THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 45 CAPTAIN TERSON'S DAY OUT
CAPTAIN TERSON'S DAY OUT
Newly appointed Captain of the Guard Terson had been not quite nineteen when he had married Tella, his childhood sweetheart and latterly deputy housekeeper. Their lives together had been pretty blissful until the stillbirth of their first child. Against medical advice they had tried again - to be rewarded by a bonny bouncing boy. Everything had been as good as could be until Tella had weakened at the age of twenty four, and died before Helden's fourth birthday. Draxy Palace theory regarding bereavement and mourning was one thing, but the practice could be very different, which it certainly had been for Caprtain Terson, who had been inconsolable for many a day, with not even his son being able to lift his spirits. It was not until Archdraxite Nell had come onto the scene with new ideas and fresh challenges for Draxy Palace servants that the boy had begun to play a major role in the recovering of his father's spirits.
Helden was rapidly making a name for himself in the nursery with his cheerful nature and an unmailicious brand of mischief which charmed, and occasionally exasperated, those who had dealings with him. I am now pleased to be able to call Helden my very good friend, though whilst I was at Draxy Palace he was, by reason of his infancy, beneath my notice!
In the early days of his bereavement Terson took to riding out from Draxy Palace a couple of times a month. It was during leisure time, and especially on what used to be mutual days off, that he most missed Tella, and he found that a hard day in the saddle was good for the easing of sad reflections. Most of his trips were made eastwards into the coastal plain, often as far as the sea itself. He loved the cliffs, the beaches and coves, the tides and the breaking waves. Sometimes he took a tent and camped out for the night.
On a midsummer day, in the year before he entered our story, the Captain set out very early in the morning on his favourite mare Bumble, not towards the coast, but westward, in order to fulfil a little ambition he had been nurturing ever since he first caught a glimpse of the Wilderness from the hills above Cloud.
Rising hudely and dramatically out of the semi-desert on the northeren edge of the Wilderness are the Black Mountains; it is, of course, within the sparsely wooded and grassed foothills of that great range that our mineral wealth is concentrated. Here, labouring batallions had come for many centuries, to bore for rock oil, and to mine iron, coal, copper, tin, lead, tragon, silver and gold; but in the years which followed the Catastrophe the mininmal needs of our greatly reduced population cut mineral consumption to less than ten percent of what it had once been.
Two hours of steady riding had taken Terson through the agricultural belt into the fringes of the desert. It was already blisteringly hot, and the Captain was glad of his favourite old sun hat stained with the salt sweat of years. The Draxy Palace weather people had promised a sudden end to the heatwave, though there seemed no immediate sign of that, unless those long, straggling strands of cirrus meant anything.
For a couple of miles or so Bumble was allowed to find her own pace and line through the boulders, cacti, and coarse grasses which littered the desert dirt. Distances were hard to estimate where the land was so uniformly flat, but Terson reckoned that the far horizon could not have been closer than ten miles away. He decided to head north towards the mountains, but not until horse and rider had taken in much needed liquid. He drank from a flask of orange juice while Bumble slurped from the leather water bag her rider had hung about her neck.
The desert was slowly giving way to the marshy ground and patches of woodland which lay beaneath the foothills. Stream beds, many of them dried up, snaked down from the mountains ahead. There were a few goats grazing where they may, and a cluster of wooden houses, with children playing outside one of them. There was a larger building which might have been a school, for the mining settlements were entirely self contained. A long cart, heavily laden, pulled by four great horses, and drawing away from the setllement, might have been taking ores and coal to the City, and barrels of oil to the refinery in the grounds of the Space Centre. No doubt on its return the dray would be laden with supplies for the villagers.
Not wishing people to think that he might be spying on them, the Captain turned west again. After about a mile he saw what looked like an excavated gap between some foothills, and he decided to investigate it before tackling his packed lunch.
The cutting, which was wide enough to have taken the stoutest of wagons, was perhaps a couple of hundred yards long, and at the far end of it Terson found a large board bearing a fading list of safety regulations, as well as the legend: STEEFAX GOLD ENTERPRISES INC. Beyond was what looked like a winching device, and a wooden wagon with metal wheels sitting upon rail lines leading towards the a mountain cliff about a quarter of a mile away. Had our Captain been able to make the mental connection between the twisted wire hauser with a hook on the end of it wrapped around the drum of the winch, and the increasing slope of the track as it neared the cliff, he might not have have yielded quite so readily to his 'schoolboy urge' to take a ride!
After tying Bumble to the winch, and climbing into the wagon, and finding a long wooden handle, and pushing it forward in an experimental manner, Terson on wheels set off towards the cliff.
Now, the Captain had had absolutely no intention of entering the tunnel he could see looming ahead of him, but when the wagon was about a hundred yards from blackness, and beginning to pick up a nifty bit of speed, he found that the handle he had so easily pushed in one direction, resolutely refused to be pulled back in the other. It was most obstinately stuck. Before he could even begin to think about trying to jump clear our rider found himself swaying and rattling down a tunnel as black as one could have imagined. Down, down he went, faster and faster, pulling desperately on the stubborn lever, and aiming an increasingly violent invective against the braking equipment of a vehicle he wished he had never damn well seen! Just when he was becoming resigned to a terrible crash he felt the handle beginning, ever so slowly, to budge. One massive tug later the wagon began to slow, and eventualy it came to a halt. This was not, however, the end of Terson's troubles, nor even the beginning of the end; but it might, perhaps, have been the end of the beginning.
For a minute or two our badly shaken and breathless day-tripper lay back in the wagon, grateful merely to be alive. He must have come round a bend in the tunnel, for when he peered behind him there was not a glimmer of light to be seen. He wondered how far he might have come, and how long it might take him to grope his way back on foot. It was only when he had recovered his wits sufficiently to consider getting out of the wagon that Terson became aware of the faintly booming, distant seeming, unmistakable sound of tumbling water; but having registered this he paid no more attention to the phenomenon, for his interest was in getting out of the tunnel, not in investigating what might be in it.
Standing up had seemed like a good idea at the time! As he fell forwards and downwards, after cracking his head against the rock of the tunnel's roof, the Captain threw out his hands to grab anything available. With his right hand he rediscovered the brake lever, and it yielded to his involuntary urging. He was on the move again.
The sound of falling water was by now terrifyingly close: there must be a mighty cataract ahead, and Terson did not fancy his chances with it. Keeping his head well down this time, he got to his feet, grabbed the side of the wagon, and vaulted out. The mud he landed in may have been awfully wet and cold, but it was also soft, safe, and comforting. As he lay there he suddenly became aware of the absence of an all too familiar sound - that of metal wheels screeching and rattling along metal rails, which had even been able to cut through the roaring of the waterfall. Seconds later there came a hideous shrieking of abused wood and metal, followed by a splash of horrifying implications. As his icy sweat mingled with the squelchy mud which was oozing through hs clothes, the Captain offered up what thanks he could muster to any god who might have been listening.
Terson lay for several mintes in the embrace of the blessed slime. He could think of no valid reason for doing anything else - until he found himself beginning to shiver with the creeping cold. He stood up, slipped, cursed afresh, shot out a despairing hand, grabbed what felt like another of those damned levers, pulled it towards him as he slipped back into the morass, heard a strange whirring noise, and wondered how much more of this he could take.
The tunnel was ablaze with light! Although the Captain had had no prior knowledge of hydro-electric power, it not take him long to work out the connection between the violently falling water, the revolving machinery which was swallowing it, the hundred or so brightly burning bulbs, and the lever he had inadvertently yanked. He was in a massive rock chamber. He saw that about fifty yards ahead of him the rail lines came to an end, and that a few yards futher on there loomed a great gaping hole. He walked to the edge of the abyss and stared into its seemingly bottomless blackness. Somewhere down there must be the remains of his smashed up vehicle. He vomitted.
Somewhat refreshed, after holding his head briefly under the torrent, and taking a few sips from it, Terson took a look around him. Amidst the debris of an old mining operation was a low wooden hut. He opend the door and went inside. Light from the lamps outside shone through an uncurtained window. There was a table and chairs, folding camp beds, and a large fireplace with a broad chimeny. There was a bunker with coals, and a tea chest with paper and kindling. On the wall above the fireplace was a large clock. There was a books and games cupboard, and another for pots and pans, crockery and cutlery. A pantry was stocked with well sealed packs of dehydrated meats and vegetables - Terson pocketed a packet of pressed meat, to try when he got home - a storeroom containg picks and shovels, coils of rope, prospecting pans, oil cans and lamps, matches, a sweeping brush and a mop, boxes of soap and some cloths. Outside, round the back, was a toilet shed, whose simple facility was a hole in the floor over a gurgling subterranean stream. Armed with a newly filled, trimmed, and lit lamp, and with a box of matches in his pocket, Terson set off back along the tunnel. When he reached the generator handle he pushed it forwards. The lights went out. "Let the place sleep again," he said. Fiteeen minutes later he was back to daylight, his horse, and his lunch.
As the Captain rode home he was thinking he would probably keep his discovery to himself, for he might want to return to the mine someday, and common knowledge of it would spoil things. Any little worries about having to explain his filthy, bedraggled state were allayed by the heavy, relentless, and cleansing rain which fell on him all the way from the Wilderness edge to Draxy Palace and home.
For his supper that evening, Captain Terson rehydrated and cooked his little trophy, which he thought could well be a century or more old. The meat was not supremely delicious, but it was perfectly eatable, and with some potatoes and greens it went down well enough. In an idle moment, our adventurer wondered whether he might have discoverd the perfect place in which to hide a fugitive!