Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies


However boldly, and indeed cynically, Brochwel speaks to Mr. Crouter about sell­ing Belem Manor, his thoughts when he sits in the big, now somewhat dismal, library that night, having supped on cold lamb with salad, followed by Old Rose’s notion of coffee, are in a very different strain.

Paradise Regained, he had called the Manor, and doubt­less for Rhodri it had been so. The powerful Liverpool own­ers of Belem Manor, the Coopers, had obeyed the ancient law of Heraclitus, that excess in anything eventually runs into its opposite, and their wealth had brought ease, refinement, an illusion that wealth needs no shepherding, and eventual ruin. For him to be able to buy the Manor — that was a stroke of quite unforeseeable good fortune. To have the Canadian dol­lars to restore the splendour which the Coopers had allowed to run to seed, and to be himself the master of a great house for which his father, the unfortunate Walter, had once sup­plied the liveries — was that not a Paradise Regained, an adjustment of the balances of Fortune?

To be able to indulge the hobby of his middle age, and fill Belem with handsome antiques had given him unceasing pleasure. His own taste was fair, and he had the guidance of his old school friend Fred ffrench, who had become some­thing of a notability in the world of antique dealers. (Was he not one of the committee who vetted the furniture that was shown at the annual Antique Dealers’ Fair in London? Was he not a regular supplier to the great Bond Street dealers of antiques that he bought in Wales when Wales was still unknown territory to the English buyers?) Yes, Fred ffrench, who had gone to school with Rhodri. Fred had come up in the world, and converted his father’s undertaking business into one of the finest provincial antique shops in the King­dom. On the way he had abandoned the English spelling of his name, and Fred French became Fred ffrench, which was authentically Welsh, and looked well on his letterheads. Fred ffrench was happy to put his taste, his knowledge and, of course, his professional scale of fees to work for his old friend.

Old friends; there were plenty of them and Rhodri never turned his back on one of them, however humble. But there were new friends, as well. County people, many of whom had been brought to straitened circumstances by wars which claimed cherished sons; that ill-fortune worked hand in hand with rising taxes, and the temper of a time which was sour about their sort of privilege. They were pleased to welcome the new owner of Belem Manor; his lavish spending looked like an assurance that the old days, when county was county, had not wholly disappeared. There were those, of course, who despised him as an upstart; they were county people who did not like his New World ways, and townspeople whose long Welsh memories went back to the days of drunken Uncle David, and the disgrace of bankruptcy. But on the whole Rhodri had managed very well as a county landowner, and his open-handed support of local causes salved the feelings of the gentry whenever those might be rubbed a little raw.

Oh, he had enjoyed a happy old age, had Rhodri. He had returned to the Land of Lost Content and found it still a land of present content. But now the setting in which he had played out his comedy must be disposed of, the fine antiques must be sold, the rapacity of the tax-gatherers must be appeased.

The auction impended, and Brochwel dreaded it, for he saw it as the piecemeal destruction of his father’s dream. The dreamer now slept, never to wake again, but after every life, some wretched dispositions must be made, and somebody must see them through. And so — an auction.


The auction. This film represents an extraordinary variety of techniques; the scene with Mr. Crouter, for instance, was as direct as it could possi­bly be. The war scenes with Brochwel in the cellar and the altar tomb were wonders of rapid cutting and montage, and now as I first see the great auction at Belem Manor I know that there are to be even more, even dizzier, evocations of fact mingled with feeling, superimpositions, distortions, and all the riot of épopée cinématographique as the great Abel Gance and Leonid Trauberg conceived it. If, during my lifetime, I had been confronted with the job of reviewing this film, what could I have made of it in my useful journalist’s prose? Its import is amply clear — much clearer than straight narrative could achieve — but its technique is the phantasmagoria of the human mind, of human perception, of human thought as poets of the film understand it.

The auction — what a festival it turns out to be! A big tent, an ornamental tent like a wedding marquee, has been set up on Belem’s lawn, and at one end of it two kitchen tables have been put together to form a platform, and covered with a handsome Turkey carpet; the auctioneer now takes his place; he is not that genial figure, a country auctioneer, but Mr. Beddoe, one of the high priests of the great Bond Street auction house of Torringtons, and his mien is serious. He is, in himself, an assurance that fine things are to be sold, and fine prices expected. Before he begins he glances over the assembly who sit in the folding chairs on the grass. Mr. Beddoe is an old hand, and knows precisely who they are.

The local gentry, of course; come to see the fun, to marvel at the prices people will pay for chairs and tables they have known when Rhodri Gilmartin was dispensing his con­siderable hospitality. Some of them have pencils ready to mark prices in their catalogues. (Catalogue on request, from Torringtons; price one guinea.)

The visitors, some from quite a long way off, in Cheshire or Shropshire; they think they know antiques, and hope to pick up good things at less than shop prices; they study Connoisseur and Frank Davis’s column in Country Life and they have been busy on the view-days, taking note of what they think they will bid for. They have vainglorious hopes of getting the better of Mr. Beddoe, of scoring off Torringtons, and boasting about it forever after.

The Ring. Mr. Beddoe knows the members of the Ring very well, but he does not nod or acknowledge their pres­ence. These are the professionals, the men from the big antique dealers, who attend every significant sale, buy all the best things, and know to a farthing what every object will sell for when they have got their hands on it. They hate and despise the visitors, those simple amateurs, and sometimes when they feel mischievous they trap one of that gullible tribe into a contest of bidding, and then leave him with a piece they have never seriously thought of buying, which has been run up to an absurd price. It is possible — even though it is illegal — that the Ring will let one of their number buy a good piece at a low price, if he can, and then, when they meet at night at the Green Man in Trallwm, they will have another auction, and one of their number will buy it at a greater price, for sale to a customer he knows wants this very thing; the precious object will at least double its money, on Bond Street.

The Ring are the old hands at the antique business. Not well-dressed or remarkable men to look at; they do not seek to call attention to themselves. But they are the nourishing root of a complex trade. They are not in the least like the glossy young men with cut-glass accents who will eventu­ally sell the antiques (polished and repaired where necessary) in Bond Street, in Cheltenham, in Oxford or wherever peo­ple seek the very best survivals from the furnishings of an earlier age.

The Ring are not the eager bidders — the catalogue-wavers, the putters up of hands, the head-bobbers. Mr. Beddoe knows them, and a wink or a raised pencil is signal enough for Mr. Beddoe.

Mr. Beddoe, and his colleague Mr. Wherry-Smith, are prepared to steer a careful course over the three days of the Belem Manor Sale. There is a lot of Victorian Gothic and some earlier Gothic Revival stuff in the catalogue; it remained in the house when Rhodri bought it, because it was too big, too grandiose for the dwellings of the remaining Coopers. That style is now well advanced in the antique market as collectable. It will not draw the visitors, but the Ring will pick up the best of it. Mallatt’s, on Bond Street, is already doing very well with Gothic Revival, and it will be a rage for a few years.

The hour strikes from the Belem stable clock, and Mr. Beddoe taps on his desk with a ball of ivory which he holds — not for the likes of Mr. Beddoe is the conventional auction­eer’s hammer — and silences the crowd, which Brochwel, standing alone at the back of the marquee, judges to be no less than two hundred and fifty.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74

Categories: Davies, Robertson