The passionate year, p.1
The Passionate Year, p.1James Hilton
THE PASSIONATE YEAR
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First Published by Thornton Butterworth, London, 1923
First US edition: Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1924
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Book I. The Summer Term
Book II. The Winter Term
Interlude. Christmas at Beachings Over
Book III. The Lent Term
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BOOK I. THE SUMMER TERM
“Ah, um yes, Mr. Speed, is it not?…Welcome, sir! Welcome to Millstead!” Kenneth Speed gripped the other’s hand and smiled. He was a tall passably good-looking fellow in his early twenties, bright-eyed and brown-haired. At the moment he was feeling somewhat nervous, and always when he felt nervous he did things vigorously, as if to obscure his secret trepidation. Therefore when he took hold of the soft moist hand that was offered him he grasped it in such a way that its possessor winced and gave a perceptible gasp.
“Delighted to meet you, sir,” said the young man briskly, and his voice, like his action, was especially vigorous because of nervousness. It was not nervousness of interviewing a future employer, or of receiving social initiation into a new world; still less was it due to any consciousness of personal inferiority; it was an intellectual nervousness, based on an acute realisation of the exact moment when life turns a fresh corner which may or may not lead into a blind alley. And as Kenneth Speed felt the touch of this clammy elderly hand, he experienced a sudden eager desire to run away, out of the dark study and through the streets to the railway-station whence he had come. Absurd and ignoble desire, he told himself, ‘shrugging his shoulders slightly as if to shake off an unpleasant sensation. He saw the past kaleidoscopically, the future as a mere vague following-up of the immediate present. A month ago he had been a resident undergraduate at Cambridge. Now he was Kenneth Speed, B.A., Arts’ Master at Millstead School. The transformation seemed to him for the time being all that was in life.
It was a dull glowering day towards the end of April, most appropriately melancholy for the beginning of term. It was one of those days when the sun had been bright very early, and by ten o’clock the sky dappled with white clouds; by noon the whiteness had dulled and spread to leaden patches of grey; now, at mid-afternoon, a cold wintry wind rolled them heavily across the sky and piled them on to the deep gloom of the horizon. The Headmaster’s study, lit from three small windows through which the daylight, filtered by the thick spring foliage of lime trees, struggled meagrely, was darker even than usual, and Speed, peering around with hesitant inquisitive eyes, received no more than a confused impression of dreariness. He could see the clerical collar of the man opposite gleaming like a bar of ivory against an ebony background.
The voice, almost as soft and clammy as the hand, went on: “I hope yon will be very comfortable here, Mr. Speed. We are—urn yes—an old foundation, and we have our—um yes—our traditions—and—um—so forth…You will take music and drawing, I understand?”
“That was the arrangement, I believe.”
His eyes, by now accustomed to the gloom, saw over the top of the dazzling white collar a heavy duplicated chin and sharp clean-cut lips, lips in which whatever was slightly gentle was also slightly shrewd. Above them a huge promontory of a nose leaned back into deep-set eyes that had each a tiny spark in them that pierced the dusk like the gleaming tips of a pair of foils. And over all this a wide blue-veined forehead curved on to a bald crown on which the light shone mistily. There was fascination of a sort in the whole impression; one felt that the man might be almost physically a part of the dark study, indissolubly one with the leather-bound books and the massive mahogany pedestal-desk; a Pope, perhaps, in a Vatican born with him. And when he moved his finger to push a bell at his elbow Speed started as if the movement had been in some way sinister.
“Ah yes, that will be all right—um—music and drawing. Perhaps—um—commercial geography for the—um—lower forms, eh?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about commercial geography.”
“Oh, well—um yes—I suppose not. Still—easy to acquire, you know. Oh yes, quite easy…Come in…”
This last remark, uttered in a peculiar treble wail, was in response to a soft tap at the door. It opened and a man stepped into the shadows and made his way to the desk with cat-like stealthiness.
“Light the gas, Potter…And by the way, Mr. Speed will be in to dinner.” He turned to the young man and said, as if the enquiry were merely a matter of form: “You’ll join us for dinner to-night, won’t you?”
Speed replied: “I shall be delighted.”
He wondered then what it was in the dark study that made him feel eerily sensitive and observant; so that, for instance, to watch Potter standing on a chair and lighting the incandescent globes was to feel vividly and uncannily the man’s feline grace of movement. And what was it in the Headmaster’s quivering blade-like eyes that awakened the wonder as to what these dark book-lined walls had seen in the past, what strange, furtive conversations they had heard, what scenes of pity and terror and fright and, might be, of blind suffering they had gazed upon?
The globes popped into yellow brilliance The dark study took sudden shape and coherence; the shadows were no longer menacing. And the Headmaster, the Reverend Bruce Ervine, M.A., D.D., turned out to be no more than a plump apoplectic-looking man with a totally bald head.
Speed’s eyes, blinking their relief, wandered vacantly over the bookshelves. He noticed Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” in twelve volumes, the Expositor’s Bible in twenty volumes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica in forty volumes, a long shelf of the Loeb classical series, and a huge group of lexicons surmounting like guardian angels a host of small school text-books.
“Dinner is at seven, then, Mr. Speed. We—we do not dress—except for-um yes—for special occasions…If you—um—have nothing to do this afternoon—you might find a stroll into the town interesting—there are some Roman—um—earthworks that are extremely—um yes—extremely fascinating. Oh yes, really…Harrington’s the stationers will sell you a guide…I don’t think there are any-um—duties we need trouble you with until to-morrow…um yes…Seven o’clock then, Mr. Speed…”
“I shall be there, sir.”
He bowed slightly and backed himself through the green-baize double doors into the stone corridor.
He climbed the stone flights of steps that led to the School House dormitories and made his way to the little room in which, some hours earlier, the school porter, squirming after tips, had deposited his trunks and snit-case. Over the door, in neat white letters upon a black background, he read: “Mr. K. Speed.”—It seemed to him almost the name of somebody else. He looked at it, earnestly and contemplatively, until he saw that a small boy was staring at him from the dormitory doorway at the end of the passage. That would never do; it would be fatal to appear eccentric. He walked into the room and shut the door behind him. He was alone now and could think. He saw the bare distempered walls with patches of deeper colour where pictures had been hung; the table covered with a green-baize cloth; the shabby pedestal-desk surmounted by a dilapidated inkstand; the empty fire-grate into which somebody, as if in derision, had cast quantities of red tissue-paper. An inner door opened into a small bedroo
But he was quite happy. He had always had the ambition to be a master at a public-school. He had dreamed about it; he was dreaming about it now. He was bursting with new ideas and new enthusiasms, which he hoped would be infectious, and Millstead, which was certainly a good school, would doubtless give him his chance. Something in Ervine’s dark study had momentarily damped his enthusiasm, but ()Ely momentarily; and in any case he was not afraid of an uncomfortable bed or of a poorly-furnished room. When he had been at Millstead a little while he would, he decided, import some furniture from home; it would not, however, be wise to do everything in a hurry. For the immediate present a few photographs on the mantelpiece, Medici prints on the walls, a few cushions, books of course, and his innumerable undergraduate pipes and tobacco-jars, would wreak a sufficiently pleasant transformation.
He looked through the open lattice-windows and saw, three storeys below, the headmaster’s garden, the running-track, and beyond that the smooth green of the cricket-pitch. Leaning out and turning his head sharply to the left he could see the huge red blocks of Milner’s and Lavery’s, the two other houses, together with the science buildings and the squat gymnasium. He felt already intimate with them; he anticipated in a sense the peculiar closeness of their relationship with his life. Their very bricks and mortar might, if he let them, become part of his inmost soul. He would walk amongst them secretly and knowingly, familiar with every step and curve of their corridors, growing each day more intimate with them until one day, might be, he should be a part of them as darkly and mysteriously as Ervine had become a part of his study. Would he? He shrank instinctively from such a final absorption of himself. And yet already he was conscious of fascination, of something that would permeate his life subtly and tremendously—that must do so, whether he willed it or not. And as he leaned his head out of the window he felt big cold drops of rain.
He shut the windows and resumed unpacking. Just as he had finished everything except the hanging up of some of the pictures, he heard the school clock chime the hour of four. He recollected that the porter had told him that tea could be obtained in the Masters’ Common-Room at that hour. It was raining heavily now, so that a walk into the town, even with the lure of old Roman earthworks, was unattractive. Besides, he felt just pleasantly hungry. He washed his hands and descended the four long flights to the ground-floor corridors.
The Masters’ Common-Room was empty save for a diminutive man reading the Farmer and Stockbreeder. As Speed entered the little man turned round in his chair and looked at him. Speed smiled and said, still with a trace of that almost boisterous nervousness: “I hope I’m not intruding.”
The little man replied: “Oh, not at all. Come and sit down. Are you having tea?”
“Then perhaps we can have it together. You’re Speed, aren’t you?”
“Thought so. I’m Pritchard. Science and maths.”
He said that with the air of making a vivid epigram. He had small, rather feminine features, and a complexion clear as a woman’s. Moreover he nipped out his words, as it were, with a delicacy that was almost wholly feminine, and that blended curiously with his far-reaching contralto voice.
He pressed a bell by the mantelpiece.
“That’ll fetch Potter,” he said. “Potter’s the Head’s man, but the Head is good enough to lend him to us for meals. I daresay we’ll be alone. The rest won’t come before they have to.”
“Why do you, then?” enquired Speed, laughing a little.
“Me?—Oh, I’m the victim of the railway time-table. If I’d caught a later train I shouldn’t have arrived here till to-morrow. I come from the Isle of Man. Where do you come from?”
“Little place in Essex.”
“You’re all right, then. Perhaps you’ll be able to manage a week-end home during the term. What’s the Head put you on to?”
“Oh, drawing and music. And he mentioned commercial geography, but I’m not qualified for that.”
“Bless you, you don’t need to be. It’s only exports and imports…Potter, tea for two, please…And some toast…Public-school man yourself, I suppose.”
“Where, then, if you don’t object to my questions?”
After Potter had reappeared with the tea, he went on: “You know, Speed, we’ve had a bit of gossip here about you. Before the vac. started. Something that the Head’s wife let out one night when Ransome—he’s the classics Master—went there to dinner. She rather gave Ransome the impression that you were a bit of a millionaire.”
Speed coloured and said hastily: “Oh, not at all. She’s quite mistaken, I assure you.”
Pritchard paused, teacup in hand. “But your father is Sir Charles Speed, isn’t he?”
The assent was grudging and a trifle irritated. Speed helped himself to toast with an energy that gave emphasis to the monosyllable. After munching in silence for some minutes he said: “Don’t forget I’m far more curious about Millstead than you have any right to be about me. Tell me about the place.”
“My dear fellow, I”—his voice sank to a melodramatic whisper—“I positively daren’t tell you anything while that fellow’s about.” (He jerked his head in the direction of the pantry cupboard inside which Potter could be heard sibilantly cleaning the knives.) “He’s got ears that would pierce a ten-inch wall. But if you want to make a friend of me come up to my room to-night—I’m over the way in Milner’s—and we’ll have a pipe and a chat before bedtime.”
Speed said: “Sorry. But I’m afraid I can’t to-night. Thanks all the same, though. I’m dining at the Head’s.”
Pritchard’s eyes rounded, and once again he emitted a soft whistle. “Oh, you are, are you?” he said, curiously, and he seemed ever so slightly displeased. He was silent for a short time; then, toying facetiously with a slab of cake, he added: “Well, be sure and give Miss Ervine my love when you get there.”
Speed said after a pause: “What’s she like?”
Again Pritchard jerked his head significantly towards the pantry cupboard. “Mustn’t talk shop here, old man. Besides, you’ll find out quite soon enough what she’s like.”
He took up the Farmer and Stockbreeder and said, in rather a loud tone, as if for Potter’s benefit to set a label of innocuousness upon the whole of their conversation: “Don’t know if you’re at all interested in farming, Speed?—I am. My brother’s got a little farm down in Herefordshire…”
They chatted about farming for some time, while Potter wandered about preparing the long tables for dinner. Speed was not especially interested, and after a while excused himself by mentioning some letters that he must write. He came to the conclusion that he did not want to make a friend of Pritchard.
At a quarter to seven he sank into the wicker armchair in his room and gazed pensively at the red tissue-paper in the fire-grate. He had just a few minutes with nothing particular to do in them before going downstairs to dinner at the Head’s. He was ready dressed and groomed for the occasion, polished up to that pitch of healthy cleanliness and sartorial efficiency which the undergraduate of not many weeks before had been wont to present at University functions of the more fashionable sort. He looked extraordinarily young, almost boyish, in his smartly cut lounge suit and patent shoes; he thought so himself as he looked in the mirror—he speculated a little humorously whether the head-prefect would look older or younger than he did. He remembered
Out in the corridor and in the dormitories and down the stone steps various sounds told him, even though he did not know Millstead, that the term had at last begun. He could hear the confused murmur of boyish voices ascending in sudden gusts from the rooms below; every now and then footsteps raced past his room and were muffled by the webbing on the dormitory floor; he heard shouts and cries of all kinds, from shrillest treble to deepest bass, rising and falling ceaselessly amid the vague jangle of miscellaneous sound. Sometimes a particular voice or group of voices would become separate from the rest, and then he could pick up scraps of conversation, eager salutations, boisterous chaff, exchanged remarks about vacation experiences, all intermittent and punctuated by the noisy unpacking of suit-cases and the clatter of water jugs in their basins. He was so young that he could hardly believe that he was a Master now and not a schoolboy.
The school clock commenced to chime the hour. He rose, took a last view of himself in the bedroom mirror, and went out into the corridor. A small boy carrying a large bag collided with him outside the door and apologised profusely. He said, with a laugh: “Oh, don’t mention it.”
He knew that the boy would recount the incident to everybody in the dormitory. In fact, as he turned the corner to descend the steps he caught a momentary glimpse of the boy standing stock-still in the corridor gazing after him. He smiled as he went down.
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