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Authors: Taylor Caldwell

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BOOK: Wicked Angel
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“Hello, Sally and Bobbie,” said Mark, trying to evade the leaping dog’s kisses. “Have you seen our dog, a cocker spaniel called Petti? He’s Bruce’s dog, and he’s only a puppy.”

The children were surprised. The little blond boy said, “Has Bruce got a dog? I think I saw Bruce awhile ago, on your own land; it’s where the trees are thin. And there wasn’t any dog with him. He just stood there and looked at us.” He colored with discomfort.

His sister, seven years old, was younger than Bobbie, and more forthright. “I guess he wanted to play with us, or something, Mr. Saint,” she said. “But we don’t play with Bruce. Not after last summer.”

“Why not?” asked Mark, with the old dark anxiety.

The children looked at each other, and Bobbie muttered, “Shut up!”

“No, kids, please. I want to know. After all, Bruce is my child. Did he do something wrong?”

“No,” said Bobbie loudly. “It isn’t what Bruce does, Mr. Saint. It’s just Bruce. He came over one day, and we asked him to play in that old barn over there, and he came with us, and he just stood in the doorway and looked at us. It was scary, the way he looked, and Sally began to cry. She was only six then,” he added, with superiority.

“Bruce is shy,” said Mark, feeling a little sick. “He’s hard to get acquainted with. You ought to have helped him.”

“He isn’t shy, Mr. Saint,” said Bobbie resolutely, looking at Mark with honest gray eyes. “He may be lots of things, but he isn’t shy. Bruce just stood there in the doorway and looked at us, and we talked to him, and tried to get him to climb into the loft with us, and he never answered. He never said a single word, Mr. Saint. I’m not telling you a fib. He stood there a long time and just watched us, and his eyes were all big, and he didn’t say a word. It was real scary. Sally was crying, and I grabbed her arm and I pushed Bruce out of the way, and we ran home.”

“But you’re two years older than Bruce is, Bobbie. Why should a boy less than seven scare you? You’re as tall as he is, and probably as strong. I can’t believe that when he just looked at you you were frightened.”

Bobbie colored again, but his eyes did not shift from Mark’s. “I sure was, Mr. Saint. And it takes a lot to scare me. I’m not even afraid of ghosts.”

Mark smiled. Sally said, “He’s got the funniest eyes. Real bright and funny, when he stares at you. I hope he doesn’t come here anymore.”

“He’s a very bright boy,” said Mark. “He isn’t quite seven yet, but he can read and write very well, and draw and paint and do arithmetic as well as anyone in the third grade. And he’s lonely. He doesn’t know how to act with other children.”

“He sure don’t,” said Bobbie fervently. “Want us to help find your dog, Mr. Saint?”

“No, thanks. He’ll turn up. I just hope he hasn’t got lost or gone down to the main road where all the traffic is. Give my regards to your father, Bobbie. I’ll give him a ring tomorrow.”

The children waved goodbye to him, and watched him until he was out of sight among his own trees. Mark could feel their eyes following him. He thought of Bobbie, who would probably be an estate lawyer like his father. Good people, kind people, but dull. Nevertheless, it would be easier on a man to have a son like Bobbie.

But what is it about Bruce that makes me uneasy? Mark asked himself. A father couldn’t ask for a more brilliant boy, or a better-looking one. I wonder why I can’t forget how he smashed up Alice’s purse two years ago. After all, he was not quite five then. He’s very obedient, even though Kathy spoils him; I don’t have any trouble with him since I slapped him that summer. I can’t get close to him; in a way he’s mysterious. Oh, hell. I’m imagining things. But sometimes he makes me feel like a bumbling fool, and not any too bright.

He continued to search for the dog for almost an hour longer. But Petti had completely vanished. Mark returned to the cabin, hoping to hear a welcoming bark. But only Kathy and Mamie were there. Kathy explained that “Angel” had been very tired; his skin had felt quite hot; she had taken his temperature. She had examined him carefully, and she was frank about the details. He had no temperature, thank heavens, but she had put him to bed just to be safe. One couldn’t be too careful about The Children. He was asleep now. He was worried about the dog. He had cried.

Petti did not return, though Mark sat until long after midnight on the porch of the cabin and waited, and whistled softly. The next day he went down to the village to put an advertisement for Petti’s return in the local newspaper. The offered reward was large. Mark felt a real loss; he hadn’t known how fond he had become of the little dog until now. But Angelo was complacent. He smiled at his father and said he was sure that Petti would be found.

CHAPTER FIVE

Alice arrived at the cabin early Friday evening, her little, old car chugging valiantly up the country road. Mark could hear it as it began its ascent; he was sitting, reading, on the wooden porch, and he put down his book and smiled. It was well that Kathy, who came to the door then, did not see that smile. She would have understood it as Mark did not understand it. “Isn’t that Alicia’s old wreck?” she asked. “Heavens! It sounds worse than ever. Why doesn’t she buy a new one; she makes a fairly good salary now.”

“Hardly,” said Mark. He stood up. “I’ve been wondering. How about giving Allie one of those little foreign cars for Christmas? They’re cheap, they use very little gas, and they’re sturdy.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Kathy, as though this was the most preposterous thing in the world. The aroused avarice in her squirmed. “You do get the wildest ideas, Mark. Do you know how much they cost?”

“Yes. I’ve made some inquiries,” said Mark, in the flat tone that usually warned his wife.

But now she was aghast. “In the first place, we haven’t any right to waste any part of our son’s inheritance—”

“Who earns the money?” asked Mark, and there was a harsh ring in his voice.

“That’s quibbling. It’s the duty of parents to do everything possible for The Children. The Children are the most precious things we possess. The Children are the future. Who is going to fight the wars, if not The Children?”

“Why should there be any wars?” asked Mark wearily. With anger, he said to himself, But Kathy and I have never known anything else except crisis and war, since we can remember. My parents often said that before 1914 America was a hopeful and happy place, with some reforms needed in working conditions and strengthening of unions, and justice for everyone who worked honestly. And that would have come, without wars and debt and crises and universal hatred, and advancing slavery and regimentation. Why should we Americans permit ourselves to be brainwashed into believing that wars are a necessary way of life, and preparations for wars the only means to a sound economy? That was the road ancient Rome took, to her death.

Part and parcel of this war psychology which had been so cunningly induced in the universal American mind was the blasphemous adoration of The Children. The Spartans, who constantly warred on their neighbors, and induced wars, had been guilty of this blasphemy, too. And in Russia everything was for The Children. The fruit of wars, the workers for wars, and finally, the victims of wars. He, Mark, had seen enough of war to know its cruel and bloody senselessness, its violence against God and man, its violence against all life. “There was never a good war or a bad peace,” Benjamin Franklin had said. It should be written on every blackboard in every school in America. Above it should be inscribed: “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

The poor kids, worshiped by evil or stupid adults, confronted on every hand by war and preparations for war! They were cherished as were the fatted victims in ancient idolatrous lands, waiting for the smoking altar where their hearts would first be torn out and then their bodies consumed. No wonder so many thousands of them were confused, rebellious, and felt, instinctively, that they had been cheated of their right to peace and tranquillity and joy in the green garden of the world which had been made for them!

Mark shook his head, and stepped down from the porch and went to the top of the road, where he could see Alice’s valorous little car floundering in hard mud ruts and raising a cloud of dust. The very sight of it lifted his heavy spirits. He would have a talk with Alice tonight about all the things that troubled him and were troubling him more and more. He walked down the road a few yards, smiling like a boy.

With a last triumphant snort the little car took the final rise and expired with a loud sigh of relief. Alice emerged with her overnight bag. She was dressed in severe white linen, but a scarlet scarf was folded about her neck, and her flaxen hair was tied back with a narrow scarlet ribbon. Mark took the bag and looked at her with delight and a sense of fulfillment. “You look as cool as a strawberry ice-cream soda with vanilla whipped cream,” he said. She smiled at him timidly, but avoided his eyes. “How nice and fresh it is here,” she said. “I’d forgotten.”

Kathy ran down the steps of the porch and embraced her sister with her usual lavish effusiveness, which was not all hypocrisy and pretense. After all, she had been Alice’s guardian, and had done her duty toward the girl. “How wonderful!” she exclaimed, “We’re so happy to see you, dear!”

Her face glowed with honest affection. Mark watched the two young women, and a gentle feeling came to him for his wife. Kathy’s eyes were dancing prettily; she took Alice by her arm and demanded the latest news of mutual friends, and led her into the cabin. “Angel’s having his snack in the kitchen,” she said. “He’ll be out soon, and then we’ll have real cold Gibsons and Angel can pass the appetizers. How nice you look, darling.”

She herself looked very “nice,” in her big skirt of dotted white cotton with a stiff lacy petticoat beneath, and with a blue ribbon in her auburn hair. For an instant she looked as young as Alice. The two went into the large master bedroom, and Mark sat down, lighted a cigarette, and contentedly resumed his reading. But mechanically, he would lift his eyes and look with hope for the return of little Petti. There had been no answer to his advertisements. Angelo materialized suddenly at his elbow, and Mark started. “I wish you wouldn’t creep around like that, without a sound,” he said, annoyed.

Angelo laughed indulgently. “I have crepe rubber soles, Daddy,” he said, and displayed them. “Should I shout or something?”

“I suppose I’m unreasonable, but you have a way of popping up out of nowhere,” said Mark, and patted the boy’s strong bare arm which was already browning. Angelo sat on the railing of the porch and contemplated his father with curiously glinting eyes. He said, “I wish SHE hadn’t come.”

“You mean your Aunt Allie? Why not? Don’t you like her?” Mark frowned.

Angelo yawned, but his eyes never left his father, and Mark, to his surprise and vexation, found himself flushing.

“She doesn’t like me, and so I don’t like her.”

“Nonsense. When you were born, she was like a little girl with a new doll. She made your christening dress by hand. She didn’t have a large allowance, but she spent it for years on you. She wheeled your buggy through all the streets, proud of you. She stayed with you nights when she should have been out having fun like all the other girls. She dressed and washed you, and taught you to walk. She loves you.”

“She doesn’t like me,” said Angelo, with calmness. “And so, I don’t like her. She isn’t very bright, either. She’s silly.”

“What makes you think Allie is silly?” asked Mark, forcing himself to smile paternally.

Angelo swung on the railing and meditatively continued to stare at his father.

“She expects things of people,” he said.

“Such as what?” Mark was disturbed.

Angelo yawned again. He said, “Too many. That’s what makes her stupid.” He jumped down from the railing, and Mark’s dark eyebrows drew together. But Angelo was smiling at him with all his dazzling charm, and even Mark was not immune to it.

“You forget you’re still a child,” he said hopefully. “You haven’t had much experience. When you grow older you’ll understand that Allie is one of the most honest people in the world, the most intelligent, the most just and kind.”

Angelo continued to smile, but now there was an odd gleam in his eyes. But he said in his spuriously sober tone, “Yes, Daddy.” He looked over the lawns, “I guess Petti won’t ever be back. He must have gone down to the main road and been picked up by someone.”

“I’m afraid that’s what happened,” said Mark. “Would you like another dog, Bruce?”

“I think I’d like a cat this time,” said Angelo. “Mum would, too. They’re cleaner than dogs.”

Mark rocked in his chair. “I wish you’d make friends with Sally and Bobbie,” he said. Angelo swung to him abruptly, and his motions were feline. He said, “I tried. But they made me go away. I really tried, Daddy. I went over there last summer, and they acted very funny, when I was just watching them play.”

Mark did not know why he felt fresh relief. Of course, Bruce was too intelligent to play easily with other children. He said, “Play may seem foolish to you, son, but try to learn to do it. You’ll have lots of time to be a man.”

Alice came out of the cabin. She had changed her clothing. She wore a simple white shirt with short sleeves, open to show her smooth white throat, and gray linen Bermuda shorts which revealed her long, slender legs, beautifully formed and graceful. She smiled uncertainly at Angelo and said, “Hello, darling.”

“Hello, Aunt Alicia,” he said with precise courtesy, and suffered her timid kiss on his cheek. “I hope you’ll come often.”

He ran down the porch steps then and disappeared around the corner of the cabin. Alice took his place on the railing, and twisted her slender body to look over the gardens.

“Kathy was telling me how the little dog got lost,” she said, in her low voice. “I’m sorry. Does Bruce miss him?”

“Yes. He was very upset for a couple of days. But he’s only a child. He’s forgetting now.”

A silence stepped between them and held them motionless. Mark gazed at Alice’s cool and beautifully cut profile. Her lips drooped as if with sadness; her eyes were tired. One hand rested on her sleek thigh; it had a gentle but abandoned look, a lonely curve.

BOOK: Wicked Angel
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