At St. Stephen’s Academy, the students are on the verge of revolt. While the younger boys plot an insurrection, the older ones are preoccupied with sneaking out-of-bounds, thrashing each other, tearing each other’s clothes off—or some combination of the three. Morgan Wilberforce, for one, can’t take it any longer.
H. S. Cross has crafted an imaginative, ritualistic world of men and boys narrowly confined by tradition and authority. Wilberforce is an indelible portrait of a young man caught between lust and cruelty, grief and God, frustrated love and abject longing—and a tour de force that heralds the arrival of a brilliant new novelist. We’re pleased to share the first chapter from her new book.
Something was pressing the life out of him.
—He’s moving, Matron!
—Step aside, boys.
Something dragging him down, lead on ankles—
—If you can hear me, open your eyes.
Something brighter than the sun, brighter than—
Blinding, aching, twiddling his brains.
—Can you tell me your name?
A pain that swallowed every breath.
—Wilberforce. Morgan . . . Morgan . . .
The light retreated. Into focus gradually, Matron’s face:
—What day is it?
—And the date?
—February . . .
—I mean March.
—March . . . fifth.
Like dread in his ears.
—The Ides of March.
—What year is it?
He knew suddenly and wished he didn’t. He had nothing against the year 1926, yet it seemed sinister, as if whatever had caused this pain had also granted him a kind of—
—The Battle of Thermopylae?
This he knew, and said. Light clicked off. Matron frowned:
—You’ll survive, Morgan Wilberforce. Though I can’t imagine you’ll make the varsity if you keep smashing your skull about that way.
A throbbing, then, and a keen stabbing. Matron stepped aside, revealing Laurie in overcoat, Nathan muddy in rugby kit.
—You’ve gone mad, Nathan said.
—You were airborne! Laurie cried.
—Were you trying to kill him, or just yourself?
—Kill who? Morgan said.
—Spaulding, of course.
A wave of remembrance: the rugby pitch; Burton-Lee’s fullback, a powerful boy in the Sixth called Spaulding; the sluggish, timid performance from his own side; Morgan’s try blocked by Spaulding; then something in his mind clicking, like an electric plug seated into the mains, an animal sound from the pit of his stomach, and the charge across fifty yards of no-man’s-land, Spaulding in his sights as if nothing else existed in the world.
—What happened to Spaulding?
—Not a scratch, Laurie said.
—And afterwards . . . ?
—They crucified us, Nathan reported.
—That must have been quite a bump, Wilberforce. I’m sure you’d never use language like that in your right mind.
—Is his arm broken? Laurie asked.
—It went funny again, Laurie said. JP thought—
—I didn’t, Nathan retorted.
—They said you’d gone and—
—Thank you, Lydon, Matron said. You and Pearl had best be getting to tea.
Nathan and Laurie moved towards the door.
—Lucky duck, Laurie said, you won’t have to do the Plantagenet comp.
—I will eventually.
—He’s right, Nathan said. Grieves never lets him off anything.
Grieves never had and never would, the brute. But that wasn’t what was wrong. Was it? He looked to Matron, who was tying his arm in bandages.
—Can I go to tea, Matron?
—You’ll stay here the night, she said.
—But I’m all right.
She knotted the fabric and fixed him with a glare:
—First, young man, I’m quite fed up putting that arm of yours back into its socket.
—It’s the first time in forever, Matron.
—Twice in forever is twice too often.
He bit back protest.
—Second, the only way you’ll be taking part in rugby for the remainder of term will be as a spectator.
He struggled to sit up, but she held him against the mattress.
—I’m on the House XV, Matron! I—
—Furthermore, it is Friday the fifth of March, not Tuesday, not Wednesday, not the Ides.
—I know that now, Matron, I only—
—Last and finally, if you don’t lie still, drink your tea, and behave yourself, I shall have to be firm with you.
He tried again to sit up but failed, prisoner to his injuries.
—Matron, I’m . . .
Mental arithmetic, sluggish subtraction . . .
—I’m seventeen years old. I’m not—
He dried up before her fierce and familiar gaze. Confident in victory, she left him alone in the empty sanatorium, alone in unyielding defeat. The ache returned then, not from his arm or his head or the bruises across his person. This leaden ache had not been with him before. Before—an hour ago? Less?—he had been playing rugby football, feeling the air burn his lungs. Now in his mouth the aftertaste of blood, in his chest the dread of life turned ill, and in his bones the shock of impact—savage, fatal—with Spaulding.
H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and studied at Harvard University. Wilberforce is her debut novel. She has taught at Friends Seminary and lives in New York. Cross is at work on a new novel set at St. Stephen’s Academy.
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