A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

They never thought of her as one of themselves. She thought of them as Bohemians, though they would have hooted at so romantic and unfashionable a word, taking it as further evidence that she was an outsider. But under their Bohemianism they were very English. No, ridiculous! Odingsels — nobody knew quite what he was, but he was certainly not English. Bridget Tooley’s father was a lawyer in Cork; she was Irish as — Ma Gall’s expression came pat to memory — as Paddy’s pig. Bun Eccles was an Australian, and abused the English as Pommies. Revelstoke himself was English, of the Eton and Oxford variety, and of course the hateful Persis —

Ah, Persis was the one! There was a creature who managed to have the best of two or three worlds! To be the draggle-tailed gypsy, with all the advantages of great and apparently indestructible beauty, and at the same time to be able to come the well-bred English lady — that was having it with jam and syrup at once. She was the one who created the atmosphere which excluded Monica. She was the one who did not have her speech corrected by Revelstoke. She was the one who did not have to know that “glory” was a trochee, instead of a spondee, which was what both Monica and Eccles made of it. She was the one who did not have to do anything about Lantern, though she was always in the way when the work was most pressing. And why? Because she was Revelstoke’s mistress, his recreation, his hobby, his —

Monica, who was cutting bread, sawed savagely at the loaf. Filthy abuse that was pure Ma Gall rushed up into her throat, her head hurt and her eyes seemed to fill with blood. She had to sit down on the bed to recover herself.

Oh, it was so unfair! Why couldn’t she be to him what Persis was, and at the same time a helper and a constructive influence in his life? She was better than Persis. She was; she was! Why couldn’t he see it? How could he stand that creature, who took baths now and then for fun, but not to get clean, and who kept tufts of long hair in her oxters because she said real men liked it? Monica was clean (though Amy had taught her not to talk about “personal daintiness”) and cleanliness ought to count. She would do anything for Revelstoke, be anything he wanted. And he had turned to her once. He must have some feeling for her. It could not be otherwise.

Meanwhile the noise from the other room was increasing. Two or three guests had made journeys to the watercloset down the stairs, shouting their contributions to the discussion as they went up and down. There had been some rapping on the ceiling by the lodger below, to which Eccles had replied with a few hearty stamps. Persis was developing the theme of parental stinginess in her extremely carrying voice. Monica knew that she would have to go in and shut them up. She held a cool bottle of beer to her forehead for a couple of minutes, and went back to the living-room.

She entered just as Mrs Merry came in from the hall. The landlady wore a look of aggrieved hauteur, and when she spoke her accent was more refined and wholly diphthongal than usual.

“Miss Gall, I am really compelled to ask your guests to leave,” she began, but got no further, for behind her appeared Revelstoke, and with him Sir Benedict Domdaniel. The menagerie greeted them with a roar.

The appearance of the great conductor created a difficult situation for everyone. Mrs Merry was in a particularly ticklish spot, for she had to reconcile her landlady’s indignation with her elation at having a celebrity (and a titled one, too) under her roof — and there were the promises she had made to the lodger downstairs to drive the rowdies out into the street. Persis, who had been making very free with Brum Benny’s name, was revealed as one who had never met him person­ally, and had not quite the brass to be insulting when she was introduced. Monica, who had been thinking passionately of Revel­stoke as a lover, had now to greet him timidly as a guest, feeling the very least of his menagerie; she was uneasy, also, about Domdaniel, who had not encountered the menagerie before, to her knowledge and who, at this moment, contrasted strangely with them, like a royal personage photographed among the survivors of some disaster. But Domdaniel managed the whole thing very well.

“We seem to have come at the peak of the party,” said he, smiling affably at Mrs Merry, and bending so low over her hand that she thought, for one golden but panic-stricken moment, that he was about to kiss it. “A very great occasion, and I’m sure you’ll under­stand; our friend has been covering himself with glory.” It was this easy, glossily splendid manner, which had won him the name of Brummagen Benny among the envious; unable themselves to rise to such heights, they took revenge by recalling his plebian origin. And a severe critic might have said that his manner was not thoroughly well-bred; it was too accomplished, too much a work of art, for mere “good form”. He presented Revelstoke, who greeted Mrs Merry with proprietary charm, as though she were his guest. At the same moment Odingsels bowed his piebald poll toward Mrs Merry’s startled face, and put a glass of beer into her hand.

“The last thing of which I am desirous –” she began, with immense graciousness, but was unable to sustain this fine beginning, and went on — “It would ill become me to — it is certainly not my desire to intrude a note of solemnity into such an occasion as this, but you will understand my position vis-à-vis Mrs Porteous who occupies the flatette below, and whose advanced years and habit of life –” She floundered.

“Mind your manners,” said Revelstoke to the menagerie, and they obeyed, to the point of congratulating him in stagey whispers.

“Oh, please, please!” cried Mrs Merry, laughing throatily, and gesturing with her glass of beer, like some marchioness in an old-fashioned musical comedy, “don’t feel that you must whisper. That I could not bear! Please, Sir Benedict, beg them not to whisper.” She bent upon Sir Benedict a look of arch agony. With him at her side, looking so gallantly into her eyes, Mrs Merry would have incited the party to dance clog-dances upon the head of Mrs Porteous.

“I have a proposal which I think will settle everything,” said he. “Suppose we all go to my house, and continue the party there. I’ve lots to drink, but if you’ve any food, Monica, perhaps you’ll bring it along. And as we have inconvenienced you, dear lady, I hope that you will forgive us and make one of the party.”

Smiling his most winning smile, he gazed deep into Mrs Merry’s eyes, mentally signalling to her — Say no; say no; you can’t leave the lodgers; say no. But Mrs Merry was not susceptible to telepathy; she was borne aloft on a cloud of social glory; this was as it had been when that worthy solicitor, Maybrick Merry, was alive, and they had invited three couples to dinner every second Thursday, and once an MP had come. “Yes, yes,” she carrolled; “I’ll run and get my wrap.”

It was quite ten minutes before Mrs Merry had changed her clothes, put on all her rings, and run a darkening stick through the grey patches in her hair. Monica had plenty of time to line her rubbish pail with The Times and put the food in it, and Bun Eccles providently carried the beer downstairs, in case Sir Benedict should have over­estimated his supplies. Sir Benedict had gone down to wait in his car, and Revelstoke admonished the others to come quietly. And, upon the whole, they did so, except that Odingsels insisted on carrying Persis downstairs pick-a-back, and tickled her legs as he did so, making her squeal. And it was unfortunate that Eccles, who insisted on carrying both the food and the drink, caught his heel in a worn bit of stair carpet, and — determined to save the drink — allowed the rubbish-pail to go crashing down to the landing.

A door opened and somebody — almost certainly Mrs Porteous — poked a parrot-like head, adorned with an obvious wig, into the hall. “Well,” she gobbled, “this is the first time that anything like this has ever happened here, and if it is what comes of giving shelter to Commonwealth students –”

Odingsels, with Persis on his back, lurched toward her.

“Shh!” said he. “We are taking this lady to a nursing-home for an abortion, and I must ask you please not to make so much noise.” Down the lower flight he went at a gallop, with Persis shrieking and fizzing like a soda-syphon on his back. Bun retrieved the food, and, acting on sudden inspiration, pushed a sandwich into Mrs Porteous’ hand, then crammed the remainder into the pail, and raced after him. It was Monica who heard the last of Mrs Porteous’ unflattering comments and prophecies.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson