Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

But that came later. When I tackled education, I was sure education had to hurt. . . . The books I bought! Ten-cent classics. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the very first, and I have it still. Somewhere. I couldn’t get beyond page three. Jimmy King tells me Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and a tough old bird. Preached detachment from the outer world, and the brotherhood of man. Fat chance I had of detaching myself from the outer world! I had to struggle not to be eaten alive by it. But the brotherhood of man — yes. I liked that better than the Methodist doctrine of Christian love, which always seemed a bit sticky to me. You can love a brother, but you don’t have to crawl all over him and lick his sores, like that Francis of Assisi. I had a shot at him. A nut. I even bought Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Second-hand, but still a full seventy-five cents. Couldn’t understand a word. That convinced me that I was really stupid. But somehow I man­aged to get along. I wish I had been able to get a real educa­tion. But look at Jimmy King. A professor, but what has his knowledge made of him? Tries to borrow money from me. Has never put by a penny in his life. Work! . . . Night school. Hard sledding after a full day at the Courier. But it was there I discovered the reading I really liked. Poetry. Not many people in the class cared about it because most of them wanted accounting and shorthand. I did those, but I squeezed in Literature. Tennyson, Swinburne. The poetry that was nearest to music. I suppose music and poetry took the place of religion, for me. Do so still, I think, though Brocky says it’s cheap music and cheap poetry. How easily the educated young dismiss your props and stays! Religion had withered for me. As if a bunch of flowers had turned into those rus­tling, dry corpses of flowers that Vina keeps all winter and calls “everlastings.” Dust-catchers. Poetry and music . . . Of course music was what we had at home. My sister Maude, a fine musician. Church organist at seventeen. Could play any­thing at sight. What evenings we had, every Sunday! We all sang. Lance and I were best in “Watchman, What of the Night?” There was a duet! A real bowel-shaker, as Hardy makes somebody say. I was the fearful, despairing Soul, in the tenor, and Lance was a terrific bass as the Reassuring Spirit.

Tenor: Say, watchman, what of the night?

Do the dews of the momingfall?

Have the orient skies a border of light

Like the fringe of a funeral pall? —

Bass: The night is fast waning on high

And soon shall the darkness flee

And the morn shall spread o’er the blushing sky

And bright shall its glories be.

Me, pathetic and in dread of death, and Lance like great, powerful Hope, and Maude thundering away in that rich accompaniment when we joined voices and I plucked up spirit and we really brought the roof down on

That night is near, and the cheerless tomb

Shall keep thy body in store

Till the morn of eternity rise on the gloom

And the night shall be no more!

That always made the Mater weep. But happy tears, because it was the Christian promise made into music. Poor Mater; the first to go. And Elaine would sing Tosti’s “Good-Bye,” and we all had wet eyes. Happy misery, Brocky calls it. Happy Welsh misery. But it fed us as his taste in music certainly doesn’t. Nobody sings that stuff any more. Indeed, I never hear any­body sing now, who isn’t paid to do it. We sang because we couldn’t help it. … Vina sang at some of those evenings, after we were married. A really good contralto. Her star piece was something German by somebody called Bohm.”Still Wie die Nacht.” But of course she sang it in English:

Still as the night,

Deep as the sea —

Should love, thy love e’er be!

That’s asking for a good deal, certainly, from a talkative Welsh husband. But when she sang

Glowing as steel

As rock firm and free

Shall love, my love e’er be!

I had a sense that she was singing from the heart. As rock firm and free. That’s her loyalty, and mine as well. Because through all the ups and downs we’ve been loyal. Except for that one thing. But there’s no point in worrying about that now. . . . Poor Maude. Died young. Consumption, of course. Runs in the family. Jimmy King calls it the disease of romance, but it doesn’t look very romantic when you see somebody near the end. Horror and pain. Could hardly bear to be touched. But poor Maude had a terrible blow. Cruelly jilted, not a month before the wedding. Now, it seems, con­sumption is pretty much a thing of the past. Brocky is some­times near it. I know the look. Julia. Why are so many in our family fools about women?. . . I was certainly a fool about Elsie Hare. But when she dropped me and married Elmer Vansickle I got over it. Wouldn’t be beaten by a girl. That marriage never prospered. Vansickle couldn’t hold a job. A boozer. Met Elsie a few years ago at the Toronto Exhibition. Wouldn’t have known her if she hadn’t told me who she was. Had run to fat and she’d lost a front tooth, and stuck a piece of adhesive tape over the hole. Pathetic! She had a kind of soothering way of talking. Not humble, but respectful. Respectful to me! When I’d been a slave to her, and she certainly must have remembered that. A lucky escape. Her grammar was terrible. She’d have disgraced me, which Vina has never done. Vina was on the upward path, like me, and for a while we climbed together. Twin Battleships, as Bernard Shaw says in that play. What happened? That awful row, I suppose. Nothing could have been quite the same after that. But she’s been loyal. We’ve both been loyal. I know she frets about the women I meet, and certainly some of them are charming, but they haven’t got what she’s got. Inherited from Loyalist forebears? Possibly. I believe heredity is discredited now by the people who think they know. But I have a tailoring background, and I know that the best broadcloth isn’t made of second-grade wool. . . . What will become of Brocky? He’s got good stuff in him, on both sides, though he makes fun of his mother’s ideas, and mine. But he’s not really close-woven. A bit slack to the hand, as Uncle David used to say when he fingered a piece of stuff. He knew, even if he did finish up married to the Angel. Mary Evans the Angel. Not that she was an angel, but she owned the Angel Inn. A good pub. Right by St. Mary’s Church, where the Angel Inn has to be. The Angel of the Angelus, named in the days when churches and pubs weren’t as far apart as the Methodists thought they should be. The Angel was a happy pub. I hope old David lived happily, rotten though he was to the Pater. Old David liked freedom and a merry life better than respect­ability. . . . I’ve read this story to the end, and I don’t think I’ve taken in a word. But of course I’ve read it many times. Wodehouse never fails. Like music, almost. Meaning, but never an exact meaning that you can seize. Just feeling. That’s what I read him for, I suppose. He makes a reality of the Land of Lost Content, or a part of it. . . . Vina’s gone to bed, but I know she’s not asleep. She’s waiting for me to come up and say good-night. Min’s taken up that bloody hot milk. I tell Vina it’s constipating, and constipation breeds God knows what illnesses, but nothing will break her of the habit. Auto­intoxication.

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do, Brocky, but I’m going to bed.”

And I know what you’ll do, my son. You’ll play music — Tchaikovsky — very quietly, and feed your misery about Julia. Happy misery, and don’t think you’ve escaped it, because I know better. It’s just that you feed it with different music.


BROCHWEL: (When his father has left the library, and has had time to mount the stairs and reach Malvina’s bed­room, where he will chat for a few minutes before he puts out her light, Brochwel does indeed put a record on the Orthophonic, turning the volume down low. It is not Tchaikovsky; it is a record he takes from his university briefcase; its title is “June in January” and it is played and sung in the weakly plaintive, almost whimpering style of the time.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson