Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Indeed it was my duty in 1942 to tell this unhappy boy that his mother had died. Poor Leola had become more and more listless since the outbreak of war; as Boy grew in importance and his remarkable abilities became increasingly manifest, she faded. She was not one of those politicians’ wives who lets it be known that her husband’s competence is kept up to the mark by the support and understanding she gives him. Nor was she of the other strain, who tell the newspapers and the women’s clubs that though their husbands may be men of mark to the world, they are sorry wretches at home. Leola had no public life and wanted none.

She had completely given up any pretence at golf or bridge or any of the other pastimes in which she had attained to mediocrity in her younger days; she no longer read fashionable books or anything at all. Whenever I went to see her she was knitting things for the Red Cross — vast inner stockings for seaboots and the like — which she seemed to do automatically while her mind was elsewhere. I asked her to dinner a few times, and it was heavy work, though not so heavy as having dinner at the Stauntons’ house. With Boy away and both the children in school, that richly furnished barrack became more and more lifeless, and the servants were demoralized, looking after one undemanding woman who was afraid of them.

When Leola fell ill of pneumonia I informed Boy and did all the obvious things and did not worry. But that was before the drugs for dealing with pneumonia were as effective as they now are, and after the worst of it was over a considerable period of convalescence was needed. As it was difficult to travel to any warmer climate, and as there was nobody to go with Leola, she had to spend it at home. Although I cannot vouch for this, I have always thought it suspicious that Leola opened her windows one afternoon, when the nurse had closed them, and took a chill, and was dead in less than a week.

Boy was in England, arranging something or other connected with his Ministry, and duty and the difficulty of transatlantic flights in wartime kept him there. He asked me, by cable, to do what had to be done, so I arranged the funeral, which was easy, and told the people who had to be told, which was not. Caroline made a loud fuss, and I left her with some capable schoolmistress who bore the weight of that. But David astonished me.

“Poor Mum,” he said, “I guess she’s better off, really.”

Now what was I to make of that, from a boy of fourteen? And what was I to do with him? I could not send him home, and I had no home of my own except my study and bedroom in the school, so I put him there and made sure one of the matrons looked in every hour or so to see that he was not utterly desolate and had anything it was in the school’s power to give him. Fortunately he slept a lot, and at night I sent him to the infirmary, where he could have a room of his own. I kept him by me at the funeral, for both the older Stauntons were now dead, and the Cruikshanks were so desolated themselves that they could only hold hands and weep. Association with the Cruikshanks had not been encouraged by Boy, so David was not really well known to them.

It was one of those wretched late autumn funerals, and though it did not actually rain everything was wet and miserable. There were not a great many present, for all the Stauntons’ friends were important people, and it seemed that all the important people were so busy fighting the war in one way or another that they could not come. But there were mountains of costly flowers, looking particularly foolish under a November sky.

One unexpected figure was at the graveside. Older, fatter, and unwontedly quiet though he was, I knew Milo Papple in an instant. As Woodiwiss read the committal, I found myself thinking that his own father had died at least twelve years before, and I had written to Milo at that time. But the Kaiser (whom Myron Papple had impersonated so uproariously at the hanging-in-effigy after the Great War) had lived, presumably untroubled by the hatred of Deptford and places like it, until 1941; had lived at Doorn, sawing wood and wondering what world madness had dethroned him, for twenty-three years after his fall. I pondered on the longevity of dethroned monarchs when I should have been taking farewell of Leola. But I well knew that I had taken leave of her, so far as any real feeling went, that Christmas afternoon when she had appealed to me for comfort and I had run away. Everything since had been a matter of duty.

Milo and I shook hands as we left the cemetery. “Poor Leola,” he said in a choked voice. “It’s the end of a great romance. You know we always thought her and Perse was the handsomest pair that ever got married in Deptford. And I know why you never got married. It must be tough on you to see her go, Dunny.”

My shame was that it was not tough at all. What was tough was to go with David back to that awful, empty house and talk to him until the servants gave us a poor dinner; then take him back to school and tell him I thought it better that he should go to his own room, as he must some time resume his ordinary life, and the sooner the better.

Boy wa s always fussing that David would not be a real man. He seemed a very real man to me through all this bad time. I could not have seen as much of him as I did if I had not been temporary Headmaster. When the war began our Head had rushed off to throw himself upon the foe from the midst of the Army’s education program; he stepped in front of a truck one night in the blackout, and the school mourned him as a hero.

When he left, the Governors had to get a Headmaster in a hurry, but the war made good men so scarce that they appointed me, pro tem, without any increase in salary, as we must all shoulder our burdens without thought of self. It was taxing, thankless work, and I hated all the administrative side of it. But I bent to the task and did what I could until 1947, when I had a difficult conversation with Boy, who was now a C.B.E. (for his war work) and the Chairman of our Board of Governors.

“Dunny, you’ve done a superb job during the whole of the war, and long beyond. But it was fun, wasn’t it?” “No, not fun. Damned hard slogging. Endless trouble getting and keeping staff. Managing with our old men and some young ones who weren’t fit for service — or teaching, if it comes to that. Problems with “war-guest” boys who were homesick or hated Canada, or thought they could slack because they weren’t in England. Problems with the inevitable hysteria of the school when the news was bad, and the worse hysteria when it was good. The fag of keeping up nearly all my own teaching and doing the administration as well. Not fun, Boy.”

“None of us had an easy war, Dunny. And I must say you look well on it. The question is, what are we to do now?”

“You’re the Chairman of the Board. You tell me.”

“You don’t want to go on being Head, do you?”

“That depends on the conditions. It might be much pleasanter now. I’ve been able to get a pretty good staff during the last eighteen months, and I suppose money will be more plentiful now the Board can think about it again.”

“But you’ve just said you hated being Head.”

“In wartime — who wouldn’t? But, as I say, things are improving. I might get to like it very much.”

“Look, old man, let’s not make a long business of this. The Board appreciates everything you’ve done. They want to give you a testimonial dinner. They want to tell you in front of the whole school how greatly indebted they are to you. But they want a younger Headmaster.”

“How young? You know my age. I’m not quite fifty, like yourself. How young does a Headmaster have to be nowadays?”

“It isn’t entirely that. You’re making this awfully tough for me. You’re unmarried. A Headmaster needs a wife.”

“When I needed a wife, I found that you needed her even more.”

“That’s hitting below the belt. Anyhow, Leo wouldn’t have — never mind. You have no wife.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson