Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“But what? You’re rejecting me. I’d hoped for under­standing and sympathy.”

“All the sympathy and understanding I have, my dear man, is yours, so forget all that foolish talk about rejection; that’s newspaper psychology. I’m raking in my mind for something to help you. . . . Wait — there’s a thing that’s some­times done in the Orthodox Church that we don’t use our­selves, but as you’re not of any church or any fixed belief, so far as I can tell, it might work for you.”

“Yes –?”

“Come to think of it, it might be the very thing. Dra­matic. It’d appeal to the theatre man inside you.”

“I’m asking, as humbly as I can, for help.”

“Very well, then. Here it is. Have you an enemy?”

“An enemy? You mean somebody who hates me? Wants to do me down?”

“Somebody who’d break you, if he could get away with it.”

“Well — of course there are professional rivals. There’s always jealousy. You probably know how literary people are. But as for breaking me — I really can’t think of anybody.”

“Well, try it from the other side. Is there somebody you hate? Somebody you really detest and loathe and spit on in your heart. Somebody who stands in your way?”

“Ah! Oh well, if you put it like that, I think there is somebody.”

“Good. Or rather — bad. Now here’s what I’d do if I were an Orthodox priest — which I’m not, of course. I’d tell you to go to that person and bring yourself right down to the very rock bottom of humility, and tell him what you’ve told me tonight.”

“But — but he’d probably turn me over to the police!”

“And you knew I wouldn’t! Isn’t that it? You wanted forgiveness. You wanted absolution for your crime — because it is a crime and the first crime God ever put his mark on. You’ve killed a man! You didn’t mean it — murderers often don’t — but nevertheless you robbed a fellow-creature of the life God gave him, and in doing that you’ve frustrated God’s purpose. Think of that! Cain raised! The worst crime in the book! And you wanted me to keep it under the seal of confes­sion! Now Mr. Going, that’s very stupid thinking, and that’s trifling with my sacred office. You just wanted me to get you off the hook. I can’t. Man, you have no sense of the serious­ness of your position. You’re just fussing about your reputa­tion, and your freedom, though in these days you don’t have to fuss any longer about your neck. Stop fussing, and think about your immortal soul. It’s your burden, not mine, and I can’t lift it from you.”


So it was you who killed poor old Gil? All things considered, I’m not sur­prised.”

“You think I look like a murderer?”

“I think you look like a jackass. I’m not surprised, because people who carry nasty things like that concealed weapon of yours usually end up by using them, and that’s what you’ve done, and that’s why you’re in this mess. Your murder, my wee man, had its beginning the day you laid down good money for that tomfool bit of macho vanity. Oh dear, dear, dear; poor old Gil!”

It is late. Going has walked back from Father Boyle to the Advocate office, muttering to himself, now and then bumping into people, because more and more frequently he glances behind him. His state is pitiable, but I do not feel that I am quite the person to pity him. If he had not seen the light on in Hugh McWearie’s room, would he ever have found himself in Hugh’s visitor’s chair? Perhaps not, but Hugh was working late, or musing and smoking late, and the Sniffer acted on impulse, just as he acted on impulse when he struck me down. Already he regrets his impulse, but it is too late to retract his confession.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Going to do? I don’t follow you.”

“Aren’t you going to denounce me? Turn me over to the police?”

“I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Well — think about it now!”

“You’re very hasty, Mr. Going. That’s been your trou­ble. Haste. You were hasty when you struck poor Gil.”

“I’ve told you — it was a wholly unpremeditated act, brought on because he called me by an opprobrious name.”

“Now, now — not wholly unpremeditated. As I’ve tried to explain, it was premeditated, or at least it became a possi­bility, when you bought that walking-stick with the bludg­eon hidden in it. And as for an opprobrious name, what did you expect? Think, man. He found you in bed screwing his wife.”

“No! We weren’t –. We hadn’t –.”

“Then you were working up to it, I suppose. What is called the foreplay, if I am not mistaken. But you didn’t need any foreplay to get that cosh of yours into full working order. What the hell were you doing with it in bed — if it’s not indelicate to ask?”

“It wasn’t in bed. It was beside the bed. With my clothes.”

“I see. That’s your reputation, of course. Never seen without your fine stick. Not even when you are in an act of adultery –”

“Oh, for God’s sake, McWearie, let’s get into the twenti­eth century!”

“Just where I’m heading, Mr. Going. Just where I’m heading. Was it irresistible passion, or just whiling away the time? Tell me, now — were you and the beauteous Esme in love?”

“I’ve never been perfectly sure what people mean by that expression.”

“I can well believe that. But let’s explore it for a few moments. Had you exchanged words of warm admiration? Had she ever, for instance, told you that she preferred you to Gil?”

“I don’t know what right you have to ask about that.”

“Possibly I presume too far, but I rather thought that what you have just been telling me gave me certain rights that another person wouldn’t have. Am I mistaken?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I have a decision to make. The seriousness of your involvement with Mrs. Gilmartin would have a strong bearing on what I do.”

“We had become lovers.”

“But you weren’t in love, is that it? The word lover has taken on a rather technical significance in our time.”

“We were exploring the parameters of our relationship.”

“Oh, that lovely word! You were measuring and quant­ifying what you felt for each other before declaring the fact. And that demanded lots of sport in bed, eh?”

“McWearie, you’re being very nasty and very puritani­cal and I am convinced that you are very jealous. Esme is a lovely woman.”

“And an ambitious woman. The buzz around the office is that she thinks her beauty and talent would work very well on television, and that you could give her a leg up — if you’ll pardon the indelicacy of my expression — in that strange world.”

“So what?”

“So this: was her complicity with you what could be called a quid pro quo? Or perhaps — pardon me again — a down payment?”

“McWearie, you — you shit!”

“No, not at all, my wee man. Not ever so faintly faecal. But if I am to decide what to do with you, I have to know some things, and my method of investigation is the one I grew up with. My father, you know, was a policeman. Not just your ordinary cop, though he began walking a beat in Edinburgh. But he ended his career as a well-respected Chief Constable of a large Scottish county. He was a good detective — the real thing, you know, not like those fellows in novels. And he was a pragmatist, which he said meant that you had to attribute the lowest motives to everybody, hoping you’d be wrong, of course. So you see I must suppose, just to get to the bottom of things, that Esme was using you, and you were muggins enough to fall for it.”

“Could she be so vile?”

“Certainly she could, and what’s so vile about it? She’s an ambitious woman, and maybe she counted the cost and decided to pay, in a traditional coin. That’s a pun, if you missed it. You’re not as repulsive as many a ladder an ambitious woman has had to use. Now I understand she has found another ladder, and this one she pays in another kind of coin. An agent, who gets her what she wants and takes his ten per cent.”

“That clown Hornel?”

“If she’s changed her Harlequin — you, my lad — for a Clown, I suppose it’s because he can deliver the goods and you can’t. Clowns are very clever fellows.”

“My God — women!”

“And men. Ambitious people play the game the same way, regardless of sex, and these are liberated times, as I’ve noticed you say pretty often in your reviews.”

“One expects better of women.”

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