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The Young Unicorns
Winter came early to the city that year. Josiah Davidson, emerging from the subway, his arms loaded with schoolbooks, shivered against the dank November rain which blew icily against his face and sent a trickle down the back of his neck. He did not see three boys in black jackets who moved out of a sheltering doorway and stalked him.
Uncomfortable, unaware, he hurried along the street until he came to a run-down tenement. Here he let himself in through the rusty iron gate that led to the basement apartment.
The three boys went silently up the brownstone steps and took cover in the doorway, listening, waiting.
The one room was dark and cold and smelled of cabbage; Josiah Davidson dumped his books on the table, sniffed with displeasure, and left. He stood for a moment on the wet sidewalk, looked downhill towards Harlem, uphill towards the great Cathedral which dominated the area, its multicolored Octagon of stone and glass glowing brilliantly against the rain-filled sky.
The three boys in the doorway waited until Josiah Davidson started up the hill, then followed. He climbed quickly and it was not easy to keep his pace. They began to run as he pulled a key ring, heavy with keys, from his pocket and fitted one into the wrought-iron gate at the bottom of the Cathedral Close.
As he opened the gate he swung round and saw them.
"What's your hurry, Dave?" one asked.
"No!" he said sharply, pushed through the gate and slammed it in their faces.
They laughed mockingly, banging against the gate but not really trying to get in.
Dave ran up the hill past the choir buildings, through the Dean's Garden, November-sad in the downpour, and climbed a flight of concrete steps that led into the Cathedral itself. The small side door was already closed for the night; he unlocked it and went into the ambulatory, a wide half-circle off which seven chapels were rayed like the spokes of a wheel. He could hear the high voices of the choirboys singing Evensong around the full length of the passage in St. Ansgar's chapel. He had once been a Cathedral chorister himself, but for the past few years the Cathedral had been mainly a short cut for him. He hurried down the echoing nave, past the soaring beauty of the central altar. Above it, the great Octagon seemed to brood over the Cathedral, protecting it for the night. One of the guards, strolling up the center aisle, saw the boy and waved: "Hi, Dave."
Dave waved back but did not slacken his pace. From the chapel came the clear notes of the Nunc Dimittis: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word ...
--That's all I want, the boy thought,--a little peace. And to have my past leave me alone.
He pushed out the heavy front doors and ran down the steep flight of stone steps that led to the street.
Josiah Davidson walked quickly along Broadway, stepping out in the street to avoid a cluster of darkly beautiful women looking cold in their saris, too delicate for the November air. He brushed by a group of men in native African dress, pushed through strolling Columbia students in assorted eccentricities of clothing. He was so accustomed to the conglomerate and colorful crowd on the Upper West Side of the city that it would have taken someone beyond the bounds of the merely unusual to have made him pause and take notice.
He halted at a large school building. Its bright lights spilled warmly onto the street; the heavy rain had slackened, was only a fine drizzle, but he felt cold. He turned up the collar of his coat and blew on his fingers. He looked up and down the street, but the three black-jacketed boys were nowhere to be seen. He leaned against the school building and watched boys and girls of all ages begin to straggle out the side door; classes had been dismissed an hour before, but older children had stayed for orchestra rehearsal, for detention, for club meetings; younger ones with working mothers had remained for supervised play until they could be called for. Some carried violin or clarinet cases, some satchels of books, and some, despite the icy wind blowing in from the Hudson, were eating ice cream. One of the senior boys, about Dave's own age, called, "Emily'll be along in a minute, Dave. She's helping that little kid get his boots on."
"Okay. Thanks." Dave shoved his cold hands into his pockets, slouched against the cold wall of the school building, and waited.
Across the street a man in a dark overcoat and a foreign-looking fur hat stood in the doorway of an apartment building, watching the school, watching Dave.
"We're here, Dave!"
Dave turned to the opening door; a little boy in a navy-blue pea jacket and a bright red woolen cap appeared. Behind him, one hand on his shoulder, came a tall, long-legged girl; her dark hair fell loosely on a wine-colored velvet coat which was in marked contrast to the plain navy blue everybody else was wearing.
"Emily!" Dave demanded. "Do you know what you have on?"
She bristled. "My good coat. My school coat's still sopping."
"Okay. So how was orchestra rehearsal?"
She relaxed. "Horrendous. Ear-splitting. Cacophonous. And if they don't get the auditorium piano tuned I'll have to do it myself. Hurry, please, Dave. I'll be late for my piano lesson again and Mr. Theo'll slaughter me."
The man in the fur hat left the shadows of the doorway and followed the oddly assorted trio: the dark, shabby boy; the definitely younger and rather elegant girl; and the fair little boy who couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old.
They reached the corner and turned down Broadway. The bitter wind whipped a few brown leaves and bits of soiled newspaper across the sidewalk. Strands of Emily's fine, dark hair blew across her face and she pushed it back impatiently. As they passed a shabby little antique shop with a gloomy bin of oddments on the sidewalk in front of the dusty windows, Dave paused.
"It was here," Rob said. "Right here."
Emily pulled impatiently at Dave's arm, but the older boy stood, looking at the shop window, at the door with the sign PHOOKA'S ANTIQUES, then moved on, more slowly.
Shortly before they reached 110th Street the man with the fur hat pulled ahead of them and merged with a group of people clustered about a newsstand. He held a paper so that he could look past it at the children as they came by.
The little boy, who had made friends with the crippled man who owned the newsstand, looked up to wave hello. His mouth opened in startled recognition as his eyes met those of their follower. He didn't hear the news vender call out, "Hi, Robby, what's up?"
The man in the fur hat smiled at the small boy, nodded briefly, rolled up his newspaper, and turned back in the direction of the Cathedral.
Dave and Emily had gone on ahead. Rob ran after them, calling, "Dave! He's the one!" He tugged at the older boy's sleeve.
"Who's what one?" Dave pulled impatiently away from the scarlet mitten.
"The man we saw yesterday, the one who talked to Emily!"
Dave stopped. "Where?"
Rob pointed towards the Cathedral.
"Wait!" Dave ran back round the corner.
"Emily, he was the one," Rob said. "I'm sorry, but I know he was."
"I don't want to talk about it." Emily's face looked pale and old beyond her years. She was just moving into adolescence, but her expression had nothing childlike about it. "It couldn't have been the same one," she whispered.
"But he was real," Rob persisted. "It did happen."
Dave returned. "I didn't see anybody. Anyway, how do you know he was the one?"
"Because he had no eyebrows."
Emily gave a shudder that had nothing to do with the cold. "I don't want to think about him. I don't want to think about yesterday. Come on. Let's hurry." She took Dave's arm.
Rob backed along excitedly in front of them. "He was right under the light. And he recognized me, too. He did! He looked right at me and nodded."
"Rob!" Emily said sharply. "Not now! Not before my lesson."
Dave steered her away from a group of jostling boys and hurried her down the street, past the light from the shops, from the street lamps, from buses crowded with people coming home from work. "I suppose your lesson's going to be a knock-down drag-out fight all the way as usual?"
"Mr. Theo'll be furious if I'm late, but I know that fugue inside out. As a matter of fact--" Emily relaxed again and burst into a pleased, expectant laugh.
"What?" Rob asked. "What's funny?"
"Nothing. At least not yet. If you come along to my lesson you'll see."
"Anything for a laugh," Dave said. "Give me your key, Emily."
As they turned towards the Hudson, Emily reached inside the collar of the velvet coat and tugged at a chain with a key on it, tangling it in her hair as she pulled it over her head. "Here."
On the corner of Riverside Drive stood a large and dilapidated but still elegant stone mansion. Dave opened the heavyblue door that led into a hall with a marble floor and wide marble stairs. At the back of the hall, double doors were open into a great living room dominated by two grand pianos. By one of the pianos stood a small old man with a shaggy mane of yellowing hair.
If he had been larger he would have looked startlingly like an aging lion. He let out a roar. "So, Miss Emily Gregory!"
"So, Mr. Theotocopoulos!" She threw each syllable of his name back at him with angry precision.
"Three times in a row you come to me late."
Emily flung her head up, simultaneously unbuttoning her coat and letting it fall to the floor behind her. "How late am I?"
The old man pulled out a gold watch. Temper matched temper. "Remember, Miss, that I come personally and promptly to you, instead of making you come to my studio--"
"So I'll come to your studio--"
"In my declining years I must still work like a hog. One minute too late is too many of my valuable time--"
"I couldn't help it, orchestra rehearsal--"
"No alibis! And kindly pick up your coat and hang it up--"
"I'm going to!"
"--like a civilized human being instead of a spoiled rat."
Emily reached furiously for her coat. "I'm not spoiled!"
"You are disrupted and disreputable!"
"Then so is Dave!"
"Emily! Be courteous or be quiet!" The old man sounded as though he himself were no more than Emily's age. "I am fit to be fried."
Emily grabbed the coat and rushed towards the hall, bumpingheadlong into the doorjamb. She let out a furious yell, echoed by her music-master.
"If you knock yourself out you think that will make me sorry for you? Hang up your coat and come sit down at the piano. And do not move without thinking where you are going."
"Do I always have to think!" Emily shouted.
Rob, who had started automatically to help Emily, turned back to the room and sat on a small gold velvet sofa in front of a wall of bookshelves, the lower, wider shelves filled with music. "Do you mind if I stay?" he asked politely. "Sort of to pick up the pieces, you know, if there are any left."
"Mr. Theo," Dave said, holding himself in control, "there is a difference between mollycoddling her and--"
"Sit down!" Mr. Theo bellowed. "You are talking about a twelve-year-old girl, and I am talking about an artist. I will not let her do anything that will hurt her music. Now sit still and listen--if you have ears to hear."
Shrugging, Dave stalked over to his favorite black leather chair by the marble fireplace.
Out in the hall by the coatrack, Emily managed to get her coat to stay on its hook; then, walking carefully but with the assurance of familiarity, she came back and sat down at one of the pianos. "Then why don't you let me give a concert if you think I'm a musician?"
Mr. Theotocopoulos took her hands in his. "Why could you not come straight home from school? Cannot that so-called orchestra get along without you? And your hands are too cold to be of any use for music at all." He began to massage her fingers. "You are too young for a concert. You would be not only a child prodigy, you would be a blind child prodigy, and people wouldsay, 'Isn't she marvelous, poor little thing?' and nobody would have heard you play at all. Is that what you want?"
"No," she said.
He rubbed her hands for a moment more in silence, then asked, "What is bothering you?"
"Nothing. I don't want to talk about it."
"Something at school?"
"But there is something. Yes. Bigger than something at school. I can feel it in your hands. All right. Play, and we will see what you tell me."
"I won't tell you anything."
"You think you can hide yourself from me when you play, hah?"
"We'll see." Emily sounded grim, then gave an unexpected giggle. "Shall I start with the G minor fugue?"
Mr. Theo looked at her suspiciously. "If you think your fingers are limber enough."
She adjusted the piano bench carefully, then held her hands out over the keyboard, flexing them before starting to play. Rob sat straight on the little gold sofa. Dave slouched on the end of his spine in the leather chair and put his feet on the brass fender. Mr. Theo scowled and waited.
Emily began to play. After less than a minute Mr. Theo roared, his yellowed mane seeming to rise in rage from his bulbous forehead, "And what in the name of all I treasure is that?"
She stopped, turning her face towards his voice with an expression of wounded surprise. "You told me last week that I was to learn that fugue backwards and forwards. That's backwards."
Mr. Theotocopoulos's roars of rage turned into roars oflaughter and he grabbed Emily in a huge hug of delight. "See?" he asked, more to an imaginary audience than to Rob and Dave. "See what I mean? All right, child, let us hear. Play it backwards all the way through."
Whenever Emily was pleased with herself and her world she had a deep chuckle that gave somewhat the effect of a kitten's purr. Pleasure in her accomplishment, and it was indeed an accomplishment, made her purr now. She reached for a moment for a cumbersome sheet of Braille music manuscript, concentrated on it with a furious scowl, then grinned again and turned back to the piano. "I really rather like it this way. I wonder Bach never thought of it."
Dave turned to ask Rob, "Your family know where you are?"
"They knew I was going to wait after school for Emily. If anybody wants me they'll guess I'm here and come downstairs and get me."
"Quiet!" roared Mr. Theotocopoulos.
"The trouble with you," Emily said to her teacher without a fraction's hesitation in her playing, "is that you can't concentrate." She raised her hands from the keyboard. "It's rather splendid backwards, isn't it? Shall I do it forwards now?"
Dave closed his eyes and listened, merged, submerged in counterpoint. Rob tugged at his red overshoes until he got them off, dumped his shoes on the floor beside the boots, curled up on the gold velvet of the sofa and, listening, slept.
So no one noticed when a blond, curly-haired girl, about Emily's age, appeared on the threshold. The big double doorswere open wide and she stood, center stage, conspicuous in a quilted bathrobe that was too long for her, and with a large piece of red flannel tied round her throat. "Hi," she croaked.
Nobody paid any attention.
"Well, even if you can't hear me I should think you could smell me. I reek of Vicks." She crossed to the sofa and shook Rob. "Mother just happened to see you coming in with Emily and Dave. If you don't check in with her when you get in from school, you won't be allowed to walk home alone again."
Rob woke up, almost falling off the sofa, and yawned like a puppy. "But I wasn't alone, Suzy," he said, reasonably if sleepily. "I was with Emily and Dave."
Suzy blew her nose noisily, getting a glare from the old music teacher. "That's not the point," she whispered, her attempt at quietness almost louder than her croak. "You're still supposed to check in, you know that. Hasn't it penetrated that the Upper West Side of New York City is not a safe place for little kids to wander about in?"
"The whole world isn't a safe place," Rob said. "Anyhow, be quiet. I'm listening to Emily. How's your cold?" he added as an afterthought.
"It flourishes." Suzy pulled a fresh wad of tissues from the dressing-gown pocket. Her small nose looked red and sore from much blowing. She shuffled in her huge, fuzzy slippers over to the fireplace and sat across from Dave in a wing chair with sagging springs. "Anyhow, you weren't listening to Emily. You were sound asleep." Music apparently meant less to Suzy than it did to Rob or the older boy; she wriggled in the chair, bounced on the creaking springs, blew her nose, wriggled, sniffled, bounced,until Mr. Theotocopoulos shouted at her: "Either keep your not-listening to yourself, Miss Austin, or go upstairs to your own apartment."
"I'm not not-listening, Mr. Theo," she protested hoarsely. "Anyhow, that's not music, what you're making Emily do now."
"But it will lead to music. Sit still and kindly keep your germs to yourself. Burn your used tissues. Don't leave them around to spread the plague. Emily and I have only another fifteen minutes."
Suzy sighed, heavily, then gave a choked sneeze.
Emily, paying no attention to this contretemps, had continued to work.
"No!" Mr. Theo bellowed. "Seven against four has to be absolutely precise."
"Stinky old Papa Haydn," Emily muttered. "I don't like this sonata anyhow." But she went on working.
At the end of the lesson Mr. Theo sat on the piano bench beside her and gave her a rough hug. "Tired?"
"After a lesson with you?" She leaned against him affectionately. "Good tired, though."
"Josiah." Mr. Theo was the only one Dave allowed to call him by his first name; with the old man he had little choice. "You will sing for us now, yes?"
"I will sing for you now, no." Dave opened his eyes and glared at the old man.
But the three children began begging him, please, Dave, please, until he got up, ungraciously, and went to the piano.
Mr. Theo moved back to the long windows, covered by dusty gold velvet curtains.
Dave bent down and whispered something to Emily. She nodded and began to play, and the two of them started to sing, with mock self-pity, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child ..."
Suzy stood up, stamping. "Stop! I hate you, Dave! Stop!"
Emily took her hands from the piano, slightly shamefaced, but Dave sang on alone, mellifluous voice throbbing with assumed sentimentality, while Mr. Theo said, "That threatens you, eh, Suzy? It shakes your safe, cozy, little world? All right, let us keep it safe for a few minutes more at least. That is enough, Josiah."
At the quiet authority in the old man's voice, very different from his excitable shouting, Dave shut his mouth.
"I don't think it's very safe," Suzy said in a small voice, and blew her rosy nose.
Mr. Theotocopoulos came over to her and took her hands in his. "You are thoroughly unsterilizing me," he said, "and I am too old and fragile ["Ha!" Emily snorted] to come in such close contact with germs. And you smell revulsive." But he continued to hold her hands, looking down at her. "So. Whatever is upsetting Emily is upsetting you, too. Where did you get this so-blossoming cold?"
He held her gaze and she looked at him reluctantly. "I already had a cold. Then yesterday it poured--remember? and we got soaked. Emily's school coat wasn't even dry enough for her to wear today. And Mother and Daddy kept me home from school."
"But you are not upset because you got wet, I think."
"Mother and Daddy were furious, and at school they don't take kindly to people not wearing their school coats."
Emily jumped in quickly, "Which is more than enough to be upset about. I have three days' detention, which means three hours' practicing missed, unless I manage to get out of the library and to the horrible piano in the auditorium. Sing something decent now, Dave. We really can't wallow in being motherless while Mrs. Austin's around. Let's do 'Sleepers, Wake.' Rob likes Bach." She was very definitely changing the subject.
Rob nodded, got up from the small velvet sofa and lay down, flat on his back, on the floor in front of it.
"Child," Mr. Theo asked, "what are you doing?"
Rob explained patiently. "I like to feel the music. Dave showed me about it the first day he took me to hear you play the organ in the Cathedral. He had me lie down in the choir stalls so I could feel the music through the wood."
"Josiah, of all the paradoxical people I have ever known, you take the biscuit." Mr. Theo flung out his hands, palms up, in one of his characteristic gestures. "Sing. And properly."
Dave's voice had finished changing; it was a warm, true baritone, deep and rich, in contrast to the prickly roughness that often came to his speaking voice, or to the overlush velvet he had brought to "Motherless Child." When he sang he stood straight and tall, rather than with his characteristic slouch; his long, lean body was relaxed and easy; his restless eyes were at peace. When he had finished and the last notes of the Chorale Prelude came to a close under Emily's strong fingers, he put his hand gently on her shoulder. "If you've got much homework for me to read to you, Em, we'd better get at it."
"But it's time for dinner," Suzy protested. "It's spaghetti and we have loads, so do stay, Dave. Mother said I could askyou. And you, too, Mr. Theo, and don't forget you're all unsterile and have to wash."
Mr. Theo held his hands stiffly in front of him, demanding of Emily, "Where is your father?"
"He had a chance to go to Athens for a week. One of his pals there, a Greek archpriest or something, is having a ninetieth birthday party, which is really quite a thing, so Papa took off."
Mr. Theo raised his bushy brows. "Leaving you as usual for the Austin family to cope with?"
"They can cope." Emily grinned. "Even with me."
"Someone, then, must be giving them superhuman strength and patience." He continued to hold out his unsterile hands and sniffed as loudly as Suzy. "It is enough to make one believe in God, or, at the very least, guardian angels. Even if I find these Austins a noisy group who keep you from practicing," but he looked with affection on Suzy and Rob as he said this, "in less than three months they have had a distinctly civilizing influence upon you. They are, to say the least, an improvement over the Oriental gentlemen who were your father's last tenants and who failed singularly to take care of you."
"Mr. Theotocopoulos," Emily said, with ominous calm. "It didn't have anything to do with Dr. Shasti or Dr. Shen-shu. It wasn't their fault."
"Who is accusing them?"
"You are! You're prejudiced because they're--because they're different!"
"You mean because Shasti is Indian and Shen-shu Chinese? Idiot."
"I'm not an idio--"
"Everybody is different," Mr. Theo roared, cutting her off. "As we should be. This does not mean that I understand the Oriental mind, granted. Nor did they understand my ways of thought. But we were very good friends. I do not fall into the common error of thinking we all need to be alike and comprehensible to each other. In a way your Austins are equally foreign to me, but they, too, are my very good friends. Yes, Suzy, tell your mother that I will stay for dinner. Out of curiosity if nothing else."
"Mother's a very good cook!" Suzy defended.
"I do not question your mother's cooking, having already received on innumberable occasions of her bounty. Your mother, like many good women, works on the theory that whenever there is trouble, put the kettle on. What I question is the fact that you and Emily and, I think, Rob here, are hiding something, something at which you keep giving timid glances over your shoulders."
"Maybe we are," Suzy said. "But if we told you what it was you wouldn't believe it. Dave didn't."
"I am not as much of a skeptic as Josiah."
Emily spoke sharply. "Suzy is imagining things. And she talks too much, like the rest of her family."
"That is better than keeping things in the dark."
Emily snapped, "I didn't choose the dark."
Mr. Theo snapped back, "Stop that kind of talk and take me to some hot water and soap. Suzy, go dispose of your soiled tissues." He followed Emily out.
Suzy put her used tissues in a corner of the fireplace and looked around for a match. "I suppose Dr. Gregory took them all to Athens with him. Got a match, Dave?"
Dave produced a matchbook and she lit the tissues. "That Mr. Theo can make me so mad." She scowled at the flames.
"Forget it. His bark is worse than his bite."
"Don't you mean his Bach?" Rob asked.
Dave ignored this. "And he'd die for Emily. Well, maybe not for Emily as Emily, but for Emily as a musician."
"Is there a difference?" Rob cocked his head on one side questioningly. "I mean, aren't people what they are?"
"What're you talking about?" Suzy asked impatiently. "Don't be such a baby, Rob. Emily's Emily and the piano is something else."
But Rob shook his head, putting his shoes back on and struggling with the laces. "What about Daddy? He's Daddy and he's a doctor, and that's Daddy. If he were a scholar, like Dr. Gregory, or a musician, like Mr. Theo, he'd be a different person. He wouldn't be himself, he'd be somebody else."
"For heaven's sake talk sense, Rob," Suzy said.
"Hey." Dave gave an unexpectedly warm and gentle smile. "You're too young to tie your shoelaces properly and you're already talking like Dr. Gregory. Give me your foot."
"Well, I like Emily's father." Rob stuck his foot in its untied shoe out to Dave. "He wanted to take me to Athens with him and I wanted to go."
"Why didn't he, then?" Dave tied the laces in a double knot. "He usually does whatever he wants. Let me have your other foot."
Suzy said, "Daddy said no, for one thing."
"What he said," Rob corrected her, "was, not this time."
"Listen." Dave continued holding the little boy's foot,though he had finished tying the shoelaces. "You really going to tell your parents? Everything?"
Rob looked directly at him with wide, blue eyes. "Emily told you."
"Why?" Suzy asked. "You don't understand it any more than we do. Maybe Mother and Daddy will."
"They aren't omnipotent."
"What's that mean?" Rob asked. "Oh, hi, Mr. Theo, are you antiseptic again?"
Mr. Theotocopoulos stood in the doorway, one arm about Emily's waist. "I doubt it. Don't surgeons have to wash their hands for twenty minutes? Emily allowed me a bare five. I must ask your father before eating dinner. Suzy, if you will get me that enormous and idiotic dog of yours I will walk it over to Broadway and procure a bottle of wine as my contribution to the meal."
As she left the room Suzy whispered to Emily, "I've got to tell Mother and Daddy. Don't you and Dave try to stop me."
THE YOUNG UNICORNS. Copyright © 1968 by Madeleine L'Engle Franklin. All rights reserved. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.