Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

He stops in front of one of the houses with a horseshoe front window. This is the one. He goes to the front door, which is at the side, up a few steps, and twists the handle of the bell. He can hear its iron clatter echoing in what sounds like an empty house. He rings until he knows that ringing is useless, then he knocks, and knocks again, and is at last hammering on the dark door. But no one answers.


Resolute, even if un­happy in his resolve, he trudges through the deep snow to the horseshoe window. He shades his eyes and peers inside. Nothing but blackness. And then —

I jump, and I know that the film-maker, whoever he is, has meant me to jump. The young man’s face is almost against the glass, and suddenly there is another face on the other side, nose to nose with his own. A frightening face, for it is framed in lank dark hair; its haggard, wild eyes and hook nose rise above a straggling beard. I know a little about classic films, and it is so like the face of the Russian actor Nikolai Cherkasov, in Ivan the Terrible, that I wonder if there has been some muddle, some mixing of films. Does the face mean to be frightening? A hand is just visible in which a large carving-knife gleams. The young man is frightened out of his wits, but he stands fast, and for the first time since the film began a voice is heard, and it is his.

“Mr. McOmish! Mr. McOmish, it’s Gil! Your son-in-law. Will you let me in? I must talk with you.”

The face continues to stare, but slowly another hand comes into sight, and it beckons; the hand that holds the knife gestures toward the front door. The young man, shaken but determined, trudges back through the snow, and after a pause the door is opened, and the owner of the face, and the knife, may be seen at full length. He wears a nightshirt and a long, shabby brown dressing-gown. His large, scrawny feet are bare.

“You come from the women, I suppose,” says Mr. McOmish and allows Gil to follow him into the dark house, and into the fitfully moonlit front parlour. The cold there is not the blustery cold of outdoors, but a stuffy, still cold that smells of mice. There is not a stick of furniture, but Mr. McOmish disappears into a back room and after a time returns with two kitchen chairs. Then another journey into the darkness and he brings back a coal-oil lamp, and places it on the floor. He gestures to the young man to sit down.”Well?” he says.

“I hope you understand that I come as a neutral person, and not as somebody who wants to take sides,” says the young man.”But there is some business to be done, and Mrs. McOmish and the girls have asked me to talk with you, and get you to sign a few papers, so that everything can be put in legal form. As I am the only other man in the family,” he adds.

“Is that a fact?” says Mr. McOmish.”What about that tribe of Dutch uncles and Dutch brothers? Are they dead, all of a sudden? You, a mere son-in-law, the only man in the family?”

“I suppose they mean in the direct family. Your family.” And then he stops in confusion, knowing how tactlessly he has spoken.

“Man in my family,” says Mr. McOmish with a dis­agreeable smile.”The only man left in the family; is that what they say?”

“Well, something like that,” says the young man.

“You know I never thought of you as belonging to the family,” says Mr. McOmish.”I never completely recognized you as part of my family.”

“But I did marry Malvina,” says the young man.”I would have thought –”

“Yes, I suppose you would,” says Mr. McOmish.”But it isn’t as easy as that. I never thought you were fit for one of my daughters. It was a sneaking kind of marriage. Wasn’t it?”

“Mr. McOmish, I wish you would put that knife down.”

“Do you wish that? Well, my wee man, I’ll put it down. What did you think I meant to do with it? I was just cutting some kindling for the fire when I heard you creeping around outside. I can do wonders with a knife, you know. Or don’t you know? I cut kindling by shaving a stick of cedar till it’s like a feather — all beautiful curls, and all precisely the same width and length. Precisely. But if my knife makes you uneasy I’ll put it right here on the floor, you see. Handy in case I want it for anything.”

“Thank you.”

“No thanks needed. None whatever. No need to be grateful. Not a particle. But I can see you have ideas about my knife. Haven’t you?”

“Oh no. None at all.”

“Don’t lie to me, Gil. She told you I took after her with this knife, didn’t she? Did she tell you how she squawked and shrieked for her old sister, and pleaded with me not to slit her yellow neck? I guess she left that out, when she told you the story.”

“I’d rather not go into that, Mr. McOmish. I want to be as neutral as possible. I’m just here to ask you to sign some papers. That’s all I’m after.”

“And you thought it would be easy, did you? Just catch the old man when he’s in one of his quiet moods and get his name on a few papers. Gil, you know, you’re a simpleton. All you Old Country fellers are simpletons. That’s why I didn’t want you to marry Vina. Only man in the family! Fiddle­sticks! Virgie has an army of Dutch brothers, why didn’t one of them come? Eh? Because they’ve ratted on her, that’s why. So it has to be you. I’ve always despised you Old Country fellers. Stuck-up, know-it-all fellers, every one of you. You know what we say here? ‘You can always tell an Englishman, but you can’t tell him much.’ Doesn’t apply to the Scotch, of course. An entirely different breed of dog, the Scotch.”

“I’ve told you often, Mr. McOmish, I’m not really Eng­lish. I’m Welsh.”

“A poor excuse. What are these papers? I’m a bankrupt, I know it. Been through all that, pestered and questioned by fellers I wouldn’t say How-d’ye-do to in the ordinary way. What papers have you got?”

“Well, if you’ll let me explain — Mrs. McOmish and the girls –”

“And old Cynthia Boutell, I’ll bet.”

“Mrs. Boutell has been with Mrs. McOmish for a few days, certainly.”

“Do you want me to tell you something, Gil? Some­thing you’re too simple to have found out for yourself, I’ll bet. Cynthia Boutell is an interfering, nose-poking, mischief-making old Bee Eye Tee See Aitch. That’s a word I’d never use against a woman except under great provocation. But I use it of Cynthia Boutell. All my life I’ve been against swearing and foul language. But there it is. No other word for her. And you won’t hear me use it again.”

“That’s very delicate of you, Mr. McOmish. But of course these papers have nothing to do with Mrs. Boutell –”

“Gil, anything that’s within twenty-five miles of Cyn­thia Boutell has something to do with her, because that’s how she is. I suppose these papers make over the house to Virgie?”

“The house she and the girls are in at present. It’s all that’s left, I’m afraid.”

“Are you afraid, Gil? I’d be afraid if I was in your shoes. Afraid they’d let me in for supporting the whole boiling of ’em.”

“No, no, Mr. McOmish. The girls have their jobs, you know. They’ll take care of their mother. But the house — I’m sure you see that she has a claim on the house.”

“Is that what the lawyers say?”

“Yes. Everything’s gone, you know. Even this house –”

“Oh, I know that. When they come to get me in the morning it’ll be the last I’ll see of this house. Or any of the fine houses I’ve built in this town. Except I suppose I’ll see ’em from the outside. So Virgie wants that rotten little bunga­low made over to her, does she?”

“She must have somewhere to live, Mr. McOmish, and it seems to be all that’s left. You know what the lawyers said: you are separated but not divorced.”

“No, Gil, nothing of the kind. A marriage is a solemn oath, boy. Nothing can dissolve it. Virgie and I have our differences, but, mutual hatred apart, she’s my wife just as sure as she was the day we were wedded. Even at the worst — and this isn’t the worst, not by a long chalk — she’s my wife. Tell her that. Remind her of that. If she thinks any of this money stuff, or that pow-wow in court has dissolved our marriage, she doesn’t know law. And I do.”

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