Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Once again Cobbler got himself into trouble with his hot drink, and when he had been put to rights again Solly told him of all the dark suspicions of Auntie Puss, and Cobbler told Solly of the Hallowe’en party in the Cathedral, and of his serenading Professor Vambrace in the park, which he said that he had been unable to resist.

“Well, there you are,” said Solly. “Everybody knows you can’t resist any lunatic notion that comes into your head. And so, when some­thing like this happens, your name is bound to crop up.”

“Only in such a diseased fancy as that of Auntie Puss Pottinger. I am many reprehensible things, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, because I am unlike them. But therein lies my defence. Can you conceive of any practical joke more tiresomely bourgeois, more quintessentially and ineluctably lower middle class, than shoving a fake engagement notice in the paper? Is Cobbler, the running sore of Salterton society, the man to do such a thing? Never! What’s more, this trick required careful planning, deft execution, and prolonged secrecy to assure its success. Is Cobbler, the man of impulse, Cobbler the Blabbermouth, the man to bring it off? Once again I cry — Never! And to conclude, this has been done by someone who knows you, some false friend who is privy to your bosom, yet ready to exhibit you as a Merry Andrew to the jeers of the mob. Could this be Cobbler the True, Cobbler who has eaten your bread and salt, and drunk your rye toddy, Cobbler who is to you as secret and as dear as Anna to the Queen of Carthage was? No! The echoing air repeats it –” And Cobbler was about to shout “No” again, in a very loud voice, but he was seized with a terrible fit of coughing. “God,” he said, when he could speak again, “I’m going to fetch up the callouses off the soles of my feet in one of those spells.”

“Well, that’s what I thought myself,” said Solly. “It just didn’t seem like you.”

“Your simple eloquence touches my heart,” said Cobbler. “Molly, my pet, I need another length of old sheeting.”

Molly took the sodden rag from his hand and left the room.

“What would you do if you were me?” said Solly.

“What would I do in your place?”

“No, no; you’d do something fantastic and get farther into the soup. I want to know what you would do if you were intelligent but prudent. What would you do if you were me?”

Cobbler pondered for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I suppose if I were you — that’s to say a somewhat inert chap, half content to be the football of fate — I’d go right on doing whatever I was doing at the moment, and hope the whole thing would blow over.”

“Yes, but I can’t do that. I’m absolutely fed up with what I’m doing. I’m a bad teacher; I loathe teaching; I’m expected to teach English literature to people who don’t want to know about it; I’m expected to make a name for myself in Amcan; damn it, sometimes I think seriously about suicide.”

“Lots of people do,” said Cobbler, “But don’t delude yourself. You’re not the suicidal type.”

“Why not?”

“You’re too gabby. People who talk a lot about their troubles never commit suicide; talk’s the greatest safety-valve there is. I always laugh at that bit in Hamlet where he pretends to despise himself because he unpacks his heart with words, and falls a-scolding like a very drab; that’s why the soliloquy about suicide is just Hamlet putting on intellectual airs. A chatterbox like that would never pop himself off with a bare bodkin. No, the suicides are the quiet ones, who can’t find the words to fit their misery. We talkers will never take that way out. Anyway, you wouldn’t dare commit suicide, because it would upset your mother; she’d need more than six kinds of medicine to get her out of that.”

Molly came back into the room. She had put on her nightdress in the bathroom, and her black hair hung loose about her shoulders. Solly had never seen her look so striking.

“You look like one of those wonderful Cretan women,” said he, in honest admiration.

“Thanks. I’m going to go to bed, if you don’t mind. The furnace is out. But don’t think that means you have to go. We’ll be very jolly like this.”

And with a flash of legs she was in bed with Cobbler, and settled back against her pillows with a basket of socks to mend.

“Solly is thinking of suicide,” said her husband, making a beginning on his new piece of sheeting.

“Solly needs a wife,” said Molly.

“But not Pearl Vambrace,” said Cobbler, with great decision. “She’s too much like him in temperament. Married couples should comp­lement each other, and not merely double their losses. There’s much to be said for the square peg in the round hole, as the Cubist told the Vorticist.”

“I don’t want a wife,” said Solly, passionately. “I’ve got a mother, and that, God knows, is enough to warn me off the female sex for life. I don’t want a wife, and I don’t want my job, and I don’t want Charles Heavysege.”

“You want to run away to sea,” said Cobbler. “But you wouldn’t like it, you know.”

“I suppose not,” said Solly. “Don’t pay attention to anything I say tonight. I’m utterly fed up.” He looked into his glass, which was empty.

“Perhaps you are beflustered by the blabsome wine,” said Molly Cobbler.

“Impossible. I’ve only had one. But where did you get that business about being beflustered by the blabsome etcetera?”

“You used it last time you were here.”

“That was weeks ago.”

“Yes. But it stuck in my mind.”

“Molly, do you realize that you have been quoting from the great Charles Heavysege?”

“Oh? Never heard of him. Yes I have, too. You’ve mentioned him.”

“I’ve mentioned him! What an understatement! He obsesses me. He is my incubus — my succubus. He is becoming part of the fabric of my being. I expect that within ten years there will be more of Heavysege in me than of the original material. Do you realize what Heavysege is? He is my path to fame, my immortality and the tomb of my youth. I wish I’d never heard of him.”

“Mix us some more toddies, like a dear,” said Molly. “If he’s so important to you, why do you wish you’d never heard of him?”

Solly busied himself with the glasses. “Do you really want to know why?” said he.

“If it’s not too long, and not a bore,” said Molly.

“It is very long, and it is a bore, but I’ll tell you anyhow. You can go to sleep if you like. Fortunately you are in a position to do so. It’s getting cold in here.” And Solly lifted a red eiderdown from the bed and draped himself in it.

“I am now gowned as Dr Bridgetower, the eminent authority on the works of Heavysege,” said he. “The great scholar in the Heavysege field will now address you.

“It was on May 2nd, 1816, that Charles Heavysege first saw the light of day in Liverpool. When I write my introduction to his Collected Works I shall embellish that statement by pointing out that the shadow of the Corsican Ogre had but lately faded from the chancelleries of Europe, that the Industrial Revolution was in full flower in England, that Byron had been accused of incest by his wife, that Russia’s millions still groaned under the knout, and that in Portland, Maine, the nine-year-old Longfellow had not, so far, written a line. I’ll make it appear that little Heavysege hopped right into the middle of a very interesting time, which is a lie, but absolutely vital to any scholarly biography.

“What happened between 1816 and 1853, when Heavysege came to Canada, I don’t know, but I’ll fake up something. He was a wood-carver by trade, which is good for a few hundred words of hokum about craftsmanship, but he soon became a reporter on the Montreal Witness.”

“That was the trumpet-call of the Muse,” said Cobbler, and blew his nose triumphantly.

“Exactly. From there on it’s plain sailing, as scholarship goes. Heavysege’s major work was his great triple-drama, Saul. Now Saul, ladies and gentlemen, presents the scholar with the widest possible variety of those literary problems which scholars seize upon as dogs seize upon bones. The first of these, of course, is: What is Saul? It is in three parts, and fills 315 closely-printed pages. Therefore we may fittingly describe it as “epic in scope” — meaning damned long. It is brilliantly unactable, but is it fair to call it a ‘closet drama’? Is it not, rather, a vast philosophical poem, like Faust? We dismiss with con­tempt any suggestion that it is just a plain mess; once scholarship has its grappling-hooks on a writer’s work there is no room for doubt.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson