Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I have never really told you about my wife.”

“No? Is there more to it? But it can’t really be very dreadful.”

“Can’t it? Elspeth, I visit my wife twice a year. I make myself do it. She hasn’t recognized me once in the past fifteen years, and now I don’t even see her. They let me look into her room. She lies there all day, curled up on a mattress in a corner, with a blanket pulled over her head. She has to be fed artificially.”

“Poor Gloss! How dreadful! But really, my dear, wouldn’t it be better not to go? If you can’t do anything, I mean?”

“No. I must go. It is absolutely necessary for me to go.”

“But why?”

“Because she is there through my fault. And — this is what shakes me, Elspeth — there is still a chance, remote, but a chance, that she might recover. Might be well enough to return to me, the doctors say. Can you imagine that? The murderer’s victim to rise from the dead, to live with him and share his daily life! Do you think murder a strong word to use? Do you? I use it, in my thoughts; often I can’t escape it. Murder! She is in a living death, and I cannot stifle the feeling that I murdered her.”

“Oh, Gloss! I’m sure you didn’t.”

“I wish I were sure, one way or the other. But I’ll never know. However, as Salterton knows so much about my affairs, I suppose this is all stale news to you?”

“Oh, darling, don’t be bitter. Of course I want to know everything about it, if you’ll tell me. But I won’t pry.”

“It isn’t as though there were much to tell. You’ll find this hard to believe, Elspeth, but when I was young I was very romantic. I was always falling in love — not lightly, but deeply and painfully. When I was twenty-one I met a girl who seemed to me to be the most beautiful and desirable creature that I could conceive of. I wanted to devote my life to her. She had no very strong feeling for me; she had no strong feeling about anything; but I talked her into marrying me. That happens oftener than people suppose. Love is a great force, and because I was a stronger character than she, I was able to persuade her. I was sure that she would grow to love me after we were married. She didn’t. Perhaps she couldn’t have loved anyone. I suppose I was ah impossible fool. I know that I reproached her. She was stupid, and she was a wretched housekeeper. I know that sounds petty, in a love story, but we lived a pig’s life, for I had a job with a very poor salary, and it was all intolerable. I thought I couldn’t bear it. I considered running away from her, and do you know why I didn’t? Because of my mother; I didn’t want her to think ill of me. I didn’t know what to do. But one day my wife and I were driving in a borrowed car; I was going, I remember clearly, to report a small country fair for my paper. We quarrelled for several miles. Suddenly the car went out of control, and we turned over in the ditch. That is the phrase the papers always use — ‘the car went out of control” — you see, it accuses nobody. It is for the court to make accusations. But in this case there was no court. I wasn’t very much hurt, but my wife was badly shaken. It was shock, the doctors said, and after shock came pneumonia. And within a year, a serious breakdown. Schizophrenia, hallucinations, thinking she was somebody else, all that kind of thing. No need to go into detail about it. That meant the hospital, and that’s where she has been ever since. Now she is as near to being dead, to being nothing at all, as a living human creature can be. And what I have never been able to decide is whether that accident was really an accident, or whether I created it.”

“But of course you didn’t create it! You mustn’t think such a thing! I’m sorry, Gloss; I know that was a silly and useless thing to say.”

“It’s very sweet of you to have such belief in me. Of course I, as I exist at this moment, didn’t create it. But I was a very different person then. I wished her dead, or myself dead, time and time again. And you see, so much of my life has been devoted to making myself into a person who couldn’t possibly have created that accident, who couldn’t possibly have done that murder. And if you think the red gown of a Doctor of Laws wouldn’t be a help in that, you haven’t understood what a very inferior creature I am, and how much apparently small things can mean to me.”

“But, my dear, a red gown can’t change your own opinion of yourself. The man you live with, and feed and wash and dress and go to bed with doesn’t wear a red gown. He’s the man that counts. Oh, Gloss darling, you must stop torturing yourself. What’s the good of winning honours and the good opinion of the world if you can’t live on good terms with yourself?”

“Do you know anybody who isn’t a fool who really lives on good terms with himself?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“I shouldn’t have married her, but I did. Very well. Having married her, I should have borne it better, shown more restraint, and more kindness. But I didn’t. Can I forget that, or forgive myself?”

“But it’s done and past repair. Now, Gloss, you must listen to me.”

It would be of little avail to set down in detail what Mrs Fielding said to Ridley. None of it was extraordinarily wise, or uncommonly deep, but it was all rooted fast in love and womanly tenderness. Nor would it be truthful to say that Ridley was set free from his bugbear forever. But his burden was so much lightened, and confession had so cleansed him, that he was very much changed, very much cheered, and when at last Mr Fielding came home Ridley greeted him with a warmth of affection that surprised that gentleman, old friends as they were.

When at last Ridley set out for home, his step was light, and he felt free and vigorous. If only, he thought, I had had the good luck to marry somebody like Elspeth. But that was fruitless speculation, and he had learned that night how profitless, how diminishing, fruitless speculation can be. At fifty he was perhaps rather old to be coming to such conclusions, but we all subscribe thoughtlessly to many beliefs, the truth of which does not strike home to us until experience gives them reality. Wisdom may be rented, so to speak, on the experience of other people, but we buy it at an inordinate price before we make it our own forever.

“If I could hold fast to this state of mind I am in now, I might at last be free,” thought Ridley exultantly.

When he went into the vestibule of the old mansion in which his apartment was, he found a figure huddled on the floor, partly asleep. It started up, and revealed itself as Henry Rumball.

“I’ve been waiting for you sir,” said he. “I’ve found X.”

He held out his hand. In it was a pink slip for a Bellman classified advertisement.

Mrs Edith Little had completed her self-imposed nightly task of marking the typographical errors in The Bellman and was knitting on a sweater for little Earl. It was a complicated pattern, designed to make the finished garment look as though it had been made from heavy cable, and she was often compelled to consult her pattern book, from the page of which smiled the photograph of an offensively neat and handsome little boy, wearing the sweater in question. The Morphews’ living-room presented a peaceful domestic scene. Mrs. Morphew was painting her toenails coral pink, having spent an agreeable hour rubbing the hair from her legs with a pad of fine emery paper. The radio had been discoursing music, comic repartee, news and advertising all evening but neither Ede nor Kitten had paid any attention to it. They were lost in their thoughts. But when an announcer said that it was, at that very instant, eleven o’clock, Ede spoke to her sister censoriously.

“You’d better stop that. The boys’ll be home soon.”

“What of it? I got a whole ‘nother foot still to do.”

“D’you want them to catch you at it?”

“Why not? Georgie knows I do it. Georgie likes it.”

“What about Bev?”

“Bev’s an old sport. He’d like it.”

“It isn’t right for men to know what women do.”

“If you’d let Bob Little know a little more what you did, maybe he wouldn’t’ve run out on you.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson