Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

My troubles became no less when, at least four months after Paul’s birth, I heard this coming up the stovepipe — cooler now, for spring was well advanced:

“I think little Paul is going to pull through. He’ll be slow, the doctor says, but he’ll be all right.”

“You must be pleased. It’s mostly your doing.”

“Oh no! I only did what I could. But the doctor says he hopes somebody will keep an eye on Paul. His mother certainly can’t.”

“She isn’t coming around?”

“Doesn’t appear so. It was a terrible shock for the poor little thing. And Amasa Dempster just won’t believe that there’s a time to talk about God and a time to trust God and keep your mouth shut. Luckily she doesn’t seem to understand a lot of what he says.”

“Do you mean she’s gone simple?”

“She’s as quiet and friendly and sweet-natured as she ever was, poor little soul, but she just isn’t all there. That snowball certainly did a terrible thing to her. Who do you suppose threw it?”

“Dempster couldn’t see. I don’t suppose anybody will ever know.”

“I’ve wondered more than once if Dunstable knows more about that than he’s letting on.”

“Oh no, he knows how serious it is. If he knew anything he’d have spoken up by now.”

“Whoever it was, the Devil guided his hand.”

Yes, and the Devil shifted his mark. Mrs. Dempster had gone simple! I crept to bed wondering if I would live through the night, and at the same time desperately afraid to die.


Ah, if dying were all there was to it! Hell and torment at once; but at least you know where you stand. It is living with these guilty secrets that exacts the price. Yet the more time that passed, the less I was able to accuse Percy Boyd Staunton of having thrown the snowball that sent Mrs. Dempster simple. His brazen-faced refusal to accept responsibility seemed to deepen my own guilt, which had now become the guilt of concealment as well as action. However, as time passed, Mrs.

Dempster’s simplicity did not seem to be as terrible as I had at first feared.

My mother, with her unfailing good sense, hit the nail on the head when she said that Mrs. Dempster was really no different from what she had been before, except that she was more so. When Amasa Dempster had brought his little bride to our village the spring before the Christmas of Paul’s untimely birth, the opinion had been strong among the women that nothing would ever make a preacher’s wife out of that one.

I have already said that while our village contained much of what humanity has to show, it did not contain everything, and one of the things it conspicuously lacked was an aesthetic sense; we were all too much the descendants of hard-bitten pioneers to wish for or encourage any such thing, and we gave hard names to qualities that, in a more sophisticated society, might have had value. Mrs. Dempster was not pretty — we understood prettiness and guardedly admitted it as a pleasant, if needless, thing in a woman — but she had a gentleness of expression and a delicacy of colour that was uncommon. My mother, who had strong features and stood for no nonsense from her hair, said that Mrs. Dempster had a face like a pan of milk. Mrs. Dempster was small and slight, and even the clothes approved for a preacher”s wife did not conceal the fact that she had a girlish figure and a light step. When she was pregnant there was a bloom about her that seemed out of keeping with the seriousness of her state; it was not at all the proper thing for a pregnant woman to smile so much, and the least she could have done was to take a stronger line with those waving tendrils of hair that seemed so often to be escaping from a properly severe arrangement. She was a nice little thing, but was that soft voice ever going to dominate a difficult meeting of the Ladies’ Aid ? And why did she laugh so much when nobody else could see anything to laugh at?

Amasa Dempster, who had always seemed a level-headed man, for a preacher, was plain silly about his wife. His eyes were always on her, and he could be seen drawing pails of water from their outside well, for the washing, when this was fully understood to be woman’s work, right up to the last month or so of a pregnancy. The way he looked at her would make you wonder if the man was soft in the head. You would think they were still courting, instead of being expected to get down to the Lord’s work and earn his $550 per annum; this was what the Baptists paid their preacher, as well as allowing him a house, not quite enough fuel, and a ten-percent discount on everything bought in a Baptist-owned store — and a few other stores that “honoured the cloth,” as the saying went. (Of course he was expected to give back an exact tenth of it to the church, to set an example.) The hope was widely expressed that Mr. Dempster was not going to make a fool of his wife.

In our village hard talk was not always accompanied by hard action. My mother, who could certainly never have been accused of softness with her family or the world, went out of her way to help Mrs. Dempster — I will not say, to befriend her, because friendship between such unequal characters could never have been; but she tried to “show her the ropes,” and whatever these mysterious feminine ropes were, they certainly included many good things that my mother cooked and just happened to leave when she dropped in on the young bride, and not merely the loan, but the practical demonstration of such devices as carpet-stretchers, racks for drying lace curtains, and the art of shining windows with newspaper.

Why had Mrs. Dempster’s mother never prepared her for these aspects of marriage? It came out she had been brought up by an aunt, who had money and kept a hired girl, and how were you to forge a preacher’s wife from such weak metal as that? When my father teased my mother about the amount of food she took

the Dempsters, she became huffy and asked if she was to allow them to starve under her nose while that girl was learning the ropes? But the girl was slow, and my mother’s answer to that was that in her condition she couldn’t be expected to be quick.

Now it did not seem that she would ever learn the craft of housekeeping. Her recovery from Paul’s birth was tardy, and while she grew strong again her husband looked after the domestic affairs, helped by neighbour women and a Baptist widow for whose occasional services he was able to eke out a very little money. As spring came Mrs. Dempster was perfectly able-bodied but showed no signs of getting down to work. She did a little cleaning and some inept cooking, and laughed like a girl at her failures. She hovered over the baby, and as he changed from a raw monster to a small but recognizably Christian-looking infant she was as delighted as a little girl with a doll. She now breast-fed him — my mother and all the neighbours had to admit that she did it well — but she lacked the solemnity they expected of a nursing mother; she enjoyed the process, and sometimes when they went into the house there she was, with everything showing, even though her husband was present, just as if she hadn’t the sense to pull up her clothes. I happened upon her once or twice in this condition and gaped with the greedy eyes of an adolescent boy, but she did not seem to notice. And thus the opinion grew that Mrs. Dempster was simple.

There was only one thing to be done, and that was to help the Dempsters as much as possible, without approving or encouraging any tendencies that might run contrary to the right way of doing things. My mother ordered me over to the Dempsters’ to chop and pile wood, sweep away snow, cut the grass, weed the vegetable patch, and generally make myself handy two or three times a week and on Saturdays if necessary. I was also to keep an eye on the baby, for my mother could not rid herself of a dread that Mrs. Dempster would allow it to choke or fall out of its basket or otherwise come to grief. There was no chance of such a thing happening, as I soon found, but obeying my instructions brought me much into the company of Mrs. Dempster, who laughed at my concern for the baby. She did not seem to think that it could come to any harm in her keeping, and I know now that she was right, and that my watchfulness must have been intrusive and clumsy.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson