Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“Then he was Le Solitaire des forets?” I asked.

“That was even later. His first decline was from conjurer to Wild Man — essentially a geek.”

“Geek?” said Boy.

“That is what carnival people call them. They are not an advertised attraction, but word that a geek is in a back tent is passed around quietly, and money is taken without any sale of tickets. Otherwise the Humane Societies make themselves a nuisance. The geek is represented as somebody who simply has to have raw flesh, and especially blood. After the spieler has lectured terrifyingly on the psychology and physiology of the geek, the geek is given a live chicken; he growls and rolls his eyes, then he gnaws through its neck until the head is off, and he drinks the spouting blood. Not a nice life, and very hard on the teeth, but if it is the only way to keep yourself in morphia, you’d rather geek than have the horrors. But geeking costs money; you need a live chicken every time, and even the oldest, toughest birds cost something. Before Willard got too sick even to geek, he was geeking with worms and gartersnakes when I could catch them for him. The rubes loved it; Willard was something even the most disgusting brute could despise.

“There was trouble with the police, at last, and I thought we would do better abroad. We had been over there quite a time, Ramsay, before you you I met in the Tyrol, and by then Willard was in very poor health, and Le Solitaire des forets was all he could manage. I doubt if he even knew where he was. So that is what running away with a circus was like, Mr. Staunton.”

“Why didn’t you leave him when he was down to geeking?”

“Shall I answer you honestly? Very well, then; it was loyalty. Yes, loyalty to Willard, though not to his geeking or his nasty ways with boys. I suppose it was loyalty to his dreadful, inescapable human need. Many people feel these irrational responsibilities and cannot crush them. Like Ramsay’s loyalty to my mother, for instance. I am sure it was an impediment to him, and certainly it must have been a heavy expense, but he did not fail her. I suppose he loved her. I might have done so if I had ever known her. But, you see, the person I knew was a woman unlike anybody else’s mother, who was called “hoor” by people like you, Mr. Staunton.”

“I really don’t remember,” said Boy. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure. I have never been able to forget what she was or what people called her. Because, you see. it was my birth that made her like that. My father thought it his duty to tell me, so that I could do whatever was possible to make it up to her. My birth was what robbed her of her sanity; that sometimes happened, you know, and I suppose it happens still. I was too young for the kind of guilt my father wanted me to feel; he had an extraordinary belief in guilt as an educative force. I couldn’t stand it. I cannot feel guilt now. But I can call up in an instant what it felt like to be the child of a woman everybody jeered at and thought a dirty joke — including you, the Rich Young Ruler. But I am sure your accent is much more elegant now. A Lieutenant-Governor who said “hoor” would not reflect credit on the Crown, would he?”

Boy had plenty of experience in being baited by hostile people, and he did not show by a quiver how strange this was to him. He prepared to get the attack into his own hands.

“I forget what you said your name was.”

Eisengrim continued to smile, so I said, “He’s Paul Dempster.”

This time it was my turn for surprise. “Who may Paul Dempster be?” asked Boy.

“Do you mean to say you don’t remember the Dempsters in Deptford? The Reverend Amasa Dempster?”

“No. I don’t remember what is of no use to me, and I haven’t been in Deptford since my father died. That’s twenty-six years.”

“You have no recollection of Mrs. Dempster?”

“None at all. Why should I?”

I could hardly believe he spoke the truth, but as we talked on I had to accept it as a fact that he had so far edited his memory of his early days that the incident of the snowball had quite vanished from his mind. But had not Paul edited his memories so that only pain and cruelty remained? I began to wonder what I had erased from my own recollection.

We had drinks and were sitting as much at ease as men can amid so many strong currents of feeling. Boy made another attempt to turn the conversation into a realm where he could dominate.

“How did you come to choose your professional name? I know magicians like to have extraordinary names, but yours sounds a little alarming. Don’t you find that a disadvantage?”

“No. And I did not choose it. My patron gave it to me.” He turned his head towards me, and I knew that the patron was Liesl. “It comes from one of the great northern beast fables, and it means Wolf. Far from being a disadvantage, people like it. People like to be in awe of something, you know. And my magic show is not ordinary. It provokes awe, which is why it is a success. It has something of the quality of Ramsay’s saints, though my miracles have a spice of the Devil about them — again my patron’s idea. That is where you make your mistake. You have always wanted to be loved; nobody responds quite as we would wish, and people are suspicious of a public figure who wants to be loved. I have been wiser than you. I chose a Wolfs name. You have chosen forever to be a Boy. Was it because your mother used to call you Pidgy Boy-Boy, even when you were old enough to call my mother “hoor”?”

“How in God’s name did you know that? Nobody in the world now living knows that!”

“Oh yes, two people know it — myself and Ramsay. He told me, many years ago, under an oath of secrecy.”

“I never did any such thing!” I shouted, outraged. Yet, even as I shouted, a doubt assailed me.

“But you did, or how would I know? You told me that to comfort me once, when the Rich Young Ruler and some of his gang had been shouting at my mother. We all forget many of the things we do, especially when they do not fit into the character we have chosen for ourselves. You see yourself as the man of many confidences, Ramsay. It would not do for you to remember a time when you told a secret, Dunstan Ramsay — when did you cease to be Dunstable?”

“A girl renamed me when I had at last broken with my mother. Liesl said it made me one of the twice-born. Had you thought that we are all three of the company of the twice-born? We have all rejected our beginnings and become something our parents could not have foreseen.”

“I can’t imagine your parents foreseeing that you would become a theorizer about myth and legend,” said Eisengrim. “Hard people — I remember them clearly. Hard people — especially your mother.”

“Wrong,” said I. And I told him how my mother had worked and schemed and devised a nest to keep him alive, and exulted when he decided to live. “She said you were a fighter, and she liked that.”

Now it was his turn to be disconcerted. “Do you mind if I have one of your cigars?” he said.

I do not smoke cigars, but the box he took from a shelf on the other side of the room might easily be mistaken for a humidor — rather a fine one. But as he took it down and rather superciliously blew dust from it his face changed.

He brought it over and laid it on the low table around which our chairs were grouped. “What’s this?” he asked.

“It is what it says it is,” said I.

The engraving on the silver plaque on the lid of the box was beautiful and clear, for I had chosen the script with care:

Requiescat in pace



Here is the patience

and faith of the saints.

We looked at it for some time. Boy was first to speak.

“Why would you keep a thing like that with you?”

“A form of piety. A sense of guilt unexpiated. Indolence. I have always been meaning to put them in some proper place, but I haven’t found it yet.”

“Guilt?” said Eisengrim.

Here it was. Either I spoke now or I kept silence forever. Dunstan Ramsay counselled against revelation, but Fifth Business would not hear.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson