The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Sherry beforehand! We had never been allowed that before, but Caroline had it set out in the Drawing-room, and Netty was taken unaware and did not get her objection in until we had glasses. Netty took none herself; she was fiercely T.T. But Caroline had asked her to dine with us, and Netty must have been shaken by that, because it had never occurred to her that she would do otherwise. She had put on some ceremonial garments instead of her nurse’s uniform, and Caroline was in her best and had even put on a dab of lipstick. But this was merely a soft prelude to what was to follow.

There were three places at table and it was clear enough that I was to have Father’s chair, but when Netty was guided by Caroline to the other chair of State — my mother’s — I wondered what was up. Netty demurred, but Caroline insisted that she take this seat of honour, while she herself sat at my right. It did not occur to me that Caroline was pulling Netty’s teeth; she was exalting her as a guest, only to cast her down as a figure of authority. Netty was confused, and missed her cue when the houseman brought in wine and poured a drop for me to approve; she barely recovered in time to turn her own glass upside down. We had had wine before; on great occasions my father gave us wine diluted with water, which he said was the right way to introduce children to one of the great pleasures of life; but undiluted wine, and me giving the nod of approval to the houseman, and glasses refilled under Netty’s popping eyes — this was a new and heady experience.

Heady indeed, because the wine, following the sherry, was strong within me, and I knew my voice was becoming loud and assertive and that I was nodding agreement to things that needed no assent.

Not Caroline. She hardly touched her wine — the sneak! — but she was very busy guiding the conversation. We all missed Mother dreadfully, but we had to bear up and go on with life. That was what Mother would have wanted. She had been such a gay person; the last thing she would wish would be prolonged mourning. That is, she had been gay until five or six years ago. What had happened? Did Netty know? Mother had trusted Netty so, and of course she knew things that we were not thought old enough to know — certainly not when we had been quite small children, really. But that was long ago. We were older now.

Netty was not to be drawn.

Daddy was away so much. He couldn’t avoid it, really, and the country needed him. Mummy must have felt the loneliness. Odd that she seemed to see so little of her friends during the last two or three years. The house had been gloomy. Netty must have felt it. Nobody came, really, except Dunstan Ramsay. But he was a very old friend, wasn’t he? Hadn’t Daddy and Mummy known him since before they were married?

Netty was a little more forthcoming. Yes, Mr. Ramsay had been a Deptford boy. Much older than Netty, of course, but she heard a few things about him as she grew up. Always a queer one.

Oh? Queer in what way? We had always remembered him coming to the house, so perhaps we didn’t notice the queerness. Daddy always said he was deep and clever.

I felt that as host I should get into this conversation — which was really more like a monologue by Caroline, punctuated with occasional grunts from Netty. So I told a few stories about Ramsay as a schoolmaster, and confided that his nickname was Buggerlugs.

Netty said I should be ashamed to use a word like that in front of my sister.

Caroline put on a face of modesty, and then said she thought Mr. Ramsay was handsome in a kind of scary way, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, and she had always wondered why he never married.

Maybe he couldn’t get the girl he wanted, said Netty.

Really? Caroline had never thought of that. Did Netty know any more? It sounded romantic.

Netty said it had seemed romantic to some people who had nothing better to do than fret about it.

Oh, Netty, don’t tease! Who was it?

Netty underwent some sort of struggle, and then said if anybody had wanted to know they had only to use their eyes.

Caroline thought it must all have been terribly romantic when Daddy was young and just back from the war, and Mummy so lovely, and Daddy so handsome — as he Still was, didn’t Netty think so?

The handsomest man she had ever seen, said Netty, with vehemence. Had Netty ever seen him in those days?

Well, said Netty, she had been too young to pay much heed to such things when the war ended. After all, she wasn’t exactly Methuselah. But when Boy Staunton married Leola Cruikshank in 1924 she had been ten, and everybody knew it was a great love-match, and they were the handsomest pair Deptford had ever seen or was ever likely to see. Nobody had eyes for anyone but the bride, and she guessed Ramsay was like all the rest. After all, he had been Father’s best man.

Here Caroline pounced. Did Netty mean Mr. Ramsay had been in love with Mother?

Netty was torn between her natural discretion and the equally natural desire to tell what she knew. Well, there had been those that said as much.

So that was why he was always around our house! And why he had taken so much care of Mother when Father had to be away on war business. He was heart-broken but faithful. Caroline had never heard of anything so romantic. She thought Mr. Ramsay was sweet.

This word affected Netty and me in different ways. Old Buggerlugs sweet! I laughed much louder and longer than I would have done if I had not had two glasses of Burgundy. But Netty snorted with disdain, and there was that in her burning eyes that showed what she thought of such sweetness.

“Oh, but you’d never admit any man was attractive except Daddy,” said Caroline. She even leaned over and put her hand on Netty’s wrist.

What did Caroline mean by that, she demanded.

“It sticks out a mile. You adore him.”

Netty said she hoped she knew her place. It was a simple remark, but extremely old-fashioned for 1942, and if ever I have seen a woman ruffled and shaken, it was Netty as she said it.

Caroline let things simmer down. Of course everybody adored Daddy. It was inescapable. He was so handsome, and attractive, and clever, and wonderful in every way that no woman could resist him. Didn’t Netty think so?

Netty guessed that was about the size of it.

Later Caroline brought up another theme. Wasn’t it extraordinary that Mother had taken that chill, when everybody knew it was the worst possible thing for her? How could those windows have been open on such a miserable day?

Netty thought nobody would ever know.

Did Netty mean Mother had opened them herself, asked Caroline, all innocence. But — she laid down her knife and fork — that would be suicide! And suicide was a mortal sin! Everybody at Bishop Cairncross’s — yes, and at St. Simon Zelotes, where we went to church — was certain of that. If Mother had committed a mortal sin, were we to think that now –? That would be horrible! I swear that Caroline’s eyes filled with tears.

Netty was rattled. No, of course she meant nothing of the kind. Anyway that about mortal sins was just Anglican guff and she had never held with it. Never.

But then, how did Mother’s windows come to be open?

Somebody must have opened them by mistake, said Netty. We’d never know. There was no sense going on about it. But her baby girl wasn’t to think about awful things like suicide.

Caroline said she couldn”t bear it, because it wasn’t just Anglican guff, and everybody knew suicides went straight to Hell. And to think of Mummy –!

Netty never wept, that I know of. But there was, on very rare occasions, a look of distress on her face which in another woman would have been accompanied by tears. This was such a time.

Caroline leapt up and ran to Netty and buried her face in her shoulder. Netty took her out of the room and I was left amid the ruins of the feast. I thought another glass of Burgundy would be just the thing at that moment, but the butler had removed it, and I had not quite the brass to ring the bell, so I took another apple from the dessert plate and ate it reflectively all by myself. I could not make head or tail of what had been going on. When the apple was finished, I went to the drawing-room and sat down to listen to a hockey-game on the radio. But I soon fell asleep on the sofa.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson