A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

The apple and the ginger ale had been gone for perhaps half an hour before the picture began to darken. Not Monique Gallo now, but plain Monica Gall was musing on the plain words of Humphrey Cobbler when last she had seen him — “chances are about a hundred to one that your voice is any better than scores of others; only work will tell the tale; this Bridgetower thing is really pretty much a fluke.” Well, it was a chance. She could always go back home and get a job.

The Duchess of Richmond climbed higher peaks, shivered more terribly, plunged in corkscrew fashion to even more abysmal depths. Monica turned very cold, broke into an icy sweat, and was noisily, searchingly sick into the rattling container. . . And again. . . And (Oh God, have mercy!) again.


“Miss Gall, from Canada? I’m from Jodrell and Stanhope. Here’s my card — Frederick Boykin. I’ll see to your luggage. Hope you had a pleasant voyage? Well, yes, I suppose it’s bound to be a bit rough this time of year. Yes, it is a little foggy, but that’s common in London, you know. Oh dear no, this isn’t a real London fog; just a bit of a haze. Taxi! That’s right, three cases and a trunk. Well, you can put two of the cases on the roof, can’t you? You get inside Miss Gall, and I’ll see to this. . . There; that’s that. They hate trunks. Can’t think why; they charge enough for ’em. Now, my instructions are to take you to Marylebone Road — Three Arts Club — ladies’ club, very respectable, and you’ll see Mr Andrews tomorrow. Pity you can’t see more out of the window. I suppose you saw a good deal of England coming down on the boat-train? Raining all the way? But you expected that, you say? Well I suppose it does seem queer to you, coming from all your snow, and so forth. . . The smell? I can’t really say that I’d noticed any smell. Bit smoky, perhaps, but that’s because of the haze — keeps the smoke down. . . Here we are; you go right ahead, I’ll attend to everything. They’re expecting you.”

Thus, within a quarter of an hour of her arrival in London, Monica found herself in a very small room, with nothing whatever to do. She had liked Mr Boykin, who was stout without being fat, and cheerful in what she supposed was the traditional Cockney way, and knew what he was doing. She had not so much liked the secretary of the Club, who was a very competent lady with a brand of genteel, impersonal hospitality which was new to Monica, and chilling. And what was she to do now?

She would read her book. Before leaving Canada she had laid in intellectual provision — in the form of War and Peace, in a single large, heavy volume, complete with maps of Napoleon’s Russian cam­paign, and an informative introduction by a celebrated critic. Under normal circumstances she would never have considered tackling such a cultural monster, but it seemed appropriate to the new life she was going to live. Aunt Ellen had advised it, for her dead fiancé had often spoken of War and Peace as the greatest of all novels. To read it would undoubtedly result in permanent mental enrichment. Seasickness had come between Monica and Tolstoy on the voyage, and she had read, in all, four confusing pages. She would get down to serious work on it now.

Many travellers have discovered that a book which seems strikingly appropriate in one country is insupportably tedious in another; the Lost Property offices of the world’s airports are heavily stocked with volumes which have not travelled well. In less than ten minutes Monica had decided that Anna Pavlovna Sherer’s party was not precisely what she needed at the moment (though unquestionably cultural); she was in the greatest city in the world, and she did not want to waste time sitting in a little room, with a bad light and a funny smell, reading about people who did not seem certain what their own names were. She would go for a walk.

The genteel secretary caught her in the hall, and cautioned her not to go far, not to get herself lost, and to appeal to a policeman if she did so. This was dampening to Monica’s spirits, as was also the smell of Marylebone Road, which was just like that of her bedroom, only more intense and wet.

It was a sour, heavy smell; a wet smell, of course, in which the smoke of soft coal played a large part. But it was not a constant smell. Sometimes the soft coal was so powerful that Monica choked a little; and then, in a few yards, it would have changed to a smell like damp mattresses; once, Monica was reminded of the time when a wool warehouse had burned down in Salterton. It was not an actively unpleasant smell; indeed, it had a caressing friendliness about it — almost a familiarity, as though she had known this smell at some earlier time in her life, and were encountering it again. But in spite of this delusive familiarity the smell was the queerest thing Monica met in the Marylebone Road, which seemed to her, in other respects, not greatly unlike Toronto.

Baker Street. Had she, at some time, heard something about Baker Street? Nothing came to mind, and yet there seemed to be some familiarity in the address. The street names were pleasant; Nottingham, Devonshire, Harley — wasn’t there something about Harley Street? It was odd; being in London was like being in a dream, or in a life you had lived before, in which things seemed to have meaning but wouldn’t be pinned down.

But she had been warned not to go too far, and the haze seemed to be increasing as the light failed. She found her way back to the Club without difficulty, listening as she walked to the unfamiliar voices — some of them very hoarse and almost incomprehensible. The sec­retary shot a meaningless, professional smile at her as she passed the office door.

The smell inside the Club had deepened, and was a little warmer than it had been before, and there was a heavy premonition of food in it now. Monica lay on her bed until the gong sounded for dinner, and thought about Monique Gallo, to whom London and all the capitals of the world would seem like home.


The basement dining room of the Club was terrifying. It was not very large, but it was filled with alarmingly worldly girls who seemed to be perfectly at home. In the presence of these girls, with their loud, assured English voices — fully understandable and yet, for that very reason, so foreign and unaccustomed in tone and tune — Monica was, for the first time since she left home, afraid. But the efficient secretary came to her aid.

“Miss Stamper,” she said to a girl who was sitting alone at a table for two, “this is Miss Gall from Canada. I’m sure you’ll find a lot in common.”

Monica’s first impression of Miss Stamper was that she was dirty. Her hair was dull. Her face seemed to have grime under the surface of the skin. Her stubby fingers were dark. But her round face was cheerful.

“I wonder why she thinks we’ll find anything in common,” said she. “Are you new here, too?”

By the time they had eaten the watery soup and moved on to the fatty mutton, they were on excellent terms. Peggy Stamper was from Norwich, and she had come to London to learn sculpture. She had been doing a lot of clay modelling, which explained and almost excused the grime. She was not yet nineteen, which gave Monica a certain advantage in age, but Peggy was English, and was thus better equipped to meet the strongly national atmosphere of the Club. It was, she said, intended for girls who were engaged in the arts, or studying them, in London, but what it really worked out to be was a cheap residential place for girls whose artistic inclinations had lapsed, or had always been secondary to some other sort of job. She was there because an aunt, who was partly paying for her training, thought it a safe place for her to be, but she meant to get out as soon as possible.

As they ate a pudding unknown to Monica, which seemed to be called Spotted Dog, she told Peggy about herself. But she noticed, with surprise, as though outside herself, that there were things she did not tell: Peggy heard a good deal about Monica, but she heard nothing of the Glue Works — only of an office job; nothing was said of Pastor Beamis and the Thirteeners — only of some broadcasting experience; the Bridgetower Trust emerged as the sponsor of a far-reaching contest in search of gifted young women, with Sir Benedict Domdaniel as its dominating figure. Not a word did she say with intent to deceive, but in that room, within earshot of those very English voices, facts presented themselves, somehow, in a rather different guise.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson