Read an Excerpt
A HURRIED MESSAGE AND
A DANGEROUS MOMENT
Leaving Paddington Station, the Flying Cornishman seemed little different from any other train. Admittedly the appointments were cleaner and newer, and there was a certain opulence to the gold tassels that fringed the seat cushions in the first-class carriage, but these were just a matter of superficial decoration. The differences that made this train unique in England, which was the same as saying unique in the entire world, were not yet apparent as the great golden engine nosed its way over the maze of tracks and switches of the station yards, then out through the tunnels and cuttings. Here the roadbed was ordinary and used by all trains alike. Only when the hulking locomotive and its trailing cylinder of closely joined coaches had dived deep under the Thames and emerged in Surrey did the real difference show. For now even the roadbed became unusual, a single track of continuously welded rails on specially cushioned sleepers that was straighter and smoother than any track had ever been before, sparkling in deep cuttings that slashed a direct channel through the chalk of the downs, shooting arrow-straight across the streams on stumpy iron bridges, a no-nonsense rail line that changed direction only in the longest and shallowest of curves. The reason for this became quickly apparent as the acceleration of the train steadily increased until the nearby fields and trees flashed by, visible as just the most instantaneous of green blurs; only in the distance could details be picked out, but they too slipped backwards and vanished almost as soon as they had appeared.
Albert Drigg had the entire compartment to himself, and he was very glad of that. Although he knew that this train had made the return trip from Penzance every day for almost a year now and had suffered no mishap, he was aware of this only in theory, so that now experiencing it in practice was a totally different matter. From London to Penzance was a total of 282 miles and that entire incredible distance would be covered in exactly two hours and five minutes—an average speed including stops of well in excess of 150 miles per hour. Was man meant to go that fast? Albert Drigg had a strong visceral sensation that he was not. Not even in this year of Our Lord 1973, modern and up-to-date though the empire was. Sitting so bolt upright in his black suit and black waistcoat that they showed no wrinkles, his stiff white collar shining, his gleaming leather portfolio on his knees, he generated no sign of his internal emotions. On the rack above, his tightly rolled umbrella and black bowler indicated he was a city man and men of the city of London are just not given to expressing their innermost feelings in public. Nevertheless he could not suppress a slight start when the compartment door whisked open on silent runners and a cheerful cockney voice addressed him.
“Tea, sir, tea?”
One hundred and fifty miles an hour—or more!—and the cup remained in place on the ledge beneath the window while the tea poured into it in a steady stream.
“That will be thrupence, sir.”
Drigg took a sixpence from his pocket and passed it over to murmured thanks, then instantly regretted his largesse as the door closed again. He must be unnerved if he tipped in so magnanimous a manner, but he was solaced by the fact that he could put it on the expense account since he was traveling on company business. And the tea was good, freshly brewed and hot, and did very much to soothe his nerves. A whisky would do a lot more he realized, and he almost touched the electric button for the waiter when he remembered the Saloon Car, often seen in the pages of The Tatler and Pall Mall Gazette, but visited only by the very few. He finished the tea and rose, tucking the extra length of chain back into his sleeve. It bothered him that the portfolio was irremovably shackled to the cuff around his wrist and indicated that he was something less than a completed gentleman, but by careful maneuvering he could keep the chain from the public view. The Saloon Car, that was the very thing!
The carpeting in the corridor was a deep gold in color, making a subtle contrast with the ruddy, oiled gloss of the mahogany paneling. Drigg had to pass through another coach to reach the Saloon Car, but there was no need to struggle with recalcitrant doors as on an ordinary train, for as he approached, some concealed device detected his proximity and the doors opened swiftly before him to the accompaniment of the hum of hidden electric motors. Naturally he did not look through the compartment windows he passed, but out of the corners of his eyes he had quick glimpses of finely dressed men and elegantly attired women, some children sitting sedately, reading—then a sudden loud barking that inadvertently drew his eye. Two country gentlemen sat with their feet up, emptying a bottle of port between them while a half dozen hounds of various breeds and sizes milled around and sought after their attention. And then Drigg was at the Saloon Car.
No automatic devices here but the best of personal services. A grand carved door with massive brass handles and a pillbox-capped boy, his double row of uniform buttons glinting and catching the eye, who saluted and tugged at the handles.
“Welcome, sir,” he piped, “to the Grand Saloon Car of the London and Land’s End Railway.”
Now that he saw it in its full splendor Drigg realized that the newspaper photographs did not do the establishment justice. There was no feeling at all of being in a railway carriage, for the atmosphere was rather that of an exceedingly exclusive club. One side contained immense crystal windows, from floor to ceiling, framed by ruddy velvet curtains, while arrayed before them were the tables where the clientele could sit at their leisure and watch the rural countryside speeding by. The long bar was opposite, massed with ranked bottles that reflected in the fine cut-glass mirror behind it. There were windows to the right and left of the bar, delicately constructed stained-glass windows through which the sun poured to throw shifting colored patterns upon the carpet. No saints here, unless they be the saints of railroading, like Stephenson or Brunel, sturdy, far-seeing men with compasses and charts in hand. They were flanked by the engines of history with Captain Dick’s Puffer and the tiny Rocket on the left, then progressing through history and time to the far right where the mighty atomic-powered Dreadnought appeared, the juggernaut of the rails that pulled this very train. Drigg sat near the window, his portfolio concealed beneath the table, and ordered his whisky, sipping at it slowly while he enjoyed the gay music-hall tune that a smiling musician was playing on the organ at the far end of the car.
This was indeed luxury, and he relished every moment of it, already seeing the dropping jaws and mute stares of respect when he told the lads about it back at The King’s Head in Hampstead. Before he had as much as finished his first drink the train was easing to a stop in Salisbury, where he looked on approvingly as a policeman appeared to chase from the platform a goggling of boys in school jackets who stood peering into the car. His duty done, the officer raised his hand in salute to the occupants, then rolled majestically and flat-footedly on about his official affairs. Once more the Flying Cornishman hurled itself down the track, and with his second whisky Drigg ordered a plate of sandwiches, still eating them at the only other stop, in Exeter, while they were scarcely done before the train slowed for Penzance and he had to hurry back for his hat and umbrella.
The guards were lined up beside the locomotive when he passed, burly, no-nonsense-looking soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, elegant in their dark kilts and white gaiters, impressive in the steadiness of their Lee-Enfield rifles with fixed bayonets. Behind them was the massive golden bulk of the Dreadnought, the most singular and by far the most powerful engine in the world. Despite the urgency of his mission Drigg slowed, as did all the other passengers, unable calmly to pass the gleaming length of her. Black driving wheels as tall as his head, drive rods thicker than his legs that emerged from swollen cylinders leaking white plumes of steam from their exhausts. She was a little travel-stained about her lower works, but all her outer skin shone with the seamless, imprisoned-sunlight glow of gold, fourteen-karat gold plating, a king’s ransom on a machine this size. But it wasn’t the gold the soldiers were here to guard, though that was almost reason enough, but the propulsive mechanism hidden within that smooth, unbroken, smoke-stackless shell. An atomic reactor, the government said, and little else, and kept its counsel. And guarded its engine. Any of the states of Germany would give a year’s income for this secret while spies had already been captured who, it was rumored, were in the employ of the King of France. The soldiers sternly eyed the passersby, and Drigg hurried on.
The works offices were upstairs in the station building, and a lift carried him swiftly to the fourth floor. He was reaching for the door to the executive suite when it opened and a man emerged, a navvy from the look of him, for who else but a railway navvy would wear such knee-high hob-nailed boots along with green corduroy trousers? His shirt was heavy canvas and over it he wore a grimy but still rainbow waistcoat, while around his pillarlike neck was wrapped an even gaudier handkerchief. He held the door but barred Drigg’s way, looking at him closely with his pale-blue eyes which were startlingly clear in the tanned nutbrown of his face.
“You’re Mr. Drigg, aren’t you, sir?” he asked before the other could protest. “I’ve seen you here when they cut t’tape and at other official functions of t’line.”
“If you please.”
The thick-thewed arm still prevented his entrance, and there seemed little he could do to move it.
“You wouldn’t know me, but I’m Fighting Jack, Captain Washington’s head ganger, and if it’s the captain you want t’see, he’s not here.”
“I do want to see him and it is a matter of some urgency.”
“That’ll be tonight then, after shift. Captain’s up t’the face. No visitors. If you’ve messages in that bag, I’ll bring ’em up for you.”
“Impossible—I must deliver this in person.” Drigg took a key from his waistcoat pocket and turned it in the lock of the portfolio, then reached inside. There was a single linen envelope there and he withdrew it just enough for the other to see the golden crest on the flap. Fighting Jack dropped his arm.
“None other.” Drigg could not keep a certain smug satisfaction from his voice.
“Well, come along then. You’ll have to wear overalls; it’s mucky up t’face.”
“The message must be delivered.”
There was a work train waiting for the head ganger, a stubby electric engine drawing a single open car with boxes of supplies. It pulled out as soon as they were aboard, and they rode the footplate behind the engineer. The track passed the town, cut through the fields, then dived into a black tunnel where the only light was a weak glow from the illuminated dials so that Drigg had to clutch for support, fearful that he would be tossed out into the jolting darkness. Then they were in the sunshine again and slowing down as they moved toward a second tunnel mouth. It was far grander than the other with a facing of hewn granite blocks and marble pillars that supported a great lintel that had been done in the Doric style. This was deeply carved with the words that still brought a certain catch to Drigg’s throat, even after all his years with the company.
TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL they read.
Transatlantic tunnel—what an ambition! Less emotional men than he had been caught by the magic of those words, and even though there was scarcely more than a mile of tunnel behind this imposing facade, the thrill was still there. Imagination led one on, plunging into the earth, diving beneath the sea, rushing under those deep oceans of dark water for thousands of miles to emerge into the sunlight again in the New World.
Lights moved by, slower and slower, until the work train stopped before a concrete wall that sealed the tunnel like an immense plug.
“Last stop, follow me,” Fighting Jack called out and swung down to the floor in a movement remarkably easy for a man his size. “Have you ever been down t’tunnel before?”
“Never.” Drigg was ready enough to admit ignorance of this alien environment. Men moved about and called to one another with strange instructions; fallen metal clanged and echoed from the arched tunnel above them where unshielded lights hung to illuminate a Dante-ish scene of strange machines, tracks and cars, nameless equipment. “Never!”
“Nothing to worry you, Mr. Drigg, safe as houses if you do the right things at the right time. I been working on the railways and tunnels all m’life, and outside of a few split ribs, cracked skull, a broken leg, and a scar or two, I’m fit as a fiddle. Now follow me.”
Supposedly reassured by these dubious references, Drigg followed the ganger through a steel door set into the concrete bulkhead that was instantly and noisily slammed shut behind them. They were in a small room with benches down the middle and lockers on one wall. There was a sudden hissing and the distant hammering of pumps, and Drigg felt a strange pressure on his ears. His look of sudden dismay was noticed by Fighting Jack.
“Air, just compressed air, nothing more. And a miserable little twenty pounds it is, too, I can tell you, as one who has worked under sixty and more. You’ll never notice it once you’re inside. Here you go.” He pulled a boiler suit from a locker and shook it out. “This is big enough to go over your clothes. I’ll hold that wallet for you.”
“It is not removable.” Drigg shook out the length of chain for inspection.
“I do not possess it.”
The ganger produced an immense clasp knife, with a swiftness and economy of motion that showed he had had sudden use for it before, and touched it so that a long gleaming blade shot out. He stepped forward and Drigg backed away.
“Now there, sir, did you think I was going to amputate? Just going to make a few sartorial alterations on this here garment.”
A single slash opened the sleeve from wrist to armpit, and another twitch of the blade vented the garment’s side. Then the knife folded and vanished into its usual resting place while Drigg drew on the mutilated apparel, the portfolio easily passing through the rent cloth. When Drigg had it on, Fighting Jack cut up another boiler suit—he had a cavalier regard for company property apparently—and bound it around the cut sleeve to hold it shut. By the time this operation was completed the pumps had stopped and another door at the far end of the airlock room opened and the operator looked inside, touching his forehead when he saw Drigg’s bowler.
A train of small hopper wagons was just emerging from a larger steel door in the bulkhead, and Fighting Jack pursed his lips to emit an ear-hurting whistle. The driver of the squat electric locomotive turned at the sound and cut his power.
“That’s One-Eyed Conro,” Fighting Jack confided to Drigg. “Terrible man in a dustup, thumbs ready all t’time. Trying to even the score, you see, for the one he had gouged out.”
Conro glared out of his single reddened eye until they had climbed up beside him, then ground the train of wagons forward.
“And how’s the face?” Fighting Jack asked.
“Sand.” One-Eyed Conro spat a globe of tobacco juice into the darkness. “Still sand, wet sand. Loose at the top so Mr. Washington has dropped the pressure so she won’t blow, so now there’s plenty of water at the bottom and all the pumps is working.”
“ ’Tis the air pressure, you see,” Fighting Jack explained to Drigg as though the messenger were interested, which he was not. “We’re out under t’ocean here with ten, twenty fathoms of water over our heads and that water trying to push down through the sand and get t’us all the time, you see. So we raise the air pressure to keep it out. But seeing as how this tunnel is thirty feet high, there is a difference in the pressure from top to bottom and that’s a problem. When we raise the pressure to keep things all nice at t’top, why then the water seeps in at t’bottom where the pressure is lower and we’re like t’swim. But, mind you, if we was to raise the pressure so the water is kept out at t’bottom why then there is too much pressure at t’top and there is a possibility of blowing a hole right through to the ocean bottom and letting all the waters of the world down upon our heads. But don’t you worry about it.”
Excerpted from A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. Copyright © 1972 by Harry Harrison. Published in November 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.