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Part Three, Chapter Eleven

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« on: August 04, 2023, 08:58:53 am »

ON a day when, for the first time that winter, snow appeared---a few crumbs whirled about in the wind, reluctant to descend---it was all at once the Saturday of the school play. In the morning Mr. Norfolk, like some foreman of the Pyramids, had supervised the erection of the stage, brought up in sections from the cellars under the House to the Assembly Hall. The curtains were found and their abstruse mathematics mastered. Instead of football, the cast had a dress rehearsal. The contents of the great skips from the costumiers pleased many and disappointed some. The colour of Dunstan’s doublet and hose was felt to be particularly unfortunate. “He looks as though he’s fallen in a tub of shit,” said Blakey.

“How unlikely!” said Slade, striding about in his Cesario clothes.

“You look all right,” said Gerald to him covertly.

“So do you.”

“Do I? The tights fit quite well, don’t they? I shall carry the hat: it’s rather too outré to wear.”

“Very wise,” said Slade. “It reminds me of nothing so much as a blancmange. Perhaps it really belongs to the costumes for one of those children’s plays where the characters are things to eat.”

“Is your mother coming tonight?” It was a question Gerald had long been trying to find the right moment for.

“No, she’s in Nice.”

“My father is coming,” said Gerald. “Most embarrassing.”

“Don’t be so neurotic.”

“Luckily he’s driving back home after the play.”

The cast had an early tea and went back to the school block. Now the curtains were drawn across the stage, separating its exciting intimacies from the rows of chairs in the lighted Hall. In one of the class-rooms at the rear Mr. Norfolk appeared with a large cardboard box full of greasepaint, eyebrow pencils and pots of cream---apparatus, like the bunting of Sports Day and the sections of the stage itself, at once strange and yet quintessentially part of the school. Each member of the cast sat in turn in front of him to be made-up. Since Gerald opened the play he was one of the first to be done. He went through to the class-room on the other side of the stage, which had served as a dressing-room, and looked at himself in one of the mirrors that had been brought down from the dormitories. The black eyebrows, the enlarged lips, the crude wrinkles at the corner of the eyes, had superimposed upon his own face the mask of sensual middle-age, still recognizable as the blank inherited clay but indicating unmistakeably how the years are to mark it. Over his shoulder appeared Blakey’s visage, reddened recklessly by Mr. Norfolk and surmounted by a wig whose bald patch looked as dead and incongruous as the buttocks of a sunburned torso. Gerald grinned and observed that against the brown greasepaint his teeth were preternaturally white, and that the expression was not that which he had often seen grinning to himself in a glass, but the subtle, vulpine expression of pleasure of one who has long ceased to be satisfied by tepid and ordinary joys.

He turned: across the desks which, piled with clothes and huddled into a corner of the room, had ceased to have their normal and commonplace likeness, just as Blakey’s ruffed and brocaded figure, at that moment striking a dramatic attitude, made the distempered and be-charted wall a pallid anachronism, he saw coming through the doorway a slim girl who nevertheless moved with boyish freedom and whose long gown he recognized from the afternoon’s dressing-up. As this androgynous shape moved nearer it made itself no less ambiguous, for Slade’s fair hair was covered by a wig of greater fairness and length which did not by its exaggeration destroy the reality of the transformation but rather elevated it to a plane on which its reality was incapable of question, and the flesh of his face glowed through the smooth surface of its disguising powder with indubitable and ardent life. The gown revealed the length and slenderness of his neck far more even than his offending shirts, and its cut suggested that not far below rose a small pair of breasts—or perhaps it was that Mr. Norfolk had planted them there in his pursuit of verisimilitude.

Shy and dumb in the face of the apparition, Gerald bent down and smoothed his tights over his calf: he was astonished when it said, apparently unconscious of its beauty: “Bracher, I think I’m coming undone. Will you have a look at these hooks and eyes at the back?” The voice was Slade’s voice, but emerging from that creamy face it took on the tones of familiar music heard in the open air, and Gerald felt a complex pang of pride and jealousy at this public dissemination of what had once been solely for him but only now---only by that revealing fully its emotional effect.

He had time, among the breathless mechanical business of the play’s performance and the stimulating yet oppressive commerce with the dimly discerned audience (among whom, illuminated by the footlights in a privileged row was the bust, as unreal and distinct as royalty, of the Headmaster) to be conscious of and to try to resolve the complications of Slade’s disguises. For the play’s main plot, which he thought he knew so well, now took on a further irony: the girl who played the part of a boy to win his love was herself played by a boy, whose every soliloquy was deeply ambiguous. And when the drama drew to a close and the errors had ostensibly been dissipated, the most startling dénouement remained unexposed. “Give me thy hand; And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds”---as Gerald spoke these words and took the sinewy, brown and indubitably masculine fingers, he gazed as it were for the last time at the flushed and lovely face, and knew that after all it belonged to another sphere of desire.

When the curtains were finally drawn Gerald rushed back to the class-room to change, eager to spare his father a long wait in solitary embarrassment among the coats in the lobby even at the cost of accelerating the moment when he would have to receive the words of congratulation, the looks of love, whose restrained furtiveness only drew attention to their intensity of feeling. More and more it appeared to him that his father was the younger of them and that the years which had grizzled and moustached him had taught him nothing of savoir faire.

But at length he saw the tail-light of his father’s car fade down the blackness of the drive, and he ran with relief and exultation to the House. In the Common Room sandwiches had been left out for the boarders among the cast because of their early tea: Gerald seized a couple and moved through the chattering groups towards Slade. The grey-flannelled figure had, Gerald thought, quite lost the disturbing enchantment of half an hour ago and now seemed merely to hold, as it always did, the warm promise of immediate accommodation to Gerald’s mood, of an intellectual response incalculable not only in itself but in its reciprocal power of stimulating Gerald’s own intellect; but as the younger boy turned his face in greeting Gerald saw that it was still the countenance of Viola-Cesario whose brilliant youthfulness made not quite supererogatory its lavish fard. So, too, for a while longer, he must himself bear the Duke’s fickle haggard features.

“All right?” questioned Slade.

“All right,” Gerald said, and, to draw his friend apart, added in a low voice:

   “Cesario, come;
    For so you shall be, while you are a man;
    But when in other habits you are seen,
    Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.”

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