Page 9 of The Protege

Laszlo’s big house is hushed as I carry my cello carefully downstairs and prop the front door open with an umbrella so that I can get back in again. I’ll have to ask him for a key so that I can always get back in.

Down on the corner I set up my instrument and start to play. I don’t know any of the names of the pieces. My mother taught me these songs and I think of them as the one with the nah-na-nah part or the one that gets really fast at the end. Every now and then I mix all the pieces I know together and come up with a new song, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There aren’t as many people walking by here as there are on the main street near home and most of them frown at me. A few give me coins. I’m lost in playing the nah-na-nah piece when I hear a sharp voice behind me.

“Isabeau. What are you doing out here?”

When I open my eyes I see Laszlo towering over me, and he’s frowning like the other people. Maybe I was wrong and people in this part of London don’t like music. Maybe I’ve upset everyone. I rub the back of the bow against my jeans, uncertain.

He kneels down before me, his frown disappearing. “It’s all right. I was just worried because I didn’t know where you were. Why are you busking? You can play in the house. I like hearing you play.”

I believe him, and I didn’t come outside because I thought my cello would bother him. But I don’t know how to tell him why I did come outside, not when there are only three coins in my cello case.

“You can tell me. I won’t be angry.”

“For the money. In case there isn’t enough. So you don’t sell my cello.”

He looks pained. “Oh, sweetheart. I would never, ever do that. No one’s going to take your cello away from you. Not me, and not anyone else. I won’t let them.”

I look at the three pathetic silver coins and I know that they’re nowhere near enough to pay for music lessons or a place to live or even the dinner we ate last night. “I don’t understand why you would do that for me.”

“Because you love music like I love music. One day people will be very moved when they hear you play and knowing that I helped with that will make me very happy.”

“Is this what a conductor does?”

He thinks for a moment. “Yes, in a way. Like in a piece of music, I’m here to see that everything unfolds as it’s supposed to. That’s my job. You play the very best you can, in a way that makes you happy. That’s your job. You’re not to worry about anything. The worrying is my job, too.”

“Doesn’t worrying keep you awake at night?”

He smiles. I like his face so much when he smiles. His canines are pointed and he should look strange with teeth like that but he just looks interesting.

“No, I like it. It’s not worry to me.” He looks at me holding my instrument and frowns. “But I do think you need a second cello, for now. One that you can play sitting down, like a real cellist, and get your arm around properly. Would you like that?”

I stare at him. Two cellos. Who could possibly ever possess two whole cellos all to themselves? Even Laszlo who lives in music only has one piano. But the idea of a cello that’s my size sounds exciting.

“I would still keep this one?”

“Of course. This is a beautiful cello for a grown up young lady to play on and it will be waiting for you when you’re ready to play it.”

We go back inside and I try to give him the money I got from playing. It’s only thirty-five pence but I want him to have it.

He shakes his head. “You keep it. I conducted a symphony two nights ago and they gave me some money.”

“How much did you get?”

He smiles his pointed smile. “Thirty pence.”

“Don’t be silly, Laszlo! How much really?”

“All right, you got me. It was only twenty pence.”

Later after breakfast he takes me into town to a music shop and Laszlo and the salesperson discuss half-size versus three-quarter cellos and something called playability. I try a few of the cellos and settle on one that’s not quite as tall as I am and makes sounds that I like when I play it. Laszlo finally stops talking and stands with his arms folded and just listens to me.

I finish the one that gets loud at the end and smile because it was so much fun to play on this cello. I didn’t need stretch my arm so much to get the longest notes.