Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I know nothing about it. I wished to know more.”

“What? Explain yourself.”

“That is what I intended to do, but you rudely rang off.”

“Never mind that. What do you know of this?”

“I saw the notice. I had heard nothing of any such wedding, and I called to make inquiries.”

“What about?”

“Well, I am Dean of St Nicholas’ and when a wedding is announced there I feel that I should be informed first.”

“The whole thing is an outrage!”

“To what do you refer, Professor Vambrace?”

“My daughter is not engaged to anyone. Least of all is she engaged to that yahoo of a Bridgetower.”

“Indeed. Then how do you explain the notice?”

“I don’t explain it! How do you explain it?”

“What have I to do with it?”

“Isn’t your church mentioned?”

“Yes, and that is what I called you about in the first place.”

“I have nothing to do with it, I tell you!”

“You need not shout, Professor.”

“I do well to shout. What do you know about this? Answer me! What do you know?”

“I only know that if you did not authorize the announcement, and it is dated for an impossible date, it looks as though the whole thing were a practical joke.”

“Joke? Joke! You dare to call this dastardly action a joke?”

“Professor, I must ask you to moderate your tone in speaking to me.”

There was an angry howl from the other end of the line, and the communication was cut for the third time, presumably because the Professor had slammed his telephone down in its cradle. Dean Knapp’s evening was ruined; for an hour he expostulated with his wife, whom he tried to cast in the role of Professor Vambrace, but she sustained it so poorly that he sank into silence and pretended to read a book. But all the while he was thinking up crushing retorts which he should have made when the opportunity served. There is nothing worse for the digestion than this, and before he went to bed the Dean took a glass of hot milk and two bismuth tablets.

He was in his first sleep when the telephone bell rang, and after a little prodding from his wife the Dean trudged downstairs to answer it, sleepily counting over in his mind those among his parishioners who were so near death that they might need him at this hour. But the voice on the telephone was tremulous with life and excitement.

“Mr Dean! Mr Dean!”

“Dean Knapp speaking. Who is it?”

“It is I, Mr Dean. Laura Pottinger.”

“What is the matter, Miss Pottinger?”

“Something terribly wrong is going on at the Cathedral, I know it. Lights are flashing on and off. And I am sure that I can hear the organ.”

“The organ, Miss Pottinger? Surely not.”

“Yes, the organ; I went out on my steps, and I am sure I heard it. And shouting. A dreadful, unholy sound.”

“Not from the Cathedral, Miss Pottinger. You must have been mistaken.”

“Indeed I am not mistaken. And I have called you so that you may take proper action at once.”

“What do you expect me to do, Miss Pottinger?”

“Do, Mr Dean? It is not for me to tell you what you should do. But if something is wrong at the Cathedral, do you not know what you should do?”

“But I am sure that you must have been deluded in some way, Miss Pottinger.”

“Deluded, Mr Dean? Do you suppose that because I am no longer young I do not know what I hear with my own ears? Do you mean to disregard this matter? Who knows what it may be — sacrilege of some sort, or robbery. There is a lot of fine plate in the Cathedral, Mr Dean, and it is not in the safe, as you know.”

This was a telling thrust. The Dean liked to have the Communion plate laid out at night, ready for the morning, and many of his parishioners, of whom Miss Pottinger was one, felt that it should be kept in the safe until it was needed. If anything were stolen, this quirk of the Dean’s would not be forgotten, so he said, “Very well, Miss Pottinger. I shall go over and see that everything is all right.”

“I shall meet you at the West Door.”

“No, no; you must not think of venturing out.”

“Yes, I shall. I want to know what is happening.”

“If there is anything amiss there might be trouble, and you must not be in any danger.”

“I am a soldier’s daughter, Mr Dean.”

“Miss Pottinger, as your priest, I forbid you to come to the Ca­thedral. Now please go back to bed and do not worry any more.” And with that the Dean hung up his telephone, hoping that he had quelled her. Miss Pottinger, who was over eighty, and very High in her religious opinions, rather liked to be ordered about by clergymen, and was always impressed by the word “priest”.

By this time the Dean was thoroughly awake, and cold and miser­able. His stomach was churning within him and he wanted to go back to bed. But unless he went to the Cathedral he would never hear the end of it. The chances were that Miss Pottinger was mistaken, and his journey would be for nothing: but on the other hand there might be something wrong, and he would face — what? The Dean had been through the 1914-18 war and he felt that his brave days were over. All he wanted now was a quiet life. But the service of the Church was terribly unquiet, sometimes. So he went back to his bedroom, and put on a pullover, and his socks and shoes, and drew on his cassock over his pyjamas. His wife, who was accustomed to night calls, did not stir. He found the large cloak which he wore for winter funerals in the coat-cupboard in the hall, and set forth.

It was only a block from the Deanery to the Cathedral, and the night was bright with moonlight, and mysterious with a film of mist. As the Dean drew near to the Cathedral his heart sank, for unmistakably there was music on the air, a loud and merry tune played upon the organ, mingled with singing voices and an occasional shout of laughter. And unquestionably there was light in the large church, not much, but some. As he approached the West Door the Dean thought that he saw a lurking figure, but when he drew near it had vanished. St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Salterton is not one of your common Canadian cathedrals, in sham Gothic; it is a reproduction, on a much smaller scale, of St Paul’s, and it has a periwigged dignity of its own. The West Door was under a columned portico, darkly shadowed at this time of night.

The Dean took out his key, and listened. The music and the laughter were not so plainly to be heard here as in the street, but they were plain enough, and eerie. The Dean admitted to himself that he was frightened. He was a devout man, and while devotion un­doubtedly brings its spiritual rewards it brings its spiritual terrors too. This was All Hallow’s Eve, and if he truly believed in All Saints on the morrow, why should he not believe in the Powers of Darkness tonight? He had never been the sort of Christian who wants to have things all his own way — to preach the love of God and to deny the existence of the Devil. Well, if he had to meet the Devil in the line of duty, he would do so like a man. He muttered a prayer, unlocked the door and tiptoed into the vast shadows of the church.

At first it seemed to him that the chancel was filled with people, but when his astonishment subsided he judged the number to be six or seven. In his own stall — the Dean’s stall! — a man was standing on his cushion, waving his arms in time to the music of the organ and the voice of the organist. It was a good tenor voice, and it was singing:

Man, Man, Man,

Is for the woman made.

And the woman for the man!

On the chancel steps a group of people, hand in hand, were circling in a dance, a sort of reel, and now and then one of them would cry “Heigh!” in the high voice used by Highland dancers.

As the spur is for the jade

As the scabbard for the blade,

As for digging is the spade

As for liquor is the can.

So Man, Man, Man,

Is for the woman made.

The voice was full and joyous and the accompaniment skirled and whistled from the reed pipes of the organ. The Dean stood amazed for a time — it could not have been long, but he was so astonished that he was unable to make any estimate of it — and then wondered what he should do. These were no devils, and as people they did not look very frightening. Indeed, he realized with astonishment at himself that he had been looking at their antics with admiration, thinking what a pretty sight they made, dancing there, and how beautiful his Ca­thedral looked in this light, with this music and with these inhabi­tants. Such thoughts would never do. He strode forward and shouted in a loud voice: “What is the meaning of this?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson