Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Of course the boys clamoured for a demonstration, but he refused to break his rule of never hypnotizing anyone under twenty-one without written consent from their parents. (He did not add that young people and children are difficult hypnotic subjects because of the variability of their power of concentration.) However, he did hypnotize me, and made me do enough strange things to delight the boys without robbing me of my professional dignity. He made me compose an extemporary poem, which is something I had never done before in my life, but apparently it was not bad.

His talk lasted for about an hour, and as we were walking down the main corridor of the classroom building Boy Staunton came out of the side door of your study, Headmaster. I introduced them, and Boy was delighted.

“I saw your show last Thursday,” he said. “It was my stepdaughter’s birthday, and we were celebrating. As a matter of fact, you gave her a box of sweets.”

“I remember perfectly,” said Eisengrim. “Your party was sitting in 021-25. Your stepdaughter wears strong spectacles and has a characteristic laugh.”

“Yes, poor Lorene. I’m afraid she became a bit hysterical; we had to leave after you sawed a man in two. But, may I ask you a very special favour? — how did your Brazen Head know what was implied in the message it gave to Ruth Tillman? That has caused some extraordinary gossip.”

“No, Mr. Staunton, I cannot tell you that. But perhaps you will tell me how you know what was said to Mrs. Tillman, who sat in F32 on Friday night, if your party came to the theatre on Thursday?”

“Mightn’t I have heard it from friends?”

“You might, but you did not. You came back to see my exhibition on Friday night because you had missed some of it by reason of your daughter’s over-excitement. I can only assume my exhibition offered something you wanted. A great compliment. I appreciated it, I assure you. Indeed, I appreciated it so much that the Head decided not to name you and tell the audience that your appointment as Lieutenant-Governor would be announced on Monday. I am sure you understand how much renunciation there is in refusing such a scoop. It would have brought me wonderful publicity, but it would have embarrassed you, and the Head and I decided not to do that.”

“But you can’t possibly have known! I hadn’t had the letter myself more than a couple of hours before going to the theatre. I had it with me as a matter of fact.”

“Very true, and you have it now; inside right-hand breast pocket. Don’t worry, I haven’t picked your pocket. But when you lean forward, however slightly, the tip of a long envelope made of thick creamy paper can just be seen; only governments use such ostentatious envelopes, and when a man so elegantly dressed as you are bulges his jacket with one of them, it is probably — you see? There is an elementary lesson in magic for you. Work on it for twenty years and you may comprehend the Brazen Head.”

This took Boy down a peg; the good-humoured, youthful chuckle he gave was his first step to get himself on top of the conversation again. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I’ve just been showing it to the Headmaster; because, of course, I’ll have to resign as Chairman of the Board of Governors. And I was just coming to talk to you about it, Dunny.”

“Come along then,” I said. “We were going to have a drink.”

I was conscious already that Boy was up to one of his special displays of charm. He had put his foot wrong with Eisengrim by asking him to reveal the secret of an illusion; it was unlike him to be so gauche, but I suppose the excitement about his new appointment blew up his ego a little beyond what he could manage. It seemed to me that I could already see the plumed, cocked hat of a Lieutenant-Governor on his head.

Eisengrim had been sharp enough with him to arouse hostility, and Boy loved to defeat hostility by turning the other cheek — which is by no means a purely Christian ploy, as Boy had shown me countless times. Eisengrim further topped him by the little bit of observation about the letter, which had made Boy look like a child who is so besotted by a new toy that it cannot let the toy out of its grasp. Boy wanted a chance to right the balance, which of course meant making him master of the situation.

It was clear to me that one of those sympathies, or antipathies, or at any rate unusual states of feeling, had arisen between these two which sometimes lead to falling in love, or to sudden warm friendships, or to lasting and rancorous enmities, but which are always extraordinary. I wanted to see what would happen, and my appetite was given the special zest of knowing who Eisengrim really was, which Boy did not, and perhaps would never learn.

It was like Boy to seek to ingratiate himself with the new friend by treating the old friend with genial contempt. When the three of us had made our way to my room at the end of the top-floor corridor — my old room, which I have always refused to leave for more comfortable quarters in the newer buildings — he kicked the door open and entered first, turning on the lights and touring the room as he said, “Still the same old rat’s nest. What are you going to do when you have to move? How will you ever find room anywhere else for all this junk? Look at those books! I’ll bet you don’t use some of them once a year.”

It was true that several of the big volumes were spread about, and I had to take some of them out of an armchair for Eisengrim, so I was a little humbled.

But Eisengrim spoke. “I like it very much,” said he. “I so seldom get to my home, and I have to live in hotel rooms for weeks and months on end. Next spring I go on a world tour; that will mean something like five years of hotels. This room speaks of peace and a mind at work. I wish it were mine.”

“I wouldn’t say old Dunny’s mind was at work,” said Boy. “I wish all I had to do was teach the same lessons every year for forty years.”

“You are forgetting his many and excellent books, are you not?” said Eisengrim.

Boy understood that he was not going to get what he wanted, which cannot have been anything more than a complicity with an interesting stranger, by running me down, so he took another tack. “You mustn’t misunderstand if I am disrespectful towards the great scholar. We’re very old friends. We come from the same little village. In fact I think we might say that all the brains of Deptford — past, present, and doubtless to come — are in this room right now.”

For the first time in Boy’s company, Eisengrim laughed. “Might I be included in such a distinguished group?” he asked.

Boy was pleased to have gained a laugh. “Sorry, birth in Deptford is an absolute requirement.”

“Oh, I have that already. It was about my achievements in the world that I had doubt.”

“I’ve looked through your Autobiography — Lorene asked me to buy a copy for her. I thought you were born somewhere in the far north of Sweden.”

“That was Magnus Eisengrim; my earlier self was born in Deptford. If the Autobiography seems to be a little high in colour you must blame Ramsay. He wrote it.”

“Dunny! You never told me that!”

“It never seemed relevant,” said I. I was amazed that Paul would tell him such a thing, but I could see that he, like Boy, was prepared to play some high cards in this game of topping each other.

“I don’t remember anybody in the least like you in Deptford. What did you say your real name was?”

“My real name is Magnus Eisengrim; that is who I am and that is how the world knows me. But before I found out who I was, I was called Paul Dempster, and I remember you very well. I always thought of you as the Rich Young Ruler.”

“And are you and Dunny old friends?”

“Yes, very old friends. He was my first teacher of magic. He also taught me a little about saints, but it was the magic that lingered. His speciality as a conjurer was eggs — the Swami of the Omelette. He was my only teacher till I ran away with a circus.”

“Did you? You know I wanted to do that. I suppose it is part of every boy’s dream.”

“Then boys are lucky that it remains a dream. I should not have said a circus; it was a very humble carnival show. I was entranced by Willard the Wizard; he was so much more skilful than Ramsay. He was quite clever with cards and a very neat pickpocket. I begged him to take me, and was such an ignorant little boy — perhaps I might even call myself innocent, though it is a word I don’t like — that I was in ecstasy when he consented. But I soon found out that Willard had two weaknesses — boys and morphia. The morphia had already made him careless or he would never have run the terrible risk of stealing a boy. But when I had well and truly found out what travelling with Willard meant, he had me in slavery; he told me that if anybody ever found out what we did together I would certainly be hanged, but he would get off because he knew all the judges everywhere. So I was chained to Willard by fear; I was his thing and his creature, and I learned conjuring as a reward. One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence, though my case was spectacular. But the astonishing thing is that I grew to like Willard, especially as morphia incapacitated him for his hobby and ruined him as a conjurer. It was then he became a Wild Man.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson