Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Before our present openness about sex, it was often said that boys picked up their knowledge of sex from the gutter; favoured children like Randal Allard Going found their morality in the gutter, where the out-of-favour ideas are thrown, and one of the things in his gutter morality (which looked very much like the Ten Commandments, ragged, drunk and disorderly) was that murder was a very bad thing. Murder, as his headmaster would have put it in his jocular, friend-of-boys way, was a No-No, because, even if it was part of your need to realize yourself to the full, it hurt some­one else very badly, and indeed irrevocably.

The Sniffer was suffering from a terrible onset of bad conscience, though the headmaster had once said that con­science was probably just the voice of parents or grandpar­ents, who might be dubious guides in a truly modern life. Was it something from the spirit of his revered ancestor, Sir Alured Going, that man who had been Humble without Affectation, Grave without Moroseness, and Cheerfull with­out Levity, that told him now that murder was a crime — except, of course, in a just war? A crime that irrevocably damaged the soul (an entity that the headmaster was careful never to mention by that name).

Though he was trying to write a pithy and well-considered piece about modern film, this was what was surg­ing and seething in a kind of acid indigestion of the mind in Al, when I came to him in the critics’ room, where he was working alone; Fine Art, Literature and Music were all else­where doing highly responsible things in their own line.

There he sat, peering miserably at the white print on the green screen, seemingly trying to remember how to spell “indefeasible,” but in fact brooding on his guilt. Heartburn of the soul possessed him utterly.

What was I to do? I was no better prepared than Al for the situation in which I found myself. A ghost in search of vengeance — what is it to do in such a world as ours? If only he drove a car — I’m sure I could manage one of those accidents where the car is said to “go out of control.” But he is a taxi man.

Like a fool, I did what I have so often done in crises in my experience. Did what I had done when I found Al in bed with my wife, and called him “The Sniffer.” I allowed my sense of humour to take charge.

A sense of humour, like every good gift, has a positive and a negative side. As Heraclitus would no doubt have told me, if I had been able to put it to him, its Apollonian scintillant perspicuity, if taken too far, is apt to turn to a Dionysian grossness of folly, as it did now.

I sang. I came as close to the ear of Randal Allard Going as I had come to the ear of the unheeding Mrs. Salenius, and I sang a song which, in my foolishness, seemed to me to fit the case. I sang —

The bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me;

For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling

They’ve got the goods for me.

O Death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling

O grave thy victory?

The bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me!

Was not this pitifully inept, undignified, absurd, vulgar and indefensible? Unworthy of a ghost with any sense of the nobility of death? Guilty on every count. But was it ineffec­tive? Something in Al’s posture told me that it was not entirely so. He drooped a little. I sang again, increasing the power.

He drooped a little more.

Overjoyed and hilarious at my success, I sang the song a third time and, so far as I could dance, I danced, derisively, with my thumb to my non-existent nose and my fingers extended, in an ecstasy of contumelious mirth. Rapture! I was getting through to Al, or so it seemed, for he suddenly dropped his head upon the keyboard of his word-processor and wept like — no, not like a child, but like a fool trapped in the web of his folly. A snotty boo-hooing.

He did not weep long. He went to the washroom, bathed his face, put on his hat and coat, took up his loathly walking-stick and left the offices of the Advocate.


Where is the Sniffer going? It is perhaps two miles from the Advocate offices to the University and, as a usual thing, the Sniffer is a taxi man. But he seems to feel that he must walk on this journey, which I sense he regards rather as a penitential pilgrimage. He trudges through the chill of the autumn night, carrying the walking-stick which he now hates, and from time to time, when he passes a street lamp, I notice that he glances apprehensively behind him. Why?

The University of Toronto has a large campus, upon which its constituent colleges and the buildings that house the science faculties are spread in a somewhat inconsistent manner. The Sniffer bears toward the eastern side of the parkland, passes the Pontifical Institute and makes his way to St. Michael’s College. Why, I wonder? Why the Catholic part of the university? He does not know precisely where he is going and it is only after some false clues and many enquiries that he finds himself at the door of the private quarters of the redoubtable Father Martin Boyle, the Principal, under the Basilian Order.

The Sniffer expects austerity, priestly reserve. But Father Boyle comes to his door in a track suit, rubbing his head and face vigorously with a towel.

“Come in. You’re lucky to catch me. I’ve been out on my evening run. Have to, you know. Drudge all day at the desk and the classroom, and you must have air or die. Without the run I’d be a dead man in a month. Now, what can I do for you? Mr. Going, is it? Oh yes, I read your stuff. I like to keep up with the movies. Theatre, too. I don’t get to the theatre as often as I’d like, but I squeeze in a movie, when I can. Can’t bear television. Rubbish, and they all mumble. Now, to what do I owe the honour, as they say?”

“Father, I want to make a confession.”

“Ah? Well, let’s take it gently. Talk a little first. May I offer you a drink? Rye’s all I have, I’m afraid. Soda or the old tap?”

Father Boyle is cool, though genial, and I sense that he has met with strange penitents before. Indeed, Father Boyle is quite famous for his association, nearly twenty years ago, with three villains who had shot four policemen dead in the course of a bank robbery. Father Boyle visited them in prison, discovered that they were all Catholics, and had brought them into a thoroughly penitent frame of mind before he finally accompanied them to the foot of the gallows — for in those days the gallows was still the fate of such people. He was widely admired as a friend of the friend­less and I knew that it was the Sniffer’s keen sense of drama that had led him to this man. The fine face, the abundant grey hair, the thick black brows, satisfy his drama critic’s notion of what a great priest should be.

Talking a little, as Father Boyle understands it, goes on for at least half an hour, during which he has more than one drink, and smokes cigarettes without cease as he listens. But at last he sums up.

“Mr. Going, I am truly sorry for you, and I’ll pray for you. But I’m sure you can see that I can’t accept what you’ve told me as a confession. Not as I understand that word. Not something I can hear as a priest listening on God’s behalf, and forgiving on His behalf. That’s a very special relationship, clearly defined by the Church and undertaken only within the Church. Now you — you’ve told me you’re not even bap­tized and, although in ordinary circumstances I mightn’t take that with desperate seriousness, it does mean that you’ve never given much thought to things of the spirit, nor has anybody ever done it for you. I don’t want to be starchy, but you must understand that the Church has rules, and God has rules, too. So, as I say, I’ve heard you, and I’m deeply sorry for you, and I’ll pray for you. But I can’t, in God’s name, offer you absolution. Just can’t be done.”

“Then what am I do to? I’m desperate! My God, I’ll kill myself.”

“Now, now, now; none o’ that. That’s piling Pelion on Ossa and heaping sin on sin. You’re in sin good and deep right now, so don’t add to it. You’ve got to be serious. Suicide, for all its horror, is, in the last consideration, a frivolity, an attempt to be an exception in the proper order of life. Jump­ing the queue, so to speak. No, no; you must find something better than that.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson