The sixth Lone Pine Club book, The Elusive Grasshopper, has already been foreshadowed at the end of its predecessor, with Jon and Penny Warrender’s telegram warning of another sighting of ‘the Ballinger’. And so it comes to pass, as Saville returns us to Rye, and our favourite pair of cousins, though not without a substantial initial diversion…
Though we start the story in Paris, of all places, and there are two prominent new guest characters deeply involved in matters before the Mortons make their entry, once again in the middle of the book, we are once again in Sussex. This time, Saville’s focus is upon the expanse of Romney Marsh, lying to the east of Rye, and stretching to Dymchurch and the lighthouse on its long tongue of shingle at Dungeness. And if the story is once more caught up with smugglers, this time it’s the Twentieth Century version, and not the men of Eighteenth Century Sussex with whom the Warrenders are concerned.
We already know, if we have read Lone Pine Five, that Jon and Penny are in France, improving their command of the language, although we are hardly surprised to discover that Jon knows it fluently already, and Penny hasn’t progressed one whit in the three weeks that they have been staying with Monsieur and Madame Duchelle – themselves no English speakers – and their daughter Arlette.
Arlette, who is sixteen but, being French, is pretty, chic, always beautifully dressed and looks twenty, speaks good but not perfect English, and after this three weeks that her family has entertained the Warrenders, the next day she is coming to England with them, as a guest of Jon’s mother, staying for two weeks at the Gay Dolphin.
Arlette is something of a stereotype French girl, but affectionately so. Saville is being clever here in not giving any details of the past three weeks, because you just know that Penny has run the gamut when it comes to this pretty, mature, effortless young woman who can carry out long conversations with Jon that Penny can’t follow, let alone join in. It tells us more about Arlette than words can do that Penny’s only jealousy is the momentary one of Arlette intruding on the life in Rye that the redhead misses so much, but being Penny, she relents a moment later, and is enthusiastic and welcoming of their young hostess.
Who will repay her by being almost as enthusiastic about a Lone Pine adventure as Penny herself!
Before we get to the story, I’d like to point out that, just as Jenny Harman infused the previous story, Penny is all over The Elusive Grasshopper, with her enthusiasm and energy, her refusal to be condescended to or put down without spitting back, her rushing into assumptions and her surprising maturity and fairness, especially in the face of the occasional casual behaviour from her cousin, who is no nearer to understanding her than ever.
Or perhaps he’s beginning to learn: we start with the Warrenders alone in Paris, on l’Avenue de l’Opera, enjoying a drink outside a cafe and talking of Rye. Jon has bought Penny a present: a necklace of green beads. They’re cheap and ordinary, but they match the green sleeveless dress she is wearing, determinedly holding up the honour of English girlhood, and for Penny they’re a significant gift: the first time Jon has treated her as a girl as opposed to a cousin. It’s a bigger step than he realises, but it’s one the intuitive Penny recognises.
The moment is also significant for another reason: Penny’s chatter about Rye causes a man sat behind her to start and turn round. Jon recognises him: he is almost certain that it is ‘Slinky’ Grandon.
And Grandon, coincidentally enough, is on the train with them from London to Hastings, with Arlette proving her value to us forever by following him when Penny begs, without question or hesitation.
Then, at Hastings, Grandon gets into a car with someone and, although the Dolphin’s legendarily phlegmatic porter, Fred Vasson, refuses to disobey orders and follow that car, the Warrenders do get close enough to recognise that he is sharing the car with a woman who, despite now sporting decidedly gingery hair, is definitely the former Miss Ballinger.
Hence the telegram we have already read is dispatched in chapter 2.
Until reinforcements arrive, or the necessity for them can be confirmed, Jon and Penny have to entertain Arlette, whose curiosity about a country that is so different to her own leaves her open to suggestions that they cycle across the Marsh, eventually ending up at Dungeness, and the little railway halt there.
It’s noticeable, incidentally, that the Lone Piners are forever biking to different places (how else should they be able to get around?) whereupon they promptly complain about cycling, and abandon their bikes to come home by another form of transport, the bikes to be collected the next day (when and by whom is never detailed: I envision a fleet of bike-retrievers following them around…)
Whilst Jon is fussing over the miniature engine, he’s approached by an elderly birdwatcher, seeking directions to the nearby bird sanctuary. When the birdwatcher returns, his binoculars case is unusually heavy and he unusually protective of it, though the binoculars are round his neck, and as he hasn’t gone off on the direction of the sanctuary at all, the suspicious Jon leads the girls to the nearby, bombed out schoolhouse, where Arlette finds an unconscious man on the floor…
This is the other guest in this book, and he will recur throughout the Lone Pine series. He is James Wilson, a guest at the Dolphin, a young, self-confident man in his early twenties, who has so far distinguished himself by admiring the chic Arlette and patronising Penny: this really is not a safe thing to do.
It is not, however, Penny who has brained him, but rather the birdwatcher, presumably. Because Wilson is a reporter with a major London newspaper, and he’s nosing around Romney Marsh for a story about smugglers, which is why Jon and Penny immediately offer knowledge, and experience. Unfortunately, Wilson only takes Jon seriously, even though it is Penny who spots the crucial evidence: Arlette has her photo taken by the engine for her parents, but the photographer has sample photos up, and in one of them Penny spots the Ballinger walking in the background.
Nothing for it them but to call for the Lone Piners. Once again, this is only the Mortons, albeit without their parents. It’s still pissing it down in Shropshire and the Morton parents have closed Witchend and gone home. Peter has refused to abandon her Dad again, Tom’s back working on the farm and Jenny, not being a middle-class girl whose boarding school does not resume until October, is back to her educational grindstone.
Mrs Warrender agrees to take the Morton children and be responsible to them, but she is determined that their presence should not lead to Arlette being neglected, or her being dragged into nothing but adventure.
So enter the Lone Piners, who adopt Arlette as a kind of auxiliary member from the outset. She clearly likes David (it is probably a very good job Peter has stayed behind), but when it comes to dividing forces to try to track down Ballinger and Grandon and where they are, she goes with Penny, David with Jon and the Twins on their bikes to look at the nearest village.
The Twins are still very much the Twins. There is nothing so outrageous as their kidnapping of Percy, but they persist in their belief that they are the be-all and end-all of the Club, that only their ideas count, and that the seniors are deliberately excluding them. Needless to say, they find the villains.
Wilson, meanwhile, has spotted a frogman swimming ashore with what will eventually prove to be watches, being smuggled into the country to avoid Purchase Tax. Unfortunately, he has also been seen and is ambushed and knocked out, requiring Jon and David to rescue him. And just as Wilson is proposing to take what he’s got to the Police, the Police approach him.
Once again, the adults are moving in, but the Twins are still out there on the loose and, needless to say, it is they who get the lead on Ballinger, thanks to the mistreatment of a maid who has run away after being beaten. Between Judith, who describes two very familiar women, and an elderly lady leaving her only home, the Twins are able to track Ballinger and her ‘niece’ Valerie to a house-cum-shop called the ‘Grasshopper’. There, Ballinger is conducting a successful and legitimate business in buying up good quality second hand furniture for sale to Americans, and running her smuggling racket behind the scenes.
Needless to say, and with a stupidity that it’s hard not to condemn, the Twins ignore the fact that they are only ten years old, not to mention past experience, and go in and get themselves captured: you’d think David would have leashes made for them, perhaps in tartan to match the one Macbeth sports.
Once the Police are in on this, there really isn’t any place left for the children, but that is the one taboo in a Lone Pine book. David, with Wilson and Arlette, tracks the Twins to the Grasshopper and rescues them, whilst Jon and Penny, whose adventure this is supposed to be, get left behind unjustifiably. And Penny is busy letting Jon know what she thinks of him for allowing this when the cousins are summoned to the Police. And why? The Warrenders are to be taken on the Police raid to bring in the smuggling gang.
This is one of those points where the adult me parts decisively from the youngster who was thrilled at the adventure and sees it as only what’s due. In the child’s vision of what is right and proper, Saville is acting correctly. Jon and Penny are taken by motorboat along the coast to Dungeness, whilst the main body of coppers arrive in an unmarked, unlit Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway little train (a detail to tickle young me pink: I have still never seen this miniature railway but was already a devotee of the Ravenglass & Eskdale version in the Lake District).
There’s no way the Police should be taking two teenagers on a raid like this, but it’s a treat and thank you for putting them onto busting a lucrative smuggling ring. This time, Ballinger, Grandon and Valerie are taken into custody, with the Warrenders as witnesses, and we see that Jon and Penny both are too sensitive to gloat: indeed, neither can take pleasure from the ruination of their enemies.
It’s completely fitting that the story should end with them, as indeed it began, and though David and Peter are the couple who, rightfully, are the heart of the Lone Pine books, Saville is generous with his belief in commitment between people who care for each other. There is a brief moment during the raid when Jon, leaping out of the motorboat to help drag it up the shingle, is pulled back by the undertow, and Penny screams. At the very end, Jon asks her why she screamed and Penny, fingering the beads he gave her, takes a long time to answer before claiming it’s a stupid question: ‘a wave must have splashed over my boots’.
I’ll have more to say on this subject in the context of the next book, and Saville cleverly leaves the subject hanging, cutting for the last lines to David asking Arlette how she likes England after these nasty event, and the French girl replying that she likes it ‘ver’ ver’ much.’ A stereotype to the end, Arlette, but a nice one, and decidedly unFrench in her easy adaptation to the Lone Pine way of spending holidays, and it is sad that Saville never brought her back again. James Wilson was another matter.
Incidentally, although my copy of this book is another Armada paperback, it is an older edition, prior to the 1969 revision, and thus retaining the full text of the story. It still only occupied 158 pages in this edition, which suggests there was little need to cut it down to the publishers’ standard length four years later.