‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

Saturday Morning: Peter Makes a Plan

Peter’s plan is that he will hide in the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse and Ginty and Nicola will pretend he’s drowned during an escape attempt. Then that night, Peter and Nicola will signal to the passing fleet while Ginty keeps watch. Ginty is appalled by her proposed role and confesses that she failed to act the last time she was meant to be keeping watch, at Mariners. There’s a nice bit of sibling bonding as Nicola and Peter console her, saying it wouldn’t have made any difference (probably true) and Peter even says it isn’t worse than “the boat thing”. Ginty has no idea what “the boat thing” is, but suspects they still think her “a bit of a dope” (also probably true).

She has a chance to prove her courage during the first phase of the plan, when she and Nicola have to take the dinghy through the secret tunnel to get to the sea. And Ginty does it in stoic silence! Well done, Ginty. Then Nicola hops out and Ginty rows the dinghy into the wild waves, far enough out to wreck it. There’s a terrifying section when she nearly drowns trying to swim back in, but it’s also the first time I can recall Ginty showing much care for anyone else:

“She struggled on furiously, watching Nick wade slowly forward, slip, recover and come on, and was so absorbed by her fear that Nicola might stumble and be swept away that she barely noticed how close in she had come …”

Mind you, it’s possible that Ginty’s just worried about her parents’ reaction if they ever find out she let Nicola drown. (I should point out here that Nicola can barely swim and can’t row, which seems a bit odd for someone as obsessed with sailing as Nicola is. But she and Lawrie did seem to spend many of their early years being invalids.) Then Nicola, striding “confidently forward”, steps straight into the sea, but luckily Foley has turned up and hauls her out of the water. Ginty, on the verge of a panic attack, then does a very convincing job of explaining Peter has drowned. Her general uselessness does have some use here – Foley doesn’t even question her story. In fact, he finds her uncontrollable sobbing “thoroughly unnerving” and ends up banishing her from his presence.

Back at the lighthouse, Foley goes up to the highest room, the lantern room, to see if Peter has washed up on the shore. Unfortunately, the lantern room is where Peter is hiding. Nicola, petrified, tries to stall Foley, but fails. Foley comes back down after “a long silence” and shakes his head at her. But what does that mean? She’s seen how good he is at playing chess, she knows he must be good at telling lies (“A traitor would have to be”). Is he playing with her the way a cat plays with a mouse?

“Besides, if Foley had found Peter, they would have to make another plan. At least–she would have to make another plan. There wasn’t anyone else.”

Just as it seems Nicola must have super-human reserves of resilience and fortitude, she falls asleep while she’s meant to be watching Foley and sleeps through the whole day, “like the dormouse in Alice”. (I like all the little references to the books she’s read. Even though she claimed not to be a reader in Autumn Term.)

So we still don’t know whether Peter’s safe or not. Oh, the suspense!

Saturday Afternoon: Mutiny in the ‘Golden Enterprise’

Meanwhile, Robert and his two colleagues, David and Bill, are making their slow way towards the lighthouse. Except Bill, who wasn’t feeling well when he came aboard, now has a fever and possibly appendicitis. David insists on turning back to Oldport at once. Robert wants to keep going because there’s the chance that the U-boat will turn up.

“‘But I keep telling you,’ shouted David. ‘The U-boat’s barely a possibility at the moment. If you weren’t so obsessed about those Marlow children we wouldn’t be here now. Whittier said so.’
‘Said what?’
‘That you had to be kept quiet and happy, and that out here you could have the illusion of being useful without making a nuisance of yourself…’”

Robert refuses to turn back before the turn of tide, so David smashes him on the head, locks him in the cabin and sails back to Oldport.

This, I assume, is that famous British naval discipline and obedience in action.

Conveniently for David (and the plot), Robert is knocked unconscious for three hours, exactly enough time for them to get back to Oldport, yet has no serious cognitive after-effects. David gives an insincere apology and offers to take the blame “if anything goes wrong”, but wisely goes off with Bill in the ambulance because Robert is looking dangerously calm:

“…despite his manner, [Robert] felt so savage with rage, that if he once gave it expression, he was not likely to stop at words. As he very well knew, he had a temper as murderous as Lewis Foley’s if he once let himself go.”

It’s pretty clear that we’re meant to see Robert and Foley as similar men who’ve made very different choices in life, one choosing good and the other evil. If anything, Robert is more admirable, because he chose the side of good without having been born with all of Foley’s material privileges. On the other hand, Robert seems to have had a closer and more loving family than Foley, so maybe Robert was born the luckier one?

While Robert is having dinner and contemplating David’s violent and painful death, the Thorpes’ motor boat, the Fair Wind, crashes straight into Robert’s boat and destroys her. Mr Thorpe is very apologetic and Robert is about to ask if he can borrow the Fair Wind when he suddenly suspects Mr Thorpe is connected with the U-boat. Maybe he deliberately crashed the boat to stop Robert! So Robert waits till the Thorpes have left, then steals the Fair Wind:

“… in a job like this neither praise nor blame mattered very much. The thing was to get it done. And if you broke a few rules doing it–well, if you pulled it off no one cared, and if you didn’t, nothing anyone could say would be worse than the failure itself.”

And the moral of the story is: the end justifies the means, if you’re one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, Johnnie Thorpe climbs aboard at the wrong moment, but he agrees to help when Robert pretends to be a smuggler and waves a knife at Johnnie. It turns out Mr Thorpe is actually a Customs and Excise officer. Also, Johnnie was the one who crashed into the Golden Enterprise. Also, there’s hardly any petrol left.

IS ANYONE EVER GOING TO REACH THAT LIGHTHOUSE AND RESCUE THOSE CHILDREN?!

Next, Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

2 thoughts on “‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven”

  1. It is an odd (deliberate?) feature of this book that the children are conscious of and worry about breaking moral and actual laws (except the house breaking, oh well!) eg excusing themselves for lying to Foley about Peter being dead, because Foley is a Traitor, Nicola’s conscience about smashing Foley’s boat because he’d been kind to her etc

    … meanwhile the adults are merrily bashing each other over the head, stealing boats, lying to Mrs Marlow, concealing his children’s abduction from Commander Marlow, as well as betraying their country to the bad guys. Hm.

    1. The adults and authority figures were pretty useless in Autumn Term, but at least they didn’t physically attack anyone or tell outright lies! It’s all quite cynical for a children’s book, especially a children’s book published in the 1950s.

      Even though the children feel bad about lying, smashing up boats, etc, they do them and they’ve got good reason to do them. It’s either direct self-defence or they’re defending their country. I suppose the adults use the ‘defence of the nation’ excuse, too, but they don’t seem to agonise over it much (except for Robert, who’s the most sympathetic adult character). I’m not sure what this says about the author’s views on morality – maybe she was sympathetic to Jesuitism and thought moral decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than based on absolute moral law?

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