World War II increases Boy Staunton’s stature as an industrialist. He is appointed Minister of Food in a coalition Cabinet, and does a wonderful job of feeding the population of Canada and its armed services, and even feeding Great Britain. “If the average height of the people of the British Isles is rather greater today than it was in 1939, much of the credit must go to Boy Staunton. He was one of the few men, not a professional scientist, who really knew what a vitamin was and where it could be found and put to work cheaply. ” (pg. 19) The position keeps him away from home for most of the war, and he becomes further estranged from his wife and children, even his beloved daughter Caroline. His son David is now a boarder at Colborne, where Dunstan keeps a fatherly eye on the twelve-year-old. Two years later, in 1942, it falls to Dunstan to inform David of his mother’s death. Leola dies of pneumonia, but Dunstan thinks it suspicious that Leola had opened the windows on such a cold winter afternoon. Fourteen-year-old David’s alarming reaction is that Leola is better off.
Boy is in England and unable to return for the funeral; he asks Dunstan to take care of it all, which he does. Dunstan keeps David close by his side for several days at school, and during the funeral. Milo Papple shows up to pay his respects, and comments how hard it must be for Dunstan to lose Leola for the second time. Dunstan is ashamed that he feels no sense of loss whatsoever. In 1947, Boy returns for good from his war efforts in Europe and gives Dunstan some bad news. Dunstan has been serving as temporary Headmaster since the former Headmaster died.
With the war on, they had been unable to find a replacement, and Dunstan had been doing all the work for no additional salary. He expects to be offered the job and additional compensation as soon as the war is over, but instead Boy tells him that the Board wants to hire a married man. Dunstan offers to get married, but Boy admits the board is looking for someone more conventional; Dunstan’s interest in saints has given him a reputation for being eccentric. At this point, the narrator tells the Headmaster, for whom he is writing this chronicle, that the man, Boy chose, was of course the Headmaster himself.
Dunstan is furious to be cast aside by Boy and the Board after eighteen months of thankless service, doing double duty as teacher and acting Headmaster. He insists that the Board help him save face by announcing that Dunstan has turned down the job due to his writing commitments; Dunstan also insists on a six-month, paid leave of absence, so that he can visit the shrines of Latin America. Thus, the narrator finds himself, a few months later, at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He sits in the shrine day after day and wonders what will happen to mercy, compassion, and divine wonder in the face of the rising industrialization of America.
The world is freeing itself from belief in God, and putting its faith in modernity, capitalism, and science. The narrator insists he has nothing against financial and educational advances, he just wonders at what price they come. Just as in his younger days, he still wonders why people have faith in miracles and wonders. He wonders if it is a childish escape from reality, or if it is a recognition of some deeper knowledge we all hold, that the miraculous is actually a part of reality. Dunstan only spends part of each day on such speculation; the rest he spends in light-hearted tourism.
He sees a notice in the paper of a magic show, and enthusiastically reserves a theater seat. His love of magic has never fully died, and he has seen many great illusionists in his time, including the remarkable Harry Houdini. He has, however, never heard of the magician scheduled to perform that night’s show – a man named Magnus Eisengrim. The show captivates him immediately. Unlike most magic shows, it is artistic rather than merely showy and entertaining. The illusions are ghostly and dramatic in a dark, sexual, yet elegant way. When he sees Magnus Eisengrim take the stage, he recognizes him at once as Paul Dempster.
The final, climactic illusion is based on the story of Faust, and a beautiful woman plays the roles of Gretchen and of the goddess Venus. Her stage name is Faustina. After the show, Dunstan is summoned backstage at the request of the magician Eisengrim. A horrifyingly ugly and manly-looking woman takes him to Eisengrim’s dressing room, where he finds Eisengrim arguing amicably with Faustina about the stage lighting. Eisengrim makes polite but unenthusiastic conversation; it is evident to Dunstan that Paul does not really want him to be there, so he prepares to leave.
However, the ugly woman, whose name is Liesl, insists that he accompany them to lunch the next day. Before he leaves, Paul thanks him for the “temporary loan,” a reference to having stolen Dunstan’s wallet at their last meeting. Paul taps him lightly on the pocket where Dunstan hides his cash. When Dunstan gets back to his hotel room, he finds that the stolen money has been replaced with interest. He begins to think better of Magnus Eisengrim. Liesl and Paul meet him for lunch the next day. Liesl turns out to be Paul’s partner, and a student of hagiography.
She has read several of Dunstan’s books, and wants him to write Magnus Eisengrim’s autobiography. She wants Dunstan in particular, because the fictional biography of the fictional Eisengrim should be, she thinks, a mythical story along the lines of the life of a saint. Now fifty-years-old, Dunstan cannot resist the adventure. From that day forward, he becomes a part of Eisengrim’s entourage, and agrees to write the book. Dunstan takes pleasure in watching Eisengrim perform so brilliantly the tricks he taught him as a boy.
Eisengrim has found his true calling, and cares deeply about every aspect of his show. The tour in Mexico is designed to perfect the show; Paul wants to take it international and hopes to become a huge name like Houdini, or better. Dunstan makes several good suggestions, including cutting a less valuable act so that Liesl can incorporate a thought-reading number called the Brazen Head. Picking the pockets of the guests as they wait in line, and eavesdropping on their conversations accomplish the Brazen Head scheme.
All the items are replaced in the guests’ pockets, and when the Brazen Head randomly makes psychic predictions about certain audience members, the chosen few are astounded at how the head could possibly know such personal things about them. It is Liesl who provides the voice of the head and decides what it will say. Meanwhile Dunstan finds himself falling hopelessly in love with the young, empty-headed Faustina. In addition, for the first time in his life, Dunstan finds himself gossiping endlessly. He spills all of his secrets to Liesl, despite the fact that she is not a discreet woman, and likely to repeat his confidences to others.
Liesl reassures him that he should not live with the pressure of so many secrets, and that it is good for his soul to release them. Liesl further tells him that his obsession with Mary Dempster is a result of his inability to connect with his fellow human beings. “That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a moral monster. Well, it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity. ” (pg. 250) For the moment, all of Dunstan’s feelings towards his fellow human beings are directed at the beautiful Faustina. Despite the hopelessness of his love, he lies awake at nights, tormented by thoughts of her.
The fact that she is too empty-headed to appreciate his scholarly accomplishments makes him question the value of everything he’s ever done with his life. Faustina is Eisengrim’s mistress, but this does not threaten Dunstan because he believes Eisengrim’s true love affair is with himself. What strikes him to the core, however, is discovering Faustina one day, making love in her dressing room to Liesl. That night, Liesl knocks on his door, quite late. She invites herself in and tells him she noticed him watching her and Faustina that afternoon.
Liesl tells him that life is not a spectator sport, and it is his own fault he has never made a pass at Faustina. Dunstan has thought only of his being a poor prospect for her to consider marriage; he never considered merely loving her physically. Yet this, insists Liesl, is Faustina’s destiny – not marriage to some dull, stodgy academic. Liesl ends her speech by making a pass at Dunstan. When he tries to refuse, she fights him to the bed. He pushes her off and she grabs his wooden leg, which he has taken off for the night, and beats him with it mercilessly, trying to get him to submit to her lust.
Dunstan’s Highland temper ignites and he takes the leg from her, backing her into a corner. Dropping the weapon, he punches her several times. As she turns to retreat out the door, he grabs her nose between his fingers and gives it a parting twist. After Liesl flees, Dunstan finds that he feels better than he’s felt in years. Moments later, Liesl humbly taps on his door; she has left her room key inside. His spite forgotten, Dunstan invites her in and attends to her bruises. They share a drink, and Liesl explains that she only wanted to remind Dunstan that he is human.
She tells him he is decent to everyone except to himself. Liesl was raised Calvinist, she tells him, and knows something about the cruel moral oppression of religion. “‘But you – there is a whole great piece of your life that is unlived, denied, set aside. That is why at fifty, you can’t bear it any longer and fly all to pieces and pour out your heart to the first really intelligent woman you have met – me, that’s to say – and get into a schoolboy yearning for a girl who is as far from you as if she lived on the moon. This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you. “‘ (pg. 60) She goes on to tell him that he needs to get to know the devil a little, his personal devil. She is not advising him to throw over his moral code, but merely to do something inexplicable and irrational for once. She insists it would be good for him, and it would help him get to know himself. To further that end, Liesl tells him who she thinks he is. To her mind, Dunstan’s role in life is the role of Fifth Business. Liesl explains that on the opera stages of Europe, one must have a Prima Dona heroine, a tenor who plays her lover, a contralto to play the female rival, and a basso who plays the villain or the male rival.
But, she says, the plot cannot work without another man, usually a baritone, to play the odd man out. This man is called Fifth Business because he has no partner of the opposite sex. His presence is necessary to advance the plot, however, because he is the secret-keeper and the conscience of the hero, and the man who comes to the rescue of the heroine. Fifth Business is integral to the plot, but not a part of the central drama; it is a crucial, supporting role. Having said her piece, Liesl at last accomplishes her goal of seducing Dunstan. To his surprise, he finds the experience delightful, tender, and healing.