Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies




To Chandos Fribble, ESQ.

My dear Fribble:

You know everything; can you tell me when the last writer of religious tracts died? I assume that all of them are dead, for though I am constantly receiving tracts through the mails from people who are anxious about my soul, I have yet to read one which appears to have been written within this century.

Yesterday I received a fresh batch. One of them shows a picture of a businessman (called “Mr. O. U. Foolish Man”) confronted by the spectre of death in his office. He sits at a roll-top desk, on the top of which are two large bags marked “$”; he wears a white vest and at his feet is a spittoon. Now, Fribble, let us apply Sherlock Holmes’ methods to this picture; the roll-top desk, the white vest and the spittoon all place it in the nineteenth century; what businessman uses such trumpery now? They all sit at steel desks and spit in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.

Another tract in this bunch — there were seven altogether — is called My Experience With The Tobacco Habit. It begins with this information: “I was a slave to tobacco for twenty years; Mother and Father used tobacco and I had the poison in my blood; Mother found me with her snuff box, when I was about eight years old.” Later he says that he would pick up used quids of chewing tobacco from the street and chew them.

The last woman I know of who took snuff was my great-grandmother, who was born in 1800 and who lived to be 87; she did not chew it; she sniffed it. As for chewing tobacco, the habit has completely vanished from all settlements where civilization has a firm hold. Obviously this tract was written not less than sixty years ago.

Is no strong, new generation of tract-writers coming up to continue the work? Or will this remarkable literary form continue to rely on its past glories? Here is a meaty subject for research, Fribble.

Your admirer and crony,

S. Marchbanks.

A Garland of Musings

PRECOCITY AT CARDS / Became involved in a game of Old Maid this afternoon, at the house of a friend who had preserved a wonderful set of cards, designed in the days of the Comic Valentine, and in the same convention of drawing. The characters were superb. Grocer Smallpound was there, and Harry Holdwire (who was talking on a telephone of the early, wall-instrument type). Fred Freversmoke wore a high collar and a derby hat, and was right out of the period when the smoking of cigarettes was a sign of a dashing character. Arthur Argumuch was obviously a lawyer, and Flossie Flirtsome carried me back to a day when a generalized amplitude of figure was a mark of beauty. Nora Newtogs was dressed in the height of fashion, probably by Miss Botchie Misfit, a dressmaker whose teeth, rather surprisingly, were marked “False” in large clear letters. Some children were playing, and I was astonished at their precocious gift for cards. One of them had so accurately memorized the creases and distinctive marks in the back of the Old Maid card that she was always able to avoid drawing it. That child will go far, but I hate to think where.

THE CURSE STRIKES / Awoke unable to move, for I had fallen victim to the Curse of the Marchbanks, which is Lumbago; it runs in our family as haemophilia runs among the Bourbons. My grandfather, who was a deeply religious man and a great student of Holy Writ, identified it as the third claw of the Beast described in Revelation. After much moaning, snorting and shrieking, and with the aid of three completely new oaths which came to me in flashes of inspiration, I rolled from my couch and huddled on my clothes. One of my legs appeared to have shortened by six inches, and my axis was eighteen degrees out of plumb, but I could walk, after a fashion, and in this pitiable state I went about my day’s work. To some I was an object of sly mockery; to others my condition was a matter for a deep and unnecessary concern, for Lumbago never killed anybody, though it has sometimes driven its victims to acts of violence. It is a treacherous and feline ill, for at times it seems to abate, and then returns with renewed malignity. Asked by a friend to describe it, I racked my brains, and then said that it felt like being stabbed in the small of the back with an old-fashioned carpet-stretcher.

. . . AND CONTINUES / The trouble with Lumbago (or, to be more accurate, one of the contributory troubles) is that it rouses incredulity in people. “You’ve never got Lumbago!” they say, just after you have told them precisely that. Then they either laugh, which is cruel, or put on an expression that conveys their thought that you are prematurely old, which is worse. But anybody can get Lumbago, if they go about it the right way. A baby in its cradle could have it, if it was in a draught, or a bit damp, which a baby may so easily be. Lumbago, like toothache, is one of the ailments that mankind refuses to take seriously in other people. . . My worst moment today was when I tried to carry a large parcel through a revolving door; to do this, with Lumbago, is to experience every degree of alarm, confusion, sudden pain and gross indignity.

DELUSIONS OF AMIABILITY / Attended a reunion at my old school, and met a lot of fellows I had not seen for a quarter of a century. I was astonished at the ravages which time had inflicted upon them in body, but even more by the tricks it had played with their memories. It was not a teetotal affair, and as the evening wore on dozens of them suffered acutely from Delusions of Amiability; that is to say, they remembered that I had been on much more intimate terms with them in the past than was ever really the case. I am cursed with a memory like an elephant, and I am particularly certain that I know who have been my friends and who — to put it mildly — have not; no amount of the genial juice of the grain can disturb my accuracy in such matters. Some of them obviously thought I was somebody else, some very dear old friend whom they had loved as a brother; others knew who I was, but had forgotten that I was a cantankerous and mocking wretch; some had lost all grasp of reality, and were not sure who they were themselves, but knew that they had only one true friend, and he was Marchbanks. A fascinating, revealing, uproarious evening, any way I choose to think about it.

Communiqué (Left by an Indian Runner)

To Big Chief Marchbanks.

How, Marchbanks!

In Ottawa now, Marchbanks. Got business with government. I see by papers some Quebec Indian want government to give freedom back to Indians. No good. Indians got too much sense. Who wants to be free and work for government, anyway? Every place I look here I see sad face. Glasses. Bald spots. Government no job for happy man.

Indian here I used to know on reserve. He get ambition. Go to school. Everybody say smart Indian, give him chance. He work. And work. Now he got place in Government. Work like devil. Got black hat. Got briefcase for carry sandwiches. On reserve his name Joe Halfwit. Now he called Mr. J. Frontal Lobotomy. Sad sight, Marchbanks.

How again!

Osceola Thunderbelly,

Chief of the Crokinoles.

Culled from the Apophthegms of Wizard Marchbanks

Be discreet in your loyalties, or your dwelling will not only be the home of lost causes, but the refuge of impossible people.

(June 22 to July 23)

Cancer is the sign of the Crab, and you who are born under it are remarkable for your tenacity, and also for an acerbity of disposition which makes you particularly successful as critics of the arts. Your weakness is for liquids and unless you impose some discipline upon yourself you may find that you are drinking like a Pisces. In argument you who are born under this sign are extremely hard to budge, holding to a point long after others have wearied of it. Beware that this characteristic does not spread to other realms of your life, and particularly your ventures into wit, as it will serve you ill. Beware of retiring from life into your shell.


Your planetary colours I am sorry to say, are violet, pale yellow, pale green, silver and white. Your flowers are the moonflower, and the wallflower. Your gems are moonstone, crystal, opal and any stone which is dull white or pale green. It is useless to protest; these matters were settled by astrologers hundreds of years ago, and Wizard Marchbanks accepts no responsibility for them. If these colours do not go with your complexion, blame your parents; it is axiomatic nowadays that your parents are to blame for everything that is wrong with you, anyhow. But my advice to you is that you look intently into your own soul and see whether or not the stars are right about you. Perhaps, contrary to your personal belief, you really are a palely fascinating creature. Ask your friends to give you their frank opinion. There is a bleak satisfaction to be achieved by reconciling ourselves to the inevitable.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson