Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies


She was now forty but looked younger. An unremarkable woman really, except for great sweetness of expression; her dress was simple, and I suppose the aunt chose it, for it was a good deal longer than the fashion of the time and had a homemade air. She had no recollection of me, to begin with, but when I spoke of Paul I roused painful associations, and the aunt had to intervene, and take her away.

The aunt had not wanted to let me in the house, and as I thought this might be so I presented myself at the door without warning. Miss Bertha Shanklin was very small, of an unguessable age, and had gentle, countrified manners. Her house was pretty and suggested an old-fashioned son of cultivation; much was ugly in the style of fifty years before, but nothing was trashy; there were a few mosaic boxes, and a couple of muddy oil paintings of the Italian Campagna with classical ruins and picturesque peasants, which suggested that somebody had been to Italy. Miss Shanklin let me talk with Mrs. Dempster for ten minutes or so, before she took her away. I stayed where I was, though decency suggested that it was time for me to go.

“I am sure you mean this visit kindly, Mr. Ramsay,” she said when she returned, “but you can see for yourself that my niece is not up to receiving callers. There’s not a particle of sense in reminding her of the days past — it frets her and does no good. So I’ll say good-afternoon, and thank you for calling.”

I talked as well as I could about why I had come, and of my concern for her niece, to whom I owed a great debt. I said nothing of saints; that was not Miss Shanklin’s line. But I talked about childhood kindness, and my mother’s concern for Mary Dempster, and my sense of guilt that I had not sought her before. This brought about a certain melting.

“That’s real kind of you. I know some terrible things went on in Deptford, and it’s good to know not everybody has forgotten poor Mary. I suppose I can say to you that I always thought the whole affair was a mistake. Amasa Dempster was a good man, I suppose, but Mary had been used to an easier life — not silly-easy, you understand me, but at least some of the good things. I won’t pretend I was friendly towards the match, and I guess I have to bear some of the blame. They didn’t exactly run away, but it hurt me the way they managed things, as if there wasn’t a soul in the world but themselves. I could have made it easier for her, but Amasa was so proud and even a little mite hateful about Mary having any money of her own that I just said, All right, they can paddle their own canoe. It cost me a good deal to do that. I never saw Paul, you know, and I’d certainly have done anything in the world for him if I could have got things straight with his father. But I guess a little bit of money made me proud, and religion made him proud, and then it was too late. I love her so much, you see. She’s all the family I’ve got. Love can make you do some mean actions when you think it has been snubbed. I was mean, I grant you. But I’m trying to do what I can now, when I guess it’s too late.”

Miss Shanklin wept, not aloud or passionately, but to the point of having to wipe her eyes and depart for the kitchen to ask for some tea. By the time this tea was brought — by the “hired girl”, whose softening influence on Mary Dempster had been so deplored by the matrons of Amasa Dempster’s congregation — Miss Shanklin and I were on quite good terms.

“I love to hear you say that Mary was so good and sweet, even after that terrible accident — it was an accident, wasn’t it? A blow on the head? From a fall or something? — and that you thought of her even when you were away at the war. I always had such hopes for her. Not just to keep her with me, of course, but — well, I know she loved Amasa Dempster, and love is supposed to excuse anything. But I am sure there would have been other men, and she could hardly have been worse off with one of them, now could she? Life with Amasa seems to have been so dark and wintry and hopeless. Mary used to be so full of hope — before she married.

“Now she remembers so little, and it’s better so, because when she does remember she thinks of Paul. I don’t even let myself speculate on what would happen to a little fellow like that, running away with show folks. As like as not he’s dead long since, and better so, I suppose. But of course she thinks of him as a little boy still. She has no idea of time, you see. When she thinks of him, it’s awful to hear her cry and carry on. And I can’t get rid of the feeling that if I had just had a little more real sand and horse sense, things would have been very different.

“I’d meant to tell you not to come again, ever, but I won’t. Come and see Mary, but promise you’ll get to know her again, as a new friend. She hasn’t any idea of the past, except for horrible mixed-up memories of being tied up, and Paul disappearing, and Amasa — she always remembers him with a blue mouth, like a rotten hole in his face — telling God he forgave her for ruining his life. Amasa died praying, did you know?”


It was the following May, in the fated year 1929, that I had a call from Boy — in itself an unusual thing, but even more unusual in its message.

“Dunny, don’t be in too much of a rush, but you oughtn’t to lose more than a couple of weeks in getting rid of some of your things.” And he named half-a-dozen stocks he knew I had, because he had himself advised me to buy them.

“But they’re mounting every week,” I said.

“That’s right,” said he; “now sell ’em and get hold of some good hard stuff. I’ll see that you get another good block of Alpha.”

So that is what I did, and it is to Boy’s advice I owe a reputation I acquired in the school as a very shrewd businessman. Just about every master, like some millions of other people on this continent, had money in the market, and most of them had invested on margin and were cleaned out before Christmas. But I found myself pleasantly well off when the worst of the crash came, because Boy Staunton regarded me as in certain respects a responsibility.

My mind was not on money at the time, however, for I was waiting impatiently for the end of term so that I could take ship and set out on a great hunt, starting in England and making my way across France, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, and at last to Czechoslovakia. This was the first of my annual journeys, broken only by the 1939-45 war, saint-hunting, saint-identifying, and saint-describing; journeys that led to my book A Hundred Saints for Travellers, still in print in six languages and a lively seller, to say nothing of my nine other books, and my occasional articles. This time I was after big game, a saint never satisfactorily described and occurring in a variety of forms, whose secret I hoped to discover.

There is a saint for just about every human situation, and I was on the track of a curious specimen whose intercession was sought by girls who wanted to get rid of disagreeable suitors. Her home ground, so to speak, was Portugal, and she was reputed to have been the daughter of a Portuguese king, himself a pagan, who had betrothed her to the King of Sicily; but she was a Christian and had made a vow of virginity, and when she prayed for assistance in keeping it, she miraculously grew a heavy beard; the Sicilian king refused to have her, and her angry father caused her to be crucified.

It was my purpose to visit every shrine of this odd saint, compare all versions of the legend, establish or demolish the authenticity of a prayer reputedly addressed to her and authorized by a Bishop of Rouen in the sixteenth century, and generally to poke my nose into anything that would shed light on her mystery. Her case abounded with the difficulties that people of my temperament love. She was commonly called Wilgefortis, supposed to be derived from Virgo-Fortis, but she was also honoured under the names of Liberata, Kummernis, Ontkommena, Uvrade, and in England — she once had a shrine in St. Paul’s — as Uncumber. The usual fate for Wilgefortis, among the more conservative hagiologists, was dismissal as an ignorant peasant misunderstanding of one of the many paintings of the Holy Face of Lucca, in which a long-haired and bearded figure in a long robe hangs from a cross; it is, of course, Christ, reputedly painted by St. Luke himself; but many copies of it might well be pictures of a bearded lady.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson