H. S. Cross explores “a school as nuanced and secretive as J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts” (The Rumpus) in Grievous, a return to the world of her acclaimed coming-of-age novel Wilberforce. The book is set in 1931 at St. Stephen’s Academy, a world unto itself, populated by boys reveling in life’s first big mistakes and men still learning how to live with the consequences of their own. They live a cloistered life, exotic to modern eyes, founded upon privilege, ruled by byzantine and often unspoken laws. Yet within those austere corridors can be found windows of enchantment, unruly love, and a wild sort of freedom, all vanished, it seems, from our world. Told from a variety of viewpoints—including that of unhappy Housemaster John Grieves—Grievous takes us deep inside the crucible of St. Stephen’s. In the following excerpt, one of the boys, Gill, convinces the others to put on a play.
—We’ll give a play.
It was the third day of term. Guilford Audsley had not memorized the timetable. He hadn’t mastered what was to be worn when and how, who could be addressed and in what manner. He hadn’t even purged his vocabulary of bogus slang. The moratorium on dockets would end in a week.
—We’ll do no such thing, Gray Riding replied.
—An historical drama about the Wright brothers. You write it, I’ll do the rest. We’ll use the goggles!
Gray’s head spun with objections:
—We don’t have a theater.
—We don’t need a theater!
They’d give a play in two acts, Gill declared, Act One in the woodshop, Act Two on the playing fields. Gray explained that the Academy had never even had a dramatic society, let alone a play. What’s more, clubs were required to apply a term in advance for permission. The more impediments he presented, the more determined Gill became. Gray realized too late that he should have stopped at no, that once debate began, the battle had been lost. Still, he couldn’t stop explaining—habit? desperation?—the stupidity of getting on the wrong side of authorities and the sorrow that a reputation for keenness would bring them both. Never was a discourse delivered more in vain. Trevor had listened to warnings when they mattered, but Gill remained impervious to reason and indifferent to disapproval. Was this what it meant to be Struck, Gill incapable of rest until the idea worked its purpose out?
To Gray’s dismay, their Housemaster thought it a fine idea. Gray stared at the chevrons on the carpet as Grieves and Audsley discussed it. Gill claimed to have met Mr. Grieves in the holidays, a tale too farfetched to take literally. Guilford didn’t strike him as an outright liar, so it was possible that he’d encountered Grieves at the seaside somewhere, but as to the claim that Grieves had played games and laughed to tears . . . Gray supposed absurd exaggeration had to be expected from actors.
Grieves having failed to kill off the idea, Gray resigned himself to short-term humiliation. Obviously the play would never happen, but in the meantime, as Gill tried and failed to roust up a company, they would be pariahs. Gray refused to perform, but Gill assured him they’d be flooded by hopefuls once word got out. Only a painful collision with reality would change Gill’s mind, so Gray decided to leave him to it and meantime to conserve his energies for the other trials of term, such as this evening’s unwelcome errand, parley with their Latin master, Mr. Burton-Lee (the Flea).
Burton-Lee had invited each boy in the Lower Sixth to his study by appointment to retrieve their holiday tasks. There, according to Legs, who had gone after lunch, they received their Virgil translations, scarred bloody with markings, and were subjected to a harangue on the subject of the Sixth Form. Gray braced himself, but instead of the promised assault, Burton-Lee launched into a tirade about Gray’s studymate, whose acquaintance he had already made. The Flea thought very little of Audsley’s skill in Latin—
—If such gross ignorance could be called skill!
And he entertained himself detailing Gill’s shortcomings. Gray saw that his studymate had already become known to the Common Room in a way it was never good to be known.
Gray saw that his studymate had already become known to the Common Room in a way it was never good to be known.
—Kindly remove that expression from your face, Riding. Audsley is your responsibility, is he not?
He was, but what Gill’s attainment in Latin had to do with his Keeper was a matter beyond Gray’s comprehension. Did the Flea expect him to tutor the Messenger? Or had he bored himself with the usual diatribes and turned to Gray’s studymate as a sort of novelty?
—And now I hear the rumor, surely false, that you and Audsley propose to mount some sort of music hall extravaganza?
There it was.
—A play, sir.
Why hadn’t he seen it coming?
—I beg your pardon, a play. A comedy?
The Flea received the information like a box of chocolates.
—A drama. Fascinating!
The Flea occupied the remaining minutes before Prep in florid contemplation of the scheme. (Would he never learn? Though, should he have denied it?) The man’s tactics were calibrated to perfection; he’d used them for years, on Gray and everyone. Each twinge felt idiotically familiar, and as he stood on the Flea’s carpet, his mind regarded the scene from a distance. This man knew nothing of who he really was, of who wrote to him and what she wrote, of who shared his study and where he came from. Grieves had given permission for the play, so this man had no power to stop it. His barbs fell to the floor like needles hurled at granite. He, Gray, was bigger than this man. He would leave the school one day, and he would write what he would, stories, plays, even poems if Struck. Tonight the Flea laughed him to scorn, but every word fueled a resolve newly lit: to do what this man hoped to shame him from doing, to write this play, to stage it, and even, if necessary, to play a role himself.
The Prep bell rang, and he departed. There were urgent things to discuss with Gill: scenes, casting, lists material. He found him by the chapel in conversation with cheeky Halton. Gray told Halton to bog off and reminded Gill not to speak to the Lower School. More important was the play. He knew how it should start. He knew who to recruit and how.
—I’ll tell you what! Gill exclaimed. That boy is perfect for Icarus.
—Yes! You know it’s true . . . Yes.
• • •
—Tread the boards? Crighton balked. What’s that supposed to mean?
Moss explained Audsley’s proposal. Their Housemaster had, ludicrously and without taking his prefects’ advice, given Audsley and Riding permission to stage a play. This much Crighton knew, and his views on the folly had been aired. Nevertheless, Moss noted that Audsley had already persuaded thirteen boys to join the project, thirteen from diverse years and Houses. The only thing Audsley lacked was two men of their stature, senior prefects, to play Orville Wright and Daedalus.
—I hope you didn’t encourage him, Crighton said.
—You’ve got to admit it’d be a lark.
Crighton set aside the rota he was drafting and fixed his attention on Moss.
—Oh, don’t start, Moss said, laughing.
But Crighton began to lecture, in the way they’d always lectured one another in the firm loyalty of friendship: Moss was not to consider touching Audsley’s play. In the first place, his duty as Head Boy forbade it.
—Don’t see how. It’s licit.
And in the second place, there was the dignity of office.
—Audsley promised the parts would be dignified.
In the third place, Moss should on no account entangle himself in anything that might later become awkward in a personal sense.
—Don’t be pi. I’m only looking.
Crighton had nothing against looking, and no one denied Audsley was worth looking at, but looking could be done from a distance, a distance Moss would do well to keep. Especially given the alleged enrollment of Halton, T.
—Is that what this is about? It’s finished, Crikey, done and dusted.
—That’s what you said last term, and then we had the pot-mess with Wilberforce.
—After which he tried for dockets every day.
—And this term? Not one.
—Yet, Crighton said.
Moss fetched their flask:
—All right, yet.
They drank and spoke of other things, of others worth the look, of their fellow prefect Mac and his tiresome fervor, of their Housemaster and his unwonted good cheer, of their rivals and enemies, of every wicked force impeding life’s enjoyment. The school was different that term, they agreed. Not as different as it had been when Dr. Sebastian came, yet different nonetheless. Crighton discoursed on borrowed robes not cleaved to their mold, but Moss thought the change went beyond their new posts and belonged to the atmosphere general. They had a pretty fag who knew how to make toast. Grieves had begun to smile as though he meant it. And now the creature Audsley wanted to stage a play. Something in their midst, or in the flask, gave force to the truth, that a play would be a winsome diversion and furthermore that it would offend those they both enjoyed offending. For example, the Flea. For example, Mac, who resented anything that took time from Games.
Something in their midst, or in the flask, gave force to the truth, that a play would be a winsome diversion and furthermore that it would offend those they both enjoyed offending.
At the bottom of the flask, Crighton wavered: Everything Moss had said was true, but could they really afford to partake?
How could they not? Moss retorted. It was the only way to stop Audsley and Riding from going overboard with the thing. The reputation of the House was at stake.
—Oh, all right, Crighton said, I’ll do it. But don’t think you can have Audsley all to yourself.
—Where would be the fun in that?
But Audsley, as it happened, seemed impervious to lust, so fervent was his devotion to the play. He spoke of Rehearsal as Pearce spoke of the Mass. Not satisfied with the mere memorization of parts, Audsley demanded that they respond to unexpected provocations in the manner of their characters. This he termed Improvisation, and at this they labored, almost as Morgan had taught them on the Colt’s XV—rigorous practice and anticipation of any play, all put out of mind for the actual match. Moss felt Morgan and Audsley would see eye to eye on many things, not least that practice tilled the ground for something new.
Audsley illustrated the point—if reports could be believed—on the night of the Fourteens’ Health Lecture. Tradition dictated every boy at the Academy spend one gruesome hour per annum listening to Kardleigh explain the facts of life. Tradition also dictated they be segregated by age, not form, a point Riding protested bitterly, if vainly, each year. Thus, Audsley had attended the lecture with the Fifteens on Tuesday, while Riding, who was still fourteen, had to wait until Thursday. That night without his Keeper, Audsley had come under attack. (Moss was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner; Audsley’s eccentricity and lack of shame were two sins the Academy never failed to punish.) Several of the House XV had swarmed Audsley, boxing him into a storage cupboard and going at him with a cricket stump.
—But then, Leslie said, he wriggled free with some double-jointed mumbo jumbo, coveted another stump, and whacked his way out to the gym.
It sounded flamboyant, leaping across benches with arcane exclamations, but not only did it beat off the XV, it seemed also to have won the House and the entire Fifth to Audsley’s side.
—Prout’s always thought a lot of his fencing, Leslie said, but Audsley showed him a thing or two.
It was a crying shame the Wright brothers had no swords . . . But now that the play had become chic, the only difficulty was when to rehearse. Audsley squeezed minor characters into their breaks, but as the performance neared, it became clear that the principals needed more time, a problem Moss had been asked to consider.
—God only knows what Wilberforce would say, Crighton quipped.
—He’d have everyone down to the study after lights-out.
Crighton laughed. Moss didn’t.
—I dare you! Crighton said.
Moss was Head Boy; he could hardly dare. But Audsley and Riding were in his dorm, so no one would object if they came to bed late. The only difficulty was Pearce, who had Halton and the Turtle in his.
—If you do it, Crighton said, I’ll get us a bottle of Usher’s next exeat.
It would take dedication to convert Pious Pearce, but an easy dare was no dare at all, and the stuff in their flask tasted like turpentine.
The first obstacle, Moss determined, was Mac. In his first days as Captain of Games, Mac had unveiled an elaborate scheme for extra practices, and he’d been infuriated when neither the House prefects nor Grieves would support it. Moss had tried a range of tactics—flattery, misdirection, humor—but nothing had soothed him. Mac had even requested an audience with the Head, a meeting Moss had attended as much to bridle Mac as to hear for himself what the Head would say. Dr. Sebastian had offered them tea and allowed Mac to make his case. He then delivered a firm and final No. The Academy was not Marlborough or Rugby or even Sedbergh, he explained; it was a small school, and while Games were essential—mens sana—it also valued study, prayer, and fellowship. Too much of one, the Head informed them, was unhealthy, and furthermore damaging to other concerns. Aurea mediocritas led not, the Head assured them, to mediocrity but to greatness.
Unfortunately for their peace, the interview only fired Mac’s zeal. Now, a fortnight later, the First XV were returning from practice exhausted and grim, rumblings of discontent could be heard in the changer, and Mac increasingly invoked the Great Wilberforce: Oh, people had listened to the Captain of Games then! Wilberforce had cared! Moss left the room when Mac began to rant. Mac harped endlessly about the honor of the House, but Moss felt sure that the only honor Mac cared about was his own. Wilberforce’s caring was never about himself and not even especially about Games. It was about the boys and what they could become. Even Pearce understood this.
All of which was why Mac could never know of illicit play practices and why Moss had to persuade Pearce—who loved rules as much as the Bible—not only to overlook lateness in Halton and Malcolm tertius, but also to engage in a bit of suppressio veri with his studymate.
Moss used his lightest touch: praise for confirmation lessons, mention of Wilberforce, a chummy promise to keep Halton in line. Did Pearce have more sense than Moss gave him credit for, or was the atmosphere general smiling on their venture, bringing them life abundant? Moss had no idea how it happened, but Pearce agreed, Mac remained ignorant, and rehearsals proceeded apace.
• • •
Rehearsals were the first good thing to happen in a dog’s age, Halton thought, like the rains that followed the African drought. In rehearsal, Audsley would get the look Miranda got, but unlike Halton’s sister, Audsley had an ear for other people’s ideas. It was important to offer your suggestion lightly, as if it meant nothing. If Audsley approved, he’d absorb it with Yes, exactly! If not, he’d let it fade away with a gentle Perhaps.
First you learn to spell a little bit . . . That tune Audsley sang stuck in his mind like tar on a shoe, playing like a wireless when he ought to be giving his attention to prep. Though the process may be slow to you, knowledge of the world will flow to you . . . What use were sums and parsings when Guilford Audsley walked amongst them? During rehearsals, Moss became Orville to Audsley’s Wilbur, brothers, rivals, egging each other on, Moss grinning through Audsley’s soft-shoe in the workshop scene.
They’d flown in a biplane one time across the Rift Valley, and now he was zooming over the grasses like the pilot Riding played. The pilot was French, lines gibberish, but he could hear the whole speech. He was speaking perfect French, and he was singing and composing, the whole like Stanford sung by the soloist at St. Paul’s.
He awoke drenched in sweat. It was dark, Pearce asleep. He gulped water from the tap and then stole downstairs, out of the House, and up to the choir room. There by torchlight, he tapped the upright piano and drew notes for words he didn’t know.
He was skittish the next day and earned fifty lines from the Flea for inattention. He almost welcomed the three-mile run they were forced to undergo that muggy afternoon, but once he’d recovered, queasiness set in. Prep passed too quickly, Prayers even faster. He got ready for bed and lingered in the toilet, but there was no avoiding it. He steeled himself for study number six.
• • •
Halton looked ill, and Gray hoped it wasn’t catching. As they set the furniture for the workshop scene, Halton’s manner grew furtive; this suggested a scheme, or perhaps guilt as it had lately emerged that Halton was one step away from extra-tu, which would remove him from afternoon rehearsals and thus seriously compromise the lakeshore scene. There wasn’t time to find out since Gill declared the flying scene needed more dialogue to cover the costume change, and he packed Gray off to Moss’s study to write it. When Gray returned with the requested lines, he found Gill, Moss, Crighton, and the Turtle crammed into the window seat, staring at Halton, who looked as though he was about to blub.
—It was only a joke, Halton said.
Gray couldn’t recall ever seeing Guilford dumbstruck, but there was a first, he supposed, for everything.
Gray couldn’t recall ever seeing Guilford dumbstruck, but there was a first, he supposed, for everything.
—Where, Gill finally managed, did you get that?
Halton now looked light-headed.
—You wrote that?
—Has Kardleigh heard it? the Turtle asked.
—I didn’t mean it—
—Sing it again.
—Shut up and sing.
Halton ran a sleeve across his face and with a waver began:
Ici le ciel est clair
Ne fut si lumineux
Ne fut si vaste, si vaste
He pressed air through his throat as through the finest instrument, the muscles in his mouth and chest working perfect control, perfect resolve. He was singing the pilot’s part, Gray’s part, from Courrier Sud, and Gray knew what was coming, the precious mail, more precious than life itself to thirty thousand lovers. Patience, lovers! In the fires of sunset we come to you! How had Halton made this, from a book found by fluke? They stared as the boy chewed a hangnail.
—Who’ll sing it? Gill asked. You or Riding?
—Riding has to, Crighton said. He’s le pilote.
—I don’t sing.
—You sing in church.
—Not like that.
—I know! Gill said. Can you write a second part? A harmony?
—Well, Halton said, there’s a descant.
—There’s a bloody descant!
—I was only joking—
When Halton finished, Gill threw his hands in the air:
—There’s our closing.
—What do you call this thing? Moss asked.
Halton mumbled until Crighton clipped him round the ear.
—Only Darwall’s 148th with a few adaptations.
—F’what? Crighton said. Speak English.
And so Halton rattled on about hymn tunes, a subject that had never crossed Gray’s mind, how the tunes themselves had names and could be used with more than one text, depending on line lengths and meter and—
—So you recut Riding’s monologue, forced the meter, found a tune that fit, and composed around it?
—He’s a freak of nature, Crighton declared.
—Our freak, Moss replied.
—Listen, Gill said gravely. Do you have any more of these?
—Songs, in your head?
Halton swallowed and Gill stared at him, feux du soir.
—Write them, he said. Write them.
H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard and has taught at Friends Seminary, among other schools. Her debut novel, Wilberforce, was published by FSG in 2015.