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Part Three, Chapter Six

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« on: August 04, 2023, 07:02:23 am »

BY an arrangement with the girls’ school whose pupils were so fascinating a feature of church, weekly visits were paid throughout the year to the swimming bath in the girls’ school grounds. It was an abiding hope that such a visit would someday coincide with the use of the bath by the girls themselves, but this had never been realized. Previously the school had gone in four separate sets on different days but this term there only three. During a visit by the senior set, when everyone was out of the water and it was settling back into immobility, the reflected light from the roof windows rocking on the tiled walls, the muffled cries from the cabins echoing hollowly, Mr. Squires, the instructor (who in summer was employed by the municipality as a life-guard on the beach), poked his head over the stable door of the cabin Gerald was sharing with Thompson and commented on this symptom of the decline in the school’s numbers.

“If it goes on at this rate,” said Mr. Squires, “I shall be out of a job so far as Seafolde House is concerned.”

“Do you get paid so much a head, sir?” asked Thompson facetiously. He opened the cabin door and walked the few steps to the water’s edge to wring out his costume.

“Of course, it doesn’t worry me,” said Mr. Squires, executing a slow knees-bend by the cabin door. “It’s the Reverend Pemberton who has to worry.”

The conception that the Headmaster was susceptible to worry was at first ludicrous and then deeply disturbing, as it might be setting out in a motor-car with a totally incompetent driver. Gerald said: “Oh, Mr. Pemberton knows what he’s doing.”

“These are bad times for private schools,” said Mr. Squires.

Gerald felt the embarrassment and shame that afflicts one at the criticism of some organization---one’s family, say---with whose fate one is inextricably bound but which one cannot whole-heartedly defend. “Seafolde House is all right,” he said.

“I suppose so,” said Mr. Squires. “As long as Alderman Cole is behind it.”

Thompson looked up from rolling his costume in his towel. “What’s Alderman Cole to do with it, sir?”

“Don’t you chaps keep your ears open?” said Mr. Squires. “Well, I’m not giving away any secrets by telling you that Alderman Cole has a mortgage on Seafolde House. It’s common knowledge.”

“What’s a mortgage, sir?” asked Thompson.

“See? You’re ignorant about everything. Tell him, Bracher.”

“A mortgage?” said Gerald. “It’s a loan of money.”

“And if the borrower doesn’t pay it back, the lender sells up the property,” said Mr. Squires.

“Well, well,” said Thompson.

Though the precise mechanics of the school’s relationship to Cole’s father no doubt constituted a startling revelation, it seemed to Gerald that in a sense he had always inchoately possessed the information, just as no fact about sex comes to one with full pristine force.

Mr. Squires took a sniffing inhalation through his powerful breathing apparatus. “Now I don’t want you chaps repeating this and saying I told you.”

“Mum’s the word,” said Thompson with the bogus sincerity which Mr. Squires apparently accepted for the genuine article.

“And stand up, Thompson,” added Mr. Squires, whose concern about posture was equal to Mr. Pemberton’s. “You hold yourself like a paralysed nun. That’s better. But keep your bottom in, man. Your back should be straight. If you go on the beach here in the summer you see all these girls standing with their bottoms sticking out and their backs as hollow as old race-horses and you hear people say what good figures they have. It’s a mistaken conception. The back must be straight, bottom tucked in. Now, you chaps, fall in along the side of the bath when you’re ready.”

Marching back to school, Gerald thought only of those girls on the beach---to Mr. Squires’s healthy extroversion mere examples of bad posture, but for Gerald infinitely alluring and remote, all the more capable of calling forth his tender yearning because they were ignorant of arranging their young bodies to the best advantage. And as his imagination conjured them up he was conscious of his eyes still slightly smarting from the chlorine in the water and of the damp, sausage-like arrangement of towel and costume in his chilled grasp, so that later when he recalled Mr. Squires’s suggestive words they came to him saturated with the physical sensation of that windy late October walk over the downs between the two schools and so in time (when he had at last forgotten the circumstances when he had first brooded over them) came to carry associations inexplicably charged with discomfort.

But behind the hollow backs and protruding bottoms the knowledge of the essential mechanics of Seafolde House existed like the news of a death which for a while cannot be assimilated because it involves a rearrangement of one’s whole life. Mr. Pemberton elevated Alderman and Mrs. Cole and praised and excused Brian Cole because the Alderman had financial power over the school. Gerald came in a day or so to think of this proposition as too simple to be true---neglecting, for instance, the complicated richness of the Headmaster’s character---as one finds it difficult to believe in the crude misdeeds of a political leader when his downfall has led to their revelation. He thought how natural it was that Alderman Cole’s civic eminence should have prompted the Headmaster to ask him to distribute the prizes at Speech Day---an eminence which Mrs. Cole, of course, shared and qualified her for her role at the Annual Sports. He could even think it plausible that, as Mr. Pemberton had asserted, virtue resided in Cole’s hiding of the weights; and certainly there was nothing sinister in the boy being praised for helping the Chapel Fund by collecting silver paper.

It was at this stage of his assessment of the matter that, as he stood idly reading the school notice board after school, Mr. Pemberton came into the lobby, his gown chalky and low on his shoulders, the auburn fringe of hair infinitesimally disarranged---marks of a hard afternoon’s teaching. He said: “Ah, Bracher. Go to the post office and get me some stamps.”

Gerald immediately felt a great burden of anxiety: about the remembering of the exact proportions of twopenny and threehalfpenny stamps which the Headmaster had uttered only once and about the mechanics of going into the town, of buying the stamps and delivering them to Mr. Pemberton who by that time would have withdrawn into some inaccessible region of his house. But when he had committed the details of his errand irrevocably to his memory and had worked out the precise phraseology of the request he would put to the clerk behind the counter, his mood changed to one of satisfaction and pride. This sort of task was, he knew, normally entrusted by the Headmaster to a Prefect: his being asked to go was a measure of his seniority and of the Headmaster’s conception of him as a person of savoir faire---perhaps as a House Prefect in the making. He was honoured, too, at being given this part to play in that mysterious activity of the school which manifested itself in bills, the Prospectus, the stockroom, the disappearance of masters.

As he got back he heard the bell go for tea: that he had a perfect excuse for being late increased his sense of importance, of being removed from the petty sphere of routine that applied to others. He made his way---and this solution of the problem that had so bothered him earlier seemed to come without his volition---to Mr. Pemberton’s study where his knock, as he divined it would be, was answered by the Headmaster’s voice. Mr. Pemberton was sitting at his desk: the lamp made a strong mark of the cleft between his brows and lit the papers, the much-repaired china pen-tray, the several pens, the coloured pencils, the inkstand, blazoned with some college crest, in front of him. Into this impressive theatre of work Gerald gently put the sheets of stamps.

The Headmaster ignored the gesture, not, as Gerald soon realized, because he was ungrateful or forgetful, but because his mind was on other things. “Have you ever thought what it would be like to be blind, Gerald?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

Mr. Pemberton closed his eyes and began groping delicately about among the impedimenta on the desk. “You see,” he said, “I could not even find my pen. Not that I should be able to use it anyway.” He opened his eyes. “We don’t appreciate our gifts enough. We ought to try to imagine every day that we have lost one of our senses so as to try to bring ourselves to a proper evaluation of our good fortune. Because even though we may be troubled in other ways, we still have our senses to enjoy the world with. Don’t you agree, Gerald?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lead kindly light,” said Mr. Pemberton. “What a remarkable thing for a desperately sick lady to say! Lead kindly light. You know how that hymn goes on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you see what a profound quotation it was. We must all wish to be so composed, so full of faith, at the end. You never think about that, I suppose? Health is like eyesight, Gerald: it can never be properly appreciated by its possessor. Terrible thoughts these, terrible thoughts.” The Headmaster, this time without handicapping himself, reached for one of the pens. “Do you know how long I have had this pen-holder?”

“No, sir.”

“Eighteen years.” Mr. Pemberton’s horny-nailed fingers ran caressingly along the pen’s length. “I like it better than any of my pen-holders. You don’t use a fountain-pen, Gerald, I hope?” Gerald shook his head mendaciously. “Never use one. They ruin the handwriting.” The Headmaster drew towards himself a sheet of writing paper and held the pen poised over it, his forefinger (out of whose segments the red hairs sprouted in an almost regular pattern) curved gently along the holder in sharp contradistinction to the ugly bent first joint which appeared when Gerald took up his own pen. “You may go,” said the Headmaster.

Happiness at the completed errand and the prospect of tea, rose in Gerald as he turned with conscious quiet and discretion towards the door. He had not reached it when Mr. Pemberton said: “Where is the change, boy?”

The grave and adult confidences which the Headmaster had imparted had driven from Gerald’s mind a problem that had somewhat exercised it on his journey back from the post office. It had so happened that the payment for the stamps Mr. Pemberton had requested had left over twopence halfpenny from the money Gerald had been given. Coming away from the counter Gerald had had more than half a mind to use up this surplus in the purchase of more stamps but the mathematical impossibility of employing it precisely all to add to the stock of twopenny and threehalfpenny stamps he had been instructed to buy, and also the sense that he must obey the Headmaster to the letter, decided him in the end against this course. Then he had imagined that on his return, when he handed over the stamps and the twopence halfpenny, Mr. Pemberton would give him the coppers for himself, a reward for the service, and the prospect of this action---forced, he thought, on the Headmaster by the smallness of the change, and of great embarrassment to himself---had so bedevilled (as he saw now) his judgement that he had determined to save both their faces by silently keeping the money. And having made this decision and become familiar with it, walking alone along the sea-road in the dusk it had seemed to him that the Headmaster would know of it, too, without being explicitly told of it, and would approve of its tact and commonsense.

“It’s here, sir,” said Gerald, blushing and sweating and fumbling in his pocket.

“Did you forget it?” asked Mr. Pemberton.

“Yes, sir,” Gerald said, grasping gratefully at the excuse but recognizing, immediately he had answered, the irony in the Headmaster’s question. He added quickly: “No, sir. I thought . . .” His voice tailed away as he realized how impossible it was for him to explain the processes by which he had come to withhold the twopence halfpenny---indeed, unable now to follow them himself.

The Headmaster put down his ancient pen-holder and held out his hand into which Gerald placed the three coppers as one might pay the fee of a fortune teller who had just prophesied one’s death. In Mr. Pemberton’s calm air and lack of expression Gerald delineated the long-held and unshakeable conception that theft and deceit were all that could be expected from a boy---even a boy with whom one has just discussed one’s dead wife.

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