A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Monica found herself in the role of confidante, and being young she had little patience with it, unless she were given an opportunity to confide in return. It was over the coffee that she told Ripon about herself and Giles, and said a little about the religious scruple which was troubling her. His reply had that clarity, objectivity and reason­ableness which is possible only to advisers who have completely missed the point.

“If it makes you unhappy, break it off. You’re a charmer, you know, Monny, in your quiet way; it’s a quality you have of looking as if you could say a devil of a lot if you chose, but had decided not to — a kind of controlled awareness; so you don’t have to behave as if Giles was the only pebble on the beach. You’ll have dozens of chaps after you. What if he is a genius? Being a genius doesn’t excuse being a bastard. Not that we should be too hard on him. I mean, how would you like to be the son of Dolly Hopkin-Griffiths, who doesn’t know one note from another, and wants you to settle down to honest work? And I’m sure he hates old Griff, though Ceinwen says not. But it’s a Hamlet situation, as I told you at Christmas. And what he’s taking out on you is his resentment against Dolly, for being unfaithful to Daddy.

“But the religious business — I’d pay it no mind, if I were you. You’re an artist, Monny. You’ll have to shake off that Fundamentalist stuff. If you are of a religious temperament, be religious like old Bach, not like a grocer with a hundred thousand recollections of short-weight chewing at his vestigial conscience. No, no; live in the large, Monny; dare greatly; sin nobly.” Johnny had finished the bottle of hock, and was shouting a little.

No, Johnny simply did not understand. Be religious like old Bach! As the afternoon session of the Passion got under way the religion of old Bach seemed more than Monica could bear. The pathos of the Prologue to the Second Part worked searchingly within her, as the voice of the contralto soloist (Miss Emmie Heinkl, herself, if the truth were known, the mistress of a director of the Midland Bank) repeated —

Ah, how shall I find an answer

To assure my anxious soul?

Ah! where is my Saviour gone?

Quickly followed the recitative in the Court of Caiaphas, then the chorale begging for defence against evil, and then — Christ’s Silence Before Caiaphas, and the False Witnesses! She could not stand; she could not sing; she was unworthy, and what might be forgiven in others could never be forgiven in her! Terror seized her. She must not sing; she was unworthy!

But when the moment came she stood, she sang — and sang well — and sat again. For the remainder of the Passion her head throbbed, she was in misery, and she feared that she might burst into tears.

She was surprised when, after the performance, Sir Benedict offered her a seat in his car for the drive back to London; she was still more surprised to find that no one else was to drive with them.

“You were very nervous,” said he, as they sped toward Abingdon.

“I didn’t think I could utter.”

“But you did. That’s Molloy’s training. That’s being a pro.”

“I was afraid of the music.”

“Well you might be. So was I.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes. Not of the choir or the orchestra, or anything like that, of course. But I never conduct the Passion or the B Minor without a sensation that the old Cantor is listening. It’s not the kind of thing I readily admit to, because if publicity people got hold of it, the result could be very sticky. But I’m telling it to you, because this was your first public performance of any consequence, and I think it may be helpful to you. Don’t make sloppy nonsense of it, but remember, sometimes, when you sing, that if the composer were listening you’d want him to be satisfied with you. Don’t presume to guess what his answer might be. Don’t conjure up silly visions of him nodding his peruke and saying ‘Well done!’ But use it as an exercise in humility. That’s what all of us who perform in public must pray for at dawn, at high noon, and at sunset — humility.”

“It was humility that nearly finished me today. Sir Benedict, may I ask you a very personal question? I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I truly want to know.”


“With the Passion, does it make a very great difference to you — not being a Christian?”

“Ah, I gather that the widespread notion that I am a Jew has reached you. As a matter of fact, I’m the second generation of my family to be baptized and safe in the respectable bosom of the Church of England — just like that eminently respectable fellow Mendelssohn. But to speak honestly, I’m nothing very much at all, which is reprehensible on all counts. Theologians and philosophers are terribly down on people who are nothing at all. But I find it’s the only thing that fits my work. I tackle the Passion like a Christian — quite sincerely; but I don’t carry it over into my fortunately rare assaults on Also Sprach Zarathustra. One’s personal beliefs are peripheral, really, if one is an interpreter of other men’s work; Bach was devout, but it is far more important for me to understand the quality of his devotion than to share it.”

“Mr Molloy says you must feel the Passion in the very depths of your soul.”

“Quite true, but don’t interpret Murtagh simple-mindedly. He knows perfectly well that you can feel Hamlet without believing in ghosts.”

“I see. At least, I think I see.”

“But what about you — for I assume that this inquiry about me is leading up to something about yourself. What about you and the Passion? You’ve been brought up something tremendously devout and Bibliolatrous, if I recollect aright. You mentioned humility nearly wrecking your performance today. Of course it couldn’t have been humility. What was the trouble?”

“I’m in a muddle about my personal life.”

“Still in love with Revelstoke?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Is it serious?”

“As serious as it can be.”

“And I take it from your manner that he doesn’t reciprocate?”

“He doesn’t feel as I do.”

“How does he feel? Now please don’t cry. And what has this got to do with humility?”

“The music — I’m afraid I’m living a very wrong sort of life — and the music made me feel despicable.”

“I’m driving, and I simply can’t do anything about it if you’re going to cry. However, you will find a handkerchief in my left-hand topcoat pocket, and there are others in my portmanteau. But I most earnestly beg you not to cry, but to listen very carefully to me. First, despising yourself isn’t humility; it’s just self-dramatizing. If you’re living in what is pompously called sin with Revelstoke, you’d better be sure you are enjoying it, or you will soon find that you have neither your cake nor your penny. I’ve seen a great deal of sin, one way and another, and the biggest mug in the world is the sinner who isn’t getting any pleasure from it. I’m not taking your situation lightly, though you may think so. I’m talking sense, but I’m too old to get any pleasure out of playing the sage, and making heavy weather with my trifle of worldly experience. My best advice to you is: clarify your thinking about your situation, and act as good sense dictates. Don’t torture yourself with vulgar notions about what the neighbours will think, but get this maxim into your head and reflect on it: chastity is having the body in the soul’s keeping — just that and nothing more.”

They talked all the way to London in this strain. Monica explained, and Sir Benedict advised, but nothing new was said. When at last he stopped at Courtfield Gardens he summed up:

“Remember: you must clarify your thinking. I know it’s the last thing you want to do, but you must do it. If necessary, take a couple of weeks off and go to Paris. Get away from him, and see things in perspective. And when you’ve made up your mind, stick to your decision. And finally, don’t suppose that I’m going to allow this to wreck your work, because I won’t.”

Within an hour, Monica had gone to Tite Street, and discovered Giles in bed with Persis Kinwellmarshe. There was a quarrel of proportions and ferocity of which Monica had never dreamed. It ended with Giles telling her that her chief trouble was that she had no sense of humour.

Two days later she flew to Paris.


Paris in Spring is not an easy place in which to nurse a grudge against oneself. Monica arrived with a long face and a heart full of what she conceived to be self-hatred, but her spirits began to rise almost as soon as she was in Amy Neilson’s pretty house in St Cloud, and before the first evening was over she had confided her trouble to that wise and capable woman. She had not meant to confide; she had fully meant to grapple with the problem alone. She was humiliated by her readiness to spill her story to anyone who might be sympathetic; it seemed so weak. But Amy was an American and a woman, and might understand better than Ripon, who was a man, or Domdaniel, who was English. A little to her surprise, Amy came down flatly on the side of conventional morality.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson