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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 46

Robertson Davies

  In spite of all this chaos, however, most people seem to lead humdrum lives, and badly want livening up. Do you think we should organize a Chaos-of-the-Month Club, guaranteeing to supply all members with something really unnerving every thirty days? For I greatly fear that most of those students, rushing eagerly out into the world of chaos, are going to find that their particular part of it quickly becomes a deadly routine.

  Yours for more varied chaos,



  Esteemed Sir:

  The costs of pursuing your case against Richard Dandiprat, Esquire are mounting. As you know, there are many charges involved in legal proceedings apart from the charge brought in court. (Ha, ha: a legal jest, Mr. Marchbanks, and a great favourite with Mr. Mouseman, senior; pardon me for bringing it up but I could not help myself.) There is the cost, for instance, of having all the relevant documents copied in octuplicate. You may say that there were no relevant documents in your case, but you would be wrong; we have created several. That is part of the service a lawyer offers his client. And there are carrying charges, as well; these are the fees required to induce your lawyer to carry your case in his head; these are utterly indispensable. And there are incidental charges; for instance during the typing of some documents related to your case a typewriter ribbon frayed away to a juiceless shoestring; there was nothing to be done but to replace it, the first time this has been necessary since the purchase of the machine in 1907.

  We never plague our clients for money, but we suggest to you that we do not live upon air, though we have been known to live upon heirs. (I crave forgiveness, sir; another pleasantry of the elder Mr. Mouseman; it slipped out, somehow.) A little something to be going on with would be a lovely midsummer surprise for

  Yours faithfully,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  TO THE MOVIES, to see Ivanhoe, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It departs a good deal from the novel, but I am not one to complain of that, for Scott always put enough plot in a single book to last Hollywood for a year. Athelstane of Coningsburgh was cut out entirely, but I did not miss him; King Richard was trimmed to a mere sliver, but what remained was satisfactorily Lion-Hearted. The only change I deplored was in the death of Brian de Bois Guilbert; in the film he and Ivanhoe fought to the death with a Boppeur de la Tête (a chain with a spiky ball on the end) and a Hacqueur du Corps (a fire axe); my studies in mediaeval armoury enabled me to recognize these at once. But in the book Brian died in the most dramatic way possible; he simply exploded, a victim of the contending passions of love and hate, and died one of the most interesting psychological deaths in all literature. George Sanders is an excellent actor, with a vast repertory of sneers and leers, and he could have given us the biggest death-scene since Jumbo was hit by a train at St. Thomas. But Hollywood still fears these subtleties, and the final battle reminded me of one of my enraged assaults upon the furnace at the Towers.


  (Wrapped ’round a stone and thrown through my window)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  I lucky Indian, Marchbanks. Why? I tell. Last week Chief Fishbone-in-Throat die. Young man, Marchbanks. Only 102. Once I nearly marry his daughter, Princess Blocked Drain. Now Fishbone dead, Ottawa want succession duties. They take wigwam, take wampum, take truss off corpse. Bury Fishbone all busted. Now Blocked Drain poor woman. Owe Ottawa money. She offer Ottawa corpse of Fishbone but Ottawa refused because of rupture. Only want fancy corpse. I lucky Indian, Marchbanks. If I married Blocked Drain might have to work too, now. Instead I got job on roads. Wave red flag. Authority, Marchbanks.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  TO THE MOVIES and sat first of all behind a small boy whose hair had obviously been cut at home; the poor child looked as though an Indian had begun to scalp him, but had been called out on strike when half done. Behind me sat a woman with a package of sticky popcorn; I did not much mind her noisy champings, but it bothered me that she dropped a lot of the goodies on the floor, and they rolled down under my feet and gave me a sense of treading on broken eggs. So I moved, and found myself behind two girls, both at the very pinnacle of romantic yearning. The film, however, seemed to be beyond their modest intellectual grasp; it was about a period of history before the advent of the combustion engine, and everybody went everywhere on horses or behind horses. At one point a lady entered a room and said that she must stay a while because a shoe had been lost. The girls whispered busily between them, and then agreed that she must be crazy, as she was wearing both her shoes, as any fool could plainly see. I leaned forward helpfully, “Her horse lost a shoe, poppets,” I said. They viewed me with the scorn of youth. “Drop dead, Gramps,” said one of them; “since when did horses wear shoes?” Since when, indeed?


  HAVE BEEN LOOKING over the questions the census-taker will ask me. One of them is an enquiry as to how much money I earned last year. The answer to this will be, “about $125.” Of course I had more money than this, but I didn’t earn it. The Government itself says that I didn’t. For I get my living as a writer, and the Government makes it very clear in its Income Tax forms that what a writer gets is Investment Income, comparable to the guilty gold which the Idle Rich derive from their holdings in Stocks and Shares. The census-taker will stare about him in amazement, his eye straying from the rich tapestries upon my walls to the priceless products of old Persian looms beneath his feet; as I scratch a match upon a rare piece of cloisonné, and scissor a chunk out of an early Picasso in order to mend a hole in my shoe, he will scratch his head and wonder how I came by such Byzantine luxury without earning it. But if my Government says that I do not earn my money, I am not the kind of saucy fellow who will suggest that they do my job, and see if it feels like work. No, no! I am behind my Government one hundred per cent, and when it says my labour is idleness, I knock my head upon the floor and cry Selah!29


  Dear Pastor:

  Don’t you think it is high time that the Americans had their own translation of the Bible? Recently I saw Cecil B. deMille’s film of Samson and Delilah, and afterward I re-read the story as it is written in Judges 13-16; it was clear to me what deMille had gone through, trying to turn Samson and Delilah into good, respectable Americans.

  Consider: in the Bible version Samson carelessly allowed twenty years to pass between his strangling of the lion and his adventure with Delilah. Such a lapse of time would have made him at least forty when the film ended—practically an old man by Hollywood reckoning. In a new translation this period of time could be tactfully left out. And it is recorded also that Samson had an adventure with a lady about whose virtue the Scriptures, in their coarse way, leave no doubt. In fact, it appears that Samson was not A Nice Clean American Boy but a rowdy old delinquent. This blot on his character could be glossed over in a new translation, as it was in the movie. And there is also the flat statement that Samson set fire to the tails of a lot of foxes; the S.P.C.A. would certainly not have tolerated that if it had been shown in the film.

  What the U.S.A. needs is a translation of the Bible all its own. It is now the dominant Western power, and should avail itself of the traditional privilege of a dominant power to impose its religion, or its version of an existing religion, upon the rest of the world. There is much in the Bible that is undemocratic and un-American. Indeed, I put it to you that the implication that the Supreme Being was not democratically elected to that position casts grave doubts upon the moral magnitude and spiritual significance of the Constitution. It is time to abandon the King James Version, with its seventeenth-century cast of thought and its strongly English slant, and to adopt something more in keeping with the Gospel acco
rding to Washington.30

  Your expectant parishioner,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Sam:

  The other day I was looking at the Modern Library edition of Boswell’s Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and in the Preface it was said that the inclusion of that book in that particular library of reprints awarded it “an accolade of modernity.”

  What a base passion our age has for pretending that whatever is good is necessarily “modern.” What a depraved appetite we have for mere contemporaneity! How old Samuel Johnson would have snorted at the idea that a classic—particularly a classic about himself—was in some way ennobled by being declared the contemporary of the Wettums Doll, sliced, wrapped bread, and the singing telegram! This is an age without humility.

  Your aggrieved

  Amyas Pilgarlic.


  Dear Mr. Noseigh:

  I am enchanted by the thought that you wish to do a full-scale Ph.D. thesis on my work. Of course I recognize your name immediately as that of the writer of essays already famous in the very littlest magazines:

  Oh Marmee, What Big Teeth You Have: A Study of the pre-Oedipal mother in the works of Louisa May Alcott—(Peewee Review: Vol. 1, pp. 23–47)

  Withering Depths: A Study of womb-frustration in Emily Bronte—(Wee Wisdom: Vol. 1, pp. 22–46)

  Codnipped: A Study of impotence-fantasy in the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson—(Microscopic Quarterly: Vol. 1, pp. 24–28)

  These splendid studies are daily reading in the Marchbanks household. I cannot wait to see what you will make of me.

  Tremulously yours,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  Enclosed find a cheque for $2.16; this, added to the $11.26 already deducted from my salary in weekly portions by my employers, completes the full sum of $13.42, the total of my Income Tax for the past year. It is also, if you care, almost an exact quarter of my yearly earnings, and I hope that you, as Deputy Confiscator-general, will take the utmost care of it.

  Are you aware, sir, that when Captain Cook went to Australia in 1770 one of his men pointed to a kangaroo, and said, “What is it?” A native, standing by, said, “Kan g’aroo,” meaning “I don’t understand you.” But the sailor thought that it was the name of the beast, and it has stuck to this day.

  Now a similar error occurred when Jacques Cartier first set foot on the soil of our country. “What do you call this place?” he cried to a native. “Canada,” cried the Indian in return, and Cartier took it for the country’s name. But the Indian—one of the Crokinole tribe—actually said in the remarkably economical language of his people, “Take my advice, gentlemen, and go back where you came from; the taxes here are well-nigh insupportable.” That is what Canada really means, but the time for turning back has passed.

  And so, Mr. Hydra, as you press my $13.42 into the hand of a career diplomat who is going to fly round the world in order to see whether it is round or merely egg-shaped, or as you send it to a Western wheat-grower who needs it to enable him to go to California for the winter, remember how hard I had to work to earn it.

  Yours maliciously and grudgingly,

  Marchbanks the Tax-Serf.


  THIS EVENING to the movies and saw Fabiola, an Italian film about the goings-on of Christians under the Caesars—in this case the Emperor Constantine. It concluded with a grand mass martyrdom in which, at a rough guess, eight or ten thousand head of Christians were fed to a total count of six lions. Afterward I consulted Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he says he can find no record of more than ten Christians being turned off at a time, so I dismissed Fabiola as what Gibbon himself calls “holy romance.” But the statistics and dietetics of the film still bother me, for even the most anti-clerical lion must weary of an unrelieved diet of Christians, consumed under circumstances of hustle and bustle.31


  TO THE MOVIES, to see Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tilly’s Punctured Romance, which they made in 1913. In my younger days I was an ardent follower of Charlie, but as I watched this relic from the Old Red Sandstone Period of the cinematic art, I realized that time had bathed the humour of another day in a golden but untruthful light. It was the most restless film I have seen in years. Nobody stood up if he could possibly fall down. Nobody fell down without at once leaping to his feet in order to fall down again. Nobody entered a door without slapping somebody else in the face with it. Food was never eaten, it existed only to be thrown. Liquid was not taken into the mouth in order to be swallowed, but only that it might be squirted into somebody else’s face. The usual method of attracting a lady’s attention was to kick her; she invariably responded with a blow. The life of man in the comedies of the silent films was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. And viewed from this distance it does not appear to have been especially funny, at that.


  Respected but Unloved Madam:

  Walking along the street today I passed an organ-grinder; I gave him ten cents. I write to you of this because you are a dominating figure in many charities, and I often receive unpleasantly mimeographed, badly worded letters signed with a facsimile of your niggling signature, asking me for money. These letters always stress the deserving nature of the cause, and the care with which the money is administered by a staff of competent, well-paid officials. I usually respond to your letters with a donation, for your causes are genuinely good, and I am sure that you use the money wisely. Nevertheless, my heart does not go with them. My heart was with the organ-grinder’s ten cents, even though he was unable to give me a slip entitling me to deduct my gift from taxable income.

  Charity is infinitely better conducted nowadays than it was a century ago. It is thorough, economical, informed—everything but charitable. It does incalculable good to the receivers; it does nothing whatever to the givers—the answerers of form letters who never see the objects of their benevolence. For there is no merit in giving money, if one has it: the merit is in the charitable impulse and the cleansing of the spirit which compassion brings.

  Modern charity is wonderful for the receivers, but it is useless to the givers. And I remind you that they also have souls to save. Charity is something greater than organized pillaging of the haves on behalf of the have-nots.

  Yours with qualified approval,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Honoured Sir:

  Unexpected tidings, Mr. Marchbanks, sir. Your case against Richard Dandiprat will not come before the Autumn Assizes as we had planned. This is the result of a legal complication of a type incomprehensible to the lay mind, but I will try to explain it.

  The papers in the case went, as usual, to Mr. Mouseman, Senior, for his consideration before they were taken to the court house. Knowing that the case would be tried before Mr. Justice Gripple—an old law-school companion of Mr. Mouseman’s—he made a pencilled notation on the document giving notice of the case, which said: “Don’t let this come up any day when Old Gripple has lost heavily at bridge the night before. You know that he really needs a murder or a rape case on such days as a relief for his spleen.” This was intended as a private direction to the sheriff, but some foolish clerk transcribed it on a document which reached Mr. Justice Gripple himself. He said several things which convinced our firm that it would be better to ask for a delay, and bring the case up again in the Spring, when we are confident that Mr. Justice Gripple will be in another part of the Province.

  Oh, the law, the law! What a fascinating study it is, Mr. Marchbanks. You laymen cannot comprehend the subtle psychological elements which may sway the judgement of the courts! But patience—patience must be the watchword of the successful litigant.

  Yours with infinite patience,
/>   Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  Dear Mr. Noseigh:

  I am overjoyed by the news that you have really decided to do a Ph.D. thesis on my work, and am especially tickled by your title—Skunk’s Misery to Toronto: a study of spiritual degeneration in the work of Samuel Marchbanks. The questions you ask fill me with delightful new importance. Number 7 (a) for example: “What were the first books you remember reading and what influence do you consider that they have had on your later style and symbological system?”

  The first books I remember reading were called Mother Hubbard’s House Party, and Chuck and Cooney Caught in the Corn; the first of these was about a Christmas party assembled by Mother Hubbard (a kind of Magna Mater or Demeter-figure, as I now realize) at which Jack and Jill, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Georgy Porgy, Little Jack Horner and Little BoPeep acted out, in a high mimesis, various pseudo-Arcadian romances, culminating in a mass bedding at the end of the day. Although the writer had badly botched this conclusion, I assume that the Primal Scene was enacted by all these characters in turn, in every conceivable combination, under the obscene prompting of Mother Hubbard, who had assumed a Hecate-identity with the coming of darkness. I now realize that the book was a pseudonymous work by Frank Harris.32

  As for Chuck and Cooney, they appeared to be a woodchuck and a raccoon who were surprised by a farmer in his corncrib, and escaped by a narrow margin, but I am aware that it was a thinly-disguised fable of race-hatred, because Cooney was the stupid one and got into all the serious trouble.

  All my subsequent work has drawn heavily on these sources, accounting for the ugly undertone on which you comment so frankly. Please tell me more. There is nothing that flatters an author so much as having his work explained to him by a graduate student who brings a modern, critically-trained intellect to bear upon it. I can hardly wait for the next instalment.