A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

After dinner they rolled up the rug in the drawingroom, the maids and outside men came in, and there was dancing to the gramophone.

“The Welsh are rather a hot-tempered race,” said Revelstoke to Monica, as they danced.

And that was all that was ever said about it.


The week which followed was passed in walks, visits to neighbouring country-houses, and motor jaunts to special places of beauty, includ­ing a day of great glory when the young people drove through Gwalia Deserta and explored the gorge at Devil’s Bridge; Monica sat in the front seat of the car with Revelstoke all that day. She met several Welsh people, and was astonished by the vivacity and genial spite which they brought to social conversation, and which was unlike anything she had experienced among the people of England. But Monica was more astonished by herself than by anything external. She began to talk about her family; she was often alarmed by what she said, for she found that she was weaving a legend around the Galls. The Welsh had a national character, or at least they were strongly under that impression. Very well; if they chose to play the Celt, she would play the Canadian. She spoke of Canadian Christmasses, finding in them pleasing and picturesque qualities which would surely have astonished her mother, or even those nationalist zealots, the McCorkills. She deepened the snow, intensified the cold, and enthused retrospectively about winter sports in which she had never taken part. Driving in cutters on the frozen waters of the harbour at Salterton, for instance; she had never done it, but neither did she claim to have done so; she simply described it as if at first-hand. And ice-boating — there was excitement! When she talked of these things her tongue ran away with her, and though she spoke no clear untruths, she implied a whole world which had no counterpart in her past. She did not suppress the Glue Works or the Thirteeners; she simply did not feel a necessity to mention them.

“What a liar you are!” she said one night to her image in the mirror. But the next day her resolve to guard her tongue vanished; she wanted to be as interesting as Ceinwen, whom she liked but whose rapid alternations of temperament began to excite her jealousy. The girl was playing the Gelt all over the place, muttering in Welsh to please Ripon, and teaching him Welsh objurgations, as one might teach a parrot to swear. That affair was going swimmingly, but Revelstoke had not said an intimate word to her since Christmas Eve.

It was what she did to her family which most alarmed Monica in her soberer moments. Ma Gall began to appear as a wonderfully salty character, a lady, of course, but with the strength of pioneer ancestry behind her. Ma Gall was, she told Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths, a natural gourmet, delighting in food and bringing to it family secrets which produced dishes of incomparable savour, unknown in the British Islands. This tower of mendacity was erected on the trifling foun­dation of a rather dull Indian Pudding which Mrs Gall had learned to make from her mother.

Of course, those who embark on such a game as this must be trapped into lies at last.

Monica’s entrapment, and her punishment, came almost at the end of her stay at Neuadd Goch. It was at dinner, on New Year’s Eve, the night of the County Ball, a festivity which was to be the crown of the entertainment provided by the Hopkin-Griffiths for their guests. Ripon, who was filled with true gratitude toward his hosts, had made them a graceful speech before dinner, saying that their kindness would never be forgotten while he lived, and that he hoped that at some future time he might pass it on, in the same spirit, to visitors to his own land. He did it well, and keeping away from talk of climates of feeling, created an atmosphere of open-hearted friendliness which inevitably led to talk of the bonds which united the English-speaking world. Monica could not contain herself.

She spoke of her admiration for and debt to the British people, and did it in such a way that there was nothing pompous or unseemly about it. But she could not leave it there. This feeling, she said, was not only her own, but had long been that of her family. The Galls, she asserted, were of United Empire Loyalist stock.

This fell rather flat, for nobody present seemed to know what United Empire Loyalists were. So she explained that they were those loyal subjects of King George III, who at the time of the American Revolution, deserted their worldly goods and migrated to Canada, in order that they might keep the inestimable privilege of living under the British flag. Though she did not say so, it could be understood from her words that the descendants of these people formed a vigorous, splendid, but unassuming core of leadership — a kind of democratic aristocracy — in Canada.

In the high and charged atmosphere of the moment — the climate of feeling — this would have been acceptable enough, but Revelstoke fixed her with a sardonic eye.

“What’s so remarkable about that?” said he. “Why should they do otherwise than leave the country if they didn’t like the Revolution? Are you asking us to admire them simply because they were loyal? Surely that’s the least Britain could have expected of them. Honour­ing people for being loyal is like honouring them for being honest; it’s a confession of an essentially base and cynical attitude toward man­kind. It’s either that or it’s just sentimental silliness.”

Perhaps Monica should have hit him on the head with her shoe. But she was, beneath the superficial part of her mind which was boasting and prattling, so conscious of the untruth of what she was saying, that she felt disproportionately rebuked. She felt that everybody at the table was disgusted with her, and ashamed for her, as a foolish little braggart. She felt that she had been sharply and contemptuously put in her place. Of course there was no such general feeling. Mrs Hopkin-Griffiths was thinking how distinguished Giles looked when he was nicely washed and had on his dress suit, and hardly heard what was said. The squire thought the boy was much too rough on the little Canadian; loyalty ought to be encouraged, or where would we all be? Ceinwen thought: well, there’s her reward for laying herself out to charm Master Giles, the dirty English pig (though as she thought this in Welsh the last term was not quite so stinging as it seems in translation). Only Ripon guessed at the truth.

The County Ball was held in Trallwm, in the Assembly Rooms, which was a grand term given to a largish public-hall-of-all-work; and the corridors and anterooms surrounding it, in the Town Hall. It was prettily hung with holly and Christmas decorations, and had been furnished for the occasion by a local dealer with some really hand­some antiques, and so it was a pleasant setting for an occasion when most of the guests brought a genuine spirit of gaiety with them.

It was a mixed assemblage of county gentry, well-to-do farmers and townspeople, and it was ostensibly in aid of the hospital. The squire could well remember — and never ceased reminding everyone he met of the fact — the days when a velvet rope divided the dancing floor, and the county danced on one side, and the lesser folk on the other. But those days were gone, and everybody said, with varying degrees of sincerity, that they were glad of it. The Neuadd Goch party were disposed to enjoy themselves, except Giles, who hated the music but had not quite enough determination to stay at home.

Balancing the ballroom, at the other end of the main corridor of the Town Hall, was the Court Room, which had been arranged as a sitting-out room; it was splendidly suited to such a purpose, for it was a maze of fenced-in compartments, wells and cubby-holes which allowed sitting-out couples quite enough privacy, if they wanted it. It was here that the kindly Ripon led Monica, and as they could not, in the gloom, find anywhere else that was not taken by a seriously whispering couple, they climbed into the prisoner’s dock, which was high and surrounded by a fence of spikes — presumably to keep felons from leaping into court and menacing the learned counsel. They sat on the little bench inside it.

“Don’t take it so hard,” said Ripon, after a few moments of silence.


“What Revelstoke said at dinner. You’ve been dragging your wings ever since. He’s a bastard; he likes to take it out of women. Look what he did to Ceinwen at Christmas.”

“But, Johnny, this was different.”

“Yes, I know it was.”

Monica began to weep. Ripon gave her his handkerchief, held her round the shoulders, said soothing and not very coherent things, and after a time restored her to some sort of order.

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