11. Meanwhile, Mosley’s cohorts have stirred the mob to violence, and not even merchant princes can count themselves safe, though they may find their allies in strange places. - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The Directors’ floor of Shuttleworths was by 12.15 pm the only inhabited part of the building save for the cubby-hole in which the Commissionaire waited, in case of late or unexpected visitors and to perform his traditional and time-hallowed duty of locking up the building for Christmas and Hogmanay once Mr McPherson - always the last to leave - gave the signal for him to do so.
The draughtsmen and apprentices had shot out of the door the instant the noon hooter had sounded; Shuttleworths’ was not so prodigal of half-day holidays for them to waste a second of this one. Most of the offices were dark and abandoned, the Directors having, according to taste and their or their wives’ ambitions, dispersed towards Warwickshire for the hunting, Norfolk for the shooting or Paris for - well, Helen Adamson thought with an inner grin, Miss McGinty’s gimlet glare had left no-one in the vicinity in any doubt what she believed the junior, bachelor Director who had bid her a cheery farewell as he headed out yesterday evening towards the airport had been planning for his Christmas holiday in the city of Sin and Light.
Indeed, even on the Directors’ floor there were but three people working that afternoon before Christmas.
There was a line of light - these December afternoons were dark, especially when the Clyde fog pressed hard against the windows and the office electric lights were in constant use - from under McPherson’s shut office door. Miss McGinty worked on at her typewriter, and Helen kept her own head bowed over her work. She had been offered the opportunity to leave at noon with the others, but had commented demurely that her cousin had offered to send a car for her at four, and that she was happy in the interim to assist Miss McGinty in preparing the customer accounts to be sent out with the first post of the New Year. For the first time she realised fully what the glamour of being part of what the McGinty and McPherson no doubt still thought of, feudally, as The Family entailed. No further questions had been asked, not even which cousin she might have in mind. And indeed though it had been Charles, with typical thoughtfulness, who had arranged for one of the Helensburgh chauffeurs to whisk her away from the office should nothing have occurred by the end of the day, it had been Paul who with a brief nod had confirmed to the man that those were indeed his instructions.
Somehow she rather doubted she would be calling upon the chauffeur’s services. Intolerable as it was to be chafing here, in ladylike tweed skirt (the regulation four inches below the knee) and lisle stockings, she felt the rapid pace of great events building. And if she might not be counted among the shapers of those events - well, nevertheless she had contingency plans in her hand-bag and - something rather more practical in the battered brown leather suitcase propped against the hat stand near the entrance to the office.
Miss McGinty raised her head at a sound from outside.
“Imph! They would have done better to shut the ale-shops the afternoon. I don’t doubt some of the hands will have had more than is good for them already. Christmas, indeed! Bacchanalia will be more the mark, I should think.”
The shouting from the street was beginning to get more strident. The door from Mr McPherson’s office opened.
“Miss McGinty. Miss Adamson. I had a letter from an old friend this morning warning me about trouble in the streets the day. I fear I may have been too ready to set him down as overly excitable.” He looked, Helen thought suddenly, almost bashful. “Och, well, ladies. Should you wish to leave now, I don’t doubt but that would be the wiser course. The accounts will do as well on the second post after Hogmanay, I daresay, and I’ll see ye both right with the Management, should anyone ask. And, of course, it’s for me to see ye both safely home.”
Uncannily, both Helen’s and Miss McGinty’s fingers froze on their typewriter keys at the same instant. This was Vesuvius erupting, the men from Mars landing; never had Shuttleworths’ serene ordered existence known such a thing. McPherson delaying the preparation of the December accounts! And proposing to lock up the building before the appointed hour of four!
Miss McGinty found her voice first.
“Mr McPherson! You’ll no be thinking we’re going to run scared of a few lads who’ve got a bit too much of the whisky in them?”
A half-brick came sailing through the window behind her which shattered into atoms on the parquet before McPherson could respond. A shard of flying glass must have caught her - Helen could see a smear of blood on the sallow cheek as she turned on the spot.
“The young blackguards! I’ll teach them -“
“They’re after what’s in the safe,” Helen said quietly. “This isn’t just drunken hooliganism. There’s a mind behind it. Wouldn’t that be what your “overly excitable” friend will have hinted at, Mr McPherson?”
The old office manager gaped at her - a harsh tinkling sound showed that another half-brick further down the corridor had found its mark. Before, however, McPherson could find breath to answer, Helen added,
“It would have been Mr McAllister who wrote to warn you, wouldn’t it? Well, Mr Shuttleworth - young Mr Shuttleworth, that is - said I was to tell you, should it become necessary - that - ah - The Family has a high regard for his opinion.”
And at that moment the Commissionaire - his uniform still immaculate but his face beetroot with the exertion - came pelting into the office.
“Sir! I’ve bolted the main door. I thought it was necessary. There’s a mob outside in the street -“
Still with the icy unnatural calm which had descended on her since the crisis had erupted Helen looked him straight in the eye.
“Then you’d best go and secure our rear, also. There’s doubtless our hands in that mob, and they’ll know about the after-hours exit through the small back door. And maybe you’ll find this of assistance if they’re through there already.”
She reached into the battered suitcase propped against the hat-stand and tossed him the twelve-bore her cousin had lent to her in the back of the butcher’s van and which she had unaccountably failed to return, and distended the pristine pockets of his uniform jacket with cartridges. He cast a quick questioning glance around. McPherson nodded.
“Aye, man. The lassie’s right. Be quick about it, and the good Lord go with you.”
He turned to Helen. “The safe? And what do you know about what might be in the Company’s safe?”
She shrugged. “Just what my cousin told me. And that’s only what he thought I needed to know. But I don’t type with my eyes shut either, Mr McPherson, and I know the Company’s been given the Government contracts for part of the new submarine weapons development, and for the coastal early warning system, too. And I don’t doubt either of those sets of specs would be worth their weight in rubies to a traitor.”
McPherson looked, suddenly, to have become older. “And only two old men and two lassies to keep the Company’s secrets safe.”
Miss McGinty snorted. “I’ll thank you not to refer to me as a lassie, Mr McPherson. At my age it’s no’ flattering, it’s plain daft. And the lassie’s a member of The Family, aye, and with her head screwed on, to boot.”
McPherson stuck his jaw out. “That may be so. But nevertheless, with the four of us, and but the one gun -“
Miss McGinty put her head on one side. “Now, that reminds me -“
She stalked out of the room, apparently oblivious to the sounds of glass breaking under the bombardment of hurled missiles from the street below. Before, however, Helen and Mr McPherson could do more than look nervously at each other she had returned, carrying a long monogrammed pigskin case which both of them had seen one of the younger directors carrying proudly and a trifle nervously into the office that morning.
Without pausing for breath Miss McGinty put the case down on the corner of her desk, took the office bodger and smartly levered up the lid with the sharp point, breaking apart the clasp on the lock with an audible snapping, tearing sound as she did so. Helen gulped; the McGinty fixed her with a steely glare.
“I don’t doubt the Company will compensate Mr Ferguson for the damage to his property. If we’re all still here in the morning. And if we are here, it’ll be no small thanks to his having left his guns with his other luggage in the office before he was after catching the night train down South.”
She cast her eye down at the magnificent weapons, all silver mounts and polished walnut butts as they lay cradled within the midnight-blue velvet of the case’s interior. Miss McGinty smiled grimly, and, Helen thought, with a touch of covetousness.
“Matched Purdeys and the gunsmith in Bond Street! I doubt those who made and sold them would have expected them to be used for this.”
“Miss McGinty!” Mr McPherson exclaimed. “You’re surely not going to fire on those below?”
She picked up one of the two guns and the cartridge pouch, stalking to the window and concealing herself behind the blind.
“I’ll mark they’ve mounted a telegraph pole on a lorry,” she observed to no-one in particular. “No doubt they’ll looking to batter down the doors momentarily.”
She loaded the gun in crisp economical movements.
“And if that isn’t Willie McCann at the wheel,” she observed dispassionately. “The ungrateful chiel.”
As she raised the gun to her shoulder and poked the muzzle out through the star-shaped hole the half-brick had left in the pane both McPherson and Helen stole to the neighbouring window and looked down in fascinated horror on the scene below: the mob, clearing a path for the improvised battering ram, trying to get up speed in limited space for a run at the heavy bronze doors.
A sharp crack followed by a high-pitched whine. Suddenly the lorry driver was holding his hand to the side of his head, feeling for an ear which was no longer there.
“Miss McGinty!” McPherson said, in accents of the deepest shock. “All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword! Matthew 26:52”“
Before responding she sent the second shot unerringly into the shoulder of the man trying to extricate McCann from the driver’s seat. He fell backwards, clutching his shoulder.
Miss McGinty broke the gun and expelled the spent cartridges to the office floor.
“And rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” she commented dispassionately. “First Samuel, 15:23.”
Even in this desperate pass there was a slightly sardonic set to McPherson’s lips.
“I don’t doubt you speak from authority as to that,” he murmured.
Coolly she reloaded the gun and selected two more targets from the group who had been trying - not, as it turned out, quite successfully enough - to use the cover of the lorry to rescue the two injured men and continue with the task of battering down the front door.
“Hold your blether, man,” she said. “We won’t win this war by shouting about it.”
The thin, stiff old face suddenly broke into a grin as she spotted Helen’s face. “Surprise you, did I, lassie? Ah well, you’d no reason to know my father was the head ghillie on one of the finest sporting estates in Sutherland. I had my first wee gun about the time I had my first doll, and I’ll not admit which one I spent most of my time with. I don’t suppose they taught you to shoot at that fancy school of yours in the South?”
Helen muttered something vague about rabbits. The McGinty sighed. “Well, we’ve no the shot to waste, so maybe you’d be best reloading, and leave the shooting to me.”
Helen reached for her case. “In a few minutes, Miss McGinty. Before then - well, my cousin said I should call for help if things got difficult.”
McPherson looked up at her. While they’d been talking (the initial burst of sniping had driven back the attackers for the moment while they improvised a shield for those manning the battering ram) he’d been fiddling with the telephone handset on the McGinty’s desk.
“They would seem to have taken the exchange, lassie. That would be the first idea to occur to this sort of gentlemen. The line’s dead.”
Helen simply nodded. There was a set of scrawled notes in the pocket of the sensible tweed skirt against this very contingency.
“There’s the wireless shed up on the roof.”
Miss McGinty’s eyebrows drew together, and she swung round.
“You’re no telling me you’ve been skylarking with the apprentices?”
There was something menacing about the way she rolled her “r”s on the word “skylarking” that sent a cold shudder down Helen’s spine, even though she knew the McGinty’s gun was empty, and pointed conscientiously elsewhere. Helen looked down at the toes of her sensible brogues.
“No,” she muttered. Actually, her attempt to join the little group of Company hams who practised their hobby at lunchtimes, and before and after office hours had been ignominiously rebuffed, but she didn’t propose to go into that with the McGinty: none of that mattered now. Without more, she caught up her bag and made for the back staircase that wound up and round the lift shaft eventually to open onto the building’s flat roof.
The parapet was high; provided she took care she could not be seen from the street below. Dropping to her knees and blessing that at least she had no need to worry about damage to these stockings Helen fumbled for the Verey pistol. She might be able to get out a signal over the ham wireless apparatus or she might not, but there was something she could do, and she knew there were friends down below in the murk watching for it. She fired a burst of green stars up into the sky - waited for a counted sixty seconds - and fired another. And then, after a similar pause, another.
She did not wait to see how the mob down in the street below - their yelling sounding curiously thin and disjointed from this Olympian height - reacted to that. Round the back of the lift-shaft column, on the opposite side from the door from which she had emerged, was a low building, which had been presumably once intended to house ventilation or heating plant, but which had long since been colonised by the hams. Save for that brief moment six months ago she had not set foot in the wireless shed. As she ducked through the door and sank into the battered old chair in front of the equipment Helen felt through her rising panic a sense of familiarity: since the day before yesterday Charlie, Paul, Joe, Dex and a bewildering assortment of the Helensburgh staff (Paul, or perhaps the near-legendary Uncle Henry, had obviously selected servants who were capable of sharing their masters’ scientific interests) had been drumming the rudiments of amateur radio procedure into her. She at least felt confident enough to don the headphones, turn the set on, and have a passing grasp of what the various buttons and dials were for.
Slowly, methodically, blessing the months and years of tedium in her Hampshire village, where drilling her Guide troop to take the District Commissioner’s Shield year on year had polished her command of Morse to a fine edge, Helen began to rap out her cousin’s borrowed call-sign, conscious of Paul’s face as he had instructed her solemnly that only an emergency of the current dimensions could justify such an unsanctioned enormity.
She scanned up and down with care, as she had been taught, trying to pick up the faintest flicker from anyone who might be listening out. It was a bad time of day, she had understood; dawn or dusk would have been better, but she couldn’t help that. And the crew of Paul’s airship, not more than a hundred or so miles away, would at least be waiting for her signal. If, that was -
Helen’s shiver had nothing to do with the draughts making their way across the roof and into the shed. They might all be dead already - each one of them swatted from the sky by the faceless enemy - Joe and Dex and Paul and the airship crew and LeFauve and, of course, Charlie - she had been wholly honest when she told McPherson that she read and understood much more of the contracts she typed, even the technical specifications, than he might suspect, and she knew exactly what the modifications Charlie had specified to his new Avro machine were intended to do. That morning Charlie would have taken his place as an airborne fighter once more.
Well. It might be that they were dead already. But she was not, and if she survived to do no more than speak their epitaph and procure that they were revenged then that was the job to her hand.
At that moment she heard a very faint pipping on the very edge of reception; not a static buzz but something which resolved into the structured regularity of dots and dashes. Someone had picked up her call, and was trying to respond. Very carefully Helen boosted the signal, adjusted the headphones, and started to jot down the signal groups which denoted the stranger’s callsign and initial introduction.
VU, not GM was the callsign prefix. Not the airship, then. Not a British station at all, in fact. But where?
On the map stuck on the wall above the wireless apparatus a forest of little paper flags stuck into various territories showed the call-sign prefixes proper to each. Helen scanned it frantically, until almost by accident the prefix she sought leapt out at her.
By some quirk of the airwaves she had picked up an answer to her signal from half-way round the world. Her heart sank; how could someone located so far away - a minimum of three weeks by sea, forty hours by air - possibly be of any help in this crisis?
But he was the only one to have answered. And what was more, he was continuing to press her: he wanted to know who she was, or, more to the point, he knew perfectly well that she was not who she was asserting she was. It would seem this was someone who knew Paul Shuttleworth’s fist so well that in a few keystrokes he had cottoned on to the usurped call-sign, and was showing signs of being gravely concerned by it.
There was a sheet of foolscap pinned up below the map, she’d noticed earlier. It bore a list of call-signs, with names scribbled next to them. Presumably they were the ones who most frequently contacted this station. If she was right, then, the stranger’s call-sign should be on the list.
It was. The Maharajah of Idripur.
Helen gulped, and thought with brief, gloriously inappropriate hilarity that if this sort of thing happened to one a lot in amateur wireless it would be more to the point if the Company hams had had the common sense to leave a copy of Debrett’s Correct Form on the shelf with the technical manuals, to say nothing of Who’s Who. However. There was one distinct advantage. If she could convince him she was telling the truth, it was at least plausible that a Maharajah might be inclined to take a plot involving regicide rather personally.
The dialogue that followed - conducted as it was entirely in dots and dashes - had a peculiarly surreal feel to it. It was, Helen said, trying to describe it later, rather like the silent films to which a daring nursemaid had smuggled her - under the strictest terms of secrecy - when she was a child. She had made up her own voices for the swooning heroines, dashing heroes and mustachioed villains, and by the time she left the picture palace would be convinced the whole cinema had heard them speaking just as she had.
The Maharajah’s “voice” had, in Helen’s head, an impeccably Etonian accent, but with a slight floweriness of diction which was the only sign of his non-English origins. He was, however, blissfully decisive once she had managed to convince him of her bona fides (there were a couple of odd pauses in the earlier part of the conversation: she pictured him summoning minions and barking orders to corroborate whatever could be corroborated). It must have worked; the tone became suddenly warmer (and it was odd how one could tell that through Morse, too) and before she knew what was happening he was suggesting that he terminate the conversation so that he could immediately get on to Delhi and alert the Viceroy as to the Empire’s imminent peril.
Helen gulped. “T.H.E V.I.C.E.R.O.Y?” she tapped in hesitantly.
Clearly the Maharajah could decode an entire complicated but unspoken thought process which went “And you think the King’s personal representative on the Indian sub-continent is going to listen to some far-fetched story just because you heard it from some ham on the wireless?”
“E.T.O.N” he responded. “C.R.I.C.K.E.T.”
Helen briefly considered whether she would be more likely to believe a preposterous conspiracy story just because it was the Goal Attack from her school netball team (for whom she had played a competent if hardly stellar Goal Defence) telling her. As she was having difficulty in recollecting anything about the woman (Elaine? Elspeth?) apart from a vague impression that she’d been really rather a dim type it seemed improbable. Men were very odd.
There was no point in arguing, however, even if time and the Maharajah had permitted. After she had signed off she sat over the now silent apparatus for some time shaking from reaction and the sheer enormity of it all.
I’ve just sent the entire British Empire to battle stations.
Eventually she roused herself and stumbled back down the staircase - she was very cold by now - to the room where Miss McGinty and Mr McPherson were having an argument so impassioned that they barely noticed her return.
“Now that the cartridges are spent I doubt we can hold them at the door.”
“That may be so, Miss McGinty, but my duty is to the Company. And those are the Company’s trade secrets in the safe. I cannot countenance what you propose.”
“Man! Better we fire it now and have done with it, than risk letting them fall intact into the hands of that murdering crew.”
Helen privately felt that if the remainder of the cartridges had been used with the precision of the first four that Miss McGinty was being a trifle hypocritical, but kept this opinion to herself. Anyway, at this moment the Commissionaire reappeared.
“I’ve barricaded both the front and back doors as best I can, but I doubt they’ll hold. And I’ll not go bail for what’ll happen when they break through: they’re fair wild and getting wilder. And no sign of the police! What can they be thinking of?”
McPherson turned towards Helen. “And have we any hope of anyone coming to help?”
She opened her mouth - conscious that to babble of Maharajahs and Viceroys would be unkind - since however elevated the quarter from which she had sought help it would still not be possible for them to transcend the laws of physics to send it in anything approaching adequate time. Miss McGinty turned towards the window making a sharp, sshing gesture.
“Hold your blether, and listen.”
Above the yelling of the mob outside there was a new noise: the tramp of measured feet and the sound of singing, getting louder and louder.
The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts blood dyed its every fold.
Helen moved towards the window and saw a sight which would remain with her all her life: a phalanx of men in soft caps, working corduroys and mufflers striding firmly down on the besiegers and at their head Chris Sugden, leaning far out of the passenger side of a lorry which was being driven at walking pace, holding a megaphone through which he was leading the singing.
The mob, realising they were facing an attack on another front, turned to face the visible threat. Someone threw a brick; it glanced off the lorry cabin. The marchers never broke step.
Then raise the scarlet standard high
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.
The mob turned; irresolute. Helen, sharp-eyed, thought she started to see some shadowy figures start to drift away from the back: whoever had planned this had evidently no stomach to remain against determined opposition. Chris put his megaphone to his lips again.
“What’re you waiting for, lads? There’s a job to be done here. Are we going to let a cowardly, weak-kneed bunch of Fascists and Fenians in the pay of the worst of the class oppressors take Glasgow’s streets from the working man? Are we?”
“NO!!!!” the marchers yelled with one voice. Chris let the lorry door swing crazily out - for a moment he was outlined on the lorry step - and then he precipitated himself out and forwards, rushing forward into the mob, fists swinging wildly, his cohorts at his back.
Battle was joined. The Verey pistol had done its work.