Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Never thought of any such fool thing,” says William brusquely.

Mrs. Long-Pott-Ott has been snubbed and she knows it. But she is too clever and too rich to show resentment. Fur­thermore, she knows a thing or two, and is what the town calls “long-headed.” She smiles, and she has nice teeth, as well as hair that receives more than local attention.

“Well, think about it now,” says she. And steps lightly into the barouche.

The hussy, thinks William. To propose such a thing in the street! A sleeping partner — because that’s what every­body would call it. William McOmish has taken Louida You-Know-Who as a sleeping partner! The filth! No use even thinking what Virginia would say if she heard about it, even as a suggestion. A man as a sleeping partner, that’s business. But a woman! The business term takes on quite another significance, breeds filthy talk.

Meanwhile Ruin. What else was there?


Like so many people who are obsessed by their personal problems, it never occurs to William that anyone else may be aware of them. But when William is known in every drugstore in town, and visits some of them as often as twice a week, with his somewhat dog­eared prescription signed by Dr. George Harmon Vanderlip, his brother-in-law, he cannot expect it to be a secret. Drug­store clerks will talk; they know who puts faith in a special liver-pad, who drinks Peruna Tonic for Female Complaints (presumably unaware that it is simply sherry with a few herbs to make it bitter), who favours which of the sixty or more cathartics that they have on their shelves; much of their social success depends on their seemingly unwilling revelations of these interesting facts. And they know who asks for morphia. Asks for it repeatedly. Morphia is not a restricted medicine, although some caution is advised in supplying it. But when a man has an open prescription from a well-known physician, is a drugstore clerk to raise a question?

Thus everybody knows that William McOmish is an opium-eater. The expression has a horrendous, darkling sound, greatly appreciated by the gossips. Of course William does not eat it, nor does he smoke it, or drink it as do the users of laudanum. He injects it, for a reason that seems to him, and to Dr. George Harmon Vanderlip, his wife’s own brother and surely a man to be trusted, to be entirely sufficient. William is an asthmatic, and has been one since childhood, the illness increasing until it becomes intolerable.

So it was that the evil day came, several years ago, when Dr. Vanderlip, having given William a relieving jab in the solar plexus, said: “It’s absurd, Will, for me to have to come here to inject you every time you have one of these spells. I’ll give you an open prescription and a syringe, and you know by now what has to be done. The dose should be kept as low as possible; never more than seven grains a day, at most. And only when you need it, of course. You’re a man of good sense. You’ll be all right.”

William was not all right. The pressure of business, the excitement of doing his finest work, and the misery of his domestic life make his “spells” more frequent, and long before he has finished the great church he is taking thirty grains a day and often more. He needs it in order to keep himself up to the mark, because under the pressure of work he finds himself becoming dull when he needs to be sharp for his calculations. Sometimes his hands tremble, and a man with trembling hands is not in any state to do hidden dove­tailing. Also his digestion is in bad order; he has a sour stomach, and he belches when he has eaten nothing and therefore has nothing to belch about. His natural irritability is becoming uncontrollable and he snarls when he does not mean to snarl. Almost the worst thing is his constipation; he takes a highly regarded aperient, a real blaster, but it is power­less, and his straining in what is delicately called “the little house” seems sometimes as if it would rupture him, and his heart protests.

All of these things are plainly the result of demanding work, and his only recourse is to the syringe and larger doses of his one friend, who brings calm, freedom from worry, freedom from pain, freedom from the terrible gasping when his lungs are filled to bursting with air which he cannot force out, when his head seems about to burst, and when he is afraid of death. Yes, afraid of death; he, a strong, highly intelligent, resourceful and skilful man.

It is astonishing that he thinks nobody notices. But as he laboured at the great church the Reverend Wilbur Woolarton Woodside and the banker-elders saw his inexplicable excitement, and his strange eyes, and because the word had seeped up through the social structure from the drugstore clerks, they know what is wrong. Mrs. Julius Long-Pott-Ott, who has broad experience of husbands and knows a man with a secret when she sees one, guesses what is wrong. But nobody likes to speak to Mr. McOmish about it, because he is forbid­ding and has a sharp tongue. And nobody speaks ill of Dr. George Harmon Vanderlip, because nobody who is not at least equally loaded with science and arcane knowledge likes to criticize a doctor. Doctors rank just below parsons in their special sanctity.

