Having enjoyed Helen Cresswell's Stonestruck, which I reviewed 2 weeks ago, I've been on the look out for further Cresswell titles at the library, and last week I picked up The Night-Watchmen.
Henry Crane is recovering from an unspecified illness that has kept him in bed for a month. The story opens with Henry waiting impatiently for the arrival of the doctor to discover whether or not he can get up today. Fortunately for Henry's peace of mind, his request is granted and the doctor says he can get up for a few hours each day, and he is to get plenty of fresh air. A week after he gets up for the first time, Henry ventures into the town of Mandover and goes to the park. In the park he meets a tramped named Josh, and his brother Caleb. They call themselves Night Watchmen and they travel around to "get the ticking of" towns across the country. They travel by a special steam train, the Night Train.
They set up a workman's tent under the railway bridge, beside a hole that they've dug specially for the purpose of providing an ostensible reason for their presence. The tent is remarkably well equipped and Caleb, who is a dedicated cook, delights in preparing elaborate meals on his surprisingly modern stove. Josh, meanwhile, is a writer; he compiles the information he gathers about each town the pair visit, and he often visits local schools to meet the children (he visits Henry's school whilst they're in Mandover, although Henry misses the visit of course).
Josh is the friendliest of the brothers; Caleb tends to reserve judgement, although Henry's successful food shopping trip and sincere appreciation of the meal that Caleb cooks for the three of them as a result, considerably softens his manner towards Henry. The moment when the three of them reach a harmonious friendship comes after that meal when
All three of them sat there looking out past the glow of the fire to the blackness beyond. It was a comfortable feeling. Josh and Caleb were evidently used to such silences, and Henry, listening to the soft stirrings of coals in the brazier and the soughing of the wind under stone arches, was for the first time conscious of the charms of the life of a night-watchman. He rested his arms on his legs as Josh and Caleb did and sat there taking it all in.
Their friendly accord is broken up by the arrival of the Greeneyes (named for their bright green eyes that allow them to see as clearly at night as normal people see by day), the arch-enemies of the Night-Watchmen. An air of menace enters Mandover with their arrival, and although Josh and Caleb relocate themselves in a field near Henry's home, near the second railway line that passes the town, it soon becomes clear that they will not be able to stay, and Caleb whistles up the Night Train to take them out of reach of the Greeneyes. Henry goes back home knowing his life will never be quite the same for having met Josh and Caleb, and that he'll think of them whenever he eats roast chicken or lemon meringue pie (both were part of that wonderful meal he shared with Josh and Caleb) or whenever he hears the dawn chorus (since he went out at dawn one morning to meet up with them and heard the exhilarating dawn chorus for the first time). This is a gorgeous book - not a lot happens, but it's written in beautiful language that describes things in minute detail, that it's a pleasure to read without a gripping storyline.