The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

–I don’t believe you ever knew what a sore touch it was with Boy that you were such a Joseph about women. He felt it put him in the wrong. He always felt that the best possible favour you could do a woman was to push her into bed. He simply could not understand that there are men for whom sex is not the greatest of indoor and outdoor sports, hobbies, arts, sciences, and food for reverie. I always felt that his preoccupation with women was an extension of his miraculous touch with sugar and sweetstuffs. Women were the most delightful confectioneries he knew, and he couldn’t understand anybody who hadn’t a sweet tooth.

–I wonder what your father would have made of a woman like Jo von Haller?

–Women of that kind never came into Boy’s ken, Liesl. Or women like you, for that matter. His notion of an intelligent woman was Denyse.

I found it still pained me to hear Father talked of in this objective strain, so I tried to turn the conversation.

–I suppose all but a tiny part of life lies outside anybody’s ken, and we all get shocks and starts, now and then. For instance, who would have supposed that after such a long diversion through Dr. von Haller’s consulting-room I should meet you three by chance? There’s a coincidence, if you like.

But Ramsay wouldn’t allow that to pass.

–As an historian, I simply don’t believe in coincidence. Only very rigid minds do. Rationalists talk about a pattern they can see and approve as logical; any pattern they can’t see and wouldn’t approve they dismiss as coincidental. I suppose you had to meet us, for some reason. A good one, I hope.

Eisengrim was interested but supercilious; after dinner he and Liesl played the complex chess game. I watched for a while, but I could make nothing of what they were doing, so I sat by the fire and talked with Ramsay. Of course I was dying to know how he came to be part of this queer household, but Dr. von Haller has made me more discreet than I used to be about cross-examining in private life. That suggestion that he and Liesl had once been lovers — could it be? I probed, very, very gently. But I had once been Buggerlugs’ pupil, and I still feel he can see right through me. Obviously he did, but he was in a mood to reveal, and like a man throwing crumbs to a bird he let me know:

1. That he had known Eisengrim from childhood.

2. That Eisengrim came from the same village as Father and himself, and Mother — my Deptford.

3. That Eisengrim’s mother had been a dominant figure in his own life. He spoke of her as “saintly”, which puzzles me. Wouldn’t Netty have mentioned somebody like that?

4. That he met Liesl travelling with Eisengrim in Mexico and that they had discovered an “affinity” (his funny, old-fashioned word) which existed still. When we veered back to the coincidence of my meeting them in St. Gall, he laughed and quoted G. K. Chesterton: “Coincidences are a spiritual sort of puns.”

He has, it appears, come to Switzerland to recuperate himself after his heart attack, and seems likely to stay here. He is working on another book — something about faith as it relates to myth, which is his old subject — and appears perfectly content. This is not a bad haul, and gives me encouragement for further fishing.

Eisengrim affects royal airs. Everything suggests that this is Liesl’s house, but he seems to regard himself as the regulator of manners in it. After they adjourned their game (I gather it takes days to complete), he rose, and I was astonished to see that Liesl and Ramsay rose as well, so I followed suit. He shook us all by the hand, and bade us goodnight with the style of a crowned head taking leave of courtiers. He had an air of You-people-are-welcome-to-sit-up as-long-as-you-please-but-We-are-retiring, and it was pretty obvious he thought the tone of the gathering would drop when he left the room.

Not so. We all seemed much easier. The huge library, where the curtains had now been drawn to shut out the night sky and the mountains and the few lights that shone far below us, was made almost cosy by his going. Liesl produced whisky, and I thought I might allow myself one good drink. It was she who brought up what was foremost in my mind.

–I assure you, Davey. there is nothing premeditated about this. Of course when we met in the bookshop, I knew you must be the son of the man who died so spectacularly when Eisengrim was last in Toronto, but I had no notion of the circumstances.

–Were you in Toronto with him?

–Certainly. We have been business partners and artistic associates for a long time. I am his manager or impresario or whatever you want to call it. On the programs I use another name, but I assure you I am very much present. I am the voice of the Brazen Head.

–Then it was you who gave that extraordinary answer to my question?

–What question are you talking about?

–Don’t you recall that Saturday night in the theatre when somebody called out, “Who killed Boy Staunton?”

–I remember it very clearly. It was a challenge, you may suppose, coming suddenly like that. We usually had warning of the questions the Head might have to answer. But was it you who asked the question?

–Yes, but I didn’t hear all of your answer.

–No; there was confusion. Poor Ramsay here was standing at the back of an upstairs box, and that was when he had his heart attack. And I think a great many people were startled when he fell forward into sight. Of course there were others who thought it was part of the show. It was a memorable night.

–But do you remember what you said?

–Perfectly. I said: “He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.”

–I don’t suppose it is unreasonable of me to ask for an explanation of that rigmarole?

–Not unreasonable at all, and I hope you get an answer that satisfies you. But not tonight. Dear Ramsay is looking a little pale, and I think I should see him to bed. But there is plenty of time. I know you will take care that we talk of this again.

And with that I have to be contented at least until tomorrow.

Dec. 21, Sun.: This morn. Liesl took me on a tour of the house, which was apparently built in 1824 by some forbear who had made money in the watch-and-clock business. The entrance hall is dominated by what I suppose was his masterpiece, for it has dials to show seconds, days of the week, days of the months, the months, the seasons, the signs of the zodiac, the time at Sorgenfrei and the time at Greenwich, and the phases of the moon. It has a chime of thirty-seven bells, which play a variety of tunes, and is ornamented with figures of Day and Night, the Seasons, two heads of Time, and God knows what else, all in fine verd-antique. Monstrous but fascinating, like Liesl, and she seems to love it. As we wandered through the house and climbed unexpected staircases and looked at the bewildering views from cunningly placed windows, I did my best to bring the conversation to the strange words of the Brazen Head about Father’s death, but Liesl knows every trick of evasion, and in her own house I could not nail her down as I might in court. But she did say one or two things:

–You must not interpret too closely. Remember that I, speaking for the Head, had no time — not even ten seconds — to reflect. So I gave a perfectly ordinary answer, like any experienced fortune-teller. You know there are always things that fit almost any enquirer: you say those things and they will do the interpreting. “The woman he knew — the woman he did not know.”. . . From what I know now, which is only what Ramsay has told me at one time or another, I would have said the woman he knew was your mother, and the woman he did not know was your stepmother. He felt guilty about your mother, and the second time he married a woman who was far stronger than he had understood. But I gather from the terrible fuss your stepmother made that she thought she must be the woman he knew, and was very angry at the idea that she had any part in bringing about his death. . . I really can’t tell you any more than that about why I spoke as I did. I have a tiny gift in this sort of thing; that was why Eisengrim trusted me to speak for the Head; maybe I sensed something — because one does, you know, if one permits it. But don’t brood on it and try to make too much of it. Let it go.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson