Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Christmas Day was even better than I had foreseen. I am sure Diana’s parents knew what was in the wind and were game enough not to stand in the way if we had really wanted to marry. But they were much relieved that we had decided against it. How they knew I cannot say, but parents are often less stupid than their children suppose, and I suspect the Honourable smelled it in the morning air. After all, what satisfaction would it have been to them to have their daughter marry a man in my physical state, of very different background, and four years younger than herself, in order to go off to seek a fortune in a country of which they knew nothing? So they were happy, and I was happy, and I suspect that Diana was a good deal happier than she would ever have admitted.

She had fallen in love with me because she felt she had made whatever I was out of a smashed-up and insensible hospital case; but I don’t think it was long before she was just as sure as I that our marriage would never have worked. So I lost a possible wife and gained three very good friends that Christmas.


Getting back to Canada took some time because of the complication of Army necessities and my supposedly fragile state, but early in the following May I got off the train at Deptford, was greeted by the reeve, Orville Cave, and ceremonially driven around the village as the chief spectacle in a procession.

This grandeur had been carefully planned beforehand, by letter, but it was nonetheless astonishing for that. I had little idea of what four years of war had done in creating a new atmosphere in Deptford, for it had shown little interest in world affairs in my schooldays. But here was our village shoe-repair man, Moses Langirand, in what was meant to be a French uniform, personating Marshal Foch; he had secured this position on the best possible grounds, being the only French-speaking Canadian for miles around, and having an immense grey moustache. Here was a tall youth I did not know, in an outfit that approximated that of Uncle Sam. There were two John Bulls, owing to some misunderstanding that could not be resolved without hurt feelings. There were Red Cross nurses in plenty — six or seven of them. A girl celebrated in my day for having big feet, named Katie Orchard, was swathed in bunting and had a bandage over one eye; she was Gallant Little Belgium. These, and other people dressed in patriotic but vague outfits, formed a procession highly allegorical in its nature, which advanced down our main street, led by a band of seven brass instruments and a thunderous drum. I rode after them in an open Gray-Dort with the reeve, and following us was what was then called a Calithumpian parade, of gaily dressed children tormenting and insulting Myron Papple, who was identifiable as the German Emperor by his immense, upturned false moustache. Myron hopped about and feigned madness and deprivation very amusingly, but with such vigour that we wondered how a fat man could keep it up for long. As ours was a small village we toured through all the streets, and went up and down the main street no less than three times. Even at that we had done our uttermost by 2:45, and I had clumped down off the train at 1:30. It was the strangest procession I had ever seen, but it was in my honour and I will not laugh at it. It was Deptford’s version of a Roman Triumph, and I tried to be worthy of it, looked solemn, saluted every flag I saw that was 2-by-8 inches or over, and gave special heed to elderly citizens.

The procession completed, I was hidden in the Tecumseh House until 5:30, when I was to have a state supper at the reeve’s house. When I write “hidden” I mean it literally. My fellow townsmen felt that it would be unseemly for me to stroll about the streets, like an ordinary human being, before my apotheosis that night, so I was put in the best bedroom in our hotel, upon the door of which a Canadian Red Ensign had been tacked, and the barman, Joe Gallagher, was given strict orders to keep everyone away from me. So there I sat by my window, looking across a livery-stable yard toward St. James’ Presbyterian Church, occasionally reading War and Peace (for I was now well embarked on the big, meaty novels I had longed for at the Front), but mostly too excited to do anything but marvel at myself and wonder when I would be free to do as I pleased.

Freedom was certainly not to be mine that day. At six I supped ceremonially at the reeve’s; there were so many guests that we ate on the lawn from trestle tables, consuming cold chicken and ham, potato salad and pickles in bewildering variety, and quantities of ice cream, pie, and cake. We then set the whole banquet well awash inside ourselves with hot, strong coffee. Our progress to the Athelstan Opera House was stately, as befitted the grandees of the occasion, and we arrived ten minutes before the scheduled proceedings at 7:30.

If you are surprised that so small a place should have an Opera House, I should explain that it was our principal hall of assembly, upstairs in the Athelstan Block, which was the chief business premises of our village, and built of brick instead of the more usual wood. It was a theatre, right enough, with a stage that had a surprising roller curtain, on which was handsomely painted a sort of composite view, or evocation, of all that was most romantic in Europe; it is many years since I saw it, but I clearly remember a castle on the shores of a lagoon, where gondolas appeared amid larger shipping, which seemed to be plying in and out of Naples, accommodated at the foot of snowtopped Alps. The floor of the Opera House was flat, as being more convenient for dancing, but this was compensated for by the fact that the stage sloped forward toward the footlights, at an angle which made sitting on chairs a tricky and even perilous feat. I do not know how many people it seated, but it was full on this occasion, and people stood or sat in the aisles on extra chairs, borrowed from an undertaker.

The reeve and I and the other notables climbed a back stairs and pushed our way through the scenery to the chairs that had been set for us on the stage. Beyond the curtain we heard the hum of the crowd above the orchestra of piano, violin, and trombone. A little after the appointed time — to allow for latecomers, said the reeve, but no latecomer could have squeezed in — the curtain rose (swaying menacingly inward toward us as it did so), and we were revealed, set off against a set of scenery that portrayed a dense and poisonously green forest. Our chairs were arranged in straight rows behind a table supporting two jugs of water and fully a dozen glasses, to succour the speakers in their thirst. We were a fine group: three clergymen, the magistrate, the Member of Parliament and the Member of the Legislature, the Chairman of the Continuation School Board, and seven members of the township council sat on the stage, as well as the reeve and myself. I expect we looked rather like a minstrel show. I was the only man in uniform on the stage itself, but in the front row were six others, and on the right-hand end of this group sat Percy Boyd Staunton, in a major’s uniform, and at his side was Leola Cruikshank.

On the fourth finger of Leola’s left hand was a large diamond ring. Diana had taught me something of these refinements and I got the message at once, as that ring flashed its signals to me during the applause that greeted our appearance. Was I stricken to the heart? Did I blench and feel that all my glory was as dross? No; I was rather pleased. There was one of my homecoming problems solved already, I reflected. Nevertheless I was a little put out and thought that Leola was a sneak not to have informed me of this development in one of her letters.

The purpose of the gathering was plainly signalled by the Union Jack that swathed the speaker’s table and a painted streamer that hung above our heads in the toxic forest. “Welcome To Our Brave Boys Back From The Front,” it shouted, in red and blue letters on a white ground. We stood solemnly at attention while the piano, violin, and trombone worked their way through God Save the King, O Canada, and, for good measure, The Maple Leaf Forever. But we did not then rush greedily upon the noblest splendours of the evening. We began with a patriotic concert, to hone our fervour to a finer edge.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson