Authors: Taylor Caldwell
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Alice sounded faintly troubled. She hesitated. “Does he like the dog, Mark?”
“Crazy about him. I tell you, Allie, I was surprised myself, for you know the kid’s always had the world centered about him alone. Now he’ll begin to get a broader view of life, through the dog.”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Alice repeated. He could hear her draw a profound breath. “You’re leaving the day after tomorrow for the cabin, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” He could see her face clearly, so clean, so womanly, so gently stern and without guile. He could see the dark blue eyes, so bright with intellect and understanding, and the abundant flaxen hair and the straight shoulders. The vision was so sharp to him that he felt he could reach out and touch the girl.
“Allie,” he said suddenly. “Why don’t you come with us this year? You haven’t been out to the cabin for three years. And you used to like it.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” she cried, as if in distress.
“I—well, I really promised someone—I thought I’d go to Boston for a week or two. Mark, will you tell Kathy I called, if she’s busy now?”
“Allie,” he said, and did not know how his voice sounded, so urgent and almost desperate. “Come with us, Allie. Kathy’s always complaining that you never accept her invitations. And it’s cool out there. Remember how you and I always took long walks in the morning? Allie? Will you come?”
Alice was silent. Something had been said, something had changed, something would never be the same again The quiet line hummed between them. Mark could not see, but there were tears in Alice’s eyes, and she was very white, and trembling. She had heard with her inner ear, and she had heard Mark’s desperation, and she was afraid. What was wrong?
“I’ll tell you,” she said at last, speaking with an effort. “It’s only ten, fifteen miles from where I live. I’ll come out next weekend, Mark. For a couple of days. Will that be all right?”
“Yes,” he said, “it will be all right.”
He stood up. He was no longer weary or without hope. He resumed his packing, and sang under his breath, then began to whistle. When he heard his son shout and the little dog bark, and then Kathy’s laughter, he smiled. He drank the rest of his drink. He had been heavily depressed, and now the depression was gone. A man without complexities, he did not question why. When Kathy came up to the room he kissed her.
“It’s really going to be a squeeze,” Kathy complained at the cabin. “There are only three bedrooms, one for us, one for Angel, and one for Mamie. When Alicia stopped coming to the cabin, and showed no more interest in it, I sold the studio couch in the living room. Now, what’ll we do? We can’t have anything delivered away out here on such short notice.”
“I’ll sleep on the sofa,” said Mark. “You and Allie can have our bedroom. After all, it’s only for two nights. I thought you’d be glad to have her come.”
“Oh, I am,” said Kathy crossly. “After all, she’s my only sister. But it does make things inconvenient, and Mamie’s been sulking since we came. No movies, no TV, no neighboring maids to gossip with, no shop windows to look in, no bingo, no soda fountains, no cronies. And so the extra work might be too much for her, and what will we do then?”
“It’s only two nights,” repeated Mark, frowning. “And Mamie likes Allie.”
“How can you say that? She’s only seen her a couple of times. Did you ask Mamie about all that devotion?”
Mark’s mouth tightened, and he stared at Kathy. “Allie never makes extra work or trouble for anybody. If I remember right, she used to help you when she came here. And she’s young—”
“And I’m old!” flared Kathy.
“Kathy. Don’t be silly. Besides, I don’t think Mamie is sulking because she misses going into the City twice a week. You’ve been burdening her too much. It isn’t necessary for Bruce to change all his clothing twice a day out here. We’re lucky we have someone like Mamie who doesn’t object to doing the washing for us between the times I carry the laundry down to the village. But don’t put too much on her. Let Bruce get a little dirty every day, and stay that way.”
“Germs!” said Kathy. “Don’t you know this is the worst season? You have to be extra careful with The Children in the summer; everything must be absolutely sanitary. You know that. All right, I won’t fuss any longer. You can sleep on that short sofa if you’re so anxious to have Alicia here.”
They looked at each other. Mark had colored darkly, and seeing this Kathy was startled. Mark said. “Don’t be a fool. She’s your sister, not mine. If there’s going to be any more talk about this simply call her un and tell her it will be inconvenient. I’m not ‘anxious.’ But you should be. It’s damned hot in the City, and she can’t afford much in the way of a holiday.”
He went out of the luxurious cabin, and looked about the neat grounds for his son. His head was suddenly pounding, and he blinked in the sunlight. The flowers glowed on the lawns; the hollyhocks near the edges of the clearing were like pink and white flames. The woods beyond loomed in thick, dark greenness. But Angelo and the little dog were nowhere in sight.
Vaguely anxious, Mark called and whistled. There was no answer except the sound of the summer wind in the trees, and the rustle of startled wings. Mark looked up into the trees, and was pleased that there were birds there again. But it was strange how they disappeared shortly after the family arrived. Then Mark trotted to the end of the lawns and to the bluff, with its high split-log fencing. He could not keep himself from fearfully looking down the side of the steep bluff with its fanged rocks and thorny brush far below. Then he laughed aloud. If there was one place the careful Bruce would never go, it was to this fence and this dangerous place. Mark stood and lighted a cigarette and looked to the far hills, which were green and gold in the hot light. There was no fishing here, no opportunity to golf, except twelve miles away beyond the village. But it was full of peace and deep forest quiet. Mark sat on the top of the fence and smoked. He felt languid and content as the sun beat down on his bare throat and arms and head. His dark skin was already several shades darker, though he had been here only three days. Here he could read all the books he had neglected during the winter months; here he could think and walk. He liked the village for all its dust and heat, and often drove down to it. He had a few friends there among the shopkeepers, and a friend or two among other refugees from the City who had homes nearby. They had children, these summer visitors, but for some reason Bruce was not invited to the other homes, nor did children come to see him.
He’s a solitary kid, Mark thought now without his usual uneasiness. But perhaps that is because he is extremely intelligent, and the other kids bore him, and they don’t understand him. I wonder what he’ll be? With his mind it’s possible he’ll be a writer or a better engineer than I am, or an artist or a scientist. Excellent minds are at a premium these days, and I wonder why. Is it the fault of the schools, or mass education which must cater to the mediocre norm, or are parents more stupid than were our parents? Or, are the inferior and the weak, who used to die before they reached adulthood, now living because of antibiotics which save their lives? I don’t know, but I do know I encounter more fools in a week among the younger fellows than I used to encounter in a year.
He thought of the Mendelian laws of inheritance of mental and physical characteristics, and he frowned. All these half-wits! They survived and bred their kind. His father had been a sensible man. “Water never rises higher than its source, Mark,” he had said. “Fools breed fools. All the education in the world won’t make a clever man out of a congenital idiot, and that’s something the educators will have to learn. Nature stubbornly refuses to be democratic, and create all children equally endowed with intelligence and character, and the sentimentalists can talk themselves blue in the face about environment, and nature will go on denying them. Why, some of our greatest men came from broken homes and slums and the most hellish poverty, and some of our worst criminals have come from what the jargonists call superior environment. What’s bred in the bone is born in the flesh.”
Mark stirred uneasily on the fence, and swung his legs. Bruce had been born of intelligent parents; Kathy might be a sentimental fool at times, but she never fooled herself that she was intrinsically sincere and meant what she said. She knew she was a hypocrite, and it took intelligence to understand that. But, in her own way she was a good woman. He, Mark, did not love her, and sometimes could not endure her, but he had to admit that she possessed many good qualities. It was unfortunate that she had not had more children; her mind would have been diverted from her son, to his own benefit and hers. And to mine, too, thought Mark, with a quick falling of his spirits.
He stood up and whistled and called for his son again. And there he was, strolling across the lawns toward the house, and smiling that secret smile of his. The little dog was not with him. He had something sharp like an animal’s awareness, and he swung about and looked at his father across the grass, then came running. But he stopped a considerable distance from the bluff, and Mark went to him, smiling. What a good-looking kid he was! Mark’s heart softened.
“Where’ve you been, son?” he asked. Angelo looked up at him with his wide and innocent gaze. His red underlip trembled. “Why, I’ve been looking for Petti. He ran into the woods, Daddy, and I followed him, and I can’t find him.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mark, taking his hand. “Dogs like to run and snuff in the woods. He’s probably chasing a rabbit. Spaniels are hunters, you know. They were bred for hunting; they can sometimes hunt better than beagles, and Petti’s a purebred dog. Let’s go find him. How long has he been gone?”
“Oh, a long time,” said Angelo vaguely. “Right after lunch.”
“But that was three hours ago,” said Mark. “Haven’t you seen him since?”
“No, Daddy.” The hazel eyes wavered, then filled with tears.
“Never mind,” said Mark uncomfortably. Angelo might be nearly seven, but he looked almost ten, because of his height and general muscular build. “Let’s go into the woods and call him.”
“I think I’m tired,” said Angelo, pulling his hand away.
“I think I’ll get some milk and a sandwich. It’s time for my snack.”
“You drink too much milk,” said Mark, annoyed. “Your mother says it’s good for you, but I don’t know. Now look here, son. Petti is your charge; he’s your responsibility. Nothing in the woods can hurt him, but he might run far down to the road where he could be hit by a car, or get lost. I wish you wouldn’t say ‘snack.’ I’m prejudiced about that. I hate the word.”
Angelo smiled suddenly. “Why?”
“I don’t know. It just sounds girlish, I suppose. Now come along; we’ve got to find that dog.”
“You dislike a lot of words,” said Angelo. “Such as cozy and homey and comfy. They’re Mum’s favorites. And you hate to hear Mum’s friends talk about complexes and inferiority feelings, and what you call jargon.” His eyes were sly and sparkling.
Mark smiled in return. He rumpled the dark-red curls, and Angelo, as usual, was suddenly still and unsmiling at the caress. “You’re a bright kid,” said Mark. “You’ve got a better vocabulary than kids twice your age. But you’re not going to put me off the track. We’re going to find Petti. Aren’t you worried about him at all?”
“Sure,” said Angelo. “But I’ve looked since after lunch. Everywhere. He’ll come back when he’s ready. He’s bright, too.”
He put his hands behind his back and looked up at his father. “I really am tired, Daddy,” he said soberly. “Why don’t you look for Petti yourself?”
“All right,” said Mark. “But after this don’t be so careless.”
He went toward the woods, whistling to the dog, and calling, and searching. He was a little disappointed that Angelo showed no anxiety for his pet. Mark stopped in the shade of the first trees. Of course, the little puppy had been with the family only a few days. You could not expect a boy to develop a sudden overwhelming passion for a pet in that short space of time. Love had its slow growth and maturing. But now Mark remembered that Petti himself was showing no signs of loving what Kathy called his little master.” Kathy did not like the dog; she complained over his muddy paws and his long hair. She was forever following him about with a damp cloth, and becoming angry over puppyish accidents. Mamie loved the small creature, and he was to be found more in the kitchen at her heels than anywhere else. Too, when Mark sat down the dog would run to him to be picked up and sheltered in strong arms.
Mark frowned. Yet, he recalled, his son would pick up the dog forcibly and carry him outside to play with him. Sometimes Petti would yelp as if in pain, and when Mark stepped out the dog would race to him, trembling. “You play too roughly with him,” Mark would warn his son. “Remember, he’s still only a baby.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Angelo would reply seriously. “I’m sorry. I was just wrestling with him.” One day, and it was only yesterday, Angelo showed his father the marks of infant teeth on his arm. The flesh had not been broken, but Kathy had become quite hysterical, and had rushed for hot water and soap and iodine and had raved about hydrophobia. Mark had winked at Angelo, and the boy had only stood there, being ministered to, and not returning the wink. “You’ve just got to train him,” Mark had said, and Angelo had nodded.
Mark, in the shade of the woods, lit another cigarette, and carefully ground the match into the damp earth. He listened to the voices of the trees, the shy animal rustlings, the dry scuttlings. Otherwise, it was very still. Mark called quietly to the dog; he walked all through the woods, snapping his fingers and whistling. But no small bark answered him. No small feet rushed toward him. Mark went down to the country road and looked over it. Tree-patterns lay on the warm dust, but there was no sign of life anywhere. Mark crossed the road and climbed the low hill to his neighbor’s property. A little girl and boy were romping in the distance with a fine yellow and white collie. The dog, scenting him, burst into a series of friendly barks and ran toward him, and the children, laughing, followed.