A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

She coughed. Nothing happened. She coughed again, and walked about heavily, making a noise with her feet and feeling a fool. Should she go downstairs again, and ring the bell?

No; she would play the piano. She seated herself and played what came first into her head, which was her one-time favourite, Danse Macabre. The cat roused itself, yawned at her, and slept again.

She had played for perhaps three minutes, when a voice said very loudly behind her, “Stop that bloody row!” She turned, and standing in the doorway was a man. He was utterly naked.

Nothing in Monica’s previous experience had prepared her for such a spectacle, and it was the most shocking sight, within the bounds of nature, that could have confronted her. The Thirteeners, and everybody else with whom she had ever been intimately ac­quainted, thought very poorly of nakedness. Courtships, even when carried to lengths which resulted in hasty and muted weddings, were always conducted fully dressed. The intimacies of married life were negotiated in the dark, under blankets. Shame about nakedness was immensely valued, as a guarantee of high character. It is true that, when in Paris, Monica had been taken to the Louvre several times by Amy Neilson, and she had learned to look at naked statuary — even the Hermaphrodite — without betraying the discomfort she felt in the presence of those stony, bare monsters; but that was art and idealized form — no preparation for what she now saw — a naked man, not especially graced with beauty, coloured in shades which ranged between pink and whitey-drab, patchily hairy, and obviously very much alive.

He was smiling, which made it all worse. He seemed quite at his ease; it was she — she who was in the right, she the clothed, she the outraged one, who was overset. Monica had never fainted in her life, but she felt a lightness in her head now, an inability to get her breath, which might well rob her of consciousness.

“You’re the Canadian Nightingale, I suppose,” said he. “I forgot you were coming. Hold on a jiffy, while I get some clothes. But don’t play that trash any more.”

And a jiffy it was, for he was back again almost at once, wearing flannel trousers, and with his bare feet thrust into worn slippers, buttoning his shirt; he went behind the piano, picked up a bundle of woman’s garments and threw them through the door into the next room, shouting, “Come on, Persis, you lazy cow, get up and make us some tea.” The reply, which came through the door in a rich and well-bred contralto, was brief, and couched in words which Monica had never heard spoken in a woman’s voice before. “Shut up,” replied Revelstoke, “can’t you behave yourself when we have company — a distinguished guest from the Premier Dominion, our mighty ally in peace and war? Be a good girl and get some tea, and we shall have music to restore our souls.”

He took the cat in his arms and stroked it, as he turned again to Monica. “You mustn’t mind a degree of informality here which you haven’t met in the elegant environs of Sir Benedict Domdaniel. Brummagem Benny, as we sometimes call him in the musical world — without a hint of malice, mind you — likes to do himself very well. And properly so. He must keep up a position commensurate with his great and well-deserved reputation. But I, you see, am a very different sort of creature. You are now in the editorial offices of Lantern, undoubted­ly the most advanced and unpopular critical journal being published in English today. The significance of the name will not escape you. Lantern — it is the lantern of Diogenes, searching for the honest, the true and the good, and it is similarly the lantern, or lamp-post, referred to in the good old Revolutionary cry “A la lanterne!” — because from this Lantern we suspend the hacked corpses of those whom we are compelled to judge harshly; you will not miss, either, the allusion to that Lantern Land which Master Francis Rabelais describes in his Pantagruel (with which I presume that you are amply acquainted) and which was the habitation of pedants and cheats in all branches of the arts; we allude to it slyly in our title by a species of gnomic homophony which will at once be apparent to you. This is a work­room, and workrooms are apt to be untidy. This will soon be your workroom, too, if we get on as well as I hope we shall. You had better meet my friend, Pyewacket, a delightful but musically uncritical cat.”

He was interrupted by the entry, from the bedroom, of a tall girl of twenty-three or four, wearing a not very fresh slip and nothing else; her long dark hair was hanging down her back and she had the tumbled look of one who has risen from bed.

“Match,” said she to Revelstoke. He found one on the table and gave it to her.

“Allow me to introduce Miss Persis Kinwellmarshe, daughter of Admiral Sir Percy Kinwellmarshe, retired, now of Tunbridge Wells. Miss Kinwellmarshe is one of my principal editorial assistants. We have been engaged in a type of editorial conference known as scrouperizing. You do know Rabelais? No? Pity!”

Monica disliked Miss Kinwellmarshe on sight. She had Bad Girl written all over her, and in addition she was extremely handsome, with a finely formed nose, through the crimson-shadowed nostrils of which she now seemed to be looking at Monica.

“It’s a pleasure to meet any acquaintance of Mr Revelstoke’s,” said she.

Monica knew when she was being mocked, but Amy’s prime injunction — “You can never go wrong by being simple, dear” — came to her rescue. So she bowed her head slightly toward Miss Kinwell­marshe, and said “How do you do?”

Miss Kinwellmarshe, taking the match, turned and went to the kitchen. She’s got a butt-end on her like a bumble-bee, said the voice of Ma Gall, very clearly, inside Monica’s head, — so clearly that Monica started.

“Now, let’s do some work,” said Revelstoke, who appeared to have enjoyed this encounter. “You’ve been with the ineffable Molloy for a while, Sir Benny tells me. An admirable coach, with a splendid, policeman-like attitude toward the art of song. Sing me a few of the things he’s taught you.”

Unlike Molloy, he made no move to accompany her, so Monica sat at the piano and sang half-a-dozen English folksongs. She could not have explained why it was so, but the knowledge that Miss Kinwellmarshe was within earshot had a tonic effect on her, and she sang them well.

“The accompaniments are charming, aren’t they?” said Revelstoke. “Cecil Sharp had a delightful small talent for such work. But of course folksongs are not meant to be accompanied. Just sing me Searching for Lambs without all that agreeable atmospheric deedle-deedle.”

So Monica sang the song again. If he thinks I’ve never sung this without accompaniment he certainly doesn’t know Murtagh Molloy, she thought.

“Not bad. You have a true ear, and a nice sense of rhythm. — Ah, here is dear Miss Kinwellmarshe with the tea. I won’t ask you to take a cup, Miss — I forget for the moment — yes, of course, Miss Gall, but you shall have one when you’ve finished singing. Now, Brum Benny tells me you have a special line in Victorian drawing-room ballads — such a novelty, and so original of you to have worked it up in a time when that kind of music is so undeservedly neglected. I understand that Tosti’s Good-Bye! is one of your specialties. I can hardly wait. Will you sing it now, please. You won’t mind if we have tea as you do so? The perfect accompaniment for the song, don’t you think?”

Miss Kinwellmarshe had laid herself out voluptuously on the work table, pillowing her head on a pile of manuscript and permitting her long and beautifully wavy hair to hang over the edge; the splendour of her figure in this position was somewhat marred by the dirtiness of the soles of her feet, but it was clear that she aimed at large effects, and scorned trifles.

“I haven’t sung that song for several months,” said Monica. Indeed, she had learned to be thoroughly ashamed of Tosti under the rough but kindly guidance of Molloy. How could Sir Benedict have men­tioned it! These English! Sly, sneaky, mocking! You never knew when you had them.

“But after we have put a favourite work aside for a time, we often find that we have unconsciously arrived at a new understanding of it,” said Revelstoke, and he was smiling like a demon.

“I’d really rather not,” said Monica.

“But I wish it. And I dislike having to remind you that if I am to teach you anything, you must do as I wish.” His smile was now from the teeth only.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86

Categories: Davies, Robertson