The One With Giant Mechanical Spiders In

by Ii Ai (粲 愛) and Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
illustrated by neomeruru

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/202435.html)

PART THE FIRST

It all began one summer when–

No, that’s not precisely true, because it could all have been said to have begun years before, with my birth, or my uncle’s birth, or von Helmfried’s birth, or with the birth of whatever knightly fellow decided to clear away all the trees and deer and wolves and what-have-you and set some of his serfs–

–I think they were called serfs, unless I’m thinking of the sort of angel fellows, which isn’t the thing at all–

–to growing turnips and sheep and things on the land that would become known, for some reason, as Grauvghmare.

But the short version of things began one summer when, as is my habit, I went to pay a visit to my uncle Wilberforce. Not out of any sort of nephewly sense of duty–

–although of course he’s always been a splendid chap as far as uncles go, far more likely to give a lad a sweet than a clip on the ear if he found him smoking his cigars in the barn (not that Uncle Wilberforce ever smoked cigars)–

–but because Uncle Wilberforce was inclined to let any young relation who was willing to nod and smile agreeably over tea or lunch (from somewhere within the pile of roaming Pekes that my uncle kept around as sort of mobile cushions) make use of a charming little stone cottage away from it all, where ‘all’ was everything unpleasant like lovesick friends, elderly relations of all sorts, younger relations that elderly relations always seem to want to force upon one, and all that sort of thing except for the one part of all a fellow could never want to get away from: the Grauvghmare and Stillpole Golf Course.

(You may have heard of the Grauvghmare and Stillpole Golf Course. It’s periodically quite a popular destination, despite its proximity to both Grauvghmare and Stillpole, and the summer I had my heart particularly set upon sweeping the grass with my irons was before that unfortunate incident that caused it to be the first all-sand green in England.)

It was my intention, after a particularly strenuous spring, to recuperate in the peace of the little cottage my uncle had hung with the unlikely moniker of Lay-a-Bayl with nothing but golf and Chaston for company (Chaston being a valet of the traditional sort, which may not be fashionable, but also does not result in your ties being mistaken for your handkerchiefs, and your handkerchiefs being used to scrub pots, and he can scarcely be thought of as company, even then). Under the circumstances, it was only proper to pop in to see the old fellow, of course, and make sure there wasn’t some other, less worthy nephew making use of the place.

Uncle Wilberforce was, at the time, as typical an old English country squire as you could imagine, straight from the pages of a lady’s novel, with his eccentric exception… but more on that as it becomes relevant. He was one of those muddy-Wellington, heather-and-tweed, tromping-about-in-the-dew country gentlemen, a salt-of-the-earth, beer-swilling fellow shaped like a teapot, but if you came by his estate during mealtimes, you were guaranteed to find him in residence. The heart of his chef, a high-strung Italian import, was not something to be trifled with and, with the trials any chef of Uncle Wilberforce’s was subjected to, the very least my uncle, and any guests, could do was to be present for meals.

When I arrived at my uncle’s (leaving Chaston in the car with my bags and golf clubs) it was just before tea time, and I ascended the steps lightly and with a song in my heart, only to have the door answered by a new butler, which did not bode well for the state in which the previous butler may have left things. This butler, like my uncle, looked like a teapot, but more so, not being constrained, like my uncle, by the limits of human physi-whatsit. It opened the door, took me in with its spout or nose or what-do-you-call-it, turned, and walked directly into the wall.

I waited politely, as you do, because it’s hardly good form to waltz into a fellow’s home while his butler is clanking and whirling and upending the table with the mail and scratching up the wallpaper and leaking oil from its whirligigs onto the once-quite-nice carpet, even if it is a regular occurrence.

As it became evident that the butler was more or less stuck in place for the time being and showed no signs of doing greater damage than had already been done, I saw myself the rest of the way in. I found my way to the dining hall where my uncle sat, contemplating what had been laid before him and smoking his pipe, surrounded by a good dozen or so Pekes (unless they were wandering footstools of a new variety, with silky tufty piles of fur cascading to the floor to hide their wheels and such) reclining on the floor (reclining being the natural and perhaps only state of a Peke). He looked up at my entrance. The Pekes (if they were such) did not.

“Nephew,” said Uncle Wilberforce. “Was I expecting you?” Uncle Wilberforce was of the opinion that he had been burdened with so many nephews that learning all their names was a thankless task. It was the hope of all his nephews, myself included, that when the time came for him to call up his solicitor and draft a will, he would get someone to dig through old letters and cards to find the name of at least one nephew.

“I don’t believe so,” I said. “Your butler seems to be stuck in the wall.”

Uncle Wilberforce sucked powerfully at his pipe, following it with a powerful inhalation of the tantalising contents of his soup spoon. He looked at me with consideration, weighing this helpful bit of information, brought by what could only now be his favourite nephew, against the myriad ways he could offer me a chair and invite me to sup of his plentiful rural bounty.

“What did you do to the dashed thing?” he asked. He sucked again at his pipe and exhaled soupy smoke to hover over the table in a manner sure to aggrieve his poor Italian import if the woman should ever deign to venture forth from her culinary domain. “Haven’t had it two weeks. Flawless contraption. New, you know. Shouldn’t behave oddly in the slightest, unless you did something to it. What in heaven’s name did you say to it, you silly creature?”

Well, what can I say? I was shocked! My pride was deeply wounded by these accusations from one whom I loved and respected as having been a guiding light in my fatherless youth. Was this the man, I wanted to ask, who had invited me down from Oxford after Michaelmas term and left his drinks cabinet invitingly unsecured? Who had shielded me from Aunt Gertrude’s attempts to have me sent to America–

–a place I do not, in fact, have a thing against, and I’m sure I would find its modern women, movie stars, overly-large and endearingly-noisome mechanical contrivances, and cow-pokes on golden-sand beaches with palm trees and what-all perfectly delightful, should I ever visit that industrious new world under my own volition (but not, as I’m sure you would agree, a place one wants to visit when commanded by an aunt with the voice of a melodious rhinoceros whose favourite topics are the dangers of drink and the ways in which nephews can improve themselves in body, mind, and spirit)–

–by obligingly endorsing my alibi of undulating eruptive spots, requiring strict quarantine far away from ships of both sea and air, particularly those destined for that great unknown of Texas? Was this, then, the true spirit of my dear uncle in his dotage?

“I can’t say,” I said, “that I said anything to it. That is, beyond the usual, you know, hullo! Is my good uncle in? Sporting day for a bit of sun and oil, what? If, that is, I said anything at all. I may not have. I’m sure I probably didn’t.”

Uncle Wilberforce looked at me with his pipe. “Go give it a clap ’round the head, there’s a good lad.”

“Oh, right ho.”

It seemed from the tone of his pipe that my fear of hostilities was at an end and, as I had still not been invited to join him in his meal, I courteously went to administer, as he suggested, a ‘clap ’round the head’ to his new butler. I could only assume–and still do–that on a robot the head is in the same general area as one finds them on a human body. In the matters of all things mechanical, I thought it wisest to smile and comply with the wishes of my uncle.

You see, Uncle Wilberforce’s great passion in life is the mechanicals. Nothing fascinates him more, nothing excites him or brings the old schoolboy sparkle to his eyes than robots and gears, cogs and motorcars, whirligigs and those little cups that make the ticking noise–you know the ones?–you put an egg in them and then ding! you have yourself a proper soft-boiled egg without the necessity of reminding your temporary man of the importance of an egg with one’s breakfast (training a temporary man, after all, being as much use as asking a cat to sing opera while it fails to bring you the newspaper and slippers). Anyway, those things, and all others of their type and general ticking and clunkingness, are a great passion with Uncle Wilberforce.

As passions go it’s hard to fault it, although it’s more eccentric for a country squire than, say, drinking or smoking or fishing or aggravating his fellows’ wives with drinking and smoking and fishing. And while it may be eccentric, Uncle Wilberforce’s fortune–

–which all of us nephews and nieces (although my affections for the old fellow were completely sincere and far less motivated by avarice than those of some of my cousins) hoped to one day inherit a generous portion of–

–was the result of some great-great-great-great-relation’s invention and patent on some sort of thingummy for the automation of polishing silverware and the external bits of other thingummies less automated in the spiffing and shining department. It made him quite an expert, in his way, and he showered on his devices and doo-dahs all the love he would otherwise have had to share only with his Pekes or relations. As it was, the Pekes and the whatsits were able to bask in the glow of Uncle Wilberforce’s smokey affections and attentions without fear of sharing them with yrs. truly, an arrangement agreeable to all parties, I think.

So when one’s eccentric, mechanical-mad uncle tells one to go and give his butler a clap ’round the head, it’s a fool of a nephew who ignores him, and no-one, except possibly certain aunts, uncles, a few sterner cousins, old tutors, governesses, and the odd constable, could ever say that Rupert Hopwood was a fool. In fact, some fellows ’round the club have often been quite outspoken in their admiration of my wit and my personal talents, both intellectual and artistic. Even old Plymouth ‘Pongo’ Biffington, widely considered one of the great intellectuals of our generation, and a man with a rare gift when it comes to potato billiards (a game, much like billiards, but where the cue ball is substituted with a potato, generally boiled or baked, as mashed tends not to do the thing at all), has often commented on my ability to astound him, and the opinions of the Pongos of this world greatly outweigh those of the Aunt Gertrudes.

The butler was continuing to diligently press itself upon the wall and had trammelled some letters and ancient, long-withered flowers under its minuscule treads. There was a crunching sound, familiar to anyone who has, in their boyhood, innocently fed a sugar bowl to a conveniently-passing steam-horse. Not that I have any familiarity with such things myself, mind you, but in one’s school days one does get to hear all sorts of frightfully entertaining stories of that ilk, even if one happens to be a child of a particularly angelic nature, like yrs. truly. The source of that unfamiliarly-familiar noise was the vase the flowers had been in, now gradually being brought closer and closer to the dust from whence we all came.

Rather poetic, that.

I braced myself on the wall near the butler and spoke to it in as stern and authoritative a voice as I could muster, memories of my doughty Hopwood ancestry coursing through my blood, I have no doubt. “I say, you might want to stop that. You’re just running into the wall, you know.”

I mean, dashed sensible of me to point it out, what? Before resorting to physical violence, I mean. We two, man and machine, could have things sorted out quickish and in a civilised manner, if only it would listen, which it very discourteously proceeded not to do.

Thinking, thoughtful soul that I am, that the poor thing’s receptors or inceptors or earbits might be damaged, I raised my voice. “I SAY, MY GOOD ‘BOT. YOU’RE RUNNING RATHER IN PLACE.”

When it became apparent that this had no effect, and the vase had been broken down to such an extent that the crunching noise had ceased, I had no alternative but to follow my uncle’s wise orders and took aim at the small, roundish bit on the top of the spherical portliness that was the bulk of the butler. With great effort, I pulled the old Hopwood arm back, taking care not to strain the old Hopwood muscles unduly, and then struck, the old Hopwood fist powered by the force of a thousand–

–oh, you know, like in that poem, tum-ti-ti-tum ti-ta-tum-tum/And with his fist he smote me something something–

–and dinged the butler sharpish. Well! The butler may have reacted as though the blow were but the lightest kiss of the sweet butterfly, but my hand was now throbbing with awful, beastly pain, and do you know, the damned thing was still running at the wall!

I fell back to nurse my hand and my pride, both grievously wounded in the tide of battle, and also incidentally to rethink my strategy vis-a-vis my clockwork antagonist. “Tricksy, old chap,” I said to myself, for I have always found myself to be an appreciative, dare I say enthusiastic, audience, “if the widget is too hard to be felled by a normal blow, obvs. the solution is to be found in an extraordinary blow. Desperate times, after all. As what’s-the-fellow said, one must meet the immovable thing with the unyielding other thing!”

Having reasoned through a dollop of logic that would have impressed those famous old be-robed Greek fellows–

–nothing an old Greek fellow loves more than logic and robes, don’t you know, unless it’s young lads and hemlock tea–

–I cast about for the proper tool. Dame Fortune will provide or some such rot and my eye soon enough lit upon one of those umbrella stands made out of an elephant’s foot, which always struck me as rotten luck for the blameless elephant and put me in uneasy mind of what might befall my own well-shod extremities upon my uncertain demise, possibly even like the elephant’s being put to use in the storage of umbrellas, although I must admit that it seems fairly unlikely and in any case I wouldn’t think an umbrella small enough to fit in my foot would be of much use. No, a regular old brolly would do the trick, and I snatched one from the poor pachyderm without further ado. I may have, in my enthusiasm, quoted the old “Have at thee!” at my target before letting fly with what I personally consider to have been one of the ten greatest blows ever struck by a Hopwood against an assailant, at least since the Wars of the Roses.

The umbrella caught the clattering thing upside the roundish bit with an awful bong and the butler stopped whirling at the plaster forthwith, becoming a veritable statue against the entry-hall wall. “Oh, well struck, Tricksy,” said I, fully aware that no one else was about to give my efforts the plaudits that they deserved. The umbrella was a total loss, poor soldier, but Uncle Wilberforce was unlikely to mourn the loss of an ordinary brolly when his newest mechanical whatsit had been so summarily dealt with!

I was casting about for a way to pat myself properly upon the back when the butler made a rattling sound quite like a playing-card stuck in the spokes of a bicycle, only louder, you understand, and proceeded to dump both steam and oil from its corpus in hellish quantities, although dear Archie leads me to understand that when it is steam, it is called ‘venting’ instead? The thing one learns, my goodness. At any rate, having produced quite an impressive pool of oil on the carpet about its treads, the butler chose to recline in said pool like, oh, what was her name, Greek goddess of beauty and clam shells, wasn’t it, with the scandalous pictures, only the butler’s reclining came less on the shoulders of cherubs and more in an appalling clatter of tin cans falling down the stairs, for which I do not believe there is a proper goddess, or if there is, her name escapes me at present. The roundish bit which I had so presently struck a ringing buffet fell quite off and rolled across the carpet to make the acquaintance of my handsome new co-respondent shoes.

Suffice it to say that I thought I ought to get rid of the evidence sharpish! Alas, I was far too clever for my own good. It occurred to me that perhaps I might tuck the fatal umbrella into the machine’s own grip, to make it seem like just another victim of the thing’s rampage, and I was considering the merits of this idea when my Uncle Wilberforce popped his head out from the parlour end of the house, doubtless summoned by the sound of a mechanical breathing its last or whatever it is that mechanicals do, and thus depriving me of the opportunity to escape blame, or indeed to do anything at all save stand there gawping over the thing’s beastly shell with a bent umbrella still clasped in the old Hopwood fist. To say that my uncle’s expression was thunderous would not have been doing justice to the mottled shade his cheeks were taking on, or the ominous slant of his eyebrows, and certainly not to the fearsome sucking and puffing of his pipe, the little motory thing whirring frantically, smoke circling his head like subservient clouds.

In short, I was getting the distinct impression Uncle Wilberforce was not pleased with my actions.

“Boy,” said he, each syllable escorted outward by a plume of smoke, “boy, what in God’s name do you have against my mechanicals?”

I confess, dear reader, this accusation stung. To hear my uncle tell it, I was in the habit of wreaking havoc upon his clockwork darlings, which I can assure you, I was not! I am a gentle soul, reluctant to take harsh measures against man, machine, or marsupial. As a result, this unjust accusation struck me speechless, I was so affronted by the mischaracterisation of one R. Hopwood by one of his nearest. The umbrella fell from my numb’d fingers to clatter on the floor, the sound tempered by the slick wetness spread by the prone butler.

“Young ninny,” said my uncle, and I suspect those words were directed towards me. “Bloody good thing there isn’t a shop or lab in the empire that would trust you with this sort of thing. You’d leave nothing but destruction in your wake if this is how you handle a new, perfectly functional butler model.”

I would have protested on two counts, specifically that a. I had once owned a mechanical, a tiny clockwork semi-valet I took with me when I first went up to Oxford, and yet I preferred a flesh-and-blood sort of servant–

–I have never asked Chaston as to the nature of his contents, but I am certain they are as fleshy and bloody as the next chap, despite a certain stonelike aspect to his countenance. I did once ask him if he were some sort of golem-y thing, those clay automatons they have to the east a bit, you know, but he said this was not so–

–and b. that this same preference was in part a result of the unhelpful quirks of that clockwork thingum inflicted on a young Rupert during that time he was torn from the bosom of his family and Eton. But, in the circumstances of the moment, I thought it best to maintain a diplomatic silence.

The old boy knelt in oil and all, laying tender hands on the rotund, steaming heap. “Hapless oaf,” he said, this again direct towards Rupert H.

“It was an accident, Uncle mine.”

“Hrmph.”

“I only gave it the lightest of taps!”

“Hrmph!”

“And that was only after I had very politely asked if it might consider not running into the wall quite so eagerly!”

“HRMPH!”

I must say, that noise, a sort of walrus-like clearing of the throat phlegm, was growing quite as offensive to me as the cries of ninny, oaf, and idiot. The time for explaining and applying Reason’s tender caress to the discussion had passed.

“I’m sure it’s repairable. Be good as new in no time at all!”

Uncle Wilberforce snorted, which was at least not a fourth hrmph. “And what would you know about it, you blighted ignoramus of a nephew?”

“Well,” I said, hemming and hawing and unable to deny the truth at the thrust of my uncle’s words. “Well. We-ell, the thing of it is, these things usually are, aren’t they? A bit of a slap with some oil and bolts, some new gears, and they’re fresh as morning dew, isn’t it? Just need a chappie with clever hands to do the slapping and dashing, what?”

My uncle stood, and I tried not to wince at the sight of the oily smears now marking the knees of his trousers, some of that excess trickling sluggishly down to mar the already-scuffed surface of his shoes. It pained me to the core of my being, as I’m sure the sight of the fallen mechanical pained Uncle Wilberforce. “Do stop blithering and bleating about, nephew. And stop gawping at me like that–you look like some sort of dreadful sheepfish.” I opened my mouth to ask after these sheepfish, but thought that might bring forth further accusations of gawping, and so I snapped the old jaw shut once more. I never did find out if some dangerously clever fellow had made some form of sheepfish. “Come, have lunch, and I will attempt to knock it into your cottony head just what it is you’ve done.”

Dear reader, I thought he was never going to ask!

~*~

The Italian import, a woman whose stout shape spoke expansively of her culinary skills, regarded my uncle with simmering malevolence as we entered the dining room and I selected an empty chair, invitingly cushioned, for my own use. As with all cooks, the Italian import regarded the advent of an unexpected guest as a great offence to the order of her well-spiced world. When she was done turning the old eye on my uncle, she flashed it upon me, as though I had not already been subjected to sufficient abuse and scrutiny for a lifetime!

Besides, Uncle Wilberforce had already demolished the soup and the entree, so it was not as though the woman was going to be put out unduly by letting me sup a bit on the fried kidneys and whatsits she had slaved over and, though I would never be so rude as to say it, sharing more of his meals unexpectedly might have a positive effect on my good uncle’s waistline, which would surely be a strain on his waistcoats, if he ever remembered he owned them.

I sat, and just as quickly bounded back to my feet when my chair emitted a sharp yelp of pain, which even the most advanced of chairs should not do. My uncle, already turning his attentions back to the grub, fixed me with a steely eye–

–not an actual eye made of steel or any other sort of metal, mind, for my uncle retains, to this day, both his oculars in fairly pristine condition, and for all his love of mechanicals has not yet taken the step of replacing any semi-functioning person bits with clockwork substitutes. In this case, I use ‘steely’ to describe the hard nature of his gaze at that time without actually meaning to say his eyes were made of steel. This, dear reader, is one of those devices of a highly literary nature which you may find peppered throughout my narrative, although, of course, sometimes when I refer to an object being metallic that is because it is, in fact, cast from metal, and I trust you to use your best judgment in determining which is what and which isn’t.

Uncle Wilberforce’s moustache moved up and about as he chewed at his food and any words he might have been preparing to unleash afterwards. Quickly, before he could finish his mouthful and launch a verbal sort of salvo against my person, I made to remove the unusually small, unusually fat Peke who had been doing a dashed good impersonation of a pillow on the chair I had claimed as my own. No sooner had I laid hands on the dog than a noise very like a small motor began from somewhere within the fat and fur, tiny white teeth snapping quite too near the flesh of my hand.

“Nephew!” barked my uncle, and I made a quick and strategic withdrawal to another chair, after checking that the cushioning on that bit of furniture contained nothing more dangerous than a mechanism designed to produce a comforting warmth when the temperature around it became chilly. Although its design might have been innocent and its comfort looked to rival that of the Peke, in the interests of safety I removed it from the chair and placed it on the floor, where it could be quite at home among the mob of presumed-dogs, who continued to lie about in piles of spreading fur, disinterested in all the fuss which had temporarily sprung up around one of their brethren.

The seating situation thus resolved–

–and with no further comment from my uncle beyond a sour glare eloquently expressing his opinion on nephews who indulge in casual cruelty to small and absurd animals–

–I tucked in, my appetite sufficiently whetted by my ordeals, and nodded and made agreeable noises around the nosh as Uncle Wilberforce lectured me between mouthfuls about mechanical this and wasted-youth-of-today that. Throughout our one-sided conversation and the meal, he kept at his pipe.

Now, I am not one of those fellows who sleeps with books of etiquette and the like at his bedside, slavishly memorising the rules and regulations as dictated by Duchess Wimpole or some other stern and respectable lady to her stern and respectable lady secretary, and I believe, as all right-thinking men do, that a chap’s castle is, well, his castle, especially when that castle’s also his home, if you see what I mean. So I am certainly not the sort of fellow to judge another fellow for smoking during meals. If champing at the pipe over a bit of roast beast makes the old uncle happy, huzzah I say to him! Seek joy, my good old fellow uncle chappie! Do not feel constrained, sir, in smoking only in designated smoking rooms, at smoking hours, in smoking attire, if that does not gladden your heart!

But his confounded mechanical pipes make such a racket! You can’t imagine it, it’s truly the most dreadful thing, all the noise of your large and imposing mechanicals, condensed down and then popped into a fellow’s mouth, to be directed at and gesticulated with, all the more aggressive and threatening for its noisome clanking. Uncle Wilberforce has a massive collection of these things, each lovingly displayed in a case in the parlour when he has felt he has used it enough to experience its true thingummy–soul or whatnot–whatever pipes have–and then he buys a new one.

This one was all gleaming metal, with carved oojahs and elaborate designy bits all over a great wide bowl, and then, below the bowl, a great lumpy boil of a sphere, bigger than the bowl itself, housing the wretched clanging clockwork and the mechanisms that shave and barber and light the tobacco. Do you know, it was making such a noise–

–and my nerves were already so jangled from the incident with the butler, and the glaring of the Italian import was making it difficult for the food to be properly soothing–

–that I don’t think I heard a dashed thing my uncle said once during the meal! I nodded my head, of course, said “Oh yes” and “What ho” and “Jolly good” and all the other pleasantries that you learn to make meals with relations more palatable, but the whole time all I could hear was WHIRR CLANK SNAP SNIP FSSSSSSSSH. Or something to that effect.

It did seem that Uncle Wilberforce seemed to be in a much better mood as he saw me to the door after our meal had concluded, scarcely glowering at all as we went past the remains of the butler. He thumped me on the shoulder in his kind, paternal way, and I was free and full to toddle down the steps and the drive to the car where Chaston waited, asleep or smoking a cigarette or some such thing. As I got in the car and gave Chaston a cheerful “What ho, Chaston! Time we were off!”, I thought that I was now free to resume my plans for a peaceful golfing holiday, oblivious to what Dame Fortune had in store for R. Hopwood. Such innocence! Such faith in the simplicity of the world! How I envy that younger, past Rupert, who knew not of the horrors and trials that awaited him.

That Rupert, dear reader, knew naught of the Grauvghmare and Stillpole Summer Exhibition and Livestock Fair.

PART THE SECOND

It was a few days after I had opportunity to luncheon with my uncle, perhaps as much as a week–

–what point is there, really, in bothering to keep track of the days when you’re holidaying in the country? No need to remember the dates of shows or when certain clubs and restaurants are closed, and if you aren’t suffering through visits with country aunts, you needn’t even remember to bow your head and mumble a few ‘our Lords’ of a Sunday!–

–when Chaston roused me out of bed at a truly inhumane hour.

I say ‘out of bed’, but in fact I was in bed and remained comfortably there, and Chaston may at times seem a bit of a cold man without gentler feelings, but he certainly didn’t force me to suffer the indignity of being physically propelled from the safe cocoon of my slumber.

He did, however, enter the bedchamber holding the telephone as Cleopatra might have held an asp, gently but securely at a prudent distance, so that it might not drop and talk at his foot, one supposes. I am a man who can enjoy a solid and undisturbed ten hours of the required without being woken by whispers and fidgets, especially after a long day of sun and golf, but it is difficult to stay in the soft embrace of sleep and dreams when a valet is looming in unfamiliar quarters at you, brandishing a telephone.

“Good morning, sir,” said Chaston, who never sounds as though he believes in good mornings, bad mornings, or any other sort of quality to the day. “The telephone’s for you, sir.”

“Chaston,” I said, “do you know what time it is?”

“Yes sir,” Chaston responded, and offered no further details. (Chaston is, of course, a perfectly serviceable fellow and I’d be lost without him, but he is not a loquacious chap, by any means. Speak when spoken to, seen and not heard, those are the mottos of the Chaston clan.)

I stared at Chaston and Chaston stared at me, but the gentle Hopwood eye cannot compare to the cool, stone-like gaze of the Chaston oculars, and I finally extended my hand, a man defeated before he had even changed out of his pyjamas.

“It’s Sir Wilberforce, sir,” Chaston advised, as my fingers curled around the ominous instrument.

“As in my uncle?” I asked, for my wits are rarely ready to be gathered at the early hours.

“Yes, sir,” said Chaston and, setting the telephone gently by the pillow, he withdrew to (I could only hope) attend to the preparation of a breakfast to help the young master survive such an early morning ordeal.

I brought the receiver to the old Hopwood ear in some perplexity, pushing myself up among feathered pillows and soft cotton sheets, confident that I could, at least, not feel under-dressed for whatever might come–

–I have always said that one should always look one’s best, no matter where one is or what hour one is existing at, if you follow my mode of thought, which I hope you do, as this is dashed important stuff! Anyway, I was attired in flattering pyjamas of maroon silk, with subtle golden stripes, classic but faintly dashing in its cuts and colouring and very flattering to my complexion. Incidentally, dressing well often helps buck you up a bit for unexpected confrontations, or discussions with those particularly frightsome aunts, and if you have any aunts or any unexpected occurrences in your life, which I’m sure you have, you’d do well to take my advice in these matters.

The telephone in place, I cleared my throat and essayed a civil, “Good morning, Uncle. Feeling all full of pep and vim after a morning stroll in the dew and cows and that, what?”

“Boy,” my uncle said, and I could hear the confounded pipe churring away and periodically clicking against the mouthpiece of the said uncle’s elaborate and expansive telephone, “boy, what are you blathering about?”

“Er,” said I, “just a cheerful morning greeting, what?”

That affectionate being said, “You have the brain and sense of a butterfly, boy. Where in blazes are you?”

I confess, at that I grew somewhat concerned. Every family has stories of the aged relations going a bit dotty in their old age, thinking they’re ducks or cucumbers or whatnot, trying to take up residence with the sheep for a good night’s sleep, or thinking his Majesty’s watching them through binoculars from some particularly-stealthy dirigible perpetually flying over the kingdom. “Why, Uncle mine, I’m at Lay-a-Bayl. The cottage, you know. Near the golf–”

“I know where Lay-a-Bayl is, boy!”

“Well, that’s where I’m staying.”

“I know that, too, you dust-brained nincompoop!”

It was thoughtful of Uncle Wilberforce to reassure me so thoroughly as to his continuing mental cognitiveness. “I confess, then, I’m not sure why you’re asking, if you know, if you see what I mean. I’m in Lay-a-Bayl, in bed–”

“What I mean? What I mean?! Blast you, boy, what I mean is why are you still lounging in bed when the fair starts in half-a-bloody-hour!”

“What fair?”

“THE FAIR,” thundered my uncle, the echo.

I stammered at the ‘phone as my uncle thundered, my dreadful situation becoming increasingly apparent. Chaston returned to the room with a tray, laden with the tea, toast, and the always-required eggs and bacon, setting it over the young master’s blanketed lap. A sip of fortifying tea was certainly appreciated, but it was not all-powerful in helping yrs. truly deal with the torrent of words from the old uncle. There is only so much tea can do, you know.

It appeared that there was in the area–

–and not unique to this area, it’s the sort of thing that pops up all over rural England, infesting otherwise-lovely villages and holiday spots like so many rats–

–a fair of sorts every summer, full of competitions for attractive flowers–

–that is, competitions judging the qualities and attractiveness of flowers, not with flowers themselves competing. At least I don’t think the flowers were entering themselves, although I suppose with science and what as it advances these days, it’s not an impossibility–

–and children racing against each other with eggs and spoons, hopping in sacks, competing for dolls and whistles and all that good wholesome stuff that can act as a shining beacon of whatsit for tots in the perfect bloom of their youth and all that pastoral rot.

From what my tired mind could make out of my uncle’s tirade–

–which would come to be supported in the following hours, although I get ahead of myself and must save these things for their proper time, lest we all get confused–

–the shining moment of this fair of his (well, technically of the village of Grauvghmare and also the village of Stillpole, but you know how these country gentlemen get to feeling proprietary when they spend too long ousted from proper civilisation) was the pig competition. From the way he described it, the pig competition was something more vicious than a prize fight, a major horse race, and grammar school rugby all tumbled together, with every man and woman wanting their pig recognised as superior, and going to any lengths necessary to secure the formal ribbon and cup announcing same.

I, it appeared, had not only been selected to judge this cut-throat competition, but had agreed to do that very same thing over lunch with Uncle Wilberforce!

I protested, of course, as best I could. I tried to demur as one who has no solid grasp of the finer details of pigs, hogs, sows, boars, or, really, anything else squat on four short legs that can be turned into bacon. I attempted to reason with my uncle, to draw his attention to the fact that this vicious lot of pig-fanciers would surely not be pleased by a stranger and city lad like myself judging their beloveds.

Uncle Wilberforce, as uncles do, ignored me completely and rung off after saying that he expected to see me at the grounds within the hour. Unspoken, the threat was clear that if one Rupert Hopwood did not present himself, things would go very poorly for him as long as this venerable relation remained alive to plague him and tell assorted aunts where the young Hopwood might be hiding.

“Chaston,” I said, looking up bleakly from my breakfast, thrusting the ‘phone away from me too late. “Chaston, I’m afraid we must go into the village today.”

“Yes, sir. So I gathered, sir. I have taken the liberty of setting out the linen twill, sir. If I may, sir, I’ll go and ready the automobile.”

Too efficient by half, that chap.

~*~

Dear reader, I was inconsolable! Well, all right, on balance I was probably more -consolable than in-, but I was certainly aghast–no–infuriated–no–well, dash it all, I was quite put out and there were no two ways about it.

The day was lovely as days go and the drive has always been pleasant, but I could not be cheered. The fairground was pretty enough, I suppose, all red-and-cream-striped tents billowing gently in the pig-scented breeze and sturdy country burghers stumping about in their best, but I remained unmoved. There was even a handsome brassy dirigible putt-puttering about in the sky overhead with all its pennants and whatnot aflutter, quite a coup for a country fair I am led to understand, but even that could not restore the gleam to the Hopwood eye.

Even my brand-new suit–

–a lovely wheat-coloured linen, quite nubbly, with the trouser cuffs turned up just so and pressed into pleats so sharp that I might have attempted to shave with them assuming that I’d lost touch with my senses and, assumedly, with my razor–

–even that could not bring the smallest of smiles to my face. Yes, dear reader! Even with my dashing-est straw boater tilted just so over my eyes! It quite matched, you know, the straw just the shade of the linen, the riband the exact buff-white of my shirtfront. For it to bring yrs. truly no joy only proves how inconghastifuriated-out I was!

“Pigs, Chaston!” I said, pointing the car down a gravelled side-road. “As if I knew how to judge one pig better than another, save as bacon! I don’t suppose they let you fry up bits of each one to compare, do they?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, they ought. I shall write a letter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea how to tell a likely pig,” I said, returning to the source of my despair. “I don’t suppose you know.”

“I am led to understand, sir, that the best pig is always a large pig, sir.”

“Really?”

“Yes, sir. The larger the better, if I recall correctly, sir.”

My heart lifted a trifle at that! “So I simply pick the three largest from the field, pin the appropriate ribbon each to each, shake hands all ’round, and Bob’s your uncle? Splendid! … is Bob your uncle, Chaston? I don’t believe I’ve ever asked.”

“No, sir.”

“Wilberforce is my uncle, more’s the pity,” I said. “I should trade you for yours in a heartbeat, Chaston.”

“Yes, sir.”

I eased the car into a pleasantly-shady spot underneath a tree, much relieved. Certainly even the most unreasonable of pig-owners could not argue with the cold, hard fact of the weight upon the scale! And should they attempt to do so, should they even dare to try, well! A crushing glare and thin-lipped recitation of the facts–the incontrovertible facts!–would send them packing right enough.

So relieved was I that I immediately gave Chaston a half-day with pay, enjoining him to enjoy the fair in my stead. He embarked upon this duty so speedily that I fancied I could see the dust rising from underneath his heels. For my part I found myself in no hurry. I thought perhaps a steadying cigarette in the shade before I joined my uncle–

–a tiny grubby hand snatched at my coat-tail. “Here! You Rupert?”

Reader, I must have jumped a mile. I have nothing in particular against children, mind you–

–after all, I was one once–

–but I do generally find them sticky and ill-mannered, or at least in the general vicinity of same. This one had endeavoured somehow to have a running nose in the middle of summer, and even as I watched he blotted it upon his sleeve. “You Rupert?” he demanded again, his thick voice half a harpy’s croak and half a frog’s.

“Er, yes?” I managed after a moment. “I’m Rupert Hopwood. You may call me ‘Mister Hopwood’.”

“Yer uncle says to put this on–” the urchin thrust a gaudy red rosette into my unresisting grip “–and to come to the mechanicals tent sharpish, if you know what’s good for yer.”

“Oh, ah?”

“And yer to give me a penny,” he added, menacing me with one horribly-glistening hand.

“I haven’t got a penny!” I protested, but that terrible hand showed me no mercy whatsoever. And it so close to my handsome new waistcoat! I confess that I ransomed myself via the first coin I found in my pockets, thereby accidentally gifting the urchin with a whole half-a-crown. He vanished so quickly upon its receipt that he quite gave Chaston a run for his money, so to speak.

Downcast anew I inspected the judge’s ribbon. Terrible thing, terrible colours–

–red silk and golden tinsel! I ask you!–

–and heavy enough that it would drag down my suit-coat. Allow me to tell you, dear reader, that no one could say I did not suffer in the pursuit of my leisure. I pinned the wretched thing on forthwith and resolved to put on a brave face, much like my ancestors must have done, at some point or other that currently slips my mind, I’m certain.

I’m afraid I was quite lost in contemplation of my misery as I headed for the fair of my doom and thus the advent of the mad Bolshevik took me entirely by surprise.

He burst out from between two parked cars, this monstrous figure nearly a head taller than I, already reaching for me with a hand the size of a Christmas ham–reaching for me in a most sinister fashion! I confess that I quite leaped backwards, confronted as I was with this spectacle, swaddled in a beastly greatcoat that hid him from his chin all the way to his ruddy ankles, be-hatted with an enormous, shapeless wad of felt, and adorned with that most Bolshevik of beards–

–oh, what a beard, dear reader, a great spider-infested black thing that curled quite nearly to his belt!

All I could see of the man himself were two glittering black eyes like jet buttons, and I can tell you that those eyes meant me no good, no bloody good at all.

He lunged for me, gabbling some mush-mouthed Russian nonsense. It might have made sense at the source, although I’m certain I wouldn’t know, but once strained through that awful beard it sounded like nothing so much as an animal drowning in mud. I fell back another hasty step, warding him off with upraised hands. “Here! I say!”

All he did was grab for me again, attempting to herd me backwards! I risked a glance over my shoulder, dear reader, and what should I see but another motorcar, its boot standing open–

–my God! He meant to bung me in! I was to be kidnaped! Held for ransom!

Under the circumstances, what could I do but beat a hasty retreat? All of a sudden the fair looked to be a very bastion of safety. Suddenly there was nowhere I would rather be than knee-deep in British pigs. I took to my heels at once, and if anyone tries to tell you that I ran off shrieking and flailing my hands in the air, well, I’m certain that they’re overstating the case by a goodly measure.

By the time I was certain I had managed to lose the Bolshevik, I was also just as certain I had managed to lose myself, if you see what I mean. They don’t put out maps to these things, you know. I was beset on all sides by all manner of wholesome country-fair accoutrements except, in fact, that one thing I should have been trying to find myself aside: to wit, some pigs, or, in the alternative, my uncle. I reasoned with great soundness, however, that if Uncle Wilberforce had been so on the ball as to have me besieged by an urchin the moment my foot met the grass, he would surely send the urchin again, or another one just the same, to retrieve me once it became apparent that, in his lack of foresight in mapping the area, I had become a bit discombobulated in my location.

I began a leisurely exploration of the area, glancing hither and thither and other sorts of -ithers, taking in those entertainments that would have given me great joy back when I was in short pants–

–there were children screaming in delight over the bran dip, you know, pulling out model dirigibles and dolls and miniature mechanicals of the sort that would run for a fortnight before collapsing with little dying putt-puttings, boys and terrifyingly-determined girls taking aim with cricket balls and small pistols at balloons and glass bottles, causing infrequent shattering crashes and pops as a child rained destruction down upon those innocent inanimates in pursuit of a model ship or some other glistening prize of childhood–

–and those things which were of little interest to the young but also, sadly, of little interest to Rupert–

–I am simply not country-minded enough to be able to properly bask in the glory of mountainous heaps of marigolds and other ruffly specimens of flowers, and as for the refreshment tent, dear reader, I beg you not to think so poorly of yrs. truly that you could imagine him wishing to subject himself to jam tarts, lemonade, and dauntingly proportioned ham-and-cheese and chutney-and-pickle sandwich-like thingums at such an hour or, indeed, at any hour.

In some tents were signs that the entire spectacle was a pet of my uncle’s. Peeking into gaily-proportioned tents I caught sight of all manner of mechanical innovations and novelties on display, something which is certainly not standard in country celebrations at any time of year.

It was while retreating from an overwhelming number of glass jars full to the brim with vegetable bits-and-bobs that I first became aware of the furious little man with the bristling red mutton-chops, popping in and out of the crowds around me. His head strained against his neck in quite a disturbing fashion as he craned to investigate my figure, and I must confess that I immediately cast about for the Bolshevik, for Mutton-chops had the look of a natural toady about him, a hench-man, perhaps. I was still looking about when Mutton-chops sidled forward and snatched at my elbow. “Yerrrrr Honour,” he said, eyes darting back and forth.

“Er, yes?” I said, trying in vain to extricate myself from his grip.

“Yer going ta be wantin’ ta watch that Patience verrrrrra close,” Mutton-chops hissed, his face contorting with rage. “Scratches and marks on her flanks, scrrrrratches and marrrks!”

Confused beyond all measure and not a little mortified to boot–

–who was Patience, and why on earth would I be so indelicate as to muse about the state of her flanks?–

–I could only rebut with a weakish “Oh, ah?”

“Oh, arr,” Mutton-chops said, nodding in a manner that was, perhaps, meant to be as sagacious–

–the wise old whatsit of the valleys or hills or something, don’t you know–

–but instead looked a bit like the sort of gesture a mechanical might give after having had an unfortunate encounter with an over-boiling teapot or an elderly canine. He appeared to have satisfied himself, however, in whatever it was he had been trying to accomplish, and he mercifully dropped my elbow and sidled away, losing himself in the crowds sharpish.

Dear reader, I had no choice but to formulate the hypo-whatsit that, in truth, all that fresh country air does a man no good whatsoever. Two mad-men in ten minutes! All of a sudden my uncle’s odd fascinations seemed perfectly everyday, almost comforting. Shaken but stouthearted, I pressed on. Once more unto the breach, dear reader, once more!

I had actually hoped, as I investigated the largest of the tents, that this might be where the pigs were being held–

–but of course I failed to consider both that the delicate Hopwood nose did not detect the solid scent, demanding one’s nasal attention, of pigs, or that not even the maddest of uncles could want to confine a horde of pigs in a tent during the summer, when the open countryside is so more suited to deal with the not-so-delicate nature of the beasts, in their many forms.

Still, I could hardly claim to be disappointed that in popping my head through a tent flap I was confronted by something that wasn’t a horde of surly porkers.

There were a few of the wholesome, salt-of-the-earth locals milling about the place, but it clearly lacked the draw of the refreshment tent or the sack race down on the green. At the centre loomed–

–there is no other word for it, for never had something been built more clearly with looming in mind–

–an astonishingly-proportioned mechanical organ, steam-powered and happily chugging and chuffing out something that sounded like a slightly off-key but enthusiastic rendition of ‘Jerusalem the golden’. This, clearly, was my uncle’s latest prize, but the tent was packed with other, lesser items which were no doubt as dear to my uncle as the children he did not have: an unusually large typewriter with a sort of gramophone attached, something glittering and brassy that looked for all the world like a particularly heavy cigarette case, the usual array of watches and clocks, rather menacing whatsits to substitute for spectacles and monocles, an enormous copper cylinder which looked to be suitable for burials at sea but was surrounded by all manner of coffee-cups, a torture device with accessories that suggested it may in fact have been intended as a sort of massive shoe-horn, strange lamps filled with swimming twisting things that hopefully weren’t as alive as they looked, a teapot full to overflowing with cogs and whistles and twists of wire, and strange little animals (obvs. toys, I suppose) on spindly metal legs, milling about on their table and looking as confused by their surroundings as I felt. There was even a sort of reinforced bicycle, plated up like an old warrior of the crusades, if old warriors of the crusades had spiky bits and thick rubber wheels and ominously heavy engines like steamer trunks, which they very well may have had–

–I certainly don’t remember much about my history lessons at the old school, except that in that particular section of the book there were a dreadful lot of pictures of Saracen heads and things, which this bicycle did not seem to have.

But, to make a long story short, as they say, for I would hate to draw things out and lose your attention, dear reader, it was a place quite overflowing with things and other things and noise and steam and smoke and it made it rather difficult for a fellow to realise that his uncle was in the tent, glaring at him with little love in his small eyes that a less-kind nephew might have compared to those of the very pigs that were in question that day, and had, in fact, been shouting such things as “HERE YOU DAFT PILE OF LEGS” in an attempt to get the attentions of yrs. truly.

This, then, I supposed, was the mechanicals tent the horrible urchin had alluded to.

“Oh, hullo, Uncle,” said, aiming for a bit of brightness, raising my voice above the clanging of the contents of the tent and, of course, one of the man’s accursed pipes (this one was long and bone white, steam mingling with smoke that was thicker than fog, contriving to give Uncle Wilberforce the appearance of floating, watery whiskers).

“What in Heaven’s name kept you so long, you chattering ninny? I had a boy near the car park waiting for you so you couldn’t get your damn fool self lost and yet here you are, wandering in late, looking like you haven’t a care in the world or a thought in your head!”

“Well, I–”

The pipe was thrust at me, Uncle Wilberforce tapping the threatening cauldron of a bowl on the offensive tinsel creation I had been forced to affix to my maligned personage. “You have the rosette of office! I have to assume the boy found you!”

“He did, I–”

“Unless you’ve been spiriting the prize rosettes off that upon which they have already been bestowed! The matron aunts’ jam division! The young ladies’ flowering fern competition! The fourteen-and-under model-dirigible race?! Are you a kleptomaniac, boy? Are you a dashed MAGPIE?!” The pipe prodded me with such force that I think it may have severely bruised yrs. truly beneath the ribbons, tinsel, and my own soft linen.

“I did nothing of the sort, I simply–”

“Your father, I remember,” Uncle Wilberforce said, jabbing me with the pipe, “had an uncommonly fierce tendency, when we were lads, of stealin’ bits and bobs from my cog and whirligig collection! But he, at least, had the decency to grow out of it by the time he was your age, well before his unfortunate passing, and didn’t escalate into greater crimes, like stealing prize ribbons from children!”

“It’s the correct ribbon!” I managed at last, this defamation of my long-passed pater enough to get the Hopwood blood to a bit of a boil. “I got it from that horrid urchin before he absconded with my pocket change!”

The merciless tapping and prodding of the pipe ceased as Uncle Wilberforce returned it to his mouth and drew deep of the waters (or tobacco and smoke, as the case may be). He exhaled the wet cloud directly down upon my face, making the old eyes water. “If the boy found you,” Uncle Wilberforce said with a fierce puff on his pipe, “then WHY IN GOD’S NAME ARE YOU ONLY JUST NOW STUMBLING IN, YOU SHAMELESS REPROBATE OF ENGLISH FLESH?!”

I confess the words may have, to the untrained ear, sounded like a bit of a squawk when they finally emerged, but I assure you, they were as reasoned and modulated as anything I have said since the cracking of my voice: “I GOT LOST.”

My uncle surveyed me through the smoke with an intensity usually reserved for a particularly fine (or, I suppose, particularly faulty) bit of machinery, before he hrumphed offensively at me. “Sack of idiocy! Didn’t the boy tell you to meet me in the mechanicals tent?”

“Well, yes, but–”

“Are we not in the mechanicals tent?”

“I suppose, but–”

“How could you miss the blasted place?! It’s big as houses, all in red and white with the copper star on top, plain as the nose on the face of a fellow with a very large nose!”

The tent was hardly positioned in such a way as the eye was immediately drawn to it from a distance, and I will swear to this day that I saw no bloody star, nor did I have any reason to think that, if there had been a star, it would in any way have denoted the mechanicals tent, or any other kind of tent save ‘a tent which happens to have a star on it’, which it probably didn’t in any case. I even ventured to express this situation to my uncle, to clear the air, as it were.

“Well, you see–”

“CAN’T YOU EVEN FINISH A SENTENCE, BOY?”

It was all frightfully trying.

“I don’t see why you’re standing about here, wasting time like some sort of damned solicitor,” Uncle Wilberforce said, seizing me bodily by the arm and propelling my out of the tent, past the collection of infernal devices. I confess, I was getting rather put out by all these fellows seizing me with little concern for my feelings, even when one of the fellows was my own flesh and blood and I was by nature inclined to look kindly upon him in his dotage. “If there is one competition that cannot be kept waiting, it is the pig competition. There’s apt to be riots if you don’t stop bumbling about the place with your head all sorts of places that don’t do a soul a lick of good. Not that your head does anyone much good in any event, but you could at least try, nephew.”

One might think that being upgraded back to the status of nephew was a sign of my uncle’s softening demeanour, his remembering of familial affection for young Rupert, but instead it seemed to be a result of his wishing me to take seriously the duties that had been thrust upon me–

–Shakespeare once said something quite profound on the subject of duties and thrusting, but it’s slipped my mind at present, and, at any rate, I am fairly certain it was not, in fact, about pigs–

–for, as we strode at quite a pace through identical tents, past identical country folk and identical grubby children and identically-rusting mechanicals cleaning up after the first two sorts, Uncle Wilberforce proceeded to explain to me the sacred and, indeed, dangerous duty I was to undertake.

“Nothing’s more important to these poor fellows than their pigs,” he said, making a grandish sort of gesture with his monstrous pipe. “Beastly creatures, if you want my opinion, but try telling them that! Some fellow’s rumoured to have done just that out in Russia, with Russian pigs! Immediate Bolshevik uprising! The first, I think. All because a tsar suggested that some comrade’s porker was a bit sub-par!” My uncle sighed and his monument of a pipe shook, shaking his head along with it as he and the pipe contemplated the dire conditions of Russian chaps and Russian pigs. Then he hrumphed. “They take their animals very seriously, nephew, very seriously indeed. Perhaps a bit too seriously, if I may be frank. Now, it’s been several years since last a judge of pig-flesh was put in hospital–”

“In hospital?” I said. Perhaps I gasped a bit. I tell you, dear reader, you’d have done the same in my position. When one’s already been put into a difficult position, through no fault of one’s own, it squeezes at your heart to realise how dreadful the situation truly is, and that the situation may result in some rough country type prodding you with a pitchfork and trying to feed you to his ravening bacon-producers!

“If you’d just use the ears that God gave you, boy, you’d not only have enough sense to qualify as an imbecile, but you’d have gathered that it’s been several years since the incident and we’ve all put it quite behind us. Particularly the judge in question, the Honourable Theodore Rumley. Old Teddy put it so far behind him that he’s out in Canada now! Raises chinchillas or some fool thing. His wife tells me he’s quite stopped sobbing over the breakfast platters.”

There was another puff from the pipe, the thing rising and falling like an ocean wave. Through the smoke, my uncle squinted at me, in that quelling manner uncles have. “Nothing more need be said on the matter.” My uncle clamped his pipe in his teeth once more, the little twirly bit on the front revolving halfheartedly. “Simply approach the competition with the gravity that it requires.”

I hastened to assure my uncle that all was well and Rupert Hopwood was more than a match for a bunch of pig fanciers. If I was to handle this task with suitable aplomb and emerge intact, then by George, that is exactly what I was capable of doing. “I shall take your words under advisement, Uncle. For this day, they shall be unto me as were the words of Jesus to the lamb. Or possibly the leper.” I frowned, trying to sort out memories of Sunday school that hadn’t involved being suitably awed by Tommy ‘Wiggles’ Whittier’s ability to stick his thumb in a candle flame for a whole thirty seconds, but the relevant bit of whatsit simply wasn’t coming to mind. I dismissed it as irrelevant in this time of pigs and decided instead to sally forth, don’t you know, and show the uncle that I was not such a hopeless case as he thought. “I shall weigh the pigs and see which is the fattest, and pronounce my verdict as solemnly as any justice of the court.”

“The fattest?” My uncle stopped dead in the very middle of a thoroughfare, causing several families to scowl and break about us like waves break against your ankles at the beach, all poetic-like, although waves do tend to mutter and push less. The twirly bit on his pipe twirled madly. “The FATTEST? Who’s been filling your head with such flippity-fluffy-oil-gunk PORRIDGE, boy?”

“I was told–”

“A pig’s weight is only one trifling measure of its worth, boy! Are you a BUTCHER? You are NOT. You are to JUDGE these beasts! If it were a matter of weight then what on bally earth would we need YOU for? Might as well put a sturdy automaton to the task! Probably handle the numbers better than you! Command more respect than you, too, you blistering bit of a daisy chain! First you must go through and inspect them all for the marks of–”

I am assured that my uncle went on at some length, but it was just about then that I ceased to listen, for I caught sight of something terrible. Pushing through the crowd in our direction was none other than the mad Bolshevik! His beady eyes were fastened on me with awful intent, and in his haste he bowled aside a small boy and a squawking matron–had I claimed he was mad? I was vindicated, then, for he seemed about to abduct me at the very heart of the fair, in full sight of all of Grauvghmare and at least half of Stillpole. I confess that I broke out in a coldish sweat on the instant.

Stealing a page from the book of everyone I’d met on this trying day, I caught my uncle by the elbow and spun him halfway ’round, setting off down the concourse at a jump and dragging my poor relation after. “No time to stop and smell the roses, uncle mine!” I cried through the utter rictus of my grin. “Time and tide and pigs wait for no man! We must make haste!”

“Here!” my uncle said, staggering a bit. “Show some respect for your elders, you clot of trifling nonsense!”

“To the competition! And not a moment too soon!”

I set a cracking pace, I tell you. By the time I dared glance back over my shoulder, the Bolshevik was gone again, off to lurk in dark spaces or whatever it is that Bolsheviks do when they’re not out doing no good. What kept me from relaxing again, what stung, dear reader, was the steady stream of complaints and invective from my dear uncle. First he hoped dearly that I would be prompt and make good time en route to the pig competition, and now that we were making good time indeed he was all ‘slow down!’ this and ‘stop pulling on my arm!’ that.

Honestly, I don’t ask for much out of life, just that people be able to make up their bloody minds about these matters.

Still, with a few helpful shouts of ‘YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY, YOU GREAT NINNY’ and the occasional jab in the ribs, my uncle managed to guide us to a spot where… well, to be quite frank, where I could follow the old Hopwood nose the rest of the way in. We came upon the competition pens soonish.

Dear reader, I have never seen such an ill-favoured assortment of filthy, bad-tempered animals in all my life. I refer, of course, to the owners. The pigs themselves were… well, let me put it this way. Imagine that you are an innocent and carefree lad of, oh, sixish, and you come across a simply monstrous box of candy that’s been left wholly unguarded on a sideboard. Well! Obvs. you abscond with the box with all due haste and secret it and yourself up in a convenient hayloft, visions of sweet glory dancing in your little head–

–but when you prise open the lid and peek inside, you find that you have run off with two ancient, hardened, cracking candies, both positively welded to their wrappers, and the rest of the wrappers are full of little screws and bolts and such, all sorted by size. Imagine the disappointment! Imagine the stomach-ache soon to follow once you insist on eating the two candies that are your meagre prize! (And one of the bolts, thinking it just a very stale liquorice allsort.)

The pigs, dear reader, were like those candies, and also like those screws, nuts, bolts, and assorted thingumbobs. The best I could possibly do was ascertain that at least half of them were, in fact, pigs of some sort, although some of those pigs had been painted to enhanced piggish shades and one had a metal carapace of a thing strapped to its back, emitting puffs of steam and making the pig itself look near spherical. The rest–

–the non-pig half of the competitive population, I mean–

–could, optimistically, be sorted into such diverse and un-pig-like categories as shorn sheep, exceptionally-fat bulldogs, cows, tin baths with painted faces on them, and several mechanicals which had apparently been instructed by their owners, programmers, or some malicious prankster to kneel on the ground and emit a sonorous, droning ‘oink’ at precise, clockwork intervals.

I attempted to sidle up to my uncle, to register my most urgent complaint, and discovered that he was not where I had left him. Indeed, he was hoofing it away up the path with an impressive turn of speed for a fellow in his dotage. “This one’s made out of leather!” I cried after him, unwilling to hurtle into the breach without having my say. “There isn’t a pig in there at all, just a leather sack shaped like one!”

My uncle–

–my dear, dear, perfidious uncle–

–disappeared ’round the bend without so much as a jaunty wave of farewell, leaving me with an odoriferous lady of a certain age, I don’t like to say, who reached out and–

–yes!–

–caught me by my cringing elbow, in a grip reminiscent of what dear Archie reminds me are called ‘pliers’ and most certainly not ‘those things, you know the ones, they’re just the thing for unscrewing that fiddly little cap on the tooth-paste tube when it gets all sticky’. “Do yer have something against leather, boyo?” she said, managing to hiss even the words without any esses in them (I suspect poor false teeth were to blame). “That pig yar’s been in my family two hundred and fifty yaars and I won’t hear anything agin him!”

Having sensed weakness, the other farmers fixed their blood-shot eyes upon me and closed in–including, I noticed with quite a jolt, Mutton-chops, already nodding in his jerky manner and crying out, once again, about ‘Patience’. I fell back but shortly I was engulfed, any number of filthy hands plucking at my coat and enjoining my attention, their tempers and mine alike growing shorter by the second, whilst all around us pigs and things-like-pigs (and also quite-unlike-pigs) snuffled and clanked and made horrible groaning sounds–

Really, dear reader, if the fair was doomed from the start to be invaded by giant mechanical spiders with a taste for stylish chapeaus–

–which it was, although at the time I, the farmers, and most of the pigs had no way of knowing this–

–then the providential timing of said invasion, at least, was most welcome by yrs. truly.

PART THE THIRD

“Back, you ruffians! Back! Or you shall learn of the terrible fate that awaits those who manhandle a Hopwood!” I cried–

–or words to that effect, as I must confess that I do not recall my precise words, lost as I was in the heat of the moment. They may not have been exactly those words, or even words at all. I certainly cannot now, sitting peacefully at home, think of what terrible fate might await rough individuals who lay hands on yrs. truly, which means I almost certainly would not have been able to think of the aforementioned during such trying moments.

At any rate I batted away the filthier hands that were grasping at me–

–the less hamhock-like, as I doubted my own would be quite up to that task–

–and fell back a step, seeking a prudent route of escape so that I might not be forced to unleash the full force of my gentlemanity–

–my Hopwoodity, if you will!–

–upon those poor benighted souls (again, this dreadfulness being something I still can’t quite put the thingummy to, but I’m sure if rock and other rock came to it and there was no avenue of escape, I would manage something, and my assailants would be jolly well surprised, I can tell you!).

Dear reader, I sought in vain. My tormentors were all about, and the only route left open would have required me to egress by way of the pig-pens, which I can tell you that I was not about to do, not with these shoes less than three months old! So it was most fortuitous timing on the part of the great dirigible overhead, that it should be that very moment in which it chose to let fall the massive hatch on the underside. The hatch swung open with a most ponderous clunk, which drew the attention of many a fair-goer–

–and then, like a hen, only a very large one made of brass that has somehow learnt to fly and then chosen to orbit a country fairground, I can only suppose out of nostalgia, the dirigible vented from its underside an egg. But what an egg! A massive steely thing almost half as tall as I!

It fell straight down into the main square, leading with its fat end–

–do real eggs do so as well? I shall have to ask–

–and crashed to the ground with a hollow boom. Even as its corpus made contact with terra firma, its upper end burst, I tell you, simply burst into a panoply of sharp spidery legs, the kind with far too many joints in them, and the thing hopped up with a squeal of un-oiled bits. There it stood, balanced upon the tips of its eight toes like four very angry ballerinas all stuffed into a single tutu. The screaming began immediately, as well it might, as the dirigible-hen above laid another silvery egg, and another.

I could only suppose that this was not an entertainment that my uncle had planned. Or perhaps it was, for who can understand the ways of uncles, but if so, I must say it was in very poor taste.

Well! What a hubbub! In a trice I and the pigs were abandoned, our erstwhile aggressors bolting for safer pastures. I am pleased, nay, proud to say that I held my ground, although I confess that I did take a step behind a nearby fence and perhaps crouch just a bit. Purely out of prudence. Bravery and prudence do not often commingle, but on that day I managed it!

In the main square there were now several spider-things lurching about. Whoever had built the sorry things must have known a thing or two about mechanicals but obvs. did not know the first thing about spiders, nor, indeed, about legs. Perhaps he had none for reference.

Legs, I mean, not spiders, although I might also mean spiders.

In any case the spiders got about mostly by lifting a few legs and falling in that direction, thumping off the ground and hoisting themselves aloft anew once the rocking had stopped. My uncle, wherever he was, was certainly unimpressed with their locomotion.

Graceless and awkward the things might be, but no simple clowns these! No harmless entertainers! Even as I watched–

–horrorstruck!–

–one of the things reared up and aimed quite a blow at a passing gentleman. I can only surmise that its aim was decapitation, but in this, fortunately, it failed. Its sharp and pointy bit swept clean over the fellow’s head and subtracted only his bowler, which was bad enough, but certainly the better of the two choices, if only by a narrow margin.

Thus removed, the bowler lived up to its name and, well, bowled across the green at quite a decent clip. The spider-thing scrambled after it, bouncing its underside off the ground with a deafening series of metallic clangs, its black eye-spotty thingums all focused on the hat, its new prey. It could not precisely pounce, but it attempted to–

–I suppose it could be called ‘tripping with malice’–

–and captured the hat, hoisting it aloft on one silly leg. It made quite a study of its prey, ticking and hissing and making little chugging sounds, then gingerly placed the hat upon the stubby antenna rising from its head. The mechanical sort of antenna, not the buggish sort, as spiders do not have antennae, I remember that quite clearly from school.

Dear reader, the bowler did not suit. It takes a certain style, a certain gravity, a certain shape of face to truly pull off the bowler hat, and the spider-thing’s face was entirely the wrong shape, inasmuch as it didn’t actually have one. It is true that the be-hatted lumpen spider-thing was quite nearly twice as dashing as the next lumpen spider-thing, but twice as dashing as nothing is still not very bloody dashing, if you follow me.

The battered bowler hung from the antenna in a most precarious manner, spinning forlornly about, never to serve as a handsome hat again–

–I may have swallowed a lump in my throat–

–but all the same all the other spider-things paused and turned towards the behatted one. After a biggish pause they all spun about again and lolloped away, waving their silly pointy leg bits everywhere as they wrought their headwear harvest.

Men all over the fair were shortly being de-hatted so that the fashion-conscious spiders might be en-hatted. I hope that you will not think less of me to learn that I took to my heels at once.

I assure you that I am as brave as the next man, assuming that the next man isn’t Lord Nelson, which he oughtn’t to be because I am assured that the brave Admiral has quite passed on, an event which I should hope would preclude his standing next to me, because if a dead man undertook to stand next to me I confess I shouldn’t be very brave at all about the situation.

No, dear reader, I fled not for the sake of my own skin (although I confess to being fond of it) but for the sake of my handsome, just-matching, brand-new straw boater, which did not deserve to be hung from an antenna, mechanical or simply buggish. I knew, if these spiders had any taste built into them whatsoever, they could not help but make a target of my boater and, by extension, myself, and the wisest course of action was clearly to leg it.

Leg it I did, perhaps with very little dignity, but if you have ever been chased from a pen full of pigs by mechanical spiders interested in nothing but haberdashery, I would suggest that you could not have managed to be chased in an elegant manner, either. It was taking quite all of my attention to keep from shouting as the other people surging and panicking about were, for I certainly did not wish to draw attention to myself. I also had to maintain a solid grip on my boater, lest it fly from my head in the opposite direction of my own flight–

–that’s momentum, or some similar sort of thing which I can’t say I’m familiar with, but I’m sure whatever I am thinking of exists in the same general educational vicinity as momentum–

–and my attempts to preserve it be for naught.

I also, in my haste to find somewhere free of mechanical spiders, may have bunged open one of the pens that had been retaining the pigs and non-pigs, and then–much like momentum again, perhaps–one pig escaped, then another, then all the pigs came forth, as well as all the non-pigs, just as panicked as the people around them except for those things that weren’t actually alive, which just sort of bumbled along with the crowd.

So there I was, trying to outpace the spiders, fight the crowd of sturdy country folk who were also fleeing the spiders in a rather loud and violent manner, and avoid being caught up in the mess of pigs I had inadvertently unleashed–

–but I think any right-thinking man would agree that at the time I had more important things on my mind than pigs, particularly when their own proprietors and guardians had abandoned them, although, of course, perhaps they were able to do that in clean conscience, having already realised that the hatless creatures would be safe from the spiders.

Dear reader, Rupert Hopwood is many things, but a practised escape artist he is not. Over the course of the next few horrible moments many elbows and knees and such made contact with my most sensitive areas (of which I have rather a lot), and several mucky Wellington boots did their very best to trample my new shoes into the mud, and more than one woman bearing a double armful of shrieking and sticky children endeavoured to careen directly into yrs. truly and thus transfer the stickiness that they carried. It was in my attempt to evade just such a collision that I managed to fall headlong over the inflatable leather sack that was most certainly not a pig at all, my jacket catching on its curly tail (which in hindsight may very well have been a cork-screw) and ripping quite from stem to stern! Well! I’m sure that you’ll agree that there are places a fellow should be able to expect his clothing to remain unmolested and intact, even when those places are invaded by dirigibles spitting out giant mechanical spider egg capsule things!

It’s times like this that one really wishes to pause and ask what, exactly, has become of our once-glorious Empire?

Except, of course, it was a very inopportune time to stop and pause for philosophy and politics and nostalgia for better times, when country fairs weren’t attacked by dirigibles or spiders, when gentlemen didn’t have their feet trod on at said fairs or their clothing torn at same, when, in fact, young Rupert would be nowhere near the fair in the first place!

As I may have mentioned earlier my uncle had neglected to provide me with a map of the area, so I hadn’t the faintest idea which way what was or where I was racing to, although in my mind I thought to be aiming for the exterior of the grounds, so that I might jump in the automobile and vacate the premises swiftly–

–particularly if this thought had also popped into Chaston’s mind, for he’s a devilish speedy driver when given the proper motivation, and I am sure he would be properly motivated, despite his failing to possess a hat of comparable quality to any of my own, and I would like to think he has enough devotion to the young master to wish to preserve my boater.

Somewhere, through the crowds and the screams and the terror, I thought I spotted the right path, such as it was at the time full of condensed mobs. I ducked, I bobbed, I swayed with boyish agility through the tumultuous waves of the crowd and was rewarded, after a certain amount of trouble, with the sight of the waving streamers and drifting balloons that marked the entrance to the fair. Indeed, beyond the colours and the crush of fleeing bodies, I even caught sight of my precious vehicle!

Unfortunately, it was not all roses and sugar for yrs. truly, for I and a dozen or so of the terrified citizenry were not the only ones to have found the exit. Several of the spiders had been deposited in this area and were lurking fiendishly amongst the balloons, trailing colourful streamers from every appendage, clearly intending to prevent a dignified exit.

One of these spiders had a top hat, clearly the superior of its brethren. Another, poor soul–

–although of course it was a devilish monstrosity and had no soul and it is only because of my great tenderness of feelings and gentle nature that I am capable of pitying the monstrosity at all–

–had a hideous, oil-stained cloth cap dangling precariously from its antenna. Several more, however, were bare-antennae’d, and of that number two quickly fixated on me, a dozen black eye spots blinking dim colours at me as they triangu-something’d my location and began their lurching approach.

Knowing I would have to find a different avenue of escape, I turned and ran. (I certainly did not scream as they advanced upon me, and anyone who suggests otherwise is asking to receive strongly-worded letters from both myself and my solicitor.) My only chance was to lose them in the crowds. Perhaps, I hoped–

–but only faintly, for it hardly seemed like a probable thing, and Rupert Hopwood is no fool, no idle dreamer he–

–they would be distracted by a hat superior to my own.

I ran, I knew not where, and knew even less when one of the awful arachnoid abominations stumbled into me and swiped my glorious boater cleanly off my head, its hideous leg brushing through my hair like a particularly unpleasant and faintly motor-oiled comb, if such a thing was allowed on a gentleman’s dressing table. I stumbled and could not bear to look behind me to see the creature ruining my boater, perhaps staining the ribbon, maybe even breaking the straw in an attempt to perch it more securely on the antennae. The images conjured up by imagination alone were enough to make the incident one of the saddest I’ve experienced in my short life. After sustaining such a blow, I’m not sure how I was able to keep moving, but I certainly did so, after a fashion, with my shoulders hunched and my head ducked down.

It was as I ran in such a position that I felt a great pinching grasp in the region of my head–

–this is it, I thought! Having taken my hat and my dignity, the monsters will now take my scalp and all manner of unpleasant things!–

–before hair, head, and all the rest of me was yanked quite brutally into, and then past, the musty striped flap of a tent.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, when it became apparent that my head was still in place, despite its soreness. The grasp on my hair was released and I staggered upright, only to find myself face to face–

–well, sternum or thereabouts, if I must be accurate–

–with the mad Bolshevik, his massive beard bristling threateningly, with wires and other mechanical fiddly bits dangling unkempt from the black coils (because I suppose when one is in possession of such a monstrosity of facial hair, it’s impossible to resist using it as a sort of extra pocket).

Dear reader, I had tumbled from one crisis into another! Perhaps even a worse one! Perhaps, I thought, in a sudden flash of terror, the exterior crisis vis-a-vis the spiders had been manufactured by this giant Bolshevik beast to facilitate his kidnapping of yrs. truly!

True, he looked as dishevelled as myself (once one had taken into consideration of very different starting states, of course) and, also like myself, he was missing–

–and it was a blessing, really–

–his hideous cap, revealing that, underneath that offensive waste of fabric, there had been a shocking head of fair, un-Bolshevik-like hair (although it had a faint reddish tinge, which I suppose is somewhat Bolshevik). If this mad kidnapper was also a mad manufacturer of spiders, I thought, it seemed that his creations had gone beyond his control to some degree.

I drew myself up and firmed the old Hopwood upper lip, determined to acquit myself with bravery, dignity, or, if necessary, with my cheque-book. One must keep an open mind when confronted by the unknown and all that. “I say!” I said. In fact, I may have said it again. “I say!”

The Bolshevik leaned past me and peered out through the tent-flap again. “Tch,” he said, his deep and sonorous voice only somewhat muffled by his nasty facial outcropping. “Terrible design. Just terrible. Bloody things can’t even walk properly, let alone figure out the tents. We should be safe enough in here for the nonce, I think. Unless, of course, one’s dropped right on us, but that phase of the bombardment seems to have passed.”

After a fair few moments of blinking and stammering, I may have offered a tentative “… your English is really much better than I was expecting.”

Not, of course, that I think those of Russian extract are unfamiliar with the gentle English tongue, but, well, if I’m to be perfectly frank, you simply don’t expect one of the aforementioned to go ‘Tch’ in that manner I’ve always thought the specialty of tight-lipped and disappointed headmasters.

“And why shouldn’t it be?” the Bolshevik enquired, turning his eyes back to me. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m being quite rude–” and he simply lifted off that terrible beard all in a piece and tossed it aside! If only, dear reader, all such horrors could so easily be disposed of–

–but one supposes it wouldn’t be easy to lift and toss aside aunts, at least, not without getting the aunt frightfully shirty and affronted, which would be the exact opposite of the outcome one might have been hoping for when the tossing commenced.

You could have knocked me over with a feather, or really with any manner of thing. You might not have even needed the thing! The shock, along with the other stresses of the day, had left me feeling very knockable, very knockable indeed.

Having lost the awful cap and the man-eating beard, my assailant stripped off the foul greatcoat as well, revealing what was really quite a nice herringbone sack suit underneath. That done, he turned to me again and offered me his hand. “As I have been trying to say for quite some time now, my name is Archibald Plunkett and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last, Mr. Hopwood.”

“Er. Rupert Hopwood,” I said, grappling with that monstrous hand and letting its owner pump my arm. Stripped of his Red disguise he proved to be a square-jawed and fair-haired fellow, indubitably English. Such a relief! Indeed, our relative safety and the very Englishness of the fellow restored a bit of the old Hopwood spirit to yrs. truly upon the instant. I felt quite bucked up, I tell you. “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure–but please, you must call me Tricksy, all the fellows do.”

“Tricksy?” said my erstwhile antagonist–

–at least, I hoped it was erstwhile, as I don’t think antagonists are in the habit of making proper formal introductions, and the Bolshevik presentation was evidently for show.

His fair brow creased as he looked down at me. “Well. Well, all right, if you insist. You may call me Archie, if you like.” He fished about in his jacket and produced a card, which he offered me with a flourish and which I accepted in like manner.

Formalities seen to, and any thought that he might have been some sort of evil-doer thoroughly dispelled–

–because, well, if the lower elements of society went about giving fellows their cards, I’m sure everyone would look upon the perpetrators with a good deal more kindness (and, as far as I know, at least, they do not and continue to get locked up and pursued by the constabulary and whatnot)–

–I took the liberty of looking about. Gathering in the surroundings, don’t you know, so that I might better formulate a course of action that might take me to safety.

The tent in which I found myself was–

–oh, it will come as no surprise–

–the mechanicals tent so beloved by my uncle. I must say, though, that it was hardly in the condition in which I left it! At first I believed that the spiders must have been at the exhibits, for they were tossed about all willy-nilly and broken into pieces–

–my uncle should be heart-broken, but as for myself, I did not care overmuch–

–but upon second thought, any spider which cannot even walk without bouncing its nether regions off the ground could not have taken apart any mechanical with any precision, such as I was seeing here.

To be sure, there were areas that had been quite well trampled, guard rails and such knocked over and about, delicate bits of glasswork and other fragile fiddlies shattered into glittery bits, a few of the stouter devices missing crucial parts–

–no doubt taken by enterprising young fellows thinking to combat the spiders directly–

–but, where there was chaos, it was hardly a spider-caused chaos. In fact, there was even a rotating hatstand of a thing still slowly making its wobbly circuit on its table, with a few hats on outstretched tongs for demonstration purposes.

Sadly, the display hats were all quite terrible and impossible to consider wearing with my suit, and thus remained undisturbed by my hatless self.

The presence of the hats was the surest sign that spiders may have been around and about outside the tent, but they had yet to figure out how to penetrate the insides, and the more orderly destruction I found–

–exhibits swept off tables, piled into neat piles, some broken down into components which were then put into their own special, smaller piles–

–was evidently the work of more graceful appendages than the spiders possessed.

Indeed, after a long moment of keeping watch, my new companion returned to the pile of exhibits and seized the monstrous Italian coffee-pot, wrenching it apart bare-handedly, which was quite a spectacle, I assure you! “Here,” I said, but I confess that I said it with no great force, as any fellow who can turn a copper kettle into scrap with no tool but his hands is no fellow I want to upset.

Archie put the pieces down next to each other and turned a look upon me that was no less than abashed. “Please do not think me a vandal, Mr. Hopwood–”

“–oh, Tricksy, Tricksy, do.”

“–Tricksy, of course, my apologies.” Fishing about in his discarded greatcoat, Archie shortly produced a bewildering display of tools with which he attacked the remains of the reinforced bicycle.

Although prudence should have led me to keep watch I must confess that I drifted closer, curious as to what this mad fellow was doing, and at such a time! Dear reader, even my mechanicals-mad uncle should have put aside his tinkering when there were dangerous hat-stealing clockwork spiders about!

Or perhaps he wouldn’t, but I do prefer to think that anyone bearing the Hopwood name would rise to the situation in a suitable manner.

“Are you an artificer?” I asked, although I did suspect that I knew the answer, but one mustn’t make assumptions or let the standards of polite society be discarded, even in times of crisis.

“Indeed I am,” said Archie, fitting two of the pieces together with a scowl. “I do prefer the term ‘mechanical engineer’, however–be a love and bring me my beard?”

Blinking, I cast about. The beard lay like a sleeping furry beast on a nearby table, and while I must confess that touching it sent shivers up my spine, I could not but do what this fellow wished, out of the spirit of gentlemanly generosity or some such rot. Also, I may have mentioned the ripping metal things apart with his bare hands, and he was, even outside of his disguise, quite the giant of a man, and, well, there are certain fellows whom one simply wishes to accommodate, rather like aunts, except not at all like aunts, if you see what I mean. “You never did explain why you were wearing that horrible thing,” I ventured, handing it to him.

Archie fished about in its fibres for a few moments and produced a frightening number of wires and screws and other assorted bits and bobs. If I had known that a false beard could hold so much–

–well, I still would not have worn one, because it was horrible.

“Just as a precaution,” Archie said, bending his fierce attention to the bits he was working on. “The constabulary wishes to speak to me most earnestly about a trifling matter involving a peat bog and the most piddling little explosion of part of it–as if the grand progress of mankind gives a damn about peat, exploding or otherwise!”

“I know I certainly don’t.” Having been on the wrong side of the law a time or two myself–

–the London constabulary could certainly be more understanding on those occasions when a fellow’s had one or two too many–

–I felt a sense of kinship with the fellow. I truly understood his troubles, I felt, and as such I felt free to lay a consoling hand upon one broad shoulder.

His reaction was not precisely the one I was expecting, nor the other one I was expecting, nor even the outlandish third one that I wasn’t actually expecting at all. Archie stood up with half the monstrous copper thing in his hands and thrust it in my direction. I will confess that I stepped back a bit, uncertain as to whether he wanted me to take it–

–I suppose it might have made a passable shield against the spiders, should it come to that, but I had already been rendered hatless and as such I had nothing more to fear nor much to live for–

–but after a moment he nodded and harrumphed in a schoolmasterish tone. “It will have to be you,” he said. “I’d never fit.”

“Oh, ah?” I said. Dear reader, I had no idea what he might be referring to. If I had known then what I know now… well, I should have been wise to flee like the very hounds of whatsit were on my heels, but I think that, knowing what else I know now, I still would not have done so. Occasionally–

–very occasionally, you know–

–it does suit me to be unwise.

“Oh, yes,” said Archie. Back-handing the hapless travelling hatstand aside he laid the half-a-kettle on the nearest table and produced… something that looked rather like the little device that Chaston uses to open tins, only larger and a bit more threatening, which isn’t terribly hard, as the tin-opening device is barely the size of a tooth-brush and cannot, as I discovered, be used to cut anything tougher than underdone bacon. Catching the tin-opener in one hand he punched it through the copper and sawed out a short strip, then another, and another, until there was a smallish grille left behind, like the one through which Pyramus and Thisbe made love–

–you surely remember the one, they were Greek or Roman or of some other place that couldn’t dress itself properly and their parents were all contrary on the subject of their romance, and it was hard not to understand that point of view, vis-a-vis a great triangular pile of stone making overtures to a young lady or possibly a young lad, for I confess I can scarcely keep these things straight–

–before putting the device aside. “The spiders are the problem, you know,” said Archie.

“Well said!” I said. “My dear Archie, I could not agree more.”

Archie seized the pile of armoured bicycle bits and spread them all out about the copper tub. “Can’t just let them wander about the countryside doing as they please,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the really quite astonishing racket that he was producing. “There shouldn’t be a hat left in all of England by the end of the week!”

“Horrible!” I said, with real feeling. Indeed, the horror of the idea threatened to buffet me to my knees on the instant, and only a lingering respect for my trousers kept me upright, not that they were not torn and dirtied in spots already, but it’s the principle of the thing, don’t you know. “Something ought to be done!” I cried over the din.

“Exactly my thought,” said Archie. The automated shoe-horn was the next to die for the sake of whatever it was he was building, as he produced a simply monstrous wrench from the depths of his greatcoat and simply, well, wrenched off half its bits. “Now, they’re nasty bits of work, all right, but I suspect that a good conk ’round the top ought to do for them.”

Dear reader, I with my lightning-quick mind saw the problem in a flash, and as little as I like to rain on a man’s parade, I thought that it behooved me and the gravity of the situation to point out the issue sharpish. “They’re awfully tall, aren’t they? You’d have to be seven bloody feet tall to conk one ’round the top, as you so deftly put it!”

“Ah, you’ve spotted the problem, well done.” Archie harrumphed again–

–while the sound was passingly similar to my uncle’s ferocious hrumphing, I must say that coming from Archie it was neither so painfully pointed nor so dismissive of yrs. truly, and as such rather a pleasant sound–

–and wielded the wrench about the pile with both skill and verve. “Fortunately I believe I have an answer for you, even if I do say so myself.”

“Really? Smashing! Jolly well done!”

“I rather thought so,” Archie said, with a refreshing lack of modesty tempered with a perfectly brave smile, and with a grave flourish he picked up the conglomeration of metal bits and set it on its feet. Yes, its feet, dear reader, for what stood before me was quite obvs. nothing less than a mechanical. But what a mechanical! Nearly eight feet tall, if I am any judge, and I flatter myself to think that I am, it had sturdy crooked legs and long arms that ended in ferocious bludgeons, one of which had begun the day as a teapot, the other oddly like a humidor.

With such a mechanical at England’s disposal I suspect that we could give all of Versailles a ding ’round the ear, should it need it again, which I’m certain that it will, sooner or later. No mere mechanical this! What Archie had built–

–and built out of assorted items at hand under great duress while wanted by the law–

–was nothing less than a mechanical soldier, a doughty fighting machine, armed and armoured to the teeth and prepared to smash the enemies of our brave Empire wherever they might lurk, including behind washing-machines and up underneath verandas and other such spider-infested domains.

Dear reader, I may have cooed and clasped my hands to my breast in relief. “My dear Archie, you’re a miracle worker! No spider, no matter how mechanical, could stand up to this fellow. Quickly, then, let’s set him loose.”

“Well, you see,” Archie said, but just at that moment something blundered into the side of the tent with enough force to snap two of the guy-ropes, and whatever I could see would have to be seen later. The tent lurched to the side with a terrifying groaning ripping shuddering sound, and it was only out of fear for Archie’s fate that I leapt towards him, intending to knock him bravely out of the way of the collapsing tent and take the blow upon my own noble noggin, for the good of all.

Of course the tent did not collapse all the way but merely fell in a bit at one end, and in any case Archie is rather too large a fellow to be easily knocked about, so in the end it developed that my violent motion towards him caused him, quite naturally, to throw up his hands and thus catch me as I co-incidentally flung myself into his arms–

–but not shrieking, dear reader, whatever you might have heard–

–and then the bumbling thing fought its way through the side of the tent and revealed itself to be a very familiar-looking pig all strapped into a steaming mechanical exo-whatsit, simply bawling with hoggish terror.

“Oh, the dratted thing!” I cried, letting out a bit of a laugh in my relief.

Poor Archie wasn’t half frozen in place! I suppose it’s not every day a fellow leaps into his arms in quite so athletic a manner. Not that I was ever particularly athletic at school, mind you, but one never knows the limits of one’s endurance until one is driven to them. Still, eventually dear Archie managed a weak “Er, yes.”

“And such a racket, too!” I had intended to put a hand over one ear, to spare myself at least half the bawling, but I found that I couldn’t as I needed both hands to clutch at Archie and prevent myself from taking quite a spill. Strong fellow, without a doubt, but the cradle of his arms was so high up off the ground! “But I suppose I can’t blame the poor thing for squalling,” I said. “Lord knows that if I were trapped inside some horrible mechanical contrivance and surrounded by vicious spider-shaped automata, I should feel quite like crying myself.”

“Er. Well. It’s funny you should say that,” said Archie.

I shifted a bit, trying not to be too dramatic about it. “Is it?” I said. “Fancy that. I say, you can probably safely put me down now.”

“What? Oh. Yes.” Belatedly Archie shifted his grip on me, in preparation for setting me gently back on my feet. Or so I thought! “There’s a good fellow,” Archie said, all distrait, and before I could realise the scope of his villainous designs he bunged me straight into the mechanical soldier!

Dear reader, as well you know, I am not the fellow to whom you go to have explained to you all the intricacies of mechanical design. In general, as long as the thing can be wound up and then left to tick back down, I count myself content, without even the slightest urge to take the bloody thing apart and find out why it should need to be wound up, or why, indeed, it ticks back down. I am generally more than happy to leave the finding-out-of-things to other people, as long as the blasted device does what it claims it will (which so often it does not, in fact, do).

So you must understand that when faced by Archie’s enormous metal automaton, I failed to notice that it did not contain any sort of motive device, that is to say, any sort of engine. What it did contain, I immediately discovered, was a Rupert-sized hollow adorned with a bicycle seat in that most traditional of places, and a pair of bicycle pedals just where my feet might go, and a pair of bicycle hand-grips slap up against my palms, and indeed most of the rest of the armoured bicycle, although most definitely not in the traditional bicycle configuration in which its original inventor had left it. Truly I believe that he should not have recognised his handiwork once Archie was through with it. “Here!” I cried, making a valiant attempt to free myself.

“The line must be drawn here,” Archie said in a voice most firm. Struggle as I might, I struggled in vain. He was really quite gentle about it, but as intractable as an entire cohort of constabulary, packing me into the mechanical soldier rather like a fellow on an assembly line packs chopped meat into tins, assuming that the meat did not wish to be packed and still had the wherewithal to combat said packing. No sooner had I got a leg popped free than Archie would tuck away my arm–

–and if I managed to free my arm then he would pack my leg back into its proper place–

–and should I attempt to leave the bicycle seat one of those patient hands would take hold of me in a place where I generally do not suffer myself to be touched unless it is by myself in the bath, by a medical professional in the course of his duties, or by a very, very dear friend indeed during never-you-mind, and he would pack that away as well, although with some embarrassed harrumphing and such that leads me to believe that the glad-handing was not entirely on purpose, and so on, and so forth.

Worst of all, of course, was the fact that the hollow was just barely large enough for one Rupert, and so to pack me away Archie was forced to utterly wodge up what was left of my once-quite-lovely suit and stuff bits of it into small spaces all willy-nilly and catch-as-catch-can. Indeed, once he got the leg parts closed over my legs there was still quite a bit of trouser pinched in the seams, and I do believe that my jacket was in two pieces! I let him know of my displeasure in no uncertain terms, I’ll have you know. Indeed, I was most vociferous. I may have, in my extremity, threatened him with the attentions of my solicitor.

He paid it no mind. Once I was well and truly enclosed in the mechanical suit, gazing in horror out at the world through that little grille I had just so recently watched him create, he bobbed up within the range of my vision looking very stern and just a bit forlorn, with a cheap racing-cap from the hatstand caught in both hands. “We mustn’t let them leave the grounds,” Archie said, ever so gently impaling the cap upon the sharp bit at the top of my copper prison, a lure that the spiders would surely be unable to resist. “We must bring the fight to them and we must end it here, before they escape to menace the rest of old Blighty.”

“We, you say,” I said, perhaps just a bit petulant. Unbecoming, I know, but my suit!

Archie nodded. “We,” he said, and he picked up his monstrous wrench and thwacked its heavy end against his palm. “We few, we happy few, and all that.”

Well! I felt a bit better, knowing that I should not be wholly abandoned in this, my hour of need. “As long as I needn’t actually shed any blood,” I said anxiously.

“Not a bit,” said Archie. “There’s good black iron underneath that copper and down through all the tubing. You’re safer in there than you would be anywhere else. Give it a go, why don’t you?” He stepped back a few prudent paces and gestured at the empty table which had so recently held the parts of my new ensemble. “Just take the handle in your hand and give it a swing!”

It wasn’t as if I had much of a choice, entrapped as I was! I caught up the handle and made a careful and cringing gesture–

–and quite by accident back-handed the table clear across the tent. It landed with an awful clatter, quite frightening the pig. My goodness, I may know my own strength, but I didn’t know that of my new suit, apparently. My newfound strength gave me some spirit and I pumped gingerly at the bicycle pedals, essaying a few heavy, clumping steps, which went well enough for me, if not, sadly, for the army of skittering mechanical toys below, which had skittered for the very last time. “A conk ’round the top, you say,” I said, raising my voice to be heard through my grille.

“Aim for the eye-spots,” said Archie.

“Well, then,” said I, bracing myself as best I could and shifting astride my bicycle seat. “I suppose there’s no time like the present, is there?”

“None at all, Tricksy. None at all.”

I thought about giving a triumphant cry of “Upon St. Crispin’s Day!” or some such, but of course it was only July, and in any case I am hardly Henry. (For one thing, I have a much better barber.) So, as many a Hopwood has done before me, I made do. “Right ho!” I cried, my ersatz carriage rearing up and flailing about with its fists, or in any case with its tea-kettle and humidor. “Let’s give those spiders what for!”

Archie brushed aside the tent-flap and I and my mechanical steed charged through, giving tongue to a rising war-cry meant to give warning to the Hopwood enemies and give heart to the Hopwood allies. I was certainly not screaming. And even if I was, it was certainly not in terror.

The situation into which I found myself most uncomfortably forced was not nearly as terrifying as it might have been. Archie spoke true about the durability of his patchwork faux-mechanical (possibly there is a word for patchwork when there is no cloth involved and all the bits of metal and such, but I can’t say it’s one I’m familiar with). I certainly felt safer in the armour than I had when trying to make an escape with only the fabric of my shirt between myself and the motorised hat-stealing horrors.

But if a fellow had put the question to me, saying, for instance, Tricksy, dear chap, can you think of anywhere you would rather be than sitting inside eight clanging feet of something that was half bicycle, half suit of armour, half medieval torture device (when you have eight whole feet of a thing, it adds up to a lot of halves)? I can assure you my answer would have been a resounding YES. In the thick of the action, as it were, I managed to think, when I could think at all, of any number of places I would have rather been. Just because a situation is less dire than an early situation does not mitigate its direness, you know.

Consider, for instance, the crucial differences between being up before a tee-totalling judge after a particularly riotous bit of revelry in the name of the old school and being up before the aunt in whose care you currently find yourself after a similar bit of revelry. Any fellow will tell you that the judge is a marked improvement over the aunt (judges, after all, were in theory once young men themselves, and may have once known pleasure, while the same can never be said of a certain breed of aunt), but the fellow who claims that the direness of the latter makes the former all milk and honey and whatnot is a fool. So if anyone had happened to notice yours truly making some undignified noises–

–not that I am admitting to anything of the sort–

–I will maintain until my dying day that they were utterly justified!

I will admit, though, that having the mountain that is Archie at my side with his club-like wrench clutched in his fist did allay my fears to some degree, far more even than being trapped in a giant walking canister–

–and if you do not think that this situation, even in the abstract, is not terrible, I invite you to try stuffing yourself into something similar. Perhaps your cook can help fit you into the oven or a teapot and once they’ve done that, please drop me a letter detailing the experience. I do not ask for you to publicly recant your opinion, but simply a civil ‘Hullo, Rupert, the crockery pot was a spot of torture, sorry for thinking you might be overreacting’ will suffice.

Outside the tent, I pedalled away, working up an unpleasant bit of a sweat, it having been a good ten years at least since I was last a young lad on a bicycle and those muscles apostrophe with disuse–

–or something to that effect–

–and I could scarcely focus on anything but the pedalling. All guidance, then, had to depend on Archie and his wrench (and, to some small extent, on the escaped pig in its clanking support system, which struggled out of the tent after us and proved remarkably skilled at knocking debris away and giving us a bit of a path, particularly for this mechanical suit that didn’t so much bend at the knees). Thus, we made our way through the ruins of the fair and I say, as someone who was not very impressed with the grounds on first sight, that they had only grown worse with the advent of the spiders.

The racing cap perched offensively and inelegantly upon the spire of my mechanical-bicycle-suit thingum performed as expected and several spiders made their way through the chaos and throng, heading for it–

–and us!–

–with fearsome, clicking determination. A number came from each direction, with the point of their intended arrival being squarely or circle-ly or something-ly right where young Rupert was at. The Hopwood heart raced at the sight of their approach, the Hopwood muscles clenched, and the Hopwood teeth bit painfully into the Hopwood lip–

–a result of the whole tensing and clenching of muscles as aforementioned and not an attempt by yrs. truly to stifle a scream.

“Ding to the top, ’round the eyespots,” Archie bellowed up at me, although with the din as it was, it arrived at my ears as scarcely more than a whisper. Archie emphasised his point by swinging his wrench back like it was a cricket bat and, as the nearest spider came within reach, forward went the wrench to clang mightily at the side of the menace, unbalancing it enough that Archie could then swing up with his wrench and land a resounding blow to the top, smashing in the fragile lens of one eyespot. Half-blind, the thing tottered, made an ineffective grab for the decoy hat and, aided by another blow from Archie’s wrench, toppled to the ground with a mighty crash of metal and sparky bits where it lay, clanging and writhing its leg-stalks in a most ineffective manner.

Another came from the right and Archie turned the attentions of his wrench thusly as I tried to manoeuvre about the twitching remains of the spider–and then, dear reader, already beset upon the right, I was forced to dodge an attack by a spider from the left, as well!

I fumbled with the handlebars, my scuffed shoes sliding in sudden panic against the pedals, failing to register properly, and as the thing made a noise rather like TONK against the side of my carapace, I managed to swing the kettle ’round and smash it against some part of the spider–

–I will admit that my aim may have been a trifle off, and I will also admit that I may have jostled the side of Archie’s head with the humidor in an attempt to connect the kettle with the spider, for he made a most un-gentlemanly and un-gallant noise, but it is to his credit that he didn’t let that little bit of a knock stop him from battling his own spider.

I wrestled with the thing I was supposed to be controlling and managed to knock spider with kettle again, and then a third time, at which point it saw reason and gracelessly collapsed into a jumble of loud, pointy bits.

After that, it was only marginally more difficult–

–or possibly easier, for I never did bother after it was all over to try and refresh myself on an actual bicycle–

–than riding a bicycle, if the bicycle had been enormous and all-encompassing and had arm-like appendages and you were trying to fight clockwork spiders with said bicycle, of course. It all becomes a bit of a blur, rather. My mechanical steed and I sort of shuffled and smashed about through spiders, with Archie thrashing them with wrench and fist, displaying great vigour and strength, which I suppose all these artificer types must have.

Probably part of the entrance test, when you think of it. Question 1: Can you take on an errant mechanical in a fight using nothing but your fists and the nearest sturdy tool? If the answer is no, your entire exam gets scratched and you presumably go to some less physically-demanding profession (butchering comes to mind, for some reason I’m not all that certain of). But I digress.

As I was saying, or trying to say (but with the pen, you know, not the tongue–if I were trying to set this all out orally, my word but I’d have been in need of refreshment some time back!), Archie and I were getting into the rhythm of the thing, to some extent. The spider would swarm in, drawn by the horrible cap impaled upon my suit, dismissing the un-hatted Archie as no worthy target–

–Archie would take a swing at its leg-stalks, forcing it to stumble–

–and I would bring either tea-kettle or humidor down on the blasted creature’s eyespots while it was struggling to bring itself upright again. In this way we must have dispatched hundreds of the nasty blighters, or nearly twenty, at any rate.

The pig, by this point, had proved himself the smartest of all of us by vanishing clean over the horizon and having nothing to do with any of this sorry mess, nothing at all. I suppose it’s too much to ask for pigs to have national spirit in any case. I know I’d be a fair sight less fond of old England if I thought that old England was just fattening me up in preparation to eat me.

Over the thousands (or perhaps a nice dozen) of fallen spidery menaces, Archie and I were able to make our way, if not forward, then at least in some direction we and our righteous destruction of mechanical monstrosities had not yet been, with the spindliest extremities of the spiders being crushed under the soles of Archie’s heavy boots and smushed by the wheel-feet of my armoured steed.

It was dashed difficult to tell which direction an exit might have been, as tents were collapsed and torn, mud and dirt was everywhere, the remaining fairgoers were streaming about in a most disorganised fashion, and it wasn’t even possible to tell where the auto park might have been, because anyone with access to a vehicle had (like the cursed Chaston) piled in and made a hasty escape (like the cowardly pig).

“Over here!” Archie would shout, and I would obligingly try and steer the contraption in his direction, trusting his sense of direction and the innate authority possessed by an enormous man in rumpled clothing beating things into submission with a wrench. This went on for days! Hours! Eternities! (Or perhaps only fifteen or so minutes, as checking one’s watch isn’t an action that springs to the forefront in these circumstances, you know.)

After a good number of those eternity-minutes Archie yelled, “Bloody hell–this way!” and there, I suppose, is where he may have made a slight miscalculation, or at least a calculation I can’t say I approved of, whether it was mis- or not–

–in the chaos I’m not sure I entirely knew what Archie’s intentions were, but they had, in the tent, seemed the most reasonable course of action when confronted with spider invasions and loud, frightened pigs. They certainly hadn’t given me any expectation that our path would lead to a stumbling halt in an area clear of spiders, but oh, so much more trying than those places with the spiders had somehow been.

It had been one of the tents, the jovial red and white fabric now thoroughly packed into the ground, whatever had been inside so destroyed that it seemed almost smooth, with only the occasional humps and bumps to tell that this was not a presentation my uncle had intended (as well as some smears of dirt and oil, and one spot burnt to crisp, crinkled blackness). I think it may have been one of the tents for the display of pies and cakes and the like. A sobering thing to view. Why this tent had been crushed and not one of the other, more frightful tents, would be a mystery forever. Chocolate and dark berry stains dotted the whiteness of the tent, and out from around the edges seeped trickles of sweet liquids and syrups and tendrils of thoroughly-beaten whipped cream.

It was the sight of this devastation that made yours truly realise the full extent of the situation, the seriousness, the fact that more was being harmed than my perfect straw boater and a very nice pair of shoes. This could only be the work of a most heinous individual, who was bringing upon himself the wrath of the Hopwoods!

“LOOK OUT, WOULD YOU?” Archie shouted, stirring me from these sober thoughts, and abruptly I realised that we were not, in fact, alone. Above us hovered the egg-laying dirigible–

–with a shock I realised that, despite the jolly banners and streaming ribbons and what-all, this was not a festive dirigible at all. Lurking underneath its disguise was a dirigible most serious, intending serious business, made of serious metal, with serious pokey bits, and serious cannons, and it could only have been at the command of a serious (but also heinous and possibly quite mad) individual. It was, as Archie indicated, right above us.

From its swollen metal abdomen extended a wicked looking thing, a sort of metal snake with a hammer at one end, and it was by no means decorative. It came for yours truly with violent intention and, I confess, I was quite unsure which way to direct my machine.

You know how it is, when a master or someone asks you a quite simple question, but not one you’re expecting, and you know the answer (in this case, the answer was something to the effect of it not mattering as long as I moved the bally thing), but once the question is actually put to you, all you can do is cough and clear your throat and look to the side in the hopes the master will have mercy on you or at least refrain from looking at you while you try to think (or perhaps all you can do is scream in horror, which would have been understandable, but was not, in fact, what happened. I do believe I remained stoically, if unproductively, silent throughout).

It was a stroke of good fortune that this particular blossom of Hopwoodity was not turned to something like canned paste by the hammer-snake, for Archie–

–sensing, somehow, that I was in a bit of a fix–

–barrelled into me with a grunt, knocking the armoured suit, complete with myself, to the ground. The snake retreated, drawn back into the dirigible like water through a straw (when you’re drinking it, and not using it to have a bit of a jest with some lads at the club). Archie (and myself, of course) tried to get the mechanical back to its feet while the dirigible hovered, a great threatening blot of darkness in the sky.

It was too much to hope, I suppose, that the spider-loving lunatic within had decided one attempt was enough, and he would retreat elsewhere now that his attack had done nothing more than flatten the remains of another cake. Indeed, as Archie grunted, heaving at the humidor, quite unfortunate turns of phrase emerging from between clenched teeth, which may or may not have been directed towards me (he certainly didn’t mention me by name!), another snake-like limb emerged. This one did not end in a hammer, though. Instead it was a sort of flat and disc-like thingum, and as it drew nearer bits of the suit began to be drawn to it.

“Oh, I say, that’s no bloody fair!” I cried as one of the suit’s iron legs jerked up and off the ground, dumping the suit (and, by extension, yrs. truly) over onto its face in the dirt, or at any rate in the stained canvas of the tent on which I happened to be lying. The smell of crushed blueberries was… actually fairly pleasant, although suddenly being able to see nothing was most certainly not. I began to thrash in deadly earnest, attempting to at least turn myself about again, but it was not to be.

The disc thing dropped onto the turned-turtle suit with an almighty and deafening gonging sound, such as might be heard if one decided to trot up the clock tower at Westminster and stick one’s head inside Big Ben upon the hour. The tremendous bong may have shocked a small shout from me, but I suppose that I will never know, since I heard none of it. I thought for a terrible moment that it intended to crush me flat, only by disc instead of by hammer, and I strove to recall as to whether my will was in proper order–

–but after a moment light flooded in under my helmet-thing, and the stripes on the tent began to grow smaller and smaller yet, and then I saw something that was probably one of Archie’s feet–

–the bloody thing was hauling me into the air! Like it or not, I was bound for the dirigible and a doubtless terrible fate!

I had no sooner come to this dreadful realisation than one of Archie’s massive arms shot across my visor and caught hold of something. His face swung into view on the opposite side of the grille as he heaved at the suit, attempting to pry me free of the great magnet, but for all the magnificent gritting of teeth and reddening of his face that ensued, all that happened was that Archie’s feet, in their turn, left the ground. He kicked and swore–

–indeed, he turned the very air blue about us, and all I could think was “Hear, hear!”–

–and then caught my imprisoning suit in a massive bear-hug, pressing himself not-precisely-ardently against the unrewarding metal front. “This must be how he reclaims the spiders!” Archie shouted, as if I could possibly care about such things at the moment.

I gazed down at him in horror and, it must be admitted, in a bit of sea-sickness. I could see the shambles of the fair rapidly falling away to either side of dear Archie’s face, and on occasion said shambles swung sickeningly from side to side (or, really, the disc did the swinging, or at least I assume so, but I can only report how it looked to me).

Archie’s mechanical soldier was really quite stuck to the magnet, spread-eagled upon the bottom of the disc like a discarded doll, with all the dignity and self-governance that that implies, which is to say, none at all. I might be rattling around inside the immobilised suit like a single pea in a tin can, but at least by being magnetised the suit would prevent me from falling any further! Archie, on the other hand, could only cling to my metal casing and hope that the trip up would be short, as the trip back down would undoubtedly be so, should he let go.

“Do hold on,” I implored him, as best I could with my own face mashed up against the grille by that harshest of Newton’s old mistresses, Lady Gravity, an maiden-auntish natural law if ever I have known one.

“That was my plan,” Archie said, with a brave grin.

Helpless, I could only gaze down upon his reddening features. I couldn’t do anything else, after all, not so long as I was trapped in this ridiculous tin can. I couldn’t even free a ruddy arm with which to help him keep hold. “I say,” I said. “I’m really quite sorry about all this.”

Archie’s shoulders bunched as he re-affirmed his grip upon the shoulder-like whatsits of my suit. “No, no,” he said, his voice perhaps a bit strained. “Not at all, won’t hear it. You did a smashing job down there, particularly on such short notice. If anything, the fault is mine.”

“Oh, no,” I said modestly. “Really, you did the best you could with what you had on hand, and I suppose that includes me. I’m only sorry that, in me, you had such poor material to work with. One of these sturdy country buggers would have done you up brown, I’m certain.”

“Well,” Archie said, and harrumphed. We gazed upon each other from inches apart, not entirely nor even largely out of choice, our faces separated only by that absurd (and somewhat uncomfortable) little grille–

–his eyes were quite blue, I noticed, fancy that–

–while he struggled not to let go and I, in my turn, struggled not to be sick directly in poor Archie’s face. Really, by the time the magnet thunked home inside the belly of the dirigible, I think we were both grateful for at least the concept of a surface underfoot upon which to stand. Or, in my case, a surface overhead, as the magnet had swung into such a position that left me quite nearly upside-down.

The thing’s belly doors–

–and if they are not actually called belly doors, they ought to be–

–swung shut with an ominous finality, and also with a booming sound that nearly burst my ear-drums but at least shut off the constant roar of passing air.

“Hold on a tick and I’ll let you out,” said Archie, kicking free and unknotting his arms at long last. He dropped and managed to land on his feet, albeit somewhat heavily and with an enormous metallic bonging that was really quite unnecessary after all the noise that had gone before. He had lost his wrench somewhere, more’s the pity. Given the magnetic state of affairs in which I found myself, I rather suspected that Archie’s wrench was stuck somewhere by my left ear.

Archie hastened to get off the doors proper and onto the walk-way that surrounded them–

–he had even less desire to be dropped back out of the dirigible than I did to see him go in such a fashion–

–but, just as he gained the railing, two fellows in that absurd livery that most airmen seem to favour burst through a nearby door and set upon him at once. He gave them what for, I’ll tell you that! With the shouting and the punching and all! I shouldn’t like to find myself on the wrong end of those arms, not at all. Still, poor dear Archie had been disarmed and was likely quite sore from his odd trip, and as such they eventually did get the best of him, although not before calling in a couple more fellows to pile on, which I thought was terribly unsporting of them. And once they had him down, well, they turned their eyes to me.

Dear reader, I did not faint. I object very strongly to the term. The mechanical soldier was stuck onto the magnet in such an undignified position that the blood was rushing to my head, and I could not so much as lift my chin, let alone free myself–

–and thus eventually even the powerful Hopwood constitution could bear no more and I passed out, quite red in the face, I’m certain.

PART THE FOURTH

I would like to say that I was roused from sleep by such pleasant things as the scent of tea and toast being brought on a tray or the song of chirruping birds or a lover crooning in the ear, bidding fair Rupert wake–

–well, actually-quite-darkish-in-the hair-and-complexion-department Rupert (Spanish grandmother, don’t you know, Grandfather Hopwood being a roving sort of fellow) but undoubtedly fair in spirit–

but, alas, it was not so, and I would never lie to you, dear reader. Instead, after a few tentative pats to my cheek which I was inclined to ignore, someone bypassed the chirruping and crooning entirely and instead smacked me quite a good one, as if my cheek had not suffered hardship enough when it was crushed against the metal grille of Archie’s armoured device!

The bed underneath me seemed no bed at all but rather an unpleasant metal surface, and the room smelt not of bacon and toast but of oil and sweat and sharp metallic things, which are definitely not scents I associate with breakfast except in the most dire of households. I did not particularly wish to encourage the idea of waking fair (or darkish) sleepers via cheek-slapping expediency, but as there seemed no other way to stop this assault of my person, I opened one heavy eye.

Archie’s blue, extraordinarily blue, eyes looked back at me, appearing awfully concerned for someone who took such harsh measures to wake a fellow up. He sat back on his heels, exhaling in relief, his great chest rising and falling under–

–well, under not much of anything, to be perfectly frank.

“There you are, thank God. I was beginning to worry you were out for good there, Tricksy.” He did not explain where his jacket or anything else had gotten to. I suspect these mechanically-minded fellows don’t always have their priorities in order.

“What happened?” I asked and under the circumstances I think the tremor in my voice can be excused. With some effort I raised up on one elbow, then came to the conclusion that it was all a terrible idea and slumped back again.

I suppose Archie offered some sort of explanation, for I think I remember his mouth moving, but I confess I could pay his words little attention. He was in a definite state of undress, having stripped–

–or been stripped–

–down to his vest and trousers, which was terribly difficult for me to ignore, as his state of bare-shouldered dishabille was quite frankly a bit shocking.

Even more disturbing was that someone had, while I had been unconscious, laid hands upon yrs. truly and divested me of a significant portion of my own garments (after what they had been subjected to, I’m sure they would never have been the same again, but a fellow doesn’t enjoy appearing in nothing but his underthings and the sad remains of his shirt, with all the buttons missing, in front of a perfect stranger!). With my fingers all a-tremble I pulled my shirt closed and mourned the loss of my suit (and, not co-incidentally, of my Hopwoodish dignity and Rupert-ian innocence).

Distracted as I was, still, upon further reflection I sensed the floor vibrating under me, rather, with a bit of a humming sound, very regular and even, as if it wished to lull me back to sleep, which I tell you would not have been a tricky job at that, as I was very tired. Frowning I attempted once more to sit up, and this time, I succeeded, noting that not only was the floor metal, but the walls, as well, and the door, which was moreover a very sturdyish sort of door with a little window which was all over bars–

“I say!” I said, quite interrupting Archie, who was good enough not to take exception as it was clear that I was exercised. “We’re locked in a cell!”

“Yes?” said Archie, blinking. “I did just say as much, didn’t I?”

“We’re still on that bloody dirigible, aren’t we!”

“Yes?”

He may have said something more–

–I seem to recall him saying something about my not listening–

–but I was no longer listening, my fine Hopwoodish mind simply leaping to grapple with this new and terrible problem. All in all I am not one to stick my neck out unnecessarily, but once it is out, I cannot simply leave it out and go tra-la-la-ing off all devil-may-care, not least because, well, it is my neck, and I find myself in need of it on many occasions, most of which involve dashing cravats.

With lightning speed I analysed the problem and came to the only proper conclusion. “We must get out of this cell,” I said firmly.

Archie gazed upon me for several long moments in silent respect of my quick grasp of the situation. “Yes,” he finally said. “If we can make our way to the bridge I believe I can land the dirigible, or in any case I can bring it down without doing too much damage, although I suspect those German fellows might have a thing or two to say about that.”

“Oh, are they German?” I said, distracted at that very moment by the discovery that I still had one of my cuff-links.

“I believe so.” Archie rose to his feet and crossed to the door, catching one of the window-bars in his fist and tugging gently at it. “They were shouting in German, at any rate.” His knuckles whitened and an alarming assortment of muscles bulged out all up and down his naked arm–

–which the door did not find nearly so moving as did I–

–it shifted in its frame a trifle but stubbornly remained where it was. Archie hissed out a breath through his teeth and released the door. “So much for that,” he said.

“Smashing try, though,” I said, determined to keep our spirits up. “I do wish they hadn’t taken my trousers.”

“There’s some sort of blanket in the corner if you’re cold,” said Archie, most of his attention bent towards that intractable door.

Dear reader, it is not that I was cold–

–although once Archie had made mention of the possibility I will admit to noticing a bit of a chill–

–but rather that I was distressed by the unclothed state of my lower limbs. I do not make a habit out of appearing in public with only my pants and my socks to cover my lower half, no matter how nice the socks in question, and mine tend to be very nice indeed. You may think it very silly of me to be concerned with propriety at such a time, but I ask you: what better time?

I picked up the blanket–

–clean enough, I suppose, although a horrid dull military green in colour and an itchy thin wool in make–

–and wrapped it about my waist as best I might. My nudity thus nominally covered, I settled back against the wall and wracked my brain for a solution to our dilemma. I’ve always fancied that I had a cool head in a crisis, after all.

I fiddled with my one remaining cuff-link and bent the mighty Hopwood intellect towards the problem. I am certain that I should have had a smashing idea in moments, only I found myself distracted by the possibility of using my cuff-link to somehow pin my shirt-front closed. In this I found myself thwarted, although I did my utmost. Oh, it would slide into a button-hole as nice as you please, but that was all.

I had just given up and pinned one cuff back again when Archie sat down beside me with a great outrush of breath. His head fell back to bong gently against the wall with rather a musical sound as he stared up at the ceiling. “I really am terribly sorry,” he said.

I drew a breath to demur, but dear Archie simply would not let me. His great raw-knuckled hands knotted into fists atop his thighs. “I must confess something to you,” he said, his manner abruptly… well… abrupt.

“Oh, ah?” I said carefully. Long and terrible experience with that very phrase made me a touch reticent, I am afraid.

“I only went to that bloody festival because I intended to introduce myself to you and touch you for a small sum with which to continue my research,” Archie told the ceiling. “Only a small one, mind, but I find myself in dire need of new investors.” Here he coughed, a bit of a flush creeping over his cheeks. “There was a bit of an accident involving my last sponsor and a few square miles of exploding peat bog, you see, and he took it very badly indeed, the great ninny.”

Dear reader, my heart lifted on the instant. “Oh, is that all?” I said, essaying a small pat to Archie’s leg. I would have patted his shoulder instead, but as I have mentioned it was quite bare. “My dear Archie, think no more of it. I am always being touched by this acquaintance or that one, for a small sum or a large one, and I must confess in my turn that I am quite accustomed to it. Indeed, I could hardly count you my friend if you hadn’t attempted to touch me!”

“Well,” said Archie, and he harrumphed again. “Well, in that case, I suppose I don’t feel quite so bad.”

“Indeed, I believe I’ve learned to have some confidence in the quality of your work,” I said, with another little pat. “Should we make our way safely out of this mess I would be happy to sponsor you for some small amount, as long as you promise to use the money for the betterment of mankind and not for silly things like giant mechanical spiders.”

Archie shut his eyes. “You’re very kind,” he said.

“Think nothing of it.” Tired as I was, I too shut my eyes.

“I believe that the only way we will get out of this cell is if we can somehow trick the guards into opening the door,” Archie said. “Perhaps if one of us were to pretend to be ill–”

“Oh!” I said, sitting bolt upright. “Like in ‘Mrs. Maude And Her Five Beautiful Daughters’?”

Poor Archie looked a bit flummoxed again. I suppose it must be his natural state. “Er?”

“Oh, it’s really nothing,” I said modestly. “Only a smallish play that I and a few of the lads put on at the club’s end-of-year gala. I myself played a very important role in the production. In any case, at one point my character is immured in a horrible cell much like this one and tricks the guard into entering the cell… oh, it’s perfect! An encore performance! You must lie down and pretend to be ill and I will make a racket and call for the guards.”

“Well, it is similar to what I’d had in mind,” said Archie, casting about. “Very well. Might I borrow your cuff-link?”

I confess that I clutched at my sleeve like a maiden aunt might clutch at her pearls. At that point in time the cuff-link was my sole possession of any value! “Whatever for?”

“It’s a good, sturdy piece, isn’t it? Steel-shanked?”

“Well… well, yes, I suppose, rather…”

“Then it is just what I need,” Archie said firmly. “One cuff-link will do you no good in any case.”

“Yes, but…”

“And I shall replace the pair later, at my own expense.”

I fiddled with my sleeve for a few moments, distraught, then sighed and put on a stiffish upper lip. “I suppose I’ve trusted you this far already,” I said, attempting a small laugh, and I tweaked my remaining cuff-link free and dropped it into Archie’s large and calloused palm.

Archie closed his fingers over it. “Thank you, Tricksy,” he said, so humbly that I felt a stab of guilt over being so miserly with him. I resolved to do better upon the instant, at least at such time as I once again owned anything with which to be generous. Turning about Archie searched amongst the exposed pipes that ran along the cell wall–

–exposed pipes! I ask you!–

–until he located the very one for which he had been seeking (as to how, I must confess I am uncertain) and placed the cuff-link’s prong-end against the base of the pipe. Archie caught his breath, then, with a great outrush of air, he bashed the cuff-link with the heel of his hand, driving the steel prong straight through the wall of the pipe! For a moment the pipe wore a tiny golden label proclaiming it to be ‘RTH’, then Archie delicately picked the cuff-link free and a thickish stream of dark reddish stuff cascaded down the side of the pipe to pool upon the floor.

I edged back from the slowly-spreading pool. “Er. What’s that for, then?”

“Verisimilitude,” said Archie, slipping my sticky cuff-link into his trouser pocket. “Are you ready?”

“Ready and waiting,” I said, drawing myself up. I cleared my throat in preparation for the performance to come. The performance of a lifetime!

Archie nodded. “Give ’em hell,” he said, dropping into a charming drawling vernacular for a brief second, and then he bellowed out a horrible sound, bashed one hand against the metal wall with an awful bong, and dropped to the floor, his head landing squarely in the pool of spreading reddish stuff. I am not so much familiar with pools of blood, you understand, being neither a murderer nor a butcher, but it certainly resembled what I thought a pool of blood ought to look like. Archie gave me a bit of a wink and then shut his eyes.

I drew in a breath and summoned the beautiful-but-headstrong Miranda Maude with all my strength and all my actor’s heart. I clutched at the window-bars on the door–

–they were cold and faintly damp with something I didn’t wish to contemplate, but I held on, for the sake of the show–

–that is, the act, the deceit about to be perpetuated, not an actual show (in referring to it as a show I am making use of what we writers term a ‘metaphor’, you see).

“EEK!” I screamed in my best Miranda Maude soprano. “Oh sirs! Sirs! Come help! My friend’s done himself an injury! There’s blood absolutely EVERYWHERE! I think he may be dead! There’s so much blood! Oh sirs, please come help! I’m feeling faint!” Accordingly I let myself go limp against the door, as though I had just caught myself mid-collapse.

Archie, the great silly, jerked his head up off the floor to stare at me incredulously, in a manner quite unlike that of a man who is supposedly to be dangerously injured with his blood all over the floor. I had to give him quite a stern look from beneath my arm before he remembered himself and dutifully lay his head back down, shutting his eyes again. Some people simply aren’t natural actors and that’s all there is to it.

It was only a few moments before I heard the measured, heavy ringing of metal-tipped boots on metal airship flooring parts coming down the hall in my direction. A stout fellow in more of that ridiculous green-and-gold livery–

–with sagging jodhpur-y trousers and a little peaked airman’s cap, all most unfortunate, really–

–soon hove into view. This gleaming lackey looked down his bulb of a nose at me, in much the same manner as Archie had (although Archie had been looking up from the floor, not down the nose, and anyway his nose is much nicer and less like some kind of root vegetable). “Vas that,” he asked, in what must have been a German’s idea of English, “you making all that rack about?”

I fluttered my eyelashes at the odious potato-nose and my girlish voice trembled, faint and artistic. “Who else? How many other people do you have locked up here?” After some thought as to what Miranda Maude would have said, I added: “You brute!”

My perfectly reasonable question earned me another contemptuous look from this symbol of our imprisonment. He did not deign to answer my question. He did not look very bright and his gleaming baubles suggested he was not a very high-ranking airman, so perhaps he didn’t know the answer.

“Vut,” he asked, “are you making the fuss about?” He glanced past me to the prone form of Archie and his brow furrowed. Certainly not a bright fellow if he could not instantly recognise a man pretending to be dead in a puddle of viscous red stuff! “Your engineer?”

If I may digress for a moment: as a gentleman, I find it somewhat embarrassing to speak of the extremes to which our situation had driven me, and of the most un-gentlemanly things I did while ‘in character’–

–that is not writer-talk but rather actor-talk, for when you’re in the mindset of the role you’re playing, to make the whole effect more believable, you see–

–but I cannot lie to you about them, dear reader, and if I should jump from the cell to the Count’s private chambers without explaining how we got there, you would feel quite muddled and lost! Perhaps you already feel a bit confused, trying to figure out how two men, unjustly imprisoned on a dirigible, end up in any chambers at all, let alone a Count’s, which is why you really must let me tell things in the proper order.

So, suffering with this particularly slow-witted airman, I let out a faint Miranda-Maude sob (and not at all a Rupert Hopwood sob, as Rupert Hopwood does not, in fact, sob at all, having the stiffest of stiff upper lips). “My friend! He was trying to escape from your BEASTLY prison and when he couldn’t, his frustrations drove him MAD! He began simply pounding on those nasty pipes and then I-I don’t know what happened! There was suddenly blood everywhere and he wouldn’t respond when I called! He’s surely badly injured! Or,” I swallowed, my lower lip and slightly-damp lashes trembling, “or possibly DEAD!”

“If your shrieking like a hausfrau did not vake him, I suppose he could very vell be dead,” the airman said, without a trace of sympathy.

“If anything’s happened to him,” I said with a sniff, “you’ll all be arrested! There are laws about these things, you know!”

For some reason, the airman did not look intimidated by this threat. He squinted past his nose and through the little barred window, tapping his flint-stick against the base of the cell door, out of my reach.

I knew then that this fellow was a tough nut. I had to go further.

“If I’m left in here with all this blood,” said I, with a quiver in my voice, “I’m liable to be quite sick!” I looked at the front of his gleaming uniform, separated from me only by the bars of the cell. “Quite, quite sick.”

The airman looked down at the gold and gilt bits of his uniform and sighed. That, at least, had managed to get through to him. “Mein Gott,” he said, and other things in unpleasant German–

–which I must say, for the enlightenment of those who haven’t been exposed to the tongue, is even worse than regular German.

He tapped his flint-stick against the door again and then, thank God, unlocked our cell. He gave me an unpleasant look–

–much like the German language, I suspect all of his looks were unpleasant, whether they were intended to be or not, but this look had the focus of an intentionally unpleasant one–

–and locked the door behind him, as though suspecting Rupert Hopwood of escaping behind his back, while he was tending to a supposedly-fallen comrade! The assumptions this fellow kept making! And on my character, too!

The airman approached the fallen form of Archie, stepping carefully around the slowly-spreading puddle of red. Although the man’s back–

–vaguely reminiscent, to my mind, of rhinos and things, or at least reminiscent of how they were described to me by Uncle Edward, a trustworthy expert in offensively large and dangerous animals, which might explain his marriage to my aunt Gertrude, now that I come to think about it–

–was toward yrs. truly, he kept a firm hand on his flint-stick and he was hardly of a size where it would have been possible to knock him out with a tap on the head, now that I was no longer ensconced in Archie’s mechanical armour.

The plan suddenly seemed hopeless! Certainly, Archie was a young, virile, handsome, large, powerful, capable, physically overwhelming sort of chap, but the flint-stick was a heavy one, thick around as one of my legs, and it looked far more potent than the flint-sticks the average police constable on old terra firma carried (in that it looked like it might actually produce a spark, instead of simply being used as an expensive bludgeon). The thought of this brutish tuber of an airman lighting the stick and applying it to sensitive or bare expanses of Archie’s flesh–

–or the possible reactions a stray spark might have with the whatever-it-was that was pretending to be blood–

–sent chills down my spine (which was already rather chilled due to the less-than-hospitable conditions of our cell). The airman grunted in German (or maybe he said something in German and it simply sounded like an English grunt–fellows I know who’ve studied abroad and such tell me confusions of this kind are quite common) and the flint-stick thudded against his calf as he considered Archie and the faux-blood.

“Very big mess,” he observed, and it sounded like his biggest concern was for who would have to clean it up (I hope the task would have fallen to him). He prodded Archie in the side with one metal-shod toe and tightened his grasp on the flint-stick. “Doesn’t look gudt for your engineering, little English.”

It is lucky for all of us–

–yes, even the airman, who probably wouldn’t have enjoyed what might have happened if he stuck a lighted flint-stick into the puddle of blood substitute, even though it would have been a valuable lesson, assuming there were bits of him left to consider lessons afterwards–

–that the Hopwood brain is a cool one, thinking quickly and reacting instantaneously to emergencies as it does–

–well, it certainly does in some of my more distinguished cousins, and these things must be hereditary or else what, I ask you, is the point of cousins distinguishing themselves?.

I let out a Miranda-Maude shriek of most epic proportions–

–on stage, it had been used when Miranda Maude found out that Minerva Maude had commissioned a dress of the same material for the cotillion and this situation seemed at least as dire as that!–

–and fell back against the wall. Had I had the lovely wig of red ringlets in which I played this role the first time, I should have torn at my hair. “I knew it! He’s dead! All because of you brutes and your spiders and your lack of MANNERS!” I sobbed.

The airman turned, no doubt to give me another of those looks–

–and Archie rose up, his hands clasped together in one massive fist, which he swept over his head and then down on the airman’s with a colossal thud!

He grabbed the flint-stick before it hit the ground (he did not, however, grab the airman, who landed in the puddle with a shallow, thick sort of splash). He looked at me for a moment, a considering sort of look, like I was one of the clockwork thingums he had torn apart back in the mechanicals tent and he was trying to figure what sorts of bits might come out of me and if they’d be of any use. Then he stooped, collected the keys from the airman’s belt, and smiled at me, a rather nice smile, despite the side of his face being all over reddish stuff. “Well done, Tricksy,” said he, chuckling.

“I am told that I stole every scene in which I appeared,” I said, relieved to be able to reassume my natural Hopwoodish dignity once more.

Archie inclined his head. “That, I can certainly believe.”

“Oh, here,” I said, unwinding the blanket from about my waist. As loath as I was to abandon my modesty, I couldn’t bear to look at Archie with his face all smeared with whatever that was, some sort of fuel or oil or some such, I’m certain I don’t know. Poor dear Archie looked at me in confusion until I thrust the blanket into his hand. “I’m certain that that mess can’t be good for your complexion.”

“I suppose not,” said Archie. “Do keep an eye on our friend for me–” and he scrubbed the blanket vigorously over his face and hair, which did not precisely render him sparkling clean but did serve the purpose of getting most of the whatever-that-was off his face and out of his hair.

I watched the downed airman like a veritable hawk, alert for even the smallest signs of arousal, but if he regained consciousness in those few moments he was wise enough to hide it. I can’t imagine that anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of Archie’s mighty fists would ever willingly choose to attract their attention again.

Once Archie judged himself clean enough, his hair falling over his face in unruly but oddly charming curls, he sorted through the key-ring and unlocked the cell door, gesturing me through with a little bow. “After you, sir.”

Dear reader, I cannot help but respect any man able to observe the formalities of manners under the more stressful of situations. It made what I was about to do just that much harder, but as I have always said, a man must have standards. Without his standards of decency, man is just another animal, and I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am not any sort of animal at all, no matter what the Royal Society may claim.

“Thank you, sir,” I said to Archie, as if to prove it, and I stepped out into the hall, which was not, overall, any sort of great improvement, being made of the same metal and covered in the same exposed pipes. These lunatics are very stingy when it comes to decorating their flying dungeons, I suppose, although if one has the time and money to create a legion of mechanical spiderwhatsits, one could at least stop a moment to cover some of the uglier bits of dirigible infrastructures.

Still, we were not locked into it, which I did find to be a relief.

Archie stepped out after me, the ring of keys in one hand, the flint-stick tucked casually under his other arm. Without further ado he locked the door behind us, leaving the German airman to contemplate his misfortune in private, and thrust the keys into his trouser pocket. “Now, then,” he said, hefting the flint-stick with a vague frown, one finger playing about its trigger. “The zeppelin’s control room ought to be towards the front of the machine–”

I took the deepest of deep breaths. “I’m afraid that that must wait.”

Archie left off fiddling with the flint-stick long enough to blink at me, once again wearing that flummoxed expression. “Eh?”

“That will have to wait,” I repeated, drawing myself up. “I refuse to take one single, solitary step further until such time as I have something decent to wear.” Archie started to say something but I held up a hand to halt him. “No, no, I’m afraid that I simply will not hear it,” I said firmly. “You cannot ask me to face our opponents in this state.”

“Well–”

“I do not ask much! A pair of trousers, a shirt that buttons, perhaps a pair of shoes that does not fit too badly.” Sensing that Archie intended to remain recalcitrant, I forced myself to discard those sad, tattered remains of my dignity. I spread my arms wide and let Archie look his fill upon my low state.

Beau Brummell himself could not have made an ensemble solely out of a torn and blackened collarless shirt with no buttons, and while I had given it my best go, I did not flatter myself to think that I had succeeded. My underthings were largely unscathed thanks to their status as, well, ‘under’–

–my poor missing outer garments had taken the brunt of the fair’s beatings–

–but for all that my pants and sleeveless vest were of the finest linen, my socks of the lightest lisle, and my sock-garters of the stretchiest India rubber, they could not hope to substitute for even the basest and most vile pair of trousers.

It was simply too much to be borne! Abruptly I could not stand it another moment. Insensible to Archie’s shocked gaze, I stripped off the sad remains of my shirt and flung it to the floor. “Do not send this knight un-armoured into combat,” I quoted, although I must confess that I do not remember what it was that I was quoting, but I’m sure whatever or whoever it was, they would agree with me on the importance of trousers.

Archie hesitated, then cleared his throat with another of those stern harrumphings and looked away. “That shouldn’t be too difficult,” he said, still looking quite firmly at the cell door, perhaps to make certain that the German airman was not about to burst through it and fracture his English at us again. “If we head instead towards the back of the under-carriage, I daresay we’ll find some sort of sleeping quarters.”

“Whoever it is that can afford such God-awful livery for an entire crew can certainly spare me a pair of his trousers,” I said, vastly relieved. “Although I do hope for some with less gold braid.” Upon a whim I picked up my shirt again and thrust it through the bars of our former cell, where it might edify the German airman should he choose to wake, which he would probably not do any time soon, as Archie had hit him quite hard, and a good thing, too, no less than he deserved, not least for wearing such awful stuff.

Archie looked back and forth. “This way, I believe,” he said. Dear reader, I cannot possibly say how he knew. What I know about dirigibles you could easily fit on the head of a pin and still leave room for three or four of those dancing angel chappies, you know the ones. The hallway to one side of us looked precisely the same as the hallway to the other side, which is to say, steely and forbidding. Still, when Archie set off, I followed in perfect faith.

One might ask why I continued to put my faith in the fellow with such questionable taste in facial accessories and haberdashery, who seemed to lack a true understanding of the importance of a gentleman having a pair of trousers for his dignity, who had personally seen to my being kidnapped, stripped, dirtied, and humiliated, and it is true that my personal state of affairs had been steadily worsening since first I met him, until I could not imagine how things could possibly become worse–

–but, dear reader, I must protest, once again, that it was hardly his fault. I staunchly believe that poor dear Archie had ever been doing what was best for us and for England, and if our situation was dire, well, I shudder to think how much more dire it might have been, had it not been for Archie, and, of course, for yrs. truly.

The noise of the engines got louder as we went along. It had only been a throbbing humming sort of sound in the cells but now it was an insistent ‘wom-wom-wom’ noise that seemed to go straight through my chest with every blasted ‘wom’–

–shoddy design, I think, any mechanical chappie worth his salt should be able to find a way to prevent ‘wom’ming, possibly replacing it with pleasant music or some well-spoken chap quoting the poets or anything other than ‘WOM’.

Eventually we found a stair-case and went up it, and then up it again, and then there was another bit of corridor that was much less metal-ly and much more proper, with carpeting and gas-lamps and so on, as well as some very large windows displaying a view which made me feel quite ill, and finally there were some wretchedly tacky double doors all festooned with gilt and the like which absolutely had to belong to the airship’s owner because surely there cannot be two people in this world with such an abysmal predilection for putting gold fillips all over everything.

Archie hefted the flint-stick in a meaningful fashion and rapped on the doors with his fist, while I waited with my heart in my throat–

–but no one answered his knock, neither ship’s owner nor valet nor maid, which was probably best all ’round because I didn’t particularly want to watch Archie spark up some poor domestic–

–although he probably wouldn’t hesitate to do so, for the good of King and Country and all that, except perhaps if it were a maid, but I’m sure he’d do the right thing in the end, and what sort of maid, even if she were German, would be able to resist if she had been there and Archie had spoken to her sternly about the flaws in the character and mental state of her master? She’d have been emigrating to England on the spot, if she existed, which she didn’t, at least, not on the other side of the door to this particular room.

“Well, then,” said Archie, and he tried the door, and it sprang right open, because after all we were flying simply thousands of miles up in the air, which would tend to defeat even the most ambitious of second-storey men, so there wouldn’t be any need for the doors to be locked, although I’ll admit that I had been expecting them to be, for what sort of insane German criminal mechanic leaves his doors unlocked when he holds prisoner two of England’s best and brightest? Archie gestured me through and I went as quickly as I might, before anyone could come along and spot me parading about bold as you please in my unmentionables.

The room beyond was… well, it was awful. Oh, it was large enough, and I certainly could not say that it was not lush, although there are some things in life which I value in a room even more than lushness, like taste, decorum, propriety, and the ability to not look like a cat-house, not that I have ever been in a cat-house, having been raised properly by a series of stern ladies who would never let me forget it for a second. Everything was all over padded and gilded and quilted and all sorts of other fancy things ending in -ed, and it was all in burgundy and gold, and there were enormous windows outside of which most of England rocked nauseously through a dense cloud of coal-smoke.

The monstrous rococo bed was the worst of it, being padded, gilded, quilted, rounded, canopied, and up on an enormous dais that required four carpeted steps to reach, such that my eye could not help but be drawn to it no matter where I was standing or what direction I was facing. It was by far the most emphatic bed I have ever seen. It was the Bed Primeval. It looked like the sort of bed that you could not get into without an adoring audience to applaud you to sleep, and that you could not get out of without assistance.

I will grant you, grudgingly, that the horrible overgrown thing did look comfortable.

It was clearly a room decorated by someone not in his right mind–

–the same sort of tastes displayed in the dreadful livery of the airmen with their tacky gold braid. It could only have been the satiny heart of the mad monster himself!

Behind me Archie shut the doors again and began to prowl about, the flint-stick still under his arm, manfully managing to ignore the horror that surrounded us. Against all that plush frippery his great naked figure looked even more stark, a veritable prehistoric man with his club, although I will grant you that prehistoric man probably did not wear grease-spotted herringbone trousers.

I quickly failed to care, however, because it was at that very moment that I spotted the washbasin tucked away in an un-prepossessing corner. Dear reader, I was immediately entranced by the sight, drawn to the basin as if it had caught me with a fishing rod and was in the process of reeling me in. The only concern was the mirror mounted over the basin, as not only did it show me my filthy urchin’s face and mussed hair, but it also managed to show me–

–yes!–

–the Bed Primeval behind me!

Ignoring the bed as best I might–

–which, I must tell you, was dashed difficult, as the bed was not a sight to which a fellow who’s had a bit of a rough day ought to be subjected, but what does evil care for those of us with finer sensibilities?–

–I applied myself to the wash-basin with vigour. A bit of scrubbing set my face to rights (although a few shadows of oily dirt still marred my complexion here and there, the difference was like night and day, and so I can only call it set to rights!) and the judicious application of my palms restored my hair to an approximation of its usual sleek glory.

Ordinarily I would not have dreamed of setting foot outside looking as I did, but the choice had most definitively been taken from me. I thought perhaps I had restored myself to a state at which ladies would not scream and children would not point, and at that moment, that was all for which I could ask.

Having seen to my toilette, I turned my attention to the folding doors that lined the wall, throwing the nearest open. Behind me Archie applied himself to the wash-basin in his turn, but I hardly noticed, entranced as I was by the sight. I may very well have cooed, although you certainly could not prove it by me. The closets were by necessity shallow–

–any deeper and the mad German fellow would surely have been storing his clothing on the outside of the dirigible, which would probably air it out nicely, at least until it fell thousands of miles and got lost in the German countryside–

–but what little space he had, he used to the utmost.

Dear reader, I forgave him for the terrible decor on the instant, or even instanter. Perhaps he had got a good deal on a slightly-used zeppelin with crew included and simply hadn’t got round to replacing everything before it was time to fly to England and bombard a country fair with mechanical spidermabobs. For, you see, the closet was simply bulging with the absolute tip-top in fashionable suits and shirts and so on, many of which had the aura of Savile Row about them, as well I ought to know, being something of an expert in the field. And the hats…! I resolved upon the instant to ask him for the name of his hatter once we had vanquished him properly.

It was, quite simply, an embarrassment of riches. Alas, the fellow was a bit stouter than I, without quite measuring up to Archie’s prodigious size, so his things (no matter how lovely) would be only a stopgap measure at best for yrs. truly. I ran loving fingers over the assortment of trousers at my disposal. Should I opt for the everyday grey flannel, perhaps, or perhaps these lovely cream-coloured worsted trousers, or the daring reddish-brown tweed with the subtle coppery colouring?

I thought perhaps in the interests of expediency I ought to forgo giving them a good creasing in the trouser-press, and I would force myself even to simply snatch up the first shirt that I saw and make do without a collar, but the selection of trousers was absolutely crucial to the altercation that was bound to follow (and would also influence my choice of shoes and hats–I know that I did not tell Archie that I needed a hat, but there they were, right in front of me, ripe for the plucking, and it would be a matter of minutes to pick one out and put it on my head!).

If you have ever tried to lark about in too-tight trousers, or fallen into a fountain while wearing a heavy winter-weight wool, well! Surely then you understand why my choice of trousers was a serious issue! I will admit that I had bugger-all idea about what sort of trousers were called for in the event of a terrible row with the Hun, which is why my choice was not instantaneous and why my hand wavered between this pair and that one.

So immersed was I in the question that I quite forgot that Archie was in the room at all. I had been feeling a bit modest, what with parading around in my unmentionables and all, but in front of that closet of wonders my unclothed state ceased to seem at all odd. I had just decided upon the fawn gabardine trousers–

–indeed, my hand was outstretched in their direction!–

–when Archie quite forcibly reminded me of his presence by, I’m afraid to say, absolutely bowling into me from behind and knocking me into the closet amongst the woollens. The monstrous bulk of his chest quite pinned me against the back wall, until it was a bloody miracle that I could breathe at all, and before I could again draw breath to protest Archie drew the doors shut behind us and cast us both into darkness, clutching me to his chest with a sudden ardour.

Dear reader, I ask you.

In all seriousness, with all my heart, I ask you.

If you were lounging about your boudoir (or a boudoir, I suppose) dressed only in your handsome underthings and displaying quite a scandalous amount of skin, and all of a sudden a large half-nude fellow caught you up and crushed you to his chest, such that his massive and naked arm was curled about your shoulders, with his breath hot against your ear and the rest of him quite warmish against every last bit of your never-you-minds and-then-somes… well, what on earth would you think? Is there a man among you who could blame me for taking it entirely the wrong way? Would you not come to believe that the fellow had simply been overcome by your unclothed state and your notable Hopwoodish good looks–

–the relative weakness or not of your chin entirely notwithstanding–

–and, driven to distraction by the Rupert-ish bounty on offer, simply lost his mind and attempted to make love to you right then and there, which is after all what a boudoir is for, among other things? Of course you would, dear reader!

So, of course, not wanting to seem rude, I quite naturally emitted only the barest token sound of protest and then wound my arms about Archie’s neck, drawing him down into a proper embrace and offering up my lips to be kissed. I fail to see what else I could have done without giving offence.

Oddly enough, especially when considered in the light of his passionate assault of just a moment ago, Archie seemed a bit hesitant to actually kiss me–

–although I do note that he did not let go of me nor step away, not even the slightest bit.

Still, after a momentary soft harrumph he bent down and pressed his lips to mine, which was actually quite nice, especially since he’d taken a moment to wash off the rest of that awful reddish stuff and thus smelled and tasted only like clean-ish Archie. Indeed, it was so nice that I may have become a bit naughty and pressed myself up against him, and just like that I discovered a very large hand on the small of my back–

–and then it wasn’t simply on the small of my back any more, having moved down an immensely meaningful bit, and any faint noise of protest I might have made to that was entirely lost in the absolutely fascinating territory of dear Archie’s mouth.

What I am trying to say, of course, is that things were going quite swimmingly, except for that nagging little voice in the back of my head, you know the one, it’s always present during this sort of thing–

–except as Archie’s hand plucked my vest free of my pants and slid up underneath, I suddenly realised that it was not the voice in my head that I had been hearing all along, but rather, an actual voice echoing down the hallway–

–two or three actual voices, if I’m to be honest–

–and they were rapidly getting louder as the owners of said voices made their way towards the very room in which we were concealed.

PART THE FIFTH

Well! It is not often that I am so terribly mistaken, dear reader, and if Archie had not been doing such fascinating things with his mouth and his hands, I would have pulled away from the really-quite-consuming kiss upon the instant and apologised for ever having thought that he might be interested in kissing me (instead of concealing us from our captors, as was now plain to see).

Still, now that I had made such a mess of things, I seemed to have no other option but to manfully see it through–

–naturally I wound one leg about Archie’s and pushed aside a few dozen handsome suits on their hangers, so as to allow his hands to go where they would. Suffice it to say, dear reader, they went!–

–and as such I was hardly in any condition to notice when the door to the room was opened (but not, fortunately, the door to our hiding-place!) and our adversaries let themselves in–

–although adversaries may not be the word I want, or at least not in the plural form, or maybe not in the traditional sense of the idea, because I think there must be some margin of difference between adversary when one’s talking about strangers in zeppelins attacking country fairs with spiderthingums and taking innocent fellows captive and causing the destruction of a favourite chapeau, and the adversary sort of thing that exists between elderly relation and nephew.

For, indeed, one of the voices was easily recognisable, and perhaps the most distressing thing to date, for it was my uncle himself, the old soul who was in many ways responsible for this mess, to my way of thinking, or at least who had caused yrs. truly to be put in harm’s way. Uncle Wilberforce’s voice is not one that is easily confused for any other kind of voice, having a sort of foghorn characteristic that emanates from him with great force and bluster, which, indeed, it was doing now, although it was a bit of a relief to realise the shouting was not currently directed at me–

–you can understand my initial spasm of terror that it might be, dear reader, considering how I was presently engaged!

“YOU FESTERING SACK OF LISTS!” my uncle bellowed (not, I remind you again, in my direction). “This is conduct most unbecoming of a gentleman, sir, even for a foreign gentleman, and if it continues, I am going to be forced to conclude you are NO GENTLEMAN AT ALL!”

“I assure you, Sir Vilberforce, that I haff all the necessary diplomatik papers to pruuf my identity and my title to you, shouldt I be concerned vith such things,” said a voice of a much less bellowy and uncle-y fellow who I think may have been some sort of a German, clearly the depraved (if coolly spoken and well-attired) lunatic behind the attack. It was, of course, the renegade German count and dirigible enthusiast Gunter von Helmfried, although I certainly did not know it at the time.

While Archie and I were still what you might call ‘entwined’–

–indeed, I am unsure as to whether I had any contact with the floor at all!–

–the more interesting aspects of our entwinement had begun to lag a bit, what with all the nearby shouting. There was just a bit of light coming in from under the door, and by it I could see dear Archie’s face, with his eyes rolled to the side as if he were trying to spot my esteemed relation through the closet door. His cheek was still touched to mine and his hand was up under my vest, all spread out across my chest in a manner that I would not hesitate to call ‘scandalous’, but despite the warmth and the closeness, he was not encroaching in the slightest, for which I suppose I could not blame him.

I suppose that it might have been wisest for us to disentangle ourselves, for Archie to once again shoulder that massive flint-stick, and for yrs. truly to slip quietly into a pair of trousers while the option was still open to me. But, as I believe I have mentioned in the past, on rare occasions it does suit me not to be wise. Indeed, as I hung there with my arms about poor dear Archie, listening to my uncle rage and splutter, the most unlikely rebellion began to swell within the old Hopwood breast.

From the very moment at which I awoke this morning–

–before, even!–

–I had been harassed, hounded, hunted, harried, hurt, hassled, horrified, and harrumphed at, and every last bit of my torment, I realised, could be laid at the feet of one of the two men currently on the other side of the closet door. It was in this spirit that I turned my attention to Archie once more, and if there was something vengeful in the way that I caught his lips with mine–

–indeed, if there was something of recrimination in the way I seized him–

–then it was no less than those two blighters deserved. Let them bellow and plot and invade and all that rot. Rupert Hopwood cared not. Indeed, he flicked Archie’s newly-removed vest at them in a most insulting manner before dropping it upon the floor.

Archie started as I renewed my assault upon his person, but he was quick enough to pick up where he’d left off, I’ll tell you that. He fiddled and twiddled and felt his way about until I was all over goose-pimples, with my vest shoved up until it was quite nearly a muffler instead, and I was well on my way to being unaware of anything at all when I became aware that the foghorn bluster from outside had cut off as cleanly as if with a scissor. For a good five seconds my uncle said nothing whatsoever, despite having been wholly exercised not a moment ago–

–you might be thinking the sudden silence should have caused concerns to arise as to my uncle’s continued well-being, but I hasten to assure you that even in such a vengeful and distracted state as I was, I was not wholly lacking tender family feelings and could simply recognise, as any of my nephewly ilk could, the vacuum-y sort of silence that developed around my uncle when he abruptly stopped shouting for reasons that most definitely left him still breathing–

–for example, accidentally being bunged in the head by a cricket ball, which I can assure you to this day I had no involvement in, save as an observer.

When he spoke again, it was in a voice which I had never before heard, something small and altogether uncertain, and for a long moment I did not believe it to be my uncle at all. “Hilda?” he said, all a-quaver.

“Hello, Hopwood,” said a voice who could only have been the a-quavered Hilda, for it was certainly not the fiendish German and it seemed unlikely that my uncle was answering himself in some sort of state of madness–

–that particular sort of madness has never run in the Hopwood bloodlines, although I had a schoolboy chum by the name of Soaks who always claimed that his mother insisted she was his late father, so it must be a kind of madness that does happen, although Soaks never offered any proof, but one doesn’t like to make thickheaded assumptions about one’s old school friends, even if they did have unfortunate taste in facial hair like the sort that Soaks developed.

This Hilda had a voice that was, if you follow my meaning, English to its very core. I don’t mean English like one might find one of the royal family speaking assuming they were members of the royal family who were actually English–

–not that there’s anything wrong with the other sort–

–I mean English like, well, English, you know. The sort of Englishy English voice that you imagine was there shouting at Norman invaders to line up straighter and firmly reminding King Arthur to keep Excelsior-whatsit free of the gruesome remains of adversaries and all that. A sort of historic thundering in a healthy, robust, lady-like way, a voice that could be heard across windy hills and all that.

You must understand, it was a bit shocking to hear this Englishy English womanly voice on this dreadful German contraption and addressing my uncle by name, as though she’d just found him treading in her flower beds (there was also, I must say, a certain amount of aunt in her voice, but I suspect you knew that, for all ladies of this sort, with that sort of voice, have an aunt-like quality to their natures).

The combination of my uncle’s most un-Wilberforce-ish uncertainty and the presence of a lady did a bit to put me off my stroke, so to speak–

–I have always firmly believed that it simply isn’t polite to make love while there is a lady in the room–

–so, between my taken-aback-ness and my simple curiosity, I stilled for a brief moment. I’d earlier encouraged poor dear Archie to continue with his explorations despite the events going on outside, though, and like a good Englishman he attempted to soldier on through, carrying out my last orders (although of course they were less orders and more bits of gaspy breathy wriggly things)–

Dear reader, here I must pause for a moment in order to be quite frank with you vis-a-vis my intentions re: this narrative. You and I, we are most certainly men of the world, unless you happen to be a woman of some sort, in which case I have perfect faith that you are a woman of the world, and I mean that in the best possible sense, which is to say that I am not intimating for a moment that you are a lady of the evening. And as men (or women) of the world (not of the evening), we are sophisticated creatures. I am certain that even my unparalleled frankness about certain goings-on comes as no shock to you. It is not my intention to shock you, nor to excite in you some sort of base, prurient interest. Dear heavens, no.

What you must keep in mind, dear reader, is that Rupert Hopwood is, in fact, a writer first and foremost. And as a writer, I am concerned first and foremost with honesty, or at least with verisimilitude. It is my job to immerse myself once more in the events of that fateful day and to report them with care and exactitude, to the very best of my ability. I must exist wholly in the moment! And if I were to, say, report on the events on one side of the closet door while ignoring the events on the other, I would be neither truthful nor exact, and I would provide you with an incomplete picture at best.

There is nothing I prize more than honesty, at least within the scope of this narrative, and thus I cast my mind back, not in the service of base titillation, but rather in the service of Truth Him- or Herself. I assure you that I am enjoying this prurience no more than you are.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the gaspy bits.

“Nothing to say, Wilberforce?” enquired the lady, and although I could not see her (or, in point of fact, much of anything) I fancied that I could hear her drawing herself up to her full height. Likely there would be a jutting bosom involved, if I was any judge. Her voice, a bit stentorian to begin with, grew into an entire operetta of vengeance and triumph. “Thirty years I have waited to have my revenge! Thirty years!”

“But–” said my uncle.

“I refuse to hear it!” Hilda thundered.

“Hilda–”

“You cad! You bounder, you rascal, you wretched–”

She went on in this vein for some time while my uncle weakly interjected a syllable of protest here and there, rather like studding a ham with cloves (and I do hope you see how clever that simile was, as I worked quite hard on it).

Although I’ll admit that it was pleasant to hear my uncle receive his dressing-down in this fashion, I tuned it out rapidly, as I had other pursuits on my mind. Archie fiddled my vest off over my head and bent to put his mouth here and there upon the front of my throat, making me ever so glad that I’d found a moment in which to wash it.

The mouth really is a clever piece of work, isn’t it, with the lips and the teeth and the tongue all in? I do believe that Archie favoured every last inch of my throat with its own unique sensation, and abruptly I was quite glad that our little scufflings were neatly drowned out by the constant ‘wom-wom’ of the engines. At least, I fervently hoped that they were.

While I was, as it were, distracted, Hilda exhausted her list of slanderous invective at last (as well as her list of more accurate invective) and she announced, fiercely triumphant, “I imagine you never thought to see me again, you old fool!”

“But how wrong you vere, Sir Vilberforce,” said von Helmfried, a bit unnecessarily to my way of thinking, but perhaps he was feeling left out during the grand solo of Hilda’s. “Perhaps, in the future–if you shouldt be so lucky as to have vun–you vill think twice about scorning the fragile flowers of yung vomanhood.”

I think, perhaps–

–particularly knowing what I know now, which I know is a bit unfair to the reader to allow to influence my words, but one can’t help knowing knowledge, you know–

–that the German’s words did not impress the fearsome Hilda, for she snorted derisively, a snort which spoke volumes about her opinion of the German’s opinion, don’t you know.

My uncle exhaled, a great, offended breath. Von Helmfried’s words must have snapped him out of his Hilda-induced trance of silence. “You asinine gearshaft! Are you threatening me?!”

“Sir Vilberforce, I do not know how you are doing things in England, but in civilised countries, ve do not partake of such crudities as threats.”

“I suppose it’s not a threat! I suppose it’s an all-out declaration of war, you fatheaded teakettle!” my uncle roared. Despite everything Archie was managing to do, I could hear my uncle take a massive inhalation, stocking up the winds necessary to berate the German for his slurring of our good Empire and how we English classify such things as unprovoked attacks by dirigibles and giant mechanical spiders, not to mention wide-scale hat theft, in greater detail–

–but then there was a sort of wheezing squeak, a deflating, you know, or perhaps a great inflatable cushion being punctured by a pin, where the pin was the strident voice of the mysterious Hilda.

“Are you perhaps referring to my araneomechanica? You always did underestimate me, Wilberforce.”

Dear uncle Wilberforce harrumphed several times (and I, dear reader, would have taken some joy in the uncertainty in that sound, save for the fact that I was instead taking some joy in the fact that somehow or another my handsome linen underthings had slipped down an inch or so, to give my hipbones a smallish airing that I had not known that they needed until that very second).

“Err. Yes. Well,” he said. “Original design, is it? Very… unusual movement system you’ve designed. Very leg-centric.” Apparently the word ‘terrible’ and all its kin had fallen right out of my uncle’s vocabulary, which I thought I might find to be a relief in the future, but at the time seemed unfortunate, as ‘terrible’ was one of the milder words I would have chosen to describe the thieving monstrosities, although I suppose one must temper one’s word choice in the presence of a lady, even a lady who designs unfortunate mechanicals and sics them upon one.

It was just then–

–remember that I am sworn to unadulterated honesty within the bounds of this narrative!–

–that my underdrawers gave up the ghost entirely. I must bashfully admit that there was one major impediment to their flight, but with a little encouragement from Archie said impediment was overcome, and my pants slid down along my legs until they were naught but a linen puddle upon the floor.

It would have been a touch draughty but for the attractive suits pressed close all ’round and the mass of Archie ’round front. (And when I say ‘mass’, dear reader, please understand that I am employing what is known in writing circles as a ‘double entendre’, which how the French indicate that, in addition to the obvious meaning, there is also a risque hidden meaning to the words in question, which is to say that I was referring not only to Archie himself but to the largish bit of Archie that was pressing itself up against my hip all very demandingly, if you know what I mean, and I sincerely hope that you do.)

“Astute as always, Wilberforce!” said Hilda. You could tell from her voice that she meant it to sting and that she did not actually find my uncle to be astute at all.

“Hilda, my gem,” said the count, “you haff often spoken of zhis man’s flaws at some length, and always I haff listened and vondered if anyone couldt be so incompetent as you claimedt–but now I understandt. If anything, you haff understatedt the case.”

Well! It woke my uncle like a dash of cold water to the face. “Here now! I don’t have to take that sort of talk from a dashed Kraut!”

“In fact, you do, Sir Vilberforce. I do not see how you haff much of a choice in the matter. Undt perhaps you shouldt be grateful, for you do not make the gudt choices–in fact, it is the badt choices vhich you haff made vhich haff brought you here today!” The German chuckled, an all-around menacing sound. “So perhaps it is a gudt thing that you haff no choice, seeing as how choice is something vith vhich you are not so responsible.”

Even occupied as I was with more pressing matters–

–another entendre thingum there, as I’m certain you could guess–

–it struck me as dashed hypocritical of a fellow whose own choices included allowing his wife (for I could only assume that Hilda was such) to drop giant metal spiders on the English countryside! A proper husband could have looked up over breakfast and said to his wife, even if she was the sort of wife who has a strident voice not unlike a fox-hunting trumpet, “Hush now, my pet, let us not rain terror down upon the quaint and humble English countryfolk today” and thereby could have stopped her from assaulting gentlemen’s hats by proxy (that means via giant clockwork spider-whatsits).

Perhaps choosing to attend the Grauvghmare and Stillpole Summer Exhibition and Livestock Fair WAS a bad choice on my uncle’s part–

–in fact, I would go so far as to argue that it was a terrible choice, and further, that forcing yrs. truly to attend was the worst choice yet–

–but it was hardly a choice so execrable that it should deserve mechanical-ing and de-hatting and kidnaping and having a fellow be all German at one while a terrifying lady is being very English at the very same time. (Very confusing.)

Granted, much of this comes with the benefit of hindsight. At the time the German’s little speech had barely had a moment to strike me wrong before Archie let out a long, deep sigh against the side of my face–

–it sounded a bit like a sigh of resignation, but that would have been a silly sort of sigh to make while making love–

–and… well, he took hold of me by the never-you-mind! Well! ‘Wom’ and ‘wom’ again the engines might have been saying, but all the same I was suddenly quite grateful for the noise, because I made such a girlish and fluttering sound at that! Such large hands, very warm and a bit hard in that way that tells you that a fellow works with said hands for his living–

–Archie felt about at one end for a while, then groped up and felt about at the other end, not in a way that meant that he was exploring unfamiliar territory, but rather in a way that meant that he knew what he was on about and was looking for the proper places to feel about in, which I was all too happy to indicate to him through a complicated system of whimpers and sighs.

Archie had claimed almost all of my attention with that clever move, as I’m certain was his plan. I could hear the trio of assorted dastards raving on outside the closet door, but for the moment, I had ears only for Archie–

–and by ‘ears’ I mean, well, whatever bits of me that Archie wanted.

Still, some niggling little voice in the back of my mind asserted that perhaps I shouldn’t just hang there and make little noises and enjoy myself. It wasn’t sporting to make Archie do all the work, now, was it? And furthermore there was grease-spotted herringbone pressed up against me in all sorts of sensitive places, and while I did not object to the herringbone at all, the grease was a bit off-putting–

–so I took Archie’s top trouser button in hand and popped it open, quite neatly, with one hand, a trick of which I was really quite proud.

Poor dear Archie had been so intent upon what his hand was doing that I quite startled him, judging by how he jumped and shuddered. Still, once I’d done it he was all too pleased to let me fiddle open the rest of the buttons, and together we managed to extract him from his trousers without knocking our elbows against the closet door or revealing ourselves to the other inhabitants of the room, which I would call a grand success. I’d thought to help his pants along after his trousers–

–it wasn’t fair that I should be pantsless when he wasn’t–

–but his fingers felt their way back down and did something complicated and clever that took in not only my never-you-mind but the and-then-somes as well, and I vowed then and there to never make love with a fellow with small hands again and quite forgot what I was doing.

There I was, breathing quite hard and stock-still with two fingers hooked in the waist-band of Archie’s pants and my thumb playing foolishly over the topmost button thereof. It really is a pity that making love is such an undignified endeavour, because otherwise it really is quite pleasant.

Outside certain other persons were making far less pleasant noises, however (and I must confess to you, dear reader, in order that I should not mislead you in any fashion, for that is not my intention, that the knowledge of some of what follows was imparted to me by others who were there at the time, for I was focused wholly upon the goings-on inside our cramped-but-increasingly-pleasant quarters. I’m sure these things did transpire, however, and to simply jump to the end, as it were, would muddle us all up dreadfully).

“What are you blathering about, you dreadful stuffed hat?” my uncle puffed. Looking back–

–and with the assistance of other witnesses–

–I can’t help but be impressed by how my uncle flipped and flopped in temperament during this time, all without injuring his neck!

“You cannot hide behindt ignorance, Sir Vilberforce!”

Here, out of mercy for the English language, no doubt, the fearsome Hilda interceded. “What the good Count refers to, you doddering oaf, is the dreadful manner in which you jilted me!”

“Jilted you?!”

“Jilted me! You have a memory worse than a shilling audio-phone and vocals much the same!” Which is, I suppose, considered to be an insult among the mechanically-minded set. “Perhaps it was nothing to you a small scratch in the cogs, but for some of us, it was as though a ham had been thrown into the gears of our life!”

“I say!”

“A large ham, Wilberforce! A very large ham!”

Under any other circumstances than these I confess that I might have been curious about Hilda’s accusation. My uncle had never seemed the sort to swan about breaking ladies’ hearts. Indeed, I’d never known him to show interest in a lady at all and could not picture him doing so, except perhaps if the lady in question was carrying a small and ladylike mechanical, and how often does that happen, I ask you?

Still, any passing curiosity I might have felt was whisked away by Archie’s so-clever hand–

–and, by extension, the rest of his arm, as he was flicking his wrist in a regular and gentle sort of rhythm, up and down, don’t you know, and up and down in a place that quite appreciated it, to boot.

Eventually I recollected to myself my duty and thrust my hand bravely down the front of Archie’s pants, in search of what, by this point, I was absolutely certain was there. And so it was, my goodness. Brave John Thomas. Given how it leapt when I took hold of it, I suspect that had I not gone in search of it, it would eventually have come out in search of me, to the detriment of poor Archie’s underthings. Archie made quite a little noise against my ear when I caught hold of him, I tell you, and who among us could blame him?

“Rubbish!” said my uncle–

–and here I hasten to note that he was referring to the conversation he was entangled in, and not to the engineering chap I was entangled in, and with, and all about, and up and down, and so on, for Archie and I remained securely hidden within the closet–

–and I suppose had Uncle Wilberforce suddenly turned his attention from Germans and angry women and somehow seen through the closet door to the closet’s contents, he would have made some comment far more scathing than ‘Rubbish!’ I think perhaps the worst I have ever heard from him is ‘scalding pack of oilcoats’, and those were very trying circumstances indeed!

“And now you are insultink the vurds of a lady? Sir Vilberforce, I believe even the crudest of your countrymen vuld call you a cad.”

“Indeed!” said Hilda, a woman who stood behind her words, even in the face of my uncle managing to muster a bit of his usual bluster. “I can think of several other words I would call you that would be even more appropriate, but I will not lower myself to speak them in your presence, for you are far from worth such a loss of dignity, Wilberforce!”

There came a softish thump, like that of a very exercised uncle ripping the hat from his head and flinging it to the floor in a smallish spate of pique. “I think gadding about in a blasted foreign airship of shoddy quality with half-cocked mechanicals who don’t know a hat from a handsaw from a bloody pumpkin is not a position which bestows a great deal of dignity, madam!”

“Perhaps my error was in designing the targeting works while failing to consider how bulbous and inflated your pig head is!”

“Or perhaps the problem,” my uncle shouted, and I’m sure he was as close to hitting a lady as ever a Hopwood has come–

–which is to say, very close indeed but certainly not stepping over that line, for even the most depraved Hopwood is a gentleman above all else, and let no one tell you otherwise–

“–is that you wasted all your energy encasing your machinery in a pack of bloody metal spiders instead of properly defining your variables!”

“There was nothing wrong with my variables that additional testing could not have corrected, and I happen to like the design!”

“WELL SO DO I!” Uncle Wilberforce bellowed.

illustrated by neomeruru

There is no accounting for taste, I suppose, or for what a gentleman may claim to think when confronted by an irate lady. In any case, the tension in the room outside drained like so much stuff rapidly leaving the confines of some other, formerly stuff-filled thing–

–and I am certain that you are capable of drawing the proper parallels between outside the closet and inside the closet on your own, or perhaps the very improper parallels, so I will refrain from pointing out the clever symbolism, except to note that it really is quite clever.

“Vut?” said the count, in a voice that sounded particularly ridiculous and foreign now that the tone of things had shifted abruptly, but I can’t deny that I found it as startling and puzzling as he did, or I would have, if I had been paying proper attention to matters, but I was, understandably, somewhat distracted.

“You do?” asked Hilda, for she too was shocked. Probably very few fellows are willing to tell a lady how much they admire her artistic leanings towards spiders.

“Absolutely! I’ve always thought your designs were jolly good!”

“Truly?”

“Simply smashing!” said my uncle, who must have been sincere (ghastly thought), for I have no idea, even now, how he could have gotten away with such claims if he were slathering it on, you know.

Archie made quite an interesting little noise against my ear in response, something that managed to be both derisive and a bit, well, urgent, you must understand, as if he were mocking the spidery mechanicals and simultaneously encouraging me to keep on doing that interesting thing with my fingers, you know the one, or at least I sincerely hope you do, unless you are a lady, which is not to say that ladies do not deserve interesting tricks with fingers, but rather that the sort of tricks that a lady might find interesting would have to come in an entirely different shape, all inside-out and upside-down and all.

“But then why did you never meet me at the Nottingham School Girls’ Exhibition for Enterprising Engineers?”

“Is that what this is about?”

“Of course! Never has the winning of a blue ribbon for exceptional design in miniature aviation and targeted explosions felt so hollow!”

“You never thought I meant to miss it!”

“I did!”

“I got knocked over and trod on by a horse! I was laid up for weeks! I wrote you scads of letters and you never responded! When I was finally allowed about again, I went to see your father and he said you’d gone away to that awful school in Germany! I never thought I’d see you again,” Uncle Wilberforce declared, with all the tenderness of feeling he avoided laying on the heads of his nephews.

“Oh Wilberforce! Is that true?”

“Of course not!” von Helmfried interjected, but he was as involved in the situation as I was by that point (ergo, not involved at all, although for drastically different reasons).

“Every word!”

If an aunt or aunt-like maiden could coo, then Hilda was undoubtedly producing that very noise. “Oh, Wilberforce!”

“Hilda!”

Well! A dramatic clinch as the curtains fall and all’s well that ends well, I suppose, except that there was an increasingly flabbergasted German count still to be dealt with, and those do tend to be intractable. I am told that my uncle rose magnificently to the occasion, and I can only suppose that is true, but–

–how am I to describe the next few moments? How can yrs. truly possibly sum up the excesses of feeling, both physical and emotional–

–how could mere words convey the beauty of the moment? All I can do is but try, dear reader. I can but try.

You see, dear Archie’s dear hand had been long drawing me along a path strewn not with roses but rather with sensations, which ordinarily do not strew all that well save when the path is metaphorical, like this one. I was all over quivering and tingling, and the tingly sensation travelled up and down along my spine in both directions, until I was all one enormous tingle with hands and feet and things. And once that occurs, well, there’s nothing for it but to let things come to a head, so to speak.

One moment I was tingling fit to burst and making smallish sounds that were hopefully lost under the too-constant ‘wom’ noises, and the next moment the top of my head blew off–

–metaphorically speaking–

–and the angel chappies sang a hymn-ish thingum–

–also metaphorically speaking–

–and the sun burst from behind the clouds–

–supposedly metaphorically speaking but also quite possibly for real, one never knows, hard to tell from the position at the time, don’t you know–

–and I committed a smallish indiscretion in Archie’s hand on the spot, with outlying indiscretions adding a bit of sticky interest to the pleasantly-furry topography of his stomach–

–and that is only ever so slightly metaphorical, dear reader.

Fortunately even the furriest bits of skin wash clean in a twinkling, or I should quite have ruined poor dear Archie in the same way that the oil stains had ruined Archie’s discarded trousers. I’d had the presence of mind to hide my face against Archie’s shoulder, or I tell you I should have shouted loudly enough to alert not only the three parties outside the closet to our presence, but also the guards, the ship’s pilot, and possibly the constabulary on terra firma below.

At any rate, all too soon I came back to myself, a limp and dirtied scrap of Hopwoodishness being held upright by the labouring mass of Archie to the north and the unyielding dirigible wall to the south. Normally in such a situation I find myself quite content, and I will confess to a certain amount of contentment with my lot–

–indeed, more than was warranted, given the portions of the situation that did not have a direct bearing on the gaspy bits.

Still, one can’t bask forever, for even in normal circumstances there are societal obligations and whatnot that demand an end to basking, and, I hasten to assure you, the situation at hand–

–a metaphor once more–

–we writers do fall into such habits, like locusts and such, I think–

–was thunderously not what I would classify as ‘normal circumstances’ nor even the sort of abnormal-but-expected circumstances one might encounter when away from the comforting bosom of the city. Now that my crisis had been and gone I was once more somewhat aware of my surroundings, and only the clever gyring of my fingers seemed to still be necessary, so I once more paid heed to the fuss going on outside.

The noises from outside the closet were rather like the noises inside, if you’ll pardon a somewhat impish comparison: heavy breathing, intent scuffling, the occasional thud of flesh on flesh, masculine grunting, and so on, and so forth. Of course I would not for an instant suggest that the two symphonies had a similar genesis, nor were the relevant parties similar in any way (beyond the usual count of limbs etc.) and in any case the din from outside was pierced by the occasional fierce contralto.

Hilda might have been possessed by a heart as English as English can be, but her upbringing was somewhat Teutonic, and more than Teutonic, Valkyric. She cheered my uncle on with suggestions that bespoke a chilling lust for bloodshed, or some genteel variety thereof. Perhaps this is standard with women, English or otherwise, of a certain age, but it would take a braver man than yrs. truly to make detailed inquiries of the necessary number of aunts and suchlike.

Having got off to a late start, Archie was lagging behind just a bit. Now, personally I am of the opinion that a bit of stamina is greatly to be wished in these matters–

–efficiency is a worthy enough goal, I suppose, but if one is convinced that it’s best to have things over with as quickly as possible, one is going about things in entirely the wrong way and also talking out of one’s hat–

–but, given the rest of the situation, I thought that perhaps he might try to hurry things up a bit, just possibly go about finishing in a sharpish manner so that we might hurry back into our trousers and prepare to face the world again. As much as I was enjoying the hoarse breathing and the insistent shifting back and forth, I held out hopes that we might have time to experiment with these things more later on, when we had more leisure, more room, and more privacy. Therefore I added a certain fillip of my wrist and a tightening of my grip to the matter at hand. So to speak.

While I have been assured that the resulting tug is quite intense–

–‘like being caught in a bloody milking machine’ one fellow informed me, which I can only suppose is how rural types express appreciation for one’s technique, given how it had brought him off with much shouting–

–Archie still lagged a bit, probably because of the fuss going on outside. Really, it’s all very well to be aware of one’s surroundings, but occasionally one must put things aside to concentrate on, well, the matter at hand.

Still, finally Archie engulfed me in a fierce embrace that drove the breath out of me and came within a hair of springing my ribs, allowing me to experience his full-body shuddering right along with him–

–and when a fellow of Archie’s size shudders along his whole body, my goodness, it’s a bit like what I imagine an earthquake must be like.

Things got a bit slippery down below, as they are wont to do, while Archie made all manner of fascinating groany sounds in the old Hopwood ear. By the time he finished up I was limp and exhausted all over again, just from being in the general vicinity of such a large fellow having such a large time of it.

Much as I did not wish to, the situation compelled me to disrupt Archie’s recovery with a tactful-but-stern “Er” spoken very close by his ear, although looking back on it I think maybe I needn’t have bothered with keeping my voice low, for the noises from without were of sufficient volume and regularity that even the loudest of noises that dear Archie and I are capable of making (not that we were making our loudest noises at the time) would have been insufficient to draw attention away from the scuffle, Hilda’s strident Wagner-esque cries, and the everpresent booming of that terrible wom-wom-wom racket.

In his turn, Archie said, “Mm” in a particularly deep and thoughtful manner and looked away from yrs. truly–

–forgivable in this instance–

–to regard the closet door, the brain behind that wonderfully-serious face clearly absorbed in its own clockwork-like whirl of considering how best to extricate the two of us from our increasingly-uncomfortable enclosure (these things become more noticeable when one is not distracted). With Archie focusing his mental energies on the mechanical-ish portion of our dilemma, I turned my mind to more practical concerns vis-a-vis our dishevelled state, the two of us being, for all intents and purposes, completely unclothed.

Even now, I maintain my approach to have been the correct one. How, I ask, can one be expected to make a stealthy escape from a deadly German dirigible without, at the very least, trousers, shirt, shoes, and handkerchief (emergencies, you know)? I manoeuvred as best I could, reaching for a striking pair of trousers in dove grey which were hardly appropriate for the countryside–

–but one must make do in dire circumstances, and I have some difficulty in imagining circumstances more dire than having to rely on the boudoir of a foreigner to outfit an English gentleman of means and taste.

Archie shot me a glance–

–but really, finding something that would encompass his significant frame would require more effort than things to suit my more streamlined physique, and it’s only sensible–

–and I’m sure that dear Archie, in retrospect, would agree, perhaps even conferring on my thought process that most treasured of Archie-compliments, ‘logical’–

–to deal with a problem which can be immediately remedied rather than one which would require a great expenditure of time. I tried to convey this to Archie through a returned glance as I worked to clothe myself, but it can be dreadfully difficult to dress oneself, even moreso in unfamiliar clothes, and particularly on top of that all wodged into a strange man’s strange closet, which is, I suppose, a small part of the reason that things happened as they did.

I put first one foot and then the other into the proper trouser legs and began to adjust the proper fit of same to the best of my abilities, but in the confined space (and with Archie in such close proximity) I knocked, ever so slightly, against the folding door.

That alone, I’m sure, would not have been a catastrophe. However, the battle between our favourite upstanding English country squire and the ferocious foreign Count continued without, and it was at just that moment that the German chappie must have landed a significant blow against one of my uncle’s more vulnerable bits, for Uncle Wilberforce and all his ponderous-English-country-squire mass also fell against the door–

–but from the opposite side, of course! He did not spontaneously apparate inside the closet with Archie and myself, and goodness, what a dreadful prospect that is, even now!

What happened next was quite sudden. Dear Archie says it was all a result of leverage–

–and I’m sure he’s correct if one wishes to think of it in those sorts of terms for some reason–

–but for the rest of us, the effect was that I sort of leaned against the closet door at roughly Rupert-height, and my uncle landed with tremendous force at the base of the door from the other side, and von Helmfried had clearly not foreseen the advent of my uncle when he’d designed his airship (or commissioned it, or stolen it, or whatever it is these mad fellows do to acquire their massive dirigibles) for if he had, I’m sure the door would never have shattered in such a dramatic fashion and Archie and I would have been saved the indignity of tumbling out in our assorted states of scandalous undress.

We landed all in a scramble quite nearly atop my dazed uncle, who was looking much the worse for wear, you know, and was certainly not in any condition to resume his battle against the Count, even if we had not provided such an infelicitous distraction.

PART THE SIXTH

With greatest respect to my uncle, however, I must say that the Count was looking little better–

–with the exception that he was upright and my uncle was not–

–for his clothes were torn (and therefore Archie and I fit in ever so slightly better than I would have expected), his beard and hair were in great disarray, and his nose, a great, beakish sort of thing, was, I think, more crooked than it might once have been, and also a darkish colour that, despite similar markings in other areas, I could not think natural, even for a German. He, too, was stunned by the sudden arrivals to his party, as it were, but confusion did not remove him from a situation where he had the upper hand.

I’m not sure if this hand is metaphorical or not, for certainly, being as he was standing, his hands were above our own.

Taking advantage of our sudden and quite distracting entrance, Hilda–

–or the lady whom I can only assume was Hilda, given that she was the only lady about, and she certainly did resemble a Hilda, or perhaps a Brunhilde–

–promptly swept up a standing ashtray and brought it down quite smartly on the back of von Helmfried’s neck, toppling him to the floor and effectively eliminating the question of whose hands were above whose. The German hit the floor near us with an appalling thud and quite failed to rise again, although he made a brave attempt. “Well!” an outraged Hilda said, red to the ears, brandishing her weapon at us all with a competence that was rather frightening. “I never!”

“Not even once?” my rather dazed uncle inquired from his seated position. “Well, that is a relief.”

Belatedly I once more became aware of my terrible dishabille. For once, dear reader, I shall admit to making quite an embarrassing strangled squawking sound, rather like that of a chicken caught in a bicycle wheel, for I dare any one of you to endure my position and do otherwise.

Poor dear Archie had at least managed to do up the buttons on his underthings at some point while I was distracted, so his unmentionables were, at the very least, unviewable. I, on the other hand, may have been wearing a (wholly inappropriate) pair of dove-grey trousers, but I was wearing them tangled about my knees, which is not the usual run of things–

–and, dear reader, I had quite forgotten to pick up my own pants, so underneath my borrowed trousers I wore only my stockings and garters, and those in the usual places!

In short, I was entirely on display from the knees on up, and in front of a lady, too (as I allowed Hilda the benefit of the doubt). I snatched at the trousers and hauled them up with such alacrity that the waist-band quite nearly ended up about my shoulders, which would have been dashed uncomfortable, I daresay.

“Hwhat,” Hilda proclaimed, drawing herself up to her full aunt-like stature, “is the meaning of this?”

“I really am terribly sorry,” Archie said, with remarkable aplomb. He plucked his undershirt up off the floor and shrugged back into it with something so approaching nonchalance that I was quite tempted to applaud, or I would have been, had I been able to let go of the waist-band of my trousers and stop gibbering. “They took most of our clothing away from us when they bunged us into the cells, you see. I can only suppose that they intended to break our spirits.”

He rose to his feet, a calm mountain of a man clad in only his underthings and that ineffable mantle of authority, and such was Hilda’s dismay that she gave back a step or two, brandishing her ashtray at Archie lest he absolutely lose his mind and assault her forthwith. Instead of doing so Archie took the nearest shirt from its hanger (a perfectly acceptable buff linen, fortunately) and handed it down to me before stepping back into his oil-soaked trousers.

“Yes, absolutely,” I added, positively whipping the shirt about my shoulders in my hurry to approximate some semblance of decency. “Just popped in to borrow some clothes before seeing about the rest of the escape, don’t you know. One can’t escape in the nude, or so I’m told. Archie, be a love and see if you can’t find me a decent collar?”

I suppose I was babbling a bit, but given the extremities to which I had just recently been driven, I feel that I should be forgiven this little lapse.

“Pigspittle!” my uncle added, although whether he was referring to the crew’s outrageous theft of our clothing, my earlier dishabille, or the infelicitous combination of dove-grey and buff was unclear (and I was pleased to allow it to remain so). I could only hope that he was not referring to the actual product of an actual hog, for I can safely say I had long since vowed to keep all non-bacon oinkers at a significant remove from the life of R. Hopwood.

Uncle Wilberforce lumbered to his feet and directed a rather unfocused glare in my direction, wobbling a bit on his pins, the poor fellow. He seemed unwilling to take me to task any further, at least not at that time, for which I was dreadfully grateful. We had all seen the telltale sticky marks that Archie’s and my exertions had left upon our respective bellies–

–I suppose there was no way to have missed them–

–and we all must have known what terrible sins they portended, but some things… well, it is just not Done to speak of them and thereby brazenly bare them to the air. One may still do these things, mind you, and one may enjoy them very, very much indeed, but one does not speak of them, particularly not in mixed company.

Like a single creature with four heads but only one mind (a terrible thought!) we simultaneously silently vowed to never speak a word of it, but rather to pretend with all our might that Archie and I had only been in the closet in search of clothing.

Abruptly it all became too hilarious to bear. I snatched up the first hat that I saw–

–a beautiful beaver top-hat, utterly inappropriate for the time of day and a size too large, to boot–

–and plunked it onto my head, tilting it at an angle too rakish even for the avant-garde. “I suppose we’d best see to landing this ship!” I cried, dusting off my (slightly sticky) hands. “I have had quite enough of the Germans and their wom-machines for one day, haven’t you?”

“Their–good God, you useless bit of pigment!” my uncle thundered. “Speak proper English! I don’t know how you can be shaming the Hopwood name even now!”

“I say!” I protested from beneath my chapeau, for those were hard words indeed to hear from a fellow one had sort of just been involved in the rescue of.

Hilda-presumed gasped. “Hopwood! You can’t mean–is that your son?!” Really, she needn’t have sounded so appalled, no matter what tendresse she might have once had for my uncle.

“Of course not! That bit of–” He caught himself, perhaps suddenly becoming sensitive to the presence of a lady–

–or, more likely, the presence of a lady who might actually understand his blustering jumble of words he lashed at the innocent like whips–

–and he deflated (very slightly). “He’s a nephew-thingum, you know. Scarcely qualifies for the name Hopwood as is. My youngest brother’s son, you know. The one with the–”

“–with the rabbits,” said Hilda, and if they were presuming to be speaking of my father, well, I have to say they were either highly confused or speaking of some other fellow’s father, for I haven’t the slightest what they were referring to when it came to the long-departed and I still don’t, even now (not that I have felt compelled to ask for fear of being called a stack of teapots or something else equally vilely perplexing).

The fact that they both appeared to be stifling what was either exasperation or most inappropriate laughter only added to my discontent with the situation.

It fell to Archie to save the day once again, reappearing from the depths of the German’s closet (such as they were) with that massive flint-stick once again clapped to his shoulder. It served to sober my elders nicely, or at least to distract them from their amusement at my poor pater’s expense.

“Well!” said Archie, sounding for all the world as if nothing were unusual about the situation. “Shall we go and see about landing this bally thing? I’ve nothing against a good dirigible, mind you, but all the same I’m for the ground and a nice bath.” He tossed me a well-starched collar–

–which, I must shamefacedly admit, I had asked him for and then almost forgot–

–and, miracle of miracles, a lovely and well-tended mashie niblick, just the thing for hitting a high shot towards the green or, incidentally, for defending oneself from uniformed Germans who might just be somewhat poorly disposed towards one.

I must say, just the sight of the old familiar golf club raised my spirits immensely, and after buttoning on the collar I drew myself up and took its leather-wrapped grip well in hand. There I stood, shoulder to shoulder–

–or, well, shoulder to somewhere-about-the-rib-cage–

–with Archie and his flint-stick, with my uncle and his clenched fists, and with Hilda and her ashtray bludgeon, although of course I could not literally be shoulder to shoulder with all three of them, as I haven’t but the two shoulders to begin with. We made a grand sight, I’m certain, the four of us, bloody but unbowed, avatars all of England’s indomitable spirit and unwillingness to bend in the face of a few overdressed Teutons. A stirring image indeed, even now, as I write these words!

A silence fell. My uncle and his Hilda seemed to have eyes only for each other, and those definitely of the googly sort, although fortunately we were spared any billing and/or cooing (cooing is awful enough when it comes from the ordinary sort of love-bird, but when it comes from an ageing love-bird who happens to also be related to one, well, it can make one quite ill). Archie glanced at me, then at the double doors, then cleared his throat in a most portentous fashion. “I say, Tricksy, something has just occurred to me.”

Following his example I also cleared my throat and endeavoured to pretend that nothing untoward had recently occurred. “Oh? Do go on.”

“Someone will have to stay behind here and make certain that the German fellow doesn’t come to and raise a ruckus,” Archie said. “Absolutely imperative, don’t you know. If he manages to rally his troops while we’re landing the dirigible, well, I shouldn’t like to think of the result.”

Trust Archie to mind all of his p’s and q’s! Here I’d been anticipating the huge row to come and I’d completely forgotten about the row behind us, so to speak. Von Helmfried didn’t seem inclined to rally much of anything at the moment, all face-down and unmoving on the hideous carpet as he was, but you can never count on these wicked counts to be counted out, such as it were–

–and, I thought, who better to keep a stern eye on the miscreant than yrs. truly, whom Archie certainly already knew that he could trust with his very life? “Oh, right ho,” I said, shouldering my niblick in what I earnestly hoped was a manly and reassuring fashion. “Don’t give it another thought, Archie old lad, I’d be happy to do it.”

The relief in Archie’s eyes shone clear. “That’s the stuff, Tricksy,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s the bally stuff!”

Most fellows and relatives of my acquaintance tend to treat me as if I were some sort of useless, chattering ninny who needs constantly to be watched and shuffled aside lest I get myself hurt in some fashion–

–I do not have the slightest idea where they got this idea, and I must say, I find it rather hurtful–

–and so to find someone like Archie, who truly understands my worth in a pinch, well! I drew myself up with such pride that I nearly lifted right out of my shoes, or I would have done, had I, in fact, been wearing shoes.

His back sufficiently guarded, Archie led the way to victory. The double doors closed behind the three of them and I was prompt to lock them, as having another German fellow get in would be almost as bad as having the German fellow in here get out. The key I slid into the watch-pocket of my borrowed trousers, where I could always be certain of it. Having done so, I found myself alone in that hideous bed-chamber, with only the unconscious von Helmfried for company. I checked on him, just to make certain that he was still breathing–

–he was–

–and then turned my attention to other, more pressing matters. It really was a lovely mashie niblick, after all, and the thick nap of the carpet simply begged to be put to use helping me to perfect my already-quite-nice chip shot.

I’d meant to keep one eye on the unconscious von Helmfried and one eye on my chipping, you know. I really had. And I hasten to add that I remained faithful to this duty for ages, just ages, and really only took my eye off the man for just a moment, to check my grip. (One simply can’t stroke properly with one’s hands in the wrong position.) His miraculous recovery must have been the matter of a second, at most.

“Vhat,” he said from behind me, “vas the numbering of zhat runavay steamship?”

Well! I confess that I jumped (although I certainly did not squeal, dear reader [and the jump was a very little one]). Von Helmfried had hauled himself into a sitting position and was clutching at his head, as if it were trying to turn itself inside-out and he were attempting to prevent it. I must admit to feeling a pang of sympathy for the dire fellow, as I have had many a morning-after like that myself and the modern Hopwood soul is a tender one, inclined to forgiveness and mercury (or do I mean emphysema? One of those ‘mm’ words, at any rate).

“Er. There’s no steamship,” I said. “We’re up in the air. In a blimp. Which is a sort of airship, I suppose. Which you may have meant. I know sometimes after a rough evening I have a bit of difficulty finding the precise word on the tip of my thingummy. But the ship remains! I’m not terribly certain how something one is in could be said to have run away from one, even if it did have legs, which, you know, ships tend not to.”

And, after a bit of reflection, “Here, you’d best just sit there quietly and not try anything funny.” I brandished the club meaningfully in his direction, although frankly the idea of beaning the fellow with it made me feel a bit sick to my stomach.

After a long moment von Helmfried fell over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling, his one-proud walrus moustache drooping most abysmally. “It vas Hilda,” he said. “It must haff been.”

“Er,” I said. “Yes. It was. I really am terribly sorry.”

Von Helmfried sighed. “If she is so forgiving of him zhat she must be beating me ofer the head, zhen I suppose it is for the best zhat she go,” he said. “And I am wishing him the best of luck with her, in the manner of proper gentlemen.”

“You really are taking this quite well,” I said, much relieved.

“Bah,” said von Helmfried, flapping one despondent hand in my direction. “I vill gif you this advice, tiny English: it is not a gudt idea to become involfedt vith headstrong vomen. Or perhaps any vomen vhatsoever.”

“Right ho,” I said, perhaps a touch too earnestly. “Never touch the stuff, myself.”

The count closed his eyes. “No, of zhis I am certain,” he said. “Do not vorry. I suppose they are making vith the landing of the dirigible, and I vill lie here until I am certain that you haf all gone very far avay.”

“Oh, I say, that’s sporting of you, old chap.” I tossed him a somewhat cheeky salute and, having nothing better to do with my time, returned to practising my chip shot.

It was only a few minutes later that the incessant ‘wom-wom’ changed to more of a sort of a ‘wup-wup’ sound, the dirigible taking on a definite downward slant that made me quite glad I was only practising my swing and not actually attempting to putt. It startled another long and despondent sigh from von Helmfried, but otherwise he was as good as his word, too depressed a chap to rally any sort of counter-attack, much to my relief.

I must confess that I could not then and cannot now see how losing a lady like Hilda would elicit such a strong reaction, but perhaps the old fellow was one of those chaps who cannot stand to lose anything, even handkerchiefs or the like.

I made to practise a few more swings, because one never knows when one might encounter a particularly steep or ‘wup-wup’ping bit of green, but almost as soon as the ‘wup’ping had commenced, it stopped! There was a terrible booming shuddering sensation, plus noises of a sort that would have been quite nerve-racking, had I not known the dirigible was in the exquisitely steady and safe and strong (if somewhat dirty) (but really quite well-manicured) (which I suppose is necessary in that line of work) hands of Archie (and Uncle Wilberforce and Hilda, to some smaller and emphatically less exquisite extent). I could not even hear the despondent sighs of von Helmfried over the noises (which was no loss, as much as I appreciated the fellow’s good sportsmanship and willingness to be a truly exemplary loser–

–a number of my schoolmates could have stood to have learnt from such an example, not that I would ever name names, as the cricket match in question was such a dreadfully long time ago, and I’m sure old Pongo has quite forgotten the scene he made at the time).

I could only suppose that the racket meant that the airship had landed, or gently crashed, or in any case come in contact with good old terra firma once more. I ceased my putting post-haste, for one does not wish to suffer accusations of performing one’s duty in a negligent manner, particularly if those accusations might come from such a figure as Uncle Wilberforce (and to be berated so in front of Archie, after having been entrusted with the duty of guarding over von Helmfried–! The old Hopwood pride could not stand such a prospect).

Instead I endeavoured to stand as straight and guard-like as could be, the head of the club at parade rest between my be-stockinged feet. My timing could not have been more excellent. Scant seconds later there came a rap on the door and a good-natured shout of “Tricksy! All’s clear!”

“Right ho!” I called back, fishing about in my watch-pocket for the key. Fortunately I had not lost it–

–I could just imagine what Uncle Wilberforce might have had to say about that–

–and thus, after only a mild bit of groping about in my trousers, I was able to unlock the door and reveal dear Archie’s broad, beaming, somewhat-dirtied face once more.

“No trouble, I hope,” said Archie, standing respectfully by as I closed and locked the door behind myself.

Having locked the door, I left the key in the key-hole, as I didn’t want it, had no further use for it, and thought that von Helmfried might want to be let out again sooner or later. “None at all!” I said, shouldering my niblick. “Well, then! Shall we be off?”

“Indeed, we shall,” Archie said gravely, bowing me down the hallway towards the front of the dirigible, towards the exit door, towards the green grass and blue sky of freedom–

–hurrah! and other joyful ejaculations at the sight of terra of the English firma variety, which is a sight to induce particular joy after one has been abducted onto a dirigible of suspicious and foreign make, regardless of what may have happened thereon, or not, as the case may be–

–and towards my uncle–

–the hurrah! here would be of a purely familial duty sort and the exclamation a mere token of the proper respect I have towards my elders-but-not-inherently-betters-no-mat

ter-what-they-may-says–

–compulsory punctuation is a damnable societal constriction, I do think–

–and his paramour–

–here, the writer must pause for the perusal of the sort of publication that would instruct a gentleman whether the ‘hurrah!’-ing of a lady is proper and yrs. truly is forced to report that no amount of research could answer the question one way or t’other and thus I will leave it to the reader’s discretion whether there is a ‘hurrah!’ for Hilda or some other shouty sort of thing more appropriate when directed towards the female of the species.

Archie and the others had put the dirigible down in a pleasant green field formerly occupied only by cows of a singularly unquestioning nature. The rhythmic champing of their jaws was almost pleasant, particularly when compared to the awful racket of a dirigible under sail, or under engine, or under balloon, or whatever it is that a dirigible is under when it is underway.

I decline to comment on whether those other aspects which may be notable in a field full of large, healthy farm-type animals were also pleasant, for, although many things may appear pleasant when compared to dire circumstances such as those I had so recently found myself in, I am not the sort inclined to tell fibs and I am further informed that the fairer sex may be reading this and there are simply certain things which you dear ladies should not be subject to (but, let me hasten to assure those who know whereof I allude, that I would not, in any circumstances, describe the nasal experience as ‘pleasant’–I am a city boy, through and through, aside from golf).

A mile or so away I could just make out the sad red-and-cream remains of the Exhibition, looking a bit tatty after its terrible spidery bombardment, and a smallish convoy of vehicles streaming in our general direction. Unsurprisingly, most of said vehicles looked to be of a decidedly constabulary nature, which under most circumstances I would have found comforting, or at least relieving. As it was, however, I plucked at the front of my borrowed shirt, devoutly wishing that it were of slightly less unflattering cut. At the very least, I should have preferred a pair of shoes–

–I should not even have been overly fastidious as to the type or style–

–for I have it on excellent authority that the long and strong arm of the law (or is it strong and long? I suppose it doesn’t matter) is inclined to be particularly critical to those found in a state of particular deshabille.

“Er, I say,” I said. “There really are quite a lot of people coming, aren’t there?”

“Quite,” Archie agreed, shading his eyes with one hand to watch the progress of the rescue armada.

“Quite a lot,” I repeated.

“Quite,” Archie agreed again. “Perhaps your uncle would be so kind as to stay and do the honours? I hardly think you and I are properly dressed for receiving company.”

To say I was relieved by this instant and unerring display of Archie’s inherent understanding of the concerns which can plague a gentleman in these situations would be to quite understate the case. “I could not agree more,” I said fervently.

“In that case, I suggest we adjourn with all due haste,” Archie said, gesturing towards the fence at the foot of the property. “It’s a bit of a stroll, perhaps, but if we can find our way back to the fairgrounds, my car ought still be there.”

“Oh, marvellous.”

While my feelings on dirigibles (and other means of transport that others view as frolicking among the clouds and birds and similar rot) were and remain significantly soured, I was not about to turn up the Hopwood nose at the prospect of an automobile returning yours truly to civilisation, particularly if that aforementioned vehicle was being manned by someone other than a police constable.

I must note, at this juncture, that I bear no ill-will towards law enforcement officials of any stripe, spot, plaid or paisley, but if forced to choose between the company of one of those good men and that of Archie, well, I should choose Archie every time. This preference in choice is not to be seen as a slight towards my hypothetical constable.

As we commenced to walk, a sudden and dreadful thought occurred to me. “Your car! I say, Archie, I do hope no one dropped a spider on it!”

Proving his status as one of those who has cooled water running perpetually (er, almost perpetually, I should say) through his veins, Archie merely smiled where a lesser man might have taken fright, or at least quickened his pace, although by that time the speed in which we moved would have no effect on whatever a spider may have effected on the vehicle. “I shouldn’t worry over that, Tricksy,” he said, quite enigmatically, and with a bit of the strapping hero patting the girl’s cheek and telling her not to worry her pretty curls over such things before he kisses her–

–except, of course, not like that at all, and I’m assured by witnesses that even as an infant, my hair was never of the curly variety.

I must say, even now, I’m not certain what Archie was alluding to, but every man is entitled to his secrets and such, and if the explanation would require a lecture on hydraulics or some similarly dreadfully dull thing, well, leave Rupert to mystery, I say!

Dear reader, if you are ever moved to take a mile-long stroll in your stocking feet, pause and hearken to my advice: don’t. Particularly don’t if said stroll involves, in any way, cows. Or pastures containing cows. Or pastures that recently contained cows. Still, after the day that I had had, even dodging the unmentionable whatsits of cows while unshod seemed akin to a restful vacation, or a pleasant bit of sport.

Behind us the dirigible made a sort of rising rumbling noise and took to the air once more–

–von Helmfried and his lads also preferring not to hang about and make the acquaintance of the local constabulary–

–and then all was quiet, save for the champing of the cows, and the engine-y noises of the approaching cars, and the faint but strident sound of Hilda holding forth on some subject or another behind us, and the rustling–

–I think, perhaps, the actual noise of our feet vis-a-vis the grass was less of a rustle and more of a wet noise, but not even in the service of literature am I willing to bend my mind to the task of accurately portraying, in words, such a noise, and thus we will go with the tradition of rustling grass, which is much preferable all around and not a bit of a lie, for I’m sure that somewhere under the other sounds there was a token rustle or two–

–of our feet through the grass, and so on, and so forth, which I suppose means that it wasn’t very quiet at all.

My strolling companion being one of those disturbingly hale and athletic fellows, I found myself hard-pressed to keep up. Witty conversation was therefore entirely out of the question and I was, unfortunately, left quite alone with my thoughts. I say ‘unfortunately’ because now, at last, I had the leisure to contemplate the misunderstanding that had led to our closeted contretemps, so to speak, and I was uncertain as to whether I ought to feel embarrassed or not. On the whole I was tending more towards ‘pleased’ than towards ’embarrassed’, but still, it was a thorny question, and one I ought not to wrestle with alone, inasmuch as I had done the original bout of wrestling in excellent company.

We had reached the deserted fairgrounds before I had my thoughts in enough order to risk speaking them aloud (and enough breath with which to speak them). The battered old Exhibition was quite deserted, stout country burghers being no fools. Most of the tents still stood after a fashion, although not a one was unmarred, and here and there the sad remains of one of Hilda’s spiders lay all in a metal pile.

The overall effect was not unlike the morning after a really ripping ‘do, and I felt sure that there was no better place nor time than here and now. I came to a halt between two of the slumping tents and cleared my throat, preparing to grapple manfully with the issue. “Er.”

Archie paused and turned to face me, arching one eyebrow skyward.

I cleared my throat again–can’t be too clear on these matters. “Er, I say.”

“Yes?”

“Well.” I glanced away. “I mean. I say.”

For a moment longer Archie’s eyebrow remained lofted, but he’s always been a bright fellow, and soon enough good old comprehension dawned like the sun. “Ah,” he said. “Of course. Well. Say no more, Tricksy.”

“Er?”

“Think nothing of it.”

“Er.”

“Unless I am mistaken about your intent?”

“Er. Well.” In the spirit of thoroughness I cleared my throat yet again. “I thought perhaps I ought to apologise for my little, er, faux pas.”

“Oh? Oh. Nonsense. Won’t hear it. You haven’t a thing to apologise for.”

“We-ell… perhaps you might let a fellow off his tenterhooks and hint as to whether you’re only saying that to be polite, or if you honestly mean–”

The faintly exasperated look on dear Archie’s face was sadly familiar to me (as I have seen it on many a face over the halcyon days of yore–so few people possess the understanding native even to the average newt!) and yet, somehow, I dared to believe it to contain a measure of fondness. “I did say ‘say no more’, didn’t I?” he enquired, and as if to enforce his request he caught my chin in one of those monstrous hands and gave me a kiss that quite made my ears ring.

Well! That cleared things up nicely, I thought. “Right ho,” I said, once Archie had let me go and the jolly old world had stopped jolly well spinning about me like an overjoyed child’s top. “You’ll stay to supper…?”

“Tricksy, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Archie declared.

Heartened, I slipped my arm through his and allowed him to escort me chariot-ward. “I shall even,” I declared, “listen politely if you wish to carry on about some bit of mechanical engineering or other, although I cannot promise you that I will understand a bloody word you say.”

“Best be careful, Tricksy. If you let me drone on about my work I may attempt to touch you for a loan again.”

“My dear Archibald, after today, you may touch me howsoever you see fit.”

Dear reader, if ‘what’s past is prologue’, as that Bard fellow did so succinctly say, it stands to reason that what comes next in my little tale is merely epilogue. Archie’s roadster was indeed still intact and un-spider-crushed, and within minutes I was safely within the confines of Lay-a-Bayl once more, away from prying eyes, ear-deep in a warm, soothing bath while Chaston laid out a suit of clothing much better suited to a gentleman’s requirements. Once I was washed and dressed, I required only a fine meal and a sip of something to put me properly to rights, both of which were shortly provided, and both of which I partook in excellent company–and so on, and so forth, and never you mind the details.

All in all an excellent evening, and as such evenings are, terribly dull from the old writing-a-story standpoint, so I will leave them out, for which you may thank me, unless tedious descriptions of ordinary things are your cup of tea, in which case you certainly stopped reading this little story of mine hours ago and aren’t reading these words in any case.

It is my understanding that a good story ought end with a suitable moral, some sort of lesson thingummy that we may take away with us to meditate upon at our leisure. It was my opinion that the moral of my story was ‘never mess with mechanicals’ or perhaps ‘family is a fickle thing’, but finding myself utterly unable to decide, I allowed dear Archie the deciding vote, and, as is usual in these situations, he got straight through to the heart of the matter and I found myself unable to do anything but make it unanimous: “When in a jam,” (says Archie,) “it never hurts to be good with one’s hands.”

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