Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Under the direction of Jim Warren and Mr. Mahaffey it was agreed that fifteen of us would scramble down into the pit and form a line, leaving twenty or thirty feet between each man, and advance from end to end. Anybody who found a clue was to give a shout. As we searched there was quite a lot of sound, for I think most of the men wanted any tramps to know we were coming and get out of the way; nobody liked the idea of coming on a tramps’ bivouac — they were called “jungles”, which made them seem more terrible — unexpectedly. We had seen only two fires, at the far end of the pit, but there could be quite a group of tramps without a fire.

My father was thirty feet on my left. and a big fellow named Ed Hainey on my right, as I walked through the pit. In spite of the nearness of the men it was lonely work, and though there was a moon it was waning and the light was poor. I was afraid and did not know what I feared, which is the worst kind of fear. We might have gone a quarter of a mile when I came to a clump of sallow. I was about to skirt it when I heard a stirring inside it. I made a sound — I am sure it was not a yell — that brought my father beside me in an instant. He shot the beam of his flashlight into the scrub, and in that bleak, flat light we saw a tramp and a woman in the act of copulation. The tramp rolled over and gaped at us in terror; the woman was Mrs. Dempster.

It was Hainey who gave a shout, and in no time all the men were with us, and Jim Warren was pointing a pistol at the tramp, ordering him to put his hands up. He repeated the words two or three times, and then Mrs. Dempster spoke.

“You’ll have to speak very loudly to him, Mr. Warren,” she said, “he’s hard of hearing.”

I don’t think any of us knew where to look when she spoke, pulling her skirts down but remaining on the ground. It was at that moment that the Reverend Amasa Dempster joined us; I had not noticed him when the hunt began, though he must have been there. He behaved with great dignity, leaning forward to help his wife rise with the same sort of protective love I had seen in him the night Paul was born. But he was not able to keep back his question.

“Mary, what made you do it?”

She looked him honestly in the face and gave the answer that became famous in Deptford: “He was very civil, ‘Masa. And he wanted it so badly.”

He put her arm under his and set out for home, just as if they were going for a walk. Under Mr. Mahaffey’s direction, Jim Warren took the tramp off to the lock-up. The rest of us dispersed without a word.


Dempster visited Mr. Mahaffey early on Saturday and said that he would lay no charge and take part in no trial, so the magistrate took council with my father and a few other wise heads and told Jim Warren to get the tramp off the village bounds, with a warning never to be seen there again.

The real trial would come on Sunday, and everybody knew it. The buzzing and humming were intense all day Saturday, and at church on Sunday everybody who was not a Baptist was aching to know what would happen at the Baptist service. The Reverend Andrew Bowyer prayed for “all who were distressed in spirit, and especially for a family known to us all who were in sore travail,” and something of a similar intention was said in the Anglican and Methodist churches. Only Father Regan at the Catholic church came out flat-footed and said from his pulpit that the gravel pit was a disgrace and a danger and that the railway had its nerve not to clean it up or close it up. But when we heard about that, everybody knew it was beside the point. Mrs. Dempster had given her consent. That was the point. Supposing she was a little off her head, how insane had a woman to be before it came to that? Dr. McCausland, appealed to on the steps of our church by some seekers after truth, said that such conduct indicated a degeneration of the brain, which was probably progressive.

We soon knew what the Baptist parson said that morning: he went into his pulpit, prayed silently for a short time, and then told his congregation that the time had come for him to resign his charge, as he had other duties that were incapable of being combined with it. He asked for their prayers, and went into his study. A prominent member of the congregation, a baker, took charge and turned the service into a meeting; the baker and a few other men were asking the parson to wait a while, but the majority was against them, especially the women. Not that any of the women spoke; they had done their speaking before church, and their husbands knew the price of peace. So at last the baker and one or two others had to go into the study and tell Amasa Dempster that his resignation was accepted. He left the church without any prospects, a crazy and disgraced wife, a delicate child, and six dollars in cash. There were several men who wanted to do something for him, but the opinion of their wives made it impossible.

There was a terrible quarrel in our household — the more terrible because I had never heard my parents disagree when they knew that Willie and I could hear them; what I heard by way of the stovepipe sometimes amounted to disagreement but never to a quarrel. My father accused my mother of wanting charity; she replied that as the mother of two boys she had standards of decency to defend. That was the meat of the quarrel, but before it had gone very far it reached a point where she said that if he was going to stand up for filthy behaviour and adultery he was a long way from the man she had married, and he was saying that he had never known she had a cruel streak. (I could have told him something about that.) This battle went on at Sunday dinner and drove Willie, who was the least demonstrative of fellows, to throw down his napkin and exclaim, “Oh, for the love of the crows!” and leave the table. I dared not follow, and as my parents’ wrath grew I was numbed with misery.

Of course my mother won. If my father had not given in he would have had to live with outraged female virtue for — perhaps the rest of his life. As things were, I do not believe that she ever gave up a suspicion that he was not as firm in his moral integrity as she had once believed. Mrs. Dempster had transgressed in a realm where there could be no shades of right and wrong. And the reason she had offered for doing so –!

That was what stuck in the craws of all the good women of Deptford: Mrs. Dempster had not been raped, as a decent woman would have been — no, she had yielded because a man wanted her. The subject was not one that could be freely discussed even among intimates, but it was understood without saying that if women began to yield for such reasons as that, marriage and society would not last long. Any man who spoke up for Mary Dempster probably believed in Free Love. Certainly he associated sex with pleasure, and that put him in a class with filthy thinkers like Cece Athelstan.

Cecil Athelstan — always known as Cece — was the black sheep of our ruling family. He was a fat, swag-bellied boozer who sat in a chair on the sidewalk outside the Tecumseh House bar when the weather was fine, and on the same chair inside the bar when it was not. Once a month, when he got his cheque, he went for a night or two to Detroit, across the border, and, according to his own account, he was the life and soul of the bawdy houses there. Foul-mouthed bum though he was, he had enough superiority of experience and native wit to hold a small group of loafers in awe, and his remarks, sometimes amusing, were widely quoted, even by people who disapproved of him.

Mrs. Dempster’s answer was a gift to a man like Cece. “Hey!” he would shout across the street to one of his cronies, “you feeling civil today? I feel so God-damned civil I got to get to Detroit right away — or maybe just up to You Know Who’s!” Or as some respectable woman passed on the other side of the street from the hotel he would sing out, just loud enough to be heard. “I wa-a-ant it! Hey, Cora, I want it so-o-o!” The strange thing was that the behaviour of this licensed fool made the enormity of Mrs. Dempster’s words greater, but did not lower the town’s esteem of Cece Athelstan — probably because it could go no lower.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson