The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

–Physically, perhaps. But what kind of brains had they? What sort of mind?

–A herd-mind, probably. But they may have known a few things we have lost on the long journey from the cave to — well, to the law-courts.

–I don’t see any good in romanticizing savages. They knew how to get a wretched living and hang on to life for twenty-five or thirty years. But surely anything human, any sort of culture or civilized feeling or whatever you want to call it, came ages later?

–No, no; not at all. I can prove it to you now. It’s a little bit dangerous, so follow me, and be careful.

She went to the very back of the cave, which may have been two hundred feet deep, and I was not happy to follow her, because it grew darker at every step, and though she had a big electric torch it seemed feeble in that blackness. But when we had gone as far as seemed possible, she turned to me and said, “This is where it begins to be difficult; so follow me very closely, close enough to touch me at all times, and don’t lose your nerve.” Then she stepped behind an outcropping of rock which looked like solid cave wall and scrambled up into a hole about four feet above the cave floor.

I followed, very much alarmed, but too craven to beg off. In the hole, through which it was just possible to move on hands and knees, I crept after the torch, which flickered intermittently because every time Liesl lifted her back she obscured its light. And then, after perhaps a dozen yards of this creeping progress over rough stone, we began what was to me a horrible descent.

Liesl never spoke or called to me. As the hole grew smaller she dropped to her knees and crawled on her belly, and there was nothing for me but to do the same. I was as frightened as I have ever been in my life, but there was nothing for me to do but follow, because I had no idea of how I could retreat. Nor did I speak to her; her silence kept me quiet. I would have loved to hear her speak, and say something in reply, but all I heard was the shuffling as she crawled and wriggled, and now and then one of her boots kicked against my head. I have heard of people whose sport it is to crawl into these mountain holes, and read about some of them who had stuck and died. I was in terror, but somehow I kept on wriggling forward. I have not wriggled on my belly since I was a child, and it hurt; my shoulders and neck began to ache torturingly, and at every hunch forward my chest, privates, and knees were scraped unpleasantly on the stone floor. Liesl had outfitted me in some winter clothes she had borrowed from one of the workmen at Sorgenfrei, and though they were thick, they were certainly not much protection from the bruises of this sort of work.

How far we wriggled I had no idea. Later Liesl, who had made the journey several times, said it was just under a quarter of a mile, but to me it might have been ten miles. At last I heard her say; Here we are, and as I crawled out of the hole and stood up — very gingerly because for some reason she did not use her electric torch and the darkness was complete and I had no idea how high the roof might be — there was the flash of a match, and soon a larger flame that came

from a torch she had lit.

–This is a pine-torch; I think it the most appropriate light for this place. Electricity is a blasphemy here. The first time I came, which was about three years ago, there were remains of pine torches Still by the entry, so that was how they must have lit this place.

–Who are you talking about?

–The people of the caves. Our ancestors. Here, hold this torch while I light another. It takes some time for the torches to give much light. Stand where you are and let it unfold before you.

I thought she must mean that we had entered one of those caves, of which I have vaguely heard, which are magnificently decorated with primitive paintings. I asked her if that were it, but all she would say was, “Very much earlier than that,” and stood with her torch held high.

Slowly, in the flickering light, the cave revealed itself. It was about the size of a modest chapel; I suppose it might have held fifty people; and it was high, for the roof was above the reach of the light from our torches. It was bitter cold but there was no ice on the walls; there must have been lumps of quartz, because they twinkled eerily. Liesl was in a mood that I had never seen in her before; all her irony and amusement were gone and her eyes were wide with awe.

–I discovered this about three years ago. The outer cave is quite famous, but nobody had noticed the entrance to this one. When I found it I truly believe I was the first person to enter it in — how long would you guess, Davey?

–I can’t possibly say. How can you tell?

–By what is here. Haven’t you noticed it yet?

–It just seems to be a cave. And brutally cold. Do you suppose somebody used it for something?

–Those people. The ancestors. Look here.

She led me toward the farthest wall from where we had entered, and we came to a little enclosure, formed by a barrier made of heaped up stones; in the cave wall, above the barrier, were seven niches, and I could just make out something of bone in each of these little cupboards; old, dark brown bone, which I gradually made out to be skulls of animals.

–They are bears. The ancestors worshipped bears. Look, in this one bones have been pushed into the eyeholes. And here, you see, the leg-bones have been carefully piled under the chin of the skull.

–Do you suppose the bears lived in here?

–No cave-bear could come through the passage. No; they brought the bones here, and the skins, and set up this place of worship. Perhaps someone pulled on the bear skin, and there was a ceremony of killing.

–That was their culture, was it? Playing bears in here?

–Flippant fool! Yes, that was their culture.

–Well, don’t snap at me. I can’t pretend it means much to me.

–You don’t know enough for it to mean anything to you. Worse for you, you don’t feel enough for it to mean anything to you.

–Liesl, are we going to go over all that again in the depths of this mountain? I want to get out. If you want to know, I’m scared. Now look: I’m sorry I haven’t been respectful enough about your discovery. I’m sure it means a lot in the world of archaeology, or ethnology, or whatever it may be. The men around here worshipped bears. Good. Now let’s go.

–Not just the men around here. The men of a great part of the world. There are such caves as this all over Europe and Asia, and they have found some in America. How far is Hudson Bay from where you live?

–A thousand miles, more or less.

–They worshipped the bear there, between the great ice ages.

–Does it matter, now?

–Yes, I think it matters now. What do we worship today?

–Is this the place or the time to go into that?

–Where better? We share the great mysteries with these people. We stand where men once came to terms with the facts of death and mortality and continuance. How long ago, do you suppose?

–I haven’t any idea.

–It was certainly not less than seventy-five thousand years ago; possibly much, much more. They worshipped the bear and felt themselves better and greater because they had done so. Compared with this place the Sistine Chapel is of yesterday. But the purpose of both places is the same. Men sacrificed and ate of the noblest thing they could conceive, hoping to share in its virtue.

–Yes, yes: I read The Golden Bough when I was young.

–Yes, yes; and you misunderstood what you read because you accepted its rationalist tone instead of understanding its facts. Does this place give you no sense of the greatness and indomitability and spiritual splendour of man? Man is a noble animal, Davey. Not a good animal; a noble animal.

–You distinguish between the two?

–Yes, you — you lawyer, I do.

–Liesl, we mustn’t quarrel. Not here. Let’s get out and I’ll argue all you please. If you want to split morality — some sort of accepted code — off from the highest values we have, I’ll promise you a long wrangle. I am, as you say, a lawyer. But for the love of God let’s get back to the light.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson