Monday. 9.00am.— 21th May, 1894. The end-game concludes.
'An Occurrence at Watford Tunnel' (2 of 2)
On re-joining Xena, Ares, and Markham in the goods-van we found that Gabrielle had also returned. I noticed she was dusty; covered in soot; and had several scratches on the exposed portions of her legs.
"Are you alright?" My professional instincts took control without any impulse on my part. "I have some ointment that'll help those cuts, though it may sting a little on application. I take it your expedition was successful?"
"Damn straight, Doctor!" She was full of verve and enthusiasm. Her adventure seemed to have given her a new lease of vitality. "Though that coal tender was one messy problem. Once I had'ta stand up for a moment, and it was a good job I was lookin' ahead. A bridge with a rounded arch was almost on top of me. Gods, I nearly died of fright! If I hadn't a ducked fast there'd only be half of me left right now!"
Xena gave the young blonde woman a worried look, but Gabrielle was nodding her head again.
"I told the driver and his mate what we wanted." She glanced happily at Holmes and I. "He'll bring the train to a halt beside Moran's train. I've got the guard's green flag with me, over there in the corner. So, when someone gives our driver the signal he'll start off again for the tunnel mouth like—like a steer that's been hit with a hot iron!"
We had hardly been putting ourselves in order for more than a couple of minutes when Xena announced the approaching climax.
"The cutting's coming up. I see it ahead, now." She glanced at Gabrielle, then the rest of us. "Is everyone ready?"
"I have my Holland & Holland elephant gun, with a boxful of cartridges." Rider Haggard took the lead in listing our equipment. "You Watson, and Holmes, each have revolvers. Markham has a heavy .44 revolver, and Xena has her chakram—a very vicious weapon. Gabrielle too has, er, knives readily available. I think we're a match for Moran."
"Especially with our secret weapon!" Gabrielle giggled lightly as she turned to Xena, apparently without a care in the world. "Y'know, wouldn't it be strange if Moran's stopped by the very weapon he was goin' t'use against us? Mown down by his own scythe, y'might say. Think I read a poem in a scro—book a few days ago with that theme."*
At this moment the passing terrain changed suddenly. Outside the open doors of the goods-van the sprawling lines of dingy houses, stone walls, and glimpses of gas lamps, were replaced by steeply-angled grass banks on both sides of the track so high we could not see their tops from our position down on the rails.
"Here's Moran's train coming up." Gabrielle had been grasping the edge of the right-hand doorway, and leaning out. "I can see some men on the track. Figure they're trying to fix their engine."
"OK, this is it." Xena took charge, like a true General. "Gabrielle, nobble whoever you can with your sais. The rest of you, fire at anything that moves—an' I don't mean just to tickle them. We gotta stop 'em dead, particularly Moran."
"Yeah, but don't forget t'keep an eye on the track behind us." Gabrielle smiled tensely at everyone. "That guard's-van'll come up on us as silently and quickly as a Harpy in a forest. Anyone who see's it coming, grab that green flag and wave it at our driver for all you're worth."
Our engine driver steamed past the criminals train with regal insouciance, considering we could hear him being shot at, bringing our goods-van expertly to a halt almost exactly opposite the damaged wagon of Moran's train. Immediately the noise of their bullets hitting the thick sides of our van was ear-splitting. In the shattered doorway of the van opposite, only six feet away, a number of shadowy figures could be glimpsed milling around in the darkness inside; while the air was thick with white gunsmoke.
Xena threw her chakram, accompanied by a savage yell, while Gabrielle crouched at the door to stab an intruder trying to fire his pistol at us. A flash of scintillating light heralded the speeding chakram's return to its owner, while Markham let fly with his Smith & Wesson. There were several gunshots from the other van, perhaps from Moran, but thankfully no casualties.
Xena and Gabrielle jumped out onto the track, where they engaged the enemy face-to-face like expert, and ruthless, fighters. Gabrielle stabbed with her sai at the side of a large man who had aimed a pistol at Xena, then twisted round to tackle her next victim. Xena again hurled her chakram in a magnificent arc which took out an armed man close by. It then zoomed away to slice the neck of another reprobate; carried on to cut through the heavy jacket of a third man standing by the track with a rifle in his hand, leaving him screaming with a bleeding wound in his side; then arched and glanced off the side of Moran's wagon before arcing back to bounce off a man's head who was menacing Gabrielle with his pistol; after which it returned to Xena's firm grip. An amazing exhibition.
At this point I was deafened for the second time in my life by the discharge of Rider Haggard's elephant gun. Really, that man should have more regard for people's well-being. The noise was indescribable. He used solid bullets, but even so the amount of damage they caused was almost beyond reason. His main target, a man standing on the track some way behind Xena, staggered and collapsed without a cry. The bullet responsible then carried on to hit a second man, bowling him over onto the loose gravel where he lay a shapeless heap; never to move again. The second bullet from Rider Haggard's gun also sped in a true line, he having fired the twin barrels separately like a grouse-shooter following the flight of his birds, to take out two men standing close together to the right.
Holmes and I shot at whatever targets came within our line of sight. Markham also kept up a rapid controlled fire, as he crouched to one side of the doorway. Ares had held back up to this point, but now leapt to the ground with a yell and proceeded to go through the criminals on the track between the trains like a dose of salts through a hospital clinic. He had a short way with dissenters which would have warmed Defoe's own heart.* His sword, which I had merely thought to be a theatrical prop, now showed itself a real and deadly weapon. In one brief horrified glimpse I am not sure but that I saw a bodiless arm flying through the air like a piece of wood someone had thrown. Perhaps I have given enough of these gruesome details. Enough anyway for the reader to be aware this fight was not a play being acted out, but a real conflict where the winner sought remorselessly for triumph at all costs.
"Hey!" Gabrielle's shrill cry cut through the noise of battle like a silver trumpet. "The van's coming!"
Under the continued noise of gunfire Gabrielle and Xena jumped back into the van, with Ares close behind.
"That was one hard fight!" Xena gasped for breath, then looked around her. "Damn those bullets, won't they ever give up. Holmes! To the right. Get him!"
Holmes swivelled and fired twice in the required direction, apparently hitting whatever target was there.
"Bravo!" Xena yelled almost ecstatically. "You alright, Gabby? Hades! The flag. Someone get it. We gotta get outta here, right now!"
I darted across to grab the furled flag and, while the others kept up a covering fire, leaned out and waved the thing frantically with a passion born of real fear. In seconds we felt the jerk and vibration as our train started forward and slowly began to gain speed.
Just as we began to move off Ares suddenly yelled out.
"Markham!" His voice had a warning tone which caught all our attentions. "Moran—aiming at you. Watch out!"
At the shattered door of the wagon opposite stood a tall figure in a long dark coat, instantly recognisable to us all as Colonel Moran. He was dirty; bedraggled; and blood stained his coat on the left side. His face was pale; wrathful; and twisted in a frenzy of emotion. Before any of us could re-act he fired his pistol at Markham.
Markham crouched low as the bullet passed over his head, crashing into the wood behind with a bang. Then he quickly raised his Smith & Wesson .44 to shoulder height and calmly fired three swift shots directly at Moran. After which he lifted his gun-barrel in the air to view the effect.
I saw Moran's body shudder and twitch as at least two of Markham's bullets hit his chest. Then he seemed to be jerked back by an invisible force to sprawl on the wagon-floor—a mere bundle of unmoving rags. At this moment we lost sight of the wagon as it passed to our rear.
"The guard's-van!" Gabrielle had taken the opportunity to glance quickly out the door. "It's only about four hundred yards behind us. Are we goin' t'make the tunnel? An' will it follow us inside?"
Holmes grabbed the splintered edge of the door and took a careful look up and down the line.
"The Tunnel's only another fifty yards away." He spoke as calmly as anyone could, in the circumstances. "The guard's-van has lost most of its momentum. It'll stop somewhere opposite Moran's train, without reaching the Tunnel. We better prepare for the blast."
"I hope no-one's standing at a window anywhere within a radius of about two miles!" Rider Haggard's voice held no trace of humour as he made this simple matter-of-fact remark.
The green banks of the deep cutting suddenly disappeared and our train finally ran under the portal of the railway tunnel, swiftly enveloping us in pitch darkness. Only the light from two oil-lamps broke the gloom around us in the goods-wagon. In another second there was a bright flash and an enormous ground-shaking thump, followed by the most gigantic pressure-wave I have ever experienced. We were all thrown into a heap as the wagon shook around us, before being flung against the side of the tunnel. Thankfully our train was only moving at a little above walking pace. We did, however, feel the vibration as the carriages behind us took the explosion's full force; then we were engulfed in a chokingly thick fog of smoke and dust.
Our engine and tender remained on the tracks. The goods-wagon we occupied was slumped against the tunnel wall like a drunken man, but was also otherwise largely intact. The two coaches behind, caught in the open by the blast, had been splintered into matchwood.
An hour later we broke through the debris to the fresh air of the cutting again. Xena and Gabrielle eventually led us out, and what met our eyes was like some nightmare from Hell. The grass banks of the cutting had been scorched from top to bottom as if by a forest fire and the remnants of the rails were twisted into the most amazing shapes. A wide shallowish crater showed the centre of the cataclysm. The only recognisable parts of Moran's train remaining were the engine and tender; though even these had been reduced to scrap metal and wheels. Of the rest, including the wagon in which Colonel Moran had been, nothing remained but splintered wood fragments. The authorities, in the form of police-officers and emergency helpers from all over the district, were already doing their best; but there was little they could accomplish.
"Looks like a bad day in Hades." Xena cast a weary eye over the devastation. "Gods, there ain't nothing left at all!"
"The guard's-van's gone, and Moran's wagon." Gabrielle gazed at the scene as if dazed. "Gods, what a mess, Xena. I don't think there's anything—I mean anything—left of Moran, do you?"
"Nope!" Xena showed no emotion as she stood beside Gabrielle, with a protective arm round her shoulder.
Holmes returned to us, stumbling over the debris, from where he had exchanged some words with a police-inspector.
"It seems no-one who was in the cutting survived." He looked around him. "There are, apparently, pieces of remains; but nothing that'll ever be identified. All the same, I think we can confidently say Moran is no more."
"Damn straight!" Xena snarled with deep feeling, as she hugged her companion closer.
"Hey ladies, come over here a moment. Wanna talk with ya."
Ares had lost both his sword and dagger in the confusion of the battle and explosion. He was covered in dust, and no-one of the official forces was taking much notice of him. Why he wanted Xena and Gabrielle at this juncture neither Holmes nor I cared. The ladies, somewhat resignedly, walked off to join him while Rider Haggard took my elbow to say something about the devastation in front of us.
The rescue-workers were much further down the line; or where the line used to be. Rider Haggard, Markham, Holmes, and I were in a group twenty yards from the tunnel mouth. Ares had taken Xena and Gabrielle right up to the entrance though not inside, as I saw from the brief glance I cast back in their direction.
Rider Haggard was well into whatever explanation he had to offer Holmes and me; details of which I cannot now remember, when he was interrupted by another flash of that mysterious red light we had experienced earlier. It actually blinded everyone in our small group for a few seconds; though the people further down the cutting apparently saw nothing. Then it passed and we could see the distant rescuers once more.
"That light again! Was that our train catching fire?" Holmes turned round quickly to stare at the tunnel mouth, from where the light had seemed to emanate. "We ought to see if the women and that man, Ares, are alright. He has more to do with this than first appears, I think."
Little more need be told. Of the women Xena and Gabrielle, and the man Ares, nothing more was ever seen again. Holmes, Rider Haggard, Markham, and I investigated the tunnel mouth and nearby streets. Inspector Lestrade, later, even made his own investigations; but nothing came of these. Holmes castigated his brother Mycroft on the subject, though the political mandarin kept silence; perhaps even he had been taken in! What, in fact, most upset Holmes was the ruffian Ares; his strange red light; and the inexplicable conjuring trick he seemingly accomplished with Markham. All of which went against the careful logic and scientific reality of my friend's world. And Holmes was not happy about it!
Nevertheless, a week later the worst of his grumbling had subsided, although he still fumed intermittently over the peculiar affair. However that evening we had Markham as a welcome visitor, resplendent in new attire. He had been the happy recipient of both the official reward, and another from Mycroft's secretive Government organisation. He was also the proud owner of a note of thanks and a pension from Queen Victoria. He was, in fact, now a respectable member of the community; and told us his plans to buy a new house and open a little shop in the Elephant and Castle district. He was prosperous beyond his wildest dreams; but still nobly gave all the praise for this state of affairs to Gabrielle and Xena.
We had all enjoyed a light supper and were sitting comfortably round the coal fire in our study. Markham with a short, evil-smelling pipe; Holmes with another pipe equally evil-smelling; and I, sipping a cup of coffee. Rider Haggard had gone to France two days previously, for a holiday.
Holmes rose, wrapped in his usual disreputably shabby dressing-gown, and stepped across the room with that feline grace which so characterised him. The evening was beginning to close in, with the first signs of an approaching fog, as he turned from the window looking down on Baker Street to again recline languidly in a battered armchair beside the crackling fire.
"Watson, if I ever again complain about the boring state of the world, feel free to kick me."
The forest was dense, with wide-spreading oaks and sycamores, while the undergrowth too was a tangle of bushes covering all the ground not shaded by the trees. The sun beat warmly down from a cloudless Summer sky, casting flickering shadows on the rough forest-floor and through the distant glades. The camp had been broken up and the equipment put on their pack-horses; while Argo and the brown horse Gabrielle used stood quietly awaiting their riders.
"Xena, I had a really crazy dream last night."
The Amazon scratched her chin as she hitched her waist-belt a trifle higher, then bent to make sure the straps holding her sais were tight round her boots. Standing once more she grinned at the tall dark woman beside her, and raised her arms high in a really good stretch.
"Aaarh! That's better." Gabrielle casually brushed a couple of grass-stalks from the leather top that graced her better half's form. "Gods Xena, you're such a mess anyone'd think you'd been rolling in the hay! And look at me—perfect in every way."
Both women mounted their steeds and moved out slowly along the faint trail that turned and twisted its way under the over-arching branches.
"So, what about this dream?" Xena felt in the mood to listen to one of Gabrielle's stories as they rode through the groves and thickets of the Greek forest. "We've got four hour's riding before we reach Ephesus. The Festival of Diana will just be starting when we get there. That'll be fun. So, this dream of yours—was it, y'know, one of those kinda dreams?"
"Har-de-har, Princess! You wish!" Gabrielle could handle this sort of give and take endlessly, such being her forte. "Nah, it was like this. There was a large dark dirty city; an' strange people; an' strange machines; an' someone who wanted to kill the ruling Queen. No, don't sneer like that, Xena. It was weird—listen; there was a cold but nice man who hunted thieves, and a sort'a medical priest who was also his friend. And how we, you were in my dream too y'know, got involved was —"
1. Mown down by his own scythe. 'Damon the Mower', Andrew Marvell (1621-1678).
2. Short way with dissenters. 'The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters'. Daniel Defoe (1661-1731). A political/religious pamphlet, which got the author in a great deal of trouble.