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A Pirate Horror!

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The night was quiet: just the rustle of leaves and the slow tumble of the distant sea. Mabel and her sisters crept into the chapel with Frederic lurking awkwardly a little behind. The place was dismal and wild, eroded by years of salt breeze and April rain. The tendrils of climbing ivy clung to the stone, and sprawling fingers of vine spread up the ruined walls. There was no roof but the sky. Outside the old chapel, headstones lurched out of the ground at jagged angles, many so old that the names could no longer be read, worn away like the last slim scrap of a bar of soap. The moon cast long steady shadows.

In the centre of it all, a flat slab of stone, with a figure hunched over it, weeping. The old man’s nightshirt was the one flash of white, ghostly in the gloom. He looked up as his daughters gathered round him. There was concern on their faces, and dear little Isobel was clutching a mug of hot milk. “Here, papa,” she said. He took it from her with shaky hands and managed a weak smile.

Mabel tugged on Frederic’s arm. “Go and speak to him,” she said. “I don’t know what else I can say, but maybe you will find words to comfort him.”

Frederic edged forward reluctantly, embarrassed to intrude on the old man in his vulnerable state. “I'll try, dear Mabel,” he mumbled, squeezing her hand. “But why does he sit, night after night, in this draughty old ruin?”

The Major-General turned a careworn face towards him. There was something a little wild in the recesses of his dim eyes. “Why do I sit here?” he cried. “To escape from the pirates' clutches, I described myself as an orphan, and, heaven help me, am no orphan!” His thin old arm raised him up off the slab and he stood. Without the aid of horseback or boot-heels, he was surprisingly small; and without that proud pillarbox-red uniform, dressed only in thin cotton, he looked insubstantial, like a gust of wind might easily carry him off. “I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.”

Frederic stood at his side and began, respectfully: “But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.”

“Frederic!” cried the Major-General, “in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.”

Frederic stood wordless, unsure how to respond. Mabel supposed he was shy of further offending her father. She elbowed him sharply. “Aahh” he squealed. “Aaahad you not acted as you did, these reckless men –”

Frederic trailed off. A deep low rumbling resounded in the gutted old chapel. The earth creaked beneath their feet. Stone scraped against stone.

General Stanley’s daughters scrambled back away from the sound. “Get them back to the house,” hissed Mabel to Edith. The group hurried along the path that led towards the castle, headed by Edith, while at the back Kate shepherded the stragglers. Mabel saw her take little Isobel’s hand and tug away their youngest sister, who was still looking over her shoulder in alarm. Mabel lingered in the collapsed archway, and Frederic cowered nervously, looking out from behind her shoulder. The General himself stood alone in the open, heart beating visibly in his chest.

A muffled voice rose up through the cracked earth and crumbling masonry.

“Ancient remnants of a race, 
All accurst in days of yore, 
Each from his accustomed place 
Steps into the world once more.”

Hands lurched up through the ground, clawing at cracks in the mud. Mabel bit her lip, eyes riveted in horror, as Frederic buried his face against her shoulder, unable to watch.

From the ground around him rose a score of hunched figures in varying states of decay, their limbs folded in unlikely contortions. They straightened themselves to full height with a series of clicks and crunches, like creaky old circus contraptions, and staggered forwards.

“Baronet of Ruddigore,
Last of our accursed line,
Down upon the dusty floor –
Down upon those knees of thine.”

Their voice was rattly and dry, like the earth beneath their feet. General Stanley fell to his knees. The tomb at the centre rumbled and split.

Coward, poltroon, shaker, squeamer,
Blockhead, sluggard, dullard, dreamer,
Shirker, shuffler, crawler, creeper,
Sniffler, snuffler, wailer, weeper,
Earthworm, maggot, tadpole, weevil!
Set upon thy course of evil,
Lest the King of Spectre-Land
Set on thee his grisly hand!”

A figure swathed in black, with jet black hair swept severely back from his ashen face, emerged from the slab. He swooped towards the Major-General and placed a hand on his shoulder – a hand exactly like marble, smooth and pale and cold and veined and rigid – and lifted him to his feet.

“Beware! Beware! Beware!”

Mabel heard a muffled mousy squeak and the clatter of feet against rubble as Frederic dashed away into the shadows, followed by a thud as he tripped over a headstone.

The Major General looked into the figure’s eyes, which were a cruel blue fringed by long spidery lashes. “Wh-who are you?” 

The figure laughed a hollow, echoing, marble laugh, and the whole circle of spectres cackled like dry leaves on a fire.

