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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 23

Robertson Davies

  This seems to be my week to receive peculiar periodicals. Another paper called The Jacobite arrived from New Zealand, of all places; it was devoted entirely to that most lost of all lost causes. It boasted that a letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, had recently sold for £1200, whereas one from Elizabeth had sold for a measly £500—an obvious victory for the Stuart cause. It spoke admiringly of Louis XVI as the man who had given the Americans their independence—an interpretation of history new to me.


  I AM BEGINNING to be a little bit touchy about the fact that I have never been up in an airplane. Not so long ago I was among the majority in that respect; now I appear to be one of a timid minority, classed with people who think tomatoes poisonous, or who refuse to use the telephone during thunderstorms. Everybody seems to fly everywhere. The real reason why I do not fly is that I am a coward, and have not even been on a Ferris Wheel for twenty years. But I am getting sick of inventing lies about how I prefer train travel, or motoring, and some day I may be forced into a plane by my fear of losing face.3


  AFTER A TRAIN journey at an ungodly hour I presented myself at the palatial offices of the eminent Dr. Aesculapius, and was told to seek him at the hospital. I went there, and asked for him. “Is it about a Growth?” asked the clerk, in a ghoulish whisper. “Heaven forfend!” I replied, and was pushed into a waiting-room, branded as an uninteresting fellow who had no Growth. But my companions in this sink of human misery all looked as though they had Growths, and for an hour and three-quarters I sat among them, wondering if I looked as ghastly to them as they did to me. At last I reached Dr. Aesculapius. “Tut tut,” said he; “they should have kept you at the office, Mr. Marchbanks; you are to be an ambulatory patient.” … And so, later in the day, I engaged the attention of the great man once again, and he said Hum and Aha, and was so much more mysterious than any other doctor that I can readily understand his eminence in his profession. But at last he shoved me into an immense Atomic Frier which he kept in the back of his premises, and as I cringed under its blast I thought of the boys in the Fiery Furnace.

  An ambulatory patient, I discover, is a fellow who would be in a hospital if there were room for him, but who is otherwise permitted to amble aimlessly about the streets when the doctor doesn’t want him. The Atomic Frier made me feel thoroughly miserable; I was nauseated when I lay down and faint when I stood up, and so I crept about bent into a right angle, and moaned whenever anyone touched me or offered me food. This response to the treatment was apparently good, and Dr. Aesculapius was pleased with me.


  YESTERDAY I finished the series of treatments. “You’ve been a good patient, Mr. Marchbanks,” said the nurse as I climbed off the gridiron; “we’ve put 124,000,000 velocipedes through you and you haven’t batted an eyelash.” (She may have said something else, but I think it was velocipedes; these measurements of electricity are very confusing.) I said nothing. When one is praised by nurses it is best not to be too enthusiastic. They may like you so much that they insist on further treatments. I silently cursed the Atomic Frier, into which I have been slid like a roasting fowl for a month, and escaped to the cubby-hole where my clothes had been left. As always in doctors’ dressing rooms, the mirror in this place was hung to suit the needs of women rather than men, and gave me a fine view of my navel. I was on my knees, tying my tie, when the nurse came in again. She thought I was praying, and bent her head reverently. While she was thus occupied I escaped into the blessed light of day, and bought a pound of candied peanuts and ate them all at once, to celebrate my liberty.

  My experiences of the past week convince me that the world is full of Intuitive Diagnosticians and Vicarious Undertakers. Every third person I meet seems to know what ails me, and a good many of them have buried me so deep that they take it as a personal affront that I am still walking about. I have made up my mind to outlive all of these vultures, just for spite, and every year I shall defile their graves in some new and outrageous way on Father’s Day. My family history is full of instances of Marchbankses who wouldn’t lie down; they all outlived their physicians by several decades, and in one or two instances their cantankerousness was so powerful that they did not die at all, but were removed from this earth in heavenly chariots. I have every intention of following their example.4


  ON MY WAY here this evening I saw a girl sitting on the stoop of a house, with a sign hanging over her head saying “Live Bait.” They didn’t catch me with that bait, though. Not pretty enough.


  I WENT TO a Fashion Show last evening to see what women would be wearing next season. I myself wore an outfit which I expect many men will favour during the coming year. It was a dark, three-piece ensemble with a plunging neckline which reveals, when I lean forward, the pencil-and-pen accessories with which the dainty waistcoat is embellished. Informality is the keynote of the costume, accentuated by the extra fullness at the knees and the high gloss on the bosom of the trousers. With this I wore wool socks, with inserts of contrasting yarns, and conservative shoes of scuffed calf. For outdoor wear I put a topcoat over this ensemble, which presents a pleasing contrast of napped and napless cloth in the same colour, and complete the effect with a hat in the classic Canadian, or pot de chambre style. This is what is called a Basic Costume, suitable for office wear and, by the addition of a clean shirt and handkerchief, suitable also for dinners, dancing, and social engagements.


  OFTEN, AS I have conned the pages of a newspaper, I have wondered who those people are who show such engaging frankness about their innermost secrets. There are their photographs, their names and addresses and all the lurid details of the years which they spent in martyrdom to gas, bloating, sour stomach, pains in the back and spots before the eyes, before they discovered the amazing patent medicine which cured them. But the question still remains: Who knows them? They must be real, but are they anybody’s neighbours? … Yes, yes, I realize that it is not a nice thing to mention while eating Scotch broth.


  WHEN THE HISTORY of western civilization as evinced in Eastern Ontario is written, a long footnote will have to be devoted to the curious place which the garbage pail holds in our folk habits. A traveller from Mars, dropping suddenly upon this part of the Earth, might assume that we loved these vessels, and were proud of them. Every garbage-day the pails line the streets like sentinels—mute evidence of the amount of food we eat and the quantity of rubbish we throw away; every night, after the collection, they lie scattered in the snow, and at dusk they look like the bodies of soldiers, fallen in battle and frozen in death. Indeed, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow must have looked rather like one of these Ontario streets.


  I RECEIVED A LETTER from the U.S. this morning, bearing a stamp with the heads of three women who had been prominent in the fight for Women’s Rights engraved on it. As I lay in bed I reflected upon the uncompromising plainness of all three. Does an enthusiasm for Women’s Rights kill beauty, or are none but plain women interested in the acquisition of Rights? Surely the engraver could have done something for these worthy but wooden-visaged females? An Italian coin which I had palmed off on me on Monday makes even poor Victor Emmanuel look regal—a staggering feat of artistic mendacity. But these crusaders in the cause of Women’s Rights make the familiar picture of Laura Secord look like something spicy from La Vie Parisienne.5


  I SEE BY THE PAPER that a Toronto burlesque house offers a striking novelty—a dance of chorus girls who are shackled together in pretty imitation of a chain-gang. If I am not mistaken the first appearance of this delicious new idea was in the The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, which includes a Hornpipe of Prisoners in Chains. Inch by inch Toronto is creeping up on


  THE FEDERAL DEPARTMENT of Health and Welfare is taking a strong stand against kissing, I see. They say it spreads the Cold Germ. Very likely, though I must say I am less impressed by the germ theory than I used to be. But after all, who is so poor in spirit that he would not rather have his inamorata’s head-cold than his perfect health?


  ACROSS THE STREET from my window this afternoon a handsome cat, smoke-grey with a rust spot on its back, sat in the sun. As I admired it a small boy of four or five approached, evil in his eye. With calculated malice he aimed a frightful kick at the cat, but overshot his mark and fell on his podex, whereupon he began to weep bitterly. I leaned out of my window and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” and then (as the Latinity of the child seemed doubtful) “Thus perish all tyrants!”


  I LIKE WEDDINGS. They are supposed to be a feminine taste, though I can’t think why. Women often weep at weddings, whereas my own instinct is to laugh uproariously, and to encourage the bride and groom with merry whoops. The sight of people getting married exhilarates me; I think that they are doing a fine thing, and I admire them for it. If our society had any place for marriage-brokers I would certainly be one. A wedding breakfast is called so, of course, because people are supposed to go to their weddings fasting; a majority of brides, however, are chock full of nationally advertised breakfast food, bran muffins, bacon and eggs, citrus fruit, and coffee when they go to the altar; I have seen a few with crumbs still on their chins.


  I WAS TALKING to a man today who complained that there were no towers on Marchbanks Towers, and that the name was therefore a cheat. I explained to him that although no towers of brick and mortar were to be seen, it possessed several spiritual and incorporeal towers—soaring pinnacles of aspiration and romance, vast fingers of fantasy reaching into the sky. He looked unconvinced, and asked me if the house were insulated? He also suggested that by crowding myself and my family into a space about as big as the Black Hole of Calcutta I could “duplex” the Towers and profit richly by the housing shortage. He even said that by not doing so I was Flying in the Face of Providence. In fact he worked himself up into such a state of mind over what was actually none of his business that I was afraid that he would make himself ill.


  I LAUGHED MERRILY when I read in my morning paper that the Toronto City Council was in a fantod because a magazine writer said that Toronto women were “sleek, ravishing and sexy.” Most of their complaint was incoherent but one councillor mastered his blood pressure for long enough to say that this constituted an attack on the good name of Toronto…. The root of this trouble lies in the belief of the Toronto Council that all female Torontonians are Ladies. A Lady, in Canada, is a dowdy and unappetizing mammal, who is much given to Culture and Good Works, but derives no sinful satisfaction from either; a Lady is without discernible sex, but can reproduce its kind by a system resembling radar; a Lady does not have to be attractive, because it is sufficient in this wicked world to be Good. There is nothing a Lady hates so much as a Woman, and women are occasionally sleek, ravishing and sexy. The idea that women have invaded Toronto would of course be repugnant to the City Council, which distinguishes itself every year or so by banning The Decameron or insisting that male and female authors be kept apart on the shelves of the public libraries, lest an unlicensed pamphlet make its appearance.


  I LOOKED THROUGH my window into the window opposite this afternoon, and saw what I took to be a woman pouring water out of a jug on a hat; rubbed my purblind eyes, and wiped my spectacles, and found that she was refreshing the water in a vase of asters. Now here is a philosophical problem: Would I have been better off if I had not discovered the truth? Would not the wonder of my first impression have sustained me through a dull and unrewarding day?


  THIS MORNING I put leather polish on the bindings of a number of nice old books which I am lucky enough to own. This is a regular yearly rite with me. There are people who would not dream of starving a child who will starve a fine old binding, and think nothing of it. But a child, be it never so stuffed with vitamins, may grow up to be a sorrow and a disgrace to you, whereas a good book will always be a credit and a friend. Let the admirers of the younger generation chew on that one!


  I READ A LIST of the most popular songs of the year this morning. I have never heard any of them. Can it be that I live in an ivory tower? The last popular tune that I was able to recognize was I Duwanna Walk Without You, Baby which was played over and over again by the jukebox of a restaurant in which I sometimes ate. Now, when I think of it, the smell of stale fried potatoes comes back to me with disgusting clarity. I am probably one of the few men left on this continent who really likes silence. I am thinking of getting ear-plugs, like Herbert Spencer, and uncorking myself only when I am sure that I want to hear what is going on in the outside world.


  THE AVERAGE politician goes through a sentence like a man exploring a disused mine-shaft—blind, groping, timorous and in imminent danger of cracking his shins on a sub-ordinate clause or a nasty bit of subjunctive. There is a popular superstition that a politician who hangs himself in his own parentheses is likely to be an honest fellow, uncorrupted by schooling. Personally I like my politicians to be literate…. No, madam, to be quite frank, I did not know that your husband was an M.P…. Very well, if you wish it, I shall talk to someone else; I do not believe in wasting good talk on people who are plainly unable to appreciate it.


  I DROPPED IN at a child’s birthday party for a few minutes on my way here, and a tot who had been eating chocolates sat on my lap and amused herself by blowing up a red balloon and letting it disembarrass itself of its wind right in my face. The mingled stench of chocolate and cheap rubber was too much for me, and I fled.


  A FRIEND DROPPED IN to see me the other evening, and I asked him to have a glass of beer. “No, thank you,” said he; “I’ve got indigestion, and I don’t think I ought to throw any Alcohol down on top of it.” Ignoring the coarseness with which he had phrased his refusal, I said, politely: “Would you very much mind not referring to honest drink as ‘Alcohol’? The alcoholic content of beer is very small. You don’t call bread Starch, do you?” “It’s all Alcohol to a man with indigestion,” he replied. This I suppose is a great truth, and throws new light on total abstinence movements.


  DURING THE PAST few weeks I have had chats with several young men and women who think that they would like to get into the trade of which I am a humble practitioner. What amazes me about them all is their frankness. “I’d like to get some practice in a little joint like yours before trying for a job in the Big City,” they say, or words to that effect. As they all come to me without previous experience, this gives me somewhat the feeling of a professor in a kindergarten, whose job it is to set the feet of beginners upon the upward path, soon to be left behind and patronized by my former pupils. And yet they do not want to work for beginner’s pay, nor do they seem to sense the painful fact that for six months or so they will be more of a hindrance than a help. I hope that I may be forgiven in Heaven for the bittersweet answers which I return to their demands. It seems odd to me that in our present educational system, in which virtually everything else is taught or half-taught, nobody teaches these young hopefuls how to behave when looking for a job. I do not ask for grovelling humility, but some hint of modesty, and some offer of honest service, would be welcome. Does any man like to be told that he is a given point which beginners in his trade soon hope to pass?6

r />   IT IS ST. VALENTINE’S DAY, and I received only one card, which was distinctly rude in its message. But even at that I was better off than a young lady I met who had not had even an insulting Valentine. The Valentine business has been driven just about as far as it can go by the greeting-card people, who neither slumber nor sleep. It seems to me that there is a card for every occasion that anyone could dream of which has any connotation of rejoicing. The obvious thing now is to devise cards for times of sorrow: “Sorry to Hear You’ve Lost Your Job”; “Hoping You’ll Be Out of Jail Soon”; “Sympathy in Your Period of Receivership”; “Thinking of You During Your Disgrace”; “Bon Voyage, and Best Wishes for Your Deportation.” It ought to be possible to work up a brisk trade in these.


  READING AT MEALS is a vice to which I am a slave, and today at luncheon I was taking in the contents of the New Yorker along with a large plate of chopped cabbage, apples and nuts when I came upon an advertisement in brilliant colour, inserted by the Canadian Government Travel Bureau in order to lure tourists to our fair land. The attractions of Canada, according to this representation, comprise Mounties, totem poles, moose, Scotchmen (with bagpipes), Indians, rabbits, squirrels, deer, bears, sweet old ladies with spinning wheels, and goats with curly horns. This is the sort of thing which makes a Canadian like myself conscious of his lack of picturesque charm; I am useless as tourist bait, and to that extent I am a Bad Citizen. I suppose I could learn to work a spinning wheel, and in a heavy veil I might pose as an old lady if no tourists stopped to investigate me too searchingly. Lots of my friends could pass as totem poles of inferior workmanship. If thousands of Americans come up here expecting gaudy wonders, the least we can do is abet our Government in its pious fraud.