Thursday Afternoon (2): Shipwreck
Now we’ve gone back a few hours and are with the children and Foley on the Talisman. (I should note that the non-linear narrative and shifting point of view are being used very effectively to increase the tension.) First we see Peter’s perspective. An hour into their trip, Peter has finally and unhappily realised that Foley is not taking them back to Oldport, as he claimed he would, but is up to some traitorous business that will likely end in the Marlows being killed – and even worse, Peter is helpless to prevent their deaths. On the other hand, he does bravely think that:
“At least they were a drag on Foley that he hadn’t bargained for. The microphotographs and the formulae were still within reach. If only they could delay Foley…”
Peter has a snoop around the cabin in which he and Ginty are locked (Nicola’s up on deck due to being seasick) and finds some charts which suggest Foley has been meeting enemy ships at sea – so it seems likely that the children are being taken to the enemy ship to be interrogated and then killed. As Peter tries in vain to think of a way to sabotage the engine, Foley comes in to plot his course on the charts, leaving Nicola to continue steering the boat. Except … Nicola isn’t keeping to Foley’s original course. Peter can see from the compass that Nicola’s sailing them back to Oldport! Go, Nicola! Then the engine dies!
Now we switch back to Nicola’s story. Poor Nicola is violently seasick at the start of their trip and Foley kindly gives her his coat and some brandy. Feeling better, she asks what they should do with the dinghy when they get back to Oldport, but Foley makes it known, without actually saying it, that they aren’t going to Oldport at all. Nicola, unlike Peter, accepts that Foley is The Traitor at once, but she’s also more optimistic:
“She began to feel more cheerful. If she wasn’t going to be sick again, nothing would be so bad. Not even sailing with a traitor to an unknown destination.”
In many ways, the plot of this book is no different to the Famous Five battling smugglers or spies, but what elevates it, apart from the quality of the prose, are all the detailed, astute descriptions of the characters’ reactions. Nicola swings from fear to despair to optimism to curiosity within a few minutes and it’s all completely plausible in this situation.
Foley goes downstairs to the cabin to plot a course with his charts and leaves Nicola at the tiller. But Nicola realises this is an opportunity to swing the boat around gradually. Although she knows Foley will eventually realise what she’s doing, “just for the moment it was glorious to have done something that would at least bother him a bit.” She starts humming Robert’s song and then thinks … Sugar in the petrol! And she’s still got the sugar in her pocket for feeding the pony! She can sabotage the engine! (Clever plotting, Antonia Forest.)
Nicola isn’t merely brave, she’s also smart. She waits as long as she can, allowing them to get much closer to shore, then drops the sugar in the petrol tank just as Foley returns. And there’s more good character observation here, when she thinks that:
“…even though Foley was a traitor, it was probably rather mean to wreck his ship when she was still wearing his jacket and he had given her brandy and been really rather kind.”
But then Foley hurls Peter into the cabin wall when Peter tries to stop him reaching the tiller and Nicola stops feeling sorry for Foley. Indeed, “his fury and the glimmer of panic behind his eyes made her feel very cool and confident.”
Serves you right for underestimating Nicola, Foley. The boat crashes into the shore – and what an amazing coincidence, they’ve arrived at Foley’s Folly Lighthouse!
Thursday Night (2): The Lighthouse
I probably don’t need to say that Ginty has been entirely useless during their trip and she continues to be useless when they arrive at the lighthouse. Foley locks himself in the lighthouse to transmit a message to the U-boat while the children empty the beached Talisman of its stores. Peter does have the good idea of stealing the keys for all the upper lighthouse rooms and throwing them into the sea so Foley won’t be able to lock them in. Over dinner, Foley announces he will sail off on the Talisman in the morning and the children will eventually be rescued from the lighthouse. He tries to convince them that no one will believe their story because they’ll have no evidence and anyway, no one knows he’s been at Mariners so the authorities won’t realise he’s disappeared. The Marlows feel “very young and foolish and helpless” – and that’s before Foley drugs their cocoa with sleeping tablets.
As they sleep, Foley goes out to check the condition of the Talisman. He’d told the U-boat crew he’d meet them the next morning and they’d given him instructions for murdering the children. Luckily for the Marlows, Foley “had never taken kindly to obeying orders” and while he acknowledges to himself that he is “guilty of treason”, he knows he’s “never had a bent for cold-blooded cruelty”.
Unfortunately for Foley, the Talisman is wedged on the rocks and gets torn to pieces when the tide comes in. He remembers the thunderbolt two days ago as a sign of doom – it was immediately afterwards, shaken by his narrow escape from the storm, that he’d passed Peter and Nicola on the beach and made the mistake of ignoring Peter. He also acknowledges that he’d made an error in kidnapping the children. He should have pretended he was taking the microfilms to the police, then disappeared at once. Now it’s inevitable that he’ll be unmasked as a spy, one way or the other, and his foreign ‘allies’ will have no use for him when he no longer has access to navy secrets. Foley sees “his death quite clearly”. But then he reconsiders:
“Thunderbolts and fate were all very well, but he didn’t really believe a word of it. He had been in corners as tight as this before, and had always escaped disaster.”
But how is he going to get out of this, now that his only means of transport is gone? He contacts the U-boat again. The navy fleet exercises over the weekend mean the U-boat will now pick Foley and the children up on Sunday. Foley changes his mind again:
“He was certain now that, rationally speaking, he and the children would not be alive by Sunday evening.”
This could all be avoided if he surrendered to the British authorities. The children would be saved; he would go to prison as a traitor, but he’d avoid death. His pride will not allow this, though:
“…trial and imprisonment was something he would not face; the children’s safety could not weigh against that … He had always told himself that he would prefer death at the hands of the people he had served to the justice of those he had betrayed…”
And this is a CHILDREN’S BOOK! This portrayal of a villain involves a level of subtlety and psychological complexity that you don’t even find in a lot of adult spy novels of the time.
Now, I don’t think that Antonia Forest is going to kill off any of her child characters. (I would, but probably not in the second book of a series.) Still, things are getting very serious here.
Next, Friday Morning: Breakfast at the Lighthouse