Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Oh, Roger! Please! I can’t do any more!”

“But you must, Miss.”

“I shall swoon! I know I shall!”

“If you swoon in the water, Lizzie, you will drown. And Hannah will drown. Now listen carefully; if the canoe over­sets, you are to seize Hannah by the hair, kick off your shoes, and swim for shore. And be sure you keep Hannah’s head above the water.”

“I don’t think I shall be able to keep my own head above the water.”

“That doesn’t signify. The water won’t hurt your face, Miss Baby.”

“But I shall get it into my mouth. And it will be dirty.”

“Very likely. But you are a soldier’s daughter, as Mama tells you every day, and you must be brave, and resolute, and save Hannah.”

“Oh Roger! Do you think we shall overturn?”

“Nothing more likely. A canoe is a delicate craft.”

“I shall never learn.”

“It’s learn or drown, Lizzie. If the current is very swift you would be best to catch hold of the canoe, and I shall save you after I have saved Mama. And Hannah, of course. Though by the time I have managed that the canoe will have drifted far below us, so don’t expect a miracle.”

“I shall drown!”

“Not if you learn to swim. You must harden your muscles. A great strong girl like you! For shame, Miss!”

Tears from Elizabeth. Remonstrances from Anna. But they are women of their time, and must submit to male tyranny in such matters as this. Every night the parlour becomes a gymnasium, with Roger as its implacable master. He is enjoying himself immensely, as a tyrant in an indisput­ably worthy cause.

Roger does not have it all his own way. The Gage house has so far escaped looting by the ruffians who are despoiling Loyalist dwellings wherever they can. The Federal authori­ties are regretful, but their excuse is the familiar one: their watchmen are few and overworked and cannot be every­where at once, and any question of setting a guard on John Street is absurd. Nor is the zeal for protecting the Tories as strong as perhaps it might be. This is where Anna asserts herself.

The servants are sent out every week with parcels of silver, which they take to goldsmiths’ shops that are not too scrupulous and will buy valuables which they suspect have been looted without making enquiries. But the servants are not good hagglers, and so Anna, in clothes she has borrowed from the maids, and without powder in her hair, goes to shops as far as possible from John Street, and does most of her own selling. Paulus Vermuelen’s daughter discovers unex­pected powers of rapacity in herself, and gets as much as she can. She speaks an English heavily salted with Dutch, and passes as a woman of the people — the sort of people who are looting — and she takes a miser’s delight in a good deal. She even laughs with the merchants, and says nasty things about the Loyalists, and is pleased with her duplicity. Anna has determined to survive, and not to survive empty-handed; if the canoe sinks, she will sink a wealthy woman.

She works at a petticoat, made with many pockets, in which her guineas, her shillings, and even pence if need be, will be stowed away. She practises walking in this garment, which is of many pounds weight, distributed as evenly as she can arrange it. Anna, who has always been devout, knows well that Despair is a mortal sin, and now she knows that it is a luxury, as well. She has seen Loyalist friends, not so tough-minded as herself, set out on a journey to another land, weeping at their misfortunes, without ever having done any­thing of a practical nature to lessen those misfortunes. She will have nothing to do with Despair. She prays every night for a good deliverance from the journey that lies before her, but she knows that God helps those who help themselves, and she will not fail God in this duty to herself and her children. As she sees her handsome house grow barer with each sale of silver, damask hangings and anything else that will fetch money, she is not downcast. She is resolute. She wishes she could sell the furniture as well, but it cannot be got out of the house without attracting notice. The furniture — some of it very good of its kind — must be sacrificed. Only the picture of King George III, which has acquired a talismanic value, must go with her, even though it must be disframed, and rolled into a bundle of clothing.

So, as Easter approaches, and the great day of escape comes near, she reduces everything she can take to British North America to bundles that weigh, in all, about one hun­dred and fifty pounds, which Roger assures her the canoe can carry.


The canoe. They see it on the morning of Easter Sunday, as the first light of dawn is breaking. Roger has seen it, of course. For weeks he has been searching, haggling, talking with fishermen and half-breeds who know about canoes, and he has bought what seems best, a cedar-sided canoe of about seventeen feet in length. He was not ridiculously overcharged. He would have preferred birchbark, as being more sporting and in keeping with his new-found character as an adventurer, but he has been warned that such craft are not for beginners and women, and that they demand constant skilled attention to their easily punctured skins. Roger thinks he has been crafty, pretending that he is looking for a canoe for a friend, but the men at Burling Slip, at the end of John Street, are not stupid, and they know that the Gages are making a run for it. The convinced Americans do not care; the fewer Loyalists in New York, the better for everybody; some of the men are friendly and give good advice.

Indeed, two or three of these men are at the slip when the Gages approach, with James pushing their bundles in a wheelbarrow. They seem to emerge from the darkness, and silently help to stow the bundles in the canoe, as it is plain Roger has no idea how best to do it. All that remains now is to set out.

James is in tears. Anna thinks he is weeping at losing her, and that is so, but not quite as she supposes. He is weeping for himself. Like many an old servant James has become virtually a child in his master’s house; his master is dead, and now he is losing his mother. What does the future hold for him? A hanger-on at a tavern, sprinkling the white sand over the floor? The night before the journey Anna gathered the servants in the now desolated drawing-room, to read prayers, ask for the prayers of Emmeline and Chloe, who promised them from full hearts, and gave out three little purses of twenty guineas each. They were overwhelmed, for the gift is munificent, but Anna was determined not to be mean. James now kisses Anna’s hand, which he has never done before in his life, and tries to help the plainly dressed woman, a most improbable boy — Elizabeth in breeches — and the child into the canoe.

Anna, although she has toiled to learn to paddle in the drawing-room school, has never been in a canoe in her life, and she is very clumsy as she takes her place in the bow. Kneeling is not easy, for her fourth petticoat is heavy with money — perhaps twenty-five pounds weight in gold, for the original six hundred guineas is now nearer nine hundred — and the canoe rocks perilously. If the men had not steadied it, she would have been in the water. She rests her buttocks on the bow thwart. Now the timorous Hannah must somehow be put in the canoe. Hannah shrieks; Roger angrily tells her to hold her noise. Elizabeth must get aboard and, though she is lighter than her mother, she is not so courageous, and makes a sad mess of it, but she takes Hannah. Roger steps into the stern, lightly and expertly, for he has been practising for weeks, and the men hand paddles to him and to Anna. They are square-ended paddles — what are called voyageur paddles — and there is nothing to be done now but to venture out into the East River. The water seems perilously high on the gunwale. Roger gives the word and the men, who have not spoken until now, give a muted cheer, and the Gages set out for Canada.

Must I be witness to their fearful misery for — who can say what journey? Their progress is pitifully clumsy, and if they manage to keep afloat for a hundred yards in the water it will be a miracle. But the film-maker, whoever he is, spares me that agony, and there is a film dissolve, and when next I see them they have reached the Hudson River, and are on their way. Anna is doing better than before, and Roger has acquired some skill as a steersman.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74

Categories: Davies, Robertson