Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Samuel is still a man of rectitude, and it is this which at last brings him down, and brings Gungrog Hall under the auc­tioneer’s hammer, along with the horses. It even endangers the tailor’s shop, but does not quite destroy it, because Samuel has been so long-headed as to make his older son, Walter, a partner with a half-share. But half a share in the tailor’s shop cannot save Samuel. The shadow darkens toward night when Samuel backs a note for a fellow deacon at the Chapel, one Llewellyn Thomas, a grocer and provisioner in a very large way. Much too large a way, it proves, for the note is a big one, and Llewellyn Thomas is saved from bankruptcy only by this act of trust and Samuel’s lifelong principle that a man must never turn his back on a friend. So the bankruptcy falls on Samuel, who meets the note without a whimper, and is ruined. Oh, Heraclitus; and Oh, John Wesley!


Bankruptcy! The hobgob­lin, the obliterating shadow of the commercial world of Samuel’s day! For in those days a man could be bankrupt but once; there were no second chances, no histories of repeated bankruptcies. It all happens within a few months. Samuel retires to a cramped life in the premises over the tailor’s shop, and the black day approaches when he must, in the local phrase, “go up the Town Hall steps” and be formally declared a bankrupt.

Of course desolation and want do not face him, for Walter would do whatever lay in his limited power to make his father’s final years as comfortable as possible. Samuel does not face life in the Forden Union Workhouse, the dreaded “workus” with which children and all improvident persons are threatened. But he has been a great man in his world, and now he faces disgrace deeper even than that brought on by Thomas.

Thus it is that he takes to his bed, and two days before he is to mount those dreadful steps to face his fellow magistrates, Samuel has a very quiet heart attack, and is found dead by his son. Dead of disgrace, which was, and still is, often a fatal misfortune. Fate has once again worked out her old, old plot, which is fresh and desolating to every new victim.

Fresh and desolating to me, too. Me, the patient looker-on. I weep, in my ghostly way, for Samuel, because he is my great-great-grandfather, of whom I knew nothing but his name, but whose dark red hair is mine also. It does not matter that he was really nobody very much — just a man who did well in a small, distant town that I have never seen, and met ruin because he was puffed up, and stupid, and loyal, and good, according to his lights; like me, I now understand. There is no such thing as a person who is “nobody very much.” Everybody is an agonist in one of Fate’s time-worn games on the earth, and winning or losing is not what it seems to be in the judgement of others, but as judged by the player himself.

So Samuel passes, leaving a mess behind him, and nobody to clear up the mess but his elder son Walter, who is not the man to do it.

I know something of Walter, for a passage of that Con­current Action, of which this director seems fond, and which crowds so much I need to know into the screen in an aston­ishingly economical manner, has shown me his boyhood and young manhood, his downfall and his marriage.


Walter was the clever boy, and David was the popular, merry boy. Walter was devout and studious and went away to a good boarding-school — not one of England’s great public schools, but a place devoted to the Welsh Wesleyan interest — where he won prize after prize, and showed uncommon promise in mathematics. He organized prayer meetings among the more devout boys, and was exemplary in his religious observance and his truly Wesleyan examination of his conscience. He was a stoutly built boy, whose uncommonly thick legs won him the nickname of Gate Posts. It was clear enough where Walter was going. Like all devout boys he had a spell of wanting to be a preacher, but he quickly put that aside and set his sights on the Civil Service. There is always a place in the Civil Service for a good mathematician, and Walter was also some­thing of a linguist; he spoke Welsh and English from infancy, and to be born bilingual is a great start on Latin and Greek, which he absorbed almost without thinking. The Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, all seemed within his grasp, and when at last he won a scholarship to Oxford, the thing was virtually assured.

Fate sees it otherwise. Walter is just eighteen when his mother falls ill, and is about to die. She summons him to her bedside.

“Walter, dearest boy,” she says; “I want you to promise me never to leave your father. He needs you. He is not as strong a man as everybody thinks. And you know that David is a great disappointment. Your father needs a stout staff to lean on. Give me your promise, my dear.”

Walter kneels by the bed and gives his promise, for who can hesitate when a mother lies so near to death? And that, in a great many important ways, is the finish of Walter. He prays to be given the strength to do what he has promised, to be a staff and a strength, and within a fortnight his mother is dead. Truly, David is a great disappointment. He has learned the fine points of the tailoring in London, and he is a good cutter, but he spoils a lot of fine cloth because he is never entirely sober. Samuel is sure that responsibility will quiet him, and he sets David up in his own tailoring shop in Machynlleth, where David becomes a great support to the local pubs. Yes, and even to the refreshment room at the local railway station, for in Wales there were no pubs open on Sunday, but a bona fide traveller could have a drink at the station. So I see David, a roly-poly red-headed rascal, lurking beside the railway track, an empty portmanteau in his hand, whenever the two Sunday trains are due at Machynlleth; as the train arrives, he runs down the track, climbs the barrier to the station area, and dashes into the refreshment room, as bona fide a traveller as ever was seen. Of course the girl at the counter knows him and knows what he is up to, but she is a large-hearted, understanding sort of girl, as barmaids often are. It is not long before the tailor’s shop closes its doors, and David returns to his father, a prodigal son, for whom Samuel prepares the thinnest and poorest of calves. More like a black sheep, say the Trallwm wags.

Of course that just man Samuel cannot give David his own shop and ignore the dutiful Walter, so he makes over a half-share in his Trallwm shop, which is henceforth Gilmartin and Son. But Walter is no tailor. He is dutiful, but his heart yearns toward the Treasury in London. When Samuel dies, a broken-hearted man, Walter has that part of the shop that the creditors do not devour, and the humiliation that comes with David.

David is shameless, as career-drunks often are, and on market days he is often to be seen in the street outside Gilmartin and Son, staggering among the horses and car­riages as he shouts — “Look at him! Look at my brother Wal­ter, who won’t give his only brother the price of a pint o’ beer! There’s a Christian for you!” The townsfolk turn away their eyes, and the gentry, in their carriages, are disgusted. Walter hides in the shop, in the workroom at the back, among the tailors who sit cross-legged on the “board” — the low plat­form on which they stitch, and iron garments on boards stretched across their knees. They do not look at Walter, but they hear David and, though they pity Walter, some mud sticks to him, as well.


Walter’s life is not all darkness. He is respected in the Chapel, and his marriage is his great strength.

He has married Janet Jenkins, a schoolmistress and the sister ofjohn Jethro Jenkins, who is thereby Walter’s brother-in-law in double strength. Polly, Walter’s sister, has been finished, in so far as a girl of her station may be finished, at Dr. Williams’s school in Aberystwyth, and it is in that pros­perous seaside town that she meets John Jethro, who is in a vague world called Import and Export, and marries him. He is sure to be a great man, for he is a scholar and a thinker, and an eloquent speaker in matters of Reform politics. John Jethro is not, however, a markedly practical man, or he would never have married Polly Gilmartin, whose sole recommendation as a wife is that she admires John Jethro extravagantly.

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