Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

As she lay in the chair on the afternoon of November 1st, a bag in which there were still ten delicious greasy doughnuts was on the floor at her side, and on the turntable of the phonograph was what she called, to herself, a Vambrace Mixed Concert. At present, in the con­cert hall of her mind, the world-renowned pianist, Pearl Vambrace, was playing Sinding’s Rustle of Spring; as the cascades of sound gushed and burbled from the instrument the audience asked itself how it was that this frail girl could produce a body of tone which might have been (and in plain fact was) that of two players with a piano each: and the only reply that the audience could give itself was that this was the mastery vouchsafed to an artist who lived wholly for her art. . . Spring ceased to rustle, the gramophone gave a discreet, expensive cough, and at once broke into the rather thin strains of I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby. Pearl Vambrace, the contralto marvel of the age, stood by the piano, singing the sweet ballad with a melancholy beauty which suggested very strongly the voice of a once-great Welsh tenor. . . To cheat thee of a sigh, or charm thee to a tear. . . With heartbreaking loveliness, with ineffable, romantic silliness, the ex­quisite voice mounted to the last note, and Pearl’s eyes were wet as her hand stole down into the bag for another doughnut. . . This lot of records was nearly done. Only one more to be played. It was Sibelius’ Valse Triste, which Mr Kelso was accustomed to call an aberration of genius, but which Pearl thought of in quite different terms. This time she appeared upon the stage of her imagination as Pearl Vambrace, the great ballerina, floating with pathetic grace through a dance of love and death. It was unbearably beautiful, and yet, somehow, it made life much more bearable. It made it possible, for instance, to think with some composure about Father.

Sherlock Holmes was accustomed to think of a difficult case as a three-pipe problem. In Pearl’s life, Father was becoming more and more a dozen-doughnut problem. Without the greasy, bulky comfort of a dozen doughnuts distributed at various points through her digestive tract the Professor’s daughter found it hard to think about him at all. His behaviour last night, for instance; his terrible rage, his rhetorical ravings after he had finished talking on the telephone with Dean Knapp; it was all that she could do to bring herself to think of them. He had not been so much angry as amazed, to begin with, but gradually, over an hour’s time, he had worked himself up to a pitch of shouting fury. And what a personal fury! Great as his rage was, it was only big enough for himself. She and Mummy might have been the culprits, rather than the sharers in any disgrace or scandal that there was.

Mummy had taken it, as always when there was trouble, incoherently and in tears, and finally in agonized prayer. That Mummy loved Father there was no shadow of doubt, and that Mummy loved God was equally apparent. But she seemed always to be so frightened and guilty before them both. Perhaps if Father had not forbidden Mummy to bring Pearl up a Catholic things would have been easier at home. Pearl knew, of course, that when they had married, Father had promised (but “as good as promised” was the exact phrase that Mummy used on the rare occasions when she spoke of it to Pearl) to join his wife in her faith, but he had refused to do so (or as Mummy always said, “had been unable to do so”). He had insisted that Pearl be brought up an agnostic, like himself. Nor was this done by neglect of religion, or silence about it; long before she could understand what he was talking about Father had lectured her on the nature of faith, of which he had a poor opinion. And as Mummy became more and more devout, and gave more and more of her time to meditation and spiritual exercises, Father’s unbelief grew rawer and more aggressive. Home was not easy. But Pearl was a loyal daughter and it never occurred to her that home was, in many ways, a hell.

Last night Mummy had spent at least two hours at the prie-dieu in her bedroom, weeping softly and praying. Pearl had no such refuge. Father had paced the floor, his eyes glaring, and at one time foam, unmistakable foam, had appeared at the corners of his mouth. He had talked of a plot, on the part of a considerable number of unknown persons, to bring him into disrepute and mockery. He had been darkly conscious of this plot for some time; indeed, it had begun before he had been done out of his rightful dignity as Dean of Arts. That was when the late Professor Bridgetower had been voted into the dean’s chair. Bridgetower! A scientist, a geologist if you please, who would not even have been in the Arts faculty if the composition of the Waverley syllabus had not been ridiculously out of date! What if the man was called Professor of Natural Philosophy; in the present day such terminology was as ludicrous as calling a man Professor of Phrenology. They had been out to defeat him and they had done so. But, not content with that shabby triumph, they now sought to disgrace him through his family. Through his only child — a daughter! What would they have contrived, the Professor demanded of the world at large, if he had had a son?

The first part of the Vambrace Mixed Concert had come to an end, and Pearl rose to put a new pile of records on the turntable. But that which was uppermost in the group she had chosen was a violin rendition of The Londonderry Air, and she felt suddenly that she could not bear anything Irish, however good it might be. So she put on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number Six, and in no time, in that vast imaginary concert hall, the great woman conductor, Pearl Vambrace, was letting an enchanted audience hear how unbearably pathetic the Pathétique could be.

No, decidedly nothing Irish. Pearl was pleased, in a vague way, to be of Irish blood on both sides of her family, but she had had enough of Ireland last night. Professor Vambrace was strongly conscious of his own Irish heritage, and in periods of stress it provided him with two character roles which appealed deeply to his histrionic tempera­ment. The first of these was the Well-Born Celt, proud, ironical and aristocratic of manner; was he not a cousin of the Marquis of Mourne and Derry? The other was the Wild and Romantic Celt, untrammelled by pretty Saxon considerations of reason, expediency, or indeed of fact. When this intellectual disguise was on him he assumed a manner of talking which was not quite a brogue, but which was racy, extravagant and punctuated by angry snorts and hollow laughter. His mode of expression owed a good deal to the plays of Dion Boucicault, which the Professor had seen in his boyhood. It was a hammy performance, but Pearl and her mother were too near to it to be critical; they feared the Professor in this mood, for he could say very bitter things.

Last night the Professor had given one of his most prolonged and elaborate impersonations in this vein. He was, he said, being persecuted, hounded, mocked by those who were jealous of his intellec­tual attainments, of his integrity, of his personal dignity. People who hated him because he was different from themselves had found a new means by which they hoped to bring him low. Ha, ha! How little they knew their man! He was unpopular. He needed no one to tell him that. His letters to the City Council about garbage disposal had won him no friends; he knew it. His wrangle with the Board of Education, when he had refused to have Pearl vaccinated at their request, still rankled; no one needed to tell him that. He had spoken out at meetings of the faculty of the University; no man who attacked incompetent colleagues — in public, mind you, and not like a sneak­ing, night-walking jackeen — need hope for popularity, let alone preferment. His success as an amateur actor was bound to create jealousy; his performance as Prospero had been something of a triumph, in its small way, and every triumph created detractors. He had fought in the open, like a man, against stupidity, and Bumbledom, and mediocrity, and he knew the world well enough to expect a bitter return.

But that he should be attacked through his daughter! Even his realism had not foreseen that! A false announcement of an engagement when they all knew that no suitor had ever so much as darkened the door of his house! That was cruelty. That was catching a man in a place where he could hardly be expected to defend himself. He was, ha ha, surprised that they could rise to cruelty, for cruelty on that level demanded a touch of imagination, and that was the last thing he had expected. If they could accuse his daughter of being engaged, they would next be spreading a report that his wife was a witch.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Categories: Davies, Robertson