I opened the door as the echo of the ringing bell finally faded to nothing in the stone hallway and was instantly blinded by the sunshine that flowed in and around the silhouette of a buxom young woman standing there. I blinked and shielded my eyes.
“Albert’s girth!” I exclaimed. “Elizabeth!? Is that you?”
“It is, doctor,” she said, stepping inside without invitation and allowing me to cast my eyes over Carruthers’ niece from a more favourable angle. She was a sight for sore, watering eyes, and more besides, but I regained my composure quickly and glanced outside. Of Carruthers there was no sign; only a tandem penny farthing stood propped against the wall that mostly surrounded my country retreat in Sussex.
Over my best attempt at a cup of tea – one really doesn’t appreciate a housekeeper as good as Mrs Amersham until she is of necessity called away to attend a family bereavement; a cousin killed just the weekend past by an anti-suffrage mob in Brixton – Elizabeth told me that it was imperative I accompany her to her uncle as he was certain he had found the fabled City of the Amazons and felt the chance of success in such a mission would increase with my accompaniment. It was difficult to say no to Elizabeth and I suspected that had been Carruthers’ intention.
“Elizabeth, dear Elizabeth,” I said, trying to find the right words. “As you know I have not been well ever since that horrible incident that saw the three of us set foot on Saturn. I have self-administered a dose of trepanning but the mental ailment that yet still afflicts me has left me with little desire” – I choked on this word and blushed, I’m sure – “for adventure or the company of man. I find myself thinking dark thoughts from time-to-time and I have not fully gotten over the loss of Mr Hawkes, I’m certain.” I glanced at the empty picture frame on the mantelpiece; it ashamed me that my intention to sketch my former spacefaring companion in tribute had been scuppered by a frightening inability to recall his features. “I am sure your uncle can cope without me. Indeed, he may be better off without worrying over what I might say or do next as it’s a constant threat at the back of my own mind.”
“My uncle wouldn’t ask this lightly,” answered Elizabeth. “And neither would I,” she continued, fixing a stare at me that I hurriedly broke. “Normalcy may be just what the doctor should be ordering.”
Carruthers and his niece made a compelling argument even when one of them wasn’t present but I mustered whatever fortitude I still retained and both apologised and gently refused. Eventually, the beautiful Elizabeth stood and slowly flattened the front of her skirt where it had crumpled on her lap during the short stay. “I hope you’ll reconsider and I wish you a speedy recovery in the meantime,” she said with a sad smile. “At the very least my uncle will be pleased when I tell him you’ve taken up mechanising insects as it’s long been a hobby of his too.”
My puzzled look immediately led to Elizabeth pointing to the small book case by the open bay window on which there was quite clearly a butterfly flexing its white wings; strapped to its back was a piece of brass equipment that resembled a gramophone shrunk to appropriate proportions. I took a step towards it and the thing immediately lifted clumsily into the air and escaped outside. Realisation dawned on me.
“Victoria’s stilts!” I shouted. “The lepidopterists!” I spun around to face Carruthers’ niece. “I’ll warrant that contraption was a recording mechanism and right now the bug is making its way back to its masters. They’ll know your uncle’s plans before nightfall. He could be in mortal danger!”
With my previous affliction miraculously seeming to have been vanquished there was nothing else for it and I quickly took leave of Elizabeth to freshen up and pack a few things. Inside one half of an hour I was mounted behind Elizabeth on the bike – though, for once, my mind was so sharply focused on the task at hand very few thoughts of a lustful nature found their ways into my head – and we were pedalling as swiftly as the nation’s road laws and conditions allowed towards Carruthers.
* * *
There were pleasantries, of course. Carruthers told me that I had changed when we met up at his new house in Wimbledon. I explained that I’d had a rough time mentally but that I felt I was on the mend. I then told Carruthers that he too had changed.
“Oh, this?” he asked, pointing with his good hand at the brass object protruding from his features fashioned to resemble the ear that had once adorned the left side of his head. “A punishment from a tribe of pygmies in deepest Devon for delving where I probably ought not to have delved.” It had never stopped him before and I suspected it wouldn’t slow him down in future either and we both smiled as we recognised this truth without speaking. He continued: “It was on that very quest that I happened on the map that I suspect reveals the secret location to the entrance to the lost City of the Amazons!”
“Elizabeth told me about this,” I confirmed. “In fact, in the doing so we uncovered a potential plot to usurp your plans by my old foes, the lepidoterists. It’s why I’m here. I know I’ll never talk you out of going and I’d never forgive myself were something to happen so your best chance is to have me along as protection if possible, as a decoy if necessary, and for us to reveal this wonder to the world before they can claim its discovery as their own.”
“Brunel’s hat! There’s no time to lose!”
Thus it was that Carruthers, his niece, and I headed to the Clapham Pneumatic and took the tube to the Ryde terminal, arriving at its cushioned end a mere fifteen minutes after ensconcing ourselves within the velvet upholstery of the cylindrical vessel. On the high velocity journey I had my first look at the map to the Amazons’ lost city and we discussed what we knew of the mythical race. It transpired that it was very little and common decency prevented Carruthers and I from saying half of that as there were women present in the carriage. Our plan, therefore, became of necessity one that relied on us using our wits to discern the best outcome from any incident that arose; oddly enough, the same plan we employed on most of our adventures together.
At Ryde we discovered the winds were favourable and there was just enough light in the day to take an air balloon to Blackgang Chine, it being the swiftest means of travel on the rather backward island off the coast of Portsmouth. With the sun starting to dip the lower edge of its golden orange disc into the sea on the western horizon we arrived at the coastal ravine and peered into its shadowy mouth.
“If the map is right,” said Carruthers, stating what we all already knew, “then the entrance lies at the base of the chine, exposed only at low tide. If my memory is correct then low tide will occur in a little under an hour.” The ability of Carruthers to recall and calculate UK coastal tide times never ceased to amaze me.
“And even if the lepidopterists are hot on our tails they’ll be forced to wait until the next low tide giving us an unassailable advantage,” I beamed.
We clambered down the ravine. Fortunately, its sides were not so steep that we had need of the stout rope that I had wrapped around my torso beneath my undershirt. Only once – a pity! – did I need to assist Elizabeth down some tricky scree. In that increasing gloom I could still pick out her magnificently handsome features silhouetted as they were against the deepening blue of the sky above.
As the tide receded to its lowest point we donned the bowlers that Carruthers had completed modifying just prior to the arrival of Elizabeth and me on the tandem bike earlier that day. Into a shallow recess at the front of each hat was a clockwork and sprung contraption not far removed from the innards of a fine timepiece. Suspended from the rear of each bowler – and attached through a gearing system around the hat’s rim to the clockwork – were chains wound through toothed pulleys that were hooked both at the heels of our shoes and at the waistband of our trousers, in the men’s case, or bustle, in Elizabeth’s. Taking a step would engage the chains and pulleys with the power ultimately winding the clockwork at the front of each hat, storing the energy in the spring, then releasing it to rapidly strike flint set around the mechanism’s recess. The result was a sparkling glow that illuminated several feet ahead of the wearer and which would be powered by human movement, a most ingenious solution to the problem of not knowing just how long we would be underground.
“I see it!” said Elizabeth suddenly, pointing towards what looked to me like nothing more than a jagged shadow against some recently wet rocks. Still, trusting to her younger eyes Carruthers and I led the way and found, not surprisingly but most excitedly, a cleft descending below ground level; a doorway of sorts! With our hats sending out flickering beams of light ahead the three of us squeezed into the gap – I was required to breathe in somewhat, a legacy of my lazy recuperation after Saturn; I vowed to engage in a regime of fitness upon our safe return to the surface world – and into that darkness we descended.
Immediately we brushed up against and then slowly through the unsettling mass of a great amount of seaweed; its arrangement seemed somewhat unnatural, forming multiple layers that took several seconds to slip through. Elizabeth remarked it was possibly the method by which the Amazons prevented the sea from encroaching on their hidden city and Carruthers and I could find no fault with the statement. I quite fancy that I saw my old friend smile with pride at his niece in the dingy surroundings. It was possibly being enclosed as we were but I envied him his close relationship and a wave of loneliness flashed over me before I brushed it off with a thrusting out of my chest and renewed determination to uncover our prize.
* * *
Progress was slow, as you might expect. The rocky corridor we traversed felt as if it were winding downwards slowly, spiralling beneath the crust of the Earth, although it was not possible to be very certain in those conditions; at times the path would climb sharply or take a sharp left, yet still I couldn’t shake the sensation that like a corkscrew breaking into a fine bottle of port we were twisting down and right. The coolness as we had entered the subterranean world quickly gave way to a more humid atmosphere.
We stopped for a snack, opening up one of the prepared packages of ham sandwiches and apples from the bag I carried across my back. To ensure we had enough illumination to eat – my doctor’s training telling me that consumption of food in pitch blackness was bad for the digestive tracts – one of our group marched on the spot as quietly as a person connected to a mechanical lighting system can to power the bowler beam. Carruthers and I were probably comical sights during our bout of enforced exercise but as for Elizabeth, well, I dared not look.
Not long after we had resumed our push into the planet’s bowels we entered a wider section of cavern and Carruthers brought us to a silenced halt with the merest waving of one hand. We stood still and waited while the whirring of the winding mechanism in our hats slowed, quietened, and reduced eventually to darkness. It wasn’t perfectly without sound, of course; blood pumping through my veins thumped and rocked the inside of my head and seemed loud enough for all to hear yet I assured myself it couldn’t possibly be the case. I became aware of the sound of the breathing of all three of us and toyed with holding my breath only to discard the thought as pointless as the deep inhalation and exhalation that must surely follow would render useless whatever environment Carruthers was hoping to create. Cocking my head this way and that I strained, trying to coax any sound to enter from outside but could discern nothing I felt wasn’t natural in some form or other.
“My ear,” said Carruthers after a couple of minutes, stamping up and down to bring some light into the situation, “is rather more sensitive these days and I could hear something ahead. Quiet, yes, and human almost certainly. I warrant that we are within a few hundred feet of discovering our Amazons and their lost city and that we should proceed with more caution for there is no telling how they will welcome strangers.”
A few hundred feet does not seem like much now that I write it down yet, even as we intended to make a more cautious approach, we encountered a far more difficult path that slowed us even further. Stooping often, by necessity removing our various bags and packs on occasion, and even at one point encountering a small cavern containing a near vertical passage along one edge that, had we not been wearing our illuminated inventions, might have led to one or more of us falling to a fate we dared not imagine.
As it happened we did not need Carruthers to warn us when we were approaching what we assumed must be the city for there grew by stages a change in our surroundings. The rocky walls had hitherto appeared as oil, deeply black and wet, seeming to slide and shift as we stepped past and our head-mounted lighting threw out shadows and reflections, the stuff of nightmares no doubt to those of less stern minds; yet now we observed in whispers that there was some faintly green luminescence in the rock surface growing in intensity the further on we pressed inwards and downwards. I chipped a piece of rock off – accidentally, I should admit; clumsiness and a strong toecap on the shoes by Mr Pettigrew, the only cobbler I entrusted with my feet’s care, being far more than a match for millions of years of nature’s pressures – and toyed with it in my hand before offering it to Elizabeth.
“It’s warm,” she remarked, and thanked me before pocketing it.
“I recalled you had an interest in geology,” I answered as we crept on.
“I am a member of a women’s letter-writing group and we’re interested in all the sciences. I have a friend in Poland who may find this far more interesting than me if you’ll allow me to pass on your gift.”
I had no objection, naturally, and again we moved on.
The green of our enclosed surroundings continued to push back the boundaries of the black such that at my suggestion we disconnected the pulleys from our bowlers. The silence that blossomed in that place without the whirring of gears and shuffling of clothing on legs was quite disconcerting. Added to the colour of our environs we could easily have been on another planet rather than in the alien underworld of our own. Then, suddenly, Carruthers – who had maintained the lead for most of the trek – brought us once more to an abrupt standstill with the wave of a hand and instant crouching. Like him, Elizabeth and I sank down too.
“Look!” whispered Carruthers with such excitement in his voice that I’d not heard since our trip to Mercury. Elizabeth leaned forward over her uncle’s shoulder. I stood a little, then leaned over Elizabeth and tried with only partial success to think of things other than those that jumped unbidden to mind. The three of us were at the end of a narrow passage that suddenly became the edge of a ledge that opened up on a cavern of such enormous size it made the brain swim trying to contemplate it. Green light filled the landscape or, rather, that part of the landscape that was not some immense city of rocky domes and houses and towers appearing to grow out of the floor and the roof so very far above, sometimes joining together, as often as not passing by like stalactites or stalagmites of gargantuan proportions scraping the ground in one direction, scraping the sky in the other. Our certainty that this was no natural phenomenon came from the myriad shapes of windows that festooned the buildings and yet as we gazed with awe we saw not a single sign of life.
“Did you not say you had heard sounds, Carruthers?” I asked as the three of us moved out onto the ledge into view of the lost but dead-looking city. We hoped to encourage a reaction from the natives if one was to be had.
“Darwin’s beard! A foul curse on this confounded ear!” muttered Carruthers, slapping the prosthetic on his head with the flat of his hand before mumbling an apology for his outburst to his niece.
“I am a doctor,” I said. “And while this marvel of modern mechanics is most likely beyond my understanding in its specifics, I imagine the general working – by which I assume it is fashioned on the human auditory system – should be familiar enough to me for me to gather an insight into why it has malfunctioned so.” With that I leaned towards Carruthers’ ear and peered inside. To my complete shock something emerged at the same time and I stepped back in most unmanly fright. Elizabeth clasped a hand to my back to prevent me stepping off the platform on which we stood quite precariously and the two of us stared at my friend’s face while he remained perfectly still, aware of some activity yet maintaining sense enough to not disrupt whatever it may be.
“It is an insect of some sort,” said Elizabeth after a few seconds.
“I concur,” I added. “An insect inside your latest brass appendage that has been undergoing some form of metamorphosis as it now appears to be making its way out of a cocoon. It was that activity which you heard. I shall rid you of it once it has hatched from its habitat.”
“No! We should kill it!” said Elizabeth sharply.
“Tsk, tsk, niece of mine,” said Carruthers with a smile. “That is no way to treat our lesser creatures. It has as much right to live as any other creature in Ra’s realm.” I suppressed the urge to continue our long-running argument over which deity had divine right over the universe for it seemed the occasion was not quite right.
“I’m thinking of this environment,” continued Elizabeth. “We have seen no insects or birds or creatures of any description since we have been below ground. “The introduction of a foreign species might cause untold damage and ruin any future exploration.”
“You are right, of course,” I said, agreeing with the youngest member of our trio. “We all remember the attempt to arrest Ireland’s potato famine with laboratory-constructed, blight-killing clover and the terrible impact this had on the nation’s cattle.” We bowed our heads in unison for a second as a sign of respect for those who fell in the bloody Cowpocalypse, as the gutter press had proclaimed it.
I retrieved a handkerchief from a pocket in my trousers with which I planned to wrap the interloper, dispatch it from this mortal coil, and carry it with us when we left. I plucked the wriggling form from the edge of the brass ear on Carruthers’ head and placed it on the handkerchief held out in my other hand. As I made to fold over the cotton the insect gave one last squirm, shaking itself free from the pupal casing that had still formed a shell around half of its body. Two wings rolled out from the brown and cream-coloured body (tinged with green, as with everything, of course) and all three of us stared first with scientific curiosity at the markings, then with dawning realisation at what was without doubt a moth bearing the symbol of the Imperial Lepidopterists Society.
“They have tinkered with the husbandry of moths!” exclaimed Carruthers. “Ra will not stand for this!” I sighed and rolled my eyes. This was a mistake.
That moment of delay was too much and the animal abomination flapped its silk wings and lifted away from us. I leapt and attempted to swat it but missed by some way. Carruthers – whose brass hand afforded him greater strength than most men – clambered quickly up the rocky face above our ledge. He leaned out to grab the insect as it fluttered by in its jerky, uncoordinated motion but the fiendish beast avoided his outstretched arms.
Then he fell.
I reacted swiftly and reached for my friend as he tumbled. By some miracle my hands gripped onto his coat and held him in place as he threatened to hurtle past the ledge. He lay there for a moment and panted a fearful thanks. Some instinct caused me to turn around at that instant and I saw Elizabeth, her eyes wide, her arms flailing. “Doctor!” she said quietly, then slipped backwards and disappeared. In my haste to save Carruthers I had nudged his niece. We scrambled to the edge of the ledge and looked down. Fifty feet below us in the cavern of the City of the Amazons lay the crumpled, seemingly lifeless body of our young adventuress companion.
Such anguish washed over me yet I knew beyond any doubt it was as nothing to that which Carruthers felt. His face even in that green murk was ash white. Elizabeth was injured at best, at worst something not to consider. The moth had vanished. The city looked deserted.
To be continued…