Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“If I may venture to say so,” said he, smiling at all the ladies in turn, “I think that it will not be at all easy to get satisfaction from Mr Ridley. I have only met him once, of course, but he seemed to me to be a very saturnine kind of man.” And he told the tale of his visit to Ridley, under the wing of Mr Shillito; and, as he told it, it appeared that Ridley had shown a strongly Philistine attitude toward the cultural ad­vancement of Canada, and the improvement of The Bellman. He told his story so well, and imitated Ridley so drolry, that it made the ladies laugh very much, and gave particular satisfaction to Mrs Warboys.

“When I think of him sitting there, without a word to say for himself, and snapping at the air with those scissors,” said Higgin, “I really can’t help smiling, though I assure you it was rather em­barrassing at the time.”

This led to further discussion of Ridley, whose eccentricities, habits of cooking, and single state were all thoroughly rehearsed.

“Perhaps it is as well that he never married, if he is so disagreeable,” said gentle little Mrs Knapp.

“Is it widely believed that he is unmarried?” said Higgin, with a very knowing look.

“Why, whatever do you mean by that, Mr Higgin?” said Mrs Knapp.

“Perhaps I’d better say no more — at present,” said Higgin, leaving Mrs Knapp most unsatisfied, and the other ladies even more incensed against Ridley for daring to have a secret, though they admired Mr Higgin for his discretion in not explaining it, to the only one of their number who did not know it.

“And that is the man,” said Auntie Puss, “to whom Waverley thinks of giving an honorary degree! Strange days we live in.”

“Because of Swithin’s association with him — his strictly professional association, I should say — it would ill become me to comment on that matter,” said Mrs Shillito. “But I would have thought that the Uni­versity would have wanted its new course in journalism to be formed by those with a — shall I say? — more literary approach to the matter? Writing — the light touch — the formation of a style — you know the sort of thing I mean.”

They all knew. It meant Mr Shillito, and whimsical little essays about birdseed and toothpicks.

“The degree has not been conferred yet, or even formally approved,” said Mrs Warboys, in a marked manner. And as everyone present knew, or thought they knew, that she had several members of the University Board of Governors in her pocket, this was a great stroke, and brought forth a good deal of murmuring and head nodding.

The tea, and the thin bread and butter, and the little cakes, and the big cake, having been pretty well disposed of by this time, it was a pleasant diversion when Mrs Shillito begged Mrs Bridgetower, as a personal favour to herself, to permit Mr Higgin to try her piano. This instrument, which was an aged Chickering, was a great ornament of the drawing-room, for its case was beautifully polished, and its top was covered with photographs in silver frames, and the late Professor Bridgetower’s military medals, exhibited on a piece of blue velvet. Mrs Bridgetower graciously gave her consent.

“I hope that an artist like yourself will not be too critical, Mr Higgin,” said she. “I do not play so much now as once I did, and it may not be completely in tune.”

With appropriate demurral, Mr Higgin sat down at the piano and struck a chord. It was not so much out of tune as out of voice. The sound board had split under the rigours of winter heating, and the old wires gave forth that nasal, twangling sound peculiar to senile pianos and Siamese cats. Some of the photographs jingled as well. But Mr Higgin dashed off a few brilliant arpeggio passages, and smiled delight at his hostess.

“May I give myself the pleasure?” said he. “Oh, do say that I may.” And without waiting for further permission he began to play and sing.

It might be said of Mr Higgin that he brought a great deal to the music he performed — so much, indeed, that some composers would have had trouble in recognizing their works as he performed them. He had a surprisingly large voice for a small man, and he phrased with immense grandeur and feeling, beginning each musical state­ment loudly, and tailing off at the end of it as though ecstasy had robbed him of consciousness. He enriched the English language with vowels of an Italian fruitiness, so that “hand” became “hond”, and “God” “Goad”. It was plain that he had had a lot of training, for nobody ever sang so by the light of Nature.

His first song, which was Because by Guy d’Hardelot, he sang with his eyes opening and closing rapturously in the direction of Mrs Bridgetower, in acknowledgement of her ownership of the piano. But when he was bidden to sing again he directed his beams at Auntie Puss.

“I should like to sing a little thing of Roger Quilter’s,” said he, “some lines of Tennyson.” And he launched into Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. It is doubtful if, at any time in her life, anyone had sung directly at Miss Porringer, and she was flustered in a region of her being from which she had had no messages for many years.

So fold thyself, my dearest one, and slip —

Slip into my bosom, and be lost in me.

Thus sang Mr Higgin, and in that instant Miss Pottinger knew that here was the man who must succeed Humphrey Cobbler on the organ bench at St Nicholas’.

“Sorry to be late, Mother,” said Solly, coming into the room. He caught sight of Mr Higgin, who was still at the piano, and frowned.

“My son, Mr Higgin, my great, grown-up boy,” said Mrs Bridgetower fondly.

“We have had the pleasure before,” said Mr Higgin, with what Solly thought an impudent grin.

Solly was always late for his mother’s First Thursdays, and they kept up the pretence between them that it was pressure of university work which made him so. Very soon after his arrival the guests went home, well pleased with their afternoon’s work. For they all thought that Mrs Warboys would see that the insufferable Gloster Ridley lost his job, and received no doctorate from Waverley. Miss Pottinger thought that she had done much to undermine Cobbler with Mrs Knapp and thus with the Dean. Mrs Knapp thought she had made it clear that the Dean exonerated Cobbler, and that this would divert the wrath of Miss Pottinger. Mrs Shillito thought that she had further ingratiated herself with Mrs Warboys, thus securing her husband’s position. And they all felt that the matter of the great scandal had been brought somewhat nearer to the boil.

When her guests had gone a dramatic change came over Mrs Bridgetower. Solly had seen them to the door, and he returned to the drawing-room to find his mother, as he knew she would be, slumped from her splendidly relaxed but commanding position in her armchair, with her eyes closed, and her face sagging with fatigue.

“Do you want to go upstairs at once, Mother?”

“No, dearie, give me a moment. Perhaps I’d better have one of my white tablets.”

As he climbed the stairs her voice reached him again faintly. “Bring me one of my little yellow pills too, from the table by my bed.”

“Don’t you think it would be better to leave that until you are in bed? What about a dose of your medicine instead?”

“If you think so, dearie.”

In time Solly returned, and when the tablet and then the dose of medicine were taken with much histrionic disrelish, he took off his mother’s shoes and put on her slippers, and covered her knees with a small tartan rug. She opened her eyes and smiled fondly upon him.

“Bad, bad little boy! Late again!”

“I had a lot of papers to mark, Mother, and I simply had to get them done. Anyway, I knew you’d want to talk to your friends alone.”

“Friends, dear? What are friends compared with you? And I so much need someone to help me now, passing things and so forth. I wonder how much longer I shall be able to keep up my First Thursdays. They take so much out of me now.”

“No, no; you mustn’t give them up. You must see people, you know. The doctor said you must keep up your interests.”

“You are my only real interest now, dear. If your father had lived — but it is useless to talk of what might have been. But I need you to help me. There was a gentleman here today. You should have been here to help entertain him.”

“It looked to me as though he were doing the entertaining.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson