Page 5 of The Protege

I go over and kneel down in front of her so that my face is on a level with hers. “Hello.” She raises her eyes and they’re a beautiful shade of jewel green, thickly outlined with dark auburn lashes. “What’s your name?”

The bow twists in her fingers. “Mrs. Davis says we’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“Who’s Mrs. Davis?”

“My teacher.”

Cello teacher? No, more likely a school teacher. Where are her parents? Why aren’t they impressing on her that she shouldn’t talk to strangers? She’s so small and slight that she could be picked up like so much fluff and spirited away. Whoever has her in their charge is neglecting their duty of care and I find myself growing angry with this unknown person.

Swallowing that down, I hold out my hand to her, and after switching her bow into her left she puts her small one into mine. Her fingers are freezing. I wonder how she can she possibly play with fingers so cold. “My name is Laszlo Valmary. Pleased to meet you.”

Solemnly, she shakes my hand. “Isabeau Laurent. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Valmary.”

I smile. Isabeau. A beautiful name for a beautiful girl, and her manners are as lovely as her playing. “That’s a nice cello.”

“It was my mother’s.”

Ah. That explains why it’s too big for her. “Where is she?”

“She’s dead.”

My lips compress with sympathy. “And your father?”

Isabeau chews the corner her lip. She doesn’t want to answer. I examine her shabby coat with a button missing; the twenty coins or so of change that have accumulated in her cello case. She’s probably not getting the lessons she needs to develop her talent. She doesn’t even seem to be getting the basic care she needs. “Do you like playing the cello, Isabeau?”

She holds the instrument closer to her body as if I’m going to take it away from her and stares at the ground, defiant. “Yes. I like it a lot.”

Sweet girl, you needn’t be defensive about your love of that beautiful instrument to me. I understand perfectly.

I tilt my head down a few inches and catch her eye. “Is your father at home? Will you take me to meet him?”

“Why?”

I open my leather music case and pull out the newspaper article. She reads the headline and looks at the picture that accompanies the story. “That’s me, Isabeau. I have an orchestra filled with musicians like you. Only the very best people, and I think one day you might be one of those people.”

Isabeau takes the newsprint from my hands and studies the picture and then my face, comparing my features carefully. She passes the page back and packs her instrument away, scooping the few coins from her cello case into her pocket. Then she looks up at me, her face a serious oval. “Yes please, Laszlo.”

I know then that Isabeau Laurent is going to be very, very important to me. She’s going to be my protégé.

She lugs her cello case two-handed down the street, her feet moving in an awkward one-two, one-two fashion. I hold out my hand for it. “Let me carry that for you.”

Isabeau lets go with reluctance, and as we walk she keeps her eyes fixed on the instrument as if she daren’t let it out of her sight. Her house is two streets away and as we walk I feel my apprehension grow. This is one of the more unpleasant areas of London but I try not to allow my North London privilege make assumptions about Isabeau’s home life.

When we get to what I assume is her front door Isabeau lets herself in with a key. It’s a two-story Victorian terrace with grubby windows and a front door that looks like it’s had one lock broken and another badly fitted. I follow her inside and she takes her cello from me and disappears upstairs with it, taking pains not to let the instrument bang on the steps as she goes.

The rooms on the ground floor smell sour and there’s a man with a thin face lying in the front room on a mattress, asleep. He seems to be using the lounge as a bedroom as there are discarded t-shirts and jeans lying across an armchair.

“Mr. Laurent?”

The man opens his eyes and fixes me with a look of blurry surprise. “Huh? Who are you?”

I don’t answer right away, letting my eyes travel around the room and then back up the stairs. “I found your daughter playing her cello on the high street.”

The man grunts and hauls himself to his feet, using the back of the sofa for support. This takes effort, as if he’s in pain. So that’s why he’s sleeping down here. When he pushes past me on the way to the kitchen he notices the way I’m looking at his uneven gait.

“Broken back,” he grunts.

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