Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
01. I suppose I became what is called a queer child. I remember looking out of the window at night and thinking how strange it all was, that the trees were just there and the houses, and the stars and the moon above them, and strangest of all that I was there and studying them. I knew God was looking down at me for Bissett and my mother had told me so. My nurse had told me how if I was good I would go to Heaven for ever and ever and if I was bad I would go to Hell. Once as I lay in bed I tried to imagine ‘for ever and ever’. I perceived a vast gulph into which I was falling and falling and falling for it had no bottom to it, and the imagination of it made my hair prickle and my heart began to pound for everything I knew–my mother, my nurse, my village–became tiny and meaningless and faraway as I plunged on and on into the endless crevice–until at last I was able to force myself to think of something else.
I was terrified–as I suppose all children are–of things being random and arbitrary. I wanted everything to have a purpose, to be part of a pattern. It seemed to me that if I behaved unjustly I denied the pattern and by creating something ugly and meaningless, forfeited the right to judge that something unjust had been perpetrated against myself and, even more important, the right to expect that there was any justice or design in the world, I wanted my life to involve the gradual unfolding of a design, and whether I have been successful in this remains to be discovered.
Once I had learned to read, books became a great source of pleasure for me. In the histories and romances that I devoured–lying for hour after hour on the floor of the sitting-room with the light of the window falling over my shoulder–I found a kind of freedom and a richness of experience that I missed in the confined circumstances of my life…
02. I contracted the habit–or acquired the ability, for I do not know which to call it–of losing myself (or perhaps finding myself?) in a book and cutting myself off from the world. (And to anticipate for a moment , this was often to prove very useful.)
03. Now it was that I vowed that never again would I place myself at the mercy of outward circumstances by allowing myself to love another individual.
04. I tried to convince myself that it was better to accept the inevitability of my situation and of my bleak future than sustain myself on empty dreams. But I could not hear to think that I would spend my life like this; that I had sink to the bottom and there I would stay. And yet, of what worth was I? As Mr Pentecost had said, a man’s value was his price on the market and mine was [???] . So increasingly I became frustrated and restless as I saw my life stretching emptily and oppressively before me. Anger and hatred burn inside me and the little house seemed a prison. Now I went with the Digweeds almost every night to the Pig and Whistle, finding the bright lights and noise a welcome contrast to the solitude and darkness of the tunnels. Gradually I discovered he release and escape that drink offered and am ashamed to admit that I frequently found myself staggering home with the others. I wasn’t sure whether I was trying to blot out the thought of the past or of the future. Either way, what I sought was oblivion, a kind of death which was the counterpart of my life…

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