Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

It was an epic, there could be no doubt about that. It seemed to become more epic every day. It swept on and on, including more and more aspects of life in the great Canadian West, until he was thor­oughly astonished by it. He had read about this business of books getting away from their writers, taking their own heads, so to speak, but he was astonished to experience it himself. He was happily amazed at the wilfulness of his own creative mind; this ability to go on and on, without much effort or conscious control, certainly made him feel that he was, well, in the grip of a power greater than himself. It was humbling to feel so. . . Now, about those backward boys —

But at this moment the footsteps and the rumblings of which he had been conscious at the back of his mind became fully audible, demanding attention, and Mr Shillito walked into the news room.

“Ah, good evening,” said he. “Just out for a breather and thought I’d look in to see if anything was doing.”

He went to the city desk, rummaged among the papers on it, and looked at one or two copy-hooks, and then walked over to Rumball’s desk and sat down familiarly on one corner of it.

“Knocking out your stint, I see,” he said. “Good. Good. Always write your story while, it’s fresh in your mind; never leave it till tomorrow. What is it?”

“Backward boys, gym and handicraft display,” said Rumball.

“Hmph, yes; even that — do it while it’s hot. Well, well; I’ll push on. Always walk a mile or two every evening. Find some of my best ideas come to me then. I still carry a notebook, you know,” said Mr Shillito, with the arch manner of one confiding a surprising secret. “A good phrase comes into my head while I’m walking, out comes the note­book, under a street lamp, and I pop it down. Then, in the morning, I look at the book and sometimes I find something already written in my head, ready to pop out when the right phrase calls it up. Strange how the writer’s mind works.”

Rumball grunted. He did not like to think that Mr Shillito’s mind worked along lines so closely resembling his own.

“Yes, it’s all part of the romance of the craft. You’re young in the craft, and I’m old in it — the greatest game in the world.” Mr Shillito’s voice trembled with emotion. Then his mood became conspiratorial. “Nothing new about the great mystery, I suppose?”

“Nothing that I’ve heard.”

“Wish that could be cleared up. It isn’t good to have a thing like that hanging over a paper.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’ll all come out in the wash.”

“I wouldn’t say that, lad. No, I wouldn’t say that.”

“Sure. A libel threat isn’t anything. The lawyers will probably fix it up between them.”

“You think so?”

“Even suppose they don’t, it couldn’t cost the paper much. It’s not serious libel, if it’s libel at all. No court would give much in the way of damages on a thing like that.”

“It isn’t the public result I’m thinking of. It’s the secondary results. Here in the office, for instance. Some pretty big apples could be shaken from some pretty high branches.”

“You mean Boney?”

“Don’t say I said so.”

“No, of course not. But Gee, Mr Shillito, what would bring it to that?”

“Towns like this, my boy, are very close-knit — at the heart, I mean. You may tread on some people’s toes, and nothing will happen to you. But if you trouble the waters in the wrong quarter, you wish you hadn’t. Divide families, turn father against daughter — that kind of thing — no good comes of it.”

“Father against daughter? You mean Vambrace and his daughter?”

“I shouldn’t speak of it. Still — I saw what I saw. I’m an old man, and I’ve seen a good deal of life, but I’m still shocked, thank God, when I see a woman beaten.”

“Beaten! You mean Vambrace has been lighting into Pearl?”

“Did I say so? Well — off the record, mind — he was dragging, positively dragging her into the house. I was out in the garden calling Blue Mist, our Persian, and I saw most of it. And when I went out into the street, do you know what I found, Rumball?”


“A blackthorn stick, broken right across. Right across, mind you. When you bring a white man to that pass, Rumball, you’ve got to answer for it.”

With his usual dramatic sense Mr Shillito rose from the desk, and went to the door, thoughtfully sweeping aside his ramshorn mous­taches. Before leaving he fixed Rumball with a stern glance, and flourished his walking stick at him.

“Off the record, mind you,” he said, and was gone.

Once again Rumball was alone, peering into his typewriter. Was it up to him to do anything? He knew Pearl. Indeed, he admired her. He had first met her when he sought some information for TPTBTP (which was the cabbalistic way in which he thought of his book) in the Waverley Library. She had been very helpful and nice, and he had told her about the book. She had seemed interested. Lonely as he was, he had two or three times asked her if she would like to have a meal with him at the Snak Shak, and talk about TPTBTP, but she had always refused, though nicely. And so he had put her out of his mind. After all, he had to save himself for the book. But — beaten with a blackthorn stick! Should he do anything? And if so, what? Should he go to her in the morning, and offer himself for any service she might command? Pearl, in distress, seemed much more desirable and important than before.

But then, what about his duty to TPTBTP?

Professor Bridgetower ought to be considered, too. He was in­volved in the mess. And he was the first professor who had ever been human to Rumball. Usually, when Rumball was on the University beat, he called on a few professors who said “Nothing today” as soon as he approached them. But when he had wanted to talk to Bridgetower about his novel, Bridgetower had asked him to sit down, and had taken him seriously. A nice fellow. For his sake, as well as for Pearl’s, something ought to be done. But what?

Much troubled, Rumball began to type: “An audience which almost filled the gallery of the gymnasium of Queen Elizabeth School wit­nessed the annual display by the Opportunity Class on Thursday evening. . .”

Norm and Dutchy Yarrow lay happily in bed. Her head was snuggled on his breast, and his left arm held her close to him. A bedside lamp with a pink shade threw a rosy glow over the scene. They were deeply content, and almost asleep, until Dutchy spoke.

“Gee, it’s wonderful to be so happy.”

“That’s right, honey-bunch.”

“It just makes you sorry for everybody in the world that isn’t as happy as we are.”

“That’s a sweet thought, sugar.”

“It just breaks my heart, thinking about those two poor kids.”

“Certainly is tough for them.”

“D’you s’pose they’ll ever have anything like this? D’you s’pose they’ll ever be as happy and as close as we are, right this minute?”

Norm thought about it. He tried to imagine Pearl, lying beside Solly in the connubial bliss which enfolded Dutchy and himself. Somehow the vision did not seem quite right. Happy lovers very often feel the generous wish that others may be as happy as they, but it is only human to think that one has gone a little farther in this sort of happiness than others are likely to follow.

“Well, I don’t know, sweetie. Happiness is a kind of a talent. And the physical relationship is a talent, too. Solly and Pearlie are both kind of nervous. I don’t think their background is right for it. I mean, they could be happy, but as for being as happy as we are — well, that’s expecting a lot.”

“I’ll say so. I don’t suppose anybody was ever as happy as I am right this minute.”

Far down in the bed, Norm tickled her with his toes. She tickled him with hers. They scuffled and giggled and kissed.

“See?” said Dutchy. “Can you imagine Solly and Pearlie playing toesies? I just can’t.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Norm. “There’s a touch of the gammon in Pearlie.”

“The what?”

“The gammon; it’s a French expression for a delinquent girl. Still, you can’t tell. There are people,” said Norm portentously, “who never get any fun out of sex at all.”

“Oh sure, I know. Case histories. But you don’t think they’ll end up as a couple of case histories, do you?”

“Could happen. I mean, if it’s true about Pearlie and her father.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson