The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Not many people know Son and Stranger. Mendelssohn wrote it for private performance, indeed for the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of his parents, and it is deeply, lumberingly domestic in the nineteenth-century German style. “A nice old bit of Biedermeier,” said Dr. Wolff, and lent some useful books to the art mistress for her designs.

The plot is modest; the people of a German village are expecting a recruiting-sergeant who will take their sons away to fight in the Napoleonic wars; a peddler, a handsome charlatan, turns up and pretends to be the sergeant, hoping to win the favours of the Mayor’s ward Lisbeth; but he is unmasked by the real sergeant, who proves to be Herrmann, the Mayor’s long-lost soldier son, and Lisbeth’s true love. The best part is the peddler, and there was the usual wrangle as to whether it should be played by a girl who could act but couldn’t sing, or whether a girl who could sing but couldn’t act should have it. The acting girl was finally banished to the comic role of the Mayor, who must have been no singer in the original production, for Mendelssohn had given him a part which stayed firmly on one note. Judy was Lisbeth, of course, and had some pretty songs and a bit of acting for which her quiet charm was, or seemed to me to be, exactly right.

At last early December came. Son and Stranger was performed for two nights, and of course it was a triumph. What school performance of anything is ever less than a triumph? Judy sang splendidly; Caroline covered herself with honour; even the embarrassing dialogue — rendered from flat-footed German into murderous English, Dr. Wolff assured me — was somehow bathed in the romantic light that enveloped the whole affair.

This year my father was in the audience, and cut a figure because everybody knew him from newspaper pictures and admired the great work he had done during the war years. I took Netty on the Friday and went again with Father on Saturday. He asked me if I really wanted to go twice or was I going just to keep him company; not long after Judy appeared on the stage I felt him looking at me with curiosity, so I suppose I was as bad at concealing my adoration as I had always been. Afterward, at the coffee and school-cake debauch in the dining-room, I introduced him to the Wolffs and the Schwarzes, and to my astonishment Judy curtsied to him — one of those almost imperceptible little bobs that girls used to do long ago in Europe and which some girls of Bishop Cairncross’s kept for the Bishop, who was the patron of the school. I knew Father was important, but I had never dreamed of him as the kind of person anybody curtsied to. He liked it; he didn’t say anything, but I knew he liked it.

If any greater glory could be added to my love for Judy, Father’s approval supplied it. I had been going through hell at intervals ever since Mother’s death because of Carol’s declaration that I was Dunstan Ramsay’s son. I had come to the conclusion that whether or not I was Ramsay’s son in the flesh, I was Father’s son in the spirit. He had not been at home during the period of my life when boys usually are possessed with admiration for their fathers, and I was having, at seventeen, a belated bout of hero-worship. Sometimes I had found Ramsay’s saturnine and ironic eye on me at school, and I had wondered if he were reflecting that I was his child. That seemed less significant now because Father’s return had diminished Ramsay’s importance; after all, Ramsay was the Acting Headmaster of Colborne, filling in for the war years, but Father was the Chairman of the school’s Board of Governors and in a sense Ramsay’s boss, as he seemed to be the boss of so many other people. He was a natural boss, a natural leader. I know I tried to copy some of his mannerisms, but they fitted me no better than his hats, which I also tried.

Father’s return to Toronto caused a lot of chatter, and some of it came to my ears because the boys with whom I was at school were the sons of the chatterers. He had been remarkable as a Minister of Food, a Cabinet position that had made him even more significant in the countries we were supplying during the war than at home. He had been extraordinary in his ability to get along with Mackenzie King without wrangling and without any obvious sacrifice of his own opinions, which were not often those of the P.M. But there was another reputation that came home with him, a reputation spoken of less freely, with an ambiguity I did not understand or even notice for a time. This was a reputation as something called “a swordsman”.

It is a measure of my innocence that I took this word at its face value. It was new then in the connotation it has since acquired, and I was proud of my father being a swordsman. I assumed it meant a gallant, cavalier-like person, a sort of Prince Rupert of the Rhine as opposed to the Cromwellian austerity of Mackenzie King.

When boys at school talked to me about Father, as they did because he was increasingly a public figure, I sometimes said, “You can sum him up pretty much in a word — a swordsman.” I now remember with terrible humiliation that I said this to the Wolffs, who received it calmly, though I thought I saw Mr. Wolffs nostrils pinch and if I had been more sensitive I would surely have noticed a drop in the social temperature. But the word had such a fine savour in my mouth that I think I repeated it; I knew the Wolffs and Schwarzes liked me, but how much better they would like me if they understood that I was the son of a man who was recognized for aristocratic behaviour and a temperament far above that of the upper-bourgeois world in which we lived and which, in Canada, was generally supposed to be the best world there was. Swordsmen were people of a natural distinction, and I was the son of one of them. Would I ever be a swordsman myself? Oh, speed the day!

The Wolffs, like many Jewish people, were going to a resort for Christmas, so I was not dismayed by the thought of any loss of time with Judy when my father asked me to go with him to Montreal on Boxing Day. He had some business to do there and thought I might like to see the city. So we went, and I greatly enjoyed the day-long journey on the train and putting up at the Ritz when we arrived. Father was a good traveller; everybody heeded him and our progress was princely.

“We’re having dinner with Myrrha Martindale,” he said; “she’s an old friend of mine, and I think you’ll like her very much.”

She was, it appeared, a singer, and had formerly lived in New York and had been seen — though not in leading roles — in several Broadway musical comedies. A wonderful person. Witty. Belonged to a bigger world. Would have had a remarkable career if she had not sacrificed everything to marriage.

“Was it worth it?” I asked. I was at the age when sacrifice and renunciation were great, terrifying, romantic concepts.

“No, it blew up,” said Father. “Jack Martindale simply had no idea what a woman like that is, or needs. He wanted to turn her into a Westmount housewife. Talk about Pegasus chained to the plough!”

Oh, indeed I was anxious to talk about Pegasus chained to the plough. That was just the kind of swordsman thing Father could say; he could see the poetry in daily life. But he didn’t want to talk about Myrrha Martindale; he wanted me to meet her and form my own opinion. That was like him, too: not dictating or managing, as so many of my friends’ fathers seemed to do.

Mrs. Martindale had an apartment on Cote des Neiges Road with a splendid view over Montreal; I guessed it was costing the banished Jack Martindale plenty, and I thought it was quite right that it should do so, for Mrs. Martindale was indeed a wonderful person. She was beautiful in a mature way, and had a delightful voice, with an actress’s way of making things seem much more amusing than they really were. Not that she strove to shine as a wit. She let Father do that, very properly, but her responses to his jokes were witty in themselves — not topping him, but supporting him and setting him off.

“You mustn’t expect a real dinner,” she said to me. “I thought it would be more fun if we were just by ourselves, the three of us, so I sent my maid out. I hope you won’t be disappointed.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson