Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Two things that were wrong I could easily identify: I had become a dangerously indiscreet talker, and I was in love with the beautiful Faustina.

I cannot say which dismayed me the more. Almost from the earliest days of my childhood I had been close-mouthed; I never passed on gossip if I could help it, though I had no objection to hearing it; I never betrayed a confidence, preferring the costive pleasure of being a repository of secrets. Much of my intimacy with Boy Staunton rested on the fact that he could be sure I would never repeat anything I was told in confidence, and extremely little that was not so regarded. My pleasure depended on what I knew, not on what I could tell. Yet here I was, chattering like a magpie, telling things that had never before passed my lips, and to Liesl, who did not look to me like a respecter of confidences.

We talked in the afternoons, while she was working on the properties and machinery of the illusions in the tiny theatre workshop under the stage. I soon found out why Liesl dominated the company. First, she was the backer, and the finance of the whole thing rested either on her money or money she had guaranteed. She was a Swiss, and the company buzz was that she came of a family that owned one of the big watch firms. Second, she was a brilliant mechanic; her huge hands did wonders with involved springs, releases and displacements, escapements and levers, however tiny they might be. She was a good artificer too; she made the Brazen Head out of some light plastic so that it was an arresting object; nothing in Eisengrim’s show was tawdry or untouched by her exacting taste. But unlike many good craftsmen, she could see beyond what she was making to its effect when in use.

Sometimes she lectured me on the beauty of mechanics. “There are about a dozen basic principles,” she would say, “and if they cannot be made to do everything, they can be made to create magic — if you know what you want. Some magicians try to use what they call modern techniques, rays and radar and whatnot. But every boy understands those things. Not many people really understand clockwork because they carry it on their wrists in full sight and never think about it.”

She insisted on talking to me about the autobiography of Eisengrim I was preparing. I had never been used to talking to anyone about a work in progress — had indeed a superstitious feeling that such talk harmed the book by robbing it of energy that should go into the writing. But Liesl always wanted to know how it was getting on, and what line I meant to take, and what splendid lies I was concocting to turn Paul Dempster into a northern wizard.

We had agreed in general terms that he was to be a child of the Baltic vastnesses, reared perhaps by gnomelike Lapps after the death of his explorer parents, who were probably Russians of high birth. No, better not Russians; probably Swedes or Danes who had lived long in Finland; Russians caused too much trouble at borders, and Paul still kept his Canadian passport. Or should his parents perish in the Canadian vastnesses? Anyhow, he had to be a child of the steppes, who had assumed his wolf-name in tribute to the savage animals whose midnight howls had been his earliest lullaby, and to avoid revealing his distinguished family name. I had worked on the lives of several northern saints, and I had a store of this highly coloured material at my fingers’ ends.

As we discussed these fictions, it was not surprising that Liesl should want to know the facts. In spite of her appearance, and the mistrust of her I felt deep within me, she was a woman who could draw out confidences, and I heard myself rattling on about Deptford, and the Dempsters, and Paul’s premature birth, though I did not tell all I knew of that; I even told her about the sad business in the pit, and what came of it, and how Paul ran away; to my dismay I found that I had told her about Willie, about Surgeoner, and even about the Little Madonna. I lay awake the whole night after this last piece of blethering, and got her alone as soon as I could the next day, and begged her not to tell anyone.

“No, Ramsay, I won’t promise anything of the sort,” said she. “You are too old a man to believe in secrets. There is really no such thing as a secret; everybody likes to tell, and everybody does tell. Oh, there are men like priests and lawyers and doctors who are supposed not to tell what they know, but they do — usually they do. If they don’t they grow very queer indeed; they pay a high price for their secrecy. You have paid such a price, and you look like a man full of secrets — grim-mouthed and buttoned-up and hard-eyed and cruel, because you are cruel to yourself. It has done you good to tell what you know; you look much more human already. A little shaky this morning because you are so unused to being without the pressure of all your secrets, but you will feel better quite soon.”

I renewed my appeal again that afternoon, but she would give no promise, and I don’t think I would have believed her if she had done so; I was irrationally obsessed with an ideal of secrecy that I had carried for fifty years, only to betray it now.

“If a temperamental secret-keeper like you cannot hold in what he knows about Eisengrim, how can you expect it of anyone you despise as you despise me?” she said. “Oh yes, you do despise me. You despise almost everybody except Paul’s mother. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. Do not look at me with that tragic face. You should thank me. At fifty years old you should be glad to know something of yourself. That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a moral monster. Well. it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity.

“Do not try to work on me by making sad faces, Ramsay. You are a dear fellow, but a fool. Now, tell me how you are going to get the infant Magnus Eisengrim out of that dreadful Canada and into a country where big spiritual adventures are possible?”

If the breakdown of character that made me a chatterbox was hard to bear, it was a triviality beside the tortures of my love for the beautiful Faustina.

It was a disease, and I knew it was a disease. I could see plainly everything that made her an impossible person for me to love. She was at least thirty years younger than I, to begin, and she had nothing that I would have recognized as a brain in her head. She was a monster of vanity, venomously jealous of the other girls in the show, and sulky whenever she was not being admired. She rebelled against the company rule that she might not accept invitations from men who had seen her on the stage, but she delighted in having them surge forward when she left the stage door, to press flowers, sweets, and gifts of all kinds on her as she stepped into a hired limousine with Eisengrim. There was one wild-eyed student boy who thrust a poem into her hand, which, as it was writing, I suppose she took for a bill and handed back to him. My heart bled for the poor simpleton. She was an animal.

But I loved her! I hung about the theatre to see her come and go. I lurked in the wings — to which I had been given the entree, for large screens were set up to protect the illusions from stage hands who were not members of the company — to watch her very rapid changes from Gretchen to Venus and back again, because there was an instant when, in spite of the skilled work of two dressers, she was almost naked. She knew it, and some nights she threw me a smile of complicity and on others she looked offended. She could not resist admiration from anyone, and although I was something of a mystery to most of the company, she knew that I had a voice that was listened to in high places.

There were whole nights when I lay awake from one o’clock till morning, calling up her image before my imagination. On such nights I would suffer, again and again, the worst horror of the lover: I would find myself unable to summon up the adored one’s face and — I write it hardly expecting to be believed except by someone who has suffered this abjection of adoration — I would shake at the blasphemy of having thus mislaid her likeness. I plagued myself with fruitless questions: would the promise of a life’s servitude be enough to make her stoop to me? And then — for common sense never wholly left me — I would think of the beautiful Faustina talking to curious, gaping boys at Colborne College, or meeting the other masters’ wives at one of their stupefying tea parties, and something like a laugh would shake me. For I was so bound to my life in Canada, you see, that I always thought of Faustina in terms of marriage and the continuance of my work.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson