Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Now folksies, this is just the start of the Whee! You chose your partners by lot, and now you’ve got ’em. I’m going to time you, and the first couple to get untied without breaking the string, and to pull off the adhesive tape without using your hands, gets the Grand Prize. Ready? Go!” She discharged a cap pistol which she held in her hand.

Pearl had heard of people wishing to die, in books, but she had never experienced that feeling herself until now. For the young man with whom she was bound and gagged was Solomon Bridgetower.

Professor Vambrace did not sit long in his chair after Pearl had gone. A plan was working in his mind, like yeast. That is to say, part of a plan was there, and he was sure that the remainder of it would follow soon. But he did not want to wait until the plan had completed itself. He wanted to be up and doing. He was still smarting from the feeling that his grievance and his lawsuit had been taken from him and had become the property of Mr Snelgrove. Pearl’s unwillingness to play the role of a submissive, wronged daughter with perfect trust in his power to win justice for her had nettled him. Nobody, it appeared, saw this matter in the proper light. But he was not a man without resource, and he would uncover the whole plot — for a plot it surely was.

“I shall be out for a time,” he said to his wife, and added mysteri­ously, “on this business. If anyone should call, say that I’m in but cannot be disturbed. You understand?”

“Oh Walter!” said she; “you are not going to do anything rash, are you?”

The Professor laughed, for it pleased him to be accused of rashness.

“You need not worry about me, Elizabeth,” he said, almost kindly. “I know what I am doing.”

This latter claim was perhaps an exaggeration.

The Professor went to the coat cupboard, and put on, first, a thick cardigan under his jacket, and then a heavy, long scarf which was a relic of his university days. Next he brought out, from the back of the cupboard, a very long, very heavy tweed overcoat, belted across the back, which he had not worn for years. He put this on, and a pair of heavy gloves, and from the depths of the hall-seat he recovered a tweed cap, which he had not worn since the days when they were fashionable wear for golfers. He took a blackthorn walking-stick from the umbrella vase, and surveyed himself in the small, dim mirror in the back of the hall-seat. No question about it, he was effectively disguised, ready for rough weather and rough exploits, a man not to be trifled with. In fact — he finally admitted the word into his conscious thoughts — he looked like a detective. He left the house and strode briskly up the street. Disguised the Professor was, in the sense that he was unusually dressed. He was not, however, unobtrusive, looking as he did like a fugitive from some Irish racecourse. A tall, gaunt man, nothing could disguise his characteristic long, swift stride, nor the thin, whistling sound which he made with his nostrils as he walked. But faith is a great gift and, atheist as the Professor was in matters of religion, he was not troubled by even the slightest agnosticism concerning him­self and his abilities. In his own opinion, he was wrapped in a cloak of invisibility.

He was not sure where he was going, nor what he meant to do when he arrived, but he thought that a general reconnaissance would be a good beginning to his detective work. Therefore he made his way to the house in which Gloster Ridley’s apartment was. This was a Victorian mansion toward the middle of the city, and when the Professor reached it, there were lights on all three floors.

It is well known to readers of detective stories — and Professor Vambrace liked to relax his mind in that way — that detection must be conducted according to the School of Force, or the School of Intellect; the detective can either burst into rooms and fight whomever he may find there, or he can collect infinitely tiny pieces of information, fit them together into a mosaic, and astonish the simple by his deduc­tions. The Professor was unhesitating in his adherence to the latter school. Looking carefully in all directions to make sure that no one was watching, he hastened to the back of the Victorian mansion and literally stumbled upon valuable evidence in the form of a collection of garbage cans. They made a clatter, and almost at once the back door on the ground floor opened and a female voice said, fiercely, “Get out of that, you filthy brute!”

The Professor, in detective parlance, “froze”. That is to say, he crushed himself flat against the wall, ducked his head, and stopped breathing. Unfortunately, in this manoeuvre, he dropped his heavy stick among the garbage cans and made another clatter.

The unseen woman came further out of the house, and said, “Scat!”

There was an inaudible question from within.

“It’s those damned dogs again,” said the woman. She heaved half a brick among the garbage cans, frightening the Professor, and hurting him when the brick bounced and hit him on the shin. But she then went inside, and after a few rigid moments he carefully extricated himself from the cans, and observed them closely. Upon one was roughly lettered RIDLEY. Aha! Well, he had known that Ridley lived in this house, but there was satisfaction in proving it in this thoroughly detective-like way. Here was another can with the same mark. Tut! He had heard that Ridley was unnaturally interested in food; a glutton, it was said, for all his thinness. Still — two garbage cans for a single man! It was effete.

As this part of the house yielded no further evidence the Professor crept around to the front, and went into the main entrance, which was in a square Victorian tower which ran up the façade of the house. Three cards were enclosed in three brass frames. George Shakerly Marmion; yes, it had been Mrs Shakerly Marmion who had mistaken him for a dog. Gloster Ridley; the second floor apartment. Mrs Phillip West; top floor. Well, he now knew precisely where Ridley lived; he had seen lights on the second floor; Ridley was within. No car was parked near the house; Ridley was probably alone. Deduction was going smoothly, and bit by bit was being added to the mosaic. True, there was nothing absolutely new in any of this, but Rome was not built in a day.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a sound on the stairs within the door which was marked with Ridley’s card! The detective was non­plussed, and in his confusion he did what he knew at once was a silly thing. He tried the door of the Shakerly Marmions’ apartment, and when it would not yield, he rang the bell. The footsteps in Ridley’s entrance grew louder, and the Professor was conscious that the hair on his head was stirring. He pressed his face against the Marmions’ door, to conceal it, and thus he could not tell who it was that came out of Ridley’s door and stood so near to him. Why didn’t the man go outside, and let him make his escape before the Marmions’ door was opened! But no; there were mail boxes in the hall, and whoever it was put a key in one of them, and stood by it, presumably examining some letters. The door of the Marmions’ apartment opened, and there was Mrs Shakerly Marmion, whom he knew slightly, and who might be expected to recognize him, looking him in the face. It was a moment of ingenuity, and the Professor rose to it.

“Would yez like to subscribe to The War Cry?” he asked, disguising his voice as completely as he could, and assuming what he later realized was the broadest possible Cork accent, recollected from childhood. To give colour to his performance, he winked confiden­tially at Mrs Shakerly Marmion, who immediately slammed the door in his face.

The man in the hall had gone. The Professor hurried into the street, and — yes, there he was, just turning the corner. After him!

It was Ridley, and Vambrace set out to — detective parlance — tail him. After a block or so, however, he became conscious that his quarry was hurrying in a nervous fashion. Aha, Ridley knew that he was being tailed! But the Professor was equal to that; he halted for a moment, and then changed his step to a limp — a good, audible limp, such as a man with a club foot might own. That was disguise! In his exertion to maintain his limp and a high rate of speed, the Professor’s nasal whistling became positively uproarious, and cut through the November night air with astonishing clarity.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson