A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Monica had often heard of singers losing awareness of themselves while facing an audience — of losing the audience, and existing for that time only in their music. She had never quite believed it. But that was her own experience while she sang the three songs which she had, in her own mind, set aside as a memorial to her mother. She was back in the Faculty Room before she emerged from that inner calm. Humphrey Cobbler kissed her on the cheek and — sure sign in him of strong feeling — said not a word, but left her to herself.

Her tribute offered and her final peace made with the spirit, not departed but strongly present, Monica found the remainder of her recital pleasant and, all things considered, easy. She sang a group of settings of poems by John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Walter de la Mare which Giles had written for her, and their sombre beauty led the hearers out of the memorial atmosphere which had been created, and left them ready for Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, and the final group of songs, which was four Shakespeare lyrics, in settings by Purcell and Thomas Augustine Arne, which Giles had arranged from the gnomic and scanty original accompaniments. The audience had made up its mind after the memorial songs that it liked Monica — liked her very much and was proud of her — and the applause as she left the stage was warm, and mounting. There were even a few greatly daring, un-Canadian cries of “Bravo!” which Monica attributed, rightly, to Kevin and Alex.

“Sticking to plan?” said Cobbler.

“Yes; go back on the crest of the applause, and one good encore,” said Monica. This was a piece of practical wisdom from Domdaniel; Giles hated encores because they disturbed the shape of his pro­grammes; Molloy believed in singing as long as one delighted listener remained in the hall; the balance lay with Sir Benedict.

So, as the applause mounted for fifty seconds, until there was actually some stamping — stamping in Fallon Hall, and from a stiff-shirt audience at that! — Monica remained out of sight, judging the sound. And when it seemed to her that it would go no higher, she returned to the stage, amid a really gratifying uproar. Ushers moved forward with flowers; a large and uncompromising bunch from the Bridgetower Trustees, a very handsome bunch from Kevin and Alex, a bouquet containing a card which read, “With Love and Pride from the Old Heart and Hope Quarter” (which made Monica blush momen­tarily, for she had havered a little about inviting the Beamises) and two or three others. Cobbler, greatly enjoying the fun, for such recitals did not often come his way, helped her to pile them all on top of the piano, and she sang her single encore.

“Never sing below your weight in an encore; try to do something you haven’t done earlier in the evening; and try to sing something they’ll like but probably haven’t heard before.” These were the words of Domdaniel, talking to her about public appearances several months before. So Monica had determined to sing Thomas Augustine Arne’s Water Parted.

It was a song which she deeply loved, though Giles laughed at her for it. ” ‘May this be my poison if my bear ever dances but to the very genteelest of tunes — Water Parted, or the minuet in Ariadne’ “, he would say, to her mystification, until one night when he had taken her to the Old Vic to see She Stoops to Conquer, and had nudged her sharply when the line was spoken. But he had prepared an accom­paniment for it, for her special use, and had set it in a key which made the best use of what he called her “chalumeau register”, as well as the brilliance of her upper voice.

Water parted from the sea

May increase the river’s tide —

To the bubbling fount may flee,

Or thro’ fertile valleys glide.

Tho’ in search of lost repose

Thro’ the land ’tis free to roam,

Still it murmurs as it flows

Panting for its native home.

She sang it very well, though this was the first time she had ever sung it in public. She sang it as well, perhaps, as she ever sang it in her life, though in later years her name was to be much associated with it, and audiences were to demand it in and out of season. She performed that feat, given to gifted singers, of making the song seem better than it was, of bringing to it a personal significance which was not inherent in it. But Monica always protested that the song was great in itself, and that she merely revealed in it what had gone unnoticed by others, too hasty to make a personal appraisal of a song by a composer usually dismissed as not really first-rate. She was already, under Revelstoke’s guidance, developing a faculty of finding worth where others had missed it, and this was to give her repertoire a quality which was the despair of her rivals.

But there, in Fallon Hall, she sang Water Parted for the first time, and lifted her audience to an even greater pitch of enthusiasm.

“I think we may call it a triumph,” whispered Humphrey Cobbler, as they bowed again and again.


“An undoubted triumph!” cried Miss Puss Pottinger, as Monica was led by Cobbler into the Bridgetower home. The house was full of people — more people than had been in it since Mrs Bridgetower’s funeral — and they all appeared to be in that state of excitement which follows a really satisfactory artistic achievement. Their excitement varied, of course. There were those who talked of the concert, and there were those who talked of politics and the stock market; but all their talk was a little more vivacious, or vehement, or pontifical because of what they had experienced; music had performed its ever-new magical trick of strengthening and displaying whatever happened to be the dominant trait in them.

But Cobbler knew his work too well to allow Monica to be snatched from him. With the technique of a professional bodyguard he guided her to the stairway, rushed her up it, and into the little second-floor sitting-room where Solly and Veronica were waiting with food and drink.

Singers must eat, and there have been those among them who have eaten too much. As amorousness is the pastime of players of stringed instruments, and horse-racing the relaxation of the brass section of the orchestra, so eating is the pleasure, and sometimes the vice, of singers. After a performance, a singer must be fed before he or she can be turned loose among their admirers, or else somebody may be insulted, or even bitten. Cobbler had told Veronica that Monica would need something substantial, and preferably hot. So, in the upstairs sitting-room, a dish of chops and green peas, a salad, a plate of fruit and a half-bottle of Beaune were in readiness.

As Monica devoured them gratefully — for she had eaten nothing since mid-day, and had taken only a glass of milk at five o’clock — a close observer might have thought that even more than a meal had been prepared. When Solly had given Cobbler a drink, he said that they really must go and talk to their guests, and led the accompanist away, leaving Monica and Veronica alone.

Veronica was a poor diplomat, and she had small relish for the task before her; but she had undertaken it on behalf of her husband, and she decided that the best thing was to jump in with both feet, and get it over.

“Monica — I hope you don’t mind me calling you Monica — Solly and I want to ask a favour of you. A large favour, and it isn’t easy to ask. But — we’re terribly hard up. And we wondered if you could possibly lend us some money.”

Monica looked up, not appearing to best advantage with her mouth full. This was one development she had not foreseen.

“I know it must seem strange to you, but I suppose you have heard about the conditions of my mother-in-law’s will?”

Monica shook her head. “Not a whisper,” said she.

“You must be one of the few people who hasn’t heard something. But of course you’ve been out of the country. Still, I thought your — some of your relatives might have written to you about it. It seems to us — to Solly and me — that everyone knows about it. Well, it’s complicated, but it comes to this; the Trust which supports you has all Mrs Bridgetower’s money for its funds. When she died, my husband was left one hundred dollars, and that was all. It was a blow; I know you’ll understand that. But it wasn’t as though he was free. The money may come to him; it will come to him if we have a male child. Had you not heard anything of that?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson