Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Well, I kind of half hope you don’t get a write-up in the old Bellman,” said Kitten. “Because if you do you’ll get so many pupils and be so famous we’ll lose you from here, and I’d certainly hate that.”

“Oh, you dear creature,” said Mr Higgin, tittering.

“Yes, and what would Earl do without his Ugga Bev?” said Edith, throwing him a glance heavy with solicitous motherhood.

“Oh, my dears, you must never believe that I would leave you,” said Mr Higgin, and though he looked tenderly toward Kitten, it was Edith’s hand that he patted. “I’ve come to look upon this as my own family. I have indeed. And you can never know what that means to a weary, wayworn wanderer such as myself.” There was a tear in his eye.

“Well, Bev, I guess we all understand that, and I know I speak for the girls as well as me when I say that we feel the same in regards to you,” said George, whose tipsiness had suddenly taken a formal turn.

“Sure, Bev, we know how tough it is to make your way in a new country and all that,” said Kitten.

“Yes, we have to remember that everybody was new in Canada once,” said Edith, and then, suddenly, the gathering rose from this solemn and somewhat literary note to a higher plane of enjoyment. The rye went round again, and for a third time, and then Mr Higgin sang Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms, and the Morphews and Edith, as befitted his pupils, provided harmonies of uncertain character but of rich intent. By the time they went to bed all their hearts were high and full.

Edith hummed the lovely Irish air as she undressed, and returning from the bathroom she heard its strains from the door of the Morphews’ bedroom. She hummed it still as she stood before her mirror, and arranged her hair in metal curlers, which stood out like a chevaux-de-frise around her face. It was a caressing air, and its gentle melancholy aroused agreeably painful feelings in her breast. The way Kitten was always at her about men! But she wasn’t the sort to throw herself at anybody that came along, or settle for a big loudmouth like George. Love, if she were ever to feel it (for she had long since decided that her feeling for Robert Little had not been the Real Thing) would be something fine, gentle and wistful. She couldn’t bear a man to whom she was nothing but a Body as, quite unjustly, she supposed that her sister was to George. Her love, if and when it came, would be a thing of Mind, of Soul.

There was a very gentle tap at her door. Supposing it to be Kitten she opened it, and Mr Higgin slipped quickly into the room. He was in his pyjamas and a dressing-gown, and with his pink face and small stature he looked like a small boy.

“Shh!” said he, with his finger on his lips. “After such an evening of true friendship I simply couldn’t go to sleep without saying good night to my little pupil.”

He tiptoed to the cot in which Earl lay asleep, and looked tenderly down at him. His thoughts seemed to be too fine for utterance, but he smiled and sighed. Edith, who was somewhat alarmed at being caught in her nightdress, felt reassured, but reached for a kimono.

“Don’t trouble,” said Higgin, “I’m just going.” He looked back at the child. “Your treasure,” said he. “What would I not give to have the right to call him mine as well. Still, it is no small thing to be his ‘Ugga Bev’. I want you to know, Edith, how much I cherish that.”

Ede felt that this demanded something equally fine from her, but she was not ready with phrases. “Well, I want you to understand, Bev, how much it means to Earl, and to me too,” she said at last. “I mean, your influence, and everything.”

Mr Higgin looked at her and his face filled with tender admiration.

“Thank you,” he said, with a more than ordinary simplicity. “You can never know what that means to me. Oh, Edith, to see you standing there, in simple loveliness! It’s a picture; that’s the only expression I can use; a picture!”

Edith was suddenly conscious that she was standing in front of the only light in the room and that her nightdress was thin. She hastily moved toward her kimono again, where it lay on the bed.

“No, no, dear child,” said Mr Higgin, very tenderly, but laughing a little in a disembodied manner. “Don’t misunderstand me. And please don’t put on your gown. Your loveliness, Edith, has not been revealed to any profane gaze. Just slip into your bed, and let me tuck you up.”

Obediently Edith got into bed, and Mr Higgin drew the covers up to her chin, and smoothed them.

“The little mother tucks up her babe, but who is to tuck up the little mother, eh?” said he, tenderly. And then, absent-mindedly, he sat down on the bed. “You know,” he continued, “my life has been a wandering one, and not easy, but I have always cherished the domestic virtues.” He seemed to turn the expression over in his mouth, savouring its fine flavour. “Yes, the domestic virtues. An artist seeks his inspiration where he finds it, but I have always felt that, for me, the richest soil of inspiration was a family and a home. But that was denied me.”

Mr Higgin was speaking now in a rich, actorly manner, and the sigh with which he followed his words would have carried to the topmost gallery of a good-sized theatre.

“I have known love,” he continued. “Love as the artist knows it, fleeting, turbulent, sweet. Love of the sort which life has denied to you, sweet child, though you are framed for it as few women are. But that is past. I find myself now at the age when all that is a lovely memory. I don’t suppose that you have any notion of my age. I am forty-eight.”

Edith said nothing. She would have taken him for considerably over fifty, and she was ashamed to have misjudged a man whose suffering had plainly been so deep.

“Forty-eight,” said Bevill Higgin. “Yet the heart is young. The heart, I may say, feels as young as that of that blessed child yonder. It is, truly, a child’s heart. ‘In the heart of age, a child lies weeping.’ Do you know that lovely poem? Ah, so true, so true of me. In my heart is a child, a child who seeks the mother.”

Edith was awed by the beauty of Mr Higgin’s talk. There was a grandeur and a sweep about it for which she had longed all her life, and now that she actually heard it, addressed solely to herself, she was entranced. Softly but quickly Mr Higgin turned out the lamp, and slipped under the covers beside her. He lay at some distance, and she was not strongly aware of his presence, but only of his voice.

“And where is the mother to be found,” asked Mr Higgin, “but in every loving, understanding heart? Edith, life has not been kind to me. When Fortune frowns on a man, every hand is against him. Misfortune in the Old Country drove me abroad. I could have fought it out there, with small-minded detractors. But there is such a thing as pride. And so I came here, and though I found a haven in this house, my path was not smooth abroad. No, no; not smooth. I found friends” (here his hand stole under the sheet and clasped hers) “and I must say I found enemies as well. Shall I name those enemies? I fear that if I do so I shall wound a heart which has become very dear to me.”

Here Mr Higgin moved himself nearer to Edith, and in a deft and practised mariner slipped one arm under her head, so that she lay partly on his bosom. He smelled strongly of rye, and his manner suddenly became jocular.

“What a trusting little heart it is,” he murmured. “Working loyally every day to bring comfort to a man who is unworthy of such gifts. What a dear, trusting, silly little heart.” He giggled.

“Who are you talking about?” said Edith. Her voice came tremulously.

“Can’t you guess? About your Mr Ridley, of course.”

“What’s wrong with him, Bev?”

“He has been very harsh to me, dear one. Very harsh and scornful. So have some others. But I think they regret it now.”

“Who do you mean, Bev?”

“The young man at the University. I wasn’t worth his consider­ation, though I could have helped him. Snotty young pup! And the girl in the Library. I couldn’t use the Library without an introduction. Oh no, I wasn’t good enough. And your Mr Ridley, snapping his scissors at me. I’m not spiteful. I don’t bear a grudge. But I’ve had my little game with them, just the same.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson