A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

The caterer had his own, highly professional attitude toward funeral teas. What about drinks? he said. Sherry would be wanted for the women who never drank anything except at funerals, and there were always a few Old Country people who expected port — especially if there was cold meat. But most of the mourners would want hard liquor, and they would want it as soon as they got into the house.

These winter funerals were murder; everybody was half perished by the time they got back from the graveyard. Solly would have to get the liquor himself; the caterer’s banquet licence did not cover funerals. He would, of course, supply all the glasses and mixings. He advised Solly to get a good friend to act as barman; it wouldn’t do to have a professional barman at such an affair. Looked too calculated. Similarly, the icing which said Merry Christmas would have to be removed from the tops of the fruitcakes. Looked too cheerful.

Obediently, Solly procured and hauled a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of assorted liquors from the Government purveyor on the day before the funeral. But his acquaintance among skilled mixers of drinks was small, and in the end he had to ask the Cathedral organist, Humphrey Cobbler, to help him.

Was Solly grieving for his mother, when he wept during the singing of My Task? Yes, he was. But he was also grieving because Veronica had had such a rotten time of it during the past three days. He was worrying that there would not be enough to eat at the funeral tea. He was worrying for fear there would be too much to eat, and that the funeral baked-meats would coldly furnish forth his own table for days to come. He was worrying that Cobbler, triumphant behind the drinks-table, would fail to behave himself. He was worrying for fear the Hansen relatives would hang around all evening, discussing family affairs, as is the custom of families at funerals, instead of decently taking the seven o’clock train back to Montreal. He was hoping that he could live through the next few hours, get one decent drink for himself, and go to bed.


Solly and Veronica rode to the graveyard in an undertaker’s limousine with Uncle George Hansen, Mrs Bridgetower’s brother, and Uncle George’s American wife. But as soon as the burial was over they hurried to where Solly had left their small car earlier in the day, and rushed with irreverent haste back to the house, to be on hand to greet the mourners when they came ravening for liquor, food and warm fires.

“Do you think they’ll all come?” said Veronica, as they rounded the graveyard gate.

“Very likely. Did you ever see such a mob? I didn’t think more than a hundred would go to the cemetery, but it looks as if they all went. Have we got enough stuff, do you suppose?”

“I can’t tell. I’ve never had anything to do with one of these things before.”

“Nor have I. Ronny, in case I go out of my head before this tea thing is over, I want to tell you now that you’ve been wonderful about it all. In a week or so we’ll go for a holiday, and forget about it.”


When they entered the house it looked cheerful, even festive. Fires burned in the drawing-room, dining-room and in the library, where Cobbler stood ready behind an improvised bar. There was some giggling and scurrying as Solly and his wife came in, and Ethel and Doris were seen making for the kitchen.

“Just been putting the girls right with a strong sherry-and-gin,” said Cobbler. “They’re badly shaken up. Needed bracing. Now, what can I give you?”

“Small ryes,” said Solly. “And for heaven’s sake use discretion, Humphrey.”

“You know me,” said Cobbler, slopping out the rye with a generous hand.

“I do,” said Solly. “That’s why I’m worried. Don’t play the fool for the next couple of hours. That’s all I ask.”

“You wound me,” said the organist, and made an attempt to look dignified. But his blue suit was too small, his collar was frayed, and his tie was working toward his left ear. His curly black hair stood out from his head in a mop, and his black eyes gleamed unnervingly. “You suggest that I lack a sense of propriety. I make no protest; I desire only to be left to My Task.” He winked raffishly at Veronica.

He’s our oldest friend as a married couple, thought she, and a heart of gold. If only he were not so utterly impossible! She smiled at him. “Please, Humphrey,” said she.

He winked again, tossed a lump of sugar in the air and caught it in his mouth.”Trust me,” he said.

What else can we do? thought Veronica.

The mourners had begun to arrive, and Solly went to greet them. There was congestion at the door, for most of the guests paused to take off their overshoes and rubbers, and those who had none were scraping the graveyard clay from their feet. It was half an hour before the last had climbed the stairs, left wraps, taken a turn at the water-closet, descended the stairs and received a drink from Cobbler. They had the air, festive but subdued, which is common to funeral teas. The grim business at the graveside done, they were prepared to make new, tentative contact with life. They greeted Solly with half-smiles, inviting him to smile in return. Beyond his orbit conversation buzzed, and there was a little subdued laughter. They had all, in some measure, admired or even liked his mother, but her death at seventy-one had surprised nobody, and such grief as they felt for her had already been satisfied at the funeral. Dean Jevon Knapp, of St Nicholas’, bustled up to Solly; he had left his cassock and surplice upstairs, and had put on the warm dry shoes which Mrs Knapp always took to funerals for him, in a special bag; he had his gaiters on, and was holding a large Scotch and soda.

“I have always thought this one of the loveliest rooms in Salterton,” said he.

But Solly was not allowed to answer. Miss Puss Pottinger, great friend and unappeased mourner of the deceased, popped up beside him.

“It is as dear Louisa would have wished it to be,” she said, in an aggressive but unsteady voice. “Thursday was always her At Home day, you know, Mr Dean.”

“First Thursdays, I thought,” said the Dean; “this is a third Thursday.”

“Be it what it may,” said Miss Puss, losing control of face and voice, “I shall think of this as dear Louisa’s — last — At Home.”

“I’m very sorry,” said the Dean. “I had not meant to distress you. Will you accept a sip –?” He held out his glass.

Miss Pottinger wrestled with herself, and spoke in a whisper. “No,” said she. “Sherry. I think I could take a little sherry.”

The Dean bore her away, and she was shortly seen sipping a glass of dark brown sherry in which Cobbler, unseen, had put a generous dollop of brandy.

Solly was at once engaged in conversation by his Uncle George Hansen and Uncle George’s wife. This lady was an American, and as she had lived in Canada a mere thirty-five years, still found the local customs curious, and never failed to say so.

“This seems to me more like England than at home,” she said now.

“Mother was very conservative,” said Solly.

“The whole of Salterton is very conservative,” said Uncle George; “I just met old Puss Pottinger mumbling about At Homes; thought she was dead years ago. This must.be one of the last places in the British Empire where anybody has an At Home day.”

“Mother was certainly one of the last in Salterton to have one,” said Solly.

“Aha? Well, this is a nice old house. You and your wife going to keep it up?”

“I haven’t had time to think about that yet.”

“No, I suppose not. But of course you’ll be pretty well fixed, now?”

“I really don’t know, sir.”

“Sure to be. Your mother was a rich woman. You’ll get everything. She certainly won’t leave anything to me; I know that. Ha ha! She was a wonder with money, even as a girl. ‘Louie, you’re tighter than the bark to a tree,’ I used to say to her. Did your father leave much?”

“He died very suddenly, you know, sir. His will was an old one, made before I was born. Everything went to mother, of course.”

“Aha? Well, it all comes to the same thing now, eh?”

“Solly, do you realize I’d never met your wife until this afternoon?” said Uncle George’s wife. “Louisa never breathed a word about your marriage until she wrote to us weeks afterward. The girl was a Catholic, wasn’t she?”

“No, Aunt Gussie. Her mother was a Catholic, but Veronica was brought up a freethinker by her father. Mother and her father had never agreed, and I’m afraid my marriage was rather a shock to her. I’ll get Veronica now.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson