Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I know I have no right to interfere,” said Mrs Roger Warboys, in the tone she always used when she meant to do so. “I think Mr Shillito should have every consideration. His judgement alone should be worth something. Even if he simply stays at The Bellman to keep an eye on things in general, he would be valuable. His knowledge of the city and its people is surely the most extensive of anyone now on the staff. For instance, I’m sure he would never have passed that ridiculous engagement notice about Pearl Vambrace and young Bridgetower.”

“That matter is in hand,” said Ridley, turning white.

“That’s just as well,” said Mrs Roger Warboys, smiling unpleas­antly. “For Professor Vambrace phoned me about it this afternoon, just to make it clear that if he has to take it to law, there is nothing personal intended toward myself. I have worked very closely with him for years,” she explained, “on the Board of the University Alumni.”

It was then necessary for Mr Ridley to explain to Mr Warboys what the dispute was between The Bellman and Professor Vambrace. Mr Warboys was not inclined to pay too much attention to it. “These things soon blow over,” said he.

“Nevertheless, I think my point about Mr Shillito is well taken,” said Mrs Roger Warboys. “The Professor was hardly off the phone before Mr Shillito called about it. He said that the minute he saw it he knew there had been some dreadful blunder, for the feud between the Vambraces and the Bridgetowers dates from when Professor Bridgetower was alive. He just wanted me to know that he would never have permitted such a thing to appear in print, but of course his power on the paper is very limited — at present.” These last words were directed with a special smile to Ridley.

“The damned old double-crosser,” said Mr Warboys, who under­stood these matters very well.

Ridley could think of no comment save lewd and blasphemous variations on that of his publisher, so he held his peace, and soon returned to his office.

It was after six o’clock when he reached it. He stopped in Miss Green’s office, and after some rummaging, he drew a sheet of paper from a file and took it to his desk. It was an obituary, prepared some years before and kept up to date, for use when it should be needed. It read:

Vambrace, Walter Benedict, b. Cork, Eire, March 5,1899 only son Rev. Benedict V. and Cynthia Grattan V., a second cousin to the Marquis of Mourne and Derry; Educ. at home and Trinity Coll. Dublin. (MA.) Emigrated to Canada 1922 joined classics dept. Waverley as junior professor. Married Eliza­beth Anne Fitzalan dr. Wolfe Tone Fitzalan, June 18,1925, one daughter Pearl Veronica b. 1933. Full professor 1935; head classics dept. 1938. Supported for Dean of Arts 1939 but defeated by one vote by the late Dean Solomon Bridgetower. Did not stand again after Dean Btwr’s death in 1940. Author: Contra Celsum with Notes and Commentary 1924; Enneads of Plotinus Newly Considered 1929 (Times Lit. Supp. says “valuable though controversial” in review which might have been by Dean Inge); Student’s Book of Latin Verse 1938 (sold 150,000).

Professor Vambrace was no austere scholar, but a man who gave richly of himself to a variety of worthy causes. Always accessible to his students, he opened to them the stores of scholarship which he brought from famed Trinity College, Dublin. Graduates of Waverley will long remember the rich and thrilling voice in which he read Latin poetry aloud, seeming to — as one graduate put it — “call Horace smiling from his tomb and Vergil from the realm of the shades.” This same noble organ was for years to be heard in perform­ances given by the Salterton Little Theatre, of which Professor Vambrace was at one time Vice-President. His most notable performance by far was as Prospero in The Tempest, of which The Bellman critic of that time, Mr Swithin Shillito, wrote: “It was said of Kean’s Shylock, ‘This was the Jew, That Shakespeare drew’; still borne aloft upon the wave of poetry evoked by Walter Vambrace (away with all Misters and Professors in the presence of Genius) your annalist can but murmur, ‘This is the Mage, From Shakespeare’s page.’ ”

After fifteen minutes’ careful work Ridley had revised this paragraph to read thus:

Professor Vambrace, an austere scholar, was associated with many causes. To his students he brought a store of scholarship from famed Trinity College, Dublin. Graduates of Waverley will long remember the voice in which he read Latin poetry aloud, seeming, as one graduate has put it, to call Horace from his tomb and Vergil from Hades. The late Professor Vambrace had a strong histrionic bent and was for some years an amateur performer with the Salterton Little Theatre.

It was not much, and it might be years before it bore fruit, but it made him feel a little better.


It was not for Gloster Ridley only that November 1st was embittered by the incident of the fraudulent engagement notice. The first person, who was in any way concerned with that notice, to read it in The Bellman was Dean Jevon Knapp, of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Returning to the Deanery at half-past five on October 31st he picked up his copy of the evening paper, and having prudently brought his handsome wrought-iron footscraper indoors so that naughty boys would not run off with it in celebration of Hallowe’en, he went into his study to read the news. It was his professional habit to turn first to the column of Births, Marriages and Deaths — Hatch, Match and Dispatch as he called it when he was being funny — to see if there was anything there which called for his attention. He read of the engagement of Pearl Vambrace and Solomon Bridgetower with annoyance; if people pro­posed to be married in his church it was the least they could do to tell him before announcing it to the world. He spoke to his wife about it during dinner.

“I resent the casual assumption that I shall be on call, and the Cathedral ready, whenever anyone chooses to be married,” said he. “And how stupid to announce a marriage for November 31st; every­body knows that there is no such day.”

“The Vambraces are very odd people,” said Mrs Knapp. “Mrs Vambrace is a Catholic, I believe; I never knew that he was anything. Of course it is Mrs Bridgetower who wants the marriage to be in the Cathedral.”

“Then why has not Mrs Bridgetower said so to me?” asked the Dean. “I called on her only last week, and she did nothing but moan about Russia and her heart. She gave me to understand that unless the Russians change their tune at UN she will have a heart attack, presumably to spite them. She never breathed a word about her son’s marriage. And nobody has booked the Cathedral for the last day of November, which is presumably the day they mean. I will not be taken for granted in this irritating way.”

“Well, Jevon,” said his wife, “why don’t you call up Professor Vambrace and say so?”

“I shall call him after dinner,” said the Dean, though he did not relish the idea. He hated wrangles. But at eight o’clock precisely he was on the telephone.

“Good evening, Professor Vambrace, this is Dean Knapp of St Nicholas’ speaking. I hope you are well?”

“Good evening, Mr Knapp.”

“I saw the notice of your daughter’s engagement in The Bellman this evening, and I wished to speak to you about it.”

“You are under some misapprehension, Mr Knapp; my daughter is not engaged.”

“But her engagement is announced in this evening’s paper, and her wedding is said to be at St Nicholas’.”

At this point the Dean’s telephone clicked, and a steady buzzing told him that his communication with the Professor had been cut. So he patiently dialled the number again, and heard Vambrace’s voice.

“Who is it?”

“This is Dean Knapp of St Nicholas’ speaking. We were cut off.”

“Listen to me, whoever you are, I consider your joke to be in the worst of taste.”

“This is not a joke, Professor Vambrace. I am Dean Knapp –”

“Dean Humbug!” roared the Professor’s voice. “Do you suppose I am not aware, whoever you are, that this is Hallowe’en?” And the line began to buzz again.

The Dean was angry, but he was not one of those lucky men who are refreshed and stimulated by anger; it shook his self-confidence and upset his digestion and put him at a disadvantage with the world. He was ill-prepared, therefore, when the telephone rang a few minutes later and Professor Vambrace’s angry voice roared at him.

“So there was a notice of my daughter’s engagement in the paper!”

“Yes, of course, Professor Vambrace, that was what I called you about.”

“And what do you know about this outrage, eh?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson