Excerpt of The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
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Lancelot Percival lay in wait for Rooke and usually managed to give him a punch in passing, or spill ink on his precious linen shirt. The other boys watched without expression, as if it were normal, like killing a fly.
Lancelot Percival James’s illustrious line was based on the sugar trade, and behind that on the islands of Jamaica and Antigua, and finally on the black slaves on those islands. Lancelot Percival did not understand why the square on the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, but he became eloquent on why the British Empire in general, and his own illustrious family in particular, would collapse if slavery were abolished.
Rooke puzzled about that idea as he puzzled at his primes. He had never seen a black man, so the issue was abstract, but something about the argument did not cohere. Think as he might, though, he could not find a path around Lancelot Percival’s logic.
In any case, it was best to keep out of Lancelot Percival’s way.
When he could, he slipped down to the water’s edge at the mouth of the harbour where the Round Tower looked out to sea. There was a shingle beach at the foot of the ancient masonry where no one ever came. Its emptiness matched his own, a companion of sorts.
He had a secret slot in the wall where he kept his collection of pebbles. They were all ordinary, each valuable only for being different from the others. He whispered to himself as he crouched over them, pointing out their qualities. Look at how this one has little dark specks in it! And do you see how that one is like the surface of the moon?
He became his own question and his own answer.
At the Academy his only consolations were found within the pages of books. Euclid seemed an old friend. Things that equal the same thing also equal one another. The whole is greater than the part. In Euclid’s company it was as if he had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.
He pored over Lily’s Grammar of the Latin Tongue, loved the way the slippery mysteries of language could be reduced to units as reliable and interchangeable as numbers. Dico, dicis, dicet. Dative, genitive, ablative. He came to feel that Greek and Latin, French and German were not so much ways of speaking as machines for thinking.
Most of all, the heavens were transformed by the Academy’s instruction in astronomy and navigation. It was a revelation to learn that the stars were not whimsical points of light, but part of a shape so gigantic it made Rooke dizzy. There was a crosseyed feeling, standing on the earth and at the same time watching it from somewhere beyond. From that vantage point it was not rooms, fields, streets, but a ball of matter hurtling through space on an orbit the exact shape of which had been intuited by a German called Mr Kepler and proved by an Englishman called Mr Newton, who had a bridge named after him in Cambridge.
Rooke spent fruitless hours wishing that Euclid or Kepler were still alive to converse with him. The world they described was an orderly one in which everything had a place. Even, perhaps, a boy who seemed to have no place.
When the chaplain discovered that he had perfect pitch, it seemed another curse.
‘C sharp!’ he cried, and Rooke listened inside himself somewhere and sang a note. The chaplain jabbed at the piano.
‘B flat, Rooke, can you give me B flat?’
Rooke listened, and sang, and the man turned to him on the piano stool, so flushed that for a shocked moment Rooke thought that he was going to kiss him. Behind him in the choir stalls his classmates snickered, and Rooke knew he would pay later.
But as soon as his legs were long enough the chaplain taught him to play the organ in the chapel. A door opened in a world that had seemed nothing but wall.
Excerpted from The Lieutenant
by Kate Grenville Copyright © 2009 by Kate Grenville. Excerpted by
permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.