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The Twelth Port

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 It was their fifth port in the Caribbean. It was the twelfth port on this voyage, although as Titty pointed out that it really depended on whether you counted anywhere in England. Uncle Jim had said that the cooks deserved a night off and had taken the most of crew for a meal.

“What about John and Nancy?” Susan had protested. Nancy suspected that Susan didn’t want the pair of them interfering with her cooking arrangements. After last time, she had to concede that Susan had a point. It had come to be an accepted thing that if most of the crew and the skipper left the Wild Cat, John and Nancy should be the ones left in charge.

“We won’t be late, and this isn’t a port that gets too rowdy. They can go for their meal when we come back. Even some of the markets will be open – not the ones for food – the mates will be much better off buying stores in the morning – but the ones with tourist knick-knacks.

The sun was setting and the moon was rising by the time the others came back from their meal. Nancy’s uncle looked at her. She was still in her comfortables, but had put on a clean shirt.

“If you’ve got a frock that’s reasonably presentable with you, you’d better put it on. You’ll probably attract too much attention like that.” He said. Nancy was about to argue, but Peggy caught her eye.

“I would.” was all her sister said.

“Did you have trouble?”

“No, but there were a number of us and I still got some strange looks.”

It wasn’t really that bad. Nancy thought, wriggling into the simple cotton frock her mother had insisted she bring “just in case”. She didn’t have to wear stockings and it wasn’t as if she was wearing the sort of frilly, five-year-old’s-party dress that she had had to wear for the GA. For the first time she wondered if the childishness of the dress had been as important to the GA as the fussiness. You never could tell with her. Gimminy, the piano at Harrogate had frills around the legs!

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” she said to John.

“You hardly did.”

“Do you want to buy a souvenir?”

“Yes. I haven’t got anything for Mother yet.” They were walking towards the centre of the town, where Uncle Jim had told them there would still be some stalls and the best food would be found. After a pause she added. “Besides, I rather enjoy looking at the things they have in different places.” Somehow this felt like an embarrassing admission of un-Amazon-like behaviour.

“When Daddy came back on leave, the year before Bridget was born, he brought souvenirs. He’d wrapped them up separately from his other kit and brought them out and showed them to us all together, after he had been back for a day or two. I remember an endless stream of fabulous glittery stuff.  I was very taken with a paperknife. It looked like a sword and I was never allowed to play with it.” John glanced at her, looking almost embarrassed himself. “I still hadn’t completely grown out of the knights-and-chivalry thing.”

“We used to play Robin Hood a lot, before they would let us go very far in a boat.” Nancy admitted. They shared a smile, made indulgent towards their younger selves by the temporary freedom from responsibility.

“Anyway,” said John, “when I look back on it, I don’t think he brought back any more than a few bead necklaces and a couple of sequinned cushion covers.”

“Sequins? Weren’t they uncomfortable?”

“They were rather. Anyway, a pirate should surely be allowed to enjoy glittering treasure sometimes.”

They came to a row of stalls set out under a short row of trees. During the day it would give the stall-holders some shade. Now they could hear the birds which had settled to roost making sleepy noises before settling down properly for the night. John moved a little aside looking at some scarves at the next stall. That suited Nancy very well. She slipped her purchases into the bag she had bought several ports previously and wore slung across her shoulder before turning to see John slip a small parcel in his pocket. She wondered briefly when Mrs Walker would wear all these scarves. Susan and Titty had each bought her one and this would be the second that John had bought her.

She was used to a much later summer sunset, of course, Nancy reminded herself. Nevertheless, there was something odd about the little family coming towards them. It wasn’t that it was particularly late for a boy of that age to be out. He was somewhat shorter than Bridget. Perhaps he was about four years-old then? The man and woman could have been the boy’s relatives. Perhaps he was just being naughty. They were gripping him quite firmly. The woman’s long nails, painted some colour that appeared nearly black in the twilight, appeared to be digging into the child’s pale arms. Nancy could not imagine her mother or Aunt Helen ever doing that. There was something wrong, too, in the way the child was wriggling and twisting. This wasn’t like Bridget, pretending and really delighted to be an eel-sacrifice.

“My shoe-lace!” Nancy bent down, ostensibly to tie it, right in the middle of the narrow passageway left by the stalls. That would force one of the adults to at least relax their grip on the child. John waited patiently beside her in the little pool where light from the stall holders’ candle lanterns mixed with the light from the rising Moon.

 Sure enough the man changed his grip on the little boy. Still holding the child by the hand, the man walked one side of Nancy and the boy and woman walked the other. Nancy stood up suddenly, breaking the man’s grip. The boy threw himself against Nancy, wrapping his free arm around Nancy’s waist and making an appeal in rapid French. Nancy found this very much harder to follow than yet another dictation in French lessons, but she thought she had grasped the gist of it.

“John! I think he’s being kidnapped. He says his mother is in a hotel, and they said they were his uncle and aunt and came and took him away. But then, once he was out of the hotel, he realised they weren’t.”

John looked at her doubtfully. He always was more wary of native trouble than she was. Would he back her up? She had no more to go on than the little lad’s word and the feeling that something was wrong.

“You can’t believe a word the child says. Boys are all such liars.” The woman said. It was a very English voice. The boy spoke apparently only French.

John had gone slightly paler beneath his tan. Nancy realised it was anger. He wasn’t going to back down now, however much trouble came of it.

“Let’s see, shall we.” John said, evenly. “Now where is this hotel? What is it like?”

“There is no hotel.”  The man blustered. He had the same sort of accent.

“Qu’est-ce que le hotel ressemble?” Nancy asked the child. She received a rather jumbled reply about three trees and white walls and a balcony (at least she hoped that was what the word meant and it wasn’t one of those “false friends.”) The stall holder from whom John had bought the scarf interjected at this point.

“It is the Grand Hotel. Very good place.”

Of course, thought Nancy, there would be a Grand Hotel. There seemed to be one everywhere. The Great-Aunt liked going to places with Grand Hotels and staying in them. There had been that dreadful week at on the South coast, the year before Uncle Jim gave them Amazon. The GA had been beastly to Mother then, too, and made her cry.

“How do we get there, please?” Nancy hoped the “please” would not sound as if she had nearly forgotten it. The woman with the painted nails kept up a tirade of vituperation which made the directions hard to follow. She had not slackened her grip on the boy’s arm.

“Come on. We’ll go there. I’m sure we’ll find out who is really telling the truth when we get there.”

 John started to walk forward. The woman took half a step back, despite herself.

“You’re going nowhere.” The man blustered, stepping forward towards Nancy and the boy.

 It was Nancy he glared at, breathing heavily. The man shifted his weight forward. John stood closer to her. That man is going to hit me in a minute, Nancy thought. And I’ve got to let him. I hope John doesn’t stop him too soon, before people have seen. If there’s going to be a fight, everyone has to see that the man and woman had started it. The other people around, the stall holders packing their goods away, the people leaning out of that window further along the street, they’re all watching. That man thinks they don’t count, that they’re part of the scenery, but they’re not. They aren’t doing anything yet because they haven’t made up their minds. All they see now is two sets of strangers.

 Nancy looked calmly at the man, pretending she was a serene person, pretending she didn’t see his arm start to move. Suddenly, she knew they had won. However much the man had wanted to hit out at her, at John, at the boy even, he had not dared to and he would not find the courage now.

“Yes, let’s go and find out.” She said her voice as calm as if she was someone else.

They walked off the direction the stall holder had indicated. The child was clutching at the skirt of her dress.  Nancy wondered if John had noticed the shadowy figure flitting from shadowed doorway to dark alleyway, sometimes behind them and sometimes a little ahead of them. Someone about Roger’s size was using them for some kind of scouting practice. Perhaps it was just curiosity. She thought not.

Neither John nor Nancy was surprised when the man and woman who had been following close on their heels made another attempt to grab the boy. After all, the next turning should, if they had understood the instructions properly, bring them out into a wider and more important street.  

The boy threw both arms around Nancy’s waist again.  Anchored to the spot, she could do little but attempt to push them both away. John grabbed the man’s hand, trying to prise it from the boy’s arm. The woman belaboured Nancy’s back and arms with blows and pinches, ineffectively but painfully. The man swung a punch at John, who dodged it. The man was heavier and stronger. John was quicker. Hampered by the need to protect the boy, neither of the captains could use their speed and agility to best effect.

Help came out of the deepening dusk on bare feet. None of the children were any older than Roger. Together, their strength was more than enough. Bare feet kicked at shins. Many fingers prised the little boy out the man’s grasp. Many hands grasped the man and woman and dragged them in the opposite direction. As one pair of thin, dark arms tired, they were replaced by another. As one blow was aimed at a child, they dodged and another took their place.

“Should we go and help?” Nancy asked John.

The answer came from the retreating seething little mob.

“You take the little one to his mam. We got no problem here.” A girl a little bigger than most of them flashed a white smile at Nancy in the moonlight, before returning her attention to the command of her forces.

 “They know their business. The quicker we get this kid back to his mother, the shorter the time they have to keep that up for.”  John said.

The situation in the foyer of the hotel was much as Nancy had expected it. A weeping mother, a manager tearing his hair, a reception clerk explaining how it was really not his fault and a selection of hotel staff and guests completed the scene. In an astonishingly small amount of time, the manager had nearly cleared the foyer and Nancy and John founded themselves sitting down to a meal in the small dining room with the boy’s mother, a Madame Bertillon and the boy. Madame Bertillon’s English was about the same as Nancy’s French. Occasionally she had to write down words which Nancy could read well enough but not recognise when spoken. They had finished the soup and were well into the main course before Nancy was able to explain the gist of situation to John.

“The little boy”

“Alain” John had understood that much at least.

“Yes, Alain, is the heir to quite a large plantation on Martinique. Madame Bertillon’s uncle left it to Alain in his will. He did have a son himself who would be a little older than Madame Bertillon, but the son was killed in the war. Anyway, if Alain doesn’t come to Martinique in person by a certain time to claim it – or with someone acting on his behalf to claim it – it goes to some cousin of a friend of the uncle. I gather the friend was very good to the uncle, but died before him. I don’t think the cousin ever had anything to do with the uncle though – he’s just the friend’s heir. It sounds as if they were two lonely old men with not much family left and any relations they do have thousands of miles away in France.”

“So Madame Bertillon brought Alain with her.” John was going to ask about Alain’s father, but thought better of it.

Nancy knew what he was going to ask anyway. “Monsieur Bertillon is a doctor with a rural practice. He couldn’t get a locum for so long.”

“When does Alain have to be in Martinique?”

“By the end of the month. They arrived here yesterday. They were going to leave tomorrow. She’s scared now, because she says our description of the people who grabbed Alain was the same as some people who were hanging around the boat she arranged to go on this morning.”

“They’re more likely to have just hung around waiting for her to turn up and book their passage to Martinique than be in cahoots with anyone. They sounded quite English to me so they can’t be the cousins presumably. Someone the cousin has hired?”

“I did try to explain that. I’m not sure I made myself clear. She’s worried anyway.”

“Martinique really isn’t far.” said John thoughtfully.

“We’ve got plenty of time.”

“It would be a pity not to see the thing through properly.”

They grinned at each other.

“We’d better offer now and make it alright with Uncle Jim when we get back to Wildcat. They’ll be safe enough if they sit tight in this hotel until we come and fetch them tomorrow.”


 

They found a low stone bench under a tree not far from the junction where they had been rescued last night. The small basket contained sweets and fruit. Their money had just stretched to the addition of two small india-rubber balls. Nancy almost wished she had not made that extra purchase last night. The note simply read “with many thanks, NB and JW.”

As they were setting it in place, and old man came slowly past, using his walking stick carefully. He nodded at them, smiling approval. Nancy had no doubt their thanks would be quickly found by the right people.


 

The sun was low in the sky. They would be going back to Wildcat in a few minutes. The lawyer (Nancy had vaguely grasped that the legal profession worked differently here but was not sure of the details) would take them back at the harbour before going home. Roger and Titty (and Gibber) were already saying their farewells to the Bertillon. The verandah was surrounded by screens so you could be cool without the insects bothering you too much.

John reached into his shirt pocket and took out something wrapped in a scrap of tissue paper. He held it out to her.

“They didn’t have any with a skull and crossbones.” he said.

It was a scarf of printed cotton, with blue swallows on a white background.

“Thank you. It’s lovely.”

Nancy felt in her own shirt pocket. “I got this for you.”

The paperknife was small, but shaped as a mediaeval sword. At least, it looked like the swords shown in some book illustrations. Nancy privately thought a mediaeval sword would be plainer with a few notches and dents in in.

“Thank you. It’s even better than the one I didn’t get to play with.”

They smiled at each other. Nancy didn’t know who moved first, who shifted their feet slightly, who leant forward first.

“Nancy, Nancy ahoy Nancy”

And her she was, back on Wildcat Island, lying on her stomach under the lookout pine. For a moment she struggled to remember what time it was or even which day.

Dot and Titty came racing up the path and announced that supper was ready. Dot turned and ran back down to the camp immediately. Titty lingered, eyeing Nancy curiously.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Just daydreaming a bit.”

“Peter Duck?”

“Sort of. Missee Lee really.”

“What happened?”

Impossible to say “Well your brother nearly kissed me – or I nearly kissed him.”

“Nothing much. Look here, it doesn’t seem very fair to the D’s to go on about Missee Lee when they aren’t in the story. I don’t suppose Dick will mind, but Dot might feel left out. It wasn’t as exciting as the bit with Miss Lee.”

By the time they reached the camp and she sat down between John and Dick, Nancy was once again the captain of the Amazon, with her imagination firmly under her own control.