Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I decided it was time to go at him. “Thirteen cents for a thirteen-cent talk,” I said. “Did you expect them to believe that cock-and-bull story about the cursing sailor and the widow’s mite? Don’t you underestimate them?”

He was not disconcerted. “I expect them to believe the spirit of the story,” he said, “and I know from experience what kind of story they like. You educated people, you have a craze for what you call truth, by which you mean police-court facts. These people get their noses rubbed in such facts all day and every day, and they don’t want to hear them from me.”

“So you provide romance.” I said.

“I provide something that strengthens faith, Mr. Ramsay, as well as I can. I am not a gifted speaker or a man of education and often my stories come out thin and old, and I suppose unbelievable to a man like you. These people don’t hold me on oath, and they aren’t stupid either. They know my poor try at a parable from hard fact. And I won’t deceive you: there is something about this kind of work and the kind of lives these people live that knocks the hard edge off fact. If you think I’m a liar — and you do — you should hear some of the confessions that come out in this place on a big night. Awful whoppers, that just pop into the heads of people who have found joy in faith but haven’t got past wanting to be important in the world. So they blow up their sins like balloons. Better people than them want to seem worse than they are. We come to God in little steps, not in a leap, and that love of police-court truth you think so much of comes very late on the way, if it comes at all. What is truth? as Pilate asked; I’ve never pretended that I could have told him. I’m just glad when a boozer sobers up, or a man stops beating his woman, or a crooked lad tries to go straight. If it makes him boast a bit, that’s not the worst harm it can do. You unbelieving people apply cruel, hard standards to us who believe.”

“What makes you think I’m an unbeliever?” I said. “And what made you turn on me this morning, in front of the whole school?”

“I admit it was a trick,” he said. “When you are talking like that it’s always a good job near the end to turn on somebody and accuse them of disbelieving. Sometimes you see somebody laughing, but that isn’t needful. Best of all is to turn on somebody behind you, if you can. Make it look as if you had eyes in the back of your head, see? There’s a certain amount of artfulness about it, of course, but a greater end has been served, and nobody has been really hurt.”

“That’s a thoroughly crooked-minded attitude,” said I.

“Perhaps it is. But you’re not the first man I’ve used like that, and I promise you won’t be the last. God has to be served, and I must use the means I know. If I’m not false to God — and I try very hard not to be — I don’t worry too much about the occasional stranger.”

“I am not quite so much a stranger as you think,” said I. Then I told him that I had recognized him. I don’t know what I expected him to do — deny it, I suppose. But he was perfectly cool.

“I don’t remember you, of course,” he said. “I don’t remember anybody from that night except the woman herself. It was her that turned me to God.”

“When you raped her?”

“I didn’t rape her, Mr. Ramsay; you heard her say so herself. Not that I wouldn’t have done, the state of mind I was in. I was at the end of my rope. I was a tramp, you see. Any idea what it means to be a tramp? They’re lost men; not many people understand them. Do you know, I’ve heard and read such nonsense about how they just can’t stand the chains of civilization, and have to breathe the air of freedom, and a lot of them are educated men with a wonderful philosophy, and they laugh at the hard workers and farmers they beg off of — well, it’s all a lot of cock, as they’d put it. They’re madmen and criminals and degenerates mostly, and tramping makes them worse. It’s the open-air life does it to them. Oh, I know the open air is a great thing, when you have food and shelter to go back to, but when you haven’t it drives you mad; starvation and oxygen is a crazy mixture for anybody that isn’t born to it, like a savage. These fellows aren’t savages. Weaklings, mostly, but vicious.

“I got among them a very common way. Know-it-all lad; quarrelled with my old dad, who was hard and mean-religious; ran away, picked up odd jobs, then began to pinch stuff, and got on the drink. Know what a tramp drinks? Shoe-blacking sometimes, strained through a hunk of bread; drives you crazy. Or he gets a few prunes and lets them stand in the sun in a can till they ferment; that’s the stuff gives you the black pukes, taken on a stomach with nothing in it but maybe some raw vegetables you’ve pulled in a field. Like those sugar-beets around Deptford; fermented for a while, they’d eat a hole in a copper pot.

“And sex too. Funny how fierce it gets when the body is ill fed and ill used. Tramps are sodomites mostly. I was a young fellow, and it’s the young ones and the real old ones that get used, because they can’t fight as well. It’s not kid-glove stuff, like that Englishman went to prison for; it’s enough to kill you, you’d think, when a gang of tramps set on a young fellow. But it doesn’t, you know. That’s how I lost my hearing, most of it; I resisted a gang, and they beat me over the ears with my own boots till I couldn’t resist any more. Do you know what they say? ‘Lots o’ booze and buggery,’ they say. That’s their life. Mine too, till the great mercy of that woman. I know now that God is just as near them as He is to you and me at this instant, but they defy Him, poor souls.

“That night we last met, I was crazy. I’d tumbled off the freight in that jungle by Deptford, and found a fire and seven fellows around it, and they had a stew — somebody’d got a rabbit and it was in a pail over a fire with some carrots. Ever eat that? It’s awful, but I wanted some, and after a lot of nastiness they said I could have some after they’d had what they wanted of me. My manhood just couldn’t stand it, and I left them. They laughed and said I’d be back when I got good and hungry.

“Then I met this woman, wandering by herself. I knew she was a town woman. Women tramps are very rare; too much sense, I guess. She was clean and looked like an angel to me, but I threatened her and asked her for money. She hadn’t any; then I grabbed her. She wasn’t much afraid and asked what I wanted. I told her, in tramp’s language, and I could see she didn’t understand, but when I started to push her down and grab at her clothes she said, ‘Why are you so rough?’ and then I started to cry. She held my head to her breast and talked nicely to me, and I cried worse, but the strange thing is I still wanted her. As if only that would put me right, you see? That’s what I said to her. And do you know what she said? She said, ‘You may if you promise not to be rough.’ So I did, and that was when you people came hunting her.

“When I look back now I wonder that it wasn’t all over with me that moment. But it wasn’t. No, it was glory come into my life. It was as if I had gone right down into Hell and through the worst of the fire, and come on a clear, pure pool where I could wash and be clean. I was locked in by my deafness, so I didn’t know much of what was said, but I could see it was a terrible situation for her, and there was nothing I could do.

“They turned me loose next morning, and I ran out of that town laughing and shouting like the man who was delivered from devils by Our Lord. As I had been, you see. He worked through that woman, and she is a blessed saint, for what she did for me — I mean it as I say it — was a miracle. Where is she now?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson