The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“It is foolish to call it sleep. It was a long, miserable reverie, relieved by short spells of unconsciousness. I had a weeping fit, which frightened me because I haven’t cried for thirty years; Netty and my father had no use for boys who cried. It was frightening because it was part of the destruction of my mind that was going on; I was being broken down to a very primitive level, and absurd kinds of feeling and crude, inexplicable emotions had taken charge of me.

“Imagine a man of forty crying because his father hadn’t loved him! Particularly when it wasn’t true, because he obviously had loved me, and I know I worried him dreadfully. I even sank so low that I wanted my mother, though I knew that if that poor woman could have come to me at that very time, she wouldn’t have known what to say or do. She never really knew what was going on, poor soul. But I wanted something, and my mother was the nearest identification I could find for it. And this blubbering booby was Mr. David Staunton, Q.C., who had a dark reputation because the criminal world thought so highly of him, and who played up to the role, and who secretly fancied himself as a magician of the courtroom. But in the interest of justice, mind you; always in the constant and perpetual wish that everyone shall have his due.

“Next morning the axe was making great headway, and I began with the bottle at breakfast, to Netty’s indignation and dismay. She didn’t say anything, because once before when she had interfered I had given her a few sharp cuffs, which she afterward exaggerated into ‘beating her up.’ Netty hasn’t seen some of the beatings-up I have observed in court or she wouldn’t talk so loosely. She has never mastered the Plain Style. Of course I had been regretful for having struck her, and apologized in the Plain Style, but she understood afterward that she was not to interfere.

“So she locked herself in her room that Saturday morning, taking care to do it when I was near enough to hear what she was doing; she even pushed the bed against the door. I knew what she was up to; she wanted to be able to say to Caroline, ‘When he’s like that I just have to barricade myself in, because if he flew off the handle like he did that time, the Dear knows what could happen to me.’ Netty liked to tell Caroline and Beesty that nobody knew what she went through. They had a pretty shrewd notion that most of what she went through was in her own hot imagination.

“I went back to my club for luncheon on Saturday, and although the barman was as slow as he could be when I wanted him, and absent from the bar as much as he could manage, I got through quite a lot of Scotch before I settled down to having a few drinks before dinner. A member I knew called Femister came in and I heard the barman mutter something to him about ‘tying on a bun’ and I knew he meant me.

“A bun! These people know nothing. When I bend to the work it is no trivial bun, but a whole baking of double loaves I tie on. Only this time nothing much seemed to be happening, except for a generalized remoteness of things, and the axe was chopping away as resolutely as ever. Femister is a good fellow, and he sat down by me and chatted. I chatted right back, clearly and coherently, though perhaps a little fancifully. He suggested we have dinner together, and I agreed. He ate a substantial club dinner, and I messed my food around on my plate and tried to take my mind off its smell, which I found oppressive. Femister was kindly, but my courteous non sequiturs were just as discouraging as I meant them to be, and after dinner it was clear that he had had all the Good Samaritan business he could stand.

” ‘I’ve got an appointment now,’ he said. ‘What are you going to do? You certainly don’t want to spend the evening all alone here, do you? Why don’t you go to the theatre? Have you seen this chap at the Royal Alee? Marvellous! Magnus Eisengrim his name is, though it sounds unlikely, doesn’t it? The show is terrific! I’ve never seen such a conjuror. And all the fortune-telling and answering questions and all that. Terrific! It would take you right out of yourself.’

” ‘I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be,’ I said slowly and deliberately. ‘I’ll go. Thank you very much for suggesting it. Now you run along, or you’ll miss your appointment.’

“Off he went, grateful to have done something for me and to have escaped without trouble. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. I had been to Eisengrim’s Soiree of Illusions the week before, with my father and Denyse and Lorene, whose birthday it was. I was sucked into it at the last minute, and had not liked the show at all, though I could see that it was skilful. But I detested Magnus Eisengrim.

“Shall I tell you why? Because he was making fools of us all, and so cleverly that most of us liked it; he was a con man of a special kind, exploiting just that element in human credulity that most arouses me — I mean the desire to be deceived. You know that maddening situation that lies behind so many criminal cases, where somebody is so besotted by somebody else that he lays himself open to all kinds of cheating and ill-usage, and sometimes to murder? It isn’t love, usually; it’s a kind of abject surrender, an abdication of common sense. I am a victim of it, now and then, when feeble clients decide that I am a wonder-worker and can do miracles in court. I imagine you get it, as an analyst, when people think you can unweave the folly of a lifetime. It’s a powerful force in life, yet so far as I know it hasn’t even a name — ”

“Excuse me — yes, it has a name. We call it projection.”

“Oh. I’ve never heard that. Well, whatever it is, it was going full steam ahead in that theatre, where Eisengrim was fooling about twelve hundred people, and they were delighted to be fooled and begging for more. I was disgusted, and most of all with the nonsense of the Brazen Head.

“It was second to the last illusion on his program. I never saw the show to the end. I believe it was some sexy piece of nonsense vaguely involving Dr. Faustus. But The Brazen Head of Friar Bacon was what had caused the most talk. It began in darkness, and slowly the light came up inside a big human head that floated in the middle of the stage, so that it glowed. It spoke, in a rather foreign voice. ‘Time is,’ it said, and there was a tremble of violins; ‘Time was,’ it said, and there was a chord of horns; ‘Time’s past,’ it said, and there was a very quiet ruffle of Drums, and the lights came up just enough for us to see Eisengrim — he wore evening clothes, but with knee-breeches, as if he were at Court — who told us the legend of the Head that could tell all things.

“He invited the audience to lend him objects, which his assistants sealed in envelopes and carried to the stage, where he mixed them up in a big glass bowl. He held up each envelope as he chose it by chance, and the Head identified the owner of the hidden object by the number of the seat in which he was sitting. Very clever, but it made me sick, because people were so delighted with what was, after all, just a very clever piece of co-operation by the magician’s troupe.

“Then came the part the audience had been waiting for and that caused so much sensation through the city. Eisengrim said the Head would give personal advice to three people in the audience. This had always been sensational, and the night I was there with my father’s theatre party the Head had said something that brought the house down, to a woman who was involved in a difficult legal case; it enraged me because it was virtually contempt of court — a naked interference in something that was private and under the most serious consideration our society provides. I had talked a great deal about it afterward, and Denyse had told me not to be a spoil-sport, and my father had suggested that I was ruining Lorene’s party — because of course this sort of nonsense was just the kind of thing a fool like Lorene would think marvellous.

“So you see I wasn’t in the best mood for the Soiree of Illusions, but some perversity compelled me to go, and I bought a seat in the top gallery, where I assumed nobody would know me. A lot of people had been going to this show two and even three times, and I didn’t want anybody to say I had been among their number.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson