The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Grandmother was a placid, sweet woman whose great adoration was my father, her only son. She had been “a daughter of the parsonage,” and in my scale of values as a child this was fully equivalent to being a friend of the Prince of Wales. I remember that when I was quite small — four or five — I used to pass the time before I went to sleep thinking what a fine thing it would be if the Prince and Grandmother Staunton could meet; they would certainly have some fine talks about me, and I could imagine the Prince deferring to Grandmother on most matters because of her superior age and experience of the world, although of course as a man he would have some pretty interesting things to say; it was likely that he would want me to take charge of Deptford and run it for him. Grandmother was not an active person; she liked sitting, and when she moved she was deliberate. Indeed, she was fat, though I quickly learned that “fat” was a rude word, to be thought but not spoken of older people. It was the job of the good sensible girl to be active, and Netty Quelch was furiously active.

Netty was one of Grandmother’s good works. Her parents, Abel and Hannah Quelch, had been farmers, and were wiped out by one of those fires caused by an overheated stove which were such a common disaster in rural Ontario. They were good, decent folk, and had come as young people from the Isle of Man. Henrietta and her younger brother, Maitland, were left orphans and a responsibility of the neighbours because there was no orphanage nearby, and anyhow an orphanage was a place of last resort. A nearby farmer and his wife added them to their own six children and brought them up. And now Netty was sixteen and was to be launched on the world. Level-headed. A demon for work. Deserving, just what Grandmother Staunton wanted.

I have never known the world without Netty, so her personal characteristics seemed to me for a long time to be ordained and not matters on which likes or dislikes had any bearing. She was, and is now, below medium height, so spare that all her tendons, strings, and muscles show when they are at work, noisy and clumsy as small people sometimes are, and of boundless overheated energy. Indeed, the impression you get from Netty is that there is a very hot fire burning inside her. Her skin is dry, her breath is hot and strong and suggests combustion, though it is not foul. She is hot to the touch, but not moist. Her complexion is a reddish-brown, as though scorched, and her hair is a dark, dry-red — not carroty but a withered auburn. Her responses are quick, and her gaze is a parched glare. Of course I am used to her, but people who meet her for the first time are sometimes alarmed and mistake the intensity of her personality for some furious, pent-up criticism of themselves. Caroline and Beesty call her the Demon Queen. She is now my housekeeper, and considers herself my keeper.

Netty regards work as the natural state of man. Not to be doing something is, to her, to be either seriously unwell or bone idle, which ranks well below crime. I do not suppose it ever occurred to her when she took on the job of being my nurse that she was to have any time to herself or let me out of her sight, and that was how she functioned. I ate, prayed, defecated, and even slept in the closest proximity with her. Only when she was doing nursery laundry, which was every morning after breakfast, could I escape her. She had a cot in my room, and sometimes when I was restless she took me into her bed to soothe me, which she did by stroking my spine. She could be gentle with a child, but oh — how hot she was! I lay beside her and fried, and when I opened my eyes hers were always open, goggling hotly at me, reflecting whatever light might be in the room.

She had been very helpful to her foster-parents, and they were good people who had done their best for her. She always speaks of them with affection and respect. There had been some babies after she joined the family, and Netty had learned all the elementary arts of child-raising. It was my grandmother who finished her education in that realm, and my grandmother who gave her what I suppose must be called post-doctoral instruction.

Grandfather Staunton was a physician by profession, though when I knew him his chief occupation was his business, which was raising sugar-beets on a large scale and manufacturing them into raw sugar. He was an awesome figure, tall, broad, and fat, with a big stomach that had got away from him, so that when he sat down it rested on his thighs, almost like some familiar creature he was coddling. He looked, in fact, not unlike J. P. Morgan, and like Morgan he had a big strawberry nose. I know he liked me, but it was not his way to show affection, though on a few occasions he called me “boykin,” an endearment nobody else used. He had great resources of dissatisfaction and disapproval, but he never vented them on me. However, so much of his conversation with my grandmother was rancorous about the government, or Deptford, or his employees, or his handful of remaining patients, that I felt him to be dangerous and never took liberties.

Netty held him in great awe because he was rich, and a doctor, and looked on life as a serious, desperate struggle. As I grew older, I found out more about him by snooping in his office. He had qualified as a physician in 1887, but before that he had done some work, under the old Upper Canada medical-apprentice system, with a Dr. Gamsby, who had been the first doctor in Deptford. He had retained all Doc Gamsby’s professional equipment, for he was never a man to get rid of anything, and it lay in neglect and disorder in a couple of glass-fronted cases in his office, a fearful museum of rusty knives, hooks, probes, speculums, and even a wooden stethoscope like a little flageolet. And Doc Gamsby’s books! When I could give Netty the slip — and she never thought of looking for me in Grandfather’s consulting-room, which was holy ground to her — I would very quietly lift one out of the shelves and gloat over engravings of people swathed in elaborate bandages, or hiked up in slings for “luxations,” or eing cauterized, or — this was an eye-popper — being reamed out for fistula. There were pictures of amputations of all kinds, with large things like pincers for cutting off breasts, diggers for getting at polyps in the nose, and fierce saws for bone. Grandfather did not know I looked at his books, but once, when he met me in the hall outside his room, he beckoned me in and took something out of Doc Gamsby’s cabinet.

“Look at this, David,” he said. “Any idea what that might be?”

It was a flat metal plate about six inches by three, and perhaps three-quarters of an inch thick, and at one end of it was a round button.

“That’s for rheumatism,” he said. “People with rheumatism always tell the doctor they can’t move. Seized right up so they can’t budge. Now this thing here, Davey, is called a scarifier. Suppose a man has a bad back. Nothing helps him. Well, in the old days, they’d hold this thing here right tight up against where he was stiff, and then they’d press this button — ”

Here he pressed the button, and from the surface of the metal plate leapt twelve tiny knife-points, perhaps an eighth of an inch long.

“Then he’d budge,” said Grandfather, and laughed.

His laugh was one I have never heard in anyone else; he did not blow laughter out, he sucked it in, with a noise that sounded like snuk-snuk, snuk-snuk, snuk.

He put the scarifier away and took out a cigar and hooked the spittoon toward him with his foot, and I knew I was dismissed, having had my first practical lesson in medicine.

What he taught Netty was the craft of dealing with constipation. He had been trained in an era when this was a great and widespread evil, and in rural districts it was, as he himself said with unconscious humour, a corker. Farm people understandably dreaded their draughty privies in winter and cultivated their powers of retention to a point where, in my grandfather’s opinion, they were inviting every human ill. During his more active days as a doctor he had warred against constipation, and he kept up the campaign at home. Was I delicate? Obviously I was full of poisons, and he knew what to do. On Friday nights I was given cascara sagrada, which rounded up the poisons as I slept, and on Saturday morning, before breakfast, I was given a glass of Epsom salts to drive them forth. On Sunday morning, therefore, I was ready for church as pure as the man from whom Paul drove forth the evil spirits. But I suppose I became habituated to these terrible weekly aids, and nothing happened in between. Was Doc Staunton beaten? He was not. I was a candidate for Dr. Tyrrell’s Domestic Internal Bath.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson