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Authors: Madeleine L'engle

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BOOK: Troubling a Star
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“Come on, Vicky. I know you and Suzy spat a lot, but this isn't the kind of joke Suzy plays.”
“I know.”
“You said you wrote Adam?”
“That's good. But you need to find out more about Adam Cook.”
It was a terrible thought to put into my mind, though I could see why John had it. But he didn't know Cook. He hadn't read Adam II's journal.
I was glad all the Christmas preparations at home and at church were keeping everybody busy. Rob was in the kids'
pageant, and Suzy was doing the reading. I was singing in the senior choir, with Nanny, and Mother was doing two solos.
I kept my fears and suspicions to myself.
Everybody gave me things for Antarctica for Christmas—lined mittens, ragg socks, a new journal, a pad from Suzy where I was supposed to write down every bird or seal I saw. Mother and Daddy gave me a check.
We went to see Aunt Serena after church Christmas morning, and she had presents for all of us. She and Cook and Stassy and Owain were going to have Christmas dinner together, according to their tradition, and the big house smelled as marvelous as ours.
When we got home, Mother said, “Aunt Serena's really getting a lot of vicarious pleasure helping you plan for your trip, Vic.”
Yes. And I didn't want to do or say anything to spoil that pleasure. Or that might make Mother and Daddy stop me from going to Antarctica. The warnings, rather than frightening me off, made me all the more determined to go.
At bedtime I looked at the collection of letters and cards I had in my copy of
. I wasn't sorry I'd talked to John, but I didn't want to show any of this to my parents.
The night before John left for college, he asked me.
I shook my head. “Not yet.”
“I think you should.”
“I know. I will, if anything else happens.”
“This isn't enough?”
“Nothing goes together. It's like a picture puzzle with not
enough pieces. I need more pieces before—before I know anything. Don't say anything, John, please.”
“It's against my better judgment.”
“But please don't.”
“Okay. But let me know if anything else happens, if you get any more cards. Or anything. Anything.”
The first day of school after the Christmas holidays, Cook was waiting for me when I got off the school bus. He had a string bag full of vegetables and another with a couple of long loaves of bread. He greeted me, saying, “It's such a pleasant day I thought I'd walk home from marketing, and my route takes me right past your stop.”
There'd been nothing more in my locker at school. I wanted to forget those cards. I wanted to forget John's suspicions of Cook. Nothing I knew about Cook made it seem possible to me that he would write threatening cards and stick them in my locker. How could he do it without someone seeing him, anyhow? Regional's a big school, but not so big that someone strange could come to the locker room without being noticed.
Cook said, “Something on your mind?”
“I've got a lot of homework,” I said, “but it seems silly to do it when we'll be leaving so soon.”
“It's not a bad discipline to get it done.”
He was walking along calmly, swinging his string bags.
The thought came to me that he was the one I should have shown Adam II's letter to, rather than John, but maybe that was because I didn't want to face John's suspicions.
I went to the attic and opened Adam II's journal.
I know that some explorers have had to eat penguins. The seals, particularly the leopard seals, grab them and slam them against the water with such force that they skin them, and the empty skins wash up on shore, where it is so dry that the flattened corpses last indefinitely. Cookie is not a vegetarian, but I think we'd have to be starving before he'd cook a penguin. He is one of the most gentle people I have ever known, and his quiet presence keeps the rest of us from bickering or even quarreling, which we might well do, shut up day after day in this small, cramped space. I believe that it is entirely thanks to his presence that we are so amiable, and that we have so much fun. Laughter in this pervading cold helps keep us warm.
This was the Cook Adam II showed me in everything he wrote, not the person John had suggested might have put those threatening cards in my locker.
I had one last meal with Aunt Serena and it was probably the most elegant meal I'd ever had. We started off with caviar, and I wasn't at all sure I was going to like it, but I did. We spread it on Melba toast with finely chopped onion and egg and it was odd and delicious. It was followed by a very light French sorrel soup, and then chicken breasts stuffed with
arugula and Jarlsberg cheese—Cook was really providing a farewell banquet.
We had a split of champagne. “I checked with your father,” Aunt Serena said, “and he assured me that you were quite capable of managing one glass of champagne. A toast, my dear, to you and to Cook and to Adam and to the Antarctic.” She raised her glass.
One thing I couldn't do was say anything that would make Aunt Serena anxious about the trip. I raised my glass. “And to you, Aunt Serena. Thank you.”
“Angels watch over you,” she said softly.
When I went to the kitchen, both Owain and Cook were there.
“Thanks for the marvelous dinner,” I told Cook.
He handed me something. “To protect you from the sun.” It was a canvas hat with a big brim, and could be folded and put in my suitcase.
“Terrific! Thank you!”
Owain said, “We'll miss you, Miss Vicky.”
“I'll miss you, too. But I'll send you lots of postcards.”
“Angels watch over you,” Owain said, just as Aunt Serena had said.
“Do you believe in angels?” I asked. I hoped he did. I had my copy of
in my suitcase, and folded in it were Adam's letters and cards, and the two strange cards which had been stuck in my locker at school. Angels watching over me sounded good. John had called to say goodbye, and urged me again to speak to our parents. I said I'd think about it. He knew then that I wasn't going to.
“Oh, yes, Miss Vicky,” Owain answered my question. “We need our angels.”
“With wings?”
He smiled. “Beautiful wings.”
“With feathers?”
“Most artists depict them with feathers.”
I said, “Most artists paint angels with wings that wouldn't be able to fly.”
Cook smiled. “It's simply one way of representing them so that the human being can get an idea of the loveliness of angels. They are pure energy, you know.”
“So they aren't birds,” I said.
Cook laughed heartily. “Madam has mentioned about penguins and their feathers.”
“Yes. If it has feathers, it's a bird.”
Owain said, “Feathers or not, Miss Vicky, Stassy and I shall ask angels to watch over you.”
Cook said, “Stassy and Owain have an in with angels. I find it very comforting.”
“Ready to go home?” Owain asked.
“Yes. Say good night to Stassy for me.”
Stassy, I knew, was helping Aunt Serena get ready for bed.
Owain and I went out to the car, and Cook stood looking after us.
y eyes began to droop with weariness, and I didn't know if this was one effect of the continuing, penetrating cold, or if it was, according to the clock, nighttime and my body was ready for sleep. It was impossible to look at the sun, as I could do at home, and say, It's moving to the west, it will be dark soon. It was impossible to “tell” time in this land of perpetual day—or nearly perpetual day. For the past several nights, if there had been any darkness, I hadn't seen it, because I was already asleep.
One thing I knew was that, no matter what was causing the sleepiness, I must not give in to it. If I slid off the iceberg, that would be the end of me. I leaned against the ice tower that rose up behind me, though my body wanted, more than anything, to lie down, to curl up, to let go. I knew about travelers being lost in a blizzard and knowing that they could not lie down and go to sleep, or they'd freeze to death. I would certainly freeze if I could not make myself stay awake.
Owain drove Cook and me to New York to the airport. My parents had planned to come see us off, but there was a flu epidemic in Thornhill and Clovenford, and Daddy had a lot of patients in the hospital, and Rob was sick and Mother didn't want to leave him. In a way, it was almost easier to say goodbye at home than it would have been to have my parents at the airport. I knew Mother was having second thoughts about my going. I was having second thoughts about not showing them Adam II's unfinished letter and those funny warnings stuck in my locker.
Cook and I didn't talk much on the drive down to New York. That was okay. Cook and I didn't talk unless we had something to say.
At the airport, Owain shook hands formally with me, then gave me a quick hug. Cook and I had our tickets checked, then went through security and on to the boarding area. I was excited, excited by the bustle at the airport, excited at the idea of flying to two continents, South America and Antarctica. If I'd been younger, I'd have reached out and held Cook's hand. But there was something aloof about him as he sat beside me on one of the plastic chairs, and I couldn't push John's warning suggestion out of my mind. There wasn't anybody except Cook who could have known all that I knew. But Cook hadn't seen Adam II's unfinished letter I'd found in
The Jungle Book
. John was the only other person besides me who'd seen that.
Then Cook turned to me and smiled. “I'm glad we're sharing this adventure, Vicky.”
“You called me plain Vicky!” I said.
He grinned. “I told you I'd be more informal once we started our travels.”
When we boarded the plane, Cookie gave me the window seat, so I could look out as we taxied along the runway, gathering speed, and then the plane nosed up and we were flying above buildings, above water. I looked at the land dropping below us and finally disappearing as we flew through a layer of clouds and then burst out into the sunlight, blue sky above, white cloud below. The flight attendant came around with lunch, and after lunch Cook suggested that we both snooze, because we were going to have a long wait in Miami before the overnight flight to San Sebastián. I was sure I was too excited to sleep, but I surprised myself by drifting off, and when the pilot announced that we were going to be landing in a few minutes, I lifted my head from where it had drooped onto Cook's shoulder.
In Miami, retrieving our bags from the luggage carousel took forever, largely because half a dozen flights came in at the same time and they were all being unloaded onto the same carousel.
Cook said, “I gather these delays happen more and more frequently nowadays. It's a good thing we don't have a close connection.”
Our bags finally arrived, and as we headed to the boarding areas we saw two people in blue uniforms holding up a sign: ANTARCTIC ARGOSY. We had tags for our bags which said ARGOSY, and blue-and-white plastic name pins, which Cook had suggested that we wear. The people with the sign saw us and waved, and we hurried over to them. They were friendly
and greeted us by name, checking their clipboards. They took our bags with the ARGOSY tags and told us we needn't worry about them till we arrived in San Sebastián. Then they directed us to a lounge where we could wait till time to board. Some of the other
passengers, who'd flown in from California and other points west, were already there, and probably would be stretched out on couches, trying to sleep.
As we walked toward the lounge, Cook commented, “One thing that helps protect the Antarctic is that it's so hard to get to.” He found us a couple of chairs and brought Cokes from the bar. “We'll get dinner on the plane, but it probably won't be before midnight. Do you want to scavenge around for something to eat? That lunch on the plane was pretty plastic.”
I shook my head. “I think I'll be okay.”
“The fare tonight will be good. The Vespugian airline is really trying to please its North American customers. I'm off to find a newspaper. You'll be all right?”
“Sure. I'll catch up on my journal.” I settled into my seat and started to write. “Here I am in a large waiting room in the airport in Miami. Even though I'm with Cook, I'm suddenly feeling displaced. I wish John hadn't—” I stopped, holding my pen over the page. Started to scratch out what I'd written when I noticed a tall, elderly man standing in front of me, looking at me questioningly. He had a cigar in his mouth, but it wasn't lit.
He chewed on it, and looked at my name pin. “Hello. You're going on the
“Yes, sir.”
“Vicky Austin?”
“Yes.” I tried to read his name, but his jacket covered half of his pin.
“Sam White,” he said. “My suspicion is that I'll be the oldest passenger on the
and you'll be the youngest. I'm eighty-three. How old are you?”
“How does it happen that you're footloose and fancy free?”
“A trip to Antarctica is considered educational by my high-school principal—and my family.”
“You're traveling alone?”
“No, sir, with Cookie—Mr. Adam Cook. He's going to visit his brother in Port Stanley, and I'm looking forward to seeing a friend of mine who has an internship at LeNoir Station.” I closed my mouth, remembering someone saying that the Austins always told everybody everything, because we're so naïve. Maybe so, but I liked this man. Maybe I tend to like older people because of Grandfather and Aunt Serena.
“So you're a student.” He looked at me benignly and I nodded. He continued, “I'm a retired explorer and lawyer, the old-fashioned kind, more like Atticus, I hope, than like some of the vultures around today.” Atticus is the lawyer father in
To Kill a Mockingbird
, which is one of my favorite books. I liked Sam White more all the time. He went on, “I bunged up my knees skiing last winter and had to have surgery. My doctor said I needed therapy, and that's what this trip is for me. Getting in and out of Zodiacs ought to use all the right muscles and strengthen my quadriceps.”
Skiing in his eighties—that sounded pretty good. He was big-boned as well as tall; what hair he had was shaggy and
yellow-white; he walked a little creakily, but his eyes were alert and friendly.
“Forty years ago,” he continued, “I climbed Mount Everest, but I fear my mountain-climbing days are over. Do you do any climbing?”
I grinned. “I've climbed Mount Everett, which is in Massachusetts. Mostly I just hike in and around the woods where we live.”
Cook came back then and introduced himself. Mr. White said, “Call me Sam. And did I hear Vicky call you Cookie?”
“You did. Quite a few of my friends call me that.”
“I may, too?”
Sam said, “We're all on a first-name basis here, that is, those of us going on the Antarctic trip.”
Cook smiled at me. “I told you everything would be informal, Vicky.”
I nodded. “Good.”
Cook sat down with his paper, and Sam took his unlit cigar out of his mouth and waved it at two women sleeping on one of the couches. “They've flown in from California. That's too much flying in one day for me. I came in from San Francisco yesterday and spent the night at one of the Miami Beach hotels, and had a chance to walk by the ocean.”
Then he pointed out a man in a dark suit and tie, with black hair and an olive complexion. “Jorge Maldonado. He's a Vespugian and has a ranch near the pyramids. Interesting bloke. And you should see his camera—it's the largest Hasselblad I've ever seen, plus everything to go with it—three huge
carrying cases of state-of-the-art photographic equipment, so he's had to do some urgent arguing about his carry-on bags.”
Mr. Maldonado was sitting on a couch, talking with a couple of middle-aged women. They were laughing and enjoying each other, and drinking coffee out of little white cups.
It was a long wait before our flight was called, but interesting, because we met some more people who'd be on the
with us, including the ship's doctor, Dick Hawkins, and his wife, Angelique. Dick had a cane and walked with a limp. In private life he was a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. He had a nice smile, the kind that would put kids at ease even if they were scared. He reminded me of my father, and I was glad he was going to be on the
. Angelique did not remind me of my mother in the least! She was, she told us smilingly, a librarian, and she was one of the most stunningly beautiful women I'd ever seen, with skin dark and lustrous as mahogany. She spoke with an Islander's slight lilt, something I wouldn't have recognized before my year in New York. Thornhill doesn't have much ethnic variety.
As the time for our flight approached, the lounge got more and more crowded, and the air began to get stale. Half the room had NO SMOKING signs, but not the other half. Quite a few people were smoking. Sam White wandered around with his cigar in his mouth, but he never lit it.
Mr. Maldonado, a newspaper tucked under his arm, approached us and bowed. “Jorge Maldonado—please pronounce it ‘George,' the American way. Mr. White tells me you are Vicky Austin and—”
“Adam Cook. Cookie,” Cook said. He indicated an empty
seat on the couch nearest us, and Mr. Maldonado took it. He told us that his business was forest preservation, and he was just returning from Finland, where he had been studying their methods.
Cook asked, with interest, “Vespugia is concerned about forestation?”
“We have a well-established program,” Jorge Maldonado said, “started many years ago by El Zarco. General Guedder is keeping it up and constantly looking into new and improved methods.” His English was very good, with only a trace of accent.
Cook said, “Sam White tells us that you are also a rancher.”
“In a modest way. I used to breed cattle, but with the world grown smaller and hungrier, I am trying to shift to crops that are kinder to the land.” He added, wryly, “And, of course, that make a reasonable profit. But now—I am on vacation. I will see my wife and children tomorrow; the children are away at school for much of the year, but they are still on their long break. You, Miss Vicky Austin, are not in school?”
“Yes, but this trip is a sort of educational vacation.”
“Educational, indeed. It will be delightful for all of us to have you aboard the
. But there will probably be no other young people for you.”
“Well, I am hoping to see a friend when we get to LeNoir Station; he's working there.”
“LeNoir. One of our most interesting stops, on Eddington Point. It is a long, fascinating trip,” Jorge Maldonado said pleasantly. “But before we get to Antarctica, I hope you will
enjoy my small country, which is very dear to me.” He rose and bowed slightly toward us. “Time to stretch the legs. I will be staying with you overnight in San Sebastián. My ranch is not far from the pyramids.”
Our flight was called then and along with everybody else we gathered up our hand luggage, got out our boarding passes, and headed for the plane.
The flight was late, and it was after eleven before we took off. Cook gave me the window seat again, though there was nothing to see except our reflections in the glass. The Vespugian flight attendants had long, black braids down their backs, and didn't speak fluent English, but Cook spoke to them in Spanish and they beamed at him gratefully.
We were given a really good meal, much better than the lunch we'd had on the way to Miami. The flight attendants served from large, rolling trays full of dishes of vegetables and platters of fillets of beef, nicely rare, which they carved for us. It was past midnight, but I was hungry, and I enjoyed the meal and the solicitous service. After we'd eaten, we were given blankets, and we leaned our seats back, put up our leg rests, and tried to sleep. It was certainly not like sleeping in a bed, but I did sleep, and even dreamed a little, and I was still dozing when breakfast was brought around and people began opening their shades. We saw some cone-shaped mountains, so I figured they were the volcanoes Adam II had written about. Jorge Maldonado paused at our seats on the way back from the lavatory, and told us that some of them were still active, and that there was one on the Antarctic peninsula that was sending up
smoke and occasional spurts of flame, so we weren't going to land anywhere near, in case it decided to erupt.
BOOK: Troubling a Star
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