Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

He likes that; likes it very much. To know what is to be done, and to do it with all the efficiency he can muster, as part of a huge organization, is luxury. He understands, without approving, what the German Reich has been doing for so long. Obeying orders, without any necessity to ask questions or have reservations, can be deeply satisfying. Alex is running the show. Our Leader.

Brochwel knows this rather better than the men around him, for he has been, until recently, doing a job at Headquar­ters, likewise in a minor capacity. Without having seen the great commander more than a few times, and at a distance, he has been on the inside of the great campaign, where many like him also serve in what would, in time of peace, be thought of as lesser office jobs.

Then what is he doing lying in a tomb with a long-dead lawyer and his wife, under bombardment?


Brochwel is young, though older than when last I saw him, and he is romantic. Intelligently romantic. Nothing of the D’Artagnan about him. But he has decided that he must see service not as a superior clerk, which is the sort of thing his Army betters think befits a man with an excellent education and poor eyesight, but as a man in battle.”Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Dr. Johnson, and Brochwel is very fond of the great Doctor’s sturdy wisdom. So, a soldier he will be, in the true sense. He will confront the foe. By some wangling — for he knows a few people in the right places — he has managed to get himself transferred to the gunners, and here he is. Miserable though it may be, and deprived of the regular solitude that is so much a necessity of his nature, he does not regret the change. Does not even regret the danger, for, although he will take every precaution he can against being killed, he will risk even that in order to be part of this experience. So far as he can achieve it, he is in the thick of the great events of his time. He does wish, however, that he could see the men he is trying to kill.

Unlike most of the gunners, he knows what he is firing at. In his student days, seeing as much of Europe as he could manage in two months, travelling by bicycle, now and then by train, with a pack on his back, he had visited the great Benedictine fortress of learning at Monte Cassino. There he had seen what was on display of the 1400 great patristic and historical codices, marvelled at the vast library, the treasures, the evidence of long custodianship of Western culture, gained some understanding of what the Benedictine Rule had meant in bringing discipline to intellectual life, sensed the reluctance of the monks of the Middle Age to destroy Greek manu­scripts which they did not comprehend and suspected of intellectual enormity — had learned indeed what could be learned from guidebooks and guides who were talking to tourists who could not be expected to understand or sympa­thize with much of what Monte Cassino had meant in creat­ing the North American life of which they were proud, but unthinking, partakers. What he had seen had seized his imag­ination sufficiently to keep him in the town of Cassino for several days, in order to learn more.

What he had learned, and what he now recalls as he lies in the lawyer’s tomb, a part of the force that has reduced the great monastery to rubble, gives him hope. What if the monastery has been knocked down, once again? Has it not been knocked down in the past by the Lombards, the Saracens, the Normans, suffered a great earthquake and been knocked down once more not long since — yesterday as history goes — by the French in 1799? The treasures of the monastery have undoubtedly been spirited away as soon as the present invasion of Italy became a certainty, and will return again, and the great walls will be raised as soon as the present war is over. The splendid Doors of Desiderius will once more be put in place. The substance of Monte Cassino may be beaten to rubble by bombs, of which previous despoilers had no understanding, but the spirit of Monte Cassino is unconquerable. And of that spirit he, Brochwel Gilmartin, a humble instructor at Waverley University in far-off Canada, is a partaker, and will be so as long as he lives.


God be praised for the ingenuities of modern film! As my father reflects on what he knows I, the patient looker-on, see it revived in a score of images on the huge, many-imaged screen. Just as well, for I did not know what Brochwel knew, and his musings would have meant little to me if I had not been able to see Lombards, Saracens, Normans, French and all the other wreckers at their work, and had not had it brought home to me that they were all, surely, the same men, different in dress and weaponry, but as one in their determination to break down civilization wherever they found it. Always in history there are those who are impelled, by reasons they think sufficient, to ruin, in so far as they can, what the patient, indefatigable warriors of civilization and culture have built up, because they value other things and worship other gods.

This is the history of civilization; building, wreckage, and rebuilding, century by century. Not because civilization conquers in a series of jerks, but because it never rests even when it is apparently thrown down.

Nor are all the despoilers men of war. Some are men of meddlesome idealism, like those who sought, in the nine­teenth century, to remove all the scholarly treasures of Monte Cassino to an up-to-the-minute National Library in Naples, where they could be cared for by industrious technicians according to the most advanced archival principles of the day. And who was the doughty fighter who put a stop to that nonsense? None other than William Ewart Gladstone, a Brit­ish Prime Minister and a staunch pillar of the Church of England. An extraordinary champion, surely? But Gladstone was a most uncommon politician because he was a man of imagination. His concern was certainly not inspired by the splendour of the Abbot of Monte Cassino, who had been for centuries one of the great swells of the Church of Rome, answerable only to the Holy See, and privileged to wear seven different precious mitres in succession whenever he celebrated Pontifical High Mass. As the lion-like face of Gladstone flits across the screen before my eyes, I see in him a man possessed by the romantic continuity of history and of intellectual persistence. Seven precious mitres are very fine in their way, but they are best understood as symbols and adjuncts of the continuity of spiritual and intellectual tradition.

Did that tradition really stem from the great St. Benedict of Nursia? Brochwel (I cannot be quite so free with my father as to think of him as Brocky: I leave that name to parents and old aunts) certainly does not think so. When Benedict — not then a saint but an energetic zealot — decided to found his monastery, he chose the place on Monte Cassino because it was the site of a temple of Apollo that had survived into the sixth century of our Christian Era. Benedict’s first act was to smash the image of the god and destroy his altar. Benedict was himself one of the smashers.

Did he utterly banish Apollo from Monte Cassino? He thought so, but we may wonder now if the Apollonian spirit did not live on, under the Benedictine robe. Things are never so clear-cut as even a great sage like Benedict believes them to be. Did not his sister, later known to the pious as Saint Scholastica, set up her nunnery five miles away, and meet with her brother once a year to discuss holy matters? Hin­dered as it was by the difficult five-mile journey, the feminine spirit still asserted itself at Monte Cassino, and one wonders whether Apollo, wherever he was, did not smile that it was so. Even Benedict could not drive femininity out of the realm of the gods, though he might banish it five miles away from his House of God.

The light of the spirit, as Apollo knew then, and proba­bly still knows, was not the privilege of a single sex, and Benedict and his followers had to pay a heavy price because that idea never occurred to them. Nevertheless they travelled far, walking as they did, on one leg.


What is he, Brochwel Gilmartin, lying awake in somebody else’s tomb, unable to sleep after the bombardment, and his astonishing escape from death — what is he? A young Canadian. A tiny cog in a vast machine devoted to the apparent destruction of a great monument of culture, one that has no significance for the warriors but that of an impediment in the Allied march upon Rome. Brochwel is a man fated by his time to be one of the wreckers, though he hopes, if he survives the war, to return to his Canadian university job as one of the builders. As a Canadian, he is inescapably a provincial, like the New Zealanders who were the first to reduce the great monastery to rubble. But we provincials, he reflects, have our place, and an important one, for we are not beguiled by the notion that the fate of mankind and of human culture lies wholly in our hands. These others — the French, the English and even the Poles — probably enjoy some such delusion. The Americans certainly do, for they are natural-born crusaders, forever in the right, even when they are least aware of what they are crusading about. But we provincials, who are compelled by a dozen reasons, some of them not wholly mistaken, to tag along in such crusades as this, are also in our way the patient lookers-on in these political and cultural convulsions, and perhaps we have cooler heads when it comes to weighing the importance of what is being done.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson