Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Brochwel was not greedy for money, but how many people are utterly indifferent to it? He needed nothing, and if he had inherited all his father’s wealth he would undoubtedly have continued to be a professor of Eng-Lang-and-Lit because that was what he knew, what he liked best, and what afforded him refuge from aspects of life he did not want to face. That was indeed the land of which he was a country­man. Not for him the struggle, the hero-journey of old Rhodri’s life, in which so many external enemies had been met and defeated. His struggles were within, and it was Rhodri and Malvina who had chosen the battleground. The Old World, or the New? Was it utterly imperative that there should be a final decision? Was Eng-Lang-and-Lit really a solution?

Brochwel leaves the inn, and in the dusk he rambles through the Trallwm streets, and although he does not know it, they are not greatly changed from the days when Rhodri ran, and revelled and rollicked in them as a boy. The dreadful “shuts” have been somewhat improved, though they are still not desirable residences. Automobiles now spread their per­vasive stench through the streets where, in Rhodri’s time, the stench of horse dung was just as pervasive. At the Town Cross the old, battered stone pillar, part monument and part pump, still marks the heart, though not the centre, of the town. The Mansion House, where Samuel Gilmartin had lorded it among his prosperous companions, is now the premises of a county office, but its pillared entrance has not changed. Brochwel walks down the Salop Road — so called because it comes from Shropshire and is thus Salopian — and looks at the humble shop where, a lifetime ago, Walter Gilmartin and Janet and their children, and as many Jenkinses and other Gilmartins as could thrust themselves through the easy door, had played out their domestic tragedy, or melo­drama, or farce, or whatever you choose to call it.

Nobody appears to live “over the shop,” for the win­dows are lightless and uncurtained. Probably the stationer who now rents the premises keeps extra stock up there. It was behind those windows that Janet Gilmartin — she who had been Janet Jenkins — read Ossian to her scarcely comprehend­ing children. And yet, when Rhodri was a crusading political writer, had not some tropes and rhythms of Ossian given substance to his prose? Who ever knows what children hear and make their own forever? Did not Brochwel himself sometimes hear his voice urging his students not to leave completion of their work “till the last dog is hung”? A phrase of Malvina’s, that was, coming from who knows what Vermuelen past, when it referred to the Mohawk Feast of the White Dog, about which the white man knew nothing, but where they suspected that dogs met a harsh, ritual quietus. Well, well; he must not walk the streets of Trallwm till the last dog was hung; he must get back to the Green Man, and try to rest before setting out tomorrow on his return journey to Canada.

To Canada. To familiarity and his own sort of ease in life. To Nuala whom he loved with all his heart, and now and then told her so. To Nuala who had healed the wound left by Julia, though nobody could erase the scar. How painful it had been! During one of their many wretched scenes of parting (for he never had the resolution or the good sense to break the thing off abruptly) he had so far sunk as to complain of the way she had used him.”Surely in things of this sort it’s the man’s job to look out for himself?” she had said. It was only one of many observa­tions of hers that made it plain how impossible it would be for him to confide the best of his life to such a person. But he must not begin that old story now, or he would get no sleep. And if he was to sleep, he must first read. Must. It was a lifelong habit, not to be broken now.

The Green Man, like virtually all inns, hotels, motels, lodging-houses and places of their kind, has no idea that anybody reads in bed. Bed, to the innkeeping trade, is a place for fornication or for sleep. This is why people like Brochwel develop a contortionist’s talent that enables them to read in extraordinary positions, in light which, by the time it reaches the page, is not more than twenty-five watts in strength. With his head where his feet should be, with his book held high and askew, Brochwel settles himself to read Browning, his professional companion, his enthusiasm, his philosophy and, in the lingo of professors of Eng-Lang-and-Lit, his “field.” He reads Shop.

Because a man has shop to mind

In time and place, since flesh must live,

Needs spirit lack all life behind,

All stray thoughts, fancies fugitive,

All loves except what trade can give?

Browning was right, as he usually was. A life spent in “trade” like that of Walter, or a life spent in journalism, which was half-trade half-profession, like Rhodri, need not be mired in trade alone. Brave thoughts and high aspirations can rise above almost anything. Had not the wretches in the Nazi prison camps kept hearts and souls above their torment by clinging to their philosophy or their religion?

He had taken leave of Rose, good old soul, in the empty Servants’ Hall at Belem. It was a room he never entered if he could help it, because of a story old Rhodri had told him on one of his visits to the Manor.

“I was a boy of twelve, I suppose, and I was here in the Servants’ Hall with my father, who had come to measure the menservants for their annual livery outfit. I remember I was eating a big slice of bread and jam the cook had given me, and my father was kneeling on the floor, measuring the inside leg of a groom, a miserable bandy-legged fellow with a boozer’s nose. He pushed the Pater with his foot — not hard, not a kick, but a nasty nudge — and said, ‘Make haste, tailor, I haven’t got all day.’ And the Pater looked abashed, but said nothing. I put down my bread and jam and swore in my heart that some day I would be somebody important, and never — never — would I speak like that to anybody. Never be insolent to a man who had to serve me. And I never have.”

No indeed. Stray thoughts, fancies fugitive, had illu­minated his life. As indeed stray thoughts, fancies fugitive, had illuminated the life of his wife, though he had never understood her any better than she had understood him. They were held together by a loyalty which was more than love — which may, in fact, be the distillation of love. He had taken the light way because, as a man of his time and place, it lay within his grasp. She had taken the dark way because, as a woman of her time and place, there was no other way for a woman of her imagination, her intuition, her witch-like sen­sibility and vision of life. Between them they had made Brochwel the queasy but resolute creature that he was.

He thought he was reading, but he was musing — not thinking, not deciding anything, not seeing anything afresh but just bobbing up and down in the dark tarn of his feelings. Of course he fell asleep and Browning fell forward on his face and woke him up sufficiently for him to extinguish the feeble interference with darkness that the inn called electric light, and sleep again.

The last thing I see in the film is Belem Manor, its Victorian Gothic turrets and vaulted windows picked out in dim moonlight. It sleeps, too, and when it wakes again it will not be a Gilmartin who kisses it back into life.


On the screen, in the usual white print, appears the formal closure

T H E E N D ?

And then, suddenly a message —



. . .To the Wind’s Twelve Quarters I Take My Endless Way

The festival is over. Not just the wondrous festival of rediscovered films that Allard Going has been gloating over in the pages of The Colonial Advocate, but my personal festival that ran beside it, visible to me alone, and significant to me alone. But is my festival over? What of that gnomic conclusion — “Nothing is finished till all is finished”? What am I to make of that?

More film? I dread it. My festival has taken me into the past, though not really very far into the past, of my own forebears. Taken me into the eighteenth century, which is no distance in the procession of human history, but far enough to tell me more about the American strand and the Old Country strand which, in me, were woven into what is now indisputably a Canadian weftage. Given substance to people, many of whom were strangers to me, or at best names to which no special character attached, but whose courage and resource, loyalty even to the point of self-destruction, cranki­ness and meanness, despair and endurance are now known to me, and arouse my admiration, my pity and — I must say it, strange as it seems to me — my love. Yes, love, for I know more about them than I suppose they had ever known about them­selves, just as I now see I have known so little about myself, have so scantly loved myself.

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