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Part Three, Chapter Four

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« on: August 04, 2023, 06:09:02 am »

A DAY boy, junior to Gerald, approached him during the morning break with a book, in a curiously soft padded binding, and asked him if he would write down his “confession”. On the cover of the book was embossed “My Confession” and, inside, each page contained a number of questions, with spaces beneath for the “confessor’s answers. When Gerald turned over the leaves he found some of them already completed, at first by quite senior boys, such as Goff, and even by Mr. Norfolk and the red-nosed art master, but later, as the owner had begun to exhaust his victims or lower his standards, the spelling and neatness of the entries degenerated---and even their originality, for the lesser minds, confronted by such a conundrum as “What is your favourite flower?” were apt to fall back on the inspiration and knowledge of their predecessors, so that the answer “Dahlia” appeared again and again, and, because of the perils inherent in the copying of a text by an indifferent or careless scribe, with increasingly obscure orthography, like a corrupt passage in a contemporaneously printed Elizabethan play.

In the lunch hour Gerald set about writing in his own answers, approaching the task with the same excitement at being able to display himself to advantage as at the start of an essay or the putting on of a new garment. On the opposite page there was a completed “confession” at which he idly glanced while thinking of his own. “What is your favourite colour?” he read, and the surprising answer “White” led his eye compulsively down the page.

  “Favourite flower?---Taraxacum officinale.
    Favourite author?---P. G. Wodehouse.
    Favourite composer?---J. S. Bach.
    What quality do you most dislike in others?---Violence.
    In yourself?---Timidity.”

At this point he looked down at the bottom of the page for the name of the individual who had written in these disturbing answers and who could scarcely be imagined as existing in the world of Seafolde House, and to his astonishment found the legend “J. P. S. Slade.” There was a perceptible interval during which this name indicated for Gerald merely the remarkable author of the confession, before it merged eventually with the actual individual whose existence had been previously manifested by other activities, as an artist’s initial and sudden fame will strike those friends of his who know him only as a bank clerk. And then it was almost impossible for Gerald, with the composite personality in mind, to retain or even fully to recall the attitude he had formerly had towards the old Slade, so that if the latter had, at that moment, walked into the class-room, Gerald would have been forced to adopt the uneasy respect which a ranker must show for an old companion recently commissioned.

As it happened, when he next had the opportunity to scrutinize Slade, which was at tea, he had for the time being forgotten the revelation of “My Confession”, and though the boy must several times have come within the orbit of his gaze he failed to attract the attention which was due to him, as when we visit a museum we may pass without paying it any regard the object for which the endowment is famous and which beforehand we had intended to examine with special care. But in the evening, towards the end of preparation, looking up with tired eyes from his books and wriggling the second finger of his right hand against which his pen had been pressing so hard that it hurt the more when the pressure was relieved, he saw a few desks away from and a little in front of him Slade’s pale profile, the cheek still slightly freckled from the summer, a lock of lank hair hanging over the brow, and he thought that this was the mind and body that had supplied the answers that had so surprised him. He remembered last term the encounter in the middle of the night when Slade had been suffering from toothache for which the boy had proposed the remedy of brushing his teeth, and in retrospect this seemed not foolishness but a sardonic or whimsical response of the same nature as those in “My Confession”. Indeed, whatever of the commonplace or banal resided in the incident now seemed to Gerald to be due to his own obtuseness in treating it as such and failing to draw from the other the involved secrets of his personality which even the vulgar probing of the confession book had done with such success.

The groups of boys started to be sent over to the House in ascending order of seniority. Gerald, feigning to read, waited for the duty master’s signal to the group that included Slade, which was the one before the last of all, his own. When it came, he quickly excused himself and followed the boys out of the room. They went at once to their own class-rooms to put away their books and Gerald was left in the hall by the notice board whose papers shook in the autumnal wind blowing through the open doorway from the dark beyond. He hung about indecisively, willing the boys to appear again, but though only a minute or two had passed he began to feel dreadfully uneasy at his lack of occupation, at the absence of proper reasons for his presence there, and went slowly across the playground to the urinals where at least he need suffer no guilt. While he stood there, going needlessly through the motions of the purpose for which he had been able to leave preparation, several boys came in, including Slade.

Gerald lingered plausibly by the entrance, under the crude unshaded light, intending to say to Slade should he improbably pass alone: “I saw your confession in Collinson’s book.” And miraculously Slade was the last to come out. But though Gerald could plainly see that Slade wore for him a suitably deferential expression---that, in fact, as must be obvious, the boy had no occasion to behave otherwise than as a complete inferior, ready to listen, to smile, to obey---he was himself seized with a paralysing shyness, and in a moment Slade had passed him and broken into a run across the playground. So that far from indicating his changed attitude Gerald had by his silence and solemnity increased his distance from Slade who, of course, could not be expected to divine the events and feelings which had led to this encounter.

He walked back to the school block, the wind snatching out his tie, bending his hair. With the collapse of his plan the day seemed to have nothing more to offer---nor, as he looked ahead, could he discern anything of happiness to offset the menacing shadows that hung over his life. He thought of Cropper, as one thinks of a tyranny wallowing in its banners, mass meetings, military triumphs. He stopped automatically in front of the notice board. The sheet which contained the graph showing the progress of the Chapel Appeal Fund had become torn and grubby, and somewhat obscured by more recent notices. The graph itself had long since levelled off---indeed, had lately not been maintained---and Gerald marvelled at his former interest in its upward curve.

From the assembly hall there suddenly came the distant notes of the piano, and instead of summoning up, as Debussy had intended, the Delphic dancers, the music brought to Gerald’s perception, with a far greater immediacy than words would have done (indeed, since he did not fully understand the situation there could scarcely be words for it), the gulfs that lay between Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton. That the master should voluntarily return to the lonely occupation he had followed before he was “keen” on the girl, that he should not every night when he was free have the felicity of waiting for her by the Hippodrome, seemed such poignant conceptions that Gerald’s eyes filled with tears, through which, as it were, he heard the music go on to further depths of meaning and emotion.

Thompson came into the hall with his books: preparation had evidently ended. “That was a long pee, Bracher,” he said, insinuatingly.

“You have a filthy mind in a filthy body,” said Gerald. “And you need a shave.” He rasped the back of his hand against Thompson’s pimpled cheek.

“Did you finish the trig?” Thompson called, as Gerald went back to the class-room in which preparation was held.

Gerald sent back an indecipherable shout. It struck him as utterly incongruous that the school’s function should be to inculcate the knowledge of such things and that the minds of others should be filled with concern about them.

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