Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I, however, had one or two new ideas about Uncumber, which I wanted to test. The first was that her legend might be a persistence of the hermaphrodite figure of the Great Mother, which was long worshipped in Cyprus and Carthage. Many a useful and popular wonder-working figure had been pinched from the pagans by Christians in early days, and some not so early. My other bit of information came from two physicians at the State University of New York, Dr. Moses and Dr. Lloyd, who had published some findings about abnormal growth of hair in unusually emotional women; they instanced a number of cases of beard-growing in girls who had been crossed in love; furthermore, two English doctors attested to a thick beard grown by a girl whose engagement had been brutally terminated. Anything here for Uncumber? I was on my way to Europe to find out.

So I jaunted cheerfully about the Continent on my apparently mad mission, hunting up Uncumber in remote villages as well as in such easy and pleasant places as Beauvais and Wissant, and once positively identifying an image that was said to be Uncumber (Wilgeforte, she was locally called, and the priest was rather ashamed of her) as Galla, the patroness of widows, who is also sometimes represented with a beard. It was not until August that I arrived in the Tyrol, searching for a shrine that was in a village about thirty-five miles northwest of Innsbruck.

It was about the size of Deptford, and its three inns did not expect many visitors from North America; this was still before the winter sports enthusiasm opened up every Tyrolean village and forced something like modern sanitation on every inn and guest-house. I settled in at the inevitable Red Horse and looked about me.

I was not the only stranger in the village.

A tent and some faded banners in the market-place announced the presence of Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite. I was certainly not the man to neglect a circus dedicated to St. Vitus, patron of travelling showmen, and still invoked in country places against chorea and palsy and indeed anything that made the body shake. The banners showed neither the cock nor the dog that the name of St. Vitus would have suggested, but they promised a Human Frog, Le plus grand des Tyroliens, Le Solitaire des forets and — luck for me — La Femme a barbe. I determined to see this bearded lady, and if possible to find out if she had been violently crossed in love.

As a circus it was a pitiable affair. Everything about it stank of defeat and misery. There was no planned performance; now and then, when a sufficient crowd had assembled, a pair of gloomy acrobats did some tumbling and walked a slack wire. The Human Frog sat down on his own head, but with the air of one who took no pleasure in it. The Wild Man roared and chewed perfunctorily on a piece of raw meat to which a little fur still clung; the lecturer hinted darkly that we ought to keep our dogs indoors that night, but nobody seemed afraid. When not on view the Wild Man sat quietly, and from the motion of his jaws I judged that he was solacing himself with a quid of chewing tobacco.

There was an achondroplasic dwarf who danced on broken bottles; his bare feet were dirty, and from repeated dancing the glass had lost its sharpness. Their great turn was a wretched fellow — Rinaldo the Heteradelphian — who removed his robe and showed us that below his breast grew a pitiful wobbling lump that the eye of faith, assisted by the lecturer”s description, might accept as a pair of small buttocks and what could have been two little legs without feet — an imperfect twin. The bearded lady sat and knitted; her low-cut gown, revealing the foothills of enormous breasts, dispelled any idea that she was a fake. It was upon her that I fixed my attention, for the Heteradelphian and the frowst of Tyrolean lederhosen were trying, even for one used to a roomful of schoolboys.

I had had enough of Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite and was about to leave when a young man leapt up on the platform beside Le Solitaire des forets and began, rapidly and elegantly, to do tricks with cards. It was Paul Dempster.

I had acquiesced for some time in the opinion put forward by Mr. Mahaffey and Miss Shanklin that Paul must be dead, or certainly lost forever. Seeing him now, however, I felt no disbelief and no uncertainty. I had last seen Paul in 1915, when he was seven; fourteen years later many men would have been unrecognizably changed, from child to man, but I knew him in an instant. After all, he had been my pupil in the art of manipulating cards and coins, and I had watched him very closely as he demonstrated his superiority to my clumsy self. His face had changed from child to man, but his hands and his style of using them were not to be mistaken.

He gave his patter in French, dropping occasionally into German with an Austrian accent. He was very good — excellent, indeed, but too good for his audience. Those among them who were card-players plainly belonged to the class who play very slow games at the inns they frequent, laying down each card as if it weighed a pound and shuffling with deliberation. His rapid passes and brilliant manipulations dazzled without enlightening them. So it was when he began to work with coins. “Secure and palm six half-crowns” — the daunting phrase came to my mind again as Paul did precisely that with the big Austrian pieces, plucking them from the beards of grown men or seeming to milk them from the noses of children, or nipping them up with long fingers from the bodices of giggling girls. It was the simplest but also the most difficult kind of conjuring because it depended on the most delicate manual skill; he brought an elegance to it that was as good as anything I had ever seen, for my old enthusiasm had led me to see a conjurer whenever I could.

When he wanted a watch to smash I offered mine, to get his eye, but he ignored it in favour of a large silver turnip handed up by a Tyrolean of some substance. Do what I could, he would not look at me, though I was a conspicuous figure as the only man in the audience not in local dress. When he had beaten the watch to pieces, made the pieces disappear, and invited a large countrywoman to return the watch from her knitting-bag, the performance was over, and the Tyroleans moved heavily towards the door of the tent.

I lingered, and addressed him in English. He replied in French, and when I changed to French he turned at once to German. I was not to be beaten. What passed between us took quite a long time and was slow and uneasy, but in the end he admitted that he was Paul Dempster — or had been so many years before. He had been Faustus Legrand for more years than the ten during which he answered to his earlier name. I spoke of his mother; told him that I had seen her not long before I came abroad. He did not answer.

Little by little, however, I got on better terms with him, principally because the other members of the troupe were curious to know what such a stranger as I wanted with one of them, and crowded around with frank curiosity. I let them know that I was from the village of Paul’s birth, and with some of the cunning I had learned when trying to get priests and sacristans to talk about local shrines and the doings of saints, I let it be known that I would consider it an honour to provide the friends of Faustus Legrand with a drink — probably more than one drink.

This eased up the atmosphere at once, and the Bearded Lady, who seemed to be the social leader of Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite, organized a party in a very few minutes and closed the tent to business. They all, except Le Solitaire des forets (who had the eyes of a dope-taker), were very fond of drink, and soon we were accommodated with a couple of bottles of that potato spirit sophisticated with brown sugar that goes by the name of Rhum in Austria, but which is not to be confused with rum. I set to work, on this foundation, to make myself popular.

It is not hard to be popular with any group, whether composed of the most conventional Canadians or of Central European freaks, if one is prepared to talk to people about themselves. In an hour I had heard about the Heteradelphian’s daughter, who sang in a tight opera chorus in Vienna, and about his wife, who had unaccountably wearied of his multiple attractions. The dwarf, who was shy and not very bright, took to me because I saw that he had his fair share of the Rhum. The Human Frog was a German and very cranky about war reparations, and I assured him that everybody in Canada thought they were a crying shame. I was not playing false with these poor people; they were off duty and wanted to be regarded as human beings, and I was quite ready to oblige. I became personal only with the Bearded Lady, to whom I spoke of my search for the truth about Uncumber; she was entranced by the story of the saint and insisted that I repeat it for all to hear; she took it as a tribute to Bearded Ladies in general, and began seriously to discuss having a new banner painted, in which she would advertise herself as Mme Wilgeforte, and be depicted crucified, gazing sternly at the departing figure of a pagan fiance. Indeed, this was my best card, for the strangeness of my quest seemed to qualify me as a freak myself and make me more than ever one of the family.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson