A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Madame,” said Alex, seizing her hand and kissing it amorously, “the Count and I are too much honoured by the invitation to your soirée.”

Kevin produced a bouquet of paper flowers from behind his back and presented it to his hostess. “Mine heart, she ees too full,” said he.

Mrs Gall laughed, wheezed, and roared in her chest. “There you go!” she said, when she could speak; “I knew you two would be up to somethin’. Come on and have somep’n t’eat, and cut it out, now! Remember my heart.”

“As if we could forget it,” said Kevin. “Biggest heart in Salterton, and mine — all mine!” He feigned romantic ecstasy.

The young Thirteeners giggled nervously, anxious to show ap­preciation yet fearful of attracting attention lest they should be involved in the joshing, for which they knew they had no talent. Alex and Kevin greeted them all, still in their characters as foreign noble­men, but when they came to Monica they fell on their knees like Moslems, and bumped their heads on the floor.

“Proper deference toward a great talent,” they whispered. Then Mrs Gall led them off to be plied with sugar, in solid and liquid form.

Chuck Proby was alone in his failure to respond to this joke. He wore, without disguise, the look of a young man with a future who feels superior to his company.

The ascendency of Alex and Kevin was not to last long. Very soon after their arrival Pastor Beamis came in, accompanied by Mrs Beamis, who looked as though she had been carved out of teak (though not by pagans) and their son Wesley, who was small, thin, pimply and had a bad breath, but strove to offset these handicaps by great high spirits, within Thirteener limits. But the crown was put on the party by the great man whom they brought with them. It was none other than Gus Hoole, the radio announcer and director of the Heart and Hope programme.

The international world of entertainment had not heard of Gus Hoole, and might possibly never do so. But for a few thousand people in Salterton and its environs, he was emperor of a world of mirth, and at the centre of all the stirring, bustling things that came into their lives. He was head announcer at the local radio and television station, and there was no appeal for a good cause, no interview with a visiting celebrity, no civic function on a large scale, in which he did not have a part. He was a fountain of the newest repartee; he had a never-failing flow of heart-warming rhetoric; he had a sure instinct for making things go. He was, indeed, a truly kind and generous man who really liked to make people happy, and to assist crippled children, the aged, the blind, the tubercular, the cancerous, the amputees, the mentally retarded and all the other afflicted persons whom the streamlined benevolence of our day has taken to its great, departmentalized heart. But he had so exposed his good instincts to the air that they had become gross, ropy and inflamed. To have Gus Hoole do good to you was not unlike a very rough rape. He entered the crowded small house, and gave it precisely the same treatment as if it were a vast drill-hall, filled with people who must be persuaded to part with money in the name of charity or patriotism. Not that he roared; television does not need roarers; he merely boomed, in the heavy, pseudo-masculine, soggily sincere tones of a popular announcer.

“Wanted to come. Wouldn’t be kept away,” he said, in response to Mrs Gall’s flustered, overwhelmed greeting. “Least I could do for our Monny, whom we are so soon to lose to the BBC. Can’t stay long, I’m afraid. But wanted to come for as long as I could.”

Whereupon he took charge of the party. He was a man of pro­fessional tact, and he knew that the Thirteeners belonged in that category of religion which they themselves called “the moderate-stricts”. Therefore dancing was out, and there must be no jokes mentioning drink or sex. Jokes about the excretory functions would be acceptable, however, and he made two, which were greeted with loud laughter topped by Mrs Gall. He led singing, for he was an adept in tongue-twister songs such as “One warm worm wiggled up the walk, while another warm worm wiggled down”. He guided them through a song in which the boys had to match themselves vocally against the girls, singing in falsetto. He was rich in riddles and puns. He mustered enough hats for a game which involved the very rapid putting on and taking off of unsuitable hats, and in this Pastor Beamis showed himself to immense advantage. The party began to go swimmingly — so well, in fact that Gus Hoole felt it was safe to make a joke about drink, and did so. No one laughed so loudly as Pastor Beamis.

“That’s a hot one,” said he, at last, wiping his eyes. “Though it’s not really a joking matter, of course. You can see right here, Gus, that when a bunch of fine kids get together for a good time, they don’t need that stuff at all. They’re just naturally drunk on their own high spirits.”

“But that doesn’t mean you, Ma,” said Kevin, nudging Mrs Gall. “Don’t think I don’t know about that jug you’ve got hidden under your bed.” She shrieked, and roared in her throat until it seemed almost that she might have a seizure. Kevin slapped her on the back and plied her with the sweet punch. “You’re drunk on sugar, Ma, that’s what’s the matter with you,” he said. She guffawed again, wildly, exaggeratedly, on a higher note, until Alice wondered if she might not actually throw up, right in the middle of the carpet.

There was no doubt about it, Gus Hoole made Monica’s farewell party. Monica admitted it; she strove to enjoy it. Yet, somehow, real enjoyment would not come, coax it as she would with laughter. Aunt Ellen enjoyed it. She was not of the same world as Gus, but she was a simple woman, impressed by success, and she was quite prepared to admit that he was much her superior in matters of this kind. And there was no question but that Gus was giving his all.

He even had what he thought of, professionally, as a “running gag”, for the occasion. He had to be at Salterton’s largest hotel at half-past ten, to supervise the drawing of the winning tickets in a charity raffle. That was why he was wearing his dinner jacket. (He had comically begged to be excused for appearing “just in my working clothes”.) And so, from time to time, he looked at his wrist-watch, murmuring audibly, “Mustn’t be late; they pay me ten dollars a minute for this kind of thing downtown.” This show of comic avarice on the part of Gus, the widely-known, the professional Big Heart, was uproariously funny to the party. Even the young Thirteeners loosened up, and sniggered and neighed their delight. Then, with one of his famous lightning changes of mood, Gus became serious.

“Gotta go, folks,” said he, “and when you gotta go, you gotta go.” (A whoop from Ma Gall, who found a lavatorial significance in this.) “But seriously, I wish I could stay here with you lovely folks and emcee this affair right through till dawn. But the Mater Dee will be looking for me at the Paraplegics’ Ball in just fifteen minutes, and it’s time to say Good-bye. Before I go, Syd” — here he turned with an affecting boyishness to Pastor Beamis — “would it be too much to ask to hear the Heart and Hope just once again?”

Pastor Beamis patted Gus on the shoulder like a man whose heart is too full for speech. Quickly he gathered Mrs Beamis and Wesley to him, and then beckoned to Monica, who found herself reddening as she joined them in the familiar formation.

“Doh,” whispered Beamis, and his wife emitted a low moo, upon which the others formed a chord. “Granny” murmured the leader, and slowly, with immense expression, the quartet sang Eden Must Have Been Like Granny’s Garden, much the most popular thing in the semi-sacred department of their repertoire.

It would be cynical to suggest that during this rendition there was any competition for the limelight, but if such a thing had been possible, Gus Hoole was certainly the winner. He stood motionless, during the four verses, and as the motionless actor on the stage always draws the eyes of the audience, so did Gus. When the Quartet had finished, a few callow Thirteeners thought to applaud, but Gus stilled this unseemliness with a quick gesture. Stepping forward, he kissed Monica lightly on the cheek, exercising the licence which is allowed in the entertainment world, and then, in a carrying emotional whisper, he said, “So long, kid; come back some day,” and went out, with head bent. It was a splendid exit.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson