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Chapter 1 - August Evening, Carrick


“GOSH!” said Fiona, for the twentieth time, “isn’t the train ever coming in?”

“Och, it’ll be in in a wee while,” said the porter reassuringly, but Fiona did not believe him.

“It’s five minutes late already,” she insisted. “There’s probably been a breakdown or something. Oh! Botheration! Why must it happen to this one train?”

“Seeing that it’s the only one to-day,” said Ninian, pushing a penny into an empty chocolate machine and picking it up as it fell through, “it’s hardly surprising that if anything was going to happen it would happen to that one.”

“Bother the train,” said Fiona. She looked up at the big station clock. Surprisingly enough the hands had moved on only a minute since she looked last. She stared both ways down the lines. There was nothing to be seen but the long narrowing track of metals and the rolling purple and green hills. Beyond, in a series of blue peaks, rose the Corriedon Mountains, shimmering in the heat of an August afternoon.

Fiona and Ninian Stewart were waiting on Asheenach platform for the London train that was bringing Hugh Murray and their cousin Sandy Stewart from the south. They had arrived too soon, just in case the train was early, and that by some awful chance they should miss a minute or two of each other’s company.

They had inspected every inch of the station; every crate and bundle; every pile of newspapers and each haunch of venison. They had talked to the porter, the man in the ticket office, and the station-master. They had had a drink of beer in the hotel. There was nothing else left to do.

“If the train doesn’t come in soon,” grumbled Ninian, “the Ford’ll melt.” Certainly the sun was very hot. The sky was cloudless; there was no wind. There were a couple of red-brown spots on the hill opposite that looked very much like deer. Some sheep were feeding near the station palings, and a black spaniel ran in and out, panting and lolling out his pink tongue.

Ninian left Fiona sitting on a wooden bench chewing a Crunchie bar, and wandered off to the edge of the platform. For the hundredth time he gazed down the lines.

Suddenly he gave a wild yell.

“It’s coming, Fiona!” he shouted. His sister sprang up, and together they raced over the iron bridge and down on to the platform the other side. The train, with its curl of white smoke, came panting up the glen very much out of breath after the long climb up from Dingwall.

It stopped with a jerk and the steam came hissing and pouring from the engine. Doors were thrown open and mail-bags, trunks, crates and parcels came hurtling out.

Fiona and Ninian walked down the train, peering eagerly into every carriage. Just ahead of them a door was pushed open and Sandy jumped out, his arms full of fishing rods and gun cases. He looked just the same as ever, with his broad grin and untidy head, but he seemed to have grown even larger, and was easily as tall as Ninian. His wrists had left his coat sleeves some way behind, and his trousers were a bit short too, but being Sandy, he had not noticed and if he had he did not care.

Hugh jumped down behind him with a beaming face.

“Oh!” said Fiona, staring. “You’ve grown a moustache!”

“D’you think it’s an improvement?” he asked.

“Definitely not,” said Fiona; but Ninian looked at it enviously, and tentatively rubbed a finger along his upper lip.

The last of the luggage was hauled out before the little train went puffing on into the hills.

“Well!” said Hugh, stretching himself and gazing appreciatively across to Corriedon. “Gosh ! It’s good to be back!”

“Umn!” said Sandy, as they clattered back over the bridge. “I thought I should burst in the train. Seeing all the hills flashing past and having to stick on in that boiling furnace!”

The porter was carrying their things across the lines, and helped to stow them into the Ford.

“Where are the twins?” asked Hugh, as they wedged two suitcases on to the carrier.

“Jean was offered a day’s fishing,” said Ninian, “and Jamie went with her. There wouldn’t have been room for them anyway.”

“Is Drake still at Carrick?” asked Sandy.

“No, he left in a huff, thank goodness,” said Fiona. “It’s been taken by some friends of father’s — Brown, they’re called. He was in the army. They don’t come up till next week, so they said we could fish until they arrived.”

“Sounds a bit better than Drake,” said Hugh, climbing into the back seat. “No more poaching?”

“No, and it’s been hopeless for fishing too,” said Ninian, as they jolted out of the yard. “It’s too bright to-day, really, but Jean said she couldn’t bear it any longer, and just went.”

“What have you been doing then?” asked Hugh, leaning forward so that he could talk more easily with Ninian and Fiona in front.

“Just lazing about,” said Fiona. “And then, of course, we haven’t told you the thing.”

“What thing?” asked Sandy.

“We promised not to say until the twins were there too,” said Ninian. “But it’s something really good!”

“Oh, this is too much!” groaned Hugh. “What sort of a thing?”

But the others refused to give even the smallest hint.

However, there was plenty to talk about, for they had not all four been together since last summer. Hugh had come up to Carrick for the hind shooting, and Sandy had come for Easter. Fiona had been to England for part of the summer and had seen a good deal of Hugh, who was at Pirbright, and Ninian, who was at Sandhurst.

But there was masses to say; masses to discuss and plan; and plenty of reminiscences.

They stopped for a minute at the top of the hill and looked down across the long blue length of Loch Marba, with its pine-wooded islands and bank of sheer hills.

Ninian let the car run down the glen with the engine off. The hood was down and as they glided along the smell of heather came pouring down the purple hills on each side of them.

Hugh sniffed hungrily. Last time he had been down Ninian had had the chains on, and even then they had slipped on the ice; and instead of purple the hills had all been white.

The engine came on again with a roar as they reached the bottom at Kinlochcarrick. Ninian stopped here to send a telegram he had forgotten to do at the station, and also bought some chocolate. Then they were off again, through the cool green birch wood, and out into the glare of Slatterdale and the tumbling waters of the Kerry.

“Not much longer now,” said Sandy, as they climbed up into Fairloch. “Thank goodness, because I can’t bear to wait for this tremendous secret much longer.”

Ninian and Fiona looked at each other.

“Perhaps he won’t like it?” she suggested.

“Probably not. In fact I should think it is the last thing in the world he’d like.”

“Oh, can’t you give me one little hint?” cried Sandy. “This is so tantalising!” But his cousins only laughed and drove on even faster.

At last they swung down the hill into Carrick, crossed the bridge, and started jolting up the track by the river to the lodge.

There were shrieks of delight as each well-remembered pool was passed, each fold of the wood, every crofter’s house. The air rang with “D’you remember when —?” which continued right up to the lodge door.

As Hugh got out he realised that everything was just as it had been on the day he had first driven up the track, and looked out across Hernsary and the sea. There was old Maggie too, beaming in the doorway. Then she was pushed aside as the twins rushed past her and flung themselves on him.

It took half an hour for every one to get sorted out and the things put in their appointed places. Then there was tea, a lengthy business, because Maggie’s teas were not things to be taken lightly, they were much too large and too good.

When at last it was finished and they were all sitting in a row on the grass outside, Sandy leant forward.

“Now tell me!” he said.

“Yes, come on!” said Hugh.

The others looked at Ninian. “You tell!” they said.

Maddeningly, Ninian took out his pipe, filled it and lit it. Then, when it was going properly, he spat out a small piece of tobacco and began.

“To start with,” he said, “I’d better warn you it’s got nothing to do with fishing or stalking!

Sandy looked disappointed at this, and Hugh wrinkled up his forehead.

“Guess it,” said Jean.

“I couldn’t possibly.”

“Well, just try.”

“Has it got anything to do with ponies?” asked Hugh.

“No, nothing!”

“Walking?” said Sandy gloomily, with visions of long hot hikes across the hills.

“No,” cried the others.

“Sailing then?”

“We must tell him!” cried Jamie, and Ninian began again:

“We’ve been lent a boat by the Danvers of Loch Bruisch. It’s a cabin cruiser really, about fifteen tons. Four bunks, a sink and a lavatory. We cook on a Primus, and there are all kinds of charts and pilot books. It’s all complete, and the engine works, and,” his voice rose to a shout, “we’re going to take her round to Flatfish Bay and live on her, and —” He could get no further.

With a wild shriek Sandy leapt to his feet, rolled James over, and followed him down the hill. They chased each other, yelling with joy, until at last they joined the others, panting and grinning.

“Was there ever such a blissful plan?” crowed Jean.

To order your copy of Steer By The Stars see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.