Any characters you recognise still belong to Arthur Ransome.
Chapter 1 – Captain Walker is up to something
April 1938 - Easter holidays
Daddy was most definitely up to something, Titty thought. She was delighted to travel north to the lakes, naturally, even though she was accompanied only by her father and Bridget and had plenty of school work to take with her. Roger was visiting the Broads with Dick who was down from Cambridge for his Easter vacation. John was on his ship and Susan was at her hospital, of course.
Daddy had caught an earlier train than the one Peggy had suggested, but seemed quite happy to wander around "Rio" which was much less crowded than it was in the summer. He suggested that Titty and Bridget sat down by the landing stage with the luggage and wandered off by himself. He normally walked briskly, although he never appeared hurried. Titty felt his air of casualness was a bit too studied. He was definitely planning something. Titty was so convinced of this that she more than half expected to see the Swallow tied up at the jetty and would not have been surprised to see Dorothea or Dick there.
However, only little Amazon was there, at the end of her painter. Both girls were cold and Bridget was frankly bored by the time Daddy came back, walking more briskly this time. Peggy came hurrying along a few minutes later, hat pulled down firmly and collar up against the wind.
"Have you been waiting long? You both look very cold." She said as she quickly stowed their luggage in Amazon.
"Not long" Daddy replied.
Peggy glanced at him curiously. "We'll just have enough light to sail across" was all she said.
The welcome at Beckfoot was as warm as ever, although somewhat subdued without Nancy.
The next morning was clear and bright but cold. Daddy asked to be shown Wild Cat Island and Cormorant Island. He had the three girls taking compass bearings, as they had long ago when they were making their map the Secret water and its surroundings. He produced out of his pocket a lead and line and had Peggy teach the Bridget how to use it. They sailed on to Horseshoe cove and made a fire for tea. They all walked up to Swainson's farm together and admired Mary's little girl. Daddy then said he would walk home along the road, leaving the three girls to sail back to Beckfoot by themselves.
"See if Bridget handles a boat as well as she thinks she can" he said.
"Right then, Bridget," said Peggy, "you give the orders to Titty. I'm the passenger."
The wind was from the south, but had dwindled to the lightest of breezes and a fine drizzle had set in by the time they entered the Amazon river.
"You handled her well." Peggy commented as they walked up the Beckfoot lawn.
"It's bad enough Daddy testing me all the time, without Peggy starting it" grumbled Bridget to Titty as they change out of their damp clothes before the dinner. "I do think being the youngest is unfair. Susan and John were bossing everyone else around at the age I am now. John was captain of the Swallow. No-one kept checking up on them all the time and seeing if they could do things. Peggy isn't even my sister and she bosses me about."
"Susan and John took a lot of responsibility looking after you so that you could join in adventures when you were younger. Nancy and Peggy could easily have complained when they put you first so often – some of Susan's other friends did, but not Nancy and Peggy."
"Susan never told me that!"
"Of course she didn't." said Titty more gently. "She's always trying to protect you. She wouldn't have hurt your feelings. That's what it is you know, protection, not bossiness for the sake of it."
"Anyway, they got to sail about by themselves, without any one checking how good they were or saying don't do this or that." grumbled Bridget.
"There were plenty of restrictions and rules and promises we had to keep. You just can't remember them – or you thought it was just the rest of us being bossy. And John did sail very, very well indeed. So did Nancy, so did Peggy. I don't think we realised it at the time, Roger and I. We just took it for granted. John didn't have that much chance to practise before we came to the Lakes for the first time – just those few weeks at Falmouth with Daddy."
Bridget thought guiltily of the weekends her father had spent teaching her to sail in a hired dinghy while the others were away at boarding school. Daddy had been stationed (mostly) in England ever since Bridget was four. She remembered Roger in a rare moment of confidence telling her how anxious he had been as a six-year old that he wouldn't recognise his father when he came home on leave.
"And you know," he had continued "I probably only had seen him once before for a few weeks, when I was four. It was his voice I recognised."
Whilst she reflected, Titty had gathered up and folded their discarded clothes. She paused by the door before leading the way downstairs.
"It probably helps that I've been the youngest and the oldest." She said.
"What do you mean? You're the middle one." Bridget replied.
Titty was relieved that the tone of complaint was gone from her sister's voice.
"When I'm only with Roger or only with you and Roger, I'm the oldest. It's my responsibility if anything goes wrong. When I'm with John and Susan, or even Nancy and Peggy, I'm responsible for what I do, of course, but not for their actions. That's like being the youngest. And of course I remember what it felt like all the times when John and Susan were allowed to do things and I wasn't old enough. Sometimes they didn't do things they could have done, because Roger and I weren't old enough. That made it easier when I couldn't do things because Roger couldn't do them with me."
Peggy was beating a rapid tattoo upon the gong, so they fled downstairs.
The meal was uncharacteristically quiet for a Beckfoot meal, Titty thought, although she realised that there must have been many much quieter since Nancy started her PE training. The day's doings were recounted to Mrs. Blackett, who in turn tentatively asked Captain Walker about the chances of another war.
"I think it's inevitable." He replied. "It doesn't take two governments to make a war – just one. Unless Hitler suddenly starts to keep his promises, or unless we totally abandon any attempt to keep ours, war will come."
Mrs. Blackett nodded.
"I thought as much." She said. "I wondered if I was being overly pessimistic. Nancy has been saying as much for over a year now. I thought it might be just her being…. Well you know."
"Nancy" supplied Peggy.
"Anyway," said Mrs. Blackett. "If, or when it does happen, I wondered if you might like to evacuate Bridget and her mother to us, rather than have her go to total strangers. They'll be safe here if they're safe anywhere and I'd love to have Mary's company. Titty, too, if she doesn't mind sharing a room with Peggy or Bridget. If the food situation is anything like the last war, they'll eat better here too."
"If war comes, Peggy won't be sleeping here that often. "said Peggy. "Not unless they decide I'm only fit for the land army and send me up to Low farm. Jackie will volunteer, I'm sure of it"
"I think you'll find have to be fit alright for the land army" said Captain Walker drily.
"Oh, I realise that." said Peggy. Both she and Nancy had worked hard throughout many Whitsun half-terms to help their neighbours get the hay in. The row when the Great-Aunt had heard of it had been stupendous. "I realise that an army marches on its stomach, too, but with all the effort we've put in to learning Morse and so on over the years, I was hoping I could do something more, well, immediate. I can cook without a lot of equipment as well as in a normal kitchen. And I can drive a car and do some repairs and operate a switch-board" She grinned. "And I didn't get to be Nancy's sister without learning to take orders!"
She turned to Captain Walker.
"What are the chances that the navy can use me?"
He hesitated slightly, glancing at Mrs. Blackett's suddenly stricken face.
"We'll have a long talk about it over the next few days." He promised then turned back to Mrs. Blackett.
"Thank you very much for your kind offer." He said, "I'll discuss it with Mary, but I'm sure we will want to accept, at least in part. Mary may be needed for war- work elsewhere of course, but I'm sure she if she can find a job that needs doing in this area she would prefer it."
A silence fell, broken by the chiming of the clock. Peggy took that as the signal to start collecting the dishes and carry them down to the kitchen. The other two girls helped her and chatted to Mrs Braithwaite whilst they helped her with the washing up.
The Walker girls were just climbing into bed when Peggy tapped at the door.
"I say," she said, "if there is a war, please try to be evacuated here if you can, Bridget. I'd like mother to have company, if I go away. It's not a bad place to grow up, you know. Mother and Cooky won't be unfair about chores and things like that. Some of the people I overhear in the post office – well, I think one or two of them are thinking in terms of getting a cheap labourer. Not most people of course; most people intend to do their best or they haven't got room anyway. And you'd write to us, wouldn't you, if there was something we ought to know?"
"Of course," agreed Bridget cheerfully. "Do you think they would stop school for the duration of the war?"
"Probably not" admitted Peggy, "but maybe you'd finish sooner or something."
"I expect we'd learn different things." said Bridget hopefully. "I can't see the good of French verbs and Latin in a war."
"We'd need French," said Titty, "They'd be our allies"
"Well. Latin then, I don't see the point of that. Unless you used it as a code or something, and Hitler would have enough people who could read Latin, so that would be no good."
"I don't want to pry if I'm not meant to" said Peggy carefully, in the tone of one who does mean to pry. "But I get the impression that we're being discretely tested."
"I get that all the time" said Bridget with a sigh.
"But especially right now?" Peggy asked.
"Yes," said Titty, "and it's all of us, not just you. But when Daddy is up to something, and he is, I'm sure of that, there's no use at all in trying to get it out of him before he's ready."
"We'll see what we see." she said. "My feet are freezing; I'm off to bed."
It was tactful of Daddy, Titty thought, to take Bridget off on a walk to the High Tops directly after breakfast. She and Peggy sailed Amazon across to meet Nancy, whose train was due to arrive shortly after eleven. The train was early and they arrived to find Nancy chatting to old Bob beside a gently steaming locomotive, with her suitcase in her hand. Titty always felt slightly startled to find herself as tall as Nancy, although this had been the case for the past three years. Somehow, Nancy still had a personality so big that she seemed taller in your memory that in real life.
"Oh, it's wonderful to be shivering timbers whenever I feel like it." said Nancy. "If I do, the girls all look at me and ask what I mean and then spend the next quarter of an hour trying to whisper about it and learning half of what they might have learned. Do we have to be back for lunch? Is that sandwiches I see?"
"No, it's a beef-roll for Uncle Jim. We're to collect him and bring him to Beckfoot for lunch. Captain Walker wants to see him again."
They had to tack to reach houseboat bay and found the erstwhile Captain Flint smoking a pipe on the deck with a small suitcase at his feet. He had lost weight since last year, Titty thought. It was still a tight squeeze in little Amazon, although all of the young women were slim and both the suitcases were small. It was just as well, she thought, that they were running before the wind.
Peggy was steering, but the other two looked on in astonishment as the beef-roll was shredded and the pieces were dropped over-board. Nancy remonstrated with her uncle.
"Already the school marm," he replied. "I won't be back for a while; I don't want to take it with me on the train, because I would only eat it and I don't want to hurt Cook's feelings."
"I don't understand this obsession with losing weight" Peggy said. "I would just about believe it if Nancy was here nagging you about improving your condition all the time, but she isn't. You don't see her from one school holidays to the next."
"And it's not as if I have been nagging." said Nancy, "not even by letter. Is it something the doctor said?"
"Only indirectly." Her uncle said, "As for condition, I haven't needed to bother about it, not really, for twenty years."
"You're getting ready for war." said Nancy flatly.
Her uncle hesitated, and then nodded curtly.
"But" said Titty, "wouldn't food be harder to get during a war?"
He laughed, "It may come sooner rather than later, but not so soon that that beef-roll will be any use."
"When it does come to a war," said Peggy, "won't you be too old for the army anyway?"
"Too old for conscription" he agreed. "Maybe not too old for the army altogether, though. This might turn out to be an altogether different sort of war, just as the last one was different from what went before."