Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Do you recall the date?”

“Henry II reigned around — oh, 1160ish — I think.”

“Better and better.”

“Robert de Beleme bred fine horses for him. Had a big farm hereabout; the King was mad about Spanish horses. This was a stud-farm.”

“Very good. And a manor?”

“Yes. That’s why the house is called Belem, of course. And the village is Belem-en-le-Dyke. Offa’s Dyke, that was.”

“Don’t recall Offa.”

“Well, he was a king of Mercia about — I think — 750. Built the Dyke to keep the Welsh out, or to show them where they were supposed to stop. Not that they did. There’s still a few hundred yards of the Dyke on this property.”

“I see. Well — we don’t have much call for history as early as that. Queen Elizabeth is about as far back as house-purchasers usually like to go.”

“Archaeologists are very interested, Mr. Crouter. They come here all the time for a look, and sometimes for a dig.”

“Ah, but archaeologists are rarely purchasers, Mr. Gilmartin. Scholars, you see. Not well-off. We’re talking pretty big money, here. When it comes to house-property archaeologists rarely rise above what we call an Old World Cottage. Something half-timbered, and easily convertible to modern dwelling. Not destroying the authentic atmosphere, of course, but quaint. Now you couldn’t call this place quaint, could you?”

“Not unless you call the Houses of Parliament quaint. But I have always understood that your people sell every­thing and anything.”

“Oh, of course we do. Butler and Manciple can, and do, sell residences all over the kingdom. We yield to no one.”

“Then what’s the objection here?”

“No objection. None whatever. But of course we have a strong sensitivity to the pulse of the market-place, and I won’t pretend to you that we could consider this place a property of the very first class — first-class demand, I mean. No suggestion that it isn’t a splendid place — in its own way.”

“Then what’s the trouble?”

“There will be no trouble, Mr. Gilmartin. Butler and Manciple never think in terms of trouble. But a top price might not be practicable. Its location, you see.”

“But for something like eight hundred years it has been considered rather a good location.”

“No, Mr. Gilmartin. I’d better explain. In the real estate business, you see, we always say that there are three primary concerns in selling a property. Location, location and again, location.” Once again Mr. Crouter smiles his ghost of a smile, at this much-admired house agent’s joke.

“And you don’t like the location?”

“Not me, Mr. Gilmartin. Our buyers. The buying pub­lic. Look, I’ll tell you how it is. People with substantial money to spend on a property nowadays are predominantly business people — London people — and what they are look­ing for is some place not more than fifty miles from London. For weekends, and easy holiday-access. For entertaining their business friends. Now I’ve seen a castle, especially if it has a moat, go for a really big price. A plum, in fact. But only if it’s in the Home Counties or close to the London area. An Elizabethan manor — especially if Queen Elizabeth ever slept there, ha, ha, and she was certainly a great lady for sleeping around — in a royal sense, of course — we can place one of those in a jiffy. A nice William-and-Mary, or a Queen Anne, or a Georgian — no problems there. There is a very big move­ment at present in restored vicarages. You understand; big places with grounds, that vicars can’t keep up, now that gentlemen with private money have pretty much ceased to go into the Church. A fine vicarage is catnip to plenty of people slightly below the country-house level of income.”

“But Victorian Gothic is coming into great popularity. Have you seen Kenneth Clark’s book?”

“That’s scholarly, of course, and the scholarly buyer isn’t usually well-fixed. Strictly Old World. Cottage and quarter-acre of garden. And there’s location, in the present instance.”

“What’s wrong with the location? Look outside. A superb day. A splendid view, right over toward the Red Cas­tle.”

“I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Gilmartin. It’s Wales. Wales is too far, and too wet, and too unfashionable.”

“But you sell places in northern Scotland, for God’s sake! What’s fashionable about that?”

“That’s sporting. Grousing. Deer. Those big creatures — what do they call ’em? Stags. They kill stags. Just between ourselves, there are two people up there breeding stags, to keep the mountains well-stagged, for the sportsmen. A good stag fetches quite a figure.”

“I believe there are a lot of otters in the stream here.”

“Otters don’t pull, Mr. Gilmartin. You have to walk too far to find ’em. And in water. Otters are not a major enthusi­asm among the Stock Exchange set.”

“This is very discouraging.”

“Sorry. But I know you want me to be realistic.”

“What does realism suggest, then?”

“We’d have to explore that. Suppose we run a picture in Country Life; and that means substantial investment on our part, as I’m sure you’ll understand. What does this place look like to the casual eye? What can a photographer get hold of? It’s not really a castle, though those towers are castle features, certainly. And it’s not ecclesiastical — not an old abbey or anything of that sort — though there’s an ecclesiastical air about it, especially the windows. And it’s bloody well not domestic, if you’ll pardon my French. Doesn’t look homey. Not at all. So what can we hope for? Might go for a school, but they never have any real money. Might go for a nunnery, and those R.C.s are sharp dealers, let me tell you. I don’t suppose you have any objection to an R.C. sale?”

“I’d sell to Old Nick if he would pay a good price.”

“I’m glad to see you’re free of religious prejudice. That’s always troublesome in a vendor.”

“You tell me that location, and location, and location are your standards. A good price is mine. Or rather, I should say it’s the standard the Inland Revenue have imposed on me.”

“Ah, it’s a forced sale, is that it?”

“Indeed it is. And I’ll tell you why. My father was born in this county, very near here, and he always wanted a house here. Always wanted this house, in fact. But he was a citizen of Canada. He knew what the situation was: he was liable for estate taxes in both the United Kingdom and Canada, and on his full estate. You can guess what that would mean. Taxes far exceeding even his substantial means. After a lot of haggling and costly legal process he got an agreement from the tax people here that if he lived in this place for seven years after the agreement was signed, his estate here would be taxed only on what he owned in the United Kingdom. But that agree­ment came too late. He died five years later, and now I have to arrange to pay full estate tax in both countries, even though he never lived here for more than six months in any given year. The Canadians are very decent as tax-gatherers go, which isn’t far. So are the people here. But they are not so decent that I don’t have to find a hell of a lot of money — so much money that when it’s all paid there won’t be much left, if anything is left at all. It’s policy, they tell me. He left some substantial bequests, though not to me. So you see how it is. I’ve got to squeeze as much money out of this house and its estate and its furnishings as I can possibly get, or I’m ruined. Worse than ruined, because I live on a professor’s salary. I belong to the kind of people who buy Old World cottages if they buy anything at all. I may have to sell my modest, modern Canadian house to make up the final sum. The law­yers! They get their big slice, win or lose. So I’m avaricious, Mr. Crouter. Avaricious as only a cornered man can be. And I’m asking you, what can you do for me?”

“My very best, Mr. Gilmartin. Butler and Manciple always do their very best and you can be sure I’ll tell my principals everything you’ve told me. They understand about estate taxes. A lot of our business comes from people who’ve been taxed out of places they’ve lived in for — nearly as long as Robert de Beleme’s time ago. I suppose you hate selling this place?”

“Frankly, Mr. Crouter, I don’t. It would never be mine, however long I lived here. This place represents a dream of my father’s, and it was a dream that did not make my life easy, I may tell you. This was his Land of Lost Content, which he managed to turn into a sort of Paradise Regained.”

“You don’t say so! Okay Mr. Gilmartin. I’ll do the best I can, as I’ve said. And I can tell you — I’ve a romantic side to my character, my wife keeps telling me — we at the firm know that we do quite an extensive business in dreams. That’s what estate-agency is.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson