It was a wonderful day, sunny and summery, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The sun bore down with enervating vigour; but there was a gentle breeze from the south that whispered delightfully through the hair. Best of all, Miss Turner had been found, safe in body but sharp as ever in tongue, and taken herself off in the hired car to the station. After the exigencies of the past ten days, one might reasonably expect everyone to take a day of leisure. Or at least the rest of the afternoon of leisure. Expecting any moment to hear the splash of oars as the children took their dinghies downstream to the lake, Timothy lay comfortably on the new-mown grass of the back lawn, tipped his squashy hat over his eyes, and settled in for a long nap in the golden heat.
Nancy routed him out mercilessly.
Reluctantly, Timothy tipped back his hat and looked up. She stood over him, arms akimbo, with her loyal first mate one step behind and the Callums hovering.
“I want everything ship-shape before Mother and Uncle Jim come,” she said urgently. “We’ve been enduring the horrors while they’ve been away; but I don’t want them to know that. I want them to feel that we managed marvellously without them. Otherwise Mother will feel horribly guilty about going away. You know she will, even though the doctor told her she needed a holiday after being so ill. And you see,” she explained, “the Great Aunt didn’t mention Dick and Dot in her letter.”
“Well, of course she couldn’t,” put in Dorothea. “She didn’t know we were here.”
Nancy twisted round. “Exactly! Since she didn’t know we had guests, she didn’t complain about it. So that means Mother doesn’t have any idea that you had to flee the house and be Picts.”
“She has a point,” Dick said. “That is, if you don’t mind, Timothy?” He looked worried. “It’s a bit of an imposition, I know. Only, you see, it took all of us half a day to move out of Beckfoot before their Great Aunt arrived. It was a mad rush, and we only just managed it. So, if you could—”
“Oh! Does Mother even have to know that Aunt Maria was here at all?” broke in Peggy. Her eyes lit up. “We should tear up the letter!”
This was more Nancy’s sort of cheek. Yet Timothy could see that she was startled. He sat up, grabbed his hat as it fell off, set it aside, and glanced at the Callums, who were clearly shocked.
“You can’t do that!” cried Dorothea.
“Anyway, it wouldn’t work,” Dick added sensibly. “People must be talking about her going missing. I mean, all the firefighters were searching for her.”
“He’s right,” put in Timothy. “Someone is bound to mention it sooner or later.”
“Sooner,” said Nancy regretfully. She knew the neighbours. “Nevertheless,” she added thoughtfully, ignoring her sister’s suddenly pink cheeks, “none of them knew the Ds had to be Picts. If we swear Cook and Timothy to silence—” She looked pointedly at Timothy. “You’d not betray us.” Her voice gave him no option to demur.
Timothy looked up at her, blinked lazily, and said nothing. She seemed to take this as assent.
“So that’s all right,” Nancy declared to the others. “Cook won’t, not if I ask. So all we need to do is get things back to looking normal. Then, as far as Mother and Uncle Jim are concerned, they always will have been normal; and everyone will be happy.”
“Hope springs eternal,” said Timothy. “Well, I wish you luck.” He lay back down, picked his hat off the grass, and flipped it back over his eyes.
Nancy reached down and lifted it off again. “Come on,” she urged. “You can carry so much more than we can, all at one go. We can get everything back to Beckfoot and the bedrooms done up properly in no time, and then go sailing.”
“Have a heart, Nancy. Don’t you think we’ve done enough for one day?” Timothy said plaintively. “I don’t know about you; but, from my point of view, we spent all morning running around in circles getting nowhere. Anything might have happened to Miss Turner. We feared the worst. You feared the worst.” He sat up, propping himself on one elbow, and looked up at her. “This wasn’t one of your games, Nancy. You have to admit it … you were truly worried about her.”
“Barbecued billygoats!” said Nancy indignantly. “Colonel Jolys and the firefighters had the time of their lives. And she was safe and sound in the end. I don’t have to worry about Aunt Maria, not now. It’s Mother I’m thinking of!”
She continued in this vein. After a while, Timothy blanked out most of what she said, though he continued to think about it.
It was not the lassitude of the summer sun that kept him trapped at her feet. He could, he supposed, have risen to his feet and escaped, though it would mean the effort of rowing back to the houseboat. Certainly, if he stayed, he'd get no peace. Nancy would keep talking until he did as she wanted. One way or the other, therefore, he was going to be goaded into action. He could flee like a felon. (It wouldn’t be for the first time.) The trouble was that he had to admit—reluctantly—that she had a point.
“All right, all right,” he said finally. He rose and beat the shorn daisy-heads and grass-ends off the back of his trousers. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
Never one to hide her triumph, Nancy promptly let off a war cry and charged in the direction of the wood with Peggy on her heels. Wryly, Timothy followed at a more decorous pace. Hurrying after the others, Dick looked back towards him once or twice to make sure he was all right. It was Dorothea who kept him company, kindly fending off the hazel branches along the stream bed so that his path should be eased. Thus proceeding at a leisurely pace suitable to the heat, they finally arrived at the hut to find the Amazons had already untied the hammocks. Rugs were rolled, stores and crockery shoved into knapsacks, and the banner carefully taken down from the wall. If Timothy hauled the lion’s share, Nancy and Peggy lugged along as much as they could carry. Dorothea brought the kettle as well as their towels and her notebook; and Dick brought up the rear, carefully carrying his books and microscope. They tramped noisily into Beckfoot, depositing the hammocks in a great pile in the hall. Then the Ds went upstairs to unpack yet again.
Timothy trailed the Amazons into the kitchen, where they informed Cook that they were just going to fix up the spare room properly and then go out on the lake, but would be back for dinner. With that, they vanished, taking with them the great painted skull and crossbones.
Timothy met Cook’s eyes.
“And they looked so nice in them frocks, too.” She shook her head. “Hard to believe they’re the same lasses. Still, I’m not sorry to see the back of Miss Turner, I must admit. We managed fine till she turned up.”
In the middle of the night, Dorothea woke to the sound of rain and roused herself enough to get up. The house was quiet. There would be puddles, she thought, on the sills if not the floor. Still, she didn't like to go and wake the others. It was probably just a shower. She leant out briefly and found that there was a cool breeze. Then she closed the window and returned to bed, and shortly fell comfortably to sleep and dreamt of Scarab.
When she got up the next morning, the rain had stopped. It was clearing, though clouds still lingered and the wind was from the north. Dorothea dressed quickly and rushed downstairs, knowing that Nancy would be sure to have plans for the morning. Nevertheless, Cook was firm that all four children were to sit down to a proper breakfast and flatly refused to carve them cold beef sandwiches to take for lunch. “You’ll be back here before that,” she said, making no question of the matter. “You’ll not want to be stravaiging off down t’lake when train gets in.”
Which was true, though the wink that Nancy gave the others behind Cooky’s back suggested that she had her own plans. Indeed, as soon as their bacon and eggs were done, she urged them out. Dorothea went upstairs to get a sweater, and took a quick peek inside Mrs Blackett’s bedroom to make sure that all was ready. There was, she noted, a newly painted banner pinned over the bed—not the skull and crossbones, of course, but a more decorous, “Welcome home!” There did, however, seem to be something missing.
She ran downstairs, bolted to the kitchen for a pair of stout scissors, and then to the garden. Nancy, rounding up both crews, found her cutting a posy of roses. “For your mother,” she explained.
“Oh, don’t bother about that!”
But Dorothea was adamant. “I did it for the Great Aunt,” she declared. “And if I’d do it for her, then I simply have to put them in your mother’s room as well.”
Briefly, Nancy fumed; then she stomped back into the house. It was, after all, for Mother. When Dorothea came in, therefore, she found the captain of the Amazons at the kitchen sink filling a blue pottery vase with water.
“Shove ’em in,” she said, and hastened the job by whisking the flowers out of Dorothea’s hand and sticking in the stems higgledy-piggledy.
“No,” said Dorothea firmly. “They need to be done properly.” She waited, patiently immovable, until Nancy sighed and let her take out the roses. Gently, Dorothea trimmed the ends of the stems and placed each bloom, one by one, shifting them until they looked perfect. Standing too close behind her shoulder, Nancy didn’t even let her sweep the cut ends into her hand.
“Just leave them for Cook to tidy!” she insisted, ignoring the glare that worthy threw at her, and fairly hauled Dorothea upstairs to put the vase on the bedside table. Meanwhile, Peggy had already brought Amazon out of the boathouse and helped Dick bring Scarab down to the house. Nancy hurried Dorothea downstairs and across the back lawn to join them at the riverside. “Right!” she said. “I say we tack northwards and then make a straight run down to the foot of the lake to meet Mother and Uncle Jim at the station. They can send their bags home and come back with us. They’ll much rather that than just take the taxi. We can even drop Uncle Jim at the houseboat if he’d rather.”
Dorothea was taken aback. “What about lunch?” she asked. “Cook said—”
“So we’ll eat late.” Nancy was dismissive. “It won’t be the first time. She’s used to it.”
Still dismayed, Dorothea turned to her brother. Dick, however, had his own objections.
“I promised Timothy I’d come to the houseboat and help with the new assays this morning.”
“Bother the assays!” said Nancy.
Dorothea knew how Dick got with his birds and astronomy, and how determined he was to help the mining endeavour in any way he was let. This wasn’t a triviality to him. She looked back at Nancy with doubled concern.
“It’s Mother and Uncle Jim,” protested Peggy. “Surely you want to meet them?”
“I do. It’s not that,” said Dick quietly. “But Timothy is expecting me, you know. I promised.”
“Can’t we take him to the houseboat and pick him up on the way back?” suggested Dorothea.
Nancy opened her mouth to protest that Houseboat Bay was hardly on the straight route north, then shut it again. She had doubts if Timothy was quite as reliant on Dick’s help as the boy hoped. Still, if they stayed here arguing, they’d never go anywhere. So she simply nodded, though her pressed lips betrayed her annoyance. They got under way as quickly as they could, with a fair wind to take them across the lake. And, as it turned out, Timothy was on deck waving cheerfully, obviously waiting the assays until they arrived. He grabbed the painter and held it as Dick scrambled up the ladder.
“Very sparkly clean inside,” he called down. “Your Great Aunt is a dab hand at turning the place out. I’d hire her as housekeeper any day.”
“I should tell her, you know,” Nancy said, with a grin. “She’d take it as a mortal insult, I’m sure.” Feeling rather more cheerful, she added, “We’ll be sailing the rest of the morning, and come back for Dick around lunch time.”
“No, no, don’t bother. I’ll feed him here,” Timothy said, leaning over the rail. “Now,” he added with a smile, “be off with you! We’ve work to do.”
Shortly before noon, Cook left off her celebratory baking and began lunch. Shortly thereafter, cold beef and salad was on the dining room table with a jug of lemonade. The food would keep fresh a while, especially since it was not a hot day; and she left it to await the children’s return while she started another batch of scones. She was not particularly surprised when, half an hour later, the two dinghies still had not come upriver and docked. “Drat their racing,” she muttered under her breath as she took the plates into the pantry and put a damp cloth over them.
In fact, there was no racing. The children had simply sailed up to the end of the lake, near the old North Pole summerhouse. Mindful of Dorothea’s inexperience, Nancy had insisted that Peggy transfer to the other boat and sailed Amazon herself. This would have handicapped her in a race against the Walkers in Swallow; but the other family weren’t coming to Holly Howe till next week. Even with help, though, the crew of Scarab had problems. Nancy was sure that Peggy’s fingers fairly itched to take the tiller from Dorothea, who in turn must feel quite unfit to play captain with so experienced a mate at her shoulder.
“Gybe!” she heard across the water, as Dorothea delayed a fraction too long.
The sun stood high in the sky. If the others could come about safely, the wind would be with them; and they could scoot down the lake to town in time to meet the train. Nancy had no doubts about the rightness of her plan. Sailing back to Beckfoot as Cooky wanted would be defeat; and, after the Great Aunt’s visit, she wanted triumph. Being late for lunch was trivial. Being at the station, waving wildly as their mother came home, would be wonderful—for Mother as much as her daughters.
“Come on!” she called. “Jibbooms and bobsails, get a move on, you two!”
And they had to stop at the houseboat.
As they scudded south, Nancy decided to bypass this delay. Dick would probably not notice until it was too late, nor care especially, either, if the assays were going well. In this matter, however, the pirate captain proved to have no say. It never occurred to Dorothea that Dick should not be picked up. Even though Scarab was sailing slightly behind Amazon, her captain was not experienced enough to spot that Nancy took the straight course; so she automatically steered for Houseboat Bay. By the time Nancy turned her head and realized what had happened, Scarab was too far off to hail. That meant she had perforce to follow suit. As they got closer, she could see that Dick was not already out on deck waiting (which would have justified his sister’s actions). In fact, he did not even pop out on their hail, full of apologies for delaying them, ready to jump down into either of the dinghies and take off as fast as possible. Instead, they had to tie up and go on deck; and then they found that there was no one aboard. The door was locked; but the key was in the lock, so Dorothea insisted they go in. That wasted even more time, of course; and for nothing. To top it off, when Nancy thought to check as she came back out, she realized that the rowboat was not tied up on the other side of the houseboat. It was all a colossal waste of time. She couldn’t even be bothered to wonder where Dick and Timothy might have gone.
“We’ve got to go,” she grumbled as they pushed off. A glance up at the sun, bright behind clouds, suggested that they were running very late. They still had to get to the head of the lake and moor, and then run helter-skelter through town to the station. Her heart was in her boots long before they got there; and she was not remotely surprised to find that the train had got in a full twenty minutes earlier, disembarked its passengers, and puffed off again.
“Mrs Blackett?” said the porter when she asked. “Oh, yes. Both ’er and ’er brother. They’ve taken the taxi, surely.”
To make matters worse, of course, the boats now faced a northerly wind. Nancy set course for Beckfoot; but she fretted over each tack. Off to the west the road sometimes skirted close enough to the shore to be glimpsed through the trees. Each time Amazon came close to shore, she scanned closely for any sight of the taxi; but she knew that there was no way a boat could outrun a car.
To add insult to injury, when they finally came up the Amazon River, they could see a rowboat beached at the foot of the lawn.
They followed the sound of voices through into the hall, punctuated by a car door closing fairly hard. The front door was open; and Uncle Jim and Mother had their coats already off and hung up. They were chatting to Cook. Outside an engine revved, and there was the toot-tooting of of a car horn.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Cook. “I’m sure you could do with a cup of tea.” She passed Nancy on her way to the kitchen, and nudged her in the ribs with a hissed, “Where’ve you been, lass?”
“Mother!” cried Peggy, and rushed over to give her a hug. “We missed you. Are you feeling better?”
Nancy received a quick kiss on her cheek with an unpiratical lack of protest.
“Much better, darlings,” said their mother. “Nothing to do on board but lie around while Jim did all the work. He even did most of the cooking.”
Dick staggered through the open door with a heavy suitcase which he put down just inside. Timothy followed with a pair of even larger cases and shut the door. Uncle Jim went over and shook his hand. “Good to see you back,” said Timothy, with an uncommonly large grin on his face. His back was slapped in further hearty greeting. “How was the voyage?” Uncle Jim began to say something about a bit of rough weather a few days ago. Vaguely, in the background, Nancy could hear Dick say, “Oh, good you made it, Dot. We wondered what had happened….”
“So, what’s this I hear about Aunt Maria?” began Mrs Blackett.
“She left a letter for you,” said Nancy, quickly turning back. “It could have been worse, Mother.”
“You mean you could have been worse?” put in Uncle Jim.
“We were perfect angels,” said Peggy indignantly.
“Halos and harps,” Nancy nodded. “No pirates, cross my heart. It’s in the letter more or less, I promise. We kept her happy.”
“And the Callums?” asked Mrs Blackett. “What did she have to say about them?” She looked past her daughters to meet the eyes of the guests. “I hope you two did not have too much of a bad time. I know Aunt Maria can be a bit trying.”
“Oh, no,” said Dorothea; but then she stopped.
“No trouble at all,” said Nancy quickly. “Jolly all round in fact. Look at the letter, Mother. No complaints at all.”
Mrs Blackett must have heard Nancy, but she ignored her to address the Callums. “You took Aunt Maria sailing, I gather,” she said. The looks of consternation on their faces made her laugh. “Well, that’s what Colonel Jolys told us. You two took her sailing in your new boat, and forgot to say; and Nancy panicked. Wasn’t that the way of it? He met us at the station and gave us a lift home. Something about ‘better we hear it from him first’.” She looked from face to face. “No? Not exactly? So what did happen then?”
“So much for hope springing eternal,” put in Timothy in a low voice and, as Nancy glared at him, added, “You reap the whirlwind.”
“Angels,” muttered Uncle Jim. Then louder, he added, “I wonder what their version is? I must read that letter, Molly.”
Mrs Blackett shook her head. “Bagsed,” she said succinctly. “You get it next." To her daughter she added firmly, “Yes, Nancy, we are going to hear the whole story. Straight after Cooky brings that tea. I think we’re going to need it.”