Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Ridley, almost on the run, turned into a house, rushed up the steps and entered without knocking. Vambrace knew it. It was the home of the Fieldings. Well, it had been an exciting chase. Now he would, in the best detective fashion, lounge unobtrusively at some little distance, ready to follow his man when he came out again.

Pearl’s first coherent thought after her chaotic dismay at finding herself bound and gagged with Solly Bridgetower, was that this was what came of disobliging her father. He had not wanted her to come to this party; she had insisted on coming; this was the shameful result. It was so often like this! Whenever she tried to assert herself, and to prove to Father that she was an adult, she got into some dreadful scrape. It was as though Father were in league with God. In spite of her atheistic upbringing Pearl still had, at the back of her mind, a notion of God as a vindictive old party who was determined to keep her humble and uncertain. God and Father were not mocked. Mock them, and what happened? Some kind of unpredictable, farcical hell, like the Whee.

There was little time for painful reflection. Having briefly enjoyed the spectacle of her guests in bonds, Dutchy was moving around the room, giving advice,

“It’s a technique,” she said; “best thing is to get the plaster off your mouths first. Then you can work out of the string. Come on, folksies, don’t be shy!”

Norm, who had been tied to a lady in middle life who was secretary to the University registrar, showed the way. It involved rubbing the face against the face of the partner, until the sticking-plaster could be rolled off. The middle-aged lady, who had a bad breath and a short temper, was not fully co-operative, but this only added to the fun of the thing, for Dutchy. Couple by couple the guests, realizing that this was the price of freedom, set about a sheepish rubbing of face upon face. For men who had not shaved since morning, for women who wore heavy makeup, it was a painful and messy business. Their necks were twisted; the string bit into their wrists and ankles; some stock­ings were torn and a good deal of dust was picked up from the floor. Most of the guests weakly pretended to think their predicament funny; a few were inwardly raging but still, borne down by Dutchy’s overwhelming gaiety and a weight of painfully acquired politeness, they did not break into open rebellion.

Pearl knew Solly Bridgetower well enough by sight. She had once acted in a play — that same performance of The Tempest in which Mr Swithin Shillito had so admired her father — of which he was assistant director. She had met him a few times at social gatherings; she had seen him from time to time in the Library. But these were scarcely preparations for rubbing her face repeatedly against his, while their eyes watered, and they breathed stertorously. Her hair fell forward, and when she tried to throw it back with a jerk of her head she bumped Solly sharply on the nose with her chin. His nose was long and apparently very sensitive, for from beneath his sticking-plaster came a sound which might have been a cry of pain, or an oath.

Dutchy, who was running about the room, encouraging and exhorting, stopped beside them.

“Say, I only just heard about you two,” said she, excitedly. “Con­gratulations, kids! But this ought to be duck soup for you two. Come on! Do it like you meant it! Say, I’ll bet this was a plant. I bet you fixed it so’s you’d get his name, Pearl!”

“No, I arranged that,” said one of her assistants, a large, dark, genial dentist. “I didn’t even look at her piece of paper; just grabbed Solly and tied them up.” He laughed the self-approving laugh of one who knows that he has done a good deed.

Pearl’s mouth was free at last. “I want to get out of this,” she said.

“Sure you do,” said Dutchy. “And seeing it’s you, I’ll give you a hint; the way the string’s tied, you can get loose at once if he lies down flat and you crawl right up over his head; then the string drops off without untying the knots. “Bye now.” And she was off to encourage other stragglers, who lay in Laocoön groups about the floor.

Solly made a noise which sounded like entreaty. Pearl, maddened by the arch looks of the dark dentist, leaned forward, seized a loose corner of his sticking-plaster in her mouth, and jerked her head backward savagely. Solly howled.

“I think you’ve killed me,” he said when he could speak.

“I wish I had,” said Pearl, venomously.

“It’s not my fault. I didn’t ask to be tied to you.”

“Oh, shut up!”

“No use shutting up, when we’re tied together like this. Let’s get out. What’s the trick? I lie down and you crawl over me, or some­thing.”

“I won’t.”

“You must.”

“Don’t you dare tell me I must.”

“You’re being a fool. If we don’t get out of this mess we’ll be the last, and you’ll have to do it with everybody looking. Come on; I’m lying down.” And he did lie down, and Pearl had no choice but to lie down also. Solly was on his face on the floor, and she lay flat on his back.

Inch by inch she hitched herself upward along his spine and at every move Solly groaned. But as she moved the strings became looser, and at last, as she hunched her bottom over his head, they were free enough to permit her to shake them off, and stand up. In a moment Solly, much ruffled, stood beside her.

They were one of the last couples to escape, but they were not observed by the others, who were too much occupied in trying to straighten and dust their clothes to pay close attention to anything else. Nor did Dutchy leave them time for embarrassment; swift passage from one delightful experience to another was part of the technique of party-giving, as she professed it. Very rapidly she herded her guests into a circle of alternate men and women.

“Now this one’s easy, kids,” she said. “Here’s an orange, see? You stick it under your chin, Jimmy, see?” Jimmy, the dark, zealous dentist, did so. “Now you just pass it to the lady on your right, not either of you using his hands, see, and she gets it under her chin, and so you pass it all around the circle back to me. Anybody drops it, they have to fall out of the game.”

This last remark, as Dutchy quickly realized, was an error. The more reticent and more selfish people made haste to drop the orange as soon as it reached them, sometimes without any pretence at gripping it. There were, however, eight or nine people who either feared Dutchy’s disapproval, or felt some necessity to do as their hostess wished, or who positively liked passing oranges from neck to neck, and they remained in the middle of the room, while Dutchy spurred them on the finer flights. After the orange they passed a grapefruit in the same way; after the grapefruit came a melon. And after the melon appeared a watermelon, which Dutchy and Jimmy the dentist passed merrily between them a few times, just to show that it could be done. The watermelon had been borrowed from the freezing locker of a neighbour in the apartment building, and its coldness was the matter for much mirth. But the secretary to the registrar was not amused.

“When I was a girl I always hated the kissing games at parties,” said she, “and until tonight I thought that they had gone out of fashion.” Her tone was low, but a surprising number of the guests heard her, and the dissatisfied faction gained heart. So much so, indeed, that Dutchy sensed a change of atmosphere, and decided that she would not continue with her programme as she had planned it. Dutchy was not stupid, but she had not had much previous experience with people whom she could not dominate — who did not, indeed, wel­come domination. She passed the purple drink, and became concili­atory. She asked her guests what game they would like to play next.

It is as dangerous, in its way, to ask a group of people associated with a university to choose their own games as it is to leave the choice in the hands of a trained director of recreation, like Dutchy. The secretary to the registrar immediately set out to explain a kind of charades which she called The Braingame; it was, she declared, a barrel of fun.

“It’s just like the old kind of charades we played as children,” said she, “except that a letter must be dropped from each syllable as it is guessed, in order to get the right answer, and when the group acts out the full word, it must express both the full word, and the word which is left when the superfluous letters are dropped Is that clear?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson