Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

bosomed Colmal. They dwell in the halls of Teutha.

Thus the words of Ossian rose, half-understood, into the memory of Gil. Were they apt to this wretched tale of a carpenter and a rich farmer’s girl? To his own situation, lis­tening to Mr. McOmish? It depends, surely, on how you choose to see it.

“Let’s forget the honeymoon and what came of it for a while.” Mr. McOmish is almost genial; the drug is making him expansive. But, oh! how cold the unfurnished room is, and how eerie the light from the lamp. Am I to be here all night, thinks the red-haired young man. He fears Mr. McOmish, and with reason, for his father-in-law has a repu­tation for violence that has ruined his marriage and terrorized his daughters. His servitude to morphia has devoured his substance. His family wish only to be quit of him, and Gil has been sent to get a legal assurance of that. It is plain that nothing will be signed until the tale has been told, and how long will that be? From time to time Gil nods off, to awake with a start to find himself once again facing the terrible old man — old? he is not so old; he is fifty-six or -seven — who has hitched his chair so near to Gil that now they are sitting almost young knee to bony knee.

“I was crowned with success, Gil. Success, that’s to say, in so far as it was open to a man of my talents, a builder who knew his work thoroughly, as few builders do, let me tell you. With Virginia’s marriage portion I was able to set up in business in a solid way. I could command the best workmen and the best materials, and I could get the best out of both. Whatever I built then is standing today, and will stand until some fool pulls it down. Do you know what they say, Gil? They say that a builder who builds houses to last is a traitor to his trade, but that’s scoundrel’s talk. Is there anybody who is anybody who does what he does less than the best he can? Where’s the morality in jerry-building? I was a moral builder, Gil. Always have been a moral man, whatever Virgie may say of me. Virgie was poisoned by old Cynthia Boutell. Virgie isn’t a bad woman, but she’s a sour one. Old Cynthy’s the bad one.

“Right from the start, I was a success, and everybody who wanted good work wanted me. But my great send-off came about eighteen months after I started in business, and that was when I was given the job of building a mansion for Mrs. Julius Long-Pott-Ott.

“That name makes your eyes bug, don’t it? But she was the great social leader of this place, and rich as they come. She’d been Louida Beemer, but she married Mr. Long, who was an old storekeeper with a pile of money, and he choked on a fishbone within a year of the marriage, and not long after she married Mr. Pott, who owned the big China Hall on Colborne Street. Louida was a pretty girl, and a nice girl, too, which doesn’t always follow, but she was either lucky or unlucky in her husbands whichever way you want to look at it. It wasn’t two years before Mr. Pott fell downstairs — he was a secret drinker — and broke his neck. So Louida didn’t even have to buy new weeds, because she could have her mourn­ing for Mr. Long made over. And she looked so fetching in her weeds that the obligatory year was only just up when she married old Ott, who was a German with more money than you could shake a stick at, which he made out of hogs. And there was Louida, three times a widow, with three big for­tunes, and not yet thirty when Ott died — died of too hand­some a wife, people said, but that’s what they always say in such cases — she was such a nice woman that she didn’t drop a single one of her husbands’ names, and Mrs. Julius Long-Pott-Ott she was and still remains, and a real high-flyer with her own saloon.

“The high mucky-mucks insist that it should be called a ‘salon,’ with the weight on the first syllable, but that’s just French for saloon. I always said saloon, and after a while she gave up correcting me. They get together there every Friday at four and they drink tea and talk politics or the theayter till half past five. Very select. Frank Schalopki’s string orchestra plays in the background, and now and again Ida Van Cortland, the actress, puts in an appearance when she’s in town. They accept actresses — married ones. Very open-minded.

“I built the house where all that goes on. There was an architect, a Toronto man, who drew the plans, but I was able to correct a lot of his mistakes. You know — doors that opened into one another, and parts of it that you couldn’t heat, do what you might. He wasn’t pleased to be shown up, but I argued him down, and Mrs. Long-Pott-Ott was on my side. She had a very practical streak, even if she didn’t recognize that her maid, Ola Millard, had been at school with her. Ola used to laugh sometimes, because Louida Beemer had flown so high that she ate what she called her dinner at half-past six at night, when everybody else had et theirs at noon, and had a hot supper at half past five, and she never sat down to it without first making a toilet, which was what she called changing her duds. But for all of that, she was a sensible woman and knew value and good work, and I did my best for her.

“You wouldn’t believe what the ordinary sort of builder would get up to, in those days. One of the great tricks was to finish the doors and joiner’s work in some trash-pine or fir and often not half-seasoned — and then the painter would do it up with a special paint of lead and oil and cinnabar, and it was supposed to look like mahogany, till the heat came on in winter and the balsam began to leak out of it. Dragon’s-blood finish, they called it. Trumpery!

“That was not for William McOmish. Best wood, best workmanship clear through. Didn’t come cheap, of course. The Long-Pott-Ott house came out way over estimate. But what could you expect? The architect found out about my skill with stairs, so he put in a real beauty, standing free of the wall and curved, and when he showed me the drawing I knew he expected me to be flummoxed. ‘Oh yes,’ I said, cool as a cucumber, ‘but this isn’t just your

job, is it? I’ll look at my table of tangents and have it worked out for you in the morning. All those kite-winders call for some careful calculation. And the rail? Secret dovetailing will do it, I reckon. I’ll attend to that myself, to be sure it’s right.’ By golly, you could have knocked him down with a feather. He’d never met a craftsman like me. Consequence of that, I got my way about the horseshoe window in the front parlour. He didn’t want it. Said it was vulgar, but that was jealousy. Mrs. Long-Pott-Ott wanted it, because nobody else she’d ever heard of had one and she said it was a Moorish touch. So in it went, and it became my trademark in every house I built after. You see the one here, in my house, till they come for me.

“After that house there was no holding me. Everybody wanted me. But I didn’t want everybody. I’d only build for people I respected and who respected me. They didn’t need an architect. I could do better than any architect they were likely to find. I did some lovely work. Made wood and brick do things nobody’d ever imagined they could do. There were some in that saloon who said my work was over-ornamented, but what did I care for them? They weren’t the kind of people who build houses. They were the kind of people who infest other people’s houses when they’re built.


“I can look back over a remarkable career. Not only did I build — I advised other builders. Would you believe it, Gil, I was the only man around who knew how to cast a stair? Even a miserable staircase — you know, one of those things that goes up with walls on both sides. They’d struggle and mess around, and in the end they had one riser too high at the top, or the pitch was so steep it was like a ladder, or the treads were too narrow — that’s fatal to old folks, you know — you’d never believe the trouble they could get into with that simple calculation. Because they were just carpenters, you see. It would be crazy to call them builders, let alone master builders, like me. And I put it to ’em, you bet. ‘If you want me to plan your stairs, it’ll cost you twenty-five dollars,’ I’d say, and they’d shrink back as if I’d stabbed ’em. But if they didn’t want a stair that was a disgrace, they had to pay up. I’ve made a hundred dollars in a month, just that way, in my time.

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