"The Man"

By T. H. White

"Come on, Nicky. Rouse out. Stir your stumps."

The handsome boy, lounging, all knees, in the cheap armchair, his forehead on his hands, his elbows on the wooden arms, reading a library book by Ruby M. Ayres, looked up resentfully. He said: "I want to finish this."

"Come along. You can finish it this evening. We've got to get a rabbit for Mrs. Creed."

He was seventeen. He hated the able, vigorous man of thirty, who was living with his mother. He did not know that he hated him. Nearly all the things which he felt seemed to be wrong, according to the people who surrounded him, so that, although his midriff hated the muscular man, and hated the arid chicken farm, and hated work, and hated his school, where he ought to be a prefect but was not, he hid these feelings and was ashamed of them and did not recognize them. For that matter, he hated himself. He wanted to slump in a chair and read himself away, into a less real world.

"Let me finish this chapter."

The man took the book off his knees and shut it firmly. He grinned at Nicky in a hearty way. He was one of those romping ex-officers who thought in terms of a rough house in the mess, and of beer poured into the piano. He could do all the things that Nicky could not do—was a good carpenter, chicken farmer, football player.

"You'll read yourself blind."

"Oh, God! All right then."

The boy unfolded his awkward, despised body, which he loathed on the grounds that his ears stuck out, and hauled himself up.

"Shall I bring the gun?"

"If you like. We'll leave some of the holes open."

They collected the ferret, which Nicky would have handled gingerly, but which the man lifted at once—red eyes and needle teeth and stink and little claws. There was the bunch of rabbit nets, like string shopping bags, with their wooden pegs, and the old twelve-bore hammergun, single-barreled, which was all the farm could afford. Among the many things which kept the boy's heart in despair was poverty. He was extremely proud. He wanted to be rich, successful, admired, a gentleman like his forebears, a great painter, a lover. But what he had was the wooden bungalow to live in, and sickly chickens with lice, to pluck and clean unhandily, and, worst of the lot, the agonizing duty of delivering these corpses, during the holidays, at the doors of richer friends who had been poorer than his grandparents.

The three fox terriers yapped and frenzied their tails, the bitch revolving hers like a lamb. Nicky's mother, who was reading a library book, her main occupation, called out to bring two rabbits—so that they could have one for supper.

They passed through the ramshackle wire door into the wood.

The big trees had been cut down in the war. Now there were only saplings and undergrowth, a few silver birches and small poplars, and patches of bracken with curly shoots in spring, like bishops' croziers.

"We'll try the bury on Huggett's side."

He walked behind the man, on the narrow path between the fronds, in a muddle of adolescence. He believed himself bad, guilty and contemptible for feeling what he felt. He ought to work harder. He ought not to shirk cleaning out the chicken houses. He ought not to hate washing up. He ought to be more of a help to his adored mother—who was sacrificing so much to keep him at a public school. She had told him what a martyr, what an uncomplaining, protecting angel she was. He ought not to dislike and dread the efficient, masculine man who lived with her, and who did most of the work of the farm, helping to keep him at the school. Above all, at the school, he ought not to be in love with Peter Lea, who was fourteen. It was platonic—it was an empty cathedral of love and protection in his heart—but he accepted it as being shameful. In chapel, when there were lessons about David and Jonathan or innuendos in the sermon, he blushed and blushed.

His mother—the daughter of a general whose wife was bent on a K.C.B.—had been born in the civilization which existed before the Kinsey reports. She did not know what Dr. Schwarz has since declared, that two-thirds of the married women so far investigated are sexually frigid. She knew nothing about things like that. She was frigid.

When she had refused half a dozen proposals in most of the colonies where her father served, and had reached the age of thirty, her own mother had said to her one day: "Helen, do you think your father has got to keep you all your life?" At the end of one of those under-expressed, unforgivable, steely quarrels which daughters have with their mothers, she had said: "Very well, I will take the next man who asks me." And she had. Nicky's father, a rather artistic major who tried to write short stories and played the piano at regimental concerts, had not had his feelings considered in the matter.

After Nicky was born, his mother had refused to admit the Major to her bed, filling it with a family of fox terriers instead of a husband—the ancestors of the ones now present. She had become a hypochondriac, an omnivorous reader and a daydreamer. His father had taken to drink.

This was in the days when it was possible to get a judicial separation in England instead of a divorce, under the terms of which a husband, without being able to marry again, was made to provide his wife with a proportion of his income as alimony, and could never see her. Nicky's mother had chosen this form of attrition, and had got the separation on the grounds of cruelty. She was a strong-brained woman, and a good enough actress to win the judge.

Now, when she was forty-eight, she was sharing her chicken farm with the ex-officer of thirty. The latter was a remote cousin and, for all anybody knew, the relationship was as platonic as Nicky's was with Peter Lea.

The boy walked behind the broad shoulders, envying them or fearing them, noticing with a kind of mental wince the double column of the strong neck and the crisp, curling, fair hair, and the broad, red hands on the end of milk-white forearms. Among other things, the man was a better shot than he was, and this too was a cause for self-contempt.

At the bury, the untrained terriers dashed about and dug and barked, while the two pegged the nets over most of the holes, leaving a few with a clear run in front of them for shooting. It was a keen autumn day—a day for burning leaves, and for blue smoke rising stilly in sharp air. The tang of the afternoon remembered the slight frost of the morning. The Kentish woodlands, gently folding their horizons, were tawny with deciduous trees and patched in black with conifers.

The ferret, thrust into one of the holes, popped out again at once, head up, its pink nose sniffling. It poured off along the bank, quick, noiseless, unpredictable—a small round-bodied, perambulating waterfall of yellow fur, bouncing eccentrically. It vanished again.

There was the usual wait.

Nicky knew he would miss, if a rabbit bolted: he knew he would. At his best, he could only kill two out of three. The man hardly ever missed. As usual, he was being damned condescending, letting Nicky have the gun instead of himself— he, the leader man, who walked first along paths. The boy cocked the aged gun, arms tense, certain to make him poke. The man, a beautiful shot, would not have pulled the hammer back until the gun was at his shoulder, in the act of making fire.

"Damn. I think he's laid up."

He watched, the gun pointing downward, while the man listened from hole to hole, chirping between his lips, imitating the squeaking Teee of a dying animal.

"We'll have to put a bell on him. Or we could run him on a line. Oh hell, we've forgotten the spade."

He watched while the man, ingenious, energetic, able, made thumping noises with the palm of his hand on the earth to imitate the thump of a doe. He hated him consciously now.

He hated him for being with his lovely mother, for being better at everything in his mother's eyes than he was, for being the mainstay of the farm, for being good and patient at all the things he loathed himself—at mixing mash and carrying water and collecting eggs and mucking out the filthy, ammoniac pens. He hated him for being stupid, for not reading books or listening to the Proms on the wireless or seeing the tones and colors of pictures. He hated him as a Philistine, as a male, obstinate, powerful bull of successful flesh, who could thrash him with one hand tied behind his back.

The man lay down at Nicky's feet, with his ear to a rabbit hole. The gun was pointing directly at the back of his neck. I can pull this trigger, he thought. Nobody will know it was not an accident. I can say it caught in a twig. Boys are always supposed to be having accidents like that. I can just act dumb. They couldn't prove anything. And I am a minor. They can't hang you if you are a minor. I could actually pull it with a twig, or with the button on my coat sleeve. There was the time when Lance fired off his gun into the ground when loading it. They think all boys have accidents.

He put his finger around the trigger.

But he did not pull it.

He was not the operational type.

It would have surprised Nicky very much indeed to know that the man was fond of him and dumbly admired him. The latter was thinking, as he lay on his face chirping down the rabbit hole, with the twelve-bore pointing at the base of his skull, how brilliant Nicky was at school, and what a future he had in front of him, and that it was important to keep this cursed chicken farm on foot, to give the boy a chance.

Copyright David Higham Associates, Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Reproduction of the material in this document without permission of the copyright owner is strictly prohibited.

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
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Revised Saturday, 28-Sep-2002 22:12:21 CDT.