Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I hope I don’t intrude,” said he, popping his head around the corner from the hallway.

“Oh, not a bit. Come in, Mr Higgin,” said Kitten, jumping up and tidying her hair and frock.

“Jeez, Kitten, you don’t have to jump like that. I guess it’s legal, after six years married,” said George. “Take a chair, Mr Higgin.”

Bevill Higgin was a small, very neat man, so small and neat that the shininess of his suit and the oldness of his shoes did not at once attract attention. Although he was not eccentrically dressed, there was something old-fashioned in his appearance. His face was of a fresh, salmon pink, and his eyes were of a light and shiny blue. Although the top of his head was shiny and bald, the rusty hair which fringed it was long, and was brushed upward in an attempt to minimize his baldness, and this gave him a look of surprise. He had a long, inquisitive nose, and his little mouth was usually drawn into a bow, but from time to time it expanded in a smile which showed very white, very shiny false teeth. He was a teacher of elocution by profession, and, unlike many of his kind, he spoke in a pleasant voice with no particular accent, though an expert in such matters would have detected him as an Irishman. He perched himself neatly on a chair, and twinkled his eyes and his teeth at George and Kitten.

“I shan’t stay long,” said he. “I see that you are — busy, shall I say?” And he laughed; his laugh was of a kind infrequently heard, which can only be suggested by the syllables tee-hee, tee-hee. “I wanted to ask a favour. I am acquiring a few pupils now, quite a number, really, and it is not always convenient for me to teach them in their homes. Many of them are business young men and women, who live in lodgings. I hoped that I might beg the use of this room for a couple of nights a week — when you are from home, naturally, Mr Morphew — for two or three hours’ teaching?”

“Well, I’d have to give that some thought, Mr Higgin,” said Kitten.

“Naturally, I should wish to pay extra for the extra accommodation. But perhaps we could leave the matter of fixing a sum until I found out just how many hours I would need the room,” said Mr Higgin.

“Well –” Kitten was always open to suggestions which would bring more money into the house. There was that mortgage.

“Perhaps we might make some reciprocal arrangement,” said Mr Higgin. “I would be very happy to make the extra payment in lessons. You yourself, Mrs Morphew, have a delightful voice; a little training, and who can say what might not come of it? Or the little boy — a charming child, but think how his opportunities in life would be increased if, from infancy, he learned to speak with — shall I say? — an accent which would at once make him persona grata among persons of cultivation?”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” said George, the kidder rising triumphant above the frustrated lover in him. He put one hand on his hip, and patted at his back hair with the other, speaking in what he believed to be the accent of a person of cultivation: “Good mawning, mothaw deah. Did I heah Uncle Georgie come in pie-eyed lawst night? Disgusting, yaws? Haw!” After this flight of fancy he could contain himself no longer, and burst into a guffaw.

“Georgie, that’s not funny,” said Kitten. Like many women, she had a superstitious reverence for teachers of all sorts, and she did not like to see Mr Higgin affronted. But Mr Higgin was tee-heeing happily.

“Oh, it’s easy to see where the talent lies in this house,” said he. “You have a real gift for comedy, Mr Morphew. I’d give a great deal to do some work with you, but I know you men of affairs. You’d be too busy.”

“Eh?” said George. “Well, some of the boys think I’m pretty good. Stunt night at the club, and that kind of thing.”

“Indeed, I know it,” said Mr Higgin. “I’ve had a wide experience of club smokers myself. Not for ladies, of course,” he cried, tee-heeing at Kitten, “but very good, oh, very good. It’s a pity so much talent is lost to business, but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it. Still, it would be a pleasure to help you.”

“You mean, give me a few lessons?” said George. “Well, I don’t see why not. Maybe I could work up a little new material, eh. For club night?”

“Do you know a song called The Stub of Me Old Cigar?” Mr Higgin’s eyes twinkled wickedly. “Or, If You Don’t Want The Goods, Don’t Maul ‘Em?” His eyes fleetingly sought Kitten. “Both delightful songs. I know all the verses.”

“It’s a deal,” said George, excitedly, and he would have closed with Mr Higgin then and there, but his sister-in-law came downstairs at that moment, greeted Mr Higgin formally, and sat down again to her paper, pencil in hand.

“What do you think, Ede,” said George. “Mr Higgin is going to give me a little training in a few little take-offs and sketches. Get a little new material.”

“Your brother-in-law and sister have talent, I feel,” said Mr Higgin. “One develops an instinct for such things. And you, too, Mrs Little; I feel that you are by no means the least talented of this gifted family. But your flair is for the serious rather than the comic. You and your sister might pose for a study of Comedy and Tragedy. You know the famous portrait of Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy? What a tableau you might make, with you, Mr Morphew, as Garrick, of course.”

“Never heard of Garrick, but I’m strong on garlic,” roared George. He was one of those men to whom onions, in all forms, were exquisitely comic.

“Oh, Mr Morphew, what an impromptu!” cried Mr Higgin, tee-heeing until his face was a deep carrot colour. “What a radio MC you might make! Or television!” Mr Higgin waved a tiny hand, as though indicating boundless vistas of achievement before George. But George was not the only one who had fallen under his spell.

“Funny you should compare Kitten and I with Comedy and Tragedy,” said Edith, “because that’s the way our lives have always worked out. Hers is a great big joke, all the time, but I’ve always seemed to get the dirty end of the stick.”

“Aw now, Ede, it’s not as bad as that,” said Kitten.

“That’s how it seems to you,” said Edith, “but you haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through.”

“Husband ran out on her,” said George, who had no sense of artis­tic form and did not understand that such a revelation as this should have come after much preliminary hinting. “Left her with the kid.”

“Left her before the baby came,” said Kitten. “What I said at the time was, how big of a stinker can a fella get?”

Mr Higgin said nothing, but he looked at Edith very seriously, his mouth so pursed as to be completely circular. At last he said, “Perhaps you were well rid of him.”

“I was,” said Edith, who was enjoying the situation. “But if there’s one thing means more to me than anything else, it’s duty, and he’s got a duty to little Earl, and the dearest wish of my life is to see that duty done.”

“Yes?” said Mr Higgin, for that seemed to be what was wanted of him. But once again George clumsily robbed Edith of her moment.

“Wants to catch up with him,” said he, “to dig money out of him for the kid’s education. But no luck, so far.”

“Your boy will bless you for it,” said Mr Higgin, turning his eyes solemnly upon Edith. “A parent cannot give a child anything finer than an education to fit it for life. As I was suggesting a few moments ago to Mrs Morphew, I might perhaps undertake the little lad’s speech-training; a really well-trained voice, from his earliest years, would put him far beyond ordinary children, who speak very carelessly in Canada, I must say. And in such a talented family –”

“No, Ede, don’t you do anything that’ll make the kid talk different from other kids,” said George. “A kid’s got to be regular. Other kids hate a stuck-up kid. If a kid isn’t just like other kids it keeps him from getting to be outstanding, and going ahead in the world. Nope, I won’t go for any teaching the kid to speak like a sissy.”

“And what’s it got to do with you?” said Edith coldly.

“The kid’s got no father and I feel a kind of a duty to give the advice a father’d give. You want the kid to grow up regular, don’t you?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson