A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

The flat ceased to be the hang-out of the menagerie, for Giles was too busy to be bothered with them, except when Lantern work was to be done, or when he wanted conversation and a party. Of course they blamed Monica for coming between him and his old friends. And of course they wondered what on earth he saw in her.

Sometimes she joined in this wonder herself, for as a lover Giles was fully as demanding as he was when he was teaching her to sing what he had written. Indeed, the two kinds of experience were uncomfortably similar. He could be tender, but he could not be patient. He was experimental and ingenious, demanding for himself aspects of pleasure which she could not comprehend, and therefore could provide only by happy accident. If luck was not with her he might scold; worse, he might laugh at her. Once, after what had seemed to her a wonderful, ecstatic afternoon in the pokey little bedroom of the flat, she had turned to him, certain that the moment had come, whispering, “Do you love me?” He had replied, “What if I say no?” The sardonic glint in his eye warned her not to press the matter. She could not conceal her hurt, so she rose, dressed herself, and made him the stodgy, jammy tea-meal which he liked. She knew better than to ask that question again.

She did not spend the nights at Tite Street. She did not dare, for fear that Mrs Merry would tell Mr Boykin, who would tell Mr Andrew, who would tell the Bridgetower Trust — who would tell her mother. But except for her lessons with Murtagh Molloy she spent almost all of her waking hours there. Her first decision to preserve some aloofness from Giles had quickly weakened; the harder he worked her, the more he nagged her about the most minute details of her singing, the more tyrannous his demands as a lover, the less was she able to keep away from him.

Bun Eccles alone of the menagerie seemed to have any true estimate of her relationship to Giles.

“You’ve certainly got it bad, kid,” said he to her one day as they sat in The Willing Horse.

“Worse than bad,” she replied. “It’s abject.”

“Well, cheer up. You’ll get over it.”

“Only when I’m dead.”

“Bad as that?”

“Yes; bad as that.”

It was Bun who sent her to a physician.

“You got trouble enough, Monny, without getting landed with a baby. You can’t expect Giles to do anything about it. He belongs in the great nineteenth-century tradition, when geniuses littered the earth with stupider-than-average kids. So you just cut along and see my friend Doc Barwick; I’ll tell him you’re coming, and why, and he’ll put you wise. Self-preservation is the first law of fallen women and a couple o’ quids’ worth of prevention is better than fifty guineas’ worth of dangerous cure.”

And thus a new and unwelcome complication was introduced into her love for Giles. Monica had been brought up with a Fundamen­talist’s horror of this particular interference with Nature, and with an ill-defined but strong notion that if the consequences of sin were avoided now, some triply-compounded exaction would be made at last. She faithfully did as Eccles’ friend bade her, for she feared open disgrace, but she added immeasurably to her sense of guilt by doing so.

By the irrational account-keeping of unhappy love, the humili­ations and labours which she underwent for Giles made her love him the more; and the more she loved him, the more inevitable it seemed to her that some day he must recognize the burdens which she had incurred on his account, and love her for it. He could not know the truth, and still withhold his love from her. Such indifference could not be reconciled with her estimate of his character.

Easter fell late, and it was the beginning of March when Molloy said to her, one morning — “Got a message for you from His Nibs; wants you to study the St Matthew Passion thoroughly and in a hurry — which can’t be done, as he well knows. But he’s conducting the Oxford Bach Choir in a performance on the first Sunday in April, and he wants you to be one of his London soloists. Oh, nothing tremendous, so don’t think it! You’ll be the soprano False Witness — seven glorious bars in your part. But he thinks it’s time you got a smell of public perform­ance, and here’s your chance. You’re to bone up on the whole job, sit in the choir, sing your bit, and get your expenses paid. Know any Bach?”

“I’ve been through the Anna Magdalena Notebook with Revelstoke.”

“Ever look at the Passion? Ever hear it?”


“We’ve a month; we’ll scratch the surface.”

It seemed to Monica that they did much more than scratch the surface; she slaved at it, and Molloy even made her study the full score, so that she might have some acquaintance with classical orchestration. He forbade her jealously to seek help from Giles. “What would a fellow like that know about this sort of music?” he demanded, unreasonably. It was not Giles’ musical competence he doubted, but his moral worth. Molloy had a cult for the Passion which astonished Monica, for she had net supposed him to be a deeply religious man. “If the Bible was divinely inspired, so was the Matthew Passion,” said he; “you’ve not only to know it note for note and rest for rest — you’ve to feel it in the furthest depths of your soul.” It was in this spirit that they worked.

The effect on Monica was deeply unsettling. As the great music took possession of her, it became a monumental rebuke to the life she was living. Without having done so consciously, she had moved far from the Thirteener faith; the altered conditions of her life shoved it into the background, and when she thought of it at all, it was the crudities of its doctrine, the sweaty strenuosities of Pastor Beamis, and the trashiness of its music which recurred to her. Not that she condemned it in such clear terms, for to have done so would have been to condemn her family, and her own former self. Loyalty was as strong in Monica as it had been when she declared to George Medwall that nothing would make her untrue or ungrateful to her home. Fifteen months was not long enough to shake that resolve, though it was long enough to give quite another colour to the situation. The Thirteener faith was like a shoddy and unbecoming dress which she had ceased to wear, but had not yet thrown out.

The bigotries of Ma Gall, and the palaverings of Beamis were not the whole of Monica’s religious experience, however. Christian myth and Christian morality were part of the fabric of her life, dimly apprehended and taken for granted behind the externals of belief. And it is what is taken for granted in our homes, rather than what we are painstakingly taught, which supplies the bones of our faith. Monica believed, as literal truth, that her Lord had died on the cross to redeem her, Monica Gall, from the Primal Sin of Adam; a life of devotion of His will was her duty and her glory; strict adherence to the Ten Commandments was the whole moral law; her sins were fresh wounds in the body of her wounded Lord. Because of the special nature of the Thirteener faith — the notion that historic time was an illusion, and that it was possible to “make contact” with Christ by living a godly life — Christ seemed at times to be awesomely and reproachfully present and palpable, grieved because she could not break through the prison of her own imperfection and exist fully with Him. She had not been much troubled by this sense of His imminence since she was sixteen, when she had been somewhat worried by sexual fantasy, but it returned to her now, with new strength, as she worked over the pages of the Passion.

The noble utterance of Bach wakened in her a degree of religious sensibility of which she had never previously been conscious. She had outgrown the Thirteeners and in one or two daring moments had thought of herself as finished with religion; but in the presence of this majestic faith she was an unworthy pygmy. She was overwhelmed, frightened and repentant. It seemed to her that there was something ominous and accusatory in the fact that Domdaniel had chosen her to appear as a False Witness.

“But why?” she asked Molloy. “It says in the score that the part is to be sung by an Alto, and it’s plain enough that I’m no alto. Has there been a mistake? Should we tell him?”

“No mistake at all,” Molloy replied. “You can sing the notes all right, and the other Witness is a very light tenor, so the balance will be better than if he was paired with some girl with a big, bosomy note. Ben knows what he’s doing; it’s that covered, chalumeau effect of your lower register that he wants — hints at something a bit spooky.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson