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Part Three, Chapter One

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« on: August 03, 2023, 12:12:16 pm »

AS Gerald, after unpacking, lugged his empty trunk to the box-room, he passed on the landing a small boy he had never seen before in his life and whose appearance in these familiar surroundings was as strange and exotic as a foreign coin in a handful of change. When he got back to the dormitory, Gerald said to Matley: “I see there’s a new boarder.”

“There are two,” said Matley, who had moved to the next bed to Gerald, once occupied by Howarth. Matley’s old bed, which was in an inferior, exposed position by the door, now belonged to Dover who last term had been in the next lower dormitory and had seemed a very junior boy indeed. Another junior now slept in Snape major’s place, for Stink-Bomb Billy had not inappropriately been translated to the single room which had formerly seemed Mountain’s own peculiar milieu.

At first blush this dilution of society had seemed to Gerald proof positive that the school was in a decline. Matley was a quite inadequate substitute for Howarth; Dover and the other junior had brought with them the immature habits of an inferior civilization; and Gerald felt the despair of an officer at the quality of his reinforcements. But the knowledge that the scale was being extended at the other end reconciled him somewhat to these sad changes, and he cherished the idea of these two new boys as fondly as the leader of a splinter party his new recruits, even strolling with a casual air to the most junior dormitory of all, where they were housed, and verifying their existence and appearance. And as he did so it seemed to him that they in their turn must look on him as a member of a totally superior species, and when he had gone would timidly inquire about his name and reputation, as he himself as a new boy had inquired about such giants as Mountain.

But it was not until breakfast the next morning, the first meal of the new term, that the startling changes brought about by the ending of the school year were fully revealed. At the head of the main table, in place of Birnie, sat Goff and at his right hand was the negligible Blakey. Opposite Blakey was Cropper and then Cropper’s friend Dyce. Thompson came next to Blakey and then Gerald himself, feeling as he walked to his chair the places where he might have sat falling past him like defeated runners in a race. He sat with a false air of nonchalance, as a frequenter of the pit might sit with complimentary tickets in the stalls, convinced that he was now too near and that his neighbours were phoneys.

Could it be that the great ones who had occupied these places last term had been great only in the minds of their beholders, that they, too, had been in reality weak like Goff, stupid like Blakey, as undistinguished as Gerald felt himself to be? Or had the school suffered the blow that Howarth’s father had predicted and must now be governed by usurpers, boys not tall enough and of insufficient individuality of character? Gerald was sure at least that among Birnie and his fellows there could have been no apprehensive relationships such as existed between himself and Cropper. The latter, in a new suit and with an attitude permanently orientated towards Goff, had effortlessly cast from himself all the ludicrous associations of the previous term. In his new place and with the absence of Mountain, he could not be conceived as coming from a family which bred Alsatians and owned a bull-nosed Morris, and it was almost impossible to imagine that his serious questing profile and abundant hair could be associated with anything comic. He looked heavier, older, dangerous.

When Gerald turned to inspect the Masters’ table, he saw a change less dramatic but scarcely less disturbing. The chair at the Headmaster’s right was occupied not by Mr. Chaplin but by Mr. Marsh and there was no new master to fill up the gap left by the re-shuffling of places. In his exalted position Mr. Marsh’s character stood truly revealed and plainly condemned itself as inadequate. As the shortcomings of a reserve summon up the ghost of the player he has replaced, so Mr. Marsh’s barbarous black curls and leather-bound sports jacket poignantly reminded Gerald of Mr. Chaplin’s neat baldness and dark suit, their utter appropriateness taken so heartlessly for granted. And on Mr. Pemberton’s other side, like the unreliable future deviationist of a revolutionary government, was Mr. Percy. So ill-supported by his staff as he was and with such inferior material among the boys, Gerald felt for the Headmaster the pang of pity one feels for the only good member of a ghastly provincial repertory company.

But Mr. Pemberton seemed utterly unconscious of these changes and, as an old inhabitant of a mountain village will go about his trivial business in the face of the most frightful volcanic rumblings, having already undergone every possible shade of cataclysm, he calmly popped fragment after fragment of butter-and marmalade-loaded toast into his mouth and masticated them with impeccably closed mouth.

It had never struck Gerald that the triangles of toast in their silver rack which, like a problem in three dimensional geometry, confronted the Headmaster every morning at a meal where everyone else ate bread, were other than Mr. Pemberton’s unquestionable right; but now they seemed like all privileges in a time of crisis, its precipitating cause and their abolition its raison d'être. But in the manner of the most moderate wing of a movement for reform, Gerald believed only in the evil of the privilege, not of its enjoyer, and thought also of the fillip it would give the school if the provision of toast could be universal.

Many boys had brought back with them pots of preserve or tins of syrup and these now stood before them on the table to be resorted to when the always inadequate supplies provided by the school at breakfast were exhausted. That Cropper had never subscribed to this custom had often in previous terms been remarked on by Mountain and put down to his parents’ poverty or parsimony. His place this morning was innocent of pot or tin, but the austerity seemed a sign of strength. And when Thompson had opened and helped himself to his strawberry jam it appeared a diplomatic and respectful gesture that he should push the jar across the table and say: “Have some jam, Cropper?”

Cropper accepted it with the lack of embarrassment, even the faint disdain, of a conqueror seeing put before him the tribute of a pile of valuable but smelly pelts. Gerald formed the phrase: “Cropper’s forgotten to unpack his jam,” but it stuck in his throat. Not only was there no audience to appreciate and enlarge on it, but he was, he suddenly realized, frightened of Cropper. The unwritten treaties, the buffer states, which formerly had protected him, had all been swept away. The balance of power was disastrously changed.

The deformed Dyce leaned and whispered in Cropper’s ear and Cropper nodded and smiled one of his rare smiles: Gerald’s cheeks began to burn, for he was sure something derogatory had been said about him. For the first time at Seafolde House he felt that he was despised, disliked, thought ridiculous, and since he was the same as he had always been the foundations of his life were for a few terrible moments threatened with complete destruction.

When the day boys had arrived and prayers were over, the same profound shift in status could be observed in the school block as in the House. Although Gerald found himself in a different class-room, Mr. Percy had moved up with him into the gap left by Mr. Chaplin, while lower down in the school some Procrustean arrangement had made Mr. Norfolk a more important master without relieving him of his most junior status. And here could be still more clearly seen the ambiguous nature of the changes the new term had brought. Was it decay or time alone that had placed Cropper and even Blakey in the form that was traditionally under Mr. Pemberton’s care, that occupied a room different in kind from the other class-rooms, that had formerly seemed mysterious and remote? Gerald himself, now sitting as of right next to the reference library where he had so often nervously and illegally stood, felt that he had not by his own growth become entitled to his new place, but that the school had moved back, fitting a quite inappropriate frame round his immaturity.

Perhaps Mr. Percy was seized with not dissimilar emotions for when he came into the class-room he opened the lid of the master’s desk and gazed inside it for a moment, as though he had expected it still to contain Mr. Chaplin’s possessions---a bottle of green ink, a pen with a clean nib, a guide to New Zealand, a spectacle case. Then he closed the lid, put his books and papers on top of it, and tucked his corpulence on to the chair. He looked round the class and said: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. Eh, Bracher?”

Gerald wanted to reply that he was glad that Mr. Percy had moved up with him, but of course that was impossible. He contented himself with saying very promptly: “Through the Looking-Glass, sir.” The words had come almost automatically to his lips and with them the memory rose of the remote days before they had gone to Durban. He saw a picture of himself reading aloud to his mother as she lay in bed and then of his climbing into her arms and looking beyond her to the baby in the cot, the brother who had not survived his infancy. And he sensed vividly the atmosphere of books, of warmth and softness, of uninhibited kissing, that had surrounded those days. Since then he had been a quite different being, in whom until recently the sap of sensuality and intellectualism had slept, so that he could marvel at the child of long ago who had laid his cheek against other soft cheeks and who had read without thought of any particular books being boring or difficult, recognizing him with delighted surprise as his true self who now perhaps was in the process of being reborn.

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