It begins here. Everything begins here, in a nameless, narrow hollow, high on the flank of a Shropshire hill, with an excited little boy floundering into a bog and getting stuck. His big brother will rescue him, will work out how to set things straight, as soon as he comes out of his initial shock, but before he can recover his wits, he’s interrupted by a rescuer: a clear, cheerful voice sounds from above and a girl on a sure-footed hill pony picks her way down towards the three strangers, and organises the boy’s escape from the cloying bog.
David John Morton meets Peter (Petronella) Sterling and lives change, above all theirs. The Lone Pine Club will be born, a circle of lifelong friends will come together, crooks galore will be foiled and hidden treasures produced from previously mysterious hiding places. Out of sheer chance.
I’m not the first Malcolm Saville fan, and as long as his books are read I won’t be the last, to see the series as an extended romance between David and Peter. Jim MacKenzie has already written a splendid analysis, which I hope won’t too overtly influence this piece.
But as a writer interested in the process of writing, and in series fiction in which characters develop over several books, the relationship between David and Peter, and the influence their meeting has on other people, fascinates me, and how Saville develops the same over thirty-five years, against an ever-changing background, is worth examining in some detail.
Mystery at Witchend
Though in later years, Saville had to blur the circumstances of the Lone Pine Club’s founding, in Mystery at Witchend, the book itself can’t be divorced from when it was written and its Second World War background. David Morton is the first person we meet. His age isn’t established here, but we can judge him as being on the cusp of 14/15. He’s a sturdy, steady boy, almost completely serious, but then how could he be otherwise, given the circumstances? The country is at War, his father is away in the RAF, he’s being evacuated from his Hertfordshire home to a completely strange place in the country, and his father has placed on him the burden of being the ‘man’ of the family in his absence. David has the responsibility to take care of his mother and his younger siblings.
The context here is very important. A great many fathers were going away to war and every child lived with the knowledge that they might not return. Mr Morton would be safe, but not everybody had that fortune: Tom Ingles would lose all his family, Jon Warrender’s father would not come back from Normandy. Sons everywhere, no matter how young they were, dreaming of earning their father’s respect and pride, were being asked to see themselves as responsible long before they would be capable of it. David Morton not only has to look after the Twins, but, even though his mother is in real charge, has to see himself as responsible for as well as to her.
Who is David Morton before he meets Peter? With the exception, much later in the series, of his school friend Paul Channing, we never meet nor hear mention of any friends outside the Lone Pine circle. David goes to Boarding School, an all boys school. We don’t know if he ever has any local friends in Hertfordshire. We have to assume that the only girl David knows is his younger sister, Mary. Peter is the equivalent of a seismic quake in his life.
Who is Peter Sterling before she meets David? Peter is simultaneously a simpler and more complex person than David. Saville presents her as completely natural, self-confident without being arrogant, energetic and independent. She overwhelms the Mortons in her eagerness for friends, but her enthusiasm for them is so great that she wins round the Twins literally within minutes of crossing them with her insensitive response to Dickie’s embarrassment. No-one else gets round them that quickly.
But Peter is who she is because she has grown up without a mother, with an elderly but devoted father who has taught her to be what she is, and she is independent because she has never known any other way to be. It makes for some awkwardnesses with the Mortons, because Peter has simply not had to deal with other people’s wants and opinions, but she is a very rapid learner. And Mrs Morton brings her into the family within minutes of their first meeting.
Like David, we’re not given any clear indication of Peter’s age at first, just that she’s about the same age: she will settle into being six months younger than him. Like the Mortons, she goes to Boarding School, in Shrewsbury, an all girls school. Off her own ground, Peter has not made any real friends.
So what makes the meeting with the Mortons so special? Peter admits that life in the holidays is a bit dull because there is no-one about. Looking between the lines I think it’s significant that Peter is on her own ground. Given her background, I think that only here can she feel confident enough in herself to let others in.
And she, like David, has no apparent experience of boys her age. They are each other’s first friend of the opposite gender.
In the future, both will go back as far as this meeting for the root of their love. On the page, it’s just children meeting for the first time. Peter and David are of an age, the Twins are younger, but at first she draws no distinction between any of the Mortons and, if anything, favours Mary. The first thing that might be identified as a personal spark is when she and David share the sight of the Twins both asleep after lunch, in the first of Peter’s hidden hollows.
Peter has no particular thoughts about David, except that he’s ‘nice but a bit slow’, until, that is, he comes to lunch and to swim in the reservoir with her. David pays a bit too much attention to Mr Sterling’s explanation of the mechanisms, to which Peter reacts angrily, and with hurt. At first, David’s angry back, but then he controls his temper and, with a sensitivity unusual in a boy his age, wins her over by acting as if nothing’s wrong and as if the swimming is the only thing. And he challenges her to a race and loses.
Nowadays, we’d be likely to see that as condescending, but Peter recognises it as an apology, and is impressed by how decent David is to her. That’s the point from which their relationship really begins. From that point, he’s at the front of her thoughts, and she’s shyly eager for him to learn to ride, off her, so they can ride together.
David is less responsive to Peter, overtly. He’s inclined to deny that he’s been exceptionally good to her, but when someone says something that suggests she has been at fault over the Hatchholt bomber not being forestalled, he’s hot in defence of her.
The meeting on the mountain is their icon, the beginning that’s the beginning, but there is little to suggest that it is truly significant to the love they’ll develop for one another. And why should it? This is 1943, and fourteen/fifteen year olds are still firmly children, both to adults and to themselves. David and Peter have nascent romantic and sexual instincts (in the broadest sense). They have no previous experience. First love can take root, though neither of them could be aware of it, and they would certainly be too embarrassed by themselves to express this in any way.
Since I’m going into such detail, I can’t resist commenting upon the Lone Pine Club itself. It’s a classic of the time: Peter suggests the Club, she and Mary find its HQ, Dickie names it but it’s David who becomes Club Captain. It could never have been any other way: David is not just the oldest, but he’s a boy, and boys are leaders, not girls. Peter isn’t any way frustrated by this. She’s Vice-Captain, and whilst she isn’t always in agreement with David, and isn’t afraid to say so, she supports his leadership, and accepts his decisions.
And David relies on her. It’s noticeable, and I’ll point it out when it happens, that he never exercises his authority over her as Captain against her will, except when he is knowingly relying on her accepting his role, to force her to do things for her own benefit. From the beginning, David and Peter implicitly accept each other as equals. And as time goes by, the steady, sturdy, serious, responsible, unimaginative David will show himself to be incredibly sensitive to the girl on the pony who superseded his authority on their first meeting, and changed everything that would happen to him. And others.
Seven White Gates
If Mystery at Witchend was David Morton’s book, giving him the principal viewpoint, Seven White Gates is Peter’s. She is the catalyst for everything that happens, and she is the source of the events that change her family’s life and its future ever after.
We start with Peter at school for the first and only time. Though Peter is, and will in future be portrayed as a lonely girl who hasn’t realised she was lonely until the Mortons became her surrogate family, she’s clearly very popular among the other girls, and Margaret not only gets close enough for Peter to confide in her about last summer’s events, but wants her to come home for the Easter holidays.
But Margaret is too late, and never appears again. Peter’s loyalty to her father, who has directed her to Seven Gates Farm and her unknown Uncle Micah in his absence at his employers, means that she has to follow his instructions. She’ll miss him immensely. But she’ll also miss seeing the Mortons, against which Margaret cannot compete.
What contact have David and Peter had since last summer? The country is still at War, Mr Morton is still on active service, it’s implied that, apart from their school terms, David and the Twins have been at Witchend still. But Peter and David have progressed to a regular correspondence, one that’s close enough for her to talk about thoughts and feelings as well as things that have happened. And when she decides to tell Margaret about her adventures, the other girl eagerly asks if it was a romance? Peter doesn’t say it is. But she doesn’t deny it either. She’s willing to admit David is her ‘special’ friend, a way of admitting without admitting, a code.
They’ve been close enough for Peter, unselfconsciously, to link her arm with David several times, for her to accept his initiative, and for him to decide at a celebration feast that his seat is next to hers.
Peter’s coming to Seven Gates is the traditional pebble that starts an avalanche, even before she gets there. Because she is who she is, she is on the road early, eager for her journey by bike. Because of this, she is in the right place to save the runaway gypsy caravan, instinctively putting herself at risk for others. Without her being there, at that moment, the caravan crashes, and the little girl Fenella is almost certainly killed or at least severely injured. Peter’s bravery earns her the eternal friendship of Reuben and Miranda, and the promise of their help. But most importantly, it saves lives being ruined.
Her second encounter is equally important, though nothing like so dramatic. On the way into Barton Beach, tired, her tyre punctured, she meets Jenny Harman, who gives her a lift. Though Jenny is initially frustrating, and Peter not so receptive as she usually is, the girls become friends. Peter promotes her as a Lone Pine member, and her stock with David is so high that Jenny is accepted, sight unseen. And without Peter, Jenny will not meet Tom Ingles, and that relationship will never have the chance to form.
And Peter’s instinctive thought on arriving at Seven Gates, and meeting her sympathetic Aunt Carol, is to get the Mortons over there. And because she succeeds, the Twins develop an immediate sympathy for the lonely and outwardly unlovable Uncle Micah. They follow him on one of his night expeditions up Black Dingle, they trap themselves in the mines, they meet the American platoon, and most of all they meet the Lieutenant who they identify as Charles Sterling, Micah’s estranged son, and they engineer their reunion.
All because Peter Sterling met David Morton on a Shropshire hill one day. The ripples spread very wide.
The Gay Dolphin Adventure
I know it’s technically a digression but I can’t help asking, who are Jonathan and Penelope Warrender before the Lone Pine Club?
Whilst David and Peter is Saville’s long story, Jon and Penny are the next most important pair (Tom and Jenny are only very rarely outside their friends’ shadow), and in the beginning the latter is of direct relevance to Peter.
The Warrenders are a pair from start to finish. Though they’re formally cousins they are actually a surrogate brother-sister pair, though their appearances are contradictory: Jon is tall, fair, untidy, clever, Penny is short, red-headed, neat in her dress and emotional. Penny has lived with her Uncle’s family for an indefinite number of years because, in a colonial echo, her father works in India and she schools in England. That’s just about allowable in The Gay Dolphin Adventure, which is set in that narrow period between the end of the War and India’s Independence but it rapidly becomes horribly anachronistic once it becomes just a device for not splitting the pair up.
Saville never intended any romance to develop between any of the Lone Piners, and when it did rear its head, the Warrenders’ cousinship gave him serious problems that his own Conservative, Christian mindset could not enable him to solve.
The Warrenders take up half the book on their own. The War has placed them in their new setting of Rye. Jon is the other side of the coin to David: his father died at Normandy, there was no reunion for him, or Penny, who loved her Uncle. As for so many families, it provoked a crisis: though we have to assume that the expatriates are sending regular financial support, the widowed Mrs Warrender has total responsibility for the welfare, upbringing and School fees for her son. The Gay Dolphin falls into her lap as a desperate measure upon which much hard work and serious responsibility hangs, a lot of which can be alleviated if Jon and Penny can do what others have failed to do, and find the lost Treasure. Hah! That’s like a Terry Pratchett one-in-a-million chance.
Enter the Mortons, the Dolphin’s first guests. The two families meet, make friends, and the Mortons offer their near-professional assistance. Peter’s not there, but her presence is far from unfelt. The Twins rag David about his ‘girlfriend’ whom he misses, and we’re unsurprised to discover that he’s written to her about the Warrenders, suggesting them as Lone Piners. Of course, as Vice-Captain, her approval is essential, but there’s an underlying sense that David wants his friend and ally’s approval, and the trust between them is enough that, just as David approved Jenny’s admission because Peter vouched for her, Petronella trusts David’s recommendations, sight unseen.
The mention is brief, and we don’t see either letter, but it would have been very interesting for Saville to have printed these for a reason that would be more fully introduced in the next book, but which at this early stage is outside any consideration. Penny Warrender is only the second girl contemporary with whom David Morton has been involved (remember that Jenny Harman was originally presented as being a twelve-year-old, to David and Peter’s fifteen). Though Saville describes her here as ‘not-yet-pretty’, she’s still a bright, engaging, fun and involving character, as well as being volatile, impulsive and at times quite infuriating.
But David never treats Penny as anything but a friend, though his admiration for her at one point has Jon looking a bit askance at him. Jealousy? Or just shock at the idea of anyone finding Penny appealing? He needn’t worry: in fact, it’s Jon who goes on to become David’s best friend after Peter. Peter’s role in his life is unthreatened. Anyway, Penny is completely devoted to Jon, even now, and she will be even more loyal to her ‘man’ than Peter to David, or even Jenny to Tom. Penny’s loyalty comes in the face of treatment from Jon that is frequently totally shitty: adolescent at best, but often too nasty to be excused as merely thoughtlessness.
But that’s for another essay. Peter isn’t here, but her spirit is present. All we have to ask ourselves is, why are the Mortons in Rye and not Shropshire? It’s vaguely dismissed as ‘couldn’t get to Shropshire this year’ but really, why not? Was this down to any kind of immediate post-War travel restrictions?
Obviously, the Mortons are back home in Hertfordshire, but they’re retained Witchend, to be their holiday home (and I think David’s undemonstrativeness would have undergone a nuclear reversal if it had been suggested they weren’t going to be visiting Shropshire any more!). Why not use it, then? Though Peter could have been part of things if she weren’t so loyal to her father: the Morton parents invited her.
Because the parents didn’t go to Witchend, Jon and Penny Warrender are brought into the Magic Circle and, by extension, Harriet Sparrow will become a Lone Piner several books from now. Without that, Miss Ballinger wouldn’t serve several impossible to account for prison terms, nor would James Wilson get half as many exclusive stories. Because of a meeting on a hill.
The Secret of Grey Walls
The fourth Lone Pine book was the first in which Saville formally, and fatefully, promised his eager fans to keep the Lone Piners frozen in time, forever the ages at which the readers loved them. This was a perfectly reasonable commitment from a children’s writer to his audience, especially in the late Forties, but it was also a yoke about his neck, or rather about the necks of his characters, and they would force Saville to struggle with his writers’ instinct about the needs of his characters, within a decade of that much-repeated promise.
And it’s doubly ironic given that The Secret of Grey Walls sets up the Lone Piners’ third romantic pair in Tom Ingles and Jenny Harman, or should that be the other way round given that it’s Jenny’s love for Tom that drives it? And, without a word to be spoken, it’s obvious as can be that Jenny, who barely met him in Seven White Gates, loves Tom already. Saville bypasses all the beginnings, which we assume are meetings and encounters in Shropshire whilst the Mortons are in Rye, and that Tom, though not anywhere as far along and inclined to treat the thing as slightly a joke, cares for Jenny as a close friend, and has appointed himself her defender.
The Secret of Grey Walls is the only book to feature the extended Lone Pine Club in its entirety, eight Lone Piners in the same adventure. It’s a winter book, set between Xmas and New Year, initially in a break at Witchend, that Saville subverts quickly by two letters. One summons the Morton parents back to London to sign business letters, the other calls housekeeper Agnes to Clun to take over her sister’s boarding house. The only way for the holiday to continue is for the children to go to Keep View, which is big enough to not only house Tom and Jenny, but also call up Jon and Penny, to meet the other half of the club and get their formal initiation.
Except that Peter feels threatened. It’s actually due to David. He’s been surprisingly sensitive to Peter so far, but here he is talking up Penny, saying how wonderful she is. Peter’s never had a boyfriend before, she’s not even ready yet to acknowledge David as a boyfriend, and here he is meeting other females and getting all excited about them, and you might think she’s just being stereotypically jealous, but Peter, for all her innate self-confidence, is in strange waters here, and it’s unsurprising that she feels vulnerable.
Ironically, David thinks he’s being supportive. He’s impressed by Penny and his boosting her to Peter is actually meant to build her up as a friend to Peter. After his early sensitivity, it’s refreshing to see David displaying a more traditional adolescent obtuseness.
And Penny herself is brilliant. David’s obviously praised Peter to her and she’s the Lone Piner Penny most wants to meet, eager for the two to become friends.
Paradoxically, even though Penny at her most winsome can be irresistible, Peter still can’t fully relax with her because if the redhead is so appealing, she must be appealing to David.
Peter doesn’t properly accept Penny until the three girls have to go out to save the three boys. Jenny heads for Bury Fields, Alan Denton and external aid, Penny is determined to go direct in search of Jon and Peter, though her head says Jenny is right, goes with Penny, determined not to be outdone in devotion. Only then does Peter completely relax about Miss Warrender, secure in the knowledge that her new friend is wholly committed to Jon, not David.
David, on the other hand, is not really aware of Peter’s doubts. Though he is anxious that his old friends and his new friends get along together, Peter is his first concern. When she arrives, last of all, in the dark and exhausted at Clun, he is quick to order her to go inside, rest and eat, and he takes over unsaddling and brushing down Sally. He makes it an Order too, from Captain to Vice-Captain, which takes Peter slightly aback, but whatever her concerns, he is still David, and she trusts him with her beloved pony, and rather enjoys being catered to. Not that it disturbs her fears over Penny, since she flares up at him over the actual initiation of the Warrenders (especially Jon, a neat bit of displacement), which confuses David even more!
But it’s still David she turns to first, when Mr Cantor patronisingly suggests she’s making up the lorry that drove through Clun in the middle of the night.
Everything ends well, the Warrenders are fully accepted in the Club, and everyone winds up secure in their friendships. Peter and Penny have become friends, but the Warrenders will never come to Shropshire again, and will never see Tom and Jenny again until they all end up as extras in the last book.
Lone Pine Five
The fifth Lone Pine book is Jenny Harman’s book. She is its central character, she creates the adventure (and overcomes by her enthusiasm everyone else’s slight reservations: nobody can bear disappointing her) and it’s her energy that carries the story.
Jenny is one of the lucky ones. Her Dad came back from the War, though that leaves him in between his second wife and his daughter, with the latter doing her best not to cause trouble for him. Indeed, Mr Harman often seems to take his daughter’s side, though not explicitly. The most important person to her is Tom. He started as an evacuee from London, like the Mortons, but the War is a few years back and he’s still at Ingles, with Uncle Alf and Aunty Betty who have adopted Jenny as an honorary niece. Something is obviously wrong, but Saville remains silent, for rather too many books to come, on the fate of Tom’s family. By now, we all realise that it has gone wrong for Tom, wronger than for Jon Warrender.
Back in wet and rainy Shropshire, Jenny brings everyone back to Seven Gates to support Mr Wilkins, a Seven Gates where Charles is now installed as master, albeit in partnership with Uncle Micah, and then off to HQ4, the Club’s fourth headquarters in only five books.
David and Peter are not quite background characters in Lone Pine Five but not far from it. They’re fresh from Peter being in London for a fortnight, which, as a country girl, has been a mixed blessing for her, but which reinforces her close relationship with all the family. But really she’s there because she’s David’s friend. The Morton parents are clearly happy to encourage the relationship.
There’s a very comfortable, very relaxed atmosphere about them. Peter’s not quite flirting with David, but her teasing is very affectionate, and he’s relaxed. They are very much a pair now, and happy about it.
They are also inseparable, until the climax of the book. When the Twins and Percy go over the edge, into the underground pool, David takes charge, sending Peter for help. She finds it already close at hand. Though she’s lucky about that, David gives her a look of trust and a word of thanks, seeing only the girl who will never let them down.
Then, when everyone is rescued, and the ground opens and the underground river emerges, Peter reacts instantly, unthinkingly, racing down the Dingle to try and warn those in danger below. David is behind her: he doesn’t have quite the same instinctive response to the situation, but he has it for Peter, though he needs rescue by her.
But it is David who has the control of the situation to persuade Smithson that this is not a time to continue rivalry, and talk him into assisting the mopping up operation, and who pulls rank on his Vice-Captain to order her to get straight back to Seven Gates. On the surface, it’s so that she can organise things for everybody else’s benefit, but nobody believes anything other than that David is making sure Peter gets warm, dry and fed ahead of anyone. The Captain isn’t necessarily thinking of the good of the entire Club here, though his solution is the best in the circumstances.
Peter, who isn’t used to being ordered around, has to acquiesce, and gets a little pink about it. It comes over like an old-fashioned boys give orders, girls obey them, but it’s pretty clear Peter knows exactly what’s on David’s mind, and her pinkness is at the thought of how he’s put her first.
This contentment is doomed not to last. Mr Morton arrives to shut off camping in this wet, and brings a telegram from the absent Warrenders, returned from their exchange visit to Paris: they have seen Miss Ballinger again and want the Lone Piners on notice…
The Elusive Grasshopper
We’re back in Rye and it’s more or less the same formula, with the Warrenders in the first half of the book, complete with their charming continental friend, Arlette Duchelle, and the Mortons coming in halfway. The other Lone Piners stay behind, and indeed the Mortons are only really available because it’s become too wet to stay in Shropshire.
Tom and Jenny are workers, to all intents and purposes, but Peter’s excuse is loyalty to her father: she’s been in London with the Mortons, then Seven Gates and she’s not shooting off a third time when she knows how much her presence means to him.
It’s probably a good idea. David reacts no more to Arlette than he did to Penny: when she has to pair up with someone it’s with the newly-introduced James Wilson. David sticks with Jonathan, in accordance with biblical precedent. Still, it’s a good idea not to throw him into her company if Peter’s there to witness it…
But though absent in body, Peter remains a presence in The Elusive Grasshopper. For once we are allowed to read a letter from David, about their enthusiastic arrival in Rye. David’s scrupulously addressed his letter to Jon and Penny, and she just as scrupulously has avoided opening it until her cousin can join her, in the face of his obvious and offensive assumption to the contrary. Jon is once again as supercilious as he can be to Penny most of the time, only rarely showing any human decency towards her.
And David can’t bring himself to leave Peter out of his letter and his thoughts, missing her already even as he understands her loyalty to her neglected father, and Penny quietly points out that David knows how to stick up for his friends, and would never allow anyone to say a word against Peter. Who’s not even in the book…
The Neglected Mountain
If there was ever to be any doubt where David and Peter would end up, The Neglected Mountain removes this. Once Saville had written this book, he made it impossible to retreat. From here, Not Scarlet But Gold is only a matter of time.
And there is so much in this story that feeds into and leads up to that moment of unspoken commitment. Every conversation, every word, is underscored with a nuance that is natural and unconscious.
Unusually, Saville begins with an ending, not a beginning. An unusually adventure-free Easter holiday at Seven Gates is on its last night and the Lone Piners are openly regretting their break-up, not least Jenny, who beneath her silly chatterbox surface is the most sensitive of the sextet, and the most lonely when her friends are away.
David’s in an oddly skittish mood, challenging Jenny’s superstitions about the Stiperstones and, by extension, his best friend Peter’s. It’s an early indication that he isn’t entirely his placid, steady self, and it comes before Romance enters, in the form of Charles Sterling’s engagement to Trudie Whittaker.
The girls are thrilled, the boys pleased but not much moved. David’s already conscious of not seeing Peter again for the next twelve weeks, and it’s that rather than any inspiration from Charles that leads him to waken her on hearing an aircraft with a faltering engine, and ask her to go up to the Devil’s Chair with him, on their own. It’s not Peter’s idea of fun (these are still, in their own eyes, children and David is being typically a boy in this) but she agrees, because it is David who’s asked her, asking herself tartly if he’s ever noticed she never refuses him, but persisting in asking why her, and not Tom, until David quietly tells her: he wanted some time with her on her own. She doesn’t say anything more.
The Twins are predictably disgusted at this ‘betrayal’, but Jenny, and even Tom, have a much better idea of what’s going on. Nevertheless, it’s still the last day. Jenny leaves in tears, and Peter and David demonstrate how much they’re on the same wavelength by simultaneously saying, “Twelve weeks.”
Peter’s letter that follows, describing her unsettling experience on returning to Hatchholt, is significant in two different respects. It’s noticeable how comfortable she is with sharing her private thoughts and feelings with David, before she gets on to the purpose of her letter, but also that, the more it goes on, the air of slight cattiness that creeps in, as if on an unconscious level, Peter’s being defensive about opening up to David so much, preparing herself for disappointment if he fails to take her concerns seriously.
In that, she is actually correct. Distracted by cricket, David fails to take in what’s being asked of him, that he overtly supports Peter. He writes back, at length, but we see nothing of this letter, and Peter is dismissive of it in the summer. Indeed, she’s sharper with David than she’s been since the incident at the reservoir in Mystery at Witchend, and when the Twins, predictable as ever, start going on about being left out of secrets, she’s genuinely angry with them.
But she’s really angry with David for not being reliable. Not that it stops her, when the ‘race’ to Bishop’s Castle is mooted, from wanting to go with him. The Twins naively assume the boys and the girls will pair off (have they even met Jenny?) but the nervous glance shot by the redhead at Peter is equalled by the one she gets in return.
Before anything else stupid can be said, David rather awkwardly insists that Peter will go with him, as he has Club business to discuss with the Vice-Captain. Nobody believes that excuse for a second, but Peter’s content. And after living in her favourite blue shirt and jodhpurs, she turns up in the new frock her Daddy has just bought for her: dressing like a girl, hmm.
It has David looking at her, admiringly, and thinking that one day, and soon, people are going to look at Peter and see a very beautiful girl. It’s a theme that Saville repeats, authorially, over the next half dozen books.
And it’s a nice day, a relaxed day, for all its difficulties, in the guard dog attack near the RAF station, and little Johnnie’s missing puppy in the Barton Beach woods. Saville gets in a nice line too during the former, where Peter’s animal skills avert a potentially dangerous situation. David has no false pride about her being their saviour, but Saville lets the Guard describe the frock-clad Peter as a “beautiful female spy”.
In the circumstances, it could be passed off as a joke, but it’s not when, with the Club in a crisis over the missing Macbeth, and Peter indignant over their failure to do what they should have done earlier, David finds himself looking at his friend in admiration. Admiration for her force of character, her naturalness, her strength. He loses himself in these realisations about her, so much so that he stares and she becomes embarrassed, and self-conscious with him for the first time.
It’s a distraction for them, but it’s a precursor to something much more serious. David has for once put his foot down and separated the Twins, taking Mary with him and Peter. They return to the Mine, where Robens has his makeshift laboratory and the drugged Macbeth is rescued. But Robens returns and Peter, seeking refuge, precipitates danger by leading them up a loose bank. Mary slips, and David must secure her, Peter is slipping the other way, with only David to secure her, but this brave girl has no doubts that David’s responsibility is to his sister: she lets go and falls.
And in danger, and darkness, David and Peter cross a line that neither can or will ever wish to retreat across. In a way, it’s easier for her: she loses consciousness, and when she wakens to pain, it is with David holding her, keeping her safe, pouring out his heart to her, telling her that her being alright is the only thing that matters. She’s too woozy for anything but the relief to register, that she who has risked her life will be alright because David Morton can be relied upon until the stars go out one by one.
But he has been the one who has been put through a fear no-one should have to face, and certainly not at the age of 16. Peter may be badly injured, she may be dead. He can get down to her, he can hold her in his arms for the first time, he can surely tell she’s breathing, but until she finally speaks he has to live with the terror that everything might be over just when he is beginning to get the first sense of what everything might be. Once he knows she’s alright, he can be David again, steady, reliable David who knows that he can make everything right for her again.
It’s been a crisis: a crisis too soon, really. They are still only sixteen, not ready yet even for first kisses. But the friendship between them has gone through the fire and inside, where they carefully bank it up until the time comes to grow to meet their future, they both know that they are on an undivided track.
There’s no need for histrionics, or even words, when Peter’s released from the hospital. David devotes himself to her comfort, and takes time out to tell Mr Sterling what he know she won’t have told even her father, that she risked her life for him and Mary. Sterling takes the news quietly, knowing now if he had not already realised that his daughter’s future is safe with this young man he already approves of, and that she is worthy of the pride he has in her.
The pair won’t talk of what’s happened. What it could have been is only too real to them and they would like nothing better than to forget that. But there are memories Peter will keep forever, and David understands what she means. Only Mary, the only one to see and hear, comes close to spelling it out, and her Twin is far too obtuse to understand.