Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Tchaikovsky, filtered through the splendid machine, was dying by inches; his groans, his self-reproaches filled the room with Slavic misery. Pearl’s eyes were full of tears, and she reached for the second-to-last doughnut.

It had been Mummy who broke first, and went weeping to her room. Pearl knew that Mummy’s unhappiness was for her, as well as for her husband. Of course Daddy didn’t realize that it was painful to have it said so many times, and in so many different ways, that no young man had ever been interested in her. She didn’t care for herself, but she supposed a girl had a duty to her family in such a matter; nobody likes it to be thought that their daughter lacks charm.

Once, by an odd chance, this same Solomon Bridgetower had taken her to the Military Ball, the great event of Salterton’s social year. But that was when they were both in a play, and he hadn’t meant anything by it. Anyway, it was four years ago and she had not spoken a dozen words to him since. And he was the recognized property, though low on her list, of the local heiress and beauty, Griselda Webster. It was queer that anyone should think of playing a trick in which her name was linked with his. Anyway, no young man had asked her to go anywhere with him since then.

No; that was not quite true. No young man with whom she could be bothered had approached her. She had been conscious, recently, that Henry Rumball, a reporter on The Bellman who came every day to the University, seeking news, was persistently attentive to her. But he was a joke among all the girls in the Library.

Solomon Bridgetower, however, was not. That morning she had been aware as soon as she put her coat in her locker in the staff-room that something was in the air, and that it concerned her. The first to congratulate her had been her great enemy, Miss Ritson in Cataloguing.

“Well,” said she, “aren’t you the sly one? Carrying him off right from under Tessie’s nose! No ring yet, I see. Or don’t you choose to wear it at the daily toil? Congratulations, dear.”

Miss Ritson moved away, humming. It was an ironical hum, but it was lost on Pearl, whose father had been so determined that she must be an agnostic. For Miss Ritson was humming God moves in a mys­terious way, His wonders to perform.

Tessie was Miss Teresa Forgie, daughter and principal secretary to the Librarian. She was of classic features (that is to say, horse-faced) and formidable learning. It was obvious that she would make a wonderful wife for any ambitious young professor, and it was well known among her associates in the Library that she had chosen Solly Bridgetower as the recipient of this rich dower. But Miss Forgie was as high-minded as she was learned, and when she greeted Pearl no one would have guessed that she had cried herself to sleep the night before.

“I am so deeply happy for you, Pearl,” she said. “There is so much that a man in academic life needs — so much of simple femininity, as well as understanding of his work.” She glanced around, and con­tinued in a lower tone. “So many needs of Body, as well as of Mind. I hope that I may continue to be a dear, dear friend to you both.”

Pearl understood the import of this very well. She was in charge of Reference, and that included a locked section of the book-stacks called Permanently Reserved, where books were kept which could only be read on the spot, upon presentation of a permit signed by the Librarian. Jessie plainly thought that Pearl had won Solly by subtle arts learned from the Hindu Books of Love, and from Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

All of the girls had congratulated her, in one way or another, within an hour of opening time. Some of them seemed genuinely glad that she was to make her escape from the Library. And Pearl had said nothing to arouse further curiosity. Was this wise? But with Daddy talking about lawyers and suits she did not know what else to do; there would be trouble enough in time. She had trembled, when she overheard some of the girls talking in whispers about arranging a shower for her.

A shower! She had intimate knowledge of these affairs, at which the friends of an engaged girl lavished everything from handker­chiefs to kitchenware upon her. What would she do if she suddenly found herself the recipient of twenty handkerchiefs, or a collection of candy-thermometers, lemon-squeezers and carrot-dicers? As Tchaikovsky moaned his last, Pearl cowered in the armchair, licking the sugar from the last doughnut off her fingers, and sweated with fright.

Suddenly the light flashed on in the dark room. It was old Mr Garnett, the Library janitor, with his trolley of cleaning materials.

“Sorry. Didn’t know anybody was here.”

“It’s all right, Mr Garnett. I’ll just put away these records, and then I’ll be through. Please go ahead with your work.”

“OK, Miss Vambrace. Looks pretty clean in here anyways.”

“There wasn’t any class this afternoon. I was listening to some music alone. You won’t tell anybody, will you?”

“I never tell what ain’t my business. You got a right to be alone, I guess. Won’t be alone much longer, I hear.”

“I’ll put these records away at once.”

“That’s what they say about marriage. Never alone again. Well, that can be good, and it can be pure hell, too. Ever think of it that way?”

“I’ll just throw this bag right into your wastepaper box, shall I?”

“What’s the fella’s name?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The fella. The fella you’re engaged to? Somebody mentioned it, but I forget, now. One of our fellas, isn’t it?”

“Oh, you know how people talk, Mr Garnett.”

“It was in the paper. That’s not talk. When it’s in the paper, you mean business. What’s the fella’s name?”

“Oh. I forget.”

“What? How can you forget?”

“Oh — well — the name in the paper was Mr Solomon Bridgetower.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Young Bridgetower. Well, I knew his father. I’ve seen worse.”

Pearl had replaced the records, and she fled. Oh, what despicable weakness! She had named him, as her fiance, to someone outside the family! What would father say? How would she ever get out of this hateful, hateful mess?

In twenty-five years of marriage Professor Vambrace and his wife had never reached any satisfactory arrangement about food; she was preoccupied, and thought food a fleshly indulgence; he liked food, but disliked paying for it. In consequence they lived mainly on scraps, and bits. Now and then Mrs Vambrace would parch, or burn, or underdo a large piece of meat, and the recollection of it would last them for two or three weeks. They never had sweets, because the Professor did not like them, but they ate a good deal of indifferent cheese. They never had fruit, because the Professor considered it a dangerous loosener of the bowels, though he made an exception in favour of stewed prunes which he thought of as regulators, or gastric policemen. Their refrigerator, which seemed to be in permanent need of de-frosting, and smelled, was always full of little saucers of things which had not been quite finished at previous meals, and they always seemed to be catching up with small arrears of past dishes. They were great keepers of bowls of grease in which, now and again, things were fried. They tended also to fall behind with their dish-washing.

Nevertheless the Professor, as became a cousin of Mourne and Derry, firmly believed that there was a formal programme which governed their eating, but which they had temporarily agreed to set aside. The most substantial meal of their day was always eaten at one o’clock, give an hour or so either way, but he would not permit it to be called dinner, for only common people ate dinner then. It was luncheon. Not lunch; luncheon. If he chanced to be at home during the afternoon he always suggested that they skip tea. They had never actually had tea in years. Supper, he maintained, was a meal which one ate before going to bed, and as the food they ate between six and eight could not possibly be called dinner, it was usually referred to as “the evening meal.”

When Pearl came home after her music-and-doughnut orgy at the Library it was well after six o’clock, but nothing had yet been done about the evening meal, so she prepared it. As she had acquired her notions of housekeeping from her mother, and as the cloth and such things as salt and pepper and sugar were never removed from the dining-table, this did not take long. She called her mother, who had been having a nap on her bed, and tapped at the door of her father’s study, and the evening meal began.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson