Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

He has a cousin — in what degree it is difficult to say, but within the nine degrees — who is what is called at the time a colourman. That is to say, he deals in paints, which he mixes himself and applies wherever they are wanted with assur­ances that they will last a lifetime. To this cousin, Ned Thomas, Walter confides his great scheme, and Ned is delighted to assist, for it is directly in his line of work. Thus, after they have all seen their families to bed and said evening prayers in the manner of the time, with Tom Evans, another cousin, Walter and his cronies creep out into the darkness of a Sunday night, and work a transformation in Trallwm. They wear old clothes, and have blackened their faces with soot. With the hardest-drying red paint that Ned Thomas can mix, they paint “Vote for Rendel” on every pavement in the town in gigantic letters.

On Monday morning – a fair-day when the town will be full – there is outrage in every Tory heart. Nothing has been painted on any private wall or building, so nobody has a clear cause for action, but the principal Justice of the Peace hastily assembles four trustworthy citizens to decide what must be done. One of these pillars of society is Walter Gilmartin, and he agrees with the magistrate and the others that this is a very serious matter indeed. An outrage, in fact. His indignation, as might be expected from Walter, is tem­pered with practicality, and it is his suggestion that a group of out-of-work men be assembled and outfitted with brushes and solvent (vinegar is the best they can think of) to cleanse the streets. And so it is. But Ned Thomas’s paint is not to be scrubbed away, and all that market-day the sweating scrub­bers scrub, and Tory partisans urge them to scrub harder, until the whole town reeks of vinegar, and by afternoon the whole town is dissolved in laughter. A novelty has crept into the solemn business of politics and it finds a welcome. Someone has shown ingenuity and spirit. The impertinent mes­sage will not yield, and when voting-day comes Stuart Rendel is elected by a margin which is rather less than 250 votes, but a margin nevertheless, and Castle influence, and Williams-Wynn influence, has been shaken once again.

Nobody ever discovers who the culprits were, and it is not until long after the Gilmartin family has removed to Canada that Walter ever confesses to his sons that he was at the root of the great scandal. Even Janet does not know, for it is not the sort of thing one tells a woman. Twenty years later, when Trallwm has long been a Liberal borough, traces of red paint may still be seen on some of the quieter streets.


Why did the Gilmartins emigrate to Canada? It is John Jethro Jenkins who goes first. He needs to go to those coalfields in which he has sunk quite a lot of other people’s money, to find out why nothing is happening there. He never reaches them, but go to Canada he does, and discovers a new land in which his rhetorical powers and his unquenchable optimism are badly needed. For a time — it is merely to fill in while he looks about him — he accepts (as he puts it) a minor post in a lawyer’s office, and is so delighted by all the prospects that lie before him that at last he sends for Polly and the six children and somehow Walter finds the money for their passage, in the humblest accommo­dation any ship affords. It is not a lot of money, for the children travel at a very low price and the littlest ones travel free, but it is not easily found among the profits of the failing tailor’s shop.

Failing it is, and Walter knows it, but what is he to do? It is not that business is bad; it is much as it has long been. It is payment that is bad, for the depression does not lift, and money is very slow. Even the county families, which have always paid up about once a year, are now forgetful, and Walter hates to dun them. It seems such an ugly thing to do. That he, a stalwart of the Liberal cause, should send dunning letters to highly respected landowners of the Liberal persua­sion is something that goes painfully against the grain with him. That he, who knows Latin and Greek and does mathe­matical puzzles as a recreation, should come down to such a pass is more than he can stomach.

Meanwhile until the blessed day when John Jethro sends for them, there are the Jenkinses.”The Jenkins tribe,” as Rhodri calls them, and is rebuked by Lance. While John Jethro is looking about him in the new land the Jenkinses are still in Walter’s house, where Polly regards herself as a guest; she suckles little Eden, the baby, and, as she says, it takes a lot out of her. She reads novels of an improving sort and The Leisure Hour, while Janet and Liz Duckett do all that is neces­sary for thirteen people. Of course the Gilmartin girls help as much as they can, but they are schoolgirls, and have work of their own.

As for Rhodri, he enjoys all the delights of boyhood. Mr. Timothy Hiles has now sold his school to Mr. Anthony Jones, M. A., and Tony Jones is chiefly interested in playing the flute and dreaming of Miss Guenevere Gwilt, a local beauty who will have a very respectable inheritance when she marries. To delight Miss Gwilt — and other guests, of course — Tony gets up tableaux at Christmas, in which Rhodri figures as Queen Elizabeth the First and, with his red hair, aug­mented by a few “switches” and “fronts,” is thought to be an amazing reincarnation of the great queen. Education is gnawed by the death-watch beetle of aestheticism under the rule of Tony Jones.

Walter does not complain. His hopes are set on his older son, Lancelot, who is doing great things at Walter’s old school and, though it costs him more than he can afford, Walter is determined that Lancelot shall not miss his chance in life, as he did. Lancelot shall figure brilliantly in the examination results and shall go to a university. No deathbed promise shall ruin him, as it has ruined Walter. Already, as a schoolboy, Lance is developing the remote politeness, the immovability, and the gooseberry eye of the Civil Servant.

Can it be managed? Walter’s situation is becoming des­perate. The domestic hullabaloo attendant on the birth of little Eden has told heavily upon him. Polly, a natural mother, is certainly not a compliant one, and her labour is long and clamorous, and is followed by a number of disobliging cir­cumstances; teetotal as she is, she must have porter — the best — to get her milk going, taking it strictly as medicine, with much protestation; she must have quiet in the house, and Elaine and Maude and Rhodri must be sent to Cousin Gringley’s for a fortnight, where they speculate ignorantly about what awful goings-on are attendant on the birth of a child; Polly’s appetite, always hearty, must nevertheless be “tempted” with dainties from the butcher and the pastry­cook. Polly is what anthropologists might call an earth-mother, and so far as she can manage it, the whole earth comes under her domination when she adds to its popula­tion. And somehow it all costs more money than anyone might suppose.

Janet knows that things are bad, but not how very bad, and she prays that Walter may yet get his head above water. Polly reads aloud the exuberant letters that John Jethro sends every week from Canada. Letters written small, and then “crossed” in the economical style of the day, so that they are to be read only with difficulty. In every one of them John Jethro urges Walter to bring his family to Canada. There is a temporary lull, it seems, in the need for coal, but time will take care of that; other opportunities abound and a man of Walter’s abilities will find his feet in a fortnight, and prosper greatly.

Is the fine, winey air of Canada working with deceptive charm on John Jethro’s affected lungs? He grows lyrical as he writes of the new land.


Not without effect. Walter sees, as he puts it to himself, the handwriting on the wall. The biblical phrase is not comforting. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN: Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting. Yes, indeed: wanting several hundred utterly unobtainable pounds. God hath numbered thy kingdom, and fin­ished it. This, it appears, is God’s reward for a man who has been faithful to a promise given to his dying mother. We must not dispute His will. Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. Certainly this will be so very soon, for the Medes and the Persians of Trallwm, themselves hard-pressed for money, will force the action that will get them at least some of what is owing to them. In short, bankruptcy impends. After that disgrace, repeating and compounding the disgrace of Samuel, might the new land offer something of balm for a hurt man?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson