A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

And although Monica was rebellious, she obeyed.

The fact was that the small engagements and sources of income which Giles gave up to work on his opera — some examination of manuscripts for a music publisher, some arranging of music for the BBC, scores for documentary films, and some occasional critical writing outside Lantern — might have brought him twenty pounds or so a month. Monica was providing him with about twice that sum, but it all vanished without anybody seeming to be better off. The same hand-to-mouth methods of finance continued; for Monica, who understood the management of money best, was not asked to take charge of it. Nor did it ever seriously occur to her that it should be so.

Monica never thought of herself as keeping Giles; she thought of it as financing the creation of The Golden Asse, which went swimmingly. Giles worked very hard, and during the time when he should have been teaching her (and he was still sending his bills to Domdaniel for her lessons) she kept up her work for Lantern, and provided him with food, comfort and companionship in bed. But other people thought of the situation quite differently, as she discovered within a few weeks.

Ripon had written to her soon after their meeting in Oxford, to ask her to go with him to the Vic-Wells Ball; he had been asked to go with a party, and wanted a partner. She grudged the money for the costume-hire, but when Ripon called for her, not very happily dis­guised as a toreador, she was ready in an outfit which included a large panniered skirt and a tricorne hat, which the costumier called a Venetian Domino.

The ball was held in the Albert Hall, not very far from Courtfield Gardens, and when they arrived the floor was well filled with those characters inseparable from such occasions. There were soldiers and sailors of all sorts, whole tribes of gypsies, Harlequins and Columbines in all shades, and platoons of Pierrots; there were fifteen or twenty head of Mephistopheleses, and quite as many Gretchens; Cavaliers and Roundheads abounded. These were the staples, the bread-and-butter, of disguise. In addition there were the lazy people who had come as monks, or simply as robed figures, and the over-zealous people who had come in costumes so ingenious and original that they could neither sit down nor dance, but wandered the floor smirking self-consciously, and hoping to be admired. The saddest of these was a gentleman whose costume consisted of a clever arrangement of Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells programmes; people kept stopping him to read the fine print, and to debate about what it said, quite as if he were not inside it. There were homosexuals in pairs and singly, their eyes — they hoped — speaking volumes to understanding hearts. A few Lesbians swaggered menacingly in very masculine costumes, smacking their riding-boots with whips. A pitiful little man, dressed with loving care to resemble Nijinsky in L’Après Midi d’un Faune, crept about in a contorted posture, meant to remind the beholder of the best-known picture of the great dancer in that part; but it was pathetically apparent that he had a crooked spine. Like all costume balls, it was a fascinating study in self-doubt, self-assurance, thwarted ambition, self-misprision, well-meaning ineptitude and, very occasionally, imagination or beauty.

Monica found it dull. A year ago she would have exulted in such an affair, but tonight she thought it rather silly, and was annoyed that Ripon had to wear his spectacles with his costume if he were not to trip over things and tumble on the stairs.

When he had gone to fetch drinks, she stood in one of the upper corridors, wondering how soon it would be before she could decently ask to be taken home. She was conscious that the door of a box near her had been opening and shutting indecisively, but she was taken unawares when a stumpy Mephistopheles burst from it, seized her arm, and dragged her inside. They were at the back of the box, which was otherwise unoccupied, and at a little distance, over the railing, the full rampaging splendour of The Veleta was to be seen. The Mephistopheles snorted within his mask for a moment, then seized Monica and kissed her.

She was too surprised to resist, conscious chiefly of the hot-buckram-and-glue smell of the mask, and when the Mephistopheles clutched at her again, she stumbled backward into a chair, bearing him down with her.

“It’s about time,” snorted the figure, in a Cork accent which could only belong to one person known to Monica.

“Mr Molloy!” she cried.

“You’d better call me Murtagh,” said the Mephistopheles, tearing off his mask, and showing a very red face. “We’ve some business together, my girl, that’s waited long enough.” He made another dart forward and thrust his hand deep into the bosom of the Venetian Domino. It was an inexpert move, too vigorous; the hooks on the back of her gown burst, and his hand stopped not far from Monica’s stomach. She seized his arm and removed it.

“Whatever is wrong,” said she. “Are you ill?”

“B’God I’m not ill, but I’m fed up,” said Molloy. “Seein’ you day after day, growin’ lovelier and lovelier and — oh hell! Monica, you’ve got to be good to me; that fella’ll ruin you, and never think the toss of a button about it. I could love you — I could teach you — God, there’s nothing I’d not do for you! You’ll say I’m old, but it’s not the truth. I could be young for you, my darlin’, I could! Be kind to me; I’m begging you!”

He looked almost ill, as he squirmed on his knees on the floor in front of her, and he seemed to be in a torment of passion that was partly physical desire, for at one point he seized Monica’s right leg beneath her skirt and kneaded it painfully. He smelled of drink, but it was not drink that ailed him.

“Mr Molloy, what can I do for you? You mustn’t go on like that. Tell me what’s the matter. No! Stop that, or I’ll have to go away.”

He raised a terrible, tear-swollen face to her, and groaned. “I want you,” he said. “I love you.”

“But — you mustn’t; it won’t do.”

“Oh, it won’t do, won’t it? Well, if you don’t want to be decent, b’God we’ll be indecent! And no surprise to you, either. It won’t be the first time for you, nor the tenth, nor the hundredth, so shut up and keep still!”

So this is rape, thought Monica, strangely cool, as she was dragged down upon the fusty carpet of the box. The Venetian Domino outfit included a large lace fan, mounted on heavy sticks, a formidable bludgeon; she cracked Molloy smartly over the skull with it, as he snuffled and puffed above her. His face grew small with pain; all its features seemed to draw together; she gave him a shove and he rolled over on the floor, still too hurt to utter.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Monica, in what she felt to be a schoolmistressy way. But what was there to say? “What ever made you do such a beastly thing?”

But Molloy could not answer. She wriggled over the floor, impeded by her large panniered skirt, to a point where she could hold his head in her lap and nurse it. After a time he was able to open his eyes. And again she asked him: “What made you do such a thing?”

“I love you,” he sobbed, with tears of pain and despair running down his cheeks. “Oh.God, you can’t know what I’ve been through, with the thought of you and that fella. — And now they say you’re keepin’ him; your fancy-man. — Shouldn’t I have known what was goin’ on, the way your lower octave kept gettin’ stronger and richer? — If you’re meat for him, why the hell aren’t you meat for me? I could do miracles for you. I could make you famous. I wouldn’t drag you down and ruin you. — But I’m just an old fella to you — an old fool. Aw God, that’s the hell of it.”

He wept, and Monica wept with him, but it cannot be pretended that they understood each other. Two puritanisms were in conflict, and could not meet. But under that, in a realm below the morality which was bred in the bone, they wept for the sadness of all un­requited love, all ill-matched passion, and the prancing rhythm of The Veleta mounted to them like the indifference of a world where all loves were happy.

The door of the box opened a crack, and someone peeped in; then it opened fully, and admitted a short figure in a purple domino and a mask. Outside the mask it wore a gleaming pair of steel-rimmed spectacles.

“Get up outa that, Murt, and come on home,” said the figure.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson