Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“What is that, Mr Cobbler?”

“I only meant that you are an awe-inspiring figure in your cloak, Mr Dean.”

“You had been drinking, Mr Cobbler.”

“Not really. I mean, I’ve usually been drinking. But only a sip here and a sup there. Nothing, really. I might have had a beer, early in the evening.”

“Mr Cobbler, let us be plain. You had been drinking, and you brought a rowdy group into the Cathedral. You played secular music, very loudly, and you sang a song of obscene implication. Because of the excellence of your work in general, I might overlook such conduct once, but how am I to defend you against parishioners who feel themselves affronted by your conduct?”

“You mean Auntie Puss?”

“You should not speak so disrespectfully of Miss Pottinger.”

“No disrespect whatever, Mr Dean. All her dearest friends call her that.”

“You are not one of her dearest friends.”

“Through no fault of mine, I assure you.”

“You annoy her, and others.”

“In what way, Mr Dean? Apart from last night, I mean.”

“It’s something about you. You don’t look like a Cathedral organist.”

“That’s lucky for me. Funny chaps, a lot of them. Seem to have no faces. But what can I do about it?”

“You might dress more neatly. You look too Bohemian for your position.”

“Oh, not that, surely. Bohemian is a word we use of the bad habits of our friends. I’m sure Auntie Puss doesn’t say I look Bohemian.”

“If you wish to know, she says you look like a gypsy golliwog.”

Cobbler opened his mouth very wide, and laughed a loud, long laugh, which made several ornaments on the mantelpiece ring sym­pathetically. “I wouldn’t have thought the old faggot could think up anything so lively,” he said when he had done.

“You must not call Miss Pottinger an old faggot.”

“Why not, if she can call me a gypsy golliwog?”

The Dean was greatly troubled now. “You will not be serious,” he said.

“Oh come, Mr Dean. That’s what Auntie Puss says about you. We mustn’t get our characters mixed.”

“I mean that you will not look at your situation in a proper way.”

“I know. That’s what one of my teachers used to say. ‘Er ist nicht ernst,’ he would mumble, because I wouldn’t get all sweaty about Brahms.”

“You must be serious. You have a wife and children to support. That is serious, I suppose?”

“Not really.”

“What is serious then?”

“Music, I suppose, in a hilarious sort of way,” said Cobbler, ruffling his hair and grinning.

“The Cathedral is not serious?”

“Perhaps the Cathedral is too serious,” said Cobbler. “It is the House of God, isn’t it? How do we know that God likes His house to be damned dull? Nobody seems to think that God might like a good time, now and then.”

“We are achieving nothing by this conversation,” said the Dean wearily. He felt the old weakness coming over him. He agreed with half of what Cobbler said, and in order to keep from being completely won over he was driven into a puritanical position which he did not enjoy, and in which he had little belief. Before they parted, he had won something resembling an apology from the organist, and a promise that the outrage of the previous night would never be repeated. When they parted, Cobbler’s step was light, and the Dean was sitting hunched up in his chair, greatly troubled. Anyone coming upon them suddenly would not have known that the Dean had been rebuking and disciplining his organist; it looked as though the reverse had been the case.

Professor Vambrace was not a man to utter an empty threat. When he left the office of The Bellman after his unsatisfactory talk with Mr Ridley and Mr Marryat, he went at once to the chambers of his lawyers, Snelgrove, Martin and Fitzalan.

Chambers is the only possible word to describe the place in which this old-established firm discharged their affairs. Offices they were not, for an office suggests a place touched by modern order and efficiency. Nor were they simply rooms, for they had lofty architec­tural pretensions, and enclosed a dim light and a nineteenth-century frowst which distinguished them from common apartments. They partook largely of that special architectural picturesqueness which is only to be found in Canada, and which is more easily found in Salterton than in newer Canadian cities. Now the peculiar quality of this picturesqueness does not lie in a superficial resemblance to the old world; it is, rather, a compound of colonialism, romanticism and sturdy defiance of taste; it is a fascinating and distinguished ugliness which is best observed in the light of Canadian November and December afternoons. This picturesqueness is not widely admired, and examples of it are continually being destroyed, without one voice being raised in their defence. But where they exist, and are appreci­ated, they suggest a quality which is rather that of Northern Europe — of Scandinavia and pre-revolutionary Russia — than of England or the USA. It is in such houses as these that the characters in the plays of Ibsen had their being; it was in this light, and against these back­grounds of stained wood and etched glass that the people of Tchekov talked away their lives. And, if the Canadian building be old enough, the perceptive eye may see faint ghosts from Pushkin and Lermontov moving through the halls. This is the architecture of a Northern people, upon which the comfort of England and the luxury of the United States have fallen short of their full effect.

To reach the offices of Snelgrove, Martin and Fitzalan the Professor had to climb a long flight of stairs, which had a marked list to the right, and an elaborate balustrade which seemed to have no purpose but to keep the climber from pitching into the wall which rose directly beside it. The central room of the law chambers was lofty, and suggested a Victorian railway station and a vestry, without precisely resembling either. In it, at a number of tables and desks, sat several stenographers working at typewriters, and as these instruments tapped, the milky opaque glass which composed the partitions which shut off the private rooms of the partners rang and jingled protestingly. Mr Fitzalan was not engaged, and the Professor was shown at once to his private room.

This was a small apartment, much too tall for its floor area, and consequently rather like a well. Its single window looked out on the street, but as the exposure was a northeasterly one it was dark in November. The partition which separated it from the main office was composed of Gothic groining in wood, and the varnish on this wood had, through the years, acquired the rough and scaly surface of an old lizard. In the arches of the partition was a frosted glass, in which an elaborate floral scrollwork had been cut. In such a setting, Ronnie Fitzalan looked oddly frivolous and out of place. He was in his early forties, and on close inspection he looked it, but a first glance did not take in his bald spot, the mottled red of his cheeks, and his dull and drooping eye; it was the jaunty twist of his moustache and the elegance of his tie which held the gaze. He was a cousin of Vambrace’s wife, and he greeted the Professor with cordiality.

Vambrace told his story, displayed the offending clipping from The Bellman, and demanded to know how quickly he could bring an action for libel. But Fitzalan gave him little comfort. ;.

“You’d better forget all about it, Wally,” said he. “Libel’s the very devil even when you’ve got a good case, and you’ve got no case at all. Who put the thing in the paper? You don’t know. You want to sue The Bellman. Right? Well, they’ll fight just as hard as you will. You’ll get all kinds of publicity you don’t want. That’ll do you no good and The Bellman no harm. Suppose you win; what’ve you got? Suppose you lose — and you could lose, you know, just as easy as dammit — you’ve got a big bill for costs and you’ve been made to look a fool. You’d better take The Bellman’s offer of an apology.”

“But they will not apologize,”said Vambrace.

“Not the way you want them to,” said Fitzalan. “How can you expect anybody to eat dirt like that? But they’ve made you an offer, and it’s the best one for you. It’ll save face for you, and save face for them, and it won’t attract a hell of a lot of attention, which is what you seem to want. Damn it all, Wally, do you want to make little Pearlie look like a fool? Do you want to spoil her chances of ever nabbing a husband, poor kid? If you do, just go ahead and shout her name around the court for a few days, or get it on the front page of The Bellman, suggesting that some poor chap has had his head knocked off for pretending he was engaged to her.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson