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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 49

Robertson Davies


  Dear Rector:

  I suppose you have observed, in the course of your professional duties, the sad decline of literary exuberance in the writing of epitaphs? The modern epitaph is hardly worthy of the name, when one compares it with the great epitaph-writing of the eighteenth century.

  Because I do not wish to be slighted on my tombstone, I am sending to you herewith my own epitaph, in order that you may circumvent any of my descendants or executors who want to do the thing on the cheap after I am gone.


  Beneath this stone

  Lies all that was Mortal

  Of one

  Who, in this transitory Life

  Seemed to sum up in himself all those Virtues

  Which we are taught to admire but which, alas,

  We rarely see in action.

  Pause, Passer-By and Ponder:

  This man, beside an ample fortune for

  Those Left to Mourn Him

  Leaves a sum in trust to provide

  Every child in this Parish

  With copies of his own works

  Durably bound in waterproof material,

  As well as a medal bearing the impress of his

  Noble Countenance on the front, and on its rear

  These Words:

  “For Memorial Purposes only:

  Not Negotiable as Currency.”

  Drop a Tear and Pass On

  Drawing Such Consolation As You Can

  From the indisputable fact that

  We Shall Not Look Upon His Like Again.

  There. I think that covers the ground pretty thoroughly, and will gladden the heart of the stonemason, if not of my relatives. Oh yes, and on the top of the stone, please, an effigy of my own head, with the left eyelid drooping slightly, as though in salute to the living.

  Yours cheerily,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Neighbour:

  Aw, gee, I never thought you would mind me playing the hi-fi with my windows open! Aw, heck, I never thought you would resent a little thing like that skunk getting into your car! Not that I admit I did it. My lawyers told me that I shouldn’t. But I never thought you’d go to court about it. Gee, Marchbanks, you’re a cranky guy! Gee, haven’t you any spirit of give and take?

  I’m just sick about the whole thing, and so is Lambie-Pie. She says you’re the worst crab in the world, but we ought to try to be friends with you because we’re neighbours, and after all, even you are human. She says we got to extend the Right Hand of Fellowship. Consider it extended. How about it, Marchbanks, old pal? By the way, I borrowed your lawn-mower last month when you were away. I accidentally ran it over a big bolt somebody dropped on my lawn. I’ll bring it back just as soon as it is fixed. Or would you rather have it fixed to suit yourself?

  Yours repentantly,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  Unspeakable Dandiprat:

  I take note that you have extended the Right Hand of Fellowship. I have examined it. Take it back and wash it.

  My legal action against you continues according to plan. I shall also sue you for the damage to my lawn-mower.

  You may inform Lambie-Pie (whom I take to be your consort) that I am not human. I sprang, full-grown, from a riven oak one midnight many years ago.

  Yours in a very limited sense,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Marchbanks:

  Will you lend me your Santa Claus costume? I want it for the annual party of the Rowanis Club, of which I am Grand Exalted Merrymaker this year. We are having a Christmas celebration, and I thought it would be an original idea if I dressed up as S.C. and gave everybody presents containing sneeze powder, white mice, dribble glasses and etc.

  I hope you are not brooding about that little matter of the skunk? We have led the lawyers a fine dance, haven’t we? Ha ha! Still, we are both men of the world, eh Marchbanks?

  Will you send the S.C. suit to the cleaners right away, so that I can pick it up next week? I want to look well at the party, and those suits get pretty dirty when they are not taken care of.

  Your neighbour,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  Dear Mr. Mouseman:

  I am going out of my mind! That misbegotten ruffian Dandiprat has just written me a letter in which he virtually confesses that he put the skunk in my car!

  Now Mouseman, what can you do to Dandiprat? Don’t talk to me about the gallows; it is too good for him. Is there a thumbscrew anywhere that we can borrow? Or what about the Chinese water torture? Should I ask my laundry man if he will co-operate? Or what do you say to Mussolini’s merry prank with a quart of castor oil? I warn you, Mouseman, if I do not have revenge I shall drown in my own gall! Get to work at once.

  Yours furiously,

  S. Marchbanks.


  A MEDICAL ACQUAINTANCE mentioned idly that you can tell a good deal about the age of a human being by pinching the skin on the backs of the hands; according as it retains the shape of the pinch, the patient is advanced in decay. Spent much of the day pinching the skin on the backs of my hands, which snapped back into place very quickly at some points, and at others remained obstinately curled up. From this I conclude that my skin reflects the character of my opinions, some of which are young and fresh, and others far gone in senility.


  TO THE MOVIES, and as I sat through a double feature I was interested to observe that the audible kiss has come back into fashion. When the first talking pictures appeared, kisses were all of the silent variety; it was just then that silent plumbing made its first appearance, and there may have been some connection. But now the shadow-folk of Hollywood kiss with a noise like a cow pulling its foot out of deep mud. In my younger days there were two types of kiss: the Romantic Kiss was for private use and was as silent as the grave; the Courtesy Kiss, bestowed upon aunts, cousins and the like was noisy and wet, generally removing two square inches of mauve face powder. A visiting aunt, having been welcomed by two or three nephews, needed substantial repairs. The Romantic Kiss also involved closing the eyes, to indicate extreme depth of feeling, though it often occurred to me that if one cannot see what one is kissing, a pretty girl and a kid glove of good quality are completely indistinguishable.


  HAD AN OPPORTUNITY to examine a collection of autographs, and wondered once again what makes people collect them. The futility of collecting scraps of paper upon which people have scribbled (autograph-collecting) seems to me to be exceeded only by the futility of collecting scraps of paper which people have licked (stamp-collecting). There is a certain interest, perhaps, in the manner in which a great man signs his name, though not much. I would be delighted to own a page of manuscript written by Ben Jonson or Cardinal Bembo, for both were masterly calligraphers; but letters from most modern authors and statesmen are mere scribbles. In childhood most of us have a spell during which we carefully collect the autographs of our families, the milkman, the baker and the laundry man; then we lose the album. But I am surprised whenever I am reminded that the craze continues into adult life, and that great sums of money are spent on signatures of writers, musicians, criminals, politicians, and the like. I have a little skill in forgery, and I am thinking of going into a business where I shall undertake to provide a good facsimile of anybody’s signature for twenty-five cents. Thus, for a modest sum, the eager collector will be able to get some rare items.


  RECEIVED A LETTER from a cow, or it may simply have been from somebody who takes orders from a cow; I couldn’t quite make out. It appears that when I made public my intention of keeping a cow in my cellar I suggested that cows shed their horn
s annually; the letter denied this. It is possible, though improbable, that I am wrong. I am not sure that I would know a cow if I met one. A certain cloudiness of vision, caused by long hours poring over the Scriptures, makes it impossible for me to identify an animal or even a human being at a distance of more than five feet. The cows which Santa Claus employs to draw his sleigh certainly have horns, for I have seen pictures of them. But if cows do not shed their horns, how comes it that cow horns are so plentiful? Cow horns are used to make horn-rimmed spectacles, snuff boxes for Scotsmen, powder-horns for outlaws, inkhorns for scholars, horns for automobiles, and for a variety of purposes. Am I expected to believe that all these horns come from dead cows and represent a lifetime of patient horn-growing? No, no, I am not so foolish as that. Until I am shown otherwise I shall believe that cows shed their horns each Spring.


  Dear and Valued Customer:

  With a sensation of sick shock we find that you have not yet been in to do your Xmas shopping. Already the best of our stock is picked over and unless you hurry! Hurry!! HURRY!!! you will miss out on the finest array of Xmas yummies of all kinds that it has ever been our privilege and pleasure to stock.

  Everything that you could possibly wish to give to a relative is to be found in our Pharmacy Department, and may be purchased by presenting a doctor’s prescription. Many goods in this line may be secured by signing a simple statement that you want to poison a dog.

  In our Jewellery displays we have every sort of simulated gem with which husband or lover could wish to simulate affection.

  In our Gigantic Kiddyland we have no less than three Santa Clauses, which avoids much of the queuing to shake hands with the genial saint which has caused irritation among busy tots at past Christmases.

  You owe it to yourself to do your Christmas shopping RIGHT NOW. Stop owing it to yourself. Owe it to us.

  J. Button Hook

  (For the Bon Ton Elite Shoppery).


  Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

  The other day I read the autobiography of an Armenian gentleman named Nubar Gulbenkian; he hopes to live as long as his grandfather, who died at the age of 106. The book described this ancient’s meals in detail. Two facts about them impressed me; each meal (he ate four times a day) took forty-five minutes; each meal ended with a plate of Turkish sweets.

  I have never taken forty-five minutes to eat a meal in my life. I can eat eight courses in fifteen minutes.39 Can it be that I eat too fast for long life and health?

  I detest Turkish sweets. They appear to me to be made of raw mutton fat into which low-caste Turks have ground caraway seeds by rubbing it between the soles of their feet.

  However, Gulbenkian eats slowly and he eats nasty things, and he expects to achieve a great age. Pehaps you would like to quote his example to a few patients who are not so hasty and fastidious as,

  Your perennial patient,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  A few days ago I visited Toyland, as I do every year, just to see how the Christmas Racket is getting along. Toyland is as hot as ever; the temperature was not a smidgeon under 90 degrees F. Most of the customers, like myself, wore full Winter outdoor dress, and were suffering hideously. The only really comfortable people appeared to be the gnomes and elves who were helping Santa; these were young women ranging from the toothsome to the merely wholesome, dressed in shirts and very short shorts. This association between Santa Claus and the female underpinning fascinated me; Santa was there for the children, but the gnomes were there for the fathers—in a very limited sense, of course.

  Santa himself, beneath his paint and ample white beard, seemed to be about twenty-five; when children approached him his eyes rolled in an agonized fashion that betrayed the youthful bachelor. A photographer was on the spot, assisted by a leggy female gnome, taking pictures of every tot with Santa. This impressed me as a fine stroke of commercial whimsy, and I started up the runway myself. “Where you goin’?” said a blonde gnome with a large bust, catching me by the arm. “To have my picture taken with Santa,” said I. “It’s just for the kids,” said she, trembling a little and looking for the manager. “I am a child at heart, gnome,” said I. But she had pressed a button in the wall beside her, and at this moment a store detective appeared, wearing the insensitive expression of his kind. “What gives?” said he. “This character wants to go up the runway with the kids,” said the gnome. “Oh, one of them sex-monsters, eh?” said the detective, closing one eye in a menacing fashion. For a moment I feared that I might have to spend Christmas in jail with my friend Osceola Thunderbelly. But I talked my way out of it, and as I hastened away the detective gave the gnome a slap on the podex which was probably mere brotherly goodwill. Christmas is becoming a terribly complicated season, full of mixed and mistaken motives.40

  Yours, still blushing at the shame of it,



  Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

  It was most kind of you to send me a Christmas card. It is a beautiful thing, and I shall probably have it framed. By the way, what is it? I did not know that you were interested in modern art.

  Yours gratefully,

  S. Marchbanks.

  P.S. How foolish of me! I have been looking at your card upside down. Of course it is a lovely photograph of autumn colours.



  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  Through some oversight my secretary has sent you a coloured transparency representing a drunkard’s liver, in mistake for a Christmas card. If you will return it, a card showing myself and Mrs. Cataplasm on the verandah of our Summer home will be sent to you at once.

  Yours sincerely,

  Raymond Cataplasm.


  Dear Mrs. Scissorbill:

  Because I am a great admirer of novelty in any form, I write to congratulate you on your most successful performance as Santa Claus at the Christmas party which your club, The Militant Female Society, gave for the Misbegotten Orphans.

  As you said in your speech to the Orphans, there is no reason whatever why Santa Claus should not be a woman. And I thought your costume and makeup excellent. It was a fine idea to wear your own abundant grey hair, loose and hanging down your back. This made up for the lack of the long beard which we associate with S. Claus. I think you would be wise another time to put some fire-proofing on your hair; I observed one well-developed male orphan, with quite a moustache, testing it with his cigarette-lighter. I think, too, that your pince-nez, and the natural austerity of your countenance, gave Santa an authority he sometimes lacks.

  Altogether, it was a triumph, and I expect that the craze for female Santas will sweep the country.

  Yours respectfully,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  FINISHED MY CHRISTMAS shopping. True, I finished it three weeks ago, but it is a job which I find requires finishing more than once. At the end of November I fought, bit and clawed my way through the shops, battling with savage women and bitten in the leg by cannibal children, and gathered enough assorted rubbish to fill, as I thought, my Christmas needs. But in the light of Christmas Week it has proved to be too little; my bosom is inflated, nigh to bursting, with Brotherly Love and eggnog, and today I sallied forth to shop again. The shops were almost empty, and although the clerks were a little vague and tended to hiccup when asked questions, I achieved my wishes in a short time and hurried home to decorate my tree. Preparatory to this task I nogged a couple of dozen eggs, and when visitors dropped in I was able to offer them a drink of the plushy, caressing fluid which does so much to take the bitterness out of Christmas…. I have made my own angel for the top of the Christmas tree. As a delineator of the female form I tend to express myself in unmistakable t
erms; I like even an angel to appear as if she had some fun in her. In consequence my angel looks a little like Diana of the Ephesians, what with eggnog and one thing and another.


  (by ordinary surface mail but unstamped)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  This one hell country, Marchbanks. No place for honest man. Listen. Last week I no money. Christmas come. I good Indian, Marchbanks. Baptized lots of times. Want to do right by Gitche Manitou on he birthday. Want for buy case lilac hair juice for drink Gitche Manitou health on birthday. No money. Every place Christmas shopper. All spend. All sad face. All think selfs happy. So I think I sell Christmas trees. One place I see plenty little trees. All blue. I get hatchet and cut down four. Then woman come to door of house. She say what I do? I say cut Christmas trees. Thief, she say—awful loud voice, Marchbanks, for skinny woman—I call cops. You cut my blue spruce. I grab trees. I run. Soon cops come in white car.41 Hey you, say cops. What you do in white car, I say. Sell ice cream, maybe. Ha! Joke, Marchbanks. Cops mad. So mad they get out of car. That awful mad for cop, Marchbanks. Take me police court. Little fellow at desk he say I been drinking. How I drink, I say, with no money. Little fellow belch. He been drinking Marchbanks. I smell. Jail ten days he say, and belch again. I belch too, for show polite, Indian style. Another ten days for contempt, he say. This one hell country, Marchbanks.

  Osceola Thunderbelly,