The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“You and Judy have something that is charming and beautiful,” he said, “and I advise you to cherish it as it is, for then it will always be a delight to you. But if you go on, we shall all change our roles; I shall have to be unpleasant to you, which I have no wish to do, and you will begin to hate me, which would be a pity, and perhaps you and Judy will decide that in order to preserve your self-respect you must deceive me and Judy’s mother. That would be painful to us, and I assure you it would also be dangerous to you.”

Then he did an extraordinary thing. He quoted Burns to me! Nobody had ever done that except my Cruikshank grandfather, down by the crick in Deptford, and I had always assumed that Burns was a sort of crick person’s poet. But here was this Viennese Jew, saying,

“The sacred lowe of weel-placed love,

Luxuriously indulge it;

But never tempt th’ illicit rove

Tho’ naething should divulge it;

I waive the quantum of the sin

The hazard of concealing;

But, och! it hardens a’ within,

And petrifies the feeling.

“You are a particularly gentle boy,” he said (and I was startled and resented it); it would not take many bad experiences to scar your feelings over and make you much less than the man you may otherwise become. If you seduced my daughter, I should be very angry and might hate you; the physical injury is really not very much, if indeed it is anything at all, but the psychological injury — you see I am too much caught up in the modern way of speaking to be quite able to say the spiritual injury — could be serious if we all parted bad friends. There are people, of course, to whom such things are not important, and I fear you have had a bad example, but you and Judy are not such people. So be warned, David, and be our friend always; but you will never be my daughter’s husband, and you must understand that now.”

“Why are you so determined I should never be Judy’s husband?” I asked.

“I am not determined alone,” said he. “There are many hundreds of determining factors on both sides. They are called ancestors, and there are some things in which we are wise not to defy them.”

“You mean, I’m not a Jew,” I said.

“I had begun to wonder if you would get to it,” said Dr. Wolff.

“But does that matter in this day and age?” I said.

“You were born in 1928, when it began to matter terribly, and not for the first time in history,” said Dr. Wolff. “But set that aside. There is another way it matters which I do not like to mention because I do not want to hurt you and I like you very much. It is a question of pride.”

We talked further, but I knew the conversation was over. They were planning to send Judy to school abroad in the spring. They would be happy to see me from time to time until then. But I must understand that the Wolffs had talked to Judy, and though Judy felt very badly, she had seen the point. And that was that.

It was that night I went to Knopwood. I was working up a rage against the Wolffs. A question of pride! Did that mean I wasn’t good enough for Judy? And what did all this stuff about being Jews mean from people who gave no obvious external evidence of their Jewishness? If they were such great Jews, where were their side-curls and their funny underwear and their queer food? I had heard of these things as belonging to the bearded Jews in velours hats who lived down behind the Art Gallery. I had assumed the Wolffs and the Schwarzes were trying to be like us; instead I had been told I wasn’t good enough for them! Affronted Christianity boiled up inside me. Christ had died for me, I was certain, but I wouldn’t take any bets on His having died for the Wolffs and the Schwarzes! Off to Knopwood! He would know.

I was with him all evening, and in the course of an involved conversation everything came out. To my astonishment he sided with Louis Wolff. But worst of all, he attacked Father in terms I had never heard from him, and he was amused, and contemptuous and angry about Myrrha.

“You triple-turned jackass!” he said, “couldn’t you see it was an arranged thing? And you thought it was your own attraction that got you into bed with such a scarred old veteran! I don’t blame you for going to bed with her; show an ass a peck of oats and he’ll eat it, even if the oats is musty. But it is the provincial vulgarity of the whole thing that turns my stomach — the winesmanship and the tatty gallantries and the candlelit frumpery of it! The “good talk”, the imitations of Churchill by your father, the quotations from The Rubaiyat. If I could have my way I’d call in every copy of that twenty-fourth-rate rhymed gospel of hedonism and burn it! How it goes to the hearts of trashy people! So Myrrha matched verses with you, did she? Well, did the literary strumpet quote this —

” ‘Well,’ murmured one, ‘Let whoso make or buy,

My Clay with long Oblivion is gone dry:

But fill me with the old familiar Juice

Methinks I might recover by and by.’

Did she whisper that in your ear as Absalom went in unto his father’s concubine?”

“You don’t understand,” I said; “this is a thing French families do to see that their sons learn about sex in the right way.”

“Yes, I have heard that, but I didn’t know they put their cast mistresses to the work, the way you put a child rider on your safe old mare.”

“That’s enough, Knoppy,” I said; “you know a lot about the Church and religion, but I don’t think that qualifies you to talk about what it is to be a swordsman.”

That made him really furious. He became cold and courteous.

“Help me then,” he said. “Tell me what a swordsman is and what lies behind the mystique of the swordsman.”

I talked as well as I could about living with style, and not sticking to dowdy people’s ways. I managed to work in the word amorist because I thought he might not know it. I talked about the Cavaliers as opposed to the Roundheads, and I dragged in Mackenzie King as a sort of two-bit Cromwell, who had to be resisted. Mr. King had made himself unpopular early in the war by urging the Canadian people to “buckle on the whole armour of God”, which when it was interpreted meant watering and rationing whisky without reducing the price. I said that if that was the armour of God, I would back the skill and panache of the swordsman against it any day. As I talked he seemed to be less angry, and when I had finished he was almost laughing.

“My poor Davey,” he said, “I have always known you were an innocent boy, but I have hoped your innocence was not just the charming side of a crippling stupidity. And now I am going to try to do something that I had never expected to do, and of which I disapprove, but which I think is necessary if between us we are going to save your soul. I am going to disillusion you about your father.”

He didn’t, of course. Not wholly. He talked a lot about Father as a great man of business, but that cut no ice with me. I don’t mean he suggested Father was anything but honest, because there were never any grounds for that. But he talked about the corrupting power of great wealth and the illusion it created in its possessor that he could manipulate people, and the dreadful truth that there were a great many people whom he undoubtedly could manipulate, so that the illusion was never seriously challenged. He talked about the illusion wealth creates that its possessor is of a different clay from that of common men. He talked about the adulation great wealth attracts from people to whom worldly success is the only measure of worth. Wealth bred and fostered illusion and illusion brought corruption. That was his theme.

I was ready for all of this because Father had talked a great deal to me since he began to be more at home. Father said that a man you could manipulate had to be watched because other people could manipulate him as well. Father had also said that the rich man differed from the ordinary man only in that he had a wider choice, and that one of his dangerous choices was a lightly disguised slavery to the source of his wealth. I even told Knoppy something he had never guessed. It was about what Father called the Pathological Compassion of Big Business, which seems to demand that above a certain executive level a man’s incompetence or loss of quality had to be kept from him so that he would not be destroyed in the eyes of his family, his friends, and himself. Father estimated that Corporation Compassion cost him a few hundred thousand every year, and this was charity of a kind St. Paul had never foreseen. Like a lot of people who have no money, Knoppy had some half-baked ideas about people who had it, and the foremost of these was that wealth was achieved, and held, only by people who were essentially base. I accused him of lack of charity, which I knew was a very great matter to him. I accused him of a covert, Christian jealousy, that blinded him to Father’s real worth because he could not see beyond his wealth. People strong enough to get wealth are sometimes strong enough to resist illusion. Father was such a man.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson