Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“You see what we are doing,” he said. “We are building up a magic show of unique quality, and we want it to be in the best possible condition before we set out on a world tour. It is rough still — oh, very kind of you to say so, but it is rough in comparison with what we want to make it. We want the uttermost accomplishment, combined with the sort of charm and romantic flourish that usually goes with ballet — European ballet, not the athletic American stuff. You know that nowadays the theatre has almost abandoned charm; actors want to be sweaty and real, playwrights want to scratch their scabs in public. Very well; it is in the mood of the times. But there is always another mood, one precisely contrary to what seems to be the fashion. Nowadays this concealed longing is for romance and marvels. Well, that is what we think we can offer, but it is not done with the back bent and a cringing smile; it must be offered with authority. We are working very hard for authority. You remarked that we did not smile much in the performance; no jokes really. A smile in such a show is half a cringe. Look at the magicians who appear in night clubs; they are so anxious to be loved, to have everybody think “What a funny fellow,” instead of “What a brilliant fellow, what a mysterious fellow.” That is the disease of all entertainment: love me, pet me, pat my head. That is not what we want.”

“What do you want? To be feared?”

“To be wondered at. This is not egotism. People want to marvel at something, and the whole spirit of our time is not to let them do it. They will pay to do it, if you make it good and marvellous for them. Didn’t anybody learn anything from the war? Hitler said, ‘Marvel at me, wonder at me, I can do what others can’t,’ — and they fell over themselves to do it. What we offer is innocent — just an entertainment in which a hungry part of the spirit is fed. But it won’t work if we let ourselves be pawed and patronized and petted by the people who have marvelled. Hence our plan.”

“What is your plan?”

“That the show must keep its character all the time. I must not be seen off the stage except under circumstances that carry some cachet; I must never do tricks outside the theatre. When people meet me I must be always the distinguished gentleman conferring a distinction; not a nice fellow, just like the rest of the boys. The girls must have it in their contract that they do not accept invitations unless we approve, appear anywhere except in clothes we approve, get into any messes with boy friends, or seem to be anything but ladies. Not easy, you see. Faustina herself is a problem; she has not yet learned about clothes, and she eats like a lioness.”

“You’ll have to pay heavily to make people live like that.”

“Of course. So the company must be pretty small and the pay tempting. We shall find the people.”

“Excuse me, but you keep saying we will do this and we will do that. Is this a royal we? If so, you may be getting into psychological trouble.”

“No, no. When I speak of we I mean Liesl and myself. I am the magician. She is the autocrat of the company, as you shall discover.”

“And why is Liesl the autocrat of the company?”

“That also you shall discover.”

“I’m not at all sure of that. What do you want me for? My abilities as a magician are even less than when you were my audience in the Deptford Free Library.”

“Never mind. Liesl wants you.”

I looked at Liesl, who was smiling as charmingly as her dreadfully enlarged jaw would permit, and said, “She cannot possibly know anything about me.”

“You underestimate yourself, Ramsay,” she said. “Are you not the writer of A Hundred Saints for Travellers? And Forgotten Saints of the Tyrol? And Celtic Saints of Britain and Europe? When Eisengrim mentioned last night that he had seen you in the audience and that you had insisted on lending your handkerchief, I wanted to meet you at once. I am obliged to you for much information, but far more for many happy hours reading your delightful prose. A distinguished hagiographer does not often come our way.”

There is more than one kind of magic. This speech had the effect of revealing to me that Liesl was not nearly so ugly as I had thought, and was indeed a woman of captivating intellect and charm, cruelly imprisoned in a deformed body. I know flattery when I hear it; but I do not often hear it. Furthermore, there is good flattery and bad; this was from the best cask. And what sort of woman was this who knew so odd a word as “hagiographer” in a language not her own? Nobody who was not a Bollandist had ever called me that before, yet it was a title I would not have exchanged to be called Lord of the Isles. Delightful prose! I must know more of this.

Many people when they are flattered seek immediately to show themselves very hard-headed, to conceal the fact that they have taken the bait. I am one of them.

“Your plan sounds woefully uneconomic to me,” I said. “Travelling shows in our time are money-losers unless they play to capacity audiences and have strong backing. You are planning an entertainment of rare quality. What makes you think it can survive? Certainly I have no advice to give you that can be of help there.”

“That is not what we ask of you,” said Liesl “We shall look for advice about finance from financiers. From you we want the benefit of your taste, and a particular kind of unusual assistance. For which, of course, we expect to pay.”

In other words, no amateurish interference or inquisitiveness about the money. But what could this unusual assistance be?

“Every magician has an autobiography, which is sold in the theatre and elsewhere,” she continued. “Most of them are dreadful things, and all of them are the work of another hand — do you say ghost-written? We want one that will be congruous with the entertainment we offer. It must be very good, yet popular, persuasive, and written with style. And that is where you come in, dear Ramsay.”

With an air that in another woman would have been flatteringly coquettish, she laid a huge hand over one of mine and engulfed it.

“If you want me to write it over my own name it is out of the question.”

“Not at all. It is important that it appear to be an autobiography. We ask you to be the ghost. And in case such a proposal is insulting to such a very good writer, we offer a substantial fee. Three thousand five hundred dollars is not bad; I have made inquiries.”

“Not good either. Give me that and a half-share in the royalties and I might consider it.”

“That’s the old, grasping Ramsay blood!” said Eisengrim and laughed the first real laugh I had heard from him.

“Well, consider what you ask. The book would have to be fiction. I presume you don’t think the world will swallow a courtier of polished manner if he is shown to be the son of a Baptist parson in rural Canada –”

“You never told me your father was a parson,” said Liesl. “What a lot we have in common! Several of my father’s family are parsons.”

“The autobiography, like the personality, will have to be hand-made,” said I, “and as you have been telling me all through lunch, distinguished works of imagination are not simply thrown together.”

“But you will not be hard on us,” said Liesl. “You see, not any writer will do. But you, who have written so persuasively about the saints — slipping under the guard of the sceptic with a candour that is brilliantly disingenuous, treating marvels with the seriousness of fact — you are just the man for us. We can pay, and we will pay, though we cannot pay a foolish price. But I think that you are too much an old friend of magic to say no.”

In spite of her marred face her smile was so winning that I could not say no. This looked like an adventure, and, at fifty, adventures do not come every day.


At fifty, should adventures come at all? Certainly that was what I was asking myself a month later. I was heartily sick of Magnus Eisengrim and his troupe, and I hated Uselotte Vitzliputzli, which was the absurd name of his monstrous business partner. But I could not break the grip that their vitality, their single-mindedness, and the beautiful mystery of their work had fastened on my loneliness.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson