Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Hey, dance a jig

For the Granny’s pig

With a rowdy-dowdy-dowdy;

Hey, dance a jig

For the Granny’s pig

While pussycat plays the crowdy.

“What’s a crowdy?” asked Hannah, many times after she knew the answer.

“It’s a little fiddle, darling, such as a pussycat might play.”

“Pusscat plays the crowdy,” says drugged Hannah.”Sing it again.”

How many times did Elizabeth sing the nursery song? There must be somewhere, in our computerized Universe, a record of the number, and all very much to the credit of the gentle-hearted Elizabeth, who never failed her unhappy sister.


August Vermuelen is sitting on the stoep of his very decent house at a small settle­ment called Stoney Creek. He is smoking a long pipe, and resting from a long day at his profession, which is that of a land surveyor. He is very busy, for new lands are being apportioned to new settlers, refugees from the American States. He is a contented, prosperous man.

Who are these tatterdemalions who have opened his gate and are coming toward him? A woman, brown as an Indian and in rags, with a dirty boy who holds his head very high, and a girl carrying what might be a monkey, but which from its wails he judges to be a child.

The woman is weeping.”Gus,” she calls; “Gus, it’s Anna.”

I too am weeping, in so far as I can as a — shall I say a ghost? A disembodied but not unfeeling spirit, at any rate. God be praised, Anna has made it! This is the end, and I can stop agonizing. For, since the film began, I have felt heartbeat for heartbeat with the actors. Are they actors?

As the scene on the film fades, it is replaced by a notice, a warning, in print:


For me, the onlooker, how could it be The End? Quite a long time earlier in the film I had recognized that Anna was my great-great-great-great-grandmother. Here she was, risen from the waters into the land which was to be mine.

Not the end. A beginning.


Of Water and the Holy Spirit

I have never visited Wild Wales, that northern part of the Principality which I had heard of, vaguely, as the land of my Gilmartin forebears. Only the Welsh Border is known to me, and that from a weekend visit in childhood. How, then, do I recognize the mountain country at once, and with the familiarity I might feel if the screen showed some part of France or Italy, count­ries I know well? But as the third film in Going’s Festival, and the second in what now seems to be a Festival meant for me alone, appears on the screen, I know at once that I am looking at Wild Wales. I am next to Going, impalpable and invisible, eager for more about Anna Gage and her children. This must be a fairly modern film, for scenes of action are to be seen behind the title and the necessary preliminaries. But, as with The Spirit of ’76, this is beyond question a film peculiar to me, for the Sniffer is watching something different; his film is a prodigious affair called Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, the work of the great Soviet film director (and dissident) Sergei Paradzhanov. But there is nothing Russian about what I see. Wales, beyond a doubt. Is there some hidden connection? Am I really the witness to films addressed to my posthumous needs? It must be so. Is there any other explanation?


The action appears at first to be concerned with some horribly bad weather. Here is a mountain pass, through cliffs of the blackest slate, lashed by fierce rain driven hither and thither by capricious gusts of riotous wind. It is dusk above the mountains but in the pass it is already night. There is music; the composer has been given his head, but his orchestral fury is merely an accompaniment to the meteorological tumult. Thunder crashes and echoes from the slate sides of the declivity through which there appears to be a track better accommodated to mountain sheep than to travellers. But — yes — I can just make out the figure of one traveller, a man on foot, stumbling through the darkness, searching for a foothold where the water has washed away the scant soil and the sharp stones that once marked the road. From time to time he loses the path, but he cannot stray far because the way is too narrow and its sides are so steep that only a goat could climb them.

The traveller is drenched. His frieze cloak is sodden and his broad hat, which he has fastened to his head with a long scarf, pours water from all three of its cocks. He wears leather gaiters and strong boots, but they are as heavy with water as the cloak. Is he a brave man, or merely a desperate one? If he does not find shelter soon he will certainly die in this storm.

Has he found shelter? This must be a village, or a hamlet, a single street of perhaps nine houses, the most miserable this widely experienced traveller has ever seen in all his tramping through Wales. In hovel after hovel the windows are broken, where windows have ever pierced those stone walls, and not a sign of life is to be seen.

Not a sign, but does he hear a sound? From one misera­ble pile of tumbledown masonry there is a sound, and as he draws near, he knows what it is. It is the sound of a harp.

I sigh. Is this to be yet another film in which the Welsh people are shown as unremittingly musical and poetic, assuaging the harshness of their destiny with songs of love and valour and dreams? No, God be praised, it is not. The harp thrums and tinkles, and to its accompaniment some­body is singing a bawdy song, a song of shameful lust and filthy desire, and there is laughter at every evil hint and dirty word. I am astonished that I understand the ancient tongue, even in this disgraceful dunghill stretch of its vocabulary, but I reflect that death is full of surprises. The traveller pauses, to my astonishment, for he seems to be wondering if he can endure such company as this song could please. But a sharp gust almost throws him on his face, and he knows that he has no choice. He finds the leather string that lifts the wooden latch of the door, and as the wind drives it open with a crash he steps inside.


It is, apparently, an inn and the rudest inn that man has known since the inn that, so long ago, refused shelter to Mary and Joseph. The room is not a large one, and the only light is from a poor fire, but the place is full, and warm as much from the heat of the bodies of the guests as from the hearth.

The harper, who is also the singer, stops his ribald tale in mid-verse; he is old, filthy and apparently blind, for a leather shade hangs over his eyes like a penthouse. The other guests, who may number ten or a dozen, are big men who look at the traveller with sour mistrust. They are Welsh mountain men; nothing about them is remarkable except that they all have red hair. Not ginger hair, which is common enough in all Celtic countries, but a darker red which, if it were washed, might be called auburn.

“May I take shelter here?” asks the traveller in courteous Welsh.”The night is very bad.”

“You may, or you may not,” says one man, after a long and inhospitable pause.”Who may you be?”

“I am a traveller, bound on my Master’s work. My name is Thomas Gilmartin.”

“And who is your master, that he sends you to such a place as this, on such a night as this?” says the biggest man, a giant even among these mountain men.

“My Master is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and I am here and everywhere on His work, which never ends,” says the travel­ler. He shows no fear.

“Never heard of him,” says the big man.”He has no land here.” The other red-haired men guffaw, and repeat the joke among themselves — Never heard of him.

“Then I must tell you of Him. But first may I dry myself a little? I am wet through. Can I buy anything to eat here? I have had no food since morning, and I have been walking all day.”

“Oh, you can pay, is it? Too proud to ask for a bite, is it? Where do you think you are, little man?”

“I hoped to reach Mallwyd tonight, but I do not know where I am. Am I near there?”

“You are two miles or so from Mallwyd, and you will never get there tonight, or perhaps ever. You are at Dinas Mawddwy. Does the name of Dinas Mawddwy mean any­thing to you?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson