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Abรกn's Wick


For Mom: who always looks for happy endings


Table of Contents Abรกn's Wick..........................................................................p. 11 Sea Storms.............................................................................p. 21 A Visit....................................................................................p. 33 The Museum........................................................................p. 47 Thief!......................................................................................p. 59 The Hollow...........................................................................p. 73 A Revelation.........................................................................p. 81 The Consequences of Ideas................................................p. 95 Daydreams............................................................................p. 109 An Evening Recitation........................................................p. 121 A Slice of Pie.........................................................................p. 133 The Secret..............................................................................p. 143 All Hollows...........................................................................p. 153 Christine................................................................................p. 163 Spark of Interest...................................................................p. 171 Wet Paint...............................................................................p. 181 A Midwinter Night..............................................................p. 193 Tea..........................................................................................p. 201 A Rumor................................................................................p. 215 Bones......................................................................................p. 227


Bonfires..................................................................................p. 237 An Invitation........................................................................p. 249 Treasure Hunt.......................................................................p. 261 Voices.....................................................................................p. 269 Riddles...................................................................................p. 283 And Answers........................................................................p. 297 Evening Walks......................................................................p. 309


Villa$rs of AbĂĄn's Wick Chelsea Shoals -- aunt to China, Emerald, & Pepper China Shoals -- cousin of the twins, Emerald & Pepper Emerald Shoals -- younger twin sister of Pepper Pepper Shoals -- older twin sister of Emerald Schoolmaster David Blacks Reverend and Mrs. Blath Brigid Kelly -- fellow school girl of China, Pepper, & Emerald Mr. and Mrs. Kelly -- Brigid's parents Mr. and Mrs. Shearlutch -- Mr. Shearlutch is half-brother to Mrs. Kelly Tara -- the Kelly's cook Christine Cobbage -- old friend of Professor Blacks Judith & Bretta McCorn -- sisters from school Lady LĂ­adan Hughcrosh -- of Hughcrosh Castle Herbert -- the head butler at Hughcrosh Castle


Chapter 1

Abรกn's Wick

China Shoals was only twelve years old, with hair the color of caramel falling all the way down her back. Her eyes were gold. And most of her friends would call her plain. Plain for the very young Irishwoman that she was. No startling red locks, nor midnight black. No emerald eyes, nor deep sea blue. It was the caramel and the gold. The only thing that might have been considered partly Irish about her, was her freckles, tickling her nose and the tops of her cheeks. She was short too. A very tiny frame no taller than the stone hearth in the little cottage she shared with her two cousins, Pepper and Emerald Shoals, and their aunt, Chelsea Shoals. It was a very small cottage, tucked between emerald green hills, velveted with not only the green, but the white 11


of their 32 sheep. Chelsea Shoals was a shepherdess. Her two late brothers, fathers to her three nieces, had lost both their wives in the influenza of 1874. Both having been sailors, they worried about their young girls once their wives had been laid to rest. And when their ship went down one terrible black night, Chelsea Shoals was called upon to become both mothers and fathers to China, then eight years old, and the twins, who were also eight. Chelsea had raised them well. Kindly, selflessly, and with frugality. It was a good method, and as a result, the girls were very good themselves. Their unusual names had been given to them by both their fathers' fascination with the lore and culture of other lands. Their daughters, as a result, resembled some of their favorites. Pepper was taken from the great spice of India. Emerald, after the beautiful gem which reflected the greatest cultures of the globe. And China, after the mysterious country half-way across the world. China was proud of her exotic name. Pepper was often jealous of the attribute to such far-away mystical lands. But then China would take pains to remind her that pepper represented the treasure of many powerful nations in times past, where such commodities were worth more to their monarchs, than were their subjects. And then Pepper's illcontent would be resolved. But those were in older days, when they were “but children”, as China would often remind them. “Remember when we did [such and such]?” they would often ask one another, as if the happenstance of a mere two months ago had taken place in the dark ages of their young years. 12


Pepper and Emerald both had hair as black as coal, and eyes the shade of forests. As much as Pepper admired China's name, China admired Pepper's hair. To be culturally unidentifiable as Irish was almost scandalous in her young mind. It was a shame of shames. Her poor, dear mother had so many times in her younger years, swept China's shining brown hair through her hands and told her how beautiful she was. But China had never been fully convinced. Despite the diverse appearance between the twins and China, they shared similar interests. Aunt Chelsea had a library in the cottage. Not just one room reserved for the library, but every room. Almost every inch of space had been devoted to shelves for books. And every space meant tops of tables, and sometimes the floor (if a waxed cloth had first been placed there, to prevent the damp). The girls had never before heard of such a collection. No one could compare to it outside Belfast. And the girls were very proud of this. People from far around did not make it an uncommon event to visit on pretense of “makin' a visit�, and then sitting to read with a book for several hours instead. Chelsea and the girls would only shake their heads and laugh silently from behind the thick golden-rust colored drape hanging to divide the sitting room from the kitchen. And then they would prepare coffee for their visitor, or tea (for the girls preferred that). But of all the books, the girls loved any text on the Middle Ages. History, novel, epic... anything and everything. Chelsea had given them a corner of the sitting room to collect these books as one, for reference and for hours of reading on cold, wet afternoons, or in the winter.

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China liked to imagine herself as a young duchess -never a princess, as the idea of a princess was far too common, too ordinary. She was a French duchess. But it was little known to her fellow courtiers that she was not indeed French, but was from Russia, and in hiding, and her mother was from the Orient. These books and such imaginings afforded countless months of her young life devoted to the study of being a “Frenchâ€? duchess. It waxed and waned throughout the year, depending upon the weather and the season of school, when other fascinations commenced. School was a walk down the path across seven low green hills, across a stream, and to the outskirts of the village. Chelsea would make them lunches every morning and pack them with oiled paper in little boxes before they walked toward another morning of study. Chelsea, meanwhile, would tend to the sheep at almost every time of the year. It was a job that never ended. Chelsea was very young. She had been the half-sister of her two older brothers, perished on the sea. And when her mother and father had passed away, both in their later years, Chelsea had inherited the farm, being the only living relative old enough to lawfully receive it. Most of the village of AbĂĄn's Wick had been skeptical of Chelsea Shoals' capabilities in raising three young girls. There was no male help on the small sheep farm. The nearest form of civilization was the village, a mile away. So food began coming. Marmalade and biscuits in baskets left on the doorstep. Jars of berries. Once, a pound of bacon. Sweaters for the girls... But after four years of Chelsea making it work, tongues began to stop clacking. And the help stopped coming. But it didn't matter. As much as Chelsea had appreciated the 14


villagers' friendly (if not busy-body) gestures, she was happy that they were on their own now, just herself and the three girls. It was quiet in the north country. The wind blew cold, and the streams ran fresh. Chelsea could have been happy to live there for a very long time, if not forever. But sometimes she worried about the girls, and how they would grow up. They had each other for friends, certainly, but maybe they were too isolated. Would they live normal lives, like their young counterparts in the village? And with no father... but these concerns Chelsea kept to herself. The girls seemed happy enough, and there was no need to introduce that suggestion to them that perhaps they would receive more benefits in their lives by moving to the village, or to a boarding school in the city. Chelsea could not have parted with them. They had become close enough to her to be her own children, and she could never send them away, not even, she thought somewhat selfishly to herself, if it was for their own good. The girls enjoyed their school on the outskirts of the village. Led by Schoolmaster David Blacks, the young population of students learned with much fascination of the burning of Rome, of the esophagus of starfish, of the planets in the heavens, advanced geometric calculations, and theories of philosophy and theology. David Blacks was a graduate of the University in Edinburgh, and had thus gathered himself a bit of a brogue. Such an accent seemed to compel the students to pay a special amount of attention to his lectures, being almost a foreigner to them, in their eyes, and deserving of an extra measure of respect. In his young 34 years, he had traveled far and wide. To India, and to the Orient and Japan. To Venice and the wilds 15


of Brazil and of French Canada. His tales were exotic and varied. And more than one little girl in the classroom flashed dreamy eyes at him from behind their History of the Greco-Roman world. And just down from the school, a quarter mile's walk, lay the village. Roofing thatched, windows latticed properly, lace curtains behind them, streets laid with smoothed rocks from a hundred years of passage. The church sat at just the southern end. There were two shops, a tavern and hotel for the few passing through, the granary, and the cluster of homes set together in groups around the small square, which was set up with lanterns at Christmas. But the girls' favorite place to visit was not the village. Their favorite spot of all was the hollow north of the village. Since the girls had been very little, they had established the excessively green little hollow as the final resting place of an Irish prince, a prince so ancient that, and as China liked to explain to anyone who might ask... “He was a sorry prince. Mutinied by his subjects. Sent into exile, runnin' for his life. They hated him for his foreign ideas, plans to change the country. He had recently returned from an excursion to Egypt, and was buried in this hollow with scarabs around his wrists. And a papyrus tucked into his shirt.� None of the girls knew what, exactly, a scarab was. But it sounded ancient and mysterious. Usually, their story was embellished from week to week, particularly after another visit to the hollow, and more inspiration had been uncovered. Emerald had taken it upon herself to record on paper, their tale. And many notes had been written in the margins 16


as their details became longer and varied as to the story of Prince Joseph and his doom. But this was one of only many pastimes involving China, Emerald, and Pepper, who spent most of their time around the farm helping their Chelsea with the sheep, the arrival of the tiny lambs in the spring, and the many chores that a farm entailed throughout the year. The girls shared a small room together under the eaves of the east wing of the house. The cottage was a small cottage, but the loft of the second floor had been cut into two large rooms -- one for the girls, and one slightly smaller wedge for Aunt Chelsea. It had been a rather decent expense for Chelsea when the girls had asked her, when still very little, to have their room painted blue. But she had done it. She hadn't even thought of saying no to them. And so one morning in May, she had painted the entire room by herself while the girls stayed with a church member in the village. It was a blue the color of an Irish sky in spring. And Chelsea was only too pleased to have given her nieces a piece of it when in the cold months of winter they were confined indoors. The girls each had a bed with a white cotton cover on it. And each had their own window by it, looking out over a different direction of the compass. Emerald's looked down to the south where the old farm path led over the hills and the glades to the city. Pepper's faced the green wilds of the east. And China's faced the north, where, beyond the twinkling lights of the village at night, dark forests stretched toward the gray sea of the Northern Atlantic and the islands of Scotland. At their bedsides, each set a lamp and their favorite books. And in the deep sills of their windows were set brightly colored cushions, where it was not uncommon to 17


find them sitting with their books, depending upon the hour of the day, and where the sunlight hit the cottage. They shared a mirror set over a vanity where each girl had her small box with a comb and small treasures. China's one and only small treasure in her box had come from her father, on his last voyage. A coral necklace. Perfectly red coral from the Caribbean. Strung one tiny bead after one tiny bead on twenty strands of fishing wire. And then these strands were tied together in the exact center by another piece of fishing wire. “A lariat necklace,” they call it, said her father. “You'll make it look beautiful, my little China.” It was a necklace so special to her, that she would only wear it on the rarest of occasions. School spring recitations, Christmas and Easter services at church, and to anything else that might be deemed so special. Below their blue room was the sitting room and the tea room, looking toward the south through the latticed bay window. Two very small rooms were set next to these rooms against the east side of the cottage. But these were empty, and never used. And then the kitchen, the long room sandwiching the sitting room -- where the walls were all made of stone (not white-washed, as they were in the sitting room, so as not to show stains of smoke from the fire), the long wood table at the end, worn to a shine by two hundred years of use. And the windows about the walls looking into the west, and the sea. The kitchen was a story of cinnamon and warm golden bread, water boiling for tea (and there were always several cups per day, per person), fish and potatoes in the evenings, and butter on occasion. And sometimes in the summer, when the crop was good further south, there were peaches. 18


It was a sturdy little kitchen. It was a good home. None of the girls had ever found anything about which to complain regarding its snug structure. It was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The girls were happy there. Never did a day go by without some sort of adventure, some interest, some new idea. All in the sleepy green hollow of Abรกn's Wick.

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Chapter 2

Sea Storms

“Sun's rise, little ones.” That was Aunt Chelsea's general call of the morning. “Isn't it Saturday?” Pepper groaned. “Tell me it's Saturday.” “It's Thursday,” said China, sitting up in her bed and scrubbing at her eyes. “No, it's Sunday,” said Emerald. “I know it is.” “You're all wrong,” said Chelsea, smiling at them from the doorway. “It's a Friday, and we have plans .” “Of course!” said Pepper, with an immediate change of attitude. “How could I've forgotten. When do we leave?” Chelsea laughed. “Here's a surprise. Pepper wants to visit the beach.” “Who could ever not want to visit it?” said Pepper, having tossed aside the white comforter. 21


Chelsea took a look out the northern window. “Might be you have to swim quick, girls. They'll say storms are comin' at the look of the horizon.” China tucked her knees up under her chin, not willing just yet to resign her seat in the warm bed. It was a perfect morning in July. Aunt Chelsea went about lifting the windows to the early morning winds. The best kinds of winds. With the gold jewel of the sun listing in the low horizon with the darkening band of rich black clouds multiplying out to the north and the sea. The frothing greens of the forest playing against one another. And the silver chimes from the hay loft down the hill, twinkling up the winds toward her open window. The roll of the bluegray waters, the tingling crash against the beach beneath the cliffs. The white cliffs carpeted with endless clovers. Aunt Chelsea had left for the kitchen. “I've already taken care of the flock this morning,” she called over her shoulder. “They're to stay in Low Field today.” On days where rain threatened, Chelsea kept the sheep herded in the smaller fenced field connected to the weathered barn below the cottage. The sheep were not very clever, of course, but when the rain did come, they fluttered into the barn from Low Field without much trouble. And Chelsea was not obliged to muddy her boots in herding them indoors. Pepper and Emerald tore through their initial rising -folding back the covers on their beds, dressing, combing their hair, washing their faces, etc. China waited until they had finished. Sometimes the rush of three girls at once provided for collisions.

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“Help with the lunch basket, girls?” Aunt Chelsea called from the kitchen. “Comin'!” Pepper almost screeched from the vanity. After tying back her hair with one of her four brightly colored ribbons, Pepper was gone down the stairs. “She's goin' to lose that ribbon,” said Emerald sensibly to herself. “Again.” China smiled to herself, still watching out the window to the beautiful pre-stormed morning. “I'll save you cornbread,” said Emerald. “Or Pepper will eat it all.” And then China was alone for a few moments, still sitting in her bed. She drew a hand unconsciously to the chain around her neck. A thin silver chain. Strong. In her sleep, the pendant had fallen behind her neck. She pulled it forward and felt its cool smoothness between her fingers. A coin. A shekel from Israel. “This is to remember your mother by, and myself,” said her father, only weeks before his ship had gone down. “We kept this from our first travel together, before you were born.” Maybe it was something insignificant. But not to China. To China, it was almost the most important thing that she owned. Since that day, the day her father had whittled the tiny hole through the top of the coin next to the rim, she had worn that coin around her neck. She knew the chain was strong, and that it wouldn't break. And so she had the red coral for special occasions, but she had the coin for every day, a way of keeping her parents with her, even though they were gone. “China!” It was Aunt Chelsea calling from the stairs. “Yes, Aunt Chelsea?” 23


“Do you want the corned beef on your sandwich, or the roast duck?” “The corned beef, Aunt Chelsea. Thank you. I'll be right down.” China almost reluctantly got out of bed. She loved their visits to the beach. But something about the combination of wind, storm, and green hills was alluringly powerful to keep her at the window, keeping watch. It didn't take China very long to ready for the day. She had a limited wardrobe, as did the other girls. Four dresses. One of emerald green. That was for Sundays, and was a nicer pattern. Two were made up for school in dark red and another in deep orange. Both colors were very unconventional for Northern Ireland. And the fourth was for play. It was China's favorite color. The color of the sun. Yellow, bright. Like a glowing gem. “The best color for you to wear,” Aunt Chelsea always told her. “I can always see you from a mile out in the hills.” That was the dress China put on that day. It reminded her not only of the sun. Sometimes she pretended she was wrapped up inside its warmth on the cold days of winter, especially. But it also reminded her of a pirate jewel. An especially bright and beautiful one, buried in the very center of a treasure chest, in the bottom of the sea... “China?” “Yes, Aunt Chelsea?” “Lemon or lime with your sandwich?” China was surprised by this treat. Such a rarity. From the Mediterranean, packed in ice and shipped to the isles. Another thing she thought of when she saw the bright color of her dress. The warm bath of sun and terra-cotta stone, oranges, lemons, limes, the blue of the Aegean... “Lemon or lime, China?” 24


“Lemon, Aunt Chelsea. Please. Thank you so much!” China leaned over the staircase. She could see Aunt Chelsea standing at the end of it, looking up with a smile. Her reddish ringlets were brushed back from her face as she dried her hands on her kitchen apron. “I thought you girls would enjoy it,” she said. “Lemons, limes, ocean, storms... it sounds like a day of fun.” China agreed. She returned to the little dressing table in front of the mirror and looked at her reflection carefully. It was a day to let her hair run wild, as it chose. She did not even take one of the two ribbons from her own box. She laced up her little black boots, worn, but still good. “You comin'?” Aunt Chelsea called again. But China was already down the stairs. “I'm sorry, Aunt Chelsea. I suppose I was caught in a bit of a daydream. “As always,” she replied. “I can't be blamin' you today, China. Look at that wind.” China walked to the sitting room window and breathed in deep of the ocean pine and storm. “I know,” she said. “I love it. I like to think that the same rain fell on our Irish kinds hundreds of years ago. And in the marsh where their enemies were mummified in the sludge after battle. And where I'll find their gold and pearl medallions...” “China!” Emerald gasped. “What?” China asked, turning back from the window. “That's no better than grave robbery!” “It's not grave robbery. Not if they fell in on accident.” “What if they didn't?” “I'm sure that most of them did. Think of it – in the heat of battle in the summer and the woods. And then... crack! 25


An arrow in the back. Down into the black silt. And there they lay, unfound, their family gems still restin' in their cloaks, perfectly preserved.” “You're so morbid, China,” said Emerald, raising her eyebrows. “How would Reverend Blath think of you if he heard you sayin' such things?” It wasn't uncommon for Emerald to suggest what Reverend Blath might say under various circumstances. “But, Emerald, Reverend Blath would agree with me. If it's for the sake of archaeology.” “Archaeology. You always find strange words, China.” “Come, girls,” Chelsea interrupted. “Enough of this. The winds and the storms don't wait for us.” China smiled. She and Emerald would disagree about various sundry subjects. This was not uncommon. But there was no need for argument. As soon as Chelsea had taken the picnic basket, the girls took their towels from the wash room, and the little Irish green door was flung open to the wind. China took off in a run to the west. With all abandon of thought. She loved the rush of wind across her freckled face. And the crack of the coming storm. There was something mystical about running toward a storm, something that crept underneath China's spirit and lifted it heavenward toward the still-blue sky above her and the deep dark of the north. It caused tingles to run down her arms. “Goddess of the storm, that one, she is,” Chelsea said with a laugh to Emerald, who walked beside her. Pepper, however, quickly joined China in her run. There was no one there, except maybe Emerald, to make them stop from running over the cool green of the hills. No adults from the village in tea dresses and lace collars, looking over 26


the rims of their dainty glasses in befuddled wonderment at the disgrace those wild girls must surely be bringing upon their poor young aunt. China, of course, had no desire to disgrace Aunt Chelsea. She loved Aunt Chelsea dearly, as did Pepper and Emerald. But China was part wind and part storm. When the rains and the winds called, she ran. And she ran with all her might into the blue surf and the gray beach below them. China was deft at climbing the rocks, or descending from them. Her daydreams of pirates in Irish coves had often sent her nimbly running to the shore on warm afternoons when school had let out, to watch the horizon for ships' sails in the west. “We have no more pirates here,” Aunt Chelsea had told her one day when she was nine. “They've left, you see. Into southern waters. Now that they've taken all the treasures from Ireland, they keep it and count it in the Caribbean.” But China still had hope that one day one might appear there, just there, over the waters. And some days, she thought her eyes had just been fooled into thinking the sparkle of the Atlantic folds had actually been the light of a distant ship. But not on that day. On that day, China was more than happy to forget about pirate ships and lore, and watch the rising storm and the wind over the sand, instead. She had reached the rocks. “Is there lightening?” she heard Pepper ask behind her. “I hope not!” China called back to her in the wind. “But if there is, it seems an enlightenin' way to die.” “You are so ridiculous, China,” said Pepper, hardly paying attention anyway. She had seen the lightening herself, just whispering in a slow rumble. 27


“Oh, that is hundreds of miles away,” said China lightly. “No one's been struck by lightenin' down there anyway. She pointed to the sand of she shore, thirty feet below. “It doesn't much matter,” said Pepper. “Let's just go before Aunt Chelsea makes us turn round and come home.” The girls were quickly over the edge of the cliff, tickling themselves down the side of the rocks as their tiny boots scuffed the weather-worn stones. Chelsea and Emerald were far behind, much more likely, in China's opinion, to be scathed with lightening than she and Pepper were, though so close to the water. When China's boots landed on the sand, she ran to the water's edge and held out her arms to the wind, as if ready to ascend into their swirling masses of dark blues and dark grays. “Glory that we have such days as this in Ireland,” she said to herself, holding her light eyes open against the sea. Pepper was scrubbing through the sand already. “Archaeologist, that one,” said Chelsea often enough of her middle niece. China was aware of Pepper's digging. She would have a near tunnel finished by the time the storm arrived. “Are you sure that is the right place?” she called to her from across the sand. “Quite certain,” said Pepper with a nod. She carved the wet sand with the cradle of the antique silver spoon of one of the greats. Thinned around the edges from use, burnished black in parts, and carved along it's long, solid handle. Chelsea had promised it to Pepper when she left the cottage one day. But Pepper had pleaded its use for internal digging about the Irish sands. “Please,” she had said. “It is meant to be used. It won't be used if it sits in dusty cabinets for three hundreds years 28


more, even if there is glass in the cabinet to see it. Much better for me to dig up ancient artifacts and let them be put up under glass instead. They are much older even than the spoon and should be preserved.” Chelsea did not mention the fact that such ancient artifacts might be better left unharmed packed with its natural tomb of earth and soil, than exposed to the elements under the sun and the fingering of interested passerby. But she said nothing, and handed over the spoon, trying not to smile. “Excellent shovel,” Pepper had said to herself as she left the room. Then Chelsea had laughed. “There you are,” said Emerald, calmly standing behind China. “Oh! I didn't hear you come down. You're so quiet, Emerald.” “The storm covers the sound,” she said. “Here is the basket. Aunt Chelsea says that she will come down in a moment. She is picking flowers. Did you find anything, Pepper?” Pepper shook her head. “Just started.” Her work took her down the long trail of beachhead, starting toward the village near the reddish boulder about a quarter mile north of their current location. Every time they spent a half hour or more at the seacoast, she would dig. Never swim or pause for luncheon or tea. She would just dig. These self-imposed hours of work would sometimes provide interesting mentionables. Once, there had been a brass button. Reverend Blath, also the historian of the village, had thought it made in the mid-1700's. Perhaps from a sailor. But there was no inscription. Several tiny beads. 29


Reverend Blath had thought these to be very old, indeed. “Celtic,” he had said, with a curious mystery about his voice. “Highly possible.” Both were made of a sort of glass, it seemed. They were so very small, it was hard to tell. One was blue in color, and the other green. But even aside from these very intriguing discoveries, which were the prized joy of Pepper's entire summer, previous, was the strip of supposed cloth she had found in March. Children in the village still spoke of it. It lay under glass in her bureau drawer, and was opened on special occasions at school as a sort of instructional lesson. The scrap was made of a sturdy type of material. Old, yes. Even Reverend Blath could not say how old. But on it, written in a peculiar shade of red, was wording. But no one could make it out. “It could be anythin'. It might even be a form of ancient Egyptian,” Professor had told her. “But of course, no one knows how to read that dialect.” No one, indeed. Nor could anyone seem to understand what land formation had been sketched next to it. It seemed to be an island. Or perhaps a structure. Pepper was so afraid that it was a prank by one of the school boys, who knew that she dug regularly at the beach, that she still hadn't accepted it as a genuine piece as yet. Despite her skepticism, however, she continued funneling her way through the sand with the silver spoon, hoping that somehow, she might find the rest of the alleged “map” before the summer had ended. Emerald, who was not as terribly interested in treasure of past peoples, had set the luncheon basket on a nearby boulder, and began looking for the tide pools. Her kind little heart was always anxious to pet the tiny sea urchins, 30


anemones, and sea stars muddled in cool, clear havens in the rocks, while waiting for the ocean to rejoin them in the afternoon. “Hallo, girls!” Aunt Chelsea called with a wave from the top. “Comin' down. Shall I make tea?” “Yes, please!” Pepper cried back, always hungry, likely as a result from her voracious shoveling abilities. Whether by sand, or by food. Though she'd eat with one hand while shoveling with the other. As the storm continued to gather, the wind still held taught. Chelsea soon had a small fire laid with dry pieces of blanched light driftwood. And the cast iron kettle had been filled with clear water from the well. Tea was soon poured. “I love lemons,” Emerald said softly to herself, stirring a small slice of it into her tea. The wind had kicked harder as the brew had finished its boil. “I prefer limes,” said Pepper. “Lemons are so much more common.” “I don't mind,” said Emerald sweetly. “It's still my favorite. They have such a tang that reminds me of warm islands and sea creatures in bright colors...” “I have to agree with Emerald,” said China, “that lemons are beautiful creatures. They are nearly the perfect shade of yellow. Only a shade more bright, and they might match the sun.” “Sun fruit,” Emerald replied, in agreement. “And I,” said Chelsea, reaching into the luncheon basket, “prefer oranges.” The girls were quick to discontinue their philosophy of citrus fruit, as a sharp crack of white lightening penetrated the open sea. 31


“We should return soon,” said Aunt Chelsea. “Any nearer, and the lightenin' will be over the cliffs.” “Let us take the path through the wood, then, Aunt Chelsea?” China asked. “There is something almost as exciting about being in a wood during a storm, as there is being upon a cliff in the open wind.” “You are an imaginative one, you are,” said Chelsea with a laugh. “Of course we will take the wood. It is the only safe way now.” China smiled as she took another slice of her lemon. Its opulent golden juices dribbled past her fingers as she ate from its wedge. The growl of storm, the tea kettle and beach fire on the sand, whipping arms of light in the wind, emerald cliffs above, and stories of pirates trolling through her thoughts... beauty rarely saw such rare forms, sandwiched together by hopes of further adventure the following day.

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Chapter 3

A V%it

“Sun's rise, little ones.” The same morning greeting, every day, since they had come to live with Aunt Chelsea those several years ago. “What today?” China thought to herself. That was the thing about Aunt Chelsea. She was good at inventing interesting things to do. China knew she had inherited her own sense of imagination from a corner of Chelsea's. Chelsea rarely spoke about ideals, or suggested fun things for the girls to do. She just did them. Often, they were simple things. Sometimes they were outings, like to the beach in a thunderstorm. And today, would be another visit. “To the village, girls,” said Aunt Chelsea, climbing the stairs to the little loft room. “Why?” Pepper asked sleepily, scrubbing her eyes. 33


“Mrs. Reverend Blath has been very kind to us, has she not?” “What did she ever do for us?” Pepper asked, who was not always know to be tactful. “When I say 'us', Pepper, I mean, rather, the whole of the church's congregation. And I think it would be a very nice thing for us to bake her a pie and bring it to her in the afternoon.” “Oh, yes!” said Emerald happily, clapping her hands together at the thought. Pies were a pleasant prospect. Apple, peach, cherry, sometimes pumpkin in the autumn. Or meat pies. Those were very good. Pepper and China were not as interested in making such treats, as they were in eating them. But China was always prepared to use her imaginings to such lengths as would push aside the unpleasantness of any task, and make it interesting. But Pepper remained unenthusiastic. “Come down shortly, girls,” said Chelsea, returning to the stairs, “and your breakfast will be the pie scraps.” “How nice,” said Emerald, after Aunt Chelsea had left. “To have a breakfast of such nice things.” “Is everythin' always 'nice', Emerald?” asked Pepper with a yawn. “Many things,” said Emerald. She had already slipped out of bed, walking like air over the honey-wood floorboards toward the bureau. “You're too happy,” said Pepper. “There's nothin' fun about baking pies.” “Except for the scraps,” said China with a smile. She propped up her thin elbows on the windowsill, looking to the north. Polished white-blue from the storm of 34


the previous day. The row of pine in the north field was still waving in unison to the morning winds of another summer morning. “We'll open the windows,” said China. “And watch the wind while we bake the pies.” “It won't help,” said Pepper. “Of course it will. And the sooner we finish, the sooner we can walk to the village. It's a beautiful today.” Several minutes later, three young girls (at one general degree of enthusiasm to another), stood at the high brown board in the kitchen with aprons around their waists. “May I get the flour now, Aunt Chelsea?” asked China. Her eyes almost lit up at the idea of the box of perfectly silken, perfectly white flour. So soft and smoothed in folds inside the ceramic cube. “You may,” said Aunt Chelsea. “But I should say to you, China, that I can't have you takin' more than is necessary this time. We need almost all the flour that is left.” China nodded as she lifted the box from its resting place on the old shelf. There was something that she liked about scooping the spoon through the fluffed white heart of that box. As little as she appreciated the arts of baking or cooking, stirring flour (for no reason other than to stir it), was quite fun. Chelsea had lifted the sash of all the kitchen windows to the small garden flanking the two corners of the cottage. China breathed in deeply from the northern window as she set the flour box on the board. Mint, water violets, rock sealavender... “Why can't there be flowers at every season?” she asked aloud. “Flowers aren't half so interestin' as bones,” said Pepper. 35


“Bones, Pepper?” Aunt Chelsea asked with a little laugh. “What have bones to do with flowers?” “Nothin',” said Pepper resting her chin in her hands. “I just prefer digging up bones to waterin' flowers. Wouldn't anyone? Bones from the past. Skeletons of old peoples...” “Moulderin' in their graves?” “They are too old for that, Aunt Chelsea,” said Pepper sensibly. “Rather, they are preserved perfectly, often. Or completely bare of anythin' but the bone itself, if buried in sands and warmer climates...” When Pepper began a ramble of bones and ancient things, it was difficult to stop her. “Please, Pepper,” said Emerald, starting to mix the contents of the bowl in front of her. “I cannot think of eatin' pie when you speak of such things.” “Then don't eat it,” said Pepper. Emerald sighed, and continued to stir, as Pepper spoke more of bones and things in the ground until Aunt Chelsea stopped her. “Enough, Pepper,” Chelsea shushed her. “These are not appropriate conversations, albeit one-sided conversations, for young girls while workin' with butter and apples.” “What does it matter if we're workin' with butter and apples while speakin' of graves?” Pepper asked, hands still propping up her chin. “Don't you think that butter and flour could be imagined as the ancient bits of ancient... 'stuff' surroundin' a skeleton in a tomb?” Emerald asked. “Butter and apples are far cries from rottin'...” “Pepper!” Aunt Chelsea exclaimed. “May we stop talkin' about moulderin' 'things', please? Keep apples and butter and edibles to the kitchen, and archaeology to the garden. Please.” 36


“There are no bones in the garden,” said Pepper with a huff. “There is nothin' interestin' in the garden.” “And what of your scrap of map?” “That was by the sea, Aunt Chelsea. There is far greater a chance to find things of interest by the sea, than there is in the garden.” “Ah, dear, but wouldn't you think it possible that whoever buried that piece of map on the shore, tried a climb up the cliff? And possibly, it could be imagined, walked across our farm, leaving behind a button, or a doubloon. Perhaps?” “Your point is interestin', Aunt Chelsea,” said Pepper, a faint sparkle of interest lighting her eye. China could tell that it was already running through her mind, a thought to dismantle the garden from flower bed to flower bed. “Oh, don't allow her to dig up the garden, Aunt Chelsea!” Emerald exclaimed. “It is too beautiful!” “Of course, not, dear. But if Pepper would like to dig up some other part of the farm, I would have no objection.” “Truly, Aunt Chelsea?” Pepper asked, clapping together her hands in a hold of plea. “I am surprised you hadn't thought to ask me before. There are so many places you could find to dig here.” “I suppose I never thought to find anythin' interestin' here.” “Well, I'll tell you, Pepper. The sooner that we bring the pie to the village for the Reverend Blath's wife, the sooner you will have opportunity to hear of more stories than I could ever tell.” “What do you mean?”

37


“The reverend has lived her all his life, as have his ancestors of many hundreds of years. Perhaps Mrs. Blath will have stories of events which took place on these lands.” “You have never asked her of them?” “Perhaps it never came to my mind,” said Aunt Chelsea, clearly knowing more than she would say. “Well, then,” said Pepper, still a little reluctantly, “let's finish here quickly.” It didn't take much longer for the pies to be completely baked. The slices of apple had been rubbed in cinnamon and sugar, piled in a golden crust and covered with more laced crust until all was bubbling and hot and the kitchen smelled positively delicious. Then it was removed from the oven, wrapped in a thick cloth, and placed in Aunt Chelsea's shopping basket. The girls quickly dusted themselves of flour and washed their arms and faces, having sampled many of the scraps along the way. Then out into the fresh yellow sunshine of a warm July morning. China liked the sun. She liked the storms. And the days where there were both. Sometimes those were the best days -- sun, then storm. But on that day, the sky was washed clear of clouds, and China was happy with it that way. The walk was more of a skip, for herself and Pepper. Emerald walked behind them with Aunt Chelsea. “Who can walk so slow on a day like this?” China asked aloud. “It's too beautiful. I have to run when the wind and sun are matched so perfectly.” “You are funny, China,” said Pepper, laughing. “Runnin' any day is better than walkin'.” “Not in winter. When snow is on the ground it is always better to walk, to enjoy the pure whiteness of the fields. The 38


cold of the air...” “To each her own, then,” said Pepper. “But let's not walk today. I have seven dozen questions to ask Mrs. Blath.” “What do you have to ask her?” “Don't let's waste time talkin' about them here. Hurry on, and we'll find out sooner.” The two girls raced for the village, sun brushing back their hair as they ran together, irregardless of their appearance of hair or dress. It was best, China had always thought, to not speak when running. Her thoughts carried her on instead, when she grew tired. Speaking only slowed her pace, and made her wish that she had kept her words to herself. Pepper agreed. They never spoke while running, and would often arrive at their destination must faster when they followed this belief. With the first of their steps inside the main street of the village, Pepper and China immediately ceased their gait. With the ring of Aunt Chelsea's permanent warning, glazed over them for several years... “Never, girls, never run in the village. I cannot afford to have you exposed to criticism. You must be respectful of the fact that your parents were very respected people. Keep that true of their girls.” It seemed very silly. What did it matter if they ran in the village? What did it matter if people stared? But Aunt Chelsea had requested it, and so they did it, without asking questions. China breathed in deeply of the warming summer air, as their pace slowed to a careful walk. The streets were busy, as usual, on a Saturday in the village. Most of the potato farmers were in with their carts for supplies from the village store. The women of the village and outlying farms were 39


also gathered at the shop and at the town houses for quilting circles or other social pastimes. But there were no large events planned for the evening, as there usually were in the summer, and so the crowds were not as great as they often could be. Pepper looked over her shoulder. “They're nowhere in sight,” she said. “Let's go to the shop for just a minute?” “We can't buy anythin'.” “Let's just see what's in there. Maybe they'll have in somethin' new.” “Pepper, they hardly ever have somethin' new.” “I know, but maybe this time...” “Well...” “Oh, come on!” Pepper grabbed China by the arm and pulled her toward the open door of the shop. The one and only shop in Abán's Wick was run by Mr. and Mrs. Shearlutch, members of the Episcopalian church at the other end of the village. They were nice enough, China thought, kind, good people. They had no children and had adopted none, both having whispers of the gray in their hair already. But it was their horrible niece, Brigid Kelly, who had enlisted herself as China's and Pepper's mortal enemy, the very first time they had laid eyes upon each other. China knew she was in for trouble when she saw through the storefront window, just as Pepper burst through the door -- Brigid -- standing in front of the sweets counter. But China was not afraid of her. And Brigid knew that. “Well, what brings you country waifs into my store this mornin'?” China gritted her teeth. Already, Brigid was not so much interested in the sweets counter, as she was in irritating her. 40


“Were you speakin' of yourself then?” Pepper asked Brigid, in return. Brigid only blinked slowly, and turned her soft white paws back to the glass jar of sugared caramel drops on the counter. “That should keep her quiet till we're finished,” Pepper whispered to China. It was nice having Pepper for a cousin. Pepper didn't much care who said what, as long as no one got picked on by bullies. And Pepper (as did virtually everyone else in the village), viewed Brigid as being an unquestionable bully. China dutifully ignored Brigid, still standing at the sweets counter, as she followed Pepper to the back of the store, where novelties were sold. China liked the village shop. It always smelled to her of oranges and cedar, and often of caramel sweets, lemon polish, and ginger and cinnamon. Sometimes it depended on the season of the year. Pine during Yuletide. Strawberries in select times of the summer. Juicy and red and tempting. But Pepper was highly interested in what was shelved in the back of the shop. Brushes, antiquated paints (the villagers were not known for their artistic expressions), pads of paper (very expensive)... Pepper was perhaps the one soul within three hundred miles who was able to craft exquisite renderings of her finds beneath the earth, on paper. As they looked over the somewhat old collection of paints and brushes, China tried not to look over her shoulder. Brigid was obviously not finished yet. “Just ignore her,” said Pepper, also very aware that Brigid was walking over toward them. “I intend to do that,” China whispered back to her. 41


Brigid calculated her approach, unnoticed by the other customers at the shop. She had a habit of creeping upon her prey like a sea hawk, almost perfectly silent, and somewhat sinister (in China's opinion). But China, at least, was not fooled, and knew that Brigid was standing behind her before anyone else. “What are you girls foolin' with?” she asked coldly. “Don't bother anythin' in my uncle's store.” “The merchandise is meant to be examined before purchase,” said Pepper, just as cooly. “Leave, Brigid, or I might decide not to get anythin' at all.” But Brigid was not phased. “You! Buy somethin'! You've never had a single penny to your name, Pepper Shoals.” Pepper was smart enough not to allow the conversation to center on herself. “You funny little girl,” she said, deliberately leafing through a pad of drawing paper. “As if money was ever a concern. I see you must be out of it yourself to steal caramel sticks from your own uncle's shop.” Brigid's face turned almost copper-like as she sucked in her breath. “The Kellys are the wealthiest family from here to Dublin,” she said importantly. “And you, a mere commoner, suggestin' that you could possibly afford to purchase any of my uncle's fine drawing pads.” Pepper laughed a little, knowing that she was in perfect control of the situation. “As I heard it, Brigid Kelly, your great-grandfather was actually a deserter in the king's army in the last century. But you know... rumors are rumors. Come on, China. We have an engagement.” 42


They left Brigid standing speechless in the back of the shop, as they returned to the warm summer street. “Oh, she'll have it for you later,” said China, laughing at Pepper's boldness. “Let her,” said Pepper. “I have more important things to think about than her.” Fortunately, Aunt Chelsea and Emerald had just arrived in the village. “Come on,” said Pepper. “I have questions to ask.” She pulled China by the hand toward Emerald and Aunt Chelsea, who, fortunately, did not find it necessary to ask about what they had been doing before she arrived. “Now, girls,” Chelsea began, “if Mrs. Blath isn't home today, we'll leave the pie at her kitchen. So please do not be disappointed if we cannot stay.” “Oh, she'll be home,” said Pepper. “There's smoke comin' from the chimney. Maybe she's makin' tea.” “And if she is, girls,” Chelsea continued her brief lecture, “then we will not stay for it. We cannot have the Reverend's small income goin' to pay for our own tea. We will politely decline, and we will most certainly not eat any of the apple pie.” Several minutes later, the girls found themselves seated in the bright white-washed parlor, with a small porcelain plate, each, of pound cake, and a cup of tea. “Truly, Mrs. Blath, we did not intend to come durin' tea,” said Chelsea, somewhat embarrassed. “Nonsense, child,” said Mrs. Blath, bustling in from the kitchen with another pot of hot tea. “I'm so flattered that you sweet girls would come to visit me.” “But we are really in no need of tea, Mrs. Blath.” “Miss Shoals, trust me when I say this, that, with all of the visits I make to the cottages in this township, it is very 43


nice, from time to time, to be hospitable myself, in return. I am so happy to see all of you here. And this beautiful apple pie! So lovely. Thank you.” That seemed to settle it. Mrs. Blath was a kind woman, a little plump, perhaps, compared to the general build of the Irish town. But that was most likely because she was not Irish. She was English, and although the villager's had always been charmed by her generous and jovial ways, that fact remained an occasional sore sticker in their side. “I think Mrs. Blath is so wonderful,” Emerald whispered to China, who was sitting just next to her. “I don't know why people think she could be a traitor for bein' English.” China just shook her head. “They don't know what they're talkin' about. They're just trying to be patriotic, and don't know what that means, I guess.” Meanwhile, as Mrs. Blath spoke with Chelsea about the upcoming summer dance in the village hall, China could see that Pepper was highly anxious to get to the questions. She kept crossing and recrossing her ankles (as Aunt Chelsea had always instructed them to do around company). She had nearly quaffed the pound cake in two bites, had not she caught Emerald's eye before doing so. And she stirred her tea, incessantly. Finally, Pepper unintentionally let loose of her teaspoon and sent it flying over the rug. “Oh, I'm so sorry, Mrs. Blath!” she exclaimed, retrieving the tea-stained spoon from the rug. “Never mind, dear,” said Mrs. Blath, covering a laugh. “That rug is as old as Methuselah. I don't mind a stain. Although it has never stained too badly, being such a dark blue... But I can see that something is on your mind, young lady. Out with it, if you will.” 44


Pepper looked guiltily at Aunt Chelsea, who did not seem entirely pleased that Pepper had made such an exhibition of herself. “Well...” “Go on,” said Mrs. Blath kindly. “I wondered... that is, Aunt Chelsea was saying that Reverend Blath's family has lived her for many, many years. And I was hopin' that maybe you had some stories about... what happened here before... the history of the place. That is to say, I'm workin' in archaeology a good deal, and would like to know the best places to dig.” “Oh, my dear,” said Mrs. Blath with a twinkle behind her light blue eyes. “You should have said something to me earlier. There is little I enjoy more than speaking of the history of Abán's Wick. Despite my English heritage.” Pepper smiled with relief. “Now take a seat there,” Mrs. Blath continued, “and I will tell you of as much as you would like to know.”

45


Chapter 4

!e Museum

There was a rather large crash several weeks later, early in the morning. It propelled China forward off her pillow. She took a quick scrub of her eyes and tried to read the small clock in the mellow blue light of the morning. 4:00. She propped herself up on the windowsill, looking out into the garden past the meadow. The crash seemed to have come from the barn. Yes, it was from the barn. The scatter of gray-winged morning doves flittered into the whisper of a sunrise. “Pepper,� said China with a groan. She knew it was Pepper before she even saw her emerge from the barn door, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and a shovel over her shoulder. 47


Ever since their pleasant visit to Mrs. Blath's cottage, those several weeks ago in July, Pepper had been digging up everything. “I'm going to find that old prince,” she said. “And before school starts up again.” As it turned out, China's imagined bonnie prince Joseph (such an un-Irish) name, hadn't been so far from the truth after all. Although his name most certainly could not have been Joseph, an Irish prince had, apparently, been kidnapped by pirates three hundred years ago, and had escaped through Abán's Wick (although hardly a civilized village at the time). His fate was quickly decided, however, when a pirate arrow stuck him through the back, and he was left to lie in some unknown cove. Or so the stories went. It left tingles running up and down China's spine. And Pepper's. Her inspiration had been monumental. She had run all the way home, directly for the shovel, and off into the open meadows. For weeks, every morning till evening, with a handkerchief-wrapped lunch, which Aunt Chelsea prepared for her the previous evening. China settled back onto her pillow. Now that she had been so ungracefully woken from her sleep, she doubted that she would be able to sleep again over the next two hours. What better to do, then, she thought, than join Pepper on her quest. Maybe they would find something under all those centuries of meadow grass and black Irish sod. Quietly, so as not to waken Emerald, China slipped into her dress and laced up her boots. She wrapped her dark blue kerchief in a band around her head to keep back her long hair, then walked carefully down the stair case to the 48


cottage door. Minutes later, she was running to catch up with Pepper, who was almost certainly digging in the east field toward the end of the farm's perimeter, if not a little beyond it. Pepper had pushed the limits of diggable ground. China could not understand her method of digging in one place over another. Random holes of various sizes pocketed the farm from west to east. Pepper had still not yet attempted any digging in Low Meadow, where the sheep would graze. “Pepper!” China called out a greeting. She was already throwing her small weight into the shovel, slicing through pale yellow grass and sod. “Pepper,” China somehow felt compelled to whisper as she approached, “when are you going to stop gettin' up so early for this?” “When school starts. Want to help?” “I don't have a shovel.” “Dig for me when I need to take a break.” China nodded. “Do you really think you're going to find anythin'? There's so many coves and fields. He could have died anywhere, if he really did die here. If he ever even existed.” “You of anyone should be able to imagine that it could happen, China,” said Pepper, letting out a small grunt as she heaved over a measure of dirt. “Maybe he was never put in the history books because they thought he was a traitor. You know how Professor Blacks always tells us about Egyptian rulers -- when the people didn't like them -- how they erased their names from the obelisks and everythin'. Well, maybe this happened with our Irish prince too.” “I suppose you could be right,” said China thoughtfully, taking a seat by the new impression in the ground. “There is something excitin' about digging for things, even if nothin's 49


really there. I don't suppose anyone's seen this part of the earth for thousands of years. Maybe never.” “That's the China spirit,” said Pepper. “Even if I never find our prince, at least I'll have seen places no one else, maybe, has ever seen.” “Maybe this was the way it was, down there, as we're seein' it now, when the universe was created.” “Doubtful,” said Pepper, pausing for a moment to reflect. “I'm sure the wind and other things have roused up the dirt since then. But then again... it would be pretty amazin' if we're seeing it just as it was, thousands of years ago. And it's only been waitin' here, covered up with more dirt and grass since then.” “I wonder what Ireland was like at the beginnin',” said China softly. “Green and perfect. A beautiful sea... Maybe wild animals and exotic plants. Bright colors and brilliant things that don't exist anymore...” China allowed her mind to wander back to that early day of creation -- the mist of early morning, quiet woods and sunlight dazzled over green mosses, white cliffs, perfectly crafted flowers and fruits, mushrooms, soft woodland pools, and maybe Heavenly creatures whispering through trees and hills... “China?” “Sorry...” “You wonder about things more than I ever saw anyone else do. Shouldn't we be thinkin' more about next week instead?” “Next week?” “School starts up again.” “Oh, yes,” said China regretfully. “Brigid. I wonder what cruel sorts of tricks she'll prepare for us.” 50


“It doesn't matter,” said Pepper logically. “We'll be prepared for her.” Fortunately for China, over the last weeks, Brigid had been out of town, on an extended tour of France, with her parents. “Good thing for us, too,” said Pepper. “She'll be so busy paradin' her new dresses from Paris, that maybe she'll forget about botherin' us with any of her ridiculous pranks.” Brigid had been known to cause as much trouble as any other boy in school. Cheating off of fellow classmates' papers, and blaming them in return when caught, filling the water bucket with hot pepper sauce, bullying the other girls out of line when playing cricket... the troubles she created were endless. It was in the rest of the class' favor, however, that Schoolmaster David Blacks was fully aware of every move that was made during class hours. Very little ever got past him, and if it did, it was because he had been away, and a substitute had taken his place for the day. “Well, even if she does try to pull somethin',” said China, “I'm just goin' to try to ignore her this time. You'd think she would have more important things to do with her time.” “Not really,” said Brigid, shaking her head. “Her mother does her homework for her, she spends most of her time at the store eating candy and beggin' trinkets off her aunt and uncle, and havin' tea parties with the village girls, countin' her dresses and dolls...” “And battin' her eyes at the boys,” said China, laughing a little. “She's crazy,” said Brigid. The girls continued to talk about Brigid and the other girls at school, as they turned over spades of soil. Some of the girls were mean, some of them were nice. The school 51


seemed to be split into three groups, for the girls, at least. Brigid and a small number of the other girls made up the group of village princesses, the somewhat wealthy, rather spoiled snobs who all lived in the village. Most of the other girls fell into the second category -- the unpleasantly neutral position. Girls who weren't important enough, in Brigid's fancy mind, to bother with. Mercifully, however, Emerald easily fell into this category. As kind-hearted and quiet, and unnoticeable (at least by Brigid), as Emerald was, she had never been irritated by Brigid. Not once. China and Pepper were among the sizable group of the third type of girl, who were almost consistently bothered by Brigid and her followers. One after another, and in China's case in particular, permanently and every time they saw one another. China didn't remember why everything had gone so wrong with Brigid. She had come to assume that Brigid was just generally bad, and that anyone (no matter who it was) who got in her way, even in Brigid's mind only, she intended to trample, in one way or another. And so China and Pepper worked under a warm August sun until lunch discussing these things, pulling at the soil, until a hole of considerable size lay at their feet. “I suppose Aunt Chelsea isn't very worried about us,” said China, sharing in Pepper's lunch. “I'm sure she saw you leave this mornin',” said Pepper. “She sees everything.” The field crickets were chirping lightly as the sun basked overhead. Dappled wildflowers bent in the precursory autumnal winds as the girls worked on their chicken sandwiches. “What would you do if you found somethin', Pepper?” China asked thoughtfully. “Something even better than the 52


map scrap? Or maybe something that solved the map scrap. What would you do with it?” “It depends on what it is,” Pepper replied in her calculating way, as she always did. “If I found a grave, I'd let someone in Dublin know, I suppose. At least Reverend Blath. He could watch over the site until they sent in real archaeologists. But if I found somethin' small. Like a coin, or a jar... maybe a piece of jewelry, or a belt buckle... then I might keep it.” “But it can't really be yours, can it?” “I guess it would be if I found it here. No one else could claim it, especially if it doesn't have a name on it or anythin'. Or a family crest. I don't think anyone would mind.” “You should put together a museum,” said China. “with everythin' you've found at the beach, with the things you'll find out here, surely. You'd have enough to make a museum.” “I should do that,” said Brigid. “Let's put it together this afternoon. In the barn. You could help make labels for the artifacts. And we could charge a penny for admission.” “Why would you charge for admission?” “I'm sure we can find some sort of charity to donate it to,” said Pepper. “Besides, if we don't charge somethin', they won't think any of the artifacts are any good, and they won't come.” It was so like Pepper to grab at an idea and race it into production. Soon, she and China had decided to take off the rest of the afternoon digging and set up their museum. “We'll dig again tomorrow,” said Pepper. “Maybe Emerald will watch over the museum and supervise admission while we're out here.” “And Aunt Chelsea would make lemonade for guests, perhaps,” said China. “We'd better hurry and set up 53


everythin' in time. Maybe we could convince Emerald to walk to the village and advertise in time to bring over visitors for the evenin'.” Emerald was used to commissions from China and Pepper, in particular. “What should I tell them?” she asked calmly, hands still clasping the covers of the book where she was sitting in the library. “Just say that they should come and see a plethora of treasures, dug up personally from the ground by myself,” said Pepper. “And even if they've seen them already, assure the skeptics that I've added to the collection since my last informal presentation.” “What will I say to Brigid and the other girls if they want to come?” “I wouldn't mind takin' away a penny from each of them,” said Pepper. “Just make sure that while they're lookin' over the exhibit that they don't take anythin'. Wouldn't it be just like Brigid to steal somethin', and then make it out to be as if she found it.” China and Pepper spent the next several hours in the barn, sweeping out the south corner until the floorboards were perfectly cleaned of sheep hay. “If wood sparkled...” said China. “Now, for display tables.” Crates were the next best thing. Aunt Chelsea ordered hay by the crate-load from the farm down the road, which left several at hand for small, square tables. It took some time to decided how, exactly, to arrange the tables in such a manner as to produce the greatest effect on their visitors. Pepper stood tapping at her chin for several minutes before she was inspired with the perfect arrangement. A large square ring of tables was finally 54


constructed around the walls of the south corner. Next, Pepper brought out her several boxes of nautical discoveries. “We'll need somethin' to set them off,” said China. “Some cloth, some color on all the tables so that they don't blend in with the crates.” This was easily solved with the girls begging off several pieces of linens and towels from Aunt Chelsea, who not very reluctantly allowed them out of the cottage. “Only for a few days,” said Pepper. “We'll have to close the museum once school begins.” Finally, after what seemed to be very little effort, the museum was ready for opening, just as Emerald returned from the village followed by a surprisingly long chain of acquaintances. People loved Emerald. She had only to mention something to them, something they might like to do, or something she might like to do, and she was flocked to, like gosling chicks. Pepper knew this, which was mostly the reason why she had decided to send her twin sister into the village as harmless advertising. “Would you look at that,” said Pepper, shielding her eyes against the slowly drooping sun. “Emerald never fails. That's probably nineteen pence, at least!” But it wasn't the money that Pepper was really thinking about. It was the opportunity to spark interest in her dig, and bring in potential assistance. What that assistance was, she couldn't be exactly sure. But once word ran around in the village what she was doing, there would be interest. And interest sometimes offered assistance. “Well, look who've they've brought with them,” said China a little dismally, staying within the shadows of the barn. “First in line too.” 55


It was Brigid and none other. “Don't worry about her,” said Pepper. “Stay behind the barn, and once I give an introduction, I'll come out back and we'll go over to the field.” China didn't find a need to protest, and quickly skirted herself, as instructed, behind the barn. She waited, listening for the arrival of the village children. And it didn't take long. “I'm goin' to be first!” Brigid declared boldly, upon entering the barn. China watched from between two slats of the wall. Brigid was wearing one of her unnecessarily fancy costumes again, no doubt from Paris. Pristinely white and ruffled. “You'll come in the order you arrived,” said Pepper. “And this time, the first one happens to be you, Brigid. Step forward. The cost is one penny.” Brigid artfully set three shining pennies in Pepper's hand. “I have too many of these anyway,” she said. “I need to get rid of them.” China set several fingers to her mouth to prevent a laugh. It was always like Brigid to make a show of herself. She noticed that dependable Pepper did not even acknowledge the over-payment and waved Brigid through the door. “Exhibit one is to your right. Emerald, would you please collect admissions so that I can prepare the tour?” Emerald stepped forward to replace her sister while Pepper excused herself to the center of the museum. Once all of the children had gathered together in a large crowd just outside the ring of crates, Pepper began her solemn, yet dramatic, tour of the exhibits. China continued to keep a hand near her mouth, as she tried not to laugh several times over. Pepper was incurably humorous. And for every fantastical story she wove for each object, albeit 56


prefacing it with a careful, “So the legend goes...”, the children drew breath in fascination. Only Brigid appeared unmoved. She yawned from time to time, patted her curls with her gloved hands. She was making every effort possibly to be as bored as she possibly could be. At the end of the grand tour, Pepper announced that they could browse the objects at will. Then she pulled Emerald aside and cautioned her to keep a wary eye on Brigid until she had returned to the village. Then she slipped out the back way as Emerald took her place, supervising the museum. “You did well,” said China. “I think that Brigid wasn't nearly as bored as she pretended to be. How much money did you bring in?” “Seventeen pence,” said Pepper, as they broke into a run for the field. “It would have been more, but some of the younger boys didn't have anythin'.” “Have you decided what you're going to do with it?” “The money? I do have an idea about that...” Pepper explained this to China as they hurried for the back field, already lit with dusky sunset. Enough light for another hour, at most. China took her turn first, shoveling over the warmed dirt, as Pepper continued to lace out her idea for what to do with the money. As the first star twinkled above, in the dark blue, they saw the little shadow of Emerald, running toward them in the pale light. “Now why is she runnin'?” China asked aloud. “Emerald hardly ever runs.” “Pepper!” Emerald cried out. “Pepper! I'm so sorry! It's gone. It's gone. Your map was stolen!” 57


Chapter 5

!ief!

There was little time between Emerald's announcement

and Pepper's reaction. She tossed her shovel back to the earth, not so much in a sense of frustration, but in a sense of resolve. “I knew she was going to try somethin' like this. Did you see her take it?” “Well, no. I was escortin' some of the younger boys back into the yard. But when I turned back, it was gone. So was Brigid.” “Her three pence hardly paid for the value of that map,” said China angrily. “We've got to go find her and make her give it back.” “We'll have to do it when she isn't lookin',” said Pepper, thinking carefully. “She'll never admit to takin' it if we 59


demand it back. And her mother certainly won't make her give it back. She'll believe her when she says she didn't take it.” “It's all my fault,” said Emerald with a sad little sigh. “I'm so sorry, Pepper.” “It was hardly your fault!” said Pepper, indignantly. “That thief of a Brigid it was! What does she think she's goin' to do with an old piece of map anyway?” “And just when you had such big plans for it,” said China with a sigh. “What plans?” Emerald asked, her eyes wide in the late sunset. “I was going to use the pence from the museum to ship it to the university in Dublin. Maybe one of the professors can look over it and tell us where it came from.” “Oh, that would have been such a good plan.” “We'll make it work still,” said China. “If we can distract Brigid long enough in the village tomorrow, keep her in the shop...” “One of us can sneak into her room. Take the servant stairs when no one's 'round, and find the map.” “Exactly.” And so they crafted their plans as they returned in the Irish twilight to the cottage, where Aunt Chelsea had already made hot beef pie for dinner.

The next morning, everything was clear. They knew what they were going to do, down to the last jot. And fortunately, it was a Saturday. So once their chores had been finished, they gladly accompanied Aunt Chelsea once again into the village, to complete their unfinished business. 60


It was a bright blue day in mid-August. The woods were brushed with silver, a pretense to the coming autumn. And though the blues, and greens, and silvers of the morning were tranquil, and calming, Pepper bore a mood as riveting as her name, which, in one sense, could be an image of the garden vegetable. She was in a mad red, hot sting. Brigid was not going to get away with it. But at the same time, she managed to appear cool, as cool as the rustling silver tops of the trees. China could tell that Pepper was pleasantly disguising her wrath from Aunt Chelsea. No mention had been made to her of the stolen object. This was not because Aunt Chelsea did not have a sense of justice, nor mercy, but because Aunt Chelsea would have most likely brought the matter directly to Brigid's mother. This would have indubitably induced Brigid to hide the map in a place where it could never be found, until she had thoroughly convinced both her mother and Aunt Chelsea that she was not the thief. Pepper could not allow this to happen. And so the march to the village had still a tang of the sober in it as Pepper spread a full fathom ahead of the others as she swished her fists in determination, propelling her along to confront the enemy. “Pepper seems a little heated today,” Aunt Chelsea noted aloud. Little escaped Chelsea's notice. “She probably wants to see if there are any of the hard apple candies at the shop,” said China, carefully, who was pretty certain that at least somewhere under Pepper's thirst for revenge, lay a, if not much less, desire for hard apple candies. 61


Emerald shot a quick look at her, knowing that China had hardly given the full story. China and Pepper had lectured her the evening before about not saying a word to Aunt Chelsea, or to anyone else for that matter, about the theft. Emerald, however, was suddenly feeling extraordinarily guilty about the fact that she had promised not to say a word, even though Aunt Chelsea had so much as directly asked what was the matter with Pepper. It was fortunate for Emerald that Aunt Chelsea almost immediately left the brief subject of Pepper's mood, and asked Emerald as to the stock of her school supplies for the following week. China saw this as her opportunity to run ahead to Pepper, with no further questions from Aunt Chelsea, and did so in a hurry. She was at a loss to catch her, however, until Pepper reached the outskirts of the village. “Pepper!” China croaked out a soft call, not wishing to arouse any attentions from the villagers. Pepper didn't look back, but only beckoned a hand forward for China to hurry up. “Now,” said Pepper carefully, after China had arrived at her side. “She most certainly is going to be in the shop, waitin' to cause some kind of trouble like she always does. And it looks like Mrs. Kelly is well occupied for the mornin'.” Both girls stole a glance to the church door at the long end of the street where Mrs. Kelly, in her numerous white ruffles, was about to arrive for the Charity for African Orphans Bazaar Committee Meeting. “Yes,” Pepper continued. “Occupied for hours of gossip and tea. Now. While I go look 'round her room, you go into the shop and get Brigid in conversation about Paris until I return. Ask her where she bought the dress she's wearin'. 62


Ask her what she can say in French...” “She'll know I'm bluffin',” said China uncertainly. “I never ask her questions.” “She'll be too puffed up with arrogance about her travels abroad to even notice,” Pepper insisted. “Now come on, quick, before Aunt Chelsea and Emerald arrive.” “Wait,” said China, planting her shoes against the street before Pepper might try to drag her toward the store again. “Why don't you do the distractin'. You can keep up a conversation longer than I can anyway. She's more likely to believe you're actually interested in her trip. She picks fewer fights with you than she does with me.” China could see that Pepper was thinking through all of the various reasons why it might be better to have China do the snooping for her. She needed one last good reason. China knew it. “Besides,” she said, “you know I travel much lighter than you do. I won't make a sound on the stairs. You would sound like an avalanche.” “You're probably right...” “I'll be quick, and they'll never know I was there.” “Fine, then. Go. But if anyone sees you in there, just say that you have a message to deliver to Brigid, and leave it with the cook, or someone.” “What message?” “That Brigid is invited to the autumn social for the Sunday School in two weeks.” “But everyone knows about that already.” “We know that. But the servants won't. Just say that you are supposed to tell everyone about it, in person.” “Well...” “Go on!” Pepper shooed her forward. 63


China recovered from the somewhat unnecessary push in the direction of the Kelly house, while Pepper walked off in a crunch of gravel toward the store, hoping that Brigid had not been looking out of the window. They Kelly house was the practical pinnacle of the town's center. Not only did it look over the busy cross street, which ran across the center of the main street, but it was sandwiched between the rather drab, but important, Town Hall, a fashionably modern name for it, as the villagers had always thought, and the parish of the Anglican church. For this reason, Brigid wore an extra ounce of pride on every ruffle of her pristine ruffles, as she flounced around the village. There it was, rising up above the gray stone street, tall and proud and white, dissimilar to the thatched roofs and hatched window frames of most of the village. Mrs. Kelly, however, prided herself on following every fancy, every fashion of the city. And with whatever Dublin and London and Edinburgh gilded their cities, despite the differences of politics and crown, Mrs. Kelly was equally disposed to have on her own home. China paused for a moment before cutting down the alley between the Kelly residence and Town Hall. Two great white stone pots of some exotic purple flower rustled at the top of the seven steps to the landing where the broad mahogany door stood planted snugly in the center of five perfectly washed windows. But this was not the entrance that she would be taking. China casually looked about the street before slipping off into the alley. It didn't really matter if anyone had noticed her leave the open street. Children often cut through this alley to get to the street behind it, a shortcut toward the vibrant green splashed behind the church, meeting up to the 64


woods a half-mile behind it. The alley was cooled and dark, so tall were the buildings over it. China made her way carefully, knowing that she could momentarily find herself in a great deal of trouble. But she did not let this thought bother her very much. She was too angry with Brigid to care. She stopped just at the end of the path. The door to the back of the servant's quarters was ajar to the breezes of the warmed cool winds. No one seemed to be about. White smoke curled lazily from the kitchen chimney into the still crystal blue of the mid-morning sky. China was not one to wait until something changed in her circumstances before she made her first move. She carefully walked to the door, and without thinking about it again, put her head just inside the room, and looked about. It was a very small room, really. A case of stairs going below to the cellar, and then another going straight up, just next to the first staircase. The rest of the room extended to the right and made up the sitting quarters of the servants. A small fire, unlit, a table and a few well-worn chairs. Perfectly cream walls, as Mrs. Kelly would stand for no collected soot, and had the walls repainted every spring, even in the servants' quarters. But there was no one in the room. China sucked in her breath, and with determination, set her boot on the first stair with the faintest whisper of leather on wood. She had been in Brigid's room several times before. She had only to climb the stairs and follow the straight hall to the far left where her room overlooked the cross street. China hardly breathed again as she lifted herself, one stair above another, to the second floor. There were only twenty-one steps in all. But each one seemed to creak so 65


much more loudly than she had promised Pepper that they would not. And then, finally, she came to the landing. The house seemed to be so perfectly quiet. So still. Surely Mr. Kelly was at home, who seemed so much more fond of books and his pipe than Mrs. Kelly's penchant for social gatherings and functions, and his daughter's vice for bullying and spending her every given cent on “fancies�. Only his son, who was studying at the university in Glasgow, seemed to have any sort of his father's sense. Everyone else, he thought, including the servants, seemed to have nothing more important in their lives than the silly gossip of idle villagers and the terribly unimportant happenings of their lives. Mr. Kelly was far better removed from such frivolity, settled in his study, interrupted, from after breakfast, until dinner. And China could only hope that this was exactly where he sat for the moment, and that the servants were gossiping in the kitchen together, or running errands for Mr. Kelly's always highly anticipated Saturday supper -- roast beef and red potatoes. China still held her breath tightly to herself as she set foot on the hall floor. It was a quite fortunate thing, she thought to herself, that the Kelly's house was not so very old that it creaked on nearly every floorboard, despite the loudness of the staircase. A very fortunate thing. China could see Brigid's door, open, reflecting sunlight from her window. Another fortunate thing. She wouldn't even have to turn the knob. As she approached, she was even more thankful that there wasn't the faintest sound. Surely none of the maids were cleaning in any of the rooms, or she would have heard something. Not even the swiff of a dust cloth or the sweep 66


of a broom. She wasn't sure she could believe how easy it might be. Just the slightest bit further. And she was there. She was almost, for one second, too afraid to peek her head into the room of billowing pink, roses, and white ruffles. But she forced herself around, and there... There it was. The room of the richest girl from there to Dublin. It was perfectly organized. Due only to the scrubbing power of Brigid's personal maid, of course. The floors were covered with braided white rugs, kept pristinely cleaned. The walls were white boards. And her bed and bureau, her clothespress, and writing desk, (which China was certain Brigid rarely used), were white and painted with rosebuds. The bed was drawn with rose pink covers. And on the walls were prints, framed playbills, and paintings, many from far corners of the world. But all seemed to play into the same theme of white and rose pink. China, of course, had seen this room before, only on Brigid's less spiteful days when she preferred to torture her most disdained acquaintances with a visitation of her wealth and possessions, as the King of Sheba had entertained so many guests for so many days. But China was quickly filled with the urgency to locate the missing artifact. It was likely that Brigid had not taken great care to hide it well. She was not, of course, anticipating China coming to look about her room, with the pain of her conscience dragging behind her. And even if her mother or one of the servants had seen it lying about, what would they know of it? China couldn't bring herself to open the drawers of Brigid's writing desk. How could she? But she had to find it, for Pepper. It was cruel to have stolen it from Pepper. Very 67


cruel. And the reminder of it boiled red in China's mind, enough to induce her to grasp the white knob of the top drawer of Brigid's writing desk. “Hallo?” China's heart could not have plummeted any further than it did, as she spun hard 'round to the open door. “Pardon my askin',” said Mr. Kelly, as he folded his newspaper and tucked it under his arm. “But I am not certain that I heard a ring of the bell? Perhaps I was nappin' and unaware. I do apologize.” The complete absurdity of Mr. Kelly apologizing to China, when China should have been clearly the one to beg forgiveness, actually brought a smile to her face. Mr. Kelly smiled. “My dear Miss Shoals, pray enlighten my befuddled mind, on why you should find the need to search my daughter's room?” China swallowed the dry patch in her throat. “Sir, Mr. Kelly, I am... I have no good excuse for my failure to ring the bell and enter properly. However, sir... I...” She recalled Pepper making her solemnly promise not to mention the theft. “I...” But as she looked at Mr. Kelly, patiently waiting for an answer, a pipe in his mouth, and eyes twinkling behind his spectacles, she knew that he could be trusted to react properly. “I have good reason for searchin' Brigid's room.” Ten minutes later, she was sitting at the Kelly's kitchen with half a blueberry tart while she explained to Mr. Kelly, and the cook, (who of course could not help but overhear), what had happened at the museum. 68


“I can see your problem,” said Mr. Kelly. “You do understand that were I to say somethin' directly to Brigid in your presence, that she would deny everythin'. I can force her to confess, but I'm not entirely certain that this would help your situation, or Brigid's.” China nodded. “So what can we do?” Mr. Kelly took a puff of his pipe, staring thoughtfully out the open window. “You say it was just a part of a map? Was it a very small piece?” “Quite small. No more than a few inches at its widest part. With unknown writin' on one side.” “It may be that I've seen this piece,” said Mr. Kelly. He took another puff of his pipe and stared with greater concentration, his dark eyebrows furrowing a little. “Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, Miss Shoals. I am sadly sorry to say to you that I know now what has happened to your map.” “What has happened?” China asked, worried. She didn't like the sound of this past tense. Mr. Kelly suddenly looked to the cook, busy preparing the noonday meal. “Tara, has the mail been sent to the post yet?” “No, sir,” said red-cheeked Tara, bustling over the fire. “It be sittin' on the table at the front door, sir.” “Thank you, Tara,” said Mr. Kelly. “Come with me, Miss Shoals. I have a proposition for you.”

Half an hour later, the bell above the shop door gave a

silver ring, as China pushed past it toward the candy counter. Pepper gave her a not well-concealed glare as Brigid continued to rattle on about some set of stockings she had 69


purchased in Paris. “Kind of you to join us,” Pepper practically hissed at her, as China continued to walk past them toward Aunt Chelsea, with a smile. Pepper quickly broke off the ridiculously boring conversation with Brigid, just in time to accompany Aunt Chelsea and the girls back to the main street. Brigid watched them leave with a flounce of her curls as she returned to the candy jar. “Well?” Pepper asked with incredible impatience, as Chelsea and Emerald began to walk further ahead. “What happened?” “You'll never believe it,” said China, laughing a little. She relayed the events in order. “You see,” she said, “Mr. Kelly had overheard the night before that Brigid intended to send somethin' that she had found to the museum university in London for examination. It seems the Kelly family has connections with one of the professors there, specializing in ancient artifacts. So Brigid thought she was being terribly clever by sending it in. I would have thought she stole the idea from you, if she had been snoopin' around the field last night when you told me about it. But Mr. Kelly remembered it while we talked in the kitchen, and putting the two and two together, he sorted through the mail to be sent to the post. And there it was.” “Ah,” he had said, almost smiling to himself. “What say we change the return address of this packet to your own address, Miss Shoals? Then, whatever valuable information is returned, can be sent directly to its proper owner.” “Then he took a fountain pen from his desk,” China continued. “And he scratched out the Kelly's address, and had me write ours. He's a very clever man. A good one.” “How unfortunate he has such a horrible daughter.” 70


“And wife,” said China. “That is uncharitable. But how he came to be stuck with both of them.” “Well, then, Brigid has managed to save me the cost of mailin' the packet.” “I did offer for us to pay, but Mr. Kelly insisted that we not. He said it hardly makes up for Brigid's theft. But he will, he said, be dealing with Brigid when she returns home this afternoon.” “Revenge is not so sweet,” said Pepper dourfully. “It would have been so much more fun to take care of her ourselves.” “How silly, Pepper. Besides, you know she will afford you plenty more opportunities to remit justice in the future.” Pepper smiled to herself, as she could not help but quickly agree. “And now we wait to hear from London.”

71


Chapter 6

!e Hollow

Bonny Prince Joseph was on the mind of China Shoals a

week after the incident. Perhaps it had not been the true name of the legendary prince laid to unprecedented rest out in the green fields. But Pepper's summer of digging up the grounds had inspired her to rekindle the dreams of the glade in which she still half-believed the imagined prince must lay, swarthed in scarabs and the ancient scroll just under his breastplate. It had been nearly a month since she had been to the glade, so absorbed Pepper had been in her digging, unable to accompany her. And China was not permitted to go alone. Aunt Chelsea saw to that. Emerald would only come when she had finished her readings, which usually did not end until long after supper. 73


And so, as the short summer drew to a close, China decided that she must visit her beautiful hollow once more before school resumed. Aunt Chelsea was in the kitchen making biscuits for the next two days. China could smell the wispy baking of flour and knew that they would be served with butter and preserves. China slipped into her dress of choice for the morning. The canary yellow. And she braided back her hair. Today, she was going to be the duchess. The duchess who visited the exiled prince in the green hollow, bringing sustenance until he could escape to the Caribbean. She could imagine her dress turned into the gown of a duchess. Rustling gold to the floor, and her plain nutmeg hair would be wrapped up appealingly on top of her head. She would wear a chain of emeralds, sparkling the deepest of Irish greens. And hidden in the fold of her dress would be a message for the prince, sent from dissenters at court, spies, readying his escape ship. “Where are you goin'?” Pepper asked. She was sitting up in bed, scrubbing at her eyes. She had decided that she had had enough of digging until a later time. After the incident with the stolen scrap of map, she felt that further adventure could be postponed until a later part in the coming season. “I'm going to the glade,” said China assertively. “You can't go by yourself.” “I'm going to ask Aunt Chelsea. She won't mind as much this time. The northern pastures are filled with sheep this week. I heard Mrs. Shearlutch say so last week. If somethin' were to happen to me, which it won't, I could call for help to one of the shepherds.” 74


Pepper didn't answer and instead lay back on her pillow, returning to slumber. It was early. Just shortly after five o'clock. But China didn't mind. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts and her stories. Time alone, even on such a quiet farm, was not always a very easy thing to do. “Aunt Chelsea,” she said softly, coming down the stairs. “Would you let me go to the glade today?” “Alone?” Chelsea asked, just pulling the biscuits from the fire. “Yes, but the shepherds are in the fields this week...” “I know. Yes, you may go. But come home by dark. Promise me.” Aunt Chelsea drew a stray lock of dark red hair away from her face. Her hands were still dusted with flour. “I promise. Of course.” “I'll fix you up a basket,” said Chelsea with a smile.

How warm the morning breeze felt on China's face, as

she walked across the fields. And so cool at the same time. One wind from the forests, and the other from the sea. It was full of refreshment, those winds, colliding against one another in an earthy glory of late summer. And China loved them. They brought promise of another late afternoon storm. But China didn't mind. How often she had walked home in summer storms, and was scolded for them severely by Aunt Chelsea. “Fortunate the lightenin' didn't strike you dead!” she had cried so many times. “Oh, I was fine, Aunt Chelsea!” China would claim, basking in the literal glow of such close encounters with bolts of heavenly light. 75


“You scare me to death, child!” Aunt Chelsea would say, hugging her tight, who only ever called her nieces “child”, when she had been very frightened or very angry with them. But for the present, there was nothing of a glint of lightening beyond the northern shores. And China was happy enough to enjoy the blistering winds of the east and the west, together, as she ran in spurted intervals toward her precious glade. As the trail of her yellow dress fluttered behind her, she had forgotten that it was a simple country dress, and hardly needed to even imagine that it was anything but the rustling gold of brilliance that only a duchess could wear. And in her hair would be a wreath of mistletoe, crafted beautifully around her hair as black as any Irishwoman's, despite her belief that, as a duchess, she was French, and secretly Russian. Her boots caught against the tangled bracken and field grasses, as she flew under open sky. But nothing made her stumble. When China was alone with the world, she was the only one alive in its boiling creation. Sometimes she saw the world as a frothing ball of thought-melting color, gurgling with life and fire and water wrapped in a perfect sphere of ice so clear and crisply cold, holding the warmth of creation from the beginning of times. It was an image she carried with her as simply believed as the belief that she was China Shoals. And there was the hill. The perfectly carpeted hill of green. Open to the heavens and the world, and the sea. So high above the fields, China felt that when standing upon it, she could see across the whole of the world and the universe. 76


She ran to its top and spread her arms under the sun. There, she was not the duchess, but a citizen of ancient times, times when gods and goddesses flew in the skies and the sun and moon were worshipped. But so as not to be a perfect heathen, even in her imagination, China never thought about these things for very long, and instead of sitting for hours on this majestic hill, she tumbled down its side in a fast run, toward the glade just down its other side. As soon as she entered its gated kingdom, guarded by mystical pines and spruce, China paused, and, as if told by heaven, she closed her eyes against the cool blue of its cathedral interior, and thought that she could almost see before her, in her mind's eye, the wounded prince lying off on a waddle of emerald green moss and white bracken. “My lord,” she said softly, “how does thy wound this day? Is it better?” Prince Joseph smiled kindly upon her. “My lady,” he returned, “thou art an angel wrapped in gold. Thou hast risked thy life to come and see me safely to foreign shores.” China picked up her rustling skirts as she crossed the small woodland stream, no wider across than the length of her arm, and walked softly on the mottled green of the glade floor. “I bring thee bread,” she said. “And what mutton was left at the table of thy king.” “The king,” Prince Joseph had said thoughtfully, his beautiful face turning sad at his name. “Had he but heard my story in full, he would not have banished me to such a place.” “But beautiful a place it is,” said China in return, hoping to keep up his spirits. “Thy ship is delayed but three weeks 77


more. Dost thou think thee can wait three weeks? In rain and in wind?” “Rain is cooling. Wind freshens that which I breathe, and makes the hours pass all the better.” “Thou art good to be so patient, my lord.” China set the basket at his side and began to unwrap the meal, meager though it was. “Apples, sir,” she said. “Red, and shining,” he said happily, picking up one of the two which lay on the mossy ground. “Like jewels these are.” China could not help but notice the rattle of blue scarabs at his wrist as he held the precious fruit in his hand. So small and cut from the purest lapis. But still China asked nothing about them. Every day for two months she had seen them at his wrist. He never took them off. She had heard of his magnificent conquests in the eternal land of mummified kings and ghosts, tombs buried silent, undisturbed... but she had heard little of the accusations laid against him for treason while there, for treachery. He had said nothing about it, why the king had exiled him, and sent bounty hunters after his head, freely. She asked no questions. “Art thou hungry?” she asked, pushing aside the scarabs from her mind. “As a bear,” he replied cheerfully, ignoring the bandaged wound of his leg. “Wilt thou stay and share it with me?” China shook her head, sadly. “I cannot. I would be missed, gone for so long. Allow me to replace thy bandage. This night will be cold, I fear.” “And better than heat,” said the prince gratefully. “Cold does better to a wound such as mine.” 78


He never complained, she thought to herself. And as she dressed the wound, he told her stories of days of old, when, as a youth, he trailed his uncle, the king, in ploys of battle to Arabia. The way he spoke of desert battles, of castles filled with veiled princesses and holy relics, splinters of the cross, crushed roses from the garden tomb, markets of spices and silks, black horses thundering across the shore... the kaleidoscope of brilliant color painted across her mind the soaring thrills she could never hope to see. “Do my stories bore you?” he asked, as she clipped at the last of the cotton cloth. She looked up at him, slightly startled that he might suspect such a thing. “Never,” she said firmly. Thy stories speak of glittering stars that I could never see. The darkness of night is all too black in this corner of our world. But when thou speakest of such places, they seem to glimmer from behind the shadows. I am thankful to hear of them.” The prince smiled tiredly at her. “Thou art good to listen to the rambles of my life,” he said. “There are many more to come, on foreign shores,” said China, rising from her seat upon the moss. The prince was silent. The silvering edge of his hair seemed more silver that evening, as he seemed to be thinking on things far and away from the place he haunted at that moment in time. The shimmer of firefly began to light the dark water green of the glade. “I shall return before I am missed,” said China, regretfully. “I shall come tomorrow.” “As always,” said the prince. “As always.” 79


Again, as he did every evening before she left him there, he pressed a hand to his breastplate, which he still wore at all times, should he be quickly called to leave. China knew he kept a small scroll there. She had seen it only once when she had arrived one afternoon to find him nearly unconscious from the wound of his leg. It had slipped from his armor. Sealed with the stamp of some unknown entity in dark red, and labeled with black ink in signs foreign enough to her eyes that she knew them at once to be Coptic. But she had said nothing to him. And every evening, in holy ritual, he pressed a hand to it in a sort of benediction to her parting.

It was many hours later that China broke the dream. She

had finished her lunch. The sun was parting from the earth. And she had promised Aunt Chelsea that she would be home within the hour. She sighed a little happily to herself, having lived through another week of the young life of the duchess, still no nearer to understanding the mystery of the scroll of Prince Joseph. Her imagination had not yet decided this. And so she parted the cold stream in the glade to return another day. It was time to once again return.

80


Chapter 7

A Revelation

One week later, the three girls were sitting at the kitchen

table, looking over the south fields in the hazy gray of a misted morning. “It would be rain on another Monday,” said Pepper sourly, as she stirred her white porridge. “I love the rain,” said Emerald sweetly. “You love everythin',” said Pepper. “You won't love it as much when we get to the mud in the fields.” China smiled to herself. There was nothing more beautiful and mysterious than a morning of whispering gray mist, coming from over the sea to spread as silent creatures over yellow fields, deep green forests, curling up toward the old stone schoolhouse. So old and chinked with moss and lichen. Perhaps a century and a half of school 81


children had visited the writing desks of that building. And China thought that it was the perfect school, up on the small hill above the little Irish valley. “You're dreamy today, China,” said Aunt Chelsea. “She's always dreamy,” said Pepper, still stirring her white porridge. Aunt Chelsea never asked direct questions about what the girls thought. She merely commented, and calmly. China watched her for a few moments, the endless red curls slipping from her hair pins. She sipped at her tea from the little china cup, hand painted in Russia (sometimes the source of inspiration for China's dreams of the duchess), and brought back for her by her brothers. But as China only half-listened to Pepper's prattle about the despicable rain, she saw something that concerned her. Aunt Chelsea was always so pleasant, so beautifully calm and serene. Happy, it seemed. There was a constant light in her dark blue eyes. But, and maybe China had only really come to see it recently, as she grew older, but there was something else in Aunt Chelsea's young eyes. She was tired. And she was lonely. “Goodbye, my girls!” she called after them. “Take care to watch for the mud!” “Horrible muck,” Pepper mumbled, as they stumbled up the first pasture hill. “You are very quiet today, China” said Emerald. “Is somethin' the matter?” “Have you seen Aunt Chelsea lately?” Pepper looked over her shoulder. “What a silly question. Of course we've seen her.” “I mean really looked at her. Don't you notice somethin' different these days?” 82


Pepper was silent, as if the thought had not come to her. “I have,” said Emerald quietly. “I think we make her lonely.” “You're right,” said China. “If she didn't have the farm to watch after, and us to take care of, she would be in town, maybe givin' music lessons, or in Dublin or...” “Someplace not here,” said Pepper. “Of course she's tired. Why didn't we do somethin' about that before?” “What could we do?” Emerald asked. “We could find her a position in the village,” said Pepper. “We can't tend the sheep ourselves,” said China. “We could find people to come visit her.” “And she'd know it was charity.” “I don't think she prefers many visitors,” Emerald added. “Well you come up with somethin' then,” Pepper retorted. The girls were silent for several moments as they continued their walk through the mist. “She might want to be married then,” said China finally. “Oh!” Emerald said with a small gasp. “Wouldn't that be lovely. She would be such a beautiful bride!” “Wait a moment!” Pepper cried. “We can't go off marryin' away Aunt Chelsea. There are too many things to consider.” “Such as?” China asked. Pepper's jaw dropped. “Are you seriously considerin' this? Tryin' to find someone for Aunt Chelsea to marry!” “Why ever not?” “Why ever not!” Pepper stopped still in her tracks. “Doesn't it occur to you, the millions of reasons why it could be a terrible idea! She might marry a horrible man! She might not be happy. We might have to be sent away if he doesn't like us. She might not want to get married after 83


all...” “Pepper!” China said quite loudly. “I haven't arranged anything at all. I'm only suggestin' that maybe she wants to get married. Isn't that somethin' most maidens think about, at least from time to time?” “Maiden!” Pepper laughed. “I would hardly call her a maiden. She must be as old as... How old is Aunt Chelsea?” “Twenty-four,” said Emerald. “Oh, that is not very old, I suppose.” “Old enough to have been married for several years, though,” said China. “She never speaks about it,” said Emerald. “Besides, there's no good men left in the village. If there were ever any at all.” “Oh, you are cynical,” said China. “All I suggest is that we look around for her. If there is anyone she might want to marry, we might... arrange somethin'.” Pepper looked almost deviously at her. “I suppose. Someone has to look out for her, after all.” “Are you agreed, Emerald, that it would be a good thing to do for Aunt Chelsea?” China asked, carefully. Emerald was a perfect child, and would only do anything that she believed was perfectly honest. “I want Aunt Chelsea to be happy,” she said sincerely, as she stepped lightly around a cake of fresh mud in the path. “And I think that it would be a good idea.” That settled it. China smiled happily at the inspiration of her new idea as they ran toward the school's bell, just having begun to ring over the rise of green hill.

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Surprisingly, that morning, China was having a very difficult time keeping her mind to the new studies of the school year, despite the fact that Schoolmaster David Blacks had managed to rustle together the most interesting materials the village children had seen yet. She was far too distracted with the invention of making Aunt Chelsea eternally happy, which rested plumbly on finding for her the perfect gentleman. “China?” She quickly throttled herself back into the white-washed stone of the classroom, where thirty-seven pairs of eyes blinked at her from around the room. She had been asked a second question of the day, which she had failed to hear. She rose deliberately from her seat. “Yes, sir?” “China, are you aware of the topic at hand?” Professor Blacks' voice drifted smoothly across the room. “Unfortunately, sir, no. I am not.” The professor looked at her oddly. “This is unlike you to not pay attention, China. I trust that whatever is currently distractin' your thoughts can be set aside until after school is dismissed?” China nodded, vaguely aware that Emerald was practically blushing out of sympathetic embarrassment for her cousin. “Yes, sir.” And then there was Brigid, as China took her seat, wearing a mean grin on her face. China wondered if her father had ever spoken to her about the stolen map. She trusted that he had done so. But China was likely never to hear about it again. Not from Brigid. She would never freely admit to a fault around anyone. 85


“As you can easily see,” Professor Blacks was saying to the class, “the Dark Ages... just the final hours of night before the sunrise. Who knows what represents that sunrise?” Half the hands of the class shot upward, including China's. “China?” China rose again. “The Renaissance, sir.” “Correct, China.” She could not help but toss an extra glance at Brigid as she settled back at her desk, redeemed. It was not a difficult thing to do under Schoolmaster Blacks' instruction. His enticement to learn was unmatched by any other professor, it was said by his pupils, in all the country. Perhaps in all of Great Britain. And out of reverence for him, China, with great difficulty, set aside the remainder of her ideas regarding Aunt Chelsea, until the lunch hour. As the children scattered out the door, China more thoughtfully retrieved the boxed lunch from her desk and set it out, piece by piece. If she remained inside, her thoughts would be less restricted by the annoyances of Brigid and any other bullies, of which there were more than one. Aunt Chelsea had taken care to pack the girls a special lunch. China couldn't help but smile as she looked inside her little wood box. Lined with crinkly white paper, it held inside a juicy peach, a slab of roast beef topped with goat cheese, a wedge of soft brown bread, and a small cherry tart. As China began her meal, she stared outside the window to the other children playing on the hill. And slowly, methodically, she began to run through her mind, an analysis of every available young, or old, man in the village, 86


extending into the whole county. There was Mr. Kelly's son, away at university, but he was hardly older than Aunt Chelsea. And when would they ever meet now, except on holidays? Reverend Blath had a nephew in Abán's Wick, but he seemed to be also too young. He might be even younger than Aunt Chelsea, which would never do. Even if he were older, he had plans to also continue at the university. There were a few old widowers in outlying farms who were over 40 years old, but none of them looked very well, in China's opinion. And if Aunt Chelsea were to marry one of them, there would be the question of two farms, and China could never bring herself to move from their cottage. No, none of them would do... Professor Blacks was still at the board scribbling out a chalk-drawn map of the Middle East, as he prepared for the sixth session of the day following lunch, Geography. When he finally turned around, he was surprised to see China still sitting at her desk. “China, I thought you were outside,” he said. “Is there something you needed?” “No, sir,” said China. “Are you alright?” he asked, looking at her oddly. China, at just that moment, was wearing a most ridiculous expression on her face. For it was at that moment, that a sort of heavenly light seemed to shine above Professor Blacks' head. “China?” “Yes, sir?” China stammered, trying not to stare in a sort of mystified glaze. “Are you alright?” “Oh, yes,” China shook her head, trying to clear her stupor. “Yes, yes, I am. I'm sorry. I'm a little dazed today, I 87


suppose.” “Well, I hope that you have had time to finish your lunch, at least. It is time to ring the bell.” “Oh, may I do it, sir?” “Of course, China. And thank you.” China was glad for the opportunity to hop away for a moment to collect her thoughts. That was him! Professor Blacks! China was still so stupefied that she didn't see Pepper trot past her indoors, staring at her funny face. China was still in a cloud when, three hours later, she wrapped up her books for the end of the school day and followed the other children back out the door. “What is the matter with you?” Pepper asked her as she ran to catch up with a very determined China. “I've had a revelation of revelations!” China said with a broad smile creasing her cinnamon freckles. “What sort?” “I know who Aunt Chelsea should marry.” “What? There's no one here at all who she could marry. I've already thought through them all.” “Come now, Pepper. Can't you think of one single soul who would be perfect for her?” Pepper didn't pause. “No. Not one.” “Really, Pepper? I'm incredulous enough myself that I couldn't see it before this.” Pepper raised her eyebrows. “Well?” “Professor Blacks!” Pepper stopped hard in her tracks, causing Emerald to nearly run into her in the process. 88


“What do you think?” China asked, uncertain as to the meaning behind Pepper's reaction. “That's brilliant! Why didn't we think of it before?” “I don't know. It's ridiculous that we haven't,” said China excitedly. “We have so many plans to make now.” “Oh, Professor Blacks is such a kind man,” said Emerald. “He would be wonderful as an uncle.” “Uncle!” Pepper exclaimed. “Well, I suppose he would be. Our uncle and professor at once.” “We can't get ahead of ourselves, of course,” said China, as they plunged back down the green hill. “We will have to write down everythin' in order for it to work perfectly.”

That evening, all three girls spent their supposed hours

of study in the loft. Aunt Chelsea, fortunately, was very busy visiting with Mrs. Shearlutch, who had dropped in for a cup of tea and an invitation to attend the African Orphans Bazaar. There was no chance of anything being overheard, as Mrs. Shearlutch was a very loud sort of woman, and always overstayed her welcome. “What should we do first?” Pepper asked. Silence permeated the room for several long moments. What could be done, really? Aunt Chelsea was the antithesis of forwardness. “Perhaps we could make it happen so that they run into each other in the village,” said China, “except that it would only be like any other meeting, like at church.” “And they hardly ever speak there at all,” said Emerald. “I don't believe they've ever actually spoken to one another,” said China, “now that I think of it.” “He looks at her enough,” said Pepper. “When?” 89


“After services, when we leave the church. He always watched her leave.” “Well, why didn't you say somethin' before? This could be very good.” “I don't know,” said Pepper, irritably. “I had other things on my mind.” “Diggin' up treasure,” said China. They lapsed back into silence again. A peal of Mrs. Shearlutch's laughter rang from the sitting room. “What about if we spoke with Mrs. Blath and made some sort of agreement with her that she would begin invitin' them to tea, all of us, together,” said China. “That would appear less conspicuous.” “No time for that,” Pepper replied. “No... We could arrange a meetin' for just the two of them, and tell each of them something different,” said Pepper. “What do you mean?” asked China. “We could tell Professor Blacks that we needed to meet him for tutorin' in some subject on Saturday afternoon. But instead of us showin' up, we could have Aunt Chelsea be there.” “Why would she come?” “Because we'd tell her that I got into a fight with Brigid and he needs to speak with her about it.” “You can't do that,” said Emerald. “Watch me do it,” said Pepper. “I think I know what needs to happen here.” “But you haven't really gotten into a fight with Brigid,” said Emerald. “Not yet, anyway.” “I will be,” said Pepper. “Uh oh,” was all that China could say. 90


China and Emerald were not long in discovering what, exactly, Pepper had planned to do. When Pepper had decided to do something, that was the end of everything. She plunged fully ahead until everything was accomplished. This was, in some respects, much to China's advantage. For when Pepper was in the sort of agreeing mood to be of assistance, she greatly aided in realizing China's imaginative, and often unrealistic, ideas. In this case, however, China was uncertain if a sudden spin on Aunt Chelsea, was advisable, let alone appropriate. “Won't you please tell me what you're going to do?” China asked Pepper as they hurried along to school. “Just tell me.” Pepper shook her head. “Then you'd be in on it, and get into trouble too. Just let me take care of it.” “I know you're goin' to pick a fight with Brigid and make it out to be that you'll be the one to get into trouble. So then Professor Blacks will have to call Aunt Chelsea over here.” “At least Emerald will be happy with it all,” said Pepper. “No one will need to lie.” “You're still going to get into trouble on purpose with Brigid. We don't need any more of that.” “Since when do you try to play peacemaker, China?” Pepper asked hotly. “You're always the one wantin' to pull off some sort of revenge on Brigid.” China didn't respond. She knew it was true. “I won't even have to do anythin',” Pepper went on. And then she grinned. “Just watch me.” China gulped a little, as Pepper ran ahead toward the school house, the gong of the bell ringing into the fresh early autumn air. 91


It didn't take long for things to get rolling. China slipped into her desk, purposefully avoiding any sort of eye contact with Brigid, and with Professor Blacks. After her embarrassing moment of revelation the previous afternoon, she was a little worried that he might believe there was something wrong with her. Fortunately for China, anything as subtle as she had done the day before, became even more forgetful as the eruption began to rumble, far off. “Now, class,” said Professor Blacks in his scant brogue, “who can tell me who was the first president of our fellow allies, the United States of America?” Brigid's hand shot into the air. “Brigid?” Brigid rose victoriously from her seat, slowly, queenly. She opened her mouth to answer. Pepper jumped up from her seat. “General George Washington!” she exclaimed. Professor Blacks raised his eyebrows as Brigid's jaw dropped. “Correct, Miss Shoals.” China held her breath. Perhaps Professor Blacks would overlook her “mistake”. Pepper took her seat, slowly followed by Brigid, her mouth still agape at being usurped. “Can anyone name the second President of the United States?” Professor Blacks continued. Once again, Brigid raised her hand, amidst the others. “Brigid?” Pepper didn't give Brigid the opportunity to stand this time. “John Adams, sir.” Brigid's eyes boiled with indignation. 92


“Professor!” she protested. Professor Blacks raised his hand for silence. “Miss Shoals,” he said, “that answer is correct. However, I called on Miss Kelly to answer the question.” “Oh?” Pepper turned around to look casually at Brigid, which only increased Brigid's fury, “I thought you called on me.” “No, Pepper. Please be seated, both you and Miss Kelly.” Pepper took a seat and winked at China. China's eyes were already wide. This could not supply the intended ending, she thought to herself. But then the unthinkable, albeit predictable, happened. “And the third President?” Professor Blacks went on. “Yes, Brigid?” Pepper practically leapt from her seat. Oh, no, Pepper, what are you doing? China thought to herself aghast. “Thomas Jefferson!” China heard the classroom gasp. Brigid looked as though snakes might shoot from her hair toward the happily crafty Pepper. Her fingers coiled in and out of her fists. “That is enough, Pepper,” said Professor Blacks firmly. “Please do not respond again for the rest of this class session. Take your seats.” But Pepper knew that was all she needed to begin the fight of the century, if not maybe simply the school year. As soon as the children had gathered out on the green for lunch, it happened. The air was full of the tension. It was as if every student, from youngest to oldest, knew that a brawl was about to break. Brigid was ready. Her prim white sleeves were actually folded up past her wrists, and her blood was boiling. 93


As soon as Pepper left the open school room door, she smiled to herself as she saw the ring of children waiting for the match to begin. “Nice afternoon,” she said casually, walking toward the incensed Brigid. “You pig!” Brigid cried. And suddenly, Brigid was flying for the awaiting Pepper. The fury was mighty, and the brawl was a cloud-pleaser. Professor Blacks, separating them only two minutes later, was quickly informed by Brigid and her fellow posse, that it was “all Pepper's fault”, and Pepper did nothing to stop them. She had trouble not laughing at how quickly and easily her plan was coming together. And so it was with great displeasure that Professor Blacks found himself writing a note of summons to Pepper's aunt, Miss Chelsea Shoals, that he must speak with her that evening at the schoolhouse regarding the matter of Pepper's behavior at school that day.

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Chapter 8

!e Consequences of Ideas

After the shock had subsided, China began to actually

appreciate the fact that Pepper had so willingly thrown herself to the lions. All the way home, Emerald was silent. She was completely aghast. And Pepper didn't care. She didn't care at all. She wasn't even going to try to hide the fact from Aunt Chelsea that she had been in a true brawl. She already sported a blue bruise above her left eye, and she seemed almost proud of it. “You're a bold one, Pepper,” was all that China could say. “Not much,” said Pepper, with a toss of her head. “But if that doesn't work right from the top, I don't know what will.” 95


Pepper had a good point. Aunt Chelsea and Professor Blacks would now be compelled to officially speak longer than twenty seconds at a time together. And from a simple ploy at the hand of Pepper. The girls trailed home on high hopes, and guilt, to one degree or another from one of them to the next. When Chelsea was given the news, she said nothing at first. She only looked at the scrap of paper with Professor Blacks' signature for what seemed to be a rather long amount of time. Then, slowly, she looked up at Pepper, raising one eyebrow. “Pepper?” “Yes, Aunt Chelsea?” “Why did you do this?” “Aunt Chelsea, you know that Brigid started the fight.” “But you wanted her to start it.” Pepper was quiet. China and Emerald pretended to be involved with their studies. “Pepper?” “Why would you think I would want to get into a fight with Brigid? I have more important things to do.” “I agree with you, which is why I want to know why you did it.” “Aunt Chelsea...” “I know you, Pepper. You wouldn't have ever allowed Brigid to actually make a mark on you. I see that bruise. You have somethin' going on here.” “I guess I just felt like gettin' even for all the trouble she always causes.” Chelsea, who never asked questions, decided that she had asked enough, and let the matter fall. So it was three very anxious girls who watched their aunt walk over the green hill after she had slipped into her third 96


best dress and carefully pin up her hair before leaving the cottage to meet Professor Blacks and Mrs. Kelly at the school house only one hour later. “It isn't going to be very helpful with Mrs. Kelly being there, I suppose,” said China, as Aunt Chelsea disappeared behind the ridge. “That's why my plan was so excellent,” said Pepper, unconcerned. “You know Brigid isn't going to breathe a word of this to Mrs. Kelly. She'll say that the note was lost and that Mrs. Kelly wouldn't believe that her darling had ever caused any sort of trouble.” “You are a clever one,” said China, tucking her chin in her hands as they continued to watch into the evening. “Let's go see what happens,” said Pepper suddenly. “What!” China cried. “We can't do that!” “Why not?” Pepper asked, already slipping back on her boots. “They're supposed to have a chaperone anyway, aren't they, so that the town won't talk? That's the last thing we need.” China needed little more convincing. She also had slipped on her boots, and within seconds, she and Pepper were pounding down the stairs toward the cottage door. “Watch the sheep, Emerald!” Pepper called over her shoulder, as Emerald sighed to herself, shook her head, and did as she was told. Off they raced. Chelsea was already beyond the north field by the time they could see her shadow pass toward the second hill. “Slow, slow,” whispered China, already out of breath. “We'll have to wait until she's just outside the school house before we go much further.” “Alright,” Pepper agreed. “But there's no way to hear what they're saying unless we hide inside.” 97


“Inside!” China cried. “How are we supposed to do that?” “We'll slip in and sit just under the coat rack and hope they don't see us on the way out. Besides, if they do see us, we'll just say that I've come to apologize.” “Rascal,” China said, still breathing heavily, but grinning. “Alright, then, captain. I'll follow your lead.” The girls waited just after the ridge of the first hill for several minutes more, until they could be assured that Aunt Chelsea had just arrived on the school grounds. And they were right. After another brisk run in the dying grays and blues of an August evening, they slipped up to the stone blocks of the school steps where the orange glow of a lamp lit the last windows, and like whispers, lifted the latch of the door. “Mrs. Kelly should be arrivin' at any moment now, Miss Shoals,” Professor Black was in the middle of saying. “I do apologize for asking you both to come all this way, but I didn't wish to have you walk even a further distance to the village to meet at the hall.” “It's no matter,” said Aunt Chelsea graciously. Fortunately, the shadows were so dark just inside the door, that Pepper and China could stand there with ease until brave enough to slip a few steps under the coat rack just to their left. Aunt Chelsea was sitting at China's desk, and China could already tell by the sound of her thin voice, that she was tired. This is a bad idea, she thought to herself. Aunt Chelsea is not going to make the best of impressions at this time of day after workin' so hard and long with the farm and everythin' else. We should have tried to arrange a Saturday meeting. 98


But China couldn't complain. Pepper had done enough to try to make this work. It's not right, China continued to think, oblivious to the conversation taking place between Professor Blacks and Aunt Chelsea of scant importance. We should have planned this out for months in advance. It should have been tediously arranged. It won't even be romantic this way... But China needn't have feared. Plans rarely worked as arranged the first time. They sat and waited for fifteen minutes more, under the coat wrack. And nothing was happening. “This is ridiculous,” Pepper scarcely whispered, almost indignantly. “They've spoken on nothin' other than my behavior and our school records. They haven't even mentioned themselves to one another yet. It's as though they haven't even introduced each other yet.” “It takes time,” China whispered back, suddenly regretting her idea that maybe things were happening too suddenly. There was a click just at that very moment. China jumped. Pepper almost did, but caught herself. No! she thought to herself. Who could be coming to ruin their careful plans? “Professor Blacks?” The girls heard her voice before they saw her. It was Mrs. Kelly! China pulled herself so tight back against the wall, she thought she might flatten herself into nothing. Pepper did the same, but she was scowling. “Professor Blacks!” “Welcome, Mrs. Kelly,” said the professor. “Would you please join us?” 99


China and Pepper slipped out without even signaling to one another, and were soon running back for the hills. It was only when they were once again within sight of the cottage, that they stopped, and felt free to vent their irritation at the preposterous Mrs. Kelly. “How dare she come!” Pepper exclaimed angrily. “She should never have been there! Now they will speak of nothing but Brigid and myself. And we have gotten nowhere.” “It was kind of you to try,” China told her, an attempt at consoling. “It's almost as if Brigid knew our plans and was purposefully tryin' to stop us,” Pepper went on impatiently. “Well, that settles it finally. I'm going to make sure that Brigid doesn't ruin this again. We've just got to come up with a better plan!” They girls walked back in the blue up to their loft, Pepper prattling onward about things that didn't seem to make sense together.

Nothing of any significance seemed to happen over the next two days. Pepper seemed to be calculating the possibilities, and when asked by China, inevitably told her to, “just wait; I'm gettin' a plan.” So when Friday afternoon came around, on the walk home from school, Pepper finally burst out, “I know what we can do!” Finally! China thought to herself. “What's the plan?” “Tomorrow mornin', we're going to let Aunt Chelsea walk to the village without us. We'll say that we have other things to do. So while she's away, and maybe Emerald 100


should go with her to avoid some suspicions....” Emerald just sighed a little to herself and turned her eyes onto the white field flowers. “So while they're away,” Pepper continued, “we're going to make sugar cookies. And then when they're finished, we'll take them over to Professor Blacks' cottage and leave them there with a note from Aunt Chelsea.” “What note?” China asked. “A forged note, of course.” “We can't do that!” China said in astonishment. “It's for the better good,” Pepper said, drawing China further down the road. She didn't want Emerald to hear the plan and submit any moral clauses. “I won't write the note,” said China. “You'll have to do that. But I will make the sugar cookies. I don't see what good it's goin' to do.” “It will at least make Professor Blacks think that Aunt Chelsea has some sort of interest in him. Maybe that is all it will take for him to reciprocate.” China was not convinced, but she went along with the idea anyway.

The following afternoon, Pepper and China could be seen hurrying over windblown green hills toward Professor Blacks' cottage. Neither had ever been there, but Pepper was certain that she knew the way. “Pepper,” China said, gasping to keep up with her cousin, “are you really sure we're goin' the right way?” “Of course I'm sure,” said Pepper. “Doesn't he always say he lives right through the east woods, and just across the valley?” 101


“That is a very long way to come every day to school.” “He's tall,” said Pepper logically. “I'm sure he can walk much faster than we can.” China was not exactly pleased with this explanation, but continued to follow Pepper, who was holding the box piled high with soft sugar cookies. “Do you think this is the best way to do it?” China asked aloud, shortly later. “What do you mean?” “I mean that,” China gulped a little for air, “this isn't a very romantic way to make things happen. Shouldn't it be Professor Blacks' idea, and not Aunt Chelsea's? I mean ours. Of course, he's going to think it was Aunt Chelsea's idea.” “I don't think it will matter very much,” said Pepper. But she didn't give a reason why, and China knew that it was because she didn't have a very good reason. “Maybe we shouldn't leave the note with the cookies,” China thought aloud. “Maybe we should just bring them ourselves. He might even invite us in for tea, and we can tell him wonderful things about Aunt Chelsea.” Pepper didn't answer at first. China gave her a few moments to think. “Do you think it would be a good idea, Pepper?” Pepper stopped walking as she reached the dark green ridge of another hill. “Pepper?” Pepper was standing still, arm stretched out to block the haze of the sun. “Rain,” she said, pointing to the north. It was a breathtaking overlook from that hill. Just beyond it lay the majestic valley spreading miles into the north before the high hills and the forests, where a storm boiled just above them. 102


“Looks as though it were more than rain,” said China. “Perhaps we should turn 'round. We would have seen his cottage by now.” Pepper didn't want to admit defeat, but she knew that she was going to have to do so. “Maybe we'll find it on the way back,” she said. “Let's walk further north. I'm sure we'll pass his cottage on the way back.” China just shook her head and headed back into the dim morning light, following Pepper. As another hour passed, however, even Pepper was becoming very uncertain of their location. Neither girl had ever walked so far alone, and neither had the slightest of inklings as to where the professor's cottage might actually be. And then the roll of rain came. “Oh no,” China said mournfully. They could hear it before they felt it, the splash of silver beads, tumbling in a wash from the now ruckused heavens. “And now the cookies will be completely ruined,” said Pepper irritably. “No, they won't,” China assured her. “The lid is latched. It's more important that we find some place to wait until the rain has passed.” “There's nowhere,” said Pepper grimly. “Well come on, then, we'll have to take a run.” China didn't think to argue with this. Both girls began to tear back to the west. China was vaguely grateful for the fact that they had carefully sponged the cookies into the box with rolled paper so that they would not shuffle around inside. But this was not a very important thought on her mind; not nearly as much as the fact that they appeared to be lost. 103


“Where are we?” she cried into the wind. “I don't know!” Pepper shouted back. “We've never been here before!” China held her tongue about Pepper's idea being a very poor one. Why hadn't they just decided to make everything remarkably simple by asking Professor Blacks to court their aunt in the first place? The ridiculous thought left her mind almost immediately, as Pepper took off running along the edge of the black wood. “I don't think you're goin' the right way!” China called after her. But Pepper couldn't hear her, and China made every effort to follow right after, blinded by rain and wind, and weighed down by the suddenly heavy box of cookies. The wind cracked around them in sharp gusts, the rain drove them into the green hills, and the thunder was viciously loud. China felt almost the need to press her hands against her ears. They were lost. The darkness was becoming darker as the sun was beginning to shrink behind the storm as the afternoon wore on. China was beginning to shiver. Pepper's lips trembled in the cool rain. Finally, she sat down under a tree at the edge of the wood. “I don't know what to do,” she said. “We're just goin' to have to wait here until the rain stops.” China took a seat next to Emerald, and set the box of cookies in her lap. She was tired, she was irritated that the plan had failed again, and she felt like crying as much as the skies were crying. “Hallo!” Pepper jumped up from the ground. 104


“What was that?” China exclaimed, forgetting about the box of cookies as they tumbled from her lap. “I think...” said Pepper, straining to see through the darkness and the rain. “I think it's the... professor!” There he was, wrapped in a long black coat and carrying a glass lantern, glowing from the woodland. “What? How?” China asked aloud. “Professor!” Pepper cried out. “Professor!” “Pepper!” he called back, walking swiftly toward them along what seemed to be a path. They must have missed the marking in the driving rain. “China!” the professor called out when he saw her as well. “What are you girls doing so far from home in this storm?” “We were out on a walk, sir,” said Pepper, overjoyed to be rescued with the aid of a guide. “We can't seem to find our way back,” said China, still somewhat embarrassed. “That is no problem, madams,” said the professor gallantly. “I shall escort you home. Here.” He swung the long black coat off of his shoulders and draped it over both their shoulders. Two very grateful young girls followed the long strides of their professor through the rain, somehow miraculously arriving back at the cottage within a very short amount of time. China was too tired even to ask Pepper how the professor would know how to find their cottage, when even they could not. He had never come to visit. When Aunt Chelsea opened the door, a hand immediately flew to her mouth to cover the cry of relief at seeing her two nieces safe and sound. Immediately, all three were escorted into the house and relieved of their sopping 105


overgarments. Emerald stood in awe, wondering to what lengths Pepper and China had gone to not only find the professor, but also bring him back to the cottage to visit Aunt Chelsea. The next hours were blurred with lamplight, hot food, and simple discussion. Pepper and China had dried themselves off and changed into warm, dry clothing, before joining Professor Blacks, Aunt Chelsea, and Emerald for dinner. Everything seemed to be coming along so perfectly. Professor Blacks seemed wonderfully charmed by Aunt Chelsea, in every respect. China had difficulty not gazing from one to another with a very large smile on her face, as they discussed history, politics, travel, the farm, opinions on the structure of the village, etc. As Professor Blacks took his leave later that evening, with a tip of his hat, and a, “Good evenin', ladies. I trust you will take no more long walks in a cold rain? I shall see you all at church tomorrow,” China blissfully walked up the stairs to their loft. “Everythin' went so much better than expected,” she said happily. “And he even was able to take home the cookies that we made after all.” But Pepper did not seem pleased. “They didn't discuss anything personal at all,” she said grumpily. “All that walk through the rain, and for no good reason.” “But they seemed to like each other very much,” said China. “And they shared many opinions. That is somewhat personal, at least.” “Opinions on politics and geography and nonsense,” said Pepper. “Nothing very important.” 106


“Well, at least they seemed to enjoy one another's company,” said China cheerfully. “And they will see each other again tomorrow.” China soon fell asleep upon her pillow as the silver rain continued coursing down her north window. But Emerald lay awake some time after Pepper and China were long asleep, troubled, and wondered if she should tell them what she had overheard in the village that afternoon.

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Chapter 9

Day"eams

It was late September. Several weeks had passed since

the fortunate meeting with Professor Blacks in the rainstorm. Pepper and China had become convinced, between the both of them, that things were going rather well between Professor Blacks. After church, they had accustomed themselves to sitting on the green together, on opposite sides of a lawn bench as the girls played with several of the village children, gathering flowers, etc., and spoke of such things as advances in science, astronomy, the weather, even, in a very meteorological sense. China had little idea that Aunt Chelsea knew any of these things, and marveled at overhearing these conversations with Aunt Chelsea contributing much knowledge from her side. 109


It wasn't until later in her years that China came to learn that Chelsea had read not only every book in their expansive library, but that when she had been a young girl, she had accompanied her father many times to Dublin, and even as far as Glasgow and London, to read their libraries in depth. There were even two rather cool evenings over that last month that Aunt Chelsea had given the girls permission to invite the professor home for dinner, once classes had ended for the day. This overjoyed them all, though they showed little reaction in her presence. “We can't do anythin' to give our plans away,” Pepper had challenged them one particular Sunday evening. “We must act as though we have no idea in the world that we are plannin' what we are plannin'.” But as China knew well, they were planning very little. Only basic hints, little pieces of information slipped unassumingly to Aunt Chelsea at dinner, of Professor Blacks and what he had said during the day, etc. And Emerald, well, Emerald kept what she knew to herself, and hoped that she had heard incorrectly. So it was those several weeks later, that all three girls were somewhat forced to put aside their notions of romance between their aunt and their professor, and focus on the up and coming recitation. “This year's theme,” said Professor Blacks one early Monday morning, “is goin' to be...” The students sat forward in anticipation. Last year's was Ancient Rome. The year before that, the Americas. And before that, Egypt. “The Renaissance.” China broke out in the biggest of smiles. The Renaissance! What a beautiful subject! 110


“This means,” said Professor Blacks, “that each of you will chose a poem, a short story, a song, or you can put together a brief play between yourselves. And everythin' will be presented for your parents, and the rest of the village, in November.” There was an immediate buzz of talk and laughing as the children exclaimed their excitement over the recitation. It was an event that only came twice a year. And it was almost as big a celebration as Christmas. “You might also consider,” Professor Blacks went on, “costume. If you have anything that might resemble the garb of these fair days in history, then come wearin' it for the recitation.” China instinctively looked to Brigid, whose smile was almost coy. Brigid was certain to have the best of all the Renaissance gowns that would be displayed that night. No doubt she would have her gown shipped directly from London, or Italy, or some other faraway place that China envied. “But let the focus certainly be upon the mode of recitation,” said the Professor, seeing the flurry of giggles from the girls. “We would like to see excellence of selection in poetry and fable, even if no Renaissance garb can be had. Understood, young ladies?” “Yes, Professor,” they said, as one. After classes had ended for the day, China waited at the door for Pepper and Emerald to collect their books. Brigid flounced her skirts down the stairs toward her, where she stared her square in the face. China sucked in her breath silently, ready for the next match. “My mother is going to order my gown from Paris,” she said smugly, as if Paris were the grandest place in the world. “I suppose you'll need a flour sack for your gown, or 111


somethin' out of sheep's wool. So unfortunate.” “I didn't know people went so far to visit second hand shops these days,” China said rudely. “Couldn't you have tried Dublin before Paris?” Brigid's eyebrows crossed blackly at her. “You'll never wear anything so grand as that,” she said darkly. “When I come wearin' silk from Taipei and velvet from Morocco, no one will be able to remember their lines. I'll be so dazzlin'.” She swung her skirts off the stairs and waltzed away, followed shortly by her inner posse while China thought about how there wasn't the slightest chance in the world that Brigid would be able to find velvet in Morocco. “She botherin' you again?” Pepper asked, clumping down the stairs somewhat ungracefully. “Just the usual droll about things,” China replied. “Let's get home and find our pieces.”

Aunt Chelsea had put on a pot of raspberry tea that

evening, as they all sat about the fire examining open books. “What do you think will be your pieces, girls?” Aunt Chelsea asked. “I think that most of us will put together Shakespeare's sonnets and excerpts of his plays. Christopher Marlowe, perhaps...” said China, distractedly. She didn't want to admit that her thoughts were focused more on her gown, than on the piece itself that she would be reciting. This was very unlike her, but Brigid's statements set just under her teeth, and she didn't want to be outdazzled yet again by the village snob. “I'm goin' to stage a demonstration of sword play,” said Pepper, tossing aside her book. “It will look so much better, 112


and be far more interestin' than a recitation.” “I don't know if the professor will accept that,” said China. “It's not as though you would actually be recitin' somethin'.” “Then I'll pair it with an excerpt of a play, or somethin'. I can't stand still for so very long in front of an audience, tryin' to remember lines.” “And you, Emerald,” said Aunt Chelsea, busy with her knitting, “what will you do?” “I thought that I might sing,” said Emerald quietly. “Oh, how beautiful, Emerald,” said China. “You have such a nice voice. Everyone will love to hear it.” Chelsea smiled. “China is right,” she said. “What will you sing?” “I haven't decided yet, but Mrs. Blath has shown me sheet music in the church library. And there are many pieces written that I think could be from the Renaissance.” Then as Pepper cut in with more of her interest in sword play demonstration, China fell back to her thoughts on the perfect gown. Gilded gold, fluttering skirts, bright as stars of heaven. A belt of shining silver, and a long chain of silver at her throat. And pulling up her long hair, she would wrap it in white roses. It would be so perfect, she thought, and far better than anything Brigid could imagine. China was certain that not even the finest salons of Paris could produce such a gown. The gown she had always in her mind when attending the wounded Prince Joseph in the cool, dark glade. “China?” Aunt Chelsea was calling her. “Yes, Aunt Chelsea?” “I was just saying to the girls that we might be able to sew up your costumes with the extra bolt of white cotton cloth in the storeroom. 113


Cotton! White! China tried not to show her disappointment. Naturally there was no such fantastic gold cloth, surely not anywhere in the world, except maybe in the silks of the Orient. And even they could not produce such a gold. But white cotton! Surely no one went about wearing just white in the Renaissance. Of all the portraits, the paintings, and sketches that China had studied in her books, never had she seen a maiden dressed only in white. “Will that do, China?” “Yes,” she said slowly, trying to sound grateful. At least there was cloth to make a costume at all. “It doesn't sound as though it were what you had in mind,” said Aunt Chelsea, her busy white fingers never ceasing to knit. “Perhaps not, Aunt Chelsea,” China said carefully. “But it doesn't matter. Recitations are not very important.” “Of course they are,” said Aunt Chelsea. “And if it's not white that you would like, we'll dye it another color. Any color that you can think.” China smiled. Aunt Chelsea. Always doing her best to make them happy in any way that she could. “Thank you,” she said heartily. Aunt Chelsea nodded, and continued to knit away at her ruffle of dark orange wool. It would go as a scarf for winter, as her last had been kneaded to bits by too many winter winds and nibbling lambs. Aunt Chelsea always seemed so serene, so cooly unaffected by what happened in their little world, and by what they heard happened outside of it. So calm and clearminded. So simply quiet about most things of significance, never entering into hot responses, high-minded tempers, or anything of the sort. She was so similar to Emerald, yet in a 114


much older, wiser, and stronger way.

True to Aunt Chelsea's word, for the next several nights, the girls prepared to dye, each, their own part of the bolt of white cotton. Pepper had immediately chosen a dark scarlet color, as if it were dipped in the color of poppies or glimmering rubies. It was a brilliant shade, and had to be dyed many times over for the full effect. Emerald had chosen the color of honey. A sort of happy, warm golden color that might have graced a collection of sweet buns at the bakery in the village. And China, China chose the color nearest she could find to the sadly fleeting image of pure gold. A yellow bright enough to make the sun blush for lack of matching it. A yellow of summer fires and dazzling stars, millions of miles into the universe. She would glaze the eyes of the audience in swishing sunlight, a Renaissance jewel. At least, that was the hope. “We will dye it long enough to make it as bright as you'd like, China,” said Aunt Chelsea, standing over the tub in the laundry. “But do not be disappointed if it doesn't match exactly the color you had hoped.” China nodded, promising herself that she would not complain if her dress was not as splendid as the altered version of the original magnificence she had concocted. No shimmering gold. But she could find herself almost equally attracted to the celestial yellow of the dye pot in front of her. Even if her play dress was so near the same color, this dress for the recitation would brush the floor in its long length and bustle behind her. 115


The girls hurried home from school each evening for the rest of the week, to check the condition of their boiling pots, which had then cooled, to add further dye and salt, and scrub in the color, patting the cloth into a ball, and then finally, on the Friday end of the week, they pulled out the cloth with a wooden paddle and pressed out all the water, until it ran clear. And then again, and again, until on Saturday evening, they seemed perfectly dyed and ready to be cut. China stared at the bolt of yellow hanging to dry in the laundry. It was almost right, she thought, perhaps not as brilliant a shade as she had hoped. But it was there, just shy of it. And she had to smile at her vanity for wanting something she had so carefully crafted in her mind, something only imagination could satisfy. For the next two days, as the cloth began to dry, the girls found themselves gathered in their loft, preparing their recitations and songs. Pepper had found,what she thought might pass as a bar of lines to be recited regarding swordplay, and quickly memorized it all. Emerald had located the song from Mrs. Blath, best suited to depict the Renaissance. And China was to quote a passage of “The Merchant of Venice”, one of, if not, her favorite. “Professor Blacks is impossible, I think,” said Pepper suddenly against the quiet evening, in the middle of a jab of her imaginary sword. “Why hasn't he said something of courtin' Aunt Chelsea yet?” Emerald suddenly pretended to be very busy with her song sheet. China didn't know why Professor Blacks had been so silent on the issue. 116


“I can't say why,” she said, closing her Shakespeare text. “So disappointin'. Perhaps he is too shy.” “Perhaps,” said Pepper, once again thrusting her arm toward the window. “But it has been, what, six weeks now. And I do not think that he is very young.” “But he is not old either,” China spoke up for him. “Perhaps there are other things on his mind that he would like to do before gettin' married.” “Like what? He already has a position that will last him until he is old and can no longer see to read or write. He has been through university and has seen the world. What more would he want to do before settlin' down and marryin' the kindest woman from here to Calcutta?” China had little idea. She threaded her fingers through the crochet of her dark blue afghan as Pepper went back to her dueling. China failed to notice the blush of Emerald's face, as she continued to hide behind her book. Perhaps, Emerald thought, I truly heard wrong. I must have heard wrong. I can't disappoint them with it, even if it were true.

The next days passed quickly as China and the girls

continued to piece together the rest of their costumes. China had to also place aside the notion of white roses. There were none to be had in early October, naturally. And so, she decided that she would make a small wreath of knotted blue spruce, which Aunt Chelsea agreed would be very becoming. So plans were put together as the girls continued to prepare their pieces. All was going well until several afternoons later, when Brigid decided it would behoove her to stir up further 117


trouble. She had been strangely aloof to the other children at class over the last week or so. It was not uncommon for her to treat with a rather muffled disdain, the younger children. But never her rivals, which included China and Pepper at the forefront. But even they, she seemed to ignore, as though she had plans of her own, and could not bring herself to bother with anyone else outside of her selective group of friends. So it was little surprise when, those several afternoons later, she seemed back to normal, and pranced into school with an air of utmost importance. She slid into her desk, the most coveted spot in the entire school house, which always caught the best sunlight upon the newest and nicest desk of them all. Honey-shined cedar, direct from Dublin, a gift from her aunt and uncle. Brigid turned a smug face to China, who sat in the opposite desk. “My mother is goin' to have our cook make the prettiest little white cakes for the recitation next Friday night at school,” she said, spelling out the details of the occasion as though China had never heard of them. “Little white cakes with frosting like lace. And on the inside will be raspberry cream.” China ruffled through her textbook, pretending to be very busy with the impending lesson, as the other children took their seats. Brigid could see that this was not irritating China as much as she had hoped. “My gown is the best that Europe can offer,” she went on, folding her perfect white hands on her desk, as though they were too beautiful to bother with chalk and slate. “So many beautiful rich colors. Ruby red velvet from Italy and a gold silk sash from Paris...” 118


Paris! If China heard mention of Paris one more time... “A necklace of silver medallions from Spain,” Brigid continued, “And, of course...” “Class is now in session,” Professor Blacks just then announced, turning 'round from the chalkboard. Brigid leaned closer to China and whispered, “And white roses from the hot house!” The sound of “white roses” never sounded so defiled as they did coming from the mouth of Brigid Kelly. China deliberately ignored her, and pressed down the leaves of her new notebook. What did it matter if Brigid was the most sparkling girl in the class next Friday night? It didn't matter. But China knew that she would not be able to pay attention for the rest of the class, thinking about Brigid's gold sash and white roses.

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Chapter 10

An Evening Recitation

Friday night came with great speed. The girls were so

busy every evening leading up to it, preparing costumes and recitations in their room, that Chelsea had their meals brought up to them and set on the bureaus until they would be ready to eat. Pepper seemed to have her sword demonstration in perfect play, practicing the stances and jabs with great speed and accuracy. She only mourned the lack of a genuine sword. “Wasn't there some family sword buried away somewhere?” she had asked Aunt Chelsea one evening. “I will look ridiculous with a birch rod, and Brigid with her wall plastered with swords from England and France and Spain... probably none of them ever used at all.” 121


But Pepper put aside her disappointment, determined to show no set of jealousy toward Brigid Kelly. Ever since Brigid's thievery of her greatest find on the seashore, Pepper had vowed that Brigid would be her life-long sworn enemy. She told this to no one but China, for Aunt Chelsea and Emerald would certainly not approve. Emerald's sweet song, harkened to days of monasteries, silent castle halls, and lands of mystery and sea-gray mists, where songs seemed to haunt the lands and halls of ancient kings and empires. It gave China little chills to hear her cousin sing such an ancient song. “It is in Latin,” said Emerald. “Although I think the words are rather unusual.” She had written them out in English on a piece of China's new notebook and pinned it on the wall above her bureau. She would read them from time to time to herself and think that they were, actually, very beautiful words. “Shores warmed by honey and song Where shorn the scarlet sands away And laid our swords to rest where, white The rocks sing sweet of other days...” “Shores cooled by moon and whisper Where lived the shades of other seas And, in their tombs, they sing of us, Of soldiers marched above the grave.” Perhaps I will understand what it means some day, Emerald thought quietly to herself, as Pepper lunged across the floor behind her, and China spoke her lines. China had thoroughly and artfully memorized the several passages she would speak that night. One from each 122


her favorite characters of the old play, “The Merchant of Venice”, of Bassanio and Portia. She had learned the words in such a way as to make them play with each other as they spilled together in a array of drama and understanding. “You could play on the stage,” said Pepper with a stifled giggle, after China had recited them for her. “Oh, the scandal!” China had responded, smiling. “To play on the stage. If only it weren't considered so sinful.” And for the gowns... China tried not to be very disappointed. In her mind, she clung to the notion that it was still the dazzling yellow of sunflowers. What a beautiful name, sunflower, fuzed together by two of God's most beautiful creations. But, alack, the color had faded with the washing and drying. It appeared more the color of butter, and the cotton, though pressed and smooth, did not elicit the rustle or the swish of silk skirts. It had been fitted to her waist, for which she was thankful, under the instruction and assistance of Aunt Chelsea. And she had left it untied with any sash. The blue spruce wreath she would weave the night before the festivities. And she didn't have long to wait. The afternoon soon arrived. All the children, even the older boys, who could not usually be easily bothered with things such as school recitations, were eager to return home and put together their wardrobes and rehearse one last time over dinner, before returning to the school, which they knew, would be transformed for the arrival of the audience. Professor Blacks sensed their eagerness and allowed school to be let out one hour early. A passel of very happy children scattered across the green hills toward home, as a result, and it wasn't long later, after a dinner of pork stew and biscuits, that China found herself in front of her bureau mirror in the loft, preparing 123


her gown for the evening. “You are very pretty, China,” said Emerald, admiringly. China frowned a little to herself. “You're nice to say it,” she replied. “But this will be nothin' next to Brigid's glories. It almost makes me wish that the professor hadn't advised us to come in costume.” “Oh, don't say that,” said Emerald in surprise. “You were so happy about it in the first. And you have a beautiful piece to recite. Don't let Brigid bother you. She won't look half as beautiful.” China smiled at her cousin. Emerald, always the encourager. “Well, you look rather wonderful yourself,” she said. “Look at the way you shine, like a little sun. And your voice will melt every boy's in the county tonight.” Emerald smiled, blushing. Her voice was a very quiet one, and she hoped that she would be heard above the shuffle of so many people in the stone schoolhouse. Pepper then came crashing through the loft door, bundling up her ruby skirts, awkwardly. “Curses on dresses!” she cried. “Pepper!” Emerald appeared appropriately shocked. “Well, if Jesus cursed a fig tree, can't I curse a piece of clothing?” she asked grumpily. “What a mess I am.” “Let me help, Pepper,” said China, laughing at her. Pepper stared dismally at her reflection in the mirror, her impossible masses of curls flowing in haphazard tumbles about her face. “You aren't a very elegant sort,” said China, attacking the black curls. “And never shall be,” Pepper replied dismally. “Of course, that doesn't bother me much.” She tossed her head slightly. “I'll never be a maiden who stays at home countin' 124


how many times she's swooned and how many tea cups she has in the china cabinet.” Even Emerald smiled at this remark. “I don't think that anyone keeps record of how many times she's swooned.” “Well, I'm sure Brigid would, if she had ever swooned. It seems like the more times a girl has swooned, the more dainty she is considered to be, and the more the boys will try to protect her, as though she were a maiden in distress. “That,” China said, “is ridiculous.” “Well, it doesn't matter,” said Pepper, as though the conversation had been too much of a waste of time to continue it. “I have swordplay to rehearse.” “Oh, that's right. You haven't tried it yet in your dress, have you?” China covered her mouth to hide another grin. “Make fun, will you,” said Pepper. “But it will be far more interestin' than anythin' else you'll see happen tonight.” “I'm sure it will be,” said China. So while Pepper returned to her stick-sword, China finished her wardrobe. The blue spruce wreath had turned out decently well. She anchored it to her head with hair pins, not tight enough to bring on a headache, but good enough. And then, her father's red coral, which she never failed to wear to a nice event. “You look beautiful,” said Emerald kindly. “I know you wanted to wear gold. But you look just as beautiful in the yellow.” China gave her a squeeze. “You sweet one. You will look more beautiful than anyone tonight.” Chelsea was calling them from the end of the stairs. And as they descended, she gave complimentary words to all. 125


It had been a misty day out. China wasn't going to let the mud stain its trailing hem, despite her chagrin over its faded color, so she hooked up the skirt before heading back out into the dark green evening. Chelsea took the lantern from next to the door, fitted with a stocky yellow candle. The walk was cool and pleasant. Emerald hummed her song quietly to herself as Chelsea talked softly with Pepper about various sundry things. As excited as China was for the evening, she couldn't help but be drawn back to the girls' principal mission of the season -- seeing that Aunt Chelsea was appropriately courted by their school master. Things weren't going as had been hoped. Aunt Chelsea was so beautiful that evening, her rosy hair scooped into a low, thick knot at the base of her neck. The splashes of curls about her face could never be helped, and they framed her face nicely in the yellow glow of the lantern. China sighed a little to herself. It would be so perfect, Professor David Blacks and his beautiful little bride, Miss Chelsea Shoals. Everything about the idea was perfectly charming, only David Blacks was not cooperating. He would prefer to speak of politics and history with her young aunt, instead of court her, as he ought. But even these thoughts were pushed aside as the golden glow of the school house lights appeared above the rolling green hills. It might have been the Globe Theater for all the shrills of chills that stormed up China's spine and settled in a heady ether in her head. With a clutch of her yellow skirts, she set foot on the worn stone step, just behind the girls and Aunt Chelsea, holding aside the heavy wood door of the school house. 126


“You'll be sparklin', China,” Aunt Chelsea whispered to her, as she passed through the doorway. China shined a smile to her as she entered the shifting mass of golds, yellows, and oranges reflecting the myriads of candles in the windows. Everyone was dressed in fine gowns, as fine as Sunday's dress, perhaps better. And there was the occasional sparkled of gemstone necklace. Everyone was taking their seats at the desks and chairs squeezed between them. Perhaps one hundred seats or more, and only standing room for the students, who were to be lined at the back of the room until their turn was called. China was glad to be standing. A nervous energy ran through her veins as she stepped to the north corner and observed the whispering crowd, anxious for the recitations to begin. But where was Brigid, in all her glory? China unconsciously bit at her lower lip, standing taller on the points of her slippers to see if she might be able to see her in the mix of village civilization. “Probably got sick,” Pepper said, jabbing an elbow into China's arm. China guiltily hoped that this might possibly be the case, and then pushed the thought from her mind. Chelsea had just taken a seat near the front. So close to where the Professor stood speaking with Reverend Blath. If only he would step over to her and speak to her, with all the village watching! What a statement that would be to all the busy-bodies known to whisper about “old maids” unlikely to ever marry... But Professor Blacks didn't even seem to notice the fair Chelsea. Instead, he shook hands warmly with Reverend Blath and made his way to the front of the school room. 127


He smiled at them. “Good evening. Ladies, gentlemen. Young, old. Welcome to our annual autumn recitation. With little word, I give you the first of our performers this eve...� China wasn't paying much attention. She was trying to will him to look at Aunt Chelsea, sitting as though an angel, glowing in the candlelight so close, just below him. But he didn't seem to see her. And so, one by one, they came forward. Some well-said, some not so well. Some sang lovely, some, with not so gifted voices. And then came Pepper, boldly stalking to the stage in ruby splendor, the trail of her carefully carved swordstick held at her side. She took the stage and made a glorious bow. China could hear the sort of twitter from the women in the audience, who she knew were whispering among themselves the audacity of Chelsea Shoals for allowing her niece to perform such a boyish recitation. But Pepper was brilliant. Each stab was as poetry, as she demonstrated, with word and swish, the Medieval forms of swordplay. And China applauded loudest for her as she swept off the stage with a wide smile upon her rosy face, the skirts of her red gown swashing behind her, as much as cotton could swish. And then Emerald. So sweet, and better than gold or perfection. Her voice, China knew, brought tears to many of the old wrinkled gossips, erasing their former thoughts of Chelsea's irresponsible regulations regarding her twin. More students performed. But none had the magic or sweet mystery of Emerald's voice, or the strong stage presence of Pepper, in China's opinion. It was nearly her turn. China was placed nearer the end, though not very, for those positions were awarded mostly to the oldest children at school. 128


One more student, who left the stage in a rather ungraceful stumble of flowered brocaded skirts. China prepared to set her first step down the aisle toward the stage. Professor Blacks was just announcing her name, when... The door of the school house was burst open in a volcano of silks, puffed satins, and what seemed to be the flash of diamonds. China's jaw nearly dropped as a completely smug and victorious Brigid rustled into the room, followed by her mother, who looked as though she would burst with pride at her richly decked daughter. “Ah,” Professor Blacks said smoothly, as if he had almost been expecting the unnecessary disruption. “It appears as though Miss Kelly has seen fit to join us after all this evenin'. Are you prepared to recite, Miss Kelly? It is your turn next.” “I am,” said Brigid, her nose lifted in the air, as if she were Queen herself. She bustled forward like a fat white goose, so full was her dress. China noted, at least to herself, that she was apparently unable, as well, to obtain gold and silver, and had settled for white, albeit white in silks and satins. And with that, the magic and expectancy of the recitation seemed to have vanished. China bit her lip, trying not to be overtly angry at Brigid for ruining the beauty of the evening. And Professor Blacks had still not once looked at Aunt Chelsea. Brigid took her place in the center of the stage, her skirts as wide as her school desk. She smoothed the skirts, carefully, and smiled at the audience, not as charmed, perhaps, as she was sure they were.

129


She cleared her throat slightly, nodded to acknowledge the presence of, what she deemed to be, her admiring guests, and began. China's first inclination was to plug her ears. But she forced her hands to stay at her sides. Whatever it was that Brigid had chosen to sing, could not be hardly considered even a song. A dirge of horrific nature, yes, maybe... Even that might be insulting to any dirge. It was terrible. China kept her eyes going back and forth between Aunt Chelsea, the girls, and Professor Blacks throughout the entire performance. She could not bring herself to look Brigid in the face, as the awful mix of false notes came pouring out of her mouth. And Brigid thought that she was singing so very sweetly and beautifully trying to catch the eye of the older boys at the back of the room. When Brigid's piece had finally ended, the audience poured forth a thunderous applause, only too happy that the horribleness had ended. Professor Blacks took the stage and graciously thanked Brigid for an “electrifyin' performance�. And then... it was China's turn. She heard Professor Blacks call her name. She held her head high, though not as high as Brigid had done, and made her way to the front, with far less rustle of skirt and billow of silk. She turned to face the expectant eyes of the audience before her, and with the smallest of breaths, she lifted her honey eyes to the back of the hall, and, began... “The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes 130


The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea; Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.”¹ She went on, after Portia's speech, to those of Bassanio and Shylock, and the others. She ended with a stirring passage given by Bassanio, and then folded her hands together and bowed her head, signifying the end of the performance. The audience rose to their feet at that moment, and for the next several of those moments, it was truly as if China was at the center of that glorious Globe Theater, three hundred years ago. She bowed lightly, and smiled, walking nobly back to her place at the end of the room. She caught Aunt Chelsea's eye as she passed, smiling with great pride. ¹From Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” 131


“Everyone's forgotten about Brigid now,� Pepper whispered to her with a nudge and a wink, as the applause began to die down. China could only smile. For her part, she felt quite successful for the evening. The evening continued, but China remembered little of the rest of it. She was still glowing in the satisfaction of a brilliant recitation, and in pride of her cousins and their talents. Now if only Professor Blacks would pay the smallest of attentions to Aunt Chelsea! The evening ended with cakes and red punch, which were brought in from the outdoors, where they had been kept cold during the recitation. And, true to her word, Brigid had supplied the white cakes she had promised. Or, rather Tara, the Kelly's cook had supplied them. And everyone commented on how delicious they were. China felt the daggers of Brigid's eyes from across the room for the rest of the evening, but she was too happy to care. After all, she thought to herself, the worse thing that she could probably do is ruffle up the contents of my desk before school, Monday morning. And so, before leaving that night, she took home the two books and sheets of paper that she had kept in her desk up until that time. The stars were full of sweet shine, and all was beautiful in that night world.

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Chapter 11

A Slice of Pie

After the events of the evening, China and the girls were

awarded a week of basically, nothing. It was quiet, and all studies were back to what they normally were. Even Brigid, who was perpetually out of sorts since the dismal reception of her performance that one Friday night, had few ideas of what to do over those autumn days. There were no bonfires, no hayrides, no pumpkin pickings, no corn shuckings. Nothing planned for the first part of the orange and gray month of November. And on Tuesday evening of that week, the girls found themselves gathered together in the sitting room while the cool winds blew hard on the sheep pastures. Aunt Chelsea had just set the tea, and all were ready to settle in for a warm evening together. 133


Professor Blacks had not been invited to visit lately, nor had he asked to see them. China was afraid to ask why. Even Pepper was uncertain, and didn't want to ask Aunt Chelsea anything about it. “They couldn't have had a fallin' out,” she reasoned. “Professor Blacks hasn't even mentioned courtin' her. So they are still only friends.” “That doesn't mean they couldn't have had some sort of argument,” said China dully. But there was no speaking of it to Aunt Chelsea. She appeared as serene and noble as she always was, even if she did seem to gaze out of the window into the wild woods and pastures, more often than she had in previous days. And it was just at this time, that cool Tuesday evening, that a knock was heard at the door. Everyone jumped a little, as company was the last thing they expected on such an evening. “Emerald, would you please see to the door,” Chelsea said calmly. “And, Pepper, would you get another tea cup from the kitchen.” Emerald hurried silently to the front door and lifted the latch. With a blast of autumn wind, she drew it aside. “Oh, Mrs. Blath!” she exclaimed in her soft way. “Good evening, Emerald.” “Come in, please,” Emerald said politely. “Thank you, dear. The wind has picked up quite a strong bit since I left home.” She walked through and set her lantern on the bench near the door. Chelsea came forward as soon as she heard her friend's voice. “Mrs. Blath,” she said warmly. 134


“Now, dear, I know you did not expect me,” said Mrs. Blath, taking her hand, “but it was my last opportunity this week to come and ask you about the Orphans' Bazaar.” Aunt Chelsea smiled at this idea. “I know the church ladies have been wantin' me to participate. And I'm sorry I haven't given an answer sooner. Do have a seat, Mrs. Blath. Pepper, tea?” Pepper handed Mrs. Blath a tea cup as she settled into a cushioned chair. “Thank you, Pepper. Now, Chelsea, I understand if you can't find the time, and you being so far from the village, but if you have any inclination...” Chelsea held up a hand, laughing. “Mrs. Blath,” she said. “I have full intentions to participate. I will offer any and all services that I am able.” “I am glad to hear it, Chelsea. You are far too often away from the people on whom your wonderful influence is so much appreciated. Thank you, my dear.” The conversation continued to work around the plans of the bazaar, as Chelsea asked questions and Mrs. Blath answered them all. Pepper, who seemed rather bored with the whole conversation, continued with her books in the corner chair, while Emerald attended to serving more tea, lemons, sugar, etc. China's attentions were immediately captured when Mrs. Blath mentioned that Professor Blacks was to oversee much of the arranging of events for the bazaar. Her ears were sewn into the rest of the conversation until the clock struck eight, and Mrs. Blath rose to leave. “I am so sorry to have stayed so late, dear,” Mrs. Blath said, rising to leave. “But I think that at least you know, now, what we have in mind.” 135


“I will come this Saturday to assist with the arrangements,” Chelsea said cheerfully, also rising. And with a few more comments, Mrs. Blath had gone out the door. Chelsea turned around, hands on her hips. “Well, girls,” she said with a smile. “We have some work to do then.” “What can we do?” Emerald asked, eager to begin. “I have my own idea of a table that you three girls can manage,” said Chelsea, pulling her paper tablet from the writing desk in the sitting room. “Let us make plans.” There were to be tables where baked goods would be sold. Tables for games. Others for flea market goods to be sold, jams, pickles, pies, etc. There were to be auctioned items and services. There was also to be a dance, where reservations on dance cards were to be auctioned away, albeit this would not be officially sanctioned by the church. All would benefit the orphanage in Alexandria, Egypt. China thought it was all very exciting. Orphans in Egypt, in the impossibly mysterious land of ancient pharaohs, mummified kings, jeweled tombs buried away in sands that would never be unearthed, not even before the end of time, perhaps. And they would be helping the ancestors of these unfathomable people who poetically laced their dead in endless miles of white cloth, pocketed with charms and jewels and scarabs... yes, those unknown pieces of lore, things of dreams and magic... “China?” “Yes, Aunt Chelsea.” “Do you think you can manage this?” “I'm sorry. What was it?” Chelsea laughed a sparkling blue laugh. 136


“China, you are always daydreamin'. I suggested a game for the table you and the girls will be watchin'.” Aunt Chelsea explained once again the idea of the game. All three girls would sit inside a wooden box which would have a hole cut out of the upper side of the box, facing the child playing the game. “The child will have a 'fishing pole' with a clip attached to the end of its string,” Aunt Chelsea continued to explain. “You girls will catch the string once the child begins to fish inside the wood box. And when you catch the string, attach a prize to the clip.” “How fun,” Emerald almost giggled. “We should have buckets of prizes for good children, and buckets of prizes for Brigid,” said Pepper, almost maniacally. “I knew you would sat that, Pepper,” said Aunt Chelsea. “So I have decided that we will prearrange a bucket of prizes appropriate for all children, Brigid included.” “No toads?” Pepper asked. “No, Pepper.” “Spiders?” “No.” “Worms?” “Of course not,” Chelsea replied patiently. Pepper scowled and muttered to herself something about 'taking care of Brigid' on her own. But, as Aunt Chelsea said, there was much to be done. And so they set about to doing it.

A full week into preparations, even Pepper had to admit that the plans were fun. 137


The girls' first job was to collect ideas about prizes. And Pepper was not being entirely cooperative. “Dead bugs,” she said. “What?” China asked, loathe to ask why. “We can pin them inside boxes. The boys would like them.” “Please, no,” said Emerald. “Butterflies, then.” “There aren't any butterflies, Pepper,” said China. “It's nearly November!” “Well, then, mushrooms, if there are any.” “Why do you insist on these ridiculous 'prizes'?” China asked, with almost a huff. “We have to have some 'bad' prizes. Otherwise it's no fun. If they're all gettin' good things.” “Well...” “Just let me find some, not as nice things, to add. I promise we won't give any of them to the nice ones. Only to the boys, and maybe...” “Not Brigid,” said Emerald adamantly. “You heard what Aunt Chelsea said.” “But you see what she does every day,” Pepper protested. “She's always a bully. About everythin'. You can't trust a thing she says. Nothin', perhaps, except that every newest thing she's wearin' is from Paris.” Emerald said nothing. She was thinking about her own, what could be considered, lack of honesty concerning what she still kept secret. “The professor wouldn't mind if we did it,” Pepper continued. “He'd think it funny. And he's the one overseeing everythin'.” “I'll just have to pretend I didn't hear you say anythin' about it to me, then,” said China finally. “But we will only 138


have a few 'bad' prizes. Everything else has to be good. They are payin' for tickets to play the games, after all.� “Just let me see to it,� said Pepper, practically rubbing her hands together in glee. Brigid was going to get it, and get it good, for everything she had done that school year to date, namely the theft of her map, which she had not forgotten. Pepper had a good deal more fuel to add to her revengeful fires after school the following day. It was another cool gray afternoon in middle October. And Emerald had just opened her lunchbox, sitting on one of the few black rocks just outside the school house, which sometimes served as practical lunch tables for the children. Emerald had been very happy that morning with a piece of blueberry pie, the last in the larder, which both Pepper and China had insisted that she take for her lunch. Emerald was far more thin than either of the already slender girls. And sometimes, when Pepper and China could see their aunt's eyes, they knew that she was worried about Emerald's health. It was then that they gave her every extra scrap, every enticing piece of their lunch that they could spare, to help 'fatten up' their little Emerald. Emerald, who carefully avoided taking any more food than was necessary, to allow their meals to stretch as far as possible, was all the more pleased that the pie was blueberry, her favorite of all. And she was just about to eat it. It was warm, having sat next to the school house stove all morning. China saw it coming before it happened. She was further out in the field playing at ball with Pepper and several of the other children. And Brigid was walking over to Emerald. 139


“Give me that,” she demanded. “The cook forgot to pack my dessert today.” Emerald looked up worriedly at Brigid. “Please don't take it, Brigid,” she said softly. “I've waited for it all mornin'.” “What a goose!” Brigid ungraciously bellowed. “Of course you have. I forgot that down at the poor farm, you have nothin' better to eat than pottage and bread baked out of dried peas.” “That's not true, Brigid,” said Emerald kindly, but firmly. “Aunt Chelsea has always made us good food, and enough of it.” “You've never seen what good food is. I'm sure your aunt stole that blueberry pie from someone. She hasn't a cent to spend on anythin' more than sawdust to make your bread. Or should I say bricks? Have you lost teeth yet, I wonder, Pepper? Let's have a look?” Emerald carefully folded her hands together as Brigid laughed. She was angry, and Brigid knew it by the whiteness of her knuckles as she pressed them together. No one was going to accuse her aunt of such atrocious things. By this time, Brigid had been joined by the rest of her trove of followers, who were also uncomfortably poking fun at Emerald. Even they could not justify ridiculing a girl as sweet and as kind as Emerald. But Brigid was bold enough to try it, and so they reluctantly followed. China could not hear the conversation, but she could easily see, from a distance, that Brigid was giving her cousin trouble. “Pepper,” she called, nodding at her to come over. “I think there's a problem.” Pepper tossed the ball to a teammate and hopped over to China, out of the game. 140


It only took one look from Pepper to take in what was happening. She stormed across the browning field, with China hurrying behind her. “Don't do anythin' rash, Pepper!” she called after her. “Don't make things worse!” But Pepper already had plans to remain perfectly cool. Her fists were clenched as she swung them back and forth through her march toward the black rocks. No one, especially not Brigid Kelly, was going to bother her sister. She had arrived, however, too late. Brigid was licking her fingers of the last of the blueberry juice, her back still turned to Pepper's smoldering face. “Well, it seems as if your aunt at least found pebbles to substitute for blueberries,” she was saying. “They could have been harder, I suppose.” Pepper marched straight over to her to stand only a foot behind the black-curled head of her arch enemy. If only she had a scissors, those curls would come straight off! Pepper took all control not to strangle Brigid just there for the blatant thievery of her sister's slice of blueberry pie. But Pepper's plans would have to wait. The silver clang of the school bell nearly made her jump, which would have been a humiliation in front of Brigid's posse, who were watching her, curiously. Later that evening, Pepper was still fuming as she helped Chelsea whisk together table cloths for the booths at the bazaar. “She's a horrible person, stealin' Emerald's blueberry pie, and without Emerald sayin' a word about it. You should have taken a swing at her, Emme!” Emerald laughed a little. The disappointment of losing her slice of blueberry pie had been keenly felt. Blueberries were a rare thing that time of year, and she knew that she 141


would not see another blueberry pie until the following summer. “Never mind it,” she said, also helping with the sewing. “Never mind it!” Pepper protested. “She stole your blueberry pie!” “Ignore her, Pepper,” China advised. “The more attention you give to her, the worse she'll get.” Pepper was silent for a few moments, continuing to smolder as her needle flashed in and out of the cloth. China could see that she was already piecing together a plan, and thought it best to leave her alone with her thoughts until the plan was completely formed.

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Chapter 12

!e Secret

The morning of the orphan's bazaar was full blue. All

blue, and no clouds at all. China was thrilled with all of it. The bazaar, the cause, Professor Blacks and Aunt Chelsea, the tables and games, the dance... it promised to be one of the most exciting events of the entire season. And China woke up nearly two hours early because she couldn't stand to sleep any longer into the precious hours of that exquisite day. The preparations had taken two weeks, nearly every evening devoted to the colors and creations of organizing plans, sewing together, crafting, and cooking whatever needed to be made for the grand day. Pepper, happily, seemed to have simmered her boil against Brigid to a dull roar by that same morning. Brigid 143


had continued her minor aggravations, day to day, for the next week. And Pepper had cooly and purposefully, not only avoided her, but, as China had suggested, completely ignored her at every opportunity. The other children followed her example until Brigid was almost scandalized with irritation that she was overlooked at almost every turn. Pepper continued this charade up until the day of the grand bazaar, and Brigid was clearly ready to pop. “She's so mad,” Pepper almost giggled to herself. “Wait until she sees the grand finale!” China did not bother to ask what this grand finale was, exactly. She was too preoccupied with the festivities. She also thought that it might be best not to know, in advance, of Pepper's devious plans. For then, if asked, she could not profess to know anything at all. Aunt Chelsea wasted little time. Following breakfast of hot biscuits, the girls loaded all necessities into their large split oak baskets and paraded across the green hills into the village, where the bazaar was to be held on the church grounds, and in the square green. China would have run all the way, were it not for the heavy basket on her arm. The winds were cool, but still warm enough, brushing over from the inland. The sallow grasses of the field bunched together under the windows as they walked through them, and everything seemed to sing out to her, even in October when the world should have been going to rest for the season. When they arrived at the village square, everything was already dressed for the occasion. The tables had been spread to encompass the green all the way across the street back to the church lawn. It was as though every person in the village had their own table to manage. 144


It promised to be a crowded event when people from their neighboring township also came to call. Mrs. Blath and the rest of the ladies' committee had done a fair job of advertising the bazaar. “So beautiful,” China whispered aloud. Already, most of the tables were covered in brightly colored patterned cloths. And above the extended ring of tables, lanterns had been hung across two long lengths of rope, which would be lit come evening in time for the dance. Almost immediately, Pepper gave a quick jab to China's arm, signifying that she could see Professor Blacks supervising the set-up of more tables in the back of the church lawn. “This is your project today though,” she said methodically. “I have bigger fish to fry when Brigid gets here.” “I think she's already here,” China whispered, seeing a flounce of bright blue skirts from across the green. “I mean here,” said Pepper, pointing to their table where the wood box had already been established. China didn't ask further questions. She began to unpack the split oak baskets with Aunt Chelsea and Emerald, while Pepper ran off to find something, somewhere. Inside Aunt Chelsea's basket were several baked goods. Two loaves of pumpernickel bread. A delicious peach pie. And three dozen lemon muffins. China knew that despite Brigid's ridiculous claims of Aunt Chelsea's poor baking, that everything would be almost immediately claimed at the bake sale. Aunt Chelsea was renowned for her baking artistry. In the next basket were all the cloths for several tables in the circle. And a batch of candles which would be lit that 145


night for the dance. The other two baskets were filled with prizes for their game table. China and Emerald lowered these inside the wood box for later. Everyone had contributed something. Many of the men in the village, including the church elders and deacons, had supplied enough beef and seasonings for a grand dinner, which would roll into supper, for a modest price per person. The hodgepodge of colors and the splash of lights, cakes, breads, and goods promised for a spectacular day, and good amounts of contribution for the orphanage in Egypt. Ten o'clock soon came round, and the visitors began to arrive, just as the flourish of Irish fiddle began in one corner of the green. The fiddler was to take turns with a harp in the opposite corner, and even a visiting cellist from Dublin, who had family in the village, had offered to play during parts of the afternoon. China kept to their table for the first part, to keep her eyes on the professor, and if he might say anything to Aunt Chelsea, who was standing at the table of baked goods across the square. As of yet, it seemed as though he was not even aware of her presence. China was beginning to become frustrated. Why wouldn't he pay any attention to her beautiful aunt, when only several weeks before that, they had many conversations about the things of the world. “I don't understand,” she would mutter several times to herself. “I just don't understand.” But Emerald kept quiet. Soon, the girls took their place inside the large wooden box. Pepper had returned, and Emerald had volunteered to escort the children forward with their fishing lures and explain the game, while China and Pepper would attach the 146


prizes to the line. “Give me a sign when it's Brigid's turn in line,” Pepper had warned Emerald. “Say, 'Hello, Brigid,' or somethin', loud enough for me to hear it too.” Emerald wasn't sure what to think. Who knew what Pepper had planned to attach to her fishing pole when she came over to play the game, expecting a sweet cake, or a piece of candy, or something else... natural. The morning passed very quickly. China was thoroughly enjoying herself, attaching tiny dolls made from brightly colored cloth, whole walnuts, candies (donated by Mr. and Mrs. Shearlutch from the shop), small wrapped cakes, glass beads and small silver bells (another donation from the shop), and other small things. But Pepper was beginning to show signs of impatience. “Where is she?” she asked from time to time. “I know she can't resist comin' over here.” China only shook her head. “I don't think you should try anythin' very bad, Pepper,” she warned. But Pepper clearly wasn't listening. “Pepper...” China hissed at her, as she attached a tiny doll to the small clip. “Don't do anythin' you'll regret, now. Think of Aunt Chelsea's reputation.” But Pepper was past the point of no return. The next words from Emerald's mouth floated back to the box somewhat loudly. “Why, Brigid, it's good to see you again.” “She's sweet enough to put it that way,” Pepper mumbled excitedly, as she fumbled for something. China had not seen it before, but there was a small black kettle turned upside down on the floor of the wood box. Pepper prepared to turn it over, practically rubbing her 147


hands together in glee. “You look like the witch in Macbeth,” China whispered to her, as she caught the string and clip that Brigid had just thrown into the box. “It might take a little time before you catch anythin'...” she heard Emerald say from outside. “Hurry, whatever it is you're going to do,” China whispered to Pepper, who seemed to be fumbling with something. “Here,” said Pepper, quickly clipping what appeared to be a small black bag to the end of the string. She gave it a bit of a tug. China could just see Emerald's eyes peer inside the box, so China gave her a nod of the head. “It seems as if you've snagged somethin', Brigid,” Emerald said happily. “Reel in your catch.” Brigid was already doing so. Pepper didn't seem to care whether or not anyone saw her at that point, so she stood up, China right behind her. Brigid did not see them. She unclipped the little black bag, curiously. “I'm sure I received the best of the day,” she said proudly. “No one else has had anythin' wrapped up, so it must be the best.” Her little frilled friends all nodded their heads in agreement, as they waited in anticipation for her to open the bag. Then there was a scream! Brigid seemed aghast as she screamed again, and then again. “Ah! It's movin'!” she cried. “Here!” She thrust the bag toward her friend. But it was too late. She had already opened the string of the bag, and out into 148


her hands poured three very cranky toads. There was much chaos as all the girls ran screaming in circles, trying to avoid the angry creatures, for having been stuffed in a bag for several hours in rather cramped quarters. “That's your lot, Brigid,” Pepper called to her from the wood box. “May your hands forever have warts!” “Oh!” Brigid cried. She flounced her dress angrily and ran off, calling for her mother and a tub of water, and soap. “She'll be runnin' for awhile,” Pepper laughed. Pepper was actually almost falling over in laughter. Toads were about the worst thing Brigid could ever think of to touch her pretty white, rose-water hands, and Pepper had managed to fool her into landing the toads directly into both of them. Even Emerald could not help but cover her mouth for laughing, as did most of the other school children gathered 'round her. “You are terrible, Pepper,” Emerald said to her sister. But her eyes were sparkling. And with Pepper's success of the day, she was able to assist China in her proposition of the day, although continuing to revel in her glorious feat. China was somewhat concerned. As the dinner hour approached, China and Pepper were given reprieve from inside the wood box. China scanned the crowd again for the twentieth time. There was Professor Blacks, still observing and caring to the east side of the bazaar, nearest the back open green fields. He hadn't even begun to come near the opposite end of the ring of tables where Chelsea still stood behind dwindling rows of breads and cakes. 149


Pepper had thought it a gloriously fortunate thing that Aunt Chelsea had been inside the church gathering several more pies for her table at the time of her revenge. And apparently, she still knew nothing of the incidence, although China wasn't so sure. Aunt Chelsea seemed to know everything, always. But if she did know, she kept quiet about it. Emerald was also watching the crowd, almost as if she were looking for someone else. She wondered if the secret she had been keeping for the last weeks would be finally brought to light that afternoon. There had been whispers about a new arrival. Could it be so? And while Emerald looked for this “mystery” person, China kept her arms crossed, her brows beginning to cross where her eyes met. What was wrong with the professor? Why hadn't he spoken with Aunt Chelsea in so long? The afternoon progressed. A spread of seasoned beef soon sizzled on the long tables in the center of the green for dinner. And there was lemonade, almost as if it were a spring celebration, instead of in mid-October. No one seemed to mind the cold. There were enough games to keep the children thoroughly warmed. And the women wore heavy shawls against the cool breezes. An hour later, the girls returned to their wood box, until all of the prizes had been turned over. “That do be the last of it,” China called out to Emerald, as she clipped a bright red button to the end of the fishing lure. “Nothin' left.” China pulled herself out of the box and stretched her back, after having been crimped inside for another three hours. Again, her eyes trained the crowds for the professor.


“Still wanderin' around over there,” she said Pepper. “What do you think his trouble is?” “I don't know,” said Pepper, crossing her arms, “but we're going to change that rather fast. Look at poor Aunt Chelsea over there by herself. And he ignorin' her this whole time. Just wait until the dance. Then I'll take care of it.” China believed her. The sun was already beginning to slant, and supper would soon be spread, to be served just before the dance began. So for the next two hours she prowled about the tables with Pepper and Emerald and the other girls, taking in the colors and textures of that beautiful village spread, always subconsciously following the patterns that Professor Blacks made, hoping that he might change his direction and visit Aunt Chelsea on the other side of the green. China almost started when the strike of the Irish fiddle sounded from the square. It was time for the dance to begin. She looked to Pepper, who already wore her look of determination. “Watch this,” she said. China hurried to follow her across the green. “What are you going to do?” “Just watch.” Pepper ran up to Aunt Chelsea. “Aunt Chelsea, will you show me how to dance, please!” Chelsea laughed, as she wrapped up the last of the cakes. “Pepper, surely there is one of the school boys who would be more than willin' to dance with you.” “They don't know how to dance,” said Pepper. “And of course they are all so awkward. You know how. You told us you learned to dance in London. You are probably the best dancer here.” 151


Chelsea laughed softly to herself, as if remembering her childhood, the fine dance halls of London. The sparkle of crystal candlesticks and bright orchids spread across marble floors and festive colors of ladies' ball gowns. “Very well, Pepper. I will show you how.” Pepper grabbed her by the hand and rushed them to the green. They were the first to arrive. And China could see that Aunt Chelsea, though ever noble in appearance, was not very eager to be the very first to begin the dance. But Pepper had a plan. China watched as Aunt Chelsea began to instruct Pepper across the emerald floor, and their skirts began to twirl. Chelsea's deep blue mixed against the dark green of the grass carpet was so beautiful, her red hair tumbled around her shoulders. And there -- could Pepper have been right –- there was Professor Blacks, watching her dance, just in the crowd. He watched her, perhaps, a little sadly. But China couldn't think why he should be sad. That was puzzling to her. Soon, others began to fill the dance, and Chelsea and Pepper were all but lost in the melee of color and laughter. China crossed her arms again, beginning to wonder what Pepper had been thinking, when, suddenly, the professor strode across the dark green square, over to Aunt Chelsea! Pepper's ridiculous smile squished dimples across her rosy face as she ran back to China. “See?” she said, as they watched the professor and Aunt Chelsea. “He cut in. All I had to do was to get her out there. He was just too shy to ask her in the first place.” They looked so beautiful together, Aunt Chelsea caught up in his arms, he looking down at her so carefully and kindly with his soft brown eyes under the lantern light. But still, almost sadly. And China wondered if Pepper had been right. That he simply just shy. 152


Chapter 13

All Hollows

It was not a week later that the school children of Abรกn's

Wick were cunningly gathering together ideas for All Hollows Eve. It was not a heavily celebrated holiday in that region of the country, among the adults, at least. But amongst the school children it was very much a highlight of the autumn, as there was nothing of a festive nature to span the bridge from the beginning of the school year until Christmas. Some of the fields were reserved for pumpkins, in the township, solely for the purpose of giving to the children for All Hollow's Eve. All orange and golden, plump for picking, and the children were almost beside themselves thinking of the best ways to use these pumpkins to their best advantage for the night of whispering ghostlings and moonlit forests. If 153


there was a moon... Plans had also been made for a party at the school house where Professor Blacks and several parents would facilitate bobbing for apples, cake walks, and other autumn festival activities. These had originally been planned for a villagewide festival, but as the Orphans' Bazaar had taken precedence that year, the games had been reassigned to the children's night of fun and games. “It's goin' to be a good night,” Pepper mused to herself. She was tucked in an afghan on her bed, arranging the lay-out of a costume. She was going to be a gypsy. “But the sort of gypsy from an opera,” she insisted. “Nothing like the real sort. Their hair is full of dirt and potato eyes.” China couldn't possibly begin to understand what made Pepper think that gypsies wore potato eyes in their hair. But China wasn't interested in gypsies at all. She was going to don the persona of a Grecian princess from the days of white columns and wreaths of green laurels. The girls had spent the last days since the bazaar, piecing together old cloths. Pepper wrung out a glass jar of beads and bells and buttons, and sewed them to the wine-colored skirt, where they clacked and jangled together in a pleasant sort of way. The bodice of her gypsy attire had been madly stitched together by an old sheep feed sack, which somehow managed to no longer smell of sheep feed, due to Aunt Chelsea' genius with soap, dried lavender, and plenty of boiling water. The burlap had been lined with cotton after which the whole thing had been dyed a dark dark sky blue. And with a sash made of her yellow scarf, complete with a variety of beads to hang from neck and wrists, Pepper was confident that she looked every part the gypsy. 154


China had found a way to craft her yellow dress from the recitation into the Greek gown, which, when hung with her own blue scarf as a drape about her arms, was convincing enough. Emerald, alone, had decided to remain at home for the evening. But she had volunteered her services at baking a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, using some of the precious quantity of chocolate that Aunt Chelsea allotted them yearly. Pepper, who had been completely free of accusations regarding the incident of the toads, felt vindicated enough not to bother Brigid with further vengeance that evening. But this did not keep her from waxing a wary eye. “Who knows what she'll try to do,” she said slyly the evening before the big night. “I know,” China sighed. “Last year it was the pumpkin smashin'. And the year before that...” “Cold water down your neck. And then she tried to pretend that she had no idea who did it to you!” Pepper said with a huff of indignation. “Don't do anythin', Pepper,” China warned. She could see a tempting gleam behind her eye. There were so many delicious pranks to be pulled on such a day of the year. “Alright. I won't do anythin',” said Pepper. “Unless, of course, she does somethin' to ask for trouble in return. Which I'm sure that she will.” China just shook her head, with a smile. Since the school year had begun, if not before, during the summer, Brigid had apparently decided that it would be better for her expertise in bullying to be leveled at Pepper, instead of China. And China was somewhat pleased with this. Pepper 155


was far more capable of handling such distresses. China preferred to dream. And dream, she would. It had been over a week since Professor Blacks had danced with Aunt Chelsea. Only one dance. Simple, beautiful, elegant. When they asked Aunt Chelsea about it on the way home, it was perhaps a fortunate thing that the night was free of moonlight so that they could not see the full blush of rose on her face, which would have been a rarity. And that evening, Chelsea was to accompany as a form of chaperone, with the parents, to watch over the bash of ghosts, queens, and ghouls. “Should we visit the church graveyard with the others tonight?” Pepper asked, unpleasantly interrupting her thoughts. “Shhh, Pepper,” she scolded. “Oh, you're having your daydreams again. And I know what they're about. It's not going to happen tonight, you know.” “What?” “He won't be able to propose to her tonight.” China laughed aloud. “Propose! They've hardly spoken about anythin' other than everythin' but love yet.” “Yes, but you were hopin' for it just the same.” China didn't respond, but only went back to her thoughts. Perhaps Pepper was right. Sometimes she did imagine, hopefully, that the professor might suddenly become so enchanted with their beautiful, sweet, young, aunt, that he would propose on a whim and sweep her away.... well, not away... they could still live in the cottage, of course... but figuratively... and then he would spirit her away to the coasts of Sicily or to far away Japan for a month 156


of honeymoons... “China, come along. The cake is ready.” “But I'm not ready yet.” “Yes, you are. Look at yourself.” She was right again. Sometimes when China was in the middle of daydreams, she managed to transform her appearance, write a report, cook dinner, etc., without even knowing it. And there she was, her yellow and blue arranged almost perfectly, in the Greek fashion. Pepper practically pulled her away from her window. Emerald was downstairs icing the cake with the creamy chocolate, the silver of the knife flashing in the moonlight through the window. “There,” she said. “It's finished.” It was a beautiful cake. It practically shone from the richness of the chocolate, and China knew that the inside would be soft and moist and easy to slice as if it were made of butter. “Are you certain you won't be needin' anyone to stay behind with you?” Chelsea asked Emerald as she gathered her shawl and the cake. Emerald shook her head and smiled. She didn't want to be present if the secret she had kept those past months would be revealed. It could happen at any time. “She said she'll be comin' at 'round the end of October for a bit of a visit, but that the professor wasn't to know,” she had heard from one of the village gossips that fateful day. And she had said nothing. “Alright, my dear,” said Aunt Chelsea. She brushed a kiss on Emerald's forehead as they left the cottage door and drew a wave back to the golden window from the garden. 157


“She is lovely to you girls,” Aunt Chelsea said to them as they climbed the green of the first dark hill. “Don't ever forget how much she does for you.” “We won't, Aunt Chelsea,” China said for them both. No one could accuse Emerald of an unkindness. She was generous, unselfish, so very giving of her time and help. China allowed her thoughts to dwell on this thankfulness for her cousin until they arrived at the brink of the fifth hill, and then her thoughts returned to the anticipation of Professor Blacks seeing and speaking with Aunt Chelsea again. “Emerald's cake will be the best there, of course,” Pepper was saying. “Everyone will want a slice. And your pumpkin muffins, of course, Aunt Chelsea.” Aunt Chelsea's light silver laugh whispered through the cold evening air. “You are the flatterin' one, Pepper,” she said. “But thank you all the same.” The moon shone nearly blue on Chelsea's white face, her blue eyes two glass globes of captured ocean. She had twined her red hair gracefully into a low-tucked knot at the base of her neck and had woven through it a blue ribbon to match her eyes. And China was satisfied that the professor would be captivated by her yet again upon seeing her. With the rise of two more hills, they had crossed the “Seven Hills of Rome”, as China called them, and arrived just outside the the stone walls of the school house. Inside was already filled with children. Only the older lot of the village had been given permission to go about on All Hollow's Eve. The littler ones were at home 'round the dinner table, preparing for bed. “No Brigid,” China whispered to Pepper. 158


“I'll be hopin' it stays that way,” Pepper returned, as she swished her jingling skirts over to the sweets table to set down Emerald's cake and the pumpkin muffins. “Welcome, Miss Shoals,” a quiet voice said from the corner. “Miss China.” Chelsea and China both turned 'round to see the professor walk toward them. It was the most forward he had ever seemed in a public setting. “Good evening, Professor,” Chelsea said to him, her face already blushing in the slightest of shades. But China saw it. “You have come to help watch over the children?” Professor Blacks continued, in a somewhat comfortable, eager manner. China moved back a little, waiting to see where the conversation would lead. “I have,” Chelsea also continued. “Well, welcome to it. It would seem that none of the parents could see fit to come this evenin'. And so, if you are willin' to see to the girls, I will keep a watch on the young gentlemen, should they feel so inclined to spooks and spiders.” “At the expense of their fellow female classmates, of course,” Chelsea greed. It seemed too well. China held her breath, leaving to find Pepper in the melee. If only they continued talking, and nothing would interrupt them. Perhaps the professor had just been too distracted with other things, which was why he hadn't spoken to Aunt Chelsea, not until they danced at the bazaar, and then he didn't even speak to her, she had said... but maybe... And then China's furious spiral of thoughts was sliced, like scissors sheared across a sheet of paper, when the door 159


opened on the illustrious image of Brigid Kelly, layered in flounces to the nines. Her frock overtly billowed in red, from neck to floor, red satins and silks and lace. And on her head sat what appeared to be a crown made of pure gold. “Eye poppin',” Pepper said to China with a nudge. “She looks like a devil in all that red.” “Shhh!” China said almost crisply. “I'll bet she stole the crown jewels for that obnoxious thing sittin' on her head.” Brigid waited only a few moments for the crowd to appreciate her regal entrance. “The party may begin now,” she said with a light laugh. “The queen has arrived.” China's eyes rolled before she caught them. She was getting rather tired of seeing Brigid galavant from one gathering to the next in ridiculous array. And she was determined to have fun bobbing for apples and walking for cake. The next hour ticked away in such a manner. China was almost able to forget about Brigid's presence, despite her burst of temper upon being the last to win in the cake walk. Everything had gone well up until that point. Professor Blacks had even spoken to Aunt Chelsea a few more times during the evening. But then... “Ah!” came a cry from the dessert table. “Professor! Professor!” “Yes, Brigid? What is the matter?” “Pepper threw her cake at me!” Everyone immediately gathered in a circle 'round the two girls. There was red fire in Pepper's eye, and China knew that she wasn't going to back down from Brigid's false tears. “What a liar you are!” Pepper said firmly, trying not to let her voice shake. 160


“Oh!” Brigid burst out in fresh tears. “Do you see how cruel she is!” Professor Blacks had arrived, taking a glance at Chelsea in the process. “What happened, Brigid?” he asked again. “I just came over to compliment her on her dress. And then she said somethin' nasty about my costume, which was shipped over from Paris...” “Of course,” China thought to herself. “And then...” Brigid continued, “she smashed this chocolate cake on my dress!” “I did no such thing!” Pepper almost cried back at her. “She came over here and made some stupid comment about Emerald's beautiful cake. Then she stuffed her hands right inside it and smashed it all over her dress, just to cause a scuffle and make me look like I did it.” China looked quickly at Professor Blacks. She knew that he wasn't fooled by Brigid. “Now ladies,” he said calmly, looking at both, in turn, “I think it would be best if you both did not speak to one another for the rest of the evenin'. Brigid, perhaps Miss Shoals will help you remove the chocolate from your dress.” Brigid's jaw dropped. “You mean you're not goin' to punish Pepper for what she did to me?” “Miss Kelly...” But the professor's words had ended short. He couldn't speak anything more. His eyes were magnetized to the open door. It was as if he could not move. For the split of a moment, China thought that perhaps a true ghost had actually flown into the school house, so white went his face. 161


But as everyone else turned their eyes to the door, they were given a far different surprise. The shimmering white and gold-gowned figure of a young beautiful woman.

162


Chapter 14

Ch'(ine

The silence was almost stunning. The professor seemed

as though his eyes would never leave the white upturned face of the beautiful black-haired woman standing in the door. “Professor?” she asked. Her blue eyes flashed at him. The professor still could not say anything. The woman shifted the gold of her skirt in the candlelight as she took a step toward him. “Can you not speak?” she asked soothingly, her refined voice giving away her English birth. “Christine...” he said, so low, and so quiet, that China could hardly hear him. 163


“I suppose I have shocked you well, David” she said, suddenly walking toward him with greater determination. She took up his hands as the children around the room looked at one another in surprise. Half of the children in the room did not even know that Professor Blacks' Christian name was, indeed, David. “Christine,” he said again, as the shock seemed to somewhat leave his face. “I thought you...” “I am quite alive,” she said, a white smile shining back at him. “And I've come to report that I am better than ever, and so very happy to see you.” And then the professor smiled as though he would not be able to stop. He practically threw his arms around her shoulders and hugged her tightly. China almost staggered a little at this display. Her eyes shot to Aunt Chelsea. Still serene, still perfectly at calm. But even China could see that behind her beautiful peaceful blue eyes, there was a sudden disturbance. Is it his sister? China wondered. An old friend? A cousin? Who is she? The professor suddenly seemed to realize himself. “I'm so sorry!” he suddenly exclaimed, pulling away. He took her dainty white hand, gloved in gold and white, and escorted her to the center of the room. “Children,” he said proudly, “may I introduce you to Miss Christine Cobbage. From London. An old, dear friend.” The silence was deafening. “Well, greet her properly!” the professor demanded, leading off a spontaneous set of applause. The children were giggling as they clapped wildly, not knowing why. Perhaps it was because they rarely saw such foreign beauty, and that she appeared to mean so very much 164


to their beloved professor, they were eager to welcome her with what zest they knew, behind faces of ghosts, Italian pirates, and Dutch princesses. “Cobbage!” China heard Pepper exclaim behind her, “What kind of a name is that?” But China hardly heard her. She was still inwardly cringing at the gold and white confection hanging on the arm of her aunt's professor. He was Aunt Chelsea's! Not this Christine Cobbage's! Yes, it was a silly name.

“Well, she could hardly help that,” Emerald said, after

everything had been relayed late that night. “She didn't chose her own name.” “She should still be embarrassed to have it,” Pepper sighed. “You should have seen her, Emme. She was beautiful. Stunnin'.” China shook her head, still bewildered. “It was amazin'. I never thought the professor could look so at a loss for words. His eyes practically glazed over.” “I am sorry,” said Emerald, relieved that the secret had finally been revealed. “Perhaps, though, she won't stay for very long.” “No,” said China regretfully. “She does plan to stay on for quite some time. I heard her say so to the professor.” “But... where will she stay?” “The Blaths,” said Pepper, rolling to her back on Emerald's bed. “They have already offered.” “But I don't understand it,” said Emerald. “Why did he think that she had...” “You mean died?” Pepper asked. “That is what he thought, isn't it?” 165


“It is a romantic story, I have to admit it,” said Pepper, rolling back onto her stomach. “He seemed to almost have tears in his eyes when he explained it all to us.” “Not very romantic, it wasn't,” said China loyally. “It sounded as though it came from a novel, at least. Apparently Miss Cobbage was on the same ship as Professor Blacks, on a voyage to India, four years ago. They met there in the rose garden on deck. A sort of glass house, and they became inseparable. They were always discussin' literature and travel...” “I can't believe he would speak of so many intimate things to all of you there at once,” Emerald cut in softly. To her young, domesticated mind it seemed almost an embarrassment to speak of such things. “Oh, he didn't seem to mind it,” said Pepper, with a toss of her black curls. “In fact, I think he enjoyed tellin' the story. So while the professor was teachin' at the university those three months, Miss Cobbage was on holiday with her parents, and he spent nearly every evenin' with them at their private villa, and the opera, theater, everythin'... And then, on her way back to London, durin' a terrible lightenin' storm at sea, the ship went down.” “Oh!” Emerald gasped. “And he thought he had lost her!” “Yes. Although why she never came back to see him after they had rescued her, I don't understand. What a cruel thing to have done to him.” “It was, very,” China agreed, glad to see Pepper not thinking the story quite so romantic anymore. “Had they been promised to each other, then, before she left?” Emerald asked. “Can't say of that,” said Pepper. “Although they must have been, by the look on his face.” 166


“Poor, sweet Aunt Chelsea,” said Emerald sadly. “She must have been very hurt. Perhaps the professor had started to think that she was another Miss Cobbage. Perhaps she was helpin' him to recover from his loss.” Poor Aunt Chelsea, indeed. China had seen her face turn quite white as the professor escorted his beautiful young friend around the little school house room. But she had said nothing. She had only held out her freckled hand to the white-gloved silk of the gorgeous Londoner, and cordially welcomed her to Abán's Wick. “Well, what are we to do now?” China asked mournfully. “What is to be done?” Pepper replied. “Nothin'. That's what. A short dream ruined. Cut to ribbons. There must be someone else out there for Aunt Chelsea.” China shook her head. “No. He was the only perfect one for her.” “Nonsense,” said Pepper, hopping up from the bed. “If he's too deluded with the elegant Miss Cobbage, I suppose we'll have to find someone else for Aunt Chelsea. He mustn't be good enough for her. Now come on down and have a cup of tea. Poor Aunt Chelsea shouldn't be left alone to her thoughts.”

Over the next two days, Aunt Chelsea seemed especially quiet. Perhaps there was nothing that she needed to say. She was busy with tending to the sheep and tending to things about the cottage, etc. But nothing more than usual, really. The girls were very careful never to mention Professor Blacks to her, even in reference to their studies. And, especially, they would never bring up the name of Christine Cobbage. Not once. 167


The professor had never seemed so lit from within. His eyes danced during every class, particularly on the second afternoon when Miss Cobbage had come to sit in on the last class before he walked her back home to the village. He had become quite animated during that particular French lesson. “It's not that she isn't friendly,” Pepper said with a shrug, as she carried her buckled stack of books over her shoulder. “She's just so very... rich. Unsuited for this place. Not even the Kellys could match her.” The girls did not leave the school house quite as happily those gray days in November. There was no consoling themselves, China in particular, over the loss of the professor to a “foreigner”, as China called her. Even Pepper had quickly given up hope on finding a replacement for him. She reluctantly agreed that Professor Blacks would have been the best man in the world for their quiet, patient, lovely aunt. But the grayness of the early winds of winter had pulled at the spirits of more than just the Shoals girls. Most of the school seemed to fall asleep during the late part of the day after the lunch hour. So perhaps it was providential that Professor Blacks had already decided that the month of November would, from that time on, become the official month to prepare an educational play to be performed for the entire town at the village hall, some time in February. “And,” he said, tapping his fingers along the thick stack of play books, “auditions will be set for next Friday. Come prepared to know at least ten lines of the part you would most like to play.” “What is the play, Professor?” one of the littlest girls blurted out from the front row, and then covered her mouth in embarrassment. 168


“That,” said the professor, with a smile for the little one, “is a good question. I have chosen this year's play to be...” He looked 'round the room, waiting for anticipation to mount. “Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'!” There was a round of applause. The girls, in general, were quite fond of this particular work of Shakespeare's. “I'm sure to get the best part!” Brigid announced. “She wouldn't know what the best part was if she saw it sittin' on her nose,” Pepper whispered to China. China caught a giggle. “It will not be the complete version, of course,” said the professor. “Lest we wish to call in a set of professional actors to recite such... extravagant lines.” And likely inappropriate for any audience, Emerald couldn't help but think. And China knew she was thinking it. Thankfully, for the rest of the day, the girls almost completely forgot about the trouble of Miss Cobbage, in the excitement of the production of the first play in production at the little stone school house. “Brigid would try for every lead part if she could,” said Pepper meanly as they hurried on the gray walk home. “Of course she will,” China replied. “It's her job as Brigid. But I don't think that the professor will allow her to be anything of significance. None of us will. We're too young.” “It's true,” said Emerald. “But there will be enough for all of us as extras of course.” China bit her lip a little. She didn't exactly like the sound of being an “extra”, but it didn't matter much as long as Brigid didn't have the prize role. Perhaps it was a spiteful thought. But on that particular afternoon, China didn't care very much. Their good, sweet Aunt Chelsea had been, in a 169


sense of the word, upstaged, by a more stylish, more wealthy, more... dare she say it?... dazzling, woman. And the professor had fallen for her like a sack of potatoes. Heavy potatoes. Rotten potatoes. Potatoes with green sprouts growing from their eyes, they were so rotten. “China?” China's eyes popped. “Yes?” “I know you're thinkin' mean thoughts,” said Emerald. “I can always tell.” “Maybe so,” said China, looking at her sideways. “But Aunt Chelsea deserves better than all of this.” “Agreed,” said Pepper. “We'll just have to think of somethin' later. Right now, we should start on lines. There's no way under God's blue skies that I'm going to let Brigid pull a main part.”

170


Chapter 15

Spark of Interest

The children of the little schoolhouse in Abán's Wick

were disgruntled after the auditions, three days later, when told they would not hear results until Monday. Professor Blacks had cut out the last two hours of class that day in order to conduct auditions, followed by the selection process, where he was accompanied by his Miss Cobbage. “I don't like it that we have to wait an entire weekend before we know,” Pepper had said, her face pressed up against the outside window, watching Professor Blacks and Miss Cobbage deliberate. “He should have asked Aunt Chelsea for help as well,” said China, dismally. “How rude of him not to think of her.” 171


“Why would he though?” Pepper asked. “He already has an assistant. He doesn't need two of them.” “Too bad a thing that Brigid had to read so well today,” China noted. “She might get a better part than we had thought.” Pepper brushed a hand through the air, as if this was of little importance. “Let her have a good part. As long as she keeps her nastiness to herself, what care we?” Regardless of their disappointment, the girls waited on needles till Monday afternoon, when, after all studies had been finished for the day, the professor stood up from his desk chair with a sheet of paper in hand and a smile on his face. “Well, my brilliant class,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised by all of your efforts at the auditions last Friday. And I am pleased to say that not one of you will receive a poor part.” The class held their breaths, all but for the youngest, who were not going to participate other than as little woodland sprites, and seemed content enough with this verdict. “For the part of Oberon, King of the Fairies...” Professor Blacks read down the list, listing one part after another, followed by exclamations of delight and spontaneous applause, until there were only five parts remaining, those of the fairy servants of the Fairy Queen. “For the part of Cobweb... Pepper.” “Cobweb!” Pepper exclaimed. “And for the part of Moth... Emerald.” Emerald Shoals smiled a little to herself at the thought of this name. “China? You will be Mustardseed.” China was not certain she liked the sound of this part. 172


Peaseblossom went to another girl in Brigid's train. “And... for the final part...” Everyone knew it would go to Brigid. “The part of First Fairy in the Queen's train.” China bristled. She didn't even want to turn 'round and look at the arrogant white face framed in black curls, plastered with the most indecorous smile of triumph. Only one step away from the Queen of Fairies, and only because she was not old enough to play the part. “And,” the professor continued, “as I am certain you will all be excessively pleased, Miss Cobbage will be assistin' with a great deal of the rehearsals, includin' the costumes and scenery.” Applause followed. This was the straw of it all, and China could feel the camel about to crumble under her. This would not do. This would not do at all. Poor Aunt Chelsea! But China was tired of feeling sorry for Aunt Chelsea. China seemed more upset about the whole situation than did her aunt. In fact, Aunt Chelsea seemed to be almost herself again, though still having never mentioned the professor again. “Well, how am I supposed to play the part of Cobweb anyway?” Pepper asked on their walk home. “Two months of rehearsals to play somethin' no better than a spider.” “You complain,” China almost laughed. “I'm to play a mustard seed!” “At least you have somethin' that Jesus actually mentioned in the Bible,” Pepper retorted. “That has to make it at least a little important. I don't think he ever mentioned cobwebs.” “It will be fun,” said Emerald happily. “To have rehearsals so many afternoons in winter when things can be 173


dull if not...” “You always do try to make things seem better, Emme,” said Pepper, hugging her about the shoulders. And things seemed to be better after that. Even Aunt Chelsea brightened at the thought of having something of an amusement for the girls during the long winter months. Books and imaginations still had their limits during the season of snow and ice. “We'll have to be lookin' for things to make your costumes, girls,” said Aunt Chelsea. They were all in the kitchen that evening while Aunt Chelsea mixed a lemon cake. “Well, Aunt Chelsea...” Pepper trailed off. She didn't have the will to tell her aunt that Miss Christine Cobbage of London had already been requested, by Professor Blacks himself, to put together all costumes for the play. “Yes, Pepper?” Chelsea asked her, without even looking up. “That is to say... Well, the professor couldn't manage everythin' all on his own, you see. So...” Chelsea continued to mix the bowl, fully aware that Pepper was not willing to tell her something. “If they are going to need help with costumes, you may let the professor know that I'm willin' to help,” said Aunt Chelsea. “I'll come tomorrow after school, if it works that way.” “You will?” Pepper asked, before China could respond for her. “But...” Emerald began, and then Pepper glared at her. An hour later, preparing for bed... “What were you thinking, Pepper!” China exclaimed, once their door had been shut. “Aunt Chelsea can't come to 174


help out. With Miss Cobbage...” “Of course she can,” Pepper insisted. “For all of your imagination, China, you can get stuck in a rut over all this. Stop feelin' sorry for Aunt Chelsea. She's got a tough side to her, and it would be better than anythin' for her to be 'round the professor, so that he doesn't get all caught up in Miss Cobbage's golds and silvers and her London accent.” “I think he's already caught up.” “Won't be for long. Just you wait.”

The next afternoon, Aunt Chelsea was good to her word.

China could see her cross over the fifth of seven hills, the skirt of her long black coat blasted behind her by the driving November wind. “Oh dear,” Emerald whispered. “Here she comes. How embarrassed she's goin' to be, China! We should say somethin' to her.” “Pepper made us promise,” China said drearily, pressing her fingertips to the icy windowpane. Classes had been dismissed only for a full two minutes, and Pepper was making purposeful delays at her desk, pretending to finish copying the assignment from the board. What made things all the worse was that Miss Cobbage had come out for the afternoon to spend the last half hour of the class sessions discussing the content of the play with the children, including the younger ones. “I don't know what makes her so qualified to instruct us in Shakespeare,” Pepper had said aloud to China at the lunch hour. “She's only the daughter of a wealthy gentlemen. She probably has only ever learned to crossstitch and paint china.” 175


“Well, I wouldn't be so snobby, Pepper,” Brigid had said, overhearing the conversation. “She's more accomplished and beautiful than you ever will be.” “You talk of snobs,” Pepper retorted, refusing to grace her response with the use of Brigid's name. “Look in a mirror and see the worst of them all.” Brigid just tossed her curls, something she was known to do. “Well, as First Fairy, you shall all have to do as I say. And I say that Miss Cobbage shall design all of our costumes.” “You didn't decide that,” China said. “Professor Blacks already said that.” Brigid pretended to ignore her. And with even Brigid Kelly on Miss Cobbage's side, things were looking bleak as Aunt Chelsea fought the wind to arrive at the old door of the school house. “Leave this to me,” Pepper had said with her eyes, when she saw China and Emerald look to her in protest. With a gust of cold wind, Aunt Chelsea had stepped inside. Everyone else was gone, except for her three girls, and the professor and Miss Cobbage. Miss Cobbage was in the process of turning down the lamps, for in the late gray afternoons, the light was not proper enough for the children to read. Professor Blacks looked up at that moment, perhaps a little startled. To China, it seemed as though he had almost forgot Aunt Chelsea until that moment, and was embarrassed when he did remember her. “Miss Shoals!” he said almost too loudly, coming toward her with a stack of books in one arm. “How good to see you this evening. I trust you and Miss Cobbage have made acquaintance?” 176


“Of course, we have,” said Miss Cobbage, coming forward with an extended hand. “What a dear, dear country girl you are.” China felt a shot of fire through her veins. How dare Miss Cobbage say such a demeaning thing to her wonderful aunt! But Aunt Chelsea appeared purely unruffled, as she took Miss Cobbage's hand. “Yes, we have met,” she said smoothly. “Miss Cobbage.” Aunt Chelsea's smile was kind as always, but there was a subtle coolness to it that only the girls could have recognized. “Well,” said the professor, “it seems time as though we should leave now. I was just goin' to escort Miss Cobbage back to the rectory. Or was there somethin' you needed to speak of, Miss Shoals?” At least he notices that much, China thought contemptibly to herself. At least he noticed the fact that Aunt Chelsea never came over to the school house to pick up her girls. Despite this allowance, China furtively crossed her arms to await what Aunt Chelsea might say to him. “Well, professor...” Chelsea began. Oh no, here it comes, China thought to herself, as Emerald had to look away in embarrassment of the moment to follow. “I heard about the production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', and thought that if you were in need of assistance with costumes, I would be happy to offer any services in sewin' or anythin' of the kind.” “Oh!” said the professor, looking to the elegant Miss Cobbage. China could see the struggle in him, as he looked back and forth quickly, between the two women. And was it China's imagination, or did Miss Cobbage have a sort of 177


gleaming possessiveness in her eyes? For what seemed a very long time, China closed her eyes on the scene, and wished that she were far away from the little school house in her emerald glade with the daydreams of her Prince Joseph. “Oh, that's perfect!” China snapped open her caramel eyes. It was Pepper who had just blurted out the statement. “Aunt Chelsea will be wonderful at it,” she continued. “She helped put all our gowns together for the recitations and dances, and everything else we do 'round this old place.” China heard Pepper emphasize both the words “old” and “place”, realizing very quickly that she was working her mind tricks already on the perfectly figured Miss Cobbage. Anything to drive her back to refined, distinguished London. “Oh, then,” the professor stammered. “Thank you, professor,” Pepper almost cut over him, but not enough to make him feel apprehended. “When should she come to help with the measurements?” “Why, tomorrow afternoon,” Professor Blacks finally replied with more courage, purposefully avoiding the devilish stare of Miss Cobbage. He gulped. “That would be wonderful, Miss Shoals. I am so glad to have you help us.” Aunt Chelsea gave a nod as she replied, “I am glad to do what I can, Professor.” And then she gave a nod to Miss Cobbage, whose wrath at being practically usurped was not entirely vacant from her icy smile. “Miss Cobbage.” “Miss Shoals,” she replied steadily, as she laced an arm through the professor's. “Are we ready?” she asked, turning 178


to him almost immediately. “Yes, yes,” he replied, almost distractedly. “I believe that we are.” “Good evenin' to you,” Aunt Chelsea said to them both as she turned to the girls. “Good evenin',” the professor called out to them, as they walked toward the door. And China saw a bit of a smile on Aunt Chelsea's face. But she said nothing about it. That evening, as the girls began their work of memorization of lines over hot apple pie, Aunt Chelsea asked, for the first time, a direct question of the professor. She held her knitting very close to her under the lamplight, and spoke as cooly as ever. “Did Professor Blacks ever say to you what happened to Miss Cobbage after the shipwreck, how she came to have disappeared for so long?” So she had heard! The girls exchanged quick looks amongst themselves. “I heard that she had amnesia,” said Pepper. “Likely story. I think it was because she found someone else that she planned to marry instead of the professor, and then when he didn't marry her, she decided to come after the professor again instead...” Pepper cut herself short after a darting look from China not to continue. Speculations would make things vastly worse at this stage. “How interestin'...” said Aunt Chelsea. And that was all that she said. The girls continued with their lines and tried not to overtly smile at the interest Aunt Chelsea had suddenly displayed. As small a hint as it was, it was perfect indication that she would not be trampled upon by the likes of hoity-toity Miss Christine Cobbage. 179


Chapter 16

Wet Paint

The next two months were so full of interest, that China

did not even mind the usually longed-after visits to her green glade below the high green hill. During any other Irish winter, she would have sat in her window and daydreamed after these summer visits. But with the volcano of distractions afforded with memorizing lines, parties amongst friends to practice rehearsing these lines together, gatherings at school for official rehearsals and costume arranging, etc., the camaraderie of the school children intensified amongst themselves, and the drear of the winter was practically forgotten. Even the older boys partook in the social gatherings. And, perhaps, most shocking of all, was Brigid's general lack of trouble stirred during those near three months of 181


practices. She did not fail to lord it over her small fairy train that she was mistress of every word that came from their mouths during rehearsals, which would have been entirely annoying had it not been for Pepper's purposeful ignoring of her instructions and, in many cases, doing the exact opposite of what she had specified. China followed suit. And the professor was quick to remind Brigid that she was not, indeed, the Fairy Queen, but only the “First Fairy”. Aside from this, Brigid had become less of a nuisance because she had disintegrated into, to a general degree, the pet of Miss Christine Cobbage. This did not surprise China, who had decided almost from the first time she saw Miss Cobbage's eyes snap at the professor for considering Aunt Chelsea to aid in the costume design and production, that Miss Cobbage was an almost horrible person. “She's as slick as a snake,” she said one day on their walk home from school. “You see how she sneers at Aunt Chelsea, treatin' her as a child, even though they must be the same age, a dunce, and 'country girl', so subtly, that no one would hardly notice. And then when the professor returns to the room, she is sweeter than sugar. As full of honey as a beehive.” “She's a menace, of course,” said Pepper, less tactfully. “And I hope the professor ships her back to London on the next boat.” This had become Pepper's signature phrase regarding the charming lady, charming, at least, when Aunt Chelsea was not present. Emerald would say nothing at these outbursts, and kept her unknown opinions to herself. She was courteous to everyone, and would never label them as “contemptuous” or “a menace”, or anything else so kind, no matter how devious they might be. 182


Thanks to both the efforts of Chelsea Shoals and Christine Cobbage, however, the costumes of the children were on the side of excellent. This was largely due to the wealth of materials made available to the school through the generosity of Miss Cobbage's father, which she made known to the entire class, and likely the rest of the village. Any imaginable piece of cloth, even to velvet and satin. Silks, rough broadcloth, cottons, meshing and trinkets. Bells, buttons, broaches, rhinestones... everything was sent to them. She had only to write her father, and the parcels were waiting at the station within two days. “Miss Cobbage has put all of the best materials into my own costume,” Brigid announced proudly, from time to time. “Embroidered brocade, silken fairy wings, everythin' luxurious,” she would practically gush. China despised it when people gushed. It made them sound so very ridiculous. Instead, she focused on the fitting of her own gown. As “Mustardseed”, she had decided that her gown would be a sort of woodland green and brown, mixed with panels of yellow ribbons, some of which would be laced into her hair. Perhaps they were not the most flattering of colors for her complexion and, perhaps, not even in general. But she was determined to look the part of a woodland fairy and not, as Brigid had so aptly managed to be, a sugar cake dripping in beads and baubles. A woodland fairy would never wear such things, she thought logically to herself. And regarding the memorization of lines, the lines of these girls were practically naught. There was more of their presence upon the stage then there was to their lines. But the girls did mind. 183


Pepper read her lines once, having already heard them a number of times throughout her childhood. “Ha!” she cried. “Done! There's hardly more than that in Brigid's brain!” she said unkindly, and tossed aside the book. She was always more interested in finishing her costume, and in other things, despite the coldness. This included the resuming of her digging the surrounding countryside as soon as spring returned. “You've got four months till spring now,” China told her once, in the middle of January. “Don't let it bother you now. You couldn't dig a spadeful in this freeze.” But Pepper couldn't help but stay interested, once having memorized the five miniscule lines. “It doesn't serve that we should have so little,” she sighed, while well-knowing that the much more significant of parts should naturally go to the oldest children. And so instead of developing the “majesty of her character upon the stage”, as Miss Cobbage had so elegantly put it, Pepper put her mind to finishing other things. One of these things included piecing together the scenery, which Pepper found much more fascinating, and understandably, than her lines. The Professor had seen fit to give over the entirety of the costuming to his two ladies, Miss Cobbage and Aunt Chelsea, while he saw to the coaching of lines, chiefly, and the arranging of scenery. And Pepper would be his chief assistant in this department. She had no greater fun than slopping the dark green and black paint on the thin wood board of the backdrop for the forest. So much paint, and so much freedom. The part of detailing the smaller things, such as plants and animals, was left to more careful and discretionary hands. But Pepper 184


found this to be the best part of all preparations leading up to the February production. As time went along, China's nerves tingled with the tension of watching her aunt so slightingly disregarded by the wealthy young woman from London. Oh, it was subtle, but it was sly, and digging. The professor never noticed a thing, China was certain. She was so smooth and so charming and pleasantly admiring when he was present. But whenever his back was turned, then Miss Cobbage seemed to become a Mr. Hyde. “I don't understand what the professor ever sees in her that he likes so much,” said China one afternoon. “Why does he follow her 'round and treat her as though she were a queen? She is not as kind, not nearly as kind, as Aunt Chelsea. And even if she is more wealthy, I thought the professor was better than to do such a thing.” “Remember,” Emerald advised, “he has known Miss Cobbage for a great deal of time more than Aunt Chelsea. Perhaps there are things between them that we do not know.” Emerald was right, as usual. China could only hope that the professor had not proposed to Miss Cobbage on those dark starlit nights in India. She pushed that thought from her mind very quickly, whenever it came. More than ever, she was determined that the professor should marry no one but her kind, flaming-haired aunt. But whether or not David Blacks had any thought in the world of Chelsea Shoals or not, no one could say. And the show would go on, whether or not Miss Cobbage was secretly engaged to the school master of the little stone school house in Abán's Wick. One morning in particular, Brigid was being especially irritating, despite her relative good behavior through the 185


past six weeks. Christmas had come and gone, and once again, as happened every year, Brigid was feeling little shame in displaying the products of her abundant holiday. “Oh, how lovely,” Miss Cobbage gushed at her. China grit her death. Gushing again. It was despicable. She craned her head from the front of the classroom where she was helping Pepper with the painting. “I know it is,” said Brigid with a lofty air. “Direct from...” “Paris,” China mouthed to Pepper. “Paris,” Brigid announced directly. “Mother only ever purchases the best of jewelry. And this, she says, came from Dutch royalty.” “Two perfect sapphires,” said Miss Cobbage, delicately fingering the necklace around Brigid's neck. “Why, I have another one near to it at home, but nothing quite as splendid. It is brilliant, Brigid. What fun to have such pretty things.” Pepper pretended to choke at this. “So grand, I know,” Brigid said, with another whisk of her hand across the black curls around her shoulders. “Why, put together, you and I must be as wealthy as all the rajas of India.” There she goes, speaking about things she doesn't know anything about, China thought to herself. It certainly didn't help that Miss Cobbage fawned over Brigid in an almost sickeningly approving way. Nothing that Brigid did, could be wrong. “China, Pepper,” Miss Cobbage spoke up loudly from where she stood with Brigid. “Finish with your painting. Brigid needs rehearsing with her fairy train.” China could see that Pepper was working very hard at not rolling her eyes. 186


“Yes, ma'am,” they both replied. But neither quickened their brushstrokes. Without saying anything to each other, both already knew that Brigid had no more lines than either of them, and so they continued to work, not, perhaps, out of spite toward the encroaching Miss Cobbage, but more out of dislike for Brigid's airs. Brigid sat at her desk, twisting the two sapphire pendants 'round her white fingers, watching the activity of the other children around her, stitching, painting, rehearsing lines. And she clearly ignored all requests for assistance. “Brigid, will you help with the seam on the stage curtain?” She would laugh. “Brigid, would you listen to me recite my lines?” “I haven't time for that,” she would return, and then would continue spinning the sapphires. The more Brigid refused to help, the longer Pepper and China dragged out their brushstrokes on the board, which was to be the backdrop of the Renaissance village. Finally, Pepper could take it no longer. The clack, clack of Brigid's two sapphires against each other, the ignored requests for help, the slight shuffling giggle from time to time over mistakes made in the younger children's recitations, etc. “Brigid,” Pepper said, “come sit over here and we'll recite lines with you while we paint.” “Oh, I couldn't possibly,” she returned. “My dress is new, all the way from Rome. I could not risk paint being spilt on it.” Pepper pressed her lips together. “All the same,” she said tersely, “we cannot help you with your lines until we are finished paintin'. And then we will be leavin' for home. So it's your choice.” 187


Brigid pouted. She did not want an opportunity to pass of showcasing her, what she considered, brilliant lines, to the rest of the class as they slaved below her on the school house floor, particularly as some of the older boys were working on staging in the back. “Very well,” she said, “but take care not to splash paint anywhere near me.” Pepper waved her hand aside in indifference as Brigid walked forward primly to the professor's desk. It all happened so quickly that China could not even reach forward to try to catch her. Even Pepper, as disgruntled as she was on a continual basis with Brigid, would have attempted to stop the next event from taking place. If it only hadn't been for the cup of black paint sitting just on the top step of the stage. Pepper was using it to paint the backdrop, but had her back turned to Brigid as she walked up the stairs. Her nose was in the air, as it always was, and she hadn't seen it until it was too late. Down came Brigid's foot on the paint cup. She gave a cry as she flew threw the air. Suddenly, Brigid was flat on her face on the floor. Not only had she landed on the floor, but her entire face was plastered against the freshly painted backdrop of the village. Wet paint of nearly every color all over the front of her white dress. As she peeled herself off the board, screaming with anger, China clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughter. An almost perfect representation of the village backdrop was pressed on her white dress. Buildings, windows... Brigid was a walking backdrop! Pepper was not so discrete in hiding her reaction. Already, she was bent half-way over laughing, wheezing 188


with laughter more like. The rest of the class was not entirely disinclined to follow this reaction, and particularly the older children, who Brigid couldn't hope to bother, were laughing nearly as hard as Pepper. “You!” Brigid cried at her, both blue eyes shot with flame. “You did this on purpose! You vicious cat!” And suddenly, Brigid was flying at her, more the cat herself than anyone, tearing her claws toward the laughing Pepper. But Pepper quickly jumped aside as Brigid tore toward her, half-blinded with paint. Miss Cobbage, apparently, found the situation entirely unfunny. She marched down the center row of desks towards the two girls. “Brigid!” she cried out. “Stop crying! Your dress will be replaced. I'll see to that,” she said, glaring at Pepper. Pepper's eyes widened, despite her laughter. “It was a mistake, ma'am,” she said quickly. “Brigid must not have seen the pot of paint sitting on...” “A pot of paint I'm sure you were all too careful to place in a certain spot,” Miss Cobbage replied coolly. China could see the veins stand out on Pepper's arms as she clenched her fists. “Now let's go clean you off, dear,” said Miss Cobbage to the hysterical Brigid, as she turned to help her. “I did nothin' of the sort,” Pepper suddenly said aloud. Miss Cobbage whirled about at her. “What did you say?” she asked, almost inviting Pepper to bring more trouble upon herself. “I said that I did nothin' of the kind. Brigid was entirely to blame. And if she hadn't been wearin' such a ridiculous costume to school when she knew we would be workin' and paintin' today, it would likely never have happened.” 189


The room became utterly silent. Even the older boys appeared shocked at Pepper's outburst. China could say nothing, her mouth was so dry. And Brigid's face suddenly lightened, knowing that Pepper had most certainly dug her own grave for the rest of the school year. Miss Cobbage's eyes were filled with both ice and fire at once. China knew in that moment that no one had ever dared speak to her in such a way. And China could only wish that Professor Blacks had been there to witness the scene. He would have resolved everything fairly. But Miss Cobbage... No, China had little faith in her ability to handle anything of this nature. Miss Cobbage took one prim step toward Pepper, with the click of her hard heel on the wood floor. She looked as though she might strike at Pepper. But she didn't. “You deserve to be expelled for such a statement,” she said, deliberately drawing out each word, as if to frighten her. Pepper crossed her arms, waiting to hear the rest. “Your aunt will hear everything about what you did today,” she said. “And if she doesn't remove you from school, I will!” Pepper made the smallest of laughs. China could have covered her eyes from remorse. “Do you think this is a funny matter, Miss Pepper?” Miss Cobbage continued. “Not really, ma'am,” Pepper replied testily. Miss Cobbage drew back her shoulders, as if she wondered why she should bother her time with such a varmint. “Your aunt is a fool for raising such a little beast,” she said, as her final statement, and returned to Brigid. 190


Pepper would take no such ignorant comment. She took in a very deep breath, and China knew that there was nothing she could stay to stop her cousin. Emerald seemed equally incapable at that moment. “She's three hundred times the woman you could ever hope to be,” Pepper replied, with nails in her voice. And then she ran for the hills, with a careless laugh echoing behind her. Miss Cobbage was too stunned to move. The rest of the children, equally aghast, decided that it had been a very good show, and returned to their work over the low buzz of conversation following such a remarkable display of disrespect. Emerald quietly gathered her things and made to leave, to follow her sister's trail of shame back to the cottage. But China caught her by her sleeve. “Don't go,” she whispered. “If we leave, then it'll be all the worse comin' back tomorrow.” Emerald nodded slowly, watching the smoldering face of Miss Cobbage. Fortunately, Miss Cobbage did not find it necessary to speak to either of the other girls, and instead, took Brigid with her outside to work on sponging off her face before sending her home in the early evening. By the time Miss Cobbage came back inside, it was time for everyone to leave, and so China and Emerald slipped out with the other students, heading for home over the cold hills.

China had been right. Once Pepper had thought over

everything, and had spoken with a very disappointed Aunt Chelsea, she found herself ready to apologize the following afternoon. 191


“It doesn't matter what Miss Cobbage said to you,” Aunt Chelsea had told her, “or what she accused you of doin'. You should never speak to an adult like that. I don't even have to tell you that, Pepper.” And so Pepper had made her apologies to Miss Cobbage, who, instead of extending forgiveness, or an apology for her own false accusations towards Pepper, had instead chided her for her “impossible country attitude”, her “impossible lack of high morals”, and her “impossibly Spartan upbringing”. Pepper took it well, pressing her lips together so that she wouldn't spew forth anything else for which she might have to apologize again. And, fortunately, Pepper waited until the late afternoon so that Professor Blacks was again not present to witness the embarrassing affair. Although China was certain that Miss Cobbage had spoken of it to him in entirety. But the damage had been done. If Miss Cobbage already had a bit of vendetta toward Chelsea for her friendship with the professor, she had now even less of a reason to like her. China could only hope that things would turn up better as time went on. If only the professor could see what a cat she was, Miss Christine Cobbage!

192


Chapter 17

A Midsummer Night

Despite the unfortunate incident of the paint, the

evening before the grand production arrived. It was to be the final dress rehearsal, and Professor Blacks was looking cheery and quite proud of his small acting troupe, regardless of the small group of protesting parents who would not allow their children to participate in such “foolishness�. But China wasn't happy with their professor, for all his kind instruction and his fine compliments towards Aunt Chelsea's handiwork at the costumes. No, he had been far too busy with Miss Cobbage, spending nearly every evening at the rectory under the chaperonage of Reverend and Mrs. Blath. 193


“Such a sweet, charming young woman,” Mrs. Blath had said to Aunt Chelsea after church one morning. “So humble and charitable. I am so pleased she has come to Abán's Wick.” But what she had said next, weighed too heavily on China, for her to even concentrate on the two-month process of developing the character of Mustardseed. “I trust it shan't be long before we are preparin' another wedding.” China had felt her heart drop half a mile upon hearing this news. It couldn't be so! Mrs. Blath had said this a week before the play was to be performed, and while China had already been concerned at the alarming amount of evenings she knew that Professor Blacks was spending at the rectory, this sealed her terrible fear that he had, indeed, completely forgotten about Aunt Chelsea. When Pepper heard the news, her green eyes flashed brightly. “She won't be marryin' him if I've got anythin' to do with it at all!” And so the dress rehearsal had arrived. On a cold, sharp day in early February. Everyone was excited, even Pepper who had coolly decided from the very beginning, that her part was too dull to rehearse more than once a week. Miss Cobbage was shining with pride over the trove of polished costumes which she had almost fully orchestrated. She had refused for Professor Blacks to extend acknowledgement to Aunt Chelsea at the end of the play, and warned him not to do so. “She barely lifted a finger to help with anything,” she said, as sweetly as she was able. “She doesn't need to be 194


credited.” This statement took the professor somewhat by surprise. It had been the first unkind remark he had ever heard from the darling Christine Cobbage, and he could do nothing else but disregard it as the product of a somewhat stressful dress rehearsal taking place within the hour. But the comment stuck with him for the remainder of the evening, as the children began to regather at the school house. Chaos abounded. As though Professor Blacks were the professional pirate of the flag ship, and the school children were the shipmates. Everyone had a job to do. Desks were pushed aside to make room for the multitude of chairs to be brought in from the city hall, which had just arrived in the mayor's cart. Now that classes were finished for the week, the scenery had been rigged to the back walls and from the rafters, depending on the part of scenery being hung. Costumes were being adjusted. Everything was being put in order. China noted that Miss Cobbage was exceedingly careful to avoid any contact, whatsoever, with Aunt Chelsea. And the professor, China also noted, seemed to somewhat notice her level of coldness. But there was no time to consider such things. The children were prepared to begin, and the professor had taken his place at the side of the stage to give an introduction. “Well, class,” he said loudly above the lowering din. “My place will be here throughout the entire performance tomorrow night. Should any of you forget a line, only look to me and I will hand you a cue. Let us begin, as if it were tomorrow night. Actors, please take your positions.” And it had all begun. Even though it was only a rehearsal, China felt the small thrills of being part of such a 195


grand production of the master of all plays. In addition, she had been granted access to work with stage and props, and would spend part of her time behind the scenery for most of the play when she was not acting. Everything went along very well. China could tell by the happy look of Aunt Chelsea, that everything was working as it should. And despite the occasional glacial glare from Miss Cobbage, for what appeared to be no apparent reason, lines were smooth and transitions were relatively well done. Professor Blacks closed the evening with congratulations to all and a reminder to gather together at four o'clock the next afternoon in preparation for a six o'clock performance. “And our lovely Miss Cobbage and Miss Brigid will be providin' dinner for you all,” he said finally, with a smile to his lady. There was applause, particularly from the boys. And Brigid shot a smug look to Pepper, who didn't see it. That night, China slipped under smooth cool covers and spent her dreams on far-away events involving a dismal wedding between the Professor and Miss Cobbage. Elegant, yes, and beautiful, but sad.

The next afternoon came quickly. Even Pepper was

becoming somewhat excited about the performance. And Aunt Chelsea, who still hadn't breathed a word regarding Miss Christine Cobbage, seemed freshened by the cold air of the morning. She mixed together biscuits for breakfast and then helped the girls with the last bit of their costume fixings before tending to the flock. “She's got to be havin' a chance at him at least,” said Pepper after Aunt Chelsea had left the cottage. “If only he had twice the sense he has.” 196


She clucked her tongue as she watched out the window where Aunt Chelsea was feeding the sheep. “That is unkind, Pepper,” said Emerald loyally. “Professor Blacks is a good man. He can't be helpin' it if he's dazzled a bit by Miss Cobbage.” “Beast that she is,” Pepper practically retorted. “Pepper!” “Well she is, Emerald. And you know it.” Emerald said nothing, but instead walked into the kitchen to finish with the breakfast dishes. It didn't take much longer for the girls to finish their chores of the day. The last dish was washed and put away, all of the flock were fed and tucked into the barn for the evening, and the costumes were wrapped up carefully into the split oak baskets so that the girls would not walk across sodden pastures in them and muddy the hems. “About time you arrived,” Miss Cobbage said coldly, as Pepper pushed open the door. Pepper bit back her tongue to say that they were early, after China gave her a quick pinch on the elbow. “Is somethin' wrong, Miss Cobbage?” Chelsea asked her patiently as she followed the girls into the door. Miss Cobbage was already striding to the front of the classroom where the scenery was still firmly in place. “Nothing, nothing at all, Miss Shoals,” she called over her shoulder, with no more greeting than that. China took a look at her aunt, who, she could easily tell, was trying not to laugh. The condescending nature of Miss Cobbage to her quite equal peer had become rather humorous to Aunt Chelsea. And China was pleased to see it. “Do well now,” Aunt Chelsea said quietly to China, seeing that her smile had been discovered. 197


China nodded. “And be good to Miss Cobbage,” she whispered after them, eyeing Pepper in particular. Two hours later, the play was set to begin. The noisy warmth of the village crowd had gathered together under lamplight and candlelight, as precarious a hazard of fire it supplied. And the key players of the night's performance excitedly twittered to one another behind the dark curtain separating them from the expectant faces of family and friends. China didn't hear more than two words of the professor's introductory speech. Her mind was too wrapped up in the bubbling awe of performing the great soliloquies of such a wordsmith. Even if she only had a few words to recite at all. And the curtain opened with the first words uttered from the mouth of Theseus. “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour “Draws on apace; four happy days bring in “Another moon...” China quivered a little with excitement at hearing the words spoken so well. And on it went. At the first of her cues, China took her place upon the stage with her cousins before the Fairy Queen, and bowed low. And with the few parts of her appearance, the play had finished, wrapped together with the last lullabied words of Puck.

198


“So, good night unto you all. “Give me your hands, if we be friends, “And Robin shall restore amends.” And then the applause. China took her place forward as the professor recited, and from memory, the cast, one by one, including those tasks done behind the scenes. Painting, rehearsing, music (provided by what were self-created forest and native instruments), and... costumes. China sucked in her breath as it came to that. The very last announcement of them all. Miss Cobbage had already been mentioned in the rehearsal instruction, as having helped all of the students with their lines. But not Aunt Chelsea. The professor hadn't breathed a word about her yet. “And, finally, to this charming lady here, we owe our thanks for the many hours spent in piecin' together the costumes for our production. Miss...” China closed her eyes for just a moment, willing him to say the correct name. “Christine Cobbage.” Miss Cobbage dimpled her cheeks sweetly to the crowd as she waved blushingly to the crowd. China could have cried a tear just there, so angry she was at that moment. “And...” the professor continued, “our beautiful Miss Shoals, who assisted in the same department.” He smiled such a kind smile to Aunt Chelsea at that moment, that China was given a surge of great hope. “Applause to both for their efforts,” he continued. “And to the entire cast and the crew of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your appearance here tonight. Refreshments are served.” 199


China didn't even have to look at Miss Cobbage for her reaction. The green snake of jealousy had bitten her hard, and China knew that she would be fuming under appealingly dancing disguised eyes, charming and sweet and humble to every degree. Who can say what will happen next, she thought to herself, as she took her last bow with the rest of the cast.

200


Chapter 18

Tea

After the performance came the basking lull of the next

several days. Everyone, it seemed, was riding above the clouds in the tapering excitement of having performed such a play to practically the entire village. It was akin to an honor to have done so, despite the several nagging parents who thought the stage nearly a mortal sin. They convinced themselves that it was almost the epitome of greatness, what they had done together, and that despite the abridged version, it was not very abridged and was still just as glorious. It was also interesting what took place with Miss Cobbage over those several days. Suddenly, without explanation, she was equally as sweet to Aunt Chelsea. Even when no one was paying attention to her after services 201


on Sunday morning, she smiled kindly to Aunt Chelsea and drew her aside to ask her, as well as the three girls, to tea that Saturday! “Maybe she's not quite as bad you've thought,” said Emerald regarding the matter. “No,” Pepper shook her head. “She still can't be trusted. Somethin's wrong. No one changes their minds about someone that quickly. She can't have suddenly decided to like Aunt Chelsea, especially after the professor said what he said.” China remembered the chilling air about Miss Cobbage after the professor had, apparently quite intentionally, recognized Aunt Chelsea after the performance. “I can't think why she'd be so bothered by it,” Pepper had said. “It's rather childish.” “Yes,” China had replied. “But I think the point is more significant. She's seen Aunt Chelsea as a threat to her reunion with the professor, ever since she returned. So even thought it sounds ridiculous, she's thinkin' about somethin' a little more serious.” Pepper didn't seem to be very concerned with China's philosophy, and was determined to dislike anything that Miss Cobbage said, no matter what it was.

Saturday afternoon came 'round quickly, especially for

China, who was very eager to find out why, on God's green earth, Miss Cobbage would have any sort of interest in having Aunt Chelsea, and not only Aunt Chelsea, but all of them, to tea. China was determined to make a good impression. Miss Cobbage wouldn't be laughing 'round the gossipy ladies of the village how uncivilized Chelsea Shoals' nieces dressed 202


for going out. “Do you know what day it is?” Pepper asked her while China stood staring at her nicest dress laid out on her bed. “Mmm,” China shook her head. “St. Valentine's Day.” “Oh,” China replied, not very concerned at this fact. “Aren't gentlemen who are courtin' ladies, supposed to bring flowers or chocolates and make a big deal of all of it?” China hadn't considered this much. “I suppose...” “Don't you see what Christine Cobbage is doin' here?” “Not really...” “She knows the professor is goin' to come over today and bring some of that nonsense with him, and probably while we're there too. Watch, if he hasn't come after an hour or two, she'll be findin' ways to delay us 'till he does come. And then she can be makin' a big spectacle of the beautiful roses he'll bring for her.” “Where would Professor Blacks find roses at this time of year?” China asked, suddenly a little chilled by the Pepper's idea. “It doesn't have to be roses, of course,” said Pepper calmly. “But it will be somethin'. And Miss Cobbage wants us there to see it happen.” “Well, we'll just have to be certain that we leave before he comes.” “Agreed,” said Pepper. “No matter how sweet she appears to be. Emerald.” Pepper gave a meaning look to her sister just then. She knew that Emerald would be entirely willing to give Miss Cobbage a continuous benefit of the doubt. But Emerald only smiled, somewhat unconsciously, bending over a seam she was mending on her dress. 203


China was a little worried, and a little irritated. Why would Miss Cobbage do such a thing? As if she didn't already have the professor hooked around her little finger. China slipped on her dress, still somehow the color of sapphires after having been worn so many times. Then Emerald braided her hair in a long honey-colored braid down her back. Although it had grown back darker over the winter, not as sand-colored as it was in the summer when the sun began its bleaching work. There would be no coral necklace to wear that afternoon, however. She would not grace the company of Miss Cobbage with her near-most precious of possessions, despite her efforts to look the part of a refined villager of Abán's Wick. Once again, the girls found it necessary to keep their supposed knowledge of Miss Cobbage's “scheme” to themselves. They would not bother Aunt Chelsea with any further discussion regarding the professor and his alleged “sweetheart”. The wind was up, and not quite so cold as they walked their way over the seven hills toward the village. “Why, our very own Miss Chelsea Shoals, and company!” Miss Cobbage exclaimed loudly at the door, throwing it wide open. China already bristled at this first remark. Giving off airs as if she had lived there forever. “Our very own” indeed! Inside Mrs. Blath was already preparing tea, having just brought in the tea service. “Oh, my dears,” she said quite pleasantly. “I am so glad Miss Cobbage invited you to tea today. And what with all her plans for the evening...” she trailed off as Miss Cobbage followed in behind the girls with a vase of flowers. 204


China hoped for a moment that these flowers had already been delivered by the professor. And then, she equally hoped that he hadn't brought them at all, and that he hadn't any plans to bring any flowers. Ever. “Plans,” Pepper whispered to China, jabbing her in the arm a little. “She said plans.” She had said something about plans for that night. And then China's heart sunk a little more as Miss Cobbage bustled into the room with the full vase. “Aren't they beautiful?” said Mrs. Blath. “The reverend brought them to me from the greenhouse in the city.” “So very thoughtful, ma'am,” said Miss Cobbage sweetly, setting a light hand on her shoulder. China had difficulty keeping her eyes from rolling. The insincerity was going to rocket forward at a furious rate. She had only to continue watching. “Have a seat, girls,” said Miss Cobbage, as she, herself, took a seat next to Mrs. Blath. How dare she tell us to take a seat! China thought to herself. And Mrs. Blath, the lady of the house sitting right next to her! It was going to be a long visit, she thought, sitting primly on the sofa, waiting for the conversation to begin. “Miss Cobbage was hoping to learn more about you girls,” Mrs. Blath began. “She's so delightful. I can't tell you how very sweet and thoughtful she is...” Miss Cobbage appropriately blushed throughout this introduction, smoothing the skirts of her dress, and saying, “oh, please, Mrs. Blath”, or “you are too kind, Mrs. Blath”, until China thought she might choke from the horrible syrupy sweetness of the lead-in. “Now, Miss Shoals,” said Mrs. Blath, “when was it the last time you were here? Was it when I was telling Miss 205


Pepper here of the old stories?” “I believe that it was, Mrs. Blath,” Chelsea replied. She was so calm, so cool and collected. China sat up a little straighter with pride for the poise of her aunt. “You are just the quaintest thing,” said Miss Cobbage. “Bringing your girls out here to talk about old stories, likely only just old legends too. I wouldn't have half the patience you have keeping up with those three.” As if they weren't even in the room! Making fun of Pepper's lore and legends of the old days, and making it out to be that they were trouble for Aunt Chelsea. Well, perhaps Pepper was. And China from time to time. But to insinuate that Emerald was trouble! Poor Emerald felt the accusation, and looked down at the floor. China pressed her hands together firmly in her lap, staring hard out the window behind Mrs. Blath. “How do you manage being alone on the farm with your family?” Miss Cobbage went on. As if Aunt Chelsea was their mother, and an abandoned one at that! Everything coming from her mouth was digging. But Aunt Chelsea only sat still and straight, wearing a somewhat amused, half-smile. But Chelsea was not given the opportunity to reply. Instead, Miss Cobbage ran along with her one-sided conversation, scarcely drawing breath, as she helped Mrs. Blath pour the tea and cut thin slices of white cake. China didn't even hear half of what she said. She suddenly became very intent on steadying her china cup of tea, heavily mixed with cream, so as not to spill it on Mrs. Blath's new rosecolored rug, or her one good Sunday dress. “What a darling frock, China” Miss Cobbage exclaimed suddenly, snapping China back to attention. “Wherever did you buy it?” 206


China steadied her eyes toward the enemy. “I've had it for years,” she said. “I let it down yearly. My mother made it before she died.” Miss Cobbage was not phased by this remark. Apparently she had already been told the fate of the girls' mothers. “And yet you've managed to keep it in such remarkable condition,” she said, and then immediately switched her insincere attentions to the other girls, making some sort of dazzling comments about their dresses, which were in almost less good condition than China's own dress. China carefully stirred the tea with the little silver spoon until Miss Cobbage had completed her ramble. When finally she drew breath about the charms of the town, and their dresses, and their quaint country cottage and farm, etc., Mrs. Blath cut in as politely as possible. “Well, now, Chelsea, I was just saying to Miss Cobbage that she will have so much to take back with her when she leaves for London in the next month or two.” China's eyebrows raised at this news. But Aunt Chelsea showed no reaction. She hadn't been allowed more than two words since they made their entrance. “Oh, yes,” said Miss Cobbage airily. “How fun it will be to share news of this country life with friends back home. Although I shan't be gone for long, of course.” Mrs. Blath nodded. “Yes, dear,” she said to Aunt Chelsea. “Christine will be returning to us in the fall after she has spent a summer abroad.” “Turkey, yes. Greece. And likely Sicily, not counting for a possible journey further to the interior. Maybe as far as the Middle East. There are so many Biblical ruins I should like to see...” 207


And Miss Cobbage took it from there, expounding on the details of her long voyage across the Mediterranean in her father's private yacht, and the brief ports of call in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and then possibly Egypt and Morocco on the return. China nearly forgot her steaming animosity toward her, as she listened in awe to these tales of exotic journeys. She could feel herself turning a slight shade of green as Miss Cobbage continued on for the next hour on all of these things. Finally, China was recaptured to the moment by seeing a very bored Pepper draw an exaggerated yawn over her tea cup, which no one else seemed to notice. Aunt Chelsea was still sitting on the sofa, having finished her tea, hands folded neatly in her lap. Emerald had done the same, still sitting up very straight, despite having sat in such a position for so long. “Well, look at me twittering away so long about places you'll never see nor care to see,” she said flippantly, with a shrug of her shoulder. China's lips pressed tightly together at this statement, and all the charm of Miss Cobbage's travels quickly disappeared from her mind. She thought she might crack her tea cup in half, so irritated she became at this ignorant comment, as Miss Cobbage continued her running commentary. “I hear that our very own Professor Blacks is somewhat sweet on you.” Miss Cobbage made this statement as simply as if she were commenting on the weather, as she sliced herself more cake. China's jaw dropped embarrassingly low. Pepper sat up suddenly. And even Emerald's green eyes opened wide. Still, only Aunt Chelsea remained serene, hardly twitching 208


an eyelash. “Yes,” Miss Cobbage nodded to herself with a small pretended pout. “I keep hearing it about town, that the professor is out at your cottage nearly every evening.” “Now, now, Christine,” Mrs. Blath cut in gently. “You know that the professor comes here often enough to visit you. It seems as though he has very particularly singled you out, and you alone.” Miss Cobbage smiled to herself as she pressed a little fork into the soft cake. “Oh, Mrs. Blath, I couldn't begin to hope that such a fine gentleman as the professor could even be possibly interested in me. He had so many fine prospects here already.” She shot a quick look to Aunt Chelsea. What game was this woman playing? China asked herself, looking for a reaction from Pepper, who was staring very hard at the lady from London. “But of course he should have reason for singling you out,” Mrs. Blath continued. “Such a fine, distinguished, and accomplished woman. How could he not? Don't you agree, Miss Shoals?” For the very first time, both women paused long enough for Aunt Chelsea to give an answer. Pepper, however, afforded her the excuse not to reply by cutting in for her instead. “This is fine cake, Mrs. Blath,” she said, perhaps a little too eagerly. “Oh, why thank you, Pepper. I am so glad that you like it.” “It's quite delicious. Almost the same, I think, as when we were here last and you were telling me of the bonny prince. I am determined to find his grave someday.” 209


This last statement was shocking enough to have come from a young lady, that Mrs. Blath was entirely distracted from the previous conversation, and instead began to discuss with Pepper the etiquette of leaving unopened graves as just that, unopened. Miss Cobbage was entirely disinterested in this conversation, and continued to take hard looks at Aunt Chelsea, who was paying her no attention at all. For another hour, the conversation went along, mostly taken up with more stories and legends from Mrs. Blath, who seemed to carry an endless store of such knowledge. They would occasionally be interrupted by Miss Cobbage's attempts to bring the topic of conversation back to herself, but every time she directed a question to Aunt Chelsea regarding her relationship to the professor, Pepper immediately interrupted her. Aunt Chelsea went as far as to look meaningly at her to stop her rudeness, but if she was considered rude by Mrs. Blath, Mrs. Blath said nothing of it to her. Finally, at the end of another endless tale, Aunt Chelsea set her tea cup on the small table and smoothed down the skirts of her dress. “I think, Mrs. Blath, that it's time for us to be leavin'. You have been very hospitable to us this afternoon. Miss Cobbage...” she looked to Miss Cobbage with a nod. “Oh, but don't leave us just yet!” Miss Cobbage nearly cried, moving forward as if to prevent them from going. “I am quite certain that the sheep won't need you for another several hours yet.” “I appreciate your eagerness,” Aunt Chelsea returned, standing, “but we have dinner to prepare and such before gettin' ready for services tomorrow. I thank you.” 210


“Oh, but do wait only a short while longer,” Miss Cobbage urged, also standing. “There seems to be a rain patch just over us. Wait till it has passed.” Aunt Chelsea knew very well that they could beat the rain back to the cottage, but she also knew that for whatever reason Miss Cobbage was determined to have them stay, it might be better to have it over with, and hope that her desire to display, whatever it was she wanted to display, was satisfied. “Do stay, Chelsea,” Mrs. Blath also urged. “I can't be havin' you soaked to the bone on your walk back home on such a cold evenin'.” “Very well, Mrs. Blath. I thank you. We will stay shortly longer till the rain might pass.” “Very good,” said Miss Cobbage, seemingly delighted. “I so enjoy your company...” She trailed off at the rap on the door, and seemed to make an effort at blushing, knowing full well who the person behind the knob would be. “Oh, must be a poor soul come out of the rain, Mrs. Blath,” she said, unconcerned. Mrs. Blath nodded, as her servant flew to answer. “Sorry a thing to be caught out in the cold and the wet.” The mite of a servant quickly lifted the latch of the door, letting in a gust of cold air and the footstep of a tall man in a black cape. “Professor Blacks!” Miss Cobbage exclaimed. “What a surprise to see you here!” China saw only the faintest glimmer of reaction with the twitch of Aunt Chelsea's eyelashes. It was too painfully obvious that Miss Cobbage had been expecting the professor all along. 211


“How sweet of you to come and bring me flowers on St. Valentine's Day,” Miss Cobbage spoke gushingly as she hurried toward him. “Oh, my dear Miss Cobbage,” said the professor, somewhat embarrassed. Apparently Miss Cobbage had been so certain of him bringing to her a bunch of flowers, that she had spoken before taking notice that he had, actually, no flowers with him at all. The professor could see the disappointment on her face, and the small pout forming on her lips. “If only I were thoughtful enough to have remembered flowers,” he said quickly, still standing just inside the door. “And on such a day. It seems as if I were in pure distraction of thoughts today. I shall bring flowers on my next visit.” “Ah, never mind it,” Miss Cobbage said hastily. “Let me have your cloak, and you shall warm yourself by the fire. The Misses Shoals were just leaving.” And then Aunt Chelsea's eyebrows lifted, but less in surprise. More in amusement. “Oh, Miss Shoals,” said the professor suddenly. “I am sorry not to have seen you and the girls. Good afternoon, all. China, Pepper, Emerald. Lovely to see you on such a cold gray day.” “Nice to have had you for tea,” Miss Cobbage said hurriedly, as she handed each girl their cloaks. “Oh, but you are not stayin' for dinner?” the professor asked, almost disappointed. “No, we are not, sir,” said Aunt Chelsea, finally able to speak again. “We must get home before the rain.” “Are you certain, dear?” Mrs. Blath asked, worriedly looking out the window, and somewhat wondering at Christine's haste to dismiss them. 212


“Thank you, yes. And for the tea. It was a pleasant afternoon, ma'am.� Miss Cobbage threw open the door to the cold wind, and the girls suddenly found themselves planted back in the street, with the call of farewell from the professor firmly shut off by the hand of Miss Cobbage closing the door.

213


Chapter 19

A Rumor

Three months later, a sort of electricity was in the air

about the village of Abรกn's Wick. Everyone was talking about it. The buzz of the news was quite thick with anticipation. Miss Christine Cobbage, having just gone for the summer, had left with a sparkling ring on her finger. All of the village gossips spent their time chatting over the possibilities of what this ring meant, over sewing and crocheting circles. They were curled with curiosity, having nothing better to discuss, apparently. No one could pry any information from Mrs. Blath, whose home Miss Cobbage had known as her own for the past six months. She said that she knew nothing of the ring, and that she hadn't seen it until Christine was already on the cart and leaving for the city. 215


And the professor certainly would be little help. There was a spoken code among the residents of the tiny Irish village that certain personal matters would never be questioned amongst each other, particularly of a man. No one would breathe a word of it to him. When China first heard the news of the ring, the day after Miss Cobbage had departed for London, she felt quite ill. She had kept the information from Chelsea as long as was possible. But this lasted no longer than another day. The word came quite unintentionally from the mouth of Pepper, unsurprisingly, the following evening, when they were about the supper table. Aunt Chelsea had just set out a red stew of beef and tomatoes from the hearth. “I suppose Miss Cobbage will have to be used to eatin' this sort of thing every day from now on,” Pepper sighed. She missed the look China gave her from across the table. “No more of snails and pomegranates and whatever else fancy things she do be eatin' all the time...” And then she clapped a hand to her mouth as she realized her error. “You mean to say that Miss Cobbage plans to stay here permanently,” said Chelsea, bringing over a roll of wheat bread. “Who can say?...” Pepper trailed off. “It's alright, Pepper,” she said calmly, taking her seat at the table. “I did be expectin' it for some time now. And we're all goin' to be happy for the professor, we are, are we not, girls?” The girls all nodded at once, seeing the lack of usual bloom on their fair aunt's face. She never spoke of regret after hearing this news. Plenty of rumors bothered her ears about the scale of the diamond in Miss Cobbage's ring, or presumed wedding plans already 216


being made by the village wives, etc. But Aunt Chelsea would only smile and continue whatever it was she was doing. Miss Cobbage had somewhat shed the ice of her general attitude toward Chelsea those last months in the village. True, they never spoke but half a dozen times, and that only as being spurred to it by being in the same circle of conversation as others, after church. “Miss Cobbage knows that she has the professor hooked,” Pepper had said irritably some time in April. “So of course she has no need to be so rude to Aunt Chelsea anymore. She's almost half-pleasant to her.” China agreed with her. But now, she was mortified. It was one thing to see her aunt so obviously snubbed by a wealthy London woman. But it was another to know that this terrible creature was now to be married to the very man whom they had reserved for their own aunt. So much a better person in every respect. For several days, the shock had not worn away for China, and she wondered how easily calm Aunt Chelsea could be, given the circumstances. None of them had yet seen the professor since the incident. Emerald had taken a spring cold the following Sunday, which kept them all at home, nursing her with tea and scarves around her neck, until she might return to health. School had let out only a day before Miss Cobbage's departure. And so there had been no need to see the professor again. By Saturday afternoon, Emerald was well enough to attend the pastures with her sister and her cousin to see after the sheep. 217


On occasional such days when there was nothing else to be done, the girls would eagerly take over the tasks of watching the flock while Aunt Chelsea cleaned the cottage and prepared food for the week. China clutched a thin book of French poetry, as she walked up the spongy new green grass of the north hill to join her cousins. From there, they could see to the low fields in the valley and observe every trail of the flock where they might find the sweetest grass and shade throughout the pleasantly warm afternoon. “I shall never look at her again,” Pepper said, quite determined. “Miss Christine Cobbage will never be welcome in this part of the country.” “That is unkind, Pepper,” said Emerald, who was never able to shed her sweetness. “It doesn't matter if it is, though,” said Pepper firmly. “She did be treatin' Aunt Chelsea as if she were a servant. Worse, probably. You saw the look in her English eyes.” Pepper said the word “English” as though it were of the bad place itself. “Downright contempt is what it was, I'm tellin' you.” “Well, what can be said then?” China asked despondently. “If he's made up his mind, we can do nothin' about it. She has a ring. If she took it off and called it a day, it would be as bad as sayin' they were askin' for a divorce.” “China Shoals!” Pepper cried. “What are you sayin'? What a thought from you! Divorce. Never. There has never been a divorce in these parts. Probably never will.” “That's what I'm sayin', of course. It would never happen. So why should we even think about it any more? It's as if they were already married, you know.” “Of course I know,” said Pepper, irritated. “That's why I'm tellin' you, I shall never look her in the face again. It will 218


be as though she's never even here.� Emerald shook her head at this dramaticism. There was no helping Pepper when she made up her mind about something. China stretched herself back on the clean green grass of May. The sun was hidden perfectly behind great white clouds, and her book of French poetry sat lazily at her side. The disappointment had been so great when she heard the news first. It wasn't a tremendous surprise. Everyone knew that the professor had paid special attentions to Miss Cobbage for many months. She had just secretly hoped that the professor was only doing so to be polite to an old friend. But then again, he hadn't come to visit at the cottage since Miss Cobbage had arrived. It was all very puzzling, and China didn't want to think about it anymore. She opened her book and let Emerald continue with her crocheting and Pepper, her tempers, espoused through an enormous deal of talking loudly to herself as she walked back down the hill toward a straying lamb. China soon found herself awash in sun, sweet grass, and poetry, slipping away into a world where there was no Miss Cobbage or enormous diamond engagement rings.

Things weren't helped when, a week later, as the buzz of

the supposed engagement raged through the town, Brigid hosted her thirteenth birthday party. It was a large affair. That was obvious. “I'm so surprised she invited us,� said Emerald, looking over the glossy white invitation. It was embossed in gold and had been hand painted with rather abstract red and pink flowers cascading down the 219


side of the card. “Don't be,” Pepper replied. “She's only inviting all the girls she hates because she wants us to see how rich she is.” Pepper was, under almost any circumstances, quite correct when it came to people's underlying intentions. So it wasn't surprising that she was reluctant to attend the party, knowing full-well that the party would not be enjoyable. She had little desire to gloat over Brigid's three-tiered whitefrosted birthday cake covered in flowers and sugared fruit, or the boundless white boxes tied in silk ribbons and filled with more frocks from Paris, jewelry, dolls, and every thing a young girl could want. But Aunt Chelsea insisted that she attend. “I understand why you don't want to go,” she said smoothly to her, and kindly. “But you mustn't slight a fellow school mate. She's been kind enough to offer you to come, no matter what her real intentions.” Pepper went, and begrudgingly, but only because she knew that she would disappoint Aunt Chelsea if she did not go. Emerald had been thoughtful enough to piece together a gift from all three of the girls. It came in three parts and was wrapped carefully in a square of white paper. “Why do you go to all that trouble, Emerald?” Pepper asked her irritably, as they walked to the front door of the Kelly's great white house. “She won't even like it you know.” “Maybe not,” Emerald replied. “But at least we gave her the best we could find.” “That's the problem. She'll know it's the best we could do, and she'll laugh at it.”

220


China nudged her to stop. Pepper shrugged, and rang the bronze bell at the side of the door. It was opened cordially by the maid, who led them to the drawing room where the girls were already gathered in a giggling ring about Brigid. “Oh!” Brigid said suddenly. All the girls stopped talking and turned toward China, Pepper, and Emerald, who suddenly felt very awkward. Brigid wrinkled her nose at them. “Who invited you girls here?” she asked rudely. “I don't invite sheep people into my house.” “Don't be uncharitable, Brigid,” said Mrs. Kelly, bustling into the room with a large cake on a platter. “I invited them for you. You are, after all, the most popular of all children. Now let's be havin' a good time here at the party. Don't be distracted with any grievances.” “Yes, mother,” said Brigid, still frankly annoyed. China was only slightly bothered that there were no other girls there outside of Brigid's circle of admirers. Must have decided not to come, she thought to herself. If only Pepper could have convinced Aunt Chelsea not to make them do so. “Shall you be havin' a game now?” Mrs. Kelly asked, having set down the very fat cake iced in rich white frosting on the table. “Yes,” said Brigid smugly. “And I'm going to start it off.” “Well of course, darling. It is your birthday.” Brigid smiled and flounced to the overstuffed armchair near one of the windows. She set herself down and smoothed the lace ruffles of her skirt. “Come on,” China whispered to Emerald, who still held the little wrapped gift in her white hands. 221


The three girls sat together behind the gaggle of other frilly dresses. China pressed her hands together firmly in her lap, waiting for what was most surely a game that would eventually be directed toward some form of mockery of herself, Pepper, and possibly even Emerald. “Now then,” said Brigid, looking over her circle of whiteclad minions, “where shall we begin? Let us have a sort of game where we all ask each other... secrets...” The girls twittered sillily amongst themselves. “It has to be somethin' that none of us knows,” said Brigid. “And it has to be interestin'.” The girls clapped their hands together. This was a new sort of game. Nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, from the usual conversation. But to make an actual game of it was something out of the ordinary, and rather exciting. China saw Mrs. Kelly laugh at the, apparently, delightful charm and genius of her daughter for coming up with such a game, and returned to the kitchen to see to further refreshments. China vowed to remain calm, and waited to see what Brigid would do. “I think it only proper to ask our guests first,” she said meaningly, looking directly at China. Here it came. “I shall ask you a question, China Shoals,” she continued. “And you will answer. Truthfully. We shall have three questions, each. Startin' with China, then Emerald, then... Pepper.” “I'll have nothin' of it,” said Pepper, crossing her arms with a near twinge of indifference. Brigid ignored her and turned her blazing blue eyes to China, as did all the other girls, more in curiosity for 222


anything terribly interesting, than for any sort of vicious intentions. “Now then,” Brigid began, “what to ask you?” She tapped a finger at her chin and almost laughed, as some evil thought came to her curly head. “Ah...” she laughed again to herself. “Tell us, all, what marvelous port you purchased your beautiful dresses. All... three of them!” Laughter flitted through the room at this comment. China knew there was no need to answer, and stared back at the laughing Brigid, with cool golden eyes. “And...” Brigid continued, “your hair. The color of dirt, I guess. From what strange place did your parents bring you that you haven't any good Irish hair?” China thought this wasn't funny in the slightest. And although the other girls pretended to think that it was an hysterical comment, China could see that they weren't entirely sure why it was a such a funny question. “Lastly,” Brigid went on, “your funny little aunt... now that she is officially pronounced an 'old maid', does she plan to keep the sheep farm until she is old and gray?” China grabbed Pepper's wrist, who was about to bolt with enthusiasm at the finely ruffled Brigid. But, again, no answer was necessary. Brigid laughed far too happily for China's taste. But she bit her lip and said nothing. Pepper, too, swallowed her words. And Emerald only sat in dismay at such demeaning comments made toward her aunt. “Now to Emerald,” Brigid went on, a sort of gleam riddling the blue of her irises, “what shall we be askin' her?” China still said nothing. And for good reason. She could see, just out of the corner of her eye, the shadow of Mr. Kelly approaching the kitchen. Let him hear what his 223


daughter would say next. “First, Emerald, how is it, tell us, that your aunt tried to throw herself at the professor, when the entire village knows that the professor is to marry Miss Cobbage when she returns from abroad?” There were many astonished giggles. “My aunt would never do such a thing,” said Emerald quietly and boldly. The room went quiet for a moment. No one had ever heard Emerald reply to any of Brigid's offenses. “She is wise and good,” said Emerald. And China thought she saw the bit of a spark in her eye. Brigid scowled a little. Mr. Kelly by the kitchen door was waiting to see what would be said next. “Second question,” said Brigid deliberately. “What makes your sheep farmer aunt thinks she could ever, ever, be anythin' better than Miss Cobbage?” “Shepherdess,” said Emerald, almost coldly. “She is called a shepherdess.” “Third,” Brigid said without blinking. “Did you know that Miss Cobbage is goin' to ask your aunt to be her house servant after she marries the professor?” “Miss Cobbage wouldn't be so cruel,” said Emerald quietly. The girls were all very quiet, waiting. “It'll put your aunt in her place where she belongs, of course.” Emerald stood up just then. It had been one thing watching Brigid bother her about things from time to time, taking her lunch when it looked good to her, parading about in fancy dresses from Paris. But this. This was not alright. Speaking about her aunt in so low a way. Emerald would not listen to this. 224


“Brigid Kelly,” she said smoothly, as she rose to her full, tiny height. “You will never, never, say anythin' about my aunt in that way again. If you do, you'll be regrettin' it for longer than you'd like.” China nearly fell over on the floor. Emerald's eyes were like steel. And as softly as she spoke, every girl in that room knew that she meant every word. China saw a shift of the shadow at the kitchen door, and as she looked over, she could see Mr. Kelly smiling to himself. Seeing his daughter set in her right place had done him good, without him saying a word For after all, China thought to herself, what father desires to humiliate his daughter in front of her friends by chastising her behavior. For the rest of the party, Brigid said nothing to Emerald. Or to Pepper or China. The game had been forgotten as Mrs. Kelly bustled into the room with the announcement of cake being served. And nothing more was said on the matter. Emerald had made her claim to being heard, and the girls, as much as they were loyal to Brigid Kelly, had to respect her for that much. And China, as much as Brigid had planted seeds of concern regarding Miss Cobbage's possible cruel intentions, put them aside, hoping, almost certain, that Brigid had said such things only to cause unnecessary trouble.

225


Chapter 20

Bones

After the incident of the birthday party, Brigid cleanly

avoided the Shoals girls, pretending, almost, as if they did not exist. China knew that this ploy would not last forever. Brigid was using the time to concoct worse troubles for when Miss Cobbage did return for the wedding. But China also realized, despite her anger toward Brigid's cruel statements, that Brigid had most likely been incited to these opinions by Miss Cobbage herself. And Miss Cobbage had no intention whatsoever of letting anyone come between herself and the professor. “If only we knew the whole story of why she never returned to him after the shipwreck,” said China dreamily the following week. “Maybe the professor wouldn't be so eager to marry her if she knew why it took so long for her to 227


come back.” “We don't know either,” said Emerald diplomatically. “It is possible that she was ill all this time, and has just now recovered enough to see him again.” “She could have sent him a message.” “Maybe she did.” “No...” China trailed off. “He was far too surprised to be thinkin' she was still alive these last years.” Emerald had to agree. It was so unusual a situation. “Let it be now,” Pepper scolded them. “There's nothin' to be done anyway. It's time to be settin' our minds on somethin' else, as it were. I've the itch to dig again, and this time, not for our bonny prince, but for somethin' a tad bit more ancient.” The girls were stretched outside the low hill outside the sheep pen, gazing up at the enormity of the white clouds above them. China smiled. “What is it this time, Pepper? You always have somethin' unusual to dig up somewhere.” Pepper rolled over to her side, gnawing a stick of hay between her back teeth. “I heard of it only just today,” she said with great thought behind her blue eyes. “I saw it in the newspaper, just a clip of it in town. And I've been thinkin' of it all afternoon.” “What?” China was obliged to ask, as Pepper lapsed into too long a silence in order to create some anticipation. “Bones.” This did not surprise China or Emerald. “But not any regular sort of bones. These bones... the rib cage itself is large as our house.” “What are you talkin' of, Pepper?” China asked with skepticism. 228


“These great creatures once lived on earth. Called dinosaurs. Monsters.” “There are no monsters...” Emerald began. “Of course there are,” Pepper cut over her. “Remember the Leviathan in the book of Job? These creatures were enormous, and although they have probably all died now, there might still be some livin' in the deepest jungles of Africa and the Orient and the South Americas. Who's to say? But... I've heard of their bones, the fossils of their bones, being found in America and in Africa. And some, even, in Europe. And I say that we hunt them out and find some of our own.” “Oh, is it that easy, Miss Pepper?” China asked with a laugh. “You really think we should find one of these giants on our own land here? Aren't they all on the continents, and not the islands?” “They say that one of the dinosaurs flew.” “Flew?” “That's what they've said.” “That seems a little impossible, Pepper,” said China, settling her arms behind her head. “Flying monsters.” “Well that's what it said. It's an old article. I found it in the fossil book in the library. Someone must have left it inside.” “And you think you're going to find monster bones here in Ireland?” “Well, we have stories of fairies and such. And banshees. Monsters seem a little more likely to me, to be real. And of course no one can prove banshees. No one's ever found fairy bones. But these things are really flesh and blood. So their bones have to be somewhere.” China laughed again. 229


“Well, it isn't as though we have much better to do right now. But it seems as though you would have uncovered monster bones...” “Dinosaur bones.” “Dinosaur? Anyway, it seems as though you would have been findin' their bones when you were lookin' for the bonny prince. You never found a bone greater than a rabbit.” “Thank you for your confidence, China,” said Pepper with a flick of her fingers toward the sky. “I think I'll be spendin' most of the summer on the dig, despite the skepticism.” “Of course we'll help you,” said China. “You know it. But I can't say we'll be findin' a thing. Nothin' better, of course, than your scrap of map.” “If only we had heard from the museum again,” said Emerald just then. “Do you think they'll have received it, Pepper?” “By now? Of course,” said Pepper almost irritably. It was a constant sore spot in her mind. “They must have thought it rubbish and tossed it I suppose.” Pepper was clearly not in the mood to think further on the lost piece of treasure that she had held so dear to her young adventurous heart. And she hadn't the patience to think on it for one moment longer, because there were new things to be found. Well, old, very old things. “I'll be in the north field with the shovel,” she said, picking herself off the grassy hill. “Tell Aunt Chelsea that I'll be home for supper.” “Well don't you need help?” China called after her. “Not yet. I'll let you know if things get interesting.” 230


China smiled and settled her head back on her hands. She closed her eyes to the smooth spring breezes, and tried not to think about Aunt Chelsea's tragic circumstances. She tried, rather, to focus on the idea of ancient monsters trekking their fair green isle. “It can't be helped,” Emerald said softly, working a small piece of needlepoint next to her. “I will always be too sorry for Aunt Chelsea.” “We can't sit here thinkin' about that, now, Emerald, or we'll never recover. Aunt Chelsea must be sad enough without us makin' it even worse for her.” “But I can't be helpin' to think about it. It's almost impossible.” “Then we must do somethin' about it. Come along. We're goin' into town now. Aunt Chelsea needs more eggs. We'll get them for her.” Emerald folded the needlepoint and put it in her pocket, a little brighter at the prospect of the diversion of town. Minutes later, with permission from a very busy Chelsea, in the process of baking a spread of food for a young family with a new baby down the way, the girls headed toward the village. And not longer later, they found themselves in the shop, waiting for Mrs. Shearlutch to bring out the egg basket. It became apparently clear at that certain moment upon entering the shop, that two from the rather large ring of Brigid's minions were standing at the candy counter eyeing the sour balls. “Just don't look over at them,” China warned Emerald. “Or they're sure to be sayin' somethin' about what happened at the party.” Emerald only nodded, as China asked Mrs. Shearlutch for a dozen eggs. 231


“'Comin, dearie,” said Mrs. Shearlutch kindly. “Shall it be white or brown today?” “Brown, please, Mrs. Shearlutch.” China could only see out of the corner of her eye, the two girls, in frilly frocks, staring at them, hoping that they wouldn't find the need to come over and begin the usual antagonism. “What brings you here to town? Has Brigid invited you out for another party?” China rolled her eyes toward the ceiling in an effort to calm her irritation before answering the question. She calmly turned around. “Oh, Judith, good morning.” But instead of the sort of priggish wrinkle of the nose that China expected to see on Judith McCorn's face, she was surprised to see, what appeared to be, a pleasant smile. “Good mornin', China. Emerald. Good to see you out after last week's unfortunate event.” China drew her brows together. So she was going to bring that one up. “Oh, don't think we're tryin' to cause trouble,” piped up Bretta, her younger sister. “It was a mean thing Brigid said, and I'm sorry she did it. Your aunt is very nice. We always thought so.” Judith also nodded. “Don't mind Brigid so much. It's good and all sorts to be 'round her because she hands out cakes and books and things from abroad. But she isn't always the kindest person. I'll give that to you.” China had to smile at this a little. So not all of Brigid's troupe were as cruel as she. “Well, thank you for that,” she said. “It's a good thing to know.” 232


Judith bobbed her head. “What are you up to doin' today?” “Bringin' back eggs for Aunt Chelsea. And then to see Pepper in the north field. She's huntin' up bones of... some sort.” The girls' eye lit in interest. “Oh, 'tis nothin', really,” China rushed to say. She had heard too many times of people laughing at Pepper for her wild, and very random, digs. “But it sounds interestin',” said Judith. “Could we come and see? After the museum last summer, everyone got to thinkin' that maybe she has the real knack for findin' things.” “Well...” China replied, looking to Emerald for help. Emerald gave a nod, as if to say that she felt the girls could be trusted. China took in a small breath, wondering what Pepper would say. “Of course you may come. We'll bring back the eggs to Aunt Chelsea, and then off to Pepper.” It was a sudden sort of electric unity that developed at that moment between the four girls. Not in the last years since coming to live with Aunt Chelsea had China and Emerald, or Pepper for that matter, had any true sort of friends amongst the school children. Merely acquaintances. And as it turned out, Judith and Bretta seemed to be quite indifferent to Brigid's ploys and schemes, having taken no part in them at all. “We do seem to be associated with her more than necessary,” Judith explained on their walk back to the cottage. “But I suppose that is because of the frills on my hems. Father brings them back from time to time from Dublin. He's a banker, you know.” 233


“Well, of course,” said China. “I knew that. It would make sense, of course, that he could bring back such nice things for you. But you must realize that anyone who spends much time around Brigid is quickly to be labeled as one of her.” “It is true,” replied Judith with a little laugh. “She is kind to those she likes. And she only likes us, I think, because we can wear such things as she wears.” The girls walked all the way to the cottage. China and Emerald were able to learn more of the sisters. They had only lived in the village for a year. China had vaguely remembered seeing them arrive the previous spring, but had thought little of them because of their immediate association with Brigid, who was eager to take banker's daughters under her wings. Aunt Chelsea warmly welcomed them, having just finished the spread of food for the little family down the way. “Help yourselves to whatever is left, girls,” she said. “And then take some to Pepper for supper. She'll be quite hungry followin' an afternoon dig in the sun.” Aunt Chelsea, more than anyone, was very used to Pepper's spontaneous digs in the outlying fields. The girls gathered together a basket of biscuits and cream corned, greens and potatoes, with a small pot of red currant jelly, and salted pork. This, with a pitcher of cold water with a block of ice from the little vegetable cellar, was enough to cart back between the four girls. “What a beautiful place,” said Bretta admiringly, as she looked over the little garden. “And your library. Fantastic that is,” said Judith, practically gloating. “If only Brigid could see all this, she might not crow as loud over the Shoals family.” 234


China did not ask what, exactly, Brigid said about them. But she didn't care to know. The wind was up just at a perfect way below bluest skies and bright sun and magnanimous billowing white clouds. The girls laughed and talked with one another as they hurried toward the north field in the sunshine. Pepper was hard at work, the skirt of her modest dress covered in red dirt and her strong brown hands covered in work gloves from the sheep barn. “How goes it?” China asked as they approached. Pepper looked up in great surprise at the gathering of four girls, and not the two that she expected. “But...” “It's alright, Pepper,” Emerald assured her quietly. “You have nothin' to worry about with Brigid. They are not specifically her friends.” “No, indeed,” said Judith, and re-explained. Pepper easily fell into conversation with them as the girls sat around together for the early supper. This was followed with several hours of digging under the spring sun of the late afternoon. China was happily surprised at this turn of events. It had always been enough just to have the three of them: herself, Emerald, China. But it was nice to have Judith and Bretta there. And what was more, they liked Aunt Chelsea, and they were also rather disappointed that the professor and Miss Cobbage were going to be married. And though no “monster bones” were unearthed, at least not on that day, they all greatly enjoyed their afternoon. There had been general success in diverting their thoughts, at least for a time, from the matter of Miss Cobbage and the professor. And, better than this, they had found some friends. 235


Chapter 21

Bonfires

It was August again. School was nearly to begin again.

The five girls: China, Emerald, Pepper, Judith, and Bretta, had all together become very good friends. In fact, it was very unusual to see any of them not together at the same time. Even quiet Emerald who would usually prefer to sit at home and read a book, or play the shepherdess under Aunt Chelsea's watch. But even she had decided that Judith and Bretta were good company. And so the girls spent their summer together, plotting unsuccessful attempts of persuading the professor to marry Aunt Chelsea instead, and never doing anything at all about these plans. There were dances in the village and picnics, but Chelsea would never come to them. 237


Once China's hopes soared when she saw the professor at one of these warm evening dances, as though he were looking for someone, whom she hoped was Aunt Chelsea. But then he never asked any of them where she was. And so she had to assume that he had not been looking for her after all. And then there were romps through the woods, visits to the beach, even a trip into the city to the bank with Chelsea, as they did several times a year. It was a summer of inseparability for the girls. And when China, chiefly, decided that the time was right, they escorted Judith and Bretta to their precious Glade, and told the story of their bonny prince, laid to rest so many centuries ago. “What a beautiful story,” Judith whispered. “I wonder if, perhaps, it was really true.” “We like to think that it was so,” China replied with a little smile. “It probably is,” said Pepper significantly. “After what Mrs. Blath told us last summer. He might be buried in this very place.” Judith gave a little delighted shiver. “How lovely,”she whispered. The girls were content to sit there next to the little cold stream for several moments, pondering together the ancient myth and the wonderful mystery of it all. This was the way it went for the whole summer. Ruses, diggings for bones that were never unearthed, except for the unfortunate remains of a rabbit likely fallen in the winter of thirty years ago, late nights of sitting together in the loft performing plays and recitations, speaking of future and dreams and foreign lands... it was nearly the best summer in China's memory. 238


And after all of it, the girls found themselves comfortably ready to reenter the little gray stone schoolhouse, despite the impending doom of Miss Cobbage's return to their fair green piece of the world.

The professor was looking strangely happy that first

morning back to school on a subtly warm August day. Already the trailing blue and white smoke of autumn bonfires curled 'round the open fields of the farms on the outlying skirts of Abán's Wick. And the dried leaves in browns and scarlets whittled away at the starched grass of late summer. And in this grand change of seasons, the announcement was made at the first of the classes that morning... “You will be most happy to learn, class, that today,” the professor began with a sort of silly grin, and then cleared his throat a little. “Today... is the day that our Miss Cobbage returns from abroad. After a number of long months tourin' the Mediterranean and Orient, in which she has immensely enjoyed herself, she is now most eager to return to our little Abán's Wick.” China was painfully aware that the only possible way the professor could have known such things, was if he had kept up some sort of written communication with her. “She will be arriving shortly after class has been dismissed,” the professor continued. “And she has expressly invited each of you to come to meet her in the village.” There were several excited twitters from the girls near Brigid's ring of influence. But the rest of the class seemed generally, and obviously, disinterested. The professor, despite his apparent excitement, did not fail to notice this lack of enthusiasm. But he said nothing. 239


China couldn't help the slightest sort of smile work its way over her face at this uncharitable demonstration from her classmates. She caught a look from Bretta just then, who had the same sort of smile. Perhaps it was mean. But Miss Cobbage hadn't been such an entirely friendly sort herself. Maybe that was why the class seemed so apathetic toward her return, excepting Brigid and her party. China turned 'round to see what, exactly, Brigid was doing at just that moment. Brigid had to do nothing more than touch the ring finger of left hand and give China a meaning look. China stared back at her in a sort of unearthly, cool glare, and then slowly returned her gaze to the front of the classroom where Professor Blacks was busy writing their algebra lesson of the day on the blackboard. Brigid knew how to make China practically bloom with irritation. But she wasn't going to let it bother her. And there was also no way under the sun that she was going to greet Miss Cobbage in the village that afternoon. “But we have to go,” said Pepper. “If we don't, she'll know we're cowards not showin' up. And that we feel sorry for Aunt Chelsea and ourselves.” The girls were gathered at lunch hour 'round one of the large boulders outside the school house. “You're right,” Judith agreed. “We can't make it seem as though they have the victory yet.” “But they do,” said Bretta sadly. “You saw it in his face,” China sighed. “He's smitten. And they're engaged. You can't undo that.” “But we can't let Miss Cobbage have such a glorious victory. She at least needs to know that we're not completely dismal over everythin'. There are other handsome young 240


men in the village for Aunt Chelsea.” “Name one then,” said China. “One that's not married,” said Bretta. “That's the hard part.” “Never mind that,” said Pepper. “We're goin' to be there. And we're also goin' to the bonfire tonight. I'm sure that Miss Cobbage and the professor will be there. Maybe we can scare her back to London.” Several of the older boys from school had invited the class, those in the older grades, at least, to join them at the Shearlutch farm for a bonfire that evening. The Shearlutchs were very obliging and had offered not only the use of a great pile of underbrush for lighting afire, but also cornbread and honey butter, apples with caramel, and cider. It promised to be a good evening. Except for the opposing presence of Miss Christine Cobbage.

Class ended precisely on the dot of three o'clock that

afternoon. But instead of the majority of the students returning home for chores and homework, they packed their desks and followed each other in straggling groups behind the quick pace of the professor to the village. China began to become frustrated with his enthusiasm. And for the thousandth time, as they marched over the green hills, she wondered to herself why ever the professor could prefer Miss Cobbage over her aunt. It occurred to her coldly, that perhaps it was lure of money and magnificence that was the draw over Aunt Chelsea. There was nothing of regality or wealth about Aunt Chelsea. But she held herself in a noble sort of way that even Miss Cobbage could not match, not for all her grand travels and connections with royalty and persons of renown, and her millions of pounds. And she was certain 241


that at least a part of the professor could see that. Shortly later, the girls gathered behind the crowd of mostly younger children at the wooden post marking the entrance to Abán's Wick. Brigid, in particular, was acting very important, surrounded by her group of ruffled minions. They were twittering and laughing amongst themselves, and China heard an occasional reference to “ring” or “diamond”. But she ignored all such comments, despite Brigid's digging looks from across their two groups. Only the professor seemed entirely distracted from the commotions around him. He only paced between the wood post and the backdrop of his students, blissfully unaware of their stares and smiles at his preoccupied state. “Looks as though he were a little anxious,” said Bretta, “as though he's not certain she'll be really comin' today.” “Well maybe she won't,” said Judith. “Maybe she's found someone else and decided not to come at the last minute.” “We can hope for that,” said Pepper, chewing on a piece of faded autumn grass. But just as they were speaking, a roll of dust curled 'round the long bend near the far woods. And the clop of horses and cart could be heard in the distance. It was she. “Here comes the rat herself,” Pepper whispered. “Oh hush, Pepper,”China nudged her. “She is your elder.” “She doesn't act like it much,” was the tart retort. China thought she had never seen such a joyful reunion on the part of the professor. No sooner had Miss Cobbage's prim green slipper stepped out of the cart, but she was swept off her feet by the exuberant professor as he kissed her hand and practically lifted her off the cart. 242


“Darling Miss Cobbage,” he said with delight. “You have returned to us finally.” Miss Cobbage seemed almost annoyed that her hat had been turned slightly ary by the professor's greeting. But she said nothing about it, and only tempered the irritation on her face by looking to the children. “How wonderful to see you all here,” she said, with a hint of victory in her voice. “My sweet Brigid. Oh!” And then she appeared even more annoyed. “The Shoals girls. I didn't expect to see you here today.” Why she hadn't expected to see them, no one knew or cared. But China had a small hint of satisfaction as she curtsied to the lady in emerald green gown. “Well, children,” said the professor, smiling, but still a little obviously aware that he had not been greeted with much earnestness by his lady, “I suppose you have been gallant enough in your greetin'. To the bonfire and we will be joinin' you shortly.” There were a few hearty hurrahs from the boys, as most of the group scattered home to prepare for the evening. “Did you see that wreck of mush!” Pepper exclaimed, as soon as they were out of hearing. “I couldn't even stand to look at his face.” “It wasn't mush, Pepper,” said Judith thoughtfully. “He was just very happy to see her.” “And she not so much to see him,” China noted. The girls agreed. Something wasn't right about their reunion. But there wasn't time to think about that, because the girls were almost back to the cottage. Judith and Bretta were to stay the night after the bonfire, as it was nearer the Shoals farm than to the McCorn's house on the east side of the village. 243


The girls were able to temporarily put aside their comments regarding Miss Cobbage's return as they prepared for the bonfire. Aunt Chelsea had made a set of a dozen sugar cookies. And each girl had taken care to wear an extra pair of stockings and to bring their heavy shawls. China's was thick softened sheep's wool died a shade of north ocean blue. And they were also to bring their wool caps to cover their ears for later in the evening when the chill began to come. “Be back by nine-thirty, all of you,” Aunt Chelsea cautioned them as they clambered down the stairs. “You're not comin' then?” Emerald asked, surprised. “No, dear. There is mendin' to be done. And I occasionally enjoy a few hours of my own thoughts, despite my joy at hearin' all your own.” She smiled and gave Emerald's fair freckled nose a small tweak. But Emerald couldn't help her fallen face, as she followed the other girls out the door. She, as China, was almost entirely resigned to the sure doom of a future wedding between the professor and Miss Cobbage. They had been preparing themselves all summer, and here they were at the end of it, under the possessive and victorious eyes of the little Londoner just returned from the Orient. The bonfire could be seen from quite a distant. Even as the girls left the cottage door, they could see the glowing plume. “There we've gone and missed the first lightin' already,” said Bretta. “Come on then.” She grabbed Emerald by the arm, who was carrying the basket of cookies, and they were soon running ahead, more at Bretta's momentum than at Emerald's. 244


“We should find some sort of spook to bring on Miss Cobbage tonight,” said Pepper, finding this sort of sudden inspiration a little too delicious to keep her hands from rubbing together. “You wouldn't now,” China half-protested at the thought. “Well, why not?” Judith asked. “If she can't stand a bit of a prank, then she can't be cut out to live here.” “That's right,” Pepper agreed. “If she wants to be the wife of a school teacher, she should be gettin' used to it. The professor always laughs at the pranks the class pulls, especially toward this time of year, what with All Hollow's Eve so soon.” China wasn't too certain. She didn't want Aunt Chelsea to be upset with them. “Does it have to be a prank from us?” she asked. “Couldn't we just wait to see if one of the boys tries somethin' first.” “Scared you are,” Pepper laughed at her cousin. “Fine, then, China, it won't involve you. Just keep anyone from followin' us, and I'll make sure you stay out of trouble with Aunt Chelsea.” Pepper gave her a wink. “Come on, then, Judith. See you at the bonfire later, China.” And the girls ran off, leaving China in the path wondering what had just happened. It was very much like Pepper to think of some sort of trouble, just enough to make people think to ask questions, but maybe never exactly ask them. There was no use doing anything about any of it. So China pulled her shawl closer 'round her shoulders and headed toward the blaze. The clearing was already full of boys and girls, running around the gray field following glowing sparks and curls of 245


wood smoke. Several low tables were set with the cornbread and honey butter and other culinary gifts sent from village parents. China could see that Aunt Chelsea's cookies were amongst them. But Pepper and Judith were nowhere in sight. And there, nearby a select group of supervisory parents, was the professor and Miss Cobbage, hanging upon his arm as though she were afraid the hard cold earth would turn to mud at any moment. China almost scowled at her -- so dazzling in her terribly inappropriate silks and rhinestone beadwork and her angora muff. And there was the professor, looking so proudly upon her. China also did not fail to notice that her hands were covered in small well-fitting white leather gloves, as they had upon her arrival, allowing no space for the chunky diamond she was said to have worn upon her departure earlier that spring. The activities of the evening soon commenced. The children roasted apples above the flames. Apples that were stuffed with brown sugar and creams and spices. There were also potatoes which were later popped open and filled with cheese or butter and pepper. Everyone had their fill of these and the baked goods and the cider. But China was still waiting to see what might happen before the evening wore out. Miss Cobbage was making her rounds amongst the parents, laughing a light silver laugh, as though she had practiced it to an annoying perfection. And the professor was making it painfully obvious that he wasn't going to leave her side. China was contemplating these things, staring into the cackling fire, when... “Hello, China.� 246


China's popped her resting chin out of her hands at the sound of the professor's greeting. “Good evenin', professor,” she mumbled. “May I?” he asked, indicating the open seat on the fallen log next to her. China nodded. “Of course.” The professor took a seat and was quiet for a few moments. “Word 'round the village indicates that you aren't very happy with the presence of Miss Cobbage in the village.” China's eyes widened as the professor laughed quietly. “I know it surprises you that I'd say that,” he said. “But better to bring it out now than later.” The professor picked up a small stick and began scratching it over the dirt on the ground. “I can see it's true,” he continued. “And I'm sorry to hear it, China. I know that I can rely on you to be one of the girls who is kind to Miss Cobbage. She's spent a long time comin' here, in many ways. And she's left her own home to be here with us.” Us, China thought. Of course she came here to spend her time with us. “I would like you to try to be kind to her, China.” China had still made no indication that she was listening. “She thinks that all of you children are quite charming.” And I'll bet she used that very word, and gushed over it, China thought. “Will you at least consider it?” China was about to open her mouth to warn the professor not to marry Miss Cobbage, to tell him what she was really like, to ask him why she deserted him for so long, and to sing Aunt Chelsea's praises, when... 247


“Oh! You horrible wretch!” The professor jumped from his seat at the sound of Miss Cobbage from the other side of the circle. “Dear Miss Cobbage!” he cried, running to her side as the other children gathered 'round her. “A monster!” she cried. “There! Just in the wood!” The gathering followed her outstretched white-gloved finger toward the wood. Nothing. “But it was just there!” she cried. “Glowing red eyes, a snarling, and I'm, I'm sure it had enormous white fangs!” “Are you certain you didn't imagine it?” the professor asked her kindly. “Of course not! I...” Miss Cobbage trailed. And then it was as though she knew who was responsible. China could see the controlled anger as Miss Cobbage suddenly transformed her stricken look to one that was overly sweet. “Oh, I'm sure it was nothing. How silly of me to frighten you all. Go back to your play, children. So sorry.” But the professor continued to watch her for the rest of the evening, anxious to protect her from anything that she might have truly seen, or imagined, in the dark forest. China, however, didn't wait a moment longer in that circle. She knew there would be trouble. And grabbing both bewildered Bretta and Emerald with her, and Aunt Chelsea's basket, they ran home in the early night, hoping that the glowing red eyes and white fangs of Pepper and Judith wouldn't be found out.

248


Chapter 22

An Invitation

About a month after the start of school again, Aunt

Chelsea was just returning from town with the mail. The air was crisp and blue. The grass yellowed and spiked with frost. It was a Saturday morning, and the girls had decided not to come into town, in order to avoid any further run-ins with Miss Cobbage. Nothing had been said since Miss Cobbage's return. She had hardly acknowledged Aunt Chelsea at church. There had been no offers for tea, no addresses. It was as though Aunt Chelsea did not exist for Miss Cobbage, not even to ridicule. “It's because she's got herself a wedding soon,” said Pepper, “so there's no more need to be rubbin' it in.” 249


The girls were rather glum. Judith and Bretta were in the city for the weekend with their parents, and there was little left to do but read on such a day. Life had seemed to lose some of its zest in the last months since the rumor of the engagement between the professor and Miss Cobbage had first circulated. So it was with much interest that the girls threw aside their books when Aunt Chelsea walked in the door and said quite plainly... “Have you ever been to a castle, girls?” They all immediately sat forward and replied “no” at nearly the same time. “Well then,” said Chelsea. “I've found it on good authority from this note here, that we'll be settin' foot inside one of them by the end of this month.” “What?” China asked, hurrying forward to see what this note might be. Aunt Chelsea opened it again, clearing her throat. “It says,” she began, “'My dear Miss Shoals, Miss China, Miss Pepper, and Miss Emerald...” “Such an introduction,” said Pepper. “Who's it from?” Aunt Chelsea only smiled and continued. “'You are invited, the eve of October the twentieth through the morning of October the twenty-third to participate in an uncommon treasure hunt under the instruction of your hostess, Lady Líadan¹ Hughcrosh...'” “Whoever is that?” China asked aloud. Aunt Chelsea only shook her head. “It goes on to request our presence at Hughcrosh Castle, which I have always heard rumored to be in the hills behind the professor's cottage. But no one has spoken of it since I ¹pronunciation: LEE a din 250


was a little girl.” “And why would she invite us?” Pepper asked. “Does she know who you are?” “I don't believe that she does,” Chelsea replied, handing over the paper to the girls for inspection. “However, I think that it would behoove us to attend. Whoever Lady Líadan Hughcrosh is, she is one of the older families of this village. And it wouldn't do to offend her.” And with that arrival of the small spiderly written piece of stationary, events were set in place. The girls were all too surprised and too excited to ask Chelsea further questions. To mention nothing of a supposed treasure hunt! October twentieth was only a week away, and there were things to be done. “An entire weekend away in a castle,” Emerald whispered in awe, as the girls were gathered in their loft that evening. “More interestin' than that,” said Pepper. “Who is Lady Hughcrosh? She can't have lived there all this time, or we would have heard of her. And why would she invite us? Maybe she's a long lost relative of our family and she wants to... And treasure hunt! What is she talkin' about?” “Calm, Pepper,” China laughed. “I think she might have been tryin' for some humor there. Surely there's no real treasure hunt.” The girls debated this point as they sat in their loft, brushing up their finest dresses and mending seams. Emerald, of course, needed nothing done to her dresses. Not even her every-day dresses. They were all perfectly clean and had no tears or straggling threads. But none of them could think of any reason why they had been invited. And Aunt Chelsea had warned the girls not to mention it at school or in the village. Not even to anyone at 251


church. “You know what they'll be sayin' if we tell it to anyone,” said Aunt Chelsea with a smile. “They'll all be tryin' to pry 'round and find the place and then be askin' for an invitation themselves.” The girls knew that she was right, and so they said nothing about it. Only to Judith and Bretta. “You weren't supposed to say anything to anyone, Pepper,” China accused her as they sat 'round eating lunch outside the schoolhouse. “Judith and Bretta aren't just 'anyone' and you know it won't matter,” said Pepper, just short of sticking out her tongue at her cousin. “That's marvelous,” said Judith. “Marvelous!” “But you can't come,” said Pepper ungraciously, “because only we were invited. And Aunt Chelsea says that anyone who knows about it might try to come as well, because they'd be too curious to find out what's goin' on.” “Well you're right about that,” said Judith, “because we'll be followin' you, I'm sure of it.” “We can't, Judith!” Bretta protested right with Pepper. “I warned you not to say anythin', Pepper,” said China. “But you can't come,” Pepper whispered, looking over her shoulder to make certain that no one, especially Brigid, was around. “Although... it would be fun.” She caught a look from China. “No, no. You can't come. Aunt Chelsea wouldn't be happy with us for sayin' anythin'.” “Us?” China protested. “I didn't say a word.” “Don't worry,” Judith said with a laugh. “We'll be so quiet you won't know we're there until we're safe inside the castle.” “Well...” 252


“I'll pretend I didn't hear anythin' of this,” said China. And she left it at that. The Wednesday, October twentieth, arrived. But the hour was not specified. Nor did anyone know the way to the old castle. “It says to await transportation here,” said Aunt Chelsea, reviewing once again, the invitation. “So I suppose we should be ready at any hour.” The girls sat together on the front step of the cottage watching the road trailing in from the southeast. “Maybe it was all a ruse,” said Pepper, when they heard the small clock strike four inside the cottage. “Maybe it was a joke made up by Brigid or one of the other girls.” “I don't think Brigid could write that nicely,” China replied, with a shake of her head. Aunt Chelsea was still inside with the trunk. The girls stared hard into the distance. “I just hope Judith and Bretta change their minds about followin' us there,” said Emerald. “I don't think they should be comin'. What if Lady Hughcrosh is very unhappy with them, and us, if she finds them in her castle.” “Pshaw,” said Pepper, with a wave of her hand. “They won't be able to come,” said China reassuringly. “Their parents would never let them wander off for three or four days. The whole village would be lookin' for them by nightfall.” “Their parents are gone this weekend,” said Pepper a little guiltily. “What?” “Well, it happened that they were gone the same time we'll be gone. So no one would know if they took off.” “But what about their horses? Someone has to see to them.” 253


“Same thing we do when we're gone for a few days. Farmhand.” “Pepper, you should never have asked them to come. Aunt Chelsea is not goin' to be happy.” Pepper shrugged. The conversation was ended just then as Aunt Chelsea walked out the door, dressed perfectly clean and prim. “There it comes, girls,” she said, nodding her head to the near distant road. And it was -- the carriage -- traveling quickly over the red dirt road, lit on either side by slow-glowing lamps. China caught her breath a little. It was a beautiful set of red horses, there. And a black carriage, pristine, despite the dirt of the road. Even the driver, as he neared, was dressed well in black and a little white, a gray wig, and black gloves. There was nothing about the whole machine rumbling toward them that was not well-dressed and well-expensed. “Hallo?” the driver called to them as he arrived. “Good evenin',” Aunt Chelsea replied pleasantly, though less loudly. A younger man, dressed similarly to the driver, alighted from the back of the carriage and hurried forward. He didn't say a word, but he lifted the trunk from the cottage step and placed it in the back of the carriage. “Lady Hughcrosh is expecting you ladies,” said the driver, with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. China felt at ease. The imposing importance of Lady Hughcrosh seemed slightly less intimidating if she employed such a kind driver. “Shall we off?” he asked, once all four had been settled comfortably inside the carriage. Aunt Chelsea replied that they were ready for departure. And with a light flick of the driver's crop, they were 254


thundering away from the little stone cottage. The ride led them through the dark wood, directly into the southeast, flashing past blue spruce and sparkling woodland streams. “I suppose I was right that the castle is somewhere at least beyond the Blacks property,” said Aunt Chelsea, more to herself. They were, indeed, headed in that direction. And with no more than half an hour's time, they seemed to be slowing on the little-used red path. “I don't know how we would have missed such a road before,” said Pepper. “Haven't we been back here?” “I don't think so,” said China. “We've been close. Maybe during that rainstorm last year. But this place doesn't look familiar.” The wood was too clean. Whereas most of the township woods were filled with bramble and wild berries, thorns, low shrubs, and vines, these woods were too clean. The floor of the forest was clear of all weeds and straggling plants. The grass, though just outside of winter, was still brushed with green. It had obviously been cleared, and likely every couple of years. The carriage had slowed to a near walk. China could see through the small window to where the driver was seated. Behind the clop of the beautiful red horses was the road, of the same color, winding through the pristine wood. Then, loaming from the floor of the valley, set just before the gray and green of the high hills, rose the castle. “Oh!” China said in a small voice. The girls spun 'round to look out the small window. They could just make it out around the black coat of the driver. A monument of dark gray stone, lit with gold blaze of lamp behind the lowest windowpanes. It fairly spoke 255


with thunder to them of old days, of knights and lords and battle. As they neared, no one had yet spoken. They were too fascinated with the bulking elegance and lordship of the rising towers before them. Closer they came. On either sides of the road the forest had disappeared and grew into expansive green lawns, spreading far into the distance, on the right toward a crystal dark lake. And the grounds were living with pruned green bushes and trees, hedges and patterns of white stone where bright flowers would blossom in the spring. As the trot of the red horses arrived outside the castle, the girls sat perfectly still, waiting for the driver to dismount. “Here we are, lasses,” he said cordially, coming 'round to the little carriage door. “The maid'll be greetin' you at the door when you come in. I'll have your trunk sent up directly.” Aunt Chelsea nodded and thanked him as the girls followed her up the grand stone staircase to the entrance. The trot of the red horses echoed 'round to where the stable must have been, and everything was perfectly silent as they surveyed the view from the lofty steps. “Emerald, would you ring the bell?” Aunt Chelsea asked softly. China wondered, vaguely, if she were a little nervous about meeting the owner of this spectacle. Emerald lifted her little hand to the weighted chain and pulled it with the strength of both arms. From somewhere inside the great hall, a loud, long ringing was heard. Emerald stepped back just as the door was opened wide. “Greetin's,” said a small voice from the maid. 256


She gave a brief courtesy to them and a smile as she stepped aside and waited for them to walk through the door. The entrance could not have been more wide. To either side, the left and the right, it stretched far into the gloaming shadows of the early evening. Lit by tall lamps in every window, reflecting the gilded paneling of the many doors lining the great hall. “I'll take you to your rooms,” said the little maid kindly. “Please follow me, and your trunk shall be brought up presently.” The hall had been so grand that China had hardly noticed the double staircase rising into the second floor before them. But there it was -- all of stone but for a carpet of lapis blue, running down its front toward them. Without another word, the maid began to climb it, and was almost immediately followed by Chelsea and the girls. China was filled with greater and greater excitement as they walked further into the interior of the castle, up the staircase, down a large hall, and then another, each door covered in silver and gold and impressed with glass, some, and others in stone the color of rubies. They were so beautiful, each one beckoning to be opened. China almost had to clamp her hands together behind her back so as not to be too tempted to reach for one of the engraved handles. Several minutes later, the maid stopped before one of these grand doors and led them in to what would be their quarters for the next four days. “Enjoy,” she said pleasantly. “Dinner will be served in half an hour.” And then she was gone. Pepper's jaw was dropped by several inches. Even Aunt Chelsea's eyes were opened slightly more than usual, who 257


rarely showed any indication of surprise, no matter how surprising the situation. “Speak of luxury,” Pepper whispered. The entire room was hung in brocades and lit with soft lamps. And it led to another room where four beds with posts of silver had been placed about the spacious room. White greenhouse lilies were bundled in glass vases. A spread of light fruits was set on a mahogany buffet near the door. The windows were drawn to the setting sun beyond the sea. No expense, it seemed, was spared. But Chelsea could not allow them long to ponder the marvel of these riches. “Come, girls,” she said. “Wash off your faces and brush your dresses for dinner. We must get ready quickly.” They lost no time. It wouldn't do to keep their generous hostess waiting for her dinner. So the girls did their best to focus on preparing themselves for just that, while standing in awe over the heavy silver mirrors and rose soaps and the heated water of the bath. Twenty minutes later, the girls silently followed their aunt down the great hall. It was a fortunate thing that the maid had pointed out the direction of the dining room before they had ascended the great stairs in the hall, or they might have never known where to begin. The carpet felt so soft under their feet, and the glow of the lamps was strangely homely despite the grandness of the castle around them. The door to the dining room was already spread open to them, the light of dozens of candles perched in their candelabras upon a long mahogany table. The blaze was nearly as bright as the great stone hearth behind it. And although the table was not yet set for food, the dishes upon it sparkled in crystals, china, and silver, and brightly 258


painted colors from the old family. But China did not recognize the crest. Everything was silent but for the crackle and snap of the fire as it popped behind them, warming the room to a comfortable warmth. “Should we sit?” China asked, feeling the need to whisper, as she fingered the red coral 'round her throat. “I think not yet,” Pepper whispered back. Chelsea had not heard China's question, for at almost that very moment, she saw Miss Cobbage enter the room on the arm of Professor Blacks. China nearly choked. There they were, staring at one another -- Chelsea and the girls in their homespun and the Professor and his lady, laced into a dress nearly as sparkling with silver threads and gemstones as the blazing candles behind them. “Miss Shoals!” the Professor finally managed to exclaim. “How... delightful to see you here!” “The same, Professor Blacks,” Aunt Chelsea replied with a nod to them both. Miss Cobbage seemed positively irritated, and would likely have ignored Chelsea and walked right past her to the table when they were joined yet again by more company. “Mrs. Blath!” Pepper exclaimed. “Hello, dears,” she replied kindly. Right behind her came all three of the Kellys, with Brigid flounced in a deep blue dress reaching to the floor and ruffled. She tossed her head at the sight of Pepper and China, and swept past them to the hearth. “What a mystery this is!” Mrs. Kelly exclaimed to her husband, who seemed as though he would much prefer being at home smoking his pipe over a good book undisturbed in his library. 259


“Who is this Lady Líadan, and why would she have invited all of us here?” China stopped listening as Mrs. Kelly went on and on and on about such things. She was only glad that Judith and Bretta had apparently decided not to follow them there after all. Amidst the confused conversation, a gong was sounded from the hall as, what could have presumed to be a butler, entered the dining hall and with a short bow, said rather loudly in a British accent, “Dinner is served.” Almost immediately, a line of servers filed in behind him and escorted all of the guests to their seats. Everyone seemed a little bewildered by it all, and followed suit, without saying another word. But it was observed by all that no one was set at either end of the table. The guests twittered amongst themselves for several moments, China taking care not to meet Brigid's eyes across the table. She did notice that the professor had been seated across from Aunt Chelsea, and that he smiled at her kindly. But then there fell a bit of an awkward silence over the table. For the stream of servers had taken places at the walls around the table as though awaiting orders. And then, the gong rang again. A strong metallic ring. And the shadow of a figure appeared at the doorway.

260


Chapter 23

Treasure Hunt

At first, the candlelight of the long table diffused the

image of the figure at the door. It paused for a moment, just inside the shadows, as though waiting for something. There was a sudden loud clearing of the butler's throat behind them. “Lady Líadan Hughcrosh,” he croaked rather loudly as the gong was sounded once again. “Thank you, Herbert,” came the reply from the figure, as she emerged full into the light. “I'm so glad that you all came,” she said, pausing once again just inside the doorway. China was caught up in the regal presence of the elderly lady before her. Soft and kind features, gray hair piled on the top of her head and laced with silver hair pieces. Her gown flowed solidly to the floor in folds of wine dark 261


brocade, pleated and folded in all of the right places. On her slender white hands were two rings, one a large garnet encased in silver, and the other a band of plain silver. And around her neck was a long silver chain which held, presumably, a silver locket at its end. No one said a word. The gentlemen suddenly seemed to remember themselves and hurriedly rose from their seats as Lady Líadan entered the room. “No need for that, gentlemen, no need” she said, fluttering her hands at them in indication to sit. She swept over to her seat in a grand manner, as though she were still a young woman, and was seated by the butler. “Thank you, Hebert,” she said kindly. “Now then, I hope that I have not kept you in waiting. Dinner may be served.” There was a sudden bustle of sound from every direction. Servers left the room and returned almost immediately with silver platters, accompanied by the rustle of three musicians set in the far corner of the room. A harp, a viol, and a cello. The music began directly as the silver trays were brought from one guest to the other, beginning with Mrs. Blath, at Lady Líadan's direction. During these several moments of serving, Lady Líadan said nothing more to her guests than comments of the weather and the roads and various other small things. And they responded in the like. There was soup laid out at first, with crusted rolls and soft butter. China was uncertain as to the sort of soup that it was. It seemed a delicate combination of various vegetables and spices, but was also sweet. Then came the second course, of a sort of variety of vegetables and beans that was very good. And then arrived the cornish game hen, perfectly golden and glazed in rosemary sauce. 262


After this, little glasses of what seemed to be ice flavored with fruit juices, was set before each guest. Still, nothing of consequence had been mentioned from anyone to one another. And it continued until the final course of dessert was set upon the table, a cake of chocolate and chocolate cream, set with glazed pears on the side of each thin slice. China hadn't looked at Brigid once throughout the entire two hours of dinner. But she continued to observe that the professor would watch her aunt from time to time in a sort of unusual way, as though he were looking for something. And though this gave China cause for smallest hopes, she put them immediately aside, remembering that the professor was engaged, and nothing else could be done. “Well then,” Lady Líadan said shortly after the last of the cake had been finished, “shall we adjourn?” She had not said to where. Parlours, China knew, were too domestic a thing to be included amongst the rooms of a castle. But nevertheless, she would have described the next room to the dining hall to be just that, on a much larger and grander scale. “Do be seated, everyone,” said Lady Líadan, directing open hands to the variety of velveted chairs and sofas around the room. “Make yourselves comfortable, please. For we have much to discuss.” China breathed out short. Finally, they were to know. The dinner seemed as though it had taken a week's worth of waiting, on top of the weeks she had already waited to find out the great mystery behind Lady Líadan. “Well now,” said Lady Líadan pleasantly. She folded her hands together in front of her and walked to the center of her seated guests near the glowing hearth. 263


“As I am sure none of you know who, exactly, that I am, it is now time to enlighten you. I waited until after dinner to begin this discourse, as I am sure that you will all have many questions upon me putting forth this proposition to you.” She smiled at them. Indeed, she seemed to have always a sort of smiling twinkle in the little wrinkles around her eyes, in the best sort of way. “I have given my name, Lady Líadan Hughcrosh. But I have not told you yet that this is my old home. I grew up here as a girl. And despite my obvious, I believe, distinct English accent, I am Irish-born. I love nothing more than this place. But I have been living in Sicily these past twenty years. It is not until only several days ago that I had returned to this beautiful part of the country...” China couldn't help but notice that she looked very much like a queen standing there as she was. “My late husband, George Hughcrosh II, lived all of his days here, and though we were never given children, we spent many happy years here together until his death, which is when I departed for Sicily where I have ministered for much of that time to a home for orphans. I tell you this in very blank detail, for those matters are not as important. However, it is good, I think, for you to know who I am. Now it has come to my attention in recent months, which is why I have just returned, that something of great value has been... unearthed... something that, I believe, will shed great light onto the family fortune of my husband's great line of ancestors. Why do I tell you?” There was that twinkle again. “This will be revealed at the proper time. But I ask you now, if you are willing, to help participate over the next several days, in discovering the location of this treasure of 264


the family. I understand you might think it not in your interest to do so, however, I am prepared to provide... reward... for your efforts, should it be uncovered in the next days.” “But...” Brigid sputtered, before anyone could stop her. “It's your treasure. So if we find it, can we be havin' some of it?” The look on Mr. Kelly's face could have raised his grandfather from his grave at this display of insolence. But Mrs. Kelly only laughed at her daughter. Lady Líadan was not phased by this comment. “And when I say reward, dear, what do you think that might mean?” Brigid grew a smug smile over her well-filled face. “Then I shall be the first to find it,” she said importantly. “And the reward shall be all mine.” She shot China a look of great premature triumph, which China promptly ignored. “I realize this is an unusual request,” Lady Líadan continued. “However, I ask you on the behalf of an old lady who hasn't the strength of body or of mind to search further into these matters. My hope is that your younger more able minds are capable of deciphering this, shall we say, mystery.” “Deciphering, madam?” the professor asked. “Do I take it that there is a set of clues as to where this treasure might be hid?” “There is, indeed,” Lady Líadan continued. She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it, setting eyeglasses just on her nose, holding them in place with her porcelain hand. “These have been translated by an old friend of the family, as the original language was quite old.” 265


China scanned the room as Lady Líadan began to read. There was a strange goldish glint in Miss Cobbage's eye. A sort of lure of treasure and mystery. But it was more than that. It was the sort of glint that indicated that Miss Cobbage somehow already knew something about everything, as if none of this was as great a surprise to her as it was to the others. But she shrugged off this thought, realizing that she was always too eager to find something calculating and vicious about Miss Cobbage in the first place. “Ah... here it starts,” Lady Líadan was saying. “There are only three pieces to this riddle. So listen carefully to all three. First: “Apart from Cain they cannot grow Where heaven joins the ice and snow. “And, yes,” said Lady Líadan with a slight laugh, “the rhyme would have originally been unintentional, having not been written in English.” She continued. “Second: “Red and dew fill east and west Resting, there, 'twixt blue and green.” Already the looks of puzzlement had begun. “Third: “The disc is round, it holds together Lord and lady, land and peasant.” 266


Lady Líadan lowered the piece of paper, looking about the room. Mrs. Blath sat calmly, there, watching Lady Líadan. Mrs. Kelly and Brigid, and Miss Cobbage, were all listening carefully as though the answer might drop into their laps. Pepper and Emerald were rapt with attention. Mr. Kelly was still looking as though he would prefer to be at home. And the professor seemed lost in the thought. As did Aunt Chelsea. “That is all?” asked Mrs. Kelly. “That is all.” “And where shall we begin?” “I leave that at your discretion, should you chose to follow my request. I think it time for us to part ways for the evening. Tomorrow, take leisure to enjoy the grounds and the many halls and rooms. Nothing is put to lock and key here. You are free to explore.” China noticed that Lady Líadan's eyes rested on her at this last statement. “Tomorrow I shall be busy with various accounts. However, if there is anything of interest that you discover, find out Herbert, and he will escort you to my quarters. Have you all a pleasant night.” The professor and Mr. Kelly rose quickly as she nodded to them all and left the room. It was suddenly very quiet. “Well, how exciting!” Mrs. Kelly exclaimed in a twitter. “I just can't imagine that there would really be any sort of real treasure here. But, Brigid, you must find it, and you shall, my darling, and bring home the reward and I shall also buy you a doll from Paris if you find it...” Brigid practically scowled at her mother's endless ramble. 267


“You shall buy me twenty dolls if I find it,” she said rueully. “And more so, because the treasure shall be mine if I find it. Lady Líadan will have to give it to me, or I shan't tell her where it is.” Mrs. Kelly only laughed loudly at this, covering up any sort of reprimand that Mr. Kelly was about to administer. “Well, good evening, then,” said Mrs. Blath kindly to them all, as she rose from her seat. Again, the gentlemen rose. “We shall also retire,” said Aunt Chelsea, rising. The girls followed suit. And China noticed, pleasantly, that the professor's eyes were on Aunt Chelsea until they had left the room.

268


Chapter 24

Voices

The next morning, true to her word, Lady Líadan was

not present at breakfast -- a splendid breakfast of sausages, potatoes, hot rolls, and fresh fruit. Conversation was limited around the table, as everyone seemed very keen on trying to remember the riddles from the previous evening. It was fortunate, then, that toward the end of the breakfast hour, the butler presented each guest with a copy of the aforementioned riddles. And without further ado, everyone scattered to their own ways. China passed the professor and Miss Cobbage in the hall and could not help but overhear a snippet of conversation. “Look in the garden, of course,” said Miss Cobbage. “And tell me at luncheon what you find there. I couldn't possibly go down and look for myself. Not after last 269


night's rain.” China almost laughed at this. The rain of which Miss Cobbage spoke, was nothing more than morning dew and late night mist. But all the better that Miss Cobbage was not with them on the hunt, in China's opinion. “Well, girls,” said Chelsea, once they had gathered together in the front hall, “where shall we look first?” “The greenhouse,” said a voice from behind the drapery. Aunt Chelsea spun 'round to see who's was the voice. “Come out, Judith,” said Pepper quickly. “You shouldn't have given yourself away so easily.” A very exuberant Judith, and a much more guilty Bretta, removed themselves from the velvet drapes. “But this is too fun not to take part,” Judith insisted with sparkling eyes. “Please let us help in the hunt!” “How long have you been here, Judith?” Chelsea asked, trying to be at least somewhat stern. “Well...” “Since last night,” said Pepper with a sigh. “I saw them out our window and let them in one of the back doors.” “We couldn't get your attention at dinner,” said Judith, “because the back windows of the dining hall were too far off the lawn. But at least we didn't have to sleep in the damp.” Chelsea shook her head. “I'm going to have to bring you to Lady Líadan,” she said. “I can't have you walk all the way home now, not alone. How did you possibly find your way here?” “We hopped on the back of the carriage,” said Bretta. “It was Judith's idea, of course.” “And the footman?” “He was sittin' with the driver. He didn't see us.” 270


“Well then,” Chelsea continued, “Lady Líadan is not to be disturbed at the moment. I will bring you to her attention perhaps at luncheon. For now, you will have to stay with us.” “Let's on with it, then,” said Pepper eagerly. “We have a riddle to solve.” They were soon on their way to the greenhouse. Judith was certain, having heard the first riddle from Pepper, that it referred to the greenhouse. If Cain of the Bible grew crops, perhaps the greenhouse was a parallel of Cain, being the only place on the expansive property to grow plants of any kind in cultivation of food. “A clever thought, Judith,” Aunt Chelsea commended her. It loomed up there, the construction of glass and metal. “So large,” Emerald whispered. “And so full of green.” Even for October, with the opening of the door, they were filled with a rush of sweet blossoms, fair fruits, and the earthy grubble of soils and leaves. The girls were captivated by it merely by the smells alone, and the near rapture of seeing so many delicious colors arranged together in such a season, and so many together. “Where to begin?” China asked. “We don't even know what to look for.” “Another clue, perhaps?” Judith said aloud. “Or something about ice and snow, whatever that might be,” said Pepper. “Anythin' out of the ordinary,” Aunt Chelsea said to them. “Or, so ordinary, you might pass it by without thinkin'.” “It could be anythin', then,” Bretta sighed. “I shouldn't think we'll have near enough time to solve such a set of riddles,” said Pepper irritably. “If only we had 271


more time.” “Nonsense,” said Judith, who was a usual optimist. “We have three days more. All we must do is crack the first riddle, and the others will follow.” “Let us hope you're right then,” said Pepper. The girls split between the rows of plants, as did Chelsea, and surmised what they could from the endless rows of greenery. China looked carefully at each box, each pot, each plant, the floors, the walls, the glass, the underneaths of the benches upon which sat the boxes. Everything. Nothing was unturned. “Girls,” said Chelsea several hours later, after they had combed over everything, including the outside of the building. “Perhaps it is in our best interest to recall what Lady Líadan said to us last evenin'.” The girls paused immediately to listen. They were tired of running fingers and eyes over wooden boxes and clay pots. “These riddles were written so long ago. Longer, perhaps, than we are thinkin'. Do you remember what it was that she said about them, as to their age?” “She only said that it was quite old,” said China thoughtfully, “the original language in which they were written.” “Yes, of course,” said Aunt Chelsea. “And so, might it not make sense that we are lookin' about the wrong sort of place?” “She's right,” said Judith. “This place has been here for no longer than fifty years. How could anythin' possibly be here? Those riddles have to be speakin' of somethin' that has been here for much longer.” “How old is the castle?” Aunt Chelsea asked, subtly prodding them along. 272


No one knew. “Judging by its structure, would you say it was constructed, perhaps, in the 1300's?” They nodded. They knew something of architecture, having been under the influence of the broad study of Professor Blacks. “Well, then, to the castle,” said Pepper. “It seems a much more fascinatin' place to begin a hunt anyway. So many gloomy corridors.” On the return, the girls ran across the green lawn, laughing under the morning sunshine and white clouds, with promise of rain from the sea. China could see the professor walking 'round the gardens, then, examining stone seats for their age, and arrangement of flower beds. He looked up as they were passing and raised a hand of greeting to Chelsea. She smiled at him. “Anythin' there, professor?” she asked calmly across a bed of winter-rested bulbs. “Not a hair of it,” he replied pleasantly. “I should report to Miss Cobbage of my ill attempts at discovery. Do you think I probably make a better teacher than treasure hunter?” “I think you might at that,” Aunt Chelsea replied with a light laugh. They parted ways again, China still inwardly shaking her head. If only the professor had had a longer period of time to know Aunt Chelsea before Miss Cobbage had come on the scene. Things might have ended so much differently. But there was no further time to lament. The girls had an entire castle to dig around, and time was ticking rapidly away. 273


Luncheon was served much sooner than expected. The girls had only searched through four rooms before the gong sounded, anticipating the ten minute interval between that moment and the serving of the midday meal. The girls were rushed by Aunt Chelsea to their quarters to brush down their dresses and wash their faces. Miss Cobbage was already seated on their arrival, yawning behind a small white hand, still oddly gloved, as it had been at dinner the previous night. Mrs. Blath was conversing good-naturedly with Mrs. Kelly and Brigid. Apparently she had spent her morning helping them think of proper places to begin their search. And Brigid, as sour as lemons, sat with an occasional huff at her seat, for not having found the treasure within the first ten minutes of her languid attempt. She wanted the treasure, rooms of gold chests packed evenly with jewels and baubles. But she wasn't terribly willing to look so hard for it. China, meanwhile, was more concerned with their own lack of coordinated thinking. No one had even known where to begin in the castle rooms. There was a conservatory in the back, but it seemed to have been added at a later date. No one had thought to search the garden, as the professor had already examined most of it, and there were few very old structures planted inside it, as there were none in the courtyard. Judith had suggested they look over the woods at a later time, but most of the girls had decided that it was best to search the oldest man-built structure of the grounds, which was, assumedly, the castle itself. So it was a decidedly gloomy gathering at the luncheon hour, lightened mostly by Mrs. Blath's kind conversation and the girls' talking back and forth, except for the 274


irritable Brigid. Miss Cobbage seemed also somewhat disgruntled when the professor appeared in the dining hall a little out of breath for having just run in from the garden, bringing with him nothing new. She practically pouted, and China saw it. “We have to rethink the riddle,” China whispered to Pepper, as they ate hot chicken soufflés served by Herbert the butler. “You're right. It doesn't make a jot of sense searchin' through every room in the castle. Although,” Pepper shot a look across the table to Brigid, “it's fun anyway, doing just that.” The meal progressed, having mostly been taken over with the gossip of Mrs. Kelly and the complaints of Miss Cobbage, who protested that her soufflé was too cold, despite the steam rising from his center. And Mr. Kelly, who actually seemed to be somewhat interested in the hunt, swapped notes with the professor as to certain meanings of the riddles. China half-listened to these thoughts, as she worked over the words in her own mind, and tried to figure out, what, exactly, “Cain” might be. But the rest of the luncheon was entirely uneventful, as everyone seemed very much absorbed in their own thoughts regarding the mysterious matter of their weekend out. Afterward, the girls joined Aunt Chelsea in the hallway for a meeting. “We must rethink everything, girls,” she said, amused that the treasure hunt had taken on such great amounts of thought after only several hours of search. “Might I... be of any assistance?” the professor asked just then, suddenly popping 'round a doorway. “Couldn't help 275


but see that you were havin' a counsel together,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly. “And, well, the lovely Miss Cobbage would like me to have the treasure in hand by, oh, the end of the afternoon. And I must say that I am at a loss of ideas. So, should I say, perhaps I could learn from what you might have to tell me?” China saw the smile cross Chelsea's face at the uncertain interruption of the professor. “You are welcome,” she said with a dignified nod. Seeing as there was no other seat available in their particular nook, the professor stood near the window. “Now then,” he said. “Tell me what I've missed.” “We've only just begun, professor,” said Chelsea easily. “We were talking of the matter of rethinking our original idea of 'Cain' being, perhaps, the greenhouse.” “Which was of course too modern a place to search,” said Judith with no other explanation. “And so we've thought to search the castle,” said Bretta. “Yes, but where?” Pepper asked. “Cain, Cain... where is there somethin' else that grows 'round here aside from the conservatory, which is also too modern an addition?” They were all silent several moments. “The courtyard?” asked the professor. “If Cain, of course, refers to plant life?” “We've looked some there,” said China. “Nothin' seemed to look out of place.” “Or perhaps a room here is named Cain?” Bretta suggested shyly. “Don't they name rooms in great places such as this.” “Good thinkin',” said the professor, cracking an irresistible smile. “Well, let us search some more, then, while we think. Shall we divide up? Some look to the courtyard, and others down the halls?” 276


They split just then, agreeing to meet up in the grand hall just before dinner to share any findings. And it was a very strategic plan, combined with China's quick thinking, that provided for the girls, all five of them, running off down the halls, leaving the professor and Chelsea, almost embarrassed, to themselves to look about the courtyard. The girls were practically giggling with delight at the success of this quick scheme, and ran directly to the dark rooms overlooking the courtyard. “Come on then,” Pepper called to them. The other girls were huddled near the drapery overlooking the walk below. “They'll see you and then it will all be for naught,” she insisted. “Besides, we can't see a thing in here. Come on and look down the hall with me.” The drapes fell aside as the girls reluctantly followed Pepper back into the hall. They had only just seen the professor and Aunt Chelsea as they walked slowly, side by side, talking to one another, presumedly, as they looked upon the stonework of the walls for any unusual clues. The girls searched up and down the gloomy halls for the next several hours, all of them wondering, to some extent or other, if the professor and Aunt Chelsea were “gettin' anywhere”, as Judith put it. But also present in their minds was the discouragement of not having found a thing that even referred to Cain in any manner. Only once did they meet Brigid and Mrs. Kelly in the lower east hall, as Brigid tromped madly down the carpeted flooring arguing loudly with her mother about something or other that didn't seem to make much sense. But they met no one else. Even Brigid practically ignored them, except for sticking out her tongue at China for no 277


particular reason, in passing. “This is horrible now,” said Judith finally. “We've gotten nowhere at all. Read the clue again, China. We must be missing somethin'.” The girls settled themselves just at the end of the long hall facing the south. The light had been gray all day, as the sun had strayed behind the rolling clouds of a distant storm that had drawn near since luncheon. China carefully unrolled the small paper on which the three clues had been recorded. She strained her eyes a bit as she adjusted the paper toward the window. But she paused as the muffled sound of a voice was heard somewhere nearby. “Shhh...” Pepper said suddenly, before China could speak. All the girls sat upward from their positions on the floor, listening. The voice was faint, but it was drawing closer. “Miss Cobbage!” Judith mouthed. And as if all the girls had the same mind, they jumped from their positions on the floor and scrambled behind the long drapery, completely hidden from sight. The girls held their breath together, half of them behind one drape, and the other half on the other side of the window. Miss Cobbage was drawing closer. She was near enough now to distinguish her words. But she wasn't alone. There was someone with a deeper voice. A man's voice. “Of course I would never stay here,” she was saying with almost a laugh. “How horrible to be stuck in the country for all of one's life! I could easily bring David with me. He wouldn't mind at all. And once we're in London, he'll forget about this God-forsaken place.” 278


“You'll manage to convince him of that, naturally,” said the male voice. “You are filled with charm, my lady.” “And more the charm when I take on the title of Lady of Hughcrosh Castle. How shocked they will all be when I returned with the added wealth and title of Midas!” The jaws of all the girls seemed to drop as one at these last remarks. Miss Cobbage and the mysterious male personage drifted away further into the passages, and nothing else of consequence was heard. But the girls remained plastered behind their draperies for some time longer, together, in mutual disbelief. Finally, when all seemed to have become perfectly quiet again, Pepper's indignant voice spoke for all of them. “I knew there was something strange about her! She's not here just for the professor! She was probably going to pass off the shipwreck as though she had died so he would never look for her again. And then she found out some reason why she had to marry him after all. And it has somethin' to do with all of this. She's a treasure hunter!” “But what does the professor have to do with that?” China asked, bewildered. “She said that she'd be Lady of Hughcrosh Castle. The professor is just a guest. He's nothin' to do with it.” “I know! It's so annoyingly frustratin' that I can't think what's she speakin' of!” Pepper replied almost fiercely. “If only we could trick her into sayin' it,” said Judith, a wicked twinkle in her eye. “Whatever it is... it's somethin' to do with findin' this treasure. So we'd best be findin' it first, or she'll be doin' somethin' we're all goin' to regret.” They all quickly agreed upon this point, and immediately renewed their search, passing questions and comments back and forth amongst each other as they continued their 279


scouring of the great halls. “We should tell Aunt Chelsea,” Pepper had said almost immediately. “No,” said China. “Not a word. She'd say that we misheard somethin'. And she would never say anythin' to the professor about it. So it'd do us no good. We have to spy out Miss Cobbage and learn more.” “And who was that other man she was speakin' with?” Judith asked suspiciously. “She didn't come wid any servants, did she?” None of the girls knew. It didn't seem likely, however. But one thing was clear. The girls were splitting with eagerness to spill everything that they had heard. But they vowed amongst themselves to say nothing. If they did break out all, no one would believe them. Miss Cobbage would laugh and deny it all, and no one would be the wiser for it. A very confused and excited bunch of girls joined Chelsea and Professor Blacks back in the great hall an hour later. “Anythin'?” Judith asked airily, as they met them there. “Not a thing,” the professor replied. But he looked kindly at Aunt Chelsea for some unspoken reason, that was not unnoticed by China. “You were also unsuccessful?” he asked them. “Oh, yes,” said Pepper, trying to appear just as casual as was possible. But Aunt Chelsea was not fooled. “What's been happenin' the last few hours?” she asked Pepper, with a raise of her eyebrow. “Nothin' at all,” said Pepper, trying to sound surprised at such a question. Aunt Chelsea said no more as the girls scattered to their rooms to prepare for dinner. Suddenly, the finding of the 280


grand Hughcrosh treasure had become of the utmost importance in order to find out the suspect Miss Cobbage and her schemes. So China read and reread the riddles to them while they washed and prepared for dinner.

281


Chapter 25

Riddles

Dinner was made less grand by the regrets of Lady

Líadan, sent from her bedchamber. “I apologize for the lack of my presence this evening,” read Herbert the butler, from a hand-written note. “Do enjoy your evening and company amongst yourselves. And by tomorrow eve, I hope to rejoin you. I also extend a welcome to the Miss McCorns, at their joining of our little party.” Judith and Bretta caught Aunt Chelsea's eye and smiled their thanks. She must have informed Herbert earlier in the day. “How very odd, that,” said Miss Kelly, as Herbert put the note away and the servers began laying dishes of lightly dressed vegetables in front of them. “Our hostess not joining us until nearly the end of our time here.” 283


“I'll say she's doin' it on purpose,” Pepper whispered to China, crunching a mouthful of carrot. China thought about this, taking a sip of cold water from her glass goblet. Pepper could be right. Were Miss Cobbage and Lady Líadan involved together in some elaborately laced scheme for their own amusement? That was highly unlikely. A woman of such greatness and warmth and generosity at Lady Líadan in association with the tepid likes of Miss Cobbage. No, no, she thought to herself, very unlikely. “Still you've found nothing at all,” Miss Cobbage was saying to the professor. They were seated at the opposite end of the table, but China could not help but hear what was said. “You are deplorable in the field of finding things of value,” she said, trying to laugh it into a joke, but being quite unsuccessful in the process. “I am sorry, my dear,” he replied. China wrinkled her nose at this unexpected expression of endearment. “I have looked about a bit of the grounds...” “You have not looked well enough. I shall be joining you tomorrow morning. And let me not see you again walking about with Chelsea Shoals. Seeing such a sight put me in the worst of humors all of the afternoon.” The professor looked troubled at this statement, but said nothing, as Mrs. Blath addressed him from across the table.

Another night passed uneventfully. The girls slept

soundly in great hopes of discovery the next day. Suddenly, the surprise of being invited to a castle for three days was translating into determination to find this treasure at 284


whatever cost. The next morning, the girls sat in deep concentration 'round the breakfast table, staring outward past the great windows to the south of the castle grounds. “Stop starin',” Brigid commanded. “Strange you are, all of you.” But no one responded to her. They were too far into their own thoughts. It was just as the last of the white biscuits had been polished off the plates, that China sort of shook her head with a little laugh at herself. “What?” Pepper asked her. “Nothin',” said China, catching Brigid's eye across the table. “I'll tell you as soon as we're done with breakfast.” Out in the great hall, after China had been certain that Brigid was not around, she whispered carefully her thoughts. “We've not been payin' much attention to the riddle,” she said. “The professor and Aunt Chelsea were closer to it when they looked 'round the courtyard yesterday.” China drew breath. She was somewhat excited with her idea. “I'd forgotten the last part of the riddle till this mornin'. I thought that the second half read, 'Where they join the ice and snow'. But the riddle really says, 'Apart from Cain they cannot grow, where heaven joins the ice and snow.'” “Are you sure that's right?” Pepper asked. “Very sure. I heard Mrs. Blath readin' her notes to Mr. Kelly during breakfast. So ours must have been copied incorrectly. But anyway, I think that it must be speakin' of a place closer to the sky, a place I don't even know how to get to yet... the roof.” 285


The girls were quiet for a moment, thinking rapidly if this might be correct. “But what has 'Cain' to do with this?” Judith asked. “Is there a garden on the roof as well?” “Let's go see then,” said Pepper, leaving her seat immediately. “Aunt Chelsea and the professor will want to join us.” China wasn't entirely certain that Miss Cobbage would be allowing the professor to come off with them. But it didn't seem to matter much, because Miss Cobbage came through the door at just that moment, followed by Brigid. Both were discussing something about modern Parisian fashions, and did not even notice the girls as they flounced toward the conservatory. The professor came next through the doorway of the dining hall, making as if to follow Miss Cobbage and Brigid. “Professor!” Pepper hissed. “Professor!” He turned 'round, seeing them all huddled near the drapery again. “Oh,” he said, walking over. “Is somethin' happenin' here?” “An answer to the riddle, we hope,” said Judith. “Bring Miss Shoals. We've got to find a way to the roof.” A light of revelation seemed to come over the professor, as China saw him run the riddle through his head. “Ah!” he said slowly to himself. “Take a head start, girls. I'll bring Miss Shoals. She's just speakin' with Mrs. Blath.” And the tall, thin frame of the professor about-faced and almost ran back to the dining hall. But where to go? With all the many passages and complicated twists of rooms, who could say, exactly which way it was to the roof, and if there was any entrance at all? 286


China had seen the roof from the grounds earlier the previous day. It had seemed quite flat across, where the turrets ran 'round the greater portion of the building. Surely there was some way to arrive there. In days of battle, soldiers would have most certainly needed quick access to this part of the castle. But it was taking longer than China would have liked, to find a place where a passage might lead to the open air high above the grounds. “Maybe Lady Líadan wouldn't want us to go up there anyway,” said Emerald tentatively, as she watched the girls tear about the halls from room to room. Bretta was inclined to think the same. “Nonsense,” said Pepper. “She said that we could go anywhere that we wanted.” “Anywhere that we can find,” said Bretta quietly. But Emerald and Bretta were not beyond helping. They, too, looked from place to place until they were joined by the professor and Miss Cobbage. “Sorry about the delay, there,” said the professor. “It seems as though your aunt couldn't get away from Mrs. Blath. Somethin' about an upcoming weddin' or somethin', I hear.” China gulped. Was that a twinkle in the professor's eye? Did he know the hurt he was giving Aunt Chelsea by speaking of such things? How could he do that to her? China promptly turned 'round back to her search, and pretended not to have heard the professor. “Oh, sorry, girls,” he apologized once more. “I think that this... is the place you were looking for.” All of the girls stopped just there where they were, as the professor pulled aside the drapery at the end of the hall. It was a heavy velvet drape of dark red and took all the 287


strength of the professor's arms to draw it aside. So that was why the hall had been full of such a draft! There, just behind the drapery was a great door. “How did you know that was there?” China gasped. “Yes,” said Pepper with a suspicious eye. “How did you?” The professor scratched his head. “I'm not... really certain, actually. I guess I just... knew.” Pepper slanted her eyes at him. Something didn't seem quite right about that, and China knew it too. There was no good reason for the professor to know such a thing about the interior of the castle. But China was willing to put it aside for the present. If the professor, who was foolish enough to marry Miss Cobbage, she thought, was also involved in some twisted plot behind all of their backs, then... but, no, that wouldn't do, she thought rapidly to herself. The professor was a good man. And he wouldn't ever be involved in any sort of unlawful treasure hunt. Miss Cobbage spoke of him as though he had nothing to do with whatever she had hidden up her sleeve... There was no time for such thoughts. Pepper had already drawn aside the incredible weight of the heavy wooden door, with the added force of the professor, and had begun the charge up the stone staircase. China tore after her. They could be so close to an answer, and before Miss Cobbage and Brigid had even thought to look there. China was almost knocked over backward by the rush of cool wind as she entered the open air of the turrets. Pepper and the other girls had run to the edge, yelling out into the rush of wind at such a glory of the elements. 288


“Pepper!” Aunt Chelsea called to her. “Don't stand so near the edge.” Pepper took a precautionary step backward, but kept her arms outstretched to the winds. China was swept along with it, her eyes upstretched to the glory of the blue-gray heavens. And then, her gaze was directed to the horizon. The black wings of a storm, boiling from the sea. “We shouldn't stay long, girls,” said the professor suddenly, as a crack of lightening could be seen in the far distance. “Look about quick for anythin'.” Before the words had left his mouth, China saw what she had hoped to see. A spread of brown foilage in the far corner of the turreted roof. Without another thought, she ran toward it, and stopped before it, smiling broadly. She beckoned to the others. “Plants?” Pepper asked, panting as she ran up. “Is that what we wanted?” “If it has anythin' to do with Cain,” China replied. “Look at that. All brown, but still alive this past spring, I expect.” The curled edges of the leaves had indeed been alive within those last months, as the professor confirmed, hurrying over to inspect the patch of leaves. But it was not just one pot of such plants. They spread in three stone trenches 'round the squared edges of the roof. “So many of them,” said Bretta. “I wonder if it means anythin'.” China stood there in the rushing wind, wondering if there was anything of significance about those plants. They were certainly nearer the heavens, where snow and ice fell. And apart from Cain... “Apart from Cain...” she whispered. “Cain... what could Cain be?” 289


Her gaze trailed to the center of the roof. It was made of stone, as was the rest of the roof. Dark stone, well-worn. But there was an irregularity about the stone, it seemed. China stepped back several paces. Yes, she thought. The stone was different there. Reddish, perhaps. Not the same dark color of the rest of the stone. Perhaps it meant nothing. She stepped back further. There, under the shadows of the stone trenches. The red stone, in thin slices, seemed to be laid in a sort of pattern between the darker stone, as though... “I think it spells somethin' out!” China cried. She hurried forward to the place where the stone's color deviated. The other girls gathered 'round her. “Do you see it?” she asked excitedly. “Well, it doesn't spell Cain, if that's what you're thinkin',” said Pepper hastily. “No, but it wouldn't be written in English if it did say Cain, would it now?” she asked. Pepper tucked her head to the side in response as they looked on the stone. The professor and Aunt Chelsea joined them. “You're right, China,” said the professor. “It does read somethin' there.” He knelt down for a better look. “Hurry then,” said Aunt Chelsea, watching the sky. The professor pulled a small notebook and pencil from his pocket and scrawled down what seemed to be the figures lined out in the red stone. “Ah, there. Close enough,” he said. “Come on, girls. Down to the library before the storm breaks.” The girls needed to hear no more, and hurried back to the stone case before the rain broke in a fury. 290


Down below, back in the safe cradle of the castle, the girls sat quietly in the cushions of the library, waiting restlessly. The rain poured in silver rivers down the grand windows as thunder cracked across the green valleys. It had been nearly an hour that the professor had been looking over several linguistics texts in the glow of a golden lamp. And to the girls, it seemed as though it had taken him much longer. The hour had only been broken by the brief intermission of Brigid waltzing through the room with a handful of sugar buns, saying that she had almost solved the riddle and that they had no business even looking any further, because the treasure was as good as hers. It was fortunate that no one spoke to her of their rooftop discovery. And she asked no questions. The afternoon was becoming tedious. They had all completely forgotten luncheon in their excitement of the red stone letters. “Ah ha!” All the girls practically jumped at this exclamation from the professor. “What? What?” they all asked excitedly, running to his seat by the desk. “What do you think?” he asked with a near ridiculous grin. “It reads Cain?” China asked hopefully. The professor had only to nod. “But in what language?” China asked as the girls practically whooped with triumph. “An old Norse language, actually,” he replied, holding his spectacles back over his eyes. “One I've not seen in... well, I had to piece it from several texts. It's very ancient. Nothin' I've seen quite like it. But it does read 'Cain', 291


though I can't think why.” “And we can't do a thing about it until this storm has passed,” said Judith in disappointment. “We'll look over the other riddles, then,” said Pepper. “We've hardly solved anythin' yet. The treasure could be anywhere.” “And anythin',” said China. As the girls sat together, looking over the riddles in China's hand, Aunt Chelsea sat back and watched in calm amusement. And the professor looked kindly on Chelsea, a different sort of look than from before, a look that even China failed to notice.

The rain lasted well into the night. There was nothing

else to be done but to sit in the library and read over the riddles until all of their heads had been pondered to witlessness. “If 'Cain' is what it says,” China had said, “then surely the roof is the correct place. But what of all this of red and dew, and green and blue?” “No color up there but the dead plants, and that is hardly red or blue,” said Judith. “Except, of course, in spring,” said Bretta helpfully. “Yes...” Pepper replied. “True, true. But how are we supposed to know if any of them are red or blue or green? We haven't any idea what sort of plants they are.” “Ah, but I might,” said the professor. “You would?” “I've dabbled in horticulture, you know. I might have a gander at them when the rain's let up. Though as to colors... who can tell for certain.” 292


“And what good would knowin' what colors they are anyway?” Judith sighed. “Even if they were all greens and blues and reds in the spring... what would that tell us?” No one seemed to have an answer to that question. The rain gashed across the countryside all through dinner, with the sizzling cracks of lightening lacing the lawn and the lake behind the castle. The fury of the weather seemed to well-match the mood of Miss Cobbage, who spent most of the meal sourly picking at her plate of caramelized hams and roasted sweet potatoes, complaining about this and that. “We shall never solve these impossible riddles!” she exclaimed. “Why could not things be spelled out more exactly, instead of in nursery rhymes?” Even the professor did not try to humor her during this round. Apparently, he had not found it necessary to tell Miss Cobbage of their progress. He only sent a wink across the table to China, he winked right back. Unless he's keeping it all as a marvelous surprise for her... China thought suspiciously to herself. But she pushed the thought from her mind. It wouldn't do to divide forces when closing in on, what they all hoped, truly was a great treasure. The girls were finally relieved when, an hour after dinner had expired, the last of the lightening also seemed to have left the surrounding countryside. They could no longer sit still as they walked back and forth across the room, trying to politely listen to Mrs. Blath and Mrs. Kelly discuss various news of the village while Mr. Blath read an unmarked book, and Miss Cobbage yawned away the minutes. Brigid sat with a silver plate of truffles, practically stuffing one after another into her pouting mouth. Pouting, because she had not yet unearthed the great treasure. 293


Aunt Chelsea could see the enthusiasm of all the girls, knowing that they could not ask permission to leave without exciting the suspicions of their rivals. Finally, Chelsea gracefully rose from her seat. “I think that we shall now retire for the evenin',” she said quietly, with a nod to the room. Mr. Blath and the professor quickly rose and waited until she had left the room, followed by an excessive trail of young ladies, until they were seated again. China could only hope that the professor might find excuse to join them shortly after. Chelsea had a twinkle in her eye as she escorted her nieces and their friends back down the great hall, as silently as possible. The girls were doing everything in their power to not shout out their enthusiasm to reach the roof once again. “Careful, now,” Aunt Chelsea said to them. There was caution in her voice, but she didn't say another word until they had reached the door to the roof. “Listen to me,” she said, then, gathering them 'round her. Five pairs of attentive eyes turned to her. “I want not one of you to walk anywhere but down that exact center of the line there up top,” she said. “Do you understand me?” They all nodded, and promised that they would do so. “Ah, there!” they heard a voice from behind them. It was the professor, bounding toward them in eagerness. “Let's get to those dead plants and find out their origins, shall we?” Nothing more needed to be said. With a great heave of the old door, and a blast of cold wind, the girls were up the staircase to the top. 294


It was a fortunate thing that Chelsea had thought to bring a lamp inside a sheltered hurricane glass. For though the wind and rain had died to nearly nothing, the rooftop was not blanched by the moon that night. Only the cold stars sparkled at them from the abyss above. “Red and dew fill east and west...” China spoke softly, as she followed Pepper to the planters. “Resting, there, 'twixt blue and green...” Pepper finished for her. China found herself humming randomly to herself as she followed the bob of the lamp as Chelsea neared the stone planters, crossing near to the words in red stone. “So, professor,” said Judith, “do you think you could be tellin' us what sorts of plants they be?” The professor adjusted his spectacles in the low lamp glow. He plucked a dried leaf from the first planter, curled tight against the autumn winds. “Ah,” he said. “I know that one, yes. Not by any name you'd know. But I can say, for a certainty, that it won't bloom in any color but red.” “Red!” China breathed earnestly. “Are there any other plants, professor?” Emerald asked, unconventionally excited. “Well, now,” said the professor, “the riddle said somethin' of red and dew. Dew, of course, on any plant out of doors, which we have. The red we have, yes. And... what did it say of blue and green... east, west...” “'Twixt blue and green,” said China. “So what we might just be lookin' for,” he continued, “could be found between...” His eyes scanned the withered leaves. “Ah!” he exclaimed, tearing a small leaf from the roots of two little plants. “Two of them, there, see?” he asked, 295


pointing to the two plants. “These are muscari comosum!” The girls waited for an explanation. “Oh, sorry,” he said hurriedly. “Grape hyacinth. Only bloom in blue, girls! And there appears to be only two of them!” He finished with a wide grin. “Then,” China almost whispered, stepping forward. “'Twixt... it might be that our answer lies in this plant here.” Her small white hand went to the tiny plant settled between the two grape hyacinth. It was set, as the others, in a small stone pot, grouped with the plants in the stone trencher. Could it be old enough? she thought, as her hand went forward. The stone was well worn. Perhaps... She lifted the stone pot and turned it over...

296


Chapter 26

And Answers

An hour later, everyone was gathered in the great room,

waiting for the arrival of their cryptic hostess. Word had been sent to her immediately after the discovery on the rooftop. Suddenly, the quiet castle was scurrying with more servants than China knew had been there in the first place. Lamps were lit. The kitchen was reopened where sweetmeats and drinks were prepared. It was almost as if, with China's turning over of the stone pot, the little world of Hughcrosh Castle had been turned upside down. “Where is it?” Brigid had demanded immediately, nearly pouncing on China as she had entered the room. “Here, in my hand,” said China comfortably, taking a seat near the hearth. 297


Brigid's eyes widened at China's white hand clasped around some unknown object. “You didn't find a thing,” Brigid told her nastily, sitting across from her on a velvet lounge, “I don't believe it. You just found some old thing and think it's somethin' valuable.” China only smiled, which irritated Brigid all the more. Mrs. Kelly seemed rather incensed that her daughter was not the one to have found the great treasure, the purpose for their several days at the castle. Mrs. Blath was cheery as always. Mr. Kelly was reading from yet another book, and the rest of them waited with highest anticipation and ridiculous smiles. Except for Miss Cobbage. Her colors had changed from sour to exhilarated with China's announcement of her discovery. “Darling child!” she cried. “Do let me see what you have found? Is it gold, or a valuable banknote?” China only shook her head. “No, it is not gold or a banknote, Miss Cobbage. I think that you will be surprised when I show you.” Miss Cobbage pretended to pout and took her seat next to the professor, coddling close to him and asking many questions. A gong sounded outside of the room. “Ahem!” They all turned and rose as Herbert suddenly entered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a gravely voice, “I give you... Lady Hughcrosh.” There was an audible gasp of breath at the reemerging of their hostess. She swept in gracefully, as she had the first evening, robed in dark blue and silver, and wearing the same charming smile on her aged face. China thought that 298


she was very beautiful as she made her way to a wellcushioned seat by the hearth. “My wonderful guests,” she said, indicating for them to be seated. “How happy I am to join you again this evening on the remark of such fascinating news that I hear.” She turned toward China. “Tell me, child, you are the one who found this treasure you hold in your hand?” “Yes, madam.” “Shall you tell us all how you came to find it?” China cleared her throat softly. “Well, it certainly wasn't myself alone who found it, Lady Líadan. My cousins, and Judith and Bretta, Aunt Chelsea, and the professor... we all pieced it together.” And she explained in brief detail the occurrences of the past two days, the riddles, and what led them to the stone pots. “And what makes you think that what you hold in your hand is the treasure?” Lady Líadan then asked her, kindly. “Well, madam, the last riddle reads,” and China closed her eyes to remember it correctly, 'The disc is round, it holds together lord and lady, land and peasant.' And though I cannot say that I know what it is, exactly, it seemed to fit the description. Set just inside the pot, under a false stone bottom. It was wedged inside quite well. We had to nearly pry it loose.” “Let us see it then,” said Lady Líadan. China rose from her seat and walked over to Lady Líadan, pressing the object into her hand, retaking her seat. “Ah,” said the fair lady, opening her palm for all to see. She held the piece upward to the light. The cackling fire of the hearth behind her illumined the opaque circle which she held between her fingers, intricately carved with a small 299


scene of what appeared to be a nobleman in flowing robes, crowned with laurel, and attended to by servants, over which he surveyed a gardened land. “A piece more valuable, perhaps, than a country,” said the lady softly. “'holds together lord and lady, land and peasant.' My that it did. The owner of this piece did such and mighty more than that.” “What!” Brigid cried, hurrying toward it. “That is it! That is all? A button! That is the treasure? A button!” Lady Líadan did not acknowledge this outburst, but only continued. “A button worn by a man more tyrannical, more powerful, more wealthy, than we could probably ever know. This piece you see was once adhered to the robe of Caesar.” A sort of stunned silence passed over the group. China was vaguely aware that many of the servants had slipped into the room, waiting to hear more. “This one small object has been hidden for hundreds of years. Many hundreds of years,” Lady Líadan continued. “It was passed from Caesar to servant, for an heroic deed, to generation to generation upon generation. Always kept safe, and away. Hidden in the 1300's, so it was said, when Cain Hughcrosh, the builder of this castle, saw that Viking warriors were returning for plunder. Undoubtedly he saw the roof as being the safest resting place for this ancient button. And as to why he wrote the piece of map in Norse, and where he kept it, or how it washed upon the shore... or even how the flowers could have stayed the same in those pots for so very long...,” but there was another twinkle in Lady Líadan's eye at this last thing said, “mysteries they shall remain. But whatever the answers, the value of this piece is inconceivable. And it shall be now restored to the museum in Dublin, where it shall stay.” 300


At this announcement, Miss Cobbage practically leapt from her seat. “But it's ours! It's rightfully ours! You can't give it away!” she cried. Realizing her tremendous error, drawn out of indignation, Miss Cobbage sank back into her chair, attempting to recompose herself. But Lady Líadan's violet eyes shot to her as she folded the button in her hand. “Miss Christine Cobbage,” she began. “I find it most interesting that you would appeal to this small object as being 'ours'. And by 'ours', you surely mean, yours and the professor's.” China noticed the look of surprise behind the professor's eyes. “It came to my attention early on, before this party was organized, that you were reportedly engaged to the professor.” Scarlet flooded the cheeks of Miss Cobbage, who, China noticed, was once again wearing gloves upon her dainty hands. The professor gulped. “Legend of a great diamond ring reached my ears as far away as Sicily.” Miss Cobbage was looking down at the floor. “But, madam,” the professor said quietly, “there was no ring. Not as yet. We are not,” he stammered, obviously embarrassed, “we are not engaged.” “Sure enough you are not,” Mr. Kelly said in his growling voice, his finger marking the last-read page in his book. “I saw you wearin' that ring today when you thought no one was lookin'. The trinket was Brigid's. That diamond ring was only paste, costume jewelry I brought it back from 301


London for Brigid last year. And for that, young woman,” he said, almost glaring at Miss Cobbage, “you deserve a scoldin'. You should be ashamed of yourself for passin' it off as an engagement ring and getting' the whole town a talkin'. Although I doubt,” and at this, he turned his glare to his unruly daughter, “that she was entirely alone in this prank.” As the voices of Mrs. Kelly, Miss Cobbage, and Brigid all rose in angry protests at this revelation, the surge of surprise and excitement that overcame China almost engulfed every other matter being discussed. She turned to Aunt Chelsea, who, for a very rare moment, appeared to be shining behind her eyes as she took in the spectacle before her. “Enough!” Lady Líadan commanded. “What makes me quite interested, Miss Cobbage, is why you should think that marrying the professor would entitle you to this trinket. Would you care to enlighten us?” Miss Cobbage was silent. “Very well. Then I will do so. It came to my attention several months ago from an old friend at the university in London, that I should be expecting a visitor to my old fair village of Aban's Wick. This visitor,” Lady Líadan laid a keen eye on Miss Cobbage, “was most interested in a rumored treasure. She had first heard of this rumored treasure through her uncle, who just happened to be my old friend at the university in London. 'Lady Líadan,' he had written to me, 'I would be advised, upon the mistake of my mentioning this supposed 'treasure map' to my niece, that you should take caution of her soon appearance in your home village of Aban's Wick.' This was enough for me to leave my current residence in Sicily and return to this grand hall, unused in so many years. How did your uncle know of this 'treasure map', Miss Cobbage? It seems that last year, a 302


package was sent to him from a young girl of the name of Emerald Shoals.” Emerald caught her breath. The map! “In that package was a scrap of, what appeared to be a sort of seal skin, which Miss Shoals had discovered on the beach not very far down from my own shore past the castle grounds. You wonder from where these riddles came after so many hundreds of years. They were there, written in such an ancient Norse language on that scrap. But that was not all...” Lady Líadan paused to take a sip of the blackberry wine in a small silver goblet sitting next to her. China thought she might die for excitement at these revelations. “I called each of you here for a purpose,” she continued. “While I was 'hiding away' these past two days, I was much more in observance than you might have thought. Knowing full-well that you were all much more likely to behave as yourselves without my presence, I drew on the help of my dear old friend, Mrs. Blath, and my faithful butler, Herbert to be my, spies, as it were.” “Herbert!” Miss Cobbage practically shouted his name. “You! You pretended to be my confidant. I was going to share a portion of the treasure with you in exchange for your smoothing over the matter of my marriage to the professor!” She clapped a hand over her mouth at these further confessions. “Oh? Because I couldn't have the professor marry a Londoner?” Lady Líadan asked, eyes twinkling. So that had been the voice speaking with Miss Cobbage the other afternoon, China thought with nearly a giggle. It was Herbert! 303


“Lady Líadan,” the professor began, “I must confess that I am utterly confused.” “Not for long, professor,” she replied kindly. “Mrs. Blath and Herbert easily revealed to me that Miss Cobbage was, as I had been warned by her uncle, clearly intending to harbor the Hughcrosh fortune and name for herself. This was made painfully evident as soon as I had taken leave from our first dinner together two evenings ago.” Mrs. Blath blushed at her role, but Lady Líadan reached over to pat her hand kindly. “She has always been a pillar of fortitude,” she said encouragingly, “and she did marvelously. And as for the rest of you... I invited the lovely Miss Shoals and her nieces here for their part in bringing about everything. For without this piece of map, and, as I understand from Mr. Kelly, the clever recapture of it from the hands of his less virtuous daughter,” Lady Líadan gave another meaning look to Brigid, “we would not be here today. So as for the Kelly family... did you not find it odd, Mrs. Kelly, that you were invited here? You know of no one from your past connected to the Hughcrosh name?” Mrs. Kelly shook her head, clearly embarrassed at the revelation of her daughter's sins. “Ah, but Mr. Kelly, I think that if you will think back very carefully, the name of Hughcrosh has a familiar sound to it.” Mr. Kelly's book had been set aside. “I confess it has some vague meaning, far back, perhaps, in childhood. But I cannot say that it is of any consequence to me, Lady Líadan.” “An honest answer. For you would have been far too young to remember. Your grandmother was my cousin, Mr. Kelly. The connection, I fear, had been lost so many years ago, that it wasn't until I heard from my friend at the 304


university and saw the letter of explanation regarding the map, that I remembered from all those years ago. You were but a small boy when I had last seen you.” Lady Líadan once again caught the professor's bewildered eyes as the Kelly family remained somewhat speechless over this piece of news. “That leaves the question of you, Professor David Blacks. Did you find it odd that you knew things about this place? Things that you might not have noticed were it not for others pointing them out to you? You knew your way around the gardens without a thought. I could see that easily from my windows. And as intricate as they are, you knew them precisely, never hesitating before a hedge. And the way to the roof. You found it. You knew exactly where to look. Yes, professor, my spies are thick.” She laughed. “You have been here before.” A light snapped on somewhere for the professor. He sat forward. “Yes, yes!” he said rather loudly, annoying the already distraught Miss Cobbage. “I have! How could I have forgotten? So many years ago. I must have been...” “Three years old. Yes, professor. It seems odd that I could have lost track of not only Mr. Kelly's relation to my family, but also of my late husband's great nephew.” “Great nephew!” “Yes, I fear that it is entirely my fault. Upon the death of my husband, I retired to Sicily. But by this time, you were a young man and living in London. It had been years since I had seen you here, and that only several times. So in the transition of departing the country, old family ties were put aside. Grief has a strange way of making things, and people, seem to disappear.” 305


A strange gray remembrance crossed over Lady Líadan's face, and left as almost as soon as it had come. “Miss Cobbage undoubtedly heard of this connection from her uncle, who, upon speaking of myself to Miss Cobbage, recalled that she had once been involved with the professor several years ago. Your uncle, Miss Cobbage, has a good mind for remembering family connections. You did find it a surprise, I gather, professor, when she returned unexpectedly to you last fall, as if a ghost. Was he not good enough for you the first time, Miss Cobbage?” The professor was on his feet. “Lady Líadan!” he cried. “I don't even know what is to be said. You are my great-aunt?” “I am,” she said happily. “And what a joy to have family again. I am only so sorry that it has taken so long for us to be reunited.” “There is nothin' to forgive, Lady Líadan,” the professor said eagerly, hurrying over to take the extended hand of his great aunt. “But tell us please, did you know the location of the treasure before we came? You are undoubtedly clever enough to have done so.” Lady Líadan only smiled at him. “Let it only be said that I've always an interest in a game, professor, and an interest in who is clever enough to win it.” “My dear professor,” said Miss Cobbage then, coming over to him and taking hold of his arm. “How sweet all of this is. How all the more beautiful if we were to be married and Lady Líadan would then have a great-niece.” The room held its breath as the professor graciously turned to her. “Miss Cobbage,” he said, as kindly as possible. “For inadvertently restoring me to my great-aunt, through your unintentional bringing attention to my name, I thank you. 306


But there can be no wedding for us here. Not now. Not ever.� With this, Miss Cobbage flounced from the room with the greatest of huffs and could be heard clunking angrily up to her room to retrieve her belongings before leaving, forever, the domain of Aban's Wick.

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Chapter 27

Evening Walks

It was one week later that Chelsea and her girls were

gathered 'round the dinner table on a soft gray evening. Judith and Bretta had been invited to stay the night, as the following day was Saturday, and they would all walk back to the village for an autumn dance. Everything had changed for the Kellys and Professor Blacks after the exciting few days at Hughcrosh Castle. The whole village, and well beyond it, was still buzzing with the aftermath. Likely they would never stop talking about it. The illustrious Lady LĂ­adan had graciously extended her thanks to all of the Shoals girls. They found her to be one of the nicest and most generous ladies they had ever met. Not only did she promise them that they should return at any time to Hughcrosh Castle, and praise them for what they 309


had done to restore the long-lost treasure of the Hughcrosh family, but she also lavished upon them baskets of sugared fruits and dainties before they had left the castle. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly took their fuming young charge back home the following morning, bewailing the loss of Miss Cobbage back to London, without the professor, and without the assurance of Brigid having been her well-attired bridesmaid. They did leave, however, with the assurance of being asked within the fortnight for dinner, now being part of Lady Líadan's family once again. The unfortunate Miss Cobbage left with even poorer decorum. It was found out, through further explanation over the next days, that Christine Cobbage had never originally suffered from a sort of amnesia after the ship sinking in the Mediterranean. She had, rather, found another more eligible young man, far more wealthy than the professor, and had made up her mind to marry him, until he announced his engagement to another lady. And more than a mere addition of great wealth was on Miss Cobbage's mind when she first came to Abán's Wick. As her uncle had written in a letter to Lady Líadan... “She has said that she must be the wife of a lord. And as there has not seemed to be any sort of lord available recently at court, she made herself determined to be an Irish lady, if nothing else.” But Miss Cobbage couldn't have everythin', as Pepper put it, and so she had returned to find herself another lord in another country. And then there was the professor. Who could have been more surprised than he. He, who thought himself very much alone in the world. “Your home will always be here, David,” Lady Líadan had said kindly to him. “I intend to live out the last of my 310


days here. And when I return permanently in six month's time, I would be honored if you would also consider permanently calling this your residence.” She had initially offered for him to remove himself immediately to the castle and take up residence there. However, the professor most kindly and gently explained to her that he must continue teaching his class until there was someone to fill his position. Lady Líadan had smiled at this. “Noble you are,” she said. “And I knew that you wouldn't be leaving yet. But one day, when teaching does not hold the same pull on you.” The professor had left the castle as Chelsea and the girls were departing. China could see that there was something of awe in his face, at everything that had transpired. But there was also a twinge of sadness there. “He must have liked her very much,” said Emerald quietly, as their carriage drew away. Even Pepper couldn't gloat over Miss Cobbage's abrupt departure. Surely it was a good thing that she had been found out before the professor might have married her. But they didn't like to see him saddened. “If only he had met Aunt Chelsea first,” China had whispered. But they said nothing of this to Chelsea. It wouldn't do. If the professor had no intention of speaking to her about it, then they would not either. So it was on that cool gray evening in late November that a sudden knock was heard upon the door. The girls were so involved in conversation of recent happenings, including the upcoming dance, that they hardly noticed it. Pepper jumped for it. “Good evenin', Pepper,” came the voice at the door. 311


The conversation ceased as the professor was admitted by a grinning Pepper into the room. They rose to greet their guest, perhaps more ceremoniously than was necessary at their rather overwhelming sense of surprise. No one moved. The professor removed his hat, shuffling it 'round in his gloved hands. “Ladies,” he said politely. “I apologize for disturbin' your meal.” “Never mind that,” said Aunt Chelsea quickly. “You're welcome here at any time.” The professor nodded at this and smiled nervously. He cleared his throat shyly. “I've come, actually, to ask if you might be interested in a walk, Miss Shoals.” No one moved. This time from a bit of a dose of shock. “It's... it's, quite nice out, really,” he said, looking backward out the sitting room window to the cooling gray dusk. “But, of course, if you'd rather finish your meal, I can come another time.” But Chelsea was smiling then. “No, professor,” she said kindly. “I should be happy to accompany you on a walk. Girls, will you wait here and finish?” “Yes, Aunt Chelsea,” they all seemed to reply at once, returning to their seats. And with no further words, Chelsea had slipped her shawl 'round her shoulders and was gone into the mist, walking by the side of the professor. No one said anything for a time. Their noses were all pressed up against the glass. 312


“Who'd have thought,” Pepper whispered. “After all that. Do you think he'll be askin' her to marry him?” “Oh, no, Pepper,” said China. “It's too soon, I'm thinkin'.” “But could be he does,” said Judith hopefully. “He looked quite smitten, he did,” Bretta added. “I think he must love her,” said Emerald. And that seemed to settle it all as the ring of young girls sat excitedly waiting 'round their bowls of untouched meat stew for the return of a very happy Chelsea Shoals and her soon-to-be husband, David Blacks.

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Abán's Wick  

Village in 1800's Ireland.

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