Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Mr Snelgrove entered the vestry, with the most cursory of knocks, just as the Dean had removed his cassock and was about to put on his waistcoat and coat. It is not as easy to be urbane in shirtsleeves as when fully dressed.

“What’s this I hear about trouble in the church last night?” asked Mr Snelgrove.

But Dean Knapp was not to be caught that way, and he replied: “Well, what do you hear about it, Mr Snelgrove?” He then smiled, as though to say that Mr Snelgrove was making a fuss about nothing.

“Miss Pottinger thought that there might be some danger to the plate which was on the altar. It is of considerable value, you know.”

“It is certainly more valuable than one might think, without being as valuable as the donors suppose,” said the Dean, and laughed urbanely. Not bad, thought he, for a man who has not yet had his breakfast. But Mr Snelgrove was not pleased.

“We should have our work cut out to replace it, if any of it were stolen,” said he.

“Then perhaps we should increase the insurance,” said the Dean.

“The insurance is all right as it is,” said Mr Snelgrove. “But associ­ations, and sentiment, and the devotion to the Cathedral which those pieces represent can’t be replaced with insurance.”

“No, of course not,” said the Dean, pulling in his horns. He rarely had the temerity to be urbane straight through even the shortest conversation.

“What was happening here last night?”

“What was not happening last night? Hallowe’en, you know. The first thing to happen was that someone made an impudent use of the Cathedral’s name in connection with a practical joke.” And then the Dean told Mr Snelgrove about the false engagement notice, and the unreasonable treatment to which he had been subjected by Professor Vambrace. But that was not enough to assuage the curiosity of the lawyer.

“And what was happening at the Cathedral? Miss Pottinger spoke of some rowdiness here.”

“Some people got in and were skylarking, but they meant no harm. I quickly cleared them out.”

“If they got in someone must have let them in. There are not so many keys. Who admitted them?”

“I did not ask.”

“Didn’t ask, Mr Dean! And why didn’t you ask? Is it nothing that people should break in here and skylark, as you call it? Did Smart let them in?”

“Smart is the most discreet of caretakers, Mr Snelgrove.”

“Who, then? Was it Cobbler?”

“I assure you, Mr Snelgrove, I have the matter in hand and will take steps to prevent it happening again.”

“Then it was Cobbler. I have said many times, Mr Dean, that we ought to get rid of that man.”

“Mr Cobbler has his faults, but he is an excellent musician. It would be easier to get rid of him than it would be to replace him.”

“I know little about music, Mr Dean, and frankly I care little. But Cobbler’s character is such that it will one day bring disgrace upon this church, and if you insist upon defending him you may be seriously implicated.”

“That is not a risk which worries me, Mr Snelgrove. And as Mr Cobbler comes directly under my authority I think that the matter of disciplining him may safely be left to me. And I must remind you, by the way, that it is you, and not I, who associate him with the trifling disturbance here last night.”

“And you have not denied that he was responsible. I must remind you, Mr Dean, that as a lawyer I am not unaccustomed to evasiveness.”

“That is very frankly stated, Mr Snelgrove,” said the Dean, and the two men parted, each feeling that he had been called evasive by the other, and resenting it.

Although it seemed to Mr Snelgrove that he had made no im­pression upon the Dean and had been rebuffed by him with some­thing approaching impertinence, he had in fact worried the Dean considerably. In a life spent in church work, the Dean had never become accustomed to the vigilance of parishioners in observing his every movement, or to the rapidity with which rumour and surmise circulated among them. If their zeal for their salvation, he thought, began to equal their zeal for minding his business, the New Jerusalem would quickly be at hand. He wanted to pass off the affair of the students in the Cathedral as quietly as possible; he hated rebuking people, partly from timidity and partly from genuine kindness, and he valued the Cathedral organist highly. Working with Cobbler he had been able to raise the aesthetic standard of the Cathedral services to a level in which he took pride; he was continually astonished by the slight effect which this work of his appeared to have upon his congregation. Indeed, the better Cobbler’s music was, the more the organist’s personality seemed to grate upon a number of influential Cathedral parishioners. As the Dean looked at Cobbler when the latter appeared in his study at half-past ten on All Saints’ Day, he wondered if these disapproving parishioners were not, perhaps, in the right.

The organist had assumed what was, for him, ceremonial garb for this solemn occasion. That is to say, he wore an ill-fitting and rather dirty blue serge suit, the trousers of which were so short that no one could miss seeing that he wore no socks, and that of the laces in his scuffed black shoes, one was black and one was brown. His shirt was clean but ragged, and his tie had ridden toward his left ear. His hair, which was black, thick and very curly, stood out from his head like a Hottentot’s; he had cut himself several times while shaving, and had staunched the blood with tufts of cotton wool. But it was not the man’s poverty or untidiness which made him a disturbing object; it was the smiling concentration of his lean, swarthy face, and the nervous rolling of his large, black, bird-like eyes. He looked like a gypsy. His appearance was of the sort which causes housewives to lock up their spoons and their daughters.

“This is a serious matter, Mr Cobbler,” said the Dean, who found it hard to begin.

“Serious, indeed,” said Cobbler agreeably.

“I had hoped that your escapade of last night would not become widely known, but already the Press has been plaguing me with questions about what has been happening in the Cathedral.”

“Tck, tck.” Cobbler clucked his tongue sympathetically.

“The Press,” said the Dean, finding himself suddenly incensed against The Bellman, “is a powerful and often a mischievous agency.”

“Dreadful,” said Cobbler, with feeling.

“I cannot guarantee that the story of your escapade may not become known,” said the Dean. And indeed he could not tell whether Miss Pottinger or Mr Snelgrove might not babble something which a reporter might pick up. “You realize what a juicy morsel it would make?”

Cobbler closed his eyes, giving an unconvincing imitation of a man whose thoughts lie too deep for utterance. The Dean knew that he was not achieving the effect he sought. He decided to try another line.

“Mr Cobbler, have I not always tried to be fair with you in all matters relating to your duties at the Cathedral?”

“Mr Dean, your sympathetic co-operation makes my work a pleasure, as the gynaecologist said to the lady contortionist,” said Cobbler, earnestly. The Dean blinked, but decided to ignore the similitude.

“Then why are you not fair to me?” he asked. “You must know that it is not always easy for me to defend you against people in the Cathedral who disapprove of you. Why do you provoke trouble in this wanton fashion?”

“The move into the Cathedral was unpremeditated,” said Cobbler. “I never expected that there would be any trouble.”

“Rowdy singing! And dancing! And you say you did not expect any trouble!”

“It happened very simply. I had been talking to a group of students about music. Walking home, I had another idea, and as I happened to have my key with me, we popped into the Cathedral for a brief illustration.”

“You were singing what sounded to me like a bawdy song.”

“The words are misleading. The tune is a roundelay, and true roundelays are not easy to find. Poets use the word, but you know what loose thinkers poets are. The words are insignificant.”

“Those young people were dancing. And three of them were girls. Young, attractive girls,” added the Dean, severely, for as every moralist knows, youth and charm in a woman makes any deviation from ordinary conduct doubly reprehensible.

“Stirring about rhythmically, perhaps. You know how musical people are.”

“Dancing. Unquestionably they were dancing. I saw a lot of leg.”

Cobbler said nothing, but his eyes rolled in a way the Dean did not like.

“If it was all so innocent, why did they hide when I came upon them?”

“Frightened, I suppose. After all, it was Hallowe’en.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson