Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Of course it was not always as black-and-white as this. I remember very well when first she discovered that he was having affairs with other women. She did so by the classic mishap of finding a revealing note in his pocket — the Stauntons rarely escaped cliche in any of the essential matters of life.

I knew of his philandering, of course, for Boy could not keep anything to himself and used to justify his conduct to me late at night, when we had both had plenty of his whisky. “A man with my physical needs can’t be tied down to one woman — especially not a woman who doesn’t see sex as a partnership — who doesn’t give anything, who just lies there like a damned sandbag,” he would say, making agonized faces so that I would know how tortured he was.

He was explicit about his sexual needs; he had to have intercourse often, and it had to be all sorts of things — intense, passionate, cruel, witty, challenging — and he had to have it with a Real Woman. It all sounded very exhausting and strangely like a sharp workout with the punching bag; I was glad I was not so demandingly endowed. So there were two or three women in Montreal — not whores, mind you, but women of sophistication and spirit, who demanded their independence even though they were married — whom he visited as often as he could. He had business associations in Montreal and it was easy.

The mention of business reminds me of another phase of Boy’s sexuality of which he was certainly unconscious, but which I saw at work on several occasions. It was what I thought of as Corporation Homosexuality. He was always on the lookout for promising young men who could be advanced in his service. They must be keen apostles of sugar, or doughnuts, or pop, or whatever it might be, but they must also be “clean-cut”. Whenever he discovered one of these, Boy would “take him up” — ask him to luncheon at his club, to dinner at his home, and to private chats in his office. He would explain the mystique of business to the young man and push him ahead as fast as possible in the corporation, sometimes to the chagrin of older men who were not clean-cut but merely capable and efficient.

After a few months of such an association disillusion would come. The clean-cut young man, being ambitious and no more given to gratitude than ambitious people usually are, would assume that all of this was no more than his due and would cease to be as eagerly receptive and admiring as he had been at the beginning of the affair, and might even display a mind of his own. Boy was dismayed to find that these proteges thought him lucky to have such gifted associates as themselves.

Some went so far as to marry on the strength of their new-found hopes, and Boy always asked them to bring their brides to dinner at his house. Afterward he would demand of me why a clean-cut young fellow with everything in his favour would wreck his chances by marrying a girl who was obviously a dumb cluck and would simply hold him back from real success in the corporation? One way or another, Boy was disappointed in most of these clean-cut young men; of those who survived this peril he wearied in the natural course of things, and they became well placed but not influential in his empire.

I do not suggest that Boy ever recognized these young men as anything but business associates; but they were business associates with an overtone of Jove’s cup-bearer that I, at least, could not ignore. Corporation Ganymedes, they did not know their role and thus were disappointments.

Leola’s awakening came at the fated Christmas of 1936. It had been an emotionally exhausting year for Boy. The old King, George V, had died in January, and in memory of that glance that had once passed between us I wore a black tie for a week. But Boy was in high feather, for “he” would at last mount the Throne; they had not met for nine years, but Boy was as faithful to his hero as ever. He reported every bit of gossip that came his way; there would be great changes, a Throne more meaningful than ever before, a wholesale ousting of stupid old men, a glorious upsurge of youth around the new King, and of course a gayer Court — the gayest, probably, since that of Charles the Second. And a gay Court, to Boy, meant an exaltation of the punching-bag attitude to sex. If he had ever read any of those psychologists who assert that a crowned and anointed King is the symbolic phallus of his people, Boy would have agreed whole-heartedly.

As everyone knows, it was not long before the news took a contrary turn. On the North American continent we got it sooner than the people of England, for our papers did not have to be so tactful. The young King — he was forty-two, but to people like Boy he seemed very young — was having trouble with the old men, and the old men with him. Stanley Baldwin, who had been with him on that visit to Canada in 1927 and whom Boy had revered as a statesman with a strong literary bent, became a personal enemy of Boy’s, and he spoke of the Archbishop of Canterbury in terms that even Woodiwiss — now an archdeacon — found it hard to overlook.

When the crisis came, there was some extravagant talk of forming a group of “King’s Men” who would, in an unspecified way, rally to the side of their hero and put his chosen lady beside him on the Throne. Boy was determined to be a King’s Man; everybody who considered himself a gentleman, and a man who understood the demanding nature of love, must necessarily feel as he did. He lectured me about it every time we met; as a historian I was very sorry for the King but could see no clear or good way out of the mess. I believe Boy even sent a few telegrams of encouragement, but I never heard of any answers. When the black month of November came I began to fear for his reason; he read everything, heard every radio report, and snatched at every scrap of gossip. I was not with him when he heard the sad broadcast of Abdication on December 11, but I looked in at his house that evening and found him, for the only time in his life, to my knowledge, very drunk and alternating between tears and dreadful tirades against all the repressive forces that worked against true love and the expression of a man’s real self.

Christmas was a dark day at the Stauntons’. Leola had had to buy all the presents for the children, and Boy found fault with most of them. The fat janitor from the Alpha offices appeared in a hired suit to play Santa Claus, and Boy told him, in front of the children, not to make a jackass of himself but to get on with his job and get out. He would not open his own gifts from Leola and the children. By the time I had made my visit to Mrs. Dempster at the hospital, and turned up for midday Christmas dinner, Leola was in tears. David was huddled up in a corner with a book he was not reading, and Caroline was rampaging through the house demanding attention for a doll she had broken. I joked with David, mended the doll so that it was crippled but in one piece, and tried to be decent to Leola. Boy told me that if I had to behave like one of the bloody saints I was always yapping about, he wished I would do it somewhere else. I unwisely told him to take his Abdication like a man, and he became silently hateful and soured the food in our stomachs. He announced that he was going for a walk, and he was going alone.

Leola, grieved for him, went to fetch his overcoat and happened on the note from one of the great-spirited women in Montreal while looking for his gloves in a pocket. She was crouching on the stairs, sobbing dreadfully, when he went out into the hall, and he took in the meaning of her desolation at a glance.

“There’s no reason to carry on like that,” he said, picking up the fallen coat and putting it on. “Your situation is perfectly secure. But if you think I intend to be tied down to this sort of thing” — and he gestured towards the drawing-room, which was, I must say, a dismal, toy-littered waste of wealthy, frumpish domesticity — “you can think again.” And off he went, leaving Leola howling.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson