Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Boy met everybody in First Class, of course, including the knighted passenger — a shoe manufacturer from Nottingham — but the one who most enlarged his world was the Reverend George Maldon Leadbeater, a great prophet from a fashionable New York church, who sailed from Montreal because he liked the longer North Atlantic sea voyage.

“He isn’t like any other preacher you’ve ever met,” said Boy. “Honestly, you’d wonder how old dugouts like Andy Bowyer and Phelps ever have the nerve to stand up in a pulpit when there are men like Leadbeater in the business. He makes Christianity make sense for the first time, so far as I’m concerned. I mean, Christ was really a very distinguished person, a Prince of the House of David, a poet and an intellectual. Of course He was a carpenter; all those Jews in Bible days could do something with their hands. But what kind of a carpenter was He? Not making cowsheds, I’ll bet. Undoubtedly a designer and a manufacturer, in terms of those days. Otherwise, how did He make his connections? You know, when He was travelling around, staying with all kinds of rich and influential people as an honoured guest — obviously He wasn’t just bumming his way through Palestine; He was staying with people who knew Him as a man of substance who also had a great philosophy. You know, the way those Orientals make their pile before they go in for philosophy. And look how He appreciated beauty! When that woman poured the ointment on His feet. He knew good ointment from bad, you can bet. And the Marriage at Cana — a party, and He helped the host out of a tight place when the drinks gave out, because He had probably been in the same fix Himself in His days in business and knew what social embarrassment was. And an economist! Driving the moneychangers out of the Temple — why? Because they were soaking the pilgrims extortionate rates, that’s why, and endangering a very necessary tourist attraction and rocking the economic boat. It was a kind of market discipline, if you want to look at it that way, and He was the only one with the brains to see it and the guts to do something about it. Leadbeater thinks that may have been at the back of the Crucifixion; the priests got their squeeze out of the Temple exchange, you can bet, and they decided they would have to get rid of this fellow who was possessed of a wider economic vision — as well as great intellectual powers in many other fields, of course.

“Leadbeater — he wants me to call him George, and somehow I’ve got to get rid of this English trick I’ve got of calling people by their surnames — George simply loves beauty. That’s what gets Leola, you know. Frankly, Dunny, as an old friend, I can tell you that Leola hasn’t had much chance to grow in that home of hers. Fine people, the Cruikshanks, of course, but narrow. But she’s growing fast. George has insisted on lending her this wonderful novel, If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson. She’s just gulping it down. But the thing that really impresses me is that George is such a good dresser. And not just for a preacher — for anybody. He’s going to introduce me to his tailor in London. You have to be introduced to the good ones. He says God made beautiful and seemly things, and not to take advantage of them is to miss what God meant. Did you ever hear any preacher say anything like that? Of course he’s no six-hundred-dollar-a-year Bible buster, but a man who pulls down eighty-five hundred from his pulpit alone, and doubles it with lectures and books! If Christ wasn’t poor — and He certainly wasn’t — George doesn’t intend to be. Would you believe he carries a handful of gemstones — semi-precious but gorgeous — in his right-hand coat pocket, just to feel! He’ll pull them out two or three times a day, and strew them on the madder silk handkerchief he always has in his breast pocket, and let the light play on them, and you should see his face then! ‘Poverty and sin are not all that God hath wrought,’ he says with a kind of poetic smile. ‘Lo, these are beautiful even as His raindrops, and no less His work than the leper, the flower, or woman’s smile.’ I wish you could get up to First Class to meet him, but it’s out of the question, and I wouldn’t want to ask him to come down here.”

So I never met the Reverend George Maldon Leadbeater, though I wondered if he had read the New Testament as often as I had. Furthermore, I had read If Winter Comes when it first came out; it had been the theme of an extravagant encomium from the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada; he had said it was unquestionably the finest novel of our time, and the booksellers had played it up. It seemed to me that Mr. King’s taste in literature, like Leadbeater’s in religion, was evidence of a sweet tooth, and nothing more.


Boy and Leola left the ship at Southampton. I went on to Antwerp, because the first object of my journey was a tour of the battlefields. Unrecognizable, of course. Neat and trim in the manner of the Low Countries; trenches known to me as stinking mudholes were lined with cement, so that ladies would not dirty their shoes. Even the vast cemeteries woke no feeling in me; because they were so big I lost all sense that they contained men who, had they lived, would have been about my age. I got out as soon as I had scoured Passchendaele for some sign of the place where I had been wounded, and where I had encountered the little Madonna. Nobody I could find was of any use in suggesting where I might have been; the new town had probably buried it under streets and houses. Figures of Our Lady — yes, there were plenty of those, in churches and on buildings, but most of them were new, hideous and unrevealing. None was anything like mine; I would have known her anywhere, as of course I did, many years later.

It was thus my interest in medieval and Renaissance art — especially religious art — came about. The little Madonna was a bee in my bonnet; I wanted to see her again, and quite unreasonably (like a man I knew who lost a treasured walking-stick in the London Blitz and still looks hopefully in every curiosity shop in case it may turn up) I kept hoping to find her. The result was that I saw a great many Madonnas of every period and material and quickly came to know a fair amount about them. Indeed, I learned enough to be able to describe the one I sought as a Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, of polychromed wood, about twenty-four inches high, and most probably of Flemish or North German workmanship of the period between 1675 and 1725. If you think I put this together after I had found her, I can only assure you that you are wrong.

First my search, then a mounting enthusiasm for what I saw, led me to scores of churches through the Low Countries, France, Austria, and Italy. I had only afforded myself a few weeks, but I sent for more money and stayed until the latest possible date in August. What are you doing here, Dunstan Ramsay? I sometimes asked myself, and when I had got past telling myself that I was feeding a splendid new enthusiasm for religious art and architecture I knew that I was rediscovering religion as well. Do not suppose I was becoming “religious”; the Presbyterianism of my childhood effectively insulated me against any enthusiastic abandonment to faith. But I became aware that in matters of religion I was an illiterate, and illiteracy was my abhorrence. I was not such a fool or an aesthete as to suppose that all this art was for art’s sake alone. It was about something, and I wanted to know what that something was.

As an historian by training, I suppose I should have begun at the beginning, wherever that was, but I hadn’t time. Scenes from the Bible gave me no difficulty; I could spot Jael spiking Sisera, or Judith with the head of Holofernes, readily enough. It was the saints who baffled me. So I got to work on them as best I could, and pretty soon knew that the old fellow with the bell was Anthony Abbot, and the same old fellow with hobgoblins plaguing him was Anthony being tempted in the desert. Sebastian, that sanctified porcupine, was easy, and so was St. Roche, with the dog and a bad leg. I was innocently delighted to meet St. Martin, dividing his cloak, on a Swiss coin. The zest for detail that had first made me want to be a polymath stood me in good stead now, for I could remember the particular attributes and symbols of scores of saints without any trouble, and I found their legends delightful reading. I became disgustingly proud and began to whore after rare and difficult saints, not known to the Catholic faithful generally. I could read and speak French (though never without a betraying accent) and was pretty handy in Latin, so that Italian could be picked up on the run — badly, but enough. German was what I needed, and I determined to acquire it during the coming winter. I had no fear; whatever interested me I could learn, and learn quickly.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson