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Part Two, Chapter Five

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« on: August 03, 2023, 08:28:35 am »

ONE day in the vestibule of the House Gerald encountered Mr. Percy and was about to pass him, as seemed natural, without acknowledgement, when the master said: “Come in the Common Room a moment, Bracher.”

Gerald thought the boys’ Common Room was meant and was astonished when Mr. Percy walked the few steps to the masters’ Common Room, opened the door and indicated that Gerald was to precede him. Once again, as at the time of the episode of the weights, this room cast on Gerald its alien spell. Mr. Percy perched his bulk on the table on which was a pile of exercise books. “Sit down, Bracher,” he said, indicating a basket chair. He took up the top exercise book. “This was a good essay of yours.”

Gerald’s apprehension turned to surprise and he mumbled something incoherent. He tried to remember what was in the essay (whose subject was “Compare the characters of Edward I and Edward III”) that it should have evoked such an unusual response.

“I liked your idea of opening with a quotation,” said Mr. Percy. “ ‘Look here upon this picture, and on this. The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.’ When did you read Hamlet?”

Gerald, already at a disadvantage through being tilted back in the unaccustomed comfort of the chair, blushed scarlet. “I’ve never read Hamlet, sir,” he was forced to confess. “I got the quotation from the top of one of the chapters in Quentin Durward. We did it in my other form last term.” He felt guilty of an enormous and stupid deceit.

“Well,” said Mr. Percy, “it was still a bright idea. Though the quotation isn’t really appropriate, you know. What Hamlet is doing is to remind his mother of the contrast in character between the late king and the brother she married after his murder. Whereas what you had to bring out was the similarity between Edwards One and Three. Eh?”

“Yes, I see, sir.”

“What do you read?”

Gerald had a vision of the blue cover of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, a work he had borrowed from Blakey when scrounging round the dormitories for something to exploit the light nights, and suddenly realized how preposterous it was. “All sorts,” he said feebly, feeling that Mr. Percy might be able to read his thoughts and see the cloudy hair of Kâramanèh and the malignant green eyes of the Doctor floating through his brain. And then, quite against his will, he added: “At the moment I’m reading Fu-Manchu.”

“What do you think of it?”

“I suppose it’s rubbish.”

“Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve one or two books in my room you might like. I’ll look them out.”

This conversation, though conducted by Mr. Percy in his normal manner of impenetrability and reserve, contained so many surprises that quite as a matter of course it was giving Gerald an impression of the master completely different from the one he had previously formed, as in a dream a person’s name may reasonably be attached to someone who is simply not that person. And he remembered Sports Day, seeing Mr. Percy talking to Miss Pemberton, and Blakey’s piece of gossip, realizing that after all Mr. Percy need not be merely a lifeless bundle of rather odd characteristics---a schoolmaster who carried a walking stick and held his hat on with it in a breeze---but a man susceptible to femininity, like Dr. Petrie in the tergiversations of his pursuit of Fu-Manchu. In a flash of understanding he saw that even the most austere master must be subject to human desires, suffer worldly cares: to talk with a girl might be a painful surmounting of shyness; a shabby jacket the mask not of eccentricity but of poverty.

“All right, Bracher,” said Mr. Percy, dismissively, and Gerald made for the door. Before he reached it Mr. Percy added: “Would you like a white for the essay, or are you above it?”

For a moment Gerald yearned covetously for the official reward. Then he said: “I’m above it,” and went out of the room before he could observe Mr. Percy’s reaction. With those words he felt he had raised himself to a fresh intellectual level, and the vestibule with its hanging raincoats and caps and through the open door the far view of a knot of boys dragging the roller on to a cricket pitch seemed all at once subservient to his happy, masterful mind.

Since the beating, he had never visited the twopenny library in the town: when one evening Mr. Percy, coming in to take prep, silently deposited two books on his desk he was seized with a twinge of the old guilt, and had immediately hidden them under a textbook as though Mr. Percy had no authority but was equally with him a partner in some unofficial and therefore illicit act. And he waited for an utterly private moment to return the books after he had read them.

That was an occasion when he heard the piano in the assembly hall. He silently let himself into the room and stationed himself behind Mr. Percy until the piece should end. A pianist’s fingers, he would have thought, should have been long and tapering: Mr. Percy’s were pudgy and spatulate. And there was a strange discrepancy, too, between the delicate and sentimental melody, fascinating in its semi-familiarity, and the master’s stout and impassive person. The music ended and Gerald asked: “What was that called?”

“It was a prelude by Debussy,” said Mr. Percy.

“I’ve brought the books back, sir. Thank you very much.”

“Which did you like the better?”

“Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.”

“A bit nearer Fu-Manchu, eh?”

“Not really, sir.”

“No, not really. Would you like me to try to find you something else?”

“Please, sir.”

Then, to Gerald’s horror, Mr. Percy lit a cigarette: it must be that the Headmaster would now appear at the door. Smoke coiled into the virgin air, unconcealed, penetratingly fragrant. With an anguished sense that he was deserting the master who in his limited way had shown him interest and kindness, but with the certain knowledge that he could not let himself be party to this deliberate and nonchalant breach of Mr. Pemberton’s code, Gerald mumbled some phrase about getting over to the House, and made a swift exit. The haunting phrase of the Debussy prelude followed him as far as the doorway to the playground where, through the light coming from the school, rain could be seen softly falling in silver verticals.

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