The Sign—Jasper and the crew set off to plunder Summerdale
Although the other members of their party at the water mill managed to snatch a few hours sleep, Professor Paragon, Doctor Johnson, and James Boswell had little rest.
This day could bring success or disaster. Had they thought of everything? Elisabeth and Mr Bagley had fully understood what the Professor wanted Aunt Hetty to do, and her agreement had been swift and to the point. They looked again at the message brought by Malin late last night.
“Alfred. The girl says I should thank you for the supplies. Alright, Ta. But don’t get carried away. Specially if you get them bells ringing. And hurry up with that. I want my broomstick working again. And I want two gulls. And tell me when the pirates are coming up into Summerdale.”
As the day dawned the first shift of the Gullnet was soon operational. Shannon had been sent to fly over Goldcaster, and as the sky started to lighten he returned to the mill with the news that the pirates were assembling, and more gulls took to the air to provide a steady flow of information.
The Professor’s party all waited anxiously with Berengaria fired up and ready, little wisps of steam rising into the air and a mere trickle of smoke coming from her chimney.
Barney, with Rockall on his shoulder, went to hide in the trees where they could see the road. The others could only wait and wonder. As the pirate gang marched from the town up into the valley would Sir Jasper want to visit the mill again? Or would he be eager to get as far and as fast as possible up into Summerdale to rob the farms and cottages that they had not reached in the earlier attack?
The pirate expedition had formed up at the edge of Goldcaster. They had two horse drawn carts and several trolleys, and some of them were carrying pipes and drums that they had taken from the Goldcaster Band store in the Town Hall. Jasper was mounted on a sprightly white stolen stallion and Tantamount was perched upon his shoulder.
‘Right. Let’s have the band in the front. Is everybody ready?’
‘I thought the Quartermaster would be with us Cap’n?’
‘Mr Speke is in charge of our interests in my absence. He will be constructing a raft and getting the bells aboard’
‘So he’s looking after all the booty we’ve got so far?’
‘Yes Archibald, he is. And as Purser you will be aware that he will receive a substantial share of whatever we acquire today and so is unlikely to sail away, even if he had an adequate crew which he hasn’t because most of you are with me, and even if he was not the loyal comrade that we all know and love. Satisfied?’
‘Of course Cap’n. Never gave him sailing off a thought.’
‘Good. Any other problems?’
‘I still think I’ve got my hay fever coming on.’
‘I keep telling you Clarence, there is no pollen about at the end of September, so just stop that sniffing. Right – off we go… What on earth..?’
A ramshackle, shabbily clad, mouldering figure, like some ape creature from the Pleistocene, had plunged out of the hedge and into the road in front of Jasper, one scrawny hand holding a dog-eared card raised as if to halt the pirate crew, the other clutching a battered bucket containing a rusty shovel.
‘WHO THE DEVIL ARE YOU?’
‘I’m Morlock the Scavenger. See?’ it said.
Jasper peered in disbelief at the card.
Amalgamated Union of Cast-Off Gatherers,
Snappers Up of Unconsidered trifles,
Excrement Removers, and Allied Trades.
‘We strike by night and shift the shite’
No Job too Big – No Morsel too small
‘I ‘as my abode and place of business in a hole behind the Conservative Club, that empty abandoned building by the rubbish tip which no-one now frequents.’
‘How come that we have not encountered you before, if you have not fled the town?’
‘Well, I’m not all that sociable. People tend to shy away, so I keeps meself to meself and just flits about at night mainly, undertaking my tasks wiv sensitivity, so as not to unduly disturb the residents.’
‘Pray tell, privy breath –what do you want?’
That…’ said the creature, pointing at the fresh and steaming manure in the centre of the road behind Jasper’s horse. With two skilful scoops he harvested his prize, then leered his sharney face confidentially up at Jasper.
‘ ‘Er’s easier to gather when ‘er aint been flattened.’ His malodorous breath indeed came straight from Satan’s soakaway and Jasper reeled away in revulsion.
‘Do you mean to tell me that you stopped us just for a pile of horse droppings?’ he spluttered.
‘It may be only a load of horse shit to you, matey, but it’s bread and butter to me.’ said the squalid humanoid.
Jasper had a thought. ‘I suppose you empty the Town Hall facilities, do you?’
‘Has been known. Why?’
‘You don’t happen to have a spare key to the cellars do you?’
‘What Guv? Me Guv? No Guv. Must be off…’
But Morlock was gone, over the ditch and back through the hedge, cackling to himself as he vanished in the undergrowth, and leaving an acrid aroma lingering behind.
‘It increasingly looks as though your theory about the last escape was correct Rathbone.’ sighed Jasper. ‘Still, we must get on…’
‘ “This dunghill groom hath much abused the day with such a blasting and so scandalous a breath.” ‘said Tantamount.
‘Very true.’ snapped Jasper. ‘Now can we please proceed? Right, after me, strike up the band, as we rehearsed, er-one, er-two, er-three…’
Two hundred years away Roy Orbison started turning in his grave.
WALKING UP THE STREET!
HE’S NOT ONE YOU’D WANT TO MEET!
They don’t love him any more…
He’s not welcome when ashore…’
‘Come on, you can do better than that.’ shouted Jasper. ‘Sing with gusto.’
‘Who’s Gusto then?’
‘Never mind! Keep at it.’
‘Didn’t know you was an alto, Archibald?’
‘Ooh-ar, Jim lad.’
‘You’re in the wrong key, Rathbone.’
‘Can’t help it. One of my holes is blocked.’
‘Eustace – you’d sound better if you used both drumsticks.’
‘Need one hand for enemy. Enemy jump out on you. Enemy could be behind them trees…’
‘Alright, alright. Shut up and sing, the lot of you!’
‘I can’t sing and shut up.’
‘I can’t sing and blow.’
‘I’ll shut up if he stops singing.’
‘I’ll sing if he shuts up – very sensitive we altos are.’
‘Oh, for heavens sake – just play the music and march. All I want is a bit of style, a bit of panache… And stop sniffing, Clarence.’
(‘Do they grow that round here then?’
‘That Panash stuff he’s talking about..’
‘Dunno. Never tried it. Columbian Gold, yes, Moroccan Corduroy, certainly, but yer Panash, no, never done that…’)
‘Right.’ said Morlock to Malin behind the hedge. ‘Message for the Prof: Thirty one pirates – every shade and colour, two horse drawn carts, three hand pulled trolleys, one parrot, and a poncey toff on a horse. Off you flits matey.’
On his way to the mill Malin swooped down from the sky to where Barney was hiding with Rockall.
‘They’re coming ! They are coming up the road now – the whole lot of them !’
Well, not quite. But certainly two thirds of the crew were on this expedition and, to his astonishment, twenty minutes later Barney could hear music before they came into view. He thought they were a pretty villainous bunch of rogues, a few of them even looking quite fierce and determined, but perhaps not the pipers who were already rather red in the face.
As they drew level with the track that led to the river the gang came to a halt. They were going to come to the mill again… Or perhaps not. Although Barney could not hear clearly what was being said, it was obvious that some sort of argument was taking place. Some pirates were pointing up the mill track, and others were shaking their heads and pointing up the valley.
Jasper had not stopped, but when he realised what was happening he wheeled his horse around and trotted back to his crew.
‘Oh dear me. We seem to have halted again. Do we have a problem?’
‘Er, we, that is some of us, well, only one or two actually, er, we thought there might still be something worth having at that mill place.’
‘The one that was visited before?’
‘The mill I was assured had been ransacked and burn down?’
‘Er, yes, that one.’
‘The place from which anything worth having had been taken – even if you couldn’t quite manage a bale or two of mouldy flour?’
‘Er, well, of course, Captain, I remembers now.’
‘Oh, don’t let me influence you unduly, but it does cross the mind that in the time available to us it might perhaps be more beneficial to investigate premises pristine, unblemished, and brimful of booty, rather than those that have already been looted, are empty, and indeed have been burnt to the ground?’
‘Er, well, if you put it that way. Oh, Gawd…’
Even at a distance Barney could see the pirate Captain’s anger as he struck at some of the men with his whip and urged them on up into Summerdale.
Rockall flew back over the trees with the good news that the mill was not to be re-visited, and then he and Malin left to join Aunt Hetty.
As the pirates passed out of view up the road into Summerdale, Professor Paragon, on the Berengaria battlebus with Boswell, Umbrage, and Will Nudd, and Barney’s brigade with him mounted on a pony and leading the plodding cavalry and two dozen men on foot, emerged from the trees and set off at last for Goldcaster.
* * *
Summerdale sat peacefully in the late autumn sunshine.
Now was the time of mellow richness, now ripeness lay on the land, now blackberry hedges were full of fruit, apples and pears hung heavily from orchard boughs, the harvest was gathered in, and the whole area was about to be horribly despoiled.
Or was it?
Sir Jasper and his eager thieves had come to a halt where the road forked. He was studying a map and trying to relate it to what was shown on a large signpost that stood at the junction.
It was obviously a very important signpost, an ambitious signpost, hard working, and well advanced in its career as a Tourist Information Centre. In fact above the hedge no part of the post was without some sort of sign.
Up the narrower lane to the right apparently could be found:
Summerdale Towers – Stately Home and Health Hydro
Gold Mine and Jewel Cavern
Viewpoint and Picnic Site
Dunplundering – Bed and Breakfast – Two Star
Whilst to the left the main road lead to:
Heritage Site and Visitor Centre
Garden of Earthly Delights
Arndale Centre Shopping Mall:
(Rare Antiques, Silks, Satins,
Designer Wear, Jewellery)
Customs Office and Bonded Warehouse
And pointing back down the road up which they had marched the sign read:
Hungry and Thirsty?
Try the Toad and Turnip Inn
One and a Half Miles back
Pub Grub and Fine Ales
Open all day
Pity you passed us
‘Where was that then?’
‘I never saw no Inn.’
‘I could do with some grub – didn’t have no time for breakfast.’
‘Shut up! Half the places aren’t on this map – it must be out of date. We will separate now and forage in two groups. It is not my intention to wurdle around all day aimlessly. ‘
‘I expect you’ll deal with the gold mine and the jewel cavern will you, Captain ?’
‘We thought you might.’
‘And why not pray? You do recall that we share everything, don’t you?’
‘Oh, yes, Cap’n, of course. Everything… that we know about.’
‘And I shall give the Nature Trail a miss, if that’s alright with you? Oh, good. So reassuring to have the support of one’s colleagues. I shall take a dozen men, one cart, and one trolley. Rathbone, you take the rest down this road to the left and attack these other places. Right, men – we’ll meet in Lower Rumble village at 1300 hours.’
‘Oh. Ooo-ar. Right Cap’n. Dinner time then.’
‘Lunchtime for civilised persons.’
‘Whatever. We’ll be there.’
‘There’s those seagulls again, sitting on that signpost.’ said Rathbone. ‘They’re getting on my nerves. Got a knowing sort of look they have. Now one’s flown off but the other one’s still watching us…’
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.