The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“As we ate, Beesty told me what had to be done. Odd, perhaps, because he’s only a stockbroker and my father and I had always tended to write him off as a fool, though decent enough. But his family is prominent, and he’d managed quite a few funerals and knew the ropes. He even knew of a good undertaker. I wouldn’t have known where to look for one. I mean, who’s ever met an undertaker? It’s like what people say about dead donkeys: who’s ever seen one? He got on the telephone and arranged with his favourite undertaker to collect the body whenever the police were ready to release it. Then he said we must talk with Denyse to arrange details of the burial. He seemed to think she wouldn’t want to see us until late in the morning, but when he called she was on the line at once and said she would see us at nine o’clock and not to be late because she had a lot to do.

“That was exactly like Denyse, whom as I told you I have never liked because of this very spirit she showed when Beesty called. Denyse is all business, and nobody can help her or do anything for her without being made a subordinate: she must always be the boss. Certainly she bossed my father far more than he knew, and he was not a man to subject himself to anybody. But women are like that. Aren’t they?”

“Some women, certainly.”

“In my experience, women are either bosses or leaners.”

“Isn’t that your experience of men, too?”

“Perhaps. But I can talk to men. I can’t talk to my stepmother. From nine o’clock till ten, Denyse talked to us, and would probably have talked longer if the hairdresser had not been coming. She knew she would have to see a lot of people, and it was necessary for her hair to be dressed as she would have no opportunity later.

“And what she said! My hair almost stood on end. Denyse hadn’t slept either: she had been planning. And I think this is the point, Doctor, when you will admit that I have cause to be nervous. I’ve told you my father was a very important man. Not just rich. Not just a philanthropist. He had been in politics, and during the greater part of the Second World War he had been our Minister of Food, and an extraordinarily able one. Then he had left active politics. It was the old story, not unlike Churchill’s; the public hate a really capable man except when they can’t get along without him. The decisive, red-tape-cutting qualities that made my father necessary in war got him into trouble with the little men as soon as the war was over and they hounded him out of public life. But he was too big to be ignored and his public service entitled him to recognition, and he was to be the next Lieutenant-Governor of our Province. Do you know what a Lieutenant-Governor is?”

“Some sort of ceremonial personage, I suppose.”

“Yes: a representative of the Crown in a Canadian province.”

“A high honour?”

“Yes, but there are ten of them. My father might suitably have been Governor-General, which is top of the heap.”

“Ah yes; very grand, I see.”

“Silly people smile at these ceremonial offices because they don’t understand them. You can’t have a parliamentary system without these official figures who represent the State, the Crown, the whole body of government, as well as the elected fellows who represent their voters.

“He had not taken office. But he had received the official notice of his appointment from the Secretary of State, and the Queen’s charge would have come at the proper time, which would have been in about a month. But Denyse wanted him to be given a State funeral, as if he were already in office.

“Well! As a lawyer, I knew that was absurd. There was a perfectly valid Lieutenant-Governor at the time we were discussing this crazy scheme. There was no way in the world my father could be given an official funeral. But that was what she wanted — soldiers in dress uniform, a cushion with his D.S.O. and his C.B.E. on it, a firing-party, a flag on the coffin, as many officials and politicians as could be mustered. I was flabbergasted. But whatever I said, she simply replied, ‘I know what was owing to Boy even if you don’t.’

“We had a blazing row. Things were said that had poor Beesty white with misery, and he kept mumbling, ‘Oh come on, Denyse, come on, Davey; let’s try to get along’ — which was idiotic, but poor Beesty has no vocabulary suitable to large situations. Denyse dropped any pretence of liking me and let it rip. I was a cheap mouthpiece for crooks of the worst kind, I was a known drunk, I had always resented my father’s superiority and tried to thwart him whenever I could, I had said inexcusable things about her and spied on her, but on this one occasion, by the living God, I would toe the line or she would expose me to unimaginable humiliations and disgraces. I said she had made a fool of my father since first she met him, reduced his stature before the public with her ridiculous, ignorant pretensions and stupidities, and wanted to turn his funeral into a circus in which she would ride the biggest elephant. It was plain speaking for a while, I can tell you. It was only when Beesty was near to tears — and I don’t mean that metaphorically; he was sucking air noisily and mopping his eyes — and when Caroline turned up that we became a little quieter. Caroline has a scornful manner that exacts good behaviour from the humbler creation, even Denyse.

“So in the end Beesty and I were given our orders to go to the undertaker and choose a splendid coffin. Bronze would be the thing, she thought, because it would be possible to engrave directly upon it.

“‘Engrave what?’ I asked. I will say for her that she had the grace to colour a little under her skilful make-up. ‘The Staunton arms,’ she said. ‘But there aren’t any –‘ I began, when Beesty pulled me away. ‘Let her have it,’ he whispered. ‘But it’s crooked,’ I shouted. ‘It’s pretentious and absurd and crooked.’ Caroline helped him to bustle me out of the room. ‘Davey, you do it and shut up,’ she said, and when I protested, ‘Carol, you know as well as I do that it’s illegal,’ she said, ‘Oh, legal!’ with terrible feminine scorn.”


At my next appointment, feeling rather like Scheherazade unfolding one of her never-ending, telescopic tales to King Schahriar, I took up where I had left off. Dr. von Haller had said nothing during my account of my father’s death and what followed, except to check a point here and there, and she made no notes, which surprised me. Did she truly hold all the varied stories told by her patients in her head, and change from one to another every hour? Well, I did no less with the tales my clients told me.

We exchanged a few words of greeting, and I continued.

“After we had finished with the undertaker, Beesty and I had a great many details to attend to, some of them legal and some arising from the arrangement of funeral detail. I had to get in touch with Bishop Woodiwiss, who had known my father for over forty years, and listen to his well-meant condolences and go over the whole funeral routine. I went to the Diocesan House, and was a little surprised, I can’t really say why, that it was so businesslike, with secretaries drinking coffee, and air-conditioning and all the atmosphere of business premises. I think I had expected crucifixes on the walls and heavy carpets. There was one door that said ‘Diocesan Chancellery: Mortgages’ that really astonished me. But the Bishop knew how to do funerals, and there wasn’t really much to it. There were technicalities: our parish church was St. Simon’s, but Denyse wanted a cathedral ceremony, as more in keeping with her notions of grandeur, and as well as the Bishop’s, the Dean’s consent had to be sought. Woodiwiss said he would take care of that. I still don’t know why I was so touchy about the good man’s words of comfort; after all, he had known my father before I was born, and had christened and confirmed me, and he had his rights both as a friend and a priest. But I felt very personally about the whole matter –”

“Possessively, would you say?”

“I suppose so. Certainly I was angry that Denyse was determined to take over and have everything her own way, especially when it was such a foolish, showy way. I was still furious about that matter of engraving the coffin with heraldic doodads that weren’t ours, and couldn’t ever be so, and which my father had rejected himself, after a lot of heart-searching. I want that to be perfectly clear to you; I have no quarrel with heraldry, and people who legitimately posess it can use it as they like, but the Staunton arms weren’t ours. Do you want to know why?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson