The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 13

  “I felt I had no choice. They had long wanted to promote me, which seems nice enough until you realize that a promotion would have sent me to a comfortable, highly respected post — on land. Torture! I’d always found a way out of it, but finally they insisted. That was when I left the navy and applied for my current position, which seemed perfect. The Shortcut will be at sea almost constantly — it loads and unloads faster than other ships, so it spends less time in port — and as I told the owners . . .”

  Captain Noland trailed off, looking sheepish. “I’ve gone on far too long about your poor old captain. It was Nicholas you wanted to hear about, and rightly so. A better man I’ve never known — and this despite all manner of ill fortunes, as you children know. To lose his parents so young, and then to struggle so mightily with his narcolepsy . . . I don’t mean just the tendency to fall asleep at odd times, but, oh, the nightmares!”

  Captain Noland rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He looked as though he had endured a night of bad dreams himself. “Nicholas and I shared a ship cabin more than once,” he said, “and the cries of terror he uttered in his sleep were enough to keep me wide-eyed and shivering for hours. He suffered these visitations from phantom creatures almost every night — the Old Hag, I remember, was the worst, such a dreadful hallucination I hated even to hear about her — yet during the day you’d never guess what he’d been through. Always cheerful, always brave. That’s Nicholas. Still, he did hope that one day — Wait!”

  Captain Noland stiffened so suddenly he spilled coffee on himself. “To think!” he cried. “Oh, where has my mind gone? To think I almost forgot!” And looking at the children he said, “Forgive me. I hadn’t realized it until this moment, but we have another clue!”

  The Old Hag, the Suspicious Gift , and the Quandary at the Castle

  A little over a year before, Captain Noland said, Mr. Benedict had received word from a Dutch science museum about the discovery of certain papers — a journal and a packet of documents — in a secret location. The papers had belonged to his parents. Mr. Benedict, an orphan since infancy, had wanted to see the papers right away, but at the time he was busy investigating the hidden messages that would eventually lead him to Mr. Curtain and the Whisperer. Not until recently had he addressed those more urgent duties enough to take some time for himself — to go on this personal trip.

  “So when he called you from Lisbon,” Reynie said, “he was on his way to Holland?”

  “Or else he’d just come from there,” said Captain Noland. “I don’t know. I was pressed for time, and we spoke only briefly. I’m sorry to say I don’t know the name of that museum, or even in what city it’s located. But I know he intended to go there on this trip.”

  “I know his parents were Dutch scientists,” Sticky said, “but why does the museum have their papers? Shouldn’t they have gone to Mr. Benedict?”

  There was a bit of a legal question pertaining to the case, Captain Noland explained. Mr. Benedict’s parents had be-queathed all their papers to this museum, but it was unlikely — at least from Mr. Benedict’s point of view — that these newly discovered documents were meant to be included among those original papers.

  “Still, Nicholas was excited,” the captain told them. “Before now, you see, he’d had only a glimpse into his parents’ lives. A few of their early papers had been published in scientific journals, and Nicholas had tracked these down and read them. They were quite sophisticated studies of narcolepsy, he said, which led him to believe his own condition was inherited from one of his parents. Beyond this, though, he’s never known anything about them.”

  “I’ve often wondered about that,” said Reynie. “If anyone could track down information about them, you’d think it would be Mr. Benedict.”

  “Oh, Nicholas would have loved to find out more if he could,” Captain Noland said. “But as a young man he was much too poor to travel, and then came that awful war. It was years before he had any money to speak of. By then he’d already gotten sidetracked with his investigations into Curtain’s doings, and of course it’s a good thing for everyone that he did. But what a nasty bit of luck it was to learn he had a twin. Separated at birth, apparently, and sent to different relatives — the sort of story that might have made for a joyful reunion. Instead he was devastated to see what a wicked man his brother had become. And who could blame him? After all those years with no family, and then, in effect, to gain a brother and lose him in the same moment!”

  At this, the children felt an uncomfortable prickling of guilt. It made sense that Mr. Benedict had been wounded by that discovery. But he had hidden his distress from them, and preoccupied as they were with their own problems, none of them had given the situation much thought. Reynie felt particularly guilty, for Mr. Benedict had mentioned his sadness to him once but had quickly changed the subject — and Reynie had soon forgotten about it.

  Captain Noland put a hand to his brow. He looked uneasy. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” he said. “I’m sorry. Nicholas would never have wanted to trouble you. Now here you are, going about dangerous business for his sake, and I’ve only added to your concern.”

  “It’s all right,” Kate said. “If something’s important to Mr. Benedict, we all want to know about it — even if he thinks he should protect us.”

  This was true enough, yet Reynie couldn’t help but wonder again about Captain Noland’s trustworthiness. There was no denying that Mr. Benedict had kept his feelings from the children, and now Captain Noland had revealed them. He may not have intended any harm, but still . . .

  “Well,” said Captain Noland, “speaking of things important to Nicholas, there was something else about these new papers that excited him. He thought they might contain useful information regarding his narcolepsy. He even joked about shaking hands with the Old Hag and sending her packing.”

  “What are you talking about, anyway?” Constance asked. “This is the second time you’ve mentioned her.”

  “The Old Hag is a notorious hallucination,” Sticky said in an automatic tone, as if reading from a textbook, “occasionally suffered by people with certain sleep disorders. She appears as a figure crouching near the person’s bed, or even sitting on the person’s chest. The experience is supposed to be terrifying.”

  Captain Noland raised his eyebrows. “You know a good many things, don’t you, Sticky? You’re exactly right. It is a terrifying hallucination, and Nicholas has experienced it countless times.”

  Kate whistled sympathetically. “No wonder he’d like to get rid of her. He must dread going to sleep at night.”

  As if on cue, Captain Noland yawned and looked at his watch. “Speaking of sleep, my friends, I should attempt a few hours of it. We have a very big day ahead of us tomorrow. And let’s be optimistic, all right? Your plan is a good one. We’re going to find Nicholas and Number Two — I’m sure of it — and then we’ll contact Rhonda and Milligan. Rhonda will have the best ideas for how to proceed, and if anyone in the world can rescue our friends, it’s Milligan. So chins up, everyone.”

  Reynie, Sticky, and Constance dutifully attempted upbeat expressions, and Kate, already beaming at the captain’s praise for her father, winked and gave him a thumb’s up.

  “That’s the spirit,” said Captain Noland. “Now then, Reynie, will you help me carry these things back to my cabin? I think your help with my little diamond crisis earns you a chance to stretch your legs. I really am sorry to keep you all so confined. Just grab that empty tray and milk bottle, will you? I’ll carry the chest.”

  The others watched with jealous eyes as Reynie followed the captain out.

  “Pay close attention to the route,” Captain Noland instructed as they walked along the narrow passages. “We’ll take a bit of a roundabout path to avoid running into — well, to avoid any unpleasant encounters.”

  Reynie disliked having to sneak around to avoid bumping into disapproving bullfrogs — for this was obviously what the captain had meant — but he didn’t mind taking the long
way. It was good to stretch his legs. And yet, Reynie thought, frowning to himself, it was awfully unfair that his friends had no such opportunity. They’d been stuck in that tiny cabin as long as he had. Would it really have been too much to let them come along?

  The injustice being done to his friends seemed even worse when Reynie saw Captain Noland’s cabin — a large, comfortable, well-furnished room that made the children’s all the more closet-like in comparison. Still, the cabin’s appeal was greatly diminished by its alarming state of disarray. Reynie had rarely seen a messier room. Dirty plates, platters, silverware, and glasses were everywhere, and the floor was strewn with wadded napkins and odd fragments of food. The cabin looked as if someone had emptied a kitchen into it — drawers, cupboards, trash cans, and all.

  Captain Noland made a disgusted noise as he set down his own neatly packed chest. “I was obliged to host a party for the owners,” he explained, “and I’m so short of staff I had no one to clean up afterward. It’ll have to wait until we’re in port, I suppose. The most important thing now is sleep.”

  “I could help you clean up, if you like,” Reynie said. He made the offer reluctantly — the place was truly in a revolting condition — but as he had gotten plenty of sleep himself it seemed the decent thing to do.

  Much to Reynie’s relief, Captain Noland said, “No, no, you’ve already done more than enough. In fact, young man, I wanted to give you something as a reward for your help with that diamond business. No, don’t even think of refusing. I’m convinced that your idea saved me my job — and my job, as you know, means everything to me. So hold out your hand. I’m serious now.”

  Reynie’s relief faded, replaced by a weird sense of dread. Uncertainly he held out his hand.

  Captain Noland closed the cabin door — first looking up and down the passageway to be sure no one was coming — and reached into his pocket. He placed something hard and shiny into Reynie’s palm and closed his fingers over it. “Let’s keep this between us, all right, son?”

  “All right.” Reynie’s heart was beating fast. “Um . . . thank you, sir.”

  “You’re more than welcome,” said the captain, opening the door and once again looking both ways along the passage. He nodded and stepped aside. “Good night, Reynie.”

  Reynie wished the captain good night and went out. He hadn’t yet opened his hand, which he now shoved deep into his pocket. He didn’t want to look at what Captain Noland had given him, nor did he think he should show it to the others. He had caught a glimpse of it, of course, and there was no mistaking the feel of it in his hand. But Reynie didn’t want to examine it closely. He didn’t want to have his worst suspicions confirmed.

  Two days left. Only two days, and the children had no idea how much farther this journey would take them — no idea whether two days would be enough.

  These were Reynie’s first troubled thoughts the next morning, and he was just moving on to more troubled thoughts (he seemed to have a growing supply) when Cannonball appeared and informed them that Captain Noland would not be coming ashore.

  “Don’t look so dismayed,” Cannonball said, bending to set a platter of toast and jam on the floor. “I’m still going to accompany you myself. The captain’s told me everything about your situation, and I’m sorry about your friends — really and truly sorry. But just you wait. We’ll get them back safe and —”

  “Captain Noland said both of you were coming,” Reynie interrupted. “Why has he changed his mind?”

  If Cannonball noticed the hint of accusation in Reynie’s tone, he gave no indication. “It’s that bullfrog Pressius again. We were supposed to have a few days of festivities and celebrations in Lisbon. The captain intended to skip these and go with you. But now Pressius has informed the captain that he wants the Shortcut to return to sea at once — just to sail around for a couple days.”

  “Why on earth would he want that?” Kate asked, moving the toast before Constance, who was rolling sleepily out of her bunk, could step on it.

  “Those ridiculous diamonds,” said Cannonball with a roll of his eyes. “Pressius is convinced that someone means to rob him. Once we’re in the harbor, he’s going to make a big show of opening the chest of decoys in front of all the reporters and crew members. He’ll announce that the chest is being delivered to a private vault in England. In fact he’s taking the real diamonds with him on the train to wherever he’s going. That’s why he insisted on all the extra security — this way he can send some guards along with the decoys to make his story seem authentic. Evidently it’s been his plan all along. He just didn’t see fit to tell the captain.”

  “And of course Captain Noland can’t refuse him,” Reynie said. What he really wanted to say was that the captain wouldn’t refuse Mr. Pressius. For a man who believed he owed Mr. Benedict his life, Captain Noland certainly seemed unwilling to take many risks on his behalf.

  “So what’s next?” Sticky asked.

  “We’ll slip away while the ship’s being unloaded, before the ceremonies begin,” Cannonball said. “I’ll have a radio with me. The captain wants us to stay in close touch. He still intends to help — he’ll just have to do it from the ship.”

  Reynie bit his tongue and looked away.

  “What about Madge?” Kate asked. “Can someone keep her for me? It wouldn’t be for long, you know, only a couple of days . . .” She trailed off, suddenly solemn, for a couple of days wasn’t long, and it was all they had to save their friends.

  “I’ve already made the arrangements,” said Cannonball kindly. “Don’t you worry. Madge will keep my cabin, and she’ll be treated like a queen.”

  The Shortcut was not due in port until late in the afternoon, which allowed the children plenty of time to bathe — an activity that had never seemed quite the luxury it did now. They’d gone a long time without changing clothes or even brushing their teeth, and their general dirtiness had begun to depress them, to say nothing of offending one another’s noses. Cannonball had no fresh clothes to offer, but he could provide towels and soap, and he gave them his own half-flattened tube of toothpaste. So the children were able to get rid of the grime, at least, and they brushed their teeth with their fingers.

  Afterward they took turns looking out the cabin’s porthole. For most of the trip they had seen nothing but endless water and sky. But now, with the Portuguese mainland in the distance, they were able once again to appreciate the great speed of the Shortcut. The land seemed to transform from a hazy, indeterminate blur on the horizon to a full-fledged coastline in a matter of seconds.

  “It won’t be long now,” Sticky said, stepping down from Kate’s bucket. “The port is just a few miles inland on the Tagus River. There’s sufficient depth there for —” He stopped himself with a frown — he’d been about to launch into a long and technical speech — and simply said again, “It won’t be long now.”

  When at last Cannonball came for them, he was carrying a shovel and was dressed in “civilian” clothes, or at least he seemed to think so. He wore Bermuda shorts, sandals, and a loud floral-print shirt, and he had smeared his well-tanned face with sunscreen in an effort to make himself look like a tourist. Unfortunately the shirt, which he had borrowed from a shipmate, was no match for his barrel chest. No sooner had he entered the room than a button popped loose and skittered under Constance’s bunk.

  “I’ll get it for you,” said Constance, with a readiness that took the other children by surprise. But then, her voice had quavered when she spoke, and when she emerged from beneath the bunk her expression was unmistakably anxious. She was trying to occupy herself however she could, for now that they’d arrived at this next stage of their journey, she found herself growing frightened.

  Cannonball knelt beside her. “You know what I like about buttons?” he said, taking the button from Constance and gazing at it admiringly. “They’re very small things that hold bigger things together. Awfully important, buttons — little but strong.” He winked and stood up again, leaving Constance
with a calmer expression on her face, and having strengthened the good opinion the other children already had of him.

  “Now here’s the official stuff,” said Cannonball, unfolding a typed document stamped with all sorts of government seals. Reproduced on the back of it was a photograph of the children taken the year before. “Mr. Benedict sent this to the captain to give to you. It’s like a passport, apparently, only better. You’ll want to keep it secure.”

  Kate took the document without thinking and slipped it into her bucket. Her friends didn’t argue, for not only did Kate’s bucket seem the safest place, the photograph was positively horrible of all of them, and no one cared to see it any longer than necessary.

  “Only a minute now,” Cannonball said, holding his head in an attitude of careful attention. He was listening to the ship’s engines and looking out the porthole at the docks below. The children could hear a brass band playing just beyond the bulkhead. “There,” he said. “Now we’ll just scoot along.”

  Cannonball and the children made their way up into brilliant sunlight, a warm breeze, and a shocking confusion of sound. The ship’s deck and the docks below were in utter turmoil — throngs of people were cheering, music was playing, and streamers and confetti drifted everywhere on the breeze. All of Lisbon, it seemed, had come down to greet the record-setting cargo ship. The place looked like a carnival set upon the bank of the river.

  By the energetic application of his elbows Cannonball got the children to their taxi, and shutting their doors against the clamor, they were all whisked away toward St. George’s Castle. The cobbled streets wound sharply back and forth, maze-like, as the taxi passed through an old fishery district and rose higher and higher up the steep hill upon which the castle sat. With every other turn of the road the castle came into view again, larger each time, until at last they drew near the gated entrance to the grounds. Beyond the stone wall encircling the grounds the castle loomed impressively — but it was the wall that mattered to the children.