Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

Robertson Davies


  During my stay in bed I have done my best to keep up with my work as a book-reviewer, and have waded through a mountain of muck. Every day in every way I agree more and more with the anonymous reviewer who wrote:

  And much though each new book keeps lit my light,

  Defrauding me of sleep by dubious sleight,

  I often wonder what the authors read

  One half so rotten as the stuff they write.

  Tomorrow I go back into the great world, which has managed to do admirably without me for a week: the strikers have struck just as noisily without me; the international politicians have arranged several deadlocks and disagreements although I was unable to help them; that Mighty Mendicant, the Government, has stretched out its beggar’s claw, whining piteously for a few hundred millions, although I was not by to encourage it. The world does so well without me, that I am moved to wish that I could do equally well without the world.

  1 But, in this permissive age, it may be revealed. Enquiring of the lady with whom he was travelling—an incorrigible romp—as to the whereabouts of the lavatories, he was directed upstairs, and there secreted himself in one of the booths which were the only accommodation—which would have warned a more worldly man. Hardly had he relaxed than the room was invaded by a group of middle-aged women, a female club that was about to carouse downstairs. Sequestering themselves in the booths all around him, they began to shriek female intimacies to their friends, while Our Hero, swooning with modest alarm, tucked his feet up on the seat, dreading that he might be discovered, and denounced as a Peeping Tom, or bent upon Female Harassment. When at last he escaped he was white with terror, to the delight of his cruel companion.

  2 Marchbanks, of course, is both, without a drop of English blood. The exact proportions have never been determined, but both strains assert themselves when appropriate: now the bardic, then the granitic—that’s Sam.

  3 Observe that Marchbanks writes “an hotel.” He also pronounces the word “herb” without the “h,” which makes Englishmen smirk behind their lace hankies, for they pride themselves on their aitches. But Our Hero’s style is the aristocratic style, to be observed in the speech of, for instance, Winston Churchill.

  4 Ah, happy, far-off days of innocence! Marchbanks was once present, as a spectator only, at a divorce trial in which a deaf judge demanded of the erring wife where “intimacy” had taken place. “In the back of a car,” she replied. “Eh?” demanded the beak, his hand to his ear. “IN THE BACK OF A CAR!” she bellowed, angrily. The judge, plainly long a stranger to the gentle promptings of Venus, pondered for a moment, obviously summoning up the back of a car in his head. Then—“How?” he enquired. In such circumstances the tragedy of divorce suffers a severe wrenching.

  5 The Orange Walk was a procession organized by the Loyal Orange Lodge to take place on the 12th of July, or as near as possible, every year. The participants were adult male Orangemen, adult female Orangewomen, and adolescent youths, known as ’Prentice Boys, who formed fife-and-drum bands, and the pervading spirit of the occasion was ultra-Protestant. Canada, having few indigenous prejudices, has been compelled to import them from elsewhere, duty-free, and it is the rare Canadian who is not shaken, at some time in the year, by “old, unhappy, far-off things/And battles long ago”, like Wordsworth’s solitary reaper. We are a nation of immigrants, and not happy in our minds.

  6 Marchbanks was a lifelong enemy of the outdoor privy. He was convinced that such places are the breeding-grounds of snakes, and that the unwary visitor might be fatally stung, or hideously invaded, while contemplating.

  7 A deipnosophist is one who makes an art of dining, as distinguished from a gourmet, who makes an unholy fuss about it. The deipnosophist delights in literary conversation, and takes immense pleasure in quite simple dishes, like rice-pudding and vanilla shape. The deipnosophist likes friendly but skilled service, and deplores the tendency growing among waiters and waitresses to plunk down a dish in front of the diner, snarling “There y’go!”

  8 This was a favourite term of objurgation with Marchbanks and there were people who insisted that he had made it up. But no: innovative in so much, he was no neologist. The word is of Greek derivation and suggests that someone has been brought up by his or her grandmother, and is therefore a peevish, self-willed, obstinate, pasty-faced brat of hell.

  9 Marchbanks has indeed lived to see this day, and welcomes the new frankness in journalism. But it is not wives only, but the husbands of female politicians who now distinguish themselves by displays of indiscretion or oafishness. Should the achievement of high office automatically bring about the dissolution of any existing marriage? Who can say that such a law might not coax a better class of person into public life.

  10 In 1984, when H.M. the Queen visited Canada the baser element in the British press (approximately four-fifths) pitied Her Majesty elaborately for having to spend time among such dull, miserable, slab-sided oafs as Canadians. This is a disguise we assume to delude strangers, but it is a disguise that some citizens cannot persuade to come off, and they are like Hallowe’en maskers whose false-faces have stuck, or people caught by a change of the wind while making an ugly face. But those who can doff the mask do so in private, and are dashing examples of esprit, and sometimes even of espièglerie.

  11 Later in life Marchbanks became an astrologer of substantial attainment.

  12 Marchbanks is devoted to sherry, and is amused by the advertisement designed to persuade oafs that it is not a simple tipple for old ladies. But he deplores the tendency to put ice in it, and to serve noxious domestic beverages (domestic, that is, to South Africa, Australia or Canada) under the name of the true wine of Jerez de la Frontera; he is also hostile to sweet syrups served at high prices under such brand names as Dry Sack, Wet Sack and Potato Sack.

  13 Nowadays, of course, owing to the Doctors’ Lib Movement, patients are carried to the sick doctor. This is convenient, as undertakers may pick up the dead directly at the office, without making a house-call.

  14 For many years Marchbanks has providently kept his Last Words neatly typed in an envelope tucked into the breast pocket of his pyjamas, so that he can produce them at the last moment, for release to the waiting Press.




  My annual duel with my furnace has begun. Perhaps “duel” is not the right word, for it suggests a contest of lightninglike thrust and parry, and my fight with the furnace is much more like medieval jousting—a slow but hideously powerful and destructive combat. At present my aim is to keep a fire low enough to warm my house without dehydrating me and all my possessions; this I do by throttling the furnace, keeping all air from it, and treating it with ostentatious contempt, as though I did not care whether it went out or not. It retorts by belching its hot breath all through the house, cracking the surface of the furniture, and making the floors groan and pop in the night. There is a tank in my furnace into which I pour water every day, and the superstition is that this water mingles with the hot air and produces a balmy climate all through my house. But in actual fact gremlins drink this water, and the mice in my cellar commit the Happy Despatch in it, and the air from the furnace is like the parching simoom of the East Indies. Frankly I hate furnaces, and would far rather have a big Quebec heater, upon which I could spit when I was disgusted with it. Spit on a furnace, and it doesn’t even hiss.1

  • MONDAY •

  Whenever I win a bout with my furnace, it always retorts by producing a particularly large and dirty supply of ash. In twenty years, I suppose, furnaces like the one which I now harbour in my cellar will be antiques, and we shall look back laughingly at the era of the bi-weekly ash collection. But at present it is a stern reality. The ashes have to be taken out of the entrails of the furnace, sifted by hand, and then conveyed in tubs and buckets to the street. After I have done this, I look as though I had been working in a flour mill, and smell as though I had been tra
velling from Montreal to Toronto in a smoking car. It is enough to put me in a bad temper for a whole evening…. Some day I am going to have a house heated by the rays of the sun in the most modern manner. Or perhaps I shall enjoy the luxury of a furnace man, and while he struggles and fights with the furnace, I shall sit upstairs dressed like Mr. Capitalistic Interests in a socialist cartoon, laughing and drinking cherry bounce, and shouting “More heat, more heat!” in a tyrannous voice. I have always thought that I should like to be a tyrant, but it costs money.


  My furnace had its first ugly fit of the season today. When I opened its front door this morning for the usual health inspection, I noticed that it had a bad breath and a nasty, coated back-draft. However, it took its food without much complaint and I thought no more about it. By this evening, however, it had dyspepsia, and the usual cures did no good at all. So for the first time in the Furnace Season I sat up with it, coaxing its appetite from time to time with tiny shovelfuls of coke, a dainty which it much enjoys.


  This afternoon I tried to rake my lawn clear of leaves, but felt like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, and soon gave it up. It would be easier to climb the trees in September and pick the leaves than to try to scrape them up from the ground, and I think that I shall do so next year. “What are you doing in that tree, Mr. Marchbanks?” the neighbours will cry, their suspicions aroused. “I am harvesting my leaves,” I shall reply, with pardonable superiority. After that, of course, everyone will take it up.


  A lady suggested a scheme to me this evening for improving the standard of education in Canada, and all Canadian standards with it. The plan is beautiful in its simplicity: (1) quadruple the present salaries of the teaching profession; (2) insist that all teachers be worth what they are paid; (3) make the teaching profession the hardest to enter of all professions. Another lady had another suggestion, which was that all teachers be paid the same high salary; obviously a teacher should be as skilful and as learned to teach beginners as advanced students. But I fear that Canada cares too little about real education for either of these schemes to gain acceptance…. A gentleman then joined me in a prolonged complaint about Canada’s high tax on books; it is precisely the same, he said, as putting a tax on a university education.2

  • FRIDAY •

  A friend who was interested in my observations on famous Last Words draws my attention to this passage in George Santayana’s Persons And Places: “On one of the many occasions when he (Santayana’s father) thought, or dreaded, that he might be on his deathbed, he felt a sudden desire for some boiled chicken, without in the least giving up his asseveration that he was dying; and as his deafness prevented him from properly modulating his voice, he cried out with a shout that resounded through the whole house: ‘La Uncion y la gallina!’…. which is to say ‘Extreme Unction and a Chicken’.” Undoubtedly these are noble Last Words, combining as they do a prudent regard for both worlds, but as the elder Santayana did not die on this occasion, they are not Last Words in the true sense…. Very irritating Last Words would be, “I forgive you all,” which would leave one’s relatives in a condition of baffled and angry stupefaction…. Charles I had a brilliant inspiration when, on the scaffold, he turned to the attendant bishop and said, “Remember, Juxon.” Since then hundreds of people have puzzled their brains as to what it was that Juxon was to remember. If it was an adjuration (very natural under the circumstances) to put Rough on Rats in Cromwell’s soup, it is obvious that Juxon forgot, unforgivably.


  More furnace martyrdom; cold today, and the fire which I have nursed so lovingly was inadequate. I have kept it low, yet not dangerously low, and it refused to burn up when the need arose. So, in an unwise fit of temper, I gave it a severe poking, and went out for a couple of hours. When I came home again the thermometer was just at 90 degrees F…. Set to work to bring the monster under control, opening all checks and even shovelling ashes through the fire door to quench the flames. I was afraid that the furnace would be consumed by its own heat, and suddenly subside in a mass of molten metal…. I have deceived myself about my furnace; I thought that I had the upper hand of it, and that its proud spirit was broken. But no! The Old Nick is as active in its iron bosom as ever. Some day I shall destroy that furnace or it will destroy me.


  • SUNDAY •

  Was talking today to an irate father whose little boy had recently joined the temperance movement. It appears that an agent of the temperance interests (it is known that they have all kinds of money at their command, because they are heavily subsidized by the soft drink cartel) had attracted a number of children into a church hall after school and had shown them movies of the inside of a drunkard’s stomach in Technicolor; this impressed the tots greatly, and after the temperance agent had plied them with chocolate milk, they all signed a pledge to taste not, touch not, nor yet smell of the cork, and received certificates establishing their memberships in the Wee Wowsers’ Total Abstinence Fraternity…. What annoyed this man was that his particular Wee Wowser had come home armed with the sword of the spirit, and had lectured him on the evils of beer; I gather that the Wee Wowser was told that what looked like soul-saving to him looked much like infant impudence to his father, and his membership in the Wee Wowsers terminated at that instant.

  • MONDAY •

  A friend of mine lost confidence in himself today because he discovered that he had put the garbage can carefully in the luggage compartment of his car, and had stood his wife’s dressing-case on the curb to await the offal officer. I assured him that I had been doing things like that for years, and attributed it to abstraction of the kind from which Professor Einstein suffers.


  My brother Fairchild paid me one of his infrequent visits today, and asked to watch while I stoked my furnace. This was unfortunate, for Fairchild is a bigoted Back-to-Fronter, while I am a determined Middler. That is to say, Fairchild stokes his furnace by raking the live coal from the back to the front, and putting his new coal in the resulting trough, whereas I make a bed of coals with the poker, and put my new coal in a heap in the middle. I was brought up a Back-to-Fronter, but I changed to Middleism when I married my furnace. The feeling which Back-to-Fronters have for Middlers is comparable to that which Roman Catholics cherish for adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church…. However, while Fairchild stood by I stoked the furnace in my usual way, and I noticed his jaw tighten and his temples throb. In a low voice, he asked me whether I expected to make a good fire that way? I said that I did, and to spare him embarrassment, I leaned toward the firedoor at that moment. I think it was the big poker he used when he struck, but luckily I caught the blow on my shoulder, and was able to push his head in an ash-bucket while I screamed for help. When the police came we were locked in a deathgrip on the cellar floor…. We parted fairly good friends, but my furnace went out in the night. The slightest thing upsets it.


  Tonight on the radio Maggie Teyte sang Oft In The Stilly Night better than I ever expect to hear it sung again. Beauty of tone, intelligence and poetic feeling—all were there. I must have heard the song murdered a score of times by male quartettes, female vocalizers and other assassins. And of course I recall it from schooldays when it was usually rendered thus:

  Oft in a stilly NIGHT

  Ere Slummer’s chainuz BOWN me

  Fon memry bringza LIGHT

  Uvuther dayza ROWN me.

  I often wonder if school teachers know what a crime they commit by giving children fine verse3 to murder. Children are savages, and do not like any verse except gems of their own composition, such as:

  Julius Caesar

  Was an old geezer

  Who froze his feet

  In an ice-cream freezer.

  True poetry should be left to adults; school lessons kill whatever taste for poetry the average child may hav


  Thought I would go to the movies tonight, but when I arrived at the place I found a long queue, and neither Greer Gar son nor Gregory Peck is a person whom I will stand in line to see. So I went for a country walk instead, and as it was a fine moonlight night, I enjoyed myself very much.

  • FRIDAY •

  For a brief drive in the country today; was amazed by the number of farm dogs who seem anxious to quit this life and join their ancestors in whatever future existence a discerning Providence has provided for dogs. They rush at every car, attempting to hurl themselves under the wheels, and when they fail (which they do quite often, being slow and stupid) they bite at the tires, hoping to cause a puncture. In the World of Tomorrow dogs who want to commit the Happy Despatch will present themselves before a Government Board, explain their reasons for wishing to die, and if successful, will receive a cyanide bone, coated with synthetic beef gravy. The expense of this service will, of course, be borne by the taxpayers. Dogs who fail to make a case for themselves will receive the Order of Mother Hubbard (first class).


  It was so warm today that I let my furnace go out; it thinks it went out of its own accord, but I know better; I starved it, and it expired…. Bought a new rake, and seized the opportunity to sharpen my penknife, free, on the various stones in the hardware store. Then set about tasks of raking leaves, emptying flowerpots, cutting back bushes, and preparing Marchbanks Towers for its long winter’s nap.