A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies


The Bridgetower Trustees had little, in these days, to draw them together, and their meetings were infrequent. After the June meeting in which they received the melancholy news that they would have to spend more on Monica, they did not meet again until the 21st of December, the second anniversary of the death of Louisa Hansen Bridgetower. There was not much for them to do except to hear Mr Snelgrove read two letters, of which the first was from the London solicitors, presenting their account of disbursements and expressing the hope, in a joyless, legal kind of way, that they were spending enough money. The other, and as usual the more interesting, letter was from Sir Benedict, and read thus:

Your protégée has been faring much better since her return from Paris where, as I expected, Miss Amy Neilson was able to do a great deal for her. She learns readily and is sensitive to atmosphere, and she now comports herself in a way which will smooth her path in the secondary, but important, social side of a singer’s career.

In addition to her work with Mr Molloy, and her languages (to which Italian has been added) I am sending her to Giles Revelstoke for coaching in the literature of song, and some of the general musical culture which she so badly needs. You may be familiar with some of his work; he is, in my opinion, one of the most promising composers to appear in England for many a decade, and is especially gifted as a song-writer in a period when the real lyric gift is extremely rare. He speaks well of her progress.

You will be interested to know that I have taken upon myself to bring Monica to the attention of Lady Phoebe Elphinstone, who does a great deal of admirable work in introducing Commonwealth and American students to English families with whom they spend holiday periods which might other­wise find them at a loose end. Lady Phoebe has arranged that Monica shall spend the Christmas vacation period with a Mr and Mrs Griffith Hopkin-Griffiths of Neuadd Goch, Lianavon, Montgomeryshire. They are delightful people (Lady Phoebe assures me) and a taste of country-house life will be a pleasant experience for Monica, with whose character and talents I am increasingly impressed, and quite in line with the desires expressed for her by her late patroness, Mrs L. H. Bridgetower.

“Well!” said Miss Pottinger. “Country-house life! I only hope she has the gumption to take an appropriate house-gift. Should we cable her about it, I wonder?”

“I had gained the impression that there was no country-house life left,” said Dean Knapp; “but then, in Wales probably things are on a much humbler scale.”

“That is really all we have to consider,” said Mr Snelgrove, “except expenditure. In spite of what Jodrell and Stanhope have been able to do, the money keeps piling up at the bank. It is unlikely that there will be any official questioning of our handling of funds, at least for some time, but we must bear in mind that we can be called upon for an accounting by the Public Trustee at his discretion.”

When the meeting was over, Veronica served the Trustees with coffee and Christmas cake, using the fine Rockingham service which Auntie Puss regarded as her own.

“And how have you been keeping, Veronica?” said that lady, eyeing her speculatively.

“Very well, thank you, Miss Pottinger,” said Veronica, but she wore a look of strain which was becoming habitual. Nearly two years had passed since the reading of Mrs Bridgetower’s will, and so far there was no sign that she might have a child, and retrieve the Bridgetower money for her husband.


It was on the 21st of December that Monica set out from Paddington, travelled to Shrewsbury, changed her train and crossed the border of Wales to Trallwm, and there took a local to Llanavon. She had in her luggage a suitable house-gift (a large and expensive — but not embar­rassing — box of candied fruits of appropriately Christmas-like appear­ance) so Miss Pottinger need not have feared for her on that score. But she carried in her heart misgivings about country-house life which were all that Miss Pottinger could possibly have desired. Everything that she had ever read, or seen in the movies, or heard, about the county gentry of Great Britain came back to her: would she have to hunt foxes? would she be despised because she could not ride a horse? what about the inevitable awesome butler? what about the equally inevitable heiress of broad acres, a picture of British hauteur and beauty (Miss Kinwellmarshe was cast mentally for this role) who would make her feel like a crumb, while being exquisitely but coldly polite all the time? Lady Phoebe Elphinstone had been perfectly wonderful and not a bit awesome, on the one occasion when Monica had met her, and Lady Phoebe’s secretary, Miss Catriona Eigg of Uist, had been helpful and kind in every possible way, even to suggesting the box of fruits, but neither of these benign presences was on the train with her as she moved, at the deliberate pace of Welsh trains, from Shrewsbury to Trallwm.

There was, however, a man in the same carriage whom she had seen get on the train at Oxford, and who had, like herself, changed at Shrewsbury. A young man, apparently English from his clothes and his easy way with porters; a shortish, plumpish young man with a high colour (incipient broken veins in the cheeks?) and short dark hair very neatly brushed. As well as a large valise he carried a briefcase crammed with books, which he kept close to him on the seat as though its presence were a comfort. In his hand he had an orange-bound pamphlet, which he read with great concentration, moving his lips as he did so, and occasionally making phlegmy noises, apparently clearing his throat. But.the farther they travelled from Shrewsbury the greater his excitement became, and the less he worked over his book; at times he hung right out of the window, and gaped at the landscape. As a castle became fleetingly visible, nesting among trees, she thought he muttered “Peacock”. When the train drew up at a tiny station labelled Buttington he threw open the door and said in an awed voice, under his breath The Battle of Buttingtune, 893″, and stared in all directions at small holdings and distant hills until the guard locked him in again. He sank back on the seat, and stared at Monica with unseeing eyes. “An old and haughty nation, proud in arms,” he whispered, and then repeated it, with greater emphasis. When the train drew up at Trallwm he hastily consulted his yellow pamphlet, leaned well out of the window, and fixed a porter with his eye.

“Arrgh!” he cried, in accents of despair. “Arrgh!” — but no further utterance came.

“Yessir? What can I do for you, sir?” said the porter, and the young man fell back upon the seat, deflated.

Monica, with the inflexible determination of women travelling, snatched the porter for herself, and had her luggage transferred to the local for the coast which would take her to Llanavon. She took good care to get into a carriage far from the afflicted young man.

But when, half an hour later, she dismounted at Llanavon station, he did so too, and when a girl of about Monica’s own age approached them and said “For Neuadd Goch?” it was he who said, “Yes, thanks, I’m John Scott Ripon.”

Monica had never heard the name of her destination pronounced by a Welsh tongue. Lady Phoebe and Miss Eigg of Uist had tended to hurry over it and avoid it.

“Miss Gall?” said the girl. “I’m Ceinwen Griffiths; you’re going to my uncle’s, aren’t you? I’ve brought the trap, because it’s a fairly clear day, and I thought you might like to ride that way. Mr Lloyd’ll take care of your luggage, and somebody’ll bring it up in an hour or so.”

She led the way to a pretty governess-cart, drawn by a pony. Monica had never seen such a thing before, and Ripon was delighted with it. He couldn’t, he said, have possibly hoped for anything better.

Introductions left Monica somewhat flattened. John Scott Ripon, it appeared, was not English, but an American Rhodes scholar, and he seemed to get on very easy terms with Miss Ceinwen Griffiths in a matter of minutes. She was a girl who, without being pretty, was uncommonly attractive, for she had a soft and winning air, beautiful legs, and quite the loveliest speaking voice that Monica had ever heard; everything that she said was so beautifully articulated, and so charmingly stressed, that it was a kind of music. This was not the habitual downhill tune of English speech, or the tangle of stressed and unstressed syllables upon which Revelstoke insisted, but a form of speech-play — a delight in sound and words for their own sake. It was fascinating, and it struck Monica mute. But not Ripon.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson