Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

How many children are doomed before they make their entrance into this world to live with fear that lies so deep that they do not recognize it for what it is, having never known anything else? Ghosts cannot weep, or I would weep at what I know now when knowledge comes too late.

Knowledge that comes to me in scenes interspersed with scenes from Malvina’s youth, for as she makes her way toward whatever of love life has in store for her, there are scenes from the life of her parents, loveless and embittered. But, nevertheless, loyal. William and Virginia “stand by” one another, as they say, and call their quarrels “differences of opinion” and will not put a name to the hatred that possesses them. Marriage may not appear sacred, but it is certainly inviolable. William will not hear a word against Virginia, for that would reflect badly on his choice, his home, his way of life. The master builder, who is so deft with wood and brick and stone, so apt in the mathematics of stress and strain, of angles and oppositions, has no skill in matters of flesh and blood. It must be said that it would take a mighty man to soften Virginia, who is too witty and sardonic to yield readily to any kind of softness, and from the outset of the marriage she takes pleasure in planting barbs in her humourless, vul­nerable husband.


Not surprisingly they find a figure who can take on all of William’s anger and frustration, and all of Virginia’s self-righteousness, and exemplify both to the satisfaction of the warring parties. This is Virginia’s limping sister, Cynthia Boutell, known to the whole family as Aunt. For Virginia anything from the choice of a green kerseymere for a gown, to the daily iniquities, unreasonable demands, and shortcomings of William, and of course the bringing-up of her daughters, must be submitted to this oracle of an older sister, and what she calls Aunt’s Judgement is solicited every day of her life, for they are near neighbours. To William, Aunt is the mischievious old bitch of whom he spoke to Gil, during their midnight colloquy. In the fashion of the day he must submit to Aunt’s presence at his own table every other Sunday; on the alternate Sundays he and Virginia must have midday dinner with the Boutells and he must endure not only the acerbities of Aunt, but the unceasing good-nature and jocosity of her husband, Dan Boutell.

When dinner is over Virginia and Aunt settle to a satis­factory canvass of the week’s gossip, all of which passes under their unforgiving eyes in a passion of disapproval. Nor is current gossip alone the subject of their talk. They go back for years and even for generations, reconsidering and re-judging the faults and mishaps of others, the failures and miscalculations and, of course, the follies of people now middle-aged, who once were young. This is called by Wil­liam “threshing old straw” but to Virginia and Aunt it is the cud of life, which they chew and re-chew with unfailing relish. The girls, Malvina and her sisters, “do the dishes” as girls should, for neither of the Vanderlip sisters can tolerate the slopdolly ways of a “hired girl,” and William in his decline could not afford one. The men, William and Dan, go for their inevitable Sunday walk, and Dan smokes one of his expensive cigars, which are not permitted in either house, and which William will not touch. Opium-eater as he is, he despises Dan’s slavery to the weed. Their dull walk circles a vacant lot that Negro children use as a playground; it is known as The Devil’s Half-Acre. What do they talk about?

“Ever think of joining the Oddfellows, Will?”

“Why would I want to get mixed up with that Tribe of Manasseh?”

“Well, the Masons, then? I could put you up, you know, whenever you say the word.”

“You know I don’t hold with secret societies. Nothing about me has to be kept secret.”

“Aw, come on! It’s just a way of getting together without the womenfolks. After Lodge the boys have a high old time. Keep it up till the last dog is hung, some nights.”

This expression refers to the Feast of the White Dog, an occasional ceremony of the local Mohawks; no non-Mohawks are admitted, but rumours — inevitably scandalous and derogatory — are current, including tales of the sacrifice of a white dog, but how or for what reason nobody knows, but everybody suspects.

“Why would I want to keep it up with Jem Hardy and Bob Holterman and that tribe? Let ’em wear their little white aprons and play the fool by themselves.”

“It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, sometimes. I’ve known the meetings to adjourn to Kate Lake’s. Ever been to Kate Lake’s, Will?”

“I should say not. What makes you think such a thing?”

“Oh, a lot of it is quite innocent. Kate sings a good song.”

“I can imagine what kind.”

“You’re too strait-laced, Will. Never let yourself off the chain. Say, last week I had to get down to Detroit on business, and overnight I seen this show, The Mulligan Guards at Atlantic City. Those girls! Lot of ’em and not a plain one in the lot. I bought a few postcards. Here, take a look.”

“You know I don’t hold with the theayter.”

“Well, then, here’s a few that ain’t from the theayter. I picked these up from the candy-butcher on the train, a couple o’ weeks ago. Ever see anything like that?”

These are cards of plump girls, wearing a look of simple innocence combined with allurement, and they are naked, though some of them wear black stockings.

“Put those things away, Dan. I don’t want to see ’em.”

“Come on, Will; you’ll want to see these. This set cost me five dollars,” Dan whispers.”Six ways o’ doin’ the Dirty Job. Did you know you could do it like that?”

“Dan Boutell, you ought to be ashamed! A married man!”

“Not all that married, Will. I don’t get much o’ that. Cynthy says it’s disgusting, even among marrieds. These cards sort o’ help out, when a fellow’s lonely. You get much o’ that, Will? — Aw come on now, don’t walk away mad! Wait for me, Will!”


Dan has grazed Will on a very sore place, because Will doesn’t get much of that. Virginia’s ideas about the intimacies of marriage come directly from Aunt: even among marrieds, it’s disgusting, and the fact that it leads to children — and a man has a right to expect children, however shameless their begetting — is just one of God’s mysteries, and makes a decent woman wonder sometimes what God can have been thinking about when he set it up that way. As a temptation to men, Aunt says. Aunt has no children, for the best of reasons.

A man has “marital rights,” and William often reminds Virginia that it is so. Their bodily unions are infrequent, and since the birth of Minnie have been wholly discontinued. But in William, that gaunt, strong Highlander, desire has not died, and there are frequent scenes of proposal — never plead­ing, for why should a man plead for his rights? — and con­temptuous rejection. William will not force her, though there are times when he wonders if he might not kill her.

His desire is a torment, and the last such scene, two years after the birth of Minnie, is brief and bitter.

I see it in full, for I cannot turn my gaze from the cinema screen, much as I wish to do so. I am condemned to see. The unhappy couple are preparing for bed. Both are in their nightgowns, and before she retires Virginia squats over the chamber-pot, for there is no modesty between them about this necessity. The sight strikes up the flame in Will, for it is one of his oddities that his wife in this position appears deeply erotic to him. As she is giving her hair a final brush — a hundred strokes each night, to brush in the bay rum she uses as hair-dressing — he approaches her, his arms reaching out to enfold her. She can see him in the mirror, and sees that the front of his nightgown pokes out comically over his erection. With a scowl she turns and strikes him on his penis with the ebony back of her hair­brush, with more force perhaps than she intends. He makes no sound, but retreats, nursing his hurt, doubled over in pain. That is the last instance of sexual activity in the McOmish household.

Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d

Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.

So wrote an English poet who would perhaps not have thought that people like the McOmishes had any right to noble passions. But if he had known more about people — and he knew much — he would have known that a man scorned is also a prey to fury.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson