I wrote to Father every week and grew aware that my letters were less and less communicative, for I was entering a world where he could not follow. I visited Canada once a year, for as short a time as I could manage, and it was when I was about to enter my third year at Oxford that he took me to dinner one night, and after some havering which I realize now was shyness about what he was going to say, he made what seemed to me to be an odd request.
“I’ve been wondering about the Stauntons,” he said. “Who do you suppose they could have been? I can’t find out anything about Father, though I’ve wormed out a few facts. He graduated from the medical school here in Toronto in 1887, and the records say he was twenty then, so he must have been born in 1867. They really just gave doctors a lick and a promise then, and I don’t suppose he knew much medicine. He was a queer old devil, and as you probably know, we never hit it off. All I know about his background is that he wasn’t born in Canada. Mother was, and I’ve traced her family, and it was easy and dull; farmers culminating in a preacher. But who was Dr. Henry Staunton? I want to know. You see, Davey, though it sounds vain, I have a strong hunch that there must be some good blood somewhere in our background. Your grandfather had a lot of ability as a businessman; more than I could ever persuade him to put to work. His plunge into sugar, when nobody else could see its possibilities, took imagination. I mean, when he was a young man, a lot of people were still rasping their sugar off a loaf with a file, and it all came from the Islands. He had drive and foresight. Of course lots of quite ordinary people have done very well for themselves, but I wonder if he was quite ordinary? When I was in England during the war I wanted to look around and find out anything I could, but the time was wrong and I was very busy with immediate things. But I met two people over there at different times who asked me if I were one of the Warwickshire Stauntons. Well, you know how Englishmen like it when Canadians play simple and rough-hewn, so I always answered that so far as I knew I was one of the Pitt County Stauntons. But I tucked it away in the back of my mind, and it might just be so. Who the Warwickshire Stauntons are I haven’t the slightest idea, but they appear to be well known to people who are interested in old families. So, when you go back to Oxford, I’d like you to make some enquiries and let me know what you find. We’re probably bastards, or something, but I’d like to know for certain.”
I had long known Father was a romantic, and I had once been a romantic myself — two or three years ago — so I said I would do what I could.
How? And what? Go to Warwickshire and find Stauntons, and ask if they had any knowledge of a physician who had been Pitt County’s foremost expert on constipation, and to the end of his days a firm believer in lignum vitae sap as a treatment for rheumatism? Not for me, thank you. But one day in the Common Room I was looking through the Times Literary Supplement, and my eye fell on a modest advertisement. I can see it now:
Genealogies erected and pedigrees searched by an Oxonian
curiously qualified. Strict confidence exacted and extended.
This was what I wanted. I made a note of the box number, and that night I wrote my letter. I wanted a pedigree searched, I said, and if it proved possible to erect a genealogy on it I should like that, too.
I don’t know what I expected, but the advertisement suggested a pedant well past youth and of a sharp temper. I was utterly unprepared for the curiously qualified Oxonian when he arrived in my study two days later. He seemed not to be much older than myself, and had a shy, girlish manner and the softest voice that was compatible with being heard at all. The only elderly or pedantic thing about him was a pair of spectacles of a kind nobody wore then — gold-rimmed and with small oval lenses.
“I thought I’d come round instead of writing, because we are near neighbours,” he said, and handed me a cheap visiting card on which was printed —
So this was the curiously qualified Oxonian!
“Sit down,” I said. “You erect genealogies?”
“Oh, indeed,” he breathed. “That is to say, I know precisely how it is done. That is to say, I have examined many scores of pedigrees which have already been erected, and I am sure I could do it myself if I were to be entrusted with such a task. It involves research, you see, of a kind I understand quite well and could undertake with a very fair likelihood of success. I know, you see, where to look, and that is everything. Almost everything.”
He smiled such a girlish smile and his eyes swam so unassumingly behind the comic specs that I was tempted to be easy with him. But that was not the Pargetter way. Beware of a witness who appeals to you, he said. Repress any personal response, and if it seems to be gaining the upper hand, go to the other extreme and be severe with the witness. If Ogilvie had remembered that in Cripps-Armstrong vs. Clatterbos & Dudley in 1884 he would have won the case, but he let Clatterbos’s difficulty with English arouse his compassion; it’s a famous instance. So I sprang upon Pledger-Brown, and rent him.
“Am I right in deducing that you have never erected a genealogy independently before?”
“That would be — well, to put it baldly — yes, you might say that.”
“Never mind what I might say or might not say. I asked a plain question, and I want a plain answer. Is this your first job?”
“My first professional engagement? Working as an independent investigator? If you wish to put it that way, I suppose the answer must be that it is.”
“Aha! You are in a word, a greenhorn.”
“Oh, dear, no. I mean, I have studied the subject, and the method, extensively.”
“But you have never done a job of this kind before, for a fee. Yes or no?”
“To be completely frank, yes; or rather, no.”
“But your advertisement said ‘curiously qualified’. Tell me, Mr. (business of consulting card) — ah, Pledger-Brown, in precisely what direction does your curious qualification lie?”
“I am the godson of Garter.”
“Godson of — ?”
“I do not understand.”
“Quite possibly not. But that is why you need me, you see. I mean, people who want genealogies erected and pedigrees searched don’t usually know these things. Americans in particular. I mean that my godfather is the Garter King of Arms.”
“He is the principal officer of the College of Heralds. I hope that one day, with luck, I may be a member of the College myself. But I must make a beginning somewhere, you see.”
“Somewhere? What do you imply by somewhere? You regard me as a starting-point, is that it? I would be rough material for your prentice-hand; is that what you mean?”
“Oh, dear me, no. But I must do some independent work before I can hope to get an official appointment, mustn’t I?”
“How should I know what you must do? What I want to know is whether there is any chance that you can undertake the job I want done and do it properly.”
“Well, Mr. Staunton, I don’t think anybody will do it for you if you go on like this.”
“Like this? Like this? I don’t understand you. What fault have you to find with the way I have been going on, as you express it?”
Pledger-Brown was all mildness, and his smile was like a Victorian picture of a village maiden.
“Well, I mean playing Serjeant Buzfuz and treating me really quite rudely when I’ve only come in answer to your letter. You’re a law student, of course. I’ve looked you up, you see. And your father is a prominent Canadian industrialist. I suppose you want some ancestors. Well, perhaps I can find some for you. And I want the work, but not badly enough to be bullied about it. I mean, I am a beginner at genealogy, but I’ve studied it: you’re a beginner at the law, but you’ve studied it. So why are you being so horrid when we are on an even footing?”
So I stopped being horrid, and in quite a short time he had accepted a glass of sherry and was calling me Staunton and I was calling him Pledger-Brown, and we were discussing what might be done.