Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Yes, I had Euclid behind me, and I was all set to be a builder. Not just one of your hammer-and-saw carpenters, framing barns and hen-houses and putting up little square hutches for humble people. I burned with ambition, boy, and I wanted that girl, Vanderlip though she might be. But how?

“Get her attention, that’s how. So I joined the church choir. Not much of a voice, but loud and shrewd. After I got to know her she told me I could be heard way above the rest. She said that when it was that old Methodist favourite

Oh for a thousand tongues to sing

My dear Redeemer’s praise,

everybody gave thanks that Will McOmish had just the one tongue. She was a wit, that girl. We didn’t sing difficult music, like the Anglicans; they sang in parts; Tonic Sol-Fa they called it, or some such nonsense. We just sang the tunes, as loud as we could, to pull the others after us. I could see her, down in the church, laughing at me while I strained and hollered. But I got to be a figure in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Loudest voice and pious. I didn’t think much of Reverend Cattermole, the preacher, but I put on a serious face and never missed a word he said, and that counted with her parents. So one day after church Mrs. Alma, Nelson’s wife –very fine woman, always had a fine silk dress — asked me home to Sunday dinner, at the family place, old Justus’s house, the palace of the dynasty.

“I went, and I minded my manners. Didn’t eat like a wolf, though the food was way above the level of my boarding-house. Always said ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you kindly ma’am’ and ‘Splendid victuals these are’ and ‘No more thanks, I couldn’t eat another bite,’ and listened respectfully to the old folks. Old Elizabeth sat at one end of the table and Old Justus sat at the other and all the kin and in-laws on each side. I was the only stranger and I declare I felt I’d been singled out. These were silver-fork people and I minded my p’s and q’s. Never cast a glance at Virginia, down the long table. But before I went home, as soon as I’d et, I shook hands all round, and when I took her hand it was like the handle of one of those electric batteries. So I was emboldened to ask Mrs. Alma if I might call again, and she said of course.

“That was how it began. Before autumn I was walking out with Virginia. Telling her about my ambition, and boast­ing, I guess, as young fellers do with a girl. Those were glory-days, Gil. I don’t imagine you ever felt anything like that. It was unique, as we say of a particular architectural problem.”

Mr. McOmish, in his arrogance and egotism, underesti­mated Gil. Underestimated every young man who has ever been in love. Gil could hear his mother’s voice, raised in the words of Ossian:

Fair rose the breasts of the maid, white as the bosom of a swan,

rising graceful on swift-rolling waves. It was Colna-dona of harps,

the daughter of the king! Her blue eyes had rolled on Toscar, and

her love arose!

“So at last it come to the point where I had to speak to Nelson Vanderlip and ask for Virginia. By the Eternal, Gil, but I was scared! I don’t suppose anybody in all history has been so scared. He had a black silk waistcoat, and a watch with a fob with a good many seals on it, and old-fashioned whiskers; not a beard but big fuzzy things growing out of the side of his face. What sailors call bugger-grips, whatever that means. And he sat there after a Sunday dinner, in the parlour, just looking at me with his eyes half-shut.”

Yes, thinks Gil, just the way you looked at me when I asked for Malvina. And you told me not to think above my station, you — you failure!

“It worked out, though. He said I’d have to wait. Prove myself. Serve seven years for Rachel, he said; he was full of Bible sayings. But that was all I needed. He hadn’t said No. I suppose he saw the good stuff in me. Knew I was a sure thing.

“Soon it was all round the family, and they were nice about it, except for Cynthia, who was the only girl still not married, and with a game leg, and a disposition like a box of broken bottles. And I set out to prove myself. And by the Eternal, I did!

“Had to get away, of course. I’d learned everything that could be learned there. Went to Hamilton, and got myself taken on by a really big builder, one of the Depews. And there I learned not only joinery but a lot of the cabinet-work and the real heart of building. And everything I did profited by the reckoning I could do, because many a good workman’ can’t reckon for sour apples. Haven’t got the head for it. Because it’s a gift, you see. Any fool can learn the basics, but they can’t apply them. Can’t see where they fit into a piece of work. And I did some very sweet work for the Depews, till I knew the time had come to go and claim my bride from Nelson Vanderlip. I’d saved. Scrimped and denied myself, and in that whole five years I only got to see Virginia five times, but she was true to me. Pretty true, I suppose I should say.

“Not that she strayed. Not a particle. But she was young and lovely and young fellows hung around, and there was one schoolteacher wrote her some poetry, and she showed it to me and we laughed over it. I should have heeded that, Gil. What kind of woman laughs at a man’s heart, however rotten his poetry is? I found out, later on, when it was too late. But I laughed with her. ‘He may be a half-cut schoolteacher, but he’s a flat-cut poet,’ I said, and I thought I was pretty smart. Lucky devil, he was, though he moped a good deal when she gave him the gate.

“Not that he ever got near her. It wasn’t the fashion of the day. I was her accepted sweetheart, but I hardly dared put my arm around her, and as for the kissing — I tried that once but she jumped away mad, and said, ‘You mustn’t kiss me without you ask me first, because I mightn’t want it.’ Jackass that I was, it never occurred to me that if she loved me the way I loved her, she darned well ought to want it. We had great ideas about the purity of girls in those days. They didn’t want it and they didn’t want it after marriage, a lot of them, and how they ever had babies I couldn’t figure, but I found out later.

“So at last I had a few hundred dollars, and Virgie and I were married in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and there was a big supper at the Vanderlips’, and I was astonished to find how many relatives I had all of a sudden, and how kind of few-in-the-pod my parents looked as they sat at that table, which had been moved out into the yard for the occasion. I made a speech that I’d sweated over, about how good it was of the Vanderlips to let their last daughter go to a poor feller like me, but how I’d try to be worthy of her. For our honey­moon we went to Buffalo on the old stern-wheeler Red Jacket. I don’t recommend a stern-wheeler or Buffalo for a honey­moon.”


All of which, as Mr. McOmish talked, was unfolded before me on the screen, so much more revealing than anything he said. Because he was the narrator, of course, I saw that the Vanderlips were glad enough to be quit of their sharp-tongued daughter, and now that Cynthia — not the most desirable of brides, because of that short leg she got when it was caught in the wheel of a hay-wagon — was married to Daniel Boutell, who was a showy fellow with a big moustache, who travelled in dry-goods — they had at last discharged their nineteenth-century parental duty to their children.

Before the buggy with the ribbons tied around the whip took off for the steamboat wharf, Nelson Vanderlip handed William an envelope, with a richly paternal smile, for it con­tained Virginia’s marriage portion, a cheque for twenty-five hundred dollars, and not a trivial fortune in terms of the times and the bridegroom’s deserts.


Some grey warrior, half blind with age, sitting by night tells

now his deeds to his son, and the fall of the dark Dunthalmo.

The face of the youth bends sidelong toward his voice.

Surprise and joy burns in his eyes! . . . I gave him the white-

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Categories: Davies, Robertson