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Under the Green Hill
By Laura L. Sullivan
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2010 Laura L. Sullivan
All rights reserved.
Across the Ocean — East
"Oh dear," said Phyllida Ash as she read the telegram. Even in these days of telephones and e-mail, the only messages that reach the Rookery are hand- delivered by a sly-faced young man who pads down quiet paths from the nearby town of Gladysmere. "They want to come here, 'Sander. On the first of May. Oh, this will never do at all!"
She ran her free hand distractedly through short, thick curls that in some lights were almost lavender. Though she had, even at her great age, a brusque force to her movements, there was something about the way her fingers lingered at the ends of her curls that hinted she'd once been a coquette. Lysander stifled a grunt as he pushed himself up with a stout, gnarled cane and crossed the garden kitchen to put an arm around his wife of sixty years.
"Why now?" she moaned, leaning into him. "Of all the years, of all the times, why does she pick the most dangerous to send her children here?"
Lysander Ash took up the telegram and scanned lines written in the age- old truncated style. Dear Aunt Uncle Ash, stop. "Aunt and uncle, hogwash! Great-aunt and -uncle, maybe. ..."
"One more 'great,' I think."
"Be that as it may." He read aloud: "Urgent favor needed, stop. Fever rampant in States, stop. Can you take children for summer, interrogative. Awfully grateful, stop. Arriving May One, stop. Rowan, Meg, Priscilla, James, stop. Do they think we don't even know their names?"
"Well, we've never seen them. We've never seen any of them, not since Chlorinda left."
"Your sister wasn't able to take on her responsibilities," Lysander began hotly.
"Now, don't open old wounds," his wife said, with a reproach so gentle it was obvious she'd been repeating it for many years. When people have lived together for six decades, and played as children in the years before that, many of their conversations go by rote, and often entire arguments can take place with a brief glance.
"Four generations living across the ocean, and those children so far removed from what's in their blood. And now they want to traipse across the ocean just in time to get themselves captured or glamoured or torn to shreds!"
"It's not as bad as all that," she said, wondering, as she frequently did, whether he became deliberately contrary just to force her into an opposing tack. She'd been dead against the children's coming the moment she read the telegram, but now, in the face of Lysander's opposition — it was her family, after all — she was almost reconciled to their arrival. "We can take precautions. ... They'll be all right if we keep them on the grounds. The house and gardens will be enough for them, and there's nothing that can hurt them there. It will be safer than staying where there's fever. A lot of children are leaving the States, I've heard, or going off to the mountains. I'm ashamed I didn't think to invite them here. Why, our house could hold a hundred children, with no danger to anyone! What harm could four come to?"
"Four children here, at Midsummer, on a seventh year? Even the villagers hide their children at the teind times."
"They'll be fine," she assured him, squeezing his hand. "Bran will look after them. Oh!" She gave a little gasp. "Someone has to tell Bran." She looked worried, perhaps even a bit frightened.
Lysander turned away from her abruptly to poke the low fire that burned winter and summer. "Well, it's not going to be me." After all, he had to put his foot down somewhere.CHAPTER 2
Across the Ocean — West
If you looked at the four Morgan children from above — say, hidden in the branches of an apple tree, as Finn Fachan was at that moment — you might think that their heads looked like nothing more than a bag of mixed nuts. There was Rowan, the eldest, whose sleek, burnished hair gleamed chestnut in the late-April sun. Beside him and next in age (though, being a girl, she frequently seemed somewhat older) was Meg, tall and often far less certain than she appeared, with dark, coarse hair exactly the color of a Brazil nut. Silly, whose real name, Priscilla, hadn't been used in nine years, had a cropped, boyish cut that made her head the same shape and light, rich shade as a hazelnut. And little James, who at just four was treated more as a favorite pet than as a brother, had very pale almond-colored curls. They all had skin fair as nutmeats, and freckles that came and went with the seasons. Their parents, Tom and Glynnis Morgan, were professors at Arcadia University in the hilly wilds of western New York.
"But I don't want to go to England," Silly said morosely as she tore the purple petals from a crocus. "I want to stay here!"
"That's just because you have a boyfriend," Rowan replied, giving taunting emphasis to that offensive word as he snatched the flower from his sister's hand. "He loves me, he loves me not ...," he began, plucking off the last two petals, and was rewarded with a kick to the shin.
"Jasper's not my boyfriend," Silly insisted, giving a little shudder at the thought.
"But he beat me in the cross-campus race, and I'll be hanged if I'm not here to take back the title this summer." Silly had gone through an intense pirate phase several years ago, and despite her family's best efforts, some of the phrases still stuck. An occasional "Avast!" or "Belay that!" would crop up in her conversation, and she'd been known to call her brother a scurvy dog. But at least her piratical interjections were better than the things she'd learned one weekend when a biker convention motored through town. Her mother never quite recovered from being called Silly's old lady.
Meg made a face. "I don't think a race is much of a thing to worry about, when there's a chance you could get sick and ..." She censored herself just in time, glancing from Silly to the apparently oblivious James.
"Get sick and what?" Silly demanded.
"Nothing, dear," Meg said, putting on what the others called her Mother tone. This time, Rowan forbore teasing her about it — he quite agreed with her intentions. The two eldest Morgans had been reading the papers, and though they didn't wholly understand things about virulence and infection and questionable vaccines, they gathered enough to know that some people were dying from a fever that was spreading insidiously across the country. Most people, they read, only got very sick and weak, and eventually recovered.
But she'd overheard her parents talking late one night, when she was supposed to be asleep, and for the first time in her life she'd heard real fear in their voices. "The vaccine is probably safe," her father had said soothingly. "'Probably' isn't good enough for my babies," her mother countered. "And children are the most vulnerable to the fever. Betsy's sister's little boy died of it in Vermont, and there have been cases all through New York City. It's only a matter of time before it gets to Arcadia. We have to send the children away." Father had asked, "But where?" And it seemed to Meg that her mother had taken a particularly long time before she said, "To my relatives in England. My great-aunt. There's no fever in England yet, and, besides, the Rookery's so far from anywhere that the fever probably couldn't find it. It's the safest place for them." Meg thought the grimness in her mother's voice came from the idea of parting with her children.
Meg didn't tell the others what she heard, though the children had a pact always to share the fruits of any eavesdropping they accomplished. The prospect of going to England was thrilling in itself, and her first impulse was to bound back upstairs and whisper the news. But with each step her feet grew heavier, until, finally, at the top of the stairs, she turned and sat, looking back at the dim light downstairs where her parents still sat talking, now unheard.
They weren't just going on holiday — they were fleeing. People were dying ... children were dying. She'd never met Betsy, or Betsy's sister, or Betsy's sister's baby, but somehow the thought that it had perished, and that her parents worried that she, too, could suffer that fate, made her feel vaguely queasy inside. The idea of telling Silly or little James about it made her feel even worse. Though Meg could at times be very sensible and adult, and put on her maternal voice, at the moment she felt horribly young and ineffectual. Mother would know how to tell the others, she decided. It occurred to her how hard it must be, at times, to be a parent.
The Morgans didn't tell their children about their summer plans for a week, and in that time Meg burned to tell her siblings, and itched to confess what she'd overheard, to glean some comfort from talking about it. If she could only hear her mother tell her she didn't have to worry, she would feel better. It didn't mean that she wouldn't worry. She was a member of that tribe of people who always worry, at least a little bit, even when there's really nothing to worry about. But she was still of an age to be vastly comforted by a mother's reassurance.
When the news broke, Meg was surprised to find that her parents glossed over their fears of fever. It would be a nice treat for the children to meet their great-great-aunt and -uncle, and to visit England. It really was a lovely place, with ancient woods and fields of clover and thyme, and mossy banks of brooks. ...
"Then why haven't you ever been there, Mom?" Rowan had asked. "If it's so nice, I mean."
"I just never had the time," she said, rather too breezily. "But you should know your family. They've been so kind, always sending presents."
Meg watched her mother narrowly as she rambled on. Her biggest fear had been reduced to one barely noticed sentence: "Now's a good time to go, what with the fever here." She made it seem really no more than a vacation. Meg was almost hurt — exactly why, she could not say — that her parents refused to make clear to them the real reason they were being sent away. She knew that she herself had not felt able to talk about the grim possibilities, but she'd trusted her mother to be able to present it all in a cool, rational, calming way. This was, Meg thought a little too dramatically, probably the biggest, most significant thing that ever happened to them, and no one was giving them the true reason for it. She wondered, a little resentfully, what other things in her life her parents hadn't seen fit to tell her.
Between learning their fate and this day under the apple tree, Meg talked it over with Rowan innumerable times. In his good moods he told her not to worry, which somehow didn't sound as reassuring coming from him. And in his sour moods he told her to dry up and not be such a baby. But Rowan was cheerful by nature and only snapped back at her when she'd pestered him for the thousandth time. He didn't seem too concerned, and was excited by the prospect of a trip across the Atlantic to a foreign country. To go to England, virtually on his own (he didn't think much of the controlling influences of a pair of octogenarians), was practically like being an explorer, discovering new realms. But he agreed with Meg that it wouldn't be a good idea to tell the younger two the real reason they were going.
Rowan and Meg were great readers, and each had rather romanticized notions about England. Rowan had read one or two books by Dickens and quite a few stories by P. G. Wodehouse, and to him, England was London, though he wasn't sure if it consisted of seedy Victorian streets or the Edwardian sophistication and shine of lunch at the Ritz. Meg, of a more rural disposition, knew the greenwood of Thomas Hardy and the Brontës' moors, and thought it all sublime. (Have I mentioned that their mother taught English literature at Arcadia? The children took to her specialty more than they did that of their father, which was physics.)
"Mother's right," she told Silly, shifting the topic away from disease and fear of death to something more pleasant. "It will be beautiful there. She said they have a great old house with a hundred rooms, all full of odd things, and gardens all around. It's in the middle of the woods."
"Big deal," Silly said, scuffing her shoes and yawning elaborately. "I've got all the woods I want right here."
"Well, we're going, whether you like it or not," Meg said with an air of finality.
"And stop destroying those flowers." She snatched a cluster of purple, white, and yellow crocuses out of Silly's hands and absently set to making a chain of them. There weren't enough for a good necklace, so she contented herself with making a crown for James's golden head. Accustomed to being made much of by his sisters, and sometimes even an indulgent brother, he submitted to this indignity with great aplomb, and continued to dig up swaths of turf at their feet.
"But I just don't see why we're going," Silly whined, defiantly picking more flowers but making them into a bracelet for James instead of shredding them. "And why do we have to leave so soon? May first, Dad said. School isn't even over till June. We'll miss all our exams. Why can't we go in July, after the cross-campus race?"
"'Cause your parents are coddling cowards, that's why!" a voice said from nowhere, and before they could search for its source, a long, lithe body dropped pantherlike among them. The Morgans reacted in ways typical of their natures: Rowan gave a start, but almost instantly looked as though people dropped out of the sky on him every day. Silly jumped back in a half-crouch and looked as though she was ready to fight anything from a boy to a bear. Little James, unperturbed, moved his toy tractor several inches to the west to get out of the apparition's shade. And Meg, much to her embarrassment and personal disgust, gave a shriek and found that her hand had sped to her mouth.
Now, Meg was no coward. Truth be told, she was probably the bravest of them all, for she had purpose and determination, whereas Silly had bluster and Rowan a rapidly maturing composure. But she was very easily startled, a fact that her siblings took full advantage of. She wasn't afraid of roaches or spiders, for example, but if one of them happened to scuttle or fly unexpectedly toward her face, she was apt to scream before she knew what she was doing. Rubber snakes and even dish towels that came out of nowhere frequently had the same effect, and though she would quickly regain her equanimity, it caused her acute embarrassment that she appeared to be afraid. It was such a very girlish thing to do, and among the Morgan children that was considered the worst of sins.
It was especially galling to Meg that she should be at anything other than her best in front of Finn Fachan. Finn was about the same age as Rowan, but slightly taller and built on longer, leaner lines. He had silky black hair, and a face that tended to look its best when he was saying something unpleasant. Meg thought he was very handsome, which, for many good reasons, she had never confessed to anyone.
Finn strode slowly among them with his hands behind his back, just the same way his father walked when he was teaching political science. ("It's not a science at all," their own father had been heard to say. "Physics. Now, that's a science.")
"You take that back!" Silly was seething. "Make him take that back!" She looked to Rowan. Though she was perfectly willing to settle the matter herself, she had a fine sense of the chain of command and felt that it was Rowan's duty, as the eldest, to be first to thrash anyone who called their parents cowards. She didn't understand exactly why Finn thought this, but she knew that, nine times out of ten when she met Finn, she wanted to hit him.
Finn ignored her — at nine, she was beneath his notice — and winked at Meg before breaking into an elaborate pantomime apparently meant to represent someone falling suddenly ill and dying.
"Stop it!" Meg cried. "Just ... just stop it!" She placed herself between Finn and Silly, close to tears to think that her little sister would learn how frightened their parents were for them, how real the danger was. Fortunately, Silly had decided that sulking was the better part of valor, and turned to stalk away, annoyed that Finn was getting away with whatever he was doing.
Finn picked himself up from the grass, brushing off his pants and laughing unpleasantly. "Running off like rabbits!" he said, much amused. "My father would never do such a thing. You won't catch us flying scared from some fever." Still laughing, he walked off, gathering a few of last fall's horse chestnuts to throw at the chipmunks.
"Isn't he the vilest thing you've ever seen?" Rowan asked Meg before Finn was out of earshot.
"Mmmm," she said, scooping up the garlanded James to follow Silly back home.
That evening, as the Morgans were finishing off a late dinner of rosemary chicken and sugar snap peas, Tom Morgan was summoned from his chair by the phone's imperious ring. They saw their father scowl as he said, "I don't think that would be possible," to whoever had interrupted the meal. Then he left to continue the call in the other room, while everyone, even their mother, stopped talking to try to listen. It wasn't very difficult — this was one of the few times in memory when their father raised his voice.
Excerpted from Under the Green Hill by Laura L. Sullivan. Copyright © 2010 Laura L. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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