A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Her resolution was strengthened by morphia, which Dr Cobbett ordered in doses sufficient to control her pain. But in her morphia dreams there detached itself from some submerged mass of fear and floated upward into Mrs Gall’s consciousness a notion that she was being held against her will in a bawdy-house, which was also a hospital, and where the wildest indecencies were demanded of her. She had too much cunning to confide these dreams to Nurse Heffernan, who would certainly have derided them, because of her professional stake in hospitals; she told them instead to her daughter Alice, during the eight hours of the night when neither nurse was on duty.

It was Alice who insisted that Monica should be sent for. She was not a bad or unkind daughter, but she took her duties as Charles Proby’s wife heavily, and she was impatient of what she considered “nonsense”. Not to go to the hospital was nonsense. To have de­lusions of being in a bawdy-house was nonsense. There were times when Alice was very close to thinking that being ill, which involved claims upon the time and charity of busy, ambitious young matrons, was nonsense. Nonsense had to be stopped. And why should she carry the weight of all this nonsense when Monica was living abroad, free of all care, thinking of nobody but herself?

“Every tub must stand on its own bottom,” said Alice, and went to see Mr Snelgrove. It was on the sixteenth day of Mrs Gall’s illness that Monica arrived home, and was greeted by her father with his pathetic cry of fear that Mrs Gall might die.

Dr Cobbett and the nurses seized upon Monica as a new ally. By this time Dr Cobbett was virtually certain that Mrs Gall had acute cholecystitis and might die even if she were now moved to the hospital. But it was his task to do everything in his power to save her, and he would have risked an operation at an even later date: it must also be admitted that he loved to have his own way, and wanted to beat down this insurrection against the righteous forces of Hygeia.

Monica would not be bustled. She was a strange figure now in the stuffy little house. Her manner of speech, her clothes, her demeanour were all at odds with it. Nurse Gourlay did not dare to bully her; Nurse Heffernan, who had a feudal streak in her, accepted Monica as the mistress, to be heeded right or wrong. Monica took on the night nursing.

“Monny, are you there?”

“Yes, Ma, right here.”

“Monny, you won’t let ’em take me to that place?”

“No, Ma; don’t worry.”

“I’ve been there. I was there this afternoon. But I run away. I run away in my night-gown. A couple o’ fellas in the hall seen me, and they tried to grab me. Was it bad? — Monny, was it bad?”

“Was what bad, Ma?”

“Was it bad they seen me in only my night-gown?”

“No, no; not bad. It was only a dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream. I was there. Monny, when they get you in there they make you do awful things. It’s a bad-house. There was girls there I used to know. Kate Dempster was there, flirtin’ her tail just like she used when we was girls. Kate’s a bad girl. Am I a bad girl, Monny?”

“No, Ma, you’re a good girl.”

“Are you a good girl, Monny?”

“Yes, Ma, I’m a good girl.”

“Then why do you talk so funny? You’re talkin’ all the time waw-waw-waw so I can’t make you out. You ain’t Monny!”

“Yes, yes dear, I’m Monny. You mustn’t upset yourself. I’m Monny and I’m right here.”

“No you ain’t. Monny don’t talk like that. You’ve sent Monny away! And I’m a bad girl, and they’ll put me in the bad-house!”

“Quiet, dear. Let me give you a sip of this. Just a sip.”

“I’m a bad girl. — Monny, will I die?”

“No, dear, of course not. You had a very good day today.”

But it was not a good day. It was what Dr Cobbett called “a remission”.

The period of remission lasted for seven days. To the nurses the vomiting, the bloating, the wasting away of flesh, the groaning and the recurrence of pain were the accustomed circumstances of serious illness. To Alfred Gall, who had never seen his wife in such straits, it was an agony for which he could find no expression. Morning and night he would go to the door of her room, look at the inert form in the bed and listen to its heavy breathing, after which he would creep away, his face marked with fear and loss. Only his sister Ellen had power to raise any hope in him. Alice was impatient of his spiritlessness; it was her temperament to talk about troubles, and to find relief in talk; she had no understanding of her father’s stricken silence. Monica was gentle with him, but her energies were saved for the long vigils at her mother’s bed-side.

Not all of their talks in the night were coloured by Mrs Gall’s semi-delirium. True, most of what was said was in the pattern of fear and delusion, countered by love and reassurance. But for Monica her mother’s rational spells were more exhausting than her wanderings, for in them it was emphasized and re-emphasized that to her mother she was now in part a stranger. Her manner of speech had changed, and Mrs Gall could not be comforted easily in the new, clear, warm speech which Monica had been at such pains to learn; but she could not undo it, could not go back to the speech of her home, for the new speech had become the instrument of the best that was in her mind, and heart. It seemed to her cruel and shameful that it should be so, but she was forced to admit the fact; it was so. To speak as Ma wanted her to speak was not only difficult, but it was a betrayal of Revelstoke, of Domdaniel, of Molloy and all the poets and musicians who stood behind them in time. Did she love these things more than her own mother? She put the question to herself, in those words, many times, but never dared to give either of the possible answers. Loyalty demanded that she give love, and she gave it as fully as she was able.

Loyalty demanded truth. But Mrs Gall, fearing death, returned again and again to incidents in her own life, at which she could only bring herself to hint, though in delirium their nature was revealed a little more clearly. She was convinced that she had sinned unforgiv­ably, and that her sins were sexual in their nature. She named no names, spoke of no incidents; perhaps there had been none. But during her lifetime the only morality to which she had ever given a moment of serious thought, or to which she had ever paid solemn tribute, was a morality of sexual prohibition; she felt now that she had not been true to it, yet she could not confess her transgression or give clear expression to her remorse. Instead, she accused her­self vaguely, and suffered in the tormented images of her morphia dreams.

She was specific in her demands and exhortations to Monica, however. Was Monica a good girl? The question came again and again when she was partly conscious, and thus phrased, from Mrs Gall, it could have only one meaning. Monica had no intention of saying that, in her mother’s terms, she was not a good girl. But she had to meet the question in her own mind. Was she? To say yes was disloyal to home, to the woman who was in such distress at her side. But there were seven of these weary nights, and before the last Monica was sure of her answer. She was a good girl. Chastity is to have the body in the soul’s keeping; Domdaniel had said it, and everything in her own experience supported it. And this decision, more than anything else, divided Monica from her mother when her mother most needed her. Her mother’s idea of good and bad would not do for her.

If these ideas were invalid for her, what else that was valid had her mother to give her? Nothing, thought Monica; not with any sense of freedom, of breaking a lifelong bondage, but sadly and with pity for her mother and herself. But on the sixth night, after a brief period of sleep, Mrs Gall opened her eyes, and looked at her daughter more clearly than she had done since her homecoming.

“I been asleep.”

“Yes, Ma. Do you feel a little rested?”

“Was I talkin’ foolish a while ago?”

“The hypodermics make you dream, dear.”

“And I guess I go on pretty wild, eh?”

Monica was about to deny it, but she looked into her mother’s eye, and saw a twinkle there. Mrs Gall laughed, feebly but unmistakably.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson