Birdcage Walk

Of the many thousands of souls who, in some fashion, make their home in London, only a few are aware of the vast storage–rooms dug deep into the Victoria Embankment.

In these brick–lined vaults Horse Guards store material dedicated to the defence of the Imperial capital. Since the Empire is at the height of its power, the magazines are neglected and smell of mildew and gunpowder; of oil, bootblack and old leather. It isn’t terribly well guarded; this being London, not some half–civilised colonial village.

Guard duty at this woefully neglected arsenal was normally given to any regiment currently on hand and idle. When these events took place it was early, the guards were looking forward to going off a bone–numbingly dull duty, and it was not quite cold enough to keep them entirely alert.

Although … it may all have begun in Paris, in the shady offices of the Deuxième Bureau, continued at a sun–baked recruiting station in India, and only come to bear fruit, here, years later.

Oblivious as only Fate can be to the actions of man, the why is mostly lost, but the how is mostly known. At five o’clock in the morning on the 3rd of October 1891, half an hour from changing of the guards, a private in the 1st Peshawar Lancers ran his sergeant through with a bayonet, shot a fellow soldier, and jammed shut the arsenal doors from the inside.

Alarm was raised by men on the outside, but it would take another quarter hour before the axe–wielding sepoys could break the door down and by then it was far too late.

For Lieutenant Eadlyn MacDougall, 2nd battalion the Queen’s Own Rifles, it began with a stop. Even in the modern army of Victoria there were few women with field commissions in front–line regiments – although the Rifles had more female troops than most, out–paced only by the Royal Air Navy who, by their very nature, were on an never–ending quest for lighter air–pilots.

As the youngest, least experienced, and — in the opinion of several higher ranks — most expendable officer in the regiment, Eadlyn had been given one sergeant, two corporals, eighteen privates, and orders to go home to England, deliver dispatches and pick up a batch of new recruits.

Her Majesty the Queen may have ordered the inclusion of women in Her army, but She had not said they weren’t to fetch and carry.

The rickety troop train carrying Eadlyn and her Rifles had taken two weary days to get from Dover and was rolling into Victoria Station in a cloud of steam, coal dust, and dirt at more or less the same moment as the first half–hearted attempts to break down the doors to the Embankment arsenal were made.

With nothing particular to look forward to except the march down to the War Office and yet another train back to the barracks at Shorncliffe, Eadlyn was sleeping.

And so it was that at half past five in the morning the train slowed, brakes screaming, and gently came to a stop against the buffer which in turn promptly exploded, throwing the locomotive into a nearby news–stand, the tender into the carriage, the carriage onto its side and the Lieutenant onto her head.

Later she would learn that the same — save the head — had happened at Charing Cross and Waterloo. For now she untangled herself from the weapons, limbs, and various luggage under which she had been half–buried, and asked, quite impolitely, for an explanation. None was forthcoming.

It took several minutes to ascertain that the carriage was on its side, all the windows were broken, the rear door was jammed, and the front door — not to mention the platform — was on fire. Navigating the now ceiling–mounted windows with their ragged, sharp glass edges into unknown, but potentially hostile, territory was obviously a poor plan.

The only feasible, and possibly survivable, exit was blocked, but the Rifles carried a large key. Eadlyn gave the only order she could.

One might very easily forgive the good lieutenant the opinion that Mr. Ezekiel Baker, Esq., would rotate in his grave. It was an odd moment for it, perhaps, but she had nothing better to do than watch the preparations and pretend to ignore the flames and smoke. The Baker Seven rifle being loaded amidst the wreckage of the carriage resembled the original weapon which made her regiment so famous only in shape, and then with a squint.

The six foot barrel was, truthfully, only portable by definition, and the chamber looked more like an elongated glass balloon encased in a fine cage of cast iron and framed by two copper handles than a gun. The two–point sight on top of the rifle had long since been abandoned in favour of an elaborate contraption of brass, iron, and adjustable lenses. Mr. Baker was unlikely to recognise his design. This weapon wasn’t even rifled, despite the name.

A little less than half–way down the barrel was a bi–pod, two curved legs which rotated up to form a handle for carrying. The shoulder–stock was a padded, adjustable leather–covered U–shape of best yew, for weight and strength.

Weaponry had come a long way indeed. Shielding her eyes partially she watched as the handles were turned, electricity arching across the glass, a bullet loaded, and the rear exit of the carriage hit by a copper cube a fourth of an inch across and accelerated to a speed greater than that of the fastest Aether Flier.

Eadlyn could not pretend to understand the inner workings of the weapon, but the effects were well known. A shot that could kill a horse at half a league made swift work of a lock when fired at half a pace. Sword in one hand, service revolver in the other, the Lieutenant claimed the privilege of being first onto the breach, and led two privates in the rush out the smouldering doorway.

After making sure the bomb was only a bomb and that no–one was, at the moment, shooting at her, the Lieutenant listened for a minute or two to the confused chatter in the telegraph–office, got her bearings and left for Horse Guards headquarters at the double, leaving two wounded privates and a corporal to protect the luggage.

They were well down Victoria Street, and making good speed when the western facàde of Halliday’s Private Hotel attracted attention by exploding. The greenest of Eadlyn’s troops knew the effect of artillery on infantry lumped together, and reacted accordingly, spreading out from habit before pausing in confusion. Streets are not normally shelled in London.

When no further explosions appeared forthcoming, the Lieutenant waved her people forward.

As trained they broke in threes, two regular, breech loading and one electric rifle per team. More carefully than before they began moving down Little George Street, picking their way through rubble, crying civilians and a steady stream of panic.

On reaching St. George Street, they manoeuvred carefully around a downed hansom cab, flat–footed piston–legs still jerking and thrashing with a shrill of escaping steam.

As the first team reached the corner they stopped and stared. From her vantage–point a few yards behind the scouts, Eadlyn could hear, if not readily believe, the sound of musketry, steam engines, bugles, screams; all the normal sounds of a battlefield. She waited for a signal, any signal, but when none of the men moved she pulled the tin whistle from her cross–belt, and blew a shrill signal. As this too proved fruitless, she waved another team forward, and watched, confused, as they also hesitated, peering around the corner. One man dropped his rifle.

Cursing in a most unladylike manner, Eadlyn ran to join her forward troops.

Birdcake Walk, in those days, had the prettiest stone paving imaginable. It was light grey, of the most modern materials, as brittle as a biscuit and a most fascinating example of corrupt stone–masons. There were officers at the Yard, it was said, drooling with the thought of what they could have done was it not also such an excellent example of civil servant kickbacks.

Whatever else they were, the slabs did not stand up to the beast lumbering west–ward, leaving the broken and still burning gates of the arsenal behind. The Land Warrior machine was built to turn battles, and to fight the French Regiment Chevalier–à–Vapeur; it had made short work of the iron–bound doors.

Six massive legs held a seventeen hundred stone body, a boiler, a self–loading nine pound cannon and the Maxim III steam–propelled rotary gun. As it bustled roughly south by southwest along St. George street, it could not move very fast. Each step was a messy affair of broken stone and the goo that pretended to be soil in old London.

The Rifles were then, and are now, considered the quickest, the most flexible of Her Majesty’s soldiery. Even so none of them moved for several seconds, frozen in their tracks at the sight of the war machine rampaging through the capital.

It was the sound you didn’t forget — the hiss of steam under extreme pressure released across angled blades of a Watts–Parsons turbine, combining with the scream of tortured overheated metal to form a sound a banshee would consider kin. The following rattle as the turbine’s shaft turned, at speed, the seven barrels of the Maxim III cannon was almost anticlimactic in comparison. But the noise of the firing was a disappointment to all who heard it and lived: a whine, nothing more, despite the devastating effect as the monster fired a thousand half–pound shells a minute.

It was also the sound which saved the day, mostly.

One of Eadlyn’s sergeants, she later found out, once served as master gunner on a land–frigate, and knew the beast from old. That is how he came to notice the gun turret turn and why he started pushing people back into the alley.

“Takes time to spin t’ bugger up” was the explanation he gave as he shoved the lieutenant around the corner and dove after. It was a close run thing, too. The building shook, bricks disintegrated, and a fine red mist spreading across the alley entrance suggested at least one person had not made it.

With no rational explanation on offer, the Lieutenant sorted out her confused Rifles, made a note of who was no longer there, and went off in search of orders.

The next side–road to the west held chaos, nervous soldiers of various uniform, a Peeler or two, and a stone–faced Colonel in the crimson tunic and three–by–three button–arrangement of the Scots Guards. Pausing for a moment to dispatch two teams, Eadlyn set her face in a neutral expression, and continued towards the gaggle of officers crowding as far from Birdcake Walk as possible.

One of the chrome–and–copper police automata had a bullet–hole in the chest plate, she noticed in passing; a whiff of burnt gutta–percha and oil almost masked the scent of fear.

“Sir! Major Graham’s compliments, but it’ll take at least an hour to bring heavy guns in from Woolwich! A steam–lorry dragging a two–pounder is underway!”

“Colonel, Sir! Southall Aether Port has a frigate ready to launch!”

“A frigate? Artillery⁈” — the Colonel appeared vaguely apoplectic at these news. Eadlyn, swerving around the various messengers and overhearing, was not overly surprised. It would not do any career good to deploy heavy weaponry onto the streets of London. Expression stony, she snapped to attention.

“Colonel MacDougall, Sir!”

The effect on the Guard officer was immediate. Back ramrod straight he turned, stared down at Eadlyn, and, with obvious reluctance, returned her salute.

“Lieutenant MacDougall. What brings you here?” — the words were spoken with a carefully neutral inflection.

“Bringing dispatches for Horse Guards, Sir!” — Eadlyn’s response was textbook perfect, but for a treacherous tremor in her voice. She was not quite as experienced at this game as the other officer — “Eighteen Rifles, one officer. Can we be of assistance?”

Despite the sound of musketry, crushing stone and screaming, the alley turned very quiet.

“No, Lieutenant. You can not. Return to whatever … work you have. Dismissed.”

“With respect, SIR, you need all the help you can get!”

“Yes, Lieutenant, I do. Unless your skills in the kitchen is such that you can bring another one of those to the boil faster than a half hour I suggest you go take potshots at it. Who knows, it might slow it down!”

Saluting, Eadlyn turned and made her way through the crowd of snickering officers. She had gotten used to the condescending. The problem was that the bloody man was right. Her rifles were taking potshots at the thing, moving backwards up Birdcake Walk and trying to find a soft spot. Ever so often the high–pitched whine of a well–wound rifle electrically launching another copper slug at the target could be heard over the din. They hit, too, she was proud to notice — every time. It just didn’t have any discernible effect. The bullets were too small, albeit powerful, to do much damage at a distance.

You didn’t get too close to the monster either, not with the Maxim engaged.

“’tis one weak point, Ma’am” the Sergeant offered as she returned to peer around the corner, his voice pitched low. “’t hatch, on top canna be too heavy, lest ye get stuck there in ’t field. Metal be thinner up top, and ’t driver sits right beneath there, so he does”

“A difficult target” — Eadlyn mumbled. “A howitzer could lob a shell up there, but then again it wouldn’t need to. Nothing much we can do about it.”

“Nay. Nowt much.”

Some hard to define edge had crept into the sergeant’s voice, and the lieutenant remembered overheard remarks from those officers she did actually respect for their skills. Sergeants, in particular old, living, sergeants were worth listening to.

“An idea, sergeant?” — she kept her voice low, in case she was wrong.

“Aye. Just a wee, simple one, Ma’am.”

As the native Londoner may recall, the Monochord Railway between Victoria and Charing Cross was built across the city, and St. James’ Park, only a few years previous. Its coal–blackened iron archways stretched across Birdcake Walk in a gentle curve quite close to where the street opened to an uninterrupted view of Buckingham Palace.

No trains were running, and hence it was from one of the massive girders that Lieutenant MacDougall was dangling by her legs.

As she hung there, upside down, held by the two strongest and largest riflemen available and hoping the driver would not look up quite yet, she was struck by the somewhat misplaced thought that the quartermaster would have her hide for this. The rifle was charged far beyond that suggested in its manual, and would not survive more than one shot. Hopefully the shooter would. Squinting, she held her breath and gently pulled the trigger.

From her position she couldn’t hear the Colonel, eye to his telescope, curse, pray and swear.

The effect on the finicky and delicate weapon was immediate — it exploded, showering the lieutenant and her men with pieces of near molten glass; most of which did little harm beyond small cuts. One piece sliced Eadlyn’s cheek on its way past; slashing and cauterising in one fell swoop.

The mechanical beast beneath the rails, however, seemed unperturbed, despite a hole the size of a teacup in the upper hatch. It lasted for all of a minute before, without fanfare, the Land Warrior slowed, and stopped, in a cloud of steam.

Amidst the confusion, and the pain, as she was pulled back, Eadlyn wiped blood from her face and swore to have words with her sergeant over his idea of small, simple plans. She noticed, in a distracted fashion, more people on the rails, climbing the service–ladders, and being generally of little use.

Right at that very moment, back resting against a girder, her two fellow Rifles grinning madly at her and at what she had done, the young lieutenant had no doubts at all as to her career–choice.

Then came white–clad young women in sturdy boots and red embroidered crowns on their sleeves, bearing medicine and kind words; a helping hand down to solid ground, and a waiting Colonel McDougall saluting like he finally meant it. Soft hands came to wipe the blood from her face, accompanied by wide, smiling doe–eyes in a face of finest porcelain. In the end came the somber, humourless officials who wanted the whole story again, and again and again.

Epilogue; St. James’ Palace, 6th of October 1891.

“We have, in light of recent events, decided to raise a 3rd Battalion to the Rifles and keep it with us in London. You will take command of its Light Company, Captain McDougall.” — the Queen paused and lowered her voice — “I expect great things, Captain. Do not let me down. Dismissed.”