The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

It was in late August, when I was eight years old, and it was an adjunct of the Fall Fair. This was a great Deptford occasion, and in addition to all the agricultural exhibits, the Indians from the nearby reservation offered handiwork for sale — fans, bead-work, sweet-grass boxes, carved walking-canes, and so forth — and there was a little collection of carnival games, including one called Hit the Nigger in the Eye! where, for twenty-five cents, you could throw three baseballs at a black man who stuck his head through a canvas and defied you to hit him. My grandfather bought three balls for me, and I threw one short, one wide, and one right over the canvas, to the noisy derision of some low boys who were watching and at whom the black man — obviously a subversive type — kept winking as I made a fool of myself. But I pitied their ignorance and despised them, because I knew that when night fell I would be the star of the Fair.

A Tom Thumb Wedding is a mock nuptial ceremony in which all the participants are children, and the delight of it is its miniature quality. The Ladies’ Aid of the United Church had arranged one of these things to take place in the tent where, during the day, they had served meals to the fair-goers, and it was intended to offer a refined alternative to the coarse pleasures of the carnival shows. At half-past seven everything was ready. Quite a large audience was assembled, consisting chiefly of ladies who were congratulating themselves on having minds above sword-swallowing and the pickled foetuses of two-headed babies. The tent was hot, and the light from the red, white, and blue bulbs was wavering and rather sickly. At the appropriate moment the boy who played the part of the minister and my best man and I stepped forward to await the Bride.

This was a little girl who had been given the part for her virtue in Sunday School rather than for outward attractions, and although her name was Myrtle she was known to her contemporaries as Toad Wilson. A melodeon played the Wedding Chorus from Lohengrin and Toad, supported by six other little girls, walked toward us as slowly as she could, producing an effect rather of reluctance than ceremony.

Toad was dressed fit to kill in a wedding outfit over which her mother and nobody knows how many others had laboured for weeks; her figure was bunchy, but she lacked nothing in satin and lace, and was oppressed by her wreath and veil. She should have been the centre of attention, but my grandmother and Netty had taken care of that.

I was a figure of extraordinary elegance, for my grandmother had kept old Mrs. Clements, the local dressmaker, busy for a month. I wore black satin trousers, a tail-coat made of velvet, and a sash, or cummerbund, of red silk. With a satin shirt and a large flowing red bow tie I was a rich, if rather droopy, sight. Everybody agreed that a silk hat was what was wanted to crown my finery, but of course there was none of the right size; however, in one of the local stores, my grandmother had unearthed a bowler hat of a type fashionable perhaps in 1900, for it had a narrow flat brim and a very high crown, as if it might have been made for a man with a pointed skull. It fitted, when plenty of cotton wool had been pressed under the inner band. I wore this until the Bride approached, at which moment I swept it off and held it over my heart. This was my own idea, and I think it shows some histrionic flair, because it kept Toad from unfairly monopolizing everybody’s attention.

The ceremony was intended to be funny, and the parson was the clown of the evening. He had many things to say that were in a script some member of the Ladies’ Aid must have kept since the heyday of Josh Billings — because these Tom Thumb Weddings were already old-fashioned in the thirties. “Do you, Myrtle, promise to get up early and serve a hot breakfast every day in the week?” was one of his great lines, and Toad piped up solemnly, “I do.” And I recall that I had to promise not to chew tobacco in the house, or use my wife’s best scissors to cut Stovepipe wire.

All, however, led up to the culminating moment when I kissed the Bride. This had been carefully rehearsed, and it was meant to bring down the house, for I was to be so pressing, and kiss the Bride so often, that the parson, after feigning horror, had to part us. Sure-fire comedy, for it had just that spice of sanctified lewdness that the Ladies’ Aid loved, the innocence of children giving it a special savour. But here again I had an improvement; I disliked being laughed at as a child, and I felt that being kissed by me was a serious matter and far too good for such a pie-face as Toad Wilson. I had been to the movies a few times, as a great treat, and had seen kissers of international renown at work. So I went along with the foolish ideas of the Ladies’ Aid at rehearsals, but when the great moment arrived at the performance, I threw my hat to one side, knelt gracefully, and lifted Toad’s unready paw to my lips. Then I rose, seized her around her nail-keg waist, and pressed a long and burning kiss upon her mouth, bending her backward at the same time as much as her thicky-thumpy body would allow. This, I thought, would show Deptford what romance could be in the hands of a master.

The effect was all I could have hoped. There were oohs and ahs, some of delight, some of disapproval. As Toad and I walked down the aisle to wheezy Mendelssohn it was I, and not the Bride, who held all eyes. Best of all, I heard one woman murmur, with implications that I did not then understand, “That young one is Boy Staunton’s son, all right.” Toad showed a tendency to shine up to me afterward, when we were having ice-cream and cake at the Ladies’ Aid expense, but I was cold. When I have squeezed my orange, I throw it away; that was my attitude at the time.

Netty was not pleased. “I suppose you thought you were pretty smart, carrying on like that,” was her comment as I was going to bed, and this led to high words and tears. My grandmother thought I was overwrought by public performance, but my chief sensation was disappointment because nobody seemed to understand how remarkable I truly was.

(It was not easy work, this dredging up what could be recovered of my childish past and displying it before another person. Quite a different thing from realizing, as everybody does, that at some far-off time they have not behaved well. It was at this period that I had a dream, or a vision between waking and sleeping one night, that I was once again on that pier and was wiping filth and oil from the face of a drowned figure; but as I worked I saw that it was not my father, but a child who lay there, and that the child was myself.)


Dreaming had become a common experience for me, though I had never been a great dreamer. Dr. von Haller asked me to recover some dreams from childhood, and although I was doubtful, I found that I could do so. There was my dream from my sixth year that I saw Jesus in the sky, floating upward as in pictures of the Ascension; within His mantle, and it seemed to me part of His very figure, was a globe of the world, which He engulfed as though protecting it and displaying it to me, as I stood in the middle of the road down below. Had this been a dream, or a day-time vision? I could never satisfactorily decide, but it was brilliantly clear. And of course there was my recurrent dream, so often experienced, always in a somewhat different form but always the same in the quality of dread and terror that it brought. In this dream I was in a castle or fortress, closed against the outer world, and I was the keeper of a treasure — or sometimes it seemed to be a god or idol — the nature of which I never knew though its value was great in my mind. An Enemy was threatening it from without; this Enemy would run from window to window, looking for a way in, and I would pant from room to room to thwart it and keep it at bay. This dream had been attributed by Netty to my reading of a book called The Little Lame Prince, in which a lonely boy lived in a tower, and the book was arbitrarily forbidden; Netty liked to forbid books and always mistrusted them. But I knew perfectly well that I had had the dream long before I read the book and continued to have it long after the book had lost colour in my mind. The intensity of the dream and its sense of threat were of quite a different order from any book I knew.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson