Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

How did I know? Mrs. Dempster was often in my mind, but whenever I thought of her I put the thought aside with a sick heart, as part of a past that was utterly done. I had tried to get Deptford out of my head, just as Boy had done, and for the same reason; I wanted a new life. What Surgeoner told me made it clear that any new life must include Deptford. There was to be no release by muffling up the past.

We talked for some time, and I liked him more and more. When at last I left I laid a ten-dollar bill on the table.

“Thank you, Mr. Ramsay,” said he. “This will get us the soup kettle we need, and a load of wood as well. Do you see now how prayers are answered?”


Back to Deptford, therefore, at the first chance, pretending I wanted to consult Mr. Mahaffey about the deadbeat who had bought the Banner from me and was still in debt for more than half of the price. The magistrate counselled patience. But I got what I wanted, which was the address of the aunt who had taken Mrs. Dempster after the death of her husband. She was not, as Milo Papple thought, a widow, but an old maid, a Miss Bertha Shanklin, and she lived in Weston. He gave me the address, without asking why I wanted it.

“A bad business, that was,” he said. “She seemed a nice little person. Then — a madwoman! Struck by a snowball. I don’t suppose you have any idea who threw it, have you ? No, I didn’t imagine you did, or you would have said so earlier. There was guilt, you know; undoubtedly there was guilt. I don’t know quite what could have been done about it, but look at the consequences! McCausland says definitely she became a moral idiot — no sense at all of right and wrong — and the result was that terrible business in the pit. I remember that you were there. And the ruin of her husband’s life. Then the lad running away when he was really no more than a baby. I’ve never seen such grief as hers when she finally realized he had gone. McCausland had to give her very heavy morphia before Miss Shanklin could remove her. Yes, there was guilt, whether any kind of charge could have been laid or not. Guilt, and somebody bears it to this day!”

The old man’s vehemence, and the way he kept looking at me over and under and around his small, very dirty spectacles, left no doubt that he thought I knew more than I admitted, and might very well be the guilty party myself. But I saw no sense in telling him anything; I still had a grudge against Boy for what he had done, but I remembered too that if I had not been so sly Mrs. Dempster would not have been hit. I was anxious to regard the whole thing as an accident, past care and past grief.

Nevertheless this conversation reheated my strong sense of guilt and responsibility about Paul; the war and my adult life had banked down that fire but not quenched it. The consequence was that I did something very foolish. I paid a visit to Father Regan, who was still the Catholic priest in Deptford.

I had never spoken to him, but I wanted somebody I could talk to confidentially, and I had the Protestant notion that priests are very close-mouthed and see more than they say. Later in life I got over that idea, but at this moment I wanted somebody who was in Deptford but not wholly of it, and he seemed to be my man. So within fifteen minutes of leaving the magistrate I was in the priest’s house, snuffing up the smell of soap, and sitting in one of those particularly uncomfortable chairs that find refuge in priests’ parlours all over the globe.

He thought, quite rightly, that I had come fishing for something, and was very suspicious, but when he found out what it was he laughed aloud, with the creaky, short laugh of a man whose life does not afford many jokes.

“A saint, do you say? Well now, that’s a pretty tall order. I couldn’t help you at all. Finding saints isn’t any part of my job. Nor can I say what’s a miracle and what isn’t. But I don’t imagine the bishop would have much to say to your grounds; it’d be his job to think of such things, if anybody did. A tramp reformed. I’ve reformed a tramp or two myself; they get spells of repentance, like most people. This fella you tell me of, now, seems to be as extreme in his zeal as he was in his sin. I never like that. And this business of raising your brother from his deathbed, as you describe it, was pretty widely talked about when it happened. Dr. McCausland says he never died at all, and I suppose he’d know. A few minutes with no signs of life. Well, that’s hardly Lazarus, now, is it? And your own experience when you were wounded — man, you were out of your head. I have to say it plainly. You’d better put this whole foolish notion away and forget it.

“You were always an imaginative young fella. It was said of you when you were a lad, and it seems you haven’t changed. You have to watch that kinda thing, you know. Now, you tell me you’re very interested in saints. Awright, I’m not fishing for converts, but if that’s the way it is you’d better take a good look at the religion saints come from. And when you’ve looked, I’ll betcha a dollar you’ll draw back like a man from a flame. You clever, imaginative fellas often want to flirt with Mother Church, but she’s no flirty lady, I’m telling you. You like the romance, but you can’t bear the yoke.

“You’re hypnotized by this idea that three miracles makes a saint, and you think you’ve got three miracles for a poor woman who is far astray in her wit’s and don’t know right from wrong. Aw, go on!

“Look, Mr. Ramsay, I’ll tell it to you as plain as it comes: there’s a lot of very good people in the world, and a lot of queer things happen that we don’t see the explanation of, but there’s only one Church that undertakes to cut right down to the bone and say what’s a miracle and what isn’t and who’s a saint and who isn’t, and you, and this poor soul you speak of, are outside it. You can’t set up some kind of a bootleg saint, so take my advice and cut it out. Be content with the facts you have, or think you have, and don’t push anything too far — or you might get a little bit strange yourself.

“I’m trying to be kind, you know, for I admired your parents. Fine people, and your father was a fair-minded man to every faith. But there are spiritual dangers you Protestants don’t even seem to know exist, and this monkeying with difficult, sacred things is a sure way to get yourself into a real old mess. Well I recall, when I was a seminarian, how we were warned one day about a creature called a fool-saint.

“Ever hear of a fool-saint? I thought not. As a matter of fact, it’s a Jewish idea, and the Jews are no fools, y’know. A fool-saint is somebody who seems to be full of holiness and loves everybody and does every good act he can, but because he’s a fool it all comes to nothing — to worse than nothing, because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can”t tell where it’ll end up. Did you know that Prudence was named as one of the Virtues? There’s the trouble with your fool-saint, y’see — no Prudence. Nothing but a lotta bad luck’ll rub off on you from one of them. Did you know bad luck could be catching? There’s a theological name for it, but I misremember it right now. “Yes, I know a lot of the saints have done strange things, but I don’t recall any of ’em traipsing through the streets with a basketful o’ wilted lettuce and wormy spuds, or bringing scandal on their town by shameless goings-on. No, no; the poor soul is a fool-saint if she’s anything, and I’d strongly advise you to keep clear of her.”

So, back to Toronto with a flea in my ear, and advice from Father Regan so obviously good and kind that I had either to take it or else hate Regan for giving it. Knowing by now what a high-stomached fellow I was, you can guess which I did. Within a week I was at Weston, talking with my fool-saint once again.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson