Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

He assumes what he believes to be a distinguished air, his manners are a little too elaborate for his place in the modern world, and he dresses formally and indeed ostenta­tiously, for although he is a young man — thirty-two, I believe — he always carries a walking-stick. In keeping with his pretension, he feels that he needs a weapon always about him, and the stick, which conceals in its length the cosh with which he struck me down, is his constant companion. He is not physically a large man — rather a squirt, indeed — but he thinks of himself as a d’Artagnan. He would have preferred a sword-stick but, as he explains to the very few people to whom he confides his secret, the cosh is more appropriate to our time where mugging is not unknown, even in godly Toronto.

One cannot dismiss Allard Going as a fop or a fool, because, in spite of his eccentricities, he is quite a capable journalist and does his work as a theatre critic pretty well, though not as well as I, his editor, would like. I did not appoint him to his position on The Colonial Advocate, the newspaper (the very good newspaper) on which I serve as Entertainment Editor; I inherited him from my predecessor. I have not myself been more than three years in my job — or what was my job before the Sniffer retired me permanently.

The Sniffer’s nickname, which he hates, is a newspaper joke. He writes criticism of modern plays in which it is his delight to detect “influences,” and his way of introducing such influences as put-downs for new writers is to say — too often, but I have not been able to break him of the trick — “Do we sniff an influence from Pinter (or Ayckbourn, or Ionesco, or even Chekov) in this latest work of Mr. Whoever-it-is?” Whoever, that’s to say, the Sniffer wants to reduce to his lowest common denominator. The Sniffer is certain that nobody who writes a play, especially a first play, in Canada can be original in any important sense; he must be leaning upon, and dipping into, the work of some playwright of established fame, most often an Englishman. The Sniffer is one of the vanishing breed of Canadians for whom England is still The Great Good Place.

Of course his colleagues on the Advocate, who are a facetious lot, as journalists tend to be, call him the Sniffer, and the boys in the Sports department have gone farther, and hint darkly that he really is a sniffer, and gets his sexual fulfilment by sniffing the bicycle saddles of teen-age girls. This is espe­cially galling to the Sniffer, who fancies himself as a Byronic ladies’ man, and indeed is one, as his success with my wife makes clear.

He is not popular, although because of his ability he must be tolerated. Twice the wags at the Press Club have nominated him for their annual award as Asshole of the Year, but in the final election he has always been nosed out by some superior claimant, from the world of politics. He is not popu­lar, I shall say, among men. With women it is another matter.

My wife, the latest conquest of the Sniffer, is far too good for him, and until I came upon them in bed I refused to believe the rumours which kind friends were careful should reach my ears.

My wife is also employed by the Advocate, though not in my department; she is in Features, and is high among our most popular columnists. She writes about women’s affairs, in the broadest sense, and does so with discretion and convic­tion. She is not a snorting feminist, though she is firm in her determination to get for women anything to which they have a right, or even a less certain claim. She urges greater political action upon her sisters, she champions the right to abortion, she is particularly good in the realm of compassion, that powerful journalistic emollient, and is strong in her defence of beaten wives, incestuously tormented children, and bag ladies in their bewildering variety. In all of these things I support her and admire her zeal, though her prose gets on my nerves.

Her name is Esme Baron. She was christened Edna, a name of some biblical resonance, but as a schoolgirl she took against it, and told her parents firmly that she was going to be Esme; she knew that it was originally a man’s name, but possibly in an early manifestation of her enthusiasm for the female cause she claimed it for herself; if anyone wanted to think she was a man, they were free to do so. She advanced rapidly as ajournalist, and at the time of my murder she was making some progress as a broadcaster. If not precisely a beautiful woman — but who can be precise about beauty — she undoubtedly had a beautiful figure, and an attractive, serious face. She had in a high degree the power to make you think, when she was talking to you, that she considered you the most significant person in the world, and she was able to project this invaluable trait into her broadcasting; hundreds of thousands of listeners were convinced that she was talking to them, and them alone. With this rare gift, was it strange that she should be thinking about a career chiefly in broad­casting, and was drawn to the Sniffer, who seemed to have influence in that sphere? Even so she had been drawn to me, when it looked as though I could further her career as a journalist. If that sounds unkind, I do not mean it. I loved Esme very much, and if she did not love me quite as much, or without some measure of calculation, I am certainly not the first man to find himself in that position.

I do not propose, however, to excuse her for her betrayal of me. She could have told me she was tired of our marriage, and I suppose something might have been done about that. She might even have told me that she preferred Allard Going, and after I had recovered from laughter and incredulity, I suppose we might even have done something about that, as well. If she had wanted a fling with the Sniffer, I suppose I could have put up with it, for a while. Perhaps she was not perfectly sure that the Sniffer could deliver the goods she wanted, and would have brought up the matter with me at a later time, when his influence was made clear, and his price made clear, as well. I don’t think for a moment that he wanted to marry her; his image of himself demanded a succession of conquests, not anything permanent. An artist (and he included himself in that category, for if criticism is not an art, what is it?) must be free.

I suppose all this sounds second-rate and tacky, but it was not our fate to live on a higher moral level in the world in which we found ourselves. That I should be killed, however — that put the affair in a different and lurid light.


And I, the murdered man? My name is — was — still is, I suppose, Connor Gilmartin, and I am the Entertainment Editor of the Advocate. Thus Allard Going is one of my staff; I suppose I should call him a colleague, because it is not my way to lean too heavily on the writers who work under my direction; I recognize their right to a good deal of freedom in their work, and my directions are given more as suggestions than as orders, though there are times when I disagree totally with what they say, and the way they say it. It is woefully hard to find good, or even merely literate, writers, and they laugh at me when I say that sloppy, go-as-you-please writing carries less authority than decent prose. You must remember our public, they say. And indeed that is what I do, and I think the public is fully able to deal with the best they can produce. Patronizing the public, and assuming that it hangs, breathless, upon what it reads in the papers, is almost the worst of journalistic sins.

My parish, as Hugh McWearie calls it, includes not only the writers about theatre, ballet, opera and films, as well as music, and painting, and architecture, and of course the book editor and his reviewers, but also some odds and ends — the stamp columnist, the astrology columnist, and the religion columnist. I even have a place under my umbrella for our restaurant critic, known in our trade as Madam Greedygut. They ought to be in Features, where Esme is, but in some ways our paper is ill-organized. McWearie, who writes about religion, is, I suppose, my best friend, which many people find strange, for McWearie, a stern Scot, is not on first acquaintance a particularly attractive fellow. I like to go to his office now and then to smoke a pipe, for Hugh is an unrepen­tant smoker. Anti-tobacco zealots, of whom my wife is one, have persuaded the General Manager to outlaw smoking in all the public and general rooms of the building, but he did not go quite so far as to say that people might not smoke in private offices. I do not smoke in my own office, for Esme says I must set an example, but I sneak off to Hugh when I want tobacco and good conversation.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson