Caution: Proceed at a reasonable speed through these pages (55 pph or less) in order to get the much enjoyment per chapter. It would be a shame to waste "The Weeping Ash" by reckless, high-speed reading.

The book's interest is supplied by a pair of heroines -- gentle, lovely Fanny, to whom things happen, and her cousin-by-marriage, spirited, beautiful Scylla, who makes things happen. The turn-and-turn-about presentation of their separate adventures requires the poor things to lead such arduous lives that the reader is left at every transition panting to get back and see what happens next.

The only place the story runs out of gas seems to be in the love scenes, which are practically nonexistent in most of the book, and more latent than blatant in the remainder (except for one shocker which boggles the mind as much as the morals.) The rest of the book is just fine.

Fanny, who is described rather curiously as having a "small nut-shaped head," also has a husband, Thomas. Even more gratuitously beastly than most such chaps in this genre, he starts out as the head of a press gang, and his character only goes down from there. What with the life he gives her plus mean stepdaughters and a chafing chastily belt, existence is grim for Fanny. She's a survivor, though, and might work things out for herself eventually if it weren't for that weeping ash beside the bedroom window, maimed on Thomas' orders and radiating an unhappy if lumbering malevolence.

It's never quite clear what connection the tree has with other sinister happenings, like the appearance of a young man's ghost, an unspecified child's ghost, and the occasional bad vibe. However, it is definitely the connecting link between this English Gothic tale and the robust adventure story of Scylla and her twin brother, who is not named what you think he is, but Carloman instead.

Scylla and Cal are obliged to flee from a suddenly menacing India, along with Scylla's preternaturally tranquil guardian, Miss Musson, and the American colonel, Rob Cameron, who is cold, arrogant, and madly in love with Scylla. Not so cold after all, we are given to understand, when he makes what appears to be a rather ungentlemanly suggestion halfway through the trip, one which sounds unlikely for his time and place. But no doubt there are moderns in every century and in any case, he gets turned down. In the way of such lovers, he manages not to communicate any hint of his real feelings in months of travel by elephant, camel, raft and sailboat through Kafiristan, Afghanistan, Persia and Turkey. The book ends happily enough, but, more important, it reflects the priorities of romantic escapism. The women are beautiful and the men are good fighters.

No profundities here, and a good thing, too. The Holy Pir of Chaghlar was made for uttering arcande banalities, but, for the most part, he refrains. In any other book, and probably in reality, he and Miss Musson, an archetypical Christian missionary, would have argued theology like cats and dogs, but Aiken has written 12 books for adults and 20 for juveniles, and in her line of work, the operative word is motion. I wouldn't have it any other way.

It's always been a puzzle to me why the made-for-TV filmmakers have ignored this current, less steamy brand of romantic literature in their frantic search for scripts. Surely, they cannot be so dedicated to their mission of adding public sex and violence to the standard decor of the Amercian family room that they have missed the appeal of simple, unkinky romance in interesting and exotic settings. They could make a good start with "The Weeping Ash."

I've learned a lot from simple little Gothics and romances, many of them remarkably informative in matters ranging from bee-keeping through grape culture to the antique business and Shakespeare. "The Weeping Ash" gives us some fine points of late-18th-century naval impressment and civilian reactions to it, and authentic, colorful backgrounds of the remote cultures the twins and their friends have to pass through to get back to good old England.