Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

On Saturday morning he had visited the Library again, but without better success. The Library closed at one o’clock, and he had hung about in the street outside, thinking that he might see her as she left to go home. Had he known it, Pearl was watching him from a window, and did not leave until he had gone.

Lunchtime in the Bridgetower house was a fixed appointment; the Vambraces did not care when they ate. Pearl told herself that she could not imagine what he wanted to say to her; by a not uncommon trick of the mind she resented and even hated Solly because he had been a witness to the disgraceful scene between herself and her father. If he chose to hang about on a wet day, hoping to speak to her, he was free to do so. She rather wished he might catch cold.

This was a harsh thought, and harsh thoughts were a new and luxurious experience for Pearl. Since that dreadful Wednesday night, when she had lain awake weeping for the loss of her father, she had thought many harsh things about a wide variety of people. And although uncharitableness is widely believed to be an enemy of beauty, and may be so if continued for many years, a few days of it improved Pearl’s appearance remarkably. Feeling herself now to be alone in the world, she stood straighter, her eyes were brighter, and she moved with brisk determination. As she was no longer burdened by a sense of family, and felt free for the first time in her life from the Vambrace tradition of despising all worldly things which cost money, she drew a substantial sum from her savings account and bought herself two new outfits, smarter than she had thought proper before. She went farther. She had grown up under the shadow of her father’s belief that short hair for women was a fad, which would quickly pass, and her own black hair was long and indifferently dressed. But on Saturday afternoon she went to a hairdresser and had her hair cut to within three inches of her head, and curled. It was an act of de­fiance, and at the evening meal that night, as her parents consumed a trifle composed of left-over blancmange and jelly-roll, she was powerfully conscious of their eyes upon her. But they said not a word.

The fact was that Professor Vambrace was cowed, for the first time in his relationship with his daughter. He was bitterly ashamed of the scene that he had made in the street, ashamed because he had behaved in an undignified fashion in front of young Bridgetower; ashamed because he had clouted his daughter over the ear, like some peasant and not like a cousin of Mourne and Derry, ashamed because he had allowed his daughter to see how deeply he was hurt by the failure of his attempts as a detective. His mind refused to admit that he was ashamed to have hurt the feelings of his child, who had worshipped him; but his heart’s pain was the worse for this refusal. Yet it was not in the Professor to ask forgiveness, to explain, to make any move toward reconciliation with his daughter; he desperately desired to be forgiven, but in his hard way of thinking it was out of the question for a parent to ask forgiveness of a child. A child was, through the very fact of being a child, always in the wrong in any dispute. He told himself that he would wait until Pearl was in a proper frame of mind, and then he would allow her to creep back into his good graces. This was his attitude until Saturday morning, and Thursday and Friday were dark days in the Vambrace home.

The Professor had no lecture to deliver on Saturday morning, but he went to the University all the same, and he was sitting in his office, reading a quarterly devoted to classical studies, when there was a knock on the door and a tall, heavily good-looking young man entered without waiting for an invitation.

“Professor Vambrace,” said he, “I’m Norm Yarrow.”

“Indeed?” said the Professor, without expression.

“We haven’t met, but I’m a new boy on the student guidance staff. A friend of Pearlie’s.”

“Of –?”

“Pearlie. Your daughter.”

“So? I am not accustomed to hear her called that. Hypocorisms are not employed in my household.” The Professor was very much the cousin of Mourne and Derry that morning.

“Professor, let’s get down to brass tacks. I’m only here because I want to help. I want you to understand right now that my job is simply to understand, not to accuse. Now, you’re an intelligent man, so I don’t have to beat about the bush with you. We can take the gloves off right at the start. I take it that you’ve heard of the Oedipus Complex?”

“I am familiar with all forms of the Oedipus legend.”

“Yes, but have you understood it? I mean, as we moderns under­stand it? Have you got the psychological slant on it?”

“Mr Yarrow, I should hardly be head of the department of Classics at this University if I were not thoroughly acquainted with all that concerns Oedipus.”

“But the Complex? You know about the Complex?”

“What Complex are you talking about? All art is complex.”

“No, no; I mean do you recognize what the story of Oedipus really is? I mean about every man’s childhood desire to kill his father and marry his mother? You’ve heard about that?”

“I have naturally heard something of such trash. Now may I ask the purpose of your visit, Mr Yarrow? I am engaged, as you see, in reading.”

“I’ll put it in a nutshell. Has it ever struck you that there’s a kind of an Oedipus thing between you and Pearlie?”

Professor Vambrace was not a merry man, but he was not without his own sort of humour. After a long look at Norm, he replied.

“An extremely interesting suggestion, my dear sir. Perhaps you would like to expand it?”

Norm beamed. As he always said to Dutchy, they were easier to deal with when they had some brains, and didn’t weep, or shout at you.

“I’m glad you’re taking it like that, Professor. Now about Pearlie; there’s been talk. And particularly about that scene in the street a night or two ago. They say you were walloping her with a pretty big stick –”

“They say? Yes, much has been said about me, Mr Yarrow. I can guess who your informants were. They have been saying such things for many years. And now they say that I have been chastising my daughter in public, do they? With a stick? I am not in the least surprised. And how does the legend of Oedipus bear upon this accusation?”

“Professor, you love Pearlie.”

“Do I, Mr Yarrow? An extraordinary idea. That a man should love his daughter is understandable, but surely my detractors deny me any such natural feeling?”

“I mean, you love Pearlie too much.”

“And so I chastise her in public with a stick?”

“Exactly. You’re jealous, you see. You’re jealous of her normal love-object, young Solly Bridgetower.”

“Oh, you believe her to be in love with Bridgetower, do you?”

“Well, isn’t she engaged to him?”

“What makes you think so?”

“Well — wasn’t it in the paper?”

“Aha, so you believe what you see in the papers? A strange confession for a psychologist. No, Mr Yarrow, she is not engaged to him, nor has the idea of being engaged to him ever entered her head. Now, to return to your opinions about Oedipus, which I find refreshingly novel, what has Oedipus to do with all this?”

Norm had a feeling that he had lost the upper hand in this interview; it was not normal for the interviewee to be so icy calm, so impersonal, as this.

“From the piece in the paper it was natural to assume that she was engaged to him. You’ll admit that. Now Oedipus is a kind of symbol of a particular kind of love, you see, and. . .”

“Oedipus might be taken as a symbol of many things. In accordance with the prophecy, he slew his father Laius, and married Epikaste, the widow of Laius, to discover later that she was his mother. A strange love, certainly. But my dear mother died when I was a child of two, Mr Yarrow, and I have no recollection of her. I fail to see the resemblance between Oedipus and myself.”

“Perhaps you don’t know yourself as thoroughly as you should. Not that I mean to blame you, of course. It takes training to know yourself in the way I am talking about. But if you turn the Oedipus legend around, you get a daughter who kills her mother and is in love with her father. Do you follow me?”

“Inverted legends are no novelty to a classicist, my dear sir. Let me help you out; it is your idea that my daughter loves me to excess, and that in order to correct this undesirable condition I beat her publicly with a stick? Is that it?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson