Page Created 2-8-02

copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe

"What lay beneath the fissure in the ancient granite?"
The big, powerful sports saloon nosed its way along the narrow, tortuous Derbyshire road. To the right a vast hill, a jagged limestone peak, rose like the wall of some fortress carved by the hand of a giant at the orders of Mother Nature herself. On the other side the precipice dropped steep and sheer. Far below in the gorge a tinkling stream danced and leapt from boulder to boulder, pirouetting around the rocks, playing with the pebbles in its bed, as a child plays a game of five-stones.
        The car's engine sang a song of power. The tyres murmured softly as they gripped the road. Inside there was warmth and a cheerful pop tune from the radio. Outside it was blowing a gale and drops of cold rain, lashed by the fury of the wind, crashed in futile rage against the windscreen. The man at the wheel was somewhere between forty and fifty. He was tall, and broad-shouldered, and----if such a mixed metaphor can be allowed----he was handsome in a pleasantly ugly sort of way. He was handsome if rugged masculinity is handsome. He was not handsome by the standard of tooth-paste advertisments, or toilet soap advertisments, or after-shave lotion advertisements. He would never have been considered for the post of male model, unless the advertiser was selling weight-lifting kits or tiger hunting equipment. The lines on that face were lines of character. They were etched deeply and irradicably into their framework. There were lines of strength around the eyes; lines of laughter around the corners of the mouth. The eyes themselves were a clear, steely grey; they matched the iron grey hair that curled above the broad forehead. The hands that held the wheel so skilfully were about the same colour as seasoned oak, and if anything, slightly stronger!
        Val Stearman was a man to be reckoned with. He was, above all things else, an adventurer. A man for whom life had to contain excitement and incident if it was to come within his definition of life at all. The car was spaciously designed, and even allowing for the fact that the graceful woman beside him did not take up an enormous amount of room, even the spaciousness of the car was scarcely enough to accommodate Val Stearman.
        If he had a profession at all it was that of journalist, but his profession, like everything else about him, was subordinated to his love of adventure. He had a certain debonair and devil-may-care abandon, and yet it had been mellowed and matured by the passage of time. He was a knight without armour in a world that is quite often hostile. In a sense, he was a kind of psychic Crusader; it was difficult to say what Val Stearman really was, it would have been much easier to start from the other end of the scale and try to say what he was not. It was fatuous to say that he was a hero, but it was far more definite to think of him as the exact opposite of all things cowardly. He was an idealist and yet he was not an empty-headed idealist. He believed fervently and passionately in those things which he felt were right, but he was not bigotted in his beliefs and he was always prepared to listen to the other man's point of view.
        He thoroughly enjoyed a fight of almost any description, and the passage of the years had done nothing to diminish the ability with which Stearman's rock hard fists could terminate any kind of contest in which he was involved. His knuckles bore many small scars that in themselves bore mute testimony to the truth of the last statement.
        He cast a swift, sidelong glance at the beautiful woman beside him, and his mind filled with memories. . . .
        La Noire Stearman had that magnificent Cleopatrian beauty that is somehow ageless and timeless. She could have been anything between twenty-five and forty-five. Her face was as flawless as the face of a teenager, and it was not due to the ministrations of the professional beautician. There was something slightly other-than-human about La Noire. She had a magnificent, voluptuous figure, and she always walked with the easy grace that one associates with the lioness or the tigress. There was something strangely cat-like about her every movement, but if her grace was feline, that was the only feline thing about her, unless one counts her magnificent green eyes. Sometimes as he looked at her Stearman wondered whether they had changed colour. Had there been a time when those eyes were black? He asked himself. It seemed a big thing to make mistakes about, but he was almost certain their colour changed occasionally, as though different moods swept over her and she adapted herself to them. He remembered when he had first met her----ten, fifteen years ago, maybe more----but she hadn't changed a bit! Not by one iota had she changed. If anything she seemed to grow more beautiful and more mature, but she didn't change, at least not in the same way that he changed. Every year there were new wrinkles around his eyes, new lines around the corners of his mouth. Every year there were a few more grey hairs and a few less black ones. Every year, infinitesimally he felt that he was 'slowing up'.
        He was still one of the toughest of rough-housers at his weight, or any other weight, that the world had ever seen, but he was hardly as good now as he had been fifteen years ago. . . .
        It was a thought that sometimes saddened him a little. Time passes and we pass with it. He looked at the wonderful feminine perfection epitomised in the person of La Noire and thought again of their first meeting. He thought of the occasion when he had rescued her from the coven of Black Magicians in whose thrall she had been. He thought of the fights to the death which they had had with the deadly Doctor Jules and the sinister Von Haak, the treacherous hunchback and the other members of the coven. He thought of how, one by one, those enemies had lost. Then there had been other battles to fight. It was as though Destiny with a capital 'D', Providence with a capital 'P', or Fate with a capital 'F' had singled them out to be psychic Crusaders. They had rare gifts and it looked as though those gifts had to be used. They had certain wild talents and those talents had to be employed. Val had all the natural attributes of the warrior, whether in the 20th century or any other century: he had courage and stamina and strength, and an ideal purpose; he used them all. La Noire had strange psychic gifts----she used those. They were a powerful team in the battle against evil. As he drove along that Derbyshire road, he thought of some of the adventures they had shared. He thought of how they had worked with Inspector Rod Gorman in the case which had been chronicled as The Secret of the Pyramid. Of how the hideous, mummified thing had destroyed poor old Angus Maginty the watchman. That had not been so very long back, either. He remembered the strange case of The Forbidden Island, they had been on that ghastly island with no boats, and the island itself had been a living thing which hated people!
        He shuddered even now as he thought of it!
        So many memories, so many adventures, so many things had happened, that it scarcely seemed possible that they could all have happened to one man. He remembered The Mountain Thing, how it had staggered from a hidden cave, hideous and savage, a thing that was part man, part beast! That had been up at Colsey Bridge in Cumberland; that had been the place where John Bollinger, a shepherd, had met his untimely end.
        Things went thrashing through his mind like a phantasmagoria. He remembered poor old Doctor Monketon Moulte, and Madame Ikon-Ababa in the case which he had written up in his records as the Vengeance of the Poltergeist. It had been a strange adventure that, for this had been a poltergeist with a difference. This one had been capable of communicating!
        Still the powerful sports saloon nosed its way through the Derbyshire night. He remembered how he and La Noire had fought with ghouls and vampires, how they had been hurled back into the past, and how, most recently, they had met Tex Mulloy, a tough American oil magnate from Dallas. Mulloy who had met them at Dooley's in the Strand and asked them to go to Persia with him to solve the strange mystery of the White Demon. They had not been long back from Persia, and during the interval that had elapsed life had seemed almost unusually uneventful. Val turned to La Noire and smiled in the the dim interior of the big saloon.
        "I reckon we're just about due for another adventure," he said grimly, "things have been almost incredibly quiet since we got back from Persia, darling."
        "Yes, I suppose they have," agreed La Noire. "You shouldn't really talk like that, Val. You'll trigger something off."
        "Now, come on," said Val, "be honest, you know you get as bored by inactivity as I do! Life is slipping past and all that jazz, you know. One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name. I don't know whether that's an original thought or not." He smiled at her, half-apologetically.
        "It's not original," said La Noire, "but it's a good one." And still the car nosed on through the darkness and the rain.
        "I'm in one of those moods," said Val, "when I feel like driving and driving and driving----not caring whether I get anywhere or not. I'm in one of those rather strange, retrospective moods when I feel that I would like to glide like thistledown across the surface of the world, observing all things, yet, at the same time, not being involved with them. I feel in a disembodied mood; a transient mood; a mood, almost, of gentle melancholy. I feel that Time is passing and that its relentless in its movement. I'm as helpless as a cork on the ocean. I can't stop the tide, I must drift along with it and make the most of the ocean as I drift across."
        "My word, we are in a philosophical mood tonight, aren't we?" smiled La Noire, "It must have been that last beer we had, darling. You know these Midland brews are very good, but I didn't think they were that good!"
        "Ah, well!" said Val in mock resignation, "whenever I try to wax poetical you always say it's the beer talking."
        "Well----isn't it?" demanded La Noire, "I thought all the best poets were heavy drinkers!"
        "I think an awful lot of them probably are," said Val, "but then again, an awful lot of them probably aren't! What does that prove, except that all men are different?"
        "You are full of wise saws tonight," said La Noire.
        "Better be full of wise saws than not full of anything," retorted Val, "besides, if you'll pardon the horrible pun, I'd rather be full of wise saws than septic sores!"
        "Ouch! Your humour is incredible!" groaned La Noire. "How can you make such 'jokes'? There ought to be a Society for the Prevention of Puns of the kind that you crack!"
        "Well, there we are, an inveterate punster must always have a victim," said Val, "if the rest of the world would stop groaning at our puns, we, the punsters, of the world, would stop making them!"
        "Must have been the beer," reiterated La Noire, "you're as platitudinous as a Greek philosopher tonight!"
        "I don't think the Greek philosophers were platitudinous in their day," protested Val. "What they said has only become platitudinous because its been repeated so many times!"
        "Ah, yes," said La Noire, "behind the platitude, disguised, like a Commando behind a camouflage net, you will probably find a little piece of important truth!"
        "Now who's being platitudinous?" demanded Val. They both laughed.
        "What a lot of nonsense we talk sometimes!" commented La Noire.
        "Nonsense, indeed!" agreed Val, "and to you of all people I always long to talk most seriously. After all these years we have been together I wonder why it is we cannot always say the things that we really mean to say. The things we want to say----the deep, important things. We put a barrier occasionally, a barrier of unimportant things and mere frivolities."
        "Oh, is it a barrier," asked La Noire," or is it a code, darling?" There was no banter in her voice now, she spoke quite seriously. "I think often when we long to say those deep things that so often remain unsaid, when we long to give rein to our most sincere emotions and our most heart-felt passions, then we long to put the truth into words; we have to use a code. Partly because of convention, partly because there are no words that would do, anyway! And partly because the truth is such a majestic thing that it almost shatters the vessel that tries to contain it."
        "You're right, of course," said Val, you're always right about the important things."
        "I wasn't always!" answered La Noire, "I was terribly, terribly wrong until you came . . ."
        "You make me sound like a knight in shining armour," said Stearman, but the seriousness in his tone belied the apparent humour of the phrase.
        "To me," replied La Noire, "you are! You are a knight, and more than a knight. You are a chivalrous king, prince of all the virtues. I see you as you really are, Val Stearman. I know that inside that rough exterior you are as white as snow, a dazzling white. If you didn't hide it with that cloak of being a rough-and-ready man of the world, which is your personna, you would be almost too good for this earth."
        For just a second Stearman knew that she was being deadly serious, and the knowledge pulled him up with a jerk. For just one second he tried to see himself as he really was. Not as the ideal that he had built up for himself of the jovial adventurer, but of the pure, psychic idealist inside.
        "I have come a long way," he said softly, "on the day that I met you, my darling, I was practically an atheist."
        "We've both come a long way . . ." murmured La Noire.
        There was a long, deep, intimate silence between them. Two lovers behind the yellow glow of the headlights, nosing their way into the unknown. . . .
        "What was that?" asked La Noire suddenly.
        Val stamped on the brakes.
        "What was what?" he asked.
        "Turn the engine off," said La Noire. Val complied with her request.
        "I can't hear anything except the gale," he said.
        "I can," said La Noire, "but I'm not hearing it with my ears. I'm hearing it inside. Someone is in desperate need. I can hear a soul pouring itself out in a prayer for help."
        "There's a light up there," said Val, "look!"
        "How are we going to park?" asked La Noire.
        "Tricky!" replied Val. He restarted the engine and drove on a few yards.
        "There's a piece blasted out of the rock face here to allow two cars to pass," he said, "I'll pull in there." He suited the action to the words and pulled the powerful sports saloon off the road. They could hear a girl's voice now, being blown down the sharp side of the hill by the gale.
        "There's a path here somewhere," said Val. He took a powerful torch and shone it around. "Yes, here it is, look!"
        "Come on!" said La Noire.
        She and Val began to climb.
        "What are we going to do?" asked Val.
        "I only know deep down within myself that someone's in terrible trouble and is calling out for help with a desperation that can only be borne of the ultimate despair that a person feels when they are faced with the grim reality of inescapable death."
        "It's as bad as that, is it?" said Val.
        "As bad as that," she confirmed. "Somewhere up there someone's life is hanging by a thread." They reached the light above them by means of a tortuous little path winding in and out of the boulders, like a snake writhing and twisting its way round a vertical staff. The light marked the entrance to a pothole, and from the pothole a fissure descended into what appeared to be a small subterranean cavern. The whole area was dotted with the things. Vast labyrinths of potholes and caverns extended throughout the Peak District. Val looked at it with great interest. He was a singularly experienced rock climber and he had done a great deal of pot-holing in his time. He had also taken part in various rescue operations.
        A girl, distraught and on the verge of hysteria, stood beside he entrance to the shaft, a narrow shaft.
        "It's my friend, Ferdy," she said.
        "What's happened to him?" asked Stearman.
        "We were exploring, and a rock slipped!"
        "So?" said Val. "Haven't you been for help?"
        "There were three of us," explained the girl. "John has gone. He's been gone over an hour. It's out of season, really, and there are not many cars on the road to give him a lift. It's seven miles to the nearest village. Even if he's running as hard as he can go I should think he's scarcely there. I think Ferdy's dying. I can hear him groaning occasionally . . ."
        "What happened exactly?" asked Stearman.
        "A rock," said the girl, "it slipped and he's trapped under it."
        "O God!" said Stearman. "What equipment have you got? Any ropes?"
        "There are ropes here," said the girl. "We had all the equipment, ropes, lanterns, everything. We've all been before."
        "O.K.," replied Val. "Let's just test this rope." He ran it skillfully through his fingers. There were no flaws or fray marks in it. It was strong and stout. He looked round for an anchor lash. A stout sapling grew a few yards from the entrance to the fissure. Val knotted the rope securely around it and pulled. With another careful double check, the lash held securely.
        "Going after him?" asked La Noire.
        "Going after him," agreed Val.
        "I'll come with you," said La Noire, "it may need two of us to lift the rock."
        "Are you sure?" asked Stearman. "You might do more good comforting the girl here."
        "I'd rather come with you," answered La Noire.
        "O.K., darling. If you're sure. But if that poor kid has been trapped by rock, it may not be very pretty."
        "We've seen things before worse than that," she replied. "I'd rather be with you!"
        "That's my girl," declared Val.
        The two of them scrambled down the fissure. Stearman first and his wife just behind him. They let themselves down cautiously on the rope. La Noire was almost as expert a potholer as her husband. They reached the bottom of the fissure. There was a rather odd-looking slide.
        "I say," said Val, "this is damned odd, darling! It's not limestone, it's granite. What in heaven's name is a pocket of granite doing in a limestone cliff?"
        "I don't know," answered La Noire, "are you sure it's granite, darling?"
        "Positive," announced Val, "but this is no time to discuss formation that shouldn't happen!"
        Ferdy was a student. He looked to be around twenty, maybe less. He was unconscious; his face was deathly white. His arms and legs were free, but a large rectangular boulder lay right athwart his body.
        "He looks as though he may be stove in, poor devil," said Val grimly.
        "There's some haemorrhage," said La Noire, "he's bleeding from the lips, but it doesn't seem to be too bad yet." She wiped the boy's mouth gently with her hand kerchief.
        "Poor kid," she murmured.
        Val studied the rock expertly while La Noire held the torch.
        "Do you think you can move it, darling?" she asked.
        "I'm going to try," replied Stearman, "I don't think we dare wait. He's been down here long enough already."
        "It looks heavy," said La Noire,
        "It is," commented Val, grimly. "I reckon four or five hundredweights, maybe more. Difficult to tell. Rocks are deceptive things. . . . Maybe nearly half a ton of it."
        He squared his massive shoulders.
        "Now----if I could just get under here," he grunted, and bent until his great shoulders were right under the edge of the rock. . . . From that position he could use the strength of his massive legs and arms as well as the gargantuan muscles of his back and chest.
        "Do you think you can drag him clear when I get it up?" he said to La Noire.
        "Of course I can! He's not very big."
        Val drew a deep breath, ready for the prodigious effort. He closed his eyes and adjusted his shoulders comfortably against the rock. Slowly at first, but gathering force as every second passed, he exerted an upward pressure on the rock. It was wedged at the ends across the fissure and that didn't help. He was fighting friction as well as pressure, and that didn't help either, but inch by inch his bulging muscles, straining sinews, and steel-hard bones, were lifting the rock from the boy imprisoned beneath it.
        "He's coming, he's coming!" said La Noire, "just another inch, darling."
        Sweat was pouring from Stearman's forehead and he was grunting with the effort, his great, white teeth locked like a steel trap. The veins stood out on his neck like whipcord. His great heart was thundering in his chest. Then suddenly the rock gave with almost unexpected force.
        "He's clear, he's clear," called La Noire as she dragged the boy free.
        Stearman wriggled out from beneath his massive burden like Atlas settling the world upon Hercules. He stood panting, resting against the side of the fissure.
        "I wouldn't like to do that before breakfast," he said.
        "You were magnificent, darling," said La Noire, "absolutely magnificent!"
        "Maybe I'm only as old as I feel after all," said Stearman. "I couldn't have done any better even in my twenties."
        "You're fine," said La Noire, "You're absolutely fine!" She put a volume of feeling into that one syllable. "Fine," she whispered again. Her expert, healing fingers were running lightly over the boy's rib case and abdomen.
        "It might have been a lot worse," she said, "It was crushing him slowly, restricting and strangling. It it had been there another half-hour. I think all we would have done would have been to free a corpse!"
        Val had recovered his breath, he picked the boy up in his arms, and looked up the fissure. "It's going to be difficult getting him out," he said. "I'll make a sling for his shoulders and you steady his feet. I'll climb up first and haul you both up on the rope."
        "Sure you can do that?" said La Noire.
        "If I can toss a half-ton boulder over my shoulder," said Stearman, "I can haul you and that lad up a rope as easily as a spider can haul a fly in! My confidence has been renewed a bit."
        La Noire smiled. "I'm glad," she said. "I don't like to hear you sound sad and retrospective, it doesn't suit you!" Val winked at her in the light of the lantern.
        "I think the kid's going to be all right," he said, changing the subject. He sped nimbly up the rope like a sailor, braced his feet against the rim of the fissure and began to pull in the rope. They got the boy safely to the top and laid him on the hillside.
        The youngster opened his eyes. He looked around him in bewilderment.
        "How did I get out?" he asked. "I remember the rock . . . the rock across my body."
        "You're all right, son," said Val, "you'll have to go into hospital for a check-up, you may have poked a rib into one of your lungs, but it'll be nothing they can't fix."
        "You were wonderful," said the girl, as she held the boy in her arms. "Oh, Ferdy, he lifted the rock off you from the top!"
        Ferdy looked up with tears of gratitude in his eyes. "Say! That was terrific!" he enthused.
        Val grinned. "It's my hobby," he said. "I juggle with elephants in a circus!" The boy grinned in spite of the lines of pain on his face. La Noire knelt beside him.
        "How are you feeling now?" she asked solicitously.
        "Much better for being out here," said Ferdy.
        There was the clanging of an ambulance bell on the road below.
        "That must be John," said the girl. "He must have got there and brought the ambulance."
        "There's a fire engine with it, too," said Stearman. "I bet they've got lifting gear. Still they're going to be awfully glad it won't be needed."
        The boy suddenly looked around.
        "My specimens," he said, "my geological specimens, they were in my knapsack. Did you bring them up, Jill?"
        "No," said the girl.
        "Did John bring them up?"
        "No----we were so concerned to get help for you we didn't stop for anything."
        Ferdy's face fell.
        "I'll get 'em for you," said Val.
        "I'll come too," said La Noire, as though some strange presentiment had filled her mind.
        "Please yourself," said Stearman, "but the party's over!"
        They clambered down the rope again and began looking for the boy's knapsack.
        Suddenly there was a rumbling crack . . .
        "Look out!" cried Val, putting his arms round his wife and hugging her to him protectively. The rock gave way beneath their feet, and they slid down a weird fissure in the granite that shouldn't-have-been-there. They rolled over and over as they fell.
        Val's great leathery arms protected La Noire from the impact as they struck rock after rock on their way down. At last the terror of descent ceased . . .
        "Are we still alive?" asked La Noire.
        "Sort of," said Val. "Better check for breaks!" He flexed his limbs cautiously. "I appear to be in one piece, darling, how about you?"
        "I think so," murmured La Noire, "yes----I'm all here."
        Val looked up. "Can't see the light," he said.
        "I don't hear them calling either," said his wife.
        "We can't have fallen that far. They'll get a rope down to us in a couple of minutes," consoled Val. "There seemed to be a sort of false bottom in that fissure didn't there?"
        "How far do you think we've fallen?" asked La Noire.
        "I don't honestly know," replied Val, "it's very difficult to judge. It seems a lot further than it really was, I expect."
        "I had a strange feeling while we were falling," said La Noire. "A feeling as if----" she hesitated, "I can't find any words to describe it. A feeling as though we were falling further than just down a rock fissure."
        "Oh, tell me more," said Val. "I've learnt to trust your intuitions."
        "It was as though we were falling out of time and space," she said, "as though we were dropping out of time and reality into some other realm . . ."
        "Well, it's happened to us before," said Stearman.
        "You know how you said in the car----just before I heard that psychic cry for help----"
        "Well, what did I say?" demanded Val, interrupting her.
        "Something to the effect that we were just about due for another adventure," said La Noire, "and I said, "Oh don't say that, you'll start one!"
        "Sure I remember," agreed Stearman.
        "I think it's started," said La Noire. "I think we're actually in another of our psychic adventures."
        "Well----what's happened?" asked Val.
        "We've slipped through Time somewhere. That granite, there was a fault, you see. That granite that shouldn't have been there was a sign that something was odd, very odd. Something that can't be explained by ordinary laws of physical science."
        "Well, let's not allow our imagination to run away with us," said Val. "It may not be like that at all. I mean----we may just have slipped through a 'chimney' in the rock and pretty soon now the firemen and the ambulance crew up there will be sending a rope down and hauling us up."
        "Why don't we hear them then?" asked La Noire. "you said yourself that we can't have fallen so far that we couldn't hear what was happening on the surface."
        "No, we haven't," said Val, "and yet it's deadly quiet, isn't it?"
        "Wait a minute," said La Noire, "I can hear voices."
        "Yes----yes, I do," said Val. They seem to be coming from the other side of this rock face here."
        Miraculously the torch had not been smashed by the fall, protected as it had been by their bodies. He shone it on the rock face ahead of them. La Noire had her head on one side, listening. She looked somehow like a beautiful blackbird in the springtime.
        "Well?" demanded Val in a whisper.
        "Huh?" said Stearman, "I don't get it, darling?"
        "They're not speaking English," she whispered back. They were silent again listening intently for long moments, and Val had to agree that La Noire was right. Whoever was talking----and there appeared to be several of them----they were definitely not talking English. There was something vaguely familiar about the sound, and here and there an odd word seemed quite recognisable.
        "I know," said La Noire suddenly, "they're speaking Latin!"
        "Latin?" echoed Stearman incredulously, "they can't be! Who the dickens would speak Latin in a cave, and what the devil are they doing here on the other side of that rock wall, anyway?"
        "Do you think it's a party of students?" asked La Noire. "Students would know Latin."
        "Some of them might," agreed Stearman. "Then again, some of them might not. I mean if they were from a theological college, or if they were chaps from a university doing an Honours course they'd probably do Latin and Greek, but otherwise it wouldn't be part of their course, would it? There isn't so very much of the old classical stuff now, is there?"
        "No----I don't suppose there is," answered La Noire, "but they might be theology students."
        Val bit his lip in thoughtful silence. "Doesn't sound like student Latin to me," he remarked. "I reckon they'd have lapsed into English before now. It may be a joke or something, but those voices are just ordinary, conversational voices. They're just normal----you know. As if these characters are talking their own language!"
        La Noire looked at him in the torchlight. "Their own language," she whispered. "Oh, Val," she went on, "You know I felt something strange had happened that we had fallen somehow out of Time and space, that we had hit some kind of warp in reality . . ."
        "Yes?" said Val interrogatively.
        "Do you remember, these caves were Roman lead mines during the occupation, 2,000 years ago! Slaves worked the lead for them, and Roman guards tended the slaves don't you see?"
        "You mean that this is a Roman slave labour mine that we've fallen into?" said Val. "That somehow we've fallen down a chasm of Time? That we've landed two thousand years in the past? That we fell down a fissure in Time? I reckon the other explanation is more likely, that they're theological students," he concluded.
        "Why did I get that strange sensation, then?" asked La Noire, "that strange feeling that we were dropping out of reality?"
        "I don't know," said Val, shrugging broad shoulders, "We can't explain these things, darling. I wish we could though I do know enough now to realise that when you get these strange, psychic sensations they usually signify something more than coincidence . . ."
        He and La Noire made their way slowly along the rock face until they came to a small aperture in the wall. It was obviously an aperture that had been deliberately carved by hand. The marks of crude chisels showed around its edges. They peered through it. A fire burned on the other side. They could smell the smoke. Around the fire stood four soldiers----in Roman garb! They wore short, kilted tunics, shining metal breastplates and they carried spears. Val and La Noire exchanged glances.
