Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

It was, indeed, one of those Canadian occasions where the vestiges of a monarchical system of government vie with the determination to prove that everybody is, when all is said, exactly like everybody else. These disquiets are inseparable from a country which is, in effect, a socialist monarchy, and is resolved to make it work — and, to an astonishing degree, achieves its aim; for though an egalitarian system appeals to the head, monarchy is enthroned in the heart.

It is not in human nature to set aside all ideas of rank. The Lieutenant-Governor and his lady shouldered the task of mixing these ingredients into a fine, eager assembly of film enthusiasts, but their best efforts could not fully mingle the Socially Prominent, the Very Rich, and the Intelligentsia into a smooth broth. Here and there the Socially Prominent and the Very Rich were united in couples who glowed with a special radiance of certainty, but there were bigwigs and moneybags whose eyes moved restlessly as they felt that they should blend, but did not quite know how to do it. As for the Intelligentsia, they were chiefly critics, and it was they who stayed closest to the bars, and sometimes looked at the others with what might have been interpreted as scorn. The aristoc­racy of intellect admits nothing of democracy.

Going felt no uncertainty. He was, after all, socially prominent as a descendant of one of the old families, wearing about him the glory of Sir Alured, that long-dead colonial official. Although not himself rich he had rich connections, and they were Old Money, not latecomers to affluence. He was unquestionably, and indeed clamorously, intelligent, for had not the country’s foremost newspaper invited him to instruct its readers as to what was, and what was not, worthy of their attention? Although he wore no Order, he had his walking-stick, which was in itself a mark of distinction, and all but a few of those present knew that it was his critical sceptre, and would certainly not have been left in the garde-robe. All of this was made manifest in his evening clothes, which were from a first-rate tailor, and fitted him elegantly.

He was the only critic to wear a dinner jacket. The others scorned such frivolities, and wore everything from messy turtlenecks and corduroys to tweed jackets and flannel slacks; the woman from a large populist paper wore a rather dirty pullover with loud roundabout stripes, which did nothing for her figure (a lost cause) but was irrelevant because of her critical status, and the rancorous distaste with which she regarded just about everything.

Thus I was present at the Gala Opening, though I was invisible and cost the government nothing, as eating and drinking were no longer within my range. But I was able to watch Going in his glory. Indeed, I had no choice in the matter. As McWearie had said, and as I now recalled with dismay, I was less of a free spirit than I had thought and was now tied to Going, for how long I could not tell.

Indeed, my sense of time was changing rapidly. Time, as we are so frequently assured, and as we so frequently forget, is a relative concept. But if I was tied to Going, in what degree was he tied to me?


Is the horror of Death the loneliness I feel so overwhelmingly as I wait — wait — wait with a decreasing sense of time as the living world knows it, and an expanding sense of the pleroma that enfolds me? I frequent the world of men, but there is no creature of my own kind anywhere, to whom I may speak, or from whom I can hope for counsel or sympathy. Is this a time of probation, or can it be that this is what I shall know for — I dare not imagine for how long? Whatever the answer I must do what I am impelled to do, and now I must go to the movies with my murderer.


It is a morning session, and by Going’s watch it is five minutes to eleven when I go with him into the theatre where the special, precious old prints are to be shown. Several movie houses are engaged for the Festi­val, and this is the least important as it is assumed that these films of historic interest will draw the smallest audiences. How desolate a film house is at this time of day! It is lighted just enough for the audience to find seats, and the dimness compels a silence and subdues the people who are spread about and fill perhaps a third of the house. There is the half-sanctified air of a funeral parlour about it, and it stinks of children, feet and old popcorn. The walls are painted a shade which would once have been called vieux rose. Has it a mod­ern name other than dirty pink? At one end, as one descends a gentle slope, is what looks like a stage, but is not, although it has skimpy velvet curtains inside what would be a proscenium if there were any scene for it to enclose. Movie houses feel an impulsion to imitate theatres, feebly and unconvincingly, just as manufacturers of automobiles cannot rid them­selves of the ghosts of elegant nineteenth-century carriages. As Going entered this dismal place a few other critics looked at him, but did not nod or smile. This was not ill-will but professional custom; surgeons do not shake hands with each other in the operating theatre.

The film to be shown was The Spirit of ’76. It had been produced in the U.S. in 1917 by one Robert Goldstein, who for his pains received ten years’ imprisonment under the Espionage Code. The reason? The film was rowdily anti-British, and had the bad luck to appear just as the United States entered the First Great War as Britain’s ally. It was suppressed and it was a great coup for the Festival to have unearthed a print. Would it cause outrage now? Most unlikely.

As it was a silent film a woman took her place at a piano in front of the screen, removed her rings and laid them care­fully at the side of the keyboard, crunched up a handkerchief and put it on the top of the rings, and, as the first shadows appeared, began to play, and played without a stop until the film came to an end. She was skilled at her job, and ranged through every emotion — from grave to gay, from lively to severe — without ever seeming to change gears. She had an historic sense, and played nothing written later than 1917. She also had a sense of congruity and her moments of senti­ment, when she played “Hearts and Flowers,” were the sen­timent of 1917, offered without irony or comment. Her style was lush — musically unchaste — and she dashed off arpeggios like confetti. In her peculiar realm, she was an artist of no trivial achievement, as must have been many of the women who, in the Old Red Sandstone Period of film, did what she was doing now.

I dwell on her achievement although I was aware of it only fitfully. For almost from the beginning, as I saw grainy images of actors rigged out in a rough approximation of late-eighteenth-century dress gesticulating and moving their lips soundlessly, in some overheated drama of their own, I was aware that I was seeing something else. Seeing, yes and hear­ing, for my film — my private film — was accompanied by orchestral music of great subtlety and modern in manner; my images were clear and convincing; my actors — if that is what they were — spoke aloud. I did not immediately or easily understand them; for, though their language was English, it seemed to be American English of the period of the Ameri­can Revolution, and it was spoken in a tune and with an accent unfamiliar to me. Mine was an astonishing film, and if I had seen it during my days of life, I would have been delighted with it. But now it frightened me.

Was this what Going was watching? From time to time he scribbled notes on a pad on his knee, and so far as I could read them they had no connection with my film. None what­ever. What I was watching was life, strange life, but life without a doubt, and I could enter into it only with difficulty, but with the sense that what I saw was of deep importance to me.


What I saw was New York, as it was in 1775. Or was it 1774? I could not be sure. But there it was; John Street, a street of respectable but not afflu­ent houses where lived, so far as I could make out, middle-class families — shopkeepers, lawyers, physicians and the like — and in the one to which my attention was directed, a soldier. There he was, confident and trim, in the uniform of an officer of a British regiment, coming down the three nicely holystoned steps of his dwelling into the sunshine. As he walked down the street, civilian neighbours greeted him. Good morning, Major Gage. A fine day, Major. His progress was stately, not marching but with soldierly bearing, a man proud in his profession. From his own windows a little girl waved, and he gave her a smart salute, which was plainly a joke between father and daughter. To the others who greeted him his acknowledgement was not quite a salute, but a lifting of his gloved hand to the foremost horn of his three-cornered hat, correctly pointing over the left eye. A popular man. A good neighbour. A credit to the neighbourhood.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson