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Chapter Seven

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« on: July 28, 2023, 01:09:43 pm »

WHEN Orvil got back to the hotel from Hastings, he went down to the river to be alone.

The holidays were coming to an end. He tried to face the fact calmly, but the thought of going back to school was too horrible for him. He had to walk alone and fight and argue with himself all day.

Along the river-bank some of the trees were just beginning to change colour. Showers of narrow yellow leaves fell on the water and floated there, looking like the pale bellies of little dead fish.

There were fewer punts and canoes about now. No one passed Orvil on the tow-path. He had brought out the Chinese agate chicken which his mother had once given him, and as he walked along, he held it tight in his hand. Gradually the chill left the milky stone. Abstractedly he rubbed it up and down on his trousers, and polished it till its little round eye sparkled back at him wickedly; then he breathed on it and covered it with a diamond dew. He popped it into his mouth and sucked it as if it had been a large sweet. It rang against his teeth, sounding like metal toe-caps on cold pavements. He left it in his mouth and walked more and more rapidly. His thoughts were becoming uncontrollable. To stop their unbearable flow he told himself stories in pictures.

All round the room his family and the school authorities were prowling like wild beasts. They had long teeth and claws like the mad Nebuchadnezzar; but they were powerless; for the door had double Yale padlocks and four bolts, and the windows bullet-proof glass.

He went out only at night, and then he climbed on to the roof of the building, where there was a contrivance rather like those aerial devices which waft money to the pay-desk in some old-fashioned drapery shops. He had only to hang on to this wire and wish, when he would find himself swishing through the air to his destination. The long-clawed, long-toothed relations and school authorities looked up and cursed as they saw him flying gloriously free a hundred feet above their heads.

Orvil’s phantasy changed. He was now before a tribunal where God was asking him questions. The first was: “Would you climb to the top of the rope ladder in the Gymnasium at school and hang by your feet there, if by so doing you were able to bring your mother back to life?” Orvil thought agonizedly and then decided that he could only truthfully say that he would try. When he reached the top of the ladder and found himself amongst the rafters, the terror might be too great.

“Would you rather take a sound beating from the Headmaster, then?” asked God with devilish persistence.

Orvil thought of the School Marshal, the disgusting ceremonial, a description which he had once read of blood spattering whitewashed walls, and said, “No,” definitely if sorrowfully.

“I’d swop my father for her,” Orvil suggested.

“Oh you would, would you!”

God was getting dangerous.

“Of course, in that case you wouldn’t have any money to live on; I’d have to take every penny with your father. You and your mother, I’m afraid, would have to eat garbage in the gutter. I couldn’t possibly leave either of you with a penny. I don’t think she’d fancy garbage in the gutter, do you? You might not even care for it yourself.”

“We’d only need very little money,” said Orvil. “We could earn it keeping shops. My mother could keep a very clever smart dress shop, and I could have a wonderful antique shop full of the best things I could find.”

“What! A couple of fools like you keep shops!” jeered God in a coarse-grained way. “You’d be lucky if you got the job of lavatory man at Charing Cross Station, and as for her, she’d be absolutely hopeless at anything. She wouldn’t even be taken on as chambermaid in a boardinghouse.”

The interview was not turning out at all according to plan. Orvil was trying to think out a sentence which would prove to God his own and his mother’s cleverness, when he suddenly found himself at the opening in the bushes which led to the Mission hut. The remembrance of the schoolmaster and the rainy afternoon when he had had tea with him cut across his argument. He forgot God and his mother for a moment and thought that he would like to see the schoolmaster again. He wondered if he had offended the man, the last time he saw him, by riding off on his bicycle and refusing to turn round. He himself had been hurt and outraged because the man, as soon as his hands were untied, had given him a good cuff. It had all been a game; and then the man had given him a good cuff.

But Orvil was willing to forget all this now. He wanted to be near someone of good sense and strength, someone who would offer him good advice with no hesitating. He wanted to stop using his own will.

As silently as possible he slipped between the young trees, planning to disappear at once if he saw boys from the London Mission, or other strangers.

No one seemed to be about. The front of the hut looked deserted. The table had been placed on its side and a small twig had been stuck through the latch of ‘Buckingham Palace.’ Orvil was afraid that the place had already been shut up for the winter. He crept round the corner and walked along until he came to the window near which the holy lamp hung. He looked in and saw it glowing red and steady against the gloom. He knew then that someone was living there still.

Peering farther into the room, he discovered with a shock that the schoolmaster was sitting on the edge of the settee close to the oil-stove. He sat very still and upright, only his hand moving up and down rhythmically. He was sewing a patch on some khaki shorts.

And as he sewed he sang: “Mirror, mirror in my hand----”

The music stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The needle had become unthreaded. Orvil saw the man lick the cotton, twiddle it between his fingers, and then hold the needle up to the light. He seemed to cross his eyes as he tried to get the cotton through the eye. Orvil wanted to thread it for him; he knew that he could do it easily.

At last the man succeeded and began to work again contentedly. He was enjoying himself. He began to hum and then to sing.

   “Mirror, mirror in my hand,
    Who’s the fairest in the land?”


The words could be heard quite plainly through the glass. Orvil wondered if the man quoted them correctly. The music seemed to be his own invention. He was singing variations now in a deep ponderous voice with unexpected Handelian ornaments.

Suddenly, on impulse, Orvil joined in high above the mart He echoed the words with his mouth close to the corner ofthe pane. He leant his cheek against the rough wooden boards and waited. From this position he could just see the man’s head. He saw it jerk up in surprise. The eyes searched from side to side, then turned up to the roof as if expecting to find the owner of the voice crouching on one of the metal supports or on one of the narrow wooden rafters. After a few more uncertain glances round the hut, the man bent his head and returned to his work, having decided evidently that his ears had played him false.

Orvil waited a few moments and then sang the words again in an even more unearthly and emasculate voice.

This time the man looked really alarmed. He got up, dropping the trousers on the floor, and made a sharp rapid inspection of the room. He moved towards his luggage, which was already stacked by the door. He looked behind it, then went over to the basins on their trestle table. They had been turned upside down; the beds were all stripped. It was clear that he was about to shut up the hut for the winter.

As the man approached the window where the holy lamp hung, Orvil ducked his head, then ran along the wall and turned the corner of the hut. He waited at the back, close to a neat pile of tins in a new-dug hole.

The man was opening the door and coming out. He heard him walking over the soft damp ground.

Panic seized Orvil. Something made it quite impossible for him to reveal himself to the man. He hoped that the man would go back into the hut, but when the footsteps grew nearer and nearer, Orvil could stand the strain no longer. He broke and ran.

The man gave chase. They raced through the whipping bushes. Orvil turned his ankle slightly on an uneven piece of ground. The pain was nothing, and he regained his balance almost at once; but the man had gained on him. The man suddenly threw himself forward and tackled Orvil. He only managed to imprison one foot, but at his touch Orvil seemed to go mad. He looked down in horror at the man lying on the ground clinging to his foot; then with his imprisoned foot he began to kick against the man’s face violently. He felt the hardness of bone, the click of teeth. He saw the fresh blood sprouting in perfect globes from the muddied graze made by his shoe, just below the man’s eye.

“Let me go, let me go!” he yelled. He was filled with a terrible hopelessness. Callously he began to kick at the man’s face again. But the man had recovered now from his shock and surprise. With a vicious and expert twist of Orvil’s knee, he brought him down into the mud beside him. In a moment he was kneeling with his whole weight on Orvil’s chest. He spread-eagled his arms and pinned them down.

“Now, what’s wrong with you?” he asked in an elaborately grim, analytical voice.

Tears were pouring down Orvil’s face. He had abandoned himself to a storm of crying. He jerked his head from side to side, never looking once at the man.

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” he shouted. He was speaking to no one, only fighting with himself.

“Can’t what?” asked the man flatly.

“Get away, swine!” Orvil spat at him.

The man quietly hit him in the face. The stinging blow seemed to wake Orvil. It made him look quite calmly up into the man’s face. He looked deep into his eyes. He saw that they were made of long tingling spears of brown and green and grey and yellow;---and underneath, behind,---a hollowness, a deep black cave of seeing darkness.

Orvil’s frenzy drained out of him, seeming to take half his life with it.

“Hullo,” he said in a dazed, shaking voice.

The man said nothing, but pinned him even closer to the earth. He was looking down with a hard stare. Orvil felt sick from the pressure of his bony knee. It dug into the pit of his stomach, creating a tangled churning pain.

Orvil watched the blood pushing through the mud on his cheek and falling in drops on to his own clothes, as the man bent over him. One drop even fell on his face. Orvil saw it coming, shut his eyes and waited. He felt it splash, warm and sickly, against the comer of his mouth. A trickle worked through his shut lips on to his tongue. He tasted the salt. ‘It’s beef-tea,’ he thought. ‘Nurse used to say it was beef-tea.’

“Are you going to behave properly now?” asked the man.

“You’re hurting me,” said Orvil.

“Well, look what you’ve done to my face!” exclaimed the man, suddenly releasing Orvil in one movement and putting his hands up to his cheek. He touched the raw place gingerly and withdrew his hands with a little hiss.

Overcome with remorse, Orvil stared blankly at him.

“Oh, sorry, so sorry,” he said, springing up and kneeling down beside the man with his handkerchief in his hand.

Without asking permission, he began delicately to wipe the mud away. The man let him do it. Orvil soaked up some of the blood, putting his handkerchief over the wound and pressing very gently. The man’s eye and mouth twitched when he touched the raw flesh.

“It’s a bad graze,” he said soberly, sitting down beside the man and looking at the mud and blood left on his handkerchief.

It was cold on the ground under the damp trees. The grey sky hung low over the too supple, clacking trunks, and the thin leaves dangled ripe and heavy, about to fall.

“Melancholy,” Orvil said, talking to himself.

“Why did you play tricks on me and then run away?” asked the man.

“I don’t know, I suddenly thought I couldn’t face you.”

“Why are you so timid?”

“I’m not timid, I’m frightened,” said Orvil.

“What of?”

“Everything; I’ve got to go back to school.”

“That’s nothing. You’ve often been back before. You know all about it. You’re just reaching the age when you’ll begin to enjoy it thoroughly. No one likes it much at the beginning; then they find that they’re enjoying it more and more, until they hate the thought of leaving.”

Again Orvil had the feeling of not being able to get any help, of the futility of trying. He knew that at this point he was expected to say that school was all right, that he was really being silly, that everything was fine; but instead, he looked away through the trees and forced himself to say: “I want to die.”

The man looked disgusted.

“That sounds very silly and melodramatic,” he said coldly.

“I don’t understand how to live, what to do,” said Orvil in a rising voice, taunted by these words.

The man didn’t answer for a moment; then he asked: “Where’s your mother?”

Orvil started. He looked at the man sharply.

“She’s dead,” he said. “She died a long time ago--- when I was twelve. Sometimes we used to quarrel and then she’d hit me and I’d hit her back. Once she tried to beat me with her ivory hair-brush and she got so excited that she used the wrong side and printed me all over with bristle-marks. She was very pretty and she loved Christian Science and thought Mary Baker Eddy was as good as Jesus. That’s why she died, some people say, but I don’t think it’s true. She had to die. She couldn’t bear to have the curtains drawn before it was dark, and sometimes she’d stop on the stairs to breathe deep down into her lungs. And when I saw her doing it, I used to get angry and drag her up quickly. I couldn’t bear her to do it; I’d tell her not to be silly and I’d pull her up by her arms or push her from behind. Whenever she felt ill I got angry.

“Sometimes in the winter she’d come in and go straight upstairs and lie down on the bed, still in her fur coat and with her hat pulled off or squashed under her just anyhow. I’d take the hat away from her and tell her not to spoil her clothes. She didn’t care. I’d come and sing beautiful Christian Science hymns for her: ‘O Gentle Presence, Peace and Joy and Power,’ ‘O’er waiting harp-strings of the mind,’ ‘Make channels for the streams of Love.’ Only sometimes it was so sad with my mother lying on the bed, I had to change the words and make up wrong words instead. I used to put in very bad words, and then my mother would open her eyes and look surprised and say that it wasn’t funny to spoil the beautiful hymns. Then she’d laugh. But sometimes it was so sad that we could only cry. It was awful. We used to cry and cry without any noise. I was so angry with her; I wanted to shake her out of it. I couldn’t believe she could be changed, she looked just the same.

“The last time I saw her was when she came to school. She got out of the taxi and hadn’t any change, so we had to undo her suitcase. She’d just come back from Paris, where she’d been with some Christian Science friends. She’d bought lovely new underclothes---very pale bluish-green with dirty-coloured lace on them---and some rosebud and cat’s tongue chocolates for me. When we undid the suitcase to get the money, I pulled out a corner of the underclothes to look at the lovely stuff, and my mother said, ‘Don’t, because of the taxi-man.’

“Afterwards, when she said good-bye to me, I didn’t dare run down the drive after the car because I had my house-shoes on. I just stood and waved at her until the headmaster’s wife said: ‘Go on, idiot, run after your mother and see her out of the gates.’

“‘But, Mrs. Wilson, I can’t, I’ve got my house-shoes on,’ I said. ‘That doesn’t matter!’ she told me. So I ran after my mother like anything. I saw her looking out of the little window at the back. She was crying and I wasn’t crying. I just waved my hand at her and opened my mouth, and then she turned the corner and I never saw her again. She went to China where my father was, and she died.”

Orvil lay back on the ground after this outburst and put his arm across his eyes. He didn’t want the man to see any part of his face. He hated the man because he had talked to him.

The man was silent. He was playing with a dead leaf, poking holes in it with a little twig. At last he said: “But you can’t stop still at your mother’s death.”

“Nobody wants to stop still,” shouted Orvil, jumping to his feet. “I’m not going to stop still, I’m going now. That’s all made up, what I told you; and you thought it was real!” He tried to jeer at the man.

“Shut up. Don’t be a fool; of course it’s real,” said the man, catching hold of Orvil’s arm and jerking him sharply down to the ground again. “Talk about this sensibly,” he said.

Orvil subsided close to the man, without saying anything more. He was submissive now but silenced. He felt that he could never speak again.

The man put his arm heavily on Orvil’s shoulders and said, “Brace up! brace up!”

The hearty words, the smile, the weight of the man’s hard arm, and the dampness of the mossy earth mixed together and sank into Orvil’s consciousness. They printed themselves on his mind. He lay back against the man’s shoulder and thought only of these things for some minutes. Then he twisted his neck, looked at the man’s face and said, “Good-bye.”

He struggled to his feet, letting the man’s arm fall loosely and heavily to the ground. He looked down on the upturned face and saw the eyebrows arched, the mouth brown-red, a little open and heavy, some mud and blood still on the cheek-bone drying into a dark cake.

The man held out his hand and Orvil bent down to shake it. He remembered a picture he had seen of Jesus raising up the impotent man. ‘I’m just like Jesus, raising up the impotent man,’ he thought.

The man gripped Orvil’s hand and squashed the finger-bones together until they ached. To show how serious he was, he wouldn’t let the hand go until he’d hurt it.

Orvil turned away, holding his hurt hand. He began to run between the trees, pushing through the undergrowth, jumping ditches. He regained the tow-path some way below the hut. And as he ran he sang and felt glad that he would never know the man’s name and the man would never know his. It was best, he thought, to talk to an unknown person, to leave everything in a dark cloud. The man was like a statue, a porous statue that had soaked up some of his misery. The man had soaked into his bones some of the horror. Never to know him again was the freest thing; to remember only a man who sang “Mirror, mirror in my hand” as he mended his trousers.

Back once more at the hotel, Orvil found his father sitting in the court reading and smoking. Mr. Pym looked up at his son and said, “Have you been going for a paper-chase all by yourself, Microbe? You seem very muddy and out of breath.”

Orvil said nothing but smiled awkwardly, waiting to escape.

“Are you going upstairs?” his father asked. He nodded.

Orvil said, “All right, Daddy,” and began to climb the stairs. As he climbed, the lift passed him. He realized then, for the first time, that he had a strong prejudice against lifts, that he never used them when he was alone.

The stairs were grand and open, the lift mean and caged. If you were tired, you stopped and rested on the stairs. In the lift, you just waited, your stomach rising up into your lungs.

Orvil didn’t want to see Charles; he didn’t want to open the bedroom door.

He found Charles lying on the bed with eyes shut. And suddenly his reluctance evaporated; he didn’t mind being alone with his brother.

“Can I get you anything, Charles?” he asked quietly. Charles opened his eyes and smiled.

“Hullo, Vil,” he said. “I’ve had the hell of a headache, but it’s better now. I’ll get up for dinner; I’ll be all right by then. It must be eye-strain, I think---staring into blank sky for so long.”

Again he smiled at Orvil. He seemed genuinely pleased to see him.

“Just put my studs and links in a clean shirt for me, will you?” he coaxed. He wanted to make Orvil warm and friendly.

Orvil went to the cupboard and pulled out Charles’s dirty shirt. He took out the diamond and onyx studs and links. He loved them, and he wondered if he too would have diamond and onyx studs when he was Charles’s age. He thought not. He saw no one giving him such presents. All his friends would probably be poor.

He valeted Charles perfectly, putting out clean silk socks, underclothes, shirt, trousers, coat, waistcoat and tie. He buttoned the braces on to the trousers and slipped a new blade into the razor.

Meanwhile Charles was talking on a number of subjects in an attempt to find one which would really interest Orvil. He tried music, attractive girls, heraldry, and at last, rather desperately, painting. He described a picture he had in his rooms at Oxford. It was a composition of surgical instruments, dead moths, fungi and babies’ dummy-tits. A hearty friend had given it to Charles as a joke, but Charles had hung it above his mantelpiece, and now many people took him to be a great admirer of Dali.

Charles laughed, and catching Orvil by the shoulder pulled him down beside him on the bed.

“What a grand valet you are!” he said gratefully. He started to talk about aeroplanes again, and he became so wrapped up in his subject that he did not notice Orvil’s wandering gaze and vague, smiling, ignorant answers. Charles enjoyed the cosy talk with Orvil. They were at peace. No antagonism or fear spoilt these few minutes on the bed. Orvil was content to let Charles talk on his favourite subject. It was one of the rare moments when he felt no hatred or fear of his brother, only a mild warmth towards him. Charles was nice, he thought, when he was not bullying and overriding. He knew that deep down he admired something in his brother. He knew, too, that he would be hating him the same as ever, probably, tomorrow, or even in a few hours’ time. But he put this thought away and tried to be intelligent about engines and machinery.

There was a kick on the door and Ben’s voice called out, “Are you in there, Charles?” He pushed in without waiting for an answer. He was swinging a squash racket, and his almost colourless hair hung down damply over his sweaty pink forehead. He went up to the bed and started beating the eiderdown with his racket.

“That’s how you do it,” he said with relish; “different spot every time so that the place isn’t numb from the last one.

He was, of course, pretending that he was beating a boy at school. Having given the eiderdown half a dozen expert strokes, he turned to Charles.

“Oh, sorry, Charles,” he said, “I forgot. Are you better?”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and clutched the racket between his legs. He darted a quick glance at Orvil where he lay comfortably beside Charles. Orvil saw his look of surprise. It was instantly dowsed.

For a moment the three brothers said nothing. They all seemed to be thinking of the blood tie which bound them. Orvil felt it as a thick dull hawser that took no account of real differences but held them closely together, even against their wills. It was a stretching tendon, tough and elastic. Orvil rebelled against the blind pluck, but knew that his brothers were like husbands; he would have them in sickness and in health till death parted them.

“Get out you two, and go and change,” said Charles at last. He propped himself up on his elbow and felt his head delicately.

Ben lazily caught hold of Orvil and dragged him off the bed. He straightened his clothes with rough pulls and slaps, and then linked arms with him and moved towards the door.

“Come on,” he said; “you still seem to be half drugged.”

He jerked Orvil out of the door, and then they walked down the long passages to their own room.

Orvil went to the window and looked out across the courtyard. A lighted window, the curtains still undrawn, glowed in the other wing. In the lighted room Orvil could see the Clifton boy moving about with only a towel round his waist. His gramophone stood on the wide window-sill pouring out music. Negro voices were singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” They seemed bursting with urgency and strange excitement. They gasped, grew harsh and guttural, flowed into liquid notes, then died down in tired weeping.

And while the music played, the Clifton boy walked about his room opening drawers, pulling out shirts, rubbing his arms and chest, sprinkling oil on his hair from a bottle. He picked up two stumpy brushes and started to scrub his hair back brutally. He looked at his face in the glass and felt along his upper lip.

“What are you staring at?” Ben suddenly asked Orvil.

“A friend of yours hasn’t drawn the curtains,” was all Orvil would say.

Thinking that it was a woman, Ben came quickly to the window; but when he saw the Clifton boy he laughed.

The Clifton boy was dancing now to the music. Crooking his arm round an imaginary partner, he hunched his shoulders and moved in a more gorilla-like and vulgar way than he would have dared to do in public. He stuck out his stomach and revolved his hips.

“Go away, Jimmy; you’re indecent. You’ll get locked up if you don’t put something on,” Ben shouted across the courtyard.

Jimmy immediately stopped dancing, came to the window and leaned out.

Orvil thought that the pink top half of his body framed in the window looked like a carefully illuminated prize ham in a delicatessen shop.

When Jimmy saw who it was that had called, he stripped off the towel and, completely naked, began to do a mad devil dance under the light in the middle of the room.

Ben and Orvil shrieked with surprise and amusement.

Suddenly Jimmy moved towards the basin, then came running back to the window.

“Catch!” he yelled, throwing something with great force.

The next moment there was a tinkle of glass in the sash above Orvil’s head; then sharp little spears and a slithery object fell on the back of his neck.

He looked down and saw a wet tablet of purple soap lying amongst the pieces of broken glass. He could smell the violet scent of the soap.

“Bloody fool!” yelled Ben across the courtyard. “Bloody fool, you’ve smashed a pane of glass.”

Jimmy laughed, he shrieked with laughter; he couldn’t stop laughing. He rolled about extravagantly, supporting himself weakly against the window-sill. Ben began to laugh too, then Orvil. They were all laughing insanely. The pain grew in Orvil’s sides, below his ribs. He longed for the convulsions of laughter to stop, but they racked his body until in desperation he threw himself on his bed and filled his mouth with the corner of his pillow.

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