The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“I gave George lunch, then marched off like a little soldier to talk to Denyse and Caroline about the will. They had had a chance to go over their own copies, and Beesty had explained most of it, but he isn’t a lawyer and they had a lot of points they wanted clarified. And of course there was a row, because I think Denyse had expected some capital, and in fairness I must say that she was within her rights to do so. What really burned her, I think, was that there was nothing for her daughter Lorene, though what she had been left for herself would have been more than enough to take care of all that. Lorene is soft in the head, you see, though Denyse pretends otherwise, and she will have to be looked after all her life. Although Lorene’s name was never mentioned, I could sense her presence; she had called my father Daddy-Boy, and Daddy-Boy hadn’t lived up to expectation.

“Caroline is above fussing about inheritances. She is really a very fine person, in her frosty way. But naturally she was pleased to have been taken care of so handsomely, and Beesty was openly delighted. After all, with the trust money and Caroline’s personal fortune and what would come from himself and his side of the family, his kids were in the way of being rich even by my father’s demanding standards. Both Caroline and Beesty saw how I had been dealt with, but they were too tactful to say anything about it in front of Denyse.

“Not so Denyse herself. ‘This was Boy’s last chance to get you back on the rails, David,’ said she, ‘and for his sake I hope it works.’

” ‘What particular rails are you talking about?’ I said. I knew well enough, but I wanted to hear what she would say. And I will admit I led her on to put her foot in it because I wanted a chance to dislike her even more than I did already.

” ‘To be utterly frank, dear, he wanted you to be married, and to have a family, and to cut down on your drinking. He knew what a balancing effect a wife and children have on a man of great talents. And of course everybody knows that you have great talents — potentially.’ Denyse was not one to shrink from a challenge.

” ‘So he has left me the toughest job in the family bundle, and some money for children I haven’t got,’ I said. ‘Do you happen to know if he had anybody in mind that he wanted me to marry? I’d like to be sure of everything that is expected of me.’

“Beesty was wearing his toad-under-the-harrow expression, and Caroline’s eyes were fierce. ‘If you two are going to fight, I’m going home,’ she said.

” ‘There will be no fighting,’ said Denyse. ‘This is not the time or the place. David asked a straight question and I gave him a straight answer — as I have always done. And straight answers are something David doesn’t like except in court, where he can ask the questions that will give him the answers he wants. Boy was very proud of David’s success, so far as it went. But he wanted something from his only son that goes beyond a somewhat notorious reputation in the criminal courts. He wanted the continuance of the Staunton name. He would have thought it pretentious to talk of such a thing, but you know as well as I do that he wanted to establish a line.”

“Ah, that line. My father had not been nearly so reticent about mentioning it as Denyse pretended. She has never understood what real reticence is. But I was sick of the fight already. I quickly tire of quarrelling with Denyse. Perhaps, as she says, I only like quarrelling in court. In court there are rules. Denyse makes up her rules as she goes along. As I must say women tend to do. So the talk shifted, not very easily, to other things.

“Denyse had two fine new bees in her bonnet. The death-mask idea had failed, and she knew I would not tell the others, so as far as she was concerned it had perished as though it had never been. She does not dwell on her failures.

“What she wanted now was a monument for my father, and she had decided that a large piece of sculpture by Henry Moore would be just the thing. Not to be given to the Art Gallery or the City, of course. To be put up in the cemetery. I hope that gives you the measure of Denyse. No sense of congruity; no sense of humour; no modesty. Just ostentation and gall working under the governance of a fashionable, belligerent, unappeasable ambition.

“Her second great plan was for a monument of another kind; she announced with satisfaction that my father’s biography was to be written by Dunstan Ramsay. She had wanted Eric Roop to do it — Roop was one of her proteges and as a poet he was comparable to her dentist friend as a sculptor — but Roop had promised himself a fallow year if he could get a grant to see him through it. I knew this already, because Roop’s fallow years were as familiar to Castor as Pharaoh’s seven lean kine, and his demand that we stake him to another had been circulated to the Board, and I had seen it. The Ramsay plan had merit. Dunstan Ramsay was not only a schoolmaster but an author who had enjoyed a substantial success in a queer field: he wrote about saints — popular books for tourists, and at least one heavy-weight work that had brought him a reputation in the places where such things count.

“Furthermore, he wrote well. I knew because he had been my history master at school; he insisted on essays in what he called the Plain Style; it was, he said, much harder to get away with nonsense in the Plain Style than in a looser manner. In my legal work I had found this to be true and useful. But — what would we look like if a life of Boy Staunton appeared over the name of a man notable as a student of the lives of saints? There would be jokes, and one or two of them occurred to me immediately.

“On the other hand, Ramsay had known my father from boyhood. Had he agreed? Denyse said he had wavered a little when she put it to him, but she would see that he made up his mind. After all, his own little estate — which was supposed to be far beyond what a teacher and author could aspire to — was built on the advice my father had given him over the years. Ramsay had a nice little block of Alpha. The time had come for him to pay up in his own coin. And Denyse would work with him and see that the job was properly done and Ramsay’s ironies kept under control.

“Neither Caroline nor I was very fond of Ramsay, who had been a sharp-tongued nuisance in our lives, and we were amused to think of a collaboration between him and our stepmother. So we made no demur, but determined to spike the Henry Moore plan.

“Caroline and Beesty got away as soon as they could, but I had to wait and hear Denyse talk about the letters of condolence she had been receiving in bulk. She graded them; some were Official, from public figures, and subdivided into Warm and Formal; some were from personal friends, and these she classified as Moving and Just Ordinary; and there were many from Admirers, and the best of these were graded Touching. Denyse has an orderly mind.

“We did not talk about a dozen or so hateful letters of abuse that had come unsigned. Nor did we say much about the newspaper pieces, some of which had been grudging and covertly offensive. We were both habituated to the Canadian spirit, to which generous appreciation is so alien.

“It had been a wearing afternoon, and I had completed all my immediate tasks, so I thought I would permit myself a few drinks after dinner. I dined at my club and had the few drinks, but to my surprise they did nothing to dull my wretchedness. I am not a man who is cheered by drink. I don’t sing or make jokes or chase girls, nor do I stagger and speak thickly; I become remote — possibly somewhat glassy-eyed. But I do manage to blunt the edge of that heavy axe that seems always to be chopping away at the roots of my being. That night it was not so. I went home and began to drink seriously. Still the axe went right on with its destructive work. At last I went to bed and slept wretchedly.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson