Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“You!” said Solly, with so much scorn and horror and — worst of all — amazement, that Pearl was goaded beyond bearing.

“Yes — me!” she shouted.

By this time they had reached the Vambrace home, and by unlucky chance Solly stopped his car just as the Professor was about to open his front gate. Her father heard Pearl’s indignant shout, and in an instant he had pulled open the door of the Morris and, bending more than double from his great height, thrust his head into it.

“What does this mean?” he demanded.

Solly was weary of feminine illogicality, and was delighted to see a fellow man, with whom he could argue in a reasonable manner.

“Professor Vambrace,” said he, “I’ve been wanting to see you. Pearl seems to have some very queer ideas about this mix-up — you know, this newspaper nonsense — and I think we ought to get together and straighten matters out.”

“Do you so!” roared the Professor, in such a voice that the whole body of the tiny car hummed with the sound. “Is it get together with you, you sneaking little cur? There’s been too much getting together with you, I see! Get out of that contraption!”

This last remark was addressed to his daughter.

“Daddy,” said she, “there’s been a mistake –”

“Get out of it!” roared the Professor. “Get out of it or I’ll pick you out of it like a maggot out of a nut!” And with these words he brought his stick down on the roof of the Morris with such force that he dented it badly and smashed his treasured blackthorn to splinters.

“Daddy,” said Pearl, “please try to understand and be a little bit quiet. Everybody will hear you.”

“What do I care who hears me? I understand that you sneaked out of my house tonight, like a kitchen maid, to meet this whelp, to whom you have got yourself clandestinely engaged.”

“We’re not engaged,” shouted Solly. He was badly frightened by the Professor, but a shout was the only possible tone in which this conversation could be carried on.

“You’re coupled in the public mouth,” roared Vambrace.

“We’re not coupled anywhere, and never intend to be!”

“Do you dare to say that to my face?”

“Yes, I do. And stop banging on my car.”

The Professor was now quite beyond reason. “I’ll bang on what I choose,” cried he, and began a loud pummelling on the roof. Where­upon Solly, who was not without resource, leaned on the horn and delivered such a blast that even the Professor was startled. He seized Pearl by the shoulder.

“Get out,” said he. And he pulled at her coat so sharply that she fell sideways out of the car on to the pavement. Solly leaned forward.

“Have you hurt yourself?” said he. “Can I help you?”

It was involuntary courtesy, but it was like gasoline on the flame of the Professor’s wrath. Gallantry before his very eyes! The product of who knew what shameless familiarity! He stooped and jerked Pearl to her feet.

“You dirty little scut!” he cried. “Roaring drunk in the car of the one man you should be ashamed to see! God!”

And he pushed Pearl toward the gate, and as she fumbled with the latch, he cuffed her shrewdly on the ear.

The quietest, but most terrible sound in this hurly-burly was Pearl’s sobbing as she ran up the path. Solly started his car with a roar.

Half an hour later, the Professor sat in his study, white with anger. In the circumstances he should have been drinking whisky, but there was never any whisky in the house, and he had made himself some wretched cocoa, that being the only drink he could find. His thoughts were incoherent, but very painful. He had played the fool all night; he had been bested. Yet unquestionably he was right — the only person connected with this villainous business who was right. He hated Pearl who, he was now convinced, was no longer pure, perhaps — O torturing thought! — no longer a virgin; certainly no longer his little girl. He had struck her! Struck her, like any bog-trotting peasant beating his slut of a daughter. And it was all for love of her.

The Professor was suddenly, noisily sick, and then, in the silence of his ugly house, he wept.

Solly crept quietly into his mother’s house, removed his shoes, and crept past his mother’s bedroom door to the attic where his living-room and bedroom were. Quickly he made himself ready for bed, and then, from inside a folio copy of Bacon’s Works, where he fondly hoped that his mother would never think of looking, he brought out his photograph of Griselda Webster. It was of her as she had appeared as Ariel in The Tempest. Stealthily he mixed himself a drink of rye and tap-water, and sat down in his armchair for his nightly act of worship. But as he gazed at Griselda, the sound of Pearl Vambrace, weeping, persisted in his ears. He thought it the ugliest sound he had ever heard, but none the less disturbing. He should have done something about that.

Pearl was still weeping, but silently, when dawn came through her window. She felt herself to be utterly alone and forsaken, for she knew that she had lost her father, more certainly than if he had died that night.


There are not many people now who keep up the custom of At Home days, but Mrs Solomon Bridgetower had retained her First Thursdays from that period, just before the First World War, when she had been a bride. Without being wealthy, she had a solid fortune, and it had protected her against changing customs; this made her a captain among those forces in Salterton which sought to resist social change, and every First Thursday a few distinguished members of this brave rearguard were to be found in her drawing-room, taking tea. At half-past three on the First Thursday in November tea had not yet appeared, but Miss Pottinger and Mrs Knapp, the Dean’s wife, were seated on a little sofa at one side of the fire, and Mrs Bridgetower, regally gowned in prune silk, with écru lace, sat in her armchair on the other. The atmosphere, though polite, was not easy.

“It seems perfectly clear to me,” Miss Pottinger was saving, “that the two events are linked. Both happened on Hallowe’en, and both concern the Cathedral. Then why should we not assume that both spring from the same brain?”

“But as we do not know what brain it was, what good can it do us to assume anything of the sort?” said Mrs Bridgetower, who had been highly educated, and would undoubtedly have had a career of some kind if she had not relinquished it to be all in all to the late Professor; the consciousness of this education and this possible career led her, in all but the most intimate circumstances, to talk in a measured, ironical tone, as though her hearers were half-witted.

“If everyone told everything they knew, we wouldn’t be in doubt for long,” said Miss Pottinger. This dark comment was directed at Mrs Knapp, a small, rather tremulous lady who tried to follow her husband along the perilous tightrope of urbanity.

“I’m quite sure you’re right,” said she, “and I am sure that the Dean would dearly love to know who put that false engagement notice in the paper. He was dreadfully angry about it. But he has never suggested that Mr Cobbler had anything to do with it.”

This was not pedantically true, for the Dean had said to her many times that he hoped to heaven Cobbler had nothing to do with it, for it would mean firing him, and the Dean wanted to keep his excellent organist as long as Cathedral opinion would permit. But Mrs Knapp was on thin ice, and she knew it.

“I happen to know that Mr Snelgrove has told the Dean that he thinks it was Cobbler,” said Miss Pottinger sharply, for she thought it ill became a Dean’s wife to palter with the truth, and she suspected, quite rightly, that the Dean told his wife everything. Loyalty between husbands and wives appeared to Miss Pottinger only as a shabby betrayal of the female sex.

“If Mr Snelgrove has interested himself in the matter,” said Mrs Bridgetower, “I am sure that we can leave it in his capable hands.”

“You mean that you don’t intend to take any action yourself, Louisa,” said Miss Pottinger.

“I have not yet decided what I shall do,” said Mrs Bridgetower, with a reserved smile.

“You don’t intend to take this lying down, I suppose?”

“I think you know that it is not my way to pass over a slight, Puss dear.”

“Well, it is now three days since that piece appeared, and your friends are wondering when you are going to declare yourself.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson