Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

My work! As if she could have understood what education was, or why anyone would give a life to it! When I wrestled with the problem of how it could be explained to her I was further shaken because, for the first time in my life, I began to wonder if education could be quite the splendid vocation I had, as a professional, come to think it. How could I lay my accomplishments at her beautiful feet when she was incapable of knowing what they were? Somebody — I suppose it was Liesl, told her I knew a lot about saints, and this made a kind of sense to her.

One happy day, meeting me in the corridor of the theatre after I had been watching her transformations in The Vision of Dr. Faustus, she said, “Good evening, St. Ramsay.”

“St. Dunstan,” said I.

“I do not know St. Dunstan. Was he a bad old saint who peeps, eh? O-o-h, shame on you, St. Dunstan!” She made a very lewd motion with her hips and darted into the dressing-room she shared with Eisengrim.

I was in a melting ecstasy of delight and despair. She had spoken to me! She knew I watched her and probably guessed that I loved her and longed for her. That bump, or grind, or whatever they called it, made it very clear that — yes, but to call me St. Dunstan! What about that? And “bad old saint” — she thought me old. So I was. I was fifty, and in the chronology of a Peruvian girl who was probably more than half Indian, that was very old. But she had spoken, and she had shown awareness of my passion for her, and —

I muddled on and on, most of that night, attributing subtleties to Faustina that were certainly absurd but that I could not fight down.

Officially she was Eisengrim’s mistress, but they were always quarrelling, for he was exquisitely neat and she made a devastation of their dressing-room. Further, it was clear enough to me that his compelling love affair was with himself; his mind was always on his public personality, and on the illusions over which he fussed psychologically quite as much as Liesl did mechanically. I had seen a good deal of egotism in my life, and I knew that it starved love for anyone else and sometimes burned it out completely. Had it not been so with Boy and Leola? Still, Eisengrim and the beautiful Faustina shared quarters at the hotel. I knew it, because I had left my own place and moved into the even more Spanish establishment that housed the superior members of the company. They shared a room, but did it mean anything?

I found out the day after she called me St. Dunstan. I was in the theatre about five o’clock in the afternoon and chanced to go down the corridor on which the star’s dressing-room lay. The door was open, and I saw Faustina naked — she was always changing her clothes — in the arms of Liesl, who held her close and kissed her passionately; she had her left arm around Faustina, and her right hand was concealed from me, but the movement of Faustina’s hips and her dreamy murmurs made it clear, even to my unaccustomed eyes, what their embrace was.

I have never known such a collapse of the spirit even in the worst of the war. And this time there was no Little Madonna to offer me courage or ease me into oblivion.


“Well, dear Ramsay, you are looking a little pale.”

It was Liesl who spoke. I had answered a tap on my door at about one o’clock in the morning, and there she stood in pyjamas and dressing-gown, smiling her ugly smile.

“What do you want?”

“To talk. I love to talk with you, and you are a man who needs talk. Neither of us is sleeping; therefore we shall talk.” In she came, and as the little room offered only one uncompromising straight-backed chair, she sat down on the bed.

“Come and sit by me. If I were an English lady, or somebody’s mother, I suppose I should begin by saying, ‘Now what is the matter?’ — but that is just rhetoric. The matter is that you saw me and Faustina this afternoon. Oh yes, I saw you in the looking-glass. So?”

I said nothing.

“You are just like a little boy, Ramsay. Or no, I am forgetting that only silly men like to be told they are like little boys. Very well, you are like a man of fifty whose bottled-up feelings have burst their bottle and splashed glass and acid everywhere. That is why I called you a little boy, for which I apologize; but you have no art of dealing with such a situation as a man of fifty, so you are thrown back to being like a little boy. Well, I am sorry for you. Not very much, but some.”

“Don’t patronize me, Liesl.”

“That is an English word I have never really understood.”

“Don’t bully me, then. Don’t know best. Don’t be the sophisticated European, the magic-show gypsy, the wonderfully intuitive woman, belittling the feelings of a poor brute who doesn’t know any better than to think in terms of decency and honour and not taking advantage of people who may not know what they’re doing.”

“You mean Faustina? Ramsay, she is a wonderful creature, but in a way you don’t begin to grasp. She isn’t one of your North American girls, half B.A. and half B.F. and half good decent spud — that’s three halves, but never mind. She is of the earth, and her body is her shop and her temple, and whatever her body tells her is all of the law and the prophets. You can’t understand such a person, but there are more of them in the world than of the women who are tangled up in honour and decency and the other very masculine things you admire so much. Faustina is a great work of the Creator. She has nothing of what you call brains; she doesn’t need them for her destiny. Don’t glare at me because I speak of her destiny. It is to be glorious for a few years: not to outlive some dull husband and live on his money till she is eighty, going to lectures and comparing the attractions of winter tours that offer the romance of the Caribbean.”

“You talk as if you thought you were God.”

“I beg your pardon. That is your privilege, you pseudo-cynical old pussy-cat, watching life from the sidelines and knowing where all the players go wrong. Life is a spectator sport to you. Now you have taken a tumble and found yourself in the middle of the fight, and you are whimpering because it is rough.”

“Liesl, I am too tired and sick to wrangle. But let me tell you this, and you may laugh as loud and as long as you please, and babble it to everybody you know because that is your professed way of dealing with confidences: I loved Faustina.”

“But you don’t love her now because of what you saw this afternoon! Oh, knight! Oh, saint! You loved her but you never gave her a gift, or paid her a compliment, or asked her to eat with you, or tried to give her what Faustina understands as love — a sweet physical convulsion shared with an interesting partner.”

“Liesl, I am fifty, and I have a wooden leg and only part of one arm. Is that interesting for Faustina?”

“Yes, anything is for Faustina. You don’t know her, but far worse you don’t know yourself. You are not so very bad, Ramsay.”

“Thank you.”

“Oooh, what dignity! Is that a way to accept a compliment from a lady? I tell him he is not so very bad, and he ruffles up like an old maid and makes a sour face. I must do better; you are a fascinating old fellow. How’s that?”

“If you have said what you came to say, I should like to go to bed now.”

“Yes, I see you have taken off your wooden leg and stood it in the corner. Well, I should like to go to bed now too. Shall we go to bed together?”

I looked at her with astonishment. She seemed to mean it.

“Well, do not look as if it were out of the question. You are fifty and not all there: I am as grotesque a woman as you are likely to meet. Wouldn’t it have an unusual savour?”

I rose and began to hop to the door. Over the years I have become a good hopper. But Liesl caught me by the tail of my pyjama coat and pulled me back on the bed.

“Oh, you want it to be like Venus and Adonis! I am to drag you into my arms and crush out your boyish modesty. Good!”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson