Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“But every career has to have a pinnacle, and mine came when the Wesleyan Methodists decided they had to step out in front of the Anglicans and the R.C.s and have the finest church in town. The Wesleyans had always been looked down on as poor folks, but times had changed, and they had some of the solidest people in town in their congregation and they wanted a big, fine church. So of course they got an architect.

“I must say he did a pretty good job. The design was in a style he called Mauro-Gothic. The Gothic part meant that he put in arches and pillars everywhere, though the pillars didn’t hold anything up, and the arches were just for show. And he had an atrium, and he had a belfry, and he had an apse, and a jagged thing up one side of the belfry that he said was Sara­cenic.”

As Mr. McOmish speaks I see the church. Time has given it a charm of its own, though it is a nightmare of needless ornament. All the styles the architect had mixed up in this Mulligan Stew of a building have blended at last; it is a Victorian Methodist Church, and could not be anything else. It looks as if it would defy an atom bomb, and it would cost a fortune to dismantle it. As it appears before me, I see that the Heritage Foundation has put a plaque on it, declaring it to be an architectural treasure. From purse-proud temple to archi­tectural horror to national treasure in a little over a century; a truly Canadian story.

“That architect was a learned man, as architects go, but he was not dealing with learned people but powerful people. So he came to grief. They let him have his way with the outside, but the inside was another matter. They wanted it with a raked floor, for one thing, and he said that was wrong in a church. He wanted a central aisle, and they said, What for? Do you think we are going to have any processions? None of that Romish stuff here. He wanted the Communion Table right in the middle of the apse, and that was intolerable; the pulpit had to be the focus of the church and no nonsense about it. The pulpit, from which God’s Holy Word is expounded to His people. What about tradition, he said, and they said, What tradition? This is our tradition coming right from John Wesley, and we know what we want. He had put the choir at the back of the church in a gallery — in a gallery, can you believe it — with the organ up there too, and the elders of the church just laughed. Listen, they said; our daughters sing in that choir and we want to see ’em doing it. And we’re not paying through the nose for a big Casavant organ with a harp stop and a euphonium stop and even a contraption that makes a noise like a drum and the dear knows what else, to have it hidden in a gallery.

“He sulked, of course, and kind of hinted that they were ignorant. You can guess how that went down with the elders, any one of whom could have bought him up and never noticed the cost. And in the end it was a proper Protestant church, with the pulpit in the middle of the business end, backed by a beautiful set of organ pipes — decorative, of course, because all the real whistles were behind it, made of metal and wood — and the choir in front of it in curved pews, so the congregation could get a good look at ’em and price their hats, and the organ sunk in front of ’em, so that you caught sight of the organist’s head over a red curtain. And then came the real Donnybrook.

“It was just about a piece of carving, that ran over the top of the organ pipes, and made a kind of canopy over the pulpit, to conceal the lights that shone down on the preacher. The architect had designed it to be of carved oak — I was to carve it — and he wanted Ad Majoram Dei Gloriam on it on a back­ground of carved leafage.

“Latin! You could have heard the screams and shrieks clear to Hamilton! Latin! In a Wesleyan Methodist Church! You’d have thought the Pope was going to move in the very first Sunday. It only meant To The Greater Glory of God, of course, but it said it the wrong way. There was a terrible rumpus, and the architect quit.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” they said, but when they had cooled down in the same skins they got hot in they realized that the interior of the church wasn’t finished and they had no architect! Of course the level heads knew what had to be done. They had to call on me to finish the job, and do it properly.

“He’d grabbed up all his plans, and skedaddled, but that didn’t bother me. Not a particle. I could make plans just as well as he could, and in two weeks I had an interior that was just what they wanted. Just what I wanted, too.

“You see, I was the great stair man, and I’d always wanted to build one of those pulpits with a curved stair on either side, so the preacher could have a choice. Go up one and come down the other when he’d finished his sermon. Real style and not a Papist hint about it. They bit. They didn’t know how expensive those free-standing curved staircases could be. But I had ’em where I wanted ’em, because I’d changed the wording on that piece of carving over the pulpit so it read: The Lord Is In His Holy Temple: Let All The Earth Keep Silence Before Him. Very choice and doctrinally correct.

“That’s what I built. The finest mahogany, the real thing — no pine daubed with cinnabar — and the rails of those curved stairs were secret dovetailing such as you’ve never seen — because you weren’t meant to see it. And that piece of carving! I declare it took me a month, because it all had to be in the most almighty-twisted Gothic lettering you ever saw, and so overhung with leafage you couldn’t hardly read it. I even put a wooden dove, right over the preacher’s head, among the leaves. There were mockers who said it looked as if the dove might drop a mess right down on his pate, but they were properly scorned as what they were — mockers. It was a marvel.

“And the first service in the new church was the highest point in my career. I was there, in a frock coat, and at the proper time I offered the plans — not really the plans, which weighed about a hundredweight all told, but a few plans bound in morocco leather — to the preacher, and he blessed them, and made a very handsome tribute to me, as a great Christian builder. I had to have a powerful injection of my medicine that day, I can tell you, or I might have dropped down in a swoon from the sheer glory of it.”

Yes, the scene appears before me even as he speaks, and I can see that William McOmish’s eyes are wild, the pupils so small that they seem like black pinpoints, and he sways a little. He feels the glory of the moment, the people in the packed church think, but Virginia McOmish, and the Misses Malvina, Caroline and Minerva McOmish, who are sitting near, know better and one might almost say that their eyes express fear, as the Old Devil yields up the plans, and returns to the pew, unsteady and breathing thickly.

I have not seen Virginia McOmish since the courtship scenes and as I look at her now I wonder how anyone can ever have thought her pretty. But I look again and see that her features are good, even delicate; it is her expression that chills, so cold, so minatory has it become. In the pew behind her sits her lame sister, Cynthia Boutell; same fea­tures and the same expression exaggerated. She looks, as her brother-in-law often says, as if she could chew nails. Beside her sits her husband, the unsatisfactory Dan; he looks a jolly man, who has spent a good deal of time on his moustache. He wears a large Masonic ring and is running to fat. Of the three McOmish girls Malvina is handsome, for she has her mother’s fine features; Caroline is not at all handsome, for she has carroty hair and a pudding face, but her expression is sweet and diffident; Minerva, the young­est, is plump and pretty but must not be exposed to excite­ment as she suffers from petit mal, and might do something embarrassing.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson