Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“Yes, guilt. Staunton and I robbed your mother of her sanity.” And I told them the story of the snowball.

“Too bad,” said Boy. “But if I may say so, Dunny, I think you’ve let the thing build up into something it never was. You unmarried men are terrible fretters. I threw the snowball — at least you say so, and for argument’s sake let that go — and you dodged it. It precipitated something which was probably going to happen anyhow. The difference between us is that you’ve brooded over it and I’ve forgotten it. We’ve both done far more important things since. I’m sorry if I was offensive to your mother, Dempster. But you know what boys are. Brutes, because they don’t know any better. But they grow up to be men.”

“Very important men. Men whom the Crown delighteth to honour,” said Eisengrim with an unpleasant laugh.

“Yes. If you expect me to be diffident about that, you’re wrong.”

“Men who retain something of the brutish boy, even,” said I. “I don’t think I understand you.”

Fifth Business insisted on being heard again. “Would this jog your memory?” I asked, handing him my old paperweight.

“Why should it? An ordinary bit of stone. You’ve used it to hold down some of the stuff on your desk for years. I’ve seen it a hundred times. It doesn’t remind me of anything but you.”

“It is the stone you put in the snowball you threw at Mrs. Dempster,” I said. “I’ve kept it because I couldn’t part with it. I swear I never meant to tell you what it was. But, Boy, for God’s sake, get to know something about yourself. The stone-in-the-snowball has been characteristic of too much you’ve done for you to forget it forever!”

“What I’ve done! Listen, Dunny, one thing I’ve done is to make you pretty well-off for a man in your position. I’ve treated you like a brother. Given you tips nobody else got, let me tell you. And that’s where your nice little nest-egg came from. Your retirement fund you used to whine about.”

I hadn’t thought I whined, but perhaps I did. “Need we go on with this moral bookkeeping?” I said. “I”m simply trying to recover something of the totality of your life. Don’t you want to possess it as a whole — the bad with the good? I told you once you’d made a God of yourself, and the insufficiency of it forced you to become an atheist. It’s time you tried to be a human being. Then maybe something bigger than yourself will come up on your horizon.”

“You’re trying to get me. You want to humiliate me in front of this man here; you seem to have been in cahoots with him for years, though you never mentioned him or his miserable mother to me — your best friend, and your patron and protector against your own incompetence! Well, let him hear this, as we’re dealing in ugly truths: you’ve always hated me because I took Leola from you. And I did! It wasn’t because you lost a leg and were ugly. It was because she loved me better.”

This got me on the raw, and Dunstable Ramsay’s old inability to resist a cruel speech when one occurred to him came uppermost. “My observation has been that we get the women we deserve, King Candaules,” I said, “and those who eat jam before breakfast are cloyed before bedtime.”

“Gentlemen,” said Eisengrim, “deeply interesting though this is, Sunday nights are the only nights when I can get to bed before midnight. So I shall leave you.”

Boy was all courtesy at once. “I’m going too. Let me give you a lift,” said he. Of course; he wanted to blackguard me to Eisengrim in the car.

“Thank you, Mr. Staunton,” said Eisengrim. “What Ramsay has told us puts you in my debt — for eighty days in Paradise, if for nothing in this life. We shall call it quits if you will drive me to my hotel.”

I lifted the casket that contained Mary Dempster’s ashes. “Do you want to take this with you, Paul?”

“No thanks, Ramsay. I have everything I need.”

It seemed an odd remark, but in the emotional stress of the situation I paid no heed to it. Indeed, it was not until after the news of Boy’s death reached me next morning that I noticed my paperweight was gone.


Because of the way he died, the consequent police investigations and the delays brought about by Denyse’s determination to make the most of the nearly official funeral. Boy was not buried until Thursday. The Saturday evening following I went to see Eisengrim’s Soiree of Illusions, as he now called it, at its last performance, and though I spent much of the evening behind the scenes with Liesl, I went into the front of the house during The Brazen Head of Friar Bacon. Or rather, I hid myself behind the curtains of an upper box so that I could look down into the auditorium of our beautiful old Royal Alexandra Theatre and watch the audience.

Everything went smoothly during the collecting and restoration of borrowed objects, and the faces I saw below me were the usual studies in pleasure, astonishment, and — always the most interesting — the eagerness to be deceived mingled with resentment of deception. But when the Head was about to utter its three messages to people in the audience and Eisengrim had said what was to come, somebody in the top balcony shouted out, “Who killed Boy Staunton?”

There was murmuring in the audience and a hiss or two, but silence fell as the Head glowed from within, its lips parted, and its voice — Liesl’s voice, slightly foreign and impossible to identify as man’s or woman’s — spoke.

“He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.”

I believe there was an uproar. Certainly Denyse made a great to-do when she heard of it. Of course she thought “the woman he knew” must be herself. The police were hounded by her and some of her influential friends, but that was after Eisengrim and his Soiree of Illusions had removed by air to Copenhagen, and the police had to make it clear that they really could not investigate impalpable offences, however annoying they might be. But I knew nothing about it, because it was there, in that box, that I had my seizure and was rushed to the hospital, as I was afterward told, by a foreign lady.

When I was well enough to read letters I found one — a postcard, to my horror — that read:

Deeply sorry about your illness which was my fault as much as most such things are anybody’s fault. But I could not resist my temptation as I beg you not to resist this one: come to Switzerland and join the Basso and the Brazen Head. We shall have some high old times before The Five make an end of us all.



And that, Headmaster, is all I have to tell you.

Sankt Gallea


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Categories: Davies, Robertson