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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 45

Robertson Davies

  Is no strong, new generation of tract-writers coming up to continue the work? Or will this remarkable literary form continue to rely on its past glories? Here is a meaty subject for research, Fribble.

  Your admirer and crony,

  S. Marchbanks.


  AWOKE UNABLE to move, for I had fallen victim to the Curse of the Marchbanks, which is Lumbago; it runs in our family as haemophilia runs among the Bourbons. My grandfather, who was a deeply religious man and a great student of Holy Writ, identified it as the third claw of the Beast described in Revelation. After much moaning, snorting and shrieking, and with the aid of three completely new oaths which came to me in flashes of inspiration, I rolled from my couch and huddled on my clothes. One of my legs appeared to have shortened by six inches, and my axis was eighteen degrees out of plumb, but I could walk, after a fashion, and in this pitiable state I went about my day’s work. To some I was an object of sly mockery; to others my condition was a matter for a deep and unnecessary concern, for Lumbago never killed anybody, though it has sometimes driven its victims to acts of violence. It is a treacherous and feline ill, for at times it seems to abate, and then returns with renewed malignity. Asked by a friend to describe it, I racked my brains, and then said that it felt like being stabbed in the small of the back with an old-fashioned carpet-stretcher.


  THE TROUBLE WITH Lumbago (or, to be more accurate, one of the contributory troubles) is that it rouses incredulity in people. “You’ve never got Lumbago!” they say, just after you have told them precisely that. Then they either laugh, which is cruel, or put on an expression that conveys their thought that you are prematurely old, which is worse. But anybody can get Lumbago, if they go about it the right way. A baby in its cradle could have it, if it was in a draught, or a bit damp, which a baby may so easily be. Lumbago, like a toothache, is one of the ailments that mankind refuses to take seriously in other people24…. My worst moment today was when I tried to carry a large parcel through a revolving door; to do this, with Lumbago, is to experience every degree of alarm, confusion, sudden pain and gross indignity.


  ATTENDED A REUNION at my old school, and met a lot of fellows I had not seen for a quarter of a century. I was astonished at the ravages which time had inflicted upon them in body, but even more by the tricks it had played with their memories. It was not a teetotal affair, and as the evening wore on dozens of them suffered acutely from Delusions of Amiability; that is to say, they remembered that I had been on much more intimate terms with them in the past than was ever really the case. I am cursed with a memory like an elephant, and I am particularly certain that I know who have been my friends and who—to put it mildly—have not; no amount of the genial juice of the grain can disturb my accuracy in such matters. Some of them obviously thought I was somebody else, some very dear old friend whom they had loved as a brother; others knew who I was, but had forgotten that I was a cantankerous and mocking wretch; some had lost all grasp of reality, and were not sure who they were themselves, but knew that they had only one true friend, and he was Marchbanks. A fascinating, revealing, uproarious evening, any way I choose to think about it.


  (Left by an Indian Runner)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  In Ottawa now, Marchbanks. Got business with government. I see by papers some Québec Indian want government to give freedom back to Indians. No good. Indians got too much sense. Who wants to be free and work for government, anyway? Every place I look here I see sad face. Glasses. Bald spots. Government no job for happy man.

  Indian here I used to know on reserve. He get ambition. Go to school. Everybody say smart Indian, give him chance. He work. And work. Now he got place in government. Work like devil. Got black hat. Got briefcase for carry sandwiches. On reserve his name Joe Halfwit. Now he called Mr. J. Frontal Lobotomy. Sad sight, Marchbanks. How again!

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  SOMETIMES I have the sensation of one who has survived from an earlier age into a strange and uncanny era. Rode downtown today with a lady whose small child was in the back seat. Suddenly the moppet set up a great hullabaloo, and cried “Look! Look!” (In cold fact it cried “Yook! Yook!” but I have no intention of falling into baby talk). What had excited it so much was the appearance of a horse—an ordinary draught-horse—on the street. Horses were as strange to that child as elephants. Its mother told me that the child was being taken to see—a camelopard? a unicorn? a hippogriff?—no, none of these things, but a Jersey cow which has become a celebrity, and travels around to collect money for charity. What kind of a world do I inhabit, in which horses and cows are exotic rarities, and the combustion engine, that uncanny and devilish device, is taken for granted by the smallest child? I do not greatly like animals, but I like to see them about, for I am an animal myself; the horse is my brother and the cow my sister. But by the Beard of the Prophet, the combustion engine is no relative of mine, and a world where it is supreme will not tolerate me for long.


  AGREED WITH a man with whom I fell into conversation that it is, upon the whole, a bad thing to keep your temper at all times. Psychologists talk a good deal nowadays about something which they call “repressed hostility,” but which an old psychologist who used to do washing for my mother called “bottled-up mad.” She had a great deal of mad herself, which she rarely troubled to bottle, but when she did make the effort the vile substance could be seen mounting inside her, like mercury in a thermometer. It was said of Mary, Queen of Scots, that when she drank wine it could be seen bubbling down her lovely, transparent throat, like suds in a sink; the washerwoman’s mad worked the other way rising from her bosom, up her neck, and rushing to the top of her head. Then she would unbottle some of it, at the top of her voice. But my friend and I decided that repressed hostility created tension, which led to ugly illnesses. It is better to beat up your wife, or strike your little ones with a chair, than run such a risk. Bottled-up mad is probably at the root of many of the world’s baffling diseases.


  READ AN ARTICLE in a woman’s magazine today called How to Keep Your Husband From Dying of Heart Failure. It was a sensible, well-written piece, pointing out that women are far less prone to heart injuries than men, and that women therefore should take on any heavy physical work that has to be done around a house, such as moving the furnace from one side of the cellar to another, or putting the car up on blocks for the winter. It included many anecdotes of poor, overdriven men who had been literally pushed into the Great Void by women who were afraid of such trifling tasks as carrying barrels of apples upstairs, or changing a tire on a truck. This strengthens a belief which I have long cherished, that in a few centuries women will be the larger, stronger sex, admired for their biceps and superfluous hair, and that men will be their toys and domestic comforters, exciting tenderness in the female breast by their small feet, pretty soft hands, and general helplessness. I do not think I have a heart, for I have never been able to locate my pulse, or any other symptom of a circulatory system, but I am willing to share any of the benefits of male delicacy.25


  Charming Nancy:

  Of course you will get parking tickets if you leave a sports-car with a mink coat in it double-parked for two hours; only soft-drink trucks are permitted such liberties. And it is hopeless to try your charms on the police; they are the kind of men Cromwell used to recruit for his Ironsides, and to them feminine charm is as piffle before the wind.

  My dentist, who is a man of wide and principally sad experience, tells me that he has professionally attended soldiers, sailors, hardrock miners, tax-collectors, and other nerveless and fearless people, and that they all bear pain like heroes; the excepti
ons are policemen, who are as sensitive as children to a touch of the drill.

  So don’t try to charm them. Pay your fine, shout, “Yah, who’s chicken at the dentist?”, put your foot on the accelerator and get away.




  Dear Mr. Fishorn:

  You want to be a Canadian playwright, and ask me for advice as to how to set about it. Well, Fishorn, the first thing you had better acquaint yourself with is the physical conditions of the Canadian theatre. Every great drama, as you know, has been shaped by its playhouse. The Greek drama gained grandeur from its marble outdoor theatres; the Elizabethan drama was given fluidity by the extreme adaptability of the Elizabethan playhouse stage; French classical drama took its formal tone from its exquisite, candle-lit theatres. You see what I mean.

  Now what is the Canadian playhouse? Nine times out of ten, Fishorn, it is a school hall, smelling of chalk and kids, and decorated in the Early Concrete style. The stage is a small raised room at one end. And I mean room. If you step into the wings suddenly you will fracture your nose against the wall. There is no place for storing scenery, no place for the actors to dress, and the lighting is designed to warm the stage but not to illuminate it.

  Write your plays, then, for such a stage. Do not demand any processions of elephants, or dances by the maidens of the Caliph’s harem. Keep away from sunsets and storms at sea. Place as many scenes as you can in cellars and kindred spots. And don’t have more than three characters on the stage at one time, or the weakest of them is sure to be nudged into the audience.26

  Farewell, and good luck to you,

  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  Capital news, Mr. Marchbanks, sir! At last we see our way clear to bring your case against Richard Dandiprat to court. I fear that perhaps the proceedings may not be precisely as you have envisioned them in your layman’s imagination. You have asserted that Mr. Dandiprat, with malice aforethought, induced a skunk to enter your car, and there to comport itself in such a manner as to constitute a nuisance. But as you appear to have lost all the documents which establish you as owner of the car our case breaks down at that point. We can only bring action against Dandiprat on charges of having behaved with cruelty toward a skunk, by incarcerating it in a stationary vehicle without food or water. You enter the case only as undoubted owner of the garage in which the car stood at the time. If the defence should claim that you were negligent in not locking the garage you may be censured by the judge, but I doubt if you will be asked to share Dandiprat’s fine.

  If we are very fortunate we may be able to get this case on the docket for the Autumn Assizes; otherwise it will hold over until Spring. The law is a dreadful engine, Mr. Marchbanks, and when set in motion it moves with frightening speed.

  Yours in high glee,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  RECEIVED A LETTER from a wretch who is obviously suffering from a bad case of Stenographer Fever. This disease, which is well known in business circles but unaccountably ignored by medical science, is a condition in which a man dictates letters to impress his stenographer, rather than the true recipient of his message. His letter becomes rhetorical and hectoring in tone. He tends to call his correspondent by name several times, thus;—“Now, Mr. Marchbanks, as you are no doubt well aware, it is not my custom to mince words with such a man as you, Mr. Marchbanks, seem to be….”—generally I deal with such letters by replying in this strain:—“Samuel Marchbanks has received your note. His answer is No.” … No man, we are told, is a hero to his valet, but the world of business abounds with men who wish to be heroes to their stenographers27 and to this end they soar and bombinate, keeping an appreciative eye on the Captive Audience on the other side of the desk.


  Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

  I have just had a brilliant idea which, if you can make it practical, will revolutionize medical science. I am, as you know, of Celtic ancestry, and I have for many years been fascinated by the institution of the Sin Eater, once so popular in Wales and its border country. At every funeral there attended some old man who, at the proper time, accepted across the body of the corpse a piece of cake, a cup of wine, and a small piece of money; he ate these—not the money, of course—saying before everyone present that he took upon him the sins of the dead person, whose soul was then free to go to Heaven without any burden upon it.

  Could not medical skill arrange for someone, to be called the Fat Eater, to undertake a similar service for people whose metabolism disposes them to put on excess weight? As the stout party sat down to meals he could hand a few victuals across the table to the Fat Eater, on the understanding that the latter would take upon himself any poundage which might result from his feeding. And thus, while the employer had the fun of the food, the Fat Eater would take on the burden of the weight.

  Like all great ideas, this is essentially simple. It just needs a little working out, which I am sure you can manage easily.

  Your perennial patient,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  I attended an admirable concert recently and enjoyed myself very much, but whenever the singer was about to tackle a song in a foreign language I would cast my eyes at the translation of the words which was included in my program, and would see something like this: “Beautiful lips, shuffling to and fro with indecision, why don’t you render me the delicious happiness to say yes, again yes, oh yes, lips, hurry up lips, yes, yes.” I am no great hand at understanding German and Italian, but I venture to say that the words of the songs were on a slightly higher literary level than the translations indicated.

  Do you suppose that in Italy and Germany songs in English are translated in the same way for concert audiences? If so, I can imagine Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes working out something like this: “Let us agree, when drinking, to employ the eyeballs only; similarly with kisses; I sent you some flowers recently and you sent them back after breathing on them; they are still alive but are impregnated with your personal odour.”

  Could UNESCO do anything about this confusing question of translating songs?

  Your crony,



  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  There is a matter of some delicacy which I feel should be brought to your notice, as Deputy Expediter of the Plan for the Beautification of the Dominion Capital. I had occasion to visit Ottawa recently, and as I entered the city by train, and again as I left it, I was painfully struck by its resemblance to a foreign capital which I shall only describe as M-sc-w.

  Pause, Mr. Hydra, before you put the R.C.M.P. to work to investigate me. I mean no disloyalty. Quite otherwise. This re-semblance grieved me more than I can say, and I would like it to be minimized. I am sure that it has not come to your personal attention because, like all Civil Servants, you rarely leave the capital, and when you do you take a sack full of papers to work at on the train, and never look out of the window. Consequently you have never been struck, as I was, by the resemblance of Parliament Hill to the Kr-ml-n. Those spires surrounded by grey mist, that air of brooding secrecy, that sense of doom—oh, Hydra, they won’t do at all! They give quite the wrong impression.

  Do you think that in beautifying the capital you could alter all its architecture to something jollier—something more suggestive of democracy at work? Could the spires be swelled out a little, so that they became domes? Or perhaps the spires could be sawed off at the roots? For I assure you, sir, that those spires, rising above the low skyline of Hull, give quite the wrong impression to the visitors.28

  Yours for democratic architecture,

  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Marchbanks:

  This lawsuit you are bringing against me is getting to be a nuisance. I only put the skunk in your car for a joke. Have you no sense of humour?

  I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You like pictures, I believe. If you will tell your lawyers to drop the case I’ll give you a picture my Aunt Bessie brought back from her tour of Italy before Great War I. I think she said it was Venus Rising from the Sea, by Botticelli. The family have always called it The Stark Tart, and we keep it in the attic. I believe it is the original, but maybe it is just a copy. Anyhow, it looks like the kind of thing you would like. It is a little stained by damp, but otherwise all right.

  If this isn’t generosity, I don’t know what you could call it.

  Yours fraternally,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  Presumptuous Dandiprat:

  I would call it gross impudence, and an attempt to clog the mighty engine of justice. Keep your foreign pornography, wretch, to comfort you in prison.




  Dear Pil:

  Last week I was bidden to a graduation banquet where a large number of students—after consuming the tomato soup, green peas and deliquescent ice cream which are obligatory at such orgies—listened to speeches of good advice from their elders, and made a few speeches themselves.

  What particularly impressed me was that the elders who spoke all assured the young people that they were going out into a World of Chaos, and the young people all agreed with them.

  This moved me to ponder that I was born into a world of chaos—the chaos of the moment being the First World War. My childhood was passed amidst the chaos of the Post War World, and then came the chaos of the Depression; this, in time, gave way to the chaos of the Second World War, and now I wallow in the chaos of the Atomic Age. This is a pretty good record for one life—chaos every minute.