Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy in the end prove neither innocent nor innocuous. Fifth Business stands alone as a remarkable story told by a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.
I am able to date the occasion with complete certainty because that afternoon I had been sledding with my lifelong friend and enemy Percy Boyd Staunton, and we had quarrelled, because his fine new Christmas sled would not go as fast as my old one. Snow was never heavy in our part of the world, but this Christmas it had been plentiful enough almost to cover the tallest spears of dried grass in the fields; in such snow his sled with its tall runners and foolish steering apparatus was clumsy and apt to stick, whereas my low-slung old affair would almost have slid on grass without snow.
The afternoon had been humiliating for him, and when Percy was humiliated he was vindictive. His parents were rich, his clothes were fine, and his mittens were of skin and came from a store in the city, whereas mine were knitted by my mother; it was manifestly wrong, therefore, that his splendid sled should not go faster than mine, and when such injustice showed itself Percy became cranky. He slighted my sled, scoffed at my mittens, and at last came right out and said that his father was better than my father. Instead of hitting him, which might have started a fight that could have ended in a draw or even a defeat for me, I said, all right, then, I would go home and he could have the field to himself. This was crafty of me, for I knew it was getting on for suppertime, and one of our home rules was that nobody, under any circumstances, was to be late for a meal. So I was keeping the home rule, while at the same time leaving Percy to himself.
As I walked back to the village he followed me, shouting fresh insults. When I walked, he taunted, I staggered like an old cow; my woollen cap was absurd beyond all belief; my backside was immense and wobbled when I walked; and more of the same sort, for his invention was not lively. I said nothing, because I knew that this spited him more than any retort, and that every time he shouted at me he lost face.
Our village was so small that you came on it at once; it lacked the dignity of outskirts. I darted up our street, putting on speed, for I had looked ostentatiously at my new Christmas dollar watch (Percy had a watch but was not let wear it because it was too good) and saw that it was 5:57; just time to get indoors, wash my hands in the noisy, splashy way my parents seemed to like, and be in my place at six, my head bent for grace. Percy was by this time hopping mad, and I knew I had spoiled his supper and probably his whole evening. Then the unforeseen took over.
Walking up the street ahead of me were the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his wife; he had her arm tucked in his and was leaning towards her in the protective way he had. I was familiar with this sight, for they always took a walk at this time, after dark and when most people were at supper, because Mrs. Dempster was going to have a baby, and it was not the custom in our village for pregnant women to show themselves boldly in the streets-not if they had any position to keep up, and of course the Baptist minister's wife had a position. Percy had been throwing snowballs at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy's sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly-not running, but not dawdling-in front of the Dempsters just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.
I had meant to dart into our house, but I was unnerved by hearing Mrs. Dempster; I had never heard an adult cry in pain before and the sound was terrible to me. Falling, she burst into nervous tears, and suddenly there she was, on the ground, with her husband kneeling beside her, holding her in his arms and speaking to her in terms of endearment that were strange and embarrassing to me; I had never heard married people-or any people-speak unashamedly loving words before. I knew that I was watching a "scene," and my parents had always warned against scenes as very serious breaches of propriety. I stood gaping, and then Mr. Dempster became conscious of me.
"Dunny," he said-I did not know he knew my name-"lend us your sleigh to get my wife home."
I was contrite and guilty, for I knew that the snowball had been meant for me, but the Dempsters did not seem to think of that. He lifted his wife on my sled, which was not hard because she was a small, girlish woman, and as I pulled it towards their house he walked beside it, very awkwardly bent over her, supporting her and uttering soft endearment and encouragement, for she went on crying, like a child.
Their house was not far away-just around the corner, really-but by the time I had been there, and seen Mr. Dempster take his wife inside, and found myself unwanted outside, it was a few minutes after six, and I was late for supper. But I pelted home (pausing only for a moment at the scene of the accident), washed my hands, slipped into my place at table, and made my excuse, looking straight into my mother's sternly interrogative eyes. I gave my story a slight historical bias, leaning firmly but not absurdly on my own role as the Good Samaritan. I suppressed any information or guesswork about where the snowball had come from, and to my relief my mother did not pursue that aspect of it. She was much more interested in Mrs. Dempster, and when supper was over and the dishes washed she told my father she thought she would just step over to the Dempsters' and see if there was anything she could do.
On the face of it this was a curious decision of my mother's, for of course we were Presbyterians, and Mrs. Dempster was the wife of the Baptist parson. Not that there was any ill-will among the denominations in our village, but it was understood that each looked after its own, unless a situation got too big, when outside help might be called in. But my mother was, in a modest way, a specialist in matters relating to pregnancy and childbirth; Dr. McCausland had once paid her the great compliment of saying that "Mrs. Ramsay had her head screwed on straight"; she was ready to put this levelness of head at the service of almost anybody who needed it. And she had a tenderness, never obviously displayed, for poor, silly Mrs. Dempster, who was not twenty-one yet and utterly unfit to be a preacher's wife.
So off she went, and I read my Christmas annual of the Boy's Own Paper, and my father read something that looked hard and had small print, and my older brother Willie read The Cruise of the "Cachalot," all of us sitting round the baseburner with our feet on the nickel guard, till half-past eight, and then we boys were sent to bed. I have never been quick to go to sleep, and I lay awake until the clock downstairs struck half-past nine, and shortly after that I heard my mother return. There was a stovepipe in our house that came from the general living-room into the upstairs hall, and it was a fine conductor of sound. I crept out into the hall-Willie slept like a bear-put my ear as near to it as the heat permitted and heard my mother say:
"I've just come back for a few things. I'll probably be all night. Get me all the baby blankets out of the trunk, and then go right down to Ruckle's and make him get you a big roll of cotton wool from the store-the finest he has-and bring it to the Dempsters'. The doctor says if it isn't a big roll to get two."
"You don't mean it's coming now?"
"Yes. Away early. Don't wait up for me."
But of course he did wait up for her, and it was four in the morning when she came home, self-possessed and grim, as I could tell from her voice as I heard them talking before she returned to the Dempsters'-why, I did not know. And I lay awake too, feeling guilty and strange.
That was how Paul Dempster, whose reputation is doubtless familiar to you (though that was not the name under which he gained it), came to be born early on the morning of 28 December in 1908.
In making this report to you, my dear Headmaster, I have purposely begun with the birth of Paul Dempster, because this is the cause of so much that is to follow. But why, you will ask, am I writing to you at all? Why, after a professional association of so many years, during which I have been reticent about my personal affairs, am I impelled now to offer you such a statement as this?
It is because I was deeply offended by the idiotic piece that appeared in the College Chronicle in the issue of midsummer 1969. It is not merely its illiteracy of tone that disgusts me (though I think the quarterly publication of a famous Canadian school ought to do better), but its presentation to the public of a portrait of myself as a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose. But it speaks for itself, and here it is, in all its inanity:
FAREWELL TO THE CORK
A feature of "break-up" last June was the dinner given in honour of Dunstan ("Corky") Ramsay, who was retiring after forty-five years at the school, and Assistant Head and Senior History Master for the last twenty-two. More than 168 Old Boys, including several MPs and two Cabinet Ministers, were present, and our able dietician Mrs. Pierce surpassed herself in providing a truly fine spread for the occasion. "Corky" himself was in fine form despite his years and the coronary that laid him up following the death of his lifelong friend, the late Boy Staunton, D.S.O., C.B.E., known to us all as an Old Boy and Chairman of the Board of Governors of this school. He spoke of his long years as a teacher and friend to innumerable boys, many of whom now occupy positions of influence and prominence, in firm tones that many a younger man might envy.
"Corky's" career may serve both as an example and a warning to young masters for, as he said, he came to the school in 1924 intending to stay only a few years and now he has completed his forty-fifth. During that time he has taught history, as he sees it, to countless boys, many of whom have gone on to a more scientific study of the subject in the universities of Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. Four heads of history departments in Canadian universities, former pupils of "Corky's," were head-table guests at the dinner, and one of them, Dr. E. S. Warren of the University of Toronto, paid a generous, noncritical tribute to "The Cork," praising his unfailing enthusiasm and referring humorously to his explorations of the borderland between history and myth.
This last subject was again slyly hinted at in the gift presented to "Corky" at the close of the evening, which was a fine tape recorder, by means of which it is hoped he may make available some of his reminiscences of an earlier and undoubtedly less complicated era of the school's history. Tapes recording the Headmaster's fine tribute to "Corky" were included and also one of the School Choir singing what must be "The Cork's" favourite hymn-never more appropriate than on this occasion!-"For all the saints, Who from their labours rest." And so the school says, "Good-bye and good luck, Corky! You served the school well according to your lights in your day and generation! Well done, thou good and faithful servant!"
There you have it, Headmaster, as it came from the pen of that ineffable jackass Lorne Packer, M.A. and aspirant to a Ph.D. Need I anatomize my indignation? Does it not reduce me to what Packer unquestionably believes me to be-a senile, former worthy who has stumbled through forty-five years of teaching armed only with a shallow, Boy's Book of Battles concept of history, and a bee in his bonnet about myth-whatever the dullard Packer imagines myth to be?
I do not complain that no reference was made to my V.C.; enough was said about that at the school in the days when such decorations were thought to add to the prestige of a teacher. However, I think something might have been said about my ten books, of which at least one has circulated in six languages and has sold over three-quarters of a million copies, and another exerts a widening influence in the realm of mythic history about which Packer attempts to be jocose. The fact that I am the only Protestant contributor to Analecta Bollandiana, and have been so for thirty-six years, is ignored, though Hippolyte Delehaye himself thought well of my work and said so in print. But what most galls me is the patronizing, dismissive tone of the piece-as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or hate, had never, in short, been anything except what lies within the comprehension of the donkey Packer, who has known me slightly for four years. Packer, who pushes me toward oblivion with tags of Biblical quotation, the gross impertinence of which he is unable to appreciate, religious illiterate that he is! Packer and his scientific view of history! Oh God! Packer, who cannot know and could not conceive that I have been cast by Fate and my own character for the vital though never glorious role of Fifth Business! Who could not, indeed, comprehend what Fifth Business is, even if he should meet the player of that part in his own trivial life-drama!
Reading Group Guide
One of the most ambitious works of fiction of the twentieth century, Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy reaches from rural Canada to the Swiss Alps and introduces a cast of characters as varied and fascinating as any in recent literature. It is a work of towering intellect, exploring ideas of good and evil, history and identity, truth and illusion, art and mysticism, and much more. But at the center of each of the three novels—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders—is a theme that connects the trilogy’s many intertwining stories: the need to recover a genuine experience of the marvelous, a sense of wonder, in a world from which it has been all but banished.
Each of the main characters in the three novels—Dunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim—narrates his life story. And in the course of each of these interrelated stories, we find a common desire for a mythical or magical world that exists within the confines of ordinary, rationalist, desacralized modern society. In Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay, history teacher and hagiographer, finds access to the marvelous through his study of saints and their miracles. He delights in “pointing out the mythical elements that seem to . . . underlie our apparently ordinary lives” (Fifth Business, p. 38), and feels certain that Mrs. Dempster, the mother of Paul Dempster (aka Magnus Eisengrim), whom others consider morally degenerate and mentally deficient, is in fact a saint. David Staunton, a highly successful criminal lawyer, embodies a thoroughly rationalist belief system. As a law student he takes his teacher’s advice and puts his “emotions in cold storage.” He eliminates from himself all the messy feelings that so often get his clients into trouble. Nevertheless, after his father’s sudden and mysterious death, he undergoes Jungian analysis—and a perilous descent to the underworld—to reconnect both with his emotions and with humanity’s mythic past. The trilogy’s most enigmatic character, the magician Magnus Eisengrim, both enacts and elicits a sense of wonder, as he satisfies “a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels” (The Manticore, p. 242). Indeed, Magnus’s greatest work of magic is his own self-transformation, from a shy, abused, and outcast boy growing up in a small Canadian village to the greatest magician in the world. He is an exemplar of what his friend and manager Lisel calls the “Magian World View,” which prevailed in the Middle Ages and which is based on a “sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world” (World of Wonders, p. 293).
Around this central theme, Robertson Davies spins a story, or rather a multitude of stories, that illuminate the human condition with uncommon brilliance. The novels themselves, written with extraordinary wit, charm, and intelligence, are wonders to behold. In this sense, Davies not only points his readers to a world of marvels and mysteries, he gives us one.
ABOUT ROBERTSON DAVIES
Robertson Davies (1913–1995) had three successive careers during the time he became an internationally acclaimed author: actor, publisher, and, finally, professor at the University of Toronto. The author of twelve novels and several volumes of essays and plays, he was the first Canadian to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION