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Part Three, Chapter Ten

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« on: August 04, 2023, 08:46:55 am »

IT was, Slade revealed, possible to join the public library in the town: all you did was to get your form master to sign your application card. One day, when afternoon school was over, Gerald approached Mr. Percy for this purpose. As the master signed his name, Gerald was struck by the contrast between the short, podgy fingers and the delicate handwriting, as though imprisoned in Mr. Percy’s gross frame was some tiny, sensitive being sending in this way its desperate calls to be released.

“A far cry from Dr. Fu-Manchu, eh?” Mr. Percy remarked, handing back the card.

“Yes,” said Gerald. It was indicative, too, of the long way he had come that he forbore to add “sir” because in the state of unuttered intimacy between them it could only have a sardonic connotation. He noticed for the first time that Mr. Percy’s eyes were the light grey of a worn silver coin. Where the straight, boyish hair nestled above his ears---and he needed a hair cut as badly as he needed a new jacket---were a few coarse and unruly white strands among the brown. Poor, ageing, unhappy the master seemed to Gerald in that moment, though he had not changed an iota his icy, contained manner.

As Mr. Percy was about to speak again some not unsubstantial object crashed against the door leading to the adjoining and junior room, and from beyond came loud scuffling and cheering noises. Mr. Percy got down from his chair with the automatism of weary authority and threw open the door. In the next room a few lingering boys were unseasonably playing cricket with a ball of string-bound paper and a real bat. “Go home,” said Mr. Percy into the sudden silence. And then he said: “Where did that cricket bat come from?”

Cross-examination revealed that a boarder called Stoneham had extracted it illegally from one of the cricket bags stored in the cellars of the House. “Give it to me,” Mr. Percy commanded, and then, observing Gerald still standing in the doorway, he added: “Perhaps you will see that it is returned to its rightful place, Bracher.”

With one of those fatal actions which seem quite foreign to our characters but which are perhaps expressive of a deeper truth, Mr. Percy, before he passed on the implement to Gerald, idly made as though to face an invisible bowler and swung the bat in a powerful straight drive. What was behind the master was hidden from Gerald by the door, and he could not divine the nature of the alarming sound which seemed to accompany Mr. Percy’s motion and derived from that quarter. He stepped into the room, and saw---as incongruous a consequence as the fall of a great house through the insignificant appetite of the woodworm---the plump form of Brian Cole recumbent on the floor. Mr. Percy, still holding the bat, was gazing down at this spectacle with an expression as fixed, livid and expressive as a mask for a tragic play. Following Gerald’s example he knelt at Cole’s side.

“Cole,” he said, “I didn’t know you were behind me. I didn’t mean to hit you, of course.”

Blood badged Cole’s face. “Shall I get Miss Pemberton?” Gerald asked and even through his agitation he realized immediately that his question was ambiguous, for though he had meant to refer to Miss Pemberton in her role of Matron, for Mr. Percy she was the very one who must be summoned to sustain him in this critical moment.

“Yes, Bracher,” replied Mr. Percy, adding the name as though to demonstrate that he still had control over life, for his words and actions---and now he was slowly pulling a handkerchief out of his breast pocket---seemed to be from another, remoter order of existence, like those of a hypnotist’s subject; or no doubt it was that the events of the last few minutes belonged to a stark, pre-civilized world Mr. Percy had never conceived to be his.

Miss Pemberton was miraculously in her room, darning socks and sharing the sofa with Marcel. On Gerald’s entry she took off a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, as though making visible the change from her secret to her public self. Gerald told her of the catastrophe and without a word she seized the first aid box and flew from the room. Gerald followed, and as they crossed the playground she turned her head and said: “Why was it Cole?”

Bewildered by the question, Gerald said: “He just happened to be there.”

In the class-room he was surprised to see Cole, certainly not at death’s door, sitting in one of the desks holding a bloody handkerchief over his eyes. The other boys had gone. Mr. Percy stood by the master’s desk as though he were taking a lesson. Miss Pemberton scarcely gave him a glance. She went straight to Cole and gently removed the handkerchief, revealing the expression of one who in the dark has omitted to take account of the last stair. “Well,” she said, picking a roll of lint from the first aid box, “it’s not all that bad, Cole. But it looks as if it will need a stitch or two. Can you manage to walk down the road to the doctor’s?” Cole nodded bravely. “Will you tell the Headmaster, Mr. Percy?” Miss Pemberton added, busy with the cutting of the lint, her throwing away of the words only making their import all the more terrible, and the formal mode of address, though no doubt only for the benefit of the two boys, seeming to mark the collapse of her intimacy with the master.

“It was a pure accident,” said Mr. Percy.

Miss Pemberton substituted lint for handkerchief and said: “Come along, then, Cole.” The pair left the room.

Some word, some gesture, from Gerald was undoubtedly called for, but twisting uneasily, avoiding Mr. Percy’s eye, he could do nothing but leave the master to his destiny. “Well, thank you for signing the card,” he said as he escaped, but he was not sure that Mr. Percy had heard him.

Serious as the episode was, it went completely out of his mind after he had satisfied Thompson’s curiosity about it at tea-time, and he quite failed to connect it with the summons he received during preparation, to go to the Headmaster’s study, imagining instead some culpable affair of his own. He knocked and entered and looked hastily at Mr. Pemberton’s face, which he saw with a sinking of the heart was very grave.

“Sit down, Bracher.” The command was almost unprecedented in this place. Gerald took the chair at the side of the desk, touching it only with his bottom. The Headmaster looked searchingly at Gerald’s countenance and then said: “Human malice is boundless, especially that malice which is exercised surreptitiously. Do you understand, Bracher?”

“No sir. Not quite.”

“I’ve always regarded you as a fairly truthful boy, Bracher. Now I want you to tell me the truth about what happened in 4A class-room this afternoon.”

“About Cole, sir?”

“Yes, about Cole---and about any other individual who happened to be concerned.”

Gerald related the whole incident, omitting only the purpose for which he had approached Mr. Percy in case the Headmaster would think it cast an aspersion on the resources of the school libraries. Mr. Pemberton’s reaction was quiet but startling: “Why didn’t you warn Brian to keep out of range of the bat?”

“I didn’t see him, sir,” said Gerald warmly, alarmed at the insinuation of his responsibility.

“Mr. Percy saw him, of course.”

“I expect so, sir.”

“And didn’t intend to hit him quite so hard, no doubt.”

Gerald’s face began to get hot. “No, sir. I didn’t mean Mr. Percy saw him when he was swinging the bat but when he first went in 4A to stop the noise.”

“But having seen him once surely that was sufficient? Brian’s figure is not one to be easily lost sight of.”

“I expect Cole moved round the back and Mr. Percy didn’t notice it.”

“Did you see him move?” demanded Mr. Pemberton.

“No, sir. I was only suggesting----”

“If you invent portions of your narrative I shall find it difficult to believe that you were not criminally involved in this sad affair.” Then the Headmaster’s voice changed. “And it is a sad affair. Do you know that five stitches have had to be put in that unfortunate boy’s forehead? He will be disfigured for life.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“It is easy for us to say we are sorry.” Mr. Pemberton bowed his head slightly so that the lamplight gleamed on his nude skull. “But what can his parents say? And what can we say to his parents---we who have been entrusted with the son they love above anything else? How can we explain it? Prove that we have exercised proper care of our trust?”

Again Gerald felt disquiet: how convincingly the use of the first person plural implied his guilt! But once more Mr. Pemberton changed his tone. He lifted his head. “I am going to confide in you, Gerald,” he said. “I ask myself: why was it that this had to happen to Cole out of the hundred boys in this school? Why had the arc of that cricket bat to intersect with a boy’s brow out of all the space in the school? Can you answer?”

Gerald wondered if Miss Pemberton had planted these questions in the Headmaster’s mind. “No, sir,” he said. “Cole just happened to be there.” But as soon as he had spoken he understood what the questions meant, and how both uncle and niece could arrive at them independently.

“Ah, Gerald, Gerald,” said Mr. Pemberton vibrantly, “when you grow up you will come to realize that rarely in this world does the victim just happen to be there to take the fatal blow. Suppose, Gerald, you planned to inflict a great injury on the school and on its Headmaster----”

“I’m sure it was a pure accident,” interrupted Gerald, in an agony to communicate the truth. “Mr. Percy said so himself.”

“Mr. Percy said so,” Mr. Pemberton repeated, with bitter irony.

“I say so as well, sir.”

“Your loyalty will commend itself to Mr. Percy.”

“Really, sir, said Gerald, despairingly, “it was an accident. I know it was.”

The Headmaster rose abruptly and for a sickly moment Gerald thought that he was going into the corner for the cane. But he merely paced restlessly out of the orbit of the desk-lamp and then stood against the mantelpiece, lit by the flames from the fire like some slumped tragic figure from the great days of the German cinema.

“Chains,” he said, “chains forged by those we love, and those who hate us, bind us in our life. I hope you say your prayers, Gerald. We need to pray as much as we can, manacled and helpless as we are. I wish all our prayers could be profound and composed, and that our chains were only those of physical darkness.”

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