Authors: Taylor Caldwell
He leaned toward her, and tried to smile. “I’m sorry about your accident,” he said. She danced away from him and murmured that he was very kind. “I heard how it happened,” he went on. Her eyes suddenly flew to his face, and she smiled brilliantly. “Oh. I knew it would be all right! I knew I was wrong. He—” Then she paused, as she saw Mark’s face, and her smile vanished.
“No,” said Mark, and vaguely wondered how it was possible to feel like this and not have a heart attack. “If you mean Angelo, he didn’t tell me, Miss Whythe. I could have lied to you and said he did, and then you would have told me. But I couldn’t lie to you, you see.”
Her face became shut and still, her eyes very wide. Her left hand, so small and delicate, trembled on her knee. Then she said slowly and carefully, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Saint. I can see, now, that you were told at the party about my arm, and those big, running boys who didn’t notice me in front of the rocks—after all, my coat is about the same color and it was a dull day, and I should have been more careful. And I was late; the boys weren’t expecting a teacher to jump right up in front of them that way. It—it was all my fault. And now—”
He lifted his hand, as she was about to get up. “Please wait. Miss Whythe. I’m going to be frank with you. This isn’t the first time—things—have happened. Don’t you understand? It isn’t the first time. I can’t tell you—I’m Angelo’s father, and I love him very much. He’s my son; I love him very much. I have to be certain for once. Just once! Try to understand; think if it were your child. Wouldn’t you want to know? For his sake?”
For a moment, for just a moment, her young features softened as if she were about to cry in pity and understanding, and then they became resolutely shut again, and her eyes were full of fear. “I still don’t know what you mean, Mr. Saint. If you—if you think that perhaps Angelo pushed me, or—fell—into me—perhaps he did. I don’t know. If he did, if any boy did, it was unintentional. It happened so very fast; it’s still a blur to me. I couldn’t believe it when I found myself on the rocks.”
“What are you afraid of?” he asked gently. “Angelo? If you are, then all the more reason I should know. If—he did something to you once, he’ll do it to you again.” And he contemplated what he said with a fresh new horror and his head swam.
Jane was also seeing the horror. As if it were happening now she saw the great boys racing toward her in the dim light, shouting, scuffling, diving, rolling, and she heard her loud and warning shout, and automatically, only sensing rather than actually seeing her, they had swerved aside instinctively. Except for one boy running swiftly and silently on the edge of a group, slightly apart from them, yet with them. She saw his face, immensely enlarged in her sudden knowledge of him and her fright, and then, as she began to lift her slight arm to protect herself she saw his eyes, brilliant as a tiger’s eyes, and as appalling, so close to hers, and then his shoulder had struck the rising arm and she was in the air, and then on the stones, breathless and crushed, and she heard and felt the snapping of her arm. None of the boys had seen what had happened, and who had done it, so intent were they on their excited and tumultuous play, and they were far from her before she had the breath and the full consciousness to scream.
Mark was watching her; he saw the dilating and the darkening of her eyes, the way her lower lip was clenched between her teeth.
“It could happen again,” he repeated. “To you. To others.”
Jane saw the tiger’s eyes once more, full upon her even in that gloom, burning with hatred and the lust to destroy, and she shook her head, dazed. She had thought of it often; for a day or two she had been convinced that the boy had realized the advantage of his being with other boys, of being a part of the tussling and roaring mob, and that he had seized that advantage. He had been lying in wait for such an opportunity, and then it was presented to him, and in the swiftness of his splendid mind he had not hesitated. In a way, she had thought, sickened, it had been sheer genius. And then, as the days went by she became less and less convinced that her accident had been intentional. A young boy, almost a little boy, in age if not in strength and height! Children simply did not do such things, unless they were sub-average in intelligence, or like mindless animals! Boys like Angelo Saint were civilized; they came from excellent families; they were loved, protected, and sheltered. They did not come from “broken homes” where savagery was a part of life and hatred a familiar emotion. Jane Whythe was very young, and very innocent. She believed that love was a blessing, that those who possessed it were gentled by it. She had taken a course in child psychology, and had had it beaten into her mind that “bad children” did not exist, only “bad parents,” and that it was slum children alone, “the underprivileged one-third of a nation,” without advantages and love and cherishing, who were capable of doing deliberate evil, and plotting evil.
She opened her soft mouth to deny, and then seeing Mark’s face again, she was silent. What had he said? “It isn’t the first time.” She studied Mark’s face; she thought of the devoted mother; she had once passed the beautiful house and had seen Angelo playing on the lawns. Oh, it wasn’t possible! This poor man was neurotic, full of complexes and boundless suspicions.
And then she unaccountably thought of Kennie Richards; she thought of the whole month of March, and them she thought of her struggles with him, her prayers for him, which had come to nothing. She thought of the Miss Knowles, the teacher in Boston, and the Dr. McDowell, who were jointly paying the boy’s fees at Miss Simmons’ school, and buying his clothing, and visiting him, and giving him the love he had never had before. And her girl’s face flamed with wrath.
Poor Kennie, poor little Kennie! He had come to the school, hopeful and bright-eyed and eager. His teachers were proud of him. He had skipped a grade, for Miss Simmons did not believe in children remaining in their “age groups,” as there lay disaster for the superior child who was so urgently needed in his country. It was only January when he had reached Jane’s class. She knew his history, his whole story. The history of every child was minutely recorded in files locked in Miss Simmons’ room, and the teachers alone had access to them in order to know their students fully, so that they would know when to help and when to withhold help, when to be stern and when to be affectionate, and what to expect at all times.
Only Jane and Kennie’s other teachers, former teachers in the school, and Miss Simmons had known that Kennie was the son of a drunken murderer, and a murdered mother. She had been exceptionally kind to him, and he had responded gratefully. She could see his gray eyes even now, aglow with intelligence, and his shy and sensitive face. The boys had liked him very much and accepted him. They had known only that he was an orphan; they vaguely believed that wealthy relatives were supporting him. He had never become as popular as the flamboyant Angelo, with his captivating smiles, his rich laughs, his air of assurance, but still he had been much liked.
It was some time before Jane realized that of all the boys only Angelo did not like Kennie. Was it because he suspected that Kennie might be a rival some day? It was impossible to know. Jane only sensed the dislike; she could not actually recall any occasion when Angelo had been offensive to Kennie. She saw with a sort of inner eye; she also saw that these two never had anything to say to each other, that they avoided each other.
One day when alone with Kennie. she had said to him, “I know it’s none of my business, Kennie. but has something happened between you and Angelo?”
Why had he colored? But he had said honestly, looking into her eves, “No, nothing, Miss Whythe. It’s just that I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me.”
“But Angelo’s such a popular boy; everyone likes him!”
Kennie still looked into her eyes. “Do you like him, Miss Whythe?”
“Why, cer—” Then Jane had paused, and blushed herself. She had not thought of it before but suddenly she realized that she was the only teacher, and perhaps the only one in the school, who did not like Angelo Saint. It had not come to her conscious mind before, for she vehemently believed that all children were much superior to adults, that they were a special race apart, to be cherished, to be protected. In fact, she almost if not quite believed that they never grew up, that they remained forever what they were: helpless, dependent, uncorrupted, clean, timelessly innocent. She was always surprised to see little children she had known grow up and become tall, often taller than she. In some way she was hurt by this, even though she knew it was ridiculous. But she always thought of them as The Children, the golden ones, the imperishable, the treasures.
She was very uncomfortable with Kennie for a few moments, for she was embarrassed with herself. But what was it about Angelo Saint that she did not like? She could not explain it, and she was ashamed. Kennie was smiling at her, a kind, adult smile, and he had actually patted her hand which was smaller than his own and said, “Never mind. It isn’t important, Miss Whythe. Maybe you wouldn’t understand. It’s just that I’ve caught on about Angelo, and he knows it.”
“What have you caught on?”
Kennie hesitated, and then shuffled his feet. “Oh, I don’t know. I just think that he’s a fake. Kind of like an actor, or something. You know, not real. Just pretending.”
“Why, for goodness sake? Why should he?”
“I don’t know, Miss Whythe. And maybe I’m wrong.”
She had looked closely at Angelo the next day, and all at once he had glanced up and met her eyes, and though he instantly smiled his charming smile his eyes became cold and watchful and full of thought. She had been uneasy with him after that, and he knew it, and she was angry at herself and a little angry with Kennie. After all, only children who had been browbeaten, ignored, “rejected,” and unwanted, learned to be deceitful for their own protection. That is what they had taught her in her child-psychology classes during her education courses, and then in adolescent psychology. But had there not been a hasty and almost unwilling exploration into the child-psychopath mind, too? It was as if her prof had been annoyed by that brief excursion, and had not believed it, and had not wanted to believe that some children are innately evil and not the “victims” of “problem” parents, inferior environment and what he obscurely called “local discriminations and social restrictions and inequities.” She had thought then, though a young girl: Why is there such an insistence these days on believing that all wrong and all wickedness and crime do not exist of themselves, but are the results of what is vaguely called “conditions?”
If anyone, she thought as she looked at Kennie’s generous face and firm, honest lips and intelligent eyes, had a right to be maladjusted, evil, twisted in nature, asocial, delinquent, cruel and uncontrollable, then Kennie was the one. But he was not. He was the living refutation of theory; he had been unloved and rejected, beaten and despised, brutally treated by both parents from almost his very birth. Yet he was gentle and strong, kind and loving, full of sympathy and understanding, responsive at once to friendship and completely responsible. It was very disconcerting.
All had gone well until a certain day. She had asked Kennie to stand up and read from the current book the class was studying, for he had an excellent and resonant voice. But as he stood up a page fell from his book, and from the little distance at which she sat Jane saw that it was scrawled over with characters written in red pencil. A neighboring boy had politely reached down and picked it up for Kennie, but his eyes had been caught by the writing, and he had looked aghast. Suddenly curious, other boys leaned from their desks and read. They said nothing. The first boy handed it to Kennie, who read it. He had suddenly paled, looked mortally sick, and fallen into his seat, speechlessly.
Jane had come at once from her seat and taken the sheet of paper. She read, as from a kind of dossier: “Kenneth Landowski (alias Richards). Son of Stanislaus Landowski and Eva Landowski, deceased. Born January 3, 1953 in the City. Stanislaus Landowski, a laborer and drunkard, and chronically unemployed, had been on welfare with his family from April 2, 1956 to June 19, 1958, and had received psychiatric treatment from Drs.—and—with no result of an encouraging nature. On June 5, 1959, he had murdered his wife Eva, and had been executed in Sing Sing on January 4, 1959. Only witness, son Kenneth, who had to be sent to a children’s nursing home for a period of one year, mind affected.” Then, in large block printing was the query: “Do we want a person of this background among us?”
Jane had thought she would faint. She heard a dim sibilant sound, and looked about her. The news was traveling from boy to boy, moving swiftly like a serpent from desk to desk. Kennie sat as if struck dead, his eyes staring emptily before him. Jane had then touched his shoulder, bent to smile into his face, then had taken the paper to her desk. She had held it up to the class, and all the boys watched her intently.
“You’ve heard about anonymous letters, written by cruel and malicious people,” she said. “This is a sample. It was meant to hurt Kennie, whom we all like and respect. Why, I don’t know. There is a wicked boy in this class. I won’t ask him to show himself; he won’t. But, as certainly as he has an immortal soul, both God and man will punish him, finally, for this unprovoked attack on Kennie. And this is what we do with anonymous letters, and if you boys ever receive them in the future, do the same.” She had opened her bag and taken out her lighter and burned the letter, and the boys had watched the flame like children hypnotized. She had then resumed the class.
But from that day on Kennie was avoided, uncomfortably. And he withdrew, with pride. It was never the same. Finally a mother or two appeared indignantly in Miss Simmons’ office, and had been dismissed, tartly. The question remained, however, how this information from Kennie’s dossier had been made available to some boy in the class. The file which contained the boys’ histories was always locked, and only Miss Simmons had the key. Jane had given it great thought. If a teacher wished to refresh her memory about a boy she had only to ask Miss Simmons for the key, and it was given her in Miss Simmons’ presence, and then returned at once. Of course, Miss Simmons herself frequently opened the file. It was a terrible mystery. Then Kennie, only a month ago, had come to both Jane and Miss Simmons and had quietly asked to be released from the school. He said he thought he would prefer public school. Arguments did nothing; the boy had a determined nature. He left.