The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

My father had read somewhere that the Rockefeller family preserved and refined the financial genius of the Primal Rockefeller by giving their children tiny allowances with which they had learned, through stark necessity, to do financial miracles. It may have been fine for the Rockefellers, but it was no good for me. My sister Caroline usually had lots of money because she was under no necessity to become a man and had to have money always about her for unexplained reasons connected with protecting her virtue. Consequently I was always in debt to Caroline, and because she domineered over me about it I was always caught up in some new method of scrimping or cheese-paring. When I was no more than eight a boy at school told my friends that Staunton was so mean he would skin a louse for the hide and tallow. I was ashamed and hurt; I was not a mini-miser: I was simply, in terms of my situation, poor. I knew it; I hated it; I could not escape from it.

I am not asking for pity. That would be absurd. I lived among the trappings of wealth. Our chauffeur dropped me at school every morning from a limousine that was an object of wonder to car-minded little boys. I was not one of them; to me a car was, and still is, anything that — mysteriously and rather alarmingly — goes. In the evening, after games, he picked me up again, and as Netty was usually with him, ready to engulf me, it was impossible for me to offer car-fanciers a ride. At home we lived in what I now realize was luxury, and certainly in most ways it was less troublesome than real poverty, which I have since had some opportunities to examine. I was enviable, and if I had the power to cast curses, I should rank the curse of being enviable very high. It has extensive ramifications and subtle refinements. As people assured me from time to time, I had everything. If there was anything I wanted, I could get it by asking my father for it and convincing him that I really needed it and was not merely yielding to a childish whim. This was said to be a very simple matter, but in my experience it might have been simple for Cicero on one of his great days. My father would listen carefully, concealing his amusement as well as he could, and in the end he would knuckle my head affectionately and say: “Davey, I’ll give you a piece of advice that will last you all your life: never buy anything unless you really need it; things you just want are usually junk.”

I am sure he was right, and I have always wished I could live according to his advice. I have never managed it. Nor did he, as I gradually became aware, but somehow that was different. I needed to be made into a man, and he was fully and splendidly and obviously a man. Everybody knew it.

Lapped as I was in every comfort, and fortunate above other boys, how could I have thought I needed money?

What I did need, and very badly, was character. Manhood. The ability to stand on my own feet. My father left me in no doubt about these things, and as my father loved me very much there could be no question that he was right. Love, in a parent, carries with it extraordinary privileges and unquestionable insight. This was one of the things which was taken for granted in our family, and so it did not need to be said.

Was I then a poor little rich boy, wistful for the pleasures available to my humble friends, the sons of doctors and lawyers and architects, most of whom could not have passed even the hundred-thousand-a-year test? Not at all. Children do not question their destiny. Indeed, children do not live their lives; their lives, on the contrary, live them. I did not imagine myself to be the happiest of mortals because no such concept as happiness ever entered my head, though sometimes I was happy almost to the point of bursting. I was told I was fortunate. Indeed, Netty insisted that I thank God for it every night, on my knees. I believed it, but I wondered why I was thanking God when it was so obviously my father who was the giver of all good things. I considered myself and my family to be the norm of human existence, by which all other lives were to be measured. I knew I had troubles because I was short of pocket-money, but this was trivial compared with the greater trouble of not being sure I would ever be a man, and able to stand on my own two feet, and be worthy of my father’s love and trust. I was told that everything that happened to me was for my good, and by what possible standard of judgement would I have reached a dissenting opinion?

So you must not imagine I have come here to whine and look for revenge on the dead; this retrospective spiting and birching of parents is one of the things that gets psychoanalysis a bad name. As a lawyer I know there is a statute of limitations on personal and spiritual wrongs as well as on legal ones, and that there is no court in the world that can provide a rescript on past griefs. But if some thoughtful consideration of my past can throw useful light on my present, I have the past neatly tucked away and can produce it on demand.

DR. VON HALLER: Yes, I think that would be best. You have got into the swing, and done all the proper lawyer-like things. So now let us get on.

MYSELF: What do you mean, exactly, ‘the proper lawyer-like things’?

DR. VON HALLER: Expressing the highest regard for the person you are going to destroy. Declaring that you have no real feeling in the matter and are quite objective. Suggesting that something is cool and Dry which by its nature is hot and steamy. Very good. Continue, please.

MYSELF: If you don’t believe what I say, what is the point of continuing? I have said I am not here to blacken my father; I don’t know what else I can do to convince you that I speak sincerely.

DR. VON HALLER: Very plainly you must go on, and convince me that way. But I am not here to help you preserve the status quo, and leave all your personal relationships exactly as you believe them to be now. Remember, among other things, I am Prisoner’s Friend. You know what a friend is, I suppose?

MYSELF: Frankly, I’m not sure that I do.

DR. VON HALLER: Well — let us hope you will find out. About your early childhood — ?

I was born on September 2, 1928, and christened Edward David because my father had been an aide-de-camp — and a friend, really — of the Prince of Wales during his 1927 tour of Canada. My father sometimes jokingly spoke of the Prince as my godfather, though he was nothing of the kind. My real godfathers were a club friend of Father’s named Dorris and a stockbroker named Taylor, who moved out of our part of the world not long after my christening; I have no recollection of either of them. I think they had just been roped in to fill a gap, and Father had dropped them both by the time I was ready to take notice. But the Prince sent me a mug with his cipher on it, and I used to drink my milk from it; I still have it, and Netty keeps it polished.

I had a number of childhood diseases during my first two years, and became what is called “delicate”. This made it hard to keep nurses, because I needed a lot of attention, and children’s nurses are scarce in Canada and consequently don’t have to stay in demanding places. I had English and Scots nurses to begin with, I believe, and later I used to hear stories of the splendid outfits they wore, which were the wonder of the part of Toronto where we lived. But none of them stuck, and it was my Grandmother Staunton who said that what I needed was not one of those stuck-up Dolly Vardens but a good sensible girl with her head screwed on straight who would do what she was told. That was how Netty Quelch turned up. Netty has been with us ever since.

Because I was delicate, life in the country was thought good for me, and for all of my early years I spent long summers with my grandparents in Deptford, the little village where they lived. My upbringing was a good deal dominated by my grandparents at that time because neither of my parents could stand Deptford, though they had both been born there, and referred to it between themselves as “that hole”. So every May I was shipped off to Deptford, and stayed till the end of September, and my memories of it are happy. I suppose unless you are unlucky, anywhere you spend your summers as a child is an Arcadia forever. My grandmother couldn’t bear the English nurses, and in my second year she told my mother to send her the baby and she would find a local girl to care for me. Indeed, she had such a girl in mind.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson