A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

He sat down at the grand piano, and sang with great expression, to the tune of the popular ballad Homing —

All things get drunk at eventide;

The birds go pickled to their snoozing;

Heaven’s creatures share a mighty thirst —

Boozing — Bo-o-o-zing.

“Humphrey, stop it!” said Veronica. “If you must do something, will you get me a drink? I’m completely done up.”

Cobbler got them all drinks, and while Solly and Veronica sat by the fire, trying to forget the trials and miseries of the past few days, he played Bach choral preludes on the old piano, to heal their wounded spirits.


Mr Snelgrove completed the reading of Mrs Bridgetower’s will the following afternoon, just as the library clock struck four. He had enjoyed himself. Modern custom did not often require him to read a will and he felt that there was something splendidly professional and lawyer-like about doing so. When a testator is dead he is in the hands of God; certainly this was the belief of Mr Snelgrove who was, among other dignified things, chancellor of the diocese of which St Nicholas’ was the Cathedral; but the testator’s affairs on earth remain in the hands of his lawyer. There is drama in such a position, and Mr Snelgrove greatly relished it. He blew his nose and removed his pince-nez in order to rub his old eyes.

The setting in which Mrs Bridgetower’s will had been read was eyerything that the legal ham Mr Snelgrove could have wished. Outside the windows a light snow was falling from a leaden, darken­ing sky. Inside the library a wood fire burned, its light being reflected in the leaded glass of the old-fashioned book-jails which lined the walls. The room was comfortable, dark, stuffy and rather depressing. It was Christmas Eve.

His listeners looked suitably grave and impressed. Dean Knapp, sunk in a leather armchair, stroked his brow reflectively, like a man who cannot believe that he has heard aright. Miss Puss Pottinger sat bolt upright on an armless chair, refusing to yield to the splitting headache which seemed to possess her whole small being; from time to time her gorge rose sourly and searingly within her, but she was a soldier’s daughter, and she forcibly gulped it down again. The fumes from Solly’s pipe were a great trial to her. He was perched on the arm of a large chair in which Veronica was sitting. It was Solly who was first to speak.

“I think I’ve got the drift of the will, but I’m not quite sure,” said he. “Could you let us have the meaning of it in simple language?”

Mr Snelgrove was happy to do so. Interpreting legal scripture to laymen was the part of his profession which he liked best.

“Shorn of technicality,” said he, “the meaning of the will is this: all of your late mother’s estate is left in trust to her executors — you, her son, Solomon Bridgetower — you, Laura Pottinger, spinster — you, Jevon Knapp, as Dean of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. That estate, as outlined here, consists of this house and its contents and considerable hold­ings in investments. You, Solomon Bridgetower, are to continue to occupy the house, which has always been your home, but it is the property of the trust, and you may not dispose of it. But the income from the estate is to be devoted to the educational project which your late mother has outlined.”

“You mean, I don’t get any money?” said Solly.

“You get a legacy of one hundred dollars,” said the lawyer.

“Yes, but I mean — the investments, and the money that brought in my Mother’s own income, and all that — I don’t quite follow –?”

“That money is all to be devoted to the education, or training, of some young woman resident in this city of Salterton, who is desirous of following a career in the arts. The young woman is to be chosen by you, the trustees. She must be not more than twenty-one at the time she is chosen, and you are to be responsible for her maintenance and training, in the best circumstances you can devise, until she reaches the age of twenty-five. She is to be maintained abroad in order, as your mother says, that she may bring back to Canada some of the intangible treasures of European tradition. That phrase, of course, rules out any possibility of her being trained in the States. And when she is twenty-five, you are to choose another beneficiary of the trust. And so on, unless the conditions under which the trust exists are terminated.”

“And I get nothing except a hundred dollars and the right to live in the house?”

“You get nothing, unless the condition is fulfilled which brings the trust to an end. If, and when, that condition is fulfilled and you are still living in this house, you receive a life interest in your mother’s estate. Bequests are made to the two servants, Ethel Colman and Doris Black, which will be payable when the condition is fulfilled. Laura Pottinger receives a bequest of the testator’s collection of Rockingham china. The Cathedral Church of St Nicholas will receive all of the testator’s holdings in certain telephone and transportation stocks.

“There is a condition attaching to this latter bequest. Until the Cathedral gets the telephone stock, the Dean is to preach, every St Nicholas’ Day, a special sermon on some matter relating to edu­cation, and these sermons are to be known as the Louisa Hansen Bridgetower Memorial Sermons. If there is any failure in this respect, the bequest is forfeit.”

Solly still looked puzzled. “And all of this hangs –?”

“It all hangs on your having a son, Mr Bridgetower. When and if, you and your wife, Pearl Veronica, nee Vambrace, produce male issue, who is duly christened Solomon Hansen Bridgetower, he becomes heir of all his grandmother’s estate save for the bequests I have mentioned. But you are to have a life interest in the estate, so that he will not actually come into possession of his inheritance until after your death.”

“And if we have a child and it is a girl?”

“The trust will remain.”

“But it’s fantastic.”

“Somewhat unusual, certainly.”

“When was this will made?”

“I read you the date. Your mother made this will less than three months ago.”

“It puts my wife and me in a pretty position, doesn’t it?”

“It does not put anyone in an enviable position, Solomon,” said Mr Snelgrove. “Did you not notice what it does to me? I am not an executor, though as an old and, I believed, valued friend of your Mother’s, I might have expected that confidence; I am named solely as solicitor to the executors — a paid position. And the condition is made that if I have not settled all your Mother’s affairs within one year from the day of her death, the estate is to be taken out of my hands and confided to Gordon Balmer — a solicitor for whom your Mother knew that I had a strong disapproval. You did not perhaps notice her comment that she thought that my ‘natural cupidity’ would make me hurry the business through. ‘Natural cupidity’ is a legal expres­sion which she picked up from me and has turned against me. Your Mother has given us all a flick of her whip.”

“These memorial sermons,” said the Dean; “they are to be preached until the Cathedral inherits? But what if the Cathedral never inherits? What if there is no son? I know many families — large families — which consist solely of daughters.”

“It will be many years before anything can be done to meet that situation, Mr Dean,” said Snelgrove. “Meanwhile the sermons must be delivered, in hope and expectation. Any failure could cost the Cathedral a considerable sum.”

The Dean wrestled within himself for a moment before he spoke. “Could you give me any idea how much?” he said at last.

“It would run between seven and ten thousand a year, I think,” said Snelgrove. All the executors opened their eyes at the mention of this sum.

“Then Mother was very rich?” asked Solly. “I never knew, you know; she never spoke of such things. I had understood she was just getting by.”

“There are degrees in wealth,” said Mr Snelgrove. “Your Mother would not seem wealthy in some circles. But she was comfortable — very comfortable. She inherited substantially from her own family, you know, and there was rather more in your father’s estate than might have been expected from a professor of geology. He had very good mining contacts, at a time when mines were doing well. And your mother was a lifelong, shrewd investor.”

“She was?” said Solly. “I never knew anything about it.”

“Oh yes,” said Snelgrove. “I don’t suppose there was anyone in Salterton who followed the Montreal and Toronto markets so closely, or so long, or so successfully, as your mother. A remarkable woman.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson