Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies


Malvina is driven to devise a stratagem. She has a talk with her mother and, in language that is the more horrible for being veiled, suggests, without really saying, that she has to be married, or disgrace will overtake them all. It is not really a lie, because it is not precisely framed; it is a tissue of hints. She has said nothing of this to Rhodri, who would despise it as a lie, deeply discredit­able to Janet’s son. As for Virginia, she will say nothing to William. This is women’s business. Thus it is that in the McOmish front-parlour shortly afterward, the Reverend Wilbur Woolarton Woodside unites Malvina in holy matri­mony to her hoodwinked bridegroom, and the register is signed by the bride’s hoodwinked parents and by Aunt. No relatives of the bridegroom are present, nor have they been asked. The evening ends in profound gloom for the McOmishes. The bride and groom have taken the night train to Niagara Falls.

All of this I see, filmed in sepia, a colour which seems to put the action at a distance, and lessen its emotional impact. But not for me. These people are my people and I suffer with them, and I do not take sides. I feel the ruin that faces William and Virginia as poignantly as I understand the predicament of Malvina and Rhodri. This is no tragedy of star-crossed lov­ers, nor are the elders of a stature to achieve tragic proportion. Theorists of the drama may deal in tragedy and comedy, but the realities of life are played more often in the mode of melodrama, farce and grotesquerie.

Grotesquerie — and now, briefly, terror. One night Vir­ginia turns on her husband and, as she tells Aunt, later, lets him have the rough side of her tongue. Sick, is he? Maybe he is sick, but it isn’t the asthma that ails him. It’s that stuff, which has made a slave and an orray-eyed tyrant and monster of him.

Wasn’t it her own brother who introduced him to it, he counters. Yes, and didn’t her brother think he was man enough to use it prudently? And what has he done? He’s become a — she can’t bring herself to say it, but he knows well enough what she means. That’s what he is now, and well he knows it. And hasn’t her brother washed his hands of the case, says William, because he’s too God-Almighty righteous to come and look at what he’s done? Oh, for the Lord’s sake, be a man, she cries. Be a man? Is that it? How often has she given him a chance to be a man? Because he’s too good a Christian to gad up to Kate Lake’s with her rowdy old goat of a brother-in-law, he’s lived in a hell that only a man knows. A hell of her making. Her, and that Lapland witch of a sister of hers. Don’t talk to him about being a man! What about being a woman? Has she been a woman? Eh? Has she? Seven times in thirty years of marriage. She can count as well as he can. Seven times, and three children! And every time with tears and reproaches, as if he was some kind of a dirty beast. Doesn’t she read her Bible? Isn’t the woman the servant of the man? Isn’t he the head of the household? Hasn’t he loaded her with every luxury a decent woman can want? Hasn’t she one of the finest houses in town, built with all the skill Almighty God blessed him with? He’s a man in the street, but in his own home he’s a dog, because he’s a Christian man, and won’t force a woman.

Street saint and home devil! That’s what he adds up to! Street saint and home devil!

Virginia screams it. She is dressed from head to foot in mourning for one of the Vanderlip brothers who has been gored by a bull, but William is in his nightshirt, barefooted, and at the disadvantage of the naked when faced with the clothed. In his rage he seizes a carving-knife and pursues her around the dining-table, not rapidly, but slowly and with menace.

“Devil, am I?” he says, in a low voice.”Well then, a Devil I’ll be.”

She retreats in horror. For several seconds she cannot scream, but when her voice returns to her she screams loud and long, and screams again and again, until Caroline and Minnie, white with terror, rush into the room and join her in screaming. They dare not seize Pa, or protect Ma, but they can scream, and they do.

William is not Devil enough to hold out against such screaming. Like many another man, he is terrified of the maenad shrieking of women. He drops the knife and rushes from the room to the chest of drawers where he keeps his only remaining treasure.


The culmination of this is that next day Edmund and Dr. George Harmon Vanderlip come to their sister’s aid at a family conference, and read the Riot Act to William, who is hardly in a condition to under­stand it. The upshot is that Virginia and the girls are moved into a humble house that was William’s when first he married — an old razeee, William calls it, and from his master builder’s point of view that is what it is — and Dr. George Harmon Vanderlip handsomely agrees with Brother Ed­mund to pay what it costs in taxes. The house, by law, may be rescued from the ruin of William’s fortunes. Of course furni­ture for this dwelling must come from the big house with the horseshoe front window, and Virginia and the girls contrive, somehow, to take most of what there is, leaving William alone in a house that is empty of all but a bed and a few chairs and some pots and pans.

It is there that William is bivouacked on the night when Gil visits him, and I first see them at their midnight confer­ence.

Final ruin impends. Every penny that William had is gone, and of course all Virginia’s dowry money has gone with it. Bankruptcy is to be completed in a few days, and everybody, greatly assisted by Aunt’s judgement, has agreed that Virginia must be legally separated from a bankrupt, for bankruptcy in that society is one of the darkest sins, and almost the ultimate disgrace.


As dawn shows its first grey light through the horseshoe window, Gil at last has his way. William signs the papers. The indivisible marriage is no more.

The day following William is to be seen, dressed in his best black, riding in a carry-all driven by an aged pauper, accompanied only by the sheriff of the county. He is being taken to the county home for paupers and the mentally unstable. Everybody knows where that carry-all hails from.

Is he sunk in shame? No, as the old Devil makes this decisive journey he smiles sardonically to right and left, and raises his battered top hat to anybody he recognizes. Lifts it with a special sweep to Mrs. Long-Pott-Ott who passes in her barouche. She smiles and nods, good woman that she is.

Lifts it to whatever power it is that has used him so capriciously. William has faced ruin in several different guises, and the old Devil is showing the world precisely what he thinks of it.

Happy are they who die in youth

when their renown is around them!

Is it so, Ossian? Always?


Scenes from a Marriage

When I was alive I some­times tried to read those books that sought to explain what Time is, but I could never make head nor tail of them. They asked for a mathematical ability that was beyond me, or for some philosophical flight which I could not accept. But now that I am dead, what is this element in which I live if it is not Time? For a while after my death things were easier, and what I apprehended was attached to the ordinary Time I had known while I lived; that Time is no longer mine, for now I recognize neither night nor day, minute nor hour. All mea­sure of Time is slipping away and my glassy essence, as Shakespeare calls it (and I can do no better), knows no mea­sures, no boundaries. Surely what knows no bounds must be Eternity.

Not Eternity yet. Not quite. I know these films, that I watch in the company of the Sniffer. He sees another film, somewhat kindred to my own, and it has a beginning and an end; as I take my place when he takes his, and leave it when he goes back to the Advocate offices to write his review, there is at least that much measure of time.

What is the film today? He is to see something more recent than the films heretofore; it is Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which dates from — when was it? — 1972. I saw it before I was married. Before I met Esme, indeed. What I saw was the trimmed version that was shown commercially; this is to be the full work as Bergman conceived it. Some­thing recovered from a film archive.

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