Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Hurrah for the little god of Love,

May he never moult a feather,

When his big boots and her little shoes

Are under the bed together.”

This speech was granted a mixed reception. Some of the guests appeared to be stunned. Others took it in the spirit in which it was offered, and, led by Jimmy, broke feebly into “For they are jolly good fellows”. Pearl was miserable, but angry enough to keep back her tears; Solly looked very weary. When the song died down, he said “Thanks”, and his tone was such that even Norm and Dutchy did not press him for more.

The Fieldings’ comfortable drawing-room rang with the brilliant arpeggio passages of the Mink Schottische, which Humphrey Cobbler was playing on the piano. As far as possible from the instrument, Gloster Ridley sat with Mrs Fielding on a sofa. He disliked music, and wished that the noise would stop. In a nearby chair sat Miss Vyner, Mrs Fielding’s sister; she was a soldierly lady, at the last of youth but not yet begun upon middle age, and she was working her way through a box of fifty cigarettes, helped by occasional swigs at a whisky-and-soda. She too disliked music, and thought Cobbler a bore and a fool; these were the only two opinions she shared with Ridley, and as neither had given voice to them, this agreement could do nothing to lessen the hatred which had sprung up between them on sight. Mr Fielding, however, was enjoying himself greatly, and as he sat in his deep chair he wagged one finger, bobbed one foot, and occasionally made little noises in his throat, appreciative of the music. His wife, also, appeared to be perfectly content, which maddened Ridley, for he wanted to talk to her.

It could not be said of Ridley that he coveted his neighbour’s wife. He was more than happy that Richard Fielding should live with Elspeth Fielding, sleep with her, be the father of her children and be first in her heart so long as he, Gloster Ridley, was free to call on her whenever he pleased, talk to her, confide in her, and enjoy the solace of her presence. He kissed her on her birthday, on Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve, and was never ambitious to do more. Yet he loved her more truly than many men love their wives, and she and her husband both knew it. He loved her because she was beautiful, wise and kind; he also loved her because she was married, safe and would never want him to do anything about it. Such affairs are by no means uncommon nor, whatever the young may think, are they despicable.

“Wonderful stuff, Humphrey, wonderful!” said Mr Fielding, as the schottische came to a rousing finish. “You ought to make a collection of things like that.”

“Nobody wants them,” said Cobbler. “Music is a serious business. You may publish collections of literary oddities, but nobody wants musical oddities.”

“Then why not a concert? That’s the idea! You could tour, playing a programme of forgotten Victorian music.”

“Not enough people want to hear it. And rightly so, I suppose. It’s trash, though fascinating trash. It’s the trashy art of an age which gives us its real flavour, far more than its handful of masterpieces. Don’t you agree?” He turned his black eyes suddenly on Miss Vyner.

“Haven’t a clue,” said that lady, morosely.

“But this is authentic Canadiana,” said Cobbler. “A suite of dances, composed in this very city in 1879 and dedicated to the Marchioness of Lorne. Title: The Fur Suite. I’ve played the Mink Schottische, I can give you the Beaver Mazurka, the Lynx Lancers, the Chinchilla Polka or the Ermine Redowa. Every one of them re-creates the loyal gaiety of Victorian Canada. You name it; I’ve got it. What’ll it be?”

Miss Vyner said nothing, but gave him the look of bleak, uncomprehending boredom which the unmusical wear when they are trapped among musicians. Mr Fielding elected for the Ermine Redowa, and quickly its solemn but scarcely sensuous strains filled the room. Ridley sighed audibly.

“Why don’t you talk, if you want to?” said Mrs Fielding.

Ridley muttered and made a gesture toward the piano.

“Oh, that’s not the kind of music you have to be quiet for. Dick and Humphrey will be at it all night. What’s bothering you?”

“I was followed here tonight by Professor Vambrace. I really think he’s off his head. He was lurking near my door, pretending to be a solicitor for the Salvation Army,” said Ridley. And at some length, and with the sort of anguished exaggeration which he could use when talking to Mrs Fielding, but which was denied him otherwise, he told the story of his afternoon. Mrs Fielding was sympathetic, asked a great many questions, and they became so absorbed in their talk that they did not notice that the Ermine Redowa had finished, and that they had the full attention of the others until Miss Vyner spoke.

“Well, I suppose you have to expect that kind of thing with newspapers,” said she. “I’m not a socialist, thank God, but I’d like to see the newspapers taken over by the Government. Or a strong control put on them, anyhow. They need some responsibility knocked into them.”

Miss Vyner was looking for a fight. She was a lady with a large stock of discontent and disapproval always on hand, which she could apply to any question which presented itself. She had been a guest in the Fieldings’ house for three days, and its atmosphere of easy-going happiness grated on her. She knew that Ridley was a special friend of her sister and brother-in-law and she felt that for the good of everyone she should insult him. But Ridley was not in a mood for further insult that day.

“Quite possibly you are right,” said he. “But what you would get then would not be newspapers free of error, or newspapers edited according to some splendid principle, but gazettes of fact, probably no better authenticated than the facts in newspapers at present. You see, newspapers are written and edited by journalists, and journalists are rather special people. Drive them out of the newspaper offices, and send in civil servants to replace them, and I do not think you would like the result.”

“I haven’t noticed anything very special about the journalists I’ve met,” said Miss Vyner.

“Perhaps not, but why should you? Nevertheless, a journalist is not something which just happens. Like poets, they are born. They are marked by a kind of altruistic nosiness.”

“That’s what I don’t like about them,” said Miss Vyner. “They’re always poking their noses into what doesn’t concern them.”

“Certainly. But they also poke their noses into what concerns everybody. This nose-poking isn’t something you can turn on and off like electricity. If you want the benefit of what journalists do, you must put up with some of the annoyance of what they do, as well.”

“Of course you have to stick up for them, I suppose. That’s how you get your bread-and-butter.”

“Yes, and I like getting my bread-and-butter that way. I like being a journalist and a nose-poker. I like it not only because I am made that way, but because journalism is one of the few jobs which has been able to retain most of its original honesty about itself.”

“Don’t let Pat bother you,” said Mrs Fielding, who thought that her sister was being surly. “We all know that journalism is a very honour­able profession.”

“Excuse me, Elspeth,” said Ridley, “but I don’t like to hear it called a profession. That word has been worked to death. There are people in the newspaper business who like to call it a profession, but in general we try not to cant about ourselves. We try not to join the modern rush to ennoble our ordinary, necessary work. We see too much of that in our job. Banking and insurance have managed to raise themselves almost to the level of religions; medicine and the law are priesthoods against which no whisper must be heard; teachers insist that they do their jobs for the good of mankind, without any thought of getting a living. And all this self-praise, all this dense fog of respectability which has been created around ordinary, necessary work, is choking our honesty about ourselves. It is the dash of old-time roguery which is still found in journalism — the slightly raffish, déclassé air of it — which is its fascination. We still live by our wits. We haven’t bullied and public-relations-agented the public to the point where they think that we are gods walking the earth, and beyond all criticism. We are among the last people who are not completely, utterly and damnably respectable. There is a little of the Old Adam even in the dullest of us, and it keeps us young.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” said Cobbler, and played an Amen on the piano. “That’s what’s wrong with my job, too, you know. Too much talk about the nobility of it, and how the public ought to get down on its knees before the artist simply because he has the infernal gall to say that he is an artist, and not enough honest admission that he does what he does because that is the way he is made. My life,” he declared, rolling his eyes at Miss Vyner, “is a headlong flight from respectability. If I tarted up in a nice new suit and a clean collar, I could spend hours and hours every week jawing to Rotary Clubs about what a fine thing music is and how I am just as good as they are. I’m not as good as they are, praise be to God! As a good citizen, I am not fit to black their boots. As a child of God, I sometimes think I have a considerable bulge on them, but I’m probably wrong. Sometimes I have a nightmare in which I dream that I have gone to heaven, and as I creep toward the Awful Throne I am blinded by the array of service-club buttons shining on the robe of the Ancient of Days. And then I know that my life has been wasted, and that I am in for an eternity of Social Disapproval. Wouldn’t it be an awful sell for a lot of us — all the artists, and jokers, and strivers-after-better-things — if God turned out to be the Prime Mover of capitalist respectability?”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Categories: Davies, Robertson