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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 44

Robertson Davies


  HAD TO TAKE a bag of potatoes into the cellar of the Towers, and as I heaved and struggled with the formless monster I reflected that it is now a little over 500 years since the birth of Leonardo da Vinci who, if he had been asked to take a sack of potatoes downstairs, would undoubtedly have rigged up some ingenious machine to do so for him. Although we know him chiefly as a painter, Leonardo was one of the great engineers of all time, and never lifted anything personally, because he knew all about hoists and levers. No doubt (I reflected as my arms were dragged from their sockets and my heart was moved four inches to the left) this was why he lived to be sixty-seven in an age when most people thought they had done well if they hung on till forty. I think it is shameful that boys are not taught a little elementary engineering at school—enough to teach them how to get a bag of potatoes into a cellar, for instance. When at last the task was done I prepared a restorative cordial and drank it, and remembered that Leonardo was a teetotaller. But then, he never lifted anything; we toiling peasants have some justification for our vices.


  I HAVE BEEN pondering about my will. As a literary document it lacks interest and surprise. Recently the wills of a number of notable Canadians have been printed in full in the metropolitan press and I have read them with interest and a degree of envy. Not that I thought much of their style; I am sure I could write a fancier will; but I was impressed by their length and complication. How can I complicate my few miserable bequests? Shall I make them conditional upon the prolonged bad conduct of my heirs? Shall I leave my library—which, at the usual second-hand dealer’s price of ten cents a volume, would bring close to $20—to a university, conditional upon their erecting a million-dollar building, with a big statue of me in the rotunda, to house it? Shall I give the Towers, with all its bills for back-taxes, to the community, to be preserved in perpetuity as a memorial to myself? Who is to get my wheelbarrow, which I coated afresh with aluminum paint last week? Shall I leave my silver tray (a splendid piece of electroplate, nine inches in diameter in all directions) to the Ontario woman to have the greatest number of triplets within ten years of my demise? My present will simply won’t do.


  Dear Pil:

  I am impressed by the huge new banks which have either been built, or are now in the process of building, in the fair city of Toronto. As the towers of cathedrals in the Middle Ages were thought to point the way to heaven, these vast temples of commerce obviously stretch themselves toward the clouds as symbols of unimaginable wealth. And how typically Canadian these huge bank buildings are! They have a kind of stony austerity about them, and a frowning, tight-lipped expression around their doors, which strongly suggests our national attitude toward the really important things of life, such as money.

  But their modern sculpture displeases me. The older bank facades were guarded by thick-waisted girls who contrived, though naked, to look unapproachable and No Fun, and by excessively muscular young men, who were tensed like young executives trying to Get Ahead. These creatures were all gods and goddesses in Banker’s Mythology, and the more important ones were easily identified:


  a god usually represented with a beard and washboard muscles on his stomach; he is the deity of branch bank managers, and is always represented with a frown, like a manager refusing to lend $50 to a small business man.


  the goddess of thrift, and she is usually represented naked but unamusing, with a look in her stony eye as though she could buy a fur coat, if she wanted to be silly, like other girls.


  the god of compound interest, and he is always represented with a thoughtful look, like a banker doing a sum in his head, and wondering whether he should check it on the calculating machine.


  the goddess of professional secrecy. She usually has one hand over her open mouth, and looks as though she were hinting to a Government Loan salesman that there is a farmer out in the county with $5,000 in cash in a coffee can under the pigsty floor, and that his wife has $800 of egg money in a Savings Account.


  the god of Future Security, and he is represented seated, gazing into the future, like a bank president trying to guess whether the credit companies will cut into his business much more during the coming year. Now and again one sees a representation of a young man chasing a young woman: this is not what you would expect, but Good Money driving out Bad.

  So far as I know, this school of sculpture, done with a sandblasting machine, was peculiar to Canada. Let us cherish the examples that remain.




  My dear Mrs. Morrigan:

  I was at a concert last night where a pianist played Handel’s variations called The Harmonious Blacksmith. Of course Handel never called it anything of the kind and the name was not attached to the piece until long after Handel was dead. But the program note repeated the old story of how he received his inspiration for the piece while sheltering from a thunderstorm in a smithy. How good old George Frederick would have snorted! He loathed flapdoodle.

  But this reminded me of that other legend, preserved in the old Ontario Third Reader, of how Beethoven, walking through the streets of Vienna with a friend one night, heard a piano being played in a basement; peeping through the window, he saw that a blind girl was playing to her aged father. “Alas, papa,” said she, “if only I could go to the concert tomorrow night, to hear the great Beethoven play, how happy I should be! But (sob) we have no money.” Without a word the great composer rushed into the cellar, sat down at the piano, and played a magnificent program, improvising the Moonlight Sonata at the conclusion, and wowing the simple music-lover. As a child I was much touched by this story.

  What disillusion awaited me when I began to look through the private papers of my Viennese ancestor, Wolfgang Amadeus Marchbanks, who was a close friend of Beethoven. Indeed, he was the very friend who accompanied Beethoven on that memorable walk. And my great-great-great uncle Wolfgang says that in reality Beethoven pushed his head through the window, and said, “Stop that row, woman; if you must play my stuff, stop vamping the bass.” Beethoven was not an easy man to please.

  Truth, alas, is sometimes even uglier than fiction.

  Your humble servant,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Charming Nancy:

  Last night a friend of mine showed me a book which he has, illustrative of photography during the nineteenth century. It was a wonderful book, and a revelation to me, because it contained photographs of virtually every celebrated beauty of that era. And how plain they were! Empress Eugenie, for instance, looked as though she needed a dose of liver salts, and the glamorous Lola Montez looked like the back of a hack. The Princess Alexandra was by no means what tradition avouches, and indeed the only one of the lot who really lived up to expectation was the ill-fated Empress of Mexico. Is the beauty of women, then, an illusion which cannot safely be transferred from one era to another? Would Cleopatra, if we could see her today, be merely a scruffy gypsy, and Helen of Troy a greasy girl with a garlic breath? I shrink from such conclusions, but as a philosopher I must face them.

  One of the most interesting photographs in the book to me was that of Rigolboche, the dancer who made the can-can famous. Nobody thought Rigolboche beautiful, or even wholesome-looking, but she waggled a wicked shank and was full of high spirits, and Paris loved her. And when she retired wise little Rigolboche bought a high class boarding-house with her savings, and was the perfect landlady until she died at a great old age.

  For years thoughts of Rigolboche have made me look at my landladies with a speculative eye. Could they, I pondered, once have been glamorous courtesans and can-can dancers? Did noblemen drink champagne from their slippers in the days before they abandoned slippers in fa
vour of lark-heeled house shoes with scuffed toes? I have come to the conclusion that boarding-house landladies of the Rigolboche type are uncommon in Canada. Most of them are profoundly melancholy women, and if they were ever in the public eye it was certainly as hired weepers at undertaking parlours.

  Yours regretfully,



  Dear Fribble:

  I do not get to the movies as often as I could wish, but I saw one a few days ago which you really must study before you write your book on The Screen Epic. This particular Epic was presented to the audience as a wonderful evocation of the spirit of the Renaissance. It contained fine examples of three of the elements which are inseparable from celluloid epics. (1) The Virgin Heroine: in this piece she was married to an old man, and in a very pointed speech he made it clear that he had brought her up strictly as his daughter; this meant that when she was at last free to marry the hero she was, so to speak, leaping from the refrigerator into the frying-pan, which is what audiences expect. (2) The Good Villain: movie audiences like a villain to have large streaks of good in him, like the streaks of fat in a slab of restaurant ham; this gives them a comfortable feeling that although villainy is obviously fun, it is also All Right. (3) The Speech on Democracy: in film epics there must always be a moment when some minor character bawls out all the aristocrats in the cast, telling them that some day The Peepul will rise up and smite them; this is to show that all the good people in the film are democrats at heart, although they are dressed up like sixteenth-century Italians; the dramatic climaxes are often complicated by the fact that the demeanour and speech of the actors makes it impossible to tell who is an aristocrat and who is Little Joe. It is doubtful if the cause of democracy is served by these tirades, but audiences like them.

  At the film I sat in front of a young man who was suffering from Teen-Ager’s St. Vitus Dance, which caused him to kick the back of my seat so often and so rapidly that my head wobbled like a punching bag. Whenever the hero did anything of a spectacular nature he uttered cries like a horse in a burning stable. In spite of these annoyances I studied the piece intently. I recognized that my restless neighbour was, in the modern jargon, “empathizing.”

  Yours to command,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Uncle Gomeril:

  Have you ever thought of going into the pawnbroking business? The attractions of the business are many. First of all, you have a cosy little shop, very informal in character. Then you have a wonderfully assorted type of merchandise, with a bias in favour of old watches, rusty precision tools, musical instruments of the twangling and tootling varieties, telescopes, binoculars and military decorations. Just think of sitting in one’s shop all day, peeping through the telescopes, polishing up the lodge rings, blowing the bugles, and listening to the cuckoo-clocks! And, from time to time, helping some poor needy soul with a generous loan of $2 on a bass clarinet which cost him $85 in 1917, and which you can sell for $45 any time. Oh, how delicious to be a pawnbroker, and be an Uncle to all the world!

  Your affct. nephew,



  Dear Pil:

  The closing of the universities has caused the usual number of charming young men and women, with the chalk of the lecture-room still in their hair, to visit me and offer to revolutionize my affairs through the exercise of their talents. When I say that I have no jobs for them they look at me with pity and disbelief. They know that I am lying, that I really have excellent jobs in my gift, but that I am afraid of their brilliance. They assure me that they do not want to work for me for long; they just want to learn the trade, and then pass on to better establishments than mine. The young women are sure that I have a prejudice against their sex; they are, they tell me, capable of doing anything that a man can do. I have no doubt of this, but I also know what that amounts to.

  Last week I picked up a magazine which contained an article advising college graduates on—of all things—How To Choose A Boss. I should not have read it, for I knew in advance that it would give me the trembles, but I did. And it did. The perfect boss, it appears, is unlike me in every possible way. He is a jolly extrovert, with a guilty sense that he is not quite equal to his job, and with a fine understanding of the frailties of youth. He is also rather stupid, and it is easy to cozen him in the matter of pay and holidays. His temper is quick, but soon dies down. Working for this Dream Boss, it appears, is hardly work at all. It is a great big romp from morning till night.

  Do I wish I were a Dream Boss? No. Depressing though it may seem, I am quite ready to go on being my curmudgeonly, reclusive, grudge-bearing, suspicious, happy self.

  Nevertheless, the article depressed me. It is always depressing when one has to disappoint people’s expectations.

  Yours depressedly (though not to any intolerable degree)



  Dear Miss Hawser:

  Your suggestion that a few people in Canada try to revive the lost art of letter-writing is a worthy one, and I am flattered that you should include me in your group. I am grateful for the copy of The Maple Leaf Letter Writer which you have sent me, and I have read it with great care. But there is one point on which I disagree with the book, and that is its insistence on absolutely conventional spelling. Although I am myself a fair speller, I have thought for some time that a reasonable amount of personal choice should be allowed in this matter. After all, the passion for spelling according to a dictionary is only about a hundred years old; every writer of any importance before that spelled a few words at least in his own way.

  Only the other day I was looking at a book of letters from the seventeenth century, in which one writer expressed himself thus: “As for Mr. A—, I esteem him no better than a Pigg.” Consider that word “Pigg.” The extra “g” is not strictly necessary, but what power it gives to the word! How pig-like it makes poor Mr. A—! How vivid his swinishness becomes! And look at that capital “P.” It seems to enrich the sentence by calling special attention to the most important word.

  I am not a spelling reformer. I am a laissez-faire liberal in matters of spelling. I do not care that our present system of spelling wastes time and paper. I firmly believe that both time and paper are of less importance than the perfect expression of the writer’s meaning. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Pedantick Booby.

  Yours for orthographicall freedom,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  The Americans are a remarkable people, and I admire them quite a lot. But I never cease to be astonished at their powers of self-deception which are, like so many of their institutions, gigantic, colossal, mammoth, gargantuan, jumbo, atomic and merely large. Today I saw a book in a cigar store which was called Ballet—The Emergence of an American Art. Since when, I wonder, did ballet become an American art? During the past years a number of American dancers have, by dint of the whole-souled energy which characterizes their nation, learned to jump as high, and twiddle as dizzily as dancers in other lands, and undoubtedly they sweat and puff more while doing so. But because ballet has gained what may properly be called a toehold in the U.S.A., does that make it an American art? Ponder before replying.

  It is always an interesting point in a nation’s history when it becomes so great that it does not believe that anything has real existence outside itself. The Romans reached it. The British kept it up during most of the nineteenth century. Will Canada, I wonder, ever achieve this delightful form of insanity? Ponder well upon this.




  My dear Fribble:

  You know everything; can you tell me when the last writer of religious tracts died? I assume that all of them are dead, for though I am constantly receiving tracts through the mails from people
who are anxious about my soul, I have yet to read one which appears to have been written within this century.

  Yesterday I received a fresh batch. One of them shows a picture of a business man (called “Mr. O. U. Foolish Man”) confronted by the spectre of death in his office. He sits at a roll-top desk, on the top of which are two large bags marked “$”; he wears a white vest and at his feet is a spittoon. Now, Fribble, let us apply Sherlock Holmes’ methods to this picture; the roll-top desk, the white vest and the spittoon all place it in the nineteenth century; what business man uses such trumpery now? They all sit at steel desks and spit in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.

  Another tract in this bunch—there were seven altogether—is called My Experience With The Tobacco Habit. It begins with this information: “I was a slave to tobacco for twenty years; Mother and Father used tobacco and I had the poison in my blood; Mother found me with her snuff box, when I was about eight years old.” Later he says that he would pick up used quids of chewing tobacco from the street and chew them.

  The last woman I know of who took snuff was my great-grandmother, who was born in 1800 and who lived to be eighty-seven; she did not chew it; she sniffed it. As for chewing tobacco, the habit has completely vanished from all settlements where civilization has a firm hold. Obviously this tract was written not less than sixty years ago.