A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

On the pavement there was a slight resurgence of ill-feeling, for everyone wanted to crowd into Sir Benedict’s handsome car, which was manifestly impossible. Odingsels would not be parted from Persis, and Mrs Merry, with the superior cunning of middle age, got the front seat next to the great man for herself; at last Revelstoke and Tuke were crammed into the back seat, and Monica and Bun were left to follow in a taxi with a disgruntled Miss Tooley.

“Fanny can’t resist luxury,” she said, “and as soon as he smelled that real leather upholstery he was done for. Not a terribly nice characteristic, really.”

The house in Dean’s Yard was empty, for the servant did not sleep in, but Domdaniel quickly found glasses, and in five minutes the party had been resumed. Odingsels and Persis had changed from quarrelling to silent, intimate pawing, and they needed a sofa to themselves. Miss Tooley was being distant toward Phanuel Tuke, which involved standing quite close but with her back turned partly toward him. Sir Benedict moved about, making them at home, but he soon found how needless this was; the menagerie was at home wherever it was assembled. But Mrs Merry had a highly developed, indeed a swollen, social sense; unquestionably she thought of herself as “the senior married woman present” and she set to work to establish a high tone of behaviour. She pursued her host, she complimented him on the taste in which his house was furnished; she confided that she could judge people instantly by the glassware they used; she sincerely hoped that they were to be favoured with a little music later on, as it would be such a treat; she let it be known that when her husband was living they had several times met Madame Gertrude Belcher-Chalke, whose renditions of Scottish songs were such a delight, and who must certainly be known to Sir Benedict; and, well, yes, she would be glad of the teeniest drop of Scotch — no more than a drop, mind — and plain water.

Monica, who had had no opportunity to recover from her nerve-storm, soon found the kitchen, took the hacked loaf — fetish for the hateful Persis — from the rubbish-pail, and began once more to make sandwiches. The capacity of the menagerie for food was boundless and she, true daughter of Ma Gall, had bought in ample viands. It soothed her to make sandwiches, and it kept her away from the others.

But she had not been long alone before Sir Benedict slipped quickly through the door.

“I’ll have a quiet drink out here with you,” said he. “I can’t convince your landlady that I don’t play the piano at parties.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Monica; “it was wonderful of you to rescue us, and terribly kind to ask her. She’s having a marvellous time.”

“I told her to persuade Revelstoke to improvise something,” said he. “A dirty trick, but self-preservation, and so forth. Have a drink. You look as if you needed one. What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. We heard the broadcast.”

“What did you think?”

“I thought it was wonderful. But you know what my opinion is worth.”

“Don’t hedge. Did you like the work?”

“I don’t know. It’s awfully strange. Not as strange as lots of modern music; not so sort of repellent. It doesn’t fight the listener. But mystifying. I wish you’d tell me about it.”

“I’ve done so; I conducted it. It’s quite a solid piece of work, though I wish he’d study with a really first-rate man on composition for a while. He can’t completely say what he means, yet, in orchestral terms. Most of the instrumental writing is brilliant, but there are a few passages of awful muddle that I couldn’t persuade him to change. What he does best, of course, is write for the voice, and that lifts him above all but a few today. This isn’t an age when many composers seem to care about the voice; they want to use it in all sorts of queer ways, and often they do marvellous things, but it’s not really singing, you know. It’s abuse of the voice. But his stuff is wonderfully grateful to sing and that, combined with a modern musical idiom, gives it great individuality.”

“I suppose a lot depends on what the critics say?”

“A bit. Not too much, really. Far more depends on what chaps like me say.”

“Anyhow, he’ll be able to deal with the critics in Lantern.”

“That’s precisely what I’m afraid of. He wastes too much time on that nonsense.”


“Yes. What’s the good of fighting critics? Mind you, some of them are very able, particularly when judging performances. But only a few can form any opinion of a new work. Most of them are simply on the lookout for novelty. They hear too much, and they hear it the wrong way. They get like children who are peevish from having too many toys; they are always tugging at the skirts of music, whining ‘Amuse me; give me something new.’ Giles hasn’t shown them anything particularly new. He’s not an innovator. But he has an extraordinary melodic gift. Now you just watch the critics and see how many of them are able to spot that.”

“You don’t think much of Lantern?”

“My dear girl, these little reviews and magazines of protest and coterie criticism come and go, and they don’t amount to a damn. They’re all right for what’s-his-name — Tuke and that formidable female bodyguard of his — but Revelstoke is a serious man; he ought to be at work on music. You’ve rather involved yourself with this Lantern thing, haven’t you?”

“I help a bit with the accounts.”

“Good enough. You’re what — twenty-two? It’s all right for you. Gives you a taste of that sort of thing, and we’re all the better for a taste. But Revelstoke is thirty-three. Time he was over all that, and down to serious work.”

“Do you think teaching is a waste of his time?”

“Not if it brings in money he needs. But this Lantern is just an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”

“Shakespeare. Sonnet something-or-other.”

“Bright child. He’s making you do some reading.”

“Yes. And Lantern’s not the only waste.”

“You mean that gang in there? They’re no more a waste than any other pack of friends, I should say. Many fine things are written about friendship, and there’s a general superstition that everybody is capable of friendship, and gets it, like love. But lots of people never know love, except quite mildly; and most of them never know friendship, except in quite a superficial way. Terribly demanding thing, friendship. Most of us have to put up with acquaintanceship.”

It was flattering to Monica to be enjoying, for the first time, a conversation with Sir Benedict which was not about music, and which was not crowded by the press of his engagements. She fell into a trap; she tried to be impressive; she tried to be his age.

“But don’t you think people like that, who live such irregular lives, are terribly exhausting? I mean, they must drain away a lot of his vitality, which should be saved for music. I don’t want to gossip, but it’s common knowledge that he’s terribly taken up with that girl in there — the dark one — and I don’t know when he finds time to do any work. Do you think he ought to get off into the country, somewhere, and really slave at his music?”

“No; I don’t. When I was your age I might have thought so, but I know better now; you can’t write music just by getting away from people. Slavery is for the technicians, like you and me; we thrive under the lash. But creators must simply do what seems best to them. Some like solitude; some like a crowd. As for the girl, why not? When I was a student in Vienna my teacher told me how often he had seen old Brahms, when he was all sorts of ages, strolling meditatively home from the house of a certain lady who lived in the Weiden. Couldn’t matter less. Nothing, nothing whatever really stands in the way of a creative artist except lack of talent.”

“You don’t think a disorderly life matters?”

“Wouldn’t suit me. I couldn’t answer for anyone else.”

“Then you don’t think that Shakespeare was right — about the expense of spirit in a waste of shame?”

“It’s only shame when you feel it so. And he obviously doesn’t feel it. You are the one who feels it, and there can be only two explanations of that: either you’re more of a missionary than a musician, or else you’re jealous of that girl with the black hair and blue eyes.”

Monica turned back to her bread-cutting. She had never been much of a blusher, but she knew that her appearance had changed in many tell-tale ways.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson