The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Elmo and I chuffed and rattled through the fields, flat as Holland, which seemed to be filled with dwarves, for most of the workers were Belgian immigrants who worked on their knees with sawed-off hoes. Elmo scorned them and had only a vague notion where they came from. “Not a bad fella, fer an Eye-talian!” was the best he would say of the big hulking Flemings, who talked (Eimo said they “jabbered”) in a language that was in itself like the fibrous crunching of chopped beets. But there were English-speaking foremen here and there on the line, and from their conversation with Eimo I learned much that would not have done for Netty’s ears. When we had filled all the trucks, we hurtled back to the mill, doing ten miles an hour at the very least, and I was allowed to pull the whistle to tell the mill, and the frantic Netty, that we were approaching.

There were other expeditions. Once or twice every summer Grandmother would say, “Do you want to go see the people down by the crick today?” I knew from her tone that no great enthusiasm would be welcome. The people down by the crick were my other grandparents, my mother’s people, the Cruikshanks.

The Cruikshanks were poor. That was really all that was wrong with them. Ben Cruikshank was a self-employed carpenter, a small dour Scot, whose conversation was full of references to himself as “independent” and “self-respecting” and “owing nothing to no man.” I realize now that he was talking at me, justifying himself for daring to be a grandfather without any money. I think the Cruikshanks were frightened of me because I was such a glossy little article and full of politeness which had a strong edge of sauce. Netty held them cheap; mere orphan though she was herself, she carried a commission from the great Doc Staunton. Well do I remember the day when my Cruikshank grandmother, who was making jam, offered me some of the frothy barm to eat as she skimmed it from the pot. “Davey isn’t let eat off an iron spoon.” said Netty, and I saw tears in the inferior grandmother’s eyes as she meekly found a spoon of some whiter metal (certainly not silver) for her pernickety grandson. She must have mentioned it to Ben, because later in the day he took me into his workshop and showed me his tools and all the things they could do, while talking in a strain I did not understand, and often in a kind of English I could not easily follow. I know now that he was quoting Burns.

The rank is but the guinea stamp;

The man’s the gowd for a’ that —

he said, and in strange words I could not follow I nevertheless knew he was getting at Grandfather Staunton —

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord

Wha struts and stares, and a’ that:

Tho’ thousands worship at his word,

He’s but a coof for a’ that,

For a’ that, and a’ that,

His riband, star and a’ that,

The man of independent mind

He looks and laughs at a’ that.

But I was a child, and I suppose I was a hateful child, for I snickered at the repetitions of “for a’ that” and the Lowland speech because I was on Grandfather Staunton’s side. And in justice I suppose it must be said that poor Ben overdid it; he was as self-assertive in his humility as the Stauntons were in their pride, and both came to the same thing; nobody had any real charity or desire to understand himself or me. He just wanted to be on top, to be best, and I was a prize to be won rather than a fellow-creature to be respected.

God, I’ve seen the gross self-assertion of the rich in its most sickening forms, but I swear the orgulous self-esteem of the deserving poor is every bit as bad! Still, I wish I could apologize to Ben and his wife now. I behaved very, very badly, and it’s no good saying that I was only a child. So far as I understood, and with the weapons I had at hand, I hurt them and behaved badly toward them. The people down by the crick. . .

(Here I found I was weeping and could not go on.)

It was at this point Dr. von Haller moved into a realm that was new in our relationship. She talked quite a long time about the Shadow, that side of oneself to which so many real but rarely admitted parts of one’s personality must be assigned. My bad behaviour toward the Cruikshanks was certainly a reality, however much my Staunton grandparents might have allowed it to grow. If I had been a more loving child, I would not have behaved so. Lovingness had not been greatly encouraged in me; but had it shown itself as present for encouragement? Slowly, as we talked, a new concept of Staunton-as-Son-of-a-Bitch emerged, and for a few days he gave me the shivers. But there he was. He had to be faced, not only in this, but in a thousand instances, for if he were not understood, none of his good qualities could be redeemed.

Had he good qualities? Certainly. Was he not unusually observant, for a child, of social differences and other people’s moods? At a time when so many children move through life without much awareness of anything but themselves and their wants, did he not see beyond, to what other people were and wanted? This was not just infant Machiavellianism; it was sensitivity.

I had never thought of myself as sensitive. Touchy, certainly, and resentful of slights. But were all the slights unreal? And were my antennae always used for negative purposes? Well, perhaps not. Sensitivity worked both in sunlight and shadow.

MYSELF: And I presume the notion is to make the sensitivity always work in a positive way.

DR. VON HALLER: If you manage that, you will be a very uncommon person. We are not working to banish your Shadow, you see, but only to understand it, and thereby to work a little more closely with it. To banish your Shadow would be of no psychological service to you. Can you imagine a man without a Shadow? Do you know Chamisso’s story of Peter Schlemihl? No? He sold his shadow to the Devil, and he was miserable ever after. No, no; your Shadow is one of the things that keeps you in balance. But you must recognize him, you know, your Shadow. He is not such a terrible fellow if you know him. He is not lovable; he is quite ugly. But accepting this ugly creature is needful if you are really looking for psychological wholeness. When we were talking earlier I said I thought you saw yourself to some extent in the role of Sydney Carton, the gifted, misunderstood, drunken lawyer. These literary figures, you know, provide us with an excellent shorthand for talking about aspects of ourselves, and we all encompass several of them. You are aware of Sydney; now we are getting to know Mr. Hyde. Only he isn’t Dr. Jekyll’s gaudy monster, who trampled a child; he is just a proud little boy who hurt some humble people, and knew it and enjoyed it. You are the successor to that little boy. Shall we have some more about him?

Very well. I could pity the boy, but that would be a falsification because the boy never pitied himself. I was a little princeling in Deptford, and I liked it very much. Netty stood between me and everyone else. I didn’t play with the other boys in the village because they weren’t clean. Probably they did not wash often enough under their foreskins. Netty was very strong on that. I was bathed every day, and I dreaded Netty’s assault, the culmination of the bath, when I stood up and she stripped back my foreskin and washed under it with soap. It tickled and it stang and I somehow felt it to be ignominious, but she never tired of saying, “If you’re not clean under there, you’re not clean anyplace; you let yourself get dirty under there, and you’ll get an awful disease. I’ve seen it thousands of times.” Not being clean in this special sense was as bad as spitting. I was not allowed to spit, which was a great deprivation in a village filled with accomplished spitters. But it was possible, Netty warned, to spit your brains out. Indeed, I remember seeing an old man in the village named Cece Athelstan, who was quite a well-known character; he had the staggering, high-stepping gait of a man well advanced in syphilis, but Netty assured me that he was certainly a victim of unchecked spitting.

My greatest moment as the young princeling of Deptford was certainly when I appeared as the Groom in a Tom Thumb Wedding at the United Church.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson