Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“Be perfectly at ease, friends. Don’t try hard to do any­thing. Just be very quiet and think about Connor Gilmartin. Think of him kindly, and with love.”

Esme and Rache do their best. He never knew me, and he cannot keep his hopes in abeyance. Rache wants me to say something for the book, and it is about the book that he is really thinking. A block-buster. Something as long on the best-seller list as — he cannot contain his hopes — as long as Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. He sees the words on the compelling jacket: “Did my dead husband speak to me? I am a rational being, and I swear that it was so. But the message was for our unborn child.”

Esme is honestly trying to relax. She is not bad at physi­cal relaxation. Has studied it in books, and can ease her bodily tensions quite satisfactorily. But she has never given a thought to anything resembling mental relaxation; her mind is jumping between doubt and credulity and — she cannot deny it — fear. Am I going to spill the beans?

Most certainly I am. If I can. But how? Like the dead lover in that song my grandmother loved, as sung by Emilio De Gogorza?

And like an angel bending down above you,

To breathe into your ear —

Whose ear? Esme’s ear? Mrs. Salenius’s furry ear hidden under a fruzz of grey hair? For the first time since my death, I find that I am wholly at a loss. I decide on Mrs. Salenius. I get as near to her as I can — and that is very near indeed, in my present state — and do my best.

The murderer, I say — but unheard — the murderer was my wife’s lover.

Mrs. Salenius gives no sign that she has heard anything. I realize that Mrs. Salenius does not pay much attention to crime news, and my name means nothing to her. All she knows is what Rache Hornel has told her. Rache does not know who killed me. She is in a trance, or asleep. Now and then she whimpers, quietly.

Am I not trying hard enough? As a spirit, communicat­ing with the living, ought I to use a heightened language? Something along the lines of Hamlet’s Father?

“List, list, O list –” I say, and immediately feel like a fool. I am not cut out for this sort of thing. But I am not a quitter. I try again.”I am Gilmartin’s spirit/Doomed for a certain time to walk the night,/And for the day confined to fast in fires” — (a lie, but what am I to do?) — “Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/Are burnt and purged away –”

Oh, the hell with it! This debases Shakespeare, and debases me, and is far above the level of this front-parlour mummery, and infinitely beyond the hysterical response of the Sniffer when I caught him in bed with my wife. Death does not cast a mantle of importance over folly. For the first time since my death I feel abjection and defeat.

But Mrs. Salenius is speaking, in a strange voice, unlike her own, and certainly not like mine.

“Dear heart, I pray thee, be not fearful,” she says.”Grieve not for me. I am beyond pain, beyond care, but not beyond love. Love me now, as you loved me before our parting. Peace. Peeeeace!” Mrs. Salenius extends the word astonishingly.

Rache is wide-eyed, swallowing his spit. “Ask him who it was,” he hisses.

Esme starts forward in her chair, as if to forbid any such question, but she is too late for Mrs. Salenius; she speaks now with greater determination, and in a stronger voice.

“Do not seek vengeance,” she says.”Vengeance is of the world that I have left behind, for the world of the spirit. The man must live with his own soul. Do not rejoice in the burden of another’s soul.”

“Is that supposed to be my husband’s voice?” says Esme.”Not a bit like him. He never carried on like that.”

“I am only a humble instrument, dear,” Mrs. Salenius says, without opening her eyes.”I am not an impersonator. I speak only as the message comes to me. Be quiet please. Connor Gilmartin may have more to say to us.”

Connor Gilmartin certainly has much to say and I am boiling to say it. Who or what is putting this stuff into Mrs. Salenius’s head? She is not making it up, that I know for a certainty. It is some sort of party line, some established opin­ion, arising from the Swedenborgian teaching, undoubtedly. But it seems to me that in addition somebody else is getting to Mrs. Salenius as I cannot do. I am as near as I can crowd to her waxy left ear, and I am hissing the name of Randal Allard Going with all the intensity I can muster, but so far as Mrs. Salenius is concerned I am utterly unavailing. She speaks again.

“Do not grieve for me. Grieve only for the unhappy man who brought about my death. I am secure in a world where we shall most certainly meet, in due season. It is a world of ineffable joy.”

What do such people mean by “ineffable joy,” I wonder? I could tell Mrs. Salenius a thing or two about life after death. My observation and involvement with my forebears, as they have appeared in a series of films, has not been ineffable joy; I have lived with them through every vicissitude, felt every reverse of fortune, swung in the remorseless enantiodromia between good luck and bad, modest virtue and moderate vice; I have endured with Anna’s resolute courage, known the simplicity of Janet’s faith and the dark irony with which Malvina met the world; shrunk from the witch-like denial of physical love that gave Virginia domination over an artist-artisan; sensed the profundity of Thomas’s belief and the debilitated philosophy of my own father; shared in the submission to duty of Walter and the triumphant victory over destiny of Rhodri: these things do not constitute “ineffable joy” but a sense of life more poignant and more powerful than anything I ever knew when I was a living man.”The stuff of life to knit me/Blew hither. . .” Yes; the poet knew.

But is there to be no vengeance? I cannot swallow that. I know a thing or two about ghosts, because I grew up with all the best ghosts in English Literature; my father used to tell me about them, when I was a small boy, and I loved the uncanniness and fear, as happy, well-protected children do. Ghosts come back to the living because they seek vengeance, which is another name for justice. Mrs. Salenius and her Sweden­borgian congeries of bland spooks is not for me. Vengeance I shall have, and I shall bring it about myself.

How Esme and Rache Hornel take leave of Mrs. Salenius I do not know, but I suspect that they bought a good many copies of dense works by Swedenborg, in addition to leaving a money gift. What, I wonder, will Ol’ Rache make of Arcana Coelestia, if he deigns even to look inside it?

I am off in search of Randal Allard Going, and I burn with the fury of my defeat in Mrs. Salenius’s front parlour. I find him in the Advocate offices, where he sits at his desk, pecking rather ineptly at the word-processor he has not fully mastered.

Al is miserable. I know that, and so does everyone who comes near him. His managing editor thinks it is because he has not yet found a way of ousting McWearie from his office. His colleagues — Fine Art, Literature, Music, in the fleshy manifestations of the critics who share an office with him — think it is because he is wondering if he can handle his new job; in their dark hearts they are rather hoping that he can’t. The secretaries think he is grieving for Connor Gilmartin, whom he never seemed to care for greatly while he lived, but whose death had affected him so painfully at the funeral.

I know that what ails him is guilt.

He has no religion. Brought up in a home of solid finan­cial substance, he was sent to a boys’ school famous for its progressive ideas and the open-mindedness of its headmaster and staff. Boys from all sorts of well-to-do families went to that school, and to the headmaster it was obvious that such a complex of rich reputed Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Reformed Confucians could not be instructed in any sort of belief that would not step on somebody’s well-shod toes and provoke crusty letters from disaffected parents. But some Preparation for Life, as the headmaster called it, was neces­sary, and so there was instruction in Ethics. The beauty of ethics is that nobody can be perfectly certain about what it includes or even what it means. But the headmaster talked about “tacit assumptions,” the first of which was Sexual Purity — though in a world expanding as fast as our own, that should not be confused with monogamy, or heterosexuality or any of those outworn notions, and doubtless it was best in such a confusing area to “play it by ear” and try not to hurt anybody, even though that was not always possible if you were to realize yourself to the full. Then there was Charity, which meant giving away the surplus of one’s income that was not required for one’s own genuine needs; the sticker here was the decision as to how much of one’s income should be regarded as surplus, but the headmaster knew that there were charitable agencies everywhere who would be eager to inform you on that point, and grab all they could. Finally, there was Commitment to Intellectual Development, which need not involve any tedious personal effort but which certainly meant giving generously to-well, for instance, to one’s Old School, and if anything was left, to one’s university for scientific research. Apart from these things, a general benevolence and sensitivity was advocated as becoming to — no, no, not a gentleman, for that word belonged to a shady past of snobbery and privilege — but to a person of education occupying a favoured position in society.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson