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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 32

Robertson Davies


  I WENT ON MY first hunt last week with a group of friends; they were Old Hands, and I was what they call a Greenfoot or a Tenderhorn, so I kept quiet and tried to learn woodlore. We motored fifty miles, then crowded our eight selves, 400 pounds of equipment, four dogs and two Indians into a rather small boat, bringing the gunwales down almost to the water-line. We journeyed by water for a considerable distance and then debarked after sundown. Then we carried the junk a further five miles in the dark—at least, it was supposed to be five miles, but as none of the Old Hands knew the way and there was no road or path, it was more like eight. At last we found the camp and the guide, who had prepared a supper of salt pork and fried potatoes two hours earlier; it had congealed curiously, but we ate it. Then the Old Hands “turned in.” Being a mere Tenderhorn, I simply went to bed.

  Next day it was raining cats and dogs, and the Old Hands complained that their feet hurt; my feet hurt too but being a mere Greenfoot I was ashamed to say so. We breakfasted on salt pork and fried potatoes. We decided that it was useless to try to hunt in the rain; it kills the scent, or depresses the dogs or gives the Old Hands colds, or something. The Old Hands did not seem to be feeling very woodsy, and talked about the merits of different kinds of cars all day. Dinner and supper were of salt pork and fried potatoes. One Old Hand produced a package of bicarbonate of soda, and we all had a snort. We went to bed early. The bunks were boards with marsh-grass strewn lightly over them, and I dreamed of Hell.

  The next day was better, so we stoked ourselves with salt pork and fried potatoes and went out. I was put by a rock and told not to budge or fire at anything unless I was sure it was a deer. I gave my word…. Hours passed. At midday I cunningly buried my package of salt pork and fried potatoes, and ate some of the biscuits and things I had secreted in my pockets; I wouldn’t dare admit to the Old Hands that I have such babyish tastes. Nothing happened except that I grew to hate my rock and wished I were sitting in my swivel chair in my nice stuffy office. At last ennui became so great that I sneakingly smoked a cigarette—a hideous crime.7 When we reassembled at camp for salt pork and fried potatoes, I noticed that all the Old Hands had biscuit crumbs on their fronts, and smelled of tobacco. Two of the dogs were lost.

  I was put in another place the next day, with a better view. I found a dead bear in the woods and performed an autopsy; it had been eating salt pork and fried potatoes. After some hours I saw an Old Hand approaching with a strange light in his eyes; he jerked his head at me, and I followed; he had picked up a trail. At last we crouched behind some scrub. He put his lips to my ear, and in a moist, tickly whisper said, “See his antlers?” “Her horns?” I enquired. “Tenderhorn,” he whispered; “a magnificent spread of antlers; a buck.” I peeped over the scrub. “A Holstein,” I whispered back, but already he had aimed. He trembled. His eyes bulged. Bubbles came out of his mouth. He fired. The cow squalled and fled. The milk was sour at supper, which did not help the tea with which we washed down our salt pork and fried potatoes. Being a Greenfoot, I said nothing. There seemed to be an air of depression in the camp; the Old Hands massaged their stomachs and brooded.

  By the next day I had decided that I shall never understand this hunting business. I hadn’t even fired off my gun, and I had stood still for seventeen hours, and I had stomach ulcers from the food, saddle-galls from the bed, and to top it all we were going home! Nobody explained anything but the chief Old Hand was in a terrible temper, and had a bullet hole in his hat, and wouldn’t speak to one of the other Old Hands, who looked defiant and pouty, like a little boy who has broken a vase. The rest of us talked a lot and agreed that there were too many hunters in the woods, some of whom didn’t know how to handle a gun (the chief Old Hand and the pouty Old Hand both snarled at that) and that it was not our fault that we hadn’t killed eight or ten deer. We retraced our steps, but as we were short a pair of dogs the boat wasn’t quite so full this time. Motoring home we passed car after car with its engine smothered in deer. They trapped them, probably.

  I was glad to be back at work. “My foot is on my native heath; my name’s MacGregor!” I kept exclaiming, while my colleagues stared. “Have a good hunt?” people asked me. “Capital sport! Capital!” I replied, knowing that the Old Hands would expect this of me. People pestered me for cuts of venison; I explained that I had sent all mine to the Hospital for the Deaf and Dumb.

  But I received a brusque note from the chief Old Hand today, asking me for twenty-five dollars—my share in the price of the lost dogs. Those dogs must have had hearts of gold; their carcasses were not worth fifty cents apiece. But never mind; I have been on a hunt, and I shall never be a Tenderhorn again. From henceforth I am an Old Hand, and I shall boast and lie about my prowess in the woods, avowing that I am every bit the equal of Natty Bummpo, Robin Hood, and Frank Buck. I have even burned a hole in my hunting hat with a poker, so that I can pass as a genuine Old Hand. That is the sign by which they are known, I am told.


  IN A WEAK-MINDED moment last autumn I agreed to serve as a judge of some undergraduate writing; today my Fate overtook me and I had to spend two or three hours reading ambitious pieces of all kinds—poetry, criticism, short stories and whatnot. I am a wretched judge of such things, for I am capricious, irresponsible, unmethodical, utterly without conscience and what my grandmother used to call “notionate.” Anyway, I wasn’t interested in any of the stuff I read. The right people to judge such contests are sober, keen-minded fellows who are ready to take all sorts of trouble to arrive at the right decision—not whirligigs like me. At last I put all the manuscripts on the floor, whirled round three times, and shook my fountain pen over the heap; the manuscripts with the biggest blots on them received prizes, the rest got nothing. I do not defend this method of judging; I merely explain it. I also recommend it to university professors and teachers who have a lot of troublesome papers to mark.


  IT WAS FOGGY yesterday; I met several people who referred to it as “English weather.” It is a popular idea in Canada that England is under a blanket of fog about 300 days in the year. As one who has lived quite a while in both places, I can assure them that fog is about as common in Ontario as it is in England, though English fog tastes worse. I went to a play through the fog, the plot of which was the ancient one of the husband, presumed dead, who turns up again after his wife has remarried. This palsied wheeze was beaten to a pulp by the playwright and the cast, and the evening was somewhat exhausting. I was not sure whether the actors were trying to divert the audience, or just working up a good sweat; they rushed on and off the stage, they shrieked, waved their arms, and tumbled into chairs; they were diverting, but it wore me out to watch them…. Frankly, I don’t think many women would mind having two husbands, if they could get away with it, and therefore the play was founded on an unsound argument, so far as I was concerned.


  A FRIEND OF MINE was showing me his aquarium this afternoon; he had some pretty tropical fish, and I looked at them with an intelligent expression and pretended to understand what he told me of their species and habits. But I woke up when he pointed out his Japanese snail, and informed me that this creature is its own mate, and produces young without entangling alliances. At first it seemed to me that this was carrying egotism too far, but then I began to reflect on the advantages of such a plan. It is cosy, to begin with, and love, which is for mere human beings an emotion involving painful dependence upon another person, is for the Japanese snail merely a period of delicious introspection. Moralists should make this snail their emblem, for it knows no divorce, no marital disagreement, and no triangle murders. And the Japanese snail, instead of keeping his wife’s picture on his desk, as so many men do, merely tickles himself when he feels uxorious and says “Ah, you slyboots!”


  A JUICY BIT of gossip reached my
ears today to the effect that a puritanical fellow of my acquaintance has been paying court to a lady who is not his wife. My informant expressed surprise that so straight-laced a man should err, but it does not surprise me in the least. Puritans are always thinking about sin, and consequently they are quick to see a sinful opportunity when one presents itself. A Poor Lost Lamb like myself, who never bothers his head about sin, is far less subject to temptation than a convinced Puritan. Furthermore, Puritans enjoy sin more than ordinary people; not only do they have the fun of doing whatever it may be that is wrong, but they have the fun of self-accusation, repentance, penitence, and similar emotional binges. A Puritan gets more of an emotional jag out of a miserable little sin like stealing a postage-stamp or kissing an hotel chambermaid than I would out of robbing the Bank of England, or, more profitably, the U.S. Mint. Consequently, Puritans lead gaudy lives, while mine is a life of bland respectability.


  NEWS REACHES ME that in the kindergarten which my nephew Belial attends they recently gave point to the Easter lesson by acting out Our Lord’s Passion, and Belial was chosen for the coveted role of the Saviour. This was an egregious piece of miscasting, as Belial is much better suited to the part of a torturer, demon or tormentor. However, he was tied to a cross (made from a couple of yardsticks) with tape, and in due time he was taken down and laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea which was represented by the schoolroom cupboard. “And did you rise again on the Third Day, Belial?” his parents asked him. “Yes, I came out of the cupboard,” he replied. “And what did you do then?” they enquired. “I went to my seat,” said Belial, apparently without any sense of anticlimax…. The new system of religious education is working wonders in the land, and I hardly meet a child these days who has not been an angel, or the Virgin Mary, or the Paraclete, or Original Sin, or some other notable character from Holy Writ in one of these classroom epiphanies.


  A MAN IN THE States proposes that a date be chosen for International Grandmother’s Day; I suspect that he is being egged on by the greeting-card cartel. The average grandmother is, I suppose, a worthy old party, and it has been my observation that grandmothers are kept pretty well stocked with sweetmeats, flowers, cocaine and bottles of gin by their loving relatives, without any social compulsion being exercised. But once grandmother-worship becomes official and obligatory a great many untrammelled spirits will rebel against it. Look what happened to Mother’s Day. From the dawn of civilization mothers, as a class, were held in reasonably high regard until Mother’s Day was established, with the purpose of compelling every man, under pain of social ostracism, to declare that his mother was the greatest woman who ever lived, and to give proof, in consumer goods, of his tremendous adoration of her. In consequence a lot of men—just to show that their souls are their own and without any ill-will toward the authors of their being—kick and buffet their mothers all over the house on Mother’s Day, although during the other 364 days of the year they take them to the movies, buy them bags of nut fudge, and provide them with lacy shawls and crime-story magazines. Men can be led but they won’t be driven; mice, of course, do what they are told.


  CIRCUMSTANCES MADE it necessary for me to take a walk through town at half-past five this morning; I had the streets to myself and was able to look about freely. I was astonished by the fact that a great number of my fellow citizens appear to sleep in sealed rooms; if they get any fresh air, it is certainly not through their windows. I dread to think what my old school nurse, Miss Toxaemia Dogsbody, Reg. N., would have said about this; retrospective fear of that old harridan has compelled me to open my window on nights of bitterest cold, and because of her admonitions I still brush my teeth up and down, instead of crosswise which is much more fun…. Indeed, I must confess that fear of Miss Dogsbody (although she is now in Abraham’s bosom and is probably scrubbing it with carbolic soap) is the moving principle in my struggle for health. Like most people I have a natural tendency toward unhealthy practices which are pleasant, such as drinking with my mouth full, eating heavily before going to bed, and sleeping in an atmosphere of warm frowst.


  I WAS LUNCHING with a person today who has travelled a good deal, and has had contacts with elephants, both wild and in captivity. I was astounded to learn that most elephants suffer to some extent with indigestion, as they eat a lot of damp grass and vegetable matter which gives them gas and bloating (like the people in the patent medicine advertisements). I didn’t like to be too curious on this subject, which had a slight tinge of indelicacy and was not entirely suitable for lunch-table conversation, but it explained a few things about elephants which I have pondered from time to time. That look of patient resignation, for instance, is familiar to all victims of indigestion. And the saggy skin of the elephant is probably Dame Nature’s way of providing the poor beast with plenty of stretch during periods of bloating. A full-blown elephant must be an astonishing sight. What hiccups an elephant must suffer! What apocalyptic belchings, what rumblings of that vast paunch, how sonorous those pachydermatous borborygmies!


  I SPENT A GOOD DEAL of time last week making arrangements to go away. This is one of the curses of our over-organized modern life—nothing can be done simply. I cannot wrap a crust of bread and a rind of cheese in a bandana handkerchief and set out when the spirit moves me: I must buy several tickets, make reservations at hotels, redeem my collars from the Oriental who washes them, grapple with the confusion between Daylight Saving and Daylight Wasting, issue instructions in all directions and work myself into a frame of mind in which all travel seems hateful, and a six-by-eight prison cell, with no possibility of escape, the highest reach of human bliss. Oh to be a gypsy, with one shirt and no necessity to be anywhere on time!

  Then at last, I reached Toronto, and went to the Big Pub, where I had reserved a room: but of course it was not ready, so I went to the home of some friends, and when I had eaten and drunk them poor I returned to the B.P. at 1 a.m.

  Then on the next day I went to London, where the Dominion Drama Festival8 was in the throes of its final competition. This city has the windiest station in Ontario, and my hat blew under a train, acquiring an oily patina. At the hotel and the Grand Theatre hundreds of amateur actors and producers were milling around, addressing one another in the merry shrieks which theatrical people consider obligatory in conversation. I had not been in the hotel a minute before I was greeted by the front legs of a horse of which I had been the back legs in a pantomine in 1933. The years sat lightly upon these front legs, and we tried out our act then and there: nobody noticed, for everyone else was horsing around, too…. During the afternoon I engaged in several invigorating fights about a Canadian National Theatre—a sort of Loch Ness monster which rears its ugly head at every Drama Festival.

  I was surprised and delighted by the number of pretty and smartly dressed women attending the Drama Festival. Though really there is no occasion for amazement: pretty women like to act and show themselves off, and acting and showing off tends to make women pretty. I am no admirer of the retiring violet, who forgets to powder her nose and straighten her stocking-seams, and who prides herself on being natural and unspoiled; if the human race had persisted in being natural and unspoiled we should all still be swinging from tree to tree by our tails. Women are the flowers of humanity, and I find it hard to be patient with poor bloomers, and worse still tiresome thorny shrubs that never bloom at all.

  At a matinee performance I sat between two parties of elderly people who enjoyed the comedies in a somewhat moribund way. Their praise was all negative. “Glad this isn’t one of those gloomy ones,” said an elderly man, with a despairing face: “Yes, I don’t like those plays about death,” agreed his female companion, who wore false teeth made apparently out of bone buttons and red sealing wax, and whose gayest smile was a ghastly mem
ento mori. The elderly usually crave comedies, even though they have no touch of the Comic Spirit: it is the young, the dewy, the not-quite-dry-behind-the-ears who applaud the grim plays…. A performance of Jane Eyre one evening suffered from the fact that theatrical wigs are virtually unobtainable in Canada; consequently Mr. Rochester wore a thing on his head which had apparently been made from a dustless mop, and gave him an unfortunate resemblance to King Kong.


  THE LAST DAY OF the Festival was the best and there was wild excitement everywhere. After the adjudicator had announced the usual awards, I was called to the stage to make the Marchbanks Special Awards. These were:

  THE MARCHBANKS SHIELD FOR THE BEST COUGH IN FRENCH OR ENGLISH TO BE HEARD DURING THE FESTIVAL: In spite of strong competition from some sharp Western coughs, this went to a fruity old Eastern cough, like coal sliding down a chute, from the Eastern Ontario region.

  THE MARCHBANKS TROPHY FOR THE MOST SUCCESSFUL LATE COMER: Won by a lady from Quebec whose gown was caught in the doors just as they closed on Friday night, and who sat out the performance in her chemise, to the envy of the remainder of the spectators, who were overheated.