Hue Huxley and Magic the Hound
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What made the insult more intolerable was the fact that Benger was so utterly insignificant. Bad at football, not much use at cricket. The only thing he was good at was work. And did such a creature dare to sit unsmiling when he. Then, all of a sudden, he remembered that the poor chap had lost his mother, and, relaxing the hardness of his face, he gave him, across the intervening space, a little smile of recognition and sympathy.
Anthony smiled back, then looked away, blushing with an obscure discomfort as though he had been caught doing something wrong. Everybody laughed again, not because the joke was anything but putrid, but simply because everybody wanted to laugh. There was a redoubling of the laughter. The laughter became almost hysterical. They all remembered that occasion last term, when they had come to Pepin le Bref in their European History.
Pepin le Bref—le Bref! First Butterworth had broken down, then Pembroke-Jones, then Thompson—and finally the whole of Division II, Staithes with the rest of them, uncontrollably. Old Jimbug had got into the most appalling bait. Which made it, now, even funnier.
But her stroke did not touch them. They were beyond her, rapt away in the ecstasy of causeless laughter. Anthony would have liked to have laughed with them, but somehow did not dare to do more than smile, distantly and politely, like someone in a foreign country, who does not understand the joke, but wants to show that he has no objection to other people having a bit of fun. And a moment later, feeling hungry, he found himself unexpectedly struck dumb above his empty plate.
Uncertainly, he hesitated. Leaning towards his neighbour on the other side, Thompson went on with his whispered recitation of the limerick. Anthony felt profoundly relieved. In spite of his hunger, he did not ask again. There was a stir at the high table; old Jimbug rose to feet. A hideous noise of chair-legs scraping across boards filled the hall, solidly, it seemed; then evaporated into the emptiness of complete silence.
Horse-Face would be as inappropriate to the present circumstances as Breaf. People laughed at Foxe because he stammered and looked like a horse. But almost everybody liked him. Even though he was a bit of a swot and not much good at games. He was rather pi, too, about smut; and he never seemed to get into trouble with the masters.
But in spite of it all, you had to like him, because he was so awfully decent. Beastly little ticks of nine the equals of boys of eleven and twelve; imagine! No, Foxe was wrong about the New Bugs; of that there could be no doubt. All the same, people liked old Horse-Face. Did you make her yourself? Brian nodded. That was why she was so professional-looking. He would have liked to explain it all, to share his pleasure in the achievement with Anthony; but he knew his stammer too well.
The pleasure would evaporate while he was laboriously trying to express it. But the smile which accompanied the words seemed at once to apologize for their inadequacy and to make up for it. Anthony smiled back. They understood one another.
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Carefully, tenderly, Brian unstepped the three matchstick masts and slipped them, sails and all, into the inner pocket of his jacket; the hull went into his breeches. A bell rang. It was bed-time. Obediently, Brian shut his play-box. They started to climb the stairs once more.
Forgetting that he was an outcast, a sacred pariah, he laughed aloud. He felt warm and at home. It was only when he was undressing in his cubicle that he remembered—because of the tooth powder. Because of the germs. The wound to his vanity did she think his teeth were so dirty? He found a retrospective excuse in the reflection that it was against the school rules to go up to the dorms during the day. First the left leg, then the right. But just as he was starting to pull them up, there came to him, suddenly, a thought so terrible that he almost cried aloud.
And at once he saw her, lying in her bed at home.
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Terribly pale. And the death-rattle, that death-rattle one always read about in books—he heard it plainly; and it was like the noise of one of those big wooden rattles that you scare birds with. Loud and incessant, as though it were made by a machine. But all the same, it came out of her mouth. It was the death-rattle.
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She was dying. His trousers still only half-way up his thighs, Brian stood there, quite still, staring at the brown varnished partition in front of him with eyes that filled with tears. It was too terrible. The coffin; and then the empty house; and, when he went to bed, nobody to come and say good night. Suddenly shaking himself out of immobility, he pulled up his trousers and tied the string with a kind of violence.
Two cubicles away, Thompson gave vent to one of those loud and extraordinarily long-drawn farts for which, at Bulstrode, he had such a reputation. There were shouts, a chorus of laughter. Even Brian laughed—Brian who generally refused to see that there was anything funny about that sort of noise. But he was filled at this moment with such a sense of glad relief, that any excuse for laughter was good enough. She was still alive! Uproariously he guffawed; then, all at once, broke off.
He had thought of Beavis.
His mother was really dead. What must he be thinking? Brian felt ashamed of having laughed, and for such a reason. Anthony jumped out of bed and, the night being cold, put on his dressing-gown and slippers; then, noiselessly, stepped on to his chair and from the chair pushing aside the long baize curtain to the window-ledge. The curtain swung back behind him, shutting him into the embrasure. It was a high narrow window, divided by a wooden transom into two parts. The lower and larger part consisted of a pair of sashes; the small upper pane was hinged at the top and opened outwards.
When the sashes were closed, the lower of them formed a narrow ledge, half-way up the window. Standing on this ledge, a boy could conveniently get his head and shoulders through the small square opening above. Each window—each pair of windows, rather—was set in a gable, so that when you leaned out, you found the slope of the tiles coming steeply down on either side, and immediately in front of you, on a level with the transom, the long gutter which carried away the water from the roof.
The gutter! It was Brian who had recognized its potentialities. A sod of turf carried surreptitiously up to bed in a bulging pocket, a few stones—and there was your dam. When it was built, you collected all the water-jugs in the dormitory, hoisted them one by one and poured their contents into the gutter.
There would be no washing the next morning; but what of that? A long narrow sea stretched away into the night. A whittled ship would float, and those fifty feet of watery boundlessness invited the imagination. The danger was always rain. If it rained hard, somebody had somehow to sneak up, at whatever risk, and break the dam. Otherwise the gutter would overflow, and an overflow meant awkward investigations and unpleasant punishments. Perched high between the cold glass and the rough hairy baize of the curtains, Brian and Anthony leaned out of their twin windows into the darkness.
A brick mullion was all that separated them, they could speak in whispers. And like the allegorical Zephyr in a picture, Horse-Face blew. Under its press of paper sail, the boat went gliding along the narrow water-way. A great ship—a ship of the line—one hundred and ten guns—under a cloud of canvas—the North-East Trades blowing steadily—bowling along at ten knots—eight bells just sounding from. He started violently as the foremast came into contact with his nose.
Reality flicked back into place again. Bending down again, he tried to recapture that vision of the huge hundred-and-ten-gunner bowling before the North-East Trades; but without success; the little boat refused to be transfigured. Still, she was a lovely ship. He had never uttered it before—only read it in books. Lovely words! He blew, and the little ship almost capsized. The hurricane, he said to himself. But it was tiring to go on blowing as hard as that. He looked up from the gutter; his eyes travelled over the sky; he listened intently to the silence. The air was extraordinarily still; the night, almost cloudless.
And what stars! There was Orion, with his feet tangled in the branches of the oak tree. And Sirius. Thousands and millions of them. Anthony was shaken; they had been having some lessons in botany from old Bumface—making drawings of pistils and things. Bees—yes; they were obviously for something.
He wished he could remember exactly what Uncle James had said. The iron somethings of nature. But iron whats? There was a silence. But Anthony, who was looking up at the stars, made no sound or movement of derision; only nodded gravely. He felt profoundly grateful; and suddenly it was as though a great wave were mounting, mounting through his body. His throat contracted; the tears came into his eyes.
Anthony meanwhile was still looking at Sirius. All at once he remembered that young bird he had found last Easter holidays. Big animals he liked, but for some reason it gave him the horrors to touch anything small and alive. In the end, making an effort with himself, he had caught the bird. And in his hand the little creature had seemed just a feathered heart, pulsing against his palm and fingers, a fistful of hot and palpitating blood.
Up there, above the fringes of the trees, Sirius was just such another heart. But of course Uncle James would just laugh. Brian winced. He could explain it all so well; he could say all those things his mother had said. But somehow, at the moment, even the things that she had said were beside the point. But Brian did not take up the challenge.
It was an agony to feel the current of his love thus checked and diverted. The fingers travelled down the sleeve, then closed round the bare wrist; and thereafter, every time his stammer interposed itself between his feeling and its object, his grasp tightened in a spasm almost of desperation. N-not in f-front of the o-others. You know, I was th-th-th. He began the sentence again and acquired sufficient momentum to take him past the barrier.
Oh, B-b-beavis, it m-must be too awful! Anthony looked at him, in the first moment of surprise, with an expression of suspicion, almost of fear on his face. But as the other stammered on, this first hardening of resistance melted away, and now, without feeling ashamed of what he was doing, he began to cry.
Balanced precariously in the tall embrasure of the windows, the two children stood there for a long time in silence. Suddenly, with a thin rattling of withered leaves, a gust of wind came swelling up out of the darkness. The little three-master started, as though it had been woken out of sleep, and noiselessly, with an air of purposeful haste, began to glide, stern-foremost, along the gutter.
The servants had gone to bed; all the house was still. Slowly, in the dark, John Beavis left his study and climbed past the mezzanine landing, past the drawing-room, stair after stair, towards the second floor. Outside, in the empty street, the sound of hoofs approached and again receded. The silence closed in once more—the silence of his solitude, the silence he shuddered of her grave. He stood still, listening for long seconds to the beating of his heart; then, with decision, mounted the last two stairs, crossed the dark landing and, opening the door, turned on the light.
His image confronted him, staring palely from the dressing-table mirror. The silver brushes were in their usual place, the little trays and pin-cushions, the row of cut-glass bottles. He looked away. One corner of the broad pink quilt was turned back; he saw the two pillows lying cheek by cheek, and above them, on the wall, that photogravure of the Sistine Madonna they had bought together, in the shop near the British Museum.
Turning, he saw himself again, at full length, funereally black, in the glass of the wardrobe. The wardrobe. He stepped across the room and turned the key in the lock. The heavy glass door swung open of its own accord, and suddenly he was breathing the very air of her presence, that faint scent of orris-root, quickened secretly, as it were, by some sharper, warmer perfume. Grey, white, green, shell-pink, black—dress after dress. It was as though she had died ten times and ten times been hung there, limp, gruesomely headless, but haloed still, ironically, with the sweet, breathing symbol of her life.
He stretched out his hand and touched the smooth silk, the cloth, the muslin, the velvet; all those various textures. Stirred, the hanging folds gave out their perfume more strongly; he shut his eyes and inhaled her real presence. But what was left of her had been burnt, and the ashes were at the bottom of that pit in Lollingdon churchyard.
His throat contracted painfully; the tears welled out between his closed eyelids. Shutting the wardrobe door, he turned away and began to undress. He was conscious, suddenly, of an overwhelming fatigue. It cost him an immense effort to wash. When he got into bed, he fell asleep almost at once. No, not walking: running. For the corridor had become immensely long and there was some terrible urgent reason for getting to the end of it quickly, for being there in time.
In time for what? He did not know; but as he ran, he felt a sickening apprehension mounting, as it were, and expanding and growing every moment more intense within him. The sight was so dreadful that he started broad awake. Everything was reassuringly familiar, in its right place. It had been no more than a bad dream. Then, turning his head, John Beavis saw that the other half of the broad bed was empty. The bell came nearer and nearer, ploughing through the deep warm drifts of sleep, until at last it hammered remorselessly on his naked and quivering consciousness.
Anthony opened his eyes. What a filthy row it made! The warmth under the sheets was heavenly. Then—and it spoilt everything—he remembered that early school was algebra with Jimbug. His heart came into his throat. Those awful quadratics! Jimbug would start yelling at him again.
Horse-Face had been most awfully decent last night, he went on to think. But it was time to get up. One, two, three and, ugh, how filthily cold it was! He was just diving upwards into his shirt when somebody tapped very softly at the door of his cubicle. One last wriggle brought his head through into daylight. He went and opened. Staithes was standing in the passage. Staithes—grinning, it was true, in apparent friendliness; but still. Anthony was disturbed. Anthony was flattered by this invitation from one who, as captain of the football eleven, had a right to be, and generally was, thoroughly offensive to him.
He was afraid of Staithes and disliked him—and for that very reason felt particularly pleased that Staithes should have taken the trouble to come to him like this, of his own accord. The conspiratorial silence seethed and bubbled with a suppressed excitement. Thompson had had to stuff his handkerchief into his mouth to keep himself from laughing, and Pembroke-Jones was doubling up in paroxysms of noiseless mirth.
Wedged in the narrow space between the foot of the bed and the washstand, Partridge was standing with one cheek pressed against the partition. Staithes touched him on the shoulder. Partridge turned round and came out into the centre of the cubicle; his freckled face was distorted with glee and he twitched and fidgeted as though his bladder were bursting. Staithes pointed to the place he had vacated and Anthony squeezed in. A knot in the wood of the partition had been prized out, and, through the hole you could see all that was going on in the next cubicle.
On the bed, wearing only a woollen undervest and his rupture appliance, lay Goggler Ledwidge. His eyes behind the thick glass of his spectacles were shut; his lips were parted. He looked tranquilly happy and serene, as though he were in church. Anthony turned a grinning face and nodded; then pressed his eyes more closely to the spy-hole. What made it so specially funny was the fact that it should be Goggler—Goggler, the school buffoon, the general victim, predestined by weakness and timidity to inevitable persecution.
This would be something new to bait him with. Partridge, who played centre forward for the first eleven, made a movement to follow him. But it was to Anthony that Staithes unexpectedly turned. Besides, it pleased him to be able to snub that lout, Partridge. Anthony accepted the flattering invitation with an almost abject alacrity and got up beside him. The others perched unsteadily at the foot of the bed.
At a signal from Staithes all straightened themselves up and, showing their heads above the partition, hooted their derision. Recalled thus brutally from his squalidly tender little Eden of enemas and spankings it had, as yet, no female inhabitants , Goggler gave vent to a startled cry; his eyes opened, frantic with terror; he went very white for a moment, then blushed. With his two hands he pulled down his vest; but it was too short to cover his nakedness or even his truss.
Everyone knew the answer, of course. There was a burst of laughter. Staithes lifted one foot from its perch, pulled off the leather-soled slipper, took aim and threw. It hit Goggler on the side of the face. He gave a cry of pain, jumped out of bed and stood with hunched shoulders and one skinny little arm raised to cover his head, looking up at the jeering faces through eyes that had begun to overflow with tears.
Goggler ducked. The slipper thumped against the wooden partition behind him. Staithes had found his tongue again. Brian dropped his eyes and his cheeks went suddenly very red. To have to listen to smut always made him feel miserable—miserable and at the same time ashamed of himself. For Anthony had had time to feel ashamed of his shame; time to refuse to think about that hole in Lollingdon churchyard; time, too, to find himself all of a sudden almost hating old Horse-Face.
But the real reason was deeper, obscurer. If he hated Horse-Face, it was because Horse-Face was so extraordinarily decent; because Horse-Face had the courage of convictions which Anthony felt should also be his convictions—which, indeed, would be his convictions if only he could bring himself to have the courage of them. It was just because he liked Horse-Face so much that he now hated him. Or, rather, because there were so many reasons why he should like him—so few reasons, on the contrary, why Horse-Face should return the liking.
Horse-Face was rich with all sorts of fine qualities that he himself either lacked completely or else, which was worse, possessed, but somehow was incapable of manifesting. That sudden derisive burst of laughter was the expression of a kind of envious resentment against a superiority which he loved and admired.
Indeed, the love and the admiration in some sort produced the resentment and the envy—produced, but ordinarily kept them below the surface in an unconscious abeyance, from which, however, some crisis like the present would suddenly call them. Now that he felt in a better humour he laughed—he could afford to laugh.
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There was no doubt about it; combined as it was with the spectacles and the timidity, that truss made the throwing of slippers not only inevitable, but right, a moral duty. But he was the only one, they were all thinking, who had a truss, and goggles, and a vest that was too short for him; the only one who did it in broad daylight and let himself be caught at it. There was a difference. Staithes counter-attacked on another front. We must buck up. C onditioned reflex. What a lot of satisfaction I got out of old Pavlov when first I read him. The ultimate debunking of all human pretensions.
We were all dogs and bitches together. Bow-wow, sniff the lamp-post, lift the leg, bury the bone. No nonsense about free will, goodness, truth, and all the rest. Each age has its psychological revolutionaries. La Mettrie, Hume, Condillac, and finally the Marquis de Sade, latest and most sweeping of the eighteenth-century debunkers. Perhaps, indeed, the ultimate and absolute revolutionary.
Meanwhile, science did not stand still. The nineteenth century had to begin again. Marx and the Darwinians. Who are still with us—Marx obsessively so. Meanwhile the twentieth century has produced yet another lot of debunkers—Freud and, when he began to flag, Pavlov and the Behaviourists. Conditioned reflex:—it seemed, I remember, to put the lid on everything.
Whereas actually, of course, it merely restated the doctrine of free will. For if reflexes can be conditioned, then, obviously, they can be re-conditioned. Lunched with my father. Making much of getting out of his chair with difficulty, of climbing very slowly up the stairs. A way, I suppose, of increasing his sense of importance. Perhaps also a way of commanding sympathy whenever he happens to want it. Baby cries so that mother shall come and make a fuss of him.
It goes on from the cradle to the grave. Use conditions function. The lean and slippered pantaloon—literally a part that one plays. I suspect this is largely true. Anyhow, my father is playing his present part with gusto. My father took it about peace, for example. Yes, men were mad, he agreed; there would be another war quite soon—about , he thought. A date, significantly, when he was practically certain to be dead!
Much worse than the last war, yes; and would probably destroy the civilization of Western Europe. But did it really matter so much? Civilization would go on in other continents, would build itself up anew in the devastated areas. Our time scale was all wrong. We should think of ourselves, not as living in the thirties of the twentieth-century, but as at a point between two ice ages. All which is doubtless quite true, but not the whole truth. Query: how to combine belief that the world is to a great extent illusory with belief that it is none the less essential to improve the illusion?
How to be simultaneously dispassionate and not indifferent, serene like an old man and active like a young one? Anthony made no comment. She looked at him for a little in silence. Predestined by the angle of my ribs. But it would take too long to talk about that temperamental divorce between the passions and the intellect, those detached sensualities, those sterilized ideas.
Do you think I should be here—the real I? I, real I? But where, but how, but at what price? Yes, above all, at what price? Those Cavells and Florence Nightingales. But it was impossible, that sort of thing; it was, above all, ridiculous. She frowned to herself, she shook her head; then, opening her eyes, which had been shut, looked for something in the external world to distract her from these useless and importunate thoughts within.
The foreground was all Anthony. She looked at him for a moment; then, reaching out with a kind of fascinated reluctance, as though towards some irresistibly strange but distasteful animal, she touched the pink crumpled skin of the great scar that ran diagonally across his thigh, an inch or two above the knee. And sometimes in wet weather. Helen shuddered. She had pushed him back into the past again. That autumn day at Tidworth eighteen years before. Bombing instruction. An imbecile recruit had thrown short.
The shouts, his panic start, the blow. Oddly remote it all seemed now, and irrelevant, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. And even the pain, all the months of pain, had shrunk almost to non-existence. Physically, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him—and the lunatic in charge of his memory had practically forgotten it. Her face hardened as she listened to his words. Which is lucky. How wearisome the reality of them would be! And what woman with a memory would ever have more than one baby?
Helen stirred uneasily. Brand new. Every gardenia is the first gardenia you ever smelt. And every confinement. And you go chattering away about things in the air. Like a fool! Such an expert in happiness? In the mind of each of them his words evoked the image of a timorous figure, ambushed behind spectacles. That marriage! What on earth could have induced her? Old Hugh, of course, had been sentimentally in love. But was that a sufficient reason? And, afterwards, what sort of disillusions? Physiological, he supposed, for the most part. Comic, when you thought of them in relation to old Hugh.
But for Helen, of course, the joke could only have been disastrous. He would have liked to know the details—but at second-hand, on condition of not having to ask for or be offered her confidences. Confidences were dangerous, confidences were entangling—like fly-paper; yes, like fly-paper. It was disgustingly infected. They had to operate six times altogether. Anthony shrugged his shoulders. At least it had preserved him from those trenches. But for the grace of God. A half-witted bumpkin with a hand-grenade.
But for him I should have been shipped out to France and slaughtered—almost to a certainty. He saved my life. It seemed to make sense then, in In hospital, I had all the leisure to think of that other royal progress through the earth. It was a sobering reflection. Sobering and profoundly liberating. The Comstockian Premiss. The Labial Infamy. A True Ascetic. On Lying. The Curse of Civilization.
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