Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“My friends need not be concerned; my real friends know, I am sure, that I am not one to take hasty or ill-advised action in any matter. I have not the robust health which would permit me to scamper about the town, making useless mischief. Even if I had a temperament which took pleasure in it.”

In Mrs Bridgetower’s circle, this was tough talk, and Miss Pottinger ground her false teeth angrily. But Mrs Knapp, who had known these ladies for a mere ten years or so, and was thus a virtual newcomer to Salterton society, interjected an unfortunate attempt to make peace.

“Oh, I am quite certain dear Auntie Puss has no such desire,” said she. “We all know that her intentions are of the very best.” Then, catching the lightning from Miss Pottinger’s eye, she subsided with an exhalation which was meant to be a social laugh, and sounded like fright.

“I suppose I am old-fashioned,” said Miss Pottinger, “but I still do not see why sacrilege and assaults on people’s good names should be passed over without a thing being done. You have a phlegmatic temperament, Louisa, and are perhaps too ill to care what goes on, but I would have thought that Solly would have had something to say for himself by this time.”

“My son has faith in my judgement,” said Mrs Bridgetower.

“Of course, but a man with any real gimp in him would have done something before he had had time to talk to you.”

This was insufferable! Mrs Bridgetower moved into action, which, in her case meant that she relaxed in her chair, allowed her heavy lids to drop a little farther over her eyes, and smiled.

“And what would he have done, Puss, pray? Would he have rushed to Mr Cobbler, and struck him in the face? To have suspected Mr Cobbler in this matter he would have had to take guidance from you, for you seem to be the one who wants to hang Mr Cobbler’s hide on the fence, as the boys used to say when we were young. And I do not think that it has ever occurred to Solomon to consult you in any matter, particularly. And a certain gallantry which you, dear, might not appreciate, forbids a man to deny in the open market-place that he is engaged to a girl after such a report, without knowing precisely what he is doing. There are still gentlemen in the world, Puss, whatever our experience may have been.”

This was dirty fighting indeed, and referred to the sudden disappearance, many years before, of a man who, without being actually engaged to Auntie Puss, had put that lady into a mood to accept him if asked. Pouring salt into wounds was a specialty of Mrs Bridgetower’s, and the older the wound was the better she liked it.

Auntie Puss took refuge in hurt feelings. Her chin quivered and she spoke in a tremulous voice. “If you don’t take care, Louisa, that is all there is to be said about it. My concern was for you, and for the good name of the Cathedral. A soldier’s daughter probably sees these things differently from most people.”

“I think that even a soldier’s daughter should know who the enemy is before she fires,” said Mrs Bridgetower who, as a woman herself, set little store by wobbling chins and tearful voices in others. She might have gone on to demolish Auntie Puss completely if, at this moment, reinforcements had not arrived in the person of Mrs Roger Warboys. Because of her connection with The Bellman it was impossible to say at once if she were friend or foe, and all the time which was occupied by bringing in the tea, and pouring it out, and passing thin bread and butter, was needed before it became perfectly clear that Mrs Warboys had come expressly to talk about the great scandal, and that she was on the side of those whose privacy and inmost feelings had been so grossly violated.

Mrs Warboys’ position was a peculiar one, distinguished by many interesting shades of feeling, and she enjoyed it very much in a solemn, stricken way. She felt a family loyalty to The Bellman, of course. She thought a newspaper a powerful influence in a commun­ity and a great trust; she yearned to see The Bellman conducted according to the highest standards of journalism, as she conceived them. She had repeatedly impressed these views of hers upon her father-in-law, Mr Clerebold Warboys, who — although she was the last one to say a word against the late Roger’s father — paid no attention to them. If she could, only for a month, have a free hand at The Bellman, it would be a very different paper thereafter. Some heads would roll, and although she named no names, certain powerful editorial influences would be removed. She was humiliated by the incident of the false engagement notice, and had come to Mrs Bridgetower’s First Thursday most unsure of her welcome. She appreciated perfectly how she would feel herself, if she were in Mrs Bridgetower’s position, but she did not wish to lose friends over a matter which she had been powerless to prevent, but which she might be able to amend.

She permitted all of these admissions to be wormed out of her, as it were unwillingly, with Auntie Puss as chief inquisitor, and gained immense moral prestige by fouling her own nest, which was a situation especially congenial to her temperament. She might have been some noble-minded Russian who had, at immense personal risk, escaped to give aid to the democracies.

As Mrs Warboys was basking in her glory, the doorbell rang, and the elderly maid admitted Mrs Swithin Shillito, who was accompanied by Mr Bevill Higgin.

“Dear Louisa,” said the old lady, “I hoped that I might introduce Mr Higgin to you, for I know you have so much in common, and as he is still a stranger in Salterton –”

“But of course,” said Mrs Bridgetower. “It is rarely nowadays that I see gentlemen at my Thursdays, and so Mr Higgins is doubly welcome.”

“I am honoured,” said Mr Higgin, bowing, “to meet a lady of whom I have heard so much. The name is Higgin, without the ‘s’. Yes.” And Mr Higgin was introduced to everyone and was very much at ease, rather like an indifferent but experienced actor in a comedy by Pinero. At last he seated himself on a low pouffe next to his hostess, and looked rather like a pixie on a toadstool.

“And where are you living in Salterton, Mr Higgin?” said Mrs Bridgetower, after some general conversation.

“For the time being I have taken rooms, rather in the north of town,” said he.

“With some people called Morphew,” said Mrs Shillito.

“I don’t know anyone called Morphew,” said Mrs Bridgetower.

“I’m sure you don’t,” said Mr Higgin. “They are a very good sort of people in their way, and I am very comfortable there, but it is not the sort of place in which one would wish to stay indefinitely. But until I have acquired some pupils, and have had an opportunity to look round for a bachelor flat, with a studio, it will do very nicely.”

And then, without much prompting, he told the company that he taught singing and elocution, and Mrs Shillito said all the com­plimentary things about his abilities which he wanted said, but which he could not suitably say himself.

“Connection is every thing, of course, for an artist like Mr Higgin,” said that lady, “but it takes time to meet the right people.”

“Less so, perhaps, in a university town than elsewhere,” said Mr Higgin, with a bow which included all the ladies. “And in a young country, so avid for culture as Canada, I hope that it will not take me too long to make my way.”

“I have been urging Mr Higgin to seek some connection with the Cathedral,” said Mrs Shillito. “Perhaps, Mrs Knapp, you can tell us if there is any part of the musical service in which Mr Higgin’s talents could be of use?”

Mrs Knapp said that Mr Cobbler looked after everything of that kind.

“Oh, my dear, you are too modest,” said Mrs Shillito, who was a rosy, round little old lady, got up in grey and purple and, like her husband, English with the peculiar intensity of English people abroad. “We all know how musical Mr Dean is, and I am sure that Mr Cobbler does nothing except on his advice.”

“I have been trying to see Mr Cobbler,” said Higgin, “but he is a very elusive man.”

“He may soon be downright missing, if I am any judge,” said Miss Pottinger, who had been seething for some time. Mrs Bridgetower’s opposition to her conviction that Cobbler was at the root of the great scandal had served only to intensify her certainty of his guilt.

This pregnant remark brought the conversation back to the great theme again, and as Mr Higgin was acquainted with it, having heard much about it from the Shillitos, he was able to enter into it with some spirit, though modestly, as befitted a newcomer. He listened with wide-open blue eyes, and said “Oh!” and “Ah!” with the right amount of horror at the right places.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson