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Part Three, Chapter Nine

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« on: August 04, 2023, 08:30:58 am »

AS Matley’s devotions reached their climax, it so happened that Gerald’s scepticism, fed by his reading, began confidently to try to impose itself on anyone he thought worthy of argument. One Saturday night Matley, in his Franciscan dressing-gown, over which he had arranged his bath towel in the semblance of a surplice, laid out his altar as usual on his locker and then from the paper bags containing his toffees and meat pie he drew out a brown paper parcel which when unwrapped proved to be a half bottle of invalid port. He poured some of it into an enamel mug, filched from one of the school washrooms, and then reverently unfolded from a handkerchief a piece of bread and butter evidently saved from tea.

“What the hell are you doing, Matley?” asked Gerald.

“I suppose I can take Communion, can’t I?”

“Take Communion?” repeated Gerald, witheringly. “Matley, you’re a madman---a religious maniac.” He sprang from his bed and seized the Woolworth crucifix from the locker.

“Put my crucifix down at once, Bracher,” cried Matley. In his priestly role he always took off his glasses so as to improve his appearance, but he now hastily put them on in order to see what was happening to his cherished symbol, and went in dignified pursuit of Gerald who bent down and popped the crucifix into Dover’s chamber pot.

“You filthy beast, Bracher,” said Matley, aghast.

“I say, Bracher, that’s a bit thick,” said Dover, peering under his bed.

Gerald concealed a sudden terror that he had gone too far---not only in mocking Matley’s beliefs but in sacrilege---by saying outrageously: “That’s the proper place for God.”

“You’ll be punished, Bracher, you’ll be punished for that,” Matley quavered.

“Who by?”

“Almighty God,” replied Matley, even in these amazing circumstances not forgetting to pronounce the words in the manner he had caught from the Vicar so that they sounded like the outlandish name of an American bootlegger---Al Mightah Gard.

“I call on him to punish me now,” said Gerald sardonically. “I call on him to strike me dead.”

There was a silence which Gerald himself half expected to be broken by some supernatural cataclysm. But when a time had elapsed felt by everyone to be sufficient for a Supreme Being to exercise his power of interference in the natural order, conversational exchanges were resumed, in a very commonplace manner.

“I must say,” remarked Thorp, the other boy in the dormitory, “I wouldn’t have said that.”

“God scorns such puerile challenges,” said Matley.

Dover sank back on his pillow. “Matley,” he called, “do you mind coming and taking your thingummy out of my po?”

For Gerald the moment marked an epoch---a moment when his tongue had outrun his mind or, rather, when his tongue had blurted out what his mind had failed to formulate in simple terms---and afterwards he could scarcely recall a time when he had not thought the belief in God’s existence absurd and the ceremonies of religion mere primitive superstition. So it was, too, when the passions of the General Election reached the school through the imperfect channels of an occasionally-seen newspaper and the reports by day boys of their parents’ opinions, and Gerald declared himself to be “Labour”, thus in one word giving practical expression of his vague belief that the world was unjust and ill-managed, yet capable, through an intellectual effort of comprehension, of being totally transformed. Nor was it any surprise to him that the expression of his allegiance provoked derision or fear, for he saw that the necessary change in existence must be brought about by a race quite other than those people one encountered every day---that at Seafolde House, for example, only Slade and perhaps Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton, had the cerebral endowment to enable them to discover the truth behind life’s immense façade of deceit.

Though when he was with Slade he rarely brought up these exciting political and religious discoveries, taking for granted that Slade had long ago freed himself from the bonds of superstition. The universe which he and Slade created---with their growing list of habitual occupations together, their extending private empire over the creations of literature and music, the increasing esotericism of the language they used with each other, their fantasies about the figures of school, the code for the exchange of notes---was one in which private conduct was supreme and in which everything was measured against the values they had quickly and almost tacitly agreed between themselves and often represented by an invented word into which was compressed weeks of experience and rich ambiguities of allusion. Sometimes Gerald would think of the past and find it inconceivable that he had once, say, believed Slade’s timidity at football to be morally reprehensible (for it was an axiom with them that games bred unwholesome passions, wasted time and stultified the intellect), or worried about Slade’s untidiness and nonconformity with the rules of school.

But Gerald had by no means exhausted the revolutionary possibilities of his understanding. Once, after a Saturday afternoon match played under an incessant cold drizzle, he had rushed back to the house and been one of the first in the senior bathroom. It was a rule that each drawing of bath water on these occasions was to be used by at least three boys. Gerald had succeeded to a merely moderately soupy bath and was lying in it when Cropper, clad in his repulsively small and ginger dressing gown, his towel over his arm, entered the bathroom with slow dignified stride. He peered down and said: “Get out of that bath, Bracher.”

“I’ve only just got in it.”

“Don’t argue, Bracher. Get out.”

Beyond Cropper’s motionless, menacing shape, other figures were busily engaged in their various occupations, but a few of the nearer turned to watch the unfolding catastrophe by the bath. From his low, dramatic view-point Gerald saw the scene like one of those paintings of the German school which invests some supernatural or allegorical subject with a harsh and detailed naturalism, so so that while in the foreground the Fiend Cropper and a few of his attendant smaller Devils were concentrating reasonably upon their nude and prone quarry, many others in remoter planes were cutting their toe nails, squeezing pimples and indulging in horseplay. These half-clothed manikins revealed, too, an adolescent anatomy utterly appropriate to the genre---immature and emaciated arms and legs or shapeless hulks of torsos rugeous with acne, with occasionally glimpsed genitals sometimes of exaggerated, sometimes of merely conventional, representation. And, displaying the painter’s virtuosity, steam issued from the washbasins and the bath, images were doubled in the various mirrors, and towels, slippers, check sponge bags, open tins of green solid brilliantine, and muddied shorts formed several complicated groups of still life.

“When I’ve finished washing,” said Gerald, suddenly officious with the loofah. He felt the dreamlike vulnerability of the naked in the presence of the clothed, the stupendous embarrassment of the surgeon’s patient or the torturer’s victim.

“No one is to use the bath until the House Prefects have used it,” said Cropper, his nostrils clenched.

“I’ve never heard of that rule before.”

“I’m making the rule,” said Cropper. “Now get out of there before I drag you out.” But prudently avoiding a scuffle in the water, in which the other’s nudity would be at an advantage, Cropper stood motionless while Gerald feigned the normal motions of one at the end of an enjoyable tub and put all the time his fear would allow before the moment when he would have to yield possession. When eventually Gerald rose Cropper dipped the end of his towel in the bath water, took a firm grasp of the other, and began flicking the heavy water-laden part at Gerald’s thighs and buttocks. At first the towel cracked harmlessly in the air between them but Cropper soon found the range and had raised three crimson weals before Gerald, trying desperately not to hurry, had seized his things and forced himself past Cropper’s unsmiling, pertinacious, but almost indifferent presence, and out of the bathroom. He was amazed at the pain Cropper’s trivial and childish action had caused him, amazed even more to find veritable blisters forming along the lines of the weals, and he quickly slipped into the lavatory to lock away his misery from detection.

The atmosphere of despair that flowed from the incident, choking the possibility of any future felicity, he felt even with Slade later in the evening, and when he cautiously sat down in the squalid café, Slade’s sharp observation saw him wince, and the younger boy said: “What’s the matter? Got a boil on the arse?”

“No,” Gerald said, and was about to practise his usual tactic of secrecy and evasion by quickly introducing some other topic of conversation, when he realized that there was no part of his character or predicament he need conceal from Slade whose feelings and opinions were precisely his own, and with a joy he physically felt welling up in his chest he added: “I had to suffer some torture from the ineffable Cropper after games. He’s belatedly discovered the art of towel-flicking.”

Slade took a bite of the almost jamless and hugely equilateral jam puff he made an affectation of invariably ordering, and said: “Does he often bully you?”

Yes, of course, it was bullying, Gerald thought, gaining the comfort of one who finds that his alarming fever and and swellings can be subsumed under the familiar name “mumps”, and going on to reveal the origins of Cropper’s animus. When he had finished, Slade said: “It shows how hopeless the Grey Chap is that he lets bullying go on.”

It had no more occurred to Gerald to place the responsibility of Cropper’s violence and hatred at the school’s door than a primitive will attribute his sickness to a mosquito, for it had hitherto seemed to him a wholly natural incident of life, like sleep. But now, as it had previously been made possible for him to conceive a world in which the two-thirds of the wealth filched from the masses would be returned to them, he saw that his unhappiness was caused by a fault in the system upheld by the Headmaster. The same night, some little time after the light had been turned out in the dormitory, it was switched on again and the rather humpbacked figure of Dyce was seen standing in the doorway. Everyone took out the meat pies and crisps that had been plunged under the bedclothes at the noise of Dyce’s entry.

“Thorp, you’ve left your towel on the floor in the bathroom and the lid of your dentifrice off,” Dyce said, in a voice of oleaginous reasonableness. “Come and tidy them up.”

“All right, Dyce,” said Thorp, and jumped out of bed.

When the light had been put out again and the two had departed, Gerald surprised himself by saying: “Well, we know what those two are going to do.” As he spoke he remembered Howarth telling him long ago of Blakey being called out of his dormitory by Mountain, and that almost inconceivable event was now by its historical repetition made comprehensible and shown to be practicable, as the death of a poisoner’s second wife explains the sudden demise of his first.

“I like not ye man with ye suspicious mind,” said Dover.

After the food had been eaten and the talking had ended, Gerald heard Thorp come back, and realized that it was not, as he would once have thought, the defective moral characters of Mountain and Blakey or Dyce and Thorp that had bred this state of affairs, but the system for which, equally with those who ruled the greater system of society, Mr. Pemberton was responsible---for though he might have inherited it, or administered it ignorant of its evils, he could not be separated from its iniquities, nor his downfall from its inevitable overthrow.

It was in this frame of mind that a few days later he said to Slade: “What do you think happened to the money for the Chapel Appeal?”

“You obviously know,” said Slade.

“I think the Grey Chap put it in his pocket.” The fact that this must be untrue and that he knew it must be untrue, no more detracted from the malicious pleasure of saying it than a conviction of the forgery of the Protocols of Zion lessens the animus of an antisemite.

“Fatty Cole’s silver paper money as well?”

“The whole shooting match,” said Gerald.

“Certainly there is no chapel.”

“Not a brick.”

“Did your father subscribe?” asked Slade.

“Yes. Did your mother?”

“No. She doesn’t believe in organized religion.”

“Very wise,” said Gerald, admiringly.

They were on their way back to the House after a rehearsal of the play. As in The Princess Cassamassima the vital existence of the proletarian characters is carried on only on Sundays when they are free from work, so for Gerald only those times and events which bridged the gap his additional year made between him and Slade in the ordinary routine of school seemed to constitute his true life. Similarly, when the rumour percolated through the school that the Headmaster was out for the day, or when Cropper as a member of the First XI travelled to an away match, an eager flame burned through his body, he felt the potentialities of his mind, of his destiny, begin to stir, and he imagined that legendary epoch when he would be the fearless master of his environment.

“He’s no doubt used the fund to stop the wicked mortgagee from turning him out into the snow,” said Gerald.

“Expound,” said Slade.

Gerald told him of Mr. Squires’ revelation of the financial structure of Seafolde House. Slade stopped on the steps of the House to assimilate the scandal, the light from the vestibule accentuating his smooth pallor and blondness, his head thrown slightly back on its graceful neck. “Do you think,” he said, “the Grey Chap has also made away with Alderman Cole’s contribution to the Fund---which you will not fail to remember was to be equal to the sum of the other contributions?”

But Gerald did not hear the question, for at his mention of Mr. Squires he began to think once again of the girls in summer on the beach, standing with their hollow backs and offered behinds.

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