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Part Two, Chapter Eight

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« on: August 03, 2023, 10:49:16 am »

LIKE a frequent letter solved in a coded message, Gerald’s reading of the books lent to him by Mr. Percy opened up new areas of understanding and tantalizing half-understanding. A collection of absorbingly imaginative short stories led him to take out from the boarders’ library a novel by the same author called In the Days of the Comet. But though this contained an exciting idea---the collision of a great comet and our world---it was embodied in what Gerald found a rather boring story of personal relationships and almost wholly unreadable chunks of philosophical harangue. The book was prefaced by some lines of poetry:

    The World’s Great Age begins anew,
    The Golden Years return,
    The Earth doth like a Snake renew
    Her Winter Skin outworn:
    Heaven smiles, and Faiths and Empires gleam
    Like Wrecks of a Dissolving Dream.

Even though he had skipped through the book negligently he found afterwards that its theme---the Change---kept recurring to him in all sorts of contexts. The political map of the world, for example, whose phenomenally extensive areas of red denoting British rule had always caused him wonder and pleasure, now sometimes seemed to him almost purely of mere historical significance, as though the atlas which contained it were out of date. “Empires gleam Like Wrecks of a Dissolving Dream.” And gradually he was led to the conclusion that such a book as In the Days of the Comet, though superficially boring, demanded to be carefully studied because of its power of bequeathing comprehension: that, in fact, perhaps the main function of reading was not to pass the time by giving entertainment but to confront the reader with a task---a task measured grossly by one’s gradual and toilsome reduction of the number of unread pages but having also some correlative spiritual progress, just as the princess’s task consisted of a roomful of straw to be tediously woven into gold but was the necessary prolegomenon to her happy and exalted fate.

In this light the reference library, which he still surreptitiously visited, took on a fresh dimension. Now it served him not merely with its lighter books and those passages, as in Hypatia, whose sensual imagination helped to satisfy his own: he also looked for titles and authors already prefigured in his more serious reading, and his explorations, striking almost blindly across barren and unknown country, would come accidentally across tracts whose reputation was already known to him, as famous lines will every now and then astonishingly leap out at the reader of a long poem.

It had recently occurred to him that without anyone being the wiser he might actually take books away from the reference library to ransack and read at his leisure, and this he did with a volume that had first attracted him by the drawing that formed its frontispiece: a sphinx faced the reader, her brows bent, her claws fixed on the world, and her naked bosom revealed, the nipples clearly marked; and on the other side of the globe was presented the back view of a kneeling female figure wearing a cap of liberty but otherwise nude and holding a banner on which was inscribed the title of the book---Fabian Essays in Socialism. Then he found that among the contributors was a name he knew.

How had this book come to be stealthily and secretly planted, like a grub in an apple, in the school’s heart? It was too difficult, too boring, really to read, but Gerald divined its venality, as a young child instinctively evaluates the reprehensibility of a new act. Perhaps some dissident master or more intellectual Mountain had before his long-past departure slipped the thing into the library for it leisurely to gnaw at the school’s foundations.

Gerald lay on his pillow at the dormitory window, holding the book in full view in reliance on the incuriosity and ignorance of his companions for the concealment of its nature, like Poe’s hider of the purloined letter, yet feeling a worm of apprehension in his stomach knowing he could have no defence to a sudden challenge, and read: “Since we were taught to revere proprietary respectability in our unfortunate childhood, and since we found our childish hearts so hard and unregenerate that they secretly hated and rebelled against respectability in spite of that teaching, it is impossible to express the relief with which we discover that our hearts were all along right, and that the current respectability of today is nothing but a huge inversion of righteous and scientific social order weltering in dishonesty, uselessness, selfishness, wanton misery, and idiotic waste of magnificent opportunities for noble and happy living.”

Raising his head and looking at the iron bedsteads, the sloping attic ceiling, the irrational occupations of the other boys, he had a momentary sense that perhaps these were not the realities of life, that in fact all that he had hitherto accepted as familiar he was imperceptibly casting off, leaving himself with a second skin which consisted of all those names and ideas which once he had thought alien, unspeakable, incomprehensible, but would, as he drew away from the old, be the utterly familiar and real ambience in which he moved.

He returned his second borrowing of books from Mr. Percy as the master was going across the playground one evening after taking prep. Mr. Percy acknowledged with a word Gerald’s thanks and continued on his way as though there was no bond between them. Gerald kept pace with him, feeling as stupid as when he had urged the claims of Conrad against those of W. W. Jacobs. He yearned to be able to express the subtleties of his being, his discoveries in knowledge, feeling Mr. Percy’s potential sympathy moving away from him as, after the terribly brief visit, the desperately sick man parts with his doctor.

They were almost at the door of the House. “Do you happen to know, sir,” Gerald said, breaking the silence, “who wrote a poem with the first line ‘The World’s Great Age begins anew?’ ”

Mr. Percy did not slacken his steady stride. “You must be careful, Bracher,” he said, “not to become an intellectual snob.”

Gerald did not really understand the phrase, but it effectively cowed him. He told himself that it was time he came over to the House anyway and visualized how once he was in the hall he would sidle into the changing-room and ostentatiously busy himself looking for his slippers and leave Mr. Percy to march on alone to the Masters’ Common Room. But when they had passed through the doorway Mr. Percy stopped and said: “It isn’t the first line of the poem. It’s the first line of a chorus from it. By Shelley.”

Gerald, observing young Dover sitting near the changing-room door, picking his big toe through a hole in his stocking and listening to Mr. Percy with open mouth, felt beneath his pleasure at the master’s words a keen sense of the shame and sedition inherent in poetry and wished he had not been so anxious to prolong the commerce between himself and Mr. Percy.

“Come up to my room,” Mr. Percy went on, “and I’ll see if I can find a Shelley for you.”

The room was on the half-landing between the second and third floors: as though it were some foreign city, long known by its exotic name, but once visited discovered to contain tramcars and cloth caps, Gerald saw with surprise, when Mr. Percy flung open the door, a room no bigger than Mountain’s, with an iron bedstead like those used by the boys. There was a smell of stale tobacco, a pint mug with a rose in it on the bedside table, and Mr. Percy’s ashplant leaning in a corner. Gerald expected Mr. Percy to make some comment on the unusual scene thus disclosed or the epoch-making occasion of a visit by a boy to a master’s bedroom, but he was immediately fully engaged in looking along the rows of books that had overflowed from a hanging bookcase to the small table in the window, and along the skirting board.

“I don’t think I can have it here,” Mr. Percy muttered at last. Gerald took a step over the threshold as though into the room of a dying man. “But you wouldn’t want to read Hellas anyway.”

“Wouldn’t I, sir?” Gerald said, just beginning to feel, in the unusual setting, an anticipatory intellectual pleasure; the sensation brought by the sudden switching on of theatre footlights which at once illuminate and darken the folds of the proscenium curtain.

Mr. Percy gave him the sharp look of a schoolmaster who must always suspect a concealed squirter in a proffered bouquet. “Do you like reading poetry?”

“I don’t really know, sir. I’ve never read it for pleasure.”

“It’s just useful for quotations in history essays, eh?” Mr. Percy sat on the bed as though suddenly tired of carrying his bulk and reached out for a book lying on the bedside table. “What Shakespeare play are you doing in form? Twelfth Night?” Gerald nodded. “What one doesn’t always realize at school is that Shakespeare was only one of a lot of good poets who wrote at that time. And the things the others wrote are quite often more exciting than Shakespeare’s---that’s not quite the word: more morbid, violent, funny, filthy. More interesting to you---and to me, too, perhaps. Eh, Bracher?”

“They sound more interesting to me, sir.” And at once it seemed to Gerald that with a little practice he would know how to converse with Mr. Percy, that he could evolve for him a rather superior brand of the facetiousness and outrageousness that so amused Mountain.

“There you are,” said Mr. Percy. He held out the book. “Borrow this if you like.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Aren’t you going to look and see what it is?”

“I think I can trust your taste, sir.”

“ ‘The earth doth like a snake renew Her winter weeds outworn’,” said Mr. Percy.

“Shouldn’t it be ‘winter skin’, sir?”

“No, Bracher.”

“It says ‘winter skin’ at the start of H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet.”

“Then H. G. Wells got it wrong,” said Mr. Percy. “But I was going to ask you what you thought the lines meant?”

Gerald thought. “They mean that after the winter when spring comes everything on the earth starts to grow again,” he said. “And that’s all to do with the return of a Golden Age.”

“Do they, now?” said Mr. Percy. “Just go down and drink your cocoa and think them over.” The light on the curtain went out.

“Yes, sir,” said Gerald. He tried to think them over as he sat in the vestibule, putting on his slippers, but when he repeated them to himself all that struck him was the alliterative word “weeds”, for Mr. Percy’s emendation, far from having to be consciously recalled, had supplanted utterly the other word, as a superior arrangement of furniture in a room causes one to be unable to remember without a great effort what the room was like before. It was a few minutes before he realized that “winter weeds” did not indicate those astonishing plantains and such that flourish so greenly and rather disgustingly when everything else in the garden is dead, but that “weeds” here had its other, black, meaning. But could the two lines as a whole have any other interpretation than the one he had so badly tried to give to Mr. Percy?

When he got into the Common Room the younger boys had already gone to bed. He took a piece of the bread and butter laid out on the table and which he suspected had been left over from tea-time and sat down with his book. On the fly leaf was Mr. Percy’s name and underneath “Queens’ College, 1919”. Gerald looked at the title page and then opened the book at random: the pages fell open as at an accustomed place and he read:

    Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
    And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?----
    Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

A sharp sensation seized him compounded of the vision of ardent, unspecialized emotion and the memory of the gross words which Snape had used to describe what he alleged he had seen through the uncurtained window of the maid Helen’s bedroom.

“Now if it were winter,” Howarth said, throwing himself in a chair at Gerald’s side and tilting it far back, “we could toast the dry side of this and make French toast.”

“Your flies are undone,” said Matley primly.

“So they are,” said Howarth, looking down. “Are you interested?”

Thompson was sitting on the corner of the table “Charlie really is a swine,” he said vehemently. No one paid any attention.

Gerald closed his book. “Have you chaps had Cocoa?” he asked.

“We certainly haven’t,” replied Howarth. “Matley, go to the kitchen and see what they’re doing.”

“Go yourself.”

Snape broke wind. Howarth said: “ ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.”

“It’s all right for you chaps,” said Thompson. “Charlie hasn’t got his knife into you.”

Gerald tucked the book under his arm. “I’ll go and see about the cocoa.”

“Good old Bracher.”

To get to the kitchen one had to cross the great, square vestibule. The open front door disclosed the deep blue dusk, the rising of a creamy moon and, at the foot of the steps, between the twin stone urns, an indistinguishable, figure. “Tommie, Tommie, Tommie,” this figure was calling, in a strange falsetto voice. Almost involuntarily Gerald took a few paces to investigate the curious phenomenon, but before he could reach the door the figure, as an aircraft banks and suddenly discloses to the puzzled watcher its alien and deadly silhouette, turned its head and Gerald recognized against the sky the inclination of the Headmaster’s massive cranium. Simultaneously he saw the pallid form of the cat Tomsky move with nonchalant swiftness from the bushes on the far side of the drive to rub himself against Mr. Pemberton’s trouser legs.

The Headmaster’s assumed voice and purpose---which was at once revealed by his picking Tomsky up in his arms and turning to come indoors---did not strike Gerald as a matter for amusement or derision: on the contrary they merely, like the Brides in the Bath murderer’s playing of the organ, threw in greater relief the stronger and more fearful aspects of his character; and the action itself as performed by him seemed to differ wholly in quality from the action as it might have been performed by any other householder in the late evening, like a ceremony of marriage entered into by Henry VIII. So that Gerald felt as uneasy as though he had unwittingly watched some outwardly innocent happening---the purchase of a length of rope, say---which he knew in actuality to be a criminal preliminary. He pressed close against the hanging raincoats (which since it had been raining earlier in the day exuded their characteristic sickliness) and feigned to fumble in the pockets of one of them in the hope that the Headmaster would pass him by.

But Mr. Pemberton did not fail to observe the lurking boy. He stopped, and seeing that nothing reprehensible was taking place, remarked: “We have to make sure that our Tommie observes a proper bedtime just like everyone else. Don’t we, Tommie?” The part of this speech that was addressed to Gerald was spoken in the Headmaster’s normal tones, but for the questioning of the cat it made a rapid transition to the falsetto which had previously penetrated the garden. Gerald felt himself blushing with embarrassment, for though he himself could only too readily exculpate Mr. Pemberton from any charge of puerility, he feared that someone might overhear who had a less nice sense of the Headmaster’s inviolable power and dignity.

“Do you like cats, Gerald?” asked Mr. Pemberton.

“Yes, I do, sir.”

“So do I. Of course, this is really Miss Pemberton’s cat, not mine. He’s rather a mean little thing, isn’t he? My own cats have usually been larger. My last cat was a black Persian but I think she must have eaten some bait we laid down for the rats in the pavilion. And then Miss Pemberton produced this little creature and so I haven’t been able to have another.”

During this speech Tomsky looked out quite complacently over the Headmaster’s forearm: though without the true feline grandeur, even his head bore a resemblance to Mr. Pemberton’s---there was the same width at the cheeks, the same downward mouth that nevertheless eventually unamusedly smiled, the same broad nose. Gerald’s hands began to sweat and ache holding Mr. Percy’s book behind his back in an immobile position.

“Mrs. Pemberton was very fond of cats, Gerald,” the Headmaster went on. “We always had a cat in the vicarage. Daughter succeeded mother and son daughter. The Salic Law applied not. Then when I came to Seafolde House I established a new dynasty. But this little fellow is an upstart pretender, like his namesake.”

What could be said in reply to these confidences? Gerald exercised his mind in vain. But Mr. Pemberton appeared to be satisfied to be confronted with the primitive grinning mask into which Gerald’s face had painfully set, and at last continued his way to the corridor that led to his own house. Then Gerald had to try to remember what he was doing among the damp raincoats.

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