Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Showing no emotion, Mr. Wherry-Smith passes on to Eve, a bluey-white marble effigy of our First Mother. She is reaching upward, presumably for the apple, but the whole tendency of her body is downward; her mouth droops and her flesh seems heavy as if more than ordinary gravity were dragging it to earth. She is fattish, but her breasts are globu­lar; her hips are broad and suggest squelchiness; her mount of Venus is chastely imperforate and has the bald impersonality of a blancmange. She has long, ladylike fingers and prehensile toes.

“You have seen it in the Library Garden, ladies and gentlemen. What am I bid? Shall I say a hundred guineas, for a start?”

He is permitted to say it, but nobody seconds his opti­mism. Eve will remain where she is.

Rhodri had rather liked Eve. A nude, but biblical and thus permissible.


The third day of the sale is reserved for what the auctioneers call “domestic” objects, and it is not the distinguished Beddoe or the aesthetic Wherry-Smith who preside, but a Mr. Boggis, whose realm this is, and who brings Torringtons a considerable sum each year by selling what would never appear in a Bond Street shop. The contents of servants’ rooms, piles of excellent bed-linen, Turkey carpet — worn but with many a year left in it — stair carpets and gleaming brass stair-rods for those who can still persuade maidservants to polish them, sixty-eight yards of Brussels carpet from an upstairs corridor, long runs of magazines for decades out of publication, lowly po-boxes from the domestic quarters, a cheval-glass at which the ser­vants have smartened themselves before going through the baize door which divided their world from that of the gentry, towel-horses, sets of jugs and basins and chamber-pots (flo­rists sought chamber-pots because, when discreetly used, they are excellent for middle-sized “arrangements”), sets and sets of chairs in dozens and half-dozens from all parts of the house and especially from the back quarters where forty domestic bottoms had to be accommodated for meals and for rest, the Aga cooker, the sale of which makes Rose weep, for it has been her domestic altar and she knows its every whim. Mountains of things, and money in every one of them, which Mr. Boggis can charm out of them as deftly as anybody in the auctioneering world.

Surprises, of course. An oak bidet is put up, and to many of those in the marquee its purpose is unknown. They do not associate the Victorians with those objects that appear so mysteriously in the bathrooms of hotels when they venture “abroad.” But some female Cooper must have been so Pari­sian in spirit as to desire such a thing, and here it was, from Gillows of London. It brings an astonishing sum from an antique dealer from London, who sees a future for it. Who collects period bidets?

Equally astonishing prices are paid for the piles of velvet curtains, supplied long ago by John G. Grace of 14 Wigmore Street. When the Coopers built their new Gothic Belem, Mr. Grace’s men spent fifty-six days hanging curtains and laying the carpets. Mr. Boggis has unearthed much information from some records still in the house, which lends an inexpli­cable authenticity and antique charm to what might other­wise appear to be second-hand domestic furnishings. Oh, he is a shrewd man, is Mr. Boggis! Splendid stuff here, even after more than a century; some amber China damask brings ahs and oohs from those who know fabrics. Much of Mr. Grace’s work goes to a London costumier, who will reshape it as costume’s for plays and films.

The greatest surprise of all, perhaps, is the Orthophonic; such a novelty when it first appeared at St. Helen’s, so full in tone, so deft at allowing the “inner voices” of complex music to “come through,” as earlier machines had not been able to do. Rhodri never noticed that it was grow­ing old, as he was increasingly deaf, and that other record-players had succeeded it and improved on it; he had brought it from Canada because he was not quite sure where he would buy such a thing in the United Kingdom. Now, it appears, it has risen again from its lowly estate as an out­worn instrument, and become valuable as an antique, capa­ble of being put in first-rate condition, and of course the very thing for playing your seventy-eight revolution recordings, ladies and gentlemen, which will not function on your new high-fidelity machines.

Not just the old Orthophonic leaps into life, but also the scores of records that go with it. Many of these are now collector’s pieces. Georges Barrere playing “The Swan” exquisitely on his gold flute, Melba singing Tosti’s “Good-Bye,” Evan Williams singing a Welsh song of parting, “Yn iach y ti, Cymru,” Gogorza singing “Could I,” singers for­gotten, like Cecil Fanning and David Bispham, and “Hearts and Flowers” played by the Victor Salon Orchestra. There are five enthusiasts in the marquee, and the Ring is not interested — indeed has come today only for a bedstead in the Gothic taste, with hangings reputedly designed by Morris — and the bidding is keen and rapid. The watchers are excited. Old gramophone records! Who would have suspected! Have we anything at home like this? Brochwel is pleased that the record of “Gems from Lady Mary” brings £8. “What do the Yanks know of England?/That know not Austin Reed?” A man who is an enthusiast for forgotten musicals bids it up and is pleased to get it. Mr. Boggis, crafty man, puts up the best of the records one by one, and not in batches. Mr. Boggis is just as highly esteemed, at Torringtons, as either Mr. Beddoe or Mr. Wherry-Smith, because Mr. Boggis believes that at an auction sale there is no such thing as something nobody wants. He might even have sold Eve if she had not been Fine Art, and thus Mr. Wherry-Smith’s.

He proves it in the last lot of all that comes under his hammer. A quantity of garden equipment has gone, at rea­sonable prices, and assemblies of odds and ends — “job lots” is the term — for reasons that can only be known to the buyers. This final lot is made up of a hand lawnmower in poor order, a trousers press, a quantity of burlap wrapping, and a zebra-skin rug. It goes to a farmer for eighteen shillings and, as Mr. Boggis will tell you, every eighteen shillings is eighteen shil­lings you didn’t have before.

By five o’clock the sale is over. Brochwel cannot bear to walk again through the empty rooms; the house has the ravaged, unswept air of a place that has been looted by an army; nothing remains but odds and ends of rubbish in cor­ners. He finds Old Rose in what used to be the Servants’ Hall, empty now except for the old woman who is weeping into her apron. She is to be the caretaker until a new owner is found, and she will live at her cottage down near the gate with her nephew, who is not a good fellow, and exploits her. Brochwel cannot think of anything to say, but he takes Rose in his arms and kisses her wildly rouged cheeks, and walks the two miles back to Trallwm.


Brochwel is staying at the Green Man. He drinks a couple of whiskies and then resigns himself to the dinner; some sort of unidentifiable warm flesh, vegetables cooked to mush, and stewed prunes with chemical custard to conclude the feast. The vile coffee — gravy colour­ing and hot stale beer, it might be — is an extra, but he has it because it is expected of him. He is, after all, the gentleman who has come all the way from America to close up Belem Manor. The Manor has figured in the history of Trallwm in the past, and the inn has no doubt that it will rise again after some temporary lull in its fortunes. Though who will keep it up in the real old style, as the late Rhodri Gilmartin has done, is certainly a problem. Rhodri Gilmartin had a very long purse, no doubt of it. Gave to everything, and his annual lawn-party — plum cake and strawberries unlimited for the old men and women from the Union (no longer called “the workus”) was famous. Had a real feeling for the workus, had Mr. Gilmartin. This gentleman, his son, will certainly be very rich.

Brochwel knows for a certainty that he will be nothing of the kind. Two governments will contend and at length make some sort of agreement about how much “the grim wolf with privy paw” — the unappeasably covetous tax-gatherers — will demand, and how much will be left over for Rhodri Gilmartin’s heir. They will probably not despoil him utterly. They will leave him a few thousands, but not many. If only Rhodri could have contrived to die in Canada, some sort of case against the highest British taxes might have been made. But he did not. He died at Belem, and Trallwm gave him a splendid funeral, at which the Mayor spoke eloquently of this native son who had after so many years come back to the place of his birth. Rhodri, if he were aware of that (and I, the looker-on, think it very likely that he was aware of it), would have liked his funeral very much. Everybody who was anybody in the county was present, and the Earl, though too old and unable now to venture out on a wet day, had sent a handsome tribute of flowers; had he not, during the past few years, been on excellent terms with the dead man? The boy who had run to open the gate for the Earl’s Countess had quite disappeared in the prosperous man who restored Belem Manor to something very like its Victorian splendour.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson