Doctor John Dee, Astrologer Royal, alchemist and occasional necromancer, still cut a handsome figure, despite his years.
This was not the first thought that entered Philomena Bucket’s head as she looked about her. When she had embarked upon a stroll through the tunnels, deep beneath The Squid and Teapot, with Norbert Gannicox, Bartholomew Middlestreet and the now-absent Drury, the osseous hound, she little thought that she would find herself in Tudor England before the day was out. But here they were, and standing before them was the man who had introduced himself as Doctor John Dee. Famous as Dee had become, however, none of the tunnel-explorers had heard his name before, but the décor of the room in which they stood gave every clue as to his many interests. His shelves were filled with a variety of impressive-looking instruments, which had they known it, could have been identified as astrolabes, armillary spheres, quadrants and sextants, to name but a few. Skeletons of various birds and animals hung from the rafters (Philomena half-expected to see Drury amongst them) while malformed foetuses, preserved reptiles and human brains lurked worryingly in heavy glass jars. Every wall was festooned with a series of anatomical, astrological, alchemical and nautical charts, whilst books from his large library were piled on every available surface. Here was clutter indeed, but clutter of an infinitely superior nature to any found on the island of Hopeless, Maine.
If the three had found the contents of Dee’s study to be strange, they found his accent stranger, though perfectly intelligible. After all, he was a highly educated man who spoke the English of Shakespeare (although, I suspect he never knowingly conversed in iambic pentameters). Above all, John Dee was courteous to his unexpected visitors.
“Welcome to my humble home,” he said, spreading his arms expansively. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, however, than the fabric of the room seemed to dissolve around them, with Dee looking even more surprised than the others. They were falling, falling through a kaleidoscope of people and places, light and darkness, until things began to slow and gloom gave way to brilliant sunshine…
“Stowaways in the jolly boat” cried a harsh voice, and Philomena found herself being dragged by the arms on to the deck of a large sailing ship. A throng of rough and unkempt men had gathered about them.
“What have we here then? Who’s the geezer in the frock?”
Philomena thought the speaker was referring to her, but realised that everyone’s attention was focussed on John Dee, tall, bearded and stately in his long velvet robe. Despite his discomfort at being addressed so, the alchemist managed to remain dignified.
“Never mind him,” said another voice, “look what I’ve found!”
Now it was Philomena’s turn to be the centre of attention. She spun around and, with her free hand, hit her captor hard in the face. The experiences of the day so far had given her a sense of unreality, and so she was surprised when he hit her back, and it hurt.
“Tricky little vixen,” said a cultured British voice. “I think I had best take charge now, don’t you bosun?”
The newcomer, obviously the captain, took hold of Philomena, securing both of her arms in his firm hands.
“What about the others, Cap’n Vane,” asked the bosun, still hoping that the woman might be passed around after the captain had finished with her.
“Fish food. That’s all they’re good for,” Charles Vane replied, with a dismissive gesture
A cheer went up, and Bartholomew, Norbert and Doctor Dee found themselves being pushed towards the side of the ship.
“This can’t be happening,” thought Philomena, somewhat prophetically, for it suddenly was not happening. The astonished captives saw the ship and its crew disappear before their very eyes, and once more they were falling through time and space into a field of smoke and noise…
Captain Louis Nolan could not believe his eyes. He was leading a hare-brained cavalry dash into the jaws of death, and four civilians had suddenly appeared in their way, as if from nowhere. It would take the horsemen very little time to cover the mile-and-a-half to reach their objective, and these four, if they didn’t get blown to bits by cannon-fire, would be trampled underfoot in less than a minute.
John Dee could only think that he had died and gone to Hell. The previous episode had been bad enough, but now he appeared to be witnessing warfare between two sets of demons. The ones on horseback would soon be upon them, with their brazen hooves and flashing swords and spears. He closed his eyes and wished that he had spent his life dabbling in less heretical pursuits.
Was there a man dismayed? I’ll say there was. And a woman. Philomena, Norbert and Bartholomew stood huddled and totally bewildered by their predicament. There were cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, and hundreds of stampeding horses with armed soldiers on their backs bearing down at great speed. Taking Dee’s lead, they closed their eyes and prayed to who – or whatever might be listening.
Captain Nolan, still leading the charge, veered his horse to the left in a noble attempt to avoid careering into the four. He paid for this manoeuvre by catching a Russian bullet in the neck. As he fell, dying, from his steed it crossed his mind that he had been mistaken. The way ahead was clear. The four had disappeared. No one had been impeding charge of the Light Brigade.
This time the travellers knew what to expect, and gave in with grace to the sensation of falling. Whatever was causing these things seemed to be kind enough to remove them, in the nick of time, from the scrape they found themselves in, but the trepidation of not knowing what horrors awaited was still unnerving.
The auditorium of Ford’s Theatre, in Washington was hushed, the lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up ‘Hail to the Chief’, a tune unfamiliar to the party of four who found themselves in very plush and comfortable surroundings for once.
“There must be someone important watching this play tonight,” said Norbert, as the audience burst into cheers and applause as the final strains died away. They craned their heads to see who the ovation might be for, when the spotlight fell upon a box at the side of the auditorium, where a tall, spare-framed man had got to his feet, his hand raised in acknowledgement. Philomena thought dimly that she recognised the lean, bearded face.
The play was fairly tedious, but when the heroine of the piece asked for a seat, away from the draught, and the hero responded, to a certain amount of polite laughter,
“The draft has already been stopped, by orders of the president.”
The President! Philomena sat up straight, and realised, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, exactly where they were.
“We need to be out of here,” she said to the others, urgently. “There will be trouble before long, and with the way things have been going, we’ll be drawn into it.”
“That will make a change,” said Norbert drily. “Where’s the exit?”
Just then they heard a bark.
“Since when do they allow dogs in theatres?” asked Bartholomew, then turned to see a familiar bony figure standing in the corner.
“Drury!” exclaimed Philomena.
“It’s the Hell-Hound,” wailed Dee, shrinking back into his seat and receiving some irate ‘shushes’ for his trouble.
“Grab him and let’s go” said Philomena.
Norbert and Bartholomew took the reluctant alchemist by the armpits and manhandled him to the back of the theatre, where Drury was waiting.
“Quick,” hissed Philomena, and they fled through a curtained opening, Dee still complaining about Hell-Hounds, just as a shot was fired.
The air behind the curtain was cold but welcoming.
“We’re back in the tunnels,” said Norbert, relief in his voice.
“Come on, our lanterns are still over there and they’re alight. It’s as though we have not been away for more than a minute or two,” said Bartholomew.
The journey back seemed to pass surprisingly quickly. They walked again through the great chamber, where the sconces on the walls still flared brightly. Then they came to the staircase, long and steep, which led to the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.
“So this is the enchanted isle of which Saint Brendan wrote,” said Dee, looking about him. “Might I find lodgings here, Master Middlestreet?”
Bartholomew liked the sound of ‘Master Middlestreet’.
“By all means Doctor Dee. Stay as long as you will.”
“Welcome to Hopeless, Maine” said Philomena. “And you may call me Mistress Bucket!”
An hour or so later, after a somewhat bewildered, but unaccountably happy, Doctor Dee had retired to one of the guest-rooms of inn, Bartholomew, Norbert and Philomena sat, with Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, in the snug of The Squid and Teapot, trying to make sense of all that had happened.
“It was as though we were being dropped through history,” said Bartholomew, thoughtfully.
“Or maybe it was all no more than an illusion,” offered Ariadne.
“None of that felt like an illusion,” said Philomena, recalling the blow that the pirate had dealt her. “And Doctor Dee is real enough. Maybe he might have some idea what happened to us.”
“Don’t bank on it,” laughed Ariadne. “He looked more confused than the rest of you put together.”
“I can see why Sebastian Lypiatt wanted to get rid of the key to the tunnels,” said Norbert, sipping his sarsaparilla, referring to the old key that had been sent to his grandfather, a century before.
“Yes,” said Bartholomew, “That passage should be locked forever, and the key put where no one will ever find it. Maybe Doctor Dee can take it back to his own time – if he can ever get there, that is.”
So intent had the four been on their conversation that they had not noticed the lone figure who had wandered in, and settled himself quietly in the corner.
“Might I be of some assistance?” he asked.
To be continued…