Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“In all our life together, I never saw her pray,” he said, with a wonder that made it plain that he himself did pray, perhaps furtively but none the less with true intent. If they had shared a religious life, would the need for insistence on truth and loyalty have been less avid? If they had had a belief in which they could, so to speak, turn easily and draw full breaths, would they have needed so strict a world of duty?

I, the patient looker-on, think I know the answer to that. Rhodri and Malvina had come at the end of the great evan­gelical movement in Christianity, when the immense impulse given to it by John Wesley and his disciples was running down and no longer infused those who believed they believed. Could Malvina, whose family had been ruined by church ambition and church hypocrisy, have been a strong believer? She was not a saint and it would have taken the zeal and fortitude of a saint to believe devoutly and humbly in a faith that had brought ruin and humiliation and a sense of treachery.

As for Rhodri, his relinquishing of the church — though not wholly of belief — had a different, a comical, an entirely understandable and forgivable origin. He simply outgrew Methodism. He possessed a strong, though not a cultivated or refined, aesthetic sense, and the hideous temples of evangelicism, like William McOmish’s Grace Church, made him laugh. If that was God’s house, God must have appalling taste. If the people God assembled there were His chosen, God was welcome to them. Rhodri the journalist knew too much about many of them to accept them as intellectual or ethical equals. There was no spite in this, just a little snobbery of a not wholly discreditable kind.

Snobbery, like every other social attitude, takes its char­acter from those who practise it. The snob is supposedly a mean creature, delighting in slight and trivial distinctions. But is the man who bathes every day a snob because he does not seek the company of the one-bath-a-week, one-shirt-a-week, one-pair-of-clean-drawers-a-week, one-pair-of-socks-a-week man? Must the gourmet embrace the bar­barian whose idea of a fine repast is a hamburger made from the flesh of fallen animals, and a tub of fries soaked in vine­gar? Is the woman who wears a first-rate intaglio to be faulted because she thinks little of the woman whose fingers are loaded with fake diamonds? Rhodri had outgrown the kind of people who exemplified — no, not the faith of his fathers, but what remained of that faith in the modern world.

Doubtless it is the Devil’s work to nibble away at a man’s belief in such a fashion, but it must be admitted that the Devil is a fine craftsman, and so many of his arguments are unan­swerable. Probably Heraclitus would have had something to say about that. Everything, in time, begets its opposite.


If it is true, as the song says, that “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage,” it is equally true that art and snobbery, art and snobbery, go together like a highway and robbery. On the second day of the sale Mr. Wherry-Smith, one of Torringtons’ best men when it came to pictures, takes the auc­tioneer’s elevated desk, and sets to work with professional geniality.

As a joke, he opens with two pottery caricature figures of Gladstone and Disraeli. A member of the Ring is annoyed when an eager outsider pushes the price up to twenty-five guineas (for Mr. Wherry-Smith does not admit the existence of any lesser unit of currency), but the Ring man knows where he can get rid of those things for sixty, without a murmur.

Then come the pictures, some of which are better than Rhodri ever knew, or the Coopers ever foresaw. A Gainsbo­rough called The Beggar Boys, with an indisputable pedigree, went for thirteen thousand guineas. The county spectators gasp, for they had always liked that picture, as they sat under it in the dining-hall at the Manor, but they had never respected it, and were humbled by their own lack of prescience. A portrait by Millais of his wife — the former Mrs. Ruskin, and a stunning Scots beauty — brought five thousand, and another Millais, of pretty children, brought two. Noblemen fetched less. A reputed Kneller of the Marquess of Blandford (John Churchill, but not the John Churchill) fetched a mere seven hundred and fifty guineas and an Earl of Rochester (which one? the one who wore a white periwig) went for a miserable hundred. A Poynter of squeezable but obviously virginal girls in a classic setting, with plenty of sun shining through their flimsy garments, brought twelve hundred guineas from a wistful local bachelor who had always fancied it, but a gloomy Watts called Love and Death went for a risible sixty. The very next picture, a rousingly romantic portrait by John Singleton Copley of the twelfth Earl of Eglinton, glorious in Highland chieftain’s dress, created a furore, and the Ring quickly ran it up beyond the reach of any but very serious buyers; it went at last to one of themselves for thirty-five thousand guineas. There was a round of applause in the mar­quee, and Mr. Wherry-Smith, smiling as though to say, “Nothing to do with me; I am but the humble broker of the Muses,” bobbed his head in acknowledgement.

Some of these pictures came with the Manor and repre­sented the taste of the Coopers, who had bought fashionably in their time; their Victorian pictures have come into favour again. Some of the pictures had been bought by Rhodri, whose simple principle it was to buy what he liked, and that meant pictures of men who looked as if they held their heads high in the world, and ladies who had beauty in the style of one age or another. He liked to surround himself with pic­tures of people who might have been his ancestors, if he had belonged to the class that has ancestors, and not just fore­bears. He never pretended that these odds and ends from sales were connected with himself by anything other than right of purchase. But in a way he was right. These were pictures of people successful and important in their own time, and as a successful and important person he might be considered their descendant and modern exemplar. Some of the pictures were good — in the world of Mr. Wherry-Smith and the Ring — and some were scorned in that same world. Some fetched sub­stantial prices. Some went for under £100, which in modern terms is ignominious. To Brochwel everything in the sale was part of the milieu Rhodri had created for himself, the stage-setting against which he had played the final scenes of his hero-struggle, and it was painful to see prices put on the fabric of a dream.

Mr. Wherry-Smith bent his neck to the rougher yoke of two depictions of Napoleon, copied from French originals by one of the Miss Coopers who had a talent — though not a large one — in that direction. Napoleon apparently thinking; Miss Cooper has left the nobility of the Emperor in abeyance and has emphasized the simple Corsican; his eyes are dimmed and he seems not to have shaved lately. There is about him the air of a bandmaster ruined by drink. Napoleon Crossing the Alps; after Delacroix — a very long way after. Can the Emperor not ride? Why is his horse being led by a picturesque guide? Of course this permits the Emperor to look out of the picture, straight at the audience, so to speak. One hand is thrust into his bosom. Neither of these pictures reaches twenty guineas. They will end up in third-rate schools, to impress third-rate parents, who know Napoleon by sight.

Worse is to come. The Temptation of Christ which had hung in a place of honour in the Great Hall is a very flat picture, and in many respects inexplicable, for Christ seems to have spent his forty days in the wilderness in a pink tea-gown. His face is that of the usual nineteenth-century Bearded Lady, and the hand with which he gestures toward the heavens is apparently without bones. The Fiend is the colour of dirty bronze. Naked, but decently vague about the crotch, he points below, to the Kingdom of this World. The Fiend, undoubtedly by accident, is handsomer than Christ. No bids, and the picture is withdrawn.

Nor has Mr. Wherry-Smith any better luck with the statuary with which the Coopers had ornamented their house, and which Rhodri had found too heavy to remove. Mrs. Cooper, in Roman dress, teaching two small sons in Roman tunics from a marble Bible; classically, but without obvious erotic effect, her nipples are discreetly hinted at under her drapery. Nipples are of course very maternal, but they have other significances, and perhaps Mr. Cooper had not been indifferent to these. Clever, is it not, to suggest the human form below the garments, and in stone? But not clever enough for anybody in the marquee. Mrs. Cooper is too big, too marmoreal, too holy, even for a garden ornament. Besides, how would you ever get the thing home? Mr. Wherry-Smith, in answer to a question, denies any knowledge of B. E. Spence, the sculptor, who has signed the piece and added “Fecit Roma” to show that it is right from the nineteenth-century fount of all great art.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson