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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 48

Robertson Davies

  How did I find this out? Well, yesterday I sat in a restaurant, munching a bowl of breakfast food—it was evening, but I practically live on breakfast food—when in came a young man with, obviously his Best Girl. She was stylishly dressed; her hair was nicely arranged, and she wore a few gew-gaws which indicated that she came from a home of some wealth and possibly even of cultivation. But her face was the mask of a Gorgon.

  They sat down near me, and immediately, under the table, I saw her kick off her shoes. And at once her face melted into that expression—half Madonna, half Aphrodite—which reduces the male to a jelly. Beauty suffused her as though the moon had sailed from behind a cloud. She ordered a steak at $6.50, and a peck of lobster and a Baked Alaska to go with it, and her escort did not even notice.35 It was worth it, he seemed to think, to be the companion of that girl.

  Now, Nancy, if that girl means to make the most of her considerable gifts, she must either go barefoot, or get the shoes she needs. And so I say to all her sex.

  Yours with warmest admiration

  down to the ankles,



  Dear Cousin:

  I have your letter, and as someone left half a sheet of paper in the pawnshop yesterday when they were pledging their diamonds, I take my pen in hand at once to reply. You should not speak so lightly of the concertina, Cousin. Are you not aware that there is quite a little body of music composed especially for it? Tchaikovsky arranged his second orchestral suite so that it might be played on four concertinas. Molique wrote a concerto for the concertina, as well as a sonata for concertina and piano. Regondi, too, wrote a concerto for the instrument. Did you not know that the late Arthur Balfour was a most accomplished player, and a concertina was the solace of his few idle hours during his time in Parliament? I shall get one for little Imoinda, of course, but I entreat you to see that the child realizes that she handles a sensitive instrument, and not a toy.36

  Your reproachful kinsman,

  Genghis Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  I was reading an interesting book the other day about the worship of the Bull-god, Minos, in early Crete. It appears that the High Priest had a golden head, like that of a bull, which he wore over his own head when greeting visitors. He then removed it, and carried on conversation face to face. When he thought that the interview had gone on long enough or that he wanted his visitor to go, he put the bull’s head back on again, in sign that the talk was over.

  Don’t you think that something of this kind could be worked out for people like myself, who never know how to bring an interview to a close? I don’t suppose a gold bull’s head would really do. It might seem a little eccentric and ostentatious. But a simple brass head, made in the shape of my own face, but stern and impassive, might be just the thing. Or, on second thoughts, better make it bronze. Brass has such a nasty smell, as anyone can learn by sniffing the bell of an old bugle.

  There are for sale in joke shops rubber masks, which give one the appearance of a gorilla. I think I shall get one and try it out. If it works I shall get a bronze job done. Do you know of any good, cheap foundry which would undertake such a commission?37

  Yours faithfully,



  Dear Mr. Noseigh:

  When you put the question to me so baldly—“What led you to become a writer?”—I am momentarily nonplussed. On what level do you expect me to answer? The objective? If so, I became a writer because it looked like easy money. But that won’t work well in your Ph.D. thesis, so let us try the subjective approach.

  On this level, I became a writer because I suffered the early conditioning of the Unconscious that makes writers. That is to say, my Oedipus Complex was further complicated by the Warmefläsche-reaktion.

  You know how this works. Think of the Infantile World as a Huge Bed; on one side lies Mum, on the other side lies Dad, and in the middle is Baby Bunting. The normal thing, of course, is for B.B. to work out his Oedipus Complex; he wants to kill Dad and mate with Mum—thereby fitting himself for some normal occupation like the Civil Service. But sometimes B.B., for reasons still unknown to science, turns from Mum and snuggles up to Dad who quite understandably shoves B.B. down to the bottom of the bed and warms his feet on him as if he were a hot-water bottle (or Warmefläsche). Thus, in the very dawn of his existence, B.B. acquires that down-trodden cast of mind that marks the writer.

  Very often Dad kicks B.B. right out of bed onto the cold linoleum, bringing about that sense of Utter Rejection which turns B.B. into a critic.

  I can hardly wait to read your thesis.


  Samuel Marchbanks (your topic).


  AS I STOOD on Yonge Street this afternoon, a man approached me with a happy smile. He stopped in front of me, rocked on his heels, puffed out a cloud of boozy breath and said, “Well, well, well!” As I am peculiarly attractive to persons in his condition, I feigned ignorance of his presence, but he came nearer, and peeped searchingly into my eyes. “Ain’t goin’ to speak t’an ole pal?” he said, coyly. “How do you do,” I said, stiffly. “Cheest,” said he, “I wouldna thought ole Jock would gimme the brushoff.” “You are mistaken, my good fellow,” said I. “Gwan,” said he; “you’re old Jock McGladdeny.” “No,” said I, firmly. He looked at me, and a gummy tear crept sluggishly down one cheek. “Ole Jock,” said he, “an’ he won’t speak t’an ole pal.” He took his cigar out of his mouth and prodded me with the wet end of it. “God love yuh, anyway, Jock,” he said, and stumbled on, and as he receded I heard him murmur, “Old Jock a Judas; Cheest!” … I wonder why I am so often mistaken for somebody else, especially by drunks? Do my features in some mysterious way suggest a Universal Friend—a man whom everybody, at some time or other, has known? This is a cross I bear with very ill grace.


  I HAVE BEEN READING a lot of books about dieting, for my physician has spoken prayerfully to me on this subject. What annoys me about diet books is that they are written either by people who are funny, or people who are angry. The funny ones think it is the most hilarious thing in the world to be compelled to eat less than one wants, of foods that one would not ordinarily choose; they write as though a diet were a huge joke. The angry ones are worse: they threaten the dieter with quick and unpleasant death if he doesn’t lose his excess weight, and they speak scornfully of the kind of life (cocktails and two-helpings-of-everything) which makes diets necessary. Both kinds of writers are crypto-Calvinists who have an addiction to gelatin in food; everything they recommend seems to contain either lettuce or gelatin. Now it so happens that an uncle of mine, Bellerophon Marchbanks, has devoted his life to the manufacture of gelatin and also of glue, and I cannot separate the two in my mind. Gelatin in moderation I accept; unlimited gelatin turns me cold and shaky to begin, and then produces the effect anyone could foresee as proceeding from a diet of glue—anyone but a doctor, that’s to say.


  A FEW WEEKS AGO I bought myself a toy—a pedometer, which measures how far I walk when I am wearing it. Apparently I don’t walk very much. I have always assumed that in the course of any ordinary day’s work I walked four or five miles, but according to the pedometer an eighth of a mile is nearer the correct figure. The only time the pedometer gets much of a workout is when I am cutting my lawn, and then the miles tick up at a surprising rate. The instrument is worn on the right leg, and it has a psychological effect; it makes me stamp with that leg to make sure that the dial registers properly, and I am developing a gait like the Giant Blunderbore, or possibly Peg-Leg Pete the Pirate. The pedometer cheats, too; when I am riding in a car it registers a step whenever the car goes over a bump; on a long journey I can cover as much as a quarter of a mile, according to the pedometer, although I have not exerted myself in the least. I have no desire to cl
ock astonishing scores on this gadget; I merely want to know if I do much walking. I am disappointed by what it tells me, but at least I am now in a position to lure other people to boast of the walking they do in an ordinary day’s work, so that I may contradict them, and gain face as a statistician.


  Dear Sir:

  It comes to our ears from a professional source that you are bringing suit against your neighbour, Richard Dandiprat, whom you accuse of imprisoning a skunk (Mephitis Canadensis) in your motor car, with resultant damage to same.

  We learn also that the success of your suit is jeopardized by your inability to bring forward a single witness who saw Dandiprat commit this misdemeanour.

  May we offer our services? For a modest fee we can provide witnesses who will give your case all the corroboration which it needs, ensuring your success. We feel that three capable witnesses (two men and a woman) would amply meet your requirements, and we will provide these for five hundred dollars and expenses. You will agree that this is a ridiculously low sum, and it is only because we work on a very large scale that we are able to make this very special price. All correspondence strictly confidential.

  Yours, etc.

  False Witness, Inc.

  Telegraphic Address:



  Dear Mouseman:

  I enclose a letter which I have received from a firm that seems to have just what we want. The trial draws near—at least I hope it does, for it is now almost a year since Dandiprat ruined my car—and I will not tolerate any fumbling. I want Dandiprat to get at least two years hard labour. We want witnesses; these people have them. Will you attend to the matter?


  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  Oh, Mr. Marchbanks, sir! Oh, unhappiest of our clients!! Oh, luckless litigant!!! How often have I not counselled you against taking any step without consulting your lawyer; how often has not our senior partner, Mr. Jabez Mouseman (now, alack, prone upon a bed of pain—shingles, I grieve to say) given you the same tried and true advice? Tell me—though I dread the answer, knowing your fiery and impetuous nature—have you given any money to False Witness, Inc.? For if you have, all is lost indeed!

  Understand, my dear sir, that not only do you sully the whole fabric of British justice by suggesting that we employ these people; you gravely endanger your case, as well. The fabric of British justice has been sullied, and dry-cleaned, many times; like an Oriental rug, it shows only the very largest stains; but there is not a judge on the bench in this country who does not know every employee of False Witness, Inc., intimately. For years they have paraded in and out of the witness boxes of Canada dropping the wigs, false whiskers, wooden legs and other unconvincing paraphernalia with which they seek to disguise themselves, and their appearance is now a signal for derisive laughter in every court in the land.

  False Witness, Inc. employs all the Canadian actors who are so bad that they cannot even get jobs with CBC-TV. Far better no witness than a False Witness.

  I am shocked, sir, that you should think a firm such as ours would lend itself to underhand practice. We rely entirely upon the probity of the court, and the forensic brilliance of our barrister, Mr. Cicero Forcemeat. You will understand the unique distinction attaching to Mr. Forcemeat when I tell you that he is one of the half-dozen lawyers in the country who is not a Q.C.

  And if we feel that the support of expert testimony is required, we know where to get it without resort to the broken-down dialect comedians who work for False Witness, Inc.

  Yours chidingly,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  THE MODERN ENTHUSIASM for the deep-freeze interests me, but I am not in the forefront of the movement, for I have observed that quite a lot of frozen food has a taste of brown paper, and is not always completely unfrozen. I satisfied my appetite for snow and ice when I was a boy. But I feel that the real possibilities of the deep-freeze technique have not been explored. If it can halt decay and arrest all bodily processes, why can the machine not be used as a baby-tender? Consider: a weekend is being planned, and parents are wondering what they can do with the infant; aha! pop it in the deep-freeze, and thaw it out on Monday morning, unharmed and the better for a thorough rest. Junior is behaving badly at school; the family psychiatrist says that he is going through “a phase”; put him in the deep-freeze until the phase has run its course. An expectant mother, who adores the memory of Queen Victoria, is told that her offspring will be born about May 10th; she deep-freezes herself until midnight, May 23rd, and little Victoria Alexandrina makes her debut, (perhaps a little stiff and blue) on the great Queen’s birthday. Deep-freezing may prove the boon of the age.


  FOR THE FIRST TIME in several weeks I found myself this afternoon without anything to do. Of late I have suffered from congestion of the calendar; every hour of every day has been painfully crammed with duties and obligations. This afternoon I was free—free as a bird. But like a bewildered prisoner suddenly ejected from his dungeon I did not know how to use my liberty. I tried the TV, but the reception was terrible. I composed myself for a nap in my chair, but every five minutes or so I would leap up, wide awake, shouting, “All right! Don’t strike me! I’ll do it at once,”—a horrible reflection on my life for the past six weeks. I tried a few light household tasks, but they were like work, and I wanted to avoid work. I thought of going for a walk, but the outer world was an indecisive mess of hail, snow, rain and fog. I paced up and down, pretending that I was thinking, but soon tired of it. By four o’clock I was almost frantic with leisure; if I did not find some pleasant way of loafing soon, my afternoon would be gone. And sure enough, it did go, and the jaws of duty closed on me again. Oh, the pity of it!


  (discovered in entrails of a wild duck, written on birchbark)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How Marchbanks!

  This one hell country, Marchbanks. Look at weather. Every Fall people say to me how about Winter? And I say long Winter or short Winter if bears go to sleep or sit up till maybe Christmas. This year my best bear that I trust nearly twenty year go to sleep awful early. He sound asleep right after hunting season. So I say to everybody long hard Winter cause bear asleep. But no hard Winter come. So I go to bear nest and look inside. Bear sound asleep. What hell, I think. Then I see bottle in bear paw. Grab bottle. It say sleeping pills on outside, Marchbanks. Bear steal bottle from some big city hunter, busy fellow can’t sleep without pills. Bear eat every pill. Bear sleep like dead. I wish big city hunter stay out of woods. They ruin woods and weather forecast business for good Indian.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  (scrawled in chalk on my front door)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  In awful trouble, Marchbanks. Winter come soon. I got to get in jail. Been out two week now. No jail, no winter home. Two day ago I get drunk. Sick on cop. He mad. Ha, I think; jail for sure. But no. He take pants to cleaner and make me work cutting wood to pay for clean pants. Yesterday I throw brick at cop. Hit him hard. He jump. Ha, I think; jail now. But he say thanks pal; sergeant coming and you just wake me up in time. This one hell country, Marchbanks. Cops all too mean to put poor Indian in jail.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  LISTENED TO A FAMILY discussion among some people who were trying to decide the relationship to themselves of the children of a brother of their grandfather’s second wife. It was perfectly clear to me, but they made a sad hash of it. The Welsh and the Scots are t
he only people who really understand the fine points of relationship, and I think that the Welsh have a slight edge on the Scots in this matter. Indeed, I have given some thought to writing a book on the subject with a special Appendix dealing with the Removal of Cousins. The number of people, apparently well-educated and intelligent, who cannot distinguish between a Second Cousin and a First Cousin Once Removed, is staggering and reflects unpleasantly on our educational system. What these poor softies do when they get into the flood-tide of genealogy, with Intermarriage of Cousins and Collateral Cousinship In The Second Generation, I dread to imagine.


  I ALWAYS READ newspaper criticisms of concerts I have attended, but often I wonder if the critic and I can have been at the same affair. It is not their discontent that puzzles me; tastes differ, and after all a critic’s stock-in-trade is a finer sensibility than that of the vulgar herd. And I make allowances for the fact that going to concerts is work for a critic, and there are plenty of people who have lost all love for the work by which they get their bread. No, it is the way most of them write that stuns me. They attempt to deal with the performances of artists who have spent not less than ten years acquiring insight and a formidable technique, in a maimed and cretinous prose which could not possibly give anybody any impression except one of confusion and depleted vitality. They are poor grammarians, and their vocabularies are tawdry. It is hard enough to interpret one art in terms of another under the best of circumstances, but when the critic has not understood that writing also is an art, his criticism becomes embarrassing self-portraiture.


  WHAT IS WRONG with me? I seem to be the sort of man whom waiters immediately put at a table near the kitchen, which smells of other people’s food, or in a draught, or too near the orchestra, or someplace where nobody wants to sit. If anything is spilled, it is mine; if anything spilled is scraped up from the floor, and served with carpet-fluff in it, it is mine. Am I so broken a creature that I fear to make a row in a restaurant? Well, all the evidence points in that direction. I am even so base that I lack the courage to refuse when the waiter suggests that I eat something which I do not want. This evening, for instance, I was thus dragooned into eating a Greek sweetmeat called Baclava; it tasted like a Bible printed on India paper which had been thoroughly soaked in honey, and took just as long to eat. When I had chewed my way down to Revelation the waiter asked me if I had enjoyed it and I, spiritless wretch, managed to nod.38