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Part Three, Chapter Eight

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« on: August 04, 2023, 08:02:14 am »

EVERY year to the theatre of the large town across the estuary came a company with a repertoire of Shakespeare’s plays to which visits were paid by parties from the school. On the night of a performance of King Lear, as the boarders waited in the drive for the charabanc that was to take them to the theatre, the solitary figure of Mr. Percy came out of the House.

“Percy’s in charge tonight,” said Gerald to Slade. “Shall we sit with him?”

“If you like.”

“No one else will.”

But when they were getting into the charabanc Miss Pemberton came up. She attached herself to Mr. Percy and Gerald on reflection realized that there was no significance in that, for she would naturally have attached herself to whatever master had been in charge. In the lighted charabanc it could be seen that she was wearing an unfamiliar dark coat and, round her throat, a narrow black velvet ribbon. It was the ribbon---giving to its wearer an air at once vulnerable and strange---that brought back to Gerald the memory of a dance he had been to during the holidays, a dance given for the birthday of the son of one of his father’s business colleagues to which he had gone reluctantly, only for his father’s sake, who had seemed to regard as important this widening of their social horizon. And then he had found himself engrossed in the affair with simple enjoyment, disappointed when it came at last to an end. Only afterwards did it pierce his heart, as he recalled specific and pretty girls he had danced with, the feel of their dresses at their waists, the simple harmonies of saxophone and piano in the small band---all gone beyond his power, never to be possessed again, never, indeed, possessed in the first place.

In the theatre Miss Pemberton and Mr. Percy sat in front of Gerald and Slade. Enviously, Gerald observed the order of things which enabled the master to turn his head and speak to his companion, to help her ease her arms out of her coat. The footlights suddenly lit the proscenium curtain and the overture began---the same music, Gerald realized, that had been played at his visits earlier in the week: heroic and haunting. Gerald asked Slade what it was.

“I don’t know,” said Slade. “Ask Percy.”

“Shall I?” Gerald leaned forward in his seat but the pair in front of him were lost in their conversation with each other and he had to wait for a few moments before he could interpose his question.

“. . . stay in Winchester for the night,” he heard Mr. Percy say.

“And then what?” said Miss Pemberton.

“Well, I shall have to get back, Tail,” said Mr. Percy.

His nostrils assaulted by a faint scent from the silk lining of Miss Pemberton’s coat thrown back on his seat, Gerald marvelled at the banality of what these two were saying to each other in the intimate dark and excitement of the theatre. “Do you know what it is they’re playing, sir?” he asked.

Mr. Percy’s head moved on its double chin. “Finlandia,” he said. “A hackneyed piece by Sibelius.”

“Well, it’s not hackneyed to me,” whispered Gerald to Slade when he had sat back and reported the information.

During the interval Gerald and Slade went out into the chill street. While they had been watching the play it had rained and ceased raining, and the wet pavements seemed like some suddenly manifested secret process of history. In the town’s main square over which the theatre looked people were moving against the lighted windows of shops, and Gerald experienced a sense of freedom, as though he were not bound to the routine of school, as though, even, he were not himself but a creature capable of ignoring the demands of conscience and duty and pursuing the real ends of life. The illusion was at once heightened and punctured by Slade saying: “Of course, we needn’t go back for the rest of the play. We could nip off and find a congenial café and then go straight to the charabanc. Percy would never miss us while he has Evie’s hand to hold.”

“I want to see the rest of the play,” said Gerald with priggish alarm.

“So do I,” said Slade. His voice was gentle and reassuring.

“Do you think Percy has fallen seriously for Evie?”

“Yes,” said Slade, leaning his fair head against the glass case of photographs on one of the entrance pillars and looking at Gerald with calm, clear eyes.

“And she for him?”


“Well, why don’t they get married?”

“Percy is married.”

“Married to Evie?” said Gerald incredulously.

“Of course not. Married to someone else.”

“How do you know?”

“My mother told me terms ago.”

“How did she know?”

“Percy told her.”

“Why should Percy tell her?”

“Why not? It was soon after he first came. Probably before he fell for Evie. Mother was talking to him at a Sports Day or something. She always talks to people about their private lives.”

“So he can’t marry Evie,” said Gerald.

“Not unless he is prepared to be a bigamist,” said Slade. “Come to think of it, he looks like a bigamist. Perhaps his present marriage is bigamous.”

“How on earth can anyone look like a bigamist?” Gerald seized crossly on the most trivial and obvious contradiction of the affair.

“That hair. That corpulence,” said Slade. “That piano-playing.”

The bell rang, signalling the imminent raising of the curtain. Gerald left unspoken the question which at once had formulated itself in response to Slade’s revelation: Why did not Miss Pemberton simply go to live with Mr. Percy? But back in his seat, watching the play through the proscenium formed by the heads and shoulders of the two protagonists of his thoughts, he answered the question himself, for the powerful, wild, aged and ranting figure of the widower Lear, ostensibly strong and careless about his daughters but secretly possessive, changed in his imagination to that of the Headmaster, and he understood the ties that bound Miss Pemberton to minister for ever to Mr. Pemberton’s loneliness and fear of death, his sense of economy, his burden of the failing school, his need to rule.

In the charabanc going back to school, stimulated by the lateness of the hour and the strange circumstances, the boys started singing. Gerald glanced across the aisle to the pair of seats occupied by Mr. Percy and Miss Pemberton. The master, sitting nearer, had put one plump leg over the other, revealing a gap between sock and trouser turn-up. It was almost with surprise that Gerald observed that the gap was occupied by a leg of white and indubitable flesh, as though only at this particular moment, to the strains of Green Grow the Rushes while the little lighted world flew through the dark fields, had he realized that Mr. Percy was human, capable of suffering the excruciating pleasures and pains of the body.

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