Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies


The kind of life I wanted to live — yes, but I was not at all sure what it was. I had flashes of insight and promptings, but nothing definite. So when I was finished at the university, duly ticketed as an M.A. in history, I still wanted time to find my way, and like many a man in my case I took to schoolmastering.

Was it a dead end? Did I thereby join the ranks of those university men of promise whose promise is never fulfilled? You can answer that question as readily as I, Headmaster, and certainly the answer must be no. I took to teaching like a duck to water, and like a duck I never paid exaggerated attention to the medium in which I moved. I applied for a job at Colborne College principally because, being a private school, it did not demand that I have a provincial teacher’s training certificate; I didn’t want to waste another year getting that, and I didn’t really think I would stay in teaching. I also liked the fact that Colborne was a boys’ school; I never wanted to teach girls — don’t, in fact, think they are best served by the kind of education devised by men for men.

I have been a good teacher because I have never thought much about teaching; I just worked through the curriculum and insisted on high standards. I never played favourites, never tried to be popular, never set my heart on the success of any clever boy, and took good care that I knew my stuff. I was not easily approachable, but if approached I was civil and serious to the boy who approached me. I have coached scores of boys privately for scholarships, and I have never taken a fee for it. Of course I have enjoyed all of this, and I suppose my enjoyment had its influence on the boys. As I have grown older my bias — the oddly recurrent themes of history, which are also the themes of myth — has asserted itself, and why not? But when I first stepped into a Colborne classroom, wearing the gown that we were all expected to wear then, I never thought that it would be more than forty years before I left it for good.

Simply from the school’s point of view, I suppose my life has seemed odd and dry, though admittedly useful. As the years wore on I was finally acquitted of the suspicion that hangs over every bachelor schoolmaster — that he is a homosexual, either overt or frying in some smoky flame of his own devising. I have never been attracted to boys. Indeed I have never much liked boys. To me a boy is a green apple who I expect to expose to the sun of history until he becomes a red apple, a man. I know too much about boys to sentimentalize over them. I have been a boy myself, and I know what a boy is, which is to say, either a fool or an imprisoned man striving to get out.

No, teaching was my professional life, to which I gave whatever was its due. The sources from which my larger life was nourished were elsewhere, and it is to write of them that I address this memoir to you, Headmaster, hoping thereby that when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice.

Did I live chastely — I who have been so critical of Boy Staunton’s rough-and-tumble sexual affairs? No memoir of our day is thought complete without some comment on the sex life of its subject, and therefore let me say that during my early years as a schoolmaster I found a number of women who were interesting, and sufficiently interested in me, to give me a sex life of a sort. They were the women who usually get into affairs with men who are not the marrying kind. There was Agnes Day, who yearned to take upon herself the sins of the whole world, and sacrifice her body and mind to some deserving male’s cause. She soon became melancholy company. Then there was Gloria Mundy, the good-time girl, who had to be stoked with costly food, theatre tickets, and joyrides of all kinds. She cost more than her admittedly good company was worth, and she was kind enough to break up the affair herself. And of course Libby Doe, who thought sex was the one great, true, and apostolic key and cure and could not get enough of it, which I could. I played fair with all of them, I hope; the fact that I did not love them did not prevent me from liking them very much, and I never used a woman simply as an object in my life.

They all had enough of me quite quickly because my sense of humour, controlled in the classroom, was never in check in the bedroom. I was a talking lover, which most women hate. And my physical disabilities were bothersome. The women were quick to assure me that these did not matter at all; Agnes positively regarded my ravaged body as her martyr’s stake. But I could not forget my brownish-red nubbin where one leg should have been, and a left side that looked like the crackling of a roast. As well as these offences against my sense of erotic propriety, there were other, and to me sometimes hilarious, problems. What, for instance, is etiquette for the one-legged philanderer? Should he remove his prosthesis before putting on his prophylactic, or vice versa? I suggested to my partners that we should write to Dorothy Dix about it. They did not think that funny.

It was many years before I rediscovered love, and then it was not Love’s Old Sweet Song, recalling Diana: no, I drank the reviving drop from the Cauldron of Ceridwen. Very well worth waiting for, too.


At the age of twenty-six I had become an M.A., and the five thousand dollars or so I had begun with had grown, under Boy’s counselling, to a resounding eight, and I had lived as well as I wanted to do in the meanwhile on my pension. What Boy had I do not know, for he spoke of it mysteriously as “a plum” (an expression out of his Prince of Wales repertoire), but he looked glossy and knew no care. When he married Leola in St. James’ Presbyterian Church, Deptford, I was his best man, in a hired morning suit and a top hat in which I looked like an ass. It was the most fashionable wedding in Deptford history, marred only by the conduct of some of the groom’s legal friends, who whooped it up in the Tecumseh House when the dry party at Doc Staunton’s was mercifully over. Leola’s parents were minor figures at the wedding; very properly so, in everybody’s opinion, for of course ‘they were not in a position to entertain.’ Neither were the Stauntons senior, if they had but known it; they were overwhelmed by the worldliness of Boy’s friends, and had to comfort themselves with the knowledge that they could buy and sell all of them, and their parents too, and never feel it. It was clear to my eye that by now Boy had far surpassed his father in ambition and scope. All he needed was time.

Everybody agreed that Leola was a radiant bride; even in the awful wedding rig-out of 1924 she looked good enough to eat with a silver spoon. Her parents (no hired finery for Ben Cruikshank, but his boots had a silvery gleam produced by the kind of blacklead more commonly applied to stoves) wept with joy in the church. Up at the front, and without much to do, I could see who wept and who grinned.

The honeymoon was to be a trip to Europe, not nearly so common then as now. I was going to Europe myself, to blow a thousand out of my eight on a reward to myself for being a good boy. I had booked my passage second class — not then called Tourist — on the C.P.R. ship Melita; when I read the passenger list in my first hour aboard I was not pleased to find “Mr. and Mrs. Boy Staunton” among the First Class. Like so many people, I regarded a wedding as a dead end and had expected to be rid of Boy and Leola for a while after it. But here they were, literally on top of me.

Well, let them find me. I did not care about distinction of classes, I told myself, but it would be interesting to find out if they did. As so often, I underestimated Boy. A note and a bottle of wine — half-bottle, to be precise — awaited me at my table at dinner, and he came down to see me three or four times during the voyage, explaining very kindly that ship’s rules did not allow him to ask me to join them in First Class. Leola did not come but waved to me at the Ship’s Concert, at which gifted passengers sang Roses of Picardy, told jokes, and watched a midshipman — they still had them to blow bugles for meals and so forth — dance a pretty good hornpipe.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson