A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

After this we had a talk, and I was strongly impressed by her sincerity, and absolute simplicity: She tells me she sings because she always has done so, and likes it, but it had never occurred to her to make a career of it. We were quite matey by this time, and she told me a good deal about her home, and her work, and then I took off my coat and she took off her shoes, which were much too tight, and we did some scales and exercises, and I found that with a bit of encouragement she has roughly twice the voice she has been using, with lots more to come.

What surprised me most was that she plays the piano well — facility and quite nice natural taste — but terrible stuff. It seems an aunt taught her. She played what she called Dance, Micawber, and instead of being a Dickensian medley by some lesser Percy Grainger it was Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. When I mentioned Bach she looked prim, and I gather there is some queer religion behind her, for whom the classics of church music spell Popery or Pride. I think this is the clue to the girl; a real natural talent has been overlaid by a stultifying home atmosphere and cultural malnutrition.

In my opinion she is well worth any encouragement your Trust or whatever it is can give her. The voice is good — quite good enough to be worth proper training — though as you know it takes a year or eighteen months of work before the real nature of a voice emerges, and any serious predictions about a career can be made. But if this girl is not a singer of exceptional quality, she is certainly a musician; she has done a great deal under what appear to be extremely unfavourable conditions. I repeat, the great thing that seems to be wrong with her, considered as a possible artist, is that she has lived for twenty years in circumstances which are not discouraging to art — we see plenty of that — but in which art in any of its forms is not even guessed at. I discount, you understand, all this pseudo-religious twaddle she has been exposed to — music in the service of cant. She seems to have come through that so far without any irreparable harm. But she really doesn’t know a damned thing.

If you can get her three or four years of training, or anything approaching it, do so by all means. If she is coming to England send her to me; I will be glad to give any advice or supervision I can.

You finally did marry that beautiful mezzo from Presteigne, did you not? Molly Ellis? I have the warmest recollections of her in Gerontius. Give her my best wishes.

Yours very sincerely,


Thank God,” said Solly when the letter was finished; “that seems to settle that. We’ve found our phoenix.”


Monica put off inviting George Medwall to her farewell party until the day before it was to take place. In this, as in so many other things in life, she was trying to eat her cake and have it too. To eat it, by inviting the young man whom she liked best among those she knew; to have it, by pretending that she might, after all, not ask him, thus being fully loyal to Ma and the Thirteeners. No wonder, then, that the cake stuck in her throat and that when she came at last to invite him she did so in an off-hand and almost cold fashion.

George did not seem to mind. He was a realist, and he knew that a party dominated by Ma Gall and composed chiefly of young Thirteen­ers would have nothing to attract him but Monny herself. Monny attracted him powerfully. They were both employed by Consoli­dated Adhesives and Abrasives, the biggest industry in Salterton, and still called, by those who remembered its humble nineteenth-century beginnings, the Glue Works. George was a foreman with a department of his own, and Monica was a clerk in the costing department; they worked in separate buildings, a quarter of a mile apart, but he contrived to catch sight of her, if not actually to speak to her, every day. If Monica was to leave Salterton for several years, George meant to see her whenever he could, under whatever circumstances.

She approached him in the cafeteria, when they had both finished lunch.

“Sure I’ll be there,” said George. “We’ve still got fifteen minutes before one. Let’s go for a walk.”

Bundled up against the sharp December weather, and under an iron sky, they walked up and down beside the blank wall of a large building in which the boiling-vats were housed. It was not precisely a lovers’ lane, but they were together.

“I’m sorry to give you such short notice,” said Monica, who was ashamed of the way in which her invitation had been phrased.

“That’s okay,” said George. “I guess it wasn’t very easy for you to ask me at all.”

“Well — you know how it is.”

“Sure. Don’t think it worries me. But I’m certainly glad you’re getting away from all that, Monny.”

“What do you mean by ‘all that’?”

“You know. Beamis, and the Heart and Hope. All that stuff.”

“They’ve been very good to me. I wouldn’t have had this chance if I’d never been heard on that programme.”

“I know. But you’re moving up into a bigger league, now. And about time. You’ve got a chance for some first-class training. It’ll make a big difference.”

“It’s not going to turn me against people who have been good to me, if that’s what you mean.”

“Nothing would do that, Monny. You’re not that kind. But you see what I mean, don’t you? You’ll be a long way off, and on your own. Not such a strong home influence; not so much religion. A bigger world altogether.”

“Oh, is that it? My home influence doesn’t quite come up to your standards, is that it?”

“Now, Monny, don’t take me up wrong. I never said a word against your home. But you know — it’ll be different.”

“You’d better not say anything against my home.”

“No, no; I was just trying to be realistic about what’s happened.”

“Oh, realistic! You always want to be realistic; it’s your favourite word.”

“I guess so; I’ve tried to be realistic about my own life. It only makes sense.”

“I know. And it’s made you the youngest foreman in the plant. But not the best liked, if you care to know.”

“I can’t help that.”

“You could if you wanted to. But you hadn’t been a foreman six weeks before you came down like a ton of bricks on senior men that were here long before anybody’d ever heard of you. Talked to them in a way they’ll never forget or forgive. I suppose that was realistic.”

“As it so happens, it was. But let’s forget that; I don’t want to talk about those old dead-beats now.”

“They weren’t dead-beats.”

“Now Monny; it was before you ever came to the plant. How do you know?”

“Some of them were Dad’s friends. That’s how I know.”

“Be reasonable. Can I run my department by letting fellows get away with murder, on the chance that they’re friends of somebody in another department, who may have a daughter that I’ll get to know some day? Why, I didn’t even know your Dad then. And I won’t pretend it would have made any difference, if I had.”

“Oh? My Dad’s an old dead-beat, too, I suppose?”

“Say, what are we fighting about, anyway?”

“We’re not fighting. But I just can’t stand the way you brush aside everybody that hasn’t got ahead as fast as you have. They’re human, too, you know. I know them, and Dad’s one of them. They haven’t all had your chances. Dad’s been working since he was sixteen; work’s all he’s ever known –”

“Sure. He’s told me about it.”

“And just what do you mean by that?”

“That’s your Dad’s favourite routine. Work at sixteen. Work ever since. Never known anything but work. Excuses everything, I suppose.”

“Excuses what, may I ask?”

“Oh, nothing. Forget it.”

“No, I won’t forget it. Come on, George. What does it excuse? You can’t hint like that about my Dad and then just brush it off. — What are you laughing at?”

“I’m laughing at you, Monny. You know, you ought to make a fine singer. You’ve got the temperament.”

“Meaning what?”

“You’re what’s called a romantic. You see everything in full Tech­nicolor all the time. Feelings before facts, that’s you. But it’s time somebody knocked some sense into your head.”

“Go on.”

“You swallow all that stuff about your Dad. Fine. Every kid believes what his father tells him, and so he should, but there’s got to be a day when he makes his own judgement. Your Dad’s okay, I guess; I don’t know him very well. But the reason he’s still pushing a broom here in the plant is simply because he can’t do anything better. There’s no disgrace in it. But let’s not say it’s because he’s had a raw deal, eh? He’s had the best deal he could get from life. Lots of fellows started even with him. One of them was Thurston, the plant manager –“

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Categories: Davies, Robertson