Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

She was a woman of principle, but she was a young widow; she had a number of suitors, and of these, two or three aroused in her desires and memories of her married state which she could not always fight down. Captain van der Heyden, for instance, was a Hessian of distinguished address, and a killing moustache. He had visited the house on John Street a few times, with friends Anna had made among the occupying force, and on a particular morning he called alone, and what could Anna do but receive him and regale him with the inevitable coffee and some fine “cookies”; the Dutch word for biscuits was already common in America. The Cap­tain grew bold, and Anna did not receive him as coldly as would have been advisable. So she found herself on a sofa beside the Captain, who talked so winningly that she was off her guard when he put his arm, which had been on the back of the sofa, around her neck, and drew her to him and kissed her so pleasantly that she did not draw back when his other hand slipped beneath her heavy skirts and mounted gently to her knee, and then above her garter until it rested warmly on her naked thigh, and mounted to where no widow should have allowed it to be, but to which this widow offered only the most formal resistance.

A love scene, and nothing to the scenes of naked pas­sion common enough in the movies in the latter part of the twentieth century, so why was I squeamish? Unquestiona­bly because it was a love scene of a sort to which I was unaccustomed, and this overdressed seduction I found both fusty and repellent. In the manner of the day, the Captain wore his hat, and his coat was stiff with braid; Anna wore her widow’s cap, and had not brushed all the cookie crumbs from her bosom, which was rising and falling rapidly as she murmured in what I suppose was Dutch. It was a close call, for when matters had gone so far that the conclusion seemed inevitable, Emmeline tapped at the door and asked if she might carry away the coffee cups. The result was therefore what musicians of the day called a disappointed climax. What would the completed seduction have looked like — hat, cap, buckskin breeches, top boots and Anna’s heavy eighteenth-century shoes and petticoats like bedclothes all milling away in an attempt at an intimate union? Doubtless it was a passionate moment for Anna and the Captain but for me it was absurd and pitiful. I have the usual dash of voyeurism in my nature, but I was forced to realize that I liked to peep only at cleverly managed scenes directed to suit the taste of films as I knew them. I am — or I must say I was — a man of my time, and I found that time and time’s fashions were of first importance in matters that I had fool­ishly supposed were timeless.

That evening Anna was particularly strict with her chil­dren, and was severe with Elizabeth, whom she accused of lolling in her chair — the child had allowed her back to touch the chairback in defiance of polite custom — in a manner which a guest would certainly consider immodest. Other times, other manners. Should I say, other times, other notions of human nature?


How strange they looked! How strange the food they ate and the way they ate it, the gentlemen picking their teeth freely in the drawing-room with the same elegance with which they took snuff. How unaccustomed and often repugnant were the smells, for this was not simply a movie and a talkie but also a smellie. Everywhere was the smell of horse, not in itself a bad smell but heavy, and when it mingled with the stench from the drains, down which the maidservants emptied the slops every morning, too insidiously creatural to be ignored, whatever might be done with sprigs of lavender among the linen, and bowls of pot-pourri in the drawing-room. But in New York there was often a relieving breeze from the sea, salty and fishy, to be sure, but a pleasant change from the brown fug of a town where the horse was the common carrier, and voided its dung and its water everywhere.

Did I witness the rise of the famous American sense of humour? I think I did. What the British laughed at ranged from the polished wit of the playhouse and the best authors to heavy jokes of a clumsy, ill-managed obscenity. The Americans seemed to be forging a humour that was a new weapon to their troops. An ironical, wry fun, a dry mockery which did not call for laughter so often as it demanded the crooked smile. They took “Yankee Doodle” and turned it on the British until the lobster-backs were sick of that sportive tune, played on shrieking fifes as the Americans approached, flying the flag they had made out of the elements in George Washington’s own armorial bearings — the Stars and Stripes. The Americans laughed at themselves, which the British were not inclined to do, and which the Hessians simply did not consider as a possibility. What Yankee wag was it who recalled the song from Polly, the popular ballad opera which followed The Beggar’s Opera:

Despair leads to battle

No courage so great;

They must conquer or die

Who have no retreat;

No retreat, no retreat

We must conquer or die

Who have no retreat!

The Americans sang it without ever tiring of it. Never tiring of the joke, never tiring of the tune. Sang it, moreover, in tones of whining despair, as if they would gladly have run away, even when they were advancing briskly. When the British heard them singing, and laughing, they were puzzled. This had been called a war of brother against brother, but how unfamiliar these brothers had become! To allow the word retreat even to pass the lips of the troops — it was totally contrary to the disciplines of war. As of course was the American custom of deserting whenever he felt like return­ing to his farm. Poor Washington!

New York remained in British hands until late in 1783, and to the end of his life Roger remembered George Wash­ington’s triumphal entrance into the city. City — it was a little more than twelve thousand people, but it was already a metropolis.


It is dinner time — four o’clock – on November 25, 1783. Anna sits at table with her two older children. Little Hannah is being given soft food in her bedroom, by her black nurse.

“Why did you go to the parade on Broadway?” she asks her son. She is stern, he formal.

“To see General Washington, madam. It was his trium­phal entry into the city.”

“Not the place for the son of a brave British officer, who died to defend us against such upstarts, I should have sup­posed.”

“But madam, it was like Plutarch. A conqueror entering a capital city. How often does one have a chance to see that?”

“Plutarch wrote of heroes. Of noble men.”

“General Washington looked like a hero today.”

“A fine hero!”

“How does General Washington look?” asks Elizabeth, somewhat fearful of her mother.

“He is the tallest man I’ve ever seen. And he had a splendid horse. And such a look! Stern, implacable. He raised his hat now and then to the crowd, when they cheered him, but not a smile did he give.”

“He cannot smile,” says Anna, who has heard much about the conqueror from her coffee cronies.”His false teeth will not allow it.”

“False teeth!” says Elizabeth, incredulous.”Oh Moeder, are you sure?”

“It is well known,” says Anna, pleased to have given the conversation the proper Loyalist tone.”They are joined — the tops to the bottoms — at the back, with springs. If he does not keep his jaw firmly shut, they will fly open and you will see the inside of his mouth, which no gentleman ever shows. His teeth are as false as his heart.”

“He looked like a conqueror,” says Roger, who is sullen.”I should know, madam. I was there.”

“He has not conquered me,” says Anna.

“He has conquered us all, and we shall have to look to it,” says Roger.

“Roger, you are too old for me to tell you to leave the table, but you must understand that I will hear no more of this adoration of Mr. Washington.”

“I’m not adoring him. I’m facing a fact.”


Some people are quicker to face facts than others. Anna knows that hundreds of Loyal­ists have already made their way north, to the Canadas or the British colonies on the northeast coast, or to the warmer islands in the Caribbean. Anna is phlegmatic — stubborn indeed, with the stubbornness born of ample funds. But Anna is not a fool and she listens carefully to the last sermon preached by the Reverend Cephas Willoughby to his flock at Trinity Church.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson