Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

For a time no one spoke. Pearl, glutted with doughnuts, worried a plate of stewed prunes and some bread. Mrs Vambrace ate a kind of cardboard which her doctor had recommended to her years before, as a bread substitute during a brief illness, and took a little jelly which had been left from luncheon two days ago, and which had withered and taken on a taste of onion in the refrigerator. The Professor, as became a man, was a heavier eater, and he had a saucer of cold macaroni and cheese, upon which he poured a little milk, to liven it; he followed this with the remains of a custard, the component parts of which had never really assembled, but which had a splendidly firm skin. Hunger partly satisfied, he was ready to talk.

“I have struck the first blow in my campaign, today,” he announced.

“Yes, dear?” Mrs Vambrace had a calm and sorrowful face, which belied her character, for she was inclined toward hysteria. She had also a low and pretty voice.

“It is a good policy to carry the war into the enemy’s camp. I have instigated a suit against The Bellman.”

“Oh, Walter! A lawsuit?”

“Of course a lawsuit. What other kind of suit could I possibly mean?”

“But Walter! A lawsuit can be such a dreadful thing.”

“You should know, Elizabeth. Your family have been lawyers for long enough.”

“Did you talk to Ronny?”

“Yes, and little good it did me. Ronny shares your opinion, Elizabeth. He too thinks that a lawsuit is a dreadful thing. I would think that with his objection to suits he would get out of the law and find some other profession.”

“But Walter, I am sure that if Ronny advised against a suit he meant to spare you pain. Father always said that Ronny was a very good lawyer, for all his flippant way.”

“Your father himself enjoyed a great reputation as a lawyer, Elizabeth, and much of it was founded on his habit of persuading people not to go to law. He was a sentimentalist, I fear. It is the curse of a certain type of Irishman. Ronny would naturally appeal to him.”

“If you don’t consider Ronny competent, Walter, why did you go to him?”

“That is a ridiculous question, Elizabeth. He is one of the family. Of your family, that is to say. Family means something. Not much, but something. My own family is not entirely inconsiderable, though I do not attribute a pennyworth of my own success in my chosen career to that. Still, there is the connection with Mourne and Derry. There is what I suppose may be called the aristocratic tradition, which is chiefly a tradition of not allowing oneself to be trampled over by a pack of louts and cheapjacks. So far as family gives one courage to resist what is vulgar and intrusive and impertinent, family is a very good thing. Ronny may not understand that, but his senior partner certainly does so.”

“Mr Snelgrove?”


“Oh dear, Walter.”

“What about him?”

“Father always disliked him so.”

“Very possibly. Your father disliked many people.”

“Only superficially, Walter. But he really disliked Mr Snelgrove. He said he was one of those men who gravitate to the law because they delight in mischief.”

“Your father was quick to find some fanciful reason for discrediting a man who had defeated him in court.”

“That is unkind, Walter. And Mr Snelgrove never defeated Father anywhere. Father was a great advocate.”

“Everyone says so, Elizabeth. It is generally admitted that if it had not been for his weakness he could have done anything he chose.”

“He had a very large heart, Walter. We had such a happy home.”

“I dare say.”

The thought of that home made Mrs Vambrace weep a few tears, perhaps because of the contrast between those laden tables and her loving, witty, drunk-every-night father, and the stewed prunes which she shared with the invincibly sober Vambrace. Pearl, who had not wanted to speak until she had heard more of her father’s cam­paign, cleared away the dishes and set in place the inevitable pièce de résistance of a Vambrace evening meal, a large plate of soda crackers and a pot of very strong tea.

“I also visited the editor of The Bellman,” said the Professor, when he had buttered a biscuit very thickly and sprinkled it generously with salt.

“Yes?” said his wife. Her resistance, such as.it was, had been broken for the evening.

“There’s a fool, if you happen to be in search of a fool,” said the Professor, while crumbs flew out of his mouth. “Family is little enough, as I said. But there’s a fellow with no family. A self-made fellow. And what a thing he has made of himself! He crumpled up at once, when I told him what I intended to do. I despised him. First of all, he has no character. That’s where family comes in. Then he has no real education. That’s where the university comes in. To think that a mind of that quality should be in charge of a newspaper! Is it any wonder that the Press is the engine of mischief that it is! When I told him I meant to sue he went as white as a sheet.”

“Did you go to him first?” said Mrs Vambrace.

“Of course.”

“You threatened a suit before you had seen your lawyers? Oh Walter!”

“Elizabeth, you really have the most curious notion of the place of a lawyer in a man’s life. I decide to sue, and I tell my lawyer to go ahead with it. I do not ask his advice; I give him my instructions.”

“Father.” Pearl spoke now for the first time. “What will the suit mean?”

“It will mean justice, I trust. Retribution. An absolute retraction of this foul attack, and substantial damages. The private citizen has some redress in cases of this sort, I hope. The Press is powerful, but it has not quite got us all under its thumb.”

“Will I have to appear in court?”

“I don’t suppose so. Why should you?”

“If I don’t, who will?”

“Don’t be absurd, Pearl. I shall appear, of course.”

“Are you bringing the suit?”

“And who else would bring it?”

“But in my name?”

“Not at all. Why in your name, of all things?”

“Because if anyone has been wronged, it’s me.”

“It’s I. How often have I –”

“Listen, Father. I won’t go.”

“What do you mean? Won’t go where?”

“To court. I couldn’t bear it.”

“What makes you think you would appear in court? I am defending you. You are my daughter. Why should you appear anywhere?”

“Father, I’m over twenty-one. You can’t defend me that way. If I have been offended, I must at least appear and say so.”

“Nonsense. You don’t know anything about law.”

“I know that much. Father, please don’t go on with it.”

“Of course I shall go on with it. How can you speak so ungratefully, Pearl? I know what must be done. You are still very much a child.”

“In law I’m not a child. I’m a grown woman. And I won’t go to court and be made a fool of. I’ll talk to Cousin Ronny.”

The Professor pushed his teacup aside and brushed some crumbs into a heap on the cloth.

“I refuse to continue any such discussion as this at the table,” said he. As a cousin of Mourne and Derry he kept up a strong pretence that there are certain things which cannot be discussed while eating. As he was an inveterate quarreller-at-the-table himself it was never easy for his family to know what these things were.

The Professor and his wife went into the living-room and sat in their accustomed chairs on either side of the fireplace. Pearl gathered up the dirty dishes, took them to the kitchen, held them briefly under the cold water tap and stacked them up, to be washed at some indefinite future time. It was a received belief of Vambrace house­wifery that dishes might be left thus if they had been rinsed. She then went and stood between her parents, waiting to be recognized, but as neither of them would look at her she screwed up her courage and spoke.

“Father, please don’t have a lawsuit.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Please don’t have a lawsuit.”

“I shall do what I think best.”

“Yes, but think what it will mean for me.”

“And what, precisely, will it mean for you?”

“I’ll have to go into court and say it was all a mistake, or a joke, or whatever it was. They’ll ask me questions. I’ll be a laughing stock.”

“Your honour will be vindicated.”

“It’ll make me look silly.”

“And how, pray, do you suppose you will look if this foul lie is not exposed for what it is?”

“But what’s foul about it?”

“What? How can you ask such a question? Haven’t you realized that this is a blow at me? A public statement that my daughter is to marry the son of a family which has always sought to push me aside and belittle me — is that nothing at all?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson