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THE PROTéGé

Charlotte Armstrong

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… then came wandering by

A shadow like an angel, with bright hair

Dabbled in blood.…

King Richard III

Chapter 1

When Mrs. Moffat—aware that someone had been ushered into the pew from the side aisle and had skinned past two pairs of knees and then a bare patch to settle down beside her—turned to send a Sunday smile to whatever seeker, the startling young person said, “Good morning, Mrs. Moffat.”

“Well! Good morning!” She was surprised; but the choir was coming in, and, on her feet for the introit, she had time to wonder whose child this was and whether she ought to have recognized him. By the time the congregation was released to sit down after the invocation she had decided rather crossly, No, because this child, following fashion, was wearing a full beard and a mustache. Mrs. Moffat did not care for whiskers. “They all peer at you nowadays,” she said to herself, “over unsanitary muffs.” Yet she already knew that this one was different.

He was reaching for the hymnal; the skin of his hand was tanned and slightly freckled, but so clean as to seem to shine. She took a sideways glance at that head and what could be seen of the face. The nose was straight, neither long nor short, nothing distinguished. But the hair, helmeting the round skull, masking the cheeks, the chin, obscuring the lines of the lips, was red. Not literally red, of course, and not the true orange that is called “red” hair, but a shining and glowing auburn. Very clean, tightly curled, cropped close, it was like astrakhan. She’d had a baby-lamb coat, once …

He was dressed in a brown suit, clean and in press, but not a fine fabric. He had put something down on the floor on his other side. She didn’t think she had seen him before in her life.

She thought, He could have come off a stained-glass window! and then, What is he doing in church, for heaven’s sake?

They stood to sing. Taller than she, he was not very tall, stocky in the bone, thin in the flesh. Mrs. Moffat accepted her half of the hymnal. A very slight tremor was transmitted across the book’s spine. Mrs. Moffat wasn’t sure which one of them was trembling.

The boy, the young man (How young? Everybody—Presidents, Senators, savants, and philosophers—looked young to Mrs. Moffat these days) did not try to sing. He seemed, in a dreamy way, to be listening.

So Mrs. Moffat, who had once been able to sing, at least in the parlor, found herself singing now as well as she possibly could.

As they settled down again, she had only one thing more to whisper. “Is my cane bothering you?” It was lying on the pew bench in the very angle of seat and back.

“Oh, no, Mrs. Moffat,” he said, low-voiced. His lashes were auburn.

All the way through the service Mrs. Moffat could not help feeling accompanied or perhaps followed. He listened as gravely as she to the anthem. When she took out her envelope, he put a dollar bill in an envelope from the tiny rack and dropped it on the plate with the same casual air as she. He sat as patiently and impatiently as she during the sermon, which fell, as usual, to sink without a bounce, into the plush of the “proper” resolutions of the pious not to betray by any sound or sign that anything said meant anything at all to any one of them. Mrs. Moffat fumed gently to herself and, when it was over, sighed. The boy ducked his head as if he had caught himself about to sigh.

They rose for the benediction. Then it was time to nod to acquaintances. Mrs. Moffat saw Crystal and Claire going out the far side door. They had not seen her. She was just as glad. She would skip the line of handshakers before the minister, too, she decided. She didn’t know how to explain this young man, whoever he was, who preceded her along the aisle, nodding to no one, but in some subtle manner making a way for her alone.

They emerged into California sunshine. As Mrs. Moffat began to feel with her cane for the brink of the six stone steps she had come to dread, the young man moved into a position almost directly in front of her, but two steps lower. “Could you use my shoulder, Mrs. Moffat?” She was pleased. Yes, she was! Using her cane with her left hand, she put her right hand on his shoulder, and with his strength and his balance at her disposal she tripped down the perilous way with wonderful ease. That was imaginative! she thought. How she did dread being seized under one wing by some male who thought he was being gallant, but who inevitably destroyed her own balance at once, so that if her feet were to go all the way from under her, she would be bound to dangle lopsidedly helpless, and her escort unable to do a thing about it except dump her in a ludicrous heap and start all over again.

So, safely arrived at level ground, she looked up to thank him sincerely. The sharp summer sunlight must be harsh on her ancient face, but Marguerite Moffat still knew how to send out through her eyes the sparkle of her spirit, provided anyone was looking for it.

“I guess you don’t remember, ma’am,” he said. His voice was soft and had a pleasant grain to it. She could see his eyes now. They were amber and had, of themselves, a certain—placidity, was it? Opacity? A touch of que sera sera? “Simon Warren?” he said, and listened as if he had thrown a stone and waited for the ripple to widen.

“Warren?” She couldn’t remember any …

“The Warrens that used to live next door to you, a long time ago?”

“Oh,” she said, pleased to be enlightened. “Well! Simon Warren! Of course I remember, but it’s been years!”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was watching her, as if he were testing?

Mrs. Moffat took refuge in the truth. “I remember you as being twelve or thirteen years old when you moved away,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t have known you today. Why, you must be”—He’s the very same age as Tommy, she thought with a pang—“twenty-eight, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I guess so, ma’am.”

“And how are your folks?” she inquired cordially. Mrs. Moffat was aware of covert glances from the throng. “Who is that, with Mrs. Moffat?” “Who is that, with the old lady in the pink hat?” His looks were sufficiently startling anywhere and, in this place, uncanny.

“Just fine, I guess,” he was answering. “I haven’t seen them for quite a while.” He had, she noticed now, one of those canvas bags that airlines give you, in his left hand. He stood passively.

“What are you doing here, Simon?” she inquired, beginning to move along.

He fell in beside her, moved with her at her pace. “Oh, I just thought I’d come by …”

“Revisiting the scenes of your youth, eh?” said Mrs. Moffat. “You used to walk to Sunday school. Have you been to see your old house?”

“Not yet …”

“Then why don’t you ride along with me?”

“Why, I’d sure like to, ma’am. Thank you.”

Mrs. Moffat took the way to the parking lot, and if any eyebrows wanted to wag in her wake, let them. Although she was seventy-four years old, she still had her driver’s license and drove herself short distances around town. The boy opened the car’s door and saw her in, but he did not try to “help” her. (Oh, the “kind” people who lifted and tugged and made her much more helpless than she needed to be!) Mrs. Moffat got in smoothly, with well-practiced movements, wondering fleetingly at the boy’s unusual manners. Her erstwhile neighbors had never impressed her as the kind of people to teach such non-mechanical thoughtfulness to a son whom she now remembered to have been a perfectly normal and impudent rapscallion.

“How have you been, Simon?” she asked as he got in beside her. “Put your bag in the back if you like. On the wing, are you?”

“I’ve been back on the mainland for a little while,” he said stolidly.

(Mainland? Ah, one picked that up in the islands.) “In the service?” she guessed.

“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t volunteer which branch. “I’ve been out of it awhile.”

“Long enough to grow a stylish beard, I see,” she teased. She turned the car into the street, thinking he wouldn’t look so darned Biblical if he’d just shave.

“On your way home, I suppose?” she continued. “Are your folks still living in Pennsylvania? Your mother used to send me Christmas cards, but they’ve died down.”

He didn’t respond.

“What are you going to do with yourself now that you’re out?” she continued amiably. This is what you did with the young. You asked them all the old expected questions, so as not to frighten them.

“I’m not going home,” he said. “I can’t say what I’m going to do.” He squirmed a little, as if he didn’t like the old expected questions; he didn’t have the expected answers?

She started to ask how long he’d been away from the mainland, but then did not. “I suppose it all seems strange,” she said instead.

“It sure does,” he said gratefully. “It doesn’t look really real to me, Mrs. Moffat. I don’t really recognize anything.”

“I can imagine,” she said soothingly, not at all sure that this was true.

She wondered how he had been able to recognize her. Ah, well, once a woman succumbs to being an old woman, she changes very slowly thereafter. Mrs. Moffat would have been fifty-seven, pushing sixty, that summer when this boy and her grandson, Tommy, had been eleven. Yes, she thought, remembering that season, I must have succumbed just about then.

“This is a nice car,” he said shyly but with what sounded like genuine pleasure. “It’s sure green and pretty here. It’s probably changed.”

The car was five years old, but unblemished. Mrs. Moffat always drove it sedately along accustomed rounds. The neighborhood was pretty, a backwater along the Arroyo Seco, old trees, old lawns, old houses, nothing spectacular. To her it had not changed much. Backwaters are like old women, she thought. She told him so, thinking, He’s changed. Places revisited will let you know that. Well, God knows what he’s seen.

She didn’t ask him whether he had been, for instance, wounded. Or wounded in his mind by horrors. In either case Mrs. Moffat didn’t want the details, nor would he wish to dwell on them. She surmised that he was feeling somewhat numb. Lost, perhaps? Confused? Seeking backward for a place to put an emotional foot? Well, she couldn’t guide him.

He said, seeming to rouse himself as if to duty, “Tommy Moffat—I mean your Tommy—he and I used to play. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” she said. Then, forgetting, as old women do, that she had not spoken all her thoughts aloud, she added tartly, “You don’t want to talk about some things.”

“Pardon?” He was startled. He turned his head, and his right hand flew to the fur on his chin.

Mrs. Moffat kept her eyes on the street. “I understand,” she said, “because some things I prefer not to discuss either. So we’ll not talk about Tommy Moffat. Okay?”

“Okay,” he echoed feebly.

“I see no particular virtue in hashing over old sins and old sorrows,” said Mrs. Moffat severely. “For one thing, I haven’t got the time.”

He made no response. In a little while she knew his head was turned very slightly toward her and his pupils had slid to the very left-hand corners of his eyes so that he could study her.

Mrs. Moffat, who was not without at least some glinting contacts with modern youth, thought to herself, Well, if he grew that beard to be in style, he didn’t make it. He suspects I’m alive. He’s not in style.

The street, curving along the gully, was lined with houses only on their left. Mrs. Moffat’s dwelling stood on a fair-sized plot of ground, and scaled against the great trees on either side, it seemed to be a small two-story clapboard under a steep roof, the walls painted white, with hints of gingerbread. But since it trailed off into a one-story extension at the back, it was much more spacious than could be guessed from the street.

Mrs. Moffat made the car hesitate opposite the green stucco on the near side of her own place. “There you are,” she said. “I forget what color it was in your mother’s day. It’s been green ever since the Hallorans bought it. Do you know, Simon, I’ve just remembered they are in Europe? But I don’t see why you couldn’t walk around the yard if you like. Let me pull into my driveway.”

The boy said nothing; he gazed almost sleepily the way she had been pointing.

She swooped around into her driveway, which passed her dining room and kitchen, on the far right of her property and continued into the back regions where her detached garage was set deep into the plot and was yet only halfway to the inner boundary. Mrs. Moffat drove into the garage, at its center, leaving wide margins on each side. (Only one car to fit in now.) The boy was out quickly and opening her door. She said decisively, “Why don’t you put your bag down here, Simon, and you go and prowl around as much as you like?” She walked into the open, and he followed. “Afterward maybe you would take a bite of lunch with me?”

He said mechanically, “Oh, no, thank you, ma’am. It would be too much bother—”

Mrs. Moffat was having none of that. “I wouldn’t ask you if it was going to be a bother,” she announced. “I don’t mean Sunday dinner. It’ll be a bite, as I said, and we’ll take it on my back porch, as I usually do, picnic-style. Polly (you must remember Polly) will enjoy the whole thing very much.”

Mrs. Moffat wasn’t waiting for his consent. She proceeded briskly along the gravel path to the house, passing the mouth of the short path to the wing of her garage, passing the clump of shrubbery that made that part a tunnel. Then, missing the crunch of his following feet, she stopped and turned.

He was gazing across her grassy domain. “There’s the sundial,” he said in a breathless way.

Mrs. Moffat looked at him, her eyebrows drawing together. He seemed delighted. She caught the impact of her own familiar place with the freshness of his sudden sight of it. Her lawns seemed vast, rolling upward ever so slightly as they did, leading the eye to the evergreen mass of the tall back hedge. She grew very few flowers any more, but the oleanders were sprinkling the shrubbery with white or bright pink, and this was pleasant. The thick green of the ivy ground cover, edging the borders, scalloped the whole, and here and there a band of gray dusty millers marked one of the curves very handsomely.

In full summer the air was crisp and dry and hot. The sun was high. Her huge black acacia stood in a puddle of shade, tight to its trunk. The sundial was out from under the huge tree now. How that tree alone must have grown, she thought, in fifteen years.

“Things have changed some,” she said lightly. “The trees and I are older, for one thing. You can go around by the sidewalk, Simon. Or, if you remember the place where you used to skin through the hedge, you can try, although it may be grown over. Then come back and join me, do.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said dreamily.

So she nodded to indicate an understanding and went on toward the wide back porch, an old-fashioned feature screened all around and furnished without benefit of plastic, which Mrs. Moffat much enjoyed and stubbornly refused to call a patio. As she opened the screen door, she noticed that Simon Warren, walking on her driveway, had chosen to go by way of the sidewalk.

Polly. Kroenke, spotless in the blue and white she always wore (pale blue for summer, navy for winter), came to be told who that was, exclaimed over the news, and trotted off to the kitchen, joyously rising to the challenge, as Mrs. Moffat had known she would.

Herself, she went into her huge sitting room, so cool and dim, where she took off her pink hat, her short pink gloves, and set them with her pink church pocketbook on a table corner.

She sighed and left off wondering (as she often did) whatever she would do without Polly, who had kept her house for forty years and still kept it. It was hard to believe that Polly was sixty-two; she moved so spryly in the familiar patterns. She had a long face and cheeks of a curious flatness, with long grooves in them now. She wore her hair flat on the top, in a style she had never changed. Polly had not changed very much. Mrs. Moffat still must keep a firm rein on an inclination to fuss and overdo. Polly was not a companion in the sense that the two of them could exchange very much in the way of informed opinion. But a housemate, all the same, so long as we both shall live, thought Mrs. Moffat. It was too late now for Polly to have another kind of life, and mine has come to stagnant peace, she thought. Ah, well, worse things could happen.

The lady of the house was feeling a bit exhausted. The energy aroused by surprise was fading. She regretted, slightly at least, that she had asked Simon Warren to lunch, but she really could not have sent the lad away at mealtime. It was too late to abandon some ingrained habits of hospitality. Oh, well, she would acquire merit, at least in the eyes of a woman with whom she had once been neighborly, and perhaps, thought Mrs. Moffat, in the eyes of the Lord, although by definition she couldn’t fool Him.

She sat down in her pet chair and caused it to recline. This long room was clean in effect. She knew better about the corners. It was orderly. Who was to litter it? It was very seldom that any children came. The decor was old-fashioned (Zan always said so). But then, thought Mrs. Moffat, I am old-fashioned, and everything here is mine, so it is as it should be. She put her head back and mused in peace. At least Simon Warren had not turned out to be one of the current crop who thought that rudeness and filth signified an advance. She had sensed nothing aggressive or hostile either. But if not, why not? she wondered. He must be tired, she concluded—weary and worn down to some residue of ingrained courtesy, that which had both astonished and pleased her. He did seem thin for the size of his bones. Somebody ought to feed him well, fatten him up …

Mrs. Moffat dealt briefly with the stirrings of temptation, and having skillfully dismissed them, she slipped easily into a catnap.

She woke when she heard Polly exclaiming, “Well! Simon Warren! Well! Come in, come in.”

The boy said, “Mrs. Moffat asked me to come back,” as if he weren’t sure he ought to believe it.

Mrs. Moffat brought her chair upright, wiggled out of it, instantly alert, by no means disheveled. Her pink dress was a “miracle” fabric. It couldn’t wrinkle. She wore her scant gray hair in a knot on the top of her head (which was neat and stayed neat and got it out of her way). Cosmetics had failed her long ago. She walked on her small neat feet, in the pink but sensible flats, out to the porch. “Come in,” she said to the boy, who hesitated. “You’ve remembered Polly? Hasn’t he grown, eh, Polly? Sit down, Simon. Well? What did you think? I’m sorry you won’t get to see the inside. But they’ve made changes, you know. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“No,” he said serenely. “Nothing’s going to be the same. I don’t mind not getting to see the inside.”

Mrs. Moffat sat down, noticing that he was not going to do so until she was settled. This pleased her. “Would you like something cold to drink now? Beer, for instance?” (Boys like beer.) “We have some beer, don’t we, Polly?” Mrs. Moffat kept it for Joe when Joe and Flo came.

“Oh, yes, Mrs. Moffat.”

I’m going to have some beer,” said Mrs. Moffat firmly. “Sit down, sit down.”

“Then I’d sure like some,” her guest said promptly. Polly beamed and bustled away. The boy chose one of the rockers and surrendered to it. He was gazing out at the many greens, the green-gold where the sun bounced, the deep-green in the low shadow, and a hundred greens in between. “It’s just like a park,” he said softly. “Your own park—and hidden all around.”

“I suppose it is,” she said. “Everything’s grown so high. And it’s all mine, that’s true. My husband—Mr. Moffat—died”—Mrs. Moffat would not say “passed away”—“ten years ago, Simon. You may have heard.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said gravely.

She went on. “It must be forty-five years ago that he built this house.” (Thomas, the son, had been seven.) “So,” she said, “all this is mine, as he arranged for it to be. And so long as I have Polly to look after me, here I stay. The fact is,” she added, as she had not meant to add aloud, “I really wouldn’t know where in the whole world else to go.”

The boy had set his rocking chair to moving slightly. Why isn’t he either too young or not young enough, she asked herself suddenly, to fall so easily into a cradle rhythm? But she went on chattering, since she seemed to know her voice was soothing to him. Perhaps it was only that as long as she kept talking he need not? “You may conclude that I am lonely,” she said, betraying herself blithely to this not necessarily attentive but patient listener. “The few of my old friends who still survive are enough. Enough. I can’t take crowds anymore. And big social doings. I expect I’ve ‘dropped out,’ if the truth were known. Oh, I have young Alexandra, that’s my granddaughter. We call her Zan. She comes every summer to visit, and while she’s here, she bosses me around, and that’s amusing while it lasts. You don’t want to hear the story of my life,” Mrs. Moffat said cheerfully. (Simon could have been dozing with his eyes open.) “Still—when you’ve got to the last chapter,” she went on, “and there’s not going to be much plot to the rest of it, you tend to keep on summing up. My life was interesting to me”—she smiled—“and maybe, when I get to heaven, they’ll supply some angel who’ll be dying to hear all about it. I can wait,” she added merrily. “Ah, the beer.”

He thanked Polly in the nice shy way he had. He lifted the glass and sipped. Mrs. Moffat kept still, feeling foolish. Ah, well, she thought crossly, let him listen to the old lady. It’s like singing for his supper in reverse. That’s fair enough, surely.

The cold liquid seemed to be bringing his brown eyes to life. He said, “I’ll tell you what it seems like here to me, Mrs. Moffat. It seems to me like you’ve already got to heaven.”

She was so touched that her eyes swam. Her hand trembled. Her glass tilted. She set it down quickly and dabbed at the bosom of her dress.

Then the boy was asking softly where he could go to wash.

So Mrs. Moffat sent him to Polly to be shown to the downstairs lavatory. She was a little upset. It didn’t do to be pierced so suddenly by something akin to sadness, yet akin to joy.

When he came back, shining, she embarked on an analysis of the sermon; this was, after all, an experience in the present tense that they had had in common. He didn’t contribute. He hadn’t really paid that much attention, he now confessed, but she made him laugh a time or two … and Mrs. Moffat had again to curb her tongue and dampen down her spirits and remember what she would probably have to pay for having so much fun as this.

But after they had eaten the cold and tasty fare and Polly had whisked away the dishes, Mrs. Moffat felt herself begin to droop. She hunted for a kindly way to indicate that the festivities were over. She asked if Simon would like to walk around the grounds with her, a tour she was accustomed to take at least once a day, for the air and the delicate exercise. She often walked, she told him, just before she took her afternoon rest.

So she led him through the house, through the big sitting room, to the little square hall from which the stairs went up, past the arch to the parlor (never used), and Gerard’s den opposite, and out the front and around to the right, and down the side path on the north side along which the camellias grew—now ten feet high—and then to the oval of lawn in which the sundial was centered nowadays.

Simon was again bemused to see it.

“It counts only sunny hours,” Mrs. Moffat said somewhat derisively. “And that’s right, Simon. It won’t give you the time of night, I can tell you that. It’s obsolete. It can’t cope, anyhow. Daylight saving has addled its wits, poor ancient thing.”

He said, “Didn’t it used to have a ring of flowers?”

“Why, yes,” she said, startled for some reason. “Now … here,” she went on, rounding the peninsula of shrubs and coming to the second bay of lawn on this side, “is where my son used to have his playground when he was a little boy. Oh, you never knew my son. He had gone away from here before you were born. You would have been only three years old when Thomas died. I only had the one child. He was never—robust.”

There she went again, telling the story of her life. She looked at him sharply.

He was gazing at the ground. He said, “I guess people die.”

And again he had pleased her. She said, feeling released, “He was only twenty-nine. Only a year older than you are now. You wouldn’t think that was much of a life. But I guess we shouldn’t be so sure. Time”—she was thinking aloud again—“is not the same for different people. For me, time’s been slow, flowing along, you know … but on the whole more like a lake than a river. For some, I suppose, it’s wild and deep and they live twice as fast—or twice as much.” She swayed with momentary dizziness.

He did not step to steady her. He said, “Mrs. Moffat, I might have had my life, for all I know.”

Mrs. Moffat thought, I don’t want to hear about his troubles.

“Look!” she said. “There! See? Where the branch is bouncing? Look at him watching us, the rascal! A squirrel!”

“I see.”

The sun shone on the bright color of Simon’s beard. She was beginning to be able to see his face in spite of it. He seemed rapt. He seemed very, very young.

“What do you suppose a squirrel makes of human beings?” said Mrs. Moffat. “I often wonder. Does he know we are watching him? Can he conceive of eyes?”

“I never thought of that,” the boy said, as if he were delighted. “But he knows! He’s got to know, ma’am. Maybe he can’t conceive of eyes, but he knows he’s being seen.” His eyebrows drew together and knotted. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he said, rather dully.

“Yes, it is,” said Mrs. Moffat in a matter-of-fact way. She was somewhat surprised by his response, but willing to accept it. “Come along,” she continued, “I always go all the way up to the end, and then we’ll turn down the other side.”

But she was tired now and fell silent. Gerard had instituted this patrol. Mornings and evenings he had gone this way, to see what the flowers were up to. But the flowers were gone, and so was he; only the habit remained.

“What is that, ma’am?” Simon stopped to stare at the wing that angled away from the garage.