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Part Three, Chapter Two

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« on: August 03, 2023, 12:24:23 pm »

DESPITE his recognition of the changes the new term had brought, it was nevertheless a shock to Gerald to find on the House notice board a day or two later an announcement, above the Headmaster’s initials, that Cropper had been appointed a House Prefect. Blakey’s was the other name on the list but its effect was wholly absorbed by that emanating from the word “Cropper”, as the farce of, say, Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is subordinated in the memory to its tragic tone. Gerald tried to discover in the appointment the excellent motive which Mr. Pemberton must have had, but without success. At lunch-time he kept up a continuous conversation with Thompson, occasionally casting a cautious look at Cropper, who, however, betrayed no outward sign of the honour that had been done him, and as the day wore on he became, like those who have voted against an extremist party which has nevertheless come into power, half reassured by the unexpected continuance of ordinary existence. And at tea-time, when once more the private pots and tins appeared on the table, he was so far convinced by the absence of unusual events that Cropper’s House Prefectship was a mere title, without plenipotentiary significance---as it were an honorary Air Commodoreship bestowed on a Bank Manager---that he remarked so that Cropper could hear him: “Your jam’s gone down rather quickly, Thompson. Have the dogs been at it?”

Cropper said nothing. Gerald inwardly exulted at the power of the word, of intellect, the power he possessed as of right, like the absence of glasses and pimples, and which gave him natural superiority even over those on whom titular distinctions had been conferred. During the evening he forgot completely about the threat of Cropper’s power and physique, and the alarm that seized him was therefore all the more acute when, as he was snatching a few minutes at a book before Lights Out, Dyce appeared at the door and said “Bracher, Cropper wants to see you in our dormitory.”

“What?”

“Never mind what for.”

“You aren’t a House Prefect, Dyce, so don’t give yourself airs.”

“Cropper is,” said Dyce. “And he wants to see you.”

“He’s no right to get me out of bed. Jacket’ll be round soon for Lights Out.” The taint of illegality in the summons was all the more sinister because Dyce (and no doubt Cropper) was fully dressed while he was in vulnerable pyjamas, like some ill patient confronted by a surgeon or a liberal by secret police.

“Are you coming or not, Bracher?”

Gerald felt a desire at once to get Dyce out of his sight and to prolong the conversation, both courses seeming to offer the chance of averting the vague but terrible encounter that threatened him. “I think it could wait until morning.”

“He said he wanted to see you now,” said Dyce. “Have I to tell him you refuse to come?”

Though the exchanges with Dyce were of vital interest and importance, Gerald’s eyes were directed all the time towards his book and he even contrived to take in a few words, though without in the least understanding their relation to the narrative he had previously been reading. At last he looked up, as though reluctant to tear himself away from an absorbingly interesting occupation. “Tell him what you like,” he said with trembling lips.

When Dyce had gone out, Matley, who was still messing about in his monkish dressing-gown, said: “You were quite right not to go.”

“I’m very glad you approve,” said Gerald, trying to siphon off his accumulated bitterness on an object incapable of aggression, feeling the future as a sickening weight in his stomach.

Mr. Norfolk came and turned out the light. Not very long after it was put on again and Gerald, blinking through the glare, saw Cropper, with Dyce, the shark’s attendant sucker fish, close by his side. Both were now in pyjamas and dressing-gowns.

“Get out of bed, Bracher,” said Cropper.

“Why?” asked Gerald, out of the dozen questions that flooded his mind.

“Because I tell you to.”

“Being a House Prefect doesn’t entitle you to wake me up in the middle of the night.”

“Don’t be a fool, Bracher.”

A huge wish to hurt Cropper, to pick up some cruel missile and crash it into his face, to utter some outrageous words about his family, seized Gerald and made him shake almost with pleasure, for the thought was so vivid and urgent that the mere formulation of it seemed to translate it into reality.

“Are you going to get out or have we to get you out?” asked Cropper.

Cropper and Dyce, though they had now advanced close to the bed, were not the sole, nor the most actual, objects in Gerald’s vision. For he still had time to look round (at his fellow members of the dormitory propped interestedly on their elbows, at the white bulge of the chamber, like some piece of sculpture glimpsed in a gloomy grove, under Matley’s bed) even to think for a moment that tomorrow he must glue down the broken spine of his book---as a condemned man may, on the very scaffold, retain sufficient interest in life to consider the convenience of the executioner. In the same way he was tempted to answer Cropper’s question not with the brevity and point it demanded but with some general and totally unconnected observation.

But this strange, alert detachment was dispersed in an instant as Cropper grasped him under the arms and began to pull him out of bed. He felt, too, Dyce’s moist hands round his neck pulling with gratuitous force---gratuitous because up to this moment Gerald had neglected to form any intention of resisting physically. But now he did resist, holding on to the cold iron of the bed-head---even in that instant carefully avoiding his watch---and, as he was drawn out of the bed clothes, bending his legs so that his feet could get a leverage against the bodies that leaned over him. It soon became apparent that Cropper and Dyce were trying to turn him over on his stomach across the bed but they made little progress. From one of the other beds in the dormitory a dissident voice called out: “Keep it up, Bracher!”

In the very moment, however, when he was most conscious of the reserve of power that would enable him to hold out indefinitely against the assault, his body relented as though taking pity on the strenuous attempts by Cropper and Dyce to attain their desire, or perhaps because secretly it wished to suffer martyrdom; but its capitulation was accompanied with such a convincing show of struggle that he could half believe that it was in truth by the opposition of superior physical and mental force that he was bound to lie face downward under the pressing hands of his tormentors. His gasping for breath, too, he found that he could simulate with complete realism and lack of effort.

And so, his complete degradation brought about less by the action of Cropper and Dyce than his own volition, he heard the former say: “This is for being too cheeky, Bracher.” He had time to criticize in his own mind this piffling, ill-expressed remark before his whole concentration was absorbed by the pain of a hair-brush, no doubt transported by Cropper in his dressing-gown pocket, falling repeatedly on his ill-protected buttocks.

When Cropper and Dyce had gone, turning out the light as they left and thus mercifully leaving him without the almost impossible task of assuming a face that would hide his shame and hurt, it came to him that though Cropper had exercised his authority in a most ludicrous manner, that did not subtract any terror from him. On the contrary, Gerald saw clearly an indefinitely long future haunted not only by the threat of Cropper’s power to inflict corporal punishment but also by his mere presence in the school that could, like the serious illness of someone one loves, impregnate with its evil effluence occasions and anticipations of happiness, the otherwise noble and pleasurable books and music, the very seasons of the year.

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