Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I wish I did not have to say howling, but Leola was not beautiful in her grief. The nurse was off duty for the day, but I managed to shoo the children upstairs to their own quarters and spent a hard hour quieting her. I wish I could say I comforted her, but only one man could have done that, and he was trudging through the snow, deep in some egotistical hell of his own. At last I persuaded her to sleep, or at least to lie down, and wait to see what would happen. Nothing was ever quite so bad as it looked, I assured her. I did not really believe it, but I intended to have a word with Boy.

She went to her room, and when I thought a sufficient time had passed I went up to see how things were getting on. She had washed her face and tidied her hair and was in bed in one of the expensive nightdresses Boy liked.

“Will you be all right if I go now?”

“Kiss me, Dunny. No, not like that. That’s just a peck. You used to like to kiss me.”

Whether she knew it or not, this was an invitation that might lead to much more. Was the story of Gyges and Candaules to have the ending in which Gyges takes his friend’s wife? No; upon the whole I thought not. But I leaned over and kissed her a little less formally.

“That’s no good. Kiss me really.”

So I did, and if my artificial leg had not given an ominous croak as I knelt on the bed I might have gone on, doubtless to cuckold Boy Staunton, which he certainly deserved. But I recovered myself and stood up and said, “You must sleep now. I’ll look in later tonight and we’ll talk with Boy.”

“You don’t love me!” she wailed.

I hurried out the door as she burst into tears again.

Of course I didn’t love her. Why would I? It had been at least ten years since I had thought of her with anything but pity. I had made my bed and I intended to lie on it, and there was no room for Leola in it. On my last few visits abroad I had spent a weekend with Diana and her husband at their delightful country house near Canterbury and had enjoyed myself greatly. I had survived my boyish love for Diana, and I certainly had survived anything I ever felt for Leola: I was not to be a victim of her self-pity. The emotional upheaval caused by her disappointment about Boy’s unfaithfulness had sharpened her sexual appetite; that was all. I do not suppose Boy had slept with her since the beginning of the trouble that led to the Abdication. I was not going to be the victim of somebody else’s faulty chronology. I went for a walk myself, had another christmas dinner — it was impossible to avoid heavy food on that day — and arrived back at the school at about nine o’clock, intending to do some reading.

Instead I was greeted by a message from the furnace man, who was the only person left on duty that day. I was to call the Stauntons’ number at once. It was an emergency.

I called, and the children”s nurse spoke. She had come back from her holiday, found the housemaid and the cook and butler still out, and had looked in on Mrs. Staunton to say goodnight. Had found her in a very bad way. Did not like to explain over the phone. Yes, had called the doctor but it was Christmas night and an hour had gone by and he still had not come. Would I come at once? Yes, it was very serious.

The nurse was becoming a little hysterical, and I hurried to obey. But on Christmas night it is not simple to get taxis, and altogether it was half an hour before I ran upstairs to Leola’s bedroom and found her in bed, white as the sheets, with her wrists bound up in gauze, and the nurse near to fits.

“Look at this,” she said, gasping, and pushed me towards the bathroom.

The bath seemed to be full of blood. Apparently Leola had cut her wrists and laid herself down to die in the high Roman fashion, in a warm bath. But she was not a good anatomist and had made a gory but not a fatal job of it.

The doctor came not long after, rather drunk but fairly capable. The nurse had done all that was immediately necessary, so he re-dressed the wrists, gave Leola an injection of something, and said he would call again on Boxing Day.

“I sent for you at once because of this,” said the nurse as soon as the doctor had gone. She handed me a letter with my name on the envelope. It read:

Dearest Dunny:

This is the end. Boy does not love me and you don’t either so it is best for me to go. Think of me sometimes. I always loved you.



Fool, fool, fool! Thinking only of herself and putting me in an intolerable position with such a note. If she had died, how would it have sounded at an inquest? As it was, I am sure the nurse read it, for it was not sealed. I was furious with Leola, poor idiot. No note for Boy. No, just a note for me, which would have made me look like a monster if she had not made a mess of this, as of so much else.

However, as she began to pull around I could not reproach her, though I was very careful not to mention the note. Nor did she. It was never spoken of between us.

Boy could not be found. His business address in Montreal knew nothing of him, and he did not return until after New Year’s Day, by which time Leola was on the mend, though feeble. What passed between them I do not know and was never told, but from that time onward they seemed to rub along without open disagreement, though Leola faded rapidly and looked more than her years. Indeed, the pretty face that had once ensnared both Boy and me became pudgy and empty. Leola had joined the great company of the walking wounded in the battle of life.

The people who seemed to suffer most from this incident were the children. The nurse, controlled and efficient in emergency, had broken down in the nursery and hinted broadly that Mummy had almost died. This, taken with the quarrel earlier in the day, was enough to put them on edge for a long time; David was increasingly quiet and mousy, but Caroline became a screamer and thrower of tantrums.

David told me many years later that he hated Christmas more than any other day in the calendar.




Let me pass as quickly as possible over the years of the Second World War — or World War Too, as the name my pupils give it always sounds in my ears; it is as if they were asserting firmly that the World War I remember so vividly was not the only, or the biggest, outburst of mass lunacy in our century. But I cannot leave it out altogether, if only because of the increase in stature it brought to Boy Staunton. His growth as an industrialist with, figuratively speaking, his finger in hundreds of millions of pies, not to speak of other popular goodies, made him a man of might in the national economy, and when the war demanded that the ablest men in the country be pressed into the national service, who but he was the obvious candidate for the post of Minister of Food in a coalition Cabinet?

He was very good in the job. He knew how to get things done, and he certainly knew what the great mass of people like to eat. He put the full resources of his Alpha Corporation, and all the subsidiary companies it controlled, to the job of feeding Canada, feeding its armed services, and feeding Britain so far as the submarine war would permit. He was tireless in promoting research that would produce new concentrates — chiefly from fruits — that would keep fighting men, and the children in a bombed country, going when bulkier eatables were not to be had. If the average height of the people of the British Isles is rather greater today than it was in 1939, much of the credit must go to Boy Staunton. He was one of the few men not a professional scientist who really knew what a vitamin was and where it could be found and put to work cheaply.

Of course he had to spend most of his time in Ottawa. He saw little of Leola or his children during the war years, except on flying visits during which lost intimacies could not be recaptured, not even with his adored Caroline. I saw him from time to time because he was by now a member of our Board of Governors, and also because David was a boarder in the school. David could have lived at home, but Boy wanted him to have the experience of a community life and of being disciplined by men. So the boy spent the years from his tenth to his eighteenth birthday at Colborne, and when he got into the Upper School, at about twelve, he came under my eye almost every day.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson