Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“I have learned that I am not a capitalist, John.”

“But you will be! You’ll come round. You’re prudent, but you’re no fool. Meanwhile, I’m going to see who can be got to come in with me around the county. I think of trying some of the big Liberal county families, as a starter. Men of vision. I assume I may mention your name?”

“I’d rather you didn’t, John. For your own sake. Since the Pater’s trouble the Gilmartin name doesn’t ring quite as clear as it did. But I wish you well. You know that.”

“It’s very big, Walter. Huge. I’ll go farther — it’s over­whelming. I stand in awe of what Canada will mean to us.”

Meanwhile, John will “bivouac” until the time comes for him to take Polly and the children to Canada — to the New World, where he will be forever quit of the petty-mindedness and social restrictions of Great Britain. John Jethro is, all the family agree, a man of remarkable, dauntless spirit. This is all the more praiseworthy as he is known to be somewhat “touched” in his lungs. Just a hint of tuberculo­sis, the scourge of Wales, and in the nineteenth century a scourge every bit as alarming as is AIDS in my time. One of its characteristics is the ebullience it often brings with it — a quickening of the mental faculties. I see John Jethro in the little sitting-room, carolling with true Welsh rhetoric about the fortunes that await them all. Walter listens with the sad reserve of a man who does not know how to meet his bills, and whose debtors are slow to pay what they owe him. Maude and Elaine yawn behind their hands, wondering when they can put up their shakedown and go to bed. Only Polly and Janet listen enraptured, with the confidence that girls of the nineteenth century grew up to repose in their wonderful brothers and husbands.

Even I, with my poor command of geography, know that if the coal were any good — which it is not — the Nelson River, so turbulent and fraught with rapids, is quite impos­sible as a route for heavy barges. Anyhow, it flows the wrong way, and how do you portage a coal barge up rapids on a river that has no locks? I am watching one of those scenes, so common in the history of Canada, where high hopes soar on the wings of ignorance, and high adventure leads to disaster.

John Jethro naturally shares the bed of Polly, who grows huge much sooner than most women who are pregnant. The softness and generosity of her nature find a physical counter­part in this swelling. Little Olwen sleeps in a basket on the floor. Sleeps, that is to say, when she is not howling, as she cuts her teeth. But in the best bedroom John Jethro and Polly sleep the sound sleep of the confident and the trusting.

The boys — Albert, Thomas, Harry, and Lloydie — cannot be accommodated in the premises above the tailor shop. They have to be boarded down the street with Mrs. Joe Davies, a cousin in the fourth degree; Walter pays the few shillings that keep them in Mrs. Joe’s garret, for John Jethro, the entrepre­neur, is temporarily embarrassed, and cannot quite run to such expense. But of course all seven Jenkinses eat at the Gilmartin table, three times a day, and growing boys are prodigious eaters. Janet laughs at their monstrous appetites, even as she stretches the shillings to find food to put on the crowded table.


Dear Janet! I find myself falling in love with her — yes, with my own great-grandmother — as I watch these scenes, where her bravery and sweet temper keep afloat this household of raving optimist brother, dispirited mathematician-turned-tailor husband, her sister-in-law Polly — a soft machine for replenishing the earth and not much else — and nine children, clamorous and egotistical as children are and must be if they are to save their souls in an adult world. Janet is not especially intelligent, not physically strong, not of the Joan of Arc mould, but through her faith and her simple goodness — a quality not much in evidence in the world as it was when I so hastily quitted it a few days before seeing this film — she somehow keeps them all afloat, and frequently laughing.

She can be a strict teacher, look you — there I am, falling into the cajoling Welsh trope — but she is a loving teacher, and her children heed her. She teaches faith and goodness, in so far as she comprehends them. She has a store of lessons, and some of them are songs. One favourite, from a Christmas Supplement of The Leisure Hour, runs thus:

There’s an excellent rule

I have learned in life’s school,

And I’m ready to set it before you.

When you’re heavy at heart

And your world falls apart,

Do not pity yourself, I implore you.

No, up with your chin,

Meet bad luck with a grin,

And try this infallible trick:

It never will fail you,

Whatever may ail you —



Do something for somebody quick,

It will banish your cares in a tick

Don’t fret about you

There’s a Good Deed to do —


Janet pounds the galumphing, two-four tune out of the senile Broadwood, bobbing her head and smiling as she sings, a pattern of Methodist goodness. And she practises the lesson she teaches. She thinks as little of self as a human creature can do — which, as everything has to be seen from the watch-tower of self, and as every action is a demonstration of self, is not as great a victory as the dear soul hopes it is.

Oh, if only John Jethro were not a man of such deter­mined spirit and firm opinions! He attends the Wesleyan Chapel, of course, for everyone must go somewhere on a Sunday, but he goes in a contumacious spirit. He sits in the Gilmartin pew with folded arms and a look of bottled-up contradiction on his face. It is clear that he disagrees with everything the minister is saying, and can face him down with information out of the advanced books he reads. The story of the Creation is all nonsense; Darwin has put paid to that. When Moses saw the Burning Bush any jackass knows that what Moses saw was an oil-gusher on fire, and what he heard came straight out of Moses’ Tory head. How can sensi­ble people in the last decade of the nineteenth century believe such stuff?

When a powerful evangelist — none other than the redoubtable Gipsy Smith — comes to the Chapel to preach a series of week-night sermons to strengthen the faith of the already faithful, John Jethro causes a scandal. On the last night of his mission the evangelist urges all those who feel themselves to be Saved to stand, and there is a rush and a rustle as everybody stands, and many sob in the joy of their zeal. But John Jethro remains seated as if he were a figure moulded in lead. His sister and his wife tremble for him. Polly, unwieldy as she now is, is nevertheless on her feet, weeping for her uncontrite husband. Afterward, at a light supper above the tailor’s shop, he explains his position. How can a man be saved who has no intimation that he has ever been lost? Is he not a portion of the grand process of Evolu­tion, which wastes nothing? If there is a God, Darwin has given Him a new meaning. He refuses to run with the crowd, has no wish to give offence, but cannot submit to manifest nonsense. God does not wish John Jethro Jenkins to be saved, but to be expended to the uttermost of his possibilities.

Walter secretly half agrees with him, but he has stood up among the saved because he is a man of peace, and hates rows. Walter’s God is still the merciful God of John Wesley, about whom wrangles like this are needless and unseemly. Walter’s God is the God of a man who, without knowing it, is a Romantic.


Walter’s Romanticism expresses itself in politics. He is a determined, but not an obstreperous or contentious, Liberal and his god on this earth is Mr. Gladstone. A portrait of Gladstone hangs in the little sitting-room on the wall beside the engraving of John Wesley that has come down in the family from Wesley Gilmartin, once the pot-boy of the inn at Dinas Mawddwy. An election is near, and Walter longs with his whole soul to see the return of Stuart Rendel, the Liberal candidate who contests the seat against the candidate of the powerful, ancient and formidable Williams-Wynn family. John Jethro, of course, is on every platform that will accept him, to speak in the Liberal cause. But he is too vehement, too rancorous, and is almost a liabil­ity to his party. It is Walter who takes determined action.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson