Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Aw, here ye be, sirries,” he cries, in a raucous version of the Colonial accent.”I wuz expectin’ ye to Bahston, but ye never come yit. We’re a-waitin’ fur ye, to be sure. But so’s I found ye, I’ll sing ye a little song.”

By now he has made his way up the room, where he salutes farcically toward Major Gage, and then goes on to the spinet. Larkin strikes up a tune, unfamiliar to most of the officers, and with words that they have never heard.

Me and feyther went to camp

Along ‘ith Captain Goodin’

And there we seen the men and boys

As thick as hasty puddin’.

And here the scarecrow breaks into a clownish dance —

Yankee Doodle, kep it up

Yankee Doodle Dandy,

Mind the music, mind the step

And with the girls be handy

Several verses follow, some of them so scurrilous that a few of the officers wonder if they should laugh, concluding –

In Bahston was a shoal o’ men

A-diggin’ graves they told me

So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep

They ‘tended they should hold me.

Then, in clod-hopping retreat —

It skeert me so I hooked it off,

Nor stopped as I remember,

Nor turned about till I got home

Locked up in mother’s chamber.

By this time the officers have mastered the chorus, and “Yan­kee Doodle” is sung again and again, as the actor — a junior officer who had gained some reputation as a comic country­man in regimental theatricals — goes through a drill of arms, in which he drops his sword, tumbles over his shirt-tail, and at last discharges his absurd gun, from which shoots a mass of chicken feathers.

Yankee Doodle is the hit of the evening. The officers are transported. This is the enemy as they think of him. He is toasted as a mighty fellow, and plied with wine, which he drinks after he has impaled his quid of tobacco on his bayo­net, until he pretends to fall in a stupor.

Anything after this is anticlimax, even the rousing rendi­tion of “Rule, Britannia,” in which Larkin almost destroys the Boston spinet.

It is not many days later that the British vanquish Yankee Doodle at Breed’s Hill, without heavy losses. But one who does not survive the battle is Major Gage. So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep, the grave is not all for Yankee Doodle.

Perhaps the Major had been expected to bear too much responsibility, because of the accident that his name was the same as that of the British Commander-in-Chief. Such fol­lies do happen, in war and everywhere else; a name is more important than unimaginative people suppose. But the Major is dead, and the family in John Street, New York, sees the face of Cain in its desolating loss.


It appears we are to have an intermission, for The Spirit of 76 has come to a rowdy conclu­sion with George Washington, and the Stars and Stripes, and a young woman who is probably meant to represent Free­dom all tumbled together in a melange which film buffs like Going greet with excitement as a very early use of this tech­nique. They talk about it in the foyer, where the inevitable collation has been prepared, and every ticket-holder is enti­tled to one drink of very thin white wine and one very thin white sandwich, as long as they last. But these early films are brief affairs of a few reels, and as soon as the food has been devoured the audience huddles back into the smelly audito­rium to see another retrieved classic about revolution, which is the theme of the day. It is familiar to many of those present, for it is the famous Battleship Potemkin of 1925, which the truly knowing ones like Going call Bronenosets Potemkin. He pronounces it slushily in what he believes to be a truly Rus­sian manner.

But what am I to see?

All through the showing of The Spirit of ’76 I had been peripherally aware of what was on the screen visible to the audience, while much more powerfully conscious of my own film, which carried so much more conviction as a true repre­sentation of the prelude to the American Revolutionary War. The old film was about an idea, an historical reconstruction with a propagandist bias, whereas mine was about ordinary people who carried a vastly deeper conviction to my under­standing. Was I to continue in that vein, or was I to be whisked off to Eisenstein’s powerfully propagandist notion of the 1905 uprising in the Black Sea fleet, which was famous for its use of real mobs, for its startling depiction of stone lions rousing themselves on behalf of the revolutionaries, for its innovative editing and its splendid music? Apparently not so, for again I found myself watching and comprehending two films at once, and mine began in the comparative peace of New York.

New York had been cool toward the Revolution in its early manifestations, and it is the lukewarm city of 1776 that I now behold. There were a lot of Dutchmen — British subjects, but still Dutch in the depths of their hearts — in New York then, and many of them were firmly in control of large sums of money. One of these is old Claes van Someren, part lawyer and part banker, and all financier, and it is in his hands that the fortune of Anna Vermuelen Gage is safely lodged. So, when Major Gage has met a soldier’s death, it is to him that Anna turns for advice, and his advice is banker’s advice: be quiet, be confident and do nothing hastily. Money talks, and Anna has plenty of money in Claes van Someren’s careful hands.

Anna is an heiress, and it is upon her fortune that the Major had been able to maintain a manner of living well beyond what a Major’s pay would support. By law, of course — that eighteenth-century law which made a wife’s property the possession of her husband — everything Anna had was the Major’s, but the Major could gain access to it only through old Claes, who was affable in the highest degree, but not very communicative. He had his own ideas about the financial responsibility of English soldiers, and he had put reasonable quarterly sums in the Major’s hands with­out ever giving him a full account of Anna’s fortune. Her father, Paulus Vermuelen, had been a close friend of Claes van Someren, and the lawyer had resolved that his ward, who was also his cousin once removed — the Dutch are very strong on the dignity of cousins — should not be despoiled. So the Major, who was a financial innocent and inclined to trust lawyers, had never truly known about the mortgages that were Anna’s, or the good farms up the Hudson in Greenbush from which she received substantial rents. Or rather, she did not receive them, for old Claes collected them, and they went into very strong boxes in his place of business, in bags to which her name was attached with strong wire. Not all of these bags, and indeed never quite half of them, ever sweet­ened the Major’s happy life.

Anna was astonished to learn from her old cousin how much money she had, and it is not to her discredit that the knowledge did much to dry her tears. To be a widow is grievous, and Anna loved the Major truly. But between being a rich widow, and being a soldier’s wife rawly left, hoping for a pension from the British, there is a great difference. And thus her tears were dried with the finest of cambric handker­chiefs, and old Claes reflected in his lawyer’s mind that it is wonderful how money cobbles the broken shoe. He was not a hard old man, but like so many people who handle much money, he was not without cynicism about human emotions.


The outward pattern of Anna’s daily life does not greatly change. New York is not hot or hasty in its acceptance of the new republic. It is recognized, of course, that a new nation has been born, but there is much doubt as to whether the infant will live. George Washington has been made commander-in-chief of the American forces, and it is known that when he served the British he had been snubbed and overlooked when promotion was possible; the little-minded are certain that this has made him bitter against England, and the more generous are certain that he is above such petty considerations. Nobody denies that he is a man of fine spirit, which cannot be said for all the signers of the famous Declaration, but has he the forces to carry through a war against trained troops? It is whispered that when he beheld some of his forces he was dismayed and said, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” As well he might, for my film allows me to have a look at them.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson