A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

She saw no musical angels, but she became conscious of the windows, so strong and jewel-like in colour. She was warmed and soothed by the dark splendour, and some of the pain in her head — the fullness and muddle — began to go away. She hated thinking, and was ashamed of hating it. But thought was like the Panthéon. Here was feeling, and feeling was reality. If only life could be lived in terms of those windows, of that aspiring, but not frightening, screen! If only things and feelings existed, and thoughts and judgements did not have to trouble and torture!

She was conscious of movement and sound nearby, but it was not for some time that she looked to see what it was. Quite close was a canopy, not very high, of stone, under which was a tomb, not particularly impressive. A grille surrounded it, but an old woman was reaching through this fence, as she knelt, and as she prayed she rubbed the stone gently with her arthritic hand. Tears stood in her eyes, but did not fall. A Negro came near, knelt until he was almost prostrate, prayed briefly, and left.

What could it be? Monica found a sacristan, and soon had her answer. It was the tomb of St Genevieve, the patroness of the city of Paris.

“Formerly in the Panthéon,” said the man, “but it was taken from there and publicly burned when the church was re-dedicated to Reason; the ashes and relics were brought here when all that foolishness was over.”

Then, in the darkness beneath the canopy, there was something of a saint? A saint who had found a haven here after the persecutions of Reason? She had never considered saints before. But, with a sense of awe and wonder that she had never known, Monica went to the tomb and, when no one was near, knelt and stretched her hand through the grille.

“Help me,” she prayed, touching the smooth stone, “I can’t think; I can’t clarify; I don’t know what I want. Help me to do what is right — No! Help me — help me –.” She could not put any ending on her supplication, for none would express what she wanted, because she did not know what she wanted.

Nevertheless, when she met Amy at the end of the afternoon, she seemed in splendid spirits, and Amy was convinced that she was forgetting Giles Revelstoke, and that the whole thing had been one of those fusses about very little, which were so common among girls who matured late.


Within three hours of her return to London, Monica was at the flat in Tite Street; her excuse was that it was hopeless to try to reach Revelstoke by telephone, and she must make her own arrangement about future lessons, or else give an embarrassing explanation to Domdaniel. Giles greeted her more warmly than he had ever done.

“I’ve something that I think you’ll like,” said he, handing her a bundle of music paper. It was a solo cantata for a soprano voice with piano accompaniment. She looked quickly through it; the manner was very much his own — the old solo cantata form, recitatives alternating with melodic passages, but in a modern idiom; she saw immediately that the tessitura of the lyric passages was unusually high and that the recitatives lay in a lower register. Yet it was for one voice.

“You haven’t looked at the title,” he said.

It read:


a setting of Coleridge’s poem, by

Giles Revelstoke


“A present,” said he. “We’ll work on it, and you’ll sing it the first time it’s heard which, if my plans don’t fall through, will be quite early next autumn — Third Programme again.”

She did not dare to ask if this were an amends for the quarrel before Easter. And what did it matter? She did not dare to ask if this meant that he loved her; even that did not seem to matter, now. The great fact was that he was in better spirits than she had ever known, and that they were to work together again. On something written specially for me — it was that voice which she had heard within herself before, that voice of which she was afraid, because it spoke so selfishly and so powerfully.

But — Oh, Saint Genevieve, was this your doing?

“There’s another thing,” said Giles. “I’ve been approached — only approached, mind you — by the Association for English Opera; they wanted to know if I had anything in their line. It was Discoverie that interested them; they were very complimentary.”


“Yes, I know. I can’t tell you what it was like, talking about it to people who really knew, and could understand what was implicit in it, as well as what was staring out of the score. The upshot of it was, they want something. Now don’t go off the deep end, because it’s all very tentative. I haven’t anything — not on paper — but I’ve been tinkering with a notion for years. So I’m to make a sketch, and rough out some of the scenes, and they’ll hear it. Wait, wait — don’t exult too much; there’s a sticker even if they like it. They’re broke. They can’t commission a new work, but they can do one if it’s up to standard. Production here; perhaps production in Venice. But I don’t see how it’s to be done.”

“But it must be done! It’s unthinkable that it shouldn’t. Why can’t you do it? Would it take too long? How long does it take to write an opera?”

“Well, Rossini used to knock one off in three weeks, when he was in form. It can also take any number of years. The one sure thing is that you have to live and eat while you’re doing it. If I’m to do this, I must give up all teaching — not that it brings in much — I’d have to give up everything else — bits of film work, editing, the lot. I’m a fairly rapid worker, but an opera is a back-breaker — worse than a symphony in lots of ways. And the costs can be staggering; copying the parts can eat up a packet. The Association is long on prestige, short on cash. I can’t expect help from them.”

“Would your mother help?”

“I’ve asked her, and she has sent me fifty pounds and a lecture, saying that there will be no more, and couldn’t I find a professorship in a conservatoire, or something. The worst of it is, Raikes are getting rough about the Lantern bill and I had to give them the fifty to keep them quiet.”

“Giles, with this on hand, you’ll have to give up Lantern.”

“That is what I positively refuse to do. Nothing would please Aspinwall better. He wants to kill Lantern, and I am not going to oblige him.”

“Giles, listen to me. Do you really think Lantern is so good? Why must you sacrifice to it? Because it is a sacrifice. People I know say it’s — only one of a lot of small magazines, and not the best, except for your things; everyone agrees they’re wonderful. Why can’t you give it up?”

“Because it is a personal mouthpiece which I value. I know that a lot of the stuff in it is tripe; do you suppose I really thrill to the off-key twanglings of Bridget Tooley’s lyre? Or even to Tuke’s tosh? You can’t tell me anything about Lantern that I don’t know. But I have said my say in it for four long years and I want to go on. I might have dropped it if Aspinwall had not so clearly revealed that he wants me to do so, but I shall keep it on to spite him, even if the opera goes up the flue in the process. No, if I write The Golden Asse, it must be done with Lantern still in existence.”

“The Golden Asse? Is that what it’s called? You have a story?”

“I have one of the oldest and best stories in the world; it is The Golden Asse, by Lucius Apuleius. I have been haunted by it since boyhood, and any operatic jottings I have done, have been done with it in mind.”

They talked long and eagerly, for Giles was off his guard as Monica had never known him to be. He was enthusiastic; he forgot to play the genius; he was — she was ashamed of herself for admitting the phrase, even mentally — almost human. But talk as they might, the ground never changed. He wanted to write his opera: he must somehow get money to live while doing so, and to pay the heavy costs involved: he would not give up Lantern because he was convinced that somewhere in London a malignant demon named Stanhope Aspinwall was consumed with the desire that he should do so.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson