A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Remarkable indeed,” said the Dean. He was thinking about those sermons, and balancing another curate and new carpets against them.

Veronica had not spoken until now. “Shall we have tea?” said she.

They had it from a remarkably beautiful Rockingham service. Miss Puss, who said nothing all afternoon, eyed it speculatively. Veronica noticed that she did so.

“Yours, Miss Puss,” said she, smiling.

“Mine,” said Puss Pottinger, softly and without a smile, “if and when.”


“It was Christmas Day in the workhouse,” declaimed Humphrey Cobbler, pushing himself back from the late Mrs Bridgetower’s dining-table. Christmas dinner with Solly and Veronica had made him expansive.

“Shut up, Humphrey,” said Molly, his wife. She was a large, beautiful, untidy woman, always calm and at ease. She threw a grape at her husband to silence him, but it missed his head and set an epergne jingling on the built-in sideboard.

“No offence meant,” said Cobbler, “and none taken, I’m sure. I merely wished to convey to our young friends here, who have been studiedly avoiding the subject of Mum’s Will all through this excellent dinner, that we are privy to their dread secret, and sympathize with them in their fallen state. I was about to do so through the agency of divine poesy, thereby showing a delicacy which I could hardly expect you, my thick-witted consort, to appreciate.”

Raising his glass, he declaimed again:

It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse;

The maddest, merriest day;

And all the paupers had gathered then

To make high holiday.

Then in strode the Workhouse Master

As they cringed by the grimy walls;

“I wish you a Merry Christmas,” said he;

The paupers answered —

“What have you been hearing?” said Solly. “You aren’t going to tell me that people are chattering about it already?”

“Not precisely chattering,” said Cobbler; “more a kind of awed whispering. Rumours reached me this morning, just before we celebrated the birthday of the Prince of Peace with a first-rate choral service, that your Mum’s Will was in the nature of a grisly practical joke, and that you are left without a nickel.”

“I thought it wouldn’t take long to get around,” said Solly. “Who was talking? There are only three people who know; they might have had the decency to keep quiet for a few days, at least. Who was it?”

“Calm yourself, my dear fellow,” said Cobbler. “You are — let’s see, what is it — twenty-seven. You really ought to have more worldly wisdom than to say that only three people know about your Mum’s Will. You and Veronica know, and the Dean and unquestionably the Dean’s wife; Puss Pottinger knows, and she is a mighty hinter; Snelgrove knows, and certainly his wife, and his partner Ronny Fitzalan, and probably at least two girls in his office who made copies of the will for the executory. Your excellent Ethel and Doris, who have hopes of legacies, have undoubtedly picked up a few things by listening at doors or hiding under your bed. That’s twelve people already. What I know I was told this morning by one of my tenors whom you don’t know, but who knows you. He heard it last night when he was carol-singing at the hospital. Your late Mum was notoriously a rich woman; everybody wants to know who gets the lolly.”

“I certainly didn’t know she was a rich woman,” said Solly.

“That sounds silly, but I believe it,” said Cobbler. “One never thinks of one’s parents with any realism. She was always pretty tight with money when you wanted it; probably she told you she hadn’t much, and you believed her, like a good boy. She came the penniless widow. You didn’t use your eyes. You didn’t look at this big house, full of hideous but expensive stuff; you didn’t reflect that your Mum lived in considerable state, with two servants, in an age when most people have none; you didn’t think that she had all this without doing any work for it. You didn’t think that it costs a lot of money to continue the habits of the Edwardian era into the middle of the twentieth century. Nothing is so expensive as living in the past. No; you believed what you were told. You accepted all this as a normal, poverty-ridden hovel. But everybody else in Salterton knew that your Mum was a very warm proposition, and they were all crazy to know how she would cut up when she was gone.”

“What business was it of theirs?”

“Don’t be stupid; people who mind their own business die of boredom at thirty. Don’t you suppose the hospitals hoped for a chunk? Your father was a professor at Waverley University for years; do you think Waverley didn’t have its hand out? The Cathedral wanted a slice, too. But nothing doing. And they say you don’t get a red cent. Where is it all going? I don’t mean to pry, you understand. I’m just aching to know.”

“All you have heard is that none of the places that expected a legacy got anything, and that I am not the heir?”

“Precisely. Are you going to give us the real story, or do you want Molly and me to feel that we aren’t trusted, now that you are poor like us?”

“I suppose it’ll all come out in a few days. You might as well know.” And so Solly told the Cobblers the conditions of his mother’s will. They opened their eyes very wide, and Cobbler gave a long whistle, but it was his wife who spoke.

“That’s what you can really call laying the Dead Hand on the living, isn’t it,” said Molly. “I suppose it’s something to be proud of, in a way; not many people have the guts to make a really revengeful will. They’re too anxious to leave a fragrant memory, and few things are so fragrant as a million dollars. I suppose it’s well over a million?”

“Haven’t any idea,” said Solly. “But I’m sure you’re wrong about revenge. I mean, Mother was capricious, and very strong-minded, but revenge — it doesn’t seem like her.”

“Seems very much like what I knew of her,” said Cobbler. “You really must grow up, you know. Your Mum told you that she loved you, and you believed her. She made your life a hell of dependency, and you put up with it because she played the invalid, and tyrannized over you with her weak heart. She beat off any girls you liked, until you got up enough gumption to marry Veronica — or Veronica got enough gumption to marry you; I never quite knew which it was. That was only a bit more than a year ago. What peace have you known since? She made you come here and live with her, and like a couple of chumps you did it. She let it be known as widely as possible that your marriage grieved her.”

“Look here, you’re talking about my Mother, who was buried the day before yesterday. I don’t expect you to behave like other people, but you must show some decency. I know better than anybody how difficult she was, but she had very good reasons for everything she did. Of course they’re not easily understandable, from an outsider’s viewpoint. I’ve read and re-read her will today; it’s very full, and very personal. She says that she has left the money away from me to prove me — to test what I can do absolutely on my own. She says she knows it will be hard, and advises me to take my father as an example. I know — it sounds very odd by modern notions of such things, but it is quite obvious that she meant it kindly.”

This was greeted with a studied silence by the others.

“Well, look at it from her point of view,” said Solly, when the silence had begun to wear on him. “She always knew I was rather a feeble chap; it was her last try to put some backbone into me.”

“You’re not a bit feeble,” said his wife, laying her hand on his.

“Yes; yes, I am. I don’t pretend that this will isn’t a shock, and I won’t pretend to think it’s really fair. But I see what she meant by it. And your suggestion that it was because of our marriage is sheer nasty spite, Humphrey. I won’t say Mother liked Veronica, but I know she respected her. And certainly Ronny was as good as any daughter could have been to her during the past six months. You didn’t marry me for money, did you?” said he, smiling at his wife.

“I don’t think that is what Humphrey meant,” said Veronica.

“Well, what else is there?”

“Darling, if you haven’t thought of it, I won’t find it very easy to explain. Your mother leaves you her money — or the income from it, which is the same thing — if we have a son. Well? Must we set to work, cold-bloodedly, to beget a child, hoping it will be a son? If it is a daughter — try, try again. You know what people are. They’ll be ready to make the worst of it, whatever happens. They’ll have a splendid, prurient snigger at us for years. Don’t you see?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson