Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Higgin shook his head.

“Do you realize that at this moment you stand on the brink of suit both by my client and this newspaper?” asked Mr Snelgrove. “Well, man? Say something! And don’t attempt to impose upon us by any more tears. They will have no effect upon me. None whatever. I can assure you of that.”

Higgin raised his head, and spoke with more self-possession than before. “It was only my little joke,” said he. “I never thought it would cause any real trouble. I just wanted to play a little joke on Professor Bridgetower. No real harm meant.”

“And what moved you to involve my daughter in your joke?” said Professor Vambrace, menacingly.

Higgin giggled weakly, and blushed. “I really do assure you, sir, I meant no harm,” said he.

“Do you know my daughter?”

“I only had the pleasure of meeting Miss Vambrace once. In the Waverley Library. A charming young lady.”

“You meant this to be a joke on Mr Bridgetower and Miss Vambrace?” said Balmer.

“Yes, sir.”

“No one else involved? No reference to Professor Vambrace at all?”

“Oh, none, I assure you.”

“I think you also meant it to be a joke on me,” said Gloster Ridley. “And I think I know why. It was because I refused to publish and pay you for articles about yourself, which you wanted to write for this newspaper. Wasn’t that it?”

“Oh, no, Mr Ridley.”

“Oh, yes, Mr .Higgin. I recall your visit here very clearly. You got Mr Shillito to introduce you. This advertisement was to make trouble for me because I ignored you. Isn’t that right?”

“Oh, no, Mr Ridley.”

“Oh yes, Mr Higgin. You did it to spite me, didn’t you?”

Higgin was silent, but a nervous grin flitted across his face, and disappeared.

“If it was spite against me, was it spite against Mr Bridgetower and Miss Vambrace? Was it spite against Professor Vambrace?”

“No indeed. I have never met Professor Vambrace until now.”

Then it was spite against my daughter,” said the Professor. “And what reason had you to play this vile trick upon her, you scoundrel?”

Again Higgin was silent, but again he smiled, the imploring, sick smile of one who strives to avert another stroke of the lash.

“Had she ignored you at some time?” said Ridley. “Had Mr Bridgetower ignored you?”

Still Higgin said nothing, but looked from face to face, still with his imploring smile, a figure of cringing abjection.

“Are we to understand that this whole matter was prompted by malice?” asked the editor.

There was a longer pause, and at last the sickly smile faded from Higgin’s face, and he nodded.

No one spoke for a time, and it was Mr Marryat who first broke the silence. “Well, what are we going to do about that?” said he.

“Malice is a very ugly charge,” said Mr Snelgrove. “A rare charge in law, but a horrible one. The law brings us face to face with some detestable things — things from which the minds of decent men withdraw in loathing — but few more detestable than the charge of malice.”

“But is it a possible charge at all?” The question came, to the surprise of everyone, from Dean Jevon Knapp, who had been forgotten in his corner.

“Rather an obscure offence,” said Mr Balmer. “You recall what I told you about malice, Mr Ridley. I’ve never met with it, as an isolated charge, before.”

“And may that not be because it is an offence more in my realm than in yours?” said the Dean. “I don’t find malice so horrible as you, Mr Snelgrove; perhaps because I see more of it; or perhaps I should say because I recognize it more readily than you do. But it is horrible enough, certainly. In the Prayer Book you will find a special plea to be preserved from it, appointed for the first Sunday after Easter: “Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve Thee in pureness of living and truth”. The writer of that prayer understood malice. It works like a leaven; it stirs, and swells, and changes all that surrounds it. If you seek to pin it down in law, it may well elude you. Who can separate the leaven from the lump when once it has been mixed? But if you learn to know it by its smell, you find it very easily. You find it, for instance, in unfounded charges brought against people that we dislike. It may cause the greatest misery and distress in many unexpected quarters. I have even known it to have quite unforeseen good results. But those things which it invades will never be quite the same again. I assure you that you will always have the greatest difficulty in isolating the leaven, once it has set to work. I do not wish to preach out of my pulpit, but I doubt if any of us here can truthfully say that he has not been touched by the leaven of malice, either in the remoter past, or during the past week.”

What might have been said in reply to the Dean must always remain a matter of conjecture, for as he finished speaking, there was another tap at the door, and this time Miss Green admitted Solly and Pearl. Professor Vambrace started to his feet at once.

“Pearl,” said he, pointing at Higgin, “do you know this man?”

Pearl was taken aback, but after a moment she spoke. “No, Father,” said she, “I have never seen him before.”

“And what have you to say to that?” demanded the Professor of Higgin.

“Some mistake,” said he. “I thought Miss Vambrace was a short, stout lady with reddish hair.”

“My God,” said Solly, “he’s got you mixed up with Tessie Forgie!” And to the astonishment of the others, he and Pearl began to laugh.

“Though I would ordinarily be pleased to see you,” said Ridley, “I must ask if you can wait for a few minutes. As you see, I have rather an important conference here at the moment, and if you have not come to join it, I hope that you will not be offended if I ask you to retire.”

“We have come to join the conference,” said Solly. “We know what it’s all about, of course. We’ve come to ask you not to do anything about a law case, or a retraction of that engagement notice, for at least a week. We want time to discuss several important matters.”

“And what, precisely, do you mean by that?” said the Professor.

“Surely it’s plain enough,” said Mr Marryat. “They mean that they may become engaged after all. I can tell by looking at them.”

Pearl went to her father. “Please don’t say anything now,” she said; “let us talk to you tonight.”

It was a critical moment. The Professor looked black, but for the first time in a week his daughter was talking to him with earnest affection. Her hands were on the lapels of his coat. Suddenly, moved by some deep wisdom, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the mouth, a thing she had not done in several years.

The Professor’s face did not seem to relax greatly, but a look of nobility and almost of peace came over it. His eye was bright, and he said, “Of course I shall do nothing further until my daughter and I have talked the matter over thoroughly.”

“Well, that blows the whole case sky-high,” said Mr Balmer, rising and putting papers back into his briefcase.

“How so?” asked Mr Snelgrove, whose emotional apprehensions had never been keen, and who was still chewing over the Dean’s lecture on malice, and wondering if any of it could possibly have been directed at him.

“Because if these two young people are engaged, or become en­gaged, there is no libel in that advertisement. Justification is a perfect defence. Not that I think that there would be much sense in suing this man,” said Mr Balmer, looking at Higgin.

“I have exactly nine dollars and twenty-five cents in the world,” said Bevill Higgin, and for the first time that afternoon he had a touch of dignity.

“Let me warn you, my friend, that poverty is a poor protection, if you choose to make a hobby of public mischief. You’ve had a very narrow escape, and you’ll never be so lucky again.” With these minatory words, Mr Balmer nodded to Ridley and Marryat, and left the room.

“May I go now?” asked, Higgin.

Ridley nodded. The little man, some of his usual jauntiness re­stored, looked about him, as though to take his leave. No one would meet his eye. At last he turned to Swithin Shillito, and put out his hand. “Shall I give you a call in a few days?” said he.

“No, Mr Higgin,” said the old gentleman; “in future neither I nor Mrs Shillito will be at home to you.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson