Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

It was not for ponies. In my boyhood such pretty little whips were sold at country fairs, where children bought them, and flourished them, and occasionally beat trees with them. But a few years earlier my mother had impounded such a whip that Willie had brought home, and it had been used for beatings ever since. It had been at least two years since I had had a beating, but now my mother flourished the whip, and when I laughed she struck me over the left shoulder with it.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” I shouted, and that put her into such a fury as I had never known. It must have been a strange scene, for she pursued me around the kitchen, slashing me with the whip until she broke me down and I cried. She cried too, hysterically, and beat me harder, storming about my impudence, my want of respect for her, of my increasing oddity and intellectual arrogance — not that she used these words, but I do not intend to put down what she actually said — until at last her fury was spent, and she ran upstairs in tears and banged the door of her bedroom. I crept off to the woodshed, a criminal, and wondered what I should do. Become a tramp, perhaps, like the shabby, sinister fellows who came so often to our back door for a handout? Hang myself? I have been very miserable since — miserable not for an hour but for months on end — but I can still feel that hour’s misery in its perfect desolation, if I am fool enough to call it up in my mind.

My father and Willie came home, and there was no supper. Naturally he sided with her, and Willie was very officious and knowing about how intolerable I had become of late, and how thrashing was too good for me. Finally it was settled that my mother would come downstairs if I would beg pardon. This I had to do on my knees, repeating a formula improvised by my father, which included a pledge that I would always love my mother, to whom I owed the great gift of life, and that I begged her — and secondarily God — to forgive me, knowing full well that I was unworthy of such clemency.

I rose from my knees cleansed and purged, and ate very little supper, as became a criminal. When it came time for me to go to bed my mother beckoned me to her, and kissed me, and whispered. “I know I’ll never have another anxious moment with my own dear laddie.”

I pondered these words before I went to sleep. How could I reconcile this motherliness with the screeching fury who had pursued me around the kitchen with a whip, flogging me until she was gorged with — what? Vengeance? What was it? Once, when I was in my thirties and reading Freud for the first time, I thought I knew. I am not so sure I know now. But what I knew then was that nobody — not even my mother — was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface.


Instead of sickening me of magic, this incident increased my appetite for it. It was necessary for me to gain power in some realm into which my parents — my mother particularly — could not follow me. Of course, I did not think about the matter logically; sometimes I yearned for my mother’s love and hated myself for having grieved her, but quite as often I recognized that her love had a high price on it and that her idea of a good son was a pretty small potato. So I drudged away secretly at the magic.

It was card tricks now. I had no trouble getting a pack of cards, for my parents were great players of euchre, and of the several packs in the house I could spirit away the oldest for a couple of hours any afternoon, if I replaced it at the back of the drawer where it was kept, as being too good to throw away but too slick and supple to use. Having only the one pack, I could not attempt any tricks that needed two cards of the same suit and value, but I mastered a few of those chestnuts in which somebody chooses a card and the conjurer finds it after much shuffling; I even had a beauty, involving a silk thread, in which the chosen card hopped from the deck as the conjurer stood nonchalantly at a distance.

I needed an audience, to judge how well I was doing, and I found one readily in Paul Dempster. He was four, and I was fourteen, so on the pretext of looking after him for an hour or two I would take him to the library and entertain him with my tricks. He was not a bad audience, for he sat solemn and mute when he was bidden, chose cards at my command, and if I presented the deck to him with one card slightly protruding, while I held the deck tight, that was the card he invariably chose. He had his faults; he could neither read nor count, and so he did not relish the full wonder of it when I produced his card triumphantly after tremendous shufflings, but I knew that I had deceived him and told him so. In fact, my abilities as a teacher had their first airing in that little library, and as I was fond of lecturing I taught Paul more than I suspected.

Of course he wanted to play too, and it was not easy to explain that I was not playing but demonstrating a fascinating and involved science. I had to work out a system of rewards, and as he liked stories I read to him after he had watched me do my tricks. Luckily we both liked the same book. It was a pretty volume I found in the cupboard of banished books, called A Child’s Book of Saints. It was the work of one William Canton, and it began with a conversation between a little girl and her father, which I thought a model of elegant writing. I can quote passages from it still, for I used to read and reread them to Paul, and he, with the memory of a non-reader, could repeat them by heart. Here is one, and I am sure that though I have not read it for fifty years, I have it right:

Occasionally these legends brought us to the awful brink of religious controversies and insoluble mysteries, but, like those gentle savages who honour the water-spirits by hanging garlands from tree to tree across the river, W.V. — [W.V. was the little girl] — could always fling a bridge of flowers over our abysses. “Our sense,” she would declare, “is nothing to God’s; and though big people have more sense than children, the sense of all the big people in the world put together would be no sense to His.” “We are only little babies to Him; we do not understand Him at all.” Nothing seemed clearer to her than the reasonableness of one legend which taught that though God always answers our prayers. He does not always answer in the way we would like, but in some better way than we know. “Yes,” she observed, “He is just a dear old Father.” Anything about our Lord engrossed her imagination; and it was a frequent wish of hers that He would come again. “Then,” — poor perplexed little mortal! whose difficulties one could not even guess at — “we should be quite sure of things. Miss Catherine tells us from books: He would tell us from His memory. People would not be so cruel to Him now. Queen Victoria would not allow any one to crucify Him.”

There was a picture of Queen Victoria hanging in the library, and one look at her would tell you that anybody under her protection was in luck.

Thus for some months I used Paul as a model audience, and paid him off in stories about St. Dorothea and St. Francis, and let him look at the pretty pictures, which were by Heath Robinson.

I progressed from cards to coins, which were vastly more difficult. For one thing, I had very few coins, and when my books of instruction said, “Secure and palm six half-crowns,” I was stopped dead, for I had no half-crowns or anything that looked like them. I had one handsome piece — it was a brass medal that the linotype company had prepared to advertise its machines, which my father did not want — and as it was about the size of a silver dollar I practised with that. But oh, what clumsy hands I had!

I cannot guess now how many weeks I worked on the sleight-of-hand pass called The Spider. To perform this useful bit of trickery, you nip a coin between your index and little fingers, and then revolve it by drawing the two middle fingers back and forth, in front or behind it; by this means it is possible to show both sides of the hand without revealing the coin. But just try to do it! Try it with red, knuckly Scots hands, stiffened by grass-cutting and snow-shovelling, and see what skill you develop! Of course Paul wanted to know what I was doing, and, being a teacher at heart, I told him.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson