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The girl was tall for seven, dark-haired, with vividly blue eyes in an alert, intelligent face. Thin, almost wiry, there was a tomboy look about her, perhaps because of her slimness, short hair, restless energy, and the clothes she wore. They were her favorite pieces of clothing; her uniform, her grandmother said, but she loved her blue jeans, white T-shirt, and white sneakers. The sneakers and T-shirt were her two vanities. They must always be pristine, whiter than white, and so they were constantly in the washing machine or being replaced.
The seven-year-old's name was Laura Valiant, and she was dressed thus this morning as she slipped out of the white clapboard colonial house on the hill and raced across the lawns and down to the river flowing through her grandparents' property. This was a long, wide green valley surrounded by soaring hills near Kent, a small rural town in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. Her grandparents had come to America from Wales many years before, in the 1920s, and after they had bought this wonderful verdant valley they had given it the Welsh name of Rhondda Fach . . . the little Rhondda, it meant.
Once she reached the river, Laura made for the drystone wall and the copse where giant oaks and maples grew in great abundance. Years before, when he was a boy, her father and his siblings had built a tree house in one of the giant oaks. It had remained intact, and it was Laura's favorite spot, just as it had been for other young Valiants before her.
Laura was a strong girl for her age, athletic, agile, and full of boundless energy. Within seconds she had scrambled up the rope ladder that dropped down from the fork in the branches where the tree house was built.
She crawled inside the little house, making herself comfortable in her leafy lair as she sat cross-legged, gazing out at the early morning sky. It was six o'clock on this bright and shining July day and no one else was up, at least not in the house, not her grandparents, nor her best friend, Claire, who often accompanied her on her visits to her grandparents' farm. She loved everything about Rhondda Fach, much preferred it to New York, where she lived with her parents and her brother, Dylan.
Imperceptibly, Laura's young face changed as she thought of her parents. Richard, her father, was a well-known composer and conductor; he was usually traveling somewhere to conduct a symphony orchestra, and her mother invariably went along with him. "Those two are inseparable," her grandmother would say, but she said it with a sniff and in such a way, it sounded like a criticism; Laura understood that it was. And it was also true that they were hardly ever around. When her mother, Maggie, wasn't traveling, she was painting her famous flower pictures in her studio on the West Side. "She gets good money for them," Grandfather Owen kept saying, making excuses for her mother because he was always kind to everyone.
And so it was that Laura and her brother, Dylan, three years younger than she, were frequently left in the care of their grandparents. She loved being with them, they were her favorites, really; she loved her parents, and she was quite close to her father when he was there to be close to, but most of the time her mother was distant, remote.
Laura thought of the rope ladder that dangled down to the ground, and she moved toward it, intending to pull it up the way her father had shown her, then changed her mind. Nobody was going to invade her private lair. Dylan was too young at four to get much farther than the first few rope rungs, and Claire was afraid to climb up in case she fell. It was true that the rope ladder was a bit precarious, Laura knew that.
Claire was scared of other things even though she was twelve and much more grown-up than Laura. She was small, dainty, fragile, and very pretty, with deep green eyes and red hair. "A Dresden doll" Grandma Megan called her, and it was the most perfect description.
Laura loved Claire. They were the best of best friends even though they were so different. "Chalk and cheese" Grandpa Owen said about them; Laura didn't know if she was the chalk or the cheese. Her grandfather encouraged her to be athletic and adventurous; he had taught her to ride a horse, taken her climbing in the hills, given her swimming lessons, and instilled in her a confidence in herself. And he had taught her to be unafraid. "You must always be brave, Laura, strong of heart and courageous, and you must stand tall."
The problem for Claire was that she wasn't at all athletic and she shrank from most physical activity. But she was a master storyteller, inventive and imaginative, always weaving yarns, ghost stories, and other fantastical tales. The children played charades, wrote plays and acted in them, and they shared a love of movies and music and clothes. In certain ways Laura was in awe of Claire. After all, she was five years older and knew so much more than they did. Dylan didn't know much of anything, and he was very spoiled, in Laura's opinion.
Pulling the strap of the string bag over her head, Laura fished inside for the plastic bottle of orange juice that Fenice, the housekeeper, left for her in the kitchen every morning. After taking a gulp or two, she put the bottle on a small ledge, took her diary from its secret hiding place, and began to write her private thoughts, which she did every day.
Soon it began to grow warmer inside the tree house, and several times Laura found her eyelids drooping; finally she put down her diary and pen and rested her head against the wall. And although she tried hard to stay awake, she began to doze.
Laura was not sure how long she had been asleep, but quite suddenly she opened her eyes and sat up with a start. A moment before, she had heard screams coming from somewhere in the distance. Had she been dreaming?
Then she heard it again, a faint scream, and an even fainter voice calling "Help! Help!"
It had not been a dream; someone was in trouble. Crawling as fast as she could, Laura backed out of the tree house, bottom first, dangled over the edge until she found her footing on the rope ladder, and climbed down swiftly. She was well practiced in this descent and soon reached the ground.
The cries were increasingly fainter, and then they stopped altogether. But Laura knew they had emanated from the part of the river that was wide and deep, beyond the drystone wall, near the meadow where all kinds of wildflowers grew. Sensing it was Claire calling for help, Laura ran at breakneck speed, her long legs flying over the grass. It had to be Claire who was in trouble in the river, Laura was certain. Who else would be in the valley?
Coming to a stop when she saw the flower basket, Laura pulled off her sneakers and jeans and scrambled down the muddy bank just as Claire's pale face bobbed up above the surface of the water.
"I'm here, Claire!" Laura shouted, dived in, and swam toward her friend.
Claire's head went under again, and Laura took several gulps of air and dived once more. At once she spotted Claire floating underwater.
Swimming to her, Laura grabbed her under the arms and swam them both up to the surface as best she could. She was tall and strong and Claire was smaller than she, and lighter, and she managed somehow. But then, when she started swimming them both toward the bank, Laura was pulled back along with Claire, who was clinging to her.
"It's my foot," Claire managed to splutter. "It's caught on something." Terror etched her stark white face, and her eyes were wide with panic.
Laura could only nod. The girl glanced around frantically, wondering what to do. She had to get Claire's foot free from whatever was holding it underwater. Yet she could not let go of Claire, who would sink if she released her. Laura spotted the branch of a tree a short distance away from them. It was a large limb, half on the bank, half in the water, and she was smart enough to know it was probably too heavy for her to lift. But she decided she must attempt to swivel the part that was in the water toward them. If she was successful, Claire could hang on to it, use it as a raft.
Staring at Claire, she said, "I've got to let go of you, Claire, so that"
"No, no, don't! I'm scared!" Claire gasped.
"I've got to. I'm going to get that branch over there so that you can hang on to it. Then I'll get your foot loose. When I let go of you, start flapping your arms in the water and keep moving your free leg. You'll stay afloat, you'll be okay."
Claire was unable to speak. She was terrified.
Laura let go of her, shouted, "Flap your arms! Move your leg!" Once Claire started to do this, Laura swam upstream in the direction of the branch. It rested on top of the water, and after a bit of tugging and pulling it began to move; unexpectedly, the other end came away from the bank. It flopped into the river with a splash. Grasping the leafy part of the branch, Laura tugged and tugged for a bit longer until it began to float alongside her. Dragging it with her with one hand, she struck out, heading for Claire.
Although she had gone under several times, Claire had kept on moving her arms and leg in the water and had managed to hold her own. As soon as Laura pulled the branch nearer to her, Claire grabbed for it and hung on tightly.
So did Laura, who needed to catch her breath and rest for a few minutes. When she had recouped, she dived underwater, went down to the bottom of the riverbed and slowly came up, then swam closer to Claire to see what had happened.
Laura was frightened when she saw that Claire's foot was caught in a roll of wire netting, part of which had unraveled. Claire's sneaker was wedged in, entangled with the loose part of the wire netting. Laura attempted to free her foot, but she could not; nor could she get the sneaker off, try though she did. She floated up to the surface, took several big gulps of air, and rested her arms on the branch.
Peering into Claire's worried face, she said, "I'll have to go and get Tom to help me."
"Don't leave me," Claire whispered tremulously, sounding more nervous than ever.
"I have to. Just don't let go of that branch," Laura instructed, and swam across to the riverbank.
After hauling herself up out of the water, the girl pulled on her jeans and sneakers and set off across the meadow. She ran at a good speed, heading for the farm's compound of buildings in search of Tom. When he was nowhere to be found, and knowing there was no time to waste, Laura dashed into his toolshed, found a pair of garden scissors, and headed back to the river. After undressing once more, Laura dived into the river and swam over to Claire, who still clung to the tree branch, looking scared.
Showing Claire the garden scissors, Laura explained, "I can't find Tom. I'm going down, I'm going to cut your sneaker off."
Claire nodded. She was shaking uncontrollably, and goose bumps had sprung up all over her body from being too long in the cold river. Laura dived down into the river, but it was hard for Laura to reach Claire's foot at first, and she had to try from various angles. Finally, she managed to maneuver her right hand and the garden scissors underneath the wire netting. Her first attempt to release the trapped foot was to cut up the front of the laces. She succeeded, but Claire's foot would not come out of the sneaker; after struggling for a few seconds longer, Laura had to rise to the surface to breathe.
Within minutes she dived down again. This time she cut each side of the sneaker, tugged at Claire's ankle, and finally freed her foot. Filled with relief, Laura swam up, flopped against the tree branch, holding on to it and resting, breathing in large gulps of air.
"I'm sorry," Claire whispered. "Are you all right, Laura?"
Nodding, Laura continued to rest for a minute or two. Then, reaching for Claire, she towed her back to the bank and dragged her up onto the grass.
Both girls were dripping wet and shaking with cold. Although Laura was exhausted, she wasted no time, pulling on her jeans and sneakers swiftly. Supporting each other, they made their way back to the house.
Once they reached the back door, which led into the kitchen, Laura stopped and stared at Claire intently. "Before we go in, tell me what happened. How did you get in the river?"
Claire nodded and pushed back her wet hair. Her freckles stood out like dark blotches on her ashen face. "I was picking wildflowers and got too near the edge of the river, Laura. I suddenly slipped and rolled down the bank into the water. I was scared and I panicked, floundered. I just don't know how I drifted into the middle of the river."
"Gran says that part of the river is dangerous because there's some sort of current out there. But come on, you're shaking."
"So are you," Claire said, her teeth chattering.
Fenice was the first person they saw as they stepped into the big family kitchen.
The housekeeper, tall, red-haired, and colorful in her white Austrian blouse and floral dirndl skirt, swung around from the stove as they entered. She gasped out loud at the sight of them.
"Good Lord! What happened to you two?" she cried, rushing toward them. "A couple of drowned rats, that's how you both look!" She saw they were cold and shaking, most especially Claire, and drew her closer to the big kitchen stove where she was cooking breakfast. Glancing at Laura, Fenice added, "Get some big towels out of the linen press in the back hall, please, Laura. I'm afraid Claire's a bit worse off than you."
"Yes, I know she is," Laura said, and ran and did as Fenice asked. She returned with an armful of large towels.
"Come on, Claire, wrap yourself in this and let's get you upstairs. You, too, Laura. What you both need is a hot shower immediately."
"What happened? What's going on?" Megan Valiant asked from the doorway of the dining room which led directly onto the kitchen.
"Claire was picking flowers and she fell into the deep part of the river near the meadow," Laura explained quickly.
"I would have drowned if Laura hadn't fished me out," Claire interjected. "I'm sorry, Grandma Megan, for making trouble."
Megan Morgan Valiant held herself very still, remembering . . . remembering another child, her grandson . . . Mervyn, who had drowned in the lake in New Preston. She felt a chill run through her. But at once she pushed aside her memories and stared at Claire. She was puzzled by the girl's apology and by the way in which she seemed to cower next to Laura, as if seeking protection.
Hurrying across to the two girls huddled together near the big range, Megan looked them over quickly and said in a brisk tone, "Neither of you seem to be too much the worse for wear, but you'd better go upstairs and have a shower, as Fenice suggested. And, Fenice, please put the kettle on, I think the girls need something hot to drink. Grandpa Owen's miners' tea, that'll do the trick."
"No sooner said than done, Mrs. V." Fenice went to get the kettle, filled it with water at the sink, and put it on the stove.
"Come on, Claire," Laura said, shepherding her friend out of the kitchen.
Megan followed the two young girls, still pondering Claire's demeanor. No wonder she seems frightened, Megan thought, she's had a terrible scare. Falling into the river must have terrified her, since she can't swim. It struck Megan that Claire might well be suffering from shock, and she wondered whether to call the doctor. Perhaps Claire ought to be taken to see him. Laura also looked pale, and she was shivering, but otherwise there didn't seem to be too much wrong with her granddaughter.
Climbing the stairs behind them, Megan remarked, "I see you lost a sneaker, Claire."
"It's in the river, Gran," Laura said, glancing over her shoulder.
"I see. Never mind, we'll drive over to Kent later and buy you another pair, Claire."
"It doesn't matter," Claire answered rapidly. "I have my sandals with me."
"Sneakers are useful in the country, comfortable, and they'll be a gift from me," Megan told her as they reached the landing at the top of the stairs. "Now, girls, into the shower, both of you."
Claire hurried off to the blue-and-white bedroom where she always stayed, and Laura went into hers.
Megan followed her granddaughter, and once she had closed the door behind them she said, "Out of those wet clothes at once and into the shower, Laura. Later you can tell me exactly what happened."
"But I have told you, Gran."
"Claire could be suffering from shock," Megan said. "I think I ought to drive you both over to Dr. Tomkins."
"We're both okay, Gran," Laura protested.
"I'm going to pop along to Claire's room. I want to see how she's feeling."
"Yes, Gran," Laura said, and went into the bathroom.
Megan knocked on the door of Claire's room, and when there was no answer she went in. From the bathroom she could hear the sound of water running in the shower. Turning, she caught sight of herself in the mirror hanging on the wall above the antique French chest.
How white her face was. But that was no surprise. Claire's misadventure had upset her greatly, even though she had not let the girls see this. Laura had not yet given her the details of the accident, but obviously they had been in a precarious situation. And Laura had put herself at risk because she had run to Claire's rescue. The wide part of the river was dangerous, and the outcome might have been very different. Megan shivered and goose bumps flew up her arms as she realized how terrible the consequences might have been. Little Mervyn . . . he hadn't been so lucky when he had fallen into the lake. . . .
She walked across the floor, stood gazing out of the window for a moment, waiting for Claire to emerge. At sixty-eight, Megan Morgan Valiant was a beautiful woman. Tall and slender, she held herself erect, and in her carriage and deportment she was very much the great Broadway musical star. Although the color of her rich chestnut hair needed help from her hairdresser these days, it was, nevertheless, thick and luxuriant; her face was relatively free of wrinkles and had remained youthful. Her eyes were her most arresting feature. They were a deep vivid blue, large, and set wide apart. Her granddaughter had inherited them as well as her height and coloring. Lithe and full of energy, Megan was a woman who had remained young in spirit. Her career in the theater was somewhat curtailed these days because she wanted it to be so, but her popularity as a star had never waned.
"Oh, it's you, Grandma Megan," Claire said, sounding surprised as she stepped into the bedroom wrapped in a towel. "I'm feeling better after my shower. And warmer."
Megan nodded. "But perhaps we should go and see the doctor in Kent"
"No, no, I don't need a doctor," Claire interrupted. "I'm fine, honestly I am."
"What happened? Why did you venture into the river when you can't swim, Claire dear?"
"I didn't. I fell in. I was picking flowers and slipped. I rolled down the bank. And I somehow got swept into the middle, into the deep part of the river."
"There's some sort of strange current there," Megan explained. "And it is very dangerous. We've been aware of it for years. You're very lucky Laura was with you."
"Oh, but she wasn't! I was alone. She must've heard me shouting for help. She dived in, but at first she couldn't get me out of the water. My foot was caught in a roll of wire netting. She had to cut my sneaker off."
"My God, it's worse than I thought! You were very lucky indeed!"
"Yes, I was. I'd better go and dry my hair." Swinging around, Claire headed back into the bathroom. As she did, the towel slipped down at one side, revealing part of her body.
"Claire, whatever happened to your back?" Megan exclaimed, staring at the yellow bruises under her shoulder blade.
"I must have hurt myself when I fell into the river," Claire muttered, pulling the towel around herself swiftly.
"Claire, those are old bruises," Megan answered, her voice gentle but concerned.
"I fell off my bicycle in Central Park," Claire replied, and disappeared into the bathroom.
A few minutes later Megan found her husband in the dining room, where he was breakfasting on boiled eggs, thin buttered toast, and his famous coal miner's tea, which was very strong and sweet.
"I heard all about it," Owen said as Megan hurried into the room. "Fenice told me, and from what she said, they're both all right, aren't they, Megan?"
She nodded. "They are, but it could have been fatal for Claire," she replied, and then went on to explain what had happened to her.
"Laura's a plucky one, and strong for her age," Owen exclaimed. "And thank God she had the presence of mind to jump in and help Claire rather than running back here for me or Tom. You say Claire's foot got caught in a roll of wire netting. God knows how that came to be in the river. I'll talk to Tom later, and he can lift it out." Owen gave Megan a pointed look and added, "But I'm afraid I'm going to insist Claire learn to swim. Laura and I will give her lessons in the pool."
"That's a good idea" Megan paused, leaned back in her chair, and looked off into the distance.
Owen, watching her closely, said slowly, "I know, I know, my darling, this mishap has brought back bad memories for you . . . you've been thinking of poor little Mervyn."
"Yes, I have," Megan answered, her voice as quiet as his. Sitting up straighter, finding a smile, Megan went on. "I think I'll have a cup of tea. I need it after all this." As she spoke she reached for the teapot and poured herself a cup.
Owen said, "I'm glad I helped Laura to become an athlete. It's served her well, and will in the future."
"Laura's always been brave, Owen, even when she was a small child. And quick-thinking as well."
"She idolizes Claire," Owen remarked, thinking out loud. "She'll always rush to her rescue whatever the circumstances."
"I know." Megan sighed and looked across at Owen.
"What is it?" he asked, frowning. "You look troubled."
"Claire's back is covered with old bruises."
"What?" He sounded startled.
"I saw them when she came out of the shower. She said she'd fallen off her bicycle in the park," Megan explained.
"But you don't believe her?"
"I don't know whether I do or not."
"I've always thought the Bensons were a bit odd," Owen said, bringing his hand up to his generous mouth. He rubbed it thoughtfully, his dark eyes narrowing. "She could have fallen, you know."
"Yes . . ." Megan was silent, but eventually she said, "I hope you and I live a long time, Owen, so that we can look after Laura and Claire, be there for them."
Reaching out, he put his hand over hers and smiled at her lovingly. "So do I. But remember this . . . those two will always be there for each other."