Murther & Walking Spirits
by Robertson Davies
I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.
How did I know that I was dead? As it seemed to me, I recovered consciousness in an instant after the blow, and heard the Sniffer saying, in a quavering voice: “He’s dead! My God, I’ve killed him!” My wife was kneeling by my side, feeling my pulse, her ear to my heart; she said, with what I thought was remarkable self-possession in the circumstances, “Yes, you’ve killed him.”
Where was I? I was surveying the scene at close range but I was not in the body that lay on the floor. My body, looking as I had never seen it in my life. Had I really been such a big man? Not a huge man, not a giant, but six feet and rather heavy? So it seemed, for there I lay, in my not-very-well-pressed summer suit, a contrast to my wife and the Sniffer, who were both naked, as they had leapt from the bed — my bed — in which I had surprised them.
A cliche of human experience, but a novelty for me: husband finds wife in bed with lover, lover leaps up, discloses concealed weapon and strikes husband a severe blow — much too severe, it now appears — on the temple, and husband falls dead at his feet. My astonishment, as I have said, was greater than anything I had ever experienced before, and I had no room for indignation. Why on earth had he done it? And was it true that he could not undo it, as both he and I devoutly wished?
The Sniffer was losing his nerve, had shrunk back toward the bed and was sitting on it, weeping hysterically.
“Oh shut up,” said my wife, fiercely.”We’ve no time for that. Be quiet and let me think.”
“Oh my God!” the Sniffer wailed.”Poor old Gil! I never meant it. I didn’t! I couldn’t! What’s going to happen? What will they do to me?”
“If they catch you, they’ll probably hang you,” said my wife, “so stop that noise and do exactly what I say. First of all, get some clothes on. No — wait! First wipe that damned thing on a tissue and then put it back in its case. There’s blood on it. Then get dressed, and go home, and take care nobody sees you. You have five minutes, and then I’m going to phone the police. Hurry up!”
“The police!” His fright was so farcical that I laughed, and realized that they could not hear me. The Sniffer was wholly unmanned.
No so my wife. She was manly and decisive and I admired her self-command.”Of course the police,” she said.”A man has been murdered. Right? It must be reported immediately. Right? Have you worked on a newspaper and you don’t know that? Do what I say, and be quick about it.”
Had these two been lovers? What tenderness was to be felt now? The only sign my wife gave that her nerves were shaken was that she had returned to her old trick of interposing that interrogative clincher “Right?” into her conversation. I thought I had broken her of that, but in this moment of crisis she reverted to type. She had never been what I call a good writer. No serious regard for language.
Moaning and snuffling, the Sniffer began to pull on his clothes; his foolishly elegant clothes, of which his newspaper colleagues made such unceasing fun. But he did as he was told. His first act was to use a tissue to wipe the ugly metal cosh that had sprung from inside his beautiful walking-stick. The handle of the stick, when it was unscrewed, was also the handle of the cosh, and now he screwed it back into its hiding-place. How proud he had been of that nasty weapon, against which I had warned him countless times. People who carry weapons are certain at some time to use them, I had said. But he thought the thing dashing, and a sign of his dangerous masculinity, his macho ostentation. He had paid a lot of money for it in a famous London shop. Better than a sword-stick, he said. But why did he want either a sword-stick or a bludgeon? Now he knew the good sense of what I had told him. Miserable little wretch! A murderer. My murderer.
I was angry still but I could not help laughing. Why had he struck me? I suppose it was because when I found the two in flagrante I spoke jocosely, angry though I was.
“My God, Esme, not the Sniffer?” I said.
And in his fury, fed, I suppose, by sexual excitement, he fetched out his weapon and clouted me.
He dressed, but did not look fully his accustomed smart self. He crept around my body, that almost blocked the door, and went into the living-room of our apartment, heading straight for the drinks cupboard. He took out a bottle of cognac.
“No,” said my wife, who had followed him.”Remember? ‘Never touches a drop till after the show.’ ” She laughed but he did not. The old joke, which he had used so often about so many actors who were given to the bottle, could not raise a smile when it was turned on himself. He put the bottle back.”Wipe the neck where you’ve touched it,” said my wife.”The police will be looking for dabs.”
Dabs! Fingerprints. What a command she had of detective-story lingo. I was full of admiration for her coolness. He turned at the door, plainly asking for a kiss. But she was not now in the kissing vein.”Hurry up,” she said, “and take care not to be seen.”
He went, as smart a murderer as you could hope to meet in a day’s march, though his face was tense with pain. But then, who notices when they meet a theatre critic whose face is tense with pain? It is one of the marks of the profession.
The moment he was gone my wife, still as naked as the breeze, set about tidying up the bed. She put it to rights, then she hopped into it and made an impression of single occupancy. Next, some tidying in the bedroom and two glasses rinsed and dried in the bathroom. Then a quick but careful examination of the floor; she fetched a carpet-sweeper and swept the rug. She dampened a facecloth very slightly and wiped all the surfaces that the Sniffer might have touched. Oh, but she was a methodical woman!
I watched her with admiration and a strong charge of erotic feeling. A naked woman may be enticing when she lies on the bed, ready for love, but how much more beautiful she is when she is at work. The muscles of her back and legs moved so elegantly as she plied the sweeper! The fine curve of her neck as she searched for dabs! What made her so lovely at this moment? Excitement? Danger? Crime? For she had been witness to a murder, and might well be thought an accessory.
Now, the telephone.”Police?” she said; “a man has been murdered. My husband. Please come at once,” and she gave our address. Not a bad actress. For the first time her voice betrayed emotion. But there was no emotion when she had been assured that the police would come. Quicker than I would have thought possible she wiped off her make-up, which had been somewhat smudged in her raptures with the Sniffer, put on a nightgown and a dressing-gown, combed her hair — and then mussed it in what I suppose she thought was an appropriate disarray. Then she sat down at her desk –,her desk, for she was going to prepare a story — to wait for the police to ring at the door of the apartment building. She did not have to wait long.
Of course you want details. Who are these people?
The Sniffer, to begin with. His name is Randal Allard Going, and he insists that you get it right — Allard Going — because it is a distinguished name, as names go in Canada. One of his great-great-great-grandfathers — Sir Alured Going — had been a Governor in our part of the world in the colonial days, and there is a memorial tablet to him in the old church at Niagara-on-the-Lake which proclaims his virtues in the regretful prose of his time: “His Character was too Great to be described, and yet too Good to be concealed. . . truly Humble without Affectation, Grave without Moroseness, Cheerfull without Levity. . .” and much more in the same encomiastic style. But the history books have little to say about Sir Alured, and the likelihood is that he was simply one of those nonentities who were sent by the Motherland to her colonies because he needed a job and was not influential enough to be given one at home. But in the Canada of his day he was a big toad in an obscure puddle and was well able to hold his own in that group of early settlers of good family whom the Sniffer likes to refer to as “the squirearchy,” and whose passing he regrets and wishes to perpetuate in himself.