Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

It was not clear.

“Let me give you an example. Suppose, for instance, that your real word — the word the others must guess — is ‘landscape’. Well, the word which the group acts is ‘blandscrape’. They pretend to be eating a pudding, and putting more salt in it; that gives the word, ‘bland’. Then ‘scrape’ is easy; you simply act somebody in a scrape.”

“As it were, crawling backward over a complete stranger?” asked a masculine young woman from the Dean’s office, who had had to do this not long before with a young man from the classics department, who had playfully pinched her bottom. The registrar’s secretary laughed lightly, and went on.

“Now, recall that your word was “landscape”; you must now act the whole word, or rather, both words. So you act “blandscrape”. One of the group is being given a smooth shave, while the others peer admiringly at an imaginary view. You see? Blandscrape and land­scape at once. Of course after a round or two we can have some really hard ones.”

The party seemed depressed by this notion. The masculine young woman seized her chance to make the cunning suggestion that they play a game in which they could all sit down. This was greeted with such eagerness that she launched at once into an explanation.

“Simple as A B C. Just Twenty Questions, really, but with knobs on. Somebody’s It. They go outside and make up their minds that they are somebody — movie star, games champ, person in history — anybody at all. Then they sit in the middle of the room and we ask them questions to find out who they are. But — this is what makes it fun — if we ask them who they are we do it indirectly or by definition only, and they must show they know what we’re talking about, or they’re out of the game. I mean, I’m It. You question me. You find out I’m a famous literary woman who lived long ago. So you say, ‘Did you live on the Isle of Lesbos?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m not Sappho’ –”

“And we all laugh,” said the registrar’s secretary in a voice which was not quite low enough.

Dutchy had not met with tensions of quite this kind in her career of recreation planning. But she was learning rapidly the arts of a faculty wife, and she intervened at this juncture in time to prevent a lively exchange between the two ladies, who were enemies of several years’ standing. Such games, she said, would be wonderful for the clever university people, but there were a few dopes like herself and Jimmy present, whose minds did not work that way. Therefore they would play The Game.

As always, there were a few people present who did not know what The Game was, but they were told that it was a form of accelerated charades, and after sides had been chosen they played it quite peaceably and even with enjoyment.

Pearl and Solly were on the same side, and although she could act quite well, and make her ideas clear to the others, he was without skill in this direction. He became confused when it was his turn to act; he scowled and beat his brow; he pawed the air meaninglessly with his hands. He could not remember the rule that everything must be done in silence, and made despairing and inarticulate sounds. Pearl watched him with contempt; it was to this idiot that an unknown practical joker had linked her. She understood better what her father meant when he raved about the insult of it.

If there is anyone who has not played The Game, it may be explained that two teams are chosen, and that each team gets its chance to present the other team with a number of pieces of paper, upon which proverbs, quotations, catchwords and the like are writ­ten; each player is given one of these, and his task is to convey its meaning to his team by means of pantomime. If they guess what he is trying to tell them, they score a point. The other team, knowing the secret, watch the struggle with enjoyment.

In the fifth round of The Game, Solly was handed his paper by Norm, as captain of the opposing team, and when he read it he moaned, and muttered “O God!” and gave every sign of despair. Norm and his team were delighted. Solly turned toward his own team in misery, and stood with his mouth hanging open, sweating visibly.

“How many words?” asked the Registrar’s secretary, who had a very businesslike approach to The Game.

With his fingers Solly indicated that there were thirty-five words.

There was a roar of dismay from his team. Protests were made that this was impossible. Norm’s team merely laughed in mockery.

“Is it a verse?” demanded the Registrar’s secretary.

Solly shook his head.

“A saying?”

Solly looked confused, nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. Then he contorted himself violently to signify his despair.

“A quotation?” went on the Registrar’s secretary, who had the phlegm of a Scotland Yard detective.

Solly nodded violently.

“Quotation from a writer?”

Solly thought for a moment, made a few meaningless gestures, then took up a rhetorical stance, and pointed toward the wall. Becoming frantic, he walked toward the Registrar’s secretary and waved his hands before her face; he repeated this manoeuvre with a man, then seemed to lose heart, and stood once more at a loss, shaking his head.

Pearl’s voice was heard, low and calm: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

There was an instant of silence, and then a roar from the opposing team. Solly gaped, and, forgetting that he was now privileged to speak, pantomimed extravagant delight.

“Is that right?” demanded the Registrar’s secretary.

“Sure it’s right,” said Norm; “how did you guess it, Pearlie?”

Pearl was abashed. “I don’t know,” said she; “but he somehow looked a little bit like Lincoln, and then he pointed south, toward the States, and I just said it.”

This brilliant stroke won the game, and it was time for refresh­ments. Consequently the company had plenty of time to talk about what Pearl had done. Although such uncanny guesses are by no means uncommon in The Game they always arouse excitement when they happen. Solly, upon being questioned, said that he did not know that the saying was attributed to Lincoln, nor had he been aware that he was pointing south; he had merely tried to behave like a man who was fooling some of the people some of the time — obviously a politician. This made Pearl’s feat even more remarkable. It was Norm who, as a psychologist, offered the explanation which the company liked best.

“When people are very close, they often have the power of com­municating without words,” said he. “For instance, sometimes in the morning when I don’t want an egg for breakfast, it will occur to me while I’m shaving, and then, when I get to the table, I’ll find that Dutchy hasn’t cooked me an egg; maybe it will turn out that there isn’t even an egg in the house. It doesn’t always work, of course. But obviously there’s a Thing between Pearlie and Solly right now — at this stage of their relationship, I mean. It certainly looks as if they were made for each other.”

This remark naturally brought inquiry, for only Norm and Dutchy, and their friend Jimmy, appeared to have read of their engagement. Professor Vambrace would undoubtedly have been astonished that ten of the people present were utterly ignorant of the shame and insult which had been forced upon him. But when Norm had finished his explanation they knew all about it, and offered their congratu­lations in the shy and affectedly casual manner in which people felicitate acquaintances. Dutchy, however, insisted that a toast be drunk in the purple fluid, and hurried about, filling glasses.

“Oh no, please don’t!” cried Pearl.

“Oh, don’t be so modest,” shouted Dutchy.

“I’d really much rather you didn’t!”

“Now Pearlie, you’ve got to conquer that shyness,” said Norm, in a fatherly manner.

Pearl turned a look of desperate appeal upon Solly, but he was sitting with his head down, in a condition of abjection. She was furious with him. What a fool! Oh, Daddy was so right! What a nincompoop!

Norm rose to his feet, his glass held at eye-level in that curious gesture which people never use except when they are about to propose toasts.

“Friends,” said he, making his voice full and thrilling, “let’s drink to Pearlie and Solly. Dutchy and I can’t claim to be old friends of either of them, but we know what married happiness is, and I think that gives us a kind of claim to speak now. Pearlie we know a good deal better than Solly. I do, that is to say, because we’ve had some talks. I guess you all know that Pearlie is one hell of a swell kid, but life hasn’t been much fun for her. A shy kid, brainy, not the aggressive type, she’s had the idea that she’s a failure in life — that she isn’t attractive. A religious problem, too, which I won’t touch on now, but I guess all of us who have a sincere but modern and scientific Faith know that it’s pretty lonely if you haven’t got that and are wandering around in the dark, so to speak. I don’t want to introduce a solemn note now but as a psychologist and as a professional in guidance I know what can happen in a life which lacks what I call the Faith Focus, and there’s nobody more pleased than I — and I know here that I speak for Dutchy too — that Pearlie has found herself, and that all those doubts and fears and misgivings are sublimated in that vast Power the happiness of which is something upon which Dutchy and I feel ourselves peculiar­ly qualified to speak. I mean getting engaged, of course. So I ask you to drink to Pearlie and Solly, and if I can remember it I’ll just recite a little verse that seems to fit the occasion. Now let’s see — ah. ‘Hurrah for the little god with wings’ — no, that’s not it. Oh, yes —

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Categories: Davies, Robertson