H. S. Cross returns to “a school as nuanced and secretive as J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts” (The Rumpus) in Age of Grace, the sequel to her coming-of-age novel Wilberforce.
St. Stephen’s Academy, Yorkshire, 1931. 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, haunted by injuries both casual and calculated. 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 viewpointsincluding that of unhappy Housemaster John GrievesThis Age of Grace takes us deep inside the crucible of St. Stephen’s while retaining a clear-eyed, contemporary sensibility, drawing out the urges and even mercies hidden beneath the school’s strict, unsparing surface. The Academy may live by its own codes, but as with the world around ita world the characters must ultimately faceit already contains everything necessary to shape its people or tear them apart.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ewes, lambs, pocked lanes, ivy — rain, raining, rained upon.
Third row of the Remove's History lesson, Gray Riding slouched as much as discipline would allow, pen, exercise book: Weds. half hol, nothing worth changing shoes. Rain last five, rain today.
Everything in sight had succumbed to the damp. Towels never dried. Walls perspired. Games kit hung clammy in the changing room, where mildew grew with abandon.
Fifty-seventh day, Lenten Term, boredom chronic, boredom acute, the most dismal day in the year of our Lord 1931.
Then — in an instant? — paper brightened, silence fell. Mr. Grieves left his lecture and drifted to the window. Gray lifted his pen. Could everyone feel it on their skin, colors blooming warm and sharp? Even the back of his throat had a taste, like what you smelled when spring came to wake up the ground and banish winter in a night.
Gray wiped his spectacles. The rain had stopped, leaving only drips from the gutter. The Remove saw it, too, and when the bell rang, they cheered. Gray screwed the cap onto his pen, but the ink had run, pooling on the page and then smearing when he closed the book on the mess.
* * *
After lunch there was a wire. John took it from his matron and fumbled with the seal. Urgent notes never brought good news, but in this day and age what hazard? He tore it in frustration, Mr. John Grieves, St. Stephen's Academy, nr. Fridaythorpe, Yorkshire.
The tides at Lancaster came faster than a racing horse. If the drowning didn't get you, the quicksands would. He was a grown man and a Housemaster; he was seven years old and his mother was dead all over again.
* * *
Where did it come from, all that water? Cordelia opened the window in the alcove off the ward, but when she stuck out her head, the rain was gone. She knew about weather systems, trade winds, the Gulf Stream. Perhaps the Atlantic had dried up at last. Perhaps the spires of the lost city were poking through the seabed while England and the Emerald Isle drowned.
When she was small, the rain had made her think of Heaven.
— The angels are crying, Uncle John would tell her.
— The sins of the world.
— What's that?
Her godfather would open his mouth but say nothing.
— Where do angels come from?
— God made them.
— Where does God come from?
* * *
They were one missed call-over away from the cane. Gray hadn't been caned since the beginning of last term (a prank of Trevor's — egg, saltpeter, chimney), but despite the recent rocky patch, he thought he could make it to Easter. He put only 35 percent on Trevor's avoiding the Junior Common Room, but bets on Trevor, even with himself, were notoriously unpredictable.
Gray wasn't a coward, he hoped. He'd survived as many as six from the JCR. But as a punishment, the cane contaminated days. You couldn't look the JCR prefects in the eye afterwards. The physical effects lingered. It was all unendurably personal. Lines at least could be done with an air of sarcasm, chores completed as Jean Valjean in prison, and even punishment runs might offer an interval with their Captain of Games when Swinton might speak to him with something other than the scorn due a boy hopeless at sport. All punishment brought shame, but the cane left him feeling ill, even after it was over.
In Stalky they didn't care. They took just punishment in their stride and exacted revenge for anything else. Valarious, likewise. Marks were a badge of honor to him, as they essentially were to Trevor.
Trevor emerged from the washroom and led him through the post-luncheon throng. They might be on tight terms with the Absence Book, but they were, Trevor reminded him as they passed the school porter, no longer gated. Sun was breaking through the clouds, hours of half holiday stretched before them, and there was no reason they oughtn't spend the afternoon at the Keep and make it back well in time for call-over. Ninety-eight percent (though you couldn't forget the standard deviation for Trevor himself).
They strolled nonchalant past the juniors diving in the mud, past their compatriots in the Remove heading to the fives courts for battle, past upper schoolers choosing sides for ad hoc football. They walked without urgency, as if on routine ramble of their wide, wet bounds.
Beyond the jousting fields of Castle Noire stands Grindalythe Woods, alluring and entirely out-of-bounds. Their boots squelched as they circumnavigated the puddle-cum-lake that divided the upper and the lower pitch. Beyond the woods, even more alluring and even farther out-of-bounds, stands McKay's Bothy. They slid down the ditch that marked a boundary in cricket season. There is, in bards' lore, a third route, through the woods, past the keeper, Grendles módor, the details of which have evaporated like mead at the bottom of a barrel. Slipping from sight, they dashed for the old lodge. For three years, it has been widely suspected that Valarious holds the keys to that byway. Did he not squire for the Great Wilberforce? The Great Wilberforce, who, it is known, often took leave of Castle Noire to cavort with his men at the tavern in Fridaythorpe? Inside the ruined hut, they hauled up the stone — None of the men told how they were able to disappear from castle grounds — crawled down the chute — and then return, listing, hours after the watch — wriggled through mildewed, pitch-black — If none of Wilberforce's men had told — tickling, hopefully not spiders — who else could know but Valarious? Of course, the knights of Castle Noire find it difficult to imagine that young Valarious could hold the keys to such a fortress, but even as they resent the possibility, they hope for it — every creeping thing — If secrets are not passed on, they pass away, into dead knowledge.
The ground sloped up, and they emerged into the woods, into air, light, and freedom. Their confinement at the Academy, some from rain, some from gating, had lasted three weeks, and now as Trevor led them up the path, Gray saw that streams had colonized the woods, presenting muddy ravines and newly fallen branches. He half-expected to find the Keep washed away, but as he and Trevor arrived at the wall above the barn, there it stood, stalwart and loyal.
On the heels of his relief, fear flashed, like being told his name was on the notice board. What if the barn actually were to wash away, or collapse? Inside the hollow wall, beyond the ledge that sheltered their books and cigarettes, beyond sight of anyone who looked without knowing what to look for, there in the heart of the barn, if such a place could have a pumping organ or seat of feeling, there, though he hadn't touched it or looked at it in years, though most of the time he let himself forget it was there, there in the smoldering ashes or the rain-soaked splinters, however it happened, there someone would find it.
Sometimes he dreamed of the box. In his dreams, there was no fear. In his dreams, he swam through Grindalythe Woods, slid down the slope behind the barn, and reached into the rat-nesty walls for his father's medicine box, the silver nameplate, T. Riding, untarnished. The box had no latch, the treasure his for the taking, and in the dream it was treasure inside, rich beyond measure, known to no one, power and luck and blessing all his, nearly forgotten but not.CHAPTER 2
Mrs. Kneesworth disapproved of her reading, but Cordelia pretended not to notice. That black tome was full of air to breathe. She'd waited nearly six weeks for it at the library, and because things always came in threes, it had arrived the same day that she'd recited, without forgetting, the poem for the last meeting of term and the same day that she'd won the geography prize, a brilliant gold-edged volume. A triple good, which ought to have told her a triple bad was on its way. If she'd been paying attention, she would have noticed two of the three bad things already arrived, her parents' quarrel on the way back from the school concert and her father's case missing from the corridor in the morning, but she had been so filled with anticipation about the recitation and the prize that she'd let the two bads pass before her eyes. Not until the third bad did she see how blind she'd been.
Mrs. Kneesworth plied her with childish books, How about Miss Nesbit? Mr. Milne? Oh, Mr. Louis Stevenson! She worried, Cordelia knew, about children her age. She'd confided to Cordelia's mother some malarkey about children conceived in the turmoil of war. They'd been shaken in the womb, Mrs. Kneesworth said, and there was something not quite right about them. Cordelia told Mrs. K the black book was for school, an important bit of holiday work her teacher had flattered her by assigning. She could tell Mrs. K didn't approve of that either, but at least the woman kept her peace.
There inside those pages she boarded the research schooner Poseidon and sailed west with its crew, past Ireland and into the wide Atlantic. No matter what shoes clacked across the ward, what doctors and Sisters whispered and wrote, she stood with salt wind in her hair, looking through the glass for that floating seaweed jungle, their quarry, the great Sargasso Sea.
* * *
When they finally reached the barn, Gray was sweating, though thankfully it hadn't marked the book he carried under his shirt, the new copy of Stalky & Co. He'd first encountered Stalky in Wilberforce's study; he'd been subjected to Kipling before and never cared for it — who could make sense of India? — but the little red book on Wilberforce's shelf spoke one imagination to another. Here were Stalky, McTurk, and Beetle, three schoolboy crusaders against stupidity, self-importance, and boredom. Inside those pages and inside the Kipling avatar, Beetle, he found himself as he would like to be. When Wilberforce left the Academy, a legend in his time, he gave the book to Gray, and while Gray wanted to refuse Wilberforce's gifts, he didn't. Couldn't.
Gray had turned fourteen last month, and his godfather had sent a fresh copy of Stalky. At first Gray had been disappointed at the duplicate, but then he'd noticed the title: The Complete Stalky & Co., an expanded volume containing stories Kipling had omitted from the original. No one at the Academy had such a book. No one else had read these tales. No one else knew how Stalky had earned his nickname, how there had been a day when Corcoran (Stalky-to-be), McTurk, and Beetle had gone on a cattle raid with some other boys, an excursion Corcoran disparaged as not stalky enough for them. Since his birthday, Gray had read the story enough to have it nearly memorized. He could see it, even dream it, but wasn't there a power that could transport him inside it to inhabit with his body the stories whose every word was written on his heart?
He and Trevor had agreed it was prudent to keep the Complete at the barn, safe with the original Stalky, their cigarettes, and their penny dreadfuls. These they collected from the cache in the wall before mounting the ladder to the loft. The afternoon passed in desultory conversation, cigarettes shared, Trevor reading the Complete, Gray running his eyes across a penny dreadful as the barn sheltered him from the wind, the Academy, and the person he was there ...
It was possible that Valarious had at some point been sent, by exasperated guardians, to an academy for knights (not an academy per se, but dispatched to some école or chivalric crammer) where he met two friends, an Irishman and a scholar, and one day embarked on a cattle raid (he would have been fourteen at most) with assorted other knights-in-training, manor-born, knowing not their right hands from their left. Valarious would have scorned the venture, not valarious enough for him, but along he'd gone, and when the manor-borns had been captured, Valarious & Co. had engineered the rescue, trapping manor-borns and captors together in a barn and —
— Listen, Trevor said, you've got to face facts.
Gray opened his eyes and closed his mouth. Trevor closed his book:
— At the end of the day, Grieves is a beast. He must be Cadified.
The day's task, determining which of their associates were foul enough to deserve the title Cad-with-a-capital-C, an exercise dubbed Cadification.
— You can't drag Grievous back into it. Once off, off, we said.
— We didn't strike him off, Trevor replied. We passed him over temporarily.
They'd struck their Housemaster off, early and firmly.
— You've got to be impartial, Brains. If we get this wrong, Cadification will mean nothing!
— It'll mean nothing if you chuck Grievous in the same boat with the Flea and Pearce.
Trevor began to roll a cigarette with the last of the good tobacco: — Exhibit one, his sense-of-humor failure Monday night.
Grieves had looked a storm as they stood on his carpet, dockets in hand. Official charge: insolence at call-over. Unofficial: toying with Pious Pearce, a sub-prefect freshly minted, too keen for the genuine article, too pi for good taste. Less than a fortnight into his post, Pearce had earned the resentment of the lower forms, the scorn of the Upper School, and from the Remove, a burning hatred at his heavy-handed brass. His pomposity at call-over could not be borne. The plan was Trevor's, the text Gray's.
— Mainwaring? Pearce had read haughtily.
— Here am I! Trevor had replied.
Snickers in houseroom at the deviation from sum. When Pearce had hectored, Gray had called from the crowd:
— Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me?
Grieves's House had found it droll, and the rest of the alphabet had replied with Here am I or, Here am I, Saul. But Mr. Grieves had found their dockets unamusing. He had told them to knock it off. He had more pressing matters than their restlessness. He was tired of them, Gray saw, and when Grieves gave the imposition, there was no ironic look, just fifty lines and This will stop. The next night, they'd answered properly, but those who'd persisted with Here am I, Grieves had sent to the JCR, which dealt them two apiece.
— It was only fifty lines, Gray said.
Trevor lit the cigarette and flicked the match over the edge of the loft.
— I don't know if it's blindness or love, he said, but you're missing the point, Brains.
— For the last time, I do not love him.
— Oh moon of love, Trevor crooned.
— How can you Cadify the only master who doesn't whack?
— High up above ... That's what makes him Cad Royale. He doesn't have the nerve to do it himself, so he passes it off to the JCR and closes his eyes to their megalomania.
— It's not as though he's a coward.
— Worse, Trevor said, he's a pacifist. Everyone knows they're more vicious than the rest.
Gray began to collect their things, wrapping their books in the oilcloth.
— The bare fact, Trevor continued, and you'd know it if you paid any attention to Stalky, is that Grieves is afraid to wield the cane because he's afraid of the influence it might have over him.
— Got that from your idea shelf, did you?
— He's scared to death he'll enjoy it.
— One, that's vile.
— But true.
— Two, why hasn't anyone checked the time?
He fished Trevor's watch from the cigarette tin as Trevor's foot kept patter time:
— Oh what the deuce, do you suppose we care to hear the silly stuff you have to spill about the moon?
Gray looked at the watch and shook it.
— Of course the moon is high above, for everybody saw the guy who hung it up this afternoon.
It hadn't stopped. It still ticked, its minute hand inching towards twelve, and its hour — he threw it at Trevor's head —
... but missed.
— It's five!
— Don't be stupid.
— Five o'clock!
— It's still light.
— You swore —
Trevor consulted the watch:
— If you hadn't kept me jawing —
— Just this afternoon, you swore we'd be back!
— And if you shut up, we still will.
They dashed to their tasks. Trevor scoured the hay for cigarette stubs as Gray climbed down to stash their things in the wall (and lift the lid of the box long enough to snatch the letter he'd meant to — )
— Cave! Trevor called.
Gray froze on the ladder and then crawled back up to where Trevor was crouching. The window's cracked glass broadcast news from the common: four figures, school togs, two from their own House, two from another. Four fags out-of-bounds, approaching, identifying, entering —
— And this is where Fletchy and me bunked to last week, said a white-haired fag.
— Plummy, said Malcolm minor.
The white-haired fag was from Burton-Lee's House, as was the one called Fletchy, or Fletcher. Of the two from Grieves's House, Gray knew Malcolm minor from the dorm. Despite having an elder brother with a bold reputation, Malcolm minor ran his gaze across the barn as one viewing pin-ups for the first time. The white-haired fag, whose name proved actually to be White, bragged about his and Fletcher's exploit, their escape last week from farmers, their refuge in the barn, the hours they passed there, hours they proposed to pass there again, regularly, having claimed it for their own.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Grievous"
Copyright © 2019 H. S. Cross.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by H. S. Cross,
A Note About the Author,