A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Monica could not conceive of anyone who had it in him to be a composer being anything else, nor was she interested in promoting a marriage between Revelstoke and Ceinwen. Her reply was a model of modesty and tact; she was not a proper judge, she said, but she knew that Sir Benedict had a very high opinion of Giles’ work, and especially his songs. She could have spared her breath, for Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths was not really listening; she had her eyes on Revelstoke and Ceinwen, who were ahead of her, and who seemed to have nothing to say to one another.

After luncheon the squire and Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths retired to their rooms, he for a frank sleep, and she for what was more delicately called “my usual rest”; Ripon was doing his best to find the way into Ceinwen’s climate of feeling, and Monica was too full of happiness to want to disturb them, for her adventure of Christmas Eve had made her generous and charitable; she had some hopes of a talk with Revelstoke, but he too vanished, so she went for a walk by herself, up the hill behind the house, and over a moor which was wild and romantic enough to satisfy the most eager heart. She wandered there for almost two hours, thinking over and over again that she was now a woman, and that she had a lover, and that life was sweeter than she had ever known it to be. Not a thought had she for the Galls in Salterton, who would at this time be sitting amid the ruins of Mrs Gall’s calorifically murderous Christmas dinner, fighting, in the name of Christian charity, a losing fight against their mounting ennui and repletion. She returned to Neuadd Goch just in time for tea, and found herself the only member of the party who was in a really good temper.

After tea the squire asked her to sing. “Music at Christmas, always,” said he; “I will remember as a boy, in this room, my pater always sang at Christmas — just one song, Gounod’s Nazareth, Wonder if anybody sings it now? And my Aunt Isobel sang The Mistletoe Bough. Can’t have Christmas without music.”

Somewhat to Monica’s surprise Revelstoke moved to the piano to play for her, which was not his custom at lessons. She sang The Cherry Tree Carol, which she had learned from Molloy, and he improvised an accompaniment of considerable beauty, using the simple tune as a point of departure for harmonies remote from any that might have been expected by a conventional ear, but evocative of an atmosphere wonderfully congruous with the simple legend of the song. To Monica it was a delight, and she sang well, but the listeners received it with apathy. She sang Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, and this time Revelstoke confined himself to a piano part which respected the intentions of Dr Thomas Augustine Arne. But Monica wanted to return to the adventure of improvisation, so she sang Jésu Christ en Pauvre, trying to interest the Hopkin-Griffiths by saying that it was a folksong of her native land.

“Really, dear?” said her hostess, “and I suppose it reminds you of home and familiar things. How sweet.”

“Yes, it does,” said Monica. It was the first in a series of lies which she was to tell during the next few days, all calculated to throw her Canadian past into a pleasing and romantic light. For she had never heard Jésu Christ en Pauvre until she learned it from Molloy, and certainly the singing of wistful French-Canadian folksongs had never been a Christmas pursuit of the Gall family, or anyone they knew. But pretence is wonderfully stimulating to the artistic mind, which is why some people lie for fun, rather than from necessity. The tender feeling and insight with which Revelstoke had illumined The Cherry Tree Carol he brought in greater measure to the naive, spare little legend of Christ disguised as a poor man, and when the song was done he and Monica were well content with it.

“Good, good,” said the squire, in a voice which made it plain that he had felt and understood nothing. “Now, Ceinwen, tune your pipes. Let’s have a Welsh song. Always like a Welsh song at Christmas.”

“Where are those Welsh songs I sent you last year, Uncle Griff,” said Ceinwen; “I’ll sing you one of those.”

A brief search discovered them in the music bench. “I wanted you to have them because I helped edit these two collections,” said she. “My name is in the introduction — “Our thanks are also due to” — me, along with a few others. So you see you’re not the only one to get your name on a bit of music, Gilly.”

This was plainly meant to be a pleasantry, but Giles was not willing to take it so. “More weeping little modal tunes; I can’t bear the way the Welsh folksong people arrange their stuff,” said he.

“We heard what you like done with Welsh tunes this morning,” said Ceinwen, without good humour.

She sang Y Gelynen, explaining that it was in praise of the holly bush; her voice was small, pure and sweet, and prettily suited to the rippling, trilling refrain of the song. She did not sing in any way as well as Monica, but there was an individual quality and a justness of musical feeling about her singing which gave it charm. From Revelstoke’s expression as he played it was plain that he did not like the accompaniment, and by the fourth verse he had begun to guy it, so slightly that only Monica noticed.

Next Ceinwen sang a Christmas carol, Ar Gyfer Heddiw Bore, and this time he treated the accompaniment to please himself. Ceinwen was put off by his improvisation; she was a good singer, but she was not up to that. And it was clear to Monica that Revelstoke’s treatment of the theme was clever but unsympathetic; he was not helping the singer, he was showing off. The colour had left Ceinwen’s cheeks, and her green eyes seemed to darken.

The squire beat time to the Welsh songs with his hand, and nodded from time to time to show that, while he might not understand the words, he was sure they were full of Welsh Christmas cheer.

“The last song I’ll sing is a particularly fine one,” said Ceinwen; “it is called Hiraeth.”

“Aren’t you going to tell us about it?” asked Ripon. “Please do. This is wonderful, really it is. I’m living in a novel by Peacock,” he said, beaming at the squire, who accepted the remark with a smile, having learned by now that it was a compliment.

“It is about the longing for what is unattainable, which is called ‘hiraeth’ in Welsh. The singer is someone very old, who begs the wise and learned men of the earth to say where hiraeth comes from; all the treasures of the earth perish, gold, silver, rich fabrics and all the delights of life, but hiraeth is undying; there is no escape from it even in sleep; who weaves this web of hiraeth?”

“Splendid,” said Ripon; “real Celtic magic.”

“Oh I don’t know,” said Revelstoke. The Welsh make a fuss about their hiraeth as if they’d invented it; it’s common to all small, disappointed, frustrated nations. The Jews have used it as their principal artistic stock-in-trade for two thousand years. It’s the old hankering to get back to the womb, where everything was snug. Whimpering stuff.”

“Now that you’ve made it seem so delightful, I’ll sing it,” said Ceinwen.

The accompaniment was a simple but effective succession of chords, played in harp-like style, against which the tune appeared almost as declamation. Revelstoke played it thus for the first verse, and then he began to experiment; his arpeggios whined, they groaned, they shivered piteously. It was cruel caricature of the deep feeling of the words and the simple beauty of the air, and it made Monica’s flesh creep with embarrassment. Ripon, though no musician, could understand the import of this right enough, and even the Hopkin-Griffiths knew that all was not well.

What will she do, thought Monica. He’ll break her down. There’ll be tears in a minute, and what had I better do?

Ceinwen was not the weeping sort. She finished the song, and, as Revelstoke was bringing his accompaniment to a close in a series of sour chromatic progressions she whipped off her left shoe and hit him over the head with it. Then she struck at his hands again and again, bringing from the old Broadwood yelps and twanglings which mingled with his extravagant and astonishing curses.

There was an alarming scene, in which everybody accused and nobody apologized. There was a general withdrawal to bedrooms, and some slamming of doors. But to the amazement of Monica and Ripon everyone turned up at dinner apparently in excellent spirits, and Ceinwen and Giles pulled a cracker together with that extra, clean-hearted goodwill which is seen in people who have had a thoroughly satisfactory quarrel.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson