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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 27

Robertson Davies

  (1) The accountant’s rubbers

  (2) Some disused ledgers

  (3) The stick with a hook on it which is used for opening the windows.

  (4) Two or three tarnished cups won by the firm’s bowling team back in the days when it had a bowling team.

  (5) A bottle of ink which has congealed but is too good to throw away.

  (6) Vases in which the secretaries put flowers on the rare occasions when anybody gives them flowers. Valuables are kept in banks. Manuscripts are kept in confused heaps on desks.


  I PONDERED AT LUNCH today on the fact that all waiters in good hotels are clean-shaven. Is this a reminiscence of the time—about a century ago—when all menservants wore powder in their hair on great occasions (although their masters had long given it up) and were forbidden to grow their whiskers as a mark of their servitude? At the turn of the century the only clean-shaven men to be seen in the streets were actors, clergymen, servants and a few lawyers…. A women’s luncheon was going on near me. It looked deadly dull. Gatherings at which only one sex is represented are rarely enlivening. The only thing drearier than a pack of men eating together is a pack of women doing the same…. I quite agree with you, madam; the sexes are only tolerable when mingled.


  I WAS AT A GATHERING last night where I ate cookies made by one man, discussed the chemistry of cooking with another, and examined a gingerbread house made by a third. The gingerbread house was particularly fancy and appeared to me to carry the pastrycook’s art to considerable lengths…. More men can cook than is commonly thought, and I think that these male cooks are more concerned with the philosophy and mystery of cooking than are women. Women say, of course, that if men had all the cooking to do they would not like it so much. This is comparable to the frequent feminine comment that if men had to have babies there would soon be no babies in the world. Both remarks are equally untrue…. I have sometimes wished that some clever man would actually have a baby in a new, labour-saving way; then all men could take it up, and one of the oldest taunts in the world would be stilled forever…. I see that Shirley Temple has had a baby. Dear me, how time flies! Next thing we know that sweet little Mickey Rooney will be getting married.


  I WAS EATING AN excellent slice of bread at lunch today, when I sensed a foreign substance in my mouth, and after some fishing and digging I found that it was a bit of paper. After I had cleaned it (by washing it in my tea, if you must know) I found that it was a union label, proclaiming that my bread had been made by organized bakers. I think, frankly, that I would rather have this information conveyed to me by other means than a label which I suspect had been licked by an organized tongue.


  I SEE A STRANGE gadget advertised—a special pair of circular scissors to remove hair from the nose and ears. Personally I regard hair in the ears as a sign of wisdom; the Chinese greatly esteem an elongated earlobe, and it seems to me that when such a lobe is allied with a splendidly hirsute ear, perfection has been reached, and should not be tampered with. As for hair in the nose, it is picturesque, and with a little practice it can be made to quiver, like the antennae of one of the more intelligent and sensitive insects. Anything which gives interest to the gloomy, immobile pan of the average Canadian citizen should be cherished and not extirpated with circular scissors.


  A SMALL PLAY-READING group of which I am one met last night and had a very good time with Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Reading plays can be anything from the pleasantest to the most penitential of pastimes. I was reading in Thomas Davies’ Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq. a few days ago about one of King George the Second’s exploits in this direction. The King had reached the age of seventy-seven and had ceased to go to the theatre, but he was keen to hear Macklin’s farce Love à la Mode, and Macklin had some hope that he might be asked to read his play to the King—presumably acting it out with great spirit. But, as Davies tells us, Love à la Mode was read to his Majesty by an old Hanoverian gentleman, who spent eleven weeks in the misrepresentation of the author’s meaning; the German was totally void of humour and was, besides, not well acquainted with the English language; the King, however, expressed great satisfaction at the Irishman’s getting the better of his rivals, and gaining the young lady. I have myself been present at play readings which were not much livelier than this.

  • OF BONES •

  DRIVING NEAR a railway siding this morning I beheld a sight of grim beauty—a gondola loaded with bones on their way to a glue factory. The load was heaped high and the rib-cages, spines and skulls of horses and cattle were seen in silhouette against a winter sky. Skeletons of all kinds have a beauty of their own; to me a house half-built, or a tall building which is still in the steel-structure stage, is a more pleasing object than the same building completed. Why skeletons are considered frightening objects I have no idea; most people would be far handsomer without their flesh than with it and I think this holds true of animals, as well…. And yet I will admit that there was an air of austerity about this load for the bone-yard. It was a gigantic reminder of our mortality, and if Sir Thomas Browne had been riding in the car with me he would no doubt have favoured me with a few rolling periods on the subject. And although the bones in themselves were beautiful there was something depressing about the thought that they would end, in all probability, as ten-cent bottles of mucilage, and that vile substance which bookbinders use so freely in their trade.


  AS I SAT ON A siding today I reflected upon the extraordinary slowness of our Canadian trains. There are, I know, fast trains in this country, but they never go anywhere that I want to go. The trains I am forced to take dawdle through the countryside, squatting every now and then to cool their bellies in the snow, while I yawn and try to read, a diversion which the lumpiness of the roadbed makes impossible. I was roused from a doze this afternoon by a fear that the train was on fire. There was no smoke, and I decided that someone must have left a pair of rubbers, or possibly a soiled baby, against the heating apparatus. But later I discovered that a man across the aisle had lit a pipe, at which he sucked with obvious enjoyment. There was a smoking section of the car, but he did not choose to go to it. Instead he blew his fetid exhalations everywhere, causing old ladies and expectant mothers to seek refuge between the cars, while men like myself, apparently in the best of health, turned grey in the face and wished for death to end our sufferings. I don’t mind pipes; I smoke a pipe myself; but this was such a pipe as the damned must smoke in Hell.


  A SCIENTIST WHOM I know was telling me this evening that ants and spiders sing quite loudly for their size, that flies scream and that weevils make noises like rivetters as they bore into wheat grains, yet none of these cries is audible to us, being far above the sound level of our ears. As he explained, the notion struck me that possibly our prayers and entreaties are not audible to God’s ear. Perhaps as I walk in my garden ants and spiders send up the most terrific outcries to me for rain, or peace; maybe they think that I am being hard upon them when I do not answer their prayers, when the plain fact is that I do not hear them. Obviously they should lower their voices; and perhaps if we want to catch the ear of the Ancient of Days, we should moderate the eager shrillness with which we address Him.


  I WAS CORNERED before dinner by that solemn man over there who took me to task for my attitude toward dogs who are, he tells me, noble creatures. This grieves me, for the quarrel between me and the canine world was begun by the dogs themselves. I am the sort of man at whom dogs bark, rush wildly, and jump up. People who think that dogs are wonderful judges of character insist that this means that I have the soul of a burglar, or possibly a cat. If dogs think so poorly of me is it any wonder that I am dist
ant in my attitude toward dogs? I get on well with horses, I mix freely with cows, cats are affable in my presence, and goats consider me one of themselves. Babies (also considered infallible judges of character) gurgle with fascination when I go near them. Old ladies ask me to help them across the street. But dogs dislike me. By a process of reasoning too complicated to go into here, this leads me to dislike dogs, and to regard them as idiotic and dangerous, or both. My household pet is the cat, which was man’s friend while the dog was still unable to distinguish itself from a wolf.


  THIS MORNING I had a brief chat with a gum-chewer, whose technique, I was interested to observe, was very poor. She chomped vigorously, with much wasteful jaw-movement and audible squelching. If I had had the time, I would have given her a lesson. The experienced chewer wastes no motion; he keeps his teeth together, merely nudging his quid from time to time with a single molar; he does not seek to produce the maximum of saliva, but is content with enough to keep his palate gently afloat; he does not work at his gum—rather let us say that he cherishes it; his technique is that of the cow, rather than the cement-mixer.


  A LITTLE GIRL was showing me some of her piano exercises today. They were simple things with fanciful names, and she seemed to like them. When I was a child piano lessons involved an intimate acquaintance with the exercises of a fiend named Carl Czerny,2 all of which were intended to be performed at incredible speed. The pupil of those days began with a variety of Czerny, and soon passed on to thick books called The School of Velocity, The School of Finger Dexterity and so forth until he approached a work of blood-chilling difficulty called The Virtuoso Pianist. I never scaled this awful eminence (I broke down and was flung aside in Finger Dexterity) but I heard other students playing it, and such swoops, crashes and wrist-paralysing convulsions of sound were never heard. The object of learning all this, I was told, was so that if, in later life, one broke down in the performance of a concerto, one could always fill in with a few spasms of Czerny; the musically ignorant in the audience would never notice the difference, and the musically élite would understand that the pianist was perfectly capable of playing anything.


  THERE’LL ALWAYS BE an England while there is a U.S.A. I looked through a quantity of American magazines this afternoon and was amazed by the number of shaving creams, foods, leather goods and types of booze which are advertised with pictures of Windsor Castle, London clubs, Scotsmen in native dress and similar phenomena, suggestive of Ye Merrie Olde Englande. The more fiercely the socialists hack at Englysshe Tradition the more avidly do their American cousins embrace it, fake it, and attach it to their consumer goods. In Britain the stately homes are turned into hostels for Labour Youth Cycling Clubs, and the velvet lawns of noble lords are ripped up by miners pretending to search for coal; meanwhile in Akron, Ohio, Antonio Spigoni shaves himself with a soap which he thinks gives him an Old Etonian appearance, and in South Bend, Indiana, Mrs. Brunnhilde Klotz stuffs her friends with Olde Nell Gwynne Tea Biscuits (made in St. Louis, Mo.). A mad world, my masters, and one half of it doesn’t know how the other half lives!


  THE PAPERS ARE full of news this morning about a grave-digger who killed a girl for love. Indeed, for several weeks I have been reading about murderers and suicides who are all described as “love-crazed.” I wonder how many love-crazed people there really are? As I walk through the streets, what portion of the people I meet are in this distressing and dangerous condition? Quite a few, it appears. But from my newspaper reading I can make a few deductions about them. Most love-crazed people appear to live in boarding-houses, and a majority of them earn less than $2,000 a year. They are not extensively educated, as a usual thing, and none of them toil under the burden of a mighty intellect. But they are great lovers, and handy with knives, pistols and blunt instruments. Very few of them have steady jobs, and not many of them belong to the skilled trades. They do not eat regularly. (It is a curious fact that most of them have been grabbing a snack—a hamburger and a soft drink or something of that kind—within three hours before they commit murder.) Their physical health is good, but they tend to be puny above the eyebrows. They are under thirty-five. They need a good hobby and a larger circle of female acquaintance.


  I WAS TALKING TO a man before dinner who had recently returned from England, and was full of information about the harm which he thought the socialist government had done there. For one thing, he said, the dog-boxes have disappeared from English trains. This rattled me, I confess. Not long ago there used to be special holes between the carriages of English trains, in which dogs rode; they were happy in there, and they passed their journey in sleeping and trying to look out of a small window which other dogs had licked and blown their noses upon. But such dog-boxes are no more and dogs ride in the carriages with the people, whether Labour supporters or not. This man said that he had ridden fifty miles in a carriage with a dog as big as a calf, which stood on his feet, stuck its nose into his pockets, and beat noisily upon his newspaper with its tail…. This suggests to me that the Labour Government depends heavily upon the dog-lover vote, a very powerful political group in England where dogs are regarded as semi-sacred, along with such totems as crumpets, Brussels sprouts and umbrellas. “The voice of the people is the voice of Dog,” say these zealots.


  WITH HEAVY HEART I went last evening to see a movie called Bel Ami, based on Maupassant’s story. I had read several criticisms of it, all of which said it was bad. But I was in that mood which sometimes overtakes the true movie-enthusiast; I had to see a movie, however poor it might be. I was delighted to discover that the critics were wrong. It was an excellent picture, and also one of the dirtiest pictures (using the word “dirty” in its Ontario sense, meaning “with sexual implication”) that I have seen in many years. I can only believe that its suggestions and innuendoes were too recondite for the nice, simple souls who compose our censorship boards3…. It concerned a man who was irresistibly attractive to women. I believe that such fellows exist, but I have never met one, though I have met many who thought they belonged in that category. Women who are attractive to most men are common enough; men who are attractive to most women are rarities, in this country, at any rate. I think that it is because a man, to be attractive, must be free to give his whole time to it, and the Canadian male is so hounded by taxes and the rigours of our climate that he is lucky to be alive, without being irresistible as well.


  I FOUND MYSELF yesterday by some mysterious chain of circumstances in the Cocktail Lounge of a large Toronto hotel. Although it was full of people, an awesome hush hung over the place, and there were three superior waiters at the door, to make sure that no undesirable guest (the kind of person, for instance, who shouts, “Well, here’s looking up your address!” to his female companion whenever he takes a drink) gained admission. I saw three low fellows in their shirtsleeves come to the door and the waiters closed into a solid barrier of indignant flesh and would not let them pass. After some palaver a sub-waiter was sent away, and soon he reappeared with three seersucker jackets; the lowlifers, now thoroughly cowed, put these on, and were shepherded to a table…. I approve of this sort of thing. It is very refined, and if there is one thing about which Ontario is particular, it is refinement. Fastidiousness was apparent everywhere in the Cocktail Lounge; all the men wore their coats, all the women wore gloves, and the only really loud sound was the silvery chinking of the waiters, as they ran to and fro with their pockets full of tips. My drink was not as good as I could have made at home, but it was worth the money to sip it in surroundings of such mortuary restraint.


  I WENT TO SEE my doctor today, and while I lay upon his little table, waiting for him to finish
off another patient, I passed the time by picking him out in the graduation photographs which hung about the walls. It is always instructive to survey the progress of one’s doctor through the years in this manner. There he was as a young man—a lad, really—when he took his degree in Arts. Here we have him, a few years later, when he became an M.D. Smaller photographs show him with the eminent specialists with whom he did post-graduate work. And in each picture he looks older until the door flies open and the man himself, now gray-haired and with fingers a foot long and made of tempered steel, dashes upon one and begins to probe, pinch and squeeze. I think doctors must get their wonderful finger-development by tearing telephone directories apart.


  I SEE THAT A War Assets shop quite near my place of business is selling a lot of interesting things, including several forges. It occurs to me that a forge is just what I need, for I have long wanted a constructive hobby. I could set it up in my cellar, get a few bars of iron, and amuse myself during the long winter evenings by making beautiful and acceptable gifts for my friends. The upper chambers of Marchbanks Towers would resound with the merry ring of my hammer on the anvil, my loud Yo Hoes (is it blacksmiths who cry Yo Ho?), and the hiss as I plunged a white-hot book end or umbrella stand into the water to temper it. I would develop the biceps of a blacksmith, and the jolly greathearted disposition of a blacksmith. The homes of my friends would be enriched with ornaments which I had beaten out at the forge with my own hands—wrought iron garden furniture, wrought iron cocktail sets, wrought iron spittoons—the possibilities are illimitable. And any time anyone wanted a sword beaten into a ploughshare, I would be just the man to do it (though I have often thought that a sword would make a pretty measly ploughshare). I shall phone tomorrow, and tell them to wrap up a forge for me…. Do you know that a smith is so called because he smites? … No, I am not sure that that is etymologically correct; I just made it up myself this minute…. Well, if you dislike guesswork, why don’t you do some of the talking yourself…. Nonsense, madam, I am not “hogging” the conversation, as you so disagreeably put it.