Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Some in the picture have dim remembrance, through family legend, of Hannah’s brother Roger, who had died at the Battle of Queenston Heights, in 1812, repelling the Yan­kee invaders who had come to liberate Canada from the British yoke and got a surprise. Roger’s name is on the mon­ument on that victorious field. But virtually everyone in the picture remembers Grandmother Elizabeth herself, who, with her husband Justus Vanderlip, grew richer even than old Anna, from clever shopkeeping and land deals, and never allowed the memory of her brave brother Roger to grow dim. Elizabeth, in the memory of all in this picture, finished her life as a smiling matriarch, sitting in her parlour, passing the time agreeably with pinches of snuff from her tortoise-shell box, interspersed with peppermints from her other box, which was of real old American silver, brought from New York and one of the two treasures to make that far-off voyage. Eliza­beth left the management of her household to her four daughters, while she gloried in the achievements of her seven sons — farmer, lawyer, doctor, two parsons, and two members of the newfangled Legislature (with their hands, said the envious William McOmish, deep in the pork-barrel). Is it by chance alone that none of these are present at this family affair? Busy men, of course, but surely they could have put in an appearance.

My forebears. I know that I am blood of their blood and bone of their bone, but they seem as far off and strange as so many Trobriand Islanders. Their clothes are good. That is to say, they are of hard-wearing, sturdy materials. But who can have made them? They do not seem to fit anywhere, and they have never known the touch of the presser’s goose. The men wear vast cravats, and some of the older ones wear black satin stocks, in which there are horseshoe pins, presumably of gold. Do they brush their hair, or claw it into a rough semblance of order? They have glaring-clean linen, though they are bathers-once-a-week — if so much; the Dutch concept of cleanliness. And the women! They seem not to have prided themselves on their appearance, though many of them wear heavy jewellery of jet and gold, assur­ances of substantial means. Only my grandmother and her sisters seem to have given any thought whatever to their appearance. Everybody over forty in the picture has a rav­aged mouth, suggesting that few teeth have survived so long. Did these people know love, or laughter? Have — or had — these people wombs, testicles: it must have been so, but who would guess it from their outward being?

Then the rigid picture breaks up. The figures move, and I see them differently, though they are still strange.

Strange because they are chronologically absurd. There are people in this assemblage who have no right to be here, or certainly no right to appear at the ages they seem to have reached. I must remind myself: am I watching a movie, a work of art or at least of artifice, and has not the Director a right to do what he pleases with Time? Is not the cinema the place of dreams, the place of once-upon-a time? What I am seeing is not Ibsen’s Master Builder, which is apparent to the Sniffer, beside whom I am seated, or perched, or however my condition must be described. Nor is my time the chronological time he sees on his screen. Is this what McWearie, in his attempts to explain Tibetan belief to me, called the Bardo state? Am I not in pleromatic time, that embracing element which has nothing to do with the processional tick-tock, tick-tock of our time when we are — as we vaingloriously describe it — alive?

I cannot protest or question the truth of what I see. Whatever truth it possesses is certainly not the historical truth I have been educated to think of as alone worthy of trust. In what I am watching, Time is conflated, as indeed it must be in any work of art. It is merciful of Whatever or Whoever is directing my existence at this moment to show the past as a work of art, for it was as a work of art that I tried to understand life, while I had life, and much of my indigna­tion at the manner of my death is its want of artistic form, dimension, emotional weight, dignity.


I follow the figure of my grandmother. She moves with a self-conscious dignity that goes with the pince-nez. She is “a working girl” and proud of it, for that was not the condition of most women of the time. She is a secretary, invaluable to her boss, Mr. Yeigh, who is, like herself, of Dutch descent and often says to her, “We Dutch must stick together, Miss Malvina.” She knows not only the inner working of the large carriage and bicycle works of which Mr. Yeigh is the manager, but also the details of Mr. Yeigh’s hobby, which is bee-keeping.”Order me six five-banded Italian queens to be delivered as soon as possible, Miss Malvina,” says he, and she knows precisely what he means.

Why is she a working girl? Why is her sister Caroline also a secretary, working in the insurance company that is dominated by the energetic Dr. Oronhyateka, notable as one of the Mohawk aboriginals who has “made good” in the white man’s world? Why is their young sister, although only sixteen, already apprenticed to the millinery trade — for the poor child has petit mal which unfits her for secretarial work? I know, of course, for have I not seen Mr. McOmish, a wrecked and ruined man, haranguing his son-in-law in the depths of the winter night? But how did it come about, what went before, what explains Malvina’s exaggerated self-confidence and propriety? What explains the look of fixed outrage, of monstrous affront, that I see on the face of Vir­ginia McOmish, my great-grandmother?


Now appears a series of brief scenes from Malvina’s childhood and girlhood.

Here is a fine house in the clapboard mansion style of the early nineteenth century; it would have charm and an air of welcome if the blinds were not drawn to the sills, and the knocker on the front door muffled in crepe. Inside, members of old Elizabeth’s family are gathered for the funeral of the matriarch, one of the survivors of the great flight from New York. In the parlour the men of the family are gathered, talking in hushed but not reverential tones, as the undertak­er’s milliner takes their hats, one by one, and wraps them in the obligatory long crepe “weepers” for the approaching funeral. Another milliner takes the sizes of their hands, and outfits them with new black gloves — for this is a first-class funeral and no expense is spared. Old Elizabeth’s two black servants, Angeline and Naomi (themselves fugitives long ago from the Slave States), pass trays on which are small glasses of Elizabeth’s personal cordial, cherry whisky, made by steep­ing black cherries in the whisky-jug for six contemplative months. Sparingly taken it has prolonged Elizabeth’s life, and it now comforts the bereaved, some of whom require three glasses to steady their nerves.

“Now Mother’s gone, I reckon you to be the oldest stock, Nels,” says a younger brother, oddly named Squire Vanderlip. (He is not a squire but a lawyer.) Nelson nods, assuming the role of seniority with becoming gravity.

Upstairs the women are gathered in what had been Elizabeth’s personal parlour. On the wall hangs the other treasure that had come from New York, so long ago. It is the portrait of George III, so dear to Major Gage, and now framed in Victorian style, heavy with ebony and gilt. The women are chatting, sipping the cherry whisky, and now and then wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs broadly edged in black.

Confusion! Old Hannah is bursting in with fearful news. (She is not the “oldest stock” despite her great age, for she is a woman and, at least in theory, could change family alliance.) She whispers to Nelson, the oldest male stock.

“Nelson, what do you suppose those young ‘uns are at?” She hisses the news in his ear, in a gust of evil breath.

“What in Tophet!” cries the oldest stock, forgetting the solemnity of the moment. He hurries out on the stoep, which is what these people, true to their Dutch ancestry, call the broad verandah or gallery that runs around three sides of the house.

What indeed? The children are following a wheelbarrow in which Flint pushes a large doll. They are weeping loudly and brandishing the black-bordered handkerchiefs with which they have all been supplied. They are playing funeral! Uncle Nelson descends upon them, roaring, followed by a dozen outraged fathers. The children are seized and roundly tuned. Their weeping is passionate, for they do not fully understand how they have sinned, but they know that it must be sin that brings this sudden and painful public correction.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson