I didn’t pay much attention to him, because as I told Dr. von Haller, I was greatly taken up with my final year of law studies. Pargetter expected me to get a First, and I wanted it even more than he. The notes kept arriving with reports of nothing achieved in spite of impressive activity. I had written to Father that I had a good man on the job, and had his permission to advance money as it was needed. Pledger-Brown’s accounts were a source of great delight to me; I felt like Diogenes, humbled in the presence of an honest man. Sometimes in the vacations he went off hunting Stauntons and sent me bills detailing third-class tickets, sixpenny rides on buses, shillings spent on beer for old men who might know something, and cups of tea and buns for himself. There was never any charge for his time or his knowledge, and when I asked about that he replied that we would agree on a fee when he produced his results. I foresaw that he would starve on that principle, but I cherished him as an innocent. Indeed, I grew to be very fond of him, and we were Adrian and Davey when we talked. His besotted enthusiasm for the practise of heiraldry refreshed me; I knew nothing about it, and couldn’t see the use of it, and wondered why anybody bothered with it, but in time he brought me to see that it had once been necessary and was still a pleasant personal indulgence, and — this was important — that using somebody else’s armorial bearings was no different in spirit from using his name; it was impersonation. It was, in legal terms, no different from imitating a trade-mark, and I knew what that meant. Undoubtedly Pledger-Brown was the best friend I made at Oxford, and I keep up with him still. He got into the College of Heralds, by the way, and is now Clarencieux King of Arms and looks exceedingly peculiar on ceremonial occasions in a tabard and a hat with a feather.
What finally bound us into the kind of friendship that does not fade was complicity in a secret.
Early in the spring term of my third year, when I was deep in work for my Final Schools, a message arrived: “I have found Henry Staunton. A.P-B.” I had a mountain of reading to do and had planned to spend all afternoon at the Codrington, but this called for something special, so I got hold of Adrian and took him to lunch. He was as nearly triumphant as his diffident nature would allow.
“I was just about to offer you a non-grandfather,” said he; “there was a connection of the Stauntons of Warwickshire — not a Longbridge Staunton but a cousin — who cannot be accounted for and might perhaps have gone to Canada at the age of eighteen or so. By a very long shot he might have been your grandfather; without better evidence it would be guesswork to say he was. But then during the Easter vacation I had a flash. You otiose ass, Pledger-Brown, I said to myself, you’ve never thought of Staunton as a place-name. It is an elementary rule in this work, you know, to check place-names. There is Staunton Harold in Leicestershire and two or three Stantons, and of course I had quite overlooked Staunton in Gloucestershire. So off I went and checked parish records. And there he was in Gloucestershire: Albert Henry Staunton, born April 4, 1866, son of Maria Ann Dymock, and if you can find a better West Country name than Dymock, I’d be glad to hear it.”
“What kind of Staunton is he?” I asked.
“He’s an extraordinarily rum Staunton,” said PledgerBrown, “but that’s the best of it. You get not only a grandfather but a good story as well. You know, so many of these forbears that people ferret out are nothing at all; I mean, perfectly good and reputable, but no personal history of any interest. But Albert Henry is a conversation-piece. Now listen.
“Staunton is a hamlet about ten miles north-west of Gloucester, bearing over toward Herefordshire. In the middle of the last century it had only one public house, called the Angel, and by rights it ought to have been near a church named for the Annunciation, but it isn’t. That doesn’t matter. What is important is that in the 1860s there was an attractive girl working at the Angel who was called Maria Ann Dymock, and she must have been a local Helen, because she was known as Mary Dymock the Angel.”
“A barmaid?” I asked, wondering how Father was going to take to the idea of a barmaid.
“No, no,” said Adrian; “barmaids are a bee in the American bonnet. A country pub of that time would be served by its landlord. Maria Ann Dymock was undoubtedly a domestic servant. But she became pregnant, and she said the child’s father was George Applesquire, who was the landlord of the Angel. He denied it and said it could have been several other men. Indeed, he said that all Staunton could claim to be the child’s father, and he would have nothing to do with it. He or his wife turned Maria Ann out of the Angel.
“Now, the cream of the story is this. Maria Ann Dymock must have been a girl of some character, for she bore the child in the local workhouse and in due time marched off to church to have it christened. “What shall I name the child?” said parson. “Albert Henry,” said Maria Ann. So it was done. “And the father’s name?” said parson; “shall I say Dymock?” “No,” said Maria Ann, “say Staunton, because it’s said by landlord the whole place could be his father, and I want him to carry his father’s name.” I get all this out of the county archaeological society’s records, which include quite an interesting diary of the clergyman in question, whose name was the Reverend Theophilus Mynors, by the way. Mynors must have been a sport, and probably he thought the girl had been badly used by Applesquire, because he put down the name as Albert Henry Staunton in the parish record.
“It caused a scandal, of course. But Maria Ann stuck it out, and when Applesquire’s cronies threatened to make things too hot for her to stay in the parish, she walked the village street with a collecting bag, saying, “If you want me out of Staunton, give me something for my journey.” She must have been a Tartar. She didn’t get much, but the Rev. Theophilus admits that he gave her five pounds on the quiet, and there were one or two other contributors who admired her pluck, and soon she had enough to go abroad. You could still get a passage to Quebec for under five pounds in those days if you supplied your own food, and infants travelled free. So off went Maria Ann in late May of 1866, and undoubtedly she was your great-grandmother.”
We were eating in one of those Oxford restaurants that spring up and sink down again because they are run by amateurs, and we had arrived at the stage of eating a charlotte russe made of stale cake, tired jelly, and chemicals; I can still remember its taste because it is associated with my bleak wonder as to what I was going to report to Father. I explained to Pledger-Brown.
“But my dear Davey, you’re missing the marvel of it,” he said; “what a story! Think of Maria Ann’s resource and courage! Did she slink away and hide herself in London with her bastard child, gradually sinking to the basest forms of prostitution while little Albert Henry became a thief and a pimp? No! She was of the stuff of which the great New World has been forged! She stood up on her feet and demanded to be recognized as an individual, with inalienable rights! She braved the vicar, and George Applesquire, and all of public opinion. And then she went off to carve out a glorious life in what were then, my dear chap, Still the colonies and not the great self-governing sisterhood of the Commonwealth! She was there when Canada became a Dominion! She may have been among the cheering crowds who hailed that moment in Montreal or Ottawa or wherever it was! You’re not grasping the thing at all.”
I was grasping it. I was thinking of Father.
“I confess that I’ve been meddling,” said Adrian, turning very red; “Garter would be as mad as hops if he knew I’d been playing with my paint-box like this. But after all, this is my first shot at tracing a forbear independently, and I can’t help it. So I beg you, as a friend, to accept this trifle of anitergium from me.”
He handed me a cardboard roll, and when I had pried the metal cap off one end, I found a scroll inside it. I folded it out on the table where the medical charlotte russe had given place to some coffee — a Borgia speciality of the place — and it was a coat-of-arms.