Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Love myself? I have never thought of such a thing. It seems indecent. My parents, kind and indulgent as they were to me, would never have proposed love of self as a possible or desirable state of mind. They were both — are both, I should say, for they live and I am dead as the world thinks of death — of Puritan strain. My father, a highly educated man and, like so many highly educated men of our time, still an undevel­oped child in matters of the spirit, is nevertheless unswer­vingly honourable and the Methodist strain in him persists as a strong, if desiccated and almost wizened, morality; he is a man with a powerful sense of what he calls “the decent thing,” and he can always be depended on to do it, even when it costs him dear. My mother, brought up a Catholic in the harsh Irish tradition, is at root much the same sort of creature. They abandoned religion, the comfort and joys of religion as well as its night-terrors and absurdities, but its morality lives on without any emollient faith. It is a morality into which no thought of self-love ever intrudes, and even self-approval is looked upon with humorous suspicion. Self-respect — ah yes, that is another thing, a cooler thing.

From them, from the atmosphere of my home, I took on this condition of mind without ever giving it much serious thought. Not love, but a sort of amused tolerance, has been my conscious attitude toward myself. By love, of course, I mean charity and forgiveness, not a foolish egotism. In my life I suppose I was not a bad fellow. Of course I had my lapses, rooted in stupidity rather than evil, but on the whole I tried to do the decent thing. But now it is as if my heart has been painfully enlarged, and in this swollen heart I must find a place for all that I have seen of my forebears, their vanities, their cruelties, their follies, which were, at least in part, explained and made to seem inevitable because of their cir­cumstances. And, in addition to these, something splendid — the stuff of life, indeed. Will the world that I no longer share think of me with love?

Is it all gone, this love and understanding of those who are no more? I don’t hope for primitive or bygone things. I don’t want anybody to light candles on my grave on All Souls’ Day, or sob for me on a midnight pillow. But will they include me in their charity? In the light of what I now see, the chances are slim.


What do I now see? My wife, sitting opposite her agent in his office. The room is meant to look like business premises, but there are too many piles of dusty typescripts on a side table, too many unsightly photographs of authors (men scruffy and dishevelled, in turtle-necks and jeans, women, many of decidedly unattrac­tive mien, wearing huge spectacles, some holding cats), too much literary mess and too powerful a stench of good, but pungent, cigars.

“I have to be careful, Rache. If we rush this book onto the stands, isn’t it going to look too calculating, as if I hadn’t really undergone a terrible experience, and was just out for money?”

“Esme, you’ve got to understand, this is why an agent is your best friend. An agent can see things you can’t. An agent can see ahead to the paperback, the lecture tour, maybe — if things are handled right — a really big TV series, enlarging the book, making it even more personal, grabbing an audience of millions. It’s a very fluid picture.”

“Well — do you think I could handle that?”

“Esme, you don’t need me to tell you that you can, and you will. Look at yourself objectively. I know it’s hard, but you’re an intelligent woman and you can hack it. What are you? First of all, I don’t need to tell you, you’re a looker –”

“Oh Rache, that’s nonsense –”

“Baby, listen to Old Rache. He knows what a looker is in modern-day terms, and you’re it. Those pictures in the fash­ion magazines, those models — grouchy-looking girls, some with crazy squints, some that look as if they’d poison you if they bit you — but hair! Jesus, the hair! And the bones! This is the day of the Anorexic Look, but with a big bazoom. A really great pair of maracas — and you’ve got ’em –”

“Oh, Rache, business is business –”

“You don’t have to tell me! I’m being completely objec­tive. You’ve got everything it takes, and if you’ll just let me handle it, Christ knows where it will end.”

“Well — if you say so.”

“I do say so. I can see the thing in a way you can’t. Don’t imagine I’ve forgotten your bereavement, under those terri­ble circumstances. Jesus — Gil lying there, covered with blood, and you shrinking back against your pillow as the murderer makes good his escape! Do you think I’ve forgotten that? Maybe in the TV series they might even have a re-enacted scene of the murder — not you acting, of course, because that would be in the worst possible taste and would alienate the over-thirties — but enough actualization to ham­mer home the immensity of your tragedy.”

“It would be powerful, as you say. But of course I’d just do the talking. Right? Wearing a dark ensemble. Not black. That would be coming on too strong as a widow for modern viewers.”

“And your hair down. You’d better start growing it right now. The longer the better.”

“It’s fairly long now.”

“Get it longer. There’s time, if you’re a quick grower. But the first thing is to get the book out. I’ve put out feelers –”

“So soon?”

“Not a bit too soon. You forget how long it takes to get a book out nowadays. Even on a rush job, it’ll be months. So get busy on the script and don’t waste a minute. The thing could go cold on the plate if we don’t move fast. This outline you’ve given me — it’s okay but it lacks some­thing. I want another two or three days to decide what, but I’ll find out, and I’ll be in touch with you at once. It doesn’t have to be a long book, you know. You’re not writing War and Peace. A hundred and twenty-five pages, well spaced out, with a socko cover, and a really great picture of you on the back. So go home now, Esme. Take a deep breath, and then get going on the word-processor. We have no time to lose.”

“Well Rache, if you say so –”

“I do say so. And don’t think I’m rough. I bleed for you, baby. But getting down to the writing will comfort you like nothing else could. Writing is the best therapy when your heart’s broken.”

“My heart’s all right. It’s my digestion, really.”

“Of course. Shock. Bereavement goes right to the gut. So write! That’s the therapy for you.”

“I suppose really — maybe it’s presumptuous to say it — I suppose really I’m doing it for others.”

“For other broken hearts. For other bereaved people. Exactly. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. I’ll get through to you early next week.”


“Call it a whim, if you wish. But I’m sure you understand how imperious a whim can be. I don’t know that I could face it, otherwise.” The Sniffer has assumed an air of gravity.

“You mean that if you have to move into Gil’s office you refuse to take over Gil’s job?”

“Not refuse. No, no Chief — I didn’t mean refuse. It’s a remarkable opportunity to shape the Entertainment Depart­ment into a coherent whole.– Poor Gil hadn’t much idea of coherence.”

“I wouldn’t go too far with that, if I were you. The Department is pretty well received just as it stands.”

“Oh, quite. Quite. Gil had a touch; I don’t deny it. But there are things that could be done. So you see –”

“What I see, Al, is that you want Gil’s job, but you make it a condition that you won’t occupy his office –”

“It’s full of his stuff. He was a terrible magpie, you know.”

“Maintenance can clear it out in half a day.”

“Yes, certainly. But his ambience will remain.”

“I don’t understand. What ambience?”

“You know — his feeling, the essence of him that has been caught up in the walls, the drapes –”

“Maintenance can give it a coat of paint. Dry-clean the drapes.”

“I’m not getting through to you, Chief, I’m afraid.”

“No, frankly Al, you’re not. Tell me — what in hell do you really want?”

“I really want an office that isn’t full of the spirit of a dead man.”

“It’s news to me that our offices have that kind of spirit. You talk as if this place was Dracula’s Castle. My God, Al, it’s hardly been built seven years. The editorial private offices are all the same. But I can see that something is troubling you, and I’ll go a reasonable distance to help you. If you don’t want Gil’s office, what office do you want?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson