Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Here was the bench on which Brochwel had sat five years ago, during his last visit to Belem in Rhodri’s lifetime, and it was here that Rhodri had told him the Great Secret. I see them sitting in the sunshine — for in Wales sunshine must be seized on the fly and must never be taken for granted — Rhodri so smartly dressed in white flannels and a blue blazer, my father somewhat rumpled and greyish, as a travelling professor usually is.

“I miss your mother, of course.”

“But she never came here.”

“No, no; she was here a number of times, when she felt up to the journey.”

“But you came, nevertheless, whether she came or not.”

“Yes. But you see, I had to look after the place. Couldn’t leave it unoccupied for a year at a time.”

“There are lots of servants to keep an eye on it. And Norman Lloyd is your agent, isn’t he? He wouldn’t let it come to harm.”

“Not the same thing. No manure like the foot of the master. A place loses heart if it’s not occupied.”

“Not loved, you mean.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Mother never loved it.”


“But she came here, all the same.”

“Yes. She wanted to see what I was doing with it. She loved all that sort of thing. Inherited from her father, I sup­pose. He knew what building was.”

“But he came to grief?”

“I’m not sure that I’d call it grief.”

“The Poor Farm? Wasn’t that disgrace?”

“For the old woman and the girls, it was. But I heard tales about William McOmish having a high old time out there. He was a man of some intelligence, you know. He kept the books for the Poor Farm better than anybody they could hire. And he used to give lectures — yes, lectures — to the pau­pers on stresses and strains, and geometry as applied to build­ing, and the stupidity of the Russo-Japanese War, and all sorts of things. He was an old gasbag, but not a fool. Loved to talk. So he ended up as a kind of parody of what you are now — a professor, a knowledge-box, a professional Wise Man.”

“Thanks, Dad. You certainly give me a build-up.”

“Oh, go on with you! You know I’m really very proud of you.”

“Nice to hear that. I’ll make an exchange: I’m proud of you.”

“I’ve not done too badly, considering what a poor start I had.”

“Was it so poor? I’ve heard you quote Ossian. Not one of my colleagues has ever done that.”

“That was the Mater. A dear, good soul. We’d have sunk without her. The Pater lost all heart when we went to Can­ada.”

“It was very bitter for you, those first years?”

“Cruel. We were humble people at home, but I’d never been used to filth and wickedness. Those first months at The Courier –! You spoke of Ossian; a line of his recurred to me every day at that time —

Blind, and tearful, and forlorn, I walk with little men.

Beak Browder and Charlie Delaney were little men, sure enough. Somehow I had to get out of that.”

“And you did. You fought the hero-fight.”

“Get away with you! There was nothing heroic about it. Just hard, hard work and a lot of personal sacrifice.”

“Every man’s fight is the hero-fight, wherever and how­ever he meets it. If he has the courage to face the dragon, or destiny, or whatever it may be, and whether he wins or falls in the battle, it’s the hero-fight. Dad — tell me — I’ve always wanted to ask — what pushed you on to make a success of your life? The kind of success that sees you at last here at Belem Manor?”

“To be wholly frank, Brocky, I think it was laziness, of a kind. You see, there was one thing I always wanted, and held ahead of me as a great thing to be achieved. I always wanted to have a twenty-minute nap after lunch, every day of my life. Now, it was obvious that a journeyman printer, or a Mono­type man, couldn’t do that. Even the Union hadn’t the nerve to ask for that, if they had the imagination to conceive of such a thing. It was obvious that I had to be self-employed or — no nap. Never. So, I saved, and scraped, and your mother went without things, and at last I was able to buy a half-interest in a little weekly paper for a few hundred dollars. The nap was mine at last. And after that it was simply a matter of hard work, as I said.”

“In certain ways that is a shamefully immoral story. Desire For Nap Leads to Success: how would that look as a headline?”

“Terrible. Misleading the young. But true, as so many terrible and misleading things are.”

“And Mother supported you and stood by you through all that?”

“Like a warrior. No man ever had a better wife.”

“Then what went wrong?”

“Wrong? I don’t understand you.”

“You do, you know. Ever since I can remember, you two were pulling different ways. When did you stop pulling together?”

“I don’t know that I can tell you.”

“You don’t know?”

“Oh yes, I know. But I’ve never told anybody. And you are her son, after all.”

“Is it something very shameful? It wasn’t another woman, was it?”

“Brocky, what a common mind you have! If anything goes wrong between husband and wife, it has to be another woman. You, a professor of literature! Is that the only story you know?”

“Easy with the Welsh rhetoric, Dad, and tell me. Do you think I’m old enough to know?”

“We were very close. Not Hollywood close but really close. Before you there was another child. About fourteen months after we were married. We didn’t tell you. A girl. Stillborn. That was a blow, but we survived it. What happens to stillborns, I wonder? The doctor took it away. Probably put it under his roses. He murmured something about the danger of pregnancy after a certain age, but I didn’t pay proper attention. I had your mother to comfort. Then John Vermuelen wrote his family history.”

“I never knew about that.”

“I didn’t keep it around the house, and I don’t think your mother did either. But I had a little job-plant in the newspa­per office I owned then, and John asked me to print the history for him. It wasn’t much bigger than a pamphlet. It included a family record up to the time of publication, and that was when I discovered about your mother.”

“What about her, for God’s sake?”

“When we married, she lied about her age. She was a full ten years older than she had admitted to. I was so furious I cried. Cried right there, standing beside the make-up stone. I remembered the Pater saying to me, ‘Rhodri, you must surely know that Malvina is a lot older than you are. People around town know it. Haven’t you heard?’ But I was headstrong and told him to mind his business and I’d mind mine. We had a terrible row when I confronted your mother with it. Went on for days. She didn’t defend herself. Just wept. She’d deceived me, and I thought I could never forgive her. But I did, and you’re the evidence of the forgiveness. When you were born your mother was nearly forty-five, and in those days — how old are you now? Forty-five yourself? — that was considered very risky. But you seem to be tidy enough. Long-headed, as the children of old parents are supposed to be.”

“But how can you have quarrelled so bitterly about such a trivial thing?”

“Trivial! You can’t mean that! Trivial! My God, Brocky, it was a failure in truth, and in loyalty. What do you suppose a marriage is, if it isn’t rooted in truth and loyalty?”

“People do speak of love, from time to time.”

“Is love anything but truth and loyalty?”

“Nowadays the stress seems to be on the physical thing.”

“Exactly! They mean sex. Sex is an instinct, and for some people it seems to be the supreme pleasure, but what can you build on it? Forty or fifty years of marriage? No, that means truth and loyalty, when sex has become an old song.”

“That’s very Confucian.”

“From what I hear, Confucius was no fool.”

“Women want love.”

“Is that what they want? I’ve always wondered.”

“You and Freud.”

“Surely he knew. I thought he knew everything.”

“He said he didn’t know that.”

“He was the great mental-health man, wasn’t he?”

“I suppose you could call it that.”

“He was rather after my time. Never read him. Read about him, now and then.”

“He said the measure of psychological health was the ability to love and the ability to work.”

“I certainly have had the ability to work. And I really loved your mother very much, in the beginning. Real love, not just pillow-love.”

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