Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

It was called Deptford and lay on the Thames River about fifteen miles east of Pittstown, our county town and nearest big place. We had an official population of about five hundred, and the surrounding farms probably brought the district up to eight hundred souls. We had five churches: the Anglican, poor but believed to have some mysterious social supremacy; the Presbyterian, solvent and thought — chiefly by itself — to be intellectual; the Methodist, insolvent and fervent; the Baptist, insolvent and saved; the Roman Catholic, mysterious to most of us but clearly solvent, as it was frequently and, so we thought, quite needlessly repainted. We supported one lawyer, who was also the magistrate, and one banker in a private bank, as such things still existed at that time. We had two doctors: Dr. McCausland who was reputed to be clever, and Dr. Staunton, who was Percy’s father and who was also clever, but in the realm of real estate — he was a great holder of mortgages and owned several farms. We had a dentist, a wretch without manual skill, whose wife underfed him, and who had positively the dirtiest professional premises I have ever seen; and a veterinarian who drank but could rise to an occasion. We had a canning factory, which operated noisily and feverishly when there was anything to can; also a sawmill and a few shops.

The village was dominated by a family called Athelstan, who had done well out of lumber early in the nineteenth century; they owned Deptford’s only three-storey house, which stood by itself on the way to the cemetery; most of our houses were of wood, and some of them stood on piles, for the Thames had a trick of flooding. One of the remaining Athelstans lived across the street from us, a poor demented old woman who used from time to time to escape from her nurse-housekeeper and rush into the road, where she threw herself down, raising a cloud of dust like a hen having a dirt-bath, shouting loudly, “Christian men, come and help me!” It usually took the housekeeper and at least one other person to pacify her; my mother often assisted in this way, but I could not do so for the old lady disliked me — I seemed to remind her of some false friend in the past. But I was interested in her madness and longed to talk with her, so I always rushed to the rescue when she made one of her breaks for liberty.

My family enjoyed a position of modest privilege, for my father was the owner and editor of the local weekly paper, The Deptford Banner. It was not a very prosperous enterprise, but with the job-printing plant it sustained us and we never wanted for anything. My father, as I learned later, never did a gross business of $5000 in any year that he owned it. He was not only publisher and editor, but chief mechanic and printer as well, helped by a melancholy youth called Jumper Saul and a girl called Nell Bullock. It was a good little paper, respected and hated as a proper local paper should be; the editorial comment, which my father composed directly on the typesetting machine, was read carefully every week. So we were, in a sense, the literary leaders of the community, and my father had a seat on the Library Board along with the magistrate.

Our household, then, was representative of the better sort of life in the village, and we thought well of ourselves. Some of this good opinion arose from being Scots; my father had come from Dumfries as a young man, but my mother’s family had been three generations in Canada without having become a whit less Scots than when her grandparents left Inverness. The Scots, I believed until I was aged at least twenty-five, were the salt of the earth, for although this was never said in our household it was one of those accepted truths which do not need to be laboured. By far the majority of the Deptford people had come to Western Ontario from the south of England, so we were not surprised that they looked to us, the Ramsays, for common sense, prudence, and right opinions on virtually everything.

Cleanliness, for example. My mother was clean – oh, but she was clean! Our privy set the sanitary tone of the village. We depended on wells in Deptford, and water for all purposes was heated in a tank called a “cistern” on the side of the kitchen range. Every house had a privy, and these ranked from dilapidated, noisome shacks to some quite smart edifices, of which our own was clearly among the best. There has been much hilarity about privies in the years since they became rarities, but they were not funny buildings, and if they were not to become disgraceful they needed a lot of care.

As well as this temple of hygiene we had a “chemical closet” in the house, for use when someone was unwell; it was so capricious and smelly, however, that it merely added a new misery to illness and was rarely set going.

That is all that seems necessary to say about Deptford at present; any necessary additional matter will present itself as part of my narrative. We were serious people, missing nothing in our community and feeling ourselves in no way inferior to larger places. We did, however, look with pitying amusement on Bowles Corners, four miles distant and with a population of one hundred and fifty. To live in Bowles Corners, we felt, was to be rustic beyond redemption.


The first six months of Paul Dempster’s life were perhaps the most exciting and pleasurable period of my mother’s life, and unquestionably the most miserable of mine. Premature babies had a much poorer chance of surviving in 1908 than they have now, but Paul was the first challenge of this sort in my mother’s experience of childbirth, and she met it with all her determination and ingenuity. She was not, I must make clear, in any sense a midwife or a trained person — simply a woman of good sense and kindness of heart who enjoyed the authority of nursing and the mystery which at that time still hung about the peculiarly feminine functions. She spent a great part of each day and not a few nights at the Dempsters’ during that six months; other women helped when they could, but my mother was the acknowledged high priestess, and Dr. McCausland was good enough to say that without her he could never have pulled little Paul safely up onto the shores of this world.

I learned all the gynaecological and obstetrical details as they were imparted piecemeal to my father; the difference was that he sat comfortably beside the living-room stove, opposite my mother, while I stood barefoot and in my nightshirt beside the stovepipe upstairs, guilt-ridden and sometimes nauseated as I heard things that were new and terrible to my ears.

Paul was premature by some eighty days, as well as Dr. McCausland could determine. The shock of being struck by the snowball had brought Mrs. Dempster to a series of hysterical crying fits, with which her husband was clumsily trying to cope when my mother arrived on the scene. Not long afterward it had become clear that she was about to bear her child, and Dr. McCausland was sent for, but as he was elsewhere making a call he did not arrive until a quarter of an hour before the birth. Because the child was so small it came quickly, as the time for first children goes, and looked so wretched that the doctor and my mother were frightened, though they did not admit it to one another until some weeks afterward. It was characteristic of the time and the place that nobody thought to weigh the child, though the Reverend Amasa Dempster christened it immediately, after a brief wrangle with Dr. McCausland. This was by no means in accord with the belief of his faith, but he was not himself and may have been acting in response to promptings stronger than seminary training. My mother said Dempster wanted to dip the child in water, but Dr. McCausland brusquely forbade it, and the distracted father had to be content with sprinkling. During the ceremony my mother held the child — now named Paul, as it was the first name that came into Dempster’s head – as near the stove as she could, in the hottest towels she could provide. But Paul must have weighed something in the neighbourhood of three pounds, for that was what he still weighed ten weeks later, having gained little, so far as the eye could judge, in all that time.

My mother was not one to dwell on unsightly or macabre things, but she spoke of Paul’s ugliness to my father with what was almost fascination. He was red, of course; all babies are red. But he was wrinkled like a tiny old man, and his head and his back and much of his face was covered with weedy long black hair. His proportions were a shock to my mother, for his limbs were tiny and he seemed to be all head and belly. His fingers and toes were almost without nails. His cry was like the mewing of a sick kitten. But he was alive, and something had to be done about him quickly.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson