The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

He was in his third year at Corpus, which I could almost have hit with a stone from my windows, because I was in Canterbury Quad at the rear of Christ Church. He was mad for genealogy and couldn’t wait to get at it, so he had advertised while he was still an undergraduate, and his anxiety for strict confidence was because his college would have been unsympathetic if they thought he was conducting any sort of business within their walls. He was obviously poor, but he had an air of breeding, and there was a strain of toughness in him that lay well below his wispy, maidenly ways. I took to him because he was as keen about his profession as I was about mine, and for anything I knew his diffidence may have been the professional manner of his kind. Soon he was cross-examining me.

“This Dr. Henry Staunton who has no known place of birth is a very common figure in genealogical work for people from the New World. But we can usually find the origin of such people, if we sift the parish records, wills, records of Chancery and Exchequer, and Manor Court Rolls. That takes a long time and runs into money. So we start with the obvious, hoping for a lucky hit. Of course, as your father thinks, he may be a Staunton of Longbridge in Warwickshire, but there are also Stauntons of Nottingham, Leicester, Lincolnshire, and Somerset, all of a quality that would please your father. But sometimes we can take a short cut. Was your grandfather an educated man?”

“He was a doctor. I wouldn’t call him a man of wide cultivation.”

“Good. That’s often a help. I mean, such people often retain some individuality under the professional veneer. Perhaps he said some things that stuck in your mind? Used unusual words that might be county dialect words? Do you recall anything like that?”

I pondered. “Once he told my sister, Caroline, she had a tongue sharp enough to shave an urchin. I’ve repeated it to her often.”

“Oh, that’s quite helpful. He did use some dialect words then. But urchin as a word for the common hedgehog is very widespread in country districts. Can you think of anything more unusual?”

I was beginning to respect Pledger-Brown. I had always thought an urchin was a boy you didn’t like, and could never figure out why Grandfather would want to shave one. I thought further.

“I do just remember that he called some of his old patients who stuck with him, and were valetudinarians, ‘my old wallowcrops’. Is that of any use? Could he have made the word up?”

“Few simple people make up words. ‘Wallowcrop’; I’ll make a note of that and see what I can discover. Meanwhile keep thinking about him, will you? And I’ll come again when I have a better idea what to do.”

Think about Grandfather Staunton, powerful but dim in my past. A man, it seemed to me now, with a mind like a morgue in which a variety of defunct ideas lay on slabs, kept cold to defer decay. A man who knew nothing about health, but could identify a number of diseases. A man whose medical knowledge belonged to a time when people talked about The System and had spasms and believed in the efficacy of strong, clean smells, such as oil of peppermint, as charms against infection. A man who never doubted that spankings were good for children, and once soundly walloped both Caroline and me because we had put Eno’s Fruit Salts in the bottom of Granny’s chamber-pot, hoping she would have a fantod when it foamed. A furious teetotaller, malignantly contemptuous of what he called “booze-artists” and never fully reconciled to my father when he discovered that Father drank wines and spirits but had contumaciously failed thereby to become a booze-artist. A man whom I could only recall as gloomy, heavy, and dull, but pleased with his wealth and unaffectedly scornful of those who had not the wit or craft to equal it; preachers were excepted as being a class apart, and sacred, but needing frequent guidance from practical men in the conduct of their churches. In short, a nasty old village moneybags.

A strange conduit through which to convey the good blood Father thought we Stauntons must have. But then Father had never troubled to pretend that he had much regard for Doc Staunton. Which was strange in itself, in a way, for Father was very strong on the regard children should have for parents. Not that he ever said so directly, or urged Caroline and me to honour our father and mother. But I recall that he was down on H. G. Wells, because in his Experiment in Autobiography Wells had said frankly that his parents weren’t up to much and that escape from them was his first step toward a good life. Father was not consistent. But Doc Staunton had been consistent, and what had consistency made of him?

The hunt was up, and Doc Staunton was the fox.

Notes from Pledger-Brown punctuated the year that followed. He wrote an elegant Italic hand, as became a genealogist, and scraps of intelligence would arrive by the college messenger service: “Wallowcrop Cumberland dialect word. Am following up this clue. A.P-B.” And, “Sorry to say nothing comes of enquiries in Cumberland. Am casting about in Lincoln.” Or, “Tally-ho! A Henry Staunton born 1866 in Somerset!” followed a week later by, “False scent; Somerset Henry died aged 3 mos.” Clearly he was having a wonderful adventure, but I had little time to think about it. I was up to my eyes in Jurisprudence, that formal science of positive law, and in addition to formal studies Pargetter was making me read Kelly’s Famous Advocates and Their Speeches and British Forensic Eloquence aloud to him, dissecting the rhetoric of notable counsel and trying to make some progress in that line myself. Pargetter was determined that I should not be what he called an ignorant pettifogger, and he made it clear that as a Canadian I started well behind scratch in the journey toward professional literacy and elegance.

” ‘The law, besides being a profession, is one of the humanities,’ ” he said to me one day, and I knew from the way he spoke he was quoting. “Who said that?” I didn’t know. “Then never forget that it was one of your countrymen, your present Prime Minister, Louis St. Laurent,” he said, punching me sharply in the side, as he often did when he wanted to make a point. “It’s been said before, but it’s never been said better. Be proud it was a Canadian who said it.” And he went on to belabour me, as he had often done before, with Sir Walter Scott’s low opinion of lawyers who knew nothing of history or literature; from these studies, said he, I would learn what people were and how they might be expected to behave. “But wouldn’t I learn that from clients?” I asked, to try him. “Clients!” he said, and I would not have believed anyone could make a two-syllable word stretch out so long; “you’ll learn precious little from clients except folly and duplicity and greed. You’ve got to stand above that.”

Working as I was under the English system I had to be a member of one of the Inns of Court and go to London at intervals to eat dinners in its Hall; I was enrolled in the Middle Temple, and reverently chewed through the thirty-six obligatory meals. I liked it. I liked the ceremony and solemnity of the law, not only as safeguards against trivializing of the law but as pleasant observances in themselves. I visited the courts, studied the conduct and courtesy of their workings, and venerated judges who seemed able to carry a mass of detail in their heads and boil it down and serve it up in a kind of strong judicial consomme for the jury when all the pleading and testimony were over. I liked the romance of it, the star personalities of the great advocates, the swishing of gowns and flourishing of impractical but traditional blue bags full of papers. I was delighted that although most people seemed to use more modern instruments, everybody had access to quill pens, and could doubtless have called for sand to do their blotting, with full confidence that sand would have been forthcoming. I loved wigs, which established a hierarchy that was palpable and turned unremarkable faces into the faces of priests serving a great purpose. What if all this silk and bombazine and horsehair awed and even frightened the simple people who came to court for justice? It would do them no harm to be a little frightened. Everybody in court, except the occasional accused creature in the dock, seemed calmed, reft from the concerns of everyday; those who were speaking on oath seemed to me, very often, to be revealing an aspect of their best selves. The juries took their duties seriously, like good citizens. It was an arena in which gladiators struggled, but the end for which they struggled was that right, so far as right could be determined, should be done.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson