Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

The dwelling over the shop is reached by a discreet private door, into a tiny hallway, with a twisting stair. Above the shop a living-room occupies the whole of the front, overlooking the street; behind it are bedrooms, one for par­ents, one for girls; above is a room with a low ceiling, little more than a loft, where the boys sleep, and family luggage and unused furniture are stored.

The kitchen, of course, is in the basement, a damp, flagged hole where Liz Duckett, the slavey, prepares all the meals, serves breakfast and luncheon to the children, and from which she scrambles up two flights of stairs to the living-room, with food for the parents. She also carries water to the bedrooms, and brings the slops downstairs, to empty them in the brick privy in the yard behind the workroom. Great ingenuity is demanded of Janet and her daughters when they wish to visit this retreat, lest the evil-minded tailors should suspect them of unmentionable physical functions. Their usual device is to bring in something from the line that stretches from house to back wall, and on which clothes are always hanging out to dry, without ever quite doing so. Liz makes no such pretence; she is too humble to afford shame. She usually has a black eye, the consequence of her Saturday night rejoicing in Puzzle Square, or up the shut where she lives in the few hours that are her own. But I see that one must not pity Liz; she is a working woman, and has her own pride.

I innocently imagine that the house is full, but visitors are frequent. Charity — Wesleyan charity — cannot turn any­one who needs food or drink from the door — within reason, that is to say, and reason is extensile, like a concertina. An evangelist, visiting the chapel on one of his tours of preach­ing, may pass a night or two. He usually sleeps on a shake­down in the living-room, and is glad to get it. From time to time, when he is in a sober — or soberish — period, Uncle David stays for a month or two, until he falls again from grace, and sleeps God knows where and with God knows whom. He shares the bed of the two boys, or with Rhodri when Lancelot has gone to boarding-school in Llanfyllin.

Uncle David is not an easy bedfellow, because he insists on the middle of the bed, where he lies reading the County Times, with an oil lamp balanced on his broad chest. There is constant danger that he will fall asleep and overturn the lamp, but somehow he never does so. He regales the sleepy boys with bits of news, upon which he offers comment greatly at variance with what the paper says, for he is privy to all the underworld gossip of Trallwm, and is ribald. He is also a dreamer, and shouts in his sleep.


All of this can be borne, until Auntie Polly arrives from Llanrwst for a long stay, because she is “lying up,” which is the local term for preg­nancy. She brings little Olwen with her, because the child is not yet two, and needs her mother. Her other four children have remained in Llanrwst, presumably under the cloud that now hangs over the fate of John Jethro Jenkins. He has retired to that modest village until certain disagreeable affairs are put right in Aberystwyth, where the Import and Export lan­guishes in the current depressed state of trade. Nothing posi­tively dishonest is imputed to him, but a certain fine carelessness has brought about embarrassment and hard words from coarse-minded men who do not understand shades of guilt, and see everything in black and white, and pounds and pence.

A woman who is lying up has to be protected from such slights.”Oh, Janno, you’ll never know what I’ve been through in Llanrwst!” Polly says, rather oftener than is need­ful. Janno’s tender heart responds eagerly, and the patient Walter is resigned to moving himself and his wife into the girls’ room, because a woman who is lying up clearly needs the best bed.

Elaine and Maude are somewhat restless under the necessity to sleep on a shakedown, hidden away every day, in the living-room, but Janet explains to them about Christian obligation. However, they find it necessary to intrude fre­quently into their parents’ room, once their own, to fetch clothes from the press. This can be inconvenient for Walter and Janet, but the girls feel that Christian obligation requires that inconvenience should be shared. They have the incon­venience of having to take little Olwen for walks in her baby-carriage. Little Olwen is not an appealing child; she whinges a great deal and obtrudes herself amazingly for one so young.

Worse is to come. A general depression has seriously slowed all business activity in the British Isles; there are great numbers of people who have no money, and those who have money are determined to keep it. Walter feels the pinch. The pinch grows more painful when John Jethro Jenkins and his four sons arrive from Llanrwst, which he has decided to leave to its mean-spirited inhabitants, and to “bivouac” as he expresses it, with his brother-in-law and sister for a time, until his new venture is transformed from a dream into a reality.

“It is an extraordinary thing, Walter, how blind people can be to opportunity, when it is staring them in the face. Now, you know me. You know my views. Utilitarian — that sums it up. Whatever provides the greatest advantage for the greatest number. But somebody has to take the bull by the horns, and bring the advantage into focus, and that demands two things — Vision and Capital. The one without the other is unavailing. Utterly unavailing. I have Vision, and I am confronted by Opportunity — such Opportunity as comes rarely even into the life of an exceptionally fortunate person, like myself. Capital’s the problem. Now, I don’t know how you are fixed personally, but I should imagine you wer,e pretty snug. Fine situation, fine shop, a large surrounding district to draw from — if you’re not doing very well, something must be radically wrong. How do you stand, if I may ask?”

“John, you’ll have heard that there is a depression across the whole country. Times are difficult. And clearing up after the Pater’s trouble has consumed a lot of money. In dibs and dabs, but it all adds up to a surprising sum.”

“Ah, but don’t you see, Walter — no, of course you don’t see, because you have let little Trallwm blind you — these so-called depressions are passing things. But to the man with Vision, they spell opportunity. Anybody can strike while the iron is hot. It’s the man of Vision who strikes just before it cools, and astounds all those who have been alarmed by a fleeting recession. You say you can’t raise any capital?”

“Not a sixpence.”

“That’s what you think. But you’re wrong, Walter, you’re wrong. You have immense capital. You have your good name, your credit, your reputation as a man of excep­tional probity. You can borrow. When you tell your banker what I’m going to tell you now, he’ll overwhelm you with offers. Bankers aren’t stupid, you know.”

“Not more than most people, certainly.”

“Now listen. And please, I beg you, regard this for the present as sub rosa. On the q.t., you know.”

“I have a little Latin, John.”

“Of course you have. It’s another aspect of your Capital that you don’t put to use. Now pay close attention to what I am about to say: I have a business associate — I haven’t known him long but he is one of the most impressive, far-seeing men I have ever encountered — and he has just come back from Canada. A golden land. The opportunities there are stag­gering, and men of all kinds are rushing to seize them. The big chances are going fast, but there is still time to do very great things. Now, Walter, think carefully: what is it that the world needs most at the present moment?”

“I wish I knew.”

“You do know. Think. Coal! That’s what’s wanted! Coal! The black diamond! Industry is grinding to a standstill for want of coal. Canada is absolutely chock-a-block with coal, and very little has so far been done about it. Now this man — can’t tell you his name, because he insists on the stric­test confidentiality — is acting as agent for a very big interest, situated in Liverpool, and he is offering large tracts of coal­fields in northern Manitoba at a laughable price per acre. He can let me have five hundred acres of an immensely rich coalfield in a northern area which is remarkable because the coal lies so near the surface. You can almost pick it up. Mining ceases to be a costly job of excavation. And the coal, when it has been assembled — assembled, look you, not laboriously mined — can be shipped south down the Nelson River to the thriving settlement of Winnipeg, whence it can be easily dispersed all over the world. Not just Great Britain, you see, but to the whole world which is craving for coal. This is one of those astounding circumstances where Opportunity and Vision await only the quickening touch of Capital to create vast fortunes. It’s stupendous! Now, what do you say?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson