Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I’m not sure I want him to grow up to travel in canned goods,” said Edith.

“Oh, and what’s wrong with travelling in canned goods? Just as good as being a house-painter, I’d say.”

“Earl’s father was a sign-painter and letterer,” said Edith haughtily.

“And you have found no trace of him?” said Mr Higgin, who wanted to steer the conversation into calmer waters.

“Not hide nor hair,” said Kitten, and added portentously, “and from that day to this Ede has lived without men. Bob Little was the first and the last.”

“Oh, not the last, I’m sure,” said Mr Higgin gallantly. “He will be presumed dead, after a time, and then I am sure that you will have suitors galore. Galore,” he repeated, savouring this fine word.

“A widda with a kid isn’t going to draw much of a crowd,” said George, with more gloom than seemed really necessary.

“Oh, I must contradict you,” said Mr Higgin, tee-heeing. “A widow is a very attractive creature,” and he began to sing softly:

Have you heard of the widow Malone?


Who was bred in the town of Athlone?


Och, she bothered the hearts

Of the swains in them parts.

So lovely the Widow Malone


So lovely the widow Malone!

This outburst was so surprising that no one offered to speak immediately after it, and Mr Higgin followed up his advantage.

“Not only a rare melancholy beauty, but also literary taste and intellect, Mrs Little,” and with his hand he indicated the newspaper and the pencil which she was holding.

“Oh, that,” said Edith, blushing for no reason that she could think of. “Oh, that’s just a hobby of mine; every night I go through and mark the mistakes.”

“Ede keeps house for the editor,” said George. “Fella by the name of Ridley.”

“Mr Gloster Ridley,” said Edith primly. “I oblige him as a daily homemaker.”

“Washes the dishes after he cooks,” sniggered George. “Cooks all his own meals. Wears an apron too, I bet. That’s what happens to kids that aren’t regular.”

“Mr Gloster Ridley?” said Mr Higgin. “And you mark errors in the paper for him. Do you find many?”

“Not really for him,” said Edith. “But I feel I ought to help all I can. I can’t say he’s very grateful. In fact, I don’t mention it very often; I just take my marked paper and leave it where he’ll see it. Usually he doesn’t look.”

“How interesting. What kind of errors do you find?”

“All kinds. Names reversed under pictures, and misprints, and that kind of thing. Like this –” She pointed to a mark she had made on the social page. “See here, in this report of the Catholic Women’s League tea, it says: “The table was centred with a mass of dwarf nuns.” Of course, that ought to read ‘dwarf mums’.” “Mums? Mothers, do you mean?”

“No. Chrysanthemums. He’ll be sore when he sees that. But I won’t be the one to point it out. Sometimes he’s as good as hinted that he’d as soon I didn’t mark the paper.”

“Ah, touchy?”

“Very touchy. Yesterday there was a wrong date in an engagement notice. Said a marriage would take place on November 31st. What do you think of that?”

“I think some poor guy is probably making the mistake of his life,” said George, winking at Kitten, who punched him affectionately.

“I wouldn’t mention it to him. He marks a paper himself, and I just happened to see it this morning, before he went to work, and he hadn’t caught it. There’ll be trouble about that.”

“I should think so,” said Mr Higgin, his eyes wide. “Was it the engagement of anyone you knew?”

“Not to say I actually know them,” said Edith. “One was the daughter of a professor at the University and the other was Solly Bridgetower. I guess everybody knows about him; a while ago he was chasing after that Griselda Webster, but you wouldn’t catch a rich girl like that marrying a poor wet like him. They said his mother broke it up.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what happened about that,” said Mr Higgin, laughing his little laugh. “If you know this young Bridgetower, you will probably hear all about it.”

“Oh, it isn’t as if we actually know him,” said Kitten. “But you know how it is; we’ve lived in Salterton all our lives, and we get to know about a lot of people we don’t actually know to speak to, if you understand me.”

“I must speak to my friend Mr Shillito about it,” said Mr Higgin. “He is very highly placed on The Bellman, and he has been most kind to me since I came to town. Indeed, it was he who sent me to see Mr Bridgetower at the University.”

The conversation moved to more immediately interesting matters, such as the latent talent of the Morphews and Mrs Little, the striking cleverness of little Earl, the nobility and fortitude of a grass-widow of thirty-two who brought up her fatherless child single-handed, the desirability of daily home-making as a career over factory work (in that it allowed a refined person to keep herself to herself), the vagaries of life on the road, the art of salesmanship and the toll it took of the salesman, and kindred topics. So congenial did Mr Higgin prove that they sat until twelve o”clock, drinking some beer and eating cheese and crackers. They were greatly surprised to find how late it was, and when Mr Higgin sang as much as one man could of the Midnight Quartet from Flotow’s Martha (an opera in which, he said, he had once toured in Southern Ireland) the Morphews were lifted to such a romantic pitch that they did not observe that Mr Higgin had taken Edith’s hand and was pressing it tenderly to the breast pocket of his shiny blue suit. As Edith undressed in her own room — dark, so that Earl might not wake — she could hear his light tenor voice singing in the boarder’s room, and she reflected that however distant Mr Ridley might be, not all men of cultivation were unmoved by her presence.


In the music room of Waverley University Library, Pearl Vambrace had abandoned herself to a deplorable form of self-indulgence. If Mr Kelso, the lecturer on music, were to find her he would certainly be angry. If Dr Forgie, the Librarian, were to find her he would be angry too, for although he had no ear for music he knew an idle assistant when he saw one. But the chances were good that nobody would find her, for Mr Kelso had cancelled his Music Appreciation Hour for that afternoon, and everybody knew it but Dr Forgie. So Pearl had seized her chance. It had been a hateful day, and it would undoubtedly go on being hateful. She sprawled in a large armchair, her head resting on one arm and her legs dangling over the other, and gave herself up to illicit, healing pleasure.

The phonograph in the Music Room was of the largest and most expensive kind; it would play a great many records without being touched. But it was temperamental, like so many great artists, and only Mr Kelso and Pearl, who acted as his helper during music lectures, were permitted to go near it. Under Mr Kelso’s extremely critical eye Pearl had learned to pick up recordings by their edges only, to wipe them with a chamois, and to place them on the spindle of the costly, fretful machine. She was permitted to act as Mr Kelso’s handmaiden, and as nursemaid to the phonograph, because she had, in her own undergraduate years, been a particularly apt pupil in Music Appreciation; she could appreciate anything, and satisfy Mr Kelso that her appreciation was akin to, though naturally of a lesser intensity than, his own. Play her a Gregorian chant, and she would appreciate it; play her a Bartok quartet and she would appreciate that. And what brought a frosty and unwilling smile to Mr Kelso’s lips was that her appreciation, like his own, was untainted by sentimentalism; she did not rhapsodize foolishly about music, as so many of his students did; she really seemed to understand what music was, and to understand what he said about it in his singularly unmusical voice. When Pearl, the autumn after her graduation, was taken on the Library staff, Mr Kelso had asked that she be allowed to help him in the Music Room, when he lectured there.

It would never occur to Mr Kelso that Pearl was a hypocrite, or that Music Appreciation, as taught by him, was something which a stone-deaf student could learn and pass examinations in. But such was the case, and her post as bottle-washer to Mr Kelso and the machine gave Pearl occasional chances for indulging what she fully knew to be a base side of her nature.

Among the very large collection of phonograph records which the Library maintained were perhaps a hundred which Mr Kelso called his Horrible Examples. These were pieces of music which he de­spised, sung or played by people whose manner of interpretation he despised. Now and then Mr Kelso would play one of these, in order to warn his students against some damnable musical heresy. It had taken Pearl a long time to recognize and admit to herself that just as there were times when she had to buy and eat a dozen dough­nuts in one great sensual burst, there were also times when the Horrible Examples, and nothing else, were the music she wanted to hear.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson