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Authors: Taylor Caldwell

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BOOK: Wicked Angel
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Mark shrugged. “He hated the nursery school. Even after four weeks of it he still screamed madly every morning, at home, and made terrible scenes. With Kathy. And she cried all over him. Anyone would have thought they were being separated forever, with all the emotion and rage and grief, and the tearing at each other. But he settled down quietly enough in the car, when I finally got him in there, and he was all smiles alone with me. It was like shutting off a hydrant, the minute we were alone.” Mark shrugged again. “Well. He is only five, you know. But younger kids than he were in the school. And in September he’ll have to go to kindergarten. There’ll be more scenes, of course. Kathy’s already crying about it, and Bruce is already screaming at the prospect.”

“Why did you let Kathy take him out of the nursery school?” asked Alice.

Mark said, with no emphasis in his tones, “She didn’t. He was expelled. The teachers said he was incorrigible. That’s a ten-dollar word for spoiled. The teachers told me he disrupted the school, fought with the children, and—” He stopped, abruptly.

“I’m sorry,” said Alice, her heart sinking.

“Oh, it’ll be all right, one of these days. After all, Kathy can’t hold back the clock; Bruce will grow up. She says the teachers didn’t ‘understand’ Bruce, that he was just more intelligent than the other children. I think she has a point there; the kid is really exceptionally bright.”

“Yes,” said Alice, with honesty. “He really is, Mark. You remember he walked before he was eleven months old, and was talking before that. Even when he was a young baby he was unusually alert and alive, and full of charm. He could do things at six months that other children can’t do at one.”

Mark’s face cleared a little, but only a little. Alice was thinking of the years she had lived in the Saints’ house, and especially of the years after Angelo’s birth. She had been only fourteen when the boy had been born. Those four years which followed had been filled with misery, distress, anxiety and pain for Alice. When Angelo, or Bruce, had been only a year old she had detected an eerie look of malicious hatred in his beautiful eyes when he stared at her. She had not believed it, at first; she had been shocked by her lack of charity. But the look returned more and more frequently, and then was never absent when the eyes of the boy and girl met. How was it possible for a baby, and then a very young child, to feel such mature hatred for another, and why? She had always been loving and patient with him, and proud of him, and had bought him gifts, until the last year, when she had come to dislike and then to hate him. A silent and relentless war had been declared between them, to Alice’s helplessness. But Angelo, or Bruce, had hated her first. She shivered a little, remembering. Bruce was not really a child; he had never been one. To be mystical about it, he had never been a baby, either. She had encountered his kind a few times in her class, and had referred them to the visiting psychiatrist, who had declared that “the little ones” were emotionally troubled and needed “tender, loving care.”

But Alice knew that Angelo had never received anything but tender, loving care from the moment of his birth. Mark almost invariably conceded to any of Kathy’s demands; the two rarely quarreled, and then never in the presence of the child. He was surrounded by security, happiness, deference to all his whims, luxury and peace, all the things which child psychologists declared necessary for the emotional health of children. It was the absence of these, the psychologists insisted, which were the causes of emotional disorders in children. Alice recalled that the few children like Angelo, in her classes, also had superior environments at home, with parents who loved them and each other, and who strived to give those children every advantage. The “broken home” hypothesis was absurd. The best children in her classes, the kindest, the most understanding, the most considerate, were the children of widows or widowers, or divorced parents, or separated parents, or poor parents who could give their children only the barest necessities.

There was something sinister and terrible in the innate personalities of children like Angelo which the tenderhearted and well-meaning child psychologists would not admit or recognize. It would upset the dogmas of their lives, the hypotheses on which they lived and drew large salaries from the State. It would force them to acknowledge that many people were born evil, and all the efforts of the clergy, parents and teachers could not abolish that evil. Only the Church knew of these, and warned of them. No one listened.

But Alice, looking at Mark now, hoped for the best. It was possible she was exaggerating; she had always been too serious. Angelo would probably grow up to be the first in his class at college, honored and respected, the bearer of scholarships. It was just that Kathy was spoiling him now, poor, foolish Kathy!

“May I give you a lift, Allie?” asked Mark, as the girl began to gather up her books.

“No, thanks. I have my car, parked around the corner.”

Mark smiled at her, and his smile was gentle and kind, and her heart lurched with unbearable pain. “I never noticed it before,” he said. “You’re a very pretty girl, Allie. Any marriage prospects in sight? If there aren’t, the boys aren’t looking!”

Alice tried to smile gaily. “Oh, no one looks at a teacher!”

“I don’t know why. They’re just about the finest people in the world, man or woman. I often wonder how they can stand it. or why they teach.”

“It’s a long story,” said Alice, putting on her gloves. If she stayed a minute more, she thought to herself desperately, she would burst out crying. She was very “nervy” these days.

“You’ll visit us soon, then?” asked Mark, as they walked out of the store together.

“Of course,” said the girl. “Give my love to Kathy. And to—Bruce.”

She left him quickly, and he stood and watched her go down the street. The snow had stopped; the sky was clear and hard and blue and the spring sunshine washed wall and pavement with pure light. Alice walked erectly, her shoulders squared, her steps long yet graceful, her pale hair blowing in the nimble wind. She had an air of surety, of integrity, and even of loveliness, thought Mark, surprised that he had never noticed these things before. He stood there, watching until she had turned the corner. Then he felt bereft, and the sun was less bright, the atmosphere less clear. Something clean and strong and womanly had gone from his sight, something without murk or hot exigence and disorder.

Frowning, he went to his car. He looked at his watch. It was nearly five, time to go home. All at once, a huge repulsion came over him, without voice or name. He dreaded going home, dreaded his beautiful house, his polished rooms, his good dinner, his pretty wife, his handsome son, and even the fire which would be burning on the hearth.

He remembered, then, that he had felt this emotion for a considerable time, without admitting or recognizing it, and it had begun when Alice had left his house “to be independent,” as Kathy had spitefully said. Something mysterious had gone when Alice had departed. “What the hell’s wrong with me?” he said aloud, as he started his car.

CHAPTER THREE

The Saints owned a small but pleasant, even luxurious, “cabin” on a forest-covered bluff ten miles from their suburb.

The acreage about the Saint’s suburban house was expansive enough, and the secluded and exclusive area was quiet, cool and beautiful enough to be regarded as “country” by the city dwellers. But Kathy, who had been born and brought up in a tiny, five-room house in the city, on a noisy and somewhat dirty poor street, had demanded “country” for her son, and “clean, fresh air, sometimes.” So the land, some ten acres from the bluff rearwards, had been bought, at considerable cost, and the cabin built. It was not truly a cabin, but Kathy, in her coy manner, called it so. It was built of thick, authentic logs with the bark still on them, and contained a large living room, full of expensive rustic furniture and ironware, the walls whitewashed and beamed, the big fireplace of fieldstone, the wide-planked floor darkly polished and strewn with handmade hooked rugs. Fake oil lamps stood on maple tables and hung from the walls, wired for electricity. The kitchen was almost as well appointed as the one in the house in the suburbs, with the same knotty-pine walls, and a planked floor gleaming with wax. There were three large bedrooms and two baths, the former rustically furnished with tester beds, hooked rugs and lamps and chests, the latter glittering with tile and chrome. An area of about half an acre was cultivated around the cabin, with flower beds filled with old-fashioned blossoms and carefully tended great maples and oaks bending over smooth grass, but beyond this area were authentic woods, aromatic with pine, carpeted with needles and leaves of many summers, dusky and secret, cool and shadowy, sweet with trailing arbutus and violets in the spring, strongly scented with more robust wild-flowers in the summer, and painted in brilliant colors in the autumn. It was a year-round “retreat,” to quote Kathy; the Saints frequently visited the cabin in the winter, for there was a pond a short distance away where Angelo could skate, and a low hill where he could use his sled, or the skis he had recently acquired. “A man” maintained the grounds and the cabin, and lived in a nearby village. When the Saints came in the summer, for four long weeks and every weekend and holiday, the current maid came with them, for rusticity could go just so far with Kathy. Sometimes she and Angelo would remain behind when Mark had to return to the City, and spend the dreaming summer hours together in the heavenly separation from the watchful husband and father.

Mark would have preferred a place on the seashore, or where there were running streams full of fish, but Kathy was adamant. There must be no menace surrounding Angelo. Mark had pointed out to her that less than three hundred yards away was the steep and dangerous bluff, falling sharply away and down some two hundred feet to a tiny, narrow valley filled with stones and scrub. Of course, Mark had had the edge of the bluff walled off by a log fence, the apertures between the logs were not wide enough for a small body; the fence extended not only just along the edge but a considerable distance on both sides where the land leveled; and the drop was easy and could even be climbed, and filled with trees. But still Mark was uneasy. He remembered his own love of danger when he was a boy, and he had visions of Angelo climbing up on the log fence to look down at the valley and the plum-colored hills beyond which faded away into a cool mist. A false step, a stumble, and a small child could tumble down the bluff, to be killed. The second year he knew he need have no fear. Angelo was excessively careful of himself; he was not in the least reckless; he understood the danger of the bluff fully. He rarely came within twenty feet of it. In fact, when Mark once wanted to show him the view, holding him in his arms, he had screamed and struggled and wrested himself free from his father, and had run, bellowing, to his mother. Nevertheless, Mark had the fence periodically inspected and strengthened, for after a rain or a drought the edges of the bluff were soft or crumbly. And he never failed to warn Kathy, who was even more aware of the danger than himself, and who never let her son out of her sight.

Kathy gave what she called “nature studies” to Angelo, who listened avidly, as he listened to all knowledge. But, unknown to Kathy, he did not find the squirrels and the birds and the other creatures of the woods “cute,” as she did. He regarded them as weak enemies, to be chased and tormented and frightened. It gave him joy to see a small animal scuttle away at his approach, and the birds rise squawking at the sight of him. Once he had pursued a tiny lost fawn with a stick, until it had found its mother in the woods, and had hidden itself. When, in Angelo’s sixth summer, the boy had chased a young skunk with a rake, and the skunk had turned its terrible weapon on him in despair, Mark had laughed secretly and with an obscure satisfaction to himself. After that episode, which had resulted in hours of screamings, fist-flailings, vomitings, sobbings and stampings, and Kathy’s anguish and tears, and denunciations of all animals, Angelo always inspected any of his potential victims for the warning white stripes.

At six, he was a big, strong boy, seeming, at first sight, to be at least two years older than his actual age. His handsomeness had increased. He was tireless and quick; he could climb a tree like a squirrel, there to demolish a nest, break eggs or kill the fledglings he found. The birds began to desert the area, and Mark wondered why, in the early dawns, he no longer heard the sweet calls close by, and the flutter of eager wings. For Angelo was careful never to let his parents know of his cruelties.

He had not gone to kindergarten after all, after the first week of tears and rages, and the complaints of the teacher and the refusal of the children to play with him. So Kathy was keeping “her birdling” at home until the age of seven, when he would be compelled by law to go to school. “He needs other kids to play with,” Mark had protested. “All we need to do is to pound some civilized behavior and consideration into him.” But Kathy cherished what she believed was her son’s preference for her company to the exclusion of everyone else’s. “He’s so mature,” she would say. “He can’t bear the babyishness of other children, who are so dull and stupid. They bore him to death.”

In a way, this was quite true, as Mark admitted. At six, Angelo could read and write fluently, for Kathy had been an assiduous teacher and had delighted in teaching him. He could even draw and paint with astonishing skill and artistry. He was naturally athletic and supple. He looked upon the world without illusion, but also with extraordinary interest. His intellect was sparkling and sure, without the usual superficiality of young children. He was never bored, except when among his peers. His vocabulary was astonishing, and he had a charming, acute and winning way of expressing himself, which captivated Kathy’s friends and made them adore him. He passed the hors d’oeuvres at parties with such grace and politeness that adults smiled at him with blissful affection. It was only when he was alone with his parents that he expressed a fierce but cunning hysteria and uncontrollable behavior and almost wild passion. Part of this was calculated to get what he desired; part rose out of the dark places of his personality, primeval, full of self-knowledge and secret, unchildlike thoughts.

BOOK: Wicked Angel
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