Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

And there, in his office, where he had hoped to sit down and mope quietly about his failure, had been Bevill Higgin, who had introduced himself with the most ridiculous affectation of what he considered to be a university manner, and who had proposed that he, Solly, should permit Higgin to give readings from English poetry to his classes, in order, as Higgin put it, to give them the sonorous roll of the verse and to illuminate what had, it was implied, been presented to them in a dull and lifeless manner. To make his meaning perfectly clear he had declaimed a few lines of Satan’s Address to the Sun, in an embarrass­ing, elocutionary manner, like a man trying out his voice in a bathroom.

It was a bad moment to approach Solly with such a scheme. He was conscious that he left much to be desired as a teacher of English; this point had just been rubbed into him by one of his own students who had — a final insult — meant it with sincere kindness. It was obvious that Higgin had approached him because he was the most junior member of the English staff, and thus, presumably, the easiest mark. He had sulked, and said that the thing was impossible.

And then, to his astonishment, Higgin had said, very confiden­tially, that he was on the lookout for pupils, and that if he drew any pupils from Solly’s classes, he would be willing to remit to Solly one-half of their first month’s payment for lessons.

Of course, Solly knew now, he should not have done what he did. But, in a mysterious way, the man offended his sense of propriety. It was not the offer of the kick-back on lessons — no, no, it was something that he had felt before Higgin got that far. It was, he supposed, a snobbish feeling. The little man was such a second-rater, such a squirt, such a base little creature. And so he had risen, and pushed Higgin toward the door, not hard or roughly, but just a good firm, directing push. He had said, he remembered, “No soap!” which was a sadly unacademic remark, but the best that he could think of at the moment. And when Higgin was in the corridor he had slammed the door.

Undignified. Silly. But he was too disgusted with himself to think of what he was doing, and since that time he had thought little about the incident. But when he had met Higgin at Mother’s At Home, there was no mistaking the look of malicious triumph on Higgin’s face.

Solly tried to banish thoughts of Higgin by further work. Not intimate communion with the finer thoughts of First Year Science, but with his Grand Project, his Passport to Academic Preferment. From a shelf above his desk he took down a book bound in dingy brown cloth, upon the front of which, inside a border of ornamental stamp­ing, was printed the title, Saul. Inside, on the title page was:





Henry Rose, Great St James Street


This was it, the principal work of Canada’s earliest, and in the opinion of many people, greatest dramatist, Charles Heavysege. Had not Longfellow, moved by we know not what impulse, declared that Heavysege was the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare?

Solly had not been drawn toward Heavysege by any kinship of spirit. Heavysege had been given to him, with overwhelming academic generosity, by the head of the English Faculty, Dr Darcy Sengreen. He remembered the occasion vividly when, a few months before, Dr Sengreen had asked him to lunch. And, when they had eaten, and were sitting at the table from which everything had been removed but a bouquet of paper roses, Dr Sengreen had said: “Now, Bridgetower, you’ve got to get down to work. What are you going to do?”

Solly had muttered something about having a lot to learn about lecturing and the preparation of his courses.

“Ah, yes,” Dr Sengreen had said, “but that isn’t enough, you know. You’ve got to get to work on something that will make your name known in scholastic circles. You’ve got to publish. Unless you publish, you’ll never be heard of. You’ve nothing in mind?”

Solly had nothing in mind save apprehension as to what Dr Sengreen might say next.

“Well, if I were a young fellow in your position, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant. I’d jump right into Amcan.”

Solly knew that Dr Sengreen meant the scholarly disembowelling of whatever seemed durable in American-Canadian literature.

“Amcan’s the coming thing, and particularly the Canadian end of it. But there isn’t much to be done, and the field is being filled up very quickly. Now, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you Heavysege.”

And half an hour later Solly had left Dr Sengreen’s house carrying first editions of the two plays, the three long narrative poems, and the single novel of Charles Heavysege, which Dr Sengreen had let him have at the prices which they had cost him. And, within a week, he had written to several learned papers asking for information about Heavysege, to be used in connection with a critical edition of that author upon which he was at work. Not, of course, that he expected any information, but this was a recognized way of warning other eager delvers in the dustheaps of Amcan that he had put his brand on Heavysege, had staked out a claim on him, so to speak, and that anybody trespassing on his property was committing an offence against the powerful, though unwritten, rules of academic research.

And here he was, landed with Heavysege. Within a year at most Dr Sengreen would expect a learned and provocative article on Heavysege, from his pen, in some journal or quarterly of recognized academic standing.

Amcan. A new field in literary study, particularly the Can half. In twenty years they would be saying, “Dr Bridgetower? The big man in the Heavysege field; yes, the collected edition is pretty much all his own work, you know, though he let X and Y do the bibliography, and Z did a lot of the digging on Heavysege’s newspaper writings; yes, a monument in Canadian scholarship; wonderful tribute to old Darcy Sengreen in the general introduction, but the dedication is ‘To my Mother, who first taught me to love Amcan, Si Monumentem requiris, circumspice’; yes, one of the very biggest things in Canadian literary studies.” Holding the brown book in his hand, a sudden nausea swept over Solly, and he gagged.

Why do countries have to have literatures? Why does a country like Canada, so late upon the international scene, feel that it must rapidly acquire the trappings of older countries — music of its own, pictures of its own, books of its own — and why does it fuss and stew, and storm the heavens with its outcries when it does not have them? Solly pondered bitterly upon these problems, knowing full well how firmly he was caught in the strong, close mesh of his country’s cultural ambitions. Already he was being asked for advice by hopeful creators of culture. Who was that fellow, that reporter on The Bellman, who had been at him only a few days ago? Bumble, was that his name? No; Rumball; that was it. Poor Rumball, toiling every spare minute of his time at what he was certain would be the great Canadian prose epic, The Plain That Broke the Plough.

Rumball had approached him with great humility, explaining that he had no education, and wanted to find out a few things about epics. Solly, capriciously, had said that he had more education than he could comfortably hold, and he was damned if he could write an epic. He had advised Rumball to model himself on Homer, who had no education either. He had expressed admiration for Rumball’s theme. God knows it had sounded dreary enough, but Solly felt humble in the presence of Rumball. Here, at least, was a man who was trying to create something, to spin something out of his own guts and his own experience. He was not a scholarly werewolf, digging up the corpse of poor Charles Heavysege, hoping to make a few meals on the putrefying flesh of the dead poet.

But this was not getting anything done. He looked at his watch. Nine o’clock. He put Saul back on the shelf, removed his shoes and crept downstairs with them in his hand. Outside his mother’s door he listened; though the light was still on, thin, tremulous snores assured him that she was asleep and would probably remain so for many hours. He stole down to the ground floor, shut himself into the telephone cupboard and dialed a number.


“Is that you, Molly? It’s Solly. Is Humphrey at home?”


“May I come over? I need you.”

“Righto, ducks.”

In the dimness of The Bellman’s news room a cone of light shone from above Henry Rumball’s desk, illuminating his typewriter; Rumball, balancing on the back legs of his chair, gazed fixedly into the works of his machine, as though seeking inspiration. He was alone, having returned early from an entertainment given by a class of backward boys before a Home and School Club. He should have been thinking about the backward boys, but he was thinking about The Plain That Broke the Plough.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson