The day Daniel Talbot brought home a stuffed duck in a glass case, everyone thought he’d gone out of his mind. Even he had his doubts at times.
“Fancy spending your money on that,” his mother scolded him. “You needn’t think it’s coming into this house, because it isn’t!”
When Daniel, Emma, Charlie and Julia, the Four Merlins, set out to sail their model paddle steamer on the old canal, strange and dangerous things start to happen. Then Daniel and Julia make a discovery they want to share with the others.
This e-Book ISBN: 978-0-9954549-2-7
also available as a paperback
White Tree Publishing
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The Merlin Adventure is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner of this abridged edition.
The Bible verse in this story is taken from “The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.” (No matter what version of the Bible you use, the verses have the same message and promises.)
(See also www.youversion.com for free downloads of over a thousand Bible translations in over a thousand languages on your phone, tablet, and computer.)
About the Book
A Word from the Author
About White Tree Publishing
About the Author
More Books for Young Readers
I first wrote this story some years ago, and things have now changed a lot, especially with electronics and digital communication. No mobile (cell) phones, digital cameras, tablets and computers back then. So although the main story is unchanged, some things have been updated to make the adventure happen today.
Also note that in America a mother is a mom, while over on the Merlins’ side of the Atlantic a mother is a mum. Fathers are usually known as dad on both sides. And trainers are what Americans call sneakers. There are a few other differences, especially in the way some words are spelt. This book uses the British English spelling because that’s where the adventure takes place.
THE MERLIN PROJECT
The day Daniel Talbot brought home a stuffed duck in a glass case, everyone thought he’d gone out of his mind. Even he had his doubts at times.
“Fancy spending your money on that,” his mother scolded him. “You needn’t think it’s coming into this house, because it isn’t!”
Daniel stood on the doormat and looked down at the cracked glass case by his feet. He sniffed. Nothing. Well, nothing much. Cautiously he sniffed again. Not too deeply. Surely it wasn’t possible the smell was coming from his latest possession. He was quite sure it hadn’t smelt in the shop. And the shopkeeper had been going to throw it out! Such a wonderful specimen of a mallard! Just like the ducks he saw most days on the old canal. And so well preserved….
“Pooh!” His sister Emma had come down the stairs. Daniel avoided looking at her, but she was not to be silenced.
“What is it, Mum? What’s Dan got now? It doesn’t half pong!” Emma held her nose and pretended to be dazed by the smell.
Daniel shook his head. Trust her! Anyway, she was probably saying it because of what Mum had just said. It didn’t smell like something rotting, just of damp from the back of the old shop. Sort of…. Anyway, there was no way his sister could have smelt it from that far away. He hadn’t only brought it back for himself, but for all the Merlins. It would look great down in their Merlin Room.
Once more he stared down at the broken glass on the front of the case and suddenly realised that his worries were over. Yes, perhaps it did smell just a tiny bit -- but not for much longer. "Dad could put a new piece of glass in the front," he explained. "That would keep the smell in." He coughed, realising his mistake. "Not that it does smell, but it would if it did."
His mother frowned, and Daniel could see she hadn’t really understood the point he was making. Emma came forward for a closer look.
Mrs. Talbot relented. “You’d better bring it in and shut the door. I think I’d rather be gassed than frozen. It’s cold out there.”
Daniel did as he was told. Emma looked at the duck closely, apparently captivated by the dark green head and the brown wing feathers. It was a mallard, swimming on a sea of green plaster waves, with reeds and a blue sky painted on the background. The plaster sea was falling to bits -- and so was the duck.
“It must have been very cheap,” Emma said.
“I’m calling him Cedric,” Daniel announced. “Anyway, I didn’t buy him, I was given him. So there!”
Both Emma and his brother Charlie called him Dan. He didn’t mind all that much. They were both younger than him, Emma being next, and Charlie the youngest. “He’s going to be the Merlin mascot. Come on, Cedric, come and meet the kids.”
Their mother frowned in disapproval. “I wish you wouldn’t use that word, Daniel.”
“Cedric?” Daniel asked, pretending not to understand. He was glad his parents called him by his full name.
Mrs. Talbot smiled. “I don’t mind what you call this … this duck, as long as you don’t call it ‘mother’. It’s just that I don’t like you calling Julia and your brother and sister ‘kids’.”
Emma shook her head crossly, sending her long light brown hair over her eyes. She said she liked her hair long, but she sometimes admitted she wished it wasn’t so curly at the end. Even so, she told everyone she was happy enough with her hair as it was.
She noticed that she was nearly as tall as her brother, and in a year or two she might even be taller. Better not say it though, she decided. Dan was such fun, even though he could be annoying at times. Always doing unexpected things, like coming home with this stupid duck.
“We’re not kids,” Emma protested. “We’re as good as you are, Dan. We’re all Merlins!”
Daniel liked the sound of that. He respected Emma for speaking up, even if she was nearly as tall as he was. With the three of them so close together in ages, they were bound to be a bit the same size. Perhaps he would shoot up soon.
The Merlins. Calling themselves the Merlins had been his idea for the four of them. Right opposite the house was Merlin Park, and in their front garden was a sign that now swung slowly in the March breeze: THE MERLIN GUEST HOUSE.
He liked Brenton, but nobody seemed to spend long staying in the town. Their visitors were either families stopping off for the night on their way through in the holidays, or people on business. King Arthur's Rise -- their road -- was close to several industries. Sometimes people would phone or ring the bell quite late at night. In the window was a sign saying, VACANCIES. But lately business had been slow, and no one had booked in advance for the Easter holiday, even though full board was an option. Full board meant giving lunch as well as breakfast and an evening meal, but not many people chose it.
Everyone who stopped off seemed to like being opposite Merlin Park, in spite of the general area “being rather rundown,” as one guest had rudely written in the visitors’ book in the hall. The Merlin Room was down in the basement. No one would ever want to sleep there. It was gloomy, with the plaster peeling from the wall below the small window. On their door was a small hand-painted notice: THE MERLIN ROOM. That was Charlie’s handiwork.
Charlie Talbot was clever for his age, but he wished he was as old and as clever as Daniel. He grew his brown hair long and bushy at the sides, and thought it looked quite good. But Emma said he grew it like that to hide his sticky-out ears, Daniel said he did it to look taller, and Charlie often said, “Shut up about it!” Julia never said anything.
It was the first day of the Easter holidays. Charlie had been to tea with Julia Kingsdown, the fourth member of the Merlins. Julia lived just five doors down in King Arthur’s Rise.
Daniel sometimes lay in bed and wondered whether King Arthur or Merlin had ever been to Brenton. He thought of the old canal, the wire factory, the scrap yard and the abandoned warehouse. It seemed unlikely. He also wondered why their road was called King Arthur’s Rise, when it was about as flat as any road could be anywhere.
Charlie had brought Julia back with him. In the Merlin Room was a desktop computer, with a really old monitor with a glass screen like a goldfish bowl. They used it to play adventure games, which only lasted about twenty minutes. To be more accurate, it was the monitor that would only last about twenty minutes -- before the picture broke up.
They wished they could have a proper monitor like the one in the small office upstairs. No amount of shaking or fiddling around with the controls made any difference. But then, like Cedric the duck, it had been something a neighbour had been going to throw out. It wasn’t connected to the Internet, but they were allowed to use the one upstairs when they needed to go online, as long as they asked permission.
Julia had an iPhone with an Internet connection, but their favourite games were on the hard drive of this old computer. Daniel knew that Julia’s family seemed to have a lot more spare money than the Talbots. She even had an iPad.
This evening the monitor seemed to forget to break down, and they were able to play the game for over half an hour before having to stop in disgust.
“Right then.” Daniel coughed and wondered how to bring up the subject of Cedric. Julia Kingsdown and his brother Charlie hadn’t yet had the privilege of seeing it. There must be some way of making them want to adopt the duck as a mascot. His sister Emma probably did, even though she’d been so rude earlier. Well, rude in a joking sort of way.
“Right then,” he repeated, “now we’re all together, I have a little surprise for you.”
The duck was covered over with the curtain Emma had taken down from the small basement window. Mrs. Talbot insisted that the curtain was closed at all times when the light was on, in case any visitors looked in from outside and saw the mess and thought every room in the guest house would be like it!
Emma had placed a large empty cardboard box on the windowsill to prevent anyone looking in.
Daniel had planned quite a speech for the occasion. He started off. “Members of the Merlins, what we need is a mascot.”
“Hear, hear!” Charlie shouted, rising to his feet. “How about a round table like King Arthur had?”
Daniel groaned. “A table can’t be a mascot,” he explained. “It has to be a thing like … like … well, like a duck.”
“We can’t have a duck,” Julia interrupted. “It would never live here. It would wake up your guests in the morning by quacking loudly.”
“Now just a minute.” Daniel could see his planned speech would never be made. There was nothing for it but to pull the curtain away to unveil his latest bargain. “If you will just look this way I will show you … Cedric!”
Julia and Charlie stared in astonishment at the sight of Cedric swimming on his broken plaster sea.
“Is he yours, Daniel?” Julia asked, looking into the case through the broken glass. “It smells a bit, doesn’t it?”
Daniel sighed. “Don’t you start, please!” He was glad Julia called him by his full name. He would probably try to stop Emma and Charlie doing it if he stood any chance of success, which he knew he didn’t.
“I got him from the old junk shop by the railway arch,” he explained. “You wouldn’t believe it, but he was given to me.” He looked at Julia’s expression. “Yes, perhaps you would believe it. I know he smells a bit, but it’s just because he’s got a bit damp. He won’t smell, as soon as he dries out and the glass is mended.”
Julia looked doubtful. The same age as Emma, but nothing like her in looks, Julia was very much part of the family. Her hair was also long, but straight and tied back. “Perhaps it won’t,” she said, wrinkling up her nose. “Still, things could be worse. You could have guests staying here for Easter. You’d soon have to get it outside then!”
Daniel laughed. He knew Julia was joking. Well, he hoped she was.
Charlie now took his turn in front of the mallard. He examined the wooden frame of the case. “We could mend that. All we need is a new piece of glass. I think it’s super.”
In spite of being the youngest, Charlie was the most practical of the four. He was the one who could mend and make things better than any of the others. At present they were all involved in building a model paddle steamer -- The Pride of Avalon -- but for the moment Cedric the duck had put it very much in second place.
Daniel felt pleased with himself. He told the others to sit down. Cedric could be put away for the moment and the curtain hung back over the window. As he pulled the curtain completely clear of the case, a corner of it caught on the broken piece of glass. The duck and his surroundings spun round on the smooth table and crashed to the ground. In a cloud of dust and broken glass, the precious exhibit turned into a heap of rubble.
The door at the top of the basement stairs opened, and Mrs. Talbot called down. “What on earth are you doing down there?”
Then the doorbell rang. Daniel hoped it was a visitor. The Merlin Guest House had no guests at the moment, and he knew his parents were worried.
Daniel’s plans for the meeting were forgotten. Emma fetched the old broom used for sweeping the steps at the back. As she swept, Charlie and Julia helped Daniel place the rather battered remains of Cedric onto the table. His case no longer existed, and his plaster sea and background were being brushed into the dustpan.
“I’m sad about that,” Daniel said. “You’d better get on with the meeting, Emma.”
Emma Talbot was the second oldest of the Merlins, but only older than Julia by a few weeks. For her, too, the evening had been spoilt. She’d been waiting eagerly for Daniel to unveil Cedric. “Has everybody got their money? Right, let’s count it all up.”
Emma pulled out the drawer in the old kitchen table as far as it would go. Apart from some old magazines, it looked empty. The drawer came right out. Stuck on the back of the drawer was a small cardboard box.
Charlie helped Emma count the money. “Easily enough for the engine and batteries. The Pride of Avalon will be floating before lunchtime tomorrow. Cheer up, Dan!”
Daniel raised a smile. Yes, come on, he told himself, don’t let the others down by sulking.
This was supposed to be a big night. For several weeks they’d been putting money aside for what they called the Merlin Project. Charlie had been given a model boat kit for his birthday. The well-meaning uncle and aunt who’d given it couldn’t have realised how difficult it would be to make, and how much it would cost to get it seaborne. Aunt Jane and Uncle Steve were old-fashioned, and didn’t agree with plastic toys or models. Every present they’d ever given had been made of wood, and this boat kit was no different. It was made of lightweight balsa wood that had to be cut out with a sharp knife and glued together using a smelly glue called balsa wood cement.
Their father said that judging from the picture on the box; it must be a very old kit “from the year dot.” It turned out that Uncle Steve had bought it while he was still at school and never got round to building it.
When Charlie opened the box and saw what was inside, he could see why! “You’ll all have to help me,” he’d said in despair.
So the others had agreed to help him. The boat, when finished, would be a twin paddle steamer -- or, with a bit of luck, something that looked like a twin paddle steamer -- about eighteen inches long. Having called the boat The Pride of Avalon while it was still a bundle of balsa wood pieces printed with lines for cutting, they’d started on the Merlin Project. The name had been Emma’s idea because Avalon was supposed to have been King Arthur’s home. Daniel thought it sounded rather a grand name for a model paddle steamer, but he went along with it.
Halfway through cutting the balsa wood sheets and sticking the bits together, Charlie had realised there was no engine. Old McHenry (as everyone who went to his model shop called him -- but not to his face) had shown them a suitable electric motor with drive shafts and gearing to turn both paddle wheels at the same time. The price came as a major shock, but with the kit already looking so good, they'd quickly decided it would be worth saving for. Old McHenry had promised to put one aside, and they'd been saving up for weeks. Daniel said that maybe Uncle Steve had found out the price of a motor and gearing years ago, which is why he'd not even started on the kit!
The Pride of Avalon was finished at last. Daniel checked the pile of coins. Not that he doubted there would be enough, but he was excited now. The duck had been put on the shelf by the side of the blocked-in chimney, and The Pride of Avalon had taken Cedric’s place on the table.
Charlie picked up the boat and looked at the black hull. It was a paddle steamer with a white removable deck to access the motor and batteries. There were little see-through portholes and cabin windows, made by sticking strips of clear plastic on the inside of the cut-outs. They helped make the model look more real, and red and black funnel made the whole boat look perfect -- well, almost perfect. Emma had used the computer upstairs to print the name neatly on two strips of paper; and Charlie, the practical one, had stuck them on each side towards the front -- The Pride of Avalon.
“By the way,” Julia said, “I was telling Charlie earlier. You remember that dead mallard we saw by the canal yesterday? Well, there was another one floating in the water today.” She lowered her eyes. “I know it wasn’t the same one. This one was a female.”
“Why?” Emma demanded. “Why should two ducks die in two days? We’ve never seen a dead one ever before -- and now there's not just one, but two!" She had a quick temper. "If I thought anyone had killed them, I'd----"
The door into the Merlin Room opened and a young man -- yes, quite young probably -- stood in the doorway. "Is it all right if I come in? I'm not interrupting anything, I hope. Your mother kindly said she'd put me and my wife up at short notice. We were intending to stay with friends, but I'm afraid it wasn't possible at the last moment as they were ill. My wife, Helen, is upstairs unpacking." He smiled. "I thought it best to keep out of the way."
Daniel nodded politely. All guests must be made to feel welcome. Their mother had given them strict instructions about that! If they were spending time unpacking it sounded as though the two visitors would be staying for a few days.
The visitor walked over to the table and looked at The Pride of Avalon, but kept his hands well clear. “I like the paddle steamer,” he said. “Did you make it or did you buy it?”
The four Merlins said in unison, “We made it.” Then they all laughed.
“It’s really good. My wife and I came past the old canal at the bottom of your road. Do you sail it there?”
“It’s not ready yet,” Daniel explained. He liked the young man. He didn’t really look old enough to have a wife, but then what did he know?
The visitor glanced across at Cedric. “Maybe you could use it to pull your pet duck down the canal.” He smiled and looked slightly embarrassed at being stared at. “I’m sorry, I haven’t told you who I am. My name’s Luke Elliot.”
A SHOPPING EXPEDITION
The visitor stood by the paddle steamer. “The Pride of Avalon,” he read aloud, but he didn’t laugh. He went to pick it up. “May I?”
The Merlins watched anxiously as their precious model boat was handled with great care.
“It’s nearly finished,” Daniel Talbot told the visitor. “We’re going to buy the motor for it tomorrow morning. There’s a shop in the town that sells all sorts of things for models.”
“Been saving up for it?” he asked pleasantly, probably guessing from Daniel’s excitement what had been going on.
Julia pointed to the pile of coins on the table. “They’re our savings, Mr. Elliot. Tomorrow is the launch date.”
The man looked interested. “Call me Luke. Helen will be down soon.”
Emma smiled. “I’m Emma,” she said. “That’s Charlie there, and Dan. We’re all Talbots. And this is Julia Kingsdown. This is the Merlin Room. We call ourselves the Merlins. It’s a name we got from all the places around here. That’s Merlin Park just across the road. Julia lives five doors down here in King Arthur’s Rise. You’ll find lots of King Arthur names like that round here. I don’t know why.” Emma sounded out of breath. “The Pride of Avalon was my idea of a name for the boat.”
“You’re going to see quite a bit of me and Helen over the coming week or so,” Luke Elliott told them. “We’re going to be in and out a lot, although we’re going to be rather busy. But I’d like to see how your paddle steamer goes. It’s a long time since I built a boat myself. I used to be a keen model-maker when I was at school. Mostly aircraft. Radio control and all that sort of thing. Yes, it takes me back a bit to see all this balsa wood.” He sniffed. “Balsa wood cement. I wish I had a bit more time. I’d like to give you a hand.”
Charlie looked up suddenly. “There are one or two things we’re not too sure about,” he began to say.
“Not many,” Daniel interrupted quickly.
“I’m sure there aren’t,” Luke Elliot said. “What did you have in mind, Charlie?”
Charlie felt awkward now, wishing he’d kept quiet. What would the others think? He hadn’t meant to make it seem as though they’d not been able to make the model properly, but that’s probably what it sounded like. So he said nothing.
“The wood went all rough when we painted it,” Daniel explained, growing tired of waiting for Charlie to reply. “It’s the first balsa wood model we’ve ever built. We sandpapered it ever so smooth before we put the paint on.”
“It looks all right to me,” Luke Elliot said, and he sounded as though he really meant it.
Emma nodded. “It does now, but it didn’t at first. We had to keep putting layers of paint on and sandpapering it all the time.”
"We wouldn't have bothered -- if we hadn't been waiting for the motor," Julia added. "I don't suppose it will make its sail any better, but it looks much smarter."
“Did you use a sanding-sealer?” Luke Elliot asked.
“Did we?” Charlie asked, who had found his tongue again. “I don’t think so. What is a…?”
“Sanding-sealer? Well, you paint it on the wood when you’ve sanded it down. When it’s dry, you use sandpaper again. You can paint some more on and sand it down again if necessary. Then you put on the paint. Anyway, you seem to have done very well with several layers of paint. Isn’t that how they paint Rolls-Royce cars? Layers and layers of paint, each one carefully sanded down by hand.”
“It should keep the water out,” Daniel joked, glad that their visitor had proved to be so helpful.
Luke Elliot put the model down. “It’s extremely well built. I’d never have thought it was your first. Perhaps it made a big difference to have four of you working on it. You should be able to tackle a much larger one next time.”
“If we could afford it,” Emma said.
Within a few minutes Luke Elliot said he had to go and collect Helen to see some people they knew in Brenton.
The next morning Julia Kingsdown called in early. Julia always seemed to come round early in the school holidays, as far as the three younger Talbots were concerned. The Kingsdown family were early risers, so Julia usually found some trace of breakfast still around when she arrived. No one minded her arriving early, because she could always help with the clearing away and loading the dishwasher. In the holiday season this was especially useful -- if and when they had guests staying. This morning Julia got a surprise. The tables were clear.
“Luke and Helen Elliot wanted breakfast early,” Daniel explained. “Mum said she wasn’t going to cook breakfast twice, so we had to get up early as well!”
“I’m glad,” Julia said with a broad grin. “It will do you good for a change.”
The sun was out and the morning already felt warm. It seemed the right sort of day for sailing boats. Julia was as keen as any of the Merlins to launch The Pride of Avalon. At first, the idea of building a model boat hadn’t really appealed to her. The others had all been keen, and it was Emma’s enthusiasm that had finally won her over.
Emma, with two brothers, often liked to do things Julia considered to be “boys’ things.” But when she joined in, many of the things they did became interesting. Interesting, rather than exciting. Julia often hoped for a bit of excitement, and soon their model paddle steamer was going to start them on quite an adventure. Daniel called it the Merlin Adventure.
Emma was upstairs. She could hear Julia talking to Daniel and Charlie. “Won’t be long,” she called over the banisters. “Go down to the Merlin Room and collect the money.”
Julia went down and pulled the drawer fully open. Then she emptied the cardboard box taped to the back of the drawer. That had been Charlie's idea, putting it on the outside like that -- a brilliant idea, he often told them. When Daniel said it wasn't all that brilliant, Charlie pointed out that the money hadn't been stolen -- and Daniel was stuck for an answer.
Soon Emma was ready and the four of them set off down the road, the pile of coins jingling in the pocket of Daniel’s jeans. The main part of the town, with the shops, was the other side of the old canal. This was where Old McHenry’s kept the model shop. The Merlins took the quickest route.
The weather had unexpectedly turned mild, and in the sun they felt almost hot as they hurried along King Arthur’s Rise, turned left at the late night corner shop and crossed the footbridge between the wire factory and what was known as the Basin. There were plenty of reeds there, and the mud level had risen once the canal had fallen into disuse. This was also the best place for seeing the few mallards that swam on the canal, but the only nest the Merlins had discovered so far this year was further along the canal, opposite the car-breaker’s yard.
The dead mallard Julia had told them about the previous evening was still lying on the mud below the bridge. They stared through the railings at it, feeling it deserved to be buried decently, but unable to get down there. Emma gave a shiver. Even though the duck looked damp and untouchable, she felt sorry for it.
This one was a plain brown colour and would be a female. It was the males that had the bright colours. Julia was wearing red shorts today, and they looked new. Emma looked down at her own clothes: blue jeans and a red top. Although her clothes were quite old and worn, she and Julia were both wearing red. It was the human females who looked brighter than the males!
Julia always seemed to have new clothes. Her mother was always buying her the latest and best. Lucky Julia! But Emma knew that her mother had three children to clothe, and only ran The Merlin Guest House to help out her father’s wages from the wire factory. They were fortunate to have such a large house. It was her mother’s hard work for the visitors that helped pay for that.
To Emma it had seemed absolutely ages getting enough money for the motor. There was no other shop in Brenton where they could buy models and things. Old McHenry who kept the model shop had promised he would put one aside, but they’d taken so long saving up that she was now afraid he’d sold it. Then they would have to wait for Old McHenry to get another one back in stock, find the price had gone up, have to start saving again, and then….
“Come on,” Charlie called impatiently, tugging at Daniel’s shirt when they reached the shop. “You’ve got the money, so you’d better come in.”
“All right. All right.” Daniel hardly dared enter the shop. He shared Emma’s fear that the motor, the only one Old McHenry said was suitable for their paddle steamer, had been sold.
“Come on,” Emma pleaded.
Inside, the model shop was quiet. No sign of Old McHenry. Daniel wondered what his name really was. The nickname suited him, and it was probably better not to know. It might be such an ordinary or unsuitable name that this Aladdin’s Cave, stacked with every sort of model kit imaginable, might become just an ordinary shop. It was the meeting point for many local children after school. They would jostle each other for a front place at the window and argue that one make was much better than another.
Occasionally a lucky one would go inside. To go inside you had to have money. At least, you had to convince Old McHenry that you wanted to buy something. He was a pleasant man, but the shop was small. Somehow he could tell who had money and who didn’t, the minute anyone walked in.
Old McHenry appeared from a room behind the counter. He smiled at the Merlins. He could obviously sense their excitement -- and their money.
“We’ve come for the motor,” Charlie said, who was nearest the counter.
“Motor? I’m sorry. I’ve got so many motors I’m afraid I can’t remember which one you wanted.”
“You put it aside for us,” Emma explained politely. “It’s an electric one for our balsa wood paddle steamer.”
“Did I? Let me see.” The old man explored the contents of a drawer under the counter. “Ah, yes, I remember now. ‘To be paid for’, it says here. I take it you’ve completed the kit?”
“Yes,” Daniel said, “and saved up enough money.” He scooped up a handful of one pound and fifty pence coins from his pocket and let them fall on the counter. As he felt for the remainder, Old McHenry gave a laugh.
“Well, I shan’t be short of small change today. I’ll probably need it, too. I’ve been selling a lot of little items lately.”
“Come on, kids, move aside!”
The Merlins turned in surprise to see who had spoken. Two youths had come into the small shop and were pushing their way to the front. The younger one seemed to be about sixteen years old, and the other at least two years older.
“Come on,” the older one repeated. “We’ve come to buy some proper model equipment, not toys!”
The way he said “toys” made Daniel angry. He expected the shopkeeper to come to his defence. To his surprise, Old McHenry looked rather worried.
“I’ll see to you in a minute,” he said quietly to the Merlins. Then he added, “When you’ve made your minds up.”
"But we know what we want," Emma protested. She had no intention of being pushed around by two youths -- such rude ones as well!
Old McHenry frowned. The two youths had now pushed the four Merlins aside and were pointing up at the shelves.
“Come on, pop,” the older one said, “get us one of those high power motors down.”
Daniel could see Old McHenry's problem. The motor the two youths was pointing to was -- well, even more expensive than theirs. If they insisted on being served before the youths, Old McHenry might not be able to sell the more expensive one. The youths might go away. The Merlins had waited long enough for their motor, and a few more minutes wouldn't do any harm.
“That’s all right,” Daniel said. “We’ll just have a look around.”
Old McHenry seemed to have changed his mind. “No,” he said firmly, ignoring the two youths leaning on his counter. “You were here first, so I’m going to serve you first.”
Emma looked at her older brother. At home he could be such an annoying and obstinate boy. She’d quite expected him to make a fuss. In a way she was glad he hadn’t, but just a little bit sorry. It would have been interesting to see what would happen.
Old McHenry completely ignored the two youths now. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying putting them in their place. He smiled at the Merlins. “Now let me see. A motor and battery.”
“We want that motor up there. Now.” The older youth pointed up at the shelves.
Old McHenry took no notice. “You’ll need to make up a cradle to sit the motor in securely,” he explained to Daniel, who had now made his way to the front again. Emma was close to him. Charlie and Julia had decided to stay near the door. “And you’ll need these small couplings for the paddle wheels you showed me.”
“What about the battery?” Daniel asked. “How do we fix it to the motor?”
“The easiest way is to use paper clips. Twist the wire from the motor round them, and then clip them on to the battery when you want to start the motor.”
Slowly Old McHenry checked through the money while the two youths watched impatiently. Yes, they had enough. The motor and battery hadn’t gone up in price. Good, now they could take the motor home and get it fitted.
“Just a moment,” Old Mc Henry called, as they were leaving. “You may be needing this. It’s a spar.”
The spar was a long strip of hard balsa wood, about a quarter of an inch square. “It’s a gift,” he added, seeing their doubtful expressions. “It’s going to come in handy for the cradle.”
The shopkeeper winked at Daniel and thanked them all for coming. Then he thanked the two youths for waiting so patiently -- he surely couldn't have meant it -- and asked them exactly which motor it was they wanted.
The last thing the four Merlins heard as they went out through the door was one of the youths saying, “It’s not for us anyway, so it doesn’t matter how much it costs.”
“You should have told those two exactly what you thought of them,” Charlie said as soon as the shop door closed behind them. “I wouldn’t have let them push me around like that.”
Daniel, remembering how Charlie had stayed near the door, laughed at his brother’s advice. “What would have been the point?” he said. “We got our motor, and Old McHenry will be able to sell a much more expensive one. It’s a good thing you’re not any older. You’d probably have started a punch-up!”
“Let’s hope we don’t see them again. I never want to have anything to do with them!” Emma sounded cross.
“I don’t see why we would,” Julia said. “After all, we’ve never seen them before. It will be a long time before we’ve got enough money to go to that shop again.”
Daniel and Charlie agreed.
For the time being the two youths and Old McHenry were forgotten. It would only take a few minutes to make up a cradle for the motor now they had its exact size, and the balsa wood cement would dry quickly, although not quickly enough to help their own impatience.
Emma was amused to notice that her mother’s friend, who kept a guest house at the far end of King Arthur’s Rise, was in the kitchen. This was Mrs. Wendy Hardwick, and she always seemed to have some terrible piece of bad luck to complain about whenever she came round. She wasn’t really a proper friend of her mother’s, but she’d often just walk in when she was passing.
She wanted the Merlins to call her Aunty Wendy, but they didn't like her very much and very politely called her Mrs. Hardwick. Today, so it seemed, she'd come round to complain to Mrs. Talbot that her latest guests were turning out to be extremely troublesome. But then all Mrs. Hardwick's guests turned out to be extremely troublesome -- if her stories were to be believed. The Merlins listened from the hall for a couple of minutes before creeping downstairs, laughing quietly.
Once in the Merlin Room, Julia and Emma cleared the table. Charlie sorted out the balsa wood off-cuts with Old McHenry’s gift of a spar, and Daniel picked up the sharp modelling knife. Carefully he shaped some of the balsa wood. He was surprised by the amount of wood left from the kit, but they had definitely used everything according to the plans. Perhaps these bits where meant for the motor, although they weren’t shown on the plans. And with the free spar, the cradle would surely be perfect.
The knife was incredibly sharp and he was the only one allowed to use it. The others stood back as he sliced into the soft wood.
Slowly the mountings took shape. At first there wasn't enough room for the motor, which was larger than they'd expected, but some skilful cutting on the inside of the boat soon put that right. Charlie -- whose boat it had been to start with -- insisted on squeezing the balsa wood cement from the tube.
Daniel lined up the motor with the drive shafts for the twin paddles, and the cement was left to harden. “Let’s go and fill the bath.” he suggested.
Mrs. Talbot heard the bath water running and thought it unlikely that any of her three would be taking a bath at that time of the day. “Mr. Elliott, Helen, is that you?” she called up the stairs.
Mrs. Talbot decided she ought to investigate. Guests normally used the ensuite showers in their rooms. Perhaps the Elliots’ shower wasn’t working properly. Four faces looked out of the bathroom door.
“Now then. What are you up to?”
“We’re not up to anything, Mum,” Emma said innocently.
“That’s all right then. I thought I heard water running.”
“Only a bit,” Daniel said. “We want to test our paddle steamer now we’ve got the motor. Make sure it floats evenly with the motor and battery in it.”
Mrs. Talbot gave a sigh. “I thought that boat was for the canal. I’m sure Julia’s mother wouldn’t want you all sailing it in her bathroom. So why I’m expected…”
"Oh, come on, Mum," Emma pleaded, before her mother could finish, "we won't make any mess -- and if we do, we'll mop it up."
Mrs. Talbot nodded, not being prepared to argue. “Not for long,” she warned. Then she smiled. “I hope it sails well, after all the hard work you’ve put in.”
So did the Merlins. The balsa wood cement would surely be dry by now. Charlie volunteered to go down to fetch The Pride of Avalon, and he came back with it held carefully in both hands. The others stood as far back as the small bathroom would allow, and Charlie lowered the red and black paddle steamer into the water.
This was not the first launching. As soon as the first coat of paint was dry they’d floated it in the kitchen sink. Now, with the extra weight of the motor and battery, the model was definitely lower in the water. This made it look more realistic. Charlie started the motor and it made a rather unrealistic whirring sound. As soon as the paddles were in the water, the motor slowed down. The boat shot forward.
“Success,” Daniel shouted. “Brenton Canal, here we come!”
Charlie caught the boat and stopped the motor. Emma thought to pull out the bathplug, and the Merlins raced down the stairs and out through the front door. The two new guests, Luke and Helen Elliot, were just coming down the road as the Merlins shot through the gate. They waved to them, and turned the other way and round the corner to the canal.
The canal was close to The Merlin Guest House. There was an old iron footbridge that crossed the canal. The bridge had a high hump to allow barges to pass underneath, exactly the same design as the other footbridge down by the canal Basin. They must have been built for the workers to get from the rows of houses to their places of work.
Nowadays there were no barges to pass under the two bridges. No boats of any sort, other than Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat. None of the Merlins could ever remember it being different. Sometimes someone would tip an old supermarket trolley into the water, or an occasional piece of junk. It was a shame to see it happening. They regarded the bridge as their own, and called it Talbots Bridge.
As the rude visitor had pointed out in the guest book, this wasn’t one of Brenton’s nicest spots. Apart from the canal which was inclined to be dirty and smelly, a car breaker’s yard near the bridge was piled high with cars, some of the rusting bodies almost in danger of spilling into the water. The wire factory was old, but it looked better from the main road than from the canal. To the four Merlins, Brenton was home, and for them this was the best part of town, and possibly the best place in the whole world. Daniel thought it was a shame that their guests usually failed to share the vision!
Daniel stood at the edge of the canal and sniffed. The wind was blowing from the breaker's yard, and the smell of burning paint stung his nose. Sometimes he could smell it from the house, and he knew it made his parents embarrassed when they had guests. Not many planned to stay more than a night or two, anyway, so maybe it wasn't a big problem. There were some who came back -- usually men passing through on business -- so it couldn't be all that bad.
Visitors were probably attracted by the park facing the Merlin Guest House. Their present visitors, the Elliots, seemed to be planning to stay for quite a few days, and had opted for full board. Daniel smiled to himself. It was good news about the extra money, but more work for his mum.
“Dan, I’m going over to the other side,” Charlie called. “You stay over here with Emma. And, Julia, you can come with me.”
Daniel agreed. Charlie had insisted on being the first to launch the boat. No one had argued. The boat had been his present from Aunt Jane. With a hollow whirr the motor started. Checking that the rudder was straight, Charlie bravely let the model go. The far bank suddenly looked ever so far away. What had seemed quite fast in the bath looked extremely slow in the canal. At first The Pride of Avalon ran straight. Then a gust of wind blew it towards the bridge, but another gust blew it back on course, until it was making its way towards Daniel.
“That’s great,” Daniel called across to Charlie. “Stay where you are and I’ll try and send it back to you.” Until now, Daniel Talbot had come no nearer to sailing boats in the canal than playing with feathers on sticks. The motor seemed to have put life into the model boat.
The return trip was equally successful. Charlie found it easy to run along the canal towpath where it was built of stone. The water came up to within easy reach of the path, if he lay down flat. He’d sensibly chosen this side for himself and left Daniel on the side with the steep bank and brambles!
Charlie called across to Daniel. “I’m going to send it along the canal now. You’ll have to keep up with it. It may touch land either side, depending on the wind.”
Charlie wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but after several weeks of work on the model, and saving money for the motor and battery, the final result amazed him. It actually worked!
The paddle steamer left Charlie’s hands to start its long voyage down the canal. For a moment an echo of a motor came back from the iron bridge. Daniel listened carefully. Was something going wrong with The Pride of Avalon?
Emma heard it too. “That’s a strange noise,” she called to Daniel. She pointed to their boat. “Is it the motor?”
Daniel had no time to answer. Round the corner of the canal came another model boat. A much larger model and a much faster one. It was heading straight for The Pride of Avalon.
The four Merlins stood on the banks of the canal and watched helplessly. The speedboat crashed into their paddle steamer. The Pride of Avalon tipped onto its side and within a few seconds disappeared beneath the dirty water. A stream of bubbles marked the spot. They waited a moment for it to bob back up, but the weight of the battery and motor seemed to be holding it down.
The model speedboat turned sharply and bumped into the stonework below the towpath. Then it seemed to go crazy, bumping this way and that. Finally it turned back in the direction from which it had come and made its way out of sight around the bend in the canal as though nothing had happened. The only damage suffered by the speedboat, apart from some chipped paint at the front, was the loss of its flag which now floated among the bubbles from The Pride of Avalon.
Daniel was afraid that Charlie would jump in and try to find their boat. The water probably wasn’t very deep, but they were never allowed to swim in it, because it was so dirty. The loss of The Pride of Avalon was just too terrible. One minute they’d been having such fun, and now….
“It’s coming back,” Julia called, but she was referring to the speedboat that had caused all the damage.
The speedboat only came as far as the bend, turned round, and was quickly out of sight.
“Come on,” Charlie called, “let’s chase after it!”
Daniel and Emma started to make their way through the long grass and brambles on their side of the canal. Charlie and Julia were easily ahead on the towpath. The speedboat was going fast, but they were gaining on it.
"Hurry up!" Charlie shouted to the others. Then he and Julia had to stop as the old towpath was blocked by the high wire fence surrounding the scrap yard. There was no way past -- other than swimming!
Daniel and Emma were doing no better. Barriers of brambles blocked the bank. By the time they’d climbed to the road and then down again, the speedboat had gone. Daniel stood with his hands cupped to his ears, listening. The lunch-time siren went at the wire factory, and drowned all other noises.
Slowly and sadly the four returned to the spot where The Pride of Avalon had been sunk. There was nothing else left to do. After all the hard work they’d put in, a few minutes silence was the least they could offer.
The bubbles had stopped rising. The flag that had broken from the speedboat was still floating where The Pride of Avalon had gone to the bottom. It was all very sad as well as annoying.
“That was a waste of time making it,” Charlie muttered.
Emma was frowning. “How did it turn round and go away again?” she asked, puzzled by the disappearance of the speedboat.
“It was like someone was inside, steering it,” Julia added, equally puzzled.
Charlie shrugged his shoulders and looked up at Daniel.
“It had to be radio control,” Daniel said. “You remember Mr. Elliot mentioned radio control?”
“Do you think he did it?” Charlie asked.
“No, silly,” Daniel said rather rudely. “He’s gone out with his wife.”
“Then who was it?” Emma demanded.
“That’s what we’ve got to discover,” Daniel said, trying to stay in command. The Merlins didn’t have an official leader, but most of the time the others looked to him when they needed help. He stared across at the flag floating in the water. It was small, probably made of paper, and about to sink.
Emma noticed him looking. “Do you think it’s a clue to where it came from?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Daniel said. “It can’t have sailed here from another country.”
That was meant to be a joke, but Emma didn’t like it. Her eyes lit up. “You might just be wrong there,” she replied crossly. “That flag might be the flag of a model boat club. If we can get it out, we might be able to use it to trace the owner.”
Daniel had to agree -- if only to keep the peace. Anyway, it sounded a remarkably sensible idea. One edge of the flag was sinking further under the water every minute, and soon it would join The Pride of Avalon in the mud at the bottom of the canal.
“What we need is a boat,” Charlie said.
“We have one,” Emma reminded him. “The trouble is, it’s down there somewhere in the mud.”
“I mean a real one.” Charlie wasn’t to be put off by his sister.
“Well, we haven’t got one, Charlie, so we might as well all go home.” Julia was prepared to give up.
Daniel had no wish to leave just yet. Their paddle steamer might have gone for ever, but that flag was still there. Emma could be right. If might offer some clue for tracing the owner. They could try and move it to the far bank by throwing stones in front of it, but that would very likely sink it.
Charlie had found a short plank of wood. By waving it backwards and forwards in the water, ripples ran across the canal. The flag started bobbing up and down. Then slowly but surely it started moving closer to the far bank. Emma and Julia ran across the old bridge to be ready to catch it. Working the plank was hard, and Daniel had to give Charlie a helping hand.
Just as the flag was sinking out of sight, Emma reached out with a long stick and hooked it safely to shore. Charlie and Daniel ran round to join her.
“What sort of flag is it?” Julia asked.
“I’ve never seen one like it.” Daniel turned it upside down and thought again. “Perhaps Old McHenry would know. It might be the flag of a local club.”
“That sounded like someone shooting,” Charlie said, turning round quickly.
“A car, I expect,” Emma said.
“It might not be,” Daniel said. “It might be someone with a gun. It would explain those dead mallards!”
A FILM SHOW
Back at The Merlin Guest House, Mrs. Talbot was sorry to hear of the sinking of The Pride of Avalon. Emma, however, noticed that her mother had something else on her mind.
“What’s the matter, Mum?” she asked, for Emma knew her mother well.
Mrs. Talbot smiled. “Nothing much, and you’ve got problems of your own.”
“Then it is something,” Emma insisted. “Can we help?”
“No, it’s all right. I’m just wondering if I’ve got enough in for a cooked lunch. Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, our guests, asked if they could have lunch here before they go out for the rest of the day. Without thinking, I said yes. By the time I’ve cooked theirs, I’ll not have time to get anything hot for you. I’ve got to hurry because I promised to help out at the clinic this afternoon. I’m supposed to be there soon after one o’clock.”
“Could we get it ready?” Emma asked.
Mrs. Talbot sighed. “What, Mr. and Mrs. Elliot’s? I don’t think so,” she said kindly. “Not after last time.”
Not after last time. Emma started to turn red and the others laughed. She wished the floor would open up and swallow her. The floor did no more about swallowing her than an earlier guest had done about swallowing his evening meal. Even Julia had heard the story. They were all horrid to laugh.
"But we're older now," Emma insisted. "I may have made a bit of a mess of that meal, but -- but I wouldn't this time. Honestly I wouldn't."
Mrs. Talbot put her arm round Emma. “I wonder. I wonder if I’d——”
Daniel interrupted her. "Go on, Mum. We'd make a smashing lunch for the Elliots. Emma can be in charge, so it's bound to be really good." Perhaps he was feeling guilty for laughing at his sister. Anyway, it had been funny. Nobody had been able to work out how sugar had got into the gravy -- not even Emma. Daniel wondered now whether Charlie knew anything about it. He was looking rather sheepish.
Mrs. Talbot gave in. “It would certainly be a great help. I’m very short of time.” Quickly she explained what had to be done.
“All right,” Emma said. “We’ll be able to manage. You run along, Mum.”
Mrs. Talbot hesitated. “Now then, I’m not all that late. I think I’ll just hang on while you get started.”
Very soon she was satisfied. Mrs. Talbot put her coat on and said goodbye. She then wished them good luck, and an extra bit of good luck for Mr. and Mrs. Elliot!
Emma turned to Julia and Charlie. “You two can lay the table. Dan, you go up and see what time Mr. and Mrs. Elliot are going to be ready.”
“Now then, bossy boots,” Daniel cautioned, “you be careful or I’ll make you eat some of this lunch yourself!” Before Emma could think of a suitable reply he was up the stairs and knocking on the Elliots’ door.
Daniel put his head slowly round the door. “Lunch,” he said. “What time do you want it? Mum’s had to go out. We’re getting it for you today.” Luke and Helen Elliot were sitting together on the bed with what looked like an open Bible.
Luke Elliot smiled. “You’re getting it? That should be fun. Will you have yours with us?”
Daniel hesitated. Was Mr. Elliot just being polite, or did he mean it?
“I’m sure you will,” Mr. Elliot insisted. “In fact, Helen and I will be suspicious if you don’t!” He laughed at Daniel’s puzzled expression. “That was meant to be funny,” he explained. “I was wondering if you trusted your cooking enough to eat it yourself!”
Daniel laughed too. He liked their visitors. Yes, he said, they’d like to all eat together. In about half an hour? Right, he’d tell the others.
The meal was prepared without any drama, and everyone, including Luke and Helen Elliot, said how good it was. The sad tale of the first --- and only -- voyage of The Pride of Avalon was told. Luke Elliot listened with concern, and agreed with Daniel that the speedboat must have been radio-controlled.
“But why would anyone want to sink our boat, Mr. Elliot?” Emma sounded annoyed.
Their visitor shrugged. “Please remember to call me Luke, not Mr. Elliot. And my wife is Helen. So no more Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, please. It sounds much too formal. Why would anyone want to sink your boat? You’ll have to try and track down the speedboat’s owner to find that out.”
“We tried,” Charlie explained. He’d been quiet up to now. He felt the loss of the paddle steamer more than the others. The kit had been given to him, and in a secret way he’d always thought of it as being more his than anyone else’s. The agreement had been that the Merlins would share it equally because they were all helping to make it. The kit had been too hard for him to make by himself. The motor would have cost too much as well. Now it lay at the bottom of the canal, half-buried in the mud like a sunken treasure ship. Fish were probably….
Luke Elliot said, “I know it’s too late now, but if you build another boat, stick as much expanded polystyrene block as you can inside, so that it will always float.”
Charlie looked at the others. “Now he tells us!” he groaned, and they all laughed.
“Would you like to come and see a couple of films this afternoon?” Helen asked suddenly.
Daniel put his knife and fork down. “What films are they?”
“You know the church the other side of Merlin Park?” Helen asked, and immediately the Merlins’ excitement disappeared. “You’ll like them,” she assured them. “Luke and I are here in Brenton to help at a special week at the church. The film show is this afternoon, and a lot of young people like yourselves are going.”
“I know the church,” Daniel said. “Someone called here a couple of weeks ago with an invitation, but we….” His voice tailed off.
“Don’t worry about it,” Helen Elliott said with a laugh. “You don’t have to come!”
“What are the films about?” Emma enquired cautiously.
Luke Elliot stood up. “Well now, why don’t you come and find out? All I’ll say is that it’s specially for young people your age.”
“All right,” Daniel agreed. “Mum won’t mind. Well, I can’t think she’ll mind, especially if we’ve gone to a church! We go to that one sometimes when there’s a special service, so we know it’s okay. We’ll leave a note for Mum.”
Emma added, “Mum and dad showed us the leaflet, because they thought we might be interested. But somehow going to church in the middle of the week didn’t seem like a lot of….” her voice tailed off, and she could feel her cheeks turning red. “But that was before we met both of you,” she added with an embarrassed smile.
Helen Elliot nodded. “I think it’s best if you phone your mum or dad to make sure. And you as well, Julia.”
Daniel thought that sounded like sensible advice, and made the call to his mum at the clinic, while Julia ran down the road to check. Within five minutes the okay was given. Lunch was cleared away quickly because the Elliots explained they had to be going quite soon. Helen Elliott helped load the dishwasher, and before long they were all walking through the park, the four Merlins with their visitors for company.
Plenty of other people their age were already going into the church where the films were to be shown. The grownups welcoming everyone at the door seemed to know Luke and Helen Elliot. One of them asked them if they’d like to sit up at the front. Luke said something that Daniel couldn’t quite hear and then introduced the four Merlins. Not as the Merlins, of course, but by their names. To Daniel’s surprise he got them all right.
The church was filling fast. Luke and Helen sat towards the back with the Merlins. Starting time came and a man walked onto the platform at the front. Everyone quietened down. Daniel missed what he said about the title of the first film. It sounded like Hidden Faces. The man pointed to the large white screen hanging from the ceiling. The lights went out and immediately the title of the film came up. Hidden Places.
Daniel was soon glad they'd come. It was an interesting film. It showed all sorts of towns and cities being dug up from under the ground. Quite a few were Bible places only just being rediscovered. The film then went on to show what the people would have looked like, and there were battles and gold palaces and shipwrecks and Ancient Egyptians and more battles -- and then it was the end.
Daniel looked at the other Merlins, who nodded their approval. The man at the front stood up and announced a short break before the showing of the second film. This was about natural history, and Daniel was struck by the way the commentator on the film kept drawing attention to the wonderful God who had made such a fantastic world.
“Thank you for asking us,” Emma said to Helen Elliot as they were going out. “We come here at Christmas and just sometimes in the holidays, but I never saw a film in a church before.”
“Neither did I,” Julia added. “I go to another church in Brenton with my mum and dad every Sunday, so I know they’ll be interested to hear all about it.”
There were so many people trying to get out that the Merlins almost got separated. Luke and Helen Elliot explained that they were going to stay at the church, so the four of them would have to make their own way home.
They said they weren’t going straight back, but were planning to visit Old McHenry. Charlie produced the paper flag.
"I'd like to know how you get on," Luke Elliot told them. "I'd come with you if I had the time, but there's a special meeting here tonight for young people -- for older young people than yourselves." He laughed. "I expect you know what I mean. I'm speaking at it, and to tell you the truth I'm still not absolutely certain what I'm going to say. The trouble is, I keep changing my mind."
Daniel hadn’t thought of grownups not knowing what to say. Most of the ones he met didn’t seem to know how to stop!
“It was talking about radio control with you that did it, I suppose,” Luke Elliot continued. “I’m thinking of saying that everyone needs to have some sort of control or guidance in their lives.”
“Control?” Julia asked. “Like a model is controlled?”
“Yes, in a way.”
Daniel couldn’t understand what Luke Elliot meant. He looked at his watch. If they didn’t hurry, Old McHenry would be shut, and they’d have to wait till the morning before doing anything more about trying to identify the flag.
They waved goodbye and hurried off down the road. Old McHenry was still open. Daniel, Emma, Charlie and Julia pushed their way inside.
“Come for another kit?” the old man asked pleasantly.
Daniel, with interruptions from the others, told their heartbreaking tale. At the end he handed the paper flag to Old McHenry, who examined it thoughtfully. Overhead, a huge, dusty model aircraft swung slowly backwards and forwards on the end of thin wires. Trains -- some of them very expensive -- were arranged in neat rows behind glass. Most interesting of all, in spite of their recent loss, were the boats.
Daniel looked longingly at them. Their own paddle steamer hadn’t been such a grand thing after all. Compared to some of these, it had been quite ordinary. He could see one that looked easy to assemble. It was another paddle steamer. The hull was moulded from resin, so there was no cutting-out to do. The deck parts and the bridge had only to be stuck on and painted. The finished boat would be large. Very large. It was strong and probably unsinkable. He imagined it sailing up and down the canal. If the crazy model speedboat hit that, it would know all about it!
Yes, Daniel thought, it would look fantastic. One day they might be able to afford radio control. What had Luke Elliot meant when he’d said everyone needed some sort of guidance or control in their lives? Grownups often said things he couldn’t understand. Perhaps other grownups didn’t always understand them either.
How much was the paddle steamer, anyway? He stood on tiptoe to check the price label. Wow! Did people really spend that much on a model? Daniel hoped it was unsinkable. They thought they’d lost a valuable enough boat at the bottom of the canal!
“I sold it with the motor,” Old McHenry suddenly said, making Daniel jump.
“This paddle steamer?” Daniel asked in surprise.
“Paddle steamer? No, no, no, this flag. Do you remember those two big lads who tried to push in front of you?”
The four Merlins nodded. Old McHenry lowered his voice.
“A nasty couple of lads they were. They had plenty of money, mind you. They bought this motor, you see. They were a new sort I’d just got in. This flag comes with it in the box. I suppose if you’ve spent all that money on the motor, you want to show off about it.”
“I suppose you would,” Emma agreed, thinking of their motor that had only come in a paper bag.
“Well,” Old McHenry continued, “that was the only one I’ve sold so far. It looks to me as though they fitted the motor in their boat and then tried it out on the canal. It might have been an accident with your paddle steamer. They might not have seen it. Although come to think, they did say the motor wasn’t for them. It’s all a bit of a mystery, I say.”
“We’ll soon know who’s to blame,” Emma said angrily. “We’ll go round and ask them.”
“Now then, young miss,” Old McHenry warned, “I don’t think a couple of big lads like that would take much notice of you.”
“Then we’ll send our dad round,” Emma said. “They’d soon do something about it then!”
The four turned to leave the shop. Daniel paused a moment. “Where do we find them?”
“Ah,” Old McHenry said, “that’s something I don’t know.”
“Don’t know?” the four repeated together.
“No, I’ve no idea at all. They paid with cash, not card. I’ve never seen them before. Come to think of it, I never want to see them again, either!”
“Let’s go,” Emma said, her eyes flashing with anger, and her long hair flying as she hurried from the shop. “Come on. We’ll find them. You just see if we don’t!”
THE SPEEDBOAT AGAIN
“Don’t be silly,” Daniel protested. “You can’t go rushing up and down the canal now. Mum and Dad will be wondering where we are.”
Emma’s eyes still flashed. “We told them we were going to the films. Remember?”
Daniel nodded. “Yes, we said we were going to the church with Luke and Helen. We ought to be back by now.”
“I’ve got to go back, anyway,” Julia said. “I promised my mum I’d pick up a magazine she wants. If I don’t hurry, the corner shop will probably have sold out.”
Rather sullenly, Emma agreed. There was nothing they could really do, anyway. They’d never seen these two youths before, and she knew it was unlikely they’d ever see them again. Unless … yes … unless they were new to the town. In that case….
“Come on,” Daniel said, interrupting Emma’s thoughts. “We have to go home. See you tomorrow morning at our place, Julia.”
Julia Kingsdown waved and ran off down the road. She could only hope the magazine was still there. Then she thought that the paper shop in the High Street would sell the magazine her mother wanted.
Bother! Julia realised she had no money in her pockets. This week’s pocket money had all been spent on the motor for The Pride of Avalon. She would really have to hurry now. At the corner shop in King Arthur’s Rise, the magazine would go on the account. The best way would be to cut across the canal by the small footbridge that was close to the Basin.
Julia had a horrible feeling she would never get it. The shop would be sure to have run out of stock. It always did. It was a stupid shop, she decided, as she tripped over a loose paving stone.
Here was the footbridge now. She hoped and hoped the shop would still have a copy of the magazine left. She’d promised her mother she would get it, and she had no intention of letting her mother down.
Pausing to get her breath back, she became aware of a humming noise. It was coming from the canal. Then she saw it. Heading straight towards the footbridge was the model speedboat. As cheeky as you like, the boat passed under the bridge and along the canal towards Talbots Bridge. Julia stood and stared.
Now what should she do? If she chased after it, the corner shop might sell out. If she went to the shop first, the boat would certainly be gone when she returned. She looked around, hoping to see a sign of someone with the radio thing that worked the controls. Daniel would know what to do. Daniel always did.
Even as she thought, she saw the boat disappear out of sight. Now she was alone. No boat. Nobody she could see with the radio controller. She would try to get the magazine and take it home to her mother. Then she would hurry back to this bridge and hope to see the boat again. Then she would hurry to Talbots Bridge. Then she would hurry to tell the other Merlins what she’d seen.
Hurry, hurry, hurry. Come on, Julia told herself, there’s no time to be lost. As she ran towards the corner shop, she wondered what the three Talbots were doing at that moment.
When they left Old McHenry’s model shop, Emma Talbot had been very keen to search the town for those two youths. It was the only thing to do, she’d insisted. Daniel kept telling her that they had to get home.
“All right, all right,” Emma had replied crossly. “If you don’t want to find out who sunk our boat….”
“I do,” Daniel said, putting his hand on his sister’s shoulder. “We can come out after tea if you like. It will still be light for a bit. I just don’t think we ought to stay out any longer right now. Cheer up, I’ll race you home!”
Charlie had been unusually quiet. Under its thick mop of hair, his brain was working hard. Would Dan and Emma think he was silly? Yes, they probably would. They often did.
“Dan,” he said slowly, “let’s go back across Talbots Bridge. I want to see exactly where our boat sank.”
Daniel was a little way in front, anxious to be home. “Why?” he called.
“Well,” Charlie said, “I thought there might be something to see. You know, it might have floated to the top again.”
“What, The Pride of Avalon? Don’t be silly!”
Charlie nodded to himself. He’d been right. He should have kept quiet.
Emma spoke up for him. “Yes, why not? It might have gone to the bottom upside down. The motor and battery could have come loose, and the boat floated up again.”
It was Daniel’s turn to feel silly now. Charlie couldn’t really be right, he decided, but they ought to look, just in case.
“It’s almost as quick home across Talbots Bridge, anyway,” Emma said. “Another couple of minutes aren’t going to make any difference.”
Emma was wrong. Those couple of minutes were going to make a lot of difference. Going home across Talbots Bridge was going to give them another big clue for solving the mystery of the model speedboat.
The canal was old now. When it had been built -- nearly two hundred years ago -- it would have been easy to walk along the towpath between the footbridge by the Basin and the bridge they called Talbots Bridge. Now, the wire factory and scrap yard fencing had blocked the path completely. The other bank had been overgrown by areas of brambles. The service road in front of the wire factory was their best way.
As they hurried along, they thought they could hear the sound of that speedboat. Whenever they got a glimpse of the canal it was deserted. Then, as their old humpy iron bridge came into view, so did the model speedboat. Daniel ran ahead, with Emma and Charlie close behind.
Daniel stood on the bridge looking puzzled. “Where did it go?”
Charlie jumped up and leaned right over. Emma caught hold of the back of his jeans in alarm.
“You be careful!” she warned. “The last thing we want is to have you falling in.”
“You sound like Mum,” Charlie said with a groan. “Anyway, I was only having a look under the bridge.”
“It’s gone,” Daniel said. “Well and truly gone. Wow, it goes fast. I wouldn’t mind one like that myself. Hey, how about it?”
“I suppose you’ve got the money saved up at home under your mattress!” Emma retorted, feeling huffy. “It took us ages to get enough for that motor for The Pride of Avalon. Remember? And we didn’t even have to buy the boat!”
Daniel leaned over the side of the bridge with Charlie. He could surely look without falling in. Sadly he stared at his reflection in the muddy water. Down there somewhere were the remains of the paddle steamer. The hard work and the saving-up all wasted, and Emma was asking him if he remembered!
“Let’s stay and see if it comes back,” Charlie suggested, referring to the mysterious model speedboat.
Daniel, being the oldest, knew he would get the blame if they were late home. “No,” he said firmly, “we’ll go back now. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to come out again later.”
The Merlin Guest House wasn’t far away. Mrs. Talbot was working in the kitchen when the three crept in.
“And where have you been?” she asked softly.
Daniel knew that their guest guests were around somewhere, or their mother wouldn’t have sounded so quiet!
Emma explained how they’d gone to the model shop after leaving Luke and Helen Elliot at the church. Mrs. Talbot then explained that they’d missed their tea. Just as Daniel was trying to tell his mother about the speedboat, Julia raced in through the front door.
“Quick!” she called. “Come down to the canal. That boat is there again!”
“We saw it too,” Daniel said. “That’s what we were just telling Mum.”
“Well, I saw it soon after I left you. I was crossing the canal by the Basin footbridge. I just had to come and tell you, but I had to go home first. Mum said I could come here for a few minutes.”
“Let’s all go down to the canal now,” Charlie said impatiently.
Emma looked up at her mother. “Ooooh, yes please. Please say we can go, Mum. Please, Mum. Dearest, dearest Mum.”
Their mother shook her head. “No, I don’t like you playing around by that old canal in the evening when it’s getting dark.”
They had half expected that reply. They were only allowed down by the canal in the daytime as long as there were at least two of them. It was no use arguing. They’d been told many times before. For one thing, they might fall in. For another, there was no knowing who they might meet on a dark evening.
“Besides,” Mrs. Talbot continued, “your father will be in soon. He won’t want to discover you’re down there. If you want to go out to play, go into the park.”
“Oh, Mum!” Emma groaned. “We don’t want to play. We want to find out who’s using that speedboat.”
Their mother shook her head in despair. “I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what you’re talking about. Who’s using a speedboat on the canal? I thought boats never used it anymore.”
Daniel sighed. It was going to be difficult to explain it all now. “Can we go tomorrow?” he asked.
His mother returned to the kitchen. "Of course you can -- as long as you go in the daytime. Now then, I'm going to get your tea ready. Julia, if you'd like to stay for a bit, phone your mother. Tell her you've been invited to stay to eat here."
Daniel felt relieved. Julia being invited to tea was a good sign. It meant their mother was no longer cross with them for being late, and she hadn’t really meant it when she said they’d missed tea. Julia phoned her mother on her new mobile. Yes, she could stay to tea as long as the others saw her back to the gate.
Over their meal, the four Merlins had some very important plans to make. Daniel got a pen and paper. He asked for suggestions.
“How about we wait on the bridge and drop stones on the speedboat when it comes by?” Charlie suggested, sipping a glass of milk.
“What good would that do?” Emma asked.
“It would sink it of course, silly,” Charlie replied.
“Silly, yourself,” Emma said. “That wouldn’t help us find out who sank ours.”
“Yes, it would,” Charlie insisted. “They’d come along and complain, and we’d tell them what they’d done to our boat.”
Daniel sighed. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to write that one down.”
Julia stopped eating. “I don’t think it’s stupid. I think Charlie’s been very clever.”
Daniel didn’t want to turn their meeting into an argument. He saw himself as the peacemaker in this sort of situation. He pushed his chair back a little. “What do you mean, Julia? Surely you don’t think we should drop stones on it?”
Julia laughed. “Of course not, Daniel. But all the same, I think Charlie had a good idea, even if he didn’t realise it.”
Charlie, who’d started to look pleased with himself, frowned. He listened as Julia explained “his” idea.
“It was when Charlie said that whoever was working the boat would see us. We hadn’t thought of that before. If the boat is radio controlled, the person controlling it would have to be able to see it the whole time. If they couldn’t see it, the boat would keep bumping into the bank. The canal has that bend in it.’
“That’s what I sort of meant,” Charlie said, but the others thought it unlikely. “Anyway,” he insisted, trying to recover the situation, “remember how the speedboat kept bumping into the wall after it sunk The Pride of Avalon? That was probably because the person couldn’t see it. So that means—-”
“It means the person with the radio controller was out of sight at that moment,” Emma interrupted.
“Exactly,” Charlie said smugly.
“What we need is a boat,” Daniel said. “A real boat. Then we could all go out in it and find where the person hides. We’d have to imagine we’re the model boat. As we go up and down we’ll have to see from what places we can see nearly the whole of the canal the whole time.” In his excitement, Daniel was forgetting to make notes in his book. “There are quite a few buildings you can see from parts of the canal, but not from all the way along.”
“Yes,” Charlie agreed. “And that’s where the person controlling the boat stands.” He grinned. His idea was brilliant after all!
At that moment their father came home. He pulled a chair up to the table. He’d had a busy day at the wire factory, he told them. What had they been doing?
“Dad,” Daniel said, “can we ask Mr. Hodges if we can use his rowing boat on the canal?”
“Mr. Hodges? Why, I should think he’s much too old to take all of you out on the canal.”
“No, Dad, he wouldn’t come with us. We want to go by ourselves.”
Mr. Talbot frowned. “You haven’t told me yet what you’ve been doing.”
He listened to their story with interest. All the same, he was absolutely definite that the four Merlins were not going to be allowed to go rowing on the canal by themselves.
Charlie put on his most pleading voice. “Then you take us, Dad.”
“All right, I’ll ask Mr. Hodges at the weekend.”
“Weekend?” Emma asked in dismay. “We want to go tomorrow!”
“Then I’m afraid I can’t help.” Mr. Talbot went into the kitchen to see if his tea was ready. He was also rather late back that evening, and was also afraid he might be going to miss his meal!
The Merlins decided to go to their room in the basement. Luke Elliot was about to go upstairs. He’d been in the kitchen discussing meal arrangements with Mrs. Talbot. He turned when he saw the Merlins in the hall. “I hope you all enjoyed the films. There are other things happening at the church this week. Here’s another invitation.” He smiled. “Try not to lose this one!”
The four Merlins laughed to cover their embarrassment. Daniel took it and showed it to the others.
As Luke had one foot on the stairs he turned. “By the way,” he said casually, “I don’t suppose you happen to know where I could hire a rowing boat for an hour or so tomorrow morning. Helen’s going to be busy at the church, and I just fancy going out on the old canal!”
The four just stared open-mouthed. This was surely too good to be true.
Daniel broke the silence. “You know, don’t you!” He started to laugh. “You heard us talking to Dad.”
Luke Elliot broke out into a broad grin. “Yes, you’re quite right. I was talking to your mother in the kitchen, and the door to the dining room was slightly open.”
Emma looked disappointed. “And I thought you meant it.”
“I do,” their visitors said hastily. “I really would like to go out on the canal -- as long as you come with me. I think you've got a very good plan there."
“Fantastic,” Daniel said. “We’ll go down first thing in the morning and ask Mr. Hodges about the boat.”
Luke Elliot clapped his hands. “Let’s ask your parents if I can go with you now.”
A BOAT TRIP
Mr. Hodges was an old man who had a shabby narrowboat floating on the part of the canal that was called the Basin. Here, many years ago, was the space where barges could moor up for the night before continuing their journey through the country. Later, people had used the Basin for mooring motorboats and cabin cruisers, but that was before the canal had been completely closed for safety reasons. The banks further up and down from Brenton has been weak and beyond repair. So those parts had been drained and were now built over with housing.
Two of these motorboats had been too old to move when the canal was closed, and had been left to rot. Only parts of their cabins stuck up through the mud and reeds. One thing was certain, they would never float again. Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat was the exception. He’d been living in it at the time, and had come to an agreement for it to be left alone.
The Merlins liked this part of the canal. There was an old tree trunk they called the Merlin Tree. It was lying under some small trees where they could sit and watch the ducks and the occasional swan collect in the safety of the reeds.
The birds would come out of the reeds for bread, and the four Merlins often came down specially to feed them. This was definitely not a good place in which to sail a model boat. It would be sure to get tangled in the tall reeds poking up in thick clumps.
Daniel had never put it to the test, but he was certain the bottom would be too soft to walk on. Like the quicksand in pirate stories, he would be sucked down and down and … well, once a boat was caught in the reeds, it might be lost for good.
“Do you think Mr. Hodges would lend us his boat?” Luke asked.
Daniel explained that last summer Mr. Hodges used to go out in his rowing boat, and occasionally he hired it out to visitors. Just lately not even Mr. Hodges had been out in it, but Daniel could see no reason why the boat wouldn’t be available. Only that morning he’d seen it bobbing about in the water, tied to the old blue narrowboat.
It was getting dark now, and Julia gave a shiver as they came to the canal bank. It all seemed so different at night. A couple of hours earlier she’d run across this footbridge and looked down at the mallards. They would all be safely in bed now. The best place for them, too! It was surprising how spooky the canal could be. A small street light showed them the way along the bank to the Basin.
“That’s Mr. Hodges’ place,” Emma explained. She was holding tightly to Julia’s hand. “He must be in. You can see the light.”
Thin red curtains let chinks of yellow light through at the top and bottom. The noise of traffic had died away. At first there was no sound, not even water lapping against the boat. Then a dog barked in the distance. There was a thud from inside the narrowboat. Someone was moving about.
The wooden plank that led from the stone embankment of the canal was rather steep and not very wide. Daniel made sure Emma and Julia got safely to the top, but Charlie had already made his way there unaided.
“Who’s going to knock on the door?” Daniel asked, whispering for some reason.
“I’ll do it,” Charlie said, stepping forward. He wanted to show the others he wasn’t frightened to be out here after dark. But he jumped in fright as soon as someone rattled the catch on the inside.
Luke Elliot took up his place in front of the door. “Good evening, Mr. Hodges,” he said as the door creaked open. “I’ve come to see if——. Mr. Hodges!”
“Mr. Elliot! What a surprise. You’d better come in. Is that someone with you?”
It seemed as if Luke Elliot and Mr. Hodges knew each other. Mr. Hodges stuck his head out of the door and recognised the four Merlins.
“Come in, come in,” he said, inviting them all into the long but very narrow room.
“Isn’t it nice and cosy!” Emma exclaimed. She’d been wondering what it was like inside. Often, when coming this way, they’d seen Mr. Hodges sitting on deck, smoking a long pipe like some old sea captain, and wearing a knitted blue hat pulled down over his long silvery hair.
The ceiling was very low, and a dirty creamy-yellow colour. A good coat of paint would have worked wonders. Julia noticed that the curtains could do with a wash. Her mother probably wouldn’t mind putting them in the washing machine. If she took them in the morning, they could be washed, dried and ironed by the evening. No, she couldn’t very well ask. Mr. Hodges might be offended. She wished she could, though. Perhaps he would ask them to help. Now she was being silly, she decided. Mr. Hodges probably didn’t mind them like this, anyway. Perhaps he liked things in a mess.
Luke Elliot was talking to Mr. Hodges as though he knew him well. He turned to the Merlins. “When you told me about Mr. Hodges, I didn’t realise who you meant. Mr. Hodges works at the church where we saw the films. He’s the….” Luke Elliot turned to Mr. Hodges. “The … er, caretaker, I suppose.”
Mr. Hodges nodded. “That’s right. I’m glad you were all able to get along to the films. I hope you’ll be going there again on Easter Day.”
“They were great films,” Daniel said, avoiding mentioning whether they were going again or not.
Luke Elliot looked at his watch. “I have to be off soon,” he explained, and then asked about borrowing the blue rowing boat in the morning.
Mr. Hodges scratched his head under his blue knitted hat. “Why would you all be wanting to go out in it? You can’t exactly go far along this stretch of the old canal.”
Daniel held his breath. He wanted it to be their secret. They were only sharing it with Luke Elliot because he’d offered to get the rowing boat.
“Ah, well,” Luke Elliot said, “we visitors do some funny things.”
Mr. Hodges nodded. “Perhaps you do. Excluding present company, there are some funny strangers around at the moment.” He nodded to himself, half closing his eyes. “Yes, there certainly are. Some very funny strangers.”
Luke Elliot had arranged for them to go out in the boat soon after breakfast. Julia managed her usual early arrival.
“You can give a hand with the clearing up,” Emma told her, throwing a damp dish cloth across.
Julia caught it without argument, and waited while Emma started to fill the dishwasher with dirty crockery. Mrs. Talbot said she was amazed by the speed of four willing pairs of hands. Soon the kitchen was clear.
“Whatever you do, don’t fall out of the boat,” she warned.
Emma smiled. That was just like her mother. Whatever they were planning to do, there was always some little warning before they left. If they were planning a trip to the moon, she would probably tell them not to sit too close to the porthole in case the sun was too bright! It was nice, though, to know she worried about them. Anyway, Emma hoped they wouldn’t fall into the horrible water. The worst that had ever happened to her was a wet foot, but there was always the first time!
Luke and Helen Elliot came down the stairs together, and for a moment Emma wondered if Helen was coming too. Was the little boat large enough for all of them? So she was relieved when the Elliots kissed each other goodbye, and Helen explained she had things to get ready at the church for a morning meeting for the ladies.
Luke Elliot turned to the Merlins. “If you’re ready, we’ll go,” he said.
Mrs. Talbot made sure she was satisfied that her three were properly clothed for the occasion. With a final “be careful!” she let them go.
Mr. Hodges had the boat ready for them when they got to the Basin. He explained he’d had to bale out quite a bit of water from the bottom, and assured them it was only rainwater. It seemed there was no question of the boat leaking, which came as good news to everyone.
Luke Elliot laughed, and stepped carefully into the boat, which immediately started rocking. Mr. Hodges helped the four Merlins from the bank, and Luke Elliot took their hands as they climbed aboard. As soon as the four were sitting safely, he pushed off from the bank with one of the oars.
“Can we all have a go?” Charlie asked.
Luke Elliot nodded. “Wait a few minutes though. I’m going to enjoy this myself first.”
Daniel smiled, but felt impatient to have a go with the oars. He was sure it was easy to row a boat, but they’d never liked to ask Mr. Hodges if they could try. With Luke Elliot it was different. He was easy to talk to. Daniel had no idea how old he was, but he couldn’t be all that old, even though he was married.
“I’ve got the notebook,” Daniel said, trying to show he was in charge. “We ought to start at this end of the Basin and go right on down the canal as far as we can go.”
“How far is that?” Luke Elliot asked.
“As far as the top of the waterfall,” Emma replied with a mischievous giggle.
“The what?” Luke Elliot looked worried.
The Merlins burst out laughing, and Luke Elliot realised he was having his leg pulled.
“That’s all right,” he said, pretending not to understand. “I don’t think we’ll get that far, anyway. The boat is filling up with water fast!”
Julia gave a little scream and put her feet up on the seat. Emma looked to see how far it was to the bank, and Daniel and Charlie examined the bottom of the boat.
Their visitor grinned and then laughed. “There’s as much water in the bottom of this boat as there is going over that waterfall,” he told them.
It was the turn of everyone to laugh. Daniel opened his notebook.
“Come on,” he told them. “What places can we see from here?”
“What sort of places are we looking for?” Charlie asked.
“Any places,” Daniel told him. “Buildings, hills, anywhere someone could be hiding with a radio controller. The wire factory will do for a start. Then there’s the old warehouse, and that night-watchman’s hut. I suppose we ought to include Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat.”
Luke Elliot rowed slowly along the canal to where the lock had been filled in and sealed when the canal was finally closed. Then he turned the boat and set out for the other end. The Merlins kept a sharp look-out for all the places they could see that would have a clear view of where they were in the canal. Daniel kept busy with his notebook.
As they passed the car scrap yard, Emma asked their visitor to stop. The Merlins were proud of the ducks’ nest among the reeds. They’d watched it being built by the mallards, and were later excited to find that ten eggs had been laid. As far as they knew, it was the only nest on the canal so far this year.
The mother bird, who was now sitting on the nest, watched anxiously as the boat drew near. The male bird, far more brightly coloured than the female, swam towards the boat in protest.
Julia laughed. “I think he wants us to keep away.” She leaned towards the male and called softly, “It’s all right, we’ve only come to see how you’re getting on.” She felt in her pockets. “Here’s some bread. Don’t eat it all yourself,” she warned gently. “That’s for both of you.” She threw a handful of crumbs, but the mother bird stayed firmly on the nest, her eyes following every movement.
Luke Elliot started rowing again, but slowly. He didn’t want to disturb or worry the ducks, although they seemed to know the Merlins well.
“How does a boat work on radio control?” Charlie asked, trailing a hand through the dirty water.
Luke Elliot pulled in the oars. The rowing boat drifted slowly towards the towpath as he used his hands to explain the action of the controls. “You have little motors inside the boat to work the controls. The radio switches these motors on and off. They’re called servos. If you want to turn left, you switch on the servo that turns the rudder left. When it’s turned far enough, you tell it to stop.”
“Tell it?” Julia asked, screwing up her face in puzzlement. “What do you mean, tell it?”
Her friends would have laughed -- if they'd known the answer. Instead, they sat and listened to their visitor who seemed to know so much.
Luke Elliot smiled at the question. “You usually have little switches, and maybe a joystick. You press one switch for a left turn, a different one for a right turn, one for start and one for stop. And sometimes another one to control the speed. Each switch sends a different radio signal to the boat’s receiver. It’s like playing a game with a handset on the computer in your room.”
“They must be ever so expensive,” Daniel said.
“Some are, especially the ones with a long range. The more tricks they do, the more they cost. You can have one radio controller and use it with lots of different boats, but not all at the same time of course.”
“We could never afford one,” Emma said quietly. “We can’t even afford another boat.” She smiled to herself. “By the time we’ve saved up again, we’ll be too old for boats.”
Luke Elliot took up the oars again. “You remember the meeting I told you I was speaking at yesterday evening?” He pushed off from the bank as the Merlins nodded.
“You couldn’t make up your mind what you were going to talk about,” Daniel said.
“Ssshh,” Emma said, giving him a poke in the ribs with her elbow.
Their visitor didn’t seem in the least bit put out. “Yes, that’s the one. Anyway, I’m glad we had that chance to talk about model boats. I was able to bring in quite a bit about the need to have someone in control of our lives.”
Julia’s eyes lit up. “Sort of like Jesus?”
Daniel looked at Julia in surprise. Where had that come from? “What does Jesus have to do with model boats?” he asked.
The visitor stopped rowing and let the oars rest in the water. “I’ve told you how the boat gets its signals from the person who controls it.”
All four Merlins nodded.
“Well,” he continued, “it’s no good trying to send someone signals if they can’t receive them. That’s why the speedboat kept bumping into the wall. Julia, you’ve got it right. Jesus has promised to come into your life and live with you. In that way you’re in touch with God. You’re part of God’s family. Jesus, his Son, stays with you every day and all day.”
Daniel turned to Julia. “Are you in God’s family?”
Julia shook her head and bit her bottom lip. “I don’t think so, Daniel. Probably not. I just made a lucky guess, because Luke and Helen took us to the church.”
Daniel had never thought of Jesus as being quite as real as that. Was it true? Could Jesus live with him?
“As I told everyone in the evening, the radio controller and the boat have to be linked, to stay in contact,” Luke Elliot said. “Last night I taught everyone a verse from the Bible about being in God’s family. About being linked with their Heavenly Father.” He thought for a moment. “Would you like to learn it?”
Daniel and Emma looked at each other. Their visitor was certainly unusual, and good fun to be out with.
“I’d like to try,” Julia said.
They listened as Luke Elliot said slowly, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
“Receive who?” Charlie asked.
“Jesus,” Julia said, before Luke could answer. “I’ve heard it before, but I don’t really get it.” She started to repeat the words, and the others joined in, with the occasional mistake.
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Daniel was frowning. … to become children of God . It might be true for other people, but it wouldn't be true for him -- even if he wanted to become a child of God.
The boat trip was over. Luke Elliot had gone to the church to meet Helen. Mr. Hodges had gone into his narrowboat and shut the small blue door. The Merlins stood on the old stone towpath that was part of the embankment for the Basin.
“Let’s check through our list,” Daniel said, still holding the notebook. “What’s the best place for seeing as much of the canal as possible?”
“The wire factory,” Charlie shouted. “It must be those two youths, and they’re hiding in the wire factory!”
“He’s right,” Julia said. “You’ve written the wire factory down every time we made notes of what we could see.”
Daniel nodded slowly, and looked up at the factory wall. There were no proper windows on the side that faced the canal. Of course, someone might hide on the roof. “No, I don’t think so, Charlie. It would be too risky to sail a boat from that far away. If it broke down it might be stolen before they could get to it. Besides, how would they get the speedboat in and out of the canal? There’s a high security fence, and there’s no access onto the canal.”
Emma was pushing to look over her older brother’s shoulder. “It might not be the wire factory. How about Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat?”
“That would certainly be close enough,” Daniel agreed. “What we want is somewhere close like that, but not as daft.”
“It’s not daft,” Emma insisted. “Look at your list. You’ve written that narrowboat down nearly as many times as you’ve written down the wire factory.”
The other three Merlins stared in amazement. Emma was absolutely correct. There was only one part of the canal from where they hadn’t been able to see some part of Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat, and that was from below the bridge they called Talbots Bridge. It was at Talbots Bridge that The Pride of Avalon had been sunk!
“Then perhaps our boat was sunk by accident,” Emma exclaimed. “He couldn’t have seen our boat, so he didn’t know it was in the way. That’s why it kept bumping into the wall.”
“Who didn’t know?” Daniel asked.
“Mr. Hodges, of course.”
“That’s stupid,” Daniel said rudely. “Mr. Hodges wouldn’t know how to work a radio controlled boat. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to afford one.”
That made Emma cross. “All right, clever clogs, who was doing it?”
Daniel was sure it couldn’t be Mr. Hodges, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, he scratched the back of his head and tried to look thoughtful.
“Come on, Dan.” Emma was not to be silenced. “Come on. Who was it?”
“I don’t know who it was,” Daniel admitted. “Anyone got any ideas?”
No one had. They had definitely suspected those two youths at first. Then Mr. Hodges. Who else was there? His narrowboat was in just the right place for someone to stand and get a good view of most of the canal. In fact, apart from the wire factory, it was just about the only place.
“Oh dear,” Julia said, shaking her head. “You know when I saw the speedboat yesterday when I was on my way back from the church?”
The others looked but said nothing.
“I think there was someone on top of the narrowboat.”
“Who?” Daniel asked.
Julia shook her head. “I feel stupid now, but I didn’t think to take any notice. I didn’t think about someone having to stand where they could see their boat all the time. I’m sorry. Ever so sorry.”
Charlie put his hand on her arm. “It’s not you fault, but do you know who it was?”
Julia shook her head. “No idea. Just a person.”
“Young or old?” Daniel asked.
Julia continued to shake her head.
“Could it have been Mr. Hodges?” Daniel asked. He wasn’t giving up.
“I just don’t know. I’ve only just remembered it anyway. It didn’t seem important at the time. It could have been a woman for all I know. If I see anyone again, I’ll take much more notice. I promise.”
“Let’s keep watch,” Charlie suggested after a long pause. “We can take it in turns to hide. We’ll soon know if it’s Mr. Hodges.”
“That’s quite a good idea,” Daniel told him. “We can watch in pairs. Two of us can hide here by the Basin, and the other two can hide further along the canal near Talbots Bridge. Then, if we see the speedboat come by, and Mr. Hodges is sitting inside his narrowboat, we’ll know he’s not doing it. But if he’s on the roof, or watching out of the window, then it will look very suspicious.” Daniel paused and nodded to himself.
“I’ll stay here with Charlie,” Julia volunteered, thinking that Daniel could be quite clever at times. “Make sure your phone’s got a good signal, and we can keep in touch if we see anything suspicious. Otherwise we’ll wait here for an hour, and then we’ll make our way along the canal to the Merlin Tree and decide what to do next.”
“Okay, Julia. I’ll go with Emma to Talbots Bridge. There’s no need for us to hide. Whoever is controlling it won’t be there, because of the bend. All Emma and I have to do is to see if that speedboat comes our way, and let you know by phone.”
Daniel looked at his watch. It had been a present for his last birthday. He was proud of it, for it had several different hands for various functions, including a stopwatch. Mostly he used it for telling the time, but it looked impressive as well as being waterproof down to fifty metres. He boasted that if he fell in the canal it would be safe, because surely the canal wasn’t that deep!
“It’s quarter to eleven now. You come to us at quarter to twelve if we haven’t seen anything, and we’ll try again after lunch. Julia, make sure your phone is on vibrate only. I’ve already done the same with mine. Only phone me if you see anything suspicious, and don’t chatter to each other. Complete silence.”
“All right, bossy boots,” Julia said, rolling her eyes and setting her phone to silent.
It was all agreed. Julia and Charlie waited until Emma and Daniel had climbed through the railings and out onto the road.
“We’ll hide in these bushes, Julia,” Charlie said. “Quickly. We don’t want to be seen.”
Charlie sounded so excited that Julia expected something to happen almost at once. The evergreen bushes were dense, and gave them all the cover they needed. Anyone walking around the Basin, or standing on the narrowboat, would never guess that two of the Merlins were watching them!
Charlie and Julia watched Mr. Hodges come out on to the deck of his narrowboat, but it was only to empty a bowl of dirty water into the canal. Later he came out again, puffing at his long pipe, his blue knitted hat pulled well down over his ears, even though it was a warm spring day. Perhaps he’d come out to signal to somebody. But no, he soon went back inside and he was still there when it was time to go and meet Daniel and Emma at the Merlin Tree.
“We’ll come back after lunch,” Daniel said when they met up, not sounding in the least bit disappointed. Why should he mind? It was good fun, after all.
“What time?” Julia asked.
Emma reached across and looked at Daniel’s watch. “Can you be back here by two?”
Julia nodded. “I should think so. Tell you what. Let’s meet further along the canal.” She lowered her voice. “Then we can creep up here in case there’s anything suspicious going on.”
The other three Talbots nodded. It sounded a good idea. Just at the moment they didn’t really know what they were looking for. It could be the model speedboat, or someone with a radio controller, or even Mr. Hodges acting suspiciously. Or someone with a gun? Now that really was scary.
Luke and Helen Elliott called back for lunch and Helen asked the Merlins if they’d like to go to a games party at the church hall that evening. This had been announced at the films, and it was also on their invitation card, but they’d made no plans to go there.
“Is it a proper sort of a party?” Emma asked.
Helen Elliot said it was, in a way.
“Then I’m going to dress up specially for it,” Emma announced. “What shall I wear, Mum?”
Mrs. Talbot looked thoughtful. “How about your silky top with the sequins on it? You wore it to Julia’s birthday party.”
“But, Mum,” Emma complained, “I want to wear something different. Something Julia hasn’t seen.”
Her mother laughed. “You’ll be lucky there, my girl!”
“That’s what I mean.” Emma looked upset. “I always have to wear the same old clothes. Why can’t I have something new for a change? Julia’s mother is always buying her heaps of new clothes!” Emma knew exactly what her mother’s answer would be. They’d been through this lots of times before.
“Maybe she is,” Mrs. Talbot said. “Julia’s mother hasn’t got three children to buy clothes for. Have you thought of that?”
Luke Elliot coughed politely. “Excuse me interrupting,” he said with a smile. “You don’t have to worry about what to wear.”
Emma looked at him in surprise. Was she going to be like Cinderella? Would he wave a magic wand and change all her old clothes into beautiful gowns? She would have to hurry and find a pumpkin shell for her brothers to pull when they were turned from rats into handsome horses! Or should that be footmen? No matter, it wasn’t going to happen.
Mrs. Talbot said it was okay for them to go, as long as they all stayed together, and Julia must be told to check with her parents first if she wanted to go with them.
“It isn’t going to be the sort of games party where people dress up,” Luke Elliot explained. “It will be team games and runabout games. Old clothes and trainers are to be recommended.”
“Are you sure?” Emma asked, not wanting to be the odd one out when it came to clothes.
“Quite sure. Helen and I are running the games. You wear your old clothes and you’ll have much more fun.”
Emma felt relieved, and the two boys wondered what sort of games there would be. Hopefully they’d be noisy ones, and not too gentle.
“We’re going back to the canal this afternoon,” Daniel said. “What time do the games start?”
“Helen and I will be going early to get things ready. You come along about six, unless you’d like to help us set up.”
Daniel liked the idea of that. “What time?”
“About five.” Luke Elliot stood up. He turned to Mrs. Talbot. “We won’t be needing a meal this evening, and if your three and Julia are coming, they’ll be able to eat at the buffet that’s being laid on. You’ll have to excuse us now, I’m afraid. There’s a leaders’ meeting there this afternoon that we need to go to.” He looked at the Merlins. “If you’re going to help, I can call back here for you at five. And one of us will walk you safely back afterwards. It that all right?”
It was. The Talbots watched the Elliots go down the road, and then made straight for their meeting place at the canal. Julia was already there. They told her about the games evening at the church. She phoned her mum immediately, and got permission to join them.
“Old clothes,” Emma said firmly, afraid Julia would turn up in yet another new outfit. “Come as you are.”
Julia frowned. “If you’re sure that’s all right. It doesn’t seem right to go out in the evening dressed like this. I’ll have to nip home first.”
Emma was determined Julia wasn’t going to get a chance to change into new clothes. “There’s no need to do that. You can come back to ours with us. Now then,” she continued, changing the subject quickly, “how are we going to watch Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat?”
“I’ll go to the Basin again with Julia,” Charlie suggested. “Then you can stay…. Listen!” He raised a finger in the air as a signal for them all to be quiet.
Two sharp noises like shots had rung out in quick succession, sending birds flying out of the bushes in alarm. The shots sounded quite close by.
“It’s someone by the Basin with a gun,” Daniel said. “Or two guns. Come on. They’ll be shooting at our ducks!” He always thought of the ducks as theirs, even though they were wild. But that didn’t mean anything to him. They fed the ducks so often that they’d grown fat on Talbot bread and stale cake. Certainly no one had the right to go shooting them. He would soon put a stop to that!
As the four Merlins ran up the canal bank, they heard the sound of the model speedboat. It was coming towards them. Then, as it came in sight, it did a sharp turn in the canal, going back towards the Basin. Charlie went to throw a stone as it, but Daniel held his arm.
“Be careful. Let’s find out who’s working it. We don’t want to be in trouble for sinking the thing.”
The brambles were too thick to continue along the canal bank on their side. They had to get up the bank along one of the tracks made by local children over the years, then onto the road, coming back to the canal further along. When they thought about it later they realised they might have made too much noise in their excitement. Whoever was working the boat had gone when they finally reached the Basin. Nor was there any sign of anyone with a gun.
“They’ll have taken the boat with them,” Daniel said gloomily. “I think Emma was right when she said it was those two youths!”
Close to where he was standing a brown female mallard lay on her side among the reeds. Daniel jumped with fright when he saw it. He crouched down for a closer look. The bird had been shot through the head. The others joined him in silence.
“If we could only stop them,” Daniel said gloomily. “I don’t think I’d bother about losing our paddle steamer. I’d feel happy just to get rid of whoever it is who’s killing our ducks. It’s probably an air rifle, but it’s still against the law. We were told that at school. I’d rather catch the person with the gun than the person with the boat. Let’s set a trap for them!”
Charlie looked around, angry at what was being done. The speedboat couldn't have gone beyond the Basin because the canal ended there. A long time ago it had continued to the next town. Probably beyond that. Perhaps right to the coast -- and that was a very long way.
Charlie often wished they could get to the seaside, even though he knew his parents had to stay home during the school holidays so they could be open for guests. It was rather like a café having to stay open for lunch.
Charlie sighed. He wouldn’t keep a guest house when he grew up. His parents never seemed to have any money, and his father still had to go out to work instead of staying home to help run the business. Then he thought of Brenton, and the old canal. It was good here. Probably more fun than the seaside. All the same….
Daniel startled him by shouting out. “Look over there! See? In the reeds. It’s the speedboat!”
Sure enough, in the part of the Basin where the reeds were thickest, the model speedboat was resting quietly in the water.
“It’s caught in the reeds,” Daniel said. “I’m going to wade out to get it. You know what they say. Finders keepers!”
“That would be stealing,” Emma protested.
“Stealing? After it sunk our boat?”
“Emma’s right, Daniel,” Julia said, although not wanting to upset him. “We did decide it was probably an accident.”
“Maybe,” Daniel admitted. “Anyway, I’m going out to get it.” He’d already forgotten they wanted to catch the person who was killing the ducks.
As he removed his trainers and socks, his imagined tales of pirates and quicksand were far from his mind, Emma gasped in horror. “Don’t go in there! You’ll sink up to your neck in the mud.”
Daniel hesitated. Emma could be right. He looked across and saw Mr. Hodges’ old rowing boat. “How about that? I’m sure Mr. Hodges will let us borrow it.”
“We could ask,” Emma agreed. “Come on.”
As they climbed the narrow gangplank, a thought occurred to Julia. Suppose it had been Mr. Hodges all along? He could be hiding in his narrowboat, and would know they’d seen the model boat in the reeds. But it was too late to shout out a warning. Charlie was already knocking loudly on the door.
They waited for an answer, with Julia secretly hoping Mr. Hodges wasn't in. Charlie knocked again, while the others made their way back down the gangplank onto dry land. Daniel looked closely at the drawn curtains to see if they moved at all. No, Mr. Hodges must either be out -- or refusing to see them.
“Now what do we do?” Daniel asked, staring across the Basin at the model speedboat nestling in the reeds. It was maddening. They were so close and yet so far. He sat on the towpath, ready to put his trainers and socks on again. In a way he was relieved. When he was small he’d imagined there could be sharks and crocodiles swimming in the canal, and his imagination seemed to have left a deep impression. He still felt a little anxious about stepping into the water!
“Do you think Mr. Hodges would mind?” Emma asked.
“Mind what?” Daniel said, staring at his toes.
“You know. Mind if we took the boat. Well, not took it. Borrowed it just for a minute to go out and get the speedboat.”
The idea of actually using Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat without permission hadn’t occurred to the others. Although they would only be borrowing it, not taking it, Daniel somehow knew they shouldn’t do it.
“Oh, come on,” Emma said in a pleading voice. “You’re not scared, are you?”
“‘Course not.” Daniel turned to Julia and Charlie. “What do you think?”
“I can’t see it would matter,” Julia said, thinking aloud. “We wouldn’t do any harm to it.”
“Vote on it,” Charlie said, holding up his hand. “I’m in favour of Emma’s idea.”
Two other hands went up. Emma's and Julia's. Daniel sighed. There was no real leader of the Merlins. They always did what the majority wanted -- like now.
“You are scared,” Emma told him. “Hey, Dan’s scared!”
“I’m not,” Daniel said angrily, knowing he was going red. “So be quiet, and let’s get in the boat.”
Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat was tied to the back of the narrowboat. As Emma climbed in, it started to rock.
“Careful!” Charlie shouted. “Do you want us all drowned? Sit down as soon as you’re in.”
“Not too much noise,” Emma whispered, sitting down quickly. “We don’t want everyone to know what we’re doing.” She was starting to feel guilty now, wishing she’d not suggested it. Perhaps Daniel had been right after all. Anyway, it was too late now to back out.
As Charlie untied the boat, Daniel suddenly noticed there weren’t any oars.
“Wait!” he called, but it was too late. Charlie had given an enormous shove away from the narrowboat, sending the rowing boat shooting backwards. Daniel explained about the missing oars.
“I expect they’re inside the narrowboat,” Charlie said. “Trust us not to notice!”
The boat slowed down. It looked as though they would come to a halt right in the middle of the Basin. Everything was very quiet. They could hear the occasional car on the road, but that was all. Daniel started to panic. No, don’t be silly, he told himself. Someone is bound to come before long.
“Listen!” Charlie said excitedly.
Daniel looked round. Was someone coming? It had better not be Mr. Hodges! Anybody else and they could call for help.
“Yes, I can hear it,” Emma said. “It sounds like that speedboat starting up.”
Daniel turned quickly to the large patch of reeds. Sure enough, Emma was right. The model speedboat backed out slowly into clear water. Then, with a powerful whirr from the engine, it turned and headed for the rowing boat.
Julia got ready to catch it. But instead of coming straight at them, the speedboat turned sharply at the last moment, circled their boat twice, and disappeared along the canal towards Talbots Bridge.
“Well,” Emma exclaimed, “of all the cheek!” She turned to Daniel. “Now what do we do?”
Daniel gave a shrug. “Don’t ask me. It was your brilliant idea in the first place.”
“Then it’s your turn now to think of the next brilliant idea,” Emma said crossly.
Daniel was feeling annoyed with himself for being talked into this disaster “All right,” he said. “Here’s a good idea. You can swim, so jump over the side and push us to the bank!”
“That,” Emma said, “is not funny. Has anyone with any brains got any ideas?”
“We just sit and wait,” Charlie suggested. “The wind’s blowing us back towards Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat all the time. We’ll be back there in a minute or two.”
The others hadn’t noticed they were moving. The excitement with the model speedboat had taken all their attention.
“Let’s hope we get back there before Mr. Hodges turns up,” Julia said.
“Do you think Mr. Hodges was working the controls?” Emma asked. “I wish you’d sit down, Charlie. You’re going to upset the boat.”
Charlie had stood up to make his way to the back. “It’s all right, big sister,” he snapped. “I’m only getting ready to catch hold of the narrowboat.”
Emma knew Charlie was upset. He only called her “big sister” when he was mad with her. It had been her fault in the first place. She knew that very well. The others would never have thought of taking Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat without permission. She held her breath for a moment and squeezed her hands together tightly. That always made her feel calmer. No harm had been done. Just a bit further and they would all be safe on dry land.
“Give me a hand, Dan,” Charlie called. “I can nearly reach it now.”
“Be careful,” Daniel said. “We don’t want you falling in. Just wait a bit. You’re too impatient.”
“Huh!” Charlie replied. “I suppose you don’t mind if Mr. Hodges comes back?”
Daniel shook his head. “Look, it wasn’t my idea to do this, anyway. All right, now you can catch hold.”
Charlie leaned out what seemed a very long way, and caught hold of the side of the narrowboat. He held on tightly and pulled the rowing boat close to the side of the narrowboat. Julia went aboard it first. Then it was Emma’s turn.
Emma was still cross with the others for blaming everything on her. The more she thought about it, the more cross she got. I’ll show them! she decided, and refusing Charlie’s helping hand she prepared to jump from the rowing boat onto the deck of the narrowboat.
The rowing boat began to move backwards as she began her leap. The gap between the two boats widened, and Emma was stranded with one leg on the rowing boat and the other on the narrowboat. The gap continued to widen, and Emma, with a great shriek, slipped into the muddy water between the two.
“She’s gone!” Charlie shouted in horror, peering into the murky depths. Large bubbles came to the surface, and then Emma. She was struggling madly and spitting out water.
Daniel would have jumped in to help her, but he knew Emma could swim well. He reached down a strong hand and held her before she could go under again.
“I’m all right,” Emma spluttered. “Just let go and I’ll swim to the bank.”
Daniel still held her tightly. “You can’t swim properly with clothes on,” he warned her. “We’ll pull you out onto the narrowboat.”
Charlie helped Daniel drag their sister to safety. Emma stood on the deck of Mr. Hodges’ home. Her sodden jeans clung to her legs as water poured onto the wooden deck. For a moment it stayed as a large puddle, and then ran in several small streams to the edge, and back into the canal.
“Go on,” Emma said, “laugh!”
Daniel shook his head. The last thing he was thinking of doing was laughing. It could so easily have turned into a nasty accident. Julia and Charlie shook their heads.
“Well, someone laughed,” Emma insisted. “I heard them. If it wasn’t any of you, it must have been someone else.”
The four Merlins looked around. The canal and Basin were deserted.
“You’re daft,” Charlie told her. “No one was laughing at you.”
“Of course not,” Daniel added. Then he looked again at his bedraggled sister, with her long wet hair hanging over her eyes. As she started to walk, water squelched from her trainers. Well, she did look rather funny. A smile came back to his usually cheerful face.
Julia and Charlie had got over their fright. They, too, started to smile, then grin and finally burst out laughing.
“Oh, Emma,” Julia said with a giggle, “you do look funny standing there so wet.”
Emma felt furious. “You’re lucky it’s not you, Julia!” she snapped. “I’d like to see you standing here soaked to the skin and laughing your head off.” She raised her arms to show how wet she was. More water poured to the ground.
“Don’t be so stuck up,” Charlie told her. “I think you look funny, anyway.”
“And I don’t!” Then Emma looked down at herself. She pushed the wet hair from her eyes and pulled at her jeans. “Look at me. Whatever will Mum say?”
Charlie was quite good at mimicking his mother. “She’ll say, ‘Good gracious me. Whatever have you been up to, Emma?’ That’s what Mum will say.”
Emma could just hear her mother saying it. And what had they been up to? How were they going to explain how she managed to fall into the canal?
The sun had come out. Emma caught sight of a dripping shadow lying across the deck of the narrowboat. The shadow did look rather strange, she thought to herself. Perhaps the others were right. Perhaps she did look funny after all. Then she started to laugh.
Daniel looked at his sister in amazement. This was absolutely the last thing he’d expected. Emma had seemed so angry. Now, in spite of the soaking, she was laughing as much as they were.
“Good for you, Emma,” he told her. “You were really brave the way you didn’t panic in the water. After all, it wasn’t really your fault, the way the boat went back like that. One of us should have been holding on tightly.”
Charlie wasn’t feeling in quite such a generous mood as Daniel. “You might as well do your laughing now, Emma. Just you wait till we get back. Mum won’t let you come with us to the games evening at the church.”
Emma gave a gasp. Charlie could well be right. They must get back as soon as possible and try to make peace. “Do hurry,” she called to the others. “Tie Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat up properly and come back with me. Oh, do be quick. That water was freezing cold!”
She sounded so pleading that the others had no choice but to obey. The search for the speedboat would have to wait. The afternoon was quite warm, but not warm enough for Emma. As they ran back along the road, several people turned and stared at the dripping figure racing for dear life. The other three Merlins were hardly able to keep up.
Charlie had guessed correctly. As they came into the hall, Mrs. Talbot said, “Good gracious me. Whatever have you been up to, Emma?”
The others laughed, but Mrs. Talbot was unable to see anything funny about her daughter dripping canal water onto the hall carpet. Emma couldn't think of anything that was funny about the situation -- now.
“Oh, Mum,” she sobbed, “I fell into the canal.”
Mrs. Talbot stood well back and took a long look at Emma. Mother and daughter stared at each other.
Then Emma could stand it no longer. She ran forward and hugged her mother, forgetting how wet she was. “I did, Mum. I fell right in.”
Mrs. Talbot didn’t push her away, but held on tightly as the muddy water soaked through the front of her clothes. “I should think you did, Emma,” she said at last. “I should think you did!”
“I know what we can do,” Daniel shouted, jumping to his feet in the Merlin Room. “Of course, it’s a case for Cedric!”
“Cedric?” Julia asked. “Who’s Cedric?”
Emma had been bathed, given a warm drink and clean clothes, and finally forgiven. After all her fears, she was to be allowed to the games evening with the others. Luke and Helen Elliot would be back soon to take the four of them to the church hall. In the meantime, they’d gone down to their room to discuss what they should do about the shooting and the speedboat.
“Surely you remember Cedric?” Daniel was amazed at their short memories. “He’s on the shelf over there.”
“The duck?” Emma asked in surprise, recalling how Daniel had brought it back in such triumph. “How can an old stuffed duck help us catch that speedboat?”
In spite of her ridicule, Emma was prepared to listen to what Daniel was going to say. Daniel usually had some strange ideas, but a few of them seemed to work. All the same, an old duck….
“We know that whoever was working the boat must have been watching us all the time,” Daniel explained. “It wasn’t broken down in those reeds. It was just being hidden there. Whoever was working it didn’t have time to get the boat out of the water when they heard us coming. They made it go straight into those reeds, and hoped it would be hidden from us. But we saw it.”
Charlie leaned forward in the old arm chair, the only comfortable seat in the Merlin Room. “That means someone was there to see us go out in Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat. He must have seen Emma … you know … fall in.”
Emma could feel herself blushing. “Then that’s who it was I heard laughing. It wasn’t any of you, after all.” She thought for a moment and then smiled. “I know you all laughed in the end, but I’m sure I heard someone laugh as you dragged me out of the water.”
“Probably water in your ears,” Charlie said, pulling small pieces of stuffing through a hole in the arm of the chair.
Daniel laughed. “Could have been. I think Emma’s right, though. I’m sure whoever was working the speedboat thought they’d better get it out of the way when they saw us in Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat. They guessed we were after it. They probably didn’t know we hadn’t any oars. Once the speedboat was on the move, whoever was controlling it made it go round our rowing boat just to let us know we couldn’t catch it if we tried. Well, they’re wrong. And that’s where Cedric comes in.”
Charlie got up and fetched the remains of the duck. Emma had forgotten Cedric had been put on the shelf after the disaster with his case. That explained the funny smell in the room. It had puzzled her every time she came down.
Charlie put Cedric on the table. Julia and Emma moved their dining chairs back slightly. Cedric was definitely more smelly out of his case. No one said anything. They just waited for Daniel to explain how this mangled old wreck of a mallard could help.
“We’ll set a trap,” Daniel continued, after a bit of thought. “We’ll build a raft out of our spare bits of balsa wood. Then we’ll put Cedric on top and it will look as though he’s a real duck floating along.”
He’s as daft as a brush, Emma thought. The others may have thought the same, for they just stared open-mouthed.
“It’s all right,” Daniel said, guessing his sister’s thoughts. “What we do is this. When Cedric is on his raft, we float him along the canal on the end of a long piece of brown thread. Then we hide out of the way, but keep hold of the thread. We may have to wait for ages, but when the speedboat comes by we pull the thread tight and it catches in the propeller. And then we pull it to land and wait for the owner. See?”
The others did see, and said they thought it a great idea.
“Of course,” Daniel added, “we really want to catch the person who’s shooting the ducks. Still, while we’re down by the canal we might see them as well. You never know, we might catch them all!”
There was no time now to make a raft for Cedric to sail on, but they could look to see what balsa wood pieces were left. It seemed rather sad to get out the box of leftovers from The Pride of Avalon. It wasn’t only sad, but maddening to think that their paddle steamer lay at the bottom of the canal. And all because of that wretched model speedboat.
If they could only find the owner! It couldn’t have been Mr. Hodges. He would have come to see if he could help when Emma fell in. If it was those two youths, Cedric would soon catch their speedboat.
Whoever it was couldn’t have been very nice, if all they could do was laugh. Emma might have been drowning. Anyway, Mr. Hodges wouldn’t have let them take his rowing boat out like that if he’d been there at the time. Mrs. Talbot had told them they would have to go along in the morning and explain to Mr. Hodges that they’d used his rowing boat without permission, even though it was undamaged.
Daniel had been good about it, and not let on that it had been Emma’s idea in the first place. He’d said they were all to blame, and Mrs. Talbot had said that they would all have to go, even Julia.
“I think I can hear Luke and Helen Elliot upstairs,” Emma said. “Come on, put that smelly old bird away. You’ve got to get ready. Remember, I’m changed already.” She looked down at herself. She was wearing her silky top with sequins, and Julia would have to come off second best for once, because she still had her old clothes on. Hard luck, Julia, Emma thought. It’s too late to go back to change. You’ll just have to go as you are! And then she felt bad for even thinking it. But it was definitely too late to do anything about it now.
“I really am sorry, Julia. I should have told you I was going to wear this top. It’s just that I wanted to be the only one wearing something special for a change.”
Julia didn’t seem to mind. “No problem, Emma. I’m fine as I am.” She sounded as though she meant it.
The games had not been going very long when Emma regretted her choice of clothes. Luke Elliot had been right. These were not the sort of games to play in your best top. Julia had been the sensible one.
“What’s the matter?” Daniel called from the edge of the hall where he’d been jumping high for the balloon in a game of balloon basketball.
“Nothing,” Emma muttered. “I’m just resting.” The trouble was her silky top. It had looked so good at Julia’s birthday party. At Julia’s party they’d not played these sorts of games. Every time she jumped, she caught her hand in the sequins. Already the stitching was working loose. It wouldn’t be long before the whole lot came off like a snowstorm. She would rather have died or gone home than let that happen. But she was enjoying herself, in spite of her clothes. Most of the others wore old things, but she was pleased to see she wasn’t alone in wearing something smart.
Luke Elliot blew a whistle. The game came to an end and everyone looked in his direction. Daniel wondered what was coming next. The food? Yes, the food. Luke. Elliot asked everyone to stand still while he said grace. The large crowd of young people were then asked to form an orderly line and help themselves to food from the tables as they passed along.
Daniel was glad he'd been invited. There were several friends he knew from school. He wondered who had asked them. Perhaps they always came to this church. Then there had been those invitations a couple of weeks back -- and they'd taken no notice of theirs! Perhaps his parents would enjoy some of the meetings for grownups. If people like the Elliots were running them, they would.
Food was soon over. The games after tea were much quieter, and Emma had been able to join in all of them without further damage to her sequins. Daniel was glad. He was proud of his sister when he saw her dressed up like this, but he knew she was definitely wearing the wrong sort of top. Julia had taken part in just about every game and looked worn out. He smiled at her and she came and sat with him on the floor. Luke Elliot was speaking from the far end of the hall.
“Before you go, I want to see how many of the older ones can remember something we learnt last night. It’s to do with a family.”
Several hands shot up. Daniel wondered what it could be. Then he remembered what Luke had said in the boat. The verse from the Bible about being in God’s family.
Luke pointed to one of the hands. “Yes?”
An older girl stood up. “But to all who did receive him….” she started to say, and then stopped. She went red and sat down. Several of her friends started to giggle.
“Can anyone remember how it goes on?” Luke asked, smiling himself at the laughter the girl had caused. “Can anyone go on? Come along. You knew it last night. I’m talking about the older ones, of course. Most of you older ones were here last night. Can’t anyone remember?”
The hands had gone down now. No one seemed to want to risk making a mistake in front of so many of their friends. Daniel felt his hand go up.
Luke Elliot pointed down the hall. Everyone turned to see who’d raised their hand. Daniel got to his feet, aware of being the centre of attention.
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to, to….” He paused, and Julia whispered, “To become children of God.”
“…to become children of God,” Daniel finished loudly. He sat down with a bump and grinned at Julia. “Thanks,” he said quietly.
Luke Elliot nodded. “Yes, the right to become children of God.” He looked round at everyone in the hall. “Whose family are you in? You’re not in God’s family just because you were born into a family that goes to church. You may think you’re in God’s family. You may want to be in God’s family. Think of a friend. Your best friend. He or she may know all about you. May know you as well as a brother or sister.”
Daniel thought of Julia. She spent so much time round at The Merlin Guest House that many of the guests thought she was one of the family.
“They may even look a bit like you,” Luke Elliot continued.
Daniel thought that Emma and Julia. Their hair was the same sort of colour and the same sort of length.
“They could never be a real brother or sister,” Luke Elliot went on. “Not what is called a ‘blood’ relative. For that, they would have had to be born into your family. Jesus told people that if they wanted to be in God’s family they would have to be born again.”
One or two of the older party-goers started to snigger.
“Yes, I expect you’ve heard that expression before, but have you thought what it means? Being born again. Being born into a new family. A new start. Not on your own any longer, but belonging to your Heavenly Father.”
Daniel was listening carefully. When Luke had explained some of this in the rowing boat, he hadn’t really understood much about it. Now it was different. He understood that Jesus, God’s Son, had come to earth to invite him into that new family. That Jesus had died on the cross as a punishment for the things people did that kept them from God, who is holy. Had died, so it seemed, for him in particular.
As Luke Elliot continued, Daniel kept thinking about the new family. He looked at Julia, and she also seemed to be listening closely. She was a good friend but not part of the Talbot family. She never could be, because she hadn’t been born a Talbot. Was he a member of God’s family? It wasn’t likely. He’d never done anything about getting born into it.
He listened to the Luke carefully. What he had to do was ask. He didn’t have too put his life right first. With Jesus inside, Jesus would help him live as one of God’s family. Someone new to the family would have a lot to learn. Daniel didn’t need to be told that!
Everyone bowed their heads. Luke Elliot told them that if they wanted to do it now, they could tell Jesus they needed him, and then ask him into their lives. If they did that, they would become part of the large family -- God's family.
Then the games evening ended. The young people got to their feet and made a rush for their coats and the door. Daniel stood up more slowly. For him, this had not been just a games evening. He had accepted the invitation. He wasn't just Daniel Talbot now. He belonged not only to the Talbot family -- but to God's.
THE NEW FAMILY
Daniel woke up feeling excited the next morning. For a moment he lay and wondered what it was that excited him. There was the model speedboat. That was exciting enough. With Cedric’s help they might find the owner.
The Merlin Guest House was quite old. There was a plaster pattern around the edge of the ceiling of the room he shared with Charlie. In places it had broken away and been smoothed over by some person long ago to try and hide the damage. Daniel knew the pattern off by heart. Over his bed the original builder had put in an extra bit to fit the pattern to the length of ceiling. He’d done it well. Daniel had only noticed it a year ago.
His eyes roved along, always hoping to find something new in the pattern. Two blobs and a flower. Two blobs and a flower. Three plaster blobs at the join in the centre, then a flower, and back to the same pattern. Daniel got to his feet and opened the curtains. Charlie was just waking up.
What was it that was especially exciting? They’d gone to the games evening … yes, that was it! Last night he’d handed his life over to Jesus. He was now in the new family Luke Elliot had been telling them about. God’s family. Great! he thought. It was going to be amazing now. He’d tell the others and they would listen and…. Well, who knows?
Daniel knelt by his bed and asked Jesus to help him live in the new family. Charlie was sitting up in bed, looking surprised but saying nothing.
Daniel grinned at him and started to whistle cheerfully as he made his way downstairs. He wasn’t going to make a habit of it, but just for once he would take his parents a cup of tea in bed.
Emma heard Daniel whistling, and wondered what he was up to. Then she turned over, pulling the lightweight duvet close to her head. She was convinced she could still taste that horrible canal water, and wondered if she should get out of bed for a glass of milk. A glass of cold milk would help wash it away. If Daniel was up, he could get it for her! At that moment the door opened slowly and Charlie put his head round the door.
“Don’t let me wake you up,” he said, turning the main light on. “Oh, you are awake. Dan’s already up. I think he was praying.” He rolled his eyes.
“Doesn’t sound like Daniel,” Emma said, frowning. “Is that what you’ve woken me up to tell me?”
“No, listen. I’ve had the most fantastic idea. Those ducks were shot by the person using the model boat.”
“Oh, go away,” his sister groaned. “And don’t come back for at least an hour.”
“No, shan’t,” Charlie teased her. “You can get up and we’ll go and tell Dan.”
Emma groaned again and retreated even further under the duvet. “Go on, buzz off,” she ordered. “Come back later. Much later.”
“Fancy you being awake!” Daniel came into Emma’s room carrying a tray.
Slowly Emma opened an eye and pushed the duvet away from her face for a better look. “If that’s my breakfast you’ve got there, you can take it away. All I want is a glass of milk.”
“It’s not your breakfast,” Daniel said. “It’s tea for Mum and Dad. But if you want milk I’ll get you some.”
Emma was waking up more quickly now. “Are you sure I didn’t drown in the canal? I can’t remember you ever offering me milk in bed before.”
Daniel grinned. “You never asked me before.”
Emma shook her head in amazement. “Whatever’s come over you?” she asked. “Charlie said you’ve been praying.”
Daniel was about to say, but hesitated. He’d been going to tell her, tell Charlie and Julia, been going to tell everyone. Would they understand? Anyway, being in a new family had nothing to do with getting people drinks in bed. Or did it? He scratched his head. “Yes, I was praying. I did what Luke Elliot said last night at the church hall. I’m in God’s family now.” He grinned when he saw their puzzled faces. “If you must know, I was praying for you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to preach to you. I just want you to know what’s happened. Now, stay here, and I’ll get you your milk,” was all he said.
“I’ve had an idea,” Charlie told him when he got back from delivering the tray of tea to his extremely surprised parents. Daniel had even brought milk for Charlie, as well as Emma.
Emma was sitting up in bed now, her knees raised in a hump under the duvet. Carefully she balanced her glass on top. “Say it again, Charlie. I was too sleepy to take it in.”
Charlie felt important. Both his older brother and his sister seemed ready to listen to him. This was something almost unheard of. “It may not be much of an idea.” He thought it best to prepare them in advance for something they might think hopeless. “I woke up in the night thinking about it. You see, some of the time when we’ve seen that speedboat, there have been shots. Or dead mallards. I thought there might be some connection between the two. Do you see what I mean?”
Emma didn’t. “You mean there are little men onboard the speedboat shooting ducks?”
“Course not, stupid.” Charlie went to jump on his sister, saw the balanced glass of milk, and thought better of it. “If you and Dan were both ducks and saw the boat coming, what would you do?”
“Swim for it,” Daniel said. “Fast.”
“Or hide in the reeds,” Emma added.
Charlie nodded. “There you are then.”
There was a long pause. “I think I’ve missed out somewhere,” Emma said at last. “I’m still hiding in the reeds. What happens next?”
Charlie looked triumphant. “I send the boat in after you and chase you out.”
“And then?” Emma asked.
Charlie pointed two fingers at his sister like a gun. “Then I shoot you. Bang!”
Emma hugged her knees tightly, almost upsetting her milk. “Don’t,” she said. “I see what you mean now.”
Daniel looked closely at his brother. “Well done, Charlie. I think you’ve got it. Someone’s using that boat so they can chase the ducks out of the reeds and shoot them. Maybe not all the time, but probably sometimes. Let’s get on with building the raft for Cedric. We can go down to the canal after breakfast.”
Julia appeared as soon as everything was cleared away, to find the three Merlins already down in their room in the basement. “I’ve brought some of my mum’s perfume,” she told the others. “I’m going to sprinkle it on Cedric. Mum says it’s a sort she doesn’t like.”
Emma pushed the duck across the table. "Anything would be better than this foul -- this foul fowl. Hey, that was a joke!"
Daniel smiled but said nothing. He was just a little upset by the rude comments that were being made about his lovely mallard. Of course it had seen better days. One day he might be able to preserve a dead one from the canal. He thought what a messy job it would be, pulling all the insides out, and was sure his mother wouldn’t let him do it in the house. Not even down here in the Merlin Room. Anyway, they were trying to stop the ducks being killed. Cedric was going to be put to good use. He’d be floated out on his raft, with a brown thread that would tangle with the speedboat’s propeller. Catch the boat, and they might also catch the person with the gun!
The raft was finished. Cedric was put on the top and tied down with the thread. Emma pushed some of Cedric’s wing feathers over the thread to disguise it. So many of the feathers were falling out that she had to be careful not to let it go bald. The head was hanging at rather an odd angle, but Daniel decided to leave it well alone. A strange looking head was better than no head at all.
Daniel grinned as he picked Cedric up. “Right then, let’s get down to the canal.”
“Don’t forget we’ve got to go and see Mr. Hodges and apologise,” Emma reminded him.
Daniel stopped in dismay. “Oh dear, I’d forgotten about Mr. Hodges and his rowing boat. Tell you what. You go and apologise to him, and I’ll test Cedric down by Talbots Bridge!”
Although he was only joking with his sister, Daniel was impatient to put Cedric on the water. Cedric hadn’t been near water for many years, maybe even a hundred years. First of all they would go to Talbots Bridge. Daniel smiled. Talbots Bridge. How people would laugh if they knew what they called it.
Cedric sat proudly on his raft, but as soon as he was lowered into the water he looked unsafe. Daniel quickly rescued him before he tipped over, and shook the water off. Cedric’s head shot high in the air and fell into the long grass.
“Don’t take your eyes off the place where it landed,” he ordered.
Charlie got there first. The head had parted at the neck where a rusty wire had finally given way. Emma suggested that a thin stick pushed into Cedric’s sawdust would do instead, but she refused to push the two together herself. It was Daniel’s duck, so he did the surgery.
“It needs something underneath like a keel,” Charlie said. He’d been reading about model boats and guessed ducks worked in the same sort of way. “I can see an old metal bolt on the ground over there. See if you can screw that into the bottom of Cedric’s raft.”
Daniel did as his young brother suggested. Actually it was quite a clever suggestion. Cedric now sat grandly in the water, his head at a better angle than it had been since his accident on his first day in the Merlin Room. Emma began pulling him slowly through the water by the thread.
Julia looked excited. She’d been having difficulty understanding how a dead duck on a raft could catch a speedboat. When Emma jerked the thread tight, Julia could see that such a long length of thread would tangle with the propeller of any passing model boat. All they had to do was to stay hidden, and leave Cedric floating innocently on the canal. The slightest sound of that speedboat and….
All four of the Merlins jumped. A shot rang out from the direction of the Basin. Nothing more. No further shot. No sound of the model boat. No shouting.
They waited for two or three minutes. Emma looked worried. “I hope Mr. Hodges is all right,” she said quietly.
“Why shouldn’t he be?” Charlie asked.
“It’s just a feeling I’ve got,” Emma explained. “I’m going along there to see. You stay here if you don’t want to come.”
“We’ll all come,” Daniel said quickly. He couldn’t let Emma go on her own. There might be real trouble at the Basin. “We’d better stick together from now on. This could be dangerous. Keep your phone handy, Julia.”
Charlie liked the sound of sticking together, and he felt safe when he was with the others. He was glad Dan hadn’t asked him to stay behind with Cedric.
The quickest way to the Basin was by the road, from where the canal could be seen through the trees and bushes in quite a few places. Cedric was safely under Daniel’s arm. Emma, who had this strange feeling about Mr. Hodges being in danger, was quite a way in front.
It was to her great relief that she saw Mr. Hodges standing on the deck of his narrowboat. He turned quickly when he heard their voices. Daniel led the way to the boat and noticed how pale Mr. Hodges was.
Mr. Hodges looked worried, but he sounded pleasant enough. “You’d better not stay around here,” he warned. “I’ve already phoned for the police.”
“What’s happened?” Emma asked in surprise, and then turned pale too. Had Mr. Hodges discovered they’d been using his rowing boat without permission? Had he really phoned the police about it?
Mr. Hodges looked closely at Emma. “If I catch them, I’ll show them what I think of them. Using my boat like that!”
“We’re ever so sorry,” Daniel said quietly. It was best to get it over with. “I’m afraid it was us.”
“You?” Mr. Hodges started to laugh and then coughed loudly. Daniel noticed how few teeth the old man had. What was so funny about it being them? he wondered.
The old man was now choking, but he soon recovered. “It wasn’t you, bless you. It were a couple of they big lads. Had a gun each, they did. I’ll give them guns if I catch them. They’ll be in serious trouble when the police catch up with them. This is public land and no one’s allowed to shoot here.”
Daniel looked down at the rowing boat. There was a lot of water inside now, but it looked undamaged. He explained how they’d used it yesterday, and how Emma had fallen into the canal.
Emma was mad with her brother for bringing that bit in. He had no right to say anything about it. Falling in hadn’t done any harm to the boat, and was nothing to do with them using it.
Mr. Hodges didn’t seem to understand properly. “You mean you borrowed the boat to rescue the girl?” he asked.
Emma would have given one of her charming smiles and let the matter rest there. Daniel knew he had to tell the truth. The complete truth for once. Mr. Hodges wasn’t angry. He even told them they could borrow the rowing boat whenever they wanted, but they would have to get their parents’ permission first. Just now though, he warned, they ought to stay well away from the canal. Bit by bit Mr. Hodges’ story came out.
He’d got back from the corner shop and found two youths standing on top of his narrowboat. At first he thought they were breaking in, but as he watched, a model boat buzzed into the reeds and chased a duck out. One of them took a shot with his rifle at the duck, but missed. The other one with a gun had “one of they transistor things.”
“What happened then?” Daniel asked.
Mr. Hodges looked puzzled. “That’s the funny thing. As soon as they saw me they jumped into my rowing boat here, but they never untied it. Can’t see it would have done them much good without oars. They must have thought the same, too. No sooner were they in than they were out. Running down that way, towards the waste ground by the old warehouse. Never catch them now, that’s for sure. I don’t think that’s the first time they’ve been up on top of my roof, either. So I’ve phoned for the police, and they’re on their way.”
An interesting thought occurred to Daniel. “Did they take the model boat with them?”
Mr. Hodges looked down at Cedric on his raft, tucked under Daniel’s arm. “That’s a strange one, that boat you’ve got there. No, they didn't take no model boat with them. Just the guns -- and a lot of cheek."
“Then the speedboat’s still out there,” Daniel told the others who’d been listening silently. “The speedboat is out there in those reeds. Those two youths didn’t have time to get it back before they ran away.”
“Perhaps it broke down,” Julia suggested. “That may be why they wanted the rowing boat. They were trying to——”
Charlie walked to the bank and looked down. What he saw made him gasp. “It’s sinking!” he called out. “That’s what they were doing in the rowing boat. They were pulling the plug out of the bottom to stop anyone going out to find the speedboat. What a horrible, horrible trick! Fancy doing a thing like that to Mr. Hodges’ boat!”
Mr. Hodges came over to see and shook his head slowly and sadly. Emma felt sorry for him. She was glad they weren’t to blame. Certainly they got up to some tricks, but they never did anything nasty like this. As she watched the water swirling up through the hole in the bottom of the boat, she could have cried.
“Can’t we do something to help?” Charlie asked. “I could try putting the plug back.”
Mr. Hodges took him by the arm and held him firmly. “That’s very kind of you, son, but don’t do anything. I don’t want you getting drowned over an old boat. I can get some help to get it up again later today. No harm’s done.”
Julia broke off the sound of an approaching police car which came round the corner with flashing blue lights. The next few minutes were almost scary. There were two policemen in bullet-proof vests, followed almost immediately by a vehicle containing four officers in full body armour, carrying what looked like sub-machineguns.
For a moment Daniel thought they were all in trouble, but the story quickly came out. The police in body armour ran along the towpath beside the canal and into the waste land by the old warehouse.
Mr. Hodges and the four Merlins gave their accounts, but it was Mr. Hodges who was given more attention. He was, after all, the one who had seen the two youths with the air rifles. The police were taking his account extremely seriously. Daniel gave them a description of the two youths in Old McHenry’s model shop, but admitted that they had no idea if the youths Mr. Hodges had seen with the guns were the same two.
Emma tried to explain about the dead ducks, but it seemed that someone shooting with air rifles in a public place was much more important to the police than a couple of dead birds. And the sinking of The Pride of Avalon didn’t even get a proper mention.
Half an hour later the police left, having found no trace of anyone with a gun. Before going, they warned the four Merlins to stay together at all times, and keep well away from anyone carrying any sort of weapon. They were to phone them immediately if they saw anything suspicious. They told Mr. Hodges the same.
It has all been so dramatic that Daniel felt quite drained, until Julia gave a shout of excitement. “There it is,” she called, jumping up and down to get a better view over the reeds. “Look, out there by that dark patch of reeds. It’s the speedboat. You can just see the back of it sticking out.”
The Merlins climbed onboard the narrowboat. One at a time Mr. Hodges allowed them to climb onto the roof for a better view.
Daniel guessed that the youths were pretty scared or they wouldn’t have gone running off like that, long before the police came. If they were afraid of old Mr. Hodges, they certainly ought to be afraid now. It wasn’t only the police who are after them. All four Merlins were determined to stop them!
Those youths certainly had a lot of explaining to do. Daniel thought of all the trouble they’d caused. First of all there was the paddle steamer, The Pride of Avalon, that now lay in the mud on the bottom of the canal. Then there were at least four adult ducks that wouldn’t see the summer. Daniel hoped that the pair nesting opposite the wire factory were still safe. And now they’d sunk Mr. Hodges’ rowing boat. Yes, the Merlins were after them all right!
INSIDE THE NARROWBOAT
“Perhaps Cedric can help,” Daniel said, after some thought. “If we can float him over there, he might tangle with the speedboat and——”
“And then we could pull them both back,” Emma interrupted. “What a smashing idea.”
Even before Julia could agree with Emma, Charlie had picked Cedric up and lowered him into the muddy water of the Basin. For a moment it looked as though Cedric would capsize, but he righted himself quickly and sailed majestically in the water.
Charlie laughed. “He looks like the king of the mallards. I’m going to shove him out into the middle. The wind can take him from there.”
“Make sure you’re holding the thread tightly,” Daniel warned, but his warning came too late.
“Charlie!” Emma shouted, as the thread slipped through his wet fingers. “You great fat dummy! Now look what you’ve done.”
Charlie could see all too well what’s he’d done. He wished he’d never touched that wretched creature. Tears came to his eyes. It was just like his great ugly sister to shout at him like that! “I’m going home,” was all he could say, as he ran off towards the footbridge.
“Come back,” Daniel called, running after him. “Come back, Charlie. We’re silly to get cross with each other. It was an accident.” Charlie had slowed down now. “Besides, Cedric was my duck, and I don’t care. So come on back. Okay? The police told us to stay together.”
Charlie stopped but didn’t turn round. He was thinking hard. Dan was all right really. It was good of Dan not to shout at him. Emma was the one who always got so worked up. Silly old sister. He’d a good mind to push her in after Cedric to teach her a lesson. He smiled at that and turned round, walking slowly back towards the narrowboat. He could see Cedric drifting across the Basin, but pretended not to notice.
Mr. Hodges had been watching from his narrowboat. "Come inside," he said, obviously overcome by this outburst. He was probably too old to like sudden and unexpected things to happen. "Come inside. I'll make some tea -- if you like tea."
They smiled but said nothing. Charlie sort of liked it with plenty of milk, but it had to be nearly cold. Julia was the only one who drank it regularly. Perhaps Mr. Hodges’ tea would be better than tea at home, Emma thought. And in a way it was.
The kettle took a long time to come to the boil over a paraffin stove, but there were enough mugs to go round, and it was nice sipping tea from them onboard a boat. At home Emma would probably have spat hers out, it was so strong. But this was fun. If only her mother could see them now!
“I don’t suppose you’ve got any biscuits,” Charlie said casually, and Emma kicked at him under the table. She missed, and very nearly caught Mr. Hodges on the shin.
“Not biscuits,” he replied, and his eyes seemed to twinkle in the darkness of the small cabin. “I’ve got something better in this jar. Help yourselves.”
Julia put her hand into the grey jar. It was too dark to see what was inside. Soft, damp things were lying near the top. She managed not to scream, and bravely pulled something out. The others watched with interest to see what emerged. It was a dried apple ring. They took it in turns for a lucky dip. And then one more turn each. There were prunes, apricots and other strange dried fruits. This was much better than biscuits.
Emma turned to look through the dirty net curtains that covered the small window behind her head. Two figures were cautiously making their way along the bank of the canal. Each of them had a rifle.
“Oh dear,” she whispered. “Do keep quiet everyone. Just look who’s there.”
The Merlins looked through the window. Mr. Hodges tried to join them but there was no room. “Is it those two lads?” he asked from the back.
“It’s them all right,” Charlie said. “They’re the ones we saw in Old McHenry’s shop. Come on, we’ll soon deal with them.”
“You won’t,” Mr. Hodges said quickly. “I’m not having any of you being shot. You just stay quiet here while I phone for the police again.” He was already pressing the buttons on a rather elderly looking mobile phone.
Emma felt frightened. Were the two youths coming to the boat? Could they see them at the window now, looking out? “Oh dear, Dan, you’re the oldest. Do something.”
Daniel put his arm round his sister’s shoulder. “Just be quiet while we wait for the police. They can’t see us through these net curtains, but we can see them. That makes us sort of safe.” He paused as Mr. Hodges quietly bolted the small cabin door on the inside with what looked like a very strong bolt. “There you are. Now we’re completely safe. See?”
Emma nodded, feeling far from safe.
“Good,” Daniel said. “The police will be here very soon.”
“And if they don’t come?” Julia asked.
Daniel put his other arm on her shoulder as she huddled against him by the window. “They will. You’ll see.”
There was no sound of police sirens, and the youths showed no sign of going just yet. One put his rifle on the ground and held what looked like a radio. Suddenly the model boat appeared from among the reeds and did a quick circuit of the Basin, and was brought to land.
Then one of the youths spotted Cedric. He raised his air rifle and took aim. Crack! A splash of water rose in front of the bobbing duck. Crack! Cedric, who was close to the reeds, fell onto his side. One more shot and he would have been blown to pieces.
“They’ve shot him,” Emma said rather loudly. “They’ve shot our duck.”
“My duck,” Daniel corrected her glumly. “They’ve shot my duck.”
“And they sunk my paddle steamer,” Charlie added. “Come on, I’m not waiting for the police. I’m going out to tell them.”
He made for the door, but Mr. Hodges blocked his way. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, “you’ll have to stay in here.”
“Are you keeping us prisoner?” Charlie demanded rudely. “Because if you are, I’m going to——”
Whatever Charlie was going to do, Mr. Hodges didn’t find out. “Come on, my lad. If it’s a fight you want, I’ll give you one. When I was younger I used to be a champion wrestler.” With this he took Charlie by the back of his jeans and turned him upside down. With a quick movement of the arms he had Charlie held by his heels, his hair touching the ground. Charlie’s face went red.
“Put me down!” he whispered loudly. “Put me down. I’ll tell my dad.”
Emma, Julia and Daniel started to laugh.
“Tell him to put me down,” Charlie pleaded with them. “I’m going all dizzy.”
Mr. Hodges relented. He lowered Charlie to the floor, where he quickly rolled to one side and jumped to his feet. He glowered at the old man. “I want to go out.”
Mr. Hodges looked out of the window. “Go on then. We’ll all stay here and watch.” He went to unbolt the door, but Charlie held back.
“P’raps I’ll stay. Just for a bit longer.” Charlie had been as surprised as the others at Mr. Hodges’ display of strength. He found it difficult to understand old people. Sometimes they seemed just like ordinary younger people. Of course, Charlie reflected, they were ordinary people really, but ordinary people who’d just got old. He might be like Mr. Hodges one day, and he could have an old narrowboat on the Basin and ask people in for mugs of tea. Their mother mightn’t like it if she knew what they’d done. They would have to explain that Luke Elliot knew all about Mr. Hodges, and they’d all stayed together. She wouldn’t have liked them having mugs of tea with complete strangers.
The two youths had gone further along the canal now, carrying their rifles and the speedboat. The coast was clear. It was safe to go out. As they stood on the deck a further shot echoed its way up towards them.
“They’ve shot at our nest,” Emma shouted. “I know they have.” She ran down the gangway. “Do let’s go and see. Never mind about waiting for the police. We may not be too late. They’ve shot one of our ducks. I know they have. I just know they have!”
Emma often had these “feelings” about things, and many times she was wrong. She was hoping that this was going to be another of these wrong times.
The police turned up before they could leave the narrowboat and again more questions were asked, and the canal bank was searched.
“They don’t seem to have done any damage,” one of the armed officers said. “But one of us will stay around for the rest of the day and keep an eye open for them. I don’t think anybody is in danger, apart from the ducks. But I want you kids to go straight home. Someone will be around later to reassure your parents that we have the situation under control.”
Daniel didn’t seem to think things were under that much control, since the two youths had returned again so soon. It looked like they’d been desperate to rescue the speedboat.
And then the police left, leaving an older male officer to walk with them to Talbots Bridge.
When they reached the nest opposite the car breaker’s yard, Emma was relieved to see the brown mother mallard sitting on her eggs. In spite of her rather drab brown colouring, she looked to Emma to be every bit as important as the male bird.
The Merlins slowed down and trod quietly. Usually the mother bird would settle down tightly into the nest at this stage, as though to protect her eggs. This time there was no movement. No fluttering of feathers and no anxious glances at the Merlins.
Daniel was the first to put their fears into words. “Do you think she’s all right?”
Charlie went closer to the nest than they’d ever been since the eggs had been laid. The mother bird was very definitely not all right. There was blood on her breast feathers, and one of the wings was stretched out awkwardly. “Don’t come any closer,” he warned the others, as tears came to his eyes. “It’s horrible. Those rotten youths have shot her!”
Emma was too angry to stay back. The officer warned her to be careful as she pushed past Charlie, getting her feet covered in mud from the canal bank. There might be something they could do to help. The duck stared with eyes that would never see again. The male mallard swam in and out of the reeds nearby, as though unable to understand what had happened to his mate. It made no angry attacks at the Merlins as they bent over the nest. Gently Emma picked the dead bird up, revealing her ten eggs in the nest. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“How could they?” she sobbed. “How could they? I feel so helpless.” She turned to the police officer. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“That’s why we’re here,” the officer said. “Don’t worry, we’ll catch them.”
“Then do it now,” Emma shouted. “Do it now.”
Daniel put his arm round his sister. “There’ll be others,” he told her softly. “Other birds and other nests. We’ll just have to be sort of guards for them. It will be up to us to make sure this sort of thing never happens again.”
Emma tried a slight smile. Dan was quite right. Her tears tasted salty as they ran into her mouth. She placed the bird back on the nest. Yes, this would never happen again -- if the Merlins could help it.
Julia stood the other side of Emma, who bent down to rinse her hands in the canal. “I think you’re right,” she said quietly. “There must be something we can do, Emma. Only a few more days and those eggs would have hatched.”
“Let’s take them home with us,” Charlie suggested, who had been sucking his fingers. He always sucked his fingers when he was upset. At any other time Emma would have told him to stop, but this was a specially upsetting time for all of them. “You never know, they might hatch if we kept them warm.”
“We could keep them in the airing cupboard,” Emma said, realising there was still something they could do. “It’s always nice and warm in there. I don’t know what Mum would say, but we’d have to tell her.” A smile broke through her tears. “Just think what Mum would say if she opened the door one morning and found the cupboard full of baby ducks!”
While the older officer watched with interest as Daniel pulled off his shirt and placed the eggs on it carefully. The shirt would keep the eggs warm until they were safely in the airing cupboard at The Merlin Guest House.
Hoping they wouldn’t hatch on the way back, Daniel rolled his shirt up gently. The police officer saw them safely to their gate and said he had to go back to take a statement from Mr. Hodges.
“Don’t say anything to Mum about the shooting and the police,” Daniel warned the other Merlins while they stood on the front path. “You know how she worries.”
Emma shook her head. “She’ll have to be told.”
“She’ll find out anyway,” Charlie said. “She always finds out about things.”
“Later,” Daniel said. “We’ll tell her later.”
At first Mrs. Talbot wasn't at all keen on putting the eggs in her airing cupboard, but the Merlins begged her to help. She asked why they'd taken the eggs from the nest, and Emma explained that the mother had died. That seemed to be a satisfactory explanation -- for now. No doubt further questions would follow later.
“All right,” she agreed at last. “I’ll get some cotton wool. We want them to be as well protected as possible. You can make it into a nest in a shoe box. Daniel, you’ll find one in the cupboard under the stairs. I usually keep one or two for sending things back that people leave behind. And don’t pull everything about in there,” she added as Daniel dashed down the stairs.
Soon the eggs were in their new nest and lightly covered with more of the cotton wool. Julia had been reading on the Internet with her phone that ideally eggs needed to be turned gently three or four times a day.
She still had her phone in her hand. “When were they laid?” she asked.
“About four weeks ago,” Emma said. “Why?”
Julia looked down at her phone. “It says here they hatch after about 28 days. Wow, not long to wait!”
How they were going to feed the baby ducks if they hatched out, no one seemed to know, but a bit more research on the web might give them the answers.
Mrs. Talbot said they could use the computer in the office to do the searching. In just a short time she’d gone from doubt to great enthusiasm for keeping the eggs and trying to get them to hatch.
"We'll make sure we do our very, very best," Emma declared, feeling happy now that they'd been able to do something to save the mallard population on the canal. When they were old enough the baby ducks could be let loose. Daniel would be able to have his mascot after all -- a live one this time. One of the ducks would be specially theirs, and they would take it food every day and it would get very tame -- and probably fat!
What had started as a tragedy had turned into an exciting adventure -- a Merlin adventure. All the ducks might become tame. Emma could imagine them trying to follow them home, and having to be shooed back to the water.
It would be exciting to bring up the ducks by hand. Emma felt sorry for the male duck left behind, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to help him. One duck on its own would never be able to hatch the eggs. They would cool down too much when it went off to find food for itself. Perhaps, in a way, he understood when he’d seen them taking the eggs away.
Emma felt sad again. What they were doing wasn’t exciting after all. They were just making the best of a very unpleasant incident. Those two youths would certainly have to be stopped. The sooner the better.
“Down to the Merlin Room,” Emma said. “We’ve got to decide what we’re going to do next!”
What happened next was not at all what the Merlins were expecting. No sooner had they gone down to the Merlin Room than they heard the front doorbell in the hall ring. Daniel didn’t take any notice, because knew it wouldn’t be for them, and both his parents were now home.
“You’d all better come up,” Mr. Talbot called down. “There’s a police officer here to see you.”
The police officer, a young woman who introduced herself as Penny Watson, was smiling, so it looked as they weren’t in any sort of trouble.
She told a surprised Mr. and Mrs. Talbot what had been happening at the canal, but said she had good news. Two youths have been apprehended, each carrying an air rifle. They’d been taken in for questioning.
“Are they going to prison?” Charlie asked. “Only we don’t ever want to see them again.”
“They’ll be released on bail, probably tomorrow,” Penny Watson explained.
“If they find us they might shoot us.” Charlie sounded really anxious.
The police officer shook her head. “Their weapons have been impounded. They’ve both committed a most serious offence in carrying and using those weapons. We have every reason to believe that the power of those rifles has been upgraded to an illegal level.” She turned to each of the four Merlins. “You have no reason to be concerned. You’re not involved at all. It was Mr. Hodges who reported them, but they wouldn’t dare go anywhere near him.”
Daniel turned to his parents. “Does that mean we can mess around by the canal again?”
Mr. Talbot nodded. “I don’t see why not.” He turned to the police officer. “You are sure they’ll be safe?”
Penny Watson nodded. “We have no reason at all to believe anyone else is involved. The two have admitted to the offence, and said they were doing it alone.” She turned to the four Merlins. “So now you can relax and enjoy yourselves again. But just be careful of the water.”
“We can all swim,” Emma said. Then she blushed as she remembered how she’d not only fallen in while trying to get out of the rowing boat, but had actually gone right under.
“They’re all good swimmers,” Mrs. Talbot said. “But we and Julia’s parents have a very strict rule. There must always be at least two of them together at any one time when they’re by the canal.”
So it looked as though things had worked out well. The two youths were getting a restraining order to keep away from the whole canal area, so the remaining ducks would be safe from hooligans with guns. Daniel realised they would be safe too. It was a shame they didn’t have another boat to sail.
Julia left to go home.
Ten minutes later she was back. “It’s the speedboat,” she gasped. “I was just going to the corner shop for my mum when I heard it.”
Daniel shook his head. “It can’t be the same one,” he said. “Those two youths are still with the police.”
Julia’s eyes lit up. “Well that’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “I ran onto Talbots Bridge and saw it. It was definitely the same boat.”
They went to find Mr. Talbot. “Are you sure it was the same boat?” he asked Julia.
“Absolutely one hundred percent definitely, definitely, definitely,” she said. “I didn’t hear any shooting, but it was scaring the ducks again. We have to stop it.”
Mr. Talbot picked up a card that was on the hall table. “Police Constable Penny Watson left her contact details. I’ll phone her now, and make sure those two youths haven’t been released yet.”
“Perhaps they’ve escaped from prison,” Charlie suggested, sounding worried.
Mr. Talbot shook his head. “They’re being held in custody,” he explained. “That’s not the same as prison. Penny Watson said they’re going to be released tomorrow, but they’ll probably have to stand trial. But if they have been released early, you’ll have to stay away from the canal. I don’t want you coming face-to-face with them. And, Daniel, I want you to see Julia safely home when she goes, and then come back immediately. Do you understand?” He picked up the phone and dialled the number on the card.
Detective Constable Penny Watson answered the phone. Mr. Talbot asked about the two youths, and she said she’d make some enquiries and phone back.
Julia and Daniel were just getting ready to leave when the phone rang. It was Penny Watson again. The four Merlins saw Mr. Talbot frown. “Are you absolutely certain?” he asked.
From the way he nodded it seemed that Penny Watson was indeed absolutely certain about something. “And they’re definitely still in custody? … Thank you, that’s a relief to hear. … Yes, please keep in touch.”
He replaced the phone in its charger. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know who was working that model boat Julia saw, but it certainly wasn’t those two youths. They’re still in custody. They’re likely to be there for two or three more days while police make certain enquiries. It seems they’ve been causing trouble back home. Penny Watson is going to let me know the moment they’re released.”
“Does that mean we can keep watch for whoever is working the speedboat?” Daniel asked.
His parents looked at each other and shrugged. “Not now,” Mrs. Talbot said. “Do you understand?”
The four Talbots nodded.
“And, Julia,” Mrs. Talbot said, “when you get home, ask your mum to call here, and I’ll tell her exactly what’s been going on.”
Daniel clapped his hands. “Come on, Julia, let’s go now. We can wait by Talbots Bridge on the way back to your house and see if anything exciting happens.”
Mrs. Talbot shook her head. “Straight home, Julia,” she said. “No going to the bridge and no going anywhere near the canal. But you can stay here for another hour. And, Daniel, you make sure she gets home safely.”
“But we can go to the canal tomorrow, can’t we?” Emma asked. “Please, Mum, please, please.”
“Tomorrow morning, yes,” Mrs. Talbot said, smiling. “This evening, no. Am I making myself clear?”
Four voices told her she was.
“Down to the Merlin Room,” Daniel said. “It’s time to make a plan. We need to find a way to catch the speedboat, and tell the owner exactly what he did to our lovely Pride of Avalon, and what he’s doing to the ducks.”
Daniel was thinking to himself that even though the two youths had told the police they were working alone, they might be saying that to protect a friend. And the friend might also have a gun. But he didn’t say this out loud.
The decisions were made. The plan was complete. Every morning and every afternoon they would keep watch down by the canal.
Daniel gave a long sigh. “We haven’t got Cedric anymore with the thread trailing behind to catch the propeller of the speedboat, so we’ll just have to manage with string and no stuffed duck.”
“Poor Cedric,” Emma said, wiping a pretend tear from her eye. “He was smelly, but he was beautiful in his own way.”
“Lost at sea,” Charlie said, wiping a pretend tear from his own eye. “He should have a medal for bravery in the face of enemy fire.”
Daniel shook his head solemnly. “It’s not funny,” he said. “I loved that duck.” Then he burst out laughing.
Even though their earlier plan to use Cedric along by the Basin could no longer be put into action, they decided that being at the Basin where the mysterious person was controlling the speedboat would be too obvious. Whoever was sailing it might be reluctant to launch it if they were watching.
It would be much better to lay a trap at the bend near Talbots Bridge where the boat often came before turning round. With the loss of the brown thread, the Merlins were going to have to make do with ordinary white string. The sky was grey and cheerless when they reached the canal bank after breakfast.
The canal seemed to be deserted. Immediately they split up to carry out their plan. Daniel, who felt the occasion worthy of an exciting name, said they ought to call it Operation Kidnap, because they were going to kidnap the speedboat.
“I’ll stay here with Julia,” he told Emma and Charlie. “You two go over the bridge and take one end of the string.”
The roll of string was more than long enough to reach across the canal from bank to bank. It floated lazily on the dirty water, refusing to sink. The whole point of the trap was for the string to lie hidden below the surface, ready to be pulled tight the moment the boat came towards the corner.
“We’ll have to leave it as it is,” Daniel called softly to his brother and sister on the towpath. “Go and get hidden.” He turned to Julia who was standing by his side. “That’s it then. Let’s hide in these brambles.”
Daniel saw Julia looking down anxiously at the long prickly shoots that covered their bank of the canal. He realised how she felt, especially as she was wearing shorts as usual! He kicked the brambles flat with his shoe.
“Crouch down here,” he said. “I think we’ll be hidden well enough without sitting down. Those brambles look a bit vicious.”
They crouched down, with Daniel holding his end of the string. He could see Emma and Charlie hiding by the side of a low wall that was part of the canal bank. He waved across and they both waved back.
“This is fun,” Julia said suddenly. “I hope we catch the boat. I definitely saw it here yesterday. Have you got the note okay?”
Daniel tapped the back pocket of his jeans and felt excited. He certainly hadn’t forgotten the note. They’d taken a lot of trouble working out exactly what to say in it. As soon as they managed to catch the boat they would put the note onboard and let it go again. The note would make the owner feel ashamed for frightening the ducks, and hopefully he’d stop.
They might never get their money back for the paddle steamer, but protecting the ducks was now much more important. At least one pair had still to nest. The ducks were very much part of the canal for the Merlins, and they didn’t want them driven away by some thoughtless person, and never come back to nest here again.
“Daniel,” Julia said quietly, after they’d waited for a long time in complete silence. “I think Luke and Helen Elliot are great. If they hadn’t asked us to that games evening in the church I’d only be Julia Kingsdown now. Instead of….”
As she paused, as though wondering how to explain, Daniel Talbot suddenly grinned. Of course -- he was in a new family as well.
Julia looked at Daniel and smiled. “I’ve not told anyone else, but I can tell you. I think the same thing happened to you. I go to church with my mum and dad, but I never heard anyone explain about belonging to God’s family like that before. Now I’m in the new family, I want to find out more about it.”
“And I do,” Daniel agreed, nodding hard. “We could ask Luke or Helen to tell us more. I spoke to Jesus this morning in a way I’ve never done before. He seems so real now. We must tell somebody else. We must tell as many people as we can.”
Julia gave a little shiver. “I’m excited,” she said. “I wish Emma and Charlie felt the same.”
Daniel looked surprised. “Perhaps they do.”
Julia shook her head. “I don’t think it's the same with them. I saw the way you took your time before you got up to go out of the church hall. You were like me -- all sort of thoughtful."
Daniel hadn’t noticed Julia at the time. He’d been much too deep in his own thoughts to see what anyone else was doing.
A wave from across the canal. Charlie was signalling silently to them. Daniel listened. The speedboat! His heart leapt as he wrapped the end of the string round his finger. Yes, here it was, coming fast, straight towards the bend!
He ran down close to the water, while Emma did the same on the other side. Quickly they pulled the string tight across the surface of the canal. The boat whirred powerfully on its way. With a sudden jerk the string was torn from Emma’s hands. Daniel held tightly and the boat was caught.
While Daniel pulled the captured speedboat towards the bank, Charlie and Emma ran back to the shelter of the wall. The owner of the speedboat might be a friend of the two youths in custody, and could make a lot of trouble for them. But he had to be frightened away from scaring the ducks, and this is exactly what the note would do.
The note. Daniel pulled it from his back pocket and gave it to Julia to attach to the boat. His job was to untangle the string from the propeller. The motor had stopped, but probably only because of the string. He would have to find the off switch before putting his fingers near the propeller.
Julia had the note stuck over the short mast before Daniel had even started. “Hurry,” she urged. “Oh, do hurry. Please.” She looked anxiously down the canal for signs of the owner coming to investigate.
Daniel tried to sound calmer than he felt. “Just a moment. Ah, that’s the switch. Pull this end of the string.”
The string came away easily. A quick inspection for damage and the boat was back in the water. Daniel pushed the switch to “on” and let the model go. The motor started immediately, and the speedboat shot away. Then, to their surprise, it turned and went back the way it had come. As soon as it was clear that the boat was under proper control, it was time for the escape plan. Operation Kidnap had gone without a hitch.
Escaping without being seen was as important as actually catching the boat. If the owner was a friend of the two youths, and saw even one of the Merlins, they would be in danger when the two youths were let out of custody.
Daniel knew that he and Julia, being on the side nearer to home, could get away easily. It would be too risky for Emma and Charlie to cross the bridge, because they would show up against the skyline. The owner would surely have realised something had gone wrong when the boat had stopped for so long. Talbots Bridge might be a ‘blind spot’ but the next part of the canal probably wasn’t.
On the other side of the canal, Emma pulled at Charlie’s sleeve. “Quickly now. As fast as you can.”
They had to go into the park, away from home and safety, and then along a track in front of the old warehouse. At the far end of the track was the old lock, filled with rubble, where they could safely cross. It was here that they would meet up with Daniel and Julia.
As they passed in front of the disused warehouse, tall and dark against the sky, Emma couldn’t help wondering if they were right in thinking that the owner of the boat was down at the Basin. He might be hiding somewhere here, and have seen everything happen. A figure stepped out in front of them, and Emma gave a scream.
Daniel and Julia stayed hidden where they were for a few minutes, before making their way to the old lock. When they got there, they could see no sign of the others. As he looked at the lock gates hanging crookedly, Daniel wished he’d known the canal in the olden days when it had been working. The lock could never be used now. It was full of mud and rubbish.
One day, so people said, this section of the canal would be filled in and built over with workshops and other industrial units. He hoped it wouldn’t be for a long time. Where would the ducks go when that happened?
No longer would his parents be able to advertise the Merlin Guest House as being near a canal. Who would want to stay here in Breton if there was no canal? A canal was exactly what he’d be looking for when he was grown up and going on holiday.
For a long, long time the canal had been their playground, and much better than Merlin Park which had flower beds, and trees no one was allowed to climb without being shouted at by people walking their dogs.
“Sorry to have been so long.”
Daniel jumped at the sound of Emma’s voice. “You scared me,” he said.
“We met Mr. Hodges,” she explained. “He was having a walk along the towpath by the old warehouse. He gave us quite a fright.”
“Let’s get going,” Daniel said urgently. “The owner will have seen the note by now.”
Back at The Merlin Guest House, Daniel read aloud from his copy of the note Julia had stuck over the mast of the speedboat.
ARE YOU PART OF THE GANG THAT’S BEEN SHOOTING THE DUCKS? IF YOU ARE, YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT YOU KILLED THE MOTHER DUCK ON HER NEST. WE’VE GOT THE EGGS NOW IN OUR AIRING CUPBOARD. YOU’D BETTER HOPE THEY HATCH! IF WE EVER CATCH YOUR BOAT AGAIN WE’LL TAKE IT TO THE POLICE. THERE HAS TO BE A LAW TO PROTECT WILDLIFE. WHEN YOU GO TO COLLECT IT, YOU WILL HAVE TO TELL THEM WHAT YOU WERE DOING. DON’T THINK WE’RE FRIGHTENED OF YOU, BECAUSE WE’RE NOT.
THE FOUR MERLINS.
“That ought to have done it,” Daniel said, feeling satisfied with their day’s work. “It won’t help us get our boat back, but the ducks should be left alone to make their nests.”
“What makes you think we’re not frightened of whoever it is?” Julia asked.
Emma laughed, but Julia noticed she took a careful look over her shoulder. Then she knew that the others probably felt much the same way, and were only pretending to be brave. They would all be very careful where they went for the next few days.
Julia, as usual, came round in the morning in time to help clear away the breakfast things. A little later Mrs. Wendy Hardwick who kept the guest house much further along the road arrived for one of her lengthy gossips, and the four Merlins tried to get down to the Merlin Room before she saw them.
“Come and say hello to Aunty Wendy,” Mrs. Talbot called down to them.
They came slowly up the stairs. “Good morning, Mrs. Hardwick,” they said in unison, refusing as usual to call her aunty.
Emma thought her mother didn’t look particularly pleased. Today, being Saturday, meant there was a lot of shopping to be done. They had all offered to help, not being very keen on going down to the canal again.
Mrs. Hardwick felt the teapot to see if it was still hot. “Do you mind if I pour myself a cup, Maj? I’ve had such a shock this morning. Tea would be good for my nerves. You remember that family I was telling you about?”
Mrs. Hardwick never waited for answers to her endless questions. She helped herself to tea and proceeded to tell her latest tale of disaster. Mrs. Talbot carried on washing down the worktops in the kitchen.
“Well, it’s a funny thing, Maj. A very funny thing. Whatever do you think?”
Emma looked up in amusement. She wanted to see how her mother, Marjory Talbot, reacted to being called Maj. Mrs. Hardwick was the only person who did it, and her mother didn’t like it. But today she seemed too busy to notice. Mrs. Hardwick continued.
“I didn’t like them from the moment they showed up, but I need the money and business is quiet this year. Two weeks the family were booked for. If you ask me, that whole family is nothing but trouble. I had the police calling round last night to see them, and me, running a respectable guest house. They parked their police car right outside. Whatever will the neighbours think? The father had gone out with that toy boat as usual. The two lazy good-for-nothing boys never came back at all last night. What were they up to? That’s what I’d like to know. Then this morning the father and his wife just ups and goes. Just like that. And their two big lads weren’t with them. Goodness knows where they were. In some sort of trouble, I don’t doubt. Paid for a full two weeks they had, but they never asked for a penny back.”
Mrs. Hardwick paused for breath. Mrs. Talbot just nodded, not having listened properly. A dreadful thought occurred to Daniel.
“Did the father sail the model boat on the canal?” he asked, trying to sound only slightly interested.
“Yes, that’s right, Daniel. Every morning he’d go out and sail it, when his two sons had other things to do. Strange thing for a grownup man to be doing, that’s what I say. Said he’d bought a really expensive motor for it. He bought the motor here in Brenton. Or rather, the two layabout sons did. Told me how much it cost. Must have wanted something to throw his money away on, I should think.”
The four Merlins said nothing. They knew all too well what had happened. The wrong person had got the note!
“We’ll have to find the father and apologise to him,” Daniel said to the others when they were out in the hall. “We know he wasn’t shooting the ducks.”
Luke Elliot came down the stairs and saw the Merlins in a tight huddle. “Whatever’s the matter?” he asked. “Trouble?”
Daniel looked at Luke Elliot and then at the others. “Shall we tell him?”
They nodded in agreement. Luke Elliot was the sort of person who would know what to do next. He listened to their story downstairs in the Merlin Room, and looked thoughtful.
“It sounds as though you did the best thing possible. You didn’t set out to tell tales, but the father read the note and realised what cruelty his sons had done in pointlessly killing the ducks, and what his speedboat had done to The Pride of Avalon. That’s why they’ve all gone home so suddenly. His sons must have been released on bail, and he was too ashamed to stay on in Brenton. Perhaps they’ve all learnt a lesson from this. The shock of being arrested could be just what his two sons need to bring them to their senses. Another week and all the ducks on the canal would have been dead. Look after those eggs carefully in the airing cupboard. If they hatch and the ducklings survive, you'll have done a lot to make up for the stupid behaviour of those two youth -- and for the thoughtless behaviour of the father sailing a fast model boat where there's wildlife."
The four nodded, pleased that their actions had met with approval. The canal was now safe, and Mr. Hodges was in no way to blame. With their parents’ permission they could go and see him and tell him everything they’d done. They might get another mug of tea and some more dried fruit. Perhaps Mr. Hodges would know how to look after the ducklings when they hatched. He was certainly in the right place to feed them.
Those youths had probably been using the roof of Mr. Hodges’ narrowboat to shoot some of the ducks. Their father must have been somewhere near the canal in the evenings, too. It might have been the father, or it might have been the sons, who’d sunk The Pride of Avalon. That had probably been an accident, but they’d never know for sure. In any case, that family had been nothing but a menace. The Merlins knew it was the youths who’d chased the ducks with the speedboat, and then shot them.
“Cooee, you lot.” Mrs. Hardwick stood at the door of the Merlin Room. She opened her large shoulder bag. “The man asked me who the Merlins were,” she said.
“You didn’t tell him!” Daniel said, but he knew she had. That’s the sort of thing Mrs. Hardwick would do. Now there’d be trouble.
“Yes, I told him I knew who you were. He said he didn’t have time to call in to see you, but he asked me to give you this.” She took out a long envelope. “He said you’d understand.”
Daniel looked at it. It looked too bulky to contain just a nasty letter.
Slowly he opened it. The other Merlins gasped in surprise. There was no letter. Just money.
He nodded. “Yes, I understand. Thanks for bringing it, Mrs. Hardwick.”
She smiled a friendly smile. “Aunty Wendy, please. Don’t keep calling me Mrs. Hardwick.”
Daniel felt so grateful for the money that he said, “Thanks for bringing it, Aunty Wendy!”
The money would buy a strong plastic boat kit that would be unsinkable. Next time maybe a motor launch, with a propeller at the back that only needed a simple motor. Mrs. Hardwick returned upstairs to bother Mrs. Talbot again, looking pleased with herself, saying quietly, “He called me Aunty Wendy.”
“We’re glad you came,” Julia said to Luke Elliott as they stood in the Merlin Room, having got over their excitement with the money. “I did what you said after the games evening. I asked Jesus to take me into God’s family.”
“So did I,” Daniel said with a smile. He looked at Emma and Charlie. They were frowning and obviously had no idea what he was talking about. Julia had been right. His brother and sister hadn’t yet taken the step to become members of God’s family. He was already praying for them, and he and Julia would explain what had happened, and help them make the step for themselves when they were ready.
“You must get a nice modern translation of the Bible,” Luke Elliot said.
"I've already got one," Julia told him. "And another one on my phone." Then looked happy. "I never bothered to read it -- until now."
Luke Elliot said. “Don’t start thinking there’s nothing more you need to do, you two. You need to spend the rest of your lives growing as a Christian. It’s Easter Sunday tomorrow, Daniel, and if you come with Helen and me to one of the services, you’ll see some Bibles for sale at the back of the church. Ask your mother and father to come, and perhaps they’ll buy one for you, if you ask nicely!”
Julia smiled encouragingly and Daniel thought it was worth a try. His parents didn’t usually go to church. Perhaps if they knew he wanted to go, they might make the effort and come as well. So might Charlie and Emma, Especially as it was Easter. Julia would be going to her own church with her parents as usual.
Luke Elliot looked thoughtful. “I’m glad we came to stay here. I expect you remember that the friends who were going to look after us were ill. We’ve had lots of offers of accommodation from people at the church since then.” He smiled at the Merlins. “But we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave here. By the way, are you planning to build another boat?”
“Very soon,” Daniel said, picking up the envelope. “We can afford it now, but I’d still like to recover the wreck of The Pride of Avalon. It may not have been all that well made, but it meant a lot to all of us. There was another bird in the junk shop. It mightn’t have been thrown out yet. It had a longer neck than Cedric. I think it was called a great diver. Do you think that would be any use?”
Emma laughed at the thought. “A great diver? No thank you. One smelly bird was quite enough!”
Daniel shook his head and pretended to be offended. “In that case, you think of a way of getting The Pride of Avalon back! I’m going up to see Mum and Dad. I’m going to ask them if they’ll come with us to church tomorrow. And you’re coming too, Emma. And you, Charlie.”
As he went up the stairs, Daniel felt sad about the sinking of the paddle steamer, in spite of the unexpected compensation of the father’s money. But saving the ducks was the most important thing he and the other Merlins had ever done together. He smiled to himself. What he and Julia had done was even more important.
That evening the eggs started to hatch.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Luke 1:12).
About White Tree Publishing
White Tree Publishing publishes mainstream evangelical Christian literature in paperback and eBook formats, for people of all ages, by many different authors. We aim to make our eBooks available free for all eBook devices, but some distributors will only list our eBooks free at their discretion, and may make a small charge for some titles -- but they are still great value!
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The full list of our published and forthcoming Christian books is on our website www.whitetreepublishing.com. Please visit there regularly for updates.
Chris Wright is married with three grownup children, and lives in the West Country of England where he is a home group leader with his local church. More books by Chris Wright for young readers are on the next pages. His personal website is
(and older readers too!)
When Daniel, Emma, Charlie and Julia, the Four Merlins, set out to sail their model boat on the old canal, strange and dangerous things start to happen. Then Daniel and Julia make a discovery they want to share with the others.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9954549-2-7
Paperback ISBN: 9785-203447-7-5
5×8 inches 182 pages
Available from major internet stores
The Hijack Adventure
Anna’s mother has opened a transport café, but why do the trucks drivers avoid stopping there? An accident in the road outside brings Anna a new friend, Matthew. When they get trapped in a broken down truck with Matthew’s dog, Chip, their adventure begins.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9954549-6-5
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-5203448-0-5
5×8 inches 140 pages
Available from major internet stores
The Seventeen Steps Adventure
When Ryan’s American cousin, Natalie, comes to stay with him in England, a film from their Gran’s old camera holds some surprise photographs, and they discover there’s more to photography than taking selfies! But where are the Seventeen Steps, and has a robbery been planned to take place there?
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9954549-7-2
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-5203448-6-7
5×8 inches 132 pages
Available from major internet stores
The Two Jays Adventure
James and Jessica, the Two Jays, are on holiday in the West Country in England where they set out to make some exciting discoveries. Have they found the true site of an ancient holy well? Is the water in it dangerous? Why does an angry man with a bicycle tell them to keep away from the deserted stone quarry?
A serious accident on the hillside has unexpected consequences, and an old Latin document may contain a secret that's connected to the two strange stone heads in the village church -- if James and Jessica can solve the puzzle. An adventure awaits!
eBook ISBN: eBook ISBN: 978-0-9954549-8-9
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-5203448-8-1
5×8 inches 196 pages
Available from major internet stores
An Adventure Book
The true story of Mary Jones’s and her Bible
with a clear Christian message and optional puzzles
(Some are easy, some tricky, and some amusing)
Mary Jones saved for six years to buy a Bible of her own. In 1800, when she was 15, she thought she had saved enough, so she walked barefoot for 26 miles (more than 40km) over a mountain pass and through deep valleys in Wales to get one. That’s when she discovered there were none for sale!
You can travel with Mary Jones today in this book by following clues, or just reading the story. Either way, you will get to Bala where Mary went, and if you’re really quick you may be able to discover a Bible just like Mary’s in the market!
The true story of Mary Jones has captured the imagination for more than 200 years. For this book, Chris Wright has looked into the old records and discovered even more of the story, which is now in this unforgettable account of Mary Jones and her Bible. Solving puzzles is part of the fun, but the whole story is in here to read and enjoy whether you try the puzzles or not. Just turn the page, and the adventure continues. It’s time to get on the trail of Mary Jones!
eBook ISBN: ISBN: 978-0-9933941-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9525956-2-5
5.5 × 8.5 inches
156 pages of story, photographs, line drawings and puzzles
An Adventure Book
Travel with young Christian as he sets out on a difficult and perilous journey to find the King. Solve the puzzles and riddles along the way, and help Christian reach the Celestial City. Then travel with his friend Christiana. She has four young brothers who can sometimes be a bit of a problem.
Be warned, you will meet giants and lions -- and even dragons! There are people who don't want Christian and Christiana to reach the city of the King and his Son. But not everyone is an enemy. There are plenty of friendly people. It's just a matter of finding them.
Are you prepared to help? Are you sure? The journey can be very dangerous! As with our book Mary Jones and Her Bible, you can enjoy the story even if you don’t want to try the puzzles.
This is a simplified and abridged version of [_ Pilgrim's Progress -- Special Edition ], containing illustrations and a mix of puzzles. The suggested reading age is up to perhaps ten. Older readers will find the same story told in much greater detail in [ Pilgrim's Progress -- Special Edition _] on the next page.
eBook ISBN 13: 978-0-9933941-6-4
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9525956-6-3
5.5 × 8.5 inches 174 pages £6.95
Available from major internet stores
This book for all ages is a great choice for young readers, as well as for families, Sunday school teachers, and anyone who wants to read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in a clear form.
All the old favourites are here: Christian, Christiana, the Wicket Gate, Interpreter, Hill Difficulty with the lions, the four sisters at the House Beautiful, Vanity Fair, Giant Despair, Faithful and Talkative -- and, of course, Greatheart. The list is almost endless.
The first part of the story is told by Christian himself, as he leaves the City of Destruction to reach the Celestial City, and becomes trapped in the Slough of Despond near the Wicket Gate. On his journey he will encounter lions, giants, and a creature called the Destroyer.
Christiana follows along later, and tells her own story in the second part. Not only does Christiana have to cope with her four young brothers, she worries about whether her clothes are good enough for meeting the King. Will she find the dangers in Vanity Fair that Christian found? Will she be caught by Giant Despair and imprisoned in Doubting Castle? What about the dragon with seven heads?
It’s a dangerous journey, but Christian and Christiana both know that the King’s Son is with them, helping them through the most difficult parts until they reach the Land of Beulah, and see the Celestial City on the other side of the Dark River. This is a story you will remember for ever, and it’s about a journey you can make for yourself.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9932760-8-8
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9525956-7-0
5.5 × 8.5 inches 278 pages
Available from major internet stores
An exciting story about the adventures of two angels who seem to know almost nothing -- until they have a vision!
Two ordinary angels are caring for the distant Planet Eltor, and they are about to get a big shock -- they are due to take a trip to Planet Earth! This is Zephan's story of the vision he is given before being allowed to travel with Talora, his companion angel, to help two young people fight against the enemy.
Arriving on Earth, they discover that everyone lives in a small castle. Some castles are strong and built in good positions, while others appear weak and open to attack. But it seems that the best-looking castles are not always the most secure.
Meet Castle Nadia and Castle Max, the two castles that Zephan and Talora have to defend. And meet the nasty creatures who have built shelters for themselves around the back of these castles. And worst of all, meet the shadow angels who live in a cave on Shadow Hill. This is a story about the forces of good and the forces of evil. Who will win the battle for Castle Nadia?
The events in this story are based very loosely on John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9932760-6-4
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9525956-9-4
5.5 × 8.5 inches 216 pages
Available from major internet stores
Once upon a time there were two favourite books for Sunday reading: Parables from Nature and Agathos and The Rocky Island.
These books contained short stories, usually with a hidden meaning. In this illustrated book is a selection of the very best of these stories, carefully retold to preserve the feel of the originals, coupled with ease of reading and understanding for today’s readers.
Discover the king who sent his servants to trade in a foreign city. The butterfly who thought her eggs would hatch into baby butterflies, and the two boys who decided to explore the forbidden land beyond the castle boundary. The spider that kept being blown in the wind, the soldier who had to fight a dragon, the four children who had to find their way through a dark and dangerous forest. These are just six of the nine stories in this collection. Oh, and there’s also one about a rocky island!
This is a book for a young person to read alone, a family or parent to read aloud, Sunday school teachers to read to the class, and even for grownups who want to dip into the fascinating stories of the past all by themselves. Can you discover the hidden meanings? You don’t have to wait until Sunday before starting!
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9927642-7-2
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9525956-8-7
5.5 × 8.5 inches 148 pages £5.95
Available from major internet stores
Four short books of help in the Christian life:
So, What Is a Christian? An introduction to a personal faith. Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9927642-2-7, eBook ISBN: 978-0-9933941-2-6
Starting Out -- help for new Christians of all ages. Paperback ISBN 978-1-4839-622-0-7, eBook ISBN: 978-0-9933941-0-2
Help! -- Explores some problems we can encounter with our faith. Paperback ISBN 978-0-9927642-2-7, eBook ISBN: 978-0-9933941-1-9
Running Through the Bible — a simple understanding of what’s in the Bible — Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9927642-6-5, eBook ISBN: 978-0-9933941-3-3
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The day Daniel Talbot brought home a stuffed duck in a glass case, everyone thought he'd gone out of his mind. Even he had his doubts at times. "Fancy spending your money on that," his mother scolded him. "You needn't think it's coming into this house, because it isn't!" When Daniel, Emma, Charlie and Julia, the Four Merlins, set out to sail their model paddle steamer on the old canal, strange and dangerous things start to happen. Then Daniel and Julia make a discovery they want to share with the others.