The little boat went skipping over the waves as Nancy put her back into the rowing. The Bright Suzy's crew loyally did not think her as pretty as the Swallow or the Amazon, but they were glad for her anyway, as she jumped at the command of Nancy's oars and scudded across the water as though there were nothing in the world she would rather do. Besides which, she was here and their own boats weren't.
John perched in the bow, keeping a lookout for the landing he meant them to make. Some sailor she would think him if he missed that out in the calm and clear of a May afternoon. She could certainly still pull harder on her own than he ever had done.
They had come round the promontory that walled the harbour in to the north and Nancy was keeping a course that would bring them parallel to the coastline once it curved round again. Then it would just be on for a ways like that - and mind they didn't miss the little break in the sheer cliffs that was all the landing John knew of for miles.
They didn't talk. But, then, they didn't need to. He'd still been at school the last time they'd gone on an adventure; now he was three years free of it, on his way to being an actual captain of a proper ship. Even if this adventure was only meant to be a weekend rambling some unfamiliar countryside it brought with it the sort of excitement John hadn't the words for, just a tight, bursting feeling in his chest that he felt sure would explode out if he gave it the least chance. Though he thought Nancy might have done better, if she'd cared to spare breath from rowing.
Their destination was only a mile or so on and, in the end, easily spotted by John. He sang out smartly and Nancy fell to backing the oars to slow the Bright Suzy, then working the left side to bring her about. After that it was fiddly strokes to one side and then the other to bring them in. With John still acting as lookout, Nancy managed it as though she'd brought a boat in to beach here a dozen dozen times.
John untied the net bag full of bottles of grog from the stern line - they had bobbled along behind the Bright Suzy, buffeted this way and that by her wake, but had come through none the worse for wear. Then he unloaded his rucksack. Nancy was sorting the rest of the cargo: her own rucksack, a canvas bundle attached to a pole, and a tin box John hadn't noticed until just then. She piled these things on the shingle amongst the rocks; then they moved as one to shift the Bright Suzy properly out of the water.
Out came the Survey map John had procured. It showed the harbour and the coastline a ways on to both the north and south, as well as the inland terrain for quite a distance out from the town. He'd marked this landing on it in neat pencil - simply as SECRET, as he'd never had Titty's talent for naming things.
Nancy was nodding beside him, though, saying, "Of course we can't name it on the map; it wouldn't do for the information to fall into the wrong hands."
"No, it wouldn't," John said, slightly more solemnly than he'd meant to, then added, more cheerfully, "There's just barely a path up the cliff here, but I've done it before with a rucksack, so that's all right. I suppose we'll have to haul the bundles up, though - "
Nancy had turned to gauge the height of the cliff while he was still speaking, and she answered, "I think I've enough rope to tie one end round the tent and the other to my pack and let it pay out while we climb."
John nodded. Of course she had rope. She'd never thought an expedition complete without it.
The map was put away and the rope brought out and tied round the tent. Then there was nothing but to crab their way up the cliff, along bits of rock more like a glorified ledge than a path. At the top, they hauled the tent in together, each took a pole-end over a shoulder, and set off inland.
They'd been walking for nearly an hour when they came to the large, flat rock on top of the hill - perfect for sitting and eating dinner. Nancy didn't even ask, just set down her pack and pole-end and turned to look back the way they had come. John looked back over his shoulder to see that at this distance it seemed as though the land met the sea just at the edge there.
He pulled forth meat pies and seed cake and apples, which had been stowed in his rucksack along with the Survey map and various other useful things. He held a few squares of chocolate, and a few again of toffee, in reserve, carefully wrapped in a twist of waxed paper, nestled in his coat pocket alongside a stub of pencil and a small notebook. Nancy had brought out her knife and set to opening bottles, but she'd set out a paper-wrapped lump that proved to be cheese and a napkin-full of squashy currant buns for her part. They'd certainly eat well, even lacking the mates.
Then the bottles were being shared out and Nancy was picking up a pie and biting into it with relish. John let the gingery flavour of the grog fill his mouth completely, the taste immediately pulling him back to summers on the lake with all the rest. He mostly drank lager these days, or sometimes stout, if the occasion didn't call for whiskey - or tea - but when he'd been taking on supplies, there'd been no question of what to do for grog.
He said to Nancy, "When we find a good place to camp, we can look round for a farm and buy eggs and butter to cook for supper - maybe some bread and lettuces, too."
Nancy said, around a half-chewed mouthful of apple, "And milk for tea - "
John shook his head, "I didn't remember to bring any."
"Well, I did," she said, grinning. "I may like grog better, but tea's the thing when there's a bit of fog. I heard them saying, back in harbour, we were due a right'un."
He nodded and took another pull from his bottle. He'd remembered a blanket and a jumper and his torch and compass and some matches. And here Nancy was with a tent and the tea. The currant buns and cheese for stores were just to be expected of her. He'd let his stomach rule the supplying, as well.
They did in most of the pies, half the cake and currant buns, and a good few of the apples with some cheese. Then they stretched out on the flat rock in the sun with the ends of their bottles of grog, contentedly silent - good food just behind them, adventure waiting ahead.
The remains of lunch had been packed away. Now packs were shouldered and their party set off again, following a track down the hill behind the rock.
In the end, it was a burble of water they heard from the track that decided them on where to make camp. Nancy turned off immediately to work her way round the hill which seemed to conceal the sound's source. They found, moments later, that the water sprang from a cairn of stones near the top of the hill and flowed pleasantly down from there. And that near the bottom there was a good stand of bracken and a willow or two.
Nancy declared for camp at once. John readily agreed, happy to set his things down. They were both wondering what it would be called by the time they went away again.
Soon, John set off along a sheep track in a direction they'd seen smoke, as there would surely be a farm somewhere near there. Nancy stayed behind to set the tent - it was hers, after all - and have her pleasure with the fire. When he got back with the eggs and butter and bread and lettuces, plus a pint bottle of milk and sugar and pepper in twists of brown paper, the fire was ready to be cooked over and Nancy was sitting there, poking it happily with a stick.
He did not have Susan's skill with food, of course - and neither did Nancy, as she'd always had Peggy for the purpose. But he had learnt eggs and toast at school, and tea and cocoa, though they only had tea thanks to Nancy (and how Susan had ever thought of all the things necessary for trips far longer than a day or two he couldn't imagine). Now, he pulled out a speckled enamel plate and a tongs for a handle, cut a pat of butter off the larger lump, and held the whole mess over the fire to start the butter melting.
Nancy boiled the water for tea right in their mugs, with the sugar in right off, as well. Then she toasted hunks of the bread. When John's muddled eggs were ready, they ate them with pepper and the hunks of bread and lettuces - and sweet, milky tea. And they both thought it was the best thing they'd had to eat in ages.
After the washing up, they sat by the fire. They were quiet again, at first, digesting. But the pole star was bright in the sky, seeming to wink down at them, and John said so. Of course, Nancy had to find the Three Sisters - and then they were off, naming stars and constellations to each other, knowing them all again as though for the first time.
When they ran out of constellations to name or imagine they fell silent again. But that did not last, as Nancy soon asked, "Do you ever hear anything of the Ds?"
John replied, "Roger's at school with Dick and he says the government's after Dick to come work for them. And Titty writes to Dorothea - she says Dot's latest novel is wonderful - even the ship bits."
Nancy had only heard second-hand tales of the arguments over Dot's stories that took place on ships, but she grinned anyway and said, "Has Dot been published, then? Well, shiver me timbers!"
"No - but she keeps banging out novels and sending them to Titty to read - and Titty writes to me about them. The latest bunch are all about a boy who turns pirate to rescue the girl he loves - only she doesn't need rescuing, because the pirates have made her their queen." John had never been as much for stories as some of the others, but he thought there was something of Nancy to Dot's latest creation - and that made her interesting to him.
Nancy grinned wider at that and said, "I'd buy them if they were - so they jolly well should be." Then she added, "But what does the government want Dick for?"
John did not answer immediately, and when he did his voice was not so cheerful as it had been, but nonetheless he said to Nancy, "They think the war's coming to us - I suppose they think he can build something useful or figure out something important for them. You know how Dick is."
Nancy nodded solemnly and said, "I bet they're not far wrong. But if they really had sense they'd let me join the navy properly."
And John nodded back, in complete agreement - Nancy had had better seamanship at twelve than some of his cohort would have at the end of their training and there was nobody whom he would rather have been aboard any ship with (perhaps excepting his father).
After that they went quiet again, both thinking their own thoughts to themselves. John had considered earlier that they might finish the cake before bed, but he no longer wanted any. Instead he pulled the twist of waxed paper from his coat pocket, extracted two squares of toffee, and offered one to Nancy. She was not slow to take it from him, so they sat sucking on their toffees until they could chew them. And when they'd done, they brushed their teeth, wrapped themselves in blankets, and went to sleep.
The fog crept in during the night.