Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“I’d rather thought of McWearie’s.”

“If you’re worrying about atmosphere, McWearie’s room practically is Dracula’s Castle. I never saw so much peculiar junk in my life. That skull on his bookcase! But he does a first-class job. His series on the ordination of women — got a Newspaper Award. Why disturb him?”

“As a matter of fact, if I were to take over Entertainment, I’d like to talk to you about McWearie. He doesn’t really belong in Entertainment. I’d be glad to see him moved to another department.”

“And you’d start by hoofing him out of his office. Isn’t that a bit rough?”

“His office is at the end of the corridor. Quiet. Just the place for thoughtful work. That’s what I’d like.”

“Well — I’m damned if I’m going to tell McWearie that you have a whim for his office, and he has to get out. I can’t treat staff that way. The Guild could kill me. He’d have a very legitimate grievance, and we don’t need grievances in senior writers. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You go to McWearie and tell him very nicely — pretty please — that you’re going to suc­ceed Gil as head of Entertainment, and you’d be grateful if he could see his way to let you have his office, for which you have a special soft spot. If he agrees — all right. If not — nothing doing. But no iron hand, Al. If Hugh says No, it’s No. And don’t use my name, because I want no part of it.”

So this was how it was! I didn’t in the least mind that the Editor-in-Chief was appointing my successor so soon after my death. A daily paper is exactly that — daily — and there is no time for sentiment in such matters. That he was appoin­ting Randal Allard Going did not greatly surprise me, because he is the most likely candidate on the staff as it stands. Going’s inherent odiousness did not stop him from being a pretty good journalist. I suppose I have a right to dislike him personally, considering that he has seduced my wife and murdered me in consequence. These are not winning traits in a man. Now he wants to get rid of McWearie and grab his office.

The meeting between them soon lost any pretence of amiability.

“So what it comes down to, Mr. Going, is that you want my office, because you have a fancy for it, and for no better reason.”

“I’ve explained the reason. If I am to do the work of Entertainment Editor, I can’t do it from my present office which I share with four other critics.”

“But you can do it from Gil’s old office,”

“I’ve told you, I don’t like Gil’s old office.”

“It’s a senior man’s office. It has a place for a secretary. Where’s she to go if you come way down here?”

“She isn’t — wasn’t Gil’s secretary only; she’s secretary to the department. She can stay where she is.”

“I see. Well, the long and short of it is that I don’t choose to move, Mr. Going.”

“Hugh, we are going to have to work together. Inevita­bly I must be in the driver’s seat, and I think I’d like the driver’s seat to be right here, in this office. Can’t we settle this thing amicably?”

“Meaning settle it your way? What’s the alternative? Would you like my resignation, perhaps?”

“Now Hugh — remember the old saying: ‘Never threaten resignation unless you are prepared to carry it through.’ ”

“What makes you think I wouldn’t carry it through?”

“I don’t want you to do anything rash.”

“I won’t, never fear. Have you talked to the Chief about this?”

“That’s beside the point –”

“No it isn’t. I’ll bet anything you did and he’s said he’ll have nothing to do with it, and you must get it if you can. Well, I’ve answered that, Mr. Going.”

“Hugh — can’t we be friends?”

“What for? I’m paid to be a colleague, not a friend. I was a friend of Gil’s, but that was another thing. Because you’re standing in a dead man’s shoes, don’t expect to take on his friends, as well.”

Oh Hugh — you shouldn’t have said that! But when your Highland blood is up you say cruel things, and you don’t understand how dangerous “dead man’s shoes” is, in these circumstances. You’ve made an enemy of the Sniffer, and I can understand why, but it is a mistake, all the same.


The Sniffer is in no condi­tion for a professional row. He seeks Esme, as he has done rather too often since the funeral. She has not been coming into the Advocate offices. Although she is entitled to whatever Bereavement Leave she wants, she has missed only one week with her column — a week during which the news pages have kept her name well in the public eye. She has let the Chief know that she will have a column ready for the week to come. This is gallant. It is also assurance that her readers will have no time to forget her. The Sniffer has called her every day, and every day she has refused to dine with him, and has told him that he is not to come to her apartment. Surely it would appear simply as the condolence of a family friend, he pleads. She thinks otherwise.

This time his pleadings are so pitiful that she consents, and when they meet at a quiet table in Le Rendezvous I am the invisible third party, and I find it a delightful evening.

“You can’t imagine what I’ve been going through, Esme.”

“Can’t I? Do you suppose I’ve been having a high old time?”

“No, no; but you know what I mean.”

“I can guess. But I don’t think you know what I mean.”

“Dearest one –”

“Al! Cool it, will you. Just keep it on a friendly footing. Don’t you know that waiters have big ears?”

“Esme — dear friend — our positions are rather differ­ent –”

“Perhaps not as different as you imagine.”

“Meaning? — Oh, no. You have no guilt in this affair.”

“There are other things than guilt.”

“You’re being mysterious.”

“And you’re being self-centred.”

“I am! Listen — it’s all over the office that you are going to write a series of articles on bereavement. Fine! You’re in a great position to do just that. But I’m a writer, don’t forget, and I know how much objectivity and calculation it will take to do a series and do it right. You aren’t just going to spill your guts. You’re going to do it with very tidy journalistic calcula­tion.”

“Therapy for a broken heart.”

“What! That doesn’t sound like you.”

“It isn’t me. But that’s beside the point. There are con­siderations you don’t know about.”

“Such as?”

“I haven’t been quite myself lately.”

“Not surprising.”

“That’s what my doctor said. He was all sympathy. But he said he’d like to run two or three routine tests, and he phoned me yesterday.”

“Oh, darling! I’ve been unforgivably inconsiderate! You’re ill.”

“Not ill, exactly. I’m pregnant.”

The scene gives way to an interval of low comedy here, because the Sniffer does a very complete job of what was called, in my boyhood, the Nose Trick. He whoofed upward through a mouthful of the Cabernet Sauvignon, sprayed a good deal of it over the table, but shot quite enough through his nostrils to make him howl with pain. Two waiters rush to his aid. As Esme mops her frock with dignified restraint, they beat the Sniffer on the back and offer him a glass of water, but without much effect. He continues to cough and blow his nose, which hurts him abominably. The Sniffer is one of those men who always blows his nose one nostril at a time — poof-poofty-poof — and he does so now, and mops his streaming eyes, and tries to apologize through involuntary little yelps of pain. It takes some time to calm him. The maître d’hôtel hastens to the table with a measure of cognac, and urges the Sniffer to sip it with the uttermost caution. Another tablecloth is brought, and deftly laid. At last the helpers and servers go away, the other diners stop staring, and the couple regain their privacy.

“You said –?”

“I said I was pregnant.”

“But — but –”

“Yes, I know. I suppose I’d been a little bit forgetful about The Pill. One gets tired of that nagging obligation, you know. So there it is.”

“And there we are.”

“And there I am.”

“Oh, me too. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!” The Sniffer beats his breast, ritually, like a priest at the altar.

“For God’s sake shut up! Let’s not have another scene.”

“But I’m in this, too.”

“No, Al. Not you.”

“Esme — what are you saying? Who else could it be?”

“My husband, you fool!”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson