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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 37. E. M. Forster "Ansell"




“It’s a cruel box,” said the porter, who, beguiled by its moderate size, had hoisted it onto his shoulder and then hastily dumped it back on the platform. “The weight’s cruel. That’ll need a barrow.” He went and fetched one, and wheeled the box and the bag across the line.

“That’s packed very close.”

“Yes,” I replied; “it’s books.”

“Books!” he echoed in an injured voice, for I had incautiously displayed twopence and twopence alone in the palm of my hand. “I don’t hold with books in the country. What you want is recr’ation and h’air and h’exercise.” He cast a searching glance at my stooping shoulders and bounced away with the barrow, calling out, “Just hurry and open the back of the cart. You’ve got a libr’y this journey, I can tell you.”

A large-boned person got up from the front seat, and as he turned to pull out the pin and drag the seat forward I saw that it was Ansell. I hesitated a moment as to what would be the proper thing to do, and then held out my hand, which he grasped in a vice and swung from side to side like a scythe. That long handshake is a wonderful thing; it may merely mean shyness, but it can also denote reproach, forgiveness or intense affection. In this case I took it as punishment for snobbishness, for it left my fingers squeezed together like macaroni and my hand the colour of old parchment.

Ansell had not lost his simple manner, and apologized with total freedom from self-consciousness for being himself in a tweed suit and the “muck cart” with Josiah, instead of Charles in livery with the landau and the pair of bays, who had all gone with the ladies to a flower show at Poppyfield. He then took up the book-box and heaved it with precision into the back. The cart immediately tilted at a miserable angle, and the shams plucked Josiah heavily and rose into the air. It was better when we and the bag got in in front, but we both have long legs and were terribly cramped with the seat pushed so far forward.

My visits to the Hall had not been frequent, but they had been lengthy, and had allowed me to make Ansell’s acquaintance. The first had been when I was fourteen and he was garden and stable boy. We were thrown at one another by my cousin, who thought it nice I should have a companion, and in a few days were on the most intimate footing. We scraped out a hole in the side of the large straw stack, and made it into a house, where we stored apples and gooseberries and “Kola” lemonade, which we got cheap from Ansell’s aunt in the village. We made birdlime from a recipe in The Boy’s Own Book, and caught Mrs. Perill’s prize bantam chickens in it. The sound of our whoops and shrieks as we jumped with abandon on one another’s hats penetrated even into the smoking-room, where my father was arguing with my cousin as to the respective merits of Eton and Winchester as a school for me. The noise exasperated them. My cousin was aghast at the friendship he had created. No work was done in the garden and very little in the stable. Ansell was always called off by Master Edward. And my father did not like my entire separation from rational Companions and pursuits. I had suddenly stopped reading and no longer cared to discuss with him the fortunes of the Punic War or the course of Aeneas from Troy. The result was an intervention of the powers. I and Ansell were only to play together once a week, and then it was to be something sensible—cricket or bat, trap and ball—not senseless bear- gardening. And then I went away and to school.

I came again when I was eighteen. Ansell was now sole gardener and only occasional stable boy. I had just got a scholarship at Cambridge, and was resting after my labours. But I had forgotten how to rest, and preferred reading to outdoor amusements. Ansell once or twice suggested taking me shooting or teaching me to swim, but I refused, partly because I now found him such a dull companion, partly because I did not shine at outdoor pursuits, having been exempted at school by a doctor’s certificate and thus fallen behind in the athletic race. I was very sensitive on this point, and knew that Ansell would laugh at my incompetencies, and this I could not bear. so we remained on very friendly terms but saw one another little.

Now I met him again. The deficiencies of eighteen were accentuated at twenty-three, but I had also gained the armour of the grown-up person, which can ward off the lesser shafts of disapproval and ridicule. We were now so very different that comparison was painless and even interesting. I was writing a dissertation on the Greek optative for a Fellowship, and Ansell was now gamekeeper to the small shooting my cousin had recently purchased, and only occasional gardener and groom.

I began to put him at his ease.

“How you’ve grown, Ansell!”

“Aye, Master Ed – sir; and how you’ve grown.”

“Josiah doesn’t seem to alter, though.”

“No, Josiah doesn’t alter.”

“Do you remember what times we used to have: the birdlime.”

“Oh aye, the birdlime.”

“And the plum tree with the branch you broke.”

“Oh aye, that there branch. It’s broke now.”

We were feeding on the past, and I knew that we could not live by that alone. So I went on to inquire after our common acquaintance, he replying in a chant, “Oh, he’s very well – Oh, she’s very well – Oh, he went come this two year.”

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention. I racked my brains for some remark that would serve to keep my self-respect, but could find none. Ansell remained motionless, staring in front of him at Josiah’s cars. He too was thinking, as the sequel proved, but felt under no obligation to speak till the thought was ripe, whereas unless I speak I cannot go on thinking.

At last it came. He tossed his head at the back of the cart and said: “Them books.”

Grammarians have a theory – I know it to my cost – that the original case is not the nominative but the accusative. It is so pure and colourless that it does not even make a statement. It merely says: “Them books.” so Ansell’s remark was not meant as a criticism, but merely signified the topic which he would like to hear me discuss.

I did not shrink. I knew he would not sympathize, but I did not mind that now. After six years of a student’s life I was perfectly inured to attacks upon my implements. I had heard books attacked for their bulk, their weight, their fragility, their similarity, their contradictiousness, their uselessness, their effect upon the figure, their drain upon the pocket, and also for their contents. People who read Wordsworth quoted “One impulse from a vernal wood,” and people who read Ecclesiastes quoted “Of making many books.” And at the last I heard them unmoved, and was unmoved too at the slope of my shoulders and the curve of my back and the contraction of my chest. All good work must wear out some muscles, and though the Greek optative wears out more than most it is none the less good work.

The dissertation was to be sent in within a month. I had only just begun to write it out, but had my notes all prepared – editions interleaved and annotated, and pages and pages of cross-references and criticisms of rival theories. The optative does not admit of very flowing treatment, and I had plenty of time to dump my remarks down and get them my cousin had invited me to stay with him, and I had refused on the score of work. But on his renewing the invitation and offering the library, for which he had just bought an Encyclopaedia Britannica, for my exclusive use, I accepted, though I had to bring my own books, since neither the encyclopaedia nor the Hundred Best Books which balanced it would quite suit my purpose.

There they all were in the box behind: the seeds and the fruit of my career – chiefly the seeds, to judge by the weight.

In response to Ansell’s remark I rapidly sketched my past, leaving out its numerous triumphs with becoming, though superfluous, modesty. I then explained the reason for the particular books: how I was engaged in writing about the grammar that was spoken by the Greeks in ancient times, and how, if What I had written was considered better than what had been written about the Consolato del Mare or Euclidean Space or the Respiratory Organs of Snakes – titles of the rival dissertations – I should then receive eighty pounds a year and rooms in college and a free meal every evening, and be allowed to impart my knowledge to others.

He seemed more clownish than I expected, for there was another long pause. At last he raised his head and said:

“Well, of course I hope you’ll succeed.”

“Thanks very much.” It was not often I met with goodwill where there was no sympathy, and I made the most of it, for sympathy Was so rare – extinct almost, since my father died. Another silence ensued, during which I calculated Ansell’s chest measurement – we were about the same at fourteen – and then tried to console myself by calculating his brain capacity. It was a close evening, and rain was impending. We were about halfway now, where the road goes up the river ravine in a ledge that has been cut in the rock. Far below us, almost shrouded in trees, ran the river. An open wooden fence guarded us from the precipice.

Just where the ravine is steepest, Josiah began to dance. “Steady, there, steady,” said Ansell. “It’s those clegs again. Steady, steady, stead—” Bang. Josiah had backed the cart against the wooden railing. He drew forward, calculated his distance and backed again. Bang. And crack, for the fence was giving. He drew forward again.

“Jump out, Master Edward,” cried Ansell. “l daren’t loose the reins, for you daren’t hold ‘em.”

Indeed I was perfectly numb and incapable with terror. I could not move. I could only wonder whether we should all strike the river at the same time, and whether it would be at the same place. The box, Ansell, me, Josiah? Or would Josiah pass us on the way and come in with the box? And the box was behind me, so I should fall on it bound with iron at the corners.

Bang! and a long crack this time, for the fence was reeling backwards. Something slipped from the cart into the abyss, and I concluded it was me. Then that it was Ansell, who was gone. But no. He had got out before the concussion, and had taken advantage of the recoil to haul Josiah forward and just save us from going over the edge. Josiah had kicked him on the shin and he had torn the armholes out of his new suit, but we were safe.

It then struck me that what had gone was the box. A great deal was crowded into that half-second, for I was just in time to see the conclusion of its fall. About halfway down it hit a projecting rock, opened like a water-lily, and rained its sweetness upon the deep. Most of the books were heavy and plunged like meteors through the trees into the river. One or two of the smaller ones roosted coyly for a minute on the branches before they too slipped through and disappeared. Then I heard the voice of Ansell, who had removed the cleg and soothed the horse.

“Them books saved us. They went at the very moment. I felt ‘em tugging us over the edge. Get out now—get out and hold Josiah. When I put the seat back again we’ll be a deal more comfortable.”

“Ansell!” I said.

“Oh, I’m all right, Master Edward.”

I felt ashamed, for I had not been going to ask after his health. After a decent interval I said, “Shall we be able to get the books and papers back?”

“Oh, I dessay we shall one or two. But the river’s swift, and few shallows, and the rain’s coming. We may try tomorrow.”

“You know it means – it means that I’ve failed if I lose those books.”

“Aye?” said Ansell. “Well, there’s other things but—”

"It means – well, it’s as if you had to lose your leg.”

“I never have lost my leg and I don’t want to,” said Ansell, not to be moved from questions of fact.

“WeII, you’re right. Hypothetics is a poor study: the science of what might have happened but did not. The optative is sometimes used in hypothetical sentences, which is an odd coincidence.”

I felt that only brilliant conversation would save me from insanity, and knew that Ansell would not find me out if I borrowed the brilliant remarks of others. I might have recited A Hundred Gems of Humour from end to end, and he would not have found me out. I sparkled a few minutes to myself, and then had to stop. Suicide seemed the only course, when Ansell began to talk. Like the chorus in the Greek tragedy which breaks into song when human misery and sordid passions arc at their fullest, he began right away from the all-pervading subject, and kept away from it too, which is more than can be said for a chorus. The weight of books which kept him down or, to be more accurate, up, had fallen into the river, and now he was at his own level and could speak of the things that he cared for.

He began by a description of the new shooting: how it ran up the Carlham woods right into the heart of the hills and took in a bit of the great east moor. There were plenty of grouse there, and black game. The air was so pure that you felt like a different person and so clear that you could see the sea. The valleys were so thick with rabbits that not even – not anybody could miss them. Then I heard of the new barn and the cowhouse and the plan for supplying the house from the river direct, which had worked so well till Miss Flora had found an eel in her bath, and the arrogance of Charles and the sour temper of the cook, which meant a match, for they was born to plague each other, and the necessity for a new lightning-conductor, and the probable profits of his aunt and the probability of his inheriting them, and finally he burst into a description of the great landslip in the upper burn which had turned an arid waste of rocks and pebbles into a deep bathing-pool, always full to the brim with clear brown water, always shaded from the sun, always sheltered from the wind.

It did not soothe me, any more than the praises of Athens soothed the jealousy of Medea, but I was conscious of the artistic effect, and that was something.

If I met with one sign of true sympathy, I think I should break down. But fortunately I do not. The utmost anyone Will venture is that they are “sorry for my disappointment, but now I shall be able to have a real holiday.” To do them justice, they have been very kind.

“I suppose you’ve got it all in your head all right,” said my cousin. When you know a thing you know a thing.” But when he realized I had not, he at once countermanded the projected shooting-party for the morrow and ordered a grand search for the debris. All the night I lay awake listening to the rain, but the morning was fine, and the whole establishment turned out with implements to their taste, and took their lunch with them.

As Ansell predicted, we got “one or two” – even more. He himself dived pertinaciously into the pool below the road, and fished up the cover of an Aristotle, half a volume of discarded notes, and Elizabeth and her German Garden, which I was bringing as a present for Flora. We sent word downstream, and the miller from Doublebois sent up two or three that had come down in the wheel. But of the unfinished dissertation and the essential notes there was not a sign. They had all gone out to sea in the spate, together with the bulk of the books. The household was hopeful, seeing that the salvage filled a fair-sized basket, and a person so clever as Mr. Edward would be sure to be able to find something in it to write about, but I knew that my career was closed. If I met with one sign of sympathy I should break down.

But Ansell has appropriated me, and I have no time to think of the future. I cannot fend him off. I have a bruise on my shoulder from shooting and a cut on the foot from bathing, and the pony has rubbed my knee raw against a wall. And we talk—goodness knows what of: I cannot remember afterwards, but I know that an allusion to the box of books is a recognized witticism.

Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon remains open on the ledge where the box split. In dry weather an invisible person rapidly turns over the leaves, hurrying from one word to another. But in the damp his ardour flags. There is something rather poetical in the idea of this unembodied searcher after knowledge, and I would write a Greek epigram on him, but I am forgetting the words.

Whenever we pass the place Ansell looks over and says “Them books!” and laughs, and I laugh too as heartily as he, for I have not yet realized what has happened.

—E. M. Forster,[i]






[i] “Ansell” E. M. Forster The Life to Come, and other short stories [Oliver Stallybrass, Editor] (New York 1972), ps. 1-9. Although datable to 1903, Ansell is the oldest surviving piece of fiction by Forster, but because of its aspects of love between men, not published until after the author’s death.


Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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That chapter in his life has me riveted, sorrowing for his lost scholarship, grinning for his recovered humanity. Ansell was indeed a great gem of a man. 

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46 minutes ago, Parker Owens said:

That chapter in his life has me riveted, sorrowing for his lost scholarship, grinning for his recovered humanity. Ansell was indeed a great gem of a man. 

Thank you, Parker. This is one of my favorite Short Stories; great climax, and Ansell (with his promise of a happy, natural life with him) is the twist :)

Like the chorus in the Greek tragedy which breaks into song when human misery and sordid passions arc at their fullest, he began right away from the all-pervading subject, and kept away from it too, which is more than can be said for a chorus. The weight of books which kept him down or, to be more accurate, up, had fallen into the river, and now he was at his own level and could speak of the things that he cared for.

Edited by AC Benus
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