Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

This would have gone on until we all dropped with exhaustion, I suppose, if Dr. McCausland had not arrived; he had been in the country and had just returned. He brought his own sort of atmosphere, which was cold and chilly and smelled of disinfectant, and took a good look at Willie. Then he questioned me. He catechized me thoroughly about what symptoms Willie had shown, and how he had behaved before he died. Because I insisted that Willie had indeed died. No pulse; no breathing.

“But clenched hands?” said Dr. McCausland. Yes, said I, but did that mean that Willie could not have been dead? “Obviously he was not dead,” said the doctor; “if he had been dead I would not have been talking to him a few minutes ago. I think you may safely leave it to me to say when people are dead, Dunny,” he continued, with what I am sure he meant as a kindly smile. It had been a strong convulsion, he told my parents; the tight clenching of the hands was a part of it, and an unskilled person could not be expected to detect very faint breathing, or heartbeat either. He was all reason, all reasurance, and the next day he came early and did an operation on Willie called “tapping”; he dug a hollow needle into his side and drew off an astonishing quantity of bloody urine. In a week Willie was up and about; in four months he had somehow lied his way into the Canadian Army; in 1916 he was one of those who disappeared forever in the mud at St. Eloi.

I wonder if his hands were clenched after death? Later on I saw more men than I could count die, myself, and a surprising number of the corpses I stumbled over, or cleared out of the way, had clenched hands, though I never took the trouble to write to Dr. McCausland and tell him so.

For me, Willie’s recall from death is, and will always be, Mrs. Dempster’s second miracle.


The weeks following were painful and disillusioning. Among my friends I dropped from the position of polymath to that of a credulous ass who thought that a dangerous lunatic could raise the dead. I should explain that Mrs. Dempster was now thought to be dangerous, not because of any violence on her part, but because fearful people were frightened that if she were to wander away again some new sexual scandal would come of it; I think they really believed that she would corrupt some innocent youth or bewitch some faithful husband by the unreason of her lust. It was widely accepted that, even if she could not help it, she was in the grip of unappeasable and indiscriminate desire. Inevitably it came out that I had been visiting her on the sly, and there was a lot of dirty joking about that, but the best joke of all was that I thought she had brought my brother back to life.

The older people took the matter more seriously. Some thought that my known habit of reading a great deal had unseated my reason, and perhaps that dreaded disease “brain fever”, supposed to attack students, was not far off. One or two friends suggested to my father that immediate removal from school, and a year or two of hard work on a farm, might cure me. Dr. McCausland found a chance to have what he called “a word” with me, the gist of which was that I might become queer if I did not attempt to balance my theoretical knowledge with the kind of common sense that could be learned from — well, for instance, from himself. He hinted that I might become like Elbert Hubbard if I continued in my present course. Elbert Hubbard was a notoriously queer American who thought that work could be a pleasure.

Our new minister, the Reverend Donald Phelps, took me on and advised me that it was blasphemous to think that anyone — even someone of unimpeachable character — could restore the dead to life. The age of miracles was past, said he, and I got the impression that he was heartily glad of it. I liked him; he meant it kindly, which McCausland certainly did not.

My father talked to me several times in a way that gave me some insight into his own character, for though he was a man of unusual courage as an editor, he was a peace-at-any-pricer at home. I would do best, he thought, to keep my own counsel and not insist on things my mother could not tolerate.

I might even have done so — if she had been content to let the subject drop. But she was so anxious to root out of my mind any fragment of belief in what I had seen, and to exact from me promises that I would never see Mrs. Dempster again and furthermore would accept the village’s opinion of her, that she kept alluding to it darkly, or bringing it out for full discussion, usually at meals. It was clear that she now regarded a hint of tenderness toward Mrs. Dempster as disloyalty to herself, and as loyalty was the only kind of love she could bring herself to ask for, she was most passionate when she thought she was being most reasonable. I said very little during these scenes, and she quite rightly interpreted my silence as a refusal to change my mind.

She did not know how much I loved her, and how miserable it made me to defy her, but what was I to do? Deep inside myself I knew that to yield, and promise what she wanted, would be the end of anything that was any good in me; I was not her husband, who could keep his peace in the face of her furious rectitude; I was her son, with a full share of her own Highland temper and granite determination.

One day, after a particularly wretched supper, she concluded by demanding that I make a choice between her and “that woman”. I made a third choice. I had enough money for a railway ticket, and the next day I skipped school, went to the county town, and enlisted.

This changed matters considerably. I was nearly two years under age, but I was tall and strong and a good liar, and I had no difficulty in being accepted. She wanted to go to the authorities and get me out, but my father put his foot down there. He said he would not permit me to be disgraced by having my mother drag me out of the Army. So now she was torn between a fear that I would certainly be shot dead the day after I began training, and a conviction that there was something even darker between Mrs. Dempster and me than she had permitted herself to think.

As for my father, he was disgusted with me. He had a poor opinion of soldiers and as he had run some risks by being pro-Boer in 1901 he had serious doubts about the justice of any war. Feeling about the war in our village was romantic, because it touched us so little, but my father and Mr. Mahaffey were better aware of what went into the making of that war and could not share the popular feeling. He urged me to reveal my true age and withdraw, but I was pig-headed and spread the news of what I had done as fast as I could.

What my elders thought I did not know or care, but I regained some of the position I had lost among my contemporaries. I loafed at school, as became a man waiting his call to more serious things. My friends seemed to think I might disappear at any hour, and whenever I met Milo Papple, which was at least once a day, he would seize my hand and declaim passionately;

Say cuspidor,

But not spittoon —

which was the barbershop version of a song of the day that began:

Say au revoir,

But not good-bye.

Girls took a new view of me, and to my delighted surprise Leola Cruikshank made it clear that she was mine on loan, so to speak. She still pined for Percy Boyd Staunton, but he was away at school and was a bad and irregular letter-writer, so Leola thought that a modest romance with a hero in embryo could do no harm — might even be a patriotic duty.

She was a delightful girl, pretty, full of sentimental nonsense, and clean about her person — she always smelled of fresh ironing. I saw a great deal of her, persuaded her that a few kisses did not really mean disloyalty to Percy, and paraded her up and down our main street on Saturday nights, wearing my best suit.

I had kept away from Mrs. Dempster, partly from obedience and fear and partly because I could not bear to face her when so many hateful opinions about her were ringing in my ears. I knew, however, that I could not go off to war without saying good-bye, and one afternoon, with great stealth, I reached her cottage and climbed through the window for the last time. She spoke to me as if I had visited her as often as usual, and did not seem greatly surprised by the news that I had joined the Army. We had talked a great deal about the war when it first broke out, and she had laughed heartily at the news that two Deptford women who liked to dabble in spiritualism went several times a week to the cemetery to read the latest news from France to their dead mother, sitting on her grave, picnic-style. When I had to leave she kissed me on both cheeks — a thing she had never done before — and said, “There’s just one thing to remember; whatever happens, it does no good to be afraid.” So I promised not to be afraid, and may even have been fool enough to think I could keep my promise.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66

Categories: Davies, Robertson