Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Elusive Grasshopper

(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.)

And so, duly foreshadowed, The Elusive Grasshopper returns us to Rye, though not before a massive detour to Paris, and the end of Jon and Penny’s French Exchange visit. Saville retains the structure he used for The Gay Dolphin Adventure, this time holding back the Mortons even longer before bringing them into a story already well in motion.
Saville uses this long lead-time to bring in two guests, the elegantly chic Arlette Duchelle, who is coming to Rye with the Warrenders for the other half of the Exchange, and James Wilson, crime reporter for the Clarion, of whom we will see much more.
We know, from Lone Pine Five, that Jon and Penny are in France to improve their command of the language, though we are little surprised that Jon already knows it fluently, 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, sixteen but, being French, looking twenty, is pretty, always beautifully dressed and speaks good but not perfect English. She’s something of a stereotype, but affectionately so. Saville is 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!
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 continuing 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.
Once in England, and despite Fred Vasson’s refusal to chase cars, the Warrenders discover that Grandon is being met by a large, shapeless woman who, despite her now gingery hair, is immediately recognisable as Miss Ballinger. Thus the telegram we read in Lone Pine Five is despatched.
But it’s a long time before the Mortons appear, and this gives Jon and Penny a long run at making progress. Fortunately for all, Arlette is determined to do as many English things as possible, and to explore a country so different to her own, so the trio wind up crossing Romney Marsh and ending up at Dungeness, and the halt there for the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Miniature Railway.
Incidentally, it struck me here that the Lone Piners are forever biking to different places – how else could they get around? – only to 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 James Wilson, a young, self-confident man in his mid twenties, whom we have met as a guest at the Dolphin. Wilson is full of questions, and has distinguished himself by admiring the chic Arlette and patronising Penny: this really is not a safe thing to do.
It’s not Penny who has brained him, but the birdwatcher. Wilson is nosing about Rye and the Marsh on the trail of modern day smugglers. The Warrenders immediately offer their knowledge and assistance, though unfortunately Wilson only takes Jon seriously, even though Penny spots a crucial piece of 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 Ballinger and Grandon in the background.
Despite Wilson’s appalled reservations about bringing in even more children – and this is before he’s met the Twins – the Lone Piners are called in. It’s still pissing down in Shropshire, and Witchend is being closed. Once again, only the Mortons respond: Peter refuses to further abandon her Dad, Tom’s back to the farm, and Jenny is not a middle-class boarding school girl whose educational year doesn’t start until October. On condition that Arlette is neither abandoned nor browbeaten into ‘adventure’, Mrs Warrender agrees to take responsibility.

So enter the Mortons, who accept Arlette as a kind of auxiliary member immediately. She clearly likes David – it is probably a very good job Peter has stayed behind – but when forces are divided to try to track down Ballinger and Grandon, she goes to Hythe with Penny, David with Jon, and the Twins on their bikes to look at the nearest villages.
The Twins are still very much the Twins. There is nothing so outrageous as their kidnapping of Percy, but they are full of 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. It’s a recipe for the inevitable trouble.
Wilson, meanwhile, has spotted a swimmer coming ashore with what will prove to be watches, 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, presume their invincibility despite 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 sported by Macbeth.
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 miniature train. This detail tickled young me pink: I have still never seen this railway but was already a devotee of its Lake District equivalent, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway.
There’s no earthly reason why the Police might take two teenagers on a raid like this, but it’s painted as 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 fitting that the story should end with them, and though David and Peter are the couple who, rightfully, are the heart of the Lone Pine series, 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’.
There’ll be more to say about this subject in relation to 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 a shame that Saville never brought her back again.
Apparently, at one point, a story was mooted in which Jon and Penny would take the Mortons on a holiday to France, where they would once again team-up with Arlette, but that never got further than the mooting stage. Given that Saville did take the Jillies abroad once in their six book series, albeit without their constant attendants, Guy and Mark Standing, it would have been at least fair to treat the Lone Piners once in twenty. I can just imagine Jenny Harman’s awe…

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