Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

As soon as the news of what the specialist had said got around we had a group of volunteers to assist with the immersions. These were bound to be troublesome, for we had no bathtub except a portable one, which could be put by the bed, and to which all the warm water had to be carried in pails. I have already said that our village had a kind heart, and practical help of this kind was what it understood best; six immersions a day were nothing, in the light of their desire to lend a hand. Even the new Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Donald Phelps (come to replace the Reverend Andrew Bowyer, retired in the spring of 1914), was a volunteer, comparative stranger though he was; more astonishing, Cece Athelstan was one of the group, and was cold sober every time he turned up. Getting Willie through this bad time became a public cause.

The baths certainly seemed to make Willie a little easier, though the swelling caused by the retention of urine grew worse. He had been in bed for more than two weeks when the Saturday of our Fall Fair came and brought special problems with it. My father had to attend; not only had he to write it up for the Banner, but as Chairman of our Continuation School Board he had to judge two or three contests. My mother was expected to attend, and wanted to attend, because the Ladies’ Aid of our church was offering a Fowl Supper, and she was a noted organizer and pusher of fancy victuals. The men who would give Willie his six-o’clock plunge bath would arrive in plenty of time, but who was to stay with him during the afternoon? I was happy to do so; I would go to the Fair after supper, because it always seemed particularly gay and romantic as darkness fell.

From two until three I sat in Willie’s room, reading, and between three and half-past I did what I could for Willie while he died. What I could do was little enough. He became restless and hot, so I put a cold towel on his head. He began to twist and moan, so I held his hands and said what I could think of that might encourage him. He ceased to hear me, and his twisting became jerking and convulsion. He cried out five or six times — not screaming, but spasmodic cries — and in a very few minutes became extremely cold. I wanted to call the doctor, but I dared not leave Willie. I put my ear to his heart: nothing. I tried to find his pulse: nothing. Certainly he was not breathing, for I hurried to fetch my mother’s hand mirror and hold it over his mouth: it did not cloud. I opened one eye: it was rolled upward in his head. It came upon me that he was dead.

It is very easy to say now what I should have done. I can only record what I did do. From the catastrophe of realizing that Willie was dead — it was the psychological equivalent of a house falling inward upon itself, and I can still recall the feeling — I passed quickly into strong revolt. Willie could not be dead. It must not be. I would not have it. And, without giving a thought to calling the doctor (whom I had never really liked, though it was the family custom to respect him), I set out on the run to fetch Mrs. Dempster.

Why? I don”t know why. It was not a matter of reason — not a decision at all. But I can remember running through the hot autumn afternoon, and I can remember hearing the faint music of the merry-go-round as I ran. Nothing was very far away in our village, and I was at the Dempsters’ cottage in not much more than three minutes. Locked. Of course. Paul’s father would have taken him to the Fair. I was through the living-room window, cutting Mrs. Dempster’s rope, telling her what I wanted and dragging her back through the window with me, in a muddle of action that I cannot clearly remember at all. I suppose we would have looked an odd pair, if there had been anyone to see us, running through the streets hand in hand, and I do remember that she hoisted up her skirts to run, which was a girlish thing no grown woman would ever have done if she had not caught the infection of my emotion.

What I do remember was getting back to Willie’s room, which was my parents’ room, given up to the sick boy because it was the most comfortable, and finding him just as I had left him, white and cold and stiff. Mrs. Dempster looked at him solemnly but not sadly, then she knelt by the bed and took his hands in hers and prayed. I had no way of knowing how long she prayed, but it was less than ten minutes. I could not pray and did not kneel. I gaped — and hoped.

After a while she raised her head and called him. “Willie,” she said in a low, infinitely kind, and indeed almost a cheerful tone. Again, “Willie.” I hoped till I ached. She shook his hands gently, as if rousing a sleeper. “Willie.”

Willie sighed and moved his legs a little. I fainted.

When I came round, Mrs. Dempster was sitting on Willie’s bed, talking quietly and cheerfully to him, and he was replying, weakly but eagerly. I dashed around, fetched a towel to bathe his face, the orange and albumen drink he was allowed in very small quantities, a fan to create a better current of air — everything there was that might help and give expression to my terrible joy. Quite soon Willie fell asleep, and Mrs. Dempster and I talked in whispers. She was deeply pleased but, as I now remember it, did not seem particularly surprised by what had happened. I know I babbled like a fool.

The passing of time that afternoon was all awry, for it did not seem long to me before the men came to get Willie’s six-o’clock plunge ready, so it must have been half-past five. They were astonished to find her there, but sometimes extraordinary situations impose their own tactful good manners, and nobody said anything to emphasize their first amazement. Willie insisted that she stand by him while he was being plunged, and she helped in the difficult business of drying him off, for he was tender all around his body. Therefore I suppose it must have been close to half-past six when my mother and father arrived home, and with them Amasa Dempster. I don’t know what sort of scene I expected; something on Biblical lines would have appeared appropriate to me. But instead Dempster took his wife’s arm in his, as I had seen him do it so often, and led her away. As she went she paused for an instant to blow a kiss to Willie. It was the first time I had ever seen anybody do such a thing, and I thought it a gesture of great beauty; to Willie’s everlasting credit, he blew a kiss back again, and I have never seen my mother’s face blacker than at that moment.

When the Dempsters were gone, and the men had been thanked, and offered food, which they refused (this was ritual, for only the night plungers, at two and six in the morning, thought it right to accept coffee and sandwiches), there was a scene downstairs which was as bad, though not as prolonged, as anything I later experienced in the war.

What did I mean by failing to send for Dr. McCausland and my parents at the first sign of danger? What under Heaven had possessed me to turn to that woman, who was an insane degenerate, and bring her, not only into our house but to the very bedside of a boy who was dangerously ill? Did all this cynical nonsense I had been talking, and the superior airs I had been assuming, mean that I too was going off my head? How did I come to be so thick with Mary Dempster in her present condition? If this was what all my reading led to, it was high time I was put to a job that would straighten the kinks out of me.

Most of this was my mother, and she performed variations on these themes until I was heartsick with hearing them. I know now that a lot of her anger arose from self-reproach because she had been absent, making a great figure of herself in the Ladies’ Aid, when duty should have kept her at Willie’s bedside. But she certainly took it out of me, and so, to a lesser degree, did my father, who felt himself bound to back her up but who plainly did not like it.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson