The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

They were very kind to me, but they all had X-ray eyes, or extrasensory perception, because they assumed without asking that it was I who had sent Judy the other bouquet of roses. And this flummoxed me. There I stood, a declared lover, a role for which I had no preparation whatever, and which I had entered on a level of roses, which I was utterly unable to sustain. But what was most remarkable was that they took it for granted that I should admire Judy and send her flowers as an entirely suitable way of getting to know her. I gathered that being Caroline’s brother was, to them, a sufficient introduction. How little they knew Caroline! They understood. They sympathized. Of course they said nothing directly, but their attitude toward me and their conversation made it plain that they supposed I wanted to be accepted as a friend, and were willing that it should be so. I didn’t know what to do. The course of true love was, contrary to everything that was right and proper, running smooth, and I was not ready for it.

Friends of mine at school were in love with girls. The parents of these girls were always hilarious nuisances, eager to tar and feather Cupid and make a clown of him; or, if not that, they were unpleasantly ironic and seemed to have forgotten all about love except as something that ailed puppies and calves. The Wolffs took me seriously as a human being. I had hoped for a furtive romance, unknown to anyone else in the world. But here was Mrs. Wolff saying that they were always at home on Sunday afternoons between four and six, and if I liked to look in, they would be delighted to see me. I asked if tomorrow would be too soon. No, tomorrow would do beautifully. They were delighted to meet me. They hoped we would meet often.

During all of this, Judy said very little, and when I shook hands with her at parting — an awful struggle; was this the thing to do, or not; did one shake the hands of girls? — she cast down her eyes.

This was something I had never seen a girl do. Caroline’s friends always looked you straight in the eye, especially if they had something disagreeable to say. This dropping of the gaze almost disembowelled me with its modest beauty.

But the publicity of it all! Can I have been so obvious? On the way home even Netty remarked that I certainly seemed to be taken with that dark girl, and when I asked her haughtily what she meant she said she had eyes in her head like anybody else, and I had been lallygagging so nobody could miss it.

Netty was in high good humour. Dunstan Ramsay had been at Crossings, invited, I suppose, as Headmaster of a neighbouring school. He had paid Netty a good deal of attention. That was like Buggerlugs; he never overlooked anybody, and he seemed to put himself out to be gallant to women nobody else could stand. He had introduced Netty to Miss Gostling, the Headmistress of Bishop Caimcross’s, and had said she was the mainstay of the Staunton household while Father had to be away on war business. Miss Gostling had been quite the lady; hadn’t put on any airs. But it was a good thing that place was a school and not a hotel, because their coffee would choke a dog.

As we were going to bed, Caroline came to my room to thank me for the flowers. “I must say you did it in style,” said she, “and you must have shopped around for quite a while to get yellow roses like that for five dollars. I know what these things cost; this is identical with the bunch Buggerlugs sent Ghastly Gostling, and I’ll bet it didn’t cost him a cent less than eight.”

I was in a mood to dare much. “Who sent you the other flowers?” I asked.

“Scotland Yard suspects Tiger McGregor,” she replied. “He’s been lurking for a couple of months. Cheap creep! It looks like about a dollar seventy-five” — this with a glint of her pawnbroker’s eye — “and he’ll probably expect me to go to the Colborne dance with him on the strength of it. Maybe I will, at that. . . By the way, you and I are invited to tea at Judy Wolff’s tomorrow. I worked that for you, so clean yourself up and do me credit.”

So Buggerlugs had sent the roses and saved me from God knows what humiliation and servitude to Carol! Could he have known anything? Not possibly. He was just doing right by an old friend’s daughter and having a little joke on his card. But he was a friend, whether he knew it or not. Was he more than a friend?. . . Damn Carol!

We went to tea with the Wolffs next day. It was not a social occasion I knew anything about, and I was in a frenzy of nerves. But the Wolff apartment was full of people, and Tiger McGregor was there and kept Caroline out of my way. I had a few words with Judy, and once she gave me a plate of sandwiches to hand around, so obviously she thought I was a trustworthy person and not just somebody who regarded her as an object of convenience. Her parents were charming and kind, and although I had experienced kindness, I was a stranger to charm, so I fell in love with all the Wolffs and Schwarzes in properly respectful degrees, and felt that I had suddenly moved into a new sort of world.

Thus began a love which fed my life and expanded my spirit for a year, before it was destroyed by an act of kindness which was in effect an act of shattering cruelty.

Need we go into details about what I said to Judy? I am no poet, and I suppose what I said was very much what everybody always says, and although I remember her as speaking golden words, I cannot recall precisely anything she said. If love is to be watched and listened to without embarrassment, it must be transmuted into art, and I don’t know how to do that, and it is not what I have come to Zurich to learn.

DR. VON HALLER: We must go into it a little, I think. You told her you loved her?

MYSELF: On New Year’s Day. I said I would love her always, and I meant it. She said she couldn’t be sure about loving me; she would not say it unless she was sure she meant it, and forever. But she would not withhold it, if ever she were sure, and meanwhile the greatest kindness I could show was not to press her.

DR. VON HALLER: And did you?

MYSELF: Yes, quite often. She was always gentle and always said the same things.

DR. VON HALLER: What was she like? Physically, I mean. Was her appearance characteristically feminine? A well-developed bosom? Was she a clean person?

MYSELF: She was dark. Complexion what is called olive, but with wonderful deep red colour in her cheeks when she blushed. Hair dark brown. Not tall, but not short. She laughed at herself about being fat, but of course she wasn’t. Curvy. Those uniforms that schools like Bishop Cairncross’s insisted on at that time were extraordinarily revealing. If a girl had breasts, they showed up under those middies, and some girls had positive shelves almost under their chins. And those absurd short blue skirts, showing seemingly miles of leg from ankle to thigh. It was supposed to be a modest outfit, to make them look like children, but a pretty girl dressed like that is a quaint, touching miracle. The sloppy ones and the fatties were pretty spooky, but not a girl like Judy.

DR. VON HALLER: You felt physical desire for her, then?

MYSELF: I most certainly did! There were times when I nearly fried! But I was heedful of what Knopwood said. Of course I talked to Knopwood about it, and he was wonderful. He said it was a very great experience, but I was the man, and the greater responsibility was mine. So — nothing that would harm Judy. He also gave me a hint about Jewish girls; said they were brought up to be modest and that her parents, being Viennese, were probably pretty strict. So — no casual Canadian ways, and never get the parents against me.

DR. VON HALLER: Did you have erotic dreams about her?

MYSELF: Not about her. But wild dreams about women I couldn’t recognize, and sometimes frightful hags, who ravished me. Netty began to look askew and hint about my pyjamas. And of course she had some awful piece of lore from Deptford to bring out. It seems there had been some woman there when she was a little girl who had always been “at it” and eventually been discovered in a gravel pit, “at it” with a tramp; of course this woman had gone stark, staring mad and had had to be kept in her house, tied up. But I think this tale of lust rebuked was really for Caroline’s benefit, because Tiger McGregor was lurking more and more, and Carol was getting silly. I spoke to her about it myself, and she replied with some quotation about showing her the steep and thorny way to heaven, while I was making an ass of myself over Judy Wolff. But I kept my eye on her, just the same.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson