Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

When we needed more Rhum I contrived that Paul should go for it; I judged that the time had come when his colleagues would talk to me about him. And so it was.

“He stays with us only because of Le Solitaire,” said the Bearded Lady. “I will not conceal from you, Monsieur, that Le Solitaire is not a well man, nor could he travel alone. Faustus very properly acknowledges a debt of gratitude, for before Le Solitaire became so incapable that he was forced to adopt the undemanding role of un solitaire, he had his own show of which Faustus was a part, and Faustus regards Le Solitaire as his father in art, if you understand the professional expression. I think it was Le Solitaire who brought him home from America.”

It was a very merry evening, and before it was over I had danced with the Bearded Lady to music provided by the dwarf, who whistled a polka and drummed with his feet; the sight of a wooden-legged man dancing seemed hilariously funny to the artistes of the one-eyed little circus as the Rhum got to them. When we broke up I had a short private conversation with Paul.

“May I tell your mother that I have seen you?”

“I cannot prevent it, Monsieur Ramsay, but I see no point in it.”

“Grief at losing you has made her very unwell.”

“As I mean to remain lost I do not see what good it would do to tell her about me.”

“I am sorry you have so little feeling for her.”

“She is part of a past that cannot be recovered or changed by anything I can do now. My father always told me it was my birth that robbed her of her sanity. So as a child I had to carry the weight of my mother’s madness as something that was my own doing. And I had to bear the cruelty of people who thought her kind of madness was funny — a dirty joke. So far as I am concerned, it is over, and if she dies mad, who will not say that she is better dead?”

So next morning I went on my journey in search of the truth about Uncumber, after I had made the necessary arrangements for more money. Because somebody at Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite had stolen my pocket-book, and everything pointed to Paul.


Gyges and King Candaules


Boy Staunton made a great deal of money during the Depression because he dealt extensively in solaces. When a man is down on his luck he seems to consume all he can get of coffee and doughnuts. The sugar in the coffee was Boy’s sugar, and the doughnuts were his doughnuts. When an overdriven woman without money to give her children a decent meal must give them something bulky, sweet, and interesting to stop their crying, she probably gives them a soft drink; it was Boy’s soft drink. When a welfare agency wants to take the harsh look of bare necessity off a handout basket, it puts in a bag of candies for the children; they were Boy’s candies. Behind tons of cheap confectionery, sweets, snacks, nibbles, biscuits, and simple cooking sugar, and the accompanying oceans of fizzy, sweet water, disguised with chemical versions of every known fruit flavour, stood Boy Staunton, though not many people knew it. He was the president and managing director of Alpha Corporation, a much-respected company that made nothing itself but controlled all the other companies that did.

He was busy and he was adventurous. When he first went into the bread business, because a large company was in difficulties and could be bought at a rock-bottom price, I asked him why he did not try beer as well.

“I may do that when the economy is steadier,” he said, “but at present I feel I should do everything I can to see that people have necessities.” And we both took reflective pulls at the excellent whiskies-and-soda he had provided.

Boy’s new bread company made quite a public stir with their advertisements declaring that they would hold the price of bread steady And they did so, though the loaves seemed to be a bit puflier and gassier than they had been before We ate them at school so I was able to judge.

There was filial piety, as well as altruism in Boy’s decision. Old Doc Staunton’s annoyance at being outsmarted by his son had given way to his cupidity, and the old man was a large holder in Alpha. To have associated him with beer would have made trouble, and Boy never looked for trouble.

“Alpha concentrates on necessities,” Boy liked to say. “In times like these people need cheap nourishing food. If a family can’t buy meat, our vitammized biscuits are still within their reach.” So much so indeed, that Boy was fast becoming one of the truly rich, by which I mean one of those men whose personal income, though large, is a trifling part of the huge, mystical ho of wealth that stands behind them and cannot be counted, only estimated.

A few cranky politicians of the most radical party tried to estimate it in order to show that, in some way, the very existence of Boy was intolerable in a country where people were in want. But like so many idealists they did not understand money, and after a meeting where they had lambasted Boy and others like him and threatened to confiscate their wealth at the first opportunity, they would adjourn to cheap restaurants, where they drank his sugar and ate his sugar, and smoked cigarettes which had they known it, benefited some other monster they sought to destroy.

I used to hear him abused by some of the junior masters at the school. They were Englishmen or Canadians who had studied in England and they were full of the wisdom of the London School of Economics and the doctrine of The New Statesman, copies of which used to limp into the Common Room about a month after publication. I have never been sure of my own political opinions (historical studies and my fondness for myth and legend have always blunted my political partisanship), but it amused me to hear these poor fellows, working for terrible salaries, denouncing Boy and a handful of others as “ca-pittle-ists”; they always stressed the middle syllables, this being a fashionable pronunciation of the period, and one that seemed to make rich men especially contemptible. I never raised my voice in protest, and none of my colleagues ever knew that I was personally acquainted with the ca-pittle-ist whose good looks, elegant style of life, and somewhat gross success made their own hard fortune and their leather-elbowed jackets and world weary flannel trousers seem pitiful. This was not disloyalty, rather, it seemed to me that the Boy they hated and did not know was unrelated to the Boy I saw about once a fortnight and often more frequently.

I owed this position to the fact that I was the only person to whom he could talk frankly about Leola. She was trying hard, but she could not keep pace with Boy’s social advancement. He was a genius — that is to say, a man who does superlatively and without obvious effort something that most people cannot do by the uttermost exertion of their abilities. He was a genius at making money, and that is as uncommon as great achievement in the arts. The simplicity of his concepts and the masterly way in which they were carried through made jealous people say he was lucky and people like my schoolmaster colleagues say he was a crook; but he made his own luck, and no breath of financial scandal ever came near him.

His ambitions did not rest in finance alone: he had built firmly on his association with the Prince of Wales, and though in hard fact it did not amount to more than the reception of a monogrammed Christmas card once a year, it bulked substantially, though never quite to the point of absurdity, in his conversation. “He isn’t joining them at Sandringham this year,” he would say as Christmas drew near, “pretty stuffy, I suppose.” And somehow this suggested that he had some inside information — perhaps a personal letter — though everybody who read the newspapers knew as much. All Boy’s friends had to be pretty spry at knowing who “he” was, or they ceased to be friends. In a less glossily successful young man this would have been laughable, but the people Boy knew were not the kind of people who laughed at several million dollars. It was after David’s birth it became clear that Leola was lagging in the upward climb.

A woman can go just so far on the capital of being a pretty girl Leola, like Boy and myself, was now past youth; he was two months younger than I, though I looked older than thirty-two and he somewhat less. Leola was not a full year younger han we, and her girlishness was not well suited to her age or her position. She had toiled at the lessons in bridge, mah-jongg, golf, and tennis; she had plodded through the Books-of-the-Month, breaking down badly in Kristin Lavransdatter; she had listened with mystification to gramophone records of Le Sacre du Printemps and with the wrong kind of enjoyment to Ravel’s Bolero; but nothing made any impression on her, and bewilderment and a sense of failure had begun to possess her. She had lost heart in the fight to become the sort of sophisticated, cultivated, fashionably alert woman Boy wanted for a wife. She loved shopping, but her clothes were wrong; she had a passion for pretty things and leaned towards the frilly at a time when fashion demanded clean lines and a general air of knowingness in women”s clothes. If Boy let her shop alone she always came back with what he called “another god-damned Mary Pickford rig-out,” and if he took her shopping in Paris the sessions often ended in tears, because he sided with the clever shopwomen against his indecisive wife, who always forgot her painfully acquired French as soon as she was confronted with a living French creature. Nor did she speak English as became the wife of one who had once hobnobbed with a Prince and might do so again. If she positively had to use hick expressions, I once heard Boy tell her, she might at least say “For Heaven’s sake,” and not “For Heaven sakes.” And “supper” was a meal one ate after the theatre, not the meal they ate every night at half-past seven. Nor could she learn when to refer to herself as “one”, or remember not to say “between you and I.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson