A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Jesus Christ, Petri, come off it; and stop talking at me like a musical Mussolini, you fat –”

“Now Giles, now Giles,” said Domdaniel, “let’s not have a scene.”

“No, no, no; by no means; no, no, no,” said Signer Petri with the calm of a thunderstorm restraining itself.

Giles howled with laughter. “It only needed that!” he cried; “the ultimate touch of farce! No, no, let’s not have a scene. The Jew is cool as a cucumber; the Wop is a monument of marble calm. Only the Englishman has lost his phlegm. Why not have a scene? Give me one good reason. I’m the one who’s been wronged, and I’d bloody well like to have a bloody great scene.”

Signer Petri lifted the hand of a Roman consul. “You forget, Mr Revelstoke, the presence of the Signora Gowl,” said he. “Now listen to me: you will not conduct this opera again in this theatre, and by tomorrow night the orchestra parts must be restored to their proper condition, or my men will refuse to play. Perhaps you do not realize it, but tonight’s reception would have been disastrous if we had not been pulled through by our efficient claque. That is all I have to say. An apology to the company, to Gnecchi on behalf of the orchestra, to the Signora Render and a generous recognition to the leader of the claque — these things I leave to your own discretion. Signora. Sir Benedict.” With a splendid mingling of courtesy, and scorn for Giles, Signer Petri made his departure.

Giles was laughing again. His laughter seemed a little forced, but it did not stop until Sir Benedict spoke very firmly to him.

“Cut out that nonsense,” said he, “and stop playing the fool. Face the fact, Giles, you’ve made a mess of this business. The best thing you can do is take Petri’s advice and go around now and make your peace with everybody. Then we can all forget this fiasco and get ready for the job of putting those parts right tomorrow. It’ll take several hours, but if we all get down to it early, it can be done in plenty of time.”

“I’ve no intention of being the goat for you and Petri. Everybody seems to think themselves wronged in this matter. What’s the trouble with you? Surely you’ve gained face? The great Sir Benny can pull the company through anything; you don’t catch him messing about with scores. He’s even independent of the claque. Hurray for Benny!”

“I’ve lost face with Petri because I begged him to let you conduct. I personally guaranteed you. But that’s no matter. You’re perfectly right. You are the one who matters. And that’s why you had better start on a round of the dressing-rooms right now, smoothing things over.”

“Is that an order, Sir Benedict? Because if so you can relish the unusual experience of having one of your orders disobeyed. I’ll do no apologizing and no smoothing. Not even with the Signora Gowl. So you can get into your street clothes just as fast as you like, Monica, because I discern that the Big Boss is going to take you out for another of those charming little suppers at the Danieli, and you can both have a lovely time telling one another what a naughty boy I’ve been.”

“Now Giles, no use taking it out on Monica.”

“Oh no, let’s leave Monica out of it, of course. I’ve written an opera, and you’ve put the finishing touches on it. And I’ve made a singer, and you are in the process of putting the finishing touches on her. She’s been my mistress for nearly two years, but you always work best on somebody else’s material.”

“Giles, don’t talk like that,” said Monica.

“Why not? Why are we all so mealy-mouthed this evening? Go with Brum Benny if that’s what you want. He can do a great deal for you. Much more than I.”

“You’re being unreasonable and silly, and saying things you don’t mean,” said Monica. “I’m not going anywhere with anybody; I’m here for you. But I’m not here to encourage you to make a fool of yourself. Sir Benedict is right; this isn’t the end of the world. All you have to do is admit you tried something that didn’t work, and it’ll all be forgotten within a week.”

“Nobody is going to hold this against you,” said Sir Benedict; “not even Aspinwall.”

“What about Aspinwall?”

“He was here tonight. I didn’t mean to tell you. He had of course heard about the revisions — I mean the big re-writes, not the trivial things that you dispensed with tonight — and came to hear the work in its new form. A pity he came tonight. But I was talking with him, and he’s coming tomorrow night, so –”

“So he’ll hear The Golden Asse as it ought to be heard, under the baton of the great conductor and with all his personal ideas worked into it! This was all that was needed! You’ve been canoodling with Aspinwall!”

And Giles broke into a flow of obscene abuse against the critic which was remarkable even for him. His face, so white before, became blotched with red, and there were moments when it seemed that he must choke..

“Christ, this is the end,” he said, at last. “This has been a great night for me. You’ve grabbed my opera, you’ve grabbed my girl, and now you’ve been apologizing for me to the man I hate and despise most in the world. All right: take the lot!”

He made for the door, but Monica caught him before he could go.

“Wait just a minute,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”

“I don’t want you with me.”

“But I want to be with you.”

“Oh, you think I need you? The conceit of women! When a man is angry or down on his luck, he must need one of them. Get away from me. You’ve been insufferable ever since you came back from Canada with that potty little bit of money. Do you think I haven’t seen you playing the suffering saint all over the place, sacrificing yourself right and left, and thinking you were getting immortality in return? Because you gouged a tuppenny-halfpenny Canadian trust, you crooked little bitch? Not a penny of it came out of your hide. Because used your money to buy a good part in my opera, do you think I’m eternally sold to you? Oh, really, Monica, you’re even stupider than I’d supposed! Of course it was your money that got you into The Golden Asse; what else? Not your talent, I can assure you. Not your slatepencil squeal on a high D. Get out of my sight; your vapid mug makes me spew! I’ve made a passable singer of you, and taught you the elements of your other principal use. And I’m heartily sick of you.” This time he went.


Next morning at half-past nine (which is bright and early for people who have finished their previous working day at midnight) Sir Benedict and Monica were hard at it in Petri’s office, restoring the orchestral parts to their original form; Domdaniel dictated, Monica transcribed (those who have taken music from dictation know what fidgetty work it is) and Gnecchi gummed the freshly-written slips into their proper places on the music. By half-past four the job was done, and that evening the opera was performed, after a few early moments of nerves, better than ever before. It was not until Monica was back at her hotel that she had the time and the calm of mind to consider the scene of the night before.

Giles had disappeared. He had left no forwarding address, but had gone very early in the morning, presumably to catch a train. But what train no one could say, for at Padua he could have gone southward, or from Milan he could have made his way back to England. Sir Benedict had taken this news calmly.

“He’ll cool in the same skin he got hot in,” said he.

“You don’t think I ought to try to find him?”

“It will be easier for all of us, if we don’t meet for a few weeks. Do you particularly want to see him soon?”

“Yes; I’m worried about him.”

“What a forgiving nature you have.”

“No; he didn’t mean what he said. You know how terribly he exaggerates everything.”

“And so you’re willing to hunt him up, and let him make a doormat of you.”

“No, no; but I’d like to be sure that he’s all right.”

“Well, I never give advice in love affairs, but I’ve been in love myself, and it’s always useful to preserve your self-respect.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Sir Benedict.”

Of course he was right. She knew that Giles’ hard words about her buying herself into his opera were just the froth of his anger. Still, when all the anger had been discounted, might there not be some drop of truth left? Was that the way he really thought about her? Had he really endured her simply because she could bring him the money — little enough, in terms of the sums involved in staging even so modest a production as The Golden Asse — that he needed? No, that was unthinkable. If money was all he wanted, he need not have slept with her, and though he had never told her that he loved her, he had never concealed his pleasure in their physical union. Much more than a physical union it had become, and well she knew it; not only could Giles not conceal his need for her and his dependence on her tenderness and unquestioning adoration (for that was what it was, and she could not pretend otherwise) but the spite of Persis was strong corroborative evidence. Nevertheless, Monica had not the self-confidence or the detachment to trust her judgement in this matter. Who has, that is deeply in love? The love which is strong as steel under one assault may crumble like ash under the breath of another. Giles had touched Monica on her weakest point, which was her belief in her own worth as a woman, a lover; she was deeply convinced that she was, like Fotis in the opera, only a clumsy pretence-enchantress.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson