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Chapter Three

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« on: July 28, 2023, 08:04:10 am »

DURING the next few days, Orvil became strongly influenced by the old-fashioned book on physical culture. What had been taken up so idly grew to have great importance for him. Before breakfast every morning he lay on the grey carpet in his bedroom and raised his legs painfully. He delighted in the tightening and hardening and aching of his stomach muscles. He lay face down, his nose buried in the dusty pile, and then raised himself, taking his whole weight on his arms. He twisted his trunk, his neck, his arms, his wrists, his ankles---everything that could be twisted. At the end of the exercises, he went to the wide-open window and took enormous breaths of air, throwing out his arms in a pontifical gesture; then he stripped both eiderdowns off the beds and, wrapping them tightly round him, shut himself up in the wardrobe. He did this in an attempt to bring about a profuse sweating; this was something the book strongly recommended.

In spite of the violent exercise and the stifling layers of quilt, Orvil never considered that he sweated enough. So one morning he decided not to get into the wardrobe but to shut himself in an even more confined space, the bottom drawer of the dressing-chest. Being small, he found he was able to fit into the drawer, but as soon as he tried to shut it, by pushing against the drawer above, he was overcome with the horror of being a prisoner.

Through his mind flashed the memory of a mid-Victorian book of his aunt’s. The book had dark woodcuts of Eastern scenes. One was of a dungeon with large boxes lying about on the floor. They looked like ordinary packing-cases; until the round holes carved in their sides were noticed.

Orvil scrambled madly out of the drawer, tossed off the eiderdowns, and ran into the bathroom for his cold bath. This was the final painful excitement of his new regime. He began by having the bath tepid; then he let more and more cold water in, until it was nearly overflowing on to the floor. He ducked his head under, wriggled about, watched the goose-flesh grow and shudder on his arms, and noticed the glistening oily look of his wet thighs. He was beginning to delight in his body. He longed to make it like the body of the coarse man on the cover of the book. He hoped that he would grow much taller.

Now that he was becoming so interested in his body, he felt that his clothes were no longer in keeping with his new character. They were not at all sporting or tough. They were drab-coloured and correct. His aunt, who chose all his things, had seen to it that they should be as safe and dull as possible. The only garment that was not quite covered by this description was a pair of light fawn plus-fours which had been bought in Switzerland to be used only for skating.

Orvil now took these from a drawer and decided to wear them with an open-necked shirt and a sweater. The problem of what shoes to wear next puzzled him. His ordinary black or brown shoes did not satisfy him at all, sa he took up his white gym. shoes and in a moment of inspiration started to paint black toes, bars and heels on them with his water-colours. Soon he had a pair of those co-respondent shoes which he had always considered so daring and vulgar. The transformation delighted him. That anyone could tell that the shoes were nothing more than painted gym. shoes did not worry Orvil at all. He just half-closed his eyes to make the illusion more complete.

Dressed in these clothes and with his hair left rough, Orvil went down to breakfast. As usual, he had his meal alone; and no one noticed him till afterwards, when Charles came up to him in the drive and said, “Hullo.” There was a pause in which he gave Orvil a significant look, then he added, “My God, you look tough!”

Although Orvil felt embarrassed by the exclamation, he took it as a kind of tribute, and blinded himself to its real meaning, which was, of course “My God, how appalling you look!”

While they were standing thus awkwardly in the drive, wondering what to say or do next, they were very surprised to see Ben approaching. He had evidently come straight from camp, for he looked very dirty and rather tired.

“Why didn’t you let us know when you were arriving, then we could have come to fetch you?” said Charles, who never told anyone of his movements.

Orvil took Ben upstairs, showed him their bedroom, and sat by him as he soaked in an extremely hot bath. He lay there minute after minute, rolling his eyes, lolling his head, grunting and dribbling, pretending that the water had drugged and stupefied him. At first Orvil was amused, but then he became alarmed and annoyed. He shook Ben’s shoulder.

“Get out,” he said sternly, “it’s too hot. You’ll lose all your energy. You ought to have a cold bath now to revive you.”

He leant forward to turn on the cold tap, but Ben was not going to stand anything of that sort. He threw Orvil’s hand away roughly and lay back in the hot water for a few more minutes; then he dragged himself lazily out of the bath and asked Orvil to rub his back. Long rolls of dirt came off as Orvil rubbed with the harsh towel.

“You’re still dirty,” he said.

“No I'm not,” said Ben, “that’s dead skin. That always comes off when you rub hard.”

Afterwards the three brothers met in the court. Before they came downstairs, Ben had told Orvil that he must take off the painted gym. shoes and put on an ordinary brown pair instead. Charles was much relieved when he noticed this change.

“What shall we do?” he asked, looking at his two younger brothers.

Out of nervous desire to fill a gap, Orvil said, “Have you been on the river yet? We might do that.”

The moment after, he wished he had not spoken, for he had no desire to visit the river with his brothers. He realized too late that he wanted to keep it entirely to himself.

“All right, we’ll do that,” said Charles.

They left the court and started to walk towards the garages. Charles got his car out and told Orvil to sit next to him and point out the way. This car was the Bugatti Orvil hated. When forced to ride in it, he generally crouched in the box at the back with his head under the rug. Now he was obliged to sit up and keep his eyes open. Charles shouted remarks to Ben in the back as they roared over the short bit of road which led down to the stone bridge.

Charles chose a rowing-boat and they set off upstream. Charles and Ben took turns at rowing, so there was nothing for Orvil to do. Very soon, Charles began to curse and swear. He cursed the river, the boat and his brothers. He said he hated rowing, and loathed sweating in the sun.

Orvil sat watching his eldest brother silently. Every now and then he darted a swift glance at the banks in an effort to find something to hold his attention and change his train of thought; but he could not rid his mind of the picture of Charles’s face. Everything was being spoilt and destroyed by Charles.

Ben was rowing now. Each time he splashed, Charles blasphemed and swore almost insanely. At the very peak of their sullenness, the red canoe suddenly shot past them. The two boys and the man were paddling at great speed and in perfect rhythm. As before, they were talking quietly, laughing, utterly preoccupied, taking no notice of the outside world.

Orvil turned his eyes immediately on Charles to note the effect of this sight on his brother. He saw the peculiar, conventionally supercilious look deepen and harden, the look of exacerbation grow even more pronounced. But Charles said nothing.

Orvil was only waiting now to get out of the boat, to put as much space between himself and Charles as possible. He found it quite impossible to control or reason away his extreme fear of, and distate for, his eldest brother. He only knew that Charles spoilt everything for him, and that was enough to make him more hated than any other human being.

When at last they got back to the boat-house, Charles fumbled with his small change and then asked Orvil for another shilling, explaining that he did not want to change a note. This was the final outrage. Charles, who had so much money, was robbing him of one of his precious shillings. Orvil thrust out the coin blindly, then turned and ran, before the others could see the tears of rage in his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Ben shouted after him anxiously, wanting to be kind.

“Leave him alone,” said Charles in a special, weary, bored voice.

As soon as Orvil was out of sight he slackened his pace and began to look in the shop windows; for he was now in the streets of the town.

He noticed with delight that a large antique and junk shop stood on the opposite side of the road some way ahead. He hurried towards it. The window rambled across the fronts of two houses, one large and one small, so there was much crookedness and contrivance. I do not mean that the effect was quaint; it was merely interesting in its obscurity and suggestion of hidden things. The eye had to dodge small iron supports and girders as it tried to penetrate to the back of the shop.

Orvil stood in front of this large window and started to look methodically along the loaded shelves and tables. He was pleased and relieved to see that it was in no way a polished, licked-up, expensive-looking antique shop. It was dusty and dirty and extremely untidy, with a great deal of household rubbish lying about in heaps.

He knew in a moment that he was going to buy something here. He was only waiting for his eye to come to rest on the right object.

It was not until he reached the far corner of the window that he came upon the little shelf of oddments: a Victorian sausage bag of rusty steel beads, an ivory back-scratcher in the form of a tiny hand at the end of a long scarlet stick, some mother-of-pearl counters carved with minute Chinamen, a staring blue Egyptian eye strung on a necklace of mummy beads, some sinister-looking old surgical instruments in a small eighteenth-century shagreen case which tried hard to look like a pretty etui.

Still farther along the shelf, Orvil discovered a little scent-bottle painted with very brilliant, very fantastic insects, and a mended saucer of that Chinese ware which was made to the order of English families. The saucer was charmingly painted with a gold diaper border and pomegranates. The delightful, incongruous European coat of arms was arranged in the middle, and dead-looking black mantling and touches of red rococo foliage surrounded it.

Orvil immediately wanted the saucer. He was pleased that it was broken, for otherwise it would have been too expensive for him. He wanted the scent-bottle too, because of the bright insects.

He opened the door quickly, without giving his nervousness too much time to grow. The woman behind the counter looked surprised, but she seemed to decide to take him seriously. She let him have the scent-bottle for half a crown and threw in the saucer for sixpence, because it was so badly broken.

“The scent-bottle’s got a real silver knob,” she kept telling Orvil. “It’s only being sold so cheap because it’s old stock.”

She went to find a piece of tissue paper for Orvil’s things; and while she was away, he cast his eyes rapidly over the shop.

‘How easy it would be to steal something!’ he thought. ‘I could pick up that pomade-pot lid and slip it in my pocket as easy as pie. But who would want to?---Hideous thing.’

He looked about, trying to find a really beautiful object, but his eye was suddenly caught by something so alarming that it forgot its search.

On a low stool stood a work-bag made out of a baby armadillo. Gathered cherry satin now took the place of guts, entrails and organs; and needle-cases, glittering scissors, reels of coloured thread, lay neatly in their separate compartments. Only the back and head and paws and tail of the armadillo remained.

Orvil lifted the bag and felt along the reptile back. Strong black hairs sprouted between the scales. The eyes were heavy-lidded, shrivelled and blind; the tiny feet dried and curled into bird claws. He put it down and turned away, feeling sick.

The woman came back with his small parcel and he left at once.

As Orvil walked along the street, his fingers kept picking at the tissue paper, wanting to unroll the parcel. He passed a dairy shop. Through the window he could see small tables and green cane chairs sprayed with gold paint. A large card hung against the glass with the word ‘Ices’ painted on it. Each letter was a different colour, and each had a bulging cap of snow which dripped down into icicles. Orvil immediately turned in at the door, sat down at one of the tables and unrolled his parcel.

The waitress stared, when she came to take his order and found him poring over the saucer and the little scent-bottle.

He ordered strawberry ice-cream and ate it absently, with his eyes still fixed on the objects. The milk in the ice-cream coated his tongue with a thin film. He grated his tongue against his teeth to remove the film and to savour it. It seemed to come off in rolls. The line for a poem, “To feast your eyes and feast your stomach too,” ran through his head, on and on, in lulling rhythm.

When he had finished his ice-cream and had done up his parcel again, he told himself rather meanly and timidly that the waitress was too ladylike to tip. He paid his small bill and left before he could see any disappointment on her face.

He passed right through the town and walked for some distance along the road on the other side. As he turned in at the hotel gates, he felt the parcel in his pocket pressing gently against his side, and it gave him a sudden and peculiar pleasure, a feeling of protection in an enemy world.

Partly from a wish to avoid other human beings and partly from his love of exploring, he decided to try to enter the hotel through the new ballroom wing. He went up to the end farthest from the old building and turned the handle of a small door underneath some trees. It opened, and he found himself in a whitewashed brick passage with a cloakroom lined with hooks on one side. This evidently was for the musicians. At the end of the short passage were a few steps. Orvil climbed up them and found himself on a small stage, looking out across a polished floor of very narrow, reddish boards. A grand piano and some other instruments in canvas covers stood on the stage. The piano was open and the large inlaid brass letters ‘BECHSTEIN’ jumped out at him.

‘It must be good,’ thought Orvil, going quickly up to it and sitting down on the stool. With his foot on the soft pedal, he began to play one of the few pieces he knew by heart. He sang it, too, in his highest treble voice, which was really falsetto now.

It is not very easy to sing to Chopin’s Prelude No 6, Opus 28, and Orvil soon tired his voice. The effort to keep it so unnaturally high was a strain. He tried singing bass next, but this was even worse. He ended up by just croaking and grunting and swearing in time to the music.

Suddenly his hands fell from the keyboard and his whole body drooped and sagged. He felt utterly forlorn and miserable. This feeling often overcame him as he sat at a piano. He had even grown used to it; but now the desolate setting of an unknown ballroom made it overpowering.

Orvil spun round on the stool and then walked up and down the stage in a feverish way. He went up to the other instruments and started to pull back the canvas coverings, but even his curiosity had deserted him and he had no wish to feel the ’cello where it was clutched between the player’s knees, or to finger the shiny bowl which fitted under the violinist’s chin.

While he was roughly and impatiently fumbling in this way with the cover of the double-bass, one of the straps snapped. A little shower of powder fell from the tear in the rotten leather.

For a moment Orvil stared at the short thick strap in his hand. Then he went swiftly down to the musicians’ whitewashed cloakroom and locked himself in. A strange idea had come to him, filling him with excitement.

He started to strip off his clothes and fling them on to the hooks round the wall. When he was quite naked, except for his shoes and socks, he took up the strap and went to stand in front of the looking-glass. He looked at himself earnestly for a moment; then, with a violent movement, he swung his arm across his chest, so that the strap licked round his back, the tip just stinging the tender flesh under his arm.

He saw his face jump and twist with pain. His bared teeth flashed back from the glass as he drew in a hissing breath. He hesitated, wondering if he could stand another lash; then he stopped breathing, bit hard, and struck again . . .

He was Henry II, doing penance at Becket’s tomb. He was a disobedient powder-monkey on an old man-of-war. He was a convict, tied to a tree in Tasmania; a galley slave; a Christian martyr; a noble hermit, alone in the desert.

At the sixth stroke he dropped the strap and danced about the room, half in pain, half in elation.

“I shall scourge myself and do penance every day,” he swore aloud.

He went up to the mirror again and turned his back to it. Looking ever his shoulder, he delighted in the sore, hot lines on the white skin. They were a brilliant scarlet. He hoped that they would turn into deep purple-black bruises with bright yellow edges. He knew exactly how they should look, from his experience at school. There, all boys who had been beaten were expected to show their marks to the rest of the dormitory before getting into bed.

Walking behind the ballroom wing, he came to a meadow where two horses grazed. Half-buried in the long grass in one corner was a large old roller. Orvil went up to it and sat down to rest on the rust-bitten iron. He really felt very happy and contented now. His foot played to and fro through the tall powdery grass. He hummed a little---the Thais song again.

Suddenly his foot struck against something hard. He bent down and felt at the roots of the grass. His fingers closed on the links of a large chain. He pulled, but the chain was so embedded that it would not come away at first. When he did pull it up, he found that it was attached to the shafts of the roller.

Almost automatically, Orvil knotted the extremely dirty and heavy chain round his waist, and then swayed from side to side, quite carried away by some new reverie.

Now he was chained up for ever to the roller in the comer of this field. He would have to drag it backwards and forwards over the grass for the rest of his life. The thought was peaceful and soothing. He started to chant a new, dirge-like song, making it up phrase by phrase. The tune had something of the Christian hymn, the negro blues and the labour shanty about it. The words were either pure inventions, or real words accented capriciously. Sometimes a whole sentence emerged; usually some nonsense rhyme, or an abject remark, with a facetious twist to it, made to some imaginary person, who was always addressed with extreme respect as ‘Sir.’

“You bet I’ll lick your boots, Sir!” Orvil chanted.

Ben, returning alone across the fields from the town, came upon Orvil singing like this, with the chain about his waist.

“Christ! What are you doing?” he exclaimed in utter amazement.

Orvil swung round and opened his eyes.

“Don’t say ‘Christ,’” he said sharply. His face had turned very red.

“You know, you’d be locked up if anyone else found you doing this sort of thing,” Ben blustered. He came forward and jerked the chain. “For God’s sake get that thing off before any other people come by.”

Orvil untied the clumsy chain and let it fall to the ground. As it glanced off his body, he felt a crunch. Only then did he remember his little saucer and scent-bottle. He felt anxiously through his pocket, not daring to pull the parcel out. His heart and stomach contracted. The saucer seemed to be in two pieces. He pulled the tissue paper apart and looked. The scent-bottle was unharmed but the saucer was broken. Orvil bent over it to examine it minutely and to hide his shocked face from Ben. Suddenly he yelled delightedly, “It’s only come apart where it was broken before!”

He held the two pieces together lovingly, trying not to let the broken edges rasp against each other.

“Have you been buying more junk?” Ben asked.

“Yes, a lovely little Chinese armorial saucer and a scent-bottle which I know nothing about, except that it has very pretty insects on it.” Orvil took Ben’s arm and dragged him forward impetuously. He was in tremendous spirits now. “Come on quickly,” he yelled. “We’ll go up to our room, and you can talk to me while I’m mending the saucer. I didn’t break it after all!” he repeated joyfully.

“What do you buy all this broken muck for?” Ben asked in his most brutally matter-of-fact voice. He knew that this attitude would please and not irritate Orvil. “What’s the good of it? What can you do with it?---It’s a sort of disease---it’s a mania.”

“Why do you like hitting balls, or offing engines, or unscrewing nuts?” replied Orvil, copying Ben’s manner as closely as possible.

They both went up together to their room, happily arguing and exaggerating, enjoying the caricatures they drew of each other’s natures.

And Ben decided after all not to ask why Orvil turned and ran while Charles was paying the boatman.

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