The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 4Robertson Davies
• THURSDAY •
A soft day, and I think it must be raining down the chimney, for I can’t get my furnace to go. I have shaken, and poked, and tinkered with the drafts, and removed the accumulation of overshoes from the cold air intake, but to no avail. I have even (I blush to write this) tried a propitiatory offering: I built a little altar before the furnace door, and offered up a bowl of delicious turkey-giblet soup on it, but the Fire-God remained sulky, so I ate the soup myself and resumed my hopeless poking…. But I know what will happen; if I go to bed, leaving the drafts full on, I shall waken in the night semi-cooked, for the furnace will rage and roar at 4 a.m.; but if I check it ever so lightly it will congeal and go out, and in the morning I shall be faced with an immense clinker, like a piece of peanut-brittle. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t jump into the furnace myself, and end it all.
• FRIDAY •
A man I know has been so broken by the restrictions on horse-racing that he has attempted to console himself by collecting calendars with pictures of horses on them: he has a very fine one with Man o’ War on it just in sight as he works. I have heard of pin-up girls before, but this is my first experience of a pin-up horse…. Nevertheless, I know one Senator whose Ottawa office is entirely hung with photographs and portraits of Holstein cattle. “Look at those flanks,” he will cry, as one enters the room, and as he goes on to even more startling intimacies, and as one looks eagerly for an art study of Lana Turner, the realization dawns that he is talking about Buttercup-Nestlerode-Springfilled III, queen of the dairy, whose butterfat production has never been equalled. Once a young divinity student visited this Senator, and as he knew nothing of his enthusiasm, and did not understand fully what was being said, he was convinced after twenty minutes of dairy-talk that he was in the presence either of an eminent woman’s doctor or a libertine of Neronian abandonment.
• SATURDAY •
Tried to listen to the opera broadcast of Rigoletto this afternoon, but as a man in the cellar was doing something cruel to the furnace, and a horde of visitors descended upon me, I did not make much headway with it…. Went to bed early and read about Dr. Johnson, a man after my own heart, for he loved tea, conversation and pretty women, and had not much patience with fools. Rose at 11:30, ate a big plate of breakfast food and an orange, put the snaffle on the furnace, and retired to sleep the sweet sleep of the deserving poor.
• SUNDAY •
Met a little girl today who was wearing a pair of high rubber boots, which she referred to as her Wellingtons, and of which she was very proud. Have not heard high boots called Wellingtons for a long time, and it reminded me of my Uncle Hengist, who was a clergyman and a great hand at organizing strawberry socials, bazaars, bean suppers, local talent concerts and similar pious breaches of the peace. At all such affairs he set up a curtained booth, with a sign outside which said “See the Grand Historical Tableau—The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo. Admission Ten Cents. Proceeds for Missions” (or the Organ Fund, or the Abandoned Women, or whatever the good cause might be). Inside the booth was a table, on which a Wellington boot faced a Blucher boot. Uncle Hengist thought this very funny, and his parishioners put up with it for years, although they were all privy to the fraudulent nature of the exhibit. It was not until he became Bishop of Baffinland that he gave up obtaining money by this shady ruse.
• MONDAY •
Was talking today to a man and his wife who were groaning that their three children were boys; a girl, they thought, would be much easier to bring up, and a refining influence upon their young gorillas. This is a misconception about the nature of daughters which should be exploded. I think immediately of the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould,13 that gentle man who had nine daughters, all beautiful and all possessed of the spirit of tigresses. The poor man would sit in his study at Lew Trenchard, trying to write Onward, Christian Soldiers, or some such ditty, when a servant would rush in, crying, “If you please, sir, Miss Angela has fallen off the roof, Miss Beatrice has fallen off her horse, Miss Cecilia has sprained her ankle (if you’ll pardon the expression, sir), Miss Dorothea has shot a gamekeeper, Miss Emily is riding the bull, Miss Frances has climbed the steeple, Miss Gertrude has fallen into the pond, Miss Geraldine has bitten the dog, and Miss Harriet is pumping water on the curate!” Such were the trials of that Devon vicarage—and all caused by daughters!
• TUESDAY •
Everyone I meet these days asks me how my furnace is getting on. As a matter of fact, it is behaving very well; cold weather seems to agree with it thoroughly. I have only to whisper my desire down one of the cold-air pipes and it obliges at once…. But I am having unusual trouble with ashes. Twice a week I fill all the cans, hoppers, baskets, cartons and old derby hats in the house, and drag them out to the curb, and even at that I am accumulating a little hoard of ashes in a corner of my cellar…. There is fireplace ash too. My fireplace has a trap door in its hearth which allows all the ashes to tumble down into a cave in the cellar wall. When I remove the door of the cave all the ashes gush forth into my face, covering me so thickly with ash that I look like Boris Karloff in one of his mummy roles. Of course I hold a basket under the deluge, but never in the right place…. Some months ago I went away for a few days and left a furnace man in charge of things. When I came back the cellar was full of ashes; “I couldn’t find enough o’ vessels to put ’em out in,” said he, in the rich accents of Old Ireland. That has always been my trouble. Not enough o’ vessels.
• WEDNESDAY •
To the movies, to see a piece which exalted the virtues of country life; the chief incident was the burning of a barn which belonged to an elderly farmer, and the eagerness of his neighbours to give him livestock and produce with which to start farming again. But this is not a form of generosity exclusive to the country. I well recall when the Astor mansion in New York burned to the ground in 1896; all the rich city folk hastened to do what they could for the poor Astors, who had been burnt out. Old Mrs. Van Rensellaer threw a shawl over her head and ran over at once with a big tureen of real turtle soup. The Vanderbilts sent silk bed sheets and down pillows; the Van Courtlandts offered the Astors their ballroom to bed down in for the night; the Goulds insisted on sending them a full set of crested fish-knives, and a large salmon as well; the Rockefellers sent their butler with a big block of Standard Oil stock, and a dish of out-of-season fruit. It was a wonderful outburst of spontaneous kindness on the part of all the Astors’ neighbours. It is simply foolish to think that only the humble have kind and generous instincts; many a great heart beats beneath a ruby and sapphire stomacher.14
• THURSDAY •
Rain today, and frost coming out of the ground. A black day at Marchbanks Towers, which is so situated that water pours into the cellar every spring and during the January thaw. There is something about the sound of water pouring into one’s cellar which cannot be ignored; I sat by the fire for a time, trying to distract my attention with a good book; this failed, so I tried a bad book, (the latest selection of the Bawdy Book Club, of which I am a member), but even that was useless, and at last my conscience drove me down into the depths to see what was happening. There was no doubt about it; the water was mounting. So I seized a broom and tried to sweep it toward the drain; I was alarmed that my furnace might get its feet wet, and develop one of its fits of sulks. My woodpile was soggy at the base; my window screens were beginning to shift in an uneasy way. For a mad moment I contemplated scooping up all the water I could in a bucket and rushing upstairs to empty it out into the garden, but Reason regained her throne almost at once, and I rejected the notion as unworthy. Fortunately the rain stopped soon afterward, and I was able to go to bed with a fairly calm mind.
• FRIDAY •
Was talking to a friend of mine, and noticed that he had a strange smell. When I commented on this he blushed becomingly, and said that it was some shaving lotion which he had been given for Christmas. It was manufactured especially for masculine use, and was
called (I think he said) “Horse.” A number of scents for the male are now on the market and all of them guarantee to make the wearer smell of something wholesome and rugged like heather, or the harness-room in a livery stable. They have short, rugged, masculine names, like “Gym,” “Running Shoes,” “Barn,” “Cheese,” “Glue,” and the like. I think that they have a definite place in modern society. A sedentary worker, like myself, has no characteristic smell; anybody who met me in the dark might think that I was a professional woman of some kind (not the oldest kind, of course). But if I sprinkle a few drops of “Corduroy Trousers” on my handkerchief, it is obvious for several yards around me that I am a man. Business women always use scents like “Riot,” “Delinquency,” “Turpitude,” and the ever-popular “Beast-Goad.”
• SATURDAY •
Listened to Tales of Hoffman broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, this afternoon; Hoffman was sung by Raoul Jobin, a Canadian, and Pierette Alarie, another Canadian, was the leading coloratura; the conductor was Wilfred Pelletier, also a Canadian. Reflected for the millionth time that it is a pity that Canadians with this sort of ability have so little chance or encouragement to use it for the advancement of their native land. Canada exports brains and talent with the utmost recklessness, as though we had a surfeit of them at home, instead of having one of the highest living standards, and one of the lowest artistic and æsthetic standards in the world.15 … Going to bed, discovered that my tube of toothpaste was suffering from severe hernia, and gushed in the most unexpected places when squeezed. Tried to weld the ruptured place over the electric stove, with desperate results, and the odour of frizzling dentifrice spread nauseatingly through the house. Abandoned myself to despair for a few minutes, and then burned some brown paper to dispel the stench of failure.
• SUNDAY AND SS. FIACRE & HANSOM •
Took a dish of tea this afternoon with some people who served the strongest mixture that I have ever swallowed under that name. It was the colour of a spaniel’s eyes, and when I supped it my tongue was immediately numbed. I ventured to ask for a little hot water, but it was powerless against such tea; I estimate that a cup of it, poured into a wash-tub full of boiling water, might have made an endurable drink for me, but I will not guarantee it…. I ventured to remark to my hosts that they liked their tea very strong. “Oh yes,” said they; “Tea is no good to us unless it will trot a mouse.” I asked a few questions about the latter expression, and learned that what they meant was that they liked their tea so strong that a mouse could trot over the surface of the cup without sinking…. It occurred to me, in a horrible revelation, that they probably kept a mouse in their kitchen for testing purposes, and I lost all my thirst at once.
• MONDAY •
Was roused before seven this morning by a telegraph boy with a message. It read, “Am sending crocheted pillow shams today stop Auntie.” I blenched, and the paper fell to the floor from my nerveless fingers, for of course this was code, and it meant, “All discovered stop prepare to fly at once stop” and it was from my spymaster16 Serge Pantz. I immediately gathered all the incriminating papers in the house, and burnt them in the fireplace, and then ate the ashes; with a little milk and sugar they were not unpalatable…. Then I waited and waited and waited until another telegram came. “Send me your recipe for prune bumblepuppy at once stop delicious stop Auntie.” This, when decoded, meant: “Destroy no records stop guard them with your life if necessary stop.” I must confess that this depressed me, for I knew how testy Pantz would be when he discovered that I had eaten the ashes of the records. But Soviet Above Self has always been my motto, so I set about my day’s work. Disguising myself as an old apple-woman, I stood on a curb until noon and sold my special cyanide apples to as many capitalists as I could persuade to buy them, and then went to a beverage room to poison the minds of the Workers. This is always hard, as they won’t keep their heads still while I am squirting the poison into their ears. Anyway, a lot of them have pretty poisonous minds already…. I am getting sick of this spy business. I think I’ll turn rat, and peach on Pantz to the R.C.M.P.
• TUESDAY •
The spy-scare is mounting, and I hear that some nosy garbageman has reported to the City Council that I always put my garbage out wrapped in Pravda. To offset any suspicion this may have aroused I put on my Rotary button, my Kiwanis button, my Lion button, my Hi-Y button, my Teen-club button, my Soroptimist button, my W.C.T.U. button, my B’nai B’rith and Hadassah buttons, and all my ritual jewels from Beta Sigma Phi and walked around town, thus heavily disguised as a Good Citizen. I patted several children, and gave bones to every dog I met, and upon the whole I think I made a favourable impression. I may get out of this mess with my skin whole if I play my cards properly.
• WEDNESDAY •
My mail this morning included some information about this season’s Valentines, though why I should be interested in them I do not know. But I was tickled to read in choice advertising agency English that “thoughtful creators of Valentine varieties have not overlooked the emotional needs of the bachelor girl who doesn’t ‘go steady’ but sports the odd gentleman friend…. If she’s still uncertain of her boy-friend’s intentions and emotions, a Valentine could be found which might provide either an encouragement to the shy swain, or ‘no thorough-fare’ to the wolf, without in any way compromising the young lady’s dignity or affections.” … In my younger days it was easy to short-circuit a wolf by sending him a one-cent comic Valentine entitled “The Masher,” the verse on the latter being:
You think you’re a Masher, and all hearts do please,
But you might as well know you’re a Big Hunk of Cheese.
It may be argued, of course, that this type of Valentine compromised the sender’s dignity, though not half as badly as it compromised that of the receiver…. I see no mention of a Valentine suitable for a dyspeptic diarist whose emotions have been cauterized by a rebellious and evilly-disposed furnace.
• THURSDAY •
Another note from the Income Tax people this morning. A while ago they presented me with a bill for the whole of my 1941 tax, insisting that I had not paid it. By great good luck and contrary to my usual unbusinesslike procedure, I had my receipts, which I brandished angrily in their faces. Gradually the whole sordid story leaked out: they had taxed me both as Samuel Marchbanks and as Fortunatus S. Marchbanks, in spite of the fact that nobody has called me Fortunatus since 1897; having billed Sam they were out to skin Fortunatus, but I am not quite such a dual personality as that. When their error was pointed out to them, they did not even apologize for their threat to take proceedings against me, but managed to dig up an item of a few dollars which they said I ought to pay, plus interest…. The churlishness of tax-gatherers is phenomenal. I wonder if there is a case on record in which a private citizen has extracted an apology from a tax-gatherer? I wonder if their work makes them curmudgeons, or if curmudgeonliness is a qualification for the job? I have received a stack of letters about this affair, all written from the standpoint of a government official addressing a hardened and evasive criminal. The insolence of these herdsmen of The Golden Calf is past all bearing.17
• FRIDAY •
The papers tell me that the sports world has been shaken by a horrible basketball scandal, which surprises me more than I can express. I have for years been under the impression that basketball is a gentle game played by fat little girls who trundle up and down a gymnasium floor with jellying thighs and bobbing bosoms, trying to toss an old soccer ball into a hoop, squealing and giggling the while. But apparently the real basketball players are big hairy fellows who chew tobacco and occasionally accept bribes…. Not long ago I discovered that I was similarly out-of-date on the subject of lacrosse. My idea of lacrosse is genuine Indian baggataway, with twenty-four of the most murderous ruffians in town clashing and hacking at each other with hickory clubs and pieces of fish-net. An old lacrosse player once pulled up his trousers and showed me his shins, and th
ey looked like raw hamburger even after twenty-five years. But now it seems that lacrosse really is a girl’s game, refereed by prim females who cry, “Ah, ah there, Lucy,” and “Tut, Tut Marjorie,” and “Now girls, remember your Guide honour” when hair-pulling seems imminent.
• SATURDAY •
The spy-hunt has made me as jumpy as a hen on a hot griddle all week, and today was a climax. Telegram from Serge Pantz—“Sending you half-a-dozen tatted doilies stop love stop Auntie.” This, decoded, meant “You have failed, pig of a dog; prepare to die.” This was going too far, so I wired back (collect) “Expecting little stranger next week what do you mean to do about it? Gladys”; this, decoded by Pantz, means “Pish, dog of a pig, I flatly refuse to die.” However, knowing Pantz, I put on my bullet-proof combinations at once, disguised myself as a woman, and went out and hid in the powder room of a Ladies’ Beverage Room (No Men Allowed). I am counting on the R.C.M.P. finding Pantz before he finds me; indeed, I sent them a little anonymous note about him last Monday.