Bustling through the crowds of visitors and picnic baskets and cabin trunks and porters came the old Stationmaster, and Titty, travelling on her own for the very first time and not seeing Mrs Blackett nor the red caps of the Amazons waiting for her on the platform, was rather more relieved than she meant to be when she heard him call her own name.
"You'll be wanting Miss Ruth," said the Stationmaster. "She's waiting in the yard. George, give Miss Walker a hand with her suitcase, there's a good lad. Welcome back," he said, and Titty smiled back at him, because it was the very start of the summer holidays, and she was herself more than glad indeed to be back.
The station yard was busy with motorcars and charabancs and noisy yellow buses and dozens of bewildered passengers - "The Lion! Passengers for the Lion! All aboard for Bassenthwaite! Tours for Ennerdale! All aboard!" - and Titty, looking for the familiar battered frame of Mrs Blackett's Rattletrap, clutched tightly to the ship's cat's palanquin lest Sinbad be swept away in the crowd. She could not see Nancy at all, nor Peggy, nor even Billy Lewthwaite in his blue coat and chauffeur's hat, and she was beginning to think that it was a good thing there had been two apples and a hard boiled egg left over from lunch when she heard Captain Nancy's unmistakable cheerful yell.
"Titty! Over here!"
Wearing pushed-up goggles and a battered driving helmet, Nancy was sitting at the wheel of a shining, low-slung open motorcar parked directly in front of the line of charabancs. The car's engine was running and its head lamps lit. "Titty!" called Nancy, waving wildly, and the driver of the Coniston bus beeped his horn. There was no time to talk. George swung in the suitcase, Sinbad was wedged hurriedly into the back seat between a coil of rope and two pots of jam and a hamper, and Titty clambered into the front seat with her school coat rumpled and her hat askew.
"You won't need that," said Nancy, and flung it on top of the hamper. "It'll only blow off." Then she said, spinning the wheel with startling panache and narrowly avoiding an empty milk cart, "How's your mother? Is the ship's baby still wounded?"
"Bridgie's got to keep the cast on for another week, although so long as we keep it dry it'll be fine. That's why mother says no camping until next week, but with John's leave and Susan breaking up late it won't be so bad. Where's Peggy? How are Captain Flint and Timothy?"
"Peggy's got a stinker of a cold," said Nancy, as she swung the car past two post office vans and a laden Daimler. "Mother's looking after her. The whole house smells of camphor and eucalyptus, but she's got to the runny nose stage, so she should be fine by the time the others get here. I say, Titty.. " said Nancy, and squeezed the car between a lamppost and a small dog. "Would you mind awfully if we didn't go home right away? I did ask mother if I might kidnap you for the night. "
It was only then that Titty realised they were not headed towards the ferry, but north on the Troutbeck road. They were almost out of town, and the road wound out ahead of them between fellside and lakeshore.
"Are we exploring?" asked Titty.
Nancy grinned back at her, pulled her goggles down, slid the car past a labouring butcher's van and let the engine run free. "We're going to climb the North Face!" she said.
The east side of the lake was popular with visitors and busy with all sorts of road traffic. There were laden bicycles and buses, walkers with bulging knapsacks and farmer's carts and touring cars with suitcases strapped to their backs, but Nancy drove the new car with a careful, easy control that reminded Titty of just how steady Nancy's hand was on Amazon's tiller. Sooner than she expected, they pulled into the town at the end of the lake, and Nancy pushed her goggles up and took them slowly through the narrow lanes. The houses were white-washed stone, their roofs blue-grey slate, and red geraniums grew in the window boxes and gardens and splashed the walls with colour. Bunting fluttered over the marketplace, and many of the hotels had posters advertising the summer Gala. Above the town the fells stretched warm and green under the afternoon sun, and if Titty looked between the houses she could see the line of trees running down to the lake shore.
"What happened to Rattletrap?" asked Titty.
"Great Aunt," said Nancy. "She said it wasn't safe for Mother to be driving round in a car that old. It was only because of running out of petrol with her in the back seat, and that wasn't Rattletrap's fault at all, but she would insist. And this one's a beauty." Just as Titty had seen Nancy run her hand over Amazon's transom, she let her fingers smooth the car's dashboard. "It's called Bootblack, because when Cook saw it she said it was going to take a mort of polish to keep clean."
Past the row of shops, Nancy said, "Cook packed oodles of food, and I wasn't sure what you'd have with you, so I've got Peggy's old walking shoes and your oilies and comfortables. And mother arranged beds with the natives, because all our camping stuff's packed. I hope you don't mind."
"We'll be quicker getting out to the Island if everything's ready," said Titty.
"That's what mother said too," said Nancy. "But we really are climbing. They'll be watching us with telescopes like the innkeepers at Grindelwald."
Cresting Rothay Bridge with a triumphant blip of the horn, she set the car's nose towards Elterwater, and Titty curled up in the front seat and watched the fells open up in front of her. The road was narrow and winding, edged with dry stone walls almost too high to see over, but the verges were crowded with ferns and foxgloves and down between the trees Titty could see the tumbling, glimmering water of the river. Past Skelwith Bridge they went, and then past Elterwater lake with its queenly pines and quiet silver waters, on through Elterwater common itself with the ducks waddling across the green, and through Chapel Stile with its little corner Co-op into the heart of the Lakes, the Langdale Valley. Glacier-carved, the fells rose so steeply from the river green of the valley floor Titty had to crane her neck to see their rocky peaks, and the grey patchwork stitching of the field walls stumbled to a halt half-way up the slopes. Only sheep and scree scattered the mountainsides, and by now they had left the summer visitors behind and the road was quiet. They were travelling into unknown, unfamiliar lands; nowhere Titty had ever been before.
"Not far now," said Nancy, rolling the car through bend after bend, so close to the dry stone walls Titty breathed in and foxgloves brushed against the sill of her door. They had to stop for a herd of small brown cows strolling lazily home for the evening milking, and then for a bright red roadster with three young men who stared rudely at Nancy as they passed, and the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky, flushing the fellsides with deep tinted shadows. Titty, who had got out of bed very early that morning, began to feel as if she could fall asleep quite happily in the front seat of the car, the engine growling gently under Nancy's hands and the Lake District fells cradling her in their midst...
"Titty, wake up. We're here!"
With a start, Titty woke up. It was the holidays. Nancy was here. They were exploring. This must be the native settlement, and tomorrow they would venture up the mountains, setting their feet on untrodden peaks and braving unknown dangers. "Oh, Nancy," said Titty. "We're really here."
Nancy was poking a finger at the ship's cat as she pulled out Titty's suitcase. "Hullo, Sinbad. Have they been feeding you up? You'd make a jolly fine tiger these days. Up you come, Cook packed some salmon in the hamper just for you," she said.
From the farm doorway, a tall woman was waving them inside, and Titty stumbled out of the car and only just remembered to bring the hamper, although Nancy had to go back for the pots of loganberry jam Mrs Lowthwaite had sent her cousin Mrs Grisedale. And then to put the car in the barn. "There's all sorts staying at the hotel these days," said Mrs Grisedale darkly, setting out thick slices of brown bread and a crock of fresh butter and a pot of mutton stew which smelled heavenly. "Poets and climbers and foreigners, and not a one of them thinking to take their boots off afore they set foot on my floors." But then she smiled down at Titty and said, "Mind you, they're likely nice young men, just not used to our ways. You and Miss Nancy, there's not a farmer in the Lakes hasn't heard tell of the Dixon's fire and you calling the Colonel in just in time. You're more than welcome to stop any day you want, and that's what I told your mother, Miss Nancy, when she sent the telegram. More tea?"
"Yes, please, if I may," said Titty, and let Nancy answer a great number of questions about Mary Swainson's wedding and the new car and Cook's recipe for potted shrimps, which Nancy had to extract, rather crumpled, from her coat pocket, and Mrs Blackett and Mr Jim and his Timothy, and how the lambs were doing and the price of flour and the Australian wool market. Mrs Grisedale had the soft, blurred accent of the Lake District natives, and after a while Titty found herself thinking about the price of potted fleece and Captain Flint squeezing into a jam jar with a bouquet of forget-me-nots.
"Watch out!" said Nancy sharply. "That was nearly the teapot over."
Blinking, Titty found the table half an inch from her nose. She was very tired.
"Look here," said Nancy. "It's time we went to bed, or we'll never be up in time to climb the North Face tomorrow. Shiv - jiminy, Mrs Grisedale, that was a gorgeous feast, and I'll tell Cook and mother so myself. Come on, able seaman."
Titty stumbled up the narrow stairs to the bedroom, and only just managed to remember to brush her teeth before she rolled into bed. By the time Nancy's "Good night!" echoed across the room, she was asleep.
It was the ship's cat who woke her. Sinbad was curled up on her pillow, purring, and he smelled faintly of salmon. "It's a good job Nancy remembered to feed you," murmured Titty, and then she woke up properly and sat up in bed. It was a narrow bed, tucked under the rafters on one side of a room that was lumpily white-washed and utterly unfamiliar. But that was her own suitcase under the low window, messily unpacked, and over in the the other bed there was a sleeping body wrapped round as a caterpillar in blankets. It was morning, and she and Nancy were going to climb the North Face of the Eiger.
Outside in the yard Mr Grisedale was calling the cows in for milking, and through the thick-paned window the sky was already flushed pink and gold with the sunrise. "Nancy?" Titty whispered, and Nancy rolled over in bed and grunted. She had the blankets pulled right over her nose. "Nancy?"
But Nancy did not wake up.
Sitting up in bed with Sinbad in her lap, Titty wrote in her journal. Now that her private log could be the last words of the Eiger expedition, found in her dead, frozen hands, she was sure it was all the more important to keep a record. Although, Titty thought, frowning, her father and the Best of Natives would prefer her live to lionised. She chewed the end of her pencil and then wrote firmly, 'Captain Nancy reports...'
It was then that Titty realised Nancy had not mentioned Amazon, although after Dorothea and Dick in the almost new Scarab had come so very close to winning the Long Race last summer Nancy had been determined on stripping the boat down to her bones and overhauling every inch of her. During the Easter holidays, when Nancy had been marooned in the library at Beckfoot with her School Cert. notes, furiously revising, the only talk over the dinner table had been of repainting and re-rigging, and there had been fierce debate over spinnakers and gaff rigs and Bermuda sails. But now, a week before all the explorers were due to set sail for Wild Cat Island, Nancy had not said a single shiver my timbers, and she had not been wearing her red pirate's cap.
Sombrely, Titty pulled on Peggy's old flannels and her own woolly jumper, and went down to breakfast.
"Just the one of you?" said Mrs Grisedale. "It'll be sleep Miss Nancy's needing. Shouting as loud as if it were daylight, those three lads at the hotel last night, and the language they used would make any soul blush." She put a jug of fresh cream down on the table next to the porridge. "Set every dog in the valley to barking, they did. Joe and my Fred saw them to bed, though, and I don't doubt but the police will wanting a word. Now don't you fret," she said, as Titty stood up. "All mouth and no trousers, that sort. Now, you'll be wanting bacon, no doubt, and a roll of sausage besides."
"What lads?" asked Titty.
"You remember," said Nancy, tumbling into the kitchen with two knapsacks and the Alpine rope. "They were the three that passed us in the lane. Visitors. Mrs Grisedale, you don't mind if the cat stays here, do you? We're going up to the tarn and over the Eiger. Pavey Ark," she said, giving the Eiger its native name.
"And welcome," said Mrs Grisedale. "One more's no bother at all. I'll keep the window closed. And will you be wanting those flasks filled?"
"Yes please," said Nancy, passed them across, and pulled up a chair. "Do Peggy's shoes fit?"
Titty wriggled her toes. "I've got two pairs of socks on," she said.
"Oh, good," said Nancy. "Less room for the blisters." She pushed the porridge to one side and pulled one of Barthlomew's maps from her pocket. It was rubbed at the edges, and across the cover Timothy had written, please return to Mr Stedding, c/o Blackett, Beckfoot Farm.
"Native guide," said Nancy shortly. "Even mother and father never climbed the Eiger. Best to make sure we know where we're going." She jabbed a finger at the map. "We're here, at the New Hotel. We're going to follow the Stickle Beck up to the pass, here, and then go north round the tarn. This is the North Face." On the map, the contour lines were so close together they were almost solid, and Mr Bartholomew had coloured the crags a dark brown that made them look sinister and forbidding. No native footpath was marked on that part of the map.
"If we get time," said Nancy, "We can go up the Pikes and get back over Stake Pass. That's the way they used to carry the coffins. But it's the North Face we're really climbing. I say, Mrs Grisedale, do you mind if we go up the back of the intake and onto the fell? That way we don't have to go through the Hotel like the rest of the visitors."
"You'll miss the waterfall," said Mrs Grisedale, and then, "Is it Jack's Rake you're going up?" She was frowning.
"It's all right," said Nancy swiftly. "Mother knows."
"Well, if Mrs Blackett says so... " said Mrs Grisedale doubtfully.
Leaving the native settlement behind, the explorers struck out into unknown lands. All around them, unconquered peaks climbed into the sky, their rock-tumbled slopes grey-green against the white of the mountain becks and pale blue of the early morning sky. Underfoot, the mountain grass was jewelled with dew and tiny spiders' webs, and the young bracken sprung joyfully uncurling from the turf. A dog barked sharply from the farm, and was answered, but the stream chattered merrily in its deep gorge and above the heather a lark was singing.
"Oh Nancy," said Titty, pausing for breath at the edge of the field wall, "This was a first rate idea."
"I should jolly well think so," said Nancy. She was looking up towards the ridge, where the rocks crowded into the skyline. "There could be anything on the tops. Mountain lions. Gorillas."
"Lost valleys," said Titty. "Dinosaurs. A plesiosaurus, left behind after the Ice Age... I say, Nancy, don't you think it would be awfully lonely?"
"Maybe the natives bring it sacrifices," said Nancy. "Gold and butter and maidens. Look, you can see the ceremonial avenue."
Across the gorge of the stream, they could see the well-trodden scar of the native footpath cut into the fellside. There were people on it already, a young man with a big knapsack and a group of three people walking past the waterfall.
"Hurry up," said Nancy, "Or they'll get to the top before us."
Just as if they were sailing over the lake, Nancy tacked up the steep slope of the ridge in tight zig-zags, so that half the time they were looking at the dramatic peaks of the Langdale Pikes ahead and half the time back down the valley. As they climbed, the views opened up behind them, so that soon they could see not just the woods around Elterwater but the glimmer of their own lake, a silver ribbon, and behind it in the far distance the rise of the eastern fells.
"Look!" said Nancy. "You can see the steamer on the lake. All the natives going to the Gala."
But Titty was too out of breath to answer, and the rocks on the skyline seemed just as far away now as they had twenty minutes before. Nancy, though, climbed on as steadily and strongly as any Himalayan explorer. Following, Titty found that there was a rhythm to Nancy's footsteps, the turn of her ankle and the way her boots balanced on the short turf and the lichened rock, and if she herself placed her feet where Nancy did the slope was not so hard as she thought. "Onwards and upwards," she muttered to herself, "He had a good job and he left, serve him jolly well right, right, right. He had a - golly!"
Everything in front of her was sky.
"Oh, golly," said Titty, and then she said nothing at all. They had reached the top of the ridge. There was a tarn lying deep and still in the cradle of the fells, and ahead stretched the craggy mass of Harrison Stickle, its summit rounded against the blue of the sky. Beyond it was the Eiger itself, a sheer rock face towering above the dark water of the tarn. Shadowed and forbidding, this was the North Face, very different from Kanchenjunga's friendly rounded slopes.
"Oh," breathed Titty. "Mind has mountains, cliffs of fall... " Ahead of her Nancy strode on, towards the cairn where the native paths intersected. Against the bulk of the mountains she was a small and determined figure, and Titty was suddenly, fiercely glad that they were together. There was only one possible way up the North Face, a crack in the rock that spanned the whole face, rising from right to left, and it looked so exposed that Titty wondered if it really was possible to climb. But there was a track leading to the base of the cliff, and a cairn on the summit line where the crack ended, and even though the explorers were not really making the first ascent Titty was suddenly awfully glad that the natives had used the same path, making their sacrifices to the mountain gods.
Nancy was waiting for her at the cairn. Here, the native path from the valley joined the track around the tarn and the route to the pass between Harrison Stickle and the Eiger, and the natives had built a dam holding back the water of the tarn. Below the dam, the stream dropped steeply down the fellside through flood-tumbled boulders and wind-stunted rowan trees. Above it, the water was bronze-dark and still, a different creature entirely.
"That's really it," Nancy said, looking at the Eiger. "We'll have to watch out for falling stones. And ice," she added, squinting up at the pale blue sky. The sun was warm on the Titty's face, and the day so windless the tarn reflected the North Face and the cloudless sky as clearly as a mirror, but Titty shivered.
"There's a spare woolly in your knapsack," said Nancy. "And Kendal mint cake. Let's have tea. Much easier to carry lunch inside than out."
Cook had a very good idea of just the thing to feed two hungry explorers, and Nancy and Titty sat on the edge of dam and ate two big slices of sticky fruit cake and an orange apiece and then two small slabs of Kendal mint cake, the best kind that came in red packets and was covered in chocolate. Nancy was just wrapping the orange peel in the cake paper to stow away when they heard voices.
"Natives," said Titty.
"Visitors," said Nancy. "Buck up, able-seaman. We don't want to be caught napping."
"Maybe they'll be friendly," said Titty, screwing the cap back on the thermos.
But the voices did not sound friendly, but loud and quarrelsome. Nancy looked at Titty and Titty at Nancy, and by silent agreement they stuffed everything back in the knapsacks and hurried back towards the cairn. Beyond it there was a small rocky rise, perfect for watching unknown natives, and Nancy and Titty flung themselves behind it just in time.
Three men came up the track from the valley. All of them wore tweed climbing breeches, and hobnailed boots gleaming with polish, and their knapsacks were so new the canvas was still a stiff bright green. Quite obviously, they had no idea that the explorers were listening, because they were arguing so loudly Nancy and Titty could not but hear every word.
" - waste of a perfectly good morning - "
" - oh do buck up, old man."
" - don't see why we need a map, it's perfectly obvious - "
" - the man at the hotel said - "
" - didn't know what he was talking about - "
"It's the three visitors we saw in the car," hissed Nancy. "The ones who were making such a racket last night."
As Nancy and Titty listened, two of the men argued about which way to go, and how long it would take, and how far it was. It seemed a very long time before they stopped talking and started walking, and even then the crunch of their boots on the loose gravel of the path seemed ill-tempered and over loud.
"They're climbing our path!" said Titty miserably.
"Botheration, they simply can't," said Nancy, and risked another glance over the ridge. When she slid back down, she was frowning. "Sorry. They really are." She thought for a minute. "It's too late to get past them. Look. Why don't we wait here for a quarter of an hour or so? If we stay until they get a good start, at least it will feel like we're exploring. Beastly interlopers. I wouldn't mind so much if only they sounded friendly." Wriggling out of her knapsack, she turned over on her back and stared up at the sky.
The sun had burnt the dew from the turf, and the sky was a clear midday blue, and by Titty's nose a very small beetle climbed to the top of a very small blade of grass. "I wonder what it is," Titty thought. "Dick would know."
Nancy said abruptly, "Look here, Titty, I'm awfully glad - what's that?"
Both of them could hear an odd uneven growl from the valley. "Tractor?" said Titty doubtfully, even as the noise got louder.
"Can't be," said Nancy. "I wonder if it's... yes! By golly, look at that!"
She was pointing. Below them, a small speck against the fellside opposite, an oddly shaped biplane was flying up the valley.
"It's awfully low," Titty said. "And what are those things where its wheels should be?"
"Floats," Nancy said. "I bet it's here for the Gala. Oh, look at that," she said, as the plane began to rise steeply. "Oh, well done," she said. "That's some flying. I say, Titty, look out!"
Just as she spoke, the plane burst out of the valley and flew almost directly overhead, so close that Titty could see the helmeted head of the pilot and the waggle of its wings. Over the tarn it sped, and then it banked almost against the edge of the Eiger and headed east, back towards Rio.
"Watch," said Nancy, pointing, and as the plane flew steadily back the pilot spun the whole thing in the air, over and over.
"That pilot really knows what they're doing," said Nancy admiringly. "It's hard to do that with a sea plane, the balance is all wrong. I wonder if it's the same man who came last year? He kept his plane tied up to the jetty just like a boat."
"John says the Navy's really keen on flying boats," said Titty. "But ever since he went down to Dartmouth he won't stop talking about submarines. Not to go down in one, just that the Navy thinks they're even more important than ships. He and daddy won't stop talking about what they'd do if there was a war. And, oh Nancy, the way they talk about it seems so very real, not at all like it is in the newspapers."
"Captain Flint thinks there's going to be a war, too," said Nancy.
"Mother won't talk about it," said Titty. "But Susan keeps bottling plums and Roger says the Navy will want engineers even more than they want sailors."
Nancy laughed, a short harsh bark of a laugh Titty had never heard before. "Well," she said. "There's one thing they don't want, and that's girls."
"What?" Titty said. She rolled over. Nancy was still staring at the sky.
"I tried," said Nancy slowly, "When John got into Dartmouth. And of course he should, it's what he's always wanted. But Mother was talking about college, and the loathsome G.A. wanted me to go to Switzerland and wear gloves all the time, and it all seemed so... grown up. I mean, married and babies grown up, not that mother didn't... but mother had father... "
"I wrote to your father. And to Dartmouth. And Captain Flint wrote to the Admiralty. Captain Walker parcelled up all the entrance tests and sent them up to mother. We did them properly, in the dining room. And Sammy witnessed everything. We thought they wouldn't have a leg to stand on if the police said I'd taken the test fair and square. They wouldn't budge an inch. No girls. Then," said Nancy, "They sent back a leaflet about the Wrens. To Captain Flint! Titty, they don't let the Wrens go to sea. All Wrens do is type and make tea." Her voice was so quiet and low Nancy sounded nothing at all like the Captain Nancy Titty knew.
"Oh," said Titty. She had no idea what to say. Nancy sounded so miserable. "I thought you were going to be a pirate. Or an explorer."
"Mother can't go crawling to Great Aunt for a yacht", said Nancy fiercely. "This is real, Titty, it's not sitting around the fire and making up stories." Then she said, "Sorry."
"Oh, Nancy," said Titty.
"Where's Peter Duck when you need him?" said Nancy. "He never thought girls couldn't go to sea. And Captain Walker said he wouldn't be at all worried if half his crew were girls, if they were like us."
"Daddy says really rude things about the Admiralty sometimes," said Titty.
"Well, he's right," said Nancy. "It's just that... oh, mother's so upset, and Peggy doesn't really understand, and Captain Flint's awfully busy now he's got Timothy and the mine... I'm so jolly glad you're here."
"If I was the First Lord," Titty said stoutly, "I'd... " She stopped. She couldn't imagine Nancy in uniform. It was John who was happy obeying orders and saluting. Nancy had never wanted to be anything other than a pirate. "Give you a letter of marque," she said.
"If you were the First Lord," said Nancy, "I'd say thank you kindly, and then I'd send you back all my prizes, torpedo ships and gunboats and frigates. Do you think you can run a plank off the side of a submarine?"
"I'm sure you could," said Titty.
For moment, Nancy contemplated buccaneering, and Titty struggled with the thought that everything was different, they were all growing up, and next year she too would be sitting School Cert., and after that...
"Come on," said Nancy. "They must have a good start by now." And she sounded like Captain Nancy again, confident and certain.
When Nancy and Titty stood up, the beastly interlopers were climbing the crack along the North Face. They seemed to be moving quite slowly, and one of them, the one in blue, was slower than the others. But they were far enough ahead that Titty could pretend quite comfortably that they weren't actually there at all, and as the intrepid explorers walked around the edge of the tarn, their porters camped in the valley below and their eyes on the summit, Titty began to think that climbing the crack in the North Face was entirely possible. By the time they got to the base of the cliff, the shadows had lifted and the rock was warmed by the sun, and she and Nancy tied themselves cheerfully into the rope and set up the path.
"It's only really for the top bit," said Nancy. "Mary's Jack says that's the only hairy part."
Nevertheless Titty was quietly glad that the route was marked by the pale scratches of native hobnails on the rocks. Once they started, though - don't look down, she told herself. Keep your centre of gravity on the right side of the ledge. Don't look down - the path was wider than she had thought, and there was a rocky parapet on the side which meant she could not see the rocks falling away beneath her feet. Even though Nancy set a good pace, balanced and secure on the rock, there was time to watch the tarn come slowly into view, and the elegant rock faces of Harrison Stickle, and the fells of the far side of the valley were dappled in sunlight. "Oh the year was 1778. How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now," Titty hummed to herself, and then sang quietly, "A letter of marque came from the king, To the scummiest vessel I've ever seen..."
Nancy came in gleefully on the chorus. "God damn them all... Hullo!" She'd stopped. "What are you doing here?"
They had come to a point in the path where a large boulder blocked their way. It was resting against the parapet, and the only way around it was to climb over or inch past the sheer drop. But leaning against the boulder was one of the beastly interlopers. Close to, he didn't look much older than Nancy or Titty, and although he was trying to stand casually against the boulder as if he knew exactly what he was doing, his face was pale and his fingers so tightly clenched on the rock his hands were shaking.
Nancy said, "Where are your friends?"
"They didn't leave you behind?" asked Titty, horrified.
Before the interloper could answer, Nancy threw back her head and hallooed. The sound echoed from the rocks, loud and unmistakable. They waited.
No reply came.
"You're not just going to stay here, are you?" asked Nancy. "Because we're going on, and if you stand where you are we'll have to climb over you."
"Nancy," said Titty. "Can't you see he's scared?"
"What?" said Nancy.
"'M not," muttered the interloper.
"Of course you aren't," said Nancy. "Now look here. You're simply going to have to move. Either up or down. But you can't just stand there."
"Can if I want to," the interloper said, pale faced.
"Have we got any tea left?" asked Titty. "It's in your knapsack, isn't it? And we've got some sandwiches, too. It must be time for lunch. Why don't we stop here for a minute or two? You don't mind sharing, do you?" she asked. "And what's your name?"
The interloper looked at her blankly.
Nancy stared at Titty. Then she looked back at the boy. "Oh," she said. And then she dragged off her knapsack and tucked it against the boulder, so that anyone looking down would no longer be able to see just how far down down was. "Keep your hands on the rock and just slide," she said. "You'll manage. It's not far. That's the job." Her voice was cheerful and matter of fact. "I won't let you fall." She was untying the rope around her waist. "Just hold still for a second... that's it, well done," she said, looping a swift bowline and then tying herself into the loose end of the rope. "Now you're tied into the rope. If you fall, we'll hold you. I'm Nancy Blackett," said Nancy, "And this is Titty Walker. Now we're been introduced. Who are you?"
"Rupert," said the interloper miserably. "Rupert MacKenzie."
"You'll feel better with some tea," said Titty, unwrapping Cook's potted meat sandwiches and passing one across. "I expect you just felt dizzy for a moment. Anyone would, if they hadn't had enough breakfast."
"They're rotten scoundrels for leaving you behind," said Nancy.
"If it wasn't for... " said Rupert, stopped, and took a big gulp of tea.
"I'm sure they didn't mean to," said Titty.
"They said they couldn't wait," said Rupert. "They're going to meet me at the top."
"Well, that's all right then," said Nancy. "Much harder to go down than up. Finish that sandwich, and we'll go on. You'll be quite safe with us."
So when the explorers set off again, they were a rope of three. Titty led the way, then Rupert, and Nancy brought up the rearguard. There were a couple of sticky moments climbing over the boulder, but Titty heaved and Nancy pushed and Rupert went over in a scramble of flailing boots and closed eyes, and the ledge in front was clear almost all the way up to the ridge.
"Nearly half way up," said Nancy. "And no avalanches."
"Avalanches?" said Rupert, and stopped walking, bringing Titty to a halt as the rope tightened.
"Not really," said Titty hurriedly, although Rupert kept looking up at the cliffs above them.
"No snow," said Nancy. "Keep walking. Titty, stop when you get to the rocks at the end. We'll need to tie in."
It was only then that Titty realised the ledge was coming to an end. In front of her was a near-vertical chimney, a ragged fault line of tumbled rocks and turf leading up to the top of the ridge. She drew a deep breath. "Don't look down," she said to herself very quietly, and beside her she heard Rupert gulp.
"This is the end of it," Nancy said. "You can just see the cairn. Jack says it's easier than it looks, but we'll climb it properly. Titty, you remember how to belay, don't you? And if you go first, I'll bring Rupert up with me."
"I'm not sure.. " said Rupert.
"Oh, look here, you can't be thinking of giving up now," said Nancy. "We're nearly there. Just watch where Titty puts her feet and you'll manage."
For a moment, as Nancy belayed the rope to a spike of rock, Titty hesitated. They could go back. Nancy might huff a little, but she wouldn't really mind. Then she looked at the rocks again, and thought, if I put my boots there, and my hands there... Always keep three points of contact... Keep your centre of gravity over the rock... Weight on your feet... Before she knew it, she'd started, and once she'd started there was no time to think about the drop or Nancy and Rupert waiting below her. The world faded to each handgrip, the tufts of grass and the strata of the rock, flaked and pointed. It was easier than she had thought. There were plenty of footholds, and the lie of the rock meant that each outcrop was handily placed, almost like a stepped balustrade. "If I put my boot there," Titty thought, "Then I can reach that bit, and then I can step there... "
There was nowhere left to move. She looked up, and in front of her was not rock but a smooth, gently angled grassy slope. Two feet away stood the cairn, bigger than it had looked from below.
"Titty?" shouted Nancy from below. "Titty, what's happening?"
"I'm at the top!" shouted Titty.
"Well done! Find somewhere to belay!" Nancy shouted back.
Just at the top of the chimney there was a spike of rock, and Titty sat down and inched forward. She wrapped the rope carefully one-and-a half turns, feeding it around her back with one hand holding it taut and the other on the loose end, and braced her feet against rock. "Ready!" she shouted, and looked down.
It was a long way down. She could see right down the chimney to the top of Nancy's bent head, and four hundred feet below Nancy's feet she could see the dark waters of the tarn. Titty gulped, looked up, and took a tighter grip on the rope.
Rupert and Nancy seemed to come up very slowly. She could hear Nancy talking as they climbed. "Put your foot there. That's it. You can manage. Now your hand there - not there, you galoot, there - well done. Now your other foot. Not that one! Here. Now your hand again. Six inches up. That's it. Now your foot. Jiminy, but those boots are stiff. Now your other foot. I've got you. You're not going to fall."
It took a very long time. The rope came up in fits and starts, rough in her hands, and Titty began to think of letting Dick down over the cliff to rescue the crag bound sheep, and then lowering Dick himself, and how John had put his coat over the rocks to stop the rope fraying. She glanced at the spike of rock, and the Alpine Rope suddenly seemed thin and very worn. If Rupert fell, and pulled Nancy off with him, the rope would tighten with a tremendous jerk. Titty was not at all sure she'd be able to hold their weight. Maybe she should have made another turn around the belay. Nancy and Rupert had stopped again. "Don't look down," she heard Nancy say. "Keep as you're going. You're doing fine. Think of how pleased you'll be when we get to the top." Then Nancy said, exasperated, "Now look here. You're not going to let a pair of girls beat you, are you?"
But the rope did not move. "Golly," thought Titty. "What do I do if they're stuck?"
Behind Titty, there was a rattle of stones, and someone said, "Just hang on. I'm going down." Before she could even look round, a man with a shock of unruly hair went past her and down the chimney so quickly she blinked. And there was a woman picking her way just as easily towards Titty.
"You're doing fine," she said. "Just keep that rope taut. Sid'll help bring them up. We saw those three idiots on the rake and dashed over, but you're doing fine."
"Oh, thank you," gasped Titty, and the woman smiled at her.
"You were staying at Millbeck last night, weren't you?" she said. "Are you Nancy Blackett?"
"Nancy's the one with Rupert," said Titty, as the rope began to jerk again. "I'm Titty."
"I'm Alice," said the woman. "Who taught you to belay? Nancy? You picked just the right spot."
"Timothy - Mr Stedding - taught us all in the boat house, last winter, and then we've been practising," said Titty. The rope in her hands was moving steadily now, and she could here Nancy's voice below, cheerful again. "And Nancy's been climbing with Mary Swainson's Jack."
"I know Jack," said Alice. "And Timothy Stedding's a fine man on a mountain himself. Hello!"
"Oh, hello," said Nancy, flushed and grinning, pulling herself over the top of the chimney. "I say Titty, that was a jolly fine climb. We just got a bit stuck half way up. Is there any Kendal mint cake left? And have you seen those two inter - Rupert's friends?"
"The Pilgrim Fathers? We saw them head over towards Bright Beck," said Alice. "Arguing all the way. There'll be no catching them now."
"Oh well," said Nancy. "Well, I suppose we could take him down." She looked up the ridge at the summit of the Eiger. "It's a shame not to reach the top, though, after all that effort. I don't suppose Rupert would want to come with us?"
But when Rupert clambered over the top of the chimney he was pale and miserable, and it was obvious he would be quite happy never to set foot on a mountain again. It took two cups of sugared tea from the spare thermos before his hands stopped shaking.
"We'll take him down," said Alice's Sid. "We need to get down to the Old Dungeon Ghyll anyway. It's no bother to take him along. And I wouldn't mind a quiet word with those two prize idiots."
"Have a word with them for me too," said Nancy. "If you're sure. We'd be awfully grateful."
"Better take the rest of the Kendal Mint Cake, too," said Titty. "Just in case."
Alice laughed. "That's a grand idea," she said. "And we'll let Mrs Grisedale know you've been rescuing people and might be late."
"It was your rescue too," said Nancy.
"Oh, we just came along at the end," said Alice. "You'd have managed. Sid?"
"All set," said Sid, "C'mon, young un," he said to Rupert. "Not long until you're back down in the valley. Shake a leg."
"It was really nice to meet you!" said Titty.
"You, too," said Alice. "And I'm sure we'll see you again. Climb safe!"
With that, the two climbers and the rescuee set off down to the pass, leaving the two explorers on the ridge.
Well," said Nancy, coiling the rope into the knapsack. "That was a rum do. Fancy leaving that poor boy behind!"
"I wonder why he came up in the first place," said Titty.
"It was a jolly good thing we were there," said Nancy. "Come on. We ought to properly get to the summit."
Although the pass was grassy, the route to the summit of the Eiger was rough with loose shale. But it was not nearly as exposed as the North Face had been, and Nancy and Titty climbed steadily upwards, only slipping a little and stopping often to look at the grand vista of the fells behind them.
"That's Sca Fell, behind the Pikes," said Nancy. "And the wobbly ones are Crinkle Crags. The one that looks like a pyramid is Great Gable. The one that looks like a thimble is Pike o'Stickle. Daddy camped out there once, when he was young. The two really big ones are Bowfell and Esk Pike, and the big lump on its' own is Wrynose Fell, and you can see Blea Tarn from here, too. That's Wetherlam behind, and our own Kanchenjunga. Doesn't it look different from this side?"
"You can't even see where we camped," said Titty.
"We could do that again this year," said Nancy. "Or climb something else. We've got the car now. I'm sure mother won't mind if we borrow it for a couple of days."
"John said he needed to practise his navigation," said Titty. "Now he's - " she stopped.
"I expect it's different if you have to do it," said Nancy thoughtfully. "It's not like just doing it for the fun of it. I say, Titty, buck up, that's the top."
The wind had risen a little, and when Nancy leant against the summit cairn it caught her short hair and blew it across her face. She was smiling.
"I'm going to learn to fly," she said.