The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Disappointed! It was the most grown-up affair I had ever known. Wonderful food that Myrrha — she insisted I call her Myrrha, because all her friends did — produced herself from under covers and off hot-trays, and splendid wines that were better than anything I had ever tasted. I knew they must be good because they had that real musty aftertaste, like dusty red ink instead of fresh red ink.

“This is terribly good of you, Myrrha,” said Father. “It’s time Davey learned something about wines. About vintage wines, instead of very new stuff.” He raised his glass to Mrs. Martindale. and she blushed and looked down as I had so often seen Judy do, only Mrs. Martindale seemed more in command of herself. I raised my glass to her, too, and she was delighted and gave me her hand, obviously meaning that I should kiss it. I had kissed Judy often enough, though never while eating and seldom on the hand, but I took it as gallantly as I could — surely I was getting to be a swordsman — and kissed it on the tips of the fingers. Father and Mrs. Martindale looked pleased but didn’t say anything, and I felt I had done well.

It was a wonderful dinner. It wasn’t necessary to be excited, as if I were with people my own age; calmness was the keynote, and I told myself that it was educational in the very best sense and I ought to keep alert and not miss anything. And not drink too much wine. Father talked a lot about wines, and Mrs. Martindale and I were fascinated. When we had coffee he produced a huge bottle of brandy, which was very hard to get at that time.

“Your Christmas gift, Myrrha dear,” he said. “Winston gave it to me last time I saw him, so you can be sure it’s good.”

It was. I had tasted whisky, but this was a very different thing. Father showed me how to roll it around in the mouth and get it on the sides of the tongue where the tastebuds are, and I rolled and tasted in adoring imitation of him.

How wonderfully good food and drink lull the spirit and bring out one’s hidden qualities! I thought something better than just warm agreement with everything that was said was expected of me, and I raked around in my mind for a comment worthy of the occasion. I found it

“And much as Wine has played the infidel,

And robbed me of my Robe of Honour — Well,

I wonder often what the Vintners buy

One half so precious as the stuff they sell.”

said I, looking reflectively at the candles through my glass of brandy, as I felt a swordsman should. Father seemed nonplussed, though I knew that was an absurd idea. Father? Nonplussed? Never!

“Is that your own, Davey?” he said.

I roared with laughter. What a wit Father was! I said I wished it was and then reflected that perhaps a swordsman ought to have said Would that it wept, but by then it was too late to change. Myrrha looked at me with the most marvellous combination of amusement and admiration, and I felt that in a modest way I was making a hit.

At half-past nine Father said he must keep another appointment. But I was not to stir. Myrrha too begged me not to think of going. She had known all along that Father would have to leave early, but then she was so grateful that he had been able to spare her a few hours from a busy life. She would love it if I would stay and talk further. She knew Omar Khayyam too, and would match verses with me. Father kissed her and said to me that we would meet at breakfast.

So Father went, and Myrrha talked about Omar, whom she knew a great deal better than I did, and it seemed to me that she brought a weight of understanding to the poem that was far outside my reach. All that disappointment with Martindale I supposed. She was absolutely splendid about the fleetingness of life and pleasure and the rose that blows where buried Caesar bled, and it seemed to me she was piercing into a world of experience utterly strange to me but which, of course, I respected profoundly.

“Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!

That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!

The Nightingale that in the branches sang,

Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!”

she recited, thrillingly, and talked about what a glorious thing youth was, and how swift its passing, and the terrible sadness of life which pressed on and on, without anybody being able to halt it, and how wise Omar was to urge us to get on with enjoyment when we could. This was all wonderful to me, for I was new to poetry and had just begun reading some because Professor Schwarz said it was his great alternative to chemistry. If a professor of chemistry thought well of poetry, it must be something better than the stuff we worked through so patiently in Eng. lit at school. I had just begun to see that poetry was about life, and not ordinary life but the essence and miraculous underside of life. What a leap my understanding took when I heard Myrrha reciting in her beautiful voice; she was near to tears, and so was I. She mastered herself, and with obvious effort not to break down she continued —

“Ah Love I could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits — and then

Remold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”

I could not speak, nor could Myrrha. She rose and left me to myself, and I was full of surging thoughts, recognition of the evanescence of life, and wonder that this glorious understanding woman should have stirred my mind and spirit so profoundly.

I do not know how much time passed until I heard her voice from another room, calling me. She has been crying, I thought, and wants me to comfort her. And so I should. I must try to tell her how tremendous she is, and how she has opened up a new world to me, and perhaps hint that I know something about the disappointment with Martindale. I went through a little passage into what proved to be her bedroom, very pretty and full of nice things and filled with the smell of really good perfume.

Myrrha came in from the bathroom, wearing what it is a joke to call a diaphanous garment, but I don’t know how else to name it. I mean, as she stood against the light, you could see she had nothing under it, and its fullness and the way it swished around only made it seem thinner. I suppose I gaped, for she really was beautiful.

“Come here, angel,” she said, “and give me a very big kiss.”

I did, without an instant of hesitation. I knew a good deal about kissing, and I took her in my arms and kissed her tenderly and long. But I had never kissed a woman in a diaphanous garment before, and it was like Winston Churchill’s brandy. I savoured it in the same way.

“Wouldn’t you like to take off all those stupid clothes?” she said, and gave me a start by loosening my tie. It is at this point I cease to understand my own actions. I really didn’t know where this was going to lead and had no time for thought, because life seemed to be moving so fast, and taking me with it. But I was delighted to be, so to speak, under this life-enlarging authority. I got out of my clothes quickly, dropping them to the floor and kicking them out of the way.

There is a point in a man’s undressing when he looks stupid, and nothing in the world can make him into a romantic figure. It is at the moment when he stands in his underwear and socks. I suppose a very calculating man would keep his shirt on to the last, getting rid of his socks and shorts as fast as possible, and then cast off the shirt, revealing himself as an Adonis. But I was a schoolboy undresser, and had never stripped to enchant. When I was in the socks-shorts moment, Myrrha laughed. I whipped off the socks, hurling them toward the dressing-table, and trampled the shorts beneath my feet. I seized her, held her firmly, and kissed her again.

“Darling,” said she, breaking away, “not like a cannibal. Come and lie down with me. Now, there’s no hurry whatever. So let us just do nice things for a while, shall we, and see what comes of it.”

So we did that. But I was a virgin bursting with partly gratified desire for Judy Wolff, and had no notion of preliminaries; nor, in spite of her words, did Myrrha seem greatly interested in them. I was full of poetry and power.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson