Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

The third and last part of the entertainment was serious almost to the point of solemnity, but it had an erotic savour that was unlike anything I had ever seen in a magic show, where children make up a considerable part of the audience. The Dream of Midas was a prolonged illusion in which Eisengrim, assisted by a pretty girl, produced extraordinary sums of money in silver dollars from the air, from the pockets, ears, noses, and hats of people in the audience, and threw them all into a large copper pot; the chink of the coins seemed never to stop. Possessed by unappeasable greed, he turned the girl into gold, and was horrified by what he had done. He tapped her with a hammer; he chipped off a hand and passed it through the audience; he struck the image in the face. Then, in an ecstasy of renunciation, he broke his magician’s wand. Immediately the copper pot was empty, and when we turned our attention to the girl she was flesh again, but one hand was missing and blood was running from her lip. This spice of cruelty seemed to please the audience very much.

His last illusion was called The Vision of Dr. Faustus, and the program assured us that in this scene, and this alone, the beautiful Faustina would appear before us. Reduced to its fundamentals, it was the familiar illusion in which the magician makes a girl appear in two widely separated cabinets without seeming to pass between them. But as Eisengrim did it, the conflict was between Sacred and Profane Love for the soul of Faust: on one side of the stage would appear the beautiful Faustina as Gretchen, working at her spinning wheel and modestly clothed; as Faust approached her she disappeared, and on the other side of the stage in an arbour of flowers appeared Venus, wearing as near to nothing at all as the Mexican sense of modesty would permit. It was plain enough that Gretchen and Venus were the same girl, but she had gifts as an actress and conveyed unmistakably the message that beauty of spirit and lively sensuality might inhabit one body, an idea that was received with delight by the audience. At last Faust, driven to distraction by the difficulties of choice, killed himself, and Mephistopheles appeared in flames to drag him down to Hell. As he vanished, in the middle of the stage but about eight feet above the floor and supported apparently on nothing at all, appeared the beautiful Faustina once more, as, one presumes, the Eternal Feminine, radiating compassion while showing a satisfactory amount of leg. The culminating moment came when Mephistopheles threw aside his robe and showed that, whoever may have been thrust down into Hell, this was certainly Eisengrim the Great.

The audience took very kindly to the show, and the applause for the finale was long and enthusiastic. An usher prevented me from going through the pass-door to the stage, so I went to the stage door and asked to see Senor Eisengrim. He was not to be seen, said the doorman. Orders were strict that no one was to be admitted. I offered a visiting card, for although these things have almost gone out of use in North America they still possess a certain amount of authority in Europe, and I always carry a few. But it was no use.

I was not pleased and was about to go away in a huff when a voice said, “Are you Mr. Dunstan Ramsay?”

The person who was speaking to me from the last step of the stairs that led up into the theatre was probably a woman but she wore man’s dress, had short hair, and was certainly the ugliest human creature I had ever seen. Not that she was misshapen; she was tall, straight, and obviously very strong, but she had big hands and feet, a huge, jutting jaw, and a heaviness of bone over the eyes that seemed to confine them to small, very deep caverns. However, her voice was beautiful and her utterance was an educated speech of some foreign flavour.

“Eisengrim will be very pleased to see you. He noticed you in the audience. Follow me, if you please.”

The backstage arrangements were not extensive, and the corridor into which she led me was noisy with the sound of a quarrel in a language unfamiliar to me — probably Portuguese. My guide knocked and entered at once with me behind her, and we were upon the quarrellers. They were Eisengrim, stripped to the waist, rubbing paint off his face with a dirty towel, and the beautiful Faustina, who was naked as the dawn, and lovely as the breeze, and madder than a wet hen; she also was removing her stage paint, which seemed to cover most of her body; she snatched up a wrapper and pulled it around her, and extruded whatever part she happened to be cleaning as we talked.

“She says she must have more pink light in the last tableau,” said Eisengrim to my guide in German. “I”ve told her it will kill my red Mephisto spot, but you know how pig-headed she is.”

“Not now,” said the ugly woman. “Mr. Dunstan Ramsay, your old friend Magnus Eisengrim, and the beautiful Faustina.”

The beautiful Faustina gave me an unnervingly brilliant smile and extended a very greasy hand that had just been wiping paint off her upper thigh. I may be a Canadian of Scots descent, and I may have first seen the light in Deptford, but I am not to be disconcerted by Latin American showgirls, so I kissed it with what I think was a good deal of elegance. Then I shook hands with Eisengrim, who was smiling in a fashion that was not really friendly. “It has been a long time, Mr. Dunstable Ramsay,” he said in Spanish. I think he meant to put me at a disadvantage, but I am pretty handy in Spanish, and we continued the conversation in that language.

“It has been over thirty years, unless you count our meeting in Le grande Cirque forain de St. Vite,” said I. “How are Le Solitaire des forets and my friend the Bearded Lady?”

“Le Solitaire died very shortly after we met,” said he. “I have not seen the others since before the war.”

We made a little more conversation, so stilted and uneasy that I decided to leave; obviously Eisengrim did not want me there. But when I took my leave the ugly woman said, “We hope very much that you can lunch with us tomorrow?”

“Liesl, are you sure you know what you are doing?” said Eisengrim in German, and very rapidly.

But I am pretty handy in German, too. So when the ugly woman replied, “Yes, I am perfectly sure and so are you, so say no more about it,” I got it all and said in German, “It would be a very great pleasure, if I am not an intruder.”

“How can a so old friend possibly be an intruder?” said Eisengrim in English, and thenceforth he never spoke any other language to me, though his idiom was creaky. “You know, Liesl, that Mr. Ramsay was my very first teacher in magic?” He was all honey now. And as I was leaving he leaned forward and whispered, “That temporary loan, you remember — nothing would have induced me to accept it if Le Solitaire had not been in very great need — you must permit me to repay it at once.” And he tapped me lightly on the spot where, in an inside pocket, I carry my cash.

That night when I was making my usual prudent Canadian-Scots count, I found that several bills had found their way into my wallet, slightly but not embarrassingly exceeding the sum that had disappeared from it when last I met Paul. I began to think better of Eisengrim. I appreciate scrupulosity in money matters.


Thus I became a member of Magnus Eisengrim’s entourage, and never made my tour of the shrines of South America. It was all settled at the luncheon after our first meeting. Eisengrim was there, and the hideous Liesl, but the beautiful Faustina did not come. When I asked after her Eisengrim said, “She is not yet ready to be seen in public places.” Well, thought I, if he can appear in a good restaurant with a monster, why not with the most beautiful woman I have ever seen? Before we had finished a long luncheon, I knew why.

Liesl became less ugly after an hour or two. Her clothes were like a man’s in that she wore a jacket and trousers, but her shirt was soft and her beautiful scarf was drawn through a ring. If I had been in her place I should not have worn men’s patent-leather dancing shoes — size eleven at least — but otherwise she was discreet. Her short hair was smartly arranged, and she even wore a little colour on her lips. Nothing could mitigate the extreme, the deformed ugliness of her face, but she was graceful, she had a charming voice, and gave evidence of a keen intelligence held in check, so that Eisengrim might dominate the conversation.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson