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The Artificial Wilderness

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At the start of each year he been entrusted with a baseball team's worth of antique princes, and two dozen or so others — some students are too dull to entertain his interest or expend much effort off of the football field, other boys come to him already finished, with no further development destined in the cards for either athleticism or intellect and no point in hacking back the old growth. That kind of student has already fossilized; they'll return in twenty years as the same bigoted dullards they were at fifteen, ready to see off their own sons. But a handful of these boys are princes not only because of who their parents are, but by dint of what their leisure affords them — not only schooling but an education. For now, they're his. The rest don't matter.

(In 1942, Rupert Cadell will say with some pride that his occupation is teaching boys how to think.)

*

It had been a miracle he had ever found time to teach at all, with Brandon in his orbit — Brandon, who put a premium on being witty rather than wise and who might be commonly said to have a smart mouth, emerging from the woodwork at all hours to borrow a book or to ask Cadell's opinion on some point of translation. Phillip's presence makes more an afterthought than anything; even a three-year campaign of gentle prompting hasn't been enough to coax him out of his shell of gentle diffidence, but there are flashes of something underneath, when he and the Shaw boy have gone at it in the past, that would have made men tremble. He'd have been an asset to the debate society, if they could wrangle him out from under his friend's thumb.

Cadell is not as young as he once was. Brandon offers to walk back with him after Friday night supper — it isn't a long way, nor a particularly late night, so the gesture can only be interpreted as one of Shaw's routine ploys — wanting to be seen in the company of his dashing housemaster and yet also to be alone.

The pavements are wet, and Brandon can't restrain himself from running on ahead, as if daring him to catch up. Cadell keeps a sober pace with his collar turned up, and wonders for a moment if he shouldn't be seeing double.

"Strange seeing you without Phillip. I thought the pair of you were thick as thieves."

"His mother's not well. I'd have gone with him, but she doesn't seem to like me much."

"Yes, I'd heard. About Mrs. Morgan, I mean." The woman doesn't care for Brandon's sense of humor, as he recalls. Typical of a certain kind of woman who can't stand the thought of a man getting the better of her.

"She says she's dying," Brandon says with mild interest, peeling off his sweater off over his head as he goes and stretching his strong arms expansively. "Phillip certainly seems to think so."

"Mm."

"She'd better hurry up, he's got another recital in November and she's spoiling all his practice."

He doesn't know why that is how he remembers Brandon for the next six years, handsome and flippant in wet weather, long arms linked behind his dark head.

*

The young men of Somerville talk of nothing but killing. The boys Cadell knows are no different. Remarkable that anyone receives any education at all with the student body so preoccupied, sharing dark prognostications about saboteurs and sympathizers. Rupert brings to the table suitable topics for discussion by young people — the death of Cato the Younger by emphatic disembowelment. Nietzsche's chancres, Napoleon's wallpaper, Nietzsche's Superman and the Germans' master race, Webster and Donne, Augustine and Heidegger, the war in general and in specific. Murder of wealthy widows, murder of ailing mothers and inconvenient fathers, murder of inexcusably rude first wives, murder of wholesome little schoolgirls, even the occasional organized slaying — murder is the most convenient lens for the examination of relationships, and for the unavoidable degradation of any and all social contracts, from murder in the cathedral to murder on the barroom floor.

Calling it murder is only putting a name to an impulse. The experience of repulsion and sympathy is as much an element of these boys' moral education as anything, and it's a damn sight better than endless variations on the theme of righteousness. Murder is a useful device — it serves as a refreshing social constant in a world that has largely given way to wholescale industrial slaughter. Not mere killing — a deserter might be killed — but a luxury good affording the ultimate convenience, that of neatly severing a social bond rather than untangling one. He is only giving voice to what it is they're all preoccupied with — death and snobbery. A little intellectual snobbery is healthy — it breeds robust personalities.

He lets Phillip Morgan read the newspapers in his office so his housemates can't disturb him — he's agreeably quiet without the morbid tendency to make conversation that so many of his fellows exhibit the moment they're alone with an older male acquaintance. Sipping brandy with a furrowed brow like a model in miniature of his own father — turning the pages so carefully that they don't rattle.

It could have been him or any of a dozen other difficult-to-like boys he has known since his own school days. The image stays in his memory like a tableau in a department store window, the boy and the window and the newspaper and the glass. Later Rupert will wonder if all that wasn't wrong somehow — the solitude and the closed door. But he hadn't thought of it then.

 

*

There exists a photograph of the Shaw coterie, all crowding around the low slate steps of their house with faces full of dire seriousness. The lowest and broadest step constitutes their sacrificial altar, to hear Brandon tell it, and more than one ankle has been sprained on that step by way of reverence. He'd written a meandering term paper on the symbolism of the sacrificial altar in the Old Testament, and then had dragged the theme over to Greek tragedy using half the same citations. He'd liked the image.

A series of absurd images in the midst of bristling wartime anxiety: David Kentley with flowers in his hair, hugging a souvenir guitar; fiery-eyed Phillip Morgan banging away on the piano during breakfast; Brandon, too sick for schoolwork and yet mysteriously not sick enough for a bed in the infirmary, lounging around in his pyjamas with a baseball mitt and a defleshed skull pillaged from the laboratory. Infrequent and catastrophic visits from girls; the crowd of them like a couple of geese, breaking into classrooms after dark and pouring out borrowed bottles on the worn steps, leaving opinionated old women to sweep up the trampled flowers and sponge away the spilled wine.

Rupert commits the year to memory with the unshakeable awareness that it may shortly be taken away from him: droning speeches given by cicada-song, afternoons under homely leaf-dropping trees or secured behind a locked door, Phillip Morgan's glittering sharpness and Brandon Shaw's good humor, gathered up into some storehouse of memory as a barricade against ignorance and brutality.

(There are other moments, ones he'll later call to mind and not know what to do with. Brandon drawn up close to light Phillip's cigarette, as the pair of them share a glance — Phillip's enormous dark eyes, Brandon's fixed consideration, each daring the other to blink. Phillip takes the first pull, and exhales smoke, smiling.

Long week-ends and tiresome lectures, side-by-side in dark earnestness, Brandon with one leg crossed over the other and with his arm slung across the seat next to him. Or Brandon's hand on the downy back of Phillip's neck, conspiratorial, as the pair of them scrutinize Marx's Capital. And what was so funny in the middle of chapel that it nearly brought Mr. Shaw to tears? And what was Phillip Morgan doing in Brandon Shaw's rooms so late after curfew? He holds up his ink-stained hands in perfect innocence: transcribing Chopin.)

*

Something has happened between them, after one of those long visits to Connecticut, the weekend before classes adjourn for Christmas. In Brandon it would be imperceptible were he not in gallingly high spirits already — but Phillip left school grounds in a typically withdrawn mood and has returned to them in a state of complete distraction, like a balloon with its string cut. His head is in the clouds. He loses his place in his lessons.

It isn't hard to tell that the pair of them have a secret. Phillip is the sensitive type, it could have been anything, alone in an empty house — a brush with a local girl and then a quarrel. A fistfight over a game of cards. Anything. There are innocent explanations, some more plausible than others.

Cadell is not as young as he once was, but he still knows what young men do amongst themselves. There were boys like that at his own school — and at Princeton, boys whose bad reputations followed fast behind them, sensitive boys with poor judgment and questionable habits.

Whatever may exist between these two boys cannot be condoned— but he cannot condemn it, not with a clear conscience. He cannot lecture on Leonardo and teach Phaedrus to the nation's best young minds all year long and then turn in the same breath to censure the exercise of those same principles under his own roof.

The other boys neither know nor care, which removes any objections on the basis of discipline. The red-blooded Davids of the world are too vigorously self-absorbed to take any notice of these things until they became flagrant offenses. It would be one thing if the pair of them were infamous, but in the atmosphere of undifferentiated affections and small cruelties there's not another soul who's intelligent enough to notice what they are doing for what it is. To call it by a name would be to risk making something ugly that could not have been more innocent, all with a word — when Cadell doesn't know. The question stands — whether a thing might be artistically justifiable for men of genius, for Shakespeare and Leonardo, and not for the common man. He won't resort to tedious talk about whether or not the homosexual can contribute to society in order to smoke them out — he won't patronize them. He only wants to be certain they know what it is they're doing.

*

The door is shut behind them — Cadell can't remember if he turned the lock.The newspaper lies folded on his desk, headlines pressed away from view. Phillip wears the sulky look of a caged animal — too-bright eyes, bracing against the far wall with his hands thrust insolently in his pockets. The boy knows he's on the brink of receiving a talking-to; better to be succinct and not harp on school spirit and public reputation.

"If you wanted something, you could have sent a note."

"I thought I'd catch you before the two of you made a break for it."

"Brandon's meeting a young lady at the station; I'll be catching up later. Have we done something wrong?"

"Oh no, no, nothing you should worry about. I only wanted to have a word with you — about the importance of not putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. There are other students who appreciate your company — haven't you found putting stock in just friendship gets stifling after a while?"

"Sir, I don't know what you mean. Haven't you ever had a favorite student?"

"You know I'd hate to put a damper on the spirit of inquiry, but I don't see how the topic's relevant to our present conversation."

Phillip turns away to face the bookcase, as if to look over the books, briefly manhandling an Italian glass paperweight. The light catches it in his hand, and casts a queer shadow on the far wall, a spidering shape shot through with light.

"What have you and Brandon been up to?"

Phillip's face is very white. On his slim white neck beneath the corner of his jaw is a bruise in the shape of a thumb.

"I think I'd better go, Rupert."

*

This wasn't the first time the pair of them had been suspected of some lesser offense — consider '41, John Milland's lectures on calculus. When the boy was still young enough to consider overt apple-polishing a worthwhile use of his time, Phillip had helped the old man type up his notes over the summer term of the year before — he always did have quick fingers. He might easily have passed on the key details to Brandon, willfully misplacing papers — or Brandon might have deliberately negotiated his own schedule to place himself in a particular instructor's path with improper knowledge of the man's pet theories and preferred solutions. Someone else on the school staff had referred to him the suspicion of misbehavior brewing, and he hadn't wanted to believe it — it would have been an awful lot of work for very little reward, a prank that a couple of brainy ten-year-olds could have pulled off. Far, far below what he would have expected from either boy. It wasn't so much the dishonesty Rupert minded as the smallness of it — it demonstrated no ambition. And for mathematics, which Brandon couldn't have cared less about, and neither could Phillip. It could only have been mischief for mischief's sake.

And then it hadn't been that at all. Dr. Milland had settled on a heavily revised syllabus, omitting certain equations entirely and inserting a half-dozen novel theorems — and Brandon had done beautifully regardless, he had demonstrated himself to be that rare bird among boys of sixteen, an original thinker.

Rupert has been wrong before.

To hell with speculation — he's never cared what other men think, which must be his chief luxury in life, being able to tutor these boys in isolation far from popular opinion or the meticulously reproduced prejudices of their parents. If liberties have been taken, behind closed doors, it's none of his business. The boys will stay.

In 1944, before Italy, he leaves for Brandon an inscribed copy of de Quincey's essays. It seems like an appropriate token of his remorse at having to leave them — a private joke and a testament to long afternoons that had bled into night, to wet weather and plane-trees, and more than a little a salute to misapprehensions.

*

Crossing the Po Valley, Cadell thinks of Dante's schisms. He carries Shakespeare in his pocket and dispenses sober utterances; he arranges rendezvouses with locals and restrains his contempt for fellow officers. None of it does him the slightest amount of good. As an officer, he finds himself once again governing a clique of young men, channeling their intellectual energies into intelligence work. He sees in them pale shadows of his own students — the same eyes and the same mannerisms, in the way they hold a cigarette or stick a finger into the pages of a closed book to keep their place. He thinks of all those boys more often than he'd admit, as he watches young men cutting a path through snow and stone, bleeding and dying, killing. There is little else to hold his interest.

The acquisition of an unimpressive war wound shortly before the end of hostilities is only the capstone in an unimpressive career in the armed forces. It couldn't be said which is the greater indignity in having gone to war and finding himself to be a pretty decent soldier, the blow to his pride or the injury done to his aesthetics. Let historians make the most of a bad matter; he can find nothing in the experience worth salvaging. Let it be done. After the war he wants nothing as much as a decade or two to play the man-about-town instead of the wise old sage. He's lost the stomach for teaching.