Bad news for the Professor, the pirates suffer Aunt Hetty, and Jasper meets a rather special lady…
‘Everything seems to be going as planned.’ said Professor Paragon, rubbing his hands together. Now we have the brewer’s dray we can start moving the bells up to the church. We’ll take the two smaller ones, Godolphin and Abelard first, then Ignatius and Calabar, and Magnus last of all.’
‘Why not the big one first?’ asked Boswell.
‘Maximum effort will be needed to raise that one. It will be quite difficult even with the equipment I have brought from Castle Crab. Godolphin is the smallest and we should be able to get that set relatively easily. Once that can be rung, each subsequent bell will have an increasing level of magical support, so making our task each time that much less arduous. And we need to get one bell ringing as quickly as possible so as to provide me with power to most effectively act against our enemies.’
He rolled back the tarpaulin from the bells beside the forge.
‘First of all they must be calmed.’ he said, and began passing his hands to and fro over them, muttering obscure phrases all the while.
Boswell was amazed to see a sudden harsh red glow surge over them, to quickly be succeeded by gentle shining and soft and subtle tones of colours flowing over each of the bells in turn.
Just then Biscay flew down, carrying a note from Doctor Johnson.
Very bad news. The seagulls report that Mr Nathan Boon has returned alone. He and Mr Buckram were captured by outlaws before finding help. Mr Buckram was recognised as a wealthy merchant and is being held for ransom. They demand a thousand guineas within the week and no attempt to rescue him or he will be killed. Mr Bean is exhausted and presently resting with his neighbours in the forest. Even if we can defeat the pirates, where can such a sum be obtained?
‘How dreadful.’ exclaimed Boswell. ‘No help now possible coming from the south, and a friend in mortal danger.’
‘I thought that things were going too well.’ sighed the Professor. ‘What next I wonder?’
‘Where is Tom?’ asked Barney.
* * *
In the Lower Rumble School Aunt Hetty did not yet know of the latest bad news. Malin had only recently reported that the Professor was about to collect the bells, and now Rockall flew down with the information that the pirates were approaching.
The notice on the outskirts of the village was hardly encouraging.
Twinned with Marrakesh
Pillaging Hours 10.00 to 12.30
Monday to Thursday only
Take your rubbish home
‘Bugger!’ said Morry. ‘Too late and wrong day.’
‘What does it matter?’ said Rathbone. ‘We’re outside the law – or had you forgotten?’
‘Oh, so we are. And bloody hungry too. Look, there’s the School House. That’s where that old woman said she’d give us some grub.’
‘What’s that plaque on the wall?’
‘ “School Dinner Awards 1782 – First Prize for Stewed Mutton and Greens” ’
‘She said she’d give us some soup…’
Dazed and rather exhausted, they shuffled into one of the class rooms, directed by Mr Bagley, who now had a waxed moustache, mortar board, gown, pinstriped suit, and carried a cane. Aunt Hetty was sitting on a raised platform, behind a teacher’s desk.
‘Now sit down everybody.’ said Mr Bagley. ‘Best of order now. Quiet please for the Black Hag.’
‘That’s better already.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Now let’s have the roll call for the register then you can all have some lovely chicken soup. With additives. We’ll start with you – you’re Head Boy aren’t you? What’s your name?’
‘Me? I’m Rathbone.’
‘Is that your full name? No surname, no soup.’
‘That is my surname.’
‘What’s your first name?’
‘Speak up boy.’
‘Percival, if you must know.’
(‘Did you know that?’ No, I didn’t know that. Bit poncey if you ask me. No wonder he didn’t mention it.)
‘Be quiet, the lot of you. Next?’
‘Plymouth Hoe Pete, my lover.’
‘Don’t be familiar with me boy. And you?’
‘Thomas Babington Smith.’
‘Tembo N’tango. I’m your token black.’
‘Twiga M’wizi. I’m your second token black.’
‘I see. So we have an Elephant That Won’t Dance and a Thieving Giraffe have we?’
‘Don’t dis my brother Ma’am.’
‘You speak Swahili Ma’am?’
‘Oh yes, my lad. I speak anything – when needed. And I suppose you’re the third token black?’
‘No, lady. I’m Haroun the Damned. I’m your token brown.’
‘Thank you for that. And who is that hiding behind the desk?’
‘That’s Achmed the Shy.’
‘I would have thought that being shy was something of a disadvantage if you’re a pirate.’
‘On the contrary.’ said Rathbone, ‘Many’s the time the flash of his scimitar shooting out from the shadows has been the last thing a person has seen before they find themselves one head short of the full body department, if you take my meaning.’
‘I see. And what are the rest of you jokers called?’
‘Well ‘ard Walter.’
‘Mad Max Murgatroyd.’
‘Raging Rod Ramsden.’
‘Rather Cross Roland.’
‘Slightly annoyed Sidney. I’m your token ship’s carpenter.’
‘Oh really? Do try not to be too silly class. And who are you?’
‘I’m Maurice Dancer, you-can-call-me-Morry. I’m your…’
‘I think we all know what you are, Mr Dancer.’
‘Well I do so hope that this won’t all prove to be a total waste of time. It hasn’t exactly been a madly gay day so far. I’ve been seeing the strangest things, and now I think I’m getting one of my headaches.’
‘Well, you’ll soon feel different with some chicken spindle soup in you lad. Not necessarily better, but different. And that boy at the back – what’s your name?’
‘He has got a surname Miss, but he’s just forgotten it.’
‘Well I can’t remember everything – always getting battered by the enemy. And my foot don’t arf whiff where I trod…’
‘Yes, we know. And Eustace…’
‘Wot Miss ?’
‘Don’t do that. Now I want you to all wash your hands before you eat. There’s some nice creamy bars of soap in the washroom.’
The pirates really were very hungry, and they were soon squatting on the children’s benches, slurping eagerly at the very tasty soup, dunking their warm fresh bread in their bowls, and belching with enthusiasm.
‘We haven’t seen any sign of a Shopping Mall Miss.’
‘Nor a Customs Office nor Bonded Warehouse come to that.’
‘They are just on the other side of the hill. In the holiday resort. They used to call it Butlins Goldcaster and then it became Summerdale World. There’s fish and chips, ice cream, toilets… (I think you’ll find them very handy soon) Yes, you’ll find everything you want down there.’
‘Is the Garden of Earthly Delights there as well?’
‘Oh, yes, it certainly is. I might have known you’d be looking for that, you little rascal you.’
‘Well, I like a nice Earthly Delight from time to time.’
‘Don’t we all dear, don’t we all?’ said Aunt Hetty, rather wistfully. ‘Yes, you will find all those attractions together, down by the sea.’
‘The Sea?’ exclaimed Rathbone.
‘Yes, you can’t miss it, it’s that huge blue wavy thing where the mermaids live, on the other side of the beach.’
‘Nobody told me we were anywhere near the sea.’
‘They keep things from you do they? Apparently the arrangements have been changed. Your Captain has been delayed and he’ll meet you there. So if you’ve all finished off you go. You’d best hurry – pillaging hours are limited out of season down there as well.’
The pirates hurried off grumbling, their digestive tracts starting to twitch, and their hands beginning to itch and turn green. The Spindle Leaf chicken soup and Hetty’s Herbal Handcream was about to take a hold…
* * *
Jasper was beginning to grow weary of vague lanes winding on and on, apparently in circles, sometimes deteriorating into muddy tracks. Weary too of stumbling over knotted tree roots, groping through dark tunnels in overhanging woods, then the false joys of emerging out again into brightness and apparently reasonable roads, only to be once more confronted with barriers and obstacles, all the while with both cart and trolley totally bereft of booty.
He had given up the attempt to find Summerdale Towers, but still had some hopes of reaching Richpickings Farm.
He now came upon an ancient cottage with acute angled gables and deep eaves, clad in dark green ivy, with close looming oaks around it, and bees in the garden, thrumming amongst the flowers and herbs. On his horse he could sometimes see over the hedges by which his party passed, and here he noticed a curtain twitch.
He whispered to his men, telling them to stay quiet and hidden, and then dismounted, tied his horse to the gatepost, approached the door, and pulled the bell chain.
He heard a distant cracked and sombre tolling. No response. He waited a while then pulled the chain again. Instantly the door creaked half open, startling him and making jump. Peering over the securing chain was a tall, severe looking, but very beautiful woman, clad all in black, with her greying hair pulled back, and wearing no jewellery save a velvet choker at her neck on which was set a silver mounted cameo. She had high cheekbones and deep green eyes, and her hands were apparently clasped behind her back.
‘There was no need to ring twice. I would have thought that patience was an essential virtue for an unsolicited visitor. Who might you be and what do you want?’
Jasper doffed his hat and bowed. ‘I do apologise madam. May I presume that I am addressing the lady of the house?’
‘You are indeed. And if you ‘just happen to be in the area’ and are looking for a property where, in return for demonstrating your products to other householders, you would replace my perfectly satisfactory windows with some Strawberry Hill Gothick tomfoolery for a much reduced price, ‘whilst this offer lasts’, then you are to be disappointed, for not only am I virtually destitute but these mullion windows are here to stay.’
‘No, no, dear lady. You mistake my errand. I merely seek guidance as to the whereabouts of Richpickings Farm.’
‘What do you want with a ruin?’
‘A ruin madam?’
‘Exactly sir. The name of the place is ironic. Deliberately. It was always a poor place with hardly a sufficient harvest to keep a single soul alive. Rocks, stones, weeds, parasites infest it. In latter years it has become merely a retreat for contemplation by summer poets and suchlike wastrels, but now that the roof has fallen in it is completely abandoned.’
‘Oh, how very cheering.’ said Jasper, tight lipped and with great difficulty restraining himself from cursing. ‘It seems that every quest I undertake today is to be frustrated. You are sure about this madam?’
‘Do you doubt my word sir?’ The lady was irate. ‘I have lived in this area all my life. I may be a sad widow whom circumstances hath cast into impoverishment, with few possessions (and those of no value being of the basic domestic sort), and compelled to be rewarded by the most modest of stipends and accommodation for my duties in the capacity of companion to the very demanding lady ghost who inhabits this property, but despite my low situation I do not lie sir.’
‘Forgive me dear lady. Of course I do not doubt you… (A ghost?) No matter, no matter. No business of mine. Thank you for your confidences. Would that I could be of service to you. Perhaps…’
Just then there was a loud series of sneezes from behind the hedge. Jasper turned around with a muffled curse. As he turned back he found the lady standing now with both her hands before her, two cocked pistols pointing at his chest.
‘A touch of hay fever amongst the crew?’ she said. ‘Push off, pirate!’
‘Believe me madam…’
‘Believe you, Sir Jasper Scabbard? I think not sir.’
‘Ah… You have had intelligence of my identity and doubtless my purposes I suppose?’
‘Indeed I have sir. As have by now all the remaining residents of Summerdale.’
‘The young Trundles have spread the word then?’
‘Believe what you wish sir. I suppose your rabble will now overwhelm me and plunder my pitiful home whilst you violate me?’
‘For heaven’s sake, madam – I am not a barbarian!’
Was it his imagination or did the lady look a little downcast? ‘I am only sorry to have put such a courageous and handsome lady to any inconvenience. I sincerely wish we could extend this transient acquaintance in happier circumstances. Might I know your name?’
‘You will have to torture me to obtain it.’
‘Oh dear, oh dear. We have got off to a poor start have we not? Another time, another place perhaps?’
‘In your dreams, pirate.’
He slowly replaced his hat and said ‘May I at least leave you may card?’
‘No you may not sir.’ she said, with almost the trace of a smile upon her lips. ‘For then I would be obliged to receive it, and whilst transferring both pistols to one hand and so effectively disabling myself, a villain as experienced and probably as skilful as yourself could swiftly draw and fire one of your undoubtedly ready primed weapons and I would be dead meat.’’
‘Madam,’ he sighed. ‘You misjudge me. But then why should you not, upon such brief acquaintance and with the biased intelligence I now perceive you have acquired?’
‘I make my own judgements sir.’
‘As do I. And I have three reasons why I believe that as I turn and leave you, you will not shoot me in the back.’
‘And what may those reasons be Sir Jasper?’
‘Firstly, because I now suspect that there are far more subtle forces opposed to me than I had heretofore supposed, and that it is possibly hoped that I may be manoeuvred into a position whereby my modest achievements may be nullified. Secondly, because you are a shrewd woman and know that should you kill me, my crew are close at hand to deliver possibly vicious revenge.’
‘And the third reason sir?’
‘That is because I know you already from my observation to be not only beautiful but brave, and believe that, like myself, in the final analysis, you are a person of honour, and that is why, madam, I am going to turn my back and trust you not to kill me. I shall then call off my men, and hope that at some time in the future I can make amends for disturbing you and repay you for allowing me to retire unharmed.’
Jasper bowed low, turned and slowly walked back into the lane. He mounted his horse, looked back and raised his hat again, smiled and left.
She stood still in the doorway, her pistols lowered in her now shaking hands. There was another bout of sneezing, but drawing further off. She heard Sir Jasper’s voice, growing fainter… ‘Shut up Clarence – control yourself. Stuff something up your nose, you appalling hypochondriac. For heaven’s sake…’
She turned back into the house and closed the door, leaning back against it. ‘It’s alright Elisabeth. You can come out now.’
‘Thank you Aunt Esme. You were superb!’
‘I was rather good, wasn’t I? What a fascinating man. Evil of course, but there was something about him…’
‘I was running out of places to hide. This cloak is getting rather too torn. Is there really a ghost here?’
‘Oh yes. That’s why nobody will live in the place. But she’s perfectly friendly. Just very sad about being betrayed by a man. The usual story. Well I must be getting back to the farm. It’ll soon be milking time and I’m a bit shorthanded. I’ve only got ten men to look after three hundred acres. You did very well to steer the pirates away. We’ve only managed to hide some of the harvest – we’re bursting at the seams with produce and as you know the place is also chock full of valuable things that we have collected over the years. You have seen some of the jewels your uncle Rowley brought back from India…’