The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 36

  Reynie had not written about the other, more personal disappointment that they all felt. The duskwort had promised a possible end to Mr. Benedict’s sufferings; now it was simply the stuff of history and legend. And though Mr. Benedict refused to mourn its loss, which had prevented certain catastrophe at the hands of his brother, everyone who loved him wished things could have turned out otherwise. All of this Reynie found too difficult to express with suitable eloquence, and so he’d concluded his entry with a simple but cryptic line that could apply just as easily to Mr. Benedict or Mr. Curtain: One more dream destroyed.

  Now it was Sticky’s turn to make an entry — they had agreed he should go last, so that he didn’t accidentally use up all the pages before the others had written anything — but Constance had skipped his turn and made another entry herself.

  “It’s fine,” Sticky said, lifting up his bandaged hands. “I can’t hold a pen very well with these on, anyway.”

  “Your mom won’t let you take them off ?” asked Reynie, whose own hands were mostly healed from the cuts and blisters inflicted in dragging the sledge. Sticky was the only one still wearing bandages.

  “Not yet,” Sticky said with a shrug. He leaned back on his elbows and jauntily crossed his legs. These private meetings in Constance’s room gave him some much-needed relief from his parents’ attentions — they spent half their time babying him and the other half berating him for his reckless behavior — and his gratitude put him in an expansive mood. “Let’s hear what you wrote, Constance. I can’t wait.”

  “Oh, you’re really going to like it,” Kate said, handing the journal to Constance with a mysterious smile.

  Constance cleared her throat. “This poem is entitled ‘The Terrible Fall.’ ” She waited a moment for her title to sink in — she obviously thought it a very good one — and then, in a dramatic voice, she began to recite:

  The night was black, the owl did call.

  I stood upon the silo tall,

  Never suspecting I would fall . . .

  Thanks to the boy who bumped me.

  Though frightened, I had stayed alert.

  No thoughtless slumberings did divert

  Me from my task, till I got hurt . . .

  Thanks to the boy who bumped me.

  “For the twentieth time, Constance,” Sticky said, his expansive mood greatly diminished, “I’m sorry. Did you have to write a poem about it?”

  “I know you’re sorry,” Constance said, speaking up to be heard over Reynie and Kate’s tittering. “Now please hold your comments until I’m finished. There are three more verses.”

  The remaining verses would have to wait, however, for just then Number Two knocked on the door. “Sorry to interrupt whatever you’re plotting,” she said when they let her in, “but Moocho wanted me to tell you the pies are almost ready. Mr. Benedict has cleared the officials out of the house, and Captain Noland and Joe Shooter are expected to join us. It should be a cozy gathering.” She reached into the pocket of her yellow pantsuit and took out a measuring tape. “Also, I’ve been wanting to measure you. Stand up, please.”

  With resigned expressions, the children stood. They were all happy to see how Number Two had recovered — she was almost her old self again — but they also knew she was determined to “make them something special” as a token of her gratitude for risking their lives on her behalf. Kate had seen her drawing up patterns that morning, and the four of them had been avoiding Number Two ever since. They were trapped now, though, and one by one they submitted to being measured, with only Constance raising any complaint.

  “You’ve all grown so much!” said Number Two, jotting the figures down on a scrap of paper. “I suppose that’s to be expected. At some point your bodies have to catch up with your hearts.”

  The children rolled their eyes. Number Two had been given to such mushy pronouncements ever since she’d returned to her senses. (At first Kate had argued that these were actually a sign she was still delirious, but Number Two had scolded her into submission, then hugged her and kissed her until Kate fled.) Reynie, for his part, was secretly counting on Constance to annoy Number Two back into being her old, no-nonsense self.

  “There!” Number Two declared. “Now if you’ll finish up whatever mischief you’re engaged in —” Here she interrupted herself, setting down the scrap of paper to dig anxiously in her pockets. She took out a packet of raisins and emptied it into her mouth. “Just a quick snack before pie,” she said, chewing hungrily. “Now do come along soon. Moocho will be disappointed if you don’t get it hot.”

  When Number Two had gone, Constance noticed the scrap of paper with their measurements written on it. “She forgot this.”

  “Lose it,” Reynie whispered.

  The entire house was now suffused with the wonderful sweet smell of cherry pie, and with eager faces and watering mouths the children hurried down to the dining room. There they found Mr. Benedict, Rhonda Kazembe, Number Two, and the Washingtons and Perumals all gathered around the long table, with seats left open for the children and the expected guests (extra chairs had been brought from all over the house). Moocho Brazos was busily setting out plates, pots of coffee and tea, and pitchers of milk. “Five minutes,” he said when the children came in. “Also, Mr. Washington, if you get a chance . . .” He handed Sticky’s father a doorknob. “I’m sorry, these old things with their weak screws —”

  “Never mind,” said Mr. Washington. “I’ll have it back on in a jiffy.”

  Moocho thanked him and went back into the kitchen.

  “Isn’t that the second doorknob of the day?” asked Mrs. Washington.

  “I believe he’s as excited as the rest of us,” said Rhonda, rising to greet the children with warm hugs, just as she’d done a hundred times since their return. “After all those days of worry, every day without it feels like a celebration!”

  Constance waved her arms madly about as if being attacked by bees, but Rhonda managed to hug her regardless.

  “If you think you’re excited now,” said Kate, “wait till you try Moocho’s pie. I’d better go ask Milligan if he wants ice cream with his.”

  Rhonda cleared her throat. “I, um, just checked on him, Kate. He’s still asleep.”

  “Still? Is it real sleep or is he pretending again, do you think?”

  Rhonda exchanged glances with Mr. Benedict, who remained inscrutably silent. A few days before, Milligan had returned from the hospital to rest and heal in Mr. Benedict’s house. He was in a fairly mummified state, all bandages and casts, and was unable to leave his bed, but he could not have had more attentive nurses — or more nurses, period — than his friends and family in the house. What was more, the children were attempting to keep Milligan entertained by talking to him, singing to him, reading to him (Constance recited several poems, including one called “A Slight Misjudgment in the Darkness”), and even performing skits. They’d been doing this ever since his return, more or less without interruption, and Milligan had taken to pretending he was asleep in order to get some peace.

  “I suppose I might have seen him peeking at me a little,” Rhonda admitted. “But you know it’s for —”

  “Oh, good grief,” interrupted Kate, already at the door. “He won’t want to miss Moocho’s pie, will he?”

  Reynie took a chair between Miss Perumal and her mother, both of whom patted him affectionately. They couldn’t have him close enough these days — Miss Perumal looked anxious every time he left the room — and Reynie had been patted so often he worried he might be ground to dust. (“Consider yourself lucky,” Miss Perumal had said the day before, when he’d jokingly complained about it, “that the pats aren’t significantly harder.” And she’d fixed him with such a stern look that Reynie reminded himself not to make such jokes in the future. His return had been greeted with enormous relief and happiness, but like Sticky he’d also found himself in considerable trouble.)

  Across the table, Constance had taken a chair next to Mr. Benedict, and making a
sly grab for the sugar bowl (which Rhonda quickly slid out of reach), she announced that Captain Noland and Cannonball had just arrived. The Washingtons and Perumals looked at her curiously, for it seemed impossible that she could know this, and Miss Perumal’s mother said in a too-loud voice that she must have misheard what Constance said — was it something about lowlands and cannonballs? — but Sticky went straight to the window. He saw an annoyed-looking Mr. Bane scraping falcon droppings from the gate, and Madge perched in the elm tree looking satisfied, but no captain or Cannonball. Drawing a chair to the window (because of his bandaged hands, he had to hug it awkwardly between his arms), Sticky climbed up for a better view.

  “I don’t see them,” he said finally.

  “Oh, they’re already inside,” Constance said. “Mr. Bane let them in. He wasn’t happy about it, either, but I suppose Mr. Benedict told him he must.”

  “I did indeed,” said Mr. Benedict.

  Sticky scowled. “You let me drag this chair over and stare all around even though you knew they weren’t outside? Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Because it was funny to see you do it,” Constance said.

  The Perumals and Mr. Washington were looking more and more confused by all this, but Mrs. Washington was distracted by Sticky’s risk-taking behavior. “Do get down from there before you fall,” she said, pressing a hand to her forehead. “You make me so nervous.”

  Sticky started to argue, thought better of it, and finally sighed and stepped down from the chair just as Captain Noland and Cannonball appeared in the dining room doorway. They were welcomed with a great deal of enthusiasm, which the men gladly returned. Indeed, Cannonball’s natural enthusiasm overpowered everyone else’s, and by the time they were all seated again, Sticky was wearing Cannonball’s cap and Reynie’s hair was frightfully mussed from tousling. Miss Perumal, having heard of the captain’s love of coffee, had already set him a cup of Moocho Brazos’s gourmet brew. Captain Noland expressed his thanks and lost no time in taking a sip. He smiled — it was a very strained smile, Reynie thought — and set the cup carefully back onto its saucer. Still smiling, the captain twitched, swallowed, and politely commented upon the coffee’s excellence. He did not touch his cup again.

  After some moments of friendly, boisterous conversation, Mr. Benedict tapped his teacup with a spoon. “Will you all please turn your attention to Phil? I understand he’s pressed for time, and he has a few things he wants to say before he goes.”

  Captain Noland looked up and down the table. For a man who had just wrecked his ship — and, as a result, his cherished career — he seemed perfectly happy, even exuberant. At the same time, there was a hint of sheepishness in his manner, which was quickly explained when he said, “If you will indulge me, everyone, I have some apologies to make — apologies and explanations. Especially to you, Reynie. I’m afraid once we were aboard the patrol boats there was too much confusion for us to talk. I’m very glad to have the chance now. Ah, and here’s Kate, just in time!”

  Kate had entered the room frowning — she’d failed to wake Milligan up from his “sleep” — but she brightened when she saw Captain Noland and Cannonball. After a hearty exchange of greetings, she took her seat, and the captain resumed his speech.

  He looked at each of the children in turn. “I realize how distressed you all must have been when you reached the bay shore and the Shortcut wasn’t there yet. I want you to know that my delay wasn’t a result of indecision. I simply thought it best to time our arrival exactly. Reynie’s note said to meet you in two hours. I feared that if your pursuers hadn’t found you yet, the Shortcut’s early arrival might tip them off. As you saw for yourselves, there’s no discreet way to ground an ocean vessel. So though I hated to wait, it seemed wise to follow Reynie’s directions precisely. Of course, if we arrived too late, we intended to come ashore and fight for you.”

  “Luckily it didn’t come to that,” said Mr. Benedict.

  “Indeed,” agreed the captain, and here his expression grew quite serious. “I must say, Reynie, how honored I am that you trusted me to come. Deeply honored, and not a little surprised. I imagine you’ve told the others about our exchange in my cabin, the one involving the decoy diamond?”

  “Sorry, I know you told me to keep it between us,” Reynie began, “but under the circumstances —”

  “Never apologize to me,” Captain Noland hastily interrupted. “I’m the one who must apologize. In retrospect, you see, I’ve realized what a lubber’s move it was to give you that decoy and ask you to keep it secret. I must have seemed quite the scoundrel, especially with all that creeping about and closing doors and whatnot.”

  “I did wonder about that,” Reynie admitted.

  “I was nervous to have you in my cabin,” Captain Noland said. “If Mr. Pressius had seen you he would have disapproved of your wasting my time — that is how he would have viewed it, you understand. As for my asking you to keep the decoy secret, well . . . I have an explanation, though hardly an excuse. The truth is I had asked Mr. Pressius for decoys to give to all four of you. I wanted to give you keepsakes as an expression of my admiration and thanks. But Mr. Pressius refused, offering instead to sell them to me for a price — a price so exorbitant I felt I could only afford one. I’m extremely embarrassed to tell you all of this. I was far from my best during that voyage.”

  “It was just a misunderstanding,” said Reynie, not wanting to point out how serious that misunderstanding had been. The captain, he realized now, had never dreamed Reynie might suspect the decoy was an actual diamond. No doubt he’d feel even worse to learn Reynie had thought him capable of swiping a precious gem.

  “Thank you for saying so,” said Captain Noland, “but it’s a misunderstanding for which I take responsibility, and I can only hope you’ll all forgive me.”

  With the exception of Constance — who declared that she would forgive him, since he’d asked so nicely — the children hastened to assure the captain that apologies and forgiveness were hardly necessary. After all, he had sacrificed everything dear to him on their behalf, and what more could be asked of anyone than that?

  “Speaking of which,” said Constance, “shouldn’t you be miserable? There can’t be a company in the world that’ll hire you now that you’ve run a ship aground. How can you seem so cheery?”

  Almost everyone had wondered about this, but it was such a sad and unfortunate situation that no one would have mentioned it. All around the table there was a general wincing at Constance’s comment, as if several people had bitten their tongues at once. Captain Noland only grinned, however, and Cannonball reached down to tousle Constance’s hair.

  “Because he’s got another ship, Constance!” Cannonball boomed. “That’s why he’s so cheery! And he’s got me a post on it, too! In fact we’re to be at the harbor in an hour’s time, and by this very evening we’ll be at sea!”

  Everyone cheered and exclaimed with surprise, and when Captain Noland had been offered congratulations by all, he scratched his beard and said, “It is wondrous news, isn’t it? I still can scarcely believe it. For some reason, Mr. Pressius made a public announcement saying he’d authorized me to ground the Shortcut, that I’d acted with remarkable heroism and expert seamanship in the service of humanity, and that he knew of no greater captain in the world!” Captain Noland laughed and shook his head in amazement. “As you might expect, the offers came pouring in after that. Cannonball and I had our pick of the lot.”

  “But Mr. Pressius didn’t authorize you to ground the ship,” Kate said. “So why on earth did he say all that?”

  “He gave me no explanation,” said Captain Noland, turning to look probingly at Mr. Benedict. “But he did let slip that he’d been in contact with you, Nicholas, and I have a sneaking suspicion I owe you my life once again. You seem determined to keep me in your debt.”

  Mr. Benedict smiled. “Not at all, Phil. I actually did very little, and I risked nothing. There’s been a curious incident, you see, one of which
you’re probably unaware, as it’s been kept quiet for several reasons: Mr. Pressius’s diamonds were stolen.”

  “Stolen!” Cannonball cried, exchanging glances with Captain Noland, who seemed equally stunned. “You mean after all that hoop-de-doo with decoys and extra security, someone actually did steal them?”

  Mr. Benedict raised an eyebrow. “It is my opinion that Mr. Pressius made such a grand show of protecting his diamonds precisely to make their theft seem legitimate. Having taken such pains to protect them, he could hardly be suspected of arranging their theft. I have reason to believe, however, that he did just that. Mr. Pressius stands to receive a fortune in insurance money for those stolen diamonds — much more money, in fact, than they were worth.”

  “You mean he arranged the theft to get the insurance money?” Sticky said.

  “So my source has suggested, and when I communicated this to Mr. Pressius, he was quickly swayed to my perspective that Phil should receive his enthusiastic recommendation. His only condition was that I keep my suspicions to myself. He seemed to be under the impression that I could actually prove them.”

  “But you can’t?” said Kate.

  “I have no proof whatsoever,” said Mr. Benedict. “But I neglected to mention this to Mr. Pressius.”

  Cannonball guffawed. “You snookered him! Bravo, Mr. Benedict! Nobody deserves it more than that bullfrog, I can tell you!”

  Everyone laughed at this except Miss Perumal’s mother, who seemed startled and put a hand to her ear. “What’s this about a bullfrog?”

  Reynie leaned close to her. “I’ll explain later, Pati.”

  “But what about Mr. Pressius?” Constance cried indignantly. “Are you really letting him get away with that scam?”

  “It may be he misunderstood my position on the matter,” said Mr. Benedict with a sly smile. “Still, I’ll need to proceed with caution. There —”