Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

How far was this voyeurism to go? I knew now the shame of the sons of Noah when they beheld their father’s drunkenness.

Yet — was I really such an unreflecting, uncomprehend­ing jackass when I was alive that I supposed the sufferings and inadequacies of humanity came for the first time in my own experience? No; not wholly. But I had never applied what I knew as general truths to the people without whom I should never have experienced life; I had taken them for granted. As McWearie used to say, one’s family is made up of supporting players in one’s personal drama. One never sup­poses that they starred in some possibly gaudy and certainly deeply felt show of their own.

McWearie used to talk a lot about the personal drama. He liked to call it the Hero Struggle, and when I protested that the term was grandiose for what he was describing he rebuked me with the sharpness of a Scots schoolmaster bang­ing his ruler down on the fingers of a stupid boy.

“You’re that dangerous class of fool, a trivializer, Gilmartin! To the human creature nothing that gets strongly to him is trivial. It is all on the heroic scale, so far as he can grasp it. What a fuss about the Oedipus Complex — the fella who wants to possess his Mum! What about the Hercules Complex — the fella that must grapple with his Twelve Lab­ours while his wife and kids go by the board? What about the Apollo Complex — the fella that thinks you can have all light and no releasing darkness? And women — our towns and vil­lages are jammed with Medeas and Persephones and Antigones and God knows who not, pushing their wire carts in the supermarkets unrecognized by anyone but themselves, and then probably only in their dreams. All engaged in the Hero Struggle!”

“So far as they can grasp it,” said I, to cool him.

“They don’t have to grasp it, you gowk, in the sense you mean. They just have to live it, and endure it so far as they can bear. You suppose you’re a thinker, Gilmartin, and what you are is a trivializer because your thinking isn’t fuelled by any strong feeling. Wake up, man! Come alive! Feel before you think!”

That seems to be what I am doing now, as I watch these amazing films, so much better than any I ever saw when I was a critic. I am back in the Fun House, for the last day of the Festival, with Allard Going, that combination of villain and low-comedian in my personal drama, on which, so far as the world is concerned, he dropped the curtain with a rush.


The film leaves me no time to speculate. What is this? Far from the frowsty library at St. Helen’s, and the noise tells me at once that this is war. A bombardment is in progress. What I see is a small cellar under a ruined house; some remaining timbers provide a roof for part of it, and under this are huddled five men. They are Canadian soldiers — gunners from the symbols on their shoulders — and they are trying to snatch some rest after their day’s work of manning the guns that attack the German artillery which is now returning the attack with professional accuracy. There is nothing unusual in the situation. A certain amount of night bombardment is to be expected. This night the Germans seem to have a better focus on their work and shells are dropping very near. But what is to be done? Run to some other cover, farther in the rear? The risk is just as great as if they stay where they are. Under regular bombardment, men become fatalists. If it finds you, it finds you, and if it doesn’t, you man your own guns for the return match.

One of the five is my father, Brochwel Gilmartin. He is nervous, but not afraid. The prevalent fatalism has claimed him. He wants to sleep, knowing that sleep in such noise is impossible. But he composes himself to rest as well as he can, seated on a heap of debris, wrapped in his overcoat, and with a Balaclava helmet over his head, upon which his tin hat is somewhat absurdly placed. The bombardment will probably last for half an hour, and already twenty minutes have passed. Suddenly, the unmistakable hissing, whistling sound of an approaching shell. Nearer it comes, and it will explode somewhere very close. With a heavy thump it lands dead in the middle of the cellar, and lies partly buried in the earth, but still visible. A big one.

The five men freeze, their eyes fixed on the monster. They are beyond mere fear, for they know that instant death is at hand, and all their bodies and souls and minds are waiting. How long? Nobody can say. A few seconds, at most. Then it is obvious that owing to some unaccountable chance the shell is not going to explode, and dissolve them in red rain. Or not at once. Without a word they scramble out of the cellar and run.

Each runs in a different direction, and I see only Broch­wel, pelting along what had once been the street of an Italian hamlet until, when he has run possibly half a mile, he sights a church that he has observed several times during the last week. It is a ruin, but quite a lot of the walls are still standing. He does not enter the ruin, which could be dangerous, but seeks shelter in the churchyard.

What he finds is the wreckage of a tomb. Not a grand tomb, set up for some nobleman, with his armorial bearings carved on it and perhaps a stone figure or two, but a lesser tomb of the sort that is built above the ground, so that the corpse does not have to be lowered into the dampness and possible flooding from the nearby river. These affairs are sometimes called altar tombs. This might have been the tomb of some minor local grandee, a wealthy notary or a man with a good vineyard. It cannot be less than a hundred years old, and was never built to sustain bombardment; although it has not been struck directly, one side has fallen away, revealing the cavern within. It is into this that Brochwel creeps, and makes himself as comfortable as he can.

Is it the lawyer or the lawyer’s wife whose bones and ruined coffin he disturbs? Pardon me, signora, if I creep into your bed. Nothing personal intended, I assure you. Your virtue is perfectly secure with me.

It is not, he reflects, a bad hole.”If yer knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.” A First World War joke, that has endured. He knows of no better hole. Dampish, but not wet, and out of the wind, and alone, which is a great thing. For him, one of the chief trials of war is that it is never possible to be alone, and his temperament requires a certain amount of solitude. Not that he is morose, or misanthropic. He gets on well with his fellow gunners who are, he finds, recruited chiefly from men who would, in civilian life, be working for the telephone company, or the hydro-electric power company, or in some similar high-grade technical jobs. Men of excellent character; men of superior intelligence; men who are, he soon learns, fully as complicated in their real nature as himself, the young university teacher. But if Brochwel found himself fighting, eating and sleeping with the members of the Royal Society, he would still need to be alone from time to time. O beata solitude, O sola beatitudo! And here, in the tomb, he enjoys this luxury, undisturbed by his quiet companions. If only there is no serpent, no scorpion, sharing these quarters, he is lucky indeed.


I, the patient looker-on, know where he is probably better than he does himself. This is the Italian Campaign of March 1944, and the Allied Arm­ies in Italy, under the command of the redoubtable Alex (which was what his troops from Britain, the U.S., India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Poland, Italy, Brazil and Greece called their commander-in-chief), are pressing toward Rome. The present obstacle is the Gustav Line, anchored at Monte Cassino, which Field Marshal Albert Kendring is defending with tenacity. The town of Cassino is in ruins, as is the great Monastery that towers above it, but the German line holds. It cannot hold out for­ever, but it will block the road to Rome as long as it can, and machine-gun pillboxes, mobile steel pillboxes, anti-tank emplacements and now and then some bitter hand-to-hand fighting are giving the Allied Armies a hard time. But the Gustav Line must break, at last. Meanwhile these regular bombardments are routine warfare.

Brochwel can never wholly reconcile himself to the fact that the gunners, of whom he is one, are hurling shells one, two, three and even five miles at troops they cannot see, and whose position they discover by a variety of ingenious devices which he does not pretend to understand. To fight men one will never see — is this modern war? Indeed it is. He has always known it, but now he comprehends it. His job is to do what he is told, which is to stand at a large affair like an architect’s desk and calculate how, and where, his particular group of guns must fire. Do they hit anything? He hopes so, and if they do he will know it in time. If they are falling short, and endangering the Allied troops ahead, he will undoub­tedly hear it at once. He is a minor figure, doing an important job like many others, but without personal initiative. He does as he is told.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson