Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

One of Leola’s letters came just before Christmas, which I had leave to spend with Diana’s family. The Canon had celebrated the Armistice by abandoning the no-alcohol vow and it looked like being a jolly occasion. I had learned to drink neat in in the Army and was ready for anything. But, on Christmas Eve, Diana contrived a private talk between us and asked me straight out who the girl was who wrote to me from Canada and was I involved with her. Involved was her word. I had been dreading this question but had no answer ready, and I wavered and floundered and became aware that Leola’s name had an uncouth sound when spoken in such circumstances, and hated myself for thinking so. My whole trouble, jackass that I was, sprang from the fact that I tried to be decently loyal to Leola without

hurting Diana, and the more I talked the worse mess I made of things. In no time Diana was crying, and I was doing my best to comfort her. But I managed to keep uppermost in my mind the determination I had formed not to get engaged to her, and this led me into verbal acrobatics that quickly brought on a blazing row.

Canadian soldiers had an ambiguous reputation in England at that time; we were supposed to be loyal, furious, hairy fellows who spat bullets at the enemy but ate women raw. Diana accused me of being one of these ogres, who had led her on to reveal feelings I did not reciprocate. Like a fool, I said I thought she was old enough to know what she thought. Aha, she said, that was it, was it? Because she was older than I, she was a tough old rounder who could look out for herself, was she? Not a bit tough, I countered, frank with a flat-footedness that now makes me blush, but after all she had been engaged, hadn’t she? There it was again, she countered; I thought she was damaged goods; I was throwing it in her face that she had given herself to a man who had died a hero’s death in the very first weeks of the war. I looked on her simply as an amusement, a pastime; she had loved me in my weakness, without knowing how essentially coarse-fibred I was. And much more to the same effect.

Of course this gave way in time to much gentler exchanges, and we savoured the sweet pleasures of making up after a fight, but it was not long before Diana wanted to know, just as someone who wished me well, how far I was committed to Leola. I didn’t dare tell her that I wanted to know precisely the same thing; I was too young to be truthful about such a matter. Well then, she continued, was I in love with Leola? I was able to say with a good conscience that I was not. Then I was in love with herself after all, said Diana, making one of those feminine leaps in logic that leave men breathless. I made a long speech about never knowing what people meant when they said they were in love with someone. I loved Diana, I said; I really did. But as for “being in love” — I babbled a good deal of nonsense that I cannot

now recall and would not put down if I did.

Diana changed her tactics. I was too intellectual, she said, and analyzed matters on which feeling was the only true guide. If I loved her, she asked no more. What did the future hold for us?

I do not want to make Diana seem crafty in my record of this conversation, but I must say that she had a great gift for getting her own way. She had strong ideas on what the future held for us, and I had none, and I am certain she knew it. Therefore she was putting forward this question not to hear from me but to inform me. But I had my little store of craft too. I said that the war had been such a shake-up for me that I had no clear ideas about the future, and certainly had not considered asking her to marry anybody as badly crippled as I.

This proved to be a terrible mistake. Diana was so vehement about what a decent woman felt for a man who had been wounded and handicapped in the war — not to speak of a man who had been given the highest award for bravery — that I nearly lost my head and begged her to be my wife. I cannot look back on my young self in this situation without considerable shame and disgust. So far I had been able to reject this girl’s love. but I was nearly captured by her flattery. Not that she meant it insincerely; there was nothing insincere about Diana. But she had been raised on a mental diet of heroism. Empire, decency, and the emotional superiority of womanhood, and she could talk about these things without a blush, as parsons talk about God. And I was only twenty.

What a night that was! We talked till three o’clock, complicating our situation with endless scruple, as young people are apt to do, and trying not to hurt each other’s feelings, despite the fact that Diana wanted to get engaged to me and I was fighting desperately to prevent any such thing. But I have said before, and I repeat, Diana was really an exceptional girl, and when she saw she was not going to get her way she gave in with grace.

“All right,” she said, sitting up on the sofa and tidying her hair (for we had been very much entangled during parts of our argument, and my latest artificial leg had been giving some ominous croaks); “if we aren’t going to be married, that’s that. But what are you going to do, Dunny? Surely you aren’t going to marry that girl with a name like a hair tonic and go on editing your father’s potty little paper, are you? There’s more to you than that.”

I agreed that I was sure there was more to me than that, but I didn’t know what it was and I needed time to find out. Furthermore, I knew that the finding out must be done alone. I did not tell Diana that there was the whole question of the little Madonna to be gone into, because I knew that with her conventional Christian background and her generous sentimentality she would begin then and there to explain it for me, and every scrap of intuition I possessed told me that her explanation would be the wrong one. But I did tell her that I was strongly conscious that my lack of formal education was the greatest handicap I had and that I felt that somehow I must get to a university; if I went back to Canada and explored all the possibilities I could probably manage it. It is not easy to put down what one says to a girl in such circumstances, but I managed to make it clear that what I most wanted was time to grow up. The war had not matured me; I was like a piece of meat that is burned on one side and raw on the other, and it was on the raw side I needed to work. I thanked her, as well as I could, for what she had done for me.

“Let me do one thing more for you,” she said. “Let me rename you. How on earth did you ever get yourself called Dunstable?”

“My mother’s maiden name,” said I. “Lots of people in Canada get landed with their mother’s maiden name as a Christian name. But what”s wrong with it?”

“It’s hard to say, for one thing,” said she, “and it sounds like a cart rumbling over cobblestones for another. You’ll never get anywhere in the world named Dumbledum Ramsay. Why don’t you change it to Dunstan? St. Dunstan was a marvellous person and very much like you — mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and an absolute wizard at withstanding temptation. Do you know that the Devil once came to tempt him in the form of a fascinating woman, and he caught her nose in his goldsmith’s tongs and gave it a terrible twist?”

I took her nose between my fingers and gave it a twist. This was very nearly the undoing of all that I had gained, but after a while we were talking again. I liked the idea of a new name; it suggested new freedom and a new personality. So Diana got some of her father’s port and poured it on my head and renamed me. She was an Anglican, of course, and her light-minded attitude toward some sacred things still astonished the deep Presbyterian in me; but I had not waded through the mud-and-blood soup of Passchendaele to worry about foolish things; blasphemy in a good cause (which usually means one’s own cause) is not hard to stomach. When at last we went to bed two splendid things had happened: Diana and I were friends instead of lovers, and I had an excellent new name.

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