The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 3

  Still, as they walked out into the orchard, Sticky looked suspiciously back toward the farmhouse. “Why do they want to speak privately, I wonder?”

  “It’s Mr. Benedict’s surprise,” Reynie said. “They’re in on it.”

  “They are? So that explains why my parents have been whispering. I thought they were discussing Mom’s getting a second job. They know I’m dead set against it. I’d sooner go back to quizzing, you know, but they’re dead set against that.”

  Reynie knew from Sticky’s letters that his father already did work two jobs. Their family’s finances were terribly strained due to the unhappy events leading up to the last year. Sticky’s prodigious memory and reading abilities had made him an incomparable quiz champion, but he had suffered badly under the pressure to make his family’s fortune and ultimately had run away from home. The Washingtons had spent every penny — in fact had gone deep into debt — in order to find Sticky and bring him back to them. They had been distrustful of money’s allure ever since, and were stubbornly unwilling to let Sticky be subjected to unusual pressures. (“They can hardly stand even to hear me talk about our time at the Institute,” Sticky had written. “The very thought of my being in danger makes them tremble.”) And so the Washingtons remained quite poor.

  “How did you find out they know about the surprise?” Sticky asked as they settled down in the shade of the apple trees.

  “Amma got a letter from Mr. Benedict,” Reynie said. “I saw it on her dresser, but she neglected to mention it to me, and later I overheard bits of a conversation she had with Pati. Pati’s hard of hearing, so Amma had to say a few things rather louder than she meant to. None of it was enough to give me any clues, but I could tell they knew something I didn’t. Not long after that I got my own letter from Mr. Benedict — the one he sent all of us — and I knew we were in for something good.”

  “Of course it will be good! How could it not be good?” said Kate, leaning back on her elbows with a satisfied smile. “It’s already good. We’re together, aren’t we? And tomorrow we’ll see Mr. Benedict!”

  “Not to mention Rhonda and Number Two,” Reynie said, referring to Mr. Benedict’s brilliant assistants (who also happened to be his adopted daughters, though this wasn’t widely known). “I can’t wait to see them, either.”

  “Neither can I!” Sticky said. In a somewhat more subdued tone he added, “And, well . . . Constance, too, of course. And what about Milligan, Kate? At lunch you said he’d meet us at Mr. Benedict’s house, but wasn’t he supposed to be here?”

  “That was the plan, but then he got called away on a mission.”

  “What kind of mission?” asked Reynie and Sticky at the same time. They were both hungry for details.

  Kate shrugged. “No idea. He never tells me anything beforehand, only afterward. I always read the paper for clues, of course — I’d love to be able to tell him I figured out what he’d been up to — but I never find anything.”

  “So you have been keeping up,” Sticky said. “I asked about that in my last letter, but you never replied.” His tone was slightly resentful, but Kate either ignored it or else was blithely unaware.

  “Of course I’ve been keeping up! But I’m not like you, Sticky. I can’t read ten newspapers every morning, and half of them in foreign languages. I only read the Stonetown Times. Why? Have you seen anything suspicious?”

  Sticky grunted. “I wish. What about you, Reynie?”

  Although this conversation might have seemed strange if overheard (for it is rare to hear children discuss the newspaper, and still more so to hear one ask whether anything “suspicious” has been found), to Reynie and his friends it felt perfectly natural. All of them had long had the habit of reading the paper — in fact it was a newspaper advertisement that had first led them to Mr. Benedict — and ever since their mission they had scanned the daily headlines with particular interest. It was doubtful any activity concerning Mr. Curtain would be declassified and printed, but it was always possible that some seemingly innocent story might reveal a connection to something deeper and darker — something the children would recognize even if other readers would not. In this single respect they still felt like secret agents, though reading the daily paper was hardly exciting field work.

  This morning’s front page of the Stonetown Times, for instance, had been devoted to nothing more sinister than finance, freight, and forestry: INTEREST RATES SHARPLY ON THE RISE, read one headline; CARGO SHIP SHORTCUT TO MAKE MAIDEN VOYAGE, read another; while still another read, PINE WEEVIL MAKES MEAL OF SOUTHERN FORESTS. And the news only grew less interesting on page two.

  “Suspicious?” Reynie said. “Not unless you think pine weevils are suspicious. Everything I’ve read has been dull as doorknobs.”

  Kate’s eyes twinkled. “Hey, that reminds me! Sticky, I —”

  Reynie cleared his throat and gave her a warning look. It was too late, though. Sticky might be slow to make certain connections, but he was exceptionally quick at recognizing personal insults. “Go on,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “It’s about my account of the mission, isn’t it?”

  Now Kate looked regretful. “Oh . . . no . . . I was, uh, just going to . . .” She looked helplessly at Reynie, unable to think of what to say.

  Much to their relief, Sticky lowered his hands and smiled. It was a sheepish smile, but at least he didn’t seem wounded. “Out with it.”

  “Well, it’s . . . factual,” Kate said.

  “And thoughtful,” Reynie added, hurriedly taking the account from his pocket in hopes of finding something to praise.

  Kate nodded vigorously as Reynie unfolded the papers. “Oh, yes, it’s very thoughtful! And grammatical!”

  Sticky winced. “Is it that bad? Oh well, I knew it was probably dreck. You should have seen the earlier drafts. This was my sixth attempt.” He took the account from Reynie and looked it over ruefully before stuffing it into his pocket. “Don’t worry, I figured I could never publish it anyway. I just wanted to do something to celebrate the occasion.”

  Reynie had a sudden insight. “That’s why your hair’s gone, isn’t it? For old times’ sake!”

  “I thought you might get a kick out of that,” Sticky admitted. “This time Dad helped me shave it — no more hair-remover concoctions.” He shuddered at the memory.

  “Well, I love it!” Kate said, giving Sticky’s scalp an affectionate rub, and Reynie grinned and nodded his appreciation.

  For a long time the three friends lingered in the orchard, reveling in one another’s company and reminiscing about their mission to the Institute. Laughing, groaning, occasionally shivering as they recalled their experiences — all of which remained perfectly vivid in their memories — they let the afternoon slip past them. When Kate noticed how long the shadows had grown in the farmyard, she gave a start and hopped up.

  “Good grief! They’re going to call us inside soon, and Sticky hasn’t even met Madge yet!”

  “Who’s Madge?” Sticky asked.

  “Her Majesty the Queen!” Kate said, as if this explained everything. Impatiently she hauled the boys to their feet and ushered them out into the farmyard, where she blew on her whistle and tugged on the protective glove. Almost instantly the falcon appeared, streaking down from an unseen height to settle upon Kate’s wrist.

  Sticky’s puzzlement faded, replaced by anxiety. Though he readily expressed his admiration of this sharp-taloned creature now regarding him with shining black eyes (“Falco peregrinus,” he said, nodding as he backed away, “impressive bird . . . swiftest of predators . . .”), he was not at all keen to make her special acquaintance. As casually as he could, Sticky took a cloth from his shirt pocket and removed his spectacles.

  Reynie smiled to himself. He was quite familiar with Sticky’s habit of polishing his spectacles when nervous, and seeing him do so now was unexpectedly satisfying. There was a unique pleasure in knowing a friend so well, Reynie reflected, rather like sharing a secret code. Also, it was nice not to
be the only one afraid of Kate’s bird.

  “Don’t worry, Madge,” Kate was saying as she fed the falcon a strip of meat, “I’ll be back before you know it.” And after she’d sent Madge aloft again, she clucked her tongue and said, “Poor thing, did you see how fidgety she was? She knows I’m going away. I think it makes her nervous.”

  “Oh yes,” said Sticky, with a doubtful glance at Reynie. “Poor thing.”

  Reynie patted Kate’s back. “I’m sure your little raptor will be fine.”

  Moocho Brazos had prepared a sumptuous meal, and dinner was a boisterous, satisfying, happy affair, with everyone chatting at once and platters constantly being passed this way and that. For dessert Moocho served his much-anticipated apple pies — six of them, in fact, although that number seemed less extravagant once Moocho’s own appetite was taken into account.

  After the dishes were washed, the pleasant tumult died down and the talk fell away. Everyone was overcome with drowsiness. It had been a long day for all, and another full day awaited them. The children were determined to stay up regardless, but though only a year ago they had been on a secret mission making life-and-death decisions, now they were subject to the dictates of their guardians — which meant bathing, bidding one another good night, and going to bed.

  “Oh well,” Kate said through a yawn. “We’ll be up again soon. The rooster crows at sunrise, you know.”

  And indeed it was the sound of crowing that woke Reynie the next morning. He sat up blearily — he’d slept on a pallet on the floor — to see gray dawn beyond the window and Miss Perumal sitting up in bed, smiling at him.

  “Today’s your big day,” she said. “I know you’re excited. You didn’t sleep until after midnight.”

  “You were awake?” Reynie asked. He’d been so involved in his thoughts that he hadn’t paid attention to Miss Perumal’s breathing. Obviously, though, she’d been paying attention to his.

  “I’m excited, too,” Miss Perumal said. “I know you’re going to love your surprise.”

  There was something about her expression that gave Reynie pause. She was happy for him, he could tell — but there was something else, too. It reminded him of the day she had driven him to take Mr. Benedict’s tests, when she had felt convinced he would no longer need her as a tutor. Her eyes, now as then, reflected a mixture of pride, expectation, and a certain sadness. But they were family now, and Reynie knew nothing could induce Miss Perumal to leave him. So what was she musing about?

  Miss Perumal’s eyes suddenly changed. With a little laugh of surprise, she turned her face away from him, and when she turned back she’d adopted a scolding look. “I forget how good you are at reading expressions,” she said. She waggled a finger. “You mustn’t study things too closely, Reynie, if you don’t want to spoil your surprise.”

  Together they roused Miss Perumal’s mother — whose slumber had been unaffected by the rooster’s crow, but who was always susceptible to foot-tickling — and after she’d come awake laughing and calling them villains, they all set about getting ready.

  With a feeling of resignation Reynie put on the shirt Number Two had sent him last month for his birthday. He knew it was a token of her affection, but he still couldn’t look at the shirt without wrinkling his nose. Number Two’s apparent conviction was that good fashion meant matching one’s clothes to one’s skin tone (her own wardrobe consisted almost entirely of yellow fabrics that accentuated her yellowish complexion), and so naturally she’d thought this muddled, flesh-colored shirt would suit Reynie perfectly. It did fit him — sort of — but Reynie couldn’t have imagined an uglier shirt, or for that matter a less comfortable one (it was made of canvas, “for durability,” Number Two had written), and he wore it now only because he expected to see her today.

  “You, too?” Sticky muttered when Reynie met him in the hall. Sticky was wearing a light brown shirt made of some kind of thickly padded material — his torso appeared to have swollen — and he was perspiring heavily despite the morning’s chill air. (Reynie recalled that Sticky’s birthday was in January; no doubt the shirt had seemed more suitable then.) “They made me wear it,” Sticky said, jerking his thumb toward the room he’d shared with his parents. He looked Reynie up and down. “Do you realize you look like a tote bag?”

  “At least I’m not puffy,” Reynie said. “Let’s go find Kate.”

  They hadn’t long to look. Before they could start up the stairs, Kate came sliding down the banister. To their disappointment she was wearing blue jeans and a perfectly normal shirt. She landed beside them with a delighted grin. “Why, you both look so handsome! Are you going to a party?”

  Sticky crossed his thickly padded arms. “This is unacceptable, Kate. You need to go right back up and put on your birthday present.”

  “Absolutely,” Reynie said. “You’re outvoted, Kate. We all suffer together.”

  Kate was rubbing his canvas sleeve to see how it felt. She whistled and gave him a pitying look. “Sorry, but mine was much too small for me, so I cut it up and made my pouches out of it. Did I show them to you?” She eagerly flipped open her bucket’s lid. “It was very sturdy material, so —”

  “You showed us already,” Sticky said in a defeated tone. “What was your present, anyway?”

  “Mine? Oh, it was a vest. With fringe.”

  Reynie eyed her suspiciously. “Was it really too small?”

  “Well,” said Kate with a sly smile. “It was going to be.”

  The day was still quite young when the station wagon and the sedan pulled away, their eager occupants half-rested but well fed. Moocho Brazos stood in the farmyard waving goodbye until the cars had disappeared beyond the hill. Then he sighed and stroked his mustache sadly. He was much attached to his exuberant young friend, and with Kate gone the farm seemed dull already. With a melancholy shake of his head, Moocho headed off into the orchard, where a number of trees required tending.

  And so it was that the young man who arrived on a scooter a few minutes later was met by an empty farmyard.

  The young man dashed first to ring the doorbell — he rang it several times — then to the barn, where he discovered a hen depressing a lever with its beak to fill a tiny wagon with grain. He was startled by this sight, but he quickly overcame his wonder and renewed his search for the addressee of the telegram he carried. As he headed out behind the barn (it would be some time before he tried the orchard), the young man — an employee of the town’s general store and wire service — was hoping that someone, at least, would be here. His job was to deliver the telegram to “anyone on the Wetherall farm.” There was no telephone here, he knew, which explained the need for a telegram. The old store owner had told him this was the first telegram they’d been asked to deliver in many years. And a very curious, very urgent one it was. It read:


  Beyond the glass, or Windows for mirrors

  The drive to Mr. Benedict’s house in Stonetown would take several hours, but they had hardly been on the road twenty minutes before Reynie, in his mind, was already there. He was daydreaming. In the front seat of the station wagon, Miss Perumal’s mother was humming to herself, unaware that her voice resounded throughout the car. Miss Perumal was suppressing a smile. And beside Reynie in the backseat, Kate and Sticky were catching each other up on their lives. Having arrived earlier than Sticky and being a better correspondent than Kate, Reynie already knew everything the other two were telling each other now. The fact that Sticky had briefly had a girlfriend, for instance, until she broke up with him for remarking upon her pulchritude. (“She didn’t believe me when I told her it meant ‘beauty,’” Sticky said. Kate shook her head. “It’s always best to stick to small words. If you’d said that to me, I’d have punched you.”) Or the fact that — unlike Miss Perumal, who considered
Reynie unusually mature for his age and was contemplating his enrollment in college — the Washingtons had forbidden any such possibility for Sticky, to whose emotional wellbeing they were especially attentive now. (“I’ve told them again and again that I can handle it,” said Sticky. “But they aren’t budging.”)

  As his friends talked, then, Reynie let his thoughts wander ahead of the station wagon to the house in Stonetown — with its familiar ivy-covered courtyard and gray stone walls — and, of course, to Mr. Benedict himself. Reynie could see him now: the perpetually mussed white hair; the bright green eyes framed by spectacles; the large, lumpy nose; and, of course, the green plaid suit he wore every day. To those who didn’t know him, Mr. Benedict might well look like a joker. The thought made Reynie indignant, for the man was not only a genius, he was exceptionally good — and in Reynie’s opinion, good people were decidedly rare.

  Mr. Benedict himself had disagreed with Reynie about this. Reynie remembered the conversation perfectly. It had occurred some months after the children returned from their mission to the Institute, when Reynie had still lived in Stonetown. Despite Mr. Benedict’s countless pressing duties, he had arranged for a visit with Reynie, as he did every week. (Kate, by this time, had gone to live on the farm, and Sticky had returned to live with his parents in a city several hours away. Of the four children, only Constance — whom Mr. Benedict was in the process of adopting — would remain in Stonetown, for Miss Perumal was moving their family to a larger apartment in the suburbs, where Reynie could have his own room and, equally important, a library within walking distance.) After Reynie moved away, these weekly conversations with Mr. Benedict had become impracticable, and he recalled them now with fondness — even reverence.