“I am the old Sir Murgatroyd… and you –”

“You!” echoed the ghosts, raspingly.

“– you are the new one.”

 

***

 

When the Major-General came to, the figure was still there, leaning anxiously over him. His velvet cloak was rolled under the General’s head, a makeshift pillow. Mabel knelt beside him, white with worry. “Father, you fainted.” 

The General attempted a feeble chuckle. “I thought… that was Frederic’s job…”

Mabel glanced without much pity into the shadows, then back to her father. “Mr Murgatroyd here was just explaining the situation to me. Please don’t be alarmed but… It would seem you are cursed.”

“Cursed?”

“Yes, cursed. I’m sorry,” said the spectre, a convincingly apologetic tombre to his deathly voice, “but as our heir by purchase, in loco prognati , as it were, you must follow the family traditions. We could not help but intervene when we heard your earlier remarks.”

“You are angry with me,” exclaimed the General, remembering. “You – you heard me mention how I disgracefully deluded those pirates, and you – you have conferred a curse on me in return for my lies.”

“Oh no, quite the contrary,” said the ghoul. “That we commend. But one lie is only a start. What we require,” he pressed his stone-pale hands together, “is a punctual daily crime. Do you think you can do that?”

“It goes against my very moral fibre as an Englishman,” began the General.

“I see. Let the agonies commence.”

“Aaahhhbut I’m willing to make an exception… a daily exception… if it will please my most honoured ancestors.”

“That’s the spirit!” cried the spirit. The other figures murmured approvingly, already shuffling back toward their temporary resting places.

 

***

 

“He looks so much jollier now,” Edith pointed out, trying to cheer her sister. The three eldest girls were sitting in the window seat, a distance from the others, but they could still hear the hilarity. “Look how lively he is. At least he’s not sitting in that gusty old ruin all night long anymore feeling sorry for himself.”

“His guilty conscience will catch up with him sooner or later.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Edith. “Look at him.”

Mabel stared miserably at group gathered round the fireplace. Isobel and the younger girls were laughing as their father sung them stories of his recent hijinks and near-run-ins with the law. He looked bright-cheeked and roguish as he launched into his next verse, double speed:

“I am the very model of a modern English Criminal
I was a fine old gentleman, but evil lurked subliminal.
I used to aim my rifle only at the martial enemy
I use it now to shoot the grouse on other people’s property.
I plundered and I pillaged only when the nation told me to,
But now my days of moral deferentiality are through:
According to that curse confounded’s murderous and bloody law
I’m now the very model of a baronet of Ruddigore!

For the upper middle classes are incapable of villainy;
Such practices are suited to a man of higher pedigree!
But all those petty felonies that British generals deplore
Are fitting entertainment for a Baronet of Ruddigore.”

The girls seated around him clapped their hands delightedly, giggling. “I agree with Mabel,” said Kate to Edith. “It’s morally inexcusable.” 

“Worse,” said Mabel. “It won’t do any good for our social standing if people know us as the daughters of a notorious criminal.”

“You’re about to marry a pirate,” objected Edith. “He can hardly do further harm to your marriage prospects.”

“An ex -pirate,” Mabel corrected her.

“How is he, by the way? Has he recovered yet?” Frederic was still resting in bed after the encounter in the chapel ruins.

“He’ll be up soon.” said Mabel. “His nerves have just about recovered, hopefully his leg will recover soon too.”

Edith snorted. Mabel suspected the reason for her bitterness; it was customary for the eldest girls to marry first, and here Mabel was overleaping them both.

“Don’t be mean, Edith,” reproved Kate. “The poor gentleman has broken his leg.”

“It’s only sprained! Mabel, why doesn’t your Frederic take a rest from behaving like a five-year-old and do something about our predicament?”

“With a sprained ankle?” asked Mabel, but even she felt it was a pretty thin excuse. “He’s been in touch with the Sergeant of Police, he’ll at least have those pirates out of the way once he’s –”

“Police poking around here is probably the last thing we need,” said Kate levelly.

Edith stood up. “Kate. Your sweetheart’s not useless. Why don’t we seek help from her?”

As her sisters bustled out of the room, Mabel sunk into her chair and muttered, I regret to report, something most unfit for print.

 

***

 

“Father,” said Mabel, catching up with him in the kitchen. He’d just set a pan of hot milk over the fire to heat, and was lifting little Isobel onto the counter to wait. Isobel swung her legs cheerfully.

Only once he’d finished fussing over her cinnamon toast did he turn around and ask, “yes?”

“We need to talk about your behaviour of late,” said Mabel.

The Major-General arched a jolly eyebrow. “Isn’t this conversation a little back to front? Last time I checked, I was your legal guardian, not the other way around.”

Isobel giggled. Mabel sulked. “I just want to protect you, father. What happens when you get caught?”

“Oh, I think it’s all rather innocuous. At my age, I should be allowed to have some fun.”

“What have you done?”

“On Monday, I began my career of crime with breaking and entering.”

“He entered the pantry,” said Isobel, “and broke a mug. And I don’t think it was on purpose.”

The Major-General had turned his attention back to the milk heating over the fire. He let Isobel scoop the froth off the top with a spoon, and Mabel waited impatiently for him to pour the milk into a mug and set it on the table before prompting: “Tuesday?”

“On Tuesday I impersonated a scotsman at the bank.”

“And you got away with it?”

“It was a poor impression, I fear. The cashier seemed amused, but I suspect he was only being polite… Oh heavens, girl, I didn’t steal anything! On Wednesday I shot a fox.”

“Well that’s more like it – I mean, that’s terrible,” Mabel corrected herself. “Awful. Today?”

“Today I practiced the oboe.” 

“I’m fairly sure that’s not illegal.”

“You’ve clearly never heard me play, it should be.”

“Well, be that as it may…” Mabel knelt, took his hand and pinned down his evasive eyes with her earnest, determined stare. “Father. Will you promise me that tomorrow you’ll renounce your wicked ways and live a blameless life evermore?”

The Major-General chuckled shortly and looked away. “Isobel,” he said, “what would you like most in the world?” 

Isobel screwed up her face with the effort of imagination. “A banquet!” she announced. “A banquet with… mutton chops and yorkshire pudding and trifle and… and lamb-and-mint pie, and gravy with mushrooms and lots of onions.”

“Lots of onions,” muttered the Major-General, an impish gleam in his eye.

 

***

 

Edith cast a dubious eye at the lines on the earth, a criss-cross of angular patterns glowing and pulsating with pale purple light. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Are you even sure what this is?” 

“Look,” said Kate flatly, “it’s a Sapphic thing. You and Mabel and the rest have your embroidery, and singing, and so on. We have our… what is this, actually?”

Ruth paused for a moment with the branch she’d been using to groove the earth and spoke to them over her shoulder. “My uncle was a family sorcerer,” she said. “It’s perfectly safe.”

“So you’re a witch?” asked Edith skeptically.

Hey! ” Kate whispered urgently. “ She’s very sensitive about her age.

“Which is?”

Kate turned her back on Edith huffily and walked over to the side of the slab. Ruth took her hand, and the two of them began mumbling something. Edith’s nerves were on edge. She wished Mabel were here too. 

The violet lines burnt brighter and more urgently, hissing and spitting sparks. There was a tremor that shook the trees all around. An owl screeched. The light glowed paler, almost white, and every hair on Edith’s arm’s stood up with cold. Ruth put a reassuring hand on Kate’s arm as their chant crescendoed.

The stone lid of the tomb scraped open. A figure emerged, tall and stern and icily beautiful, dressed head to toe in black velvet. “What is the matter?” asked the spectre in a cold, echoey voice. “I was resting in peace.” 

Kate cleared her throat. “We’re very sorry to disturb you,” she said. “But we wondered if you could provide any further details about our father’s curse? Specifically – is there any way to lift it?”

“Your father’s curse is a piece of centuries-strong magic. We, each in our time, consulted many excellent young witches such as yourselves –”

“We did!” came a rattling cry from the earth itself.

“– but to no avail. The only escape is to refuse one’s daily crime.”

“Oh,” said Edith. “That simple?”

“Yes,” said the spectre helpfully. “And then one dies an agonising death, and the curse passes on to the next generation.”

Kate and Edith looked at each other. “You’re the oldest,” said Kate apologetically.

The sky flashed, and the spectre laughed an elemental laugh, like the roll of distant thunder.

 

***

 

“No. No no no no no. I’m not taking on a curse for anybody.” Edith was hurrying along the dirt track to the house, skirts gathered.

“Come back,” shouted Kate. “We need to talk about this.”

Edith stopped short on the porch. She could hear laughter inside. Kate and Ruth took her by either arm and gently sat her down on the bench.

“Listen, Edie,” said Kate, taking her sister’s hand. “No-one wants you to inherit a curse, and no-one wants father to die in inconceivable agonies. We just need to figure out what the alternative is.”

“Mabel was going to convince him to give it up: maybe it’s too late. And at any rate, father’s not immortal. It’ll be my turn eventually.”

Ruth frowned. “There’s always a way out of these things. Always. We just need to find it.”

“Well, we have twenty-four hours,” said Edith glumly. “If Mabel’s been successful.”

 

***

 

Mabel, as it turned out, had not been successful. The next evening, she lingered on the doorstep all evening waiting nervously for their father’s return. The sunset flared and the sky dimmed. Finally she made out a small pillarbox-red figure towing an enormous wooden cart. When the figure at last crested the hill and, panting, tied up the cart in the yard, Mabel stared in horror.

Onions. Hundreds and hundreds of them.

“Father, how could you!” cried Mabel. “It’ll take us weeks to eat all those.”

“Nonsense. I have an extensive family with a very extensive appetite,” replied her father.

“And more importantly ,” said Mabel, “someone will definitely notice them missing. You can’t steal that quantity of anything and get away with it.”

The Major-General waved a dismissive hand. “The police were at least an hour behind me last time I checked." 

“The police!?” cried Mabel. 

“I’m sure they lost me.”

Mabel turned away from him in disgust. “Sisters!” she called. “Sisters!” A swarm of girls came hurrying out from every door, window, and (in the case of the younger girls) tree. “Help us get these vegetables into the house and hidden.”

There was a riot of noise and confusion as every girl gathered armfuls of onions and hurried with them to the pantry. When the pantry was full, they began to pile the onions on bookshelves, window ledges, anywhere to get them out of the yard. Even with all of them, it was the work of hours to get all the onions into the house. The night was dark now and the moon was high. Finally, only the empty cart remained in the yard as evidence of their father’s crime.

“A bonfire!” cried Mabel. Isobel clapped her hands delightedly. Mabel fetched an axe, and soon the flames were roaring high, spitting embers heavenwards.

***

 

Frederic was lying glumly in bed. He could hear the commotion downstairs. The shouting, the stampede of feet, then the roar of fire, now raised voices. He recognised one of those voices as his fiancée’s. So much for an honest life.

The room was dark but for the little diamonds of moonlight that fell through the lattice window. Frederic’s fingers twitched against the pistol that he kept beneath the sheets (unloaded of course – those things are dangerous!) in case of emergency. He thought he’d heard something creak outside. He lay very still, hardly breathing, and – there it was again. A quiet sound, like a beam of wood flexing underfoot. Stop it! This was no time for imagination!

A shadow fell across the window. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Very slowly, trying not to make any other movement, Frederic swiveled his eyes as far as he could, trying to make out the shadow at the window.

The shadow grinned at him. “Frederic,” it whispered.

“Samuel?”

 

***

 

Isobel was sitting out on the porch. She disliked it when Mabel and their father argued. It was getting more common.

She watched Kate and her companion scratching marks in the earth with long branches torn from the poplar in the yard. “What are you doing?” she asked. 

Kate turned to Isobel with a theatrical grin, pressed a finger to her lips and whispered, “shh!” Just for a moment, the patterns in the ground flickered with violet light, and then were dark again. “When they’re ready, you’ll see!”

Kate and the other woman got back to work, murmuring to each other as they worked their way etching patterns across the yard and out of sight around the house. Isobel swung her legs idly and looked across the cliff, past the path that dropped down to the ruined churchyard, into the dark sea. She thought of slumbering mermaids, their delicate tails coiled around heaps of glistening treasure. There would be an underwater cave, she thought, that admitted scarcely the faintest trace of the distant moonbeams, with the wrecked and rusting hull of a ship fortifying its entrance. She pictured the watchful guard, with his merman lover asleep on his chest. One of the guard’s slender, webbed hands curled loosely around his trident, the other rested on the golden shoulder that rose and fell with sleep. Then – perhaps he saw a movement in the distance. A shoal of silver fish suddenly twisting back on themselves, nervously darting away from a shadow that had begun to move. The hull of a big ship. The pirates –

With a jolt, Isobel shook her head free of its daydream. She had heard a noise. A scraping noise. There it was again.

She listened intensely. She heard breaths that sounded like reeds rustling, and footsteps that that fell in a disconcerting irregular rhythm, with a near-mechanical clicking. Her eyes were riveted to the path, her body frozen. As the first pale head rose into view, and the visitor’s colourless eyes locked with hers, movement returned to her. She screamed and ran inside, slamming the oak door shut, before she could see the other figures in their dozens come stumbling up the path.

 

***

 

Frederic reached over and loosed the latch.

“I hope you don’t mind me intruding like this,” said Samuel, leaping down into the room. “I wondered if you might reconsider staying with us, now that you’ve got a taste for the alternative.” He sat down on the edge of Frederic’s bed. “Hey Frederic, is that a pistol concealed beneath your bedsheets or are you just pleased to see me?”

“It’s not loaded. Do you know what’s going on downstairs?”

“Your financée is what’s going on.”

Frederic nodded. “But there’s something else, I think – I can sense it. Did anyone see you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m here now, and I’m well-armed.” Samuel flexed his impressive biceps. “See, I’ll protect you.” 

Frederic gave him a gentle cuff. “Stop it. I wish I could come back, I really do, but it’s not that simple. You know, Samuel, that I am the Slave of Duty,” said Frederic grandly. 

“Oh, yes,” smirked Samuel. 

“Well, it would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? I can’t just go back to thieving and pillaging after making such a point of it…”

“A delicate position…”

“It’s not funny. Besides, I’m engaged now.”

Samuel’s grin flickered and became a little stiff at the edges. “Oh yes? And how’s that going?”

“Oh, I don’t know. As far as I can tell, she only agreed to marry me because she felt sorry for me, and… maybe that’s not as good a premise as I thought.” 

Samuel patted him on the shoulder in mock-sympathy. “Well chin up, because I’ve some entertaining news for you.”

“I tremble with anticipation,” said Frederic flatly.

“You know that you were apprenticed until…”

“Until my twenty-fifth year.”

“Uh-uh.” Samuel shook his head. “Birthday!”

“Well?” 

“Well, for some reason – magic, witchcraft, astronomical anomaly – it seems you were born on the 29th of February. Leap year! So by the terms of your contract, you’re still one of us for a good… seventy five years!”

“Oh! Oh!” Frederic, laughing, joyfully braced himself against his friend’s arms. “A lucky escape! How did you figure that one out?”

“Well, we were all pretty morose after you left, and Ruth was trying to cheer us up with a cheap joke or two, and she pointed out how funny it is that, going by birthdays , I was in love with a five-year –” Samuel stopped abruptly.

“Oops,” said Frederic with a grin. “You’ve said it now. For the record, I’m definitely pleased to see you.”

 

***

 

The knock sounded three times, then slowly the door opened. The Major-General stumbled out onto the porch. Mabel and Edith followed, with Isobel gripping the latter’s hand and half-hiding behind her skirts. The courtyard was full of ancestors, with the most recent baronet, in his heavy crushed-velvet cloak, standing aloof in the centre.

“Wh-what is the meaning of this?” asked the Major-General.

The spectre smiled coldly. “It’s been a week. We simply wanted to call by and see how matters stand.”

“I… see,” said the Major-General. “Well. Do come in.” 

“We appreciate your hospitality,” said the spectre, eyeing the house disdainfully. “We prefer it out here under the moonlight, but you must have gone to some trouble to give us a proper welcome…”

“What do you mean,” asked the Major-General, nervously.

“Onions?” The spectre rolled his eyes. “I’m not even a vampire. That’s basic.”

“Oh, I assure you,” panicked General Stanley, “I had no intention of –” 

“Never mind. To the business at hand.”

“Here, here!” rasped the other ancestors, lurching closer. Some of the older ones breathed out great clouds of dust as they spoke, which shone thin and silvery in the moonlight. They advanced on General Stanley, forcing him to back up as far as the open doorway.

“Hold, spirits, pray!” cried out Edith, who had been growing more and more agitated. Just then, a ring of violet light blazed up around the house. Ruth and Kate came dashing from the sides of the house, murmuring something very rapid under their breath in an ancient tongue. The ancestors all shrank back, alarmed.

Only that tallest of them, the cold young baronet in his black cloak, was unfazed. As the purple flames licked higher, he stepped through them and onto the porch. He emerged unscathed, unchanged except that the black of his cloak had morphed to a deep, rich, sky-dark purple studded with lilac stars.

Ruth’s face fell. “Oh,” she said. “That’s not what I meant to happen. I must have got the charm wrong. Some of those words are really terribly easy to muddle up…”

“Don’t worry,” said Kate, squeezing her hand supportively. “It’s a really nice shade – amaranthine – ”

“If you’re quite finished,” boomed the spectre in a voice that echoed like a cavernous stone vault, “I should like the Major-General to answer a few questions.”

“With pleasure,” said General Stanley. “I cannot begin to account for my daughters’ behaviour, but I have found the baronetcy most enjoyable. I am quite happy to continue.”

Father !” scolded Mabel. She turned to the spectre-in-chief and asked, “is there really nothing we can do?”

“Nothing!” The spectre laughed. “Well, unless you can find a willing substitute. The curse belongs to the baronetcy: whoever takes the title takes on the curse too.”

Mabel looked around – “Don’t you dare,” warned Edith darkly.

“It’s pointless,” said Kate. “We’ll never find a substitute.”

“And father still doesn’t mind,” said Edith. “Let’s leave things as they are –” 

“Oh!” Ruth smacked her forehead. “Of course! How could I have forgotten?”

 

***

 

“What was that? I heard my name.”

“Upon my oath, you’re jumpy,” said Samuel. He grumbled a little as Frederic shook free of his arms and crossed the room to the window.

“Here, come listen. It’s Ruth.”

 

***

 

“When Frederic was a little lad his parents proved so caring,
They selflessly sent their boy to sea from the family curse to spare him.
I was, no less, his governess, and I loved all things aquatic
So I obeyed, and for his trade I turned to men piratic.
A life unfit for a baronet, and yet you should admire it:
A noble cursed is surely worse than a common lawless pirate.

But while this crew sailed the oceans blue in their search for blood and booty,
In Frederic’s chest there arose a zest for a-doin’ of his duty.
The influence fine of his noble line I’m certain did inspire it.
And he became, to all acclaim, a tenderhearted pirate.
I was proud to see though his ancestry offered prospects bleak and woeful,
I’ve never met, to this day yet, a pirate half so noble.”

 

**

 

The girls and ghouls alike gathered round Ruth as she explained. As Ruth’s song finished, Mabel felt their eyes turn to her. She, who had been so keen to interfere in this silly mess and upset the smooth working of a perfectly respectable family curse. Darn and blast it!

Well, it seemed they were all waiting for her to say something. Edith. Kate. Isobel. Her father. Even the ghouls.

“Um. Perhaps I was wrong.” She looked at her feet, away from their unforgiving gaze. “Father is, um, quite happy, it seems, and there’s no need to upset Frederic over all this. He is ill, after all.”

“Wouldn’t want to make his ankle worse, now, would we?” said Edith scathingly. 

An upper floor window opened. “Actually,” said Frederic, with a silly contented smile on his lips, “my ankle’s quite better now.”

“It appears you’re about to become nobility,” remarked the Major-General, “though you don’t deserve it.”

“Oh, he does,” said Edith.

“Hush, Edie, he’ll be just dandy,” beamed Kate in her usual conciliatory tones. “How does it sound, Frederic?”

“Frederic!” Mabel shouted up to him. “Don’t listen to them. If you accept, you’ll have to commit a crime every day.”

A second figure appeared in the window behind him. Frederic turned his back on the crowd in the courtyard and whispered something into Samuel’s ear. Samuel replied quietly. Mabel couldn’t make out a word of it. The two of them laughed at some secret joke.

“A crime a day?” Frederic yelled down. “Did I catch that aright?” 

The ex-baronets rasped back, “once, every day, forever!”

“I assent,” said Frederic, as Samuel doubled over in laugher.

“Well,” said Mabel, as gently and politely as she could manage, “I hope you’ll understand that, under the circumstances, I must break off our engagement. I am deeply, deeply sorry for the terrible pain it must cause you. Truly, I am.”

 

***

 

Mabel sat sulking as the others played, chattered or danced under the moonlight, a fitting celebration of the averted danger. Edith was dancing with the tall spectre whose dark purple robes whirled elegantly around them. Well, thought Mabel, you could say what you liked about Frederic – she herself had said many things over the course of this evening, many of them four letters long and quite unrepeatable – but at least he had never been dead. Kate and Ruth were kneeling on the ground next to Isobel, teaching her incantations as she drew stick figures in the sand. One by one, her drawings leapt to life and joined in the dancing. 

A little way off, the Major-General was asking Samuel to let him join the crew and become a full-time pirate. “I’ll miss the adventure that a lawless life affords,” he explained earnestly. “I’d work hard.”

Samuel nodded. “I’m sure they’ll have space for another man on board, with Frederic and I both gone. Especially one as dastardly as yourself.”

“Why, thank you!” beamed the old man.