Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
They had never run the blockade at night before. The air, already crisp with the moonlight, was sharpened with the scent of barley-stubble-she had sailed so close to land. The sea was a dark green pasture, billowing hither and thither beneath the slightest breeze. She spread her full head of sail and nosed lightly through those shimmering waters, alert for the least sign of the blockade. Somewhere out there Sir Henry Morgan and the Terrible Turk lay in wait for her. And in her hold she carried dangerous cargo-the most dangerous cargo of all: the croquet hoop from the middle lawn.
She held it behind her, concealing it as best she could in the folds of her skirts. Up the rose pergola she stole, hugging the safety of the rock shoals to her right. At the bend by the trellis the harbour mouth came into view. Almost there-almost safe.
Caspar Stevenson, well hidden in the rock shoals of the azaleas, watched his young sister's childish manoeuvres with angry contempt. She was just a nuisance in this game. "Blockade" demanded cunning, resource, and boldness; Abigail brought to it nothing but a brazen sort of stupidity-and the most violent temper in creation.
"Let her pass! Let her pass!" he prayed silently toward his brother, Boy (alias Sir Henry Morgan). Once Abigail was safely through to the harbour, the game could be played in earnest.
Boy Stevenson had seen Abigail sneaking along the rose pergola. He waited until he was certain she had dumped her cargo before he challenged. There was a universal conspiracy among the children that Abigail must be allowed to win, for when she lost her tantrums made the game unplayable.
"Ahoy!" he called.
Abigail said nothing.
"You-off the port bow!"
Abigail stopped and put her hands on her hips before she remembered to put them back behind her, pretending she was still in cargo. "Starboard!" she said scornfully.
"Starboard bow." Boy accepted the correction.
"Beam," she persevered.
"Prepare to receive boarders. I'm seizing your cargo."
Abigail gave a screech of triumph and, raising both empty hands above her head, began a very unshiplike dance on the lawn. "Empty! Empty!" she shrieked and cackled.
"Then pass, stranger," Boy said, turning with relief to resume his patrol.
"I jettisoned my cargo by the azalea-by the cliff. I'm allowed to return and take it in free."
Boy saw with horror that the Terrible Turk, otherwise Nick Thornton, had come right up to the pergola and was standing in the shade of the azalea. "No, Nick!" he began. "Don't!"
But it was too late. Nick was already holding the abandoned cargo over his head.
"Prize!" he cried. "Pri-ize!" He made two descending notes of it.
Abigail's shriek of rage made one long rising note. She hurled herself at Nick, bearing him down though he was almost twice her weight. He recovered quickly, leaping back to his feet and beginning to dance in triumph as she had danced moments earlier.
"Spoilsport! Spoilsport!" he taunted and laughed.
Abigail's scream halted every scurrying night creature for a mile around. Boy ran to stop her from attacking Nick; at such moments she had no control of herself. Last year she had nearly bitten off one of Caspar's fingers; the tip of it still had no feeling or power of movement.
But, unpredictable as ever, Abigail went as silent and calm as the night the moment she saw Boy. "It's mine," she said. "You challenged and lost. Tell him it's mine."
How he wished he could. "Sorry, Abbie," he said. "The rules of 'Blockade' are clear. Jettisoned cargo is in hazard until..." Abbie began to pant vehemently. "You should just have said, 'I jettisoned,' Boy persisted. "You shouldn't have said where. So Nick was quite within..."
Her howl of anguish, though less fierce than the earlier scream of rage, was broader and more smothering. In its time it had drowned church organs, railway trains, and German bands. Even as it diminished, as she ran away headlong down the pergola, it held the rest of them rooted to the spot.
Only Abigail's sister Winifred moved. She rose reluctantly from her hiding place between the two clipped box trees and placed herself firmly in the path. The conspiracy was that everyone did their best to let Abbie win, but if the plan came apart, she was not to be allowed to oil off into a tantrum. When Abbie was still a good half dozen yards away, Winifred stepped aside and held out a foot to trip her, knowing well that Abbie was never quite so possessed as to lose all sense of self-interest.
Abigail stopped in time but mimed a greater imbalance than she felt; she glowered at her sister and breathed out great, draughty lungsful of air.
"Nick's right-you are a spoilsport," Winifred said.
"I know!" Abigail shouted defiantly.
"You spoil every game when you lose."
"Of course I do."
"We don't want you out here." She could see how fiercely Abbie was fighting her own unruliness. Winifred, pitying as always her young sister's strength of passion, almost relented. Only a memory of the disasters that had followed so many earlier concessions prevented her. "Go to bed," she said sharply. "Bed's the place for babies."
Abigail stalked off into the dark shadow of the house, howling a great baleful sound. Before she went in by the garden door the howls ceased and her voice rang out of the dark. "I can't help being born after all you!"
She slammed the door so hard the glass shattered and fell in ringing sherds to the flagstone pathway.
There was a silence. Then Nick said: "An impressive temper!"
"We ought to make her come back and play properly," said Winifred. "But it would spoil it for you people."
From across the garden came Caspar's shout: "Start the blockade again!" He had worked his way stealthily back through the shrubbery and up the west pergola so that his shout would reveal none of his tactics for running the blockade.
Within moments Abigail's outburst was forgotten, and five legitimate frigates were seeking again to outwit the two pirates and reach the safety of the harbour.
Caspar was not the only one to have watched these events secretly and at close quarters. The "harbour" was, in fact, a medieval watchtower at one corner of the garden, for the Old Manor had once been well fortified. And on top of the tower, enjoying an evening cigar, stood John Stevenson and Walter Thornton, fathers of the two families whose older members were at play below.
"Such energy!" John said.
Walter, standing beside him, leaning on the rusted iron rail that ran along the parapet at the top of the tower, looked down at the unsuspecting children below, and drew a sharp breath in agreement. John stirred and stretched.
"How do we channel all that energy, eh?" he asked. "They'd wreck the world if we let them."
Walter looked at him in surprise. "Channel it?"
John was equally surprised at Walter's response. "Of course. It's our duty."
"Oooh..." Walter sounded dubious. "I think that's a fallacy."
"You do surprise me."
"If a youngster knows what he wants, and it's not something criminal or harmful, I'd say a parent's duty begins and ends with paving the way for him. Only if a child is aimless, surely, do we intervene more purposefully. Otherwise we're just playing God."
His conviction obviously worried John. "Do you really think so?" he asked.
Walter laughed. "An easy thing to do from the Olympian heights of this tower, mind you."
"You have me worried now, Thornton," John said, ignoring Walter's lightheartedness.