A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Am I right?” said Sir Benedict, taking a pull at his drink. “Well, falling in love with one’s master is recognized practice in the musical world. Even in his eighties I can remember old Garcia having to fight ’em off, to protect his afternoon nap. Well, go ahead by all means. Anything to broaden your range of feeling.”

Monica turned toward him, and her expression was so angry, her eyes so brilliant, and the bread-knife in her hand so menacing, that Sir Benedict skipped backward.

“I hate you damned superior Englishmen!” said she. “Murtagh Molloy tells me I have no emotion; Giles Revelstoke treats me like the village idiot because I haven’t read everything that’s ever been written, and you tell me to fall in love because it will extend my range of feeling! To hell with you all! If I haven’t got your easy, splattering feelings I’m proud of it. I’ll throw this all up and go home. I won’t stay here and be treated like a parrot, and learn to say ‘Polly wants a cracker’ in just the right accent and with just the right shade of feeling! I hate the whole pack of you, and I hate your rotten little Ye Olde Antique Shoppe of a country. I’d rather go home and be a typist in the Glue Works than take your dirt for another day.”

Sir Benedict looked thoughtfully at her for a full minute, then he said: “You’re perfectly right, my dear, and I apologize.” Monica made a dreadful face, snorted painfully, and burst into tears. She had never been a pretty weeper.

Sir Benedict had for many years made it a habit to carry two handkerchiefs, one for his own nose and one for other people’s; he produced the second now, shook out its folds and gave it to Monica just in time to hide a very messy face. Then he sat her down on the kitchen table and sat beside her, holding her tenderly.

“You mustn’t mind us,” said he; “it’s just a way of going on that we have carried over from the nineteenth century, when we really ruled the waves. Molloy would be terribly hurt if he knew you had called him an Englishman. As for me, I’m English, right enough, but not really out of the top drawer; there is a large grandpaternal pop-shop in Birmingham which it would be ungrateful of me to deny. Revelstoke is English, too, and I don’t mind telling you that I worked it that you should go to his mother for Christmas. Not that she, or Giles, knew, of course; I cooked it up with Miss Eigg, who is an old friend of mine; I thought it might be more friendly for you. Weren’t they nice people? Surely Giles must have relaxed a little, in his own home? Of course he plays the great man with these silly hangers-on of his, but it’s only mannerism.

“I didn’t realize you had any really strong feeling for him. But what I said was quite sincere, and not meant to be hurtful. A love-affair, if it is anything more than a tennis-club flirtation, does enlarge one’s range of feeling. Of course that isn’t why one does it, but you must understand that I was speaking as your teacher and adviser, looking at the thing from outside. And of course what looks unique and glorious to you, at your age — and is so, too, of course — has a rather more accustomed look from my age and my point of view. The terrible truth is that feeling really does have to be learned. It comes spon­taneously when one is in love, or when somebody important dies; but people like you and me — interpretative artists — have to learn also to recapture those feelings, and transform them into something which we can offer to the world in our performances. You know what Heine says — and if you don’t I won’t scold you: ‘Out of my great sorrows I make my little songs.’ Well — we all do that. And what we make out of the feelings life brings us is something a little different, something not quite so shattering but very much more polished and perhaps also more poignant, than the feelings themselves. Your jealousy — it hurts now, but if you are as good an artist as I begin to think you are, you’ll never have to guess at what jealousy means again, when you meet with it in music. And love — don’t ask me what it is, because I can’t tell you anything more than that it is an intense and complex tangle of emotions — you’ll have to feel that, too. Everybody claims to have been in love, but to love so that you can afterward distill something from it which makes other people know what love is or reminds them forcibly — that takes an artist. Do you feel a little better now?”


“Good. And you won’t go back to the Glue Works tomorrow?”

A shake of the head.

“Then perhaps we should return to the others, or they will think that I am up to no good with you, and although that would be flattering to me, in a way, I don’t think it really desirable.”

But at this moment Mrs Merry came into the kitchen. She wore a splendid, elevated look, more like a martyr than Monica had ever seen her; her teeth were bared in a smile which suggested that the first flames of the pyre were licking at her toes.

“Sir Benedict, I must leave you now,” said she. “It is quite time — indeed it has been made obvious to me that it is far past time — that I quitted the gathering.” She gave a slight, refined hiccup, and burst into tears.

For the first time in his life Sir Benedict had no clean handkerchief to offer. But Mrs Merry, a lady even in grief and liquor, fished one out of her bosom, and held its lacy inadequacy to her lips.

“My dear lady, has anyone ill-used you?” said he. In perfect fairness he should have sat Mrs Merry on the table and held her, but he did not.

“My fault,” she quavered. “Intruded. Went too far. Artist — high strung. Should have remembered.”

Sir Benedict took the glass from Mrs Merry’s hand and hunted in a cupboard where the cooking things were. He found a bottle of cherry brandy, and poured a generous slug. “Drink this, and tell us all about it,” said he.

“Mr Revelstoke — a genius, of course. And fresh from a great success. — Well, if you insist. Oh dear, I shall never be able to drink such a lot! — Well, I ought to have known. Madame Gertrude Belcher-Chalke was just the same after a concert — élevée, indeed one might say utterly ballonnée — and hardly civil for hours. I meant no harm. Asked him to play. Well, I mean — a musician? Surely he plays? He said no. I pressed. I mean, they expect to be pressed. Nono. Press again. Nonono. I entreat the others to support my request. That man with the nasty picked-looking head shouts something in German. Then Mr Revelstoke rushes to the piano and says — ‘For you, for you alone, you lovely creature!’ And plays.” Here Mrs Merry’s bosom heaved as no bosom has heaved since the heyday of the silent films. She drained the cherry brandy to the dregs. “He played Chopsticks!” she cried and hurled her glass dramatically into the sink.

Sir Benedict proved amply that a conductor of the first rank is not only a notable interpretative musician, but also a diplomat and an organizer of uncommon ability. He soothed Mrs Merry. He shooed Monica upstairs to his own bedroom to wash and restore her face. He enlisted Eccles to help him bring champagne up from the cellar. He brought the party to some semblance of unity and enjoyment. And, finally, he went to the piano.

“Giles and I want to play something for Mrs Merry,” said he. “It is called Paraphrases, and it is what all musicians play when they are happy.”

Drawing Revelstoke down at the piano by his side, Domdaniel compelled him to join in a duet; with great verve and gusto they played the twenty-four variations on Chopsticks which were written by Liszt, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mrs Merry, very much at the mercy of her feelings and with her remaining self-possession disappearing beneath the champagne, managed to get to the piano, against which she posed, smiling soulfully at Sir Benedict until, suddenly, all meaning disappeared from her face and she fell heavily to the floor.

Eccles, expert in such affairs, lifted her head and fanned her. Mrs Merry opened her eyes, and she smiled blissfully. “Put me to bed and don’t bend me,” said she. And thus the party ended.


On stage and screen the business of getting a drunken person to bed is always represented as uproariously funny. Monica, Revelstoke and Eccles found it merely laborious. Mrs Merry was a Junoesque woman in her late fifties; as a deadweight, she was not easily budged. It seemed that they had no sooner stuffed her untidily into a taxi at Dean’s Yard, than they had to haul her out of it at Courtfield Gardens. The men held her upright while Monica paid the taxi, and while they hoisted her up the steps, Monica retrieved her shoes, which fell off in that process. When they got her inside, there was the problem of the stairs. It was not that she was so heavy (though she was substantial) as that she offered no handholds. They made a Boy Scout chair with their hands, but in her satin gown she slipped twice to the floor before the first step was mounted. At last they were compelled to take Mrs Merry up her own staircase as if she were a piano; Eccles crawled up the steps on his hands and knees, with Mrs Merry on his back, steadied, and to some extent borne, by Revelstoke and Monica. It was slow, noisy and toilsome. When they reached the landlady’s room they tumbled her into bed with everything on but her shoes, and climbed on to Monica’s quarters, greatly exhausted.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson