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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 42

Robertson Davies

  He was refused burial in the churchyard of St. Chad’s, in Shrewsbury. Presumably the authorities took the view that no real Christian can be as joyful as that, and didn’t want him making trouble among the glum ghosts. So he was buried at home. I would like to meet Burton in the hereafter, and ask whether the strange manner of his death caused him any trouble with St. Peter.

  From my bedroom window I can see the hill upon which Thomas Parr lived his uncommonly long life, from 1483 to 1635—152 years. This remarkable old party married for the first time when he was eighty, and was made to do penance for adultery when he was over 100. Rubens painted his portrait when he was 140.

  I am not surprised that Parr refused to die: life here is too good to be given up—though I must leave soon.




  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  May I call upon you on Monday in order to borrow some books of reference of which I know you to be the possessor? I am about to begin work upon an historical study which I have long pondered, to be called The Rise, Decline and Fall of the Toothpick, with an Appendix on the Toothpick in Canadian Lumbering. Also, have you any old toothpicks which I might have photographed for illustrations? My own forebears always used gold or silver toothpicks which they carried upon their watch chains. It occurs to me that someone of humbler birth, such as yourself, might have the wooden toothpicks I need.

  Yours in hope,

  Minerva Hawser.


  Dear Sirs:

  Are you men or mice? Of course we must take legal action against Dandiprat. I know he put the skunk in my car because I know Dandiprat, and it is just the sort of thing he would think of.12 I am amazed by Mr. Cicero Forcemeat’s suggestion that the case would not hold water in court. If Forcemeat wants water-tight cases, he will not get them from me. A lawyer who cannot bridge a few unavoidable gaps in evidence is a disgrace to his profession. Now, think again, gentlemen!

  Yours in expectation of fireworks,

  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  At last I am back in Canada. I flew home from Scotland. I made my way thither from Wales by two trains—the Flying Scot and the Creeping Scot. What a country Scotland is, and how wonderfully the characteristics of the countryside are repeated in the people! The British Isles is rich in eccentrics, and those of Scotland are among the most flavoursome. Consider those two wonderful eighteenth century Lords of Session—Lord Gardenstone, who always slept with his pet pig for warmth, and Lord Monboddo, who thought that all children were born with tails! What has Canada to show to equal them?

  I may tell you that as I made my way to Prestwick, I passed the Johnny Walker distillery, and the works of Shanks of Barrhead, the great makers of sanitary pottery. “The Alpha and Omega of many a good party,” said my companion, bowing her head respectfully.

  Yours as always,



  AN ALMANAC FROM a patent medicine company arrived in the mail this morning—a gaudy reminder of the immense tonnage of pills, the vast ocean of jalap, the heaped-up mountains of salts which are consumed by the Canadian public every year. Not that I have any prejudice against patent medicines. They are a relatively harmless indulgence and may even contribute to human well-being. It does a man good to take a few pills every day. It gives him a feeling that he is taking care of himself, and this persuades him that he is in good health—but only just. It is not advisable to feel too well. People who boast about their good health are apt to overtax it. They want to lift things which should be left on the ground; they insist upon walking when it would be much simpler to ride. Everybody should have some slight, not too obtrusive ailment, which he coddles. Nobody should be without some harmless medicine which he takes. These things enable him to husband his strength, harbour his resources, and live to a ripe old age.


  THIS EVENING some worldly acquaintance took me to a nightclub, where I watched the floorshow with simpleminded wonder. One of the chief attractions was a blonde young woman, said to be Finnish, who danced in an Eastern costume that afforded her strategic but not complete protection. She was less graceful than supple, and when she had got her feet very dirty she showed us how she could waggle them over her shoulders. Then she turned herself into a wheel of irregular contour and rolled lumpily about the floor. Her abdomen was rubbery and less taut than many I have seen, and every time she fell on it there was an audible and rather comical “Splat!” which amused me greatly. However, I was frowned on for laughing. In Toronto, it appears, one may leer desirously at underdressed girls, or gape at them with the costive expression of one who considers Nudity and Art to be synonymous terms, but one must not laugh. Which is unreasonable, considering that many people are even funnier stripped than clothed.


  A CHILD SHOWED me a comic book that sought to show how much better life is today than it was in the eighteenth century. It pointed out rather smugly that in those days there was no electricity, that many people could not read, and that life was somewhat inconvenient. So far as I am concerned life is still far from convenient, but pleasant for all that, and many people who can read do not seem to do so. Further, some things achieved a perfection in the eighteenth century which has never since been surpassed: we have never bettered their window-sashes, for instance; nor have we designed any chairs which combine beauty and comfort as theirs did; our glass and chinaware are not, on the whole, as good as theirs, nor are our textiles. In fact, in virtually every phase of architecture and industrial design, they beat the heads off us and we still copy them because we cannot do better. It is dishonest to give children the notion that we are cleverer than our ancestors in every respect. We make many things more easily than they, but not necessarily better.


  A LADY WRITES to me, unreasonably angry because I have let it be known that I dwelt within myself and peeped out at the world. “I know the kind of man you are,” she writes; “you are the kind who would agree with the lines—

  The mind is its own place, and in itself

  Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

  And do you know who said that?” Yes, my dear madam, I know who said that: it was Satan, in Paradise Lost. And a remarkably intelligent and able fellow he was, too, and quite the best character Milton ever created…. But I make no such vast claims for myself; I can make a hell of heaven but the other trick is too much for me.


  WOKE FEELING like a piece of pemmican; my electric blanket had dried me out during the night. Two years ago a kind friend gave me this luxury, and I owe many a snug night to it, but from time to time I curse its remorseless efficiency. If it is cold when I go to bed I push the controller on the blanket up as high as it will go, and compose myself for slumber with a smile, knowing that nothing short of a new Ice Age can harm me. But sometimes the temperature changes sharply in the night, and after dreams I am lost in the desert, where my dromedary has dropped dead from thirst, I awaken to find that it is thawing outside, and I am in danger of bursting into flames. I then drag myself to the bathroom, fill the tub with water, and leap into it. There is a sizzle and a suck, and all the water has disappeared, but I am back to my normal size and wetness, and feel much better. But one of these times I shall not wake, and the cinder which will comprise my mortal remains will be buried in a pillbox.


  RECEIVED A CURIOUS pamphlet from a doctor in West Virginia; it was a reprint of a speech he made before the Section on Diseases of the Chest at the Ninety-ninth Session of the American Medical Association in 1950, and is called “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Chest Diseases.” In this strange work the good physician proves that Shakespeare knew that people had lungs, because he men
tions them nineteen times. He also knew that there was such a thing as consumption and asthma, and one of his heroines (Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing) suffers from a cold in the head, so we must assume that Shakespeare knew that there was such a disease as a cold. All this seems to amaze the West Virginian doctor, and suggests to him that Shakespeare was a pretty smart fellow. But I can take this information calmly. Though I am no Shakespeare, I have long been acquainted with all these facts myself. People who are not poets are often astonished to find that poets know anything at all; they seem to think that poets are born stupid, and get worse as they grow older. But I have long recognized the fact that true poets are among the very few sane people in a mad world.


  LOOKING THROUGH a song-book in a friend’s house today I came upon a ballad which was a great favourite with contraltos in my childhood; it was Three Fishers by John Pyke Hullah, with words by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. The moaning of the harbour bar in the song was trifling compared with the moaning of the large, hollow-voiced women who sang it at church concerts and “musical evenings.” Hullah was an odd man, who thought that he could devise an easier way of putting music on paper than the usual system of notes. He also composed an opera for which Charles Dickens wrote the libretto, a work which seems to have disappeared completely. That would be a curiosity, indeed, if it could be found.13 Hullah was the composer of O That We Two Were Maying, another favourite of my childhood, usually sung as a duet by a slate-pencil soprano and a fog-horn contralto; the audience always concurred heartily in their wish to be elsewhere.


  I WAS IN CONVERSATION with a merry fellow who knew many odd scraps of history and told me that William McKinley, twenty-fifth president of the U.S.A., died of a tobacco heart. “Surely he was assassinated by the anarchist, Leon Czolgosz?” said I. “Czolgosz shot him,” said he, “but McKinley lingered for some time, and when he died several papers of strong moral tendency said that if his heart had not been weakened by tobacco smoking, he would have pulled through. I was alive then, and I recall it well; you can’t imagine how powerful the anti-tobacco faction was in 1901.”14 He also told me that the name of the killer was pronounced Cholguss, and many wits at the time said he had been driven to madness, and his rash act, by a lifetime of hearing it mispronounced.


  WAS TALKING TO one of the few people in Canada who hunts foxes on a horse, and with hounds, in the English fashion. It is not generally known that there is a small but persistent survival of the fox-hunt in this country. But this man told me that Canadian foxes are either stupider than English foxes, or do not realize what is expected of them; the last fox he hunted, he said, ran in a circle of about a hundred yards, rushing directly at the hounds, who ate it as best they could while rolling around on the ground, holding their sides and laughing in their rich, doggy voices. Because of this lack of gumption among foxes, it is usual to drag a sack of some strong-smelling stuff over a good long course, and let the hounds follow that. The question which occurs to me is: would there be any money in training foxes for this highly specialized work? It would be wearing for a man of my temperament to drag a fox on a rope through streams, in and out of holes, and over ploughed fields, but I am willing to try it if I can thereafter rent the fox to hunters at a stiff fee. If they kill my trained fox, of course, I shall expect to be pensioned for life.


  ATTENDED A theatrical performance and was impressed once again by the amount of coughing which a Canadian assembly can manage, and by the freedom with which this national habit is indulged. Not merely the aged and the infirm, but the young and the hearty, the valiant and the fair, cut loose with coughs like the roarings of lions. Mentally ran off a new verse for our national song, thus:

  O Canada, our home, our native land,

  Chronic catarrh makes all our tubes expand;

  With raucous cough we greet the dawn,

  With snorts we hail the noon,

  The emblems of our nation are

  The kerchief and spittoon;

  Post-nasal drip!

  Woooof! Let her rip!

  We face the future trusting in our grippe—

  (Exultantly and accompanied with loud coughs, hawkings, gaggings and retchings).

  DE-FY The World with Freedom in OUR GRIPPE!


  ASSISTED THIS afternoon at one of those meetings where a concert committee decides what musicians it will engage for its series next season. Having decided how much money we had to spend, we passed two happy hours figuring out whom we could get for it—Monsieur Strummo, who plays the piano with his hands and feet, and who wants five thousand dollars to do it for an hour and a half, or Signor Thumbo, who plays the musical saw all night for twenty-five dollars; Madame Y, who had a wonderful voice twenty-five years ago, or Mademoiselle Z, who is expected to have a wonderful voice in a few years? As we pondered, I looked at the pictures of the artists in the catalogue which we used; what liars photographers are! There was a picture of a soprano, looking like a virgin of seventeen, whom I saw recently, with a neck like the bellows of an accordion, and bags under her eyes like golf balls. There was a tenor, showing his magnificent chest and leonine head, but omitting his legs, which are about ten inches long. Another tenor was shown with his eyes closed in ecstasy; when they are opened, I happen to know that one of them is a bad glass job which he made himself, from the bottom of a beer bottle. Ah, human vanity! Ah, photographic artifice!


  VISITED THE Royal Ontario Museum, and was concerned to notice that a lot of the stuffed animals are fading badly. The laborious researches of the Royal Society of Taxidermists, continued for over a century, has not yet discovered a way of perventing this deterioration, which can turn a beautifully striped tiger into something like a polar bear in ten or twelve years. Museums are by definition temples of probity, or the curators might touch up the animals with some of the preparations so lavishly advertised for fading hair. But if a Museum Director were to countenance such deceit he might be drummed out of the profession at the very next International Conference of Museologists. This is a dreadful ceremony, in which the offender, having been stripped naked, is locked into an Egyptian sarcophagus, upon the cover of which his former colleagues drop rare coins in an irregular rhythm, until at last he is released, raving mad, and good for nothing but light work as a Museum guard.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  I am in bed with flu just now and my pyjamas are a dreadful nuisance; they creep up. A lady visited me yesterday, and when I mentioned this to her she said that she had the same trouble with her nightdresses.

  Then—in a flash!—inspiration came to me and I forthwith invented Marchbanks’ Nightwear Stirrup. This consists of two metal stirrups, to which stout elastic cords, with clamps, are attached. The wearer puts his feet in the stirrups, clamps the cords to the bottoms of his pyjamas (or the hem of her nightdress) and the device keeps the garment in place all night long.

  How does this appeal to you? As Preliminary Examiner for the Board of Patents and Copyrights, do you—as the current phrase is—go for it?

  Yours in breathless anticipation,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Mackbonks:

  I was alarmed and displeased to receive a note saying that you are in bed with Flo, and as a servant of this Dominion I have no desire to enter into a correspondence with you so long as you occupy any irregular situation.

  The device which you describe—a Nightwear Stirrup—does not interest me, for in common with many Civil Servants of the better sort, I have slept at my desk for many years.

  Yours very conditionally,

  Haubergeon Hydra.


  Honoured Sir:
r />   The tone of your last letter was very strong—very strong indeed. As your legal advisers, we must caution you against such layman’s phrases as “take the shirt off his back” and “make him eat crow,” when referring to a possible legal action. We lawyers do not like such expressions: they savour of violence.

  In our opinion, your case against Richard Dandiprat is uncommonly weak. You have only circumstantial evidence that he introduced a skunk into your car. Your suggestion that we should in some way bridge the gap between guesswork and certainty alarms us by its sinister implication.

  Lawyers do not like to go to court. Anything may happen in court. The magistrate may be a skunk-lover, or a card-companion of Dandiprat’s, or anything. Besides, courts are invariably draughty, and our court partner, Mr. Cicero Forcemeat, is trying to postpone catching his winter cold for as long as possible. We suggest that you empower us to seek a settlement with Dandiprat out of court. This is the proper legal way of doing business.

  Yours for caution,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  Dear Sirs:

  Your mealy-mouthed letter disgusts me! Settle out of court, indeed! What are you lawyers for, if not to go to court? Eh? Answer me, Mouseman! Don’t sit cringing there, in your stuffy office! Get on the job, man!

  What do I care for Cicero Forcemeat’s cold? If he catches cold in court I will personally send him a mustard plaster.