        "You were right," he whispered.
        "Look beyond the guards," whispered La Noire, "look there." Slaves; tired, sickly-looking men with pale, weary faces; chained to the walls----men on whom Death had left his stamp.
        "Poor devils!" exclaimed Val, "look at 'em!" A Roman suddenly glanced in his direction. Their eyes met for a second through the peep-hole. . . . The Roman said something swiftly in Latin. Two guards remained by the fire, and the other two went straight off along a passage.
        "They've seen us," said Val. His hand was on the gun. He always carried that gun, a heavy Browning automatic, and it fired silver bullets, for the Stearmans had often met enemies who could not be stopped by lead. But silver was the holy metal. Silver would kill the vampire; silver would destroy the werewolf; silver would end the evil metabolism of the ghoul. Silver would place the zombie back permanently in its grave. Silver was the metallic personification of light and goodness. It was one of the channels through which the almighty powers of light and righteousness worked against the dark power. Val had the gun in his hand ready and waiting.
        Two Romans with lances and spears appeared round the end of the rock wall.
        "Quo valis?" challenged the taller of the two men. Stearman shrugged his shoulders. "Know any Latin?" he asked his wife.
        "Hardly any," she said.
        "I'll try him with all I know," replied Stearman.
        "Multum in parvo," he said with a pleasant smile. The Roman sentry screwed up his face in a scowl of concentration,
        "Veni, vidi, vici," said Stearman, beaming. "Amor vincit omnia."
        The Roman was looking at him as though he was mad.
        "Whatever I've said, he doesn't seem to like it," commented Val. "The only other Latin I know is a rude verse about Julius Caesar and the Rubicon, and I hadn't better try him with that one!"
        The two Roman sentries were advancing, spears held threateningly. Stearman waved them back and held the revolver level. The Romans looked at it rather dubiously. Val waved them back again, but they kept on coming.
        "I hate to do this," he said, and meant it. Then he pulled the trigger. The detonation sounded thunderous in the narrow confines of the mine. Nothing happened. The Romans stood listening to the noise, but there was no mark nor wound upon them.
        "That's darned odd," muttered Stearman, "I never miss!" The Romans kept coming. Val fired again and again. Nothing happened. He suddenly realised that he and La Noire had their backs against the wall. There was nothing they could do. He put the gun away and raised his hands. But apparently the Romans believed in stabbing first and asking questions afterwards. The spear point came forward and buried itself in Stearman's chest, then he blinked, for he felt no pain, felt nothing. He felt no more than if a shadow had passed across his body. He stretched out his hand and tried to seize the spear to pull it 'out'. But there was nothing there. He touched the Roman. Nothing.
        Then he realised why his bullets had had no effect. He was able to observe these men from the past, and they were able to observe him. They could hear one another's voices, they could see one another's physical outlines, but it was as though they were seeing each other in a kind of three-dimensional, audible representation. It was as though two films were being shown at opposite ends of the cinema. The characters in one film were able to see and hear the characters in another----yet both sets of characters were made of celluloid, and were mere images on a screen as far as the others were concerned.
        "Come on," said Val, "they can't stop us! We've got into another time, but we're not there in the flesh. Either they've come forward or we've gone back, but they've only projected the ability to see and to hear. They're just images, they can't interfere with us and we can't interfere with them."
        They walked right through the astonished Roman guards who spun round and gave chase. It was like one of those magnificent Cinerama productions where the audiences have the impression that the experiences are really happening to them. The only thing that's missing is a tactile experience. When the ingenius Cinerama cameras convey the audience over the scenic railway it is difficult not to grip the seat in front and hang on for dear life, but as far as La Noire and Val were concerned the resemblance ended there.
        The Romans, on the other hand, despite their military training, did not have a knowledge of 20th century science. They certainly had not any knowledge of the occult to compare with what Stearman and La Noire knew about it. Suddenly the taller man threw down his spear and began calling on Jupiter and Mars to protect him. . . .
        Val and La Noire walked swiftly out of the Roman soldier's line of vision. They cast a swift backward glance, and as they did so they slipped.
        "Look out!" cried La Noire.
        "W-what?" gasped Val. Even as he spoke they were falling down yet another fissure.
        La Noire grabbed at Val and his great arms encircled her once more protectively. They fell fifteen or twenty feet, rolling as they fell. It was not a vertical drop.
        "This is becoming a habit!" said Val. "I shall have difficulty in giving it up! Are you O.K., darling?"
        "Yes----I think so," she answered. They got to their feet. "No bones broken," she said with a smile.
        "Same here," answered Val.
        "There's daylight ahead," said La Noire.
        "Right," answered Val, "let's go and have a look!" They made their way towards the distant daylight.
        "Which only goes to prove," said Val, "that something has gone very seriously wrong with Time. I can't understand that Roman business at all. If they were insubstantial to us, and we were insubstantial to them, why was it that the environment was substantial to both of us?"
        "I don't attempt to understand the mathematics of metaphysics, or parapsychology," said La Noire, "but it occurs to me that the common factor is the cave. Now, if the cave existed in its present state two thousand years ago and those Romans once used it as a mine and guarded slaves here. And if we exist now in the 20th century in what we call 'our time' then you see, the cave is real to both of us, because it has existed continuously."
        "Yes, I understand that," agreed Val, "it's a pretty rational argument."
        "Whereas,'" said La Noire, "we and the Romans, though both being relative to the cave, and so finding it solid and substantial, were not relative to each other, because we did not exist at the same time. The cave was our common link. Through it we could see each other, hear each other. It was like a whispering gallery extended right through Time. . . ."
        "Yes, I think I understand," said Val.
        "I'm not saying that's the right answer," went on La Noire, "but it could be."
        "It seems most probable and quite sensible," agreed her husband.
        They reached the daylight and stepped out into a rather strange looking world.
        "What the devil is that river over there?" asked Stearman.
        "Over where?" asked La Noire.
        "There," said Val, and pointed.
        "Men round a cooking fire," said La Noire. "I can smell it."
        "Let's not stray too far from the cave," said Val. "Remember that's our link! Our link with the 20th century, we hope. Let's go and have a look at them. In the strange adventures we've had before in the Past and on other probability tracks, we've never been as far back into the past as this----at least if we have, I can't remember it."
        "Neither can I! Hairy brutes aren't they? They look pretty powerful!"
        "After training on that half-ton boulder that was pinning young Ferdy down," retorted Val. "I reckon I could take on one of these characters without too much difficulty!"
        The cave men suddenly became aware that they were in the presence of strangers.
        "Careful," warned La Noire, "I feel that something is different."
        "Get away," retorted Val "Everything's all right." The cave men were advancing towards them; ugly, low-browed Simian creatures, grunting gutturally among themselves.
        "Just like the Romans, I expect," said Val, "they won't be able to touch us!" The nearest caveman suddenly prodded Stearman with his spear. Fortunately he did not prod very hard.
        "Blast it!" said Val and leapt back. "They're real. They're not like the Romans at all!"
        "I didn't think they would be," she answered, "once we left the cave we stepped out of our time into theirs. In our time it isn't like this at all."
        "I see what you mean," answered Val. "This is probably part of the roadway. Our reality is part of the macadamized surface of the road. Their reality is this bare, flat piece of ground."
        "Something like that anyway," said La Noire, "but at any rate it's changed."
        "Get back into that cave," said Stearman. "I'm not afraid of the blighters but they're armed and----" he paused. "Wait a minute. If their weapons will work, so will mine!" He took his gun and fired a shot into the air.
        "Don't want to kill one of 'em in case he turns out to be our remote ancestor," he said grimly.
        The cave men turned tail and scattered. Five minutes later they began to re-group, but Val and La Noire had reached the entrance to the cave, by the time the submen had returned.
        "Right! Let's put a bit of distance between their end of the cave and ours," said Stearman. "Do you think you could climb up that chimney shaft again?"
        "We can try," she said, "but there's no guarantee it'll work. It was just that the time warp happened to be there at the same time."
        "I still think this spot breeds time warps," said Stearman.
        Slowly, hand over hand, they began climbing the vertical shaft.
        "You sure this is the one we rolled down? I didn't think it was quite as steep as this," said Val.
        "Don't know," answered La Noire, "I'm not too certain about it." She paused. "I've got a strange sensation again," she said, "a feeling that----" she pursed her beautiful red lips thoughtfully. "I don't know what it is, I think we're going through another time barrier!"
        "Wonder where we're going to finish up this time," said Stearman.
        "Look," said La Noire, "daylight again."
        "That's not the one we came down," said Val, "and I'm not very sure that I want to try it after our experience with those other characters."
        They debated the point for several minutes, but finally decided to make towards the light. Curiosity is a very strong instinct indeed in every human being. . . .
        They reached the aperture at length and looked out over what appeared to be well-cared-for mountain pastures.
        "We're on the opposite side of the hill to that sharp face through which we originally climbed in to rescue the boy, commented La Noire.
        "Yes, I gathered that," said Val. "Do you think we're back in the 20th century? Those pastures look fairly hopeful to me."
        "It could be the 20th century," said his wife, but I can't see a road. I thought there should be one."
        "What's that," said Val, "down there?"
        "It's not terribly easy to see," said La Noire.
        "If it's a road I don't think much of the surface," commented Val.
        "No," said La Noire slowly, "I think you're right Val. I don't think that's a 20th century road.
        "It's not a cave man's road, either," said Stearman. "I suppose we're somewhere between their time and ours. . . ."
        "Avaunt ye!" called a voice. Val and La Noire spun on their heels. High and proud in the saddle of an enormous white charger with a gorgeous drape hanging from it, stood a magnificent knight. He raised his visor and looked at them in bewilderment.
        "Whence come ye, strangers?" he asked.
        "We have come a long journey," answered Val, trying to simulate the accents of the knight," and we are now tired and worn. . . ."
        "Then you shall have hospitality at our court," cried the knight, "for King Arthur and his band travel north!"
        "King Arthur," echoed La Noire.
        "You sound surprised," remarked the knight. His English was quaint, the accents scarcely recognisable at all, but both Val and La Noire were able to decipher it, albeit with a certain amount of difficulty.
        "The fair damsel shall ride with me," said the knight. "I would offer you a horse, sir, if I had one."
        "I appreciate your chivalry," returned Val, and assisted La Noire up on to the saddle beside the knight. He walked beside them, his hand resting just behind the stirrup.
        "Why did you sound so surprised at the mention of good King Arthur?" asked the knight. He had clean-cut, handsome features, and a broad, ready smile.
        "We have travelled far, and we were not sure where we were. It is good to hear the name of so fine a Christian king," answered Stearman, which was partially true, taken in its broadest sense.
        "A good answer," replied the knight. "I like you, sir, I like you. You shall tell us tales of your travels."
        "I would that I could," answered Stearman, "but time presses, and having refreshed ourselves we must be on our way."
        The Court was camped in a vast marquee on the slopes of one of the pastures beside the road,
        "When King Arthur travels," thought Stearman, "he apparently travels in full state!" There were knights all around. Some were checking armour and weapons, others were tending to their mounts, others were practising with sword or spear, or long bow, or mace. Others were having a friendly bout between themselves. A target was hung a short distance away, and the hooves of the proud war horses had ploughed many a furrow towards it.
        Val looked around with interest through his clear, keen, grey eyes.
        "The King has not yet returned," explained the knight who had brought them in, "but he will be here before long, and will be pleased to entertain you as his guest. Your garments are so strange, you must have come from a far country indeed!"
        "Very far indeed," agreed La Noire.
        "As far as Cathay?" asked the knight, thinking of the furthest place that he knew of.
        "Further," answered La Noire.
        "Do you speak truly?" asked the knight in bewilderment.
        "She speaks truly," agreed Stearman, "we have come from further than Cathay."
        "It must have been a long and difficult road," gasped the knight. "You are a brave man and a brave maid to travel so far."
        "The road is bright because we travel it together," said Stearman.
        "A fair speech, a fair speech," said the knight genially. A tall, grey-bearded sage, with eyes full of infinite wisdom, stepped out of the royal marquee.
        "Ah, here is one who will be interested to hear of your experiences," said the knight as he passed his horse over to a groom and began unbuckling his armour assisted by his squire. "This is the great Merlin, master of magic to King Arthur."
        "Merlin," said Val. "I have heard much of you, sir. Heard much of your power. . . ." Merlin looked at him with eyes as deep and as dark as midnight.
        "You do not belong here," said the magician softly, "I can read much in your eyes, young man."
        "It's nice to be called 'young man' again," thought Val to himself, but he said nothing out loud; he merely inclined his head. "And this fair maid belongs with you," said Merlin, stroking his long, grey beard. "'Tis not right for you to be here; the fault is not yours."
        "I see that you understand much," said Stearman, looking him straight in the eye.
        "Where did you find these folk?" asked Merlin of the knight, who had now got rid of most of his armour.
        "At the brow of yonder hill, by an opening in the rock."
        "Come," said Merlin, "we will journey there alone." The knight looked wonderingly behind them as Merlin led Val and La Noire away in the direction from which they had come.
        "There are many rivers in the world," said Merlin, speaking half to them and half to himself, "and there are some rivers that ye cannot see the waters of." Val said nothing, but he looked at the old magician very intently.
        "There is the river of Time," went on Merlin, "and there is the river of Life itself, and there is the river of Destiny. Sometimes the river of Time cuts through the stream of Life, and through the stream of Destiny, and joins together distant events and distant places. Perchance it brings together those who might not otherwise have been destined to meet. . . .
        "You are very wise," replied Stearman.
        Merlin looked at him cogently. "Do you wish to return to your own time, strangers?" he asked.
        "How do you know?" asked Val.
        "It is written in your eyes. Did you wish to come here?" And before Stearman could answer, Merlin went on, "No, no you did not, I can see it now. It was not your fault. In fact you were doing good when you were thrown from your own time." His voice sank to a sepulchral whisper, "It has happened before, friends. It has happened before."
        "You?" asked Val.
        "I am not what I seem," said Merlin, "but I came because I wanted to come, and I can control my passage through time. You have stumbled by accident upon a secret that is older than the Sphinx. You have stumbled upon a secret that was old before the Druids, you have stumbled upon a secret that was old before these hills were in their present place. That secret must not be disclosed."
        "I understand," replied Val. La Noire nodded, "We both understand," she said softly.
        "Very well, then, stand within that opening in the rock, and concentrate upon my words," Merlin began to chant. It was a mixture of Latin and medieaval English. It was a mixture of the primitive British tongue interspersed with Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon.
        Val could scarcely understand any of it, and then, suddenly he and La Noire were looking up towards a shaft of light, and a strong Derbyshire voice was saying:
        "Art tha a' right down there? Hasta hurt theself?"
        "We're all right," called Val.
        "Oh, thank goodness for that!" the voice replied. "I'll get rope to ye."
        A rope came snaking down, Val and La Noire hauled themselves up.
        "Ye did a grand job rescuing t'lad there," said the fireman, as he helped them out. "He's gone back to t'hospital. Ambulance driver says he'll be all right in a few weeks, busted a rib or so, but he'd ha' bin a gonner if tha hadn't got t'boulder off him." He looked at Val's bulging biceps. "What was tha' reared on?" he asked, "Lancashire hotpot or Yorkshire puddin'?"
        "Bit o' both I think," replied Val, and smiling they returned to their car and drove off in search of more adventure.


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