Authors: Michael Innes
Tags: #Hare Sitting Up
‘A hare sitting up?’ Toby asked. ‘And nobody with a gun?’
‘The beast will degenerate,’ Arthur said. ‘Nothing to bolt from.’
‘And there’s a good deal more of it,’ Gavin went on. ‘Birkin is fanatical. He says he would be ready to die like a shot, to know that the earth would really be swept clean of people. The question is: is there a real mentality like that, or is Lawrence just making it up?’ He turned to Juniper, as if in direct challenge. ‘What do you think, sir?’
‘I think that Birkin is putting in rather a tall order. In point of discrimination, I mean. You remember that we were talking about that? Well, it seems that nowadays getting rid of the human beings wouldn’t be too difficult. But I’m not so sure about sparing the hare, or even the grass.’
‘Who cares?’ Jean asked. ‘A lot of
Women in Love
is quite terrific. But Birkin on the hares and the grass is sentimental tosh. I remember Bertrand Russell doing a radio talk about the bomb, and saying something about the innocent birds and trees. Perhaps there are people with whom that sort of thing goes home. But – although, as it happens, I’m rather keen on birds – I’m not one of them. This strikes me as a human world, or nothing.’ Jean paused, as if uncertain about her own logic. ‘Alice, what do you think?’
‘About Birkin in the novel? I remember him as quite harmless. A harmless bore. Nobody who poured out that sort of talk would ever be a danger to anybody. There’s a place in the book where some irritated female hits him over the head with a paperweight or something. But all he does in reply is to go out and climb a hill and take his clothes off and roll in the flowers. Ferdinand the Bull couldn’t be more innocuous.’
‘But if this Birkin,’ Toby said, ‘believed himself to be an out-and-out do-gooder, full of an exalted love of, and belief in, humanity? If he was a type who is quite noisy in
way – but really because he is smothering a still small voice inside himself that is taking the corrupt ash and apples of Sodom line–’
‘Over-compensating,’ Alice interrupted happily. ‘Then, of course, he’d be a frightful danger. Birkin mustn’t have the bomb.’
about the bomb,’ Toby said. ‘The interesting – and perhaps daunting – fact is precisely
Juniper looked at Toby curiously. He still felt that this long-limbed lounger was, intellectually, the pick of the bunch. ‘How do you make that out?’ he asked.
‘There’s something that all the little books, and all the little lectures, tell you about Lawrence. He was a prophet. Wasn’t somebody talking about Bertrand Russell? Well, he says that Lawrence had developed the whole philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it. And with the bomb, you see, it’s rather the same. Nobody had dreamed of anything that could wipe out the human race–’
‘Martians,’ Arthur interrupted. ‘There was already lots of science fiction of that sort.’
‘Well, yes – but that’s a special case, and merely fantastic. My point is that here is Lawrence’s Birkin brooding over the image of something which comes within the bounds of sober possibility thirty years later. I don’t like it. I’m not sure it doesn’t frighten me.’
‘Of course,’ Alice said, ‘it might be a sort of dream-prophecy, all disguised and inside out. It may really be the hares that are wiped out. There was that disease that nearly annihilated the rabbit.’
,’ Toby said robustly, ‘brings up another topic. Bacteriological warfare. Cheaper by a long way, I imagine. But whether it can be used so as not to bounce, I don’t know.’ He looked across the compartment at Juniper. ‘Have you any information on that, sir?’
For a moment there was the effect of a full stop. Juniper realized that he must have spoken abruptly.
‘I imagine,’ Alice said, ‘that it’s even more hush-hush than bombs. If it really exists.’
‘I think it exists,’ Juniper said, more mildly. ‘In fact, I have a brother who has some information about it. But he never makes it a subject of discussion. No doubt that’s because it’s as hush-hush as can be.’
‘And perhaps,’ Jean said, ‘because it’s about the very nastiest thing that can be thought of? Just as an idea, it seems even nastier than the bomb.’
Juniper nodded. ‘I quite agree. At a first glance, the possibility of responsible scientists lending themselves to such investigations seems merely fantastic. And yet one can see how it is. The threat is judged to exist. Means of defence against it must be considered. And so the field, the area of study and experiment, is established.’
‘And something else is established too.’ Jean’s voice shook a little. ‘That we really are the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’
Once more there was the slightly awkward pause that Jean was apt to induce. Alice turned quickly to Arthur. ‘Jonathan Swift again,’ she said kindly. ‘That Balliol man.’
‘God be with you, Balliol men,’ Gavin quoted solemnly.
They all laughed quickly. Only Juniper – perhaps because he was not young and no longer much subject to the sudden touch of cold fear – alone remained grave.
‘Swift on the vermin is all right,’ he said. ‘But Shakespeare’s more succinct.’
‘Yes, sir?’ Arthur Ferris, as if suddenly reminded of old pupillary days at Splaine Croft, had turned to him expectantly.
‘It’s a simple statement about self-destruction and the evil in the heart of man:
Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.
I can’t remember who is speaking – and it’s not important. What the lines carry does seem to me important, and I’ve often been haunted by them.’
Everybody looked at Juniper curiously – as if after this he must have something more to say. But he remained silent. And presently, as the train ran into Paddington, he did no more than exchange a few words with Ferris as an old Splaine boy. He knew that the talk of these casual travelling companions, unlike the lines from
Measure for Measure
, would soon pass out of his head. He knew that he would probably never again set eyes on Toby, Arthur, and the rest of them. But for a little time, at least, the encounter had disturbed him.
And he knew that it was because he had mentioned his brother – had fingered, in his own mind, an area where a great uneasiness lay.
He took a taxi across to Waterloo – although the tube would have been quite as quick. The taxi provided the feeling, if not the reality, of haste. And he didn’t want to look at London, still less to run into any London acquaintance. He just wanted to get quickly to Splaine Croft. It was neurotic, he knew, his recurrent sense of the place as a refuge – precisely as neurotic as the disposition that worried him in his brother. If he really gave the impulse rein, he would be in as desperate a case as those obsessional scholars who scarcely dare venture out of the great womb-like museums and libraries. Whereas Splaine wasn’t really a bit like that. It was a place where quite an aggressively creative job was done – both on young bodies and young minds. Even now, in the middle of the holidays, there would be things to tackle as soon as he got back there. If it spelt anything, it spelt sanity. That, for him, was its governing idea – that, or it failed him utterly. So it would be a pity, after just these three days at Oxford, to make his return to that sanity by a route that took him, so to speak, right round the bend.
The trouble, of course, was this family complex, as it must be called. Look how it had been touched off on the train. And needlessly, likely enough. As so often before.
But although he had taken a taxi from Paddington to Waterloo, he walked – comfortably enough, with no more than his outsize briefcase – from Splaine Junction to the school. He liked particularly the short tramp through the village. Tiny though the place was, there might be half a dozen people with whom to pass a confident time of day. He liked the smell of the smithy – a smell that still came straight out of childhood. He liked, in the window of the dairy, the enormous and highly polished milk can that never ceased to enchant the boys when they came down to spend their pocket money. It had an elaborately engraved inscription:
Special Cows kept for Invalids and Infants.
There was a tradition of daring new boys to go in and ask if they might see the special cows. Juniper supposed that once the special cows must really have existed – for commercial ballyhoo had been only in its infancy when that legend had been engraved on the shining metal. But what had been special about them? There was a real subject for research in that.
Juniper turned through the lodge gates and gave a wave to Currill, the groundsman, who was putting in a little work in his own neat garden. The roof of the school – a pleasant tumble of quite spurious Tudor gables – appeared for a moment through a gap in the trees. Then it vanished until Juniper came round the last sweep of the drive. He heard boys’ voices from one of the broad tiled verandas. Yes, there they were, the little holiday crowd: three regulars whose parents were in Africa or the Far East – distinguishable by their regulation blue corduroy shorts and windcheaters – and along with them eight or nine holiday visitors, recruited to help with the overheads. But recruited, too, to keep the place alive other than at the purely economic level. Splaine Croft was a dismal place without boys: a slightly vulgar Edwardian country house degraded into a derelict barracks. But when the boys were there, you didn’t notice how the once handsome appointments had been kicked to bits – or you didn’t notice, provided you had a taste for boys mucking around. In term- time there were seventy-eight of them. And almost all the time, they seemed to be tumbling about in form-rooms or corridors or the stable-yard or the playing fields. There couldn’t be less regimentation anywhere in England. It was surprising that they did rather well.
The boys playing on the veranda looked up only for a moment as Juniper climbed the steps to the front door. They knew that the headmaster, although a noticing sort of person, hadn’t much fancy for being noticed; he preserved with his pupils, precisely as he did with his staff, the sort of courteous aloofness into which some men grow with middle age. So, entirely unselfconsciously, the boys went on with their game. They were playing marbles.
No doubt – Juniper thought as he opened the door and stepped into the familiar cavernous hall – there were prep schools at which marbles would be terribly infra dig. But not here. Every year they had their regular two weeks craze before being succeeded by something else. What usually came after marbles was lead bombs.
Yes – bombs. Juniper frowned as he remembered his railway journey. But at Splaine Croft a bomb meant a species of plummet at the end of a string, cut horizontally in two to permit the insertion of the sort of cap commonly fired in a toy pistol. You let the bomb drop sharply on a hard surface, and a satisfactory explosion was the result. Splaine boys had never heard real bombs drop. They were too young. But that didn’t hold of boys of public-school age, and still less of his late travelling companions. Among people of that generation one must occasionally meet, without being aware of it, young men and women who, as small children, had seen parents or brothers or sisters–
Juniper didn’t continue the thought. There were matters in his own experience that must excuse his turning ostrich from time to time. I am a schoolmaster now, he told himself, with a defined and compassable constructive job. Of course, it’s a job among the savages – for what are small boys if not that? And savages like a big bang, or at least a middle-sized one in a lead plummet. Or do they? Isn’t it a compulsion, rather than a liking? In Oxford, only the day before, he had made the acquaintance of a master from a large midland grammar-school. And this man had told him that almost the only thing the common run of older boys now read is war books. Fictionalized accounts of war in the jungle, of savage guerilla fighting, of men driven to starvation and the verge of madness in prison camps: these easily headed the list. Pleasure was an ambiguous word, surely, to apply to what they got from such stuff. It looked as if the little boys with their bombs and the big boys with their paperbacks were alike trying to get rid, in fantasy, of kinds of fear, of horror, lodged – well, say lodged obstinately by this time in the consciousness of the race…
A schoolmaster, he repeated to himself. That’s me. Plain Miles Juniper, responsible for these boys, and doing what I can. Perhaps one can tutor it out of them: the fear and what plants it there – the darkness in the heart of man. It’s not a very good bet. But try it.
A bell clanged harshly above the stables.
The bell clanged as usual. In term-time the racket made by the seventy-eight boys would have increased for a moment as if challenged by it – and then there would have been a quick diminuendo as the assistant masters emerged from common room and took charge. But now it was merely calling the holiday bunch to tea. And there were no masters left at the school; only a couple of undergraduates doing a holiday job in order – Juniper suspected – to buy themselves unnecessary luxuries, or to be able to go off to Switzerland and break their legs at Christmas. But they were nice enough lads, and they had plenty of time for reading, supposing them to be inclined that way. A small domestic staff – skeletal, invisible, and entirely competent – ran the place. Apart from that, there was only the school secretary, old Miss Grimstone. And here she was – arthritic and myopic but formidable – emerging from her den-like office.
‘A visitor,’ Miss Grimstone said. ‘Mr Clwyd.’
Juniper looked rather warily at the secretary. There was always a ring of challenge in her ancient voice.
‘Mr what?’ he asked.
‘C-L-W-Y-D. He was most anxious to spell it out. I suppose he’s a prospective parent.’
‘We don’t often get Welsh boys at Splaine.’
Miss Grimstone shook her head. ‘Well, at least he’s not discernibly Welsh. And I only suppose that he’s a parent. He seems a little old for it. A grandfather, perhaps, and thinking of making advance payments by covenant.’ Miss Grimstone gave a low chuckle. She was one eminently well-informed on the financial aspect of private education.