THE BREATH OF GOD
“We need to get below ground before it reaches us,” Silence shouted above the noise of the approaching storm. “Quickly!”
We needed no further encouragement. Carnacki hunched over the padlock that secured a length of chain holding the workmen’s barrier closed. Within seconds there was a jangle of chain and he pulled the tall wooden barricade back far enough for us all to enter. Once we had all run inside, Carnacki yanked the chain tight, relocked it, and we all dashed ahead into the darkness.
There was a flash of light as Crowley lit one of a string of lanterns left hanging from a pole at the entrance of the pit. He passed it to Karswell and lit a couple more.
Behind us the work barrier rocked in its frame and the noise was that of a giant knocking on the very doors of Hell.
A set of rough steps were cut into the earth, shored up by stones and wooden props, and we descended even further, the lights of the lanterns reminding us of how enclosed the space was around us.
Soon we could tell that there was light ahead and we extinguished our own lanterns, not wishing to advertise our presence.
“It must be Mathers,” I said, glancing to Holmes for confirmation. My friend remained silent, his face slack and impassive. I realised he hadn’t said a word since the explosion above ground. Was he in shock? For all his pretence of giving the supernatural credence, was the sight of it now more than his logical mind had been ready for?
“Holmes?” I whispered, not wanting to cause him embarrassment in front of the others. “Are you all right?”
He looked at me and his big, dark eyes were as haunting as the tunnel we were in.
“Dear God, John,” he whispered, “I only hope you will forgive me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It’s a lot to take in. Of course I forgive you!”
I had completely misunderstood what he was trying to say, but I wouldn’t know that until later.
The tunnel opened out onto what would clearly soon be the train platform and, for all our intent of sneaking up on whoever was down here, a cry erupted from the far end of the platform, where a peculiarly plain, rectangular train engine stood.
“’Ere,” called the voice, “who goes there, then?”
Carnacki was quick to take the lead, pulling his revolver from his pocket and aiming it at the man. “I might ask you the same question,” he replied.
“You might,” said the man coldly, “but as I’m supposed to be down here, minding the company business, I still say you’re the ones with explaining to do.”
“You’re here alone?” Carnacki asked.
“Running ’er up to Bank ain’t I?” he said, gesturing towards the train. “Checking how she goes. The navvies are away home. ’Ere,” he gestured towards the gun, “no need for that is there? I ain’t going to be getting in your way. Don’t want no trouble.”
Crowley turned to the rest of us. “We could use the train!” he said. “Travel to the interchange at Bank. From there we can plan our defence.” He appealed directly to Holmes. “We might just be able to hold them off long enough for you to contact the government and draft in reinforcements.”
“Who knows how quickly its influence will spread?” Karswell said. “Half of London could be gone by the time we get there.”
“All the more reason to move quickly!” Crowley insisted, turning and addressing the train driver. “There has been a terrible accident above ground,” he said, “we need you to take us to Bank with you so we can alert the authorities.”
The driver nodded and suddenly I experienced a strange, dislocating feeling, I looked at the man’s face and I caught a whiff of the ocean.
“Room for all of you onboard,” he said, “I’ve got a single carriage linked up.” He climbed into the driver’s compartment and flipped a couple of heavy switches. There was a hum as the electrical current began to flow through the circuit and the train moved forward to reveal the carriage behind. The driver cut the power once more. “Jump aboard!” he shouted and the momentary feeling that had washed over me ebbed away.
We all climbed in and, once we were seated, that hum returned and the train began to move along the tunnel.
I imagine the sensation is entirely lost now, but at that time electric trains were a thing of the future. Within six months the Central London Railway would be up and running, and the “twopenny tube” would be so popular that the novelty would soon wear off. That day, however, it was yet another piece of magic amongst so much else.
I sat down and looked to each of my fellow passengers.
Carnacki was clearly as charged as the metal track beneath us: he refused to sit down, keeping his gun in his hand and pacing up and down.
“I say,” Karswell said to him, proffering up a small bundle. “Your lock-picking paraphernalia,” he smiled, “you dropped it when breaking into the station so masterfully.”
Carnacki looked at him in confusion for a moment. Then took the wrapped lock-picks and dropped them into his pocket. “Thank you,” he said and resumed his pacing. Karswell shrugged and took a seat, surprisingly calm.
Crowley was also remarkably relaxed given our situation. It occurred to me that, with matters finally come to a climax, he was able to tackle things head on rather than second-guessing what Mathers intended. I had seen such a calm dedication descend on Holmes in the past, when all the mystery was gone and all that lay ahead was resolution.
That was not my colleague’s current mood, however; his eyes were darting from one part of the carriage to another, that wonderful brain of his adding data like an accountant’s counting machine.
Silence was not relaxed either, in fact his brow glistened with sweat and he looked close to breaking down. I assumed that the pressure was finally beginning to take its toll.
“What have you done?” someone asked, and for a moment I had no idea who it was, the voice was so quiet, barely audible above the hum of the electrics.
“What have you done?” Holmes asked again, looking up towards Crowley with such rage in his eyes that I confess I felt afraid myself. “And by my delayed action what have I allowed to happen?”
“What do you mean?” Crowley asked. “I’m just doing the best I can to save our necks.” His face was a perfect mask of indignation. “And as many others as possible, naturally. Mathers must hope that...”
“Oh shut up!” Holmes roared, slamming the ferrule of his cane against the floor of the carriage. “Mr Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers has not the slightest connection to this case and never had!”
“But surely —” I began, only for a look from Holmes to stop the words in my throat.
“This has always been you, Crowley,” Holmes continued, “and Silence,” he added, sparing an acidic glance towards the guiltylooking doctor, “and Karswell.” His last look was for Carnacki. “I confess the only person I was unsure about was you, but you’re as innocent in all this as Watson and I, aren’t you?”
“What are you talking about man?” Carnacki demanded.
“Pay attention and I will tell you,” Holmes replied, “though might I ask that you point that gun towards our fellows? I have no wish for them to interrupt.”
“If you think I’m going to let you just slander our names without interruption...” began Crowley.
But Silence was quick to speak this time. “Do as he says Aleister, and shut up. This has gone much too far.”
“Indeed it has,” agreed Holmes, “much too far.”
Crowley appeared on the cusp of arguing once more but then, unbelievably, his face broke out in a smile. “Very well,” he said, “you can have your moment, after all it’s much too late for you to do anything about it, even if you had proof, which I very much doubt.”
“I have none whatsoever,” Holmes agreed, reaching into his pocket for his cigarette case. He never could explain himself without a cigarette in his hand. My friend was such an absurd creature of habit. “But I will tell you what I know, nonetheless.”