Susan couldn’t quite be sure why these holidays weren’t, well, quite as happy as she had hoped.
It wasn’t just because John wasn’t there. After all, John was where he wanted to be – finally at sea on a naval ship. They always knew there would be a summer like this one, with Susan as Captain of Swallow.
Only, there was no Swallow, not for another fortnight at least. Mother had written to Mr Jackson only to discover that Swallow was simply not available for hire, at least for the first two weeks of the holidays. It was, indirectly, Father’s fault. If he hadn’t told Lt. Marlow about the Lake and Holly Howe and Swallow herself then Lt Marlow would have chosen somewhere else to spend his leave and teach his children to sail. Father’s letter had been very apologetic when he had learned what had happened. Even Titty, who seemed more attached to Swallow herself than any of them, except possibly John, had to admit that the two little girls and only slightly less small boy had as much right to enjoy Swallow as any of them.
“It’s really rather like Daddy teaching us to sail at Falmouth.”
There were other children, girls probably, younger and smaller and all blonde so that it was difficult to tell from a distance how many there were, and a perambulator and so presumably a baby too.
“It’s very lucky we have got Scarab.” Dorothea had said, truly enough. The seven of them could fit comfortably enough in Scarab and Amazon.
“Sort of lucky Bridget isn’t here too.” Peggy had said, adding hastily, “Not that I don’t like Bridget of course, but I’m not sure Mother would let us all camp on Wildcat if Bridget was here and Mrs Walker was abroad.”
“She would because Susan’s here.” said Nancy. “Jolly lucky for us you are, Captain.”
And that had been one of the minor surprises of the holiday. Right from the start, even in the absence of Swallow herself, Nancy had been careful to address Susan as Swallow’s skipper.
Nancy herself seemed different. Susan found the new, nearly grown-up version of Nancy almost as disconcerting as seeing Swallow sailed by another family. The loud clear voice and the jolly laugh were the same as ever, but there was no new ploy, no equivalent of the polar expedition or gold- prospecting or a private war. There was no great-aunt or egg collector to outwit. Susan was surprised how much she missed it.
They had raced, Scarab against Amazon, with different combinations of skipper and crew in each vessel. Strangely, Nancy had been just as happy to umpire as to compete. They had swum and fished – not enough fishing to please Roger, but a little bit too much for everyone else. They had climbed Kachenjunga again.
One calm day, Nancy had driven the younger four over Hardknot Pass to Boot. Space was somewhat tight in Rattletrap, so Susan and Peggy had cycled to Grasmere instead. The road became busy once they had passed the head of the Lake so that they had very little opportunity to talk until they dismounted in the village of Grasmere. They bought themselves a cup of tea and some gingerbread to take back to Beckfoot.
“Far too full of visitors to eat our dinner here.” Peggy said. They rode along the other side of Grasmere and a little way up Langdale before they stopped to eat ham sandwiches and apples and drink some of the homemade lemonade.
It was relaxing to be away from the others, just the two mates together, not having to keep an eye on what Roger was up to or suppress the bickering between Roger and Dorothea.
“Dot does her fair share.” said Peggy. “Well she does now. If he says anything about Dick or Titty anyway. It could be a lot worse. Nancy will shiver their timbers for them if there they carry on like that too much.”
Susan and Peggy were the last to arrive back at Beckfoot. Roger and Dick were bathing in the river Amazon. Dorothea and Titty were sitting on the daisy- strewn lawn talking to Mrs Blackett and Timothy Steadman. Nancy was in the vegetable patch, lifting new potatoes.
“Mother and Cook said we may as well have tea and supper in one- a proper meal and then go back rather than going back and then having to cook. You could cut a lettuce, Peg. The knife is with the bucket.”
It was a good meal, with cold baked ham and hot new potatoes and peas, and salad and hot apple pie and custard afterwards. Timothy asked Dick and Roger if they wanted to go up to the mine tomorrow, which they did.
“Why not stay overnight and get an early start tomorrow?” Mrs Blackett asked.
“It’s very kind of you, but I think I’d better not leave the houseboat overnight.”
“Why not? Uncle Jim did lots of times.” said Peggy.
“Because you and your pain-in-the-neck of a sister have taken to breaking and entering – well entering at least. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
“But we haven’t.” Nancy said. “Haven’t touched it in ages. Well not without you being there.”
“Oh, It’s subtle I’ll grant you, but someone’s turned it upside down and then put it very neatly back in place. If it’s not you two playing tricks then who is it?”
“If we wanted to play tricks on you, it would be something with a more of a bang.” Nancy said.
Roger came perilously near to choking on a mouthful of custard. Susan knew he was remembering the Roman candle.
“I can easily believe my daughters turning the place upside down.” Mrs Blackett said, “But putting everything back tidily afterwards? I really don’t think it can be them.”
Nancy made a face at her mother, who made one in return.
“I’m not saying tidy, exactly, but as it was.” said Timothy.
Susan was about to ask how, in that case, he had noticed that anyone had been there, but Dick and Roger were discussing plans for tomorrow.
“We’ll pick you up in Scarab.” Dick said. “Sailing will be better than rowing that distance.”
“It’s going to leave the girls rather cramped, just being in Amazon, isn’t it?” Timothy asked
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Dick admitted, “It will, rather. It’s bad enough with four people.”
“Look here, it will work.” Nancy said. “Because you can sail to Beckfoot in Scarab and some of us - all of us maybe- can follow you in Amazon and pick Scarab up.”
Talk moved on to the mine and if Peggy hadn’t happened to be looking at her Mother as she bit into the small pieces of gingerbread they had with their cups of tea, she would have missed the wince.
“What’s up with the gingerbread? Something in it?”
“I just forgot that it hurt to bit with that side.” Mrs Blackett admitted.
“Don’t you think you should go to the dentist?” Susan asked.
“It’s only been like that for a few days – and hot tea doesn’t hurt like it normally does when you need a filling.” Mrs Blackett explained.
“It could be an abscess.” Susan said, “A girl in my class had one and it was just as you describe.”
“Shouldn’t Mother being going to the dentist?” Nancy asked. It felt strange having Nancy appeal to her for support.
“Yes, it was one of those as soon-as-possible-things. She went to Matron about it just after breakfast and was whisked off in the middle of first lesson. Is it quite a sharp pain when you bite?”
Mrs Blackett nodded cautiously. “It goes on for quite a bit too when I do.”
“It isn’t too late to ‘phone now.” Nancy sprang up from the table and shot from the dining room to the hall before her mother had got beyond the first word of protest. She hadn’t closed the door behind her and her voice was clearly audible in the dining room.
“Hullo, yes, I hope it’s not too late to ring you, but my Mother, Molly Blackett has got toothache when she bits down on something. Yes, a few days. Would you be able to see her tomorrow? Soonish anyhow? Tomorrow would be best. Yes, I’ll drive her, she won’t be driving herself. No breakfast? Look here we’ve only just eaten tea, is that alright? If she doesn’t have anything else? Just water? After midnight? Ten o’clock tomorrow. Thank you for being able to fit her in so soon.”
“Does he think it’ll need a filling?” Mrs Blackett asked as Nancy re-entered the room.
“He says it sounds like an abscess too, and if it is the whole thing had better come out.”
“I suppose I’m lucky it’s one of the back one and it won’t show much.” Mrs Blackett said. You could tell she was trying to be her usual jolly self, but no-one was fooled.
“It’s lucky that you live nowadays and not in historical times before they had dentists and anaesthetics and things.”
“He said you should take your temperature and make a note of it too.” Nancy said.
“Not just after I’ve drunk hot tea.” her mother protested.
“Look, I’ll stay here overnight. Then it doesn’t matter if it’s calm in the morning. We’ve had 4 in Amazon reasonably enough.” Nancy said.
“The only bright side I can see to this,” Molly said, “is that I’ve got a perfect excuse for NOT calling on the Countess of Seven and Thames.”
Nancy paused in fastening the windows. “The ….is it a boat or a person?”
“A person, unfortunately. Aunt Maria’s not likely to try insisting that I call on a boat even if she was on holiday. Although now you say it, it does sound like that.”
“Where’s she staying - Rio?”
“You can just avoid going into Rio until she’s cleared off then. We don’t mind fetching anything you want. If she’s a friend of Aunt Maria’s, you jolly well don’t want to waste time on her. Suppose she tries making you play bridge or something equally ghastly.”
“Bridge isn’t quite that bad – well maybe it is. She’s not exactly a friend of Aunt Maria’s – more of an acquaintance, I think. They must have met when I came out. She’s the godmother of a friend your father met in the war.”
“I still don’t see why you should call on this Countess if you don’t want to. Anyway, the GA has to see that having a toothache is a perfectly reasonable reason not to. Gimminy, the way she fusses about her own health!”
“All the same, I’d rather have a different excuse.”
“Anyone would. Jolly lucky Susan knew what it was, though. Things like that only get worse if you leave them.”
“I suppose I was a bit of a galoot not to ring the dentist yesterday.” Molly said, and grinned at Nancy’s expression. “I am your mother – so I don’t see why I shouldn’t use your word occasionally!”
It wasn’t calm in the morning so, after an early start and a breakfast that was as hasty as Susan would allow, the little fleet collected Timothy from the houseboat and tacked north as far as Beckfoot. They arrived as Nancy was coming out of the garage. It seemed strange, Titty thought, seeing Nancy dressed in a cotton frock. It was a grown-up frock with skirts quite as long as those the best of all-natives wore and, though Nancy wore sandshoes and her red stocking cap, a pair of tan shoes and a straw hat with a small brim and a red ribbon round it lay on Rattletrap’s back seat.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come too?” Peggy asked her mother, who was trying to appear her usual chatty self as climbed into the front passenger seat.
“There’s no point in both of you wasting your day,” Mrs Blackett said. She did sound like Nancy (and for that matter Peggy) sometimes, Titty thought, even if the jolly tone was a bit forced. It was probably difficult to be cheerful with the toothache.
“We can spend most of the day sailing,” Peggy said. “It’s a perfectly good wind.”
No-one was about to argue with this – it was really all the wind anyone would want without reefing the sails.
“Only don’t you need to go to the post office?” Titty asked Dorothea. “I thought you said you were out of stamps. We could sail to Rio or the North Pole and buy some, and then race?”
“There are usually some on the mantelpiece in the dining room,” Peggy said. “Although Nancy does keep using the last one.”
“It’s to Egypt,” Dorothea explained.
“Pity you didn’t ask Nancy to post it for you in Keswick – oh well, no one can think of everything. Rio first then,” said Peggy.
“I thought of it – but then thought your mother wouldn’t want to be traipsing to the post office after having a tooth out.”
“They’d probably have plenty of time before,” said Peggy, “the way Nancy drives. It doesn’t matter that much anyway.”
They never got those stamps.
“Hello!” Peggy said, as Amazon approached the jetty at Rio. “What’s Sammy up to?”
The policeman was indeed standing on the shore, red-faced, perspiring and apparently questioning the visitors who were strolling about and occasionally holding on to their summer hats in the fresh breeze. Susan, at Amazon’s tiller, could spare scarcely a glance. Besides...
“What does Dot think she’s doing? Look out Peggy, we’re going about.”
And white-sailed Amazon set out on a new course, running before the wind in pursuit of red-sailed Scarab. It was not until they were well clear of the overcrowded playground of Rio bay that Peggy saw, or thought she did, why the two younger girls had turned south so abruptly.
“That’s Swallow, isn’t it?” Peggy asked. So far as she knew, Swallow was the only brown-sailed dinghy on the Lake.
Susan nodded, lips pressed together, still mostly concentrating on coming within hailing distance of Scarab. A year ago it would have been easy enough with Dot at Scarab’s helm. This summer, Dot was sailing much better. Scarab had been a fairly good distance behind Amazon, and so was now the same distance in front of her. Scarab was doing so well now that Susan would have thought that Titty rather than Dot was at the helm, had she not been able to glimpse the yellow and blue frocks in their former places.
“I can’t see why on earth Titty wants to go chasing after Lt. Marlow,” Susan said after a few minutes. Mother hadn’t exactly said that the Swallows were to keep out of the Marlows’ way as much as they politely could, but Susan had wondered if that was what Mother had meant when she had written the Lake is so big that you won’t be running into them constantly - and probably won’t meet them at all. Titty had thought the same when she read Mother’s letter.
“I don’t think it is the same man in the boat,” Peggy said. “He’s not sailing so well for one thing. I think he’s got dark hair too. The man staying with the Jacksons has fair hair.”
With the wind behind them and centre-boards up, both Scarab and Amazon were gaining on Swallow, although if Amazon made up any of the distance between Scarab and herself it was very little. There was no reason why the Marlows should not lend Swallow to a friend if they wished, after all.
They continued on, past Holly Howe, past Darien, past House Boat Bay. Susan began to wonder if the man at the tiller had after all stolen Swallow rather than been lent her. The idea of someone stealing Swallow was rather sickening, but it would be very difficult to remove her from the Lake – impossible, perhaps for one man to do so without help. The wind had become gustier. Susan did nothing to distract Peggy. Swallow changed course abruptly after Darien. Susan wondered if the dark-haired man knew he was being pursued or if he had intended to do so all along. It was the first time that Dot had shown any of the uncertainty that she had shown nearly all last summer, and she still did the thing more neatly than the dark-haired man did. Scarab had gained a little with the course change and Amazon had gained a little more. If the man aboard Scarab had had any doubts about whether he was being chased, he could have them no more. Susan felt certain that “native trouble” was only minutes ahead. Suppose this man, too, knew Father. Perhaps if they managed to avoid the giving of names or at least surnames, or perhaps speaking at all…..
It was strange that the man in Swallow had not hailed them to ask what they were about. Strange too that Titty and Dot, now within hailing distance of Amazon, had offered neither explanation nor instruction. All three dinghies were rapidly approaching the western shore. If any of the Swallows had been at her tiller, Swallow would have drawn ahead.
Titty’s voice came low across the water. “Amazon, stay south.”
Three words, but clear enough in meaning. Peggy gave the slightest of nods and altered course very slightly away from the wind. Dot steered Scarab fractionally more into the wind. Now Swallow had Scarab off her starboard quarter and Amazon off her port quarter. All three dinghies were rapidly approaching the low, stony shores of Cormorant Island.
By the time the man at Swallow’s tillerrealised he was trapped he had neither room nor time to do much about it. Susan thought she would have chosen to bring Swallow about and head for the eastern shore. It would be close, but she thought she could have done it. She knew John or Titty would have done so. You would have to know Swallow well, perhaps. This man sailed as if he had learned how from a book and had little practice. Susan feared he would ground Swallow and damage her hull on the edge of the heap of rocks and stones that was nearly all that there was to Cormorant Island. They had always come alongside one of the rocks, and had never beached any of the boats there.
Susan’s fears, for Swallow at least, were unfounded. The brown sail was lowered, untidily and inefficiently. You could not really say that the man had brought Swallow alongside the large rock, but as she neared it he stood up and abandoned her with a leap, vaulting up on the rock. The man might be a poor sailor, but he could be decisive enough and athletic enough to pull off such a manoeuvre, and only leave Swallow rocking gently and beginning to drift leewards. Now for the explanations and, perhaps, recriminations. Peggy was already bringing Amazon close enough to Swallow for Susan to scramble aboard and take control of her, without a word being said.
Dot was intent on seeing what Peggy and Susan did, and staying out of their way. It was Titty who saw the man run up the stone-strewn slope to the low summit of the island, with its small area of grass and heather - and then pause, just for a moment; the brief pause of a decisive person whose plans have hit an unexpected snag and who needs to make a new plan very quickly. Anyone who knew John or Nancy would recognise that pause. And then the man was in motion again, running down the slope to the other side of Cormorant Island.
“He thought it was a promontory and has just seen that it’s an island,” Titty said.
“We have the thief cornered,” Dorothea said.
“Are we sure...?”
“As eggs is… well, he could have been falsely accused of course.”
“We can’t really maroon him,” Titty said. “I don’t think even Nancy would do that – although I very much want to for him stealing Swallow.”
“I suppose we’ll have to take him on board. It won’t be safe for Susan or Peggy to rescue him, in case of being over powered.”
“We should probably tie his hands together with the painter,” Titty said.
“Do you think we should just watch and keep him from escaping while Susan and Peggy go and get help?”
“They might have another plan.” Dorothea looked doubtful. “We should ask.”
“Someone should tell Sammy,” Peggy said firmly. “He was chasing him.”
“We can’t all sail away and let him think he’s marooned,” Dorothea said. “He might be innocent after all. Sammy might have been misinformed.”
Dorothea half expected Peggy to argue this point, but there was a sudden, slightly awkward silence before Susan said, “Entirely possible, of course.”
“Just standing on the other shore forlornly,” Titty said.
“We should see what he has to say for himself,” Dot said. “You take the tiller, Titty.”
“Aye, sir. Don’t let him take you hostage,” Titty said.
“That’s pretty unlikely,” Susan answered. “All the same, keep your distance.”
Dot and Titty had started them on this strange adventure, after all, and there was least likely to be a row with Dot doing the talking.
Titty brought Scarab alongside one of the big rocks and Dot scrambled ashore. Susan noticed that Titty did not attempt to moor Scarab, but simply held on to the rock. It would not really be true to say Dot made her way up the slope noiselessly, but in her sandshoes she was as quiet as anyone could be on the loose scree-like surface. She had reached the top of the slope and was picking her way down the other side. Once the top of her head disappeared, the other three had nothing to do but wait.
“Nancy will be pretty sick about missing this,” Peggy said.
“So will John,” Susan replied.
Nothing beyond that was said, while they listened and waited.
Dot saw their mistake as soon as she reached the crest of Cormorant Island. The dark haired man might be an inexperienced sailor but he was evidently a strong fast swimmer, even in his clothes. Cormorant Island was not very far from the western shore of the Lake. Dot watched him for a few moments. She glanced back over her shoulder. Should they chase after him? Apart from the probable theft of Swallow they knew nothing about the man after all. Could he be more like Tom Dudgeon than George Owden? Was the distance too far to swim safely after all? Dot glanced north and east at Wild Cat Island, and then back at the dark head forging steadily through the water. Dot knew she was a poor judge of distances, but she did not think that the distance from Cormorant Island to the shore was longer than the distance around Wild Cat Island, and Nancy, John and Dick had had a race around Wild Cat Island last summer. Dot had felt quietly proud that Dick had beaten Nancy.
Dorothea realised that she had made her decision by default while she was thinking. The others could not sail around Cormorant Island in time to catch the thief before he reached the shore now. She picked her way towards the shore. Even a strong swimmer would take his shoes off first, surely.
The shoes were there, well-polished brown leather left at the water’s edge. They would almost certainly have fingerprints on them, Dorothea thought. The shoes were lying tumbled on their sides but above any danger from the wash of the steamers. A sudden recollection of another chase and another theft prompted Dorothea to look around, under between the stones and under the sparse tufts of heather, slowly going back the way she had come. He could have had very little time to hide anything.
When she founded it, she was astonished that she had not seen the glint of azure enamel the first time she had passed it. He had made no attempt to hide it – had merely tossed it aside where it had fallen between two rocks. Dorothea found she had something of a struggle to extract it and had to give up using her handkerchief. They would just have to take her fingerprints and eliminate them from consideration when they dusted the box for prints.
The box was unlocked. Perhaps the lock was broken. The catch no longer caught anyway, or perhaps Dorothea simply did not have the trick of it. There was velvet lining in a slightly deeper, richer shade of blue, slightly torn away from the side of the box near the catch. The shape of the padding underneath indicated that it normally housed a necklace of sufficient importance to have its own box. Dorothea could glimpse the rich cream colour of writing paper and the brownish black of old ink. She eased the lining away as well as she could without tearing it anymore and twisted her neck to read the few words she could see. It was written in French. She read it aloud, quietly, and then did her best to translate it. She knew “un baiser” was a kiss, the verb baiser probably meant to kiss, although they had been taught in school to use the verb embrasser. Perhaps baiser was a more old-fashioned way of saying it. It was clearly a love letter which had been carefully hidden, and Dorothea would do what she could to make sure it remained so. She eased the lining back into place, marked the place where she had found it with a tripod of sticks, picked up the box, using her handkerchief this time and went back to Scarab.
Peggy found her sister reading in the drawing room, still dressed in her “respectable” frock. She wasn’t surprised that Nancy was dangling both legs over one arm of her chair with her back comfortably supported by the other arm.
Nancy looked up as she entered. “Mother’s pretty washed out by it. She’s had the tooth out, of course. The dentist didn’t exactly call her a galoot for not telephoning about it earlier, but he said it was a good thing that Susan knew what was wrong.”
“You’re staying at home tonight? Do you want me to as well?”
Nancy shook her head. “No need. You can come and collect me in the morning and I’ll come and stir you all up. Where did you go today anyway?”
It was rather satisfying to be able to say, “Well, Swallow was stolen, so we gave chase, and cornered him on Cormorant Island – I say, Dot manages Scarab a LOT better when she just thinks about where she wanted her to go and not about how she might get it wrong – at least we thought he was cornered but he swam to shore with the countess’s diamond necklace around her neck – not that we knew that at the time of course and it’s only Susan’s guess that he swam with it that way…”
It was even more satisfying to have Nancy command her to “Tell it all properly and don’t leave anything out!”
Eventually Peggy had come to the end of her story, leaving nothing out - not even the way that the Countess of Severn and Thames had seemed so relieved to have the enamelled box back and so much less worried about the necklace that Susan had wondered, privately afterwards and just between the two of them, whether the necklace had been paste after all.
“It could be that the box is more valuable – a terribly rare antique or something,” Nancy suggested.
“Or she just wanted to show how pleased she was that Dot had found the box and not seem ungrateful about it. Look here, are you sure you and Mother don’t want me to stay at home?”
“I don’t think Mother’s feeling much like talking this evening – and she said she’d be happier if one of us was on Wild Cat while the Callums and Mrs Walker aren’t here. We got to Keswick early, and went to that second-hand book shop and treated ourselves. Well, Mother did the treating. We got one for you too. It seems to be short stories, so the couple of missing pages won’t matter much. Looks lively enough anyway. I read one of them while I was waiting for you.
Nancy handed Peggy a book. Despite its battered cover it looked recent. “Boodle” by Leslie Charteris.
“Thank you,” Peggy said.
“I only chose it. Mother bought it.”