Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“Like this ?” he asked, taking the coin from me and performing the pass perfectly.

I was stunned and humiliated, but, looking back on it now, I think I behaved pretty well.

“Yes, like that,” I said, and though it took me a few days to realize it, that was the moment I became Paul’s instructor. He could do anything with his hands. He could shuffle cards without dropping them, which was something I could never be sure of, and he could do marvels with my big brass medal. His hands were small, so that the coin was usually visible, but it was seen to be doing something interesting; he could make it walk over the back of his hand, nipping it between the fingers with a dexterity that left me gasping.

There was no sense in envying him; he had the hands and I had not, and although there were times when I considered killing him, just to rid the world of a precocious nuisance, I could not overlook that fact. The astonishing thing was that he regarded me as his teacher because I could read and tell him what to do; the fact that he could do it did not impress him. He was grateful, and I was in a part of my life where gratitude and admiration, even from such a thing as Paul, were very welcome.

If it seems cruel to write “such a thing as Paul,” let me explain myself. He was an odd-looking little mortal, with an unusually big head for his frail body. His clothes never seemed to fit him; many of them were reach-me-downs from Baptist families, and because his mother was so unhandy they always had holes in them and were ravelled at the edges and ill-buttoned. He had a lot of curly brown hair, because his mother kept begging Amasa Dempster to put off the terrible day when Paul would go to Myron Papple for the usual boy’s scalping. His eyes seemed big in his little face, and certainly they were unusually wide apart, and looked dark because his thin skin was so white. My mother was worried about that pallor and occasionally took charge of Paul and wormed him — a humiliation children did not seem to need any more. Paul was not a village favourite, and the dislike so many people felt for his mother — dislike for the queer and persistently unfortunate — they attached to the unoffending son.


My own dislike was kept for Amasa Dempster. A few of his flock said that he walked very closely with God, and it made him spooky. We had family prayers at home, a respectful salute to Providence before breakfast, enough for anybody. But he was likely to drop on his knees at any time and pray with a fervour that seemed indecent. Because I was often around their house I sometimes stumbled on one of these occasions, and he would motion me to kneel with them until he was finished — which could be as much as ten or fifteen minutes later. Sometimes he mentioned me; I was the stranger within their gates, and I knew he was telling God what a good job I did on the grass and the woodpile; but he usually got in a dig at the end, when he asked God to preserve me from walking with a froward mouth, by which he meant my little jokes to coax a laugh or a smile from his wife. And he never finished without asking God for strength to bear his heavy cross, by which I knew that he meant Mrs. Dempster; she knew it too.

This was the only unkindness he ever offered her. In everything else he was patient and, so far as his spirit permitted, loving. But before Paul’s birth he had loved her because she was the blood of his heart; now he seemed to love her on principle. I do not think he knew that he was hinting to God to notice the meek spirit in which he bore his ill luck, but that was the impression his prayers left on my mind. He was no skilled rhetorician, and the poor man had nothing much in the way of brains, so very often what he felt came out more clearly than what he meant to say.

His quality of feeling was weighty. I suppose this is what made him acceptable to the Baptists, who valued feeling very highly — much more highly than we Presbyterians, who were scared of it and tried to swap it for intellect. I got the strength of his feeling one awful day when he said to me:

“Dunny, come with me to my study in the church. I want a word with you.”

Wondering what on earth all this solemnity was about, I tagged along with him to the Baptist church, where we went to the tiny parson’s room beside the baptismal tank. The first thing he did was to drop to his knees and ask God to assist him to be just but not unkind, and then he went to work on me.

I had brought corruption into the innocent world of childhood. I had offended against one of God’s little ones. I had been the agent — unknowingly, he hoped — by means of which the Evil One had trailed his black slime across a pure life.

Of course I was frightened. There were boys and girls known to me who made occasional trips to the groves of trees in the old gravel pit that lay to the west of our village and gave themselves up to exploratory pawing. One of these, a Mabel Heighington, was rumoured to have gone the limit with more than one boy. But I was not of this group; I was too scared of being found out, and also, I must say in justice to my young self, too fastidious, to want the pimply Heighington slut; I preferred my intense, solitary adoration of Leola Cruikshank to such frowzy rough-and-tumble. But all boys used to be open to accusations on matters of sex; their thoughts alone, to say nothing of half-willing, half-disgusted action, incriminated them before themselves. I thought someone must have given him my name to divert attention from the others.

I was wrong. After the preliminary mysterious talk it came out that he was accusing me of putting playing-cards — he called them the Devil’s picture-book — into the hands of his son Paul. But worse — much worse that that — I had taught the boy to cheat with the cards, to handle them like a smoking-car gambler, and also to play deceptive tricks with money. That very morning there had been three cents’ change from the baker’s visit, and Paul had picked them up from the table and caused them to vanish! Of course he had restored them — utter corruption had not yet set in — and after a beating and much prayer it had all come out about the cards and what I had taught him.

This was bad enough, but worse was to follow. Papistry! I had been idling Paul stories about saints, and if I did not know that the veneration of saints was one of the vilest superstitions of the Scarlet Woman of Rome, he was going to have a word with the Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Andrew Bowyer, to make sure I found out. Under conviction of his wickedness Paul had come out with blasphemous stuff about somebody who had spent his life praying on a pillar forty feet high, and St. Francis who saw a living Christ on a crucifix, and St. Mary of the Angels, and more of the same kind, that had made his blood freeze to hear. Now — what was it to be? Would I take the beating I deserved from him, or was he to tell my parents and leave it to them to do their duty ?

I was a boy of fifteen at this time, and I did not propose to take a beating from him, and if my parents beat me I would run away and become a tramp. So I told him he had better tell my parents.

This disconcerted him, for he had been a parson long enough to know that complaints to parents about their children were not always gratefully received. I was bold enough to say that maybe he had better do as he threatened and speak to Mr. Bowyer. This was good argument, for our minister was not a man to like advice from Amasa Dempster, and though he would have given me the rough side of his tongue, he would first have eaten the evangelistic Baptist parson without salt. Poor Dempster! He had lost the fight, so he took refuge in banishing me. I was never to set foot in his house again, he said, nor to speak to any of his family, nor dare to come near his son. He would pray for me, he concluded.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson