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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 52

Robertson Davies


  THERE ARE TOO MANY people in the world who think that frankness is an excuse for anything; so long as a man is frank and sincere, say they, he may talk as he likes. They also cling to the stupid and mistaken notion that people like and admire frankness and respond well to it. For instance, I was standing on a street-corner today, when a man in a windbreaker approached me and said: “Lookit, I’m goin’ to give you no bull; I wanta get a coupla beers; will you gimme the money?” I looked deep into his eyes, and in low, thrilling voice I said “No.” … Now if he had given me some bull—some richly ornamented tale of poverty, of undeserved ill-fortune, of being robbed while on some errand of mercy—anything in fact which would have revealed a spark of imagination in him, I would have given him a small sum, knowing full well that it would be spent on beer. But to ask me, flatly and baldly, for money to buy beer—! Is that the way to appeal to a Welshman, a lover of the spoken word and the gem-encrusted lie? No, no. Let such ruffians beg beer-money from those who admire frankness. Anybody who wants a quarter from me must first produce a quarter’s worth of fascinating bull.


  IN A NEWS VENDOR’S today I noticed a pile of books with bright covers, which proved to be such titles as Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and Romain’s Jean Christophe. Wondering idly how such long books were crammed into such a small space I picked one up and found that it was marked “abridged for the Modern Reader.” Laughed out loud, and a few people stared at me, as if I were mad. But I was delighted by the shoddy flattery of that word “modern.” It implied that the modern reader was a very busy fellow, who had no time to be bothered with the windy nonsense even of first-rate authors; he had to have everything boiled down for him, so that he could gulp the essence in an evening’s reading. The real fact of the matter is that many modern readers are pin-headed neurotics, who have not the staying power to read a great book at full length. They must have it cut so that they can read all the bits which describe how the heroine went to bed, and with whom, and any murders which may creep into the tale. Beyond that, they can’t understand and don’t care. Modern reader! Pah!


  Dear Mr. Hydra:

  I see that Parliament is much concerned about the quality of modern Canadianism. Apparently it is not Canadian enough—there are still big lumps of British Influence and Colonial Inferiority Complex swimming around in it. May I make a suggestion to you as Deputy Assistant Sterilizer of Canadian Patriotism?

  We need bigger and better Canadian heroes. We have the raw material, but we must work on it. You know how Canada hates anything raw. We have heroes, but we have not yet blown them up to full heroic stature.

  Look at what has been done in the States with Washington, Lincoln, Barbara Frietchie and others. Unpromising material to begin with. Just men and women. But by the use of gas and mirrors they have been given heroic stature. Think what that story about the Cherry Tree has done for Washington! We couldn’t copy it, of course, for in Canada we still admire people who cut down trees, and could not see any particular nobility in admitting to such an action. In Canada, a tree is still looked upon as a Big Weed, to be hoiked up or chopped down, or mutilated with impunity. But there are other stories which we could bend to our use, and I submit the following examples for your consideration.

  Sir John and the Spider

  One day our Great National Hero, Sir John A. Macdonald, sat disconsolately in his lawyer’s office in Kingston. Try as he might, he could not get the Canadian provinces to confederate. They simply wouldn’t. As he sat, his eyes were attracted by a little spider which was trying to climb up a piece of string (or whatever that stuff is that spiders extrude so unpleasantly from their stomachs). He paid no attention, for spiders were then, as now, part of the standard furnishings of all lawyers’ offices in Canada.

  Up the spider climbed, and down it fell. Sir John’s left eyelid twitched. Again the spider tried to climb the string, but again it fell with an arachnidal curse. And a third time it struggled up the string, and immediately set to work to gobble up a juicy fly.

  Sir John was now fully awake. “By George!” he cried (referring to George Brown of the Toronto Globe, and thus uttering a terrible Conservative curse) “shall yonder foolish insect put me to shame? I too shall strive, and strive again, until there is a Federal Government in Canada, gobbling up the richest flies the land affords!” And hastily taking a drink of soda water (of which he was inordinately fond) he rushed out and confederated Canada in a twinkling.

  MORAL: Never sweep your office.

  Laurier and the Teakettle

  One day Sir Wilfrid Laurier sat by the hearth in his parents’ home, musing and pondering in French (though being completely bilingual, he could just as easily have done it in English). Beside him, on the hob, the kettle bubbled. “Etre, ou non être?” mused Sir Wilfrid; “c’est la question.” (This splendid line was later incorporated into the film of Hamlet, but it lost a great deal in translation.) “Blubbety-blub!” mused the kettle, in kettle-language. “Qu’est-ce que c’est que vous avez dit?” asked Sir Wilfrid. “Bloop!” said the kettle.

  In that instant Sir Wilfrid conceived the whole theory of the steam-engine, and would have built a railway to the Yukon if the Senate had not vetoed the idea.

  MORAL: The Senate should be reformed so as to consist entirely of the Cabinet.

  Laura’s Jewels

  The constant companions of the great and good Laura Secord were her cows. Indeed, it was a cow that overheard the American officers planning their wicked attack upon Colonel Fitzgibbon’s troops, and warned Laura. The story that she herself listened at the keyhole is a vicious canard. Being immovably upright, she could not stoop to a keyhole.

  One day she was entertaining a purse-proud friend who boasted immoderately of her riches and her articles of personal adornment. “And will you not show me your jewels, Mrs. Secord?” said she.

  Smiling enigmatically Laura called her cows to her. She put her arms around each brown neck, drawing the wet noses close to her own. “These are my jewels,” said she, with well-nigh unbearable simplicity.

  MORAL: The cream of the cream can get along without diamonds, even of the first water.

  There you have it Mr. Hydra. Fill our children up with that sort of thing, and in no time their patriotism will have surpassed even our most unreasonable expectations.

  Yours for an aggressively Canadian Canada,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Honoured Sir:

  On behalf of our client, Mr. Richard Dandiprat, we write to ask if it would not be possible to settle your difference with him in some amicable way which does not involve court procedure. Lawsuits among neighbours are to be avoided whenever possible, as we are sure you will agree. We learn to our amazement and chagrin that Mr. Dandiprat has written letters to you in which he virtually confesses it was he who imprisoned a skunk in your car while you were abroad. This was indiscreet, but Mr. Dandiprat is a man of lovable and open nature and concealment is distasteful to him.

  We venture to suggest that if you care to pay some small sum—we suggest $2,500—to Mr. Dandiprat as recompense for all the mental distress which your threatened lawsuit has cost him, the matter can be closed with good will on both sides.

  Yours in a spirit of neighbourly forgiveness,

  Jasper Raven,

  (For Raven and Craven, Solicitors).



  So, you are crawling, are you? Whining for mercy, eh? No, no, gentlemen, I intend to roast your client, Dandiprat, before the fire of enraged public opinion. To your roost, Raven! To your lair, Craven, lest you perish with Dandiprat in the whirlwind of my wrath!

  Yours in triumph,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Honoured, Esteemed—nay, Beloved Sir:

Oh, Mr. Marchbanks, what a bitter tale I have to tell! Last Autumn, with Hallowe’en approaching, we sent two or three of our secretarial staff into the cellar to bring up the base-burner which heats our office in the Winter months. Hallowe’en is, as you know, a festival dear to the hearts of lawyers, and Mr. Jabez Mouseman loves to see the flames flickering behind the little mica windows in the stove when the great day dawns. The girls got the stove into the office, and with some difficulty they set it up, and fitted the stovepipes into the wall. But when it came time to light the fire, ah, then—. You know how impatient the old are, Mr. Marchbanks. My dear father, Mr. Jabez Mouseman, seized what he imagined to be some valueless material from a filing cabinet, and lit the fire. Unlucky fate guided his hand. It was your file, and all the evidence, so carefully piled up, and all the incriminating letters from Dandiprat are gone.

  But the law is not without resource, sir. We shall rewrite all the documents, from memory, as soon as possible. We shall even provide facsimiles of the signatures. In the end the evidence will be better than ever. But for a law-term or two we shall be wise to allow the case to drift along without too much activity.

  Yours in sorrow,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).

  P.S.: The cost of restoring the evidence will add considerably to your legal expenditures, but Let Right Be Done is the motto of our firm.


  I WAS INTRODUCED to a lady this evening who said, “Well, and do you still do any writing on the side?” I simpered and said, “Oh, a little, you know,” for I was so thunderstruck that I could not collect my wits in time to make a proper rejoinder. But I made a speech to her in my head, afterward, which ran thus: “Woman, for almost all of my adult life I have lived by the pen, with some assistance from the typewriter and the printing press. I do not write “on the side” as you insultingly suggest. I write morning, noon and night. When I am not actually engaged in the physical act of writing I am thinking about writing—my own and other people’s. Writing is my business and my pleasure, my cross and my salvation, my joy and my sorrow.” But it would have been foolish to say this aloud. There are many millions of people who think that writing, and painting, and music are things which their practitioners pick up in an idle hour; they have no conception of the demands these apparently trivial pastimes make upon those who are committed to them. Such people live in a world which is as strange to me as the Mountains of the Moon.


  I OBSERVE WITH no enthusiasm it is National Posture Week in the U.S.A.; thank Heaven this heathen festival is not being observed in Canada. When I was a boy we were taught that the only proper posture for the body was that of a sentry at attention—eyes glazed, chest bursting, shoulders under the ears, toes curled and chin digging into the Adam’s apple. Later this position was somewhat relaxed, and it was admitted that it was sometimes permissible to touch the heels to the ground. Recently a scientist who had done a lot of work with monkeys has said that a relaxed posture, leaning forward and ambling like a gorilla, is the best and most natural for man. So confused am I by these changes that I have developed my own posture, which has two phases—standing up and lying down. I cannot sit. I lie in chairs on the back of my neck, allowing gravity to drag my vital organs toward the floor. When I stand, I lose height at the rate of about two inches every hour. In the morning, when I am thoroughly uncoiled, I am six feet tall; if my day involves much standing, I am five feet tall by lunchtime, four feet six inches by dinner, and go to bed a midget. Posture is a word I prefer not to use in connection with myself.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  I have just finished reading a book by the eminent child-psychologist, Dr. Blutwurst Susskind, in which he makes it clear that what children want more than anything in the world is parental love. It is this desire, he says, which makes children ask questions at inconvenient times, wake their parents up early in the mornings, kick them on the shins, and in general behave in a way which thoughtless parents call “making a nuisance of themselves.” Dr. Susskind says that an eager child should never be rebuffed. The parents should say: “I love you dearly, but I haven’t time to attend to you now,” or something of the sort.

  Now I have a scheme which I would like you, as an internationally known lover of children, to assist me in popularizing. It is based upon the old system of Sunday School cards which you will remember: a child got a small card for each visit to S.S.; when it had ten small cards it could exchange them for a large card; when it had ten large cards it could get a Bible. Now my idea is that a parent should have a stock of cards saying: “Love you dearly; busy now,” which it could hand to the child which interrupted at an inconvenient moment. Ten cards could be exchanged for a large card saying: “Dote upon you madly; go away.” Ten of these large cards could be exchanged for a visit to the circus, a picnic, a soda-guzzle or some similar treat.

  The cards, I feel, could most effectively be sold through the Home and School Clubs; the whole scheme could be financed for a beggarly $100,000 and it is for this laughable sum that I confidently turn to you.

  Yours with complete confidence,

  Minerva Hawser.


  Worthy Fribble:

  It is indeed good news that you intend to prepare a thesis on the Rights of Women in Canada. I shall await the appearance of the Fribble Report with keen expectation. Is it true that the French translation is to be called, with greater frankness, L’Amour en Canada?

  Meanwhile, let me report for you a curious conversation I heard the other night, when I attended an entertainment where a great many adolescents were present. Behind me sat a boy and a girl, both about fifteen.

  BOY: (Laughing at one of his own jokes)

  “G’wan, cut out that laffin’.”

  GIRL: “Gee, I can’t. You got me laffin’

  so’s I can’t stop.”

  BOY: (delighted) “Cut it out, I tell yuh.

  Everybody’s lookin’ at yuh.”

  GIRL: (trying to stifle mirth) “Fsssst!

  Splut! Eeeeeeeek!”

  BOY: (transported) “Cut it out! Cut it out!”

  GIRL: “Gee I can’t! Not if you’re gonna

  say funny things like that!”

  BOY: “Juh want me to take yuh out in the

  hall and slap yuh around? That’ll


  GIRL: (ecstatic at the idea) “Aw, yer

  killin’ me! Fsssst!”

  Here, I think we have a fairly typical pattern of Canadian sexual behaviour. The male, having subdued the female by his superior intellectual power, dominates and even threatens her. This produces in her a mounting physical and psychological pleasure, like the rising of steam in a boiler. This psychological pressure causes her to kick the back of my seat in an irregular rhythm, similar to the mating-dance of the Whooping Crane. It is this sort of thing that makes Canada the Amorist’s Paradise it is.

  I shall inform you of any other interesting manifestations of the biological urge which may come under my eye.

  Scientifically yours,



  Dear Mr. Fishorn:

  No, I will not support your application for a Canada Council grant to enable you to write your novel. I know nothing about you, but I know a good deal about novels, and you are on the wrong track.

  You say you want money to be “free of care” for a year, so that you can “create,” and you speak of going to Mexico, to live cheaply and avoid distraction. Fishorn, I fear that your fictional abilities have spilled over from your work into your life. You see yourself in some lovely, unspoiled part of Mexico, where you will stroll out of your study onto the patio after a day’s “creation,” to gaze at the sunset and get into the cheap booze; your wife will admire you extravagantly and marvel that you ever condescended t
o marry such a workaday person as herself; the villagers will speak of you with awe as El Escritor, and will pump your beautiful servant Ramona for news of your wondrous doings; you will go down into the very depths of Hell in your creative frenzies, but you will emerge, scorched and ennobled, in time for publication, translation into all known languages, and the Nobel Prize.

  Ah, Fishorn, would that it were so! But take the advice of an old hand: you won’t write any better in Mexico than in Tin Cup, B.C., and unless you are wafted into a small, specially favoured group of the insane, you will never be free from care. So get to work, toiling in the bank or wherever it is by day, and serving the Triple Goodness at night and on weekends. Art is long, and grants are but yearly, so forget about them. A writer should not take handouts from anybody, even his country.51

  Benevolently but uncompromisingly,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  SAW A MOTOR-BICYCLE parked in the street today, and on its wind-screen were several alluring pictures of girls, one of whom wore what appeared to be a scanty outfit of leopardskin underwear; she stretched her arms above her head (presumably in order to give greater freedom to her considerable bosom) and carried a banner upon which was written “If you don’t see what you want, ask for it.” As I looked, the owner came out of a house, mounted the machine, kicked it fiercely in the slats several times, and at last goaded it into action. He was a smallish, mousey fellow with rimless glasses, and did not look to me as though his acquaintance included any girls who wore leopard next their skins. And it has been my usual experience that all those wildly improbable girls who exist only in the minds of artists appeal chiefly to young men who either know no girls at all, or know only girls of a mousiness equal to their own. Pin-up girls are dreams, and dreams unlikely to come true. And a good thing, perhaps, for what would the average young man do with a girl who never put on her clothes and whose bosom accounted for one-third of her total weight?