By Alister E. McGrath
Zondervan Copyright © 2010 Alister E. McGrath
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-310-71812-3
Once upon a time an old house stood in the English town of Oxford. It was built close by the ancient city walls, ivy growing over its stonework and mullioned windows, and was the sort of place with lots of dark corners and hidden stairways. And in this house lived a professor, his wife, and an old tabby cat.
The professor's special interest was reading about ancient battles, both at land and at sea. His ramshackle study was filled with paintings of famous naval engagements. The professor had never actually been to sea but rather liked the idea of it, and no one was prouder when his son became a captain in the Royal British Navy. His wife was the cozy, grandmotherly sort of person who specializes in scrumptious teas and biscuits. She had jolly round cheeks and an enormous lap for children to fall into.
On one particular day, not all that long ago, the house was all in a flurry of preparation for the arrival of two special visitors: their grandchildren. Their mother had died not quite a year ago, and with their father off at sea they needed a place to spend the school holidays. The professor's wife had spent the morning in preparation, airing out sheets and blankets, sweeping floors, and dusting cabinets. The professor had spent the morning choosing interesting books to leave in the spare bedrooms. For Peter, aged fourteen, he had selected a history of Admiral Nelson's tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar. It had been a bit more difficult for him to find a suitable book for Julia, aged thirteen, but finally he chose a fine book on ancient Greek politics and left it on her bedside table. His wife saw it as she placed a vase of freshly cut flowers from the garden by Julia's bed and hastily replaced it with a copy of Alice in Wonderland.
The children arrived that evening with all the ordinary bustle that completes a long journey. They were both hugged and kissed nearly to death, relieved of their bags, offered a vast assortment of sweet things, and shown to their rooms. Peter collapsed at once on top of his bed, not even bothering to undress, but Julia wasn't tired. She washed, changed into a long nightgown and sat on the edge of the bed, brushing her long hair absentmindedly and looking out through her window at a walled garden beneath her. She sighed deeply.
Normally, it had been agreed, she and Peter would be allowed to stay with friends during school breaks when their father was away. But this time their father had shore leave and was coming home to see them. There was something he had to tell them, he'd said in his message. So Julia and Peter had been told to go straight from their boarding schools to the old house in Oxford. Their father would join them there as soon as his ship docked in Plymouth.
Julia would have so much preferred to go to Lucy Honeybourne's home in Kent. They could have gone swimming together, and maybe even gone shopping in London for a day. She did love her grandparents, but they were so ... well, so old-fashioned. Thank goodness they had finally left her alone for the night. She laid down the brush and leaned back on the pillow, riffling idly through the pages of Alice in Wonderland and listening to her brother's snores through the wall.
Julia did not really like Peter very much. He was interested in things that bored her, like machines and gadgets and sport, and since they had both been sent off to school they hardly ever saw each other. But, she admitted to herself, even Peter would be better company than her grandparents.
The thought froze in her head as her eyes and ears fixed themselves on the old ornate door. It was opening, slowly, creaking as a beam of light marched across the floor. But a moment later she relaxed. The old tabby cat had entered her room and leapt onto the bed beside her.
"Why, hello Scamp!"
She lifted him up and tickled him under his chin. Scamp purred appreciatively. Both were glad to have some company. Julia walked to the window, scratching the tabby behind his ears as she went, and looked through the glass at the walled garden below, its fountain burbling gently.
"Look at that garden!" Scamp pressed a paw up against the cold pane and purred again. "Wouldn't you like to explore it! But you can't, because you're an inside cat. Aren't you?"
Scamp was not allowed outside the house in case he returned with fleas or freshly-killed birds or mice. Julia's grandmother was horrified at the thought of any of these creatures, living or dead, getting inside her nice clean house. She also did not want Scamp mixing with any of the rough, common cats that lived outside. He might learn some bad habits.
Julia gave a wry smile. Poor Scamp, always trapped inside! Suddenly, something moved in the garden below. Some birds were fluttering around the fountain. Scamp instantly became alert, his muscles tensed, staring down into the garden at the birds. Julia noticed his interest in what lay below. "You'd like to get out there and have an adventure, wouldn't you? Well, I'm sorry, but you aren't allowed out. You'll just have to stay here."
Julia dumped the old cat on her bed and watched him curl up into a ball and fall asleep. Making sure that Scamp did not follow her, she slid her feet into her blue slippers and descended the wooden staircase leading into the paneled hall. She wasn't tired-she was going to explore.
The house was still and quiet, apart from the slow ticking of an old grandfather clock. It was the first time that Julia had ever been alone in the old house. She began to investigate, peeping into rooms that she was sure she was not meant to enter. She peeked into her grandfather's study. What a mess! Papers were lying all over the floor and books were stacked high on his desk. There seemed to be a model of a sailing ship on every shelf in the room. She shut the door quietly behind her and moved on to the drawing room. After half an hour she had explored every room in the house. What now? Still wide awake, she loathed the idea of returning to the stuffy spare room.
She was back in the hall. She ran her fingers along its ancient wooden panels. To her left was the front door leading towards the college. She had come through that door earlier when she had arrived. But there was another door to her right, half-hidden by a heavy green curtain. She walked towards it and pushed the curtain aside. Did it lead down to a cellar? Or out onto the street? Making sure that Scamp was nowhere close, Julia slowly unlocked the door and began to open it. The heavy oak door creaked and groaned with the complaints of long disuse, and Julia froze. What if someone heard and came to investigate? Julia held her breath for a long moment, but there was only silence.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door completely to reveal a walled garden. It must be the same garden that she could see from her bedroom. Julia hesitated. Should she go in? She looked around quickly. Nobody was there! She entered the garden, closing the door as softly as she could behind her.
It was a glorious evening in the month of May. Silver light flashed off the streams of water from the fountain in its center. The soft burbling of the fountain echoed off the walls, enfolding the garden in its gentle music. At the side of the fountain was a small pond fed by its own stream of water. The walls were covered by trees and climbing plants. Apple trees, wisteria, and magnolia were all in bloom, the night air heavy with their fragrance. It was the most beautiful garden Julia had ever seen.
And then she heard a voice whisper her name, softly and slowly. A shiver shot down Julia's spine as she whipped around, looking for the source of the voice, but there was no one there. "Stop being stupid," she told herself, and gave a determined shake of her head before hurrying back inside the house. It must have been the wind, or birds, or someone talking in the street beyond the garden walls.
Julia closed the door softly behind her and returned to her room upstairs. Scamp was still curled up on the bed, and he stretched and flexed his claws as she turned back the covers and climbed in. It was an odd garden, she thought. Something wasn't right there. And yet it looked so beautiful outside her window now, glowing softly. Silvery trees, silvery paths, silvery water. The fountain and pool were shimmering in an eerie yet beautiful light. There was something odd about it, she thought to herself. But she couldn't quite work out what it was.
Julia snuggled down beneath the covers, resolving to visit the garden again the next day. It was just as she finally fell asleep that she realized what was so strange about the garden. There had not been any moon that night.
* * *
She woke the next morning to a pressure on her shoulder and opened her eyes to see Scamp kneading his paws against her. Julia grinned sleepily and tickled his ears. The tabby leapt off the bed and meowed at the door.
"Ready for breakfast?" Julia asked her insistent companion. "I wouldn't mind a bit myself."
Her grandmother was already at the table downstairs, sipping a cup of tea as she perused the morning mail. She smiled as Julia appeared and gestured at the seat next to her. "Good morning, my dear," she murmured. "And where is that rascal brother of yours this morning?"
Her question was answered by a grunt. Peter loped into the room, still in yesterday's clothes, and plunked himself into a seat. It was, Julia decided, going to be a very long holiday.
Breakfast was a tense affair. The children's grandmother tried to get Peter and Julia to talk about their schools and their hobbies but, exhausting her arsenal of questions, she left the table and retreated into her quiet world of books and crochet. Peter asked permission to leave the house and explore Oxford, and Julia, delighted to be left in peace, took a book out to the garden that she had already begun to consider hers.
The days fell into an easy routine. Peter would wake late in the mornings and head out to town in time for lunch with the professor. They spent their afternoons discussing Nelson's naval tactics and the development of gunpowder - "Boys' talk," according to Julia. She spent her time in the garden, reading or drawing or lying on her back doing absolutely nothing at all.
It was in such a mood one evening that she saw the glowing begin. She had, truth be told, almost entirely forgotten the silvery light that first evening in the garden, but now, watching the sun set over the garden walls, the strangeness of it could not be missed. There was a shimmer in the breeze and a sound like bells, but perhaps it was only in her mind. Julia sat up and looked around and gasped.
Excerpted from Chosen Ones by Alister E. McGrath Copyright © 2010 by Alister E. McGrath. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.