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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 47

Robertson Davies

  Eagerly yours,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  PICKED UP A magazine this afternoon and read an article by a man who had appointed himself an expert upon what he called the “fog-density” of authors—meaning the difficulty which they presented to the average reader. He did not reveal all his secrets, but one way in which he measures this quality is to count the number of three-syllable words in every hundred words of a writer’s prose. If they are frequent, fog-density is high. I suppose I present a considerable fog-density to some of my readers, but I don’t care; who wants to be understood by everybody? I like long and unusual words, and anybody who does not share my taste is not compelled to read me. Policemen and politicians are under some obligation to make themselves comprehensible to the intellectually stunted, but not I. Let my prose be tenebrous and rebarbative; let my pennyworth of thought be muffled in gorgeous habiliments; lovers of Basic English will look to me in vain.


  THE FAILURE OF yet another Canadian play on Broadway was attributed to many things, but I think it was owing to the simple fact that nobody is interested in Canadians except, very occasionally, other Canadians. Nations enjoy spells of popularity in the theatre and elsewhere; they become fashionable for no reason that I can discover. For centuries, for instance, nobody was interested in Scotsmen; they were regarded simply as hairy fellows who spoke faulty English. But during the nineteenth century plays about Scots, books about them, jokes about them and indeed everything about them sprang into a new popularity. We are beginning to tire of them now, but Irishmen, Armenians, and Scandinavians have become objects of popular interest. As yet the world does not think that Canadians are interesting; we stand where the Scotch stood before the Big Bagpipe Boom of the Victorian Era, and the period of 1900–1920, when Sir James Barrie persuaded the world that, appearances to the contrary, all Scots were delightful fellows with the souls of little children. Canada’s day will come, no doubt, but we may have to wait a few centuries for it.33


  SAT BY MY WINDOW, and as the church bells rang and people hastened past my door with their prayerbooks and hymnals in their hands, I pondered upon the secrets of the human heart. Do people go to church in Chalk River, I wondered, and in Los Alamos? And if they do so, do they try to square it with the Almighty that they are engaged in making the most devilish engines of destruction that the world has ever known? We are assured, of course, that atomic power will do great things for the world at peace, but we never hear anything specific except what it will do for the world at war. Do the wives of atomic scientists worry about hats and social prestige? Did the wife of Dr. Faustus fret about what to do with the leftovers of yesterday’s dinner while the Doctor was in his study chatting with the Devil? The answer to all these questions, I have no doubt, is Yes.


  WAS AT A PARTY where a merry fellow—a Ph.D. and much respected in academic circles—was tormenting an Australian lady about the accent he believed to be characteristic of her native land. “I can always tell an Aussie by the way they say ‘stewed fruit’,” he declared, and then went on saying “stewed fruit” very comically, as well as he could through his laughter. “Please say ‘wash and curl the hair of the squirrel’,” said the Australian lady, and the savant obligingly said, “Worsh ’n currl the haira the squrrl.” “That is how I always know a Canadian,” said she, and he was not pleased. But there is something about a Canadian which compels him, however much education and sophistication he may have attained in other realms, to preserve intact the accent in which his barefoot old granny used to curse the timber wolves that raged around her cabin. It is one of the last areas in which illiteracy is equated with integrity.


  (dropped down my chimney)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  Meet fellow on park bench yesterday. Bum, Marchbanks. He awful fat. I got to get rid of this fat, he say. Why, I say. Fat not healthy, he say. All doctors say fat make you die young. First I got to get money to eat, he say, then I got to go on diet. You got fat head, I say. Look at bear. Bear awful fat. Bear healthy, too. Bear healthier than any doctor. Skinny doctor meet fat bear, bear win every time. You poor ignorant Indian, he say. You know nothing about modern science. I know bears, I say.

  Not in jail yet, Marchbanks. Winter come soon. How can I get in jail?

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  ATTENDED AN ENTERTAINMENT in a church hall this evening, and during the intervals some little girls sold fudge in aid of their Sunday School. They handed over a large sack of first-class fudge in return for ten cents, and this struck me as typical church economics, for there was at least twenty cents’ worth of delicious fattening sweetmeat in each bag. If these little girls had business instincts, they would reckon their overhead, time, cartage to the church, and materials, and would then sell the fudge at thirty-five cents a bag; but as no one could then afford to eat it, they would lobby for a government subsidy, which would pay them twenty cents on each bag of fudge, allowing them to sell for fifteen cents. As the fudge would still sell very well at that price, there would soon be a glutted market, and they would get the government to buy their surplus fudge at the full retail price, and sell it to Europe for ten cents a bag. However, I did not explain these things to them, but contented myself with buying two bags of bargain fudge, and stealing another, which somebody, in the seat in front of mine, left behind them at the end of the entertainment.


  Dear Pil:

  It is a bit thick, your rebuke to me for believing in ghosts, calling them “superstitions unbecoming a scientific age.” If there is one lesson science impresses on us all, it is surely that nothing is incredible.

  Haven’t you heard about “neutrinos”? Apparently there are such things—little doodads of which sixty billion penetrate each square inch of our bodies every second and go on their way having done no harm whatever. But nobody has so far suggested that the neutrinos are, in their way, unaware of us. I put it to you that to a neutrino you and I probably seem like ghosts. And I put it to you also that we may, in our turn, be as neutrinos to other beings, whizzing in and about them without much awareness, but with an occasional intuition that things are not quite as simple as even our five wits lead us to suppose.

  Multiply my bulk in square inches by sixty billion, and reflect that it is from amid that assemblage of unknown but active creatures that I now adjure you to bethink yourself, and stop talking nonsense. We are all much more ghostly than we know.

  Your eerie comrade,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  PICKED UP Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo, a book which I read as a schoolboy and looked upon with wry smiles even then, as it appears to me to be written in Technicolor; however, as I read it in translation I would be wise to keep quiet, for any Frenchman can shout me down. But the tone of the book is exhausting; nobody ever says “Giddap” to a horse; they always “urge it forward with a hoarse cry.” Nobody “looks” at a woman; he “devours her with his eyes.” I prefer a quieter life…. Salammbo suggests that medical practice in ancient Carthage was on an equally irrational footing with war and the pursuit of love. One remedy which is described is “the blood of a black dog slaughtered by barren women on a winter’s night among the ruins of a tomb”; a druggist who had filled a few prescriptions like that in the course of a day might well think of going into some other business…. However, Salammbo is enthralling, in its strange way, and I read it for half an hour after lunch before I realized that I had work to do, and urged myself toward my desk with a hoarse cry, devouring several women with my eyes as I trudged through the snow. One of them was eyeing a black dog reflectively, and I concluded that she was at
least on the Pill.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  As a citizen and taxpayer of this country I write to you, as Deputy Guarantor of Tourist Attractions, to complain about our prairies: they are not as flat as I was led to believe. People have assured me for years that the prairie is as flat as a billiard table. This, sir, is a lie put out to attract tourists. It is not nearly so flat as that.

  There is much talk of conservation these days, but very little action. Let us not lose our prairies. Tear down the farm-houses at once: nobody wants them: the farmers are all in California spending their wheat subsidy. And then put a fleet of steam rollers on the prairies and get those unsightly humps out of them. Keep at it until they are, as advertised, flat as a billiard table.

  Your indignant taxpayer,

  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  Since last I wrote to you I have gone through what is widely believed to be one of the most moving spiritual experiences a Canadian can sustain—a jaunt through the Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed it, but spiritually I am exactly where I was before. I have been pleased, diverted and surprised, but I am not one of those who finds a sight of the Rockies an equivalent for getting religion at a revival meeting.

  To make a shameful confession, the Rockies put me in mind of nothing so much as as the first act of Rose Marie, a musical comedy of my younger days and the favourite theatre entertainment of his late Majesty, King George V.34 At any moment I expected a lovely French-Canadian girl to leap on the observation car, saying, “You make ze marriage wiz me, no?” Or an Indian girl, more lithe and beautiful than any Indian girl has ever been, to begin a totem dance on the track. The scenery was right: only the actors were missing.

  Upon arrival in Vancouver, the first thing to meet my eye was a notice, signed by the Chief of Police, warning me against confidence tricksters. It told me in detail how I might expect them to work. I would be approached, first of all, by someone who would try to make friends: this would be “The Steerer” who would eventually steer me to “The Spieler,” who would sell me Stanley Park or the harbour at a bargain price. Not long after I had read this I was approached by a crafty-looking woman carrying a handful of pasteboards. “Juwanna buy four chances on the Legion car?” she cried, blocking my way. “Madam, you are wasting your time,” said I; “I know you for what you are—a Steerer.” She shrank away, muttering unpleasantly. Never let it be said that Marchbanks failed to heed a warning.

  After lunch I wandered among the Chinese shops, and found one which sold a scent called “Girl Brand Florida Water.” There is a simplicity about that name which enchants me. In the same shop I saw the only piece of Chinese nude art that has ever come my way; the Chinese are believed not to care for representations of the nude: but this was plainly the result of Western influence; it was a Chinese girl, lightly draped, holding aloft a bunch of paper flowers. Her legs were short, her body long, and she seemed more amply endowed for sitting than Western standards of beauty permit. It was, I suppose, the kind of thing one finds in Chinese bachelor apartments, just as Occidental bachelors enrich their rooms with ash-trays held aloft by naked beauties in chrome, and drink beer from glasses into which libidinous pictures have been etched. East is East, and West is West, but bachelors are wistful rascals the world over.



  • WHERE AM I? •

  WAS DRIVING THROUGH the countryside today with some people who insisted upon frequent recourse to a roadmap in order to discover, as they put it, “Just where they were.” Reflected that for my part I generally have a pretty shrewd idea of just where I am; I am enclosed in the somewhat vulnerable fortress which is my body, and from that uneasy stronghold I make such sorties as I deem advisable into the realm about me. These people seemed to think that whizzing through space in a car really altered the universe for them, but they were wrong; each one remained right in the centre of his private universe, which is the only field of knowledge of which he has any direct experience.


  (Shot through my window attached to an arrow)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How Marchbanks!

  Good news, Marchbanks, I in jail now. Last week I try awful hard to get in jail. I throw brick at cop. He just wag finger and laugh. I call insult at mayor. He just lift hat. Getting near election time, Marchbanks. I write dirty word on City Hall. City Clerk come out and write “Ditto,” under it. No hope, Marchbanks. Then one day cop look at me very queer. You pay your poll tax, he ask. No, I say, I never own no pole. Aha, he say, you got to pay poll tax. I never have no totem pole, I say. Sell ’um to tourist twenty year ago. Come along, he say, and we go to court. They find I owe $3,000 back poll tax. Put me in jail. Ha ha. That great tax, Marchbanks. Friendly tax to poor Indian. All set for winter now. You got money? I not need money.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  I have been asked by several influential members of the Canadian Brotherhood of Snow Shovellers and Ploughmen to put their case to you as Pro. Tem. Sub-Re-Router of Labour, in order that you may draw it to the attention of the appropriate Minister. Here is our case in a nutshell:

  (a) Some winters it snows a lot and we make money.

  (b) Other winters it doesn’t snow much and we don’t make any money.

  (c) We want a floor under snow. That is, in winter when the crop of snow is poor, we want the Government either to distribute false snow—salt, flour, Western wheat or something of that sort—so that we can shovel it and make money, OR—

  (d) We want the Government to pay us for shovelling snow that isn’t there, so we can make money.

  You will see at once that this is in the latest economic trend and a good idea. See what you can do for us, like a good fellow, and some Christmas Santa may have something in his sack for a good Civil Servant.

  Love and kisses from all us snowmen,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  My Dear Nephew:

  Earlier this Summer your Uncle Gomeril and I observed our seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. You did not send a greeting card, for which abstention I thank you; we received several cards, all of a nauseating degree of sentimentality, bearing no conceivable relationship to the sort of domesticity your Uncle and I have waged during the past three-quarters of a century. You might, however, have sent a few flowers. Several people sent bouquets of what I learned as a girl to call “wind-flowers,” but what people now call “everlastings.” Whether this was intended as a delicate reference to the unusual durability of our match, or whether it was an ironical allusion to the hardy good health which we both enjoy I cannot determine.

  We celebrated the occasion by visiting Niagara Falls for a few days, to rest and observe the great Natural Wonder. The Chamber of Commerce there offers a certificate of congratulation to all honeymoon couples, upon which appears a wish that their union may be as beautiful and enduring as the Falls itself. It occurred to me that the Falls is as much distinguished for its violence and its extreme dampness as for beauty and endurance, but as your Uncle and I completed our honeymoon and all that goes with it long ago this was a matter of merely academic concern to us.

  We were, however, much affronted by the number of honeymooners who infested the place, wandering about hand in hand, wet smiles and goggling eyes proclaiming their condition for all the world to see. When your Uncle and I were married and went to the Shetlands on our wedding trip, we took great pains to look like a married couple of several years standing.

  Perhaps we were foolish so to do, but I think that our reticence was preferable to the mawkish displays of unfledged connubiality which we observed at N.F.

  We visited, among other places, a restaurant maintained by the Provincial
Government, at which a bottle of wine cost almost twice as much as it does in a liquor store, also maintained by the Provincial Government. Your Uncle commented upon this in his accustomed ringing tones, but of what avail is it to protest against official extortion? Complaining about a government is, as Holy Writ tersely phrases it, kicking against the pricks.

  Your affectionate aunt-by-marriage,

  Bathsheba Marchbanks.


  Dear Cousin Genghis:

  I am terribly sorry that I was unable to be present at the Gala Opening of your new pawnshop. I understand that it was a wonderful affair, and distinguished by your own special brand of hospitality. Water ran like water, I am told, and guests who had brought their own sandwiches were permitted to eat them on the premises.

  Let me deal with your last letter, before bringing up anything else. No, I do not want any binoculars at specially reduced prices, nor am I in the market for the telescope which you offer cheap. This is not for lack of goodwill. I admire telescopes, and would love to clap one to my eye, sailor-fashion, while taking a walk in the country, or even when attending the ballet; all a telescope does for me is to flatten my eyewinkers uncomfortably.

  But I am in the market for a good concertina. Concertinas run in the Marchbanks family. Uncle Fortunatus plays one. I play one. And the other day I discovered our little niece Imoinda extracting the usual cow-stuck-in-a-swamp noises from a concertina which I discarded some years ago when I bought my super-Wheatstone. Can you find a nice instrument for Imoinda which some needy concertinist has hocked?

  Your affectionate cousin,



  Charming Nancy:

  What is the greatest single beautifier available to womanhood? Is it a cream, or a top-dressing for the face, or a perfume which steals away the critical judgement of the beholder? No, poppet, it is shoes that fit.