The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

–For the love of God? Is not God to be found in the darkness? Well, you mighty lover of the light and the law, away we go.

But then, to my astonishment, Liesl flung herself on the ground, face down before the skulls of the bears, and for perhaps three minutes I stood in the discomfort we always feel when somebody nearby is praying and we are not. But what form could her prayers be taking? This was worse — much worse — than Dr. Johanna’s Comedy Company of the Psyche. What sort of people had I fallen among on this Swiss journey?

When she rose she was grinning and the charm I had learned to see in her terrible face was quite gone.

–Back to the light, my child of light. You must be reborn into the sun you love so much, so let us lose no time. Leave your torch, here, by the way out.

She dowsed her own torch by stubbing it on the ground and I did so too. As the light diminished to a few sparks I heard a mechanical clicking, and I knew she was snapping the switch of her electric torch, but no light came.

–Something is wrong. The batteries or the bulb. It won’t light.

–But how are we to get back without light?

–You can’t miss the path. Just keep crawling. You’d better go first.

–Liesl, am I to go into that tunnel without a glimmer of light?

–Yes, unless you wish to stay here in the dark. I’m going, certainly. If you are wise you will go first. And don’t change your mind on the way, because if anything happens to you, Davey, I can’t turn back, or wriggle backward. It’s up and out for both of us, or death for both of us. . . Don’t think about it any longer. Go on!

She gave me a shove toward the hole of the tunnel, and I hit my head hard against the upper side of it. But I was cowed by the danger and afraid of Liesl, who had become such a demon in the cave, and I felt my way into the entrance and began to wriggle.

What had been horrible coming in, because it was done head downward, was more difficult than anything I have ever attempted until I began the outward journey; but now I had to wriggle upward at an angle that seemed never less than forty-five degrees. It was like climbing a chimney, a matter of knees and elbows, and frequent cracks on the skull. I know I kicked Liesl in the face more than once, but she made no sound except for the grunting and panting without which no progress was possible. I had worn myself out going in; going out I had to find strength from new and unguessed-at sources. I did not think; I endured, and endurance took on a new character, not of passive suffering but of anguished, fearful striving. Was it only yesterday I had been called the boy who could not shudder?

Suddenly, out of the darkness just before me, came a roar so loud, so immediate, so fearful in suggestion that I knew in that instant the sharpness of death. I did not lose consciousness. Instead I knew with a shame that came back in full force from childhood that my bowels had turned to water and gushed out into my pants, and the terrible stench that filled the tunnel was my own. I was at the lowest ebb, frightened, filthy, seemingly powerless, because when I heard Liesl’s voice — “Go on, you dirty brute, go on” — I couldn’t go on, dragging with me that mess which, from being hot as porridge, was cooling quickly in the chill of the tunnel.

–It’s only a trick of the wind. Did you think it was the bear-god coming to claim you? Go on. You have another two hundred yards at least. Do you think I want to hang about here with your stink? Go on!

–I can’t, Liesl. I’m done.

–You must.


–What gives you strength? Have you no God? No, I suppose not. Your kind have neither God nor Devil. Have you no ancestors?

Ancestors? Why, in this terrible need, would I want such ornaments? Then I thought of Maria Dymock, staunch in the street of Staunton, demanding money from the passers-by to get herself and her bastard to Canada. Maria Dymock, whom Doc Staunton had suppressed, and about whom my father would hear nothing after that first, unhappy letter. (What had Pledger-Brown said? “Too bad, Davey; he wanted blood and all we could offer was guts.”) Would Maria Dymock see me through? In my weakened, terrified, humiliated condition I suppose I must have called upon Maria Dymock and something — but it’s absurd to think it could have been she! — gave me the power I needed to wriggle that last two hundred yards, until an air that was sweeter but no less cold told me that the outer cave was near.

Out of the darkness into the gloom. Out of the gloom into sunshine, and the extraordinary realization that it was about three o’clock on a fine Christmas Eve, and that I was seven thousand feet above the sea on a Swiss mountain. An uncomfortable, messy walk back to the cable-railway and the discovery — God bless the Swiss! — that the little station had a good men’s toilet with lots of paper towels. A dizzy, lightheaded journey downward on one of the swaying cars, during which Liesl said nothing but sulked like some offended shaman from the days of her bear-civilization. We drove home in silence; even when she indicated that she wished me to sit on a copy of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung that was in the car, so as not to soil her upholstery, she said nothing. But when we drove into the stable-yard which led to the garages at Sorgenfrei, I spoke.

–Liesl, I am very, very sorry. Not for being afraid, or messing my pants, or any of that. But for falling short of what you expected. You thought me worthy to see the shrine of the bears, and I was too small a person to know what you meant. But I think I have a glimmering of something better, and I beg you not to shut me out of your friendship.

Another woman might have smiled, or taken my hand, or kissed me, but not Liesl. She glared into my eyes.

–Apology is the cheapest coin on earth, and I don’t value it. But I think you have learned something, and if that is so, I’ll do more than be your friend. I’ll love you, Davey. I’ll take you into my heart, and you shall take me into yours. I don’t mean bed-love, though that might happen, if it seemed the right thing. I mean the love that gives all and takes all and knows no bargains.

I was bathed and in bed by five o’clock, dead beat. But so miraculous is the human spirit, I was up and about and able to eat a good dinner and watch a Christmas broadcast from Lausanne with Ramsay and Eisengrim and Liesl, renewed — yes, and it seemed to me reborn, by the terror of the cave and the great promise she had made to me a few hours before.

Dec. 25, Thurs. and Christmas Day: Woke feeling better than I have done in years. To breakfast very hungry (why does happiness make us hungry?) and found Ramsay alone at the table.

–Merry Christmas, Davey. Do you recall once telling me you hated Christmas more than any day in the year?

–That was long ago. Merry Christmas, Dunny. That was what Father used to call you, wasn’t it?

–Yes, and I always hated it. I think I’d almost rather be called Buggerlugs.

Eisengrim came in and put a small pouch beside my plate. Obviously he meant me to open it, so I did, and out fell a fine pair of ivory dice. I rolled them a few times, without much luck. Then he took them.

–What would you like to come up?

–Double sixes, surely?

He cast the dice, and sure enough, there they were.


–Nothing so coarse. They are quite innocent, but inside they have a little secret. I’ll show you how it works later.

Ramsay laughed.

–You don’t suppose an eminent silk would use such things, Magnus? He’d be thrown out of all his clubs.

–I don’t know what an eminent silk might do with dice but I know very well what he does in court. Are you a lucky man? To be lucky is always to play with — well, with dice like these. You might like to keep them in your pocket, Davey, just as a reminder of — well, of what our friend Ramsay calls the variability and mutability and general roughness of things.

Liesl had come in, and now she handed me a watch.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson