A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

So it was that about a quarter of an hour later Monica was in what must still be called Mrs Bridgetower’s drawing-room (for it never lost that character) drinking a toast to Mrs Bridgetower’s grandson. In spite of Cobbler’s efforts the feeling in the room was restrained, and Monica knew very well why it was so: the Bridgetowers, for all their goodwill and kind words, felt that they were taking from her money upon which she counted for another year, and were wondering how much she resented it.

Well, thought Monica, it’s up to me. I’m the one who has been trained to communicate emotion readily, and gracefully, and with an artist’s control. Unless this gathering is to be a wretched frost, I must supply the warmth. We’ve all got to grow up some time, so here goes.

“Is there any chance that I could see Veronica and the baby, just for a moment?” she said to Solly.

“As far as I’m concerned, certainly,” he replied. “The doctor did a lot of fussing earlier — apparently it’s unsanitary, or illegal, or incon­venient for the profession, or something, for a baby to be born at home; he insists on referring to the child as “a preem”; I think I’ve persuaded him that the worst is over and Veronica can stay here. Come on up.”

Old Mrs Bridgetower’s bedroom was not a pretty room, but it had much frowsty comfort about it, and old Ethel had made a fire in the grate; it was not needed, but it was very cheerful and a touch of childbed luxury. Already there were flowers from the Knapps and — marvellous in the telling — some from Miss Puss. Veronica was lying back on a heap of pillows, eating bacon and eggs.

“I know it’s unromantic for a gasping, new-delivered mother to be so hungry,” she said, “but I’ve had a long sleep, and I’m famished. Look at him. Isn’t he a pet?”

The pet lay in a small clothes-basket on a low table by the bed. Monica, who had never seen so new a baby, found it rather repulsive. But that was not what she had come to say.

“He’s adorable, and I wish him long life and every happiness,” said she, breathing a fairy-godmother muhd and bending over the basket. After all, said a voice, startlingly loud and familiar in her head, you’re giving this goblin upwards of a million dollars — not that it was ever yours. She started slightly, for it was the voice of Giles Revelstoke. Was he, like Ma, going to be one of the voices which complicated her life, and at the same time kept her romanticism from running away with her?

These thoughts did not interrupt her as she turned from the basket to the bed. She leaned over it and kissed Veronica gently; but Veronica was chewing at her late breakfast, and as she did not halt in time, Monica kissed an undulant, chewing cheek. They both began to laugh: Veronica because she was happier than she had been in her life; Monica because the inner critic had made her prima donna-like performance seem ridiculous. Stop behaving like Ludwiga Kressel, said Giles’ voice. And as they laughed, Solly and the Cobblers began to laugh, though they could not have said why, and Mrs Bridgetower’s bedroom rang with happy laughter. The embarrassment had quite gone, and Monica knew that nobody there was wary of her any longer.

“Let’s have another nip,” said Cobbler; “Veronica too. But we mustn’t get stewed. There’s the Memorial Sermon at four-thirty.”

“You must all come back here afterward,” said Solly. “We’ll have a party — small but select. But — oh, hell, I suppose we must ask The Trust. Well, it’ll be for the last time. Tea for them, Ronny, from Old Puss’s Rockingham service.”


At twenty-five minutes past four that afternoon Monica was sitting on a small chair beside the organ console in St Nicholas’ cathedral; it was a position of vantage, for she could see all of the nave by peeping between two large pillars, but she was not likely to be seen. She felt silly in a purple cassock and a ruff, and she did not think that the veil on her head was becoming; still, it was what Cobbler wanted her to wear, and she would not be a complainer, as Anglicans seemed to attach so much importance to ritual dress. But if she had to wear costume, she wished it could have been a better fit, and did not smell so pungently of choir-boy. She was not to walk with the choir in procession: no women — apparently it was another Anglican caprice. “You’re to be dearly heard but not clearly seen,” Cobbler had said, and she was well enough content to slip into her place unnoticed.

Cobbler himself now joined her. “Let’s have a look,” said he, leaning over her shoulder to peep between the pillars. “Quite a good house; nearly a hundred; not bad for a weekday and a business day; old Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor, ought to be pleased; the late Louisa Hansen Bridgetower would have expected a bigger crowd for her memorial sermon, but she had no humility. There’s Solly. . . old Snelgrove. . . Auntie Puss; the Bridgetower Trust in force. You know, the cathedral will soon have its Bridgetower bequest? Wonder if I could get any of it to rebuild the organ? Well, here goes.” He played a brief flourish and then was silent, as the choir was heard in the distance, beginning the processional hymn.

The Dean read the lesson for the day, and Monica paid little attention after the words. . . thy voice shall be, as one that hath a familiar spirit. . . reached her ears. Like me, she thought; only I have two; Ma speaks to me sometimes, in her very own voice, so that I’m sure I’m not talking to myself, and today Giles has spoken to me twice, as though he were right behind me. Yet I don’t think I’m out of my head, and I’m certainly not a spiritualist. Will it always be so? Will I acquire other voices as I go through life? It isn’t frightening — not a bit — but it’s certainly odd. Is it perhaps my substitute for thinking — orders and hints and even jokes from deep down, through the voice and per­sonality of someone I’ve loved — yes, and feared? I ought to make up my mind. Certainly before I decide what I’ve got to decide. But I’ve never been much good at making up my mind, and I’m rotten at deciding things, especially since I went away to study and got into such deep water.

Musing thus, she heard nothing of the Dean’s prayer in which he petitioned that God might make all assembled there mindful of the goodness and example of St Nicholas, bishop and confessor and (extraordinary juxtaposition, which the Dean deeply relished) of Louisa Hansen Bridgetower, and all others our benefactors. But she came out of her musing when Cobbler and the choir burst into the “top-notch Christmas rouser” in which Dr William Crotch of Oxford so melodiously bodied forth the eighteenth-century piety, the formal fervour, of Bishop Reginald Heber —

Lo! star-led chiefs Assyrian odours bring,

And bending Magi seek their infant King!

Here was splendour which glorified the dank December twilight and made the modest cathedral, for its duration, a true dwelling-place of one of the many circumscribed, but not therefore ignoble, concepts of God.

Solly, too, heard nothing of the prayer after the mention of his Mother’s name. If ever there were a time to make peace with his Mother’s troubled spirit, it was now — now that the son was born who would deliver him from the hard humiliating conditions of her will. Yet — did that spirit desire a reconciliation? What had called Veronica from sleep so early this morning? With what had Veronica struggled in Mrs Bridgetower’s bedroom, so that he had found her unconscious amid overturned tables and chairs? He was neither mad nor fanciful: he had no doubt who, or what it was that had sought to prevent the live birth of his son. He knew what it was, also, that was at last defeated.

It was a time for forgiveness. Against the strict prohibition of his faith, Solly prayed for his Mother’s soul.

The anthem over, the lights were dimmed and, somewhat care­lessly marshalled by the verger, the Dean went into the pulpit, turned to the East, and said: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

“Dearly Beloved: We have gathered here as part of the celebration of the festal day of our patron, St Nicholas of Smyrna, but particularly in obedience to the wish of the latest of our benefactors, Louisa Hansen Bridgetower, who desired that for a fixed period a sermon should be given on this day, relating to the subject of education.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson