Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“No, I cannot write, nor read, though I am anxious to do both,” says the boy.

“Then listen to me, my boy, for God is prompting me strongly. You are now in Christ’s family, well and truly, but I think you had better come into my family, as well. I have no child, I am sad to have to say, and that has always been a gentle but a real grief to me and my wife. Would you like to be my son?”

The boy’s face is all the answer he needs.

“Then bend your head to the water again, and in God’s name I christen you Wesley Gwylim Gilmartin. So be Wesley Gilmartin from this day forward.”

As they step out boldly toward Mallwyd, where the church tower is now in sight, the boy speaks, and perhaps he is not wholly content.

“I am grateful to you, father. But what kind of name is Gilmartin? I have never heard any such name.”

“Well, my son, it is not really a Welsh name, though I count myself a Welshman. It is a Scots name, from the far north, where my people lived a couple of generations ago. But you shall learn English, and keep your Welsh, and you shall be my apprentice.”

“A trade? Oh, I dearly want a trade! Which trade?”

“When I am not travelling to do God’s work and John Wesley’s work, I am a cloth merchant. I buy the good Welsh flannel and I send it to Scotland, where it is needed. It is called the Scotch Trade, and you shall learn it. You shall learn to be a weaver.”

So the weaver-preacher and his apprentice enter Mallwyd, and, having had some bread and ale for breakfast, they step out on the twenty miles to Llanfair yn Nghaer Einion, which today is called Llanfair Caereinion.


Until now the film has progressed as straight narrative, but here it breaks up into the technique that I believe is called Concurrent Action, by knowing ones like Allard Going. Up on the left of the wide screen I see young Wesley Gilmartin hard at the work of the loom; it is a huge affair, and on the beam which is perpetually before his eyes is written, in Welsh, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope.” But this is not young Wesley’s case, for I see that under the care of the preacher’s wife he is growing big and strong.

In the lower right-hand segment of the screen he is bent over his book, by the fireside; he is learning English, and writing, though he never becomes a great hand at either.

What is this, at lower left? These must be fair days, when Thomas Gilmartin visits the local towns — Trallwm, Newtown, and sometimes Berriew — to buy the red flannel that is the staple of his trade. It is of the reddest possible red, for that is the colour ordained for petticoats and the Welshwomen’s heavy cloaks, and is thought to be sovran against rheumatism and the woollen string disease, as consumption is called. Thomas can command the best because he is a fair dealer, and pays a fair price. Young Wesley accompanies him, to load the pack-horse with the purchased goods for the seven-mile track over the hills.

Here (upper right) I see Thomas preaching in the open air, as John Wesley did and counselled his preachers to do as well. His hearers wear the heavy clothes and gaiters of the farm; some are in smocks, exquisitely worked at the yoke; many of the women wear the heavy steeple-crown hats, so long the distinguishing mark of Welsh costume. These inde­structible hats are heirlooms, passed from mother to daugh­ter. Wet or fair Thomas stands in the streets, and he and the boy sing a hymn, as loud as they can in one language or the other, until they have drawn a big enough crowd to hear the Word.

Now another film technique is used: the screen is black, save for a single face, as some sinner is moved to tears of repentance. These people take their religion passionately, and their protests and confessions are loud and often eloquent.


What now? More of this skilful montage, as I see Thomas Gilmartin grown old, and dying an exemplary death. Young Wesley, always so called though he is young no longer, gives a deathbed promise that he will continue the evangelical work, though he declares himself unworthy, for he has not the preaching gift as Thomas had it. But he kneels for blessing, and henceforth he travels through the towns, to buy the flannel, and to preach as best he can. He is earnest; he never seeks to be eloquent, but sometimes he achieves the eloquence of simplicity.

As I watch this sad scene — though Thomas assures all those who crowd around his deathbed that to die in the assurance of a blessed hereafter is not sad –I see in the other quarters of the screen Young Wesley’s concern for his chil­dren, his eldest son, Samuel, and a younger brother, another Thomas. Young Wesley has married twice, and the child of his first wife appears to be an exemplary youth, happy to continue in the Scotch Trade. But the son of his second marriage is rebellious, and wants something better. He wants to put his foot on the ladder toward a fortune, and he knows how to do it. He wants to be a servant.

“Why?” asks Samuel, as the boys lie in bed together.

“Because I have a taste for something better than this,” says Thomas.”Do you think I want to bend at the loom until I am hunchbacked like our Dad? A weaver! Do you want to be a weaver, Sam?”

“Our Dad is not a weaver now. He has weavers to work for him. He doesn’t have to touch his cap to any man. Do you want to be a cap-toucher, and a toady? Where’s your man­hood?”

“I’m ready to touch my cap if it brings me to the notice of people who can lift me in the world. I’ve a taste for a bit of life, Sam. Not this endless spinning and weaving and packing the horses and trudging to Scotland and haggling and being called a Greedy Taffy by a lot of greedy Scotchmen. Red flannel’s going out, Sam. You mark my words.”

“There’ll be money in red flannel for a while yet. And don’t sneer at our Dad. He’s done very well, look you. When he goes — as we all must, and God spare him — there’ll be a very pretty little bundle, and some if it will be for you. How can you be a servant if you have money of your own?”

“Being a servant is a very good trade. Look at Jesse Fewtrell. Do you suppose he has no money of his own?”

“Oh, very well, if you want to be a Jesse Fewtrell and scrape shillings by cheating your master, go ahead, and be damned to you!”

“Sam — I never thought to hear you curse me. I’ll tell our Dad.”

“I didn’t curse you, you morlock. I spoke theologically, which is probably above your head. I said — and I meant — that if you persist in this headstrong path, your damnation will be certain.”

“Oh? So it’s theological, is it? Well, I can be theological too. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of a lord than dwell in the tents of the Wesleyans.”

“Tommo, that’s twisting Scripture! I won’t share a bed with anyone who twists Scripture. I don’t know what might happen in the night!”

“Then get you out of bed.”

“Oh no, my fine lackey-lad. You get out of bed!”

And Samuel gives Thomas a mighty kick that lands him on the floor, where he spends the night.

Why? Because he has a hankering for high life and the only entrance to it, for Thomas, is the servants’ entrance. When he is in Trallwm with his father he sees the fine car­riages of the county gentry with their splendid horses and coachmen and footmen in fine liveries. He knows them all and identifies the liveries as boys now identify makes of automobiles. Best of all, he sometimes sees a carriage from the Castle, and then there are two men on the box, and two footmen in their places behind, and in the carriage itself the Countess, and now and then the Earl, who seems to see no one, but from time to time lifts a weary finger to the brim of his wonderful hat, as he acknowledges a curtsy from some woman on the street. Virtually the whole town belongs to him, and these people are his tenants; he is upon the whole a popular and good landlord. As Thomas Gilmartin had said of his father, this boy has something of the nature of a herald, and the pomp and splendour of county gentility feeds his imagination and rouses his ambition. He horrifies his father by repeating his perversion of Scripture; he says that he would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of a lord than dwell in the tents of the Wesleyans!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson