Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“And did she love you?”

“As much, I suppose, as that terrible home and those awful parents made possible. I realize I was very green when I married. Things were very different then. We were both vir­gins. Do you know that in all that long marriage I never saw her naked? Never knew at the end how horribly her left breast had decayed? When the doctor told me, I was as much in the dark as any stranger. Of course that was the way her parents had lived. Her mother — an old tartar. Tongue like a two-edged sword. I hope you had a good look at Nuala’s parents before you married her.”

“Very nice, jolly people. Father a lawyer in Cork.”

“And Catholics?”


“Well, there it is. Now you know.”

“Really, Dad — about her age — I don’t see that it was all that big a thing.”

“It was a failure of truth and loyalty.”

“Oh, come on!”

“Christ forgave the adulteress, but I don’t recall that he ever forgave a liar. And there was the other thing, of course.”

“What other thing?”

“This thing. Wales. When it became possible for me to come back here every summer she set her face against it. It was a land where she could not follow. She didn’t even try.”

“Her family were Loyalists. Canada was their country.”

“She wouldn’t understand that this is my country. That was a loyalty she wouldn’t permit, but she couldn’t stop it, so it was the irresistible force and the immovable object. . . . Result, deadlock.”

“I didn’t see it that way. It seemed to me it was Pull-Devil-Pull-Baker, and you both were fighting for my adher­ence to your particular loyalty. Have you any idea how difficult that was for a child, and even more difficult when I was growing up?”

“For a while, we thought your only loyalty was to Julia.”

“Perhaps it was. But if so it was an escape from the tensions at home.”

“Tensions. What tensions?”

“That house was a warring camp. A psychological bat­tlefield where not a shot was fired, but hostile feeling and determined opposition spread like poison gas.”

“You’re exaggerating! Who’s the rhetorician now?”

“I am. And for good reasons. Only exaggeration can give any idea of the day-to-day, year-in year-out quality of the feeling in that house. Mother was determined to win me for Canada. You were always dangling the romance and beauty of Wales before my eyes. When you offered to send me to Oxford, Mother knew exactly what you were at. And she played the invalid, and insisted that I go to Harvard, so that I could dash home if she thought she was dying. You know what I mean — she had more near-deaths and recoveries than Harry Lauder had farewell tours. Harvard wasn’t Canada, but at least it was New World, and she was New World to the soles of her feet.”

“All right. As we seem to be getting down to cases, tell me, and tell me true. Which side have you come down on? Are you New World or Old?”

“Sounds like a novel by Henry James.”

“Never read him.”

“Don’t. But that was his question and he plumped for the Old.”

“And you’ve plumped for –?”

“Both. Or neither. I suppose my real world is the schol­ar’s world. What we used to call in my Waverley days Eng-Lang-and-Lit. Not a bad world. That’s my homeland.”

“A bit dry-as-dust, isn’t it? All in books, I mean.”

“A little dryness doesn’t hurt. Mother used to talk to me, when I was a child, on Dominion Day as a usual thing, about loving Canada. But I couldn’t love Canada, though I did my dutiful best until I was about fourteen. You don’t love Canada; you are part of Canada, and that’s that. Mother talked about loving Canada as if it were a woman. A mother, I suppose. She wasn’t strong for my loving a woman as a mate. Never. Other countries may be like women. France makes a great thing of Marianne, or what­ever she’s called, and the English still sing sometimes about that big helmeted bruiser Britannia. But Canada isn’t like a woman; it’s like a family — various, often unsympathetic, sometimes detestable, frequently dumb as hell — but ines­capable because you are part of it and can’t ever, really, get away. You know the saying: My country, right or wrong — my mother, drunk or sober.”

“I see. Well, you’ll never be able to live here, that’s one certain thing.”


“When I’m gone, you’ll sell it up, I suppose. If your mother sees, down through the Gates of Pearl, she’ll dance a jig for the granny’s pig, as she used to say.”

“That was one of her Old Ontario expressions.”

“Well, to use another of hers, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse and chase the rider. What about getting in for lunch?”

“Yes, if we’re late the kitchen staff will be annoyed, and there’ll be wigs on the green. That’s another of mother’s.”

“Oh, not while Rose is there. She’d cut a dead dog in two for me.”

“With a dull knife, I have no doubt.”

“Extraordinary how your mother’s Old Loyalist turns of phrase keep cropping up, even here in the Old Country.”

“She was a very powerful character, whatever you may have against her.”

“Don’t say that! I have nothing against her. That’s all done with. Never harbour grudges; they sour your stomach and do no harm to anyone else.”




There had been many conversations during the last visit, for Rhodri seemed to be in the confessional mood that comes with age, when a life’s accounts are being made up. Recollections and scraps of fam­ily lore kept asserting themselves in Brochwel’s mind as he followed the fortunes of the sale.

Rhodri’s old Welsh chests, of sturdiest oak and carved with symbols recording their first owners’ loyalty to the Stuarts, fetched very good prices, though it was a period when oak was not “in” and the big money was in mahogany and walnut pieces. And how they gleamed, not as shiny objects, but as rich things that spoke from the heart of the wood and the craftsmanship that had determined its present shape. Old Rose, the housekeeper, and the last of the servants to be “kept on” as a caretaker, was in ecstasy as each treasured piece went, usually to a member of the Ring, under Mr. Beddoe’s skilled direction.

“That’s my polishin’ brought that £800!” she hissed to Brochwel.”That’s my Lavendo and elbow-grease that fetched that £800; and for that little side table! Who’d ever have thought that!” And she was probably right. Auctioneers know that a piece that has been in loving and careful hands for years brings far more than the supposed “treasure” that has been hoiked up from storage in the back of a stable, unloved and forlorn.

Unlikely objects fetched unexpected prices. There was keen competition for a “prie-dieu chair,” upon which a peti­tioner could undoubtedly have knelt, but it is far more likely that one of the Cooper daughters had sat on the cushioned kneeler to put on her pretty stockings. The Victorians and the designers of Gothic Revival furniture had a curious trick of adapting a medieval object to a domestic modern need. There were “aumbries” for instance, made in imitation of the cupboards in which the chalices and patens of the Communion service were kept, but which the Victorians used for their teacups and milk jugs. Silver especially came in for this sort of transformation and many a jam-spoon took the form of a spoon for the holy oil at a coronation. Commodes, chastely concealing a chamber-pot for use in a lady’s bedroom, might have quite a Gothic air about them, so that the infrequent pleasure of defecation — the displacement of the Victorian female tappen — was enhanced by a sense of historical conti­nuity. These po-boxes — as the Ring called them — went very well in the antique shops of the kingdom. They made pleas­ing occasional rests for lamps. Belem offered several exam­ples of all these things, remaining from the high and palmy days of the Coopers.

The prie-dieu chair; as the bidding became quicker and keener Brochwel thought about the religious associations of his family. Janet — the Mater — whom he had never seen, had apparently been deeply devout in the Evangelical, Wesleyan manner, as had Walter, who also had died before Brochwel was born. Great people to pray, both of them. Great people to set aside a tenth — the biblical “tithe” — of their little income to be given to church and charity. Rhodri had been only an occasional church-goer, but he was a generous church-giver. A salve to conscience? Malvina had long ceased to go to church, even infrequently, before her death. An invalid. Sometimes the minister came to call, and drank tea, and laughed more often than the conversation seemed to make necessary. But in one of these Belem Manor conversations, during that last visit, Rhodri had said something significant.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson