Actions

Work Header

Individually Incalculable

Work Text:

Dozens of other boys in the Coll. had life stories identical to Vesey's. They were born in India to officer fathers, and somehow escaped being sent back to England for their health until their parents felt their real schooling couldn't wait any longer. They had spent their winters in the same bustling cities and their summers in the same shady, wooded towns. Some of them had even known him there, but they would not know him here, where the many things that made him like them were dwarfed by the one thing that set him apart.

Vesey's mother wasn't English, or even a semi-respectable French or Russian. And while the whispers that a black boy was joining the school were as exaggerated as their source was impossible to pin down, Vesey was easy to pick out of the crowd of boys coming off the train. The clues in his appearance were subtle, mostly -- the black of his hair a matte, newsprint black, the heavy matching brows, the tan of his skin meaningless among a hundred boys just back from sunny summer holidays. Things acceptable in themselves, but damning in combination with the quietly exotic lines of his features.

Stalky, Beetle and M'Turk had better things to do (so they said) than watch the train come in, but their return to the school, suspiciously grubby and smelling of the rich Devon soil, coincided neatly with the of the boys making their way from the station. M'Turk grabbed Manders Minor by the shoulder and pulled him to the side. "What's the fuss?" he asked, motioning with his chin to the place a few yards away where Vesey was being given a wide berth when the other boys weren't taking it in turns to dart in and shove him.

"It's that boy there," said Manders, clearly pleased to be the bearer of news. "His mother's a nigger."

Beetle gawped, and M'Turk arched an eyebrow. Then they both turned to Stalky for some indication of how to proceed. But he only said "Huh." and "Bags I your new brown socks for church tomorrow, Beetle. I've left all mine at home."

***

The Head did not make his usual appearance at dinner that evening, and in the chaplain’s study later, King voiced the opinion that he was purposely hiding from them, reluctant to explain himself. The Head's only defender was little Hartopp, but King used both his rhetorical edge and his higher volume to drown Hartopp out, where either would have been sufficient in itself.

Uninterrupted, King let loose with a flow of eloquence that seemed to have its desired effect on none of its hearers. Hartopp was stung by his defeat, but nursed a certain satisfaction in his own altruism. Prout, meanwhile, looked uncomfortable, and Macrea was clearly bored. The Reverend John Gillett appeared to be enjoying himself, but he always evinced an enjoyment of King's rhetorical powers that King preferred not to examine too closely.

Gillett lit his pipe and smoked comfortably as King would up to his peroration, and into the uncomfortable silence that followed he dropped a very small bombshell.

"I was at school with Vesey," he said. "Nice fellow."
What he did not say was that it was at his recommendation that his friend Vesey had sent his half Indian child to the United Services College. Gillett knew the prejudices and conceit of the school as well or, more usually, far better than the next man, provided the next man was not the Head. He had counted on the school's fierce independence to give his friend's son a warmer welcome than he would receive at any other school in England. Gillett was an optimistic man; he was dismayed at the students' -- and the masters' -- harsh reception of one who was, in a sense, his protégé, but he was confident that, in the end, young Vesey would be accepted by his peers. His peers might need some help, first, though.
Of everyone at the United Services College, the person Gillette trusted most was the Head, who was reliably, deeply unreliable. The people he trusted the most after the Head were the members of Number Five study, for much the same reasons. The difference was a matter of quantity rather than quality: Bates didn't need prompting or steadying, ever. The forces that propelled him were all internal. With Stalky and Co. however, they were distributed unevenly among three, individually incalculable young devils. They would do what he wanted, but they could not be approached yet.
***
In the week that followed, the new term became old news, the weather made having at least a dozen boys late to call over the rule rather than the exception, and young Vesey was quietly and undramatically, but quite definitely, shunned. He was not even a subject of conversation anymore. The students had been ignoring Vesey practically since they’d first seen him, and that was a whole week ago. A week ago, in the life of a term, is roughly equivalent to time immemorial.
It was only then that Gillett paid his visit to Number Five study, and slowly brought the conversation around to the problem at hand.

M'Turk was openly derisive. He had a native intolerance for the stupidity of others, and , after hearing the Reverend John's story of Vesey's background, maintained that Gillett's friend simply shouldn't have married the girl.

"But he did, Turkey, so what's the odds?" said Beetle, finally. Beetle was wide-eyed but comprehending, and, Gillette felt, probably his staunchest ally in this. But both Beetle and M'Turk were comparatively unimportant. And Stalky had put on his most mysterious expression, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth and his eyes promising unspeakable things. This expression was primarily for effect, but that didn't mean there it wasn't also, to some extent, a reflection of what was going on inside his head.

Stalky wasn't predictable, exactly, but his interest in a situation was strictly in proportion with the number of interesting possibilities it offered.

***

Gillett sometimes wondered whether, when he set Number Five study in motion, he was meddling with forces he didn't understand. Or rather, he knew he didn't understand them, but it was only occasionally that he worried they might be dangerous. Things had a way of happening so conveniently for them, and things one asked them to do -- if one was the Padre, and high in their favor -- were simply done, usually without visible means of propulsion, so to speak.

Peculiar smells came from number five study in the weeks following, but that was, if not a regular occurrence, not an unusual one. They spent as much time as they could outdoors, but that, in this weather, was a given. But Gillett was optimistic, and confident in his judgement and their powers, so he waited.

***

The first morning, only Prout's house woke up with a uniform, biscuit-y tan, one that was only perceptible in certain lights. But over the next few days, the entire school grew a shade darker. Hartopp did an analysis of the air and the water, and found nothing. King posted a guard at the door to his House, who stopped no one. Some of the boys tried to rub the color off their skin, or scald it, or bleach it. None of those things worked, and eventually things became mostly normal, except that the students were much less likely than usual to stray into town.

Vesey's skin tone took the longest to show the effects, but by the second week, there was no visible difference between his skin and anyone else's, except that he had significantly less spots than some. Not that it made a difference, of course. Everyone still knew who he was. But by the time everyone's skin began to fade to its usual shade -- perhaps coincidentally around the time of the first cold snap -- he had struggled over Latin translation with his classmates, learned which of the College servants could be bribed to bring one extras from the kitchen, proved his usefulness at games, and, once, exchanged a smile with another student over one of De Vitre's attempts to free his skin of the stain. And, as it turned out, that was enough.

***

Some years later, Gillett encountered M'Turk at an art gallery in London catering to the Aesthetic crowd.

"I've always wanted to know," he said, eventually, "what happened the term everyone turned black."

"Oh, that?" said M'Turk. "Stalky's failure, we called it. He was furious."

"But why?"

"Well, everyone was meant to get much blacker," said M'Turk. "Colonel Dabney's kitchen garden was overflowing that term," he added, apparently completely irrelevantly. "Lovely to see you, Padre. Best to everyone at the Coll."

***

Vesey was never accepted to the army, or the civil service, or anything particularly respectable. But when asked about his school days, he usually said, "Well, they could have been far worse."