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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 51

Robertson Davies

  What animals live longest? Those with the slowest heartbeat. I have no figures handy, but I remember hunting them up once in a medical book. An elephant lives to a great age, and its heart beats about forty-five times a minute. A tortoise, if my memory serves me aright, has a heartbeat of approximately twenty-two thumps a minute. When you get down to really long-lived animals, like crocodiles, the beat is likely to be two or three times a minute. And I once pressed my ear to a parrot’s bosom (getting badly scratched for my pains) and I couldn’t hear any heartbeat at all.

  Don’t you think you could extend your patients’ lives indefinitely, and make your fortune and ruin the insurance companies, simply by giving your patients some simple drug to slow down their hearts to the speed of a crocodile’s?

  Your perennial patient,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Marchbanks:

  I can’t go on like this! It half-kills me to live near a man who hates me the way you do! My lawyers say that if you take that case to court it might cost me my shirt, even if I win. I’m sorry I put the skunk in your car. Honest, Marchbanks!

  So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll sell you my car, at a sacrifice. It is a Pierce Arrow 1923, and I’ll let you have it for $1,500 cash.

  I can’t say fairer than that, can I?

  Your despondent neighbour,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  Abhorred Dandiprat:

  The jaws of our irresistible legal system are closing upon you. It will be my pleasure, when the jaws open, to pick you out of their teeth.

  Yours with demoniacal laughter,



  ACROSS THE STREET from my workroom window is an apartment which has a baywindow at my level; during the past few weeks a baby has been making regular appearances there, so that the doings in the street below may entertain it. I judge that it is a male baby, and it is a fine, large child, with a solemn and philosophical countenance. The baby views the street and I view the baby. I like babies, under special circumstances, and by a lucky chance the relationship between me and this particular baby perfectly fulfils all my conditions. I can see it, but I cannot hear it; I can admire its winning ways, and laugh indulgently when it topples over, but it is not near enough to wet me; when it wants anything, a pair of hands appear from behind it with the desired object. This is ideal, and I am thinking of putting this baby in my will. I believe that if the truth were known, my attitude toward this baby is that of most adult males; men like children, but they do not like them to be too close. Some barrier—as for instance a wide street, filled with traffic—between a man and a baby, acts as a powerful stimulant to affection between them.


  AMONG THE TOOLS of my trade I possess a number of books of quotations, most of which bear titles such as Familiar Quotations, Quotations The Whole World Loves, and the like. The only honestly named one is The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The fact is that no great fat thick book of quotations can be called “familiar”; very few people can identify more than a dozen of them. Furthermore there are hundreds of quotations in such books which I solemnly swear are not familiar to anybody. The fake profundities of dead politicians, the treacly outpourings of fifth-rate poets, the moonlit nonsense of minor essayists—this junk makes up the bulk of most quotation books. I like Mencken’s book of quotations because it is full of sin and impudence and does not pretend to be familiar; I like the Oxford book because it is unashamedly highbrow and contains a great many quotations in Latin. But the “familiar” nonsense I scorn. I love Latin quotations. I suspect that nobody ever said anything in Latin which was above the level of barber shop philosophy, but it has a wondrous sonority.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  I write to enlist your support and membership in the Canadian Laudable Litter League which I am forming. Do you realize, sir, that every day thousands of pounds—nay, tons—of material of one sort and another which should be returned to the soil of our country is burned, or washed down our waterways to the sea, never to be recovered? Vital vitamins, irreplaceable minerals and animal and vegetable matter of all kinds are wasted this way. The time has come to Call a Halt.

  During the Summer I have been doing my bit to preserve what is Canada’s for Canada. Whenever I have been on a picnic I have taken care to throw my hard-boiled eggshell back on the land, to preserve minerals. I have thrown my banana skins and other peelings into farmers’ fields, to put vitamins back into the soil. When others have gathered up their waste paper, I have left it to blow where the wind listeth, for it came from the soil and should return whence it came.

  Each member of the Laudable Litter League pledges himself never again to give his garbage to a wasteful urban collector, for burning; instead he takes it into the country (preferably in the dark of the moon, as this is the time approved by our hero, the late Rudolf Steiner44) and throws it into the field of some farmer whose soil appears to be impoverished. This should be done by stealth, for the League seeks no credit for its good work.

  Begging you to become an honorary L.L.D. (Laudable Litter Distributor) at once, I remain,

  Yours literally,

  Minerva Hawser.


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  As I have written to you so often in tones of complaint, it gives me particular pleasure to pay you a compliment on the agreeable manners of the men who deal with immigration on the international bridges at Niagara Falls. As Overseer of Conduct for Civil Servants I thought that you would like to hear about this. During the past month I have had some work to do in Niagara Falls, Canada, but I was living with friends in Niagara Falls, U.S.A., and I used the bridges a good deal.

  Each time I crossed I answered much the same questions. “Where were you born?” “Skunk’s Misery, Ontario,” I would reply, in an accent which I acquired abroad, and which has at various times caused me to be taken for an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman, and a native of the Scilly Isles. This accent, and an appearance which suggests an archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church, sometimes throws doubt on my Skunk’s Misery origin. But I was always believed. Then, after a few more queries about my sex life and financial status, I would be passed through, with bows and cries of “Huzza for Marchbanks!” If I had any luggage the Customs men would finger it delicately, compliment me on the neatness of my packing and the exquisite taste which I showed in choosing socks and underpants, and wave me on.

  The bridge attendants have a sterner side, however, as I saw on my last journey across the bridge. The man who came after me was elderly, with flowing white hair and a goatee—obviously a Southern Colonel. “Have you anything to declare?” asked the Canadian Immigration man. “I declare it’s a mighty hot day, suh!” said the Colonel. As I drove away he was dragged into the Customs House and the thud of cudgels on pulpy flesh mingled with screams in a Southern accent rent the air. Presumably he was suspected of importing a joke, which would of course have been intolerable to our local funnymen, completely upsetting the economy of their trade.

  Yours loyally,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Esteemed Fribble:

  I want you to look into a curious psychological twist which has recently become observable in advertisements for cars. One of these (I need not specify the maker’s name) shows a young man who is about to kiss a very pretty girl, but turns his head at the vital moment to look at a passing car. The second shows a young man in the act of telling a charming girl that he loves her hair, her eyes, and her father’s new car. The third shows a young couple doting upon—a baby? each other?—no, upon a bright, shiny car.

  Now, Fribble, it looks to me as though the North American male were beginning to exalt motor cars to the position in his esteem once held b
y women. This is dangerous, and I would like to find out how far it has gone. For if this trend continues the day is not far off when the American male will mate, not with a woman, but with his car, and the result of this union will probably be a winsome, cuddly little motorcycle.

  Yours in alarm,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  MINGLED WITH some musical people today, almost on terms of equality. I like musical people but I am always astonished by the dogmatic quality of their statements, especially when they are young. For instance, a young lady who was probably about nineteen asserted this afternoon that J.S. Bach had embraced the whole scope of human feeling in his music in a manner more sublime than that of any other composer. I could not permit this to pass. “Where does Bach make even a passable stab at an expression of romantic love?” I asked her, and she could not answer. And truly old Bach, who had two wives and twenty children, had not much to say about this important matter; the majesty of his harmony and the remorseless deedle-doodle of his counterpoint were not geared for it, and in this sphere such lesser creatures as Puccini beat him hollow. The young woman took her revenge by behaving toward me as if I had no soul, which was typically feminine, and pained me not at all. I have quite a large soul—a number ten.


  IN A WEAK MOMENT some months ago I agreed to talk to a women’s club today. I am a hardy optimist; when people ask me to make speeches several months before the appointed time I often accept, stupidly thinking that in the interval something will happen to prevent me from making good my promise. But the fateful day always comes, and there I am, on my feet, clutching my notes, with despair in my heart. An audience entirely of men is bad enough, but an audience entirely of women is as frightening as a battery of machine guns. There is one thing about female audiences, though—they have a delicious smell. Powder, expensive textiles and scent—all favourite sniffs of mine—combine to make them more glorious than a June garden. I am sure not one of these ladies today was wearing any scent below the rank of Chanel Number Five, and I thought I detected several twenty-five-dollars-an-ounce whiffs,45 for they were wealthy women, knee-deep in good works. So I inhaled deeply and gave tongue. Audiences of men smell of cigars, whisky and shoe-polish, which inspires me with solemn and world-shaking thoughts, unsuitable for the more delicate intellects of women.


  THERE IS A GREAT rejoicing in some parts of Ontario because the provincial government has decided to give free school-books to children, but I am not among the merrymakers. I am a writer of books myself, and any move which inculcates in children the idea that books are things you get for nothing excites my implacable enmity. There are too many free books already, in public libraries and other institutions primarily designed to rob authors of their livelihood. A pox on the memory of Andrew Carnegie and his misplaced benevolence! There are in Canada, by actual count, 528 people who buy books for their own use; an author may count on these people buying a copy of any book he writes. There are 6,417,333 people who are on friendly terms with the 528, and they all borrow their copies of new books, read them, and then write to the author, pointing out typographical errors, plagiarisms from Holy Writ, faulty economics, and other blemishes. If the Ontario Government is going to teach children that books drop from Heaven, or are supplied from the public purse, like wheat subsidies, the profession of letters in Canada will drop below that of the nightsoil removers.46


  Dear Rector:

  Can you tell me why it is that so many brides insist on having the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin played as they stumble up the aisle at their weddings? It seems to me to be a singularly ill-chosen piece of music for such an occasion.

  Consider the story of the opera: Elsa, a silly girl, has got herself into a mess; a young man comes along and very competently gets her out of it; he marries her, on the understanding that she will never ask his name or whence he comes; but Elsa and her relatives nag him insufferably until he can bear it no more, and leaves her. The lesson of the whole opera is that nosiness is a first-class way to break up a marriage, and Wagner, who was married to one of the great snoops of his time, knew what he was talking about.47 Why is it that girls want this prelude to a strikingly unfortunate marriage played at their weddings?

  I have often wondered what happened to Elsa after Lohengrin ran away. My guess is that she set up in business as a Wronged Wife, forgot completely her part in breaking up her marriage, and passed her time very pleasantly at tea parties, warning younger women that Men Are Not To Be Trusted. What are your views?


  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

  I was at a party recently where a lady was explaining a new medical theory to me, in which she said that her husband (who is a physician) is keenly interested. The nubbin of the theory is that placid and careful living is just as aging as rowdy living if you make a habit of it, and that the human metabolism needs frequent shocks, just to keep it on its toes, so to speak. For this reason everybody should take care to overeat grossly every now and then, or get drunk or run a mile, or chop a cord of wood. Anything will do, so long as it is something to which the body is unaccustomed.

  I have been testing this notion myself. You know that I will do anything to further the ends of science. I overate as much as possible all during the Christmas season, and washed the food down with strong waters. Result: except for a slight feeling of other-worldliness before breakfast I felt fine, and my metabolism chugged away like a Coin Wash. But during the past week I have run to and from my office, carrying a heavily-weighted briefcase, four times each day. Result: my metabolism has seized up, my circulation is at a standstill, and I see everything upside down unless I keep a firm hold on the top of my head.

  Undoubtedly there is a great lesson for science in this. Perhaps you will explain to me what it is. Meanwhile I am going to lie down.

  Your perennial patient,


  Dear Pil:

  Last night I was at the movies, and as usual it was necessary to sit through a good deal of rather depressing stuff before we were allowed to see the film which had really brought us to the theatre.48 Among these shorts (Why do you suppose they call them shorts? Surely shortness is a comparative thing? Judged by the anguish of spirit they induced, these affairs were immeasurably long) but as I was saying, among these shorts was one in which the audience was asked to join in the singing of popular gems of modern minstrelsy. But the audience refrained from doing so, and sat in a glum and resentful silence until the short had dragged out its weary length.

  This is a hopeful sign. Human beings are refusing to be cajoled into doing silly things by machines, and by celluloid shadows. For a group of people to sing because a movie machine asks them to do so is just nonsense, and they know it.

  Mark my words, the revolution of Man against Machine is close at hand, and when it comes we shall see the end of that era which historians are already referring to in learned works as The Age of Boloney.




  TALKING TO A young man I realized, with a shock, that in fifteen years he would be a bore. The young are never bores, though they are often boring, particularly when they talk about themselves. But it does not lie in the power of youth to be a self-sustaining, day-in-and-day-out bore; a man must be at least thirty-five before he can manage that. Youth has a buoyance, a resiliency, which makes it impossible for the young to keep to that dead-level which is the very heart and essence of the bore’s craft. The spirits of youth keep bobbing up and down; a bore must be steady as a rock. The eye of youth sometimes lightens; the eye of the bore is glazed with the film of stupidity. There are gloomy bores, and agreeable bores, and eager bores and stuffy bores, but once they h
ave set their course and determined their character, they do not change…. This young man, however, was in strict training to become an agreeable bore, and as he seemed naturally gifted in that respect he may achieve his aim before thirty-five, and become one of the youngest bores in Canadian history.


  SOME CHILDREN I know were showing me a doll’s house which they had been given at Christmas. It was a spacious and pleasant dwelling which, on the human scale, could not be built for less than $80,000 at present costs.49 I should judge that some doll of the junior executive class lived in it. Like so many doll’s houses, it lacked a staircase; dolls are used to being heaved from one floor to another. It was fully, though conventionally, furnished, and over the mantel in the drawing-room was that picture “The Boyhood of Raleigh” which suggested to me that the dolls were rather old-fashioned and romantic in their tastes, in spite of the modernity of some of their furniture. I envied the father-doll the neatness of his garage; mine, which doubles as toolshed, is a sorry thing beside it. The dolls had a remarkably nice bathroom, too, quite unlike the cornery afterthought at Marchbanks Towers. I enquired whether the dolls owned or rented, and was told that they were owners; roughly I computed their land-tax, school-tax and improvements tax, and decided that these dolls were not the sort of people I would be asked to dine with, if some sudden shrinkage should whisk me into their world.


  IT IS WRONG to say that Canadians have no distinctive national characteristics; what about our national custom of Keeping Down With the Joneses? In other countries people keep up with the Joneses; they vie with one another in the acquirement of showy and prestige-giving possessions. But the crafty Canadian always wants his neighbours to think that he has less money than he really has. He underdresses, for the possession of more than two suits might suggest affluence and a desire to seem glorious in the eyes of men. His wife probably has a fur coat, but she wears it to do the shopping, and to sweep off the stoop, so that it is really just a hard-wearing overall, and not a token of wealth. He eats good food, but he likes it to be disguised, so that even the tooth-test sometimes fails to reveal how good it is. It is only when he goes on a holiday to the U.S.A. that he splurges, takes suites in hotels, gives huge tips to hirelings, and drinks pearls dissolved in wine. At home he likes the neighbours to think that he is just keeping out of jail. Surely this is a striking and unusual national attitude?