from Supernatural Stories 23 - 1959
THE OTHER LINE
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“The carriage lurched as it took the points . . . and then, they were on the other line — a line they had never seen before”
It was as cold and dark and foggy a November night as they had seen for many years. Outside the slowly-moving train, fog was making strange, ghostly phantoms as it swirled and eddied in the dull grey countryside. The train contained an odd assortment of passengers.
It was one of those interminable cross-country trains that stop at seemingly innumerable little stations which no one had ever heard of before. It was composed of only three coaches, and in the hindermost there were only twelve passengers altogether. They had, with typical British restraint, spread themselves out in ones over the eight compartments — however, twelve into eight being a mathematical impossibility, four of the passengers found themselves unable to obtain that solitude which the others apparently found so necessary, and they therefore sat uncomfortably in opposite corners from the four passengers who had been able to get in first.
When one is unable to obtain a railway compartment entirely to oneself, one does the next best thing, which is, of course, to build a partition of newspaper and retire behind it. The four passengers who were sharing the end compartment were behind these flimsy barricades. That is, with the exception of two. The last two sat side by side, very much wrapped up in each other, and in the copy of a new detective thriller that they were reading together.
In the next compartment a stout red-faced and apoplectic retired colonel, rejoicing in the name of Fraser Willoughby Nash, was concealing himself behind the Financial Times. In the opposite corner, as we have already noticed, the thin frigid and angular outline of Miss Angeline Boothby was endeavouring to sink into the upholstery without evident success. Miss Boothby was well over sixty, sported a pair of brass rimmed pince nez, and invariably looked through them with cold disdain at almost everything she encountered. Her eagle eyes, innocuously enough, were reading the printed page of a highly respectable magazine she had picked up on the station bookstall, which dealt with “Wild Life in the Autumn.” Miss Boothby was studying the picture of an X-rayed oak leaf with a concentration that was hardly natural. She decided, however, that a fixed stare at the oak leaf was far more proper than an occasional glimpse at Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash — though of course, she had no idea who he was then.
In the third compartment, also shared, a fat little commercial traveler, Tom Johnson by name, was smoking his pipe and reading one of the varied periodicals that are so often disdainfully described, as the yellow press. He was looking at the architecture of some up and coming film starlet’s vital statistics with evident and unashamed enthusiasm . . . As far as it was possible for him to get away from Mr. Johnson the other occupant sat hiding behind his clerical collar, and reading the Church Times with dignity. He bore the name of the Rev. John Wesley Tucker, Mr. and Mrs. Tucker senior having evidently foreseen that he was going to take up the Cloth. He had, however disappointed them by joining the Anglican and not the Nonconformist fold. He was interested in an article on the revival of campanology and seemed oblivious to the presence of his fellow traveler. Further along Hiram Wilson, an American business man sat reading a bit of shabby British pornography and laughing hugely. Beside him, in obvious discomfort at his presence, the small sedate figure of Joshua Dingle shuffled a sheaf of complicated-looking legal papers — for Mr. Dingle was a lawyer.
In compartment number five sat the Honourable Fortescue-fortescue a young, and he hoped, up-and-coming Guards’ Officer, the current ‘darling of the debs’. He had figured rather prominently in several simply scandalous rags. However, the Honourable Fortescue-fortescue had a brother in the Cabinet, and another was an Archbishop, while a third Fortescue-fortescue had dug himself into a very high office in Whitehall, and therefore, all things being considered, the young man’s wild oats were sown, quickly cut, and forgotten.
In compartment number six, Dr. Vandam Vane sat reading a large and weighty medical volume and as the train rattled slowly on, the rhythm of the wheels seemed to co-ordinate itself with the technicalities that he read. Valvular schlerosis . . . valvular schlerosis . . . said the train. The words danced in front of his eyes and the train increased its pace a little, and now the murmur of the train was . . . artero schlerosis . . . artero schlerosis . . .
The man in compartment number seven was George Hobson, or as he called himself George ‘Obson. He was an ex-convict with a record as long as his arm, and he spoke with a Cockney accent. It was lucky the ‘h’s’ he dropped were not brittle, otherwise he would have left a trail of broken pieces behind him. For all that, he was a likeable character, with his own standards of what was right and wrong, and a heart that was as broad as his grin. Had he known that compartment number eight, on the other side of the thin dividing wall was occupied by no less a person than Yolande Deseere, a glamour girl actress; who was currently appearing in a West End revue, he would not have been sitting in number seven. Miss Deseere was curled up like a kitten amidst her furs and slowly and methodically going through the list of all the epithets she could recollect in conjunction with expensive motor cars that failed when one had an important appointment; coaches that did not run; banks that were closed when one had insufficient petty cash to hire a car; and the necessity of traveling on inadequate trains when one was needed forty or fifty miles away at an important appointment! Not to mention, of course, the added pleasure of the swirling fog . . .
In compartment number one, Val Stearman and La Noire had reached an exciting point in their detective novel.
“It wasn’t” answered La Noire. “I’m convinced it was the cook, the female of the species, remember dear, is more deadly than the male!” They both laughed and flicked the page over.
“I don’t like this blasted fog,” said Val. “Fog seems to hold too many memories for me. I seem to see Van Haak, and Jules, and the hideous hunchback hiding out there among it . . . ready to shoot, or throw a knife, or plant a bomb under me,” he pointed outside. “Look there, isn’t that some darker shade?” She shook her head.
“Sit down, relax, they’ve all gone, darling. One by one we beat them. First the hunchback, then Van Haak and finally the terrible Doctor Jules. We can relax — they’ve all gone. There’s nobody chasing us now. We haven’t got to worry about the bullet in the back, prison or a knife! The fake accident; the car that comes round the corner too fast; the mad-man at the wheel! We’re safe, completely safe — our enemies are dead.” She said it as much to convince herself as Val. It would take them a long time to settle down to that ordinary life which the rest of us take for too much for granted. They became re-engrossed in the printed page.
“It can’t be the butler,” said La Noire with sudden triumph, “Look, they’ve just found his body!”
“I have a dashed mind to have a look at the end of the book,” said Val. “The suspense is too much.” They read on in happy silence.
Next door Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash “Tut-tutted” sharply beneath his breath as he noticed that Cordite Consolidated had dropped to three quarters of a point. Miss Angeline Boothby looked up quickly, wondering in a half hopeful way whether he was trying to be ‘fresh’; deciding that he was not, she sighed and sat back to study the X-ray photograph of an oak-leaf.
Tom Johnson, busy with the “Daily Globe”, had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested three murders; one and a half pages of strip cartoons, with the emphasis on the strip; the choirmaster who had run off with the organist; the latest exchange of Notes between Washington, Peking and Moscow, and a three-column obituary about a field-marshal he had never heard of, and was in process of reading the political leader . . . He always left the political leader till after the other news because he was not politically minded. Commercial travelers found that it didn’t pay. Even if your customer was a Colonel Blimp, one politely agreed with him about all the cogent points of Blimp-ism.
If one was talking to a big Conservative or Liberal leader, one was respectively Conservative or Liberal. On the very rare occasions when he had to call upon Labour shop keepers, he professed profound enthusiasm for the Labour party, and Mr. Gaitskell in particular. He found that it paid dividends as far as orders went, and salved his conscience by telling himself, that all was fair in war, love and business. Political convictions he had none. He had voted for all three main parties during the last twenty years but said that none of them had ever done him any good, and decided thereafter never to vote again.
The Rev. Tucker finished his article on campanology, looked at the fog and lifted up a little prayer for the safety of all trains and travelers, for he was a good and sincere man.
In compartment number four, Hiram Wilson had thrust away the veneer of reserve which he had adopted in England in the attempt to get on with what he called ‘the natives’ and was trying to interest Joshua Dingle in the intricacies of a Wall Street merger. Mr. Dingle desperately wanted to complete the brief on which he was working, but he lacked the necessary personality to freeze into silence the flow of conversation which Hiram was pumping out.
The Honourable Fortescue-fortescue in compartment five was manicuring his finger nails with a slim gold implement he carried for the purpose, and wished profoundly that he had not had to travel on this particular train. He was bored almost beyond endurance. He could think of nothing further with which to pass the time.
Vandom Vane had read all that he felt like reading of this particular tome on artero-schlerosis and valvular defunctionitis. He closed the medical volume with a resounding ‘snap’ and fished in his pocket for a copy of the Evening News.
George Hobson was galloping in imagination across a wide Texas plain, loosing off both six guns at a pursuing sheriff, and shouting with satisfaction when he dropped him from the saddle. Yolande Deseere was trying to go to sleep, yet her sub-conscious was preventing her for fear that she missed her station, thereby sentencing herself self to longer than was necessary in the terrible cross-country train. The fog by now was even thicker than ever. The temperature outside had dropped to the border line of zero. So cold was it in fact, that particles of clamp ice were attempting to form outside on the windows, and reducing visibility even further — if that were possible. It was bleak countryside through which they were passing. Very bleak, very barren, and very desolate. In the heyday of the railways, almost a century ago now — during the great wave of iron road expansion, many speculators had indulged in erecting branch lines, here, there and everywhere, to connect isolated villages between which nobody ever wanted to travel in these modern times. There were, in consequence a large number of obsolete branch lines — disused and forgotten — along this particular stretch of railroad. Even at district headquarters of British Railways there were very few who knew where half of the branch lines went. Traffic on them had ceased many years before. They stood now as rusting memorial to the folly of a bygone age . . .
The jogging, slow, cross-country train took a set of fog-bound points and then it happened! One of those incidents that just occur from time to time. All possible precautions had, been taken against it by the railways authorities, and to give them their due, their precautions were good. Yet, as we so often find, “the best laid plans of mice and men, oft gang agley,” the last coach lurched as it took the points, and then, somehow, instead of turning over, instead of rolling down the steep embankment; they were on the other line — a line none of them had ever seen before. Despite the fog, they knew at once that something was wrong, strangely wrong, for the carriage had not stopped moving in the derailment. They were traveling at ever-increasing speed along this desolate, fog-bound track! A track that, by their speed, seemed to lead ever downwards to some unknown destination. The lurch had been too great for any of them to ignore and it broke through that veneer of unapproachability with which they had surrounded themselves. Val and La Noire looked at each other.
“What on earth was that?” they said almost in one voice. Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash flung down the Financial Times and clutched at the side window sill of the carriage to steady himself.
“By gad, sir,” he barked, “Something’s amiss.” Miss Angeline Boothby lowered her nature lovers’ gazette and swallowed nervously — her pale face had gone even whiter with the shock.
“Oh dear!” she piped. “Do you think there’s been an accident?”
“Something’s wrong, anyway.” said Fraser Willoughby Nash “Dam’ dashed funny too — pardon me, ma’am — go have a look-see what’s happening,” and with brisk military efficiency the Colonel stepped into the corridor . . .
Tom Johnson put down the Daily Globe with a stifled oath. The oath would not have been stifled had it not been for the presence of the Rev. J. W. Tucker. The minister put down his Church Times with quiet and commendable dignity, and stepped out into the corridor where he almost collided with the excited Colonel.
Hiram Wilson swore in picturesque American — and a picturesque American oath was something which Joshua Dingle had never heard before. What little hair he had left stood abruptly on end with the flow of language from the big man opposite him. The Honourable Fortescue-fortescue leapt out of his compartment like a rabbit from its burrow, then suddenly remembered he was an officer of the Guards and must conduct himself accordingly. The skittish Society air fell from him like a cloak — he became a man. This was an emergency, and it called for the best in him. It was miraculous to see how he sobered down and the calm way in which he turned to face it.
Vandom Vane had seen many emergencies, for he had been in practice for a great number of years. and he was a hospital surgeon before that.
George Hobson, who had pretty good nerves — most burglars have — stowed the ‘Western’ away in his pocket and walked to the door feeling thankful that the carriage was still on its wheels rather than its roof.
The kittenish Miss Deseere was jerked off the seat where she had reclined, and on to the floor in a dishevelled heap: her opinion of cross country railway journeys lowered, if that were possible.
Val and La Noire left their compartment just in time to disentangle Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash and the Rev. John Wesley Tucker, before the situation resolved itself in blows. The Colonel was of an exceedingly choleric temperament. La Noire glanced into the compartment and looked with great pity on the twittering Miss Boothby.
“Poor old dear, its properly upset her,” she whispered to Val. “I’d better go in and try to comfort her a little.” He squeezed her hand and she turned into the compartment to chat to the frightened woman. Tom Johnson came out in the wake of the Rev. Tucker,
“What seems to have happened?” he said quietly.
“It . . . its . . . dam’ disgraceful; that’s what it is,” rapped Willoughby Nash. “Dam’ disgraceful,” he repeated as if he liked the sound of the words. “Somebody ought to be ruddy-well prosecuted.” Colonel Nash was himself the Chairman of the local Bench, and he consoled himself with the thought of the sentence he would impose on whoever was responsible for the accident should they come under his jurisdiction . . .
“Yes — but what’s happened?” repeated Johnson quietly wondering whether he ought to speak in words of one syllable till the Colonel cooled down.
“It looks as if there’s been a derailment,” answered Val.
“Not exactly a derailment,” said the Rev. Tucker, “Surely we still seem to be moving, my friend.”
“Then we’ve taken the wrong line on the points,” said Val. “That jolt meant something.” There was a pitiful wail for help from the far end of the train and George Hobson, who was nearest, charged out of his doorway and into compartment eight.
“Gaw blimey O’Riley,” he gasped as he came in. “Whatever happened ducks?” for Miss Deseere was crawling out from under the seat — her gown, her coat, her hands and her peach-like complexion were covered with British Railways grime. She was in no mood to exchange pleasantries, particularly with the humourous Cockney.
“I fell off the beastly seat,” she whimpered and promptly went into hysterics. Vandom Vane went to her at once, and his little black bag was already open as he entered the door . . .
“O dear, O dear,” he muttered to himself, “injured pride rather than injured body, apparently. O well, its the soonest mended.” He produced a mild tranquiliser, and a clean sponge with which he proceeded to restore gently the actress’s facial beauty and morale.
“My dress is simply ruined,” she moaned
“Never mind, my dear,” put in Dr. Vane. “Ample time to submit compensation claims, you’ll get a brand new one, and I expect you’ve had it on at least once before.” The thought almost comforted her, and she smiled through her tears. The Honourable Fortescue-Fortescue was poking his head round the door to see if he could be of any assistance. When he saw that the damsel in distress was both young and exceedingly pretty, he was even more eager to render assistance than he had been before.
“Do you need any help?” he asked with boyish enthusiasm.
“Well, I’m a doctor,” said Vandom Vane. “But the lady doesn’t need medical assistance. Perhaps you’d like to come and talk to her.”
“Delighted, delighted,” said Fortescue-fortescue extending a slim elegant hand. “Guards officer ma’am. Pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure. Hope I can be of service in some small way. Let’s see if we can get some of the dust off this dress” and, Fortescue-fortescue proceeded to gently brush away as much of the dust as he could. He did it in a reserved and gentlemanly fashion, for despite his pranks and associations with the wild set, he was at heart a quiet, reserved and gentlemanly lad, who was almost at that point of maturity at which he realised that sowing of wild oats was rather a childish game.
Joshua Dingle in the middle of the corridor was bobbing along in the wake of the redoubtable Hiram like a small cork float in the track of a trawler.
“O.K., O.K.,” snapped Hiram. “Just gather round and let’s have a conference.” Hiram was a great believer in conferences. He called them on all sorts of pretexts — they gave him the excuse to be the centre of activity. His motto in life was: ‘I am Hiram Wilson and I am taking over’. In the circumstances the others were glad to have him there.
“Let’s take stock,” said Hiram. “Anybody hurt?”
“Nobody hurt,” said the doctor. “Young lady in the end compartment dishevelled and shocked.”
La Noire peered round the corner of Compartment number two, “The lady in here is a little bit upset, doctor, have you got something?”
“Of course,” said Vandom Vane. “I’ll come at once.” He administered another mild tranquiliser to Miss Boothby and it began to work quite quickly,
“Good, very good.” said Hiram, “Nobody’s hurt — at least, not hurt seriously. The next thing we ought to do is to try to find, out exactly what happened. I suggest somebody goes up to the front of the train or to the back of the train, to the caboose.”
“To the what?” gasped Mr. Dingle with raised eyebrows.
“The caboose — the guard’s truck — I don’t know what you call it,” jerked Hiram. “The place where you can find somebody that has something to do with the railway company. Why don’t you wake up?” Dingle retired to the edge of the group.
“Of course we could pull the communication cord.” said the Rev. Tucker. “That ought to summon some kind of assistance.”
“I will see if I can find the guard,” said Val. “It will save stopping the train. Everything may be perfectly all right.” He walked to the end of the compartment, opened the door and very nearly walked onto the line! He gasped in surprise and threw himself back into the corridor. Very carefully he closed the door behind him, and without speaking, squeezed past the others and walked to the other end, As he passed compartment number eight he heard the Hon. Fortescue-fortescue saying: “Very well, then, dinner to-morrow” and smiled quietly to himself. Apparently the officer was losing no time, pressing home the advantageous incident. As he had suspected the door was locked. Bracing himself against the side of the corridor he kicked once with strength and accuracy. The lock splintered. There was a startled gasp from the group of passengers at the other end. He opened the door very cautiously. As he had expected there was nothing but the fog and the track outside . . . Their carriage was broken from the rest of the train and they were speeding down this strange disused track, leading downwards and downwards apparently without termination.
“I don’t think it will be much use pulling the communication cord,” said Val as he rejoined the others. “You see, we have broken away from the rest of the train; we are entirely on our own, and we’re going downwards fast. The great problem is ‘Where are we going?’”
“Let’s think this out,” said the Rev. Tucker. “It was obviously at one of those sets of points we crossed, near one of those branch lines with which this area is so thickly covered, that the derailment took place. Therefore we are on a branch line. Unfortunately, very little as I use this train, I have no idea where we are. We cannot judge by the time because we went so much more slowly in the fog, and we can’t see far enough to tell anything else.” The others nodded.
“There are no landmarks, are there?” asked Tom Johnson. The Rev Tucker shook his head
“I have had considerable experience with Railway Companies, mainly from the legal aspect,” put in Joshua Dingle importantly, “and I have had to study the layout of tracks considerably in connection with several cases which I have undertaken for the Companies. Mind you, now I am speaking of prewar days, when there were private Companies. I have not acted for th . . er . . um . . er . . British Railways. However, the usual purpose of these branch lines is to serve some small isolated village. Let’s see now, the main line track lies across a steep embankment all the time here, therefore any branch lines must run downwards.”
“That makes sense, anyway,” broke in Fraser Willoughby Nash. “If they didn’t ruddy well run downwards man, we shouldn’t be going so fast.”
“Yes, yes. Quite, quite.” put in Mr Dingle. “It would seem to corroborate that point. Now . . . um . . . er . . . let me think . . . the branch lines . . . they could serve any one of a number of villages.”
“The important thing is, how are they terminated,” interrupted the Colonel. “Did you ever study that my lad?” Joshua Dingle was not accustomed to being addressed as ‘lad’, even by a retired Colonel and he “tut-tutted” with angry annoyance.
George Hobson broke in with, “I’ve studied Railways a bit too, mate. Not from the same angle as you though. (His grin was infectious) I have found them very lucrative in my way. You take a pound from one end and I take a pound from the other,” Joshua Dingle did not like the comparison . . .
“Well---do you know how they terminate?” barked Fraser Nash. Hobson grinned broadly, “If I knew what terminated meant I’d try to tell you,” he answered.
“How do they finish, how do they end?” explained the Rev. Tucker. “Assuming that we run at this speed right to the end of the line, what do you assume we may expect to encounter when we get there?”
“A bloomin’ great bump,” said Hobson with a laugh “if we’re going at this lick and we run full into the buffers we’ll either cannon halfway back into London, or we’ll pile up like a flippin’ concertina!” .
“That’s hardly a pleasing thought.” said Hiram Wilson as he fingered his collar in agitation. “We gotta do something about getting the brakes on.”
“There is every possibility,” said Joshua Dingle, “that the gradient doesn’t run downward all the way, in which case, if the gradient changes its direction we shall go upwards instead of downwards, and we shall find ourselves at rest somewhere in the wilds.” There was, however, no sign of a change in slope, if anything the carriage was going faster than ever.
“Its a simple process to the laws of mechanics,” said Vandom Vane suddenly, “Rather like a pendulum swinging from top to bottom. We shall run down one hill and up the next, and then back down again; then back again, and so on, and so on, swinging a little less further every time, till me come to rest at the bottom of the valley.”
“Do you think there’s a chance of another train coming this way?” asked Joshua Dingle suddenly. “I mean are we likely to run head on into another express or . . .” he left the sentence unfinished. There was silence for a moment.
“I think its a possibility upon which we had better not dwell for too long,” said the Rev. Tucker. “Let us put our trust in Providence and hope that we shall come safely to rest.”
“It looks as if there’s a ruddy good chance of us coming to rest one way or another,” said George Hobson. “Personally I prefer the peaceful way.”
“So do we all.” said the Rev. Tucker.
“Its like something out of a nightmare,” said Angela Boothby to La Noire, “Its dreadful. Trapped. Trapped in the fog. No brakes!”
“Brakes,” said La Noire, “there might be some sort of braking system somewhere.” She called through the compartment door, “Val — Val, are any brakes on the coach?” Her husband snapped his fingers, “Yes — I believe there are!” He looked at Dingle and Hobson. “Here, you railway experts, do you know anything about emergency brakes, in case anything like this should happen?” Dingle looked blank, but Hobson’s face lit up.
“Yes, guv., there is.” he said. “There should be something, anyway.” His bright expression faded. “O lor’, you have to lie underneath the flippin’ thing I believe, and crank a handle up.” “Does anybody feel like lying under ‘the flippin’ thing,’” said the Rev. Tucker, “and crankin’ a handle up in the fog? First of all, who’s capable of climbing out there?”
“I’d go like a shot,” said Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash. “If I hadn’t got this confounded lumbago.”
“And you are too old, with all due respects,” said Tom Johnson quietly. “You are too old sir, and I am too fat.” The Rev. Tucker shook his head sadly.
“I would go with the greatest of pleasure if I thought there was any chance of my succeeding,” he said. Hiram Wilson had become suddenly rather silent. Far from pushing himself to the forefront, he was now standing quietly at the touch-line as it were, waiting for somebody else.
“There’s a young Guards officer chap.” said Colonel Nash suddenly. “Bet he’d go — big honour for the regiment — don’t you know. I’ll call him — Hey young feller — Captain whatever-your-name-is.” The military tone of command brought Fortescue-fortescue into instant action. He leapt away from the delectable Miss Yolande Deseere, and saluted smartly as he reached the group.
“Sir!” he said instantly. “It’s been suggested that somebody apply the emergency braking system,” said the Colonel. “By the way, I ought to introduce myself, my name’s Nash — Colonel Willoughby Fraser Nash, retired.”
“Fortescue-fortescue, sir.” said the young Captain, “In what way can I be of use, sir?”
“Well, as I said, somebody’s got to apply this dam’ emergency brake. I’d go, but too fat, too stiff. Same with Johnson here. And, the Rev. Father’s getting a bit up the tooth. No offence, Father.” The Rev. Tucker smiled.
“Oh no offence, I fully appreciate the toll the years are taking.”
“I’d be willing to go,” said Hiram, “but I don’t know much about this country’s braking system. If this were an American train now, I’d be out of here and have a go in no time, yessir.” He seemed somehow to have shrunk a little. The others paid less attention to him than they had before.
“I’m a pretty agile sort of bloke,” said Hobson, “I’ll go with you. Perhaps if two or three of us went, one could steady the other while he did the trick.”
“Its very good of you,” said Fortescue generously, and he meant it. Hobson’s likeableness had come very much to the fore, the accents of East and West End did not seem to clash as the two men looked at each other. Hobson was thirty-five, slim and fit. It may be said for H.M. prisons, that although sufficiently punitive to deter from a second visit, they prevented any tendency to corpulence . . .
“I will come, of course,” said Val Stearman, “I think as our friend here said . . .”
“Hobson’s the name . . . pleased to meet you,” said the little Cockney
“My name’s Stearman,” said Val, “Newspaper man. There might be a good story in this providing any of us lives to tell it.”
“You have got a pleasant sense of humour,” said Tom Johnson.
“May be a good idea to write the story first and tuck it away somewhere safe — these things are valuable when they’re posthumous. You know ‘Dead Man’s diary’ — first page news, spread it over the Sunday shocker,” went on Val.
“You are a dam’ unusual fellow,” said Nash
“No — just practical,” said Val with a grin, “Come on, let’s get started, the sooner we get the brake on, the sooner we stop this confounded thing. The sooner we stop it, the sooner we shall get out before we run slap bang into this imaginary express we’re all trying not to think about.” La Noire was beside him. “Do take care, darling,” she whispered. He squeezed her hand tenderly.
“You bet,” he said softly. He went first, with Fortescue next and Hobson bringing up the rear. It was bitterly cold in the swiftly-moving stream of damp, almost freezing air, and Val, experienced climber that he was, knew the job would have to be done quickly. It would be impossible to retain a hold on the metal bogeys with fingers that were beginning to numb with cold. It was a nightmare crawl for the three fearless heroes, as inch by inch they made their way between the thundering wheels of the racing coach, clinging to supports, clinging to one another. Slowly, systematically, they worked their painful gasps, the cold struck like a knife . . . At last Val gave a cry of triumph.
“The brake. I have found the brake,” he called.
“Thank Gawd for that replied Hobson fervently, “I can’t hold on much longer guv.”
“Stick it,” urged Val, “we’ll soon have it done.” Then his voice dropped to a whisper “Blast!” he swore savagely.
“What’s wrong, old chap?” queried Fortescue.
“Put your hand here,” said Val. “What does it feel like to you?”
“Good heavens,” ejaculated the officer. “Its been . . . its been sheered off. Its locked and jammed, we couldn’t expect to shift that.”
“We certainly can’t,” answered Val. “By another freak of Fate not only we jump on the wrong line, but when we jumped, some projection smashed up the brake lever, and there’s no hope of moving it!”
“Then you mean we’ve done all this for nothing,” gasped Hobson.
“I’m afraid so, George,” was Val’s reply. “But it doesn’t make it any less worthwhile because we didn’t succeed. It’s the will, you know, not the deed. Well, I suppose we’d better get back. You go first George.” With downcast hearts they made their slow painful way back. None would have minded the effort — but it had all been for nothing . . . Willing hands helped Hobson back into the train then Fortescue-fortescue, then Val.
“Well, what happened chaps?” asked Willoughby Nash. Fortescue shook his head sadly, “Sorry sir. We did our best, sir.”
“I’m sure you did, sure you did. What did you find? Was there a brake or wasn’t there?’
“There was a brake,” answered Val. “But it got smashed, at any rate jammed, by whatever accident thrust us on to this crazy lost line. It seems to me that the arm of coincidence has been stretched too far. I am beginning to wonder if there is more in this crazy business than meets the eye. Whatever we ought to seek some supernatural explanation, because the physical facts don’t make very much sense.”
There was a long stunned silence after Val’s remark. They all reacted very differently.
“What the devil do you mean sir? S.. .s.. .s...supernatural! What sort of tommy rot are you giving us?” Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash was apparently no believer in the occult!
“What could be wrong, Guvnor,” muttered the Cockney cracksman uneasily. “I mean, I sort of thought the supernatural was ghosts and things, not trains — you know, sort of seances and spiritualists and that.”
“Yes, yes,” replied the dapper little solicitor. “I don’t quite follow you. Let me see, what did you say now, ‘Some supernatural explanation’ its...um...er...a most startling thought!” Before anyone else could speak, Val smiled, and looked at them with an expression akin to sympathy. He sighed softly before he spoke.
“You seem to have got some rather odd ideas about the supernatural,” he said. “The word simply means anything that is inexplicable. Anything that is out of the normal, not bound by the physical or chemical laws of matter. Anything in other words that is outside our sphere of understanding. This present phenomena, if we may call it that, appears to me to be outside the normal sphere of natural occurrence.” He eyed them levelly for a moment. “Let’s just think about the facts as we understand them. In the first place, we find ourselves in moving carriage,” he glanced out of the window, “a railway carriage which is moving on its own. Now that of itself is odd because the usual railway network abounds in a variety of different gradients so steep and so numerous, that one would expect a carriage that had somehow broken apart from its locomotive not to continue moving at increasing speed, after what is now a very considerable time.” Instantly the Colonel looked at his watch.
“You’re right sir, damned if you aren’t right. I will swear it was at least twenty minutes ago. At least that?” Stearman consulted his own watch.
“That’s about what I make it Colonel,” he said, “and as you so inimitably phrased it, ‘its a dam’ long time’. It means that either we are on the longest and steepest gradients that has ever been built. Or, some power other than gravity is pulling this coach along.” Hiram was again fingering his collar nervously.
“I . . . I . . . don’t like the sound of this,” he began, “As a matter of fact I don’t like the sound of it one little bit. Mister, you’ve got me real worried. You see, I don’t understand the supernatural at all. Back home in the States life is so much more . . . sort of . . .” he paused lost for words. “Life is so much more straightforward, more understandable. Its more everyday, you know . . .”
“It’s more on the surface,” said Val. “Listen Mr. Wilson, what you call real life is made up of a large number of ordinary things. As you look at them they seem so real, so practical, so twentieth century, don’t they?” Hiram nodded with a pleased smile.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that’s the feeling exactly. Do you feel like that?” Val shook his head.
“Sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Wilson that your feelings are largely illusory. Have you ever stopped to think of all the millions of people you see rushing about the great cities on elevators, trains, cars, subways and on foot, each one is also looking at you and the man in front of you and the man behind you, and, seeing in you that very quality of everyday ordinariness that you look for in them. By so doing, each helps to supply the other’s needs.” He sighed philosophically, “We all have to try to convince ourselves that life is ordinary. Life is so easy when you convince yourself of that. You have no religious questions to face, no moral, political or social questions, life becomes very simple. Everything is as it should be; there are no strange paradoxes to defeat our scientific laws.” With a sudden, angry gesture Stearman knocked his hand hard against the compartment wall. “But you can’t tie life up into little bundles like that; life is real big. Life is not a lot of little men scurrying about a city, selling newspapers, jumping on buses, eating, sleeping, going to theatres, going to work, sleeping, waking up, going to work again; going away on vacation; coming home, dreaming of your next year’s vacation.” He was staring hard at Wilson now, trying to get his point home.
“Life is so much more than that. We all try to deceive ourselves into believing that it isn’t. But there’s a great universe out there man — suns, moons, planets, stars; a universe so vast that you couldn’t cross it in a thousand life times, traveling at the speed of light. Do you realise that? Doesn’t it interest you? Doesn’t it thrill you? There are planets there, strange unknown planets, possibly revolving around another sun. Possibly supporting other life. Just think, in some remote corner of the galaxy, another man on another earth may be named Hiram Wilson, on their calendar it may even be November 17th, it may be foggy and he may be in a train. It is a crazy fantastic thought, and yet this universe is so big and so awe-inspiring, that remote as the chances are of what I have just said being true, it is not inconceivable because of the very vastness of creation.” He smiled apologetically. “I hope you will forgive the sermon, but you see, I was a materialist once, I used to laugh at the supernatural, I used to scoff and ridicule things I could not understand; but I know now that it was a very ignorant and childish attitude. The mark of an immature mind, the mark of the ostrich that is terrified and rather than look around and try to examine this miraculous world in which it finds itself, just buries its head in the sand. We cannot bury our heads and hide, well I suppose we can — but we are very foolish if we do. You see, its very difficult to draw the line between normal and super-normal. Who can tell in this modern age at what point science ends and true miracle begins?”
“I suppose you have got a point there,” said the Colonel who had been thinking deeply. “By gad, sir, when one comes to think about television, atom bombs, space travel and that sort of thing the whole world seems to be going faster and faster every second. There is a great deal in what you say, though I must say, sir, what you said at first made me think that you believed we had been picked up by a witch or ghost, or a demon with horns and a tail.”
He laughed but it was a nervous sound, lacking in humour. The commercial traveler stroked his chin thoughtfully, “I don’t know what to believe,” he said, “I was just going over in my mind the points you made about the train still moving on this length of line. I have been about a lot and I don’t think I have ever come across any section of track with a gradient this long.” The very speed the coach had reached was making it sway from side to side and they began looking at each other in alarm.
“I suppose its only matter time,” said the young Guards officer, “before we reach such a speed that the bogeys won’t be able to take the bend.” Like the thought of meeting another train the idea was not a pleasant one, and he left the sentence in mid-air.
“There are many things which perplex me about the happenings of the last few minutes,” said the priest, “for example the miracle of the jumped points, in itself a fantastically slim chance when one considers the layout. How could it happen when the rest of the train had passed over them correctly — why should some projectile, we cannot possibly think what, destroy the one vital part of the undercarriage of each coach that would have enabled us to stop. The thing that strikes me as one of the biggest problems is how we became uncoupled. You have got to give these chaps their due, we grumble about the poor old British Railways, but I think they do their best, and one of the things that would never go unnoticed would be something as blatant and obvious to a train inspector as a weak or faulty coupling between two coaches. It stands to reason, does it not?” The others nodded. “So then,” he went on, as a man does who has made a very cogent point, “besides the incident of jumping the points all on our own, what about this business of the coupling — did it become undone? Did it snap?”
Val Stearman interrupted. “Or did some power undo it?” he asked.
Colonel Nash felt the short hairs rise involuntarily at the back of his skull. Little trickles of ice were running up and down his spine with unpleasant frequency. George Hobson who had been silent for quite a time had nevertheless been listening intently.
He rubbed his rather pointed nose with a grimy forefinger, “Who would want to cut us adrift as it were? Do you see what I mean gents?” he paused unable to express his idea clearly finally he said. “If there is some sort of supernatural power — call it Old Nick if you like — though I can’t say as ‘ow I believe in ‘im; can’t say as though I believe in anything much,” he murmured quietly, almost regretfully. “If Something with a capital S has pulled us apart from the rest of the train and sent us down this branch line, why has It, She or He, done it? What is the purpose of it?”
“I see what you’re driving at,” replied Val. “Is it some sort of joke among the gods — are they sitting there laughing at us or is there something deadly dangerous and sinister behind it? Are we going on a journey to the presence of some great evil power that is seeking to destroy us?”
“Steady on,” chimed in Fortescue, “I don’t think those ideas are doing this lady much good,” he indicated the pale form of Miss Angela Boothby.
“Sorry,” said Val. “I ought to have known better I suppose. All the same the possibility has got to be faced.” The priest had a faraway look in his eyes. “This all seems so very odd and unearthly to me,” he remarked “I can’t for the life of me make myself believe that this is really happening. Here we all are in a situation which could only apparently exist in a horror story.” At the word ‘horror’ Miss Boothby gave a little shriek and Vandom Vane wondered whether or not to give her a sleeping draught, but with an effort of will she managed to control herself, and the parson continued with what he was saying. “You see, what I am really driving at is this I think if we are to find any solution at all we have got to realise that we are in a set of circumstances, in a situation, completely divorced from this world we know. As a part of my training I read and still read a great deal of psychology. If one is to help men one must understand all that one can about them.”
“Here, hear,” said Vandom Vane. “Very laudable sentiments Father, I like to hear such an outlook from men in your position. There is too much pious ‘pie in the sky when you die’ and no practical thinking, among far too many people, with their collars back to front. I get sick of all the hell misery and the hymn singing. Give me a parson that has his eyes on heaven and his feet on the earth. I could enjoy a really good long chat with you about these sort of things.” The carriage gave a violent lurch and they all clutched the walls for support “That is, of course, if any of us get out of this alive,” concluded the doctor.
“As I was saying,” went on the Rev. Tucker, “one needs a good knowledge of psychology in my profession, at least most of us do, and one of the things that occurs to me now is that everything that has happened since this carriage took the wrong direction has been alien to our normal everyday experiences, and that as a result I don’t think we shall get anywhere near the solution until we are prepared to abandon what one may term survival data and go right back to the beginning. Make our minds blank as it were and start afresh without any preconceived ideas at all. Pretend that we are children newly born in this strange world and learn literally everything as we go along.”
“That is a good idea,” said La Noire. “Both Val and I know quite a lot about the supernatural world, but we have never encountered anything like this. I think the best thing we can all do is to abandon whatever fixed ideas we ever had and start from the simple beginning with the basic fact that we are all here in this moving carriage and rely on our basic intelligence — our G factor.”
“That is right,” said the Rev. Tucker. “Our G Factor, our general intelligence, and bring whatever facts we can, and get a solution from these new facts and any ideas we have.”
The train continued to sway and lurch crazily as it raced on and the thick yellow fog outside had become a more pronounced hue.
“I have never seen fog as yellow as this,” said Tom Johnson thoughtfully. “It is somehow sort of sulphurous.” Hiram Wilson licked his lips nervously.
“Did you say sort of sulphurous?” he repeated unhappily. There was no denying that a faint yellow light seemed to be permeating and irridescing through the fog . . . It was like the bright glowing flames of a bonfire on a foggy Guy Fawkes’ night. The Rev. Tucker looked at the American with pity in his eyes.
“I thought that in the new world,” he said, “there was less superstition than we have over here. Do you associate sulphurous colours with a hell of burning brimstone and strange creatures in red tights?”
“I just don’t know what to think, but of course if I had any ideas about Hell, it would be like Dante’s Inferno, all heat and smoke and brimstone and sulphur.” Through the broken door at the end faint wisps of fog were beginning to enter the corridor.
La Noire sniffed thoughtfully for a few seconds and then said quietly, “I must say that our American friend was not so far from the truth. Just smell that fog.”
Sniff, sniff. “Can’t smell a dam thing,” said the Colonel. “Spent my life smelling whisky, you know, they say it ruins the palate, never mind, dam’ nice way to ruin it, you know. No regrets. Still, I ought to be able to smell sulphur, they say the dead can smell sulphur,” he laughed at his own coarse joke.
“I can smell it,” said, Val seriously. “I think you are right darling,” he said turning to La Noire, “it is decidedly burnt sulphur.” Vandom Vane twitched his aesthetic nostrils and nodded in agreement.
“Formula SO2, unmistakeable; its true that somebody somewhere is burning sulphur. That is not the ordinary smell of an industrial fog; aggregate odour of sulphur composition. I studied chemistry for a long time. Believe me, I know.”
“‘Ere, just a minute,” cried George Hobson, snapping his fingers as a sudden thought took him. “If this ‘ere smell is caused by burning sulphur, then why are them fumes yellow? We used to lark about with sulphur and matches — and the flame’s blue, not yellow.”
“Yes, the colour’s wrong.” replied Vandom Vane. “Sulphur and oxygen almost invariably produce a blue flame. There’s no sign of any blue out there. It’s all yellow. Mind you, there might be some other chemicals present which are interfering with the process of burning. It may not be pure sulphur. The other component might be one of the — shall we say — hydro-carbon group, which would burn with a smoky yellow flame. If that was predominant over the sulphur the blue would go unnoticed. Simple spectrum analysis, yellow being a primary colour, more readily appreciable to the human eye. It is a matter of of threshold perception. One sees the obvious and in seeing it, fails to see the secondary. Give you an example,” he went on. “Driving along a road at night in your car, you’re dazzled by the bright lights of an approaching lorry, and you fail to see the pedestrian or cyclist until you are almost on top of them.”
“Yes, that’s very true.” said Joshua Dingle. “I was using that in an immensely interesting case once, er... um . . . let me see . . . 1938 . . . in front of Lord Justice Burgrove.”
“I’m sure its very interesting,” said Val, “but right now, if some of you remember, we are trying to solve the problem of how we got here, and figure out a way of survival from data which will give us an idea of how to stop this train. How to get off?” Dingle coughed apologetically and took out his note book. “I think if we made a note of the most cogent points, and write them down, ladies and gentlemen,” he cried importantly, “Then we shall have something to which we can refer back. Now in the first place there are twelve of us in a railway carriage severed from the rest of the train, moving downhill at increasing speed along what we assume to be a deserted branch line. More we have no means of knowing, because of this all-enshrouding fog. A point that we have actually checked for ourselves, is that there are no carriages either in front or behind, no couplings, no brakes, no anything, so that we can safely assume — or can we?” he paused.
“I suppose gravity would work if this was some other dimension we had got into?” broke in the Rev. Tucker. “It suddenly occurred to me that we have done something more than just jump the points. I think we are in another dimension and in that dimension the laws of gravity and the properties of matter may no longer hold true . . .” There was another interruption.
“Look! Look there!” cried George Hobson. “Look at that fog. It’s changing colour. OOO! It’s blue.” The fog was indeed taking on a strange bluish hue. Greens, yellows and verdant tints. Twisting and twining with each change like some hideous pyrotechnic display seen through smoked glasses.
“Something very definitely out of this world,” said the Rev. Tucker. “As somebody pointed out to me,” he smiled ruefully, “I am not a young man, and in all my years of life I have never seen anything quite like this. I believe we must accept the explanation that has already been offered. We are on another plane. This whole carriage has been severed from the twentieth century — in time or space, or both. We are in a horrible, terrifying, new environment. But one thing I know too, that no environment is so strange that it is beyond the providence of God. Brothers, sisters,” his voice was gentle, fatherly, “I hope you will forgive me if I seem to preach, I do not mean to do that, and what I say I say with the best of intentions. Let us keep cheerful and confident. Let us keep our faith. Let us pray.” There was silence for a long moment, while in his own way, each of the twelve searched his own heart . . .
When Val Stearman opened his eyes he saw a face at the window. In their previous adventures in the supernatural, he and La Noire had encountered many hideous and horrible creatures. They had done battle with most of the hosts of darkness. From werewolves and vampires down to ghouls and sorcerers, but rarely, if ever had they seen a face of such malevolent hate as the green caricature of features that leered in at them through the foggy window. The blurring of the face seemed to emphasise rather than conceal the terrible hideousness of it.
“For goodness sake don’t let Miss Boothby see this,” whispered Val urgently to La Noire, and she turned her elderly charge towards the other window. As she did so, they both screamed . . . there was another face there, if anything, even more hideous. The whole group huddled together as if for some sort of protection the others gave, Val got a grip on himself and reached for the suitcase on the rack. With a quick deft movement he reached it down, unfastened it, and slid out a heavy Browning. A big Browning that was unlike any other gun, because it was loaded with silver bullets. He looked at La Noire ruefeully.
“This was going to be the beginning of peace and quiet, remember? Jules has gone; Van Haak has gone, the hunchback has gone and our enemies of the past are dead. We don’t need the gun this trip? Its the first time for years that it hasn’t been in my pocket. I swear it will never go out of my pocket again. That is, if we ever get out of this. When I am a dear old pensioner of 112, sitting peacefully on the front at Brighton, listening to the visiting band, playing the Proms, I shall still take this gun and I shall still expect to have to use it occasionally.” Despite the grimness of the situation, they laughed. There was something very ironic and cynical about what he had said. He squeezed quickly along the corridor. There were faces at every window, now, and more than faces. There was a suggestion of unbelievable and indescribable bodies, as if the fiends of hell had come out to meet them. As if the inhabitants of this strange sulphurous world had sensed their prey and were waiting to devour it. The broken door at the far end suddenly swung open with a force that was not the wind. It was unbelievably terrifying. The carriage lurched and swayed and rocked as if at any second it must pitch over — and yet, fantastically, it kept on its wheels.
A creature stood framed in the door-way. It was a creature that could only have been spawned in the deepest cavern of Hell. The contours of its face hung in lecherous fleshy folds. Its eyes bleary and red, gleamed like evil rubies, from Satan’s crown jewels. But it was the hands — or rather the claws — that were most terrifying. They were enormous, vastly out of proportion to the rest of the creature, with tremendous, elongated nails, from which it looked as if blood was already dripping. La Noire covered Miss Boothby’s face with her arm and held the older woman tightly with a hand that was steady as a rock. Val leveled the big Browning at the advancing monster.
“By gad,” breathed Colonel Fraser Willoughby Nash “What the devil is it?” The priest was busily making the Sign of the Cross and taking a silver crucifix from his pocket . . . The others had shrunk back a little and only the Rev. Tucker and Val Stearman stood facing the approaching beast. Val’s finger tightened slowly on the trigger and his eyes never left those pools of red hatred fixed so balefully upon him. The gun exploded with a roar that reverberated round and round the close confines of the corridor. A look of dazed unbelief swept across the evil face of the thing that confronted them. With a dying, screeching moan the creature staggered backwards and fell through the open door into the darkness and fog outside. The Rev. Tucker held his crucifix aloft and in a clear ringing voice began to speak in Latin. He used the time-honoured exorcism of the historic church.
“Fundamentis egis in montibus sanctus.”
He repeated the chant again and again and as he did so a shaft of silver light seemed to stream from the Cross that he held, falling, like the sin-destroying beam of the Páree, full upon the hideous faces that encircled them. Val Stearman too, was far from idle. The big Browning barked again, and again, and again. Every time he fired one of the faces disappeared from the windows. He fired until the magazine was empty, when he looked round there were no more targets to fire upon.
Still holding his Cross aloft the priest said:
“Let us pray.” The weird swaying, lurching suicidal plunge of the carriage seemed to have eased. The speed was more normal and more rhythmic, and in that second there came a sudden violent jolt. An identical jolt to the one that had thrown them on to this nightmarish branch line, and the next moment they felt the unmistakeable slowing down of the vehicular prison . . . with a tremendous sigh of relief they all began talking at once.
“Its all been like some crazy dream,” said the solicitor.
“Dream or not,” said Fortescue-fortescue, “I shouldn’t care to go through it again.” Suddenly he realised that Yolande Deseere was holding his arm, and looked down at her with a smile, “Perhaps I would. Perhaps I would,” he said with a wink.
“Never shall be able to understand it, never. Simply fantastic. Unholy. Doesn’t make any kind of sense, does it? I should hate to have this talked about in the club. Ghost trains, peculiar men and yellow fog! Be ashamed to come out again. There’s some things you can live down and some you can’t. Deuced awkward for a feller, deuced awkward.”
“How do the rest of you feel?” said Val. “You know your secrets or otherwise are in my hands, I’m a journalist.” They looked at him in horror. The little solicitor coughed nervously.
“I’m sure it would injure my practice if it were known that something strange and supernatural had happened to me. Even if there are twelve of us to testify. It would sound so peculiar. So very odd!”
“Believe me,” said Val. “Things have happened to me before, that have been far, stranger than this; but you can rest assured — I won’t make a story of it, if you’d really rather have it kept quiet.”
“Well, of course, I like publicity,” said Yolande Deseere. “The right kind of publicity.” She paused thoughtfully as she wondered what her agent would say to a story of this kind. Then she, too shook her head.
“No, on second thoughts, I think it would be better if the whole thing was forgotten.”
“All right then,” said Val. “If everyone feels the same way, we will forget it. Mind you, if anyone tries to sell an exclusive to one of my rivals, I’ll write such a bitter expose that they will slink out of this country by the back door and never come back in fifty years.”
“Its a pact,” said the Colonel. “You’re a white man, sir, a white man, a real pukka sahib.” It was the highest compliment he could pay and Val took it as it was meant . . .
A group of strangers in a fog had been through a completely unexplained and inexplicable happening. The carriage slowed down, and they found themselves as they looked out, on a perfectly harmless overgrown branch line, with nothing more terrifying in front of them than a long walk. Strangers on a train, thrown together by some dimensional accident, for a few moments their paths had crossed, and they had been comrades in arms against they knew-not-what forces of evil. Now they parted and went their separate ways. As they made their own separate arrangement to reach their destinations, so the fog, too, began to disperse — symbolically.
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