The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Reputedly the highest city in Europe, and the air is thin and clean. Settle into a good hotel (Walhalla – why?) and walk out to get my bearings. Not much snow, but everything is decorated for Christmas very prettily; not in our N. American whore-house style. Find the Klosterhof square, and admire it, but leave the Cathedral till tomorrow. Dinner at a very good restaurant (Metropole) and to the Stadtheater. It has been rebuilt in the Brutalist-modern manner, and everything is rough cement and skew-whiff instead of right-angled or curved, so it is an odd setting for Lehar’s Paganini, which is tonight’s piece. Music prettily Viennese. How simple, loud, and potent love always is in these operettas! If I understood the thing. Napoleon would not permit Pag to have his countess because he was not noble: once I could not have the girl I loved because I was not a Jew. But Pag made a lot of eloquent noise about it, where I merely went sour. . . Did I love Judy? Or just something of myself in her as Dr. Johanna implies? Does it matter, now? Yes, it matters to me.

Dec. 20, Sat.: Always the methodical sight-seer, I am off to the Cathedral by 9:30. Knew it was Baroque, but had not been prepared for something so Baroque; breath-taking enormities of spiritual excess everywhere, but no effect of clutter or gimcrackery. Purposely took no guide-book; wanted to get a first impression before fussing about detail.

Then to the Abbey library, which is next door, and gape at some very odd old paintings and the wonders of their Baroque room. Keep my coat on as there is no heating in any serious sense; the woman who sells tickets directs me to put on huge felt overshoes to protect the parquet. Superb library to look at, and there are two or three men of priestly appearance actually reading and writing in a neighbouring room, so it must also be more than a spectacle. I gape reverently at some splendid MSS, including a venerable Nibelungenlied and a Parsifal, and wonder what a frowsy old mummy, with what appear to be its own teeth, is doing there. I suppose in an earlier and less specialized time libraries were also repositories for curiosities. Hovered over a drawing of Christ’s head, done entirely in calligraphy; dated “nach 1650”. Some painstaking penman had found a way of writing the Scripture account of the Passion with such a multitude of eloquent squiggles and crinkum-crankum that he had produced a monument of pious ingenuity, if not a work of art.

At last the cold becomes too much, and I scuttle out into the sunshine, and look for a bookshop where I can buy a guide, and turn myself thereby into a serious tourist. Find a fine shop, get what I want, and am poking about among the shelves when my eye is taken by two figures; a man in an engulfing fur coat over what was obviously one of those thick Harris-tweed suits is talking loudly to a woman who is very smartly and expensively dressed, but who is the nearest thing to an ogress I have ever beheld.

Her skull was immense, and the bones must have been monstrously enlarged, for she had a gigantic jaw, and her eyes peered out of positive caverns. She had made no modest concessions to her ugliness, for her iron-gray hair was fashionably dressed, and she wore a lot of make-up. They spoke in German, but there was something decidedly un-German and un-Swiss about the man and the more I stared (over the top of a book) the more familiar his back appeared. Then he moved, with a limp that could only belong to one man in the world. It was Dunstan Ramsay. Old Buggerlugs, as I live and breathe! But why in St. Gall, and who could his dreadful companion be? Someone of consequence, unquestionably, for the manageress of the shop was very attentive. . . Now: was I to claim acquaintance, or sneak away and preserve the quiet of my holiday? As so often in these cases, the decision was not with me. Buggerlugs had spotted me.

–Davey! How nice to see you.

–Good-morning, sir. A pleasant surprise.

–The last person I would have expected. I haven’t seen you since poor Boy’s funeral. What brings you here?

–Just a holiday.

–Have you been here long?

–Since yesterday.

–How is everyone at home? Carol well? Denyse is well, undoubtedly. What about Netty? Still your Dragon?

–All well, so far as I know.

–Liesl, this is my lifelong friend — his life long, that’s to say — David Staunton. David, this is Fraulein Doktor Liselotte Naegeli, whose guest I am.

The ogress gave me a smile which was extraordinarily charming, considering what it had to work against. When she spoke her voice was low and positively beautiful. It seemed to have a faintly familiar ring, but that is impossible. Amazing what distinguished femininity the monster had. More chat, and they asked me to lunch.

The upshot of that was that my St. Gall holiday took an entirely new turn. I had counted on being solitary, but like many people who seek solitude I am not quite so fond of it as I imagine, and when Liesl — in no time I was asked to call her Liesl — asked me to join them at her country home for Christmas, I had said yes before I knew what I was doing. The woman is a spellbinder, without seeming to exert much effort, and Buggerlugs has changed amazingly. I have never fully liked him, as I told Dr. Johanna, but age and a heart attack he said he had had shortly after Father’s death seem to have improved him out of all recognition. He was just as inquisitorial and ironic as ever, but there was a new geniality about him. I gather he has been convalescing with the ogress, whom I suppose to be a medico. She took an odd line with him.

–Wasn’t I lucky, Davey, to persuade Ramsay to come to live with me? Such an amusing companion. Was he an amusing schoolmaster? I don’t suppose so. But he is a dear man.

–Liesl, you will make Davey think we are lovers. I am here for Liesl’s company, certainly, but almost as much because this climate suits my health.

–Let us hope it suits Davey’s health, too. You can see he has been seriously unwell. But is your cure coming along nicely, Davey? Don’t pretend you aren’t working toward a cure.

–How can you tell that, Liesl? He looks better than when I last saw him, and no wonder. But what makes you think he is taking a cure?

–Well, look at him, Ramsay. Do you think I’ve lived near Zurich so long and can’t recognize the “analysand look”? He is obviously working with one of the Jungians, probing his soul and remaking himself. Which doctor do you go to, Davey? I know several of them.

–I can’t guess how you know, but there’s no use pretending, I suppose. I’ve been a little more than a year with Fraulein Doktor Johanna von Haller.

–Jo von Haller! I have known her since she was a child. Not friends, really, but we know each other. Well, have you fallen in love with her yet? All her male patients do. It’s supposed to be part of the cure. But she is very ethical and never encourages them. I suppose with her successful lawyer husband and her two almost grown-up sons it mightn’t do. Oh, yes; she is Frau Doktor, you know. But I suppose you spoke in English and it never came up. Well, after a year with Jo, you need something more lively. I wish we could promise you a really gay Christmas at Sorgenfrei, but it is certain to be dull.

–Don’t believe it, Davey. Sorgenfrei is an enchanted castle.

–Nothing of the sort, but it should at least be a little more friendly than a hotel in St. Gall. Can you come back with us now?

And so it was. An hour after finishing lunch I had picked up my things and was sitting beside Liesl in a beautiful sports car, with Ramsay and his wooden leg crammed into the back with the luggage, dashing eastward from St. Gall on the road to Konstanz, and Sorgenfrei — whatever it might be. One of those private clinics, perhaps, that are so frequent in Switzerland? We were mounting all the time, and at last, after half a mile or so through pine woods we emerged onto a shelf on a mountainside, with a breath-taking view — really breath-taking, for the air was very cold and thinner than at St. Gall — and Sorgenfrei commanding it.

Sorgenfrei is like Liesl, a fascinating monstrosity. In England it would be called Gothic Revival; I don’t know the European equivalent. Turrets, mullioned windows, a squat tower for an entrance and somewhere at the back a much taller, thinner tower like a lead-pencil rising very high. But bearing everywhere the unmistakable double signature of the nineteenth century and a great deal of money. Inside, it is filled with bearskin rugs, gigantic pieces of furniture on which every surface has been carved within an inch of its life with fruits, flowers, birds, hares, and even, on one thing which seems to be an altar to greed but is more probably a

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Categories: Davies, Robertson