Written by George Phillies
Illustrated by Richmont Gan
. . . the late Sir John Wickers-Oates, F.R.S., D.D.S.
Shades of dying twilight hung gracefully over the London skyline, limning its towers and steeples in a delicate indigo. Helmesham and I had just finished a generous repast, and were preparing to turn to the Port. Helmesham had confessed that in addition to his familiar forensic investigations, he had at last applied his mind to the financial world. "It's not so complex," he confided. "I can foresee a time when I will need to adopt a more leisurely mode of life. So, for the past few years, a fee here, a fee there—it all accumulates." How much had accumulated would soon reveal itself in the Puzzle of the Bilious Banker.
"And what," I asked, "will a man of your vigor do with all this prospective leisure?" I knew that it couldn't be aeroplane racing again. That had been last year. The aeroplane had perhaps been a useful aid in the Puzzle of the Precognitive Pachyderm, but I continue to believe that man's lack of wings is indicative of the Creator's opinion of human flight.
"Oh, opera, music, perhaps the mysteries of the natural and the supernatural," Helmesham answered. "Notwithstanding our visit to the fog-shrouded Plateau of Leng, most of the latter are frauds, exploited by Fleet Street for its sordid purposes. Why, not two days ago the Druids of England held a moot in Surrey, and here are the papers claiming the Druids summoned an aerial being. 'A great torpedo-shaped cloud with flaming eyes and buzzing wings.' What rubbish!"
"The criminals of the world will see good news in your retirement—though I doubt that it will happen soon," I said. Helmesham retained the vigor, appearance, and (most important, as a man of my profession would know) the firm strong teeth of a man of twenty-five. Why he pondered retirement, when he had decades of healthy life ahead, was a continual puzzle to me.
"Perhaps the mysteries of the atomic spectrum," Helmesham mused, "Certainly Frauenhoffer's little instrument has aided me often enough in my investigations. I discussed this with Einstein last year in Berlin. . . ." My memory turned briefly to our Autumn tour of Europe, viewing the Eiffel tower from above with Santos-Dumont, an excursion with Count Zeppelin and his dirigible—now there was a mode of transport truly English in its majesty, even if a Hun had invented it—and several days at the Prussian Academy of Science, talking with a man who disbelieved the most self-evident properties of every common timepiece. I did not begrudge Helmesham his visit, as the trip gave me the opportunity to lecture on the most logical of the medical sciences—nay, the only one reduced to a scientific form—with the most methodic of all men, the Prussians. I made certain, of course, that they understood that it was they who were to learn from English dentistry, not the reverse. My Roentgen-Ray plates of impacted molars are stunning, especially when coupled with my systematic treatment of rules for the avoidance of Roentgen-ray burns. It seemed unnecessary to dwell upon my involvement in the Exhumation of the Exradiant Examiner, or what that case revealed of the ills attendant to an excess of Roentgen Rays.
There came a tap at the door. Now, I had previously given firm orders to the staff that I was not to be interrupted at Dinner save for fire, flood, or a division of Napoleon IV's cavalry in the garden. I expected no disturbance. But a disturbance there was! I would not, of course, have objected if Napoleon IV himself had appeared again. He is a most charming man, and after their failure to prepare for the Second Invasion the French Republicans can have no complaint that he sent them all packing.
Helmesham glanced out the window. "An important guest from the government. From the coat, hat, and bearing, his driver is an officer of the Grenadier Guards." Helmesham's deductions were, as usual, entirely correct. We soon received one of the more important visitors I have ever had the honor of receiving in my town-house.
"Helmesham! Thank God you're here!" The speaker was a patient of mine, a man of utter imperturbability who disdained the use of anaesthetics. "A terrible disaster has befallen the World, England, and His Majesty's loyal ministers," he gasped. Of his fears, I was prepared to believe that the last might be true. "It involves Woking. Have you perhaps heard of that town?"
"I believe I have," Helmesham answered sweetly. It was, after all, possible that in some Tibetan lamasery someone has not heard of Woking, the first town to be destroyed by the Martians in their 1896 invasion. My guest was so distraught that he could scarcely put one word after the other. Neglecting the well-known fact that our visitor was a rigid teetotaler, I prepared from the sideboard an appropriate medication, North English in origin, that soon had its desired effect on him. Recalling that our visitor did not share my hope that our Island's ancient divisions will soon lie forgotten, I of course referred to the medication as Scotch Whiskey, not as English Grain Brandy.
"It involves diplomatic negotiations of the most delicate sort, which must not be mentioned beyond the confines of this room," he finally explained.
I rose to leave. I am, of course, a loyal Englishman, with no desire to infringe on any secrets of state. "Sir John," my guest entreated, "Please stay. We have need of your insight. Besides, you'll learn it all anyway as soon as you put one of us under gas." I did, after all, minister to the maxillary and mandibular needs of half the cabinet, most of whom were unrestrainedly loquacious once under the influence of nitrous oxide.
Our guest composed himself. "As you realize the state of Europe has gone from bad to worse. While our glorious Navy will forever protect these shores from continental invasion, and our Army and Flying Corps stand ready against our solar foes, we cannot remain aloof whenever any one power seeks to dominate all of Europe. It has for some time been apparent to his Majesty's government that the Prussians harbor precisely these ambitions." Helmesham nodded gravely.
I had swallowed several decades of confirmed opinion and switched parties at the last election, because the government could not see that France, land of the Emperors Napoleon, was and would always remain the greatest threat to English liberties.
"For the past months, the government has negotiated with the French a treaty for the maintenance of Belgian neutrality. The treaty implies no other alliance, but even the Opposition agreed that we must be prepared to take steps for the protection of the Belgians. A courier was sent to Paris, carrying the text of the treaty, to secure the final approval of the French cabinet." Helmesham nodded again. It was certainly clear why this matter was so delicate. Some members of the Opposition might have agreed to this foolishness, but others equally certainly had been left in the dark. Were the press to learn, the ensuing scandal would assuredly bring down the government, forcing fresh general elections. "Then came the disaster. On the way to the Channel, the courier and the treaty both disappeared. It's incomprehensible."
"Could he have become lost?" I asked hopefully. The political mind has an almost infinite ability to overlook the obvious. Continentals are notoriously unable to read street signs in civilized languages, or to hear simple spoken directions, no matter how much one raises one's voice.
"It's not quite that simple, Sir John," my guest answered. "The messenger, the message, and General Oglethorpe all traveled by Oglethorpe's private train. You may have seen photographs of it: a single vehicle, carrying its own engine, separate wheels for travel on continental-gauge tracks, even a lifting hook so that a crane could set it on board a fast ship and unload it at Calais without loss of time."
"Oh, yes," said Helmesham, "That was a demonstration vehicle for beryllium, or would have been, if the metal hadn't been so expensive."
"In any event, the coach passed on a single track from West to East. We had men in every station to confirm its safe passage. Just beyond Woking, the car simply disappeared," our guest said. "The car was seen to pass Woking at 3:40, but did not appear at any later hour in Overshaw. My men searched diligently but found absolutely no trace. We can not afford delay. The French cabinet might fall on any day. If word of this becomes public, the consequences will be intolerable. In this hour of crisis, England again turns to you, Helmesham. Naturally, expenses, assistance, your usual fees . . . whatever you need." Helmesham signaled his agreement.
"Sir John," Helmesham remarked to me, "you will perhaps want an overnight kit, for the game is afoot, or perhaps on rail."
Morning found us in a private car on a siding near Woking. I had elected to conserve my energies with a carefully planned nap, but Helmesham remained awake for half the night consulting maps.
A half-dozen witnesses had seen the coach pass through Woking. The constable, a man of thirty years standing, was one of them. The Officer standing sentry in Overshaw had waited until sunrise for the coach to pass; only then had he raised the alarm. Helmesham suggested bribery. Perhaps the coach had passed through Overshaw, and been waylaid elsewhere. That was out of the question, our client responded. You would have had to bribe at least three men. Besides, the man in Overshaw was an Officer! In the Guards! Helmesham did not pursue this line further with our client, though I imagine he planned discrete investigations elsewhere.
After a light breakfast—grilled steaks with chutney, eggs, curried chicken, a proper rasher of bacon, pastry, and coffee—we set out to inspect the railway. The suspect section was not more than eight miles in length, which we traversed by hand-car. Every cutting, every siding, had to be carefully checked for traces of the train. There were no abandoned coal pits, no mines into which the train might have vanished. Nor was there a rail repair yard.
At perhaps the fifth mile, we came to a section in which the English countryside could be seen in its utmost beauty. The ground was flat, but a gentle rise of land hid from sight the farmhouses which dotted the landscape in all directions. The green of the grass was, I admit, a little lacking, for the August heat and recent drought had parched the grass to yellow. Not a bit of green remained. Helmesham's sharp eye noted an object near the track.
"Well, here's something," he announced, picking a cap from the gravel. The headpiece was strangely cut, though familiar. "French?" I asked.
"Precisely, Sir John, precisely," Helmesham answered. The golden bees woven into its crest supplied a mute affirmation. "There has been a French Officer here. From the lack of oil on the fabric, within the past day or so. I believe a little reconnaissance is in order."
I joined the search, though it was not clear to me that the cap necessarily meant anything. The sides of most railways are littered with articles of abandoned clothing. Despite my doubts, it was I who found the next clue, and recognized its significance. As I quartered the deep grass near the rails, my eye was struck by a flash of reflected sunlight. I found a shattered half-bottle whose label I instantly recognized, though not without some slight repugnance.
Helmesham was at first unimpressed with my find. It is indeed seldom, despite his years of coaching, that I ever make a serious contribution to Helmesham's investigations, but today I had done so. "Look at the label," I said. "You don't see? Consider. Champagne is really an artificial concoction. A key step in its preparation is the final addition of sugar, to the level of 75 or 150 grammes to the liter, without which it would be totally unfit to drink. This bottle, however, contained a Brut champagne, from"—I rattled off an estate name, now mercifully forgotten—"a Champagne with less than 20 grammes sugar. Only a Frenchman would drink such a vile mixture. And some of them do, as I sampled one on our tour last year, manfully managing to swallow the thing without gagging. From its odor, this liquid is still Champagne, if largely flat, so the bottle broke recently, likely within a day. And it must have been brought by the Frenchman, as no decent Englishman would go near the horrid stuff." Helmesham, of course, had grasped all the further details as soon as I spoke the word "Brut."
I do not usually complain about trivial discomforts of the body, but as shall be seen in this case they played a central role in Helmesham's deconvolution of the puzzle. Having noted from the shattered glass the direction of fall of the bottle, I went down the embankment, looking for some further trace of the crime. An unexpected slip left me in ankle-deep water. I had located a small spring, not visible from above. Helmesham assisted me to dry land, then gravely measured the extent of the water-efflux, to what purpose I did not then understand.
Notwithstanding the assurances of our client, we continued our search beyond Overshaw to Little-Overshaw-on-the-Lea, the Lea in question being a creek sunk far below its usual depth by the drought. On its bank stood a tavern. Fortified by a proper lunch: crushed oysters, poached salmon, lamb's feet in aspic, fresh-baked bread, and a medley of fruits, we returned to Overshaw. Helmesham methodically interrogated those who had been seen in the station house, learning nothing. We then followed the rails back to Woking, a pleasant town entirely rebuilt since its utter destruction seventeen years earlier.
Helmesham's investigations uncovered one further witness. Woking's resident amateur astronomer had been photographing the comet. At precisely 3:41:03, a single-car train had appeared over the ridge opposite his observatory. Its lamps imperiled his spectroscopic analyses, so he closed his shutters and made a note of the precise time. After three minutes, the train had passed, permitting him to resume his development of the comet's spectrum. Helmesham manfully resisted his usual desire to talk at length with users of spectrographic apparatus.
As is so often the case, I was totally baffled as to how the clues could be rearranged to solve the puzzle they posed. Helmesham spent some little time reading the papers, then went for a walk to compose his thoughts. Our client sent a hundred men to search the area where we had found the bottle. They returned with a large collection of junk, which Helmesham honored with his usual polite curiosity.
Tea was an early and stiff event. Our client was in a considerable state of alarm. The state of the French cabinet was sinking by the hour. Thus far the popular press had no inkling of the matter, but such a disaster could only be a matter of time. Oglethorpe's car, moving at precisely thirty miles an hour through the English night, had somehow been swept from the face of the earth.
Helmesham would rarely speak about a case until he had found the solution. Having no professional reputation in criminology to hazard, I was more willing to chat with the client about different possibilities, though I did little beyond repeating Helmesham's remarks of earlier in the day, closing with 'after all, it could not have sprouted wings and flown away.'"
I caught a twinkle in Helmesham's eyes. "Surely not?" I asked.
"Oh, no, the largest aeroplane in the world could never lift the six tons of Oglethorpe's vehicle. Even one of Sikorsky's Russian brutes could never handle the weight," Helmesham assured me.
The local papers revealed no clues, at least to my eyes. Helmesham had busied himself with a set of maps and a slide rule. Seeing naught else to do, I scanned the accounts of the Druids and their flying monster. To judge from the creases in the paper, these were also the reports which Helmesham had been reading. My favorite note, from a town a little way east of here, came from the local who averred that the beast must have been a devil because it "approached toward the church tower, but fled straightaway when the clock struck half-past-three." With nonsense like this spoken and believed by the masses, it is no wonder that sensible men regret the extension of suffrage to men of limited means. Now, if enough damage has not already been done, there are those who would further extend suffrage to the distaff half of the population. This is an utter absurdity, as no woman—I suppose I must except Mrs. Helmesham, but that is a different tale—could possibly have the firmness and good sense needed to play even the least role in governing our great Empire.
Helmesham looked up, visibly excited. "Quick, Sir John. There's no time to waste. The Royal Flying Corps has an aerodrome not ten minutes from here." Our client was told in no uncertain terms that not one but two aeroplanes were to be readied at once, and that other aerodromes—Helmesham rattled off a list of names—were to stand by, so that we might refuel if need be. Then we were off.
The aerodrome at West Overshaw was virtually unpopulated. It was a Sunday, after all, so that we were fortunate to have even a single pilot and his mechanic in attendance. The pilot, a Captain O'Rourke, was fully cooperative. His mechanic, a Finnish emigré who had come to England to avoid Russian conscription, was something of an enigma. Still, our aircraft were waiting. Without delay, we flew off into a cloudless afternoon sky.
I still had no knowledge of our destination. My pilot, a skilled aviator who perished in the next war, kept scanning the ground, searching for an unnamed objective. We landed some hours later near the coast of the North Sea. From a map, I learned that we had followed a careful compass course, though how it had been set evaded me. Helmesham and the mechanic swiftly refueled their aircraft. Bidding us remain on the ground, they decamped. Captain O'Rourke went off to the armory, leaving me with my thoughts.
The name of the local village was eerily familiar. Finally I remembered the aerial monster in the newspapers. We had followed precisely the course implied by the newspaper reports. I knew that Helmesham had always had an interest in the supernatural, but our present circumstances were beyond me. Surely no one could believe that some creature of the nether reaches would attempt to swallow a railway coach, let alone a vehicle transporting Englishmen! What effrontery would be necessary! After all, Surrey is not a land of the Ottomans. It was unthinkable!
I was roused from my thoughts by a motor. Helmesham returned and winged swiftly back to earth. He pulled from one pocket a local map on which various details had been sketched. "Now," he announced, "The coach is here," he pointed to a small island, "so the prisoners must be held in one of these buildings. The shores are rocky. There's little wind, but the surf is too high to land easily. I believe it will be best to climb here," Helmesham indicated a spot well over the mainland, "cut our engines, and glide in to this field. Though we'd best wait to nightfall if we want surprise."
"Sir," said O'Rourke, "I've been told we're looking for three men, and 'some valuable papers,' and that I am to give you assistance. But did you say 'rail way coach'? On an island with neither bridge nor dockyard crane?"
Helmesham was momentarily taken aback. He had quite forgotten that our pilot and his man had only the most limited notion of our client's needs. I used the pause to explain the situation, taking care not to reveal the actual nature of the missing documents, nor my ignorance as to how the victims might have reached this isolated spot. Our objective was to rescue General Oglethorpe and a French courier, and to bring the villains to justice.
With the crackle and sputter of oil on hot metal, we were on our way again. Each of us was provided with a service revolver, hand torch, and extra ammunition. The scoundrels who perpetrated this crime were clearly desperate men, who might not hesitate to perform the most dastardly of deeds in order to escape. I continued to wonder how the coach might have reached the island, let alone how Helmesham had managed to locate it.
From the air the English seacoast took the aspect of utter tranquility. Great swells rolled ever so slowly across the North Sea, glinting with the hidden gold they trapped from the last rays of the setting sun. Our pilot waved to Helmesham. In unison we cut our engines and began our descent. The wind whistled through the stays. At our altitude, we heard no other sound.
The landing was uneventful. Helmesham and the mechanic went to search one of the two outbuildings, while O'Rourke and I took the other. The hut we examined was quite empty. Cobwebs hung in every corner. The floor beneath a broken window was water-stained, as though the rain had for some time been allowed to blow into the vacant room. Dust covered everything, with no hint that anyone had walked or sat or touched the walls in recent times.
Shots rang out in the distance! O'Rourke and I burst out of the house. Without thought to our personal safety, we dashed toward the disturbance. Darkness was by now total, only the rays of the full moon and the flicker of hand-torches providing the least bit of light. We could see ahead of us two clusters of men, largely hidden in shadow, firing occasional rounds at each other. "Helmesham," I cried out, "Helmesham! Reinforcements are on the way."
"Over here, Sir John!" Helmesham's group was slowly backing away from the barn. "Have your men spread out to the right."
What men? Helmesham's wits once again escaped me. Our pilot, however, saw the intended ruse. "Flankers right!" he barked. "Master Sergeant York! Take your men about that barn!" Captain O'Rourke, dashing from tree to tree and firing rapidly, gave an excellent imitation of a dozen men. His performance proved what I had long maintained, namely that not Ghurkhas nor Pathans but Irish make the finest light troops in all the world, even when they are not provided with white officers.
My hope of early victory was rudely interrupted by a burst of Maxim gun fire. I threw myself to the ground, crouching behind a low hillock. Clods of turf, torn viciously from their mother soil by the cruel clamor of the machine gun, rained down from overhead. I was well and truly pinned by opposing fire.
"We saw you land," came an evilly-accented voice in the distance. "Surrender, and you will be well treated."
This was an obvious lie. The madmen we faced could have no intent to leave witnesses behind them. As Helmesham had left no word of our planned destination, we had no hope of reinforcement. While darkness was on our side, the isolation of the spot and the foe's clear superiority in numbers and weapons suggested that our situation was desperate.
An exchange of threats and shots continued for perhaps an hour. The barn was on clear ground, with no nearby trees. Gentle swales protected us from direct fire, but neither party had a ready path to follow. If they exited the barn, they would be easy targets. If we stood to retreat to the nearby woods, we would be silhouetted by the moonlight and cut down. The knaves might have pinned us with their Maxim gun, and then taken us in a rush, but they did not. Doubtless they lacked English courage. Once I thought I saw two men running from the rear of the barn, but I took them for cowardly Prussian knaves fleeing the heat of battle while their companions fired at their backs.
There came from the heavens a distant droning sound. "Sir John," called Helmesham, "We have no cover against guns firing from above. Hold your fire, or you are surely dead." I did as I was told.
Out from the moonlit blackness swam a ghostly torpedo, scarcely less dark than the sky itself. It was a dirigible, and—unless my senses deceived me—one far larger than any Count Zeppelin has exhibited to the public. There was a clatter of metal and machinery, followed by the shout of orders. The airship drifted to a position above the barn. Its gas bags were a malevolent darkling cloud, against which a single pistol would bark in vain. Only then did I recognize the peculiar rod which rose above the silo. It was a mooring mast. For some time, the dirigible hovered. We waited, scarcely daring to breathe.
An enormous splash was a great volume of water, dumped from above onto the waiting fields below. Slowly, majestically, the airship rose into the heavens. Close beneath, attached in some way I could not distinguish, floated General Oglethorpe's private tram, borne to the zenith not by some eldritch monster but by an equally devilish Bavarian flying-machine. We waited while the airship faded into the East, fearful that any movement would reveal our hiding-places to the snipers who no doubt stood watchfully in the airship's fuselage.
"Sir John, we have a wounded man here." I ran to Helmesham. "Colonel Parker, Guards Cavalry, and Captain Marie Langevin." At his side were the two men who had fled the barn. They were not cowardly Prussians. They were courageous prisoners who had used the confusion of battle to effect their escape.
The Colonel's wounds were not serious, merely a crease across the ribcage. While my professional expertise concerns a more important region of the anatomy, a stretch of service on the Northeast Frontier had left me fully acquainted with the expedients of field surgery. "The papers?" I asked. "The General?"
"Oglezorpe, he iz wiss zem," came the Frenchman's answer. "When we escaped, he stayed zair. And zee treaty, it too iz zair..." He gestured skywards. Helmesham and the courier shifted from English to French, a language which the Captain clearly also knew. I myself have long held that the single greatest obstacle to the enlightenment of the Continent is the inability of most Continentals to learn a civilized language, such as the English, a failing substantially encouraged by my countrymen's bad habit of agreeing to speak languages neither their own, nor fit for civilized discourse. I, of course, have never cultivated any bad habits. Indeed, I have long considered standing for Parliament, campaigning on the single issue of a Private Member's Bill outlawing instruction in tax-supported schools in foreign languages other than Latin and Attic Greek.
Helmesham graciously repeated the gist of their vigorous exchange. Oglethorpe was a traitor, whose concealed wireless had alerted the Huns to the moment at which the coach would pass Woking. Oglethorpe's driver had been a double agent. While Oglethorpe had distracted his passengers by playing the bagpipe—perhaps the only musical instrument whose drone would be sufficiently hideous to mask the roar of an approaching airship—trolley and airship had been linked. The trolley was then hoisted into the night sky. Hat and wine bottle were dropped by the courier in what he expected would be a vain effort to leave a clue to his fate. The treaty remained on the tram, and was now well on its way to Prussia. There it would be circulated by covert means to the French press, causing the French Cabinet to fall and ruining Anglo-French detente.
"But, Helmesham, how can the Kaiser hope to get away with this?" I asked. "Kidnapping Englishmen from English soil? It's an act of war!" It appeared, contrary to my prior expectations, that England now faced two equally great continental threats, namely the Prussians and the French.
"Where is the evidence?" Helmesham asked. "If the plot had failed, the airship crashed, they'd say it was disabled, blown over England by a storm of the upper air, and had a freak accident. With success they'd deny the whole thing, and offer the press tours of Count Zeppelin's airship hangars. By a large margin, no machine of his ever seen in public has the range or lifting capacity to accomplish this feat. If nothing were suspected, at some later date Oglethorpe—dead by his own hand—and his tram would be recovered, say from a deserted spur line in northern Scotland, together with Oglethorpe's signed confession of having murdered Parker and Langevin over a woman or some such thing. Entirely rational, with no trace of a Prussian hand in the affair."
"Devilish, Helmesham, devilish," I said. "But with the papers gone, the plot has succeeded."
"No," Captain Langevin interrupted. "Zee treaty izz not lost. I gave zee fair copy to Oglethorpe for zafekeeping, but zere waz anozair copy, which I hid here, wissin zee lining of ziss coat. If I can reach Paris by only tomorrow morning, all will perhaps be still well."
"Paris we can do," my pilot announced, "If you're not afraid to land by night. We shall fly to Paris, you and I, leaving at once, and you shall deliver your treaty to your government within two hours. The dirigible is another matter. If the Prussians cause news of the treaty to become public, there may still be trouble."
"I, afraid? Of an aeroplane?" Captain Langevin scoffed. "A flying machine that has wings I can see? Aftair a trip in a flying trolley car? Nevair! Let us be on our way! But if zee Prussians talk, zee treaty will fail yet. It will take a day, before all details are settled. Only zenn . . ." O'Rourke and Langevin were on their way.
Helmesham turned and gibbered at the mechanic, who responded in kind. I have since learned that they conversed in the Finnish language, which I have never previously had the misfortune to hear spoken. Helmesham gave me my orders: "Sir John, I must ask you to stay here to care for the Colonel. I will deal with the Prussian pirates."
I did not inquire as to the details of Helmesham's plans, even when he asked me to pour the Prussians' stock of wine and give him the empty bottles. He carefully drained petrol from his aeroplane's tank into the bottles, stoppered them, then wrapped each bottle in cloth. We had no other store of petrol. Why was Helmesham draining the tanks? I aided Colonel Parker to the farmhouse, and began a search for viands. He was a wounded man, and could not be allowed to suffer for want of proper nourishment. I myself had only eaten lightly this day, and was positively famished.
Whatever the Prussians' other faults, their maintenance of the pantry was superb. Sardines, cracknels, tinned steak and kidney pie, a roast pheasant, and Yorkshire pudding with hard sauce came rapidly to light. It was not quite my club in London, but with a few bottles of wine to fortify ourselves, it was more than adequate. A nation that produces an '89 Trockenbeerenauslese cannot be entirely beyond hope of redemption. Parker intruded once on my preparations to call attention to the eastern horizon, where it appeared briefly that a little fire burned, barely above the half-seen line separating sea from stars. At first the glow was ruddy, then brilliantly white like a photographer's flare, sinking slowly towards the water. Finally it winked out.
It was not until the next day that I learned the meaning of this apparition. That flare had been the death throes of the Prussian dirigible, the hydrogen flame of its burning gas reservoirs searing its frame to incandescent whiteness. Despite his wound, Parker was a superb conversationalist, so that we spent the last part of the evening sitting by the fireplace, pondering the future of Europe over a good Port and fully ripened Stilton cheese, followed by some superb Belgian chocolates. A properly made sweet Champagne completed our evening.
In the morning, a torpedo-boat destroyer of the Fleet rescued us. On shore a special train fetched us back to London. Helmesham assured me that all was well. The treaty was safe in Paris, while the Prussians and their puppet had been sent to a watery grave.
"But, Helmesham, what clues led you to all this? And what befell the airship? Surely there was something I had not seen?" I later asked.
"Sir John, there was nothing but the elementary process of rational deduction from the plethora of information at hand," Helmesham said. "The train had clearly passed through Woking and not reached Overshaw. It had not gone off either side of the tracks, or onto some siding. Hence it had either been swallowed up by the earth or sailed off into the sky. The most revealing clue was the spring you found, precisely where lay the cap and bottle."
"The spring? A little patch of green in the middle of a great drouth?" I said.
"Ah, Sir John, but the patch was not green, it was only wet," Helmesham explained. "Had you looked underfoot, you would undoubtedly have noted that the grass in that puddle was nearly as sere as that elsewhere in the field. No, that was no spring, it was the remains of the tonnes of water ballast which the airship dumped precisely at the moment it lifted Oglethorpe's car from the rails. From the trolley's speed, and our astronomer—who will be on the honors list as soon as the matter's not a secret—the exact instant of the disappearance could be calculated. The churchbell report revealed the course and speed of the airship, showing it was too overburdened to reach Heligoland in a single night. The paper's back pages gave the ludicrous statement of two fishermen, who saw a dragon stoop low here and lay a monstrous egg.
"You make it sound so obvious," I said.
"Dispatching the airship was far easier than deducing its existence," Helmesham explained. "We pursued the airship, flying directly above it. We dropped on it wine bottles filled with petrol, swathed in burning cloth, and set fire to its broad flat back, in turn igniting the hydrogen cells within. A diligent search by the fleet has revealed no wreckage, though with a submarine boat the trolley might yet be recovered. Oglethorpe's a greater mystery, one I've not yet penetrated. He was a noted Francophobe, who might have set his hatred for the French above his duty to King and Empire."
But I had not looked underfoot, not at the color of the grass, and thus it was Helmesham who deduced that Oglethorpe's trolley had been winched into the sky by Prussian airmen. Thus it came to pass, at the end of the War of the Austro-Hungarian Succession, that Helmesham received the most prized medal of the Royal Flying Corps, the St. Michael's Cross, given for successful single-handed combat against a Hunnish Dirigible. The appearance of "1913" as the year of combat, in the Official History of the Corps, is widely taken to be a typographic error.
On a personal note, I was delighted to procure from an anonymous source a complete set of Oglethorpe's dental records, to be included in my search for final proof that the criminal mentality inevitably reveals itself in the miscreant's dentition.
Naturally, this tale will not be read by others, at least not in my lifetime. I am, after all, an honorable man, who would not dream of profiting from the confidences of my friends, a point of honor not always seen among the close acquaintances of private investigators. Those who wish to read an historical work from my pen should instead consult my Brief History of the Great Invasions of 1896 and 1906, in a mere eleven volumes, thereby educating themselves and at the same time learning the errors of that libertine socialist, whose works have the Martians die of plague rather than the exertions of the Army and Fleet, even though it is far less likely that a Martian could contract an earthly disease than a man could lose his teeth to the chestnut blight.