She was alone.
The others had piled into the boats, shoved off, and set sail. Even now, they were tacking down to the south end of the lake to get the longest run for the race to the summerhouse that had, a couple of years earlier, been the North Pole. (She could not remember exactly what Titty had decided it was this summer. Shangri-La? The pavilions of Xanadu?)
“You’re marooned!” Bridget had said excitedly. “Shall we rescue you when we come back?”
“If you want,” Susan said, and shared a glance with John. There was so much to do, and just the rest of the afternoon to do it in. And everyone wanted to sail. The Ds had only had Scarab for a week; and they were eager to test all three dinghies against one another. Nor were the others averse to a race: Nancy, in particular, was sure that all could be made ready in no time when they got back; and Titty and Roger both backed her up. Susan, on the other hand, had a fair idea just how much work would be needed to set the camp up properly before Mother came to visit. So she, at least, was determined not go along. Remaining on Wild Cat Island alone would give her ample time to get everything settled in exactly the way she liked it without all the usual interruptions.
John lingered as the others raced along the path to the harbour. “Are you sure…?” he asked in a low voice.
“At least we got the tents up,” said Susan. That she would not have fancied doing on her own; and, after all, it was only fair that everyone help when it was their own tents that they’d be sleeping in that night. “Don’t worry. I’ll get all the stores sorted away and tea ready before Mother comes.”
Not without regret in her heart, she saw John follow the others, but then girded her loins and turned her attention back to her chosen duty. The fireplace was not in best order: this she had spotted as soon as they had hauled their tents and provisions up from the boats. The largest stones were in position; but someone—or something (though there were no large wild beasts nor livestock on the island)—had clearly knocked the smaller ones aside. She carefully collected them and rebuilt the ring. Then, collecting a bundle of twigs, she tied them with string to a longer stick and swept all the fallen leaves and needles from the ground around the fireplace. After that, it occurred to her to go into the tents, one by one, lift the ground-sheets and sweep under those, for it would be uncomfortable to lie on any loose pebbles. The ground-sheets were then laid back down and smoothed of any wrinkles, and the sleeping bags unrolled again.
She went round each tent, checking the guy ropes and pegs (and hammering a few of them harder in, just to make sure).
There was a good stack of driftwood. Probably, Susan thought, it had been collected by the Amazons and Ds in preparation for the belated arrival of the Swallows. Still, she took the time to range around for a few small fallen branches and suitable tinder, brought them back, and laid the fire ready for lighting. After that, she went down to the landing-place with a cake of soap and washed her hands. She also filled the kettle, ready to be put straight on the fire as soon as she saw the boats coming back up the lake.
Then it was time to inventory the stores they had brought: tins of pemmican and sardines, bottles of grog, bunloaf and bread, butter, a pot each of marmalade and strawberry jam, a dozen eggs, a packet of sliced bacon, a bag of peas already shelled, a large tin of mixed biscuits, apples, potatoes….
Susan counted them all over carefully and put them away in the old tent that they had used when the Swallows had first visited Wildcat Island. Bunloaf was sliced and buttered, a tin of pemmican opened, and good thick sandwiches assembled. By now, she was starting to get hungry; but she restrained herself from tucking in. Hunger, she knew, was the best sauce; and, by the time, the others got back, they would be starving. Tea would be much more enjoyable if they all ate together. She therefore wrapped the sandwiches in a cloth to keep them fresh, and picked out apples for afters.
Finally, Susan set out the mugs (each with a spoon ready in it, so that all would be at hand when the others arrived), and went up to Look Out Point. From that position, she could not quite see into Houseboat Bay; but, on their way from Holly Howe, they had all seen Captain Flint on the deck of his boat; and he had waved as they passed. Further away were the islands near Rio; and, far down the lake, she thought she could make out three small sails—white, brown, and red—tacking back and forth, seeking the best wind and the slightest advantage. If she was right, they were nearly at the summerhouse and would soon be on their way back.
Beyond them, lowering over the hills, the sky was grey. It will rain later, Susan thought, feeling the wind from the north on her face.
It was a rather long wait, especially with everything all ready for tea; so Susan decided to distract herself from consideration of her empty stomach by fetching Martin Chuzzlewit out of her knapsack. At any rate, it seemed as good a time as any to get on with her unfinished holiday task, though she was finding the book rather slow going. Somewhat later, the wind picked up; shortly after, the first drops began to fall. Rather annoyed, Susan stuck her finger in the page, found a scrap of bark to serve as a bookmark, and put Martin safely away in her tent. Then she shifted the sandwiches and apples inside as well, brought in the little lantern and lit it, and snuggled cosily into her sleeping bag.
The storm broke over the canvas.
By the time she had plowed her way doggedly through to the end of her task, eaten two sandwiches and an apple, and nipped hurriedly over to the stores tent for a bottle of grog, the storm sky was darkening further into twilight. The others still had not returned. Where they were she had no idea. And the wind was clearly too strong for safe sailing. She could only hope they’d found food and shelter. She, at least, was dry and warm.
She put the book back in her knapsack, and curled down uneasily in her sleeping bag. It was far too early to feel drowsy. Still, she blew out the lantern and tried to sleep, though her mind insisted on worrying over and over through scenes of woe, about none of which she could do anything.
Finally, she heard … she thought she heard … a brush of branches, a crack of twigs? In an instant, she unzipped the bag and rushed out of the tent into the rain. They were back! They were back!
Except … they weren’t.
In disbelief, she saw an adult figure nearly concealed behind oilskins. Just as it halted and tipped back its hat, she remembered that her mother had been supposed to row over to the island for tea. But tea must surely have been over hours ago?
“Are you all right?” Mother asked urgently.
“Yes, of course,” said Susan blankly. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I—?” Her mother fizzled in brief silence. “Oh, you children will be the death of me!” Then, even as Susan bridled indignantly, she found herself being shooed into the largest of the tents, normally shared by the two Amazon pirates. “In!” exclaimed Mother, “before you catch your death.” Only once they were seated comfortably on sleeping bags, oilies off, and the lantern lit did Mother continue. “Because of Mrs Blackett’s telegrams, you dreadful girl! First came one telling me that you were all at Beckfoot and not to worry; then, no sooner had the poor lad pedalled back to the village than he returned with another informing me that you were on Wild Cat Island alone. What on earth were the others doing, going off and leaving you here all on your own?”
“They wanted to go sailing.”
“Oh, really Susan! Don’t tell me everything here was shipshape and Bristol fashion in time for them to get down to Beckfoot by the time the storm broke, because I know how long it takes to make camp—” This was undeniable. “—and by the time everything was ready and stowed it must have been clear that a storm was brewing!”
“No, I suppose … but it wasn’t … we weren’t….”
“They did set up camp before sailing, didn’t they?” asked Mother in a tone that indicated that she had already guessed the answer.
Oh, dear, thought Susan. “The younger ones wanted to sail this afternoon,” she explained. “You know it’s the first day we’ve all been here together. And the Ds—the Callums—now have Scarab. And Nancy, of course, was keen … especially once I said that I’d stay to get the camp ready.” In quick exculpation, she added, “They did all get the tents up first.’
“I should hope so!” exclaimed Mother. “But really, what was John thinking? Or Peggy, for that matter.” Ruefully she said, “Nancy, I can believe. Not that she’d skimp her share in the normal way of things, but that she’d jump at your offer. But Peggy’s always seemed more responsible.”
“But of course she had to go!” Susan exclaimed. “She’s an Amazon! You could hardly expect Nancy to crew the ship on her own.” Hastily she added, “Not that she couldn’t, of course (she’s very capable); but they wanted to have a race. So they left ages ago, long before the storm. They were heading up to the North Pole … the summerhouse at the head of the lake, you know.”
“Yes, so they were heading back—at least, I think I saw the sails about to head back—just before the storm. I’m sure,” said Susan, and heard excuses in her voice, “they would have returned before tea. We knew you were coming, after all.”
“And so I have come,” said Mother. “There was no way I could leave you on your own here, not knowing how you were getting on. I’m going to have to have a strong word with John when I see him. Not to mention Titty … and even Roger. Just because you act like a pelican is no excuse for their taking advantage of you, my girl. And you are still a girl, though—” She looked rueful. “—you seem to be growing up fast.” With a sigh, she added, “You may enjoy playing at keeping house—and I don’t doubt you had fun here in camp on your own—but it’s your holidays too, love. Enjoy it while you can.”
“Was it a bad row over?” Susan ventured.
“Not much fun,” said Mother quietly. “But the worst of it was not knowing.”
Susan imagined what it must have been like rowing down the lake in the wind and rain. Like Goblin, she thought, remembering the previous summer’s inadvertent trip to Holland; but without the dry cabin, the provisions, and the company.
”Well, I’m here now,” said Mother, “and I’ve no intention of rowing back tonight, I can tell you. I suggest we settle down here—better here together than in separate tents.”
Susan was startled at first, for she had assumed that she would be ordered back to Holly Howe (or, at least, that Mother would leave, for she never camped out on the island with the children). Then she realized that the last thing her mother wanted right now was to have to row back along the lake into the teeth of the storm.
Mrs Walker slid partway into Nancy’s sleeping bag, took off her skirt and folded it, added it to her shoes, and settled down.
“It’s your camp, Susan, love,” she said. “So I’ll leave it to you to deal with the lantern.”
The storm blew itself out overnight; and they rose early to sun glinting low through the trees into the clearing.
“I’ll start the fire,” said Susan, “if you want to go down to the landing-place and wash.”
“No,” said her mother, with a twinkle in her eye. “I have a better idea.” And she explained.
Thus, less than a half hour later, they were greeted aboard the houseboat by Captain Flint, resplendent in a scarlet paisley dressing gown over his pyjamas. He was more than a little surprised, but hospitable; and, as Mrs Walker explained the events of the previous day, he got somewhat annoyed (on behalf of his sister) and apologetic (about his nieces). He entirely agreed with Mother as to the best course of action.
With a butcher’s apron protecting the resplendence, he cooked them all breakfast on the Primus stoves in the galley. There was bacon-and-egg and fried tomatoes and yesterday’s mushrooms; and, with a slap at his waistline—which he said took some keeping up—he added a slice or two of bread at the end, so that it would be richly fried in the fat. This was all served up with mugs of tea and the end of the milk.
“I’m sure my sister won’t let any of them leave until she’s fed them,” he declared. “So you might as well tuck in hearty.”
As she cut off her first piece of bacon, added a morsel of egg, and topped it all with a good smear of fried tomato, Mother turned to Susan and said, “I wish Holly Howe were on the phone (though, of course, none of the farms is); but then Mrs Blackett and I could have had a reasonably long chat, and I could have talked to John. As it is—” She chewed and swallowed. “—all I can do for now is ask if you have any idea how they finished up at Beckfoot?”
It took Susan half her meal to ponder the question, for it was a real one: if the others had reached the summerhouse (as she had thought they must when she spotted the sails), then they would have been heading back south when the storm broke. Why, then, with the wind in their sails, had they not simply scudded along the lake to Wild Cat Island? “I think,” she said finally, “that they may have decided that Dick and Dorothea aren’t really good enough sailors yet. For bad weather, anyway. They’ve been staying at Beckfoot until now; so that would be an obvious place for them to stop. And, of course, there’s Bridget. She swims better than Roger did at her age; but still—John would worry about her.”
“Well, Molly would certainly never have let them sail out again in the storm,” said Captain Flint. “So that explains the first telegram. And, once she’d counted the moving heads a few times, she’d be bound to realize eventually that there was one missing.”
“And still one missing,” said Mother, with some satisfaction. She looked out through a porthole and saw three little sails in the distance. “I hope when they get to your camp they spend a good time searching, and worrying what happened to you.”
Seeing her mother’s eyes lift to the lake, Susan twisted round to look. “Oh, no! We should go!”
“Not at all,” said Captain Flint. “I’ll just put the toast on. Some for you, Mrs Walker?” And, as she nodded and he got up, he added, “Oxford marmalade or blackcurrant jam? Or, of course, both.”
“I think I could manage two slices, yes,” Mother said. “What about you, Susan?” She picked up the teapot before Susan could answer. “Yes, thank you, Mr Turner. She’ll have a couple of slices as well.” She refilled her daughter’s mug and offered her the milk and sugar.
“It’ll serve them right.”
And Captain Flint agreed.