Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Nevertheless it was a surprise when I was called by the hospital authorities to say she had had a serious heart seizure and might have another within a few hours. I had known very little of life without Mrs. Dempster, and despite my folk wisdom about “breaking up” I had not really faced the fact that I might lose her. It gave me a clutching around my own heart that scared me, but I made my way to the hospital as quickly as I could, though it was some hours after the telephone call when I arrived.

She was in the infirmary now, and unconscious. The outlook was bad, and I sat down to wait — presumably for her death. But after perhaps two hours a nurse appeared and said she was asking for me. As it was now some years since she had seen me without great distress of mind I was doubtful about answering the call, but I was assured it would be all right, and I went to her bedside. She looked very pale and drawn, but when I took her hand she opened her eyes and looked at me for quite a long time. When she spoke her speech was slack and hardly audible.

“Are you Dunstable Ramsay?” she said.

I assured her. Another long silence.

“I thought he was a boy,” said she and closed her eyes again.

I sat by her bed for quite a long time but she did not speak. I thought she might say something about Paul. I sat for perhaps an hour, and then to my astonishment the hand I held gave a little tug, the least possible squeeze. It was the last message I had from Mrs. Dempster. Soon afterward her breathing became noisy and the nurses beckoned me away. In half an hour they came to tell me she was dead.

It was a very bad night for me. I kept up a kind of dismal stoicism until I went to bed, and then I wept. I had not done such a thing since my mother had beaten me so many years before — no, not even in the worst of the war — and it frightened and hurt me. When at last I fell asleep I dreamed frightening dreams, in some of which my mother figured in terrible forms. They became so intolerable that I sat up and tried to read but could not keep my mind on the page; instead I was plagued by fantasies of desolation and wretchedness so awful that I might as well not have been sixty years old, a terror to boys, and a scholar of modest repute, for they crushed me as if I were the feeblest of children. It was a terrible invasion of the spirit, and when at last the rising bell rang in the school I was so shaken I cut myself shaving, vomited my breakfast half an hour after I had eaten it, and in my first class spoke so disgracefully to a stupid boy that I called him back afterward and apologized. I must have looked stricken, for my colleagues were unusually considerate towards me, and my classes were uneasy. I think they thought I was very ill, and I suppose I was, but not of anything I knew how to cure.

I had arranged for Mrs. Dempster’s body to be sent to Toronto, as I wanted it to be cremated. An undertaker had it in his care, and the day after her death I went to see him.

“Dempster,” he said. “Yes, just step into Room C.”

There she was, not looking very much like herself, for the embalmer had been generous with the rouge. Nor can I say that she looked younger, or at peace, which are the two conventional comments. She just looked like a small, elderly woman, ready for burial. I knelt, and the undertaker left the room. I prayed for the repose of the soul of Mary Dempster, somewhere and somehow unspecified, under the benevolence of some power unidentified but deeply felt. It was the sort of prayer that supported all the arguments of Denyse Staunton against religion, but I was in the grip of an impulsion that it would have been spiritual suicide to deny. And then I begged forgiveness for myself because, though I had done what I imagined was my best, I had not been loving enough, or wise enough, or generous enough in my dealings with her.

Then I did an odd thing that I almost fear to record, Headmaster, for it may lead you to dismiss me as a fool or a madman or both. I had once been fully persuaded that Mary Dempster was a saint, and even of late years I had not really changed my mind. There were the three miracles, after all; miracles to me, if to no one else. Saints, according to tradition, give off a sweet odour when they are dead; in many instances it has been likened to the scent of violets. So I bent over the head of Mary Dempster and sniffed for this true odour of sanctity. But all I could smell was a perfume, good enough in itself, that had obviously come out of a bottle.

The undertaker returned, bringing a cross with him; seeing me kneel, he had assumed that the funeral would be of the sort that required one. He came upon me sniffing.

“Chanel Number Five,” he whispered, “we always use it when nothing is supplied by the relatives. And perhaps you have noticed that we have padded your mother’s bosom just a little; she had lost something there, during the last illness, and when the figure is reclining it gives a rather wasted effect.”

He was a decent man, working at a much-abused but necessary job, so I made no comment except to say that she was not my mother.

“I’m so sorry. Your aunt?” said he, desperate to please and be comforting but not intimate.

“No, neither mother nor aunt,” I said, and as I could not use so bleak and inadequate a word as “friend” to name what Mary Dempster had been to me, I left him guessing.

The following day I sat quite alone in the crematory chapel as Mary Dempster’s body went through the doors into the flames. After all, who else remembered her?


She died in March. The following summer I went to Europe and visited the Bollandists, hoping they would pay me a few compliments on my big book. I am not ashamed of this; who knew better than they if I had done well or ill, and whose esteem is sweeter than that of an expert in one’s own line? I was not disappointed; they were generous and welcoming as always. And I picked up one piece of information that pleased me greatly: Padre Blazon was still alive, though very old, in a hospital in Vienna.

I had not meant to go to Vienna, though I was going to Salzburg for the Festival, but I had not heard from Blazon for years and could not resist him. There he was, in a hospital directed by the Blue Nuns, propped up on pillows, looking older but not greatly changed except that his few teeth were gone; he even wore the deplorable velvet skullcap rakishly askew over his wild white hair.

He knew me at once. “Ramezay!” he crowed as I approached. “I thought you must be dead! How old you look! Why, you must be all kinds of ages! What years? Come now, don’t be coy! What years?”

“Just over the threshold of sixty-one,” I said.

“Aha, a patriarch! You look even more though. Do you know how old I am? No, you don’t, and I am not going to tell. If the Sisters find out they think I am senile. They wash me too much now; if they knew how old I am they would flay me with their terrible brushes — flay me like St. Bartholomew. But I will tell you this much — I shall not see one hundred again! How much over that I tell nobody, but it will be discovered when I am dead. I may die any time. I may die as we are talking. Then I shall be sure to have the last word, eh? Sit down. You look tired!

“You have written a fine book! Not that I have read it all, but one of the nuns read some of it to me. I made her stop because her English accent was so vile she desecrated your elegant prose, and she mispronounced all the names. A real murderer! How ignorant these women are! Assassins of the spoken word! For a punishment I made her read a lot of Le Juif errant to me. Her French is very chaste, but the book nearly burned her tongue — so very anticlerical, you know. And what it says about the Jesuits! What evil magicians, what serpents! If we were one scruple as clever as Eugene Sue thought we should be masters of the world today. Poor soul, she could not understand why I wanted to hear it or why I laughed so much. Then I told her it was on the Index, and now she thinks I am an ogre disguised as an old Jesuit. Well, well, it passes the time. How is your fool-saint?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson