Wednesday Afternoon: The Hidden Sea
Back at the hotel, Mrs Marlow, usually unflappable, goes into the “most wowing kind of flap” when she hears about Peter and Nicola’s near-death experience on the cliffs. I’m relieved to hear this, because so far, the Marlow parents have seemed hands-off to the point of near neglect. But Peter thinks “how absolutely extraordinary it was that it was always the very people you thought you could depend on absolutely who were always the ones who let you down.” Hmm, what does that tell you about your judgement, Peter? But Peter is too busy feeling guilty and cross to do any self-analysis. He snaps at poor Johnnie Thorpe, then at Lawrie, although by lunchtime, he’s in a slightly better temper. Ginty and Lawrie are competing in the hotel’s ping-pong tournament, so Peter and Nicola decide to take the bus to a mysterious-sounding place called Farthing Fee. This turns out to be a boring collection of bungalows at the end of a road, but then Nicola discovers an overgrown lane marked ‘Footpath to Mariners’, which sounds more promising.
Walking along the hedge-hemmed lane towards the sea, they wonder if Lieutenant Foley has an identical twin (“If sometimes he’s all right and sometimes he’s peculiar, that would explain it”) and they feed a pony (the Marlows “always carried sugar on walks in the hope of meeting friendly horses”). After an offhand remark from Nicola, Peter attempts to catch and ride the pony, despite the pony’s firm resistance to the idea. Peter seems to have some absurd and dangerous ideas about How to Be a Proper Man, no doubt reinforced by his father, his brother and his school, but Nicola is astute and kind enough to rescue Peter on this occasion by deliberately frightening off the horse.
Then, suddenly, they come across ‘Mariners’, an old and apparently abandoned house, which they decide to explore. Now, I’m a bit confused about Nicola’s moral values, because she wouldn’t even consider taking a train without paying the fare in Autumn Term, yet has no hesitation about breaking into a stranger’s house in this book. Isn’t trespassing worse than fare-dodging? Regardless, there’s a nice description here of how different Peter and Nicola are. Nicola seems braver because she simply doesn’t think about the consequences before jumping into action (or into a deep, dark coal cellar with a busted trap-door). Peter feels obliged to act in a brave manner, but usually stops to consider what might go wrong:
“His first thought had been that he ought to jump after her. His second and more sensible one, that if Nicola had damaged herself, or if the door on the inside wouldn’t open, he would be more useful where he was. He heard Nicola begin to move about and felt relieved. At least he hadn’t got to cope with a sprained ankle or something cheerful like that miles from anywhere…”
So perhaps Peter really is braver, because he feels fear, then acts anyway? Meanwhile, Nicola has wandered off into the depths of the cellar without telling him – and then is surprised that he’s cross with her when they’re finally reunited.
Anyway, they investigate the silent, empty house, “handsome in a cold, symmetrical sort of way”, and eventually find their way to an amazing crow’s-nest on top of the roof, complete with telescope. Whereupon we discover that Peter is secretly terrified of heights. So, he has vertigo and he doesn’t like the sea and he tends to freeze in a crisis. And he’s training to be a naval officer. Oh, Peter.
But the really cool thing is that they spy a hidden sea and a strange lighthouse – which is called ‘Foley’s Folly Light’! Could Mariners be Foley’s house? Could the Foley family have been wreckers, luring ships onto the rocks with a false light?
Peter, now thoroughly rattled, gets into one of his ‘upsets’ (“When he was in an upset he got rather white and angry-looking, and as Nicola knew from experience, it wasn’t a bit of good asking him what the matter was”) and he storms off down the lane by himself. He feels
“furious with himself, as he always did when a hidden uneasiness made him kick out at whoever happened to be around. A fine officer he was going to make if he bellowed at his subordinates every time he got in a flap – if he ever was an officer.”
Antonia Forest is so good at writing child characters with complex, realistic anxieties and ambitions. Poor Peter, he’s probably under far more pressure than his sisters, regarding his future prospects. I mean, their parents didn’t even bother to send Nicola and Lawrie to school until they were twelve.
Meanwhile, Nicola has gone off to look for the hidden sea. She finds a mooring buoy with the name of a boat on it – Talisman – and sees the boat returning. For a moment she considers waiting to talk to the owner but “then suddenly, for no reason at all, she knew it was Lieutenant Foley coming from the sea” and in a panic, she runs away before he can see her. On the bus with Peter, she decides she over-reacted – but Nicola’s instincts tend to have some basis in fact, even if she isn’t conscious of it at the time, so I think she was probably right to dash off. (Mind you, I know the book is about ‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ and Nicola doesn’t.)
Finally, back at the hotel, Lawrie announces their mother has gone off to join their father, so Ginty is in charge of them till next week. Let me say that again. GINTY IS IN CHARGE OF HER THREE YOUNGER SIBLINGS FOR A WEEK. I take back what I said earlier about Mrs Marlow being a responsible parent. Also, Lawrie pretends that they all missed out on being shown over the Fleet by their father (which is one of Nicola’s greatest desires) because Nicola was late back, and Nicola believes her. But ha ha, Lawrie was just trying out one of her acting voices! Lawrie, I’m liking you less and less.
Next, Thursday Morning: Return to Mariners