Limbo LodgeJoan Aiken
Table of Contents
About the Author
Also by Joan Aiken
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Her hands were behind her. She had kept them there, gripping the doorpost, distrusting their steadiness. The wooden jamb moved slightly as her fingers drove against it. She gave it a push sideways, her heart suddenly leaping; a section of it came away. With a swift, resolute tug she had a three-foot joist in her hands, rotten at one end. Ignoring the cloud of ant-infested dust that fell on her ankles, she held her weapon coolly, watching until the deadly skirmish on the floor came within reach; then she beat down with all her strength, striking for the snake’s head . . .
Also by Joan Aiken:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Black Hearts in Battersea
Night Birds on Nantucket
The Stolen Lake
The Cuckoo Tree
Dido and Pa
Cold Shoulder Road
The Witch of Clatteringshaws
The Felix trilogy:
Go Saddle the Sea
Bridle the Wind
The Teeth of the Gale
The Whispering Mountain
(winner of the Guardian Award 1969)
Short Story Collections:
A Handful of Gold
The St. Boan Trilogy
In Thunder’s Pocket
The Song of Mat and Ben
Bone and Dream
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Epub ISBN: 9781409024743
This book is in affectionate remembrance of
A RED FOX BOOK 9780099456674
First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape
an imprint of Random House Children’s Books
Jonathan Cape edition published 1999
This Red Fox edition published 2004
5 7 9 10 8 6 4
Copyright © Joan Aiken Enterprises Ltd 1999
The right of Joan Aiken to be identified as the author of this work
has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act 1988.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British
THE OLD SHIP SIWARA SMELT STRONGLY OF dead shark, rancid oil, and rotten breadfruit. She crawled over the bright blue sea at rather less than two knots, creaking and groaning. She had after all, as Captain Sanderson told Dido Twite, already travelled about three-quarters of a million miles in her long, hard-working life, since first setting sail from the Port of London.
“I reckon it’s about time she retired then,” growled Dido. “Don’t I wish I was back on the Thrush. Why are all the cockroaches jumping overboard, Cap? Not that I’m sorry to see ’em go, mind you!” The cockroaches on the ship Siwara were three-and-a-half to four inches long, and their preferred diet was human feet. When you went to bed at night if you did not anoint your toes and soles with dark green celandine oil, you would wake to find a few toes missing in the morning; the cockroaches would do the job faster than a monkey peels a banana. Because there were more roaches below decks than up above, Dido, Mr Multiple, and Doctor Talisman had taken to sleeping on the foredeck, despite Captain Sanderson’s disapproval.
“So why are all the roaches jumping overboard?” Dido repeated, surveying the black procession that sped past her feet and out through the drainholes in the bulwarks. They made a soft scratching noise, like somebody secretly slipping small candies out of a paper bag.
“Why? Because we reach Aratu tomorrow.”
“But why should that make the roaches jump overboard? Aratu ain’t a bad island, is it? How come the roaches is so set agin it?”
“Because of the snakes. ‘Aratu’ means ‘Island of Pearl Snakes’ in the Dilendi language. The pearl snakes are those little fellows, black with pearl-coloured heads, about half the length of your arm. Deadly enough. A bite from one can do for you in a brace of shakes. But their favourite food is cockroaches – you won’t find many roaches in Aratu, the snakes have eaten them all. Soon as the ship docks you’ll see half-a-dozen pearl-snakes come aboard like beaters. But most of the roaches won’t have waited.”
“I can’t abide snakes,” said Dido.
“Better take some kandu nuts in your pocket, then, if you go ashore. Chew one of those, it lowers the chance of dying from snakebite. But my advice would be, don’t go ashore more than you can help.”
“Somebody’s gotta go ashore,” Dido said crossly, “to hunt for this pesky Lord Herodsfoot we’ve chased after all the way from Easter Island. Is Aratu a big island, Cap Sanderson?”
“About twenty miles long, ten miles wide. The main town and port, Regina, where we are headed, is at the north tip. At the south end is a big mountain, Mount Fura, and a small fishing-harbour, Manati. In between, nothing but rainforest and spice plantations.”
“What kind of spice?”
“Nutmeg, clove, white pepper, musk, aloes, danda-bark, mace, vanilla, cassia-bark. And djeela-powder – very expensive. I think it should not be hard to locate Lord Herodsfoot – if he is on the island.”
“Don’t I jist hope he is,” sighed Dido. Three months ago, Dido had been on the point of setting sail for London from the port of Tenby, in New Cumbria, on board his majesty’s warship the Thrush when an urgent message had arrived from England, by naval pinnace, ordering Captain Hughes to make all possible speed round Cape Horn, into the Pacific Ocean, in order to pick up Lord Herodsfoot, roving ambassador to King James III of England. Lord Herodsfoot, the message said, had been sent abroad on a mission to scour the globe for new and interesting games (or old, and possibly even more interesting games) to rouse the attention and restore the health of His Majesty King James, who lay ill and wretched in London with a mysterious malady that no doctor seemed able to identify, let alone cure.
The bulletin received at Tenby said that Lord Herodsfoot was last heard of on his way up the Pacific Ocean to Easter Island in search of a special kind of chess game which was rumoured to be found there. But when the Thrush arrived at that lonely and faraway spot, Captain Hughes learned to his annoyance that they had just missed the wandering nobleman by a week; he had boarded a passing schooner bound for the Loyalty Islands, in quest of a game called Friends and Strangers. And when they arrived at the Loyalty Islands they discovered that Herodsfoot had just left them, planning to sail past New Guinea and the north tip of Australia, to the Molucca Sea, on the trail of a game called Fish, Prawn, King Crab. And he was then planning to go to China, in quest of roses and greyhounds. Lord Herodsfoot, it seemed, was a great natural historian and a man of many scientific interests.
“Oh, scrape it,” sighed Dido, when this news was broken to them. “At the rate we’re going, by the time we catch up with his plaguey lordship, he’ll have travelled all the way back to London. It’s like a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, so it is, keeping after the feller.”
There were to be plenty more annoyances and hindrances. The China Tea Wars were just now in their final and fiercest phase. A dozen Chinese warlords were battling with each other on land and by sea. The war was more complicated because the lords kept changing sides, and among this confusion it was the difficult task of King James’s ships to escort and protect British merchant vessels plying in and out of Chinese trading ports if the ports were being besieged or sacked by the Chinese warring armies.
The frigate Thrush had therefore been called to escort a group of tea and spice clippers until they were safely beyond Chinese waters, which took several more very active weeks. Then word came that Lord Herodsfoot had been seen in the Kalpurnian Sea, heading for the southernmost Kalpurnian Islands; Thrush had quickly changed course and gone in urgent pursuit of the footloose nobleman. At Amboina they were told that he was only a few days ahead, bound for Aratu; but here another difficulty arose. To reach Aratu, it was necessary to sail through a narrow, shallow, and winding channel, zigzagged by coral reefs; no British ship of war dare venture there.
“That’s why Aratu is such a hidden, remote place,” the British Resident at Amboina told Captain Hughes. “Very few foreigners ever get to it.”
Captain Hughes scowled. He did not approve of islands that could not be reached by British warships.
“Who does it belong to?”
“The Angrians took it, four hundred years ago, conquered the Dilendi, who lived there, settled, and established spice plantations. But fifty years ago there was a big uprising, the Dilendi rose up and pushed the Angrians out again. Now the Dilendi have their own king. (Dilendi means Forest People, in their language.) There’s a trading ship going there tomorrow, the Siwara; ought to be back here within the week. You could send a message on that.”
“I suppose I shall have to.”
In fact Captain Hughes was not sorry to be obliged to dock at Amboina for a few days, since the Thrush had sustained some damage during her escort duties and Captain Hughes had himself received a head wound. He began to write a note addressed to Lord Herodsfoot, and then sat scratching his head with the quill pen, wondering which of his crew would make the most suitable messenger to send on the Siwara.
“Windwards’s a capable, intelligent fellow . . . but then I want him here, to superintend the repairs. I can’t spare Fossil, for the same reason; it had better be young Multiple – but is he sensible and steady enough, on his own? What a plaguey nuisance this is, to be sure!”
The choice was further complicated by the behaviour of the supercargo, Miss Dido Twite, who, when she heard that there was to be a trip to the island of Aratu on the smaller ship, the Siwara, begged to be allowed to go along.
“Besides, I know a friend of the old gager, Lord Herodsfoot,” she pointed out. “Might be useful, that, if he’s a bit toffee-nosed or awkward—”
“A friend? How can you know any friend of Lord Herodsfoot, child?” snapped Captain Hughes.
“It was Mr Holystone. Your last steward who – who left the ship at Tenby. He’d been at college with Lord Herodsfoot. In Spain.”
“Oh. Well. Humph. I see.” Captain Hughes reflected a while longer, then had Second Lieutenant Multiple summoned to his cabin.
“Mr Multiple, I have decided to send you with young Miss Twite on the Siwara to the island of Aratu, in hopes that you will be able to make contact with Lord Herodsfoot there, and bring him back with you in a few days.”
Mr Multiple, a cheerful, fresh-faced young man, only recently promoted from the rank of midshipman, and still very conscious of his second-lieutentant’s uniform, saluted and grinned shyly.
“Aye, aye, sir! Very happy to oblige.” He and young Miss Twite exchanged friendly nods. “Only thing is, sir, I think I ought to mention, I ain’t so handy at those confounded foreign lingoes – Portugoose and Angrianese and so on – can’t make shift to get my tongue round ’em, somehow.”
“Oh,” said Captain Hughes, a trifle nonplussed. “I – er – I don’t suppose you can speak those languages, Miss Twite?”
“Yes I can,” she replied unexpectedly. “When I used to clean the table silver for Mr Holystone, on the passage down from Bermuda to Tenby, he used to teach me a bit of Spanish and Portugoosy. And Angrian. On account of he’d been to college in those lands. He said you never know when another language may come in handy; and the more you know, the more you can pick up.”
“What about Dilendi?”
“Well, I do know jist a few sentences,” Dido confessed, “jist to say ‘Where is the Public Library?’ and ‘I wish to rent a palanquin’ and ‘Do you play fan-tan?’ – things like that.”
“Who in the world taught you those?”
Mo-pu was the captain’s cook, who had been taken on at Easter Island (the former cook, Mr Brandywinde, having died from drinking five gallons of neat grog in quick succession).
Captain Hughes snapped: “It is not at all proper that you, a young female passenger on this vessel, should fraternise with my cook. I do not approve.”
Dido sighed, but kept quiet. “However,” the Captain went on, “in the circumstances it has apparently had some advantages. You had best teach those phrases to Mr Multiple before you dock at the port of Regina. Thank you. You may leave the cabin now.”
They did so, not daring to dig each other in the ribs with joy until they were safely on deck.
“It’ll be like a holiday, Mr Mully. Shore leave!”
“Of course,” he pointed out, “we may come across Lord Herodsfoot the very first minute we set foot on shore.”
“Ay, that’s so.”
But after they had spent a few days on the Siwara, and had learned about the cockroaches and pearl-snakes and creatures called sting-monkeys, Dido and Mr Multiple grew less enthusiastic about their excursion to the island of Aratu, and began to hope that they might find Lord Herodsfoot as quickly as possible and return to the comforts of H.M.S. Thrush.
They did, however, make great friends with another passenger on the Siwara from whom they learned a great deal more about the island. Their new friend was the youthful Dr Talisman van Linde, a slight, dark young fellow who came aboard the same day they did, at Amboina. At first they had taken him for the ship’s doctor, when one of the sailors, throwing breadfruit peelings overboard, got bitten by a shark, and Doctor Talisman swiftly and capably bound up the wound, dressing it first with hot tar.
But when they fell into talk they found that, like themselves, the young doctor had shipped aboard for the purpose of visiting Aratu, which he had apparently always wished to see.
“Why, in mussy’s name?” asked Dido. “It don’t seem to have much, except pearl-snakes and sting-monkeys and a pesky lot of spices.”
“You see, I was born on the island,” said Doctor Talisman. “I’ve always wanted to come back and see the place.”
“Oh, well, that’s different then,” said Mr
“How old was you when you left?” asked Dido.
“Five. I don’t remember anything – except wonderful sweet, sweet scents everywhere.”
“Different from this ship then. Your ma and pa take you away?”
“No. I fell from a cliff into the sea – but I happened to land on the deck of a passing ship.”
“Fancy! Why didn’t they put you ashore at the next port?”
“Ah, well, you see,” explained Dr Talisman, “there’s a volcano under the sea, Mount Ximboë, about a hundred miles south of Aratu. It erupts, every couple of months, under the sea, and that sends a huge wall of water rushing north past the island. It is called the Ximboë bore.”
“Croopus,” said Dido, impressed. “What a lot you know, Doc Tally.”
“So that any ships that get caught in the bore are mostly obliged to race past the island without stopping. And the ship I was picked up by – a Dutch trader – I fell into a pile of nets on deck, I wasn’t hurt at all – there was no way of their heaving to, they got carried on a couple of hundred miles. Then a man who was a passenger on the ship, a Dutch travelling scientist, he took a fancy to me and adopted me. He thought that by that time my parents must have given me up and be sure that I was dead.”
“So you never got back at all?”
“Well, the man who adopted me – Count van Linde – happened to be a great believer in luck.”
“As well as a scientist he was a gambler. He paid for his scientific trips by his gambling wins. And on the first island where the ship put in, after picking me up, he bought a basket of oysters from a fisherman and found in one of them a black pearl as big as a cherry. It was worth a fortune and paid for the whole voyage. So the Count decided that I brought him luck. That was why he adopted me and called me Talisman.”
“What does that mean?” asked Dido, who had never come across the word.
“A talisman is a thing – like a stone or charm – that you carry about to bring you good fortune or protect you from harm. It is all connected with stars and astral signs.”