A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

It was Lantern which accounted for Revelstoke’s menagerie. The copy which he gave to Monica on her first visit mystified her com­pletely; it resisted her most earnest attempts to find out what it was all about. It was handsomely printed, and contained several articles which were manifestly very angry and scornful on a high level, and some photographs and caricatures. But everything in it seemed to presuppose a special body of knowledge in the reader, and to allude to this private preserve of indignation and disgust in a way which shut out the uninitiated. It was not for some time that she learned that Lantern really was a very special publication. It was devoted in a large part to criticism of critics — of literary critics, theatre critics, critics of painting, and music critics. These critics were, it appeared, without exception men of mean capacities and superficial knowledge; it was the task of Lantern to show them up. Of course, if you did not read the popular critics in the first place, Lantern meant nothing to you.

Revelstoke wrote about music himself, and was one-half of the editor-in-chief; the other half was a frail, gentle creature called Phanuel Tuke, who looked after the literary side. Tuke was not particularly indignant; his long suit was critical sensibility, and he was always discovering masterpieces which coarser critics had over­looked, or finding beauties in books which the rough fellows in the Sunday papers and middlebrow weeklies had condemned as tripe. It was widely believed in his circle that stupendous integrity was lodged in Tuke’s meagre frame, and that he was unquestionably the foremost wit of his day in London. His wit was of the sort which is called dry; indeed, it was so very dry that Monica could not detect any flavour in it at all, smack her lips as she might over some of his most valued remarks and apt rejoinders. But she was sure the fault was hers. Apart from the elusive quality of his wit, she liked Tuke, who was a decent little man and needed mothering, even by young virgins.

Tuke’s constant companion and defender was a plain, square Irish girl in her early thirties, called Bridget Tooley; she was always on the lookout for a chance to fight somebody for Tuke. She wrote, in some sense that was never clearly defined, and apparently her stuff was too good to be published very often. When Tuke was late with his material for Lantern it was always Miss Tooley who stumped up the stairs and broke the news. For no very good reason Revelstoke’s flat was the headquarters of the publication, to the great alarm of his landlady, Mrs Klein. She had come to England as a refugee, and had never accustomed herself to English law as it relates to lodgings and apartments; in consequence she was perpetually in dread that the police might descend upon her and charge her with permitting a business to be conducted on her premises, without having an appropriate licence. Poor soul, she could not comprehend how little like a business Lantern was, and so she appeared from time to time, like the wicked fairy in a ballet, and made pitiful scenes.

Nobody was particularly rude to Mrs Klein except Odo Odingsels, the photographer. He was a very tall, loose-jointed man of some northern European stock which was never identified; he had beauti­ful, liquid brown eyes, but his appearance was spoiled by his unusual dirtiness, and by a form of spotty baldness from which he suffered, and which made his head look as though it had been nibbled by rats. It was his unpleasant way to shout loudly at Mrs Klein in German, which made her cry. This was embarrassing, but it was widely admitted that Odingsels was a genius with a camera, and must be allowed his little ways.

These were the principal visitors to the flat in Tite Street — if the term visitor may be applied to someone who may come at any hour of day or night, and stay for anything up to ten hours at a stretch. It was not uncommon for Monica to have a lesson with Revelstoke while Tuke and Tooley whispered over a manuscript in a corner, and Odingsels ate fish out of the tin almost under her elbow. Pyewacket contended with her at every lesson for the master’s attention. But Revelstoke’s concentration was complete, and she learned to disregard external distractions while they were working. All external distractions, that is to say, except Miss Persis Kinwellmarshe.

“You got the wrong ideas about Old Perse,” Bun Eccles told her. “She’s just supplying something Old Giles needs; sheilas are his hobby. Never without a girl; can’t leave ’em alone. Now me, for instance, I like a squeeze and a squirt now and then, same as the next chap, just to make sure everything’s still attached to the main, but beer’s my real hobby. But Old Giles — he’s never had enough. And it’s the same with Perse; she likes it. But apart from that all there is between ’em is a sort of intellectual companionship, you might call it. Old Giles is a genius, you see, and that’s what Perse really wants. Her home, you see — well, her Dad’s an ex-admiral, wears a monocle, still wishes the Morning Post’d never folded up — and she’s in revolt against all that. Doesn’t want to be a lady in Tunbridge bloody Wells. Maybe she’s overdone it, but she’s a decent old cow, is Perse.”

“She doesn’t need to be so dirty about her appearance,” said Monica, thinking this was safe ground for criticism.

“Aw, now kid, she does; it’s revolt, see? And she’s one of the lucky ones that looks just as good dirty as clean. She’s a real stunner. I know. Anatomy. All that stuff. Perse is damn near perfect, but not poison perfect, you know, like those bloody great stone Greek sheilas in the Louvre. Have you looked seriously at her knees? Cor stone the crows, kid, that’s perfection!”

“Knees! I’m surprised that’s all you’ve seen.”

“Aw now, stow that, Monny. That’s small-town stuff. Sure I’ve seen all there is to see of Perse; she’s posed a bit, as well as her hobby. But good knees are very, very rare. And when you get past all that pommy lah-di-dah she’s a real nice girl.”

“I’ll bet!” said Monica. It was not irony on the level of Lantern, but it was heartfelt. “Next thing you’ll be telling me she has a heart of gold.”

“Well, so she has.”

“Bun, that girl’s a tramp, and you know it.”

“Aw now, Monny, that’s not like you. Perse is a wagtail, nobody denies it, but what’s that to you? You don’t have to be like her, if you don’t choose. But don’t come the Mrs Grundy around the Lantern; it’s the wrong place for it. I’ll get you another half-pint, to sweeten you up.”

Monica had taken to going to The Willing Horse every day with Bun Eccles, but she could never rid herself of a feeling of guilt. There she was in a pub — what would have been called a “beverage room” at home — drinking beer. By the standards of her upbringing she was on the highroad to harlotry, but no harm ever befell her, and Eccles seemed to look on her as a friend, and to ply her with half-pints for no reason other than that he liked her. She even reached the point of paying for drinks herself, as it seemed to be quite all right for girls to do so in Lantern circles. Amy had told her, “You don’t have to drink, dear, but never make a fuss about not drinking.” And here she was, drinking like a fish, by her reckoning — often two and three pints of beer in a day — and the admonitions of Ma Gall and the adjurations of Pastor Beamis grew fainter in memory.

It was interesting, however, that some of her mother’s saltier remarks kept intruding themselves into her mind, spoken in her mother’s own tones, especially in connection with Miss Kinwell­marshe. Monica had not realized that there was so much of her mother in her. The feeling which often plagued her that she was drifting away from her family in speech and outlook was com­plemented by the realization that some of the mental judgements she passed on the people around her were unquestionably her mother’s, and couched in her mother’s roughest idiom. It was frightening; sometimes it seemed like a form of possession. For what she wanted most was experience, that experience which is supposed to broaden and enrich the soul of the artist, and what could Mrs Gall conceivably have to do with that?

To her surprise, she quickly gained a place in the Lantern group, for she possessed accomplishments alien to them. She could work a typewriter, and produce fair copy even on the senile portable Corona which was all the magazine owned. None of the others could use more than two fingers, and Miss Tooley and Miss Kinwellmarshe always fought bitterly about which should undertake this degrading work. Tuke wrote illegibly in pencil; Revelstoke wrote an elegant Italian hand, but so small that it was a penance to read much of it. Monica’s professional speed seemed like magic to them. She could also keep books in an elementary fashion, and though Lantern had only one misleading petty cash book, she could come nearer to making it balance than anyone else. This was power, and Monica, who badly wanted to be indispensable to this glittering array of talent, was not slow to recognize it. She became more and more irregular in her visits to Madame Heber and Dr Schlesinger, for Tuke was happy to talk to her in French, and Odingsels and Mrs Klein provided her with plenty of practice in German. She could not elude Signor Sacchi, for she was a beginner in Italian, and she did not want to miss any of her lessons at Coram Square, where Molloy was working so hard to show himself the superior of Revelstoke. But there were days when Monica spent six and eight hours at a stretch in the flat in Tite Street typing, talking, accounting and learning. She became as familiar as Miss Kinwellmarshe with the small and disorderly kitchen; she lost her shame about going downstairs to the WC on the second floor landing (for Revelstoke’s bathroom consisted of tub and basin only and was, as a usual thing, full of imperfectly laundered and extremely wet garments belonging to himself and Persis Kinwellmarshe). She was useful, she was wanted, and if she had been able to banish her hot gusts of disapproval of Persis, she would have been completely happy.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson