Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

It hangs over his desk, and at the top it is plainly labelled Degrés des ges. I gather that it was a picture familiar enough in simple homes in France, but not often seen in the New World.

It is a picture, a print, of the journey of life. Over a curved bridge marches Mankind, male and female. At the bottom of the bridge, on the left, two infants lie in a cradle, heavily swaddled and smiling in carefree innocence. Up the curve of the bridge marches Childhood, Youth, Maturity and then — as the curve begins its descent — the marching couples portray Decay, Old Age, and at last arrive at a couple lying in bed in their hundredth year, again like infants, but now hideously wrinkled and toothless, labelled ge d’imbécilité. Right back to their beginning, indeed, but without that hopeful journey ahead.

To judge by the dress of these people I should date the picture, or chart, at about 1830; they are depicted in gaudy colours, for this was an example of the art of the people, not a sophisticated composition. The possible fate of the travellers is also represented; a conventional Christian Heaven, pre­sided over by a smiling, embracing, bearded Creator, awaits the good, and for the bad lies a Hell with horned and tailed tormentors; these two possibilities are labelled Jugement Universel. I suppose this thing was intended for simple people to hang over the bed, side by side perhaps with a Plenary Absolution, for which they had laid down good money.

I used to amuse myself by placing my colleagues on the Advocate according to their time of life, and speculating which of the two opposed fates awaited them. Hugh deplored such facetiousness.

“It’s verra crude,” he would say, “but not without merit for all of that. Look at it and think about it seriously, if you have a serious bone in your reprobate body.”

“But I do,” I would say.”Look — there’s the Sniffer, and see how gallantly he is arming that handsome woman at his side. No doubt about it, he’s in L’ge viril.”

“Aye, aye. And who’s the woman with him? Not his wife, of course. Undoubtedly somebody else’s wife. A fine, sonsy lass. Perhaps she’s really the wife of the man on the next grade, labelled L’ge de maturité. Quite a decent figure of a man, wouldn’t you say? What did you tell me your age was, Gil?”

“Forty-four, “said I.

“Ah, well — L’ge de maturité right enough. He looks a bit simple for maturity, though that may just be the crudeness of the drawing. A bit self-satisfied, I would say myself.”

“That’s because you belong in the next rank,” said I.”L’ge de discrétion. It makes you sour about anybody behind you.”

He never commented on that, and now I know that he was trying to hint to me that the Sniffer was seen rather too often with Esme. He took her with him to a lot of the plays he attended professionally. My work did not give me as many evenings for the theatre as I should have liked. I never paid much attention to their evenings together.

A bit simple, I see now. A bit self-satisfied.

And now, beyond question, I had been hustled out of life before my time. The Sniffer had robbed me of a possible thirty or forty years. Without being one of those rapturous creatures who declare that they love life, I certainly enjoyed it deeply, if perhaps a little dully, and did not want to miss a day of what I felt to be my due. Fool! That was my life and my marriage, which Going — and I suppose Esme cannot be wholly exempted from complicity — had invaded cynically and trivially.

Fool! And because I now see myself to have acted like a fool, I do not hate Going any the less. More, indeed.


Hugh and I often talked about marriage, and I teased him about his single state.

“If a man aspires to the condition of a philosopher, and I do that, with proper humility,” he said, “he knows that philosophers are either unmarried, or their wives are slaves or tyrants. I could not reduce any woman to slavery, because that would be unworthy of an enlightened man, and I cer­tainly have no wish to live with a tyrant. We exist in a time that is supposed to be cynical about marriage. Popular prophets predict that it cannot last long as a social institution. But I respect marriage too much to trifle with it. Also, I fear my own Woman, who would probably betray me.”

“What woman are you talking about?” said I.”Have you been hiding some Highland beauty from us, Hugh? Tell all. Who is this mistress you hint at?”

“No, no; you don’t understand. Listen to me. Every mar­riage involves not two, but four people. There are the two that are seen before the altar, or the city clerk, or whoever links them, but they are attended invisibly by two others, and those invisible ones may prove very soon to be of equal or even greater importance. There is the Woman who is concealed in the Man, and there is the Man who is concealed in the Woman. That’s the marriage quaternity, and anybody who fails to understand it must be very simple, or bound for trouble.”

“Is this some of your Oriental philosophy?”

“The farthest thing from it. It’s not fanciful, it’s physio­logical. Even you must know that every man contains a fair number of female genes, and every woman has her masculine genes in some proportion or other — probably quite substan­tial. Is it fanciful to think that those genes, those numerically fewer but not necessarily inferior elements, never assert themselves?”

“Oh, come on Hugh! You’re pushing it too far!”

“I’m doing nothing of the sort. You’re a man of some discernment. Do you have no hours when you find yourself unexpectedly intuitive or forbearing with Esme, or maybe in a quarrel you become a wee bit hysterical and bitchy — which is the negative aspect of that same wisdom and mercy? And Esme, now — consider her substantial career. Do you honestly think she has never had to call on powers that carried her over a rough patch, and gave her strength to bear what she thought she might not be able to endure? Or — I don’t want to intrude on your marriage — but are there never times when she seems simply coarse and domineering? Think, man, and think clearly. If your marriage has not made you aware of those other people who live with you and Esme — with you and in you — you’re asking me to think it’s a far more primi­tive affair than I am ready to believe.”

“What did you mean by saying you feared your own Woman?”

“I have a disposition toward tenderness within me that could make me a slave, if the condition favoured that. Or it might make me a snarling, ugly devil, whose home was a hell. That’s what feminine feeling does in a man, when it goes sour. I’ve never met a woman who would have me whom I felt I could trust in the same house and the same bed with my own Woman.”

“You make marriage sound even more difficult than the popular marriage counsellors.”

“Of course it’s difficult, you gowk! Too many people trust to love, which is the worst of guides. Marriage is no game for simpletons. Love’s just the joker in the pack.”


Is there any point in re­membering these talks with Hugh now? Yes, there is, though it is uncomfortable to recall how lightly I took them, simply as amusements to refresh me during my work of reading endless copy written by critics and commentators, most of whom seemed to me to be wide of their mark.

I remember so much. Indeed I remember with greater clarity than when I was alive. I remember now something that Hugh McWearie once dredged up from his apparently inexhaustible reading about matters of the spirit, and of the life after death. In the Bhagavad Gita, said he, it was firmly stated that after death one attains the state that one was think­ing about at the moment of death, and so it behoved a man to be careful of what he thought of as he died. As usual, he was diffuse and sometimes incoherent on that point. He talked about Famous Last Words.

“Which was that English statesman who is said to have died exclaiming, ‘My country! How I leave my country!’ Was it Pitt? Or was it Burke? But somebody else reports that he said, ‘I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies.’ What was his fate? A splendid brooding over the history of Eng­land, or an eternity of veal pie? If there is anything in what the E.G. says, it behoves us to be very careful what we say or even think in our last moments.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson