Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Then you’ll sign, Mr. McOmish?”

“Boy, you don’t know what you ask. It isn’t the house, the dear Lord knows. I wouldn’t claim such a jerry-built old razee as that for my own. I’ve built better hen-houses than that, in my young days. But signing isn’t the house. It’s my life, Gil. My life.”

“Mr. McOmish, can I get you anything? You look poorly. Is there any water back there?”

Mr. McOmish is gasping.

“I am poorly, Gil. But I don’t want water. I must have some of my medicine.”

“No, please, Mr. McOmish!”

But Mr. McOmish has risen to his feet and now he is gasping loudly, like a horse with the heaves. The young man is terrified of what he sees, as the older one grows ashy-white. He struggles toward the kitchen, and Gil fol­lows him with the lamp, desperate but quite unable to think of anything he can do to meet this crisis. In the kitchen, on a table, lies a neat package, and Mr. McOmish makes for it with a certainty of purpose that shows he is not so near collapse as he appears.

In the package is a phial and a hypodermic syringe; with the skill of long practice Mr. McOmish fills it full. He drops his miserable brown bathrobe to the ground and lifts his nightshirt up to his neck; but as it bunches up so that he cannot properly see what he is doing, he pulls it over his head and stands in the kitchen, in the half-light, stark naked.

Stark indeed, for he is so thin that his ribs show and his hip-bones protrude. He looks like one of Grünewald’s horri­fying Christs; that is something I know, and that the film-maker certainly knew, but which Mr. McOmish and Gil do not know. His diaphragm is covered with tiny spots of dried blood, and looks like nothing so much as a pincushion. He stabs the needle into his flesh with a little whimper, and pushes the plunger home slowly. He withdraws the needle, and wipes it carefully on the fallen nightshirt.

“These needles getting dull. Have to rasp them up,” he says, in a far-away voice, as if to himself.”Help me dress, Gil; can’t stand here bare-naked. Glory, it’s cold.”

Indeed it is cold. Gil helps Mr. McOmish to put his gown and his robe back on, and assists him into the parlour, to one of the kitchen chairs. Gil sets the lamp on the floor, and takes the opportunity to put his overcoat back on.”Do you feel well enough to sign now?” he says.

“Give me a few minutes, so the medicine can work. No hurry. Not a particle. I want to talk. There aren’t many I can talk to, but I’m going to talk to you, boy. You’ve got to know what’s what. You think I’m an old devil, don’t you? That’s what my daughters call me. The Old Devil. Don’t dispute it. Isn’t that what Vina calls me? Eh?”

Gil does not reply.

“See? You daren’t deny it. In a court of law, you couldn’t deny it. Their mother taught them that. Virgie has turned my own flesh and blood against me, to call me an Old Devil. Do you know how I got to be an Old Devil?”

Gil shakes his head.

“Well, you’d better know that they’re right. I am an Old Devil, now, and when I was young I was a Young Devil, which is a totally different thing. I wouldn’t give a York shilling for any feller that hadn’t some devil in him. I’ve always had plenty of devil, and I came by it honestly. Do you know how I come to be here? Here with you? Sitting on this poorly made chair?”

Gil shakes his head again. Mr. McOmish is amazingly recovered, and is sitting up quite straight on the wretched chair. His eyes glow and his voice is resonant in its nineteenth-century Ontario speech — sharp, clear, Scottish with a Yankee twang and now and then a whisper of Irish. He gestures, jabbing a forefinger at Gil, extended from a hand that is plainly that of a superior craftsman, a strong, skilful, big hand with knotty knuckles and strong black hair on the phalanges. On this skeletonic wreck of a man the hands, like the head, are still impressive.

As Mr. McOmish speaks the pictures leave the parlour and show me what he is talking about. But his voice explains them. I believe movie people call this Voice Over. It is illus­trated narrative, and Mr. McOmish’s tale is gripping.

As for poor Gil, he is slumped, in so far as a strong young man can slump, on his comfortless wooden chair. He cannot escape the narrative of Mr. McOmish, his father-in-law and a self-confessed Old Devil.


“Long ago and far away,” says Mr. McOmish, and Gil can hardly believe this bardic introduction to what surely cannot be a heroic tale, “my people, my ancestors — yes, I’ll call them ancestors because there’s no reason in the world why only big people should have ancestors and people like me have none and be robbed of our past — lived in Scotland, right up in the north­ernmost part of the West. They were farmers. Crofters, they called them, and a lot of them were shepherds, as well. Had been since Noah saw the waters subside, I’d reckon. But for some consarned legal reason, that nobody ever wholly understood, the local big man took the land and what do you suppose he did that for? To turn it into moors where he could pasture his sheep, that’s why. And that was when this country needed settlers. It was a hundred and fifty years ago, or more. Probably more because I don’t know exactly. So the local big man heeded the call given to him by an even bigger man — Lord Selkirk, he was, and very kindly assisted the people off the farms to go to the New World, as they called it then, to make their fortunes. There were fortunes everywhere in the New World, for the taking. And off they went, crowded into a sailing-ship.”

I see the crofters and shepherds, with their bundles, being rowed out to the ship, which is certainly small enough. They are clothed in homespun, and are the colour of the earth. The very earth of Scotland is being moved to the New World. The children are rosy, but the faces of their fathers and mothers are already brown and marked with hard work. The clothes they wear are not picturesque Highland dress. Not a kilt is to be seen. But they wear the blue bonnet, and their cloaks are plaids, sure enough, not in the tartans of a later date, but in dark browns and black-and-grey checks. A sober people, dark and thrawn as their own soil.

I see something else. This is an indoor scene, in what is doubtless the Big House of the district, though it looks meagre enough, and there sits the laird on one side of a table and on the other is a man who looks like a lawyer, and whose speech shows him to be an Englishman. The laird signs a paper — he is not a ready hand with the pen — and the lawyer pushes over to him a bag which chinks as it moves on the table. I know that in the bag there is a guinea for every crofter the laird has cajoled or bullied into the ship; a guinea for every woman. Nothing at all for the children, who do not count. There are far more than thirty pieces of silver in that bag, but the laird, though he is a truly religious man, never thinks it is the price of betrayal. These are pieces of gold, and his reward for assisting his country to people the new lands to the West.

“Do you have any idea where those poor wretches were headed for, Gil? It was a terrible place, in swamp land north of Lake St. Clair, called Baldoon, after Selkirk’s place in Scotland, and they were invited, oh so genteelly, to take up farms. What could they have farmed? Not sheep, unless the sheep grew webbed feet and turned to a diet of reeds and grass that was as sharp as knives. And cold! Scotch cold is like a cold linseed poultice all over you from head to foot; but this cold was like being slashed every quarter of an inch of your body with sharp razors.”

And indeed the screen shows me something of that cold place and I can sense the raw chill, spirit as I am.

“But there were some of those Scotchmen who had the devil in them, and they saw half the shipload die in the first winter of cold and starvation and even phthisis, but mostly of misery and exile, and they made up their minds to get out. There must be something better than Baldoon, even in this God-forsaken country, they thought. So when spring came, they set out to walk — to walk, mind you — south-east. Not knowing south as anything but a portion of the compass. Not knowing what there was in the south, except that it had to be a better land for sheep than Baldoon. So they walked, and they walked, and men carried bundles of a hundred and fifty pounds weight, and women carried children who were too little to walk, and they lived on God knows what — oatmeal, I suppose, and what roots they could find that weren’t evil to the taste — and those that didn’t die on the way made it. And my great-grandfather made it, and I had the tale from him. Often and often.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74

Categories: Davies, Robertson