Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“You don’t mean to sit there and tell me that while we — you and I — were lovers, you were allowing Gil to –”

“Of course I was! Do you suppose that because of you I would put Gil on the Indian List? I was very fond of Gil.”

Oh, Esme, you can’t believe how overjoyed I am to hear you say that! My dear, dear wife, how I love you at this moment! And — and Anna, and Elizabeth and Janet and Malvina and Rhodri — yes, and I suppose the McOmishes, will all, in some measure, live on. I see the continuance of life as I never did while I was a part of it.

The Sniffer is utterly unmanned. He is eating nothing, though Esme is getting through a very respectable meal.

After a pause he says, in a low voice, “You’ll be attending to that, of course?”

“Attending to what?”

“Your condition. It’s not a problem nowadays.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Esme — this pregnancy. The sooner you have it termi­nated, the better.”

“Better for who?”

“For us. Then later, when and if we marry, we can start with a clean slate. Presuming we want children, of course.”

“When and if! Al, we might as well get this straight right now; I’m not going to marry you. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Do you want to marry me?”

“I have an overwhelming obligation to you. And I’m certainly not going to back off from it. I must take care of you, but I don’t want to take care of a child that might just possibly be Gil’s.”

“It is Gil’s. Do you think I can’t count? The doctor says he thinks it’s about ten weeks. Well — ten weeks ago you were in Europe for a month, casing the world theatre and telling the Advocate readers how lousy it was. Now look; we had better get this straight. I’m going to have this child. It’s a perfectly okay child, lawfully begotten by my now dead husband. What used to be called a posthumous child. Is that clear?”

“Esme, do you really want a child?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out. And this child makes all the difference to the articles I’m going to write. Rache Hornel says it’s the cherry on the cake. And you don’t come into it, except perhaps as jolly old Uncle Al, who turns up with a teddy-bear once in a while.”

“Esme, you’re being very unkind. Because of this mess we’re in –”

“You’re in. I’m fine.”

“Have it your own way. But there was something else, you know. Something you seem to have forgotten. I was going to try to interest some television people in you.”

“I think you have, Al. By conking poor Gil. Now — if you can catch the waiter’s eye –”


Rache Hornel is not one of your simple, businesslike literary agents who gives advice only when asked for it. Writers are creative, he says, but they need the creativity of the business man, the man of long vision and wide knowledge of the world, if they are to achieve what he calls their full potential. Rache learned his craft as an agent in the place he always calls L.A. and he has brought the spirit of L.A. to Toronto, where it does not quite fit. If Rache could have been at the side of Virginia Woolf she would never have confided to her diary that she thought a sale of five thousand copies very flattering; Rache would have developed her until she was writing for the movies, with a weekly salary in five figures, ten per cent of it for him, the creative entrepreneur. I am aware that he is shining the full glare of his creativity on Esme, and I am present at the luncheon — Rache liked to do big things over food — where he bursts his inspiration full on her.

“But Rache, I don’t see this as me at all.”

“It’s the new you, Esme. The Esme you’ve never explored.”

“But it’s the occult. Not a bit my thing. I’ve always been very feet-on-the-ground.”

“This is feet on another kind of ground. I’m not propos­ing some teacup reader or back-street medium. Mrs. Salenius is the best there is. State-of-the-art, I swear it.”

“You’ve talked with her?”

“I’ve visited her. Put our case. No names mentioned, natu­rally. She’ll see what she can do. She makes no promises.”

“What is she going to attempt?”

“Communication with Gil. A message from the Beyond.”

“She isn’t going to try to find out who killed him, is she?”

“Not unless you want it. A message is what she thinks of.”

“I don’t want to talk about the murder.”

“Of course not, baby. Too painful.”

“What’ll it cost?”

“Nothing. She doesn’t take fees. You can make a contri­bution to the Church, if you wish, and of course we’ll wish. Only right.”

“What Church?”

“Companionship of Emanuel Swedenborg, Scientist and Seer.”


“It’s a split-off from the real Swedenborgian Church. It claims to have gone farther into the thought and vision of Swedenborg.”

“Never heard of him. Where did you get hold of this woman?”

“The police.”

“The police! I don’t want anything to do with the police!”

“Honey, you’re talking to Ol’ Rache! Would I plough up your heart and make it bleed all over again? But it’s through the police I found her. You want a first-rate psychic, you ask the police. They use ’em a lot. You know — a child is lost, and when the cops can’t find anything, you read in the papers that they’ve consulted a psychic. They only call on Mrs. Salenius in first-class crime.”

“God! Does she use a crystal ball or what?”

“I don’t know. But she’s impressive, mostly because she isn’t at all impressive. Baby, do you think I’d get you into anything we couldn’t handle?”

So Esme agrees to go with Rache to visit Mrs. Salenius. Their purpose is to see if they can get in touch with my spirit, and find out what I have to say to my sorrowing wife. A few useful quotes for the book, with any luck. Comfort for the bereaved. After all, I was a journalist and ought to have a professional sense of the quotable. Rache sees it as a tremendous coup that will, in his phrase, “beef up” the book; what with this splendid bonus of the posthumous child, and me brought back from the tomb for a few classy quotes, it’s going to be a knock-out. Esme is dubious, but has faith in Ol’ Rache. I shall certainly be there. I never attended a seance in life, but I have no intention of missing this one in death. I hope to play an important role. Not perhaps for the benefit of Esme’s book but in some form of revenge that I cannot foresee.


The meeting is set up for the following Friday night. Esme now knows who Sweden­borg was: not, as she had at first supposed, some American shaman big in the South and at Presidential prayer breakfasts, but an important eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, founder of crystallography, who foresaw nebular theory, magnetic theory, and such popular modern gadgets as the machine-gun and the aeroplane; also, as a physicist of unquestioned reputation, the propounder of a theory of the Universe as a fundamentally spiritual structure and a spiritual world populated exclusively by dead human beings, grouped in coherent societies. An embarrassing figure indeed, in a scientific world that wanted no truck or trade with spiritual matters. Esme, a good journalist, has made herself an instant authority on Swedenborg by an hour or two with the Advo­cate’s collection of encyclopaedias. Not that she is convinced. Not a bit of it. But she feels the agnostic’s unwilling pull toward the gnostic, and she is curious to see Mrs. Salenius.

As Rache had said, Mrs. Salenius is not remarkable; she is a somewhat morose, stout woman, who speaks English in a quiet, regretful voice, the voice, as it were, of Garbo, speaking through a mouthful of chocolate. She lives in an unfashionable old quarter of Toronto, west of Spadina Avenue, in one of those high-gabled, red-faced houses that Esme recognizes as the frequent subject of the unfashionable, but evocative, painter Franck.

“Not a seance, dear. We don’t use that word. Just a special sort of stillness. An intent listening, you might call it. But I can’t lead you until I know a few more facts than Mr. Hornel has told me. Your husband’s full name, and what he did in the world, and when he died. The way he died isn’t clear to me. Take your time. We’re not going to do anything distressing.”

Mrs. Salenius does not spend much on electric light, and she turns off what little there is in her dingy living-room, leaving two candles burning on a table.

The preliminaries over — and I am somewhat surprised by Esme’s brief, factual but selective description of me and my murder by an unknown assailant — Mrs. Salenius com­poses herself as if to sleep, in a large armchair.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson