Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“Perhaps I could find one in a hurry. Miss Gostling, at our sister school, Bishop Cairncross’s, has been giving me the glad eye in an academic way for two or three years.”

“Be serious. It’s not just the wife. Dunny, we have to face it. You’re queer.” “The Sin of Sodom, you mean? If you knew boys as I do, you would not suggest anything so grotesque. If Oscar Wilde had pleaded insanity, he would have walked out of court a free man.”

“No, no, no! I don’t mean kid-simple, I mean queer — strange, funny, not like other people.”

“Ah, that’s very interesting. How am I queer? Do you remember poor old Iremonger who had a silver plate in his head and used to climb the waterpipes in his room and address his class from the ceiling? Now he was queer. Or that unfortunate alcoholic Bateson who used to throw a wet boxing glove at inattentive boys and then retrieve it on a string? I always thought they added something to the school — gave boys a knowledge of the great world that state schools dare not imitate. Surely you do not think I am queer in any comparable way?”

“You are a fine teacher. Everybody knows it. You are a great scholarship-getter, which is quite another thing. You have a reputation as an author. But there it is.”

“There is what?”

“It’s this saint business of yours. Of course your books are splendid. But if you were a father, would you want to send your son to a school headed by a man who was an authority on saints? Even more, would you do it if you were a mother? Women hate anything that’s uncanny about a man if they think of entrusting a son to him. Religion in the school is one thing; there is a well-understood place for religion in education. But not this misty world of wonder-workers and holy wizards and juiceless women. Saints aren’t in the picture at all. Now I’m an old friend, but I am also Chairman of the Board, and I tell you it won’t do.”

“Are you kicking me out?”

“Certainly not. Don’t be extreme. You surely understand that you are a tremendous addition to the school as a master — well-known writer on a difficult subject, translated into foreign languages, amusingly eccentric, and all that — but you would be a disaster as a peacetime Headmaster.”

“Eccentric? Me!”

“Yes, you. Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows — great wild things like moustaches, I dont know why you don’t trim them — and those terrible Harris tweed suits you wear and never have pressed. And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age. The day of comic eccentrics as Heads has gone. Parents nowadays want somebody more like themselves.”

“A Headmaster created in their own image, eh? Well, you obviously have somebody virtually hired or you wouldn’t be in such a rush to get rid of me. Who is it?”

(Boy named you, Headmaster. I had never heard of you then, so there can be no malice in reporting this conversation.)

We haggled a little more, and I made Boy squirm a bit, for I felt I had been shabbily used. But at last I said, “Very well, I’ll stay on as chief of history and Assistant Head. I don’t want your testimonial dinner, but I should like you, as Chairman, to address the school and make it very clear that I have not been demoted as soon as you could get somebody their parents like better. It will be a lie, but I want my face saved. Say the demands of my writing made me suggest this decision and I pledge my full support to the new man. And I want six months’ leave of absence, on full pay, before I return to work.”

“Agreed. You’re a good sport, Dunny. Where will you go for your six months?”

“I have long wanted to visit the great shrines of Latin America. I shall begin in Mexico, with the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

“There you go, you see! You go right on with the one thing that really stood between you and a Headmaster’s job.”

“Certainly. You don’t expect me to pay attention to the opinion of numskulls like you and your Board and the parents of a few hundred cretinous boys, do you?”


So there I was, a few months later, sitting in a corner of the huge nineteenth-century Byzantine basilica at Guadalupe, watching the seemingly endless crowd of men and women, old and young, as it shuffled forward on its knees to get as near as possible to the miraculous picture of the Virgin.

The picture was a surprise to me. Whether it was because I had some ignorant preconception about the tawdriness of everything Mexican, or the extravagantly Latin nature of the legend, I had expected something artistically offensive. I was by now in a modest way a connoisseur in holy pictures, ranging from catacombs and the blackened and glaring Holy Face at Lucca to the softest Raphaels and Murillos. But here was a picture reputedly from no mortal hand — not even that of St. Luke — that had appeared miraculously on the inside of a peasant’s cloak.

In 1531 the Virgin had appeared several times on this spot to Juan Diego and bidden him to tell Bishop Zumarraga that a shrine in her honour should be built here; when Zumarraga very naturally asked for some further evidence of Juan Diego’s authority, the Virgin filled the peasant’s cloak with roses though it was December; and when he opened his cloak before the Bishop, not only were the roses there, but also, on the inner side of it, this painting, before which the Bishop fell on his knees in wonderment.

As unobtrusively as possible (for I try hard not to be objectionable when visiting shrines) I examined the picture through a powerful little pocket telescope. Certainly it was painted on cloth of a very coarse weave, with a seam up the middle of it that deviated from the straight just enough to avoid the Virgin’s face. The picture was in the mode of the Immaculate Conception; the Virgin, a peasant girl of about fifteen, stood on a crescent moon. The painting was skilled, and the face beautiful, if you dismiss from your mind the whorish mask that modern cosmetics have substituted for beauty and think of the human face. Why was the right eye almost closed, as though swollen? Very odd in a holy picture. But the colours were fine, and the gold, though lavish, was not barbarically splashed on. Spain might be proud of such a picture. And the proportions — the width would go about three and a half times into the length — were those of a tilma such as I had seen peasants wearing outside the city. A very remarkable picture indeed.

The picture was not my chief concern, however. My eyes were on the kneeling petitioners, whose faces had the beauty virtually every face reveals in the presence of the goddess of mercy, the Holy Mother, the figure of divine compassion. Very different, these, from the squinnying, lip-biting, calculating faces of the art lovers one sees looking at Madonnas in galleries. These petitioners had no conception of art; to them a picture was a symbol of something else, and very readily the symbol became the reality. They were untouched by modern education, but their government was striving with might and main to procure this inestimable benefit for them; anticlericalism and American bustle would soon free them from belief in miracles and holy likenesses. But where, I ask myself, will mercy and divine compassion come from then? Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we shall have to pay for it, and in what coin.

Day after day I sat in the basilica for a few hours and wondered. The sacristans and nuns who gave out little prints of the miraculous picture grew accustomed to me; they thought I must be a member of that tiny and eccentric group, the devout rich, or perhaps I was writing an article for a tourist magazine. I put something in every out-thrust box and was left alone. But I am neither rich nor conventionally devout, and what I was writing, slowly, painstakingly, and with so many revisions that the final version was not even in sight, was a sort of prologue to a discussion of the nature of faith. Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvellous is indeed an aspect of the real?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson