The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Like so many good schoolmasters, he was an oddity, and the boys liked him and dreaded him and jeered at him. His nickname was Old Buggerlugs, because he had a trick of jabbing his little finger into his ear and rooting with it, as if he were scratching his brain. The other masters called him Corky because of his artificial leg, and they thought we did so too, but it was Buggerlugs when the boys were by themselves.

The bee in his bonnet was that history and myth are two aspects of a kind of grand pattern in human destiny: history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it. He used to dredge up extraordinary myths that none of us had ever heard of and demonstrate — in a fascinating way, I must admit — how they contained some truth that was applicable to widely divergent historical situations.

He had another bee, too, and it was this one that made him a somewhat suspect figure to a lot of parents and consequently to their sons — for the school always had a substantial anti-Ramsay party among the boys. This was his interest in saints. The study of history, he said, was in part a study of the myths and legends that mankind has woven around extraordinary figures like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or Charlemagne or Napoleon; they were mortal men, and when the fact could be checked against the legend it was wonderful to see what hero-worshippers had attributed to them. He used to show us a popular nineteenth-century picture of Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow, slumped tragically in his sleigh, defeat and a sense of romantic doom written on his face and on those of the officers about him: then he would read us Stendhal’s account of the retreat, recording how chirpy Napoleon was and how he would look out of the windows of his travelling carriage — no open sleigh for him, you can bet — saying, “Wouldn’t those people be amazed if they knew who was so near to them!” Napoleon was one of Ramsay’s star turns. He would show us the famous picture of Napoleon on Elba, in full uniform, sitting on a rock and brooding on past greatness. Then he would read us reports of daily life on Elba, when the chief concern was the condition of the great exile’s pylorus, and the best possible news was a bulletin posted by his doctors, saying, “This morning, at 11.22 a.m., the Emperor passed a well-formed stool.”

But why, Ramsay would ask, do we confine our study to great political and military figures to whom the generality of mankind has attributed extraordinary, almost superhuman qualities, and leave out the whole world of saints, to whom mankind has attributed phenomenal virtue? It is trivial to say that power, or even vice, are more interesting than virtue, and people say so only when they have not troubled to take a look at virtue and see how amazing, and sometimes inhuman and unlikable, it really is. The saints also belong among the heroes, and the spirit of Ignatius Loyola is not so far from the spirit of Napoleon as uninformed people suppose.

Ramsay was by way of being an authority on saints, and had written some books about them, though I have not seen them. You can imagine what an uncomfortable figure he could be in a school that admitted boys of every creed and kind but which was essentially devoted to a modernized version of a nineteenth-century Protestant attitude toward life. And of course our parents were embarrassed by real concern about spiritual things and suspicious of anybody who treated the spirit as an ever-present reality, as Ramsay did. He loved to make us uncomfortable intellectually and goad us on to find contradictions or illogicalities in what he said. “But logic is like cricket,” he would warn, “it is admirable so long as you are playing according to the rules. But what happens to your game of cricket when somebody suddenly decides to bowl with a football or bat with a hockeystick? Because that is what is continually happening in life.”

The war was a field-day for Ramsay as an historian. The legends that clustered around Hitler and Mussolini were victuals and drink to him. “The Fuhrer is inspired by voices — as was St. Joan: Il Duce feels no pain in the dentist’s chair — neither did St. Appollonia of Tyana when her teeth were wrenched out by infidels. These are the attributes of the great; and I say attributes advisedly, because it is we who attribute these supernormal qualities to them. Only after his death did it leak out that Napoleon was afraid of cats.”

I liked Ramsay, then. He worked us hard, but he was endlessly diverting and made some pretty good jokes in class. They were repeated around the school as Buggerlugs’ Nifties.

My feelings about him underwent a wretched change when my mother died.


That was in the late autumn of 1942, when I was in my fifteenth year. She had had pneumonia, and was recovering, but I don”t think she had much will to live. Whatever it was, she was convalescent and was supposed to rest every afternoon. The doctor had given instructions that she was on no account to take a chill, but she hated heavy coverings and always lay on her bed under a light rug. One day there was a driving storm, turning toward snow, and her bedroom windows were open, although they certainly should have been shut. We assumed that she had opened them herself. A chill, and in a few days she was dead.

Ramsay called me to his room at school and told me. He was kind in the right way. Didn’t commiserate too much, or say anything that would break me down. But he kept me close to him during the next two or three days, and arranged the funeral because Father had to be in London and had cabled to ask him to do it. The funeral was terrible. Caroline didn’t come because it was still thought by Netty and the Headmistress of her school that girls didn’t go to funerals, so I went with Ramsay. There was a small group, but the people from down by the crick were there, and I tried to talk to them; of course they hardly knew me and what could anybody say? Both my Staunton grandparents were dead, so I suppose if there was a Chief Mourner — the undertakers asked who it was and Ramsay dealt with that tactfully — I was the one. My only feeling was a kind of desolated relief, because without ever quite forming the thought in my mind, I knew my mother had not been happy for some years, and I supposed it was because she felt she had failed Father in some way.

I recall saying to Ramsay that I thought perhaps Mother was better off, because she had been so miserable of late; I meant it as an attempt at grown-up conversation, but he looked queer when he heard it.

Much more significant to me than my mother’s actual death and funeral — for, as I have said, she seemed to be taking farewell of us for quite a long time — was the family dinner on the Saturday night following. Caroline had been at home all week, under Netty’s care, and I went home from school for the week-end. There was a perceptible lightening of spirits, and an odd atmosphere, for Father was away and Caroline and I were free of the house as we had never been. What I would have done about this I don’t know; I suppose I should have swanked about a little and perhaps drunk a glass of beer to show my emancipation. But Caroline had different ideas.

She was always the daring one. When she was eight and I was ten she had cut one of Father’s cigars in two and dared me to a smoke-down; we were to light up and puff away while soaring and descending rhythmically on the see-saw in the garden. She won. She had a reputation at her school, Bishop Caimcross’s, as a practical joker, and had once captured a beetle and painted it gaily before offering it to the nature mistress for identification. The nature mistress, who was up to that one, got off the traditional remark in such circumstances. “This is known as the nonsensicus impudens, or Impudent Humbug, Caroline,” she had said, and gained great face among her pupils as a wit. But when Mother died, Caroline was twelve, and in that queer time between childhood and nubile girlhood, when some girls seem to be wise without experience, and perhaps more clear-headed than they will be again until after their menopause. She took a high line with me on this particular Saturday and said I was to make myself especially tidy for dinner.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson