Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

His eye was still upon Miss Vyner, who was uncomfortable. She never thought about God, herself, but she had a sleeping regard for Him, as a Being who thought very much as she herself did, though more potently. Dragging God into a conversation embarrassed her deeply. The organist continued.

“Your story fascinates me. Particularly the part about Vambrace playing sleuth. That explains what he was doing out in the street when I came here, dolled up like a racetrack tout. It never struck me that he was avoiding notice. Quite the most eye-taking figure in town tonight, I would have said.”

“It’s the engagement that interests me,” said Mrs Fielding. “Of course I saw the piece in the paper; I never miss them. I thought it a splendid match. Solly needs a wife dreadfully, if only to get away from his mother, and Pearl is a dear child, and a great beauty as well.”

This comment made Ridley and Fielding start.

“A great what?” said her husband. “Why, the girl looks as if she had been dragged backward through a hedge.”

“I haven’t seen her in some time,” said Ridley, “but it certainly never occurred to me that she had any looks.”

“That’s because you are both getting a little old,” said Mrs Fielding. “When a man doesn’t notice that a girl under thirty has any looks, just because she is a little rumpled and doesn’t know how to present herself, he is far gone in middle age. That’s why men like you take up with obvious, brassy little blondes, when you take up with anything at all. You can’t see real beauty any more. Give me Pearl Vambrace and five hundred dollars, for a week, and I will show you a beauty that will make even your eyes pop. She’s quite lovely.”

“Elspeth and I never agree about looks,” said Mr Fielding. “She’s always pretending to see beauty that I can’t see. Now my idea of a real beauty is Griselda Webster.”

“Very nice, I grant you,” said Cobbler, “but I agree with your wife. The Vambrace girl has something very special. Mind you, I don’t mind ’em a bit tousled,” said he, and grinned raffishly at Miss Vyner, who was, above all things, clean and neat, though she tended to smell rather like a neglected ashtray, because of smoking so much. “This business of good grooming can be carried too far. For real attraction, a girl’s clothes should have that lived-in look.”

“I suppose you really like them dirty,” said Miss Vyner.

“That’s it. Dirty and full of divine mystery,” said Cobbler, rolling his eyes and kissing his fingers. “Sheer connoisseurship, I confess, but I’ve always preferred a bit of ripened cheese to a scientifically pack­aged breakfast food.”

Miss Vyner found herself without a reply. She felt, though no socialist, that a man who talked like Cobbler ought to be taken over by the Government, and taught responsibility.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be no question of this suitable match coming off, Elspeth,” said Ridley; “and meanwhile I am in very hot water, and I am not even sure that I can leave this house without having trouble with Vambrace. I had to run the last few yards in order to get here at all.”

“I thought that was what you liked,” said Miss Vyner. “From what you said just now I thought you wanted to go back to the days when editors were horsewhipped by people they had injured.”

“But as you doubtless overheard me saying to Elspeth, I have not injured the Professor. Somebody else has injured him, using my paper. If I am to be horsewhipped, I at least want to have my fun first.”

“I have to go now,” said Cobbler. “I’ll lure the Professor away.”

Ridley protested, for he did not like Cobbler, and certainly did not want to be under an obligation to him. The editor was ready to play the raffish journalist in order to annoy Miss Vyner, but the genuine raffishness of Humphrey Cobbler disturbed him. But it was imposs­ible to shake the organist’s determination, and when at last he left the house even Miss Vyner joined the other three in peeping through the window curtains, to see what he would do.

Professor Vambrace, cold and cross, was leaning against a tree in the park which was on the other side of the street from the Fieldings’ house. To be fair to him, he would not have been noticed by anyone who was not on the lookout for him. He saw Cobbler hurry down the walk, cross the street until he was standing at the edge of the park directly in line with himself. And the Cobbler began to dance, and to sing in a very loud voice:

This is the way to the Zoo, the Zoo,

The Zoo, the Zoo, the Zoo;

The monkey cage is nearly full

But I think there’s room for you;

And I’ll be there on Saturday night

With a bloody big bag o’ nuts —

NUTS you bastard!

NUTS you bastard!

Bloody big bag o’ nuts!

The Professor attempted to creep away unseen among the trees, but even he could not deceive himself that the song was not an aggressive act of derision, aimed at himself. And all his detective enthusiasm melted from him, leaving him naked to his own scorn. For the Professor, who was immoderate in self-esteem, was similarly immoderate in his condemnation of himself, and as he strode swiftly toward his home he hated himself as a buffoon who had spent an evening, ridiculously dressed, stumbling among garbage cans, skulk­ing among trees, and spying on people who had, unquestionably, spent the whole evening comfortably indoors, laughing at him. Not only was it bitter to be mocked; it was worse still to feel that he was worthy of mockery.

Dutchy and Norm were a little surprised that their party ended so soon. But immediately after refreshments had been served the guests showed a restless eagerness to leave, excepting Jimmy the dentist and one or two others whose thirst for organized Whee was not fully slaked. Solly and Pearl spoke in undertones over their coffee.

“Come on. I’ll take you home.”

“You will not.”

“Don’t argue. Get your things.”

“Don’t speak to me like that. I’ll go by myself.”

“And chance what Dutchy will have to say about it? You come with me. I’ve got to talk to you.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Yes you do. Don’t be a fool. We’ve got to get together about this thing or we’ll never hear the end of it.”

“I can’t go with you. I don’t want to see you, ever again.”

“I know all that. But we’ve got to leave this place together. Please.”

And so they left the party as quickly and unobtrusively as they could, and Solly helped Pearl into his tiny Morris quite as though they wanted to be together.

“Now,” said Solly, when they had gone a short distance, “I suppose you don’t know anything about all this?”

“Of course I don’t,” said Pearl. “How would I?”

“I didn’t suppose you did. But before I can do anything about it myself I have to be quite sure.”

“Before you do anything about it?”

“Yes. Didn’t it occur to you that I might want to contradict that notice?”

“Surely I am the one to do any contradicting that is done.”

“Why, precisely?”

“Well — because I’m the one that’s been dragged into this mess.”

“Why you more than me?”

“Because –” Pearl was about to say “because I’m a girl,” but she felt that such a reason would not do for the twentieth century. There was a short silence.

“I think that you had better get things straight,” said Solly. “You haven’t been dragged into the mess any more than I have. And I am every bit as anxious to contradict this story as you are.”

Pearl was surprised to feel herself becoming angry. It is one thing not to want to marry a young man; it is quite another thing to find that the young man is offended that people should think he wants to marry you. She sat up very straight and breathed deeply through her nose.

“There’s no sense snorting about it,” said Solly. “And you needn’t expect me to be gallant about it, either. This damned thing has put me in a very queer position, and God only knows what will be the upshot of it. It could very easily ruin everything for me.” He frowned over the wheel at the dark street.

“You mean when Griselda Webster hears about it?” said Pearl, in a well-simulated tone of polite interest.

“Yes. That’s what I mean,” said Solly. “Though what you know about it, or how it concerns you, I don’t understand.”

“I only know what everybody knows. Which is that you have been hounding Griselda for the past three years; and that on her long list of suitors you rank about fifteenth; and that now she is in England you write to her all the time, and even take her little sister Freddy for drives to get the news of Griselda that she doesn’t trouble to write to you. And as for how it concerns me, well — I am sure Griselda will hear it from somebody, by air-mail, probably the day after tomorrow, and she will be glad because it will relieve her of the nuisance of thinking she has blighted your life. However, if it will relieve your mind, I will write to her myself, and tell her that you are still her faithful slave, and that contrary to public report, I haven’t stolen you away from her.”

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