Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Janet is a bird of a wholly different feather. Not a richly coloured feather, but a glowing russet feather. She is a suffi­ciently good teacher, so far as she has anything to teach — reading, writing and some pretty music — but she is devout, cheerful, industrious, and she loves Walter with her whole excellent heart. Walter reciprocates, and it is their domesticity that makes it possible for him to endure the burdens of his life.

He is humble, but he cannot cringe. He is polite but he is not deferential. He hates what he has to do, because now the trade of Gilmartin and Son has shrunk until the greatest part of it is the making of liveries. As a livery-maker he has to visit the great country houses which are owned by members of the Reform Party, and measure the servants for the suits of clothes that are part of the emolument of their service.

These are not Castle liveries. No velvet coats for foot­men with powdered hair, but smart outfits for men who wait at table, answer the door, and, most particularly, look after the fine horses. The crested buttons, which are moulded in Shrewsbury, have to be ordered exactly to the last sleeve-button, because they are expensive, and a tailor must have a stock of them on hand at all times, but not too many. The butler’s striped silk waistcoat must not be striped in colours seen at any neighbouring hall. The liveries must fit, and the figures of fat coachmen, and grooms with bandy legs — for grooms are as bandy as the tailors who sit cross-legged all day on the board — and footmen who are of all shapes, but must be made to look as much alike as possible, call for the most careful measurement, and the servants can be sharp with the tailor who does not work this near miracle. So Walter must drive out to the great halls in his hired gig, and take what food is offered him in the servants’ hall, and kneel in the house­keeper’s room, measuring the arms and the inside legs, and the backs of servants who are often not very civil in the way they speak to him.

Walter regrets Oxford, regrets mathematical reckoning beyond the measuring of a footman’s leg from knee to crotch, regrets the Latin and Greek which have brought him, so it seems, to this. He never regrets the deathbed promise. Honour thy father and thy mother. Most particularly thy mother. And thy grandmother, for the old woman in Llanfair Caereinion must still be provided for, step-grandmother though she is.

Is Walter therefore a fool, I wonder? Has he not the spirit to throw up this whole miserable life and chance his luck elsewhere? But I know it is stupid to ask, for this is what has been and cannot be changed. Walter is a man of his time and a man of principle even when principle is odious. After a day among the footmen and grooms, who have a servant’s scorn for someone who serves them, there is always Janet, when he can turn the horse’s head toward home.

Of course they have children, four of them. The boys are Lancelot and Rhodri, the girls Elaine and Maude, and from these names I discern that Janet is of a romantic turn, and reads Ossian, and a modernized Malory, and especially Sir Walter Scott. She reads aloud to her children, even on Sundays, when Walter is engaged with that improving Methodist publication, The Leisure Hour. Without being aware of it, Janet gives her children’s minds a colour that persists even down to myself. Romantics all, without being fully aware of it.

Of course Janet never thinks of herself as a romantic. It is doubtful if the word would mean anything to her. She is a committed Wesleyan, and it is not in her welkin to see that Wesleyanism is the Romantic Movement as it manifested itself in religion. I know about the Romantic Movement. Is not my father a professor of English Literature in a fine Canadian university where, the syllabus decrees, the Roman­tic Movement is a successor to the Augustan Age, and a precursor of Modern Lit.? Romanticism: the subordination of logic and strict reason to feeling, and the elevation of emotion to a dominant place in forming judgements and dictating action, and the source of so much of our finest poetry.

Was not Wesleyanism romantic in its bias? Not, certainly, for that fine classicist John Wesley, but he spoke to people who had no classic restraint on their thinking, and who delighted in the exuberance and refreshment of their unleashed feeling. Theirs was not the coolly reverential tone of Addison, who could write, and mean, of the heavenly bodies —

In reason’s ear they all rejoice

A nd utter forth a glorious voice,

Forever singing as they shine,

“The Hand that made us is Divine.”

Wesleyans wanted, and found, a deeply personal faith that the Established Church of England no longer gave. The tone of their worship was —

He left His Father’s throne above —

So free, so infinite His grace —

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

‘Tis mercy, all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me!

It found out me, it placed me in direct touch with God, it made me and my salvation the driving force in life.

How wonderful, how infinitely fulfilling, to know that in God’s hand the Earl and the Vicar are no more than I! Erring children, all of us. Here is democracy in religion, and democracy, once the philosophers slacken their hold on it, is a recklessly Romantic idea. The Classic notion of society pre­supposes a hierarchy, and hierarchy cannot be wholly rooted out of a world where some men are, indisputably, superior to others. Had not Samuel Gilmartin become the first Noncon­formist Mayor of a Welsh Borough? That was, when all the heavy broadcloth and meals of boiled mutton are forgotten, a Romantic achievement. Religion and Romance combined — there was an explosive mixture!


Ah, but hierarchy cannot be rooted out. Drive it forth in the Chapel and it will rise again in the shop, and the family dwelling over the shop. Elaine and Maude know it, and feel it when, during the shooting season, the Earl’s brake drives through the streets leaving a brace of pheasants at the home of every faithful Tory tradesman and tenant, but passing by the door of the Gilmartins. Elaine and Maude are never asked to the summer lawn-party, or the winter Christmas party, at the Vicarage, where Tory girls rejoice sedately and respectfully in their excellent, but not fashionable, party frocks. It is not easy at eleven and thirteen to take solace in the certainty that Jesus loves them just as he presumably loves the Tories and the Castle hangers-on. It takes some gritting of teeth, and gritted teeth sometimes give rise to a spiritual pride.

For the boys, things are a little easier. They attend Mr. Timothy Hiles’s school in the Oldford Road, and have occa­sional fights with the lesser boys of the National School where the teachers do not teach in cap and gown, as Mr. Hiles does, as he lathers a little Latin into them. Enough Latin, anyhow, to enable them to call their parents “the Pater” and “the Mater,” which is swanky and a cut above the National School. To wear the cap of Oldford School, and to know the scant French that poor Monsieur Boue attempts to teach, amid the clamour of boys who think Frenchmen and their language just silly, is to be educationally a Cut Above. But Lancelot and Rhodri never fail to lift their caps when the Castle landau passes, because the beautiful Countess is Romance personified. She is the even younger wife of the Young Earl, who has succeeded his childless uncle; the Countess is a great London beauty, the loveliest of her “Sea­son.” It is rumoured that she is a mighty gambler, and that a lot of the Earl’s huge rent-roll goes to pay her debts. That is certainly Romance, as the Chapel never provides Romance. Boys are never very good at resisting either Romance or spiritual pride.

As I look on I wonder how so many people can be accommodated in that little shop and the rooms above it. From the street one enters the front shop; it is not a large room and it is dominated by a round mahogany table on which the bolts of cloth from the shelves may be unrolled, displayed and consideringly thumbed. Behind it is the larger workroom, where the five tailors sit on the board, smoking their stinking pipes and amusing themselves with indecent stories when Walter is not there to check them; a little char­coal stove keeps hot the goose-necked tailor’s pressing-irons; the apprentice rushes a goose as soon as anyone calls for one, because every seam is pressed as soon as it is sewn, on the ironing-board the tailor keeps across his folded legs. These, and the big table for the cutter, crowd the room to its utter­most.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson