Book excerpt

Troubling a Star

The Austin Family Chronicles, Book 5

Austin Family

Madeleine L'Engle

Square Fish

Troubling a Star
OneThe iceberg was not a large one, but it was big enough so that the seal and I were not crowded, and I was grateful for that. The seal was asleep after its night of hunting. It was a crab-eater seal, and crab eaters live on krill, not crab, and as far as I know do not eat people. I willed it to stay asleep and not even notice that Vicky Austin was sharing its iceberg, which was floating majestically in the dark and icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean, or that my heart was beating wildly with terror.The sun was out and the sky was high and blue and cloudless. I was shivering uncontrollably despite my long winter underwear, turtleneck, heavy sweater, bright red parka. I had on lined blue jeans with yellow waterproof pants over them. I wore three pairs of socks under green rubber boots. I was highly visible--if there had been anyone around to see me.I tried to control my panic, to assess my situation. Several things could happen. I could be missed and someone would come for me. Thatwas my brightest hope. But I had to face the possibility that nobody would find me in this vast space, and that I would ultimately freeze to death. Or the iceberg might overturn, as they sometimes do, and I would be plunged into the water and die quickly from hypothermia.I looked around me in all directions. There were dozens more icebergs, many with seals on them. There was a hunched shadow of land on one horizon. No sign of human life. In the water I saw three penguins flashing by, heading for land. Penguins fly in the water, rather than in air. I watched them until I could not see them any longer.They say that drowning people relive their entire lives in a flash. I'd been on the iceberg only a few minutes, long enough to be terrified, but not long enough to despair. That would come later. 
How did I get to be on an iceberg in Antarctic waters in January, which is summer--but even summer is cold in that land of unremitting ice. It went back a few months to those last weeks of summer before school starts. I was still fifteen then, feeling lost and alien, though I had yet to learn what being truly alien feels like.My family and I had come home to our little village of Thornhill, after a year away. My adored grandfather was dead. The only really good thing in my life was that I'd see Adam soon, Adam Eddington, who'd had a summer job in the marine biology lab with my older brother, John. Adam and I had become friends during the summer, and if the friendship meant more to me than it did to Adam, well, I would just have to live with that. I knew that some of the time I was only John's kid sister in Adam's eyes, but there were other times when it was a lot more than that.In another week John would be going back to M.I.T., and Suzy and I would be in the regional high school, Suzy as an eighth-grader, and I'd be starting my junior year. Our little brother, Rob, would still be in the village school.It all should have been normal and okay, but I'd been away for a year and I'd grown and changed, and even before school started I felt I no longer belonged. So when Adam called from New York to say he was spending a weekend with his Aunt Serena in nearby Clovenford before flying to California to college and would it be all right if he came for dinner on Friday, it was as though the sun had suddenly come out after a foggy day. He arrived around six-thirty, driving up in an old and beautiful Bentley, much to John's envy. I was sorting laundry, one of my least favorite chores, but I kept on folding clothes, rather than rushing out to join John and Rob, who were admiring the great old car.The evening was warm, and I had on my best shorts and a clean blouse which I'd actually ironed. I'd have dressed up more than that, but I knew Suzy would be at me. My little sister and I do not always see eye to eye.When Adam finally came in, he kissed me, or would have, if Mr. Rochester, our old Great Dane, hadn't been all over him, trying to jump up on him, wagging his tail, greeting Adam with all kinds of special affection. Adam managed to shove him down in a gentle sort of way, and kissed me again. But then he kissed my mother and Suzy, too. Then everybody talked at once, more or less, until my father came home from admitting a patient to the hospital. And finally we were all sitting around the dinner table, and that felt right and good.When everybody had been served, Adam said, "Hey, I have terrific news."We all looked at him."I've been given a grant to go to Antarctica next semester.""You mean now?" Suzy asked."No, not this semester. Next semester, in December."Our father raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Why Antarctica?"Adam grinned at him. "Well, Dr. Austin, I am a marine-biology major, and it's a major opportunity. I'll be working at LeNoir, one of the small U.S. stations.""I thought you were into starfish and dolphins," Suzy said."There'll probably be a few of those at Eddington Point, where the station is, but mostly I'll be working with penguins."Mother asked, "Eddington Point?"Adam grinned again. "Actually, it's named after my uncle. He's probably the reason I'm a marine biologist. He made a couple of expeditions to Antarctica, and he died in an accident while he was out there.""Are you named after him?" Suzy asked."Yup. Actually, I'm Adam III. My great-uncle, the banker, was Adam I. Adam Eddington, the marine biologist, was Adam II. And I'm Adam III. Listen, Vicky, John's coming over in the morning, but how about if I pick you up in the afternoon, maybe a little before four, and take you to Clovenford to meet my Aunt Serena? I really think you two would like each other.""Sure," I said. "I'd love to." I'd love to do anything with Adam.My father smiled at him. "Your Aunt Serena is one of my patients, and one of my favorite ones. I agree with you, Vicky will enjoy her.""And she'll enjoy Vicky.""They'll be good for each other," my father said.But if I'd never met Aunt Serena--if I'd never read Adam II's diary and found his letters--Wait, Vicky. It's no good hindsighting. 
After dinner Adam said he had to get on back to Clovenford to Aunt Serena, who was very old and retired early, and John and I went out to the garage to wave him off, with Mr. Rochester at our heels. Waving people off is a sort of tradition in our family.Before he got into the Bentley, Adam put his arm about my waist. "I know you miss your grandfather, Vicky.""Yeah. A lot.""He was a special person. One reason I want you to meet Aunt Serena is that she reminds me of your grandfather. She's an amazing old lady.""I look forward to it." I thought he might kiss me goodbye, but John was right there."Good night, you two," Adam said. "It's been a great evening.""See you tomorrow," I said, trying to sound casual."Sure. See you."I watched after his car as he drove down the road, and John went around the corner of the house to get Rochester. I started to go after them, but stopped and looked up at thesky, crisp and clear and full of stars. I was home, in the place where I had been born and grown up, and I responded to the beauty of the night sky and the great old maples and oaks, and I was lonely, a kind of loneliness that hurt like a toothache.I shook myself and headed back to the house. I was going to see Adam the next day. Wasn't that enough? 
He came for me a little before three-thirty, and I was ready and waiting. I'd put on a flowered cotton skirt and another clean cotton blouse, much as I hate ironing.Mother asked Adam if he'd like to stay for dinner again when he brought me home, and he said he'd enjoy that. He and John had had lunch with Aunt Serena, and she was usually tired by evening and wanted to eat quietly and go to bed. He'd have to double-check with the chauffeur that it was all right to use the car.I'd forgotten that a world with people who had chauffeurs still existed. But there's a section of Clovenford that's old and rich, with great nineteenth-century mansions and people who actually have servant problems. Thornhill is older than Clovenford. Our house was built in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it sags comfortably, all the boards slanting toward the big central chimney. One problem my mother's never had is a servant problem."See you later, then," Mother said, and Adam and I went out through the kitchen door and the garage."You'll like my Aunt Serena--great-aunt--" Adam said. "She's ninety and occasionally gets a little absentminded, but mostly she's terrific and interested in all kinds of things."It was a gorgeous, pre-autumn day. Everything was still green, a bit dusty, because we needed rain. The roadsides were yellow with goldenrod, and occasionally a maple would be tipped with red or orange. We drove downhill, across the river, and then back up into the hills again. We passed the road to the hospital where my father's on the staff, and turned onto a wide street with houses set far back, and green lawns carefully manicured."Elm Street," Adam said. "No elms, of course.""Lots of maples, though," I said. "These are beautiful ones. Suzy's passionate about the way we aren't taking care of the trees on our planet--you know Suzy.""She's right," Adam said, "though we didn't exactly cause Dutch elm disease. Here we are."Adam's Aunt Serena's house was large, white with black shutters, and a widow's walk. Adam stopped the car in front of a picket fence with a wrought-iron gate. The gateposts were topped with carved pineapples. "The sign of hospitality," Adam said, "though I'm not sure where that symbol comes from. You'll find Aunt Serena's very hospitable. You okay?""Sure." But I was a little nervous, a little self-conscious. I wasn't used to people who lived in enormous houses and had chauffeurs.Adam opened the gate and we walked up a path of pale pink brick bordered with hydrangea and rhododendron bushes. The hydrangeas were in full bloom, a wonderful, deep purple.A maid in a grey uniform and a white apron opened the door, and Adam flung his arms around her and gave her a big kiss on the cheek."Mr. Adam! Mr. Adam! You'll never--" She smoothed her hair, and straightened her small white cap, scolding and giggling all at the same time. I looked around the elegant front hall. There was an enormous mirror in an ornate gilt frame, and under it was a marble-topped table. On a silver tray were several letters. I glanced at myself in the mirror and thought I looked okay. I was nearly sixteen. I did not look like a child.Adam introduced us. "Vicky, this is Stassy, who's known me since I was in diapers. Stassy, this is my friend, Vicky. John's sister."At least he didn't say John's little sister.Stassy welcomed me with a wonderful smile which lit up her whole face, and led us past a large living room to our right, a formal dining room to our left, on past a library full of what looked like thousands of books, and then to a sitting room where an old woman looked up from a wing chair by a bright fire."Mr. Adam has brought Miss Vicky, Madam," she announced with what sounded like real pleasure.I stepped forward and took the old lady's hand. It was small and warm and dry. She had curly white hair cut as short as mine, and a finely wrinkled face and brown eyes that looked golden in the firelight. The room was a little warm, but I know very old people tend to feel chilly."You're good to come," she said. "And now we'll have tea, please, Stassy. Anastasia," she explained to me, "but Stassy is easier.""Tea would be lovely," I said, sitting in the chair Adam hadpulled out for me, across from his great-aunt, with a low table between us.Stassy wheeled the tea in on a mahogany tea table, with a beautiful silver service, but also a big glass pitcher of iced tea. The sandwiches were little rounds, each with one slice of tomato. There was a big plate of cookies still warm from the oven.Adam's great-aunt asked me to pour. "And will you be kind enough to call me Aunt Serena? That would please me.""I'd love to." She made me feel completely comfortable, and glad to be calling her Aunt Serena instead of Mrs. Eddington. I poured tea, and Adam passed it to her, and then said he'd rather have iced tea.I poured tall glasses for both of us. While I was sipping, she looked directly at me, saying, "So you spent last winter in New York.""Yes. My dad had a research grant for a year."She nodded. "I'm one of his many patients who are delighted to have him back. The doctor who took his practice was eminently qualified, but he didn't have your father's warmth or authority. He heals my spirit as well as my body. There's not much he can do about my arthritic knees, but he can keep my zest for life from flagging. So does my great-nephew, here. I'll miss him.""So will I," I said."But he has given me the best gift he possibly could--his grant to go to Antarctica--and on his own merits, too. Despite the point which is named for him, Eddington Point, notmany people remember my son, who spent many months in Antarctica and died there."Her eyes were full of pain, so I just murmured that I was sorry, and I, too, was glad Adam had the grant. That was politeness on my part. I didn't want Adam that far away. On the other hand, Berkeley might just as well be as far as Antarctica, for all the chance I'd have of seeing Adam there.She looked at me and smiled. "Coming back to little Thornhill can't be an easy transition. You're still in high school?""Yes. Next week I start eleventh grade. One more year after this, and then college.""Are you going to miss New York?""Not the city. But I'll miss some of the people I met there. Talking about ideas, big things."She held out her cup for a refill. "The art of conversation is becoming a lost one. I'm happy that my great-nephew still enjoys batting ideas back and forth. So does your brother. I can see that you come from a family that is not afraid of discussion."I laughed. "Discussion. And sometimes dissension." I was amazed at how totally at ease I was with this great-aunt of Adam's, in this elegant, gracious room. There was just enough furniture to be comfortable, but no clutter. Over the mantelpiece was a portrait of a young woman. I knew it was Aunt Serena from the eyes, which were the same firelit gold."You have beautiful eyes, Aunt Serena," I said.She laughed and clapped her hands. "Miracles of modern technology! In the old days I'd have had the blind white eyes of cataracts or, at best, those Coke-bottle glasses. I still wake up every morning and rejoice at seeing through my lens implants.Now, pour yourself and Adam another glass of tea, my dear, and"--she looked at Adam--"Owain will drive Vicky home. He's Stassy's husband, and I don't know what I'd do without them and Cook."Adam said, "If it's all right with you, Aunt Serena, I'll drive Vicky home. Mrs. Austin was nice enough to ask me to stay for dinner again, and she's a fabulous cook--good enough to make Cook sit up and take notice."If I'd forgotten there was still a world where people had chauffeurs, I'd equally forgotten a world where people had cooks."Of course it's all right with me," Aunt Serena said, and then, as though she'd read my mind, "I suspect your mother most graciously does all kinds of things I didn't have to do. Life was gentler.""Things change," Adam said. "Entropy."To my surprise, Aunt Serena frowned. "I really don't approve of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I refuse to believe that the entire universe is on a downhill skid. The theory may be more sophisticated than that of the nineteenth-century positivists who believed that as knowledge increased, each civilization would rise higher than the one before, but it's equally nearsighted. I'll have half a cup of tea, if you'll be so kind."Well! Aunt Serena was certainly not boring! This was the kind of conversation Adam and John throve on, the kind of conversation I'd told Aunt Serena I'd miss in Thornhill. But maybe I was being unfair.She finished her tea quickly, and rang a tiny silver bell which was on the tea tray. In a moment Stassy appeared."Adam and Vicky are leaving now, Stassy dear. And Vicky might like to take the cookies home.""I have a younger brother and sister who'd love them." I rose.Stassy said, "Owain drove the car around to the back.""Splendid. They can leave through the kitchen and Vicky can meet Owain and Cook. You will come again, my dear? Adam must leave tomorrow, and though he's promised me another weekend before he goes to Antarctica, I will be lonely without him, so it would be most kind if you would come to tea.""I'd love to," I said. "School starts next week for me, too, and I'll have to see what my schedule is.""Perhaps you could get off your school bus in Clovenford?""Well, yes--""And Owain will drive you home."Adam said, "Take Aunt Serena for a walk when you come, Vic. She's supposed to exercise more than she does."She looked up at me. "Your father would appreciate that. My legs do not do well once autumn and winter damp set in."Stassy led Adam and me farther back into the house, through a large sun porch that was part greenhouse full of flowers and plants, then through a beautiful kitchen with a restaurant stove, the kind Mother's always wanted. Copper pots hung from the ceiling. A tall, thin man who had a fringe of brown hair around his head and who looked like a monk was standing at the stove. He turned and smiled as we came in.Adam said, "Vicky, this is Cook, and he keeps me out oftrouble. If I'm about to do something and think Cook wouldn't approve, I usually don't do it.""My name is Adam Cook." The tall man shook my hand with a firm, friendly grip. "There are already more than enough Adams around here, so everyone uses my last name, and I hope you will, too. Quite appropriate, isn't it?" He moved from the stove and handed me a large red tin of cookies. "I kept a few out for Madam. It's not easy to whet her appetite. Do come again, Miss Vicky." He had a crisp British accent."Oh, I will," I promised.Stassy opened a door that led through a small pantry and to a covered drive between house and garage, where the car was waiting. Stassy introduced me to Owain, who looked as Welsh as his name, with black hair, blue eyes, fair skin. Like Stassy and Cook, he seemed delighted to see me and urged me to come back. "Madam's outlived her family and friends," he told me, "and none of the relatives think they live near enough to come by, saving Mr. Adam and his family. They come when they can. And your father--he drops in more often than he's needed as a doctor. It's done her a world of good, having Mr. Adam here for a few days. I'll look forward to seeing you again, Miss Vicky."Miss Vicky. Aunt Serena lived in a world I didn't know much about, a world of formality and privilege. I felt clumsy, but Adam seemed to take it all for granted.Owain said, "The key's in the car, Mr. Adam.""Thanks, Owain. I'll be careful."We backed onto the drive that curved around the house. "Mr. Adam. Miss Vicky," I said.Adam shrugged. "I was Master Adam until a few years ago, and I really had to do some major insisting before they were willing to let me grow up."The trees were a dark green against a sky that was already turning pink. The days were growing shorter. I glanced at Adam. "Thanks for taking me to meet Aunt Serena.""I knew you'd like each other," Adam said. "She's very special, and I don't introduce just anybody to her."I felt my cheeks go warm. "She does remind me of Grandfather.""Same quality," Adam said. "I'd think it was a generational thing, except that I've known other old people who've closed down and are cranky and do nothing but tell the same old stories and are totally boring.""Boring she's not. Adam, what happened to her son, Adam?""Adam II, my uncle? I told you. An accident in Antarctica.""What kind of an accident?""He was out in his Zodiac--""His what?""Zodiac. They're inflatable, motorized rubber boats, like the ones you see in nature programs on TV. The assumption about Adam II was that the motor must have given out and he had no way to get back to land. There are heavy tides and undertows and he may have been swept out to sea."The way he told me made me want to ask further questions, but it also made me know I shouldn't. So I didn't say anything.I looked at him questioningly, but he was staring ahead at the road.We were silent for a mile or so, and then he asked, "What did you think of Cook?""I liked him. He looks kind of like a monk."Adam burst into laughter. "Vicky, you're amazing!""Hunh?" I asked inelegantly."Cook was a monk for about ten years.""Oh, my! Why did he stop?""He had to leave the monastery to take care of his brother, who was at the point of death. Cook and his brother are twins, born in the Falklands. Seth, Cook's brother, is a naturalist--he's still in Port Stanley."The Falklands. I knew they were British islands, which explained Cook's accent, and that they were somewhere near the bottom of South America, and that there'd been some kind of war about them, but that's about all I knew.Adam went on, "Seth accidentally antagonized a fur seal, and they can be quite vicious when they're angry. It nearly killed him, and Cook went out to nurse him. He told me that when he came back to the U.S. he felt he no longer had a vocation to the monastic life. He's a great guy. Listen, I really feel good knowing you'll go over to Clovenford. I worry about Aunt Serena. I'll miss you when I go back to Berkeley. I'm a lousy letter writer, but I'll try to keep in touch. Getting this grant for the internship in Antarctica was beyond my wildest hopes, but it means I'll be away over Christmas.""Thanksgiving?" I asked."I'll try to come home. I did promise Aunt Serena anotherweekend, and my parents are going to want to see something of me.""Aunt Serena seems excited--about Antarctica.""I think she sees it as a kind of completion, that I'm going to finish Adam II's journey." He pulled up by the garage, but didn't block Daddy's way. That was thoughtful of him. "Aunt Serena'll probably talk to you about Adam II as she gets to know you better. And what she doesn't tell you, you can ask Cook--that is, if you're interested."Of course I was interested. Fascinated.TROUBLING A STAR. Copyright © 1994 by Crosswicks, Ltd. Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) was the Newbery Medal-winning author of more than 60 books, including the much-loved A Wrinkle in Time. Born in 1918, L’Engle grew up in New York City, Switzerland, South Carolina and Massachusetts.  Her father was a reporter and her mother had studied to be a pianist, and their house was always full of musicians and theater people. L’Engle graduated cum laude from Smith College, then returned to New York to work in the theater. While touring with a play, she wrote her first book, The Small Rain, originally published in 1945. She met her future husband, Hugh Franklin, when they both appeared in The Cherry Orchard.  Upon becoming Mrs. Franklin, L’Engle gave up the stage in favor of the typewriter. In the years her three children were growing up, she wrote four more novels. Hugh Franklin temporarily retired from the theater, and the family moved to western Connecticut and for ten years ran a general store. Her book Meet the Austins, an American Library Association Notable Children's Book of 1960, was based on this experience.  Her science fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time was awarded the 1963 Newbery Medal. Two companion novels, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (a Newbery Honor book), complete what has come to be known as The Time Trilogy, a series that continues to grow in popularity with a new generation of readers. Her 1980 book A Ring of Endless Light won the Newbery Honor. L’Engle passed away in 2007 in Litchfield, Connecticut.