Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

his manly grin from side to side, for we were in the middle of a crowd and everybody could hear. There was a happy murmur, and a few people clapped.

I counted three, just to make sure that there was the right sort of pause, then I shook his hand again and roared, “Well, well, the best man has won!” — and kissed Leola again, not so long or so proprietorially, but to show that there had been a contest and that I had been a near winner myself, and had shown some speed in the preliminary heats.

It was a good moment and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Percy was wearing a few medals, the admirable D.S.O. but otherwise minor things, mostly for having been at particular engagements. I have already said that I am not much of an actor, but I gave a powerful, if crude impersonation of the hero who is tremendous on the field of Mars but slighted in the courts of Venus. I am sure that there are people in Deptford to this day who remember it.

I suppose it was mean. But Percy, in his officer’s smart uniform, got under my skin just as he had always done, and as for Leola, I didn’t particularly want her but resented anybody else having her. I promised that this would be a frank record, so far as I can write one, and God forbid that I should pretend that there is not a generous measure of spite in my nature.

This encounter put us in one of those uneasy situations that are forced on people by fate, for to the crowd — and at that moment Deptford was the whole world — we were the masterspirits of the evening: two men, one of whom was a hero without a left leg and the other a handsome and rich young fellow, only somewhat less a hero, who had aspired to the hand of the prettiest girl in the village, and the winner had been acclaimed; we were a splendidly sentimental story made flesh, and it would have been maladroit in the extreme — a real flying in the face of Providence — if we had not stayed together so people could marvel at us and wonder about us. That was why we went to the bonfire as a threesome.

The bonfire was arranged to take place outside the combination village hall, public library, courthouse, and fire hall; it was to be a gay conclusion, an antimasque, to the high proceedings in the Opera House. There we had been solemn, acclaiming the heroic young and listening to the wise old: here the crowd was lively and expectant; children dodged to and fro, and there was a lot of laughter about nothing in particular. But not for long. In the distance we heard a great beating on pots and pans and blowing of tin horns, and down our main street came a procession, lit by the flame of brooms dipped in oil — a ruddy, smoky light — accompanying Marshal Foch, the two John Bulls, Uncle Sam, Gallant Little Belgium, the whole gang, dragging at a rope’s end Deptford’s own conception of the German Emperor, fat Myron Papple, whose writhings and caperings outdid his afternoon efforts as the death aria of an opera tenor outdoes his wooing in Act One.

“Hang him!” we heard the representatives of the Allies shouting as they drew near, and the crowd around the village hall took it up. “Hang him!” they yelled. “Hang the Kaiser!”

Hang him they did. A rope was ready on the flagpole, and during some scrambling preparations a sharp eye would have seen Myron slip away into the darkness as an effigy was tied to the rope by the neck and hauled slowly up the pole. As it rose, one of the Red Cross nurses set fire to it with a broom torch, and by the time it reached the top the figure was burning merrily.

Then the cheers were loud, and the children hopped and scampered round the foot of the flagpole, shouting, “Hang the Kaiser!” with growing hysteria; some of them were much too small to know what hanging was, or what a Kaiser might be, but I cannot call them innocent, for they were being as vicious as their age and experience allowed. And the people in the crowd, as I looked at them, were hardly recognizable as the earnest citizens who, not half an hour ago, had been so biddable under the spell of patriotic oratory, so responsive to Canadian Born, so touched by the romantic triangle of Leola, and Percy, and myself. Here they were, in this murky, fiery light, happily acquiescent in a symbolic act of cruelty and hatred. As the only person there, I suppose, who had any idea of what a really bad burn was like, I watched them with dismay that mounted towards horror, for these were my own people.

Leola’s face looked very pretty as she turned it upward towards the fire, and Percy was laughing and looking about him for admiration as he shouted in his strong, manly voice, “Hang the Kaiser!”

Myron Papple, an artist to his fingertips, had climbed into the tower of the village hall, so that his screams and entreaties might proceed as near as possible from the height of the burning figure. I could hear him long after I had crept away to my bed in the Tecumseh House. I had not wanted to stay till the end.


The next day was a Saturday, and I had plenty to do. Though still an object of wonder, I was now free to move about as I pleased, and my first move was to get the keys of my old home from the magistrate and make a melancholy tour through its six rooms. Everything was where I knew it should be, but all the objects looked small and dull — my mother’s clock, my father’s desk, with the stone on it he had brought from Dumfries and always used as a paperweight; it was now an unloved house, and want of love had withered it. I picked up a few things I wanted — particularly something that I had long kept hidden — and got out as fast as I could.

Then I went to see Ada Blake, the girl Willie had been sweet on, and had a talk with her; Ada was a fine girl, and I liked her very much, but of course the Willie she remembered was not the brother I knew. I judge they had been lovers, briefly, and that was what Willie meant to her: to me his chief significance now was that he had died twice, and that the first time Mrs. Dempster had brought him back to life. I certainly had no intention of visiting Dr. McCausland, to see if he had changed his opinion on that subject, though I did chat with two or three of our village elders before getting my midday dinner at the hotel.

As soon as I had gobbled my greasy stew and apple pie I crossed the street to get a haircut at Papple’s. I had already observed that Milo was on the job alone; his father was presumably at home, resting up after his patriotic exertions of the day before, and it was a chance to catch up on the village news. Milo gave me a hero’s welcome and settled me in one of the two chairs, under a striped sheet that smelled, in equal portions, of barber’s perfumes and the essence of Deptford manhood.

“Jeez, Dunny, this is the first time I ever give you a haircut — you know that? Trimmed your Pa a coupla times after you went to the Front, but never you. Comes of being the same age, I guess, eh? But now I’m taking over more and more from the old man. His heart’s not so good now; he says it’s breathing up little bits of hair all his life; he says it forms a kind of a hairball in barbers, and a lot of ’em go that way. I don’t believe it; unscientific. He never got past third grade — you know that? But jeez, he certainly had ’em laughing yesterday, eh? And last night! But it told on him. Says he can feel the hairball today, just like it was one of his organs.

“You got a double crown. Did you know that? Makes it hard to give you a good cut. What you going to do with the old place? Live there, eh? Nice place to settle down if you was to get married. Your folks always kept it nice. Cece Athelstan always used to say, “The Ramsays sure are buggers for paint.” But I guess you won’t be marrying Leola, eh? Mind you, for them that had eyes to see, there was never an instant’s doubt she was Percy’s girl — never an instant’s. Oh, I know you and her had some pretty close moments before you went to the war; everybody seen that and they kinda laughed. I had to laugh myself. It was just what we called war-fever — you in uniform, you see. But you got to admit she played fair. Wrote to you right up to the end. Jerry Williams used to tell us the letters come through the Post Office every second Monday like clockwork. Because she wrote you every second Sunday, you know that? But when Percy finished up at that school in Toronto in the summer of ‘seventeen, he didn’t hesitate for a minute — not for a minute. Into training right away, and went over as an officer, and come back a major. And a D.S.O. But you’re the V.C., eh, boy? I guess you had a stroke of luck. I never got enlisted: flat feet. But you and Perse had the luck, I guess. He used to come down here as often as he could, and it was easy seen where Leola had give her heart. That’s what her old lady used to say. ‘Leola’s give her heart,’ she’d say. Ben Cruikshank wasn’t strong on Perse to begin with, but the old lady shut him up. He’s pleased now, all right. See him last night? Of course he thinks the sun rises and sets in Leola. It’s hard for a father, I guess. But you were the main attraction last night, eh? Yep, you were the Kandy Kid with Gum Feet and Taffy Legs. One Taffy Leg, anyhow. But not with Leola. She’s give her heart.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson