Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Oh God, thought Solly, here we go. She’s coming the pitiable over me. There ought to be rules for these encounters — an inter-generation agreement about hitting below the belt.

“Well, and how do you expect to lose him this time?”

Mrs Bridgetower had had a sedative pill, and was groggy, but Solly knew her well enough to know that she could be most dangerous when at her groggiest. She spoke lispingly from her toothless mouth.

“Dearie, there’s nothing in it about this girl, is there?”

“What girl?”

“This horrid Vambrace girl.”

“She’s not horrid, Mother. You know her.”

“The whole family is horrid. Dearie, say there’s nothing in it.”

“But, Mother, you know the whole thing began as a practical joke.”

The old eyes filled with tears; the old chin quivered a little.

“Then say it, lovey. Mother wants to hear you say it. There’s nothing in it, is there?”

“Now, Mother dearest, you must get off to sleep, or you won’t be able to get up tomorrow.”

Solly kissed his mother and turned off her bedside lamp. A night-light glowed from the floor. As he reached the door his mother’s voice came to him, lisping still, but sharp and without assumed infantile charm.

“I wouldn’t like it to be said that my marriage had begun as the result of a practical joke.”

He closed the door and hastened to his attic. What a demon she was! It was impossible to conceal anything from her. She could smell a change of emotion in him!

Yet what Pearl had confided to him about her family life had strengthened him, and as he lay in his bed he pitied his mother. And the more he pitied his mother, the more he thought of Pearl, until he could think of nothing else.

Veronica; as Veronica she seemed to be someone quite new.

Mrs Bridgetower also lay awake, and her heart yearned toward her son. He was all that she had in life. All — save a large house and nearly half a million dollars, very shrewdly invested. Her heart longed toward him.

How easy, how utterly simple, for Solly to turn back to Mother — to drive away the powerful but still strange vision of Veronica, and to give himself to Mother forever! Should he run down the stairs and into her room now, to kiss her, and tell her that he would be her little boy forever? Thus life and death warred in Solly’s bosom in the night, and in her bedroom his mother lay, yearning for him, willing him to come to her.

Of course, sensible modern people, though they believe a variety of strange things, do not believe in any such communion in emotion as this which seemed to be at work between Solly and his mother in the darkness of their house. That is why such things are never mentioned by those who have experienced them.

Gloster Ridley had fled for comfort to Mrs Fielding as soon as he felt that he could decently do so, and he arrived in her house precisely at half-past eight, but it was ten o’clock before he had a chance to speak to her intimately. No man should ever assume that he will be able to get the immediate and undivided attention of a woman who has children. Miss Cora Fielding was going to a dance, and needed her mother’s help in certain fine details of dressing. Even Ridley was called into service, Mr Fielding being out, to help with a stuck zipper; the women had a pitiful faith in the ability of a man to meet such a problem, and Ridley broke two fingernails, and pinched Cora severely, in order to sustain the credit of his sex. Young George Fielding, who was seventeen, was encountering the Crimean War for the first time in his history lessons and, although he did not say so, he clearly had a feeling that Ridley remembered this encounter as a personal experience, and repeatedly came into the living-room to ask him questions about it. Ridley finally found it quicker to dictate an essay on Balaclava than to help George to find the facts himself. But at last the essay was done, and at last Cora’s escort called for her, and at last Ridley was alone with Mrs Fielding.

“Now, Gloss, tell me all about it,” said she, leaning back in her chair and turning her level gaze upon him.

This was exactly what Ridley was aching to do, but he could never get used to the way in which Elspeth Fielding cut corners. He had expected at least a quarter of an hour of preliminaries before he got to his theme, and without them he was not completely sure that he knew what that theme was.

“All about what?” he said, to gain time.

“All about what’s worrying you half to death. Dear old Gloss, you come here white as a sheet, you smoke without a stop, your hands shake, you pinch poor Cora, you lecture Georgie as if he were a public meeting, and then you try to pretend that everything is all right. Richard will be home in about an hour, and unless you tell me quickly, you may not tell me at all. Is it about this lawsuit with Professor Vambrace?”

“How did you guess?”

“It comes out of you in strong rays. Now let me get you a drink, and then you can tell me all about it.”

Ridley told her all that he thought was relevant. And because he was a good journalist, and was used to getting a story straight, he told it briefly and with all the points in the proper order. But Mrs Fielding was not to be fooled.

“But you don’t really care about an honorary degree. Don’t tell me that. Of course it would be very nice, but you don’t need it and you don’t want it — not as much as you’re pretending.”

“How do you know, Elspeth? I’m not a university man. An honor­ary degree to me means the degree I might have earned years ago. I’ve earned it a different way. I’ve always missed a university training. I didn’t have an easy time when I was young. I thought you under­stood all that.”

“Of course I understand it. But you’re not a vain man. An honour of that sort wouldn’t mean all this to you. You wouldn’t shake and look sick at the thought of missing it.”

“I’m not a very self-assured man. I need things to bolster me up. Comfort, for instance. People think me a fussy old bachelor to take so much thought for my own comfort, though I really don’t think I live any more comfortably than most married men I know. And the position I’ve made for myself. I’m really very well thought of as an editor, you know. And money. Of course I haven’t a lot of money; my expenses have been heavy. But what I’ve got is rather carefully placed. All these things are necessary to me in a way that I don’t suppose they are to most people. I’ve got to be secure.”

“Yes, that’s an obsession of yours. But what has this particular trouble got to do with your security? How can it shake you, even if you do have a lawsuit, and lose it? Even if you lose your piddling degree. You’ll still be you, won’t you?”

“Don’t hector me, Elspeth. I don’t feel up to it.”

“Gloss dear, I’m not trying to hector, only to find out. Tell me truly — I’ll never breathe it to a soul — do you terribly want that red gown? I’d understand, if you said you did. Nearly everybody has some hanker­ing like that. Please tell me? Does it mean something very special?”

“It would be one more thing between me and –”

“Between you and what?”

“And — it sounds strange, but it’s the only phrase that fits — between me and being found out.”

“Found out in what?”

“You know very well. Of course you do.”

“You mean about your wife?”


“But, Gloss, everybody knows about that!”

Ridley’s face was more white and drawn than ever. He looked at Mrs Fielding coldly, almost with dislike.

“Precisely what do you mean, ‘Everybody knows about that’?” said he.

“Not everybody, of course, but dozens of people. I suppose that several hundred people in Salterton know that your wife has been in an asylum for nearly twenty years. Really, Gloss, for a newspaper­man you are very stupid about secrets. How many Salterton secrets do you know? It must be hundreds. Scandals about money; adulter­ies; suicides; even murders. And you know how all those secrets came to your ears, and how many people know them beside yourself. Did you really, truly suppose, that your little secret could be kept when so many others were known? I have never mentioned it, because I knew you wouldn’t want me to do so. But Dick knows, and somebody told him. And I’ve heard it mentioned several times. Gloster Ridley’s wife is in an asylum near Halifax. Nobody thinks about it, but all kinds of people know it. Gloss, is all this passion for security an attempt to rise above that? You poor darling, what a lot of unnecessary agony! Why didn’t you tell me about that years ago? When you told me about your wife?”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Categories: Davies, Robertson