Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

4. swoon: a “swoon” is an illicit snooze, enjoyed in one’s office, in church or at the movies. Skilled swoonsters can do it with their eyes open (though obviously sightless). e.g. “He did not mean to snarl at the preacher; he was swooning.”

5. doss: any sleep enjoyed in a reasonably upright posture, lasting for more than an hour. e.g. “He had a nice doss from lunch till tea.”

6. 40 winks: the deepest kind of upright sleep, with noises, loosening the shoes, cushions, and a handkerchief over the face, e.g. “Now I don’t want to hear a sound out of you children all afternoon: Daddy is going to have 40 winks.”

Yours in all admiration,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Hydra:

It will hardly come as a surprise when I inform you that the pace of modern life is increasing. A statistician of international repute (myself, if you want to know) has reckoned that every adult now gets through three times as much in a day as his grandfather; we are not measuring achievement, naturally — only activity. But when it comes to running about, meeting one another, hurrying from town to town, and taking papers in and out of brief-cases, our generation is vastly superior to any of which we have record. Even the building of the Tower of Babel (which was probably on a laughably small scale) could not compare with it.

This remarkable increase in activity could not have been achieved without a great deal of hard work, and I think that we owe much to the organizers, heads of speakers’ committees, pep and ginger groups, and others who have made it possible. And in order that they may meet frequently and exchange ideas on how to goad the rest of the population into even greater activity I am organizing an international association for them alone, to be called “The Friends of Thrombosis.” The emblem of the association will be a small wire wheel, with a demented squirrel in it.

I am sure that there are many potential members of this association in the ranks of the Civil Service, and you, as Expediter of Needless Activities, will know best who they are. Will you get them together, therefore — I beg your pardon, I should say “alert them” — and lash them into frenzied activity in preparation for our inaugural meeting.

I intend to be Perpetual Past President of this as yet unorganized society. It is said that at the exact centre of a vortex there is utter calm. If you should want me, you’ll find me at the centre of the vortex.

Yours for earlier thrombosis,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Wee Sammie:

The other day, while pursuing my peaceful rounds as a junk man, I was in the house of a lady who had a good many odd bits of rock and a wheen auld jugs in a glass-fronted cupboard. “And what would ye call those, madam?” said I. “That is my collection of Chinoiserie,” said she; “those pebbles are pieces of jade, and the jugs are fine old porcelain.” “And why Chinoiserie?” said I. “That is the proper word for Chinese curios,” said she.

As you well know, I have a cupboard of my own, in which I keep a scrap of Marchbanks tartan found in a thorn bush after the Massacre of Glencoe; our ancestor Auld Nosey Marchbanks was there as a war correspondent. And I have the sporran of our Great-great-grandfather, Close Jamie Marchbanks, which is believed to contain a bawbee, but as it is rusted shut I have never been able to get it out. And I have an empty bottle, thrown at our forbear, Fu’ Charlie Marchbanks, by Robbie Burns. And as well I have a stomacher belonging to our ancestress, Sonsie Meg Marchbanks, given to her by Bonnie Prince Charlie; it is heavily encrusted with cairngorms. I am going to refer to these in future as the Marchbanks Collection of Scotchoiserie.

Your affct. uncle,

Gomeril Marchbanks.

From My Notebooks

A LASTING CHARM / I listened recently to some gramophone records of a woman called Yma Sumac, a Peruvian who has an astonishing voice with a range of a little more than four octaves. She can tweet like a bird, sing like an ordinary woman (an ordinary woman with a very good voice, that is) and roar and rumble like the voice of Fate itself. It is a fascinating and uncanny performance. One of her songs is about the Xtabay — supposedly a poisonously alluring and beautiful woman who attracts men with her voice; once that voice has been heard, a man is her slave until he dies. I reflected that such women are uncommon in our great Dominion. Our women are not lacking in their share of good looks, but they will never attract international attention by the beauty of their voices. And yet what a potent charm a lovely woman’s voice is! I would rather hear an Irish girl say something nasty to me, than hear most Canadian girls say “Take me, Mr. Marchbanks, I am yours.” A man likes his eye to be refreshed, but beauty perishes. A beautiful voice, however, goes on until death, and it can call up the ghost of vanished physical beauty more readily than any other spell. Let the Canadian Female ponder this in her heart, and remedy her customary dispirited croak, caw or screech.

THOUGHTS ON LEONARDO / Had to take a bag of potatoes into the cellar of the Towers, and as I heaved and struggled with the formless monster I reflected that it is now a little over 500 years since the birth of Leonardo da Vinci who, if he had been asked to take a sack of potatoes downstairs, would undoubtedly have rigged up some ingenious machine to do so for him. Although we know him chiefly as a painter, Leonardo was one of the great engineers of all time, and never lifted anything personally, because he knew all about hoists and levers. No doubt (I reflected as my arms were dragged from their sockets and my heart was moved four inches to the left) this was why he lived to be 67 in an age when most people thought they had done well if they hung on till 40. I think it is shameful that boys are not taught a little elementary engineering at school — enough to teach them how to get a bag of potatoes into a cellar, for instance. When at last the task was done I prepared a restorative cordial and drank it, and remembered that Leonardo was a teetotaller. But then, he never lifted anything; we toiling peasants have some justification for our vices.

WILLS AND THEIR WAYS / I have been pondering about my will. As a literary document it lacks interest and surprise. Recently the wills of a number of notable Canadians have been printed in full in the metropolitan press and I have read them with interest and a degree of envy. Not that I thought much of their style; I am sure I could write a fancier will; but I was impressed by their length and complication. How can I complicate my few miserable bequests? Shall I make them conditional upon the prolonged bad conduct of my heirs? Shall I leave my library — which, at the usual second-hand dealer’s price of ten cents a volume, would bring close to $20 — to a university, conditional upon their erecting a million-dollar building, with a big statue of me in the rotunda, to house it? Shall I give the Towers, with all its bills for back-taxes, to the community, to be preserved in perpetuity as a memorial to myself? Who is to get my wheelbarrow, which I coated afresh with aluminum paint last week? Shall I leave my silver tray (a splendid piece of electroplate, nine inches in diameter in all directions) to the Ontario woman to have the greatest number of children within ten years of my demise? My present will simply won’t do.

A SHOCKING DISCOVERY / At a friend’s house I picked up one of those books about the Scottish clans, which explained not only which clans were which, but what families were associated with each. And, to my surprise, there was no mention of the Marchbanks, or even the Marjoribanks, anywhere! Can it be, then, that my family, which has always considered itself to be Scots in a mild and non-partisan way, and which has been resident in Scotland for so many years — a couple of centuries, at least — is not really Scots? Are we Marchbanks Irishmen? Or are those Marchbanks who may be found in North Wales really on their native heath? Or are we Englishmen who, for some masochistic reason, have chosen to live in Scotland? Poor indeed is that Scot who cannot scrape a connection with some clan or other, but if the Marchbanks are among these outcasts I shall bear it philosophically. I may even found a clan of my own, with the slogan “Hoot toot, Marchbanks!” My badge, the thistle. My tartan, any convenient motor rug.

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