Bankers, too, are priestly men; priests of Mammon, that popular deity. Bankers never talk. Of course, being human, they may murmur something to their wives, who may say something under the seal of strict confidence to a friend. How then does the news spread so quickly that William McOmish, long known to be an opium-eater — that poor woman, those sad girls — is on the brink of ruin? Even more astonishing, that Louida Long-Pott-Ott has offered to bail him out, and he bit her nose off, right on Colborne Street. So Sam Clough says, to a few confidential friends, strictly under the rose, of course.


Like Gil, I am growing rest­less under the unrelenting, self-justifying narrative of Mr. McOmish. Like Gil I sense that there must be other ways of looking at this story. Now, suddenly there flashes on the screen what is plainly a group photograph of a family reunion; out-of-doors on a farm lawn, about forty or more men and women are standing in front of a house, from the upper windows of which hangs a banner which says, “Wel­come Vanderlip-Vermuelen-Gage Family.” The colour is sepia — a light gingerbread brown. In the back row stand the men, most of them with their arms folded; the only fat one is obviously the detrimental Dan Boutell, and he is also the best-dressed. In front of them are the women, in chairs, dressed in everything from what was fashionable at the time and the place back to garments well-preserved for fifty years and perhaps longer. Among them I recognize my grand­mother as a young woman, her gaze concentrated by a pince-nez; she is the only one of the group who wears spectacles. In age they range from youth to two old women, at the extreme ends of the row, who wear the frilled white caps, the shawls and the ample black skirts of a much earlier day. Sitting at their feet are children, the little girls dressed heavily and wearing button boots; the boys wear roundabouts, breeches, Windsor bows, black stockings and button boots as well. They all stare fixedly at the camera, except for one blurred child who has moved during the “time exposure,” of at least twenty seconds, demanded by the photographer.

I know them instantly, and with a certain shock. These are my forebears, on my father’s side, at least, and a severe group they seem to be. Is the severity the result of the “time exposure”? Is it merely the fashion of the day? Or have these people no wish to seem happy and approachable? It is easy to identify William McOmish, whose scowl marks him as a man to be reckoned with, a man of intellect, a man who can cast stairs that would defeat a lesser builder. But there are others whom I recognize, from half-remembered family tra­dition. There is Great-great-grandfather Nelson (born Tra­falgar year), a beard well down on his chest, standing behind his wife, Alma Devereux; at the far left of the women’s row, that she-ancient must be Granny Sands, his great-aunt, whom he likes, purely in jest, to threaten with his buggy-whip. (“I’m going to touch you up, Granny; here I come; step lively, Granny. Dance, Granny!” “Oh, git along with you Nelson. He-he-he, my dancing days are over Nelson, and you know it!” “Come on, Granny, give us a little jig!”) Nelson was the joker of the party. The man with the long scar on his face must be Bug Devereux. So called because, when he was seventeen, his face swelled hugely and at last burst, and a great black bug crawled out of it, spread its wings, and flew away. It is received belief that at some time an insect must have laid eggs in a small cut on his face, and hatched there, and the bug is his sole claim to distinction. But there is a man widely known as Forty-Pie Doane, because he once devoured forty pies in a church pie-eating contest, and sur­vived, as undefeated champion. He is as thin as a rail, and looks hungry. Only related by marriage but a man of gro­tesque distinction. There is Cousin Flint, short, small-headed, scowling; not a man I should like to meet in a dark wood. There is Ella Vanderlip, celebrated for her goitre, which is indeed prodigious. There is Cynthia Boutell, the sister-in-law whom William McOmish detests with his whole soul. And this old woman at the far right — it cannot be, but it is — Hannah Gage, last of the tribe to remember that long journey from New York to Canada; Aunt Hannah, now well over one hundred if she is a day, and famous for her determination to undertake any disagreeable task — “If any­body has to suffer, let it be me; I’m broken to it” — but who is never allowed to suffer because everybody knows that Aunt Hannah’s life has been a martyrdom to rheumatism, asthma, bad stomach, and immovable bowels. She is the improbable survivor of Anna Gage’s adventurous brood.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson