Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“No, not exactly. You’re being too literal. What I’m trying to get at is that your desire to keep Pearlie from her natural love-object, to keep her all to yourself, is — well, let’s not say unnatural; let’s just say it isn’t usual. Go on that way, and you may be headed for a crack-up. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought Oedipus into this. All that Freudian stuff is pretty complicated, and anyway I’m sure things haven’t got that far yet with you and Pearlie — if I make myself clear.”

“But you do not make yourself clear. And I am anxious that you should do so before you leave this room. After all, it is not every day that a man of my age, and of my quiet and retired mode of life, is confronted with a stranger who suggests that he lives in an unnatural relationship with his daughter. I should like to hear more.”

“Now, Professor, let’s not get extreme. When I was talking about Oedipus I was talking symbolically, you understand.”

“I do not profess to understand psychological symbolism, Mr Yarrow, but it does not require much training to realize that Oedipus is a symbol for incest. Isn’t that what you imply?”

“Oh, now just a minute. That’s pretty rough talk. Not incest, of course. Just a kind of mental incest, maybe. Nothing really serious.”

“Fool!” said the Professor, who had been growing very hot, and was now at the boil. “Do you imply that the sins of the mind are trivial and the sins of the flesh important? What kind of an idiot are you?”

“Now, Professor, let’s keep this objective. You must understand that I’m talking on the guidance level, not personally at all. I just want to help you to self-understanding. If you understand yourself, you can meet your problem, you see, and I’m here, in all friendliness, to try to help you to understand yourself, and to help Pearlie, and so forth, do you see?”

“But you have not yet told me what all this has to do with Oedipus.”

Norm was by this time sick of the name of Oedipus. A horrible suspicion was rising in his mind that the Oedipus Complex, which he had for some time used as a convenient and limitless bin into which he dumped any problem involving possessive parents and depen­dent children, was a somewhat more restricted term than he had imagined. The chapter on Freudian psychology in his general text­book had not, after all, equipped him to deal with a tiresomely literal professor of classics who knew Oedipus at first hand, so to speak. Norm had received his training chiefly through general courses and from some interesting work which proved fairly conclusively that rats were unable to distinguish between squares, circles and triangles.

“Let’s forget about Oedipus,” he said, and smiled a smile which had never failed him in all his career in social work.

“Not at all,” said the Professor, grinning wolfishly. “I am increas­ingly reminded of Oedipus. Do you not recall that in that tragic history, Oedipus met a Sphinx? The Sphinx spoke in riddles — very terrible riddles, for those who could not guess them died. But Oedipus guessed the riddle, and the chagrin of the Sphinx was so great that it destroyed itself. I am but a poor shadow of Oedipus, I fear, and you, Mr Yarrow, but a puny kitten of a Sphinx. But you are, like many another Sphinx of our modern world, an under-educated, brassy young pup, who thinks that gall can take the place of the authority of wisdom, and that a professional lingo can disguise his lack of thought. You aspire to be a Sphinx, without first putting yourself to the labour of acquiring a secret.”

“Aw, now, Professor, let’s not be bitter –”

“Bitter? Have I not a right to be bitter? You intrude upon me with your obscene accusation, and your muddle of old wives’ tales about me beating my daughter in the streets, and you tell me not to be bitter! No, you listen to me: I shall inform your superior of this, and if you dare to repeat any of this filthy nonsense to anyone else, I shall not only drive you out of this University in disgrace, but I shall take you to court and strip you of everything you possess. Get out of here! Get out! Get out!”

The Professor had worked himself up into a rage by this time; flecks of white bubbled from his lips, and his eyes rolled horribly. He seized his walking stick — not a blackthorn, for that was broken, but a knobbly ashplant — and he might have struck Norm with it if the expert in guidance had not darted into the corridor, to escape down the iron staircase so rapidly that it rumbled like thunder.

But when he was in safety he felt a certain comfort coursing warmly through him. The Professor’s rage, though alarming, was the normal response to what Norm had said; when a man was shown to himself he invariably wept or raged. It had been the Professor’s period of quiet, controlled watchfulness which had worried Norm. That was definitely abnormal, and hard to figure out. In fact, the more he thought about it, the less he understood it. And all that talk about Sphinxes — that didn’t sound too good. Simply made no sense at all. The Professor would bear watching.

The more Norm reflected on the interview, the more he was convinced that he had understood it all thoroughly. Which, as he was the expert on human behaviour, was perfectly normal.

Although nothing would have made him admit it, Norm’s visit had had some effect on the Professor; it made him yearn toward his daughter more painfully than at any time since that Wednesday night when he had wept alone in his study. But this also he could not admit. If only she would show signs of wishing forgiveness, how quickly, how magnanimously he would forgive her! But there she sat across the table from him, in clothes which he had not seen before, and which even his unpractised eye could recognize as better than her usual garb, and with her hair cut short and dressed in a strange new fashion. His spirit was nearly broken, and he decided to make the first move toward reconciliation.

“I received a visit from a friend of yours today,” he said to her, “a young man from the chaplain’s department, who called himself Yarrow.”

“He is not a particular friend of mine.”

“Indeed? He appeared to know a good deal about our family affairs.”

Pearl said nothing.

“Tell me, Pearl, is it your custom to discuss family matters with outsiders?”

“No, Father.”

“But you have discussed your home with this man Yarrow?”

Pearl’s first instinct was to lie. Before that dreadful, emancipating Wednesday night she would certainly have done so. But three days of bitterness had changed her.

“Yes, Father.”

“I see. And may I ask why you did so?”

“I must talk to someone occasionally.”

The Professor said no more, and his heart was very heavy. He did not suppose, of course, that Pearl had told Yarrow that he had beaten her with a stick, or that he had an incestuous passion for her. That was plainly the spiteful talk of the cabal which had so long been at work against him. But he knew that Pearl had shut him out of her life because of that night.

Sunday was a black, silent day in the Vambrace home.

Sunday was not much better for Solly than it was for Professor Vambrace. He was possessed by the seemingly contradictory convic­tions that Pearl was a wretched, inconsiderable, bungling creature who had introduced a last intolerable complication into his already complicated life, and by the feeling that he must talk to her as soon as possible. In his mind’s eye he could see her — dark, dowdy and withdrawn. Therefore it was with surprise that he encountered the reality in the music room in the Library on Monday morning; it was as though a picture, previously much out of focus, had been made clear to him.

“Ah — can I have a minute? I mean, I’ve simply got to talk to you. It’s desperately important.”

“I’m very busy.”

“I can’t help that. You must listen; it’s as much your business as mine.”

“Please go away.”

“I won’t go away. I’ve been chasing you for days. We’ve got to have a talk. How can we get out of this bloody mess if we don’t discuss it?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t think you are likely to find a way.”

“Oh, I know; you’re angry with me because I didn’t do anything the other night. Well, what could I do? How would it have been if I’d knocked your father down when he was cuffing you? Or called a policeman? Damn it, I’m sorry. I’d have done something if it could have made any difference or settled anything. But I couldn’t think of anything, so I got out of the way. Look: I’m terribly sorry. And don’t think I came here for fun. I’m not enjoying this a bit more than you.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson