“Piper,” the first introduced, holding out his hand politely. Everybody else looked at it with the same enthusiasm as if it had been a jellyfish waiting to sting them. Then suddenly realisation dawned on Charles' face, and he leaned forwards with a joyful,
“And Smoky – I didn't recognise you at first! Well, and how long's it been?”
While the three men began to talk excitedly amongst themselves, Charles reminding them of who he was, Charlie glanced across at Augusta with such a mystified air that the latter nearly started laughing. The children had mostly gone back to their own pursuits, though Phoebe was evidently interested, and Charlie could tell by the look on her eldest son's face that he was longing to ask a torrent of questions. At long last, Charles turned back to them and his eyes swept the group. All he said, however, was,
“Ashley, why don't you three younger ones take Ricky and Randa along to the shelf, just down the path. You'll love the view, I'm sure.”
“But I want to stay,” insisted Poppy stubbornly, until she caught her father's eye, at which she pouted. Before it could escalate into an argument, however, Sphinx had stood up and slipped his hand into hers, helping her stand up from the bench and silently starting to lead her away. Seeing this, John promptly decided that he wanted to go as well, and trailed after the group of chattering children, leaving the adults behind.
David had yet to reappear, but the rest watched with interest to see what would happen next. Whoever these strange men were, Charles was evidently delighted to see them, and Charlie and Millie especially longed to shake some answers out of him. As if guessing how they felt, he sat back, took a long sip from his drink, and deliberated. When he did start, it was with a rather cryptic comment to his wife.
“Darling, do you remember our second university holiday up here, when we had to bring back all those presents for various people?”
“Vaguely,” she replied, then sudden understanding dawned across her face and she turned to the two men with an excited, “That's never you.”
“Thought I recognised a pretty young thing like you,” grinned the one called Piper, drawing out the pipe which had presumably given him his name and lighting it, so that he could start to drag on it between speeches. “You haven't changed much in all these years. So you thought you could fob them off with that nonsense about the secret of the Auberge being the echoes, did you?”
“Only mama ever believed that,” laughed Charles, and for once his face didn't darken at the memory. Instead he stared out across the fantastic panorama for a second, drinking in the fabulous scenery that the mountains created. Then, shaking himself slightly, he resumed, “Everyone else on the Platz knew why you really came here, even some of the middles. We boys certainly did – we used to be the most popular of all our sets back at boarding school, after a long summer holiday.”
“So what is the secret?” burst in Augusta impatiently, unable to contain herself any longer. With a laugh, Charlie told the assembled company. For a long moment, there was a shocked silence, but then Millie asked a question and soon everybody was voicing an opinion or wanting to know more.
In fact, they made such a racket that David stormed out of the inn to demand to know what was going on. Shouting above the din of several people talking at once – only Smoky didn't seem to have anything to say, but then he seemed to be rather quiet all the time – he eventually managed to gain their attention. His first thought was to turn to his wife, but guessing that he may not get much sense out of her, he eventually turned to Charles, who he seemed to regard as the only sane member of the party at that moment.
“What the b – the blazes is going on? Has she tried to kill herself again?”
Most of those present took him to mean Augusta, and his family guessed that the incident at the pyramids was still playing on his mind. Startled by such an abrupt address, but deciding to overlook it on this one occasion, Charles said smoothly,
“I was just introducing these two men, who I used to know.”
“They're called Pipy and Smoker,” added Augusta, with the look she always gave him when she knew that as improbable as whatever she was about to say sounded, it was the complete and utter truth. “They used to be herdsmen, but when they retired they decided that they needed another way to make money, and so they started their own business. Apparently it's very popular, especially with mistresses at the school, only it has to be known as the secret of the Auberge because it isn't strictly speaking all that legal.”
“What on earth have you landed us in this time?” demanded David wearily. With one accord the rest informed him of the long kept secret;
“They make their own alcohol, and occasionally smuggle in drugs.”