The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“Her edict that at all costs I was to be kept sober, for instance. Beesty was very good about that. Not hatefully tactful, you know, but he said plainly that I had to do a great many things that needed a level head and I’d better not drink much. He knew that for me not drinking much meant drinking what would be a good deal for him, but he gave me credit for some common sense. And Caroline was the same. ‘Denyse is determined that you’re going to get your paws in the sauce and disgrace us all. So for God’s sake spite her and don’t,’ was the way she put it. Even Netty, after her first frightful outburst, behaved very well and didn’t try to watch over me for my own good, though she lurked a good deal. Consequently, though I drank pretty steadily, I kept within my own appointed bounds. But I hated Denyse for her edict.

“Nor was that her only edict. On Wednesday, before lunch, she called Beesty to her and told him to get me to look over my father’s will that afternoon, and see her after I had done so. This was unwarrantable interference. I knew I was my father’s principal executor, and I knew, being a lawyer, what had to be done. But it isn’t considered quite the thing to get down to business with the will before the funeral is over. There’s nothing against it, particularly if there is suspicion of anything that might prove troublesome in the will, but in my father’s case that was out of the question. I didn’t know what was in the will, but I was certain it was all in perfect order. I thought Denyse was rushing things in an unseemly way.

“I suppose if you are to do anything for me, Doctor, I must be as frank as possible. I didn’t want to look at the will until it became absolutely necessary. There have been difficulties about wills in our family. My father had a shock when he read his own father’s will, and he had spoken to me about it more than once. And relations between my father and myself had been strained since his marriage to Denyse. I thought there might be a nasty surprise for me in the will. So I put my foot down and said nothing could be done until Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t know why I went to my father’s house so early on Thursday, except that I woke with an itching feeling that there was a great deal to be settled, and I would find out what it was when I was on the spot. And I wanted to take farewell of my father. You understand? During the last forty-eight hours it had been impossible to be alone in the room with his body, and I thought if I were early I could certainly manage it. So I went to the drawing-room as softly as possible, not to attract attention, and found the doors shut. It was half past seven, so there was nothing unusual about that.

“But from inside there were sounds of a man’s voice and a woman’s voice, apparently quarrelling, and I heard scuffling and thudding. I opened the door, and there was Denyse at the coffin, holding up my father’s body by the shoulders, while a strange man appeared to be punching and slapping its face. You know what people say in books — ‘I was thunderstruck . . . my senses reeled.’ ”

“Yes. It is a perfectly accurate description of the sensation. It is caused by a temporary failure of circulation to the head. Go on.”

“I shouted something. Denyse dropped the body, and the man jumped backward as if he thought I might kill him. I knew him then. He was a friend of Denyse’s, a dentist; I had met him once or twice and thought him a fool.”

“The body had no face. It was entirely covered in some shiny pinkish material, so thickly that it was egglike in its featurelessness. It was this covering they were trying to remove.

“I didn’t have to ask for an explanation. They were unnerved and altogether too anxious to talk. It was a story of unexampled idiocy.

“This dentist, like so many of Denyse’s friends, was a dabbler in the arts. He had a tight, ill-developed little talent as a sculptor, and he had done a few heads of Chairmen of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University, and that sort of thing. Denyse had been visited by one of her dreadful inspirations, that this fellow should take a death-mask of my father, which could later be used as the basis for a bust or perhaps kept for itself. But he had never done a corpse before, and it is quite a different business from doing a living man. So, instead of using plaster, which is the proper thing if you know how to work it, he had the lunatic idea of trying some plastic mess used in his profession for taking moulds, because he thought he could get a greater amount of detail, and quicker. But the plastic wasn’t for this sort of work, and he couldn’t get it off!

“They were panic-stricken, as they had every right to be. The room was full of feeling. Do you know what I mean? The atmosphere was so alive with unusual currents that I swear I could feel them pressing on me, making my ears ring. Don’t say it was all the whisky I had been drinking. I was far the most self-possessed of us three. I swear that all the tension seemed to emanate from the corpse, which was in an unseemly state of dishevelment, with coat and shirt off, hair awry, and half-tumbled out of that great expensive coffin.

“What should I have done? I have gone over that moment a thousand times since. Should I have seized the poker and killed the dentist, and forced Denyse’s face down on that dreadful plastic head and throttled her, and then screamed for the world to come and look at the last scene of some sub-Shakespearean tragedy?What in fact I did was to order them both out of the room, lock it, telephone the undertakers to come at once, and then go into the downstairs men’s room and vomit and gag and retch until I was on the floor with my head hanging into the toilet bowl, in a classic Skid Row mess.

“The undertakers came. They were angry, as they had every right to be, but they were fairly civil. If a mask was wanted, they asked, why had they not been told? They knew how to do it. But what did I expect of them now? I had pulled myself together, though I knew I looked like a drunken wreck, and I had to do whatever talking was done. Denyse was upstairs, having divorced herself in that wonderful feminine way from the consequences of her actions, and I am told the dentist left town for a week.

“It was a very bad situation. I heard one of the undertakers ask the butler if he could borrow a hammer, and I knew the worst. After a while I had my brief time beside my father’s coffin; the undertakers did not spare me that. The face was very bad, some teeth had been broken; no eyebrows or lashes, and a good deal of the front hair was gone. Much worse than when he lay on the dock, covered in oil and filth, with that stone in his mouth.

“So of course we had what is called a closed-coffin funeral. I know they are common here, but in North America it is still usual to have the corpse on display until just before the burial service begins. I sometimes wonder if it is a hold-over from pioneer days, to assure everybody that there has been no foul play. That was certainly not the case this time. We had had foul play. I didn’t explain to Caroline and Beesty; simply said Denyse had decided she wanted it that way. I know Caroline smelled a rat, but I told her nothing because she might have done something dreadful to Denyse.

“There we all were, in the cathedral, with Denyse in the seat of the chief mourner, of course, and looking so smooth a louse would have slipped off her, as Grandfather Staunton used to say. And he would certainly have said I looked like the Wreck of the Hesperus; it was one of his few literary allusions.

“There was the coffin, so rich, so bronzey, so obviously the sarcophagus of somebody of the first rank. Right above where that pitifully misused face lay hidden was the engraving of the Staunton arms: Argent two chevrons sable within a bordure engrailed of the same. Crest, a fox statant proper. Motto, En Dieu ma foy.

“Bishop Woodiwiss might have been in on the imposture, so richly did he embroider the En Dieu ma foy theme. I have to give it to the old boy; he can’t have seen that engraving until the body arrived at the cathedral door, but he seized on the motto and squeezed it like a bartender squeezing a lemon. It was the measure of our dear brother gone, he said, that the motto of his ancient family should have been this simple assertion of faith in Divine Power and Divine Grace, and that never, in all the years he had known Boy Staunton, had he heard him mention it. No: deeds, not words, was Boy Staunton’s mode of life. A man of action; a man of great affairs; a man loving and tender in his personal life, open-handed and perceptive in his multitudinous public benefactions, and the author of countless unknown acts of simple generosity. But no jewel of great price could be concealed forever, and here we saw, at last, the mainspring of Boy Staunton’s great and — yes, he would say it, he would use the word, knowing that we would understand it in its true sense — his beautiful life. En Dieu ma foy. Let us all carry that last word from a great man away with us, and feel that truly, in this hour of mourning and desolation, we had found an imperishable truth. En Dieu ma foy.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson