Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Walter confides in Janet, and as always she is hopeful.”Oh, my dear, if Canada does little for us, it might be a wonderful place of opportunity for the boys,” she says, as they lie in their cramped bed above the shop.

For the boys, of course. I know that it is not the fashion of these Victorians to trouble too much about the fate of the girls. Elaine and Maude will do what all good girls do; they will marry good men, like Walter, and live happily, even if in pinched circumstances, forever after.

The parents suppose that their secret is inviolable, but they have reckoned without Rhodri, who is already, at the age of fourteen, long-headed as his father has never been. Rhodri knows that his father has already made the first moves toward that awful journey up the Town Hall steps, and has declared whatever he has that may go to his creditors. Innocent Walter, honest Walter, thinks it must be every penny, the uttermost farthing. But not Rhodri, and he goes to work as soon as the declaration has been made. He knows it has been done, for the boys who go to school with him have heard it spoken of by their parents. The bankruptcy will not come like a bolt of lightning. Walter is too well respected, and his fellow-townsmen are too compassionate, to move rapidly.

That is why Rhodri absents himself from Tony Jones’s slack-twisted school on market-days, and darts to and fro among the crowds, confronting farmers who owe for two, four, and even six suits of clothes, saying, “Excuse me Mr. Thomas (Mr. Jones, Mr. Williams, Mr. Griffiths, or whoever it may be), Mr. Walter Gilmartin would like a word with you, sir, before evening, if it’s convenient.” And the debtors, knowing very well what is in the wind, quite often do have that word with Mr. Walter Gilmartin, and pay something, though never all, of what they owe. They are not treacherous or defaulting men, though they are close with money, when they have it.

“Rhodri, I will not have this. It’s not honest and you know it’s not honest. I can’t explain why — not just at present — but in time you will learn that all my money, wher­ever it comes from, must be put into a certain fund. I am not in a position to collect debts at present. You disgrace me by what you are doing.”

“Pater, it’s the law, and if the law thinks it’s honest, why invent scruples? Anything you can get now doesn’t have to go into that fund you speak of. It’s yours fair and square. Do be prudent, Pater, and don’t think you have to go farther than the law insists.”

The truth of the matter is never admitted between them, and Walter reluctantly acts on the advice of his long-headed son, though nothing in the world would make him say so. Advice goes down the generations, not backward from son to father.

So, at last, there is a little money, and places for Lance and Rhodri are taken in the steerage of a ship bound from Liver­pool to Montreal. Walter, and Janet, and the girls, will follow later, when they can. The money, when it is all in, will just get the Gilmartin family to Canada after the hateful disgrace that follows mounting the Town Hall steps. That day has been set, and nothing can change it.

Godliness begets Industry: Industry begets Wealth. But how — by Who’s doing — does bankruptcy come into the story? Perhaps Heraclitus might have had something to say about that.


I last see the boys on the deck of the S.S. Vancouver. It is the least amount of deck made available to any passengers aboard ship, because it is for steerage passengers. Lance is looking pale and the cold eyes of the embryo Civil Servant are moist.

“I say, Lance, have you got yours safe?”

“Have I got my what, safe?”

“Your fiver. You know, the money. The Mater sewed it into your coat, didn’t she?”

“I’m going to have to use some of it. Sixpence, I expect. Everything on these boats is expensive. But I’ve got to have some ginger ale. I don’t feel at all well.”

“Oh, buck up. Think about Canada.”

“What can I think? I don’t know anything about Can­ada.”

“Well think of that poster at the station. You know, the one with the huge man in smart breeches looking out over a field of wheat.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“You must. You couldn’t forget it. Huge field. Bigger than the whole of the Home Farm at the Castle. Just one field. That’s Canada. It’ll be ripping, you’ll see.”


The Master Builder

Am I at last catching the drift of this film festival which seems to be devised entirely for me? Am I stupid not to have understood that, whatever Allard Going may see and write about for The Colonial Advoc­ate, I am seeing something wholly personal? Unless I am entirely out of my mind, this is something which sets before me the core of my ancestral experience, captured, as a film captures experience, in a narrative that is coherent as what we call real life can never be. But why? Is this what happens to people when they are dead? I cannot tell. I only know that it is happening to me, and the Gages and the red-haired Gilmartins, whom I had known only as names and whom I had dismissed as long dead, seem to have life; and indeed seem to have done much that I may be proud of — I, who had never thought about ancestors, or expected to be proud of ances­tors, while I was living.

This morning, therefore, on the third day of the Festival, I am a lively spirit as I find my way to the cinema that has been reserved for these old films, those jewels from the his­tory of that art which is so much of our time and so generally taken for granted, and so roundly trounced by intellectuals like Going because it does not adopt the wholly serious line he would decree for it if it lay in his power. Going is deeply suspicious of popular entertainment. He wants it to be — no, not educational, and certainly not uplifting, but what he calls “significant,” by which he means full of dainties for such rare souls as himself. What is Going to see this morning?

Apparently it is a real gem, rescued from oblivion by some Norwegian archivist. It is to be a film version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, made in 1939 by the playwright’s grand­son Tancred, and thought to have been lost in the Hitler War and at last seeing the light. I look forward to it, for the play was a favourite of mine when I was able to have favourite plays, and I am thrilled when the first moments of Bygmester Solness flash on the screen, and translations in messy white type appear at the bottom of the pictures. But of course I am not to see it, except in occasional stolen glances, and these become less frequent as I am caught up in the film which is only for me, which is also called The Master Builder, in which the actors — if they are actors — speak in English.

As the film which Going sees is busy with a townscape in which appear buildings, presumably designed and built by Halvard Solness, I am watching another townscape, not at all Norwegian in character. Indeed, I know it to be Canada, and Canada in winter, which is just as bleak as Norway can ever be. My town has the real Canadian look, for there is not a building to be seen that is earlier than 1860 and few so old; it lacks the dignity, the coherence, the sense of importance that even modest European towns manage to convey. Yet it is not without its pretensions, straggling and spotty as it is. There are substantial houses, built as if to endure forever, houses for bankers and well-to-do merchants, and several of these houses are marked by a strong but aesthetically deplorable signature; it is a front window — obviously a parlour window — shaped like a horseshoe. As the camera moves about this Canadian town, which I judge to have about twenty thousand inhabitants, it pauses for a more than passing look at a large and I must say hideous church, built to the greater glory of a grouchy Victorian God. This church is the background to the opening titles. There is no music but the howling of a January wind, which is music of a melancholy kind.

At once we cut — how I am catching the film vocabulary as I watch these things — to a young man who is walking with some difficulty through the night and into the face of the wind, along one of the streets in which large and substantial houses stand side by side with one-storey dwellings, humble and chilly to the eye, that are clad in lumpy whitish stucco, like the droppings of large birds. This is apparently what would have been called a “good district,” though not as good as the district further up the river which borders and defines the town. At the end of the nineteenth century this town has pretensions, but has not fully attained them. The wind is not so fierce that the young man needs to struggle so. I know that it is reluctance to do what lies before him that makes him walk with such uncertainty. But he must achieve his purpose, or he will not be able to face those who have sent him here.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson