A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Not everyone was sorry to see him go, strange as this may appear. Alex and Kevin resented his professional intrusion on their preserve as funnymen of the party. Mrs Gall, though honoured by his pres­ence, was debarred by it from playing her role as the Earth-Goddess, the Many-Breasted Mother, dispensing food and drink. And so, as soon as Gus had left the house, she called everyone to supper by shouting “Eats! Eats!” and bustling them into the back parlour, or dining room, where the table was laid. Mr Gall was set to work carving the turkey; Pastor Beamis hacked somewhat inexpertly at the ham. The young Thirteeners, considering their general lack of vital­ity, ate astonishingly. Indeed, two of the young men had a merry contest as to which could eat most, and made a great thing of it, egged on by the Thirteener girls. Ham, turkey, salad, pickles — the party chewed its way through these in short order, and then set to work on the sweet things. Because Christmas was not far away, there were crackers, and funny paper hats; the only person who did not wear a paper hat was Chuck Proby who, when urged to do so by Mrs Gall, said: “Well, in the banking business we got to be careful,” and escaped with his dignity uncompromised.

When at last they had eaten — not everything, for that would have been impossible without some apparatus for forcible feeding, but as much as it seemed that flesh could bear — Mrs Gall disappeared to the kitchen, and returned almost at once, with the crown of the feast. This was a huge tray of small mince pies. The recipe called for a teaspoonful of brandy to be poured over each of these before it was eaten, but as Mrs Gall had no use for brandy she substituted — such is the genius of the born cook — the juice from two bottles of maraschino cherries.

“Come on, now,” she cried. “Every one you eat means a happy month next year. Ain’t that so, Pastor?”

And so the company, protesting that it could eat no more, ate a great deal more, and stowed away mincemeat soaked in maraschino cherry juice until the young men groaned and rubbed their stomachs histrionically, and the girls protested that they could touch their last swallow, that their back teeth were submerged in food, and all the other jolly things which people say to please so bounteous a hostess as Mrs Gall. Pastor Beamis won the prize for eating most mince pies (nine) and when he unwrapped it, it was a toy set of bagpipes. When he danced about the room playing his pipes, even Mr Gall laughed a little, and said that the Pastor was a card. Then they all settled down to top off with shortbread and coffee.

It was at this time that Alex and Kevin crept away, to return in a few minutes wearing Derby hats, spats, and carrying canes; in their eyes they painfully gripped watch crystals, to simulate monocles. For the enjoyment of the sated guests — some of whom were already showing signs of that grim malady, a cake hangover — they acted out a little dialogue of their own composition, in which they declared that they were from jolly old London, by Jove, and that they were waiting impatiently for the arrival of Miss Monica Gall, the Salterton night­ingale, don’t y’know, who was coming over to Blighty to show them a thing or two about singing, eh what? Their English accents were not very well assumed, their English slang was derived from hearing people who had read Wodehouse talk about him, and their little masque did not seem to have a beginning or an end or much perceptible point, but it was received with enthusiasm, and Mrs Gall was in gales of mirth, just from looking at them being so funny.

“Yeah, that’s the way she’ll be talkin’ when she gets back,” said she, jerking her head toward Monica. “Just you be careful, my girl, not to pick up a lotta snottery when you’re over there among all them dudes. You got to keep your feet on the ground, and not get so’s we can’t understand a word you say.”

“Monny’ll be right up with the bigwigs when she’s having lessons from Sir Thingumyjig,” said Wes Beamis.

“Well, for her sake I hope they’re more open-handed in England than they’ve been here,” said Mrs Gall. “The idea — invitin’ us over there to talk about Monny’s future, and never so much as offered us a cuppa coffee!”

“But Monny’s getting the interest on a lotta money,” said Mr Gall. “You have to remember that.”

“A cuppa coffee wouldn’t have hurt,” said his wife. “But no, they just sat around that room like so many Stoughton bottles and looked at us as if we was poison.”

“Let the boys go on, Ma,” said Monica.

The entertainment by Alex and Kevin did not so much come to an end, as it fell apart, and the evening took another sudden turn toward seriousness, as it had when Gus Hoole was taking his leave. Pastor Beamis spoke of the loss to the Thirteener Church which was caused by Monica’s great good fortune. He referred feelingly to the blow that had been sustained by the Heart and Hope quartet. He and his wife and Wes wanted Monica to remember them, when she was far away, and to remember their repertoire, too, so that sometimes she might sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land. And in order to keep them in her mind, he asked her to accept a gift.

Wesley Beamis produced it, from the entrance hall, and Monica unwrapped it as they all looked on. It was a dressing case, fitted with a mirror, brushes, bottles and hangers upon which clothes could be folded. Monica, who had a headache, was moved, and cried a little, but she pulled herself together and made a speech.

“I’ll never be able to thank you enough,” said she; “not just for this, though it’s lovely, but for all the good times and all the kindness. Please don’t talk as if I could ever forget you. I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t if I could. I’ll always keep this with me, whatever happens, and no matter how long I’m away, or whatever happens to me –” She could say no more.

Pastor Beamis struck up God Be With You Till We Meet Again, and they all sang it, fervently and with a warmth which was, to Monica, agonizingly sweet and embracing. As she stood among them weep­ing, part of her feeling was of deepest shame that she could ever, for a moment, have felt stifled and cramped in this atmosphere, or have wished to get away from it. Miss Ellen Gall, in the back parlour among the ruins of the feast, wept too.

The guests went home, each with a kind word, and Wesley Beamis, made bold by the example of Gus Hoole, pressed a maraschino-tainted kiss upon her cheek at parting. He had had hopes of Monica, but now they were gone.

When the Galls were alone, Ma was seen to be slumped in a chair, beet-red in the face, and utterly exhausted. But she roused herself, thrust a piece of fruitcake into her mouth and rose.

“Come on,” said she; “let’s get these dishes done before we go to bed. I don’t want any slopdolly housekeeping here.” She kicked off her shoes, removed her teeth, and went to the kitchen.

There she found that Alex and Kevin were well advanced on the first lap of the dish-washing. Good boys, thoughtful boys: make wonderful husbands.


Christmas Eve. Unhappy and nauseated from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, Monica lay in her berth aboard the Duchess of Richmond. Although she had several blankets and the steam heating hissed and muttered in the pipes, she was clammily cold. The boat — no, the doctor had said she must always call it the ship — toiled laboriously upward, seemingly determined to reach the sky, and hung poised for a few dreadful moments at the crest of the wave; the screws, lifted from the water, caused the whole vessel to shudder awesomely; then it plunged, writhing, into the depths again. Every­thing in the cabin jingled and shifted; the vomit-can, hooked in­geniously over the side of her berth, chattered metallically. Down the hallway, but clearly audible through the ventilation louvres in the door, somebody dropped a loaded tray.

The light in the middle of the cabin turned on with a snap, and Stewardess Rose Glebe was in the room, heavily rouged and bursting with well-being.

“Well, and how’s the lonely girlie now?” she carolled. “Still a weeny bit sicky-pussy? Never mind, dear, you’re not the only one. Only six at First Class dinner tonight.”

Holding Monica firmly with one arm, Stewardess Glebe dealt the pillow several punishing blows. Monica retched powerfully but with­out result.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson