A Mixture of Frailties
Salterton Trilogy 03
by Robertson Davies
It was appropriate that Mrs Bridgetower’s funeral fell on a Thursday, for that had always been her At Home day. As she had dominated her drawing-room, so she dominated St Nicholas’ Cathedral on this frosty 23rd of December. She had planned her funeral, as she had planned all her social duties and observances, with care.
Of course the Prayer Book sets the form of an Anglican funeral, and Mrs Bridgetower had no quarrel with that. Every social occasion has its framework; it is in enriching that framework with detail that the exceptional hostess rises above the mediocrity. Not two hours after her physician had pronounced her dead, her lawyer, Mr Matthew Snelgrove, had put a fat letter in the hands of her son Solomon, on the envelope of which was written in her firm, large hand, Directions for My Funeral.
Poor Solly, thought her daughter-in-law Veronica, what a time he has had! The most difficult job of all had been getting, at short notice, a coffin which was as nearly as possible a mate to that in which the late Professor Bridgetower had been buried sixteen years before. Mrs Bridgetower had supplied the number and specifications of that model, but styles in coffins change, so it was only by great exertions that a similar one had been found in time. And as Mrs Bridgetower had said that she did not wish to lie in a vault, and as the frost was already in the ground, arrangements had to be made to dig her grave with the aid of blow-torches and pneumatic drills. There had been no difficulty in persuading her oldest friend, Miss Laura Pottinger, to arrange the flowers in the church — “dear Puss has always had unexceptionable taste in such matters” — but Miss Pottinger had been so swollen with grief and self-importance that she had quarrelled with everyone and struck at an undertaker’s assistant with her walking-stick. Luckily Veronica had been able to spare Solly most of the dealings with Miss Puss. And Veronica had addressed the two hundred cards of invitation herself, for Mrs Bridgetower, while insisting on a private funeral, had left a long list of those whom she wished to be present at it. She had also specified the gown in which she was to be buried, and as it would no longer go over her great bulk at the time of her death, Veronica had personally altered it and put it on the corpse — a task which she had not relished. Veronica also had dressed Mrs Bridgetower’s hair and delicately painted her face, for the Directions had said that this should be done, but were firm that no male undertaker should do it; Miss Puss had stood at her elbow during that macabre hour, offering advice and fretful comment. Veronica had done everything possible to spare her husband, who now sat beside her, pale and worried, not with grief but with fear that something might yet go wrong.
It was not the service which was troubling him. That was under way and out of his hands. It was the funeral tea which was to follow the return from the graveyard which was on his mind. That was certain to be an ordeal, for all the funeral guests were bidden, and most of them were certain to come. He had attempted, that morning, to remove his mother’s accustomed chair from the drawing-room, fearing that the sight of it might distress some of her old friends. But the oldest of these, Miss Puss Pottinger, had caught him in the act, and berated him for heartlessness. Louisa’s chair, she said through angry tears, must stay where it had always been; she, Miss Puss, would not permit this relic of a great and fragrant spirit to be banished to an upstairs room on the very day of the funeral. And to make sure that no one committed unwitting sacrilege by sitting in it, she would herself lay one of the funeral wreaths — the cushion of white roses from the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire — on the seat. So the chair remained, a shrine and, for Solly, a portent of the ordeal which was yet to come.
The service was running according to schedule. A full choir had been specified in the Directions, and as full a choir as could be mustered on a weekday was present. Because the schools had closed for the Christmas holidays, eighteen of the Cathedral’s twenty boys had been secured; eight of the singing-men had been able to come. Forty dollars for the men and thirty-six for the boys; well, Mother had wanted it. They had sung Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Man That Is Born and had followed it with Purcell’s Thou Knowest, Lord. Luckily in these two selections Mother’s taste had agreed with that of the Cathedral organist, Humphrey Cobbler. The hazard was yet to come.
This hazard was Mrs Bridgetower’s personal contribution to the funeral service. She had attended many funerals in her time, and had been unfavourably impressed by the fact that what the Prayer Book had to say about death seemed to apply chiefly to men. A feminist of a dignified sort all her life, she felt that the funeral service lacked the feminine touch, and she had arranged for this to be supplied at her own burial. She had specified that a certain piece of music be sung, and that it be sung by a female voice. She admired, she said in her last letter to her son, the fine choir of men and boys which Mr Cobbler had made so great an adornment of St Nicholas’, but at her funeral she wanted a woman to sing My Task, E. L. Ashford’s lovely setting of Maude Louise Ray’s dear and inspiring poem.
The Dean had not liked the idea, but he did not go so far as to forbid it. He knew that he would have to brave Miss Puss if he did so. But Humphrey Cobbler had hooted. Cobbler was a personal friend of Solly’s and he had spoken with great freedom. “Music is like wine, Bridgetower,” he had said; “the less people know about it, the sweeter they like it. You can’t have that sickening musical bonbon at your Mum’s funeral. It’ll disgrace us all.” But after prolonged argument he had succumbed. He had even undertaken to find a woman to sing.
She was about to sing now. The Dean, rather sneakily in Solly’s opinion, was uttering a disclaimer.
“At this point,” he said, “there will be sung some verses which were dear to our deceased sister, and which she specifically requested should be given utterance at this service.” Then he seated himself in his stall, looking as much as possible as if he were someone else, somewhere else, and deaf.
It’s not really the poem that’s biting him, thought Solly, angrily. It’s the idea of the poem applied to Mother. Well, she wanted it, and here it is. To hell with them all.
The singer was by the organ console, with Cobbler, and thus could not be seen by the mourners in the nave. Pure, sweet and clear, her voice made itself heard.
To love someone more dearly ev’ry day;
To help a wand’ring child to find his way;
To ponder o’er a noble thought, and pray;
And smile when ev’ning falls —
This is my task.
That was how she thought of herself, mused Veronica. Probably it didn’t seem as sticky to her as it does to us. And Oh, that last six months! Was that what she called smiling when evening falls? But I tried; I really did try. I slaved for her as I never slaved for my own mother. I did all I could to make her feel our marriage was a good thing for Solly. Did I ever pierce through to her heart? I hope so. I pray so. I want to think kindly of her.
A very little wintry sun struck through one of the Cathedral windows. The calm, silvery voice, somewhat hollow and echoing under the dome, continued.
To follow truth as blind men long for light —
Veronica cast a sidelong glance at her husband. Silently, he was weeping. He truly loved his mother, in spite of everything, she thought. How I wish I thought that his mother had loved him.
The funeral tea was even more of an ordeal than Solly had foreseen. Such a function is not easily managed, and his mother’s two old servants had been quick to declare that they were unable to attempt it. They were too broken up, they said. They were not so broken up, however, that they were incapable of giving a lot of trouble to the caterer who had been engaged for the work. They thought poorly of his suggestion that three kinds of sandwiches and three kinds of little cakes, supplemented by fruitcake, would be enough. The relatives from Montreal, the Hansens, would expect cold meat, they said; and as it was so near Christmas ordinary fruitcake would not suffice; Christmas cake would be looked for. Madam had never been one to skimp. When old Ethel, the cook, remembered that Thursday had always been Madam’s At Home day, she had a fresh bout of grief, and declared that she would, after all, prepare the funeral tea herself, if it killed her. Solly had been unable to meet this situation and it was Veronica who, at last, made an uneasy peace between Ethel the cook, Doris the housemaid, and the caterer.