Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Sunday dinner after the great service of inauguration shows me in brief what is wrong with the McOmish family. They walk home, William in glory, for he has been congratu­lated again and again on the steps of the church — his church! As soon as they reach their home, which is the spacious, hideous house that I have already seen, stripped of its fur­nishings and without fire, as Gil and Mr. McOmish talk their way through a long winter’s night, Virginia goes to her bedroom, to take off her hat, an uncompromising black straw. William follows her, steps behind her as she looks in the mirror, and attempts to kiss her.

“Oh, don’t maul me,” she says, and twitches away from him. I see jealousy in her face. His face shows humiliation and anger, as he walks away, and down the stairs, where not one of his daughters has a word to say to him. Caroline feels that she should say something, some word of praise for the great church, but the three girls have been so rigorously indoc­trinated by their mother and Aunt Boutell, that she cannot do so. When you think what Ma has to go through, day after day, it would be disloyal to show any warmth toward Pa. Nor does Pa invite warmth, however much he may desire it.

Rhodri Gilmartin is joining the McOmish family for Sunday dinner. He is the unwillingly accepted suitor of Malvina. Neither of the other girls has a beau, so they unite to make great sport of Rhodri, and I see that it is not pretty sport. Jealousy, and a hinting, sniffing, smirking suggestion that there is something not quite nice about the whole busi­ness of being engaged, lie behind the sport. When dinner is over — roast pork, boiled potatoes, applesauce with the pork, squash pie, and what would now be called doughnuts (but which the McOmishes call fried cakes) consumed in silence and washed down with strong tea — Malvina and Rhodri are permitted to retire to the parlour. They sit on the sofa together and converse discreetly, because they are aware from various scrapings and sniggerings that Caroline and Minerva have pulled a chair up outside the door of the parlour, and are peeking at them through the transom. To see — what? Nobody would ever say what it was, but it might be some­thing that God has somehow made necessary, but of which God certainly has no reason to be proud.


The great church having been built, the great church must now be paid for. Of course several rich men of the congregation had pledged money before the first sod was turned, but the pledges would not cover a third of what the great church had cost. That gave no concern to anyone. Of course the church must have a mortgage for, as the Reverend Wilbur Woolarton Woodside very wisely said, a church without a mortgage is a church without a soul. Without a mortgage to be paid off, how could the congrega­tion be spurred to organize all the bazaars, fowl suppers, home-talent concerts, and other affairs that would raise money, and also generate Christian enthusiasm? If people cannot be goaded into doing something for the church, they may quite probably lose their zeal for the church. As the pastor put it, they might be at ease in Zion, and nineteenth-century Protestantism had no use for ease. Not a particle. Stress and struggle was what was needed to keep people alive in their faith. A mortgage; pointed toward that great day in the distant future when the mortgage would be paid off, and a great service organized so that the congregation might see the mortgage burned, by the minister and his elders. They would, in a few months, inaugurate a new fund to build a Church House, for young people’s meetings, Sabbath Day school, and a round of bazaars, fowl suppers, and home-talent concerts which had formerly taken place in the church basement. People must be kept at the job of raising money, or they may forget Christ.

Just at the moment, however, a lot of bills have to be paid and of course those bills must be shaved as close as can be contrived. William McOmish, that great man, has built a splendid edifice, but as the elders and the minister remind him, it has run way over the estimate. But there never was an estimate, says William. He didn’t take any stock in estimates, which were always wrong. He simply did the best work possible, cost what it might. Was anything else fit for God’s service? Certainly not, reply the elders, some of whom are bankers, but we have to keep our feet on the ground. So how about reducing some of these bills for timber, and decoration, and lighting, and a furnace, and that huge bell — first-class bell, of course, but who would have thought a bell could come to so much — and of course the vengeful bill the offended archi­tect has rendered for his part of the planning? How about it? Surely Mr. McOmish, a bred-in-the-bone Wesleyan, can do something?

What William can do is sharply limited by what his suppliers will do, and several of those suppliers are not Wesleyans, and want all their money. It comes out that he has even bought some fine mahogany from a Catholic firm, and what could you expect from such want of prudence as that?

Pride is a costly possession. That is doubtless why the Bible is so rough on pride, and why it is first among the Deadly Sins. William is too proud to stick out for full pay­ment. He won’t give it to the elders to say that he has to have money to keep his business going. That sort of close reckon­ing is mean, and nobody has ever said, or ever will say, that William McOmish is mean.

So he cuts what he can, and that means, in the end, that he cuts his profit to next to nothing at all, and all his fine carving, and concealed dovetailing, and superfine finishing are for the greater glory of God and, as a minor matter, for the ruin of William McOmish. The nights pass when he figures and figures — and he is too gifted a figurer not to know what lies ahead. Ruin. Lesser men, who cannot figure so brilliantly as he, but who will not reduce their bills, will not suffer, or not suffer extremely, but he knows he is finished. No; never finished. He can build again, and perhaps build better. But he will have to have credit at banks, and he detests credit, which puts him in the power of little men whom he despises.

Needs must when the Devil drives. And this is not his personal devil, that makes him a remarkable man, but the Great Devil, Old Horny himself, who is the Contrary Des­tiny of so many proud folk.

William, not looking at all like a petitioner, confronts Mr. Bond, a powerful banker and a hard-praying Wesleyan, one of the real old school who may be heard to murmur Amen and Praise the Lord, during an especially powerful sermon.

“Oh, Mr. McOmish, times are not as prosperous as they may appear, and we have to be particularly careful at present about loans. And you are asking for a long loan, of course. Speaking simply for myself, there is nothing I should like more than to oblige you, but as a banker — no — I fear I could never justify it to my Board. It’s not a personal matter; it’s policy, you see.”

Thus it is also with Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Nickel, Wesleyans and bankers both, and elders of the church William had built. It isn’t personal, it is policy, that holy word.


It is at this time that Wil­liam meets with Mrs. Julius Long-Pott-Ott on Colborne Street, as she is stepping into her fine barouche; Sam Clough, her coachman, is holding open the door for her, and her foot is on the step. But she turns toward William, who has raised his hat.

“Oh, Mr. McOmish, I hoped to meet you! I have so much wanted to congratulate you on the new Grace Church. A truly fine building! Gives our little city a whole new appearance. And it makes me prouder than ever that it was you who built my house.”

“Very good of you to say so,” says William. But he does not smile. Is anybody watching him talking to this fine lady, whose scent of violets he detects? Will there be any talk if he is seen with her, lallygagging right in the street?

“I’ve thought –” says Mrs. Long-Pott-Ott, “I’ve thought now and then, that I’d like a new interest. If you ever considered becoming a limited company — everything in your control, of course, but with a source of capital — I’d be glad to talk about it.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson