The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

People are always writing in their memoirs about what Oxford meant to them. I can’t pretend the place itself meant extraordinary things to me. Of course it was pleasant, and I liked the interesting buildings; architectural critics are always knocking them, but after Toronto they made my eyes pop. They spoke of an idea of education strange to me; discomfort there was, but no meanness, no hint of edification on the cheap. And I liked the feel of a city of youth, which is what Oxford seems to be, though anybody with eyes in his head can see that it is run by old men. But my Oxford was a post-war Oxford, crammed to the walls and rapidly growing into a big industrial city. And there was much criticism of the privilege it implied, mostly from people who were sitting bang in the middle of the privilege and getting all they could out of it. Oxford was part of my plan to become a special sort of man, and I bent everything that came my way to my single purpose.

I read law, and did well at it. I was very lucky in being assigned Pargetter of Balliol as my tutor. He was a great law don, a blind man who nevertheless managed to be a famous chess-player and such a teacher as I had never known. He was relentless and exacting, which was precisely what I wanted because I was determined to be a first-class lawyer. You see, when I told Father I wanted to be a lawyer, he assumed at once that I wanted law as a preparation for business, which was what he himself had made of it. He was sure I would follow him in Alpha; indeed I don’t think any other future for me seemed possible to him. I was perhaps a little bit devious because I did not tell him at once that I had other ideas. I wanted the law because I wanted to master something in which I would know where I stood and which would not be open to the whims and preconceptions of people like Louis Wolff, or Knopwood — or Father. I wanted to be a master of my own craft and I wanted a great craft. Also, I wanted to know a great deal about people, and I wanted a body of knowledge that would go as far as possible to explain people. I wanted to work in a realm that would give me some insight into the spirit that I had seen at work in Bill Unsworth.

I had no notions of being a crusader. One of the things I had arrived at during that wearisome, depleting illness was a determination to be done forever with everything that Father Knopwood stood for. Knoppy, I saw, wanted to manipulate people; he wanted to make them good, and he was sure he knew what was good. For him, God was here and Christ was now. He was prepared to accept himself and impose on others a lot of irrational notions in the interests of his special idea of goodness. He thought God was not mocked. I seemed to see God being mocked, and rewarding the mocker with splendid success, every day of my life.

I wanted to get away from the world of Louis Wolff, who now appeared to me as an extremely shrewd man whose culture was never allowed for an instant to interfere with some age-old ideas that governed him and must also govern his family.

I wanted to get away from Father and save my soul, insofar as I believed in such a thing. I suppose what I meant by my soul was my self-respect or my manhood. I loved him and feared him, but I had spied tiny chinks in his armour. He too was a manipulator and, remembering his own dictum, I did not mean to be a man who could be manipulated. I knew I would always be known as his son and that I would in some ways have to carry the weight of wealth that I had not gained myself in a society where inherited wealth always implied a stigma. But somehow, in some part of the great world, I would be David Staunton, unreachable by Knopwood or Louis Wolff, or Father, because I had outstripped them.

The idea of putting sex aside never entered my head. It just happened, and I was not aware that it had become part of my way of living until it was thoroughly established. Pargetter may have had something to do with it. He was unmarried, and being blind he was insulated against a great part of the charm of women. He seized on me, as he did on all his students, with an eagle’s talons, but I think he knew by the end of my first year that I was his in a way that the others, however admiring, were not. If you hope to master the law, he would say, you are a fool, for it has no single masters; but if you hope to master some part of it, you had better put your emotions in cold storage at least until you are thirty. I decided to do that, and did it, and by the time I was thirty I liked the chill. It helped to make people afraid of me, and I liked that, too.

Pargetter must have taken to me, though he was not a man to hint at any such thing. He taught me chess, and although I was never up to his standard I grew to play well. His room never had enough light, because he didn’t need it and I think he was a little cranky about making people who had their eyesight use it to the full. We would sit by his insufficient fire in a twilight that could have been dismal, but which he contrived somehow to give a legal quality, and play game after game; he sat fatly in his arm-chair, and I sat by the board and made all the moves; he would call his move, I would place the piece as he directed, and then I would tell him my counter-move. When he had beaten me he would go back over the game and tell me precisely the point at which I had gone wrong. I was awed by such a memory and such a spatial sense in a man who lived in darkness; he was contemptuous of me when I could not remember what I had done six or eight moves back, and of sheer necessity I had to develop the memory-trick myself.

He really was alarming: he had three or four boards set up around his room, on which he played chess by post with friends far away. If I arrived for an early tutorial he would say, “There’s a postcard on the table; I expect its from Johannesburg; read it.” I would read a chess move from it and make the move on a board which he had not touched for perhaps a month. When my tutorial was finished he would dictate a counter-move to me, and I would rearrange the board accordingly. He won a surprising number of these long-distance, tortoise-paced games.

He had never learned Braille. He wrote in longhand on paper he fitted into a frame which had guide-wires to keep him on the lines, and he never seemed to forget anything he had written. He had a prodigious knowledge of law books he had never seen, and when he sent me, with exact directions, to his shelves to hunt up a reference, I often found a slip of paper in the book with a note in his careful, printlike hand. He kept up with books and journals by having them read to him, and I felt myself favoured when he began to ask me to read; he would make invaluable comment as he listened, and it was always a master-lesson in how to absorb, weigh, select, and reject.

This was precisely what I wanted and I came almost to worship Pargetter. Exactitude, calm appraisal, close reasoning applied to problems which so often had their beginning in other people’s untidy emotions acted like balm on my hurt mind. It was not ordinary legal instruction and it did not result in ordinary legal practice. Many lawyers are beetle-witted ignoramuses, prey to their own emotions and those of their clients; some of them work up big practices because they can fling themselves fiercely into other people’s fights. Their indignation is for sale. But Pargetter had honed his mind to a shrewd edge, and I wanted to be like Pargetter. I wanted to know, to see, to sift, and not to be moved. I wanted to get as far as possible from that silly boy who had not realized what a swordsman was when everybody else knew, and who mooned over Judy Wolff and was sent away by her father to play with other toys. I wanted to be melted down, purged of dross, and remoulded in a new and better form; Pargetter was just the man to do it. I had other instructors, of course, and some of them were very good, but Pargetter continues to be my ideal, my father in art.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson