How about if we used the boat? We could just pole it out into mid-stream and let the current carry us. And by the time we got to Abingdon we'd have steam up, at least enough to manoeuvre. You can manage the boiler, can't you?"

"Yes, I think so, provided that you help me get it lit. I've never had to do that bit."

"And I think I can manage the wheel," I said. "We'd probably be able to get back the same way too, because the woods block the view of the river from the house. There's enough of a breeze to stop the smoke showing above the tree-line – at least, I think there is… Come on, Alex, let's go for it. I don't know what time the scientists finish work on a Friday, but I want to get there before then, whenever it is."

I opened the panel in the fireplace, ushered Alex through and then closed it behind us. I led him down the original staircase to the cellar and then back to the tunnel and so to the boathouse. There was no sign that anyone had been there since we had been there earlier, but I still locked the door behind us again.

We went straight down to the engine room and, after a bit of searching about, found the kindling that was supposed to make it easy to get the fire going. However, 'easy' is a comparative term, and it wasn't until we'd been fruitlessly wasting lucifers and kindling sticks for at least five minutes that Alex realised the dampers were in the wrong position. Once we had a draught we were finally able to get the fire lit, and at that point I left Alex to it – he was the one who was supposed to know about tending a boiler, after all, assuming that he'd been listening while Billy was explaining it to him – while I went up on deck to untie us and open the outside door. I was pleased to see that we weren't making any serious amounts of smoke, though whether it would stay that way was something I couldn't say.

I was having second thoughts about pushing the boat out into the river before we had sufficient steam to turn the propeller, though. I'd realised that no engine meant that the rudder wouldn't work, and if I couldn't steer, the boat would be uncontrollable – we could be spun around, carried against the banks and caught up on vegetation, or we might pile into a boat coming the other way – harmless if it was small, absolutely fatal if it was a heavy barge. On the other hand, staying here was equally dangerous: there might not be enough smoke to show as far away as the house, but if a patrol came down the path to the boathouse they would smell it even if they didn't see it straight away.

So I left us tied up by one line and went below to see how Alex was getting on. I found that the fire was going nicely, even though the water temperature gauge hadn't moved yet.

"How long do you reckon?" I asked.

"I think Billy said about half an hour when starting from cold. So that's about another twenty-five minutes. Do you want me to come and help push her out?"

"No," I said, and I explained my reasoning. "We'll wait here for as long as we can – unless someone tries the door, of course, in which case we'll have to get her out into the river as fast as we can and take our chance. Keep the fire going – I'm going to stick my head outside the door and see what's happening."

"Be careful," he said.

I nodded and made my way back to the door, where I listened intently for a few seconds before I risked unlocking it and stepping outside. But the only thing I could hear was birdsong, and I thought that was a good sign, because if there were people in the woods the birds wouldn't be singing – at least, I didn't think so.

I stayed by the door for fifteen minutes, but nothing changed, so I went back inside, locked the door and went back to the engine room.

"We're almost there," Alex said. "Another five minutes and we'll have enough steam to move." And he pointed at the steam pressure gauge.

"Good enough," I said. "Come and give me a hand with the ramp."

We went up on deck. I untied the last mooring line and then between us we pulled the ramp aboard.

"Engage the engine," I said to Alex, and he went back down to the engine room while I took the wheel and telegraphed Alex for one-quarter speed. For a few seconds nothing happened, and then the boat gave a little judder and started to inch forwards. We nosed out into the river – no other vessel was in sight – and I spun the wheel to the left, shoved the telegraph over to 'full speed' and waited for the surge forwards.

Nothing happened.

I couldn't really leave the wheel to go and find out what was wrong, so I just had to stay where I was, and a few seconds later Alex's head appeared at the top of the stairs.

"We've got a problem," he said. "I think there's a valve stuck open somewhere, because we're losing steam pressure. I'll try to give you enough to be able to steer, but unless I can fix the problem, this is about as fast as we're going to be able to go."

He disappeared again and I tried to manoeuvre us into the centre of the river where we would get the best of the current. If someone came the other way we might be in trouble, but at least it looked as if I was going to be able to keep the bow pointing the right way. And then I looked up and realised that we might have another problem: we were approaching the railway bridge, and I could clearly see two soldiers leaning over the parapet and watching our approach. At least they couldn't have seen us emerge from the boathouse, because there was just enough of a bend between the boathouse and the bridge.

"Alex!" I shouted. "Get up here!"

"What?" he said when he arrived a few seconds later.

"There are two soldiers up on the bridge," I told him. "They might well have my photo, but they won't know what you look like, so I want you to give them a nice big smile and a wave, okay? They can't see me if I stay in the wheelhouse, but we need to look innocent…"

One of the soldiers had now unslung his rifle, and at the speed we were making – barely faster than the current – they could hardly miss us. As we got closer the other one did the same thing, and at that moment Alex looked up at the bridge, gave them a big wave and called "Hello!" to them.

The soldiers appeared to speak briefly to each other.

"Pull over to the bank," one of them ordered, waving to our left.

If we'd had full power I might have risked ignoring them, but we'd be absolute sitting ducks if they opened fire. And, besides, when I looked to the bank beneath the bridge I could see three more soldiers standing there. There seemed to be no choice, so I angled the nose into the bank.

Alex came inside the wheelhouse and surprised me by wiping his hand down the side of my face and tousling my hair, but then I realised he had coal-dust on his hand: he was trying to make me look as little like a member of the aristocracy as he could.

"I'll do the talking," he said. "Hope they can't do anagrams." He dived back down the stairs for long enough to disengage the engine.

The anagram crack passed me by until I remembered what our vessel was called, and at that I felt a tremor of goose-flesh. If any of them spoke English well enough to read our alphabet…

As we neared the bank Alex ran to the bow, grabbed a mooring-line and threw it to one of the soldiers, and soon we were tied up. Two of the men came aboard.

"Vhere are you going?" asked one. He had a definite accent, but you wouldn't immediately recognise it as Russian.

"Into Aaabingdon," said Alex. "Moi maaster 'as zent uzz for to pick up zum vurniture."

I tried not to wince: if he'd laid on the hayseed accent any more thickly he'd have had turnips growing out of his ears.

"And your name?"

"Maaarco Vielding," declared Alex. "An' moi vriend…"

"Stop!" interrupted the soldier. "Write his name down."

He handed Alex a notebook and a stub of pencil and Alex laboriously wrote in it.

"You!" called the soldier to me. "Vhat is your name?"

I was flustered. I could remember the surname, and I knew I'd started out as 'Lee', but then…

"Jordan," I replied, groping in my memory. "Moi name's… Paul Jordan."

"Good," said the man, putting his book away. "Vhere have you come from?"

"Oxfaard," said Yokel Alex. "Moi maaster be head of Eeebeerian Studies at Saint Jaahn's Callege. Prafessar Ocuto, 'e izz. An' ee sez to us'n as how we wuz to tek booat ter Ramsbottom's vuurniture shaap an…"

"Yes, thank you," said the soldier, to my relief: Alex's accent seemed to be migrating from Somerset to Yorkshire. "You can go."

I turned to go back into the wheelhouse, only to find that Alex had apparently lost his mind.

"Excyuuse me, zurr," he said, "but… Oi don't zuppose as 'ow you knaaw about enjinns, do ye? Us'n 'ave a praablem with our'n, zee?"

He was lucky I'd left my bag in the secret room, because if I'd had it with me I think I'd have pulled out my gun and shot him. Somehow I stopped myself from screaming at him. Instead I prayed that the soldier would just tell us to go.

"I vill look," said the man, handing his rifle to one of his colleagues and heading for the stairs. I kept my eyes on the deck as he went past and wondered if I could imitate Alex's stupid accent if the other soldiers decided to make small talk. But they kept silent – probably they didn't speak English – and so I did too.

Alex and the soldier weren't below for very long – probably no more than five minutes – but to me it felt like an eternity. Finally they reappeared, and the soldier went and jumped ashore.

"Thank'ee, zurr," said Alex, now apparently morphing into Long John Silver. "Us'll be baack this waay shaartly, loike. Can we get yez onything at shaaps?

"No, thank you," said the soldier, untying the first mooring line.

"'T would be naa praablem," insisted Alex. "Naa? As yer loike. Say, yer're not fraam these yere parts, aare ye?"

"No," said the man, throwing Alex the second line. "Ve are from Vales."

"Aah," said Alex. "Uz'n ain't nivver been zo vaar. Vuurthest Oi been iz Didcaaat, moizelf… any road, thank'ee again!"

He waved at the man, grinned at me as he went back down the stairs, and pinged the telegraph to say that he was ready. I rammed the handle to half speed and swung the wheel to starboard, giving the soldiers a half-hearted wave as I did so, and once we were clear of the bank I pushed the handle to full speed. And this time it worked, and we moved off smartly.

I don't like swearing and try not to do it, but when Alex reappeared once we were a hundred yards downstream I let fly in several languages.

"Chill!" he said, once I'd run out of steam. "We're okay, aren't we? And he fixed our stuck valve – and they won't give us any trouble on the way back, either. Anyway, if we'd acted all shifty they would have been suspicious, but by coming on friendly I pulled the wool over their eyes. I should have been on the stage."

"Should have… Alex, that was the worst impression of a country bumpkin I've ever heard! There was hardly a corner of the British Isles that your accent didn't visit, and how they didn't tumble to it, God only knows!"

"They're Russians, remember? If someone spoke Russian to me I couldn't tell you if he came from Murmansk or Vladivostok, so why should they be able to identify different English accents?"

"But you didn't know that! I mean, ask Joe – he might easily be able to tell which part of Russia someone comes from because he speaks the language – and that guy might have been able to distinguish different British accents!"

"Do you think so?" he asked, suddenly seeming a lot less sure of himself.

"Yes. But you were lucky, so no harm done, I suppose," I said, beginning to calm down a bit myself. "But, bloody hell, Alex – I'm too young to die of heart failure!"

We negotiated the lock on the outskirts of Abingdon and I tied us up at one of the wharves close to Abingdon Bridge. The former school our scientists were now using for everything, making armour and researching electricity and radio, was about half a mile away, and so we banked up the fire and trotted off towards it – we could tell immediately where it was because of the huge æthership hanger that had been built to take Excelsior, which dominated the skyline on this side of town.

I ran into the armour works and found plenty going on, but no Tim.

"Where's Mr Duvallier?" I asked the first man I reached.

"Try the hangar," he suggested, and sure enough he was there, up on a platform of scaffolding supervising the fitting of armour onto one of the engine gondolas.

"Leo!" he greeted me. "What are you doing 'ere?"

"Let's speak German," I said. "I'm glad your English is coming on so well, but this is important, and I don't want any misunderstandings. We're in trouble, Tim: there are Russians in the house, and we think they're probably looking for you. So I don't want you coming back to the house until I tell you otherwise, understand? Use a hotel – that would be safer than staying here overnight, the way you usually do. We've got a plan, but it's absolutely essential that you stay out of the way, because if they get you, we'll lose every advantage you've given us."

"I understand. Send a message here when it's safe to come back," he said. "You'll want to come back yourself next week anyway, because we're just about finished: this is the last gondola to be armoured. The rest of the ship is done. And the wiring's finished, too. We haven't finished testing it yet, but we'll be able to do that during the proving flights. I was intending to hop her back to Culham on Monday so that you can get the coal and water loaded, plus any other equipment you want for the test flights – guns and so on, I imagine. Now I suppose it would be best to wait until I hear from you."

I nodded. "I hope we can resolve this problem tonight," I said. "If so we can go ahead next week."

Our next stop was the police station, where I spoke to the officer in charge, explained the situation, told him why I didn't want any overt action taken just yet, but asked if he could arrange a squad of militia – preferably including a Russian speaker - for early the following morning, and have them assembled at Culham School at around five o'clock.

"We'll send for them once we're ready," I told him. "They should be armed, but if all goes well there shouldn't be any actual fighting."

Of course, normally that would have provoked a flood of questions, but by now I could do the Duke thing if I had to, and so most of the questions didn't materialise.

Our final stop was at a furniture shop, where I bought on credit – another advantage of my title – an ornate but really rather hideous oak cupboard, which I had transported to the wharf and tied into place on the Lady Renée's deck.

"Why bother?" asked Alex. "They won't stop us on the way back."

"Not if it's the same lot. But what if they've changed the guard while we were here? I expect the original lot will have mentioned us, but the new ones might still expect to see the results of our shopping trip."

"Good point," said Alex. "Excuse me a moment."

He dived into a wine merchant's and emerged carrying a couple of small sacks.

"What's that?" I asked.

"A little present for the troops," he said.

We headed back for home, and when we reached the bridge we found the same five soldiers on duty. Alex got me to cut the engines and drift in close to the bank for long enough for him to be able to pass one of his sacks to the English-speaker.

"'Ere be a little thank'ee, loike!" he said. "Best watch for'n offizers, moind!"

The soldier opened the sack and pulled out a crate of a dozen bottles of beer and a bottle of whisky, which drew a murmur of approval from his colleagues.

"Thank you!" he called to us, raising a beer bottle to us.

"Aaarr, ahar!" replied Alex, and if he'd added 'Jim, lad!' I'd have throttled him. But the soldiers just waved, and we waved back until they were out of sight.

Half an hour later we were back in the secret room. We'd left the ugly oak cupboard on the boat, but Alex had brought his second small sack, which proved to contain some more beer, some lemonade and a collection of snacks to go with them.

"Good thinking," I said, accepting a bag of nuts from him. "But you owe me this, mind – I must have aged forty years while you were doing your Local Yokel routine!"

"It worked, though," he pointed out. "Of course, if they'd had a photo of your ugly mug we'd have been in trouble."

"We were lucky all round," I agreed. "Let's hope our luck holds tonight…"

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