A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“All right,” said Cobbler; “I’ll talk to Monny Gall.”


It was well into October before Monica Gall met the executors. She had, prompted by Cobbler, written a letter of application, in which she said simply that she liked singing, and wanted to learn more about it, and mentioned her connection with the Heart and Hope Quartet as evidence that she was serious, and had sung publicly. She gave the name of Pastor Sidney Beamis as a reference.

Miss Puss Pottinger was inclined to dismiss her application on the first reading. Miss Pottinger knew nothing of Pastor Beamis, and had never set foot in the Thirteenth Apostle Tabernacle, but she had a powerful contempt for what she called “back-street religion”. This condemnation was superficially unjust, for the Tabernacle was in a disused shop on a business street. But it was to the back streets of the religious life that Miss Puss referred; in her Father’s house were many mansions, but some of them were in better parts of the Holy City than others; the Thirteenth Apostle Tabernacle obviously belonged in the slums of the spirit.

The Very Reverend Jevon Knapp also disapproved of Monica’s sponsorship, but he knew much more about it. He had an eighteenth-century distaste for Enthusiasm in religion, which he was prepared to defend on theological and philosophical grounds. He disliked the untidy beliefs of the Thirteeners, as they were often called. This sect had been founded in the USA by one Myron Coffey, an advertising salesman who found himself, in 1919, forty-five years old and not doing well in the world. It was in that same year that Mr Henry Ford, speaking in a witness box in Chicago, made his great declaration that “History is bunk”. These apocalyptic words struck fire in Coffey. History was indeed bunk; the seeming division of history into years and eras was an illusion; the whole world of the senses was an illusion, obviously created by the Devil. All mankind of whom any record existed, were in fact coaevals in the realm of the spirit, which was the only real realm. Christ, Moses, Jeremiah — they were all right here, living and breathing beside us, if we could just “make contact”. That could be done by prayer, searching the Scriptures, and leading a good life; Coffey explained the good life in terms of what he believed his mother’s life to have been — unstinting service to others, simple piety, mistrust of pleasure, and no truck with thought or education beyond what was necessary to read the Good Book. All these won­ders came to Coffey in a single week, culminating in a revelation that he was the Thirteenth Apostle, destined to spread the good news to mankind. And that news was that the New Jerusalem was right here, if only enough poor souls could “make contact”. God was here: Christ was now. He fought down any last feeling that perhaps it was Mr Ford who was really the Thirteenth Apostle, and set to work. Thirty-odd years later, in two or three hundred cities in the USA and Canada, a few thousand Thirteeners continued his mission.

Dean Knapp knew all this, and thought poorly of it. He also had a poor opinion of the Thirteeners’ local shepherd, Pastor Beamis. The Dean had met him, and thought him an ignoramus, and possibly a rogue, as well. He was professionally obliged to think as well of everybody as possible, but he confided to Mrs Knapp that Scripture came to his aid in the matter of Beamis; did not Leviticus xxi 18 expressly forbid the priesthood to “he that hath a flat nose”? And had not Beamis the flat, bun-like, many times broken nose of the ex-pugilist? Mrs Knapp warned him not to speak such frivolities in the hearing of those who might not understand; the Dean’s passion for Biblical jokes had put him in hot water many times. But she knew very well what her husband meant; there was about Beamis a hairiness, a clumsiness, a physically unseemly quality which sat ill upon a spiri­tual leader. The Jews of the Old Testament had done wisely to forbid the priesthood to grotesques.

It gave Solly much satisfaction to override Miss Puss and the Dean. Monica Gall should not be passed over because she belonged to a sect for which they felt a Pharisaical distaste, said he, and thereby gave offence to the Dean, who was not accustomed to be called a Pharisee by young men of twenty-seven. He had to swallow it, and after a good deal of haggling it was decided that Monica should be interviewed.

But should they not have some expert advice, asked the Dean. They had sought counsel outside their own group about Miss Hetmansen’s work; could they judge a singer unaided? By a little juggling Solly was able to lead the Dean into proposing Humphrey Cobbler as adviser to the Trustees in matters of music; Miss Puss did not like it, but she did not oppose the Dean as she would have opposed Solly in such a suggestion. She contented herself with saying that Cobbler was probably a capable musician, though a detestable man.

Thus it was that on a Thursday night in mid-October the executors and their solicitor gathered in the drawing-room of the Bridgetower house, and there received Mr and Mrs Alfred Gall, their daughter, Monica, and Pastor Sidney Beamis.

Pastor Beamis had not been invited, but he was the first to stride into the room.

“Well, well, good evening Reverend Knapp,” he cried, seizing the Dean’s hand in his clammy, pulpy paws; “this is certainly a wonderful thing you fine folks are proposing to do for our little girl. Yes, and considering you’re all Church of England people it shows a degree of inter-faith fellowship which is more than warming — more than warming. Now I know you weren’t expecting me, and I’m not going to butt in, but because I have watched Monny grow, so to speak, from a gawky kid into a lovely girl, and because I think I may say that it has been my privilege, under God, to humbly have coaxed along her talent, I just couldn’t stay away. I just had to be here.” He dropped his voice, and whispered to Knapp in a priest-to-priest tone — “Family aren’t much in the way of talkers; thought I might be able to steer ’em a little.” He gave the Dean an understanding leer, and patted him on the back. The Dean reclaimed his hand and wiped it on his handkerchief.

Pastor Beamis was so striking a figure that he temporarily obscured the Galls. He wore the full regimentals of a Thirteener shaman. His suit was of grey flannel, much in need of pressing; he had on a wing collar, and a clergyman’s stock, which was of a shrill paddy green; the ensemble was completed by a pair of scuffed sports shoes in brown and white, above which could be seen socks in Argyll design. Inside these garments was a body which had won him the name of Chimp during his days in the ring; his face was large, baggy and bore blatant signals of hope, cheer and unremitting forgiveness.

The Galls, thought Solly, might have posed for a picture of Mr and Mrs Jack Sprat. Alfred Gall was thin to the point of being cadaverous, stooped, pale and insignificant. His wife was covered with that loose, liquid fat which seems to sway and slither beneath the skin, and she, because she wore too tight a corset, wheezed whenever she made the slightest effort. She had a look of nervous good-nature, and every few minutes she eased her false teeth, which seemed to pain her; indeed, as the evening wore on she began to suck air audibly, as though her dentures were hot.

Monica, as Cobbler had said, was neither pretty nor plain, though she was of a trim figure. She was plainly dressed, as became a Thirteener, and it was apparent to the X-ray eye of Miss Puss that the disqualification which had brought about the fall of Birgitta Hetmansen did not apply here.

Conversation proceeded uneasily. It was necessary, first of all, to make it clear to Pastor Beamis that Monica had not been summoned to receive a large sum of money. This task fell to Snelgrove, who found it congenial. It was then explained to the Galls how the Trust was expected to work.

“If your daughter should become the beneficiary, it would give her a most unusual opportunity to pursue her musical studies,” said the Dean.

“Yeah, I see,” said Mrs Gall, and fidgeted with the handle of her purse, sucking air painfully. “It’d take her away from home, though.” She had chosen to sit on a low sofa, and appeared to be suffering discomfort from her corset, which had visibly ridden upward.

“Never had much of a chance m’self,” said Alfred Gall. “Workin’ since I was sixteen. Never known much else but work, I guess.” He laughed a short hollow laugh, like a man making light of an incurable disease.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson