Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I visited her every day during my week in Salzburg. She belonged, so the catalogue told me, to a famous private collection and was considered a good, though late, example of the Immaculate Conception aspect of the Madonna figure. It had not been considered worthy of an illustration in the catalogue, so when my week was up I never saw it again. Photography in the exhibition was forbidden. But I needed no picture. She was mine forever.


The mysterious death of Boy Staunton was a nine days’ wonder, and people who delight in unsolved crimes — for they were certain it must have been a crime — still talk of it. You recall most of the details, Headmaster, I am sure: at about four o’clock on the morning of Monday, November 4, 1968, his Cadillac convertible was recovered from the waters of Toronto harbour, into which it had been driven at a speed great enough to carry it, as it sank, about twenty feet from the concrete pier. His body was in the driver’s seat, the hands gripping the wheel so tightly that it was very difficult for the police to remove him from the car. The windows and the roof were closed, so that some time must have elapsed between driving over the edge and the filling of the car with water. But the most curious fact of all was that in Boy’s mouth the police found a stone — an ordinary piece of pinkish granite about the size of a small egg — which could not possibly have been where it was unless he himself, or someone unknown, had put it there.

The newspapers published columns about it, as was reasonable, for it was local news of the first order. Was it murder? But who would murder a well-known philanthropist, a man whose great gifts as an organizer had been of incalculable value to the nation during the war years? Now that Boy was dead, he was a hero to the press. Was it suicide? Why would the President of the Alpha Corporation, a man notably youthful in appearance and outlook, and one of the two or three richest men in Canada, want to kill himself? His home-life was of model character; he and his wife (the former Denyse Hornick, a figure of note in her own right as an advocate of economic and legal reform on behalf of women) had worked very closely in a score of philanthropic and cultural projects. Besides, the newspapers thought it now proper to reveal, his appointment by the Crown to the office of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario was to have been announced within a few days. Was a man with Boy Staunton’s high concept of service likely to have killed himself under such circumstances?

Tributes from distinguished citizens were many. There was a heartfelt one from Joel Surgeoner, within a few hundred yards of whose Lifeline Mission the death occurred — a Mission that the dead man had supported most generously. You wrote one yourself, Headmaster, in which you said that he had finely exemplified the school’s unremitting insistence that much is demanded of those to whom much has been given.

His wife was glowingly described, though there was little mention of “a former marriage, which ended with the death of the first Mrs. Staunton, Leola Crookshanks, in 1942.” In the list of the bereaved, Lorene took precedence over David (now forty, a barrister and a drunk) and Caroline (now Mrs. Beeston Bastable and mother of one daughter, also Caroline).

The funeral was not quite a state funeral, though Denyse tried to manage one; she wanted a flag on the coffin and she wanted soldiers, but it was not to be. However, many flags were at half-staff, and she did achieve a very fine turnout of important people, and others who were important because they represented somebody too important to come personally. It was agreed by everyone that Bishop Woodiwiss paid a noble tribute to Boy, whom he had known from youth, though it was a pity poor Woodiwiss mumbled so now.

The reception after the funeral was in the great tradition of such affairs, and the new house Denyse had made Boy build in the most desirable of the suburbs was filled even to its great capacity. Denyse was wonderfully self-possessed and ran everything perfectly. Or almost perfectly; there was one thing in which she did not succeed.

She approached me after she had finished receiving the mourners — if that is the right way to describe the group who were now getting down so merrily to the Scotch and rye — and, “Of course you’ll write the official life,” said she.

“What official life?” I asked, startled and clumsy.

“What official life do you suppose?” she said, giving me a look that told me very plainly to brace up and not be a fool.

“Oh, is there to be one?” I asked. I was not trying to be troublesome; I was genuinely unnerved, and with good cause.

“Yes, there is to be one,” she said, and icicles hung from every word. “As you knew Boy from childhood, there will be a good deal for you to tell in before we come to the part where I can direct you.”

“But how is it official?” I asked, wallowing in wonderment. “I mean, what makes it official? Does the government want it or something?”

“The government has had no time to think about it,” she said, “but I want it, and I shall do whatever needs to be done about the government. What I want to know now is whether you are going to write it or not.” She spoke like a mother who is saying “Are you going to do what I tell you or not?” to a bad child. It was not so much an inquiry as a flick of the whip.

“Well, I’ll want to think it over,” I said.

“Do that. Frankly, my first choice was Eric Roop I thought it wanted a poet’s touch — but he can’t do it, though considering how many grants Boy wangled for him I don’t know why. But Boy did even more for you. You’ll find it a change from those saints you’re so fond of.” She left me angrily.

Of course I did not write it. The heart attack I had a few days later gave me an excellent excuse for keeping free of anything I didn’t want to do. And how would I have written a life of Boy that would have satisfied me and yet saved me from murder at the hands of Denyse? And how could I, trained as a historian to suppress nothing, and with the Bollandist tradition of looking firmly at the shadow as well as the light, have written a life of Boy without telling all that I have told you, Headmaster, and all I know about the way he died? And even then, would it have been the truth? I learned something about the variability of truth as quite rational people see it from Boy himself, within an hour of his death.

You will not see this memoir until after my own death, and you will surely keep what you know to yourself. After all, you cannot prove anything against anyone. Nor was Boy’s manner of death really surprising to anyone who knows what you now know about his life.

It was like this.


Magnus Eisengrim did not bring his famous display of illusions to Canada until 1968. His fame was now so great that he had once had his picture on the cover of Time as the greatest magician in history. The Autobiography sold quite well here, though nobody knew that its subject (or its author) was a native. It was at the end of October he came to Toronto for two weeks.

Naturally I saw a good deal of him and his company. The beautiful Faustina had been replaced by another girl, no less beautiful, who bore the same name. Liesl, now in early middle age and possessed of a simian distinction of appearance, was as near to me as before, and I spent all the time I could spare with her. She and Blazon were the only people I have ever met with whom one resumed a conversation exactly where it had been discontinued, whether yesterday or six years earlier. It was through her intercession — perhaps it would be more truthful to call it a command — that I was able to get Eisengrim to come to the school on the Sunday night in the middle of his fortnight’s engagement, to talk to the boarders about hypnotism; schoolmasters are without conscience in exacting such favours.

He was a huge success, of course, for though he had not wanted to come he was not a man to scamp anything he had undertaken. He paid the boys the compliment of treating them seriously, explaining what hypnotism really was and what its limitations were. He emphasized the fact that nobody can be made to do anything under hypnotism that is contrary to his wishes, though of course people have wishes that they are unwilling to acknowledge, even to themselves. I remember that this concept gave trouble to several of the boys, and Eisengrim explained it in terms, and with a clarity, that suggested to me that he was a much better-informed man than I had supposed. The idea of the hypnotist as an all-powerful demon, like Svengali, who could make anybody do anything, he pooh-poohed; but he did tell some amusing stories about odd and embarrassing facets of people’s personalities that had made their appearance under hypnotism.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson