Read an Excerpt
* 3 June 1939 *
AT THE GREYBEARD LIGHT
"That boy," Emily McIver said to herself, "is the most unreliable boy in all of England!"
"Where is that child?" she added, half aloud, for at least the tenth time since he'd missed his supper. "Honestly!"
Worriedly brushing s tray wisp of honey-colored hair back from her brow, she pressed her nose once more against the steamy kitchen window. Masses of purple clouds had been gathering in the west for the last hour and now heavy drops of rain were spattering hard against the glass. First real storms of the summer, she thought, plunging her hands into the hot soapy water, pulling out another supper plate. It looked a blow and of course her son was right out there in the think of it, as usual. Missed his supper again. Soaked to the skin. Chilled to the bone in the bargain.
Emily tried to push her rising worried over her only son down to a place where she could control them. Only a little wind, wasn't it? He'd certainly come through worse, hadn't he? Had his oilskins on, hadn't he? Oh my, look at that lightning! Heat lightning. Summer lightning.
Summer had come at last to this smallest of four little islands stuck out in the English Channel. Although they were English isles, fiercely held for many centuries, they lay very close to the coast of France. The names of many streets and villages were still French, but the islanders were loyal only to England. Greybeard Island, the smallest, was famous for having more cows than people. And the fact that there was not a single car. The few people who lived here were hardy seagoing folk, now mostly farmers and fishermen. True, nothing much ever happened here. Still Emily thought it the loveliest place; the rocky coasts, the rolling pastures, and now, of course, the glorious roses. Emily had joyously announced summer's arrival in her journal that very morning:
After an icy winter and a cold, wet, spring, the sun has suddenly rained warmth down on our little green island. The summer of 1939 is here at last! Every lane has a leafy green roof vaulting overhead, every field is carpeted with buttercups and periwinkles, and in every orchard clouds of white petals float to earth, then swirl in eddies beneath the boughs, and drift up against the gnarled and twisted trunks of the trees like snowdrifts. Roses, too, climb once more to the rooftops of the little stone cottages scattered hither and thither across our tiny island, as if some giant has just flung out handfuls of them and then, overnight, picket fences and flowerbushes spring up just to bind them to earth!
Even this old lighthouse, she realized with a shudder of pleasure, home to the McIver family for generations, was once more wreathed in great spirals of heavy roses. The "Tower Roses" they were called, and featured on the cover on the island guidebook, weren't they? Emily cracked the kitchen window a bit to inhale the blossoms' sweet perfume, the scent of rain and roses wafting in on the wet air.
Emily leaned forward again, peering intently through the darkened kitchen window. She saw only veils of rain along the empty path leading down to the harbor. Where is that boy? She wondering for the hundredth time. But she knew well enough where her boy was.
Well, at least little Kate isn't out there with him, Emily thought with some relief. No, her daughter was snug and safe up in her warm bed, recovering from a nasty bout of measles. Otherwise, sure as daylight, she would have been out there tossing about on that boast. Her husband Angus, however, was out in this dreadful storm tonight on a silly errand to-A sudden noise behind Emily almost made her jump out of her slippers, and she dropped a supper dish with a terrific splash into the soap water.
"Goodness!" she cried, spinning to see her kitchen door fly open. Two dervishes, whirling in on a gust of wet wind, one a twelve-year-old boy, one a loudly barking black retriever hard on the boy's heels. "Two demons out of the night and what a start you've given me!" she cried, vainly trying to brush the soapy water from her apron.
"Close that door! Can't you see there's rain blowing in!" Inside she breathed an enormous sigh of relief at the sight of her boy safely home.
"Only me and Jipper, Mum!" said Nick, leaning all of his weight against the heavy oak door. "Not late, are we? See, we got caught in this bit of a blow and we-Jip! No, boy, don't!" Nick cried, but it was too late.
Nick, who knew he had trouble enough already, watched his big black dog walk over to where his mother stood and violently shake every drop of water from his body in her direction, a shaggy, four-legged rainstorm.
"Why, thank you, Jip!" Emily said, brushing this fresh deluge from her apron. "Lovely! I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten your manners, either! They're just as terrible as they've always been! Just look at this mess, will you, Nick!"
"Just being friendly, Mum, isn't he? Happy to be home?" He tried a smile but couldn't quite get it right. "That means he's glad to see you. He's sort of waving at you, see, in dog language?"
Emily McIver put both hands on her hips and bent from the waist, scowling at her boy, now standing in the puddle of rainwater he had created in her kitchen.
"Nicholas McIver! Don't think you can charm your way out of this one, boy! Third night this week you've missed supper! And look at you!" she said, shaking her finger in his direction. "And look at my sorry floor as well, will you?"
Nick dutifully looked at himself, his mother's apron, and the puddle, and had to nod in mute agreement. His shoes were squishing water, and his normally curly blond hair was plastered to his skull. He was late again, he'd made a sopping mess of the kitchen, and the chances of a nice hot meal were decidedly slim. He was ravenous. He was entirely ravenous after a hard day on the water.
The remains of a beautiful roast joint of beef caught his eye.
"Sorry I'm late, Mum." he said, picking up the heavy pewter platter that held the roast. "Why don't you turn in, and I'll just stow all these messy supper dishes for you? Least I can do, really, isn't it?"
Emily took the platter right out of his hands. "Good effort, Nicky. Shameless, but good all the same. Supper in this house is exactly half past two hours ago, I'll remind you! This roast is bound straight for the strew pot. Take a turnip and a carrot or two if you like and then to bed with you."
She held out a bowl of freshly peeled vegetable and Nick stuffed his pockets to dispose f them later. He hated carrots only slightly less than turnips. Maybe Jip would eat the stuff. At least they wouldn't both go hungry.
"This time it wasn't my fault, Mother," he said, unable to take his eyes off the pungent roast beef. "There was a terrible blow, you see, and Jip and I-I apologize. We both do."
"Truly. Well, you and Jip can do your all of your apologizing to each other. Up in your room and it's lights out for the both of you," Emily said, spinning him around by his shoulders and marching him toward the stairway. "Along with you!" Jip, you as well!"
Nick paused at the foot of the stairs. "May I ask you one serious question first, Mum?" he asked, his heart suddenly catching in his throat. "Would you say I'm a boy who frightens easily?"
"A boy too clover and too brave for his own good, I might agree with," Emily said. She turned to look at her son over her shoulder. "But then, I'm only your mother. What does a mother know? Do her feet hurt from standing? Do her roses have aphids? Does her heart ache with worry every time her little boy is out in a terrible storm?"
"I am sorry, Mother. Really I am," Nick said. "It was scary, though, out in that blow."
"Tell your mother, Nicholas. Why you're always so afraid of being frightened? It is the most natural feeling a boy can have."
Nick cast his eyes at the rain-streaked kitchen window, struggling to keep his emotions in check.
"Because I think a boy is not supposed to be afraid! The boys I read about in books are never afraid of anything! But I was afraid, out there today, twice! Twice in one day! Why, I guess I'm nothing more than a measly, sniveling old c-coward!" He sat on the bottom step and swiped away a tear.
"You're not a boy in a book, son, you're just a normal boy. And, being afraid, that's only normal for-"
"I tried, you know! Oh, I tried all right. But I just couldn't get Petrel to windward of the Gravestone, and I-" Nick paused, as the memory of that terrible moment came flooding back. "I-I knew our only chance was to try and ride the storm surge in over the reefs, you see, and just then a huge wave hit us broadside, knocked us right over on our beam ends and I thought that Jipper, I thought poor Jip had been-" Nick felt hot salty tears welling up and quickly looked down at his dog. If he ever truly wanted to be a hero, it clearly wouldn't do to have his own dog and his mother see him going all leaky over a few big waves.
"Come here, Nicky," Emily said. Nick rose unsteadily and went to her, grateful to feel his cheek against her starchy, sweet-smelling blouse, a safe place where no one could see the tears of utter relief at still being alive flowing down his cheeks. How he'd longed for the safety of these same arms when the giant rock was looming.
"And, what was the second frightening thing, son?" she asked, gently patting the top of his sodden head. She felt the boy finally stop trembling and held him to her. "Besides the terrible storm?" "Oh. W-well, that one wasn't so bad, Mother, he said, finally calming down. "It was about noon, I guess. Jipper and I were tacking north around Hawke Point. And then the sky suddenly got all black and thundery, you see, and we thought it was a storm coming. But it wasn't, not yet anyway. No, it was masses and masses of heavy aeroplanes! Bombers! They flew directly over the Petrel's masthead! They were quite low, Mother, it was deafening, really, and Jip and I ran up on the bow to shout hurrah and wave to our boys, but, you see, they weren't our boys, Mother. They all had big swastikas painted on their fuselages and wings-they were German!"
"German! They didn't drop any bombs on you and Jip, did they, darling?" Emily asked with a smile. "That would be frightening."
"No, they didn't drop any bombs," Nick said, smiling back at her. "And we waved at them anyway, see, and a few even waggled their wings back at us, as if we were friends. That scared me the most."
"I think you're a very brave boy, Nicholas McIver," Emily said, giving him a brief peck on the top of his head. "But brave boys don't get to be brave men unless they're a bit clever, too. Be clever enough to be afraid when you need to be, won't you, Nick? Now, along with you. To bed."
"Is there really going to be a war, Mum?" Nick asked, reluctant to leave her side. "With the Nazis? The Germans, I mean?"
"We've all had quite enough of war for one century, thank you. There shan't be another."
"But, Father says-"
"Nick, listen to me," she said, holding him away from her and looking into his eyes. "Some people, your father for one, believe what Mr. Churchill says. That war with Germany is unavoidable. I choose to believe what our prime minister, Mr. Chamberlain, says. My brother, Godfrey, as you well know, spends his every waking hour by the prime minister's side at Number Ten Downing. He sees all but the most top-secret documents and he's convinced the Nazis have no interest in war with England. I've always believed your uncle and I believe him now. Isn't that simple? Now. To bed, and no delay!"
Nick looked at his mother. He prayed that it was as simple, as black and white as she portrayed it. His uncle Godfrey, as secretary to the PM, would certainly know, wouldn't he? "Mother, I'm sure you're right. But may I at least tell Father about-"
"Your father's not here, dear," Emily said, putting the last dried dish on the shelf. "He had an emergency meeting of his beloved Birdwatcher's Society." She chuckled at the notion of an emergency of any kind here on peaceful little Greybeard Island. What possible emergency could drive a flock of birdwatchers out on a night like this? Birdwatchers, indeed, Emily thought.
"Oh, Nicky, before you tuck in, bring Mummy's spectacles down, won't you? I left them up in your father's study, on his desk, I believe. And stop poking your great-grandfather's belly, Nicholas, you'll just make him worse!"
At the foot of the curving staircase, that led to the very top of the lighthouse, hung a portrait of a McIver ancestor that Nick greatly admired. The long dead admiral over the hearth had a jagged hole in the center of his great belly and Nick loved to stand on tiptoe and jab his fist through the old man's stomach. No one was quite sure how the gaping hole had come to be there, but everyone had their story about the admiral with the hold in his belly. Surely there was some grand adventure behind the painting and Nick loved to stick his fist through his ancestor's perforated paunch every time he bounded upstairs.
"Sorry, mum," he said, giving the old admiral one last jab to the midsection. "Dad's birdwatching again? Imagine watching birds on a night like this anyway!" Nick said over his shoulder, and bounded up the stairs, now much comforted by his mother.
Yes, just imagine, Emily chuckled to herself. "Birdwatcher's, ha!" she said half aloud and collapsed into the well-worn overstuffed chair that sat next to the kitchen hearth. It had been a long, tiring day. She looked forward to falling asleep by the softly cracking kitchen fire with her needlepoint on her lap. Angus would wake her upon returning from his "birdwatching."
It was, after all, the silliest thing. It was a good thing she loved her husband so dearly, or she'd never have been able to forgive his newest passion. The "Birdwatcher's Society!" Climbing all over the island with their little telescopes and their fat black binoculars. Mud smeared on their faces and bit of leaves and branches stuck in their headgear. And always staring out to sea, they were. Waiting for the Nazis to come. As if the Nazis cared on whit for three or four little English islands tuck in the Channel! Closer to France than England and inhabited mainly by cows! Imagine, she thought, chuckling to herself. All hail Adolf Hitler, King of the Channel Isles, Chancellor of Cows.
"Nicholas?" Emily cried, still chuckling to herself and kicking an errant little ember back onto the hearthstone. She turned and shouted up the empty stairwell. "Will you please bring me those glasses? You know I can't do a stitch without them!" There was no answer. Where is that boy? She wondered, for what seemed like the thousandth time that day.
Upon entering his father's study at the very top of the stairs, just below the ladder up to the great light itself, the first thing Nick had noticed was his father's old leather flying jacket. It was hanging on the back of his chair. Slipping into the timeworn garment, which he greatly coveted, he collapsed into his father's desk chair, running his hands over the silver wings pinned to the jacket breast. A hero's jacket, Nick thought, looking down at the bright wings. His father had been wearing it the day his Sopwith had been shot down, crashing n flames in the Ardennes Forest. Angus McIver had escaped from the burning plane, but had lost the use of his right leg doing it. He'd never flown again after that terrible day and even now, twenty years later, he could only walk with the use of a stout cane.
But he'd returned from the Great War to a hero's welcome on little Greybeard Island, hadn't he, Nick thought. Oh, yes. No doubt about it. A true hero, whatever that was. All Nick knew was that he wanted to be one in the worst way possible, he thought, picking up his father's old brier pipe and clenching it between his teeth just the way his father did. Did he have the stuff it took to be a hero, he wondered, chomping on the pipe stem? Was he brave enough? Strong enough? Smart enough? Well, why trouble yourself, he guessed. He'd probably never get the chance to find out, living on a little island stuck smack in the middle of nowhere. His own father had taken to watching birds, for goodness sake. That's how starved he was for excitement.
Now, what was his mission? Oh, yes! Mother's reading glasses. Where were they? He felt around, pushing the little piles of books and paper to and fro. He plunged his hand into a little alcove in the center of the desk, full of old pens and pencils. Perhaps she'd put them-Hold on!-his fingertips had brushed something cold protruding from the very back of the alcove. It felt like, it was, a button, and not just any old button, either. A secret button!
Naturally, he had to push it.
With a mechanical click and a soft whirring noise, a drawer abruptly appeared just above the little alcove. Just slid straight out, it did, like an unexpected invitation. It was quite the most amazing thing, and no mistaking it, to be suddenly confronted with what was plainly a secret drawer. His natural curiosity immediately go the better of him and he stood up and peered inside.
Lying at the bottom of the drawer was an old logbook that someone obviously wasn't meant to see. It was a faded red leather binder with the words MIGRATORY BIRDS stamped in gold on its cover. Well, mystery solved, Nick said to himself. It had something to do with his father's Birdwatcher's Society. He carefully lifted the heavy binder from the drawer and examined it closely. It was curious, he thought, because although is father had loved flying, he had never given a fig for birds, at least until recently.
Feeling the slightest twinge of guilt, Nick opened the thick volume and began thumbing through its yellowed pages. And it was immediately apparent that, indeed, his father was no secret bird fancier. As he rapidly skimmed the book, he saw that every day his father was carefully noting the daily comings and goings, the "migrations," of every single German vessel moving through the Channel! The "migratory birds" were nothing less than the great German liners, merchant vessels and warships steaming out of Hamburg and the Rhine and migrating across the Channel! His eye falling to the bottom of the page, he saw this startling notation in his father's hand.
Documentation delivered: First March 39, 0900 hrs, believed Alpha Class U-boat sighting vicinity Greybeard Island bearing 230 degrees, west, increased activity all sectors day and night. Thor acknowledge and forward W.S.C.
Thor? The beautiful power launch he'd seen slipping in and out of the harbor these last few weeks? And who, or what, was W.S.C.?
Adding to the deepening mystery, Nick saw that there was another secret or two hidden in the drawer as well. Although he could scarcely credit it, at the back of the drawer there was a nickel-plated Webley & Scott revolver, .45 caliber. Picking it up carefully, Nick noticed that it was loaded. His father owned a gun, a loaded gun? Setting the heavy revolver down gently atop a stack of papers, he took a deep breath and reached into the drawer again. The gun had been lying atop a packet of letters, bound with red ribbon. Nick removed the letters, thinking, "in for a penny, in for a pound." Each envelope had the word "Chartwell" engraved in the upper left-hand corner. Each was addressed to his father, Greybeard Light, Greybeard Island. He dared not open a single one, though he was powerfully tempted.
Chartwell, Nick knew from the newspapers, was the name of the country house in Kent that belonged to Winston Spencer Churchill! Yes, yes, grand old W.S.C. himself!
Nick, struggling to contain his excitement, carefully returned everything to the drawer just as he'd found it. First the packet of letters from Churchill. On top of the letters, the loaded pistol. And finally the heavy leather binder. Hold on, had the title been facing him, or away? Away, as he remembered. At the slightest pressure of his fingertips, the secret drawer slid silently shut, locking with a soft click. Staring fixedly at the spot where the drawer had simply disappeared into the desk, he saw his mother's little gold-framed eye-glasses on the shelf just above. He picked them up and placed them absently in his shirtfront pocket.
Breathing hard and feeling slightly dazed, he walked over to stand at one of the many large curved windows that overlooked the channel in every direction. There was a flash of pure white brilliance as the great lighthouse beacon swept around just above him. The storm had by now moved off to the east, over the coastal fields of France. It was still lighting up the sky with crackling electricity, but it was nothing compared to the currents flowing through young Nicholas McIver at that very moment. Maybe he'd been wrong, he thought. Just moments ago he'd been feeling sorry for himself, stuck out here on a rock where nothing every happened. Well, something was happening, that much was sure.
He looked own at the vast black top of the Channel, stretching away now under a moonlit sky. As usual, there was no shortage of the thin white trails, scribbled across the Channel's surface in an eastward direction. But now they seemed to have acquired vast importance. Now he knew what they were. They were German submarines. They were the dreaded U-boats, slipping out of Germany and beneath the waves of his peaceful Channel, perhaps toward England. If his father and W.S.C. were correct, of course.
He shuddered at the little chill of fear, and the sudden sour taste of tobacco in his mouth reminding him that his father's pipe remained clenched between his jaws.
His own father, who built sturdy little sailboats that never leaked, and who laughed and told funny stories when he tucked him into his bed every night, was a spy! This man who tended roses on summer days and recited Wordsworth on wintry nights was a spy! One who kept a revolve-a loaded revolved-in a secret drawer and who was by all account engaged in this secret espionage on behalf of the great Winston Churchill himself. His own father! It was the most wonderful thing imaginable. Maybe he could scare up a little adventure on this old island after all! "Mother!" he cried at the top of his lungs and racing down the stairs three at a time, "Mother, I've found your eyeglasses! Isn't that wonderful?"