The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

I applauded uproariously, and I noticed some parents looking approvingly at me. I suppose they thought I was clapping for Caroline and was a loyal brother. Caroline was on the stage, certainly, holding the score of the music so people would know what she had done, but I had no eyes for her. After the party for the cast and friends — school coffee and school cookies — I took Caroline home and tried to find out something about Judith Wolff. She had been surrounded by some foreign-looking people whom I supposed to be her parents and their friends, and I had not been able to get a good look at her. But Caroline was full of herself, as always, and demanded again and again that I reassure her that the music had been suitably audible, yet not too loud, and had supported the weaker singers without seeming to dominate them, and had really carried the ballet, who were just little girls and had no more sense of rhythm than so many donkeys, and had indeed been fully orchestral in effect. This was egotistical nonsense, but I had to put up with it in order to bring the conversation around to what I wanted to know.

Weren’t they lucky to get such a good girl for the part of Sally? Who was she?

Oh — Judy Wolff. Nice voice, but dark. Brought it too much from the back of her throat. Needed some lessons in production.

Perhaps. Good for that part, though.

Possibly. A bit of a cow at rehearsal. Hard to stir her up.

I considered killing Caroline and leaving her battered body on the lawn of one of the houses we were passing.

Caroline knew I wouldn’t have noticed, because it was a fine point not many people would get, but in Sally’s Lullaby in Act Two, at “Leap fox, hoot owl, wail warbler sweet,” Judy was all over the place, and as Caroline had a very tricky succession of chromatic chords to play there was nothing she could do to drag Judy back, and she just hoped it would be better tomorrow night.

You cannot have a sister like Caroline without picking up a few tricks. I asked if there was any chance that I could see the play again on Saturday night?

“So you can go and moon at Judy again?” she said. In another age Caroline would have been burnt as a witch; she could smell what you were thinking, especially when you wanted to conceal it. I set aside plans for burning her then and there.

“Judy who? Oh, the Sally girl. Don’t be silly. No, I just thought it was good, and I’d like to see it again. And I was thinking you didn’t really get the recognition you deserved tonight. If I came tomorrow night, I could send you a bouquet, and it could be handed up over the footlights at the end, and people would know what you were worth.”

“Not a bad idea, but where would you get any money to send a bouquet? You’re broke.”

“I’d wondered if you could possibly see your way to making me a small loan. As it’s really for you, anyhow.”

“What’s the need? Why can’t I just send myself a bouquet? That would cut out the middleman.”

“Because it’s ridiculous and undignified and cheap and generally two-bit and no-account, and if Netty heard of it, as she would from me, she would make your life a burden. Whereas if the bouquet comes from me, nobody need know, and if they find out they’ll think what a sweet brother I am. But I’ll put a big ticket on it with ‘Homage to those eloquent fingers, from Arturo Toscanini’ if you like.”

It worked. I thought it would be a cheap dollar bouquet, but I had underrated Caroline’s vanity, and she handed over a nice, resounding five bucks as a tribute to herself. This was splendid because I had craftily decided to sequester some portion of whatever I got from Caroline, and use it to send another bouquet to Judy Wolff. With five dollars I could do the thing in style.

Florists were more grasping than I had supposed, but after shopping around on Saturday I managed quite a showy tribute for Caroline, of chrysanthemums with plenty of fern to eke them out, for a dollar seventy-five. With the remaining three twenty-five, to which I added fifty cents I ground out of Netty by pretending I had to get a couple of special pencils for making maps, I bought roses for Judy. Not the best roses; I had no money for those; but indubitable roses.

I was playing a dangerous game. I knew it, yet I could not help myself. Caroline would find out about the two bouquets and would take it out of me in some dreadful way, for she was a terrible skinflint. But I was ready to risk anything, so long as Judy Wolff received the tribute that was her due. The thought of the evening sustained me through a nervous, worrisome Saturday.

It worked out quite differently from anything I could have foreseen. In the first place, Netty wanted to go to Crossings, and it was assumed that I should take her. There is a special sort of enraged misery that overcomes a young man who is absorbed in his love for an ideal girl and who is thrust into the company of a distasteful, commonplace older woman. Dr. von Haller talks about the concept of the Shadow; how much of my Shadow — of my impatience, my snobbery, my ingratitude — was visited on poor Netty that night! To have to sit beside her, and answer her tomfool questions and listen to her crass assertions, and breathe up her smell of fevered flesh and laundry starch, and be conscious of her garment of state, her sheared mouton coat, among all the minky mothers, was torture to me. Had I been Romeo and she the Nurse, I could have risen above her with aristocratic ease, and everybody would have known she was my retainer; but I was Davey and she was Netty who had washed under my foreskin and threatened to cut my heart out with a whip when I was naughty, and my dread was that the rest of the audience would think she was my mother! But Netty was not sensitive; she was on a spree; she was to witness the triumph of her adored Caroline. I was merely her escort, and she felt kindly toward me and sought to divert me with her Gothic vivacity. How was I to insinuate myself into the moonlight world of Judith Wolff after the play, with this goblin in tow?

Consequently I did not enjoy the play as I had expected to do. I was conscious of faults Caroline had been niggling about all day, and although my worship of Judy was more agonizing than before, it heaved on a sea of irritability and discontentment. And always there was the dread of the moment when the bouquets would be presented.

Here again I had reckoned without Fate, which was disposed to spare me from the consequences of my folly. When the curtain call came, some of the girls who had been serving as ushers rushed to the footlights like Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane, loaded with bouquets. Judy got my roses and another much finer bunch from another usher. Caroline was handed the measly bundle of chrysanthemums, but also a very grand bunch of yellow roses, which were her favourites; she pretended extreme astonishment, read the card, and gave a little jump of joy! When the applause was over and almost every girl on stage had been given flowers of some sort, I stumbled out of the hall like one who has, at the last minute, been snatched from in front of the firing-squad.

The party in the school’s dining-room was larger and gayer than the night before, though the food was the same. There were so many people that they stood in groups, and not in a single mass. Netty made a bee-line for Caroline, demanding to know who had sent her flowers. Caroline was busy displaying the roses and the card that was with them, on which was printed, in bold script, “From a devoted admirer, who wishes to remain unknown.” The chrysanthemums and their rotten little card, on which I had printed “Congratulations and Good Luck”, she gave to Netty to hold. She was in tearing high spirits and loved all mankind; she seized me by the arm and rushed me over to Judy Wolff and shrieked, “Judy, I want you to meet my baby brother; he thinks you’re the tops,” and left me gangling. But she immediately showed her roses to Judy, and made a great affair of wondering who could have sent them; Judy, like every girl when confronted with an obvious admirer, ignored me and chattered away to Caroline and tried to talk about the mystery of her own roses. My roses. Hopeless. Caroline was not to be distracted. But in time she did go away, and I was left with Judy, and had opened my mouth to say my carefully prepared speech — “You sang awfully well; you must have a marvellous teacher.” (Oh, was it too daring? Would she think I was a pushy nuisance? Would she think it was just a line I used with all the dozens of girls I knew who sang? Would she think I was trying to move in on her like some football tough who — Knopwood, stand by me now! — wanted to use her as an object of convenience?) But near her were the same smiling, dark-skinned, big-nosed people I had seen last night, and they took me over as Judy (what manners, what aplomb, she must be foreign) introduced me as Caroline’s brother. My father, Dr. Louis Wolff. My mother. My Aunt Esther. My uncle, Professor Bruno Schwarz.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson