A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Poor kiddie,” said the angel of light, laying her back again and straightening the blankets. “Nothing to come, eh? That’s no good; got to get something into your tummikins dear, or you’ll wrench it loose with that there straining. Now look; I’ve brought you a lovely apple, all cut in pieces, and some ginger ale. You just get that down. No matter if you can’t keep it. You’ve got to have something to raise, or you’ll harm yourself. Doctor’s orders. I’ll come back before I go off duty, and help you down the hall, to the W, then I’ll tidy your bed for the night. Now, now, you mustn’t feel so sorry for yourself. Could be much worse, I tell you. Though it’s a pity about Christmas Eve.”

“Can it be worse than this?” asked Monica, faintly.

“Much worse on the voyage over,” said Stewardess Glebe. “That was a crossing, if you like. The old North Atlantic’s no millpond in winter.”

With a smile of extreme cheer she vanished through the door.

Monica lay with her eyes closed for a few minutes, gathering courage. Then, with extreme caution, she took a sip of ginger ale and felt better at once. She nibbled a bit of apple, and became conscious that she was very hungry. Soon she was able to get up, bathe her face, and turn out the centre light; she switched on the reading-lamp in her berth and lay as quietly as the ship would allow, eating the apple lingeringly.

How noisy the ship was! All that creaking and groaning, night and day. And how empty! But then, as a fellow passenger had asked her, who would cross the North Atlantic in Christmas Week unless they had to? There were only twenty-two First Class passengers altogether, and of these seventeen were men — middle-aged, dull-looking men, obviously travelling on business. One of them, with whom she had had a brief conversation, was an apple man from British Columbia. Monica had anticipated the sea voyage as an exciting and perhaps even a romantic introduction to her new life. But when she found herself seated at a table in the dining saloon with a widow who was going to scatter her husband’s ashes in his native Scotland, and a female Major in the Salvation Army, she had revised her opinion. Not that she had been allowed much time to explore the possibilities of the ship, for it had left St John in heavy weather, and Monica had been in her berth since the second day; this was the fourth day and the storm — not that the doctor or Stewardess Glebe would admit that it was a storm — seemed to be growing worse.

She had not lost heart, in spite of her illness. She had been elated at the thought of travelling First Class, and she did not know that this had been the cause of hot debate among the Bridgetower Trustees. Miss Pottinger and the Dean had thought Tourist Class much more suitable, but Solly had once more been indiscreet in talking to the newspaper, and the Bellman had announced its intention of providing Monica with a large bouquet of flowers, with which she was to be photographed, at the dock. It had been considered wrong that a protégée of the late Louisa Hansen Bridgetower should be photo­graphed in anything less than First Class accommodation, and so, with much grumbling from Mr Snelgrove, that was what had been provided. The Bellman’s flowers, firmly held in a cage which the ship provided for them, rustled and waved in a corner of her cabin.

Getting away had been a strain. None of the Galls were travellers, and the belief had grown up among them, unspoken yet plainly understood, that once Monica had gone they need never expect to look upon her face again. People did travel about the world, it was true, and return to their families even after many years of absence, but the Galls could not believe that this would be so with one of their own. The sea voyage would almost certainly end in shipwreck; the more Mrs Gall thought of it, the surer she became. True, she did not say this to Monica in so many words, but she had a way of looking at her daughter, and melting into silent tears, which made speech unnecessary.

Mr Gall’s solicitude expressed itself differently. Although he had been apparently indifferent to Monica’s fate since her childhood, he now took great pains to find out what kind of toothpaste she liked, and what her preference was in cold cream, and bought her large stores of these things to take away. He was apparently convinced that the ordinary necessities of life could not be bought in England, and he repeatedly made her promise that, when these things were exhausted, she would let him know, so that he could send more. He seemed to be provisioning her for a voyage to the Isle of the Dead.

Monica had borne herself bravely through the partings, and had pooh-poohed the notion that there was any danger at sea, but during the days of her illness she had been troubled by a duality of mind. Certainly it had seemed to her that no vessel built with human hands could do what the Duchess of Richmond was doing and stay afloat. She had prayed, but the Thirteener faith had not armed her against such misery as this; she had tried to believe the ship’s doctor, when he had assured her that nobody ever died of it (ha ha), and that her best plan was to stop thinking about herself and get up on deck; she had submitted to the shameful ordeal of a soapy-water enema given by Stewardess Glebe, who insisted that this treatment was sovran for sea-sickness; she had, in the worst of her trouble, fallen into a sleep which was more like a swoon, and troubled by horrible dreams. But, although one half of her mind told her that she was about to die, the other half had continued to dwell on hopeful visions of what she would do when, at last, the ship reached port. Refreshed by the apple and the ginger ale, she gave herself up to such speculation now.

England was sure to be fun. She had never thought much about that country, or made any special study of anything connected with it, but when she knew she was going there everything she had ever heard about England — and quite a few things she had never been conscious of hearing — collected and formed a pattern in her mind and she became, so far as her circle was concerned, an authority on the subject. England would be very quaint, and the people — though not so go-ahead and modern as the Canadians — would be exceedingly polite, honest and quaint as well. The Cockneys would be especially quaint, because they were so quick-witted, and so full of indepen­dence and courage. Cockneys might be expected to wear suits with hundreds of pearl buttons on them, on Sundays, just as they did in the photographs sent out by the British travel agencies; there would be splendidly uniformed soldiers, as seen in whisky advertisements; people in official positions were very likely to wear little wigs; there would be innumerable quaint customs — beating the boundaries, flinging the pancake, chewing the gammon, and the like, as described by the British Information Service; children might be expected to talk like grown-ups; it would rain most of the time, and this would be borne with immense good-humour; coffee would be awful but tea would be drunk in bucketsful; and there would be a lot of culture and gracious living and characteristic English understatement in evidence everywhere.

This was the country which was to transform her. She was deter­mined that in most things she would be transformed. The simple clerk at the Glue Works (for she saw, more clearly every day, how simple she had been) would, after experiences which would deepen and ripen her emotional nature, change into the internationally-known diva. She would never forget her family, of course, and she would certainly never be a loose-liver, as some internationally-known divas had so reprehensibly been, but she would no longer be bound by the chains of the Thirteeners or the social habits of Salterton. Monica Gall, the internationally-known diva.

The name was not quite right. Indeed, the more often she repeated it, the less appropriate it sounded. Gall, in particular, would not do. An Irish name, Aunt Ellen had explained. Would it be better changed to Gallo, perhaps? Monique Gallo? Distinguished in appearance, with a spiritual beauty which seemed to shine from within, elegant yet simple in manner, living solely for her art and yet a familiar figure in the best society in Europe, Monique Gallo took shape in her mind. Monique Gallo, robed as Norma, acknowledging the applause of a vast audience before the curtains of a great opera house; Monique Gallo, in a black velvet gown relieved only by a few fine diamonds, graciously bowing at the end of a recital, while her accompanist wiped away his tears of pure artistic joy; Monique Gallo being drawn in torchlit triumph through the streets of Prague by a crowd of enthusiastic students, who had taken the horses out of her car­riage. . . Why horses; why a carriage? Oh, probably a temporary gasoline shortage. . . Monique Gallo, who sang every kind of music with unmatchable understanding, concluding her recital with some simple, lovely ballad which left not a dry eye in the house. Monique Gallo telling stricken young men (not a bit like foremen at a Glue Works) that she must live for her art alone — an attitude which, while it broke their hearts, compelled them to love her all the more.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson