The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“Then what do you call your disease?”

“If I knew, I would tell you. Instead, I hope you can tell me.”

“Such a definition might not help us much at present. Let us call it stress following your father’s death. Shall we begin talking about that?”

“Don’t we start with childhood? Don’t you want to hear about my toilet-training?”

“I want to hear about your trouble now. Suppose we begin with the moment you heard of your father’s death.”

“It was about three o’clock in the morning on November 4 last. I was wakened by my housekeeper, who said the police wanted to talk to me on the telephone. It was an inspector I knew who said I should come to the dock area at once as there had been an accident involving my father’s car. He didn’t want to say much, and I didn’t want to say anything that would arouse the interest of my housekeeper, who was hovering to hear whatever she could, so I called a taxi and went to the docks. Everything there seemed to be in confusion, but in fact it was all as orderly as the situation permitted. There was a diver in a frog-man outfit, who had been down to the car first; the Fire Department had brought a crane mounted on a truck, which was raising the car; there were police cars and a truck with floodlights. I found the inspector, and he said it was my father’s car for a certainty and there was a body at the wheel. So far as they could determine, the car had been driven off the end of a pier at a speed of about forty miles an hour; it had carried on some distance after getting into the water. A watchman put in an alarm as soon as he heard the splash, but by the time the police arrived it was difficult to find exactly where it was, and then all the diving, and getting the crane, and putting a chain on the front part of the frame, had taken over two hours, so that they had seen the licence plate only a matter of minutes before I was called; it was a car the police knew well. My father had a low, distinctive licence number.

“It was one of those wretched situations when you hope that something isn’t true which common sense tells you is a certainty. Nobody else drove that car except my father. At last they got it on the pier, filthy and dripping. A couple of firemen opened the doors as slowly as the weight of water inside would allow, because the police didn’t want anything washed out that might be of evidence. But it was quickly emptied, and there he sat, at the wheel.

“I think what shocked me most was the terrible dishevelment of his body. He was always such an elegant man. He was covered with mud and oil and harbour filth, but his eyes were wide open, and he was gripping the wheel. The firemen tried to get him out, and it was then we found that his grip was so tight nothing ordinary would dislodge it. Probably you know what emergencies are like; things are done that nobody would think of under ordinary circumstances; finally they got him free of the wheel, but his hands had been terribly distorted and afterwards we found that most of the fingers had been broken in doing it. I didn’t blame the firemen; they did what had to be done. They laid him on a tarpaulin and then everybody held back, and I knew they were waiting for me to do something. I knelt beside him and wiped his face with a handkerchief, and it was then we saw that there was something amiss about his mouth. The police surgeon came to help me, and when my father’s jaws were pried open we found the stone I showed you. The stone you tried yourself because you doubted what I told you.”

“I am sorry if I shocked you. But patients come with such strange stories. Go on, please.”

“I know police procedure. They were as kind as possible, but they had to take the body to the morgue, make reports, and do all the routine things that follow the most bizarre accidents. They strained a point by letting me get away with the stone, though it was material evidence; they knew I would not withhold it if it should be necessary, I suppose. Even as it was, some reporter saw me do it, or tricked the doctor into an admission, and the stone played a big part in the news. But they all had work to do, and so had I, but I had nobody to help me with my work.

“So I did what had to be done. I went at once to my father’s house and wakened Denyse (that’s my stepmother) and told what had happened. I don’t know what I expected. Hysterics, I suppose. But she took it with an icy self-control for which I was grateful, because if she had broken down I think I would have had some sort of collapse myself. But she was extremely wilful. ‘I must go to him,’ she said. I knew the police would be making their examination and tried to persuade her to wait till morning. Not a chance. Go she would, and at once. I didn’t want her to drive, and it is years since I have driven a car myself, so that meant rousing the chauffeur and giving some sort of partial explanation to him. Oh, for the good old days — if there ever were such days — when you could tell servants to do something without offering a lot of reasons and explanations! But at last we were at the central police station, and in the morgue, and then we had another hold-up because the police, out of sheer decency, wouldn’t let her see the body until the doctor had finished and some not very efficient cleaning-up had been done. As a result, when she saw him he looked like a drunk who has been dragged in out of the rain. Then she did break down, and that was appalling for me, because you might as well know now that I heartily dislike the woman, and having to hold her and soothe her and speak comfort to her was torture, and it was then I began to taste the full horror of what had happened. The police doctor and everybody else who might have given me a hand were too respectful to intrude; wealth again, Dr. von Haller — even your grief takes on a special quality, and nobody quite likes to dry your golden tears. After a while I took her home, and called Netty to come and look after her.

“Netty is my housekeeper. My old nurse, really, and she has kept my apartment for me since my father’s second marriage. Netty doesn’t like my stepmother either, but she seemed the logical person to call, because she has unshakable character and authority.

“Or rather, that is what I thought. But when Netty got over to my father’s house and I told her what had happened, she flew right off the handle. That is her own expression for being utterly unstrung, ‘flying right off the handle.’ She whooped and bellowed and made awful feminine roaring noises until I was extremely frightened. But I had to hold her and comfort her. I still don’t know what ailed her. Of course my father was a very big figure in her life — as he was in the life of anybody who knew him well — but she was no kin, you know. The upshot of it was that very soon my stepmother was attending to Netty, instead of the other way round, and as the chauffeur had roused all the other servants there was a spooky gathering of half-clad people in the drawing-room, staring and wondering as Netty made a holy show of herself. I got somebody to call my sister, Caroline, and quite soon afterward she and Beesty Bastable appeared, and I have never been so glad to see them in my life.

“Caroline was terribly shocked, but she behaved well. Rather a cold woman, but not a fool. And Beesty Bastable — her husband — is one of those puffing, goggle-eyed, fattish fellows who don’t seem worth their keep, but who have sometimes a surprising touch with people. It was he, really, who got the servants busy making hot drinks — and got Netty to stop moaning, and kept Caroline and my stepmother from having a fight about nothing at all, or really because Caroline started in much too soon assuming that proprietorial attitude people take toward the recently bereaved, and my stepmother didn’t like being told to go and lie down in her own house.

“I was grateful to Beesty because when things were sorted out he said, ‘Now for one good drink, and then nothing until we’ve had some sleep, what?’ Beesty says ‘what?’ a great deal, as a lot of Old Ontario people with money tend to do. I think it’s an Edwardian affectation and they haven’t found out yet that it’s out of fashion. But Beesty kept me from drinking too much then, and he stuck to me like a burr for hours afterward, I suppose for the same reason. Anyhow, I went home at last to my apartment, which was blessedly free of Netty, and though I didn’t sleep and Beesty very tactfully kept me away from the decanters, I did get a bath, and had two hours of quiet before Beesty stuck his head into my room at eight o’clock and said he’d fried some eggs. I didn’t think I wanted fried eggs; I wanted an egg whipped up in brandy, but it was astonishing how good the fried eggs tasted. Don’t you think it’s rather humbling how hungry calamity makes one?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson