Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

I recall that laudanum was the great specific for pain of all sorts, including heartbreak and desperation, for some­thing like three centuries. It was simply tincture of opium, sometimes mixed with less powerful drugs, and the true laudanum-drinker could get through an astonishing amount of the stuff in a day — quantities that would have killed anyone not habituated to the drug. There was nothing to beat it for toothache, and Hannah was already well on her way to being a drug-taker or, as it was then called, “an opium-eater” for the rest of her life. But what was to be done? It was laudanum or agony, and so laudanum it was.

Coleridge was perhaps the most celebrated of all drink­ers of laudanum, and splendid studies have been written of its influence on his Muse. Nobody seems to have paid attention to its influence on his bowels, for laudanum was a rare constipator. How much of The Ancient Mariner was the result of intestinal stasis?

Thus, because of landanum, Hannah was pretty seri­ously plugged up, but as the eighteenth century thought that constipation was a feminine attribute, little notice was taken. Her other function of excretion, however, was in full work­ing order, and imperious in its demands. Far too often for Roger’s patience the canoe had to be brought to the shore so that Hannah might be taken into some bushes to pass her water. If he protested, Hannah wept and Elizabeth told her brother that he had made his sister cry.

“The more she cries the less she’ll piss,” murmured Roger, and Elizabeth was dismayed by his coarseness and cruelty.

This did not add up to adventure in the story-book sense, but Pilgrim’s Progress did so. Anna had brought three books with her. The Bible, of course, and the Book of Com­mon Prayer; but also Bunyan’s great tale of spiritual journey­ing, and every night, if there was light enough, she read some of it aloud. The young people knew it well already, but they did not tire of it, because Bunyan sweetened instruction with splendid character drawings, and Roger and Elizabeth, and even Hannah when she was not in great pain or asleep, made a game of identifying the people they met on their journey with figures that Christian met on his. Mr. Worldly Wiseman was everywhere, as was Pliable, who always figures heavily in troubled times; Hopeful was certainly Anna herself and Roger, unhampered by modesty, was not sure whether he was Greatheart or Valiant-for-Truth, and decided to be both. He insisted that Elizabeth was Talkative, which grieved her, because she wanted to be Christiana, and thought Bunyan was neglectful of women in his story, as indeed he was. They had had a disagreeable passage with a raucous supporter of the new regime, and decided that he was Giant Despair, as he talked unjustifiably of laying hold of the Gage family and turning them over to people he called The Authorities, but as there were no Authorities within reach who appeared to want them he was foiled. As for the Slough of Despond, it was an almost daily point on their journey, and the Valley of Humili­ation came much too often, as they grew dirtier and more disreputable in appearance. But Anna, who had to supply courage to her too easily discouraged children, insisted that they were coming every day nearer to the Celestial City, which was certainly somewhere in British North America, if only they could find Uncle Gus. Their lowest moment was when they made their way inland a few miles to Greenbush, and found that the farms belonging to the Vermuelen estate had indeed been sequestered, and that their former tenants were scornful of them. And so they had to make their way sadly to the point where they turned north-west into the Mohawk River.


The film-maker spared me most of their frequent portages, but I saw something of them. Roger carried the bow end of the canoe on his shoulders, and Anna followed under the stern; Elizabeth remained at wher­ever they had been forced to leave the water, to attend to Hannah, and guard the bundles, for which Roger and Anna returned as soon as they might. It was weary work, and far from anything Roger was prepared to accept as adventure. The portages on the Mohawk were more frequent, and by far the most taxing was that which led from the Mohawk to Wood Creek. But this was a recognized portage, and not the simple stretches of a mile or so of white water or other obstructions that they could not manage in their canoe, and so there were men to be found who would carry the canoe and the baggage to the Crick, as they called it. To the aston­ishment of the Gages, they ran, or loped rapidly, over the ground and for a time the travellers wondered if these helpers had made off with their belongings. Carrying Hannah over the long portage was heavy work. Not that the child was much heavier than a bundle from the canoe, but it was exhausting to listen to her cries and complaints, and Anna had begun to fear that too much laudanum was worse than toothache, earache and general debility. But in the end Oneida Lake was reached, and thence the Oswego River and, at last, Lake Ontario, a great inland sea such as they had never seen before.

To my eye, although I suffered with them, after they left the Hudson they were travelling through country of extraordinary beauty. The Mohawk, lying to the south of the mountains, was transportingly lovely in the autumn weather — for it was now autumn and the leaves were turning — but they saw nothing of this, and indeed were fearful of the solemnity and grandeur of the scene. I had to remind myself that these people had an eighteenth-century idea of landscape, and it was not rugged grandeur that moved them. They were creatures of a time before the Romantic Era, during which, and ever since, rough coun­try, mountains topped with cloud, untouched forests, crags and river ravines have been promoted in human estimation into the most splendid sights that Nature can offer. Nature, in its untouched state, was hateful and fearful to these creatures of eighteenth-century classicism. It did not occur to them that these might be the Delectable Mountains of which Bunyan had spoken.

Their greatest dread was of bears, as they slept at night on the leaves or boughs which made their uncomfortable beds. They arranged a rota of watches, when Anna or Roger stayed awake, to give warning if the bears came snuffling out of the undergrowth. What could they have done? What is a pistol to a bear?

Although she had little time to be aware of it, or explore it, this was for Anna a time of incalculable spiritual growth. I would call it psychological growth, but the word would have been unknown to her. God, whom she had worshipped when she was a woman of fortune, though not of the highest station, in New York, had ceased to be a benevolent abstrac­tion, demanding and deserving of reverence, rather like King George III on a larger scale. God had become terrible, but not malignant or unapproachable. The vastness and incalculability of God were apparent to her as she had never dreamed He might be in Trinity Church, or at prayer-time in her New York parlour. And yet, somehow, though she knew herself to be very small in the eye of God, she felt that the eye rested on her, and that it was not an angry eye. It was in the vastness of Oneida Lake that it came to her with a wonderful certainty that God meant her to win this exhausting battle, and that He would bring her at last to –. To Lake Ontario, it seemed, and a long, long journey round its southern shore.

Nor was it Anna alone who grew on the journey. Roger became a man, which is to say that he accepted without demur his place and his duty in the world. Perhaps he was not the best sort of man, but who is to judge? When sieges must be lifted, or maidens rescued, or hardship endured, it is to the Rogers we look, and we trust in their firmness of purpose. The lawgivers, the poets, and scientists are of other breeds, but without the Rogers we should perish.

As for Elizabeth, the tedious care of Hannah made her into a woman. Not a woman of affairs and plans, like her mother, but a woman in another sense, a gentle, nourishing, tender woman, ready to sacrifice herself, not quite entirely, but to the last instant before she was consumed, to duty and charity. She alone felt truly for Hannah. To Anna her ailing daughter was a charge, a duty, someone who must be suc­coured so far as succour went, but who was not, in the last instance, loved. It was Elizabeth who found love for Hannah, and if it found its expression in childish terms, was not Han­nah, in her misery, a child who needed to be cherished like a child? Laudanum could only be used so far, and when it began to fail Elizabeth held Hannah very close and sang a nursery song:

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Categories: Davies, Robertson