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Part Two, Chapter Nine

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« on: August 03, 2023, 11:14:48 am »

THE great match of every season, whether at cricket or football, was that with Westport College, a school of similar size and standing some thirty miles along the coast. This year the cricket fixture was due to be played at Seafolde House. By tradition, no other games were played on the ground on the Saturday afternoon of the Westport College match, but the day boys were expected to turn up as spectators and for the boarders attendance was compulsory. After lunch Gerald, freed from the chore of changing into flannels, found himself with an hour of leisure before the start of the match, and wandered down the drive to a place behind the evergreens which, if not explicitly out of bounds, had the quiet air of being so.

He sprawled at full length and all at once was close to the jungle world of grass and ants, a world of painful effort and self-absorbed interest. And then it was only a few moments before he became aware of the noises of summer---of insects, larks, leaves---that provide the normally unidentified ostinato that nevertheless enriches the obvious themes of colour, sun and cloud. Into this harmonious buzz came suddenly some cacophonous and syncopated sounds. As was well known among the boarders, Mr. Norfolk had recently bought a small, antique motor car. He now appeared in this round a bend in the drive pushed by three small boys from his form. When they had laboriously worked up speed he let in his clutch, a spurt of dark smoke came from the exhaust, and the car quickly petered to a standstill. At Mr. Norfolk’s bidding this process was several times repeated, and at length the car passed from Gerald’s view down the drive.

Gerald opened his book, the Marlowe that Mr. Percy had lent him, and turned over the pages, attracted by titles, names, lines, but too indolent, too daunted by his confrontation with so much of which he was ignorant, to start methodically reading. Between two pages of the last act of Doctor Faustus he came across a folded piece of grey writing paper. He opened it unthinkingly and read:

Dear Edward, When I got back to the smell of iodine I said to Marcel, that understanding Frog: “No, he is quite wrong, quite wrong.” I am NOT a captive---at least, not a captive to anybody. And I thought that even you must have a Grey streak, for what is romanticism but a kind of Greyness? I mean Heathcliff and Rochester are just the Brontës making the best of their Grey Chaps---invented Grey Chaps, but Grey Chaps all the same.

Our Grey Chap did not capture me. When I was left an orphing I was very thankful to be asked to live at Seafolde House. Aren’t I better off as matron here than matron somewhere else? You don’t know because no man can ever know, the squalor of female poverty: to escape from that women will put up with anything---only it is not “putting up with”, really: it is an inborn part of feminine character, a biological adaptation to a Grey Chap’s world.

You say I am preparing myself to become the Grey Chap’s permanent appendage. Well, most women are destined to become some Grey Chap’s appendage and surely a niece-like appendage is more detachable than a wife-like one. And besides, if you aren’t going to be wagged you must show some signs of being able to wag, and that is what I’ve never been able to do. Will you please tell me how a tail gets on, all the time naïvely showing its two pathetic alternate moods of happiness or dejection, in a world where tails definitely come last?

Yes, you are romantic. Secretly, you would like your wife to be a fat lunatic hidden away in a tower so that you could be comforted by a demure little tail. And that in spite of the fact that you are the least grey chap I’ve ever met. Most people would call you white but I’m like one of those animals in psychologists’ experiments that can respond to grey so pale it is quite invisible. You will not like to read this, but it is true. And I must write another thing, too, that perhaps I should be too shy to say to you. Wasn’t it also the Brontës who suffered---no, that’s not the word---stimulated, bathed in, toyed with, a succession of curates? I’ve no illusions about my anaemic charms, but in this isolated vicarage on the bleak moors they do probably have a spurious propinquitous appeal to the enforcedly celibate. So don’t ever forget that terms don’t last for ever.

Your sincere, Tail

Gerald read the first few lines of this letter as though it were part of the impersonal, remote text of the book in which he had found it, an illusion sustained by the half-baked impression that the initial “Dear Edward” in some way referred to the play of Edward the Second he had noticed among the contents when he had been turning the pages over. And then in rapidly sequential but separate stages he realized that this was a letter to Mr. Percy, used by him as a bookmark and left inadvertently there, and that it had been written by Miss Pemberton.

It was true, then, that Percy was keen on Evie. The certainty amazed him, for it was one thing to gossip idly about the school’s remoter, authoritarian figures and quite another to have visual confirmation of the gossip, just as everyone delights to reiterate that a king is essentially no different from his subjects but would be profoundly disturbed to come across the monarch standing in a compartment of a public urinal. But when he had finished the letter he saw that the truth was not of this simple order, that it would be impossible for him when the subject was mentioned to smile knowingly to himself: he would still, in spite of his unique evidence, need to seize hungrily on every scrap of rumour and speculation in order to try to make rational the motives and actions of the protagonists of the affair, as a biographer with access to all the documents about his subject must yet out of his own head construct a theory in order to articulate them.

He stared at the unfamiliar handwriting, small, upright, feminine, and the urgent underlinings that gave the page an appearance at once meticulous and wild, like a memorial prepared by the inmate of an asylum; and he tried to apply to it his knowledge of what form the relations between man and woman could take---the pale dishevelled woman on the playing fields that hot afternoon pursued by, yielding to, the insistent louts; his own imagined encounter on the deserted sea road with the dark sallow girl who sat far across the nave of the church; and Mr. Ayers on the terrace of the hotel finding inexhaustible conversation with his mother. What, he had crudely to reduce it to, did Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton do? But the answer lay beyond him, a real but future point in his curriculum, like the Binomial Theorem.

Given the knowledge revealed by the letter, other small seemingly disparate phenomena that he would otherwise never have noticed or could never have explained, fell into place, as the orbit of a negligible planet is accounted for by a fundamental proposition about light. The growing infrequence of Mr. Percy’s piano playing in the assembly hall, even his lending books, was no doubt due to the unfolding of his relationship with Miss Pemberton, whose fresh hair style and occasional facetiousness with the boys sprang from the same root. How often must one, ignorant of the prime motives in the lives of others, fail to understand or misinterpret what goes on?---thinking, for example, during an entire acquaintanceship, of a man as irascible who is merely shy.

It was only at an advanced stage in these thoughts that the explicit nature of the letter’s contents struck Gerald with any force. True, at the first sight of the words “Grey Chap” he had felt an ambiguous vibration deep in his body at the force imparted, as in the case of certain phrases one may find scrawled on a lavatory wall, by words to an oral tradition. But these were as nothing to the eventual realization that in Mr. Percy’s and Miss Pemberton’s conception the Headmaster played some repressive role, and that the symbolic use of his nick-name by these adults signified that they held him in contempt. Such outrageous things confirmed the guilty nature of their association: after all, it is not very surprising to learn that a man charged with indecent exposure has a past record of petty thefts.

A sudden explosion broke into these absorbing thoughts, and Gerald looked up to see once again in the drive Mr. Norfolk’s car, this time facing the other way. From its stationary position it began slowly to move and soon Gerald could discern the bent figures of the boys at the back of it, trying against inertia and gradient to get up a reasonable speed. Mr. Norfolk himself, head and shoulders fully revealed by the folded hood, sat motionless, hands on steering wheel, with a detached yet anxious expression, as of an artist showing his creations to an important critic. The machine eventually passed out of sight.

How ludicrous was this conduct of Mr. Norfolk’s! Could it be that Mr. Percy’s was just as ludicrous? And yet Gerald could see that only a hair’s breadth divided Mr. Norfolk’s immobile car, and his enlistment of his pupils into the project of making it work, from the pathetic---and perhaps that was the word that had to be applied to this frail and seditious affair of Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton, that could blossom only in the Headmaster’s ignorance or contempt, like a revolutionary party in an autocracy.

Gerald folded the letter at last and replaced it in the book, worried a little that he had not noted the precise leaves between which he had found it, for he realized that he must begin to lay the proofs of his innocence against Mr. Percy’s eventual discovery of it, as a cunning murderer in the very transaction of his crime plants a scrap of evidence to help establish his alibi. No longer capable of sufficient peace of mind to return to his reading, Gerald rose and stepped into the now deserted drive. When he had strolled a little way along it he saw the weedy figure of Dunstan, one of the school prefects, crossing towards the House. Dunstan stopped suddenly and shouted: “You! You, there!”

“Me?” Gerald called, but too faintly for his voice to carry to the other, for his whole inner being had been seized with a spasm of fear that Mr. Percy had remembered where he had left the letter and had set Dunstan to retrieve it and bring the thief, the pryer, before him.

“Yes, you,” cried Dunstan, waiting with fists on hips.

Gerald made a shambling pretence at haste and at length stationed himself apprehensively before the prefect.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Dunstan.

“I’ve been for a walk, Dunstan. It’s not out of bounds here, is it?”

“ ‘I’ve been for a walk, Dunstan,’ ” repeated Dunstan derisively. “Don’t you know the Westport match has started?”

“Has it, Dunstan?” The Westport match: the phrase came from another, comfortingly less arduous order of existence. “I’m afraid my watch must have stopped,” Gerald added in a cosy-making voice, feigning easily to have had the match constantly in mind.

“Well, get there at the double and don’t be such a slacker in future.” Dunstan over-compensated for his lack of skill at games with a zealous interest in them.

Gerald came up to the First Pitch by the side of the pavilion in front of which, in honour of the match, had been placed a few deck-chairs---not the sparkling uniform deck-chairs which had been hired for Sports Day but a miscellaneous collection of rotting canvas, string-spliced woodwork and projecting nails. In the least unsafe sat Major Marriott, the headmaster of Westport College, a little man with arched eyebrows and short grey hair standing stiffly off his scalp, giving him the look of one who has just suffered a terrible shock. When Gerald had, by questioning the boy at his side, identified this alien figure, he covertly watched it for several minutes, marvelling that so undistinguished a man could be a headmaster and at his own absence of fear. Behind Major Marriott, at one of the pavilion’s unglazed windows, sat a boy wearing a cap quartered in unfamiliar blue and yellow, the Westport scorer. Major Marriott, who had been chewing a finger, turned round suddenly and said to this boy: “Ronnie, have you got a penknife?”

“Yes, sir,” said the scorer.

“Chuck it over, then,” said Major Marriott who, when possessed of this instrument, began to pare one of his nails.

This exchange staggered Gerald not only with its revelation of the disgustingly casual and egalitarian conditions that must pertain at Westport College but also because of Major Marriott’s behaving in a manner that made light of his position as a visitor in strange surroundings, and it was with the sense with which the decent inhabitants of a rioting city welcome the arrival of the military that a few moments later he observed Mr. Pemberton walking from the direction of the House towards the pavilion. All the same, he saw no reason why he should risk the unforeseeable hazards of an encounter with the Headmaster, and so moved unobtrusively away round the boundary.

From a suitably distant vantage he watched Mr. Pemberton greet Major Marriott and take the chair at the Westport headmaster’s side, which had doubtless been kept specially vacant, so that the principals then sat side by side looking out over the field of friendly combat of their two forces, like two great potentates, for long deadly rivals, whom diplomacy or common interest has at last brought together in circumstances of ceremonial politeness and celebration which nevertheless cannot quite obliterate their past conflict or its possible future revival.

“Well, Bracher,” said a voice behind him, “did you find out what it meant?”

Gerald turned round, startled, and saw Mr. Percy leaning on his stick. “What, sir?” he asked, with a flaming guilty face, knowing perfectly well that the master was referring to the letter which he must at last have remembered was in the Marlowe, but determined to try to maintain the fiction of ignorance.

“You have a very short memory, Bracher,” replied Mr. Percy. “The Shelley couplet.”

“Oh, that, sir,” said Gerald, with a rush of relief and love. “No, sir.”

“You told me what the poet intended it to mean. But what he actually wrote means the exact opposite. Do you see?”

“Yes, sir.” Gerald pulled himself together. “No, sir. I just can’t remember the lines at the moment.”

“Ah, well,” said Mr. Percy. “You will. It’s an interesting point. Not that I discovered it, I hasten to add, Bracher, because I don’t want you with your increasingly extensive explorations into literature to catch me out in a plagiarism. Does it matter what poetry means? Was Shelley too careless to be a good poet? What’s that book you’ve got there? Fu-Manchu?”

“The one you lent me, sir, Gerald said, clasping it still tighter under his arm, for it seemed to him that it leap from have the special power of fragile things to leap from one’s grasp in spite of all precautions, and he clearly visualized it spilling its secret contents at Mr. Percy’s feet.

“Very tactful of you, Bracher. I think I shall sit down on the grass. There’s no obligation on you to stay.”

Nevertheless Gerald felt compelled to follow suit. Mr. Percy lay on a plump elbow, his trilby hat resting on his nose. The silence was suddenly embarrassing and Gerald stared with bogus concentration at the field of play. The school, he saw, were batting first. Mr. Marsh was standing as umpire at one end: at the other was an individual in a panama hat who Gerald assumed was a Westport College master. The bowler, a boy with flapping auburn locks, was walking back for his run.

Miss Pemberton dropped into the discreet gap Gerald had left between himself and Mr. Percy. “That’s the famous Wilkes,” she announced.

Since Mr. Percy made no response, Gerald said faintly: “Who?”

“The bowler. He can bat, too. Thank goodness this is his last term. He’s been a menace to the school for years.”

“Not as big a menace as some I know,” said Mr. Percy.

Wilkes started on his enormous run up. “How would you like to be on the receiving end of that, Bracher?” inquired Miss Pemberton, plucking a stalk of grass and placing it in her mouth. Gerald grimaced suitably though he scarcely heard the question, being hard at work trying to evolve a scheme for getting decently away. It seemed to him that these idle and innocent remarks of Miss Pemberton and Mr. Percy must soon give way to an excruciatingly embarrassing exchange that would reveal their true relationship and one which he felt powerless to keep at bay, as a visitor to a lunatic knows that talk of weather or food will be followed by the terrible obsessive theme which is the reason for his vis-à-vis’s incarceration.

Could it be that it was merely love---that euphemism, that vagueness---in which he feared to be implicated, as though it were not the desirable and elevated state sanctioned by cultural tradition but a conception which retained its merely verbal meaning while in practice it took on an entirely different connotation, like socialism? Or was it that he divined that love between these two must have a guilty quality—because, for example, it implied secrecy, flourishing among the celibate and adolescent, or the condemnation of the Headmaster? Perhaps, even, it was simply the emotion of others, emotion which he could neither share nor imagine, that, like an animal’s moaning, so alarmed and sickened him. And he thought of tables in cafés where, for hours on end, his mother’s hand had been covered by that of a stranger.

“Even a Wilkes must depart at last,” Mr. Percy was saying. “Nothing is really permanently oppressive, unless it is one’s own nature.”

“All the same, some Wilkeses last longer than others,” said Miss Pemberton.

“Who’s duty master tonight, Bracher?” Mr. Percy asked.

“You are, sir, aren’t you?”

“So I am,” said Mr. Percy, without surprise. “While you are gallivanting round the town I shall be mooching about the House, awaiting your plangent return. I shall turn the lights out sharply tonight, I promise you, Bracher.”

The pleasure in Mr. Percy’s voice, inexplicable as it was, was not lost to Gerald, and he stole a look at the master who, however, still presented the mask he had evolved for himself during his life---the absence of gestures, the slow movements, the clothes whose ordinariness was only relieved by their age.

“Major Marriott has brought his dog again,” observed Miss Pemberton. “It seems to be different this term. Not so hairy.”

“It is quite hairy,” said Mr. Percy.

“Quite, but not very,” said Miss Pemberton.

That they failed to use any name for each other in the exchanges only served, like a row of asterisks, to call attention to the prurient words that had to be supplied. At last Gerald brought himself to utter the sentence he had long tried over in his mind.

“I think I’ll just walk round the boundary,” he said, rising quickly to his feet. Miss Pemberton smiled at him as he went and though he did not look back he strained his ears for some revelatory word, for he knew that it is our own presence in the world that, like a scientist’s measuring instrument among electrons, prevents us from discovering exact truth. But all he heard was the general chatter of the watching groups and a lark’s tireless but painful song.

By half past three the school XI had been dismissed for a fairly miserable 42. Gerald had joined a group not far from the pavilion. Across the field he could see Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton, no nearer to each other than when he had left them. Behind the fringe of spectators on the boundary numbers of smaller boys, long since bored with watching, wrestled with and pursued each other, like packs of indefatigably sportive dogs one is surprised to find all male. The Westport openers started well. They had made 20 before Mountain, coming on to bowl his slow leg-breaks, took a wicket with the last ball of the over.

“Wilkes is first wicket down,” remarked Thompson. “He’ll knock off the rest before you’ve time to fart.”

“I don’t know,” said Gerald, feeling keenly the school’s ignominious plight. “Mountain might bowl them out.”

“It’s as good as over,” said Thompson, lying back on the grass and closing his eyes.

The other opener’s wicket fell in the next over: and Thompson struggled to an upright position. Wilkes had not yet had to play a ball: he stood leaning negligently on his bat, imperturbably watching the decay at the other end.

“Who said it was all over?” asked Gerald, a fragile worm of exaltation at his stomach.

“Wilkes hasn’t had a chance yet,” said Thompson. “Give him a couple of overs and he’ll get the runs on his tod.”

It was still 20 for 2 when Wilkes at last faced Mountain and swept his first ball to the boundary. Thompson applauded with exaggerated enthusiasm. Wilkes hit the second ball of the over with the meat of the bat out of his block-hole towards square leg, where Blakey was fielding. As the ball was passing Blakey at shoulder height he thrust out his hand and the ball stuck. What followed had for Gerald all the confusion of a street accident or military engagement. Presumably there was an appeal and presumably the umpire at the bowler’s end, the panama-hatted Westport master, shook his head. At Gerald’s side Thompson was on his feet, crying: “He’s given him not out. What a sodding swiz!”

The ball had been thrown back to Mountain but instead of bowling his next ball he was tossing it up and down, one hand on hip. From a boy near Gerald came the familiar whisper: “The Grey Chap!” and Gerald turned his eyes from the drama on the field of play to see that Mr. Pemberton had indeed left his seat in front of the pavilion and was walking towards the Captain of the XI, who was fielding not ten yards from where Gerald was squatting.

The Headmaster’s face was expressionless but very white. The Captain took a few uncertain steps towards him. In a firm voice, quite audible to Gerald, Mr. Pemberton said: “Lead your men off the field, Birnie.”

“Now, sir?” asked Birnie.

“Now,” said the Headmaster, and Gerald’s heart warmed towards this prompt, effective and unparalleled action for justice and truth. The Headmaster turned and walked back towards his deck chair: Birnie falteringly moved in to the wicket and called in a strangled voice: “Come on, you chaps. Back to the pavilion.” Slowly the command communicated itself to the team and it began to straggle off. For a few moments Wilkes and his fellow batsman and the two umpires were left in sole possession of the pitch and then they, too, drifted over to the pavilion where a crowd of people had gathered round some focal centre which Gerald divined must be the rival headmasters. Could Mr. Pemberton and Major Marriott possibly be engaged in some form of physical combat? The idea had only to be formulated to be dismissed as absurd, but there was no doubt that some terrible conflict existed in front of the pavilion which he longed to but dared not witness.

“We’ll never play Westport again, that’s certain,” said Thompson. “What an absolute swiz!”

Soon the knot in front of the pavilion loosened and though it was apparent that an amount of discussion was still in progress, the School XI began to wander back on the field. Howarth came up to Gerald and Thompson and said: “They’ve given him out.” Sure enough, the two Westport batsmen could be seen making their way to the wickets and neither was Wilkes.

“What happened, Howarth?” asked Thompson. “Were you there?”

“Front row,” said Howarth. “The Westport umpire said it was a bump ball. Marshie said he hadn’t seen properly and couldn’t pass an opinion. The Grey Chap said he would call the match off if such a flagrantly and manifestly absurd decision were allowed to stand. The Westport Head caved in immediately and said Wilkes was to regard himself as out.”

“Good for the Grey Chap,” said Gerald joyfully.

“Of course,” said Thompson, “it won’t make any difference to the result.” Nor did it, for Westport got the necessary runs without further loss.

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