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Authors: Taylor Caldwell

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BOOK: Wicked Angel
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Then, like a blaze of bitter and blasting light, the thought came to Mark: I love Alice. I’ve always loved her. And I never knew until now. God help me.

As if the terrible thought had reached Alice she turned her head sharply to him and looked straight into his eyes. The blueness in hers widened and deepened.

Then Angelo was there again, arriving soundlessly, and he was looking at them and faintly smiling, and they did not see him. He watched them for long moments.

“Is there something wrong Allie?” Mark stammered, appalled at his thoughts, and wanting to stifle them.

“No. Nothing, Mark,” she answered, and she stammered also. “But I’m thinking of leaving the school system after all. I love it, but I can’t stand it any longer. We can’t discipline the children; we can’t punish them. We can’t even give them their rightful rating on report cards. We mustn’t hurt their tender psyches, you know, or encourage competition.” She paused. “There’s some talk in school about sifting out the bright children and putting them into harder classes, with more subject matter, and advancing them as fast as they can go, and giving them challenging assignments. But it’s still only talk; the parents in the PTA are vociferously against it. That is, the parents with only average or sub-average children. They say such a plan is not ‘democratic,’ not fair to the others. But I think it certainly isn’t ‘democratic’ to hold back the best to the level of the inferior.”

Her face flushed with quiet passion. “I’ll stay, if I’m given a superior class. I have my master’s now. I can teach older children. I’ve already talked with the principal, Mr. Chapman, and he agrees with me, but he’s helpless. So, I’ll resign as soon as school opens unless I get what I want, PTA or no PTA. The other teachers agree with me, too, but they’re cowed by the parents. You know what I’d do if I could, Mark? I’d do what they do in some private schools—just have a sort of general meeting once or twice a year between parents and teachers, to check on the children’s advancement, but no interference on the part of the parents.”

“You could teach in a private school,” said Mark, nodding sympathetically. He had control of himself now. But it was like holding a tiger back in its cage.

“I’m looking for one. I’ve been offered an opportunity in Boston.”

“We won’t see you often, then.”

She smiled gently. “Oh, Boston is only a four-hour drive from the City.” She turned her hands on her thigh and contemplated them. “There’s just one thing that keeps me from definitely making up my mind. There’s a little boy, about Bruce’s age, in my class. He’s older than the others; he didn’t come to school as early as he should have. It wasn’t his fault. It’s a terrible thing for Kennie. His father was a drunken laborer; two years ago he murdered Kennie’s mother, and Kennie was the only witness. He almost went out of his mind. His old grandmother took him, out in the country, and that’s why he didn’t come to school. And then he was under treatment, too, in a hospital. He’s a very sensitive boy. He has nightmares. He’s in a good foster home, but it’s poor, and the City pays very little for his support. The thing, Mark, is that Kennie is not only a brave and understanding child, but he is exceptionally bright. He caught up with the other children in only two months. I’m teaching a second-grade class now, as well as a first-grade class, and he’s in there, and I think he should be in fourth grade. But that would be ‘advancing’ him out of his age-group, and encouraging him to ‘compete.’ I’m going to fight for Kennie, Mark.”

Mark smoked, frowning. “My father used to say, ‘What’s bred in the bone is born in the flesh,’” he said. “The boy’s father was a drunken murderer. He’s probably inherited a lot of his traits. Be careful, Allie.”

“I agree with your father, Mark,” said Alice. “But you must remember we all have thousands of ancestors. And traits have a way of skipping generations, and even being bred out. Criminals suddenly rise out of the ‘best families.’ You’ve only to read the newspapers. Sometimes the most healthy and moral people give birth to psychopaths.”

To Mark’s surprise, she turned very pale, and looked away. She said hastily, “Well, anyway, I’m going to do everything I can for Kennie. I’m buying him some good clothes for the fall term; I visit him often at his foster home. They’re middle-aged, childless people, and they love Kennie. His nightmares are getting fewer all the time. I buy him books; he’s beginning to read Dickens wonderfully. I take him on picnics and to the zoo, and the museums. You’d be surprised how intelligent he is, and how he understands. Oh, if it weren’t for Kennie, I would have resigned in February!”

She rubbed her hand on the railing. “I’ve already talked with the social worker who is in charge of Kennie’s case.

I’ve suggested that if I go to that private school I’d be glad to pay for Kennie there. Do you know what the silly woman said? She actually declared it would be removing Kennie from his ‘normal environment,’ and that it would emotionally disturb him! Are these people trying to create elite classes in this country, Mark, and are they beginning to teach children that they should remain in their ‘station,’ as they do in Europe? I’m afraid they are! Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing,” said Mark grimly. “I’ve suspected that for some time. That’s why I want Bruce to go to a public school, but Kathy won’t permit it. Bruce must be with his ‘group,’ she says, among children with his own advantages.” He puffed at his cigarette; neither of them saw Angelo, in the shadow of a tree, listening acutely. “There’s something very wrong going on in this country, Allie. The old and ancient tyrannies and turns of mind of Europe are showing up here, at last. Some people call it Communism, but it’s centuries older than that.”

“Well, I’m going to fight for Kennie, and for all the other Kennies,” said Alice, with resolution. “They’re not going to be smothered down in mediocrity and kept in a ‘lower class,’ if I can help it, no matter how poor their parents are.”

“I know somebody of influence in the School Department in the City,” said Mark. “I’ll write to him, tonight.”

“Oh, Mark, will you?” cried Alice joyfully.

Kathy came swirling out with a tray of cocktails. “Where’s Angel?” she said. “Oh, there you are, darling. Do go into the kitchen and bring out the appetizers, like a good boy.” When Angelo had obediently entered the house, Kathy said lovingly, “It’s remarkable what social poise the baby has. He’s like a little man.”

Angelo appeared with the tray of cheese and crackers. He presented it to Alice with a deep and ostentatious bow; his beautiful eyes shimmered with mockery and secret and hating amusement. “Look at him!” caroled Kathy. “He’s like an eighteenth-century gentleman, isn’t he?”

Alice and Angelo looked into each other’s eyes in absolute stillness for a moment, and then the boy presented the tray to his mother.

He’s a horror, thought Alice, and despised herself, as usual. But I can’t help it! He’s unclean. When I think of little Kennie, and then look at Bruce, it makes me sick. St. Michael and the serpent. What am I thinking? But I looked in his eyes just now…She shivered.

“When you come again for a weekend, bring Kennie,” said Mark suddenly.

“Who’s Kennie?” asked Kathy, with her strained brightness. She smiled at Alice coyly. “A prospect?”

“No.” said Alice. She briefed her on Kennie’s history, and Kathy’s face was appalled. Alice hoped, and not for the first time, that her sister was touched, and that she, who declared that she loved all children passionately, would be grieved for the boy and would second Mark’s invitation.

“Oh. but we couldn’t have a child like that here!” cried Kathy. “His parents! Think what an awful influence he would be on Angel! I shudder to think of it! A murderer’s child! Associating with Angel, who’s so innocent and still such a baby! I’m so careful of everyone Angel meets or plays with! Honestly, Alicia, what an idea!”

I should have known, thought Alice bitterly. Women who sing about The Children mean only their own children. They detest those of other women. I was a fool. I’ve known Kathy long enough, God knows.

“We won’t even discuss it!” exclaimed Kathy. “It’s too awful.”

“Yes,” said Mark, in a hard, loud voice. “It’s too awful.”

His eyes met those of Alice’s, and he felt a shock go through him again, and he knew that from this time forth he would never know peace or happiness.

CHAPTER SIX

On Sunday morning Kathy and Mark went down to church in the village, and Mamie went with them. Kathy did not believe that Angelo was old enough for Sunday school as yet. “And then, the village children!” she said. “They’re awfully rude and dull and coarse, you know.”

“I thought God was in every church,” said Alice, “no matter what incomes the people have, or whether they’re city people or country ones.”

“You’re always begging questions,” said Kathy pettishly. “You really know what I mean. Anyway, I’m grateful you’re staying with Angel. Mamie was getting sullen because she was missing church, and now she’s pleased.”

They drove off, after Kathy had given Angelo a flurry of maternal kisses. She promised him some special candies from the drugstore in the village. “Take care of Aunt Alicia, darling!” she sang, waving to him from the car. He waved back. He stood on the porch in his white linen shirt and fresh long trousers, his dark-red hair shining in the sun, his beautiful face truly angelic.

“What shall we do, Bruce?” asked Alicia awkwardly. “Do you want to play checkers? Or shall I read to you, or do you want to play ball?”

He turned to her and gave her a glowing smile. “Oh, nothing, Aunt Alicia. You’re supposed to rest, aren’t you? I can amuse myself.”

“Well, how about a walk in the woods?” she asked.

He shook his head regretfully. “I just don’t like them anymore, since Petti was lost there.” His lip quivered. Alice looked at him keenly. Was this pretense, or the truth? She hoped it was the truth.

“He must have been a nice little dog,” she said tentatively.

“Oh, he was! He was my playmate and companion. We had lots of fun together. I just can’t stand the woods now. I keep looking for him, and it’s no use. Someone stole him.”

He sat down on another chair and picked up a book. He was soon absorbed in it. Alice studied him covertly. She prayed in her heart, Please, dear God, let me be wrong about this child, for dear Mark’s sake. Please let him be better than I feel he is. Please help me to stop hating him.

She got up. “The woods look so cool and pleasant,” she said. “Do you mind if I take a walk in them myself, Angelo? Do you mind being alone for just a little while?”

“Oh, I don’t mind at all, Aunt Allie,” he said, smiling at her tenderly. “Don’t worry about me.”

“You won’t go near the bluff, Bruce?”

“Oh, no. Daddy and Mum warned me about it. And I always mind them, you know.”

He spoke like a boy many years older than himself, and his manner was adult and contained. Alice still hesitated. She looked about at the peaceful gardens blowing in the sun and cool wind. There was nothing here to threaten a little child.

“I’ll only be about ten minutes,” she said, and went down the porch steps, then across the lawns, and into the woods.

When she arrived in the dark shelter of the trees she was astonished that she should feel that she had escaped from something menacing. She laughed at herself. She wandered over the aromatic needles and rustling dead leaves; she sat down for a few moments on a large and mossy stone. The trees met over her head like a dark-green benediction. And then she could not help it. She began to think of Mark, and very slowly, tears ran down her cheeks, and she sobbed a little. She should never have come here this time. When she left tonight, she would make it a point never to see Mark again. In spite of Kennie, she would accept the invitation to the school in Boston. She could always keep in touch with Kennie’s foster parents, and they could bring him to Boston to visit her, at her expense, and she could call him and write to him. Dear little Kennie, with his deep gray eyes, his gentle manners, his wise trust, his silences, his eagerness to please, his quiet voice! Even the most malicious children loved Kennie; he was a favorite with everyone. Alice forced her mind to remain on Kennie, but her heart was one great wound of pain and suffering.

She stood up and wandered off again, the resinous breath of the woods soothing against her hot cheeks. It was so silent here, so peaceful, with the sun glinting occasionally through the trees. She listened to the soft and timid rustling in the branches, the little scufflings of wild creatures. She whistled to the birds, and some answered. A squirrel ran down a tree trunk and looked at her inquisitively. She wished she had brought some peanuts. The squirrel regarded her with bright wild eyes, and did not move as she passed within touching distance.

There were vague narrow paths through the woods, made by the family and animals. She walked along them. Then she turned and plunged deeper into the woods. Suddenly she heard the snapping of a twig, or the roll of a stone. City-born and bred, she swung about alertly, dimly frightened. But there was nothing around her but the trees. She was imagining things, or a larger animal had run through the brush. She continued on, and very slowly a peace came to her. She sat down on her heels to examine a clump of jack-in-the-pulpits. Again, she heard that snapping, furtive and sudden. She stood up and called, “Bruce, is that you?” But only the birds answered, and the squirrels scolded. Was it her imagination, again, that made it appear to her that there was a note of fright in these wild voices, or anger? Were there bobcats here, savage and watchful, ready to pounce down on her from some tree? She looked up into the branches; they moved very slightly in the wind. No threatening eyes stared down into her own.

I’m certainly a city girl! she thought. These are only natural sounds. Didn’t Mark once tell me there were deer here, sometimes? Of course. It was probably a doe, or her fawn. But still, there might be prowlers, and she thought suddenly of Angelo, alone on the cabin porch. Tramps! She listened, achingly. The woods were utterly silent. She turned about, to return to the cabin. And she bent and caught up a fallen little branch. Her heart began to beat fast.

BOOK: Wicked Angel
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