A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

There were potters who wanted to study in England, and weavers who wanted to study in Sweden. There was a jeweller who did not want to be a goldsmith or a silversmith, but said she was “very hot on design”. The nearest thing to a sculptor was a young man who had done some interesting things in soap and saw no reason to go beyond this convenient medium. There were some genuine painters, and one real etcher. There were a few musicians, but all were over-age. The writers supplied depressing, ill-spelled and dirty manuscripts of their work, all of which seemed to be intended for poetry. There was one girl who wanted to be a recreation director and felt that a few years among the folk-schools of Europe would be good both for her and Europe. There were five girls who, representing themselves as writers, were in fact scholars who wanted to use the money for projects of research. There were dancers, one of them specializing in what she called “modern ballroom and tap”. There was a girl who wanted to perfect herself in the use of the piano-accordion and the electric guitar. All expressed themselves in terms of inordinate ambi­tion unfettered by modesty, and promised great achievement if they should be chosen.

It took the executors three weeks’ work to reduce the applications to a short list. Solly could have done it in a night, but the others disapproved of his frivolous way of howling with delight or despair as he read the letters. They insisted that, in fairness to everybody and in keeping with the solemnity of their position, each letter should be read aloud and seriously discussed. This gave Miss Puss great oppor­tunities to reflect on the quality of the young people of today, and to compare them, much to their disfavour, with the young people she had known at the turn of the century. Mr Snelgrove also felt it necessary to say his say on this congenial theme; although he com­plained tirelessly about the amount of time the proceeding took, he could not keep away from it. Solly explained to him that, as he was not an executor, it was not necessary for him to attend all of these sorting meetings, but the lawyer did not choose to understand the hint. It was clear that he loved it, for it fed his sense of importance. It began to appear, also, that he was proving to the ghost of Mrs Bridgetower that as she had chosen to oppress him, he could suffer with the best of them. He was also ticking up the legal expenses involved in settling her will.

When at last the short list was agreed upon, it was very short indeed. It contained only two names — Nicole John, who wanted to be an architect, and Birgitta Hetmansen, who was a painter.

Miss John exploded within a week. In reply to Snelgrove’s letter, asking her to meet the executors for a preliminary talk, there came a reply from her father saying that his daughter’s health would make the acceptance of any such benefaction entirely out of the question; he expressed huffy surprise that the executors had not thought of consulting him before entering into a plan to take his daughter from her home. Nothing further was seen or heard of Miss John.

Miss Hetmansen was a different matter. She appeared with a large portfolio of her work, and photographs of pictures which she had sold. She had some newspaper clippings in which her drawings and paintings were given favourable criticism. She had a very good letter from her teacher. She was a dark, personable, quiet girl and she pleased Miss Puss by comporting herself like a lady — not a lady of Miss Puss’s own era, but the nearest thing that could be expected in these dark days.

She knew what she wanted. Her desire was to go to Paris, and she could name the teachers with whom she wanted to study, and knew where they were to be found. In all, the executors had three meetings with Miss Hetmansen, and at the last of these her teacher appeared, and spoke of her in high terms. The executors were delighted. It looked as though they had found their swan.

But one day Solly was called to the telephone to speak to Miss Puss. “We must have a meeting at once,” said she; “I have terrible news.” When the executors had gathered a few nights later, she brought out this news with a great show of reluctance. She had it on good authority that Miss Hetmansen was not a virgin.

“Does it matter?” said Solly.

“Let us never forget that the Louisa Hansen Bridgetower Trust is the creation and memorial of a woman who stood for everything that was finest in Canadian life,” said Miss Puss. “We are certainly not going to spend one cent of her money on a hussy.”

“She’s not a hussy,” said Solly. “She’s very nice. You said so yourself.”

“Any girl of whom it is possible to say what I have just said, when she is a mere twenty years old, is a hussy,” said Miss Puss. She then fixed the Dean with a bloodshot green eye, and continued, with menace. “And if this is brought to a vote, don’t suppose that you men can overrule me. I’ll take it to the courts for a decision, if need be. Perhaps you care nothing for these things, but I knew Louisa’s mind as none of you ever did.” She was ready for war. “If you are afraid to tell this girl that she is not acceptable, and why, I am quite ready to take that duty on myself.”

But it was agreed that this would be unnecessary. Miss Hetmansen’s letters and pictures were returned to her by mail, with a note saying that if she heard nothing further from the executors within seven days, it would mean that her application had been unsuccessful. Miss Hetmansen was not a fool. She knew why she had been refused. She had succumbed to the importunities of her teacher coolly, and almost absent-mindedly, with a vague feeling that an affair might do something for her colour sense. Apparently all it had done was to lose her a lot of money, and make her teacher untrust­worthy as a critic of her work. She did not really care. She had great faith in her talent and she would get to Paris anyway. She was not the gossipy sort, but she remarked to a few people that the Bridgetower Trust, as it had now begun to be called, was primarily a good conduct prize, and strictly for amateurs.

And thus the trustees were left without a candidate, and it was June.


A superstitious belief persists in Canada that nothing of importance can be done in the summer. The sun, which exacts the uttermost from Nature, seems to have a numbing effect upon the works of man. Thus Matthew Snelgrove, while assuring Solly that he was going ahead at full speed in settling Mrs Bridgetower’s estate, went to his office later in the morning, and left it earlier in the afternoon, and was quite unavailable at night. During the whole of August he went with his wife to visit her girlhood home in Nova Scotia, where he gave himself up to disapproving contemplation of the sadly unruly behaviour of the sea. Miss Puss Pottinger, according to her custom, went to Preston Springs for two weeks in June, to drink the waters and then, greatly refreshed, she went to a severely Anglican lakeside resort in Muskoka, and there hobnobbed with some Sisters of St John who had a mission nearby. Solly and Veronica went on a leisurely, cheap motor trip, hoping that a change of air might hasten the conception which had, so far, eluded them. They needed a holiday from the obtrusive benevolence of their cook Ethel, who had stayed with them at a reduced salary, and never allowed them for a moment to forget it; they were learning that a faithful family retainer is a two-edged sword. The Dean went to his summer cottage, removed his clerical collar and settled himself to fish by day and read detective stories by night. They were all glad to forget about the Bridgetower Trust.

But early in September Solly woke up one morning with a painful sense that only three months remained in which to make a choice. “We must get to work at once,” said he to Veronica.

“Is there really such a hurry?” said she. Their holiday had greatly improved her health, and she looked dark, beautiful and serious as she lay by him in the large, old-fashioned bed. “Would a few months make such a difference?”

The will says, “Within a calendar year of the date of my death”. Nobody would object if we stretched it a little, I suppose, but I am determined that it shall be carried out to the letter. Besides, I want to make old Snelgrove jump. He has a very poor opinion of me, and so has Puss. I’ll show them. We’ll send an accordion-player or a soap sculptor abroad to study, if need be, but we’ll do it in the prescribed way and in the prescribed time.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson