Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Any idea how far that was, Gil? No, and I haven’t either, but it was five hundred miles if it was an ell, as the crow flies, and they weren’t crows. Do you suppose they made twenty-five miles a day, through the wilderness, and getting over rivers somehow, and creatures they’d never seen busting through the undergrowth and staring at them? Indians, too, I reckon, and they’d have taken the Indians for enemies, though I don’t suppose they were. Indians are mischievious, and I’ve no doubt at all they played them some tricks. But the ones with the Devil in them made it, and my Devils made it to not far from here. And they worked! How they worked! But it was Heaven for them, because every family had its Location, as it was called, free and clear. No laird to turn them off it at his pleasure. So after some farming my grandparents set up a tavern, and the woman kept the tavern while the man worked the farm. Hard, hard work, but to them it was thriv­ing, after the awfulness of Baldoon.

“It was in that tavern, Gil, that I played when I was a little shaver, and it was from my grandmother’s tavern slate, where they kept score, that I learned to reckon, and reckoning come so easy to me that I’ve lived by reckoning pretty much ever since. I got to be a Devil at reckoning. A lot of the scores were paid off in barter, so you had to have a good notion of values.”

I see the tavern, and the plain dull room that is the bar. Every wall is lined with cupboards, and little William — as he then was — plays at crawling among the cupboards, to see how far he can go from one side of the room to the other, without being baulked by the cases of liquor. There are not many of these, for the whisky and the rum stand in barrels behind the bar, and it is from them that the grandmother — who keeps a very strict barroom and permits no smutty stories or swearing — serves generous measures at a penny a glass. As the whisky is purchased at twenty-five cents a gallon, such a price for a dram yields a good profit. There are jugs of spring water on the tables, but few men want water. The liquor is good, of its kind, but its kind is not the modern kind, for the whisky is given colour and savour by generous additions of tobacco leaf and salt. There are low taverns where whisky contains a little opium, as well, but Mrs. McOmish will have none of that, and “McOmishes” is known to be a decent place. Decent or not, a great deal of whisky is consumed, for the men who come here are farmers who could drink lye without taking much harm, and the travellers in the uncomfortable, bone-racking stagecoaches, who want a potent drink to warm them. But drunkards are warned off, and Mrs. McOmish sears them with biblical admonitions that wine is a mocker, and strong drink is raging. Not whisky, of course. A few drams after a day’s work is no more than a man needs, for his comfort, but orray-eyed drunkards are not tolerated.


Thus Mr. McOmish con­tinues, delighting in detail and scraps of minute information that would have been golden to the young listener if he had been an historian, but he is impatient and his attention wan­ders. What was this long, rambling chronicle like in his experience? In substance, if not in high-flown language, it was like the poems of Ossian, which his dear mother used to read to her children at bedtime. Yes; Ossian, whose tales of long ago and far away had held him spellbound as a child. Ossian, probably a fake, though his mother knew nothing of that, and she loved those fine tales as the great Emperor Napoleon had loved them; the poems of Ossian were what he took with him on his campaigns, and Ossian inspired him to splendid enterprise. But Gil, who has had a difficult day with Mrs. McOmish and the girls, falls asleep, until he almost falls off his hard chair, and starts into wakefulness, to hear what, in Ossian’s bardic vein, would have been a tale of love.

“You’d never believe it, Gil, to look at her now, but when first I set eyes on Virgie she was the loveliest little thing you ever saw. Slim and supple as a willow, and the lightest step — ! Saw her in church, of course. Where else would I meet anybody of her stamp? Old Loyalist family and such? But I’d seen her before church, when she didn’t know it, and I saw her bare foot and it nearly finished me, it was so slim and white.

“You see, we all walked to church — never travel on Sun­day except on foot and to worship — and I was making my way along Fairchild’s Creek, because that was the shortest from the farmhouse where I boarded, and I came on a bunch of five or six girls sitting on the bank of the creek, pulling on their stockings. They walked barefoot until they were almost at the church, y’see, then they washed their feet in the stream and pulled on their shoes and stockings, so they’d not be dusty when they met the congregation. Oh, there was vanity, even among Wesleyan Methodists, let me tell you! You can’t quell vanity, because the Devil won’t have it, that’s why. I heard them laughing, and I didn’t show myself among the bushes, and I peeked. The Devil, you see. I didn’t know what they might be up to, but I wanted to see it. And Virgie was in the midst of the group, waving her bare feet to dry ’em, and chewing something. And do you know what it was? A rib­bon. A pink ribbon and she was chewing it to make it wet and then she was dabbing her mouth with it, to make her lips a pretty pink! The Devil! And I thought that’s the one for me, the girl with the Devil in her! She was sixteen, but she was developed. You know what I mean? Developed, but not over-developed like some of those girls that had breasts like four-quart pails. And that was it. I was a goner.

“But how would a young sprig like me, just out of apprenticeship to a carpenter, get to know a girl like that? She was a Vanderlip, and that meant a lot in those days and in that place.

“Oh, I found out about her, you can bet. Asked every­body, and I thought I was cute and nobody’d guess, but I suppose they did. Love and a cough can’t be hid, as they say. The Vanderlips were part of the Vermuelen and Gage tribe, and they were the biggest people in the district. Old Gus Vermuelen was dead, but he’d made a pile, let me tell you, as a land agent. His sister Anna had died not too long ago, a very old woman, and by Gum she was a tough old party! By the Eternal, she was! Escaped from the Yankees after the Revolu­tion in the States, and licked it up here with her children in a canoe — think of it, in a canoe — and got her Loyalist’s rights in money, and cracked it all into a general store. And she throve, boy, she throve! Richer than Gus, even. Her daughter Eliza­beth was Virgie’s grandmother and Elizabeth married Justus Vanderlip — the Dutch stick to their own, you bet — and Eliza­beth had eleven children: seven boys and four girls, and every one of the boys got to be a rich farmer, or a lawyer, or a doctor, and all with solid money. Even the girls had money promised, when they married. One of the farmer sons, Nelson it was, was my Virgie’s father, and had his own money as well as whatever old Justus might leave him. So who was I to dangle after an heiress? Eh? A young carpenter, just out of apprenticeship? Eh? What was I?

“I’ll tell you what I was, Gil. I had the Devil in me as big as theirs. I could reckon. Not much education, but I made the most of what I had, and I was lucky to have one good schoolteacher, a young feller named Douglas; he was teaching for a year or two to get some money to go to college, as they all did then, and he was a bear for reckoning, and he saw the promise in me and he taught me all he knew. Ordinary reckoning, of course — storekeeper’s stuff — but beyond that he taught me algebra and Euclid. That name mean anything to you?”

Oh yes indeed. Gil had heard of Euclid, the father of geometry. It was at that moment I was certain that Gil was my grandfather. So Mr. McOmish must be my great-­grandfather, the family scandal.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson