A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Do books give shape and focus to your life?”

“Why certainly. Don’t they yours?”

“No. You must be a very literary sort of person.”

“I wouldn’t say that. But you have to see and feel life in terms of something. Think; what makes you tick? What shapes your life?”

“Music, I suppose.”

“Well, there you are.”

“But not quite the way you mean. I hear music all the time. I’ve always done so, even though I’ve tried very hard not to.”

“Why did you do that?”

“When I was very small I once told my mother about it, and she said I must break myself of the habit, or it would drive me crazy. So I tried, but I didn’t succeed. The music is always at the back of my mind. It’s not particularly original, but on the other hand it isn’t anybody else’s. It’s just that I feel in terms of music. And when I can be quiet enough to get at what’s going on in my mind, the music is what gives me a clue.”

“Have you ever tried to write it down?”

“Oh no. And I don’t want to try. I’m not a composer. It’s just that music is a part of my way of feeling things. I only realized that a few months ago. And do you know that when I finally discovered that my mind worked that way, it set me free from that fear of going mad. And until I was free of the fear, I hadn’t really admitted to myself that it was there. But for years I had been listening to my inner music guiltily. It was like — oh, like being let out of a jail! You’re the only person I’ve ever told about that.”

“I’m glad you told me, and I’ll keep it to myself. Look at that view! Now I’m appreciating it in literary terms, and you’re interpreting it in some kind of inner music which is incomprehensible to me. So I ask you again: what does it mean to the people who live here? By what means do they interpret it to themselves?”

“Do you know, I’ve just had the most extraordinary experience? Look at these hedges; do you know what they are?”

“Of course I do; they’re holly.”

“Yes, but — I’ve never seen holly before. Oh, I’ve seen a few sprigs, imported to Canada for decoration, and I’ve seen imitation holly. But this is the real thing — miles and miles of it — just growing beside the roads as a hedge. All my life I’ve associated holly with Christmas, but I never really knew till this minute why. I never understood that it was something real. I’ve seen it on paper wrapping, and in pictures, and I never knew why it went with Christmas, except that it was pretty. But here it is, in December, green leaves and red berries and all! It’s like suddenly getting a mysterious piece of a jigsaw puzzle to fit into place.”

Ripon solemnly removed his hat. “This is a sacred moment,” said he. “Sacred to me, anyhow, as a student of literature. You have just made the great discovery that behind every symbol there is a reality. For years you have accepted holly as a symbol of Christmas, unquestioningly, like a true Anglo-Saxon believer. And now, in a flash, you know why it is so. It is because, in this land which gave you your Christmas, holly is at its finest at this time of year. Perhaps we should cause a carved stone to be erected on this spot, to identify forever the place at which, for one human being out of the whole confused race, a symbol became a reality.”

They were standing in the lane which traversed Cwm Bau, and at this moment Ceinwen rounded the corner, leading an aged donkey, across whose back two large willow-work panniers were fixed.

“We’ve been admiring the holly, as only North Americans can,” said Ripon.

“Good,” said Ceinwen; “then you can come with me and gather a lot of it. I thought I might catch you, so I brought plenty of gloves and two broom-hooks. I know where we can get mistletoe, too.”

It was idyllic to gather holly and mistletoe with Ceinwen, to take it back to Neuadd Goch and hang it in festoons on the staircase, to put sprigs of mistletoe in places where, Griffith Hopkin-Griffiths assured them, mistletoe had been hung for as long as anyone could remember.

Neuadd Goch was not an uncommonly old house, though it stood where two very old houses had preceded it. The older, which had been built before the Welsh Tudors had sought their fortune in England, had been supplanted by a Jacobean house which, after a fire in the first decade of the nineteenth century, had been replaced by the present building. It was not the sort of house which attracts the attention of connoisseurs, for it had no special architectural distinc­tion; but it was wonderfully pleasing and comfortable. Its park and its gardens were pretty, but not remarkable. It was not large enough to be a mansion, but it was quite large enough to hold its owners, their servants, and ten or twelve guests without crowding. It was fully and admirably what its name said — it was the Red Hall at Llanavon, modestly appropriate.

Whether it took its character from its owners, or whether they became like it, nobody could say. Mr Hopkin-Griffiths certainly was as red as his own house. His face was brick red, round, and wore a look of surprise allied to firmness; his hair was of a red which had faded from its original foxy shade to a browner tone. His hands were red and covered at the joints with red hair. As with so many of his race, a few red hairs grew capriciously out of the tip of his nose. He gave an impression of bluntness in his speech and manner, but those who knew him were not deceived; he came of a family which had foreseen the time for getting out of goats and going into sheep, in the fifteenth century; had dropped sheep for cattle in the eighteenth; and had added timber to cattle in the nineteenth. His neighbours respected Mr Griffith Hopkin-Griffiths as a smooth man.

Dolly, his wife, was a charming, walking monument to her own beauty as it had been thirty years ago; she had not changed her way of dressing her hair, and though she had yielded a little in matters of clothing she still looked more like the ‘twenties than the ‘fifties. She even made up according to the methods she had perfected in her youth, and it was a credit to the good qualities of her face that the effect was not grotesque. Seen at a distance, by a short-sighted man, she was a pretty, frivolous ghost from the period immediately follow­ing the First World War; seen closer, there was about her the pathos of the woman who has not quite grown as old as her years, either in body or mind.

She came upon them as they were hanging the last of the Christmas greens.

“Mistletoe!” she cried. “Oh, what fun! You’ll be absolutely worn out with gallantry, Mr Ripon. Oh, I do so hope Gilly can come. Don’t you, Ceinwen? Yes, I’m sure you do! It’ll be no sort of Christmas without at least two young men.”

Monica and Ripon were by now very familiar with this hope that Gilly, her son, would be able to get away from his work in London to join them at Christmas. By many broad hints Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths implied that Ceinwen must be especially anxious for his presence; Monica and Ripon were happy enough to fall in with this notion on the part of their hostess. The young are usually, out of sheer good nature, ready to indulge the sometimes clumsy romantic ideas of their elders.

If it was idyllic to hang the Christmas greens, it was Dickensian to drive the twelve miles to Trallwm and buy Christmas gifts. The rule at Neuadd Goch was that gifts exchanged among guests and family must not cost more than a shilling. It was on Christmas Eve that they made the journey, Monica, Ripon and Ceinwen in the Squire’s serviceable Humber.

“The sheer bliss of this robs me of speech,” said Ripon. “Here we go, on Christmas Eve — get that, Christmas Eve — to buy Christmas presents. If I were at home, I would have finished my Christmas shopping a full two weeks ago; I would have wrapped everything in elaborate paper, and tied it with expensive plastic twine. I would approach the great festal day prepared for everything but a good time. But here I go, prepared to squander ten shillings at the utmost on the very eve of the day of giving; for the first time in my life I have got Christmas into focus. Tomorrow I shall worship, I shall feast and, quite incidentally, I shall give and receive. And that’s how it ought to be. It’s Dickensian. It’s Washington Irving-like. It’s the way Christmas ought to be.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson