The Jaws of Gravestone Rock
* 3 June 1939 *
Off Greybeard Island
“Hard a’lee me boys!” shouted Nick NcIver over the wind, “or be smashed to smithereens in the jaws of Gravestone Rock!”
The dog Jip barked his loud agreement.
Nick, at the helm of his small sloop, Stormy Petrel, that afternoon, was almost at the end of his first day-long voyage around Greybeard Island. He was hard on the wind, making a good seven knots as he tacked homeward. Just now, he was approaching the treacherous reefs that guarded the entrance to Lighthouse Harbor. Jip, on the bow, was howling into the strong headwind, enjoying the pounding sprays of seawater every bit as much as his skipper.
But now Nick was watching the western sky and the rapidly rising seas uneasily. Maybe he should have nipped inside the huge Gravestone Rock, in the lee of this wind. Probably should have known better than to sail the long way home in weather like this. Should have done this, should have done that, he silently cursed himself. He did know better, in fact. But he and Jip had been having such a splendid time, bounding through the waves, he’d simply ignored the storm warnings. A little cold spot in the pit of his stomach was growing. He hated that cold feeling. He’d not even spoken its name.
But it was fear.
The glorious empty bowl of blue that had been the morning sky now featured stacks of boiling cumulus clouds, all gone to darkening greys and blacks. Billowing towers of purple clouds loomed on the western horizon, swiftly turning the colors of an ugly bruise. In the last hour, clouds of spume came scudding across his bow and through the rigging of Stormy Petrel. Above the howl of the elements was the high keening whistle of wind in the sloop’s rigging. Slat spray stung Nick’s eyes. But he could still see the sky overhead, boiling and black.
Nick leaned hard into the Petrel’s tiller, putting the weight of his lean body against it, fighting to keep his bow to windward of Gravestone Rock. He had both hands on the tiller, and they’d gone clammy and cold. Looking up in awe at the giant rock now looming before him, he wiped first one hand, then the other, on his soaking trousers. The Gravestone. A terribly thought shuddered unpleasantly through Nick’s mind. Would that famous stone tower today mark still another watery grave? His own, and his beloved Jip’s? He cursed himself for his stupidity and leaned into his tiller with all his might. Hopeless. The bow refused to answer the helm, to come up into the wind.
However could he keep his small sloop to the safe, windward side of the massive stone looming ever larger before him? And to the leeward side lay the Seven Devils. On a calm day, Nick might pick his way through these treacherous reefs. But now, in a blow, they were deadly.
He was fresh out of options.
“And you call yourself a sailor, Nick McIver!” he cried aloud. But not even his dog heard his bitter cry of frustration above the roar of wind and water. He should have known better. There was a terrible price to pay for carelessness at sea. Especially when you were anywhere near the Gravestone.
It was a towering monument of glistening black granite that now rose before him. Thrusting from the sea like some angry tombstone, it had claimed the lives of skippers and sailors a good deal saltier than Nick and Jip. As Nick had known from earliest childhood, countless ships and men had gone to the bottom courtesy of the Gravestone Rock. Or the seven deadly spines of rock spreading like tentacles in all directions from its base. The Seven Devils, the reefs were called, and not for nothing, either. Here was as fiendish a bit of coastline as ever there was.
This perilous coast had finally led to the building of Nick’s home. Even now, the great Greybeard Light sent yellow stabs streaking overhead through the darkening sky. This flashing tower atop the cliffs off his port bow held special meaning for Nick McIver. It was both a warning to stay away and a summons to come home.
For Nick lived atop that lighthouse, he was a lighthouse keeper’s son. And now it looked as if the famous rock below it might claim the boy, if the boy didn’t think of something, and quickly. IF THE GRAVESTONE DOESN’T GET YOU, THE SEVEN DEVILS WILL! Read the legend carved into the mantel at the Greybeard Inn. And the long-dead British tar who had carved it there knew well whereof he spoke. At that moment, Nick wished he himself had carved those ancient words of warning into the pitching desk he now stood upon.
“We’re not going to make it, boy!” shouted an anguished Nick, “I can’t keep her pointed high enough!” Indeed he could not steer, nor will, the bow of his small boat to windward of the ever larger Gravestone. For every foot of forward motion Petrel gained, she was losing two feet to side-slipping. Adrenaline poured into Nick’s veins as he realized the potential for total disaster in what he was about t odo.
A whispered prayer to his long dead hero escaped his lips.
Nelson the Strong, Nelson the Brave, Nelson the Lord of the Sea.
Nick faced a terribly decision. The most brutal maneuver any sailor could make in such a dreadful blow was a jibe. Jibing meant turning the boat away from the wind, instead of into it, so that its brutal force passed directly behind the mainsail. The huge mainsail and heavy boom would then come whipping across the cockpit with a violence that could easily rip the mast from the boat. But what choice did the have? The terrible decision was already made.
“Jibe HO!” he shouted to his shaggy crew. He pulled sharply back on his tiller instead of pushing against it. The bow swung instantly off the wind. “Mind yer heads,” Nick bellowed. The stout wooden boom and violently snapping mainsail came roaring across the small open cockpit like the furies of hell. “Down, boy!” Nick cried, and ducked under the heavy wooden boom at the last second, narrowly avoiding a blow to the head which would have sent him, unconscious, overboard. The lines, the sails, the rigging, every plank of his boat was screaming at their breaking point. She’d been built of stout timber, but he could feel Petrel straining desperately at her seams. If a plank should spring open now, this close to a rocky lee shore, they were surely done for!
But she held. Looking aloft, he saw his mast and rigging mostly intact. By jibing the boat, he’d gained precious time to think.
Nick feverishly eyed his options, now rapidly dwindling to nil. There had to be a way out of this! Nicholas McIver was not a boy destined to die such a stupid, unseamanlike death. Not if he could help it. He had a healthy fear of dying, all right, but now, staring death square in the face, he was far more afraid of letting them all down. His mother. His father. His little sister, Katie. His best friend, Gunner.
Wasn’t that a fate even worse than death, he wondered? For a boy to slip beneath the cold waves without even the chance to prove to those he loved that he was a brave boy, a boy destined to do great things in this world? A boy who might one day be—a hero?
The already fresh wind had now built into something truly appalling. Petrel was rapidly running out of sea room. The sickly green-yellow sky cast its unhealthy flow over the frothing sea. Nick heard an ominous roar building on his port side. Just as he looked up, a wave like an onrushing locomotive crashed over the windward side of the little boat, staggering the tiny vessel, knocking her instantly and violently on her side. Nick was buried under a torrent of cold seawater. He clung desperately to the tiller to avoid being washed overboard. He was thinking only of Jip, again standing watch up on the bow. As the weight of her heavy lead keep quickly righted the boat once more, Nick, sputtering, strained forward, rubbing the stinging saltwater from his eyes. His dog was still there. Heaven only knew how the creature had managed it. In fact, Jip was barking loudly, surely in anger t the wave that had almost done them in.
“All that lead we hung off her bottom is good for something, eh, Jipper? Hang on, boy!” Nick cried. “I’ll think of something!” But what, his mind answered, whatever could he do? He knew that the next wave they took broadside would be their last. He fought the tiller, determined to get the towering waves on Petrel’s stern. It was his only chance.
Just at that moment Petrel was lifted high above a cavernous trough by the hand of another huge wave. For a brief moment, Nick could see most of the northern tip of his island. And he knew in that instant what he had to do. There was no escaping to the windward of the Gravestone Rock. Since Petrel could never make headway back into the teeth of the storm, he now had no choice. He must fall off to the leeward side of the rock, sailing a dead run before the wind, directly into the waiting jaws of the Seven Devils. Nothing else for it, he thought, more grimly determined than ever.
From the crest of the wave, Nick had seen a small flash of white on the rocky shore dead ahead. It could only mean a sandy cove, one of many along this coast where he and Kate played on sunny days.
If he could somehow time the waves precisely, so that Petrel’s keel might just brush the Devil’s deadly tops, he just might have a chance at beaching the boat on the sandy shore of that little cove. Yes, he just might.
Now that he had a plan, the boy’s spirits soared. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the only chance he had. If it failed, why, he—
“Shorten sail, lads!” Nick cried to his imaginary crew, clenching the damp and salty mainsheet in his teeth as he loosed the main halyard with his free hand. In a blow like this, reducing sail area by reefing the main wouldn’t decrease his boat speed by much, but it might just be enough to control his timing of the waves over the reefs. It was clear that Nick would need all the seamanship, and luck, he could muster to get captain and crew safely ashore.
Jip, as if recognizing the desperate seriousness of their situation, came aft to stand watch beside his master. Nick was glad of his company.
“Steady now, steady,” cried Nick, bracing his knees against the thwart seat and winding the mainsheet round his fist to secure it. The force of the wind on the shortened sail made Nick’s arm feel as if it might be pulled from its socket. “Steady as she goes, lads!” Wind and water were tossing the sloop about like a pond boat, throwing his timing off dangerously. Entering the procession of towering rollers, Nick felt his sloop surge forward. “Look alive, Jip, we’re in for a bit of a sleigh-ride!” he cried. Jip growled and stood his ground.
The trick, and it was a good one, was keeping Petrel out of the sequence of huge waves rushing toward the treacherous shore. To wait until the timing was precisely right. “Right” meant that Petrel was lifted at the precise moment her keel was passing over each one of the jagged Devils. It was going to take luck all right, bags of the stuff, luck and no small measure of skill.
“Easy… easy… and… NOW!” cried Nick, heaving the tiller to starboard to swing his bow around. If there was a tinge of fear remaining in his voice you couldn’t hear it for the wind or the spray or the sheer exhilaration of the moment as he steered the little boat down the broad steep face of the wave toward the deep trough below. Petrel’s moment of truth had finally arrived.
“We need to come up, now, boy.” Nick said, holding on to his tiller for dear life. The Gravestone Rock loomed dangerously close to his left as Petrel plunged deeper into the trough. “We. Need. To. Come. UP!” Nick held his breath. He’d seen the ugly spine of the first reef from the top of his wave and knew that Petrel’s keel would clear it if only he had timed his descent into the trough perfectly. He clenched his jaw, unaware how painfully tight it was. Jip, too, was rigid, staring at the wall of water before them, sensing the moment.
Petrel’s bow suddenly lifted. She was rising high on the majestic swell and Nick waited for the tearing sound of her keep on the deadly jagged rock. It occurred to him in that moment that it would probably be one of the last sounds he would ever hear.
It didn’t come.
At the wave’s crest, Nick could see that he’d timed it perfectly. The waves would now lift him over the two razor-sharp reefs that remained between Petrel and the safety of the sandy cove. Jip scrambled forward once more to his station at the bow. He barked loudly in triumph, daring the forces of nature to do battle once more with the mighty Petrel and he daring crew.
“Hooray!” Nick cried in both relief and exultation. “We did it, boy, we perfectly well did it, didn’t we?”
In the deep bottle-green safety of the cove, it was simply a matter of running Petrel toward shore until her keel beached on the soft sand. That done, Nick quickly freed the main and jib halyards and all the wet canvas fell to the deck. As the boat swung round and listed to her starboard side, a happy Nick and Jip leapt over the gunwale and waded ashore. Nick made fast a line from Petrel’s bow to a large rock on the shore. Then he and Jip ducked into the mouth of the nearest cave to escape the fury of the storm.
And they had been safe, perched on a deep ledge inside the cave, waiting for the storm to blow itself out before sailing home for supper.
This cave, it occurred to Nick as he and Jip climbed back into the boat, might make an excellent hiding place someday. Either as a place to hide from bloodthirsty pirates, or a place to secret any treasure he and his crew might find during their future navigations.
“All right, boy,” Nick said, hauling down the halyard that raised his mainsail once more, “Time to fly away home!” Now that the storm had subsided, he was confident he could pick his way through the reefs with little trouble. After all, he knew their locations by heart.
Yes, you could always rely upon young Nicholas McIver to get his crew home safely. After all, was there a more reliable boy in all of England?
The Secret Drawer
* 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?”
Nazis in the Strawberry Patch
*4 June 1939*
At Greybeard Light
A cold wet nose prying under his chin brought Nick McIver straight up in bed next morning. It was his reliable alarm clock, Jip, who lathered his cheeks with kisses, then bounded off the bed and down to breakfast as was his custom. Through sleepy eyes, Nick saw the dappled sunlight already at play upon his bedcovers. As was his own habit, he swallowed a deep gulp of briny sea air pouring through the open window. The taste of the tangy air and the sight of the blue channel far below was like having life itself for breakfast. And life, for Nick, was now full of promise.
He had to believe that the view from his room high atop the lighthouse was probably the most splendid in all of England. How many other boys had complete command of the English Channel in all directions from their bedroom windows? From his towering crow’s nest of a bed, he could monitor the maritime coming and goings of all traffic to all points of the compass. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he was pleased to see the white-hulled French frigate Belle Poule out of Calais, steaming once more for her home port. He leaned farther out the window. Glorious.
The morning sky had been scrubbed clean of all but a few puffy cottonballs and the sea stretched away far below, a rolling carpet of royal blue littered with whitecaps. In the air, great whirlwinds of terns and phalaropes and storm petrels wheeled about, barking at each other and diving straight and true at each flash of silver in the ocean below. Nick craned his head out father still, looking in all directions for anything unusual in the morning’s seagoing traffic. He saw the Maracaya, a rusty tub out of Cartagena, making her sluggish run up to Portsmouth of Devon, smoke drifting lazily from her stacks. Channel business as usual, he thought, oddly comforted.
Nick smiled, lay back against his pillow, clasped his hands behind his head, considering the exciting turn his life had suddenly taken. Overnight, it seemed, he’d outgrown this little whitewashed room full of childish, boyish things. He now lived in a grown-up world of spies and secrets and submarines and he was pretty sure that spies didn’t get in trouble for being late for supper.
His eyes drifted up to the shelf on the wall beyond the foot of his bed. It was sagging with books and boyhood treasures and also Nick’s most prized possession, an ancient brass spyglass bequeathed to him by his great-great-grandfather.
In those days, Nick thought with a sigh, the McIvers had been sea captains. The beautifully worn telescope was especially beloved by Nick because of the faint initials NM on the eyepiece focus ring. Running his fingers over the worn letters, he liked to imagine his salty old namesake heading into battle against the French, manning the helm of an English man-of-war. His ancestors had been men of the sea, real heroes, just like the great Lord Nelson himself! The sea, that’s where heroes were born and bred, and Nick longed for the salty life with all his heart.
Last night’s book lay still splayed upon his bedcovers. It was an eyewitness account of Admiral Nelson’s tragic death, standing on the quarter-deck of his beautiful flagship Victory at Trafalgar. Nelson, just forty-seven years old, had cruelly been brought down by a French sharpshooter, hanging in the topgallant crosstrees of a French man-of-war. The four brightly polished stars on the English sea lord’s chest had made him an easy target. England’s greatest hero had fallen, his blood mingling with the tears of his comrades as he lay dying. Reading and re-reading the passage, Nick always felt his hero’s death keenly, with a sadness usually reserved for family.
Using the fleet of little wooden ships he kept under his bed, Nick had fought and re-fought all of Nelson’s great sea battles. All except Nelson’s last, of course. Nick had decided Trafalgar would be the final battle fought with is little wooden fleet, a final tribute to his boyhood hero before he put the toys of his childhood away forever.
Nelson the Strong, Nelson the Brave, Nelson the Lord of the Sea.
Suddenly, Nick’s bedroom door swung inward with a bang, causing him to sit bolt upright in bed for the second time that morning. There stood his almost seven year old sister, Kate. She had one of her many raggedy dolls under her arm and Nick noticed that this one had the same big blue eyes and bouncy red curls on her head as his sister did. He knew from the little half smile on her face that he was in some kind of trouble. He’d had about six years of peace in his life, the ones before his sister had been born, and most of his waking hours were spent trying to keep just a half step ahead of her.
“Oh. Hullo, Nicky,” she said, leaning against the doorway. “Are you still sleeping?”
“Tell me something, Kate,” he said through a yawn. “Seriously. Have you ever, ever, known anyone to sleep sitting straight upright? Think abut it.”
“Um, well, yes, actually,” she said. “I have.”
“Oh, don’t be such a vexation,” Nick said, quoting Mother’s favorite word. “Who on earth sleeps sitting straight upright?”
“Father, that’s who. In church. Every single Sunday morning!” Kate said, eyes blue as cornflowers crinkling in total victory.
“Oh,” Nick said. “Right.” Christmas! Hardly awake for five minutes and already she’s gotten the better of him! It was going to be a long day. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “Well, for your information I am not still sleeping.”
“That’s good because Father wants to know something,” Kate said, swinging her doll lazily by the hair.
“What’s that?” Nick asked, covering another yawn with the back of his hand.
“Well, he’d like to know if you plan to sleep all day or if you’re coming down to—”
“Oh. Breakfast,” Nick said, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Somehow, having gone to sleep without any supper, he’d managed to forget all about breakfast. “Right. Coming down, I suppose. I’m starving.” Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he tried to recall where he’d thrown his trousers.
“By the way, Nicky?” she asked, twirling the doll in a tight little arc. “Do you believe in Nazis?”
“Why, I guess I do.” Nick said, pulling his well-worn summer trousers on, two legs at a time. “Much as anything.”
“Do you know what Nazis look like?”
“I suppose I’d know a Nazi sure enough if I saw one close up, Kate.” Nick replied. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, we’re supposed to keep a watch out for them, that’s all,” she said with great seriousness. “We’re going to be birdwatchers, just like Papa. All of us. You, me, even Mummy. That’s what Father wants to talk to you about. He already talked to us about them. Mummy doesn’t believe in Nazis, I don’t think. And Father says Mummy should go snooping about in his secret drawers looking at his big birdwatcher’s book if she—oh, race you to the bottom of the stairs, Nicky!” She’d seen the stormy look on her brother’s face and decided it was smart to beat a hasty retreat.
“Hold on,” Nick said. The birdwatcher’s book? “He, he thinks it was Mummy found the secret drawer and, what—hold on a tick will you!” But his sister was already halfway back down the twisting stairway. Nick charged out after her, pulling his shoes on as he ran. “Kate! Come back here! Wait! Don’t—“ But she had too much of a head start on him and was already at the kitchen table when Nick burst into the room.
And there on the kitchen table, just where he’d feared it might be, was the faded red leather logbook from the secret drawer upstairs. On the table right between his parents, who sat staring at each other in stony silence above it. And look at little Katie with the big smile on her face.
“It was me.” Nick said simply. They all turned to stare at him.
“What do you mean, Nick?” his father asked, a puzzled expression on his face.
“I opened the drawer. I took out the book. I didn’t mean to look inside it, Father, I just, I couldn’t help it. I was looking for Mother’s spectacles and I pushed the little button and then the drawer just popped out. I didn’t mean to look inside it, but—I’m sorry, Father, really I am.”
“Thank you, Nicholas,” his mother said smiling at him. “I’ve been trying to tell the old boy I wasn’t his culprit, but you know your father.” She delicately patted a spot of jam from the corner of her mouth and added, “Well, the cat’s out of the bag at any rate, isn’t it? At least we don’t all have to go on pretending to believe in this silly ‘birdwatching’ business! Isn’t that right, dear husband?”
Nick’s father gave his mother on of his looks and said, “Well, I certainly knew somebody had been looking at it because the log had been put back in the drawer upside down and—well—“ He stopped himself and looked at his wife with an embarrassed smile. “Sorry, old thing. I should have known it was young Mr. Curiosity Shop here and not—”
“No harm done, my darling,” Emily interrupted. She rose from the table and stood behind her husband, nuzzling his head with playful kisses. “In fact, quite the opposite!” Motioning to Katie, she added, “Come along, Katherine, and bring your berry basket. I’m going to need your help if I’m going to get that strawberry pie in the over in time for supper.”
His sister slid by him, obviously a bit disappointed there hadn’t been more of a row and that Nicholas himself hadn’t gotten into more serious trouble. Kate didn’t necessarily try to cause trouble herself, but she was always quite happy to see it come along. Provided, of course, that her brother, and not she herself, was the focus of it. Luckily for her, that was usually the case. Nicky didn’t look for trouble, it seemed to look for him.
“Sit up straight and eat your porridge, Nicholas,” his father said sternly. “I want a word with you, young man.” Nick saw his sister’s expression brighten instantly as she collected her basket. She imagined he was really in for it now, and she was probably right. She gave him a knowing smile as she rose from the table and was shocked to see the pink tip of her brother’s tongue dart from his mouth.
“Mother! Nicky stuck his tongue out at me and—”
“I did not! I was only getting a bit of porridge that—”
“Nicholas, behave yourself! Oh, Angus, by the way,” Emily called to his father, as she waited by the kitchen door for Kate to collect her basket.
“Don’t worry. We’ll sound the alarm if we discover any Nazis hiding in the strawberry patch! Won’t we, Katie?” She laughed and sailed out the door, her big straw basket dangling gaily from her arm. Nick could hear her laughter all the way down the garden path.
Nick’s father looked at him and for a second Nick feared for the worst, but then Kate flew out the door, basket on arm, singing about Nazis in the strawberry patch and Angus’s face broke into a broad grin. But his father’s grin soon faded and he pushed the red logbook cross the table toward his son.
“You’ve read what’s in here, I suppose,” Angus said.
“Yes, Father,” Nick admitted. “Some of it. Enough to know what it is.”
“As amusing as your dear mother seems to find all of this, I assure you that it is no laughing matter.” Angus paused to relight his pipe and sat puffing it, regarding Nick thoughtfully. “I may need your help, son,” he said finally.
“Anything, Father,” Nick replied, his eyes shining. “Anything at all!” A trill of excitement was flowing through him, unlike anything he’d ever experienced. His life, he knew, was changing before his eyes.
“There is a war coming, Nick,” Angus said. “A terrible war. Your mother doesn’t believe it because her brother’s in government and the government believes there’ll be no war. Most people feel that way and I understand Mother’s feelings. But I think war is imminent, Nick. THE Germans have fooled us all. Mr. Churchill alone seems to understand our desperate situation. He has no power, no authority at all, but he is single-handedly trying to sound the alarm throughout England before it’s too late.”
“Not quite single-handed though, is he, Father?” Nick asked, placing his hand on the logbook.
“No, I guess he’s not quite single-handed, Nick,” Angus said, with an appreciative nod to his son. “But, since he’s not in government, he relies upon a group of private citizens like me for any little scrap of news about the German naval and air buildup. We’re not all one-legged lighthouse keepers tracking the sea lanes, either. There are scores of British businessmen traveling inside Germany who watch the rail lines. I know a group of schoolteachers in Dorset who watch the coastal skies every night. We’re a loose confederation of lookouts, Nicky. We work in total secrecy and report our findings to Churchill at his home in Kent.”
“Why won’t the government listen to Mr. Churchill, Father?” Nick asked, his eyes wide as he imagined himself part of a vast network of spies.
“Oh, it’s politics, son, of the worst kind,” he said, leaning back in his chair and letting a thin stream of smoke escape his lips. “Like most politicians, the prime minister is telling the people only what they want to hear. You see, most people are like your mother. They hate war, and rightfully so. As you know, we lost an entire generation of boys not much older than yourself in the last war. And that memory is very strong and very painful. Everyone is afraid of it happening again. Everyone wants peace so desperately that the prime minister and his government are burying their heads in the sand, pretending that if they give Hitler what he wants, he’ll go away and leave us alone.”
“I want peace, too, Father,” Nick said softly. “Don’t you?”
:Of course I do, Nick,” Angus said, “But peace at any price is the most dangerous course of action we could take. England is weak, with little stomach for a fight. But we will fight and sooner rather than later. Right now, today, Germany’s Luftwaffe fighters and bombers outnumber our own ten to one. They’ve got millions of men in uniform, all highly trained. And they’re building the mightiest warships and submarines the world has ever seen. Including some kind of ‘super U-boat’ that we’ve only hear rumours about. Highly experimental. I’ve promised Churchill I’d find out everything I could about her.”
“Why are U-boats so important?” Nick asked, making a mental note to tell his father about the bomber squadrons off Hawke Point.
“Food, Nick,” Angus said. “England is a small island. She can never raise enough food to feed herself. In the first war, German submarines almost succeeded in cutting off our food supply by sinking all the convoys bound for England. That’s why, after the Great War, the Germans were forbidden from building submarines by the Versailles peace treaty. Hitler is ignoring that treaty, and my reports to Chartwell prove it. We can’t let the U-boats gain control of the Channel or the North Atlantic again. If they do, this time we will starve. Understand all of this, Nick?”
“Y-yes, Father, I think I do.” Nick replied. He was thinking of his mother’s brother, his uncle Godfrey, and his children who lived in Cadogan Square in the very center of London. He was thinking, too, of skies over the capital black with thundering bombers like those he’d seen off Hawke Point. And the idea of all England and Europe ablaze. Was it a blaze, he wondered, that could spread all the way to little Greybeard Island? “But what can I do, Father?”
“I’ve only got two eyes, Nick, neither of them as strong as they used to be.” Angus said. “I could use a good pair of eyes alongside mine up at the top of the lighthouse every night. Watching for submarine tracks in the moonlight. And, when you’re out sailing on Petrel, you could keep an eye for anything that might be important. Periscopes. Any large convoys of German shipping. Any unusual naval activity you might see. Anything at all, son, just jot it down and I’ll include it in my weekly report to Charwell.”
“How do our reports get to Mr. Churchill, Father?” Nick asked, enjoying the chill he got imagining the great man reading one of Nick’s own reports.
“Ah. I have a contact called ‘Captain Thor.’ Not his real name, probably, but a code. A former naval man, I believe, and highly experienced at this sort of thing. He’s rather the ringleader of our little group of ‘birdwatchers,’ as we call ourselves. Thor crosses to Portsmouth each week on his sixty-foot motor launch. Delivers the reports to a fisherman who waits just outside the harbour. Gets them over there in fairly short order, he does, too. Twin V-twelve Allisons below, aircraft engines. She’s called Thor, in fact. Perhaps you’ve seen her about?”
“Thor! How could I miss her? She’s a real beauty.” Nick said. “And I’ve seen this Captain Thor, too, I guess, at her helm.” Nick looked at his father in dead earnest. “I’ll do anything I can to help the birdwatchers, Father. You can count on me.”
“I knew I could count on you, Nick. One final thing. This effort of Churchill’s is a matter of utmost confidentiality. Even King George doesn’t know about it! I must swear you to absolute secrecy. What I’m doing is completely against the government’s wishes. I’d lose my job if the ministry found out I was helping Churchill. And another thing. When war does break out, the fate of anyone who falls into enemy hands while spying is death. Any you’re a spy now, son, just like me. Remember that.”
“Yes, Father. I swear it.” Nick said, but he wasn’t really thinking about losing his home or dying before a Nazi firing squad. He was trying to make himself believe that a mere twelve-year-old boy was in on a secret so great that ever the prime minister and the kind of England didn’t know about it!
That night, as he drifted off to sleep, an amazing notion occurred to Nicholas McIver. Maybe he was only twelve years old, a boy who’d probably never amount to any kind of real hero, but how many other boys did he know who could claim to be living, breathing spies for goodness sake!
Excerpted from NICK OF TIME: An Adventure Through Time © Copyright 2011 by Ted Bell. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin
. All rights reserved.