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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 50

Robertson Davies

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  Dear Pil:

  On Christmas Eve it is surely not indiscreet of me to confide the secrets of my Christmas List to you. As I told you earlier, I am giving Canadiana this year. Here is the list:

  Uncle Fortunatus: an old drum, almost certainly used by troops in the 1837 Rebellion. Both heads are gone, but can be easily replaced. All the decoration and regimental ornament have been worn, or rusted, away, but a skilful restorer could put them back again if we knew what they were. Spiteful people say it is an old cheese-box, but I have the true collector’s flair, and know it is a drum. Uncle will love it.

  Brother Fairchild: an old Quebec heater, almost certainly the one around which the Fathers of Confederation sat when planning the future of this great Dominion. Who can say what historic spit may not cling to it? It is, in the truest sense, a shrine. As a stove, of course, it has seen its best days. Fairchild will be delighted.

  Cousin Genghis: a flag, used by a militia regiment which set out to quell the Riel Rebellion, but was detained in one of the bars in Toronto. It is a most interesting piece of work, which shows signs of having been an Orange Lodge banner before it was converted to its later purpose. It is rather stained with something which might be blood, though an analytical chemist says it still smells of whisky. Genghis will be ecstatic.

  Nephew Gobemouche: a stamp used by a Member of Parliament in mailing a letter from the Parliament Buildings. Such stamps are exceedingly rare, and a few philatelists deny that any genuine examples are in existence. I happen to know, however, that on September 12, 1896, the franking-machine was out of order for a few hours, and free stamps were given to members at the Parliamentary Post Office. Gobemouche will be tearful with pleasure.

  Nephew Belial: a horn from Laura Secord’s famous cow. When blown it emits a musty smell but no sound. Belial will be livid.

  And as for you, my dear friend—but no; you must wait until tomorrow to see what I have sent you.

  A Merry Christmas!



  (Written on a card bearing the message “A Merry Christmas and Good Wishes for 1949”: the date has been altered in pencil to the current year.)

  Dear Nephew:

  Thank you for your thoughtful present. I opened it, as you suggested, as soon as it arrived, and a prettier parcel of soap I have never seen. I shall distribute new cakes on Christmas morning to the whole household. Your notion of a cake of soap fashioned in the likeness of an Aberdeen terrier for your Uncle Gomeril will flatter his Scottish susceptibilities.

  I already have quite a number of gifts to be returned and exchanged as soon as the shops open after Christmas. Someone has thoughtlessly sent your Uncle a dressing-gown in the tartan of a clan from which the Marchbanks have been estranged for over three hundred years. He very sensibly asks what need he has of even an acceptable dressing-gown? He never wears one, and goes to his bath lightly wrapped in an old copy of the Toronto Globe, the Scotsman’s friend.

  Your affct. aunt,

  Bathsheba Marchbanks.


  (Written on an expensive but aesthetically reprehensible card which reveals a robin sitting on a bare branch, with a twig of holly in its beak; the bird’s eye is a black bead, and the holly berries are red beads, cleverly glued to the paper. Spelled out in twigs of holly and mistletoe is the message: “Just the Old, Old Wish.”)

  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  I had hoped that this seasonable greeting might come from Mrs. Wittol as well as myself, but she has been absent from home for several days. I have not heard from her, but last night a man’s voice on the phone made some very insulting remarks to me, and I thought I recognized her hiccup among the background noises.

  Yours regretfully,

  Waghorn Wittol.


  (Written upon a card which bears a portrait of Santa Claus, wearing an expression possible only to one drunk, or mad; realism has been added to the picture by a feather, glued on to represent the Saint’s beard.)

  At this gladsome tide I and Lambie-Pie hasten to freely offer yet once again the right hand of fellowship which you have so often spurned. As the angel’s message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men rings round the sad old world, I beseech you to drop your legal action against me for hiding a skunk in your car, and as Ye Goode Shippe NEW YEAR sets forth into uncharted seas of Time let the olive branch, symbol of neighbourly amity, wave freely from the poop.

  Your repentant neighbour,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  (On a Greetings Telegram)42




  My Dear Cousin:

  I really think your terms are ungenerous, considering the season of the year. If, as you suggest, I bring all the unwanted Christmas presents I receive to your pawnshop, I shall expect more than a mere one-third of their ordinary retail price. I hate to say it, Genghis, but I do not consider that you are showing the Christmas Spirit. You can skin the public, if you like, but you ought to draw the line at skinning a relative.

  Yours reproachfully,



  My very dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  It has never been the custom of Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat to send out greeting cards at the Festive Season; to a firm as old as ours such conduct would seem flashy. We do, however, send letters bearing good wishes to our more valued clients, of whom you, my dear sir, are not the least.

  All of the firm are, I am happy to say, well. The life of our senior partner, Mr. Jabez Mouseman, has been considerably brightened since he began—through what scientific accident we know not—to receive television programs on his hearing-aid. When reception is particularly strong phantoms of charming young women in lowcut evening gowns may be seen to move gracefully across his shirt-bosom; at first Mr. Jabez thought himself beset by evil spirits, but now he spends many hours each day happily regarding himself in the mirror.

  Mr. Cicero Forcemeat, is, as always, in rude health and his powerful voice—that boon of the successful advocate—is, if anything, stronger than before. His peroration in a divorce case last week cracked a chandelier in the court-room.

  I am as always in good health and beg to subscribe myself, dear Mr. Marchbanks, with no legal qualification whatever, your servant and sincere well-wisher,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (For Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  Dear Sir:

  This department finds that in computing your Income Tax for 1948 you neglected to mention that when you addressed the Ladies’ Arts and Letters Club of Pelvis, Sask., in that year you were treated by the committee to a dinner which cost seventy-five cents. This constitutes hidden income, and you must pay tax amounting to sixty-seven cents, plus extra tax for late payment, amounting to nine cents, making seventy-six cents in all, within ten days or we shall pursue you with the full rigour of the law.

  This Department has received a card from you bearing Christmas Greetings. We are returning the card which is the wrong size for our files, and enclose herewith proper forms for the expression of this wish, to be completed in triplicate, and returned at once.

  Yours, but not as much as you are ours,

  Haubergeon Hydra.


  (A greeting card, obviously homemade, to which has been glued a snapshot of a stringy female of cheerful aspect, nursing what looks like a very old floor mop.)

  Yuletide Greetings from self and dearest Fido.

  Minerva Hawser.

  (An exceedingly dirty and crumpled picture of an ample lady of brilliant complexion, showing a lot of leg, and smoking a cigar.)

  How, Marchbanks:

  Find this picture in top of cigar box. Make a nice card for you. All us fellows in jail send you happy wishes. Warden promise good Christmas in jail. Chicken and mince pie. No women, he say. We need women. You got any women?

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  Dear Miss Hawser:

  Thank you for your letter; if you really want my old Christmas cards, you can have them; your idea of cutting them up into bits and distributing them for use as confetti at the weddings of the Underprivileged seems to me to be an excellent one, and an accurate reflection of your kindly and ingenious nature. My cards may be a disappointment to you. They were classifiable under the following heads:

  Ghastly Good Taste: plain white cards made of hard stuff like the icing of a Christmas cake, with an engraved greeting on them; indistinguishable from old-fashioned death notices.

  Art Drearies: designed by people who are determined to get away from conventional Christmas colours and designs; they are usually executed in shades suggesting cheese mould. Some are religious, in a strictly “God-is-dead” sense.

  Stark Realism: cards to which snapshots of the senders have been pasted, showing them at their worst, and often in company with dead fish, half-dead dogs, and the like.

  Canadian Art: showing the same French-Canadian farmer, driving the same sleigh through the same bluish snow, but in slightly different stages of his progress toward a village consisting of a Church and three huts.

  Phoney Mediaeval: showing people eating and drinking and playing oversize guitars, and looking cleaner and healthier than was likely in the Middle Ages.

  Unspeakables: on which a reindeer with a red nose is depicted.

  I sent cards in all these forms myself, for there was nothing else to be had. But I really long for a decent old-fashioned Christmas card, with the Virgin and Child on it, and Santa Claus and his reindeer, and a robin with a twig of holly in its beak, and some mica clinging to it to simulate snow, and a really compendious and warm-hearted greeting in the manner of G.K. Chesterton:

  Here’s for a bursting Yuletide

  To my friends wherever they be!

  With boozing and stuffing

  And praying and puffing

  All under the Evergreen Tree!

  Yours sincerely,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  (delivered by a Police car, envelope stamped OFFICIAL)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  Us fellows in jail fix New Year Dance. Ball and Chain Ball, we call it. We got no women, so no dance. We got no booze, so no drink. We got no money, so no gamble. But we got peace and plenty dirty story. You want ticket? Fight cop. He give you ticket.

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  NEW YEAR’S DAY, and I hail the onset of another year by eating more than I should but not quite so much as I want. I yearn for the spacious days of the Middle Ages, when cooking was cooking. Those were the days when the lord of the manor was faced, at dinner, with a whole ox into which was stuffed a whole boar, into which was stuffed a lamb, into which was stuffed a hare, into which was stuffed a pheasant. When he had settled this difficult problem in carving, the lord ate the pheasant, and threw the wrappings to the scurvy knaves and lubberly churls who composed his household, and set to work on a venison pie and five or six pounds of mincemeat encased in marchpane. Only, if I had lived in the Middle Ages, I would undoubtedly have been a lubberly churl—or at best Pynne-Heade, the household jester—and would have had to eat over-cooked ox, swilled down with the water in which the mead-horns had been washed. I have no illusions about the glory of my ancestry. So I dismissed my dream of mediaeval gluttony, and picked at a few pounds of turkey and ham, and washed it all down with liquids so innocent that even the Government puts its stamp upon them.


  SOMEBODY IN THE States, I see, has conceived the notion of recording classics of literature on long-playing records. After listening to such a recording it would no longer be necessary to go through the fatigue of reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, or any other exhausting work. It must be said for such a scheme that it would restore the ear as the first judge of poetry, and expose that false judge, the eye. But I doubt if many people would hear the great works often enough to get near the root of them.


  (Delivered by carrion crow)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  Everybody in jail crazy, Marchbanks. Jail doctor bring old white squaw see us jail prisoners today. She squint at me through glasses. You got any sociable diseases, she say. Sure, I say. You want be sociable? How much you spend? Don’t know what she mean. Think she mean party. Everybody holler at me. Doctor tell Turkey43 turn hose on me. This one hell country, Marchbanks.

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  WHILE HANGING ABOUT a friend’s house I picked up a book called The Culture of the Abdomen. It proved to be a gloomy work, holding out little hope for the future of Western Civilization unless we immediately get our abdomens into a condition resembling that of the Maoris and South Sea Islanders. These people, it appears, do elaborate dances in which no part of them moves but their abdomens. I don’t know that I would care to see the National Ballet go over to this technique, but apparently it is wonderful for the tripes…. Even a mediocre writer may create one golden phrase, and the author of this book achieved it in the following sentence: “Upon many a death certificate we read the words Heart Failure, but we know that Fat and Gas are the parents of Heart Failure.” What a magically repulsive picture this calls up! Fat, the loathsome Slob-Mate, is approached by Gas, the fluttering, elusive, faintly-squealing Spectre-Bride, who whispers, “Honey, there’s going to be a Little Stranger soon—little H.F., that we’ve always dreamed of!” And then—BANG!


  AFTER A LONGISH CHAT with some children today, I reflected that the child’s attitude toward humour differs sharply from that of the adult. In the world of mature people a joke is funny once, and should never be repeated in the same company. But children, having decided that a joke is funny, go on repeating it, laughing more loudly each time, until they collapse in hysteria. The mental age of a man might be gauged by observing how often he can laugh at the same joke.


  TO AN EXCELLENT film about Africa, with some of the best pictures of wild animals that I have even seen. I was particularly interested in close-ups of a group of lions eating a zebra. Now I was brought up on picture books which insisted that the lion was a noble beast, that killed its prey with a single violent blow, and then stood upon the fallen carcass for a time, roaring; when it had thus worked up an appetite it tore off a leg, devoured it in lonely splendour and rushed off for further spectacular mischief. But here was a picture of five or six lions, all pushing and shoving like human beings, gobbling the guts of the zebra; there was no roaring, no defiance and no loneliness. One lion lay on its side near the feast, gorged and apparently slightly drunk. Vultures stood nearby, like waiters hoping to clear away the dirty plates. The lions ate messily, dropping bits and slobbering on their fronts. It seems that life in the jungle is rather more like life at a short-order lunch wagon than I had supposed. I do not know whether to be pleased or not.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  I thought that you might like to know that I don’t believe the Old Age Pension should be
increased. Old age is too delightful and dangerous a state to require a pension. Old people are usually very happy, and they are also subversive and a Bad Example. Let me tell you what I know.

  Last Saturday I went to a nearby school for boys to watch their annual cadet inspection. I well remember when I was a schoolboy what an agony these affairs were. For weeks beforehand we marched till our legs were stiff; a sergeant-major with an immense stomach rudely urged us to suck in our non-existent stomachs; we polished our buttons till all the brass was worn off them; we polished our boots inside and out; we learned to march slowly, quickly, and imperceptibly; we learned to perform complex quadrilles when other boys shouted hoarse and imcomprehensible words. And when The Day came, in an agony of fear we performed these feats, believing that we had the admiration and enthralled attention of our elders. We didn’t know whether they admired us or not; our collars were so tight that we were bereft of the senses of sight and hearing. But we believed that they did.

  Last Saturday I found out what really went on among the onlookers. While the boys marched, yelled, stamped and drove themselves toward hysterics their elders jabbered among themselves, laughed, averted their eyes from the sweating heroes and occasionally said, “Aren’t the little boys sweet?” Some of those boys, Mr. Hydra, were daily shavers and not in the least sweet. And who were the worst offenders in this respect? Who mumbled trivialities during the General Salute? Who turned their backs and sniggered at private jokes while The Colours were being marched past? The Old, Mr. Hydra. The happy, carefree, irreverent, unpatriotic Old.

  Don’t raise their pensions until they smarten up, and show a suitable respect for the Young.

  Yours from the philosophical

  eminence of Middle Life,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

  A physician who writes for the papers says that a slow heartbeat is a good thing. This is just what I have been saying for years, but nobody will listen. You doctors are really the most self-sufficient tribe!