Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

She loved Norm in a normal, healthy way. That is to say, she was determined to do everything that lay in her power to advance him in the world, without herself being swallowed up in marriage. For marriage, as she told a great many people, was an equal partnership, with nobody on top.

Norm loved her, as was to be expected, normally. Which meant, as he explained to Dutchy while their romance was ripening, that as long as their marriage proceeded in a perfectly normal way, he was for her one hundred per cent.

Their many friends said, many times, that they made a swell couple. They received many wedding presents, including a set of twelve table mats, of spongeable glacé leather, made and given by the Sixth Ward Women’s Leatherworking Class, which was Dutchy’s first achievement in organized recreation. And after their wedding they had a wonderful party, which Dutchy had organized, at which, for once, everybody knew all the figures of every square-dance that was performed.

The party for which Pearl was bound was the first that Norm and Dutchy had given in Salterton; indeed, their wedding party was the only one that they had given before it. But they had made friends quickly. Norm was a success with the students, with some of the younger faculty members, with the administrative and Library staff, and he was already on terms of apparent intimacy with a great many people. There was something about him which attracted confidence. Perhaps it was the frankness and ease of his manner; perhaps it was his title of Doctor, which is enough in itself to break down the reserve of many people; perhaps it was the widespread notion that a psychologist is a fountain of good counsel. Whatever it was, Norm had managed in six weeks to become the confessor of a surprising number of people who had never felt moved to confide in any of the members of the official staff of the Psychology Department. He wanted to entertain these trusting souls, and some others who, for one reason or another, might repay cultivation. And Dutchy was only too happy to organize a party; after all, that was her business. Though she told Norm several times that she was scared to death to make her first appearance at a party as a prof’s wife.

“I mean,” she said, as they were cleaning their teeth together in the small bathroom of their apartment one night, “in the ordinary way in a new town you’d get things rolling even before they came in the door by hanging up a sign ‘Please Remove Your Shoes Before Entering’. Get people with their shoes off right away, and the ice is broken. But at a university — Gee, I don’t know how far this dignity stuff has to go.”

“Just carry on as you would anywhere, Dutchy,” advised her husband. “These people are all regular. All nice and normal, really. Some of them have talked to me pretty freely, and I think they could do with some shaking up. They need what you’ve got to give.”

“OK,” said Dutchy, and later, as they lay together in bed, she told Norm that the wonderful thing about him was his insight, and the way he sensed that practically everybody is really a great big kid at heart.

Pearl was one of those who had succumbed to Norman Yarrow’s charm. She had first met him in the stacks at the Library, when she was checking a reference for Dr Forgie in Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding.

“Can I help you?” the strange man had said.

“I doubt it; I’m looking for Understanding,” she had replied.

Norman Yarrow was not a man to miss such an opening; “Aren’t we all?” he said, and when Pearl blushed he did not laugh or pursue the conversation. But two days later he had appeared in Dr Forgie’s outer office with some questions about books for his students, and since then they had had two or three conversations in which Pearl, who was not used to a sympathetic male listener, had said a good deal more than she meant to say about her life. And thus the invitation for this evening came about.

When Pearl heard the rumble of a party through the apartment door she realized that she had not expected a big gathering, and had been secretly hoping for a very small one, perhaps a simple evening with understanding Dr Yarrow and his wife, who was certain to be equally understanding. But she had already rung the bell, and when the door opened the noise of the party seemed to jump out at her, like a big dog. And there was a young woman who must be Mrs Yarrow, radiating vitality like an electric heater, who seized her hand in a painfully muscular grasp.

“You’re Pearl,” she shouted, in a voice pitched for the noise within; “I’m Dutchy. Come on in, we’re just warming up and you’re a couple of drinks behind. Here’s the bedroom, throw your coat on the bed. Yeah, it’s a double bed and it’s legal; ain’t that wonderful!” Dutchy laughed the loud and shameless laugh of the enthusiastic bride. “The John’s in there; if you don’t want it now, you sure will later. Now don’t waste time primping, kid; they’re waiting for you inside.”

Dutchy had lost any misgivings she might have had about being a prof’s wife. Gin had banished it. Neither she nor Norman had been what they called “drinkers” when in social service work. But as people rise in the world their social habits change. Dutchy knew that as a prof’s wife she ought to make some advances in what she was unselfconscious enough to call “gracious living” and Alcohol, though bad for the poor, was probably expected in academic life. Norm was, after all, a PhD and she herself was a trained social worker, and had written an unusually good thesis, at the age of nineteen, on Preparing the Parent for the Profession of Parenthood; they were not the kind of people who were brought to ruin by drink, and so they had made a few experiments.

Gin had come to Dutchy like fire from heaven. At the first swallow she was conscious of that shock of recognition with which psychol­ogists and literary critics are so familiar. It was as though, all her life, she had been dimly aware of the existence of some miraculous essence, some powerful liberating force, some enlightening catalyst, and here it was! It was gin! Why be nervous about being a prof’s wife, why worry about a party going well, when gin could make the crooked straight and the rough places plain? Dutchy, as Norm laughingly said, had taken to gin as a duck takes to water.

Pearl was hauled into the combined living and dining-room of the apartment by the hand, while Dutchy cried, “Gangway! Here’s a poor erring sister who’s a couple of drinks behind!” She was conscious of some familiar faces, but she saw no people whom she knew well. On the dining-table was a large glass jug, containing a purple liquid, and from this Dutchy poured a tumblerful, slopping a good deal on the table, and forced it upon her. “Drink up!” she ordered. Pearl sipped suspiciously. It was gin; unquestionably it was a great deal of gin, to which some grape juice and ice water had been added.

Dutchy subdued the conversation by shouting “Hold it! Hold it!” and when she had comparative silence she harangued her guests thus: “Now, gals and guys, we’ve come to the second part of the party. Maybe you didn’t know a party had a second part? Sure it has. There’s the Hello; that’s the beginning, when you meet everybody. You’ve had that. The second part’s the What Now? That’s where we’ve got to. This is the crossroads of a party. You can either go on to the Ho Hum, when everybody wishes it was time to go home, or you can go on to the Whee! What’s it to be? The Ho Hum, or the Whee?”

The guests, who were unfamiliar with up-to-date techniques of recreational programming, looked somewhat astonished, and made no reply. But Dutchy was used to carrying crowds on her own enthusiasm, and she immediately made enough noise for all.

“The Whee! The Whee! Come on, let’s hear it! Whee!”

A few guests politely said Whee, in rather low voices.

“OKAY!” shouted Dwtchy, in a clarion voice, and in no time at all the Whee was in progress.

Pearl was not quite able to see how the Whee worked, it was so rapid and so noisy. A bowl containing scraps of paper was shaken under her nose, and she chose one. All the people in the room seemed to be engaged in some very rough game. In her surprise and dismay she hastily gulped some of the sickly gin drink, and as someone jostled her she spilled it on her front. She was dabbing at herself with her handkerchief when a man seized her slip of paper, gave a yell, and darted away, to return at once dragging a protesting young man who had been lurking at the far end of the room. Before Pearl knew what was happening another man pressed a large piece of adhesive plaster over her lips, she was forced back to back with the protesting young man, who was similarly gagged, and they were tied, by the wrists and ankles with grocer’s string. This had been happening all over the room, and only Dutchy and two or three of her muscular lieutenants were free. Dutchy addressed her trussed-up guests.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson