Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

During my long summer vacations I worked at undemanding jobs — timekeeper on roadwork and the like — which enabled me to do a lot of reading and keep body and soul together without touching my education money, which was the way I looked on my capital.

I took very kindly to history. I chose it as my special study because during my fighting days I had become conscious that I was being used by powers over which I had no control for purposes of which I had no understanding. History, I hoped, would teach me how the world’s affairs worked. It never really did so, but I became interested in it for its own sake, and at last found a branch of it that gripped whatever intelligence I had, and never relaxed its hold. At Varsity I never fell below fifth in my year in anything, and graduated first; my M.A. won me some compliments, though I thought my thesis dull. I gobbled up all the incidentals that were required to give a “rounded” education; even zoology (an introductory course) agreed with me, and I achieved something like proficiency in French. German I learned later, in a hurry, for some special work, and with a Berlitz teacher. I was also one of the handful of really interested students in Religious Knowledge, though it was not much of a course, relying too heavily on St. Paul’s journeys for my taste, and avoiding any discussion of what St. Paul was really journeying in aid of. But it was a pleasure to be inside and warm, instead of wallowing in mud, and I worked, I suppose rather hard, though I was not conscious of it at the time. I made no close friends and never sought popularity or office in any of the student committees, but I got on pretty well with everybody. A dull fellow, I suppose; youth was not my time to flower.

Percy Boyd Staunton, however, flowered brilliantly, and I met him fairly often; brilliant young men seem to need a dull listener, just as pretty girls need a plain friend, to set them off. Like me, he had a new name. I had enrolled in the university as Dunstan Ramsay; Percy, somewhere in his Army experience, had thrown aside that name (which had become rather a joke, like Algernon) and had lopped the “d” off the name that remained. He was now Boy Staunton, and it suited him admirably. Just as Childe Rowland and Childe Harold were so called because they epitomized romance and gentle birth, he was Boy Staunton because he summed up in himself so much of the glory of youth in the postwar period. He gleamed, he glowed; his hair was glossier, his teeth whiter than those of common young men. He laughed a great deal, and his voice was musical. He danced often and spectacularly; he always knew the latest steps, and in those days there were new steps every month. Where his looks and style came from I never knew; certainly not from cantankerous old Doc Staunton, with his walrus moustache and sagging paunch, or from his mother, who was a charmless woman. Boy seemed to have made himself out of nothing, and he was a marvel.

He was a perfectionist, however, and not content. I remember him telling me during his first year as a law student that a girl had told him he reminded her of Richard Barthelmess, the screen star; he would rather have reminded her of John Barrymore, and he was displeased. I was quite a movie-goer myself and foolishly said I thought he was more like Wallace Reid in The Dancin’ Fool, and was surprised by his indignation, for Reid was a handsome man. It was not until later that I discovered that he coveted a suggestion of aristocracy in his appearance and bearing, and Reid lacked it. He was at that time still casting around for an ideal upon whom he could model himself. It was not until his second year in law that he found it.

This ideal, this mould for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth, but he had also the common touch; he spoke with what horrified old ladies thought a common accent, but he could charm a bird from a branch; he danced and was reputed to be a devil with the girls; he was said to quarrel with his father (my King, the man with the Navy torpedo beard) about matters of dress; he was photographed smoking a pipe with a distinctive apple-shaped bowl. He had romance and mystery, for over his puzzled brow hung the shadow of the Crown; how would such a dashing youth ever settle himself to the duties of kingship? He was gloated over by old women who wondered what princess he would marry, and gloated over by young women because he thought more of looks and charm than of royal blood. There were rumours of high old times with jolly girls when he had visited Canada in 1919. Flaming Youth, and yet, withal, a Prince, remote and fated for great things. Just the very model for Boy Staunton, who saw himself in similar terms.

In those days you could not become a lawyer by going to the university — not in our part of Canada. You must go to Osgoode Hall, where the Law Society of Upper Canada would steer you through until at last you were called to the Bar. This worried Boy, but not very much. The university, he admitted to me — I had not asked for any such admission — put a stamp on a man; but if you got that stamp first and studied law later, you would be old, a positive greybeard, before getting into the full tide of life. So far as I could see, the full tide of life had a lot to do with sugar.

Sugar was what old Doc Staunton was chiefly interested in. He had grabbed up a lot of land in the Deptford district and put it all into sugar-beets. The black, deep alluvial soil of the river flats around Deptford was good for anything, and wonderful for beets. Doc was not yet a Sugar-Beet King, but he was well on his way to it — a sort of Sticky Duke. Boy, who had more vision than his father, managed to get the old man to buy into the secondary process, the refining of the sugar from the beets, and this was proving profitable in such a surprising degree that Doc Staunton was rich in a sense far beyond Deptford’s comprehension; so rich, indeed, that they forgot that he had skipped town when the flu epidemic struck. As for the present, a very rich man has something better to do than listen to old women’s coughs and patch up farmers who have fallen into the chaff-cutter. Doc Staunton never formally dropped practice, and accepted the sanctity that came with wealth in the way he had accepted his prestige as a doctor — with a sour face and a combination of pomposity and grievance that was all his own. He did not move away from Deptford. He did not know of anywhere else to go, I suppose, and the life of a village Rich Man — far outstripping the Athelstans — suited him very well.

The Athelstans did not like it, and Cece got off a “good one” that the village cherished for years. “If Jesus died to redeem Doc Staunton,” he said, “He made a damn poor job of it.”

So Boy Staunton knew that he too had a crown awaiting him. He did not mean to practise law, but it was a good training for business and, eventually, politics. He was going to be a very rich man — richer than his father by far — and he was getting ready.

He, like his ideal, was not on the best of terms with his father. Doc Staunton gave Boy what he regarded as a good allowance; it was not bad, but it was not ample either, and Boy needed more. So he made some shrewd short-term investments in the stock market and was thus able to live at a rate that puzzled and annoyed the old man, who waited angrily for him to get into debt. But Boy did not get into debt. Debt was for boobs, he said, and he flaunted such toys as gold cigarette cases and hand-made shoes under the old man’s nose, without explaining anything.

Where Boy lived high, I lived — well, not low, but in the way congenial to myself. I thought twenty-four dollars was plenty for a ready-made suit, and four dollars a criminal price for a pair of shoes. I changed my shirt twice a week and my underwear once. I had not yet developed any expensive tastes and saw nothing wrong with a good boarding-house; it was years before I decided that there is really no such thing as a good boarding-house. Once, temporarily envious of Boy, I bought a silk shirt and paid nine dollars for it. It burned me like the shirt of Nessus, but I wore it to rags, to get my money out of it, garment of guilty luxury that it was.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson