Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

His text is from the one hundred and thirty-seventh Psalm: How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? For is not this land now strange to us? The songs we know of loyalty and gratitude toward our Motherland may no longer be heard here. Have we not seen the British force withdraw from New York, marching with heads high, in splendid order? And what was the tune the band played, as they marched toward their waiting ships? Was it not “The World turn’d upside down”? Dearly beloved, what a comment was made thereby upon the state in which we now find ourselves. What solemn truth was borne upon our ears by that air, once thought a merry tune, but now heavy with comment upon the present and foreboding for the future?

And much more to the same effect, but in the end what it came down to was that the Reverend Cephas had received hints that his style of pulpit rhetoric was no longer popular in the city which was now the capital of the United States, and that he might be wise to embrace the facts of conquest. Not all of his parishioners were of his way of thinking, for some were won to the rebel cause, and others thought that a judicious acceptance of realities might serve them best in a city where they had been born and hoped to die. There were Loyalists among them, certainly, but they were not easy in their minds. Loyalist windows had been broken, and rude messages had been daubed on Loyalist walls. But the Reverend Cephas was not a man to admit defeat. He had heard a call, and that call came from the northern city of Halifax, still staunch under British rule, where he had been invited to go, and sing the songs of Zion in a more favourable climate. Would he be true to his principles if he refused to heed such a call? Who among his parishioners could imagine such a vain thing? So the Rev­erend Cephas had packed his bags and he and his wife and children (whom he referred to only as his olive branches) were shortly to take ship, and Trinity would see, and hear, them no more. It was a splendid sermon, and some of his hearers wept. There were a few, infected perhaps with the new-born sense of Yankee humour, who knew that the Reverend Cephas had been intriguing for this call for several months, but they were polite enough to conceal their smiles.


Others received the message in a more reflective spirit, and Anna was one of them, for during the preceding week she had had a disagree­able talk with Dr. Abraham Shanks, headmaster of the school that Roger attended.

“Have you reflected, Mrs. Gage, that Roger is now almost fifteen, and might well be thought ready to meet the world and find his fortune there?” Dr. Shanks had asked, all smiles.

No, Anna had not thought any such thing. She thought that Roger should have at least another year of schooling, before he sought entry to Harvard College, with a view to equipping himself for a life in the legal profession.

“Then I must be frank, Mrs. Gage. These are troubled times, and I have in my school many boys who are sons of British officers, and I am sorry to say that they are a disrup­tive influence, and hard words and even open fighting are becoming common. The boys whose parents are supporters of the new government are patient. Oh yes, very patient indeed, but you must know that boys are high-tempered, and such disruptions are not friendly to the spirit of education, which it is my duty to foster. Absit invidia, madam, as I am sure you understand, and no rebuke to Roger ad personam, but the amor patriae of another day must submit to the tempus edax rerum. The ultima ratio regum resides with our new govern­ment, and my own situation must be governed by the maxim volenti non fit injuria. So I must, with the uttermost reluctance, I assure you, request that Roger be withdrawn. Salus populi suprema est lex, and whatever my personal feelings must be, I am obliged to think of the good of my school. And so, madam — ?”

Thumped with Latin, Anna withdrew, very angry with the schoolmaster. Roger went to school no more.


Anna is visiting her man of business. This is not old Claes van Someren, but his suc­cessor, Diedrick Potter, a small worried man instead of a large phlegmatic one.

“But the Greenbush rents have been collected as usual? There was no default there?”

“Oh, none in the least, madam. The tenants are prompt and good. The money is perfectly safe. But as I say, it is not available to you at present.”

“Because this new government has put some sort of stop on it. How can they do that?”

“Not precisely a stop. The money is quite secure, but some arrangements must be made before we can lay hands on it.”

“I thought you said it was in your strong-room in your vaults?”

“Oh yes, indeed, the substance is in our vaults, but the spirit is not, so to speak, in our possession. It is in escrow, madam.”

“What is this escrow?”

“It is a law term, and it means that the money, though held by us, is not available to you until a future condition has been fulfilled.”

“Yes, yes; but what future condition?”

“Not to put too fine a point on it, Mrs. Gage, until the present government — the new government of the sovereign state of New York — has determined what damages are owing to the state, and its citizens, by the British who so long occupied the state capital, and who may be held responsible for the damage sustained during the siege and liberation of the city.”

“So I have to pay damages because the British lost the war? Who says so?”

Tears came into the little man’s eyes.”Oh madam, if only I could tell you! But you have not had to deal with govern­ments, where there are only spokesmen who interpret some­body or something which is never seen, and has indeed only a mystical being. The people I talk to at Federal Hall are so polite, and so ready to listen when I talk of injustice, but so determined in saying that it is not their desire, but that of the newly formed state, and that their sole responsibility is to see that the laws are administered equitably. And when I ask to see the statutes, they say that they are still being put in final form, but that they have nevertheless the effect of laws. Oh, madam, need I say that they are every man jack of them Whigs, and we are Tories, and they have us at the pistol’s point? When the flag was lowered on the City Hall, was not Cain’s flag raised? They talk so smoothly about ‘natural jus­tice’, which excuses this spoliation of the defeated. For we are defeated, and we must bow to it. When the Royal Arms were torn down at the City Hall, I tell you without shame, Mrs. Gage, I wept! These were our guarantees of order and justice, and what have we now? A parcel of Whigs! Think of what Mr. Willoughby said on Sunday last!”

Think of it indeed. Mr. Willoughby had raged against Federal Hall, but he had not come right out and said that the new government was sequestering the monies of the Loyal­ists to pay its own debts. Instead he had insisted once more that Cain was raised; he took refuge in Milton and spoke of

. . .what the grim wolf with privy paw

Daily devours apace and nothing said

by which those in the know, like Mr. Diedrick Potter, were well assured he meant the lawyers at Federal Hall, who took what they wanted, and could not be asked to account for it.

“So I have no assurance about when I may get my money?”

“Oh, Mrs. Gage, I wish I could say otherwise, but I fear you may never get it. Every day I expect news that the Greenbush farms have been sequestered. They are garnering every penny piece that can be found among people like our­selves.”

“But it is utterly unjust!”

“Mrs. Gage, I am sorry to contradict you, but when it is a question of war, our notions of justice have no application whatever. Just as it was in pagan times, the cry is Vae victis — Woe to the vanquished! We are lucky not to be shot or beheaded, I suppose. This new government puts its faith in the treasury and not in the armoury. Very modern, I sup­pose.”

“So I have nothing left?”

“Oh, not quite that, Mrs. Gage. You have never spent your whole income in any single year since you came into your property, and those residuary funds are in our vaults, and we did not think it necessary to mention them to the taxing men, as they were neither income, nor yet capital, but just — just trifles, shall we say, hardly worth bothering about.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson