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Some work in progress illustrations from the Fox and the Hare project:
My Dear Lady Misericordia,
“Aha! I recognise that face!” Nicholas began to laugh, “We’re in real trouble now, Harry, he’s got an idea! Oh dear, yes, we’re in trouble now. You carry on, young Timothy, you’ll be alright.”
Toy soldiers, toy horses, toy cannons, toy balloons, toy popguns, toy bows and toy arrows. An awful lot of toys that could, perhaps, with a little ingenuity and cunning, be made to work as weapons too.
So we put clockwork in the tin soldiers and sharpened their bayonets, we used the steam from the model trains to power pea shooters mounted on their boilers, we dipped the sucker tips of toy arrows in itching powder, we took everything we could lay our hands on and wracked our brains as to how to use it to stop Oxshott.
As the tables went Daunt’s and Nicholas’ toy armies were revealed – two wings of clockwork soldiers, steam driven artillery and tin cavalry drawn up in serried ranks, facing the doors. And in the middle knelt Nicholas, still arranging horsemen into a V formation, ready for the charge.
Down from the galleries all around us dropped a storm of paper planes, all tipped with the sharp points from compass sets, all swooping down towards Oxshott in a great white flurry. For a moment he disappeared in a rustling cloak of paper, but then, with a thunderous yell, he shook them all off, leaving himself spotted about with little red dots of pin pricks.
Oxshott shook his head and gathered himself.
“Hallo, I’m Roderick. Is that your steam engine? I’ve always wanted one of them. Can I have a go?”
My Dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. I do hope that you have recovered from your exertions at the Christmas Ball in the no doubt entertaining company of Viscount Fox.
I am, of course, delighted that you were able to put aside your worries and concerns about your father and his friends, the dangers they were facing, the unexpected peril that could destroy them at any moment, and, for just one night, enjoy yourself in a lovely, heated ballroom, with plenty of fruit punch and inconsequential gossip.
You will have guessed by now, my Lady, that I am being sarcastic. I really do think it is terribly heartless of you, at the very moment that the Baronet Oxshott was throwing himself to his doom on the top of the world, as your father and I were plummeting from the sky towards an icy fate, that you were busy worrying about what Sir Charles said to Captain Wentworth and who was marked down for your next waltz.
I am afraid, my Lady, that I am suddenly not all that sorry that I included your father’s less than charitable remarks in my last letter.
But, ah! My last letter. Surely this mystery at least will have gathered your attention. You must have had that letter by now, but how? And how is it that I, lost in a remote valley high up amidst the Arctic mountains, can have had your letter about the Christmas Ball? Surely the penny post does not extend that far?
Well, my Lady, I must confess that the answers to some of these questions are still a mystery to me, but thereby hangs a tale.
If you have had my last letter by now, then you will know that we had found ourselves marooned on a snowy plateau in the mountains, as far beyond human civilisation as the most deserted island on the ocean. Or was it? For, in the distance, were the lights and chimney smoke that could only mean human habitation, and while the Professor and Lord Daunt, you father, might know what those signs meant, I and the Professor’s assistant Harry were only left with another puzzle: who, or what, could live in such a desolate place?
We camped for the night and set out next morning for this mysterious house. Fortunately the skis had been one of the items we had brought with us in our balloon journey through the mountains, although they are not easy things to master, at all. Well, not easy for me. Harry picked the whole thing up very quickly, though, and was able to help when I struggled. Which was often, I’m afraid to say.
How odd it is that, while I knew nothing of our goal or the reasons behind our adventure, I could simply enjoy the travelling – the wonder of the sleigh ride or the strangeness of the balloon borne boat, but the moment we had a purpose in sight – the house, growing ever so slowly closer ahead – the journey immediately became exhausting and interminable.
We struggled on, that is, the others skied and I struggled, across the featureless white plain, our destination under the distant mountains never seeming to grow any closer, above us the bare, cloudless sky, below us the bare, endless snow.
Here ought to have been adventure – at the top of the world, on the verge of some great mystery – but here was only incredible boredom and nuisance.
Slowly, however, our goal began to make itself clear before us. Not a single house, it turned out, but a homestead, a collection of buildings: houses, barns, stables, all with lights burning merrily in the windows and fires lit within.
There was something immediately cheerful about the place, more than just the delight of finding civilisation again, out here in the wilderness. There was something immediately human about the buildings, something welcoming and warm and any worries I might have had about what we were about to discover there disappeared entirely, although I could not and still cannot quite put my finger on why.
As we finally approached the main gate, extravagantly decorated with carved reindeer heads, a small figure came bustling out of a nearby building, running up towards us through the snow. At first I thought it must be a child, from the size of it, but when I saw the face under the red, fur-lined hood, I realised that it was, in fact, a full grown but very small man.
His features were something like the Sami, but with a twist something else that I couldn’t put a finger on and a look in his eye as if he were laughing at something that we would never understand.
He drew himself up under the gate and bowed to us. The Professor stepped forward and tried a greeting in Sami that he had learned from the reindeer herders. To our great astonishment the little man replied in broken English, his voice clear in the still air.
“Well coming to the Youlutonty, hearty journey-makers! I am Tom, you may come well in and take hearth.”
We followed him through the gates and into a small square, ringed about with many buildings and dwellings, many of them bearing signs above the door that suggested that they might be shops or businesses of some kind.
Lights burned in all the houses and at every window faces peered out at us, fascinated by the strange new-comers.
Tom led us to a large building on the far side of the square, almost immediately evident as an inn or hostel, where we were ushered into low-ceilinged room where a huge table groaned under a great feast laid out, apparently, for us.
“They must have seen us arrive, yesterday,” whispered Harry, “To be so prepared.”
Tom motioned for us to make ourselves at home, but the Professor and Lord Daunt would hear none of it. They immediately started bombarding Tom with questions:
“What is this place? How do you live here? Where did all this food come from? Who is in charge here? When can we meet him?”
Questions poor Tom’s English was not quite up to answering. And not just his English, either, I suspected. There was something in his careful confusion that made me think he was deliberately not telling them something, was keeping something back. They were willing to feed us and give us shelter, it seemed, but not to offer us anything beyond that.
Too distracted by our wonder at the place, neither Harry nor I had any appetite for the sumptuous meal that had been prepared for us. I picked at a mincemeat pie, while wandering around the room, examining it distractedly – every wooden surface in the room had been decorated with carvings and, in the flickering firelight, the carvings seemed to move and dance: reindeer cantered, faces winked and grinned, forests waved in the wind and the clouds flew.
And Harry coughed. He was standing by a door in the corner of the room that had been left ajar. Tom was occupied with the persistent questioning. Curiosity, I’m afraid, got the better of us.
The door led through to a bare, warm passageway and into a long, low room, almost entirely taken up with a long, low table at which were set twenty or thirty bowls of steaming broth. Welcoming though the room was, it was empty.
Beyond that was a cavernous kitchen, where ovens roared and pans bubbled, where a cloud of flour still hung on the air and ladle steamed gently on a bench, but no one stirred, because the kitchen, too, was deserted.
So, too, was the bake house beyond, pungent with the smell of gingerbread, and the small square beyond that, where the snow was churned up with footprints, but no feet stood now.
Empty though all these places were, there was a sense that the moment before we had turned the corner and opened the door, they had been bustling, hectic with life. Whoever had been there had fled moments before us, and now hid somewhere just out of sight, watching us pass.
Eventually we came to a wide set of double doors that led through into a vast, brightly lit hall, filled with long lines of tables and benches. And on each table: machinery. Lathes, saws, screws, wood carving and metal working, every kind of tool and device was laid out here. And at every place was a piece of work, something half made, or almost assembled, and all of them toys.
Here a nutcracker soldier, his stiff jaw not yet hinged on, there a spring wound ballerina, beneath her tutu still only bare metal where her mechanism showed. Here a solid little wooden reindeer on wheels, there the delicate cut-out of a paper doll, surrounded by the patterns of her costumes.
And here a clockwork train and there a little, tin putt-putt boat. Do you know them? I had one as a child and delighted in it – you place a candle in a small metal boat and it heats up a tiny boiler to make steam, driving the boat forward. Seeing one again brought me up short and I stared at it, and the train at the work bench next to it.
“Harry,” I said, “I think I’ve just had an idea.”
It probably seems like a silly thing, but it’s easy to get carried away even with silly things and Harry and I soon lost all sense of what we were about and the whole mystery that surrounded us so excited were we in our little project to make the clockwork train steam driven instead.
It was relatively easy to remove all the clockwork and put in a watertight boiler and transfer the candle heating mechanism from the boat, but we had a tricky time with the pistons, a problem Harry solved with the innards of a brass fountain pen that he found on a nearby table.
We were so absorbed that it wasn’t until we had filled the boiler and prepared the candle that we realised that all the workers who must have fled this workshop at our approach had stealthily reappeared, creeping out of the shadows to surround us, watching our every move with eager attention.
Slightly unnerved by their watchful silence, we set the train on the ground and waited, with bated breath, for the candle to heat the water. And slowly, with a clear ‘putt-putt-putt’ in the stillness of the hall, the wheels began to turn and the little engine began to steam across the floor.
Although no one made a single noise, the wave of delight that spread through the crowd around us was as evident as if they had all started applauding. Like Tom, they were all much smaller than us, making me wonder whether we had stumbled upon some tribe of Arctic pygmies, but as the train trundled across the stone flags, I felt a heavy hand descend upon my shoulder and turned to find myself looking up at the largest man I had ever seen.
And I mean, in all senses, large. He seemed almost a foot taller than me and was considerably wider, although, perhaps because of his height, he appeared more exaggerated than actually fat. His head was surrounded by a great cloud of white hair and a vast white beard tumbled down over his massive expanse of green Sami-style coat.
But even in that first glance, his character seemed as large as his frame. Of a man that size I might have easily been afraid, but his face was so wide and so open, his eyes sparkled so with some suppressed laugh, his smile beamed out such a large happiness and welcome that I could never be afraid of this man, not in my whole life.
He seized me by both shoulders and shook me up and down, joyously.
“Marvellous work, young man, marvellous! And you, young…” and he paused for a moment and smiled to himself, “My boy!” and he shook Harry vigorously by the hand.
“Steam trains! A capital idea! Of course, it’ll need tidying up before we can let the children at it, but its marvellous, a veritable marvel. Nilka.”
He said the last word and stuck out his hand again. I took it automatically, without knowing what he meant, so caught up was I by the force of his personality.
“No! Silly old man. In English. What would it be? Klaus? Nick? Nicholas! That’s it! Nicholas.” Ah! It was his name. He pumped at my hand, happily, “And your are Timothy and, I think, Harry – is that right?”
“Harry, yes,” stammered Harry, apparently just as confused as I was.
“Capital, marvellous. Wonderful! Just what we need here, this time of year: brains! Craft! You all will, of course, stay for supper. Talk the fellows through the steam train, will you – he needs topping up, I think. Wonderful to meet you, Timothy and you… Harry. See you at supper!”
And he swept from the room in a great cloud of the little people, who all scurried in his train, suddenly chattering in a language I did not recognise. This could only be the man in charge, I realised, our host, who must hold in his keeping the secret for which the Professor had led us here, to this extraordinary factory hidden out in the endless wild.
I had no time to speculate further, for we were quickly surrounded by more of the tiny workers, and in particular and cunning looking old man who introduced himself as Alf, or something that sounded like Alf, and who began to turn over our little engine in his clever little hands, asking us questions in his broken English.
For the next hour or two Harry and I huddled over a bench in the workroom, with Alf and an ever-changing crowd of willing observers and helpers, refining the steam-driven engine and making it safe for children’s play.
But even as we worked, I could not keep my thoughts from this mystery that surrounded us, now that we were so very close to its heart.
For here was a workshop for crafting toys – not things necessary for survival in this wilderness, but things for entertainment, for children’s play. And many of them, for this was not the only workshop, apparently. And yet how could they possibly get these things to the outside world from here? Consider the trouble we had had getting here. Now imagine taking that journey again and again, bearing cargo and supplies.
And here we come to the problem of the letters, for, soon after out meeting with Nicholas, they were brought to us by one of his many helpers and we were given to understand that we could, easily, send and receive mail from anywhere to anywhere, if we had anything we wished to send.
At first I thought that perhaps our host had some kind of wireless telegraph, allowing him communication instantaneously around the world, but no, here in my hand was your letter, on your paper in your very own handwriting, even down to the three whole pages detailing the dress that you wore to the ball (which, as Harry pointed out, could have been summarised in just three words: ‘Pink, with ribbons’).
So he must be bringing the letters in and sending them out. But how? I had seen only the customary reindeer and sleigh outside, and that would not get him very far in this remote valley. He must have some extraordinary means of transport or communication hidden away somewhere that would allow such miracles. I began to see why the Professor was so interested.
And I was right in my guesses, too, it seemed, for as Harry and I were eventually led through into supper, we came in at the tail end of something the Professor was saying to Nicholas.
“…but imagine the possibilities… A world where people can travel to distant lands in only hours – imagine what we might learn about other people and their cultures, how that will destroy all the barriers that distance and ignorance put up between men and put an end to hate and suspicion between nations! Imagine a world where men can talk to each other across the globe, have the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, know all the news and all the secrets, imagine what a race of scientists we will be then, what will we not be able to do!”
“Perhaps,” said our host genially, “Or perhaps all that knowledge will drive men mad, have you thought of that? Have you thought that perhaps people will be people, whatever toys they have?”
“Just think of what it will mean for trade,” persisted Lord Daunt, “Goods from every country under the sun, available whenever you want them.”
“And when you have everything you want,” countered Nicholas, “What will you do then? Could it be that what you really want is precisely what you can’t have?”
“But…” said the Professor.
“Now, a moment,” said Lord Daunt.
“Besides,” continued Nicholas, “It isn’t mine to give and would be useless to anyone else, anyway. So, enough of that: time for supper!” And he said it with such gentle finality and heartiness that the Professor and his Lordship stopped pestering him and followed him meekly to the table. But I could see that they weren’t going to give up on their dreams so easily.
This time we were eating in a large room, set off, by an arch, from a vast dining hall with high, painted ceiling, ringed about with a gallery, the whole place filled to the rafters with the workers from Nicholas’ homestead, all eating and drinking happily. We were evidently seated at the top table, along with Tom and Alf and three other workers who, it was evident, hung on every word Nicholas uttered.
We had eaten our soup and were just setting into a fish that I think must have been carp (and hoping, in my case, that we might have some meat soon), when a whisper began to travel the length of the dining hall, up the tables and through the arch to Nicholas’ chair.
He listened to the waiter, who had to stand on tiptoes to reach his master’s ear, even with Nicholas sitting down, and then turned to us.
“Gentlemen a… gentlemen, I’m afraid we have a difficulty. Someone has entered the house where you left your belongings and has been rifling through them. My friends are rightly appalled, as they know nothing of crime here. They believe the person responsible is still somewhere in Joulutontti,” I knew by now that that was his name for his home here, “Could it be someone of your party? Did you have another with you?”
“Oxshott,” muttered Lord Daunt, “It must be.” And he stood up from the table, “Come on, if we’re quick…”
And we followed him out of the door, Nicholas and his friends coming in our wake.
We came out into the central square of the homestead, the air clear and cold and the stars bright above us. Just across the square was the main gate we had entered by and, even as we watched, a shadow detached itself from under the eaves of a nearby house and ran across the open space towards the gate.
“Oxshott!” bellowed Lord Daunt.
The figure stopped in gate and turned.
“Oxshott, stop there!”
At the sound of the shout a light came on and caught Oxshott in its glare, frozen there on the edge of the night. With a gasp the crowd of workers around us drew back. And he was a fearsome sight.
His clothes were ragged and torn, standing out in great bunches of fur and cloth. His dark hair and beard were matted and and flecked about with ice. Standing there, shaggy and wreathed in mist from his own breath he looked like the exact opposite of our host, dark and angry and wild.
“Shells,” he said, “For the gun,” and he shook a box of ammunition and waved the shotgun, which he still carried, at us.
“Bear’s here, you know,” he said, “Polar Bear. I’ve seen it, at night. It’s here again. Going to get it this time…” and then he stopped and gasped as he caught sight of Nicholas. “You!”
“Me?” said Nicholas.
“You! Where is it? The train, where is it? Why did it never come? Why did you not bring it?”
“I think you know, don’t you, Roderick?” said Nicholas, and there was a tone in his voice that I had not heard before, some thing hard and stern.
“It wasn’t my fault!” shouted Oxshott, “I didn’t mean to push her so hard! I didn’t know she’d fall off!”
“It was very bad, all the same,” said Nicholas, and at the word ‘bad’ the crowd around us shuddered.
“How dare you! How dare you!” roared Oxshott, “You, you…” he stopped and a terrible, twisted smile spread over his lips, “You: what a trophy that would be, eh? Your head, just above the fireplace: that would be something, wouldn’t it? That would be quite something!”
“Oxshott, what are you saying?” I couldn’t stop myself, “What do you mean?”
“I mean his head,” he snapped back, “It’s mine. I’ll be back for it. Tomorrow. I’ll be back and I’ll have his head for my wall!”
And with that he turned and bounded out of the light and off into the darkness.
I need hardly tell you that our meal was not quite as cheerful as it might have been after that.
The Professor and Lord Daunt are convinced that Oxshott is quite mad and will simply disappear into the wilds never to be heard of again and Nicholas seems curiously undisturbed by his threat, and also about the bear, which he did admit often comes sniffing round the homestead, attracted by the smell of food.
Harry and I, on the other hand, are sure that Oxshott meant every word he said. And we are equally sure that even if no one else is going to do anything about it, we must, at least, try to protect our host. We spent the rest of the meal putting our heads together with Alf and Tom and I think tomorrow is going to be a very busy day.
In worry and anxiousness
PS Your dress really did sound rather nice. There is a doll here that has one remarkably similar. In fact the expression is similar, too. Exactly the same blank stare as you used to adopt during Latin lessons.
My Dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. If it finds you at all. I am not at all sure how I am going to post this to you, out here in the wilds, but I feel I ought to continue writing, to record our adventures.
I wonder what you are doing today? I know the Christmas Ball will be approaching, but I cannot believe that you would waste time with a thing like that with your Father, Baronet Oxshott and your tutor (whatever you think of him) lost somewhere out in the Arctic Circle on a mission of mystery and danger.
Your thoughts, I know, will be with us, and that cheers me considerably.
We, on the other hand, have now truly travelled beyond civilisation and beyond, even, wilderness. Jim, our guide, tells me that no one has ever been in this country before and I can believe him. We have reached, finally, the Unknown.
On the Professor’s maps, this place is just a blank white space, partly because no one has ever been here to map it and partly, I suspect, because this is simply a blank white place. Snow covers everything. Even the trees are half invisible, only the bottom of the branches showing a dark green under their layer of snow. Above us even the mountains show only their steepest parts in dark stone, where the snow has slid off in great avalanches.
The Professor, however, becomes happier and happier the further we go. He is positively enjoying the cloak of secrecy he has drawn about this adventure. He refuses even to let me draw the simplest map to plot our journey, so keen is he that no one else should know of our whereabouts.
His only regret is, apparently, that he could not bring his daughter with him. Harry asked him why he didn’t bring her and he looked astonished.
“First priniciples, my boy, think it through logically,” he has a tendency to lecture, “She is my daughter, ergo, she is a woman – there, you see? Science tells us a female could not take the strain of a mission such as this – the mental strain alone would be too much for their nervous systems, let alone the physical challenge. Its simply obvious.”
“But, Professor,” protested Harry, “Women are no strangers to mental strain – do you not think that sitting at home, wondering how, where her father is is not placing immense mental strain on your daughter?”
But the Professor would hear none of it. I must say, althought I lean towards the Professor’s opinion, I rather admire Harry for his independence of thought, liberty of spirit and willingness to argue for what he believes.
All the more so, given the Professor’s actions this morning, which have made me wonder, a little, at what kind of errand he has led us on.
We have arrived in the foothills of a great mountain range that sweeps around us in a wide, jagged curve. We must cross this mountain range, says the Professor, to reach our goal.
To this end, he had Jim lead us into a narrow valley running down from the peaks above, at the bottom of which was a small river. It was at the river bank that he unveiled his great surprise. For, packed away in our supplies were two collapsible boats. With these, the Professor declared, we could easily travel along the river, over the mountains.
We stood and stared at the Professor, beaming at his boats, and I felt I had to point out one or two minor flaws in his plan.
“But Professor,” I said, “This river flows down from the mountains – that means we would have to travel up river, against the stream, up, probably, steep, white water rapids and even waterfalls. Also, and more importantly from a water travel point of view, the river is frozen quite solid.”
The poor Professor looked so disconsolate at this that I almost regretted having said anything. Harry, in particular, looked daggers at me. But there was nothing for it, the river was nothing more than a curving sweep of thick white ice, and the boats were useless.
“Could your steam sleds climb it?” asked Lord Daunt.
“Some of it, perhaps,” I ventured, “But much of it would be too steep, I fear, and they would be awfully heavy to carry.”
“Well, this is a bally fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Professor,” growled Oxshott.
“It’s no good just standing around and complaining, you great oaf,” snapped Harry, “I don’t see you having having any bright ideas to get us out.”
Oxshott stiffened at this. but before he could do anything rash, I spotted something else among the Professor’s supplies.
“The Baronet might not have any bright ideas, but I think I might,” I said, “Professor, those crates labelled ‘Atmospheric Conditions Measuring Balloons’ – what’s in them?”
What was in them was, unsurprisingly, Atmospheric Conditions Measuring Balloons: enormous silvery balloons made of some resilient, rubbery material of the Professor’s own devising, extremely strong but extremely light, along with cannisters of a powerful lifting gas, again of the Professor’s concoction.
The balloons were designed to lift scientific devices high into the atmosphere to measure weather conditions – and if they could carry all that equipment, could they also carry us?
Harry and I soon discovered that all the balloons together would be able to lift one of the boats, just big enough for all of us to ride in, and with room only for enough supplies to see us over the mountains – enough to reach our goal, if the Professor is to be believed.
There was no time to debate, however, since the weather was still fine and clear and, knowing from the episode with the Sami how quickly a storm can blow up in these Arctic wastes, we knew we ought to take advantage of it while we could.
And so we tethered the balloons to the boat, raising the small sail to take advantage of what wind there was, and clambered aboard. Then we loosed the ropes and the boat began to rise slowly into the air, drifting forward on the breeze, up towards the mountains.
We waved goodbye to the frankly astonished Jim, who would return to civilisation on one of the steam sleds, as he disappeared into a single dark dot on the snowy wastes, and then we were in among the mountains themselves.
Oh! What a strange, eerie, silent journey that was, bobbing along between the great walls of ice and stone that reared around us. I had become so used to the constant hiss and crunch of snow under sleigh and sled and boot that the peculiar quiet of the floating canoe was bewildering. The only sounds were the occassional creak and squeak of the ropes and balloons, or the groaning and cracking of the mountains themselves.
We barely talked ourselves, so intent were we on the balance of the boat in its constant swaying and the passing grandeur. And what grandeur it was: there we sailed, right between the topmost peaks and crags of the mountains, sheer drops of black granite and great sky fields of untouched snow drifts, where no foot would ever stand, no eye would ever see, except ours.
The magnificent desolation held us spellbound, bewitched by the awful, harsh beauty. I can see how men might strive to be the first to set foot on an unconquered peak, or some unexplored land, but how more extraordinary was this – to see this hidden, unimagined wilderness and to drift past, like a cloud, and leave it behind, still untouched, lonely and pure.
The wind blew up into a high pass between two lofty peaks, leaving us to float down between them into a long, cavernous valley that wound between steep cliffs, the wind now gusting us along, up towards a high plateau, a wide and windswept valley hidden away in the heavens.
And as the wind bore us up towards the valley opening it brought with it an astonishing sound from behind us, the first noise we had heard for some hours, a rhythmic, happy honking.
We all craned round at the noise and there, coming up the valley behind us, was a ragged ‘V’ of geese, gliding up on the wind, calling to each other as they travelled.
I cannot describe to you how welcome the sound of those geese was after the terrible silence of the mountains: a merry, animal sound and it cheered us all immensely.
Most cheered of all was Baronett Oxshott, who began to swing round in his seat to try and get a good look at them. Then he tried to stand, sending the boat swaying and lurching as we all clutched desperately at the sides.
“Come here, you blighters!” He was shouting, “Come closer, where I can get at you!” And he flailed his great fists out at them, and the boat rocked under him.
At a particularly violent swing, the boat jumped and Harry lost his grip, stumbling sideways, half over the edge. I grabbed hold of him, hanging onto him for dear life, trying desperately to pull him back inside.
“For God’s sake, Oxshott!” bellowed Lord Daunt, “You’ll have us all over!”
But Oxshott wasn’t listening. As the geese passed overhead, squawking defiantly at the Baronet, he suddenly snatched his shotgun from under his seat and reared up, swinging the gun up at them.
“Oxshott!” I shouted, seeing what was about to happen, “No!”
But I was too late, the shot rang out, the boat shuddered and with a great bang, a balloon burst.
For a moment the whole world seemed to stand still, and then the boat dropped suddenly, pitching Harry back again into my lap.
“Oxshott!” roared Lord Daunt, and the boat, listing, began to plunge downwards, “Oxshott!”
“Dashed…” Oxshott stood, swaying for a moment, unable to take in what he had done, and then: “Must lighten the load…” And before anyone could do anything, he leapt over the side of the vessel and was gone.
With Oxshott gone our makeshift craft lifted a little, and began to swing sideways. Lord Daunt grabbed the nearest object to him and threw it over the side, trying to keep us in the air. Before any of the rest of could help, however, the boat suddenly pitched up and jolted forward: it had hit the snow! We had reached the plateau!
The sudden movement knocked Lord Daunt off his feet and he went over the side, into a snow drift. The boat lifted again and began to skim across the snow, buoyed up by the balloons. Harry, the Professor and I scrambled to bring in the sail and release the balloons, letting them float up and away into the empty sky as the boat slid to a final, gentle stop.
Harry and I quickly ran back, as fast as we could through the deep drifts, to try and find Lord Daunt. Fortunately he had had a soft landing in the snow and was already trying to retrieve the stove he had thrown overboard as we were dropping.
“What about Oxshott?” I asked.
“Stove’s more important than that lunatic,” snapped back his Lordship, “Although I suppose we could always trying burning him for warmth.”
“But we can’t have been far above the ground when he jumped,” I pointed out, “He may well have survived.”
His Lordship sighed.
“Very well, then, I suppose we ought to go and look, I daresay my daughter would never forgive if I didn’t, although God knows why I should worry about that empty-headed chit’s opinions.”
“Well now, my Lord,” I said began, “I’m not sure…”
“Oh, no reflection on your tutoring, Hope, old chap – you did the best you could: it would take a stubborn man with a strong arm to teach that child anything – someone like Oxshott, I suppose – although I can tell you now, the stable boy has a better chance of marrying my daughter than that bally oaf after today’s performance.”
I must have betrayed my emotions on hearing this statement, because his Lordship continued.
“For goodness’ sake, Hope, my dashed daughter may be too good for the likes of Oxshott, but she’s nowhere near good enough for you: you need a wife with sense and wit, not some preening ninny like Misericordia… Aha! Good Lord – look at this…”
We had come across a deep snow drift with a great hole let into it: a hole exactly the size and shape of a falling Baronet.
“This must be where the idiot landed,” said Lord Daunt, and we peered down into the hole. It was empty.
“The idiot has gone.”
We stood and gazed around at the featureless white of the valley floor where it stetched out to the wall of encircling mountains. Nothing moved. There was no sign of life.
“Quite gone,” continued his Lordship, “Ah, well.” And he turned and began walking back towards the boat, and Harry and I followed him.
Back at the boat we discovered that the Professor had unpacked some of his equipment, including a sextant and a telescope and was now doing a delighted little jig in the snow.
“We’re here!” he shouted to us, “We’re here!”
“We’re where?” demanded Lord Daunt.
“Here! Right where I said we would be!” and the Professor thrust the telescope into his hands, “Look over there, below that mountain in the middle.”
Lord Daunt took the telescope sceptically, but as he gazed through it, I heard him gasp.
“Is that it? Are you sure, Professor?”
“It must be, it matches all the measurements, all the predictions.”
“Then we’ve done it, Hedley, old man, we’ve done it, just as you said we would,” and Lord Daunt shook the Professor warmly by the hand.
“Its too far off to get there today, we’ll have to camp here tonight,” continued his Lordship.
“And then tomorrow…” said the Professor.
“Tomorrow, we shall see,” said his Lordship.
“Can I have a look, Professor?” I asked, burning with curiosity.
“Oh, of course, dear boy, of course, can’t hurt, have a look,” and the Professor handed me the telescope as he and his Lordship stamped off to begind setting up camp.
I scanned the horizon in vain, trying to see what had delighted them so, but it was Harry that found it in the end. Far across the other side of the valley, nestled in under the lowering mountains, was a glow, a light that could only have come from a fire or many lamps and, climbing up from it, up into the darkening night air, was a single, curling strand of smoke.
It could only mean one thing: a house, a settlement! But whose, out here? And why were we going to it? What did it mean?
Well, tomorrow, I suppose, as his Lordship said, we shall see
In trepidation and mystery
PS I do hope you can forgive your father for his harsh words, he was terribly cross with Oxshott, after all.
My Dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. Now we have gone beyond the reach of the postal service, I will simply have to imagine how you are getting along.
So, I imagine you sitting in the drawing room, with your Pekinese lap dog Knife curled up at your feet, a blazing fire in the grate and tea being served. You are not, I think, hurtling across the freezing ice behind a pack of yelling dogs with nothing but wind-dried herring to chew on.
I, however, am.
I have to say, I’m afraid, that travel by dog-sled is not nearly as delightful as travel by reindeer sleigh. For one thing, these are not friendly English dogs – but then neither is your dog Knife, who has earned his name by shredding the cuffs of at least three pairs of my trousers.
Also, the weather has changed. For the last day the sky has been overcast, one great expanse of monotone cloud, and I cannot describe the dullness that settles in the heart at this endless, rattling travel over a white ground, under a grey sky towards an ever retreating horizon of black mountains.
Fortunately I have been sharing a sled with Professor Cumulus, who has provided many cheerful hours of rambling conversation on all subjects under the sun. Except one: where we are going and why. Although he has been very complimentary about my contribution to our venture so far and continually drops dark hints that I may be very useful where we are going, he still refuses to be drawn on what, exactly, we are doing here.
I gather, from some of what he says, that he believes that he is on the track of some new fuel or energy source that will revolutionise modern industry, but, when I question him further, however delicately, he simply grins, impishly, and changes the subject.
I simply cannot imagine what he is about: of course there may be untold minerals hidden away in this great icy expanse, but even if we could find them, how one would go about extracting and transporting them in this vast wilderness is beyond my skill.
But that is one mystery that we may soon discover the secret of, as the Professor assures me that we don’t have far to go now.
Which is just as well, considering the ruckus we have had in camp this evening. We had all had a rather pitiful supper around the fire, which did little to keep out the cold of the night, and a night-cap of brandy, which did, and had retreated to our tents to try and sleep. Or, in Baronet Oxshott’s case to complain loudly about the food.
I am sharing a tent with Harry, with whom I have managed to make friends with, again, after our disagreement and our adventure with the kite, and we talked for a little while, speculating on where our journey might be taking us. Eventually we both dropped off to sleep and I dreamt happily of Latin lessons until I suddenly found myself being shaken awake by Harry.
“Mr Hope, there’s something up!” Indeed there was – the camp was alive with shouting and bellowing.
We leapt from our sleeping bags and out into the snow (we all sleep fully clothed here, what with the cold, and Harry even keeps his cap on in bed, I have discovered) and there, in the dying firelight, came upon the most spectacular tableau.
There in the centre of the camp, surrounded by the dogs, all snarling and barking, was Baronet Oxshott, in nothing but his red flannel underclothes and, facing him, a huge Polar Bear!
It was quite the most enormous creature I have ever seen, a great powerful mountain of white fur, that lumbered to and fro round the fire, confused and annoyed by the lights and the noise. Oxshott was holding a frying pan in one hand and there was half cooked bacon on the snow at his feet.
He had obviously been cooking a midnight snack for himself and the smell had attracted the bear!
The great head lunged forward at the bacon and, without thinking, Oxshott punched it squarely on the nose!
Taken completely by surprise the bear reared back, its massive paws, like soup plates with claws on, flailing around, and then it turned and lolloped off into the night.
“Blighter was trying to steal my bacon,” explained Oxshott, gruffly.
“My bacon,” pointed out Lord Daunt, “It was trying to steal the bacon you had stolen from my supplies.”
“Dashed hungry,” mumbled Oxshott
“So was he,” interjected the Professor, “The world’s largest land predator, the Polar Bear – needs a lot of meat, I should imagine.”
“Must be hungry, yes,” said Jim, our Finnish guide, “Never this far south, only when has hungry.”
“Largest, is he?” Oxshott gazed off into the darkness where the bear, “Big head, wasn’t it?”
“Well, if you’ve quite finished larking about, Oxshott,” said Lord Daunt, who was evidently still upset about the bacon, “Perhaps we can all get back to bed, busy day tomorrow.”
“Dashed well will be,” said Oxshott, mysteriously, and dived back into his tent.
Later: When we awoke this morning, all was peaceful. Too peaceful – the dogs had gone. And so had Oxshott.
Jim the Finn told us that he had woken up in the early dawn to discover Oxshott untying all the dogs. Before he had been able to do anything, Oxshott had run off, the dogs running after him in a pack.
“He goes hunting, he said,” Jim shook his head, confused, “But nothing there is to hunt here. Nothing.”
“What’s the bally fool playing at now?” scowled Lord Daunt.
“The polar bear,” said Harry, “He’s gone after the polar bear!”
Indeed he had, but he didn’t get very far. He stumped back into camp when we were still eating breakfast, managing to look both cross and shamefaced all at once.
“Dogs ran away. Lost the scent,” he said, and sat down, sulkily, “Move dashed fast, those bears.”
“Run away?” Lord Daunt was aghast, “What do you mean, run away? You’ve lost the dogs?”
“Don’t think they liked the bear,” said Oxshott.
“Very sensible of them,” said the Professor, fiddling with the little camping stove he was using to fix his porridge.
“This is true, they are not liking the bear, these dogs,” said Jim despondently, “They will run far away. They will not come back.”
“Not come back?” roared Lord Daunt, “You mean this bally idiot has lost the dogs and they won’t be coming back! How are we going to continue our journey now?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the Professor’s camping stove.
“I think, my Lord,” I said, “I might have an idea.”
It was Harry who had the truly clever idea, however. My plan was to use the Professor’s camping stove (and a couple of others we had packed) to create small steam engines – we certainly had enough snow to keep them supplied with steam. We could then use those engines to power the sleds across the snow.
The problem was: how? Wheels were useless on the powdery snow and ski’s would just slide and give us enough grip to push forward. Which was when Harry had his really very ingenious idea.
Harry and I quickly set about building the steam engines, while the rest of the party spent a couple of hours hammering nails through the long leather straps we had been using to secure our supplies onto the sleds, Oxshott complaining bitterly all the while.
Once they were done, though, we could use the straps as tracks, the nails digging into the snow as they whizzed round, driving the sleds along.
We had one slight hiccup, though, when it came to actually joining the tracks to the engines, as we had no drive belts to pass the spinning of the engine to the wheel that turned the tracks. It
was here that Harry once more came to the rescue with, strangely enough, a couple of pairs of ladies’ stockings.
He always keeps some around, apparently, because they are extraordinarily useful. We laughed and ribbed him somewhat but he is quite right – he showed me how to use one as a fine filter and also that they made exceptionally strong and elastic bindings. And, most importantly, they made excellent drive belts.
He really is a most inventive and resourceful young man. The Professor has promised us both jobs with him when we return and I look forward to working with Harry immensely.
And so, with our engines fitted, we were soon off, chugging over the great white expanse, our little engines huffing and rattling away as we kept them happily supplied with fresh snow.
The weather was starting to clear and we set out once more under a perfect bright blue sky, sending up our own little white clouds as we went along.
Jim in particular was very taken by my ‘snow-steam-train’, as he called it, and whooped and laughed as he shovelled snow, much to the annoyance of Oxshott, who was travelling on his sled.
I am, I must admit, becoming worried about Oxshott. He is hardly a friend of mine, but he seems so sad and bad-tempered that it is hard not to feel a little sorry for him. I’m not sure whether it’s your father’s harsh words that have upset him so much, or the escape of the polar bear.
Given how angry your father is with him, after all, there seems little point in him capturing all these trophies to send home to you – I cannot now believe your father would ever let him marry you, he has disgraced himself so much.
But then, I am not wholly sure that he is collecting all these heads for you. I mean, I am sure he will present them to you (whether you want them or not) but I think he would be collecting them anyway – it has become an obsession with him, a mania.
Tonight, as we were setting up camp, for example, I heard him bark with delight and then shout at me to:
“Stand still, you blighter!”
Before I knew what he was doing, he bounded over and, with a delicacy I wouldn’t have expected from him, flicked something away from my cheek. A mosquito!
Oxshott had flicked it on the proboscis with his nail and stunned the thing. He now bent down and gingerly picked it up from the snow.
“Need a specially small plaque for this little swine,” he said, beaming at me. I assumed he was joking, but he bore the tiny thing away cupped in his hand like it was a precious jewel.
Later, while we were eating supper, he was feverishly at work on something, whittling away at some tiny bit of wood in his lap, barely paying attention to his food (which was something of a relief, I must admit, as our meal times previously had been accompanied by a constant stream of complaint from Oxshott about both the quantity and quality of the food).
Then, after our meal, he gathered us all round the fire and showed us what he had made: a tiny wooden shield lay in the centre of his palm and, in the middle of it, a barely visible speck – the head of mosquito, carefully removed and mounted on the plaque. Beneath in miniscule and careful letters: ‘Mosquito. Arctic Circle.‘
Lord Daunt just clucked his tongue and retreated to his tent, but Harry and I tried to be as encouraging as possible. I don’t think Oxshott was interested in what we thought, though. He remained perfectly happy with his evening’s work and returned to his tent with his little plaque, singing drinking songs under his breath.
We are going to bed ourselves now. The Professor assures us that we only have to cross the mountains to reach our final destination. So near and yet so far!
In hope that the polar bear does not come back again
PS Jim, our Finn, is to leave us tomorrow – I believe the Professor wants to keep knowledge of our destination as secret as possible. I shall give Jim this letter to bring back with him.
My dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. You certainly do seem to be having a jolly time at the tea table with Viscount Fox while we are away. I know that I have not always been approving of your friendship with that young man – but I must say he can be very clever at times.
His remark that you repeat about it being difficult to tell which is the more dangerous wild animal, the shark, the wolf or Baronet Oxshott, is very witty and observant. Tell him well done from me.
Of course you are right that it was very brave and kind of Oxshott to save me from that wolf, but that doesn’t excuse him hanging its mounted head outside of my cabin on the train so that it gave me a shock everytime I went out to the restaurant car.
Anyway, Oxshott has had to pack his heads away now because our train has gone as far as it can and I woke up this morning to discover that we had long ago crossed the Arctic Circle and were already deep into the Finnmark.
But you told me in your last letter that now you didn’t have a tutor any more, you didn’t need any more geography lessons – so perhaps what happened next will interest you more. For there, waiting for us as we disembarked from the train, were drawn up sleighs, genuine reindeer drawn sleighs.
The Professor had, evidentially, made arrangements with a tribe of local Lapplanders, or Sami as I discovered they are properly called. They were to convey us by sleigh to their camp, where they would furnish us with a guide and we would pursue our journey onwards by dog sled.
But, those sleighs! I would try and describe to you just how cunningly and pleasingly they were made, how well they ran, how comfortable and excellently sprung they were, but I suspect that might sound a little too much like a lesson for you. And, anyway, none of that can describe the sheer delight of that journey.
The clear, keen air in your face, the huffing and snorting of the reindeer, their breath steaming out behind them, rime forming on their antlers. The jingling of the tiny bells on their harness ringing in time to the crunch of the snow under the runners. The joyous red and blue clothes of our Sami guides against the limitless and untouched white horizon. The bright, distant sun high, high over head in an endless and perfect blue sky.
It was a journey out of a childhood dream, and quite one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
There was only one small fly in the ointment. The boy Harry and I shared a sleigh with some of the scientific equipment and we managed to have a completely unneccessary and foolish argument for no reason at all.
We were revelling in the simple joy of our sleigh ride, when I happened to remark that I thought that you, my Lady, would also enjoy it immensely. To my surprise the lad turned suddenly bad tempered and said, rather fiercely, that he suspected that you would probably only “complain about the cold, and the smell of the deer, and the brightness of the sun and a thousand other things and would probably be happier stuck inside some drawing room somewhere playing cards with a load of gossips.”
Well, I can assure you that I reprimanded the fellow in the strongest possible terms, reminding him that it was not his place to speak such of a lady, and anyway that he was quite mistaken. At this he simply pulled his cap down over his eyes (he never seems to take the silly thing off) and fell into a sulk.
Quite an inexplicable outburst and one which left me hurt, for your sake, and rather confused. How the young man could have got such an impression, I cannot guess. I must admit, as must you, my Lady, that you are not unacquainted with the drawing room and the card table, but how he can know anything about it, I don’t know. Besides, who could not enjoy such a pastime as a sleigh ride?
I will admit, however, that I wouldn’t wish what happened next on anyone, and especially not on you.
As we travelled across the snow, I became aware that the once clear horizon was becoming harder to make out. Clouds were massing ahead of us, slate grey and heavy, growing rapidly into a storm front.
As we reached the Sami encampment – a group of tents pitched in the lee of a small wood – the sky had become dark and close, as the storm slid across the sun, casting everything into shadow, and the wind began to whip the tree tops, creaking and slashing them together.
Then the storm broke upon us, a great whirling, whipping snowstorm and in moment the world was nothing but a solid maelstrom of white, and great wall of snowy wind that tore through the encampment with unstoppable fury.
We blundered about in the blizzard, trying to secure everything we had brought with us, not least the reindeer, before stumbling into the tents and collapsing into a exhausted heap while the tempest battered the canvas around us and howled louder than any of us could shout.
There was nothing for it but to wait the storm out, as slowly the thudding of the wind grew less, due to the snow building up round the tent, creating a wall against the fury. We huddled together to keep warm and shared out hot drinks from the flasks we had brought from the train, and dried meat from the Sami, who split everything with us freely and happily.
Eventually the storm passed and we dug ourselves out of the collected snow with picks, shovels and hands. In the wake of the blizzard the whole landscape had been recreated anew, all marks and traces of human traffic vanished, the wood beside us buried under snow. And the reindeer gone.
At first we assumed that they must have taken shelter in the wood, as the Sami were sure that they would not have moved far in the storm, but they were not there, nor were they anywhere to be seen in the empty expanse of the valley around us.
And as the clouds cleared from the sky, the sun once more became dazzling, so that it was hard to make out anything in the distance. What’s more the camp was in a small dip or bowl under the trees, so that we had to climb up through the powdery freshly fallen snow, making each step and arduous haul.
As the Sami spread out in search of their animals, I set about checking the equipment that we had so hastily stowed before the storm and as I secured a tarpaulin that was flapping in the falling wind, an idea came to me.
I pulled the tarpaulin from the sleigh and dug out a quantity of stout, heavy rope and then I went in search of Harry.
I must say this in favour of the lad, no matter what our disagreements of earlier, he agreed to my plan eagerly.
Together we secured the tarpaulin to a rude frame constructed from parts of our packs and then made it fast to the rope. Then Harry tied the rope firmly round his own waist, folding the tarpaulin around him and, with me on the other end of the rope, began to climb the nearest tree.
It was, I must admit, a good thing that Oxshott was nearby and heard my shouting in time, otherwise Harry might have been lost forever to the endless Arctic skies.
The wind was a good deal stronger at the top of the tree than we had supposed and the moment Harry unfurled the tarpaulin, it snapped open wide in the wind and he was hauled upwards on our man-sized kite, up, up into the air.
Caught by surprise as I was trying to secure the rope to a sleigh, I was pulled off my feet by the force, pulled helter skelter along the ground, face first, spluttering out cries for help between mouthfuls of snow.
All of a sudden I was pulled up short against an immoveable object: Oxshott, who had grabbed hold of the rope and was hauling at the giant kite, like a boy in the park.
“Wait, wait,” shouted Harry against the wind, “Don’t pull me down yet, I can see something.”
I scrambled up and tied the rope off around a tree and then returned to the crowd that was now gathering around Oxshott as he tried the control the kite with Harry dangling below it, as it twisted to and fro in the wind.
“Bring him down this instant!” bellowed Lord Daunt, stamping down through the snow.
“Not yet, not yet!” shouted Harry, “Just stop it spinning, I need to get my bearings!”
Oxshott strained every muscle, pulling the kite up into the wind.
“There they are! There they are! I can see the reindeer, away to the east!” and with one hand hold his cap on Harry pointed out over the snow into the blinding distance.
With an answering shout the Sami were off in pursuit and the rest of us leapt upon the rope, all heaving with Oxshott until Harry was safely back on terra firma.
“That was the single most terrifying and exciting thing I have ever done!”
“That,” said Lord Daunt, “Was the single most courageous and idiotic thing I have ever seen. I suppose that was your idea, Hope?”
“It was, sir,” I said, for I must admit I was rather proud of it.
Lord Daunt then proceded to let me know just how idiotic he thought it was and just how little he thought I had to be proud of. I must admit I was glad when the Sami returned with the reindeer and interrupted his tirade as, as far as I could tell, he had every intention of going on all night.
The Sami were, it seemed, still having trouble with one bull reindeer, who was evidently the one who had led the herd off during the storm and was now very determined not to be brought back into camp.
As they approached the tents he broke away from the other animals and, snorting and pawing at the ground, came hurtling at us through the encampment, tossing his great sweeping antlers this way and that.
Without a second’s hesitation, Oxshott stepped into his path and seized him by the antlers, bringing him to a dead stop. For a moment the animal was caught by surprise but then it shook itself and tossed its great head, straining against Oxshott’s grip. With that the Baronet let go with one hand and neatly punched the reindeer on the nose.
The poor creature staggered backwards and, knowing what was likely to happen next now that his blood was up, I rushed forward to grab Oxshott before he could finish it. He shook me off into the snow as if I was barely there, but within moments the Sami had hold of him, hauling him back away from the reindeer and he struggled against them.
“Oxshott, stop playing the bally idiot!” roared Lord Daunt, “We’ve had enough stupidity for one day. You’ve given that poor reindeer a red nose, leave the bally thing alone!”
Reluctantly, and with a fierce look for the both the reindeer and me, Baronet Oxshott shrugged off the Sami and stomped away through the snow.
It was not long after this that our guide, a cheerful and weather-beaten Finn called Jaakko, who insists we call him Jim, at last arrived with the dog sleds that are to be our transport further north. The dogs were a boisterous, noisy pack, full of life and energy, who look more than eager to be ready to start tomorrow morning.
Finally, just as we were packing everything for the night, preparing for an early departure in the morning, Oxshott returned in the company of two of the Sami and in a slightly improved mood. It turned out that the three of them had gone fishing, making a hole in the ice of a nearby lake and dropping their lines through it into the water beneath.
Oxshott had managed to catch a single, small fish, and he proudly removed its head, waggling it at me on the end of his finger like a puppet, explaining how he was going to have to make an extra small plaque to mount it on.
I am growing, much against my instincts, a little worried about Baronet Oxshott.
Anyway, I shall close now, so that I can send this letter back with one of the Sami in the morning. The wind is blowing once more, flapping the skins of the tent back and forth but Oxshott and the Sami are singing songs at each other over the noise. Outside the reindeer are ruminating and the dogs barking and whining to each other and the snow is hissing against the trees and it is all a curious comforting sound – I do believe I am becoming quite the adventurer after all.
Your kite-flying and sleigh-riding
PS Jim tells me that polar bears have been spotted coming much further south than usual this season. Imagine if we actually see one!
My Dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. Its lucky that you have Viscount Fox there with you to make such funny jokes about schools of fish devouring their teachers. I’m not sure that he’s quite as funny as he seems to think he is. I’d like to see him hanging on for dear life over the briney deep while a shark snaps at his feet.
And I’m sure Baronet Oxshott will be delighted that you thought him terribly brave and daring. I will be sure to tell him. At some point. I’m sure I won’t forget.
Anyway, Oxshott is not popular with the rest of us at the moment, ever since we had to leave town in something of a hurry. Fortunately your father was able to use his Parliamentary debating skills and, more importantly, his ducal gold, to persuade the train driver to leave several hours early, otherwise we might have been in serious trouble.
The port we landed in was a small town huddled down by the shore at the end of a valley, surrounded by majestic and awesome mountains, rearing up into forest and snow all around – what the locals call a fjord. It seemed like such a wild place, these few wooden buildings admidst this great and overpowering scenery, but it was a bustling and homely little town, just the place to complete our stocks and prepare for out journey into the north.
Until, that is, the argument about the shark.
As I mentioned in my last letter, the Baronet was determined to preserve the head of the shark he killed so that he could give to you as a present. He said that it was the kind of present that only he could give, and I could only agree with him that no one else was ever likely to give you a a fish head as a gift.
This did not go down well and the Baronet threatened to send you my head instead.
Anyway, Oxshott went on to summon the cook of the inn we were staying in and tried to explain to him with shouting and hand waving what he wanted done with the beast. I offered to help translate, since I have already picked up a smattering of Norwegian, but Oxshott offered to have my tongue in a sandwich, so I left him to it.
The cook, frightened and confused by Oxshott’s yelling and gesturing, gathered the rest of the staff of the inn around him, then passers-by join the crowd, and neighbours started popping out of their doors to see what the commotion was, until almost the whole town came running to join the growing throng.
After much muttered and frantic debate the cook and the Town Mayor apparently came to a decision, bowed to Oxshott and shook his hand, mustered some strong men and carted the enormous dead fish away.
We got on with collecting our provisions and preparing the specially commissioned train which was to take us inland, away to the North.
Finally lunchtime came and the Mayor reappeared, along with a delegation of elders, who ushered us all to a long, low building that could only be the town hall. There we discovered all the townspeople, all sitting down, ready to eat, with a top table set exclusively for us as guests of honour.
We were, of course, touched and delighted by this and took out places. There followed a number of speeches from various people I can only assume were important locals and from members of our group, including his Lordship (your father) and the Professor. Of we couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand us, but everyone seemed jolly pleased with themselves and, more importantly, with the prospect of lunch.
At last the cook from the inn came out, once again with the group of strong men who had carried off the shark, but this time carrying a huge cooking pot. The pot was set down in front of our table and, with a proud flourish, the cook lifted the lid.
We all stood up to peer inside, only to see a hearty looking stew, full of vegetables and bubbling away heartily. We raised our hands to applaud the chef, but, as one, we froze in mid clap as, out of the broth, bobbed the boiled and gleaming teeth of the shark.
Dripping pieces of carrot and herb, the head of the fish rose up through the steam, turning a single reproachful eye on us before dropping back out of sight beneath the potatoes.
We stood and stared at the pot with our hands still raised, barely sure of what we had just seen.
Then Oxshott went berserk.
Picking up his chair, he flung at the cook’s head, who only just ducked in time, letting it smash into the table behind him, upsetting plates and cups all over the people sitting there. Then Oxshott heaved at our table, turning it upside down in front of him, scattering knives and forks everywhere. And then he was over it and leaping at the cook with his hands outstreched, a howl on his lips and a murderous gleam in his eye.
Before we knew what was happening, the men who had brought in the cauldron had leapt to the cook’s defence, and then the people hit by the chair and then everyone else, the whole town, their hospitality rejected, their dining room upset and their cook assaulted, descended on Oxshott in one great pile.
Thinking fast, his Lordship grabbed me and together, with Harry’s help, we dragged Oxshott from the mayhem and beat a hasty retreat through an open window and made for the train station as fast as we could.
Oxshott was not to be denied, however, and as the town ran for the exit to follow us, he ran round the rear of the building, in through the kitchen door and grabbed hold of the pot before anyone had spotted him.
While his Lordship persuaded the driver with large amounts of money, we all boarded the train and were treated to the sight of Oxshott staggering up the main street, dragging the great cooking pot behind, the shark’s head swishing about inside, stew slopping around in his wake as the townspeople came swarming up behind him, waving spoons and forks in a threatening manner.
At the last moment he climbed onto the platform, threw the pot into the luggage van and hurled himself on after it as we huffed our way out of the town, the curses and shouts of the outraged townspeople following after us as a goodbye.
Oxshott, still smelling strongly of fish stew, has been confined to the luggage van in disgrace ever since, but he is quite happy in there, cleaning turnips out of his shark’s head and getting it ready for preservation.
The train is now climbing up through the most incredible and dramatic landscape. Great cliffs rear above, barren walls of ruthless stone, all shaggy at the top with pine trees that hang down, darkly, over the precipice.
The valleys and slopes around us are filling up with snow and the sir is getting sharper and colder. It is easier to believe now that we are heading into the far north, into distant, uncharted, unfriendly icy wastes that will challenge all our abilities.
But I must go to supper now and hope that it is not fish.
Later: It was fish, as it always appears to be in this country, but we had hardly had a chance to take a mouthful of it before the train came to a sudden and screeching stop.
We all leapt up, determined to discover what the trouble was and it wasn’t hard to find out. A great snowdrift had come roaring down the mountain in an avalanche and covered the the tracks ahead in deep and uncrossable snow.
We were stuck in this remote pass until we could dig ourselves free, which might take hours, if not days. Oxshott was allowed out of the luggage van and, with the rest of us, handed a shovel. We would all have to start digging.
We quickly fell into a rhythm. Although the work was warm, the snow and the night were immensely cold and I soon found that I needed to warm my feet and hands to keep the dreadful frost at bay. I joined the driver in the cab of the engine and he set about making us a jug of coffee, grabbing a handful of snow and stuffing it into a kettle which he placed on the coals where it quickly started to steam.
I stared at it in wonder. How could I have been so stupid? Stomping about out there in the cold when here was an easy and, more importantly, warm way to get rid of snow?
“Stop, everyone, stop digging!” I ran out into the drift waving my arms, “Professor, we have steel pipes in the van, don’t we, for taking ice cores? Oxshott, you’ve got those metal canisters for storing your specimens! Quick, you men, fetch them all!”
“Stop mucking about and get digging, you shirker,” shouted Oxshott, but Harry intervened.
“I see it,” he shouted, “I’ve got some solder, too, we’ll need that!”
“Have you two lost your wits?” asked Lord Daunt.
“No, your Lordship,” I rejoined, “We’ve found them.”
I was rather pleased with that remark and was careful to note it down for further use.
With the help of the driver and the engineer, Harry and I started work, using the heat of the fire in the engine to shape and join the steel pipes.
“We’ll join them to the boiler, you see,” I explained, “Then we can shoot the steam from the engine in front of us as we travel, using the heat to melt the snow out of our way.”
“Brilliant, lad!” cried the Professor and slapped me on the back, but no sooner had he spoken than we all froze in our tracks, and not because of the cold.
For down out of the starlit darkness, from somewhere high up among the black trees that thronged the desolate mountain, came the low, bloodchilling howl of a wolf. And then another, and another – a whole, hungry pack, crying up at the night.
“Well,” said Lord Daunt, “Let’s get a move on with it, shall we? It might be a good idea to get out of here before breakfast. Their breakfast, I mean.”
We struggled with the hot steel in the numbing cold, all the while watching with one eye on the woods as dark shapes came flitting down over the snow, circling closer and closer to the train.
Then, one after the other, yellow eyes sprang to life in the darkness around us, and we could hear them, panting and growling to one another and they made little darting runs into our circle of light, their white fangs flashing in the lamps.
We were almost ready – the engineer had a head of steam up, the wheels were squealing at the brakes. I only had one more pipe to fix into place. Oxshott was standing on the front of the train, holding the pipe, while I was kneeling on top, when out of the shadows came a growl and a great, hurtling thing, a whirlwind of fur and claws and teeth, dropping down out us from the top of the snowdrift.
“Turn the on the steam!” I shouted, and the engineer released the valve. With a shriek the engine jolted forward, knocking us from the tank, blasting the yelping wolf flying with a great cloud of billowing steam.
As the steam jetted forward the snow about us began to melt, almost immediately freezing once again into a solid sheet of ice. The train began to edge forward, the drift dissolving away in front of it, but as I tried to get up to board the engine once more, I slipped on the ice, and as I tried to regain my footing, slipped again, and I went sliding this way and that, barely able to keep my balance.
As the train started to shudder past, something hit forcibly from behind, sending me skidding away from the cab – a wolf! Caught on the ice sheet it, too, started sliding, unable to keep its legs in order, scrabbling past me, snapping and growling as it slid around.
Then another, and another, until I was careening about on the ice alongside the accelerating train with four wolves, all of them flailing about, legs flying, jaws snapping, the five of us caught up in some ungainly ballet swerving and bumping and growling and yelling.
And then something grabbed hold of my collar. At first I thought it must be one of the wolves and struggled to free myself, but I heard Harry’s clear, high voice saying:
“Don’t throw yourself about so much! Grab my hand!”
I tried to turn towards him, but my feet slipped out from underneath me and one of the wolves came spinning towards me, seizing hold of my coat in its teeth as it passed, pulling me away from the train. Suddenly, out of the darkness, Baronet Oxshott came swinging down from the roof of the train and grabbed me, pulling me with him into the interior of the train, complete with the wolf, still hanging onto my coat and growling.
With an oath, Oxshott sprang forward, teeth bared, and punched it squarely on the nose. It dropped soundlessly to the floor and he hauled it up by the scruff of the neck, dangling it over me as I lay sprawled on the floor.
“Bite’s worse than its bark,” he joked and shook, rattling the teeth at me, “Make a nice pair with the shark, don’t you think?” And he stumped off happily to his luggage van, dragging the wolf behind him.
With the snowdrift melting away from before us, forming shining, frozen walls on either side of us and the rest of the wolf pack slipping and sliding about behind us, the train began to pick up speed and we were safely back on our way.
Everyone was very complimentary about my snow clearing device, especially the driver and the engineer, but I must confess I was too tired and bewildered from my strange ice dancing with wolves to really take it all in.
I have now retired to my berth with a mug of hot cocoa prepared by Harry from his own personal stock, who was kind enough to say that he was very impressed with both my invention and my bravery. He really is a delightful young man and a credit to the Professor’s daughter’s taste in hiring him to join us. I am still convinced that I recognise him from somewhere, although he is insistent that we have never met before. Anyway, he has already proved himself to be an invaluable addition to our party.
Anyway, we have now cleared the avalanche and I can safely settle down to sleep as we steam away under the mountains off up into the North.
Your dogged (or should that be wolfed?) explorer
PS Our engineer, who is orignally from Iceland, has been telling Harry & I about an Icelandic dish called Hakarl, which is made by burying a dead shark until it goes rotten and then drying it for five months. I shall never complain about fish stew again.
A series of Christmas letters (7 in total) – author- Tobias Sturt/ illustrator- Amanda Gray- all rights reserved 2008.
My Dear Lady Misericordia
I hope this letter finds you well. No, I am sure it does. It may be a surprise, but I’m sure it finds you in absolutely the best of spirits, probably sleeping all morning and dancing all evening, kicking up your heels and dealing out the cards.
And how do I know this? Because I am here, writing this letter, instead of there, bothering you.
Didn’t you, yourself, let me know quite clearly (and really quite loudly) that you were too old for lessons any more and didn’t have to do what a silly schoolmaster said? I can only imagine how overjoyed you must be that I, your tutor, have now been missing for a week. Meaning, of course, a whole seven days of missed lessons.
Are you old enough, perhaps, to have spared a thought to what might have happened to your silly schoolmaster meanwhile? To wonder where he is? To worry for his well-being?
But perhaps you have already seen the Norwegian postmark on the envelope and worked out precisely where I am and what I am doing. I hope you have. If you could observe such a tiny fact and deduce what it meant, it might mean that I actually managed to teach you something. But I doubt it. I expect you just had the letter opened for you and let your dog eat the envelope.
Well, then: I am in Norway, and I am in Norway because I have joined your father’s expedition to the North Pole!
I am full of surprises, aren’t I? Disappearing, writing unexpected letters, joining dangerous adventures. But you shouldn’t be surprised, you know, not at all – after all, it was all your suggestion.
Do you remember? Just after telling me that I was silly and that you, being of nearly marriageable age, didn’t need lessons any more, you barely drew breath before also telling me that I was a timid man, who only knew the world from books and would never experience the kind of adventure that marks out a true hero.
You went on, my lady, if you recall, to compare me unfavourably to Baronet Sir Roderick Oxshott, pointing out that he was joining your father’s expedition – just the sort of thing that the sort of man you would marry would do. Sir Roderick then laughed in my face, ‘Hah!’, with a noise something like a gun going off, and the pair of you went off to dance.
Professor Cumulus’ daughter, Henrietta, happened to have overheard, and was very kind to me, speaking about ‘the adventure of the mind’ and ‘the daring of the intellect’, but your tirade, my Lady, struck me to the quick. What sort of man was I?
I realise, of course, that I will never be the sort of man you would marry, my Lady, no matter how honest and true my heart, but could I never be the sort of man you might admire?
I was, I decided, the sort of man who stows away on an adventure (because His Lordship Lord Daunt, your father, would have almost certainly said no if I’d asked properly. See how daring I can be?).
So here I am in Norway, which is jolly surprising. And jolly cold, too.
To be honest, I wasn’t terribly good at stowing away. I’m afraid the sea was rough and my stomach was rougher. I was told later that the sailors were convinced by all the roaring and yelping that a grampus had stolen on board the ship and was hiding in the lifeboat.
Baronet Oxshott was terribly disappointed to discover that it was only me, being sick, as he had been determined to bring back a grampus head for you as a present. He seemed content to settle for my head, however, until your father stopped him.
I should tell you, at this point, that you can rejoice even more, since you no longer have a tutor at all: his Lordship sacked me on the spot for deserting my post – that is, you.
However, since we were now too far along on our voyage to turn back to England, he has had to allow me to join the expedition. He did remark that he hoped it might knock some sense into me, which I hope I may take as a good sign.
The Professor, at least, was glad to see me, as he seems to think I will be of some assistance to him on the journey. The whole adventure is his idea, of course, although he is being very secretive about where and why we are going and won’t tell me a thing.
Our little party has one other member, a boy called Harry, who the Professor’s daughter (who he would not allow to come with him) has hired to look after her father and help him in his experiments. I’m sure I’ve seen him somewhere before, working around your father’s estates in some capacity, no doubt. Anyway, he seems a friendly and lively lad and it looks like I shall be working with him a lot during the expedition.
But I ought to tell you about our arrival in Norway, as it was the first time I contributed anything to our venture beyond copious amounts of being ill.
Indeed I was terribly ill: the sea was mountainous, one moment pitching the ship into dank, green troughs, surrounded by great churning walls of water with the fish blinking down at us through the curling waves and the next flinging us right up to the sky on the peak of a watery mountain with only endless ocean far below us.
And it got no better as we approached port. Just when we were almost safe ashore, the land itself became our worst enemy, as the heaving sea tried to throw our ship up onto the stone jetty round the harbour – it was all our Captain could do to stop us being smashed to pieces and all drowned in the terrifying storm.
The Professor was beside himself – but not because we were about to be crashed to damp smithereens – oh no, he was worried because we were going to miss the train that he had specially chartered to take us from the port into the far North of the country – and if we missed that, then our expedition was over before it had ever begun.
We had to make it to shore as soon as possible, but the Captain was adamant: if we got any closer to the harbour, we were done for. As we stood debating this problem, clinging to the the railings of the fo’c'sle for dear life, shouting to be heard over the raging tempest, I became aware of a commotion below us on deck.
“Let go of me, man! I’m going to give that dashed sea-monster a hiding!”
It was Baronet Oxshott, being wrestled away from the lurching side of the ship but two of the crew. For a moment I thought (a little cheerfully, I must admit) that he was trying to throw himself in, but then I noticed the great harpoon in his hands, attached to a long length of rope. And there, in the water below him, the flick of a shark’s tail – a massive shark’s tail, that could only be attached to one end of a massive shark – the other end of which could only be full of massive shark’s teeth.
“I’m going to skewer the bounder and bring its head home for Lady Misericordia!” he bellowed. Although I don’t think it was really polite of him to bring your name into it.
It was then that the idea struck me.
“Could you hit the shark in this storm, Oxshott?” I shouted.
“Of course I could, you bally fool!” he shot back, “I could hit you, too – go on, try and dodge!”
“What about the jetty? Could you hit that?” I continued, ignoring his taunts.
“I should bally think so! Watch this!” And without warning he turned and threw the harpoon, which shot out over the water like a steel lightning bolt and with a thud buried its head between the stones of the jetty.
“Quick!” I shouted, “Secure that line! Captain keep the boat as steady as you can – you men, start bringing up our supplies – you, bring another length of rope…”
They all stared at me as if I had gone mad, but the Professor, a gleam in his eye, saw what I had planned and quickly joined in.
“Do as he says, its our only chance!”
“Oxshott,” I continued, “Could you climb along that rope to the jetty?”
“In this weather, with that beast down there?” And the shark showed us his fin again.
“I know,” I said, “I wouldn’t dare, either.”
“Then I would,” shouted Oxshott, “Out of my way,” and he flung himself across the deck and out onto the rope, dangling by his arms only feet about the raging water.
The boat heaved up and down and back and forth, the wind buffetted him and the waves snatched at his feet, but still Oxshott pulled himself hand over hand along the rope, slowly getting closer and closer to the dry land ahead.
He was almost upon the harpoon, sticking out from the rocks of the harbour, and was reaching out his hand for it, when out of the boiling water beneath came roaring the shark, its terrible mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a hansom cab, its stark white teeth like a row of knives in a cutler’s window.
And without pausing Oxshott turned and punched the shark square on the nose.
The beast seemed to pause for a moment and then dropped back into the water, stunned, and Oxshott swung himself neatly up onto the jetty.
Then, following my instructions and with Oxshott’s grudging assistance, we created a simple pulley system that allowed us to haul our supplies from the boat to the shore and, while we were doing this, Harry managed to knock up a bosun’s chair, on which we were all pulled, one after another, across the yawning, horrfying gap, to dry land.
I must confess I kept my eyes closed the whole time, finding the splashing and roaring of the waves quite frightening enough, but was quite terrified to open them only to find myself staring straight into the mouth of the shark.
“Ha ha!” shouted the shark, “That made him jump!”
I realised that it wasn’t the shark talking, after all, but Baronet Oxshott, who had hauled the poor thing up from the water and was now dragging it about the pier, scaring people with it and enjoying himself immensely.
Professor Cumulus and Harry were both very congratulatory, however, and I am pleased to report that even your father tapped me on the shoulder and commented on my resourcefulness. Although he did point out that it was rather undermined my asking for my mother all the way across from the ship.
Anyway we are now, at least, finally on dry land and in Norway and all ready to catch our train and set off for our great adventure in the far North.
Your poor, silly schoolmaster
PS We never did find out what a Grampus was or where Baronett Oxshott can find the head of one. He is mounting the head of the shark, however, and says you will just have to be happy with that.