A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Yes, you were pretty wild, Ma.”

“You bet I was. I’ve got quite an imagination. That’s where you’re like me, Monny. Always remember that. You got that from me.”

Tears came into Monica’s eyes; they were tears of happiness, for at last she shared something with her mother. She wept, and laughed a little, as she said —

“Yes Ma, I got that from you. We’re very alike, aren’t we?”

“Yes, I guess we are.”

The period of remission ended, unmistakably, a few hours later, on the morning of the seventh day, and Dr Cobbett said that peritonitis, which would certainly be fatal, had come, as he had expected it would under the circumstances. The family last saw Mrs Gall, leaden grey, with eyes partly closed and seemingly already dead, though the doctor called it “shock”. She died at four o’clock the following morning. Only Monica was with her then.


“I think it is my duty to emphasize once again that this need not have happened,” said young Dr Cobbett as he prepared to fill out the certificate of death.

“My mother was always used to having her own way,” said Monica, “and there is no point in discussing that now. The decision was mine, made according to her wishes, and if you feel that this matter should be carried any further, I shall be ready to answer any official questions.”

Dr Cobbett did not want to pursue the matter. All he wanted was an admission that he had been in the right, and he saw that he was not going to get it. So he continued.

“How old was your mother?”

Monica did not know. It had always been understood that it was “bold” to want to know the ages of one’s parents; it was like uncover­ing their nakedness, in the Bible. When Aunt Ellen was consulted, Monica was surprised to learn that her mother was fifty-six. Then when Monica was born, Mrs Gall had been thirty-three — ten years older than her own age, attained last December. Mrs Gall, fat and toothless, her hair streaked with grey, had somehow seemed to be without age — a mother.

“I guess living with Dad wasn’t much incentive to her to keep herself up,” said Alice.

After her first outburst of grief, Alice was unpleasantly practical. Mr Gall could not be sent off to work on such a day, but neither could he be endured in the house, which must be made ready for the funeral. It was Alice who packed him off to her house, with compli­cated instructions about what he was to do for little Donald. Aunt Ellen, too, stayed away from her work, and it was Alice who put her at the job of calling and telegraphing the necessary relatives, from her own home. This, Alice explained to Monica, was more convenient and meant also that Aunt Ellen would pay for the telegrams; it could be her share of the funeral expenses.

At nine o’clock on the morning of their mother’s death, Alice prepared coffee for herself and Monica, and sat down to make plans.

“The funeral can be from Queen Street United,” she said; “I’ll get Reverend Calder on the phone right away.”

“But why?” said Monica. “Why not from the Tabernacle? Mother never had anything to do with Queen Street United.”

“Monny, let’s face it. Do we want Ma’s funeral to be a Thirteener circus, with Beamis spreading himself all over the place? You remember old Mrs Delahaye’s funeral? — Well?”

“But that was her church, Alice. That’s what she’d want.”

“What makes you so sure? I’ve heard her say things about Beamis that certainly didn’t sound as if she had much use for him.”

“But wouldn’t it seem odd?”

“Not half as odd as a Thirteener funeral. Chuck and I go to Queen Street United. We could arrange it.”

“I don’t see it that way, Alice.”

“What’s it matter to you? You’re independent. You’ll be away out of this as soon as you can get. But I’ve got to live here. Listen Monny — Chuck’s boss will probably be attending this funeral. I don’t want him coming to the Thirteener Tabernacle, and getting the idea that those are the people we associate with.”

“Alice, you’re a snob!”

“Who’s talking? Lady Haw-haw-haw; even when she was out of her head Ma used to make fun of you, right up till the last. Snob? Listen, I’ve got my own way to make. I’m not being carried by anybody else’s money. And I’ll tell you another thing, just while we’re speaking our minds: I think Ma ought to have been put in the hospital, so there.”

“Then why didn’t you put her in yourself, before I came home?”

“Because Dad insisted on waiting for you. You’ve always been the Big Mucky-Muck around here, and now you’ve got this Trust behind you, Dad and Ma were scared of you. It had to be Monny’s decision. Well, you decided, and a fine mess you made of it. If you’d used common sense Ma would be well and strong now, and not dead upstairs. If you want my straight opinion, you killed Ma.”

“Alice, you’re over-excited. I did what I did out of kindness; I swear it.”

“I never said you didn’t. But Ma won’t be the first one that’s been killed by kindness.”

But the final arrangement was for a funeral at the Thirteener Tabernacle. It was not a complete victory for Monica. Pastor Beamis, who knew nothing of Alice’s desire to displace him as spiritual adviser to the family, took his position for granted, and began to plan a service; he wanted Monica to sing a solo, and preferably two; he wanted to get the Heart and Hope Quartet together again, to make a special re-appearance at the graveside; it would draw a record crowd, he said, and what a comfort that would be to Brother Gall. Monica did not refuse without consideration; she fought with herself for the greater part of a day, but in the end she refused. Her reason was that she did not feel that she could control her voice well enough to sing upon such an occasion. But the inner voice, increasingly powerful in her thoughts, said: Don’t be a hypocrite; you’re ashamed of them.

The inner voice was cruel. So often it put the worst construction on everything, and in that respect it was like a conscience. But it spoke no morality which Monica could associate with a conscience — unless, somewhere, she were developing a new conscience, suited to her new needs. But if that were the case, why was the voice so often cruel? Sometimes it spoke with the unmistakable tones of her Mother, but in this instance it used the voice of Giles Revelstoke.

The three days before the funeral were tiring, after the long trial of Mrs Gall’s illness. Ineffectual as he was, decency demanded that Mr Gall be consulted about the more important arrangements, and it was his wish that the funeral be held partly at the house and partly at the Tabernacle. Alice wanted it to be at the undertaker’s chapel which, she pointed out, was so undenominational that you could imagine yourself anywhere. But in this last bid for social advancement she was defeated.

She and Monica bickered all the time, and quarrelled at least once a day. Their worst encounter was at the undertaker’s, when they were choosing a coffin.

“Can you show us anything in oak?” said Alice.

The undertaker could show them something in oak; he mentioned the price.

“I don’t think we want anything as expensive as that,” said Monica.

“Who’s we?” said Alice; “I think it’s very nice.”

“It’s too expensive. Dad shouldn’t be burdened with that on top of every thing else.”

“Who said Dad’s going to be burdened? Who do you think is paying for this?”

“We all are, I suppose; we’ll have to arrange some system of shares.”

“Listen, Monny, we’re all paying according to what we have. Aunt Ellen has done telegrams. Chuck and I are looking after flowers at the house and the church. Dad’ll have all he can manage settling up for the doctor and nurses, even with his insurance. That means that this is your share. See?”

“You mean I’m paying for the funeral?”

“None of the rest of us have got a sugar-daddy.”

“But Alice — the Trust money isn’t for private expenses. Mr Snelgrove would never allow it. I had no idea you were thinking like this!”

“If you don’t know how to get money without saying what it’s for by this time, you’d better learn. Chuck’ll tell you, if you want; he’s a banker and he knows how these things are done. Now get this through your head; you’re not going to bury Ma on the cheap. You’re the rich one; well, you can just spend some of it on Ma. It’ll be the last thing you can do for her and you’d better just make up your mind to do it right. It’ll be sure to get around if you don’t: you can depend on that.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson