The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 12

  “Mr. Benedict said it might seem like I’m psychic even if I’m not,” said Constance, sagging over to lie on her side. “People’s expressions and their tone of voice and, you know, just everything about their behavior — it’s all made up of patterns, and my mind’s good at recognizing them. So sometimes I know things you might not expect. Like right now, for instance. I can tell you’re about to ask me for an example.”

  Kate’s eyes widened. “How did you know that?”

  “I have no idea,” said Constance. “Maybe it’s something in your eyes, maybe it’s just what you always do when I try to explain things. The point is that people have patterns, too. So there’s your stupid example.”

  “Hey, that’s pretty fun!” said Kate, who hadn’t noticed that Constance didn’t think it fun in the least. “Of course, it doesn’t exactly rule out the possibility that you can read minds.”

  “Yes, it does,” said Constance, turning away. “And don’t argue with me. I’m done talking. I feel sicker than sick.”

  So did Reynie and Sticky, both of whom were breathing in shallow gasps and longing for the solidity of land. Kate felt fine, however, and as she mulled over what Constance had told her, she snatched another treat from the tins and began to pace the cabin. This required no small feat of balance, as there was scant room for pacing and the floor was disinclined to hold on a level. She was chattering about something the whole while, but the boys had lost their ability to concentrate.

  Reynie was trying not to watch her. He would have closed his eyes, but doing so made him feel even sicker. “Kate, will you please stop moving around? It’s only making things worse.”

  Kate stopped in her tracks. “Making what worse? Oh, you don’t look so well, Reynie! In fact, neither do you, Sticky! Are all of you sick?”

  “You should be a doctor,” Sticky groaned.

  Before long all three of the invalids were groaning so much that the cabin sounded like a frog pond, and Kate, seeing that her friends’ conditions were only worsening, set out to learn the quickest routes to all the ship’s bathrooms. (It was also a good excuse to flee the whimpering and moans.) As it happened, the routes Kate learned proved very useful to her friends. But they were all too sick to thank her.

  Directions, Recollections, and Outstanding Debts

  Reynie’s first waking thought was that he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since the evening before, and it was now — well, what time was it, anyway? He had no idea how long he’d slept. At least the sickness had passed; Reynie would choose hunger pangs over seasickness any day. Reynie would choose almost anything over seasickness.

  He, Sticky, and Constance had spent their first night aboard the Shortcut feeling sicker than they’d ever felt. (Kate, having shown them to their various bathrooms, slept peacefully in the quiet cabin.) When their illnesses finally subsided early that morning, they had all collapsed into their bunks and passed out. Reynie had a vague memory — or was it a dream? — of Captain Noland speaking in hushed tones to Kate at the cabin door, but otherwise he’d been in complete oblivion until now.

  Reynie’s mind moved swiftly to Mr. Benedict and Number Two. Only three days left, he thought, and the urgency he’d felt since yesterday morning gripped him with new intensity. He opened his eyes and sat up. The cabin was dark. Perhaps Kate had taped something over the porthole to help them sleep? No, a glance at the porthole revealed nothing of the sort. He scratched his head and yawned, only to snap his mouth shut — painfully biting his tongue — when Kate sprang up out of the darkness onto his bunk. She shone her penlight into his face.

  “What’s the matter?” Kate asked. “Did I scare you?”

  “Never mind,” said Reynie grumpily. “What’s going on? How long have I been out?”

  “Too long. It’s evening now. The captain will be here soon.”


  “Yes, and I’ve been going nuts waiting for you to wake up,” Kate said. “Cannonball let me visit Madge a few minutes at lunchtime, but otherwise I’ve been cooped up in here all day with no one to talk to. She’s doing fine, by the way. Cannonball gives her prime bits of meat from the galley — he calls it ‘frog food’ — and I think she may be falling in love with him.”

  “Did the captain come?” Reynie asked. “Or did I dream that?”

  “No, he came by this morning. Do you not remember? You sat up and said something like ‘eggness,’ then fell back to sleep.” Kate thrust a piece of paper at him. “He brought this. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he said he’d think about it today.”

  Reynie looked at the paper, but it was too dark to read. “The captain read this? He didn’t wait for us to see it first?”

  “Well, no,” Kate said. “He’d already looked at it. I’m sure he just wanted to help.”

  “I suppose so,” said Reynie uneasily. Rhonda had let them open the first envelope, and somehow he’d expected Captain Noland to do the same. But the circumstances had been different at Mr. Benedict’s house, Reynie reminded himself. Anyway, shouldn’t he be glad the captain cared?

  “I’ve been staring at it all day,” Kate was saying. “It isn’t really a riddle at all — more like directions — but I still haven’t gotten very far with it.”

  “Let me see your penlight,” Reynie said, and shining the light onto the paper he read:

  Well done, my friends, and may your ocean crossing be great fun! Please go down for your hint, then up to where the clues lead you — that’s where you’ll find the next envelope! — Mr. Benedict

  The middle of the page was blank except for a wide scorch mark. (“No lemon-juice messages,” Kate muttered.) Reynie scanned down to the bottom, where Mr. Benedict had written the following lines:

  Castle of Sticky’s namesake

  Against westernmost wall

  Not visible

  Need tool

  Olive trees nearby

  No cork or pine for two meters

  “I figure the castle must be on a hill,” said Kate, “which is why he made such a point of saying to go up to where the clues lead. But I’ve never heard of a castle named Sticky or George or Washington or anything like it, have you?”

  Reynie shook his head. “I’ll bet Sticky has, though.”

  “I’ll get him up,” said Kate, rolling off the bunk.

  A moment later Sticky cried out in the darkness, and Reynie heard Kate ask, “Did I scare you?”

  Sticky was still grumbling at her when Captain Noland arrived with their supper. He’d brought a tray laden with peanut butter sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and milk. Much to his embarrassment, however, there was no coffee.

  “I’m afraid I left my coffee pot here last night,” Captain Noland said, once they had roused Constance and turned on the light. “And Mr. Pressius demanded his own pot in his cabin, which left me with no extras.” The children, assuring the captain that this was perfectly all right, set hungrily upon the food. (Constance, naturally, reached for the cookies first.)

  “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” said Captain Noland, who himself seemed in a poor state of health. His uniform was crisp and trim as ever, but he obviously hadn’t slept in some time. His shoulders sagged, his eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and he was stifling a yawn as he asked, “Any luck with the letter? I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to give it much thought.”

  “Actually, neither have we,” Reynie said. “I’ve only glanced at it, and Constance and Sticky haven’t even seen it yet.” He tried to hand the letter to Constance, but she was still very groggy (so groggy she’d forgotten to snatch more than her share of cookies), and she refused to take it. “I’ll look at it later,” she mumbled.

  So Reynie passed the letter to Sticky, who hardly glanced at it before he exclaimed, “Hey, this is easy! That castle’s in Lisbon!”

  No sooner had the words left Sticky’s mouth than Kate was clapping him on the back (so hard he almost choked on his sandwich), and Reynie was saying over and over again, “I knew you’d have the
answer,” his face flushed with excitement. Even Constance showed her appreciation by not filching Sticky’s cookie while he was distracted. They had been in sore need of hope, and Sticky had just delivered it.

  After they’d quieted down, Captain Noland said, “Is Jorge your given name, Sticky?”

  “It’s George,” Sticky replied.

  “Oh, of course!” said Captain Noland, looking quite impressed. (Sticky, already beaming, now positively shone).

  “Would one of you mind explaining to the rest of us?” Constance said.

  “St. George’s Castle,” said Captain Noland. “In Portuguese it’s called the Castelo de São Jorge, and since it’s in Portugal, that’s how I always think of it. Where did you learn to speak Portuguese, Sticky? Or should I call you Jorge?”

  Sticky laughed — a bit nervously, it seemed to Reynie — and said, “I know lots of languages. It’s no big deal, really.” (Reynie noticed that this was not exactly the answer to Captain Noland’s question, but the captain either didn’t notice or didn’t care.)

  “I can imagine why Nicholas chose to send you up there,” Captain Noland said. “He loves the view from the castle grounds. Probably wanted to share it with you.”

  “So the castle is on a hill,” Kate said. “I thought so.”

  “The highest hill in Lisbon, in fact.” Captain Noland’s tired eyes suddenly looked thoughtful and melancholy, as if he were gazing with them upon a different time. “Nicholas and I went up there together once, many years ago. He was so moved by the view that he fell asleep and nearly plunged over the castle wall. Oh, I would never have forgiven myself if he had! I’d been watching a ferry down on the river and wasn’t keeping an eye on him. I should have been paying better attention.”

  “What happened?” asked Constance, a little short of breath, as if at that very moment Mr. Benedict were about to topple from the precipice.

  “He fell backward instead of forward. As simple as that. He got a rather nasty bump on his head, but when I think of the alternative . . .” Captain Noland shuddered. “Just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “and I would have lost my friend forever — to say nothing of all the lives he saved that year. And it would have been entirely my fault.”

  “Was it the westernmost wall he nearly fell from?” asked Reynie. He had a good many questions he wanted to ask — for instance, what was this about Mr. Benedict saving lives? Whose lives did the captain mean? But more pressing at the moment was understanding this clue and what they were to do about it.

  “It was indeed,” said Captain Noland. He yawned and pointed toward the chest, still tied to a lower bunk. “I don’t suppose there’s any coffee left in the pot, is there? Did you finish it off last night?”

  “We, uh — we couldn’t,” Reynie said. “We got seasick right after you left.”

  Captain Noland squeezed past him and opened the chest. “Why, there’s still a good half pot left! I’m in luck!” He wiped out his cup from the night before and filled it with the treacly black liquid. Perhaps being cold and stale improved the coffee’s taste, Reynie thought; certainly it couldn’t make it any worse. Regardless, the captain had forgotten to offer them any, and for this all the children were grateful.

  Captain Noland downed half the cup in one gulp, refilled it, then closed the chest and sat on it. “Much better,” he said. “I’m of no use to you if I’m asleep. Now then, as for Nicholas’s directions, they all make sense to me now. Things should be pretty straightforward when we get up to the castle.”

  “How so?” asked Reynie.

  “Well, as you might imagine, there aren’t any olive trees in the castle itself,” said the captain, “so Nicholas has to be referring to the outer wall of the castle grounds, which are rather like a big park. I remember quite a stretch of wall on the western side, but I’m sure these other clues — the description of which trees are nearby and which aren’t — will narrow the location down exactly. No doubt we’ll see right away where he’s buried the envelope. We’ll look for a spot where the earth has been freshly turned.”

  “You think it’s buried?” Sticky asked.

  “Surely that’s what Nicholas meant by ‘not visible’ and ‘need tool.’ He meant for us to dig. I’ll have Joe fetch a shovel as soon as we dock.”

  The children looked at one another with expressions of relief and surprise.

  “Well, that was easy,” said Kate, putting the letter away inside her bucket. “Now all we have to do is get there!”

  “You can leave that to me,” said Captain Noland. “I’ll radio ahead to have a taxi waiting at the docks. We’ll waste no time that way. Joe and I will change into civilian clothes — the better to avoid notice — and accompany you to the castle.”

  “What do you mean by civilian clothes?” asked Constance. “Aren’t you a civilian?”

  “Ha!” cried Captain Noland, scratching his beard. “An old habit, Constance. I was in the navy for so long, I tend to forget things have changed. I only meant to say we won’t wear our uniforms.”

  “That reminds me,” said Kate. “Did you say that you and Mr. Benedict met in the navy?”

  “It’s a fact,” said Captain Noland. “We were in naval intelligence together. Of course, this was very long ago . . . Has Nicholas never told you?” Seeing their blank faces, the captain chuckled and shook his head. “It doesn’t surprise me. He couldn’t have told you much without seeming to brag — and Nicholas is anything but a braggart. I’m perfectly happy to brag on him, though. I used to joke that he saved a hundred lives every morning before breakfast, and the truth wasn’t far from that. We were engaged in a terrible war, you see — a long-forgotten war that no one likes to talk about now — and Nicholas was our best code breaker. Whenever an enemy transmission was intercepted, we brought it straight to him. He usually cracked the code within minutes, if not sooner. Our soldiers avoided any number of surprise attacks thanks to Nicholas.”

  The children grinned, pleased to hear good things said about Mr. Benedict. In his absence they found themselves especially eager for details about him — as if by gathering details they might, in some small way, bring him back.

  “Didn’t you say he saved your life once, too?” asked Reynie.

  Captain Noland had just slugged the rest of his coffee and stood to open the chest. He took out the coffee pot and refilled his cup. “Actually, Nicholas saved my life more than once. The first time, we’d been sent on a secret assignment. It was an unusually important assignment, too — otherwise they wouldn’t have sent Nicholas, who never did field work. His narcolepsy might put him at risk, you see. Well, we managed to complete the assignment, but in the process we were captured by the enemy. I should say that I was captured. Nicholas was not. But in order to rescue me he turned himself over to my captors.”

  Captain Noland settled onto the chest again. “I’m sure you’re thinking what I was thinking. How on earth did he hope to save me by sacrificing himself? Well, that was when I discovered that Nicholas is the most persuasive man in the world. Mysteriously so. Over the next two days, he spoke with every officer in the enemy headquarters. If he couldn’t convince one officer of what he was saying, he would switch tactics, arguing that a different officer ought to be sent in to speak with him. One way or another, he always succeeded, and by the end of the second day he’d found just the right things to say to just the right people, and had convinced our enemy that we should be let go. To this day, I can’t quite believe it.”

  “That’s amazing!” Kate cried. “How did he possibly manage it?”

  “I can’t say for sure, but I think part of the answer is that people sense something in Nicholas that makes them trust him. And of course that’s with good reason. Compared to Nicholas, even the best of men are untrustworthy.”

  Reynie felt a sudden, unexpected twinge of suspicion. This last statement of the captain’s sounded rather like a justifi-cation, as if one could be untrustworthy and still be considered among “the best of men.” What w
as more, the captain’s expression had shifted subtly in a way that Reynie couldn’t quite interpret. Perhaps he simply felt jealous of Mr. Benedict’s trustworthy character — or of other people’s perception of it. That could be a natural feeling for a good man who wished he were more trustworthy. Still, the thought made Reynie uneasy.

  Sticky, meanwhile, was asking Captain Noland how else Mr. Benedict had saved his life, and Reynie tried to set aside his suspicions and listen. He did like Captain Noland, after all. And if Mr. Benedict trusted him, shouldn’t Reynie?

  “He saved me once again by saying the right thing to the right person,” Captain Noland said. “This time the person was me. The war had just ended, and Nicholas was leaving the navy to return to his research. I was thinking of leaving the navy myself, for I was extremely miserable half the time. I’d grown up on ships — my father was a merchant sailor — but by the end of this war I felt I’d missed my calling. How else was I to explain my feeling depressed so much of the time?

  “When I told him this, Nicholas laughed so much he fell asleep. I was fairly annoyed, I can tell you. But then he always did like to laugh, and when he woke up he apologized sincerely and said, ‘Phil, it isn’t being on ships that makes you miserable. It’s getting off them. You’re always sad when you head for port, and you’re sad the entire time you’re on land — except for the day you set sail again. The worst thing you could do would be to stay ashore.’

  “Well, this was so obvious a child should have seen it, and I hate to say, I almost resented Nicholas for making me look so dumb. But there it was: he knew me better than I knew myself. As long as I’m at sea, I’m happy — which is why this maiden voyage is so important. I can’t afford to lose my reputation as a sea captain. Sending me to shore would be like sending me to my doom.”

  “Why did you ever leave the navy, then?” asked Constance.