Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

At this time it never occurred to me that the legends I picked up were quite probably about people who had once lived and had done something or other that made them popular and dear after death. What I learned merely revived and confirmed my childhood notion that religion was much nearer in spirit to the Arabian Nights than it was to anything encouraged by St. James’ Presbyterian Church. I wondered how they would regard it in Deptford if I offered to replace the captive Dove that sat on the topmost organ pipe with St. James’ own cockleshell. I was foolish and conceited, I know, but I was also a happy goat who had wandered into the wondrous enclosed garden of hagiology, and I grazed greedily and contentedly. When the time came at last for me to go home, I knew I had found a happiness that would endure.


Schoolmastering kept me busy by day and part of each night. I was an assistant housemaster, with a fine big room under the eaves of the main building, and a wretched kennel of a bedroom, and rights in a bathroom used by two or three other resident masters. I taught all day, but my wooden leg mercifully spared me from the nuisance of having to supervise sports after school. There were exercises to mark every night, but I soon gained a professional attitude towards these woeful explorations of the caves of ignorance and did not let them depress me. I liked the company of most of my colleagues, who were about equally divided among good men who were good teachers, awful men who were awful teachers, and the grotesques and misfits who drift into teaching and are so often the most educative influences a boy meets in school. If a boy can’t have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don’t just give him a bad, dull teacher. This is where the private schools score over state-run schools; they can accommodate a few cultured madmen on the staff without having to offer explanations.

The boys liked me for my wooden leg, whose thuds in the corridor gave ample warning of my approach and allowed smokers, loafers, and dreamers (these last two groups are not the same) to do whatever was necessary before I arrived. I had now taken to using a cane except when I was very much on parade, and a swipe with my heavy stick over the behind was preferred by all sensible boys to a tedious imposition. I may have been the despair of educational psychologists, but I knew boys and I knew my stuff, and it quickly began to show up in examination results.

Boy Staunton was also distinguishing himself as an educator. He was educating Leola, and as I saw them pretty regularly I was able to estimate his success. He wanted to make her into the perfect wife for a rising young entrepreneur in sugar, for he was working hard and fast, and now had a foot in the world of soft drinks, candy, and confectionery.

He had managed brilliantly on a principle so simple that it deserves to be recorded: he set up a little company of his own by borrowing $5000 for four months; as he already had $5000 it was no trouble to repay the loan. Then he borrowed $10,000 and repaid with promptitude. On this principle he quickly established an excellent reputation, always paying promptly, though never prematurely, thereby robbing his creditor of expected interest. Bank managers grew to love Boy, but he soon gave up dealing with branches, and borrowed only at Head Office. He was now a favoured cherub in the heaven of finance, and he needed a wife who could help him to graduate from a cherub to a full-fledged angel, and as soon as possible to an archangel. So Leola had lessons in tennis and bridge, learned not to call her maid “the girl” even to herself, and had no children as the time was not yet at hand. She was prettier than ever, had acquired a sufficient command of cliche to be able to talk smartly about anything Boy’s friends were likely to know, and adored Boy, while fearing him a little. He was so swift, so brilliant, so handsome! I think she was always a little puzzled to find that she was really his wife.

It was in 1927 that Boy’s first instance of startling good fortune arrived — one of those coincidences that it may be wiser to call synchronicities, which aid the ambitious — something that heaved him, at a stroke, into a higher sphere and maintained him there. He had kept up with his regiment and soldiered regularly; he had thoughts of politics, he told me, and a militia connection would earn a lot of votes. So when the Prince of Wales made his tour of Canada that year, who was more personable, youthful, cheerful, and in every way suited to be one of His Highness’s aides-de-camp than Boy Staunton? And not simply for the royal appearance in Toronto, but for the duration of the tour, from sea to sea ?

I saw little of this grandeur, except when the Prince paid a visit to the school, for as it has royal patronage he was obliged to do so. We masters all turned out in our gowns and hoods, and sweating members of the Rifle Corps strutted, and yelled, and swooned from the heat, and the slight descendant of King Arthur and King Alfred and Charles the Second did the gracious. I was presented, with my V.C. pinned to the silk of my gown, but my recollection is not of the youthful Prince, but of Boy, who was quite the most gorgeous figure there that day. An Old Boy of the school, and an aide to the Prince — it was a great day for him, and the Headmaster of that day doted upon him to a degree that might have seemed a little overdone to a critical eye.

Leola was there too, for though of course she did not go with Boy on the tour, she was expected to turn up now and then at various points across Canada, just as though she happened to be there by chance. She had learned to curtsy very prettily — not easy in the skirts of the period — and eat without seeming to chew, and do other courtier-like things required by Boy. I am sure that for her the Prince was nothing more than an excuse for Boy’s brilliant appearances. Never have I seen a woman so absorbed in her love for a man, and I was happy for her and heartily wished her well.

After the Prince had gone home the Stauntons settled down again to be, in a modest manner befitting their youth, social leaders. Boy had a lot of new social usages and took to wearing spats to business. For him and for Leola their Jazz Age period was over; now they were serious, responsible Young Marrieds.

Within a year their first child was born and was conservatively, but significantly, christened Edward David. In due time — how could H.R.H. have known? — a christening mug came from Mappin and Webb, with the three feathers and Ich dien on it. David used it until he graduated to a cup and saucer, after which it stood on the drawing-room table, with matches in it, quite casually.


Doc Staunton and his wife never visited Boy and Leola, on what I suppose must be called religious grounds. When they came to Toronto, which was rarely, they asked the young Stauntons to their hotel — the cheap and conservative Carls-Rite — for a meal, but declined to set foot in a house where drink was consumed, contrary to the law of the land and against God’s manifest will. Another stone that stuck in their crop was that Boy and Leola had left the Presbyterian church and become Anglicans.

In a movement that reached its climax in 1924, the Prestbeterians and Methodists had consummated a mysterium coniunctionis that resulted in the United Church of Canada, with a doctrine (soother than the creamy curd) in which the harshness of Presbyterianism and the hick piety of Methodism had little part. A few brass-bowel led Presbyterians and some truly zealous Methodists held out, but a majority regarded this union as a great victory for Christ’s Kingdom on earth. Unfortunately it also involved some haggling between the rich Presbyterians and the poor Methodists, which roused the mocking spirit of the rest of the country; the Catholics in particular had some Irish jokes about the biggest land-and-property-grab in Canadian history.

During this uproar a few sensitive souls fled to the embrace of Anglicanism; the envious and disaffected said they did it because the Anglican Church was in some way more high-toned than the evangelical faiths, and thus they were improving their social standing. At that time every Canadian had to adhere, nominally, to some church; the officials of the Census utterly refused to accept such terms as “agnostic” or “none” for inclusion in the column marked “Religion”, and flattering statistics were compiled on the basis of Census reports that gave a false idea of the forces all the principal faiths could command. Boy and Leola had moved quietly into a fashionable Anglican church where the rector, Canon Arthur Woodiwiss, was so broadminded he did not even insist that they be confirmed. David was confirmed, though, when his time came, and so was Caroline, who appeared a well-planned two years after him.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson