Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

At school there were several boys who pestered me for descriptions, with anatomical detail, of what I had seen in the pit. I had no trouble silencing them, but of course Cece and his gang lay beyond my power. It was Cece, with some of his crowd, and the Harper boys (who ought to have known better) who organized the shivaree when the Dempsters moved. Amasa Dempster got out of the Baptist parsonage on the Tuesday after his resignation and took his wife and son to a cottage on the road to the school. The parsonage had been furnished, so they had little enough to move, but a few people who could not bear to think of them in destitution mustered furniture for the new place, without letting it be too clearly known who had done it. (I know my father put up some of the money for this project,

very much on the quiet.)

At midnight a gang with blackened faces beat pans and tooted horns outside the cottage for half an hour, and somebody threw a lighted broom on the roof, but it was a damp night and no harm was done. Cece’s voice was heard half over the town, shouting, “Come on out, Mary! We want it!” I wish I could record that Amasa Dempster came out and faced them, but he did not.

I never saw a man change so much in so short a time. He was gaunt and lonely before, but there had been fire in his eyes; in two weeks he was like a scarecrow. He had a job; George Alcott, who owned the sawmill, offered Dempster a place as a bookkeeper and timekeeper at twelve dollars a week, which was not a bad wage for the work and in fact made the Dempsters slightly better off than they had been, for there was no church tithe expected out of it. But it was the comedown, the disgrace, that broke Dempster. He had been a parson, which was the work dearest to his heart; now he was nothing in his own eyes, and clearly he feared the worst for his wife.

What passed between them nobody knew, but she was not seen in the village and very rarely in the little yard outside the cottage. There was a rumour that he kept her tied to a long rope inside the house, so that she could move freely through it but not get out. On Sunday mornings, her arm in his, she went to the Baptist church, and they sat in a back pew, never speaking to anyone as they came and went. She began to look very strange indeed, and if she was not mad before, people said, she was mad now.

I knew better. After a few weeks during which I was miserable because of the village talk, I sneaked over there one day and peeped in a window. She was sitting on a chair by a table, staring at nothing, but when I tapped on the pane she looked at me and smiled in recognition. In an instant I was inside, and after a few minutes of uneasiness we were talking eagerly. She was a little strange because she had been so lonely, but she made good sense, and I had enough gumption to keep on general topics. I soon found out that she knew nothing of what was going on in the world because the Dempsters took no newspaper.

After that I went there two or three times a week, with a daily paper, or a copy of our own Banner, and I read things to her that I knew would interest her, and kept her up on the gossip of the town. Often Paul was with us, because he never played with other children, and I did what I could for him. It was well understood that these visits were not to be mentioned to Dempster, for I was sure he still thought me a bad influence.

I began this deceitful line of conduct — for my mother would have been furious, and I thought anybody who had seen me going there would have spread the word — hoping I could do something for Mrs. Dempster. but it was not long before I found that she was doing much for me. I do not know how to express it, but she was a wise woman, and though she was only ten years older than myself, and thus about twenty-six at this time, she seemed to me to have a breadth of outlook and a clarity of vision that were strange and wonderful; I cannot remember examples that satisfactorily explain what I mean, and I recognize now that it was her lack of fear, of apprehension, of assumption that whatever happened was inevitably going to lead to some worse state of affairs, that astonished and enriched me. She had not been like this when first I knew her, after Paul’s birth, but I see now that she had been tending in this direction. When she had seemed to be laughing at things her husband took very seriously, she had been laughing at the disproportion of his seriousness, and of course in Deptford it was very easy to understand such laughter as the uncomprehending gigglings of a fool.

It would be false to suggest that there was anything philosophical in her attitude. Rather, it was religious, and it was impossible to talk to her for long without being aware that she was wholly religious. I do not say “deeply religious” because that was what people said about her husband, and apparently they meant that he imposed religion as he understood it on everything he knew or encountered. But she, tied up in a rotten little house without a friend except me, seemed to live in a world of trust that had nothing of the stricken, lifeless, unreal quality of religion about it. She knew she was in disgrace with the world, but did not feel disgraced; she knew she was jeered at, but felt no humiliation. She lived by a light that arose from within; I could not comprehend it, except that it seemed to be somewhat akin to the splendours I found in books, though not in any way bookish. It was as though she were an exile from a world that saw things her way, and though she was sorry Deptford did not understand her she was not resentful. When you got past her shyness she had quite positive opinions, but the queerest thing about her was that she had no fear.

This was the best of Mary Dempster. Of the disorder and discomfort of that cottage I shall not speak, and though little Paul was loved and cherished by his mother he was in his appearance a pitifully neglected child. So perhaps she was crazy, in part, but it was only in part; the best side of her brought comfort and assurance into my life, which badly needed it. I got so that I did not notice the rope she wore (it was actually a harness that went around her waist and shoulders, with the horse-smelling hemp rope knotted to a ring on one side, so that she could lie down if she wanted to), or the raggedness of her clothes, or the occasional spells when she was not wholly rational. I regarded her as my greatest friend, and the secret league between us as the tap-root that fed my life.

Close as we grew, however, there was never any moment when I could have asked her about the tramp. I was trying to forget the spectacle, so horrible in my visions, of what I had seen when first I happened on them — those bare buttocks and four legs so strangely opposed. But I could never forget. It was my first encounter with a particular kind of reality, which my religion, my upbringing, and the callowly romantic cast of my mind had declared obscene. Therefore there was an aspect of Mary Dempster which was outside my ken; and, being young and unwilling to recognize that there was anything I did not, or could not know, I decided that this unknown aspect must be called madness.


The year that followed was a busy one for me, and, except for my visits to Mrs. Dempster, lonely. My school friends accused me of being a know-all, and with characteristic perversity I liked the description. By searching the dictionary I discovered that a know-all was called, among people who appreciated knowledge and culture, a polymath, and I set to work to become a polymath with the same enthusiasm that I had once laboured to be a conjurer. It was much easier work; I simply read the encyclopaedia in our village library. It was a Chambers’, the 1888 edition, and I was not such a fool as to think I could read it through; I read the articles that appealed to me, and when I found something particularly juicy I read everything around it that I could find. I beavered away at that encyclopaedia with a tenacity that I wish I possessed now, and if I did not become a complete polymath I certainly gained enough information to be a nuisance to everybody who knew me.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson