Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Caring for a baby is one thing, and the many obligations of a parson’s wife are another, and for this work Mrs. Dempster showed no aptitude at all. By the time a year had passed since Paul’s birth her husband had become “poor Reverend Dempster” to everybody, a man burdened with a simple-minded wife and a delicate child, and it was a general source of amazement that he could make ends meet. Certainly a man with $550 a year needed a thrifty wife, and Mrs. Dempster gave away everything. There was a showdown once when she gave an ornamental vase to a woman who had taken her a few bakings of bread; the vase was part of the furnishings of the parsonage, not the personal property of the Dempsters, and the ladies of the church were up in arms at this act of feckless generosity and demanded of Amasa Dempster that he send his wife to the neighbour’s house to ask for the vase back, and if this meant eating crow she would have to eat crow. But he would not humiliate his wife and went on the distasteful errand himself, which everybody agreed was weakness in him and would lead to worse things. One of my jobs, under instruction from my mother, was to watch for chalk marks on the Dempsters’ verandah posts, and rub them out when I saw them; these chalk marks were put there by tramps as signals to one another that the house was good for a generous handout, and perhaps even money.

After a year or so most of the women in our village grew tired of pitying the Baptist parson and his wife and began to think that he was as simple as she. Like many ostracized people, they became more marked in their oddity. But my mother never wavered; her compassion was not of the short-term variety. Consequently, as they became, in a sense, charges of my family, my jobs for the Dempsters grew. My brother Willie did very little about them. He was two years older than I and his schoolwork was more demanding; further, after school hours he now went to the Banner printing plant to make himself useful and pick up the trade. But my mother was as watchful as ever, and my father, in whose eyes she could do nothing wrong, approved completely of all that was done.


Being unofficial watchdog to the Dempster family was often a nuisance to me and did nothing for my popularity. But at this time I was growing rapidly and was strong for my age, so not many of the people with whom I went to school liked to say too much to my face; but I knew that they said enough behind my back. Percy Boyd Staunton was one of these.

He had a special place in our school world. There are people who, even as boys, assume superior airs and are taken as grandees by those around them. He was as big as I, and rather fleshy; without being a fat boy he was plump. His clothes were better than ours, and he had an interesting pocket-knife, with a chain on it to fasten to his knickerbockers, and an ink-bottle you could knock over without spilling a drop; on Sundays he wore a suit with a fashionable half-belt at the back. He had once been to Toronto to the Exhibition, and altogether breathed a larger air than the rest of us.

He and I were rivals, for though I had none of his graces of person or wealth I had a sharp tongue. I was raw-boned and wore clothes that had often made an earlier appearance on Willie, but I had a turn for sarcastic remarks, which were known to our group as “good ones.” If I was pushed too far I might “get off a good one,” and as our community had a long memory such dour witticisms would be remembered and quoted for years.

I had a good one all ready for Percy, if ever he gave me any trouble. I had heard his mother tell my mother that when he was a dear little fellow, just learning to talk, his best version of his name, Percy Boyd, was Pidgy Boy-Boy, and she still called him that in moments of unbuttoned affection. I knew that I had but once to call him Pidgy Boy-Boy in the schoolyard and his goose would be cooked; probably suicide would be his only way out. This knowledge gave me a sense of power in reserve.

I needed it. Some of the oddity and loneliness of the Dempsters was beginning to rub off on me. Having double chores to do kept me out of many a game I would have liked to join; dodging back and forth between their house and ours with this, that, and the other thing, I was sure to meet some of my friends; Mrs. Dempster often stood in the door when I was running home, waving and thanking me in a voice that seemed to me eerie and likely to bring mockery down on my head, not hers, if anybody overheard her, as they often did. I knew that some of them had nicknamed me Nursie. They did not call me that to my face, however.

My position here was worst of all. I wanted to be on good terms with the girls I knew; I suppose I wanted them to admire me and think me wonderful in some unspecified way. Enough of them were silly about Percy and sent him mash Valentines on February 14, without any names on them but with handwriting that betrayed the sender. No girl ever sent me a Valentine except Elsie Webb, known to us all as Spider Webb because of her gawky, straddling walk. I did not want Spider Webb, I wanted Leola Cruikshank, who had corkscrew curls and a great way of never meeting your eyes. But my feeling about Leola was put askew by my feeling about Mrs. Dempster. Leola I wanted as a trophy of success, but Mrs. Dempster was beginning to fill my whole life, and the stranger her conduct became, and the more the village pitied and dismissed her, the worse my obsession grew.

I thought I was in love with Leola, by which I meant that if I could have found her in a quiet corner, and if I had been certain that no one would ever find out. and if I could have summoned up the courage at the right moment, I would have kissed her. But, looking back on it now, I know I was in love with Mrs. Dempster. Not as some boys are in love with grown-up women, adoring them from afar and enjoying a fantasy life in which the older woman figures in an idealized form, but in a painful and immediate fashion; I saw her every day, I did menial tasks in her house, and I was charged to watch her and keep her from doing foolish things. Furthermore, I felt myself tied to her by the certainty that I was responsible for her straying wits, the disorder of her marriage, and the frail body of the child who was her great delight in life. I had made her what she was, and in such circumstances I must hate her or love her. In a mode that was far too demanding for my age or experience, I loved her.

Loving her, I had to defend her, and when people said she was crazy I had to force myself to tell them that they were crazy themselves and I would knock their blocks off if they said it again. Fortunately one of the first people with whom I had such an encounter was Milo Papple, and he was not hard to deal with.

Milo was our school buffoon, the son of Myron Papple, the village barber. Barbers in more sophisticated communities are sometimes men with rich heads of hair, or men who have given a special elegance to a bald head, but Myron Papple had no such outward grace. He was a short, fat, pear-shaped man with the complexion and hair of a pig of the Chester White breed. He had but one distinction; he put five sticks of gum into his mouth every morning and chewed the wad until he closed his shop in the evening, breathing peppermint on each customer as he shaved, clipped, and talked.

Milo was his father in miniature, and admitted by us all to be a card. His repertoire of jokes was small but of timeless durability. He could belch at will, and did. He could also break wind at will, with a prolonged, whining note of complaint, and when he did so in class and then looked around with an angry face, whispering, “Who done that?” our mirth was Chaucerian, and the teacher was reduced to making a refined face, as if she were too good for a world in which such things were possible. Even the girls — even Leola Cruikshank — thought Milo was a card.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson