(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)
Though Malcolm Saville had promised his readers that the Lone Pine members would not age, that the years would pass around them, The Neglected Mountain saw the series undergo a structural change that future books could not ignore, though it would be many years yet before he was prepared to take the inevitable next step.
By doing so, The Neglected Mountain became one of the stronger books of the series, and one that, when I came back to it, I remembered more clearly than any other than, possibly, Mystery at Witchend. It’s not just the underlying advancement: in almost every respect this is a most vivid story, and the unusual structure of its opening chapters ensures a higher degree of focus than its relatively short plot requires.
Saville achieves this by starting at the end, the end, that is, of an Easter holiday in Shropshire that everyone has thoroughly enjoyed, despite it being adventure free. Thus the spotlight is immediately on the friendship between the six characters, just as it’s being broken up. Though everyone feels it, it’s hardest upon Jenny Harman, the lonely romantic who misses everyone more than the others because her own life, even with her father home unscathed from the now-receding War, is emptiest.
This mood sees Jenny at her most talkative, about the Stiperstones that hangs over her, the cruel terrain that she admits she calls the Neglected Mountain. David’s inclined to be slightly patronising, in consequence of his unimaginative denial of any psychic atmospherics, but Peter, who shares Jenny’s fears, defends her friend staunchly.
And Saville is ready to underline the purpose of the book by introducing Trudie Whittaker, pretty vet’s daughter from Bishop’s Castle, who has this very night agreed to marry Charles Sterling. So, when a spluttering plane awakens Peter in the night, it’s hardly surprising that David is similarly awake, in a crazy mood, and inviting her to sneak out with him, following the plane up the the Devil’s Chair.
Peter assumes Tom would be a better companion for David, though she doesn’t refuse him, and she fails to interpret his lack of a reason for choosing her for what it is: David is beginning to appreciate being alone with Peter, and he is beginning to recognise her qualities, both internal and external. This is the first book in the series to tell us that, one day soon, people will look at Peter and see she is a very beautiful young woman, and it’s significant that this realisation comes from David himself.
This moonlight expedition ends abruptly when the pair see the fire of the crashed plane on the Long Mynd, which sends them hastening back to get it reported to the Police. Then camp breaks up, everyone separates until Summer (David and Peter’s affinity is further established when they both say, “Twelve weeks,” at the same time) and Peter canters home to the shock of a perfect stranger, complete with lack of memory, sat in Hatchholt, saying that for all he knows, he could be Peter’s father.
Saville then, very cleverly, both focuses on and distances the event by having Peter relate it in an episodic letter to David that never gets an adequate reply, but which begins with a personal section that, without being in any way romantic, illustrates how Peter confides thoughts and feelings in her ‘special friend’.
And so we get to Summer, and Witchend, and nothing in particular to do with the non-adventure difficult to impress on the rest of the Club, and Peter obscurely annoyed with David for not taking the letter seriously, and for losing the newspaper cuttings she sent him as part of the mystery. Never does she bring these up without reminding David he has lost them.
But they are to spend more time together very soon. The Club plans to travel to Bishop’s Castle for the Fair, meet Trudie, search for the Gypsies and ‘race’ against each other in pairs along specially designed courses set by Mr Morton. The Twins, determined to win, assume the boys will go together as will the girls, and don’t see the rather nervous glance Peter and Jenny give each other at the thought!
That’s not the plan though. The Twins set off last, by bus to Ludlow, and a brief encounter with Mr Cantor, whose cover they promptly blow. Before them, Tom and Jenny bike to Clun and visit Alan Denton at Bury Fields, and David and Peter – the latter in the frock her father has just bought her, as opposed to her usual blue shirt and jodhpurs – first of all, on foot across the Mynd and the Stiperstones. A day out for a couple who are increasingly starting to act like boyfriend and girlfriend without actually acting like that kind of pair!
It’s gentle and light-hearted, and enjoyable to see the boy/girl pairings given a little room, and Saville certainly seems in no hurry to get to the adventure, but just as in the various journeys to Clun in The Secret of Grey Walls, each pairing has experiences that fold together to uncover the coming action.
The Twins encounter a wild-haired young man who takes an inordinate interest in Macbeth, Tom and Jenny find Alan Denton’s sheepdog, Lady, who is blind, temporarily, and meet Reuben and Miranda and learn that someone has tried to by Fenella’s nondescript puppy for ten shillings (50p, but a much larger sum of money then), whilst Dave and Peter meet a young Barton Beach boy whose puppy had disappeared and is locked into a small, rundown cottage at the foot of Greystone Dingle. It takes Charles Sterling to put into words what only David, so far, has seen: each story involves dogs.
And Mr Whittaker, the vet, confirms there is a spate of dogs going either blind or deaf for short periods, but recovering unharmed.
Since being kind to animals is part of the Lone Pine Club’s oath, everybody is determined to get to the bottom of this. There’s an early success as Tom and Jenny, delivering a telegram to Mr Robens of Greystone Cottage, free young Johnny’s puppy. The telegram summons Robens into Shrewsbury to the Doctor, and that’s where the Club is bound, to try to contact Cantor (whose real name is revealed to be Green, though Saville will forget this detail before Cantor next appears).
Paths cross, and the Lone Piners manage to identify Robens and the Doctor as the pair Peter met at the end of the Easter holiday, and Saville gives us a scene featuring the two baddies to establish who they are and what they’re about: Robens is a highly-strung young scientist under the thumb of the ‘Doctor’, aka William Harris, a professional criminal coercing Robens into creating a solution that will put guard dogs to sleep without hurting them.
It’s the first scene in the series that is not viewed through the presence of one or other of the Lone Piners, but from here on it will become a standard practice, and not always as a short cut to identifying the villains and their scheme to us.
But despite all this, there’s a cunningly maintained air of frustration to this day. The Lone Piners are dependent upon Charles Sterling, who has by now completely lost his American tone of voice, and his preoccupation prevents the Club from making any kind of progress, because he just can’t take their concerns seriously.
Then everyone returns to Seven Gates to discover that Macbeth has gone missing, and we the readers know that Robens has him. And we also know that he has discovered the old mines, the underground lake and has established a makeshift laboratory under the mountain.
This enables Saville to bring everything together, building into a heart-stopping climax more forceful than anything before because this time there will be genuine danger, and there will be serious injury.
This part of the book will be driven by Peter, disgusted at how the Club let itself be squashed by Charles, and organising two search parties to find Macbeth. For once, and to everybody’s benefit, the Twins are separated, as David will not allow them to go on their own after two plainly dangerous men (a moment of genuine sense that, sadly, does not make the least impression on the pair). So Mary accompanies him and Peter, up Black Dingle, across the top and down into Greystone, whilst Dickie goes with Tom and Jenny to stake out the cottage.
And we go with the first trio, in search of a little black dog who could be anywhere if he isn’t already dead. Saville paints a vivid picture of Mary’s misery, cutting through the often-pantomime reactions of the Twins when it comes to their dog, and David muses, not for the first time, on the qualities of Peter, until she begins to blush at his stare.
But at the former HQ4, they find evidence of Robens’ presence. They go inside, until they find his lab, beyond the underground lake. Then they hear him coming.
Peter leads the way, scrambling up a bank of rough stone at the back of the cave, hoping not to be noticed. She’s still in her frock, an oddly feminine detail that comes out in Bertram Prance’s illustration. But she’d led them into danger. The stones are shifting, starting to slide. Mary, at the front, slips and is held by David. Peter, at the back, is also holding him. But the rocks are sliding behind her as in front, into a hitherto undiscovered cave. What lies there, how deep it is, what state it’s in is unknown, but Peter realises that David cannot hold them both, though he will strain every muscle to do so, and Peter sees his first duty as being to his sister, the little girl. With a whisper to hold onto Mary, she lets go and falls.
Saville cuts quickly to her waking up, with only a few, almost vague words as to what has gone on between, and those relating only to David’s thoughts, which are filled with Peter and the unexpressed fear that she may be dead. She comes to in pain – she has struck her head, causing a concussion, and broken her ankle – but with David already beside her, supporting her, talking to her, pleading that she say something, that nothing matters unless she’s alright.
They may only be 16 years old, in an era when for most children 16 was still a part of childhood, a long way from love, romance and relationships. They haven’t the words for it themselves, not now or for a long time yet, but this is the moment at which indecision is taken out of David Morton and Petronella Sterling’s hands. Their conversation throughout the book has overflowed with nuance, undercurrent and things they are not yet ready to say even to themselves, but this moment when their relationship was nearly severed forever is a crossing for which there is no going back, nor any will to go back.
After that, everything else is unimportant, and indeed Saville treats the mopping up as perfunctorily as it requires. Robens comes round to the side of the angels, shops the Doctor to Cantor, burns his notes and helps organise the rescue party to get Peter to hospital. All of this is told in retrospect, at the inevitable party, as Peter, leg in plaster, comes back from hospital. Details are shared: David tells Mr Sterling what Peter never would, of her sacrifice for him and Mary. Everyone fusses around the girl who wants nothing more than to not be made a fuss of, to forget the horrible experience – but not all of it.
And Saville concludes the book with the more sensitive Mary, the only witness to the things David said in the dark, underlining what he has done: when Dickie muses at how strange it is that so many people have been wound in together, and that it feels like Peter belongs to ‘us’, she assures him that, oh yes, Peter will always belong to them, and gently mocks him for his lack of perception.
That lack of perception may well have applied to some of the audience, still fixed upon the Lone Pine books as exciting children’s adventures, throwing boys and girls not too dissimilar to them in age into bringing down crooks. But The Neglected Mountain, in the guise of that format, has successfully and memorably told a love story, and a story about sacrifice made in the name of that love, without ever once using the word for anything but the relationship between a little girl and her dog.
By doing so, he reset the series at a higher level. The Lone Piners continued not to age, except in the flux that seemed to continually rearrange the months between them, and the years continued to roll past them, as the next book will amply demonstrate. But David and Peter were now a couple, over and above their Captaincy, and no book with them both in could or did avoid that recognition.