Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

From that moment, William was a man melting in fury. It was at best a silent, unsleeping fury, but it disposed him more and more toward asthma, his ancient enemy, and asthma turned him to the needle, and after the needle his fury spoke loud and long. Scenes of the bitterest abuse were fre­quent, and as he stormed Virginia sat silent, a figure of mute martyrdom and hatred for her tormentor.

William did not rant about sex — certainly not — but he abused his cold, unloving wife and what he could not bring himself to say about her he said about Aunt.

Poor Mrs. McOmish! Who could believe what she went through? To come to such a pass — she, a woman of good family, a Vanderlip — and to put up with it without a word! Of course she spoke to her minister, the Reverend Wilbur Woolarton Woodside, and he gave the best advice he could, which was shallow and inept. Of course she had to speak to her brother, the Doctor, who shook his head and said that Will had let his medicine become his habit, and he had known dreadful cases of that. He gave his sister a silver teapot and sugar bowl, which did not have much effect on the problem. Of course she spoke to Aunt, who declared that she had always thought there was bad blood in William McOmish, and she wished she had spoken more firmly before Virgie had mar­ried him. But the very best of us can’t always know what’s best for others, and Virgie had refused to listen to hints. She had made her bed and now, Aunt supposed, she must lie in it.

Nobody but these intimates were supposed to know what was going on, but of course everybody knew it, for the clerks in the drugstores to which William went for his sup­plies told this one and that one, always in strict confidence. On the q.t. Part of the bitterness of bourgeois life is that there are really no secrets.


Thus Malvina grew to be twenty-eight, the calm, dignified Miss McOmish, so active and popular in church work, especially in getting up enter­tainments. Malvina also sang. She was a contralto, and it was through her singing that she had met Rhodri Gilmartin. It was some time before their friendship reached the point where she dared, greatly fearing, to ask him to her home.

Rhodri was very popular in singing circles, for he pos­sessed a fine, natural tenor voice. Of course he had his limita­tions, for he was just a journeyman printer, and his family had come within living memory — which was to be a raw new­comer in those old Ontario towns — from what a lot of people still called the Old Country. The Dutch backbone of the town, and all the country round, knew that it was not their Old Country, which they had not forgotten in the almost two hundred years since they had set out from Amsterdam, and Rotterdam, and The Hague. Perhaps they had sided with the British during the regrettable revolution, and had had to make a run for it to Canada, but to them Englishmen were still suspect: foreigners with peculiar ways. So a growing sympathy between a good Dutch girl (a little flawed by a Highland father but still so Dutch that the Scots blood hardly counted) and a johnny-come-lately was not regarded with favour.

Malvina, in the manner of the day, was becoming rather desperate; she was just over thirty, after which anniversary a woman became a certified Old Maid. In her mind, also, there was a war of fidelities: she must certainly honour her father and her mother, but they gave her no honour in return, and she faced a life of office work on their behalf; she did not strongly want a husband and children, but she very strongly wanted not to be an Old Maid; she had some romantic ideas about love, picked up from novels and the plays in which her ideal, Miss Van Cortland, figured but she had never experi­enced love in her own life, or seen it evinced in the lives of others in any way that made it look attractive. Under such pressure of conflicting ideas, she fell in love with Rhodri Gilmartin.

He was good-looking, he dressed well, and in the fash­ion of the time and the place he had an elegantly waxed moustache, not tortured into ridiculous bodkins of hair, but discreetly pointed at the ends. He sang, movingly, the ballads of the time by Fred E. Weatherley and Guy d’Hardelot; and there was one of a somewhat earlier time —

I fear no foe in shining armour,

Though his lance be swift and keen;

But I fear and love the glamour

Through thy drooping lashes seen.

— that Malvina found irresistible.

He talked. He did not talk tediously about the Japanese War, like William McOmish. He did not thresh old straw like Mother and Aunt. He talked about really interesting things — books and music and church picnics, and bicycle races and of course the theatre (he had seen Henry Irving and been pro­foundly influenced by that charismatic actor), and, best of all, he made jokes. He also made grave social errors.

“Have you thought of trying your hand at making lad­ders, Mr. McOmish?” he asked one Sunday at midday din­ner.”Ed Holterman has done very well with ladders and nothing else, I understand.”

Matters were very much on the downhill grade for the McOmish family; indeed, it was the combined earnings of the three girls that was keeping it afloat, for William had had nothing to do for months, and had been incapable of doing anything well for at least two years. He gasped continually with asthma, and sought the relief of the needle several times a day. Most of the time he sat at the table glassy-eyed, and pushed his food into heaps with his fork. But this well-meant suggestion from the Englishman (the McOmishes had no truck with Welsh pretension) in reply to some comment about the scarcity of building contracts roused him to a Highland blaze.

“Are you suggesting that I’d lower myself to the level of a common carpenter like Ed Holterman? Make ladders? Me, that built Grace Church, and finished it when the architect threw in the sponge? Me that’s built half the finest residences in this city? You don’t know who you’re talking to, young feller. It looks as if you don’t know who I am.”

Then gasping, and the awful pallor of the face, and the retreat to the bedroom, for what everybody at the table knew about, and what nobody at the table wanted to give a name. Gilmartin’s apologies were unheard by Mr. McOmish, and received with grim silence by Mrs. McOmish. Nobody, of course, might leave the table until Mrs. McOmish had drunk the last of her unnumbered cups of strong tea. When, at last, it was possible to leave the table, it was understood that the girls should wash the dishes. Virginia and the silent figure at the table, who was Aunt, went to the back-parlour for the threshing of some agreeably new straw, for of course Aunt’s judgement on the unhappy remark of Rhodri Gilmar­tin must be heard and chewed over. Had his eye on Malvina, had he? Had too much to say, if you wanted Aunt’s opinion. Been hovering around for at least two years. When was he going to pop — if he meant to?

Aunt was now alone. It was five years ago that Daniel Boutell had left the house one day with a carpet-bag, since when neither hide nor hair of him had been seen, nor so much as a postcard received. But Aunt had her dowry money still, and on that she “managed,” making a great deal of self-honouring fuss about it. After all, as Virginia often said in these sessions, had anybody expected anything better of Dan? He had married Cynthia for her dowry, but she was one too many for him, thank the Lord. What had she ever seen in him?

Malvina and Gilmartin as usual retire to the front parlour, well in view of Mrs. McOmish and Aunt, and after some quiet talk they go for a walk, and it is on that walk that Rhodri proposes and is accepted. He has, in the cant of the day, popped.

What then? Marry? Malvina marry? The thing is too big for comprehension. Marry, when the family fortunes are so low, and her salary needed? Marry, when Pa is so ill and needs so much money for his medicine? Marry, and leave Mother, who has to put up with the Lord knows what, when Pa is not himself? How sharper than a serpent’s tooth, says Mrs. McOmish, thinking she is quoting the Bible. Hadn’t Malvina seen enough of marriage, asks Aunt, who has now set up as a great expert on the married state. As for the sisters, Caroline and Minnie, they are stricken, for if Malvina leaves the household, however will they manage Ma and Pa alone? Not to speak of the money. Marry the Englishman? It is out of the question.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74

Categories: Davies, Robertson