Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

There was one other paper-marker in Salterton, and that was Mrs Edith Little, Ridley’s housekeeper, and it was this habit of hers which made him think of her as Constant Reader.

“Come on there, Ede, come on! Let some of the rest of us have a look at the paper!” It was Mrs Little’s brother-in-law, George Morphew, who spoke, and he playfully punched the November 1st issue of The Bellman from behind, as he did so, startling her from her absorption.

“You can have it in a few minutes,” she said, with dignity. “Just be patient.”

“Patient, hell! I got to check up on my investments.” George laughed loudly.

“Oh, your investments! You’re more of a baby than Earl. And speaking of Earl, just mind your language, George.”

“He’s in bed.”

“But not asleep. He can hear everything. And he just picks up everything he hears. So just let’s have a little less of H and D, please.”

George’s reply was to belch, long and pleasurably. His sister-in-law gave him a sharp glance, and although his face was solemn, she knew that he was kidding her. George thought of himself as a great kidder. Pity there was such a coarse streak in George. Still, that was how it was with most men; swear or burp or even worse, and think them­selves funny. She went on with her painstaking reading of the paper; from time to time she wetted her pencil and marked a typographical error. It was not long until her sister came in. George caught his wife by the wrist and drew her down into his lap. He kissed her with relish, while she struggled and giggled in his arms.

“Cut it out, Georgie,” she cried.

“A fine thing!” said George, feigning dismay. “A fellow comes home after five days on the road, and he can’t even get a little smooch!”

“Not in front of Ede,” said his wife.

“Gripes! Can’t swear because of Earl; can’t give you a smooching because of Ede! What the heck kind of house is this anyway?”

“Don’t mind me,” said Edith, but she was blushing.

“Lookit, Ede’s blushing!” cried George, delighted. “Come on, Kitten, let’s show her a real burner, and she’ll go up in smoke!” He seized his wife again, and kissed her in what he believed to be a Hollywood manner.

“George, that’s enough!” said Kitten. “You got to remember that Ede’s living a single life, and that kind of thing isn’t fair to her. She’s got her feelings, you know.”

“OK, OK,” said George, with assumed docility, and as his wife sat on his lap rearranging her hair, he whistled When I Get You Alone Tonight, rolling his eyes in rapture. This caused Kitten to give him a playful punch in the chest, to which he responded by slipping his hand under her skirt and snapping her garter against her thigh. Edith sniffed and glowered at the paper. These nights when George came home from “the road” were always difficult. She wondered how Kitten could stand for it. Funny how some people seemed to lose all the refinement they’d been brought up with, after marriage. These thoughts of hers were well understood by her sister, who thought that what Ede needed, maybe, was a little cheering up. Nothing raw, like George wanted to pull, but some fun.

“Ede’s marking up the paper for her fella,” said she, winking at her husband.

“Oh, that’s it, eh?” said George. “Say, how’s the big romance coming along, Ede?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” said Mrs Little, blushing again.

“Go on! Sure you have. You and Mr Shakespeare Ridley. Have you named the day?”

“Things between Mr Ridley and I are just exactly what they’ve always been, to wit, strictly formal as between employer and daily homemaker.”

“Strictly formal, eh? Like the time he was sick and asked you to give him a bed-bath?” said George.

“George Morphew, you made that up out of whole cloth, and I’d just like you to understand I don’t like it!”

“Well, cripes, Ede, keep your shirt on! Cripes, it’s nothing to me if you give him a bath. For all of me you can get into the tub together,” said George, who delighted in this subtle baiting of his sister-in-law and was prepared to continue on these lines for an hour. But Mrs Little’s cheeks were very red, and there were tears in her eyes.

“I’d just like you to know, George, that I’m a part owner in this house and I don’t have to put up with that kind of talk,” said she. “And if there’s any more of it, I’ll march right out of here with Earl, and you can carry the whole thing, mortgage and all.”

“Now you’ve made her sore, George,” said Kitten. “Why do you always have to go so far? Can’t you ever kid without getting raw? Lookit, now you’ve got her bawling.” She went to her sister and set about those shoulder squeezings, proffering of bits of partly-used Kleenex, and murmurings, with which women comfort one another.

“OK, OK, you don’t have to take that line with me,” said George who, like many great kidders, quickly became aggrieved. “I know we’ve got a mortgage just as well as anybody else in this house, and if you don’t want Earl to know it too, you better not shout so loud. You don’t have to throw the mortgage up in my face, just when I get home from five days on the road.”

“When you get back from the road, all you want to think about is One Thing,” said Mrs Little, with an air of injured virtue.

“Yeah? Well, just because you’re not getting any of it yourself you don’t have to pick on me,” said her brother-in-law, who now firmly believed himself to be the injured party.

“Georgie! You just take that right back!” It was his wife who spoke. “Just because Ede’s had hard luck and is left to fend for herself and her kiddie you got no right to taunt her because she’s living the life of a single girl and it gets her all nervous and stewed up –”

“I’m not stewed up,” shrieked Mrs Little, and hid her face in the sofa cushions, sobbing.

“Now look what you done!” roared George, happy to blame his wife for something.

“Mo-o-ommie!” The child’s voice floated down the stairs.

“Oh, God, you’ve wakened up Earl,” said Mrs Little, hastily mop­ping her eyes. “Coming, Lover! Mommie’s coming to you right away!” She hurried from the room.

“Well, now you’ve made a fine mess of it,” said Kitten.

“Aw, hell, Kitten, she’s not the only one that’s nervous. I’ve been five days on the road and I’m nervous as a cat. You know how I get.”

“I certainly do,” said Kitten, in what she meant to be a disapproving voice, but there was a strong hint of self-satisfaction in her tone.

“Well, all right; you wouldn’t like it if I didn’t come home that way, would you? Best compliment a wife can have. You don’t have to jump on me, just because I kid Ede a little bit. I tell you how Ede is: you got to kid her to keep yourself from taking a punch at her.”

“Now, Georgie, that’s my sister you’re talking about.”

“Sure, sure, I know. But she gives me a heartburn the wrong end of my digestive track, like the fella says. We ought to have a place of our own, Kitten.”

“We’ve been over all that lots of times, Georgie. We can share this big house with Ede a lot cheaper than we can live separate. We share the mortgage, and there’s what we get from the boarder, don’t forget.”

“I don’t like having a boarder.”

“It’s all money, and Mr Higgin is no trouble. With you on the road most of every week, it doesn’t bother you much. You wouldn’t want a room to stand empty, would you?”

“I guess not. But in this house everything’s for the boarder, or for Ede, or for that kid.”

“Aw now, honey-bunch, don’t be sore. There’s one thing in this house that’s all for Georgie.”

“Yeah? What?”

“Me,” said Kitten, and gave her husband a long and passionate kiss. She was a pretty little woman, and because she loved and was loved in return, she was rounded and attractive. Edith, though she had a child, looked sharp and unfruitful compared with her childless sister.

George was an unromantic figure, a travelling salesman for a food company, whose hair was thinning in front, and whose slack paunch slid down into the front of his trousers when he stood up. But so far as his nature allowed, he loved Kitten, and would have fought tigers for her. He kissed her now, greedily, and slipped his hand expertly into the bosom of her dress. And thus they remained, for perhaps a minute, until a key turned in the front door and the boarder came in.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson