A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Revelstoke was quick to see the change in her, and it was character­istic of him that as Monica’s reluctance to yield increased, so did his demands as a lover.

“I like you much better in this Lenten mood,” he said one afternoon, as she lay beside him, very near to tears. “For a while I had begun to doubt if you could make love in anything but the key of C Major, but this is a far, far better thing. Mr Revelstoke is pleased to report to the Bridgetower Trust that the pupil is making steady progress.”

Wretched and guilty as Monica had felt, these words filled her with a piercing delight. If this were sin, how sweet it was!


In the front row of the Oxford Bach Choir sat Monica, soberly dressed and self-possessed, a professional in the midst of amateurs. Behind her rose the ranks of undergraduates, dons male and female, dons’ wives and daughters, which comprised the Choir; before her was the orchestra, part local and part brought down from London, and rang­ing in demeanour from the splendid calm of the concert-master and the aloof grandeur of the harpsichordist to the fussy eccentricity of the player of the viol da gamba. High above them, and inconveniently placed for the conductor, was the organ-loft, into which the ripieno choir of boys had been packed. The Sheldonian Theatre was crowded with a university audience, so much odder and frowsier than a London audience, so young in the main, so long of hair, so fortified with scores of the Passion. Monica was conscious that many eyes had found her, and that she was looking very well. And why not? Had she not been made free of the room in the Divinity School where the London artists made ready for the performance? Had not Miss Evelyn Burnaby, the great soprano, spoken to her in the pleasantest terms, when Domdaniel had introduced them, and asked for help with a difficult zipper on the back of her gown? Monica felt every inch a professional, and concealed her surprise that the Sheldonian Theatre was not a theatre at all, as she understood the word, but a kind of arena which looked as though it might be used for some sort of solemn, academic circus. The ceiling was beautifully painted, and she had to check herself from gaping upward at it; everywhere in the building there were odd little balconies, pulpits and thrones; part of the audience was very high up, almost under the roof. Altogether a wonderful place in which to make one’s first, real professional appearance as a singer. Nothing at all to do with the Heart and Hope Quartet.

It was five minutes past eleven, and by that curious instinct which audiences have, silence fell suddenly and Sir Benedict Domdaniel, elegant in morning dress, walked to his place, raised his baton, and the introduction to the Passion, rising majestically from its first deep pedal-point, began. Monica’s knowledge of this music was intimate but remote, for she had heard it only as it sounded on Molloy’s piano and her own. She had rehearsed once with Domdaniel in London, again with a piano, but she had no conception of how it would sound with the heavy forces of organ, double orchestra and continue, and the double choir. The mighty, ordered grandeur came from every­where about her, and she seemed to shake and vibrate with it. It was a glorious and alarming experience. In her capacity as a very minor soloist she rose and sat with the choir, and sang with the sopranos, keeping her voice well down, both that she might not make mistakes through lack of rehearsal, and that its superior quality should not singularize it among the amateur choristers. Standing in the midst of these voices and instruments, she was conscious as never before of the power of music to impose order and form upon the vastest and most intractable elements in human experience.

She was conscious also, and for the first time, of why Domdaniel was regarded as a great man in the world of music. He conducted admirably, of course, marshalling the singers and players, succouring the weak and subduing the too-strong, but all that was to be expected. It was in his capacity to demand more of his musicians than might have been thought prudent, or even possible — to insist that people eased themselves, and to help them to do it — that his greatness appeared. With a certainty that was itself modest (for there was nothing of “spurring on the ranks” about it) he took upon himself the task of making this undistinguished choir give a performance of the Passion which was worthy of a great university. It was not technically of the first order, but the spirit was right. He had been a great man to Monica, for he could open new windows for her, letting splendid light into her life: but now she saw that he could do so for all these clever people, who thought themselves lucky to be allowed to hang on the end of his stick. Without being in the least a showy or self-absorbed conductor he was an imperious, irresistible and masterful one.

At one o’clock the performance halted, to be resumed again at half-past two. As soon as she left her place in the choir Monica was claimed by John Scott Ripon who bore her off to the George restaurant for lunch.

“Poached salmon and hock,” said he. “Fish is the only possible thing during the Passion, don’t you agree? And hock, to keep your pipes clear for your solo bit — just a single glass, because we don’t want you to be not only false but drunk. Now tell me all your news. How’s the ineffable Giles? Still the same old Satanic genius?”

“He’s well. Why do you inquire about him in that sneering way?”

“Well, Monny, you’re surely the last person to ask that, considering how he behaved toward you at Christmas. I’ve been doing a bit of research on him. Reading Lantern. Dreadful muck, most of it. Who’s this twit Tuke? I mean, how second-rate can you get? But Giles’ stuff is very good — very good, that’s to say, considering how old hat all that sort of thing is now.”

“Old hat? You think it’s old-fashioned?”

“Monny, it’s not as good as old-fashioned. It’s just plain out-of-date. All that preciosity belongs to the ‘twenties. The modern line for little mags and reviews is frightful dyspeptic anger and working-class indignation and despair and shameless gut-flopping self-pity — real Badly Behaved Child stuff. Lantern belongs to a much earlier, more romantic time, the Wicked Twenties, when every Englishman of the intelligentsia was ashamed of himself because he wasn’t a French­man; it belongs to the era when chaps boozed on absinthe, when they could get it, and wished they had the guts to take drugs. No, Lantern’s an oddity; I suppose there’s a public for it among chronic harkers-back and hankerers-after, but it is not going to attract anything really first-rate. Except for Giles. He can really write. Of course outsmarting the critics is always good fun, and popular, too. Nobody likes critics, and I seriously doubt if there is an artist of any kind worth his salt anywhere who wouldn’t poison every critic if he could. I mean, why not? You create something — it’s your baby. Then along comes some chap, quite uninvited, and points out to the world what a puny, rickety little shrimp it is. Of course you want to kill him. Critic-baiting is very good fun, and they’re easy game. But Giles does it in a rather old-fashioned style, all the same. He’s a man of the ‘twenties. A Satanic genius, as I said.”

“You mean he poses?”

“Certainly. Don’t we all? He just does it a bit more obviously and consistently than most.”

“You’re quite wrong, Johnny. His music isn’t a pose. It’s very fine. And that’s not just my own opinion.”

“Oh, quite. I don’t deny it for an instant. You saw what Aspinwall said about his broadcast piece? When Aspinwall takes him seriously, it’s important. Aspinwall is one critic that Giles can’t make a fool of. But that’s what’s so silly about Giles; he’s obviously a real genius — whether first, second or third-rate I don’t know, but certainly more than just a competent chap. But he has to act the genius, as well. And the way he plays the role isn’t the modern way. And maybe he isn’t play-acting. Ceinwen says that all that bad temper and sardonic laughter and nonsense is quite natural to him. It would be hard luck to look like a fake when you were simply being yourself, wouldn’t it?”

“You’ve been seeing Ceinwen?”

“Not seeing. Writing. But I am going to see her in the Easter vacation. Her father has asked me to stay for a bit.”

“Is it serious, Johnny?”

“Yes, it is, really. But I don’t know — I can’t imagine her in Louisiana, standing with her back against the wall of the family shoe factory.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson