Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Yes, dear, but suppose he had wanted to wash his hands? Who would have taken him?”

“If he needs to wash his hands in the course of an hour’s visit he ought to stay at home. Or wear one of those things.”

“What things do you mean, dearie?”

“Those things soldiers wear when they’re on sentry duty.”

“Don’t be coarse, dear. I can’t bear it.”

“Sorry, Mother.”

“So nice to have someone sing at one’s Afternoon. It’s been years since it happened. Such nice songs, too. Your father loved Because —

Because God made thee mine

I’ll cherish thee —

I was terribly moved. Lovey –”

“Yes, Mother?”

“I think I could take a glass of sherry. Perhaps with a little some­thing in it.”

Solly obediently brought a tray and gave his mother a glass of dry sherry, in which he had put a generous dollop of gin.

“Thank you, dear. It takes away the taste of that horrid medicine.”

“mother, how did that fellow Higgins get here?”

“Higgin, dear. No ‘s’. Maude Shillito brought him.”

“Do you think he is the sort of person you ought to have in the house?”

“Whatever do you mean, dearie? Maude Shillito brought him.”

“I know, but the Shillitos know all kinds of terrible people. I’ve met Higgin before, and I thought he was an awful little squirt.”

“Please, lovey; you know how I dislike rough talk. Where did you meet him?”

“He hunted me up at the University. Wanted me to let him talk to my classes about how to speak English.”

“Well, lovey, from what you tell me about them, I think your classes might well have some instruction in how to speak.”

“That’s not what the classes are for. And I can’t bring in odd visitors just as I please. Anyway, he was terribly patronizing about it, and obviously thought I’d jump at the chance. I was a bit short with him.”

“Really, dear? Was that wise?”

“He rubbed me the wrong way. Talked as if we were a lot of barbarians out here.”

“We must learn all that we can from Older Civilizations, lovey.”

“Just what Older Civilization does Higgin represent? Second-rateness comes out of his pores like a fog. There’s something disgusting about him.”

“Dearie, you are speaking of a gentleman who was introduced into our home by an old and valued friend. I don’t know why you are so severe on English people, dear.”

“I’m not severe on English people, Mother, but I hate fourflushers, wherever they come from, and if Higgin isn’t a fourflusher, I don’t know one.”

“Let us not discuss it, dearie. When you are vehement you weary me, and I can’t stand much more today. I think I could take another glass of sherry.”

Strengthened by two heavily spiked sherries, Mrs Bridgetower was able to go upstairs — “to tackle the stairs” as she gamely put it — moving upward very slowly, with Solly half-boosting, half-pulling, and with a rest at the landing. When at last they reached her room, he helped her to undress, for it was understood that the elderly maid had all she could do to clear up after the At Home.

There was no unseemliness in this assistance. Seated on her bed, Mrs Bridgetower undid various mysterious fastenings through her gown, and Solly was able to pull off her stockings and put on her bedsocks. Then she toiled to a hiding-place behind a screen, and herself struggled out of the remainder of her garments, returning at last in a voluminous bedgown. Solly gently boosted her into bed, in which he had already put a hot-water bottle, and propped her up on her pillows. When he had picked up the discarded clothing from behind the screen and put it away, Mrs Bridgetower was ready for her tray.

It was understood that there could be no proper dinner on First Thursdays, as the servant had burnt herself out in preparing dainties for tea. But from the kitchen Solly fetched two trays, upon which suppers consisting chiefly of tea debris had been arranged, and he sat in a chair with one, while his mother took the other in bed. With the sherry and two kinds of medicine mingling uneasily inside her, her appetite was capricious, and to use her own expression, she picked at her food. But her spirit appeared to be refreshed, for she attacked Solly on the subject which had been uppermost in her mind for three days.

“We must make some decision, dearie, about what we are going to do.”

“I suppose all those women talked about it all afternoon.”

“It is no good being resentful and childish. This is a serious matter, and we cannot dilly-dally any longer.”

“I think the best thing is to ignore it.”

“Your father certainly would not have thought so.”

“How can we tell what Father would have thought?”

“The enmity between us and Professor Vambrace was not of your father’s choosing, but he never permitted Vambrace to get the better of him. We owe something to your father’s memory.”

“Oh, Mother, let’s talk sense. About three years ago I took Pearl Vambrace to the Military Ball. You had her here to dinner beforehand. You were very decent to her.”

“There was a very good reason why you took her. I don’t entirely recall what it was, but there was something to do with that play — that one in which the Webster girl showed so much of her legs. I have no quarrel with Pearl Vambrace, poor creature. But her father is a very different matter. I will not have people thinking that we have knuck­led under in that affair.”

“Oh, Mother, we can’t go on fighting forever.”

“Who said anything about fighting? It has been publicly announced that you are engaged to Pearl Vambrace. You are nothing of the kind. Someone has done this for spite. And I think I know who it was.”


“Professor Vambrace himself. It’s just the kind of crazy thing he would do. To make us look ridiculous.”

“You can’t be serious. He couldn’t do that to his own daughter.”

“Pooh, he could. She’s completely under his thumb. And that poor Elizabeth Fitzalan that married him — utterly crushed. The man’s insane. He did it. Within six months they’ll have to put him away, you mark my words.”

“Mother, do you realize that Vambrace is threatening to sue The Bellman? He’s telling it all over the campus, as a great secret. Every­body’s talking about it. He says it’s a plot to bring him into disrepute by associating his name with ours.”

“More madness! A great many people are very peculiar. Puss Pottinger is absolutely insane about that organist at the Cathedral — what’s-his-name. She won’t rest until she has taken his position from him. She thinks he put that piece in the paper.”

“Good God! Cobbler! What makes her think that?”

“Because there was some skylarking in the Cathedral on Hallo­we’en and she is sure Cobbler was at the bottom of it. And if he was at the bottom of that, why shouldn’t he have made other mischief the same day?”

“And does she call that logic?”

“Puss Pottinger doesn’t know what logic is. But that’s the kind of thinking that gets big rewards for detectives, whatever the mystery-writers may say about clues and deduction and all that rubbish. But I think she’s wrong. Vambrace did it. I have more insight in my little finger than Puss Pottinger has in her whole body.”

Solly chewed wretchedly on a dry sandwich. He was thinking, as he had been thinking all day, of Pearl Vambrace running into her house, pursued by her father.

“Well, what do you think we ought to do?” he said at last.

The dignified and sensible thing is for you to go to The Bellman and see this man Ridley. You must give him an announcement which he will insert, denying the report of the engagement and apologizing for having printed it. You must speak to him very firmly.”

“No good. Vambrace did that on Tuesday and Ridley flatly refused. So there’s going to be a court action. That’s the talk on the campus.”

“And what are the grounds of this court action to be?”


“Libel? And where does the libel lie?”

“In suggesting that I am going to marry his daughter. Now, Mother, there’s no use looking like that. That’s what he says.”

“Libel! Libellous to suggest that you –”

Solly was very much alarmed, for it seemed that his mother might have a seizure. But anger is a powerful stimulant, and Mrs Bridgetower’s wrath did her good. She seemed to drop twenty years before his eyes, and for ten minutes she called up the past iniquities of Professor Vambrace and uttered violent judgements on his present conduct. Her peroration was delivered in trumpet tones.

“Let him bring such a suit if he dare! We’ll bring a counter-action! Libellous to suggest that you should marry his daughter! Calculated to bring him into shame and disrepute? We’ll fight! We’ll spend money like water! We’ll break him, the old hound! Libellous to suggest that a Bridgetower would so lower himself! If there is any libel it is against us! But we’ll fight, my boy, we’ll fight!”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson