Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

My solution was typical of me. I developed all the pictures as carefully as I could, enlarged the best ones (all those of Leola), returned them without a word, and waited to see what would happen.

Next time I dined with them all the pictures were brought out, and Boy went through them slowly, telling me exactly what H.R.H. had said as each one was taken. At last we came to the ones of Leola.

“Oh, don”t show those!”

“Why not?”


“Dunny’s seen them before, you know. He developed them, I expect he kept a set for himself.”

“No,” I said, “as a matter of fact I didn’t.”

“The more fool you. You’ll never see pictures of a prettier girl –”

“Boy, please put them away or I’ll have to go upstairs. I don’t want Dunny to see them while I’m here.”

“Leo, I never thought you were such a little prude.”

“Boy, it isn’t nice.”

“Nice, nice, nice! Of course it isn’t nice! Only fools worry about what’s nice. Now sit here by me, and Dunny on the other side, and be proud of what a stunner you are.”

So Leola, sensing a row from the edge in his voice, sat between us while Boy showed the pictures, telling me what lens apertures he had used, and how he had arranged the lights, and how he had achieved certain “values” which, in fact, made Leola’s rose-leaf bottom look like sharkskin and her nipples glare when they should have blushed. He seemed to enjoy Leola’s discomfiture thoroughly; it was educational for her to learn that her beauty had public as well as private significance. He recalled Margot Asquith’s account of receiving callers in her bath though — he was always a careless reader — he did not remember the circumstances correctly.

As we drew near the end of the show he turned to me and said with a grin, “I hope you don’t find it too hot in here, old man.”

As a matter of fact I did find it hot. All the anger I had felt when developing the pictures had returned. But I said I was quite comfortable.

“Oh. I just thought you might find the situation a bit unusual, as Leo does.”

“Unusual but not unprecedented. Call it historical — even mythological.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s happened before, you know. Do you remember the story of Gyges and King Candaules?”

“Never heard of them.”

“I thought not. Well, Candaules was a king of Lydia a long time ago, and he was so proud of his wife’s beauty that he insisted his friend Cyges should see her naked.”

“Generous chap. What happened?”

“There are two versions. One is that the Queen took a fancy to Gyges and together they pushed Candaules off his throne.”

“Really? Not much chance of that here, is there, Leo? You’d find my throne a bit too big, Dunny.”

“The other is that Gyges killed Candaules.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll do that, Dunny.”

I didn’t suppose so myself. But I think I stirred some uxorious fire in Boy, for nine months later I did some careful counting, and I am virtually certain that it was on that night little David was begotten. Boy was certainly a complex creature, and I am sure he loved Leola. What he thought of me I still do not know. That Leola loved him with all her unreflecting heart there would be no possible doubt. Nothing he could do would change that.


Every fortnight during the school term I made the journey to Weston on Saturday morning and had lunch with Miss Bertha Shanklin and Mrs. Dempster. It took less than half an hour on a local train, so I could leave after the Saturday morning study period for boarders, which I supervised, and be back in town by three o’clock. To have stayed longer, Miss Shanklin let me know, would have been fatiguing for poor Mary. She really meant, for herself; like many people who have charge of an invalid, she projected her own feelings on her patient, speaking for Mrs. Dempster as a priest might interpret a dull-witted god. But she was gentle and kind, and I particularly liked the way she provided her niece with pretty, fresh dresses and kept her hair clean and neat; in the Deptford days I had become used to seeing her in dirty disorder as she paced her room on the restraining rope.

At these meals Mrs. Dempster rarely spoke, and although it was clear that she recognized me as a regular visitor, nothing to suggest any memory of Deptford ever passed between us. I played fair with Miss Shanklin and appeared in the guise of a new friend; a welcome one, for they saw few men, and most women, even the most determined spinsters, like a little masculine society.

The only other man to visit that house at any time when I was there was Miss Shanklin’s lawyer, Orpheus Wettenhall. I never discovered anything about him that would explain why his parents gave him such a pretentious Christian name; perhaps it ran in the family. He invited me to call him Orph, which was what everybody called him, he said. He was an undersized, laughing man with a big walrus moustache and silver-rimmed glasses.

Orph was quite the most dedicated sportsman I have ever known. During every portion of the year when it was legal to shoot or hook any living creature, he was at it; in off-seasons he shot groundhogs and vermin beneath the notice of the law. When the trout season began, his line was in the water one minute after midnight; when deer might be shot, he lived as did Robin Hood. Like all dedicated hunters, he had to get rid of the stuff he killed; his wife “kicked over the traces” at game more than four or five times a week. He used to turn up at Miss Shanklin’s now and then, opening the front door without ceremony and shouting, “Bert! I’ve brought you a pretty!”; then he would appear an instant later with something wet or bloody, which the hired girl bore away, while Miss Shanklin gave a nicely judged performance of delight at his goodness and horror at the sight of something the intrepid Orph had slain with his own hands.

He was a gallant little particle, and I liked him because he was so cheerful and considerate towards Miss Shanklin and Mrs. Dempster. He often urged me to join him in slaughter, but I pled my wooden leg as an excuse for keeping out of the woods. I had had all the shooting I wanted in the war.

I began my visits in the autumn of 1928 and was faithful in them till February 1932, when Miss Shanklin took pneumonia and died. I did not know of it until I received a letter from Wettenhall, bidding me to the funeral and adding that we must have a talk afterward.

It was one of those wretched February funerals, and I was glad to get away from the graveyard into Wettenhall’s hot little office. He was in a black suit, the only time I ever saw him in other than sporting clothes.

“Let’s cut the cackle, Ramsay,” he said, pouring us each a hearty drink of rye, in glasses with other people’s lipmarks on the rims. “It’s as simple as this: you’re named as Bert’s executor. Everything goes to Mary Dempster except some small legacies one to me, the old sweetheart, for taking good care of her affairs – and a handful of others. You are to have five thousand a year, on a condition. That condition is that you get yourself appointed Mary Dempster’s guardian and undertake to look after her and administer her money for her as long as she lives. I’m to see that the Public Guardian is satisfied. After Mary’s death everything goes to you. When all debts and taxes are paid, Bert ought to cut up at — certainly not less than a quarter of a million, maybe three hundred thousand. You’re allowed to reject the responsibility, and the legacy as well, if you don’t want to be bothered. You’ll want a couple of days to think it over.”

I agreed, though I knew already that I would accept. I said some conventional but perfectly sincere things about how much I had liked Miss Shanklin and how I would miss her.

“You and me both,” said Orph. “I loved Bert — in a perfectly decent way, of course — and damned if I know how things will be without her.”

He handed me a copy of the will, and I went back to town. I did not go to see Mrs. Dempster, who had not, of course, been to the funeral. I would attend to that when I had made some other arrangements.

The next day I made inquiries as to how I could be appointed the guardian of Mary Dempster and found that it was not a very complicated process but would take time. I experienced a remarkable rising of my spirits, which I can only attribute to the relief of guilt. As a child I had felt oppressively responsible for her, but I had thought all that was dissipated in the war. Was not a leg full and fair payment for an evil action? This was primitive thinking, and I had no trouble dismissing it — so it seemed. But the guilt had only been thrust away, or thrust down out of sight, for here it was again, in full strength, clamouring to be atoned, now that the opportunity offered itself.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson