The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

The reason, of course, was that my poor mother, who had never had a servant in her life before her marriage (unless you count Grandmother Cruikshank, who seemed to fear her daughter and defer to her and I suppose had always done so) had no notion how to manage such a household. She was naturally kind, and somewhat fearful, and haunted by dread that she would not come up to the standards the servants expected. She courted their favour, asked their opinions, and I suppose it must be said that she was more familiar with them than was prudent. If the housemaid were near her own age she would invite her views on dress; my father knew this, and disapproved, and sometimes said Mother dressed like a housemaid on her day out. Mother knew nothing about the kind of food professional cooks prepare, and let them have their head, so that Father complained that the same few dishes appeared in a pattern. Mother did not like being driven by a chauffeur, so she had a car of her own which she drove, and the chauffeur had not enough to do. She did not insist that the servants speak of my sister and myself as Miss Caroline and Mr. David, which was what my father wanted. I suppose there must have been good servants somewhere — other people seemed to find them, and keep them — but we never found any except Netty, and Netty was a nuisance.

There were two major things wrong with Netty. She was in love with my father, and she had known my mother before her marriage and subsequent wealth. It was not until my mother’s death that I recognized this, but Caroline was quick to spot it, and it was she who opened my eyes. Netty loved Father abjectly and wordlessly. I doubt if it ever entered her head that her love might be requited in any lasting way — certainly not in any physical way. All she wanted was an occasional good word, or one of his wonderful smiles. As for my mother, I think if Netty had ever clarified her thoughts she would have recognized my mother as a beautiful toy, but without real substance or importance as a wife, and it was not in Netty’s nature to recognize any justice in the position my mother had achieved because of her beauty. She had been aware of Mother as the most beautiful girl in Deptford — no, better than that, for Mother was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen — but she had known Mother as the daughter of the people down by the crick. And beauty excepted, what set somebody from down by the crick above Netty herself?

My mother could not have known anything of the spirit that drove my father on and sometimes made him behave in a way that very few people — perhaps nobody but myself — understood. People saw only his present success; they knew nothing of his great dreams and his discontentment with things as they were. He was rich, certainly, and he had made his money by his own efforts. Grandfather Staunton was quite content to be the local rich man in Deptford, and his ventures in beet sugar had been shrewd. But it was my father who saw that the trifling million and a half pounds of beet sugar produced every year in Canada was nothing compared to what might be done by a man who moved boldly but intelligently into the importation and refining of cane sugar. People eat about a hundred pounds of sugar a year in one form or another. Father supplied eighty-five pounds of it. And certainly it was Father who saw that much of what had been thought of as waste from the refining process could be used as mineral supplement to poultry and stock foods. So it was not very long before Father was heavily involved in all kinds of bakeries and candy-making and soft drinks and scientifically prepared animal foods, which were managed from a single central agency called the Alpha Corporation. But to look on that as the guiding element in his life was to misunderstand him completely.

His deepest ambition was to be somebody remarkable, to live a fully realized life, to leave nothing undone that came within the range of his desires. He hated people who slouched and slummocked through life, getting nowhere and being nothing. He used to quote a line from a Browning poem he had studied at school about “the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin.” His lamp was always blazing and his loins were girded as tight as they could be. I suppose that according to the rigmarole about types to which Dr. von Haller was introducing me (and which I was inclined to take with a pinch of salt) he would be called a Sensation man, because his sense of the real, the actual and tangible, was so strong. But he was sometimes mistaken about people, and I am much afraid he was mistaken about my mother.

She was a great beauty, but not in the classical style. Hers was the sort of beauty people admired so much in the twenties, when girls were supposed to have boyish figures and marvellous big eyes and pretty pouting mouths and above all a great air of vitality. Mother could have been a success in the movies. Or perhaps not, because although she had the looks she was not in the least a performer. I think Father saw in her something that wasn’t really there. He thought that a girl with such stunning looks couldn’t be just a Deptford girl; I think he supposed that her association with the people down by the crick was not one of parents-and-child, but a fairy-tale arrangement where a princess has been confided to the care of simple cottage folk. It was just a matter of lots of fine clothes and lots of dancing and travelling abroad and unlimited lessons at tennis and bridge, and the princess would stand revealed as what she truly was.

Poor Mother! I always feel guilty about her because I should have loved her more and supported her more than I did, but I was under my father’s spell, and I understand now that I sensed his disappointment, and anyone who disappointed him could not have my love. I took all his ambitions and desires for my own and had as much as I could do to endure the fact which became so plain as I grew older, that I was a disappointment myself.

During my work with Dr. von Haller I was astonished when one night Felix came to me in a dream. Felix had been my great comfort and solace when I was about four years old, but I had forgotten him.

Felix was a large stuffed bear. He had come to me at a very bitter time, when I had disappointed my father by playing with a doll. Not a girl doll, but a doll dressed like a Highlander that somebody had given me — I cannot recall who it was because I tore all details of the affair out of my mind. It made no difference to Father that it was a soldier doll; what he saw was that I had wrapped it up in a doll’s blanket belonging to Caroline and taken it to bed. He smashed the doll against the wall and demanded of Netty in a terrible voice if she was bringing his son up to be a sissy, and if that were so, what further plans had she? Dresses, perhaps? Was she encouraging me to urinate sitting down, so that I could use the ladies’ room in hotels when I grew up? I was desolate, and Netty was stricken but tearless, and it was a dreadful bedtime which took unlimited cocoa to alleviate. Only my mother stood up for me, but all she could say was, “Boy, don’t be so silly!” and this merely succeeded in drawing his anger on herself.

However, she must have made some compromise with him, for next day she brought Felix to me and said he was a very strong, brave bear for a very strong, brave boy, and we would have lots of daring adventures together. Felix was large, as nursery bears go, and a rich golden-brown, to begin with, and he had an expression of thoughtful determination. He had been made in France, and that was how he came to be named Felix; my mother thought of all the French names for boys that she knew, which were Jules and Felix, and Jules was rejected as not being so fully masculine as we desired and not fitting the character of this brave bear. So Felix he was, and he was the first of a large brotherhood of bears which I took to bed every night. There was a time when there were nine bears of various sizes in my bed, and not much room left for me.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson