Sir Jasper Returns
At the water mill Doctor Johnson was feeling anxious and rather frustrated.
‘Now cheer up Doctor,’ said Mrs. Tupman, interrupting his musings.
‘Would that I could, dear lady, but there are so many strands to this endeavour, most of which are vital and all of which have to be monitored and adjusted when necessary. I believe that now all are coming together and either contributing to the main objective or being held in equilibrium until matters can be resolved. But have I missed anything? Have all concerned been advised of every intelligence pertaining to their task?
However efficient this excellent Gullnet is, even seagulls cannot be everywhere at once, and if one strand twitchs badly the others have to be adjusted very quickly. I rather feel that as far as unremitting prolonged concentration is concerned this must be the most demanding task of my long and often arduous existence.’
‘If you say so, but you must eat. Shift those papers off the table – it’s nearly time for your cake. Made it specially to feed them millions of grey cells of yours.’
‘Thank you madam. I will take a slice although I do not usually eat at this time of day. Although when at home in Bolt Court I sometimes take a dish of tea about now with the lady who lives with me.’
‘Well, well. A bit of a naughty boy are you still? You old rogue you. I’ve seen that twinkle in your eye.’
‘You flatter me madam. I assure you that my days of dalliance have long since passed. The lady I refer to is Mrs. Anna Williams. She has been the friend of my late wife and myself and for many years has lived in my house. She is blind and now very sickly.’ (If he had been aware that whilst he was away Mrs. Williams had in fact died two weeks before, his grief would have been intense.)
Fastnet was perched on a rail by the map clipped to the wall. He had a number of coloured pins in a pot and would push them in with his beak and move them about. This part of the mill was rather like an aviary with gulls coming and going all the time, and by now he had managed to persuade most of his cousins that it was not wholly appropriate for them to defecate with pride on the floor every time they brought a message.
‘How do things stand at this moment?’ asked Doctor Johnson.
‘The Professor is has still got problems at the church, Doctor.’ said Fastnet. ‘With their power the bells had previously damaged most of the available ropes. Portland says the Prof is now having to use the magic of the little Miss Minima bell to get the small bell up the tower on a sort of makeshift scaffold. He can only use Miss Minima in short bursts, and the expression on her face is getting very strained and annoyed, but the bell should be hung and ready to ring very soon. Everything will get easier then. He already has the next bell waiting to be hung, and the three others are being loaded on the brewer’s waggon with the dray horses harnessed, ready to leave for the church.
Down on the ground the pirates have nearly reached the outskirts of Goldcaster, and the Professor’s aunt has returned fast by short cuts through the back lanes as well. Malin said that a few minutes ago she was going up to the Dancing Sisters stone circle on the hill overlooking the town. We think she is going to attack from there.’
Aunt Hetty on her donkey with Mr Bagley and Elisabeth leading the pony, and accompanied by Rockall, climbed up to the top of one of the rides in the woodland surrounding the low hill on the outskirts of Goldcaster. Directly below them beyond the trees lay the curving Rowan river, sweeping through the broad rich fields, with the thatched and slated roofs of the town and the Black Leopard in the harbour about a mile away to the south east.
‘Right. Let’s get to work.’ said Aunt Hetty, puffing slightly as she slipped off Horace, unstrapped her broomstick, and relieved him of sundry panniers and saddlebags. She placed Arnold the toad on one of the sun warmed standing stones where he could comfortably flick out his tongue and snap at any passing late afternoon midge. Then she took a grumbler of gin for herself from a rather large hip flask, and produced a small tumbler from one of the panniers, poured in some orange juice, added some shredded mint leaves and a generous shot of the spirit, and swirled the mixture around with her index finger.
‘Here we are m’dear.’ she said to Elisabeth. ‘Get that down your gullet. You deserve it. You’ve done really well. And as for you, young Bagley,’ she said to the Mayor. ‘What a performance! A glass of best ’79 tawny port for you, I think. Not by way of celebration, you understand, but to fortify us for what I hope will be the following final phase.’
‘What happens next?’ asked Elisabeth.
‘Well we haven’t come here just for the view, that’s for sure. As you know this is a very special place, and not because of the excuse to have a bit of a ceremony and howsyourfather from time to time. And you can forget the dancing wenches on a Sunday rubbish that you tell the tourists – these stones were set for more important things than flipperty gibberting.’
‘This circle is as old as Stonehenge isn’t it?’
‘Older, Elisabeth. And simpler too. Not a great show-off edifice for powerful chiefs, but basically still a practical sun and moon and star dial for harnessing the power and getting things done at the right times. And more. This place has seen some dark doings done my darlings, in the thousands of years it’s been at work. Here we have one ley line running through the middle from Castle Crab and then down to the Great Gannet rock on the south side of the harbour and another, the same one that passes through Lower Rumble School House, crossing it and then going on through St. Jocelyn’s church, and then south right down through England.’
‘They say that the horned god Cernnunos appeared here in druid times.’ said Mr Bagley.
‘He’s still about.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Him and his snaking thorns, and things even more dangerous from much further in the past. But I must get ready for the colours of the bells.’
‘The colours of the bells?’ said Elisabeth.
‘Didn’t you know?’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Calabar, the sunrise bell gives off an orange to copper haze, Ignatius a rose to scarlet at sunset, Magnus a shimmering green each hour, Abelard a bluish silver at the half hour, and little Godolphin, well, he’ll be sending us a golden yellow sign very soon I hope.’
‘But I’ve never seen those colours when they ring.’
‘Neither have I.’ said Mr Bagley. ‘And I ring two of them.’
‘Normally the colours are very faint and quickly dispersed in the air.’ said Aunt Hetty patiently. ‘But what with them all being pent up and unused you’ll see ‘em today – with luck, if Alfred ever gets them hung. When we get the signal everything should start to change in our favour. When that time comes I want you, Elisabeth, to make your way to the church to help with the ringing. Mr Mayor, you should join the others at the Town Hall – best get into the town by the back lanes. And don’t either of you dare get captured – we don’t want no more hostages. Now let’s get me besom ready.’
‘What are you going to do?’ asked Elisabeth.
‘I’m going to get your brother back – with luck and a following wind. And when I take off you and Mr Mayor best get going as well.’
‘So you’re going to fly!’ exclaimed Elisabeth. ‘Do you rub bat’s blood and deadly nightshade ointment and foxglove juice and boar’s grease all over yourself?’
‘No, dear. You’re thinking of shape changing. That may be a short cut to flying, but I prefer me broomstick. It may be a bit odd, but it’s not so cold or dangerous, and at my age it’s a damn sight better than flitting about with no clothes on. Now I must get ready – where’s me gear?’
Aunt Hetty dipped into one of her panniers and took out some pads. She pulled up her dress and fitted two around her rather bony knees, and then rolled up her sleeves and secured another two about her elbows. Then she drew out a sort of armoured bowl with straps.
‘Me crash helmet.’ she said. ‘But with appropriate adjustments.’ She pressed a button on the helmet and a black circular brim spread out around the sides. Then she pressed another button and a conical black crown sprung up to form the classic witch’s hat.
‘This adds considerably to the culture shock and dramatic effect when you come out of the blue and hit the gofers in the goolies. Now let’s fit up me broomstick…’
Where the bristles spread out from the handle Aunt Hetty screwed on a saddle. It was wide, deep, well upholstered, and covered with a very early Laura Ashley cotton print. Then, on either side of the front of the broomstick, she slotted in two multi-function handles.
‘What are they for?’ asked Elisabeth, wide eyed and amazed.
‘Well, obviously pushing them forward and back helps steer the bugger.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Moving them up and down together functions as a joy stick – well you wouldn’t know about that – just makes you go up or down. If I tightens the grip on the left one it acts as a brake, and the right one is the throttle – that what makes it go faster.’
‘That’s amazing!’ said Elisabeth. ‘It’s hardly magic at all.’
‘There you go again.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘As soon as you explain anything the wonder evaporates. Anyway this is just an ordinary working broomstick, not one of your Formula One Quidditch specials.’
‘What is Quidditch?’
‘I thought you was a well read girl? Oh no, sorry – wrong century. Harry Potter – marvellous stuff. I’ll get you the books when this is all over.’ She then screwed on two swivelling foot rests either side of the broom, and attached one wire cable to the top of the handle and another to the back of the broomstick in the midst of the bristles.
‘Jump leads.’ she explained. ‘Just to charge her up a bit.’
She walked across with the broomstick to the upright Tingle Stone in the centre of the circle. She pressed the end of one of the cables to the stone near its base, and rubbed the end of the other against it higher up. At first nothing happened and Elisabeth and Mr Bagley could hear her muttering and apparently cursing in several languages. Then a few sparks began to run up and down the handle, and some wisps of smoke and the smell of burning dust came from within the bristles where a dry leaf ignited. Aunt Hetty cursed again, and shook it off to blew away.
‘That’ll have to do.’ she said. ‘Now we can only wait for the signal…’
* * *
Jasper had now arrived back at the harbour.
The few able bodied members of the crew aboard the Black Leopard had been brought ashore. As had Tom, with the almost gentle arm of Rathbone around his shoulders as he was rowed across from the ship.
‘Keep your chin up old son. You’re doing well Tom, so grin and bear it. There’s a lot of us looking out for you and one way or another it will soon be over, and you’ll be back with your Mum and Dad. If all goes well…’
Jasper dismounted and tethered his horse to a bollard. ‘Well now, Master Thomas Trundle, here we are a hostage once again.’ he said, as he carefully helped Tom out of the longboat and on to the steps by the quay. ‘Do you propose to make a career out of it?’
‘Please sir, no sir. Not if I can help it.’
‘Very wise. There is not a lot of job satisfaction to be had, and there are considerable disadvantages to such an occupation, especially if ransoms are not forthcoming. But take heart, you are not in real danger, whatever impression I may give to others. You are the one bright spot in the encircling gloom that besets me at the moment.’
‘How is that sir?’
‘You Trundles don’t give up, do you? Always looking for an edge. Quite right too.’ Jasper waved in a friendly way at a passing seagull. ‘Hello fish breath. Not so cocky now, eh? I think I hold the ace…’
‘It’s all my fault Mr Scabbard. With so much happening I got a bit careless.’ said Tom. ‘I didn’t do what I was told and then I got too curious and then I…’
‘Er, just a little point, Tom.’ said Jasper. ‘The correct form of address is “Sir Jasper”. But don’t let it worry you. I have been called a lot of things in my time. But I have few comforts for the ego and they are rapidly reducing, so my name and rank are rather dear to me. As to it all being your fault – I refer to your companion’s situation – of course it is. It is always all our faults. Either we make mistakes or we do not see clearly what is happening. You cannot live without making mistakes young man. The key thing is being able to learn from them.’
‘I seem to be learning an awful lot this week.’
‘Well, take heart Tom, so am I. But, like your sister, you show great courage. My, what a partnership we would have, if you were my Midshipman. But now I must barter with your life – no don’t be alarmed, you and I know it’s only a bluff. Wait here on the steps out of sight for the moment whilst I see how the land lies…’
It was High Noon in Goldcaster Town. Well, high four fifteen on this particular afternoon.
With the prospect before him of not only failing to achieve the major outcome he had anticipated, but also the possibility of losing everything, Jasper, now once again determined, resolute, carefully calculating, and keen eyed, stepped on to the quay. Alone. Until Tantamount hopped up beside him.
At first sight the town appeared deserted, basking in the still mild warmth of the late September afternoon sun. To his left, at the northern end of the quay, beyond the demolished privy, his men had erected a barricade with their carts and trolleys to prevent access from the northern outskirts of the town and to provide cover behind which to muster. The mouth of a cannon could be seen poking out of the barricade and the occasional movement of his men behind it.
A sudden flutter of sparrows emerged from the shadows in the main lane that lead from the quay back to the Market Square and the Town Hall. Someone was now definitely lurking there. On the first floor of the Harbour Inn a curtain twitched. And there was an eye peering through the leaves of the aspidistra plant in the window of the Harbour Master’s office.
In what was left of the dying breeze a scrap of paper rustled half heartedly along the cobbles towards him, whirled feebly, and settled at his feet.
Towards the southern end of the quay was the huge machine of which the Cook had spoken. Strands of steam were seeping from its innards, and Jasper could smell pungent coal smoke, a thin column of which rose almost straight up into the air from the prominent chimney. He could also hear it, slowly and menacingly ticking over – Chuff,……. Chuff,……. Chuff,……. Chuff…
‘ “Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’…” ‘ said Tantamount, nervously.
‘Hmmm…’ said Jasper, and snapped his fingers twice behind him.
Archibald and Clarence slowly rose up from out of sight and stepped on to the quay, one either side of Jasper, both with muskets at the ready and looking carefully about and very closely at the buildings before them, and muttering to each other out of the sides of their mouths.
‘Corn merchant’s – second floor, top right…’
‘Got ‘im. Ship Chandler’s – left hand chimbley stack… ’
‘Where? Oh, yeah. What a stupid hat. And one over there – inside coach arch of Inn – crouched behind bollard.’
‘No. That’s a cat.’
‘Bloody big cat.’
‘Well, dog then.’
‘A dog’d be barking by now…’
‘I’ll be barking in a minute.’ hissed Jasper. ‘Will you two shut up? Anyway, the whole town’s seething. They are just waiting for us to make a move so let’s get on with it.’ He strode to the middle of the quay and stood with his hands on his hips.
‘Any one at home?’ he bellowed.
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.