Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Then there was an indication — do film people call it a wipe? — of passing time, and the music gave a strong hint of changed circumstances, of poorer weather, of autumn, indeed, and there was the Major coming down his steps again. His look was sterner, as well it might be, for running toward him was a crowd of street boys, shouting Bloody-back! Tory bloody-back! and as they ran past him one of them turned and hurled a dirty sod which left a stain on the back of his red coat. The child in the window disappeared, plainly fright­ened; the Major gave no sign of discomfiture, but walked on proudly, and this time there was something of the military march in his step.

The scene changes again, and this time it is inside the Major’s house, where he and his family are at table for their evening meal. It is a good meal and there are two black servants — not slaves, but in some ill-specified area of indenture — to put it on the table. With some trepidation the little girl, who is the second of the three children, asks her father about the insult of the morning. Nothing whatever, my dear. It don’t signify. Ragamuffins from the poorer quarter, who have been listening to foolish talk from malcontents. A soldier’s daughter must know that her father will not be popular with rogues, who fear the law and the army. It is not for a soldier to heed such riff-raff. If he meets them again let them beware of the cane which is part of his uniform.

Major Gage talks to his wife later, when they are tucked up in their pretty four-poster; he admits under questioning that perhaps the clod of dirt signifies a little more than he would say to Elizabeth. He has the imperturbable confidence of an Englishman and a soldier. Is he not an officer in one of the seventeen regiments Britain keeps in her American Col­onies, for their defence against the French, and the Spanish, and the privateers and smugglers? To say nothing of the Indians. And are not these ruffians under pretty sharp con­trol? If he meets the street boys again he will dust their jackets.

Mrs. Gage is not so confident. She is not English. She was Anna Vermuelen before she met and fell deeply in love with the Major, and her Old New York Dutch blood some­times runs a little coldly in her veins when she talks with her Dutch gossips over the morning coffee, for they hear things the British seem not to hear, or at any rate to heed. Down­stairs in the parlour there is a fine print of King George III, splendidly uniformed and supremely confident, and the chil­dren respect it almost as a holy image, but Anna knows from her un-British cronies that there are rumours that the King is concerned about what his ministers are doing in the Ameri­can Colonies, and that there is a substantial pro-American faction in London, and even in Parliament, which urges that the grievances of the Colonies be heard.

Of course many of the grievances are all my eye and Betty Martin (Anna has picked up this soldiers’ phrase from her husband and likes to use it to show how thoroughly British she has become) and were stirred up by rogues like the notorious smuggler John Hancock and that untrustworthy lawyer Sam Adams. But there are other grievances that are not so easily set aside.


There is not much open talk of these grievances or what ill-will they are causing among the New York people the Gages know, until one Sunday morning when the Reverend Cephas Willoughby speaks of them from the pulpit of Trinity Church, which is the foremost English church in New York. The Gages have a pew and on Sunday mornings they make quite a procession as they go there; the two older children, Roger and Elizabeth, walk first, trying to move as their dancing master instructs, erect yet easy, and with a somewhat duck-like placing of the feet; after them come the Major and his handsome wife, a splendid pair whose deportment is a joy to those who are connoisseurs of such matters; then come the two black women, Emmeline and Chloe, the latter carrying baby Hannah — she is three — in a handsome Turkey shawl; and bringing up the rear the footman, porter and odd-job man James, in a good brown coat (formerly the Major’s) and carrying all the prayer-books. When they reach the portico of Trinity they greet any friends in subdued, Sunday tones, before they go to their pew, a box-like affair in which they can enjoy some privacy, and are to be seen with ease only by the clergyman when he mounts his pulpit. There are many of these boxes, and they command a respectable yearly rental; poorer folk sit further back in the church, in free seats. The church is eminently respectable, eminently English, emi­nently Tory, and the service it offers is bland and the music excellent. But today the parson is anything but bland.

He takes his text from Jude, the sixteenth verse: These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admira­tion because of advantage. The Reverend Cephas Willoughby makes no bones about the modern exemplars of this wicked­ness; they are Bostonians, almost to a man. And Boston is a high-stomached city. Their pretensions are noble, but their trade is treachery. Some among them are well-known smug­glers, whose wealth lifts them above easy criticism; some are lawyers who would twist the law to their own advantage. They are the filthy dreamers who despise dominion and speak evil of dignities. They would rouse the good people of the American Colonies against the King and the King’s laws — yes, and the King’s taxes, which have repeatedly been shown to be just imposts, meant to pay the cost of protecting the Colonies against many enemies. These speak evil of things which they know not — or rather, which they pretend they know not; but what they know naturally — which is to say from the impulses of their own dark and greedy hearts — they know as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves — and would corrupt those whose ignorance disposes them to such corruption.

As a preacher, the Reverend Cephas Willoughby labours under a weight of scholarship which sometimes rests heavily on his parishioners; he has been known to harangue them for two long hours, measured by the sand-glass which stands upon his pulpit, on some obscure point of doctrine. But today he is brief and vehement and his flock are all ears. Can Mr. Willoughby truly be speaking of what, from the pulpit, should surely be unspeakable, so long as it can be kept in the realm of whispered confidence and familiar gossip? Indeed that is what Mr. Willoughby is doing. The Church interven­ing in politics? Is it proper?

Having made it plain that he intends to talk about the revolutionary discontent that everybody fears, but which has so far not appeared openly in New York, Mr. Willoughby takes a deep and indignant breath as he settles to his task.

What lies behind these murmurings, which are now growing to the pitch of clamourings? Rebellion? Certainly. But rebellion must have a cause, and its cause is not complaint against taxes, and the cost of England’s standing army of seventeen regiments in the American Colonies. It is not the popular cry of No Taxation Without Representation. It is not the cost of maintaining the various colonial governors, for with­out them who would mediate between our own elected representatives and our King in London? These are the matters the murmurers and complainers talk of so impudently and contentiously, but the real cause lies deeper.

It lies in the heart of man, where many evil things have their abode and where for a time they may prevail, when the Prince of Darkness gains a supremacy. It was in the heart of Cain that the Evil Prince found a foothold, when Cain rebelled and struck down his worthy brother Abel. And was not Cain abundant in excuses, saying Am I my brother’s keeper? Do not these wicked men who seek to mislead us say the same? Am I to give my help in Britain’s wars with France and Spain? What are they to me? Am I not sufficient unto myself? Dearly beloved, it is not the murmurers and complainers who speak from their own hearts in their tempestuous words. It is the voice of Cain, and through Cain, the Dark Angel himself. It is the Dark Angel who in our America would set brother against brother, and subject against King.

Dearly beloved, I speak a terrible truth unto you: Cain is raised in our midst! Cain is raised, and until Cain is laid again we shall know no peace, in this land which our God has so richly framed for peace. Cain is raised, I say to you! Cain is raised!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson