Extracts from a diary:
by Simon Barber
Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - September 1937.
Storm BirdsWednesday, 1st September 1937
by Simon Barber
It never rains but it pours, as they say. Actually, here in England it frequently drizzles for days, though fortunately that held off yesterday. We had arrived at Parsall Hall ahead of the Squire’s party, and while rooms were being prepared for us and supper rearranged to feed an extra five guests, the butler looked at our outdoor outfits and suggested we might like to explore upstream, where there is notable scenery. The house itself has very nicely laid-out gardens, terraces full of flowers heading downhill towards the river, but the rough natural bits looked very intriguing. The butler did say there were interesting folk legends attached to the area, but added that only the locals believe it and we should be perfectly safe in daylight.
Of course, that is just the kind of thing to tempt a pair of Warrior Priestesses! So we set out up the little canyon named Trollers Gill on the map, a vertical sided ‘box canyon’ with walls rising sheer forty or fifty feet on each side. Once round the first bend from the house, we felt as if we were cut off and in another world. The stream bed was rough and the noise of tumbling water was everywhere, even at this end of Summer. After heavy rains on these hills the place must be wall to wall white water.
After half a mile or so there was a handy spot to stop, a great table-like slab of stone ten feet across that had fallen from the cliffs in ages past, and was lying fairly level. It seemed a good place to brew up some tea and test out our new Kelly Kettle, which I had carried in the knapsack. What with all our adventures today, since breakfast we have been living on stream water and Garibaldi biscuits (the ones we called ‘squashed fly biscuits’ at school.) The rocks above the stream yielded a good armful of dried twigs piled up high and dry after flash floods, and in five minutes from striking a match, the water was boiling. Definitely an improvement on open fires.
When we finished the tea, Christiana looked on in interest (I remembered those ancient Egyptian pictures and mystic runes on her bedroom wall) as Helen and I sat down, cleared our minds and began some of the Seeking rituals Saimmi taught us. The rocky landscape seemed very different in that light, and indeed there was a presence in the hills. It was hard to pin down exactly what it was. I got the impression of something dark, feral and ancient slumbering in the caves. Canine somehow, I thought. Not an active threat, which was a relief.
Just as we were preparing to come out of the trance, Helen spotted something else. It was like a shadow roaming the hills – more than that, it was as if a searchlight of darkness was searching for us, sending its beam across the earth like a searchlight scans the clouds. It was definitely searching – and that uncomfortable image I had awhile ago of a gun sight moving across the world trying to ‘lead’ on us as a moving target in time and space. Calling everyone to get close, Helen and I concentrated on blending in with the background aura of the place – hopefully anyone watching saw two of the brooding feral shapes sitting in the hills, and not us. Just showing us as a blank spot would be a beacon in itself for anyone knowing just how to look, like having a smoke screen suddenly appear in the middle of a clear sky – you would know something was trying to hide.
For a second I felt that uncomfortable sensation we had when leaving the deserted Three Claws village in Canada – as if I had been brushed by the wings of something dark. Then the shadow moved off Eastwards, evidently having missed us. It was a good thing we had already been actively seeking, when it came our direction, or we might not have seen it in time.
While Helen and I exchanged worried glances, Christiana shuddered and asked what that had been. I was surprised she had felt it – neither Maria nor Miss Cabot had. But then, recalling the runes and hieroglyphs on her bedroom wall, perhaps this Yorkshire Miss has the interest and potential to be a Yorkshire Mystic. In which case our Tutors are even better at picking out Talent from an application form than I thought!
I explained that this was probably not something being aimed from Barrow-in-Furryness – though if anyone has access to those ‘death rays’ one reads of in the pulp magazines it would be folk researching for the military. Like Allworthy Industries. Having the Trustees point one our way is another disturbing possibility, though it would be electrical rather than astral. The dark priestesses of Kuo Han are still the likeliest culprit – they have ancient powers and we have been somewhat annoying them recently. Wiping out a major temple with no survivors, would tend to do that.
Christiana sighed, and dryly noted that this was something else they did not mention in the Prospectus. But she seems resolute, and not inclined to ask for a lift back to the nearest bus stop heading home! She could probably get back home tonight on the bus if she wanted to.
I pointed out that the prospectus does mention all students attend religious observances at the weekend, (with defaulters set to ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ kitchen scrubbing duties) but says nothing about what style. After all, in my year alone we had Li Han who is Confucian, Jasbir Sind who is Hindu, and Beryl who is Northern Recidivist. At least, that is what the rest of us called it – she mentioned being a great admirer of the Norse deity Loki, though that is a religion without formal priests and temples. She once told us that to keep in her God’s favour she has to tell one believed lie every day, but that itself might be one of them. Which is a jolly circular way of looking at things, but that is Beryl for you.
Helen suggested Christiana ask about the Spontoonie religion when she gets there; just possibly she might find something of interest. Other furs just went to Church – I recall our trips to Krupmark Island and raiding their ‘Church’. If Christiana wants Adventure, it is definitely out there. And Saimmi did ask if we could look for any suitable talents as we went around the world; right now she is training just Saffina from Songmark. Candidates for priestesses, especially Warrior Priestesses, are thin on the ground.
By this time it was time to be getting back, so we packed up and re-traced our steps down the limestone gorge to the flowering gardens of the Hall, looking splendid in evening sunshine. Two shooting-brakes were just pulling up; we spotted Sir Hubert and party handing the game bag over to the head cook, who will be serving it in a week or so. There is a reason wild grouse are called game birds; far better eaten when definitely ‘game.’ Hopefully they had a decent ‘bag’ last week for tonight’s supper.
Sir Hubert spotted us and waved us in, welcoming us to his family hall. In all the films they are filled with suits of armour, but hardly a dozen actual lived-in stately homes really have that these days. There was of course the usual collection of highly practical trophies mounted on the walls, ranging from Zulu knobkerries and assegais to wavy-bladed Malay ‘kris’ swords and Amazonian blowpipes plus ammunition, all kept maintained and sharp by the butler ready for immediate use. I remembered fondly my brother reaching high levels of skill with a blowpipe, when we were just kits and visited local mansions.
Helen looked around nervously and whispered she was sure we would all get murdered. Sir Hubert heard, and just chuckled. He had spotted her American accent, and kindly pointed out that (a) it is not a formal weekend gathering in the proper season with amateur sleuths attending; (b) Helen is a foreigner and (c) to judge by her wedding ring and age she would certainly not be the victim. Absolutely ‘Not Done’.
Helen asked just what sort of person would be. Sir Hubert looked thoughtful and offered that back in March at the last such event of the season, ten miles up the valley in the village of Starbotton there had been a notable weekend. The third son of the vicar had been ‘sent down’ from University in disgrace, arriving home with ‘a dashed rum set of friends and some even stranger ideas in his head’. And just who had skillfully used the family heirloom Borgia poison ring on him, had been demonstrated by an up-and-coming young local sleuth before the assembled guests in the drawing-room on the Sunday evening as tradition dictates. So, nothing out of the ordinary then.
The housekeeper showed us up to a pair of rooms on the East Wing of the house, where we had an hour to change into our ‘respectable’ outfits and brush our fur. Our outdoor tweeds were taken by an attentive mastiff maid for brushing and cleaning (one does not wash Harris Tweed, as such) and fairly soon we made our reappearance downstairs looking better suited to a garden party than a day’s hacking across the heather and peat bogs. She was somewhat apologetic about the manor’s sanitation – the rebuilding of the gardens had somewhat taken what budget there might have been for indoor plumbing. We reassured her that we are entirely used to outdoor ‘earth closets’ and at least that will, in the long run, keep the garden blooming. One does not always need Professor Schiller’s high technology ‘bio-reaktor’ to do that job.
It was a lively crowd assembled downstairs, with three married couples not much older than us joining us at the long oak table; the Squire’s cousins and nephews I believe. Captain Smythe was there, having changed into his dress uniform. I recognised the unit markings of the Intelligence Corps, which did not surprise me. After dinner (which was indeed last week’s ‘shoot’ of pheasant and partridge in an excellent game pie), when the port and sherry was circulating amongst the guests, he suggested we take a stroll in the evening light and view the famous gardens.
As befits Lady Allworthy, I took Miss Cabot along as necessary maid and chaperone – not the sort of thing one thinks about on Spontoon, but that is a world away. I assured the Captain that she was a definitely Confidential Maid and anything she hears, she can keep silent about (as opposed to someone picked out of a hiring fair) That is putting it mildly. Having Miss Cabot as apparently ‘just a maid’ can be an advantage; some people will talk to her more freely to a maid than to a Lady. It certainly worked in Lewes.
Anyway, according to Captain Smythe there are a lot of dossiers that go past his departmental desk concerning people of interest – and he has certainly read mine. It has some notes from Spontoon by Major Hawkins, and some more recent ones from the Brighton constabulary. He noted dryly that since folk on the Old Steine of Brighton tried to run me over, I seem to have acquired a way of deterring them. That light gun (in the artillery sense) he heard being ‘served’ a mile away as rapidly and well as quite senior artillerists manage on Larkhill Ranges, he says. He added that any autogyro taking a direct hit was definitely going to go down as convincingly as a shot grouse, and complemented me on the Bentley’s Scarff Ring, which scored high in his professional judgement.
Well, there is one of the grouse shooting party who spotted the air cover of today’s attack and ‘joined the dots’. I suppose autogyros are not too common in these hills, and mysterious daylight-raiding ‘poachers’ are a bit of a stretch of the imagination for any fur not already obsessed by the idea as Sir Hubert seems to be. I must rig up an open-mouthed bag of some sort on the Scarff Ring to catch the spent cartridge cases, if we are going to do much more of this and not leave so much evidence lying around.
I admitted that some folk do seem very keen that I do not take up possession of Allworthy Industries – and are using more direct means than lawsuits to try and stop me. My ears drooped as I realised the significance – disputing my claim to the title in the courts would be so much safer and easier, unless the opposition had already looked at every angle of the claim and believed it is absolutely cast-iron. Aiming a lot of cast lead at my direction has to be a ploy of desperation. This might be encouraging in a way, if I actually wanted to hold on to the title!
Captain Smythe said that there is little the Police can do without evidence – having a Detective tailing me will hardly stop the next encounter with autogyros if the observer wants to drop a sack full of grenades on us from a hundred feet up. Being an armaments company, the folk in Barrow-in-Furryness are not short of ‘test specimens’ of all sorts of hardware they can get without leaving any incriminating paper trail. Currently Allworthy Industries is ticking over and producing essential military supplies, and to the Government I am a rather unknown quantity as to how that will continue. I had to agree, recalling Beryl’s assumption that I would liquidate the business and run off to somewhere sunny with the money (something she would cheerfully do in my shoes, I am sure.)
I recalled the attitude of the Brighton Police, and rather glumly agreed that the constabulary will no doubt investigate my murder very thoroughly, maybe even nailing the culprits. Which will be no help to me. The problem is the other side have to shoot first for whatever we do to be self-defence, and independent witnesses have to testify that. So we were lucky today to have Sir Hubert turning up, who is a local magistrate as it happens and empowered to decide whether the police need to be called and which side of a firefight they should be looking for. If he catches any of these ‘poachers’ I will be greatly surprised.
Captain Smythe nodded, and said there had been notes on that very problem in the dossier he had read. Without promising anything, he hinted that people are taking an interest in me, and we would have to do something quite gratuitous for the Constabulary to officially complain.
For the very first time I was grateful that Molly is no longer with us, as ‘gratuitous’ was very much her style. I am certain the punt gun would already be sporting a lovingly sharpened saw-backed bayonet if she had any say in the matter. The current Government seems to have adopted what Beryl always called ‘Social Darwinism’ and thinks that the survivors deserve the spoils, and should be free to conclusively argue the issue so long as not too much of the neighbourhood gets shot up in the process.
My ears went down as I thought about the scale of the problem. Driving straight into Barrow-in-Furriness this way looks like just putting my neck into a well-prepared noose. True, we got more of an idea of the opposition – but so did they see us, and they will be planning things differently next time. It looks like we are not simply going to drive up to the front door of the Allworthy Estate, take possession, demand to see the accounts and start firing and hiring. Not that I expected it to be really that simple, but we are unlikely to get far enough to try. Further, Maria has to be well on her way home in another week, which reduces our strength even further.
Still – we were safe for the evening, and our first commitment is to get Christiana to her aircraft on time. After that – it is time for Plan B. And to give thoughts as to Plans C, D and E, for that matter.
We re-joined the party on the terrace, and a fine evening was had by all. Although we may not have got more than half a day’s walk from our start point on the map, we have tested our equipment, survived the encounter and gained some useful new contacts. Things could have been so much worse.
A fine night’s sleep in the old place; this has the original leaded diamond-paned windows, and dawn came just as we were getting up. Folk rise early in the countryside; the breakfast table was set when we went downstairs at seven and Sir Hubert was already sampling the Kedgeree* along with Captain Smythe.
It seems I had underestimated the old squire; evidently the Captain had been briefing him on the true facts about his unexpected house guests. He was somewhat more cordial, rising to shake my hand and congratulate me on holding off superior forces making use of the terrain – as a young subaltern, he had done similar things on India’s North-West Frontier, apparently. His ears went up when I told him my name – Lady Allworthy I may be (under protest), but that is a title rather than a name. Lord Nelson was not Mr. and Mrs. Nelson’s pup, after all. He recalls my Father from his time serving in France; they never met in person but the name Bourne-Phipps is very familiar in the Great War as someone who could be relied on to get things done. A very necessary trait for an Engineer.
By nine o’clock we had said our farewells, stoked up on the breakfast kedgeree and deviled eggs, then it was back into the Bentley, our freshly brushed hunting tweeds back on and away we went, under grey clouds hanging low on the hills. Cloud level about four hundred feet, ten tenths coverage, visibility two miles at best. At least that will hinder any autogyros searching for us. Further, a search might assume we are still heading towards Barrow-in-Furriness, and right now we are not. Miss Jenks’ helpful list of letters of introduction was pinned to the road atlas as I sat in the back seat with Christiana and Miss Cabot, both of whom were watching the skies. Tomorrow, we will need to start calling in some of those favours.
The roads were narrow, winding and lined with dry-laid limestone walls five or six feet tall for the most part, and while Helen drove and Maria watched out forwards, Christiana quizzed us about Songmark.
In a way, it felt unfair to tell her too much. Finding things out for oneself is a big part of the education there. But Coral and Pearl mentioned they have paid large sums in hard currency (used unmarked notes of small denomination, as I recall Beryl’s tastes) to get the ‘gen’ from their mercenary sister. Guaranteed 98.4% reliable, Coral had said proudly, with a Family discount on the price. Meera Sind certainly heard a lot from her sister Jasbir before starting. We did warn Christiana about Pearl and Coral, though I could see her ears going up when I began by mentioning what school they have graduated from. Well-known for being famous, as they say. Infamous, more like it. Who else will be turning up is something only our Tutors know right now. I described the other years she will meet – the infamous Red Dorm will be in the senior year now, and Nancy Rote’s Crusader Dorm second-years. That year also has ‘Trouble Dorm’ who are a good advertisement of how Miss Devinski wields her sense of humour. Putting a Turkish girl in with a Greek, and an unrepentant Boer with a fiercely loyalist Ulster Briton is certainly a way of making sure they are never short of things to talk about. And put their self-defence skills into constant practice, for that matter.
Once out of the hills proper we got onto bigger and more crowded roads. Last time I heard, there was one motor car for every thirty-five people in the country, and it looks it! If it ever gets past one in thirty the jammed traffic will surely grind to a halt and nobody will get anywhere. Some cities are pretty bad already; Captain Smythe mentioned that Oxford was no longer known as the City of ‘dreaming spires’ but of ‘screaming tyres’ these days.
It was a fine enough run through somewhat damp countryside, not quite damp enough to put the weather hood up. About an hour from starting we crossed the border from Yorkshire into Lancashire, and Christiana’s ears went right down at the sight. Heading out to the North Pacific for three years is not a problem for her, but over this particular frontier she is really in Foreign Lands.
Lunchtime saw us in more urban territory, stopping at a roadside café. On the menu was an interesting-sounding dish labelled ‘stew and hard’ that I sampled. The ‘stew’ was nothing like I expected, being a very shredded beef in gelatine, and the ‘hard’ was a species of thin oatcakes grilled till brittle, like a less spicy Indian ‘poppadum’. I asked Christiana about it, but she had only vaguely heard of the dish.
Helen snorted and pointed out that we were barely three hours’ direct drive from Christiana’s hometown, and already we are in foreign territory to her! The cuisine is different, the dialect different, and she is looking at the locals as if they are likely to lob a grenade. Which admittedly one of them might, but that would probably be aimed at me, not Christiana. I pointed out to Helen that she had been impressed by the age of central Boston with its gambrel roofs and suchlike – but Yorkshire and Lancashire were at war two hundred years before the first log cabin went up on the banks of the Boston River, and they have not forgotten it.
Helen’s comment was that she thought the ‘hillbillies’ in the Appalachian mountains were bad enough with their generations of feuding, but we ‘sure take the cake.’
Anyway, an hour after that we were at Prestwich Airport, looking at the acres of open water of the new airfield. Like Heathrow West of London, this started as a flooded gravel pit, extended and converted to take the biggest flying-boats with a mile of possible expansion. Christiana checked the departures board; her flight is on time, leaving in two hours via Shannon in Ireland then next stop, the Quidi Vidi Lake in Newfoundland we started this leg from! Definitely a piece of “Circularity.”
We said our farewells and left the newest Songmark student to make her way through Customs towards the calm water of the landing lake where the first of the new Empire-Class flying boats lay docked. Though an Adventuress, she has had little experience in actual flight. This was not such a bad thing; I told her that our Tutors often prefer it to girls with a full logbook and a lot of bad habits they have to ‘un-learn’. Maria and Helen looked rather guilty at that. I did not mention Maria’s early exploits of flying under Italian bridges and power lines.
So: we are down from five of us to four, soon to be three. And our immediate target is no longer the one I had been planning on for these past few months, not if I am to get there and survive. My ‘husband’ Leon Allworthy surely had a dark sense of humour if he knew what I was being saddled with. When I do get to Barrow-in-Furryness it will have to be with a lot more backing than even one Songmark dorm can provide. A friendly regiment would be something to have.
To a small hotel near the airport tonight, with the map to look at and a lot of re-thinking to be done!
• Editor’s note: Kedgeree. A traditional breakfast dish of boiled Patna rice enlivened with flakes of smoked fish (generally haddock), sliced hard-boiled eggs and peas. Standard country-house fare.
to be continued