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Part Three, Chapter Twelve

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« on: August 04, 2023, 09:22:13 am »

THE optimistic atmosphere of the Saturday of the play persisted through the following Sunday, for the few days that the term still had to run were felt by the boys to be so short a span as not to make it worth while for them to do any serious work or for the masters to exert any serious discipline. Duties that were accepted at other times as part of the boring and arduous natural order, on this day called forth rebellious groans, as while a monarch lies on his death bed his nobles suddenly discover the iniquities of taxation. After lunch Slade said to Gerald: “Let’s cut the walk.” This was the compulsory Sunday afternoon reconnaissance of the coast road and the town’s promenade.

“How, pray?” asked Gerald.

“We’ll start off first, hurry on ahead, leave the drive where it bends, and go to the Shed.”

“It’s too cold for the Shed.”

“I’ll get one of the maids to fill my thermos with tea.”

They had several times used the Shed as a means of escape into the privacy so hard to find in the House, and it had thereby taken on for Gerald a character far different from that it had owned in the summer when its mild notoriety as a hide-out for illegal smokers had been swollen by its association with the libidinous visitors to the playing fields. Like the music-room, the proletarian café, the book-barrow in the market, it was now a place whose familiarity no more destroyed its atmosphere of potential discovery, than knowing the décor and architecture of a theatre detracts from the exaltation given by its productions.

So as they sat with their feet stretched out on the forms that were now the Shed’s only furniture, their overcoat collars turned up, books on their laps, cups of tea in their hands, Gerald thought only of the power of his mind, his growing mastery of the circumstances of life, his at present ill-defined but certain future fame.

“I can’t think why we ever bother to go on Sunday walks,” he said.

“It’s our good nature,” said Slade. “Have a fag.” He tossed over a packet of Woodbines and a folder of book matches.

“I didn’t know there were any left.” Gerald lit a cigarette and smelt immediately the rich aroma that brought back to him an indistinguishable sequence of such quiet, sequestered and unlawful moments. He threw the packet and matches back, and said: “I really prefer Woodbines to anything.”

“That’s through reading too much Robert Blatchford,” said Slade. “Give me State Express.”

The shutter hung loose and left a view through the unglazed window of a slate sky crossed occasionally by a gull’s white side-slipping shape.

“Ten days to Christmas,” said Gerald.

“What will you do?” Slade asked.

“I don’t know.” Perhaps, Gerald thought, the feeling of pleasure that the anticipation of Christmas gave was a mere hangover from childhood, and now happiness could only come from inside oneself. “Get away from Cropper and the Grey Chap, anyway. What about you?” But he did not really want an answer, for he had suddenly realized that during the month in which they would be parted Slade would have encounters and interests destined to remain secret and uncontrollable.

It was through the window that later on they watched the school for signs that the boys had returned from the walk. When these were apparent they strolled with elaborate casualness into the class-room block. Almost the first person they saw was Blakey who said: “Where the hell have you two been? Marshie’s reported you missing to the Grey Chap.” A terrible gnawing attacked Gerald’s solar plexus.

Gerald said to Slade: “I’d better go and see Marshie.”

“Where shall we say we’ve been?” Slade’s voice, beneath a mask of unconcern, had taken on the nervousness that Gerald recalled from the distant past. “Got lost? Taken short? Those prunes at lunch were very dubious.”

“My God,” said Gerald, “don’t let’s make it more complicated than it is.”

“Well, we’ll just say we stayed behind in school. The Shed’s out of bounds, you know: there’s no sense in confessing to arson when they’ve got us for murder anyway.”

Mr. Marsh, a pile of School Reports in front of him in the Masters’ Common Room, expressed disinterest in Gerald’s visit. “After all, Bracher, you and Slade were out of circulation for nearly two hours. For all I knew you might have been drowned. The Headmaster knows about it and you’ll have to go and make your peace with him.”

When Gerald reported this, Slade said: “Shall I go to the Grey Chap? I will.”

“No, I’ll go.”

“Wait till he sends for you.”


“Wait until after tea, anyway.”

“Perhaps I will.”

“He’ll be mellower. I don’t suppose he’ll say much. The end of term, the Christmas spirit, and all that.”

“I don’t know,” said Gerald. “He’s never got over Percy smiting Cole with that cricket bat.”

“Cheer up. He can only beat us.”

It was true that in theory the Headmaster’s ultimate sanction was merely a power of inflicting a temporary physical hurt and---on the sensitive---a rather more lasting sense of degradation. But this did not exhaust the sources of his power, no more than a demonstration of the absurdity of magic will revive a cursed primitive rigid in his hut. Nor was it relevant to tell oneself that the Headmaster’s character was eccentric, his ideas unsound, his kingdom rotten, for simply because his rule existed made futile---inconceivable---any opposing party. Or, rather, the opposing party must by definition exist only to be ruled, only ceasing to be so when it achieved adulthood and thereby, paradoxically, shedding its ideology of revolt.

Tea lay uneasily inside Gerald as he trod the insubstantial ground to the Headmaster’s house. But there was no reply to his knock on the study door, and finding Miss Pemberton in her room he learned that her uncle was out and would return too late for Gerald to see him.

So he had to live through Monday, the joviality of the day before breaking-up, with the prospect of the interview on his mind and stomach, sometimes hoping that it might even be possible to last out the few hours left of term without suffering Mr. Pemberton’s reproof, as one in an aerial bombardment reassuringly applies to himself the statistics of casualties. But at the end of afternoon school he waited about in the playground, keeping his eye on the school block for the Headmaster to emerge on his way over to the house, firmly intending to end his suspense. At last Mr. Pemberton appeared in the lighted entrance, his hat already on his massive head, and started to walk across the playground disdaining to wrap his gown about him in the cold wind. Gerald followed.

As he stood by the door of the study, he saw on the hallstand the same gown and hat which lost for him no more of their mana by being divorced from their owner than would a headsman’s axe and mask hanging there. When he entered Mr. Pemberton looked up and said without the slightest hesitation: “I was waiting for you to come, Bracher.”

“You were out last night, sir. And I thought it best not to disturb you earlier today.”

The Headmaster leaned slightly back in his chair and clasped his white hands, but said nothing.

“It’s about the walk yesterday, sir,” Gerald went desperately on. “Slade and I were missing.”

“Yes, boy. I know.”

“It was the last Sunday of term and rather foolishly we decided to cut the walk. We’ve no excuse, sir.”

Mr. Pemberton said: “I am disappointed in you, Bracher.”

“I’m very sorry, sir.”

“I wonder if you understand what I mean, boy. I am disappointed in you. I had formed the opinion that you were a good influence in the School. Now I have completely lost that opinion.”

Gerald was dumbfounded. “It was just because it was the last Sunday.” he mumbled.

“You still don’t understand me,” said the Headmaster. “I thought you were a moral boy. Now I see otherwise---that you are susceptible to weakness and folly. I would like you to tell me why you have formed this association with Slade, a boy very much your junior.”

It was not quite true that they had the same interests. “We get on very well together, sir,” Gerald said, rather foolishly.

“I’m surprised,” said Mr. Pemberton. “Quite frankly, I do not regard Slade as a very admirable boy.”

“Perhaps if you knew him better, sir . . .”

“Do you imagine that I don’t know my boys inside out? Slade is untidy and unco-operative. He has some very strange ideas, which I’m distressed to find you’ve picked up from him. Mrs. Matley spoke to me with great concern after the performance on Saturday. I need not tell you what about.”

The abrupt play of the Headmaster’s mind was quite bewildering. “Mrs. Matley, sir?”

“Naturally. Matley had told his mother about your blasphemous behaviour. He is a devout and serious boy. I understand that you have made a practice of uttering these outrageous views of yours---or of Slade’s---often at the very time of Matley’s bedside prayers. I cannot forgive that, Bracher. It affects the school’s good name. I shall send a report of the whole matter to your father.”

For a moment it seemed to Gerald that his atheism was outrageous and he could, he felt, quite easily have broken down, confessed his sin, pleaded with Mr. Pemberton to keep his father ignorant, and promised to reform. But the moment had passed when the Headmaster said: “What have you got to say, Bracher?”

“They weren’t Slade’s views, sir, they were mine.”

Mr. Pemberton ignored this remark: he seemed sunk in thought. Gerald was suddenly conscious that his every muscle was tense and he cautiously eased his neck so that his eyes were no longer fixed on the Headmaster’s face but looked beyond it to the familiar engraving of the Death of Nelson on the study wall. He saw as it were for the first time that the Admiral’s legs muscularly filled out a pair of white tights and were posed, as he lay supported by his officers, in the shape of a wishbone, and this image, so incongruous in the presence of death, reminded him, for some reason he had no time to analyse, of the departed Mountain.

The Headmaster’s voice broke the silence. “Where were you with Slade yesterday afternoon?”

“In the Shed,” replied Gerald automatically, only after he had spoken remembering that he had arranged with Slade to say that they had stayed in school.

“Ah,” said Mr. Pemberton, “Did you know that that place was out of bounds?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What were you doing in the Shed?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Were you behaving improperly?”

Gerald remembered the Woodbines. “Yes, sir.” And then, having taken some moments to apply the words to himself, he leaned forward and said vehemently: “No, no. Not improperly.”

“You know what I mean, I see.”

“We were smoking.” But the word had ceased to have its normal connotation.

“You were smoking,” repeated the Headmaster, the tones of his voice too complicated for them to be characterized as either ironic or sceptical. “The infantile Slade was smoking, too, was he?”

Gerald did not reply. “Don’t be surly and stupid, boy,” cried Mr. Pemberton, rising so abruptly that Gerald thought he was going to be struck. But the Headmaster remained by the desk, gazing oppressively down on him. “I shall report this ‘smoking’ to your father, too.”

Gerald looked up, seeing the hair growing out of the Headmaster’s nostrils. “We were not behaving improperly,” he said, and his anger was such that the words seemed to him not the weak and unconvincing asseveration that they were, but an outrageously bold challenge to the Headmaster’s power and ideas.

“I don’t want to hear any more about it,” said Mr. Pemberton, scornfully. “I am completely disgusted and disillusioned. You may leave the room.”

Gerald rose and, since Mr. Pemberton was standing so near, his eyes swept up the buttons of the waistcoat, past the watch-chain and the peeping spectacle-case, beyond the strange piece of cloth that filled the space between the v of the waistcoat and the clerical collar, to the big feline face and the bald skull. And then he found himself looking down into the blue eyes, the diluted blue from a rinsed fountain pen, and with the revelatory sense of shock that might accompany one’s first sight of a piece of sculpture one has previously only seen in photographic reproduction, lacking any comparative scale, he realized that the Headmaster was a small man.

Gerald walked out of the House into the playground, dark under a glittering sky. As he went into the urinals the tang of disinfectant and the cold air brought back to him the days when he had first arrived at school---a time historically remote, as though the earth had been moving this year on some grossly extended orbit. His emotions, his eyes and lips, tender with the outrageous injustice dealt out to him, he said aloud: “I won’t give Slade up. I won’t give him up.” And brooding on the imminent holiday which he would have to bear under the constant agonizing expectation of his father getting Mr. Pemberton’s report, his mother’s image came into his mind and, as though he had never held any contrary opinion, he thought immediately that she too had stuck out for love as he must, and his whole body yearned to embrace her across the hemisphere of their separation, to tell her of his sympathy and understanding.

When he came into the playground again he saw Mr. Percy walking away from the entrance to the school block. Longing to talk, to make contact, to re-establish his normal personality, Gerald intercepted the master, and said: “I’ve done a very silly thing, sir---packed that book you lent me in my trunk with my other books. And now all the trunks have gone off luggage in advance. Will it be all right if I return the book next term?”

“What book was it, Bracher?”

“Keats’s Letters.”

“Keep it,” said Mr. Percy. “I shan’t be coming back next term.”

Like the superficially inappropriate but deeply significant reply of a neurotic to a word in a psycho-analyst’s association test, Mr. Percy’s disclosure called up for Gerald the vision, as he had seen it in school earlier in the day, of Cole’s forehead, from which the dressing had been removed for the first time to the public view---a forehead which superimposed the frowning expression of some great thinker on Cole’s face, whatever emotion he might really be experiencing.

“Not at all? Not ever?”

“No,” said Mr. Percy, moving off.

Stupefiedly, inadequately, Gerald called after him: “Thank you very much for the book.” The stout figure did not turn.

Too agitated to face even Slade’s questioning, Gerald moved back towards the House and crossed over to the edge of the playing fields---the same fields that Mr. Squires, during the visit to the baths last week, had asserted would be split up into building plots when Alderman Cole exercised his rights as mortgagee. The noise of the sea came like a symptom of a cerebral disease.

Gerald turned and looked at the isolated mass of the school buildings, the turreted, many-chimneyed mansion and the more regular shapes of the school block, their darkness against the just less-dark sky printed with rectangles of yellow that would, had he not instantly visualized the persons and activities they illuminated, have conveyed a sense of comfort and happiness. He remembered in his first term that one day in class the Headmaster had called for the definition of a symbol, which proved to be “the representation of a moral thing”. It seemed to Gerald that the school was a symbol, but he could not imagine clearly the moral thing of which it was a representation.

When his trembling died away and the ordinary matters of life---the bitter wind, the imminence of tea---impinged on his consciousness, he began to walk towards the school. As in those drawings by Stubbs a horse is depicted in the verisimilitudinous action of trotting but the representation is actually of a horse’s skeleton, so it seemed to Gerald that the school and the Headmaster, though going through the plausible motions of ordinary existence, were in fact demonstrating a truth about the nature of being which they possessed without knowing and which it had taken their death to reveal.

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