Our compartment was empty but for my companion and I. Sir Edward Strangeweather’s hands were clasping a maroon slipcase tightly to his person, his knuckles whitening against the dark red leather. Laying, as it was, on its side, the clockwork lock holding the case together was facing me, the small brass dial wound precisely – or so Sir Edward had told me – against the timepieces of the Greenwich Observatory. The case was set to open only at the pre-wound time. Sir Edward had not informed me when that might be, nor was I sure that he knew.
We were churning through the English countryside now, the train beating against the tracks so that I felt a strange mixture of nausea and lethargy. While my head dipped over my notes, Sir Edward’s was engaged with the passing landscape. He remarked both on the unremarkable—for instance, the verdant land that had soon developed after we had left London—and on the truly engaging. As we passed a grey mammoth of an airship floating seemingly stationery over the fields of Lancashire, he drew my attention to its markings and to the carefully counterweighted propeller shaft powering it, before drifting back into silence.
Eventually we pulled into York station, and he mused, gently: “The train, Mr. Butler. It is not likely to survive far into the coming century.”
“Tiny tubes of steel and glass. The inner workings of such contraptions hidden from view.” He glanced out of the window, as though expecting another vast steamship to appear on the horizon.
Pulling the case closer to his body, he asked: “What is the time?” Pulling my watch from my pocket, I answered him. We were half an hour behind schedule, and would most likely be close to an hour late upon arriving in Edinburgh.
Sir Edward seemed strangely perturbed by this, our latest in a series of ventures beyond the northern border. A Scot but no nationalist, his tongue customarily loosened (as did his accent) whenever we crossed into Scotian territory, but today his fast grip on this peculiar object in his possession seemed to be draining the lightness out of his day.
“So, Strangeweather,” I began, as the carriage pushed forwards and away from York. “Are you going to explain exactly where your new luggage comes from?” I pointed at the case. “It might help pass the time.”
Sir Edward smiled beneath his sullen eyes and leaned away from the window.
“Before her gracious Majesty saw fit to employ me, Mr. Butler, I was a young man.” Strangeweather’s stories commonly began in such a manner. “Hard though that may be to imagine,” he added with a wry kind of smile. I assumed, correctly, that a story was soon to follow.
Upon alighting the train in Edinburgh, the artifact in Sir Edward’s possession began to emit a low whirring, as though the clockwork dial on its front had sensed our arrival. Strangeweather had spent the remainder of our journey expounding on his youth. At fifteen he had absconded his parents’ care and lived on the airfields at Dunclathan, where Morgan Aeronautics, a burgeoning steampower company, had taken him on as an apprentice. For his employer he had worked night and day in airship hangars, sweated out his rotund youth and built a healthy frame of muscle toiling away in the Highlands.
“But,” he had finished, as we crossed to the exit out of Edinburgh station, “we never succeeded in bearing those airships aloft, Mr. Butler. Alastair Morgan simply did not have the skill or the means to create working aircraft. Try as we might, the steamship was not to be.”
At the side of the road on Princes Street we found a carriage waiting, and crowded into the back. Sir Edward rapped on the roof and the driver could be heard geeing up the horses. “But. How does he know where we’re going, Strangeweather?”
My companion smiled opaquely. He was usually much more garrulous than this, and I was anxious that, in spite of his story, I still knew nothing as to the purpose of the slipcase.
“He knows, my dear Mr. Butler. Unlike my employer below the border, my Highland benefactor likes to take good care of those in his employ.”
I was beginning to tire of these mysterious comments and told Sir Edward: “spit it out, man.” Strangeweather looked shocked and bemused, but continued.
“Well, as you know, I found my way eventually from Auld Reekie to the Queen’s London. Though,” he added in a tangent, “the Thames reeks far worse than the Firth of Forth, I can tell you. Working for Her Majesty we have had many enjoyable cases, but, Butler, this might be the most important. At least to me.”
At the word ‘case’ I glanced down to the dark cherry-red leather still in Sir Edward’s lap. The pun had, I was sure, been intentional. He continued: “I had never forgotten my time at Dunclathan. And when England’s finest engineers crafted their first steam-powered airship – the Spirit of Britain, beautiful it was – I felt a twinge of regret.”
These personal revelations seemed to be paining Sir Edward’s frame, his throat sticking uncomfortably on certain words, his face cast in an expression that seemed a mixture of both anger and sorrow. As I nodded in agreement and began to formulate my next question, the carriage jolted to a halt and a flurry of hoofbeats announced our arrival.
An alley of bricks, narrow and brushed with streaks of yellow, stank like a water closet. Sir Edward did seemed not to notice the stench, but as his senses were as highly-attuned as any I had known, I assumed that he had chosen to ignore it. Similarly he must have consciously disregarded the slipcase’s clicking, now much louder than it had been even half an hour ago.
On the left Strangeweather eventually selected a short, crooked doorway and pushed it open without knocking. Inside we found a cosy living room as narrow as the alley outside, low ceilings drew back to a wooden staircase at the rear of the room, whilst torn, besmeared furniture was pushed up against each wall. There was no sound but for the ticking of a tall clock next to the fireplace.
“Strangeweather…” I began. He reached back with one hand to silence me. A creaking of leather and wood signalled the entrance of a pair of feet, stepping slowly and cautiously onto the topmost stair at the back of the room. A man, I could tell, of a stocky comportment, around the age of Sir Edward or myself. As he moved into view, I smiled. My estimations had been correct, though the short gentleman now standing before us was rather older than I had imagined.
“I’ve been weetin’ for ye,” he said, directing his words at Strangeweather, who inclined his head in a bow, not breaking eye contact with the Scot.
“I apologise for our delayed arrival, however -“
The man stepped nearer. “You have them?” he asked, indicating the slipcase.
“Aye,” said Strangeweather. I tried not to grimace at his renewed accent. With its English cadence, the Scottish intonation of Sir Edward’s voice was rarely noticed in London. He stepped closer to the stranger and lifted the case onto the table, its red leather now reflecting as black in the low light. “But I don’t know when it is set to open.”
“So ye canna vouch for the contents? We need those specifications, Edward.”
“I assure you most heartily, Alastair,” Strangeweather paused, “that you will have all that you need.”
At the pause he tilted his head to one side, as though expecting that a rush of shock might escape my mouth when he spoke the man’s name. But I, no stranger to the peculiar twists in our little adventures, held in my surprise. Alastair Morgan? I asked myself internally. What could Strangeweather possibly have that Morgan Aeronautics might benefit from?
Morgan was examining the slipcase, placing his palm soothingly against its side and looking gleeful in spite of himself. “Well,” he said. “We must wait.”
Gesturing to an uncomfortable wooden chair covered with bare hessian, Morgan took a seat and Sir Edward followed. The clicking lock on the slipcase was now louder than the clock ticking beside the fireplace. We waited, listening to the feverish whirring.
It was several minutes before two o’ clock when I was shaken with vigour from my restive state. “Mr. Butler.” Strangeweather’s voice was as even as ever, but in his vice-like grip I felt an undercurrent of tension.
I rose and mumbled something affirmative. “A witness, Butler.”
“Witness? To what?” I said.
Strangeweather angled me by the shoulders towards the table on which the slipcase sat. There was a bright expression on Morgan’s face as he stood at the other end of the tabletop. “To the most important moment in Mr. Morgan’s, and perhaps in this nation’s, history.”
The clock chimed behind us, two successive strikes, and the slipcase began to shake as though possessed of some spirit. Settled on uneven legs, the table rocked back and forth for a moment and the brass-coloured dial sprang up, revealing a catch beneath it. Morgan reached for the catch first, and pressed it. The case cracked open.
Folding back the lid of the slipcase, we all peered inside. A divider split the interior into two compartments, in one a carefully rolled piece of parchment paper was visible, in the other rested small pieces of card that had been stacked one on top of the other.
Morgan withdrew a card and held it up; it seemed, as far as I could tell, to bear instructions printed in a small, neat handwriting. Whilst the short man’s attention was fixed upon the card, Strangeweather pulled out the small cylinder of parchment paper and began to unroll it, handing the outside edge to me and telling Morgan to clear the table so that they could unfurl the document.
As Sir Edward moved to the opposite end of the table, unwinding the paper with twists of his hands, I began to understand. The long, narrow document was a blueprint, a cross-section of something that was slowly being unveiled in this dim, undernourished Scottish alleyway. At the top of the page a title, in printed script, was becoming visible:
“Spirit of Britain?!” I was unable, in this instance, to contain my shock.
“Aye, sir.” Morgan beamed, clapping his free hand on Strangeweather’s shoulder. “Edward has ne’er forgotten our wee enterprise at Dunclathan.”
“The dreams of youth are the most enduring,” Strangeweather said, looking now at Morgan, now glancing back at the blueprint. “And it was hardly the Spirit of Britain, Mr. Butler. There is, after all, life beyond the northern border.” Sir Edward’s voice was even, though I sensed something apologetic hiding beneath his words.
“But surely, Strangeweather,” I said, “Downing Street is not privy to this… this little sojourn?”
“No, and I would prefer that it remain that way,” he rushed.
For another hour, Strangeweather and Morgan spoke in technical riddles whilst they fanned the small, hand-written cards around the blueprint. I could barely contain myself as I watched my friend and mentor explaining the intricacies of the English airship to the short Scot, pointing to the horizontal cross-section and then jabbing his finger against one of the small paperboard squares that, no doubt, contained all the information needed to construct a functioning Scottish craft.
The blueprint would, no doubt, bear Strangeweather’s and Morgan’s dreams aloft. The parchment bore all the marks of authenticity, and its cross-sections and engine specifications were detailed to the point of excess. Nonetheless I doubted the success and the financial security of the venture if Alastair Morgan was its sole engineer.
As we departed, Sir Edward’s features relaxed and he ventured his first smile of the day. “You are, I surmise, shocked. Am I right, old friend?”
I nodded in reply, and he continued: “I understand. If you find it in your – or your country’s – best interest to take the matter directly to the Prime Minister, I shall, of course, understand.” He paused expectantly but I held my silence as we trudged through the wretched alleyway towards our carriage. “Well,” he laughed, eventually. “I would appear I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Upon arriving at the carriage, he asked the driver to take us directly to the station and climbed inside. I stared out of the windows as we wove between children and stalls, horses and women, towards Princes Street, unable to comprehend how Strangeweather might have retrieved the documents that now sat on Morgan’s living room table. At Edinburgh Station we alighted, Strangeweather’s step brisk and unburdened – both figuratively and literally – now that he had left behind the maroon slipcase.
Strangeweather took one last look across the platform as we boarded the waiting train, then, smiling, said:
“To the true Spirit of Britain, Mr. Butler.”
I inclined my head and nodded. “To the Spirit of Britain.”
We boarded the train and began, slowly, to shunt back towards the border and out into the countryside. The train, I thought, was not likley to survive far into the coming century. [ends]