Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

My preoccupation with saints was such that I could not keep it out of my conversation, and Boy was concerned for me. “Watch that you don’t get queer, Dunny,” he would say, sometimes; and, “Arthur Woodiwiss says that saints are all right for Catholics, who have so many ignorant people to deal with, but we’ve evolved far beyond all that.”

As a result I sneaked even more saints into my conversation, to irritate him. He had begun to irritate rather easily, and be pompous. He urged me to get out of schoolmastering (while praising it as a fine profession) and make something of myself. “If you don’t hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you’ll get,” he said one day. But I was not sure I wanted to issue orders to life; I rather liked the Greek notion of allowing Chance to take a formative hand in my affairs. It was in the autumn of 1928 that Chance did so, and lured me from a broad highway to a narrower path.

Our Headmaster of that day — your predecessor but one — was enthusiastic for what he called “bringing the world to the school and the school to the world,” and every Wednesday morning we had a special speaker at Prayers, who told us about what he did in the world. Sir Archibald Flower told us about rebuilding the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon and got a dollar from nearly every boy to help do it; Father Jellicoe talked about clearing London slums, and that cost most of us a dollar too. But ordinarily our speakers were Canadians, and one morning the Headmaster swept in — he wore a silk gown, well suited to sweeping — with Mr. Joel Surgeoner in tow.

Surgeoner was already pretty well known, though I had not seen him before. He was the head of the Lifeline Mission in Toronto, where he laboured to do something for destitute and defeated people, and for the sailors on the boats that plied the Great Lakes — at that time a very tough and neglected group. He spoke to the school briefly and well, for though it was plain that he was a man of little education he had a compelling quality of sincerity about him, even though I suspected him of being a pious liar.

He told us, quietly and in the simplest language, that he had to run his Mission by begging, and that sometimes begging yielded nothing; when this happened he prayed for help, and had never been refused what he needed; the blankets, or more often the food, would appear somehow, often late in the day, and more often than not, left on the steps of the Mission by anonymous donors. Now, pompous young ass that I was, I was quite prepared to believe that St. John Bosco could pull on this trick when he appealed to Heaven on behalf of his boys; I was even persuaded that it might have happened a few times to Dr. Barnardo, of whom the story was also told. But I was far too much a Canadian, deeply if unconsciously convinced of the inferiority of my own country and its people, to think it could happen in Toronto, to a man I could see. I suppose I had a sneer on my face.

Surgeoner’s back was to me, but suddenly he turned and addressed me. “I can see that you do not believe me, sir,” he said, “but I am speaking the truth, and if you will come down to the Lifeline some night I will show you clothes and blankets and food that God has inspired charitable men and women to give us to do His work among His forgotten children.” This had an electrical effect; a few boys laughed, the Headmaster gave me a glance that singed my eyebrows, and Surgeoner’s concluding remarks were greeted with a roar of applause. But I had no time to waste in being humiliated, for when Surgeoner looked me in the face I knew him at once for the tramp I had last seen in the pit at Deptford.

I lost no time; I was at the Lifeline Mission that very night. It was on the ground floor of a warehouse down by the lakefront. Everything about it was poor; the lower parts of the windows were painted over with green paint, and the lettering on them — “Lifeline Mission, Come In” — was an amateur job. Inside, the electric light was scanty and eked out by a couple of coal-oil lamps on the table at the front; on benches made of reclaimed wood sat eight or ten people, of whom four or five were bums, and the rest poor but respectable supporters of Surgeoner. A service was in progress.

Surgeoner was praying; he needed a variety of things, the only one of which I can remember was a new kettle for soup, and he suggested to God that the woodpile was getting low. When he had, so to speak, put in his order, he began to speak to us, gently and unassumingly as he had done at the school that morning and I was able to observe now that he had a hearing-aid in his left ear — one of the clumsy affairs then in use — and that a cord ran down into his collar and appeared to join a bulge in the front of his shirt, obviously a receiving apparatus. But his voice was pleasant and well controlled; nothing like the ungoverned quack of many deaf people.

He saw me, of course, and nodded gravely. I expected that he would try to involve me in his service, probably to score off me as an educated infidel and mocker, but he did not. Instead he told, very simply, of his experience with a lake sailor who was a notable blasphemer, a man whose every remark carried an insult to God’s Name. Surgeoner had been powerless to change him and had left him in defeat. One day Surgeoner had talked with an old woman, desperately poor but rich in the Spirit of Christ, who had at parting pressed into his hand a cent, the only coin she had to give. Surgeoner bought a tract with the cent and carried it absentmindedly in his pocket for several weeks, until by chance he met the blasphemer again. On impulse he pressed the tract upon the blasphemer, who of course received it with an oath. Surgeoner thought no more of the matter until, two months later, he met the blasphemer again, this time a man transfigured. He had read the tract, he had accepted Christ, and he had begun life anew.

I fully expected that it would prove that the old woman was the blasphemer’s aged mother and that the two had been reunited in love, but Surgeoner did not go so far. Was this the self-denying chastity of the literary artist, I wondered, or had he not thought of such a denouement yet? When the meeting had concluded with a dismal rendition of the revival hymn —

Throw out the Life Line,

Throw out the Life Line,

Someone is drifting away.

Throw out the Life Line,

Throw out the Life Line,

Someone is sinking today

— sung with the dispirited drag of the unaccompanied, untalented religious, the little group drifted away — the bums to the sleeping quarters next door and the respectable to their homes — and I was alone with Joel Surgeoner.

“Well, sir, I knew you would come, but I didn’t expect you so soon,” said he and gestured me into a kitchen chair by the table. He frugally turned off the electricity, and we sat in the light of the lamps.

“You promised to show me what prayer had brought,” I said.

“You see it around you,” he replied, and then, seeing surprise on my face at the wretchedness of the Mission, he led me to a door into the next room — it was in fact a double door running on a track, of the kind you see in old warehouses — and slid it back. In the gloom leaking down through an overhead skylight I saw a poor dormitory in which about fifty men were lying on cots. “Prayer brings me these, and prayer and hard work and steady begging provide for them, Mr. Ramsay.” I suppose he had learned my name at the school.

“I spoke to our Bursar tonight,” I said “and your talk this morning will bring you a cheque for five hundred and forty-three dollars; from six hundred boys and a staff of about thirty, that’s not bad. What will you do with it?”

“Winter is coming; it will buy a lot of warm underclothes.” He closed the sliding door, and we sat down again in what seemed to be the chapel, common room, and business office of the Mission. “That cheque will probably be a week getting here, and our needs are daily — hourly. Here is the collection from our little meeting tonight.” He showed me thirteen cents on a cracked saucer.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson