Once again we are beholden to the current executors of the Knolly estate for letting us publish this, the second package of the great man's journals and memoirs.
Don'tcha know we're riding on the Caledonian Express?
Chapter 8 Part 7
Bertie hastily scribbled in his notebook whilst Hobbes and I stood to one side, trying to take careful mental notes of everything that happened to supplement said scribbling. Before our very eyes, the two signalmen seemed to be performing some kind of exotic ritualised dance. As one of the fellows hurriedly moved to pull on yet another lever from the bank of similar looking levers, Bertie caught my eye, his face a portrait of disbelief.
'You expect us to master this by this evening?' he blinked with obvious worried overtones, evidenced by a frown that creased his forehead.
'It does seem rather daunting, doesn't it?' I blinked back, adding a blinked 'Smile' notation at the end for good measure, followed by 'I'm sure we'll cope.'
As quickly as they had sprung into action, they slowed to a halt in the same ordered manner.
As one, they turned to face us.
'Sorry...' said one of the signalmen.
'...about that,' said the other.
'...but we have to be...'
'...on, our toes.'
'We don't want..'
'Now what ..'
'..did you want..'
The bell rang once more and the strange pair turned to glance at each other and then back at us.
Bertie rolled his eyes. He mumbled a complaint of a sore neck from all of the to-ing and fro-ing whilst trying to keep up with the conversation, whispering that it was like trying to a watch a game of ping-pong between two frantic hyperactives. Hobbes chuckled as he took me to one side.
'Knolly, this is quite remarkable! I have only ever seen documentary evidence of this kind of behaviour. I have never before seen it for myself.'
'Really? What on Earth is the matter with them?'
'Well, it is said to happen when people are in each other's company for too long a period, such that they seem to know exactly what the other is thinking. However, from what I have read, this usually happens with married couples ...'
'I believe that it is known as 'Tweedle Syndrome' after the characters in the Alice book. I'm pretty sure that if you took one of the fellows outside for a moment, then the other would be at a total loss as to how to work the levers.'
'Interesting. Lewis Carroll was a bit odd himself, though, wasn't he?'
'What, old 'Dodger' Dodgson? I found him to be a bit odd, but harmless. Mostly harmless.'
Hobbes' diagnosis of the condition of the signalmen gave me further concern and therefore we needed to find out as much as possible of the day-to-day working of the signals and junctions, paying particular attention to the lever that worked the line for the express. Needless to say it took quite a while to gather the information required, due to the combination of neither of the Tweedles being able to finish a sentence, and the incessant ringing of the bell every time a train went up or down a line.
Time was moving on and by luncheon I decided that we had gathered as much information as we would glean. We bid Dum and Dee good-day and told them that we would be in contact in due course to let them know when the article would be published. This in itself took far longer than it required, but at least they didn't question why it would be appearing in such an odd periodical as 'Poultry for Beginners (Monthly).'
We walked back to our temporary abode in silence. None of us was quite sure what to say about the situation of how on God's green Earth we were going to stop a train in approximately eight hours time.
Meeds and his team were now on site and busying themselves with final preparations. He gave us a what passed for a cheery wave as we got on board. This was most unlike him and I could only surmise that his 'trials' were going as planned.
Stanley had not yet returned from his mission and so we three were reduced to searching out our own luncheon. Eventually we had assembled only bread and cheese. Hobbes suggested that we should perhaps seek out some salad to balance out the meal, but this received a prompt and perfunctory pooh-poohing by Bertie and me. What we really wanted was meat.
'I thought we should celebrate our success,' called Meeds as he passed through from the flat car that now concealed my auto mobile. He was clutching some bottles of ale.
'Success?' I queried as the bottles were placed before us.
'Why, indeed Commander. Did you not have hot water this morning? Were all the communications links not working yesterday and today?' he asked in a rhetorical fashion.
'You sound rather surprised, Chief?' interjected Bertie as he reached for a beer.
'I must admit I was a little concerned. It is rarely a smooth sail with complex projects .... as you are no doubt aware. And with Mr Hobbes here, we knew that we had to get it right.'
Hobbes looked somewhat hurt.
'Chief! You paint me as some kind of crazed, domineering scientist!'
Hobbes stopped suddenly and looked at the three of us around the table.
'Well, yes .... of course I like things to work first time, I admit. But is that such a crime?'
'Of course not!' Meeds said, ever the sycophant. 'I welcome a taskmaster like your good self to drive us toward perfection. However, now that we have everything working as it should, I do hope to see these carriages back in one piece - so please try not to use them as firing positions.'
The last sentence had a tone of resignation about it.
'But they are armoured and....'
I stopped, having taken in Meeds' body language - which was not a pretty sight.
'That, Commander, is beside the point!' he railed, all trace of geniality now wiped from his face.
Bertie wanted to add something but I deftly knocked his beer bottle which made it wobble towards the edge of the table and thus whatever quip he had on his tongue was never uttered. Strangely (and thankfully), Meeds did not stay too long in our company.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent poring over Bertie's operational notes, with Hobbes and myself adding what we remembered. We then had to spend some time compiling some paperwork to convince the guard on the express why we had to connect an additional three carriages to his train. Thankfully, notepaper with a military heading always seems to have the desired effect, regardless of what is printed on it. Indeed, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' being a classic example that has got me out of several holes on several occasions. Thank goodness that few people take the time to read the small print.
Whilst Bertie and I busied ourselves with the dark art of 'flim flam', Hobbes sat to one side, clucking over his diary notes and the 'Staff' which I retrieved from my belongings. We left him to it. There was no point in rushing him; he would tell us when he was ready.
Stanley returned late in the afternoon; at about the same time we felt the arrival once more of the 'Ghost Train'.
'I'll put the kettle on, shall I?' asked Stanley once everything within the carriages had settled. Hobbes seemed to have hardly noticed, whilst Bertie and I were trying to round up wayward bottles of ink, pens and rubber stamps.
'I put the word around as best I could, Commander,' said Stanley, 'but it would appear that the person you are after has yet to come to light.'
'No matter,' I replied. 'You've done what I asked. I suspect you'll be heading back with the Chief tonight?'
'Yes sir. I'm sure the workshop needs a good clean through, even though we haven't been there.'
'Well, you just remember what I said about your future,' I said, patting him on the shoulder.
'I'll certainly consider it, Commander,' he said, and off he went to the galley.
Hobbes suddenly let out a cry that startled me and caused Bertie to jump and bash his head on a lamp.
'I'm such a fool!'
'Oh, don't be too hard on yourself Hobbes,' chimed Bertie as he rubbed his bonce.
'Bertie - please would you call me a cab.'
'Certainly,' said Bertie. 'You're a cab.'
I managed to suppress a smile while Hobbes just glared.
'I must hasten back to St. Johns and check the diary. I fear that there is something I have overlooked. And this ....' he waved the staff at Bertie and me '... is a key.'
'A key to what, pray...?' I asked.
'If I'm correct, it is a key to deciphering all those blank pages in your Uncle's diary. That would explain the similarity between the sketch that you saw and the staff itself.'
'But Hobbes, we have already discussed this. It can't be the same object,' I said, somewhat confused by the apparent change of direction.
'That is true. However, I believe it means it does mean that Rothwell was not the first incident of its kind to have occurred or to have been witnessed.'
Bertie remained in the carriage, listening intently. He asked : 'Meaning what, exactly?'
Hobbes looked at me and nodded.
'Bertie, ' I began. 'Do you remember Wells' tale about the Martian folk ....'
'Oh, yes indeed !' he said chirpily. 'I quite enjoyed it....'
His voice trailed off as he looked at the expression on my face, and then at Hobbes, and then back to me.
'It's .... it's not a story, is it?' he asked quietly.
'Well,' I began, 'he did see some files that he ought not have seen ...and it does seem that ...er ..... '
I stalled. I was not sure how to say what needed to be said.
'Knolly!' said Hobbes in a hushed but firm tone. 'Don't prevaricate! Bertie, please listen ..... This may sound incredible ....'
Bertie gulped and Hobbes continued in a grave tone.
'Bertie .... we think that this planet has been visited by beings from other worlds.'
Hobbes stared at the floor, nodding slowly. There was a momentary silence, and Bertie said :
'What do you mean 'and ?' ' said Hobbes, his cheeks all a-wobble and his eyebrows all a-quiver, his thunder stolen. 'Is that not a momentous enough concept for you?!!?? '
'Well,' said Bertie in a matter-of-fact tone. 'What I meant was .... I'm not really that surprised at the concept .... what with everything else we've dealt with of late. And it's rather unlikely that this is the only place with life on it, isn't it ? I mean, just looking at the basic statistics of it all .....'
And then he went on to quote to us the 'statistics of it all': the number of visible stars, the number of stars that might be hidden from our view, the probability that some of these stars might have planets, the probability that some of these planets might harbour life, the probability that the life-forms might be intelligent ... and so on and so on .... resulting in his surmising that there might be a decent chance that Earth had been visited by non humans. I was quite taken aback by such a forthright view (and the fact that Bertie had even thought about this subject in such detail). Lord alone knows what Hobbes thought.
Bertie waited for a response. None was forthcoming.
'Er .... I'll ... get that cab, then, eh ?' he said, giving a thumbs-up and slowly backing out of the carriage with a silly grin on his face.
Hobbes clearly was not amused by this turn of events; I could not engage him in any further conversation and he huffed and puffed until Bertie returned to inform him that a cab was awaiting a little way up the road. It was a terse goodbye, and I knew he meant nothing of it. Bertie's silly grinning did not help the matter. Stanley offered to escort Hobbes, and I was thankful for this as it would give me time to scold my colleague.
'Bertie, that was dashed uncalled for don't you think?' I started.
'Upsetting Hobbes, he'll bounce back. Besides, I'm not an idiot, you know, I do have views of my own and I think sometimes it would be jolly nice to be included in some of the things you two discuss behind my back.'
With that Bertie stalked off towards his hammock leaving me alone to ponder and plan the evening's course of action. With an hour or so to spare, I went to chat with Meeds and the driver of the 'Ghost Train' to check they were ready to move off at the appropriate time. Their confidence was high, and they already had a rating ready to change the necessary points to place us on the same line as the express. Happy with that knowledge I went in search of Bertie who I hoped was in a better mood than before.
I found him pacing up and down the corridors as though he was the lead in some stage production. He turned to face me as I came through the door, white teeth smiling through his blacked face.
'Bertie, why are you wearing that opera cape, we just needed to disguise our faces?'
'Oh well .... I thought it added an air of mystery, see?.'
Bertie struck in a dramatic pose his arm and cape across his face.
I shook my head. 'Nightmare', I muttered.
'Yes exactly what I though that when I looked in the mirror. I've been practising a deep voice, too, listen.....STAND AND DELIVER!'
I had to admit it was jolly good, but didn't let on. 'Bertie, we are not in a performance of 'Dick the Dandy Highwayman'! Now come on, time's not on our side, where's that burnt cork you used on your face and hands?'
Leaving the 'Ghost Train' gently chuffing to itself and ready to move at our signal, we jogged along the line, back to the signal box. Bertie flapped along beside me like some demented bat, but at least he was happy now. We eased our way up the stairs and I peeked through the window.
'Oh!' I whispered.
'What?' replied Bertie in hushed tones. I nodded towards the window for him to take a look.
'Who is that then?' Asked Bertie '..and where are Dee and Dum?'
'This fellow must be the night shift.'
'Less problematic then.'
Bertie was of course correct, but we had no idea what would occur once we entered, and my original idea of using on of the 'twins' as a hostage was well and truly deflated.
So it was that we rushed the door which almost flew off its hinges. Bertie stood in the open doorway, cape stretched out like wings: 'TOUCH NOTHING AND YOU'LL NOT BE HARMED.'
The lone signal man looked up in horror at first, and then, eyes glazed, he charged towards the apparition before him, shouting what sounded like 'robbers' at the top of his voice. Silly fellow really. Bertie stepped deftly to one side like a toreador, flicking off his cape as he did and wrapping it around the fellow's head as he roared past; I followed this up with a knock-out blow to his head, and he crumpled at my feet.
'Knolly, do you not think that there was a better way to stop the express?' asked Bertie as he retrieved his very useful cape. (Though I didn't say so at the time.)
'Bertie, look , needs must and all that: had we gone through all the normal bureaucracy, the Service would know , HMG would know and consequently the mission would no longer be very secret, would it.'
'Yes, but the poor signalman chappie, did you have to hit him so hard?'
'Bertie, we don't have time for this. Yes, I would have liked to have carried out formal introductions and asked very politely for him to stop the express, however, I think blackened faces and your oratory tone prevented this course of action. Now, when you have finished tying him up, come and help me work out which lever operates the signal thingy.'