After Not Scarlet But Gold, the fifteenth Lone Pine Club book, Treasure at Amorys came as a terrible disappointment. Despite suggesting that we were to see a similar resolution to the Warrender cousins’ feelings for one another, as a consequence of upheaval and inevitable change, the book then becomes a traditional Lone Pine adventure, involving Treasure, villainy, and the by-now tired threats that the children be sensible and clear out.
And because this is Rye once more, and the Warrenders once more, it has to be the bloody Ballinger again: can we not have someone new?
Actually, things aren’t quite as bad as I’m making them seem, but after committing himself to such a marked advancement in the previous instalment of this series, it is immensely frustrating to see Saville go almost all the way back to the beginning.
There is the by now traditional opening chapter in which we meet the villains. This is set in a quiet South London street, home to a Mrs Emma Cartwright, who will very quickly be revealed to be the latest name for Miss Ballinger, but not before the readers have worked it out for themselves. She’s actually not a prime figure in this story, appearing only once, and without any apparent purpose, after this opening chapter.
‘Mrs Cartwright’ is living in an undistinguished and ill-kept semi-detached after her release from prison. She’s bitter at being caught and punished but, unlike previous occasions, she has no enterprises planned, nor any money stashed away, a fact she makes plain (not that they really believe her) to the real villains, her ‘niece’ Valerie, and Valerie’s fiancé, Les Dale.
Dale’s the primary mover, an intelligent man who isn’t too well acquainted with soap and water and who wears a scruffy ginger beard. He’s an incessant smoker, all these things being Savillisms that identify him as an out-and-out bad sort, and we don’t reckon he and the pretty-but-hard-faced Valerie are that committed to one another (they’re certainly not anticipating the carnal benefits of marriage, with their separate rooms at the Smugglers Rest: they may be crooks, but at least they’re not immoral).
But Dale is convinced there is Roman Treasure in the form of a Mithraic temple to be found on the Isle of Oxney, near Rye in Sussex, and specifically in the grounds of a house called Amorys, which they must buy from its owner, as cheaply as possible, for which they want Ballinger to finance them.
She won’t, and can’t, which infuriates Les, who is, for all his intelligence, as stupid as the next Saville villain, rude, crude, assuming that people will let him have his way just because he demands it.
Ok, if that’s to be the background, sobeit. We can accept that if the principal story is as generous and involving as Not Scarlet But Gold, and once Jon Warrender is brought onstage, we are given the potential catalyst for change, the equivalent to Peter’s hated loss of her home, that will act to make the cousins take that next step. Penny’s due in Rye in an hour, but it will be the last time she comes home here.
Because Penny has left school, and she is to go and live with her parents in India. Jonathan is slowly beginning to realise the gap that will leave in his life: he has a year yet of school, before going to Oxford (what’s so wrong with Cambridge, eh?) for four years. Jonathan is becoming aware that by the time he sees her next, Penny will be nearly twenty, and she will probably be engaged or married. Jonathan doesn’t like that thought, though the word Saville chooses for his reaction is odd: disgraceful.
There hasn’t been a rift between this pair as there was between David and Peter, so when Penny appears, he doesn’t talk to her any differently, berating her for thoughtlessness and stupidity because she was being helped off the train by an elderly gentleman and not hanging out of the window like a kid. Penny’s not a schoolkid any more. She’s wearing her hated school uniform, but she has, merely by leaving, crossed a line, stepped up a level, and when she changes into her sleeveless green linen dress, the one her cousin likes, even he can see that she has changed from a schoolgirl into an elegant young woman.
So far, so good. The Mortons are due the next day, but Mrs Warrender has an idea for them all. She’s suggesting they go off to stay on the Isle of Oxney, where there are suggestions of Roman Treasure to be found. She’s even found somewhere for them to stay: Board Accommodation at a house called Amorys. A-ha!
So Jon and Penny go off to Oxney for the afternoon. They pause for a swim in the Military Canal, where Penny promptly cuts her ankle and comes all over faint, and Jon saves her without even noticing he’s manhandling her in her swimsuit, so she arrives somewhat bedraggled at Amorys, where the owner is not a Mrs Bolshaw, but rather Major Bolshaw.
Now the Major is a sweetie. He speaks in the clipped, sentence-fragment military style that wasn’t so much a cliché when this was written. He’s a widower, who’s lived alone with his wife until she died a year ago, an insular couple who shut the world out, and he’s decided to let out rooms because he feels a need to reconnect, and he needs the money, but this is his home as it was hers and he’s never going to sell.
The man’s an eccentric but, like Jenny Harman with Mr Wilkins in Lone Pine Five, Penny’s sympathies are instantly with him, and she immediately commits the Lone Piners to taking the whole house for a week, just minutes ahead of Dale and his crude, blustery attempts to change Bolshaw’s mind and rent to him, with a view to selling. Dale’s not the kind the Major would take to even if he hadn’t already committed to these amazing children – and Penny’s idea is for them to look after the Major, and help him restore house and gardens.
No, she hasn’t changed that much.
And before the day ends, Penny falls asleep under heavy skies, threatening rain and, like Peter in The Secret of Grey Walls, she dreams. It’s a dream that prophecies, though it prophecies the past, and it fills Penny with terrors, as she dreams of the Romans, the legions, centurions, priests, and the interior of an underground temple: a temple to Mithras, a sun-god, a bull-killer, god of a religion for men only…
So far, still so good. The Mortons agree, and everyone heads to Oxney. But they stop at a pub there, for a break, and it’s where Dale and Valerie (who has belted indoors at the first sight of them) are based, and Dale is as stupidly aggressive and unpleasant as any Saville baddie, getting everyone’s hackles and suspicions up, sparking the Twins into one of their performances.
And the book slides downhill. Instead of the Mithraic Temple being the framework for an emotional coming of age, it becomes the whole of the story. Dale’s after the Treasure. Grandad Charlie Crump of the Smugglers Rest knows where to look, thanks to an old letter from his dead Dad, an apprentice well-sinker who, just before a crippling accident, broke through an underground wall… Threats start to float around. The Lone Piners set themselves to find the Treasure for the Major before anyone else does. Bluster is the order of the day. Valerie keeps in hiding until she goes and dyes her hair so she won’t be recognised. The Major shoots off to London in the middle of the first (badly-interrupted) night there, leaving these near-complete stranger children in charge of defending his home…
In short, it’s a Lone Pine Club adventure, except that after Not Scarlet But Gold, after elevating both Jon and David to the hitherto distant age of seventeen, after taking Penny out of school, and even suggesting that the Twins look eleven (though they’re still ten in the foreword), that’s not good enough.
And of course there’s a kidnapping, even if it’s not the Twins this time but Penny. She’s decoyed away from Amorys by the desperate pleas for help by a dyed-haired woman, claiming her baby’s fallen in the canal. Instead, Penny’s taken to the Smugglers Rest where, after spending the book keeping a very wise distance and not getting involved, the Ballinger has turned up with no explanation.
So Penny is pressured and threatened to try to get her to tell what’s been found, to write a letter summoning everyone to the Smugglers Rest in the most specious manner possible, even to promise to get everyone to clear out in the morning (I mean, these are criminals with no sense of honour but they seem to think that if they can terrorise or beat a girl into promising to go, her sense of honour will bind her to doing exactly that: the horrifying thing, and which really does mark the gulf between then and now, is that if she did promise, even under those conditions, Penny would feel bound to obey, and Saville would regard that as proper).
But Penny remains defiant, even though she’s terrified, and the Ballinger knows it. She’s determined to hold out, because she has faith, ultimate faith in Jon, that he will fetch her away from this. She has reason to be: Jon has been no different to her all along, no less caustic than he always is, but we already know he’d defend his cousin to the death, and with the Mortons at his back, he not only frees Penny, her face bruised from a very hefty slap, but locks in Dale, Valerie and the Ballinger (who seems only to be present to be caught, no reason being given for her decision to travel down from London).
Even though he manages to describe her as the prettiest girl he’s ever likely to meet in his life, Jon just doesn’t seem to understand why he was filled with such a rage at Penny being kidnapped, being threatened. And though she is grateful for her cousin’s loyalty, Penny doesn’t go beyond telling him that, at this moment, she likes him very much.
No, there’s a Mithraic temple, an astonishing historical discovery to be made, and that takes priority. Grandpa Charlie has undergone a Damascene conversion with no apparent motivation, though we don’t find this out until after he burns down the wood to expose the position of the old, unfinished well. From £1,000 off Les Dale to enable him to abandon the Smugglers Rest, his blowsy daughter-in-law and fat pimply grandson, Charlie drops to £500 off the Major and, just as rapidly, nothing but the extra trade this will now bring in to the pub!
And Penny, despite hating her dream, must relive it by descending to the exposed temple, becoming the first woman ever to penetrate the temple of a male religion.
But that’s it, apart from a half apology from Dale, who is allowed to run as long as he and his crew runs now. Penny is still going to India, she is leaving Rye and her Aunt and Jon, with nothing but a still tacit understanding between the pair that may be slightly more marked, but in which nothing has been said. Not even words that are nothing new.
To signal change that will alter the relationships between Jon and Penny and then blot out any development was unexpected and made for a horribly flat book. And the notion that Jon would find an adult Penny, restored to her parents, getting married or even engaged to be ‘disgraceful’ is loaded beyond belief with assumptions that, if unpacked, can only be completely derogatory to the elder Warrender.
Saville would have to make a second attempt at resolving things between this pair, but in the meantime we would return to Shropshire and try to do better by the other Lone Pine pair.