Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

So off they go, and I can only judge how long they are on the Hudson by the changing foliage of the trees and the increased strength of the sun, as they pass Pollock’s Wharf, and the Albany Basin, and Rhinelander’s Dock and creep along as close to the shore as they can, for the great river is a mile and a half in width, and the current is against them. They must ascend the Hudson for something like a hundred and fifty miles. But the canoe travels faster than might have been expected, and as Anna gains in skill, and Elizabeth and Han­nah learn that they must not move — no, not an inch — their spirits lighten, and after a few days they are filled with a sense of adventure, though the women are still frightened. But when have adventure and a fear of danger been far apart?


If I had been asked to invent their progress during my lifetime, when I did a little romanc­ing in hopes of becoming an author rather than a newspaper man, I would certainly have resorted to the usual cheap goods of the romantic novel. Elizabeth, wandering too far on land at one of their evening stops, would have encountered a group of ruffians who would have tormented her and threatened to rape her, thwarted at the last minute by the brave Roger, brandishing the Major’s pistols. There would undoubtedly have been an encounter with Indians, alarming figures with painted faces. Could I have omitted a few Quakers, speaking quaintly and being shrewd about changing a golden guinea? Certainly I should have included a meeting with a band of strolling players, who would have enlivened the evening around the campfire with choice passages from the popular plays of the period.

My name is Norval; on the Grampian hills

My father feeds his flocks; a frugal swain,

Whose constant cares were to increase his store,

And keep his only son, myself, at home.

Perhaps one of the actresses would have introduced the virgin Roger to the pleasures of sex; such a scene always goes down well with lecherous readers. Certainly Anna would have been despoiled of many, or all, of those golden guineas.

The film shows me that it was not at all like that. Their adventures were of a less romantic order, but none the less exhausting. After a few attempts to stop the night at inns in the settlements along the river, they gave up all hope of that, for the inns were filthy, their food disgusting and their beds thick with bugs. Thereafter they asked leave of farmers to sleep under haystacks, and such leave was usually granted without much cordiality. Not bedbugs, but fleas came of the haystacks. An entire day was spent on land, the Gages stripped to the skin — Roger far apart, so that his eyes might not be blasted by the sight of naked female flesh — as they searched their clothes for the insects, and held them over a pot of burning brimstone, which they bought of a farmer’s wife, who also gave them bags of pennyroyal to wear, to check further infestation. They bought food of the farmers and though it was rough it was not nauseous. They met with little outright incivility, for most of the farmers did not greatly care if Tories left the new country, and some were Tory sympa­thizers who had no intention of leaving their homes, but would give a helping hand to those who were doing so. Money, as Anna had discovered, was the great emollient and would often moderate the fervour of a rancorous Yankee Doodle who was uncivil until he saw it, bit the coin and decided that it was good. They were not beggars, though they came very near to looking like beggars.

None of them were used to unremitting physical work, and it was soon clear that they could not travel from dawn till dusk. They must rest at midday; food must be prepared, or bought. Anna was used to a certain amount of wine every day; she now had to put up with rum and Roger insisted that he too must have rum, and had too much until his mother rationed him strictly, after he had come near to capsizing the canoe. They all washed as much as they could, but that was not enough, and they began to look like gypsies, sunburned and grubby. Because they were always in the open air, they did not smell very much. They itched and, to Anna’s dismay, they scratched.

They attracted no unwelcome attention, for they were simply part of the river traffic. There were canoes of a bolder design than their own, ends out of the water in turn, as they seemed to bound over the waves. Skiffs and dories, and craft to which it would be hard to give a name, were everywhere. There were even a few small vessels under sail, towing light­ers in their wake. When they came near a substantial settle­ment, scows were busy with cargo. Now and then a raft made stately progress down the strongest pull of the current, and on these were little tents where the raftsmen lounged when they were not busy with the sweeps that guided them; usu­ally these had a small fire aboard, for rough cooking. The Hudson was the best and easiest path for traffic up and down the big state, and in the press of business a canoe was of no consequence, even when it was labouring under the guidance of two poorly skilled paddlers. But they made progress, and after their early misadventures with inns, they sought a creek each night, and found a quiet place for their encampment, if so important a word might be used for their overnight rest.

They could not always avoid notice where they stopped, and once they had to lay up for five days, as Anna had been bitten by insects, or suffered some misadventure they could not identify, and her fever was too bad to allow her to travel. They had no medicine with them except what was needed for Hannah, and Anna refused to be dosed with laudanum, which Roger supposed was a cure-all. A woman, obviously mad, who said that her name was Tabitha Drinker, offered them the shelter of her cabin, but as it was too filthy to be endured, they had to extricate themselves from her hospital­ity as best they could, and endure her scoldings. Snotty Tories! Too good for a decent Christian, were they? But on the whole they went undisturbed.

The further north they travelled, the less they suffered contempt for being Tories. Revolution is a city flower; it does not flourish in the country. Thus they travelled roughly, but free of molestation.

Other unforeseen interventions of nature slowed them. Elizabeth, who was fourteen, underwent the onset of her menarche when they had been four weeks on the journey. She had no idea what was happening; neither her mother nor Emmeline had thought to inform her; it might have been supposed at that time that two years might pass before this event. But perhaps the swimming lessons in the parlour had given her a push forward, or it might have been some deep protest against wearing boy’s clothes; she was in a panic and wept uncontrollably. At last Anna found out what was wrong, and the party had to go ashore while the proper thing was done, with one of the napkins — clumsy affairs — that Anna had brought for herself. Roger, who was of course excluded from this disturbance, fumed and was confirmed in his opinion, strong already, that women were great nuisances. Anna and her elder daughter, strongly feminine in the man­ner of their time, conspired to make Roger feel excluded from something important, and again in the manner of the time, Elizabeth, who was perfectly well, was treated as an invalid for several days, and could not be expected to bail the canoe, which Anna’s frequent sloppings made an hourly necessity.

This event caused more trouble than might have been expected, for Anna and her daughter henceforward had to retire twice each month for secret washings of garments Roger was not supposed to know about, and the journey was delayed while the napkins dried, flung over bushes in the sun, when there was sun.

Hannah, sensing that something was going on, from which she was excluded, became even more of a nuisance. She cried a great deal. Cried, not wept, for she was a howler, not a dropper of silent tears. Her teeth hurt, her ears hurt, the motion of the canoe nauseated her and she wanted the others to know that she was in misery, and was in this sense the most important person on the voyage. She possessed in high degree the self-assertiveness of the afflicted.

So she had to be dosed frequently with laudanum, and as the laudanum had to be diluted, water had to be boiled. They drank from the Hudson without scruple, and by ordinary standards it was a clean, fast-flowing river. But the apothe­cary had decreed boiled water for the cup of laudanum, and thus it had to be; firing must be gathered and coaxed into flame, and a small pot — as small as possible — of water must be boiled to assuage Hannah’s pain.

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