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Part Three, Chapter Seven

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« on: August 04, 2023, 07:29:22 am »

AS one day an initially outrageous condition---a set of false teeth or a state of war---is found to be an unremarked and unremarkable part of existence, so Gerald found himself after the first rehearsal of the play in a condition of friendship with Slade.

“I’ve got to go over to the music-room to do my piano practice,” said Slade, one lunch-time. “Will you come?”

“Yes,” said Gerald. “I didn’t know you took the piano.”

“Fancy Jacket choosing Stink-Bomb Billy for Sebastian.”

“Your twin brother.”

“Is he really anything like me?”

“The spitting image,” said Gerald. It seemed the height of self-indulgence to be able to tease Slade.

The music-room was cold and empty: Slade put his music case on top of the piano and opened it. Gerald said: “ ‘Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song, That old and antique song we heard last night: Methought it did relieve my passion much.’ ”

“Balls,” said Slade. He began to play and Gerald saw with astonishment that his hands were deft beyond anything he had imagined. And they played the soft chords that Mr. Percy had made familiar to him, bringing back the bitter-sweet atmosphere of the empty assembly hall and the ill-understood intimacies and absences of the master’s affair with Eve Pemberton.

Slade suddenly stopped playing and said: “Can’t manage any more of that.”

“It’s a Debussy prelude, isn’t it?” said Gerald. “Percy plays it.”

“Yes,” said Slade. “Poor old Percy.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“His abortive love for Miss Pemberton,” said Slade. There was such a calm assumption of knowledge in his tone and so clear an indication that the topic failed to have his present interest that Gerald dared not go on to satisfy his curiosity. “I don’t feel like practising,” Slade went on. “Shall I play you the three best melodies in the world?”

“Play what you like,” said Gerald, propping his elbows on the piano and holding his head in his hands.

“Well, obviously the slow movement from the Pathétique comes first.” He played the tune. “And then the Prize Song.” He played that. “And this week I’ve got a new one in third place. The Veau d’Or from Faust. Do you know it? Very vulgar. It has a perfectly marvellous introduction.” He played it. “And then the voice comes in like this.” He sang a few bars. “My voice is no good for it.”

“ ‘Thy small pipe Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill of sound’,” said Gerald.

“Can’t you sing it, Bracher?” asked Slade, playing the melody.

“No, but I can dance it,” said Gerald, springing up and cavorting round the room. His feet seemed seized with a preternatural nimbleness and invention and he heard Slade laughing. Then the music changed to a grave, slow theme. Gerald came gliding past the piano in the new tempo. “Entry of the Grey Chap into Valhalla,” he said. Slade increased the speed and Gerald at last leaned across the piano panting like a dog. When he had got back his breath, he said: “Do you know what song the Grey Chap’s poor old wife sang on her deathbed?”

“No,” said Slade, tilting back the bentwood chair, his knees under the keyboard saving him from falling.

“ ‘Lead kindly light amidst th’encircling gloom.’ ”

“How on earth do you know that?”

“The Grey Chap told me himself the other night.” Immediately Gerald felt slip from his conscience the weight of guilt about his expedition to the post office.

“It’s too good,” said Slade. “You’ve made it up.” He began to play the hymn very slowly at arm’s length.

“But you don’t know why she sang it.”

“No, I don’t know that.”

“Because she was blind, boy.”

Though this conception was terribly funny, as Slade’s renewed laughter confirmed, Gerald felt when he uttered the words a pang of uneasiness at his cruelty, but it was a pang no deeper than if he had killed an insect and which was as quickly relieved by remembering the scientific fact of his victim’s incapacity for pain. Nor, he told himself, was his maliciousness primarily or even at all the result of his own resentment, but because he knew that the Headmaster did not like Slade. All the same, he forbore from adding to his picture of Mrs. Pemberton’s demise. “Who plays all this stuff?” he asked, looking through the pile of music on top of the piano.

“God knows,” said Slade. “It’s always there.”

“Here you are,” Gerald said. “What about this?” He put on the stand a piece of music on the cover of which a negro in a straw hat was depicted playing the banjo while a negress sang at his side, her arm round his white-suited shoulder. In the background was a lagoon and palm trees.

“The Coon’s Honeymoon,” read Slade and giggled. He opened the music and began to play.

“Rather good,” said Gerald.

Slade turned the page. “ ‘Trio’,” he read. “ ‘Coon’s evening song.’ ” Gerald suffered a fearful loss of breath occasioned by the too-sudden onset of laughter. “Wait a minute,” said Slade. “Wait a minute. Here’s the next section. It’s called ‘Coons dancing in the moonlight’.”

Weakly, Gerald shambled into the middle of the room and staggered about. “A coon dancing in the moonlight,” he said several times.

The door opened and admitted the visiting music master, Mr. Hubble, who said: “Come along, stop fooling about. I’ve got a lesson in five minutes. Oh, it’s you, Slade. What on earth were you playing?”

“The Coon’s Honeymoon.”

“Really, Slade.”

“Isn’t it one of the pieces you teach your junior pupils, sir?”

“Of course it isn’t. Now do clear out of here, you two.”

Slade stood up and fastened his music case. “I see Dunstan has left his violin here,” he said. “Can you play the violin, sir?”

“No,” said Mr. Hubble. “But I once learnt the fingering.”

“Did you, sir?” said Slade in an awed voice. He was already removing the instrument from its case.

“Now I shouldn’t mess about with that if I were you, Slade.”

“I was getting it out for you to show us how to finger it, sir.”

“But it’s years since I touched a violin.” Mr. Hubble took the instrument and tucked it below his Punch-like jaw: under his hooked nose his sunken mouth parted in a slight smile to reveal even little false teeth. “You see your left hand comes round underneath the thingamy-jig and then the fingers rest on the strings like this and move up and down for the various stops like this. Slade, just pass me the bow.”

Mr. Hubble tentatively rested the bow on the bridge and began cautiously moving it up and down A loud moaning, edged with shrieks, reverberated in the small empty room: it was not, however, the noise merely that Gerald found so suddenly and alarmingly comic but the fact that within its cacophonous irrelevancies could be dimly discerned a funereal though familiar tune. Gerald, standing behind the master, could see Slade’s grave face fixed on Mr. Hubble’s, and he pressed his nails ruthlessly into the palms of his hands and thought of death to relieve the seizure of laughter that was trying to burst through his body.

“Mendelssohn’s Spring Song,” said Slade admiringly. “You can play, sir.”

In the distance the bell went for afternoon school: Gerald muttered incoherently, and, without waiting for Slade, hurried with relief from the room. As he sat at his desk during the first period his thoughts went back to Mr. Hubble’s rendition and he could not help grinning behind his hand, but though the incident had lost nothing of its comic qualities it now seemed like some theatrical performance crowning a day quite outside the usual sequence of days, with very little to do with the normal existence that had to learn the causes of the Reformation and endure the oppressive presence of Cropper whose questing profile could be seen in a tilted listening attitude across the aisle between the desks. So it was on the ensuing Saturday when he found that Slade was not committed to going out with anyone else in the evening and that they could visit the town together. That this could be a permanent arrangement was a notion quite removed from Gerald’s conception of life, which held pleasure to be exceptional, rare and usually guilty.

With Slade, the Wednesday or Saturday evening in the town took on a totally different character---though Slade seemed less to impose his own desires and knowledge on their activities than bring out of Gerald a life he had long wished to pursue but which had previously lain beyond some psychological barrier. Instead of eating fish and chips they had hot pies and cups of tea in a café which although proletarian in general character contained several ambiguous individuals, fragments of whose conversation came over the marble-topped tables, through the steam from the urn, as a curious mixture of scandal and philosophy. In particular, there was a thin young woman with an Eton crop who smoked cigarettes, and to Gerald it seemed that since Slade had brought him to this place, the younger boy had the entrée to its society and that it was only a matter of time or opportunity before he should get to know the thin girl and hear tête-à-tête her absorbing opinions.

But before going to the café, Slade had taken him to a covered market where, among stalls of toys, dress material and cheap jewellery, was a barrow stacked with second-hand books. Its appearance in the town Gerald thought he knew so well was to him like the translation into astonishing reality of one of his familiar wish-fulfilment dreams---the dream, say, in which in the grass of the playing fields coin after coin could be found and picked up, or where by an easy movement of the bent elbows the body is raised from the ground in flight. He felt under the luxurious compulsion not to omit reading a single one of the titles.

At first, the image he carried in his mind and which he vainly sought to match from the barrow was of a previously unread book by Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace, for just as a youth faced by the freedom of a restaurant menu will choose the cabbage or rice pudding he has long despised and disliked at home, so Gerald found it needed a conscious effort to prevent his once habitual tastes, which in reality he had grown out of, from asserting their old power. But soon he saw that the barrow was loaded with an embarrassing richness. In these circumstances, when the books offered themselves to him like fabulously complaisant girls, he realized that any attribute of tedium which he had imagined they might have owned was due merely to their previous surroundings or associations, and that in themselves still burned the ardour and revelation implanted by their once-breathing authors. So that the Essays of Elia, which he had heard of because one of them was included in a collection used at school, appeared on the barrow not in its former dull and meaningless character but as a noble entertainment provided especially for him, to be tasted in calm and masterful excitement. Nor, it seemed to him, could any book be too difficult, since he was prepared, even eager, to bite slowly into it, going back whenever he lost the thread, savouring, memorizing, rejoicing in the inevitable progress marked by the imperceptible thickening of the pages to the left of his place.

When, for the price of half a pound of wine gums, he had two or three books under his arm, he joined Slade who was looking through a cardboard carton at the corner of the barrow. “Two a penny,” said Slade. “You can’t go wrong. Or can you? Our Mission to Uganda. De Bello Gallico. Theosophical Manuals: No. 2.

Among the pamphlets that Gerald fished idly out was a thickish one on bad paper called Merrie England, which for a moment he imagined to be some historical romance and then saw was of that genus of publications whose character he had already dimly discerned through the Fabian Essays he had found in the Reference Library. On the fly-leaf was an advertisement for another work by the same author whose title, Not Guilty: A Defence of the Bottom Dog, more explicitly portrayed its character, and when he turned through some of the ensuing pages the mysterious amalgam of sordid fact and astonishing idea brought to him once again the notion that the perfect understanding of existence lay within his grasp. “But this is not the worst. Besides the fact that the upper and middle classes take nearly two-thirds of the wealth the masses earn, there is the fact that those classes, and probably less than a tenth of those classes, actually own all the land and all the instruments by which wealth can be produced. Political orators and newspaper editors are very fond of talking to you about ‘your country’. Now, Mr. Smith, it is a hard practical fact that you have not got any country. The British Islands do not belong to the British people; they belong to a few thousands---certainly not half a million---of rich men . . .”

“Find another one to go with this and I’ll treat you to it,” Gerald said.

“What reckless generosity!” said Slade. “I’ll have Our Mission to Uganda.”

In the café Gerald asked Slade what else he had got. Slade held up a battered little fat book.

“Baedeker’s Switzerland,” Gerald read. “What on earth did you buy that for?”

Slade turned over the pages. “ ‘Mont Blanc,’ ” he recited, “ ‘15,782 feet, the monarch of the Alps (Monte Rosa 15,215, blah, blah, blah, Mount Everest 29,000), which since 1860 has formed the boundary between France and Italy, is composed chiefly of granite, and is shrouded with a stupendous mantle of perpetual snow. It was ascended for the first time in 1786 by so-and-so. The ascent, though very fatiguing, offers no great difficulties to experienced mountaineers, but travellers are cautioned, etc., etc. The view from the summit is extremely grand, though unsatisfactory in the ordinary sense.’ And so on. You see, boy, you can always rely on Herr Baedeker. A bit of comparative geography and political history, a reference to the changes in taste and habits of gentlemen on holiday, some knowing topography, and everything suffused, as Mr. Percy would say, in poetry.”

Gerald was stunned not merely at Slade’s cleverness but at his capability---which had been so striking a feature of his contribution to Collinson’s Confession Book---to be interested in many things that were neither part of the school curriculum nor obviously the pursuits of one’s leisure. It was as though Slade were equipped with some extra organ that enabled him to draw from the world---from the masters, his music lessons, his weekly visit to the town---some sustenance unavailable to the ordinarily endowed. So, on their way back to school that night, Slade suggested that instead of using the coast road they went along the sands.

They walked out to the water’s edge and kept to the sand left hard by the veils of the ebbing tide, whose lightly foamed edges were distinguishable under the moon. Slade picked up a pebble and, running ahead, threw it far into the still sea.

“Why is your raincoat so long?” called Gerald, with fond mockery.

Slade stopped and turned. “Mother doesn’t like short coats. Just as she doesn’t like shirts with unattached collars. As I think I’ve told you.”

“Why doesn’t your father exert his influence and make you dress like a Christian?”

“My father’s dead,” said Slade. “Ages ago.”

“Oh.” Gerald himself took a pebble and bowled an elaborate leg-break. It occurred to him that when his father was divorced (as he must eventually be) he might marry Mrs. Slade. As reading a tragic fiction our foolish wish is that the hero and heroine shall conquer the iron spirit of their circumstances and come together for ever, so Gerald immediately recognized the law of reality that the lives of his father and Mrs. Slade should always pursue separate orbits, but was nevertheless touched and made happy by his concept of their conjunction. And it was not merely for himself that he desired it---that his relationship with Slade (which at the moment had no name or tradition) would thereby be given the permanence, the universal recognition, of the family tie---but also that he wanted his father to share in his own felicity, which he did not doubt would be conferred equally by the mother as by the son.

In his turn Gerald stopped and waited, looking up at the far black Zeppelin clouds that barred the lighter sky. When Slade drew level he took him by the arm and, shuffling grotesquely in the sand, drew him rapidly along the edge of the water. “Coons dancing in the moonlight,” he cried.

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