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Part Three, Chapter Five

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« on: August 04, 2023, 06:42:36 am »

THE Headmaster’s entry at prayers was signalled by a peculiarly swift and definite opening of the door that led into the hall, so that no sooner had his unmistakable touch on the handle been identified and caused its frisson of apprehension than his fearful figure was already in the hall, striding towards the dais, the gown bellying behind. Frequently his fertile mind was so full of topics on which he had to address the school that he embarked on some of them before prayers. One morning he mounted the dais and said: “I have heard of one boy who has the school’s welfare at heart. One boy at least.” He paused, and Gerald, convinced that he could not be that boy, felt a sense of guilt that was scarcely lessened by his knowing that the rest of the school must share it. Then Mr. Pemberton, instead of fulfilling the dread expectancy that he had roused, announced the number of the hymn. When it was over and he had said prayers he uttered the command that was constantly on his lips as he moved through the school. “Be seated, boys.” The creak of iron, the swish of bottoms on wood, the shuffling of feet, though to a stranger to the world of school it would have seemed to be nerve-rackingly prolonged, in fact died down in the minimum of time. “I have heard of one boy,” said Mr. Pemberton, “who realized that the Chapel Appeal Fund was his concern. Of course, it was the concern of every one of you. Perhaps some of you even felt that. But how many of you translated that feeling into action? Tried with all his might to make the Appeal a success? I have heard of one boy, who without any prompting either from me or from his parents, took practical steps to swell the Fund. He had no more money than any of you, but he succeeded in making regular contributions. Do you know what he did, boys? He collected silver paper---collected it most devotedly, ever since the Appeal was launched, all through the summer holidays. He is still collecting it---and selling it, of course, to bring in money for the Fund. I don’t mind telling you his name, boys, though I daresay he would not wish me to, because he hasn’t worked for his own glory. I heard of this boy’s work quite by chance.” At last the Headmaster permitted his stern countenance to relax. “His name is Brian Cole.”

There came from the listening boys a faint involuntary escape of breath, marking the end of their suspense, but each contributor had been unable to keep from his suspiration an emotional tone, so that the tutti emerged in a ghostly groan, the off-stage murder of some aged Shakespearian monarch. Like severe ladies of an old régime, Mr. Pemberton had the faculty of ignoring, without condoning, breaches of propriety which it did not suit him to reprehend. Now he smiled an apertureless smile before he said: “Stand up, Brian.” After a suitable pause, Cole’s stout figure was seen to emerge in the middle of the school. “Well, done, Brian,” said Mr. Pemberton. Even Cole was unable to assimilate this honour with complacence: indeed, a shifty look could be discerned behind his defiantly appropriate grin, as of one who half anticipates that his chair will have been withdrawn when he sits down but lacks the moral courage to look behind him to find out. “Be seated, Brian,” said the Headmaster, and Cole sank back into the mass though, like some member of a savage race returned from a sojourn in a civilized country, he seemed incompletely absorbed by it and there came from the area where he sat a few grunts and movements which might have drawn Mr. Pemberton’s anger had he observed them but by now he had swept from the dais and was already out of the hall.

After school that morning Gerald---though conscious of the uselessness of his action, as one too soon returns to a kettle one has set to boil---looked at the notice board to see if Cole’s silver paper deals had sent up the graph of the Chapel Appeal Fund. But the tattered sheet was no longer there. He went out into the playground with an unaccountable feeling of exultation and seeing the football game in progress, with the ball at Thompson’s feet, called for a pass and shot first time, with unusual adroitness, at the goal marked in chalk on the school wall.

This lunch-time occupation, into which he had gradually insinuated himself this term less from enjoyment of it than from a desire to exercise his rights as a senior boarder, now seemed quite different from the time when he had watched Mountain dominate it with his skill, as might some religious rite to an officiating priest who had once acted as acolyte on its periphery. No longer did it serve to distinguish its players as great ones, nor was Gerald conscious, once his participation in it had been accepted, that there existed a class who wished to play but could not. Cropper, of course, was one of these who played but it did not seem at all strange to Gerald to receive a pass from him or even to put one at his feet, just as zebra by day see quite nonchalantly a lion roam among them. Cropper was not a skilful player but since, unlike Gerald, he never attempted any feat beyond the limits of his skill, his playing of the game seemed a part of his now unassailable character: he turned it into an occupation that was not really worth his attention, that since it was a solace of those weaker than himself he was prepared temporarily to indulge, as a warder plays draughts with a condemned prisoner.

Blakey, who always acted the unrewarding part of goalkeeper, failed to save Gerald’s shot and the ball rebounded from the wall. It came back to Gerald at shin height and with foolish abandon he swung his foot at it again and sliced it high into the Headmaster’s garden. He gazed after it with stupefaction and yearning, imagining that he had the opportunity again of making the shot and had wisely decided against it.

The other players stood like a mob baulked of its victim. “You silly ass, Bracher,” said Blakey.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked Thompson. “Hop over the wall.”

Cropper had taken out his penknife and was paring his nails, but said nothing. Like a treacherous police official he was prepared to accept the advantages of, but not initiate, illegal action: indeed, Gerald felt that as soon as he should have set foot on the Headmaster’s hallowed ground, Cropper might call him back and report the heinous offence. While Gerald hesitated, Slade, who had been watching the game, suddenly pulled himself to the top of the wall, and straddling it said: “I’ll get it, Bracher.” He dropped down out of view on the other side. Gerald, full of shame and relief, ran to the wall, put his toe in a crack, looked over and saw, with the mingled anxiety and pleasure with which one views the feats of some performing animal, Slade’s figure wandering among the rhododendrons in the forbidden milieu.

“I can’t see it,” said Slade in a voice that seemed unnecessarily loud. Beyond him rose the windows behind which the Headmaster had his private being, and Gerald realized that this was the mirror image of the view one had from Mr. Pemberton’s study---a view that had hitherto impressed him as not forming part of the landscape of school at all. He was trying to distinguish which in fact was the study window when he heard a preternaturally loud rapping sound and turning towards its origin discerned the figure of the Headmaster, a pencil poised in his hand, glaring through the glass at Slade. He lowered his head until his eyes peered through the weeds growing sparsely on top of the wall, magnified into a great forest. Slade, too, looked up and when Mr. Pemberton saw that he had the boy’s attention he made some violent gestures with his hand, indicating that Slade was to remove himself utterly from the garden. Slade by this time had found the ball and he held it up to Mr. Pemberton’s gaze, as though it were some mythological talisman capable, say, of preventing him being turned to stone. But the object only changed the Headmaster’s agitation to a more terrible calm: he put his hand close to the pane and beckoned to Slade with his forefinger.

Gerald slid back into the playground. “The Grey Chap was there,” he announced.

“Where’s the ball?” inquired Thompson.

“I’ll buy another,” said Gerald.

“You bloody well will.”

“I didn’t ask Slade to get it for me,” said Gerald, but his cross tone did not relieve him of the burden of guilt and concern Slade had laid on him.

“That kid deserves a beating anyway,” said Blakey.

Gerald could not find it in himself to contradict this remark which once he would have accepted as the truth but which now seemed merely a confirmation of the world’s cruelty and injustice. At lunch-time he threw covert glances at Slade, who sat near the bottom of the main table, trying to divine from his colour and mood whether or not the Headmaster had in fact caned him. After lunch, Gerald thought, he would behave quite naturally and if he encountered Slade in the ordinary course would inquire what had happened and find suitable words to express his appreciation of the younger boy’s action. But in the event he found himself lagging or hastening, speaking absorbedly to others---almost subconsciously arranging things so that the encounter would not take place. And during afternoon school he kept returning to the situation, planning approaches of gratitude and sympathy, though every moment that passed made these more difficult to achieve. At tea he caught Slade’s eye and as he turned from it in embarrassment he smiled what he imagined to be a rueful smile, expressive of all that had passed between them that day, but concentrating furiously on wrapping a golden tentacle of syrup round his knife he realized that once more he had quite failed to impart to Slade an adequate account of his feelings.

The next day a message came to report to Mr. Norfolk’s class-room at the end of afternoon school and when he got there he found himself one of a dozen or so boys who were, Mr. Norfolk announced, to form the cast of the school play to be given at the end of term. A negligent atmosphere prevailed. Mr. Norfolk himself was perched on the back of his chair, leaning against the cracked oilcloth of a wall map of the British Isles. “If you chaps will kindly make a little less noise,” he said, “I’ll read the cast list.” The play was to be the familiar Twelfth Night. Mr. Norfolk looked at the sheet of exercise paper in his hand. “Orsino,” he read, “Bracher.”

Trying to recall every detail of Orsino’s role in the action, the moods of his speeches, excited yet daunted at the prospect of appearing on the stage in public, Gerald heard nothing more until a howl of laughter made him ask Dover, who was standing next to him, what the joke was. “Blakey’s got Sir Toby,” said Dover.

Mr. Norfolk was continuing reading. When he came to the name “Viola” he followed it with “Slade”. Gerald looked round the room and sure enough saw Slade sitting in a desk at the back. “Those of you who haven’t already got copies of the play, take one of these,” said Mr. Norfolk, indicating a pile on the table in front of him. “First rehearsal in here this time on Thursday.”

There were some asinine questions from the smaller fry. “Shall we hire costumes like we did other years, sir?” “What if we don’t know our parts on Thursday, sir?” In this atmosphere Gerald found it quite possible to walk over to Slade and say: “I’m awfully sorry about this morning. Did the Grey Chap beat you?”

Slade looked up and Gerald found himself waiting for his answer with an inexplicable sense of anticipation, as though it were to usher in some time of continuous pleasures. “Yes, he did, Bracher.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The Grey Chap doesn’t like me,” said Slade, announcing it as it were a fact of no importance.

“You should have let me go for the thing,” said Gerald.

Mr. Norfolk had dismissed the questioners and everyone was drifting from the room: it seemed to Gerald at once natural and extraordinary to go out with Slade. All but a few of the day boys had gone home and in the deserted playground a few crumpled leaves were rasping across the concrete.

“Why doesn’t the Grey Chap like you?” asked Gerald, taking up one of the multitudinous points---perversely, perhaps the least important---that made urgent and absorbing these few minutes before the bell went for tea.

“My collars are attached to my shirts,” said Slade.

Gerald looked, and even in the fading light saw that this was so---that it was a species of cricket shirt that Slade wore, the collar fitting very low, so that the emerging stalk of neck seemed phenomenally long and slender.

“And because my overcoat isn’t double-breasted,” added Slade, “and my pyjamas are white.”

“I see.”

“My mother can’t bear shirts with separate collars.”

But for Gerald further explanation was otiose: he said quickly: “I saw your confession in Collinson’s book.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I wanted to ask you what Taraxacum officinale was.”

Slade hesitated, then said: “Dandelion.”


“That’s another reason why the Grey Chap doesn’t like me. He beat me at the beginning of term for peeing my bed. It was very curious. I dreamt I was peeing and when I woke up I was peeing. Of course, no use telling the Grey Chap that.”


“Now he thinks of me as a pissabed.”

“So you put Taraxacum officinale as your favourite flower.”


“Did you go for the ball because the Grey Chap doesn’t like you?”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“How did you know Taraxacum officinale was the dandelion?”

“Looked it up in the dictionary,” said Slade. “There’s the bell for tea.” They started to walk over to the House. Gerald thought, seeing the top of Slade’s head not very far below, how much the other had changed since that day on the football field only the term before last when he had seemed separated by a great gulf of age and physique. Even now some gulf remained, for, observing Thompson in the distance, Gerald dropped a pace or two behind Slade to exculpate himself from any criticism of his hobnobbing with a smaller boy.

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