A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Johnny, you’ve got a really bad case.”

“It’s not anything that can be described as a case. Here she is, being sacrificed to ideas which don’t really come into her climate of thought and feeling at all; she’s in the wrong book. The thing is, can I get her into the right book?”

“Johnny, I want to go to sleep. And if anybody hears you talking at the top of your voice in my room, you won’t get Ceinwen into any book at all. You go to bed now.”

Monica leapt out of bed and fetched a small parcel from her chest of drawers.

“Just so you won’t think I’m unsympathetic, here’s your Christmas present now. Don’t open it until morning. It’s something that will be useful to you in getting Ceinwen back into the right book.”

She pushed him out of the door, bearing her gift, which was, of course, another copy of Welsh in a Week.

Rid of Ripon, she was able to attend to her own affairs, and her first act was to fetch the lamp, and set it on the floor beside the full-length mirror which formed part of the front of the large wardrobe. Then, chilly as it was, she took off her nightdress and studied herself in the mirror with satisfaction.

By the laws of literature which meant so much to Ripon, her first experience of sex should have been painful, dispiriting and frighten­ing. But it had been none of these things. She had been too confused and surprised to take great heed of the physical side of the encounter; it had all been so strange — the nearness, the intimacy of the posture, the inevitable and natural quality of the act itself; though new to her, it did not seem utterly unaccustomed, but rather like something dimly but pleasurably remembered from the past — and this in itself was strange. What had moved her more than these things were the endearments which Revelstoke had whispered, and the kindness and gentleness with which he had carried out his purpose. Nobody had ever spoken to her in such a fashion before. She had been kissed once or twice in a very tentative way, but that was nothing; this had touched the tender places of her spirit, caressed and stirred them, bringing her a fresh consciousness of life. And again this was not utterly strange, but like the resumption of something once cherished, and lost for a time.

She should feel evil, depraved — she knew it. But, miraculously, at this moment when she should have stood in awe of her mother, and Pastor Beamis and the whole moral code of the Thirteeners, she felt, on the contrary, free of them, above and beyond them as though reunited with something which they sought to deny her. She knew something which they could never have known, or they would not have talked as they did. If Ripon had known about it, he would have said that she had moved into a new climate of feeling.

Gazing at her naked body in the mirror she stretched, and preened, and looked at herself with an intent and burning gaze. She was, by the standards of her upbringing, a ruined girl, and she had never looked better or felt happier in her life.

She slipped again into the nightdress, blew out the lamp and jumped into bed. Almost at once she was asleep. But not before a new and warming Christmas satisfaction rose from the deeps of her mind: What a smack in the eye for Persis Kinwellmarshe!


Did the morrow bring remorse? It did not. When Monica ran into the dining-room the squire told her that she looked fit as a fiddle, and gave her a smacking Christmas kiss. Ripon followed his example; he was a literary kisser and presumably his salute had some inner significance which was not to be apprehended by the unlettered. When Ceinwen entered a moment later, and was kissed by her uncle, Ripon did not have quite the courage to go on, and shook her warmly by the hand. But Monica had still to be kissed by Revelstoke, and he saluted her in a friendly fashion which could not have aroused suspicion in the most observant mother; it was precisely the sort of kiss, which, a moment later, he gave Ceinwen. Monica was inwardly amused; nobody knew what she knew!

“Gilly, there’s the most awful thing happened,” said Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths to her son. “Mr Mathias has sent up a message that Mr Gwatkin is too ill to play at the service this morning. Rheumatism, poor old thing — real arthritis; he hasn’t really been able to do any­thing with the pedals for years, and now it’s in his hands so badly he simply can’t manage. Will you be a dear and play for Morning Prayer?”

“But mother, I’m not an organist.”

“But dear, you’ll be quite good enough. Everybody knows you can play anything. Why, when you were just a lad, I remember how you did wonders with a coach-horn after only an hour or two. It’s a very small organ.”

“I know, and it’s a very out-of-tune organ too, I’m sure. I’d rather not.”

“Now dear, don’t be disappointing. Mr Mathias is counting on you.”

“But I don’t know what music he wants, or anything.”

“We always have very simple services. You’re sure to be able to manage. And think what a thrill it will be for everybody! They all know your things have been broadcast; they’ll think it wonderful, whatever you do.”

“I know, that’s what’s so embarrassing. I don’t want to impose on their ignorance; it’s immoral.”

“Oh Gilly, what nonsense! Very well then, don’t play. I’ve promised Mr Mathias you will, but I suppose I must just swallow my pride and go to him before service and say you won’t. It’s humiliating, but of course I wouldn’t ask you to put yourself out.”

The upshot was that under this maternal blackmail Revelstoke played, and did things with the organ of St Iestyn’s Church which would not have been approved by a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists but which sufficiently astonished and delighted his hearers, who had not heard the pedals of the parish instrument for some years past; Revelstoke even essayed pedal chords from time to time, and contrived a few impressive roars at moments of climax, and was altogether satisfactory. Mr Mathias beamed from the vicar’s stall, and threw in an extra hymn, just to make the best of the occasion. But the triumph of the morning was after the service when, as an organ postlude, he improvised a medley of Welsh airs; the difficulty was that, so long as he continued to play, the congregation would not leave the church, so in the end he had to stop and indicate with a wave of his hand that there would be no more.

His mother was delighted. She stood happily at the door of the Church, beside Mr Mathias, ostensibly to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, but in reality to garner compliments on the brilliance of her son. The Neuadd Goch party walked home bright with reflected glory. Even Ripon recovered from having been given three copies of Welsh in a Week (Monica’s, and one from the squire, and one — unkindest cut — from Ceinwen) and said that he had loved every minute of the service, and felt much nearer to Washington Irving than ever before, but wasn’t the singing a little under par for a Welsh congregation?

“It’s a lie that all the Welsh can sing,” said Mr Hopkin-Griffiths; “the truth is that some can sing but they can all yell. And they were quiet this morning because they were listening to our Canadian visitor; I never was told that you could sing like that, my dear. We’ll want to hear more from you this afternoon.”

“I’m a pupil of Giles’, which should explain it,” said Monica, and once again Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths launched into an account of the fine things that had been said, and how well he had played, and how, perhaps, after all, there might be some sense in his treating music as a profession.

“Mind you, Griff and I couldn’t be more sympathetic about Gilly’s music,” she said to Monica and Ripon, who were walking with her. “We’ve always said it was a wonderful gift, ever since he became so serious about it at school. There was a master there in his time who was wonderfully gifted — quite professional, really. And Gilly has made friends among musicians — one of them is this Sir Benedict Domdaniel, and I’ve heard he’s charming, though of course a Jew — but Jews are wonderfully gifted, aren’t they, and we must always remember it and particularly at Christmas. And some of his things have been broadcast, which is awfully good, too. And of course he’s so deep in this magazine — Lantern, isn’t it — and we thought that might lead to a job with a publisher, or something like that. And even a pupil! You know dear, you could have knocked me down with a feather, as the people say around here, when you came in yesterday, and knew Gilly, and he was your teacher. When Lady Phoebe gave us your name, it meant nothing to us — just that you were a Canadian studying in London, and of course I thought from the London School of Economics, because that’s where the Canadians all seem to go, and the dear knows why, because it seems to make them so gloomy and farsighted about nasty things. Gilly was thunderstruck. Thought I’d asked for you on purpose. He so resents any interference from me in his London life you know. But it was sheer chance; though Lady Phoebe always seems to think we’re musical, though I don’t know why. But music as a profession — well, nobody we know has ever done it, and one hears about the risks, and everything. What do you think, dear? Of course it’s different for you; you’re wonderfully gifted — oh, don’t say you aren’t, because I can tell just by looking at you. And also I expect you’ve your way to make. But Gilly could have such a different life, if he chose, and one does so want one’s son to make the right choice. Tell me what you really think.”

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