With the possible exception of Mystery at Witchend, the seventh Lone Pine book, The Neglected Mountain was clearer in my memories than the rest of the series. There are many reasons for this: the unusual opening, starting at the end of an unexceptional holiday, a disruption that would echo with any ordinary child, Peter’s long letter, Mr Morton’s challenge and trying to fit together the multiple maps of the Lone Piners’ different journeys.
But most of all, I remember The Neglected Mountain for its dramatic ending, an ending that, for once, involved genuine risk, real injury, and the confirmation in terms suitable for the pre-teen that I was when first I read this yet completely unmistakable, of the real and abiding feelings between David Morton and Petronella Sterling.
This, more than anything, is what distinguishes the Lone Pine series from its contemporaries: that Saville was not afraid, from a very early stage, and despite his willingness to comply with his readers’ wishes that the children never grow up, to depict bonds and loyalties that grew and deepened to an audience that hovered between being completely ignorant of such things and highly embarrassed by the merest suggestion of them.
As we might suspect from the title, the scene has shifted back to Shropshire, and once again to the lonely, brooding, ancient and legend-wrapped Stiperstones. It’s the Shropshire sextet once more, with the Warrenders safely away south.
Though it’s in no way overt, Saville makes romance the theme from the beginning. It’s the last day of the Easter holidays, and the gang are at HQ2 at Seven Gates, where things are a-stir. Charles Sterling has brought back Trudie, the vet’s daughter from Bishop’s Castle, and she’s accepted his proposal.
The romance thrills the girls, and Trudie is eager to get to know her soon-to-be cousin, Peter (she will end up asking Peter to be a bridesmaid). The news seems to have something of an unsettling effect on the two oldest Lone Piners, as only David and Peter are woken in the night by the sound of a plane in trouble.
David claims to be in a crazy mood, and wants Peter to sneak out with him, to go up Black Dingle in the moonlight and reach the Devil’s Chair. He finds the superstitions surrounding the Stiperstones, which Jenny has imaginatively named the neglected mountain, to be risible, but though Peter feels them as strongly as ever, she accompanies him. He has asked her, rather than Tom, ostensibly because Tom would have asked questions, but we know that David is starting to enjoy having just Peter’s company.
They climb the mountain. The sound of the plane has cut out long before and, from the Devil’s Chair, they can see fire on the top of the Long Mynd. Racing back, they rouse Charles, to phone the Police, so that whatever aid is needed can be delivered. It’s the adventure, come far too late for them to enjoy, or even explore it.
Or so Peter thinks, until she returns home to find Hatchholt deserted and a wild-looking stranger sat at the table, a man who has completely lost his memory and who, for all he knows, could be Peter’s father…
It’s an unusual technique to begin the novel, and Saville cleverly distances everything by switching, in the next chapter, to Peter’s long letter to David, telling him what happened. The stranger was, of course, from the crashed plane, as was the older man, apparently a Doctor, who has been found by Mr Sterling, who seems eager that his highly-strung bearded young friend not speak to anyone. And both seem impressed by the remoteness of the Shropshire hills…
But of course it all peters out (apologies). From school, no-one can do anything. Saville touches upon those school weeks, awaiting summer: David’s obsession with cricket, Dickie’s hatred of his Dorset school, Mary’s much happier time at hers, Tom on the farm and lonely Jenny, with no friends until the Club convenes again at Witchend, by which time she has been invited to Ingles, and is helping Tom around the farm. Hmm. By then, Peter can’t convey to her friends the disturbance she felt.
There’s no adventure in sight, and everyone’s trying to think what they can do. The Twins want to go to Seven Gates, but Jenny objects, that not being a holiday for her. Tom’s due back for harvest inside a week, and Jenny will loyally accompany him when that happens. In the end, everyone decides to travel to Bishops’s Castle, for the Fair, to try to meet Reuben and Miranda again, but in any event to see Trudie, and Mr Morton devises three routes for them to travel in pairs, to increase the fun.
There’s a brilliant line as the Twins assume that the girls and the boys will pair up along gender lines, and Saville comments that Peter and Jenny look at each other uneasily! It’s in the air: of course they are going in boy/girl pairs. Nobody wants anything differently.
It’s all very gentle and easy-paced, and Saville seems to be in no hurry to get to any adventure, and then, as we follow the Twins – who start off last but arrive first, mainly because they get to use the bus – the first sign sneaks in.
They’ve been to Ludlow for lunch (pre-paid by Mr Morton). They’ve met Mr Cantor in the cafe, back in his elderly man persona and therefore clearly undercover (a cover they proceed to blow instantly). And when they get to the vets, who should be there, having his sheepdog, Lady, looked at, but Alan Denton of Bury Fields, near Clun.
But en route, walking towards Bishop’s Castle, the twins are passed by a car driven by a youngish man, with unruly hair, who offers them a lift, but who displays an interest in Macbeth that Mary doesn’t like, especially as Macbeth seems to take to the young man. Mary frantically attacks the young man, for no seeming good reason, and he drives off. She comments about the strange smell on his jacket. And then she recognises that smell on Lady.
Tom and Jenny’s journey to Bishop’s Castle is by bicycle, and by Clun. There’s a noticeable discrepancy with The Secret of Grey Walls, where the cycle ride to Clun from Witchend took the whole day but Tom and Jenny are expected to reach Clun today in just under three hours, and not leave Clun for Bishop’s Castle until 5.00pm. I know that this journey is taking place in summer, not winter, but the difference is acute. Saville’s reputation for careful research of his scenes does not appear to be justified here.
Having so much time to kill in Clun, our boy and girl decide to visit Bury Fields and the Dentons. It is they who discover Lady, and find that she is blind, hence Alan Denton’s rush to the vet’s without them.
However, Tom and Jenny do overtake Reuben and Miranda en route. Fenella now has a bit of a puppy, and a strange man has already tried to buy it for ten shillings (the equivalent of 50p, nowadays, but to a child in the early Fifties, a fairly rich sum).
Meanwhile, David and Peter (aww) have been sent off on foot, to cross the Mynd and the Stiperstones, via lunch at the Hope Anchor. Unusually, Peter is wearing a frock, practically the first time we have seen her out of her usual jersey and jodhpurs combo. We already have David’s word for the fact that, one day very soon, someone is going to describe Peter as a very beautiful girl: lucky him.
The Stiperstones, and the superstitions Peter feels and which David cannot understand, make her quarrelsome, but otherwise the Captain and Vice-Captain enjoy their time together. They descend Greystone Dingle, after a brief visit to the cave, and in the woods at the foot of the valley, they meet a crying boy, a Barton Beach eight year old who has lost his puppy, and believes it to be being kept inside a small, locked stone hut.
The Lone Piners have to keep Johnny from smashing the windows, and when they take him back to the village, promising to help the next day, they bump into Charles, who is on his way to Bishop’s castle and Trudie and drives them the rest of their journey.
And it is Charles who points out that the thing each of their separate journeys has in common is dogs.
What this is about is that a career criminal named William Harris – the ‘Doctor’ of Peter’s long letter – intends to develop a formula that will knock out guard dogs, without otherwise harming them. Due to a mysterious hold that Saville never explains, he has the highly strung, excitable, intelligent but weak John Robens under his thumb, to create this spray. They are working in isolated country so as not to be observed, but Robens is finding it difficult to get enough dogs to experiment on.
Saville cleverly sets up a degree of tension the next day as the Lone Piners buzz about without making any real progress, thanks to the influence of adults with other priorities. Things start well: Tom and Jenny go down to the Barton Post Office to see if Mr Harman has any details of the resident in the hut, and wind up delivering a telegram to Robens, summoning him into Shrewsbury to see the ‘Doctor’. Their presence enables Johnny to free his dog, who later goes deaf temporarily.
Robens sets off to Shrewsbury, and is accidentally followed by the Lone Piners in Charles’ Land Rover. But Charles has business on his mind, and is not prepared to be deflected by the Lone Piners’ investigations, though they do manage to stalk their quarry enough for Peter to recognise the Doctor from Easter at Hatchholt. But they return from Shrewsbury, not even having reported their suspicions to the Police thanks to Charles, to discover Macbeth is missing.
And we the reader know that Robens has Macbeth and that, determined to get away from the Doctor’s pressure, he has gone to a new lair, underneath the neglected mountain, beyond the underground pool we know from Lone Pine Five. Incidentally, the line about how the Lone Piners once called this HQ4 is indeed cut from the revised edition.
All which makes Peter, when she wakes at 6.00am, the more determined that the club should rely upon itself and dedicate all its resources to finding Mackie, without waiting for the grown-ups. Given the danger Robens poses, David refuses to allow the twins to go off alone and, for once, they are separated. Dickie will go with Tom and Jenny, round the mountain and up Greystone Dingle, Mary with Peter and him, up Black Dingle and round to Greystone past the Devils’ Chair.
It’s a desperate situation and it’s heading for one of Saville’s finest climaxes. David, Peter and Mary check inside the cave, and find evidence that someone else has been there. The underground pool is nearly dry, and they pass beyond it into the further cave where Robens has set up his alternate laboratory. Macbeth is found unharmed, but Robens is heard returning.
Peter retreats up a rocky slope at the back of the cave, with David and Mary following. The trio try to keep silent and unseen, but the slope is unstable, the stones are sliding back into the pit. David is caught in the middle, holding on to Mary to stop her sliding down, but behind him the stones are falling away into a second, unseen pit. Peter is sliding that way, but holding onto David. But she is clear-minded enough to realise that he cannot hold both, that she has led them into this danger, and that his prior duty is to his little sister. Telling him to look after Mary, she lets go, and falls backwards into the dark.
Saville is typically spare in his description. David’s emotion on seeing Peter crumpled and unconscious in the dark is set out in brief, the enormity conveyed by his instant and little concealed fear, and the statement that he had never felt older. His desperation persuades Robens to go for help, and leads the scientist to a breach with the Doctor in his determination to do the right thing. The rest of the Lone Piners, with Charles, assist in getting Peter out and to hospital, from which she returns, after three days, with a broken ankle, and a case of shock.
But what has happened has cemented the relationship between the two senior Club members. Nothing matters to them but the feelings they all but admit to one another in the dark, as David protects Peter and Peter surrenders to the knowledge that with David she will always be safe, come what may. Not a romantic word is spoken, nor is there so much as a caress that is not directed to Peter’s comfort, but even the pre-teen me could clearly tell what all this signified, and the intrusion of such a relationship was not embarrassing or rejected.
And Saville caps this gloriously in the final lines of the book, as the Twins comment upon Peter’s popularity with everyone, and Dickie muses that he thinks of her as part of their family. To which Mary, for once not understood by her Twin, who was there is the dark when David was in the pit with Peter, comments that she will certainly always be part of their family.
But this was still a series of adventure stories for children, and it would be another seven books before there would be an advancement on that development. For the moment, Saville had delivered an ending more meaningful than those threats of fire or water he had previously organised: this time the danger was personal, and one of our favourite characters displayed courage under fire, and got seriously hurt as a consequence. The Neglected Mountain struck hard, and we all felt it.