Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

The effect was everything that he could have desired, except that the music did not stop. The men roared, and scurried for cover behind the choir stalls; the women — or girls, he judged them to be — shrieked and hid themselves; one leapt into the Bishop’s throne and slammed the little door behind her, and another dived into a pew where, on the principle supposed to be favoured by ostriches, she hid her head, but left a great deal of silk-stockinged leg and some inches of thigh in clear view.

Be she widow, wife or maid,

Be she wanton, be she staid

Be she well or ill array’d

Whore, bawd or harridan,

So Man, Man, Man,

Is for the woman made,

And the woman for the man!

The voice concluded triumphantly. Then as the notes of the organ seemed to fly away into the shadows at the roof of the chancel it cried again: “How was that?”

‘Mr Cobbler, what is the meaning of this?” called the Dean sternly.

“Oh, my God!” said the voice, dismayed, and from the organ console emerged the figure of Humphrey Cobbler, the Cathedral organist, dishevelled and ill-dressed, badly in want of a haircut, plainly drunk, but with an air of invincible cheerfulness which shone through even his present discomfiture.

‘Mr Dean,” he said, fatuously, “this is an unexpected pleasure.”

‘Mr Cobbler,” said the Dean, now fully in command of the situation, “answer my question: What is going on here?”

“Well, Mr Dean, it isn’t altogether easy to explain. Very odd, on the face of it. As I shall be the first to admit. But when taken in the light of everything that has gone before, and viewed historically, if I may so express myself, quite inevitable and defensible and not in the least reprehensible, if I make myself clear.”

Cobbler delivered this speech with a fine rhetorical air, and there was an appreciative snigger from one of the hidden figures.

“Who are these people?” said the Dean, gesturing broadly. When he had entered the Cathedral he had suffered from the sense of insuf­ficiency which afflicts a man who is wearing no trousers under his cassock: now he was free of that disability, and had indeed acquired the spacious and authoritative manner of a man who is wearing, and has a right to wear, a handsome cloak. “Come out, all of you, at once,” he cried.

“If you please, Mr Dean,” said Cobbler, “don’t ask that. This is entirely my fault, and I accept the full responsibility. Don’t ask them to come out. Not fair to them. My fault.”

“Be silent, Mr Cobbler,” said the Dean sternly. “Come out, all of you, and be quick.”

Shuffling and scraping, they came out. And the Dean was amazed to see, not a pack of middle-aged roisterers, but four boys and three girls of university age, plainly students at Waverley, and all looking shame-faced enough to melt a harder heart than his.

“Students, I see,” said the Dean, because he could think of nothing better to say.

“My students, Mr Dean, and here entirely because of me,” said Cobbler. “I hope that you will allow me to send them away, now, for they are really not to blame for what has happened.”

“You must all go away, at once,” said the Dean. “And I shall see you, Mr Cobbler, at the Deanery at half-past ten tomorrow morning. Now go.” And he herded them toward the West Door.

But as they drew near to it, he had a sudden thought, and pushing past the boys and girls he opened the door a crack and peeped out. Yes, there was a figure, lurking, which could only be Miss Pottinger. The Dean was annoyed. He wanted time to make up his mind about this matter, and he did not want any interference. He was angry with Miss Pottinger for snooping around the Cathedral when he had told her to stay at home. Perhaps unreasonably, he was angrier with her than with the sheepish students who had been making merry in his Cathedral. So he turned, and without explanation, drove them before him to a door which communicated with the Church House and Sunday School annex of the Cathedral, and from there he dismissed them into a street far from where Miss Pottinger kept her vigil. When they had been gone a few minutes he followed them, and went back to the Deanery wrapped in thought.

Miss Pottinger, shivering with cold and disappointed curiosity, hung about the West Door until Archie Blaine, The Bellman reporter, returning late from the office, approached her and asked if anything was wrong. And, as often happens when something is wrong, Miss Pottinger denied it vehemently and scampered across the street to her own house.

It would probably be unjust to Miss Laura Pottinger to describe her as a busybody; she preferred to think of herself as one who possessed a strong sense of her responsibility toward others. She was a soldier’s daughter, as she had told the Dean; her father had for many years been a colonel of militia, and if he had not been somewhat too busy for service when the first Boer War broke out, and somewhat too old for it when the second Boer War came along, he would undoubtedly have distinguished himself in the field. He was a very successful wholesale grocer, and his business yielded the means to support his military dignity on the highest level; indeed, in his household it was possible to maintain the most idealistic concepts of military honour, of good breeding and of Victorian Anglicanism, without ever being troubled about such base considerations as money. Miss Pottinger, in her advanced years, had yielded nothing to the spirit of the times; two world wars had beaten vainly against her sense of propriety, and the reduction of her means (though she was very comfortably off) had only served to increase her devotion to what she believed to be the public good.

She was aggrieved, but not surprised, that Dean Knapp had behaved so oddly in the matter of the midnight disturbance in the Cathedral. She had long ago decided that the Dean lacked those qualities of decison, censoriousness and command which she in­cluded under the general heading of “gimp”. But she was devoted to the Cathedral, and was ready to put all her own boundless stock of gimp at its service. Therefore she made her way to early Communion on All Saints’ Day in a martial spirit, and as soon as the service was over she buttonholed Mr Matthew Snelgrove, the lawyer, as he made his way toward the door.

“You are not locking up the Communion plate, Mr Snelgrove?”

“Surely that is not necessary, Miss Pottinger? There will be another service at eleven.” Mr Snelgrove was chancellor of the diocese, and although it was not strictly his duty to do so, he usually locked the church valuables in the vault, and made himself responsible for their safe keeping.

“I hope that there was nothing missing this morning?”

“Not that I know of. Why would there be?”

“There was something very odd going on in the Cathedral last night, at midnight and after. A dreadful clamour, as though the place were full of rowdy people. I called the Dean, and I believe he took some action, though of course I don’t know. Naturally I was anxious. After all, there were many fine pieces on the altar all night, including the chalice which father gave to St Nicholas’ on the successful conclusion of the South African War. I was concerned. And of course I concluded that you, as chancellor, would have news which would be some time in getting down to those of us who are merely parishioners.”

Simple though this speech appears, it contained many of those qualities of hidden meaning and implication which made Miss Pottinger a remarkable, if unrecognized, rhetorician. It aroused suspicion in the mind of Mr Snelgrove, and warmed up his well-developed animosity against the Dean; it suggested sacrilege, which to his lawyer-like mind was deeply repugnant; it brought into the open the old quarrel about whether the altar should be decked with Communion plate at night (which was convenient) or in the morning (which was safe); it reminded Mr Snelgrove that the Pottingers had been an influential and generous family in Cathedral life for almost a century, and that when Miss Pottinger died her small fortune might come to the Cathedral if she got her way in some Cathedral affairs; its mock humility flattered the chancellor, while goading him, and gave him an excuse to harry the Dean. Mr Snelgrove’s keen legal mind grasped all these points at once, and after a few more words with Miss Pottinger he hurried off to the vestry, like a ruffled old stork, to tackle the Dean about it.

It must not be supposed, because Dean Knapp was not in every respect satisfactory to Miss Pottinger, Mr Snelgrove and some others among his parishioners, that he was less than capable as a clergyman. He was, on the contrary, a man of more than ordinary ability in his profession. But in every church there are people who, for reasons which seem sufficient to them, do not approve of their pastor and who seek to harry him and bully him into some condition more pleasing to themselves. The democracy which the Reformation brought into the Christian Church rages in their bosoms like a fire; they would deny that they regard their clergyman as their spiritual hired hand, whom they boss and oversee for his own good, but that is certainly the impression they give to observers. Dean Knapp attracted this sort of bullying, for he had his share of personal vanity, and it was his desire to be considered urbane. Although he lived in Canada, in the middle of the twentieth century, his clerical ideals were those nineteenth-century clergymen in England who were witty men of the world, as well as men of God. His aptitude for this sort of masquerad­ing was not great, but he tried hard, and often committed innocent follies in pursuit of his urbane goal. He made little literary jokes which people did not understand; he sometimes suggested that certain minor sins were unimportant and rather funny, instead of ignoring them completely as a really tactful Canadian clergyman should; he lacked zeal for the more uproarious sorts of boys’ work, and when it was necessary to raise money for good causes he did not show that wholehearted reverence for money which is so reassuring to a flock composed predominantly of business people. And, worst of all, he sometimes refused to be serious when dealing with people who were angry. It was this characteristic of the Dean’s which especially annoyed Mr Matthew Snelgrove, who was often angry and who liked people to share his anger or tremble at it. A surprising amount of Mr Snelgrove’s time was spent in trying to make the Dean be serious when the Dean wanted to be urbane.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson