Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“This is an important sale, ladies and gentlemen, and Torringtons are very happy to be offering some exceptional pieces, including many in the Gothic Revival area. The terms of sale are printed at the front of your catalogue, and I expect you to have familiarized yourselves with them. So without more ado [Mr. Beddoe relishes ‘ado’ as a word congruous with the antique trade] let us begin, and I think we may as well start with the famous Belem Clock, which you have undoubtedly examined in the Great Hall.”

Indeed the audience has gaped at the astonishing Belem Clock, much too big to be brought into the marquee. Who­ever buys it will have to pay a handsome price to take it away.

“Made in 1838 by Hausburg of Munich; strikes the hours on one bell and the quarters on four others, each quar­ter differently. An eight-day movement, and the dials on the facade show seconds, days of the week, the days of the month, the months, the four seasons, the signs of the zodiac, the time at Belem Manor — which is, of course, the time at Greenwich — as well as the phases of the moon. The pendant escapement is on Graham’s principle. The case finished, as you have seen during the view days, in fine bronze and ormolu.

“But the special feature of this clock is its assembly of chimes, thirty-seven in number, operated by sixty-two exquisitely tuned steel keys. There are seven changeable cyl­inders, and the chimes will play four English airs, four Irish airs, four Welsh airs — and I know that many in this audience have just heard it play ‘Of noble race was Shenkin’ — and four patriotic airs. There are two cylinders of Scottish airs — the Cooper family, who commissioned this remarkable clock, were proud of their Scottish ancestry — and of course in the best nineteenth-century tradition there are four Sacred airs. Cylinders cased in oak boxes lined with velvet. More than a clock: a musical instrument of unique quality.

“The ornamentation is in the finest early-nineteenth-century style. Figures representing Day and Night; two heads of Time in youth and age, and medallions of the Sea­sons, all rendered in verd-antique. Dial enriched in gold and fine enamel. An unique piece, ladies and gentlemen; a tri­umph of horological skill and in itself a splendid evocation of the mid-nineteenth century. Somewhat large, it must be admitted, but many of you have very large houses, I know, and we now ask for your bids on an exceptional timepiece.”


“Nobody likes to be the first to bid on the first item. I know that well. So shall I propose a figure? Shall I say five thousand pounds for a beginning? You would not, as I am certain you know, reproduce this clock today for five times that figure. There simply aren’t the workmen. Five — do I hear five? Does anyone say five, to start the bidding?”

Nobody says five. Or anything at all. Mr. Beddoe comes down, and down, and down, until one of the Ring (who knows an American with a place in Scotland, who will pay ten thousand for the clock) gets it for five hundred pounds.

Is Mr. Beddoe dismayed? Not he! He knew that mon­strous clock would go very low, but he knew that the buyers would thereby be encouraged to think that everything that came up subsequently would go low. And he is right. The next item, an angle ottoman — “upholstered in China Damask trimmed with silk gimp and cord, finished with silk tufts and rosettes and a shaped valance trimmed with bow gimp and fringe” — goes for exactly twice what he had men­tally decided he might get for it. All is going well. The crowd thinks it smells bargains. The ottoman whispers of Victorian flirtations, of crinolines wooed by drooping sidewhiskers.

Mr. Beddoe offers what he calls a Portfolio Stand in oak, with brass ornamentation and crimson tassels. A century ago the pious Coopers used it not for portfolios, but for a gigantic Bible, which was thus displayed, opened each day to some edifying passage, in the Great Hall. Mr. Cooper read from it when the forty indoor servants were assembled for morning prayers. The Coopers had great faith in daily doses of religion for keeping the maidservants sweet and the menservants chaste, and upon the whole it worked — the daily prayers, Sunday processions of the whole household to church, and a decidedly un-Christlike severity toward any backsliders, pregnant housemaids or light-fingered footmen. This object, which Brochwel thinks a monstrosity, fetches a very good price from a visitor who wants it to display his art books, which exemplify the religion of his very cultivated style of life.

Rhodri, assisted by electricity and modern refrigeration, had managed Belem with five indoor servants.

Upon the whole, good objects, conformable to modern life while bringing to it a whiff of Gothic Revival romance, fetch good prices. Two hall seats, upholstered in Utrecht velvet which, though faded, is still sturdy, bring a surprising figure. They look like something on which Sir Walter Scott might have sat — but he hadn’t.

A pianoforte by Broadwood, the case of which is gussied up in elaborate marqueterie of an eighteenth-century savour, but standing on Gothic legs, causes a contest of bid­ding that looks as though it might bring two ladies to blows. It is not offered for view by the porters who move the furni­ture in and out of the tent with expedition, stage-managed by a senior man who is rather past heavy lifting; the piano may be seen in the drawing-room in the house. The bidders know that the innards of the piano are in ruins, but they want the extraordinary case, for reasons best known to themselves. The members of the Ring are not interested in this one, and watch the bidding with the amused despisal that is the mark of their profession when amateurs are vying for anything they themselves do not want.

Two suits of full armour, which are obviously phonies but would look impressive on a fine staircase, go very well indeed. They seem to speak in steely voices of Romance — Abbotsford style. The atmosphere in the marquee is now at a heat very agreeable to Mr. Beddoe, and to Brochwel. The dismantling of Rhodri’s dream is going very well.

Brochwel does not stay for the luncheon which is offered at the back of the marquee by a firm of Shrewsbury caterers at a reasonable price. Some of the visitors have brought their own flasks of sherry and are greedy after the excitement of the morning. He does not want to mingle with them, or answer questions, and so he wanders through the gardens.


The gardens had been old Rhodri’s special enthusiasm, for to him they spelled luxury and superiority of station even more than the Manor, with its mixture of Gothic Revival stuff and the very good antiques he had bought himself, helpfully guided by his old friend Fred ffrench. Rhodri’s pieces of old oak and good eighteenth-century chairs and tables were selling briskly under Mr. Beddoe’s guidance, and the Ring were picking them up at sums that had to be considered fair, even by London standards. In the gardens Belem Manor still survived as Rhodri had known it, and Brochwel thought he might still encounter a spirit which the confusion wrought by Torringtons’ men had banished from the house.

The gardens were extensive and, though the year was now well advanced, were still bright with autumn flowers and shrubs. The Coopers had fitted them out with garden figures of shepherds and shepherdesses carved in stone, not at all bad of their kind, and for their period.

The Coopers — who had they been? A wealthy Liverpool family of ship-owners whose desire it was to lift themselves in the world by the possession of a fine estate. Wales was near, and they lived before the time when all desirable estates had to be near to London, or in the Scottish Highlands. To judge from their taste in furnishing, they must have been devout, but not devout in the Methodist mode. Oh no; they were Church of England, but Low and Evangelical. The source of their money was a great merchant fleet, trading with the West Indies, and there were rumours that they had begun life — two or three generations before the family that destroyed the old, worm-eaten, dry-rotted Manor of an unguessable antiqui­ty — as “blackbirders” who had transported slaves from Africa to the American Colonies, at a high profit, even when the spoilage of slaves who did not survive those terrible voyages was taken into account. There were jealous locals, inspired by the spite which lies at the heart of much Welsh wit, who had spoken of Belem Manor as Blackbird Hall. Probably the tale was untrue: people are apt to think that anyone with a lot of money must come by it in some discre­ditable way, but they are not always right. The Coopers had lived at Belem Manor in high style through most of the nineteenth century, until only one old Miss Cooper was left, writhen by arthritis in the Welsh damp and cold, and with just enough money to see her into her grave. She died at a great age, and Rhodri bought the Manor from a group of distant cousins, who had no hope of keeping it up.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson