A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Pondering on The First Violin, Monica hunted up the book, which she had not read for two or three years. What a very musical book it was! The chapters were headed, not with bits of poetry as in Francis Marion Crawford, many of whose works she had read in the set which had belonged to the dead high school teacher, but with quotations of music. She had played them all, but they were so short that they did not really mean much. One was called Träumerei, like the picture over the piano. She picked out the theme again, and it remained unrevealing as ever. She put the book aside and began to play. Turn to music when you are unhappy, dear; that was the frequent counsel of Aunt Ellen.

She played Danse Macabre, for it reminded her of Domdaniel, and was besides a nice gloomy piece, suiting with her mood of romantic turmoil. She brought out very strongly the motif which her aunt had assured her was the rattling of dead men’s bones. It cheered her greatly, so she followed it with that sweet Flower Song by Gustave Lange, which was one of Aunt’s favourites. As she played, Miss Gall returned.

It was always easy to talk to Aunt Ellen. She didn’t have to have things explained to her so much as Ma always did, and when she disagreed she never jeered, which was Ma’s way. Besides, Aunt Ellen was a specialist in romance and dreams, and she never seemed to think that anything was really impossible. When the wonderful news had come about the Bridgetower Trust, Aunt Ellen had not waited for Monica to suggest that this might be the pathway to the wonderful world of opera; she had been first to say it; she had led the way in marvellous speculation. There was no dream that had to be shielded from her, for fear that she might mock; she was eager for dreams, and provided cup after cup of the sweet, milky tea which she and Monica found so helpful in the dreaming game. But about family — well, even Aunt Ellen might not see what Monica was driving at there. And so Monica took what seemed to her to be a safe tack.

“That boy I’ve sometimes spoken about, Auntie, George Medwall, said something to me today which made me as mad as hops.” And she gave a version of George’s few words which would have surprised him very much if he could have heard it. Monica had no intention of being untruthful; she merely told Aunt Ellen what George’s words had conveyed to her at the time, with certain accretions which had developed since.

“Of course everything will be changed for you now, dear,” said Miss Gall, “and I dare say you will get into quite a different sort of life. But you were very right not to hear a word against your family. The Fifth Commandment is sacred; honour thy father and mother. As we grow older we see it more that way. Your parents have been very good to you.” As she spoke, Miss Gall cast about in her mind for concrete instances of this goodness, but could find nothing sufficiently im­pressive to bring out. “We never fully know what our parents have done for us,” she said, vaguely, and then added, finding safer ground, “I know my father and mother were very, very good to me, and I don’t suppose a day passes that I don’t remember them and feel their love for me, and my love for them, all over again.” She smiled; she had turned a difficult corner very neatly.

“Yes, I know, Auntie, but they don’t really seem to like the idea that I’m going away to study music. Music isn’t real to them, the way it is to you and me. Ma never mentions it, except to make fun.”

“Oh, you mustn’t mind your mother’s fun,” said Miss Gall. “She’s always been like that. So gay when she was a girl, and it’s grown with the years. That’s really wonderful, you know, dear. So many people get gloomy as they grow older. We always supposed that was what drew Alfred to her.”

“Were they very much in love?” said Monica.

“Well, dear, I really couldn’t say. I suppose they must have been. Alfred was very set on marrying her.”

“Was Dad very ambitious, as a young man?”

“Oh yes, I should certainly say he was. That was why he left school so young, you know. He wanted to be independent; he wanted to buy a car.”

“Didn’t he have to leave school?”

“Gracious, no; Father pleaded with him to stay at school. There was no need for him to leave; Father was doing quite well, you know. But Alfred would have his way. And then he would have his way about marrying. And so it went, you see.”

“You mean his parents didn’t want him to marry Ma?”

“They never discussed it with me, dear, but of course I couldn’t help picking up a little of what was going on. It all seemed to be hasty, and there were quarrels, and your Mother’s family –”

“Yes? Go on, Aunt, what about them?”

“Nothing dear, really. Just that they were rather strange people, and didn’t want your mother to marry anyone.”

“They thought Dad wasn’t good enough? Was that it?”

“No; if there was anything of that sort, it was on the Gall side. And of course my parents were disturbed that your Mother was quite a bit older than Alfred. But your Mother’s family were — oh, I guess you’ve said it all when you say they were odd.”

“And Grandpa Gall didn’t want him to marry into such an odd family?”

“Well, dear, parents often don’t see things as young people do. And it’s worked out very happily, so there’s no good in talking any more about it, is there? No good ever comes of criticizing people, or guessing what might have happened if they’d done something they didn’t do. We have to take care that we always do the right thing ourselves, don’t we? And what a job it is!”

“But don’t you think George Medwall was terrible? I mean, hinting that home influence would hold me back, and all that. I think that’s a terrible thing to say to a person, don’t you?”

“I suppose he doesn’t really understand. Of course, there will be changes in your life, and probably in the way you look at a lot of things. But I’m sure there’ll be nothing that your Father and Mother wouldn’t approve of. You know, dear — we’ve talked about it over and over again — a life given to music is such a wonderful thing. Living for a great art, and meeting wonderful, cultured people, and being all the time in contact with lovely things — it’s bound to change you. You’ll soar far above us I dare say.”

“Oh, I won’t,” said Monica. “I’d hate to be like that. And I’d never feel I was above you, Aunt, never if I got to be the top soprano at the Metropolitan. It just wouldn’t be possible for me. You’ve taught me all I know about music; how to read and play the piano, and harmony and theory, and accompany myself, and everything. If it hadn’t been for you there just wouldn’t have been any music for me. I owe my chance to you! This Bridgetower Trust is really yours; you must know that. I couldn’t ever repay you, not if I lived to be a thousand and got to be the greatest singer in the world!”

“You can repay me by being a great artist, dear. And a great artist is always a lovely person, remember that. The really great ones were always simple and fine, and loved everything that was sweet in life. Keep yourself sweet, Monny, and remember that any gifts you have really belong to God. If you do that, you won’t have to worry about me. I’ll be so proud of you, I’ll just be full of it all day and every day. And don’t worry about your parents. They’ll be proud, too. They’re just too shy to say how proud they are of you. And I know you’ll always be what they want you to be.”

Miss Gall was capable of talking in this strain at length, and so was Monica, so their conversation was long, repetitious and vastly com­forting. When Monica went home at last she was persuaded that, when the time came, Courvoisier and Ma could be very happily reconciled to one another. It was just a job of keeping your aims clear and your ideals high.


For several days it had been clear to Monica and her sister Alice that the farewell party was going to be one of Ma’s “nights”. Mrs Gall was a woman whose normal lethargy and low spirits were relieved, from time to time, by brief bouts of extreme gaiety. For weeks she would declare that she couldn’t be bothered with people — had no use for them at all, and didn’t want the house cluttered up with them; at these times she was morose, untidy and rather dirty in her dress, never took her hair out of curlers, wore her teeth only at meals and –the girls knew this but did not speak of it even to each other — did not wash very often. Then, suddenly, the cloud would lift, the hair would be released, the teeth brought out of the sweater pocket where they had lain unseen but not always unheard, and Mrs Gall would “doll up”, to use her own expression, and ask the girls, jeeringly, why they never brought anybody into the house? Did they want to send her crazy for lack of company? Then the baking would begin, and in a few days there would be a party, consisting chiefly of a Gargantuan feed, with Mrs Gall the heart and soul of it. For a day or two afterward she would exult, breaking into sudden laughter as she recalled the rare old time she had had. Then, in an hour or two, she would fall into a pit of gloom from which even Pastor Beamis, toiling manfully, could not lift her.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson