Chapter Five — Wednesday

As Alexis screamed, two silhouetted figures reached the door of the hut.

Michael stabbed down on the little lever on the block of wood with wires attached that Alexis had given him. He had no idea what it might do — if anything at all — but, unable to even stand without difficulty, and with nothing beyond the iron poker from the fire to defend himself, it was the only thing he could do.

The result was extraordinary.

For the tiniest instant the edges of the hut lit up with a searing blue which Michael had never seen before. Cries choked from the throats of the men in the doorway. With a huge bang, they were hurled backwards into the night, and shuddered for a moment, shaking on the snow.

This changed everything. The three men converging on Gordon turned tail and ran. The man holding Alexis down reaching with his knife for his throat lost his grip, and rolled backwards as Alexis pushed him away and clambered to his knees.

At that moment, Derek roared. He roared, and he ran. He roared, and he ran, arms waving in the air.

It was a majestic sight. His huge coat flapped behind him as if it had become a pair of wings. He swung huge fists around his head, and shouted. With the echoes, and the confusion, and everything, neither Alexis nor Gordon nor Michael could quite make out the words he was shouting. Perhaps there were no words, perhaps it was the guttural cry of berserk fury which had echoed off that hillside a thousand years before in the age of the Vikings.

Derek, ran, and all of the fleeting, attacking figures ran before him. The man attacking Alexis ran. The two men who were shaking on the snow picked themselves up and ran.

Within seconds they were out of sight. Cries resounded for a few minutes more. Then silence.

“I hope he’s alright,” said Michael.

Neither Derek, nor the robbers, nor the strange lights and voices returned all that night. The three of them took it in turns to watch while the other two slept, though none of them slept well. They rose with first light, and cast around the frozen snow for clues about the night’s adventure.

The churning of the ground at the scene of the fight was obvious. The snow, which had turned to mush as a result of the day’s thaw and their constant traipsing to and fro had already begun to refreeze when the attack started. It retained clear, though softened, imprints of many feet, and a big hollowed out depression where Alexis had fallen. They followed the footprints back, and saw that their attackers had cunningly hidden themselves in pairs at different points in the ruins, where they could easily observe the hut through cracks in the masonry, low walls or narrow vistas of archways, but where they could not themselves be observed, except in bright daylight, and only by someone who knew where to look and what to look out for.

Where they had come from was less clear. They must have arrived while the snow was thawing, and though there were signs which might be tracks, there was no way of telling which had been footsteps and which were simply pocks in the land. Everything was now iced over again, leaving a brittle crust on the world of whiteness which glistened.

It was at that point that Derek returned.

His coat had been slashed down one side, there were deep mud spatters up to his knees, he was bruised, and there was a nasty gash over his left eye.

“Is anybody there?”, he called, because the hut was deserted. They did not at first hear him, being some ways over the ridge. When they eventually did, they crept back in some fear and trepidation. By the time they finally saw it was him — through the window of the hut — he had refilled the stove, and was cooking a breakfast of tinned ham, tinned apple, and fresh eggs.

They might have asked him where he got the eggs, but they did not.

Instead, overjoyed, they feted him like a hero. Alexis insisted on completing the cooking of breakfast himself, while they laid out a table in his honour. They demanded again and again to hear the story of his fearless onslaught on twenty (they had miscounted, as is easy to do when counting footprints) ruffians in the snow.

Derek, for his part, played the modest hero. He told them that he had stood, in fear, in the doorway, and, to his shame, had stepped to one side when the two robbers made to go inside. He had been as astonished as anyone (even Alexis had been surprised the magnitude of the effect) when Michael had pressed the lever and the hut had become engulfed in blue light. When he saw the robbers turn and flee, something tripped inside him like a switch, and he had run after them without any thought for the consequences, “like a true hero,” as Alexis interjected. He chased them in clumps and one by one until he was quite exhausted. None were willing to stand up and fight, though there were a couple of times when one or more were cornered and, for the briefest of brief moments, had to face him. That was where the gash and the slash had come from.

Finally, when there was no-one left to chase, and he knew he would never find his way back to the castle in the dark, he found an overhanging bush which had both kept the snow from falling, and also provided complete concealment, and, with the help of dry sticks and the autumn’s leaf mould, became a reasonable place to lie down and sleep. So he wrapped his cloak twice around him, taking care to double fold over the place where it had been damaged, and slept.

They continued to praise him throughout breakfast, and, sporadically, for the rest of the day. It quite drove the question of the origin of the eggs from their minds.

Now, what had really happened was this. Derek had no particular interest in fighting his own friends, and did not wish to be an unnecessary casualty, so he had stood as much in the shadows as he could, ready to reveal himself at an appropriate moment. The attack at this stage would ruin all of their plans completely, but there was really nothing he could do about it, since it was obvious that Bart had still been unable to signal.

The bright blue flash took him completely by surprise. He had never seen the discharge of a large condenser, or we might say capacitor, before. There was no reason apparent to him, nor to the rest of the robbers, that this could not happen again and again until it had killed or disabled all of them.

For a moment, he entirely lost his nerve, and ran away screaming with the others. But then he realised that he was running with the robbers (several of whom he recognised, their faces being revealed by the flash of light, though they had not recognised him), and that the robbers would still regard him as the enemy. So, as he ran, he began to shout: “It’s me, you fools, Black Hand Derek.” He had to shout it several times before anybody made sense of what he was saying, and they were a long way from the castle before anyone was interested enough to pay attention.

Then they gathered round him in a tight group, and questioned him closely.

The upshot, of course, is that he went back with them the three hour journey to the robbers lair, ate a hearty meal and drank his fill, shared all the plans and stratagems with Black Hand Nigel. After a bit of a sleep, he ruefully slashed his own coat, first making sure that he would eventually be able to sew it up again, and persuaded an old friend to give him a biff over the eyebrow. Shortly before first light, he set off back towards castle, and arrived, somewhat tired, and ready for breakfast, with a box of eggs that he purloined from someone’s supplies on the way out of the lair, there being, despite the popular adage, very little honour among thieves.

As well as discussing strategy, plans and tactics, Black Hand Nigel had also shown him his pride and joy, now fully restored, gleaming in a corner of the Robbers’ workshop — but more of that later.

The search, and the hero’s breakfast for Derek, had put them a little behind the day’s schedule, so, hero or no hero, wound or no wound, they piled him onto the front of the Mechcart to drive them up the long and winding path to the top of the Ugly Sister, the lower of the two mountain peaks, and the only one which could be reached by road, rather than by climbing. They took care to bring with them an extra bag of coal, three buckets, brushes, cloths, and a large quantity of soap.

In Bidforst, Professor Fiedel had also risen very early. He had tossed and turned all night as he thought about the marvellous telescope. There were parts of the mechanism which made no sense to him. Setting off at first light with a ruler, pencils, and several sheets of paper, he made his way to the old mill, and greeted the local lad, probably Horace or Edward, though Fiedel was none too sure of their names, who had been paid a shilling to guard it through the night. If Fiedel were a more practical person he might have noticed that Horace or possibly Edward had brought blankets and a pillow with him, and did not entirely have the look of one who had gone without sleep for his shilling. He might also have noticed a bottle, but he did not.

He was there for most of the morning, making measurements, lifting and closing flaps, and, at one point, peering among the rafters until he found a trap door which opened through the roof to the skies above.

Then he was satisfied.

He appeared at the Spirit of the Mountain some minutes later, ate a hearty lunch, and then stood up to tell the assembly (it was not an assembly, except in the sense that a number of people had assembled to eat and to drink) that he had an Announcement.

Apparently he had mentioned to a number of people on the way over that he was to make an Announcement, because he looked carefully at his watch, and waited (while everyone fidgeted) until exactly one o’clock, post meridian, to begin. One or two people, including the constable and Geoffrey, arrived while he waited.

“Friends, you are no doubt familiar with the strange arrival in our village of a Mystery,” he began. He recounted the events, which you have already heard, and gave his own summary of the previous day’s hearing. Then it was time for the Announcement proper.

“Last night I tossed and turned upon my bed. I lay thinking ‘why is that device so complex’? There is a certain complexity required for a mount which will correctly follow the motions of the heavens, and there is a certain complexity required for the very precise focus that must take place on an instrument of that magnitude. But I have been to Jena myself, and I have seen the workshops of the great Carl Zeiss, and I know that the Zeiss family has for generations prized simplicity and elegance in its designs. It is not the way of the Germanic peoples to needlessly elaborate: form must follow function, lest it degenerate into superfluous—” he hesitated for a moment, “— into superfluous superfluosity. But to move on. It seemed to me that there must be another purpose to this instrument, and, since we cannot use the instrument without the missing eyepiece, it further seemed to me that, if correct measurements were taken, and a real image projected onto a piece of paper, as an example of one such thing onto which a real image might be projected, then an eyepiece could be constructed.

“Therefore, I hastened myself at first light to return to the old mill, where I was greeted by Ed— that is, by one of our esteemed local youth, who was faithfully guarding the instrument against the onset of ruffians, or, indeed, rascals.”

“Is there a point to this”, muttered someone. There was a mumbled chorus of assent.

“I say, old man,” said Geoffrey, “do tell us what the announcement is.”

“The instrument in the abandoned mill is not a telescope, it is a heliographoscope.”

There was a pause, as of a collective intake of breath. It was clear that Fiedel had said something momentous, but no-one but Fiedel himself actually understood the word that he had said.

“We don’t know what that is,” muttered someone.

“Tell us what a helgascope is, Fiedel,” said Geoffrey.

“A heliographoscope is a telescope with a heliograph designed into it. It is a device for signalling my means of light drawn from the sun, or perhaps some other source, to a similar device many, many miles away. Judging by the power of this particular heliographoscope, the signal could be seen sixty, perhaps seventy miles hence, in the right conditions.”

There was a murmur as this began to sink in.

“And where’s this one pointing?” called the constable.

“Without the eyepiece it is difficult to see where exactly it is aimed — doubtless the operator takes the eyepiece with him to assure that, in such a circumstance as this, his counterpart cannot be easily discovered. But, by line of sight, this would go through the pass in the mountain, or perhaps to some place a little up the mountain side.”

“And that’s where the other helgascope is?” said Geoffrey.

“Not necessarily. Someone with such a knowledge of optics as the commissioner of this instrument, which must have cost many hundreds of pounds, could also have placed a prism, or possibly a mirror, at an exact place on the mountain side, which would enable the signal to be transmitted further, down perhaps to—”

“The Robber’s Lair!”, shouted someone. There was a collective gasp.

“Now, now,” said the constable, getting to his feet. He had been half-sitting in the window ledge, since all the chairs were taken. “Now, now, there’s no such thing as the Robber’s Lair. There’s no call for believing these tales.”

“The Black Hand Gang!” shouted someone else. “There’s someone in our village working for the Black Hand Gang!”

“Now, now!”, began the constable again, but his voice was drowned by the general hubbub as everyone rose to their feet, or started talking or even shouting earnestly or yet angrily with their neighbour.

The tales of the doings of the Black Hand Gang were no doubt exaggerated, and had been helped along by a series of popular fictional stories published in the Winchester Gazette which played strongly on garrotting, the sudden disappearance of respectable women, bodies slipped secretly into oversized coffins intended for another recipient, poisonings, beatings, and, in one particularly gruesome episode, a man’s hand held in acid until it burned away to a cinder.

Geoffrey remonstrated with Fiedel, with the constable at his elbow.

“Well, really,” said Fiedel, “I had no idea they would make the association with the Black Hand Gang. What nonsense. I was merely following the immutable laws of physics.”

It was more than an hour before the hubbub subsided.

In that time, the Mechcart had crawled its way right the way up the path to the peak of the Ugly Sister. They had come through the low cloud, and the sun shone brightly, though coldly. To the east, the valleys below were invisible in thick greyness. To the west, the sun glinted off the snows of the true summit.

They set immediately about the task of melting snow in pans they placed over the Mechcart’s stove. Once they had enough, they set to and washed it down — the days of driving through slush, mud and the grit which the villagers sometimes put down on local roads had turned it into a grim, grey-brown contraption which might have been an example of the military art of camouflage.

Michael’s foot had improved somewhat, though it still hurt if he put too much weight on it too suddenly. They had washed and cleaned Derek’s gash before leaving, though his coat was still in a sorry state. After they had cleaned the Mechcart, Gordon pulled up the carapace, and he and Alexis took it in turns to change into cleaner clothes, which they had retrieved the previous day from a suitcase buried under the floor of the hut, next to the supplies of tins.

Both of them came out looking rather creased. Michael suggested that a flat iron was what was needed, but no flat iron had been brought.

“You’ll just have to take the picture in a way which hides the creases,” said Gordon, though Michael could not tell if he were serious or not.

Finally, it was time for Michael to do the job he had been paid to do. He set up his tripod in various places and got pictures of the Mechcart, in all its glory, from the front, from the side, from the rear, from underneath so that it loomed higher than the mountain, and from above looking down the slope so that the mist-shrouded valley appeared to be a sea of fog beneath.

In the mean time, Alexis had the bright idea of heating up big stones with which they could iron themselves. The most that could be said for this was that, afterwards, the stones were very clean and shiny. There did not appear to be any great improvement in the look of their clothes, although, as is often pointed out, looks are not everything.

Michael ran through several rolls of film on the pictures of Alexis, Gordon, Gordon and Alexis, Gordon with the Mechcart, Alexis with the Mechcart, Alexis and Gordon with the Mechcart, and, as a final treat, Derek and Gordon and Alexis and the Mechcart, in honour of Derek’s heroics the previous night. All these had to be taken with the front of the vehicle, the rear, the side showing the Mountain behind, the side with the misty valley and shooting upwards so that they all appeared as giants. Michael recorded each shot in a notebook, setting out all the particulars one by one. He also made sketches of the mountain side to which he added notes as reference.

The sun began to set.

It was the setting sun that Michael particularly wanted to capture. The strong, long shadows and the golden light were — in his view — much more interesting. He tried for some silhouettes of Gordon and Alexis, and, just as the last rays were beginning to disappear, he took a small quantity of powder and placed it in a special powder, and attached it by a piece of vulcanised wire to the Zeiss dagotyper. He positioned Gordon, Alexis and the Mechcart particularly carefully, and made them stare at him for a long time. Finally, when he was quite ready, he depressed the shutter button, and there was a bright flash. It was not a flash of the same type as the flash in the hut the night before, but it rather scared Derek. Alexis laughed.

“Ah, even a hero can be alarmed by something he hasn’t seen before,” he said. “Magnesium powder triggered by electricality, if I’m not mistaken, Michael?”

Michael nodded.

“Endless uses to electricality,” Alexis went on. “And tomorrow begins the big adventure. In five years time, if we do our job properly, both sides of this mountain will be humming with water-wheels. Think of it, the last truly wild part of England tamed for the convenience of man. We will have electricality into every town, every village, every street, perhaps, one day, into every home. Electricalish carts will whoosh down our streets, cleanly and safely. The horse-drawn carriage will be a thing of the past. Even electricalish trains could be made to work. And then, flying machines — not like balloons or dirigibles, but true flying machines with wings that go up and down like birds.”

Gordon, Michael and even Derek stood in awe for a moment at the world of the future which Alexis described. Then they turned and stared for a minute as the sun finally set behind the mountain. Quickly packing their things together, they set off downhill while there was still twilight enough to see by, and thus made their way back to the Krak de Montagne without further adventure.

Huw stood for a long time watching the Mechcart rise up the side of the Ugly Sister. Not that Huw called it the Ugly Sister. He had his own name for it, an old name. To him, both peaks of the mountain were beautiful, as was every rivulet, every stream, every cave, every dell, every ridge and contour. He had thought a long time about the drawing he had seen at the inn. Huw could move very swiftly across snow-covered terrain, but it was still a long walk. He was saddened by the plan he had seen, which he understood rather better than Alexis would probably have given him credit for. There were hill-sides and mountain sides in Wales and Scotland which had been tamed in the way that Alexis seemed to want. With funicular railways and steam powered cable cars and little tourist-tea rooms at the top, they had lost the splendid danger, the majesty, which ought to remain if a mountain were to be worthy of the name.

For now, though, his main concern was to find Angharad. She had always been a wild child, full of passion not patience, and she could be the very mischief. He had just managed to catch hold of her in the castle the night before, but there had been the strange blue flash, as if someone had bottled lightning, and he had lost her again. After that, he followed the pack of robbers some distance. At first he thought that they had taken Derek prisoner, and he felt it was his duty to at least make some attempt to save him. But Derek did not behave as any prisoner might, and he observed, with deepening sadness, that Derek came back, unhindered, the next morning.

Something would have to be done about that, but in time, in time.

So he followed an old trail, one the ancient Britons had used, back along the side of the Ugly Sister, down to a place which he called The Drum. Now, the Drum was a very secret and dangerous place, and, over many years, he had blocked up paths to it, and dug out streams, so that passers-by would never be drawn there, no matter how far from their way they wandered.

Years — many, many years — before, he had discovered that if you shouted in the Drum, the echoes came back to you ten-fold, a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold. And it was in just the wrong place, or you might say in just the right place, on the mountain for the sound to carry in such away that other echoing dells responded and resounded in the same way.

You have probably heard that shouting can set off an avalanche, and you may well have also heard that this is merely a myth, and shouting can do no such thing. Huw had seen many avalanches from the mountain-side. He had pulled sheep and cattle from the crushing snow, sometimes alive, mostly not, and he had seen men disappear and their bodies remain hidden until the spring. Huw knew very well that no amount of shouting would bring down an avalanche, no matter how tiny. Except, that is, in the Drum. It could not be done in one go. A chance shout, here and there, would echo for a while, but fade away and be gone. But there was a particular pattern of shouting, a rhythm you could build up, which, done in exactly the right way, would grow and grow until rocks on the high ridges began to creak. If you continued, and used all your strength, those creaking rocks would begin to move, and if those rocks began to move, loose gravel would begin to fall. If the snow at that time were loose, as it often is when there has been a great fall of snow, and it has not had time to thaw and freeze and freeze and thaw until it is quite solid, then the falling gravel and the creaking rocks would set shivers of slithering snow alive, and the whole would begin to slowly move, and if it continued to move, it would move more quickly, and then, so fast that you could not see what was happening, it would turn from a slow drifting to a rushing, roaring, rock splitting, earth moving, land gouging enormous tide of snow which would sweep in minutes down the length of the mountain, tearing trees from their roots, and smashing everything in its path.

Such was the Drum, and Huw moved as silently as he could through it, and over the hill beyond, to a place where Angharad had often played when she was small.

She sat there now, golden hair flowing as she tossed her head from side to side, perhaps with an imaginary playmate that only she could see. She wore a simple muslin dress, and did not seem to feel the cold at all, wearing only the slightest shoes such as a dancer might wear.

Huw came on warily. If he startled her, she would be off again, wreaking heaven knows what further danger to travellers good and bad alike.

“Angharad,” he said gently, as he came down the slope. He made sure that he was coming from the place right ahead of her, so that she would not be surprised.

“Angharad,” he said again.

She looked up. “Da!”, she called out, happily. “Have you come to find me again?”

“I have, Angharad. I want to take you home.”

“Oh, Da, there’s no call for that,” she said, or, rather, she half-said, half-sang. “There’s no call for that, there’s no call for that.”

“There is child, we should be safe at home in front of the fire-side,” he said.

“Safe I am, Da. How could I be not safe on the Mountain?”

“Safe you are, child,” he said, “but others are not. Have you no care for them?”

“They are bad men, Da. They want to spoil our Mountain. I heard them talking as I listened at their window.”

“That’s not for us to judge if they be bad or no,” said Huw. “Come, take my hand.”

He was now standing beside her. She looked up, and smiled, then she looked away at the  mountain side, looked back, and smiled again. Then she took his hand, and went with him, back up along the ancient track.

Evening fell in the village. Seline had been fretting all day. She had cleaned all the bedrooms a second time, even though there had been no new guests arriving. She had swept all the lingering snow from the courtyard, and scrubbed and polished every glass in the bar. She was not at all surprised by Fiedel’s Announcement, though, like Geoffrey and the constable, she thought that his manner of announcing it could have been improved. The whole village was now buzzing with the story. The Black Hand Gang had been signalling from Bidforst for years, they said. Countless travellers had lost their possessions, or even their lives. Bidforst would soon be uncovered as a den of thieves, and the army would arrive to question every last one of them.

There had been some unpleasantness already. The constable had grabbed hold of Bart — blind people, along with foreigners, were implicitly suspect in the constable’s mind. He had seen him lingering near the old mill several times in the previous months, and, when challenged, had never been able to give a good account of his whereabouts. Grabbing him by the collar in the street outside the village, he had accused Bart there and then of being in league with the robbers. Seline might have quite approved of this action at other times, but a crowd immediately gathered, and normally peace-loving villagers had been lifting their sticks menacingly, or reaching for loose stones from the street.

Geoffrey and Fiedel had intervened.

“Constable, put that man down,” expostulated Fiedel.

“I seen him down by that mill far too often,” protested the constable. “He’s the one, I say that he is.”

“Were you not listening to a word I said?”, said Fiedel. “The heliographoscope is an optical instrument. Optical! Optical I say. Does that word mean nothing to you? This is man is Blind! How can a blind man operate a heliographoscope? It is physically impossible.”

“Says he’s blind,” said the constable obdurately. “But who knows for sure?”

“Best to let him go,” said Geoffrey, in a low voice, “everyone in the village watched him grow up. We’ve all plucked him out of the way of horses and carts, old chap. No question about it. Best to let him go.”

The constable gave Geoffrey a half-desperate, half-savage glance, and then, as if letting go of something dirty, removed his fingers from Bart’s collar.

“Nothing to see here, friends,” said Geoffrey to the crowd. “Be about your business.”

The crowd dispersed sullenly, leaving Geoffrey, the constable, Professor Fiedel and Bart alone in the middle of the High Street. Lomax came up to them.

“Ah, that was very well done, magistrate,” he said to Geoffrey. “And you, professor.” The constable gave him a sharp look. Lomax looked at his boots and mumbled something, then, “Yes, I quite regret my claims of yesterday. I do not entirely understand what came over me. It was almost as if — well, someone had to own such a telescope. Of course, I had no idea.”

He seemed now to be addressing his comments to Fiedel, and the others, now beginning to shiver as a a slight breeze wafted cooling air around their shoulders, one by one moved away. The constable stomped off in somewhat of a dudgeon towards his house. Bart, flaring his nostrils, went off about his own business, and Geoffrey, feeling the need of a something-or-other, made his way back into the inn. Seline was not in the tap-room, she was out by the dove-cot, writing a message for Huw to be sent by a pigeon that she kept in a separate cage, which had been raised on the mountain.

“Professor, I wonder if you would do the honour,” said Lomax, once the others were away, “of drinking a cup of tea with me. I would invite you to my house, but, sadly, I am quite out of tea at this moment. Perhaps, though, we might go to yours?”

Fiedel had become quite suspicious of Lomax as a result of his ‘claims of yesterday’, as he had put it moments before, but Lomax was, despite everything, a man of science like himself, and therefore deserved to accorded a professional courtesy.

“Of course, of course, sir. Come right along,” he said.

Lomax walked with him to the far end of the High Street, which is where the Professor lived. He had a bright green door, and big sash windows. The house went back a long way, ending in what had once been stables, but were now the home of the Professor’s laboratory and workshop, and a tiny museum of his collection of fossils, Saxon artefacts, and the great inventions of years gone by, such as the Archimedes screw, the catapult, the steam engine, and the top hat.

“It’s good to be out of the chilly air,” said the professor, opening the door. Warmth flooded into their faces. He helped Lomax take off his coat, and settled him into the front room, beside a fire which was running on a variation on coke, of the Professor’s own invention.

Fiedel bustled into the kitchen to put the kettle on, and returned with a tray of tea cups, sugar, and a small jug of milk. Then he went back to fill the teapot with boiling water from the kettle, and, covering it with a curiously knitted tea-cosy (also his own design), he returned to where Lomax sat in the front.

He did not, therefore, see as Lomax produced a small paper bag from his inside pocket, and poured it into the milk jug, quickly stirring it round with a teaspoon to make sure it dissolved, before wiping the spoon on his handkerchief and replacing it.

“Oh, look at that,” said Fiedel chattily, as he returned. “One of those tea-spoons is upside down. I always place them with the convex area pointing upwards, so that no dust gathers inside. Just one of my things, you know. Now, are you pre-lactarian or post-lactarian?”

“I’m sorry?”, said Lomax.

“Pre-lactarian or post-lactarian. Some like to have their milk in first, so that the temperature remains always below 212 degrees and the milk is not scalded, whereas others prefer to put the milk in afterwards, for no reason which is readily apparent to those of a scientific turn of mind. But of course —” his hand moved to the milk jug “—being a man of science, you are pre-lactarian.”

“No, no,” said Lomax, putting his hand right over his cup. “I do not take milk in tea at all. I am, therefore, I suppose, a sine-lactarian.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Fiedel gave him a sharp look.

“No milk in tea? Well, all the more for me.” And he poured exactly two fifths of an inch of milk into teacup, and then poured tea from the pot into the cups.

“You do not strain the tea?”, said Lomax.

“Ah, no, and I am glad you ask. Inside the teapot I have placed a gauze bag. I place the tea inside that, having first warmed the pot, and, subsequently, the boiling water. The tea correctly infuses with the water, but, when I pour it, none of the leaves go into the cups.”

“Quite magnificent,” said Lomax, “but I am keeping you from drinking.”

“Quite so,” said Fiedel, and lifted his cup to his lips.

Then a thought struck him, and he put the tea-cup down again without drinking. Lomax frowned.

“You know,” said Fiedel, “I really am rather curious as to why you should wish to claim that the heliographoscope was your own when it was not. From a properly objective, scientific point of view, you must have known that this would end poorly.”

“Oh, I agree. I do quite agree,” said Lomax. “I fear I was overcome by the strangest of psychological phenomena. But, please, do drink while I recount—”

“Ah, yes”, said Fiedel, once more bringing his cup to his lips, “do recount.”

“Yes, I fear I was so engrossed by the formalities of the hearing — you are drinking your tea, very good — that, in the strangest way possible, I wished to be part of it. You yourself had already taken the key role of cross-examiner, and the good Geoffrey was, as his position befits, in the chair. The only role left to me was of witness, but no witnesses were being called, unless I actually put myself forward as — my dear Professor, you seem suddenly ill.”

“…funny feeling in my throat…” said the Professor, lolling a little in his chair.

“Quickly, quickly, you must drink something soothing. This jug of milk, perhaps! Take the milk — yes, that’s very good. Now drink it down. Drink it down in one. Excellent. Excellent.”

The Professor slumped backward in his chair. Lomax quickly removed the milk jug, took it and his own tea-cup back to the kitchen, and washed both of them carefully, replacing the cup and saucer on the shelf, but refilling the jug with milk and taking it back to place it on the tray in the front room. He plumped up the cushion on the chair on which he had been sitting, and quickly wiped the floor where his wet boots had made a mark. Retracing his steps, he checked that no sign of his visit remained, and then he stood for a moment scrutinising his handiwork.

If this were a melodrama, he would have chosen that moment to laugh long and loud, and the laugh would almost certainly have been heard by cowering widows and orphans nearby. But he did not, and it was not. Instead, opening the door first a crack so that he could see that the street was empty, he went out into the night, closed the door behind him, and set off to find Bart.

Chapter Six appears on Thursday 30 December.

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