Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

The sermon was a great subject of talk at Sunday dinner tables, and not only among Mr. Willoughby’s own parish­ioners. News of it spread through New York so rapidly that by Sunday evening Presbyterians and Lutherans, yes, even Quakers, were thinking of Cain. For it was better to blame Cain, who was not known in New York, than to blame Patrick Henry, who was, and who had said for anyone to hear that Caesar had his Brutus, and Charles I his Cromwell, and that George III might learn from their example. True, King George was in London, and Patrick Henry was in Virginia, and something must be attributed to the professional loud mouth of the lawyer, but such talk was evil and an incitement to simple folk who did not understand statesmanship. The spectre of Cain seemed to enclose and explain so many things that were whispered of at the coffee meetings. Good wives like Anna were not expected to understand them, but they understood Cain, or thought they did.

“Mamma, what is a bloody-back?” asks Elizabeth when her father is not in the room.

“It is a wicked name for a soldier, my darling, because of his redcoat.”

“They call them lobsters, and red herrings, too,” said Roger.

“You must not heed them. They will be glad to see the red coat when the Indians come. As they may at any minute, if you do not go to your beds at once.”

But Roger knows that “bloody-back” means also the soldier who is strapped to the triangle made of four halberds, and flogged for some misdemeanour. Twenty lashes is com­mon; three hundred lashes had been heard of, laid on by a stout drummer. Before the offender is released a pail of brine from the cookhouse is thrown over his bleeding back, to cleanse and heal the cuts. A first-rate soldier, apt for promo­tion, bears no marks of the cat-o’-nine-tails, but a ruffian, fit for nothing but the lowest service, might have a back that was as rough and furrowed as a farmer’s field. The brutality of this punishment is turned against the soldiers by the colonists, whose own choice of correction is tarring and feathering.

As I watch this, I understand that the film-makers, who­ever they may be, are taking their acknowledged liberty of compressing the action of months and years into a few scenes. But now actions appear that have a date. Here is the Boston Massacre, as long ago as 1770, but the bitterness has grown with time; the British had fired into an unarmed mob – which they should not have done, but which armed men with ner­vous officers have done since the invention of firearms, and will do again — and although the damage was slight, and only five people were killed, one was the egregious Crispus Attucks, and their funeral was a great occasion of rebellious feeling. Indeed, the British captain was tried for murder, and acquitted, for many people had the uneasy feeling that they might behave no better, if they were in the accused man’s shoes. But feeling in Boston is very bad, and it is there, in 1775, that real fighting breaks out.


Before the Major marched off to fight at Breed’s Hill (which should have been Bunker Hill if William Prescott had not chosen the other one, a choice which the voice of popular history has since reversed) he enjoyed one night of especial pleasure, the sort of pleasure he truly relished. For, although he was an excellent family man and did his family duty with satisfaction, the Major liked nothing better than an evening among his fellow offi­cers, where there was plenty to eat and drink, plenty of the kind of conversation that most refreshed him, and often some entertainment of the sort that military men most enjoy.

It is thus I see him the night before his regiment leaves New York for Boston; he goes to the King’s Arms in Maiden Lane where, in an upper room, more than fifty fellow officers are gathered for a supper of oysters, lobsters, clams, roast beef (of course), roast mutton, and such trifles as hare and pigeon pie, and turkey, with everything that such dishes demand in the way of garnish, to be washed down with claret, iced hock, Madeira and port, which were probably smuggled, though the officers do not care to hear about it.

It is a great evening, given particular savour by the thought that at last British troops will be getting some seri­ous work, and will undoubtedly vanquish the American greenhorns. They will not hurt them more than may be necessary, but certainly they will show the rebels that high-stomached Boston is no match for men raised on true British beef and beer. Just as they had shown the French at Quebec. They remember the song of that time:

With lantern jaw and croaking gut

See how the starveling Frenchmen strut

And call us English dogs.

But we shall show those braggart foes

That beef and beer give heavier blows

Than soup and roasted frogs.

They had shown the Mounseers who was who and what was what, and it had cost Old England many millions of pounds to do it. And for what? To protect ungrateful Boston and let the Redskins know the true rulers of America. Let them pay their score, and stop their plagued whining about Stamp Tax, and Sugar Tax. What is the Stamp Tax? An ingenious fellow has worked out that it costs the two million Americans about a penny apiece each month. Can safety come cheaper? This is the tenor of the talk of these happy officers, and they play their familiar tunes over and over without ever tiring of them.

The Major sits at the head of the table, for though his seniority might have been questioned, his name is Gage, and in some mystical way he seems to figure as the Commander-in-Chief. At the other end of the table — Mr. Vice to his Mr. President — sits Major Featherstone, a much decorated officer and a wit in the military understanding of the term.

Toasts are drunk, with less formality than if it had been a fully regimental occasion. It is Gage’s privilege to propose the loyal toast: “His Majesty King George the Third,” and bumpers are emptied. To Featherstone falls the honour of proposing the toast to Queen Charlotte, which would not have been the case if the officers had been in the mess. No lady’s name must be mentioned in the mess. But here the Queen’s name is woven by Featherstone into a rhapsody to Woman, or, as he says frequently, The Sex. Without The Sex man’s life is but vain, his valour without an inspiration, his hours of ease without sweetness. Without The Sex Mars’s sword is unavailing, and Apollo’s lyre unstrung. He gives them The Sex. And the officers drink to The Sex with loud acclaim; a retired Colonel, who is not going to Boston on the morrow, falls under his chair from the weight of his emotion, and has to be picked up by a couple of waiters.

A great evening! Oh, a memorable evening, and when everything has been eaten and there is still much to be drunk, some entertainment has been promised. Ensign Larkin is present; although his rank is inferior to that of the other guests his voice is indispensable. It is a very high tenor, a male alto, and he is an adept at florid ornamentation. Furthermore, he is a dab at the spinet and a good spinet stands at one end of the room. It is the object of many excellent jokes, for above the keyboard it is inscribed Harris of Boston, and it is both paradoxical and very proper that it should supply music for those who will shortly show Boston who is who and what is what.

Larkin, who is a pretty youth, sings as prettily as he looks and, although the officers do not know it, I the onlooker know that when he sings the popular air “Anacreon in Heaven” the tune is the one which will later become famous as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But this evening it is only one of many favourites, not as rapturously received as “When forc’d from dear Hebe to go,” the verses of which Larkin ornaments so richly that the tune is almost wholly obscured. The pathos of the final line —

If Hebe approves of my lay

Go poets and envy my song

— brings tears to the eyes of several scarred veterans who, like so many men of war, are touched to the heart by the songs of peace.

But Featherstone and the gifted Larkin have a surprise for the company, and as they are settling to an evening of drinking and singing — several attempts have been made to lure Larkin into “Rule, Britannia” — the door opens and an extraordinary figure appears: a raw-boned gandershanks of a boy with one foot bare and the other thrust into a decayed soldier’s boot, his breeches out at the seat, so that a tail of his red shirt hangs almost to the ground, wearing a tricorne hat with the flaps unbuttoned, but with a huge bunch of ribbon stuck to it, like a cockade. At his side dangles a monstrous sabre that clanks upon the ground; he carries a rifle that cannot be identified, but which might have been meant to shoot squirrels, with an immensely elongated barrel and a bayonet made from a rusted scythe. He leers slowly at the company, taking them all in with a looby stare, before he spits a good half-pint of tobacco juice on the floor, allowing some of it to dribble down his chin.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson