Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend

Can daunt his spirit;

He knows he at the end

Shall life inherit.

I rejoiced, though I think I would have trembled if I could have known how prophetic the words were. I took the hymn as a splendid compliment.

His first avowed intent

To be a pilgrim.

Yes, I suppose now that I no longer had to pretend to a Canadian modesty, which can sometimes sink to a Gee Whiz, Aw Shucks simpletonism, the hymn told of what I had meant in my life, whenever I could collect my thoughts together enough to discover a meaning. I had wanted some self-recognition, as a path to — to what? In what path had I been a pilgrim? Was I now to find out?

The hymn gave nobility to the service. Farce was pro­vided by the Publisher of the Advocate, who spoke the eulogy. He did not know me; I suppose I had shaken hands with him half a dozen times at newspaper functions. But he had been assured by the Editor-in-Chief and also by the General Man­ager that he ought to make an appearance and a strong state­ment on this occasion, because of late there had been two or three assaults on newspaper men — cameras broken, some shoving, one punch on a sensitive newsnose — and here we had a murder. It is part of the received wisdom of the press that newspaper men, like priests and pregnant women, should be immune from violence, however much they may be thought to provoke it, and somehow the idea had taken hold among the great ones of the Advocate that my profession had something to do with my murder. The killer was not a frightened, probably doped, hoodlum; he was surely some outraged poet or affronted actor who had sought revenge for being sorely wronged in the entertainment pages of the paper. There must be a stop to such enormities, and the Publisher, as the principal figure in the hierarchy of the paper — not to speak of the moneybags — was the man to speak out for the profession.

The Publisher, however, was no speaker. He was a finan­cier of the backroom type, a small, stone-bald, unremarkable man whose money commanded great power. The eulogy had been written for him by the Editor-in-Chief, who had col­laborated with the General Manager on the purple paragraph which spoke of the iniquity of killing a newspaper man. Surely this was an attack on freedom of speech, and on that much touted and widely misunderstood windegg, the free­dom of the press? In the fuss that had followed my death, Esme’s statement to the police that the man had been sur­prised and frightened, and had pretty clearly been a robber and not a vengeful artist, had been forgotten.

The eulogy was typed for the Publisher in large print, but he made a bad job of reading it. There was a paragraph, surely written by McWearie, that spoke of my intellectual interests, which had lent distinction to the Entertainment section. This was handsome, for the paper had the traditional journalistic fear of scholarship as being over the heads of its readers. But as I was dead, a whiff of scholarship could do no harm, so long as it did not give my successor dangerous ideas. The eulogist spoke of my concern with metaphysics, which was also described as scholarly. Nobody but McWearie knew that I cared a damn about metaphysics, or that I was no more than a bewildered amateur in that murky realm. But McWearie had, with the kindest intentions, put the best face on the long conversations, descending often to undignified wrangles, which I had had with him in his office. McWearie deserved to be called a metaphysician, for he had given the best of his life to such speculation, and he was my tutor, and not, as the eulogy suggested, an equal in those talks. I was grateful to Hugh for his kind words, and was even persuaded that I had been a little more intelligent than I had supposed. I have always thought of myself as an unappeasably curious, but not particularly bright, fellow in my concern with things of the spirit.

It was in McWearie’s paragraph that our Publisher came to grief. There were words he did not know, and had not asked his secretary to look up for him. He had sought no guidance about pronunciation. I could tell from his struggles that he had not even troubled to look over the eulogy until the time came for him to read it. So he emerged as the clown of the funeral, and even people from the sports and advertis­ing departments, who were certainly not themselves metaphysicians, stopped weeping or looking grim, and could hardly control their laughter as he struggled and fumbled through what was supposed to be an expression of his per­sonal estimate of a valued employee.

Thus my funeral might well have ended as a farce, if Esme had not redeemed it by a fine stroke — or what seemed to everybody present except myself to be a touching gesture. Touching is the proper word, for as the parson spoke the committal, she stepped out of her pew and laid a gently caressing hand on the coffin, above where my face might be presumed to be, and then returned to her seat with finely controlled emotion. A flash! An alert photographer had cap­tured the moment for tomorrow’s Advocate. Widow’s Farewell.

It was at this moment that I heard my mother gasp. She and my father had been self-possessed and dignified; they had not smiled at the Publisher’s performance. But Esme’s bit of theatre was almost more than they could endure. Poor dears, I thought, they are beginning to look old. I had not noticed it before. And certainly they had never “taken” to Esme, though relations between them were civil. They were the saddest, and least demonstrative, people at my funeral.

There was a muted humming of machinery, and my coffin moved slowly toward the doors beyond which pre­sumably lay the furnace, or the antechamber to the furnace, and the Publisher, nudged by the General Manager, took Esme’s arm and led her out of the chapel.

Am I cynical about this final farewell by a grieving wife? I suppose, as in so many situations in life, I was both right and wrong. She had loved me once, I am sure, but she had never been greatly demonstrative, and certainly not in public. She walked firmly, gracefully, solemnly out of the chapel on the arm of the Publisher — not easily managed, for he was much shorter than she was — without a glance at the spot where, in the third row of seats, Randal Allard Going was making an ass of himself.

He had broken down and was sobbing noisily. Two women colleagues assisted, and indeed almost manhandled, him toward the door. One of them had to recover and press upon him his famous walking-stick, without which he was never seen in public. The murder weapon, and now he could never be rid of it.

I was laughing uncontrollably as I joined the procession, right behind him, so that I should not miss a snivel or a tear. I was a free spirit, free to go wherever I wished. I did not want to go with my body beyond the crematory doors. This scene from life’s unceasing comedy was too good to be missed.


Now that the excitement of the funeral and the inquest is over, I have time to take stock of myself and my situation. Immediately a philosophical, or metaphysical or perhaps merely physiological question arises: what self am I talking about? And why do I speak of “having time”? My sense of time has gone; day and night are one to me; there are periods — long, so far as I can judge — of which I have no awareness. I have no substance. I have looked in vain in the mirrors in my apartment for my reflection, and there is none. I have no physical appetites but I have keenly experienced emotions; no hunger, no drowsiness, but a mounting anger tempered with hilarity as I watch the misery of my murderer.

I have not yet tested my powers, for I am still a green hand at this business of death, and I have no clear idea of what my powers may be. Can I haunt Going? I have never given any consideration to the matter of haunting before, and what I recollect from ghost stories does not especially appeal to me. To be a crude spectre, appearing in doorways or discovered squatting by the fireside when people enter rooms, is out of the question for such a spirit as I. My intended prey lives in an apartment, and has no fireside; I shall certainly not make a fool of myself squatting by his thermostat. No, no; the con­ventional ghost business is not for me.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson