July 1, 1936. Afternoon watch 1545
I leave to-day to rejoin my dear old friend, Miss Huskisson, who, in accordance with her usual summer routine, is to take the waters at Harrogate.
~ The Picts & the Martyrs
"Don't call me Ruth!"
Peggy sighed and closed the door to the parlour. Bob Blackett turned down the corner of his newspaper and winked at her, then resumed reading. Peggy glanced irritably back at the door as the tones of Mrs. Blackett and Nancy's voices grew increasingly strident. They'd been going at it hammer and tongs for ten minutes. Nancy wanted to sail into Rio in shorts and Mrs. Blackett wouldn't allow it.
"I won't have you seen in public in anything but a dress, Ruth! For goodness sakes, you're nineteen!"
"Don't call me Ruth!" Nancy snapped.
Peggy threw herself in a chair. Even Uncle Jim was under the weather. He'd been in his study for close on two hours trying to turn down miniature cannons on a jeweller's lathe for a model ship. She could hear the hum of the motor, then the trilling of the gravers on the metal echoing like some strange night bird. Then there was a shout and she knew that the cannon had worked its way loose of the chuck again and was probably eluding Captain Flint on the floor.
The jangle of the telephone ringing echoed down the hallway. Mr. Blackett put down his newspaper and went to answer it. Peggy followed absently.
"Yes?" Mr. Blackett said. He scribbled violently for a moment on a pad of paper, "Will you repeat that please?...right, thank you…no, no reply, not yet."
"What was it?" Peggy asked. She craned her head, trying to read what he had written, but no one but a cryptologist could decipher Bob Blackett's handwriting.
"It's from your Aunt Maria," he said, his face unreadable.
"From Aunt Maria?" Peggy exclaimed, "Don't tell me she's coming?"
"No, no, nothing like that." He stood for a moment in indecision, then took the stairs two at a time. "Molly!"
"Who was that calling?" Captain Flint stuck his head out of his study, bringing with him the smell of burnt metal.
"It was a telegram from Aunt Maria," Peggy said.
"What did she have to say?"
Peggy shrugged, "He wouldn't tell me. Something beastly, probably."
Captain Flint withdrew and slammed the door. Peggy went outside.
Peggy was standing at the end of the promontory looking at the rolling hills that circled the lake when Nancy closed the front door and raced across the lawn. Peggy noted who won the argument. Nancy was wearing a dress.
"That telegram G.A. sent, what was it about?" Nancy asked. "They wouldn't tell me anything."
"I don't know either," Peggy said, "Dad wouldn't say."
"Hang them both," Nancy said vehemently.
"Who?" Peggy asked, startled, "Mother and Dad?"
"No, great aunts and dresses," Nancy said. "Come on, let's sail. Let's pretend we don't care, act as nonchalant as possible. I know they're dying to tell us."
They boarded their little varnished dingy, with Amazon across her stern, and beat across the lake towards Rio. It was a beautiful day for a sail, the wind just strong enough to make their wake sing in the afternoon silence. A steamer was gliding towards the head of the lake and Mount Kanchenjunga was just touched with pink.
Nancy felt the smooth wood of the tiller under her fingers as the world of her childhood rose around her with a wind of spice scented memories. Kanchenjunga towered, rusty-sided, in deepest darkest Africa, while the Great Wall of China girded the Tops. The lake itself, an inland sea, perhaps even the Mediterranean, stretched glittering to the edge of the world. The hot sands of Wild Cat Island burned in the sun of the South Seas, while the Amazon River dashed from South America in her mighty course past Beckfoot, the gray-sided castle of the native queen. Amazon herself was the golden hulled galleon of a pirate lord, heavy with the bounty of a thousand kills – gold, silver, ambergris, precious gems...
Nancy shook her herself and the quiet water of Lake Coniston blurred back into her vision, edged by the familiar shores of England. How real it had all seemed! Now as she thought about it, it stunned her that the Swallows had seen it as she had, a place to explore and conquer.
"Do you realize that the last time we saw the Swallows was three years ago at John's graduation?" Peggy asked suddenly.
"That was only one day," Nancy said, "We haven't really seen them since 1932."
"When you capsized the Amazon and the Death and Glories tried to salvage her."
"And nearly drowned me." Nancy added. "It was my fault."
"No it wasn't, the wind changed."
"I should have jibed before."
"Do you think it was John's fault when he sailed Swallow into Pike rock?"
"He was being rather reckless, so was I and I was older, I should have known better," Nancy said, "Nothing came of it, though."
"We only lost the compass," Peggy said.
"Oh, shut up."
It was spring and the summer tourists had not yet arrived. Rio was rather quiet and sleeping, not full of noise and people as it would be when everyone arrived. The shopping was done with quickly; new rope and shackles for Amazon and some things Cook had asked for. They were both in rather a hurry to get back. The telegram from the Great Aunt was nagging at both of them.
They heard voices as they went down Beckfoot's front hall.
"It isn't as if it were Germany," Bob Blackett's voice echoed from the drawing room.
"War is coming, but I think they'll be back safe before it happens," Captain Flint added.
"It would be educational…" Mrs. Blackett began.
"Let's see what they say," Mr. Blackett said.
At that, Nancy opened the door and looked in. Mrs. Blackett was on the sofa, Captain Flint was leaning against the piano and Mr. Blackett was sitting on the arm of a chair. He looked up and grinned at them.
"How would you two like to go to Egypt?"
Peggy squealed. It came out rather louder then she had anticipated.
"With Aunt Maria?" Nancy said hesitantly. "Giminy."
Bob Blackett took a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. He made to hand it to Nancy, then remembered no one could read his hand writing.
"Am accompanying friends to continent, then Alexandria, Egypt. Would be educational for Ruth and Margaret. Will pay fare. Maria Turner."
"It might interest you, Nancy," Mr. Blackett added, "It's one of the biggest naval bases in the world. Your friend – what's his name? Walker? – is stationed there. You'll get plenty of sailing in on the native fishing boats."
"The pyramids and the sphinx!" Peggy said, her eyes shining.
"But why is Aunt Maria going to Egypt?" Nancy asked, puzzled.
"With friends," Uncle Jim said, "It's not a bad place to go. It's very historical and very beautiful."
"It might be worth it, Aunt Maria or not," Nancy said, "Golly. Egypt. I'd go to a hundred dances if I could go to Egypt. What an adventure we could make."
"They'll be plenty of adventure without you making one," Captain Flint said. "There's adventure anywhere Nancy and Aunt Maria are in the same place."
After some telegramming and more packing, Nancy and Peggy, in the company of Mr. Blackett, boarded a train and steamed south. Mr. Blackett had come too, half to see them safely to the Great Aunt and half to see his sister, Helen, in London. After a long wait in a lobby and a switch of trains, they arrived in London six hours after they left Beckfoot.
The silhouettes of Parliament, Big Ben, St. Paul's, Buckingham Palace, misty on a London afternoon; they were ingrained on their minds as clearly as a much loved face. London was the centre of their nation. Roads ran to it as surely as veins to a beating heart, everyone was drawn to it. It had been the biggest city in the world until that young upstart, New York, had gotten too big for its britches. Since the Romans had built a fort there in AD 43, it had been the capital of Britain and for a time, the world. The face of London had changed over time; over a thousand years, plague, fire and a host of differing peoples had slowly chiselled it indelibly into the ground. It would take more than time to wipe it away again.
Deep in the heart of London, St. Pancras railway station rose around the Blacketts, tall, grey and busy. A multitude of people hurried every which way. There was a muffled roar from a thousand feet and a thousand voices. Peggy clung to her father's arm. Nancy led the way.
They flagged a taxi and a moment later were in silence as they closed the doors.
"Grosvenor Hotel, please," Mr. Blackett said quietly and the tall, red brick spire of St. Pancras faded behind them. The clock read four-thirty. They travelled beside the Themes for some distance, the water blue under the sky. To the right, they caught glimpses of Buckingham Palace flickering through the trees, golden in the afternoon light and Peggy felt a sudden pang as she saw it. King George had died in January and Edward was on the throne.
Their goal was London Victoria station and the hotel that stood back to back with it. Nancy and Peggy's train would go out from there to Dover in the morning, but they would meet the Great Aunt and her friends this evening in the lobby of the Grosvenor Hotel.
The taxi pulled over and they stepped out onto the sidewalk under the towering front of the Grosvenor Hotel. A porter took their luggage and a moment later, they were stepping into the green columned lobby of the Grosvenor. They were brought into a side parlour, where three people rose to meet them. One of them they recognized at once as Great Aunt. The other two were a man and a woman, the first stout and white haired, the latter looking rather wispy and dressed in yellow.
There were hellos and at last, introductions.
"These are my nieces, Ruth and Margaret," the Great Aunt said, then added, almost as an afterthought, "And their father, Robert Blackett."
"Honoured to meet you," the white haired man said, "I'm Admiral Huskisson, retired, you know, and this is my sister, Adelaide."
"Very pleased to meet you," Nancy said.
The Great Aunt inquired cordially after their trip, markedly ignoring Bob Blackett. At last she turned to him.
"I trust you left Mary and James in good health?" she asked coldly.
"Yes, very well." Bob Blackett said.
There was a stiff silence.
Miss Huskisson looked from one to the other, then turned to Nancy, hurriedly breaking the silence, "Maria has said so much about you. I understand that you are very interested in sailing?"
Nancy breathed a sigh of relief to know that there were some people who had better breeding than her aunt. "Yes, very much," Nancy said, forcing a smile. "We've both been sailing since we were very small. Our Uncle taught us."
The Great Aunt shifted slightly and suddenly Bob Blackett found himself standing outside the circle. He took the hint.
"I believe I will say my goodbyes," he said.
"Oh, you won't stay and dine?" Miss Huskisson asked, turning to him.
"No, I'm afraid not," Mr. Blackett said, "I told my sister I would be at her house in-" he glanced at his watch, "fifteen minutes."
"Well, it was very lovely meeting you," Miss Huskisson said, "Give my best to your sister."
"I will, thank you." Mr. Blackett said, with a smile for Peggy and a wink for Nancy. "I'll come again tomorrow morning to see you off."
As he made for the doors, he looked back; Miss Huskisson had hooked her arm through Nancy's.
"It might interest you to know that Alfred and I have an ancestor, Thomas Huskisson, who was at Trafalgar."
Then the doors closed and he was out on the sidewalk that led past the Grosvenor and turned at Victoria Station.
"Taxi!" he called.
Nancy and Peggy dined that night with the Great Aunt and the Huskisson's in the public dining room. They were tired, very tired, but they learned the reason why the Huskisson's were going to Alexandria.
"I was one of Cunningham's instructors at HMS Britannia," Admiral Huskisson explained. "And later he was under my command on the battleship HMS Implacable. He's just been promoted to second in command of the Mediterranean fleet. I haven't seen him for years. Pound is another old pal; he's the commander-in-chief down there."
"So, we thought we'd go down and visit them," Miss Huskisson finished, "With people like Hitler in power and all it might not be safe to travel in a few years."
"We have a friend who went to HMS Britannia," Nancy said.
"Ah, then you know that HMS Britannia is not a ship, but a school," Admiral Huskisson laughed.
"It was very kind of you to think of bringing us." Peggy said. She reached under the table with a foot and kicked Nancy.
"Yes, very kind," Nancy added.
"Well, of course I had to have Maria along. I couldn't very well go without my old friend," Miss Huskisson said. "She's told us so often about what fine, lovely girls you are and we thought to invite you too. It has all worked out very pleasantly. We will all have a lovely time."
"Since you like sailing," Admiral Huskisson said, turning to Nancy. "I'll see if I can get you a tour of a battleship while we're in the Med. Would you like that?"
"Very much!" Nancy said, then added, "thank you!"
This is a multi-chapter story for a change. It may not make a great deal of sense unless you've read our other S&A stories. It's pretty historically accurate, through we have taken some liberties and we have tried our very best to remain true to the spirit of the books.
The characters are older than they were and must be expected to be different since growing up happens to everybody, even Amazon Pirates. You may not agree with the thoughts and feelings of the characters, Nancy in particular, but we feel that they are supported by the books, Secret Water and The Picts & The Martyrs particularly.
If you should have questions, comments or criticisms during the course of the story, please tell us!
~Rose and Psyche
Don't take it too seriously, if you like, count it as a Peter Duck story.