Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Mother, please be calm. What’s the good of saying we’ll fight? We’ll all look like fools, that’s what we’ll do.”

“How can you talk so? Puss Pottinger was right. You haven’t any gimp!”

“All right, then, I haven’t any gimp. But it seems to me that you and Vambrace have no thought for Pearl or me; you’d make us look like a couple of children in leading-strings.”

“You have a lot of consideration for Pearl Vambrace, I must say. More than you have for me, it seems. Nasty, scheming little thing!”

“Very well, then, leave Pearl out of it. What will I look like if you go to court to fight a counter-action against Vambrace’s libel suit?”

“No, we will not leave Pearl out of it. It seems to me that you are very ready to fly to Pearl’s rescue. Solly, tell me honestly, is there any crumb of truth in this report about you and Pearl?”

“If you aren’t going to listen to my advice I don’t think you can expect me to answer that question,” said Solly, and was quite as surprised as his mother to hear himself say so.

The dispute went on, without anything new being added to it, for another half-hour. It ended with Solly fetching five volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to his mother’s bedroom, so that she might read all that pertained to the law of libel. He also gave her her pink medicine, and arranged her reading light. Later details of washing and removing her teeth would be attended to by the elderly maid. In spite of these filial acts there was a barrier between them, for Solly had created an uncertainty, and an uncertainty about Solly was some­thing which his mother found frightening and intolerable. But she was so stimulated by hatred and the love of combat that she was able to retain some composure, and contented herself by saying that she hoped that in the morning he would be in a more reasonable frame of mind, and see things as she saw them. Thus he left her, and went upstairs to his attic study.

Solly’s first act when he was in his own room was to take down Bacon’s Works in order that he might refresh himself with a look at his photograph of Griselda Webster. It was not a particularly good photograph, but the eye of adoration could see much in it, and it had been his solace in every dark hour since Griselda herself, several months before, had gone to Europe to travel for an indefinite period. In the picture she appeared as Ariel, in The Tempest, an unquestionably beautiful girl, even in the tabby-cat greys of a poor photograph. He had other photographs of the Salterton Little Theatre’s grand assault upon Shakespeare, hidden in other chapters of Bacon, but he did not look at them often, for his interest was in Griselda alone. But tonight he hunted them down in the large folio, supposing that in this way he was putting off the moment when he must settle down to his work. They looked like the photographs of almost any Little Theatre production; the cast had been taken in groups, some of the players self-conscious in costume and grinning at the camera, others keeping “in character” with great ferocity, and acting very hard, though without movement. Griselda was in two or three of these, and the one for which he was looking showed her standing on a grassy mound, obedient to the command of Prospero, who was Professor Vambrace.

At Prospero’s side, but apparently unconscious of Ariel, stood Pearl Vambrace as Miranda.

She had looked well as Miranda, thought Solly. He had to give her that. She stood well, and had dignity, and the dark stillness of her face suited the part. She was not to be compared with the wonderful Griselda, of course, for Griselda was a goddess. But as mortal women went, Pearl had good gifts. A pity they didn’t show more in the costume of every day. And when he had last seen her, white with anger and nervous irritability, at the Yarrows, and then stumbling toward the Vambrace house, she had looked awful. As he thought about it, the sound of her miserable cries came into his ears again, and to rid himself of that memory he closed Bacon, and went to his desk to work.

A pile of fifty-two essays lay before him, in which First Year Science men had expressed their opinions on “The Canterbury Pilgrims and their Modern Counterparts” or “The Allegory of the Faerie Queene in Terms of Today”. Imposing as these titles were, and productive of large and learned books as they might be, First Year Science was expected to say what it had to say in not more than a thousand words, and to base its opinions on a small red book called Magic Casements, Vol. I: Beowulf to the Elizabethans; nobody supposed for a moment that Science students had time or inclination to read and ponder Chaucer and Spenser at first hand: indeed, it went against the grain with Science students to bother with English at all.

Solly picked up the first essay, which was by Igor Kaczabowski, and read the first sentence: “The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer are among the richest jewels of our British heritage. He was called the Father of English Poetry because everybody who came after him sprang from him. In an age of unbridled licence he was an honest civil servant and wrote many poems in his spare time of which the best known are The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and The Treatise on the Astrolabe. Couched as they are in what is to the modern reader virtually a foreign tongue we will go a long ways before we improve on his ability to size up our fellow man.”

Sighing, Solly tucked Kaczabowski into the middle of the pile, to come upon him as a surprise later on. Picking up another, from Jean Thorsen, he found another reference in the first paragraph to our British heritage, and a further hunt revealed that two more Scandin­avians, a Pole and three Russian Jews had claimed Chaucer as their own. He was annoyed; lifting from Magic Casements was legitimate enough, all things considered, but he wished that they would read what they lifted with greater care and introduce a little artistry, some hint of individuality, into it. Nobody seemed to have tackled the problem of allegory in modern life, and he didn’t blame them; The Faerie Queene had little to say to First Year Science.

He had lost the battle, he knew, the minute that he faltered with Kaczabowski; in marking essays the great thing is to go straight ahead, without deviation or consideration of personal taste. To admit that one paper might be more pleasing than another was to allow his critical powers to work on the wrong level; his job was to correct the grammar of First Year Science, and to untangle the more baffling syntactical messes; to begin thinking about Chaucer, or even common sense, was fatal. He pushed the heap of essays aside; if the worst came to the worst he could always award marks between B minus and C plus arbitrarily, and not give back the papers at all.

Our British heritage; what a lot was said about it in Canada, one way and another, and it always meant people like Chaucer and Spenser; it never seemed to mean people like Bevill Higgin who were, after all, more frequent ambassadors from the Old Country. He wished that he had not mentioned Higgin to his mother. But to find the little pip-squeak in the house, mooing Tennyson to all those old trouts in the drawing-room! He had thought himself rid of Higgin.

It was — how long? — three weeks at least since last he had seen him. Solly had been having a difficult morning; he had talked to First Year Science at eight o’clock, and at ten o’clock he had met another group who were getting a quick run through Our British Heritage; these were students of mature years, who had already taught in primary schools for some time and were getting university degrees in order that they might teach in high schools, and most of them were older than Solly. After his lecture one of these men, who was perhaps thirty-five, and had glasses and a bald spot, had approached him and said: “Professor Bridgetower, I’m not getting anything out of your course; I don’t mean anything personal, you understand, but frankly I don’t think you have any pedagogical method; in our work, you know, pedagogical method is everything, and if you’d give me a little extra time on some of this Milton, why I’d be glad to give you some pointers on pedagogical method; as you explained to me, I could point out to you where you weren’t doing it right, do you see?” Solly had rejected this kindly offer with abruptness, and had told the well-meaning fellow that a university was not an infant class, and that he was welcome to exercise his pedagogical method upon himself. But the student’s words had hurt him; he knew that he was a bad teacher; he hated teaching; he shrank from eager minds, and was repelled by dull ones. It was with a sharp increase in his haunting sense of failure that he mounted the stairs to his office.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson