The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

I had not been feeling well when I came to Zurich, and after two days of medical rough-house I was tired and dispirited and in a mood to go — not home, most certainly not — somewhere else. But I thought I ought to see Dr. J. von Haller at least once, if only for the pleasure of a good row with him.

Why was I so hostile toward a course of action I had undertaken of my own will? There was no single answer to that. As I told the Director, I made the decision on a basis of reason, and I would stick with it. Netty had always told me that when something unpleasant must be done — medicine taken, an apology made for bad behaviour, owning up to something that would bring a beating from my father — I had to be “a little soldier.” Little soldiers, I understood, never hesitated; they did what was right without question. So I must be a little soldier and visit Dr. J. von Haller at least once.

Ah, but did little soldiers ever have to go to the psychiatrist? They visited the dentist often, and many a time I had shouldered my little invisible musket and marched off in that direction. Was this so very different? Yes, it was.

I could understand the use of a dentist. He could grind and dig and refill, and now and then he could yank. But what could psychiatrists do? Those I had seen in court contradicted each other, threw up clouds of dust, talked a jargon which, in cross-examination, I could usually discredit. I never used them as witnesses if I could avoid it. Still, there was a widespread belief in their usefulness in cases like mine. I had to do whatever seemed best, whether I personally approved or not. To stay in Toronto and go mad simply would not do.

Why had I come to Zurich? The Director accepted it as perfectly in order for me to do so, but what did he know about my situation? Nothing would have got me to a psychiatrist in Toronto; such treatment is always supposed to be confidential, but everybody seems to know who is going regularly to certain doctors, and everybody is ready to give a guess at the reason. It is generally assumed to be homosexuality. I could have gone to New York, but everyone who did so seemed to be with a Freudian, and I was not impressed by what happened to them. Of course, it need not have been the Freudians’ fault, for as I said, these people were leaners, and I don’t suppose Freud himself could have done much with them. Nothing will make an empty bag stand up, as my grandfather often said. Of the Jungians I knew nothing, except that the Freudians disliked them, and one of my acquaintances who was in a Freudian analysis had once said something snide about people who went to Zurich to —

hear sermons

From mystical Germans

Who preach from ten till four.

But with a perversity that often overtakes me when I have a personal decision to make, I had decided to give it a try. The Jungians had two negative recommendations: the Freudans hated them, and Zurich was a long way from Toronto.


It was a sharp jolt to find that Dr. J. von Haller was a woman. I have nothing against women; it had simply never occurred to me that I might talk about the very intimate things that had brought me to Zurich with one of them. During the physical examination two of the physicians I encountered were women and I felt no qualm. They were as welcome to peep into my inside as any man that ever lived. My mind, however, was a different matter. Would a woman — could a woman — understand what was wrong? There used to be a widespread idea that women are very sensitive. My experience of them as clients, witnesses, and professional opponents had dispelled any illusions I might have had of that kind. Some women are sensitive, doubtless, but I have met with nothing to persuade me that they are, on the whole, more likely to be sensitive than men. I thought I needed delicate handling. Was Dr. J. von Haller up to the work? I had never heard of a woman psychiatrist except as someone dealing with children. My troubles were decidedly not those of a child.

Here I was, however, and there was she in a situation that seemed more social than professional. I was in what appeared to be her sitting-room, and the arrangement of chairs was so unprofessional that it was I who sat in the shadow, while the full light from the window fell on her face. There was no couch.

Dr. von Haller looked younger than I; about thirty-eight, I judged, for though her expression was youthful there was a little gray in her hair. Fine face; rather big features but not coarse. Excellent nose, aquiline if one wished to be complimentary but verging on the hooky if not. Large mouth and nice teeth, white but not American-white. Beautiful eyes, brown to go with her hair. Pleasant, low voice and a not quite perfect command of colloquial English. Slight accent. Clothes unremarkable, neither fashionable nor dowdy, in the manner Caroline calls “classic.” Altogether a person to inspire confidence. But then, so am I, and I know all the professional tricks of how that is done. Keep quiet and let the client do all the talking; don’t make suggestions — let the client unburden himself; watch him for revealing fidgets. She was doing all these things, but so was I. The result was a very stilted conversation, for a while.

“And it was the murder of your father that decided you to come here for treatment?”

“Doesn”t it seem enough?”

“The death of his father is always a critical moment in a man’s life, but usually he has time to make psychological preparation for it. The father grows old, relinquishes his claims on life, is manifestly preparing for death. A violent death is certainly a severe shock. But then, you knew your father must die sometime, didn’t you?”

“I suppose so. I don’t remember ever thinking about it.”

“How old was he?”

“Seventy.” “Hardly a premature death. The psalmist’s span.”

“But this was murder.”

“Who murdered him?”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. He was driven, or drove himself, off a dock in Toronto harbour. When his car was raised he was found clutching the steering-wheel so tightly that they had to pry his hands from it. His eyes were wide open, and there was a stone in his mouth.”

“A stone?”

“Yes. This stone.”

I held it out to her, lying on the silk handkerchief in which I carried it. Exhibit A in the case of the murder of Boy Staunton: a piece of Canadian pink granite about the size and shape of a hen’s egg.

She examined it carefully. Then, slowly, she pushed it into her own mouth, and looked solemnly at me. Or was it solemnly? Was there a glint in her eye? I don’t know. I was far too startled by what she had done to tell. Then she took it out, wiped it very carefully on her handkerchief, and gave it back.

“Yes; it could be done,” she said.

“You’re a cool customer,” said I.

“Yes. This is a very cool profession, Mr. Staunton. Tell me, did no one suggest that your father might have committed suicide?”

“Certainly not. Utterly unlike him. Anyhow, why does your mind turn immediately to that? I told you he was murdered.”

“But no evidence of murder was found.”

“How do you know?”

“I had Dr. Tschudi’s report about you, and I asked the librarian at our Neue Zurcher Zeitung to check their archive. They did report your father’s death, you know; he had connections with several Swiss banks. The report was necessarily discreet and brief, but it seemed that suicide was the generally accepted explanation.”

“He was murdered.”

“Tschudi’s report suggests you think your stepmother had something to do with it.” “Yes, yes; but not directly. She destroyed him. She made him unhappy and unlike himself. I never suggested she drove him off the dock. She murdered him psychologically –”

“Really? I had the impression you didn’t think much of psychology, Mr. Staunton.”

“Psychology plays a great part in my profession. I am rather a well-known criminal lawyer — or have you checked that, too? I have to know something about the way people function. Without a pretty shrewd psychological sense I couldn’t do what I do, which is to worm things out of people they don’t want to tell. That’s your job, too, isn’t it?”

“No. My job is to listen to people say things they very badly want to tell but are afraid nobody else will understand. You use psychology as an offensive weapon in the interest of justice. I use it as a cure. So keen a lawyer as yourself will appreciate the difference. You have shown you do. You think your stepmother murdered your father psychologically, but you don’t think that would be enough to drive him to suicide. Well — I have known of such things. But if she was not the real murderer, who do you think it might have been?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson