The Road to Rio
If only Mr Peters had not broken his leg at the Old Boys’ cricket game, then
that summer holiday would have been very different. The Games master read the paper
religiously, and would have known of the drought in the Lake District—from which it follows
that he would probably have realized the consequences for the school’s Scout troop’s annual
camping trip. However, he managed (somehow) to trip over a misplaced bat, tangle with a
deck chair, and lay himself full length on the grass. He struggled up white-faced with
pain, unable to set his right foot to the ground. This was less than a week before the
end of term.
The scouts’ camping trip was tradition: it was also held in the summer hols; and hence,
from the boys’ perspective, a matter for themselves to organize. The contribution of Mr
Peters was, in their view, pro forma. With characteristic decision, Norton, the Head
Boy of Stuart’s House, informed his troop that, regardless of what the other Houses might
do, as far as they were concerned, the trip was still on. Whether he bothered to
inform their housemaster of the decision is moot.
In the study he shared with Treviss, Lanyon simply rejoiced. He saw his trunk off to the
station for its train trip home, packed a knapsack with everything he thought he might need,
and fetched his bedroll from storage in the House’s attic. Attired in uniform, stave in
hand, he joined the other Scouts for the hike to the station; and they shared two carriages,
shifting back and forth between them, as they loudly anticipated the pleasures of a week under
canvas. It was only when they departed the train at the station at the southern end of the
lake that the Scouts discovered any impediment to their intended holiday. Even then, at
first, they considered the matter trivial. So it hadn’t rained in a while?
“A while! More than a month,” warned the Stationmaster. “You won’t find it so easy to
get permission to camp—not if you plan to lay a fire and cook for yourselves.” He could,
of course, see the kettle and frying pan hung from Norton’s rucksack. Helpfully, he added
that there’d be no point at all heading up the west side of the lake, “for they’d a nasty
fire there not a week ago. All burnt to black stubble it’ll be. They were lucky to save
This sounded like poor camping indeed; and they thanked him for the advice and headed east
instead, rounding the narrow southern end of the lake and heading up the northward road. Soon
they came to a farm, where they discovered to their chagrin that the lack of rain was not
irrelevant to their plans at all, for, when they asked about camping on the fells above them
to the east, the request was met with alarm: the bracken and gorse were tinder dry and the
becks sunk to trickles at best. Denied a campground, they continued on their way, still not
put off, for there was most of the afternoon left to find a place to pitch their tents for
the night. Shortly, they entered a wood; and, for some distance, there was a running discussion
as to whether they should simply bypass the locals by striking out into the trees to find a
suitable clearing for themselves. Advocates for this course were loudest among the younger
boys: the two prefects and Head of House were better aware that woods are property. In the
end, they simply stopped a little way off the road to have a meal. Even then, Norton squelched
suggestions that they find a place to fish: their dinner was corned beef sandwiches and
apples. He did not even permit them to build so much as a small fire for making
tea; but insisted that they break into their store of ginger beer—and then, as a true Scout
leader, required them to carry the empty bottles with them thereafter.
It was almost sunset when they arrived at Dixon’s Farm, to much the same reception they
had found earlier, but with the added argument on their side that the day was drawing in
and they needed some place to stay. Furthermore, there were too many of them for
the farmwife to put up in the house, even if she had not already had guests. At first,
she was all for their continuing on their way to the small local town to find lodgings—a
thought that caused the older scouts, in particular, to mentally (and negatively) review
their finances. Then came salvation: one of the paying guests, hearing voices, came into
the farm kitchen to see what was going on. He was a pleasant looking, scholarly man in a
tweed suit with leather patches on the elbows. In the warmth of the room, he took off his
glasses and polished them before putting them back on. The farmwife introduced him to the
boys as Prof. Callum.
“But they’re not staying,” she said hastily. “We’ve no room,
of course; and their notion of camping out of doors is quite impossible, given the drought.”
“Ah, but they’re Scouts, Mrs D,” said the professor. “A full patrol of Scouts from the
look of it; and very responsible men indeed, I’m sure.” He smiled round the group, and
added, “Why, when my Dick is a bit older, he might be a Scout himself. He’s acquired
quite a taste for camping and sailing.”
Dick did not appear; but the mention of him roused the farmer from his silence in the corner.
“They might pitch their tents up by t’old barn, you know. Observatory, as the youngsters
do call it.”
“Are you sure, Dixon?” said his wife, taken rather aback.
“I’ll show the lads the way and see if there’s water in t’beck back of barn.”
Taking up a bucket from the yard, he led them up a path to a dilapidated stone building,
around which was a flattish area where tents could be pitched. Then he disappeared past
the building, heading down to the faint sound of a stream, and came back a moment later
with the bucket half-full.
“Aye, there’s water,” he informed them, “but beck’s sadly
low. ’Twon’t be fit to drink—you’ll have to
come down to t’farm.”
“Would we,” asked Norton, “be allowed to have a fire? We’d prefer to cook for ourselves,
you see, sir?”
Lanyon certainly hoped so. They’d provisioned themselves at the shops in the small village
by the station at the foot of the lake. A package of chops resided in his own knapsack; and
it would be a pity if they didn’t get the chance to fry them up over their own fire.
Fortunately, after showing the farmer where they’d lay the fire and assuring him that the bucket
of water would be kept ready to hand to quench the ashes, the Scouts were granted the necessary
permission. Mr Dixon headed back downhill; and they set to work getting the camp in order. Tents
were pitched and bedrolls sorted. Lanyon went to get water, while Treviss took a gang of the
younger boys to scour up wood. Norton supervised the building of a fireplace, setting the stones
around it more firmly himself to be sure of its safety. In due course, they settled down to
hastily fried chops with a medley of tinned veg hotted up in the large saucepan. Lanyon read
to them all for a bit out of the copy of Mixed Moss, by a Rolling Stone that he had
received as a birthday present; a short sing-song followed; and then lights out.
The following day there was, once again, discussion of their plans. The old barn was, in the
Scouts’ eyes, far too close to civilization. On the other hand, weighing the evidence of the
farmers’ reluctance and adding that to the stationmaster’s warning, their chances of finding a
better site seemed slim. This was especially obvious to the elders among them. At least here
at Dixons’, it was possible to get water and permitted to have a fire. These essentials taken
care of, the Scouts decided in the end that it was up to themselves to make the most of the
situation. They therefore made up sandwiches, took apples and bottles, and split into three
parties—each led by one of the seniors—in order to go exploring.
Lanyon took his trio of youngsters lakewards, dipping into the woods for a while, but heading
more or less steadily downhill until they came out on the shore of a shallow bay. Across the
water, not far away, there was a fairly large wooded island.
“Wouldn’t mind being over there,” said a Fourth Former. “Looks like
a pretty good place to camp.”
“Need boats, though,” one of the others pointed out. “Have to rent
them—and, if you know how to sail, you’re one up on me.”
Lanyon, whose home was a port city, had done some boating in the hols; but he forbore to
mention the fact.
They sat on the rocks by the water to eat, and amused themselves watching the little dinghies
scudding over the water. After a while, they realized that a race was on between one little
boat with a white sail and another whose sail was brown. Being naturally competitive, they
picked their sides—and the youngest among them even
cheered—as the boats came round the
island from the south and beat up the narrow channel, eventually coming to open water. They
came close enough for the watchers to see that each was manned by four children of assorted
sizes, two of whom wore red stocking caps. There was a glint off a pair of glasses. Then the
boats headed north; and it was impossible to say which crew eventually won the race.
“You know, I think there’s a camp on that island,” Lanyon said after a bit.
“Someone’s bagged it already,” said young Carter.
“Could be those kids,” said Green. He couldn’t be much older than the biggest of the
children in the boats; but most of them were clearly still at prep school.
“Whoever it is, it won’t be us,” said Lanyon firmly. That evening, though, he went down
himself to fetch milk from the farm, and made a point of mentioning the boat race.
“Oh, that’ll be the Blackett girls from Beckfoot and their friends staying at Holly
Howe,” said Mrs Dixon. (Her husband spoke not a word all the time Lanyon was in the
kitchen.) “Also young Dick and Dorothea, the Callums’ children. Yes, they’re all staying
on the island. Wild Cat Island, they call it.”
Lanyon, who had merely been curious, didn’t bother reporting this to the Scouts.
With the inroads they had all made into the ginger beer store that day, it was necessary
that someone go into town to replenish stocks. After camp chores the following morning,
therefore, Norton handed over the troop’s money, and Lanyon and Treviss collected knapsacks
and headed off. Using their compasses to check the direction against the map, they cut
downstream along the trickle of the beck, past a small, almost dried-up pool, coming out
shortly thereafter on the main road. In a little while, they passed a pretty white
farmhouse. On the grass leading down to the lake, they could see a woman playing with
a small child; but they did not stop for directions. Trusting to their scouting skills,
they continued on. The road led them north, more houses began to appear, and they soon
found themselves heading downhill into a fair-sized village. Ahead was the High Street,
lined with shops; and beyond lay a small harbour full of boats of all sizes.
“If we can find the post office,” said Treviss, “I think I’ll buy a card to send home.”
“Do that first, then, Hugh?” suggested Lanyon.
They were looking through the selection of postcards in the rack when, through the glass
of the door, Lanyon caught sight of a red stocking cap on a girl coming along the harbour
road with a group of other children, and guessed that she was one of the sailors they’d seen racing.
Treviss picked his card, composed his message, and bought a stamp; and the two Scouts
got directions to the grocer’s. As soon as they entered the shop, bell jangling, it was
clear that this was the same destination for which the young sailors had been bound. Sundry
tins and bottles were being assembled on the counters; and there was a lively ongoing
discussion as to the merits of further purchases.
Lanyon and Treviss hung back, looking around while waiting their turn.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Treviss quietly, “maybe I’ll shell out for a round of
chocolate. What do you think, Ralph?”
“It’s an idea,” said Lanyon. “It’s not in the budget, though.”
“No, no. I’ve enough left. Raise morale a bit, I thought.”
Over his shoulder, Lanyon could see a couple of good slabs of chocolate on the counter
alongside more prosaic supplies. “A good thought,” he said, adding, “Generous of you, Hugh.”
The other Scout shrugged. “Call it my good deed for the day.”
The children at the counter paid over their money. Knapsacks rustled and bottles chinked;
and the sound of supplies being packed cued Treviss to turn. It was at that moment that
the bell above the shop door tinkled again as a man entered—a tall man, a little stouter
round the middle than Lanyon had imagined him, but nevertheless unmistakeably familiar.
He stared, openly enough to catch Treviss’s attention.
“What is it?”
Recalled to himself, he flushed with embarrassment. “Oh, Lord, was I staring?” he muttered,
keeping his voice too low to be heard across the shop. The thought of being rude paralyzed
him. He turned his head away, hoping he hadn’t been noticed.
Treviss turned to look. “That man? Do you know him?”
“Keep your voice down,” Lanyon groaned.
“Who is he?” Treviss asked, mercifully in lower tones.
“You don’t know?” It was barely more than a murmur. “That’s
James Turner. The man who wrote Mixed Moss.” He had only read the book
three times already: he was utterly familiar with the photograph on the dust jacket.
James Turner (if it was indeed he) greeted the children at the counter, who clearly knew
him. “Uncle Jim!” said the shorter of the red-capped girls—at
close quarters both had proved to be present—“should we get peaches as
well as pears?” She gestured towards the tins. “We want enough for
the feast, but—”
“Peaches and pears, certainly,” he declared, “and we’ll have another tin of those
mixed biscuits, I think. And Susan—” Another girl turned round
at this. “—if you want to go along to the bakery and pick out a good
selection of cakes and buns—” There was a loud huzzah at this from
the smallest of the boys. “—I’ll be along in a minute to pay for it all.”
“Oh, I say, sir, that’s not necessary,” said the tallest of the boys (not very
tall in Lanyon’s estimation). “We can pay for our own contribution, you know; and Mrs
Blackett was very generous.”
“Jib-booms and bob-stays,” said the bigger of the red-caps, to Lanyon’s surprise, “if
Captain Flint wants to give us a treat, let him. The more the merrier, if you ask me.”
“I’m with Nancy,” said the famous author. “The more the merrier; and that means eight
of you lot, and Timothy and myself. And after the icy plunge to the deepest depths, I’m
going to want a good feed. I can’t speak for you lot, of course—”
(This was said with a smile and met with a cry of, “Of course you can,” from
the smallest of the girls.) “—but I think I can speak for Timothy, at least.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” said the oldest boy doubtfully. Then he grinned, looking for
a moment quite remarkably like the shortest of the boys, and said, “Thank you very much.”
“And now that that’s decided,” said the man, slipping out of the straps of a huge
rucksack, “just pack everything in here, will you—” and he nodded at the shopkeeper
“—and I’ll take it all to the houseboat for you.”
There was a brief hesitation among the children. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll
catch up with you at the bakery.”
Then they were off; and he turned to the shopkeeper, asking, “What’s the damage?”
“Well, they’ve paid for most of it,” the woman said, “but with the extra tins and the
biscuits, call it three and eightpence.”
He was rummaging in his trouser pocket when he caught sight of the two Scouts, silent and wide-eyed.
“Hello, you two. Can I help you? Are you waiting to be served?”
Treviss gave Lanyon a firm nudge. Then, when the other Scout failed to speak, he said
clearly, “He’d like to speak to you, sir.” Ignoring his friend’s start and glare, he went
on, “Well, that is if he’s right and you’re the James Turner who wrote Mixed Moss, by
a Rolling Stone, sir.”
James Turner (for it was, of course, he) looked at the other lad, stricken and silent,
and said cheerily, “One of my devoted readers, I take it?”
Dumbly, Lanyon nodded.
“No need to be shy. I don’t bite.” He smiled and came over. “If
I did, those rapscallion nieces of mine would pull my teeth for me—aided and
abetted, no doubt, by that crew of friends they’ve made.”
“I’ve read your book several times, actually,” Lanyon said. “It’s fascinating, sir; it
really is. All the places you’ve been. I’d like to travel abroad—work
abroad—myself when I leave school. After university, anyway.”
“If higher education’s your cup of tea, then go for it,” Mr Turner agreed.
“Though—speaking just for myself, you understand—we were
never quite on speaking terms. I left betimes, and found better luck elsewhere. Were
you thinking of the colonial service? Or perhaps the armed forces?”
“Actually, sir,” said Lanyon, “I was thinking of reading Geography. Unfortunately,
there’s not much of the globe left to explore. Even the far Poles and
Darkest Africa—people have been pretty well everywhere by now.”
“All the red bits on the map,” agreed Mr Turner. “Britannia does rule the
waves. Still, there are adventures to be had, one way or another. I’m sure
you’ll find your way.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The author waited a moment, just in case an autograph album should be produced; but
that was not Lanyon’s style. Then, “I’d better be off before they buy out the baker,” he
said, and heaved up the knapsack. “If you chaps are around, we may run into each other
again,” he added politely, and opened the tinkling door and left.
With their own purchases made, the two Scouts carried their own laden rucksacks back up
the hill and along the road. Lanyon did not have much to say; and, after a while, Treviss
ceased trying to persuade him into conversation. He handed the balance of their funds back
to Norton without comment. And that night, as he read the usual few pages from Mixed
Moss to the fascinated juniors, Lanyon never mentioned that he had just met the
author. Treviss was not surprised: Lanyon always kept his dearest feelings to himself.
The Swallows, Amazons, and Ds had not missed the small band of Scouts on the shore during
their race. The uniforms caught their eye, as well as the evident attention. As they
sailed off north, there was some discussion—at least aboard Swallow—as
to the best way to refer to them. Were Scouts mere natives? Or were they more
like explorers themselves?
“We’ll never know,” said Susan pragmatically, “because we’ll never meet them. Not unless
they’re Sea Scouts and have boats of their own, you know. They’ll have a camp somewhere
on land. Maybe in the woods where the charcoal burners are.”
“Not this summer,” said Roger.
No. The only charcoal burners around here this summer had been the S.A.D.M.C. But that
was behind them. Mother had come with Bridget to Holly Howe, Swallow was theirs
again, and the rest of the summer was sailing. Their camp was already set up on Wild Cat
Island with two new small tents for the Ds; and Captain Flint had agreed to put off his own
mining for a few weeks and stay on the houseboat.
Although they saw two of the Scouts in the shop the next day, the children were far too
involved in shopping to do more than register their presence. Mrs Blackett had provided
money for provisions; and Susan was concerned to lay it out to the best advantage, with
or without the suggestions being put in loudly by Roger—especially Roger—but also the
others. It was therefore the entrance of Captain Flint that caught their attention,
especially after he made it clear that the feast after the attack would be even more
sumptuous than they had expected. They hared off to the bakery to choose buns and cakes,
leaving him the donkey work of hauling supplies. By the time he came after them, he had
disposed of the rucksack; and they put any delay down to the time taken to leave it in his
rowboat. Meanwhile, they had made their selection twice over, and changed their minds yet
again. He was left standing, jingling the coins in his pocket, while Nancy and Peggy
argued the relative merits of fruit cake and cream puffs. In the end, he settled the
matter by buying both.
“Now,” he declared, “unless you lot have something desperate planned, you’d better all
come back with me and have tea on the houseboat.”
Since it takes rather longer to row than to sail, the two dinghies took a circuitous
route, tracking the slow progress of the rowboat in the distance. They lost sight of it
for a while as they dipped deeply to the south, circumnavigating Wildcat Island; but it
came back into view, tiny in the distance, as they came up the inside passage, past Shark
Bay. Today, there were no watching Boy Scouts; but then, today, they were not really
racing. In any case, their attention was on their destination.
As they approached the houseboat, they were surprised to see a second rowboat tied up
alongside Captain Flint’s. At first, they thought that their mother might have come over
from Holly Howe, though why she would go to the houseboat rather than the island no one
could imagine. Coming alongside, though, Dorothea recognized the rowboat as the one from
Dixon’s Farm; and, once aboard, they found that Squashy Hat—Mr Stedding, that is, each
mentally corrected—was there with a knapsack full of samples from the mine, which he had
unpacked all over the table. Captain Flint had picked up a specimen, and was looking at
“Oh, stop that, do,” said Nancy briskly, as she took in the sight. “You’ve plenty of
time to fiddle around with your scales and chemicals after tea—indeed, after we’ve gone
back to school, for that matter. Aren’t you entitled to summer hols, too?”
Her uncle looked at her with some amusement. “A week ago weren’t you all mad miners?” he asked.
“That was then,” said Titty seriously. “We’ve got Swallow back,
now. We’re explorers again.”
“Ah, quite,” said Captain Flint, his face straight. “Well, there’s rampant piracy the
day after tomorrow, as I recall. I’ve marked it in my diary: two p.m. sharp.”
“Now you’re laughing at us,” said Peggy comfortably. “Well, as long as you walk the plank
properly at the end and give us a good show, that’s all that matters.”
“Ha!” declared her uncle, “That is up to you lot. If you don’t win the battle,
I’ll tip the whole lot of you overboard for the sharks, and eat the entire feast myself.”
Roger looked at him with some awe, reckoning that, large as he was, he might actually manage it.
“The real question,” said Titty, “is whether Squashy—” Her hand
flew to her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I meant Mr Stedding—”
“Call me Timothy, please,” said the tall thin man (who, for once, had doffed the old
hat that had led them to dub him “Squashy Hat” before they had known his real name). “Mr
Stedding’s my father.” He flushed a bit at the attention, saw Titty’s confusion, and
kindly added, “Well, how would you feel if I addressed you as Mrs Walker? Or your
brother—” he added, looking at John, “—as Mister Walker, come to that?”
“Commander Walker, actually,” said John, correcting him politely. “Our father is in
“His ship’s stationed in China,” Titty added.
“Well, I beg his pardon,” said Mr Stedding gravely, “and that of the Senior Service. I
didn’t know. But I don’t really know you all much yet, you see.” If inside, he blenched
at the thought of getting to know a horde of children, he hid it manfully. Still, he
remained rather quiet thereafter. Not that the children noticed. He was never talkative.
Captain Flint went in the galley and put on a kettle for tea. Indeed, in a more civilized
fashion than one might expect of a retired pirate, he lifted down a large teapot and
caddy. Then, he brought out the cream puffs.
Roger’s eyes gleamed; but Susan protested, “Those were bought for the feast.”
“In this heat, they won’t keep,” he pointed out.
This was so obvious that she blushed a little. Fortunately, she could busy herself fetching
down mugs and finding the sugar. Looking at her face, he tactfully left the rest of the
preparations to her.
Mr Stedding’s specimens were ruthlessly shovelled back into his knapsack to make space for
explorers, pirates, and food; the table was set; and, in due course, mugs of tea appeared
and they all set to.
The following day dawned bright and cloudless, another hot, blue day. Although they
had to wait the statutory hour after breakfast, the children changed into bathing things;
and, as soon as Susan permitted, they took eagerly to the water. John and Nancy both
swam around the island, each striving to be first back to the bay. Titty persuaded Dorothea
to dive for pearls. Joined by Roger, they brought up wet and shining pebbles; and these were
striking enough in their paleness that, after a while, Dick took an interest. (He said they
An hour later, the Mate and Peggy conferred and got out to dry themselves on bath towels
and change into their regular clothes. Some time later, there was a call to lunch. It
was after the washing up (which both insisted had to be done) that they all heard a hail
from the water. The voice was very familiar; and they headed to the harbour to find Mrs
Walker dragging the rowboat from Holly Howe up onto the beach.
“Bridget and l,” she said, for the youngest of the Walkers was with her, “thought we have
lunch with you. But I see,” she added, with an eye on Roger’s face, “that
you’ve just had it.”
“Oh, we can manage a bit more,” said Titty hastily.
“Can you?” Seeing their bright eyes, she answered herself ruefully, “Well, I’m sure you
can. Bottomless pits you all are at your age. We’ll join you for a cup of tea.”
As John helped her pull the rowboat further up, Susan slipped quietly back to camp to put
the kettle back on; and, by the time they all came up together, loudly talking and eager to
show off their camp, she had put together sandwiches and fetched out apples so that Mother
and Bridgie would not go hungry. Indeed, she doled out a round of biscuits from the tin. Still,
though this filled mouths as well as hands, the children were still well able to provide Mother
with a blow by blow description of the boat race. She followed the details of their
seamanship with close attention, for she had not forgotten her sailing days in Sydney Harbour
when she was a girl.
After that, Susan went round to collect mugs. Bridget was still working her way through
the end of her sandwich.
“Leave her to finish at her own pace,” Mother said. Then she added—in a brisk firm
tone that caught their attention—that she wanted them to pay attention, for she had something to say.
Susan put the dirty mugs aside and sat down. With an eye on Bridget, she did not yet
firmly fit the lid back on the biscuit tin.
“I know you’ve all been expecting to be here at the lake sailing for a couple of weeks
yet,” Mother began, “but I have the most marvellous news. Daddy is coming home.”
The Swallows exclaimed with surprise and joy.
“And,” she went on, “this means, of course, that we’ll be going south to meet him. I’ve
made arrangements for us to board at Alma Cottage in Pin Mill. Daddy should be here in
a week’s time. So, since it’s almost the end of the week, I’ve given notice to the
Jacksons. We’ll be leaving tomorrow on the early train—that way we’ll
not have to break our journey—and all this means you will have to pack up now
and come back to Holly Howe with me this afternoon.”
John and Susan had been following this silently, with sideward glances as they absorbed
the news. Nancy and Peggy were only slightly behind. The conclusion came as a horrid
shock, though, to Titty and Roger.
“But what about the attack on the houseboat!” cried the latter. “We can’t go home before
Captain Flint walks the plank!”
“I’m afraid you have to, darlings,” said his mother. “There isn’t time for you to do it
this afternoon, not with all there is to do with striking camp; and we won’t be here tomorrow.”
Titty looked torn between the dashing of their plans and her joy at seeing Daddy again so
unexpectedly. The Amazons, with a single glance of mutual agreement, remained silent. To
the Callums, the details of the others’ lives were still, in some ways, obscure. Certainly,
thought Dorothea, it was a pity to have all their plans spoiled; but obviously the Swallows
must be glad for their father’s return. In either case, there was no help for it.
“Do you know why Daddy is returning?” asked John unexpectedly.
“It’s so sudden,” lamented Titty. “Lovely, of course—but sudden.”
“He’s being posted,” said their mother. “To Harwich, so we’ll be moving to the south
for a while. I received his letter last month, while Bridgie had whooping
cough—” Hearing her name, Bridgie looked up from exploring the
biscuit tin. “—but he wasn’t quite certain when he’d
arrive. It was his telegram—” The children looked at one another. No
one had told them of a telegram. “—last week that gave me the exact
day he’d be here.”
To Dorothea, this all made perfect sense. Child proposeth, adult disposeth. Wasn’t
that always the way of it? Irritating though it might be, it was one of the laws of the universe.
“No one ever tells us anything,” said Roger. It was a lament for their lost holiday.
Lanyon supervised Carter and Green down to fetch water from the pump in the farmyard. (Somehow,
this had become his job, not that the other seniors hadn’t each assumed his own responsibilities.) Under
the smiling gaze of Mrs Callum, who was sitting in a wooden chair, seemingly enjoying the
antics of a family of kittens, he showed them how the pump worked. As one boy pumped away
eagerly and the other held the bucket, he went into the kitchen to pay for a can from the
evening’s milking. A neatly dressed woman was there; and, as he waited, he heard enough
of the conversation to realize that she had come to settle up an account. Still, the
farmwife interrupted her long enough to direct him out to the dairy. “Dixon’ll help
you,” she said.
When Lanyon found him, Dixon was silent as usual. The job was familiar, and needed no
conversation. With a grunt, he sent Lanyon out to the pump to sluice the can, and then
poured in the milk, straining it through a cloth.
Lanyon carried the can back out to the yard to find that the last of the buckets had been
filled. Even so, the boys were continuing to pump water—as far as he could tell, just to
see it splash on the cobbles. “Stop larking about,” he said sharply. “Water’s like gold
right now.” They could not afford to annoy the Dixons.
The customer from the kitchen was also now in the farmyard, talking in a friendly way
with Mrs Callum. He caught a few words—something about “only four of them now”, which
meant nothing out of context—but forbore to listen in. He simply directed the boys to
carry the buckets, two apiece; and, subdued by the weight of the load, they headed back
up the path to their camp.
The following day, he led his small patrol northwards, exploring along the diminished
trickle of the beck. They circled the tarn, even shallower than the last time he’d seen
it, scarcely more than a puddle; and he set the younger boys to locate the usual water
line by the change in vegetation and marks on the bank. He then asked them why
the water was so much lower. By now, the stress laid by their elders on water conservation
was paying fruit; and the drought was quickly mentioned. “Which is why it is so important
not to waste any,” he added, for Green and Carter were present, and he thought it pertinent
to rub in the lesson.
They continued along the beck on the further side, crossed the main road, and entered
a small stretch of woods. Eventually, they came to the lake. All downhill routes led
lakeward; and that in itself was a valuable lesson in woodcraft.
It was a deep V-shaped bay, with a promontory on either side. To the south, Dixon’s
Farm must lie hidden. What lay to the north he wasn’t sure at first; then, he remembered
a white cottage, though he didn’t know its name. Both were hidden by the headlands. Civilization
was near, though, for there was a houseboat anchored not far offshore. As he looked, a
tall thin man came out with what looked like a load of rocks—which seemed unlikely; it
must be rubbish of some sort—which he tipped over the rail. It landed in the water with
a splash that was audible from shore.
He turned to go back inside; but another, larger man came out to join him. Lanyon
recognized Mr Turner. Which man owned the boat he had no idea. They conferred for
a bit, in voices too low to carry.
“Do you want to eat here?” Lanyon asked, turning back to his patrol. “Or would you rather
we keep on, or turn back to find a place in the wood?” He added, with memories of the trip
two days earlier, “There’s a farm to the north, and the town beyond that; so we can’t go much
They elected to eat where they were; and, with the proximity of the water in mind, Lanyon
allowed them to build a small fire on the pebbled beach. It was perhaps this that caught
the attention of the men on board. Seeing the Scouts, they waved; the boys waved back. Amid
the little crowd, Lanyon doubted if he himself was personally recognizable, even assuming
Mr Turner bothered to remember, which he probably didn’t. They were friendly men, that was
all; and no doubt they knew the uniform. Perhaps they’d even been Scouts themselves.
That evening, a small boy with glasses came eagerly up the path to the barn. As the
Scouts, sitting round their fire, looked at him with surprise, he turned to call over
his shoulder, “Yes, Dorothea! They are camping at the Observatory.” He came
to the edge of their circle with confidence, and announced, “My name’s Callum. There’s
a Scout troop at my school and I’ve been thinking I might join when I’m old enough.”
He must, Lanyon realized, be the “Dick” he had heard mention, whose parents were staying
at the Dixons’. The slightly larger girl who followed simply took a look, said gravely,
“Hullo, I’m Dorothea,” and then turned to her brother saying, “I’ll tell everyone you’re
up here, then, but don’t be too late. Father won’t mind, but Mother will worry.” She
then, to the relief of some of the boys, disappeared back down the path.
Young Callum, however, was another matter. Tenderfoot he might be (though Lanyon, at
least, knew the boy must have some knowledge of camping and sailing); but a potential
Scout was a likely friend. They made a place for him in their circle, answered his
questions, and included him in their sing-song.
“Will you be around tomorrow?” Lanyon asked him as it grew time to unroll the sleeping
bags and settle the youngsters down for the night. “I know you and your friends have
been camping on the island.”
“I’m not sure,” said Dick seriously. “The Swallows went home this morning, you see; so
there are only the four of us left. Our mother insisted we sleep at the farm tonight. She
hasn’t made up her mind if we’ll be allowed to continue to camp on the island.” A little
wistfully, he added, “Mrs Blackett doesn’t mind letting the Amazons camp.”
His mind flashing back on the group in the grocer’s, Lanyon ventured, “The girls in the red caps?”
“Amazon pirates,” Dick confirmed. “For years now—long before
we met them, which was only over the Christmas hols.”
All Lanyon could do was wish him and his sister luck, while, at the same time, having
some sympathy with their parents. He’d have doubts himself about the younger Scouts
camping completely without supervision; and neither of the “Amazons” was any older.
The next morning, there was still enough milk—kept cool overnight in the trickle of the
beck—for them to have with their tea for breakfast. However, the bucket brigade headed
down to the farmyard again. They seemed to go through water at an absurd rate, Lanyon
thought (though considering their numbers it was not really excessive).
No one was around when they arrived in the farmyard; but Dixon came out from the barn,
nodded when he saw them, and disappeared again. Before they had filled all the buckets,
though, a rattletrap car came down the lane, trailing a cloud of dust. When it stopped,
Lanyon could see that it was being driven by the thin man he had seen on the houseboat.
“Is Dick about?” he asked.
“Haven’t seen him,” Lanyon called. “They may still be at breakfast.”
The man nodded, and headed in the kitchen door with only a token knock. A minute
later, young Callum emerged, brimming with enthusiasm.
“Dixon!” the man called out. “Rowboat?”
The farmer emerged, but simply nodded.
“Right then,” said the man; and Callum promptly headed for the shore, where the boat was
drawn up. The man, however, hesitated and crossed over to Lanyon. “I say,” he began,
and looked a little shy, “Jim and I saw you yesterday on shore. He pointed you
out—that’s right, isn’t it? You’re the chap he met
in the village the other day?”
Lanyon admitted it.
“I wonder … we’ll be doing assays most of the day, of course. Young Dick’s
going to help. Got a real head on his shoulders, that one.” This was said with
appreciation. “But I’m sure, if you’d like a bit more of a
chat …? Jim said you were interested in travel.”
He sounded a bit doubtful, but more of Lanyon’s reaction than Mr Turner’s willingness
to have him aboard.
“Are you sure?” said Lanyon doubtfully. “If you’re busy … I don’t
want to be a nuisance.”
“Not at all.” The man hesitated, then thrust out his hand. “Er, Stedding’s the
name. Jim Turner’s partner. We’re in a mining venture together.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr Stedding,” said Lanyon, and shook his hand. “Lanyon. Ralph
Lanyon.” He looked at the younger boys, who were waiting with the filled buckets at
their feet. “Look, you two cut off back up the hill. Tell Norton where I’ve gone,
all right? I’m not sure how long I’ll be: you’ll have to be divided among the other
patrols for the day, you understand?”
“Sure, Lanyon,” said Carter. The two boys picked up the heavy buckets and headed
out of the yard.
“They’ll be all right?”
“Of course,” said Lanyon with assurance. Mentally, he wondered whether he would
be all right after Norton heard that he’d abandoned his responsibilities in such a
way. Still, the chance to meet Mr Turner again was too good to pass up. There are
times, he thought, when one simply has to make a decision and take the consequences.
He had the courtesy to take the oars as they rowed out from the landing at Dixon’s Farm,
round the point, and into the houseboat bay. It was Callum who clambered aboard with
the painter and made her fast, as Mr Turner came out to greet them.
The cabin had an appearance of orderly disorder. There were a pair of bunks at the
end, one clearly unused, the other hastily made; dishes were unwashed, but only from
breakfast; and the table was laid, not with dishes, but an array of rock samples and
testing equipment. Callum lit up at the sight. Lanyon was more struck by the array
of—mementos, he supposed—that were hung on the wall, set on shelves, and (no doubt)
stuck away in odd drawers. The boomerang was easy to spot; but he also saw assegais
and tomahawks. Dried gourds in strange shapes, some painted, rubbed their round shoulders
with giant blown eggs and a thing that looked like nothing so much as a blown-up fish,
covered with fearsome prickles, all varnished to a once-bright shine, but gathering dust.
With few words, Mr Stedding and Callum promptly rolled up their sleeves and pitched into
the assays. Mr Turner, seeing Lanyon intrigued by the collection, told him to take a
look round, and joined the others. It left the Scout an unexpected freedom to explore;
and he wandered from shelf to shelf. Though he drew the line at rummaging in drawers,
he spent a good half-hour in bemused delight.
“Frankly, Timothy,” he heard Mr Turner say behind him, “it’s absurd your continuing to
stay at Atkinson’s Ground. You should move in here. There’s room.”
“Not sure what folks would think,” said Mr Stedding. “Besides, you know, it’s more
convenient for High Topps up at Atkinson’s. I can collect samples much faster—and I
still think we need to work our way further along the top, see how far the vein actually
goes. It would make more sense, really, if you moved up there.”
“Oh, I say,” broke in Callum, to Lanyon’s surprise. “You can’t do
that! You promised Nancy: we gave you our mine, and you stay on the
houseboat. At least for the summer,” he added after a pause.
Turning, Lanyon saw the boy, looking earnestly at the man, clearly sure that this absurd
argument held force.
Mr Turner turned to his partner. “You see?” he said solemnly. “A man’s word is his
bond, Timothy. I can’t move house till they’re all back to school.”
“Well,” said Mr Stedding, with a dawning smile. “That old rattletrap of yours does get
me around, I’ll admit; and the roads here are certainly better than those in Brazil.”
“Move in, then,” he was urged. “It’ll be good to have company in the evenings. Not to
mention the fact that, if I have to leave in the way of business, I could do with someone
to keep an eye on the place. Last time,” Mr Turner added, with a twinkle aimed at
Callum, “I came home to find squatters on the boat—and the most Godalmightly mess I’ve
ever seen in my life.”
“Nancy said you wouldn’t mind,” said Callum serenely.
“True after a fashion,” said Mr Turner, “but it would have been nice to have been
asked. Though, knowing my niece, I do realize that that’s a bit much to expect.”
“Now I’ve met her,” agreed Mr Stedding, “I think those stories of yours
“Oh, she’s a hellion,” said Mr Turner, though he did not sound at all annoyed. “They
both are, really; but it’s Nancy eggs them all on.”
Seeing that Lanyon was listening, and had presumably finished his peregrination round
the cabin, he broke off, leaving the others to continue with the analysis of the ore
samples, and suggested the two of them go up on deck. They stood comfortably together
at the rail, looking shorewards.
“You have an extraordinary collection, sir,” Lanyon began. “I don’t think I’ve seen
the like outside a museum—and this is so obviously a personal collection. I mean,
you’ve brought everything back from places you’ve been.”
“Pretty well,” Mr Turner agreed. “At least for the past ten years or so. Before that,
it’s more spotty. Somehow, when you’re young, you don’t think of acquiring things as
much. Perhaps because you have to travel light, and don’t have the money to ship things home.”
“I wish I could travel like that.” Lanyon laughed. “For that matter, I wish I could
write the way you do. I’d like to write a book about my travels, if I ever do make any.”
“Well,” said the author seriously, “you might consider keeping a diary. Do that regularly,
and you won’t forget the details: that’s important. In any case, the only way to learn
to write is to do it. As with everything really. Theory’s all very well in its way; but
there’s a reason I left Oxford. I was a pretty rotten student. I wanted to get out there
and live life.”
“So you went to sea.”
“No better way to see the world,” was the declaration.
“I’ve done a bit of sailing,” Lanyon admitted, “but not much. Just in
dinghies—like those nieces of yours and their friends.”
Mr Turner looked thoughtful. “That’s all very well in its way, of course,” he
said, “and certainly gives one a notion whether the water has an appeal. There’s
no substitute, though, for actually shipping aboard a working vessel. After all, when
one has signed up for a long voyage, there’s no jumping ship in mid-ocean.”
Lanyon essayed a smile.
“Have you thought,” Mr Turner suggested, “of maybe taking a short voyage—mind you, not
as a mere passenger, but a deckhand? Short haul, you understand: the sort of thing
that might take a few weeks or a month. That would give you a real taste of the sea.” He
grinned wrily. “Believe me, my first trip was below decks: you learn a lot.”
“I want to learn,” said Lanyon earnestly.
“Well, this summer’s nearly over; and I’d never suggest to a raw hand that he make
his first voyage in winter. It’s beastly,” said the explorer frankly. “But you could do
worse than take some or all of next summer and see—well, not the world,
obviously—but a trip down the coast of France or through the Baltic. Something like that.”
Seeing the genuine interest on Lanyon’s face, he got up and went back into the cabin. The
Scout hesitated, and then followed to see Mr Turner rummaging through a drawer to fetch
out some sheets of paper. He grabbed a pen, and started to write.
“Here’s the address of a chap I know in Plymouth: he might help you get a
berth. And, if that doesn’t pan out—” He wrote some more.
“—here’s my own address. Not ‘care of the publisher’: this
will find me here at the lake. I’ll be around most of the time now we’re starting the mine.”
Lanyon took the sheet of paper, words of thanks tumbling out. He had never thought the
great man would condescend to be so helpful.
“Not at all,” said Mr Turner. There was a faint bump that vibrated through the hull; but
no one noticed. “We’ve all been there, haven’t we, Timothy?” He looked at the other man
as he spoke, and Mr Stedding looked up with a smile.
“There’s a lot to be said for travelling with a pal, though,” he put in. “Running
into Jim in Pernambuco was a stroke of luck.”
Outside, voices rose and were hushed. From the corner of his eye, Lanyon saw Callum
lift his head from the scales, frowning slightly.
“Drop me a line,” said Mr Turner. “Tell me how it goes. I
trust—” There was a sudden thud from the deck; and he broke off, turning
to the cabin door in surprise. “What the—”
At that moment, the door was flung open; and a red-capped pirate rushed in, brandishing
a belaying pin. “Come out, come out, and fight like a man!” she crowed.
Dick set aside the weight he’d been holding. “I’m sorry, Captain Flint,” he said, with
a genuine note of apology, “but I’m afraid I’m supposed to be attacking you now.”
The first pirate was joined by another, and a rather smaller girl with her hair wrapped
round with a blue bandana.
“Oh, Lord, is it that time already?” said Mr Turner, and looked at his watch. “By
George, you’re right. It’s past two.” He looked at Mr Stedding
cheerfully. “Well, you’re for it now, Timothy.”
The other man gave him a rueful look. “Not quite how I wanted to spend the afternoon,”
he said, “but we promised, I suppose.”
Mr Turner—Captain Flint for the duration, Lanyon supposed—turned to the three intruders
and said, “We’ll be up on deck in a moment.”
“What about him?” asked the shorter of the red-caps. To his surprise, she pointed to
Lanyon. He wasn’t sure what was expected of him.
“Ah, good point.” Lanyon found himself being inspected. “I don’t suppose you have a
lot of spare clothes with you, do you?”
Dumbly, he shook his head.
“Well, then,” said Captain Flint cheerily, “we’ll just have to declare you neutral for the
duration.” He turned to his nieces and declared firmly, “Missionary, that’s what he
is. Come to convert the heathen … no … come to bring the sinner
back to the saints.” He beamed. “Non-combatant.” Turning back to Lanyon,
he added, “Keep your head down, and keep out of it. Don’t worry. It’s
a lot of sound and fury: signifies nothing.”
Then he collected all the pillows and cushions in the cabin, and headed for the door. The
piratical boarders drew back on deck; and he exited, followed by Mr Stedding.
Shortly, there were sounds of battle. Cautiously, Lanyon approached the door and looked
out. It was hardly a fair fight. Although Mr Turner’s nieces, taken together, might more
or less be the equivalent of their uncle (and certainly fought like furies), Mr Stedding
faced Callum and his sister. Dorothea was hampered by a natural disinclination to violence
and her unwillingness to hit an adult, even with a pillow. Her brother had his glasses to
think of. Neither of the red-capped girls suffered such qualms; but Mr Turner had both the
height and reach on them.
Yet Lanyon saw Mr Stedding somehow fail to duck as Dorothea bopped him over the head; and
then stand, proclaiming his surrender, even as he rubbed his skull. (She had hit rather
harder than either had expected.) She apologized, even as she pulled out a ball of string,
asked him politely to back against the mast, and started to wrap him tightly. Her brother’s
glasses, knocked askew in the struggle, were set firmly back on his nose; and he joined her
in the task, bending his head over the ends as he tried to remember which way round the string
went for a reef knot rather than a granny.
“Right over left,” he heard the boy mutter.
“Then left over right,” murmured Mr Stedding kindly. “Yes, that’s the way.”
Shortly thereafter, Captain Flint joined him on the other side of the mast.
“And now you walk the plank,” said the largest of the girls. “Who wants to go first?”
Plank? Lanyon looked around and saw a diving board affixed to the side of the boat near the stern.
“Don’t worry, Timothy,” he heard Mr Turner say in a low voice. “As long as they don’t
tie your arms, you’ll be fine.”
This was overheard. “Arms and legs!” declared the leader of the boarders.
“Oh, come on, Nancy,” begged Dorothea. “You can’t do that!”
“Down, down, down to the bottom of the briny,” was the response. “Hanging’s
too good for them.”
Young Callum blinked. “But you can’t,” he said, in a surprisingly reasonable
voice. “If you tie them like that they won’t be able to swim. It’s a game, I know; but
there are rules.”
The word “game” elicited a hard glare from both the pirates, and a reproachful look from
“Perhaps,” said Nancy after a moment, “we should show mercy. What do you think, Mister
Mate?” She looked at her sister.
“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” said the other pirate, surprisingly. “Not
that we’ve seen much rain hereabouts recently, of course. Maybe we should show the weather
a good example.”
This sufficed to melt the stony heart of the lead pirate. With a whoop, she produced
a knife, cut her uncle free—in a shocking waste of string, in Lanyon’s
view—and prodded him towards the stern. He begged and pleaded most
dramatically; but, surrounded by his enemies, was driven back until he reached the foot
of the plank, and urged to mount; with a piercing scream, he bolted backwards until he fell,
feet still running, to land in the water with a loud splash.
“We forgot to blindfold him,” said Nancy regretfully. “Well, we’ll do
better with the other one.”
Shortly thereafter, Mr Stedding joined Mr Turner in the waters of the bay, and trod
water as he tore off Dorothea’s bandana.
After they had swum in circles long enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty of the
watchers, they were graciously permitted to climb the ladder to the deck, and finally
disappeared below to change. Lanyon left them to their privacy, and came out to join his juniors.
“I’m not sure I know your name,” he began, looking at the shorter of the nieces.
“I’m Peggy,” she said. Pointing to her sister, she went
“Nancy, I believe.” He hesitated for a moment, then smiled and held out his
hand. “Lanyon. Ralph Lanyon.”
He received a hearty handshake. “I think we saw you and your friends a few days
ago,” Nancy said. “Weren’t you watching us race?”
“Yes,” he agreed. “We’ve been camping—”
“At the old barn on Dixon’s Farm.” She nodded. “Dorothea told us when
we went to pick her up.”
The men emerged, freshly clad in dry clothes. Mr Stedding had clearly borrowed from
his friend: the garments hung on him like a sack, and had to be cinched tightly round the waist.
“And now that that’s over, it’s time for the feast!” declared Nancy.
And so it was.
With so far fewer guests than anticipated, there were far too many provisions; and even
after all had eaten their fill, there was much left over. Lanyon found himself pressed
to take a fruit cake, still uncut, and several tins of fruit. He rowed back to shore
with Mr Stedding, who had Dixons’ rowboat to return; and left with a backward glance
at the houseboat, to which the Amazons’ dinghy was still tied along with its own rowboat.
“Ralph,” said Timothy when they were halfway there (for, with everyone else on
first-name terms, it been impossible for Lanyon to remain formal), “let me give you
a warning. If you do decide to try your hand at sea, you may not find it to your
taste. It’s all very well to read a book like Jim’s—and it’s
a fine book of its type, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a glamour between
the covers of a published memoir that you won’t feel when you’re really working the
night watch in a gale. Keep your options open.”
At that point, of course, it never occurred to Lanyon that his options might ever be
limited. The future lay rosy ahead; and he simply murmured politely.
The fruit cake and tins were eagerly received by the other Scouts, who scoffed the
lot leaving nary a crumb.
Curiously, when, a week or so later, the Amazons went south to join the Swallows for
the last few days of the summer, they provided a detailed description of the battle for
the houseboat, yet somehow never mentioned the presence of a non-combatant Scout.
Lanyon, on the other hand, re-read Mixed Moss, by a Rolling Stone more than
once in the following year, with all the keener interest for having met its author. When,
the following summer, he actually did go to sea, he wrote to James Turner on his return,
and received a very encouraging letter in reply. He never, though, had the opportunity
to go north to the Lake District again.