The papers of samuel mar.., p.36
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, p.36

           Robertson Davies


  NEXT WEEK, I see, will be observed as National Cat Week. It is a good thing to do honour to this noble, dignified and beautiful animal, but I don’t imagine for a moment that the cats will co-operate. Cats don’t mind being worshipped, but they refuse to be organized. They have always insisted that their lives are their own, to be lived as they see fit, and their attitude toward everything which is symbolized by the American passion for “weeks” of one sort and another is contemptuous, contumacious, and insulting. Can anyone imagine cats walking in a parade? Does anyone seriously think that cats are interested in civic betterment? When have cats ever shown a united front on any subject whatever? The great charm of cats is their rampant egotism, their devil-may-care attitude toward responsibility, their disinclination to earn an honest dollar. In a continent which screams neurotically about co-operation and the Golden Rule, cats are disdainful of everything but their own immediate interests and they contrive to be so suave and delightful about it that they even receive the apotheosis of a National Week. Smart work, cats!


  I MET A MAN today who boasted intolerably about his child. It is eighteen months old, I think he said, and he asserts without a blush that it has a vocabulary of three hundred words. I believe that I was expected to show awestricken admiration, but as I have no idea what vocabulary may be expected in a child of that age I held my peace and nodded as though prodigies were an old story to me. Frankly, I do not care how large a vocabulary any child has; I am only interested in what it says, and not always in that. What is the use of a large vocabulary of words, if the child has only a small range of ideas?


  OF LATE PEOPLE have been picking on me because I am what they call “complacent.” By this they mean that I refuse to share their hysterical fears about another war, about Russia, about the atom, about the commercialization of Sunday, about divorce, about juvenile delinquency and whatnot. Because I do not leap about and flap my arms and throw up all my meals when these things are mentioned, they assume that I am at ease in Zion. As a matter of fact I have my own well-defined field of worry, which I exploit to the full. But it seems to me that a little complacency would do nobody any harm at present and I am thinking of incorporating complacency into the platform of the Marchbanks Humanist Party—a retrograde movement of which I am leader and sole support. “Tired of Clamour? Try Torpor!” How’s that for a campaign cry?


  MY MORNING PAPER expects me to sympathize with a man who shot a bear cub, and then was charged by the mother bear; he and his companion fired eleven shots at her before they finally killed her. But before I congratulate him on his escape, I would like to know why he shot at the cub in the first place? Had he never heard that bears are strange, unpredictable beasts, likely to chase people who shoot their young? And what is the fun of shooting a bear, large or small? Is it the pleasure of seeing it fall down? Or does a shot bear leap comically into the air, shouting, “O my goodness!” thus providing the hunter with a hearty laugh? It seems to me that I once read in an old musty book (very much out of date, probably) that it was unsportsmanlike to shoot the young of any animal, or to shoot a female who was running with her young. But it is plain from the reports which appear in the papers every season that ideals of sportsmanship have changed, and that the tactics which, in political circles, are called “realistic” are now in fashion.


  I WENT TO THE country to see the autumn colours yesterday, and reflected for the thousandth time on the difficulty of finding any place in Ontario where a man can walk without being warned off as a trespasser. In England the walker’s rights are protected by Footpath Societies and local use: here the landowner is as tyrannous as he pleases, and particularly so in the neighbourhood of lakes. I saw a good deal of wild aster and hawthorn berry, but not much leaf-colour yet. I collected a little more material for my book Silo Architecture in Canada and Its Relationship to the Campaniles of Southern Europe. So far as I know there has been no extended treatment of the aesthetic side of silo-building.

  The word “silo” comes, I find, from the Greek “siros,” meaning a storage pit, and the use of silage as fodder was known to the Greeks and Romans, and to the Spaniards, from very early times. The first silo I ever saw was a very grand concrete one which reeked of sour corn so powerfully that it seemed to tear at the lungs as one peeped into it. Cows fed on its silage never drew a sober breath all winter, but leaned against the sides of their stalls, hiccuping; their udders ran pure eggnog. Every Spring they were driven reluctantly to the meadows to take a kind of agricultural Gold Cure, and everyone remarked on the change in the milk. What Alcoholics Anonymous might have done for those cows I cannot now say.


  A DOG ATTEMPTED to end it all under the wheels of a car in which I was riding this afternoon. The suicidal instinct seems to be strong in all dogs, but amounts to an overmastering passion in collies and Airedales. My theory is that dogs go mad from the boredom of being dogs and seek to take their lives in consequence. The much advertised intelligence of dogs is mythical. A recent article in Saturday Night, written by a scientist, asserts that dogs have even less intelligence than chickens, which is a strong statement. A dog can’t begin to compete with a monkey, the writer says, and horses simply laugh at the pretensions of dogs to be sagacious. A pig can learn more tricks than a dog, but has too much sense to want to do it. All this supports my lifelong contention that Man’s Dumb Chum is a fraud, and has only wormed his way into the hearts of dog-lovers by undignified self-abasement. The dog is a Yes-animal, very popular with people who can’t afford to keep a Yes-man.


  I WAS DELIGHTED to read of the great good luck of Dr. Williamson, the Canadian who has discovered the biggest diamond mine in the world, and is now one of the world’s richest men. I am afraid that Dr. W. is in for some annoyance, though. The South African government will want its slice, quite rightly, but I am betting that the Canadian Ministry of Finance will want a bit, as well. The idea of a Canadian having all that money will drive Ottawa crazy unless they can devise some way of getting at it. If I were Dr. W. I should pay my Income Tax in cash—copper cash—and go to the tax office every year with a procession of Negro porters, each one carrying a big bag of pennies. I should then stand by and make insulting remarks while the clerks counted the boodle, and demand a receipt in full. When leaving I should toss a huge diamond (with a huge flaw in it) among the herdsmen of the Golden Calf, and watch them scramble, claw, kick and bite for possession of it. What’s the good of money unless it gives you some real fun—preferably of a vindictive nature?


  I DELIVERED MY body into the hands of Learned Physicians this morning confiding that they may discover why I have hay fever. As soon as they got me out of my clothes I ceased to be a man to them, and they began to talk about me as though I did not understand English. “My guess is that his heart is too small,” said the 1st L.P. “I’ve read some of his stuff, and I’ll bet his heart is a little, shrivelled black thing, like a prune,” said the 2nd L.P. Whereupon they whisked me into a dark room, and made me stand in a machine that revealed my heart, which they observed with unflattering interest. Then they handed me over to a young woman who removed blood from me and sent me on errands which modesty forbids me to specify in detail. Then the Learned Physicians got me again, and poked tickly things up my nose and peeped down my throat, and wrote cryptic notes on pads. At last I was released, completely demoralized, and sent to a technician whose job it was to test me for allergies.

  I was fastened in a chair with thongs, and various substances were brought to me. First of all, a vacuum cleaner was emptied right under my nose, and I sneezed. “Allergic to House Dust,” wrote the clinician. Next a flock of geese waddled by, under the care of a pretty Goose
Girl. “Kerchoo!” cried I. “Allergic to Goose Feathers,” was the comment. Then a farmer rushed in, carrying a truss of weeds (“truss” in the sense of “bundle,” of course, and not one of those light-weight, comfortable affairs you see advertised in magazines) which he brandished in my face. “Allergic to English Cockleburr, Golden Rod, and Old Man’s Nuisance,” wrote the clinician, as I nearly burst my bonds asunder with sneezing. The next thing to parade past me was a beautiful girl in a lowcut evening gown, which I blew off with my sneezes. “Allergic to Musk and Orris Root,” was the notation. And so it went until I was completely exhausted, and I didn’t miss a single allergy. I am allergic to everything, it seems. Why, when I looked in the mirror this evening, I sneezed violently.2


  LOOKING THROUGH my pocket notebook today I discovered that it contained much valuable information which I had overlooked, including a list of antidotes for common poisons. I jumped slightly when I discovered “hartshorn” listed as a poison, with an antidote of vinegar in water. My amazement was caused by the circumstance that as a child I could never distinguish between “hartshorn” and “horehound” and until this day I imagined them to be the same thing. But hartshorn is a nasty ammonia extracted from the horns of deer, whereas horehound is a nasty flavouring extracted from a harmless herb. As an infant I was wont to trot into drugstores with five cents in my chubby palm to ask for hartshorn candy; what would my amazement have been if the chemist had taken me at my word! I would soon have been writhing upon the floor pleading—perhaps in vain—for vinegar and water. What unsuspected perils beset us, all the days of our lives!


  “YOU FLABBERGAST ME!” said the man sitting beside our hostess to whom I had imparted a slightly surprising piece of information. His word caught my fancy; I am a bit of an etymologist myself, and I well recall the Greek word “gaster,” which the Elizabethans used to mean the stomach and digestive organs. Now when a man is amazed his stomach and digestive organs bear the brunt of it; sometimes they tremble violently; the word “jellybelly” has been coined to describe this condition of tremulousness. Therefore, when a man is flabbergasted, it means that someone has flabbered his gaster. And what is “to flabber”? Does not the word explain itself? To flabber means to flap or violently agitate something which because of its saponaceous or oleaginous nature does not flap readily—the middle section of a human being, for instance. Therefore when my friend said that I flabbergasted him he meant that I wobbled his tripes, which was interesting if true, and I know many people upon whom I would be happy to produce this effect.


  THE COLD which has been hovering around me for the past month found a chink in my armour last week, and began its horrible invasion of my person. I passed the next day in bed—confined to my rheum, so to speak. The mail brought its usual yield of junk, including a catalogue of what were described as “Rare, Exciting, Unusual, Entertaining Books!” Among them were Famous Hussies of History, The Book of Torture, and Thrilling Tales of Pep and Spice. The one which interested me most, however, was one called The Seven Keys to Power which promises to teach me many useful things such as “How to gain the mastery of all things,” “How to banish all misery,” “How to cast a spell on anyone, no matter where they are,” and “How to gain the love of the opposite sex.” As it retails at the modest price of one dollar, I do not see how I can go wrong on that one. If I could cast a spell on anyone I would not really need another book in the catalogue, on Lightning Ju Jitsu, which has a special chapter called “The Answer to Pawing Hands.” Nor, if I could compel love at will, would I need the book called How To Write Love Letters. I might risk fifty cents on the book which teaches Ventriloquism, and thus, for a mere $1.50 become one of the choice and master spirits of my age. I might even discover how to cure a cold.


  I TYPED A LETTER today, and was annoyed to find that I had put the carbon under it in such a way that it printed on the back of my original instead of making a copy. But a boob who saw me do this said, “Why did you do that? Is it for some special kind of filing system?” I replied, “No; the man to whom this letter is going is the most cross-eyed man I have ever known, and if he happens not to have his glasses on when he gets this letter he won’t be able to read it. But if he turns it over and reflects this backward copy in a mirror, he will be able to read it perfectly.” “Oh,” said the boob, looking mystified, “I never knew that before.” … As the Good Book says, “Answer a fool according to his folly and when he is old he will not depart from it.”


  I LISTENED TO THE opera broadcast this afternoon for the first time in a long spell. It was Hansel and Gretel, to my immense delight, but I cannot help feeling that children who had fourteen angels to guard them all through the night should not have got themselves into such dreadful trouble as soon as they woke up. Probably that is the moral of the opera: if you depend on guardian angels, your moral fibre and common sense will rot, and you won’t be able to look after yourself.


  I WENT TO SEE Donald Wolfit3 in King Lear last week. He is advertised as the greatest actor since Henry Irving; unless everything I have ever read or heard about Irving is wrong, this is a somewhat over-confident statement. He had fine moments, but the shabbiest scenery and costumes I have seen since the days of the Marks Brothers (not to be confused with Groucho, Harpo and Chico) did nothing to help him. Charles Lamb said that Lear could not be acted, and all sorts of people have parroted that foolish remark ever since; it is as sensible as saying that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony cannot be played. Wolfit acted Lear admirably; if he had had more nobility and more pathos he would have been wonderful. Somebody said to me in the interval that it was unbelievable that any man would be so stupid as to do what Lear did—put himself at the mercy of his children. I don’t know about that: I have seen at least three cases in which parents did the same thing, and with not dissimilar results.


  ON THE TRAIN again yesterday I was travelling with a number of men who were obviously Senators and members of the Commons on their way to Ottawa for the opening of Parliament. They wore that dedicated, holy look which is only to be seen on the faces of men who are travelling on passes and expect to be wearing their best suits within twenty-four hours. The members of the older parties gravitated naturally toward the chaircar; the socialists rode in the coach, ate box-lunches, and occasionally exclaimed, “God pity the poor engineer on a day like this!” whenever there seemed to be a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Men within earshot. I did a good deal of spying and eavesdropping in all parts of the train, but learned nothing.


  I SHOVELLED SNOW yesterday aftenoon. As I laboured, a passer-by said, “Considering the dispute that has been going on about Sabbath observance I’d think you would be afraid to be seen doing that.” Leaning on my shovel, and holding my poor bent back, I replied, “Sir, if Providence sees fit to send snow on Saturday night, Providence will have more sense than to condemn me for clearing it away on Sunday. If I am not greatly mistaken, it is pleasure-seeking on the Sabbath which gives pain to the godly; shovelling snow is not a pleasure to me, but a penance, a mortification of the flesh, and a Lenten misery. I offer this labour—which I heartily detest—as an expiation for all my sins of pride, lust, covetousness, greed, sloth, anger and envy during the past six days. And now will you please go away before I sin further by washing your face in this snow bank?” He hurried away, tut-tutting.


  SEVERAL LARGE and dangerous icicles hang from the roof of my house, and I decided that I had better get them down before they fell on the milkman and clove him to the brisket. So I spent quite a long time heaving snowballs at them, this afternoon, trying to knock them off the eavestrough. Throwing things is no
t one of my accomplishments; I can hit a dog with a baseball bat at ten feet, but picking off icicles with snowballs is quite another thing. However, I threw and threw, until my right shoulder became numb and my appendix gave notice that it was going to burst, but very few of the stalactites (or are they stalagmites?) came down, and those that did smashed uncomfortably near me…. The result of all this stretching is that my right side is now several inches longer than my left side, and I walk with a hippety-hopping gait, like a dwarf and a giant tied together for a three-legged race.


  THE PAPERS ARE full of hullabaloo about Edison,4 who appears to have been not merely an ingenious fellow, but also a major philosopher and saint (as well as the only man who could write the Lord’s Prayer on a piece of paper the size of a dime). Edison’s chief impact was made upon me by means of his phonograph. My great-aunt Lettice had an early model, and as soon as I was strong enough to lift the records (which were as thick as manhole covers and about the same weight) I played it frequently. As a result of this early training, I am still able to recite large portions of a monologue called Cohen On The Telephone, and sing all the hits from a forgotten musical comedy called The Yokohama Girl. Edison’s admirable autograph appeared on each record, and I am surprised that in all the praise of him there has been no word of his genuine skill as a calligrapher.