The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

This nasty device had been invented by some field-marshal in the war against auto-intoxication, and it was supposed to bring all the healing miracle of Spa or Aix-les-Bains to its possessor. It was a rubber bag of a disagreeable gray colour, on the upper side of which was fixed a hollow spike of some hard, black composition. It was filled with warm water until it was fat and ugly; I was impaled on the spike, which had teen greased with Vaseline; a control stopcock was turned, and my bodily weight was supposed to force the water up inside me to seek out the offending substances. I was not quite heavy enough, so Netty helped by pushing downward on my shoulders. As I was dismayingly invaded below, her breath, like scorching beef, blew in my face Oh, Calvary!

Grandfather had made a refinement of his own on the great invention of Dr. Tyrrell; he added slippery elm bark to the warm water, as he had a high opinion of its healing and purgative properties.

I hated all of this, and most of all the critical moment when I was lifted off the greasy spike and carried as fast as Netty could go to the seat of ease. I felt like an overfilled leather bottle, and was in dread lest I should spill. But I was a child, and my wise elders, led by all-knowing Grandfather Staunton, who was a doctor and could see right through you, had decreed this misery as necessary. Did Grandfather Staunton ever resort to the Domestic Internal Bath himself? I once asked timidly. He looked me in the eye and said solemnly that there had been a time when, he was convinced, he owed his life to its efficacy. There was no answer to that

except the humblest acquiescence.

Was I therefore a spiritless child? I don’t think so. But I seem to have been born with an unusual regard for authority and the power of reason, and I was too small to know how readily these qualities can be brought to the service of the wildest nonsense and cruelty.

Any comment?

DR. VON HALLER: Are you constipated now?

MYSELF: No. Not when I eat.

DR. VON HALLER: All of this is still only part of the childhood scene. We usually remember painful and humiliating things. But are they all of what we remember? What pleasant recollections of childhood have you? Would you say that on the whole you were happy?

MYSELF: I don’t know about “on the whole.” Sensations in childhood are so intense I can’t pretend to recall their duration. When I was happy I was warmly, brimmingly happy, and when I was unhappy I was in hell.

DR. VON HALLER: What is the earliest recollection you can honestly vouch for?

MYSELF: Oh, that’s easy. I was standing in my grandmother’s garden, in warm sunlight, looking into a deep red peony. As I recall it, I wasn’t much taller than the peony. It was a moment of very great — perhaps I shouldn’t say happiness, because it was really an intense absorption. The whole world, the whole of life. and I myself, became a warm, rich peony-red.

DR. VON HALLER: Have you ever tried to recapture that feeling?

MYSELF: Never.

DR. VON HALLER: Well, shall we go on with your childhood?

MYSELF: Aren’t you even interested in Netty and the Domestic Internal Bath? Nothing about homosexuality yet?

DR. VON HALLER: Have you ever subsequently felt drawn toward the passive role in sodomy?

MYSELF: Good God, no!

DR. VON HALLER: We shall keep everything in mind. But we need more material. Onward, please. What other happy recollections?

Church-going. It meant dressing up, which I liked. I was an observant child, so the difference between Toronto church and Deptford church kept me happy every Sunday. My parents were Anglicans, and I knew this was a sore touch with my grandparents, who belonged to the United Church of Canada, which was a sort of amalgam of Presbyterians and Methodists, and Congregationalists, too, wherever there happened to be any. Its spirit was evangelical and my grandmother, who was the child of the late Reverend Ira Boyd, a hell-fire Methodist, was evangelical; she had family prayers every morning, and Netty and I and the hired girl all had to be there; Grandfather wasn’t able to make it very often, but the general feeling was that he didn’t need it because of being a doctor. She read a chapter of the Bible every day of her life. And this was the thirties, mind you, not the reign of Queen Victoria. So I was put in the way of thinking a lot about God, and wondering what God thought about me. As with the Prince of Wales, I suspected that He thought rather well of me.

As for church, I liked to compare the two rituals to which I was exposed. The Uniteds didn’t think they were ritualists, but that was not how it looked to me. I acquired some virtuosity in ritual. In the Anglican church I walked in smiling, bent my right knee just the proper amount — my father’s amount — before going into the pew, and then knelt on the hassock, gazing with unnaturally wide-open eyes at the Cross on the altar. In the United Church, I put on a meek face, sat forward in my pew, and leaned downward, with my hand shielding my eyes, and inhaled the queer smell of the hymn-books in the rack in front of me. In the Anglican church I nodded my head, as if to say “Quite so,” or (in the slang of the day) “Hot spit!” whenever Jesus was named in a hymn. But in the United Church if Jesus turned up I sang the name very low, and in the secret voice I used when talking to my grandmother about what my bowels were doing. And of course I was aware that the United minister wore a black robe, a great contrast to Canon Woodiwiss’s splendid and various vestments, and that Communion at Deptford meant that everybody got a little dose of something in his pew, and there was no walking about and traffic control by the sidesmen, as at St. Simon Zeiotes. It was a constant, delightful study, and I appreciated all its refinements. This won me a reputation outside the family as a pious child, and I think I was held up to lesser boys as an example. Imagine it — rich and pious! I suppose I bodied forth some ideal for a lot of people, as the plaster statues of the Infant Samuel at Prayer used to do in the nineteenth century.

Sunday was always a great day. Dressing up, my hobby of ritual study, and a full week to go before another assault on my uncooperative colon! But there were wonderful weekdays, too.

Sometimes my grandfather took me and Netty to what was called “the farm” but was really his huge sugar-beet plantation and the big mill at the centre of it. The country around Deptford is very flat, alluvial soil. So flat, indeed, that often Netty took me to the railway station, which she elegantly called “the deepo” just before noon, so that I could have the thrill of seeing a plume of smoke rising far down the track as the approaching train left Darnley, seven miles away. As we drove along the road Grandfather would sometimes say, “Davey, I own everything on both sides of this road for as far as you can see. Did you know that?” And I always pretended I didn’t know it and was amazed, because that was what he wanted. A mile or more before we reached the mill its sweet smell was apparent, and when we drew nearer we could hear its queer noise. It was an oddly inefficient noise — a rattly, clattering noise — because the machinery used for chopping the beets and pressing them and boiling down their sweetness was all huge and powerful, rather than subtle. Grandfather would take me through the mill, and explain all the processes, and get the important man who managed the gauge on the boiler to show me how that worked and how he tested the boiling every few minutes to see that its texture was right.

Best of all was a tiny railway, like a toy, that pulled little carloads of beets from distant fields, puffing and occasionally tooting in a deeply satisfying way as it bustled along. My grandfather owned a railway! And — oh, joy beyond all telling! — he would sometimes tell the engine-driver, whose name was Elmo Pickard, to take me on one of his jaunts into the fields, riding in the little engine! Whether Grandfather wanted to give me a rest, or whether he simply thought women had no place near engines, I don’t know, but he never allowed Netty to go with me, and she sat at the mill, fretting that I would get dirty, for the two hours it took to make a round trip. The little engine burned wood, and the wood was covered in a fine layer of atomized sugar syrup, like everything else near the mill, so its combustion was dirty and deliciously smelly.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson