Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Muriel Parkinson sang about the Rose that Blows in No-Man’s Land, and when she shrieked (for her voice was powerful rather than sweet) that “midst the war’s great curse stood the Red Cross Nurse,” many people mopped their eyes. She then sang a song about Joan of Arc, which was a popular war number of the day, and thus a delicate compliment was paid to France, our great ally. Muriel was followed by a female child, unknown to me, who recited Pauline Johnson’s poem Canadian Born, wearing Indian dress; it was at this point that I became aware that one of our Brave Boys, namely George Muskrat the Indian sniper, who had picked off Germans just as he used to pick off squirrels, was not present. George was not a very respectable fellow (he drank vanilla extract, which was mostly alcohol, to excess, and shouted in the streets when on a toot), and he had not been given any medals.

The female child reciter had an encore and was well into it before the applause for her first piece had quite subsided. Then, for no perceptible reason, another girl played two pieces on the piano, not very well; one was called Chanson des Fleurs and the other La Jeunesse, so perhaps they were further compliments to the French. Then a fellow with a local reputation as a wit, named Murray Tiffin, “entertained”; he was often asked to “entertain” at church evenings, but this was his greatest opportunity so far, and he toiled like a cart horse to divert us with riddles, jokes, and imitations, all of some local application.

“What’s the bravest thing a man can do?” he demanded. “Is it go right out to Africa and shoot a lion? No! That’s not the bravest thing a man can do! Is it capture a German machine-gun nest single-handed?” (Great applause, during which I, the worst actor in the world, tried to feign a combination of modesty and mirth.) “No! The bravest thing a man can do is go to the Deptford Post Office at one minute past six on a Saturday night and ask Jerry Williams for a one-cent stamp!” (Uncontrollable mirth, and much nudging and waving at the postmaster, who tried to look like a man who dearly loved a joke against his cranky self.)

Then Murray got off several other good ones, about how much cheaper it was to buy groceries in Bowles Corners than it was even to steal them from the merchants of Deptford, and similar local wit of the sort that age cannot wither nor custom stale; I warmed to Murray, for although his jokes were clean they had much of the quality that had assured my own rest-camp success as Charlie Chaplin.

When Murray had offended individually at least half the people present and delighted us all collectively, the reeve rose and began, “But to strike a more serious note –” and went on to strike that note for at least ten minutes. We were gathered, he said, to honour those of our community who had risked their lives in defence of liberty. When he had finished, the Methodist parson told us, at some length, how meritorious it was to risk one’s life in defence of liberty. Then Father Regan solemnly read out the eleven names of the men from our little part of the world who had been killed in service; Willie’s was among them, and I think it was in that moment that I really understood that I would never see Willie again. The Reverend Donald Phelps prayed that we might never forget them, at some length; if God had not been attending to the war, He knew a good deal more about it, from our point of view, by the time Phelps had finished. The Member of the Legislature told us he would not detain us long and talked for forty minutes about the future and what we were going to do with it, building on the sacrifices of the past four years, particularly in the matter of improving the provincial road system. Then the Member of Parliament was let loose upon us, and he talked for three minutes more than one hour, combining patriotism with a good partisan political speech, hinting pretty strongly that although Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Wilson were unquestionably good men. Sir Robert Borden had really pushed the war to a successful conclusion.

It was by now ten o’clock and even the thirst of a Canadian audience for oratory was almost slaked. Only the great moments that were to follow could have held them. But here it was that the reeve took his second bite at us; in order that Deptford might never forget those who had fought and returned, he said, and in order that our heroes should never lose sight of Deptford’s gratitude, every one of us was to receive an engraved watch. Nor was this all. These were no ordinary watches but railway watches, warranted to tell time accurately under the most trying conditions, and probably for all eternity. We understood the merit of these watches because, as we all knew, his son Jack was a railwayman, a brakeman on the Grand Trunk, and Jack swore that these were the best watches to be had anywhere. Whereupon the watches were presented, three by the reeve himself and three by the Member of the Legislature.

As his name and glory were proclaimed, each man in the front row climbed up the steps that led to a pass-door at the side of the stage, squeezed through the green scenery, and made his way to the centre of the platform, while his relatives and townsmen cheered, stamped, and whistled. Percy Boyd Staunton was the sixth, the only officer in the group and the only man who accepted his watch with an air; he had put on his cap before coming to the stage, and he saluted the Member of the Legislature smartly, then turned and saluted the audience; it was a fine effect, and as I grinned and clapped, my stomach burned with jealousy.

I should have been generous, for I was number seven, a V.C., the only man to be given a seat on the stage, and the only man to receive his watch from the hands of our Member of Parliament. He made a speech. “Sergeant Dunstable Ramsay,” said he, “I acclaim you as a hero tonight –” and went on for quite a while, though I could not judge how long, because I stood before him feeling a fool and a fake as I had not done when I stood before my King. But at last he handed me the railway watch, and as I had left my hat outside I could not salute, so I had to bob my head, and then bob it at the audience, who cheered and stamped, rather longer than they had done for Percy. I believe. But my feelings were so confused that I could not enjoy it; I heartily wished to get away.

We concluded by singing God Save the King again in a classy version in which Muriel Parkinson was supposed to sing some parts alone and the rest of us to join in when she gave a signal; but there were a few people who droned along with her all the way, somewhat spoiling the effect. But when it was done we were free. Nobody seemed inclined to hurry away, and when I had made my way through the green scenery and down the steps by the pass-door I was surrounded by old friends and acquaintances who wanted to talk and shake my hand. I hurried through them as quickly as I could without being rude or overlooking anyone, but I had a little task to perform — a notion I had thought of during the long hour of the Member’s speech, and I wanted to be sure I had a good audience. At last I reached Percy and Leola; I seized his hand and shook it vigorously, and then seized Leola in a bear-hug and kissed her resoundingly and at what Deptford would certainly have regarded as a very familiar length.

Leola had always been the kind of girl who closed her eyes when you kissed her, but I kept mine well open and I could see that her eyeballs were rolling wildly beneath her lids; Diana had taught me a thing or two about kisses, and I gave her a pretty good example of that art.

“Darling,” I shouted, not letting her go, “you don’t know how good it is to see you!”

Percy was grinning nervously. Public kissing was not so common then as it is now, and certainly not in our village. “Dunny, Leola and I have a secret to tell you — not that it will be secret long, of course — but we want you to be the first to hear — outside our families, of course — but we’re engaged.” And he sprayed

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Categories: Davies, Robertson