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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 43

Robertson Davies

  Now, keep your temper, Mouseman, while I explain: you say that evidence is lacking that Dandiprat put the skunk in the car. I know that he did it; I can tell by the ugly leer he gives me whenever I see him, and by the way he pretends to sniff the air when he passes my house. If you want evidence, why don’t you send that sensible secretary of yours, Miss Prudence Bunn, to Dandiprat’s house, disguised as a government inspector, or a Hydro snoop, or something. Then when nobody is looking, she can nip upstairs, pinch one of Dandiprat’s handkerchiefs—an initialled one—and then we can say we found it at the scene of the crime.

  What you lawyers need is enterprise. I shouldn’t have to do all your thinking for you.

  Yours for brighter law,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Sir:

  It has been brought to our attention that you have several times and in divers places alleged that our client, Richard Dandiprat, Esquire, introduced a skunk into your motor vehicle and there induced, coerced or suborned the animal to misconduct itself in a characteristic manner. Should you persist in this allegation we shall take action against you for defamation.


  Craven and Raven,



  Dear Mouseman:

  Now look what you have done! I am sending you a letter from Craven and Raven, a firm of cheap shysters who are Dandiprat’s lawyers, in which they threaten me with a libel action if I tell the truth about Dandiprat. Why don’t you get on the job and put Dandiprat in court for what he has done to me? I don’t want to be bothered with law: I just want Dandiprat thrown in the jug, where he belongs. Why don’t you do something?

  Yours passionately,

  S. Marchbanks.



  Ignoring your rudeness in your last letter, I write to inform you that Outraged Womanhood is once more upon the march. You have heard (as who has not?) that a quarter-pint of rum has been added to the birthday cake of H.R.H. The Prince Edward Antony Richard Louis. Now I ask you, what will happen when that infant has eaten his piece of cake? Staggering, bleary-eyed, he will drive his kiddy-car recklessly around his nursery, his co-ordination reduced perhaps 30 per cent, until he maims his nurse. And what sort of example is that, I ask you, for the infants of the Empire? Rum in cake will lead to demands for rum-and-butter toffee, and then his little bootees will be firmly set upon the Road to Ruin.

  I enclose a protest for you to sign. If you do not sign it, never hope again to hear from


  (Mrs.) Kedijah Scissorbill.


  Dear Pil:

  I don’t suppose you have seen the movie of Madame Bovary? I beguiled an idle hour with it last night when some fragments appeared on TV, and was moved to reflect that there is something deeply phoney about American actors pretending to be Frenchmen. And when a French classic is translated into American all illusion of French atmosphere is lost. In this piece, for instance, Mme. Bovary goes to her aristocratic lover and says:

  MME. BOVARY: I must have 150,000 francs.

  ARISTOCRATIC LOVER: Uh don’t have ut.

  MME. BOVARY: Yuh don’t have ut?

  ARISTOCRATIC LOVER: Naw, uh don’t have ut.

  MME. BOVARY: (collapsing) Aw, yuh, don’t have ut!

  Frankly this seems as un-French to me as if they had spoken with Scottish or Lancashire accents. There was a time when actors had a good clear speech of their own, which was not related to any special place and so was suitable for everything, but this excellent tradition was never incorporated in the movies. Ah, well—




  Honoured Sir:

  You have been most indiscreet, Mr. Marchbanks, indeed you have! Now that Mr. Dandiprat’s lawyers have been brought into the matter, I confess that I scarcely know which way to turn. Craven and Raven, whatever you may say to the contrary, are very astute. Indeed, they took a case to court and won it, so recently as 1924. I have consulted with the elder Mr. Mouseman, and also with Mr. Cicero Forcemeat, and we are agreed that we are pitted against some of the keenest legal talent in the country.

  Oh, Mr. Marchbanks, why, oh why did you utter libel against Mr. Dandiprat? Before we know where we are this matter will come to court and, as I have told you before, anything can happen in court.

  Your grieving attorney,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  Dear Sam:

  I have been curious lately to discover what notable or merely notorious persons in history have at some time been actors. The list is surprisingly long and contains some strange fish. Did you know, for instance, that Oliver Cromwell once appeared, when a young man, in a play called Lingua, or the Combat of The Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority? It sounds rather a dull piece. Cromwell played Tactus, which, as you are rather an ignorant creature, I hasten to explain means “Touch.” Appropriate, is it not, that a man with Cromwell’s views on taxation should have played such a part? It is said that his experience as an actor inspired him with ambition to rule.

  Possibly so. Many a man who has had a taste of acting takes to politics.15 The critics are less severe toward politicians than toward those who pursue the player’s art in its more demanding form.


  A. Pilgarlic.


  BRUCE HUTCHISON, whose love-affair with the Canadian nation takes many a strange turn, writes this of Sir John A. Macdonald who gave us, he says, “our first portrait of a Canadian.” Here, it appears, is the portrait: “In that strange old man with the wine-red face and fantastic nose, in all the queer clutter, contradiction, comedy and tragedy of his life, we can see ourselves as in a mirror.” … Can we, indeed? I look eagerly at my fellow-Canadians, and not a wine-red face do I behold, except in early spring, when the sun-bathing mania claims its first victims. Fantastic noses, likewise, are all too few. Clutter, contradiction, comedy and tragedy are, I confess, to be met with on every hand, but they are not exclusive to Canadians…. No, I cannot think that Sir John A. was much like a Canadian, or like anything else, except his excellent self. As well say that Laurier was a mirror of Canadians. If any statesman really epitomized the Canadian character and appearance, it was probably Sir Oliver Mowat.16 I do not hold with pretending that our exceptional and great men are made in our image. We honour and follow them for the very reason that they are not.


  (thrust under my door)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  Maybe you not know me, Marchbanks. How, anyhow.

  You got money? I got no money. Get out of jail two day ago. Want money. Beg. Cops chase me. So I ask fat woman in house for money. You clean up yard I give you two dollar, she say. Awful mean face, Marchbanks. So I clean up dirt in nice pile behind garage. Then she say I got no cash but I give you cheque. She give me piece of blue paper. This no money, I say. Ha ha you poor ignorant savage, she say. You take cheque to bank, she say. I tear up cheque and steal three dollars worth her tools. She squawk. Cops chase me and take tools. Then I got no money and no tools. So I work one hour to dirty her yard again. Put back all her dirt and some new and stale dead cat I find under snowbank. Lots of work for nothing. Women awful hard to manage and fat ones worst. You got money? I need money.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.17


  I AM ALWAYS A little later than other people getting my garden in, but it is the autumn flowers, and asters in particular, which appeal to me. While I made my careful map of my garden on ruled paper, as the garden book said to do, I reflected how h
ard it is to get a satisfying bed of annuals which sounds good when you describe it. Spiderflower and feverfew look well together, but they sound as though the garden had been planted by Frankenstein’s monster. And though Mourning Bride and Bouncing Bet make a nice combination, it seems to be tactless to put them together. As for bugbane, gasplant, tickseed and sneeze-weed, nothing would induce me to plant them, pretty as they are. I would not know how to mention them to people who wanted to see my garden.18


  A MAN I KNOW who is very fond of dogs called my attention to a newspaper article today, which said that a dog grows to be like its owner. Nervous people have nervous dogs; savage people have savage dogs; stupid people have stupid dogs. Well, it may be so, though I have never seen any dog-owners among my acquaintances nosing their pets away from a garbage can, or chasing each other amorously over a newly-seeded garden. But it is a fact that married people grow alike from living together, and no true dog-owner would admit that his dumb chum was less sensitive to atmosphere than his married partner. It may be that this theory about dogs throws new light on some of my friends: Professor A, the celebrated economist, has a dog which always forgets where it has buried its bones; Madame B, the fortune-teller, has a dog which cannot foresee what will happen when it goes to sleep with its tail under the rockers of Madame’s chair; modest little Miss C owns a pooch of notorious wantonness and infidelity. Can it be that these beasts reveal the truth about their owners? Beware of the Dog!


  WALKING HOME from my work this evening I passed a group of children who were busy, as children so often are, in taunting and torturing one of their number. “Teddy’s got a gurr-ul! Teddy’s got a gurr-ul!” they screamed, while Teddy, who appeared to be about six, denied the charge with a remarkable command of blasphemy and obscenity. I pondered upon this scene for some time. Why is it considered disgraceful for little boys to play with little girls, though a little girl who can get herself accepted in a gang of little boys gains prestige by doing so? The equality of the sexes, about which there is so much futile blather in the adult world, is unheard of among the young. Women’s suffrage, and equal-pay-for-equal-work would never have come into being if children had had any say in the matter. I toyed with the idea of going back to the children and saying: “My pretty dears, the fact that Teddy has a girl shows that he is more mature than the rest of you; do you not know that girls will grow up to be the equals, in all respects, of men? Don’t you know that girls will sit on the juries which will condemn you to hang, which, if I may judge by your language, is the fate to which you will all come?” But I was rather busy, and went home instead.19


  Dear Mouseman:

  Get busy at once and apply for a patent on the greatest of my inventions—the Marchbanks Alert Mask for the Weary Face.

  Thumbing through a magazine yesterday, I came upon an advertisement for a rubber mask which, pulled over the face, makes the wearer look like Boris Karloff in his role as Frankenstein’s Monster. A toy, Mouseman: a trifle meant to enliven an evening party. But it touched off an explosion in my mind. Why not a rubber mask which makes the wearer look like himself—yet not himself as he usually appears, but himself at his best—alert, kindly, intelligent and yet also noncommittal and reserved?

  Think what a boon this would be to judges on the bench, newspaper editors, psychiatrists, university tutors, and others who have to spend hours every day listening to tales of woe, boring accounts of boring events, and threshing of old straw in general. Under the mask the wearer could relax, allowing his jaw to slacken, his lips to curl, his cheeks to slump and his dewlap to throb like a frog’s, while to the observer he would seem a model of solicitous goodwill.

  This will crown my career as an inventor and philanthropist. You may have stock in it to cover the amount of your bill, thus getting in on the ground floor.

  Yours triumphantly,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  You know where I stand on dogs: I am not a person in whose life Man’s Dumb Chum has played a leading role. But a day or so ago I had to attend a dog show, and as I watched the eager crowd I was visited, for perhaps the fiftieth time in my life, by the reflection that if people had to meet the rigorous standards of physical appearance which are set for dogs and other show animals it would go hardly with most of us.

  The judges at the show, for instance, would have cut poor figures if the dogs had been judging them. The most important of them had a really shocking head—coarse muzzle, apple-domed skull and, so far as could be seen, a poor coat. The other judge had a narrow, splayed front, a snipey muzzle, and ears set far too high. The third judge was a woman and, though I hate to say it, a poor mover, being cow-hocked and badly spaced between her shoulders, hips and stifles. None of the judges had a bright eye nor, I should say, an affectionate nature. They did not answer readily to words of command, and showed a strong tendency to turn right when it was necessary for them to turn left. Poor creatures, useless for breeding; it would have been better to drown them as puppies.

  Have you observed that a miserable-looking dog is regarded, quite rightly, as a poor-spirited creature, probably in need of worming, whereas a miserable-looking man is usually taken to be a philosopher, or at the very least, an economist? There is food for profound reflection in this.




  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  It will hardly come as a surprise when I inform you that the pace of modern life is increasing. A statistician of international repute (myself, if you want to know) has reckoned that every adult now gets through three times as much in a day as his grandfather; we are not measuring achievement, naturally—only activity. But when it comes to running about, meeting one another, hurrying from town to town, and taking papers in and out of brief-cases, our generation is vastly superior to any of which we have record.

  This remarkable increase in activity could not have been achieved without a great deal of hard work, and I think that we owe much to the organizers, heads of speakers’ committees, pep and ginger groups, and others who have made it possible. And in order that they may meet frequently and exchange ideas on how to goad the rest of the population into even greater activity I am organizing an international association for them alone, to be called “The Friends of Thrombosis.” The emblem of the association will be a small wire wheel, with a demented squirrel in it.

  I am sure that there are many potential members of this association in the ranks of the Civil Service, and you, as Expediter of Needless Activities, will know best who they are. Will you get them together, therefore—I beg your pardon, I should say “alert them”—and lash them into frenzied activity in preparation for our inaugural meeting.20

  I intend to be Perpetual Past President of this as yet unorganized society. It is said that at the exact centre of a vortex there is utter calm. If you should want me, you’ll find me at the centre of the vortex.

  Yours for earlier thrombosis,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Wee Sammie:

  The other day, while pursuing my peaceful rounds as a junk man, I was in the house of a lady who had a good many odd bits of rock and a wheen auld jugs in a glass-fronted cupboard. “And what would ye call those, madam?” said I. “That is my collection of Chinoiserie,” said she; “those pebbles are pieces of jade, and the jugs are fine old porcelain.” “And why Chinoiserie?” said I. “That is the proper word for Chinese curios,” said she.

  As you well know, I have a cupboard of my own, in which I keep a scrap of Marchbanks tartan found in a thorn bush after the Massacre of Glencoe; our ancestor Auld Nosy Marchbanks was there as a war correspondent. And I have the sporran of our Great-great-grandfather, Close Jamie Marchbanks, which is believed to contain a bawbe
e, but as it is rusted shut I have never been able to get it out. And I have an empty bottle, thrown at our forebear, Fu’ Charlie Marchbanks, by Robbie Burns. And as well I have a stomacher belonging to our ancestress, Sonsie Meg Marchbanks, given to her by Bonnie Prince Charlie; it is heavily encrusted with cairngorms. I am going to refer to these in future as the Marchbanks Collection of Scotchoiserie.

  Your affct. uncle,

  Gomeril Marchbanks.


  MY VISION OF the afterlife is Celtic and undemocratic. The Lordly Ones, with their male and female followers and their bards shall dwell among the Delectable Mountains, passing their days in hunting and their nights in feasting, song and poetry—and of course love. The Mediocrities shall enjoy the Lesser Hell, travelling by air from Nowhere to Nowhere without ever landing, eating tasteless food out of plastic trays and watching movies of a piercing badness: from time to time a voice will halloo over the Tannoy—“Lays and Jemmun, thiz yer Captain speaking—” and then dissolve into incomprehensible crepitations and squawks. The Truly Evil shall descend to the Greater Hell and there the base of heart shall dwell in damp caves among serpents who reject them, and their food shall be the droppings of vultures. I hope to end up as a bard, providing marvels of song and improvisation by night, and passing the day sitting happily under a tree, quaffing and laughing at the new jokes I am concocting for the evening’s after-dinner performance.


  I LISTENED RECENTLY to some gramophone records of a woman called Yma Sumac, a Peruvian who has an astonishing voice with a range of a little more than four octaves. She can tweet like a bird, sing like an ordinary woman (an ordinary woman with a very good voice, that is) and roar and rumble like the voice of Fate itself. It is a fascinating and uncanny performance. One of her songs is about the Xtabay—supposedly a poisonously alluring and beautiful woman who attracts men with her voice; once that voice has been heard, a man is her slave until he dies. I reflected that such women are uncommon in our great Dominion. Our women are not lacking in their share of good looks, but they will never attract international attention by the beauty of their voices. And yet what a potent charm a lovely woman’s voice is! I would rather hear an Irish girl say something nasty to me, than hear most Canadian girls say, “Take me, Mr. Marchbanks, I am yours.” A man likes his eye to be refreshed, but beauty perishes. A beautiful voice, however, goes on until death, and it can call up the ghost of vanished physical beauty more readily than any other spell. Let the Canadian Female ponder this in her heart, and remedy her customary dispirited croak, caw or screech.