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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 2

Robertson Davies

  “Never missed a meal or wore a dirty shirt,” said he. “Of course I mingled a great deal with the poor. Still do. But you understand that I speak of the Poor in Spirit, many of whom are well placed in the world and winter in the South. Nevertheless, poor as church mice. No, let me amend that: poor as Rationalist Mice—terrible cases of Rationalist Rickets among their children.”

  “Well, what about education? You had to struggle for it against uncomprehending elders? Lay on your stomach on cold winter nights, reading Homer by the dying fire on the cabin hearth?”

  “All education is a struggle,” said Marchbanks. “I had to struggle against schools and universities, of course, in order to get time to educate myself, which I did magnificently.”

  “Oh Sam,” said I, “how can you say that when I have spent weeks and months going through your stuff, correcting stupid errors and rooting out unwarrantable assumptions, and suppressing downright lies. Your education was a mess.”

  “But a rich, fruity mess,” said he with a leer of disgusting self-satisfaction.

  “Your struggle to get a start—the pain of rejections, the hours of walking the streets in cold weather, hugging your tattered manuscripts, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely—surely you had plenty of that.”

  “Oh, plenty of the oppressor’s wrong and the proud man’s contumely, not to speak of the critic’s sneer and the broadcaster’s horse laugh. But I always had jobs. Employers fought over me. And I played fair with them, let me tell you. Worked like a dog—nay, a Trojan. Indeed on one occasion the Trojan government sent a deputation to study my methods, but they had to go home in defeat. The Trojans would never have stood for my concept of journalistic industry; they wanted a five-day week and statutory holidays, and I would have nothing to do with such shiftlessness. As for dogs—well, you know what I think about dogs.”

  “You are a great discouragement to a biographer,” I said. “What about your private life? What about Sex?”

  “Lower your voice,” said Marchbanks; “those shrinks at the bar have very big ears when anybody is talking about Sex.”

  “You mean that at last I have struck pay-dirt? I am all agog.”

  “You may say so. You can have no idea of the social prestige I enjoyed during the years when my Table Talk was being talked at all the best tables. For one thing, I was considered powerfully attractive by what we must no longer call the Fair Sex. You remember that irresistible fellow in De Maupassant’s story—”

  “Do you mean Bel Ami? You mention him somewhere in your writings.”

  “That’s the man. I was thought of as Bel Ami until the abrasive quality of my character changed it to Bon Ami. And of course hostesses wanted my opinion of their food. I was a celebrated gourmet. You understand what French perfume manufacturers mean by un grand nez—a chap who detects and judges the most delicate fragrances? In gourmet circles I was esteemed as un grand estomac. And it was during my Bel Ami period that I brought pedalezza to its finest perfection.”

  “Pedalezza!” said I, rolling the word like a rich morsel over my tongue. “Pedalezza! O divine pedalezza—”

  “Shh! You’re agog again,” said Marchbanks. “The shrinks are looking, and I don’t want to let them in on this yet. But when I choose to reveal everything, it will be discovered how generously I have benefited the profession of psychiatry, not to speak of the even greater profession of pornography. Yes, I devised a new form of Sex—not quite a perversion, but an elegant variation, which will go down in erotic history as Marchbanks’ Caprice. Though I prefer the term pedalezza.”

  I sat down with my eyes fixed upon him, expectant. But Marchbanks was coy (a horrible sight) until I signalled to the bartender for refills. When the drinks came, he spoke.

  “You have heard of carezza? Of course you have.”

  “Erotic stimulation by tickling?” said I.

  “Pedalezza is a variant, deriving something from frottage, that other delight of the refined sensualist, but managed with the feet.”

  Even as he spoke I felt a very personal grasp upon my inner thigh, so unexpected that I leaped to my feet, looking fiercely around me for the offender.

  “Calm down,” said Marchbanks. “That was a touch of pedalezza, and you may imagine how it would work on the more delicate sensibility of a woman. It is to that I owe my unrivalled social popularity.”

  “Are you popular in society? I didn’t know,” said I, composing myself with the straight malt, for my nerves had been shaken.

  “Society in the old sense is gone, utterly gone,” said he. “But in the era when my Table Talk was collected and set down, I was the delight of the Belle Époque. In great demand for dinner parties, because whenever I was present fascinating things happened. Sometimes faces were slapped, or people ran from the table shrieking. But more often a totally unforeseen geniality spread through the party—an almost Viennese wistful gallantry—and wholly unpredictable romances blossomed. Hostesses never really knew how it came about, but they quite rightly associated it with my presence. ‘Secure Marchbanks, and then build a table around him,’ was the way they put it. During the Winter Season I had to refuse scores of invitations, because like all Advanced Sex, pedalezza is physically demanding.”

  “Come on,” I said, “you have raised my expectations and you can’t deny me now.”

  “You must understand that pedalezza is not for everyone. The arthritic and people with Lower Back Pain are debarred from its practice, as of course are those who lack the power of keeping up an interesting converstation above the waist while occupied otherwise from the waist down. While I fascinated the ladies on my left and right with the conversation recorded in my Table Talk I was having a high old time with pedalezza under the table.”

  “Come to the point,” said I.

  “The point?”

  “The Climax, as Dr. Kinsey calls it.”

  “Ah, simplicity itself. I slipped off the elegant evening pump from my right or left foot—on a great night, I employed both—and stretching my silk-socked extremity beneath the table I would gently squeeze the thigh, or the sensitive area just above the knee, of a lady sitting on the other side of the table. This requires a prehensile quality of foot, which can be developed by picking up oranges from the floor for half an hour every day. The lady thus squeezed might squeak a little, but more often she blushed prettily and sometimes—if I were not quick—I would find that my foot was being given an answering squeeze. As a usual thing she showed a new warmth toward one or the other of her dinner partners, which pleasantly surprised him and gave me exquisite delight. I felt that I was playing the role of Fate in lives that needed a touch of fateful unpredictability.”

  “And that was pedalezza?”

  “It was. I wish I might say that it still is, but you will have observed that I walk with a slight limp. A lady whose virtue I had underestimated stabbed me in the foot with a silver fork. It was all I could do not to scream with pain, but the laws of pedalezza are rigorous, and I forbore.”

  “But—allow me to ask—what was there in it for you, Sam?”

  “I do not follow you”

  “This pedalezza—the ladies never knew it was you?”

  “But of course not! That was its ultimate refinement. Exquisite enjoyment wholly divorced from any personal involvement. What can Sex offer more?”

  TIME WAS PASSING and, although Marchbanks was in full command of himself, repeated doubles of straight malt were beginning to tell on me. “How do you manage it, Sam?” said I enviously.

  “One hopes to learn a few things with the passing of time. Although there is some inevitable waning of the physical powers, one hopes to compensate by the acquired wisdom, physical and intellectual, of the years. Geezerkraft, I have named it, and those psychiatrists you see at the bar have adopted my term. It has an agreeable German ring in their ears, and German, as you know, is the language of psychiatry—German with a Viennese accent. You would do well to acquire a little Geezerkraft yourself.”
br />   I knew it, but I resented him knowing it. So I tried once more to assert the primacy of an editor over a mere author—to strike a blow in the age-old war of Critic and Creator.

  “Jus’ one more thing about your book, ol’ man,” said I. “Too damn many big words. Who knows ’em, eh? I mean—jus’ for instance—that word Apophthegms. You see how hard it is to say—even I stumble over it. It’s a puffy sort of word. Won’t you change it?”

  “Most certainly not. It is the fully appropriate word for some fully appropriate words. Indeed, that is what the word itself means. From Greek apo, meaning appropriate, and phthegm, meaning a gobbet neatly spat out. You should not try to restrict and shackle language, Davies. It is man’s greatest achievement, and the principal thing that has raised him to his supremacy over the other animals. Without language there could be no abstract thought, no history, no consciousness of past, present, or future. Language, indeed, is the noblest of Man’s inventions to meet the problem of Time. So don’t restrict language: rejoice in it. I am proud to think I speak the tongue that Milton spake.”

  “You speak a tongue I don’t think anybody ever spake,” said I morosely. I was conscious of an imperative need. I rose and made my way to what I took to be the appropriate door and stumbled inside. What did I see but a lady psychiatrist whom I knew by sight, in a state of appropriate dishevelment! I was stricken, but she remained calm.

  “If you wish to see me professionally, you should come to my office,” said she. “If, on the other hand, you wish to see me personally, this is hardly the place to begin.”

  As I struggled to speak, Marchbanks, all bonhomie, burst through the door and seized my arm.

  “Your pardon, doctor,” said he. “My patient eluded my vigilance for a moment. As you see, a simple Peeping Tom. No harm in him, as anyone of your profession will be aware.” He steered me back to neutral ground.

  “And that will pay you out for that story I suppose you have printed about me,” he said.

  “It is in the book. It is now history, or at least biography. Everything I could glean about you, I have put in my book.”

  “You mean it is in my book,” said he. “You may play your role of editorial Meddlesome Mattie as you please, but it remains my book.”



  And so I suppose it must be. This is Marchbanks’ book. But I have equipped it with copious notes that clarify certain difficulties, identify people Marchbanks assumed that everybody knows, and have dealt as best I can with problems arising in the memoirs of a man whose life has been flawed by ambiguity.

  Here it is. I can do no more.

  Saint David’s Day



  Diary of



  edited, and with Notes by











  This is not a work of fiction, but of history—a record of the daily life of a Canadian during one of the early years of the Atomic Age. All the people mentioned in it are real; all the incidents described are actual happenings. Any suggestion to the contrary will be keenly resented.





  Laus Deo was the pious ejaculation with which the diarists of old began their year’s entries, and I can do no less. Woke early this morning, and thanks to my discretion last night, my tongue was as red and shiny as a piece of Christmas ribbon, and my breath was like a zephyr from a May meadow…. Wasted no time on New Year’s resolutions, for I outgrew such folly long ago. Any betterment in my character will be the outcome of prolonged meditation, and slow metabolic and metaphysical reform—a psychosomatic process, in other words. My only resolve is to keep this Diary faithfully for a year, without cant and—so far as in me lies (which may not be very far)—without exaggeration. There have been too few Canadian diarists1: however unfittingly, I have determined to fill the gap.

  • MONDAY •

  A holiday; sat by my fireplace most of the day, with the drawers of my various bureaux and desks gathered about me, and went through their contents, throwing away old letters and odds and ends, in one of my periodic strainings toward order and efficiency. Though the wrench is painful I can throw away old letters which were not interesting even when hot from the postman’s hand, but there are some things which I can never bring myself to part with. I have old erasers, for instance, which have turned to stone and merely dirty and tear any paper upon which they are set to work, but they have associations for me which makes it impossible to throw them away. There are paper clips which have grown rusty with age, but I will not discard them for the excellent reason that I got them free and may some day get some use out of them. There are pipe-cleaners which are not very dirty, and although I have not smoked a pipe for some years, who can say when I shall begin again?2 There are the keys of a flat in which I once lived, and which I preserve out of sheer sentimentality. There are old Christmas cards which are too pretty to put on the fire. There are three cigarette holders which have become plugged with immovable substances, but which may some day become unplugged (if I ever get a free hand with a compressed-air machine) and will then be as good as new. There is a box which is empty, but which bears the name of a very famous jeweller; I am keeping it in order that I may lend a factitious air of grandeur to a modest wedding-gift, some day. Therefore I cannot really reduce my drawers to order; I can only throw away some of the accumulation of years of tousled living. But even a little tidying gives me a righteous glow, and the rubbish made the fire burn brightly all day.


  Was talking to a man today who was bemoaning the dullness of his life; he wanted adventure, and it never came his way. His job gives him no outlet for the daring and resource which he is sure he possesses. I am never much impressed by such complaints; it seems to me that most of us get all the adventure we are capable of digesting. Personally, I have never had to fight a dozen pirates single-handed, and I have never jumped from a moving express-train onto the back of a horse, and I have never been discovered in the harem of the Grand Turk.3 I am glad of all these things. They are too rich for my digestion, and I do not long for them. I have all the close shaves and narrow squeaks in my life that my constitution will stand, and my daily struggles with bureaucrats, tax-gatherers and uplifters are more exhausting than any encounters with mere buccaneers on the Spanish Main.


  Faced the fact with dull submission that the holiday season is now over and that a long, hard winter is before me. A man told me that he had always despised me because I confessed that I had trouble with my furnace; he never had any with his. But last week his “iron fireman”4 broke down, and he had to stoke his own machine for a day or two, and he had a new appreciation of my sufferings…. I am glad to hear it. What can a sybarite, a plutocrat with an automatic stoker know of the wretched tribulations of the proletariat? While I sweat and slave in my cellar, bursting my truss every time I heave a shovelful of coal, he lolls at ease in his arm-chair, listening to the soothing hum of his mechanical stoker…. I am glad that he has been humbled and brought low. Now he will have sympathy with the deserving poor.


  Read an article in a Western newspaper, in which the writer rejoiced that the war had caused the railway dining cars to discard finger-bowls. He says that he has never liked finger-bowls, looking upon them as a useless and irksome frippery…. I scorn him. He is probably a poor wretch who has eaten off a corner of a kitchen table all his life, and who drank out of his finger-bowl the first time he was given one. Throw out the finger-bowl, and what goes next? The napkin. After the napkin, the table-cloth, and after the cloth, the knife and fork. My poor Western brother, if
you want to eat with your hands you cannot do it at my table. I have always liked finger-bowls, and if possible, I like a few flower petals floating in them. I take my ceremonial lustrations as seriously as the Hebrews of old.

  • FRIDAY •

  Looked over some late Christmas cards today, including one with the words of I Saw Three Ships on it, and an elaborate background of music. But the music was not the music of the song; in fact, it was no music at all, but merely an artist’s arrangement of notes, signifying nothing.5 I like Christmas cards to have plenty of holly, and stage-coaches, and roaring fires, and stars, and Babes in a Manger and other such Christmassy pictures on them; I don’t care much for the ultra-modern ones which try to get as far as possible from the season…. Was caught under the mistletoe today—at my age, too! I had forgotten that the stuff was there. I am now in the time of life when only children lie in wait for me near the magic plant. There is something dispiriting about this.6


  Twelfth Night, and the official end of the Christmas celebrations, so I took down all the decorations and cards, and dutifully stuffed myself with mince pies and cheesecakes. There is a belief that one will have a happy month for every mince pie one eats today, and every year I gag myself trying to round out an entire year of bliss. I usually stick at June and have never passed August. Some day I must bake a particularly small batch of mince pies for this special purpose, so that I shall not need to short-circuit my epigastrium in pursuit of a fine old custom…. Those who do not eat twelve pies are supposed to be plagued by the Lubber Fiend—a goblin somewhat vaguely identified by folklore specialists. I know several people who might accurately be described as Lubber Fiends.


  • SUNDAY •

  An amateur astrologer told me last night that I am overly critical, and should try to develop more benevolence toward mankind. Today, therefore, I went about beaming benevolently on everyone I met, and was greeted with scowls and rebuffs by most of them. The plain fact is that most Canadians dislike and mistrust any great show of cheerfulness. If a man were to sing in the street he would probably end up in jail; if he sang at his work the efficiency expert would ask him to come to his office for a frank talk. The way to impress your boss is to look glum all the time. He may mistake this for intelligence and give you a raise. The same thing holds true in politics: he who laughs is lost.