A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Do you think Sir Benedict thinks about songs and poetry the way you do?”

“Sir Benedict dearly loves to play the role of the exquisitely dressed, debonair, frivolous man of the world. But he’s no fool. And he thinks you are no fool, too. He told me so. Here’s your cup of tea that I promised you.”

It was very nasty tea. Monica drank it reflectively. After a time, during which Revelstoke had stared intently at her, he said —

“What are you thinking about?”

“I was thinking that you’re not really simpatico.”

“I’ve no time for charm. Many people think me extremely un­pleasant, and I cultivate that, because it keeps fools at a distance.”

“Mr Molloy says you’re quite the genius.”

“Mr Molloy, in his limited way, is quite right. — Well, are you coming to me for lessons?”


“All right. Give me thirty shillings now, for your subscription to Lantern. Here’s a copy of the latest number. And next time you come here, have the politeness to ring the bell. It’ll spare your blushes.”


If Monica had been in danger from loneliness and boredom before, she would now have found herself in danger of being exhausted, had it not been that, as Sir Benedict had said, she was as strong as a horse. She thoroughly enjoyed the excitement. Molloy continued to take her association with Revelstoke as an intentional affront offered to his own powers as a teacher by Domdaniel, and he worked her very hard on exercises designed to develop those two characteristics of the voice which he called, in his old-fashioned nomenclature, “the florid and the pathetic”, and which Sir Benedict preferred to call “agility and legato”. He imparted his infallible method to her in a sort of pedagogic fury, nagged ceaselessly about the importance of breath and posture in the control of nervousness, and inquired searchingly about what she ate, and how much. In a veiled manner, he inquired about the regularity of her bowels. The poise of her head and the relaxation of her jaw become obsessions with him, and sometimes she woke in the night, startled to hear his voice shouting “Head forward and up — not backward and down — lead with your head!”

Revelstoke said very little to her about the production of her voice, and it did not take her long to discover that he knew little about it. “Let the ineffable Murtagh teach you the mechanics,” said he, “and I’ll take care of your style.” But he led her on to tell him what Molloy did and said at lessons, and she, finding that imitations of the Irishman amused him, could not resist the temptation to oblige, now and then, though she felt rather cheap afterward. Molloy was so truly kind, so unstinting in his efforts on her behalf, and yet — it was not easy to resist a young and clever man who wanted her to make sport of the older, exuberant one. She salved her conscience by telling it that she meant no real unkindness, and that everybody, including Sir Benedict, laughed at him.

With Revelstoke she toiled through a great amount of the literature of song, not studying it for the purpose of singing but, in his phrase, “getting the hang of it.” Nevertheless, this process was hard work, and involved excursions into poetry in English, German and French which taxed and expanded her knowledge of those languages.

She knew no Italian, and Revelstoke urged Sir Benedict to find a teacher for her. This added to her day’s work considerably, for Signor Sacchi was a zealot, yearning to get her into Dante at the first possible moment.

It was with English, however, that she had most trouble. Molloy, as good as his word, had moderated her Ontario accent to a point where she had occasional misgivings that her mother would consider her present speech “a lotta snottery”. But it would not do for Revelstoke. He condemned much in her new manner of speech as “suburban”, and insisted on a standard of purity of his own. Her former models, the actors at the Old Vic, he dismissed out of hand; their speech reeked, he said, of South London tennis clubs.

“English is not a language of quantities, like Latin,” he said, over and over again, “but a language of strong and weak stresses. A faulty stress destroys the meaning and flavour of a word, and distorts the quality of a line of verse. Without a just appreciation of the stresses in a line of verse, you cannot sing it — for singing is first, last and all the time a form of human eloquence, speech raised to the highest degree.”

His manner of teaching was confusing to Monica’s straightforward intelligence, for she never knew when he was joking. She had been accustomed in her schooldays to teachers whose jokes were infre­quent, and clearly labelled. But after a few weeks she learned to identify certain tones of voice which signified irony, and even to enjoy it, though hers was by no means an ironical cast of mind. It was the variety and apparent depth of his knowledge which principally amazed her, and she never became accustomed to his ability to quote from the Bible, though it was obvious that one who lived so evil a life (Miss Kinwellmarshe’s garments were forever turning up in unfore­seen places) must be an unbeliever.

One day, after he had talked to her for half an hour about Schubert’s settings of poems by Miiller, and of the ability of a poet of very modest achievement to inspire a musical genius of the first order, she ventured to thank him, and to say that it was wonderfully educational. He understood that the clumsiness and seeming patron­age of the phrase concealed a genuine humility of feeling, but he uttered a warning which lodged itself in her mind.

“I know what you mean,” said he, “but I wish you wouldn’t use words like ‘educational’, which have grown sour from being so much in the wrong people’s mouths. What we are doing isn’t really educational. It’s enlightening, I suppose, and its purpose is to nurture the spirit. If formal education has any bearing on the arts at all, its purpose is to make critics, not artists. Its usual effect is to cage the spirit in other people’s ideas — the ideas of poets and philosophers, which were once splendid insights into the nature of life, but which people who have no insights of their own have hardened into dogmas. It is the spirit we must work with, and not the mind as such. For ‘the spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’.”

Thus, rather quickly, all things considered, Revelstoke persuaded Monica to give up her determination to learn like a parrot, and to imitate her masters without really understanding what they did, and brought her to a point where she could feel a little, and understand, respect and cherish her own feeling.


“Old Giles is one of the best; it’s a treat to know him — but it’s his bloody menagerie that kills.” Thus spoke Bun Eccles to Monica a few weeks after her lessons with Revelstoke began, as they were having a drink in the saloon bar of The Willing Horse. Monica agreed heartily.

In fairness she had to admit in her own mind that Eccles himself was a prominent and disturbing element in Revelstoke’s menagerie. John Macarthur Eccles was the young man whom she had met coming down Revelstoke’s stairs the first day she visited him; he was an Australian painter, always called Bun, which was an abbreviation of Bunyip. Very early in their acquaintance Monica asked him indig­nantly why he had urged her to go up without warning, knowing what he knew. His answer was characteristic: “Well, kid, I’d just dropped in on ’em and they were as mad as snakes, and I wanted to find out what you’d all do.”

Bun was grandiloquently called the Art Editor of Lantern. He did woodcuts and ornamental spots for the magazine, and was supposed to take care of its typography, but as he understood little of this craft, and rarely knew what day of the week it was, the work was usually done by the printer. Lantern was printed by a very good firm, Raikes Brothers, because a nephew of the senior Mr Raikes was interested in it, and sometimes had his satirical verses printed in it. Raikes Brothers also looked after the mailing of copies to subscribers, because nobody else connected with the magazine had a complete list of those fortunate creatures, though there was a shoe box somewhere with index cards in it, upon which Miss Kinwellmarshe had written the names and addresses of some of them. Lantern was without a busi­ness manager, although it had an impressive list of editors and contributors. It also lacked any facilities for dealing with possible advertisers, though two or three extremely persistent publishers and musical firms had sought out some responsible person at Raikes Brothers, and positively insisted on buying advertising space.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson