He searched for clues in his favourite author, Captain Mayne Reid. He looked in The Rifle Rangers: or Adventures of an Officer in Southern Mexico. He read The Young Voyageurs and The War Trail and The Headless Horseman. Buffaloes and Red Indians were now mixing in his head with chain-mailed knights and the infantrymen of Pack's Brigade. His favourite Mayne Reid of all was The Scalp-Hunters: or Romantic Adventures in Southern Mexico. Arthur did not as yet know how the gold glasses and velvet dress were to be obtained; but he suspected it might involve a hazardous journey to Mexico.
His mother takes him once a week to visit Great-Uncle Compson. He lives not far
away, behind a low granite kerb which George is not allowed to cross. Every week
they renew his jug of flowers. Great Wyrley was Uncle Compson's parish for
twenty-six years; now his soul is in Heaven while his body remains in the
churchyard. Mother explains this as she takes out the shrivelled stems, throws
away the smelly water, and stands up the fresh, smooth flowers. Sometimes George
is allowed to help her pour in the clean water. She tells him that excessive
mourning is unChristian, but George does not understand this.
After Great-Uncle's departure for Heaven, Father took his place. One year he married Mother, the next he obtained his parish, and the next George was born. This is the story he has been told, and it is clear and true and happy, as everything ought to be. There is Mother, who is constantly present in his life, teaching him his letters, kissing him goodnight; and Father, who is often absent because he is visiting the old and the sick, or writing his sermons, or preaching them. There is the Vicarage, the church, the building where Mother teaches Sunday school, the garden, the cat, the hens, the stretch of grass they cross between the Vicarage and the church, and the churchyard. This is George's world, and he knows it well.
Inside the Vicarage, everything is quiet. There are prayers, books, needlework. You do not shout, you do not run, you do not soil yourself. The fire is sometimes noisy, so are the knives and forks if you do not hold them properly; so is his brother Horace when he arrives. But these are the exceptions in a world which is both peaceful and reliable. The world beyond the Vicarage seems to George filled with unexpected noise and unexpected happenings. When he is four, he is taken for a walk in the lanes and introduced to a cow. It is not the size of the beast that alarms him, nor the swollen udders wobbling in his eye-line, but the sudden hoarse bellow the thing utters for no good reason. It can only be in a very bad temper. George bursts into tears, while his father punishes the cow by hitting it with a stick. Then the animal turns sideways, raises its tail and soils itself. George is transfixed by this outpouring, by the strange splatty noise as it lands on the grass, by the way things have suddenly slipped out of control. But his mother's hand pulls him away before he can consider it further.
It is not just the cowor the cow's many friends like the horse, the sheep and the pigthat renders George suspicious of the world beyond the Vicarage wall. Most of what he hears about it makes him anxious. It is full of people who are old, and sick, and poor, all of which are bad things to be, judging from Father's attitude and lowered voice when he returns; and people called pit widows, which George does not understand. There are boys beyond the wall who are fibbers and, worse than that, liars through and through. There is also something called a Colliery nearby, which is where the coal in the grate comes from. He is not sure he likes coal. It is smelly and dusty and noisy when poked, and you are told to keep away from its flames; also, it is brought to the house by large fierce men in leather helmets which carry on down their backs. When the outside world brings the door-knocker down, George usually jumps. All things considered, he would prefer to stay here, inside, with Mother, with his brother Horace and new sister Maud, until it is time for him to go to Heaven and meet Great-Uncle Compson. But he suspects that this will not be allowed.
Excerpted from Arthur & George by Julian Barnes Copyright © 2006 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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