The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

sideboard, full-sized hounds; six of them with real bronze chains on their collars. This is the dream castle of some magnate of 150 years ago, conceived in terms of the civilization which has given the world, among a host of better things, the music box and the cuckoo clock.

We arrived at about five p.m., and I was taken to this room, which is as big as the boardroom of Castor, and where I am seizing my chance to bring my diary up to the minute. This is exhilarating. Is it the air, or Liesl’s company? I am glad I came.

Later: Am I still glad I came? It is after midnight and I have had the most demanding evening since I left Canada.

This house troubles me and I can’t yet say why. Magnificent houses, palaces, beautiful country houses, comfortable houses — I know all these either as a guest or a tourist. But this house, which seems at first appearances to be rather a joke, is positively the damnedest house I have ever entered. One might think the architect had gained all his previous experience illustrating Grimm’s fairy stories, for the place is full of fantasy — but spooky, early-nineteenth-century fantasy, not the feeble Disney stuff. Yet, on second glance, it seems all to be meant seriously, and the architect was obviously a man of gifts, for though the house is big, it is still a house for people to live in and not a folly. Nor is it a clinic. It is Liesl’s home, I gather.

Sorgenfrei. Free of care. Sans Souci. The sort of name someone of limited imagination might give to a country retreat. But there is something here that utterly contradicts the suggestion of the rich bourgeoisie resting from their money-making.

When I went down to dinner I found Ramsay in the library. That is to say, in an English country-house it would have been the library, comfortable and pleasant, but at Sorgenfrei it is too oppressively literary; bookshelves rise to a high, painted ceiling, on which is written in decorative Gothic script what I can just make out to be the Ten Commandments. There is a huge terrestrial globe, balanced by an equally huge celestial one. A big telescope, not much less than a century old, I judged, is mounted at one of the windows that look out on the mountains. On a low table sits a very modern object, which I discovered was five chess-boards mounted one above another in a brass frame; there are chessmen on each board, arranged as for five different games in progress; the boards are made of transparent lucite or some such material, so that it is possible to look down through them from above and see the position of every man. There was a good fire, and Ramsay was warming his legs, one flesh and one artificial, in front of it. He caught my mood at once.

–Extraordinary house, isn’t it?

–Very. Is this where you live now?

–I’m a sort of permanent guest. My position is rather in the eighteenth-century mode. You know — people of intellectual tastes kept a philosopher or a scholar around the place. Liesl likes my conversation. I like hers. Funny way for a Canadian schoolmaster to end up, don’t you think?

–You were never an ordinary schoolmaster, sir.

–Don’t call me sir, Davey. We’re old friends. Your father was my oldest friend; if friends is what we were, which I sometimes doubted. But you’re not a lad now. You’re a notable criminal lawyer; what used to be called “an eminent silk”. Of course the problem is that I haven’t any name by which all my friends call me. What did you call me at school? Was it Corky? Corky Ramsay? Stupid name, really. Artificial legs haven’t been made of cork in a very long time.

–If you really want to know, we called you Biggerlugs. Because of your habit of digging in your ear with your little finger, you know.

–Really? Well, I don’t think I like that much. You’d better call me Ramsay, like Liesl.

–I notice she generally calls you “dear Ramsay”.

–Yes; we’re rather close friends. More than that, for a while. Does that surprise you?

–You’ve just said I’m an experienced criminal lawyer; nothing surprises me.

–Never say that, Davey. Never, never say that. Especially not at Sorgenfrei.

–You yourself just said it was an extraordinary house.

–Oh, quite so. Rather a marvel, in its peculiar style. But that wasn’t precisely what I meant.

We were interrupted by Liesl, who appeared through a door which I had not noticed because it is one of those nineteenth-century affairs, fitted close into the bookshelves and covered with false book-backs, so that it can hardly be seen. She was wearing something very like a man’s evening suit, made in dark velvet, and looked remarkably elegant. I was beginning not to notice her Gorgon face. Ramsay turned to her rather anxiously, I thought.

–Is himself joining us at dinner tonight?

–I think so. Why do you ask?

–I just wondered when Davey would meet him.

–Don’t fuss, dear Ramsay. It’s a sign of age, and you are not old. Look, Davey, have you ever seen a chess-board like this?

Liesl began to explain the rules of playing what is, in effect, a single game of chess, but on five boards at once and with five sets of men. The first necessity, it appears, is to dismiss all ideas of the normal game, and to school oneself to think both horizontally and laterally at the same time. I, who could play chess pretty well but had never beaten Pargetter, was baffled — so much so that I did not notice anyone else entering the room, and I started when a voice behind me said:

–When am I to be introduced to Mr. Staunton?

The man who spoke was surprising enough in himself, for he was a most elegant little man with a magnificent head of curling silver hair, and the evening dress he wore ended not in trousers, but in satin knee-breeches and silk stockings. But I knew him at once as Eisengrim, the conjuror, the illusionist, whom I had twice seen in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, the last time when I was drunk and distraught, and shouted at the Brazen Head, “Who killed Boy Staunton?” Social custom is ground into our bones, and I put out my hand to shake his. He spoke:

–I see you recognize me. Well, are the police still trying to involve me in the murder of your father? They were very persistent. They even traced me to Copenhagen. But they had nothing to go on. Except that I seemed to know rather more about it than they did, and they put all sorts of fanciful interpretations on some improvised words of Liesl’s. How pleasant to meet you. We must talk the whole thing over.

No point in reporting in detail what followed. How right Ramsay was! Never say you can’t be surprised. But what was I to do? I was confronted by a man whom I had despised and even hated when last I saw him, and his opening remarks to me were designed to be disconcerting if not downright quarrel-picking. But I was not the same man who shouted his question in the theatre; after a year with Dr. Johanna I was a very different fellow. If Eisengrim was cool, I would be cooler. I have delicately slain and devoured many an impudent witness in the courts, and I am not to be bamboozled by a mountebank. I think my behaviour was a credit to Dr. Johanna, and to Pargetter; I saw admiration in Ramsay’s face, and Liesl made no attempt to conceal her pleasure at a situation that seemed to be entirely to her taste.

We went in to dinner, which was an excellent meal and not at all in the excessive style of the house. There was plenty of good wine, and cognac afterward, but I knew myself well enough to be sparing with it, and once again I could see that Ramsay and Liesl were watching me closely and pleased by what I did. There was none of that English pretence that serious things should not be discussed while eating, and we talked of nothing but my father’s murder and what followed it, his will and what sprang from that, and what Denyse, and Carol, and Netty and the world in general — so far as the world in general paid any attention — had thought and said about it.

It was a trial and a triumph for me, because since I came to Zurich I have spoken to nobody of these things except Dr. Johanna, and then in the most subjective terms possible. But tonight I found myself able to be comparatively objective, even when Liesl snorted with rude laughter at Denyse’s antics with the death-mask. Ramsay was sympathetic, but he laughed when I said that Father had left some money for my non-existent children. His comment was:

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Categories: Davies, Robertson