Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

He hires a good tradesman from Shrewsbury to be his foreman, but he has an eye to the future, and sends his younger son David to London to learn the art of cutting. To some extent cutting is a gift, but much may be learned, and Samuel has hopes that the gift may assert itself in David.

That settles his family, thinks Samuel. Walter doing bril­liantly at a good school. David launched in a fine trade. Polly, his only daughter, at Dr. Williams’s, the best Methodist school for girls in Wales, and headed, assuredly, for a good, prosperous marriage.

David is a mercurial youth, a great jester, so perhaps there may be some hint of the artist in him. At seventeen he is already a pocket version of his father, a stocky, short, copper-bearded fellow who looks almost as thick as he is tall, though this is not really so; it is an impression given by a giant’s torso on short legs. He has a moist eye, and is a favourite with the girls, though not the most modest girls. His father does not yet know it, but David drinks, and not beer, but spirits. Mary Evans, the barmaid at the Angel Inn, knows David better than his father does.

Samuel is fond of his dram, too, but he is discreet, as a chapel deacon ought to be. He is a member of a small club, made up of perhaps twenty prosperous tradesmen like him­self, who do not care to be seen in the saloon bar at the Green Man, but who own a handsome old place called — nobody knows why — the Mansion House, and there they meet, ostensibly to discuss the politics of the day, but also to wet their whistles with brandy and seltzer. Industry and Wealth are truly lurching toward Ungodliness and Samuel knows it, but he can argue it away when the knowledge becomes too insistent.

His wife rebukes him no longer, for she has died. A good, pious, charitable and loving woman, but Samuel’s prosperity was too rapid for her. Moreover she was impris­oned in the Welsh language which, fine as it is, does not agree with Samuel’s bustling life. He is trapped in his modernity; she in a feudal world. She strove to speak English, but it was not the comfortable clothing of her mind, or her link with her God. So he rushed into the future and she remained in the past.


Samuel is a rising man. He is prominent in the Radical interest in the town, and it is growing, for there are more and more tradesmen who are no longer tenants of the Earl, or who have their premises on such long leases that they have nothing to fear from the Castle, so long as their rents are paid. Reform and Dissent are powers to be reckoned with in Trallwm. People of historical bent recall that in 1745 not a man would rally to the banner of Prince Charles Edward in the town, to the indignation of the Castle. Samuel becomes an alderman, and his business sense and long-headedness make him such a good one that, in an over­turn that greatly annoys the Castle, he is elected Mayor of the Borough. The first Nonconformist ever to be Mayor of a Welsh borough! Think of that! The scarlet gown and the mayoral chain become his stately, short figure better than the succession of Castle supporters who have gone before him, for as long as the Borough has existed. On great occasions his short legs, beneath the scarlet gown and the fur-trimmed tricorn hat, move so deliberately that he seems to travel on castors.

When Samuel is at his pinnacle, Fate strikes him down. I knew Fate would do it, because when I was alive I was a drama critic, and I had inherited a good sense of melodrama from my father. But Samuel did not know it, because men never do foresee such blows, and are always astonished when their destiny follows some old familiar path. Fate is even so devoted to cliche as to strike Samuel in the three most predictable places: in his family, in his pride, and in his rectitude.

Family first. It is Thomas who makes the name of Gilmartin odious to the godly. He is by now the head foot­man at the Castle, and carries on the trade in “long ends” that goes with the job. It is not to Samuel’s liking that his half-brother is a professional bower and scraper, but he can do nothing about it, and he will not turn his back on his brother. But Thomas has for many years enjoyed to the full a foot­man’s perk of seducing the prettier maids in the Castle serv­ice, and everybody knows it in the town, but nobody speaks of it except late at night, in the saloon bar of the Green Man, or in hints at Chapel tea-meetings. In those privileged places it is spoken of often.

It is not the local fashion to speak too loudly about such things, as nobody speaks about the disgraceful entries, locally called “shuts,” down which a dozen huddled dwell­ings, and perhaps three brick privies, house the hard core of Trallwm poverty. Chapel people of the more practical sort venture down the shuts with baskets of necessities for the wretched women and hungry children, but it needs more than that to make the shuts superfluous. It needs some cure that probably does not exist in a world so economically lunatic as this. It needs, perhaps, a revolution in the nature of man, which will make everybody industrious, prudent, decent and loving. And how Old Heraclitus would laugh at that notion! Prosperity must have its coeval and its opposite, and that is what the shuts are in Trallwm, and in every place bigger than a hamlet.

Everybody speaks of Thomas’s hobby, and with indig­nation, when one of the girls dies. It had always been his custom, if one of his pretty subordinates whispered to him tearfully that she feared she was pregnant, to arrange for her to visit a local Wise Woman, Old Nan, who lived at a nearby crossway called the Brandy Shop. Old Nan has a proven remedy for pregnancy, which she makes from herbs and sells to trusted customers at a guinea a bottle. But the most recent favourite disobligingly developed blood poisoning after a miscarriage brought about too late, and died distressingly in the maids’ dormitory at the Castle, and it cannot be kept from the Countess. She is furious, and insists that the Earl’s agent, Mr. Forrester Addy, get to the root of the matter, and Thomas is in disgrace. Mr. Addy thinks that legal proceedings would be a mistake, because the culprit is the brother of the Mayor, and the Mayor, as a Justice of the Peace, would either have to sit in judgement — which would be dreadful — or refuse to do so — which would be equally dreadful in another way. But Thomas is cast out, and the scandal is on every tongue.

When Samuel meets Thomas, it is Samuel who feels the disgrace. Thomas appears buoyant. Samuel cannot, of course, ask this seducer to his house; not a seducer, and perhaps not a Castle servant, brother though he may be. Nor can he ask his brother to the Mansion House, for he is a servant, however much money he may have tucked away. So Samuel has to let Thomas into the Town Hall at night, by a side door, and talk with him in the Mayor’s Parlour, which is not the luxurious apartment the name suggests. He gestures Thomas to a chair, then walks to and fro until his anger is hot enough for him to begin the interview.

“Fornicator!” he says, rounding on Thomas and glaring at him.

“You have always used hard words to me, Sam,” says Thomas, and he appears to consider himself the injured brother, “Years ago you damned me, and I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve forgiven you, of course. Oh indeed, yes. But you know what the Bible has to say about a man that damns his brother. You’ve always been a hard man, Sam.”

“I told you you’d be damned yourself, Tommo, and I was right! Here’s a pretty kettle of fish! I’ve managed to keep this from our Mam, but everybody else in the county knows of it, and knows what to think of you.”

“Oh, not everybody, Sam. A few gossips, perhaps.”

“Yes, everybody. Last Sunday, in Chapel, I had to hear the minister pray for ‘one of our brothers who had sustained a heavy blow.’ And me sitting right below him, in the deacons’ pew, with all the other Big Heads of the Chapel! How do you suppose I liked that? Me, the Mayor, and the first Noncon­formist Mayor, look you! And what do I hear but that up at St. Mary’s the Vicar spoke from the pulpit of the sorrow of the Countess, who was known for her kindness to her girls, and had lost one of them under circumstances that he could not mention in a sacred place. Oh, you’ve disgraced us finely, Tommo.”

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