A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“But if you fill the world with common sense,” countered Peggy, there’ll be precious little art left. Art begins where common sense leaves off.” And, perhaps as a result of Money’s unbuttoning process, Monica had to agree that this was so.

Without becoming intimate with Peggy, Monica saw a good deal of her, and they did much of their theatre-going together. She met some of Peggy’s friends, who were all art students and not particularly articulate or interesting, inclining to shop-talk, dirt, corduroys, beer and fried foods. But in their company she visited some of the galleries (for Molloy had urged her to study gesture and bodily posture in paintings and sculpture, as visible evidences of muhd) and learned enough from them to realize that she had no taste, and was unlikely ever to develop any. Peggy kindly attributed this to her musical interests, and Monica reconciled herself to possessing, like Molloy, th’ear but not th’eye.

These casual acquaintanceships were not enough to keep Monica from being very lonely and often in low spirits. Except for her visits to Molloy most of her days were long and dull. True, she went every morning to Madame Heber for a lesson in French, which she shared with two dry young men who were preparing for the Civil Service, and every afternoon at five o’clock she had a lesson in German from Dr Rudolph Schlesinger, in the company of a spotty girl who was mastering that language so that she might read Freud in the original. Language study, and the exercises which Molloy ordered, filled up much of the time she spent in her rooms in Courtfield Gardens. But she still had plenty of time in which to be lonely. The few sticks which she and Mr Boykin had purchased had made her rooms convenient, though far from luxurious, and she had learned how to feed herself economically and fairly well. She was even able to keep almost warm, though the gas-meter was remorseless in its demand for shillings. And, as winter wore away and spring came she began to see some of the strange, irregular beauty of London. But loneliness would not be banished, and Sundays were an endless weariness. Against all Thirteener custom, she began to go to Sunday movies.

Her cold resisted treatment, and became a sullen catarrh. Molloy refused to recognize its existence. “It’s nothing at all,” said he one day when she apologized for a coughing fit; “it’s the dust in the air. You’d probably never get rid of it unless you took a long sea-voyage — maybe not then. Lots o’ people have a congestion like that all their lives. Now me, for instance: I’d spit y’up a cupful o’phlegm any morning in the week. But I don’t let it bother me.” And so Monica decided that she would not let it bother her, either. But it did bother her, and particularly at night.

Her work with Molloy was the only life-giving element in her existence. Little by little he satisfied himself that she had some rudimentary notion of what muhd was, and could summon a small amount of it at will. It was true that Monica found it difficult to make love to a chair, which he regarded as an important test.

“Garrick could do’t,” said he; “time and again he’d astonish his friends that way. And it’s all a question of muhd. To th’artist, with his imagination at command, and his experience of life to draw on, making love to a chair is just as possible — not as easy, maybe, or as pleasant — but just as possible as making love to a pretty girl. Now watch me: I’m going to make love to you.”

The somewhat severe and admonishing expression which Molloy usually wore when he was teaching gave way to an alarming leer, and he approached Monica with youthful step. Seizing her hand he dropped on one knee and pressed it to his lips. “My darling,” said he and, rising, pressed her to him with many variations on this simple endearment, which appeared to be the only one he could think of. When it seemed that he must inevitably kiss her he suddenly broke away, and looked sternly into her eye.

“Y’see? That’s the way it is with the living subject. Now — what d’you say to this?”

And with a sudden turn he addressed himself to an armchair, caressed its dingy upholstery, knelt to it, entreated it to be his, praised its hair and complexion, called it his jewel, and swore that he could not live if it spurned him. Monica could not laugh, for unquestionably Molloy had the muhd, and however ridiculous his behaviour might be, the power in his voice might not be denied.

Nor could she rid herself of a feeling that Molloy liked showing her how to make love. He never missed a chance to feel her diaphragm, or gauge the expansion of her ribs at the back. And now, in these exercises with the chair it was always hard to know what he might do next. Obedient and teachable, Monica would do her best to pour out adoration for Molloy’s unappetizing armchair.

“It’s feeble,” he would say. “Now you’re not going to tell me that a girl like yourself doesn’t know what love-making is. Eh? Don’t blush; if you expect to be an artist you must get your feelings at command. Work on it at home, and show me what you can do next day.”

Part of Monica’s inability to enter whole-heartedly into these scenes of passion with the chair sprang from a feeling that other eyes than Molloy’s were upon her. There were two doors in his teaching-room, one of which led to the landing, and the other, which had a glass transom over it, presumably to his private apartments; it was from this latter door that occasional rustlings and soft thumpings were heard while lessons were in progress. And one day, as Monica was leaving, she met a short, grey-haired woman on the landing, who gave her a gimlet look through a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles — a look which, from a stranger, was surprising indeed. As soon as the woman had disappeared into Molloy’s apartment a sound of voices raised in high and unamiable converse broke out, and was audible until Monica had gone down the stairs and into the street.


It was late in her first spring in London that Monica visited Lorne and Meg McCorkill in South Wimbledon. She never fully understood how they came to know of her existence, although they explained it at length; but as they both talked at once, the chain which led from a friend of theirs in Salterton, who knew a Thirteener who had obtained her address from Pastor Beamis, and who had (the Salterton friend, that is to say) mentioned it in a letter to — no, — no, not the McCorkills, but to another Saltertonian, now resident in London — who had passed it on to them: she had never fully understood it. But it was a beautiful spring day, when she had been wishing that George Medwall wrote better letters, less concerned with the inner politics of the Glue Works, that a letter arrived for her, written in an unknown hand, which addressed her thus —

Dear Monica,

You don’t know us, but mutual friends in Canada have told us about you, so Hi and all that stuff. Lorne and I have been over here in the Great Frost for over two years now, and we know just how tough it can be for a lonely Canuck. So why don’t you come out and have a real Canadian meal with us some night next week, Friday maybe? We are always home, so if Friday is no good, pick your own night. You can just get on the Underground at Earl’s Court and come right to the end of the line. Anybody will direct you from there. Better let us know by mail when you are coming because Gawd only knows what will happen if you try to phone in this country.

Be seeing you —


Beaver Lodge

Hubbard Road

Wimbledon, sw 20

Thus it was that a little after six on the following Friday evening Monica walked down Hubbard Road looking for Beaver Lodge. It was not hard to find, for on the gate was painted the name in rustic lettering which simulated sticks of wood, and at one of these a painted animal, not too hard to identify as a beaver, was gnawing. The woodwork of the semi-detached villa was bright with new paint, and a man on a ladder was dabbing delicately at a second-floor casement. He spied Monica as she came in the gate, and with a shout of “Hi!” he climbed down and hurried forward to greet her.

“Good to see you,” he roared; “certainly good to see you. Can’t shake hands — all over paint; just grab me by the wrist. Hey Meggsie! — I’m Lorne McCorkill; just call me Lorne. This is Meg. And where’s Diane? Hey, Diane!”

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